Beyond the Rhetoric


You Can’t Plan for Every Contingency

July 15th, 2014 by Michael Kwan

Google Space Plan 2010  (1 of 3)

Always be prepared. The Boy Scouts have been pushing this kind of philosophy for years and it really does make a lot of sense. You’ll have a far easier time surviving in the middle of the woods when you already know how to set up a shelter, start a fire or forage for food. At the same time, we have to be careful not to take this line of thinking too far. It’s good to be ready, but you can’t possibly plan for every possible situation.

The Overstuffed Suitcase

Earlier this year, I wrote about some things to keep in mind when packing for a trip. You take a look at the weather report and it shows that it might rain, so you pack an umbrella. You might also go on that hike, so you pack a pair of hiking boots. Oh, and then there’s the beach, so you’ll need to pack some sandals, a beach towel, swim trunks and sunscreen lotion too.

Inevitably what happens is that you barely end up using half of what you pack and you spend far too much time rummaging through your bags to find the things that you need. When you pack just a little bit less, you’ll have an easier time navigating around the airport or train station. When you pack just a little bit less, you can focus more on your experiences rather than stressing about finding this item or that. If it rains, you can buy a cheap umbrella. If you’re going to the beach, you can bring the hotel towel.

The Pack Rat Philosophy

As you know, I review a variety of gadgets and gizmos. These mostly get shipped to my door, so I end up with a lot of cardboard boxes, many of which contain a variety of packing material. Since I do have to send a lot of these products back, I tend to hang on to said boxes and packing material. This way, I can more easily find an appropriately sized box. The problem with this kind of forethought is that I now have a corner of a room with a huge stack of cardboard boxes and a whole lot of Styrofoam peanuts. It’s quite the eyesore.

I have a lot of stuff. Most of this comes about because I’ll encounter this item or that and I’ll think to myself, “Oh, that might come in handy some day.” I’m a self-admitted pack rat, planning for what might come up later on. This helps when I turn around to sell some things on Craigslist, as I’ll normally still have the original box and instructions, but it also leads to a fair bit of mostly unnecessary clutter.

Part of this comes from the mentality of minimizing waste. It feels so wasteful to simply throw something away that could be of value down the road. What I really should be doing instead is donating a lot of this stuff to local charities. I am trying.

The Ideal Birth Story

Perhaps the biggest change of my life is right around the corner. As we are getting ready for the arrival of our baby, I’ve been bombarded with all sorts of advice and information. Some people tell me this and other people tell me the exact opposite. And one major lesson that we’ve been able to take away from our prenatal classes is that things very rarely go exactly according to plan.

Instead, what we talk about is an “ideal” birth story. In an ideal world with ideal situations, how would we like the birth to proceed? Would we like to be at home or at the hospital? What (if any) medications are going to be used? Of course, life will always throw you a curve ball (or three). What this means is that we must be willing to adapt this ideal plan to the real world circumstances, prioritizing the aspects of the birth story that mean the most to us.

And it is with this kind of perspective, perhaps, that we should approach all aspects of our life.

You Should Still Make Plans

Just because things rarely work out exactly how you plan doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make plans at all. It goes right back to those Boy Scouts again. You can’t possibly plan for every possible contingency, but you can get yourself in a position that are best prepared for whatever life may throw at you. And even if you don’t quite end up where you thought you would, you can feel confident that you did what you could.

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On Smartphones, Food Porn and Restaurant Etiquette

July 14th, 2014 by Michael Kwan

Taking Pictures of Asians Taking Pictures of Food

Over the weekend, my friend Joseph shared an article about a NYC restaurant that compared security camera footage from 2004 with footage from 2014. They say that the number of customers that they serve each day today is roughly comparable to the volume they handled ten years ago, but they’ve been receiving negative reviews online. Most of these negative reviews cite slow service.

Long story short, they found that patrons to the restaurant today are far too preoccupied with their smartphones. They’re wasting the first little while trying to connect to the Wi-Fi network, they waste more time snapping selfies and pictures of their food, and they’re occupying a significant portion of the servers’ time by asking them to take group photos for them.

My Life on a Smartphone

It’s impossible to say whether or not this story is legitimate and I question how or why 18 out of 45 customers (in the 2014 footage) ask to be seated at a different table. That being said, the article does bring up a very important point: our smartphones are ruining the dining experience.

“But, Michael… Aren’t you a total gadget geek and don’t you post all sorts of food porn pictures on Instagram?”

That’s true. I spend a lot of time on my smartphone and on my computer. At the same time, I have set some boundaries for how I use social media. When I’m at a family gathering, I try to keep my phone in my pocket as much as possible. And how I choose to use my smartphone while eating out depends largely on the context of the meal.

I’m Guilty of Promoting Food Porn

The fact of the matter is that I do typically end up using my phone at some point during the meal, for better or for worse. In the context of a very casual meal, as was the case with our cheap IKEA lunch shown above, I knew that we could take as long as we wanted to eat. There’s no problem there. In less of a cafeteria setting, I don’t let my phone slow or delay my dining experience. I don’t try to fumble through connecting to the Wi-Fi until I’ve opened the menu and decided on what I’m going to order.

Do I take pictures of my food? Absolutely. I don’t do it at every meal, of course, but when I do, I try to be as quick and unobtrusive as possible about it. More often than not, I start digging into my food within about a minute of its arrival. I figure that the “food porn” can wait, because I’m not exactly live-tweeting an event. Even if I do choose to truly “Instagram” my food, I do it as quickly as possible. That’s part of the reason why the majority of my uploads don’t have any real editing or filters applied to them.

Nothing Wrong with a Latergram

I realize that it’s right there in the name, but food porn on Instagram doesn’t necessarily need to be all that “instant” in nature. I can always “latergram” the photo while waiting for the next course or when I’m done eating too. No one is really going to care whether I post a picture of my pork chop at 7:00pm or 7:30pm.

This is particularly true if I plan on writing up more of a blog post later on, as was the case with restaurants like PiDGiN in Vancouver and Shen Yen Teppanyaki in Taiwan. If I’m taking pictures with my “real” camera, those are going to be better food porn photos than what my smartphone can produce anyhow.

Given my personality and my geeky inclinations, I generally have no real problem with people using their smartphones at the table. However, if that smartphone use is getting in the way of actually eating your food or actually conversing with your dining companions, then maybe the phone needs to be put away.

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Sunday Snippet: Marsel van Oosten

July 13th, 2014 by Michael Kwan

Sunday Snippet: Marsel van Oosten

“If you want to become a professional nature photographer, you have to be better and different. Nature photography is not a 9-to-5 job. You have to give 200% and even then you have no guarantee that you will make it. The biggest mistake that people make, is that they copy what’s already out there. To survive as a professional nature photographer, you have to realize that what you like to photograph is not necessarily what you should photograph. You have to think long and hard about what you’re going to photograph, why you’re going to photograph it, and then how.”

You’ve surely heard the old saying that you should do what you love and the money will follow. Unfortunately, this is very rarely the case and you really have to work at turning your passion into a viable career. I know that it can be a struggle for freelance writers like me, but it may be even more challenging for professional nature photographers. And yes, this is even true if you are an utterly amazing nature photographer.

The quote above comes from Marsel van Oosten, who you may remember from a What’s Up Wednesdays speedlink a couple of weeks ago. He was the one who shot the Japanese snow monkey using an iPhone while submerged in a hot spring. It has become an iconic image and it clearly demonstrates the importance that Marsel van Oosten puts on being unique and being different (in a good way).

It’s not like there aren’t already photos of snow monkeys out there. It’s not like there aren’t already photos of snow monkeys in hot springs. As van Oosten points out, “There are already millions of photographs of lions, deer, elephants, bears, and penguins, so demand for new images of the same subjects is extremely low.”

That is the critical challenge of being a nature photographer who aims to sell those pictures to different publications, especially in the age of inexpensive stock photography. This is an entirely different beast from, say, wedding photography where the clients want you to capture their special day. This is why you need to dare to be different to stand out from hobbyists and wannabes… and even your fellow professionals.

Not everyone can make it as a wildlife or nature photographer, just as not everyone can make it as a freelance writer, actor or musician. The barrier to entry may be relatively low, inviting an increasingly high level of competition. When it comes to creative professions, you really have to ask what makes you special and why someone would hire you (or buy your product) over the next guy. You need to be better. You need to be unique.

You have to seek out the photo of a snow monkey using an iPhone… except that has now already been done.

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Exploring My INTP (or INTJ) Personality Type

July 11th, 2014 by Michael Kwan

LEGO Mario Head

Even though we know that most things exist on some sort of spectrum, science has a habit of wanting to place those things into neat little categories. Psychology is no exception. And when it comes to personality types, one of the more prominent systems is based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It’s a personality “test” (psychologists like to call it an “inventory”) with four dichotomous pairs. This results in a total of 16 possible personality types based on your preferences in each one of those pairs.

Having taken a few of the (highly unscientific and very unofficial) online tests, I have come to the conclusion that I am either an INTP or an INTJ. Let’s go through each of the dichotomous pairs.

Introversion (vs. Extraversion)

The first part of the INTP is the letter I, which stands for introversion. While I can be quite open and quite talkative among familiar company, I tend to be more reserved when it comes to larger or unfamiliar social situations. However, that’s only one part of what it means to be introverted.

Typically, introverts have more of an internal focus. What this means is that while they may enjoy the occasional social gathering, they tend to prefer quieter environments with a slower pace. That’s because these kinds of environments are more conducive to inner contemplation. Something that I learned in university was how to better organize my thoughts and this is precisely how introverts prefer to work out problems. By contrast, extroverts prefer to work them out in more of a team environment, thinking out loud.

Intuition (vs. Sensing)

The N in INTP stands for intuition. This relates to how I choose to gather and process information. Someone who prefers intuition is more likely to look at the big picture and consider the alternate possibilities. Looking at some of the other careers I considered, they all relate back to this sense of working with ideas and concepts, extrapolating what they could be or could become. This is also in line with some of the more philosophical musings that I post here on Beyond the Rhetoric.

By contrast, someone with a preference for Sensing (S) is more inclined to focus on how things are right now, looking at concrete details rather than contemplating abstract ideas. While I certainly pay attention to practical applications, I fully understand and appreciate the value of enlightenment and creativity for their own sake.

Musee Rodin in Paris

Thinking (vs. Feeling)

A person with a “Thinking” (T) preference is someone who prefers to make his or her decisions through rational and logical means. This is very much a “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” kind of mentality. Someone who has more of a “Feeling” (F) preference, on the other hand, is more likely to be guided by emotions and value judgments. For them, it’s more about the spirit of the law, rather than the letter of the law.

If we were to consider the context of shopping, I’m more the kind of personality who would compare the spec sheets and gauge those against the asking price, rather than being led by how I “feel” about a product.

Perceiving or Judging?

With the first three components of my INTP (or INTJ) personality, I felt reasonably strongly that I leaned one way or the other. With this final component, I’m not as convinced. A person who is more inclined to Perceiving (P) is someone who likes to live more spontaneously, leaving his or her options open. They like to play it by ear. A person with a Judging (J) preference would rather have more structure and a well-laid out plan.

Thinking back to our Europe trip a few years ago, I can see how I fall somewhere in the middle of this P-J spectrum. On the one hand, I wanted to leave myself open to explore the different cities, following my moment-to-moment whims to pursue sporadic interests. On the other hand, I wanted to ensure that our schedule was solid and there would be no complications in terms of transportation or accommodation.

Quite the Personality

Taken as a whole, people with INTP personalities are logical, reserved and creative. They like to work out their own ideas in their head, taking the time to critically analyze the possibilities. Since they enjoy abstract thinking, routine tasks and hard structure are not their friends. Those with an INTJ personality will share many traits with their INTP counterparts, though they may be better at recognizing patterns, even when confronted with complex theoretical material. You can see how a scientist or engineer might fall into either one of these categories.

Personality Types

My current career as a freelance writer seems to be a good fit for my personality type, whether I’m more of an INTP or an INTJ. I prefer to work alone, I enjoy toying with concepts, and I like to draw logical conclusions. Freelancing provides for a certain level of flexibility (Perceiving), but it requires a disciplined sense of predictability too (Judging).

There is a great chart on Wikipedia (by Jake Beech, shown above) that outlines some key characteristics of each of the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types. INTP folks are described as “original thinkers who enjoy speculation and creative problem solving,” while INTJ personalities are “driven by their own original ideas to achieve improvements.”

I’ll take either one of those. Which personality type do you most identify with?

Grammar 101: On Brackets and Parentheses

July 10th, 2014 by Michael Kwan

Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

It is important to realize that using the right punctuation at the right time can be just as important as correct spelling or proper word choice. In previous entries of Grammar 101, we’ve taken a look at colons and semicolons, for instance, as well as how a well-placed comma can completely alter the meaning of a sentence. Today, we’ll be taking a look at brackets and parentheses.

The Common Parenthesis: ( and )

Most of us will commonly refer to the ( and ) symbols as “brackets.” This isn’t strictly incorrect, but it would be more precise and less ambiguous to refer to those vertical curved lines as parentheses instead. It should also be noted that “parentheses” is the plural form, whereas “parenthesis” is the singular form.

In writing, supplementary information can be placed within the parentheses to offset it from the rest of the sentence. The sentence should still make perfect sense if you were to remove that portion.

Happy Pho is located on Main Street (near King Edward Avenue).
I bought the shirt (on sale for $10) from Walmart.

While it can be confusing to know where to put your punctuation with quotation marks, the “rule” for parentheses is much more straightforward. If the part in the parentheses is a part of the overall sentence, your final punctuation should go outside (as above). If the punctuation pertains to the part inside the parentheses, then it should go inside. Also, if you have a complete standalone sentence inside of the parentheses, it should also have its final punctuation on the inside.

Rebecca (known to many as “Miss 604″) is a Vancouver blogger.
Joe decided not to buy the car. (It was in bad shape.)

The Square Bracket: [ and ]

Square brackets (sometimes simply called “brackets”) serve an entirely different purpose than their rounder parenthetical counterparts. The most common usage is in the context of a direct quote from someone. The portion of the quote enclosed within the square brackets offsets the portion that is not a direct quote, being added for clarification.

Original quote: “I don’t like it, especially if he is getting one too.”
Edited quote: “I don’t like [the new iPhone], especially if [Roger] is getting one too.”

Some people like to keep all of the original words in there rather than replacing the part that needs clarification. Both forms are acceptable, but I prefer the first method myself.

“I don’t like it [the new iPhone], especially if he [Roger] is getting one too.”

The other common scenario where you may see square brackets is with “[sic].” You can check that post for more information on its usage.

The Curly Brace: { and }

In most forms of writing, you are unlikely to encounter what are called curly braces, curly brackets or squiggly brackets. The { and } are used extensively in other contexts, though. These include mathematics, physics and programming languages. They’re also used for notations in music and poetry. Most of us don’t have to worry about these brackets.

Less and Greater Than: < and >

Just as curly brackets are rarely used in regular writing, the < and > symbols (which aren’t really “brackets” in the traditional sense) really don’t come into play either. The biggest exception to this would be in the context of something like HTML code. You might enclose some text in <strong> and </strong> tags to make them bold, for example.

More and More Brackets

It is important to note that I am talking about standard English practices, as these symbols may be used for different purposes in other languages. With certain East Asian texts, you might come across entirely different punctuation like “double angle” brackets (《 and 》) and “corner” brackets (「 and 」).

Do you have a suggestion for a future Grammar 101 post? It could be about word choice, punctuation, sentence structure or just about anything else. Feel free to offer your suggestion by submitting a comment below.

Michael Kwan Freelance Writer