Lately I’ve been writing research proposals to propose studies on issues that I care about. One of the research areas that I’ve listed down is the one in the title: working conditions within the NGO sector in Southeast Asia.

Within the past few years of working and volunteering with NGOs (in Malaysia and regionally), I have had recurring observations of sub-par labour/working conditions that NGO workers are exposed to. While one would assume that we operate with values and principles that are compatible with decent work, it is not uncommon to observe workplaces in the field that fall short of what ILO lists as the criteria for decent work: “work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.”

My observations are mainly anecdotal. Here are some stories that I remember from conversations with fellow activists and NGO workers:

  • Friend A has been working in his human rights organisation based on some sort of imaginary contract, since months ago. The original, legitimate contract had come to a natural end and there was no move from the organisation to arrange a new one. This puts him in a precarious situation, since they could kick him out without notice and pay, and he would have no legal recourse.
  • Friend B reflected that top management within his NGO implied that younger employees should harden up and not demand for work-life balance, since there was no such thing when they fought for the revolution. Attempts to improve working conditions were repeatedly ridiculed, and he got extremely demoralised in the process.
  • Friend C was close to a burnout because of the mental demands of his NGO work (he works with high risk populations and is constantly exposed to second degree trauma). On top of that, his work pays him so little that he holds a second job, leaving him no time to rest and recover. There is very little access to mental healthcare within the field, even if it is recognised that workers are vulnerable to psychological and emotional damage. Low pay is also not uncommon.
  • Friend D drifts from one informal job to another, as a short term contractor for NGOs within her field. There is no income certainty, and no long term career prospects. While she gets reimbursed for work-related travel, often she is not paid for her time working for various events and workshops. Organisations that she works with have also cheekily asked her to contribute free work because there is no budget item for her role. Constantly working for free has led her to question the value of her work and herself.

These are not isolated incidents. I’ve seen and heard different versions of the same stories over and over again. In general, it is quite regular for NGO workers to receive work-related text messages on personal phones at all hours of the day, weekends, and even vacation time. Oftentimes, workload does not reflect a 40-hour work week, and it is rare to hear of overtime pay. Indeed, a lot of work is offloaded to unpaid interns and lowly paid short term contractors to cut cost. I know of some NGOs that do not cover work-related accidents, and do not provide social security (for example employee provident fund contributions), citing the lack of funding.

Through looking for literature and similar experiences in other parts of the world (since I’ve not found much at the Southeast Asian level), I found this article describing the Lebanese situation: “NGOs in Lebanon: Abusing Their Workers in the Name of Human Rights”. The title expresses the outrage clearly, and this quote from within exemplifies the irony of the situation: “How did we have the nerve to work for women’s social security at a time when the organization consisted mostly of women who lacked social security?”

The Lebanese report interviews NGO workers and mentions many of the labour rights violations that I listed above, leading me to believe that our experiences in the NGO sector have large overlaps. It’s a long read, but worthwhile. What I would like to focus on here are the analyses that it puts forth, which I think are useful in the Southeast Asian context.

Firstly, there is an unclear line between volunteering and work within the NGO sector, which legitimises many violations at work, including low pay, long hours with no compensation, and even dodgy manoeuvres around legal contracts where the employee is paid a lower amount than what is stated to subsidise the organisation’s operational expenses. As explained by an interviewee in the article, “One cannot ask for a raise or adhere to certain working hours or calculate overtime… because one’s work is divided between the job and volunteering.” In other words, the worker’s goodwill and sense of righteousness are exploited to yield more work and fewer benefits than was promised, in the name of working for a higher purpose.

Secondly, the precarious working conditions stem from the structure of the triangular employment relationship that is commonly seen within NGOs. There is the employee, the management, and the funder. While the funder is often absent from the picture, there are a number of things that they do/do not do that lead to exploitative work conditions. Often, they pay based on tasks performed, not the hours of work. Funders often include tasks, duration of contract and salary in model contracts for employees, while other elements such as hours of work, social security, end of service indemnity and mechanisms for complaints are not included. The management of the NGO competes for funding with other NGOs for its own survival, and forgoes its responsibility to ensure good working conditions for the employees – the first thing to be pruned off in cost-cutting measures. In short,

“If exploitation of workers in the private sector involves reducing their share of added value for the benefit of increasing the corporation’s capital and the investors’ profits, exploitation in civil society organizations consists of reducing labour costs (wages and social security) to invest in projects and activities in order to compete with other organizations and attract more funding.”

Thirdly, there is the NGO culture that reinforces the rights violations, since the mindset of self-sacrificing for the cause perpetrates the message horizontally (worker to worker, as opposed to management to worker), that the higher purpose trumps the individual rights of NGO workers. Organising for worker’s rights within the sector is therefore uncommon.

It is dispiriting to be in a disempowered position where the only way to work for the cause that you care about is to sacrifice your own well-being. There has been a lot of talk surrounding “self-care” to avoid burnouts in the sector. I believe in the importance of that. However, more important is the idea that change needs to happen at the organisational level, without putting the burden of caring for oneself solely on the individual. For where is the room for self-care, when the working conditions themselves do not permit rest and recovery? Where decent work seems to be theoretical at best, and mythical at worst?

Surely it is in our best interest to protect those who are protecting the world, so that they can sustain their good work for the long term. I would say that it is a priority of the highest order to respect and dignify our NGO workers with proper working conditions, so that the sector can lead by example when it is championing for rights of any kind. Anything less would be tantamount to hypocrisy.

Approximately three months ago I found myself in a work party in Bangkok, feeling vaguely out of place as I do, when I was accosted by a guy with a disarming smile.

“Do you want to play games?” He asked.

Trying not to lift my eyebrow and probably succeeding, I smiled back and nodded. Why not.

We found a corner in the party, sat down, and arranged our beers. With no further small talk, he whipped out a colourful little contraption. It was a 3×3 Rubik’s Cube, which not only had the colours, but also bits of Thai characters in every segment. Party Guy flashed me another grin. And proceeded to teach me, in basic English, the principles of the Rubik’s Cube, and how I might eventually solve it.

This would turn out to be one of the most educational parties that I’ve been to. After I was satisfactorily equipped with the basic foundations of solving the Rubik’s Cube, we moved on to teaching me Go. Party Guy was a willing teacher to a willing student, and eventually we attracted a table of geekier ones and our table became the soul of the party. Ahem. (Ok fine it didn’t. The cool kids continued to be cool, and our Go table continued playing Go.)

I got myself a Cube a couple of weeks later. Tinkering with it, I quickly realised that while Party Guy had taught me some basics, those basics were not enough for me to actually solve the puzzle with mine own brains. A little disappointed, I decided to look for answers on the Internet.

The Internet informed me that it is possible to solve the Cube with a universal solution – with a set number of stages, one after another. According to the official Rubik’s Cube website,

Getting help with solving the Rubik’s Cube is not cheating. There are 42 Quintillion possibilities, but only one correct solution. Hence without knowing how to solve a Rubik’s Cube it is nearly impossible.

How much is a quintillion? You might think that it is a straightforward answer, but it isn’t. According to, the Americans and Canadians take a quintillion to be 1 followed with 18 zeroes, while in Europe (including the UK) it is 1 followed by 30 zeroes. I’m not sure where Malaysia stands on this. Anyway, the exact number of possibilities is actually 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 – so I guess we’re on American count here – slightly disappointing, until you see a visualisation of a 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 pennies:

And here’s a PPT of the math behind the Rubik’s Cube if anyone’s interested, and the solution itself.

Anyway, I digress. The point is, I found the universal solution, and started working on it. There are six stages, and at every stage you aim to accomplish a certain goal (for instance, making a white cross on one of the surfaces is the second stage.) It is simple enough to solve the problem with the manual, since anyone can just follow the set of instructions carefully, and complete it step by step. Right layer clockwise, left counterclockwise, upper clockwise, that sort of thing. The larger challenge (which also anyone can do, with a sufficient amount of stubbornness), is to internalise and memorise the patterns, to do it without referring to the manual.

Let it be known, that March 6, 2018 is the day that I was able to solve the Rubik’s Cube, reliably, without referring to the manual.


Thank you, thank you 😀 It took me three months, but it was all worthwhile.

Actually I’m not sure if it’s worthwhile. The solution of the Rubik’s Cube, the one relying on the universal method anyway, is really not so much about creative brain work than rote memorisation; and as it turns out, it’s more about doing the same thing over and over again than anything else. (And I suppose, recognising certain recurring patterns, but I don’t think that’s the main thing.) The thing is, you practise the first few stages much more since you have to keep doing it every time you start over or mess up, and oftentimes, you don’t get far enough to finish everything. And since I rarely got up to the point where I could continue to the next stage, I just got stuck at Stage 4 for the longest time, and beyond that I would have to refer to the instructions.

Until yesterday, when I finally decided to sit down, use a pencil to break down the moves on paper in a way that I could memorise it properly, that I graduated. Meaning to say, if I had done that a month ago, I probably would have tried to write this post then and it would have been buried under a pile of broken drafts in my state of writer’s block. So I guess everything happens in due time, for a reason.

And if I can’t claim to be smarter after the whole process, at least I can claim to have had the perseverance to finish it. Maybe after a certain point I might try to dream up my own algorithm to make it more efficient (Google’s supercomputer has concluded that you only need a maximum of 20 moves to solve any combination, and that is known as God’s Number)… but as of now, I’m happy where I am, playing with the cube whenever I feel fidgety, with the knowledge that I can see it through from beginning till the end without relying on instructions.

I still don’t know why Party Guy chose me to impart his Rubik skills, as we didn’t talk much before or after the party. I don’t even remember his name, except that it starts with an S. It’s like he came into my life, dropped a combination bomb of the Cube and Go (which I’m also learning now), and left.

I’m glad.

So, as I was saying. There was a sudden windfall of time and a suffocating obligation to use it wisely. There was an urge to be creative yet coherent, but the deluge of ideas and possibilities were paralysing. At the same time I was digging myself deeper and deeper into a hole of existential doubt, which shook the foundations of my free-spirited learning approach, which if you remember, was never about productivity or efficiency. In fact, now that I think about it, it is really mostly about self-indulgence.

The question is, if something is done purely for fun, is there meaning in it? If it doesn’t lead anywhere?

I had a skarty (Skype Party) with dear Robert yesterday and we discussed it. As usual, he knocked some sense into me in the gentlest, Robertest way ever. He gave me a Dutch proverb. “It doesn’t go forward, it doesn’t go backwards, it just goes.” And then he backed it up by saying, “I’ve picked up tennis lately. Do you think that there’s any meaning in hitting a ball to and fro repeatedly except that it’s fun?”

The conversation really was pretty full of Roberty wisdom but, as how skarties go, an hour and a half in I had had enough of wine to not remember very much of what we discussed. Except that I was nodding my head, thinking, “This makes so much sense, I have to remember it!” I should start taking notes of drunken conversations discussing the purpose of life. Who knows how many revelations I’ve had and forgotten.

Anyway, going back to before Robert’s intervention, I was in the midst of going through the ten thousand things that I was doing and reading to see if I could derive any inspiration for writing. As it turns out, Elizabeth Gilbert with her book Big Magic may have given me the breakthrough that I needed.

So Gilbert’s book addresses many points and is one of the best pep talks in book form you’ll ever get as a creative person – so hurry out and get yourself hooked up with it. But it is her central idea about “Big Magic” that gave me a way (or two) to think about my problem of having a finger in every pie. First, is the pretext, on ideas as “disembodied, energetic life-forms”.

I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us – albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.

Therefore, ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners. (I’m talking about all ideas here – artistic, scientific, industrial, commercial, ethical, religious, political.) When an idea thinks it has found somebody – say, you – who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention. Mostly, you will not notice. This is likely because you’re so consumed by your own dramas, anxieties, distractions, insecurities, and duties that you aren’t receptive to inspiration. You might miss the signal because you’re watching TV, or shopping, or brooding over how angry you are at somebody, or pondering your failures and mistakes, or generally really busy. The idea will try to wave you down (perhaps for a few moments; perhaps for a few months; perhaps even for a few years), but when it finally realises that you’re oblivious to its message, it will move on to someone else.

But sometimes – rarely, but magnificently – there comes a day when you’re open and relaxed enough to actually receive something. Your defenses may slacken and your anxieties may ease, and then magic can slip through. The idea, sensing your openness, will start to do its work on you. It will send the universal physical and emotional signals of inspiration (the chills up the arms, the hair standing up on the back of the neck, the nervous stomach, the buzzy thoughts, that feeling of falling into love or obsession). The idea will organise coincidences and portents to tumble across your path, to keep your interest keen. You will start to notice all sorts of signs pointing you toward the idea. Everything you see and touch and do will remind you of the idea. The idea will wake you up in the middle of the night and distract you from your everyday routine. The idea will not leave you alone until it has your fullest attention.

And then, in a quiet moment, it will ask, “Do you want to work with me?”

Outlandish, but I love the thought of it. Ideas flitting around like elves, prodding people with their fairy-dusty little fingers, “Do you want to work with me? Do you? Do you?”

So, there are two ways to think about this. One is that my confusion is created by too many idea fairies buzzing around me,  jostling each other trying to get my attention, and it all becomes a big confusing mess of prodding fingers and squealing voices. I can’t separate the signal from the noise. I should be thankful that they looked me up and knocked on my door, but I also have to figure out how to find enough of chairs so that every fairy gets a seat. Or, given that my figurative house has only a finite number of seats (like 8), I have to figure out which ideas I should collaborate with and which I should let go respectfully, so that they can go find another better human collaborator.

Now the other possibility, based on the same assumption that ideas are fairies, is that there is one particular idea fairy that I’m waiting for, who hasn’t arrived yet. While all my interests and projects do not seem coherent or lead anywhere in particular, it is possible that I’m just creating the conditions for the Fairy to come, so that one day there will be something that only an academic mutt and hobby philanderer such as myself, with the exact mix of interests and knowledge that I’ve accumulated, can create. In the meantime I just have to be patient and trust that the little fella will find his way – and when he finally arrives, we will co-create something that the world has never seen before.

Which one is it? Does it matter, if both are based on imaginary fairies that happen to be idea-bearing little worker bees?

It’s raining outside, and I sense that I’ve come to an end to this two-part series. I’m again staring at my empty coffee cup (wistfully – it was a really good one), but this time I feel lighter. Sign of better times to come?


I’ll leave you with this piece of music which tune and lyrics gave me goosebumps. I had it in the background a lot when I was writing. Ignore the exaggerated closeups of the audience, focus on the music.



得非所願,願非所得,看命運嘲弄, 造化遊戲。



得非所願,願非所得,看命運嘲弄, 造化遊戲。



Another day. Another day of looking at an empty blog post screen. It has been many days, and there have been many half-written and half-baked paragraphs, all followed by a sigh, a shake of the head, and the inevitable [x] button. The urge to create is there, almost maddeningly so. But nothing worthwhile comes out.

“Why don’t you write about all the things you are doing and how they may seem random but are great parts of a puzzle?”

My muse, the lovely Eva, sent me this reply when I poured out my wretchedness to her on Whatsapp. I thought about it. I reread parts of Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, on creating despite fear. I thought again. I opened my laptop, got ready to type, and realised that I had left my charger at home and there was insufficient battery to do much. I closed my laptop, stared at my empty coffee cup, and thought some more.


I’m now at home, flanked by cats (always helpful), the laptop is charging. Maybe whatever that’s in my head is ready to come out now. Here we go.

About ten years ago, I read this book What to do when you want to do everything by Barbara Sher, which shed light on generalist types that she called “Scanners”, people who have wide arrays of interests and can’t seem to hold on to one interest for long, as they flit from a professional field to another, a hobby to another, or an unfinished project to another. In the world that reveres specialists, or Divers as she called them, Scanners appear fickle-minded and unable to focus. Oftentimes, the Scanners even delve deep enough into their interest to produce a book, or a thriving business. But then they lose interest, and move on to the next big project, “throwing away” what they had accumulated so far.

Sher saw no problem with the Scanner model, to her it was simply a different wiring of the human brain that the Scanners have compared to Divers. Without a predisposed judgment against Scanner types, it then becomes a problem of time management, to fit everything that Scanners want to do into a realistic schedule with realistic resources.

This book remains to be one of my favourite books of all time. I remember thinking with wonder – so there’s nothing wrong with me after all. I am allowed to do things and walk away when they no longer interest me. And even if it does not interest me anymore at this point of time, it is possible that the same interest may cycle back, and I would just pick it up from where I left off.

That was ten years ago, and since then I had approached life and learning with a kind of laissez faire which basically amounted to going with the flow, wherever the flow brought me. 既來之,則安之. Academically and professionally, I hopped around in several fields, from information systems engineering, to public policy, to trust-building in social media, to sustainable development, to human rights. It has not been easy, but it has always been interesting.

In my spare time, I’ve dabbled with dozens of different things, so many that I’ve lost count – in sports (taichi, dragonboating, capoeira, yoga, etc.), DIY (knitting, electric circuits – for the purpose of building an AM radio, solar cooker, skincare products, cooking, etc.), art (crayoning, carving soap, sketching, zine-making, etc.), languages (Japanese and Spanish being my main target languages; and others that I have worked on sporadically or at some point picked up and let go: French, German, Thai, Turkish, Estonian, American Sign Language, etc.) and other uncategorised stuff (Rubik’s Cube, Go, ukulele, gardening, etc.).

Most of the time they never amount to anything. I attack the fad of the moment with the enthusiasm of a puppy playing fetch, sometimes naively believing that this is the one – which it rarely actually is. But with the heat of the moment, how could I believe otherwise? For a year I woke up at 5:30am a few times a week to practise taichi, that was the commitment that I gave to it – and I have not done any taichi for the last five years. But it’s okay. I accept that I don’t have the time and energy for everything in the world, and I made the decision to enjoy learning and detach when I don’t enjoy it/have time for it anymore.

So, as I was saying, laissez faire and mostly unconcern when it comes to learning and doing things, that’s how I’ve lived mostly for the past ten years. If I’m inspired to learn it, I’ll learn it. If I’m paid to learn it, I’ll learn it. Nothing is too far out. But this year, I found myself hit by a sense of unease which did not dissipate for weeks.

Let’s examine the situation a bit.

I had just left a job, one that took up a lot of my time and energy, and that for various reasons left me feeling drained constantly for most of last year. That I was suddenly in possession of my time again, unadulterated time for me, until my next job, felt liberating and downright scary at the same time. On one hand I could do anything I wanted. On the other hand, I could do anything I wanted. The responsibility felt like a million tonnes of lead on my shoulders (side note: it also felt like a million tonnes of cotton candy on my shoulders). I felt like I should do everything. Immediately. Right this second. Yet I could not choose from ten equally interesting possibilities of how to spend my time, and I was experiencing what Barbara Sher had described as a kid starving in a candy shop because she couldn’t choose one to eat. Sudden shock and analysis paralysis.

At the same time, I had decided that I spent too much time consuming content and not creating content. In other words, I was demanding output from myself. I recognised that I had not written non-work stuff for years now, and I missed writing just for the sake of writing. All those books that I had read – and I had devoured seven books in the space of the first two months of 2018 (plus a few others that I’m halfway through) – those had to amount to some original thoughts right? Or, if I couldn’t write, I should still produce something. A drawing? A zine? A diagram? Something that I could employ my new markers for?

I took ten days off from this state of frenzy to work on a research proposal, which I finished and submitted. Then I threw myself back at it with renewed fervour. Enrolled myself into a ukulele class. Bought some bars of soap to carve. Contemplated taking up programming again. Went to the neighbourhood art school (catered mostly for kids) to check out their syllabus for adults. Dreamt up mini research projects. Read. Read some more.

While all of this was happening, there was always an open blog post ready to capture any ideas that may pop up. Nothing popped up. And while all of my endeavours to fulfil myself creatively were exciting and welcome, they also served to propel myself further and further into a state of existential doubt – what is the purpose of all of this, if not just syok sendiri (self indulgence)? If there were no outputs to my inputs, then what were the inputs for? What is the red thread that runs through everything that I am trying to do? Indeed, what is the red thread that runs through everything that I’ve done so far? What is the purpose of life? Why are we here anyway? (It seems that many questions boil down to these last two eventually.)

To be continued.


Every Wednesday, I permit myself to have a day/half a day off to do anything that I want, as long as it’s creative. This policy came from more than a year ago when I was my own boss, and I realised that I hated my boss. The exploitative bitch would not let me rest during weekends, yelled at me all the time, and didn’t even pay me well.

The bitch and I had a conversation, and I told her that I would quit if she kept at it. I would find another boss, and she could get another minion. She gave me a long, steely stare. I stared back. Then, with a sigh, she asked me how she could improve my working conditions.

Wildcard Wednesday was then born. I could work my ass off every other day of the week, even weekends if I really had no choice, but Wednesdays were dedicated to gleeful creation and play. No work was allowed on Wednesdays, even though sometimes I sneaked an hour or two in (but never more than that). In the place of work, I made new dishes from scratch, played with my Snap Circuit renewable energy circuit board, and tinkered with random projects. I read books for leisure, doodled, and daydreamed.

It was really quite pleasant. My productivity went up during other days of the week. I gained some self-respect and balance. The inner bitch and I were friends again.

(As an aside, Wildcard Wednesdays drew inspiration from Awesome Mondays, devised by Eva and I when I was doing my PhD in Singapore. I always worked weekends, but on Mondays we would get a bottle of wine, some cheese and crackers, and whisk ourselves to a beach on Sentosa Island. We would set up our picnic on our matching sarongs, swim and laze around, get progressively tipsy, and then beat up coconut trees with beach towels. With all the vengeance directed at disappointing lovers, rejected publications, and a persisting fear of never amounting to anything important in life. Ah, Awesome Mondays.)

Wildcard Wednesday was shelved when I moved back into employment last year. Fast forward to this January, I left my job and am now my own boss again (at least until someone else pays for my time). I’m looking for research work, writing proposals for possible funding, and reading as much as I can. This time around, I’m not as crabby as before, since a year’s detour into coordination and communication work served to confirm that I am really, ultimately, a researcher at heart, and that’s where I want to work and play. The inner bitch is much less bitchy, and the reluctant employee, much less reluctant.

And, Wildcard Wednesday is back. The last few Wednesdays I had spent drawing mind maps of chapters in Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Today I spent some of it reading up literature on resilience and systems thinking (ok this is kinda work), but I am also taking some time to write and to think. I’m looking forward to trying out a new recipe tonight, I haven’t decided on what. When I close this post, I’ll start browsing recipes.

It’s a day like any other, but I have a glint in my eye, a smirk on my face. I’m inviting inspiration fairies to come plant ideas of mischief. The evening is still young. What shall we do, if we can do anything?

I’m adopting Leo’s 8 year old Macbook Air from circa 2010, and its sluggishness provided the perfect excuse to tinker with Linux again. The hardware is still solid, and the specs are acceptable. The old boy has a few years more to go yet.

So from a few days ago I had been reading up on different distributions and then getting my hands dirty on the actual installation and customisations. After a few days of cracking my head on various seemingly trivial problems, I am finally at the stage where I am comfortable with my “new” computer, so I thought that I would jot down some notes for posterior’s sake.

Choice of distribution

There are many. There is Ubuntu, which I tried several years ago and had a good experience with (but don’t remember too much of), but I was afraid that it may be too bloated for the old machine. And then there are LXLE, Elementary OS, and Linux Mint that I had heard about that seemed to be viable alternatives.Ubuntu required 2 GB of RAM, Elementary OS 1GB, and LXLE only 500MB.

Eventually I decided to try out Elementary OS first. Elementary OS looked sleek and elegant at first glance, but soon started to get on my nerves. The language keyboard did not work, and keyboard hot keys did not make sense (I couldn’t figure out how to switch between windows when an Alt-Tab or CMD-Tab should do the job). The localisation was very messy – when I tried to use the Chinese version to see if the language input worked, some items on the country menu were translated, some were not. Also, on top of that, there was something annoying about the interface being so simplistic, I felt that it was bordering on patronising. And that it called itself elementary in lower case just felt pretentious.

So I decided to try LXLE on Virtual Box. Somehow I took to it quite immediately – the desktop gave you everything that you needed on dropdown menus, neatly organised into applications and files. There was even a button that when you pressed it, it gave you a random wallpaper, which tickled me to no end. As if it was so efficient in its interface that it even found the space to give you that trivial functionality. The OS also came pre-installed with numerous applications, such as Libre Office, Mozilla SeaMonkey (first time I’d ever used it), and other nifty stuff.

I never made it to Mint. I decided to ditch Elementary, and go with LXLE.

LXLE: Installation problems

This was where my problems started with LXLE. I created a live USB, and LXLE worked fine when I booted from it. However when I tried to install it it would always break down at the very last bit, saying that “the ‘grub-efi-amd64-signed’ package failed into install into /target/”, and that without the “GRUB boot loader” the installed system would not boot. The gibberish level of this one is just too high. I tried reinstalling it, same error message. I created the installer medium again, it didn’t work. I tried installing an earlier, beta version of the .iso file, nope. I suspected that something was amiss with UEFI (now I know what it is, it’s like BIOS but superior) but nope my system does support it, and the partitioning was done correctly.

Eventually through some hours of research I found an application called Boot Repair and I ran it on the system – it said something about lacking a 64-bit something (bear with my non-techie specificity), and so I tried to make another installer which was 64bit (previously I had used the 32-bit version), and this time it worked. That took about five hours of banging my head against the wall, and I finally made it at 2am.

Leo agreed that my stubbornness is useful sometimes.

Chinese/Japanese Input

So I went to bed, and this morning upon waking up I went straight to the computer and started working again. I must say that I quite like the LXLE interface, things are placed where they should be, and that gives me pleasure. The language input methods did seem to work at first glance, but I quickly realised that Pinyin was not available and I  don’t know how to use the other ones. I tried ibus, I tried Fcitx. Neither gave me Pinyin. The organisation of LXLE on its language settings is also a little strange, as it was a little fragmented, spread over “Languages”, “Ibus Preferences”, “Fcitx Configuration”, “Input methods”… and sometimes you have to restart after making some changes so that the input method options would show up. Patient trial and error was my friend.

Eventually I installed ibus-pinyin through Terminal (sudo does make me feel powerful) but for some reason it gave me Sun-Pinyin instead, which only had Simplified Chinese, while I prefer using Traditional Chinese. I poked around some more, and finally after restarting the computer I found Pinyin. I installed Japanese-Anthy through Terminal as well. I am now using Mozc as the Japanese input method. For the time being I am sorted, language-wise.

Installing applications

I realised that I don’t actually use that many applications. What is indispensable to me is just Dropbox, and KeepassX. Seamonkey was pre-installed so I just started using it as the default browser. In the beginning I thought that I would have to do everything through Terminal, which made me nervous, but eventually I found the pre-installed Lubuntu Software Centre (a little like App Store) which made things much easier – and even for other command-line installations it was usually just short lines of code that I could copy and paste. I don’t remember how it was in Ubuntu.

The Power Button

Having gone through the previous hurdles I was starting to feel confident, and decided to tackle one more important problem. The power button on the Macbook Air triggered an immediate shut down, no questions asked, and this is very dangerous since you could lose your work if you accidentally press it when you were pressing the Delete button, or your cat could trigger it easily when it is walking on your keyboard (which is not an infrequent happening in my household).

This little endeavour proved to be much more difficult than I thought it would be. I was instructed to download and install dconf Editor, which I did, with just a faintest idea of what it was – and I started to tinker with it, but I couldn’t find this thing called gnome setting daemon. What’s gnome? What’s a daemon? Later on I found that there’s this other thing called “Mate” which seems to be a similar something as Gnome, even though nothing happened after I changed the values in the dconf Editor. I was getting a little too far out of my depth.

In the midst of all this despair I sent a distress call to Pellaeon. While waiting for his reply, Leo helped me with a hack that I found online (this one) which instructed us to modify a certain logind.conf file, which stopped the immediate shutdowns, even if I felt a little insecure about changing some code that I had no idea about, since it might cause problems later on. We left the cafe, somewhat triumphant, and I collapsed into a deep sleep when we arrived home.

When I woke up, I saw that Pellaeon had replied my messages in a superbly comprehensive manner. I copy his explanations here for future reference:

  • GNOME is the name of the “desktop environment”, it includes supporting programs for the desktop (such as drawing the windows outlines and toolbars), many basic functionalities (such as the system settings tool and text editor)
  • in the linux world, GNOME and KDE are the two major desktop environments
    they have the most development resources
  • They are also modular, so parts of them may be re-used by other projects
  • the LXDE reuses many parts of the GNOME desktop environment
  • LXDE and MATE are also desktop environments, they reuse parts from GNOME but combine them in different ways, so the interface looks different
  • “daemon” is basically a program constantly running in the background, for some service, imagine it as a shop that waits for customer 24h
  • in contrast to daemons, the applications are only opened by users while they need it and closed while they don’t, such as your browser, documents editor, etc
  • daemons and applications are both programs
  • to build a desktop environment, many daemons are needed, for example, there is a daemon handling power button, lid open/close, power plug/unplug events
  • the daemon is called “dbus”, it is the de facto desktop event handling daemon, used by both GNOME and KDE, and of course most of all the desktop environments
  • dconf stands for “dbus configuration” if i’m not mistaken, so dconf-editor is a editor to change dbus configurations
  • beside power change events, dbus also handles most of the desktop-related events , such as wifi scans, enable, disable, headphones/mic plug/unplug, device plug/unplug, keyboard layout management, printing, etc
  • it is basically a “message hub”, it receives notifications of some event (such as power button press” and rewrite/block/re-broadcast the notifications to programs that “subscribes” themselves to the event
    org.gnome.settings-daemon is the name of the configuration value that decides the behavior when you press the power button
  • the configuration values are grouped in a hierarchical fashion
  • under “org.gnome” are all settings related to GNOME, and under settings-daemon are the configurations related to the GNOME settings daemon
  • so for example, the KDE settings are likely under “org.kde”
  • the problem with these configuration knobs is that, the paths/names may change from version to version
    LXDE might simply follow the settings of “org.gnome.settings-daemon.plugins.power” , or they might decide to use their own settings under “”
  • so for your error message, it cannot find the path org.gnome.settings-daemon.plugins.power, there might be 2 possibilities:
    1. the org.gnome.settings-daemon.plugins.power knob have moved to some other path in your version of GNOME (that your version of LXDE is using)
    2. LXDE simply has its own knob somewhere
    3. LXDE doesn’t allow you to customize the power settings behavior at all
    Can you try this?

So we undid the hack, and installed the XFCE Power Manager (as per the link sent by Pellaeon) which provides a GUI for all the tweaking to happen. I am very satisfied with the outcome.

Current Status

I’m still having to get used to Hotkeys that are a little different from what I had in Mac OS, but all in all everything works like a breeze. I like the task bar, which Mac OS didn’t have, which I didn’t know that I missed. I like the different work spaces as they’re laid out more intuitively than in Mac. There are small things that I still need to tweak, such as the volume buttons on the keyboard not working anymore, but those are not high priority.

Using LXLE now somehow brings me back to perhaps 15 years ago when I was tinkering with my first computer, when things crashed, and working with the PC had some element of learning and risk when you didn’t know what you were doing, but 硬着头皮 did it anyway. Nowadays everything works and you don’t even think about it anymore.

I think I’m going to enjoy my new old computer 🙂

What is the purpose of having lots of input, if there is no output?

There hasn’t been much time for introspection, but some thoughts have occupied my mind lately. There is an itch that I am longing to scratch, but every time I sit down in front of the computer I’m distracted by something. An email that I really should have written three days ago. Social media. Random YouTube videos. And I forget to scratch that itch. It grows, and eats at me.

It has become increasingly obvious. I am consuming too much, and creating too little. Interesting information flow through my brain, I am able to recall only fragments. I feel overwhelmed by all the stuff that come through, but don’t have a structure that I can put them into, to digest and later search for. I imagine a filing system within my brain that doesn’t work, with papers covering every available surface, the desk, the couch, even on top of the lamp shade. I’m standing in the midst of this mess, looking longingly at the cover pages and the unfinished drafts and I’m completely paralysed with what to look at first, because THERE IS JUST TOO MUCH.

Deep breath. You can do it. First take the bunch of papers off the lamp shade, and let the light shine through.

The solution, it seems, is to allocate time for output. The past two years I have set targets for number of books to read, and although those targets were always missed I did manage to read a good number of books (46 books in 2016, and 15 books in 2017, not counting the half-read ones). That was a progression from the realisation that I was consuming too much junk material online. I was also able to write reviews for all of the ones that I read, so there was some processing involved after the reading. But, the time allocated for consumption far outweighed the the time allocated for processing or creation.

With the number of unread books that are creeping onto my bed stand, my coffee table and my book shelves, it looks like I will never have the time to finish all that, not to mention make anything out of it. This has become a source of deep-seated anxiety. I want more time. I can never get more time.

This year, call it a resolution if you will, I will focus on balancing quality consumption, and creation. Note that I didn’t put “quality creation”. That is possibly for next year. This year, let’s start with creating something, anything. We can’t refine something that hasn’t been created. This year, let’s give time to creativity, imperfection, and play. Gleeful learning and unapologetic geekiness. Making things because, why not.

So here are the plans:

There will be no more piecemeal reading of non-fiction. I will group my readings and go at them with specific questions and ideas that I have in mind. Let’s call it themed reading. I will take notes, draw mind maps, and in the end consolidate what I’ve learnt and main takeaways, and produce notes or sketches. Here are the topics that have interested me in the past few months:

  • Digital economy (gig economy, robotisation and dehumanisation, cryptocurrency)
  • Geopolitics (mainly between China and USA)
  • Brainworks (how the brain learns, the importance of sleep, effects of social media on the brain)
  • Art (the point of it, how to interpret art, art history)
  • Strategical thinking (Go, war strategies)
  • Living better (cleaning and decluttering, eating better, minimalism)

Language learning will continue, but will be output-oriented. I sometimes feel that language learning is also like pure consumption to me, even if there is more processing involved than just eating blindly. Maybe I enjoy it too much for it to seem like actual work, but there’s also this nagging feeling that I could be retaining much more if I get more serious about those grammar drills and all the unread Japanese and Spanish books on my shelves. So here are some things that may help:

  • Note-taking while reading, translations and summaries on important ideas
  • Essay-writing/short story writing
  • Systematic grammar drills followed up with reading books in target language

I was thinking of going on but perhaps two main points are enough, for the time being. Better keep it simple, and just follow the main idea: allocate more time to process and create, and less time to read and watch mindlessly. I will report back.



Just stumbled upon this video on Facebook, whose ability to read my mind continuously astounds me. Lisa Bu recommends “comparative reading”, which is a useful concept to accompany my “themed reading”. Maybe this can be applied on fiction!