Kim and I participated in an event in our neighborhood called an Aqiqah or ‘haircutting ceremony’. When a baby reaches a certain age, somewhere between 40 days and four months, a party is held to celebrate the new life. It varies when this celebration is held, but usually after the baby is healthy and deemed survivable.

Our neighbor’s baby turned three months and so she held an Aqiqah two doors from our house. Kim was invited to help with the cooking a few days beforehand. The women in our area are stay-at-home moms so they relish the opportunity to get out and cook with other women. It breaks up the monotony I suppose. A space was set up in the backyard. Even though it’s hard work cooking over a fire in the hot sun, the women got all dressed up for the occasion. It was quite a site to see. I took several pictures of the women in action from our house.

The ceremony began around 8 am with a drum group called ‘bedikir’. You can hear the ‘dhong dhong’ of the drums from a ways away. This is considered ‘traditional entertainment.’ Even though there are modern forms of entertainment, like DJ’s and loud music, on the outskirts of town they still appreciate the traditional forms. Roughly around 9:30 am (time is not a fixed thing in Indonesia) it was time to get started. Enough people had showed up, the seats were mostly full, and a member of the household stood up to welcome everyone. He greeted the honored guests, gave a rundown of events, and then said a prayer in Arabic.  Arabic is a formal ‘religious’ language not typically understood by most people. They memorize and recite prayers in Arabic, but that’s about it. The drum group also sings/chants in Arabic.

What happened next was a little bit of a blur. Everyone started eating at the same time and the mother and father started walking around as people cut snips of hair off their baby’s head. It was a little hard to know where to be.

The haircutting takes place by carrying the newborn baby in a circle while respected elders and people from the family cut a little strand of hair from the baby’s head and put it in a coconut husk. They also take some leaves from a bowl and touch the baby’s head while speaking a blessing. Later the father and mother receive advice and prayers from an elder. From what I could understand the prayer consisted of asking that the child would grow strong and healthy, be protected from evil spirits and the devil, and be a faithful and strong member of the community. They also put the baby in a swing and rocked her seven times. We asked people what the significance of ‘seven’ was (why seven times) and so far all we’ve gotten is that they’re supposed to do it seven times, and to do any more or less would break tradition. Obviously we need to investigate this more.

Food is arranged on a couple tables buffet style. They always serve the same four or five dishes- cooked beef (called rendang), a salad (called gado gado), a vegetable soup, a spicy chip dish, and fish. All of this gets mixed over the top of rice and is really quite tasty.

With food, prayers, and the hair cutting out of the way people started to leave. Indonesian parties are usually pretty short, anywhere from 45 minutes to 2-3 hours at most. Since we were neighbors we stayed a little longer, which was okay because it allowed me to get more pictures and ask questions. Neighborhood events are a very common part of our life in Indonesia. They make the community come together. And now that Ramadan is near we can expect a lot more ‘rendang’ and drums in our schedule!

I learned a new term recently- “risk homeostasis”, or risk compensation. It’s the basic idea that the more risk we perceive in our life, the more cautious we are, and the the less risk we perceive the more lazy we are. This seems like a pretty simple idea but it effects our behavior in interesting ways. Every person has a risk equilibrium, or a threshold of how much risk we will tolerate in our life. If we perceive danger, our risk threshold rises and we act more carefully. If we don’t perceive danger, the opposite is true and we act more careless. It’s all about what we perceive.

I read about this in a book recently and it gave the example of a study that was done with new anti-lock brake systems in a car. The theory was that anti-lock brakes would make drivers safer, naturally. However they found that the test drivers without the brake system had fewer crashes than those with the brakes. The reason was that those with the anti-lock brakes overcompensated, drove too close to other vehicles, drove faster, and therefore had more accidents. The drivers without the anti-brakes drove safer.

This phenomenon works in reverse too. In the 1960’s Sweden changed from driving on the left-side of the road to the right-side. You would think that this would case all kinds of car accidents from drivers not used to driving on that side of the road. However, surprisingly, the number of car accidents dropped by 17% before gradually returning to their previous level. Drivers compensated for the change and drove more safely.

This idea kind of got my thinking about Indonesia. When I first came to Asia I noticed right away that everyone drove on the left side of the road. Furthermore, traffic seemed so chaotic and random. I couldn’t get my head around it. Most of the vehicles are motorbikes and they have no regard for lanes, road lines, or divisions. They swerve, cut and fill any space on the road, oftentimes moving into the other lane to get by. But now I see that there’s some sense to the chaos. Traffic flow is like water, finding the path of least resistance. And because it’s crazy and un-ordered you have to keep alert constantly. I’ve had a few minor car accidents in the States, but not one since I’ve been in Indonesia and I think it’s because of this idea. When we perceive danger we’re more careful. Maybe that’s another reason why we’re always so exhausted here. Our brains are always on alert!

I read an article recently that talked about the difference between a ‘mystery’ and a ‘puzzle’. Here’s an excerpt:

There’s a reason millions of people try to solve crossword puzzles each day. Amid the well-ordered combat between a puzzler’s mind and the blank boxes waiting to be filled, there is satisfaction along with frustration. Even when you can’t find the right answer, you know it exists. Puzzles can be solved; they have answers.

But a mystery offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on a future interaction of many factors, known and unknown. A mystery cannot be answered; it can only be framed, by identifying the critical factors and applying some sense of how they have interacted in the past and might interact in the future. A mystery is an attempt to define ambiguities.

Puzzles may be more satisfying, but the world increasingly offers us mysteries. Treating them as puzzles is like trying to solve the unsolvable—an impossible challenge. But approaching them as mysteries may make us more comfortable with the uncertainties of our age.

In the article the author gave a perfect example of a mystery- the Enron trial. If you remember, Enron was an energy company that had unethical business practices and was not forthcoming in their business and financial dealings. When their practices were exposed it was discovered they weren’t actually making any money, their stock value plummeted, and they went bankrupt.

Enron is a great example of the difference between a mystery and a puzzle. The prosecutors were treating the trial as a puzzle, as if all the info and facts would piece together a clear picture. However, Enron executives never withheld any information. All the facts were there in their financial filings. The problem was that there was TOO MUCH information- thousands and thousands of pages of fine print. It took a specialist with lots of time on his hands to wade through the data and interpret it so that the rest of us could understand what it said.

The problem it seems these days is not a lack of information, but an over-abundance of it.

I think it’s really helpful to distinguish between a puzzle and a mystery, especially in our day. I think of Google and the internet and the vast amounts of information at our disposal. The problem it seems these days is not a lack of information, but an over-abundance of it. We get lost in the information. You have to have a fine eye to pick out the good info from the bad. It takes special skills to be good at this. As the author said a mystery cannot be solved, it can only be framed.

Oftentimes when I’m researching or looking something up on the internet I tend to think of my pursuit as a puzzle. I think the more webpages I look at, the more forums I peruse, etc. the closer I will be to getting my answer. And sometimes that works. Sometimes you stumble upon the right piece of data that solves the puzzle. But sometimes it might be helpful too to approach things as a mystery, that is, something that is not going to fit together nicely, something that you won’t get an answer to. The answer must be framed, not answered. It will save me a lot of energy and stress if I stop trying to solve mysteries and treat them for what they really are.

I recently finished the book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook. It was a pretty easy read and for the most part I enjoyed it. If you’ve seen or are familiar with the movie “The Social Network” than you might not have to read the book as the movie follows the book pretty closely. You get a better sense of timing and locations in the book, but the plot and content is essentially the same. I checked out the book as it was a free download for our Kindle and thought I’d give it a try.

I’ve been into business books quite a bit lately. I’ve read about Google, Apple, and now I can add Facebook to the list. While this book shared some things in common with the others, this one was unique. The subtitle of the book gives you a clue as to it’s uniqueness: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal. Really those four points are a good summary of the book (and a synopsis of what Facebook was like in the beginning). The book goes into much greater depth on these themes but I can summarize them here.

Sex– Facebook originally was a platform to meet and hook up with members of the opposite sex. The story took place at Harvard and talked in great deal about what college life is like there. It seemed every other page was referencing male/female relationship pressures and how the overarching goal of every student was to get hooked up with someone of the opposite sex. That’s where Facebook came in- a platform to meet and hook up with others of campus. Mark Zuckerberg thought he’d get noticed by girls if he created a social website. That’s why originally his name appeared at the bottom of every page- he wanted to be noticed.

Money– the book describes how Mark Zuckerberg and friends got insanely wealthy overnight from their work and the funding of venture capitalists. Here’s where the book shared quite a few things in common with, say, Apple or Google- take an original idea, something that’s never been done before, work your tail off to program/create it, and release it to the right audience. This has paid off big time for those with the right skills, with the right ideas, at the right time. Facebook is one of these success stories.

Genius– like I mentioned several ideas came together at just the right time. It was brilliant really to restrict Facebook to college campuses at first. That created an ‘exclusive’ private feel. People didn’t have to worry (at first) about what they posted because it was just for their friends, and just for those on their campus. It also was brilliant for Mark to notice a powerful force at work on his campus, namely social clubs and social interaction. He took something that was already happening in the real world and transferred that energy to a web platform.

And Betrayal– the story reveals Mark Zuckerberg’s character and how he broke alliances and friendships that got ‘in the way’ of Facebook. Facebook was his consuming passion and he was not willing to accommodate others in his race to the top. All in all, he was a pretty ruthless guy.

Besides being pretty ruthless, I find it really ironic that somebody so socially awkward created the biggest social network on the planet. It kind of begs the questions- do people who aren’t socially awkward need Facebook? Certainly today Facebook has been useful for all kinds of people, not just the socially awkward ones. But from the beginning Facebook was meant to be a bridge in relationships- a shortcut. It gives you all the info and status updates you want without any of the pressures or inhibitions of real face-to-face conversation. This idea has caught on big. And while being connected to so many people seems like a novel thing, the fact of the matter is that relationships take time. There’s something to them. Relationships have substance and depth, and that is something that an online medium will never quite capture. But for what it is Facebook has been a huge success. Just recently it crossed the 1 billion mark of subscribed users.

If you’re an avid Facebook user I would recommend reading The Accidental Billionares. And for those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie it’s still an interesting modern day story. Facebook is a reminder that hard work and a good idea (whatever your motives may be) can be a huge success.

Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. . . it succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head- even if in the end you conclude that someone else’s head is not a place you’d really like to be.

– Malcolm Gladwell, taken from the preface of What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures

I’ve been enjoying this author lately. He has the wonderful ability to write about such varied things as ketchup, hair dye, and the Pill and somehow make these topics so interesting. In this book he examines the thought processes, the research, and the story behind many of these everyday items in our lives. He invites us into the heads of the people who created these things, and makes some very interesting observations along the way. And like he said, he does it in a  pretty engaging way.