Cataracts at 29

“I’m afraid you’ve got a cataract in your left eye – right in the middle of the lens, which is why it’s bothering you. But it’s very treatable…”.

My heart sank when the diagnosis was read out to me. The doctor was reassuring, but at this point, my mind was already wandering. I was upset and clearly distraught, but at the same time slightly relieved that it wasn’t something worse. And I’m only 29 this year – a bit too young to be getting cataracts, the doctor added. Thankfully, my right eye was perfectly fine.

Earlier this year, I noticed my vision deteriorating in my left eye. It worsened dramatically around May and a quick visit to the Tan Tock Seng Hospital Eye Atrium cleared all doubt.

So I’ve got a cataracts – now what? This is my story of the events that led to the day of the surgery, the decisions I made, and how I am coping post-surgery.

What is a cataract?

A cataract is the clouding of the natural crystalline lens that you have in your eye. The result is cloudy and hazy vision. It normally develops in people over the age of 40 and is actually part of the aging process. Can it be prevented? Not really. What causes it? Exposure to UV light, use of steroid medication and injury to the eye, among others. In case, it was likely caused by years of topical steroid usage, to treat my eczema. The only way to treat a cataract is to replace the natural crystalline lens that we’re all born with, with a plastic lens implant. More on that later.

Fore more information, check out this link:

Living with cataracts

Looking through a cataract is like looking through a window smeared with Vaseline. As the cataracts worsened, so did my perception of depth. Staring head on into bright lights was unpleasant – headlights appeared as bright orbs of lights. Minor annoyances include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Difficult to use chopsticks
  • Mild disorientation
  • Losing track of the computer cursor/pointer
  • Misreading emails
  • Can’t look out through my DSLR’s viewfinder (yes, I use my left eye)

Bringing balance to the force

Getting a cataract in one eye – just one eye – which is uncommon but not rare – can be a tricky thing, if you’re wearing glasses. In my case, the question of what to do about the ‘good’ eye became a point of much contention and deliberation, and there were two possible outcomes in achieving balance in vision:

The ‘I want to continue wearing glasses’ way

I could decide not to ‘disturb’ the good eye and get a lens implant in my left eye that is slightly myopic (short-sighted). I’ll still need to wear glasses.

The ‘I want to be free from glasses’ way

I decided to take this route – and it involves implanting an artificial lens that has a diopter adjustment to correct my eyesight to perfect vision. To achieve balance in my other ‘good’ eye, I opted for LASIK. I had to have a barrage of tests done to my right eye to determine if I was a suitable candidate for LASIK. I was much relieved to know that I am a very good candidate. More about LASIK here.

The day of the eye-opening experience

I reported to the day surgery center at Tan Tock Seng hospital and was accompanied by my cousin, who kindly took her day off to see me through the day and to accompany me home (it’s a hospital requirement) and for whom I’m grateful for the emotional support. Not before long, I was dressed in the surgical gown and wheeled into the theater, had a heart monitor stuck to my chest and a tube inserted up my left hand to deliver some kind of intravenous muscle relaxant, I think.

“Nervous are we?”, smirked the anesthetist. “First surgery ever? Don’t worry, you’ll be fine!”. Good try doc – you really know how to calm my nerves.

I was then wheeled into the operating theater, this cold sterile room with bright lights (Ouch! More bright orbs of light!) that is more reminiscent of a morgue. After transferring over to the operating bed, and getting a sheet draped over me with just a hole for the eye, alarm bells started sounding off in my head. Obviously, I was nervous, so the good doctor instructed the anesthetist to up the dosage a wee bit more, and soon I was feeling alright again.

The sensation was that of having some sharp instrument poking into the side of eye, but I felt no pain, albeit very slight ‘prodding’ of something metallic into my eye and administering of additional drops of what I believe to be local anesthetics (they issued dilating drops much earlier – drops to dilate your pupils, hence making it easier for the surgeon to see into your eyeball). Not before long, the orbs of light were no more – in that they now appeared as random blobs of light with very little definition. I am guessing – and I may be wrong – that at this stage, the natural crystalline lens was either broken up via phacoemulsification (use of ultrasonic waves to break up the lens), or the lens was completely removed.

A bit of prodding here, and a bit of prodding there, and at some point, the intra-ocular lens implant was inserted into my eye. Then the surgery was over. For me, the 10 to 15 minutes it all took seemed like forever.


Recovery was fast – an hour after leaving the hospital, I could already see, albeit slightly our-of-focus. This is because my pupil was still dilated. I was given strict instructions – not to rub my eye, not to bend over (can’t have the lens implant sliding out of my eye, according to the nurse), and not to carry heavy objects. And of course, there was the usual medication, consisting of antibacterial and steroid drops, and an eye-shield to wear when I sleep (to prevent rubbing of eyes during sleep).


Post cataracts surgery, I had my LASIK surgery done slightly over a week later. It was a great relief, because before undergoing LASIK, I had to rely on just my left eye to see, which in the interim was pretty challenging because of the visual imbalance between the two eyes.

And to add on to an already burdensome situation, I was long-sighted in my left eye, and short-sighted in my right eye. In other words, I could only see something if it was either about three inches in front of me, or two meters away. I couldn’t see anything in between without the help of reading glasses.

LASIK brought back my near vision, but that was effectively only through one eye – my right eye. For reading and computer use, I am currently using a pair custom-made multifocals in place of my generic off-the-shelf uber ugly ‘old man glasses’. My left eye is ‘tuned’ permanently for distance vision – the lens implant is what some might call a ‘non-accommodating’ lens, because it doesn’t flex the same way our natural crystalline lens does when focusing. For everything else, I’m practically glasses-free.

My ‘old man’ reading glasses.

Vocational reading multifocals

Life is still good. 🙂




Just some time between noon and about 8pm today, you may have noticed that it was difficult, if not impossible, to enter my website. The problem was eventually traced back to a memory allocation error with the server. Apparently this was caused by a ‘server migration’, which the service provider informed me about some 2 days earlier. In other words, it was mainly a configuration issue.

After performing countless reinstalls of the WordPress package, I realized that installing the JetPack plugin caused the wp-admin login module to not load properly. I was not even able to access the dashboard; I got a blank white page instead. I noticed an anomaly with the stats bar above (in the WordPress toolbar at the top – you see this only when logged in as an admin) in that the stats were hardly showing and I suspected the problem was caused by the JetPack plugin was consuming too much memory. I proceeded to delete the module (the whole folder) in the wp-contents/plugins folder via the CPanel file manager and the problem was solved. Anyway, I’m back online and glad to be so.



Motivation for the New Year

For those who are in need of some encouragement, here is a round-up of motivational quotes for the new year. The perfect recipe for our new year resolutions.

Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.
– Henry J. Kaiser

A good general not only sees the way to victory; he also knows when victory is impossible.
– Polybius

Wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age. Sometimes age just shows up all by itself.
– Tom Wilson

Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight.
– Benjamin Franklin

Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.
– William Shakespeare

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore,
is not an act but a habit.
– Aristotle

When one door of happiness closes, another opens, but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.
– Helen Keller

Do not forget small kindnesses and do not remember small faults.
– Chinese Proverb

Look to be treated by others
as you have treated others.
– Publius Syrus

No great man ever complains of want of opportunities.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is of little traits that the greatest human character is composed.
– William Winter

It requires wisdom to understand wisdom: the music is nothing if the audience is deaf.
– Walter Lippmann

The secret of success is to know something nobody else knows.
– Aristotle Onassis

In learning to know other things, and other minds, we become more intimately acquainted with ourselves, and are to ourselves better worth knowing.
– Philip Gilbert Hamilton

Great effort from great motives is the best definition of a happy life.
– William Ellery Channing

We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.
– George Bernard Shaw

Every artist was first an amateur.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Every man has his own destiny; the only imperative is to follow it, to accept it, no matter where it leads him.
– Henry Miller

Destiny is not a matter of chance; but a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, It is a thing to be achieved.
– William Jennings Bryan

By associating with wise people you will become wise yourself.
– Menander

One who understands much displays a greater simplicity of character than one who understands little.
– Alexander Chase

Dost thou love life?
Then do not squander time,
for that is the stuff life is made of.
– Benjamin Franklin

Prosperity is a great teacher; adversity a greater.
– William Hazlitt

If you would know the road ahead, ask someone who has traveled it.
– Chinese Proverb

Men spend their lives in anticipations, in determining to be vastly happy at some period when they have time. But the present time has one advantage over every other, it is our own. Past opportunities are gone, future have not come. We may lay in a stock of pleasures, as we would lay in a stock of wine; but if we defer the tasting of them too long, we shall find that both are soured by age.
– Charles Caleb Colton

A good deed is never lost: he who sows courtesy reaps friendship; and he who plants kindness gathers love.
– Basil

New Blog, New Year

The switch to WordPress wasn’t an easy one, because to me it felt like I was moving my web presence into a new ‘home’. I originally advocated the use of Blogger as the best way to set up a web presence, but it isn’t necessarily the best option for those who clamor for more control and customizability. That is not to say that Blogger isn’t good at all, just that for some people, it might not be the best option out there.

I started my first blog (, now defunct, I think) some years ago because it just seemed like a cool thing to do back then. But more so, it felt liberating and somewhat exhilarating to be able to post stuff online for everyone to see. I was still a student back then and I did not yet see the profound impact this had on the way information flowed through the Internet, despite this phenomenon being relatively commonplace in the developed countries. The term ’blogosphere’ was something new to be back then, but it was cool to be part of a blogosphere and that was all that mattered to me. When I felt like ranting, I turned to my blog and poured out my opinions and thoughts like it was nobody’s business. I thought it was a crowd puller and I was right for a while, but I felt I attracted the wrong kind of crowd and it just didn’t last. It didn’t feel fulfilling to write junk so I stopped for about a year, occasionally returning to see if there were any spammy comments along the way.

My new blog is no longer called ‘The Artist’s Easel’ as I have decided to take a turn at building my web presence after my own personal identity. I intend to use my blog to write and share topics that are of interest to me. In other words, this blog will serve as an extension of my mind, and a digital personification of myself on the web. In addition to that, I will also use by blog as a platform to showcase some of my photographic endeavors as well as my personal projects.

If you are wondering why I switched to WordPress, it is because of the provision for deeper customization of the templates as well as having a vast array of high quality plugins to choose from. Blogger’s selection seems quite stale in comparison, but like what I said, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all. Would I switch back to Blogger? I don’t think so, especially since I have already settled down comfortably with this blogging platform. Besides, I believe WordPress will continue to serve its purpose as a tool for getting the job done, for a long long time to come.

As the year 2012 comes to a close, I will be making some new resolutions for the year to come. It’s time to start writing better stuff.

The Day the World Ended

Today is the 21st of December of the year 2012. Just about every mention of ‘twenty-twelve’ brings back haunting memories and vivid imagery of the scenes in the movie ‘2012’, that of the earth crust crumbling and sliding into the bottomless depths of the ocean as survivors try to cling on to the last vestiges of support they could find as they slid into their watery graves. On that fateful day, the world ended.

But that’s what Hollywood tells us.

Today, in sunny Malaysia, that day has come. No screaming, no crashing cars, no crumbling elevated highways, no mega tsunamis, no collapsing towers of concrete in this urban jungle we call home. It was business as usual. But amidst the normalcy and order of things, the chatter of the world ending or any possibility of it happening was very much alive and in the air. There were those who laughed and scoffed at the naysayers and doomsayers. However, it was evident that the doomsayers were right about one thing; the possibility. The possibility of the world ending. Would the world go on as it did yesterday? Or would some catastrophe of global proportions tear through civilization like a hot knife through butter, leaving in its wake a trail of glowing space rocks and dead organic matter, of which used to be good old Mother Earth?

But then I digress.

The point is, as we live in this world, it is a good thing to be once again reminded (a big thank you to the Mayans) that indeed nothing ever lasts forever. The stretch of time that dinosaurs roamed the earth is many many times longer than the entire span of human civilization, yet they eventually disappeared. Food for thought indeed.

Burning & Building Bridges

Recently, while checking for updates in Facebook, I came across an interesting posting by a good old friend of mine. It is as shown below:


In Pursuit of Happiness
Sunday, November 29, 2009 at 10:26pm

Don’t let someone become a priority in your life,
When you are just an option in their life …
Relationships work best when they are balanced.

Never explain yourself to anyone,
Because the person who likes you doesn’t need it,
And the person who dislikes you won’t believe it

When you keep saying you are busy, Then you are never free.
When you keep saying you have no time, Then you will never have time.
When you keep saying that you will do it tomorrow, Then tomorrow will never come.

When we wake up this morning, we have two simple choices.
Go back to sleep and dream, or wake up and chase those dreams.
Choice is yours…

We make them cry who care for us,
We cry for those who never care for us
And we care for those who will never cry for us

This is the truth of life, it’s strange but true
Once you realize this, it’s never too late to change
Don’t make promises when you are in joy

Don’t reply when you are sad
Don’t take decisions when you are angry
Think twice, Act wise

Time is like a river, You cannot touch the same water twice
Because the flow that has passed will never pass again
Enjoy every moment of life


The rules to a happy and fulfilling life are not difficult to understand, but obviously difficult to put into practice.

I personally find the first paragraph particularly interesting:

”Don’t let someone become a priority in your life,
When you are just an option in their life
Relationships work best when they are balanced.”

It is not uncommon to find that people whom you thought were friends choose to send you right down to their ‘priority stack’, for some ‘mysterious’ reasons.

I’ve had a classmate from my primary school who doesn’t write to me, and I only get a response from him (if any), after ‘building my half of the bridge’.

The irony of this matter is that while this is a simple rule to understand, very few people actually take it seriously. In other words, these apparently simple rules are often taken for granted.

Obviously, if they don’t take you seriously, or at least, they choose to have you ‘blacked-out’ of your life, who can blame them?

Be happy, just burn down the bridge.




It had been a very sad day, for today was the day my friend was laid to rest, marking the closing of the final chapter of his short yet colorful life. His passing was unexpected, and we all thought what a bright future this young man had ahead of him. Alas, that was not to be, for God loved him so much he was called to the House of the Lord last Thursday evening, Singapore time.

I knew Jonathan personally, though not as well as some of my other schoolmates. He and I used to discuss at length some of the latest computer games and strategies.

He had touched my life, and the lives of many others.

Life is so fragile.

When I learned of his passing, a day after he drew his last breath, it was a  stark reality I could not accept. I had barely gotten the chance to tell him how much I appreciate his friendship, and now Jon is gone.

His passing was a real awakening for me, and probably even to those who were close to him. I realized that life is too short to squander, complaining about trivialities, whining, and procrastinating. That life is meant to be enjoyed, and cherished. That the difficulties we often encounter in life, as reminders that we still have many things to accomplish, for ourselves, and for others. That the reason why our hearts still beat in us, as the Lord’s way of reminding us, that the days we have left to roam this earth, to make a lasting impact on the lives of others, are numbered.

It is through Jon’s passing, though tragic, that I humbly believe, many people will be inspired and touched, in ways that could have not been possible if he had still been with us.

Thank you Jon for the times we had spent together. The Lord loves you.

Rest in peace my friend.



Of Slums and Poems.

Of Slums and Poems

The Sunday Post 26, October 2008 (with permission of the author) 

By Dunstan Chan

“Maybe the thing that makes Kuching lovable is not that tangible. It is the relaxed ambience and quiet charm of a contented city where people of different races and religions live harmoniously together. Such a nebulous attribute is not easy to put down into words in a brochure. Kuching has to be experienced.”



Pictured above is the Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya, the second largest slum in Africa.

“Take me to the slums area.”
“Slums?” said I, taken aback.
Perhaps it was my tone and my facial expression that prompted Rita to go on to explain somewhat patronizingly.
“Yes, slums, you know what they are, the poor area where the poor people and squatters live.”
I could see that the other passengers in my car were also giving me looks tinged with pity for not knowing that famous (or infamous) bane of Asian cities.

Yes, I know what slums are. I have been to some of the major cities of Asia. Heck, I have even visited Tondo and Smokey Mountain of Manila to know exactly what she meant. Yes, slums, I have seen them. I have smelt them.

Smokey Mountain was a rubbish dump for Manila in the District of Tondo. The 2 million ton garbage heap attracted a huge squatter community who scavenged the garbage for their livelihood.

No, my bewilderment was due the foreignness of the concept of “slums” in Kuching. Having settled comfortably in Kuching for some time now, the image of that crowded unsanitary habitat with all its unpleasantness seemed to have faded from my mind.

I was taking a group of journalists from the Commonwealth Journalist Association on a whirlwind tour of Kuching. Rita, who hailed from India but settled in Britain, went on to explain that it is her practice whenever she visits a big city to make a point of visiting the poor areas as well as the affluent areas. “It gives me a better feel of the city.” She said.

So I drove around Kuching for a good three hours to give them an impressionistic view of the city. All I can say is that they loved the city and to the person said that they want to come back for a holiday with their families. And I don’t think they were just being polite.

Ironically, sometime ago I was talking with some friends about the attractions of Kuching and if we were to promote it as a place to visit what would we say about it. For a while we fell into the trap of many a tourism writer who succumbed to the formulaic description of the tourist attractions of a place. We talked about pristine beaches, crystal clear water, vibrant nightlife, and shopping, all predictable stuff. However, using that standard yardstick and comparing to our neighbours, Kuching really doesn’t have too much to shout about. We don’t have the powdery white sand of Boracay of the Philippines, the crystal clear waters of Sabah, the wild nightlife of Bangkok and our shopping complexes are dwarfed by mega malls of the other Asian cities.

Indeed, in pitching Kuching as the typical tropical postcard type of tourist destination can yield embarrassing results as reality does not match up to the hype. Some years ago I received a call from one of the hotels in Damai beach. Among its guests was a honeymoon couple from America who wanted to learn SCUBA diving. I met the charming young newly weds. They were both good swimmers, the husband being a lifeguard. I asked them why they chose to come to Kuching to do their diving. They said that they came across an advertisement about “the pristine underwater marine life and untouched coral reefs” here. Those who are familiar with the underwater world would know that Kuching resides somewhere at the bottom rung of the world ranking of good dive spots. While other dive sites boast of underwater visibility of 30 to 100 feet, here off Kuching, we count ourselves lucky if we can see up to fifteen feet.

Fortunately the couple had not done any diving and thus did not know any better. And the novel experience of swimming underwater made their experience around the islands off Kuching a happy one. Seeing their keenness I recommended that they visit Sipadan, that world famous diving paradise (I am not exaggerating) in Sabah. Of course they were totally blown away by their experience there.

A few weeks later I received an email from them “. . . thank you so much for introducing us to this totally new and exquisitely beautiful experience. Our time in Sipadan was absolutely brilliant and will remain a most memorable holiday.” I noted that they pointedly avoided making any mention of diving in Kuching.

The point I am making is that sometimes we tend to focus on the usual run-of-the-mill tourism products — spectacular scenery, sea and beaches, nightlife and shopping, etc. and thus totally miss what is our forte.

When I asked my visitors from Uganda, Mauritius, Britain and Bangladesh what they like about Kuching they did not specify anything in particular, though they were highly impressed by the cleanliness of the city, the well preserved historic buildings and the places of worship.

“In my country we also have such historical buildings from the colonial era but they are mostly in a rather dilapidated condition,” said one of them. We were standing in front of the old Court House, looking across the river to Fort Margarita. Then someone said, “It is not just the buildings I like, it is the feel of the city.”

Maybe the thing that makes Kuching lovable is not that tangible. It is the relaxed ambience and quiet charm of a contented city where people of different races and religions live harmoniously together. Such a nebulous attribute is not easy to put down into words in a brochure. Kuching has to be experienced.

After the futile search for slums, we ended up near the Astana on the north bank of the Kuching River. From there, the city with the smooth flowing river in the foreground looked beautiful.
“Are there many poems written about this river?” asked one of them. I think that is a question which is pregnant with meaning. Maybe sometimes we just forget to count our blessings.

The writer can be contacted at


Uncle Dunstan, thanks for letting me post your article here. –Lionel



Origins of Negaraku?

The Malaysian National Anthem, ‘Negaraku’, was believed to have been adapted from a local Malaysian song called ‘Terang Bulan’. However, some schools of thought have suggested that the national anthem’s melody was actually borrowed from an old Hawaian song, ‘Mamula Moon’. To play the song, click the play button below.



So what is your take? The chicken or the egg?




One Mean Renaissance Man

The following article was taken from:

I had recently been reading a thing or two about ‘Machiavellianism’ (oh wow, I think I spelled it correctly this time), but this article which I found on is the best I’ve read on this topic so far.

For those who are not familiar with the term, Machiavellianism refers to a person’s tendency to deceive and manipulate others for personal gain.

So what now? Guess what…it’s actually in our genes, but it’s apparent in out actions to differing degrees.

The article is as shown below.

The picture shown below is that of Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, a philosopher, writer, and Italian politician. The picture was taken from Wikipedia.



File:Santi di Tito - Niccolo Machiavelli's portrait headcrop.jpg

As Machiavelli becomes the poster prince for a new
kind of power-hungry self-help genre, scholars are
using the 16th century political philosopher as a litmus
test for human behavior.

– – – – – – – – – – – –
By Annie M. Paul

Sept. 13, 1999 | No doubt about it — this writer is hot. His works inspire countless knockoffs and imitations. His imprimatur gilds the covers of other authors’ books like Oprah’s golden O. His name has even entered the language as an adjective. But you won’t see him signing books at Barnes & Noble or trying to talk over Charlie Rose. No doubt he’d relish the attention, but he’s been dead for almost 500 years.

These days, Niccolo Machiavelli is generating a volume of buzz Tina Brown would envy. In the past couple of years, he’s been the subject of more than 20 books, including Dick Morris’ “The New Prince: Machiavelli Updated for the Twenty-First Century,” “The New Machiavelli: The Art of Politics in Business” and “Machiavelli on Modern Leadership: Why Machiavelli’s Iron Rules Are as Timely and Important Today as Five Centuries Ago.” For the fairer (but no less devious) sex, there’s “The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women” and for those mischievous little tykes, “A Child’s Machiavelli: A Primer on Power.”

Of course, the buzz around Machiavelli has never really died down. Since his guide to getting and keeping power, “The Prince,” was published in 1532, Machiavelli’s matter-of-fact instruction that rulers must be prepared to lie, cheat and steal to hang on to their thrones — all the while acting the part of the benevolent leader — has not lost its razor edge. Even in this era of cynicism, Machiavelli’s view of humanity as greedy and self-seeking or stupid and easily tricked still seems remarkably dark — and to some, remarkably relevant. The little Italian excites so much passion because his works divide readers into two hostile camps: those who admire his clear-sighted pragmatism and those who are repelled by his casual amorality.

His polarizing presence isn’t limited to light reading, either. Now Machiavelli is making an appearance in a loftier realm: the speculations of sociobiology. In “Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans” (Oxford University Press, 1988) and “Machiavellian Intelligence II: Extensions and Evaluations” (Cambridge University Press, 1997), two scientists make a startling claim: Machiavellian behavior helped our early ancestors survive, and even drove the evolution of their brains. In other words, it made us human.

Andrew Whiten and Richard Byrne, both professors of biology at Scotland’s St. Andrews University, apply the word “Machiavellian” to artful manipulation that serves one’s own interests. In the communal living situations of our early forbears, they explain, those who could make the biggest grab for resources without getting kicked out of the group altogether — that is, those who were most effectively underhanded and guileful — were the ones who lived to pass on their (Machiavellian) genes. The competition to be the craftiest of them all created an “evolutionary arms race,” write Whiten and Byrne, “leading to spiraling increases in intelligence.”

Their supposition grows out of what’s known as the “social intelligence hypothesis”: the idea that it’s not the world of objects that demands superior smarts, but our complicated and nuanced web of relationships. Sounds sensible enough — but earlier theories had tied the development of human intelligence to the use of tools and weapons. (That dealing with relationships is the more cognitively complex activity will surprise no one who’s seen modern-day man prefer a session with his power tools to a long talk with his wife.)

Machiavelli’s survival-of-the-shrewdest philosophy has obvious parallels to evolutionary theory (were he writing today, he might thank, fawningly of course, Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins in his acknowledgements), and the researchers have embraced him as a sage. “Machiavelli seems to me to have been a realist, who accepted that self-interest was ultimately what drove people, and emphasized that the best way to achieve one’s personal ends was usually through social, cooperative and generous behavior — provided that the costs are never allowed to outweigh the ultimate benefits to oneself,” says Byrne. Though the biologists’ work doesn’t draw directly on Machiavelli’s texts, his steel-fisted, velvet-gloved approach provides the perfect model for the behavior they describe.

Evolutionary biology isn’t the only academic discipline to borrow from Machiavelli: Psychology got there first. Almost 50 years ago, a Stanford psychologist named Richard Christie set out to ascertain just how many modern-day adherents Machiavelli had, and how they differed from those who disavow his ideas. Christie created a personality test based on statements taken from “The Prince”: “Most people forget more easily the death of their parents than the loss of their property,” for example, and “The biggest difference between most criminals and other people is that the criminals are stupid enough to get caught.” Test-takers were asked to rate how strongly they agreed with Machiavelli’s acid observations. Those who endorsed Machiavelli’s opinions Christie dubbed high Machs; those who rejected them out of hand were low Machs. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, but there’s a significant minority at either extreme.

The unusual origins of Christie’s test set it apart from the carefully constructed instruments psychologists ordinarily use. The survey itself measures only one thing — whether the test-taker subscribes to the ideas of a 16th century Italian political philosopher. But here’s the rub: In subsequent experiments in his lab, Christie found that our reactions to Machiavelli act as a kind of litmus test, delineating differences in temperament that he confirmed with more traditional personality inventories. High Machs, he determined, constitute a distinct type: charming, confident and glib, but also arrogant, calculating and cynical, prone to manipulate and exploit. (Think Rupert Murdoch, or if your politics permit it, Bill Clinton.)

Christie and his collaborator, Florence Geis, had deeply mixed feelings about high Machs, especially after watching them trounce other players in games the psychologists set up and observed in their lab. “Initially, our image of the high Mach was a negative one, associated with shadowy and unsavory manipulations,” they wrote in their 1970 classic, “Studies in Machiavellianism” (Academic Press). “However, after watching subjects in laboratory experiments, we found ourselves having a perverse admiration for the high Mach’s ability to outdo others in experimental situations.” Almost against their will, they were impressed by the high Machs: “Their greater willingness to admit socially undesirable traits compared to low Machs hinted at a possibly greater insight into and honesty about themselves.”

One of the many psychologists who have contributed to the now-substantial literature on Machiavellianism is John McHoskey, of Eastern Michigan University. In a major paper published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he made the case that Machiavellianism is, in fact, a mild form of mental illness. The tendency to exploit and manipulate others, he says, can be placed on a continuum that runs from Mother Teresa to Ted Bundy. “People who are way out on the far end are the crazed Hannibal Lecter psychopaths,” he explains. “But in the middle, there’s still a lot of room for differences, and the people who score on the high end you can think of as Machiavellian.” (Of course, do-gooders like Mother Teresa might actually be engaging in a less blatant and therefore more sophisticated form of Machiavellianism. As Byrne notes, the ultimate Machiavellian bargain may be the one made with God.)

McHoskey’s article argued that high Machs possess, to a greater or lesser degree, the qualities associated with classic psychopaths: a lack of remorse, pathological lying, glibness and superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth. Even so, he refuses to denounce Machiavellians outright, however, cautioning that it all depends on context. We want our spies and sometimes our diplomats to be devious in the nation’s service. Elected officials and other administrators must be at least a little Machiavellian to get anything done. A degree of impersonality toward human life is essential in a doctor performing bypass surgery, or a soldier engaged in warfare. Plus, McHoskey points out, true low Machs are kind of sucky. “They’re the extreme opposite of someone who’s Machiavellian: dependent, submissive, socially inept, shy,” he says. In other words, be sure to invite a high Mach or two to your next dinner party.

Psychologists’ emphasis on these individual differences in Machiavellianism sits uneasily alongside Byrne and Whiten’s focus on the universal processes of selection and adaptation. According to the biologists’ theory, every human is the end result of evolution’s preference for the sly and cunning. (Byrne and Whiten don’t make distinctions between good and bad intentions but instead focus on the means we use to achieve them.) Does that mean we’re all Machiavellians? “Well, yes, to some degree,” Whiten says. “For example, young children, from the ages of about 3 to 4, have been observed to attempt deceptions and to manipulate social situations to their own benefit. This seems natural to humans, and begins early.”

Yet such universal theories on the mercenary motivations of human behavior create a kind of circular reasoning. It’s impossible to disprove that we’re all Machiavellian because any successful human endeavor — whether it’s feeding the poor or taking care of a loved one — can be reinterpreted through the lens of selfishness.

After decades circling around this point, some sociobiologists are beginning to form other evolutionary theories that concur with the psychological vision that individual personalities engage in varying levels of selfishness and altruism and use a variety of methods to achieve their ends. David Sloan Wilson, of SUNY-Binghamton, believes that Machiavellianism is just one wrench in the tactical toolbox that humans have evolved over the eons — and not one that all of us choose to use. “There’s more than one way to succeed in social life,” he notes. “There are exploitative ways, and there are cooperative ways.”

In a 1996 Psychological Bulletin paper, Wilson proposed his “multiple-niche” theory which didn’t exactly refute his colleagues’ work on Machiavellian behavior but refused to allow it to claim credit for all human success. Some people do get ahead by being slick, Wilson suggested, but others prosper using more straightforward or altruistic approaches. (Wilson is also the co-author of a recent book on altruism, “Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior” (Harvard University Press, 1998)).

“There are wolves,” says Wilson grimly, “and there are sheep.” He doesn’t hide his visceral reaction to the former. “It’s kind of scary when you appreciate that human life is like a predator-prey relationship, in which both are members of the same species,” he says. Wilson describes the unsettling feeling of looking out over a class to whom he has administered Christie’s test of Machiavellianism, knowing that a certain number of his students are hard-core manipulators. “We grow up thinking that we have to have this presumption of niceness” about other people, he muses, “and there’s something startling about the fact that that’s just not true.”

But Wilson’s message is ultimately an optimistic one: cooperative strategies can work as well as, and sometimes better than, exploitative ones. After all, Machiavellianism sometimes backfires: Its proponents may scheme and manipulate even when a show of submissiveness or an offer to share might more easily get them what they want, and they always run the risk of being found out and then sanctioned or expelled by their communities. As McHoskey notes, Machiavellians therefore do best in highly mobile societies, in which individuals are free to make their own fortunes and the expression of greed or self-interest is encouraged or at least accepted.

Sound familiar? Forget 16th century Italian city states — 20th century America is a land of would-be Princes, a place where the grifter, the con man and the wheeler-dealer are both celebrated archetypes and real-life heroes. Perhaps that’s why now, as the gospel of global capitalism spreads unhindered by other philosophies and Americans reflexively interpret politicians’ words and deeds as motivated solely by strategic self-interest, Machiavelli is experiencing a popular revival. Whatever timeless truths he may have to offer, his message is perfectly pitched to this high-flying, high-rolling cultural moment, when image means everything and power is purchased at any cost.

Were he on the scene today, Machiavelli would no doubt revel in his continuing popularity, though he would likely have little use for the academic debates he inspires (students of literature and political science still argue if his advice to the Medicis was satire, all a monstrous joke). “It seems to me better to concentrate on what really happens,” he coolly pronounced in “The Prince,” “rather than on theories or speculations.” | Sept. 13, 1999