Blue bins

In the first episode of my recently launched podcast, I kind of ranted about the blue bins in the National Recycling Programme that Singapore has. My major gripe was that the system for blue bins which was completely open access and operated by riding on the back of the public waste collection system was designed to fail because by seeking to include everyone, it made securing a clean stream of recyclables harder.

I noted that an alternative system where people sign up to gain access to the blue bin, and pledge to abide by the ‘rules’ of using the blue bins could do better. They could pledge the following:

  1. they will use the blue bin only for recycleables allowed,
  2. they will ensure the items are cleaned and ready for recycling,
  3. they will only access the blue bin themselves,
  4. they will ensure the blue bin is locked after their use,
  5. they will not deposit into the blue bin when it is full or when they note it is contaminated

Friends at Upcircle has shown that by giving assurance to people who care and show up for the environment that you are able to deal with the recyclables properly, you can actually obtain good quality post-consumer recyclable stream. By preventing those who doesn’t care about recycling from taking part in pseudo-recycling by their own terms, we can actually do better.

Recycling better by excluding people isn’t exactly the best narrative to the ears but in due course, that can actually change the culture.

Mondo Gondo

This is the first time I utter this two words that don’t really mean anything but definitely not the last time. I started a podcast (yes, finally!) and it’s called Mondo Gondo. I picked those words because it rolls off the tongue well. And it’s probably a whitespace in the minds of people what it could mean.

So yes, Mondo Gondo. It’s like a trip into my mind. I’ll be ranting, riffing, ideating, and mostly talking. I wished I could ramble but I designed them to be concise and <15minutes pieces. One of the requirement I have for myself is that they must have some ideas (not answers, just ideas) to make things better.

And why did I do that? Because it’s always worth taking action that allows each and everyone of us to step into a future that we all want to be in. At least one that I’d like to be in. So yes, a podcast. With some show notes here. And thank you in advanced for listening.

What do you do with slack?

I recently spoke to a financial advisor. Not an independent one, just from a firm who was not tied to a single insurer. The idea is getting the best deal, the most competitive deal. This is a marketing business, about serving clients, reaching people. That’s a shame because financial planning should be about brains and not how much you like someone.

But maybe I’m ahead of myself because if brains mean to be able to optimise very well, lowering premiums as a share of overall risk cover, or increasing cover while keeping to the same levels of premium, then it’s not always that good. We need slack in the system. People who might be idling at any one time you sample the workspace. You need to ensure there is breathing space, chattering space, ideation space.

We pay for slack all the time; do you use up all your mobile data and telephone call minutes every month? Do you boil only enough water for a single pot of tea each time? Slack is not a bad thing and over-optimisation creates risks. Perhaps the risk is small but there is always a trade off to be made.

Copy with understanding

My mind often gravitate back to my school days. I did spend almost 20.5 years in school or something kind of education institute so my schooling life still constituted more than half of my lifetime so far. I wonder if the memories get more faint as you progress along. While I think the greatest lessons I learnt were outside the classroom, it was still largely the school days that were so formative, it helped produce ideas and principles that underpin how I thought about things.

It could also be some kind of survivor bias because the values or ideas that I subsequently discarded after going through the test of time. One of the values that I acquired over time in school was to ‘copy with understanding’. Basically, when you copy something – especially homework for school – you want to do so to save effort but you should at least spend some effort understanding why an answer is the right answer. At least for the particular question. Think about how the answer connects with things you’ve been taught or learnt. Consider how the question was asked and what the answer might be if the question changed, just by a little.

I learnt this value both ways, when I was copying the homework of others and when I dished out my homework for others to copy. I am glad I was in one of the more ordinary classes in school, where I had classmates who didn’t do homework and needed copying; and most were happy to collaborate and “distribute the work”. There were better classes where students mostly kept to themselves and classmates were individualistic and competitive.

Sometimes you look back and by the sheer force of time, things you thought were bad, turned out to be great after all.

Bad memory, good understanding

I had a bad memory and in school I was never quite able to cram for examinations. I found memorisation a complete chore and whenever I had to remember something, it was important that I found something already in my memory to associate it with so as to bond the materials better to my mind.

It turned out that this exercise from young did two things for me. One is that it caused me to develop an interest for learning and genuine understanding when confronted with something new. Since I wasn’t able to retain much in my mind, what I did, I kept them for much longer than everyone else. And I had to develop my own reasons and purpose for wanting to put something into my memory since they were usually stored longer term. And the other was that it gave me a method that allowed my memory capacity to accelerate as I learnt more.

The second point requires a bit more explanation. When I recall things by associating the new information with something already in my mind, I’m actually causing the web of my knowledge to be denser. When a piece of information stands alone, it is easily forgotten. But when you connect it with other information, it suddenly becomes more memorable.

Take for example you meet a guy and he tells you he is 23 years old, then says nothing further. Your memory of him is reinforced by how he sounded, his clothes, hairstyle and perhaps handshake. But if he also tells you that his Mum is a widow, and he had gone to college in Boston, you might actually take all these pieces of information, form even more associations and once you meet him, you’d be able to recall him better than if he had not shared the additional information.

If you’re good at quick wins, you might miss out the opportunity and the grounding to get the harder wins. So when the quick wins are exhausted, you find yourself poorly positioned to make any further wins.

Competitive dynamics

Through my career in teaching, government and consulting, I’ve advised people on strategy and competition. One of my key takeaway from life experience and observing the dynamics in the market is that competitiveness is not actually the best way to compete. Most of the best achievers I see out there takes on market leadership moves – typically activities that create rather than divert business.

For example, in school, I shared my notes with classmates, coached them, gave them my responses to assignments. Friends of mine through school have benefited from my guidance and help. In exchange, I did better than I could have done because I’ve sought to teach others what I learnt, which reinforced my learning better than any other approaches. Whether I could do better than others, was irrelevant in the tactics I’ve adopted because I never wanted to bother about ‘competition’.

Subsequently at work, I noticed there were people who were competitive at work, keeping knowledge to themselves and working quietly to outshine others, or networking with bosses. And there were those who mentored and coached younger colleagues, choosing to spend more time helping others get better at work and sharing the mission of the work.

There will always be people who are competitive, who is out there to climb ladders that are built for them. There will scale heights, but only limited by what the system and the existing infrastructure can afford them. True breakthroughs are going to come from those who did not set out to go high or far by the well-recognized parameters.

Good things don’t last forever

In economics speak, the law of diminishing marginal returns sets in at some point. We don’t know what point it sets in but most of economic analysis seem to look at situations where the law of diminishing marginal return has already set in. That is really the only way we can ensure that the system has some sort of equilibrium. And within a limited timeframe of analysis, that is probably true – there is always some kind of limit that is causing the cost curve to be upward sloping.

So Moore’s law is a little bit of a challenge to that notion; but in reality, it does not contradict typical economic analysis because economist is always taking a snapshot in time. And when it doesn’t work, we take the ‘long run’ which is meant to say ‘eternity’ basically. This time horizon between the short run and the long run, which is when just about everything happens, is where we don’t have the clear view.

And because we don’t have a clear view, there are possibilities, lots of them. Moore’s law has been around for 60 years and been predicted to end for a long time now. The reason we think it is going to end is the idea that the diminishing returns will set in somehow. I think there’s no doubt it’ll end at some point. Preparing for that possibility is important; but maybe not as important as the opportunity that present itself from the time it is true.

Symmetries in relationship

“The safest way to try to get what you want is to try to deserve what you want. It’s such a simple idea. It’s the golden rule. You want to deliver to the world what you would buy if you were on the other end.”

Charlie Munger

In Barry Nalebuff’s Split the Pie, he emphasized the concept of symmetry in negotiation, highlighting that in any two-party negotiation, the contribution of both are actually equal. Because the benefits are off the table when any one of the parties walk away. And therefore once the pie is identified, it should be split down the middle.

As seen in the quote above, the thinking about symmetry is the same when we consider how we ought to treat others, how we put things out into the world, and make decisions. There is always a thought experiment that allows you to be on the symmetrical opposite end of the deal – and you’ve to consider if you’d accept what you’re getting.

What this mean is you can introduce this thought experiment to someone who puts up a ridiculous deal and flip the tables on him/her. When the person highlights the asymmetry of the parties, you can mention that it is irrelevant to what you’re trying to create here. The question is whether the person is actually committed to securing this gain? If the person has a better deal elsewhere, put it on the table so it shrinks the pie and the split can be reallocated.

You don’t stand a chance

When you participate in a lottery, you stand a chance to win. If you don’t buy the ticket – well then you don’t. I don’t believe in buying the ticket however, because I don’t want to play in that game of chance. The odds are stacked against me – and I’d think to myself ‘you don’t stand a chance’. Because buying the lottery ticket serves me no other purpose other than the chance.

Most other things in life are not like that. We participate in tenders knowing we won’t win. We come up against strong sports teams knowing we will lose. We go for auditions knowing our performance probably won’t make the cut. Why do we do all that? Not because of a blind hope but because we achieve more than just getting the chance when we take part in those. We leverage that opportunity to showcase ourselves, to show up, to prove to ourselves a part of our identity – as a musician, a dancer, as a professional who can do the work. We also use the chance to connect with audience, or prospective audience. Maybe it’s just one person, the judge, but it’s still an audience whom you did not previously have.

And that’s why we have to care enough to take action about sustainability, to change the way we consume, to speak up against actions that sets us on a course of no return, and ask for leadership that can lead us into a future we actually want to be in. Because it is saying something about ourselves, it is connecting with our future, and those same people who are going to live in it.

What about the baseload?

I get asked this question a lot; by the people operating power systems, by the Oil & Gas industry, and the traditional old school bankers. They also ask about price of intermittent renewable energy plus energy storage; and when that will reach grid parity. Essentially, they are saying that the new innovations cannot replace the current technologies because the cost don’t stack.

I’m not sure those are the right conversations to have or the right questions to ask. Economics do drive a lot of systems and considerations but they probably should not be hijacking our priorities and our realities. Climate change is real; and if we are to put our best foot forward to make the difference, we are not going to make it. Putting our best foot forward is about using our minds, engaging our hands and changing our lives.

Yes, baseload power will be changed, energy prices will increase, perhaps our spaces, our wealth will have to be sacrificed. But our earth can remain a sanctuary for life, and our world can remain intact; if only we are putting our best foot forward. Not dragging our feet, not trying to maintain status quo. Not trying to exercise malicious obedience.