Collecting data points II

To make life a little more complex, because data is often insufficiently precise the manner we conceptualise them; therefore, there is a need to try and estimate the actual underlying data. And so estimation means new data is being created – that which may describe our reality but to an imprecise state. The estimations are based on actual empirical observations overlaid with some theory or stories about what it means for similar sort of situations and so on.

The more actual empirical observations, the statistical theory goes, the more we are able to refine our story (or the model) in order to improve the estimations. But the difficulty is that we can make mistakes in empirical observations; and certain assumptions have to be made about these mistakes and how much margin they end up constituting when we are dealing with large numbers of observations.

Incorporating intelligence about reality through theories or stories in different ways can help to deal with these mistakes as well. Being able to do so skillfully requires a strong understanding of both the statistical theories and also creativity in terms of introducing parameters into modelling.

Collecting data points

In a world full of disorder, we try to order them. And to really get a better sense of the reality, we gather data. While the notion of data in the modern world seem to be about bits and bytes, 0s and 1s; data collection dates far further in history. And it is important how our observations and the rich data that we actually collect with our senses matter. Before bits and bytes, there was no easy way to store data in a common denominator; we relied on different mediums including rocks, cloth, paper, film, codification (eg. music notations).

And research or learning in the past proceeded that way. It works, even if the knowledge accumulation is not as fast. Curation and developing good quality data hence matters more than gathering these things at high frequency. Things don’t change that much. Which is why I always think Charles Booth’s survey of the poverty situation in London is such an amazing endeavour with brilliant insights. It reminded me that I don’t need thousands or millions to go out there and perform social research about the society, economy or culture. I could just do things on the field with friends, with people who cared. And to simply describe observations to be gathered together.

Such rich, and more ethnographic research can prove to be more valuable, perceptive, and lasting. Ultimately, data points we gather from this world does not give us any sort of order. We are the ones who order the data points and try to make sense of it. Through a story, with a theory. The data points themselves cannot tell us much even when put together unless we have the mind to be able to see patterns, and tell the story.

Salmon bagels

I like salmon bagels; they are my default choice when it comes to getting these bagel sandwiches in one of those bagel breakfast places. I imagine that sort of cuisine came from America and somewhat spread to Australia and was popularized over the world. Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to get good smoked salmon and good, thick, dense bagels.

Likewise, it is so difficult to find good hummus in Singapore. But a Lebanese friend inspired me to consider just making it myself – after all, most of the ingredients are easily available in Singapore and it really doesn’t take that much work.

When we complain about the authenticity of food in a place, and we compare foods across different places (such as Ramen in London vs the ones in Singapore – despite it actually being Japanese cuisine), we are enjoy the fruits of a globalised economy and culture. We often take that all for granted.

At the same time, we naturally pick and choose specific dishes we like while forgetting that within a single food culture, there are various different dishes that are counter-balancing each other to help maintain one’s health. Perhaps it is necessary for me to go beyond the salmon bagel and consider more salads instead – the ones with less dressing of course.

Courage as action forward

In my faith, we trust that God would guide us according to His will. And often, we pray that His will be done, just as Lord Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. But then as believers, we often struggle to accept God’s will. Yet when we are somewhat lost, we think we are seeking His will and wondering how we can find the “signs” to walk His ways. We let our inability to see or find His signs stop us from taking action.

Contemplation is great. Overthinking is not. And at the end of the day, actions bring us forward. Regardless of it being the right or wrong action. In fact, throughout scriptures, God teaches us through our lives each step of the way as we take actions. Actions that exercises our faith or actions that don’t. Our decisions certainly reflect the state of our faith – and we have to trust that the consequence that God has allowed are there to help us grow, to help shape and mature our faith, if we respond to them accordingly.

Courage is not the absence of fear but presence of faith. So courage ultimately becomes a description of the action taken; what came before the emergence of that courage (or act of courage) was simply faith. I imagine when God says to Joshua, ‘Be strong and of a good courage’, the strength was not physical but beyond physical – mental, and spiritual. The quality of courage is simply emerges from that strong faith.

And action forward is that emergent courage manifest.

Meritocratic complex

There are negative feedback loops that ends up self-limiting certain effects. But there are positive feedback loops that amplify certain effects. Meritocracy can be self-reinforcing particularly in the manner merit is defined.

The merit defined at a point in time can become entrenched as those “merited” take on leading roles and define the meaning of merit for subsequent generations. At the same time, those with resources gained through “merit” can likewise use those resources to build up merit for their descendents.

The education system is being challenged and as we look to review our social compact, we need to think this hard. How much should one be rewarded for good luck or penalised by bad? And if merit can be passed on through generations, then is it still merit for an individual?

Improving a system

One of the topics I was really interested in while doing my masters in economics was the impact of institutions on economic development. I looked at it from a few perspectives including the legal system, the existence of various policies or reforms and also studied the economic history of the US to see how the interactions between business and the orthodoxy of the day when it comes to big or small government.

There is no doubt the world operates on a lot of different systems and not one is right or wrong. There are systems better for deriving some outcomes rather than others but it is hard to say if a system is better overall. To begin, we have to agree on the principles; whose welfare to improve more of and what are the priority areas before others.

The market system which has been peddled around is not exactly the complete system. A market directs itself towards outcomes of those in power within the market. The politics and regulation are institutions above the market so they have a huge role in directing the market. While the government cannot be fully culpable of the outcomes of a market, they can help to coordinate the overall goal of the entire market: whether energies are directed towards production or gains diversion, whether one is working for one’s survival or some higher values.

History have proven itself that keeping people fed and with basic needs satisfied unlocks incredible boost to productivity and economic development. We need to enable more of that in all of our systems.

Skills & certifications

There had been a lot of talk about gamification and most of our social media addictiveness comes from idea of gamification. Where do you think the pull-down gesture for refreshing a page come from? Slot machines of course!

Even with lifelong learning, skillsfuture initiatives, there is a lot of gamification happening with the government trying to encourage people to go for courses. The design of the skills map in the skillsfuture dashboard even looks like a journey in a game, collecting various qualifications, etc.

The problem, as I pointed out in a previous blog post, is that we conflate certification with skills. So are you looking to acquire skills or certification? Are you keeping the skills you acquired by exercising them? Or busy collecting badges but actually discarding the skills as soon as you get the badge?

Seasons & cycles II

Spring brings new energy and life from the harshness of winter, and transits towards the sunny summer time where we start thinking of going on breaks and to the beach. We return in late summer into autumn where we start prospecting for work again, and then working on them towards winter where we enter into a brief year-end break before looking forward to springtime again.

And there are proper working hours – sensible ones that works with our daylight: 8am to 6pm. Rest day on Sunday.

There are costs to these cycles. Days are shorter in winter, and maybe a bit too long in summer. There are times when you want to grab some food while feeling still awake late in the day in summer but then shops are going to be closed. At the same time, you can’t ski in summer; while being at the beach in winter would be really miserable. It means that different business activities in different parts of the economy would be in lull versus thriving at different times of the cycle.

Yet these costs doesn’t have to be mitigated; they can be leveraged into strength. In Singapore, what we pride upon – being almost on 24/7, having a strong nightlife while keeping streets really safe, yet continuing to be productive through the day, and keeping all of these on through the week, through the months and through the year. During festivals, even Chinese New Year when supermarkets now choose to close only for a few hours or half a day at the most. We leveraged on the fact we have people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds hence allowing staff of different ethnic group to keep activities on.

All of these were thought of as ways to mitigate the costs of cycles. But did we ever had to do that? Or it’s too much?

Just looking down

I finally watched ‘Don’t look up’ – which itself is a great piece of satirical artwork. The themes are much deeper than what the movie initially set out to do; it reflects troubles with the culture that we have in the way science, politics, media and citizen actions interact, especially to deal with somewhat distant-seeming troubles that do not have immediate next-moment implications on us.

The film turned out to be really more than just a critique of our response to climate change but how the abuses of attention by politics, social media and mainstream media including pop culture has done to us. The ineptitude extends beyond management of a crisis; it is also problematic in the manner one responds humanly towards the crisis.

The character Kate, portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence was vilified for displaying her alarm towards the issue discovered. The appropriate response is being shamed and threatened out of existence. In the film, leaders were also seen as being highly opportunistic and acting almost purely and solely in self-interest. In all that sense, it may seem unreal but perhaps the fact is closer to this fiction than we think.

Physical retail

I loved visiting bookstores as a kid. But these days I just read ebooks; and the challenge is discovering new books. In the past, the visit to a bookstore always cause my reading list to lengthen; because you can pick up a book, browse any page, catch a whiff of the smell of its pages and for a single moment or more, feel as though the book actually belong to you. Though of course, it technically isn’t until you finalise the purchase.

But that is exactly the power of physical retailers. They give you the experience of the actual product and allow you to live concurrently in both realities of not owning and actually owning the particular product. It allows you to engage more deeply not just your sight and imagination but also other senses. And I think there’s something to that which allows physical retailers to be at an advantage to e-commerce players. It is an advantage perhaps more important in urban areas than non-urban; where the population density can support the business model.

Physical retail probably won’t be disappearing especially where there’s a measure of local monopoly. Yes you might have to experience some queuing, crowds, shoving around but you also get soak in the sights and sounds of life itself. And learn to engage the market as a real person rather than through a web-based account.