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.

Cashless society

In the recent visit to London I was quite surprised by the extent the city has gone cashless. Many restaurants and outlets were no longer accepting cash and donation boxes in public charities have been replaced by just a single gadget that says tap to donate (usually a fixed sum for each tap).

Even buskers along some tube are putting up similar gadgets for cashless giving which I thought was interesting. But it is also clear that the buskers who have no access to the technology, the homeless people would soon be facing even less giving from the public.

There are some avenues to deal with this. For the homeless, quite often they should not be getting cash but more direct help such as hot food and shelter. Street begging for cash as a waning solution should be kept up with efforts both by organisations and the public to help in kind. Cash was a shortcut that may or may not help (they may buy cigarettes or alcohol instead of food); so might as well leverage on the trend for good.

For buskers, the payment gadgets becomes a startup cost together with the operating cost of the financial tech players collecting a cut on stream of payments. My suggestion is for fintech firms to use this opportunity to first propagate their gadgets and services – offer free device upfront for the small fees on payments collected. They might want to target buskers in more crowded, central location of course.

Seasons & cycles

Something I observed quite a while ago but never quite written about. Nature operates in cycles; not just in terms of weather patterns and seasons but lifecycles, cycles of day and night and so on. For us as humans, we tend to try and hack these cycles and hence we have shops that open 24h, try to have plants that can bear fruits every season and so on. Some of these work out with success, others not so much.

In particular the cost we afflict on humans emotionally and mentally is huge. As we are made to work with the same intensity through the year, when we don’t have seasons to help us modulate that intensity in Singapore, the strain accumulate each year.

While air-conditioning may have allowed us to control our environment a bit more, the lack of seasonality needs to be properly dealt with emotionally and psychologically.

Education should be the village’s job

It’s been almost two years since I wrote about my dream for Singapore’s education system. Over the past two years, with Covid-19 and all, the system has move towards a worse state for many teachers, with students not any much better-off. With the pandemic as a crisis or shock to the system, I had hope that more changes would come forth – but it seemed to me the most major one was just bringing forward the plans to deploy more education through technologies by getting every student to have a ‘personal learning device’ from Secondary 1.

There is a sense that families by themselves are finding it hard to cope with kids studying or learning at home. The parents are definitely unable to work from home under those conditions. At the same time, I think they have for far too long, outsourced the responsibility of coaching their kids, occupying them and thinking about their development to teachers, tuition and enrichment classes, or various different computer devices. They are out of touch as parents to take on holistic responsibility of the development of their children the way parents of the past did.

Sure, we got more efficiency and productivity out of it; probably most parents are able to make a better living and raise the standard of living for their children; but at what cost? If there’s one thing to learn about education and raising a child through the pandemic, it is that the society must jointly undertake the effort together. Education in the mainstream system, tuition, enrichment and all, must not be transactional or seen as such.

We need more support and aspiration towards an education system where everyone feels more vested: teachers, parents, students and young people who needs to work with the future leaders. Together, we can build a different system that will be able to serve our future and our people better.

Atmospheric cancer

Seth Godin is a fan of finding the right words to make people think and feel certain way. It is inevitable, he is a marketer and brand manager at heart. But he teaches, that it is important to do that in a way to serve the people. This is an important lesson for corporates, or political campaigning machinery of the world today because they have powerful marketing tools, and the dollars to sway public opinions one way or another. Well perhaps more powerful within the US than elsewhere in the world but still, money does talk. What message it needs to send, is decided by each one of us.

In 1912, we are not only aware of the greenhouse effect already; but recognising the impact of human activities on it. We tend to call it global warming because greenhouse effect is generally warming by nature. And we described it in simple but non-alarmist ways:

The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.

14 August 1912 edition of the Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette

The writers in 1912 would not have realised that we would later develop cleaner ways of burning coal, and also cleaner fuels; but he probably wouldn’t be able to imagine the scale of this burning in 1912 would be multiplied so many times that the simple statement he made in 1912 would have seemed alarmist by today’s standards.

Today, it’s not just having the blanket covering us and making us warmer. Climate scientist have discovered that there are feedback loops that worsen the situation because the blanket is causing ice caps to melt, reducing the reflection of radiation and increasing the heat. We are fostering a tumour, as it were – a malignant, cancerous. Getting people to accept it can be difficult, just as a cancer patient in denial, or the family that is trying to refuse treatment for the patient because they cannot accept the diagnosis.

And so we get second opinions, third opinions; and people keep looking for opinions until there is one that agrees with them. One that has a less severe diagnosis, or recommends milder treatment methods. Many government have given up on trying to arrive at a consensus; and others have decided to take on leadership roles in this. The IPCC report this year have continue the same theme of us making things worse and putting ourselves on a bad scenario. Things will be worse if we continue. This sort of salami warning approach does not reflect the manner climate catastrophes descend on us. And it really does not work.

When it comes, it’ll be fast and furious, and that is why we need to take more leadership and ownership to move forward.

Making up lost time

How do you lose time? Time passes at the same rate regardless. Lost time is a myth; and what you have lost is not time but progress that you had expected to make but didn’t. Everything happened at the level of your expectation. So rushing doesn’t help; there is no such thing as making up for lost time, only trying to shift reality to match up to your expectations, or changing your expectations altogether.

That tension of trying to catch up, and heart-wrenching feeling as you approach a deadline is created because we are unwilling to update our expectation. We’ve been conditioned so much that the only way we alter that expectation is to have none of it anymore – to give up. Before any bad things happen to require us to change our expectations, that may be true. But once something had happened, it is just an adjustment, not giving up.

When we get retained in school, when we had to go on a detour through education path because our results didn’t make the mark. Or we had to serve the nation in the military, instead of going straight to college. These are not lost time. They are times when one learns to adjust our expectations. These are times when we become aware of what the society is trying to impose on us and we let that go. And you learn to live a life that is truly your own.

Failed experiments

When does an experiment fail? And I mean a true experiment. One that you have no clue what the results would be but you had hope for things to go one particular way (which probably formed your hypothesis for the experiment).

Popular entertainment and even our education system would have us believe that an experiment fails when it failed to produce results we had hoped for. But in reality, a failed experiment is one that did not produce any useful results to prove or disprove the hypothesis. This happens because perhaps you are testing too many things at the same time and did not really isolate the hypothesis.

I’ve myself experienced many different policy experiments through my public service career. And too often, the service thinks of failure based on outcomes. But if we are seeing our ideas as trials and testing them out, the critical piece in the outcome is what it informs us, rather than whether what we hope to achieve is reached.

We have lost sight of our pursuit for knowledge and truth which will serve our longer term interests, in exchange for short term results and perceptions which is worth nothing in the future. At the end of the day, we ought to be refining our approach to challenges and not specific outcomes. Because we simply have to live yet another day to test out something else, so that eventually we may land on ideas and approaches that helps us thrive.

That had been the power of centuries of scientific inquiry and to stop right now would be a waste.

Tyranny of rush

I had accepted a project with the understanding the timeline would be four weeks but then because of the client’s management schedule they decided they need the deliverables in two weeks. That was impossibly rushed and so we tried to keep the scope leaner and push ourselves to deliver. It wasn’t a good experience and I found the quality control difficult through the process even when I wanted to give my best. The result was huge amount of stress, pressure on everyone and potentially bottled resentments.

Urgency is a weird thing, it grabs you by the neck and forces you to do this and that without much thought at the risk of being choked. It causes great discomfort and as much as it is a good motivator of action, it doesn’t always allow actions to be directed thoughtfully. It is very much a tyrant and one who forces everyone to bow down to its will.

Often I found it hard to get out of this tyranny once it grabs me. Mentally, it captures even my time of rest and attempts to go through natural recovery. Physically, it prevents me from engaging in other activities which takes me away from its will but would soothe my body. I wonder how we can respect urgency less especially in societies that are already fast-paced and relentless.

Because if we don’t break its hold, it will eventually break us.

Go on and try

We push out bikes to the top of the hill and let it free wheel down so we can learn to balance without having to worry about pedalling. One step by a step we learn to cycle. Just balancing is not enough, and just pedalling isn’t enough either. And none of the small step does the job, only when they are done collectively, sequentially, in the proper order.

Yet it is not the assurance of being able to ride the bike downhill that we push it up. It is the promise that we will learn something, we will get better, and something in us is being changed, each time we adhere to the practice.

So we go on and try not because it will succeed or that we won’t fail. But that it will change things just a bit, and that will be good enough. Till the day we succeed, till the day we gain mastery.

Trying to affliate

On Linkedin, I see people starting to use their former affliations to brand themselves. Ex-Google, ex-McKinsey, ex-Tesla, what have you. The people who find it hard to stand on their own ground, to initiate ideas, to test and run with them are usually the ones who try to leverage on affliations to move.

I learnt from a conversation with a small fund manager recently about how the Indonesian startup scene has a dearth of good manpower. Frequently, young people are using their 3-6 month stints at ToGo’s platforms or startups to level up their resume even as their real skills are lacking behind.

The problem with using metrics, KPIs is that they can be gamed even if they don’t lie. What we should care about are probably much harder to measure and assess. But one principle to bear in mind perhaps is that the more one is leveraging on their past affliations, perhaps the more skeptical one should be. It should be what exactly they did on the project they claim they were part of. Just attending meetings, or delivering the goods?