Energy and climate I

I consider myself to have spent all my career since I left school (and academia) in the energy industry. It just happens to be the industry that is essentially in the nexus of climate and economics. Which is just as well because I’m trained in economics and have such a keen interest and passion in the subject. Even when it is just a simple mental model that orients us to look into incentives as drivers of behaviours and human decisions, it powerfully describes what happens from scarce number of variables.

The way man’s use of energy have developed throughout history has more or less been the same. It has always been driven by economics, by the productivity gains we have in terms of bringing up the standards of our living, and that in turn grants greater ability to harness more energy and the ratchet turns. Climate turns out to be somehow a victim of this ratchet. It was some kind of collateral damage that appeared small at first and then snowball, and soon it becomes life-threatening. Not to any particular life, but threatening life as we know it. We can no longer ignore it as we face more volatile climate; with one of the hottest summers in Europe just this year, and increasing frequency of supposedly rare flooding events.

As it also turns out, the way we have built our communities, infrastructure, cities are not exactly the most resilient towards climate changes, or natural disasters for that matter. So there are many overlapping problems across energy, economics and climate.

First, we need to be really clear on our strong, aspirational goals around climate change mitigation and adaptation. Next, we need to get the energy technologies, and energy security issues sorted out. Making sure there is good alignment with these goals. Then, we need to make sure we are behind them pushing for the economics to eventually work – just as the non-market forces helped drive space technology and the development of the internet.

Hope to address these in turn for the coming days.

Life you want

Is this the life you want?

Recently there were more attention put on the demand-side of the picture when it comes to the modern Singaporean lifestyle. Woke Salaryman had a post about being average (more about the real average rather than your imagined one); and CNA had an article around the resurgence of the FIRE movement. Whether it is a movement or not, and the direction that people choose, there had been a long-time recognition that the kind of fire and hunger that Singaporeans used to have in earlier days of nation building is no longer the same. There is more questioning of what exactly are we pushing ourselves for.

Of course there has to still be the political narrative, being a community, united and being aware of the threats. But we cannot always be building ourselves up and trying to get better on metrics we don’t care about. We need to know what we are all trying to build ourselves towards. There was a period about getting better lives. Now that we all managed to realise that, what is the next step?

The government is keen on understanding what we want as a people as much as to shape that together with us. Forward Singapore is an interesting concept to take part in – how, I’m still not too sure but I have to hold on to the belief that we can all still take these things seriously, tap into the listening ear of the government.

I believe they will harness our passions, talents and the resources to drive ourselves towards it. There’s also this need for more consciousness about what we are striving for, what we need to give up in the process and who is giving up what – ie. the social contract. The speech and cogent explanations about the social contract in Lawrence Wong’s speech at the launch of the initiative is good. I really appreciate the contrasting views he raised on some principles and values we had previously left unquestioned – competition, meritocracy, and emphasis on self-reliance.

Ultimately, we need to consider, what is the Singapore we want. Because we know that if we are not building a Singapore that Singaporeans want; then sooner or later, there won’t be a Singapore for anyone.

Lightyear

We caught the movie Lightyear which was supposedly the favourite movie of Andy (the kid from Toy Story) and where the character Buzz Lightyear came from, which of course resulted in the toy figurine which he got. While it did turn out to be a flop for the strength of the Disney-Pixar brand name as well as the Toy Story franchise, I felt that there was a pretty important and relevant message that the story had.

The struggle I believe was the slow pace of it, the fact that the message wasn’t really properly emphasized repeatedly, and the problem of introducing controversial distractions (such as things like representation, etc.) Anyways, the message that I thought was important is that our mistakes can be the fertile soil for many good things and we should not subject ourselves to trying to correct or redeem mistakes without observing the true nature of the impact our mistakes had.

We’ve been conditioned to think of mistakes as a problem rather than a way to learn what would be right. And there’s also the idea of redeeming one’s mistakes – trying to make things right. These are all probably well-intention-ed but an unqualified belief in those principles would be disastrous and in the movie, the Buzz who became ‘Zurg’ was exactly one who acted in that manner. Clearly, we pick that up and it appeals to us because we are so focused on ourselves. We are able to try convince others to look past their mistakes but we are unable to do so ourselves when we are the ones making that mistake.

I’ve written substantially about what our culture tells us about mistakes and how we should be taught about them. Because mistakes are telling us something valuable about the world and ourselves, but if all we want to do is rush to make things right – sometimes we truly miss the takeaway.

Business of recruitment II

A recruiter (from one of those search firms) approached me in connection to the position from a prominent company in Singapore (without disclosing who it was). I did a google search on the details of the job description and I found a job posting for that company. The title in the position was lower but the description is the same overall. I’m not too sure what this meant but a friend of mine thought it’d be interesting if I had gone ahead, apply for the job position and tried to negotiate a sign-on bonus given that I helped to save the company some fees from the recruiter.

I’ve written about the business of recruitment before and honestly, I wonder what is the value they bring. Maybe yes, they did create some value in alerting me to the position; but both the prospective employer and employee could just strike a separate bargain without them. Perhaps it makes sense for us to pay the recruiter a certain fee to be in the picture to help us negotiate a better deal with the prospective employer? Or maybe the search firm can guarantee to the company they will search for someone to take on the role again if the current person leaves within certain amount of time, and taking less or no fees off the next candidate who is suitable.

Still, I truly wonder what are the real skills that makes a recruiter his or her living. Maybe it is a niche that can be cultivated. After all, a property agent gets to know a location and the amenities better; they also focus on thinking about different demographics and their needs to serve the people better. And then there are the financial planners or insurance agents; they may go beyond the conflict of interest and think about the life stages of potential clients and what exactly are good products to offer. Recruitment companies needs to cultivate their network of people in the particular field. The difficulty is that people are starting to hop around a lot more and move around in different niches; and at the same time, the needs of the firms are transforming even if they remain in the same ‘industry’ so to speak.

Recruitment as a business is going to get tougher. And corporate customers of these search firms need to know that their bargaining position are getting 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.

Did you really level up?

There has been a lot of activities in the sustainability space. Not just projects, opportunities for various different companies but individual professionals have been presented lots of job opportunities in Singapore and Hong Kong. The situation is a bit of a musical chairs because everyone are looking for experienced individuals but there are only so few of them so then it becomes a competition on salaries.

Companies need to think about the individuals as people and not just human resources; they need to think about what it means for them to progress in careers or how they have progressed. In a bid to hire, they may end up causing trouble for these individuals as they place higher expectations on them even when they don’t really have the actual fit needed (mostly because who they might be looking for do not exist in the market).

Then there are companies who are basically hiring ‘cheaper’ juniors and then using contractors to help train these juniors to hopefully get to a level of competence that will serve them well. Most of these juniors will actually leave in search of other opportunities; others might stay to continue building up the practice.

Ultimately, the question to ask both the individuals and the companies is whether they have levelled up in the process. Because it doesn’t really matter the salary you’re offered or how many clients you manage to take on assignments for. The longer term metric that keeps those good things going, is knowing who you’re serving, what you’re serving them for, and actually being able to serve it.

Work that makes a difference

So there was a recent announcement about how the ministry of education in Singapore is raising Teacher’s pay by up to 10%. Across the board. Well not exactly a proper across-the-board raising because they are going to raise at varying percentages – perhaps based on level of seniority. Then there were genuine voices of concern about work-life balance. I’ve so many friends and family who are teachers and they echo the same thing. The fact that the work load issue is not arising for the first time already reflects that it has not been solved.

So many times, when people are talking about increasing Teacher-student ratio in the classroom, our leadership would talk about how there had been academic studies that teacher-student ratio does not improve academic performance reliably or that it correlates poorly. Yet that should not be the only metric we care about. We don’t want burnt out teachers; it is a caring profession and people need to have that emotional time and space to take care of themselves before they can care for others.

Now if teaching is so challenging, why do we still have so many teachers? It’s because there are so many people in our society and world who are not just interested to make a living; they want to make a difference. And they want to be able to know their work matters. In Singapore, while the system is not perfect as a social leveller, the education system is in many ways the main channel for people to move up the social ladder. Teachers are uniquely empowered to take on this role and give encouragement that really matters.

So policymakers have to know this and be clear in their minds about what the teachers really are there for. Because the more red tape, the more silly structures that prevent teachers from making a genuine difference with their work, the more discouraging it is. The pay raise will help to a certain extent. Giving more time, especially making sure protected leave period during holidays are genuinely protected; and making sure teachers are not over-working. And finally, putting less obstacles in their way of making a difference in the lives of students. Maximise time with students, minimise time with papers, marking, invigilation, reporting or administrative stuff. You’ll probably see the system being less organised from a top-down perspective – but you might see a better outcome.

It starts with observation

Where do creative ideas come from?

I could have titled this post with that question. Or I could talk about writing product reviews. In fact, most of my writings are commentary on things; and that’s what product reviews are essentially about. So product reviews or the way I approach it, is exactly the same sort of approach I take towards most of my creative writing or even storytelling.

It starts with observation and close observation. That sometimes get mixed up with ‘thinking’; because we do try to ‘think’ and recall things about our experience with a product, or anything, in order to come up with our views about it. But the truth is that when we interact with a product, that itself already underlies the experience. And we have to be observing it to begin to have an awareness of that interaction.

Take for example, toilet paper that we use daily. What can you say about it? What have you observed?

How often do you think about how many ply it is. Or the texture: is it soft, moist, too dry, powdery? Then the perforation along each section: is it well perforated? Does it tear well or easily? I hate it when the edges don’t tear well and you’ve got this long tiny strip at the end that doesn’t go off. Some of the paper are so poorly perforated, it doesn’t tear well and you end up having shredded pieces at the end.

And then, does the different ply within a sheet stick well together? I hate it when I lift off only one or two ply on top and there’s some left which goes back into the reel when you pull and that creates such a ridiculous conundrum where the different ply sticks to the wrong side or drops off as you tear it. Absolute disaster.

Finally, the core; what is the color of the cardboard; does it smell stinky? Does it feel thick? What can you use with it? How would you recycle it?

If you were to simply engage the world a little more, even with the simplest and most mundane things in life; it can be so infinitely more interesting. And it all starts with observation.

How do you improve?

When you discover you’re bad at something, what do you do?

Would you stop and give up? Or find out what exactly makes one good? Or even better: find out how you are bad at it? Then what? What will you do with those truths you discover? Does it just take practice? How conscious must you be in doing the right things? How much are you willing to change your gait, your approach, your habits, and mindset to get it right? Will you hire a coach? Or will you find someone good and ask them ‘coach me’?

Which attribute is making you bad at it?

Is it the time it takes for you to do something? What about the thought patterns and thinking that goes through your mind to figure out what you have to do? Is that the part which is cloudy and hard to make clear? What is a map that can help you? Have you gone out and try and identify a framework or structure for thinking? Who do you normally approach when you encounter such challenges?

If you can work on all these, you’d be able to learn anything and do everything – up to a reasonable extent. But are you willing to do it?

What can I learn from this?

When you’re going through a hard time; most often people will be asking themselves where they’d rather be. And the images of alternative reality comes into mind. And the nice things that you’re missing out on just floats around. And the reality you are going through just sucks a little more. How is that helping?

Better to ask yourself what can I learn from this? To put your brain into that curious learning mode. When we ask a question of ‘why’ in a manner where we cannot answer, we are not actually in a learning mode. Because to interrogate reality requires first that you’re willing to find out the truth rather than to dream up alternative reality that fits your psychology.

When you start with ‘what am I trying to accomplish here?’, you begin to question reality by first getting your intentions right. Then you take the little steps to advance your intention, and put yourself in more reflective mode to be conscious about the things you’re truly getting from the experience. The learnings, and not just the outcomes of doing a piece of work.

The conditioning we’ve gotten since going through the school system is that there are times when you learn, and there are times when you express your learnings. False. Reality doesn’t work like this. Neither does your brain. You learn because you do the work. Period. And if you’re ‘suffering’ from work, that’s really when you’re learning.