Recycling woes

When you deposit a recyclable item into the rubbish bin or down the chute here in Singapore, did you know that it means the item will actually never be recycled? It will definitely end up in the incineration plant where everything is burnt. Metals are sometimes recovered but that is just about all. This is because everything collected in the green waste bin by the licensed public waste collectors have to be sent to the incineration plants.

On average, incineration removes more than 90% of the waste matter, leaving a residue which is buried in our offshore landfill at Pulau Semakau. Soon, when the Integrated Waste Management Facility in Singapore is built, there might be more post disposal sorting that takes place after our public waste collectors retrieve the waste. But before that, despite the possible economic incentive of picking out suitable waste materials or matters to be recycled before incinerating the rest, the market is unable to respond to them.

Incineration keeps going and expanding in Singapore as waste volumes increase because that had been a proven solution that is difficult to challenge even when contending technologies and approaches works. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Yet as our landfill approaches the point of its maximum capacity, we cannot keep kicking the can down the road.

Trash & waste

About 81 years ago, Dorothy Sayer, a British writer penned these words:

A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand.

Dorothy Sayers (1942), Why Work

In the article, I’m amazed by the clarity which Dorothy Sayers foresaw the world post-war, with piercing critique of the economic system we have created. The economics that she was schooled in was one of observations of the market, of history and of human psyche itself.

The second world war has ended for more than 70 years now; and as predicted by Sayer, we had immediately jumped back into the business as usual, where work and labour was valued only by money. And this is why we churn out more waste our planet can scarcely handle (both in terms of carbon emissions and lots of material wastage).

Sayer’s remedy has to do with appreciating our work in a different way and valuing it more. And much of it certainly sounds like echoes of the messages around ESG, corporate social responsibility and sustainability these days. Yet she also points to something deeper, points revolving around values of work, of the things we do in society, and value that is created to serve lives and human beings, not abstracted by the market in the form of price signals.

Her full essay can be found here. I confess of course that my shared faith with Sayers help me appreciate the essay in a deep way. If you do care about sustainability and our world, even if you are not a Christian, surely some of the points she brought up should give us a deeper motivation to drive us to live in a manner that is a part and yet apart from this market system?

Layoffs and humanity

There’s been loads of news of layoffs in tech and it coincided with huge investments made in Artificial Intelligence as well as the launch of a beta version of ChatGPT that somehow took the world by storm. The recency effect led people to think that the layoffs somehow might have something to do with the fact that AI might be taking away more jobs and so on.

For a long time, human labour have been relied upon to move good around, help with loading and unloading from transportation, stock-take and do records by hand. These jobs have gradually been replaced by machines though in rare instances, having a human do the job is still more efficient or effective. Switching human labour for machines is nothing new. And it has been a good thing because machines free up human to take on more challenging kinds of problems.

This is how the ratchet of progress takes place. We invest time and effort in developing machine solutions which would eventually be able to replace human effort. And once the solution is adopted across the board, there are so many people who are freed up to work on further solutions and the ball keeps rolling. From a fundamental perspective, the world is progressing and civilization advances.

It is strange that our economic system, the market system that we have lauded and embraced do not exactly work in the same way. It creates incentives and competition towards progress but the result is a lot of stress, anxiety, and pain when new solutions are adopted and manpower is freed up. This is because firms and businesses are not adapted in our system to focus on innovation for progress but simply innovation for profits. And when this is the case, unemployment is a logical approach towards the adoption of new solutions.

When firms and businesses cannot think broadly enough to embrace what is fundamentally beneficial to society and mankind, then individuals, talents and smart people like you and I, will have to develop the courage to step out and do the work that the world needs. Because in many ways, that is what makes us human. That’s what AI cannot replace.

Market capitalism

Economics is not a discipline of the capitalist though they might think so. Because the communist had their study of economics and the manner of trying to deploy the calculations and understanding in central planning. But I digress. What I’m pondering over recently, is that intricate link between the market and capitalism. I wonder, if there was something apart from market capitalism. And as it turned out, there are ideas of alternatives around state-capitalism which is where the state tries to accumulate capital and operate an economy dominated by state-owned firms. But to some extent, that is what communist regimes have sought to do. So ultimately, the ideas of capitalism, when taking the notion of the market away, actually represents something very different from what we commonly believe to be capitalism.

In that sense, capitalism as we conceive it probably still has the market principles and ideals at the fore in the manner it is perpetuated. In that sense, the ills of modern capitalism isn’t necessarily the notion of capitalism per-se but allowing the (unguided) market to take the lead in too many of the things that actually matter. The idea of markets regulating themselves is honestly a little ludicrous to me. In an older world where there were many things in our lives that dominate including ideas around moral, characters, and virtues, we tend to be keen to govern the market and regulate it, seeing that there are higher laws to follow.

But in the world today, we increasingly allow the market to dominate our judgment of things, especially with regards to value of things – tangible or not. That means that what the society needs to care about, which might not be valued by the market properly, may just fall off the radar. It happened for the climate of the world; and who is to say that market capitalism is not coming for other things that truly matter to us as humans.

Da Hong Pao Oolong

Authentic Tea House, a brand under Coca Cola Singapore used to sell these cans of Chinese tea (unsweetened) that uses Da Hong Pao tea leaves from Wuyi mountain or so they claimed. Da Hong Pao is itself a very expensive variety of tea and this canned tea was very popular in Singapore for quite some time. My family and I were fans of it.

Recently they changed the tinge of the color of this product. It went from bright red packaging to a little bit darker red. And instead of saying ‘Da Hong Pao’, it was saying ‘Oolong’ though the subtitle still said it was brewed from Da Hong Pao leaves. The taste is distinctly different and I’m not sure if it was a change in formula that demanded that update in marketing and product design.

Either way, my family didn’t like it. And we wonder if it has to do with the cost or the limited supply of the Da Hong Pao tea leaves. It is sad that Coca Cola Singapore decided to introduce an inferior product to replace one that is so popular and widely consumed. But to a large extent, that is the story of industrialism, and also of the worker who have been doing a good job that was previously appreciated by the employer. Sooner or later there’s always a desire to standardise things, make it good enough but not so great that it becomes irreplaceable. But in the process, we lose something.

Fraud and shortcuts to success

Maybe I’m writing this too early given the case just surfaced. I’m talking about JP Morgan’s allegation that Javice Charlie fabricated customers in order to inflate the price that she could sell her startup, Frank. It’s ironic to some extent that the fintech startup was supposed to help students cut through opacity with the college financial aid system in the US.

It reminded me of Theranos of course, if you looked at Charlie Javice’s profile, everything suggests she was incredibly intelligent and could certainly be very successful on her on merits without committing fraud. But yes she seem to have taken the position not so different from Liz Holmes or Sam Bankman-Fried.

Why is the culture making us so desperate for success or to go down the slippery slope of misrepresentation? Why are our young people believing that the whole startup and venture space is about faking it till you make it? Is there nothing wrong with that? What should we look into fixing?

Imagining futures

Do you imagine a future you want to be in? Then what do you do? Do you take steps towards it?

Or do you imagine a future you don’t want to be in; and then try to take steps to prevent it?

The second approach means you have to be driven by fear. It’s more tiring than being motivated by possibilities. So it’s important to take your pick how you want to envision futures and move towards it.

Market for talents

Are talents born? How would you know a baby is going to be a star violinist, or a top notch computer programmer? How would these kids first be incentivised to try things out to begin with? It’s more likely that there’s a market for the particular talent which the kid was exposed to and hence got started, and found himself or herself being able to do it well and hence the resources around him/her was attracted to support the development.

The market for talent is vital to encourage and develop talents. It is the presence of the market that allows people to aspire towards being a ‘successful X’ – be it a musician, or a chef, or mathematician. Kids don’t just wake up one day, look at a long path into the forest and say they want to work towards being a cross country runner.

Singapore have been able to nurture and attract talents essentially by drawing proven talents from elsewhere into the market and then celebrating them. The value of doing this can be powerful if resources are poured into directing the nurture of local talents concurrently. Careful thinking about this market and its design is important so that structures can be put in place to ensure this is a virtuous circle. Those identified as talents should be able to support others who are trying to develop themselves. Pay-it-forward type of mentorship should be encouraged.

And those who have benefited personally and individually can pool resources to nurture the next generation. It’s akin to successful lawyers or bankers giving back to their alma mater to start scholarships that support new lawyers and bankers.

Entrepreneurial endeavours

What counts as enterprising? How do you quantify that? Or is it more of a “I know it when I see it” kind of thing? Can one act be deemed as reckless by one and entrepreneurial by another? Whose views prevail? Does entrepreneurial necessarily mean taking risks? Or it is about being able to deal with problems and solve them creatively? Does it take cognitive flexibility?

Being in a capitalist world that is dominated somewhat by market-centricity, we often find the entrepreneur an alluring character. He (or she) is less controversial than in the past, having spruced up the image, and reduced the moral fatality of greed. Yet to me, entrepreneurship is more about the combination of action, courage and wits that sets one apart from another.

Action being about doing, not just saying. Courage being about risk-taking, but not recklessly so. And wits that combines self-awareness with large degree of cognitive flexibility that allows one to bend towards various situations and circumstances while successfully being able to achieve one’s goals. The entrepreneur can be an employee at work, a freelancer, the startup founder or the manager of a large institution. The entrepreneur need not be enterprising just from the perspective of creating financial value but also that of impact to the world.

The entrepreneur disrupts the precious equilibria sought after by economists, ensuring that the world never settles for what it is but moves towards what it could be. To a large extent, the entrepreneur actively seeks to create a future that he wants for himself and those around him.

Tiger Trouble

Tiger Woods
Maintain focus!

Tiger Woods look like he’s really in deep trouble; James Surowiecki traces the reason how Tiger Woods’ image is going down with the scandals and gave a thorough analysis on how the image of these celebrity figures are tied to products and firms they endorse or act as the public face for.

He even did a follow-up on his New Yorker blog to highlight the trouble Woods got into with the different firms and brands linked to him. He decided that Woods’ image is quite wrecked for the professional sponsorships from non-golf related stuff would probably cut back quite substantially.

John Cassidy did another analysis of what went wrong for Tiger Woods in the entire episode and explains why Tiger Woods need to get back into Professional golfing fast – assuming he’s able to maintain his focus and discipline.