The slow start

As I grow older I begin to appreciate the value of a slow start. I’ve written about my bad memory contributing to my better learning. And more importantly perhaps, the people who actually keep reaching only for low hanging fruits fail to develop the skills and expertise needed to reach for the higher ones.

Ultimately, there is some degree of trade off between getting results fast and actually taking the time and effort to get genuinely better at something for the longer term. It’s almost the different between cramming for an examination as opposed to learning for mastery. Examinations were never to encourage or cultivate mastery – it’s just an industrialised version of education, of applying the principles of manufacturing line quality check on people instead.

The problem solvers we need in the future are not the ones who would invest into deeper learning and desire to gain mastery over merely getting good grades. And we need to start building systems and hiring habits that ultimately reflects that.

So much work to be done

For those who are already beginning to be overwhelmed by the year, I’d like to confess I’m experiencing the same. There is so much to do, to accomplish and to change or improve. There’s work, family, relationships and the work on myself as well. It seems that I need them all right now! How do we prioritise this all?

Often we want to snap our fingers and have the world as we like it. We fantasise about how the world should be and the changes we could or should make. And then we stop there, frozen simultaneously by the possibilities and the overwhelming amount of work it entails. We then go back into fantasy world and imagine more work to be done instead of doing them.

We then make excuses why the world is fine to be as it is, because we want to get back to doing our own thing, to be in our comfortable patterns. It’s strange how we never fantasise about the status quo and dwell on what it takes to keep things the way they are. But we instinctively resist change, and stop ourselves from making them. So despite the sense of overwhelm, most things are likely going to stay the same.

Better to be selective and careful about the areas we target to change, and then punch hard in those areas. Hit the targets or decide it’s not worthwhile and then go on to the next.

Forcing your work

Work gets done through a combination of resources, ideas and time. What happens when it is not done? Can it be forced?

We’ve been lulled by management science, idea of deadline, of being a machine to deliver output that is certain and reliable while also being of good quality despite not being able to even specify the work well.

Forcing work to be done is a lie. And it is not even human.

When you disagree

I once argued that education should be reimagined and redesigned. It is no wonder why Einstein was attributed to say he doesn’t allow schooling to interfere with education. The content of our education is at its best when it is not prescriptive but more about the process that students get to go through.

And along that process, we want them to learn things about themselves, about the world and how to interact with others. One of the key topic amongst this, is around disagreement. How to disagree is a useful skill and one that a human being, since being a kid would have to face.

My colleague has a 1.5 year old girl who struggles when her parents say no to her. She just finds it difficult when her will is impeded and she is helpless. To a certain extent, her way to take back that agency is to break down and cry. To a large extent, the type of tantrum is a kind of power-grab. And we intuitively know that. Except like all power-grab, this sort of emotional violence is not exactly the healthiest way of interacting.

So kids will and should learn how to disagree, and to feel a sense of agency over the situation even when things are not according to their will. Are parents capable of teaching that? How about schools? Why are we leaving that only to the domain of experts or psychologist? Shouldn’t that be a universally taught skill?

Again, we don’t like to teach or train people along metrics we cannot measure. How to disagree isn’t exactly something that can be easily quantified. So no one wants to teach that. It’s a shame because it is probably way more important than the nucleophilic substitution reactions we learnt in Chemistry.

Inconsistent stories

Storytelling is a wonderful skill when it comes to communication and helping others retain information. It is also capable of influencing behaviours to a large extent. And so it has to be used and received carefully.

Stories that are attractive can be inconsistent. Just the other day, I came across this person who decided to be a career coach because he realised he had put so much time and energy into his work he neglected other important things in life. Having been a top performer at work, he now wants to work with individuals to help them perform well at work. Coaching allows his life to be more flexible and to “help” others.

Somehow, it was hard for me to receive that story. Not that I suspect it isn’t true but the difficulty is the fact that he is now teaching others strategies to progress and do well at work which had landed him outside the corporate ladder in the first place. It would seem like there is some paradox here. Surely, one would not want to lead more of others into the regret of neglecting family and life due to work having experienced the full force of that oneself?

I think it’s great more people are becoming entrepreneurs and creating value as freelancers or solopreneurs. A lot of the work to attract and market involves storytelling and positioning yourself well. At the same time, the story you tell serves as a way to align yourself and the work. An inconsistent story breaks that.

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.

Feasibility of an Infrastructure

train infra

A huge part of infrastructure development work upfront is the feasibility study. What exactly goes into a full feasibility study and why is it so important? This article aims to explain that simply and more accessibly to people outside the industry. We’ll focus on the feasibility study rather than any documentation on projects generated prior to that (sometimes called pre-Feasibility Study – which could be considered a ‘lite’ version).

The feasibility study is like a professional evaluation of a business plan. For any infrastructure project, this is a comprehensive look into all the practical, legal, technical and commercial aspects of the project. Often, it will include social and environmental dimensions of the project in order to ensure that the lenders (ie. financial institutions providing debt to the project) is satisfied. In markets where there is significant social and environmental activism, the lenders are also on the receiving end of hate-mail, harassment and boycotts. Major project finance lenders internationally have therefore got together to be involved in The Equator Principles – a risk management framework that banks sign up to abide in assessing the environment, social risks involved in projects.

What then constitutes environment and social risks?

Infrastructure projects are physical, and will almost always require clearing of a piece of land to allow construction to take place. This would mean either resettling villages, people, farms, or redeveloping urban spaces, or even clearing swathe of rainforest. In cases of large hydropower dams, it will involve spaces not only for construction of the dam but also planned floodplains which can include multiple villages, broad swathe of forests. All of these impacts on human lives, biodiversity, alters natural landscapes.

Of course, the banks, developers, and builders care about people and rainforests. But beyond that, they are concerned about being harassed, haunted by NGOs, activist organisations trying to run them down reputationally for having been involved in projects that destroyed natural habitats for endangered species, upsetting livelihoods. These forms the environment and social risks; and the feasibility study tend to cover aspects of the social and environmental impact assessment, as well as to propose means to mitigate. Through that, the developers of the project also forms an idea how much resources they might need to expend to support resettlement, to help rebuild livelihoods destroyed.

How about practical and technical risks?

The feasibility study also goes into the technical and practical aspects of the project, including studying the possible technologies to deploy, the actual site conditions: whether the land can accommodate the infrastructure, whether there is actually sufficient demand for that infrastructure, and if the infrastructure has everything needed to service that demand – this could take the form of water supply pipe network, or an inter-connector to the national grid for a power plant.

The study needs to ensure that the proposed technical solution is able to deal with the problem statement at hand. For example, if we are using incineration for the waste, then we have to ensure that the waste stream is not too moist. If the waste is wet, the incineration system may not perform properly, which leads to potential technical breakdowns or stoppage.

And not forgetting the legal and commercial risks?

At the end of the day, the project will have to comply with the law of the land, and often, there will be a lot of permitting, licensing, government approvals that are needed for various components of the project. The feasibility study will investigate all of these and the developers will also do their best to make sure the requisite approvals and permits are obtain in advanced even often in parallel with the feasibility study just to make sure that the project is progressing in a timely fashion. These documentation will often be studied alongside the feasibility studies by the lenders.

Lots of parameters, and results from various aspects of the feasibility study would be captured into the financial model that is used to work out whether the project is commercially viable – that is, the total revenues/payments expected for the lifetime of the project is able to pay for its total cost over its lifetime. Governments may also undertake an economic cost-benefit analysis, to see if the total economic benefit of the infrastructure project is able to cover the total cost to society (more on this from a previous article I’ve written).

At the end of the day, flagging out, assessing and then measuring these risks enables the developers, lenders, and the government to have a better picture of how viable the project really is, hence its feasibility – from the various risks perspective as well as the resourcing that can be availed to the project. Doing proper feasibility studies can also help government better plan areas surrounding infrastructure, whether it is to mitigate some of the impacts of the infrastructure, but also to see if developments around the infrastructure can help improve its feasibility (eg. a larger substation might have to be built in the area to be able to accommodate a large utility scale solar park which would not have been able to feed power into the national grid).

This article is part of a series I’m working on to make topics in infrastructure a little more accessible to students and people from outside the industry who might want to get involved.

Coercion of Free Markets

Inequality is a market failure. We do pick this up in A Levels but then there’s little discourse on that. Not only do we dwell little on the solutions – which ranges from progressive taxation to welfare handouts – we ultimately ignore how inequality undermines the ultimate roles of markets, which is the efficient allocation of resources. I’ve always grasp the idea rather intuitively but then fail to deliver it in a philosophical and economics framework. I’ve pointed out the lack of philosophical musings in today’s study of Economics when I introduced Michael Sandel’s lecture on Markets and Morals.

I’ve always pose the question to my Economics student, if a person earns $1000 a month and another who earns $1 a month both needs a glass of water. The rich guy is willing to pay $10 for the water while the poor one is willing to pay $1. The market thus allocates the water to the rich man. We all know that this allocation is problematic and it doesn’t seem efficient; how is it that, in terms of willingness to pay, a person who is only willing to part with 1% of his monthly income gets the good when another is willing to part with 100% of his monthly income for it? So what exactly is the problem of inequality?

Once again, Michael Sandel points this out in the second lecture presented in this video. You don’t exactly have to watch the lecture in order to grasp the point but the idea is that when inequality (in terms of unequal distribution of income) exists, effective demand cannot properly reflect the ideal sort of demand signal transmission that would allow the market to allocate resources efficiently. In extreme cases, free markets becomes not entirely free. In other words, people are not transacting out of their free will but coerced by their own economic circumstances. We see this very often in the case of poor people in developing countries who are forced to sell organs, resort to prostitution, act as surrogate mothers, become a runner for crack.

Gary Becker is not wrong about the rationality of these people. They’re making rational choices but it is often that their choices is very much limited. That unfeeling market processes coerce us into certain decisions is something close to the hearts of all of us. Often, however, we can’t quite work out what is so unjust about that because we believe that to a large extent, we determine our riches. Somehow, deep in our hearts we know that some other decisions that we made caused us to be in the state we are in such that we are coerced into making that next decision. The fact that this argument comes back to us shows how each and every decision made in the marketplace by us are not independent. This makes for a determinism argument in a market setting where free will is supposed to reign.

There are much wider implications of all these arguments and I shall explore them if I get the chance.

Morality of Markets

I’ve previously introduced Michael Sandel’s lectures on Justice in Harvard. I haven’t finished the series despite great interest in it but I recently watched another of his lectures, one at Chautauqua where he talks about the Morality of Markets. In some sense, I was particularly interested in this issue and believe that all those trained in Economics should be made to study it. After all, Adam Smith was a Moral Philosopher. The philosophical element of Economics is becoming lost in our study of it today.

Markets Corrupts?

That is what makes this particular Michael Sandel lecture extremely insightful. He starts with the idea that we’re now plagued by market triumphalism and he tries to question what is wrong with that. As often in his lectures, he poses a scenario either hypothetical or based on actual proposals in the real world and then solicits opinions from the audience. He eventually surfaces his points and ideas from the responses of the audience and does a brilliant summary of the issue.

He gives a good and important point in his conclusion of this lecture that explains why we should not allow markets to expand indefinitely in our lives. In other words, there are areas where markets can, indeed serve the best interests of the societies especially when we all can agree that the market system gives an accurate and fair valuation of the good or service involved. Unfortunately there are values out of the consideration of the market that we might cherish and therefore we should not allow particular goods or services to become commodities to be traded and transacted. The danger of the markets is that it leaves its mark on the commodities that are traded; the values that we cherish becomes diluted, corrupted by the market system.

The example of paying a child to read is important in illustrating this. We should cherish reading not because of the monetary gains but the intrinsic value derived from joy of reading and learning. Therefore when we start paying children to read, it sends out the wrong messages and distorts the valuation of reading. The trick then, perhaps is a solution around this limitation of the market, to be able to remove that mark that market leaves on the thing traded. Unfortunately there’s no easy solution and possibly none. This is a strong argument against markets and while it is applied to a small group of tricky issues, they are worth pondering over.

Michael Sandel makes Political Philosophy and Moral Philosophy not only accessible to the public and ordinary, non-philosophy students but also makes extremely relevant connections between traditional Western Philosophy and the issues plaguing us in the modern world. It’s really fortunate that we are able to access his lectures even though we are not studying in Harvard or in America. There are other videos of his public lectures available on FORA.tv.

Wrong Concoction

Historically, technological advancement combined with economics have helped to push civilization towards greater levels of achievements; yet too often, there are times when they are combined in the wrong ways that produces somewhat problematic results for the aggregate society. An example would be the problem of counterfeit products, which is recently featured in The Economist. Interestingly it has extended beyond just luxury goods, luxury consumer electronics to the more sophisticated stuff like cars, computer and machine parts. The chief argument against counterfeits is not so much that they are unsafe. As technology advance, counterfeits that are of low quality would naturally be abandon by the market anyways. The reason for the market’s embrace is a result of their avoidance of taxes and the willingness to accept lower margins, which allows them to price way more competitively.

Another time when technological advancement is combined with skewed human intentions is the gender-based abortion that The Economist is hinting at. The distorted sex ratio have potentially disastrous consequences on society at large. Unfortunately the imbalance is already a fact and will take at least a generation to restore some balance so in the meantime we will probably have to put up with way lower rates of marriages (if rates sustain, it would only be because divorce rates have also been increasing; which implies re-marriages).

Well, more arguments for big governments, or if not, intrusive ones.