How to escape the COVID-19 lock down? When the macro environment refuse to call it a lock down (and continues to suffer the consequences), the micro environment refuse to leave me alone, be it work, family, and even my devices, which is breaking down one by one.
I have so far tried piano, barbershop quartet, cutting my hair, ignoring the kids, spanking the kids, cooking inedible food, cleaning the fan, Ages of Empire, while watching my wife plant food among other things we both are too embarrassed to share in public. To accuse our family being together more and yet drifting further apart is unfair, and while I think my other family members find solace in being social over video conferences, I don’t. I just wanted some peace and absolute silence. Sleeping everyday at 4 a.m. became a norm involuntarily.
And the neighbour’s grandson continues to play with this irritating toy dinosaur that screams like it’s a broken midi player. We are about to call the police because he’s supposed to be at home somewhere else but the parents kept sending him over to the grandparents place.
And so here I am, one of my last resorts – writing. I’ve avoided writing since things got busy in 2018 when the company grew to a new stage of maturity, when we started having to play with the big boys, and any form of public writing was seen as a liability.
Before I go into the topic I want to fully flush out today, I want to categorically call out people who hold each other hostage over one’s stand, interpretation, and eloquence on any matter on the Internet. I dedicated my career into enabling people’s lives with the power of the Internet because it has shown the tremendous capacity for exchange and debate, not to mention transforming our lives in productivity and empathy the same. This year only serves to highlight what trillions of photons racing around the earth is capable of.
So if you read, be ready for a super biased article that exposes my deepest fears and also celebrate my greatest hopes. If you need to respond, respond in public in the comments below, don’t hide in wall gardens like Facebook. The comments here will continue to be hosted for as long as I live, and visible to every search engine, and everyone online.
So this is what’s on my mind:
In my teens, after watching my eating habits and my larger family’s mortality rates, I have set a goal to live up to 80 years old. I turn 40 this year, so I’m half way there.
Unknowingly, I have been increasingly grappling with the idea of death. It started last Christmas when dad passed on. Dad was our hero, the one who toiled endlessly for our well-being, never wanted us to worry about his health situation, only desired a complete family that stays together. Being the eldest son in a family of 11 brothers and sisters, he echoes my grandfather in ensuring that the family always stick together for everything from traditional rites to celebratory events.
Yesterday, my bi-monthly Stanford Magazine arrived and I was transfixed on the article about parabiosis. If one can’t avoid death, perhaps one can be younger. All this younger at heart BS is no substitute for actually having younger cells. For a person whose skull is so big, I’ve been thought to be twice my age in my teens, and only very recently caught up with societal expectations. What if, I could look like I’m 40 forever? Behave, eat, play, work, and related to people like I’m 40 until I’m 80? Then I kaput one day silently, with Bach playing in the background.
To be young again, I started searching around in young people’s minds. To get out of my usual social circle, I have 2 key instruments: Grab Hitch, and Candidate Interviews. Those who have ever gotten onto my car for the 30 minute ride from the north east to one-north would remember the never ending stream of questions from me about their life, how they tackle their respective challenges, how they come to terms with their circumstances. Those who have interviewed with me beyond my famous 15 minutes interview will start to dive into the awkward questions like what’s your ambition, what do you do outside work, do you ever consider migration and so on. The more personal I get, the more insights I learn about young people, and being young.
Here are 4 short stories as sample:
(1) Passenger originates from JB, enters Singapore three times a week to go to people’s house to conduct 1 on 1 physiotherapy. Chose not to get a permanent place in SG because 2 primary school going kids, and schooling is expensive here. Also have a full time job at a clinic (supposedly that’s where the EP or SP legitimacy is), paid a pittance but allowed to do a 2nd job. Here’s the cool part: she manage to plan her time such that she can still clock in, carry out her 4-6 hour long shift duty at the clinic, clock out to do her private patients (Hitch all the way), get back to JB (reminder this was a 4 hour long ordeal both ways), coach the two kids and take care of the house hold. She’s not yet 30 (a hint, since it’s hard to ask the age).
(2) Candidate originates from India, is looking to jump ship before he gets terminated by the employer, who in the first place cheated him because he said he wanted to do geo-spatial work but the employer just shopped him around Singapore for any random work that pays for the past 2 years. He was either half blind or has one lazy eye, could not speak fluently in English, but demonstrated reasonable geo-spatial understanding, having worked in IIRS before. Here’s the part that got me: even though he found it very hard to become a local, learning Singlish, often being chided, he refuse to give up, and want to do better. He followed up my interview questions with a full solution architecture to my topic. We didn’t take him, and yet, he applied 3 times year after year, each time demonstrating that he had built a better resume. He was 29 the last time he applied.
(3) Passenger was on his way to interview for DSTA scholarship. In his new G2000 shirt (can still smell it heh) he told me that he was applying and want to get into UIUC, and was confident with a couple of backup in US as well as NUS as ultimate fallback. Upon sharing my own experience, he began to open up that the scholarship isn’t what he wants, but he really wanted to learn about the volunteering scene in US, especially his secondary school life was punctured by numerous long term commitments overseas. The reason for still choosing a military related organization to sponsor his study will remain a mystery for me, but every possibility I told him about people terminating scholarship contracts made his eyes wider even though I wasn’t looking at him. He’s probably 19.
(4) Candidate wanted to get into the Summation Programme. We were happy to bring him onboard based on his resume and achievement in secondary school, but not via the programme, as it turns out he just ORD-ed and haven’t entered university yet, a prerequisite for joining the programme. After exchanging for an hour, came the reality — he needs the money, and is wiling to do anything to get more money than the usual internships (Summation interns are known to be paid more because it’s partially sponsored by ah gong). His family is in debt, and between starting a startup (super high risk with no guaranteed reward) and doing ad-hoc work, he was looking for some guaranteed way to earn his share to help the family business turn the corner. Either way, he probably needs to drop out of school if no scholarship comes. We couldn’t change our position, he didn’t come back with the signed offer.
What is youth? I often come to the following conclusion:
The odds that are stacked against us when we’re young is incredible. Yet, we simply went ahead and faced it with fortitude without much research and understanding of the next step or its implications. Sometimes we went ahead because there’s no other choice. Sometimes we believed what we were presented – what I call the “marketing” of the opportunity. A path to a Startup. A path to a PhD. A path to Financial Freedom. A path to migrate to some silly western country where one doesn’t have to work like our parents’ generation.
And THAT is the feeling I, at least at this moment, long to have. I don’t want to be handed wealth on a silver plate. I don’t want to have so much wisdom till everyone I see around me is a fool. But I also don’t want to be standing on the same stage I stood when I was 20.
Basically, being 40 and “successful” does not make me feel alive.
Then I found this interesting article about Eigenquestions. How can I re-frame a youth question, and similarly a COVID-19 question, differently? The pandemic questions are often phrased like this:
- How long does it take for (insert industry) to be at the same level before the pandemic?
- How will the new normal be like? What’s in what’s out?
- How can we recover from this pandemic? What if a vaccine is never found?
It’s almost the same question I’m asking
- How can I face my mortality?
- How to be young forever?
- How to always think that I know everything and just keep moving, knowing that if I fail I can just try again?
And so on. To turn these into an eigenquestion was a toughie. I have a few choices:
(1) Frame it as a timeline of events – similar to how people have bucket lists on a calendar. So something like “How can I do the things that I would have done when I was 20, for the rest of my life?” The similar framing for COVID would be, “How much of what we knew about the pre-covid (insert industry) would exist from now on?” It’s an existential question. I could still climb Mount Kinabalu. Airplanes could still fly. We could still attend concerts – but how we perform and where you sit might be drastically different. In this frame, the scale of success is a metric in the currency of Youth / pre-COVID world. Used to fetch 35 passengers a day on average? 35 might now be the days you celebrate as a feat.
(2) Frame it as a behaviour – go the way of the monks or mindfulness hippies. Awkwardly hard to answer questions, like “How can I have the same peace and positivity even as I age?” “How can the world still feel together when we have to all distant ourselves from one another?” There’s a tinge of privilege when framing things this way, but it’s ok as after all it’s about framing it for personal interpretation. The success for this is harder to measure, I may need to consult multiple soulmates to measure my emotional well being. Similarly, would the world be happy taking a great big step towards 1984 surveillance state in exchange for winning the war against pathogens?
(3) Frame it as “science“, by that I mean allow for stuff that are currently outside the knowledge of self / the human race to be the determinant. This is where the elixir of youth / vaccine appears, and will be a binary. Ironically taking the frame is the same as taking the religious “leap of faith” step, something I’m not familiar in practice despite my occasional readings of CS Lewis. Neither am I “smart” enough to invent the vaccine / life coach myself out of this.
One thing I deliberately avoided considering is the immediate situation, and what we can do now now. Some of the actions that people take as an immediate response to the situation, though respectable, lack the true understanding of the macro environment. They maybe worried about this month’s salary, company’s P&L, and fighting the tactical social distancing wars. So while I have already taken steps to adjust my daily lives, I don’t want those daily grudges to affect the macro issue that’s in a 4 decade scale. How to spend your 下半生 is too important question to be affected by the wailing toy dinosaur next door. If I can change my game plan, I can change the world’s.
Low sense of accomplishment
|Hard to put in practice
Hard to measure
Timeline of events was simple enough for the first 40 years of life. Kindergarten, Primary School, High School, Junior College, University, First Job, serve out the scholarship bond, change job, promotion, work upstairs work downstairs, each of them with a specific young person’s goal. If I were to do the same for the next 40 years, without accidentally borrowing my kids timeline, then it might look like: this startup, exit, MNC job, climate startup, exit, retirement government job (to get the benefits), social startup till death, with potentially a migration thrown in somewhere if we continue to struggle in SG, but with music side hustle all the way till death.
See, easy-peasy. By scheduling in 2 more startups on top of this one, I’m asking to be walloped by my family, unless the current one exits with flying colours, but also it brings out the Youth part in me. I still remember how I looked in 2014, even feeling younger than my boyish looking co-founder Mark then.
Behaviour is harder to nail down. I can plan, say, to engage in at least 100 more stage experience in this lifetime, whether it’s public speaking or concerts, to relive that high. I might throw in some volunteering / under-paid work I used to do like fixing barcamps, performing gigs, and compete in coding competitions, or pick up some new ones that would have been a youth thing like recycling, cycling, or hiking/mountaineering.
Even some “older person” plans like teaching, gardening, or dancing can be planned to make me engage in youth expectations, and thus feeling young. Because all these cannot be measured as a bucket list, what counts is the quality of each activity. Take cycling – in the last 5 years I’ve only done one wonderful ride for 50km from my home to ECP, around the entire east coast of Singapore and back from Punggol. To make this count towards my “youth score” I need to make this a quarterly activity.
Science is the hardest, but to that end I thought it might be good to channel my final startup in life to this end. It’s still quite hard to figure that out, but it has to do with everyone’s quality of life in the race towards the end. Maybe I would just be selling gym machines to the elderly who knows, but maybe I would have the luck to work with a real epidemiologist and we go on to rock the public health world.
In my current capacity, I’ve been thinking about aviation a lot. I write at least one document per month on aviation safety (for drones primarily) in the new world, mostly still for internal and regulator consumption – hope to publish something one day – and in them I often make the case for a thousand drones crossing Singapore airspace daily (step by step.. 1 million later).
The reality is, once you cross a certain safety standard, you need “science”. Markedly improved batteries. Provable & published MTBF numbers for motors (sorry branding don’t count). The probability of someone being killed by a drone falling out of the sky is not zero at the moment, and is also not yet in line with the probability of you dying from a 747 crashing into your backyard.
Similarly, while at work we have a timeline centric method to the challenge, we (and I mean the industry at large) is simply working around the lack of a leap in technology with more marketing and publicity, more technical reports and proof of concepts, more layers of regulatory requirements for safety (don’t laugh when you see our “drone crossing” proposals).
In that sense, the “science” method of planning out our lives is really high stakes, exacerbated by insufficient evidence. Search “body hacks to stay young” on Google and see the countless pseudo-sciences. Occasionally there are some bright spots, such as getting deeply involved in agriculture being one of them. But it’s one thing to live _long_ like residents of Ikaria. It’s different to live Young.
My immediate goals for the next few months are super clear. Steer the ship out of this pandemic, maintain harmony and sanity for my loved ones, and find lots of money, fast. All these make me old.
I won’t be posting my final plan to stay young till i die online, but I will attempt to propose a path forward for the various industries that I have some basic knowledge of, and could make a difference:
The cat is out of the bag – we will never have the same kind of major aviation we had in December of 2019 again, at least not in my life time.
We will adopt to the new norm, anything from pricking your finger for instant blood test before boarding, to taking many more smaller planes like Eviation’s Alice, to placing the pilot in ground control to get flying cars like Ehang Volocopter and others. Aviation is poised for a gigantic shakeout.
If you’re investing in aviation for a 10 year horizon, you should be investing in anything that helps construct this new ecosystem (our small humble shop focuses on urban air mobility). Don’t believe naysayers saying that airlines won’t recover – trust me, with taxpayers backing their national airlines and shrewd leaders, they will make a come back with a vengeance and find more ways you can fly than you can imagine.
All these can be done without a single leap in science – they are just avoided by regulators for long enough, and now sheepishly reacting. India took an entire year to ask the industry to form consortiums to answer call for collaboration for BVLOS, demanding free labour for many hours of flight testing. Pandemic hits, and suddenly AAI say free for all who applied till September. Remember, we learned a lot about airspace management from coordinating 14,000 sorties on Normandy D-Day alone. By hand, not by the weights of probability calculation or super computer simulations.
Agriculture / Oil Palm
For edibles part, it’s the supply chain innit. All the optimizations in the past 10 years down the drain because the output is choked. The temporary shift in demand will revert back as restaurants reopen, even though not 100%, but unless COVID-19 kills a more than 5% of global population (especially the rich), people still gonna eat, how they get their food is a different matter. Don’t mix this with the short term pain of matching farmers throwing away food and picked up by Food Bank and other charity to help victims of the shut down.
What is surprising and might have a lasting impact is biofuels. WTI trading at negative $37 is putting a lid on Palm Oil prices, as can be seen through longer term futures, some of them trading at $2k only. Malaysia exports in Mar/Apr plunged 41.7%. Indonesia similar. The issue to me is structural, the world goes more local, people commute less, fossil fuel demand drops, bio fuel demand follows. Palm also goes to food, but with tourism and F&B taking a huge beating, the medium term demand is not going to come back.
Again not to be confused by temporary movement controls that hamper production, people will get back to work the moment they can, sometimes illegally who knows. But especially for Palm and other long term crops, business cases are made by the decades. How much to invest in replanting, how to replant (do we need social distancing in the plantation!) and how to sustain global prices, especially to China, would be key.
The silver lining for agriculture is that, we are getting good at automation for many crops. For some crops like sugarcane, it’s just a matter of commoditisation of the autonomous tractors that runs the whole operations. It’s crazy the number of grants Chinese provincial governments give to farmers to buy insecticide sprayer drones. One day the farmers won’t be toiling in the fields any more, and we will see more gigantic structures like water wheels in potato farms. We would only hope that as the world consumes more responsibly, that we would be willing to pay more for sustainability.
Why was Zoom a winner in this pandemic?? With all these Home Based Learning, all these video conferencing for work, all these impossible birthday songs, why are Singtel and many telco in the world’s share prices down?
This is where it’s endemic in the design of the telco business case, and how regulators around the world tie their hands and legs. High level, you can blame the fix rate model (as per the ST article), as telcos couldn’t charge you for the higher usage for the network, because in the first place you were already overcharged in your consumer product (all consumers essentially share the cost of the network). This is backed by regulators approving and fixing those prices, to avoid price wars that would drive connectivity prices to zero, hurting the industry’s ability to survive, like how Reliance Jio is swallowing India whole, significantly affecting Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea, etc. ability to compete.
Now, with roaming earnings gone, people aren’t even using up their 20GB local data as they are glued to their home Wi-Fi, but at the core telcos need to shore up their routers and increase maintenance spending. With 5G Capex at the corner, and debts from 4G infra still outstanding, it’s no wonder dividends will be lower.
But what people can’t see is that, with the ability of the government to restrict movement, comes the responsibility of the government to provide access to services via the Internet. One of the highly debated fundamental access, on the same level these days as clean air, clean water, and telephone calls, is the access to basic Internet data. “Basic” might now mean minimally 10Mbps to sustain a video call. I foresee this being highly debated at least at IMDA (not sure about other regulators) right now, where they would have to continue to shore up infrastructure support. Already they gave out 5G spectrum through a beauty contest instead of an auction (might still have an auction later i think). This and many more to come will keep telcos on their toes, while they go on their usual way of trying to earn OTT money.
I might go on to a few other industries (I have lots to say about Amazon / e-Commerce), but I think I have given myself enough data points to draw lines and chart a path.
In closing, just like how my final plan would be, it will be good till it has to be changed. But a lifelong planning is needed for my own sanity. Just for fun, you can read about the name sake Lifelong Planning A* (LPA) algorithm, and yes that’s pretty much how I would be iterating my plans, redoing shortest paths now and then.
While the content above would have been over a beer between you and me, I do hope to connect with you on your thoughts on how your mortality relates to the on-going pandemic.