Going beyond economics

“So,” he asked, “what should he do?”

Straightforward as the question may seem, it was anything but. There were two tracks I could take: (1) the economic, rational track; or (2) the moral, slightly irrational track.

I can’t quite share with you what the exact nature of the discussion was, but the question would be somewhat analogous to the following:

Imagine that you and another person are participants of a social experiment, which pays both of you $5 each for participating. As part of the experiment, the experimenter passes you $10 and says that it’s to be shared with the other participant but with a catch: you decide how much you want to share. If you don’t want to share any of it, you don’t have to.

And, the other participant won’t know anything about this additional $10 that has been handed over to you. What do you do?

The economic track (that’s option 1) says that you keep the full amount. The other participant, not knowing that you have received this $10, will not be in any way worse off if he or she wasn’t offered anything.

The moral track (that’s option 2) says that you should split it 50/50: both of you did pretty much the same thing (turning up for the experiment), and there’s no real reason why it shouldn’t be split equally.

Now, that was pretty much the question that was asked of me: “What should he do?”

Take the full amount, or share it?

I chose to answer option 1, and was agreed with an attaboy smile. It was, after all, in the business’ best interest.

But I couldn’t help but feel a little peeved that there wasn’t so much as a hint that option 2 was just as viable an answer. I’d answered option 1 for the sake of argument, half-thinking that it was the wrong answer, hoping to be refuted and then having a good laugh about it. That I was so heartily agreed with… that was unexpected.

It is during times likes these, because of times like these, that I seek out disciplines beyond cold economics. It’s times like these that I’m reminded of the importance of having different perspectives, perspectives gained from activities like reading poetry, studying philosophy, and running.

Running especially. Because of the pure irrationality of it. It’s a constant reminder that it’s OK to be irrational. That it’s OK to be nice.

How to be Brilliant

The meeting droned on. Something about something was being said. Someone mentioned someone. Suddenly, the spotlight turned my way.

“What do you think, Donn?”

I was there, yes. But I wasn’t. My mind was on dinner, due an hour ago. My mind was on my wife, waiting patiently for me, an hour now, for dinner. My mind was everywhere, but here.

I slowly nodded my head in contemplation. “I think,” I said, “we have to look at the numbers in greater detail.”

It wasn’t a lie. We did have to look at the numbers in greater detail. Despite my mind wandering, I knew damn well what needed to be done: study the numbers. And think.

But I hadn’t done that. It was the usual suspects: I was busy with other tasks; I was unclear about what the objectives were (no explicit agenda); and frankly, I didn’t really give a shit.

No brilliance from me today.

And then next target was picked. This time, the answer was so brilliant I wished it was me saying all that. The thing is, the answer was so polished I knew damn well it didn’t happen based on pure brilliance. This was a man who knew his stuff.

This time though, the target answered so well I could’ve sworn he’d prepared for it. It was almost as if he’d studied.

That’s when the epiphany hit me: he probably did.

I don’t know why it took so long for me to realise it, but whenever someone sounds like he or she knows something at a meeting, chances are: he or she probably does. And it didn’t “just happen” — quite a bit of work and thinking probably went into “knowing something” well.

I’ve had my fair share of “brilliant” moments. Being more technically-minded than many, I’ve solved unsolvable computer problems that stumped the smartest but technophobic people.

It’s not that I’m smart or brilliant, it’s just that technology is my thing. I read technology books for fun. I’ve built websites for the sake of building websites. I’ve long refused to give in to “printer not found” issues. Always having had such an interest in technology, I’ve never shied from it.

As a result I’ve had lots of experience in it. “Uncommon” computer problems are common problems for me, by virtue of my just having had more experience. “New” problems are often just old problems in disguise.

So, I’m brilliant because I’m prepared. The achievement of the magic of brilliance lies in preparation. In having a store of brilliant ideas and thinking, just waiting for the right question to be released.

Brilliance at work is similar, the only thing being that problems are a little more less structured and domain-specific. This means that preparation comes less from “objective” and universal-knowledge sources like books and websites, and more from actual thinking behind issues specific to your organisation or cause.

It pays to anticipate these issues. To spend time thinking about them before they’re brought up (“building up experience”), because if you don’t, you won’t have had the luxury of time to think about your answers when the issues are finally brought up.

Between an answer that’s been thought about for days, and an answer that’s given less than five second’s thought, the latter is highly unlikely to be more brilliant.

Brilliance can be achieved if an effort is made to identify key issues, and time made to think about solutions and insights to these issues.


Running “barefoot” with shoes isn’t as silly as it sounds

It’s been more than a year since I started running “barefoot” (and yes, I have to admit it was due to the book Born to Run — one of my first of many, and still my favourite, book on running). I do not quite run “without shoes”, but wear either my New Balance Nimbus or my Skechers Go Run 2.

The New Balance was my first barefoot shoe, and it took a while for me to get used to it (my calves would kill me after each >5km run). I still haven’t fully gotten used to it, and have never gone more than 8km in them.

The Skechers, on the other hand, has a bit more padding, and feels more like a racing flat — wonderful light, responsive, and yet with a  subtle bounce. I’d gotten it after giving up on the New Balance as a long-distance shoe, because my legs just wouldn’t adapt.

I fell back to my trusty Ascics GT-2170. Though calf pain was no longer an issue, and running long distance in the Ascics brought no problem, I craved the minimalist feel that the New Balance gave me.

One day, I received a flyer on the GoRun2 by Skechers and was immediately intrigued. But it was only after reading some pretty good reviews in Runner’s World that I was persuaded to see the shoes for myself in the shops. And boy did I fall in love with it. It was really light (much lighter than I’d expected), and really flexible.

Having just changed shoes, I didn’t quite have the change available to spend on new ones, so I decided to wait till my old pair wore out. But after a few months, I couldn’t resist and I got myself a pair. Though the first couple of times I did feel a little calf pain (always an issue when I transition to the more minimalist shoes), by the third time I had gotten so used to it I had to park my much more costly (and padded!)  Asics aside because it felt more like running in padded bricks.

I’ve since gotten myself a second pair of GoRun2, and have not been disappointed.

The only issue that I’ve faced running with these more minimalist shoes (as opposed to the padded bricks) are the comments that my family of non-runners give me. “Why do you buy barefoot shoes? It’s such a stupid idea. Just go run without shoes!”

I never really had a good rebuttal, could never really articulate the feeling running in those shoes gave me.

Then I came across this from the book Running with Kenyans (by Adharanand Finn):

The barefoot style of running is less about actually being barefoot and more about the way you run.

And that, I must say, is the perfect response.

In the name of safety

I read a post by Alex Tabarrok today, regarding  school safety in his son’s school (via the Marginal Revolution blog) today. The post is really a letter that he’d written to his son’s school principal, regarding the introduction of security guards and cameras.

From the post (emphasis mine):

When going to school requires police, security guards and cameras how can I encourage my child to travel to foreign countries, to seek new experiences, to meet people of different faiths, beliefs and backgrounds?

I live in Singapore, arguably one of the world’s safest countries.

In Singapore, each of us is assigned an identification number at birth. This number is used extensively to record our activities in both private and public services. I never thought much about it until I studied in Australia and realised they didn’t have such a thing there, and that it’d have been to them a serious invasion of privacy.

I thought it weird and inconvenient — how did they manage to live without one for so long?

We have cameras everywhere here.  Cameras mounted on street lamps (presumably to monitor traffic); in trains (one in each carriage) and train stations (five, six, or more, clustered together, each facing in different directions); and other public spaces — parks, elevators, shopping centers. And with citizentry brandishing phone cameras and car cameras and posting videos on errant behaviour, his monitoring goes on just about everywhere really.

But I don’t really notice them. Maybe I used to, but not any more. They make me feel safe. Like a drug.

We have gates. Lots of them. Almost all houses have them — those that don’t are the exception. Similarly, all apartments by default come with grill doors in addition to the main, heavy-duty, fire-resistant door. Apartments without grill doors, if any, tend to be situated in gated communities. And they have security guards.

It’s normal to have such security measures in place, isn’t it? At least I think so. It’s not like we have a decent police force and a generally low crime rate here.

Wait a minute. I think we do.

What Alex Tabarrok says is true. Though I feel perfectly safe in Singapore, it’s pretty much at the expense of feeling unsafe in just about everywhere else. How can I encourage myself to venture out into the unsafe when it goes against everything I’ve been brought up to believe? That even without these security measures in place, I will be safe?

In the name of safety I cannot say how many places I’ve been unwilling to travel to. Places people considerably more vulnerable than myself, but brought up in a different environment with a different perspective on safety, would go to at a whim.

Places I wish I could bring myself to go; things I wish I could do.

But it’s not safe.

Towel pull-ups improved my pull-up max by 50%!

Since completing my full-time national service in the army in 2006, I haven’t managed to do more than 12 pull-ups, generally fluctuating between a max of 10 and 12 (I could just about do about 13 in 2006), though I’ve maintained a pretty decent ready-for-eight-at-any-time standard (i.e. if you asked me to do pull-ups I’d be able to crank out eight with relative ease).

Back while I was still in the army, I’d noticed that one of my major pull-up weaknesses was forearm strength and endurance. I found that though my arms felt like they could probably do a couple more, my grip would let up and I’d drop.

In the last couple of months though, I re-discovered the towel pull-up (re-discovered because I’d read about it before but didn’t do anything about it then). And I believe it single-handedly allowed me to finally break my 13 pull-up barrier, giving me a ready-for-twelve-at-any-time standard, and a max of 15.

After a few weeks of making it part of my after-run pull-up routine (I’d generally end my runs at “fitness parks” where pull-up bars were available), I realized that I could do crank out 12 with relative ease. One night, feeling rather adventurous, I decided to see just how many I could do, and found to my astonishment that I could do 15; two more than my all-time maximum, and three more than I’d ever managed to do I the last seven years.

By improving my greatest pull-up weakness (grip/forearm-strength), I improved my pull-up max by about 50%. What is even more exciting is the fact that breaking down this barrier seems to have unlocked a lot of my pull-up potential.

For example, I’d previously avoided this thing called “ladder training”, where I’ll do multiple sets of pull-ups, with each set “climbing” up in the number of pull-ups being done (here’s more on ladder training).

I’d often had to give up halfway because of painfully fatigued forearms. But for the first time last week, I tried it  and had to give up because my whole damn upper body was killing me. It was beautiful.

It’s like playing a game where I was required to gain “tickets” to unlock a stage, and after seven long years I’ve finally gained the tickets, unlocked the stage, and finding I’m in a whole new world of pull-up fun.

Yes, it’s that exciting.

PS: Happy 2014 and happy training!

Onwards and forwards to a 20 pull-up max in 2014!