The Closed Door

‘Knock, and the door shall be opened unto you.’

Knock, I did.

I was knocking, and I was ringing the doorbell incessantly. But the door did not open.

They told me so. They said it was dangerous. What was I thinking, travelling alone and renting a room from someone I had only barely acquainted with online? Oh yes, there were some ‘reviews’ from previous tenants.

He seemed nice enough when I met him earlier. So nice that I felt completely comfortable with leaving my luggage, knapsack, and laptop in the apartment while I left for a quick dinner and beer. He did of course pass me the key. Either the key was not the right one, or there must have been an additional bolt on the inner side of the door, because the door would not open despite turning the key in the keyhole.

I had nothing on me except my wallet, phone, and passport. I did not have a German phone line. Did I mention I also had my comb and earphones? As if those would help. The sensor-activated stairway light turned itself off, leaving me in darkness. Day turns to night quickly. I could still catch a fading glimmer of light on the way back from dinner, but now it was dark.

If there were such a thing as a confused emotional state, it would explain what I felt. I was in disbelief. I had never experienced such danger in my sheltered life, and I could not imagine it happening to myself. An ounce of hope remained, that perhaps it was merely a mistake. On the other hand, fear started to creep in. Yet, along with it came a sense of excitement. I had an inexplicable tiny desire to be in danger. To be one day left alone on the streets in a foreign place, with nothing to aid me but this personality that defines me and my free will. As inane as it sounds, I almost wanted it to be true.

It was amidst this mix of separate sets of emotions, directed at two distinct possibilities of uncertain probability, that I realised I might have still had a lifeline. I reached for my phone, hoping that I had recharged the battery for long enough the previous night.

Master of Traffic

We needed to get from place to place over the next few days. More precisely, we needed to go to and fro between our homely hostel and the town centre. So there he was, to drive that bus in which we would sit and by which we would happily commute. In our minds he was probably just that. A bus driver.

UKLondonTownBus-EditBut he said: ‘I’m not just a bus driver, I am a Master of Traffic.’ Thereafter he proudly proclaimed how he was recognised by that title in his hometown and even given a certificate for it. Most of us probably assumed he was merely jesting to make his self-introduction more interesting for us. But for me, his pride of his profession and trade reached deeper within me. I admired him.

Here in the city of Singapore, and I assume likewise in some other busy commercial centres, we are conditioned to recognise an occupational hierarchy. We see high-level corporate managers, lawyers, doctors, and other high-paying occupations as respectable. The further down the chain and the less pay a job offers, the less glamorous and respectable a person’s occupation is. In such a society, an occupation as simple as a bus driver could never come close to being noteworthy.

But I detest and challenge that notion. Must the worth of a person’s trade and profession necessarily be tied to its financial potential, its authority over others, or its required educational attainment?

Mr. Master of Traffic had driven in many countries across Europe, had dealt with passengers and places of different cultures, and acquired a wealth of experience in driving safely and efficiently, route optimisation, dealing with traffic, and recognising good pickup and drop-off locations. He would use all that to make all aspects of our bus rides there as pleasant and smooth as possible. He would do all of that without demanding stock options, first-class air tickets, luxurious hotel suites, and whatnot. Moreover, he took pride in what he did.

Cheers to those who hone their trade rather than plot their careers.

Memory, Unphotographed.

path-at-saltaireThere lay two neat rows of trees on both sides on the path, stretching as far as I could see. Endless symmetry–it was beautiful. For a moment my mind activated the cognitive resources required to reach my hand into the left pocket of my pants–for my camera-phone. I hesitated. I stopped.

No.

No, there was something precious about that view–no, that moment–it felt as though taking a photograph would ruin it. As though cutting a small fragment off a little gem. ‘Live in the moment.’ I did. The morning air was fresh and cool. Up above the leaves rustled gently with the breeze. To the side a narrow stream flowed, and in it were some ducks. One was feeding and the other three were still asleep. In the distance I could hear birds cooing every now and then. It was after four days in a Paris filled with flocks of tourists and heavy traffic, and that tranquility soothed me so.

Memory is imperfect. Imperfect in the way it records, stores, and recalls information. But that imperfection comes with our will to make meaning of things. Thus so, that moment became a part of my memory–imperfect yet with meaning. A photograph would not capture it that way.

My shoes crunched softly along the path by the narrow stream, where the north segment of the medieval wall of Provins used to be. Je reviendrai, France!

Timeless – A Production by SMU Eurhythmix

‘Man’s world, poisoned by moral decay, is on the verge of devastation.’

Last weekend I watched Timeless, a production by SMU Eurhythmix, a hip-hop dance club. Performances by Eurhythmix are usually well-liked, and hence I looked forward to a good show. The dance choreography was well performed, and I particularly enjoyed some parts. However, I know little about dance. Instead, what captured my attention was the overarching story and theme of the production.

Timeless started off depicting a dystopian state of mankind and society, showing how the world is overtaken by greed, addiction, and lust. Man’s moral decay could well ultimately lead to his own demise. Because of that, the divine ‘High Council’ considered if they should eradicate mankind.

TimelessHowever, there was one last hope. A guardian angel was given the task of looking through Timeless, a book of Man’s history, and picking out facets of mankind which show that they are worth preserving.

He first looked into the late 19th Century, sometime after the industrial revolution, at the working class in London. Despite living from hand to mouth most of the time, while the rich factory owners and businessmen lived much better than them, they still found the strength to put in their all for the ones they loved–family.

The guardian angel then looked into 168 B.C. China, where Wu Ze Tian was commanding an army to go to war. What he picked out was the strength of ‘brotherly love’ between soldiers who would fight for one another and face adversity together.

Next came 1926 France, struck by the Great Depression. Despite terrible economic conditions, people still sought out their significant other, and displayed a great capacity for romantic love.

I identified most with the upcoming, and last, facet of mankind looked into. A scene of students in 1982 America was shown. Each and every one of them voiced out their personal ambitions, hopes, and dreams. This continued for a while and then stopped. The idea that formed within my mind was how each and every one of us has ambitions, hopes, and dreams, and that as we face difficulties and resistance while going through our lives it is a struggle to continue clinging onto them. Each individual struggles to make a difference in his own little way.

I understand that the production was not meant to be a musical or play, which means that the theme and ideas could not be fully explored in that sense. However, I still try to see if there is anything I can takeaway from this work of art, and found that there was a message or idea–despite not being entirely original–that was worth taking away.

We should have the strength to love–be it within the family, between friends, a significant other, or just our very own self. Love is worth living for, and love is what will make the world a better place.

The Lady Who Needed Coins

A couple of days back, after I had just purchased a scientific calculator for school use, I encountered a lady. She spoke English, though I could not be sure if she came from Europe or America.

‘Do you have any spare coins?’

Two Coins WalletShe showed me a phone card, gestured towards a public phone nearby, and said that she had run out of credits on the card and had to make a call. I took out my wallet, and opened the coin compartment, and saw that I had two ten-cent coins. From what I remembered in my primary school days, a call cost ten cents. So, I offered the lady the two ten-cent coins I had.

However, she said she had to make an overseas call, and that the charge starts at fifty cents. She asked if I had any small notes that I could change at a nearby shop for coins, as she did not have any local currency on her. I eagerly went to a nearby Cheers outlet and swapped my smallest note (which happened to be a ten-dollar one) for change. Returning to her, I asked her how much she needed, and, finding that two-dollars would be a reasonable amount to make a call, I passed two-dollars to her.

That was when she suggested that two-dollars might not be enough. She explained that she spent a few dollars on her previous call, and that two-dollars would probably only last three minutes. I asked her why she needed to make that call so badly and she told me she had to call her family, and decide whether or not she had to fly back.

While her explanation might have seemed reasonable, I couldn’t help but start to get suspicious. Her chain of requests, that started from a small one, and then seemingly proceeded to larger and larger requests, very much resembled a ‘foot-in-the-door’ persuasion technique. Yes, she seemed to be a decent person and had a good reason for needing the coins. But I couldn’t help but wonder. Why would she not have local currency of her own? The best liars are the ones that appear so convincing that some people never question if they are telling the truth.

If she were telling the truth, I would surely have wanted to help her by offering her more coins. I could definitely spare more than just two-dollars. I thought for a while, then offered to let her use my phone to make the overseas call. That way I could get a guarantee that she’d be able to make the phone call without running out of coins, and she wouldn’t be able to just take the coins and walk off without making a phone call. She refused, saying that she didn’t want to incur charges on my phone, even though I told her the rate would probably be better using my phone plan than a public phone. She then said two-dollars was okay and that was enough from me.

So, I left her with but two-dollars in coins, and walked off. As I walked off, I felt uneasy. I asked myself why I had to be so suspicious. Was it because since young I had been taught to be careful of strangers–to be ‘street-smart’–and not believe everything I hear? Why did I not have the courage to trust this person that appeared to be in need? Would it really matter if I had a few dollars less, given that if she were telling the truth I would have helped her a great deal?

Trust.

Someone once told me: ‘I know what trust is. But it doesn’t work in this world.’

I replied: ‘It doesn’t work because you don’t let it work.’

Christmas Consumption

In any westernised society, Christmas is a big thing. Although Christmas has its roots in the Christian religion (commemorating the birth of Christ), today it has morphed into something a little different. Gift exchange. Christians and non-Christians alike, most people who celebrate Christmas prepare gifts for others, and perhaps receive some in return.

ChristmasConsumptionTreeRoom
Where do people get these gifts? The gifts are purchased, more often than not. How many gifts are purchased? Many. Christmas is the time of the year when retailers expect sales to skyrocket. They stock up on inventory in preparation for the Christmas frenzy, they provide gift-wrapping services to customers to attract them, they start playing Christmas music in their stores to get into the ‘Christmas mood’, and they start marketing their products with Christmas themes.

In light of this, I had a thought. Perhaps the key argument for consumption is that when we purchase something, we believe that it gives us value. We believe that we get more (in satisfaction) than we give (to pay for it), and perhaps most of the time we are right. With that the wheel of consumption continues to turn, we continue to purchase, and we become perhaps better off.

But when we purchase a gift for someone else, the consumption equation changes. We purchase what we believe is of value to others. With this difference in mind, is it reasonable to suppose that we are less likely to understand others compared to ourselves, and because of that we tend to make purchases that are not as wise when it is for others? Perhaps, perhaps not.

If we purchase gifts for people whom we understand well, and put in effort to tailor our gifts to those people, then we are a lot more likely to make wise purchasing decisions. Moreover, in giving we also add this intangible yet valuable feeling of being appreciated and meaning something to someone to our gift. This makes the gift more meaningful than if the person receiving were to buy it for himself.

If, however, we purchase gifts for people whom we do not understand well, and are motivated to give them not because of a meaningful desire but rather an obligation that the occasion (Christmas) places on us, we are less likely to make good purchasing decisions. In this case we tend to place importance on the act of giving over the meaning and value of giving. We give just to fulfil the obligation of giving.

As consumers we are responsible for our purchasing decisions and the impact that they have. Why is it important? Every product (or service) is brought to us while imposing a cost on not just ourselves (the buyer) but also on our society and the environment. If the benefits of that product justifies the costs then it has value. However, if we purchase something of little value to the person receiving it, and that product ends up being wasted, we unnecessarily impose a cost on society and the environment. While the impact of one bad purchase is tiny, the same cannot be said of the impact of a huge number of bad purchases. Merry Christmas?

Give in the right spirit!

Related:

All I want for Christmas is a lower rate of consumption by Rosemary Randall on Guardian Professional

Christmas and Consumption by Peter G. Stromberg on Psychology Today

Business; Creating Value

Profit Maximisation and Social Good

Profit Maximisation and Social Good

If we could all pursue self-interest, and end up achieving greater common good, wouldn’t it be wonderful? Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand is a remarkably beautiful and elegant concept. Much of today’s profit-maximising behaviour is based on that idea that pursuing self-interest ultimately leads to greater common good for society.

I attempt to examine the relationship between profit maximisation and social good, from a business perspective. I define social good as benefit to society and humankind in general. I understand that my definition of social good is vague and perhaps inadequate, and that my entire thought process involving this idea of social good may leave its validity questionable. However, I believe that a significant number of us generally agree that benefit to society, however defined, is desirable in and of itself. So, bearing in mind this vague meaning of ‘social good’ that may differ from person to person, let us still try to examine its relationship with profit maximisation.

Revenue Cost ProfitIn any business we have cost, revenue, and the difference between revenue and cost which we call profit. Financially speaking, we see cost as the price of inputs, and revenue as the price (sold) of outputs. If we take price to be a measure of value, we can see business as a process of taking input (cost) and generating output (measured by revenue) that is of greater value than the former, and that increase in value is what we call profit. From this, we may observe that perhaps profit is an increase in value.* The greater the profit, the greater the increase in value from input to output. So, does that perhaps mean that profit maximisation does ultimately create more value in society and promote social good?

*See my earlier post about business creating value linked at the bottom.

Anyone who knows a fair bit of knowledge of economics will immediately quote market failure. Indeed. I believe the problem lies in that price or money is not necessarily an accurate measure of value. I shall highlight this looking at both the input and output of a business.

Business does a great job of keeping track of financial costs, or input. So, producing X number of shoes includes the rent, salary expense, cost of resources, cost of usage of machinery and so on all added together. But financial cost does not take into account other costs that cannot be financially measured. Some of us know these as externalities. In producing that X number of shoes, perhaps a part of the environment is damaged, or perhaps some of the workers sustain injuries that will not be compensated for. These are unaccounted costs that negatively affect social good.

Also, the costs that are financially measured may not necessarily be accurately measured. Perhaps time and effort put in by employees are actually worth more than the amount they are compensated with. Yes, I understand that the price mechanism mandates that if an employee is willing to work for a certain amount of pay, that pay is worth at least as much as the time and effort he puts in for the work. But that is assuming that the employee understands the full implications of being employed. Perhaps the employee took on the job unaware that it would take up a lot more time and effort, and be more psychologically draining on him than he expected.

What about revenue, or output? By the law of supply and demand, we know that with a given amount supplied by the industry, price and quantity sold will be determined by consumer demand, and so revenue will be determined by consumer demand. But what is demand? Demand is how much consumers are willing to pay for a product. I believe that while there may be some relation, how much consumers are willing to pay for a product does not necessarily indicate how much value (or social good) it has. How much a consumer is willing to pay is the perceived value of the product. If business is powerful enough, it can, influence demand, or even create it artificially through marketing. Business can use marketing tactics to make consumers want a product, when previously it was not desirable, and so increase revenue.

How does profit-maximisation relate to all of this? With profit-maximisation, business tries to maximise financial benefits (revenue) to the business, while minimising financial costs.

In maximising revenue, it may attempt to produce more efficiently or better quality goods. However, a business may also use marketing tactics to generate demand without producing more efficiently or better quality goods. This increases revenue without increasing the value given to customers.

In minimising financial costs, a business may attempt to, again, produce more efficiently at lower cost. But a business may also incur costs to others or the environment that do not end up being measured financially to the business, and in doing so take advantage of them. In other words, a business may try to use as much of what is ‘free’ to them as possible.

Thus we see a very possible scenario of an all-powerful business that, while generating huge amount of profits does more harm than good to society, because profits are financially measured, whereas the real benefits or costs to society may defer.

A profit-maximising business is an emotionless entity. It does not have a sense of human morality. Its primary purpose is to generate profits. Any social good that comes out of the profit-maximisation process is a by-product, and it cannot necessarily be assured. I’m not saying that profit-maximising is bad. I believe that profit-maximising should not be a goal that we should work towards. Rather, social good is the goal, and our goal with profit-maximising is to create the conditions under which it will lead to greater social good.

Related:

Business; Creating Value

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