Welcoming 2016: a brief reflection about this blog in 2015

welcoming 2016

 

I am not writing here to make a reflection of what happened around the world in 2015 – it’s too broad, worldwide, and by the time I finish what I want to write about things occurring in 2015, it’s already the first day of 2016. Anyway, I’ll just create a ‘self-assessment report’ of my own blog throughout this year, precisely on its last day.

I could call 2015 a year of courage; from previously very actively updating my blog with posts (or I could call ‘spamming social media’ with my posts?), this year I muster up my courage to reduce the intensity. It’s not simply a slight drop; from publishing over 300 blog posts in 2014, I only managed to release a little above 20 in 2015. That’s a more than 93% in decline! If you notice a bit carefully, you can even see I didn’t put anything online in November. However, it did not exactly correspond with a massive drop in my blog views. By 2014, there were over 8,400 views the whole period. This time, nearing the end of 2015, the WordPress statistics revealed to me slightly above 7,200 views, or ‘only’ 14% decrease. Well, that’s not too bad.

Afterwards, someone asks me this: am I going to gradually put an end to my blog? It’s too early to speculate. Although countless Youtube videos outside have attracted views in days more than what my blog does in 5 years and a half, I would still do my best to continue managing this blog in 2016. Truth be told, publishing 300 blog posts in 2014 was a deeply exasperating – and also frustrating – experience. Even though I mostly ‘reblogged’ other people’s posts and content, I would still have to ‘wreck my brain’ to comment on their stuff, and post them here. I called it quit, and began to shift from only quantity-based posting to quality one. Wasn’t that enough recipe for your consternation when one blog post you really wished to attract a lot of views, gained attention only countable by the number of fingers in the end?

I began pushing for ‘quality posts’ by early January, as well as ending my years-long hiatus of writing thousand-word articles by my own. The last time I did so was in mid-2013, and even then I did it on Facebook Notes feature (it used to be popular in 2010; for 2015 kids, it’s okay you have no goddamn idea about that). Writer’s block was common in the middle of the process, and indeed, I had to tell you, there were 3-4 long-read posts on very serious topics I planned to publish, but didn’t manage to do so in the end as writer’s block – and lack of time for in-depth material research – ended my attempts. Still, despite repeatedly wrecking my own brain, I did manage to release over 20 (one was written by my close friend), and the views per blog were significantly larger than previous one. Total blog views might drop slightly, but I was glad the ‘transition’ fairly succeeded.

By 2016 (or tomorrow), I may try my best to keep the similar target of 20-30 posts, but I can hardly guarantee if I’m going to do so. Given that more new projects (other than this blog) are coming in, I may have to carefully manage my time in updating this blog. I suppose it would be acceptable, gradually, that I don’t publish stuff on a monthly basis. You may expect to see ‘holes’ in some months next year, and I really expect you understand my reasoning. Again, referring to my previous argument, I would now only opt for ‘quality-based’ posting, so that means I may take extra time to review my future posts more deliberately than ‘generic previews’ I did back in 2014.

Originally planning to only put a cap of 300 words on this post, it now exceeds 600. I need to stop adding more crap right now. I wish everyone out there a better 2016, and in the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a more anti-fragile version of all of us.

I won’t stop my blog, my promise.

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Being a tourist in one’s own hometown

hometown

 

A few minutes before the plane landed in Kuala Namu International Airport, Medan, I saw from the window myself dim, low-wattage light dotting blocks of streets, with cars and motorcycles – seen from the sky as tiny as moving ants – rushing in and out of those streets.

“Gee”, I whispered to a friend sitting beside me, “is this place having power ration again?”

“Hasn’t our hometown stayed almost the same since we last left?”

Having studied in Hong Kong for a year (literally without any summer breaks or holidays), this counter-culture-shock was already the first thing I experienced – all the while even before I touched off the ground, of the place I was born and raised for over 18 years, this city – goddamn Medan – that I have called it home since the beginning.

Truth be told, I only have my holidays once a year – and as though a ritual, I have been back home once a year, for approximately one month. My first time, it was December 2013 – it lasted 37 days. Fast forward to December 2014 (all the way from Chinese New Year), it lasted 40 days. And there came another 10.5 months of time-space, filled with the same pattern of courses, research projects, killer exams, and other school activities, and there it is, December 2015. This time, I will be home for over 42 days – almost one and a half month. Assume that there are not many changes next year, my next holiday in Medan will be in December 2016 (and also definitely the last time I can afford such a superbly long break).

Every December I sojourn back home, I have to be very admittedly honest that I have this repetitive cycle of ‘culture shocks’. Old wisdom (I don’t know which grannies say that) explains that one’s personality totally changes after exploring a brand-new place, and adapting to these unexpected circumstances out there. Well, my life story ain’t that fascinating like what Frodo (and his friend I crushed my brain to remember the name, not Gollum) faced in The Lord of The Rings, but the reality is that this problem becomes apparent once I arrive in the city I have called it ‘home’ since 1995.

First thing first, there are all these dim-lighted streets over the city.

I have been to Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung, and Denpasar (it’s the capital of Bali), and I could tell you that the streets are so glitzy and brightly lit, especially if one lives in the capital. Medan, being Indonesia’s fourth largest city after the first three cities I described above, with population almost approaching 1% of Indonesia’s total (if you don’t know the answer: it’s one-quarter billion people), is still grappling with electrification. Blackouts are still regularly scheduled in some districts, and street light is mostly dim. That was the same thing I have observed, over and over, since the first time I revisited in 2013. If you take airport express right to the city center, which takes approximately 30-35 minutes, I bet you the first 25-30 minutes you will see almost nothing (as though one were traveling inside a black hole). There are wooden houses and huts beside railway tracks, but there’s no electricity. Even when one sees light (and it’s approaching city center), it’s still very dim, unless one is only a few hundred meters away from the train station. Anyway, I took the airport express back in 2014, and it was really convenient, all the while worth an almost 8 US$-equivalent single-journey ticket.

Another unique thing, meanwhile, is the fact that the airport is completed first before the connecting highways are constructed. As I reached Medan only by last Sunday, there has been substantial progress with the highway construction. Still, going out of the airport area, one can imagine massive traffic jam, and further out, dim street lighting again. Your cars are even brighter than traffic lights, I bet.

Closer into the city center, there are signs of ‘repair projects’. Indeed, all the way back to my childhood, these ‘repair projects’ have always been existent, while at the same time the road quality, I assume, seems worsening. Everywhere we go, there are all these cute little ponds scattered across the streets – years-old potholes that are yet to be fixed. Why the heck don’t these projects manage to fix these little ponds? Because these projects are mostly random patchwork, and some people have rumors that these year-end projects are simply to use up the remaining annual budgets already provided to the city government. Just cover the holes with cement and some sand, and you get the impression that these roads are smooth. The analogy would be you put a very thick makeup to cover your pimples.

We have not only little ponds, but also eternal pipe-implanting projects. A lot of people have experienced this: for some periods of time, drainage in front of houses will be scraped, leaving piles of sand, mud, and other ‘stuff’ scattered across those streets. The problem with these projects, however, is nobody has a goddamn idea when they are going to be accomplished. Sometimes pipes sit idle on street corners, waiting for someone to implant them underground. Wait, you have to consider these piles as well! When raining season comes, and nobody comes to fix them, these piles will flow across the rainwater, causing flood, diminishing the quality of existing roads and streets, and voila!, there emerge all these cute little ponds. The only exception is that you don’t see waddling ducks (though some people plant rice paddies as acts of protest).

See, even I already sound like a ranting First World traveler? Apologies for stereotyping.

Some things are changing, too, especially in the circumstances surrounding my home. One example is mushrooming number of tower cranes. Apartments and shopping malls are being built on my hometown like a boom; in my vicinity alone, I count at least 10 tower cranes (simply because I live in the city center). I haven’t conducted any mini-research, but all I only hope is that the increase in use of tower cranes does not correspond with the parallel increase in the number of potholes or number of four-wheeled vehicles hit by motorcycles, which oftentimes becomes a classic taboo.

Hmm, guess like the only thing is changing is that there are more tower cranes? Probably so. I haven’t been back in my hometown for almost a year, so it’s inevitable I lost count with most things happening not only in Medan, but also in Indonesia. See: in 2013 I still ‘cared’ a lot about news from this country, by 2014 I still did so, but by 2015 my attention has been significantly diminishing. You get this feeling when you talk the same thing to your friends or other acquaintances, over and over. Corruption, crime, pollution (and then this haze that awards Indonesia as the world’s third largest carbon dioxide emitter), infrastructure problems, illicit drug trade, etc. I feel like a 50-year-old heavy-smoking guy whenever I talk about it (and I used to talk about it), so I simply suppress my interest in discussing these matters.

That’s where I switch to gossiping. Regardless of its fact that it is a major sin in virtually any religion (I’m not sure with Spaghetti Monster), gossiping with old friends you haven’t met for more than 2.5 years is a ‘blessing’ for me. Some have gone on to study in top-notch universities in Singapore, Australia, US or those in Jakarta and Bandung, while the rest stay faithful to the same hometown. Mindsets may have changed, but our gossiping habit puts them aside. Some friends’ friends have switched either boyfriends or girlfriends, while one has gotten married (and she’s just 20, for the sake of mom’s spaghetti!). And, well, some have also become mothers (same age), one of whom got MBA (married-by-accident), a code-word for one doing premarital sex. I won’t touch in details about it.

Still, the gap in mindsets by itself can explain that prevailing counter culture-shock.

“People’s mindset here is so simple: you finish high school by age 18, go to a local college for 3-4 years, and after graduation, either your parents give you some money to set up a business or you work for a few years, then you get married, buy a house, have some kids, and get them to the school you were in before. Your life is so stable, but at the same time it’s flat.” That’s what my parents say. Indeed, that is precisely because of what they (and most of my close friends’ parents) had experienced in this life cycle.

“That’s why, after consulting in a local temple, your ultimate fate is to go outside to succeed.”

Hmm, this begins to sound like an adventure movie plot again (apologies for stereotyping), but indeed, what my mom and dad said were really accurate. Go outside, explore the whole world, and return home as an entirely different person. Physically, I’m still short, a bit bellied-up (though I already do some workout), but in regard to my mindset, it’s been completely dissimilar. My Indonesian accent has changed a lot (becoming almost Jakarta-like), and it sounds awkward when I converse to some people here in Bahasa. My mindset differs a lot from my own parents, and to be honest, it’s quite a process to bridge our differences. Still, as uneasy as it is, Medan remains my own hometown. 18 years living here before I embarked on university education, my identity as someone from this place remains irreplaceable. It’s just that the ways of thinking have shifted. My worldview expanded from what was only my hometown, into the whole world. Befriending people from different parts of the world has debunked some prevailing prejudices in my mindset.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if I become a tourist in my own hometown. Well, my holiday becomes more enjoyable at least (with spicy food accompanying my meals almost everyday).

The work-life balance concept, revisited

overwork

I can describe a friend of mine, Becky, as a very astute, and emotionally deliberate, observer. Taking a picture inside Central MTR station, precisely during the typical daily rush-hour evening, she put out the words ‘all the people on this planet working nine-to-five (six here) to stay alive‘. The station, as crowded as ever, is filled overwhelmingly with employees rushing in and out of the station, and the escalators are almost completely full. In all directions to the station’s exits, the loop plays over and over again.

And a few days before, as though being in an existentialist mode, she blogged about this:

 

How did we evolve from living our lives to working to live?

How did we invent the notion that working is so unpleasant that we have to balance it out with life? Most jobs require 9-to-5 working hours, and multiplying those hours by five days a week. These working hours exclude commuting and overtime, which implies that we spend more time working as opposed to ‘living’.

And if the majority of the world works 9-to-5 to stay alive…

How did we stop living?

 

She comes in to this topic with an emotional thought, and I am here to complement it with some facts.

The ‘9-to-5’ working concept, in this regard, is an ideal American business tradition. While this working standard has been internationalized to a majority of countries across the world, there remain disparities between countries in regard to average annual working time per capita. Statistics from OECD (and for OECD countries alone) account for a huge deviation. Mexicans, on average, work over 2,200 hours per year. On the other extreme, Germans work ‘only’ slightly less than 1,400 hours. Greeks, among the world’s most indebted nations, work over 2,000 hours a year. Does working more indicate higher incomes or higher productivity? Research doesn’t find any correlation. Mexico’s GDP per capita stands at slightly lower than 12,000 US$, while Germany’s is approaching 45,000 US$. This excludes numerous other variables that can further disrupt this pattern, such as inequality, extent of human capital investment, rate of education attainment, hourly wage level, etc.

In reality, the truth is more complicating. Can we replicate 9-to-5 model to the rest of the world? To some extent, it’s possible, only if there are sufficient guarantees from the workplace to limit working hours. That’s why it’s lucky to be a government employee; your working time starts at 9 am, and it ends at 5 pm. But what about factory workers? What about street food sellers? What about contract workers? And what about people in poor countries, who, oftentimes, have to work more than 100 hours a week in 2-3 different occupations not only to stay alive, but also to survive? Given that most of the world is located in the developing world (every 6 out of 7 persons in this planet lives in this area), this model may not be completely universal.

Even being in a working environment does not necessarily mean one will be on a fully-working mode. A government employee may still be inside an office reading newspaper, while the clock shows 11 am. A company employee may just sit in front of a computer playing games, if there are no promising projects around. A restaurant owner may sit for two continuous hours, and there are still no customers. A street seller circles round a city or a small town, and may not find any buyers after an hour or two. Are they employed? Yes, they definitely are. But does it mean they are working? Not necessarily. This possibly can explain why ‘longer working hours’ do not bear correlation with increase in income or productivity level.

From another perspective, there are people who are so embedded, or simply conditioned (trust me, most of them won’t like it), in their working activities that they equate them as their own ‘lives’. Mostly, this is not because this is the job they want to do; a bigger, sometimes more meaningful, cause underlies their motivation to do it. Millions of migrant workers across the world are a typical illustration; leaving their families and their beloved ones behind, they work overseas, oftentimes in almost slave-like conditions, in order to earn hard-gained incomes to be remitted back to their families. We have seen a lot of examples in Hong Kong. Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers, once in their weekends, will gather with their fellow friends, sitting in any public squares, and sharing stories about their families, newborn babies, and exchange jokes or sarcasms about their employers. High-income employees, such as investment bankers, traders, and other professionals, sometimes are also faced with such conditioning, but with greater distress, work pressure, and more competition. My cousin, as an example, has been working in most Big Four accounting giants in Hong Kong for over 5 years, and she oftentimes still works until beyond 2 am in the morning, or continues analyzing reports in her house during weekends (blame the absence of working-hour laws in this city).

The question now is: does working 9-to-5, or working up to 100 hours a week, make people lose the notion of ‘living our lives’? Again, it’s a matter of perspectives. Some people enjoy competition and have unending ambition, and thus 9-to-5 schedule may not be sufficient. On the other hand, we see versatile people who can do a lot of different tasks in less than 7 or 8 hours a day. Then, there are also individuals who don’t find excitement working in cubicles, but rather outdoors. Unfortunately, for the rest, financial and economic pressures often force people to work overtime. Ironically, to some degree, it is from such condition that they discover ‘life’. Thus, there is never a single, coherently universal answer to that question.

Another more complicating reality here is the growth in inequality. As long as it is controlled, inequality is actually a healthy indicator of economic competition. What is happening right now (and if one reads Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century) is that capital income is growing faster than labor income. Despite the tremendous growth of a global middle class, it also raises the discrepancies between the haves and have-nots. Wealth stock, globally, is increasing rapidly, but it also takes place in proportion to the increasing concentration of capital ownership among only those in better-positioned socioeconomic levels. As both world population and economy growth are slowing down, there is less focus on investment, but rather on either increasing savings rate or consumption. And then there are all these disruptive technologies, such as AI, robotics, automation, Internet-of-Things, machine learning, etc. While people are engaged in more job competition than ever, these technologies can disrupt labor market in the not too distant future (most likely in the next 20-30 years). Just imagine that you don’t need to have your documents bureaucratized through these government employees, or that drones can deliver vegetables and other dishes without any deliverymen, or that ‘smart’ cleaners can do housecleaning more efficiently than using real housemaids. One may ask: what are these people going to do without those occupations? Explaining the entire question itself will require me to write another post (which I may not do so in the near future). In a current mindset, nonetheless, we can assume that a person will either struggle to find a job or be willing to work really long hours to ‘survive’, unless there is a wholly brand-new modeling that can be adapted to future situations and offset some disadvantages that people are currently facing.

To sum up, there are both negative and positive implications with these shifting trends. For most of the world (and indeed most of the developing world), people are still very likely to continue working with the current patterns. From the negative aspect, disruptive technologies can cause job losses (to which extent they are lost remains largely a question), and exacerbating inequality may force people, not adapted to this shifting pattern, to take up even more jobs – no matter how temporary or time-consuming – in order to survive, thus disrupting the work-life balance. From the positive aspect, nevertheless, the same technologies can alter our work-life balance by reducing our working time, all the while maximizing our productivity levels and outputs.

Certainly, I can’t say my postulation will be totally correct. I would rather be cautiously optimistic.