Friday, August 29, 2014

Learning how to learn.

I enrolled into the course Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects by Dr. Terrence Sejnowski and Dr. Barbara Oakley as part of my personal preparation to go back to law school. If you are an adult learner, I strongly recommend that you signed up for the course because there has been many new developments in field of adult learning since the last time I was at school.

This blog post is part of the project submission of this online course.

As part of the course requirement, I will talk about three major things I picked up from this course and how I am in the process of trying to apply myself in law school.

a) Focused and Diffused modes of learning.

The first key learning of learning that there are two modes of learning. When you are aggressively studying, like in my case, when I am trying to read a legal case or a text-book, what I am doing is focused learning. This is the hardest part about law school. Particularly alien to most engineers are Latin terms like Ejusdem Generis, Stare Decisis and Oribter Dictum. I would even go further to say that event he English terms are alien to most readers. What does it mean when something was based on a demurrer ? What happens during a promulgation ?

Prior to this online course, I was very old school when it comes to learning. Learning is rigorously attacking problems and solving sample test questions.

Fortunately for us, there is an alternative form of learning: Diffused learning is allowing your mind to rest. It occurs when you are taking a stroll and having a walk. This allows all the work that I've done during focused learning to settle down in my brain. With diffused learning, my mind is relaxed and allows me to form Eureka moments to link ideas together holistically.

My primary form of diffused learning is to play Dungeons & Dragons with my friends. In a tabletop RPG game, I play the role of a Dungeon Master (DM) , someone who referees a game and ensures that it runs smoothly. A role of Dungeon Master is very similar to that of a judge, except a whole lot more fun. Players will make up all sorts of rulings where an ambiguity takes places, it is up to the DM to arbitrate disputes.

One example in my game are the rules of a spell ( In D&D 1st Edition ) called Firetrap.

The rules state that:

You can cast a Firetrap at at any closeable item. Eg. A chest, a cover or a lid.

A mischievous player, reasoning that his mouth is closeable,  wanted to cast Firetrap spell on his mouth and bite a fellow player character.

In ordinary cases, most DMs would not have a sufficient to cover strange rule anachronisms in the game, unless this DM is also legally trained.

To resolve the issue, I was able to determine that a purposive interpretation of the rules mean that the spell was meant to be cast on inanimate objects. Using the concept of Ejusdem Generis, a reasonable ruling would be that a mouth is a living organ and is not the same category as a chest, cover or lid.

This is classic diffused thinking at work. I get to play part of a judge in a stress-free situation and my players constantly come up with crazy game rulings to test my powers of adjudication which reinforces my understanding of legal theory.

b) Metaphor, Visualization and Storytelling

The other concept I learnt in this class is the power of metaphor, visualization and storytelling. I have employed this concept to assist me in memorizing legal cases.

I noticed that a few classmates actually used Mind Maps to reinforce their recall of materials. I thought, how could I take this step further and turn the crunching of legal cases into a game. At the same time, I was playing with my daughter and noticed that my wife was having a hard time trying to get her to draw anything on a piece of paper.

Then I had an eureka moment - What if I could play Pictionary with legal professionals ?

I would draw a graphical depiction of the cases and get lawyers to guess what they are. The above diagram shows the various pre-Donoghue cases which leads to formation of the Law of Torts. From top to bottom they are as follows :  Winterbottom v Wright, Heaven v Pender, George v Skivington and the famous case of Donoghue v Stevenson.

As I move towards exam preparation, I will of course create mindmaps but I will also use pictionary to test my understanding of cases.

c) Life-long learning and broadening of one's passions.

The final point I would like to make is that is that the journey of learning never stops. Having done engineering and finance, many people would think that this is enough for a more than a lifetime.

I choose not to think that I have invested my time in three disparate fields but instead see my legal training as extensions to what I have learnt in engineering and finance school.

Ultimately, this can lead to interesting questions and developing new capabilities :

a) Can a random forest algorithm operate on a data-frame of key legal terms used by a prosecutor to predict the chances of a favorable verdict ?
b) How would a verdict of negligence affect the next dividend cash flow for a business trust ?
c) If you wish to draft a regulation to prevent the use of machine learning in a financial market, how would you word the regulation ?

Knowledge comes before Wealth.
Wealth comes before Power.
With power, you can have all the toys and fun you aspire to in your life.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

What does ASPIRE, plunging legal starting salaries and the ACS-LTA fracas have in common ?

As it turns out three recent events have something in common.

ASPIRE is government's much welcomed attempt to officially acknowledge the importance of Polytechnic and ITE graduates in our economy. I think investors will be very happy with this development because if executed correctly, Singapore will have a prosperous and vibrant middle-class and they won't feel very strongly about delaying their entrance into the working world just to get a piece of paper. My only caution is that for this to work, the foreign labor participation must be curbed. No sane employer will take on our Poly and ITE grads if Masters degree graduate from other parts of the world will cost half the price.

The second issue is that now we law students have been asked to keep our expectations low as the supply of incoming law graduates outstrip demand. Contrary to what you might think, I actually welcome this development. The over-supply is not due to foreigners but locals with overseas law degrees and we should not begrudge our fellow citizens. Singaporeans deserve a fair fight for a training contract. Imagine the kind of competition we engineers were made to face for the past 15 years : Foreign competition has been so relentless, engineering salaries have made technology one of the worse sectors to get into in this country.Compared to what engineers faced, what's happening to lawyers is nothing.

The third event is very interesting.

ACS gets their first Wee Shu Min incident !

There is a lot of public anger over ACS's booking of six MRT trains to get to a stadium. To ACS' credit, the transport was well thought-out and public inconvenience was minimized. But I doubt this issue is about public inconvenience. As my lecturer would have said, " How dare you ! " The public's concern is whether can a group perceived to be well-to-do, marshal state resources for their benefit simply because they can and have the funds to do so. I predict a very public rebuke directed at MRT to appease the masses, but I also expect private censure to be very minimal. LTA needs to play their cards well to handle this incident: The optimal move is public censure and private indifference.

To help you think about this issue further, let me ask you this :

a) If RI or HCI books the trains, how would react to this incident ?
b) If ITE booked the trains, how would you react differently ?
c) What if lawyers or the Adminsitrative Service booked an MRT train to attend a dinner and dance ?

I believe the reactions would all be very different.

There is a central thread in what policy makers are trying to do - That central thread in all these events is Game Balance.

Imagine Singapore as a Diablo III game, would it make sense to design a country like this :

a) If you are ACS, RI, doctor or a lawyer, you play the game at Easy Mode.
b) Other graduates play the game at Normal Mode.
c) If you are Poly, you play the game at Hard mode.
d) If you are ITE, you play at Torment 6.
e) If your are a scholar, you play at God mode.

It won't make sense to do this to people. You can only push us this far.

Good games require great game balance. That's why Diablo III repeatedly patches itself.

After 2011, to reduce social and economic inequality, the government has to do two things:

The first is to generate a better career path for ITE and Poly graduates with a better quality of life. I urge the investor community to welcome this change because our economy can benefit from a vibrant middle class. More money for middle class, more revenue, and for me, higher rents to collect. Support this out of self-interest.

The second and harder consequence to bear is that the strong will be nerfed or brought down. As the inequalities need to be addressed before the next elections, some people need to be brought to the average watermark.

It begins with lawyers, but it won't end there.

I predict the following :

a) Doctors will increasingly face foreign competition if only to keep medical costs down.
b) Regulation will make banking sector less attractive then the high tech sector.
c) Investors will face higher interest rates and lower tax breaks, but Singapore will only levy capital gains and dividend taxes as a last resort.
d) There is one Phd driving a cab. We have yet to see a lawyer or doctor do this.

In 2011, Singaporeans have started becoming very vocal against social inequality. In fact, I would want to believe that once we resolve our transport woes, that is the only thing Singaporeans have to gripe about.

What we are seeing is the beginnings of a resolution of this unhappiness.

This is only the tip of the ice-berg.

I leave you to decide if the second consequence is something that is fair to some Singaporeans. I am undecided for now.

[ A friend informed me that my article is very similar to this one :

But hey, let's not go there. In the Singaporean context it can be seditious.]

Monday, August 25, 2014

Beyond second skilling...

Thought I should share with everyone my view on NTUC PME's drive to promote second skilling amongst PMEs in Singapore.

Second-skilling is a straight forward concept. It encourages Singaporeans to develop hobbies which can be monetized. A manager in manufacturing plant can develop a hobby in photography and eventually gains a degree of protection against job loss when he starts taking professional photographs.

In the absence of actual data of folks monetizing their interests, I would like to share my personal experience.

My biggest success with second-skilling came with teaching myself how to invest. Investing is a great secondary skill to develop although the results can vary. What I felt worked for me was that I was willing to go all the way to become a competent investor. I was eager and happy to study all the qualifications out there using my leisure time because I wanted to become my own private banker and financial advisor. Of course, this success was also fueled by my willingness to pump capital into my portfolio.

However, not all of my hobbies end up earning a profit, I would consider my foray into writing a lukewarm success, or even a financial failure. Out of the three physical books I published, only one broke even. My e-book sales are very minimal, earning about $1.50 on a good month from Amazon. When I started writing,  I was mainly trying to crystallize my thoughts and investment ideas with the secondary objective of building up my personal brand, but my investment of time and money was small - only about $15,000 for all three books.

The jury is out on whether my third-skilling attempt of getting into Law School would pay-off over the long term. There are a lot of concerns on where the legal industry is heading over the next 10 years. But for reasons I will share later, I'm still optimistic that I can find a humble role in spite of the oversupply of lawyers in Singapore.

Ok, now the really theoretical part of this discussion.

I believe that a model on second skilling can be derived from Solow's Growth Model in economics.

Without getting into the gory details, imagine growth to be a function of three inputs Capital, Labor and Innovation.

In Solow's Growth model, under early phases of growth, you can keep injecting capital and labor into the effort and an economy will grow fairly quickly for a decade or so,  after which it will plateau unless you find ways to innovate and differentiate the economy from its peers.

If we apply this model to second skilling, here are some useful insights.

For second skilling to work, you need to put in time and money to get to this point when people will pay you to indulge in your hobby. If you are a photographer, you may need to practice your skills in shooting and composition. You may also need to constantly upgrade your gear and it can cost you loads of money. This  explains why some of my efforts bear fruit while other attempts fail. This also provides me with some optimistic feelings due to my substantial time and money commitments to crack legal cases in SMU.

The next insight is that hobbies are fun and a lot of people would drop their current day jobs if they can make money from what they perceive as fun : this limits how far you can go with your hobby. Monetizing a hobby can be Red Ocean territory.

The remedy for reaching a plateau to how much you can extract from your hobby is innovation. You need to apply your hobby in a novel or niche way. Example, folks who love painting Warhammer miniatures can differentiate from other by winning the Golden Daemon Award and even get into giving painting classes to secondary school kids. You can create a new product or seminar from your love of miniatures painting.

I'm not spared from the innovation requirement. Before I graduate, I will need to find a niche within the legal industry which would have to combine my technical skills, investment know-how and new found legal analysis skills to convince someone to take me in.

So in summary, do proceed to monetize your hobbies as recommended by NTUC, a secondary source of income is always a good thing :

a) You need to pour in money and time for your hobby to bear fruit, but there are physical limits to how far you can go with this. eg. Once you get the top of the line camera, paid for the Photoshop license, everything else is based on your skill.
b) If the hobby is especially common, you need to make your attempts unique and distinguish your product offering to the market.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Pushing the Delay of Gratification to its logical extreme.

I'll start with a personal update.

I'm almost with my first week of school in SMU's Doctor of Jurisprudence or JD program.

This is, by far, the hardest course I've ever taken in my life considering that I have done NUS engineering school, NUS's Masters in Applied Finance and passed all three CFA exams.

Prior to the start of the semester, we would have already completed reading about 30 cases, done two online quizzes, and even attempted to tackle a few problems. SMU places a large emphasis on classroom participation, this means that going to a seminar with a vague understanding is not enough - I have to ensure that I make at least one intelligent ( high quality/ mind-blowing ) contribution every seminar or it will affect my grades. Every seminar is a mini-exam.

The differences in the way Universities conduct lessons has caused me and my friends to come up with this joke...

NUS students can think.
NTU students can do.
SMU students can... talk.

( For political correctness sake, I can't complete this joke. A philosopher friend added a fourth line which made the joke highly elitist.  )

In my past life as an Engineering undergrad, the joke was as follow:

Electrical engineers design the circuits.
Mechanical engineers design the casing.
Civil engineers carry it to the site.

Anyway I digress, I was so caught up, I could'nt blog for a while.

Ok, onto my main topic.

There exist a problem with the delay of gratification.

I call this the "What if you die?" problem.

I started re-examining the problem after a gruesome week in Law School. My life schedule is like clockwork, I wake up at 7am, crunched cases and read textbooks for the upcoming week, then attend school. After that, I spend about 2 hours with my daughter, swim and then I go home to do even more mugging.

This is also an issue faced by many investors. If all you do is keep saving, when would you actually enjoy the fruits of your labor? If you are dividends investor, the answer is obvious - you enjoy spending your dividend income so you are not completely delaying gratification if you buy stuff or travel with dividend income.

But that's not really a comfortable answer for me because I reinvest all excess dividends and spend only what is necessary to upkeep my family and living expenses. Spending my savings is my wife and daughter's problem long after I am gone.

Yes, I do get a kick when I get to study cases involving some of my investments or current affairs. My motivation is knowledge beyond what other engineer-investors have. Nothing feels better than when I read about a landlord who takes his tenant to court. These are issues which can potentially affect me. At least now I know how the local courts view such cases.

So why does a financially independent guy subject himself to an almost 15 hour-day just for the sake of knowledge and another roll of a die to have significant career ?

Now I have a possible answer.

When an investor farms his assets into a dividend yielding portfolio, he might not feel that cashing out to buy something is the reward. The reward is the security and confidence of having an asset which generates income for you.

A start-up founder enjoys building his company beyond the need for a secure income. If he cashes out, he will continue to support or build more companies. This is not delay of gratification. This is gratification.

The only way to delay gratification indefinitely is to enjoy it and view the act itself as an act of gratification.

There are interesting applications of this insight.

When you do something something unexpectedly heroic, like plunge into a risky business venture or engage in a new relationship or take on a new direction in your career, you will inevitably experience some pain. What if there is a way to reframe this as a pleasurable thing?

Anyway, that's all I have for the reader today.

Hope that I can do an update again over the weekend.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Is there a marriage strike going on right now ?

As I'm swamped with legal cases to process, I can't really do an in-depth analysis of this question. What we do know is that marriage rates have gone down quite drastically this year so it's time to ask ourselves this question :

Is there a marriage strike going on right now ?

Based on my cursory knowledge, I don't think women are responsible for this sudden dip. Marriages in Singapore are largely stable and with domestic help, Singapore is one of the best places in the world to raise kids. Could it be because women are performing better at work and have more financial autonomy ? I think not likely, as even if local men do not meet the expectations of women, foreign men do.

I am inclined to think that the problem lies with us men. More and more Singaporean men are not meeting women's expectations in pay and educational standards but suppose we take that out of the equation, I think we're entering this golden age where we guys can replicate an aspect of a good marriage without actually getting into ROM. Sex with prostitutes is legal here, and entertainment is one Steam download away from being fulfilled. The government has now given up and allows singles to obtain a BTO flat.

Effectively, we need to look at the problem of marriage rates differently from the past. In the past men and women want to get married, that was the only way to get sex and entertainment beyond TV. These days, singles are essentially married to themselves. Policy needs to give them reasons to divorce themselves and marry someone nice who comes by.

Singles give up autonomy when they go into ROM.

Sadly, I don't have a policy solution to the problem of marriage rates. Married couples have enough benefits from the tax-payer, it's the singles who have plenty of entertainment and no longer need marriage in their lives. One drastic possibility would be to reduce the work-week so that singles may get bored and marry out of boredom. ( Hypothetical, because the dudes can just play more computer games and spend more time at Geylang )

So thinking about this issue has largely been unproductive without a major breakthrough.

But I did achieve one single insight.

We married folks have a very irritating tendency to work this way : When we see two people who might have  similar flaws, we automatically think that potentially they might be soul-mates and so we try to introduce them to each other. The logic is that the pairing of the lowest denominator will take place once all options have been exhausted.

This almost never works.

Consider the decision tree from party A's perspective. Even though I have flaw, I am essentially giving up this fantastic relationship I have with myself to hook up with this other flawed individual.

In conclusion, A will stick with himself or herself, thank you.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Problem of Envy.

A key concept which I should have explored more in my books is the Problem of Envy.

A friend recently shared a personal problem with me. He has a very successful ex-classmate who works in Oil & Gas who enjoys rubbing his success in my friend's face. I think this is a common problem in Singapore: It is not our absolute wealth that determines our life satisfaction, but our wealth relative to the folks around us.

As our education system does not really teach us Philosophy, we fall prey to the notion that being Singaporean is, in essence, waging a psychic war against each other by displaying our ownership of increasingly expensive material goods. I bet the Oil & Gas dude loves to show off his large car, branded watches and mistresses to my poor engineer friend.

Before I come out with a solution, I want to avoid talking about two common answers which most readers can come up with :

a) Get yourself new friends who are not assholes.

Easy solution, right ? Just drop the jerk and asshole from your life ! I think that's not a great solution because we will always need to deal with folks richer and more successful than we do. The other reason is that some jerks and asshole may be useful as we keep them pidgeon-holed in our weak network links. Sometimes, listening to him brag for an hour and you might come ahead with a better job offer.

b) Change your mindset about envy.

Another bad answer. Mindset change is actually really hard if you do not really have the means to think about your personal identity and how it fits into your actual behavior. This may even require years of therapy. Asking for a mindset change is also not too different from being an expert who is abdicating control over the situation.

Instead I will present the two following solutions:

a) Diversify your achievements

The first possible defense is diversify your achievements. Benefits of this approach is two-fold.

This comes from the notion that brain is a machine which secretes dopamine which is some kind of reward when you achieve something which is personally meaningful to you. By taking on more hobbies and making progress with them, your brain fires off dopamine more frequently and give you more personal happiness.

Furthermore, as you have developed more varied interests and hobbies, you never have to kowtow to your more successful friend because he will never be able to do well in all the things which you have focused on.

My friend was an editor in Chinese magazine during his University days. He can read books on Chinese poetry. Perhaps he can spend more time to read up on Chinese culture and make himself an expert in it and occasionally write letters to the Chinese press. An expert in Chinese poems is infinitely more fun than an Oil and Gas executive who fucks PRCs in Geylang.

I doubt the asshole is going to challenge his authority on that.

b) Focus on experiential goods instead of material ones.

The second solution follows the psychology discovery that experiential goods are better than material goods, but it has a subtle element which can be used as a countermeasure against the Great War of Envy.

Yes, experiential goods provide memories which can be summoned to make you feel good. But the secret power of experiential goods is that they take time. You can build a portfolio of experiences which can be hard to replicate. Eg. Not everyone can see the Aurora Borealis in Finland, I know friends who failed to do that although failing is itself a cool experience in my book. My law school is a 3 year experiential good which i bet Mr. Oil and Gas would not want to pay the opportunity cost to attend.

My second advice is that my friend needs to catalog a set of interesting experiences to shift topic whenever Mr. Oil and Gas shows off his latest Rolex Watch, share some of his personal experience which are UNIQUE to himself. Some experiences like coaching his kid to win Weiqi class may be a unique experience that only a successful dad can have.

c) Focus on ideas instead of things.

 My final advice is much harder to follow and may even require a mindset change.

I think that the folks who focus on branded good consumption are, in general terms, academically and intellectually the bottom feeders in the food chain. It takes a special idiot to have a hang-up on the brand of his wallet when it's actually the contents of the wallet which counts.

I normally when people talk about stuff. I tune in only when people talk about ideas.

People who focus on ideas, generally speaking, have less time to compare against each other. Ideas cannot be measured ( Unless you IPO ). Their merits have to be assessed by critical thought. Rich people don't have a monopoly on great ideas.

My third advice is to, of course, to read voraciously. But some amount of verbal aikido can be employed when engaging Mr. Oil and Gas. My friend needs to keep changing the battlefield from a pissing contest to a war of ideas. I would pretend to flatter his his friend and then ask him what is his definition of success and then slowly deconstruct his definition to see if he is truly successful by his own definition.

This is something Socrates would agree on.

I think the Problem of Envy is not likely to get any better in Singapore. We have more millionaires minted here but people don't really make an effort to think critically about living in this society.

Hope that this will be useful the next time you meet your more wealthy Nemesis for a pissing competition.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Decision making in postgraduate education.

Unlike the past, when a degree is required to get ahead, a lot of professionals are faced with the question on what kind of post-graduate qualifications to obtain.

As I've gone through this process twice, here's my two cents worth based on what I've gone through :

i)  CFA or MBA ?

An MBA is especially attractive if you have only 2 years of experience in the working world. For technical professionals, am MBA gives you the chance to make another attempt at a fresh career as a management associate if you dislike engineering or do not see yourself doing technical work.

When I was faced with a choice of CFA or MBA, it was not such a straightforward choice for me. I don't have a problem being technical for a the rest of my life - there was too little coding in my life and I wouldn't mind doing more R&D ! In fact,  I hated politics, bureaucracy and processes. My real problem was that I don't really understand how money works which can be lethal because I don't see a lot of 40-something IT professionals in my workplace in those days.

The CFA program gave me a chance to really study exclusively about how capital is accumulatated. I really don't have to waste any time on marketing, organizational behaviour or operations management. All I studied was accounting, economics, statistics and various asset classes. The Masters of Applied Finance I applied for was also cheap at about $11,000 in 2001. The CFA exams were just examination fees, like all the MCSE, CGEIT and PMP exams I took.

What eventually broke the tie and made me decide on investments was the simple notion that the CFA program is hard. It had a ridiculously low pass rate and the program did not hesitate to maintain high standards when the test takers from China and India started figuring that this may change their life. I saw the rigorous standards as some sort of a moat. The fact that I passed will stand out even if I never obtained the charter.

Was it a good decision on hindsight ? You be the judge.

I never jumped to banking and finance. My salary stagnated the longer I stayed in IT outsourcing but I just kept getting less sleep everyday.  I just did more and more IT work as an operations manager, compliance, audit and finally as a project manager in the government which make me swear off IT for good.

The knowledge, however, came in useful in a time when there isn't any books on investing in local stocks. My income flow from my investments eventually exceeded my earned income which bought me enough time for a more drastic career re-roll.

ii) EMBA or JD ?

The second time round things were a lot easier. if I were to take the EMBA, half of my fees would have been wasted as I would have already done most of  the quantitative modules. The only thing I liked about MBA programs like the one at Harvard's is their case approach which was basically real-world problem solving. I used to devour books on the Case method as I loved the way MBAs dissect a very ephemeral problem and come out with a reasonable plan of action.

Eventually I chose the JD program because it was something which I was not naturally inclined to excel in. Every module was sufficiently alien to me that I would probably learn a great deal even if I were to scrape through every semester. The fact that it's possible to get more philosophical during class discussions was also something I look forward to when analyzing cases.

As for how good this gig will be for my career, only time will tell. There is a very strong and firm moat surrounding legal work in Singapore - this is a public knowledge. But I must be able to convince someone to offer a training contract to a 42 year old.

The biggest opportunity cost is that I would not have been able to network had I signed up for an EMBA program, that might actually be more relevant and would build on my 14 years of experience in IT.

In summary, these are the criteria which I think would be relevant to anyone choosing a postgraduate qualification :

a) Program that you qualify for must be hard and as exclusive as possible. 

The program must exclude as many people as reasonably possible ( But still take you in ). The CFA excludes by having ridiculously low pass rate. The JD program admits only about 40 a year and sets you back $80k once you factor in the textbooks.

This goes back to the notion that we invest based on economic moats. A postgraduate qualification is an expensive investment.

b) Program must teach you something completely new.

You need to benefit from the program and not just develop incremental skills. If I  just want to pick up Python or Big Data , I have Coursera and Udacity to make it happen for me.

c) The Program must be useful and respected in society.

I chose Engineering over Science, Finance over Economics, Law over Humanities. Yeah, it's a pattern.

In a difference society, I may choose otherwise We still live in paper and money conscious Singapore. Education in local institutions is expensive, if you want to part with some dough, you need to convince yourself that this is going to give you new skills and capabilities that companies will want to pay for.

c) The Program must change you in a fundamental way.

This is perhaps the most important. Take away all the skills and knowledge, each discipline confers a certain attitude which should change you for the better.

Engineering made me very comfortable with numbers and grounded me as a concrete thinker. When I am on the job, I try to cut through the bullshit and figure out what needs to be done to get things to work.

Finance gave me the tools to appraise the value in all things. When folks with me dubious numbers, I know the fundamental limits of all asset classes. I know that no one will provide you a free lunch and there's something in it for everyone. There's a little game theory in that.

I have yet to figure how Law will change me, I suspect that I will learn to respect the context a lot more after my course and there are no straightforward answers to issues concerning fellow human beings. I hope to become a lot more strategic and big picture in all my dealings. Hopefully, getting into an argument with me will be a lot nastier ( Oh yes, I will ensure that with my choice of CCA ! ).

At the end of the day, Financial Independence should be meaningful.

If my passive income does not allow me to make a couple of bad, foolish or sub-optimal moves just for the heck of it, then it would not be worthwhile. Crazier folks have quit the workforce on a portfolio of a smaller size.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Calm before the Storm - Countdown to formal classes.

Ok, just because I stop updating my retirement does not mean that this blog is dead. I will keep posting but my new academic life will undeniably affect this blog.

Here is what's going on in my life :

Yesterday I got my matriculation card, this grants me full access to university facilities.

My first priorities are to ensure that my lifestyle can comfortably match an undergraduate in SMU. This means getting a really awesome transport concession at $85 and discounted Kopitiam card to pay for future meals as my number one priority. Subsequently, I will move my exercise routine to my university gym, hope the sight on uncle on a treadmill will not scare the undergrads away.

My friends and ex-colleagues also seem to think that I will live out my next three years as a frat-boy in campus. Some asked me whether I will participate in Orientation or live in a hostel so that I can make young girls do push-ups. I can definitely do that - in my dreams. I see myself as an old uncle who lives vicariously through the lives of my much younger and more handsome classmates. If I hear about an interesting sexcapade, I will be sure to share it in this blog.

More seriously, it's been many years since I studied for a formal degree, there's been a lot of progress in the field of exam performance.

I will commit to three things right now based on the latest scientific findings on academic performance:

a) I will study my materials consistently and study materials in 2-3 day intervals to maximize my recall. This means the ground work for studies begins 2 weeks before class begins. I will begin to start summarizing some key cases since we actually studied legal research as part of orientation. ( Only in SMU, orientation is examinable ! )

b) I will exercise and sleep well everyday. Gone are the days when i can afford to sacrifice my health for my studies - these days, folks my age can actually die before graduation. Kinda bummed out that two JC school-mates have already passed away. At this age, I no longer feel invincible. Exercising will sharpen my mind to take on my classmates.

c) I will introduce variation in my studies to make things interesting. This also means keeping my fiction reading and RPG gaming throughout my three years. This actual makes recall more effective.

So far, I really like  my classmates and instructors. Coming from two quantitative disciplines, it's great to have professors who speak clearly and with regal authority. My classmates are more similar to the Toastmasters pals I hung out with because I had difficulties making friends among the introverts in engineering school.

My insight so far is this - In engineering, students have to hit the books after the lectures because they have difficulties comprehending their lecturers. From what was explained to me, law students may experience the opposite - they need to hit the books before class, or be overwhelmed by the discussions which come later.

On the investment front, as the SMU Library is on renovation, I have yet to use their Bloomberg terminals. I will also be trying to join their Investment Club as soon as I can.

Can't wait to share the investment styles of undergrads in SMU on this blog.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Last Retirement Post !

It's been 7 months since I retired from active work.

This is my last update on my mini-retirement because it will be all over next Monday. Next week, I will be going over to SMU to get my matriculation card, and for the next three years I will be busy getting Law qualification.

Here is my update :

a) Financial Performance was relatively good.

Even if you account for the Argentinian default and 7th month, my portfolio did fairly ok, I paid off one semester of fees of $17k+ and the capital gains made up for it within the same month. I hope to be able to execute this a few more times until the end of the year, as my next payment will be due in December 2014.

One of my objectives is to scrimp and save enough for the next two years so as not to graduate poorer than I was before graduation, this will be a hard act to follow considering that I have to pay my mortgages, move into my new place, start paying off the utility bills, and still pony enough cash every month to pay my fees and still eat.

b) We are now officially a zero-earned-income family.

To top it all up, I guess I was having too much fun for the past six months - so my wife also joined me by quitting her job ! I could not give her more money but she figured that it's possible to keep expenses low and pick up some spare earnings helping my brother in law out.This is a pretty insane development, but I'm very curious to see how having a portfolio could take care of a family with members participating in the economy.

We've jointly decided not to apply for any welfare benefits which can help with my daughter's school fees. Other Singaporeans need it more than I do. Same principle why I did not apply for needs based scholarships in SMU. I will only stick to merit based scholarships.

I think at the rate we are going, we should be able to make it but I think I'll return to work and let my wife retire in my stead after graduation.

c) Coursera classes are complete.

As I will soon have real offline classes, I've ended all involvement with Coursera for now. It's been a pretty fantastic year, and Coursera has given me a chance to make my days meaningful and productive even without employment.

I clocked 8 out of 9 distinctions for the Data Science Specialization only to realize that my old team is now giving out money for Singaporeans who can complete it.
Completed all lectures for the Model Thinking course which I think is possible the best course available in the Coursera system. Too bad the course is still not open yet.

More interestingly is that I completed a class in British Common Law offered by University of London. This is very cool as I have completed all the quizzes which includes a round of case and statute interpretation. This gives me enough foundation to actually start mugging for my upcoming classes. The advantage this will give me is unknown but I will be reporting my results on this blog.

I've signed up for some courses on How to Study to complement my journey in SMU and will take on any introductory course to legal systems from around the world.

d) Exercise and health

I don't have good news on this front, I have increased the frequency of exercise but I am back sliding on my food intake. Seems that a non-carb diet is hard to sustain in Singapore. Fortunately, exercise has become less tiring and I have made it a point to integrate some gym time with my mugging time while in school.

e) Books I am reading

I've been reading my preparatory texts and must say that I'm getting used to hardcore study mode. The past few days have been productive, I learnt what a Humean Guillotine, Legal Positivism and Natural Law is. I've added words like "Promulgaton" into my sad engineer's vocabulary.

For leisure, I read geek classic The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. It's a story about a fat, Hispanic D&D player. I am in the middle of Michael Lewis' Flash Boys since I signed up for Kindle Unlimited.

It's probably not productive to stop reading after starting school, so I am likely to continue to read widely and that means the occasional fictional piece. Right now, I'm eagerly The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman.

So we've come to a close of my short "retirement", my next earned paycheck is going to be possibly 3 years away and I'm pretty excited about my next journey into SMU as a law student at a really ripe old age of 39.

Of course, I do have some anxieties about Law school, what if this turns out to be the stupidest move I've ever made - the fees may exhaust my finances and I may forced to eat into my capital during the next 3 years, something which I have not done since graduation from Engineering School in 1999. It's also a big unknown as to whether the law firms will give training contract for a 42 year old uncle in 2017. There is a possibility that I will end up project manager for service delivery manager for an IT firm after 3 years of law school - this will give me ample nightmares in the months to come.

But I think that's life. I can "declare victory" right now, live on my dividends and have spare cash to reinvest into my portfolio, but in truth, such a life can be boring. There are only this number of folks I can have kopi with day in and day out to get an intelligent conversation. if I choose this path,  in a few months, I will stop empathizing with working folks, I may start to belittle their problems at work and stop building up my technical and financial skills.

If it's anything the reader can learn from my short, failed "retirement",  it is this - As human beings, we need to constantly grow, our accomplishments are an important source of our happiness. Stop striving and it could mean an early death. A life of meaning is superior to a life of pleasure.

I achieved financial independence a little too early to ride into the sunset.

It's now time to press Ctrl-Alt-Delete and start all over again.

See u guys in SMU !

Cultural Inequality : The other problem in Singapore.

We are all obsessed with Income Inequality. Hardly a day goes by without some mention of the GINI index on the Internet.

But I think that technocracies engender a different kind of inequality.

Imagine a society where everyone aspires towards money-making professions. Most kids want to become doctors, lawyers, engineers or accountants. No one aspires to a profession in the Arts or Culture.

The concentration of smart students in Cultural or Aesthetic classes start to dwindle over the years as people start chasing the money.

The role of the promotion of Arts and Culture eventually becomes concentrated into the hand of the few remaining smart guys who chose a Cultural based profession or field of study.

I think we can employ some analogical reasoning to determine what happens when a 1% of the population control 30-40% of the production and dissemination of culture. We have hints from societies with too much wealth inequality.

It's not as easy to regulate billionaires. In the same way, NLB learned that pissing off a few writers and authors risk pissing off all authors who provide cultural assistance for their future projects. Even the Obama administration will eventually back down if they declare war big business and the rich.

If some cultural folks are good, they will become like Bill Gates. Bill Gates used his culture to fight hunger and poverty. A cultural capitalist can enlighten the masses with his products and cultural platform, promote more harmony and progress.

If some of these folks are evil, they will be just like Bernard Madoff. Cultural capital can label groups of people where none exist in the past, they can determine what's cool and what is not. If left unchecked, they can arbitrate your morals, bully you into submission, even control your thoughts because they understand teh power of words and media.

The solution to resolving the problem of cultural inequality can be derived from some solutions for wealth inequality.

Balanced education allows everyone to participate in a discussion without looking unsophisticated or stupid. Spread the cultural capital across larger sections of the population. Do not use the same old groups of people to promote your Arts and Culture, take risks with the younger and newer upstarts.

I also don't mean educating Singaporeans to take sides against each other in this stupid war.

Singaporeans need to know that it's dumb to import a Cultural War which comes primarily from Western countries. Ignoring the religious fundamentalist does not make you an immoral STD-laden hippie. Ignoring their Rainbow coalition does not make you a heartless bigot.

Taking a position for things to just stay the same and move on is not copping out.

Neutrality and apathy can be a valid position

Suppose you do not agree with me, I am fine with that.

At the end of the day, let's agree on this - Financial capital can potentially be a blunt instrument to bludgeon your adversaries, so can Cultural capital.

Singapore's emphasis on professional qualifications has concentrated Cultural capital in the hands of a few, some are social liberals, others are religious zealots. The price we pay is the deluge of propaganda that is bombarding your social media to take a side.