Friday, November 07, 2014

What can we learn from hipsters ?

The days get worse and worse for everyone in my class. We survived our double-whammy Friday where two papers become due within one day and I must say that my class-mates are really amazing with many not having any sleep at all over the past 24 hours.

I think the worse is over not just for my class but for the markets as well. This is the time to stock up on equities for the Capricorn effect of 2015 !

Today's article we explore the concept of hipsters. Why ? Because I can.

I can't find any hipsters in SMU.

SMU is a bunch of overly happy and enthusiastic undergraduates who have too much love for Abercrombie and Fitch.  I actually saw a dude wearing some sort of woollen vest. WTF ! Either he thinks he's studying in Harvard or is the air-con setting too low ?

Ok, I digress, now back to hipsters !

Ordinarily I always thought that hipsters would not exist in Singapore because Hipsters are an economic phenomenon. During the Great Recession, an entire generation of Americans's hopes and dreams were destroyed by the economic fallout. So bereft of jobs and a future, they turned to irony and developed a personal philosophy to cope with the mess they were in. They all developed a similar dress code involving handle-bar mustaches and listened to vinyl records. The funny result of this is why they all aspire to be non-conformists, they all ended up being indistinguishable from each other.

The situation in Singapore is interesting. We don't have a lot of hipsters but we have too many hipster cafes. It is said that every hipster cafe aims to be unique but most of their coffee beans come from the same two sources.  Hipster cafes are a different economic phenomenon,  Singaporeans who go to Melbourne to study often want to import their coffee culture back home. I leave it to the readers to think about what economic prospects these hipster cafe owners would have if they could not charge $7 for a cup of cafe latte ( which I only found out 3 weeks ago, is a flat white with foam ! ).

The idea of hipster was churning in my mind until I had the pleasure to read Peter Thiel's book From Zero to One.

Peter's writing is clear and concise. After all, he went into the start-up space to launch Pay Pal after being denied clerkship in the US Supreme Court.

His insight is special.

Why do hipsters become hipsters ?

Peter's hypothesis is that humanity is reaching stage where most of the simple problems have already been solved and only problems in the impossible domain remained. Humanity's biggest issue is that the hard problems, those which can be solved by one person with great effort, no longer exist.

Hipsters yearn for a simpler time because in those days, people felt that there was progress. This explains the obsession with fashion which throwback to the 60s and 70s and their obsession with vinyl records.

I can certainly imagine how a Hipster can look like in Singapore.

Hipsters are simply nostalgic people !

  • When someone misses the SBC days and talk about Channel 8 dramas like The Awakening, the person might be a Singapore Hipster.
  • Whoever listens to a Flock of Seagulls and The Pet Shop Boys are hipsters. 
  • Whoever plays games on 8-bit Nintendo emulators are also hipsters of sorts.

I like to see myself as an anti-hipster. I think that folks can find interesting and small problems if they know where to search for them.

Useful insights can no longer found within one domain. You will need to look at multiple domains to find problems that are solvable, which would give an individual a tremendous sense of satisfaction.

I will just share one example I did in one of my classes.

The problem was negotiation.

Two law students had to represent two sides in the negotiation table, there were two variables, price and quality. Most lawyers would approach this issue to pin down one agreed price at a particular quality, this can get really acrimonious and both sides would use the facts to bully or cajole the other party into a settlement. In some cases, the person with the loudest voice or prettiest face would have a huge edge in the negotiation exercise, it's just not practical in the real world once your business thinks that you screwed him over at the negotiating table.

I did not see the negotiation as a legal problem. To me it's an engineering problem. Both parties just needed to agree on how a graph would look like given the variables at each axis, each quality would result in a reasonable price.

The outcome is that I positioned the solution as a linear equation and all we needed to do was to agree on slope and intercept of the graph. The final outcome, no party won, both sides felt that they got a damn good deal. I bet this is probably a rare moment in the history of common law because it was so adversarial, its hard for both sides to emerge the winner.

In conclusion, this article is less about hipsters but more about multi-disciplinary studies. Increasingly so, we will come to the conclusion  that while no hard problems have remain within one domain, plenty of problems and solutions exists if we gain the capability to reach across domains.