Singularity Magazine July 2010

Singularity July 2010 cover

Well, frankly speaking, I didn’t think I’d make it this far. But hey whaddayaknow, the July 2010 issue of Singularity is out!

Buy it now! Update: Singularity is now available free of charge. Download the July issue now.

In this issue,

Ecological escape velocity

A discussion on our Earth, the ecology as a whole and the environment. There’s an ecological escape velocity where suddenly our resources become sustainable. I hope to get there sooner. I hope you will help.


My friend Christopher contributes his thoughts on Mohism, a comparison with Confucianism, and the applications of Mohism to your daily life.

Descent into darkness

A discussion on darkness, fear and how the hero’s journey is a metaphor for our trials and tribulations.

Download the July issue now.

I am also proud to say that Singularity supports the efforts of Project Polymath, an interdisciplinary university with the goal of raising a new generation of polymaths. Project Polymath was established by Polymath Foundation, a non-profit organisation.

Project Polymath

I really like this quote:

One da Vinci changed the world. Let’s create thousands.

Price change

[UPDATE: I’m no longer charging for the magazine]

You may have noticed a price change, from US$1 to US$2. You don’t like it? I don’t like it either. I’d give the full issue for free if I could help it. The main cause is that PayPal charges a lot if the price is low.

At US$1, PayPal charges $0.30 + 2.9% of the original price. That comes up to $0.30 + $0.029, which means that when you buy Singularity at $1, I get $0.67.

At US$2, the charges are $0.30 + 2.9% of original price, which is $0.30 + $0.058. When you buy Singularity at $2, I get $1.64. Which is a bit more reasonable.

Of course, the maximum profits come at even higher prices, but I want to keep the price affordable and reasonable. There are other factors involved, but I don’t want to bore you with discussing my balancing act of integrity, transparency, psychology, consumer mentality and how my stomach gets strong votes for wanting to eat.

Download the July issue now.

“It’s complicated”

Delicious ribs
[image by Nathan Marx]

You know what’s on my mind a lot since that fateful day? Food.

I don’t care what you’ve learnt from respectable business people. I don’t care what you’ve read from popular entrepreneur blogs. I don’t care what you’ve heard from podcasts about start-ups.

If you’re a bootstrapping entrepreneur, if you’re starting a business with practically nothing, the thing you worry about the most is where your next meal is coming from. Or positive cash flow. I’m still of two minds which one of them is more important.

“So, what do you do?”

I was hanging out with a couple of my friends. One of them said 2 other friends of his wanted to join us. All of us met up, briefly introduced ourselves and went to have dinner.

After we sat down and gave our dinner orders, one of the newly met friends asked what our jobs were. An uncomfortable feeling was already creeping up my neck.

Let me give you some dating advice. Do not ask your date what his or her job is. At least not on the first date. What if he sells niche collectible cards on Ebay? What if she’s a professional pole dancer? What if he’s an undertaker? What if she’s an artist of yarn? What are you going to talk about after you know the answer?

If you expect a standard answer, that the other person works at such-and-such a company, doing such-and-such activities in the position of such-and-such, then don’t ask. Many people work at jobs that they hate. It might not tell you a lot about their interests and character. It’s the “the sex and cash” theory. What people do to feed themselves may be different from what they do for enjoyment. If you’re dating, find out more about the enjoyment part first.

So anyway, I was the last to talk about what I do for a living. “Uh, it’s complicated.” I replied. One of my friends explained, “He’s an entrepreneur.” That word hung in the air, laughing at my puny attempts to live up to the definition. That word palpably changed the density of the air around us, making sound harder to pass through that solidifying wall of nothingness. That word made me question, just for a second, the decision I made in March.

And then time started moving again. Our new friends had no follow up conversation. As expected.

Luckily, there was food in front of us. I started to grab a stalk of leafy vegetable with my chopsticks…

“Wah, on leave again?

There is this McDonald’s near my house that I frequent. “McDonald’s?!?” I hear you say. “Fast food? Blasphemy!”

Hey, when I was holding on to a job, I bought a McChicken and an apple pie for dinner almost every weekday. I ate that, then exercise, and then take a protein shake. I’m not obese by any stretch of the word. Then again, I don’t know anything about my arteries…

Anyway, I frequent that fast food restaurant so often that the staff know me (the ones that stayed long enough anyway). One of them, a friendly middle-aged woman, likes to make small talk with me (possibly because I’m of the rare type of customer who can make small talk and joke with service staff). So after I started working for myself, I’ve started visiting that McDonald’s during *drum roll* office hours.

“Wah, today you on leave ah?” she asked in her Singlish slang.

I took one full second before nodding my head as the most expedient method of explaining why I’m at McDonald’s during office hours. Many weeks after that, during which I’ve used that expedient answer many times, I decided I needed to tell her the truth. If nothing else, at least that the “on leave” thing is false.

So I stepped into the restaurant one afternoon, feeling the cool air hit me after walking in the blistering sun for the better part of 15 minutes. Behind the counter, her face lit up with a smile. “Wah, Vincent-boy!” Yes, we’re on first name basis… I stepped up to the counter, and was preparing to give my order, when she interrupted me.

“Wah, on leave again?” she asked.

This was it.

“Actually, uh, I’m working from home.” I replied.
“Aahh… so what you want today? We have this special promotion…”

Ok, technically it’s not exactly false. I am working from home. I just didn’t tell her I’m not working at a job any more. It’s complicated, you know. I don’t think she’s ready to hear me explain. I don’t think I’m ready to explain to her.

I just need to feed myself

And preferably able to pay the bills. I don’t need to make it big. I just need to be ramen profitable.

Ramen profitable means a startup makes just enough to pay the founders’ living expenses.
– Paul Graham

That’s what I said. To be able to eat. I mean, there’s a food name in the term “ramen profitable”.

It’s legally a company, but you feel like you’re lying when you call it one.

Sometimes, I feel the same way if I call myself an entrepreneur…

Startups usually have to do something weird at first.

Tell me about it…

Ok, I do need to make it big. I just don’t need to make it big immediately (or soon, or now, or yet). World changing efforts need to be big, because the world is big. Big in idea. Big in inspiration. Big in imagination. Big in motivation. Big in hope. Big in that something awesome will come out of it, and a lot of people will benefit from it.

Did you know that the highest degree a Freemason can obtain is 33? By the way, it’s my birthday today.

First odd prime birthday

Children at a birthday party

Actually I forgot the actual date. I thought it was today, but it turned out to be yesterday. Oops. Sorry, blog.

So yesterday, 12 June 2010, Polymath Programmer turned 3 years old. *trumpets flare, streamers float and white doves fly into the air* Originally, I wanted to keep it quiet. No fuss, no muss. Just continue writing stuff you’d find interesting. Then I remembered that June 2010 was special to me personally.

Hence, in a whirlwind of idea creation, I want to thank you for reading Polymath Programmer. If you are one of the first 3 people to email me (or if you prefer the contact form) with the subject header “Polymer Birthday” (within this month, you know, because it doesn’t make sense next month…), you will get:

  • A postcard sent to you from Singapore, with a personal message from me.
  • The next 3 issues of Singularity for free. I’ll even give you the current June 2010 issue as a bonus.
  • The Secret History of Polymath Programmer.

[UPDATE: 2 people have “won”. Only 1 left. Start emailing…]
[UPDATE: All prizes taken. I thank the 3 people who emailed me.]

I will obviously require that you provide your physical address for the postcard to work. I promise it will be kept confidential, and will only be used to send the postcard to you. But if you’re not comfortable, I can scan the postcard with the message and send you the image. Either way, you’re getting a postcard.

As for the secret history thing, I will tell you things that few people ever know about Polymath Programmer and me. I’ll tell you why June 2010 is special. You’d probably laugh. You might sympathise with me. Hey, if nothing else, you’ll feel good. Everyone loves secrets.

And if you’re looking to advertise in Singularity, you’re in luck. If you contact me within this month, you get a heavily discounted rate. (click here for more details)

That’s it. Enjoy the rest of June. It might even be summer for you. I can completely relate to you, being in ever-summer-Singapore.

[image by Rich Legg]

Percentage contribution over the long-term

Two business partners

Some time ago, I received an unusual request for help from a stranger via email. It was something of a financial nature, and I felt incapable of answering it fully. So I turned to Christopher, my engineer friend who’s also versed in finance, for help. I felt that the stranger’s request was quite personal, and I wasn’t sure if the stranger wanted the request to be publicised here on the blog. So to protect the innocent, I will wrangle the original problem to be most indecipherable. However, the solution given by Christopher was worth mentioning.

On to the problem then. We shall stick only to money as the sole source of contribution. Emotional and effort labour are just as important, but it’s difficult to quantify them mathematically. We’ll even ignore time labour. It’s not fair, but the world sometimes operate that way, so we’ll just accept it as best as we can.

Suppose there are 2 partners in a new business. Each of them contributes a different amount of money each month to the business, and may even contribute variably across each month. The money is used to maintain the business (for example, settle any bank loans, pay salaries, web site hosting costs, marketing expenses, product creation costs, utility bills and so on). After say 3 years, they want to sell off the business and liquidate their assets in it.

How much should each business partner take from that lump sum of money (from selling the business), based solely on their monetary contribution over the years?

The main problem of using a simple summation of their monetary contributions and calculating a percentage based on that, is inflation. $100 contributed in the 1st month is worth more than $100 contributed in the 37th month (4th year, 1st month).

Christopher suggested abiding by a yearly rate for the purpose of inflation, in particular, using government bonds as the rate. To add stability to the rate, he suggested using the 10-year bond rate. The currency also matters. For our example, we’ll use the United Kingdom pound. Where you get that rate is up to you, as long as you feel it’s legitimate and correct, and that everyone agrees to using that rate. I got mine from Bloomberg (suggested by Christopher):

Government bond rate
[note: the above was correct as of time of writing this article. You are advised to go visit the Bloomberg site for the updated numbers. Or some other trusted site you know because you’re probably more financially powerful than me.]

The rate is 3.51% for the 10-year yield.

The mathematical formulation

Let’s give our business partners names, Arianna and Ben.

Let s(i) be the “sum” at end of year i
Let x(i) be contribution of Arianna in year i
Let y(i) be contribution of Ben in year i
Let b(i) be bond interest rate in year i (3.51% is changed to 0.0351 without the percent).

Then s(i+1) = [1 + b(i)] * [s(i) + x(i) + y(i)]

Let cx(i) be sum contribution of Arianna, and cy(i) be sum contribution of Ben at end of year i.

Then cx(i+1) = [1 + b(i)] * [cx(i) + x(i)]
and cy(i+1) = [1 + b(i)] * [cy(i) + y(i)]

Then contribution percentage at end of year i of Arianna is
100 * cx(i) / s(i)

Contribution percentage at end of year i of Ben is
100 * cy(i) / s(i)

A short example (with numbers)

And a note. The numbers were picked out of thin air. I am not saying a man is better than a woman in the business arena. I need some numeric variation, and I just took it as the man contributing more. And the fact that I don’t want to search the stock photos for generic businessy settings with 2 people in them for hours. For some reason, it’s very hard to find a photo with 2 business people of the same gender. Then you wouldn’t be able to guess which one was which. I originally had Andy and Ben starring in my example.


Let’s say, in the 1st month, Arianna and Ben contribute £100 and £150 respectively. In the 2nd month, £200 and £100 respectively. In the 3rd month, £0 and £250 respectively. For the 1st year, Arianna and Ben contribute £1200 and £1800 respectively, for a grand total of £3000.

So at the start of the 2nd year, we look at the rate and say we find it’s 3.5%. Then we inflate their contributions by 3.5% to £1242 (1.035 * 1200) and £1863 (1.035 * 1800) respectively. We also inflate the sum total from £3000 to £3105.

Arianna and Ben continue to contribute to the business in the 2nd year. And at the end of the 2nd year, Arianna and Ben contributed £2100 and £1900 respectively (total £4000).

At the start of the 3rd year, we find the rate to be 3.52%. Here’s where it’s different. First we add the respective contributions to the previous inflated amounts. So we have £3342 (£1242 + £2100), £3763 (£1863 + £1900) and £7105 (£3105 + £4000) for Arianna, Ben and the sum total respectively. Then we inflate them by 3.52% to get £3459.64, £3895.46 and £7355.10.

For the 3rd year, Arianna and Ben contribute £2400 and £2600 respectively. And at the start of the 4th year, the rate is 3.51%.

Adding the sum contributions first, we get £5859.64, £6495.46 and £12355.10 for Arianna, Ben and sum total respectively. Inflating the numbers by 3.51%, we get £6065.31, £6723.45 and £12788.76. At this point, our business partners want to sell off their business, and they want to know what’s their percentage contribution.

So Arianna contributed 100 * 6065.31 / 12788.76 = 47.43%.
Ben contributed 100 * 6723.45 / 12788.76 = 52.57%

Further notes

I didn’t take care of rounding issues and decimal places in the example. I’ll leave that to you as an exercise. The most accurate method will be to store the values as they are, and only take them out for calculations at the final stage. Storing intermediate results might skew the accuracy if done over many iterations.

The other point is that you are free to calculate on a monthly basis instead of a yearly basis. The assumption is that the rate stays stable throughout the year, so a yearly rate is usable. If you’re inflating on a monthly basis, the contribution values will shoot up very quickly. They will not have any semblance to their original values. I want you to remember that the values are used to calculate the final percentage contribution, not the absolute contribution.

Contributing $40 out of $100 is 40%. Contributing $673.20 out of $1683 is also 40%. It’s relative.

[note to self: why didn’t I think of using a currency with $, the generic dollar sign? I had to go pick the pound, and then had to replace all the monetary values in the example with the correct currency symbol…]

[UPDATE: the stranger found another of my article on percentage calculations. It must have made sense, because the stranger took that to mean I could help with the problem the stranger was facing. Yes, I’m using “the stranger” so you don’t even know the gender. How’s that for anonymity?]

[leading image by nyul]