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Economy Life and Personal

Bill Gates and Vaccine IP

Bill Gates, needless to say, has been a controversial figure for most of his adult life. From being reviled for his intellectual property stance against open source to his monopolistic and capitalistic approach to business, he’s seen it all. Contentiously, apart from his success in building Microsoft, he has been largely left longing for ground-breaking success.

There is an overworked machinery that ensures that the narrative around his newfound philanthropic endeavors is portrayed in the most positive light. If there’s one thing that the richest people on this planet can afford, it’s the best publicists and media personalities.

This post is not meant to be a funnel into the awfully copious amount of conspiracy material around Bill Gates’ global immunization efforts. It’s easy to get pulled into all of that, though, and the primary reasons are — people only read the headlines, and secondly, a lot of philanthropic work, especially by the ultra-rich, remains shrouded under a blanket of tax evasive and complicated hops of company structures, foundations, annual reports, confidential agreements, etc.

Take his recent interview with Sky News, where Bill Gates states that IP laws are important to make sure that everyone gets immunized against the coronavirus, and that the bottleneck isn’t availability of technology but the lack of infrastructure and ‘regulatory approvals’ to manufacture the vaccines. Jump to around the 3:00 minute mark for the rant about intellectual property.

It is noteworthy that in the same interview, Bill Gates points out how his investments are able to use factories in India to manufacture vaccines at scale for global consumption. He posits, though, that if these factories had access to the technology sans patents, they would be unable to do the same because of a lack of branding, trust, and regulatory approval. That sounds a little self-serving, and, possibly, insidious. Governments are paying up the nose for procuring these vaccines; most of them have been developed as a result of generous public funding and investment, often in the form of grants, research or post-development purchase guarantees. In investment terms, this would be a combination of ‘supply-push’ and ‘demand-pull’. The former provides a subsidy and funding for manufacturing, while the latter provides for a guaranteed market in order to be able to be financially viable. This was how the AstraZeneca and the BioNTech vaccines came about.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation generally steps in when it’s time to create a market for these innovations. Their focus is in leapfrogging the development of innovations to under-developed and developing economies from the developed countries they would have developed in (link). The foundation is constantly under the limelight, and Gates does a good job of pushing a very great narrative. So much so that his services are actually quantified in dollar amounts in the foundation’s annual statement. The point is that the foundation exists to maximize impact, and thereby, prolong its own existence. The best way to achieve that is by forging agreements and deals that create value for itself.

How does this translate to real world dynamics? Even though the Serum Institute of India was ‘granted‘ millions of dollars by the foundation to provide low-cost vaccines to the globe, the same institute has sought additional grants from the Government of India to scale up production. As a result, the private company is now selling vaccines in India at a much higher price than it is to the GAVI alliance/Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation collaboration. The agreements and financial jugglery is extremely hard to decompress without access to journalistic tools, and very few professionals are willing to speculate or investigate for fear of losing access.

Had the technology been freely available, the government grants could have been used to manufacture at cost, or with a minimum profit outlay. Right now, it is not exactly clear how much of these costs fulfill the licensing obligations on the part of the SII.

Now, the foundation itself, is a very complicated beast. Apparently, it is a unison of two entities — the foundation that allocates equity and cash to achieve philanthropic objectives, and a trust that provides the foundation with the actual financial instrumentation. The foundation’s mandate is to dissolve 20 years after Bill/Melinda die, and in the process allocate 100% of its resources. The trust has no such mandate, and only provides finance upon request by the foundation. There is a lot of financial maneuvering.

Take, for example, the foundation’s use of ‘Program-Related Investments‘. These are complicated beasts that are engineered to provide both financial upside as well as progress towards a foundation’s mission and philanthropic goals. As a result, they enjoy a lot of tax benefits. Reading up on them is an adventure in itself, and in the context of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, there is not much reading to do, as they’ve only been deployed more recently. There is, however, this excellent reading — ‘Investing for Impact with Program-Related Investments‘ (Archive).

In essence, philanthropy in itself is paid for by public money, and so when Bill Gates professes for tighter intellectual property restrictions even in a pandemic, he’s being disingenuous, and just doing his paid job for the foundation. Without IP rights, most of the foundation’s work, which is awesome and ground-breaking, no doubt, would be much more impactful for others, but come at a short-term cost to the foundation’s objectives and financial sustainability. After all, when the foundation provides a PIR/Strategic Investment Fund investment, it has to generate enough value to be able to re-invest in the short term. By indirectly obligating the Serum Institute of India to sell vaccines at a higher cost to India than to other countries, the foundation ensures that it remains financially solvent up until Gates’ time is up.

There is absolutely no justification for not making vaccine technology open and available to everyone today — people are needlessly suffering. There has been a golden age for pharmaceutical profits, and there would be more opportunities to make money, but now is not the time.

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Life and Personal Tech and Culture

Teamwork

So much precious time and resources are wasted on separating your work relationships from your personal relationships. I mean, it is always a good idea to separate your work life and obligations from your personal ones, but there is this ongoing narrative that your team at work has to be different from your team at home.

A few people, mostly entrepreneurs, manage to work together as a team in the office and at home, but it is rare. If you’re starting a business, investors would advise against it; if you’re looking for a job, you’re supposed to not work together.

Imagine if we became good at compartmentalizing our work obligations from our professional ones. We would be able to solve so many problems easily, faster, and probably more efficiently as we wouldn’t have to spend time on making new teams and relationships for every project.

In fact, if you look at some of the top success stories, they were a result of professional/personal collaboration. Successful people have this innate capability to separate concerns, much like we aim for in our software code.

Companies need to investigate coaching employees on this instead of spending resources on creating rulebooks and curbing our natural human tendency to leverage effective teamwork for bigger and better goals. Given the opportunity, this would lead to better execution and possibly even more innovation.

Sure, there are challenges; some people are not good at teamwork, and if they bring their personal challenges into their workplace, it might be a recipe for disaster, which is what led to rulebooks around teamwork. The answer, in my opinion, though is to focus on coaching. Instead of shuffling the human problem here, the goal should be to tackle it head-on, and look at the bigger picture.

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Life and Personal

Frameworks

One of those things that we take for granted in our work as engineers is the concept of a ‘framework’.

Simply explained, a framework is ‘a basic structure underlying a system, concept, or text’ (Oxford dictionary). We have frameworks in architecture, software engineering, music, poetry, prose, politics, social science.

What we need are frameworks in our life. A lot of successful people have already credited their successes to mental frameworks that they have built along the way. A framework in our daily life is a rules based system that reduces slow decision making to quick actions that rely upon a combination of our values, past experiences, and our goals.

Just like engineering frameworks are extensible, so are personal frameworks — your framework for socially responsible personal products procurement could be extended to build an entirely new framework for building that new tech company you’ve always aspired for.

Frameworks are battle tested, and since they’re used so often, they are constantly refactored to be aligned with worldly externalities and our own status. Frameworks help in translating failures and blame-finding to internal process improvements and learnings.

How could you become more efficient and a better human through your use of great frameworks? You have to build your own. What works for anyone else will not work for you. It is also more fun and enriching to live your life your way and to aspire to be a role model for at least some other people.

How to get started
  • Start small — focus on small things like behavior or body language
  • Constantly find spots where you could apply your in-progress framework to improve your decision making
  • Generalize so as to be able to arrive at logical conclusions with just a little substitution in events and locations
  • Always focus on improvement
  • Keep in mind that it is never finished

Once you get in the habit of building frameworks around decisions in your life, you will get better at time management and achieve much more than you ever did. All of us have the same 24 hours in a day, and the way to optimize those hours for mental and physical well-being is to get into the habit of isolating repetitive decision-making inside quicker, tested, and effective frameworks. Things like walking the same route, or eating the same food for breakfast daily, or wearing the same clothes everyday are basically frameworks that work for some people.

You’d think that frameworks would make you a predictable person, but no, it’s actually quite the opposite. Since you would be always learning and recalibrating your framework, you’d work on the basis of new information and experiences instead of some irrational belief that cannot be explained.

This has been my power for the last 6 years.

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Life and Personal

Amsterdam’s Orange Plastic Recycling Containers

Every day, for the past few years, my morning walk has also included a short detour to the recycling bins where I would deposit reading material as well as plastic disposal from the previous day in their respective containers. What started as a one-time endeavor to get rid of all the magazines I had accumulated for the past few weeks slowly turned into a habit.

The daily accounting of all the recyclable waste we were producing was also a good way to limit consumption of food stuffs that were often packaged in single use plastic containers. It is easy to lose sight of just how much plastic we ‘consume’ when we throw all the packaging out along with the normal trash. But, when you have to separate it every day, there is no easy way to not feel disgusted.

Last week, the city of Amsterdam started phasing out the plastic recycling containers throughout the city; the reasoning being that people are generally not good with separating what could be recycled from what couldn’t. For example, a lot of people that even I ran into regularly didn’t realize that milk containers are not paper; they actually go in with the plastic. Similarly, a lot of plastic packaging, especially that with liquid food stuff inside cannot be recycled easily and needs to be thoroughly washed before it is mixed in with the other plastic. Not doing so often leads to entire batches of recyclables having to be burned with the rest of the trash from the city.

The city apparently has invested in machines that could perform the task of separating and washing plastics much better than ordinary people, and so the new recommendation now calls for everyone to just throw out the plastic along with their regular everyday trash.

My morning trips now just include tossing the newspaper into the paper recycling bin.

While this daily habit has pushed me towards using less plastic, I fear that for a lot of people, the new lack of plastic recycling bins might be a reason to forget about the tremendous impact that plastic has upon our planet’s sustenance. We often take action when we are impacted personally by something; it’s easy to fall back to bad habits.

I wonder if the right approach would have been to keep the containers, doubling down upon messaging to people that they need to do a better job at separating their plastic from other types of refuse, and using the new machines as a backup on both the regular trash as well as the plastic coming in from the familiar orange containers.

We need every little nudge possible to force us to get rid of single-use plastic packaging from our lives.

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Life and Personal Tech and Culture

Communication in Startups

I read the other day that what separates great teams and relationships is not avoiding disagreements, but rather the quality of bringing up even the smallest disputes for discussion immediately and with an open mind.

It makes so much sense.

Humans are fundamentally opinionated and driven by past experiences. We have also evolved with the genetic machinery to look out for our own personal well-being. We are also resentful. When things don’t go our way or if we are impacted by something, we will often hold a grudge or be generally distracted. This creates long term, and often, permanent fissures.

Startups epitomize the need for great communication and open-mindedness. Especially when the foundation is being laid, everyone is on edge — people don’t know each other so well, there is uncertainty about the product-market fit, and there is just so much going on that essence is often lost in communications, even if you create a framework for daily meetings and catch-ups.

I was recently involved with a startup working in a very interesting and prospective space. The team was not very experienced in that space, but they seemed to have the grit to move through difficulties and find opportunities in tight spaces, so to say. The only issue was that the communication was terrible. I would send an email or a message and it would most often go unanswered. I would bring up this issue, and it would be minimized. We would all promise to be more responsive, but the elephant still comfortably sat in the room, day in and day out.

This was a wonderful lesson in communication — even if you are very smart and capable, communication is what makes or breaks a team. It is easier to find skilled professionals than it is to find professionals that are great at being accountable and communicative. Things have a propensity to boil over.

Especially in small teams and startups, the assumption should always be that the smallest of ideas have the potential for major impact. If a team deprioritizes internal communications, it sends out a negative signal to external partners and investors, too.

So, what do you do if you find yourself in a situation where the team doesn’t communicate well (or at all)? The best plan of action is to bring it up early and often. Humans are also mostly wonderful with good intentions. Most probably, they have different priorities and were of the belief that they were doing their best for the team. However, if the situation doesn’t improve in a reasonable time-frame, your best bet is to just bail out.

As for me, I sent them an email about a prospective investment opportunity, but received no reply! 🙃

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Life and Personal

The Second Lockdown

I can’t believe how quickly this year seems to be going by. This is when almost everything has slowed down — people aren’t traveling, working has moved to in-home setups, there are hardly any live performances, limited entertainment, and so on.

Netherlands has just re-entered the second lockdown. They’re calling it a ‘partial lockdown’, but things are direr than they were when the first ‘intelligent lockdown’ hit us. While the numbers are relatively steadier, albeit with record-breaking infection and positivity rates, what’s problematic now is the extent to which the people distrust the government.

It is quite disturbing.

Even yesterday, just as the parliament was debating the new lockdown, there were multiple parties going on at various locations in the country to countdown the lockdown.

Whereas back in April, people had suddenly changed their behavior to avoid proximity to others and were prudent about maintaining distance and sanitation, carelessness has creeped back with a vengeance. No one cares. Those that do are the oddballs.

This is no way to bide time until the virus disappears or is conquered.

It’s not just the Netherlands; entire Europe is in a crisis (Archive) right now. Total re-lockdowns are inevitable. The choice between a stronger economy and a lower death rate is no longer on the menu.

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Life and Personal Tech and Culture

E-Newspapers

I was reading an online commentary about newspapers and their business models the other day. Basically, the opinion was that newspapers are slowly letting themselves die by sticking with user-antagonistic business models that prioritize tracking over efficiency, cancellation-friction over customer friendliness and so on.

That is all so true.

This reminded me of being a college student. I wasn’t subscribed to any single newspaper (this was before the Internet was a ‘serious’ thing). Every evening, I would walk over to the kiosk and browse through different newspapers before deciding to buy one. Often, I would end up picking more than one, especially on weekends.

In a lot of countries, the quintessential newspaper kiosk was also a way to bring society together and to discuss events and debate them. Sadly, most of these are on their way out. Even in Amsterdam, which didn’t really have much of a kiosk culture, there are only 2 booksellers I know that sell any non-Dutch periodicals. Newspapers are hard to procure unless you commit to a long-term at-home delivery subscription.

This brings me to my main point — just like we were able to buy newspapers just this once, why can’t we subscribe to electronic versions of the same media outlets for just a day? I can understand that part of this is because of higher transaction costs online where cash just doesn’t work. Even then, I am sure that a lot of customers would not mind a little markup given the flexibility to not have to commit to a yearly subscription.

A few companies have tried to come out with per-article or monthly all-you-can-consume subscriptions to a catalog of newspapers and magazines, but they are hardly profitable. Just like music services, there really is no way to make a profitable business renting out content unless the producers/owners are on board and price it as such, fit for rental consumption.

Now, more than ever in our lifetimes, we need reliable sources of news and current affairs. If you could afford it, do subscribe to a newspaper and keep them alive, and while you’re signing up, make sure to tell your favorite news source to provide a day-subscription. It’s the only way to keep us sane.

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Life and Personal

On Short Vacations

Europe, at large, entered the Coronavirus lockdowns in the middle of April. While a sizable number of well-read people knew that it would be a long road ahead, full of uncertainties and challenges, for policymakers, that was the time to expedite short-term action to sustain the livelihoods of vulnerable sections of society. As a result, tourism was completely shut down. Anything that involved the coming together of people face to face was deemed necessary to be shutdown in order to stop the virus’ spread.

Now that the numbers are starting to decrease and the caseload becoming manageable, countries are in a hurry to kickstart business as usual. This is driven by the need to get the situation back to normalcy, both in economic as well as social terms. Humans are social animals, after all. Just like we crave food for sustenance, we also long for social contact and cultural experiences for our well-being.

So, as restaurants and cafes are starting to reopen, albeit with distancing measures, travel is also beginning to slowly come up to speed. Airlines have been operating within European borders. People are starting to drive to and from neighboring countries. Combined with distancing measures, this influx of neighbors has actually led to crowding that’s very difficult to manage.

While a lot could be said about why tourism these days is not the same as back in the day when people took longer vacations and when travel was more expensive, this is not the post for that.

I am more curious about how the current technological state-of-the-art could be used to make short-term/weekend tourism unnecessary. After all, what is tourism that only lasts a long weekend? Is a vacation away in a different continent any better than staying home if most of it is spent traveling and sleeping? Is there a way to do away with this kind of tourism and leverage technology instead?

VR rings a bell. Surely, it would be great if we could live the moment in another city while not really going there. I think this would work for virtual travel to places that are otherwise bereft of experiences that trigger senses related to smell, taste, atmospheric changes, and other feelings that technology still cannot affect.

But, VR works great for creating entirely new kinds of experiences. It’s like video games. A holiday experience does not have to really replicate the real world — it is a kind of escape. It just so happens that traditionally a vacation involves secondary experiences related to lodging at a hotel, not having to cook, driving on new roads, etc. Instead of just changing a few hours of your daily life, a vacation is about making you live all your waking hours differently. And, since we are so busy, any respite from daily repetition is a good change.

Perhaps the answer is not in technology. Perhaps, it is about reconnecting with our cities and learning something new about it. Maybe, we ought to redefine a holiday getaway as more about the mind than physical presence. Instead of effecting a change in routine by forcing a physical movement, we should investigate the power of relaxation or indulging in exploration in our own vicinities.

This is something that has worked for me. Whereas previously we would often go on weekend getaways, the virus situation has forced us to spend more time in our city and nearby. Guess what! Even after having lived here for 10 years, we are still discovering nature so close to Amsterdam that we never knew existed. I often find myself exclaiming that this place looks like it belonged in a different continent.

Cycling has been wonderful, too. Weekends are now spent cycling to nearby nature parks rather than walking around in the city with other people at close proximity. Along with the health benefits, this helps in getting away from crowds, provides meditative effects, and also saves the planet from pollution that otherwise would have been released into the atmosphere. It’s a win-win.

So much of our holiday travel starts with anxiety around planning and delays and ends as such. Wouldn’t it be great if we focused more on well-being than checking off places to make it a vacation?

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Life and Personal

Shopping for Produce in Corona-Times

I was just reading an editorial about how shopping preferences for nearly everything have shifted to online, and yet, it is not profitable for companies to deliver purchases, even if they add a hefty surcharge on top of the final bill.

For a lot of cutting-edge technophiles, this trend has been a long time coming. We’re used to finding wonderful deals, especially on technology gadgets online. The fact that physical retail was great for immediate gratification, while online brought you the best prices and selection has been long established.

This has not held true for perishable grocery purchases, though. While almost all chains in the country offer home delivery, it is often not free or has a terribly long delivery time. Some busy people have used these services to save time or even as much as a motivator to get healthy by buying less food.

Things changed when the Coronavirus struck. Suddenly, everyone was being told to minimize contact as much as possible, and so online ordering really took off. A lot of startups even came up to address this new market to deliver groceries. What was a non-revenue generating experimental business for a lot of grocery chains was now driving a lot of business.

It is an odd situation, though — people have much more time to do their shopping and yet here they are sitting at home ordering produce to be delivered.

Fortunately, in most of Europe, weekly markets are a very prominent feature of most cities and even villages. In Amsterdam, where we live, there is a weekly organic food market every Wednesday and a much bigger market that brings in all kinds of entrepreneurs on Saturdays. When the pandemic first took hold, the city had to put in place various measures that meant that only very few stalls selling produce and flowers were allowed.

This has eased quite a bit now and business seems to be back to normal, except better. It appears that a lot more people are now actually interested in buying farm fresh produce and understanding where their food is coming from.

I love buying nuts, flowers, fruits, and produce at these markets. And now with the pandemic, our visits to the grocery store is limited to things like sparkling water or chocolates. A few entrepreneurs have even become friendly enough to exchange pleasantries while there is a long line of customers waiting for their turn. Before the pandemic, there were hardly any lines to buy produce at these markets as they generally tend to be more expensive than chains.

What started as an exercise in helping small entrepreneurs and becoming healthy has actually also led to people now understanding more about their food supply chain. Turns out that some vegetables and fruits don’t grow year-round!

If you’re close to one of these markets, support them, and make sure to pay in cash 🙂

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Life and Personal

My Regular Cycling Rides

I have always had a bicycle. Well, always except my time in college and when I lived in the US. Now that I live in The Netherlands, a country renowned for its cycling infrastructure, it is something that I enjoy not just for short commutes, but also as a way to spend leisure time.

While I have mostly rented or used the popular OV-Fiets bike share program to go on weekend trips around the country, I decided to get my own bicycle this past April. I figured that it would be nice to have a better quality bicycle at my disposal than the ones that are available through bike-share or rental programs. For a brief while, I even thought about getting one of the more in-vogue electric bicycles — wouldn’t it be fun to spend the same amount of effort to travel even faster — so I thought. Well, it isn’t, because the bicycles I explored either had really bad range or suffered from quality issues. I thought — if I only get a range of 50-60kms per charge, I could pedal that much on my own without an electrical assist. And so, I got a cheap(er) Dutch ‘transport’ bicycle with 3 gears and a pedal brake.

Now, while everyone is deciding to buy a bicycle to eschew public transportation, it also means that I could no longer take a bicycle on the train every weekend and ride somewhere new. I am now literally confined to a radius around home, unless I want to buy a mask and risk getting a Coronavirus infection. Luckily, Amsterdam is surrounded by nature in every direction. And so, over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to find a regular rhythm, more so because summers are especially tragic when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet 🙂

It’s almost become therapeutic now. Also amazing is that I could take multiple different routes to get to the same spot. I don’t even need a map anymore. Often times, I run into the same people cycling after work or just exercising. It has become a nice new habit.

There are two expansive golf courses near where I ride. There is also a great amount of flora and fauna — I speed past wild berries and lots of birds. Being summer, the grounds are often full of families grilling and just having a grand time.

These wind-turbines are massive structures!

The thing about cycling in The Netherlands is that the whole country is a natural park. Even along cycle paths, you would find benches and rest areas with amazing views of waterways, nature, or just other cyclists merrily enjoying the planet. Even industrial areas have features.

One of the highlights of my routine has been the occasional chocolate aroma that blows from the nearby chocolate factory when the timing and the wind-direction is just right. Talk about adding flavor to life!