Friday, April 18, 2014

The Mammon and the Mammoth

Courtesy of

What does success look like? How do you know that you have arrived?

For some, success is quantified by wealth, status and luxury. They relish the idea of being comfortably ensconced in the top rungs of the social and corporate ladder. Here, success is measured by distinctions, degrees, bank accounts, job titles, and material possessions.

While there isn't anything wrong in ambition, one must be careful not to be enveloped by the mindless pursuit of "mammon". According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word represents "material wealth or possessions, especially (those) having a debasing influence".

The ill effects of loving mammon is best described by the following Bible verse:

"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." - Matthew 6: 24

Surrounded by the trappings of luxury, a person who worships mammon may be lulled into a comfortable slumber. Cushioned from the rigours of this world, he may lose touch with his humanity and spirituality.

Does this mean that it is wrong to be rich? Certainly not. Rather, the danger lies in loving material success so much so that you sacrifice your greater calling.

Which brings us to the second view of success epitomised by the mammoth - a huge furry prehistoric ice-aged beast. A mammoth task is one that requires herculean feats to accomplish, and is not for the faint-hearted. It is a worthy pursuit that makes a significant difference in one's lives and the lives of others (think about what one dead mammoth can yield to a tribe of cold and hungry prehistoric cavemen!).

A mammoth is a project that yields much good for the community. It is something that can be shared amongst members of the tribe and which goes beyond selfish individual gain. However, a mammoth can be an outsized challenge that can only be surmounted with considerable planning, skill and perseverance.

Subduing a mammoth often requires sacrifice. While one may be stimulated by the hormonal rush of adventure, success often comes at a price.

The question we should ask ourselves is this. Are we prepare to forgo the comforts and luxuries of our lives to pursue that Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG)?

For sure, risk is a big part of riding the mammoth. You need to have the guts to stare down your adversary straight in the eye, grab it by the tusks, and tie it down. You also need to leave the comforts of your cave and your tribe, weather unbearable cold, and traverse untold miles before meeting your quarry.

While embracing uncertainty, leveraging fear and plunging into uncharted icy plains doesn't necessarily make you a pauper, it does require you to put something on the table. You need to put up with weeks, months or even years of not knowing where your next pay check may come from.

If you do plan sufficiently with enough reserves to tide you over, however, such fears can be mitigated. Keep your lifestyle minimalistic and slow down your burn rate. Forecast what you need for your adventure, ensure that your basic needs can be met, and then go ahead to pursue your heart's desire.

In being too concerned about preserving our comfortable status quo, we may pierce ourselves with a million arrows. A little piece of ourselves die each time as our hearts grow colder and more unfeeling.

If we feel that way, the time may perhaps be ripe for us to consider leaving the warmth of our present lifestyles, and to pursue that noteworthy undertaking of epic proportions.

"The love of comfort is frequently the enemy of greatness." - Todd Henry

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

StarHub embraces Crowdfunding with Crowdtivate

Poster child of the burgeoning crowdsourcing movement, crowdfunding is estimated by Massolution to have raised some US$5.1 billion globally in 2013. Internationally, US-based players like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and RocketHub have kicked butt, while the Asian scene has been relatively quiet.

Until now.

Launched at Crowdsourcing Week Global in Singapore, StarHub's Crowdtivate is an "online social launchpad" targeted at helping local and Asia-based entrepreneurs and artists to obtain financial support for cutting edge projects. It is one of the first such crowdfunding platform in the region. Providing specific rewards to supporters, the open platform allows funders to discover and back innovative new products and services.

Co-managed by StarHub i3 (Innovation, Investment, Incubation) and crowd solutions specialist Crowdonomic, the telco-backed crowdfunding platform is supported by the Home-Fix Experience Centre, National Book Development Council of Singapore, NUS Design Incubation Centre and Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation.

To find out more about Crowdtivate, join me as I interview Mr Stephen Lee, StarHub’s Head of i3 (Innovation, Investment, Incubation).

Stephen Lee, StarHub’s Head of i3(courtesy of StarHub)

1) What prompted StarHub to venture into the crowdfunding space? Is there a vision or goal for Crowdtivate?

We believe that the crowdfunding space can provide us with a continuous source of innovative and creative ideas from start-up companies, entrepreneurs and even the regular man in the street. Innovation can come from any source. We wanted to create a platform that will curate the best ideas in Asia and alow the general public to express their support for the ones that really stand out.

From StarHub's perspective, we hope to curate great ideas that go beyond the traditional info-communications services. It's a wiser long-term strategy for the company. Who knows? We could incorporate successful ideas into our service platforms or help them grow as future businesses.

2) What would you see as the unique differentiating factor for Crowdtivate relative to other crowdfunding platforms?

We are focused on three categories: Creative/arts/books/films, technology and assistive technology. This focus allows us to concentrate on specific projects rather than a broad-based approach such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo.

Crowdtivate further provides mentorship that allows project owners to create good campaigns, with options for support in business incubation and regional outreach. Campaigns could potentially receive additional assistance, including access to test users, marketing support, start-up funding, free software development, invention development and infrastructure support.

This approach offers project owners a more comprehensive roadmap to shape their ideas into viable businesses beyond pure funding. That said, hats off to the pioneers in the crowdfunding field for making it such a success.

3) How many projects does StarHub hope to attract through this platform? Any targeted numbers per year?

We have our own internal projections and we are realistic in our expectations. Crowdfunding is still a relatively new concept in Asia and we expect it to grow in popularity over the next decade. Without giving numbers, what we can say is that we are looking at the quality rather than quantity of projects.

4) Who do you see as your target entrepreneur/ideator? What are the kinds of projects that you hope to back?

We hope Crowdtivate will appeal to entrepreneurs, start-ups, artists and even to the average man in the street who has an idea at the back of his head that he wants to make real. As mentioned, we are looking at three main categories - creative/arts/books/films, technology and assistive technology

5) I like the idea of focused assistance being provided to entrepreneurs through mentorship, business incubation and product development/testing. However, such efforts are likely to be quite resource or capital intensive. Is there a set of criteria on how projects are earmarked for further grooming?

While crowdfunding is popular, there are also stories of how project owners achieved success on the platform but fail to get their projects off the ground due to a number of reasons. Underestimating the business and financial requirements of rolling out a viable business is perhaps the number one reason for this. That is why we have put in place a process which can give an idea significant legs to succeed in the wider market.

As an operator, we won't be afraid to incubate and help that project owner achieve his/her goals upon success on Crowdtivate. We will evaluate each project on a case-by-case basis and make that call when needed.

6) Who are the mentors and partners whom StarHub will be working with to provide guidance to the start-ups? Will they also have a stake in the projects?

Crowdtivate is co-managed by StarHub i3 and Crowdonomic. We are also working with SiTF, National Book Development Council of Singapore, Home-Fix Experience Centre and other partners who will provide mentorship and counselling in the areas where they have expertise in.

We will work together with these partners to review project submissions before they are accepted for crowdfunding on Crowdtivate. Once project owners have achieved success on Crowdtivate, they could leverage on their mentors' networks and experience to market and promote their idea. Whether they will take a stake in the company will be at their discretion - it's not a must.

8) Will StarHub also be taking a direct stake in the projects that are being crowdfunded? Is there a possibility of them being acquired too?

As mentioned earlier, we may either incorporate the projects into our service platforms or help the project owners grow as a future business. We may even back them by investing in, forming a partnership with or bringing the start-ups to overseas markets through our telco partners in Asia Pacific. It will be taken on a case-by-case basis.

9) As a telco, StarHub already has an existing network of users and subscribers. Would you be marketing this idea to them?

We will be marketing Crowdtivate campaigns through social media, direct to our customer base, as well as through our partners.

10) Finally, what would you say to a potential investor/pledger of funds to Crowdtivate? What would your pitch be like to him or her?

Every success starts with a dream and every single support counts. Take a look around. Look for projects that interest you. If it's something you really want to make happen, please back the project owner generously. Communicate with the creators and be open with your feedback. Ultimately, we hope they can be part of the success of their own home-grown entrepreneur.

Crowdtivate will be open in May 2014. For more information and to register, do visit their website at this link.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Language of God: Book Review

Are science and faith compatible? Can we reconcile our religious beliefs with scientific evidence of how life began?

Enter The Language of God. Written by former esteemed Director of the Human Genome Project, Dr Francis Collins, the bestselling volume is an ambitious effort to marry Collins' Christian faith with his beliefs as an eminent scientist. Through chapters providing scientific proof for the origins of life and the universe, the book proposes that theistic evolution may be the best answer to thorny questions concerning the origins of life.

Growing up in an agnostic family, Collins' conversion to Christianity occurred in his adult years after a pastor encouraged him to read religious classic Mere Christianity by renowned author C.S. Lewis. Inspired by philosophers and scientists like Lewis, Immanuel Kant, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin amongst others, Collins sought to find the “richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews”.

In distilling the answer to man's eternal quest for his maker, Collins takes us on an accelerated journey through the worlds of evolutionary biology, genetics, quantum physics, cosmology, philosophy and theology.

Dr Francis Collins (source of image)

Let me highlight key themes from the book.

The Moral Law

Collins believes that the existence of the Moral Law - the altruistic impulse and voice of conscience calling us to help others even if nothing is received in return - is the primary reason for us to believe in a Creator. The fact that universal traits of morality and goodness exist in almost every human society shows that there must be a higher being at work here. Coupled with mankind's universal desire across different cultures to search for his creator, the Moral Law provides evidence for the existence of a supernatural creator.

The Big Bang Theory

Most modern day physicists believe that the universe began with a "Big Bang" some 14 billion years ago. This phenomena is documented by a series of experiments first conducted by Edwin Hubble in 1929, which revealed that the stars and galaxies are moving apart from each other at a constant speed. The more recent detection of cosmic microwaves by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1965 provided further evidence that the universe began as an "infinitely dense, dimensionless point of pure energy".

God of the Gaps

The "god of the gaps" theory is one which espouses that the gaps in scientific knowledge may best be explained by divine intervention. Collins argues passionately against this, and cites that it could lead one down a slippery slope. In his own words, "Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps." A case in point was the age-old belief that the Earth was flat - a belief that was later disproved by various scientists including Italian astronomer Galileo.

DNA and Fossil Evidence for Evolution

Beginning with the work of Charles Darwin and his influential book The Origin of Species, Collins narrates how natural selection, the mutability of DNA, and the fossil evidence reveal that evolution is not just a theory but a scientific fact. The placement of humans next to our closest living "relative" the chimpanzee in the evolutionary tree of life based on anatomical characteristics is bolstered by the discovery that humans and chimps are 96% identical at the DNA level.

The Human Genome and "Language of God"

Writing about his experience with the Human Genome Project, Collins marvels about the systematic way in which genes are coded on strands of DNA in the human chromosomes. Through the discoveries of the global team tasked to sequence and identify all three billion chemical units in the human genome, Collins' discoveries lead him to be in awe of the complexity of the language which God uses in his little instruction book of life.

Atheism and Agnosticism

In a section of the book highlighting different belief systems, Collins positions atheism and agnosticism as scenarios where science trumps faith. Weak atheism is the absence of belief in the existence of a divine deity, while strong atheism is the firm conviction that no God or gods exist. An agnostic, on the other hand, is one who would say that the knowledge of God's existence cannot be achieved. Collins concludes that if "God is true, and if certain scientific conclusions about the natural world (ie evolution) are also true, then they cannot contradict each other".

Young Earth Creationism

Using terms like "poetic" and "allegorical" to describe Genesis chapters 1 and 2 (where God is described to have created the world in 6 days), Collins poo poos the beliefs of creationists who stick to a literal translation of the Bible. First started by Henry Morris and his colleagues, Young Earth Creationism is widely accepted by the evangelical Christian church in America. Calling them "intellectually bankrupt", Collins asserts that the group's policy of "attacking the fundamentals of virtually every branch of science" places it in a dangerous pathway.

Intelligent Design (ID)

The ID movement is fairly recent, having started about 20 years ago. It places its focus not on how life came about, but on the "perceived failing of the evolutionary theory to account for life's subsequent stunning complexity". Founded by Phillip Johnson, a Christian lawyer, ID rests upon three precepts:

1) Evolution promotes an atheistic worldview and therefore must be resisted by believers in God;

2) Evolution is fundamentally flawed, since it cannot account for the intricate complexity of nature; and

3) If evolution cannot explain irreducible complexity, then there must have been an intelligent designer involved somehow, who stepped in to provide the necessary components during the course of evolution.

While Collins is more sympathetic to the proponents of ID relative to Creationists, he still felt that "this ship is not headed to the promised land" but "headed instead to the bottom of the ocean."

BioLogos (Theistic Evolution)

Coining a new term BioLogos (bios as the Greek word for "life", and logos as the Greek word for "word"), Collins proposes that theistic evolution may be the answer that we're searching for. There are six premises surrounding this belief, namely:

1) The universe came into being from nothingness about 14 billion years ago;

2) Despite massive improbabilities, the universe seem to be precisely tuned for life;

3) While the precise mechanism for the origin of life is unknown, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time;

4) Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was needed;

5) Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes; and

6) Humans are unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes existence of the Moral Law and the search for God.

Apparently, Pope John Paul II subscribes to this notion. In his message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996, the pope stated that "new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis."

Is Theistic Evolution the Gospel Truth?

As a Christian with an intellectual bent, I find The Language of God a highly enjoyable and stimulating read. It is certainly rare to find a scientist like Dr Collins who is able to translate complex ideas into highly readable narrative prose.

While I do like his ideas, I feel somewhat uncomfortable with his liberal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. After all, if the Bible is God's sacred word inspired by His Spirit, wouldn't every verse ring true? Having said that, I agree with Collins that there must be a way to balance one's spiritual beliefs with the need to recognise developments in modern day science. The challenge, however, is how.