Showing posts with label faith. Show all posts
Showing posts with label faith. Show all posts

Thursday, March 29, 2012

On Pattern Recognition

Today, I had McDonald's for lunch.  Healthy, I know.  After finishing lunch, I started walking to the bus stop to head to the office for the afternoon; I had spent the morning working at home.  This McDonald's is located in Garden City (a shopping mall), right across from Walmart and a KFC where I also bought an ice cream cone.  By the way, isn't this supposed to be China?  Anyway, the bus stop is located just outside the Walmart.

On the way to the bus stop, I bought my ice cream cone.  I curiously watched a little girl sitting by a pillar under a covered path from the Walmart to Garden City.  She had dirty clothes and dirty skin, looked like she hadn't taken a bath for days.  Looked about eight years old.  It's not unusual to see little kids walking around by themselves in China, sometimes with unfortunate results.  This girl sat alone and calmly.  As I watched her, something looked wrong.

I'm not sure I can say exactly what I felt was wrong.  In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes the research of psychological thinslicing, which enables experts to instantaneously figure out the right answer for a situation just by looking at it.  A tennis coach who can tell right away whether a player will fault on serve.  Secret Service agents who can tell right away which people in a crowd are major risks.  Psychologists who can identify couples with high probability of relationship failure just by examining facial expressions and body language.

I'm not saying I'm such an expert at being able to identify situations correctly.  But I have learned over the years that it's an invaluable skill to be able to look at a situation and zero in on the problem.  Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong, but if you proceed with caution and the right questions, you will be right more often than not, and subsequently be able to resolve the problem efficiently and quickly.  This is true for resolving high-pressure crisis situations in the workplace, relationship conflicts with family and friends, and random confrontations on the street.  It's a skill that requires practice, poise, and a constantly questioning mind that does not make any assumptions.  I find not enough people understand this.  Develop this skill, and your pattern recognition ability shoots through the roof, enabling you to solve difficult problems with ease.  I am always trying to improve it, as my friend always needles me about a Vancouver Skytrain incident where I was jumping to wrong conclusions.

So what was weird about this girl?  Again, she wasn't crying, and you see lots of kids walking about alone all the time.  Well, I think the thing that really made my radar go on red alert was the fact that she was so dirty.  Some girl waiting for her parents in such a crowded cosmopolitan area would not be so dirty.  I think?  But with this thought in mind, I worried and actually came to the wrong conclusion that maybe she was a street kid with no home.  This is when you need to proceed with caution and ask questions.  People often assess a situation and come to the wrong conclusion; they know that something is not right, but they're incorrect about what is not right.  Then they take the wrong actions accordingly because they fail to verify their conclusions.

So I asked the girl, "Hey kiddo, where are your parents?"  The girl said something about her parents not being there and started crying.  At this stage, one might get information that leads them in a certain direction, without waiting for complete information.  Then they create a situation even worse than before.  For me, my mind automatically switched to thinking that the parents had abandoned the kid, probably due to not having enough money to raise the kid (or maybe something even worse happened).  But I wanted to be sure I understood what the kid was saying, and my Mandarin still needs to improve.

So I called up my friend and told the kid to tell my friend her problem, then my friend would explain it to me.  For what seemed like forever, the kid explained what had happened, crying the whole time.  She gave my friend her mom's phone number, and I told my friend where the two of us were waiting.  My friend called her mom, who then called her brother; these kids were darker-skinned, definitely not Han Chinese people, so they don't have the one-child restriction.  Or maybe he was only a cousin, but kids still say brother and sister instead of cousin.  Anyway, the brother came on his bike to pick her up; he looked only eleven.  I asked if this was her brother, she nodded, got on the back of the bike, smiled at me, and waved while they rode away.

While we were waiting for her brother, she explained to me how she had gotten lost.  She had been playing on the second floor of the Walmart and lost sight of her brother.  We played a game while waiting called 3-6-9 (a game I learned as a kid from other Korean kids).  She even started smiling a bit, which was good.  What's most interesting is that she said she had been waiting there for about two hours.  Two hours, and nobody thought to ask her what's going on?  Well, this kid had probably been calm and well-behaved the entire time.  She didn't start crying until she tried to explain to me her problem.  Since kids are often seen alone, why should have anyone thought something was wrong here?

Pattern recognition for being able to recognize when something feels strange is a good thing.  With this skill, you can resolve problems before they happen, or before they grow too big, whether those problems be in personal relationships, work, or anything else.  It's a really important skill to have.  Some autistic people have the unfortunate condition of not being able to read body language or facial expressions very well, but for anyone who can develop this skill, they should.  Besides, not all problems are identified through body language anyway.  Again, while I'm not sure what compelled me to talk with her (well, thanks, God!), I think the key clue was that the kid's dirty clothes and face didn't fit her surrounding environment with so many well-dressed people bustling around.  But good pattern recognition needs to be balanced with a cautious approach so that we don't jump to wrong conclusions.  That goes double for poor pattern recognition.  Again, my original conclusion was that she was a street kid.

Well, the story had a happy ending.  Coming just out of a McDonald's, maybe it could have been a McDonald's commercial.  Except I was holding a KFC ice cream cone the whole time.  I offered to buy her lunch too, but she said she wasn't hungry.  Maybe she was just being wise because her parents told her not to accept candy from strangers.  The smile on her face as she rode away on the bike was great.  I'm going to wear a superhero costume next time.  With a cape.

Yes, I know, I still haven't written about that kid that was run over.  It's a sad but complicated issue.  Most difficult things are.  I have seven different blog posts in draft mode right now.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

On China, Bigotry, and Loving the Unlovable - A Lesson from a Chinese Brother

When I was volunteering in ZJ, there was an amazing Chinese guy who told us his life story.  Two parts of his story really stuck out to me.  The one I'll quickly cite here is how he was cheated when purchasing a lunch on a train in India, so he got angry.  But he was reminded to love the unlovable.  How can he love the person who cheated him?  It was a hard lesson for him and caused me to reflect much.

In China, there are a ton of problems.  Whether it's cell phone safety issues due to poor product design, infrastructure or construction disasters due to mismanagementtainted pork scandalsa huge real estate bubble (ok, honestly, anyone who purchases something but doesn't use it is only acting as a speculator that feeds bubble prices), or what have you, China has problems.  Want a summary?  Read the letter from the angry Chinese girl to the Norway bomber.  Heck, just today, I was buying some milk, and I couldn't figure out whether to trust the cheap milk or the expensive milk.  Is the cheap milk too cheap because it's bad?  Or is the expensive milk a big scam like the allegedly high-end pork that was tainted?  And how come all of it is stored on shelves with no refrigeration?  Should I buy the refrigerated milk instead?

A lot of people here ask me why I came here to China from Canada.  Why leave such a great country for such a poor one?  Isn't that ironic.  I struggle to tell them the media stories and general fear the western world seems to have these days about how China will take over the world and become the next global superpower.  But most Chinese citizens I meet don't believe that sentiment at all.  And ironically, on the other side of the ocean, my parents and others talk excitedly about how the rich Chinese immigrants are driving up all the real estate prices in Vancouver and elsewhere.  There's a huge disconnect here.  The rich (and many corrupt) are leaving, the poor are staying with fewer and fewer jobs, and there's little foundation for a stable society.  How the outside world views China and how China views itself are not the same.

So my friends continue to ask me.  Why did I come here?  I came here to learn Mandarin in the effort to dream that maybe, just maybe, one day I can do something like volunteer in ZJ long-term, among other things.  However, for my friends and colleagues, they worry that China will go bust within a decade, and then things will get really bad.  My one colleague's words echo in my ears: "If things get bad, you can always go home.  But we have to stay here."

I've never quite understood certain types of expats who work here, but would never be able to relate to normal Chinese folks.  They don't have normal Chinese friends (i.e. those who aren't rich), dislike normal Chinese food, avoid trying to learn the language, and live in conditions really out of touch with local conditions.  Are they really even living here, or did they somehow manage to transport a bubble of home over here with them?  I didn't want to be like them.  I wanted to mingle and do a deep dive into real Chinese culture.  And yet, over the past month, I've had various experiences that made me question my commitment and love for people so different myself.

It was a hot day.  I just wanted an ice cream cone.  I walked into the KFC and got in line.  There was only one guy in front of me.  Later, a lady walked up and stood beside me.  Together, we walked to the counter.  Does the guy serve me, standing right in front of him?  No, he asks the lady to the side what she wants.  Excuse me?  OK, it's OK, it's China.  I can wait.  On my right, another lady walks up.  So a girl comes and serves her.  Excuse me?  OK, it's OK.  Then a boy walks up on my right and goes to the counter as soon as the Lady #2 is done.  The girl serves him too.  Meanwhile, Lady #1 on my left is still not done.  Whatever, I can wait.  Then Lady #3 walks up and stands behind the boy.  The girl starts to serve her as well.  I finally get fed up.

Me:  "Hey, is there no meaning if I line up?"
Girl:  /looks at me confused.
Me:  "I've been waiting a long time here!"
Lady #3:  "Oh, he's been waiting in line."
Girl:  "Oh, I'm sorry, I thought he was helping you" /points at co-worker, who is still helping Lady #1; what is Lady #1 ordering??
Me:  "No, he's not helping me, he's helping her, and he's been taking a heck of a long time.  And I don't even know why he's helping her, I was lined up!"
Girl:  "Oh, sorry."
Me:  "Argh, just give me an ice cream."

So later, I went to get a milk tea at the shop near my apartment and complained to the girl behind the counter.

Milk Tea Girl:  "Oh, well, if you don't speak up, then it's difficult to know that you're ready to order.  There are lots of times when there are people here, and they're still deciding, so I serve someone else."
Me:  "No, that can't be it.  Because me and Lady #1 walked up to the counter at the same time, and I was right in front of the guy, and neither of us spoke.  He just asked her right away what she wanted."
Milk Tea Girl:  "Oh, well, maybe they didn't see you."
Me (thinking):  What?????

So I'm a pretty big guy by China standards, it's hard not to notice me if I'm standing right in front of you.  187cm.  

Me:  How could they not see me?  I was right in front of them!
Milk Tea Girl:  Well, if I'm busy serving someone, sometimes I won't notice if someone is waiting.

Now that's a significant cultural difference.  It's getting better in China, but it's still hard to get really good customer service.  In Canada, I'm used to people coming around and asking me if things are fine, looking around to see if anyone is waiting, etc.  You don't experience that a lot in China.  You have to go out of your way to get service, and it's often a matter of yelling for help first or barging your way into a conversation.

Just the other day, I was at China Telecom, getting my set top box changed.  This lady comes and demands something from the service rep.  Excuse me?  Did you not see me chatting with this person here?

As well, there are a lot of shortsighted small-minded people.  I'd say this has to do more with economic status than it does culture.  They're just trying to make ends meet, and Mr. Foreign Moneybags shouldn't condemn them.  Sometimes the small-mindedness extends to beyond economic matters to matters of stature (admittedly closely entwined subjects).  That gets irksome, but it comes with the territory.

Unfortunately, as much as I like diving into real Chinese culture, one thing I dearly miss about Vancouver is the diversity of food options.  Here in China, I am limited to eating cheap Chinese stuff often, simply because I don't know anyone who can afford to eat at expensive restaurants.  I'd be eating alone.  OK, sometimes I do this anyway.  As much as I love Chinese food, I loved Vancouver's diversity more, where you could go from pho to Japadogs to pasta to sushi to a great steak.  It's like one of those stupid first-world problems.

Similarly, the friends I have made here are difficult to compare to the friends I have in Vancouver.  We have little about which to communicate.  On an intellectual level, interest level, life goal level, and spiritual level, I have not found anyone here in Shenzhen with whom I can really communicate.  OK, I know some good friends in Chengdu (hi guys! :D), but they're not in Shenzhen.

So why am I here?  Should I just leave?  I don't think that's right.  I wanted to do this for real and not be half-hearted about it.  I just finished reading Through Gates of Splendor, the story of the five brave men who died to bring the gospel to the Waodani tribe in Ecuador.  These guys loved the Waodani so much, despite how remote they were, despite how primitive they were, and most importantly, despite knowing that the Waodani probably would despise them and even kill them (which they did).  But so much good happened because of that incident, thanks to the undying love that God implanted in the hearts of these men and their wives.  When their wives went to finish the mission work, they were able to reconcile with the Waodani, have peace with them, and change the world.  This story inspired a lot of people.

And thus I recalled the lesson of my dear friend from ZJ, how he had to learn how to love the unlovable.  Here is a Chinese guy only recently a believer, who understands the love of God far better than I do myself.  Before God, we are all the same, how can I be so irked by these people when I myself have irked God countless times?  Jesus had many parables on this theme.  It was humbling and made me realize I still have a long way to go, but motivated me to double down and sign a new 1-year contract for a new apartment.  Some things here in China may still irk me, but I'm here for a while yet.  Especially since my Mandarin still sucks.  And I promised a crying primary school kid that I'd try to go back to ZJ again.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Is the Bible full of 'forgeries'?

My friend pointed me to this article about a new book by a Bart Ehrman outlining a theory that many books in the New Testament were forged for an attempt to deceive people.  He asked for comment.  I figured I'd blog the comment, because my comment turned out to be quite long.

First, I have to say I'm not a complete expert on the subject of Biblical text validity, but I fortunately do know enough to get my feet wet and raise my hand when something smells funny.  Anytime someone claims something about the validity of Biblical text (or rather, lack thereof), something smells funny because the topic is a well-researched topic already.  On that note, I've read the 8 blog posts to which the article links, which are written by a supposed expert.  That guy, Ben Witherington, does a lot to decompose the linkbait into much ado about nothing.  It is good that the original article links to Witherington for balance, but the author of the original article doesn't say much about Witherington's commentary.

I find Witherington's text to be quite dry (as is common for academic people), but it is quite comprehensive and carries a balanced tone.  He explains when he agrees with Ehrman, when he thinks Ehrman is just a bit off, and when he thinks Ehrman is outright wrong.  He gives Ehrman credit when he feels credit is due instead of completely dismissing Ehrman, which I think is important for demonstrating that an argument received thorough consideration.  But most importantly, he's thorough.  Maybe too thorough; I fear that most people wouldn't have the stomach to read through all 8 blog posts.

Witherington's chief criticisms that stand out for me are that:
     a) Ehrman defines forgery specifically to suit his purposes, then frames the data to say that forgery happened, while if the data is in fact analyzed wholly and properly, it would not fit Ehrman's argument.
     b) Ehrman takes texts that are categorically dismissed as valid scriptures and unfairly lumps them together with texts that are categorically accepted as valid scriptures.  He attempts to make the argument that if one was dismissed, the other should also be considered for dismissal, even though that debate has long passed.
     c) Ehrman does not spend much time in his book analyzing the principles and historical knowledge that allow us to put a lot of trust into what is accepted as Biblical text.  This lack of balanced attention would easily result in a one-sided, biased argument; he ignores counter-evidence.

On the first point of framing definitions and data to suit his interests, it's sufficient to note that Ehrman accuses people of forgery where no attempt for forgery is apparent.  Witherington goes into a LOT of detail (those 8 blog posts are not short blog posts), but the gist of it is that Ehrman is drastically mischaracterizing people's intentions, writing practices, and written works.  If I tell you that I'm playing soccer today, and then you see me cooking fish, you're jumping to conclusions if you call me a liar.  One does not have anything to do with the other, and one does not exclude the other.

Whether Ehrman does this intentionally is probably unknown.  I know a lot of atheists and skeptics do similar things with scriptural texts, but completely unintentionally.  They're just too ignorant about what they're discussing to make proper judgments.  The most famous example I can think of is Bertrand Russell's commentary on Jesus and the fig tree in his classic, Why I Am Not a Christian.  Russell had no idea how far off the mark he was with his contentions.

On the second point of what is considered acceptable and unacceptable as a Biblical text, there is a wealth of academic information on what is known as the gnostic gospels or apocryphal texts.  The gnostic gospels clearly cannot be accepted as valid scriptural texts, for reasons as simple as date written (several centuries after the time of Jesus Christ), among many other reasons.  Some of Ehrman's arguments seem excellent for rejecting texts like the gnostic gospels.  However, the church already did that a long time ago, as experts still do today.  There's nothing new here.

According to Witherington, the new claim by Ehrman is that the accepted writings and the unaccepted writings should be compared as apples to apples.  This is unfair, as the topic is well-studied and the debate is over for experts who have studied the topic in depth.  Unfortunately, laypeople would not understand that, and would see Ehrman's views as a striking, controversial breath of fresh air.  On a side note, it's important to note that the phenomenon of these special texts that attempt to glorify certain historical figures with mystical stories written centuries after their lifetime is not unique to the person of Jesus Christ.  This in turn makes it even easier to reject the gnostic gospels and ascertain what can be considered acceptable.  Deep research into this specific topic was one of the turning points for Lee Strobel (now a famous pastor and Christian author) to change from atheism to Christianity.

On the third point, there is again a litany of points by Witherington.  But more importantly, I find this particular Ehrman quote from the original article most interesting:
"I'm not a Christian anymore, but it's not because of this kind of thing," he told me. "I got to a point where I could no longer believe that there's a good and powerful God in charge of the world, given all the pain and misery that's in it. ... I don't think that the God of the Bible exists."
That an academic should base his decision to abandon his faith based on such an emotional response to a difficult subject gives me cause for concern as to the rigor of his logic.  The logical aspects of the problem of pain and suffering has been studied quite thoroughly by many people, ranging from academics of yesteryear like C.S. Lewis (himself an atheist-turned-Christian) to modern experts like William Lane Craig today.  From a logical standpoint, the arguments are quite solid.  As many logicians will acknowledge, emotions are not so easy to handle in a similar manner.  Although the logic is quite solid, it may still be too difficult to accept the logic on an emotional level.

That being said, if people base a faith decision on emotion, rather than logic (as this author seems to do), it will then indicate to me that their subsequent works (such as his book on Biblical forgeries) would be prone to influence from such emotional bias and therefore lack logical rigor.  This honestly sounds like another guy who thinks that the world should be simple, easy, and nice without heavily contemplating the root causes and answers of the issues of evil.  That's a complaint I have with many folks who bring up the "problem of evil" argument against the existence of God.

Meanwhile, Christianity has explained that problem: it's at the core of the Christian faith, described in such texts as Genesis, Isaiah ch 59, Ezekiel ch 16, Epistle to the Romans, Epistle to the Hebrews, etc (well, pretty much the whole Bible).  Christianity also offers a solution, claiming that it's the only solution: salvation through Jesus Christ.  I can point to various friends and societies who have had their lives turned around by their faith experience as to the solution in action.  Of course, there are also counter-examples where the church has created evil and caused pain.  Let's be careful here and recognize that the problem of evil and the problem of hypocrisy are two separate problems.  One should not affect the other in terms of analysis.  Again, logic vs. emotion.

Ehrman's bias does seem to play itself out in the book according to Witherington's commentary, even in the gathering of the data.  As per Witherington's 2nd blog post on the book:
Here is where I say  ‘caveat emptor’—let the buyer beware when Bart begins to make sweeping claims like “Second Thessalonians… is itself widely thought by scholars not to be by Paul”  (p. 19).   I called Bart on this very point when we were debating at New Orleans Baptist Seminary last month.  I pointed out, that if one does the head count of what commentators say about 2 Thessalonians, in fact the majority of commentators, even if one restricts one’s self to  so-called critical commentators,  still believe Paul is responsible for 2 Thessalonians. 
Bart’s rebuttal was that he was not counting conservative  or orthodox commentators.   My response to the response was that in fact he was ruling out the majority of Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, not to mention some Jewish scholars at this point.    In other words,  his ‘canon’ of critical scholars is small, a distinct minority of the total number of NT scholars around the world,  with whom he has chosen to agree.     My point here is,  don’t believe such claims as ‘widely believed’  or  ‘the majority of good scholars think’  without first doing the math.   In fact, Bart’s math does not add up.   Thus while it is true that often forgers throw people off their trail by warning about forgery in their own forged documents,  in fact, there were plenty of genuine warnings of this sort by authors like Galen, who were really upset with people writing documents in their own name.   Galen even published a list of his authentic writings to make clear what was a forgery.   As it turn out, many ancients were very concerned about the dangers of forgery,  and Paul was one of them.
The original article does good to link to Witherington to provide balance.  But I fear that many atheists and skeptics would take the linkbait and run with it without wanting to consider the other side first, much as the original author seems to do.  All logicians on both sides of the debate need to hold themselves up to higher standards.  As well, people in general need to appreciate that any subject can be quite complicated.  If Witherington's analysis of Ehrman's text is accurate, Ehrman takes the analysis of scripture too lightly, just like Bertrand Russell did.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Who you want to be when you do that thing you do

We are who we choose to be.
~ Jim Raynor

Things are getting a bit crazy and still no blogging.  Trying to stay on top of crazy situations is difficult.  I don't know if I'll ever match up with what I experienced last year for a long, long time, but this is a nice reminder of how crazy it can get.

One moment that really stuck with me from my Olympic experience was sitting down with a bunch of people to sort out something important.  We laid out what the issues were, what the status of each issue was, what needed to be done to get those issues resolved, who would resolve each issue, and when each issue should be resolved.  This is basic problem solving and management 101.

Humbled through opportunities given despite the fact
That many misjudge him because he makes a living from writing raps
Put it together himself, now the picture connects
Never asking for someone's help, or to get some respect
He's only focused on what he wrote, his will is beyond reach
And now it all unfolds, the skill of an artist

The thing that stuck with me after that meeting was something someone from the venue management team said: "All right, Robert is the guy who gets things done!"  It was powerful to hear that.  It was satisfying because it's always nice to receive positive feedback.  It was humbling because it demonstrated that people were depending on me for really important things.  And it was inspiring because I realized I didn't want to just do my work; I wanted to develop a reputation that I was the guy to whom people could go to solve problems.  A clutch player who could get things done when the pressure was on.

Now in most situations, everyone depends on everyone else for something or other.  But some people will always be relied on a bit more than others.  It's their responsibility when things go bad, and it's everyone's reward when things goes right.  To bring your game face day-in and day-out with that type of environment can be difficult, especially when things are getting dreary.  The reward may or may not be worth it.  Besides that, who are you to say that you have what it takes over anybody else?  If your work is a place where value is demanded, not just desired, then you have to win every day, even though it's just not possible.  What have you done for me lately?

He often gets a comment on his name
People keep asking him was it given at birth
Or does it stand for an acronym?
No he's living proof, got him rocking the booth
He'll get you buzzing quicker than a shot of vodka with juice
Him and his crew are known around as one of the best
Dedicated to what they do and give a hundred percent

This is why it's so important for you to develop a foundation of yourself outside of work.  A sense of identity of who you are, so that when you fail at work, you won't just die from lack of self-worth.  Your faith, your family, your hobby, you name it.  Something that will keep you balanced when everything is up in flames and will keep you moving forward when the flames burst into a veritable forest fire.  Your work is not your life, it just gives you the means to live your life.  Go into the battle after developing your foundational self and getting life sorted out.  No athlete is able to compete at a high level until they're good at the basics first.

Then you stand on your foundation and work your butt off to make things right.  How do you do that?  OK, that's the subject of a number of posts I want to write.  But it goes without saying that it'll be a tough slog and you'll have to work your butt off.

Forget Mike - Nobody really knows how or why he works so hard
It seems like he's never got time
Because he writes every note and he writes every line
And I've seen him at work when that light goes on in his mind
It's like a design is written in his head every time
Before he even touches a key or speaks in a rhyme

It's cheesy, but one of the best sources of inspiration in this theme for me comes from the anime Naruto.  Hyuuga Neji is fighting against a ninja stronger than anyone he's ever fought before.  He's facing death.  But he pulls out all the stops and throws away his life to win.  One thought drives his last gasp.  He's always been called a genius prodigy, ever since his childhood.  People believe he's special.  And for the sake of people who believe in his abilities and the sake of the reputation he's cultivated, he isn't going to let some guy who just happens to be stronger than anyone he's ever faced defeat him.  It's partly pride, but it's also responsibility because so many are depending on him to get the job done.

Who do you want to be?  That statement still rings in my ears today.  "Robert is the guy who gets things done!"  Is it still true?  If it's not, why not?  Have I lost what gives me power and motivation?  Do I need to take a break and find myself again because I've been too eaten up by whatever I'm doing?  Am I just tired of it all?  These are the things that run through your mind when you start to lose control.  Self-doubt creeps in.  But if you've been through the wars, you know how to Step back, Assess, Recharge, and then Counterattack; let's call it SARC for short.  Just be prepared to work hard after you figure out what needs to be done.  And even more importantly, work hard first to figure out what needs to be done.  If you can figure out how to consistently and successfully SARC, people will remember you.  Your reputation will stand out.  They'll come back to you because you'll be the clutch player who can get things done.

This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill
Fifteen percent concentrated power of will
Five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain
And a hundred percent reason to remember the name!

This post was brought to you by the insanity that my brain is trying to contain right now.  Things are busy.  :)  Just face each task thinking about what depends on that particular thing.  Nothing depending on you?  Maybe it's time to make a move.  Your call.  Don't want people to depend on you?  Well, you'll usually get what you ask for in that scenario.

Lyrics for Remember the Name written by Fort Minor.

Friday, November 19, 2010

China Plays Chicken with the Economy

I've written a couple of items on how China is growing, but at the same time has some tricky things to figure out.  The biggest issue is how does China keep growing the economy?  Previous years count the lucky number as 7: the Chinese government estimates that a 7% annual growth rate is necessary to keep the population happy.  The world complains that the RMB is undervalued, which unfairly enables Chinese-made products to cost less than products from other nations in the international market.

The thing is, while economic health is an important issue in most of the developed world, it's perhaps more important in China because it's commonly believed that annual 7% economic growth is the only thing that keeps China's population from mass riots.  China has almost no social safety net, despite being a Communist nation (or as many economists might say, due to being a Communist nation, but that becomes less and less an argument as they transition more and more to capitalism).  There are a bunch of factors that ensure that China's future long-term success is not a sure shot.

Firstly, relying on the economy to keep people happy and fed is hard because much of the growth just can't be sustainable.  You know that things are out of control when normal middle class people start pulling every trick in the book to get on the train before it leaves the station.  Like getting a divorce just to be able to qualify to get a second home?  Those restrictions were put in place to cool down the real estate market.  Instead, it just keeps heating up.  What happened to buy low, sell high?

Secondly, inflation is going insane.  It's nowhere yet what Germany experienced in the 1920s, but it certainly is worth noticing:
Since the beginning of 2010, the price of sugar has increased 100 percent and the price of garlic ten-fold in some regions of China. Hot pepper rose from 4 yuan ($0.60) a kilogram to 40 yuan in May in Beijing, and the price of potatoes surged 84.8 percent from January to June.

Prices of pork, eggs, ginger, silk, mung beans, cotton, soybeans, bean oil and even apples have also jumped month by month, earlier reports showed. 
(quote found courtesy of China Hearsay)
When inflation is going wild like this, people's income is worth significantly less.  For a nation that depends on economic health for the happiness of its population, this is a bad thing.  The biggest example for me is in the bottles of Minute Maid.  I swear that a bottle of Minute Maid orange juice in China was a lot bigger in April than it is now.  And it's still the same price.

Thirdly, the wealthier folks are feeling the pressures/risks that arise from income disparity, and are turning to private bodyguards for protection.  This trend has been increasing for a few years now.  It demonstrates two things: firstly, people don't trust the government to be able to keep order.  Secondly, people don't trust their fellow members of society to be nice.  That can only entrench the idea of an unstable society.

Since the Chinese government only has the economy at their disposal to keep order peacefully, they're caught between a rock and a hard place.  A lot of China's growth has been in real estate, but you can just feel that there's something wrong with this real estate picture.  A friend of mine recently invested in a condo with another friend.  They plan to flip it in a few years.  But they don't want to rent it out to anybody in the meantime because the wear and tear from living in it would decrease the condo's long-term potential value.

Likewise, in Beijing after the 2008 Summer Olympics, there were many buildings that were made for the Olympics, but absolutely empty with no purpose afterwards.  The government is investing everywhere, but governments are highly inefficient at allocating capital.  So both residential and corporate real estate are skyrocketing, but with no real tenants.  It's a ponzi scheme where owners just hope they can sell to another sucker before it all comes crashing down.

Hey, we've seen this movie before, haven't we?  The USA kept investing in real estate and even started handing out bad loans so that people could afford to buy homes they couldn't afford, because they incorrectly assumed that prices would always go up, enabling an easy refinancing of loans when necessary.  And we know how that movie ended.  Actually, no we don't.  Maybe we're only in the middle of that movie, and there are more disasters to come.

A just economy is the foundation for a healthy economy.  I attended a seminar today put on by the Swedish Chamber of Commerce on business corruption in China.  The speakers were comprised of the head of a Scandinavian security consultancy based in Beijing (the guy used to be the head of security for the royal family in Sweden, how cool is that?), and a Swedish lawyer based in Hong Kong.  I came away from this seminar with five main points:
  1. If you want to do business in China, you need people on the ground that you can trust.  And you can trust local Chinese people to do the job for you, you just need to find the right ones.  In fact, hire a security consultancy to do some due diligence for you.  Even if the firm, bank, or factory comes highly recommended.  Yeah, OK, I was sold very well.
  2. While the central Chinese government is hardcore about stamping out corruption, China's a big country, and Beijing is far away from everywhere else.  The stuff that happens on the ground can be horrible, and you can't walk in blind and naive.  Imagine being unable to leave for your home country for a business trip or vacation, just because you didn't pay someone a bribe for your business operations.  And it doesn't get resolved until 5 months later, despite intercession from your embassies.  All because of a small town judge living in a conspiring world.
  3. Guanxi (the power that arises from having strong relationships) does not equal corruption.  People give each other gifts and take care of each other because of guanxi, but guanxi is about true friendship.  Corruption is when money is passed to get something done that would not have been done without the money.  Admittedly, it's sometimes hard to differentiate between the two scientifically or in a court of law.  It may be one of those things where only the people who are directly involved can really know and understand what's happening.
  4. You can't brush all of China with one stroke.  While there are plenty of stories of corruption and bad things, you can't paint all of China with the colours of just a few experiences.  Again, Beijing is far away, and many people and companies are experiencing good success in China.  Stereotyping is like driving through a gang fight in LA and thinking that everyone in the USA shoots guns at each other all day long.  It's just not true everywhere just because you can cite some examples.  But the examples do give you reason to take the risk seriously and prepare for it well.
  5. People aren't afraid of using physical violence to make their point.  Especially if everyone stands to gain from the "protection money" (looking at the cops).  One business executive was brutally assaulted for just switching suppliers.  He felt his old supplier wasn't paying enough attention to quality.  So the supplier got some hoodlums to go after him.
The fact that corruption still exists in vast quantity is poison to China's future economic health.  Eventually, a business has to decide whether the risks are worth it, and if so, fully commit to investing in the proper things to do things properly.  However, point #5 is the most relevant for thinking about what happens if China's economy crashes and is unable to recover.

Maybe, just MAYBE, China's middle class will continue to grow, China will be able to move up the value chain, and China will be able to start developing real heavy duty sustainable consumers.  However, if they don't and the house of cards comes crashing down, what will happen?  What happened with any extremely upset population throughout history?  Revolution.  It's a scary thought.  In the most extreme case, the Chinese government could implement martial law.  I've seen the military out in force before in rural regions where there was risk for unrest; it quiets things down in a hurry.  But then the question arises whether it would escalate to civil war.

When China's trying to keep its economy growing at the expense of other nations, it's true that it wants to be #1, it's true that it wants to be king, rather than the servant.  But perhaps it's more that they're just scared to death that if they don't keep this economic engine going, they'll see the worst riots in their history.  There is no safety net here.  The Chinese government can't be flippant and say, "Let them eat cake."

But what about things that are more foundational?  What if there's something to change the fundamental aspect of why China believes that economic prosperity is its only weapon against potential unrest?  I've never been broke or homeless before.  But I've met people who have been in such a destitute state, were able to survive it, and then recover and thrive.  What I've learned from these people is that you can't let your self-worth depend on your wealth, success, or happiness.  Those are forever effects, not causes.  Your sense of life, purpose, and attitude needs to be rooted in something much stronger and long-lasting.  For me, that's my faith.  For China, that's... what?  I think that's the question that China must answer, because if they can't, they might not be able to survive any crash that might come their way.  And I'll posit that God is the only final answer that can withstand any test.  In my experience, he can change people's hearts for the better too.  And judging from the stories of these people I know, that kind of inner strength and hope is the most important thing for surviving a major crisis and then recovering from it.

Can China learn the lesson that money can't buy everything?  Or will it continue to play chicken with the economy and just hope that everyone survives?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Rules for living life

Hey, this is just a great read by Clayton M. Christensen, the man who is THE thought leader on technological disruption thanks to his Innovator's Dilemma model.  :)  It's his speech to the 2010 graduating class of Harvard Business School.  He talks about how to live life.  Check it out.

And for all you techies out there, this story at the beginning is really fun.

Before I published The Innovator's Dilemma, I got a call from Andrew Grove, then the chairman of Intel. He had read one of my early papers about disruptive technology, and he asked if I could talk to his direct reports and explain my research and what it implied for Intel. Excited, I flew to Silicon Valley and showed up at the appointed time, only to have Grove say, "Look, stuff has happened. We have only 10 minutes for you. Tell us what your model of disruption means for Intel." I said that I couldn't—that I needed a full 30 minutes to explain the model, because only with it as context would any comments about Intel make sense. Ten minutes into my explanation, Grove interrupted: "Look, I've got your model. Just tell us what it means for Intel."

I insisted that I needed 10 more minutes to describe how the process of disruption had worked its way through a very different industry, steel, so that he and his team could understand how disruption worked. I told the story of how Nucor and other steel minimills had begun by attacking the lowest end of the market—steel reinforcing bars, or rebar—and later moved up toward the high end, undercutting the traditional steel mills.

When I finished the minimill story, Grove said, "OK, I get it. What it means for Intel is...," and then went on to articulate what would become the company's strategy for going to the bottom of the market to launch the Celeron processor.

I've thought about that a million times since. If I had been suckered into telling Andy Grove what he should think about the microprocessor business, I'd have been killed. But instead of telling him what to think, I taught him how to think—and then he reached what I felt was the correct decision on his own.

That experience had a profound influence on me. When people ask what I think they should do, I rarely answer their question directly. Instead, I run the question aloud through one of my models. I'll describe how the process in the model worked its way through an industry quite different from their own. And then, more often than not, they'll say, "OK, I get it." And they'll answer their own question more insightfully than I could have.

Wow, great stuff or what?  :)  Here's the point that everyone needs to figure out their foundation (and make sure that it's capable of serving as a foundation) before they can build anything with their lives.

Over the years I've watched the fates of my HBS classmates from 1979 unfold; I've seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn't keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.

It's quite startling that a significant fraction of the 900 students that HBS draws each year from the world's best have given little thought to the purpose of their lives. I tell the students that HBS might be one of their last chances to reflect deeply on that question. If they think that they'll have more time and energy to reflect later, they're nuts, because life only gets more demanding: You take on a mortgage; you're working 70 hours a week; you have a spouse and children.

For me, having a clear purpose in my life has been essential. But it was something I had to think long and hard about before I understood it. When I was a Rhodes scholar, I was in a very demanding academic program, trying to cram an extra year's worth of work into my time at Oxford. I decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth. That was a very challenging commitment to keep, because every hour I spent doing that, I wasn't studying applied econometrics. I was conflicted about whether I could really afford to take that time away from my studies, but I stuck with it—and ultimately figured out the purpose of my life.

Had I instead spent that hour each day learning the latest techniques for mastering the problems of autocorrelation in regression analysis, I would have badly misspent my life. I apply the tools of econometrics a few times a year, but I apply my knowledge of the purpose of my life every day. It's the single most useful thing I've ever learned. I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, they'll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at HBS. If they don't figure it out, they will just sail off without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life. Clarity about their purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, and the five forces.

I believe this is something that many parents don't teach their kids anymore: how to decide and remember what matters and give it priority above all else.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Transaction costs in China: the Chinese economy's biggest problem

OK, story first.  And there's a point to this story.  I just came back from dinner with a co-worker, and I saw this massive cockroach sitting on my couch.  It was maybe 2 or 3 inches long, plus antennae.  I freaked.  I mean, come on, cockroaches in my apartment???  So when I turned on the light, it quickly ran to hide on the backside of the couch, but I could still see its antennae poking up.  Having no clue how to say cockroach or bug spray in Mandarin, I quickly booted up the computer and fired up Google Translate.  End result, I still don't know how to say those words in Mandarin.  Thanks a lot, Google Translate, your Mandarin pronunciation sucks.  Then I went to a neighbour (the first one didn't answer the door, but the second one did) and struggled through an attempt to ask for bug spray.  Eventually, she got it and got some bug spray for me.  Cool.

Back to the couch, I switched on some more lights, and immediately yelped in surprise (it was a yelp, not a scream, I swear!) because I thought I saw a second roach on my bag.  To my relief, my eye had spied my bag's zipper and mistaken it for a roach.  Then I tilted the couch's back (it's foldable), and sprayed like crazy.  The real roach dashed off to a crack between the couch's base and the couch's seat cushions, where I could spray it no longer.  So next I tried lighting up one of those Raid spiral things to hem the roach in, and then relocated the spiral to force the roach out.  I could hear it scattering all around inside the couch's structure, but it never came out.  Finally, it stopped moving.  I don't know whether it went to sleep or it died.  Most likely it died?  But either way, I'm not happy, because I couldn't flush it down the toilet.  A quick web search confirms that cockroaches are cannibalistic, so if it's dead, there's now a clear food source for more cockroaches.  And if it's alive, then dang, it's still alive.  UPDATE:  Halfway through writing this post, the roach escaped the couch, and I was able to trap it into a dustpan and flush it down the toilet.  End score?  PakG1: 1.  Roach: 0.

The thing is, cockroaches enjoy dirty places.  So maybe all of a sudden, I'm going to become a clean freak.  But isn't it interesting that cockroaches are attracted to and thrive in the dirty places?  So here's the question: why can't cockroaches thrive in clean areas?  You can reach your own conclusions with some research.  Let's now talk about economics.

Old Story #1.  I first learned about transaction costs and the Coase Theorem in BUEC 495 while attending my last semester of school at SFU.  BUEC 495 was titled "Economic Analysis of the Law", was led by a professor named Doug Allen, and was easily the most difficult course I ever took.  I never felt so stupid as I did in that course.  Every class, we had to read some major economic paper and come to class prepared to discuss it.  The textbook was written by this guy named Richard Posner, and it was the only textbook I ever read that literally (not figuratively) gave me a headache.  But I came away from that course with two insights: first, economics is really about behaviour, not money, and second, transaction costs and the Coase Theorem are for real.

Old Story #2.  I was attending a one-day annual student conference hosted by the Fraser Institute, an economic think tank in Canada.  The theme that year was about how free markets enable economic development around the world (or something like that); the Fraser Institute is a firm believer in free markets.  One keynote speaker was a journalist from the Vancouver Sun, and a student asked him what was needed to get various 3rd world nations out of poverty.  The journalist based his answer on a study and analysis that had been done by so and so parties about economic development in Africa.  They found that good, long-term, real economic development had three requirements.  I can't remember all three, but the very first one was "respect for the law" (assuming that the law is of course just).

By now you're either asking what's with all the stories, or you've already figured out how to put the puzzle pieces together.

Transaction costs are the costs necessary for a property owner to establish, maintain, and transfer property rights (courtesy of good ole Doug Allen), whether the property be a plot of land, a car, or a trademark.  So for example, the transaction costs of purchasing a new home would be the real estate agent fee, moving costs (unless it's an investment property and you're renting it out), renovation costs (if it's in need of repair or you want to upgrade something), cleaning costs (who doesn't at least clean the carpet before they move in, if not outright replace it?), taxes, insurance, and so on.  The purchase price is really only one part of the equation.  The Coase Theorem states that efficiency (i.e. an optimal state of affairs) is gained when there are zero transaction costs.  Therefore, if transaction costs exist in a transaction, there will naturally be unexploited opportunities that could have created wealth in the absence of said transaction costs.  Or in other words, if we didn't rely on real estate agents, the seller could make some more money and the buyer could save some more money.  Of course, the real estate agent exists because he has a better understanding of the market and thus lowers the search cost and opportunity cost of real estate transactions, which in themselves could have actually turned out to be much more expensive transaction costs for the transacting parties.  So real estate agents will argue that their role actually lowers transaction costs.

Naturally, if an economy has lower transaction costs, it will have a healthier economy.  If businesses can be incorporated quickly at low cost, entrepreneurs can create new value and jobs faster.  People with poorer skills would not need to rely on big business to make money, but would be able to even open up a vendor cart on the street to make enough to get by.  The talented people would really be able to fly.  Stuff like that.

Old Story #2 explains how transaction costs can actually end up becoming high, even if there are valiant attempts to lower those same transaction costs.  It all comes down to trust and the integrity required to follow a just rule of law.  If there is little or no trust between two parties, then there need to be huge transaction costs to ensure a successful transaction.  Escrow services to ensure the seller doesn't con the buyer and just run away with the cash.  Lawyers to draw up big fancy contracts to ensure consequences if something goes wrong or if somebody is unfaithful to the expectations of the transaction.  In transactions between gangs or drug lords, you would probably even have a ton of armed bodyguards at the transaction scene, just to make sure nobody pulls a fast one or attempts murder.  When you don't trust the other party, you have to pay a lot more to make sure the transaction gets done.  And if your transaction costs end up being too high, then it's possible you have to consider whether the transaction is even worth it.  This is how transaction costs can kill transactions, and thereby an economy.  And if there is rampant corruption in an economy, trust is almost nonexistent, and transaction costs such as bribes and quid pro pro are epidemic.  A free market cannot create wealth in this kind of environment because products and services that provide the best value are not able to compete on their own merits, let alone be profitable if the transaction costs are too high.  In the worst-case scenario, it'll be the unsafe products that thrive, creating mass social destruction and scandals galore.

In China, you still have big corruption issues.  One of my managers (it seems I have 3 managers, I'm not sure?) notes that 60 years ago, corruption was not a problem.  If a public official so much as accepted a bribe, he was shot.  I don't know if he was serious that it was a small problem back then, and I'm not an expert on Chinese history, but he seemed pretty serious.  My friend who had visited China earlier this year told me about a night-time barbecue restaurant he learned about in Beijing.  Apparently, the owner had to pay off both the police and the local gangs in order to keep operating, and he still made a healthy profit.  Some may say that this is amazing, wow, the guy must be rolling in dough.  But the problem is that those transaction costs prevented the owner from making hard-earned, well-deserved cash.  Many people are resigned to the idea that this is simply the cost of doing business on this side of the world.  Here's some news.  If it doesn't get cleaned up, the cost of trust in transactions will keep rising, eventually forcing the economy to stagnate and maybe even collapse.

Transaction costs that create some semblance of value are good.  They're necessary components of a transaction due to our inability to know all things and see all things.  However, transaction costs like bribery and "protection payments" are simply a drag on the economy.  They transfer wealth from enterprises that create value to enterprises that don't create value, which in turn leads to weak gross economic output per capita.  Everyone needs to be pulling their own weight for an economy to truly grow, and for everyone to participate like that, they need to be trustworthy so that other parties will be willing to transact with them.  Those who don't pull their own weight and simply figure out a way to ride the coattails of those that do, they only create economic and social costs that have long-term impact. But because it's easy money, those with the ability (and the necessary lack of morality) will jump at the opportunity to get a piece of the action.  In this sense, society is like my apartment.  A clean society with clear just laws and citizens that are willing to obey and uphold those laws will be able to create wealth efficiently and will not indulge in a lot of crime.  Meanwhile, a dirty society with unkempt laws and an even poorer social infrastructure and law enforcement will only allow the criminals to thrive, because unclear laws that cannot be enforced will disable truly good transactions from being profitable, forcing those transactions to instead disappear.  The cockroaches will thrive, even though the transaction costs of untrustworthy transactions would be high.  Fact is, they'd still be more profitable than just transactions in such a dingy social environment.

This is a classic chicken or egg question.  Which needs to be first?  The good economy to dissuade people from turning to crime and creating a morally bankrupt society, or the good society, to ensure a good economy?  I think Rudy Giuliani was able to prove with the city of New York that social infrastructure matters.  Even something as simple as keeping the city clean of graffiti was key to telling people that New York was a city where you could walk around freely and safely to conduct legal and just transactions (both social and economic) as you saw fit.  Perhaps the most interesting insight is from a prominent Chinese economist who concluded that economies built on the ethics found in churches thrive better than those that are not build on such foundations.  He's an interesting story, an atheist who set out to disprove the Bible, but ended up giving up and converting; either before or after that, he wrote his seminal paper on the subject of ethics in churches and ethics in economics.  He now believes that Christianity can have a profound impact on China and China's economy.  We'll probably see this coming decade whether that will actually be the case, the way Christianity is growing in China.  I have my own thoughts on the subject, but I'll keep them to myself for now.  One could say that the growing lack of ethics that the US has recently shown (especially at the executive and investment banking levels) is the biggest reason why subprime had the effects it did, to say nothing of people like Madoff.

Whatever the root causes and potential solutions are, it's clear to me that if foundational societal ethics aren't figured out, transaction costs will remain high, which could indeed lead to economic unsustainability, no matter how high the Chinese economic rocket grows (perhaps the higher, the worse it could be).  I'll end my thoughts with an explanation of how a lot of the tax system here seems to be administrated, as an example of how bad things can get.

The tax system here is quite different from North America.  When you buy something (anything from riding a taxi to reloading your mobile phone with minutes to eating a meal at a restaurant), you can ask for fapiao.  For some reason, everyone translates the word "fapiao" as "invoice", but the way it's used in practice seems much closer to the translation "receipt".   Since I don't know what the truth is, I'll just say fapiao.  Fapiao have official government stamps and often come in denominations like currency; they can also be customized to specific amounts.  Official fapiao are purchased by the seller from the government and are the only truly acceptable receipts; this ensures that sellers report their income properly.  The fapiao that come in denominations are also lottery tickets to ensure that consumers ask for them.  If someone wins the lottery, the company pays the money and then gets reimbursed by the government.

I need official fapiao from my landlord to be able to get certain benefits from my employer.  Guess what?  My landlord didn't want to get the official fapiao, because he wanted to avoid tax.  He would rather cancel the tenant contract.  So then I started looking for a new place to live.  Gah!  Luckily, my search had me meet a knowledgeable real estate agent (see, understanding of the market!) who was able to explain to my landlord how the fapiao system worked, and that it was possible to just get me to pay for it.  Which is not bad, considering that every new prospective landlord I met expected the same.  None of them were willing to pay for their own tax.

Hey, I get it if a landlord doesn't want to pay for tax, the natural effect of many taxes is for the seller to pass the tax on to the buyer in the form of higher prices.  What alarms me is that the government has to enact and administrate a paper-intensive lottery system to ensure that business owners and landlords report their income properly.  Can you imagine the added cost of administrating such a system in a country of 1.4 billion people?  How much value does this system add to the economy?  None, really.  It's a drain on the economy.  It's only there to try to convince companies to report their income, and it generates no revenues of its own for investing into social infrastructure.  This kind of system is unheard of in many nations with solid economic infrastructures, and it's one of the canaries in the coal mine that maybe things aren't as bright as they seem.

There are obviously a lot of other issues that can also hold China back.  For example, the education system is primarily rote learning, leading to students who lack creativity and critical analysis.  I know from my experiences of trying to teach kids English here on a volunteer basis, and some of my Chinese co-workers say it's a big problem in elementary and high schools.  And goodness knows what'll happen as the population ages and a much smaller generation of youngsters tries to take up the torch.  Etcetera, etcetera.  But like I said before, if China can get things figured out, wow.  They'll be a force.  Rome wasn't built in a day.  But Rome did last a long long time before crazies like Nero came along.  Can the new China be a civilization with such longevity or will they collapse under the weight of their transaction costs?  Time will tell, but I'm quite interested in having a front row seat to the action.

As for the roach?  As you read in the update above, I triumphed.  I hope it was the only one.  I think I'll give the place a good cleaning later this week.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Forbidden City

So I pass through another gate looking for You
And I find only another city without any blue
There is no heaven in this place
I can only feel the emperor's cold embrace

But who is the emperor You ask of me
Is it me or You, I cannot see
For You are not cold, this is what You say
But what about the warmth I try to display?

Gate after gate, there is no end
And to each path, I try myself to bend
I only feel warped, maybe distraught
And You shake your head, saying I forgot

Forgot what, I ask, what did I forget?
Did I not walk Your path, seeking counsel yet?
I search and I seek, but I do not find
What is there for me you must remind?

And it dawns on me as I enter Your chamber
Your seat, your treasures, are here no longer
In an effort to keep them safe did I remove them
Doing what I thought was best, but emperor I wasn't

Where are they now, so far away?
Must I now travel across stormy seas to Taipei?
No, you call me home, for You are not far
You sit on the true throne in the forbidden city of my heart

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Bright Moon

Have you ever seen the brilliance of a full moon? It's totally something else and far brighter than when the moon is partially in shadow. You can see a halo around it as well, giving the moon a very noticeable shining effect, such that it contrasts totally with the darkness of the night.
Bright Moon
By Robert Park
Date Unknown
It was full
It was bright
It sparkled through the night
Why waste time with silly rhymes
That confine the visage
To something
Short of sublime?
Bright circle
Enveloped by a halo
Its rays streaked
Radiantly it shone
Is it any wonder
That this desolate rock
Reflected the sun?
And yet, taking up the sky
Being so dominant
I lifted my eyes
And realized
The moon may shine
But the stars define
The skies that we lie under.
What a sky, what a vision
What lies beyond
A question never answered
By the limited minds
Of our finite people
And yet I believe God was right
When he said, "It is good."

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The God Delusion

I was with amcal in Chapters, and noticed copies of The God Delusion on a bunch of shelves. Given that this seems to be the most popular atheist book at the moment, I opened it up to have a glance. The author, Richard Dawkin, analyzes and attacks a number of arguments that either try to prove God or attack atheism; in other words, he acts as the atheist's apologist. A good summary of the book can be found at, of course, Wikipedia:

I read the first few pages of the preface, and have to say that I was immediately turned off. Dawkins immediately made some fallacies, the most prominent of which was the statement that religion was the cause of war, and if there was no religion, there could potentially be no war. I find it difficult to believe that anyone who is capable of critical thought is able to come to this conclusion after deeply studying the issue of war, and many of the past wars that have happened in this earth's history. And this argument was included in the spotlight of the book's opening arguments. So I decided that the book was not worth reading.

Amcal challenged me on this. Are we really able to draw conclusions about something so easily without analyzing the entire thing? He conceded that in our rush-rush world, it's very difficult to give something our valuable time, if there are indications that the time would be wasted. But it was a point nevertheless. You shouldn't judge a book by its cover, and perhaps not by its preface as well.

Later in the day, I happened to be in another bookstore, and I walked by another book. This one was called The Dawkins Delusion, and responded to each of the arguments in the book that Richard Dawkins wrote. Hmm, interesting. I thought about what amcal had said, and thought about how many Christians would probably be absolutely willing to read a book like The Dawkins Delusion without even giving The God Delusion a second thought.

OK then, amcal. I will take you up on your challenge. When I return from China, I will buy and read The God Delusion. I will analyze it and blog my thoughts about each chapter. I will then read The Dawkins Delusion and see whether or not my thoughts match up with the thoughts of the second book's author. And perhaps I will be able to find an atheist who finally looks like he knows what he's talking about. Unfortunately, judging from the review quotes on the Wikipedia page, this looks like it might not be likely. Here are some examples:
The physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, writing in Nature, says that although a "fan" of Dawkins's science writing, he wishes that Dawkins "had continued to play to his strengths". Krauss suggests that an unrelenting attack upon people's beliefs might be less productive than "positively demonstrating how the wonders of nature can suggest a world without God that is nevertheless both complete and wonderful." Krauss is disappointed by the first part of the book, but quite positive about the latter part starting from Dawkins's discussion of morality. He remarks, "Perhaps there can be no higher praise than to say that I am certain I will remember and borrow many examples from this book in my own future discussions." In particular, he praises the treatment of religion and childhood, although refraining from using the term "child abuse" himself.

Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books argues that Dawkins has insufficient understanding of the religious concepts he is attacking to engage with them effectively. He comments, "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology." He questions whether Dawkins has read or heard of Christian thinkers like Eriugena, Rahner or Moltmann. He denies that all faith is blind faith, suggests that "while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it". He claims that "Critics of the most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive". He adds, however, that Dawkins is effective in attacking "that particular strain of psychopathology known as fundamentalism, whether Texan or Taliban".
If he commits any of the fallacies I list here, I will be severely disappointed.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Joined a Bible Study

One thing that was missing from my life ever since I graduated from SFU was that intimate time where I could get together on a weekly basis with a close group of friends and dive into the Bible with them. I was part of a club called Campus for Christ (back then, Campus Crusade for Christ). It was great. We'd discuss Biblical teaching, everyday applications, and hardcore theology. And then I graduated.

My church is small, and there aren't that many people my age there. So it's hard to have a small group environment similar to what I experienced at SFU. Well, some friends from MSI have been bugging me to join BSF for a while now, and I finally relented to attend a session.

I was very much not interested in attending BSF, because it seemed very much like a Christian singles bar kind of thing. Co-ed classes, and you had to be single. If you're not single, then there are separate men's and women's classes. But it sounded like it would be full of people who were more interested in finding a mate than those who actually wanted to know God better. That thought really turned me off. If people are going to a Bible study, conference, whatever, the primary purpose shouldn't be the meat market. The primary purpose should be growth in your relationship with Jesus Christ. That's why I don't think I'd ever attend a Bible college, given how many people seem to go to find a marriage partner, hence the moniker bridal college. If I ever really did want some sort of "official" education, some sort of seminary would probably be better.

I was very impressed by BSF, mainly because of what they expect from people. There's daily homework for individual Bible study. If you're late for your discussion group (which happens before mass lecture), they ask that you do not go into your group, lest you disrupt their discussion; instead, you are to wait in the general chamber for the week's lecture. As well, if you are absent for three weeks in a row, they will assume that you've quit, and will remove you from the class. If you want to be reinstated, you have to go through an application process. Same if you are habitually tardy or show some other sign of little commitment.

I like that. So the people who will be involved in the study truly will want to be there. In theory. Some guys told me later that there is some grace, and they aren't really that strict for some things. The men's group is supposed to be much stricter. However, it's still very interesting that the mindset is there. I signed up for September, which is when the next session starts. Each session is eight months long, and this coming one will focus on Matthew.

Yay. It will be good to be in a small group setting again, among people my own age. :)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Atheist Rhetoric Tends to Suck

I was on Youtube and ended up watching some atheist videos. It was very interesting to listen to their arguments and I was debating whether or not I should post responses. In the end, I decided not to because I don't have a good track record of convincing atheists that the premises they start out with in their arguments are baseless. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I have yet for anyone to convince me that my reasoning is unsound either. I'm going to list some standard arguments I see from atheists, my responses to them, and perhaps somebody can explain to me where I'm wrong (if I am wrong).

1. There's no use reading a book that's thousands of years old with outdated statements and morals.

Personally, I don't see what the issue is here. If something has been around for thousands of years, and continues to be around, it would seem to me that's because it has staying power. If it has staying power, how can it be outdated? I always ask atheists that use this argument to explain why time is a disqualifier. I've yet to receive an answer to that request. Usually, they ignore my request for a sound argument on time being a disqualifier. On the rare occasion, they respond to it by saying, "Well, it just is!" Sorry, not good enough for me.

2. If God created the universe, then who created God?

Why should there be any reason to believe that something created God? If God is truly what he says he is, then his existence stretches from negative infinity to positive infinity in time. Actually, time is simply just another dimension in our existence anyway, and God is not constrained to that dimension. Rather, he's outside of it; if he created it, he created anything. I liken it to a pencil-drawn stick man being constrained to two dimensions. Let's say that stick man is alive, conscious, self-aware, and active. It's able to go all over the place on the x and y planes, but it's not even able to conceive what it would be like to move around on the z plane. Likewise, we're constrained to four dimensions. We can go all over the place on the x, y, and z planes, and only forward in the time plane, but we have no idea how we'd move around in any dimensions beyond that. But just like we're not constrained to just two dimensions, God is not constrained to time. He's outside of time. Why does he need to have a beginning or be created to be explained? That would by definition contradict who God claims to be. Atheists shouldn't be asking who created God, they should be trying to prove that God had a creator (which some try to do in saying that humanity made him up). I fail to see why this is an issue.

3. If God is omniscient, then there is no free will.

Just because God knows what someone will do, how does that imply there is no free will? Free will is being able to make choices of your own regard. Now, first of all, the existence of free will is an age-old philosophical debate where many scientists and philosophers are divided. But for the sake of this atheist argument, let's assume that it exists, and that there's a possibility that God's omniscience contradicts that thought. We should first note that free will is not completely available. For example, I cannot make myself stay alive underwater without an oxygen tank. However, in the context of feasible free will, the fact that God knows what I am going to do tomorrow does not affect my free will to choose to do that thing and actually do it. God's omniscience only interferes with my free will if it impacts my ability to choose and execute those actions. I fail to see why this is also an issue. Especially considering that the secular community themselves are divided on the issue of free will. By the way, the existence of God is compatible with both free will and the nonexistence of free will. The Christian world debates on the existence of free will as well (Calvinism vs Arminianism), but we all agree that either way, it doesn't disprove God.

4. Evolution is real, and evolution disproves God.

Perhaps the most commonly cited one I've run into. First off, I'll note that I don't know enough about evolution to be able to say whether or not I think it's true. However, I do know that it's the most accepted explanation in the scientific community for how life works in our world. So let's say that evolution is real, because I don't have any reasons to doubt it. If we have concluded that we figured out how life works on our planet, how does that show that God does not exist? Yay, you could have figured out how God designed the mechanisms for life. The smarter atheists will immediately point out that our understanding of evolution does not match up with the Biblical story of creation in seven days. Maybe not, when you read the English. But the word "day" in Genesis is simply the safest way of translating the Hebrew word yome. Yome can mean day as in the warm hours, as in the time from sunrise to sunset, time for the sun's cycle, age, end, season, space, process of time, or year. Taken from the Strong's Concordance, which cross-references words in the Bible with their original Hebrew or Greek meanings. The days noted in the creation story could easily have meant a long period of time. It's also interesting to note that the pattern of life in the creation story match up with the order of what types of life appeared on earth according to the scientific community. Unless you can prove that God claims to not have used evolution to create the world's current status quo, it is quite possible that he did use evolution. And that's still assuming that evolution is true (which I will again say is possible, given how much weight the scientific community puts behind it). Mind you, there are many Christians that will adamantly attack evolution. I think this is kind of stupid. Here, I'll quote what I wrote on the HCW forums before:
The reason why this argument has become so big is because people started arguing about things that don't make sense!

The evolution guys fired the first shot when some of them started claiming that since we understand evolution and evolution theoretically proves that it's possible that life was started and developed without the help of a divine being, we should automatically conclude that a divine being doesn't exist. Now given the historical data we have (which has become an entirely different but like-minded debate), this wasn't necessarily a wise conclusion. In fact, there is a large number of scientists who support evolution and firmly believe that it is quite compatible with the existence of a divine being, which I didn't know (but should have guessed) until I ended up listening to this guy. Not that I agreed with everything he said, mind you.

So in the counterattack, the faith people fire back with creationism, which has been slowly come to incorporate more and more scientific knowledge and theory to create what can be now considered a good hypothesis. The problem with this hypothesis would be that it cannot be tested to be false (mind you, the same complaint is easily made against evolution, so we have a tie in this category). But the basic argument was the same throughout history: life very complex, life cannot have started through evolution. The latest creationism stuff takes scientific theory to argue that evolution doesn't make sense. One potential fallacy is that it perhaps commits the same error as the original evolution shot: obviously since we've disproven this thing and rejected it, there can be only one explanation of what really happened! The truly scientific aspect of creationism is not its conclusion, but rather, its attack on evolution.

The existence of a divine being is not dependent on the truth or falsity of evolution, nor creationism. The existence of a divine being is quite compatible with both of the concepts. In creationism's case, because the existence of a divine being is the conclusion; and if creationism were false, it still doesn't necessarily disprove the existence of a divine being because of the leap of logic within creationism itself. In evolution's case, because evolution concludes nothing about who or what created life, only how it was created; to conclude something about the existence of a divine being is once again a leap of logic. The argument is only so acrimonious today because the two sides drew conclusions that they had no right to draw.
5. The Bible contradicts itself!

Show me where, please. I study the Bible. You don't. I might know it a tad better than you. There are rare cases where atheists will bring up some fairly compelling examples. But even in these cases, I see them making the same mistakes as more ignorant atheists. Usually, it's one of the following:
  1. They don't know the context. I'll give an simple extreme example to demonstrate what I'm saying here. Did you know that the Bible says "there is no God"? Did you know that the verse (Psalm 53:1) actually says "The fool says in his heart, there is no God"? I see things taken out of context all the time. But this is not the atheist's fault. Sometimes, the context for something in the New Testament is found in the Old Testament. Etcetera. With context so completely far away from the passage being discussed, how is the atheist supposed to know, unless they study the Bible extensively? They're at a severe disadvantage when it comes to discussing Biblical contradictions. Likewise, atheists are usually unable to consider the context of the time's culture, nor the passage's intended audience.
  2. They don't understand the original meaning. The original word can mean something other than what the atheist thinks. For example, it's quite possible that the word "day" in Genesis 1 doesn't mean a 24-hour period.
  3. They actually have a fallacy in their logic. Sometimes it's just a mistake. But other times, they are actually unable to understand how what they're saying is a fallacy. For people who are supposed to be very rational, I find a large number of fallacies in some atheists' arguments when making the case for a Biblical contradiction.
  4. They turn a blind eye. I've heard people acknowledge that they're wrong in their logic when presenting a Biblical contradiction, but still argue that the so-called contradiction is valid anyway. Yes, it's actually happened.
6. The Bible supports slavery, therefore it cannot be believed

I don't think that people understand what slavery meant during that time. The Bible states that it's wrong to steal someone from their family, uproot them to a foreign place, and force them to become your slave. That's what happened with the African slave trade. What the Bible did allow was for people to become lifelong bondservants to pay off their debts to someone, to be provided for and taken care of in return for labour, or after conquering. But the meaning that is given is never that of what happened in the African slave trade. It is much much closer to feudalism as an economic system. And there were clear laws on how to take care of one's servants; they were not to be mistreated. But atheists will respond, "so what, slavery is bad, doesn't matter what it is." People need to be able to get past the lexeme and into the semantics. I find atheists in general are unwilling to do that though. It would certainly resolve some of the other atheist arguments I've already discussed.

And those are the top arguments that I consistently see atheists bring up. Are my responses invalid? Why? Don't just dismiss me lightly, explain yourself. Otherwise, don't dare bring up these arguments in a discussion with me, please.

Monday, November 06, 2006

I hate labels

I made the movie because I wanted people to talk about sex in the open. I grew up in a conservative Catholic family, and I am aware that people who grow up in sexually oppressive environments are the people who ask questions later in life. It is a natural progression. I am working things out, and some of our actors also came from conservative backgrounds and were trying to work their way out of that. I think that the people who are most afraid of this film are probably the ones who should see it the most, because I have been told that by the end of the movie the sex was the last thing a lot of people were thinking about. I always saw it as being a pretty softhearted, old-fashioned film that had sex, and I think sex is the funniest thing in the world.

John Cameron Mitchell, director of the movie Shortbus
I especially hate the labels that people place on me after only a first glance or listening to a single comment. I try to avoid labelling people, even when all evidence points to a single label, until I get to know the person. And I hope that people would do the same with me. But sometimes people label prematurely, and that upsets me.

I read an article in the Westender a while back about the movie Shortbus, which was being shown at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Sook Yin Lee, one of the main actors in the movie, talked about how they were trying to bring sex mainstream, push the boundaries of sex in film, and get rid of the taboos that exist. I wondered what was coming to our world. Pushign the boundaries? Why did the boundaries need to be pushed? They were going too far with the premise of the movie, but then again, the world was already like that.

So what do you think so far? Have you labeled me yet?

So I got to talking with a friend about sex. He talked about how he talked about it all the time, especially with girls. I avoided the topic altogether. He asked why I treated sex as such a taboo thing.

You know the biggest problem I have with people? They often make shortsighted conclusions because they think it seems so obvious. They don't take the time to look underneath the layers of the mind. In my mind, I got pretty upset with him. I explained to him that what he just said was wrong.

Sex is not a taboo thing for me. I do have accountability partners to keep me from things like porn, I do want to avoid premarital sex, and I don't believe in having sex with different partners, from one relationship to the next. Now, exactly HOW does that equate to me treating sex as a taboo? If you conclude that as well, I'm sorry, you're also an idiot. A short-sighted, naive, shallow idiot.

I avoid all of these things because I want to reserve my sex for a future life partner with whom I have exchanged vows for a lifetime of love, care, and dedication. My friend commented that people just treated sex as another everyday thing anyway, nothing special. There's no reason to put that much weight into it.

But THAT IS WHY I want to dedicate sex to a single person who I will love and cherish forever. BECAUSE it's not so special anymore. BECAUSE people treat it as just an everyday thing that you can share with anyone. People treat sex that way because today's mentality is that sex is not worth keeping sacred. And movies like Shortbus just make sex less sacred. Less special. More of a hobby thing than a love thing.

I WANT sex to be sacred. I WANT it to be special. I DON'T want to share it with just ANYBODY who may come or go in my life. That in turn DOES NOT mean that I think of sex as a taboo. What it DOES MEAN is that I view sex as extremely special and I DO NOT want to throw it around lightly. I DON'T want to come to see it as simply something fun to do when I get horny.

So then people ask me, well, if you save it for just marriage, how will you know whether or not it's good?

You know what, out of all the people I talk with, quality of sex is an indicator of your relationship. If you graph it out, the quality of your relationship would be your independent variable, while quality of sex would be your dependent variable. I have yet for someone to tell me something different on that count. As well, everything I've seen the so-called experts say (both Christian and non-Christian) also corroborates this theory. So if this theory is true, you know what then? If your sex life suffers, it's probably because you suck at having a good relationship with your mate.

I've learned several times over that talking about sex in the way the world does usually doesn't do anything to improve my vision of what I want it to be. So I'm going to stop and not talk about it anymore with people, unless they want to know why I'm treating it like a taboo. Then I'll rip into them for coming to that conclusion.

Please, people. Let's not label me as old-fashioned, prude, or shy just because I don't like talking about sex. Sex is not a taboo for me. Rather, it's sacred. The thought of it is so special to me that I will not anymore indulge in the pornographic conversations that people seem to enjoy so much. I will owe any future mate at least that much going forward, and I hope that she will have the same perspective for me. If you don't get it, there is nothing I can do for you.