Learning to be like a child

It has been a cold and gloomy Christmas in Cambridge, but I have been strangely encouraged by the families in Eden Baptist Church that have accepted me and by a short trip to the Lake District with my mother. Through these experiences, I believe that in this Christmas season, God has been revealing to me more deeply what being a child means in my daily walk with him. After growing up, I’ve lost some traits associated with children, and I probably will have to learn them again. I would sum this up in three points (1) imagination (2) to receive love (3) to feel safe.

Imagination. That is something that Spongebob would say as he draws a rainbow. Visiting the Lake District during winter meant that we have very limited daylight, but that also meant a lot of time in the hotel watching television. There were some children’s shows at night, and one that reminded me of my childhood was “Charlie and the chocolate factory”. I have been so used to notions of efficiency and Adam Smith’s labour specialisation at the back of the twenty-pound note that I’ve stopped imagining a chocolate waterfall in a factory like I would many years ago. During the little daylight, one attraction we visited in Lake District was the World of Beatrix Potter – the author of Peter Rabbit. This is a world where animals have human-like characteristics, like how a rabbit can be naughty, or how a hedgehog could be a laundry-woman, or how mice can eat doll food. At the end of the attraction, mum decided to buy the whole collection of Peter Rabbit books. Out of curiosity, I skimmed through the entire collection in the next two days. But there’s something encouraging about reading children’s stories again: I could see the animals come alive, and a large part of the fiction lives in my imagination. That is in stark contrast to the fiction that I’ve been reading the past two years where economists construct unrealistic models. The big words and coloured pictures of children storybooks have been replaced with small words and equations/ graphs/ tables. Rather than writing to stimulate one’s imagination, the authors I read now aim to communicate their idea as clearly as possible such that there’s only one correct interpretation.

How does imagination apply to Christian living? For one, we start to realise that there is a world beyond what is immediately visible. When I tell my peers that I’m a second year Singaporean economist from Hughes Hall, a multitude of stereotypes immediately fall on me – mature student, pragmatic, either going into finance or is a scholar, etc. And often people do not see beyond these stereotypes. But these stereotypes are almost inconsequential to God. He sees beyond these worldly features to who a person really is, and that is what truly matters. Perhaps, learning how to imagine and look beyond the direct and immediately obvious features of people is something I need to learn again, so that I could understand people as God sees them. Looking beyond the obvious is also applicable to biblical interpretation – which is what I have learnt when writing the winter week of prayer on John 17. Much of scripture is not immediately instructive in the sense of Jesus does X, therefore I do X as well. This involves imagining the ancient world where Jesus lived and taught, such that we can understand the text better. This might only be possible when we are not searching for immediate answers, but when we are willing to slow down and think about the story and imagine the setting (of course, informed by biblical principles). There might still be correct interpretations in many situations, but using the child-like lens of imagination can help us see people and scripture beyond what is immediately obvious.

Another facet of imagination that can be drawn out is curiosity. When meeting a person for the first time, rather than allowing stereotypes such as race and religion cloud our perception, there is value in first learning more about that person beyond those labels. And on the onset, children do not see these labels immediately. Similarly, when looking at scripture, curiosity would entail asking questions like why did Jesus say this? When did this happen, etc.? But I must admit that sometimes as I listen to sermons or Bible studies, I would presumptively think “I know what this passage is about already”, and the lack of an open heart and mind often hinders what God does through that passage. I am learning the same child-like imagination and curiosity again.

The second lesson is to receive love. As we grow up, we learn to love more than we receive love. I’d be asking how I can contribute to CF and society, or how I can love my friends to bring them to Christ. But there’s something very special about receiving love like a child. Before Christmas, I went for a short hiking trip to Pulborough (in Sussex) and stayed with a friend from Eden who lives there. Living off their hospitality was their expression of unrequited love. It has always been my childhood dream to sit on a soft carpet by a fireplace on a cold winter’s night, and I actually got to experience that! There was something quite magical about having a Christmas meal with her family and church friends, and about walking in the countryside and visiting several villages with her even though she was so busy. On Christmas day, another family from Eden brought me home with them. I had the privilege of sharing in their present-opening and looking at the joy on their faces, knowing how much someone else loves them. Quite amazingly, they gave me the entire Narnia series, which I suppose is another one of God’s signs that I should be learning to be more child-like. I felt like a child again – taking fudge off their Christmas tree (thereby thinking that fudge grows on trees), being hugged by the girls, and playing board games with the family. I have been so insanely blessed and loved by Eden this Christmas. Typically, I would be thinking about how I can make it up to them, but learning to be child-like in receiving love meant that I should simply be grateful. That’s the point of love – that it does not demand something back.

The idea of receiving love is quite central to the Christian faith. What sets Christians apart is not that they love some divine entity more than others or that they love the people around them more than others. What defines a Christian is that he has received God’s love. And it is through this reception of love that we are able to love others. On Christmas day, God brought a Chinese children’s song to mind, written based on our theme verse for this year 1 John 4:19. The second half of the chorus goes 我们爱因神先爱我们,心再坚强也不要独自飞翔,只要微笑、只要原谅,有你爱的地方就是天堂。(My translation: we love because God first loved us. Even if your heart is strong, don’t fly alone. Smile, forgive, heaven is where your love is.) We might need some theological qualification for the last line, but I’ll omit that. The upshot of this chorus was that we shouldn’t live in isolation (as I’m often tempted to do), but to love and be loved (by God and by others).

What does receiving love mean in walking with Jesus daily (after first receiving him)? That would mean the willingness to receive love from God and from God’s people. Receiving love from God’s people would look something like those Christmas experiences. Receiving love from God would look like sitting at his feet daily. Rather than always thinking about “doing” quiet time as if we are the active person in the process, it helps to think of God being the active person, and we are just listening to him, very much like how I’d sit by the fireside in Pulborough and listen to stories. An important qualification to make here is that receiving love doesn’t end like that. Just as children show love to their parents, we ought to love as well. The problem only comes when there is outflow without inflow (or conversely, inflow without outflow). We need to understand what proper loving in every season or our lives means before we are able to bless the community with that same love. Eden probably does not expect me to reciprocate that same love to them, but it would be a great joy to the body of Christ that I could show that same love to the people around me – in church, or out in the community.

The really young children might not even understand what love is, but they know what it means to feel safe. I’ve learned this when one of the girls in church remarked with reference to some toddlers, “I hope they know how much I love them.” Her mother replied, “They probably don’t, but they feel safe with you, and that’s probably as close as you can get for a kid their age”. One interesting image of feeling safe would be in the back hall after a family carol service. The minced pies were put on short tables so that the children could reach them, but there was this little girl who was too shy to get a minced pie herself. She held the hand of our youth worker and dragged her to the table so that they could get a minced pie together – she felt safe when the youth worker was with her. How often do we feel safe with God in this way? That we would not be willing to go ourselves, but we would hold God’s hand so that he could get the minced pie with us?

Feeling safe with God is probably the most important and fundamental lesson for me this Christmas. We will never perfectly understand what love really means, and we will never imagine all the possibilities as God does, but we know what it means to feel safe. Children do still get upset and get worried about things, but at the end of each day, they sleep soundly knowing that the next day would be completely new and their mistakes are erased. Most children feel safe because they know their parents are in control of their immediate circumstances. I’ve lost a lot of this naivety and innocence when growing up, as I’m worried about whether I’ll get an internship next summer, or whether my results will be good enough. But if we really do love and trust God, it makes sense to feel safe with him. Feeling safe with him would mean trusting that He is in control of all these circumstances. It also means knowing that we can do all things only through Him – probably not getting a minced pie from the table at this age, but more of having the courage to talk to someone, or writing a post/ essay. I don’t want to do these things without knowing that God is with me.

There’s definitely a lot more about childlikeness to be said, but these are the three things that I’ve learned this Christmas as I rejoice and remember His coming!

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What’s in a price?

Four years ago, I was thinking about leaving a chair in a room and considering whether it still existed as part of some epistemic discussions in Knowledge and Inquiry. As I’m studying the History and Philosophy of Economics this year, I’ll consider a different dimension to a simple object like a chair – its price. What does the price of an object really mean?

If you were to ask the Classics like Ricardo, a price reflects the amount of labour put into its production. The price of a chair is just a fraction of the price of the building because it takes a small fraction of the building’s labour to produce the chair. Consequently, the price is a reflection of supply and how difficult it is to produce the object.

If you were to ask Jevons, the price is a reflection of utility. The chair has a particular price not because it takes X amount of effort to produce it, but because it gives me X amount of pleasure. Jevons follows Bentham’s idea of utility in that it is associated with pleasures and pains associated with a human’s interaction with the commodity. Then, the price is a reflection of demand, corresponding to the marginal utility gained from the interaction with the object.

Walras, inspired by the Paris Stock Exchange, would argue that the price is merely a ratio relative to all other goods. In general equilibrium, an auctioneer can start at any random price and adjust the price up or down until the market clears. Consequently, the price of a chair is a ratio of its value relative to all other goods in the market. Marshall uses a similar concept in that price is merely a market-clearing mechanism between demand and supply (what most people learn in JC), but he uses partial equilibrium, so he does not consider the ratio relative to all other goods.

What does a price mean to neoclassical economists now? It is still a ratio, but it would be equal to the marginal rate of substitution between goods in equilibrium (i.e. it is equal to the ratio of marginal utilities). While the link between price and utility is similar to Jevons’ idea, it is notable that our modern conception of utility is different from its hedonistic background. Neoclassical economists now believe that utility is preference satisfaction: this means that I do not prefer X over Y because I am happier with X than with Y; my choosing X over Y is what it means for utility of X to be higher than utility of Y for me. When comparing relative utilities, we are essentially looking at points of indifference (which is another huge area of discussion altogether).

So, what is in a price? It is what the society at that time makes it out to be. While prices might be related to an object’s value (either for the supplier like Ricardo, or for the user like Jevons), it seems more plausible to treat it merely as a ratio for market trading. There’s more to be said about this, and perhaps I’ll come back to this topic after studying social ontology next term.

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I can do all things through him

I can do all things through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13)

A friend quoted this verse recently, and I’ve been thinking about it as I’m rushing from place to place to do all the things that I planned to do. Paul wrote this line in the context of all the hardships that he has faced, and several commentaries interpret this verse as Paul saying that he is able to endure all his hardships because of Christ who strengthens him. As such, it need not be directly applicable to our busy lives. Nonetheless, there are two interpretations that I thought were interesting and applicable.

The first interpretation is somewhat similar to Paul’s meaning. I am able to do amazing things, not by my own effort, but because God strengthens me. This is a huge encouragement to live passionately for God, for we also know that nothing is impossible with God. The mechanism of this interpretation is that God provides strength to me, and I am able to act.

The second interpretation is that God is my strength-giver, and God is the one acting. The main difference is that the first interpretation is where God gets his will done through us; in this interpretation, we are able to do things through God. This should be clarified: I do not mean that we dictate what God should do, but that God is also an important actor in the entire mechanism. This is immensely humbling: God does not need us to get His will done, but we need God for things to be done. Thus, when there are many things on my heart that I feel needs to be done and I am unable to, this is a massive encouragement to trust God – we only have 24 hours in a day, but God is unlimited, so many of these things on my heart need not be done by me – God could very well empower someone else to accomplish these things. Thus, the mechanism of this interpretation is that there are things on my heart that I want to do and it is God who does these things.

Obviously, the first interpretation is the one that sticks, because the “gives me strength” clause hints at us needing God’s strength. This clause does not sit as well with the second interpretation as we do not necessarily need the strength to do things when God is the one truly acting. Nonetheless, what I wanted to highlight is that rather than simply accepting the first interpretation, it should be qualified by the fact that God is still a primary actor in the whole scheme. It is not just about us doing stuff; it is more about God doing stuff.

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yes no and wait in prayer

In many Bible studies and small group meetings, I’ve been told that God usually answers our prayers in three ways: (1) yes (2) no (3) wait. I did a quick google search to check the basis of this claim, and I’ve found some perspectives that suggest that God may also answer in a way that goes “I can’t year you” in this sense that we have been blocked by sin. There are also perspectives that go “it is always a Yes in Christ” (referring to Paul’s letter). However, my view on why these are not the only ways that God answers prayers runs much deeper than these perspectives – it depends fundamentally on the type of prayer.

If the answers of yes, no and wait are jointly exhaustive of God’s responses to prayers, then it appears that we can only reasonably reverse-engineer two types of prayers. The first is that we ask God a yes/no question. The second is that we ask God to do something in our lives – help us get a First in the next exam, get a job, find a spouse, bring peace to the family, etc. If these are the only two types of prayers that we can possibly pray, we are deeply mistaken. In fact, there tends to be many prayers where yes no and wait cannot be answers.

The first type of prayer I can think of is thanksgiving and description. We should be praying to thank God and praise Him for who He is, and for what He has done. When we cite things that happen empirically to thank Him, or when we are telling Him about our lives and surrendering it, are we really expecting a response of “yes/ no/ wait”? Perhaps, the best response we can receive is to hear God say “I’m listening, and I’m pleased.”

Another type of prayer involves asking open ended questions. I might ask God, what job have you called me to? What should I write my dissertation on? How can I bless the people around me? Getting a yes/ no answer to these questions are just absurd. Instead, God molds circumstances to reveal the answer to these questions that we have.

There are definitely merits of the yes/ no/ wait perspective, in the sense that it reminds us that we should be patient for God to answer our requests. What I want to bring up is that (1) we should not think that these are God’s ONLY answers to prayers and (2) our prayers should go beyond requests – it can also include open ended questions and thanksgiving.

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No true meritocracy

A meritocracy is a society where power is allocated based on talent and ability (i.e. by merit), and people often get ahead in such societies when they perform better in objective measures such as examinations. As I’m thinking about people who are currently applying for jobs and internships, I’m more convinced that true meritocracy cannot exist as long as this world is still run by humans, and it is not a bad thing that we cannot have true meritocracy.

What would true meritocracy imply? If positions are given purely by merit, then the human resource (HR) manager should be indifferent between two candidates who produce the same test scores and hold the same existing qualifications. This indifference should be invariant to other factors that are considered irrelevant. Now, suppose that candidate A’s father is a close friend of the company’s CEO, while candidate B is a grocer’s daughter. True meritocracy implies that the HR manager should still be indifferent between A and B, but in reality, he is more likely to strictly prefer A to B. By selecting A, he would be pleasing his CEO, which would improve his promotion prospects, but the same cannot be said for B. As such, the argument put forth is that as long as social networks are in play, true meritocracy cannot exist.

One might be able to include networking and flexibility into the meritocratic model, but even this is limited. The ability to form networks is a signal of one’s ability, and such networks help to build one’s portfolio. Thus, back in the case above, an objective measure of A’s and B’s portfolio would show that A is more suitable than B for the job. (This, to some extent, explains why London graduates are more employable than Oxbridge graduates.) But there are at least two problems to this argument: (1) meritocracy is no longer robust to endowment effects i.e. A who has better endowment (in terms of his father’s networks) requires less talent and ability than B to be equally employable (2) ability to network is irrelevant to some jobs (like working in a laboratory alone), so factoring networking ability as another “merit” to distinguish candidates just leads to less efficiency than what a meritocratic society would desire.

As long as humans are still running this world, true meritocracy cannot happen. The above example can serve as an illustration of a more general argument: that humans have subjective preferences in selecting people in the position of power, and not all of their judgment can be premised on objective measures. On the contrary, if the world were run by robots who will run every candidate through an algorithm that matches the company’s needs, and all companies only use the robot’s results, then meritocracy will be possible.

That said, it is not necessarily bad that there is no true meritocracy. In a human society, humans do better by pleasing humans rather than be pleasing robots. Thus, although selection is subjective, and might be deemed unfair to those who have worked hard but just lacked networks, hiring A over B might be good for the company after all. Candidate A is better known, and a rational company would prefer this option: A offers a 70% chance of quality X and 30% chance of quality X-1; B offers a 50% chance of quality X and 50% chance of quality X-1 as a result of the networks. Furthermore, A satisfies more human preferences (no matter how subjective they are), so he would still be the better choice. With imperfect information and subjective preferences, hiring independent of true meritocracy can still be beneficial for the company.

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How to think like an economist

After dealing with economics for some time, I thought it would be useful to develop a simple model of how economists think. There are essentially three steps in generating economic knowledge: (1) observation (2) modelling (3) extension.

1. Observation
Economists look at social phenomena and aim to find some consistency in social behavior (even if economic agents do not consciously act in a particular way). This could be how market prices respond to money supply and income, or how people play rock-paper-scissors.

2. Modelling
This takes up the bulk of the economists time. Some axioms and definitions are used to set the parameter of the problem in order to simplify or abstract from reality. These axioms could be a more general form of the observation, or some other intuitive behavior. From these axioms, economists deductively (mathematically) derive particular theorems, propositions, and models.

3. Extension
Economists typically bifurcate at this point: the empirical economists will follow the lead of scientists in testing the predictions of the model against further observations or historical records; the theoretical economists will look at further implications of the axioms beyond the case that it is meant to apply. In the empirical view, if the model does not fit the prediction well, they go back to the modelling stage to find another model. In the theoretical view, models in principle are not falsifiable, but somehow adds to the realm of social mathematics, and gives us one more step to advance it.

Thus, I’ve presented my model of how I observe economists behave. Perhaps, this can be extended to most fields of knowledge as well, where looking at the significance of their theories and propositions can stimulate further research. That’s how research continues in an endless cycle.

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Tips for moving from classical to improvisation on piano

I’m not a very good pianist myself, much less one who improvises, but I suppose I could functionally play the keyboard to accompany a band or singer. Transiting from classical playing where all the notes, rhythms and dynamics are written out to a chord sheet seemed rather daunting, but it was something I eventually got used to. More recently, as I was asking more people to play the keyboard for worship, I found myself giving similar tips to them as they moved from classical playing to improvisation. Thus, I thought it would be quite nice to write out the top 10 tips (in no particular order) that I’d give anyone who is moving from classical piano playing to improvisation.

1. Play less
The most virtuosic classical pianists are typically those who play too much. They somehow feel a need to press all the notes in a G chord across all 7 octaves simultaneously from the beginning of a song. I’d usually advise playing less, since having less material to begin with gives more space for the music to build up in texture, dynamics and range in the chorus. Having simple chords mid-range and silence at points do have their value in creating a particular tone for the verse.

2. Consider the register
Playing in the mid-range gives a stable and comfortable backdrop. Moving up one octave (even with the same notes and rhythm) would give the music a distinctly more ethereal feel. Moving down one octave increases the intensity of the bass note, which can complement other instruments well.

3. Fill at the end of the line
In classical playing, the piano typically plays the melodic line, and there is a temptation to do that in songs as well, but playing the melody while the singer is singing the same thing might be rather distracting. However, playing a counter-melody at the end of the line (where the vocal line holds a long note) can have a propelling effect for the music that leads into the following line.

4. Listen to the recording
As far was worship music goes, we are essentially doing a cover of an existing song. Listening to the original recording to find out where the rifts/ runs for the piano are, and the rhythm they used can be a good starting point on how the chords should be figured.

5. Use inversions and extensions to move less
Chord sheets are generally notated for the guitar to facilitate finger movement. If we were to use the same chord progression for the piano, the bass line might jump too much. For instance, we might observe “G D Em” on the chord sheet. On the piano, I would usually play “G D/F# Em7”. This allows the bass line to move by step, and it allows me to hold the note D in the right hard to avoid too much movement. Moving less would be helpful when the music is in a static area.

6. Broken or block chords
When I first started, I liked to play in broken chords, as it ensured a constant quaver rhythm. It also has a flowing feel. However, block chords can be useful to keep a standard 4/4 rhythm. More interesting rhythmic patterns are also more easily figured using block chords, especially if it were used to imitate the guitar strumming patterns.

7. Building tension
There are many ways to build tension, especially if we started soft in mid-range. Expanding the range of notes helps and moving the bass line down can increase intensity. Intensity is also generated from increasing the note frequency – this could come from runs in the right hand, or through reiterated/ tremolo figures in the left.

8. Think about the tone colour
Typically, playing the “piano” for worship implies playing on the keyboard, which should come with a synthesiser. The synthesiser is quite different from the piano, as different modes would have different tone colours for the notes, which is complemented by different forms of attack, sustain, and decay of sound. By listening to these tones, you might find that the effects can fit certain musical settings better than the piano, and the way they work can be quite different. For example, the string pads can be used for a meditative/ ethereal musical setting. And quite unlike the piano, the sound gets more intense when one moves up by an octave as the pads become sharp and shrill (in contrast to the piano which gets less intense when moving up as the sound becomes lighter).

9. There is no wrong note
It is obvious that a note is wrong in classical playing when the note produced does not follow the score. However, in improvisation, even the weirdest note can be resolved into something that makes sense.

10. Listen to others
Especially in the early stages of improvising, one learns most from experience. Listening to how recordings play the keyboard helps to give ideas. Listening to the singer and the guitar (and other instruments) will also help to inform how the keyboard can complement what they do, rather than detract from them.

Hope this is helpful!

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