Psalm 77

November 29, 2007

From yesterday’s QT:

1 I cried out to God with my voice—
To God with my voice;
And He gave ear to me.
2 In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord;
My hand was stretched out in the night without ceasing;
My soul refused to be comforted.
3 I remembered God, and was troubled;
I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed. Selah

4 You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I have considered the days of old,
The years of ancient times.
6 I call to remembrance my song in the night;
I meditate within my heart,
And my spirit makes diligent search.

7 Will the Lord cast off forever?
And will He be favorable no more?
8 Has His mercy ceased forever?
Has His promise failed forevermore?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies? Selah

10 And I said, “This is my anguish;
But I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
11 I will remember the works of the LORD;
Surely I will remember Your wonders of old.
12 I will also meditate on all Your work,
And talk of Your deeds.

One thing I love about the psalms is that they never gloss over human emotion and are honestly expressions of the struggles of godly people. Kudos to Asaph (the psalmist) for not holding back and telling it like it is. His life kinda sucks (v2 refers to “the day of my trouble”). And because his life sucks, like a good Christian, he genuinely and diligently looked for God. Unfortunately, this doesn’t actually work (v3 tells us it made him troubled and made his spirit overwhelmed). Then he starts to rant at God (v7-9 and the story of my life). I really don’t think he is just asking these questions for the sake of asking them or to get the textbook answers thrown back at him. I think he really wants to know, “Has God forgotten to be gracious?”

I’ve been Christian long enough to know that the standard advice when you hit a rough spot is to pray. At the same time, I’ve hung around long enough to also know that most of the time it doesn’t work the way you want it to. What happens when you, a distressed, dutiful, God-fearing Christian, pray like mad but nothing happens? In fact things only keep getting worse and worse. Now you got 2 problems – the original one and the risk of your entire belief system collapsing. Well done.

So I like the phrase “this is my anguish, but I will…” (v10). It represents a change in attitude and a deliberate shift in perspectives. It is the choice to focus on God and what He has done for you in the past instead of your “day of trouble”. This is reason enough to pull yourself out of the rut and dust yourself off. I don’t know where people get the idea that Christians should be fatalistic. I’m all for the divine will of God but since when was it supposed to make us victims of circumstance? It seems to me that the will of God extends to the individual getting their act together. The sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.

I hear a lot of political correctness and textbook answers. But once in a while, someone tells it like it is and it is so refreshing because you know it is the truth on a cerebral, emotional and spiritual level. I think Asaph and I would get along.

The Abilene paradox

November 28, 2007

From our friends at wikpedia

“The Abilene paradox is a paradox in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of any of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s and do not raise objections.

It was observed by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his article The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management. The name of the phenomenon comes from an anecdote in the article which Harvey uses to elucidate the paradox:

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it.” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

In situations like this, democracy obviously breaks out and it makes me wonder if dictatorship is the way to go. At least the dictator is happy?

Searchability and serendipity

November 28, 2007

A gem of a quote from the inimitable Erin McKean from this year’s TED.

“Online dictionaries replicate all the problems of print but for searchability. And when you improve the searchability, you take away one of the advantages of print, which is serendipity. Serendipity is when you find things you weren’t looking for because finding what you were looking for is so damn difficult.”

It makes me wonder if the same can be said about “the meaning of life”. Maybe it’s time to stop searching for it about letting it serendipitously fall into our laps? *hopeful look*

By the way, the 2007 Oxford word of the year is “Locavore”.

An insightful article in the NYTimes about “Taking Science on Faith” –

“Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.”

Science and religion have a lot more in common than it first appears. I’m all for faith in both science and religion. That is not to say that I’m some bimbo who takes everything at face value. I will anlayse and overanalyse along with the best of them. There are just certain things that will be beyond me and my intellectual capabilities to process. I take them as given and they go into the list of questions I will ask God when I get to heaven. Anyway, somethings can’t be proved with logical argument (and “why” questions seems to my mind to top the list).

The other thing that struck me about the article was that the last paragraph of the excerpt has also been said of religion. To me, it drives home the point that the Christian faith has to result in some sort of transformed life. Christians have to hold themselves to the high standards they profess to believe it. Otherwise, it just seems like the whole thing is “rooted in reasonless absurdity[and] … a fiendishly clever bit of trickery.”

The economics of religion

November 26, 2007

*Ranty post warning*

From my quiet time this morning:

“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

1 Corinthians 9:19-22

There are a lot of things you can say about this passage but reading it today specifically reminded me of a chat I once had about the interface of religion and economics. Oddly, I do find myself analyzing religious behaviour with economic theory. I am an economist and an, albeit incompetent, econometrician. I need my empirical evidence and once in a while, a hyper-logical part of my brain kicks in. My job title says “strategist” so go figure.

I am guilty of analyzing cell group dynamics (of all things) in nash equilibriums and prisoner’s dilemmas. This is going to make me sound crazy but the way I see it, each member of a cell group has 2 choices: to be “self-interested” or “community-focused” (go read Acts 2). The game plays out in the usual way and it turns out that being “self-interested” is the dominant strategy leading the nash-equilibrium of the game to be one that pareto-suboptimal – a cell group which is like Oprah’s book club (and maybe not even that). That is, the rational choice would be for the players to be “self-interested” even though each player’s individual reward would be greater if they were “community-focused”.

Of course, the textbox answer is that the love for God/God’s people, the power of the Holy Spirit and all the usual arguments should be sufficient to lead to the more desired outcome but empirical and anecdotal evidence often suggest otherwise. I know the analogy is imperfect but it will suffice for our purposes. And no need to tell me how cynical and clinical my current world view is. I already know.

Back to the Corinthians passage, I have to say that I interpret this passage with the eyes of a Christian leader who is still trying to figure the “ministry” thing out. I am no Bible-bashing evangelist so while the passage does talk about salvation, I’m looking at this more from a “all the things I do as a Christian leader for my sheep” sense.

And I got to say Christianity is a very inefficient religion. It is the juxtaposition of “all” against “some” that bothers me. As a leader, you do all these things for all these people with very limited results. The return on investment is low, low, low. My economist brain really does not like those <100% odds. (Other Bible references to drive home this point include “The Parable of the Sower” – Seeds fall and most of them die. Great.) All this effort and most of it goes absolutely, bloody nowhere. Goodness me.

But God bless my idealistic, optimistic, stubborn heart because in spite of all of this, there is part of me that still believes that the Acts 2 outcome is still possible. That the belief in and love for God will be the necessary and sufficient condition to make people act in a way that goes against their dominant, self-interested strategy and everything will be happy and dandy. That the sacrifice will be worth it, is worth it. I should add that I don’t actually know how all that’s going to work but I do believe it is possible.

The passage also got me thinking about amoebas and the ability to adapt to suit your situation but that is a story for another day.

(And after this huge rant, I realize that this is probably not going to make sense to anyone.)

Can someone shut my overactive brain up now?

The lemming effect

November 23, 2007

I like the word “lemmings” (it just sounds funny!) and use it on a fairly regular basis. Lemmings have all the usual trappings of cuteness (furry & round) and it turns out that some of my interest in lemmings is the result of myths about mass lemming suicides!

“While many people believe that lemmings commit mass suicide when they migrate, this is not the case. Driven by strong biological urges, they will migrate in large groups when population density becomes too great. Lemmings can and do swim and may choose to cross a body of water in search of a new habitat. On occasion, and particularly in the case of the Norway lemmings in Scandinavia, large migrating groups will reach a cliff overlooking the ocean. They will stop until the urge to press on causes them to jump off the cliff and start swimming, sometimes to exhaustion and death. Lemmings are also often pushed into the sea as more and more lemmings arrive at the shore.”

So anyway, lemmings became a metaphor for people who go along unquestioningly with popular opinion, with potentially dangerous or fatal consequences. And at a talk on technology clusters yesterday, I learnt that it can be extended to the term “The Lemming Effect” (the act of following the crowd into an investment that will inevitably head for disaster). It is the idea that in the dot.com boom, the VCs would invest in 25 startups with each expecting 25% market share.

Ye-ah. The lemming effect.

(Does anyone else think this is hilarious?! )

T’was brillig

November 23, 2007

Because I love this poem by Lewis Carroll so much –

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe. “

I totally feel like reading Alice in Wonderland now…