Sunday, 18 March 2018

Prof Hawking's bets and what we as believers can learn from it.

Prof Hawking was an avid bettor. But his bets come with a positive twist. It seeks to advance science and knowledge. It is nothing personal.

So, it is not about winning and losing with Prof Hawking. He was prepared to lose a bet and to be proven wrong because his attitude towards losing is that the winner gains for science and the world is better for it.

Science is therefore the ultimate beneficiary of the direct challenge to humanity's ego to prove another wrong. That's the irony of reverse psychology and Prof Hawking was a master of placing such bets to spur man's (sometimes desperate) drive to be right.

In the above article written by Adam Minter, he wrote this about Prof Hawking's penchant for betting:-

"For years, he had been making - and losing - public bets on fundamental questions of physics. He felt no shame in these repudiations but rather revelled in them, knowing that science advances when its participants are wrong as well as right."

Prof Hawking had made many bets over his lifetime. He once bet in 1974 that "a bright object in the Cygnus constellation was not a black hole". He lost that bet in 1990 and had to pay it off with a subscription to Penthouse.

In another bet that he lost, he challenged Physicist John Preskill by stating that "information swallowed by a black hole could never be retrieved." However, his own research in 2004 would undermine that statement.

So, in a major physics conference, he announced, "he had devised a calculation that proved he was wrong."

For that bet, he "presented Professor Preskill a baseball encyclopedia from which information could easily be retrieved."

Prof Hawking's most famous bet was with another Professor, namely, Peter Higgs, who won the Noble Prize for finding the God's particle, eponymously named after him - Higgs Boson. But that discovery came partly (or largely) from a professorial taunt (a bet) by the notorious bettor himself.

In 2000, Prof Hawking wagered with University of Michigan's Gordon Kane that the God's particle would never be found. Although it was not a wager directly with Prof Higgs, the latter took it personally and strove to prove him wrong (or himself right).

Alas, Prof Hawking lost that bet too.

In 2012, Higgs Boson was confirmed and Prof Hawking "made a global spectacle of paying off the US$100 wager, admitting he was wrong." But he did not stop there.

Ever a gentleman in losing, Prof Hawking called for Prof Higgs to be awarded the Nobel Prize.

Whether right or wrong, Adam wrote, "Prof Hawking's humility and graciousness would be rare in any age, but particularly at a time when conceding even the slightest error is viewed as a weakness to be derided and exploited."

Lesson? I am curious about what we as believers can learn from Prof Hawking. Of course I am not talking about betting here, for an atheist's bet against faith or omnipotence will take an eternity to unravel.

What I am however talking about is his gracious attitude towards the possibility of being wrong, thereafter accepting it and moving forward with it.

Can we Christians consider that, accept and learn from that? Can we accept that we are not always right about our belief? Can we accept that we are not always that certain about what we claim to be certain about?

What Adam writes below about science in the article is relevant to our belief:-

"Public-facing scientists become reluctant to concede uncertainty about data for fear that the admission will undermine funding and support for their research. The result: well-intentioned intellectuals who feel obligated to present science as a series of truths not to be argued or rebutted."

The issue I have with belief is absolutism. When we claim that we can't be wrong, we suffocate our belief into insufferable tyrant.

We turn every interpretation of scriptures into a truth never to be argued with. We close off debate. We shut out the light of reasonable doubts. We become an epistemological Dead Sea surrounded by a fortress which is constantly pampered, or mollycoddled, by the harem of our own confirmation bias.

We are thus trapped in the hermitage of our own arrogance whereby we voluntarily deny ourselves of a whole, almost infinite, world of discoveries out there.

However fallible we are as a believer, it seems like what we say about what the Bible has to say becomes an infallible pronouncement very much like the ex cathedra declarations of the pope as the church's universal shepherd.

But the church has been wrong on many occasions. They have been wrong about sex, about masturbation, about science, about cosmology, about demonology, and about evolution.

Now, the modern megachurches are repeating the same mistake with an incomprehensible level of self-conceited panache.

Preachers in their glamorous suits and glittering hairdo unpack self-proclaimed revelations with every sermon about how they are so cocksure about God's will, direction and even emotions. Ironically, their certainty seems to be equated with their believability. The more cocksure they are, the more persuasive they become. Go figure.

With every ex cathedra pronouncement, they conveniently sweep away all mysteries and wonders and leave their audience with the remnants of reality that just doesn't reconcile with the reality they have come to know when they walk out of the sanctuary with light feet and head.

If you need examples, here goes.

"God is never angry with you. God has "retired" the Holy Spirt to convict you of sins. God is happy when you are happy. God is even happier when you ask big because he gives big. God no longer punish you for sins. God is your new buddy in Christ. God can't wait to bless you beyond your wildest imagination. God is a cheerful giver, you should be one too. When you prosper, God rejoices with you. God's will without exception is your healing and longevity, because death can wait. God hates it when you speak bad about his anointed".

They seem to have God all figured out, fully unpacked, with an exhaustive manual inside...(and I can go on and on with this).

I guess the worse infraction in the modern church today is to allow the preachers to do all the thinking for us, to spoon feed us with the spiritual stuff, essentially with what we would like to hear.

And we want answers, fixed answers, good answers, answers of certainty, answers that are easy to swallow, well crushed out, like sweet liquids fed into the estuaries of our self-confirming belief system, the fortress of our own pet theories.

Alas, by embracing or hallowing certainty, or cocksureness, we unknowingly garland our faith with the condolent wreaths of wonders, curiosity, uncertainty, and discovery.

We therefore become anti-Berean believers spoon-fed with the junk food of self-conceited revelations dished out in an all-you-can-eat buffet from the mouth of equally ignorant preachers.

Let me end with the article’s conclusion:-

“If Prof Hawking’s life can teach anything to scientists, public intellectuals and social media users (and believers?), it is that humility and a willingness to change one’s mind are a sign of not weakness but an adventurous and intellectually engaged mind and polity. This is a legacy as worthy as Prof Hawking’s monumental scientific achievements.” 

Amen, RIP Professor. Cheerz.

Stefanie Sun's little secret and mine.

It was supposed to be a secret.

Stefanie Sun made that clear to her son. He was in the bathtub when she and her husband told him the news about her pregnancy. It was her second child. 

Sun recalled that he was very excited about the news, and she added: "Don't tell anyone, okay? It's a secret."

Then, on second thought, she said; "When we said that, it was actually with a pinch of salt because he is just five years old. But the next day, the whole school knew about it."

This was how the cat was let out of the bag. 

Her son was learning about MRT etiquette in school and Sun told the media what transpired:-

"The teacher was teaching the class about how they have to give up their seat for the elderly, the disabled and the pregnant. And my son shot his hand in the air and said: "My mama is pregnant."

I guess now, Stefanie's son and MRT share something in issues. 

Lesson? Just one. 

I recall an incident too with my joy, 6-year-old. It concerns my 15-year-old son who dislikes McDonalds. 

He's quite a health freak. He's proud of his six-pack-abs, and at times, quietly paraded his middle kingdom around the living room just before taking a bath. 

Since none of us can say we have six-pack or pecs, not even two for good measure, we were a little envious, esp. me. 

So, fast food is a big no-no for him as he strive with great discipline to maintain his physique by keeping a wholesome diet and with regular running. 

One evening, we decided to play a prank on him.

Unfortunately, Joy was part of the prank squad. And along the way, we knew she was going to "bao toh" us (squeal or tattle on us). It was a Stefanie Sun moment. 

Nevertheless, the prank was executed with Mission-Impossible-esque perfection (at least, at the start). 

We bought a McDonalds' augus beef burger, but we threw away the box because it would be a dead giveaway. 

We then drove around doing due diligence to look for a normal foodcourt box to give the impression that the beef burger was from a western meal stall. 

In the end, we decided to just buy those burger-sized boxes from a local shop, all 10 boxes and used just one for the prank. The rest was collateral damage. 

Then, we nestled the beef burger in the box and spread the fries around to add to that touch of professionalism. 

Before we opened the door, we turned to Joy and told her specifically to keep mum about the whole elaborate scheme. We repeated to her that she plays a big role in the success of the whole prank. 

Amidst the uncontrollable giggles, we thought we saw a frantic nodding and trusted her...MRT comes to mind. 

When we presented the box to Jezer, he looked at it without any suspicion. 

If he had known it was from McDonalds, he would usually grumble and eat it reluctantly. Perhaps thinking that every bite minimises every pack in his middle glory. 

But this time, because of the burger masquerade, he hand-wrapped the burger and took big bites without question. It was finger-licking good. 

Then, our Bao Toh queen came in - the pissing Joy in our parade. All the while, she was giggling, fidgeting, and we thought it was safe as long as she was cordoned off from where the action was.

But unable to keep mum about it as mum had strongly admonished, Joy approached her brother, swaying from left to right, and said this to him with such tender sincerity:- 

"Kor kor, did you enjoy the beef burger (Jezer nodding between mouthfuls)....that is NOT FROM McDONALDS?" 

No joke, that little squirrel from the sherwood forest of tattle-ham practically emphasized those words - "NOT FROM McDONALDS". 

I recall in psychology that if you tell someone NOT to think about WHITE ELEPHANT or PINK POLAR BEARS, they would NOT be able to NOT think about it!

Joy just did a PINK POLAR BEAR on us, and we were gobsmacked, stultified, speechless. The elaborate family scheme fell to pieces.
But at the same time, we loved Joy for it. 

We realised that a major part of the prank was her. And the prank was as if she had designed it all along, quite unwittingly though, and we were all in it (except her). 

It was supposed to be fun, and she added the finishing touch to it, without which it would just be a candid-camera moment, and not a "Gotcha!" moment. 

I guess this is what family is all about. We all grow up to our own mischiefs. But every laugher shared is like the layered cream or icing between a slice of cake, which adds to the taste, deepens the flavour, and spreads the joy. 

Family is the greatest source of relief for an exhausting day at work. It is the balm that soothes the rough edges of our life. It is the soft caressing wind you relish when you stand on the beach alone engulfed by the wonders of nature. 

Sure, we have our fights, arguments and cold treatments. Spousal tiff, siblings' tussles and parenting angsts interspersed, but at the end of the day, when the sun sets and the moon rises, the overcoming bonds we share is like a good ointment rub on the spirit of our spine. The feeling is more than just poignant, it is heart warming, soul refreshing and spirit empowering.

Nothing can replace that uncontrollable giggles of our little ones as they grow up. Nothing in this world, that is, the greatest gain or recognition, fills our mind when we are at our deathbed except the touch of loved ones, the memories of the silliest antics we did to each other, the tears we share, and the sublime joy of the unplanned, spontaneous moments we savour. 

The mere recollection of them many years down the road is therapeutic enough to carry our weary hearts and jaded souls home for a good rest, fully energised, to meet the challenges of a brand new day. 

So, in the end, truly, Stefanie's son and MRT share something in common, and that is, we are all a part of a family. And family as a whole is our greatest source of encouragement, joy and pride. 

We will always stand united, strong, resilient, confronting every problem before us as one, when we are standing side by side with family; no matter how long it takes to overcome, eventually. Cheerz.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Kuik Siao-Yin's Big Picture.

Are we generally proud of PAP so far and its recent budget? Hold that thought first...

Let's talk about the big picture, that is, the meaning of all that economic pursuit for Singapore.

Here is where NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin comes in. 

Yesterday, she raised just one theme (or ring) to bind them all. 

She asked: "Well, what is the meaning we care to make with all our money in the first place?"

Well, if you are a billionaire, with accumulated wealth locked up in vaults (or under the home mattresses), earned through all means conceivable or inconceivable, hard work or otherwise, then so be it. 

You can do as you please without compunction with your wealth or reserves. 

But if you are a government, a charity, or even a megachurch, where you are storing up the people's money, how much is enough then?

The context of that question is the IMF's comment about our national reserves. It says: "Their assessment is that we are excessively prudent." 

Underscore "excessively".

In IMF's opinion, "a good enough amount of reserves would be 27 per cent of our GDP or $113 billion."

However, Shiao-Yin wrote in the papers today that "MAS' foreign exchange reserves alone as of January 2018 are around $369 billion or 88 per cent of GDP."

While she is not taking IMF's opinion as "gospel truth", or saying that IMF is right, her very nuanced approach is captured in this remark:-

"I admire the Government's devotion to long-term strategic overplanning and I get the deep fears around under-planning. I appreciate we cannot afford to get the maths wrong. But we cannot afford to get the meaning under the maths wrong either."

Alas, it all boils down to meaning, the reason for our striving, the hope for our people today and tomorrow, and the right balance between our pressing needs now and our anxieties for the future. 

One is reality and the other is imagined, but no less justified to some extent.

To Shiao-Yin, this is the real First World problem:-

"Should we spend more to help the people we have with us today or store more so we can help the people of tomorrow?"

And if we are saving for a rainy day, then considering the size of our current reserves, we'd better expect a geostorm or such apocalyptic weather in the likes of the end of days.

The Finance Minister recently said that "a strong economy is not an end in itself; it is a means to build a better home and provide a better quality of life for all people." 

But, is our government practising what it preaches? 

Ultimately, what does he mean by a "better quality of life for all people"? What does he mean by "better" and "for all people"? 

A utilitarian would jump in and say it's for the greatest good for the greatest number. A communist or socialist would want to leave no one out. An economist would rather we stick to the stats and facts. And a capitalist would just let the market and her invisible hand decide. 

But what does meaning mean to a prudent, all inclusive government like ours, like PAP (so claimed)? 

Are we sending mixed signals to our young fresh from the pressure-cooker of schools and spilling over into the reality of life (as they join the workforce, start their family, earn for them)? 

Shiao-Yin wrote:-

"Yet, as each young student ages into a young working professional, many feel their idealism for themselves and for the country being challenged. Along the line, we sense the Singapore way is more like a tense high-wire act where we must learn to calibrate our ideals of communitarianism, democracy and egalitarianism with the realities of individualism, authoritarianism and elitism."

In the end, we need an MP who ask all the right questions without provoking, belittling and denouncing, and I have found one in Shiao-Yin. She doesn't just put her money where her mouth is, she puts it where her heart is.

She asked at the conclusion: "Are we pursuing growth of our reserves for growth's sake?"

(If you think about it, as an aside, this same question can be asked of some of the largest, richest and most crowded megachurches here and all over the world - are we pursuing growth for growth's sake?)

Lesson? With points articulated so well, Shiao-Yin has left little that needs to be said. 

She however makes this point which I find captures the essence of her speech in Parliament:-

"Every tilt towards the side of pragmatism is simultaneously a tilt away from the side of our ideals."

Well, there is nothing wrong (as she'd said) about pragmatism and idealism. The key word is "tilt" and "trade off". And the word to be very cautious of is "excessive" - because it is an unknowing danger. 

And we should never forget that apart from preaching one thing and doing quite another, that is, making a strong economy an end in itself by unintended autopiloting, we have to be cautious of initial ideals mutating into entrenched entitlement in the name of ruthless pragmatism. 

I am talking about meritocracy. 

Like multiculturalism, meritocracy is the cornerstone of our nation building, government philosophy and our sacred national pledge. 

But along the way, meritocracy grew up to become a force to be reckoned with. It grew bigger than we can handle, breeding elitism, threatening class divide and nurturing runaway social and economic inequality. 

Another NMP Kok Heng Leun in Parliament observed this:-

"We have been inculcated with the values of meritocracy - hard work will be rewarded, self-reliance and personal achievement is key to our success...Have we also then made those who have failed to achieve believe in the narrative that it was because of personal failing that one cannot do better and accept the narrative that it is not a dignified existence?"

He added: "More importantly, how can we provide assistance without making those who need help feel that they have to prove that they have worked hard but not achieved enough and hence is worthy of support? Without feeling that they have no more dignity left?"

Alas, apart from the class divide and the inequality gap caused mostly by blinded excesses of meritocracy, we also have what I call the dignity gap. 

It is gap that divides the soul of the society not just between the have and have-not, or the class and the classless. 

It also divides those who feel entitled and those who are perpetually deprived, those who think success is hard work and those who struggle with two jobs, a broken family, and worrying about how to pay her kids' pocket money for the next week, and most of all, those who live in a rarefied and dignified existence up there padded with privileges and wealth, and those who are at the bottom of the food chain making ends meet and feeling that their existence is largely meaningless. 

How do we then bridge that gap, the dignity gap, the gap for the soul of Singaporeans?

So, let's go back to the question I posed at the start of this post:-

"Are we generally proud of PAP so far and its recent budget?" 

Well, we should be - at least for those who had voted for the PAP. 

For aren't we a clean and green city state with many main attractions like the Singapore Flyer, Marina Bay and the internationally renowned casinos? 

And, aren't we not corruption free (as in the absence of systemic corruption) and aren't our ministers (4G leaders) the cream of the crop, the best of the best?

But I guess there may just be something far more troubling than a corruption free is a leadership that is unknowingly detached from the soul of society by the blinded pursuit of that which is dubiously meaningful, and against that mindset, I think the search for enduring and true meaning that underscores what we do for growth (and benefit for all people) ought to be our government's next re-charted course. Cheerz.