This blog will hopefully inspire you, warm your heart, make you smile and feel positive.

coincidence

At 7:15 pm on March 1, 1950, the 15 members of the church choir in Beatrice, Nebraska, were scheduled to meet for rehearsal. For various reasons, they were all running late. The minister’s family was delayed because his wife still had to iron their daughter’s dress. One couple was held back when their car wouldn’t start. The pianist planned to be there 30 minutes early, but he fell into a deep sleep after dinner. And so on.

At 7:25 pm, the church exploded. The blast was heard all around the village. It blew out the walls and sent the roof crashing to the ground. Miraculously, nobody was killed. The fire chief traced the explosion back to a gas leak, even though members of the choir were convinced they had received a sign from God. Is it hand of God or coincidence?

Let’s analyse this from different angles and consider all the possible scenarios. For this church explosion case, there are 4 possible events that can happen: (1) Choir delayed and church exploded, which actually took place; (2) Choir delayed and church did not explode; (3) Choir on time and church exploded; and (4) Choir on time and church did not explode.

Now, estimate the frequencies of these events. Pay special attention to how often the last case “choir on time and church did not explode” has happened – every day, millions of choirs gather for scheduled rehearsals and their churches don’t blow up. Suddenly, the story has lost its unimaginable quality. For all these millions of churches, it would be improbable if something like what happened in Beatrice, Nebraska, didn’t take place at least once a century. So, no hand of God. And anyway, why would God want to blow a church?

We tend to stumble when estimating probabilities. If someone says “never”, it just means a minuscule probability greater than zero since “never” cannot be compensated by a zero or negative probability. So, don’t get too excited. Improbable coincidences are precisely rare but very possible events. It’s not surprising when they finally happen. What would be more surprising is if they never came to be.

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Yesterday Once More

When I was young
I’d listen to the radio
Waitin’ for my favorite songs
When they played I’d sing along
It made me smile

Those were such happy times
And not so long ago
How I wondered where they’d gone
But they’re back again
Just like a long lost friend
All the songs I loved so well

When I was in primary school, I only needed to attend the morning class for half the day. Knowing there was someone who shared my desk in the afternoon class, I started to communicate through written notes put in the drawer. The other student was a girl and she replied. We mostly talked about the school life, the subjects we studied, our teachers, and exchanged some exam tips with each other – a way to communicate before the time of internet, email and social network.

After school, I normally back home and had lunch, did my homework while listening to the radio. At that time, people still wrote letters to the DJs and dedicated the songs to their friends. Grand-mum would be busy in preparing dinner by late afternoon and I might watch some TVs – superman killing monsters, adventures to outer space, protecting earth from aliens. So, I always dreamed about having superpower and changing the world when I grow up.

Parents arrived home from work in the evening and the whole family had dinner together. After dinner, I continued doing my homework or revising what was taught in the school. Homework seemed never ending. Was I too slow or day-dreaming most of the time? At night before I slept, I might peep through my bedroom window down the park below and see if I can find any ghosts – there was a rumor that the park was a graveyard before. The girl next door was always practicing her recorder by that time and I could hear the notes over the night air.

Every Sha-la-la-la
Every Wo-o-wo-o
Still shines
Every shing-a-ling-a-ling
That they’re startin’ to sing’s
So fine

When they get to the part
Where he’s breakin’ her heart
It can really make me cry
Just like before
It’s yesterday once more

In memory, my parents were always busy at work. So, my childhood was mostly spent with grand-mum. When I started high school, I needed to stay at the school for longer hours. It would be around four in the afternoon when I arrived home and I usually felt really hungry due to the early lunch at school. Grand-mum’s hot soup noodle became the highlight of those school days.

In a public housing environment, we had close relationship with our neighbors and knew everyone living in the block. Kids with similar age naturally became friends and played together. Our doors were seldom locked and it was normal to walk to my friends’ homes, chat about stories at school and in the block, borrow some reference books or stationeries, and then back home. We ran a lot those days – running up the stairs and racing with the lift (lift was proved to be faster most of the time); chasing each other through the corridors that connected the buildings; and playing basketball in the playground.

Lookin’ back on how it as
In years gone by
And the good times that I had
Makes today seem rather sad
So much has changed

It was songs of love that
I would sing to then
And I’d memorize each word
Those old melodies
Still sound so good to me
As they melt the years away

I studied in a boys’ high school. It had an indoor sport hall and an outdoor football/basketball court that we used alternately for our PE classes. However, if this was our turn to use the sport hall for the PE class but it was not available due to public exam or other activities, we would have a cross-country run. At that time, I didn’t enjoy running that much, it was exhausted as there were a number of up hills around the school. I also felt embarrassed for everyone saw me running on the streets, especially the girls from other schools. But it might give me a good foundation to pick up distance running many years later.

Half way through high school, everyone started studying hard for the entry to higher education or university. Those textbooks, lecture notes, reference books, mock exam questions were my every day companion. I attended tuition classes, formed study groups and studied in the library till late. Although I may now forget most of the knowledge gained from school back then, we need to do things in vain at different stages in life.

Every sha-la-la-la
Every wo-o-wo-o
Still shines
Every shing-a-ling-a-ling
That they’re startin’ to sing’s
So fine

All my best memories
Come back clearly to me
Some can even make me cry
Just like before
It’s yesterday once more

Those years, fearless and being wild; the world was much safer and warmer; people were closer and the music was better. My family, friends, classmates and other people I met – you all gave me a unique and happy childhood. Although I don’t have any superpower, I hope my existence might in turn change your world a bit. Also to the childhood’s me, thank you for living so fully in those years – the passion and excitement about life; and the attitude in questioning and challenging everything. Although life alters those dreams and leads to a different path, what we remember from childhood we remember forever.

– Originally published in April 2012

Choose Your Attitude

attitude

In the movie “Apollo 13”, Tom Hanks played astronaut Jim Lovell, whose mission was scheduled to land on the moon until an oxygen tank exploded two days after launch. Suddenly it was impossible for a successful moon landing but whether the crew would ever make it back to Earth.

There was a long moment of silence as the tension mounted, and then the silence was broken by Lovell’s calm, confident, almost cheerful voice saying, “Houston, we have a problem.” There was no trace of panic. If you had just walked into the room, you’d think his problem could be nothing more than a flat tire. He then proceeded to describe what happened and asked for advice on how to handle the situation. Step by step, the crew devised an ingenious solution, and eventually, they made it back home.

Lovell’s calm and assured attitude is what we need to learn. We’re each handed a set of cards in life – some good, and some bad. Keep focused on the bad ones and you’ll be stuck blaming the game. Use the good ones, and things become better – your hand changes and you move forward. Life is bound to deal you a few bad hands now and then. You don’t need to make a big deal out of every unexpected turn of events.

We should look at the current situation with an open, fresh perspective and attempt to use the new events in our favor. Your path may be rerouted, but nothing is lost unless you decide to quit. Through it all, arm yourself with the right attitude. When life gets tough, some of us feel that we’ve lost the game and life has won. But life isn’t trying to defeat you. Life isn’t even a participant at all – the game is yours.

It is all going to be fine in the end. If it is not yet fine, then it is not yet the end.
– Oscar Wilde

The Illusion of Control

In other species, survival is a matter of running when the tiger shows up. But we humans carry the burden of being a lot more sophisticated. We can forecast risk and plan our escape route long before that tiger is even born. We can scan the terrain and identify every possible threat, including those that are wildly hypothetical. We can take preventative measures, erect fences, set the traps, and add surveillance cameras. Furthermore, we can extend our plans to include those we love because we care for them. We’re able to take control while the best other beings can do is to react appropriately when the trouble starts.

Our need for security and control is instinctive. But are we actually in control? I trained hard for the marathon but got a flu before the run. Just when I needed to use the car GPS and it’s not working, I brought the car back to the dealer and simply found out the warranty has just expired. You arrived at the station on time but your train was cancelled. I changed job last year. When I lodged my tax return this year, only learned that my previous employer made a mistake in not deducting the tax from my last pay. I ended up in paying back the tax which is not a small amount. Although the money does not belong to me from the first place, it affects my saving plan.

We choose to ignore most other disruptive events that occur hundred or thousand times every day. Natural disasters, economic crises, victimization by fraud, bankruptcies, wars – those life-changing events take place everywhere all the time. They always point us down a road we weren’t expecting to take. And our path through life seems to alter too often. Sometimes, accident and tomorrow, you don’t know which one will come first.

Happiness doesn’t come from ignoring unpleasant realities. It comes from realism and objectivity in understanding life with all of its imperfections. Happiness comes from our ability to navigate such reality based on facts, not illusions. We think we are in control of everything, but how much control do we really have over those things we’re hanging on to? We all lose things and people we love, and we all get sick sometimes. All we can control is to choose to have a positive attitude and take actions without expecting results. Just give your best shot but don’t obsess about the target.

What is Love?

A student asked the teacher, “What is love?”

The teacher said, “In order to answer your question, go to the wheat field and choose the biggest wheat and come back. But the rule is: you can go through them only once and cannot turn back to pick.”

The student went to the wheat field. He went through the first few rows and saw one big wheat. But he wondered there might be a bigger one in front.

Then he saw another bigger one. But he moved on, thought that there might be an even bigger one waiting for him.

He soon finished more than half of the wheat field. He started to realize that the wheat was not as big as the previous one he saw. He knew he had missed the biggest one and he regretted.

At last, he reached the end of the wheat field. He ended up went back to the teacher empty-handed.

The teacher told him, “This is love – you keep looking for a better one, but when later you realize, you have already miss that person.”

After a while, the student asked, “What is marriage then?”

The teacher said, “In order to answer your question, go to the corn field and choose the biggest corn and come back. But the rule is: you can go through them only once and cannot turn back to pick.”

The student went to the corn field. This time he was careful not to repeat the previous mistake. When he reached the middle of the corn field, he picked one medium corn that he felt satisfied and came back to the teacher.

The teacher told him, “This time you bring back a corn. You look for one that is just nice, and you have faith and believe this is the best one you get – this is marriage.”

– Originally published in March 2012

The Paradox of Choice

choice

When I was young, the telephone with the dial at home served no other purpose than simply making calls, and that did us just fine. In contrast, if you enter a cell-phone store today, you will be flattened by an avalanche of brands, models and contract options. Selection is the yardstick of progress. Although abundance makes us giddy, there is a limit. When it is exceeded, a surfeit of choices destroys the quality of life.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz describes in his book “The Paradox of Choice” why this is so. First, a large selection leads to inner paralysis. To test this, a supermarket set up a stand where customers could sample 24 varieties of jelly. They could try as many as they liked and then buy them at a discount. The next day, the owners carried out the same experiment with only 6 flavors. The result? They sold 10 times more jelly on day two. Why? With such a wide range, customers could not come to a decision, so they bought nothing. The experiment was repeated several times with different products. The results were always the same.

Second, a broader selection leads to poorer decisions. If you ask young people what is important in a life partner, they reel off all the usual qualities: intelligence, good manners, warmth, the ability to listen, a sense of humor, and physical attractiveness. But do they actually take these criteria into account when choosing someone? Nowadays, in the era of online dating, millions of potential partners are at our disposal. It has been proven that the stress caused by this mind-boggling variety is so large that the male brain reduces the decision to one single criterion: physical attractiveness.

Finally, large selection leads to discontent. How can you be sure you are making the right choice when 200 options surround and confound you? The answer is: You cannot. The more choice you have, the more unsure and therefore dissatisfied you are afterward.

So think carefully about what you want before you inspect existing offers and stick to your criteria. Also, realize that you can never make a perfect decision. Aiming for this is, given the flood of possibilities, a form of irrational perfectionism. Instead, learn to love a “good” choice. Yes, even in terms of life partners. Only the best will do? In this age of unlimited variety, rather the opposite is true: “Good enough” is the new optimum.

knowledge

Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity and published his laws of motion in 1687, forming the foundation of classical mechanics. Scientists embraced them as facts that govern everything from the falling of an apple to the orbiting of the moon and planets. However, Newton’s laws ignored many unknowns that were later discovered.

In 1861, James Clerk Maxwell’s classical thermodynamics rendered Newton’s laws insufficient. In 1905, Albert Einstein declared Newton’s assumption about time to be false. In mid-1920s, quantum physics showed that the world of small particles doesn’t behave as Newton expected. In the 1960s, string theory exposed the incompleteness of quantum theories, which, in turn, was rendered incomplete in the 1990s by M-theory – and it seems just about time for some other new term to render that incomplete very soon.

Can you see how misled we can be? Something as basic as the elementary laws of physics that seemed to function properly and accurately for more than 200 years was, at best, an approximation. And did you ever suspect the accuracy of the information on internet? You get millions of results for every search in Google but no one can confirm that what you read is correct.

The challenge isn’t limited to science. It extends to every part of our lives. How much do you know about what’s going on in your friend’s life before you feel upset that he didn’t return your call? How much do you know about the hardship a shop attendant enduring before you judge her for not smiling back at you? How often do you decide to follow a diet being presented as the new revolutionary discovery when you really don’t know about how your body really works?

We truly know very little. Yet to convince ourselves to believe in our actions and our knowledge is complete when, in fact, there are so many unknowns in the formula. We truly don’t know that much after all.