Archive for November, 2009

Tales of Turkey

November 30, 2009 - 6:45 pm 1 Comment

The first of December marks the start of the countdown to Christmas! My previous entry was rather incomplete in capturing my adventures and discoveries over the latter half of last week; in retrospect, I am amazed that I managed to cram in so much (at the expense of my corporate finance case).

As I did not celebrate Thanksgiving sufficiently to my liking the day prior, I hosted a Thanksgiving party for all my MFE coursemates at Holywell Manor on Friday. Having never cooked for a group larger than seven before this event, I spent a few days worrying whether I would be capable of surmounting the challenge of cooking for 30-40, let alone managing to roast two turkeys. Considering the battles of endurance and creativity that my father has fought over the last two decades in keeping the turkey meat tender but cooked, I figured that my probability of success was tenuous at best. With the help of my coursemates, I somehow managed in record time! From obtaining the groceries at 2 PM and beginning the cooking process at 3:40 PM after a brief visit to the travel clinic (to obtain yet another set of shots in preparation for Uganda), I somehow managed to produce an industrial volume of food from my rather humble dormitory kitchen. I certainly felt the time pressure; I would have started earlier, but as class representative, I spent more than an hour debating strategies to improve the delivery and effectiveness of the asset pricing lectures. In all honesty, I knew a priori that our attempts constituted a rather fruitless activity as the conclusion was already known prior to the meeting.

The dishes I managed to create included:

  • Mashed potatoes: More than 10 kg of potatoes went into its production – I created a healthier version by using light crème fraiche rather than butter, and frankly, I think my version tastes better because of the slight tartness of the crème.
  • Pasta salad: Approximately 4 kg of al dente penne pasta with broccoli, olive oil, tomatoes, garden peas, seasoning, and most importantly, fresh basil and mozzarella
  • Chickpea salad: 1 kg of dried chickpeas soaked overnight and then boiled, served with fresh tomatoes, fragrant coriander, sweet corn, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt & pepper
  • Green Bean Casserole:  Sliced green beans baked in cream of celery soup, topped with mozzarella and crushed bran flakes (a healthier alternative to conventional fried onions or crumble)
  • Sweet potato and marshmallow casserole: A Thanksgiving classic, I combined mashed sweet potato with nutmeg and cinnamon and then baked the dish with the marshmallows on top to form a sweet crust. Using eight gigantic sweet potatoes, I kept the recipe healthy by not adding any additional butter or sugar – frankly, there is no need to dilute the natural flavors!
  • Pan-friend garlic potatoes (~1 kg)
  • Sweet corn with olive oil and seasoning (1 kg)
  • Steamed Broccoli with Italian herbs (1 kg)
  • Apple and walnut stuffing: We must have made more than 5 kg of stuffing with lots of fresh apples, walnuts, onions, sages, and herbs. I didn’t realize how much the stuffing base would expand once you add water!

Thankfully, one of my friends from the MFE helped me with the turkey, combing his prior experience in cooking chicken with the videojug reference that my father sent me the day prior. The turkeys, albeit completed late, were really tasty! I think the most important trick to keeping the meat tender is to cover the turkey in tin foil for the majority of the baking time, to rub herb butter under the skin of the turkey, to retain the drippings within the turkey pan to keep the oven moist, and to bake at a lower temperature for a longer period of time.

Everyone had brought deserts to share, so by the end of the night, all of us were tremendously stuffed and still, plenty of leftovers remained (in particular, the healthier offerings…). In all honesty, I was just satisfied that I managed to pull off the meal without too many hiccups and in record time. My classmates really helped me out a lot with grocery shopping & delivery of food, moving the cooked dishes from my kitchen to Holywell, and clean-up.

After experiencing the havoc of cooking for a large number of guests under extreme time and space constraints, I now have discovered my new limits of kitchen efficiency! Although over the last decade, I have always assisted in the preparation of Thanksgiving meals, this was the first time that I acted as the prime orchestrator. Overall, I found the experience really rewarding, especially since everyone seemed to enjoy the food – but more importantly, the opportunity to hang out together and relax after a stressfully busy, typical MFE week.

Alas, I’m still behind in my entries. I still have to write about my trip to Warwick Castle on Saturday and then the Skoll Emerge Forum for Social Entrepreneurship on Sunday.

Giving Thanks

November 29, 2009 - 6:23 pm 1 Comment

So much has happened over the last few days – it almost feels like a lifetime. It’s truly impossible to summarize in only one entry, so I may split my reflections over the next few days.

Thanksgiving: As I mentioned in my last entry, not being able to come home for Thanksgiving produces a strong sense of longing and homesickness. Even though one can find Thanksgiving food relatively easily at Oxford, the real meaning of the holiday is about getting together with family and loved ones. When I received a phone call from my little sister, mother, and father that evening, just hearing about how my father botched the crisping of the turkey skin and the plans the family made to take advantage of Black Friday sales at midnight made me wish so strongly to be home!

This Thanksgiving, I had almost too packed of a schedule to really take time to digest the simple pleasures of the holiday. During noon, I made a pitch to the Strategic Focus on Africa Special Interest Group (SIG) at Said Business School to convince MBAs to consider YouthBank as a potential consulting project for the summer. Overall, through the enthusiastic and excited responses that I received, I sensed that the committee was really positive about getting involved! Compared to the MFE students, MBAs are much more focused on the whole business school experience – rather than spending hours studying in the library to understand financial econometrics and asset pricing, MBAs attend a bunch of seminars, events, networking sessions, and club meetings. I suppose the value of the MBA is less about the content learned in the course, but the relationships forged.

Later that evening, I went to Rhodes House early to help with the preparation of the Thanksgiving dinner. As we have a new warden this year, he agreed to letting the American scholars use the kitchens and main hall to cook and serve a Thanksgiving dinner. I am truly amazed by my friends who organized the event; imagine all the meticulous preparation and coordination necessary to deliver quality food for 100 dinner attendees! Nine turkeys were roasted to perfection and not a single trimming was missing – sweet potatoes with marshmallows, fresh salads, giblet gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, homemade cornbread and rolls, quiche, macaroni and cheese, pumpkin and chestnut pies, among other traditional Thanksgiving fixtures. I guess when Rhodes Scholars set their mind on something, the implementation tends to be very well coordinated, and most surprisingly, perfectly on time!

I couldn’t stay for desert, however. I ended up rushing off to St. Antony’s to assist with the Brazilian Fundraiser that we’re holding for Solar Meninos de Luz, a Givology partner school in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro (see embedded video below about an English project conducted by my fellow Givologist Alex!). From 8 PM to 11:30 PM, I stood outside of the party, asking the entrants for a voluntary contribution…rather exhausting (and sometimes awkward) work. I made a few good connections for Givology that may prove very valuable in the future, and had a chance to engage in some meaningful conversation with a few interested individuals. The Brazilian Society of Oxford really helped out tremendously by bringing decorations, traditional music, and marketing assistance to get the word out about the party. Since the timing of the Brazilian party coincided with the MCR elections for St. Antony’s and a guest dinner, we had decent turnout, especially later in the evening. Through voluntary contributions alone, we raised 150 pounds for Givology (approximately $250 USD), and hopefully, we’ll get an additional 200-300 pounds when we apply for a grant from the St. Antony’s MCR. (And of course, congratulations to Alex for winning the MCR election for President – it’s really a tremendous accomplishment in light of the fierce competition for the position!)

I went home really late that evening, and fell into a near comatose sleep, too exhausted from the events of the day. Hearing my father, mother, and sister’s voices right before bed had a calming influence. Perhaps keeping myself occupied without a break for the entire day manifested a subconscious coping mechanism to deal with my absence from home.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I will write what I am thankful for. I am thankful for my family – without them, I would be lost. My mother is the heart of the family; she provides me refuge and comfort, support and practical advice, and the special enveloping sensation of unconditional love that only a mother can give. My mother is my closest confidante – my ardent supporter who believes that nothing is ever impossible for me, as long as I work hard and keep at it! Her care for me is unparalleled; without my mother, there would be no home. When I am enclosed in her arms in a great big hug, I am truly at peace.

I am thankful for my father – my rock and anchor. My father is my intellectual partner; he is the first sounding board for my ideas and emotions, my source of inspiration, and the most loyal reader of my journal and writings. He understands me inside and out, and is the first person I turn to express both my triumphs and failures. My father gives me encouragement and inspiration through good times and bad – from his knee at the age of three, I discovered the joy of reading and learning. Nowadays, from swapping recipes and healthy living ideas to discussing principles and the challenges of the human condition, my father is my role model and understands me (at times) better than anyone in the world. Without my dad, I would lose my light in the world.

I am thankful for my sister – my best friend and the one I want to protect the most in this world. I love her unconditionally without reserve, and would gladly give away everything to make her happy and content. My little sister is my joy and delight; my one friend who will never judge and who sees me for who I really am. When I am with my little sister, all the challenges and problems in the world melt away – we revert to our inner selves and play together as we did since the day she was born! My sister sees me as I really am – incomplete and imperfect – and together, we share all the ups and downs of life and the guilty frivolities that only sisters can share.

I am thankful for my friends, both new and old. My friends banish away the sense of isolation that I believe is intrinsic to the human experience. I do not have many friends, but my friendships that have grown and matured over the last two decades mean so much to me. A friend is one who believes in you when in the darkest hour, you have ceased to believe in yourself. My friends inspire, motivate, and give me unabashed honesty – to them, I can voice my insecurities and find refuge and truthful feedback, a rare mirror and door to the world.

I am thankful for my Givology team and our entire network of 3,000+ who believe in our mission and supported our cause through small dollar and/or small time contributions. My Givology team is a continual source of inspiration – no one can possibly ask for more creative, committed, resourceful, and inspired team! My Givology team has become my secondary family – a network of inventive young professionals and students who not only dream of a better world, but who have made the commitment to make their vision a reality. We share our triumphs and shortfalls together; all of us are volunteers but for us, Givology is much more than an organization, it is an incarnation of our hopes for a better world and a reflection of our own commitment to make a difference. Each donor and supporter on Givology adds to our impact; without them, we would not be able to help improve the lives of students around the world. Education is liberation – only when the mind is free are we truly emancipated. Education is empowerment – when we are armed with knowledge and a passion for learning, nothing is impossible.

I am thankful for my YouthBank team and all our donors who put faith into our model. In our critical scale-up phase, many obstacles arise, but my team bravely addresses our setbacks methodically without any hesitation or disillusionment. In particular, I am thankful for the leadership of Clara, who never loses sight of the vision at the end, and who has really motivated the entire team even in times of great frustration. At the Skoll Emerge Forum today, I heard a very inspiring speaker say, “A social entrepreneurs is like a duck. Calm in appearance from the surface, but paddling hard like hell underneath.” I think YouthBank team members epitomize this more than anyone else!  I truly believe our model can profoundly legitimize and revolutionize the field of microfinance for urban youth; after all, there is no such thing as high return without high risk.

I am thankful for all the opportunities afforded to me – for these two wonderful years at Oxford to pursue my passion of learning for the pure, unadulterated joy of learning in itself. I am thankful for my wonderful mentors, teachers, and professors who have invested so much time into me, and who have placed such firm conviction and belief in my abilities. My professors and mentors have shaped who I am today – they pushed me further, challenged me, and opened up new worlds in the knowledge that they shared. They revealed to me the complexity of the world, and have made me consider issues and perspectives I otherwise would never discover. In particular, I am thankful for Professor Dunfee; he transformed my life and my view of the world, and not a day goes by that I am not reminded of his influence. His passing in the summer of 2008 was the first real devastating loss I have ever experienced, but I am so thankful to have known him.

In concluding, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays not just because of the food and the festivities, but because in the bustle of daily life, we often take for granted all the people and opportunities around us. Today – this day – we thank them explicitly and remind ourselves of their impact in our lives.

Countdown to Thanksgiving

November 24, 2009 - 12:35 pm 1 Comment

Each week accelerates exponentially faster than the week prior – it’s hard to imagine that next week will be the final week of Michaelmas term. Daylight ends at 4:00 PM and the weather has worsened substantially. Alas, the perils of being an Oxford student. Considering the intensity of the homework and schoolwork, I wonder how much worse it can get in Hillary term, as MFE students of the past have pointed out to me that Michaelmas term was the “easy” to give everyone a chance to go job hunting.

One notable event over the last two days is that my grant application on behalf of the Peace School and Givology to the Rhodes Scholar Sub-Saharan African Foundation was successful! We received 1,500 pounds towards moving the Lower School to the Upper Campus. I will be visiting this school in late December, and am very excited about the opportunity to deliver letters written by Givology donors to the students, take video and photos, work with the students, monitor the impact of the funds we raised on Givology, and really understand the challenges of delivering quality education in Uganda. The Peace School has a truly extraordinary mission – the video below provides a great overview of the challenges the school is currently facing.

I’m continuing on with the Orbis Portfolio team in analyzing investment opportunities and allocating our group and individual portfolios. I find the sessions rather therapeutic – for me, investing is fascinating because of the creativity of analysis, a sophisticated gamble on a contrarian view. But alas, we always end up with more questions and unknowns after each session; in the end, we’ll just need to come up with a decision under uncertainty.

Wednesday is St. Catherine’s Feast at Balliol, but unfortunately as a one year masters student, I’m not invited, even though I have been at Balliol for two years. Alas, definitely disappointing, especially since I’m trying really hard to partake in as many Oxford traditions before I leave. I wonder what makes a one year master program a “lesser” program in the minds of the college; certainly, the taught programs require so more work and effort than their research-based, two-year counterparts.

Thursday is Thanksgiving, my second most favorite holiday after Christmas. As a child growing up in Connecticut, Thanksgiving had special personal significance. The story of the Pilgrims and the Indians coming together before the harsh winter resonated with me, and I could imagine the great festivities unfurling amidst the beautiful New England autumn. When I was little, Thanksgiving was a time in which both of my parents worked very hard to prepare “western” food – mashed potatoes, green beans, pumpkin pie, squash, and turkey. In the search for the perfect turkey, we had to go through many years of botched, undercooked, or overdried birds before my father perfected a recipe. By then, we had moved to Virginia.

On Thanksgiving, I will be sure to write a long entry detailing all that I am thankful for – a tradition that I have long kept since elementary school. It will be very hard to be so far from home, but I know that I will be there with mom, dad, and Grace in spirit. Another reason why Thanksgiving is so special is that once the day passes, I can officially listen to Christmas music and begin the countdown to my favorite holiday of the year. Alas, I won’t be home for Christmas either, as I will be in Uganda.

Some people get jaded over the years when holidays, birthdays, celebrations, and festivities seem to lose their allure with frequency. Nevertheless, I think it is essential to retain that sense of excitement and wonder – no year is the same, and sheer anticipation itself is what makes the holiday season so memorable.

Ending on a philosophical note, I wonder why people lose that childlike fascination with the world as they age. Why do experiences lose value when we have seen more and lived more? Even if an experience is new, a jaded person compares that instance to another memory, and trivializes its significance or novelty. Even if I lived through a thousand Thanksgivings and Christmases, my thousand and first will be just as special! Even if I have spent more than twenty years with my mother, father, and sister, an extra day will be just as meaningful!

The adage that “you never know what you have until you lose it” frightens me. I want to treasure everything that I have today, not discover belatedly its true worth and significance when it is gone. Is that so difficult?

A Relaxing Sunday

November 22, 2009 - 2:05 pm 1 Comment

A relaxing Sunday begets a restful and peaceful week! After waking up relatively early, I put on classical music, made myself a fresh pot of Earl Grey tea, contemplated corporate finance, and took frequent breaks to read a couple chapters from The Suspicions of Mr. Wicher, a historical murder mystery from Victorian times. In the afternoon, I had my usual weekly YouthBank and Givology calls. We covered a lot of ground and made decent progress, nothing too extraordinary.

I had some spare time so I decided to make a cauliflower and country vegetable curry with added onions, carrots, lentils, and split peas. Overall, I was decently pleased with the outcome, but perhaps I could have added more heat and spice. Recently, I’ve discovered that I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about food. I wonder why – perhaps because it’s a near endless source of procrastination or simply the fact that I’m bored of eating nearly the same thing every day. I suppose to rectify this new (and perhaps inordinate) preoccupation with food, I should vary my diet a bit more and spend more time cooking and less time reading about cooking.

Then, I had an ice hockey game against Oxford City – with many of our core players out of commission due to sickness, I did not expect to win. I scored two goals – one unassisted, the other assisted by a great centering pass from my line-mate of two years. Final score: 10-2.

Hockey is a great joy of mine, but it does take a lot of time and practices are always so inconveniently late. This year, the varsity game is at the Oxford Ice Rink so we’ll definitely have a huge home team advantage!

A Relaxing Saturday

November 21, 2009 - 2:56 pm 1 Comment

This past week has been relatively routine; nothing notable has occurred. Highlights included going skating with my coursemates on Thursday, taking the first set of shots in preparation for my trip to Uganda (after the shots, I could barely lift my left arm and fell into a deep, exhausted slumber), and attending a tea & cake at Balliol’s MCR on Saturday, celebrating 30 years of women at Balliol. At this tea, I met “old girls” from the classes that matriculated from 1979-1993. In particular, I spoke to a woman who majored in PPE as an undergrad during the second ever co-ed class at Balliol. It’s actually rather humbling to realize that even though I take advantage of Balliol’s community – known to be one of the most progressive at Oxford – that this opportunity was not afforded to women just 30 years ago.

Alas, I’m beginning to do actual studying and review of my coursework – after seven weeks of not cracking open a single book, I finally have relented.  Sometimes I feel a great deal of pressure when I see all my peers studying diligently in the Sainsbury Library at the business school , while I’m not doing anything. With classes spanning from 8 AM to 5 PM, I’m really amazed that my coursemates have the energy to continue on with reading and reviewing more work late into the night at the business school – generally, I’m so exhausted that all I want to do is go home, eat a decent meal, and work on fun projects. On Friday, when I dropped by the business school to meet someone for tea, I was surprised to see how many people were at the library – by far, my class this year is much more diligent than all my coursemates from last year! Oh well, I suppose of feeling inadequate from not studying, my response should be to begin studying on my own.

As the holiday season approaches and the reality of not being able to go home sinks in, my feelings of homesickness intensify. The majority of my friends don’t understand why I get so homesick, especially since for the last six years, I’ve been living a relatively independent life. For me, homesickness isn’t a debilitating feeling, but just a general sensation of emptiness that cannot be sated with company. For me, my home is a safe haven – a true respite from the outside world. I miss my mother, father, and little sister so much – with them, I can purely be myself without any reservation. As I get older, I realize that the world is much more complex; that the simplicity of just expressing what you believe, think, and feel does not always garner the best reaction from society. Consequently, any individual has two options: 1) to be more cautious and aware of how others would interpret one’s own words and actions and adapt behavior accordingly, 2) adopt a “to hell with it” attitude and just proceed. Unfortunately, I’m stuck in the arrangement of indulging my own impulses, yet not quite figuring out how not to care about the opinions of others. Under Ayn Rand’s philosophy, this would make me a rather incomplete individual.

Alas, idleness only cultivates unnecessary, unproductive introspection. I wholeheartedly believe in Socrates’ proclamation that the “unexamined life is not worth living”, but the converse is also equally injurious – an over-examined life may engender too many questions and incapacitating doubts that prevent taking concrete actions today to make progress on resolving the problems of tomorrow.

Listening to: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 24, Movement II (Larghetto)

Six Weeks Into Michaelmas

November 18, 2009 - 1:32 pm 1 Comment

I’m a student blogger on the official MFE blog, so from time to time, I’m going to cross-post a modified, “unofficial” version of my entry on my personal blog. The school has an approval system, so my posts don’t go immediately up on the site. Makes sense, as every business school would like to control the content affecting its image. In totality, I’m very satisfied with the program so the two posts don’t deviate substantially, and 100% of the content I write for the offical blog is truthful, but this entry will of course contain some of my more whimsical personal commentary.
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Sixth week already? Time at Oxford seems to just speed up each day – with our packed course schedule, we’ve all gotten into the familiar routine of waking up bright and early and returning home after dark. In six weeks, we’ve covered so much ground. Sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming in retrospect (imagine telling your friend, “We covered the entirety of arbitrage pricing and the calculation of state prices…in two hours”)

Alas, it is the nature of the Oxford term – eight weeks of intense coursework, and then a long break to allow the full digestion and appreciation of the material. As a returning student, I’ve discovered the importance of just keeping up with the general picture during term, taking advantage of all the exciting seminars and events on campus, and refraining from feeling anxious over not being able to do all the reading and detailed work. Albeit it took me some time to figure this key piece of advice last year, it’s done my sanity and well-being a lot of good.

I’ll try and break down some of the ground we covered by class.

Corporate Finance: In just six weeks, we’ve learned the CAPM, capital budgeting, Miller & Modliani principles (with and without taxes), optimal capital structure considerations, corporate valuation and delevering, and most recently, real options theory. Professor Noe is both my academic and college supervisor, and I really like him a lot because he’s friendly, helpful, and very willing to take the time to answer questions and clarify concerns.

Asset Pricing: Alas, asset pricing – this class is both simultaneously my favorite and my most frustrating by far. The problem sets (ungraded) often cause me great anxiety as I struggle to apply the concepts of lectures to solve calculations. Basically, I walk away from lectures thinking I understand everything, but then start on the problem sets and then blank out (especially Week 4 on the Lucas Model). Sometimes, it’s really hard for me to follow the flow of the lectures, and there isn’t a particularly good reference book to clarify. Regardless, though, I have a feeling that this course will probably be the one that I remember the most when I leave Oxford. Just like how I struggled my way through MGMT 100 (for different reasons) at Wharton, I know that the triumph of surmounting a challenge leaves an indelible impression. Of course, this assumes that I will figure everything out in asset pricing by the end of the year…

Economics: Last year, I did the MSc in Economics for Development program at Oxford, so I had a chance to delve deeper into the economics models and theories relevant to small, open economies. Prior to last year’s program, however, I really had no intuition for economics and had to start from scratch. So I’m in this weird state where I know a lot of more advanced concepts (endogenous growth theory, human capital theories, debt sustainability models, overlapping generation models, signaling and discrimination models, New Keynesian Open Economic Model, 1-2-3 model, exchange rate regimes, among many other models and concepts), but am missing out some basics for beginner, large-economy models taught in undergraduate courses. Professor Javorcik is perhaps one of the most popular teachers among our class – as we concluded our macroeconomics module today, I heard many wistful sighs. She’s incredibly clear at explaining models, and never fails to go step-by-step to provide the intuition. Compared to some of our other courses, the lectures are much less quantitative, but frankly, it’s a very welcome break.

Financial Econometrics: We concluded the theoretical foundations of financial econometrics with Professor Large, and we’ve just started on the more empirical/applied section with Professor Sheppard. Econometrics…is hard. I really liked my econometrics course from last year, as we really didn’t focus on theory all too much, but rather, did a lot of practical application and experimentation with STATA. As the majority of us will be practitioners of finance anyway, the proofs and theories probably won’t be as relevant than the interpretation and the ability to question and validate model output and conclusions. We’re using Matlab instead of STATA – the former is particularly powerful with matrices. As a math minor in college, I did linear algebra, but sometimes, it’s hard to translate all the data manipulation into matrix operations (sigh). My dearest little sister, from what I hear, is a Matlab wizard so I do feel like I have an additional resource to tap into (Grace, beware! I may be calling on you soon!). I suppose Matlab is better for time series data and STATA for panel data  – well, I guess it never hurts to have an extra program in one’s toolkit, and of course, programming concepts translate almost everywhere.

Life Outside of Class:  The one unique aspect of being at the Said Business School is the focus on social entrepreneurship and leveraging business concepts to make a positive social impact. I honestly believe that compared to all the business schools in the world, Said is perhaps one of the most progressive on this front! For me, the strength of the social entrepreneurship research and focus was one of the main draws of the program, and I am continually astounded by the different events, seminars, and networks available for aspiring or current social entrepreneurs. Yeah, there will always be a core of people who are here just to get into i-banking and management consulting, but I do think that compared to many other business schools, there’s a greater percentage of people who are involved in non-profit and government work. Makes for a more interesting and engaged class. Given that I’m heavily involved in social entrepreneurship, I’ve tried very hard to take advantage of all the resources and networking opportunities available, though to be honest, with how exhausted I am after class, it’s not always possible.

Frankly, I’m probably putting in an additional 3-6 hours a day on YouthBank and Givology on top of all my schoolwork, which in light of the MFE workload, is probably not too sustainable. But I know that next year, I’ll be working full-time, so I want to use this time to get my organizations as far as they can go. I agree with my mother – I should take this time to truly develop my interests and take advantage of all the free time I have as a student. Certainly, I won’t neglect my academics, but I want to make sure that I really stretch myself as a person too. I’ve been a student for so long, but I’ll be like my dad – learning never stops, and certainly does not end with the classroom!

I’m still playing on the Oxford women’s ice hockey team, and I do enjoy it, especially the games, but I sometimes wonder if it’s a best use of my time and effort, especially in light of the very late practices and the time cost of just getting to practice, changing, and going back home. This year, the team is going to a chalet in Switzerland for a very special skip trip/ice hockey tournament, so I know that this season should be more special than any other year, but when I’m walking back home at 2:00 AM with a heavy bag that is nearly breaking my back, I doubt my sanity.

Saturday in London

November 16, 2009 - 1:05 pm 1 Comment

Sometimes, escaping from Oxford for a day can really refresh the mind and spirit. On Saturday, Shaan and I went to London! Despite the dreary weather, I had so much fun exploring the city and absorbing the energy and movement of the atmosphere – a stark contrast to the relative tranquility and routine of Oxford. Arriving early by bus, we booked tickets for the evening performance of the Lion King, a musical that I have wanted to see for ages. Afterward, we went to Oxford Circus to visit the Swatch store, as well as browse the various department chains, including the opulent Selfridges. In particular, I liked visiting the food stalls to see all the exotic and eclectic meats, sweets, baked goods, and other foodstuffs available for purchase. The experience reminded me of last Christmas vacation, when my family and I went to Harrod’s and was completely overwhelmed by the sheer size and scale of the store. Who would have thought that an entire elaborate section solely dedicated to pet clothing was worth having? Alas, the wonders of the market – I suppose demand has to exist somewhere for supply to exist…

Afterward, we had a tasty lunch at a Korean restaurant in Leicester Square, bringing back summer memories of going to Koreatown with Grace to indulge in spicy dishes. If only Oxford had a Korean restaurant! Then, we took the Tube to the Victoria & Albert Museum to visit the special exhibit “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Court”.

As a brief summary, the exhibition examines the world of the maharajas of India, with particular focus on the evolution of their role within a social, political, and historical context. Spanning the beginning of the 18th century to the mid-20th century, the collection contained more than 250 items, many of them on loan from India’s royal collections for the first time! There were five main rooms of the exhibition, featuring so many beautiful paintings, ceremonial objects and jewelry crafted from precious stones and gold, warfare objects, and dramatic displays of splendors reflecting the secular and sacred power of the Indian kings.

I really liked attending this exhibit with Shaan – he helped demystify and explain the cultural context to interpret and understand the significance of the objects. In this world, so many people fear and disdain foreign cultures. I remain completely baffled by the reasons behind their contempt – why would anyone not be fascinated by how human societies have converged and diverged in their attempts to rationalize the world and organize politically, socially, and spiritually?

The V&A is one of my favorite museums because of the breadth of the collection; one can lose himself or herself in the vast displays of decorative arts and designs. In particular, I very much enjoy the glass collection, which contains over 6,000 pieces from around the world (including a section dedicated solely to stained glass), spanning 4,000 years. In addition, I really like the textiles & fashion exhibit – it’s fascinating to see how taste has evolved over the last four centuries.

Afterward, we had a quick dinner in London’s Chinatown, before going to the Lyceum Theatre to watch the Lion King! Although my parents and sister have seen the Lion King on Broadway, I unfortunately missed the opportunity because of some unavoidable conflict – in the end, my family gave away my ticket to Grace’s friend. So, for me, the sense of anticipation reached new heights!

The story of the Lion King is particularly familiar with me with great personal significance. When the Lion King first came out in 1994, my mother took my sister and me to see it in theatres. In Connecticut, we didn’t go to the cinema very often, so I have a very distinct memory of going with her. Afterward, because I continued to feel really sad about Simba’s loss of his father, my mom bought me a stuffed animal of Simba to cheer me up.  As an 8 year old, I remember being traumatized by the depiction of Mustafa’s death – they call it the circle of life, but it might have well been the “circle of death”.

Then, I went to summer school the next year, where we had to put on a play at the end of the program to or parents to show they how we productively used our time. Given that the Lion King had come out relatively recently, our play revolved around the music and the themes from the movie. As a consequence of rehearsing at least two hours a day (such painful, awful memories – the school had no air conditioning and attempts to keep 150 children engaged were often unsuccessful), I know all the songs from the Lion King by heart.

The musical version of the Lion King is spectacular! The costumes tantalize the imagination – who would have imagined the creative composition of the hyena costume? Somehow, the costumes managed to transform the movement of human beings into the movement of animals and plants in a very natural and believable manner. The bright colors and the use of billowing fabrics, oversized masks, and puppets really augmented the sense of drama. In many ways, despite the familiarity of the theme, the Lion King is one of the most abstract musicals I’ve ever seen because it required the audience to re-conceptualize the actors from humans to animals/plants, and to translate human expressions and movements into the equivalent for animals/plants. (For example, Mustafa removed his mask to chastise Simba; to show movement, puppets and shadows were used amidst the swaying moves of actors depicting the grasslands.) Perhaps compared to Les Miserables and the Phantom of the Opera, the Lion King is comparatively one of more family-friendly musicals, but catering to a younger demographic certainly does not detract from the quality of the production – in fact, I truly believe that compared to all the musicals that I have seen, the Lion King has the best scenery and costumes by far. In particular, the Lion King employs a very large number of actors and actresses so that the stage always feels really full. Some costumes, such as that for the giraffes and the cheetah take up so much vertical and horizontal space that majestic moments on pride rock feel even more grandiose and stately.

Below is a list of Broadway musicals that I have seen to date, with my personal ratings from 1-10, with 10 being the highest. Phantom of the Opera is still my favorite to date, followed closely by Les Miserables. For pure entertainment and hilarity that happens to pertain to my age group, nothing beats Avenue Q, an irreverent and uproarious parody of Sesame Street.  Regardless of the score, each musical I’ve seen has left its own indelible mark on my memory. For example, 42nd street had by far the best dance choreography, and will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was the first musical I’ve ever seen.

  • Les Miserables (Washington DC) – Music (8), Staging & Costumes (7), Plot (9), Joyce’s Enjoyment Factor (9)
  • Lion King (London) – Music (9), Staging & Costumes (10), Plot (7), Joyce’s Enjoyment Factor (8)
  • Phantom of the Opera (Hong Kong) – Music (10), Staging & Costumes (8), Plot (10), Joyce’s Enjoyment Factor (10)
  • 42nd Street (New York City) – Music (5), Staging & Costumes (6), Plot (6), Joyce’s Enjoyment Factor (7)
  • Avenue Q (London) – Music (10), Staging & Costumes (7), Plot (8), Joyce’s Enjoyment Factor (9)
  • Spamalot (New York City) – Music (4), Staging & Costumes (5), Plot (8), Joyce’s Enjoyment Factor (6.5)
  • Hairspray (New York City) – Music (7), Staging & Costumes (6), Plot (8), Joyce’s Enjoyment Factor (7)

Quotidien

November 13, 2009 - 5:59 pm 1 Comment

Years later, I will likely value my journal’s record of the ordinary rather than the extraordinary, for the former will have been lost to time, while the latter remains in memory. Time seems to erase all the negative sentiment, leaving only positive recollections. As my fifth year high school reunion approaches, I am confident that my peers who treated me with lukewarm reception in 2004 will probably approach me with great gusto and appreciation.  With time, I suppose we forget all our bad memories – just thinking back to my experience with the Economics for Development program last year, I struggled with adjusting to Oxford during Michaelmas Term and often fell into bouts of depression, but frankly, when asked to assess my first year, I have nothing but glowing remarks.

The last few days have been a struggle for me; I’ve discovered that even with the best intentions to please everyone, I will (inevitably) fail. The MFE program lightened considerably this past week – in asset pricing, we’re back to portfolio theory and the traditional CAPM after a very long struggle with the Lucas Model and general equilibrium price determination. The course moves too fast for some, and too slowly for others. I think I’m right in the middle – my undergraduate background and my economics course last year provides a solid foundation to understand the lectures and classes, and frankly, I’m just enjoying the experience of digging deeper into financial theory.  I’m continuing on with my ORBIS portfolio trading team, and hopefully, will enable the launch of our class MFE Fund. After all, since we’re spending so much time learning asset pricing and valuation, it makes sense to put our money where our mouths and minds are – I don’t think anyone can really understand stock pricing or investment analysis until they are ready to commit their own capital.

My calendar of activities is as full as always – one item of note is that on Tuesday, my flatmate from France hosted a French Raclette Dinner. She even had a special machine for grilling the cheese! I love trying new foods, so I relished the experience to savor the unique flavor, especially as cheese is entirely foreign to Chinese cooking. Tonight (Friday), I attended the home leg of the Brasenose exchange dinner, which involved an elaborate three-course meal at Balliol Hall (including a very innovative poached pear desert), followed by port and chocolate in the MCR with our guests from Brasenose. To be honest, I’m not as involved in MCR events this year as I was last year – perhaps it’s because a lot of my Balliol friends from last year have finished their programs or because the MFE is so time and energy consuming that exhaustion precludes me from attending events held late at night.

Today, I had a lunchtime meeting with my Rhodes women mentoring group at  Makan La, a Malaysian Restaurant in the city center.  I feel inspired hearing about everyone’s most recent projects, initiatives, ideas, and research! Our group of five was organized on the theme of social entrepreneurship, so I really enjoyed hearing about the different ventures that my peers started, including a beading program that promotes healing and economic independence for victims of sexual abuse in Sri Lanka.

I’m still playing ice hockey, but am beginning to doubt the sanity of our midnight ice time slots and question the impact of hockey on my ability to maintain normal circadian rhythms. I love playing the game and haven’t missed a season in 13+ years, but with my academic commitments and Givology/YouthBank, this year has been a struggle. It’s not the time involved in playing hockey that is problematic (even though getting to practice and back takes about ~3.5 hours), but rather, the timing of the practices and games.

For Givology, Alex and I created a really great video for the Microsoft 7 grant competition. Recently, I’ve taken the time to learn a lot more about visual media – video editing, css/html, and photoshop (gimp). I still have so much to learn, but it’s a lot of fun to experiment!

Alas, more than anything, I miss home. As the weather takes a turn for the worse and the days get shorter and darker, I want nothing more than to curl up with a good book in the basement of my house, listening to erhu music and enjoying the company of my dearest mother, father, and sister, even if it’s just comfortable silence.

A Day of Debate

November 11, 2009 - 1:26 pm 1 Comment

I haven’t written in my journal for the past few days, so I will try and highlight some of the most interesting aspects of the week. Last Saturday, I participated in the Trinity Forum on the theme of “Entrepreneurs of Life”, held for Rhodes and Marshall Scholars, among other guests. In essence, the Trinity Forum is a day of discussion and debate, where a diverse group of people come together to exchange ideas and question social mores through guided readings of canonical texts. Even though the Trinity Forum has Christian origins, the mission is ultimately to encourage open intellectual discussion under a humanist framework for people of all religious (or non-religious) backgrounds. As I had a chance to speak with the Founding Chairman of the forum, Alonso McDonald (former CEO of McKinsey and also Ambassador of the US Delegation to the GATT in Geneva during the Carter administration), the forum was established to encourage the intellectual pursuit of truth and dialogue about finding meaning in life.

Notably, the entire conversation revolves around excerpts of great writings – for example, excerpts from this year’s theme included passages from Hermann Hesse’s “Siddartha”, Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, Schlesinger’s “Democracy and Leadership”, William Wilberforce’s letters to Parliament, among so many other important classical texts from both eastern and western traditions. For me, I just enjoyed the experience of exchanging ideas and dissecting a wide variety of themes, including defining and evaluating the meaning of “calling” in life, the mechanisms and impact of social reform, and entrepreneurship in civil society. Having not been able to find a suitable debating society at Oxford since graduating from Penn, I found the Trinity Forum a really wonderful opportunity to just concentrate on the realm of ideas, and forget practicalities.

All three moderators for my panel were really inspiring – we had Dr. Miguel Mesquita da Cunha, a former diplomat in the European Commission, Jack Fallow, a businessman who created companies owned by the workers, and Dr. Peter Barnett, a Rhodes Scholar who now works at GLG in London after practicing law for many years. As the forum focuses on developing leadership capacity, the general spirit of the day was very uplifting – to live life as fully as possible by finding a calling and purpose, to never let fear of failure or perfectionism deter action, and to engage in social reform, among other themes. These may sound like platitudes as I write them down, but the context is important – these themes were not just discussed in isolation, but in reference to a very specific series of questions related to the texts that exposed both the positive and negative aspects of the human experience.

One of the moderators quoted Kierkegaard. “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” I don’t agree – I’d rather define my objectives and live on my own accord today, rather than live haphazardly and only make sense of all that has transpired belatedly, when it may be too late. As the majority of the attendees were Rhodes Scholars, a question was posed about whether Rhodes Scholars ought to have a greater responsibility to the world than the typical individual – many of my colleagues expressed a sense of overwhelming pressure from not knowing their purpose or how best to harness their talents into vocations that would make the greatest impact, but somehow, I don’t seem to struggle with this dilemma. Actually, among the Rhodes community, one of the most common sources of anxiety is paralysis by indecision – an unwillingness to close doors or to commit to one opportunity, the uncertainty of figuring out what “one would be best at” (ie: decisions that generate the most impact for the least amount of effort, I suppose many are just worried they will just pick the “wrong career” and end up mediocre or squandering their future).

Maybe it’s because I’ve worked on YouthBank and Givology that I know that the time spent worrying about what the “optimal” action to take or any anxiety about one’s “purpose” can just better be spent doing something! Why worry about which career or decision would increase the probability of success or social impact, when you can be taking practical steps today – experimenting, learning from mistakes, and incrementally defining on your own terms the life you want to live?

I believe it’s never too late. Although the hair on my father’s head may turn grayer each day, he knows that the opportunity to learn never closes – he’s discovering the joy of cooking, probability, college physics, Greek tragedy…and the list goes on. And even if I enter into finance, it does not preclude me from venturing into different industries in the future; experiences build on experiences, and each new thing we try only adds a greater depth and significance to our portfolio of life (yes, I know, an awful finance allusion).

Enabling Clarity in Charity

November 10, 2009 - 1:00 pm 1 Comment

The article in the New York Times “Confusion over where money lent on Kiva goes” flags some key issues about transparency that ought to be considered carefully. Every online giving marketplace strives to introduce a one-to-one connection between donor and recipient, but often times, a false sense of security results, especially since cash funding is by definition fungible. As the article points out, even though you may donate money to support an enterprising group of women in Peru, there’s no way to guarantee your money isn’t just being used for general business purposes of the sponsoring MFI. Hence, the question surfaces, if that one-to-one connection is merely a illusion, then what’s the purpose of an Internet microphilanthropy site if donors can just support the work of partner organizations such as the Grameen Foundation, Microplace, and Acción directly?

I certainly don’t claim to have all the solutions, but some of the processes and strategies that we’ve implemented at Givology (www.givology.org) may help elucidate some ways to make these connections real. After all, the purpose of internet Microphilanthropy is to enable clarity in charity by introducing transparency and granular reporting – we certainly don’t want to mislead our supporters! The NYT identified the controversies of peer-to-peer charity, but I don’t want this article to cast doubt on the relevance and importance of letting this sector of philanthropy grow.

Rather than just debate generalities, I’d like to focus on specific solutions to address the issue of transparency, integrity, and in essence – honesty – in Internet microphilanthropy. When we first launched Givology, transparency was one of our core values and we spent a long time figuring out the best way to make sure that we’re abiding by our principles as fully as possible. As a result, we’ve identified four different ways to circumvent the challenge of money being used for purposes other than the indication.

First, we partner with small-scale grassroots organizations, rather than large foundations – that’s where we can make our largest value-add. Most of our partners are highly localized within their respective communities and maintain close relations to all the students they support. They have the time and the resources to provide us with information and are fully committed to developing project and student profiles carefully, as $500 can be a very large sum of money to them. Very few of our partner organizations have operations in more than one region of a country, thus allowing them to focus. Most importantly, because our partners are small-scale grassroots organizations, Givology is an important resource to raise awareness and funding. Many of them don’t have the skills or resources to develop a sophisticated website or the infrastructure to manage small donations, so we play an important role in helping them tap into new networks to magnify their impact. Perhaps a billion dollar foundation is more apathetic to committing fully to using funds raised through microphilanthropy in the specific manner as published on the site, but a small grassroots partner that has incorporated Givology in the planning process is much more likely to follow through. I’m not disputing that Kiva is an important partner to the Grameen Foundation or to Acción, but both of those partner organizations have so many distinguished grants, private, and corporate donors that they aren’t nearly as dependent on the source of funding raised through Kiva. Hence, in my humble opinion, the real value contribution of a P2P community like Givology for both the donor and the partner organization is two-fold. For the donor, Givology identifies innovative grassroots organizations that are worthy of support and allows them to track their impact. For the partner organization, Givology connects them to resources for awareness and funding that they otherwise would not have.

Second, we commit partners to very specific updates.  As you can read from our student updates and project updates, we receive very granular information from our partners about the progress of the specific student and project. In every partnership agreement, our partners commit to using funding in the way that they have described in the project or student profile. Although it’s true that we can’t guarantee that they will always follow through, the specificity and the granularity of the updates suggest that something very concrete has been implemented in a fashion as outlined on our site.

Third, we allow donor messaging – anyone can send a letter to a student encouraging him or her to continue schooling, or asking how he or she used the scholarship money. Our ultimate aim is to really develop that one-to-one relationship, promote cross-cultural exchange, and allow both donor and recipient to inspire each other. It’s such a shame that not many of our donors use this option, even though it means so much to our sponsored students when they receive letters from Givology! For example, take a look at the wonderful letter written by Yincong Fan who addressed a letter specifically to Danielle, a donor in our community who took the time to use our messaging function. When donors don’t send messages, our Givology translators fill the gap in writing a personalized letter.  The effusive, empowering messages that we get back just serve to remind us how important it is to provide emotional support, not just financial support. For example, take a look at this inspiring letter from Shangui Yan! Whenever I’m feeling down about my own midterms and problem sets, I re-read his letter and feel inspired to never give up – if he can keep trying under such hard conditions, then so can I! Now on this point, Kiva mentioned that one concern was the legal aspect to preserve identifies. That’s a huge concern for Givology, and we’ve done as much as we can. We keep the location of the child very general, use pseudo-names upon request, and never give any addresses out to a donor – all letters are delivered and sent through our team, and we keep the highest degree of confidence.

Fourth, we admit mistakes when they occur and never promise more than what we can deliver. We’ve had instances in which we learned that due to adverse circumstances, a student dropped out of school. Immediately, we sent a letter of notification to the donors and refunded the money. We’ve also admitted when certain partner organizations don’t meet our standard for transparency; in such a case, we’ve de-listed them as partners. As the article in the NYT highlighted, the problem wasn’t the strategy of Kiva and GlobalGiving, it was the lack of clarity on how the one-to-one donations and lending actually worked. To be honest, I think it’s a travesty that Global Giving cast a for-profit project as a non-profit project to donors! I know at Givology, we’d rather just admit our mistakes and apologize sincerely rather than try to mislead or misinform (even through omission).

We’re certainly not perfect – far from it. In particular, it’s true that sometimes even if the funding isn’t fully raised online, we’ll pull every string possible and make every effort to ensure that the student still manages to go to school. We wouldn’t want it any other way! We tell our partners upfront that we can’t guarantee the timing of donations – as committed grassroots organizations, they understand, having battled with funding concerns for years. That’s why we’re launching chapters and getting donors to hold microfundraisers in their own community to help us smooth out our online donations. In very urgent cases, we’ll scramble and make the capital contribution before the money is actually raised online and then repay our own coffers. In such a case, the project is still a 100% wholly Givology-sponsored project and the donors know that their money is being used specifically for that purpose.

Let me highlight a recent example to clarify. For the last 15 years, the Peace Primary School in Kampala, Uganda has delivered free education and comprehensive care (medical treatment, housing, emotional support, clothing, supplies, etc.)  to children who otherwise would not be able to afford the cost of schooling, many of them AIDS orphans. Despite 15 years of inspiring work in the community, the school faces eviction in December 2009. If we don’t get $10,000 together, 200 students will have to leave school. So, even if we’re not close to target in December 2009, we’ll just scramble using our reserves and then wait for eventual repayment from our donors.

As many of you know, Givology is a 100% volunteer-run organization. I’m one of the founders and the CEO of Givology, but I’m also still a student myself. Frankly, many of us are still strapped for cash with our own student loans, but all of us believe in the importance of enabling students from around the world to benefit from the transformative power of education.

Education opens doors – we all have so much to give, and in the process of giving, we form connections and learn something about ourselves. That’s why our motto is “Learn to Give, Give to Learn”.

To summarize, where does the value add of peer-to-peer philanthropy come from? Well, first, from creating a community – we have blogging, messaging, group blogging, among other features. Second, from democratizing philanthropy and introducing greater transparency. Through Internet microphilanthropy, it’s no longer the big donors who have voice and inclusion in the activities of a charity. No matter the size of the donation, the act of giving can be participatory and engaging for everyone – every Givologist has the opportunity to track his or her impact and get involved! The NYT flags some controversial concerns, but I do believe that in the long-run, the challenges are surmountable and that P2P philanthropy is a sector well deserving of further attention.