Archive for December, 2009

Preparing for Uganda

December 21, 2009 - 6:30 pm 1 Comment

It’s nearly 1:00 AM as I’m finishing up my packing for my trip to Uganda. My British Airways flight to Entebbe leaves at 10:45 AM, but with the weather as poor as it is, I’m not taking my chances and plan to take the 6:20 AM bus to Heathrow Airport. With Oxford deserted as students have returned home for Christmas, a sentiment of eerie serenity blankets the town.

Representing Givology, I’m visiting the Peace Primary School in Kampala, Uganda, along with Joanita, the founder of the school, and Jia, my fellow Givology teammate. The story behind the Peace School is truly tremendous, and having corresponded with Joanita on a weekly basis since the start of our partnership nearly a year ago, I deeply admire her passion and commitment to making quality education to all children, regardless of their financial background. Jiefei, our research coordinator, interviewed Joanita earlier this year – click here to read Jiefei’s reflections. The Peace School provides free education to children who otherwise would not be able to afford tuition fees, many of them AIDS orphans. The commitment of the school to providing the highest quality instruction has resulted in so many success stories of alumni successfully entering law school, engineering school, nursing school, education school, design school, pilot school, among many other fields!

Jiefei’s post is very much worth reading
because it provides a really eloquent summary of the school’s vision and achievement to date. One particular quote from Joanita really resonated with me: “Poverty is intense in Uganda… Growing up, my parents provided me with education, not things or presents. Instead of holidays and birthdays, they emphasized education. They told me, ‘No one can take your education away from you. You will use it to help other people.’ Education was the only gift I could give these kids.”

My own mother used to tell me a very similar message: although money and assets can be stolen and youth and beauty fades with time, knowledge will forever be yours and never lose its value. I’m really passionate about education because more than anything, it is a gift that transforms lives. As a graduate student at Oxford University, I know that through the books I’m reading and the lectures that I’m attending, my world expands ever so much. As immigrants from Taiwan to the United States, my parents fostered in me a conviction that education is empowerment – to think is to truly live.

Jia and I will be staying with Joanita’s family, and will be working alongside the school staff, supporters, alumni, and other volunteers in moving the school. As you can read on the Peace School project profile, the Lower Campus was evicted from its current location this December, so Givology worked to secure funding to move the entire primary school to the Upper Campus. With the funding that we’ve obtained, we’ll be building new classrooms for the students! We were really fortunate to receive a 1,500 pound grant from the Rhodes Scholar Southern African Forum and have plugged in the difference with proceeds from microfundraisers held in Philadelphia, but we’re still below our target. Nevertheless, we won’t give up!

Joanita sent Jia and I an approximate program of activities, and I’m really excited about this trip. We’ll be taking lots of video and photographs to share with the entire Givology community, as well as deliver the letters that have been so thoughtfully written by all of you (special thanks to Nicole for getting her fellow high school students of Newton High School to write personalized letters)! As the Founding CEO of Givology, I spend so much of my time thinking about the students and schools that we support, so the opportunity to visit in person means so much to me.

Not going home for Christmas will invariably be difficult for me. I miss my own family tremendously, and this will be the second consecutive Christmas away from home. Yet, I will spend Christmas in Uganda at a wonderful school whose mission and impact have inspired so many!

Jia and I will be keeping a regular blog while we’re away, but the posts might come somewhat irregularly given intermittent e-mail access. I went to London on Saturday to pick up a camcorder and a suitcase loaded with supplies and toys for the children. Once I’m in Uganda, I’ll have a better sense of what the students need and how the Givology community can mobilize in support. Through Communitech at Penn, Madhav – our project manager – managed to secure three computer donations. Unfortunately, we’re stuck as to how to transport them in the most cost effective manner to Uganda, as both Jia and I have already exceeded the maximum baggage allowance. We’re always pinching pennies at Givology to lower every transaction cost (our trip is funded out-of-pocket…I wouldn’t have it any other way), so we’re trying different ways to minimize the costs of sending supplies and technology resources. Any suggestions or ideas would be very welcome!

I’d love to hear from all of you – questions you’d like me to ask the children and the teachers, any updates that you’d like to see, and of course, stories that you’d like to share during this holiday season. Our community has grown so much over the last year – all thanks to you, our Givologists!

Trip to Northern Ireland

December 20, 2009 - 2:46 pm 2 Comments

So much has happened over the last week, including a wonderful trip to Northern Ireland, a cheery holiday foray to London, and then major preparations for my Uganda trip. As a testament to how much Givology has grown, last year, it was so simple for me to take off for weeks at a time. Now, with our 2009 Holiday Campaign, partnerships, marketing and outreach work, chapters development, legal paperwork filing, and holiday newsletter series, even when I leave for just a couple of days, I am inundated with new e-mails and items to do when I return. Notably, I have to complete a number of business school and college letters of recommendations for Givology team members and interns. Over the last few days, I’ve spent a lot of time writing these recommendations carefully – with deadlines all compressed in early January, I need to submit before I leave for Uganda.

Trip to Northern Ireland

This entry will need to be short, given that I have a lot to report on. On Tuesday, I took a dreadful 4:00 AM bus to Gatwick Airport, from which I flew to Belfast International Airport. One of my flatmates invited me to visit his home, and I eagerly accepted the invitation. Having been at Oxford for more than a year now, I find it a travesty that I haven’t yet ventured beyond England in the United Kingdom (though I have made it to United Arab Emirates, Italy, and France). My friend had a car, so we had a chance to explore so much! On Tuesday, we started in Derry, the second largest city in Northern Ireland and one of the most historical.

As many of you know, Northern Ireland descended into violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the late 1960s, and only recently in the late 1980s, did a peace process bring greater stability to the region. A useful resource to understanding the origins of the “Troubles” can be found at this BBC page. Today, even though peace has been restored, the Catholic and Protestant communities remain segregated de facto and tension remains, as evident in the murals scattered across the city. We visited the Free Derry Museum, located at the center of the Bloody Sunday conflict in 1972. My friend specializes in international relations and is very knowledgeable about the history, politics, and culture of Northern Ireland, so this visit was particularly meaningful. I didn’t just rush around to see the sites, take pictures, and leave – rather, I had a chance to ask questions and try to understand (albeit partially) the complex sociopolitical context of the country.

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Regardless, the city of Derry is truly scenic and filled with interesting little shops. We walked along the old city walls, and I had a chance to enjoy a very rare sunny day. Below is a picture of the Guild Hall, the meeting location of the town council.

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Afterward, we drove along the Atlantic Coast and visited the quaint seaside towns of Portrush and Portstewart before arriving at Bushmills. Along the drive, I had a chance to see the Mussenden Temple and the Downhill House of the misanthropic Bishop of Derry. I found the scenery stunningly beautiful, especially when set against the sunset. In the cold winter air, I experienced a profound sentiment of desolation when visiting the derelict castle/house, which only contributed further to its appeal. That evening, we had dinner at a really good gastropub in the area, where I ate Irish salmon with roasted root vegetables. Alas, with so much good food this Christmas season, I wonder if I’m getting too spoiled!

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On Wednesday, I went to Giant’s Causeway, a really striking geological formation that resembles the back of an armadillo. According to the legend, Finn McCool (an Northern Irish Giant) built the causeway to walk to Scotland to fight Benandonner (his Scottish counterpart). When Benandonner realized he could not win, he ripped up the causeway in his escape to make sure Finn McCool could not follow. [As a random side note, I think Finn McCool is a wonderful name – Grace, I think you should name your next stuffed animal after him!] The rocks were rather slippery, but it was a lot of fun climbing along the causeway and out to the sea. Because of the chemical structure of the basalt, produced from a former volcanic plateau, all the rocks possess a distinctive hexagonal shape.

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Then, we took the coastal route to Belfast. Words cannot describe the beauty of the scenic route – even if I wanted to record what I saw in pictures, it would be impossible to capture the serenity and splendor of the bucolic scenes – that wondrous combination of mountain, sea, green hills, wide plains, and ocean coast. For me, the most distinctive aspect of Northern Ireland’s natural environment is the sheer diversity of its geographic features – truly, the country compresses so much natural beauty into a small area.

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I found Belfast a very cheery town with joyful lights strewn everywhere (B’festive Belfast). Outside of the city hall, I had a chance to browse a very festive continental market, where I wished that I could have bought everything in sight, from trinkets to decorative items! As a nineteenth century city at the heart of industrialization, Belfast has a very distinctive architectural theme. With reconciliation and stabilization through the peace process, the city has experienced a rebirth of sorts with economic expansion, influx of new immigrants, and revival of tourism. We didn’t stay in Belfast too long, but I found the buildings, such as the Old Customs House, really pretty. The division among the Protestants and Catholics remained evident even in a very compact setting, the former located in more prosperous streets of the city. Because communities tend to self-segregate (other than the intra-faith areas that are prone to disturbance and homemade bombs), public schools tend to not integrate across religious lines, and as a result, one can easily grow up without knowing many people from the “other side”. Truly, the peace process has been one of the greatest successes of the 1990s, but I do hope that one day, the integration of schools would be championed as a further cause. As studies have shown, the best way to combat an individual’s misconceptions or prejudices is for him or her to have one good personal experience with someone from the “other” group.

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That evening, I stayed with my friend’s family in Hillsborough, a really picturesque town on the outskirts of Belfast. His family invited me to a really tasty dinner at a local restaurant, where I feasted on smoked haddock and banoffee pie! The next day (Thursday), in the full glory of a brilliant clear day, I had a chance to see the town fully. As a highly secure and peaceful area, Hillsborough contains many important government residences. For example, Hillsborough Castle is an official government residence for the Secretary of State of Northern Ireland and the official residence in Northern Ireland for the HM Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the British Royal Family when they visit the region. I think Hillsborough would be a wonderful place to grow up –it has the charming feel of a small New England town with plenty of fresh air and delightful shops, but with the benefits of a large city nearby and beautiful coasts, mountains, and sea for weekend trips.

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Afterward, we drove along the country roads to the seaside town of Newcastle, situated at the foot of the Mourne Mountains. Evidently, according to my friend, it only takes about half a day to ascent to the summit. One day, I hope to return to hike this mountain! Especially in the spring, I can easily imagine taking a weekend off to hike, bike along the seaside coastal roads, and taking in the fresh air and beautiful scenes. After Newcastle, we drove to Strangford Lough, another seaside town. We took a ferry across the Lough to Portaferry on the Ards Peninsula, which I thoroughly enjoyed! I cannot imagine a more enchanting setting with the deep blue of the lough framing the pleasant township bordering its waters. We had a tasty seafood lunch in Portaferry, before returning back to the car for a delightful drive back to Belfast International Airport. We made a few detours to villages along the way, and I truly marveled at the captivating scenery. We had some extra time, so we returned to Belfast to properly see the campus of Queen’s University Belfast, founded in 1810. By then, it was extremely dark so the pictures I took of the magnificent main entrance turned out to appear rather ghoulish.

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Unfortunately, getting back to London turned out to be a disaster. Unknown to me, a blizzard (by English standards) had hit London so all planes were delayed. My easyjet flight turned out to be the last plane allowed to land at Gatwick airport. As you can imagine, landing a plane under severe adverse weather conditions is not particularly amenable to a comfortable flight. Due to poor traffic conditions, my bus ended up being about two hours late – by then, I had already wasted an hour and a half waiting outside in the freezing weather. I arrived back at Oxford at 3:15 AM, stumbled into bed, and awoke the next day somewhat bewildered.

Reflections

I had wanted to write this entry for ages, and I know that even if I attempted to capture everything, I would inevitably fall short. I am deeply thankful to my friend for taking the time to show me the splendors of Northern Ireland, planning such a comprehensive itinerary, and answering all my questions while driving! Not being able to go home for Christmas, I really enjoyed the homestay experience and appreciate the kindness of my friend and his family. Even though I look forward to going to Uganda, I miss my family very terribly. Having been away from home so long, my homesickness has turned into a dull ache that never seems to leave me, rather than the tear-inducing hysteria of years past. Yet, what I would give to return home to Grace, mom, and dad to celebrate Christmas all together! From calling home, I can just imagine a very cold house (dad doesn’t turn up the heat), but warm hugs, lots of green tea, erhu music, a big tasty ham or turkey, the smell of dad’s fresh bread, mom’s excited chatter, long gaming and vid-watching sessions with Gracie, and most of all, family time together – may it be shopping, taking a walk, running outside, sharing a hot pot together, or leisurely strolling in Washington DC. This year marks the third year that I have missed Christmas at home – hopefully, also the last.

I’ll post up a short entry about my quick foray to London and my preparations for Uganda a bit later – I have too much to do.

Christmas Shopping

December 14, 2009 - 5:21 pm 1 Comment

A quick update before I leave for Belfast this morning at 4 AM! Yesterday, I spent a leisurely Sunday doing my Christmas shopping – in particular, browsing the interesting little shops in the famous Oxford Covered Market and sampling a lot of traditional delicacies along the way (fresh out-of-the-oven double chocolate cookie at Ben’s cookies, a berry smoothie at Moo-Moo’s, a chicken tarragon pie with mushy peas and mash at Pie Minister). Afterward, I enjoyed going to the French Market at Gloucester Green and tasting some delectable sweet treats, including roast nuts, cinnamon honey baklava, and traditional French pastries. With the streets bustling with energetic shoppers, one cannot imagine a more frenetic holiday ambiance!

Then, I went home for my Givology and YouthBank calls – we’re gearing up for our holiday campaign so everyone has been working very diligently on planning and revising our materials for launch! Stay tuned – I will provide more details when I return from my trip. In the evening, I went to Carols by Candlelight at Magdalen Chapel, a truly magical and festive experience. The Magdalen choir is comprised of young boys of elementary school age from the nearby Magdalen School and undergraduates of the college – together, their voices harmonized in a near ethereal manner and the candlelit chapel made me feel as if I had returned to centuries past. The carols in the UK differ dramatically from their more secular US counterpart, much more religious and hymn-like. Oh, I wish my family could have been here to experience the concert!

Christmas at Bleinham Palace

December 12, 2009 - 3:06 pm 1 Comment

Today, I went to Bleinham Palace to enjoy the Christmas decorations and carol concert performed by a local elementary school choir! Last March, Grace and I came together and thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful grounds and magnificent state rooms. With the palace festooned in festive Christmas ornaments, the effect was even more magical. What a perfect way to capture the infectious spirit of Christmas cheer! One day, I would love to decorate my home as splendidly as this.

Afterward, we went for a very tasty lunch at the King’s Arm restaurant, a very well-reviewed local gastropub, where I ate delectable smoked haddock fishcakes and a really extraordinary caramel and coffee mousse dessert. Then, we browsed the quaint boutique shops of Woodstock, including an antique fair held at the local town hall.

In preparation for my trip to Uganda, I purchased a Kodak zi8. This pocket camcorder records in HD, yet does not exceed a cell phone’s size and weight. The camcorder is exceptionally easy to use, and plugs right in to your computer for easy file transfers (the USB is embedded within the device). The picture and audio quality are really superb! As a preview, I uploaded a video taken right outside of Bleinham Palace onto YouTube. One caveat: the quality of the youtube video is much worse than the version on my hard drive because youtube compressed the file substantially. Yet, even with youtube’s compression, the picture quality is very sharp! With a 16GB SD card, I can get at least 2 hours of video.

George Soros at Oxford

December 11, 2009 - 7:20 pm 1 Comment

I heard George Soros speak at the Sheldonian Theatre today. Rather than focus on specific details of the current financial crisis, Soros discussed his general theory of reflexivity and its applications to financial market bubbles. Links to some background readings related to the content covered in his speech are provided below:

Lecture 1: General Theory of Reflexivity
Lecture 2: Financial Markets

Basically, Soros borrows heavily from Karl Popper to discuss how reality is created and internalized. Reflexivity occurs when (wo)man’s cognitive function (attempt to understand the world as it is) and manipulative function (self-serving motive to influence events to benefit oneself) interact. Quintessentially, when an individual successfully manipulates events to promote his or her agenda, then a new “reality” is created and understood by the cognitive function, resulting in a positive feedback loop of two dependent variables. He then argues that this form of reflexivity contributes to bubbles – because the manipulative creates the new “fundamentals” that the cognitive recognizes as reality, disequilibrium occurs. For example, housing prices rise – if speculators and market participants attempt to manipulate perceptions to believe that the price rise is fundamental in nature and expected to be sustained, then more debt and mortgages can be issued. And of course, more liquidity and bids on the marketplace financed by debt drive housing prices even higher, an example of the manipulative influencing the cognitive. The positive feedback then continues with higher housing prices, more debt, more mortgages until society cruelly awakens and the bubble pops.

The theory is not particularly novel – rather, it is an application of a philosophical dialectic to understand the formation of bubbles. Due to a plane delay, George Soros arrived more than 45 minutes late so we first heard from a distinguished panel of social scientists at Oxford on the subject of reflexivity and the importance of a unifying philosophical framework to understand economics and finance. I found their comments rather interesting. In particular, Professor Beaudry (formerly of the Central Bank of Canada) discussed the gap within economics between macroeconomics and finance; the former well-developed in the field of behavioral economics that explains bubbles, but the latter lacking a theory of the creation of financial instability through interaction with the macroeconomy. I can sympathize – we learn arbitrage pricing theory and consumption CAPM in asset pricing, but market parameters are often taken as an exogenous parameter, rather than an endogenous factor explained within the model! Professor Soskice (indeed, the very one who wrote the Macroeconomics textbook that we use for our core course) discussed the failure of truly inter-disciplinary research in the social sciences – we are a society of experts who are rewarded to focus on the tree, rather than the forest. Having expressed this very same concern at various points in time, I completely agree with Professor Soskice; failure to integrate politics, economics, and philosophy holistically has real practical policy cost.

Another particularly interesting point was raised by Professor Kaletsky, who works as an economist at Soros’s Foundation and as a columnist for the Times. He disagreed with the theory of reflexivity on one point – the assumption of perfect rationality. Kaletsky made the same argument that Hayek proposed decades ago – that if perfect foresight and perfect rationality were necessary for market capitalism (a very common assumption in all basic market models – think Arrow-Debreu state-contingent commodities where all trade occurs with perfect foresight at t=0), then we should have central planning rather than market economies. In essence, perfect foresight means that with simple tools, any bureaucrat would make optimal social decisions! Rather, markets exist to deal with uncertainty and risk – capitalism is a mechanism to address information asymmetry and imperfections in human rationality.

I found the aforementioned argument rather thought-provoking – in economics and finance, rationality is often the first and most basic assumption that we make. Having been in the field for over six years now, it’s very easy to forget to challenge this most basic premise.

One humorous moment was the Vice-Chancellor’s extremely melodramatic 10-minute introduction to George Soros. Understandably, as Soros is a large benefactor of Oxford, a university in perpetual financial distress, the Vice-Chancellor has an obligation to make laudatory remarks. The way to best describe his praise of Soros, however, would be “excessively munificent to the point of comedy”. Frankly, I’m surprised that Soros is so well received in the United Kingdom – the man made such a fortune from speculating on the pound! In the past, I have read a few chapters from books by Soros – I don’t think he has a particularly stellar or cogent investment philosophy, rather, his fortune derives from a few extremely risky yet profitable bets on macroeconomics over the last few decades (to the consternation and detriment of various countries). I wonder if the onset of the 1997 financial crisis would have been more moderate if Soros didn’t take such huge leverage bets against the Thai and Indonesian currencies…

So, he’s controversial in nature – a philanthropist whose funds have often come at the cost of externalities imposed on developing country economies. Perhaps I’m being too critical, but indeed, for all his theory of reflexivity shows, bubbles form as a result of societal self-justification. “Doing good” and “philanthropy” can fall prey to the same mindset. If I donate $100 does that vindicate me of my failure to recycle? If an investor has made millions speculating against an developing country economy, does setting up a foundation for “open society research” undo the harm that it has caused?

Bump on Tongue

December 11, 2009 - 3:13 am 1 Comment

Life has been rather tranquil lately, leaving much time for contemplation and creative experimentation. I’ve been trying out different features in Gimp [the poor (wo)man’s version of Photoshop] over the last few days – one day, I really want to take lessons or sit down with an experienced user to finally figure out all the different image manipulation functions. There’s only so much one can read online, and sometimes, the guides end up rather confusing since they assume a lot of basic prior knowledge. Nevertheless, even though my results are mediocre at best and futile if assessed rationally, it’s still a lot of fun.

Yesterday, I went to the 2008 American Rhodes Holiday Party – an informal event to savor desserts, mulled wine, hot chocolate, and most importantly, cheery conversation with friends that I don’t often see during term. As everyone hails from different faculties and colleges, it’s rather rare for all of us to gather for social events outside of Rhodes House. Last year, we had a similar holiday party – returning this year felt like a déjà-vu of sorts. One year older, one year wiser. How much has changed in one year!

Expressing my sudden bout of creative energy, I decided to bake cookies to bring to the event. Instead of butter, I used olive oil; instead of processed sugar, I went for unrefined brown sugar. With self-rising flour and baking powder, the cookies turned out to be very fluffy and not very sweet. Frankly, I was rather terrified because unlike cooking, baking generally requires exact proportions, and unfortunately, my kitchen lacks measuring cups. Grace would have been proud!

I tried solving general equilibrium problems yesterday, though I find it hard to motivate myself to work. From experience, ninth week tends to be the most unproductive week – partially because of Michaelmas term exhaustion, but more importantly, an infectious (but distracting) holiday spirit that keeps me wanting to do other things rather than studying. We’re rolling out a Givology holiday campaign on December 15th; I’ve been fastidiously planning out the details so more to come later!

One unhappy discovery mid-morning – amidst general equilibrium revision, a random blood-blister formation appeared smack dab on my tongue. I do not know what caused it…the blood blister does not hurt, but it’s a rather unsightly black swelling the size of a ladybug. Not sure if I should get it checked out or wait for it to go away on its own. Unable to resist the temptation to google the symptoms, I got scared – oral cancer, recurring mucocele, haemangioma of the tongue, angina bullosa hemorrhagica?? Ah, the internet provides dangerous fodder for the hypochondriac.

A short plug for the Khaya Cookie company, our newest Givology sponsor. Khaya Cookies has created a special campaign with Givology, in which any online order placed with the coupon code “GIVOLOGY” gives the customer 20% off AND gives Givology 10% of the sale proceeds! In addition, from Sunday, December 6 through Saturday, December 12, coupon code “FREE” will give the customer free shipping on all orders!

The company’s concept is actually really cool! Khaya Cookies creates sustainable employment opportunities in the townships of Mbkweni of South Africa by teaching unemployed men and women to bake, purchasing fresh ingredients from local farmers, and providing business skills training to empower their employees.  The result: tasty cookies for you + a sustainable social enterprise to empower and revitalize communities.

Balliol Christmas Dinner

December 9, 2009 - 6:47 pm 1 Comment

Here are some photos from our MCR Christmas Dinner, as promised! The hall is truly splendid when festooned with Christmas decorations and filled with merrymakers dressed in black tie.

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Here’s a photo of the hall near the end of dinner.

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Balliol has a relatively large hall compared to other colleges so the overall effect is very dramatic when the tables are completely packed.

Food is of great importance to me! In the US, universities tend to view dining services as an obligation that must be provided to students, rather than an intrinsic part of college character. As a result, almost all colleges end up outsourcing dining services to the big catering companies, such as Sodexo, resulting in lots of frozen and reheated food of rather uniformly poor quality no matter where you go. Here at Oxford, food is a really important part of each college’s identity and culture – just like a restaurant, each college employs a head chef, desert chef, and a full dining and wait staff. In general, the food at Balliol is rather tasty (especially the deserts), but too heavy to have each day. Below is the menu that we had for Christmas:

Bayonne ham and fig salad with parmesan shavings and Balsamic dressing

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Roast Norfolk turkey coated in a light Port and cranberry sauce accompanied by sage & onion stuffing and bacon roll
Chateau potatoes
Honey roast parsnips
Broccoli
Baton carrots

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Hazelnut Crème brûlée Pyramid

The End of the Beginning…

December 9, 2009 - 11:34 am 1 Comment

Oxford during the holiday season is truly very cheery (at least before everyone departs)! On Monday, I went to our MFE Holiday Celebration at the Oxford Retreat. After eight very intense weeks of term and a corporate finance case due that very morning, we all looked forward to just kicking back and enjoying some good food and conversation with friends. If this is supposedly the “easy” term for the MFE course, I can only wonder what lies ahead…

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Some reflections on the course:

Asset pricing: I find the material very interesting, but often times, the lectures are rather hard to follow, especially during the final weeks when we focused on specific models of information asymmetries and liquidity frictions. I know that during break, I will definitely need to grapple with the material.

Corporate finance: I really enjoy Professor Noe’s lectures! With all the basic capital budgeting and cost of capital calculations out of the way, we’re now learning more interesting concepts such as the effect of information asymmetries, principal-agent models, and real options. We just turned in our case this past Thursday. If I hear the words “BSQ and Kmart” one more time, I may just about go crazy…what a relief to have the case behind us!

Financial econometrics: In the last few weeks, the course got substantially harder. Hopefully, next term we’ll get to more applications, but right now, we’re in the process of unfurling the underlying theory. Because we have weekly assignments to turn in, financial econometrics never strays too far from my mind. Professor Sheppard is a really effective lecturer – we move a brisk pace without compromising clarity.

Economics:  We transitioned from macro to microeconomics and general equilibrium theory. I like Professor Eso very much – he has such a great sense of humor! For example, during our last class of term, Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive” greeted us as we entered. Next term, we move into market microstructure and more specific applications of microeconomics in financial markets.

Overall Reflections: The MFE moves at such a brisk pace that sometimes I wonder if I’m losing sight of the forest by focusing on the trees. I definitely need the break to fully internalize and appreciate the material, but frankly, ninth week exhaustion has substantially lowered my productivity. I just wish there was more time for contemplation and intellectual discussion – one essential part of the Oxford tradition is the essay and tutorial, but unfortunately, it’s not part of the MFE program. I sometimes feel as if we’re on a treadmill – if you stop to think rather than just focus on keeping up, then you get left behind.

Sometimes, I long for more dialogue and opportunity for discussion. Our class size this year is particularly large, partially due to the recession. I miss seminar-like discussions and the opportunity to engage and challenge the material – here, we have no time. We’re often instructed to take what we’re learning as granted and mechanically apply the models to solve problems. And frankly, there’s too much discussion in class on what material is included versus excluded in the exam. I love learning for learning’s sake – it’s a bit off-putting for us to spend so much time going over the exact examinable content. It’s almost as if “education is a commodity” – an item with a price tag to be bought and sold (perhaps this is the nature of all business schools, which in all fairness, is consistent with their underlying philosophy). I really can’t complain about the helpfulness of the lecturers and the staff at SBS, though. Because education is treated like a consumption good, all the professors and administrators are incredibly helpful and take our feedback very seriously – our timetables are organized, and we get detailed weekly summary messages, invites to events, and up to 5,000 pounds of a class social budget.

On Tuesday, I went to Balliol’s Christmas Dinner (I’ll post some pictures later). Our hall was decorated so beautifully – we had a very traditional Christmas meal, complete with Christmas crackers, noisemakers, and other festive toys. With everyone blowing up the balloons and trying to get them stuck in the rafters, I’m sure the staff regretted giving them to us in the first place. What a tasty and wonderfully festive celebration!

Art as Therapy

December 5, 2009 - 7:30 pm 1 Comment

Recently, I’ve felt very restless…as if I’m missing something important. I have all this nervous creative energy pent up. It’s very hard to explain – I feel such a strong inclination to produce something. I started with graphic design through GIMP, switched to CSS/html, attempted to learn Flash (unsuccessfully), tried some origami, and then experimented with video editing. But somehow, I still do not feel satisfied.

Last year, I bought four tubes of poster paint and a set of brushes. Perhaps it was really odd of me to suddenly wake up at midnight and furiously begin painting – I had no inspiration, but merely let my mind and hand wander. The rather surprising and perhaps inconsistent results are below.

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A bit of late night retrospection led me to conclude that perhaps I felt limited by my routine hobbies, activities, and interests.  Maybe my jarring midnight awakening relates to finding an alternative means of self-expression beyond the conventional patterns I’ve fallen into. Increasingly, I’ve discovered myself slipping into a static mentality; to define myself by my existing and prior experiences – to stop trying new things or doing things differently.  When did I start thinking, “I should go to this seminar because it is finance, social entrepreneurship, education, and/or development related” rather than “I don’t know anything about this field – perhaps I should go just to check it out”? Now, I feel as if I have a form of tunnel vision – I choose my activities and events based on how much they would further enlighten me in my chosen field. Certainly, society rewards specialists and experts rather than generalists, but I wonder whether something intrinsically valuable may be lost in this process of selection.

More philosophically, with so many disciplines in the world, I wonder what makes someone choose a particular field. There’s certainly an element of endowment – we tend to gravitate towards the subjects for which we possess a natural proclivity – but more fundamentally, where does that original spark of interest come from?  For example, I chose ice hockey over basketball, even though at the onset, I probably was equally poor at both. Or, when I first learned about microfinance and the Grameen Bank in ninth grade, I was immediately intrigued, but when “art in the classroom” came to North Stratfield Elementary School, I could barely contain my boredom. My math and science skills at the end of high school matched that of my sister, but she went on to engineering while I chose the social sciences.

The creative arts have always been a passion of mine, but as I’m here at Oxford, it’s very difficult to continue playing piano and violin.  Over the last couple years, I know my skills have deteriorated substantially, though hopefully, I can recover them with some effort.

Alas, I find myself mediocre in nearly all the creative arts. I have enough piano background to sight-read and play any popular piece of music for my own enjoyment, but not enough to play advanced solo pieces. I have sufficient violin background to play nearly any chamber music, orchestral, or solo piece I set my mind to, but I lack that final form of artistry and perfection in intonation. I enjoy painting, drawing, and sketching, but have no formal training of form and technique. I know CSS, html, and some basic Photoshop, but I lack the ability to create really original graphic designs and layouts (rather, I just modify existing frameworks to suit my own needs). I have a decent ear for pitch, but lack the strength and range of voice in singing.

Regardless, I suppose the more fundamentally, the creative arts exist as a form of personal enjoyment and self-expression. I am deeply thankful for my parents for supporting my studies of violin and piano – even though I will never be a professional musician (at one point, it was an aspiration of mine!), I will always enjoy the ability to just pick up an instrument and play. Having studied both instruments for more than a decade each, I have a sufficient foundation to really go further if I choose to apply myself and practice.

Malcolm Gladwell argues that to be an expert and true professional, one needs to put in 10,000+ hours. To date, I’ve been a generalist – a relatively well-rounded person who is decent across a broad range of activities. Perhaps having such a diverse set of interests and experiences makes life a lot richer, but sometimes I wonder whether the opportunity cost of indulging a broad range of activities shortchanges my ability to reach the pinnacle of proficiency in a given field.

Holiday Preparations

December 5, 2009 - 9:02 am 1 Comment

Yesterday, my father wrote our annual holiday greeting – a Meng family tradition. Alas, a year in review always engenders a wave of nostalgia – has another year already escaped us? Thinking back, this year has brought so many milestones, such as Givology breaking $50,000 raised, 21 partners in 10 counties, 650+ donors, and 1,300 students helped. Additionally, somehow I managed to complete my first masters program in Economics for Development – I remember at this very time last year, I struggled to imagine how I would survive and pass, let alone do well in my final exams and thesis!

My philosophy of life is to live each year just incrementally better than the year prior; to date, my track record is unspoiled.

Yesterday, I went to a Rhodes House social to catch up with friends who I often rarely see during the school year. As we’re all in different colleges and fields of study, the community only comes together a few times each term. I spent the majority of the day writing my corporate finance case study and running errands. Now that the Christmas lights are up throughout Oxford, wandering Cornmarket and the High Street in the late afternoon or evening brings a special sense of holiday cheer!

I have the following Christmas dinners and celebrations to enjoy next week: MFE Christmas Dinner at the Oxford Retreat on Monday, MCR Christmas Dinner at Balliol on Tuesday, Christmas celebration in London with by MFE coursemates on Wednesday (along with a visit to the Ashmolean in the morning!), Christmas dinner with 2008 American Rhodes Scholars on Thursday, celebratory Christmas potluck with my friends on Saturday, and then Carols at Magdalen College on Sunday. In addition, on the 15th, I will be going to Belfast to visit my flatmate! Having not traveled outside of England, I’m really looking forward to visiting other parts of the United Kingdom. It’s such a shame – it’s too easy to end up running off to other European countries at the expense of fully discovering the UK itself. Before I leave, I’m also going to try and get a group of friends together to bake and decorate Christmas cookies (and perhaps attempt the apple pie and crumble recipe that my father has perfected). Although these celebrations are no substitute for going home, they provide at least a form of compensatory distraction.

I really enjoy Christmas shopping and exchanging gifts – it pains me to not be home! Unless I choose online delivery options directly home, I won’t be able to make a dent in Grace’s long list of desired video games…I’ll ask my dearest sister to prioritize to help me make sense of it all…

In preparation for my trip to Uganda, I’ve been reading researching into a digital camcorder to buy. Knowing myself, a pocket camcorder probably has more utility because if the camcorder is bulky, I know that I’ll find some excuse to not carry it around.

I’m considering the Kodak zi8 – at 120 pounds on Amazon.co.uk, it’s definitely a good deal. Although I won’t get tremendous quality footage since the small lens is not conducive to stable transitions, this small contraption will nevertheless serve its purpose well, especially if I buy a tripod. As my current camera approaches the limit of its useful life, the zi8 will be a nice supplement! Ah, I really do enjoy electronics shopping. =)