Trump, Complex Systems, and A Biblical Perspective

It's been an emotionally challenging time for me given recent events that are happening around me: equity changes at my parent company and a Trump upset. I'm devastated and have been scrambling for the past two weeks to process them. Perhaps I should seek comfort in the old adage, "Change is the only constant in business." But that's neither comforting nor prescriptively useful. In search of an effective mental framework while wallowing in sadness, I've come across a beautifully written Quartz article by Parag Khanna on how quantum physics can perhaps explain the unexplainable developments in geopolitics (or life for that matter). In short, unpredictable - and even shocking - events, such as a Trump victory, that happen are a result of a confluence of changing factors that act in convoluted, uncertain ways to produce a single outcome. Traditional intellectual frameworks - ones that Professor Peter Katzenstein taught us at Cornell - are no longer sufficiently effective in analyzing the state of political matter when used independently; in fact, we've arrived at a world where no single mental framework/theory is dominant (and where no single state is the ultimate hegemon). This is very scary for us because we're horrible beings at managing complexity. Our brains shut down in the face of complexity and worst of all, uncertainty. We crave for simplicity (because it saves brain power, and it's predictable) but in real life, there's no simple explanation for a Clinton defeat, Brexit, rise of Duterte, and other seemingly unacceptable events. One could resort to the relatively simple argument that attributes such events to the rise of populism due to the unequal and often unfair distribution of benefits brought about by globalization. But is that it? I would argue that there exists multiple frameworks (and even some undiscovered ones) that are all true at the same time even when they're at odds with each other. Imagine each intellectual model (e.g., economic, political, societal, financial, etc.) exists on its own dimension, and we live in a multi-dimensional world; existence refers to the state where current time cuts across all the dimensions within which known and unknown factors are in different states; events happen as a result of the combined effect of the changing flow of these different factors, which can exist in contradictory states simultaneously (as in quantum mechanics). It's like playing multi-dimensional chess except some chess pieces are unknown while others can be "dead" and "alive" on the board at the same time. To make matters worse, you can either measure how fast the pieces are moving or their position but not both simultaneously (Uncertainty Principle). Now I bet your brain is shutting down even if you've tolerated reading my puzzling blog this far. In short, if quantum mechanics is our life writ large, then the latter is strange, complex, and uncertain.   

So here's the simple biblical answer: there's a lower story and an upper story. The lower story is complex, disappointing, and evanescent. We won't ever understand the physical world 100%. I don't mean to be cynical but even Solomon said, "I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind." (Ecclesiastes 1:14). There's no one  formula in the lower, human story. Even if you succeed in finding THE formula or in leading a secular, successful life, you're "chasing after the wind." Obama's legacy - Obamacare, immigration reform, LGBT rights, etc - can be undone overnight by a Trump presidency. But that is not to say that we should just sit back, do nothing, and be cynical about life. The upper story is God's story, and just like Pastor Randy Frazee preaches, it's only through this upper story lens can we make sense of the lower story. God's story of salvation is the only story that matters in the long run. As Sarah Keung shared in our WhatsApp group, "Since then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God." (Colossians 3:1-3 NIV). The core message of salvation through Jesus Christ in the upper story gives me strength to do the right and godly thing in the lower story. This is why Peter says "Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness (2 Peter 2:11)". Don't get discouraged and derailed by lower story developments. Having the upper story in mind, may we keep doing the right thing even when we don't want to. Even when it hurts.

A thought experiment

A friend of ours, Florence Chan, visited little Isaac today and gave him a gift - a globe that plays soothing white noise/classical music and glows at night. Problem was (there's always a complication) that Gloria couldn't open the battery compartment and put batteries in. So I thought for a second given my experience being an entrepreneur how this could be an analogy of my work life. The following are thoughts and quotes that people around me would typically (and hypothetically) say around me in this situation:

Gloria - can you open the battery compartment?

Design thinkers - why do we have to open it and turn it on? Let's brainstorm with everybody and interview the baby.

My boss - If and when is this going to be a profitable endeavor?

HR - (innocently) can we overpay for underqualified people to help you open it five months down the line?  There's so much competition for talent!

My not-so-friendly peers - he can't do it. he's too young. Who does he think he is? he's going in the wrong direction (whatever “direction” means!

My CFO - when is this thing going to go public with a P/E of 50?

My shareholders - show me steady progress as you turn the screwdriver. And don't just use this solution once. Copy it across the entire nation!

My marketer - we need 500 million to buy google ad words to advertise our solution.

John Piper - are you opening it because you believe in yourself or because by opening it you glorify the God who redeemed your life through Christ Jesus whom you will serve as a living sacrifice?

Professor Ya-Ru Chen - It's easier to open it if you believe you can open it. The efficacy of the self-efficacy theory.

Deal-making friend - I want a term sheet that outlines my rights to this globe after it's turned on and proven useful. 

Caleb - you're 30 days behind these paperwork and you're spending time writing this blog! 

Entrepreneur in me - problem with severe constraints again (where's the screwdriver?) 

Leader in me - Novianna, where's the screwdriver? Mom, where are the batteries? (found both and solved the problem). Yay, teamwork!

Isaac - (tummy time and forgotten).




Exciting Ideas at Cornell Shark Tank -- and the winner is...

Flora Pulse, an agricultural smart data startup founded and led by PhD student Michael Santiago won the #CUSharkTank, with a $1500 prize and the opportunity to pitch at the @SXSW Interact in March. Congrats to Michael and his team!

Through an interdisciplinary research, Flora Pulse has invented a device that can monitor and track the actual plant water content in real time, through the complementary mobile app. In comparison with the present methods of using soil neutron probe, pressure chamber, and remote sensing, Flora Pulse enables a more accurate, cost effective, and time effective way to monitor plant's condition and control irrigation schedule. This technology would be very useful for water sensitive crops and for water conservation. 

Coupled with a informative and well versed pitch, alongside with a mock-up prototype, Michael earned the opportunity to  pitch to a much larger audience.

Nevertheless, the other teams that pitched on Wednesday night weren't lacking in ideas. Here are a summary of the night's other pitches.

  • SALT (pitch by Weill Cornell PhD student Fon Powell) offers a sodium test strip that can be easily self administered by hypertension patients that can inform the users, as well as their physicians, of the patients' sodium level data and trends

  • NTi Technology (pitch by chemistry student Shane Heil) offers a light activated disinfectant that can continue to disinfect while staying on a surface, reducing infection risk due to contamination, as well as time and cost savings in reducing the frequency of disinfection

  • Arctyc Innovations (pitch by MEng student Willie Mendelson) offers a wine cooling device that allows rapid yet accurate cooling, which allows users to achieve optimal drinking experience in minutes

  • Right Price Management (pitch by Johnson School MBA students Rebecca Robinson and Derek Mayer) offers a pricing tool platform, which is widely available for hotels, to non-institution short-term property rental host (e.g. Airbnb users), enabling them to set the right price on their rentals

  • Produce Pay (pitch by Johnson School MBA student Pablo Borquez Schwarzbeck) offers a payment platform for farmers, distributors, and banks to ensure faster cash turnover and greater efficiency in fund utilization when harvested produce is en route to the end consumers

After the competition, I also got to talked with the competitors and fellow judges at the Statler Hotel Banfi Restaurant -- a much needed talking space for post-competition relaxation and debriefing. Many thanks to the sponsors and organizers of the event. I look forward to stay in touch and explore further opportunities to work with these bright students and their companies.


I will put the link to event pictures and videos here once the organizer makes them available.

Cornell Shark Tank and Startup & Tech Networking

Pretty eventful with my stay at Cornell this week. First, there will be the annual Startup & Tech Networking tonight #CUNetworking, where 50+ companies of all sizes will show up and create quite a crowd at Sage Hall Atrium @Cornell_MBA. There will be students, alums, and every kind of attendees there, and I wonder if it can fit everyone in tonight.

Then more excitement will come tomorrow evening at the #CUSharkTank, where I have the honor to be one of the three judges on the panel, hearing from 5 competing teams of bright students from all kinds of disciplines. I wish them good luck in the final preparation to shine in the Shark Tank and grab the top prize, which includes the tickets to attend and pitch at the  @SXSW Interactive, one of the biggest startup events of the year!

Look forward to more exciting update!

Johnson Shark Tank | Feb 3 (Wed) 5:00 PM - 6:00 PM | Duffield Atrium

In memory of Nelson Mandela

In memory of Nelson Mandela, who would have been 96 today, I'd like to share a quote from him that inspired me:

What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.


Thanks to Arielle Ngai for sharing on Facebook and in fellowship.