Smart Phones in China, Social Mirrors, and The Matrix

I was back in China last week and noticed that almost everyone around me has a smartphone. The only one person I know who doesn’t have one is my 92-year old grandpa, who physically cannot type with his fingers.

What’s more, everyone who has a smartphone is on WeChat. My dad showed me some old family history written by a distant relative from Beijing on WeChat; my aunt told me that another aunt living in California is sending her pictures of her son making cookies for his class project. They spent somewhere between half hour to one hour every evening just to read all the messages from various groups on WeChat, and they are over 60s. Just imagine how much time younger generations spend on it. The bank accountant in the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, when being told that I don’t have a Chinese phone number and hence not on WeChat, appeared to be horrified. “How could you live without it?” said her expression.

It appears to me that Americans use Facebook, Europeans use WhatsApp, and Chinese use WeChat. All have their own social media. What’s the big deal?

They all remind me of The Matrix. Everyone is connected (or plugged in). Everything one says or writes gets shared or forwarded. Everyone is like a social mirror reflecting each other’s opinions and values, so the social media, although chaotic in its contents, can homogenize social values. In this sense, the majority exercise a subtle form of social persuasion to oblige people on the same platform to confirm their values. This persuasion can be more powerful than traditional mass media, because everyone has a voice, and because most normal people want to be liked.

There are beneficial consequences. More things are better regulated by social conventions than by law. And a more homogeneous society would have more orders and less troubles. In addition, for millions of lives who just moved out of poverty, the talk of anything other than survival can be “insulting irrelevance” (a phrase by Sir Alex Ferguson in describing his roots in working class families). Sharing common values and staying closely together maximize their chances at survival.

The disadvantage is that getting a second opinion can be difficult. As with reports in mass media, the opinion of the reporter about “facts” lies is in the things that are omitted. For example, in western media, Obama is quoted more often than Putin is, and the reverse is true in China. A corollary is that expressing opinions contrary to the common values would be difficult and that change in social norms would be hard.

Vincent van Gogh 1


I didn’t even get a good view of Van Gogh museum when I visited it last August, because it was under renovation. But it didn’t disappoint.

Out of all the marvelous paintings and curious personal artifacts, one letter written by Nicole Krauss has kept coming back to my mind. It was literally printed on three pieces of A4-sized paper, and these black and white pages seemed quite out of place with the rest colorful exhibits. This letter is in response to a letter van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in 1884. One hundred thirty one years later, Krauss wrote her letter to van Gogh in 2015.

The letter begins by talking about artist’s fear, the fear of a blank canvass, and then it delves into the origin of the fear, and says that it is within one’s power to break preconditioned or perceived “nature” of ourselves, fear included, and chose to do something, to break the loop of “nature”, and make a mark on that canvass.




Van Gogh’s original letter can be found here; Krauss’s letter here.

PS. Photos are not good. I was not supposed to take photos in the museum…

PPS. Vincent van Gogh page from Artsy. Thank Diana C from Artsy for reaching out.

2015: travel

For a year that began in Rome and ended in Barcelona, it sounded like a lot of travel. And it did, 2015. I watched the Pope delivering new year mass in Rome on Jan 1, and a few days later strolled the gallery of Uffizi in Florence. With the three extra days on my Europass, I made three day-trips to Cologne, Zurich, and Geneva in late January and February.

On the four-day Easter break, I joined three friends for a trip to the wine region in Beaujolais, north of Lyon.

Summer officially started with a solo trip in June in Greece (before the whole refugee crisis became full-blown), and I looked into a few well-positioned old stones on Acropolis in Athens and in the Temple of Apollo in Delphi.

A month later, joining again three friends, I had a hiking trip in Trolltunga, Norway, and tasted treasures of the sea in Bergen and saw a Mermaid in Copenhagen along the way.

August saw the full swing. Three weekends, three countries/cities: the World Expo in Milan, Van Gogh and biking in Amsterdam, and Kafka and Don Giovanni in Prague.

Then the fall passed without much relocation (man needs rest and research is fun).

And finally Spain in the winter break. Picasso, Barca, Gaudi, Real Madrid, Royal Palace, Gaudi again, Barca again, and Dali.

Not sure if there will be another year like this again. Restless souls and endless roads. Never say never.

Why reading novels?

I used to dislike reading novels, because they are not real, and because reading them takes too much time. Last year, however, I started reading novels again. What gets me back into it was Harry Porter series. It is delightful to know Hogwartz, the Gryffindors, the house ghosts, the quidditch cup, the leaky cauldron, and most of all Harry Porter and his friends and enemies. But I have to confess that I am one of those people whom serious readers despise: I watched the movies first and then decided to read the novels. I am a slow reader, and knowing that it will take me a long time to finish a book,  I choose very “carefully”.

Fantasies like Harry Porter series and science fictions like Ender’s Game interest me the most because they inspire wonder and imagination, but like realism dramas, they all offer insights into human natures. On this, Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender’s Game, wrote:

Why else do we read fiction, anyway? Not to be impressed by somebody’s dazzling language – or at least I hope that’s not our reason. I think that most of us, anyway, read these stories that we know are not “true” because we’re hungry for another kind of truth: The mythic truth about human nature in general, the particular truth about those life-communities that define our own identity, and the most specific truth of all: our own self-story. Fiction, because it is not about somebody who actually lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about ourself.

The flip side of the question of “why reading novels” is “why writing novels”? I believe most writers write because they want to or need to tell something. J.K. Rowling said in her interview with Oprah that it is necessary for her mental health to continue writing, and that through writing, she makes clear to herself what she wanted to tell. For example, why she detests Dolores Umbridge is the sense of self-righteousness that justifies self-interests, or that she lets Molly Weasley be the person to kill Bellatrix Lestrange tells something about her views on feminism. Apart from social and political connotations or opinions of human nature, there is this most remarkable effect of a good story: to make the readers love their own lives.  And I quote Leo Tolstoy on this:

The goal of the artist is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations. If I were told I could write a novel in which I would set forth the seemingly correct attitudes towards all social questions, I would not devote even two hours of work to such a novel, but if I were told that what I write will be read in twenty years by children of today and that they will weep and smile over it and will fall in love with life, I would devote all my life and all my strength to it.