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

VanGoghMuseum

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.

KraussLetter1

KraussLetter2

KraussLetter3

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.

 

Random Thought on the Road: Sports

On Athletic High

Gladiators were trained professional. They had training schools, and there were huge amount of money and effort involved in gladiatorial games. In a sense, they are like modern day soccer (or football, correctly called) players. Both play in big arenas; both have limited time period for professional lives (either being slain or retired); and both perform for entertainment. The key difference, I think, is that the former is more cruel and involves blood spilling and finishing your opponent for good, whereas the latter is comparatively more civilized and sustainable way of competing. But perhaps I am judging the ancient activity with the wrong morality; perhaps in Roman times, slaying in Colosseum is a perfect sport that affords the highest level of entertainment. If the core of human nature is forged over million years of evolution, 2000 years of modern history is too brief to make any significant change to that somewhat raw and savage core, and maybe some part of the human nature has and will always have something to do with blood. And yet if modern day football have indeed some roots in the ancient gladiator games, its existence and popularity tell us that the expression of the same core human nature can be disciplined and can grow into more refined forms, while still keeping adrenaline flowing.

On Sportsmanship

But sports are much more than just adrenaline, or athletic high. There are discipline in training, team work in playing, and fairness in competing. It is often said that one can tell a person’s character directly from the way he plays soccer, such as whether he plays for himself or for the team, whether he plays for the sole purpose of winning or for the love of the game,  and whether he understands the subtle but crucial difference between sportsmanship and gamesmanship.

On Match Fitness

Often hear that in order to recover from injury or long vacation, a soccer player need to train for an extended period of time until he reaches match fitness before he can play in competitive games. The idea of match fitness goes beyond just being fit or without illness. It perhaps involves a certain level of fatigue from disciplined training that builds endurance. If match fitness represents a higher form of physical fitness, there could be analogous ideas in the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual domains. The sharpness of the brain and the strength of the heart may also need constant training in order to achieve higher and higher levels of fitness.

On Sports as An Art Form

A while ago, I read the following quote in the Guardian about the 2014 Bayern Munich team:

“It’s a football that the Bundesliga has never experienced in 50 years; so delicate and precise, so playful and determined, so sophisticated and improved, so inspiring and exciting. No one has come this close to art with football in this land as Pep Guardiola.”

Strategies, tactics, and game plans aside, once a team has the physical skills and mental strength, what comes out of every game at the highest level of competition can be beauty and elegance. This blending of sport and art blurs the boundary of the savage and the refined and is perhaps the finest expression of human nature. 

Re-scripting

Benjamin Franklin did it in his twenties. Stephen Covey advised it. I think it is a good idea, so here it is: a list of habits I wish to keep and develop, or wish to learn. Some require “constant vigilance… to guard against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits… (and) force of perpetual temptation” (to quote Benjamin Franklin). Some require me to unlearn what I have learned (to rephrase Yoda, the Jedi master).

With self

Proactivity: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose that response. In those choices lie our growth and happiness.” (Viktor Frankl)  Visualize that space, and practice looking at yourself from a distance, high and above.

Discipline: Discipline the body and the mind. “The body is a good servant but a bad master.” Rest frequently. Strive for full alertness of senses and tranquility of the mind at all time. Watch for your temper.

Patience and Persistence: Be patient and persistent in building skills and refining your work. “Rome is not built in one day”, but it has to be built.

With others

Win-win or no deal: Remove or keep in check win-lose or lose-win mentalities, both of which are rooted in the habit of comparing and competing, and neither of which will last long in any healthy long-term relationships. When win-win is not possible, seek no deal.

Trustworthiness: Being trusted is more important than being liked. Trustworthiness necessitates character and competence.

Silence: “Speak not but what benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversations”. (Benjamin Franklin) Get rid of the habit of being argumentative, and avoid the tendency to show off. Persuasion is seldom achieved by reason alone, and pride is as troublesome as complacency.

Profession

Truth: Theory, however elegant, has to be congruent with facts. Truth necessitates integrity and honesty.

Progress: My research should always aim to advance human knowledge and/or to make something useful.

Refinement: Work of science is work of art, and vice versa.

With the world

Well-rounded: Develop appreciations for arts, literature, music, language, and other creative endeavors of all human cultures.

Informed: Keep up-to-date on important events around the world, but filter out the noise.

Concerned: No need to suffer unnecessarily, but be aware of all sufferings.

PS. Written mostly on trains

PPS. Some thoughts are better completed on the road, at a distance from daily routines.

Random Thought on the Road: Ethics

Being an atheist, I was on several occasions asked about the question: how do you explain the question of the beginning. At first, I didn’t have an answer, because I had never seriously thought about that question. After a while, I think my initial reaction is perhaps by itself an answer already. The traditional Chinese myth doesn’t require a beginning: life goes in cycles, and souls of the dead re-enter the bodies of humans, animals, and other living creatures on earth, according to the deeds of their previous lives. Therefore, asking the question of the beginning is perhaps asking the wrong question, just like asking what the most common first name is for a Chinese person.

Despite the difference, one thing the traditional Chinese myth and the Christianity share is that some sort of decision has to be made about a soul after life, based on some sort of performance analysis of what it did while having a corporal form. Although the effect of these final analyses could be conscious or subconscious, it weighs in people’s moral choices. Good deeds will be rewarded; bad ones punished. All sounded perfectly well.

The difficulty, as always, lies in the details. Confucius’ golden rule “one should not do unto others what one does not be done to oneself” only provides the guideline for inaction, not action. As for Christianity, the first three of the Ten Commandments ask for blind belief (at least that’s how they sound to me), and to truly believe it seems to require the removal of ones’ own critical judgment. In addition, ethical norms evolve; what was once unacceptable could become acceptable. So the question becomes, is there anything that is universally applicable and timeless? And then I felt silly even asking this question.

In the end, I thought about this analogy between ethical norms for an ideal society and scientific models for physical reality. It has been said that “all models are wrong, but some are useful”. All mathematical models only partially explain reality (hence wrong, in the sense of incomplete), but useful in the occasions where their applications are fruitful. Similar things may be said about ethical norms for a society at a given time: they are perhaps not ideal (and they may never be), but in so far as keeping the society running, they are useful. As for individual, perhaps the best one can achieve is to live by the current norms but with reasonable doubt. To quote again, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” – Voltaire.