What I’ve been reading

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. Evan Osnos wrote an engaging and insightful book on today’s China. In his words, the book “is an account of the collision of two forces: aspiration and authoritarianism.”

The hardest part about writing from China was not navigating the authoritarian bureaucracy or the occasional stint in a policy station. It was the problem of proportions: How much of the drama was light and how much was dark? How much was about opportunity and how much was about repression?


Now and then, a surge of patriotism provided a form and direction to people’s lives, but it was, as the Japanese author Haruki Murakami wrote of nationalism in his own country, “like cheap liquor”: “It gets you drunk after only a few shots and makes you hysterical,” he wrote, “but after your drunken rampage you are left with nothing but an awful headache the next morning.”

I long for a day when people are less nationalistic, and anyone could travel and live in any country he/she wants.

If there’s a clear trade-off, to what extent is having a say and control over our life more important than a capable government who can make our country strong and prosperous?

PS: Evan’s book has the most detailed account of Justin Lin’s experience I’ve come across.

Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore. Observations of the different culture and lifestyle between Malaysian and Singaporean, as well as racial and political background.

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. Overall I enjoyed reading about the fictional characters that David Brooks created to illustrate a range of social science findings and philosophy. There are plenty of sensible advice on learning, happiness, and success, but I think some of the findings are not as robust as he makes them seem to be.

we are primarily wanderers, not decision makers…We wander across an environment of people and possibilities. As we wander, the mind makes a near-infinite number of value judgments, which accumulate to form goals, ambitions, dreams, desires, and ways of doing things.


The truth is, starting even before we are born, we inherit a great river of knowledge, a great flow of patterns coming from many ages and many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past, we call genetics. The information revealed thousands of years ago, we call religion. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago, we call culture. The information passed along from decades age, we call family, and the information offered years, months, days, or hours ago, we call education and advice.


But looking at her son, Julia didn’t really get the sense that the unsupervised Harold, the non-homework Harold, the uncontrolled Harold was really free. This Harold, which some philosophers celebrate as the epitome of innocence and delight, was really a prisoner of his impulses. Freedom without structure is its own slavery.


“The real great man is the man who makes every man feel great,” the British writer G. K. Chesterton wrote.


“There is no craving or demand of the human mind more constant and insatiable than that for exercise and employment,” the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote, “and this desire seems the foundation of most of our passions and pursuits.”


Recognition and wealth, she had learned, do not produce happiness, but they do liberate you from the worries that plague people who lack but desire these things.


Life is change, and the happy life is a series of gentle, stimulating, melodic changes.



Interesting short science fiction film by Robert Hloz. Here‘s one review, the reviewer compares it with Death Note.

Nice photos by Ho Fan. More here.

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I’m fundraising for Action Village India, Macmillan Cancer Support, and Serendib Charitable Trust by taking part in 2014 TCS New York City Marathon.

It’ll be my first marathon. Please help me make a difference by making a donation to my Virgin Money Giving page.

To find out more, please visit http://www.virginmoneygiving.com/team/Pharo2014 where you can also sponsor me online.

Don’t forget to tick the box to reclaim Gift Aid on your donation if you’re a UK tax payer. Virgin Money Giving will pass this on in full to charity, making your donation go even further.

Thanks for your support,
Kun Lung Wu

PS: As a mini experiment, it’d be interested to see whether I’d get more donations from this blog or my Facebook.

I agree with all of Bryan’s advice/strategies.

I like to think of myself as a non-conformist. But my guess is that most people also like to think of themselves as non-conformists, at least in some ways. Like other personality traits, there is probably a conformist vs. non-conformist scale where each of us lies, and it could vary for different issues (i.e. we conform to some norms/conventions and not others). Guess one message from Bryan’s post is that we should be smart in choosing which battle we want to fight. Life is all about balance and trade-offs.

PS: Good time to re-read Emerson’s Self Reliance:

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Optimal sleep hours

WSJ has an article asking how much sleep do we need. Some experts argue that seven hours might be optimal, while others think we should sleep longer. As usual we should be skeptical about these findings. My guess is that it differs by person, and the quality of sleep is as important as the amount of sleep.

This might be a way to find out your optimal amount of sleep:

Experts say people should be able to figure out their optimal amount of sleep in a trial of three days to a week, ideally while on vacation. Don’t use an alarm clock. Go to sleep when you get tired. Avoid too much caffeine or alcohol. And stay off electronic devices a couple of hours before going to bed. During the trial, track your sleep with a diary or a device that records your actual sleep time. If you feel refreshed and awake during the day, you’ve probably discovered your optimal sleep time.


Interesting article arguing against sending kids to top schools. I’m sympathetic to some of the author’s views and think it’s better for kids to 1) focus less on grades and career prospects and more on learning and personal development, 2) take more risks and worry less about failing,  and 3) mix with people from different background and social class, including those from lower incomes. At the same time, I don’t think we can deny that there are many benefits from studying in top institutions. As I noted previously, today’s education system is like an arms race. I don’t like it but nevertheless need to find a path that I think will be best for my children.

Some excerpts below. The whole article is interesting.

A young woman from another school wrote me this about her boyfriend at Yale:

Before he started college, he spent most of his time reading and writing short stories. Three years later, he’s painfully insecure, worrying about things my public-educated friends don’t give a second thought to, like the stigma of eating lunch alone and whether he’s “networking” enough. No one but me knows he fakes being well-read by thumbing through the first and last chapters of any book he hears about and obsessively devouring reviews in lieu of the real thing. He does this not because he’s incurious, but because there’s a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them.


So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.

There are exceptions, kids who insist, against all odds, on trying to get a real education. But their experience tends to make them feel like freaks. One student told me that a friend of hers had left Yale because she found the school “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul.”


Let’s not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself. In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It’s about which one you go to…


The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families evenenroll at four-year schools.


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