Intellectual stimulation

Just about 8 hours ago I received a bombshell from Deqian that he was in London and happily navigating around the British Museum that I embarrassingly have hardly been to. “You’re just maybe, 500 metres away!”

I had an enjoyable 5-hour conversation with him about everything under the sun that I surprisingly really enjoyed, it’s going to be a really disjointed post with no attempt at coherence but here’s bouts of it for my personal memory purposes:

1. Chinese entrepreneurs

I enjoy reading a lot about Chinese entrepreneurs that ventured into technology early (eg. Jack Ma, Ma Huateng). There is Wang Jianlin and his famous/infamous son whom I learnt today to be my alumni, but his wealth accumulated from real estate didn’t really strike me as particularly interesting to read about. On the contrary, with our (not coincidental) shared interests in Jack Ma, he was sharing with me about how Alibaba as a commercial platform changed the entire shopping scene in China. There was B2B, B2C, and the C2C business model; the most familiar one to us would be the C2C business model we see in Taobao. I casually brought up how it may be the same here with Amazon, but he then mentioned that Amazon would always be an alternative to things we cannot find (which is true for me). On the other hand, it was always the first platform for Chinese consumers, how products from all over China can still reach you within (most of the time) free one-day delivery, how they are almost definitely priced much cheaper than what you will see anywhere, and how these products reach places that lack physical stores.

I know so much less because Taobao and Amazon never formed an quintessential part of my life. Shoppers in Singapore today still go to Bugis street and hunt for cheap bargains. Maybe we ultimately still prefer the “physical touch” of being so ‘close’ to clothing, but does it matter really when sites like Amazon and Alibaba probably provide free returns, allowing you to buy anything impulsively before you want it? After all, convenience in the comfort of your own home, along with the greater affordability, obviously prove to be an extremely tempting option (and for Singapore: the ability to avoid sweltering heat and bumping into sticky arms). I guess only Chinese entrepreneurs that work through the Alibaba business models and Chinese consumers will truly know how powerful this online shopping scene is.

And as quoted by Deqian, “you can find anything on Taobao”. I would think we still cannot say that for platforms like Carousell or Amazon, where choices are still limited.

We also agreed that if you will never be (truly/super) rich if you are driven by wealth. The richest people on this planet like Wang Jianlin and Mark Zuckerberg all started off with small business ideals for a better life/better community spirit, and look where it has gotten them to. I believe that purpose should always root your aspirations.

2. Foreign language learning

I got very interested in language learning recently because of my Korean language learning pursuits, and I told him about how people often describe Chinese to be “the most difficult language” because of the supposed “rote-learning of thousands of Chinese characters”. He insisted that it was far from rote learning because they “do not appreciate the beauty of the language”, but that is besides the point.

It then evolved into a discussion of how languages evolved, how so many variations of European languages came about because of the desire to “build their own”, along with their language. However, for most of these languages, each single letter does not make sense on its own (eg. there is no meaning to the letter B), but it’s the sound from the letters strung together that make sense. You cannot make sense out of the letters, you can only make sense from the sounds. For Chinese specifically though, you can make guesses about the meaning of the word from the word itself without even knowing what the word even sounds like and how you are supposed to pronounce it. Eg. The “三点水” in 海 easily allows you guesses about the ‘water’ nature within the word, as well as words like 泡沫. Each Chinese character in this case holds meaning individually, and hence there is little variation in the sounds that evolve from these letters. For Korean and Japanese that use Chinese characters however, they use these characters to produce the sound that creates meaning instead, and in this case it is not the word that holds meaning by itself. Afterall, Korean has the Hangul similar to the English alphabet too, to aid pronunciation. It was developed only in the mid 15th century to break away from the usage of Chinese characters, albeit still having a lot of similarities to Chinese in the sounds produced (생일 saeng-il and 生日 for example, the example at the top of my head).

Some hope for my Korean language learning: he expressed that learning English when he first started was extremely difficult too. Native speakers would easily take English grammar rules for granted because we never had to specifically learn the “subject-verb-object” nonsense, nor the format of complex sentences “I had a ball that was red“. It comes as obvious that only “that/which” can be used, but when you start off, it must be in a pain in the ass to remember the difference between that/which/who/whom/when… It is a pain in the ass to remember that about Korean now, the difference between 에서 and 에 is painful enough. But his English is now fluent enough to decently write essays for an A in GP, land himself an Oxford interview and ultimately do somewhat of a ‘joint degree’ in Philosophy and Physics which means I have loads of hope for my Korean learning.

Nonetheless I still hold to the stand that Chinese is an amazing language that allows you to express so much in minimal amount of words. I often relate to Chinese sayings so much I keep chastising myself again and again for my inability and disinterest in the language in my earlier childhood when the plasticity of my young brain allowed me to pick up sounds and stuff much more easily.

3. Technology

After the whole Alibaba conversation we got on to talking about artificial intelligence virtual reality. He then outlined the potential for the next technological advancement — that while we think technology has come to a stalemate with only minimal improvements in screen size and camera functions (in what we see in physical manifestations of the iPhone or Samsung), it is in fact still growing exponentially. We only get the occasional technological breakthroughs by acquiring new technology, and acquiring new technology on that very new technology. It sounds like a no-brainer but this was something I never thought about in great detail, and knowing that we can probably consider ourselves still in the early age of technological gains. Also, every time we key in our passwords or credit card details, they become encrypted, transmitted to an isolated server to decrypt, before reaching the server allowing us to “log in successfully”. What if one day computers become so fast through offering more than the binary code (eg. quantum computers), and processing times become so powerful that allows hackers to easily bypass this encryption/decryption in much faster haste? What will happen to the entire coding system and binary transmission?

We then talked about the Oculus Rift about how one day it might be possible to take a roller coaster wearing just that headgear alone, how it was proven by laboratory tests that your heart rate actually increases when you “integrate” yourself into virtual reality through those systems. Maybe we no longer have to queue up for Disneyland in the future, because we can just put on the Oculus Rift, enter the theme park and queue for a virtual roller coaster in the comfort of our own home.

Then there was also the possibility that one day a machine will be more intelligent than a human being, which sparked questions about “how do you measure intelligence/how do you know it is more intelligent than a human being”. And because we eliminate animals and enjoy them for consumption with the basis that they are less intelligent than us (and unable to escape from our grasps through animal cages and stuff), what will happen if one day robots and machines are built to be more intelligent than us?

All these thoughts about the technological possibilities are really terrifying to think about but also really exciting, maybe one day typing through a computer and using the iPhone 6 will be something we laugh about, “I can’t believe we used to be able to survive with that!”

4. Art

Well, we discussed about this too. We were talking about that, about coding lessons with tuition centres in programming popping up for the young in Singapore. He then mentioned that he did not agree with the modern style of parenting by sending young kids to lessons that “prepare them when they turn of age”, such as programming lessons in the hope of inculcating such skills from young. He then mentioned that he did Chinese calligraphy at 7, and being terribly clueless about this culture I went “what is the style of Chinese art?”

While he subsequently said a whole lot of things he mentioned was “bullshit”, he mentioned one very important point which I never realised: “the art of leaving blanks”. Chinese calligraphy often use blanks to create an illusion of a mountain/river/waterfall/lake existing among the other landforms, but it is often up to the viewer’s imagination. Western paintings, on the other hand, will always be complete, with a painted mountain or a painted waterfall. I am not shitting anyone, just google “Western paintings” and “Chinese paintings” now and you’d see the stark contrast. There is beauty in every form of art and today I realised how much “art” can be present in something that doesn’t exist (oh no this is such a paradoxical sentence).

Sorry for the disorganised verbal diarrhoea and how intrigued I am by an intellectual discussion, I am turning into a full nerd but I think this is what university is supposed to shape you to become. Just to clarify that nothing here are facts (and are actually unconfirmed because we receive information from everywhere) because they were just products and outcomes of our discussion — I mean afterall, are there truly facts in this world or are do they simply exist because no one has falsified them yet? 🙂

There were a lot more we talked about, about humans and self-determinism within philosophy, and the education reforms in China, and the competitive entry to Peking/Tsinghua from his province, with only 100 out of 200000 students making it there successfully through the Gaokao track. The sheer amount of untapped knowledge given the volumes of publications and readings in different languages mean that we may have already found parts of solutions to answers in different parts of the world, but we are unable to bind them together. Just imagine the big brains from China and India (who worked so much through their competitive as hell university admissions) sharing ideas with the brightest minds in Oxbridge. We are indeed living in an extremely powerful world.

I did not finish my to-dos for today: to finish Lesson 15 in Korean, do 2 readings and finish the chorus for 小幸运, and this should get me very unsettled like I usually do when I detract from my weekly timetable. This is the routine I have trained myself to live through to accomplish more in my days here. But tonight I have learnt so much and thought so much in these few hours that I cannot seek in most conversations here. I can sleep happily tonight.


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