What I learned last week (#28)

Learned last week: A giant of journalism, the beauty of The Alchemist, WeChat the operating system, and more.

Book excerpt I loved, very relevant to fatherhood and my parenting philosophy:

Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

From Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Author I learned about: I had never heard of A. A. Gill before last week, but after a recommendation I looked him up and the collection Lines in the Sand: Collected Journalism is on my reading list.

“The act of feeding someone,” he says as he shares a scavenged dinner in a King’s Cross homeless shelter, “is the most basic transubstantiation”, a rite central to all religions.

Such glimpses of a loftier truth are the glory of Gill’s essays, and they open metaphysical vistas in journalistic junkets or stunts contrived for the sake of a feature article. On safari in Botswana with his well-travelled twins, huddled around a sparky blaze in the bush, he hears a tribal elder call the pricks of light in the black sky “the campfires of my ancestors”. Gill takes this to mean that “Earth and heaven mirror each other, the countless generations stretching back to the first men” and extending forward, in a tiny appendix, to “me and my kids”.

Elsewhere, he tries his hand at life drawing, and while studying the nude model he’s reminded of our fumbling search for “an empathy with the human condition and the spirit that makes us sparks of the divine”. Not by chance, that image rekindles the Botswana campfire: at their finest, Gill’s essays are what he calls “votive art”, an offering of gratitude as devout as a lighted candle.

From The Guardian’s review of Lines in the Sand

I had never read The Alchemist and was surprised and delighted to discover it: Until last week I didn’t realize I had never read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, mistaking it in my head for another book. I finally read it while on a trip last week and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences in recent memory. While my reaction is certainly due in part to big decisions and changes happening in my life right now, it is, without-a-doubt, a beautiful and moving book.

“If a person is living out his Personal Legend, he knows everything he needs to know. There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”


WeChat is not a messaging app, it’s the operating system for 1 billion people: Think Facebook has a lot of power? WeChat is watching is a fascinating look at the creation of a deeply centralized ecosystem with interesting, convenient and scary implications.

Hyper-centralization makes life convenient. It also presents a worrying potential for fraud. On a typical day I’ve paid my phone bill, sent money to people, bought groceries, and even sent authorized documents to the bank, all through one app, protected by one password and kept intentionally unencrypted to comply with government data-sharing regulations.

Moreover, the data centralization that has enabled WeChat to map itself neatly onto users’ personal and commercial lives, has now created an opportunity for the government to step in and invite it into their political lives. Beyond sharing data with the government, WeChat is now rolling out a digital ID card. Every Chinese citizen is issued an ID card. It functions like a domestic passport and is needed for any interaction with the state—at hospitals, booking trains, flying domestically, or making bank transactions. In Guangzhou, the provincial government has already debuted a WeChat ID card and there are plans for it to be rolled out across the whole of China. Hijiacking WeChat in the future could grant a hacker everything from a user’s government-approved identity to his or her bank details, address, and coffee preferences.

WeChat’s role in the social-credit system (!?) that is being rolled out is pretty wild:

WeChat’s data centralization makes it a cornerstone of the government’s social-credit system that is feted to appear nationwide in 2020. Mooted in 2014 in a document entitled “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System,” the plan is to build a system that incentivizes good behavior and punishes that deemed unconducive to the construction of a harmonious society or, as the document itself dictates, a system that will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”12 Under the pilot scheme, people with outstanding court orders or who have defaulted on loans can’t book high-speed rail tickets and can’t fly in planes.

The nationwide social credit system will be compiled by combining government records with commercial profiles. At present, Ant Financial, the finance-arm of Alibaba, China’s Internet conglomerate, has rolled out “sesame credit,” which gives people a score out of 950 based on their punctuality paying back loans, their purchase history, their social networks (having friends with high scores boosts your own score), and data shared from the government such as court-orders and fines. People with high-scores get preferential loans, can rent cars without deposits and are even guaranteed visas for countries like Luxemburg and Singapore, among other perks. China Rapid Finance, which is partnered with Tencent, is responsible for creating a similar scheme off the back of WeChat data.


Favorite quote was from Sam (as written by his teachers on a father’s day card):

“Thank you for taking me to coffee store and playing trucks!

Love Sam”