Danish cinema has created many exceptional works that explore morality in a penetrating way. Borgen (2010) took an insider’s view in government’s backroom deals and ethical compromises. A War (2015) explored conscience and European’s preponderance over weaker people. Susanne Bier’s 2010 film In a Better World is a poignant drama that challenges our sense of justice. Each of them creates credible moral dilemmas that provoke contemplation.
Anton was a doctor serving aboard in an rural African field hospital. Back home in a small Danish town, he raises two sons Elias and Morten with a shared custody. Christian’s dad Claus brought him back to their native home in Denmark from London after his mother was deceased. He befriended the feeble Elias and plotted a fight back against the school bully. The film contrasts the violence of war in Africa with the more mundane skirmishes in Denmark. Both stories question our approach in resolving conflicts and serving justice.
To put it simply, I see two justice systems. I call them primal justice and enlightened justice. Primal justice is the old way. The key value is power and dominance. Tit for tat is a just response to aggression. In modern times, our enlightened justice disavows violence. We value peace, fairness and collaboration and fairness. Law and police are created to resolve conflict and make peace. Today, we view primal justice as brutal and horrifying. We are to evolve away from the barbaric past to an enlightened system.
The morality is challenged when Christian violently attacks Sofus in retaliation for his bullying. The logic was obvious to him. He has to flight back to establish himself, or he would risk being considered weak and falling prey to bullying. Tit for tat, a perfectly just action in the primal justice system. His father reprimanded him. Yet neither the parents nor the school can effectively police their children. Bullying is a fact of life. Primal justice rules in this world. Christian has a dark character that can be quite chilling. Yet his morality is consistent in this system.
This logic applies to the society level as well. There is no better example than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine today. Russia attacks because they can. The plan is simply to apply superior force to dominate weaker neighbors. All the protests and sanctions from Western government and the UN have limited effect. At the end of the day, if Ukraine prevails, it is due to the Ukrainian people’s valor and sacrifice in defending their country. We might think we are living in an enlightened world. But power still rules. Perhaps we are not as evolved as we think.
In a smaller arena, I reflect on how conflict is managed within my family. As a father of two small children, I am the arbiter of petty fights. I taught them that things shall be shared among all fairly, fighting is not right, and instead of hitting the other to take back what was yours, you should call in adults to settle disputes. Yet fights still happened. The little brother was more often the one who started, never mind being the weaker one. Despite my lectures, admonitions and threats, aggression would break out between them. At times, I decided to use the ultimate means, by force. I snapped the little brother’s hand for beating others.
This might sound counterintuitive. By snapping him, I was protecting him. His brother was angry. He was going to retaliate and he was much bigger. Snapping him would not do him real harm. Getting punched might. To keep peace, I have to deliver sufficient punishment to the offender. If it is unconvincing, he might believe the only way to settle things is to fight back himself.
In a similar way, In a Better World ponders on the limitation and failure of our institutions in maintaining justice. The school investigated and settled the students’ fight by having them apologize to each other and shake hands. It felt like a ritual that’s forced. It kept peace on the surface but did little to confront the underlying social dynamic. Anton was snapped by an aggressive man in a dispute set off by a playground fight. He refused to fight back or to call the police. Instead he challenged him to explain his action, not backing down even though he was slapped again. In Anton’s mind, he has stood up to him. The children were unconvinced. In their eyes, it was an ineffective move that did nothing to deter the impulsive man. In Africa, the warlord Big Guy terrorized the population with impunity, all because he has the fire power. Where is justice?
Before we went away with a dark view, I noticed a few details that were worth a note. Elias intervened in a conflict to avoid harm to a mother and children. It is an honor code to cause no harm to the defenseless and innocent. Not all bad guys are equally bad. The Big Guy is more despised because he sadistically tortured women. Even Christian has a sense of guilt. This set him apart from psychopathic villains like Vladimir Putin.
As much as we believe enlightened justice should rule over primal justice, does it succeed in the real world? The film uses a series of dramas to confront us with a reality we are uncomfortable to acknowledge. The enlightened justice system is limited and failed often. Even today, the primal justice system plays a big and often the more decisive role.
Fentanyl overdose is laying waste to San Francisco. More people die from overdose than COVID-19 in the city. The human misery plays out in the open in the Tenderloin everyday.
Narcan spray is effective to rescue people from near death. Some drug abusers are saved this way, maybe once, maybe twice, until one day they finally kill themselves. Mayor London Breed has declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin. Other people object to her approach. Either way, no one really has a promising solution to turn the tide.
Out of this despair, I want to point out a fact that jumps out at me. The chart above shows that Asian stand out as the group least affected by the drug epidemic, much less compared even to the economically well off white population. They are clearly doing something right. Learning how they successfully resisted drugs could reveal key insight against the calamity.
In Chan is Missing, a 1982 film set in Chinatown, San Francisco, two taxi drivers Jo and Steve were searching all over town for their disappeared business partner Chan. Wayne Wong’s first feature film reflects on the Chinese American identity. They speak to many people who have seen Chan. Everybody has a different impression on him. He was said to be a recent immigrant yet to learn the American way; an honest and trustworthy father to his daughter; a failure to his wife. He is an eccentric who likes Mariachi. Yet he is also considered just too Chinese. The Chinese American, after several generations in this country, remain an outside group with an incoherent image in this movie.
After this independent production, Wayne Wong continues to make more well known films, including his landmark film the Joy Luck Club, and my personal favorite, Chinese Box. Forty years after its initial release, I have finally had a chance to see his debut work.
The film gives me a vintage feel. The cars, the hairdo, the fashion trend, a lot has changed in 40 years. But even more remarkable, the society itself has changed.
I moved to the US from Asia in the late 90s as a software engineer. Had I seen Chan is Missing before, I would not have found their world myself. Perhaps the culture has really changed swiftly. Perhaps I simply have the luxury to immerse myself in a professional environment. I hardly have to mull over being Chinese in America. In my world, we have deliberated far more on the dot-com revolution than being in an outside group.
Jo, an native born citizen who speaks English perfectly, was unsure about Chinese’s place in the mainstream (i.e. white) society. Me, a true outsider who only manages English as a second language, has found this an exciting cosmopolitan. This is a remarkably accepting place that welcomes people arriving from all over the world, a rather different place than the Chinatown depicted not so long ago.
If I am to find another movie to reflect today’s zeitgeist, I will choose the 2021 comedy drama Together Together. Matt, a middle aged white single, decides to become a father on his own. He contracts Anna, an Asian woman, to be the surrogate to bear his baby. True, Anna was only a surrogate, not his lover. But they were together the entire film and have gotten quite close to each other. When asked why they did not consider dating, the dealbreaker was said to be their 20 years age difference. Not once has the question that they are of different races come up. Not once.
Two films, two eras, two ideas and a thought provoking contrast.
I just rediscovered Lowell Lo's 1983 love song - 又再想起你. Lo speaks so lovingly of a love that did not come to be. I find it so romantic and moving that I decided to create an English rendition and translate it.
I think about you again
it feels so wonderful
I will not forget
we laughed at all the things we saw
next to me
we napped away to serene dreams
tender and sweet like nothing else
long to be together with you
the whole life
you made me feel intoxicated
can't stop loving you
can't stop speaking of you
Yet you'd not find out
that I think of you still
even after we're parted
wish we really can
the whole life
how did we separate
I no longer remember
it was the truest love
the deepest love
I think of you
Bay Area continues the mandate requiring all people to wear masks indoors. I support health directives that have a meaningful impact. At this point in the pandemic cycle, I do not see evidence that it does though. To my annoyance, the requirement stays.
Certain individuals announce they intend to wear masks indefinitely. They believe it is useful to not only prevent covid, but also other infectious diseases like seasonal flu. Since this is a low cost measure and beneficial enough, they say they will keep wearing masks forever.
I found such justification alarming. Humanity has lived with infectious diseases since the beginning of time. Is there such a grave threat that, at this point of history, we decided to change our behavior permanently? Are these people just overdoing it?
I am particularly opposed to the idea that wearing a mask is a low cost measure. There are common objections. It constricts airflow and is uncomfortable to wear all day. It makes speaking and hearing more difficult. Fogging on glasses is a constant annoyance for me. Even if it is low cost for an individual to do, mandating something for the entire population for an extended period of time automatically makes it not low lost.
My greatest concern of all is that it impairs our emotional connection with other human. The economic cost of wearing a mask may be small compared to shutting down the city, but the social and emotional cost is not. We are just not good at measuring it.
Scientists have learned human brains are hard-wired to recognize faces. We are social species. We communicate a lot simply by reading other people’s facial expressions. Does the other person agree with us? Are they happy? Angry? Worried? All this we can tell to a great degree from other people’s faces. This is our innate ability as a human. Face masks obscure half of the face from us. It impairs our ability to read and understand other people.
Perhaps the greatest master of facial expression is Charlie Chaplin. His silent movies have delighted us since last century. His comic character, the Little Tramp, produced belly laughs to generations of audiences. Chaplin delivered the dynamic performance through pantomime acts using only facial expressions and body gestures. His presentation is understood and beloved universally across all cultures.
If Chaplin were to perform with a mask on, it would lose much of the charm. We won’t see the character’s signature mustache. There won’t be a grinning teeth smile, nervous smile, embarrassed smile, surprise face, disdain face, or frightened face. Charlie’s performance would have fallen flat if it was hidden under a mask.
Like many pandemic prevention measures, they incur hidden costs for inhibiting social and emotional connection. Having no dollar amount attached does not mean it is not significant. Quite the contrary, its toll on our well being should not be underestimated. We don’t want to keep on inhibiting social connection beyond what is necessary. We want to see Charlie Chaplin’s beloved characters as a complete person, not hidden under a mask.
Half for me, half for you, says beekeeper Hatidže Muratova. The traditional saying intructs people to harvest only half of the honey for themselves, but leave the other half for the bees. This is sustainable agriculture summed up in one phrase.
Mainly due to Covid travel restrictions, I still haven’t visited any of our customer’s fish farms. Salmon aquaculture is a large industry in Norway. Many fish farms can be found in Norway’s inlets. With Google maps, I can take an aerial tour.
Three circular fish pens are connected to a barge that supplies fish feed.
Each pen’s diameter is 50m. How large is that? An Olympic swimming pool is 25m x 50m. A fish pen would fit inside two Olympic swimming pools.
I was curious about how a fish pen compares to a land based farm by size. To do that, I looked up a center pivot irrigated farms in Kansas. The farms’ circular shape makes them stand out from the air.
I superimposed the image of a Norway fish farm on a circular land farm. The fish pens are just small circles inside the much larger circle. It has a diameter of 800m, the same width as the Golden Gate Park. If the entire Golden Gate Park is converted into circular farms, it can fit five of them.
Kansas is full of farms like this. Just see this when we zoom out to this 70 x 35km area. This is only one corner of Kansas.
I know little about the business of farming. But I bet that the yield, by economic value, is higher for the six salmon pens than the much larger grain farm.
What about calories? Could a fish farm yield enough to produce a meaningful share of protein for the world’s population? A 50m fish pen is large at human scale. But it is just a speck of dust relative to the vastness of the ocean. Could aquaculture scale up much more?
Perhaps we can innovate to produce food from much less land. Then we could stop cutting down forests for farms, even reverse the agriculture’s land use impact, allowing farm land to turn back into forests and wildlife habitat. The next green revolution could be world changing.
Coronavirus is once again making waves in the US. Many people, once relieved by the wide availability of vaccines and low inflections rate, are on the edge once again. The necessity of wearing masks comes up in the headlines. Many governments are considering making it mandatory again.
I have a lot of doubts and questions about the strategy. This attitude, I name it mask primacy, believes the use of masks at population level is the primary mean to stop the spread of coronavirus. I challenge the validity of this belief. I think people overestimate the utility of masks and the governments are overinvested in masks.
First of all, I am not anti-mask. I started using a mask last year once I was convinced it could be helpful, before it was actually recommended by health authorities. Stay home when you are sick. Wash your hands and avoid rubbing your eyes. Maintain social distance. Stay six feet apart. I do them all. Then masks are added to the list. I too was exasperated at the resistance from the conservative population and the politicalization of a measure that was meant to protect public health.
The difference is I don’t see masks as a game changer. It is one of the many things to do that might help. I saw the virus sweep through the US in 2020. It hit the East coast states, it hit the central state, it hit West coast states. It hit the conservative states, and it hit the liberal states. There were some differences. But I don’t see any measures that clearly differentiate one region from another. Here in the Bay Area, we follow virus precautions quite diligently. Our inflection number in 2020 is about 40% of the US average. It is a good result, relatively speaking. But we were still hit by waves of inflection. The result was nevertheless bad by world standards.
I still think washing the hands helps, staying six feet apart helps, wearing masks helps. I still think we should take necessary precautions. But I see no evidence that they would produce a game changing outcome. I don’t want to mislead the public to think this way.
There is only one game changer - the vaccine. There is mountain of evidence showing its effectiveness, from decisively reducing death to suppressing virus infection and spread. It has reported that some vaccines are 90% effective, a number demonstrated experimentally. No other measure has comparable experimentally proven effectiveness.
So why is it that as soon as the inflection rises, some people and municipalities immediately call for a mask mandate? How do we explain this mask primacy? Why are people so confident that it can cause a change in the result?
The story goes like the delta variant is far more transmissible and puts all of us at risk. Even vaccines do not provide adequate protection. Therefore we must use masks.
Why do people not have similar doubts about masks? They could have said the same thing. The delta variant is so much more virulent, while the mask was helpful back in 2020, it is not as helpful against the delta variant. Therefore we should stop using surgical and cloth masks and switch to N-95. Or more sensibly, stop counting on masks to provide basic protection and make sure we all get vaccines.
In a stressful situation, people instinctively go back to masks. This is mask primacy.
People are quite sensitive about vaccine breakthroughs, people catching a virus despite being vaccinated. Any such story can make news headlines. Rationally speaking, comparing the much lower inflection rate and death rate between the vaccinated and unvaccinated should provide reassuring evidence that that vaccine is effective. Nevertheless, if only single vaccinated die, it would have deeply shaken the trust on vaccines’ protection.
The same people who are so concerned about the breakthrough inflection of vaccines would have thought nothing about breakthrough inflection of masked people. I have not seen any official numbers, but there are likely to be in the millions. How many people die despite diligently using a mask? Probably too numerous to count. Would this information have shaken the trust of the mask? Probably not. If you confront people, they would shrug their shoulders. “It is not perfect. But it has certainly helped”, they rationalize.
A breakthrough inflection to the vaccinated causes panic. A breakthrough inflection to the masked has no effect on the mask reliance. This phenomenon is another sign of mask primacy.
To think about it rationally, a breakthrough case causes a lot of concern because people expect much higher, perhap 100%, effectiveness on the vaccine. They accept certain breakthrough inflections that happen to masked people means that they have much lower expectations on masks. Inside, people understand that vaccines provide a different class of protection compared to masks. However, once people feel at risk, they still go to mask the first thing.
Even if a mask is not very effective, does it still help? The problem is we should focus on things that help the most, not things that help a little bit. When data show most new inflection comes from unvaccinated people, yet we react by asking the vaccinated people to wear masks. You can immediately see its futility.
If there is one important thing that should happen, I believe it is for the FDA to formally approve the vaccine with greatest urgency. Right now a lot of vaccine hesitant cite the emergency approval as the reason they are reluctant to take it. We should remove these excuses. Many institutions, from schools to the military, are also pending on FDA’s final approval before they can mandate it to their members. The formal approval has a lot of real life impact.
When hundreds of millions of people have already been vaccinated with clearly positive results, there is no question about its safety and effectiveness. The work on science and biology are painstaking. But the hard work has already been done. What is left is bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is an obstacle created by humans. It is within human’s power to overcome them.
I have enjoyed Lakoff and Johnson's classic book Metaphors We Live By. Originally published in 1980, they argue that metaphor is not simply a literary device. Instead it is a fundamental way the human mind makes sense of the world, by using knowledge in one domain to reason about another domain. The use of metaphor is pervasive in our throught, whether we are aware of it or not.
I have a devotion to obituaries. Most of the time, I don't find them sad at all. Instead, it is a review of what one accomplished in life and the legacy they left behind. They actually cast a guiding light for living. While we constantly struggle in the hectic day to day life, they tell us, at the end of the day, what really matters.
Today, the Covid pandemic has receded definitively. A large majority of people have been vaccinated. The case rate stays low. Death from Covid is vanishing. We are finally coming out from the emergency. With most restrictions lifted, what are we going to do now? Should we stop wearing masks? Should we go on long delayed vacations? Going back to the office? Jump back into events with large crowds?
Dreams can be surprisingly creative. Regrettably, I forgot most of them. The wild dreams I had while sleeping evaporated quickly once I woke up. Only on some occasions, I remembered enough and cared to write them down. This leaves me with some complex and intriguing stories.
In the United States, many people have received either Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. These vaccines require two doses spaced one month apart. There is a period between the first dose, when the vaccine provides some degree of protection, to after the second dose when the vaccine protection is maximized. In public, this is often described as partially vaccinated v.s. fully vaccinated. The label partially vaccinated has a connotation of temporary and insufficient. I believe this is not accurate. I suggest a different set of labels, vaccinated and double vaccinated, to describe these two stages. This label could help shape public perception and health policy and improve outcome.
San Francisco’s COVID vaccine effort continues at a brisk pace. Today, 56% of adults have already received at least one shot of vaccine. How much longer does it take to vaccinate 80% of adults? At the current pace of 12.6k vaccination per day, it will take 15 more days. April 26th is the earliest day where everyone who wants a vaccine will get a vaccine (assuming 20% of people decline). In practice, it will take more days because some vaccines are used for second shots. Nevertheless, it is tremendously encouraging to see the progress. This schedule is ahead of even the most optimistic prediction at the beginning of the roll out.
Sometime ago I discovered Chloé Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, the story of a Native American boy planning to leave his family and the reservation. I like the subtle connection and tension between his sister and him. Her films are great portraits of characters from the margin of the society, first Native Americans, then in Nomadland, the tribe of wanderer by choice. It surprised me to learn Chloé was not born American but came from China, for she has made such fine narration that even American filmmakers would have admired.
The COVID trend, in SF, California, and the US as a whole, is clearly heading down. In addition, vaccination is producing result. Vaccine production and vaccination rate is set to multiply in the coming weeks. My prediction is the COVID epidemic will recede definitively in just three months.
Has Tech Destroyed Society? Here is a very interesting story about a bet made 25 years ago covered by Steven Levy. The antagonist - techno-optimist Kevin Kelly and “anarchocommunalist” Kirkpatrick Sale. The prediction – the society would collapse. The date – 2020. The judge – William Patrick, a book publisher whom both have worked with. He is to decide based on the three agreed upon criteria - an economic disaster that would render the dollar worthless; a rebellion of the poor against the monied; and a significant number of environmental catastrophes.
Today, January 14th 2021, I have received an email notifying me that a limit order I placed some weeks ago has partially filled. I have sold some employee Uber stock options at $60.03. I have made some money! Hurray!