Newsletter Issue 100: Why I Write

This is the 100th issue of the “Sociology of blockchain” weekly newsletter. Please allow me to “take a day off”, not to talk about blockchain, not to talk about technology, but to talk about writing itself.

I want to tell you, and thus remind myself, why I write, why I write every week, and why I keep writing.

June 4: To Be Continued

Obviously, persisting in writing is not for the sake of making money. This is not being arrogant, but a reality—there are plenty of jobs that make more money. Why would I choose writing if it was just about earning money?

Having said that, it’s very important to me to prove that writing can be a livelihood. It’s also important to establish a direct connection with supporters, so I still have to try my best to encourage everyone to subscribe: subscribe before May 20th with an annual fee of 50 USD, and you will receive the NFT book 《天工開物 · 栩栩如真》 worth 37.5 USD as a gift.

Paid subscribers, besides getting a Writing NFT for every article, unlocking ChatCKX and the Drifting Classroom book club, can also participate in irregular activities. “Feng Shui man deceives you for ten or eight years”, the writer here fulfills his promises instantly, books the whole venue and watches a movie with Hong Kong subscribers. On June 4th, 1830 Golden Scene Cinema, each paid subscriber is eligible for 2 tickets for “To Be Continued”. The number of tickets is limited, first come first served. If you are interested, please reply to the email to reserve your seat.

For subscribers in Taiwan and other regions, I’m sorry that I don’t have the capacity to interact with you in the physical world for the time being. After all, I only have a few dozen “global paid subscribers”. I won’t forget you all, and I look forward to giving back to everyone, whether you’re in Taiwan, the UK, or scattered around the world.

Writing is a Training for Thinking

Every week after I finish an article, I feel exhausted.

I’m not saying this to gain sympathy. On the contrary, it may make me seem overstated or incompetent. Most people wouldn’t think that writing a few thousand words is a big deal, and perhaps reading a few thousand words is even more impressive. I only mention it because it’s the truth.

To live up to readers’ attention, I demand that each of my articles provide insight, a new perspective, or at least some new knowledge. Perhaps I put too much effort into writing, always consuming a lot of energy, making myself very tired. It’s like a mediocre baseball player, longing for a home run and tensing up his whole body, gripping the bat and swinging desperately, not realizing that the key is actually in mastering the timing and angles. If brute force can hit the ball to the outfield, it’s already pretty good.

Coming to the AI era, the above phenomenon is even more pronounced. With a couple of magic prompts, and an article of a few thousand words that looks alright will be produced. Ever since ChatGPT came out, every time I finish an article, I question myself, could this article be written by ChatGPT? I even try to write a few magic prompts to see if the work produced by ChatGPT in a minute, compared with what I spent ten hours or even two days writing, is better or worse. For now, boldfaced “for now”, I judge that my articles are slightly better than those of AI, but I would never assert that AI will not surpass me in the future.

I even think that as long as the appropriate model is used, with the 1000+ articles and over two million words that I have accumulated, current AI technology can already write articles in my style by feeding them into machine learning. No one has done this yet simply because I am not a famous author. For people like Mr. Michael Chou of Daodu.tech, someone has done it. The reason I haven’t done it myself yet, besides not being in a hurry to let AI take over my work (what’s the rush, it’ll be fine as long as it’s sorted out before my death), is even more because the significance of writing personally is not just about the final text, but also the process of writing, and even more so because the text is written by this body of mine, it belongs to my thoughts, and I myself gain something in the process of writing.

Imagining how smart AI can ultimately be is hard, but imagining it surpassing individual abilities is easy. It’s like how we find it hard to estimate how fast a vehicle can go beyond the speed of sound, but when it comes to surpassing the world record for 100 meters human run, technology has long done it. As long as we accept the fact that individual abilities are very limited, it’s not surprising that tools surpass humans, it would be surprising if someone could run faster than a car.

We all walk slower than cars, but we all have to walk every day. Even if we don’t commute, we have to exercise deliberately for the sake of health, otherwise we will rapidly deteriorate, lose muscle, and our bodies will get worse. In the not-too-distant future (actually today), most people’s writing abilities will not match up to AI’s, but we must continue to write. Otherwise, once we lack training in thinking, our abilities in deduction, induction, imagination, and logic will all deteriorate.

The AI era has arrived, and writing is not because only we can write, but for us to be able to keep writing.

Writing is an Interaction with the World

In English, there is a term “IRL”, which stands for “in real life”. It has become particularly popular during the pandemic. For example, an IRL gathering means to meet face-to-face.

I don’t really like this term, not because I hate the physical world. I enjoy nature and am accustomed to the city, and I still go out every day even during the peak of the pandemic, frequenting various cha chaan teng. No, the truth is that I spend much more time in cha chaan teng during the pandemic than before, because under “normal” circumstances in Hong Kong, cha chaan teng don’t welcome customers who order only a tea set but occupy seats for hours to write articles. The reason I don’t like the term “IRL” is because it seems to imply that online interactions are fictitious.

Chinese has a long history and is very profound, but when it is forced into modern technology, it can easily cause misunderstandings. In Chinese, we use the words “真實” and “虛假”, but in the modern era, what is physical (實) is not necessarily true (真), and what is digital (虛) does not mean it’s fake (假). Often, interactions in the physical world are superficial and pretentious, while interactions in the digital world are more profound and sincere. I have discussed this in detail in “Words Misunderstood – Virtual”, opposing the notion of using the term “virtual” to generalize digital concepts.

There have been many times when readers meeting me “IRL” for the first time were surprised that I didn’t match their impression of me at all. This is because “IRL”, I’m quiet and have a poor social HP that can only last for five minutes, while in the digital world, although I’m not very opinionated, I at least have thoughts on specific topics and express them actively.

I have many “IRL” friends who always keep a respectful distance from my articles. Although they praise them, they ignore them. “It’s well written, but I don’t read it because I don’t understand it” is the most common evaluation. The speaker may sincerely commend, but the listener can only feel helpless and disappointed. It’s not about me being so great that I understand things they don’t, but rather about me being so unsuccessful that I can’t even meet the most basic requirement of popular science writing.

Another familiar phrase about expression and communication is, “Why don’t you just say it directly if you have thoughts?” Encouraging direct communication is certainly right, but I don’t understand why saying it is considered direct, while writing it is indirect? Different concepts are suited to different mediums, and different people excel at different media. Some people speak, some write, and others choose to express themselves through different forms such as drawing, photography, theater, dance, etc. If all messages should be “just said directly”, what is the value of art at all?

Many of my friends and almost all of my family members don’t read my writings. I will never and can’t force others, but on the other hand, writing is my way of expressing myself, and I can’t and won’t change myself to satisfy others. Through words, I express my views on things and record my own life. Text is the medium through which I interact with the world.

My blog is called chungkin Express, and not just because of the movie Chungking Express.

Writing is the Practice of Freedom

The predecessor of the “Sociology of blockchain” newsletter was my column #decentralizehk in the Hong Kong Apple Daily.

102 weeks ago, the editor suddenly told me that the newly published article was the last issue of #decentralizehk. A week later, Apple Daily was discontinued, so I decided to self-publish and upgrade the bi-weekly column to a weekly. In the 0th issue published on June 25, 2021, I said, “Although I no longer have the nagging prompts from my former editor, I will still continue to write #decentralizehk earnestly, even upgrading it to a weekly, gradually adding other content outside of single articles, to carry on and spread it.”

For more than twenty years before that, I had been regularly publishing articles in different media: several years in Hong Kong Economic Journal, almost ten years in Ming Pao Sing Kei Yat Seng Wood, seven years in Stand News, until two years ago when I “self-media-tized”. Due to various reasons, many have lost their “territory” and manuscript fee, going from being employees to becoming self-employed “boss”, which has long become the norm in Hong Kong. In front of many predecessors and prolific writers, I am just a small potato, and there is nothing special about me. The above is purely a historical account.

During the recent half-year period, Zunzi’s political cartoons in Ming Pao was criticized by name by the Hong Kong government six times, and his column of forty years was discontinued. There are those who comment as usual, saying that as long as the criticism is based on facts, there is no problem. Some even attached Zunzi’s recent cartoon satirizing mainland tour groups in Hong Kong, saying that they don’t believe real tour groups behave like that. These two people interpret satirical cartoons with “realism”, which is even more humorous than Zunzi, just short of saying that the drawings don’t look like them enough, that their heads are not that big. In an interview about the incident, Zunzi said, “Firefighters cannot run away when they see a fire, so we should stay here and record our time.” As a junior, I am full of respect. The firefighting officer goes straight ahead, and those of us who are responsible for setting up ladders and pulling hoses, how can we leave our posts?

In fact, compared to those who are entangled in lawsuits, directly suppressed, and capable of writing and commenting but unable to go online, I am among the very fortunate few. I have the internet, and even the ability to bypass the Great Firewall; I have the resources to set up my own website, and even to publish articles to the blockchain, preserving news. I can still, tremulously, continue to express myself in a very limited space.

After the shutdown of the Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai, Cheung Kiu-king, Chan Pui-man, Lam Man-chung, and other senior executives were arrested and are still awaiting trial in jail. As a small individual like me, I can’t change their fate at all, which makes it hard for me who is outside the wall to enjoy life. Even without the editor’s urging, even without the support of the manuscript fee, to extend the life of this newsletter that has evolved from a column, to continue writing as best I can, to continue advocating for freedom, is the smallest contribution I can make to them and society.

No, I’m still making myself sound too great. The act of continued writing is not for anyone, it is merely my minimal practice of freedom, nothing more.


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