How to change the world in three easy steps

That was the title of my talk given to some students in Beida (Peking University), in September this year. Beida is my Alma mater, where I got my undergraduate degree in Physics. The talk was given in the College of Physics. Below is an outline of the talk.

I started with a couple of preliminaries:
1) Which language to use. Previously I talked with a Beida student in the humanities, and her opinion was that it did not matter whether I used English or Chinese, as some courses were given in English any way, and there was no problem of students understanding it. I posed the problem this way: (a) I, a student of the Phys. Dept., had certainly not forgotten my mother tongue, and could give a talk in Chinese with ease, (b) But (this part I said in English, so that they could better gauge the language production by me and language reception by themselves) since I’d been away for so long, I was not sure of the politics of the current time. If I happened to say something not exactly politically correct, I could more easily attribute it to the possible inaccuracies of translation if the talk was to be given in English. Switching back to Chinese, I asked for a show of hands. It turned out the overwhelming majority preferred me to use Chinese. Which I did. But I led a short excursion on voting schemes. While the one-person-one-vote method we had just practiced was commonly used, it is not the only one available. For example, there is the one-person-several-votes scheme, representing the strength/conviction of the vote. I gave the US presidential election as an example. While one person can vote for the president of choice with one or zero vote, s/he can contribute money up to $4500, which can in a way represent how eager one would like to have one candidate to win.

2) Why change the world? I asked to see how many of those present (about 25? see the pictures) wanted to change the world. There were preciously few. I asked them why. The answers ranged from the existence of official corruption (官倒), uneven wealth distribution, to general corruption. So I told them how I felt. When I was in school in China, I was taught (and some present indicated that they were also taught) that Karl Marx said that the main differentiation between humans and other animals is the usage of tools. With nothing against Marx, that pronouncement was made a long time ago, without the aid of modern science. As we know now, not only other primates can make and use tools, even some birds, with their size of the brain so little (I indicate with the end of my pinky), can make and use tools. So now what differentiates us from other animals? My own understanding is, humans are the only animal who intentionally want to change the world. Other animals inherent the world as it is, surviving in it if it can, and repeating the living styles of their parents; but we don’t. We see the world and want to change it, hopefully in the positive direction–we want to make the world better, for ourselves and our children.

3) How to change the world? It does not mean revolutions. Changing the world mostly means to change the way people think. If we change the leaders, the world is not really changed, because new leaders may simply repeat the ways of the old. But if people changed their mind, and acted differently, the world is changed.

Then the main story: how to change the world in 3 easy steps.
A. Understand oneself. I didn’t mean 自知之明, which is often associated with a negative connotation [as in, know your place]. I meant knowing one’s strengths as well as weaknesses. I didn’t, when I was in Beida. After some time in Beida, I realized that those in my class and from Beijing region had their student IDs assigned according to their entrance exam scores, ranging from 1 to 13. I asked the students to guess which number I had. Some guessed it correctly: 13. So I knew that I entered the Physics Dept. at the bottom of the pack. And in the four years there my standing did not noticeably improve. Yet outside of Beida, wherever I’d been, I was generally at the head of the pack. For example, presently I work with a group of smart people doing mostly automatic image processing. While most of these people had their PhD’s in CS, CE or EE, and learned image processing in school, and I didn’t, I have the role of the technical lead. The reason, I believe, is the vision. One don’t have to know all the details of how to solve each problem, although knowing some is necessary, and it helps to know more, but one definitely needs the vision to lead. And the vision, one can probably learn better in a Phys. dept. than in a CS dept. I gave some other examples from my life as well.

B. Prepare oneself. It is never sure when and from where the opportunities come, so one must prepare oneself in many ways. I knew I must be able to work with people, so I tried hard to work on my introvert personality. I knew I needed to learn English well, so I read English novels in college while many others read Chinese ones. I knew I needed to learn computers, so I sought out any opportunity there was. And by the end of four years of undergraduate studies, I believe I had had more time on computers than many people in the CS Dept had.

C. Seize opportunities. One should keep eyes open for opportunities not directly sought. I gave a few examples, several of which were from my technical areas. For example, when I got my first job, one of the tasks I was given was to design a barcode scanner’s optical package. I quickly designed one exactly to my manager’s requirements, but when a prototype was built its performance was deemed lousy. I soon realized that my manager didn’t know how to specify the requirement for a good scanner. Through observing how another manager and our test robot tested the performance of the scanner, I figured out what I needed to do. In the end, not only I got a better scanner, I got a patent describing the characteristics that made a good scanner.

I also mentioned our attempt at commemorating Sept. 18. The argument was: the Chinese did not really win the Sino-Japanese War, as Japan basically surrendered due to other factors; yet we celebrate the winning of that war while Japan commemorate Hiroshima. That was backwards. We should commemorate Sept. 18, when Japan upgraded its aggression with an aim of taking over the whole of China. Some from the government said: not so fast–we’d agreed with Japan that we would not seek retribution. Our argument against that was, the agreement was between governments; we should allow that the Chinese people might have a different mind. The official then said, wouldn’t that make our country less strong, in the sense that what our government agreed upon was not in accordance with the people? Our answer was: well, look at the US, where the people often did not agree with the government: Did we think it was weak because of that? Then our official said, what if we allowed this demonstration, and in the future there came one that had a lot of echo from the populace? Wouldn’t the country deteriorate into chaos? One of my classmates said, well, if the government ever found itself on the opposite side of the populace, it would be time to worry about something more serious. In the end, the demonstration was not allowed. But that only meant that we caught the opportunity at hand, while our government let it pass. Consider the alternative: wouldn’t our democracy have moved into a new phase if that demonstration, which was not aimed at our government, was given a green light?

I conclude by saying that when I was in Beida, I would never have dreamed to volunteer to make this speech in front of so many people. Over the years I have changed myself. But then I have also learned that one really couldn’t change oneself from an introvert into an extrovert. Yet here I was, making this speech. And this was my little attempt, at changing this world.

I hope they got the message.


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