3 lessons from a week in Lourdes

I just returned from a week in Lourdes, France. With 70 volunteers we guided a group of 50 elderly people, many seriously ill, on a religious pilgrimage. Millions of people travel to Lourdes each year to bathe in its springs that are supposed to have healing properties, after a young girl had 18 visions of the Virgin Mary there in 1858.

Equipe 5, Lourdes 2016.JPG

I am not a devout Catholic and I don’t believe in the miraculous healing properties of Lourdes’ water. So why did I go? I went because I wanted to help. My motivations are quite selfish, really: I know that serving others fills me with positive energy.

Here are three lessons I learned from a week with 50 elderly people.

1. Compassion can be cultivated.

We know that we can show kindness to our friends, and that on a good day we may even help a stranger in the street. But can we be kind to everyone? Surely there are some people we just don’t get along with! In Lourdes I realized that it is possible to develop sincere kindness for anyone.

On my first day, I felt repelled by an elderly man in his wheelchair. Subjecting my immediate reaction to walk away, I started a conversation with him. After chatting for fifteen minutes I had seen so many commonalities between us that my initial feeling of repulsion had shifted to sincere compassion. Through this incident I realized that we can cultivate compassion, even for people who we initially despise, if we just have an opportunity to see their humanity.

That’s exactly the insight that drove an Israeli restaurant owner to offer 50% discount on meals in his restaurant shared by Palestinians and Israelis. This Zen Habits guide of 7 practices will help mean—and maybe you too—to be more compassionate.

2. Helping someone matters.

Following the logic of Effective Altruism, it is easy to conclude that helping a few elderly people does not matter. “Why would I spend a week pushing old people in a wheelchair if I can work on a scalable solution for healthcare?” I think the lens of “impact” fails here for two reasons. First, I believe that if everyone would take care of their neighbors, the world would be a better place. Second, I believe that when we help someone directly, we are reminded what really matters in life. This causes ripple effects in how we choose our careers and lives.

 3. Religion can be a powerful framework for personal growth.

In an interview with New Scientist, E.O. Wilson said that we should eliminate religion because it causes great danger to our humanity. After Lourdes my view of religion is much more positive. Going to mass every day, I saw that religion can be a framework to become a better person. By reading stories of saintly behavior; reflecting on your own actions (and sins); and wishing each other peace during mass, religion can help people to be kinder. That is why I recommend everyone to read Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists.


In summary, the week reminded me how helping others truly is “food for the soul”. It also reminded me that I should treasure the moments I still have with my grandparents.

What role does service play in your life? Are there experiences that have transformed you? Which experiences would you still like to live?

The Best Books I read in 2015

Below are some of the best books I read in 2015, each with a short paragraph explaining how reading the book influenced my thinking.

If you’re looking for great books to read, also look at my July 2014 blog on “Books that Influenced my Life”, Ted Gonder’s “Books that Have Changed My Life“, Edge.org’s list of 2015 Summer Reading, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s list of 8 books that every intelligent person should read, and Mark Bao’s “Great Books I read in 2015“.

I keep a visual overview of all the books I read in 2015 at http://books.titiaanpalazzi.com (a great, easy-to-use Tumblr template).

Best books I read in 2015:

My Life with the Saints, by James Martin

James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor of America magazine, shares a brief synopsis of the lives of about fifteen Christian saints, detailing how each saint inspires him in everyday life. Reading this book kindled my desire to become a better person through service, and led me to explore more deeply the lives of St. Francis and Dorothy Day. If this paragraph tickles your curiosity, listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with James Martin on On Being.

The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff

Benjamin Hoff explains the essence of Taoism through stories from Winnie the Pooh. This is a hilarious read that will inspire you to be kinder and funnier under the hardships that life will throw at you. Reading a chapter of The Tao of Pooh every morning is one of the surest ways to be a happier person (I can attest!)

Writings on an Ethical Life, by Peter Singer

I first read Peter Singer’s writing many years ago about eating meat, when he influenced my thinking that it’s OK to eat oysters and mussels as part of a vegetarian or vegan diet. In this book, a collection of essays and excerpts from different books, Singer will challenge many of your beliefs on how to live well.

Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton

De Botton’s mission is beautiful: to make the wisdom of philosophy accessible to a wide audience. In this book, he looks at six great philosophers, and frames the message of each in a way that can help you in every day life. I was particularly intrigued by Socrates’ method to get to truth, and Nietzsche’s belief that pain and distress are good, because they spur us to work harder to realize our dreams.

Snowcrash, by Neal Stephenson

In this crazy science-fiction story, Neal Stephenson sketches a world where people choose to live more in virtual reality than in physical reality.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein

Heinlein describes a beautiful symbiosis between men and machine who collectively try to overthrow an upsetting political regime.

The Glass Bead Game, by Herman Hesse

Hesse is possibly my favorite novelist, and I had put this book (a Nobel Prize winner) off for too long. The book made me think about the contemplative life versus the life of action, a theme that replays itself in many of Hesse’s books.

Books I want to read in 2016:

  • The Utopia Experiment, by Dylan Evans—to understand the challenges of communal livings.
  • On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin—to understand the foundation behind how Darwin came to his conclusion on natural selection.
  • Mastery, by Robert Greene—to understand the path of the artist, so compellingly portrayed by Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
  • The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine—to understand his critiques on The Bible and religion.

Books I want to re-read in 2016:

  • Bhagavadgita, in translation by Eknath Eswaran—to be inspired to be a better person. (Gandhi read the Bhagavadgita every day.)
  • Six Thinking Hats, by Edward de Bono—to be more aware of the different modes of think I do, and can, use.
  • From Darwin to Munger, by Peter Bevelin—to remind myself of the flaws in my thinking.
  • The Little Prince, by Saint Exupéry—because the wonder expressed by our small friend from another planet is something I always want to keep in mind.

One of my intentions for the new year is to keep a digital summary of the best books I read in 2016, with the intention to re-read the summaries frequently, to truly internalize some of the lessons.

Reflections from Burning Man 2015

Burning Man 2015

Victor, Irene, Titiaan, Lisanne, Thomas, and Pim. Photo credit: Brendan Curran.

Last Sunday, I returned from my second year at Burning Man. It was a wonderful experience, very different from the year before. Three elements stood out to me:

  1. Creating time for deep conversations with friends old and new
  2. Experiencing the joy of serving others
  3. Witnessing the connectedness of all human beings

Creating time for conversations with friends old and new

Some of my best Dutch friends decided to come to Burning Man this year. Thanks to Jan Overgoor, about half of them could stay at my camp, Mooncheese, making it easy to find each other. Throughout the week, we actively looked for each other to go on walks and adventures, creating time to reflect on past experiences and discuss new adventures. Having several hours of uninterrupted time to talk with such dear friends was rare and heartwarming.

In parallel, I had some enlightening conversations with people who I had never or barely met before. IDEATE, a camp run by changemakers in sustainability and social justice, was a particular example of an oasis again which led to many interesting conversations—with topics ranging from spiritual enlightenment to how to reduce Burning Man’s carbon footprint.

Experiencing the joy of serving others

Everyone who comes to Burning Man tries to give something to the larger Burning Man community. Mooncheese served grilled cheese sandwiches at night; Shamandome offered healings and other guided spiritual workshops; and IDEATE organized speaker series. On one of our nightly adventures, we even discovered a one-person Caribbean bar at a 15-minute biking distance from the city!

In our everyday lives, we think about what we want to get, with the implicit assumption that getting things will make us happy. It’s powerful to realize how much joy comes from giving. For many in Mooncheese, the best moment of Burning Man were the 2 hours of their grilled cheese shift, during which they prepared and handed out grilled cheese sandwiches to hungry people. For me, spending a few hours to help a friend prepare a meal and to help someone fix a flat tire stand out as highlights in the week. It’s worth remembering daily how much joy comes from providing small acts of kindness—I try to continue to live this message as I return to normal life.

Witnessing the connectedness of all human beings

One special experience this year was to take part in a 5 Rhythms dance session. At 10am on a Friday morning, 200 people (all sober, or at least most of them) gathered on a wooden dance floor to move to the tunes of a Swedish DJ. His music started very slow, but progressed to more upbeat to a strong climax and back, hence the name 5 Rhythms. During the second hour of the dance session, you could see in everyone’s eyes true compassion for the other people on the floor. It was a totally different experience than seeing the judging way people look at each other on their morning commute by bus or metro.

The tough environmental conditions—this year was particularly bad, with several white-out dust storms and temperatures occasionally dropping below freezing point—further increase the connectedness. You had to hug people, just to get some of their body heat.

Serving grilled cheese with Mooncheese camp.

Serving grilled cheese with Mooncheese camp. Photo credit: Brendan Curran.

I definitely plan to go again next year. My intention is to go with a small camp that has a strong commitment to service—I’ve realized that spending a few hours each day serving others is a gift. As a friend, Ed Silhol, said “Burning Man is my school”, a place to learn new things through service.


For those of you who’ve never been to Burning Man: to me, the experience is best compared to visiting a city as a tourist. You spend time reading the map, trying to understand the city’s design, deciding which buildings and events you want to visit, making new friends and visiting acquaintances. Already after a few days in the new city, you feel increasingly at home. That’s what it feels like at Burning Man.

How to communicate information—lessons from Edward Tufte’s 1-day workshop

Last Friday, I attended a workshop by Edward Tufte, a master of data visualization, in Denver. Here’s what I learned.

On showing only information; no junk: 

In a completely dark room inside the Hyatt hotel, Tufte started the workshop by showing a beautiful animation by the “Music Animation Machine“, a website created by Stephen Malinowski. Below is an animated example of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. In Tufte’s words: “there is no chart junk here”, i.e. everything you see is pure information that contributes to your understanding.

On effective writing:

If you want to have examples of effective information communication, look at sites that receive many viewers, such as New York Times or ESPN. What you’ll learn from them:

  • Always mention your sources
  • Include quotes from external experts
  • If you want to communicate just a few numbers, integrate them into your text; do not create “data junk”, i.e. small tables or bar charts to communicate just a few numbers
  • Create beautiful templates to communicate complex data, such as NYT’s visualization of Obama’s 2013 budget proposal

On better meetings:

Start each meeting by giving all participants a written briefing. Do not brief people by giving a presentation. We can process information more quickly through reading than speaking. (Also: don’t send the written document out in advance expecting meeting participants to read it. Create time in the meeting for people to read your information.) Jeff Bezos uses 6-page memos and 30 minutes of silent reading for all important meetings at Amazon.

So, when you next visit your doctor, do not tell them what’s the matter—write down your complaints in stead. When you finally get to meet with the doctor, give him your printed out complaints, and ask him to silently read it.

On combining words, drawings, and images:

We can process all kinds of information together. Our mind does not filter “words” from “images”. The reason we have text editors for words and Photoshop for images and Illustrator for drawings is that it’s easier for the software makers and possibly the creator, but definitely not for the reader.

Location-based philosophy

Location-based philosophy

Since moving to Colorado, I spend more time outdoors than before. On the flipside, I spend less time meeting new people, and less time making ideas happen. Why? Because living in the mountains influences what you think of and what you’re invited to.

Where you live defines how you live. This realization made me think back of the places I’ve previously lived. I realize that the definition of a good life varies for each location.

So what does it mean to live a Good Life?

Aspen, Colorado: a good life is … being outdoors

A perfect week for a Coloradan includes a climbing-adventure, rafting down a river, and backpacking—ideally all together with friends. Most men in Colorado grow beards, so I stand out perfectly as a beardless European. Work, for many, is second in priority for most to the life outdoors.

New York City: a good life is … chasing a dream

When you stand still on a NYC-street, observing the crowd passing by, everyone is going somewhere in a hurry. Each New Yorker seems to follow the Hero’s Journey: hearing a call to adventure, then following Joseph Campbell’s cycle to make it real. New York is the ultimate anti-Buddhist city, because attachment to goals reigns supreme.

Silicon Valley: a good life is … having an impact

When you meet someone at Stanford or at a Bay area meetup, the first question is often aimed at finding out whether you run a company. If not, the asker quickly loses interest, unless you can convince them that you are impressive otherwise. People (including me) are attracted to Silicon Valley because it’s a place where people discuss big ideas, and want to have an impact in the world—creating “a dent in the universe.”

Cambridge, Massachusetts: a good life is … learning together

In Cambridge, people seem to care less about what you do, and more about what you think. People—many of whom are graduate students at some of the world’s best higher education institutes—are curious to learn, and to explore topics together. I’ve learned about the way hummingbirds flap wings and how religions grow, all in a single conversation.

Amsterdam: a good life is … <many definitions possible>

It’s difficult for me to define a good life in Amsterdam. For some friends, a good life is defined by a promising career with a top-tier consulting firm or big corporate. For some friends, a good life is defined by starting creative projects. For some friends, a good life is defined by building a startup. One thing that almost all my Dutch peers value is travel—that’s why you see Dutchies everywhere around the world.

Bangalore, India: a good life is … spending time with friends

In India, more than in the United States or Europe, spending time with friends is important. When you walk the streets of Bangalore or Chennai, you see people everywhere chatting: at the chai-stand, while buying vegetables on the market, or simply standing outside. I think this culture will disappear as the country becomes more Western—Bangalore is already more “rushed” than a smaller city like Jaipur.

Have you experienced the places above differently? Which other places have distinct philosophies? Where do you live now, and does the local philosophy fit yours?


Of course, the local philosophies above are generalizations. In each city, you can find many different groups of people (i.e., tribes), each with their own philosophies. I still believe the location is important, though. In Aspen, the surrounding mountains call you to a life outdoors; in New York City, the never-ending bustle makes it natural to spend time with other people.

Book Review: Waking Up by Sam Harris

This is a summary of Sam Harris’ very insightful book Waking Up. I am editing this post as I’m reading the book. 

Chapter 1: Spirituality

“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages—but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out.”

“The experience [of using MDMA] was not of love growing, but of its being no longer obscured.”

“There is no other term [than spirituality] to discuss the efforts people make to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness.”

“Although the insights we can have in meditation tell us nothing about the origins of the universe, they do confirm some well-established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.”

“Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences.”

“There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eye, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished.”

“Most cultures have produced men and women who have found that certain deliberate uses of attention—meditation, yoga, prayer—can transform their perception of the world. Their efforts generally begin with the realization that even in the best of circumstances, happiness is elusive.”

“There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves; there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness. And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.”

“[A] true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease with the world for no reason, if only for a few moments at a time, and that such ease is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self.”

“[T]he teachings of Buddhism are not considered by their adherents to be the product of infallible revelation. They are, rather, empirical instructions: If you do X, you will experience Y.”

“The reality of your life is always now. And to realize this, we will see, is liberating. In fact, I think there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in the world.”

“The Buddha described four foundations of mindfulness: the body (breathing, changes in posture, activities), feelings (the senses of pleasantness, unpleasantness, and neutrality), the mind (in particular, its moods and attitudes), and the objects of mind (which include the five sense but also other mental states, such as volition, tranquility, rapture, equanimity, and even mindfulness itself.)”

“Eventually, [mindfulness] begins to seem as if you are repeatedly awakening from a dream to find yourself safely in bed. No matter how terrible the dream, the relief is instantaneous. And yet it is difficult to say awake for more than a few seconds at a time.”

“Mindfulness is a technique for achieving equanimity amid the flux, allowing us to simply be aware of the quality of experience in each moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant. This may seem like a recipe for apathy, but it needn’t be. It is actually possible to be mindful—and, therefore, to be at peace with the present moment—even while working to change the world for the better.”

“The traditional goal of meditation is to arrive at a state of wellbeing that is imperturbable—or if perturbed, easily regained. The French monk Matthieu Ricard describes such happiness as “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind.” (And a healthy body, I would add.)

“Just recognizing the impermanence of your mental states—deeply, not merely as an idea—can transform your life.”

“It is your mind, rather than the circumstances themselves, that determines the quality of your life. Your mind is the basis of everything you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.”

“In my view, the realistic goal to be attained through spiritual practice is not some permanent state of enlightenment that admits of no further efforts but a capacity to be free in this moment, in the midst of whatever is happening. If you can do that, you have already solved most of the problems you will encounter in life.”

Could technology supplant meditation?

My first-ever Vipassana meditation was in Amsterdam. Sitting on a little pillow, our teacher told us that the key to Vipassana meditation is to observe your own thoughts without attachment.

In the following weeks, I invited several friends to those Vipassana sessions. After 90 minutes of meditation, we’d go for a drink and wonder: what happens to your brain when you meditate?

In his TED-talk, Mathieu Ricard answers this question. He shows pictures of Buddhist monks lying inside big fMRI machines. The monks are subjects in a research study to understand the influence of meditation on the structure of the brain. The research showed that the brain structure changes through meditation: monks show more neural activity when they look at images that raise our sense of empathy.


After seeing this image, I wondered if a Buddhist monk would agree to use a technology that instantly creates the effect of meditation, without the many years of practice it typically takes to create a truly tranquil mind. In the last month, I learned that the first signs of such a technology exist. Called transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS); it’s so simple that you can build a setup for less than $50.

I first learned about tDCS in The Economist’s Technology Quarterly, and by listening to a fascinating podcast by Radiolab. In the episode, a journalist for New Scientist explains how her performance in a military simulation game improved from sub-standard to perfect, simply by running a bit of electricity through her brain. (She participated in a military training simulation; her goal was to survive a danger situation in Afghanistan. Without tDCS, she shot 3 out of 20; with tDCS, she hit all targets.) When she performed the exercise without the brain stimulation, she felt extremely stressed; when she used tDCS, time seemed to slow down, decisions were much simpler, and, at the end of the game, the journalist asked the supervisor why they had skipped the hard part of the simulation. Effectively, tDCS creates an effect that meditation can create too: it brings you into a state of focus—letting go of doubts, worries, and peripheral thoughts.

What could this mean for our future? Will baseball-caps provide electric shocks to our brain to keep us in a constant state of “flow”? Is it possible to keep the brain in a constant high; or would our neural cells set the electric current as the new normal, requiring a higher power-flow? If technology can create a focused mind, would a monk use it, or would using it fail to complete the deeper goal of non-attachment?


(After I listened to this episode, I ordered a tDCS device myself. I’m very curious to see what it does.)

The most important questions in the world?

The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer

—Rainer Maria Rilke

Last weekend, I had breakfast with my dad. I explained that I feel particularly satisfied on days when I create something—a blog, a drawing, or a beautiful graph—and share it with someone. My dad smiled. Then, he replied, “I have a good day when something unexpected happens.”

As he said this, I realized that how you evaluate your days determines the person you become.

There are many questions we can ask ourselves daily, such as:

  • Did I create something meaningful?
  • Did I learn something new?
  • Did I make someone smile?
  • Did I get better at my craft?
  • Did I meet someone new?
  • Have I become a wiser person?
  • Did I encounter something unexpected?
  • Did I help somebody?
  • Did I do something that scared me?
  • Did I work on something that can change the world?
  • Did I invest in the people around me?
  • Did I work with amazing people?

It’s worth asking yourself: am I asking the right questions? There is no one-question-fits-all, but each question reflects certain values. Asking, “have I helped someone?” means you value compassion and kindness. Summing up what you’ve learnt at the end of the day indicates a commitment to personal growth.

Which questions do you ask yourself at the end of your day? Do they reflect what you truly care about, or are they merely a product of your environment and the past?

Thanks to Jan Overgoor for reviewing an earlier version of this post.

3 cool tools to learn how computers work

1. Kano: a $150 kit to build your own computer. Kano ships you a beautiful package with a Raspberry Pi, a case, a small speaker, a keyboard with trackpad, and a WiFi module. Using Pi’s linux operating system, you can download existing games, or build your own.

2. littleBits – a library of magnetic electronic blocks that allow you to create and invent. littleBits is an ever-growing library of electronic modules that snap together with magnets so you can invent anything without the need to solder or connect wires. LittleBits’ library has 60 modules, including temperature sensors, microphones, buttons, motors and many more.

3. arduino is an open-source electronics platform that provides the raw material for anyone making interactive projects. At MIT, several of my friends used arduinos to prototype their solution. After teaching at MIT’s medialab India Design Initiative, I was so interested that I bought an arduino as part of a SparkFun kit. I used the kit to build several designs, and then I created my own thermostat. It wasn’t connected to my heating system, but the output (a light) would switch on if the boiler had to switch on.

The thermostat I built with my arduino-kit. When the temperature would be below the setpoint (21 C), the output (an LED, in this example), would switch on.

The thermostat I built with my arduino-kit. When the temperature would be below the setpoint (21 C), the output (an LED, in this example), would switch on.


Do you want to understand the basics of computers? Get Danny Hillis’ terrific book “The Pattern on the Stone”. The book details through clear examples how computers work, without going into unnecessary details and all the time nurturing curiosity.

Lessons and Impressions from Beijing

I spent last week in Beijing, my second visit to the city after a short visit with my father and brother in 2009. I was in Beijing to work on “Reinventing Fire: China”, a collaboration between Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, China’s Energy Research Institute, and Rocky Mountain Institute to model a deeply efficient energy future for China up to 2050.

I enjoyed Beijing tremendously, and I was struck by how different an impression the city made just a few years after my first visit. Below are some of my impressions.

Public infrastructure

We mostly used the subway to get around the city. For 2 RMB (less than $0.30) you can ride the subway wherever you want. Trains arrive every three minutes, are spick and span, and there’s enough space not too feel like a sardine. Riding Beijing’s metro was a far better experience than taking the BART in San Francisco, and it rivaled the best European subways I’ve been in.

(The subway is also much quicker than taking a taxi: Beijing suffers from heavy congestion, despite (or because of?) the five-lane roads throughout the city.)


Anyone who walked around Beijing in the last few years will know that the air is typically full of smog. People check air quality on their phone, just to see how many times the limit of the World Health Organization is hit. Fortunately for me, the air in Beijing was exceptionally clear this week: we had blue skies every day.

The streets were also very clean. Returning to my hotel after dinner one night, I walked through a series of Hutongs, traditional Chinese urban settlements, and noticed that there was no trash or dirt anywhere. Several Hutongs also had public toilets, a piece of infrastructure you don’t see even in financially rich Western cities.


Diet and health

Most days I would get breakfast, typically an egg sandwich, from small carts on the street. For lunch and dinner we would frequently have big, warm meals. (To deal with the after dinner dip our Chinese collaborators would take a little nap face-down on their desks.)


Despite the big meals, most Beijing inhabitants were quite fit. I did not see any of the gigantic bellies you spot in the United States. (Hopefully this will not change as American fast food and soda spreads in China.)


Outdoor exercise equipment was installed in multiple public spaces. Chungliang Huang, the Tai Ji master who taught at Esalen this weekend, said it was normal for Chinese people (at least traditionally) to start the day with movement. I forgot to ask my Chinese colleagues if they typically work out before coming to the office. (One day after lunch, our Chinese colleagues were in full battle gear, playing ping pong in the hallway.)



The palaces of the Forbidden City and the buildings around the Temple of Heaven had a beautiful color scheme: dark red, gold, deep green and ocean blue. I love the simplicity of many of the temples, and the order of the floorplans when you look at the old palaces (and Hutongs!) from above.



One goal of our work in China is to define what the maximum potential for energy savings for different industries is (e.g. for production of cement). It has now happened multiple times that agreed upon analyses are changed the night before a big presentation by “expert adjustment”. The reason for this seems to be that our research colleagues want to tell a message that their bosses will agree with. This hierarchy creates challenges for scientific rigor (and innovation).

Our team now has several Chinese nationals on board, who can communicate directly with our Chinese colleagues and clients (most of whom do speak English). That said, having an interpreter often take the flow out of the conversation. I look forward to the day when spoken word can be instantly translated, so that both parties can engage in interactive conversation.

Chuangliang Huang, Amory’s co-teacher at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, explained that a single Chinese character can hold many different meanings, depending on its context (the characters that surround it.) Amory speculated that this leads native Chinese speakers to be more comfortable to hold in their mind ideas that seem paradoxical to Western minds, a helpful quality for anyone who wants to study quantum physics.


Overall, I was really impressed by how quickly Beijing is developing. I realize that living in one city for a few days do not represent life in a country of 1.4 billion people. That said, working in Beijing during a period of clean skies felt more like living in London than like living in Bangalore. Culturally, Beijing feels different from Bangalore too: if life in India is chaotic, colorful, and emotional, Beijing is much more organized, clean, and productive.


If you’ve been to Beijing, what was your experience? For some of my Chinese friends, how do they think about this? Should a Chinese government stimulate urbanization, or incentivize people to stay in rural towns so the deep social disruption between elderly people doesn’t take place?