又讀射鵰

當然是全三部: 射鵰,神鵰俠侶,倚天屠龍記.

上次讀金庸,有數十年了. 當年,好得武俠是在報紙上連載的.作家的習慣是一次寫一周. 其他武俠,也都是論字記酬. 因此寫越長稿費越多. 當年看得過癮.今天讀來, 自然感覺故事的拖延.

當年看的是武功. 現在人物和情節反而是重點了. 金庸能在當年寫人物,今天尤感清新,個個性格鮮明,躍躍欲生,活在腦裏. 以前遇到歷史詩詞都跳過,現在心靜了點,能欣賞多些了. 當年讀小龍女,日思夜想,恨不得飛到書裏見她一面. 今天反覺得郭襄寫的最好.

從小說的角度,人物的重點是他們的缺陷. 情節的重點是不落成套. 射鵰的郭靖黃蓉,神鵰的楊過小龍女,都有他們的性格缺陷,讀者能有共鳴. 倚天的張無忌,唯一的問題就是對”好看女人”抵擋不住. 殷素素死前說的,其實就是重點. 這個”共鳴點”不夠深. 趙敏,及其她女角,也描畫粗淺. 好在倚天情節寫得最好,全書還是好看.

我極少重讀書,下次看射鵰,大概不會了.

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Musician and Butcher

He loves music since childhood. He went through vigorous trainings and entered a renowned music academia. Upon graduation, as life had it, he became a butcher. Decades ensued.

Now he is a middle-aged and successful butcher. He has a happy family, lives in a nice suburb house, enjoys a comfortable middle class lifestyle. There is this regret that he never became a musician.

The local orchestra has a opening for a entry-level violinist, the pay is low, there will be high demand for practice time, his fellow musicians are all decades younger. The manager, his good friend, hinted that if he auditions, the job would be his. Without this favor, however, it is quite questionable.

At this time, his boss, the owner and head butcher, retires. The shop is his if he wants to. More money, better lifestyle.

“Honey,” his wife said. “You are not a musician. You are a butcher.”

We are what we do, not what we want to be. Get over this.

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Sixth Extintion

Supposedly, this Earth has witnessed 5 mass extinctions before. Each time, many species simply disappeared, only some of them left fossils for our imagination. Geologically, we are now in Anthropocene epoch. It will end with the sixth mass extinction that will wipe out a large number of species, one of them probably homo sapiens.

So what?

Let’s say Elizabeth Kolbert is right. That Earth is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate. That homo sapiens will be endangered too. even by the most aggressive time table, this will take several hundreds of years, if not thousands. We could survive by learning space migration in time.

Secondly, there is no telling that the extinction of other species will lead to the extinction of this one. Homo sapiens has caused or witnessed the disappearing of many species and we are still here. Why couldn’t we keep going for another 100 thousand years. I will be long dead and also my kids and grand children.

Thirdly, even if I am altruistic and will worry for the grand-children of my grand-children, is there anything that I can really do? If I put myself in a biosphere and never come out, would that have any real impact? If not, what’s the point? Yes, I get the “everyone does their part” idea. But the prospect is so grim that even Elizabeth Kolbert is not offering a solution.

Lastly, at the end of the day, species are selfish. We homo sapiens did not destroy others just for fun. However inefficient we used the resources, we usually have a survival or economical reason doing so. Every wasted drop of water had a purpose. Would we waste that drop if we knew that a species of frog will go extinct? Sadly, for certain purposes, the answer will be yes, even for the most extreme environmentalists.

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Sea of iPads

I was expecting the standard and boring rows-of-seats at the gate for my flight. Instead, this Minneapolis-St. Paul gate area is a news stand, bar, fast-food, and a Internet café all rolled into one. Seriously, there are hundreds of iPads ready for the convenience of us travellers.

Basically, it is a order-it-yourself restaurant setup. Each iPad presents the menu, you peruse and click away at your own casual pace: drinks, foods, snack, etc. When you are done, swipe the credit card, and your order will arrive in several minutes. Otherwise, you escape into a general browsing app and just surf the (restricted) net free of charge.

I was flabbergasted on the density of all those iPads. There are several hundreds of them packed into this probably 2000 ft² of space, all of them connected to the net wirelessly. This seems to be the trend these days: super-density deployment.

A typical access point can handle up to 30 connections. Beyond that, devices start to compete for the airwaves and connectivity becomes unstable. An AP could cover roughly 100 ft. radius space. What if there are more than that many devices in that space?

Since APs operate on the same radio frequencies, their signals interfere each other and reduce the transmission efficiency. If there are more than one APs in the same general area, it is best to reduce their power to minimalize their overlapping areas. As people carrying more devices, the coverage radius of APs become smaller. These days, we see APs covering as small as 10 ft radius.

The sea of iPads at this MSP airport is fueling the explosive growth of this industry. It should not be a surprise to see “pure play” companies get snatched away by the giants. Exciting time ahead!

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Paper Money

This is my second Ken Follett (after Hammer of Eden) and I am adding his other books to my queue. He published this book in 1977. The version I read included a new preface that was quite entertaining to read as well.

Like the popular TV series “24”, the book narrated the events of a day sequentially. It began as the newspaper editor thought it as a “slow news day” and struggled to fill the pages with interesting stories. Unbeknown to him, two criminals, Tony Cox and Felix Laski, have planned for some major heists that will upset London’s high political and financial circles. I “witnessed” those crime unfold, “saw” the unexpected situations, and was truly suspended till the very end. In fact, as I finished the last page, I thought, “Really? What happens after?” Guess that’s the sigh of a good story.

This is one of Ken Follett’s earliest works. He published them as Zachary Stone and apologized for the story when republished as Ken Follett. The book was quick paced and emphasized more on the plot than the characters. I guess that’s what he apologized. I can see his point when I tried to compare Hammer of Eden from memory. Ken’s primary skills are clearly in the plot, although the characters did become more vivid 20 years later.

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How to do Beta?

To have high enough confidence that the product will be good enough.

When company thinks they are done with the development of a new product, be it a new car, kitchen detergent, lipstick, or a piece of software. They would like to know if this product will really be successful in the market place. They would get a small number of real customers to try it before start selling. That is the famous “beta program.”

It turns out pollsters use the same technique to predict the election results. Surprisingly, a random sample of just a few thousand people can accurately predict the next president. This is a well-studied science, also long practiced.

How high the confidence is enough? There are two popular choices of 95% and 99%. How precise the answer should be? The “interval” is usually 10%. The “answer,” therefore, come in three numbers: for example “we will have 95% confidence that 65% to 75% will find it favorable.”

The real science is in calculating the sample size: how many do you need to poll to arrive at the answer? For that, we can Google “sample size calculator.” All of them ask you the size of the actual population, the confidence you wish and the interval that you can tolerate. With that, out spit a number: the required sample size. If you are too lazy to search, 400 is not a bad “go to number.” If you push it, 250 will work too.

Recently, we released a product with a beta program of less than 30 participants. At the end of the program, all of them were satisfied with the product and we released it to the general public. It turned out the product has a defect that affects roughly 5% of the customers. As our luck, none of the participants experienced the defect. Had we computed the required sample size, we would have known that 30 will yield such a low confidence level that this beta program is meaningless. It told us the product was good enough and, in fact, wrongly.

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Olympic Penisula

Few people realized that Seattle is probably more than 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean. On her west is the magnificent Olympic Mountain that, on clear days, I can see from my balcony. The snow capped shines brightly in the early morning and the sunset paints the western sky brightly with more colors than you thought possible. But, as a 5-year Seattleite, I never went, until this May day.

Why did I wait so long? And I will definitely go again.

Olympic is not a day-trip and a primarily a hiker’s heaven. I looked for more pampered sleeping and eating accommodations than tents. Lake Crescent is closer to Port Angeles, a small port town, and Hurricane Ridge, the must-go attraction for the Olympic National Park. I reserved Lake Quinault Lodge, planning to tour Tacoma on my way there. The idea is to circle the peninsula clock-wise.

LeMay Car Museum, shaped like a cigar-shaped race car in Tacoma, is a 4-story underground museum with hundreds of cars that are arranged in no discernible order. I was mostly drawn to those old and odd ones: Ford Model-T, elegant and impractical coaches, early battery-power ones, etc. It was a nice stroll for a couple of hours, longer if one would linger and study the exhibitions.
Morning view

We arrived Lake Quinault in-time for an easy hour-long hike at the rain forest. To me, who grew up in a sub-tropical island, rain forest is the most common thing: canopy trees, trickling streams, dripping mosses, ferns of all shapes and forms, insects and various life-forms. It was good to work up the appetite for the dinner at the lodge, the Roosevelt Dining Room. Its view was better than foods that were quite decent as well. It was peaceful, relaxing, and beautiful.
Ruby Beach

With a bit early morning lingering at the lake shore, we continued our journey. Ruby Beach’s giant rocks (or small islands) were mesmerizing. I can probably just wandering here for hours watching the waves and birds. Forks is the city for Twilight fans. Lake Crescent is similar to Lake Quinault with probably slightly better facilities. Around mid-afternoon, we arrived the climax of the trip: Hurricane Ridge.
Hurricane Ridge, Visitor Ctr

It was a calm and bright day, no namesake gust insight. We sat at the short stone ledge just to admire the Olympic mountain range and the distant glaciers. It was 45°F and snow were still on the ground, but the calm sun kept only a light jacket on us. We took a short hike to see Port Angeles and Victoria from a distance. It is the peak of one of the mountains, 5240 feet in elevation. The view was expansive and breathtaking. Had I had sufficient time, I would have taken up a longer hike to Hurricane Hill.
Bainbridge Island Ferry

Yep, Olympic Peninsula, I will be back.

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Should I try to become a CS major?

Got a question from a frosh in UCLA. It turned into an email conversation.

Q: As of right now, I am studying Math/Econ, but I was also considering pursuing Computer Science along with math because I feel like it is useful and I feel like coding is a good skill to have. I’m not exactly sure what type of career I want, so could you tell me more about your job, like what you do daily, some of the more stressful projects that you’ve done, what you like about it, what you don’t like about it, the company culture, and more. This would be really helpful in helping me decide what I want to do.

A: It is not a bad idea to have a BA degree in Math. In STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), it gives you the most flexibility in grad schools.

When I was a software engineer, I spent the majority of my day “debugging” — trying to figure out what’s wrong with the code myself, or someone else, wrote. It is like playing detective or solving a big puzzle. It was frustrating if I cannot find the “bug” or when I realized that it was beyond me to figure out. I spent long, long days staring at the screen thinking hard to solve problems. We always had schedule to keep; the day-to-day life was quite stressful. When things worked, however, it was like magic. Everything fit together perfectly and was beautiful. Software projects typically demanded all my concentration. When I completed a project, it was like finishing a long run that was just beyond my range — exhausted, fulfilled, and accomplished

There are people who are smart but not having the aptitude for coding. Software development can be a very frustrating thing for them. Coding is a very consuming job, it takes efforts and long time to excel. You will feel like being part of a community that other people don’t quite understand what you do.

Most software companies are very competitive in culture. People are “cut throat” in trying to best others. But it is more like the competition in music or sports, and not like in wars. The real only way to win is to practice harder yourself, and not to harm others physically.

The world will need many software engineers for a very long time. So it will be a very profitable major.

If you are not pursuing a graduate program in CS, switching major gives you a good job prospects at graduation. To have a successful career as anything requires intense effort and pretty long working hours. But your finance, law, medical, or law majored friends don’t get paid nearly as well doing that.

Q: Did you like being a software engineer, though? Or did you wish that you had pursued something else? I am also hoping that in the future, I would enjoy my career and not regret not having pursued something else.

A: I am one those rare and lucky people that vocation is also the interest. Most software people either flame out in 5 years or stay with it for the rest of their lives. Truthfully, I probably don’t mind being a teacher. I am not sure if I could have taught for 30 years.

Q: Do you believe it would be easy for me to learn CS in grad school?
I do feel pressured into finding something now, as I could look for internships over the summers and to build a resume for a career in the future. I want to use my time productively so that I can make sure I will be successful in the future. Would I not be considered for internships?

A: I knew many non-STEM major who finished their CS master’s program in 2 years and had a successful career as a software engineer. Of course they needed to work hard during those years, but a math major has already a leg up. If you cannot get into the CS program, stay with math and take some basic courses to prepare for the grad school.

For the first two summers, most companies treat STEM major the same for internship. The third summer will be slightly different, by then, however, you would have two internships under your belt. So you will be just fine.

Having good internship during school is the best way to find job at graduation. So you are smart in planning for that.

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Droughts are Political Problems

California and Taiwan, two places that are close to my heart, are both suffering severe drought this year. Governor Jerry Brown is imposing mandatory water reduction. Taiwan is rotating water supply: two out of seven days will have no running water. Nobody is enjoying this.

Both California and Taiwan are adjacent to vast amount of water. Taiwan is also in a subtropical region that rainfall is several times the amount of water needed for the island. What they do not have is fresh and clean water that is also free and convenient. Simply put, they lack the will to solve the water problem.

So, politicians do what they are good at: blame mother nature and let people suffer. The people, on the other hand, insist on this commodity to be nearly free. Strangely, for something so precious to life, we refuse to pay for it.

A couple of years ago, I read the book The Big Thirst. What I remembered is two ironies: the unwillingness for politicians to fund water projects and the reluctance of people to use recycled water. They are ironies since politicians routinely fund projects that are far less impactful to people’s lives. Also, human beings, and all lives on earth, have been drinking recycled water since the beginning.

I knew more people, or companies, putting up solar panels on their roofs than collecting rain water coming down from the gutters. I know of no one who tried to reclaim the “grey water” that was used in shower and washing, but not toilets. I know of no desalination projects, or any new ones to store and transport water from far away. Jerry Brown and Taiwan government have but one plan: pray that more water will come from the sky.

And Californians and Taiwan citizens seem to believe that’s a fine plan.

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The Dinner

Two brothers went to dinner at an obviously high-end restaurant in Holland. Paul clearly dreaded this event and arrived early with Claire, his wife. A while later, his brother, Serge, arrive with his wife, Babette. What, someone wrote a book about this evening?

Yes, brilliantly, and it is a suspense thriller, not at all about foods.

The theme of the book is about manipulation: the attempt, the motivation, the plan, and the carrying-out. Here, the origin is actually family and love, and not some big political game. This brought everything to visceral level, yet with a mastermind. Very delicious.

Masterfully, Herman Koch, revealed the characters, their relationship, and the event that led up to the dinner. Just when you think you have known the character, he gave you a twist that made you gasp. Then, a hint that was casually mentioned became an important factor and you had an aha and a “everything clicks” moment. This is as good as Gone Girl in the way surprises were delivered.

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