Yet Another Monument in China


2008 Olympic marked nearly the end of the great monuments rush of China. Beijing’s Olympic Park, the “Bird’s Nest” stadium, and the “Water Cube” swimming stadium are the pinnacle of those monuments. The new airport terminal, T3, was the largest in the world. The strangely looking CCTV tower suffered a humiliating fire that delayed its opening from 2008 to 2013. And there is the huge “Dragon” building (北京盘古) on the side of the Olympic Park almost stealing the limelight.

China impressed the world. They became the other super-power. Their leaders are as influential as the US presidents. Mission accomplished, the nation’s attention shifted to practical things: brutal power wars, anti-corruption, the high-speed train system, the CO&sub2; emissions, and the mundane highway projects.

ChengDu, the jewel city on the west (really as west as Kansas City to New York), belatedly unveiled its “New Century Global Center” complex. When it opened in mid-2013, it became the largest building (in term of floor space) in Asia. It is really covered cloister. Underneath the curved transparent ceiling, there is an artificial beach larger than some of the Hawaii’s bests. One side dotted with a normal sized swimming pool, a wading pool, and a couple of whirlpools. The other side is a twisting tube monster water park.

The hotel I stayed has a lobby as large as a cathedral, boasting a flowing chandelier as bigger than my house. The room balcony overlooks a three-story condo, of course “indoor” under the sky cover.
Indoor Beach

One long side of the cloister is a shopping mall with the normal big-named anchors, a movie complex, a super-market, many restaurants, a large food court, and of course numerous smaller shops. The other long-side appeared to be unoccupied, designed to be office buildings. The subway station, connected one the basement level, was packed during the commute hours.

Like all such monuments, it lights up in the evening. ChengDu locals flocked to the covered and air-conditioned beach. The movie complex, restaurants, and food courts all had healthy foot traffic. Judging from the people, this seems to be a commercial success.

Monuments are symbolic. ChengDu is hinting the second phase of China’s modernization grand plan: the west is the future.

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好些年前來蘇州過,重點是貝律銘設計的博物館,稱是一代大師的閉門作. 幾個園林古鎮當然也看了. 感覺蘇州是個可順道一遊的地方,而不是個重點目的地. 從南京去上海,不如加一站蘇州,頗理想的.

夏天的蘇州,中午時無風酷熱,汗流不停. 過一陣子清風帶著雨意吹來, 然後一劈雷,大雨傾盆. 我搶著雨前晃逛完了平江路. 說來也頗豐盛,先吃個臭豆腐,逛了”耦園”,吃個小吃午飯,再聽聽”彈唱博物館”的節目. 跳上個公交車,一路回酒店. 先沖個涼,再看窗外雨景.

彈唱博物館的巷口有個小吃叫”弄堂口”,居然有自釀黑啤,來了一扎,配上小籠包. 一人邊吃邊看鄰座遊人. 也自得其樂. 博物館今天的節目是說書,我興匆匆買張”狀元座”,結果是蘇州話,我一字聽不懂. 但是發現看他說書也很有娛樂性. 表情豐富,語調上下,不時還離座手腳表演一下. 我傻瓜聽書,還邊聽邊笑呢!

在耦園看到個對聯,上聯”耦園住佳耦”,下聯”城曲築詩城”,橫批”枕波雙隱”. 這多幸福啊! 這園是清朝個按察使修的. 一宅二園,故名”耦”.

出差行程中多了一天,在蘇州晃晃. 決定正確!

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It’s the Bread!

“The best clam chowder!” claimed so many cities: San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston, and, of course, Seattle. In fact, this is almost like hamburgers: every cities would have its best. I happened to be a clam chowder fan and, poisoned by early imprinting, partial to Boudin of San Francisco. And I have been pondering why. (What? You are not curious on your own preferences? Weird.)

The recipes are usually simple: clams, potato, cream, and some thickener like flour. Vegetables, typically celery and carrots, are the differentiators. One thing separates good and excellent clam chowders: the chew. Boudin has the best bread bowl from their famed sour dough bread bowl.

Instead of yeasts, sour dough bread use the a small amount of dough from the previous batch. The initial “seed dough” came either from whatever yeast germs that were naturally floating in the air, or passed down from generations past. Sour dough breads therefore always have an unique flavor. Most of the formula (it is not called “recipe” in bread making) are “wet” that it calls for more water, little or no oil, and almost no other seasoning than salt. It is the purest kind of breads. The idea is to produce soft crumb, crispy crust, and the natural aroma and flavor of flour and yeast. And that’s Boudin.

The center of the bread is emptied to make room for a perfect portion of piping hot chowder. The “lid” of the bowl is perfect to scoop out the chowder. Before long, you will be tearing apart that bowl to lick off the soaked up crumbs and chewing the flavorful crust at the same time.

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從蘇州去香港,路過上海,住南京東路的酒店. 旅途近盡頭了,沒什麼興致. 只想填個肚子,然後回房宅著. 登記入住的小女孩,挺熱絡的,就問她隨便的話,吃什麼? 她看看旁邊的同事,異口同聲,”小楊生煎”.

上海的七月天,站著都流汗. 回房間換成T恤短褲夾腳,踢踢拖拖找去. 就幾百米路,居然三次被問,”先生要按摩嗎? 漂亮的!”第三個還來”高壓推銷”,蒼蠅樣跟著. 問個不停. 看來這南京東路,有百般生意. 只是納悶,為什麼我會碰到三回呢? 難道我看來就像嗎? 不解.

店在”第一食品商城”的三樓. 六元一兩,四個煎包. 生意好得很,一鍋出爐,客人一個接一個. 我買一兩是最基本的. 大多買好幾兩,現吃再帶走.

這家煎包皮薄底厚,煎的剛好焦.面上灑些青蔥頭提升香氣. 一口咬下, 湯汁燙舌. 鮮美味濃, 香氣撲鼻. 好吃! 三下兩下, 四個結束,意猶未盡. 只是這是個平價食堂的環境, 要去先買票,再上攤位領東西,然後自己找個位子坐, 餐巾紙自備. 桌面的一點油漬,也就將就點得唄.

走出食堂,看到”南翔鰻頭”,買個甜蟹殼黃. 邊走邊吃的下樓. 這頓飯,十元有找. 滿意度特高. 待會的咖啡癮,大概要花三四倍的銀子. 我這是什麼中國式消費?

對著自己搖搖頭. 回房沖沖涼宅著嘍. 不然在街上晃著,流汗又惹蒼蠅.

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Breaking Bad

Yes, I am both late and accidental to the Breaking Bad sensation. I needed a backup time killer for a business trip. I have lots of “me time” during those trips. Exercising is difficult, I am usually tired or inconvenienced. Reading, writing, and watching video are the main time killers. On my Kindle, I usually “pack” several books. On my laptop, I also bring several movies or TV episodes. For that particular trip, I downloaded the first season and was hopelessly hooked.

Mr. Walter White was a genius chemist with a graduate degree from CalTech. He founded a company, the Grey Matter Technologies, with his CalTech buddies soon after graduation but sold out his shares shortly after. The company became a multi-billion enterprise, making his old college buddies filthy rich. Mr. White ended up a high-school teacher in Albuquerque, NM.

On his 50’s birthday, he was diagnosed inoperable lung cancer with only months to live; shorter if he forwent the treatments his teacher’s insurance does not cover. Dipping into the savings would ruin his family, not will end his life sooner. His wife, Skylar, a part-timer book keeper, was pregnant. The playwright certainly stacked everything against him.

In desperation, he teamed up with a former student, Jesse, and cooked Methamphetamine crystals. Mr. White was very good. His product eventually led to an international empire with him sitting at the throne. We watch Mr. White transformed and gradually lost himself during each season, leading all the way to a very satisfying finale.

I have always wondered about criminal’s lack of intelligence and planning skills. The majority of the crimes were done in the style guaranteed to be caught. Yet Mr. White was brilliant in both his cooking skills and his strategic planning. He found his calling in drug production and trafficking.

Is it only morality and the stupidity of criminals that keeps the world sane and orderly? Mr. White made over $80 millions in a year. Had he gone “all the way” and stayed healthy, he would have become the drug lord that no law enforcement would ever catch. If that’s the case, are there already savvy and smart people doing just that by now?

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San Juan Islands

In the summer, whale watching is a very nice day trip from Seattle. The easiest way is to board the Victoria Clipper to Friday Harbor at San Juan Islands. From there, whale watching tours are for your choosing. It is not a bad idea to spend the night at the Friday Harbor and make it a weekend get-away. For me, I simply lazed with the package deal from Victoria Clipper.

Watching the whales reminded me the Black Fish documentary. It is obvious that Killer Whales are pack animals. Pods stay together pretty much their entire lives and sometime even adopt orphans. Capturing one of them for exhibition or entertaining is unnatural and most likely cruel.

It dawned on me that all pack animal must communicate with each others and therefore establishing some kind of clan structure. We actually saw several pods interacting with each others. The tour guide speculating some kinds of mating activities are going on. That made perfect sense. To achieve reasonable genetic diversification, the pods must mate with members of other pods. This means Killer Whales must have social structures greater than clan and could somehow communicate to members of other pods. This is very cool.

We did not spend much time in Friday Harbor. It felt like a lovely little town. I don’t see much major tourist attractions, so the primary purpose is water activities, or just to relax and chill.

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Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

I still think Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, is the best. This one shared some of the stories and studies, but also added some more new concepts. It was also a read.

The authors outlined 7 “sways” that affect one’s decision making process. They are so powerful to cause catastrophic and irrational decisions, costing millions of dollars or even lives. They are:

  1. Loss Aversion: we avert losses irrationally. Not that losses are pleasant, but their weights in our decision-making process are too great.
  2. Commitment: for some reasons, once we have committed to a decision, we went to great length to carry it out, even in the face of obvious flaws for that decision.
  3. Value bias: we used “short cuts,” such as the person’s reputation or appearance, to evaluate the merit of a decision, instead of the facts and data.
  4. Diagnosis Bias: once we have evaluated a subject, we stubbornly stick to our first impression and refuse to revisit.
  5. Chameleon Effect: we automatically conform to whatever mold others put us into, regardless of the merit of such molding. If the teacher said we are not good student, then we won’t even try to be better. When someone said we are pretty, then we will put on even better appearance.
  6. Fairness: most of us have a strong sense of fairness, even when achieving so does us no benefit.
  7. Blocker and Dissent: once we had an idea, we hate people who oppose to it and give them nasty treatments.

We generally do not make rational decisions. The book teaches us to do better. More importantly, it also taught me the typical ways most people make decisions. With this, and Daniel Kahneman’s book, we can not only improve ourselves, but also become better in understanding others.

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Chihuly Garden & Glass

Dale Chihuly, born locally, is an internationally renowned glass artist. In 2012, partnered with the city, he started this permanent exhibition in Seattle Center. I believe some of the works were originally made for this exhibition and others were collection from his past works. If visit Seattle center, possibly for its landmark Space Needle, you should definitely spend a couple of hours in this exhibition.

Chihuly made glass sculptures artfully and skillfully. He, and his team, could give colors and texture to the glass in a way unimaginable to me. They were luminous and lively, contrary to what one would imagine glasses should be: cold and lifeless. Lively as they are, they are also otherworldly. These are not the life forms in existence in this world. They are alien, beautiful and harmonic.

Through-out the exhibition are professional photographers. They will gladly take your pictures completely free of charge. You will receive a card with which you can retrieve your photos and have them sent to your favorite email address. This is a very cool service that all visitors should take advantage of.

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If I buy the paper version of this book, it would be about 1,000 pages, or slightly over 3 inches thick. (Harry Potter 7 is nearly 800 pages.) But it was an (e)library loan, so I did not notice. I was blissfully half-way done until the loan expired. I could renew, but I simply bought it for $10 and continue reading. That, my friend, is the difference between eBook and paper version.

It is a complex and, obviously, long story. The author would take long detours, but they were thoughtful, relevant, and connected. The story happened in the year of 1984. Since it was an alternate universe, Aomame called it 1Q84, which sounds like “Ichi Que Hachi Yon,” a synonym with 1984 when the story happened. The pun was a nod to the parallel universes. This cleverness is lost in the translation.

The central plot of the book involves the creation of a book, Air Chrysalis, originally written by the young and mysterious Fuka-Eri. In a strange way, the fictional universe in that book appeared to become real for the main characters. The author balanced the complexity, suspension, and revelation masterfully. Although a long story and not in quick pace, it kept me engaged and hooked all the way.

The translation was superb, as if Hauki Marakami was an excellent native English writer. Funny that one of the key element was Tengo’s re-writing of Air Chrysalis. I wondered what went through the translators’ minds there.

A long story as it is, I appreciate the decision by the US publisher to combine all three volumes into one physical book. Again, I appreciate Kindle’s weightlessness. I cannot really lug a 1,000-page book around the world all those weeks.

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How about Steaks?

Of course there is a matching recipe for steaks. Silly you.

  1. Buy the best steak you can find. USDA Prime will be excellent. Other than that, the exact cut matters little, as long as it’s about an inch thick and fresh looking. Good steaks are 90% about the meat and much less about cooking.
  2. Rinse the steaks. Pat dry. Salt and pepper (3 parts salt, 1 part pepper). Wrap in plastic and put in the refrigerator for a least over-night.
  3. Four hours before eating. Take them out of the fridge. Dry-rub if you wish. Most of the time, I just do garlic powder and soy sauce.
    Leave the steak out after seasoning so that they will reach room temperature.
  4. Start the grills. Spread the hot char-coal evenly. Warm up the grill with close the lid (all vent open) for about 5 minutes. You should not be able to count to 5 placing your palm near the cooking surface.
  5. Grease the cooking surface. Put steaks down. Wait 2 minutes (don’t move them). Flip them over. Repeat four times so that each surface received direct heat twice. Remove from heat. Let rest for 5 minutes and serve.
    This should give you sometime slightly less cooked than medium rare. This means the very center of the steak is red, not pink.

It is really simplest to just cut one of them open after the 3rd flip. When it is sightly less than your desired final done-ness, flip the last time and finish the process.

Else I recommend using an instant meat thermometer. On your third flip, wait unit the center is 130°F. Remove from the heat, after the final flip, when it reaches 140°F.

I heard the perfect way to cook steak but never tried it:

After the steaks have reached room temperature. Put them in a 150°F (or the lowest setting) oven for 15 minutes. The low temperature oven makes sure the center of the steak reach the perfect done-ness. Then transfer the steak to the grill. Repeat the 4-flip sequence with only 1 minute for each flip. All you are trying to achieve on the grill is the nice grill marks and a bit crispy and brown surfaces.

No. Don’t even think of sauces for steaks.

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