The Birth of a Crane

They blocked the road around mid-night and dropped off all the parts. The crew arrived around 4am and started working, with the aid of a little crane that is about 4 stories tall. By 8am, you realized if it is longer than a block. Up close, I appreciated its sheer size. The thickest portion (in blue, lower leg) is about 6-foot across. When laid flat, a brawny worker, hard hat and boots, can fit comfortably. The base of the crane has layers of solid steel slabs, must weigh tons. Muscular struts of pressed on the asphalts protecting sheets of plywood. Around 8pm, the crane stood up and started to move, agonizingly slowly. Army of workers lay plywood in its path. The crane crawled a few feet and wait for the plywood sheets to be put into the right place. At about 2am, the crane has moved sufficiently away for the road to open again. All workers went home then.

Next Monday, it inched onto the final perch. The highest point of the crane is about level with my balcony. We can see its motion better than anyone, including the crew. They told me that this is only the demolition crane whose job is to clear and prepare the construction site. Once that’s done, a real tower crane will erect the building. Yes, I will have a front-row seat for the construction of a 41-story hotel complex.

There are more than 100 construction projects in downtown Seattle now — the highest since 2005. In the first six months of 2015, 20 projects broke ground and 24 finished. With 36 projects projected for completion by the end of the year, Downtown Seattle is on track to see the largest number of completed projects in the past decade. I have not seen such active construction since the pre-Olympic days of Beijing.

Like all changes, the emotional reactions are mixed. There are always those who brace the new and those who mourn the lost of the old. Then there are people like me who is just trying to enjoy the show and the ride. Yes, pour me another beer.

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The Windup Girl

Post petroleum dystopia in Thailand. The generically modified foods dominate the calorie sources. Animals, or muscle, power normal transportations or everyday machineries. Methane, produced by composting pretty much everything, is for cooking. Diseases, mutated so quickly that they are without cure, wipe out villages and kill thousands if not controlled. This small country must defend itself from foreign giant corporations that seek total colonization.

Those global companies are powerful. They have enough financial and military resources to topple governments. They are sophisticated and manipulative. They want free trading: their GM foods for everything the country can offer. Thailand somehow kept a seedbank of thousands of plants that those giant GM companies felt both as a threat, as alternative and independent food sources, and envious, for raw materials to modified into new products. Oh, those diseases, some man-made, also pretty much wipe out all natural plants in the world by then.

Emiko is a humanoid genetically created for personal services, like an organic robotic doll. She demonstrates how good we are in genetic technologies then.

Dystopia are political statements in story form. This is what could happen if we don’t choose wisely today. For that, Paolo Gacigalupi chose two themes: the depletion of petroleum energy and the advancement of genetic technologies. Interestingly, he also depicted scientists so brilliant that they invent or manipulate life forms for hobbies. Why can’t those brilliant minds solve the energy problems or cure diseases? How can a world so advanced in genetic technologies and not in everything else, including weaponry? Those illogical points made this a powerful and well written fiction that is only most entertaining.

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The Girl on the Train

I think this is a “mystery suspense thriller.” It was masterfully written in term of plot development. Three female characters — Rachel, Anna, and Megan — told the story from their angles chronologically. Be careful to notice the date, since each told the story in her own time-line.

Rachel suffered alcohol induced amnesia (convenient for plot development). She had complicated and painful reasons to drink and lost so much from the drinking itself. Anna and Megan also are deeply flawed. Three of them tangled themselves with several men and then a drastic event happened. Rachel must unravel her emotional and memory messes. But Megan, Anna, and those men were not helping.

All these happened along the commute route that Rachel took daily.

While brilliantly developed, the villain was necessarily only shallowly developed. What? He was the monster? And we hardly knew him, other than those things that he lied but we, obviously, did not know those were lies. The real antagonist is Rachel herself and the real genre is redemption. This makes the book less than Gone Girl that has a sharp conflict and a battle.

It is still a highly enjoyable book. If there is any doubt, I recommend it with 4-star in

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Hair Cut

I like my hair when it was cut a month ago. Your deduction on my hair cutting frequency will be wrong, if based only on that statement. I would procrastinate then drag myself to a barber’s shop and ask to cut my hair way short. I would smile feeling the draft on my scalp and running my fingers through the top. And I would do that about 3 times a year.

Then I bought this buzz clipper. Internet is a treasure trove when it comes down to things like this. Many men had the same brilliant idea and would share their tips and experiences. I watched video, I read blogs, I studied the buzz clipper. I held my breath and turned it on in front of the bathroom mirror.

The strategy is simple: practice frequently with as little damage as possible. I gave myself a practice trim every week for the first month. Then I did once a month with more substantial “experiments.” The goal was for no one to notice and never to go to the barber’s shop again.

It has been months and no one has visibly noticed (or commented on) my experiments. I would call this a success!

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$28 Bowl of Beef Noodles

Beef Noodles are must-eat when you visit Taipei. In those poor old days, these were special treats for occasions. As the society got more affluent, chefs started to innovate. Since everyone love beef noodles, at the level of burgers in the US, a sub-culture flourished. Now, it is an obsession for Taipei citizens.

Master Hong’s “#1 in the world” (洪師父 維吾獨尊) beef noodles is probably the epitome of such obsession. Yep, it costs 888 in local currency (about US$28). If you wish, they will give you extra noodles for free. A bowl is recommended for two, three of us shared that and we were all quite full after.

Guess the overall impression was “under-whelmed”. It was an excellent bowl of beef noodles, but way over-hyped. The soup base was rich and seasoned perfectly. The beef, all 4 kinds, were cooked to the melting point (allegedly over 48 hours of slow cooking). The best part is the noodles. They were freshly hand-made and cooked with just the right amount of al dente and substance that was so satisfying. I will be coming back just for the noodles.

I also visited Shi’s beef noodles (史記) during the same trip. Interestingly they have a completely different style of beef noodles. The beef was essentially corned beef briskets and the soup base clear as broth. The noodles were thin with nearly no yield. It was also wonderfully delicious to the point of addictive. There are probably hundreds of beef noodle restaurants in this city and everyone of them is trying to be unique. Taipei citizens are more than happy to sample as many of them as possible and spread the words around.

Sigh… I gained weight whenever I visited Taipei.

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Moral Animal

How did we evolve to have values? Are they the derivative of emotions such as love, disgust, anger, sympathy, etc.? If so, why did we evolve to have those emotions? If we did, would other animals also? At the end of the day, where do “moral” come from? If it is genetic, would other animals also evolve to develop the same? Have they?

Almost as a sequel to The Selfish Gene, this book explained that human evolution has not been the subject of natural forces: such as climate changes, food sources, predators, etc. Instead, we evolved by our social behavior among ourselves.

We first evolved by mating choices. In addition to the obvious physical attributes, male needed to make sure the kids were indeed his genetic offspring. This evolved to all those behavior against cuckoldry. Female needs the protection and provision during the kid rearing years. That evolved to select male who loved kids and have strong “family values.” We evolved to love our mates, since those who don’t got bred out eons ago.

Since then, we developed altruism since the sacrifice of an individual help the survival of the community that share some genes. Jared Diamond’s book also explained a similar evolutional force to respect and protect the elder, who are no longer propagating genes. Faced with the disasters that happened at the frequency longer than a life-span, only the old remember how to survive and can save the whole tribe.

For agricultural cultures, such like Chinese, the filial obedience is the key for survival, since land other and critical resources are passed down only to those who do and others got bred out, at least became minority.

At the end, we are simply the vehicle to propagate our genes. But genes are organic and will perish with us. So all we are carrying forward is the encoding information within the genes. Isn’t this deep? We exist to preserve data, really only about 3GByte’s worth.

Imagine that, millions of years of evolution, all for the preservation of information that can easily carried in a small thumb drive.

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A Fable

You lived in a upper-middle class neighborhood and Bob, the neighbor, was living well: kids well provided for, unstressful job, eat out and vacation regularly, good clothes, new cars, manicured yards, well cleaned house, nice pets. Not that you didn’t live as well, but they seemed to be just a quarter notch better.

All on borrowed money.

You knew that because you lent Bob money several times. He owed you about a month’s of your pay. You knew that Bob also borrowed from pretty much everyone in the neighborhood. You shook your heads every time they went out for a nice family dinner, worrying on your loan in the back of your mind.

One night, Bob came to borrow money again. He was flat broke and must declare bankruptcy in a week and possibly move out, since he had been delinquent on rents too. He asked for about twice the amount he owed you just to “get over this hump.” “How are you going to pay me back?” “I will try to make more money.” “Are you going to eat out less?” “Absolutely not! My family did no wrong. They should not suffer from this.”

“Wait!” Bob suddenly proclaimed. “I have a collection of precious coins. I will pay you back with them.”

“Really?” (How long have you had those coins?) “How much are they worth?”

“I don’t really know,” Bob said. “I have this old mint in the basement. I can make as many as I need.”

“Are they made of gold, silver, or copper?” You grew a bit suspicious.

“Oh, that does not matter. Right?” Said Bob. “They are rare coins. I am the only one who makes them. I can name my price. For now, I will sell them to you at $1 a piece.”

“Bob, what you are saying is that whenever you need more money, you will just mint more coins and exchange them for dollars.”

“Yep. Brilliant of me!” Bob was all smiling. “In fact, I will pay you back all my debts tomorrow in coins. How stupid of me to have forgotten the mint in the basement.”

Next day, you found a bag of clay coins with a note from Bob that he considered all debts paid. That night, Bob drove away in his nice car, loaded with bags of coins, for a nice celebratory dinner in town. Clearly, all his financial problems were gone.

You remembered that you also lent Steve, another neighbor, some money.

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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.


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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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