Double Defections

After decades, I abandoned FireFox and submitted to IE. Yes, Microsoft finally won. On my Windows 7 with various desktop protection things installed, FireFox stopped working. I Googled and found many users experienced the same. The only fix seems to be “clean re-install” — removing every files associated with FireFox and download a new one. I backed up my plug-ins and bookmarks, but all the certificates will be lost. So I gritted my teeth and severed my many decade relationship with FireFox. I still don’t like IE and may give Chrome try, but later. For now, I am slowing rebuilding my browser habitat.

After losing my beloved Kindle PaperWhite, I got myself an Android tablet (ASUS Memo Pad) instead. I was traumatized losing my kindle, particularly because I was deeply entrenched with a long book and eager to finish it. My instinct was to just buy another one; life goes on as it used to be. When I went to Amazon.com, I paused.

There is a new Kindle, Voyager, that appears to be interesting. So I researched. Once I started, I couldn’t help taking a look at my requirements for an eReader. I found that:

  1. I read a lot, but not more than 3 to 4 hours non-stop, even on a long flight.
  2. I need backlight. That’s why I like PaperWhite so much. It’s better than paper books plus a book light.
  3. I also read magazines and newspapers. I used to use Calibre to download them to my Kindle. But it stopped working recently. I suspected that Amazon blocked them for revenue opportunities.
  4. I don’t mind some casual gaming or light emailing on the device, even my primary purpose was to read.
  5. I really wish to have a better browser.

To my surprise, I really want a 6-inch tablet that’s light-weight and with good battery life. Among three candidates — iPad Mini, Google Nexus, ASUS Memo Pad — I chose the one with best review and also best in price/performance. It is actually cheaper than the new Kindle Voyager.

Of course, the first App I launched was Kindle reader, so that I can finish my book. I am delighted to find the App for my favorite magazine and also a news aggregator.

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Occupy (Hong Kong) Downtown

Sigh…

Last year, Taiwan’s college students occupied the congress and demanded things. I think they achieved success. I did not follow up. This year, Hong Kong kids are doing the same, occupying the most active commercial district of Hong Kong. This activity is called the “Umbrella Revolution“. It rained during the protest and the students also used the umbrellas as make-shift weapons or shields against the police or the protesters of the other side.

I wonder if these protests would really accomplish anything.

Protests try to disrupt the establishments. The objective is to draw attention to the cause, gather support, and, of course, force the establishment to change course. Since most people need such establishment for their livelihood, these disruptions must have negative impact on the society. Further, the protesters generally need the logistical support (foods, wastes, shelter, etc.) to continue the protest. These very supports also come from the same establishment, that they are protesting against.

This means most protests will just peter out. The only thing the authority needs to do is to wait. When the time is about right, when the protesters are exhausted and dirty, they will make some superficial concessions. The protesters proclaim success. The event ended. Everyone knew who won.

China government will not repeat the massacre in 1989. They has long learned how to do this the right way. Let’s see.

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The Big Drought

The great drought of California is a surprisingly easy problem to solve. Price!

Since the drought, the price of water for farmers went up 10 times to over $1000 per acre-foot (that’s one foot deep of water to cover an acre of land, or 1.2 million gallons). The government forecasted that the price of fresh fruits and dairy products may go up about 4 to 6 percent. What it really means is the cost of water is quite insignificant compared to the other costs in producing fresh fruits and dairy products.

An average family in Los Angeles pays about $30 in water bill, compared to $75 in Seattle, an area with no water shortage what-so-ever. Why would someone in LA not turn on the sprinklers to water his lawn? The lawn costs far more than the water.

We have a rare and precious commodity whose price is just about zero. It makes no sense.

There are many argument against raising water prices. None of them apply to the needs to irrigate plants, flushing toilets, watering lawns, and washing cars. Yes, higher water prices will damage some farmers who depended on cheap water. This is not different from higher prices for other commodities that will damage other industries.

A higher water price can facilitate better recycling plants, desalination projects, transportation of water from far away places. It will encourage conservation and force farmers to become more efficient.

Of course, there are three other solutions that are cheaper: taking water from Arizona and Nevada, praying, and do nothing. After all, winter is coming.


Edit:

Clearly, a bigger scale of the problem is happening to China. They constructed massive aqueduct systems to move water around the country, primary from south to north. At the same time, for both industries and residential, the water price is virtually zero. China, therefore, became the least efficient water using country in the industrialized world.

The world really has enough water for everyone and everything. The real question is the price of transportation (or treatment, conditioning, desalination, etc.) If people are not willing to pay for the water, then they will run out of it eventually.

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Wearables

Apple eclipsed Intel on the opening day of IDF (Intel Developer Forum), announcing iPhone6, AppleWatch, and Apple’s mobile payment. Intel’s nerdy executives, this year, boasted Core™ M CPU. Most in the audience cannot hide the boredom. We knew that fancier gadgets will come. Blah, blah, blah.

Intel has been, obviously, shifting attention away from traditional computation, such as servers and laptops. Their focus is now on tablets and more on wearables.

It began with Newton, Apple’s famed pen computer, followed by Palm Pilot, the product that defined the PDA categories. When MP3 players and smart phones gradually converged, consumers saw the general trend of all cool things becoming one device and encouraged it. There is only one question left: where do they carry that device? It turned out there are simply 3 places to wear gadgets: clipped on the belt, worn on the head, or strapped on the wrist. There are three fundamental technological problems: sensors, battery, display, and networking.

There is a plethora of sensors and more from people’s imagination. There are also the Minority Report style universal retina readers for identification. My personal favorite is the concept of statistical authentication: if we gather sufficient identifiable devices on a person, the statistic of a positive identification will reach the point of acceptable risks. For example, if a person carries my cell phone, wear my eye glasses, and has three of my credit cards. I could accept the risk of charging the gasoline fill-up without further proof. If the person also has a pace-maker that was implanted into my body, then I will accept the risk of him knowing my bank balance.

For a device small enough to wear, there isn’t enough battery for it to last very long. Technologists have been working on this problem and made big progress. The devices now consume much less electricity, the batteries now last longer, and the charging of the batteries has become easier. I can see the day that batteries get charged from ambient energies: motion, temperature variation, background radiation, etc. People will simply go about every day not even thinking of their batteries.

The display is a big problem. We consumers want it big, bright, and high-definition. But we also want it small and convenient. Projection technology (like Google glasses) seems like the ideal solution. But this is the holy grail of computer graphics people. For many decades now, they couldn’t come up with anything that does not make you look like a Borg and satisfy your display needs. I have my fantasies on this area and will share with you later.

The last is the networking. People now expect the devices to be, wirelessly, connected nearly all the time, either by cell technologies (LTE) or WiFi. They also want devices to interact with each other. At this moment, this still require a small “brick.” All “smart watches” tether to a cell phone nearby, typically via BlueTooth technology. Those watches become dumb (basically can only tell time) when their mothership cell phone is too far away.

This leaves the final frontier to discuss: fashion and style. When my daughter was getting married, I received the order to get rid of my perfectly functional digital watch and get a dress watch instead. The world does not go by utility alone. Style is important. It is also very expensive. And that’s a good thing.

This pundit predicts the loss of display and sound on cell phones. Instead, all cell phones come with two separately carried devices: a strap-on display on the wrist and a speaker/microphone to clip on the lapel or hung on the ear. The cell phone today will become a little piece of non-descript pack got stuck somewhere in the brief case.

Good luck finding it when you forgot where you put it.

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Taiwan’s Food Safety Crisis

A large, strong-branded, everything-certified-by-the-government manufacturer of cooking oil was caught. They imported “feed grade” lard from China and Hong Kong, bought used cooking oil from restaurants, mixed in pure lard, and sold them as if everything was fresh and top-graded.

Like many parts of the world, Taiwan’s professional cooks prefer lard. It gives a strong aroma and flavor unparalleled to other cooking oil. Since the news broken, several restaurants, snack brands, or bakeries would declare themselves tainted — daily. They would automatically remove all products and apologized to their patrons. Taiwan’s food industry is in crisis. The head of the Administrative Yuan sworn to punish the perpetuator harshly. The opposition party is having a field day, accusing government bureaucrats inept.

In crisis like this, I see real ugly characters, and also true human spirits.

A customer of a bakery was angry. He demanded full refund of his prior purchases. He bought one item from the store and shoved it into the cashier’s mouth. He wanted to see her suffer as he himself did. The bullied cashier ate the biscuit, crying.

A vendor loaded a small truck with the tainted oil from the backdrop of his closed restaurant. He was going to lose lots of money: no customers will come for a while, all his materials will go bad, all those oil are now no good, and he still have to pay the rent. He was bitter and angry, but in a resigned way. “I am just so unlucky.”

A famous chef televised his apology. He knelt down in front of the camera and apologized for every eateries that he represented, or was a spokesman of. He does not want to portray himself as a victim. “The bucks stopped here. I served the customers and I am responsible.” (I paraphrased from a TV news in Chinese.)

Yes, someone wronged you. You are upset. This is the time to show your character.

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All Souls Trilogy

Deborah Harkness is a historian and a writer. When she ventured into fiction writing, she got an “instant” success. Yes, after many books of more obscure topics and limited audience. All Souls, I believe, was her first mass market fiction.

Diana Bishop, the protagonist, was probably the most powerful witch of her time, but she could not perform even the simplest spell when she went to the witch school. She gave up witchcrafts growing up and became a history professor, specialized in medieval alchemy. That’s when she encountered an ancient manuscript, Ashmore 782, in the library. She also fell in love with a vampire, Matthew. The story began with Diana looking for herself and learning how to love a forbidden creature.

It turned out there were 4 bipeds that look like homo sapiens: human beings, vampires, daemons, and witches. For centuries, a congregation forbade the fraternization among these creatures. Diana found herself in extreme danger: Ashmore 782 turned out to be a manuscript people will kill for, she herself couldn’t perform magic to save her life, Matthew was an unpredictable and mysterious vampire who was capable of killing, all other creatures, including the Matthew’s family members, will prosecute her for having a relationship with a vampire.

And the story begins! It took three books and that’s about the perfect length.

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The Elusive Software Requirements

All textbooks told the developers to begin with the requirements, the more exact the better. Based on the requirements, the developers write the functional spec.

In the typical situation of not getting the requirements in time, the developers frequently make up the requirements by themselves — starting by listing the implementation restrictions, but also by the ego of “Look at me! I can make this!” This is fatal.

The requirements will never be complete or arrive in time. The developers must take a different approach. I favor the method of “Iterative Conversations™.”

Ask the stakeholders, preferably together and face-to-face, “What’s the problem?” or “What do you need?” and, critically, “Why?” Only seek clarifications and do not entertain implementation idea. Whoever says, “we can do this way …” Stop the person. That’s about implementation and it is a trap for you to be cornered into a specific approach. When you have understood the problem, or the need, adjourn the meeting.

Go back and think of the possible ways to solve the problems or address the needs. You will come up with either obvious or innovative solutions. But they carry consequences that you are not sure of. For these, you will call another meeting.

Same deal. You ask questions to the stakeholders. But this time tuned or steer the conversations toward those doubts or implementation consequences. Still, avoid discussing implementation approach. If you find yourself must, that will be the symptom that you actually did not have the questions or doubts thought through. Never ask the stakeholder to make implementation trade-offs for you.

Once you are relatively certain about a point, try to implement a partial solution to illustrate the idea. Show the stakeholders the prototype. Very frequently, you get confirmation or rejection from them that you are on the right track or not. Adjust accordingly.

This has worked for me for many years. This is, at least in spirit, a form of Agile methodology, at least until the QA consideration comes in. I will write about that later.

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Yet Another Monument in China

NewCenturyGlobalCenter

The 2008 Olympics 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 became 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 CO2 emissions, and the mundane highway projects.
Pool

ChengDu, the jewel city in 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 a 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 in has a lobby as large as a cathedral, boasting a flowing chandelier 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-name 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 on 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 at the second phase of China’s modernization grand plan: the west is the future.

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再遊蘇州

耦園

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.
蘇州平江路

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 city has its best. I happen 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 about 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.

Instead of yeast, sour dough bread uses a small amount of dough from the previous batch. The initial “seed dough” comes either from whatever yeast germs that were naturally floating in the air, or passed down from generations past. Sour dough breads therefore always have a unique flavor. Most of the formulas (it is not called “recipe” in bread making) are “wet,” in that it calls for more water, little or no oil, and almost no other seasoning than salt. It is the purest kind of bread. 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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