Aliomenti Saga (7 books series)

The 8th book, Adam’s journey, appeared to be a sequel or “release to video directly” after thought. For all practical purposes, the story ended by book 7.

As a pretty standard marketing tactic by now, the 1st 3 books are free and the rest are $20 as a set. I hesitated when I was done with book 3, but decided to pay and read them all. The author rambled and the plot got old. I did not enjoy the later books as the first ones.

It is a relatively standard time-travel paradox mixed in very questionable science. I can stretch to accept the invention of transparent metal and computer hundreds of years before the historical record. I can also go with magical nano robots with a service life-span of several thousand years. But one cannot really invent GPS without the satellites. Com’on.

The standard time-travel paradox comes with rules. This one was not creative: there is only one time-line and one cannot alter history. These are the most basic time-travelling rules that dictate only one time-traveling party. Nearly all time-travelling plots are similar: there is only one way to do it and the protagonists were the only ones who happened upon it. If the book deviates from these rules, they must allow history alteration: the standard plot of someone trying to kill the baby before he/she was born.

That’s why there was only one time-traveling machine. The necessary energy source for more time-travelling was destroyed. This time-traveling saga has, therefore, only one loop. The protagonist was sent back. Once he lived long enough to reach the original “send-back point,” there is no more “future history” left to preserve.

I would say the plot was worth probably 4 books. Mr. Albrinck needs to learn to write shorter stories.

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Long Commute

For 7 years, I had the best commute. The joke was the vertical distance is longer than horizontal. Where I lived was merely 2 blocks away from where I worked. I saw my work building outside of the window at my dining position at home. This changed since late July. I have been commuting to San Francisco, from Cupertino. It felt like pay-back time.

The door-to-door distance, by driving, is about 50 miles. By IRS standard rate of 53 cents and a rough guess of $30 parking. It is about $80 per day plus about 2 hours of driving time. No one really think about the IRS standard reimbursement rate for their commute. I was, however, quite stressed over the hour-long driving each way. I wouldn’t be able to hold the job long with it. There needed to be alternatives.

Like other companies in Silicon Valley, mine offer free shuttle services. It departs at 7:30am and 8:30am and takes 90 minutes one-way. It is a small passenger van. The ride was bumpy and seat uncomfortable. I was bored and a bit car-sick on the ride. I determined that it wouldn’t work.

In terms of time spent on the road, the second fastest way, than driving all the way, is to drive to San Bruno and take BART for the rest of the way. This means driving about 35 miles one-way (40 minutes), about 25 minutes of BART ride. The ticket will be $4.30, one way. I will spend $2 on parking. At the Montgomery BART station, I will walk about 2 city blocks to the office. The cost is about $48 per day.

To reduce driving even further, I can take Caltrain from Sunnyvale. From there, I can connect to BART at Millbrae or get off at San Francisco. If latter, I will cover 1.4 miles with either SF MUNI bus ($2.50) or on-foot. BART will costs $4.65, the train ticket is either $5.75 or $7.75, parking at Sunnyvale station costs $5.50 per day. Overall, it costs $26 per day (either option) and about 100 minutes one-way. The rides are comfortable.

I can even eliminate the drive to Sunnyvale by taking a VTA bus ($2) there. That’s about 10 extra minutes. This is the cheapest option at about $25 per day. It takes the longest time for about 2 hours one way, quite comfortable and relaxing.

I really never spent so much time thinking of commuting before. I was quite shocked at the costs of more than $400 each month. (IRS allows the company to subsidize $200.) I am quite surprised at the number of people on this same journey. Commuting from South Bay to the City appears to be a common thing in the valley now. Everyone of those commuters had gone through the same options as I had.

For now, I actually don’t quite mind the commute. The train rides are relaxing. I read, sleep, or work. The hour passes quickly. I also work from a closer-by location several times a week. This has not become a stress factor for my life.

Let’s wait and see…

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7 Years a Seatteite

“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” Sinatra meant New York. After living in Beijing for 3 years, I thought the same. It wasn’t that hard a decision moving to Seattle for the job. That was March of 2010, about 2,700 days ago.

In year two, its charm seeped into us. It seemed that we were always glad to be back. Pretty much every summer hosted several rounds of visitors and every winter saw us leaving for a week or two. After 7 years, the list of “places to visit” was still quite long. Of course, like any brisk-pace metropolitans, there were always new restaurants to try out and old ones to keep on going back to. This charming city offered me a good job, strong coffee, excellent beers and wines, and delicious foods. What else do I need?

Seattle, misconceived by Californians, is not wet, but cold. Water does fall from the sky frequently, but it is usually misty. Sun shines nearly as much, if not more. The winter, from about October to late February, is grey, cold, dark, and miserable. That gives spring the joy, summer the delight, and fall the closure. Seasonality is what souls need. And the cooler climate fits me well. Putting on layers, long coat, beanie, gloves, and boots was actually fun, just like t-shirt, shorts, and sandals.

Seattle grew at break-neck speed in these years. From my balcony, I counted no less than a dozen high-rise cranes, zipping about all-day to move stuffs around. South Lake Union rose up from the ashes right in front of my eyes: glittering buildings, edgy restaurants, gyms, and markets spawned up seemingly over-night. Parking lots, car dealership, low-rise hotels disappeared from downtown and became high-rises. Seattle is geographically constrained by water and the cascade mountain ranges. This translates to short walking distances, highly developed public transportation, and, yes, expensive city housing.

Would I come back? Almost certainly. Would I retire here? Probably not. The most likely scenario is to become one of the “snow birds” who fly in around summer Solstice and leave around Halloween.

Then I will become old, but that’s way too far in the future to worry now.

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The Psychology on Job Changing

John is a good friend. He has worked for the same company on essentially the same job for the past 5 years. During these 5 years, he received moderate raises that roughly kept up with the inflation. His boss valued and praised his contributions, frequently in public. This job, however, is dead-ended. There is little, if any, prospect of increased responsibility, influence, or pay. John is in his late 30s. He is proficient in what he does. He wishes to afford his own house, save for retirement, and provide his child with college tuition. None of those is likely to happen given his current pay. Should you advise John to:

  1. Stay with the current job? Don’t worry about it. Future will take care of itself.
  2. Actively hunt for a new job that he may not be so good at, but provide growth opportunities?

Most people will advise option 2. But if you in a situation like John’s, you would have chosen option 1.

Job market is not efficient. People are very conservative in changing jobs, to the point of irrationality. For parts of the world, loyalty is a deep rooted virtue. One is to be loyal to his family, tribe, village, town, school, etc. Leaving the company feels like a betrayal.

The job hunting also involves lots of rejection, tests, and failures. Even the most talented need to go through a process that has a very high failure rate. A typical hiring event screens more than 20 resumes to identify a worthy candidate and filters out 5 to 10 candidates before extending offer to one. Many simply cannot deal with this pressure emotionally.

Then there is the uncertainty of the new job. “What if it does not work out?” You won’t be able to go back. You have spent years perfecting your current job and you are not sure if those skills are transferrable. If not, you will be rebuilding them or risk becoming a worse performer.

A job is more than a means to put bread on the table. It is also an identity, a self-value, a web of relationship, and a habit. Changing job is a gambit that carries risks to all that. People hate the regret of making a wrong decision much more than the misery of the current job. Job changing is about psychology, not compensation or career. It is usually irrational.

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The First 15 Lives of Harry August

This book reminded me of Life after Life. I don’t know if Claire North was inspired by Kate Atkinson, or it was the other way around. Both books were excellent, this one being a thriller.

Life after Life was about reincarnation. Supposedly, if you tried, you will become better the next reincarnation. With enough cycles, your will find nirvana eventually. This book is more like Groundhog Day, at the duration of life-time. Those kalachakra (Sanskrit for “time wheel”), or ouroborans (Greek myth of a snake eating its own tail), would re-live their lives, with full memories of all the previous ones, forever. Harry August, one of them, was also a mnemonic. He remembered all his previous lives, perfectly.

There were some clever innovations. Kalachakras can communicate to past and future generations. Leave a time-capsule and the future generation will get your message. To communicate backward, an infant will tell a dying one. When the old was reborn, he or she would have essentially travelled back in time. Repeat this process and you can effectively communicate backward for several hundreds of years.

Kalachakras tended to do well financially, they invested or gambled with prescience. They were also highly skilled with centuries of education and practices.

The central theme of the book was the ethics of interfering future, or temporal events. Should one change the future if capable of? Is it ethical to kill before the crime? Would you kill Hilter’s parents so that he wouldn’t be born?

Harry August was conflicted. He would proactively kill a murderer, before the actual murder. Yet he spent centuries trying to prevent the antagonist who tried to influence future in a larger scale.

One of them committed suicide by Forgetting. That’s an interesting concept that after some cycles, the world became unbearably boring. To Forget is to wipe their own memory clean so that they would experience again. Immortality is really a curse, particularly for those who cannot die.

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Continuous Bar Raising

Companies, GE being the most notable one, tried to raise the employee bar continuously. They prune the bottom 10% of the employee pool and replace them with better new hires. This should roughly raise the average by about 5% with each iteration. If talents are the most important factor in productivity, this practice will steadily make the company more competitive and eventually becomes the leader in whatever arena it participates.

It simply does not work.

The labor market is efficient enough that talents are subject to the market influence. If the company does not pay better, its new recruits will conform to the general distribution. Else it will simply lose 10% of the employees without replacements. Put differently, without a compensation policy as the foundation, the “prune and replace” practice will yield no productivity improvements.

Secondly, some talents are not subject to general statistics. The CEO, for example, cannot really be replaced with someone 10% better each year, and the same for most leadership positions. If the practice does not work for the most critical talent pools. What’s the point?

Lastly, company-level performance is much less to do with employee individual productivity than decision making processes, culture, or infrastructure investment. A man cannot out-dig a backhoe, nor can he improve manual trench digging by 10% continuously. Companies are better advised to achieve success with leadership training.

Most companies compete with others. That’s the iron guarantee that there is no certainty to winning. Employee performance management and recruiting effectiveness are part of it. Compensation policy is also a critical element. “Prune and replace” is flawed in logic and proven to be not working.

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A Day at Woodinville

Woodinville is a phenomenon. There are over 95 wineries in this small city. Most of them are simply a store front in a strip mall. The wines were made miles away with grape grown elsewhere. You come to Woodinville to taste them, not to examine the vines or to admire the endless barrels in a cavernous warehouse. Like the “auto mall,” “fashion island,” or jewelry district, Woodinville is a concentrated wine retail center. There is no rolling fields of grapevines here.

Chateau Ste. Michelle is the anchor. Its short, and free, tour was an entertaining lecture of its history and wines: ending with a complimentary tasting. Visitors may also go directly into the tasting room and pay for specific flights. This large and meticulous estate also featured two free roaming peacocks. That evening, John Legend would perform to 1,500 people on a lawn, as part of their famed Summer Concerts series.

Redhook Brewery was a family-friendly gastropub and clearly the favorite gathering point for cyclists. There is a sign warning people about bicycle traffic. And there were a large number of them, all wearing the recognizable jersey, present in the establishment. I had the brew of the day, a dark coffee-flavored beer, out of about 25 on tap. It paired very well with the shrimp po’boy sandwich. The sweet potato tots were so addictive that Wife must took them away from me.

To assist digestion and reduce blood alcohol level, we picked a short loop from Paradise Valley‘s miles of trails. (Try to print the trail map beforehand.) After a relaxed hour of light hiking, we were ready for the next round of alcohol infusion. The destination was DeLille in the Hollywood district. They had a perfect setting: a patio with barrel-tables and big patio umbrella for shades. We tasted their flight of 7 wines. The light exercise worked!

The general idea for touring Woodinville is to “park and winery hop” on foot. We saw concert goers, wedding parties, and many simply treating tasting room as wine bars. DeLille, for example, gave 1 oz pours of 7 wines and charged $25 tasting fees. Since a standard glass of wine is 5 oz. It’s about the same as buying a $90 bottle in a bar. It is a nice activity for a leisurely afternoon with friends or a companion.

Compared to Woodinville, Napa is serious. It is a destination instead of a spontaneous thought. You don’t go to Napa for a drink. You go to Napa! Woodinville, instead, is a light-hearted hang-out place for wine people. Remember a flight is about a full serving. Your judgment can be somewhat impaired afterward. That makes both places expensive if you like what you drank.

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Manresa

It’s not every day I go to a Michelin 3-starred restaurant. On this lovely California evening, six of us arrived at the famed Los Gatos establishment, full of anticipation.


David Kinch used to operate the famed Sent Sovi at Saratoga. Then he sold it and opened a new one in Los Gatos. When the building was burned down, he bought the facility outright and re-built it into the current form. This restaurant has received 2 Michelin stars for years and got their 3rd in 2016. By definition, a 3-star restaurant is worthy of being the destination of a trip.


The tasting menu is $245, beverage pairing adds another $198. Two of us shared the pairing and walked out of the dinner $950 less. We did not have opening cocktails or the optional cheese plate at the end. A bit strange that we received the menu, and wine list, at the end of our meal.

The dinner began with a trio appetizer: small square soft candy, a granola crisp, and a savory mandoline. It followed with a beautifully presented Asian mini taco-shaped bounty of flavor. Then a half tiny Artichoke heart, grilled, next to a caviar soup (dipping was encouraged, we, obviously, obliged.) The rest became a blur, with a memorable flatware that gave the impression that someone was offering you foods in their hands. There was a tiny piece of Salmon that simply melted in my mouth, an Abalone that reminded me the China days, duck with endive and perfumed with orange, and the savory bite-size lamb morsel. Each one came with a different beverage: white, beer, or red.

Then came the parade of the sweet dishes that ended with chocolate and macarons.

Overall, it was a very delightful and enjoyable 4-hour dinner. The service was superb, foods extremely delicious, and ambience elegant and relaxing. Michelin 3-star, however, set the expectation that everything be delightful and flawless. It was not. We were mildly disappointed at the beverage pairing. Few drinks gave me a wow, this is good. The whites were on the sweet side, the beer was just strange, and the portions low. I expected complimentary coffee. It cost $13.

Was it worth the money? Years ago, I came out of Chez Panisse enchanted. I couldn’t stop myself talking about it for weeks. Since then, I learned that uniqueness is difficult to price. This restaurant is probably finer in sophistication in nearly all aspects of all restaurants that I have been to, including Chez Panisse. I don’t regret coming or paying for the meal. Relatively speaking, I enjoyed the experience, but not at the same ratio of the price.

This is probably not flattering to Mr. Kinch.

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The Great Wall (the movie)

In storytelling, there is the concept of genre rules. Stories must establish these rules early, else the readers/audience will assume the standard ones. In the movie Arrival, when they entered the spaceship, they found the aliens capable of manipulating gravity. That’s an example of establishing the rules. Generally, SciFi will allow faster-than-light travel (warp engine), fantasy will allow mythical creatures or wizardry, romantic comedies cannot really hurt people, historical fictions need to stick to the real historical events, etc. A story that violates the genre rules feels lazy, becomes non-persuasive, and impresses much less.

That’s the Great Wall, the movie.

You can see through the shallow formulaic methodology behind the movie. Need to attract both the US and China markets, so get Matt Damon and a young attractive Chinese woman actor. This combination works for westerners, Chinese, and lady hero worshippers. Pick a good setting: the Great Wall. An action film is good for the adrenaline junkies and also gaming tie-in. Don’t add too much love scenes for censorship and rating issues. Must have fancy fighting scenes with good visual effects. That’s how the beast comes in. Need an epic ending. How about the battle in the forbidden city? That’s another good attraction to the westerners and Chinese. Excellent! Done. Gong Pao Chicken. Storyline? What storyline?

The genre rule violations are too many to cite. The great wall started around the 1st century and lasted several hundred years. The “beast”, Tao Tie, was an ancient mythical animal, known to be a descendant of Long, the Chinese dragon. If it existed, it will be 200~500BC. The “Black Powder” was invented around 12th century in the Song Dynasty. Forbidden city was built in the beginning of the 14th century, way after the Great Wall.

Scientifically, the jumping without elasticity would simply killed those women. They wouldn’t be able to spear the beasts and re-jump again. The beasts’ invasion at night, that killed the big general, made no sense. If they were able to stealthily come up the wall, why wouldn’t they just kill everyone?

Wait for the movie to be free on whatever services you subscribe to. Watch on a raining day with nothing better on TV.

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Dark Side of Democracy

Sometimes, we have win-win situations. Sometimes, it is lose-lose. These are easy.

We can dissect those win-lose ones further. If most win and few lose, we follow the utilitarian rule and sacrifice the minority. The flip side is the taxation scheme: a small increase of burden on the majority to fund the few. This takes political skills and usually reek corruptions: the famous bridge to no-where.

The last category is for wars! There are enough who will lose more than noticeable. They will fight hard. Since losers fight harder than winners (strange human nature), they usually win as the minority. This is the worst and darkest part of the democratic system: minority actually dominates the agenda (think Tea Party). It crippled India and California. Now, Taiwan.

This island country has been mired in the equivalent of the social security reform. The government must deal with the bankrupting system. There is no good solution; someone must lose. There are several possibilities:

  1. Keep on borrowing from the future: next generation loses.
  2. Change the pay-out scheme: the retired people lose. Their income gets slashed.
  3. Increase tax to pay: everyone loses. Politicians never touch this option.

Nearly 100% of the time, the government choose #1 and blame it on the previous regime. Let’s see how Taiwan come out of this.

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