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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World Famous Wang-Family BBQ, the Recipe

BBQ aficionado will tell you that there is no BBQ recipe, only a philosophy. Since Kid asked for this, I will try.

BBQ back ribs is a multi-day process. Use high-quality and long (12 inches) tongs. Have thick gloves or “grill mittens.” Prepare large cutting board or big serving plate ready. You will also need a tool to tend the hot char coals.

  1. Get CostCo Swift ribs, smallest pack. Rinse and pat dry. Trim away ends if so desired. Salt and pepper all over. Cover with wrap. Put in refrigerator preferably 24 hours before the BBQ start. This can be the most important step of the whole thing. It tenderizes the meat.
  2. About 8 hours prior to BBQ start, apply dry rub if so desire. There is really no real secret dry-rub recipe. Check internet or create your own. Dry rub is optional and very personal. My original recipe use soy sauce, instead of any rubs, at this stage.
  3. 4 hours prior to BBQ. Take the rib out of the refrigerator and let them come up to the room temperature. This step allows the cooking to be more even and therefore not drying up the surface while under-cooking the inside.
    Prepare the “smoker” (this is optional and beginners should just skip.) The easiest way is to soak wood chips in water. It actually does not matter which kind of wood chips. Alternatively, find tree branches with green leaves on them. The idea is to have moisture in a burnable substance that is not toxic.
  4. Design and make your BBQ sauce. I personally think BBQ sauce is over-rated and prefer my ribs “dry.” A combination of sweet, sour, smoky flavor, and some spicy kick is the general principle. My most common ingredients are honey, lemon juice, ketchup, and hot pepper powder.
  5. For char-coal grill, start the char-coals with a chimney. Wait 15 minutes in the chimney until the top is clearly fully burning. Dump the char-coal down the grill. Scoop them to one side (the hot side). Place smokers in an aluminum pouch. Poke some hole on the pouch. Place the pouch directly on the hot char coals.
    For gas grills, turn half of the burners on, put the smoker pouch on top of the burners.
  6. Close the lid, open all the vent holes. Wait several minutes for the grill to heat up. Place you palm near the cooking surface and you should not be able to count to five. Grease the cooking surface.
  7. Put the rib, meat side up, on the “cool” side. Close the lid, leave the vent holes open. Walk away. In a few minutes, no less than 10, smokes should be coming out of the vent holes (even if you did not do smokers). Do not open the lid. This is a good time to start drinking cold beers.
  8. In about 40 minutes. Feed the grill with roughly 10 to 15 char coals. (This step is kind of tricky. Some people remove the ribs from the grill first. If you do that, might as well shaking off the ashes from the old coals and mixing in the new ones with them.) Switch the ribs around to even out the cooking. Close the lid and resume cooking as quickly as possible.
  9. The ribs should be ready in about 90 minutes. You should observe clear liquid bubbling out and the surface getting seriously brown or even red.
  10. Apply the sauce generously. Close the lid for 5 minutes. Do this about three times.
  11. Take the ribs out. Tent with foil. Wait 10 minutes before serving

Note that the most popular World Famous Wang Family BBQ Ribs are dry (no sauce) and no dry rub.

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The Need for Incentive Structure

There are times when the success of the individuals do not add up to the success of the group.

The marcom (Marketing Communication) group is in charge of the company website. The director reports to the VP of Marketing who has the grandeur vision. Creative talents then proudly present the new design of memorizing beauty. Rave reviews follow and the VP of Marketing basks in glory. But the portal to the product support was broken. No customer could search for the knowledge database or file the support case online. They call the 800 numbers and the increased volume brought down the PBX. Company reputation tanks.

As the company readies to introduce a new product, it finds the internationalization costs high. A financial study shows that certain countries historically do not sell this family of products well. An optimization effort naturally leads to the elimination of the translation costs to sell in those countries. But the VP of Sales in that region had a revenue quota that depends the sales. The company misses its sales target. Stock price falls.

There are just too many examples like the above. Solution #1 is leadership. When the natural prioritization of organizations do not align, someone must make the decision that optimizes for the whole. This decision will reward one group and hurt the other.

We can also carefully construct the incentives, or remove the disincentives. Too frequently, the big boss demands patriotism, that the individuals should sacrifice for the greater good. This is simply unrealistic. There are patriotic employees, but the majority of them place their own best interest ahead of the company.

When designing incentives, it is critical to remember the consequence of not having them is usually far worse.

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Two Ways to Build Your Empire

Bob and Alice are both smart, personable, ambitious, and determined to climb the ladder fast. For starter managers, they followed the conventional wisdom that nudge them to enlarge their fifedom. It is quite sensible: more resources lead to more opportunities to practice managing: empire building is good for a manager’s career.

I opined before that the size of the organization needs to be big enough. I wrote for the director-level managers, what about first liners? For them, getting more direct reports is a no-brainer: the more, the better. But how?

Bob consolidated some processes and acquired a charter that is pivotal to critical business functions. As other departments piled up requests and lengthened his work queue, he fell behind because he was short-staffed. Since his charter was a monopoly, he received more funding and the strategy worked.

Alice focused on her basic skills: planning, executing, and communicating. She became a proficient and capable manager. Her skills attracted attention and senior managers started to assign her more jobs. Because she was capable, she got more resources. Her strategy also worked.

One of them actually did not work at all. Explain why.

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Playing 2048

May 31st, 2014

If you have not heard of it, 2048 is a game, free and open sourced, that is highly addictive. I have spent untold number of hours on it. Last night, I achieved the goal of creating the 4096 tile. Now, I can die in peace.

To play the game, you move every tiles on a 4-by-4 matrix in one of the four directions: up, down, right, or left. As you do so, if there are two adjacent tiles with the same number on them, they will merge into a single tile of the combined value. For example, a “2″ tile and another “2″ will become a single “4″ tile. The tile values gradually increase in binary ladder and the game is won when you have made a “2048″ tile.

But winning is not the end of the game. You may continue and try to make the elusive 4096 tile, or even a higher value one (that I have not heard anyone achieving). Now that I have made 4096, I reflect the reasons the game was so addictive.

  • It is easy to learn. In fact, there is nothing to it.
  • It appears to be easy to win, almost like tic-ta-toe, but then you realize it is harder than it appears.
  • To make 1024 is relatively easy and that gives the illusion of 2048 is not that hard. Simply put, it gives you achievable successes along the way, luring you with many small rewards.
  • Then, once you have won it. It let you keep going. You know think you can step up to an even higher achievement

Do you play this game? Have you done 4096? Have you done better than that? Leave me a comment.

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