Droughts are Political Problems

California and Taiwan, two places that are close to my heart, are both suffering severe drought this year. Governor Jerry Brown is imposing mandatory water reduction. Taiwan is rotating water supply: two out of seven days will have no running water. Nobody is enjoying this.

Both California and Taiwan are adjacent to vast amount of water. Taiwan is also in a subtropical region that rainfall is several times the amount of water needed for the island. What they do not have is fresh and clean water that is also free and convenient. Simply put, they lack the will to solve the water problem.

So, politicians do what they are good at: blame mother nature and let people suffer. The people, on the other hand, insist on this commodity to be nearly free. Strangely, for something so precious to life, we refuse to pay for it.

A couple of years ago, I read the book The Big Thirst. What I remembered is two ironies: the unwillingness for politicians to fund water projects and the reluctance of people to use recycled water. They are ironies since politicians routinely fund projects that are far less impactful to people’s lives. Also, human beings, and all lives on earth, have been drinking recycled water since the beginning.

I knew more people, or companies, putting up solar panels on their roofs than collecting rain water coming down from the gutters. I know of no one who tried to reclaim the “grey water” that was used in shower and washing, but not toilets. I know of no desalination projects, or any new ones to store and transport water from far away. Jerry Brown and Taiwan government have but one plan: pray that more water will come from the sky.

And Californians and Taiwan citizens seem to believe that’s a fine plan.

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The Dinner

Two brothers went to dinner at an obviously high-end restaurant in Holland. Paul clearly dreaded this event and arrived early with Claire, his wife. A while later, his brother, Serge, arrive with his wife, Babette. What, someone wrote a book about this evening?

Yes, brilliantly, and it is a suspense thriller, not at all about foods.

The theme of the book is about manipulation: the attempt, the motivation, the plan, and the carrying-out. Here, the origin is actually family and love, and not some big political game. This brought everything to visceral level, yet with a mastermind. Very delicious.

Masterfully, Herman Koch, revealed the characters, their relationship, and the event that led up to the dinner. Just when you think you have known the character, he gave you a twist that made you gasp. Then, a hint that was casually mentioned became an important factor and you had an aha and a “everything clicks” moment. This is as good as Gone Girl in the way surprises were delivered.

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Caramelized Onion

First time, I sautéed and “blonded” them. Second time, it worked and they are delicious.

I like onion, whichever way to eat them. I eat them raw, mixed in with salad, onion soup, or whatever. Last time I had a steak, I added caramelized onion on top and it was excellent. Then I thought, “How hard can it be to make it myself?” A bit Googling and I experienced my first defeat. It was greasy, flavorless, and overall a bad experience.

First of all, non-stick frying pan was a mistake. The key to caramelized onion is to continuously develop those fond (those brown substance stuck to the pan) and deglaze (add liquid and scrape those fond off). A non-stick pan completely defeat the purpose. With that concept, the rest is really simply about patience.

Chop sufficient onion to fill the pan, add some oil, turn the heat low, and wait. Slowly, the onion turns brown. Slowly, they started to stick to the pan and that’s when the fond started to develop. Once in a while, add liquid, scrap off those fond, turn the onion, and wait some more.

Yes, the trick, if there is any, is to control the heat to not burn the onion and just caramelize them. Oil is less important than the repetition of liquid and deglazing. At the end, sprinkle some salts to enhance the flavor.

That’s pretty much it. I got the added appreciation to this dish, or condiment. It takes a long time and lots of attention to make.

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A Beijing Traffic Experiment

When T3 came alive before the 2008 Olympics, going to Beijing International Airport was a breeze. Hop onto the Airport Expressway, zip through sparsely occupied lanes, and you arrive at the majestic Terminal 3 in about 30 minutes. The most stressful factor is the way your taxi driver practices his race-car driving skills. Gone are those happy days. This 12-mile highway now routinely takes more than an hour to slug through.

Is the light-rail a better way? There will be no traffic and it connects to the subway system very well.

After bidding adieu to a friend who lived not too far away from the airport, I decided to experiment. (This is what a nerdy business traveler does on weekends.)

Instead of the usual taxi back to the hotel, I went to the airport. The plan is to take the light-rail, board Line 2 at DongZhiMen (東直門) station, transfer at the JianGuoMen (建國門) station to Line 1 after 3 stops, and get back to the hotel in another 3 stops. The cost would be 29RMB (about US$5).

I boarded the light-rail at 1:20pm on this lazy Sunday afternoon, pretty much the lightest hour that I can think of, and walked into the hotel room at 2:45pm: hot, thirsty, and tired. There were long walks to connect at both transferring stations. Even for a Sunday afternoon, Line 1 was packed, shoulder-to-shoulder style. I imagined myself dragging a carry-on luggage and a computer bag and was not pleased at that image.

The next day, I took the taxi to the airport: 45 minutes and 90RMB.

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An Alternative to Uber

In China, nearly nation-wide, there are many apps for taxi services. The two major players are 的的 (Dee Dee) and 快的 (Kuai Dee). As a passenger, you enter the destination and pick-up location to request a taxi service. All nearby drivers receive the request and bid to get the business, with the dexterity of their fingers. There is a standard “reward” of several RMBs for the winner, in addition to the fare. This reward may change by market condition. The passenger, however, always pays just the metered fare.

As my cab waited on the last light before the destination, the driver started to pay attention to the dashboard mounted cell phone. A request would flash by every 2 seconds or so. He had his finger ready to pounce, but did not. I became curious on why not. “Oh, these are not good fares and those are too far away from me.” As he pulled onto the curb to let me out, he bid and lost a deal. “No matter, plenty of businesses here.”

Uber is an adversary to the existing taxi industry. That forced challenges at legal, political, and economic levels. This “China model” co-exists harmonically. I have little reason to think that Uber will thrive here.

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Imitation Game

Alonzo Church first came up with Lambda Calculus, an obscure branch of mathematics that deals with the manipulation of symbols. Pretty much at the same time, Alan invented the (Universal) Turing machine, an ingenious construct that manipulates symbols with programs. Together, they formed the Church-Turing Thesis which basically defined how a theoretical computer can solve problems. This remained academic until John implemented Turing machines with the famed von Neumann architecture that led to all computers today.

Alan Turing laid the foundation for pretty much all computational devices today to exist. Oh, as the main theme for this movie, he also broke the German Enigma machine that helped win the war. Without him, millions more would have died, history might have been completely different than how it really became, and you wouldn’t have a cell phone in your pocket. Alan Turing should have been celebrated and revered as a man who changed the world for the better. Yet, he killed himself after being prosecuted for being a gay.

It was a wonderfully acted movie that did not bore people with how the Turing machine was made. Instead, it focused on the man, his intellect, and character. It was simply an additional bonus for a computer nerd to enjoy an obscure bit of scientific history that made it to the big screen.

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SiMaTai: the Sequel

Edit on Mar 16, 2015. Original post on Oct 2nd, 2008.

Must be due to the popularity of my original post :-), this section of the Great Wall has become more popular. For unknown reasons, the official has blocked the path from JinShanLing to SiMaTai. They have also “repaired” many part of the wall, at least for the SiMaTai section. The works include a newly made “water town” that imitates southern China scenery.

This is really a sad development. Yet another nice natural beauty ruined by commercialization. Sigh…


I hiked this section of the Great Wall just 4 months ago. No doubt it is the most challenging and enjoyable part of the Great Wall near Beijing. The views are spectacular, the breezes are soothing, the stairs are punishing, and the walls hide the thousand-year old secrets. This time, I hiked with two youngsters: my daughters. I wondered, the night before, if my regular 2-mile jogs can match their lightness and youthful regenerative speed. An old man will go distance spending a days with his daughters. I am the one with experience and wisdom. Right? Alright, experience.

Even I was here just 4 months ago, it is still breathtaking. We took the cable car up (100rmb for entrance and cable car) and turned left to start. There are 30 guard towers until the end. Since this wall is somewhat wild (what Beijingers call when the wall is not fully renovated), you see crumbled ruins everywhere. And that’s a great attraction. It feels real.

Half-way, we need to purchase the ticket to the SiMaTai section, another 40rmb. When we reached tower #20, we stopped for lunch. Hey, it is only noon. We started at 9:40. This means we can finish by 1pm. Wow! Speed!

The Wall literally ended at a river. We need to cross via a suspension bridge. That’s 5rmb toll again. By this time, my legs were pretty weak and I was down to the last half bottle of water. I pointed to the zip-line and told them that’s how we will get down. “Really!” They were scared and excited.

The last part of the wall is the hardest. There are probably less than 50 steps, but your will-power was all depleted. Can I just take a nap on this step, please?

40rmb, again, for the zip-line. They fit you with a harness and told you to “sit down.” All of the sudden you are suspended half-way nowhere, looking down about 150 meters into the water, zipping down without any control of your fate what-so-ever. I felt elated! Wind blowing through my hair and I felt like doing a SuperMan pose. The ride was over way, way too quickly. But the last drop of adrenaline was then spent. Fatigue overcame me. I fell soundly asleep the instant car rolled out the parking lot.

4 months ago, it took me 6 hours. This time, with the young and light, we did it in 3. Not bad, old man.

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Man Salad

A salad feast that fill an 8″ bowl and satisfying as a meal. (Insert animalistic, Tim “the tool man” Taylor grunt.) Of course, man prepares man salads for men.

First get one of those Costco sorted mixed green box. There are also normal supermarket version. Does not matter.

Then consider the protein choices. I like tofu and cold cuts. Sometimes salmon or shrimps. Steak will be great. The best is to have a big steak the previous night, eat half, and use the second half, thinly sliced, for salad.

Starch is optional. Quinoa is in these days. Baked yams are excellent.

Fruits and colors are important. Slice peeled oranges and apples.

I like ripen Avocados. They gives a rich and creamy texture and flavor.

Now we consider aromatics and spices. Onions, green onions, black pepper, garlic (smashed). Bleu cheese or goat cheese are great too. Yes, I meant all of them.

For crunchy texture, roasted almond slices are my favorite.

Dressing? Equal part of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, a dole of mustard. Add a bit liquid. Whisk vigorously together.

Toss well. Serve with a nice glass of Chardonnay. Red wines do not go well with this.

Noticed any mention on portions? Man salads do not measure anything.

The general problem with this salad is the amount of time required for cutting so many things into the right size. This is where plastic containers are at their best. You can do all the cuttings and put them, separated, into containers. Then you essentially have your own salad bar at home.

When she asks what did you had for dinner. You answer, “Oh, I had a bowl of salad. (Another grunt!) Man salad.”

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A moment of panic

I stood on the curb side cursing myself. “You moron!”

Thirty minutes earlier, I got into the taxi and noticed the driver is a woman, a rare event in Beijing. My phone chirped. I replied to several WeChat messages and arranged meetings accordingly. I turned my attention to the weird CCTV building from close-up, then many sky scrapers nearby. A thought came to my mind…

“Would you be able to come pick me up in the afternoon?” I asked. “Sorry, I cannot really predict where would I be.” “That’s OK. I am also thinking of renting a car for the weekend. Are you available?” “Sorry, sir, I don’t work over the weekend.”

This is when I notice the cell phone mounted at the left corner of the windshield. In the US, that will be Uber. “Which service do you participate for the mobile?” “I do Di-Di. But over 90% of the guests are from normal street traffic.” “Do you consider joining Baidu’s taxi service?”, I like to survey people randomly. “No. One phone, one app. Can’t afford two.”

The fare was 29RMB, I gave her 30 and told her to keep the change. As I walked up to the building, I noticed my cell phone was not in my pocket.

Imagine yourself just lost your phone right now! How many seconds would you wait to curse?

Rushed into the office, I dialed my cell. No answer. This is typical. The moment someone picks up a lost phone, he/she turns it off. I started to consider going to the corner “3C” store to buy a new one. Which make/model? How much should I pay? Hmm…

Five minutes later, I tried again. It rang! The driver answered. She could only come back in about 40 minutes. We rendezvoused where she dropped me off. I paid her RMB100 and thanked her. As she drove away, she said, “I did this only because you were nice to me.”

I watched the taxi disappearing into the river of cars. My phone said I have 3 missed calls and 28 messages.

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The Martian: A Novel

Such a nerdy book. Such a page turner. Such a must-read.

Like Robinson Crusoe or Cast Away, the protagonist got stranded, only in Mars. Now, how the hell can one survive there, as the only living creature on the entire planet?

You started to like Mark Watney, a botanist and mechanical engineer, almost immediately. Then you started to admire him and rooting for him. You don’t want him to die, you want to save him, you want everyone to save him. There were some SNL level humor that were a bit poignant. Everyone was trying to save him. Very cool, but how?

If they can make Wild into a movie, this one will definitely too. If Gravity can be a block buster, this will too. If you are a nerd, or know someone who is, read this book. I basically pulled an all-nighter to finish it. That’s a very rare event. The movie will be out late this year (Matt Damon) and I will definitely watch it.

The book assumed modern day space travel technology: before “faster than light” warp speed has been mastered. There are some fancy gadgets, but all of them imaginable with today’s technological reach. The only factor is people’s creativity and will; not science, technology, or money. That’s the inspirational element of the book.

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