Grape Arbor

I couldn’t sleep, thinking of how to construct a grape arbor in an imaginary backyard.

Months later, over a weekend, two of us did a version of just that. With the remainder wood stock, we then made two benches. The whole thing is about 8-foot tall, 4-foot deep, and 12-foot wide. The back posts are cemented in the ground; the front ones are free-standing on concrete floor. We planted two grapes close to the back posts so that we can train them up the arbor.

When I was a true country boy, I would do monkey-bar on a neighbor’s grape arbor and picked from the vine as I played. The arbor was made of bamboo, abundant and nearly free. We lived in a sub-tropical area. That arbor provided shades, play structure, and sweet desserts. It was among my best childhood memories.

First time I visited Napa, I was surprised how grapes were trimmed low and not over-hanging. I them understood how things work. Grapes fruits only from the only sprouts. The wine makers optimize for production and ease of harvesting. Backyard gardeners usually have a different motivation. The key, however, is the same: train the grapes by tying its canes and prune them over the winter. After the grapes have reached the final shape, cut off nearly all new canes of the year, every year. They won’t fruit.

As I sat under this bare arbor, I imagine the canes sprawling all over the top. Every spring, we will see the new sprouts budding out. By summer, we will anticipate the cluster turning into editable fruits. We will sample to check their ripeness and eat them as we harvest. Then we will see the leaves turn brown and mentally prepared for the year’s pruning works.

And we won’t see the arbor anymore. It’s just grapes.

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RSU in your paycheck

Say you are a highly coveted skilled worker in a hyper-competitive industry. This is a good day. You received two job offers for similar jobs. Both seem challenging and fun. Two companies are both publicly trading. They are comparable by large: in benefits, perks, and management. The total cash equivalent of the offers is also comparable. For argument’s sake, let’s call it $20,000 per month. But there is a critical difference in its structure.

Company A just give you $20,000 in cash. Simple and easy.

Company B give you $10,000 in cash. Their stock is trading at $10 per share today. They promised to give you 12,000 shares of stock by the end of each year of your employment. For the past several years, their stock has risen in price very nicely.

Which would you choose?

It is quite simple; company B is actually offering you more since their stock probably will appreciate. By the end of the 1st year, you would have received $120,000 in cash and 12,000 shares. Those shares may have gone up to more than $10 per share. You would have ended up better. We all knew that stock prices may fall as well, but the likelihood is small as the company is doing well and competitive. The answer seems to be B. Yes?

Company B forces you to invest half of your income in a single company. It does not really matter how well the stock performs. The #1 principle in investing is diversification: never put all your eggs in a basket.

Take A’s offer, buy 12,000 shares of B, and you will end up exactly the same place had you taken B’s offer. The investment, now, is your own choice.

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Trust them, or Fire them

There are two ways to achieve success: hire the best people for the maximal responsibilities, or hire with just enough skills and supervise them at depth. You would think most executives will go for the first and you will be wrong.

Some of the staff maybe plotting for a mutiny, or less deviously, wouldn’t mind the executive to fail. There are capable and ambitious ones who have been waiting for the opportunities. They create troubles: bickering, distractions, or even sabotage. A savvy executive is better off ridding them.

Many executives, in their hearts, like to be indispensable. Few of them have any real career opportunities after having risen to the top echelon. Sitting on the laurels is nice and comfortable; a good “succession plan” seems like unnecessary works.

The common strategy is to hire “just enough skills” to do the job and create an organization which internal dependencies and the executive to be the hub for all decisions. This way, no one can replace the one on top. And no one is strong enough for mutiny. The euphemism is “checked and balanced.”

This works, at the price of execution velocity. This is OK if he/she does not have counter-parts or competition. The alternative strategy, is “trust until it hurts, else fire them.”

Give your staff more responsibilities. Stretch them. Demand them to make decisions on their own. Trust them to do good jobs. Monitor for early signs of failure. If you cannot trust them to rise up to this, they should not be on your staff.

This better strategy works really well and is also less stressful for the big boss. It works against the instinct of self-preservation and egotism. Therefore only the best do this.

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To be right or effective?

Google the title. My browser returned 650 million hits.

Decades ago, an executive tossed this question to one of my colleagues. She was stunned and stumped. So was I. Since then, I have never asked this question to anyone, since I am still searching for the answer.

Recently, a senior manager said in the boss’s staff meeting, “Months ago, I said that your approach won’t work for the other project which is now in disarray. I was proven right, and you wrong. Heed my advice or you will fail again.” Everyone sat in stunned silence. She did not even know how she was wrong.

At the logical level, the causal relationship with the other project was not clear. Before that, the past experience does not predict future. Like everything else, the project was risky to begin with and it could have failed for completely unrelated reasons. Her prediction does not make her more right today. No one knew her batting average either, was she right 1% of the time or 99%? Being right once before does not mean she will be right again.

At the human level, nobody likes to be called wrong. Nobody likes “score keepers.” Nobody likes someone who predicts failure only to prove a point. Not so surprisingly, she was voted off the island the next round.

Only at the simplest level are opinions or judgements either right or wrong. Most of the time, there are different points of view and there is no absolute correctness. There are risk v. benefit, short- vs. long-term, market share v. profitability, strategic v. tactical, etc. There is rarely an obvious right answer to any question.

Secondly, execution effectiveness predicts success better than the quality of the decision. For example, an efficient factory can produce goods at lower costs and faster. It enables a lower price point and wider distribution which could win over the competitor even if the competitor’s product is better. In today’s workspace, execution frequently means effective collaboration where argumentative behavior is damaging.

The answer is, therefore, “That’s the wrong question.”

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Sadly, this is already a gun country

I know so many gun owners (myself not being one). When a long-time acquaintance dined with me in Austin, TX, he was carrying: a 9mm in a pancake holster, concealed. A colleague, in Seattle, told me he had over 20 firearms in his house: rifles, shotguns, pistols, and, yes, semi-automatic. He went target or clay shooting over the weekend as the primary family entertainment. He kept several unregistered, “so that the government won’t know about them.” Another friend, in New Jersey, complained long and vehemently how ridiculously the ammo prices had gone up, particularly .22 that he used for weekend “fun shooting.” He believed it was a government conspiracy. A close friend, in San Jose, recently acquired an AR-15 via mail-order, together with a scope and many expensive accessories. He practiced taking it apart while watching TV at night and goes to the range on weekends. All of them are peaceful and rational people. They like guns.

A recent robbery victim told me that the only things taken were two pistols: a Smith-Wesson and a Ruger. Police said that guns are easy to fence and therefore a popular target.

Unlike the rest of the world, the US is full of guns. Whatever gun control laws, they change only new gun sales. No laws can reduce existing guns in people homes today. Guns and ammo are very durable. Just minimal care will keep them operational for decades. This is simply and depressingly factual.

It is a statistical certainty that some owners, however peaceful and rational, will lose control sometime in their lives. They may have a mental break-down, under influence, get caught in a heated moment, have left it unattended, or simply be careless. Each and every one of those leads to a tragedy.

And I don’t really know if there is a quick solution to this.

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Life is full of filters

An epiphany came when we were cleaning our dishwasher, after almost 10 years of blissful neglect.

GE engineers failed me. To clean the dish washer, I needed to remove the top rack first. That required two plastic stoppers with the instructions from a YouTube search. After the top rack, I needed to remove a feeder pipe, the bottom sprayer, and the main water conduit. Then, I needed to pry out the waste basket which is also the locking mechanism for the mesh. I wouldn’t be able to do this without consulting the internet multiple times. And the taking apart was the easier part.

Underneath the mesh and sprayer was gross stuff matching the TV show “The Dirtiest Job.” There were brown greasy clumps, brown-black caked layer on surfaces, and hard mineral fused on whatever. An hour or so of hard scrubbing later, the reassembly process started. That took only 10 minutes or so.

We trial-ran the dish washer with a cup of vinegar on the top shelf, facing upward. Then re-ran it with glassware and mugs. They were spotless. Yay!

Life is full of filters. Wherever a filter exists, there must be a way to clean or replace it. You can simply spray clean your screen window. You will discard your coffee filter. You drive to a mechanic to replace one or several filters in your car.

I sincerely hope you have a better dishwasher than my 10-year old GE Profile. I urge you to check it today, and wish you the best.

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Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Time exists only when heat exchanges. Heat exchanges only when particles interact with each other. Really? Read on.

Imagine a pendulum that swings back and forth and imagine it swings with no heat exchanges what-so-ever. Since there cannot be any friction — that generates heat — the pendulum will swing forever. It is impossible for you to know the passing of the time by observing those swings. Are they forward or backward? I could have been playing the movie in reverse and you would not have any way to figure out. Time, therefore, does not “flow” without heat exchange.

How would heat exchange then? Only by particles interacting with one another. When a particle of a higher energy collides into another with lower one, part of the energy passes from one to the other. The temperature of one increases and the other decreases. Heat exchanges, and time passes.

What if there is nothing to interact with? Well, in strict theoretical sense, time stands still. It is literally true that “what you see is all that is.” Observation is possible only when particles interact with others (a photon must hit your retina for you to “see.”) In a world where no particle interacts. Not only do things do not change, time also stands still.

But that’s not possible. The universe is filled with particles: matter and anti-matter. Together, they fill up the entire space of the universe. Particles are always colliding with each other. Then heat exchanges and time passes.

This explains energy and time. With a bit of a stretch, by creating yet another kind of particle, it also explains gravity. This is now the grand unification theory that explains everything: mechanics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, general relativity, quantum mechanics, and gravity. After that, chemistry, geology, biology. Yep, everything under one theory.

How would I have figured this out without reading Carlo Rovelli’s book? And you thought I became smarter. Ha!

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A Village with My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World

In 2006, I visited the village where my ancestors settled late in the Song Dynasty, about 800 years ago.

I found myself in a village where half the inhabitants shared my last name and probably more were my blood relatives. Every encounter began with a 15-minute session to figure out how we were related and what should be the proper way to address each other. There were books stacked up to chest-height recording the whole ancestral tree, all the way to the first settlers.

I met brothers and sister and heard their heart wrenching life stories. My father was on Chiang Kai-Shek’s side. For this reason, they were discriminated and persecuted for decades. They barely survived; many perished.

Scott Tong’s father had a story similar to mine. Scott, as a journalist, turned these stories into a book about that village where “everyone was named Tong.” He then did the same for his mother’s side.

I reacquainted with Scott in Beijing during his assignment, from Marketplace, in China. His father and I went way back. Without this connection, I would probably not have picked up this book. I knew those stories. Every family has their own version. What can you do? It was war. There is no war without tragedies, so traumatic that it take several generations to heal. Scott got it wrong. It was not shame they felt, it was pain. My brother, who was “on the wrong side of history,” choked up in tears when he told the stories of survival, suffering, and sacrifices. We then drank up in silence and changed to lighter and happier topics. It’s best that no one should experience those pains ever again. Let’s not talk about it anymore.

The holocaust survivors themselves don’t want to remember the pain. Their children understood and already knew the stories. It is up to the grand-children to turn those stories into history. This is a book for my and the future generations. Good job, Scott.

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On Aging

What’s the deal with aging? Gosh! Everything time I hear “For people of your age..”, I brace myself for the onslaught. Fragility, senility, dementia, low-T, hypertension, cholesterol, blood sugar, weight, bone density, cancer, … Nothing good comes after that opening. “People of my age” spend a mandatory 30 minutes on health topics every time we gather. It is also a routine to ask, “Is so-and-so still alive?”

There seems to be three categories of aging: muscular, bio-chemical, and psychological.

Most of us lead semi-sedentary lifestyles. We don’t work our bodies the way they were designed. As we age, the effects pile on. The muscles atrophy and bones weaken. Our tolerance for injuries declines. A simple act that used to just strain the muscle now ruptures the tendons. A weight that needed just a bit more oomph to lift now breaks the bones. A cat-walk that was a breeze now a death trap for falling. Study showed that if we exercise our muscles, we can slow down or even stop this part of aging. In this, I treat cardio-vascular as muscles. The sense of balancing is also one; try to stand on one-foot for 2 minutes. Lastly, don’t forget to stretch; stiffness, or inflexibility, is a common cause for injuries.

Sadly, our bodies remember every injury since birth. Each of them chips away a bit of efficiency. Yes, that’s why your old shoulder seized and your knees gave away. We categorized these “wear and tear.” There is not much we can do about these. The older we get, the slower we re-generate and heal. (I don’t know why.) Injury avoidance becomes a key for the aged.

Bio-chemistry is harder. We cannot really exercise our glands to make them stronger. The very fact of living is damaging them continuously. We breath air, ingest sustenance, and drink liquids. All of those generate by-products that are toxic. Our organs and glands, taking the tolls every day, degrade as we live. This bio-chemistry factory eventually ceases. As we feel the factory’s decline, we try to take care of it better: less salt, less fat, less alcohol, or just less whatever. Sigh… less life?

Our psyche works completely differently. It has a strange way to select what to remember and an even more mysterious way to synthesize memories into perspective. We really “see” things differently than when we were younger. We call those “wisdoms” or just experiences. Everyone eventually says, “Boy, I feel old” either by remembering something from their youths or witnessing something that renders their long-practiced skills obsolete. It is not possible to rejuvenate our perception of freshness. Once you know, you cannot unknow. If you have been there, done that, you will have also lost the excitement of doing it the first time. The key is to find newness in life somehow. This is really about the art to forget, or to appreciate subtleties.

Develop good habits while you’re still young. Get used to getting old. Sigh..

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Saturn Run

If you need to go to Saturn, the planet, in a big hurry, how would you do it? Oh, about 50 years in the future. John Sanford tried to solve the problem, in two ways: the traditional rocket or an ionic engine. No, anti-gravity or greater than light-speed have not been invented then.

Then he came up with an excellent reason to compel the super-powers to enter this race. Since there are two super-powers, there are, of course, the spy and politics sub-plots to enrich the main story.

Added some intense love and greed, mixed in some charming characters.

Now you have an excellent SciFi to enjoy. Yes, he is a skilled writer.

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