Steeplechase Race

James Madison, president #4 for the US, lived at Montpelier, VA. It was a fine estate — rolling meadow, probably over a hundred acres. And there is an annual horse racing early November: Montpelier Hunt Races.

Fall, on the US east coast, is like sitting in the family room after a nice dinner of a good day. The exuberance of spring and abundance of summer were over. Earth and people are now just waiting for the regeneratiive winter to come. There is a slight sadness hanging in the air that another year is over. Where are the winter gears: the ear muff, the mittens, the scarves, the boots, and, of course, ski gears?

The leaves screamed with their colors. The grass stubbornly kept their green. The sky was gloomy that day, also drizzling steadily. This was the day that east coast maximized visual effects. The drive from Dulles Airport to Charlottesville, VA, was pleasant. Even the windshield wiper was adding to the relaxing effect.

The Montpelier area, my destination, was simply beautiful with a mist in the air. I guess they are plantations that I drove through. The owners, generations of them, proudly put up a name, instead of an address, for the properties. Short fences exist to keep livestock in, instead of human beings out. Impressive houses dotted the landscape, with lazy cattle grazing as if that is the only purpose of the land. I was actually glad that no one has put up holiday lights yet. That would have spoiled the ambient.

It is a steeplechase race, that horses need to clear hurdles during the race. The track does not have grand stand. We stayed in the tents that lined up along the track in the infield. There were long waits between thunderous horses rushed by. No matter, people paused their eating, drinking, or chatting for the short excitements and resume whatever they were doing. A bit drizzle bothered no one.

I fantasized living on the east coast on my way back to Seattle. Only if they have more days like this…

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On Nuclear Energy

President Obama formally rejected the Keystone pipeline project, a controversy among Canada, the US economy, energy independence, and environment. No wonder he waited till the last year of his presidential terms to make up his mind. The viable alternative, however, was not even mentioned. Yes, nuclear energy.

Other than the Fukushima scare, what are the downside of nuclear energy? It is, relatively, cheap, it is renewable, it has zero carbon footprint. Yes, if it goes terribly wrong, it kills the neighbors. That happened very infrequently. (Three Miles Island did not kill. Chernobyl and Fukushima did.) Seriously, more people died from flu than nuclear power-plant accidents, by a long shot.

There is really no viable alternatives. We can continue to burn fossil. That’s the way for the decades to come. We can explore solar, wind, geothermal, waves, bio-fuel, and whatever. They won’t amount to a fraction of what fossil can produce.

Do you realize that the fresh water crisis is fully solvable if there are sufficient energy? Yes, desalization is an energy intensive process. California needs only one decent size nuclear power plant to solve its current water problem. And we can try to do fusion power plants. In case of disasters, such plant will emit lots of vapors and none will be radioactive or harming any lifeforms on earth.

It behooves me to observe the scare of nuclear energy. It is inevitable. Get on with it already.

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(Pretend to) Learn Cooking

Among corporate team building themes, cooking is a popular one: everyone must eat (and drink) anyway, the skills involved are manageable, everyone can contribute and must collaborate, and it is not really work related. There are also many professionally trained chefs who are not willing to become a restaurant chef.

SizzleWorks is one such venue. Chef Carol teaches cooking in this institute and also hosts corporate team building events. Twenty or so of us arrived at 4:30pm, wide-eyed, a bit apprehensive, and anticipating fun. And they delivered.

They divided us into three teams and set up a small competitive spirit among us. Each team performed a task and tag-team for the whole meal. Everyone was kept busy and everyone learned something: about foods, cooking, themselves, or their teammates. The rotation of the stations went quickly. Pretty soon, you found yourself helping someone making risotto for a party of twenty. Wow. Did I do that?

The chicken, risotto, and desserts were all wonderful. As I reflect, the chefs used us mostly as kitchen assistants that performed preparation work: slicing the squash, fanning the strawberries, whipping things together, wrapping chicken breast with prosciutto, etc. They designed the menu, adjusted the seasoning, did the actual cooking (other than letting us stir), and plated all the dishes. We looked at the plate and said, “Wow! I fanned that strawberry!” We took a bite and said, “Hey. This tastes good. And I made the chicken/squash/risotto/dessert!” Everyone felt good. Excellent evening. Teams built. Mission accomplished.

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The Lenovo Screw-up

Someone recommended “Losing the Signal” for me to read. Put simply, it chronicled the Blackberry screw-up. I am witnessing the same for Lenovo now.

It has been the workhorse laptop of corporations for decades. IBM made the most reliable and usable Windows laptops. When it was sold to Chinese, miraculously, it kept on going. I have faithfully replaced my Lenovo with a new one for the past 10 years or so. It just works! Rather, now, it used to just work.

First is the X1 Carbon. Now it’s this t440s. The touch pad kept on interfering with my typing. It moves my cursor to an unpredictable location and wouldn’t allow me to click. This is so annoying that, eventually, I disabled the touch pad and switched to an external mouse. Yes, this means the laptop can no longer operate on the lap. It now requires a table.

The sad part of the story is that Lenovo is simply the most recent example of the pathetic PC market. One by one, they all failed me. I used to love Sony VAIO: light, elegant, stylish, and just works. No longer. Dell, HP, and now Lenovo all have gone to the junk pile. I should have seen this coming. Decades of fierce competition has wrung out all profits and innovation. The world has gone to tablets and smartphones and the famed subscription model. Those of us who cling to PC, keyboard, and mouse are also the ones who keep the purse strings tight. We want good quality and low prices. Those who have better quality and higher prices died gradually. All we have left are the winners of the war, just damaged beyond salvage.

Yes, I am switching to Mac. Sigh… I am willing to pay for quality, just not excessively so like Mac used to be. The time has arrived for me to switch.

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Playing Bridge

In Bridge world, I am a “junior master.” While that sounds impressive, it is really just slightly less than mediocre. I always enjoyed the game regardless of my lack of talent playing it.

Oh, if you did not know, Bridge is a card game played by 4 people with rather complicated rules. In the US, it pretty much equates grey hair and retirement. For the rest of the world, however, it is a fiercely competitive game of intellect.

To play Bridge, you need a partner. You can never win or lose on your own. Internet introduced robot players. Everyone entered the tournament with the same robot partner, algorithmically speaking. They have exactly the same intelligence and adhere to the same conventions. Cloud also enabled games with hundreds, or even more, players — a difficult feat in the real world.

So I installed this app (WeWeWeb Bridge for Android) and found myself in tournaments with 300+ “solo” players. These tournaments have 16 “boards” — that everyone was dealt the same 16 hands. Since the hands, partner, and the opponents are all the same, there is really no excuses; the result is completely up to your own skills. Can it be any more adrenaline pumpingly brutal?

Several tournaments proved me to be a solid average player: in terms of match points earned or ranking from the game. Good thing there is no partner yelling at my mistakes. Better that I can practice and improve on my own.

Sigh… Need to practice SAYC (a weird name for a bidding convention) now. Wait, is there an app for that?

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The Cost of Knowing

You came down with a headache and a fever. You took a couple of Tylenol, drank a big glass of water, went to bed, and the headache and fever were gone when you woke up. Are we done?

Some have already moved on: meeting, party, work, travel, whatever. There could be a lingering voice in the back of your mind, “You are not 100%!” But, for all practical purposes, just make sure there is some Tylenol nearby.

Some would go to a doctor to make sure there is really nothing else going on. The general expectation is that everything is fine, but better safe than sorry. The doctor checked you out. “You are just fine. Whatever gave you the headache and fever is no longer there.” Is that it? Are we done? Some will have walked out of the doctor’s office and moved on.

But what if that “whatever” is still there? What if there is a pandemic that the doctor has not been notified about? What if you have cancer? What if you were infected with ebola, bird flu, pig flu, MERS, whatever and the doctor missed it?

This is the question of judgment: the ability to take on incomplete information, weighing them on a set of vague value systems, rationalize them against some ideological goals, and make a decision. The decision is never right or wrong, since value systems or ideological goals are mostly personal. It is merely a matter of costs.

For leaders, or managers alike, such value systems and ideological goals are rarely obvious to the followers or employees. They are also extremely difficult to communicate, let alone convincing others that yours are more right than theirs. Typically, it is a matter of “I am the boss. We do things my way.” In real world, most people have no problem with that. Mature and reasonable people understand that someone must make that judgment and decision. Whoever it is, everyone wishes he or she is making the ones best for the company. After all, that’s why they pay him/her the big bucks.

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One Debate

It is quite a phenomenon that Carly Fiorina jousted herself to #2 with just one debate. Overall, this election is becoming more about entertainment.

That brings the uncomfortable question of how Americans choose their president. Seriously, if Donald Trump is the front-runner, for any party, the voters are clearly are not choosing a leader. They want someone who is “on their side” of the issues, no matter how irrational the “side” is.

When I was on a 40’ish minute long taxi ride, the driver opined that he will vote for any candidate that mandates $1000 cash distribution to all “poor” citizens. “Because we need money,” he said. “Isn’t that what the government is supposed to do? Help me?” He did not care about inflation, quantity easing, economic policies, 99%, etc. Those are just big words. All he needed/wanted was an extra $1000. Simple. If a politician is smart, he or she will fan sufficient emotional fire with some simple messages and get enough votes. Isn’t that what Donald Trump did?

Hey, 2016 may see the first female president for the US. That’s probably a good enough reason to design a new money for this country.

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The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way

There is standing joke that Caltech’s football program was “un-defeated in 1944.” No, that institute was not known for their athletic prowess. Should any school? Honestly, do kids attend schools for their sports programs or intellectual learning?

Bill Coleman, a silicon valley tech legend, once said that he would always hire a good athlete. Among so many qualities and traits for good employees in silicon valley, athletic talent, strangely, was on the top of his list. And this, Amanda Ripley, stipulated, was one of the problems of the American education system.

To excel in any sports program, good enough to make the division one varsity team, you must have some innate talent. Yes, young athletes also need to work hard and practice, but there is zero chance to make the basketball team if you are short.

Americans think other school activities — such as academic learning — are the same. If one cannot do well in math or science, one must be “not good at it.” In that case, there is no point working on that anymore, since one can never be good enough to “make it.” This attitude bewilders Asians.

Asians, or really Confucianism, generally believe that anyone can excel at anything as long as he or she works hard enough. In fact, not working hard enough is pretty much the only reason for failure. What happens when one fails? Work harder next time. Yes, innate talents play a part, but hard work can overcome anything. This is the root of the tiger mom thing: accept no excuse for failure. Work harder.

No one needs to excel at any sport to earn a decent living, but everyone needs a good education, including math.

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The Birth of a Crane

They blocked the road around mid-night and dropped off all the parts. The crew arrived around 4am and started working, with the aid of a little crane that is about 4 stories tall. By 8am, you realized if it is longer than a block. Up close, I appreciated its sheer size. The thickest portion (in blue, lower leg) is about 6-foot across. When laid flat, a brawny worker, hard hat and boots, can fit comfortably. The base of the crane has layers of solid steel slabs, must weigh tons. Muscular struts of pressed on the asphalts protecting sheets of plywood. Around 8pm, the crane stood up and started to move, agonizingly slowly. Army of workers lay plywood in its path. The crane crawled a few feet and wait for the plywood sheets to be put into the right place. At about 2am, the crane has moved sufficiently away for the road to open again. All workers went home then.

Next Monday, it inched onto the final perch. The highest point of the crane is about level with my balcony. We can see its motion better than anyone, including the crew. They told me that this is only the demolition crane whose job is to clear and prepare the construction site. Once that’s done, a real tower crane will erect the building. Yes, I will have a front-row seat for the construction of a 41-story hotel complex.

There are more than 100 construction projects in downtown Seattle now — the highest since 2005. In the first six months of 2015, 20 projects broke ground and 24 finished. With 36 projects projected for completion by the end of the year, Downtown Seattle is on track to see the largest number of completed projects in the past decade. I have not seen such active construction since the pre-Olympic days of Beijing.

Like all changes, the emotional reactions are mixed. There are always those who brace the new and those who mourn the lost of the old. Then there are people like me who is just trying to enjoy the show and the ride. Yes, pour me another beer.

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The Windup Girl

Post petroleum dystopia in Thailand. Genetically modified foods dominate the calorie sources. Animals, or muscle, power normal transportation or everyday machinery. Methane, produced by composting pretty much everything, is for cooking. Diseases, mutating so quickly that they are without cure, wipe out villages and kill thousands if not controlled. This small country must defend itself from foreign giant corporations that seek total colonization.

Those global companies are powerful. They have enough financial and military resources to topple governments. They are sophisticated and manipulative. They want free trading: their GM foods for everything the country can offer. Thailand somehow kept a seedbank of thousands of plants that those giant GM companies felt both as a threat, as alternative and independent food sources, and envious, as raw materials to modify into new products. Oh, those diseases, some man-made, also pretty much wiped out all natural plants in the world by then.

Emiko is a humanoid genetically created for personal services, like an organic robotic doll. She demonstrates how good we are in genetic technology.

Dystopia are political statements in story form. This is what could happen if we don’t choose wisely today. For that, Paolo Gacigalupi chose two themes: the depletion of petroleum energy and the advancement of genetic technologies. Interestingly, he also depicted scientists so brilliant that they invent or manipulate life forms as a hobby. Why can’t those brilliant minds solve the energy problems or cure diseases? How can a world be so advanced in genetic technologies and not in anything else, including weaponry? Those illogical points made this a powerful and well written fiction that is only most entertaining.

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