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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Before the Wind

I was into sailing, I was also living in Seattle. I visited the Bellevue branch of the King County public library and there was this display table for “Seattle themed books” and this book stared at me. I put it on my “reading queue” by snapping a picture. It emerged from the exit end of the queue a short time ago.

The climax was the “SwiftSure” regatta this family was destined to do it together. Sailing is a team sport and the patriarch/captain of the family had an Olympic-sized dream. He drilled, too hard, his three kids from their youths to pursue this dream. Two things happened: sailing became part of them and they all left him. The middle kid, Josh, told a poignant family story and his life. The center of the story was Ruby, the little daughter that everyone just hopelessly doted.

The race was emotionally tumultuous as the sea. They were brilliantly winning, then the wind died. Stuck in the middle of the sea, they bonded and healed. When the wind came back, they pulled ahead and were winning again, only then they capsized from driving too hard. (Boaters deal with capsizing regularly. It’s not really dangerous, only costing time.) Sailing is not a spectator’s sport, there is no real way to watch a long-distance regatta. It is either boring or too dark. This book brings you onto the racing boat, enjoyable even for non-sailors.

I learned more sailing terminology than I can possibly understand. I also learned how little I knew about sailing. The book told about Einstein’s obsession on sailing and that kind of sealed my mind on what kind of boat I want: a ~35-foot cruiser rigged for solo sailing in calm waters.

The book made it clear that only fools and the rich own boats. Most boats in the marina stay docked for years, for the only reason that the owner needs to keep the romance of sailing in his/her heart. The moorage and upkeeps just drain the wallet continuously while the boat rots slowly.

It is must-read for those into sailing and connected to Seattle.

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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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