The Big Drought

The great drought of California is a surprisingly easy problem to solve. Price!

Since the drought, the price of water for farmers went up 10 times to over $1000 per acre-foot (that’s one foot deep of water to cover an acre of land, or 1.2 million gallons). The government forecasted that the price of fresh fruits and dairy products may go up about 4 to 6 percent. What it really means is the cost of water is quite insignificant compared to the other costs in producing fresh fruits and dairy products.

An average family in Los Angeles pays about $30 in water bill, compared to $75 in Seattle, an area with no water shortage what-so-ever. Why would someone in LA not turn on the sprinklers to water his lawn? The lawn costs far more than the water.

We have a rare and precious commodity whose price is just about zero. It makes no sense.

There are many argument against raising water prices. None of them apply to the needs to irrigate plants, flushing toilets, watering lawns, and washing cars. Yes, higher water prices will damage some farmers who depended on cheap water. This is not different from higher prices for other commodities that will damage other industries.

A higher water price can facilitate better recycling plants, desalination projects, transportation of water from far away places. It will encourage conservation and force farmers to become more efficient.

Of course, there are three other solutions that are cheaper: taking water from Arizona and Nevada, praying, and do nothing. After all, winter is coming.


Clearly, a bigger scale of the problem is happening to China. They constructed massive aqueduct systems to move water around the country, primary from south to north. At the same time, for both industries and residential, the water price is virtually zero. China, therefore, became the least efficient water using country in the industrialized world.

The world really has enough water for everyone and everything. The real question is the price of transportation (or treatment, conditioning, desalination, etc.) If people are not willing to pay for the water, then they will run out of it eventually.

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Apple eclipsed Intel on the opening day of IDF (Intel Developer Forum), announcing iPhone6, AppleWatch, and Apple’s mobile payment. Intel’s nerdy executives, this year, boasted Core™ M CPU. Most in the audience cannot hide the boredom. We knew that fancier gadgets will come. Blah, blah, blah.

Intel has been, obviously, shifting attention away from traditional computation, such as servers and laptops. Their focus is now on tablets and more on wearables.

It began with Newton, Apple’s famed pen computer, followed by Palm Pilot, the product that defined the PDA categories. When MP3 players and smart phones gradually converged, consumers saw the general trend of all cool things becoming one device and encouraged it. There is only one question left: where do they carry that device? It turned out there are simply 3 places to wear gadgets: clipped on the belt, worn on the head, or strapped on the wrist. There are three fundamental technological problems: sensors, battery, display, and networking.

There is a plethora of sensors and more from people’s imagination. There are also the Minority Report style universal retina readers for identification. My personal favorite is the concept of statistical authentication: if we gather sufficient identifiable devices on a person, the statistic of a positive identification will reach the point of acceptable risks. For example, if a person carries my cell phone, wear my eye glasses, and has three of my credit cards. I could accept the risk of charging the gasoline fill-up without further proof. If the person also has a pace-maker that was implanted into my body, then I will accept the risk of him knowing my bank balance.

For a device small enough to wear, there isn’t enough battery for it to last very long. Technologists have been working on this problem and made big progress. The devices now consume much less electricity, the batteries now last longer, and the charging of the batteries has become easier. I can see the day that batteries get charged from ambient energies: motion, temperature variation, background radiation, etc. People will simply go about every day not even thinking of their batteries.

The display is a big problem. We consumers want it big, bright, and high-definition. But we also want it small and convenient. Projection technology (like Google glasses) seems like the ideal solution. But this is the holy grail of computer graphics people. For many decades now, they couldn’t come up with anything that does not make you look like a Borg and satisfy your display needs. I have my fantasies on this area and will share with you later.

The last is the networking. People now expect the devices to be, wirelessly, connected nearly all the time, either by cell technologies (LTE) or WiFi. They also want devices to interact with each other. At this moment, this still require a small “brick.” All “smart watches” tether to a cell phone nearby, typically via BlueTooth technology. Those watches become dumb (basically can only tell time) when their mothership cell phone is too far away.

This leaves the final frontier to discuss: fashion and style. When my daughter was getting married, I received the order to get rid of my perfectly functional digital watch and get a dress watch instead. The world does not go by utility alone. Style is important. It is also very expensive. And that’s a good thing.

This pundit predicts the loss of display and sound on cell phones. Instead, all cell phones come with two separately carried devices: a strap-on display on the wrist and a speaker/microphone to clip on the lapel or hung on the ear. The cell phone today will become a little piece of non-descript pack got stuck somewhere in the brief case.

Good luck finding it when you forgot where you put it.

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Taiwan’s Food Safety Crisis

A large, strong-branded, everything-certified-by-the-government manufacturer of cooking oil was caught. They imported “feed grade” lard from China and Hong Kong, bought used cooking oil from restaurants, mixed in pure lard, and sold them as if everything was fresh and top-graded.

Like many parts of the world, Taiwan’s professional cooks prefer lard. It gives a strong aroma and flavor unparalleled to other cooking oil. Since the news broken, several restaurants, snack brands, or bakeries would declare themselves tainted — daily. They would automatically remove all products and apologized to their patrons. Taiwan’s food industry is in crisis. The head of the Administrative Yuan sworn to punish the perpetuator harshly. The opposition party is having a field day, accusing government bureaucrats inept.

In crisis like this, I see real ugly characters, and also true human spirits.

A customer of a bakery was angry. He demanded full refund of his prior purchases. He bought one item from the store and shoved it into the cashier’s mouth. He wanted to see her suffer as he himself did. The bullied cashier ate the biscuit, crying.

A vendor loaded a small truck with the tainted oil from the backdrop of his closed restaurant. He was going to lose lots of money: no customers will come for a while, all his materials will go bad, all those oil are now no good, and he still have to pay the rent. He was bitter and angry, but in a resigned way. “I am just so unlucky.”

A famous chef televised his apology. He knelt down in front of the camera and apologized for every eateries that he represented, or was a spokesman of. He does not want to portray himself as a victim. “The bucks stopped here. I served the customers and I am responsible.” (I paraphrased from a TV news in Chinese.)

Yes, someone wronged you. You are upset. This is the time to show your character.

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All Souls Trilogy

Deborah Harkness is a historian and a writer. When she ventured into fiction writing, she got an “instant” success. Yes, after many books of more obscure topics and limited audience. All Souls, I believe, was her first mass market fiction.

Diana Bishop, the protagonist, was probably the most powerful witch of her time, but she could not perform even the simplest spell when she went to the witch school. She gave up witchcrafts growing up and became a history professor, specialized in medieval alchemy. That’s when she encountered an ancient manuscript, Ashmore 782, in the library. She also fell in love with a vampire, Matthew. The story began with Diana looking for herself and learning how to love a forbidden creature.

It turned out there were 4 bipeds that look like homo sapiens: human beings, vampires, daemons, and witches. For centuries, a congregation forbade the fraternization among these creatures. Diana found herself in extreme danger: Ashmore 782 turned out to be a manuscript people will kill for, she herself couldn’t perform magic to save her life, Matthew was an unpredictable and mysterious vampire who was capable of killing, all other creatures, including the Matthew’s family members, will prosecute her for having a relationship with a vampire.

And the story begins! It took three books and that’s about the perfect length.

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The Elusive Software Requirements

All textbooks told the developers to begin with the requirements, the more exact the better. Based on the requirements, the developers write the functional spec.

In the typical situation of not getting the requirements in time, the developers frequently make up the requirements by themselves — starting by listing the implementation restrictions, but also by the ego of “Look at me! I can make this!” This is fatal.

The requirements will never be complete or arrive in time. The developers must take a different approach. I favor the method of “Iterative Conversations™.”

Ask the stakeholders, preferably together and face-to-face, “What’s the problem?” or “What do you need?” and, critically, “Why?” Only seek clarifications and do not entertain implementation idea. Whoever says, “we can do this way …” Stop the person. That’s about implementation and it is a trap for you to be cornered into a specific approach. When you have understood the problem, or the need, adjourn the meeting.

Go back and think of the possible ways to solve the problems or address the needs. You will come up with either obvious or innovative solutions. But they carry consequences that you are not sure of. For these, you will call another meeting.

Same deal. You ask questions to the stakeholders. But this time tuned or steer the conversations toward those doubts or implementation consequences. Still, avoid discussing implementation approach. If you find yourself must, that will be the symptom that you actually did not have the questions or doubts thought through. Never ask the stakeholder to make implementation trade-offs for you.

Once you are relatively certain about a point, try to implement a partial solution to illustrate the idea. Show the stakeholders the prototype. Very frequently, you get confirmation or rejection from them that you are on the right track or not. Adjust accordingly.

This has worked for me for many years. This is, at least in spirit, a form of Agile methodology, at least until the QA consideration comes in. I will write about that later.

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Yet Another Monument in China


The 2008 Olympics marked nearly the end of the great monuments rush of China. Beijing’s Olympic Park, the “Bird’s Nest” stadium, and the “Water Cube” swimming stadium are the pinnacle of those monuments. The new airport terminal, T3, was the largest in the world. The strangely looking CCTV tower suffered a humiliating fire that delayed its opening from 2008 to 2013. And there is the huge “Dragon” building (北京盘古) on the side of the Olympic Park almost stealing the limelight.

China impressed the world. They became the other super-power. Their leaders became as influential as the US presidents. Mission accomplished, the nation’s attention shifted to practical things: brutal power wars, anti-corruption, the high-speed train system, the CO2 emissions, and the mundane highway projects.

ChengDu, the jewel city in the west (really as west as Kansas City to New York), belatedly unveiled its “New Century Global Center” complex. When it opened in mid-2013, it became the largest building (in term of floor space) in Asia. It is really a covered cloister. Underneath the curved transparent ceiling, there is an artificial beach larger than some of the Hawaii’s bests. One side dotted with a normal sized swimming pool, a wading pool, and a couple of whirlpools. The other side is a twisting tube monster water park.

The hotel I stayed in has a lobby as large as a cathedral, boasting a flowing chandelier bigger than my house. The room balcony overlooks a three-story condo, of course “indoor” under the sky cover.
Indoor Beach

One long side of the cloister is a shopping mall with the normal big-name anchors, a movie complex, a super-market, many restaurants, a large food court, and of course numerous smaller shops. The other long-side appeared to be unoccupied, designed to be office buildings. The subway station, connected on the basement level, was packed during the commute hours.

Like all such monuments, it lights up in the evening. ChengDu locals flocked to the covered and air-conditioned beach. The movie complex, restaurants, and food courts all had healthy foot traffic. Judging from the people, this seems to be a commercial success.

Monuments are symbolic. ChengDu is hinting at the second phase of China’s modernization grand plan: the west is the future.

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好些年前來蘇州過,重點是貝律銘設計的博物館,稱是一代大師的閉門作. 幾個園林古鎮當然也看了. 感覺蘇州是個可順道一遊的地方,而不是個重點目的地. 從南京去上海,不如加一站蘇州,頗理想的.

夏天的蘇州,中午時無風酷熱,汗流不停. 過一陣子清風帶著雨意吹來, 然後一劈雷,大雨傾盆. 我搶著雨前晃逛完了平江路. 說來也頗豐盛,先吃個臭豆腐,逛了”耦園”,吃個小吃午飯,再聽聽”彈唱博物館”的節目. 跳上個公交車,一路回酒店. 先沖個涼,再看窗外雨景.

彈唱博物館的巷口有個小吃叫”弄堂口”,居然有自釀黑啤,來了一扎,配上小籠包. 一人邊吃邊看鄰座遊人. 也自得其樂. 博物館今天的節目是說書,我興匆匆買張”狀元座”,結果是蘇州話,我一字聽不懂. 但是發現看他說書也很有娛樂性. 表情豐富,語調上下,不時還離座手腳表演一下. 我傻瓜聽書,還邊聽邊笑呢!

在耦園看到個對聯,上聯”耦園住佳耦”,下聯”城曲築詩城”,橫批”枕波雙隱”. 這多幸福啊! 這園是清朝個按察使修的. 一宅二園,故名”耦”.

出差行程中多了一天,在蘇州晃晃. 決定正確!

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It’s the Bread!

“The best clam chowder!” claimed so many cities: San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston, and, of course, Seattle. In fact, this is almost like hamburgers: every city has its best. I happen to be a clam chowder fan and, poisoned by early imprinting, partial to Boudin of San Francisco. And I have been pondering why. (What? You are not curious about your own preferences? Weird.)

The recipes are usually simple: clams, potato, cream, and some thickener like flour. Vegetables, typically celery and carrots, are the differentiators. One thing separates good and excellent clam chowders: the chew. Boudin has the best bread bowl from their famed sour dough bread.

Instead of yeast, sour dough bread uses a small amount of dough from the previous batch. The initial “seed dough” comes either from whatever yeast germs that were naturally floating in the air, or passed down from generations past. Sour dough breads therefore always have a unique flavor. Most of the formulas (it is not called “recipe” in bread making) are “wet,” in that it calls for more water, little or no oil, and almost no other seasoning than salt. It is the purest kind of bread. The idea is to produce soft crumb, crispy crust, and the natural aroma and flavor of flour and yeast. And that’s Boudin.

The center of the bread is emptied to make room for a perfect portion of piping hot chowder. The “lid” of the bowl is perfect to scoop out the chowder. Before long, you will be tearing apart that bowl to lick off the soaked up crumbs and chewing the flavorful crust at the same time.

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從蘇州去香港,路過上海,住南京東路的酒店. 旅途近盡頭了,沒什麼興致. 只想填個肚子,然後回房宅著. 登記入住的小女孩,挺熱絡的,就問她隨便的話,吃什麼? 她看看旁邊的同事,異口同聲,”小楊生煎”.

上海的七月天,站著都流汗. 回房間換成T恤短褲夾腳,踢踢拖拖找去. 就幾百米路,居然三次被問,”先生要按摩嗎? 漂亮的!”第三個還來”高壓推銷”,蒼蠅樣跟著. 問個不停. 看來這南京東路,有百般生意. 只是納悶,為什麼我會碰到三回呢? 難道我看來就像嗎? 不解.

店在”第一食品商城”的三樓. 六元一兩,四個煎包. 生意好得很,一鍋出爐,客人一個接一個. 我買一兩是最基本的. 大多買好幾兩,現吃再帶走.

這家煎包皮薄底厚,煎的剛好焦.面上灑些青蔥頭提升香氣. 一口咬下, 湯汁燙舌. 鮮美味濃, 香氣撲鼻. 好吃! 三下兩下, 四個結束,意猶未盡. 只是這是個平價食堂的環境, 要去先買票,再上攤位領東西,然後自己找個位子坐, 餐巾紙自備. 桌面的一點油漬,也就將就點得唄.

走出食堂,看到”南翔鰻頭”,買個甜蟹殼黃. 邊走邊吃的下樓. 這頓飯,十元有找. 滿意度特高. 待會的咖啡癮,大概要花三四倍的銀子. 我這是什麼中國式消費?

對著自己搖搖頭. 回房沖沖涼宅著嘍. 不然在街上晃著,流汗又惹蒼蠅.

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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, Grey Matter Technologies, with his Caltech buddies soon after graduation but sold 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 50th birthday, he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer with only months to live; shorter if he forwent the treatments his teacher’s insurance did not cover. Dipping into the savings would ruin his family, not will end his life sooner. His wife, Skylar, a part-timer book keeper, is pregnant. The writers 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 transform and gradually lose himself during each season, leading all the way to a very satisfying finale.

I have always wondered about criminals’ 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 million 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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