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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A Day at Woodinville

Woodinville is a phenomenon. There are over 95 wineries in this small city. Most of them are simply a store front in a strip mall. The wines were made miles away with grape grown elsewhere. You come to Woodinville to taste them, not to examine the vines or to admire the endless barrels in a cavernous warehouse. Like the “auto mall,” “fashion island,” or jewelry district, Woodinville is a concentrated wine retail center. There is no rolling fields of grapevines here.

Chateau Ste. Michelle is the anchor. Its short, and free, tour was an entertaining lecture of its history and wines: ending with a complimentary tasting. Visitors may also go directly into the tasting room and pay for specific flights. This large and meticulous estate also featured two free roaming peacocks. That evening, John Legend would perform to 1,500 people on a lawn, as part of their famed Summer Concerts series.

Redhook Brewery was a family-friendly gastropub and clearly the favorite gathering point for cyclists. There is a sign warning people about bicycle traffic. And there were a large number of them, all wearing the recognizable jersey, present in the establishment. I had the brew of the day, a dark coffee-flavored beer, out of about 25 on tap. It paired very well with the shrimp po’boy sandwich. The sweet potato tots were so addictive that Wife must took them away from me.

To assist digestion and reduce blood alcohol level, we picked a short loop from Paradise Valley‘s miles of trails. (Try to print the trail map beforehand.) After a relaxed hour of light hiking, we were ready for the next round of alcohol infusion. The destination was DeLille in the Hollywood district. They had a perfect setting: a patio with barrel-tables and big patio umbrella for shades. We tasted their flight of 7 wines. The light exercise worked!

The general idea for touring Woodinville is to “park and winery hop” on foot. We saw concert goers, wedding parties, and many simply treating tasting room as wine bars. DeLille, for example, gave 1 oz pours of 7 wines and charged $25 tasting fees. Since a standard glass of wine is 5 oz. It’s about the same as buying a $90 bottle in a bar. It is a nice activity for a leisurely afternoon with friends or a companion.

Compared to Woodinville, Napa is serious. It is a destination instead of a spontaneous thought. You don’t go to Napa for a drink. You go to Napa! Woodinville, instead, is a light-hearted hang-out place for wine people. Remember a flight is about a full serving. Your judgment can be somewhat impaired afterward. That makes both places expensive if you like what you drank.

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It’s not every day I go to a Michelin 3-starred restaurant. On this lovely California evening, six of us arrived at the famed Los Gatos establishment, full of anticipation.

David Kinch used to operate the famed Sent Sovi at Saratoga. Then he sold it and opened a new one in Los Gatos. When the building was burned down, he bought the facility outright and re-built it into the current form. This restaurant has received 2 Michelin stars for years and got their 3rd in 2016. By definition, a 3-star restaurant is worthy of being the destination of a trip.

The tasting menu is $245, beverage pairing adds another $198. Two of us shared the pairing and walked out of the dinner $950 less. We did not have opening cocktails or the optional cheese plate at the end. A bit strange that we received the menu, and wine list, at the end of our meal.

The dinner began with a trio appetizer: small square soft candy, a granola crisp, and a savory mandoline. It followed with a beautifully presented Asian mini taco-shaped bounty of flavor. Then a half tiny Artichoke heart, grilled, next to a caviar soup (dipping was encouraged, we, obviously, obliged.) The rest became a blur, with a memorable flatware that gave the impression that someone was offering you foods in their hands. There was a tiny piece of Salmon that simply melted in my mouth, an Abalone that reminded me the China days, duck with endive and perfumed with orange, and the savory bite-size lamb morsel. Each one came with a different beverage: white, beer, or red.

Then came the parade of the sweet dishes that ended with chocolate and macarons.

Overall, it was a very delightful and enjoyable 4-hour dinner. The service was superb, foods extremely delicious, and ambience elegant and relaxing. Michelin 3-star, however, set the expectation that everything be delightful and flawless. It was not. We were mildly disappointed at the beverage pairing. Few drinks gave me a wow, this is good. The whites were on the sweet side, the beer was just strange, and the portions low. I expected complimentary coffee. It cost $13.

Was it worth the money? Years ago, I came out of Chez Panisse enchanted. I couldn’t stop myself talking about it for weeks. Since then, I learned that uniqueness is difficult to price. This restaurant is probably finer in sophistication in nearly all aspects of all restaurants that I have been to, including Chez Panisse. I don’t regret coming or paying for the meal. Relatively speaking, I enjoyed the experience, but not at the same ratio of the price.

This is probably not flattering to Mr. Kinch.

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The Great Wall (the movie)

In storytelling, there is the concept of genre rules. Stories must establish these rules early, else the readers/audience will assume the standard ones. In the movie Arrival, when they entered the spaceship, they found the aliens capable of manipulating gravity. That’s an example of establishing the rules. Generally, SciFi will allow faster-than-light travel (warp engine), fantasy will allow mythical creatures or wizardry, romantic comedies cannot really hurt people, historical fictions need to stick to the real historical events, etc. A story that violates the genre rules feels lazy, becomes non-persuasive, and impresses much less.

That’s the Great Wall, the movie.

You can see through the shallow formulaic methodology behind the movie. Need to attract both the US and China markets, so get Matt Damon and a young attractive Chinese woman actor. This combination works for westerners, Chinese, and lady hero worshippers. Pick a good setting: the Great Wall. An action film is good for the adrenaline junkies and also gaming tie-in. Don’t add too much love scenes for censorship and rating issues. Must have fancy fighting scenes with good visual effects. That’s how the beast comes in. Need an epic ending. How about the battle in the forbidden city? That’s another good attraction to the westerners and Chinese. Excellent! Done. Gong Pao Chicken. Storyline? What storyline?

The genre rule violations are too many to cite. The great wall started around the 1st century and lasted several hundred years. The “beast”, Tao Tie, was an ancient mythical animal, known to be a descendant of Long, the Chinese dragon. If it existed, it will be 200~500BC. The “Black Powder” was invented around 12th century in the Song Dynasty. Forbidden city was built in the beginning of the 14th century, way after the Great Wall.

Scientifically, the jumping without elasticity would simply killed those women. They wouldn’t be able to spear the beasts and re-jump again. The beasts’ invasion at night, that killed the big general, made no sense. If they were able to stealthily come up the wall, why wouldn’t they just kill everyone?

Wait for the movie to be free on whatever services you subscribe to. Watch on a raining day with nothing better on TV.

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Dark Side of Democracy

Sometimes, we have win-win situations. Sometimes, it is lose-lose. These are easy.

We can dissect those win-lose ones further. If most win and few lose, we follow the utilitarian rule and sacrifice the minority. The flip side is the taxation scheme: a small increase of burden on the majority to fund the few. This takes political skills and usually reek corruptions: the famous bridge to no-where.

The last category is for wars! There are enough who will lose more than noticeable. They will fight hard. Since losers fight harder than winners (strange human nature), they usually win as the minority. This is the worst and darkest part of the democratic system: minority actually dominates the agenda (think Tea Party). It crippled India and California. Now, Taiwan.

This island country has been mired in the equivalent of the social security reform. The government must deal with the bankrupting system. There is no good solution; someone must lose. There are several possibilities:

  1. Keep on borrowing from the future: next generation loses.
  2. Change the pay-out scheme: the retired people lose. Their income gets slashed.
  3. Increase tax to pay: everyone loses. Politicians never touch this option.

Nearly 100% of the time, the government choose #1 and blame it on the previous regime. Let’s see how Taiwan come out of this.

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The Undoing Project

I read several Michael Lewis: Liar’s Poker and Money Ball and liked them. What drew me to this one is the topic. I am a big fan of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow. It is one of a very rare occasion that I read the book twice and am thinking of reading it the third time.

Kahneman’s book mentioned Amos Tversky prominently, but I did not realized how deep their relationship was. Michael Lewis described them as “in love” and Kahneman said they were “twinned.” While many knew that he received the Nobel prize in 2002, I did not appreciate that he truly changed the world. Like Kahneman’s book, I felt like reading this book again so that I can recite some quotes and ingrain some concepts deeper. It is also a rare event that I might buy the book after I have read the library copy.

Readers can appreciate this book as a biography of two geniuses. I get the sense that their relationship, and the impact from that, was such a rare event that, like a great love story, it happens once in a hundred years. It also illustrated the key concepts of decision biases (called heuristics) quite clearly. For that, it is educational too. Like Kahneman’s book, I would recommend this to all decision makers in the business.

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One Steakhouse less

Every year nears its end, as a local secret, downtown restaurants sell gift cards at deep discounts, usually in the form of extra, slightly restricted “bonus” gift cards. For example, buy $100 and get an extra $20 that must be used from January 1st to March 31st of next year. Quite a bargain. We usually load up on these gift cards during the on-sale season. This past year, 2016, Sullivan’s Steakhouse was particularly generous by offering 25% discount. They have very good happy-hour menu and nice steaks. So we bought.

In the week of March 20th, I received a promotional email (a side-effect of buying those gift cards) that Sullivan is having a discount on their wines in preparation to their closure on March 31st. What!?!? How about my gift cards?

Immediately, I reserved a dinner. I arrived early and asked for the manager. “No,” she said. “Sullivan cannot buy back gift cards. You can use them at any of their restaurants. Sorry.” I thought so. But why are you closing? “Well, this is Seattle downtown. You know…”

Yes, within a 1-mile radius circle, in addition to Sullivan’s, there are Metro, Capital Grille, Brooklyn, Morton, Daniel’s Broiler, El Gaucho, and the new Butcher’s Table just for traditional steakhouses. There are also several Brazilian Steakhouses. It is quite a crowded scene.

Del Frisco’s Group of Texas, specialized in high-end steakhouses, owns the Sullivan chain. Seattle has about 25 restaurants per 10,000 households, ranked #5 in the US. In markets such as this, customers have unlimited choices and restaurants must be unique to survive. And that’s difficult for high-end steakhouses: good steaks, good sides, good drinks, good services, and high-prices. What really set a steakhouse apart from the next one enough to secure a loyal customer set? In this era that those who can afford steaks more frequently opt for something healthier, like seafoods. The conclusion seems to be that Seattle has one too many steakhouses and one must go.

I ended up spending my gift card (not really that difficult). As I walked out, I found myself enjoying the meal and company, but not really saddened by Sullivan’s disappearance. There are still many choices if I am in the mood for steaks. Oh, well.

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Seattle and Coats

“Hey, it is snowing,” I shouted out. “That’s very nice,” came back the sleepy response. I reached into my closet, found the heavy water-repelling hoody, transfer the contents for the current coat like Wife changing her purse/bag, and left for work. As expected, the snow-flakes couldn’t survive the warmth near the ground. I put on my hood, pocketed my hands, and walked into the cold raindrops. “This jacket was perfect,” I thought.

Seattle’s summer days here are typically in their 70s, spring and falls are 50s, and winter can be freezing. This means people pretty much wear a coat year round. “The art of layering,” said the fashion advertisement. Every Seattleites has a collection of jackets or coats: from super-thin “minimalistic” wind-breaker to parka to knee-length wool coat over a business suit.

We also notice the brands: North Face, Marmot, Patagonia, Columbia Mountain Hardwear, Arc’teryx, and, the latest, Canada Goose. Not that we are fashionable, we are actually always searching for the perfect jacket or coat: light and not to bulky, warm but not hot, water repelling but not plastic, hood and also not hood, colorful but not flashy. And, of course, must be a good deal but not cheap looking. Since there is no such thing, we ended up with about a rack full of coats/jackets, for each person in the household.

And we haven’t talked about head wear yet.

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Few SciFi books were about the difficulties of space migration. Most of them glossed over the biggest elephant in the room: faster than light travel. Einstein said that’s not possible.

So we wish to expand beyond Earth, let’s pick a reasonable planet: one in the Tau Ceti system. It is about 12 light-years away. If you cannot travel faster than light, how fast is reasonable in the 26th century? Accepting one tenth of that, it takes 150 years, give or take, to reach Tau Ceti. If lives cannot be suspended, it must be a multi-generational trip. Given the above (called basic rules in SciFi), what will be the problems?

It is the engineering difficulties of designing a closed ecosystem (since it is a spaceship) that can last 150 years and 6 to 7 generations. The problem is known as island biogeography that, in a closed ecosystem, different species evolve at different speeds. Those with shorter life-spans evolve faster. At the end, homo sapiens evolve the slowest and virus fastest. This means, in the long run, human beings will devolve: each generation becomes worse than the previous ones.

There is also the problem that we cannot really recycle everything, even with unlimited energy. Spaceships are leaky; things get lost into the space. Some elements bond to other elements and became nearly impossible to collect and extract back to their original form. This is the extreme form of the “ink in the water” analogy. Over 150 years and 6 generations, the exhaustion of some elements, those in minute amount yet critically necessary, can become fatal. Kim Stanley Robinson made up a rare element that plays a critical part in forming muscle tendons, yet it is so easily bound to the ship’s hull that they just ran out of it. New generations became stunted.

Lastly, the target planet can be either live or dead. If live, the migrants must cope with the foreign life-forms that they are guaranteed not prepared for. If dead, they need to terraform it and that can take thousands of years; a duration impossible to survive the island biogeographic problem.

Oh, there is also the basic destructive nature of us liking to kill each other; usually in manners that are annihilating to all. What’s the chance that we survive ourselves in 150 years?

Conclusion? Space migration is not possible without faster-than-light travel. Before that, this Earth is all we got.

Good book.

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