Uber Controversy

Had a lively debate over Uber’s legitimacy the other day.

There are two primary points against Uber:

  1. Uber evades taxes. The government collects fees and taxes, excessively in some cities, from the taxi industry. These costs are generally transferred to the consumers in the form of higher fares, with the assumption that taxi customers are mostly out-of-towners and it is OK to tax them more. Uber, or similar ride-sharing businesses, under-cut this revenue sources.

  2. Uber is dangerous. The customer is most vulnerable in a car driven by a stranger. The government regulates and tracks taxi drivers. People should feel safer.

There are disagreements from the other side of the table.

  1. So what!? Taxation is a form of wealth redistribution. The same customers who use taxis will spend the same money on the same society. Uber, if thriving, will generate wealth in the society. If not, it does not matter.

  2. Really?! Can someone produce evidences that taxi is really safer than Uber? All we have is theories and sensational news stories. People get robbed by taxi drivers everyday too. With Uber, the customer knew the name of the driver and his/her rating before he/she gets into the car. That feels safer to me.

Government does not protect any industry or a group of people, it exists for the most good for the most people. Any change, progress or not, disrupts some existing businesses. Several years ago, Shanghai taxi drivers protests that subways are hurting their business and people thought that’s OK. Why would Uber be different?

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Life After Life

The brilliant Andrew K. said this book was brilliantly written. He is well read with a good reputation for book recommendations. I put it on my reading list – only to found a long queue at the library for the same. Many must’ve agreed with Andrew.

It was brilliant! Kate Atkinson is a British academic who debunked the saying of “those who can’t…”

Mild spoiler alert. I will hint at the structure, which is part of the brilliancy.

Ursula Todd gets to live her life over and over again, each time with only the gut feelings and vague senses of déjà vu. Yes, she practiced, and made perfect, of her life.

The book, therefore, is a series of restating the same story. After a couple of “WTF how come the there is no plot?” chapters, I got the idea. Her first several lives ended tragically and quickly. Each death, however, made the next one better and longer, alas creating new opportunities to end her life in a new way.

Ursula was born in the winter of 1910 and would have lived through both world wars in Britain, largely London, and the continental Europe. The wars provided many miseries. Her “inexperience” of living and general stupidity of being a teenager and a young adult made death come easily. It must have taken many, many lifetimes to acquire the wisdom.

Kate Atkinson toyed us by killing her differently and showing us her awkward, and sometime failed, attempts to survive. (Man, it took her 20 some years to live just a few minutes longer!?) I rejoiced when she found happiness and saddened with her inevitable losses, some of them brutally. Kate Atkinson can, hence the brilliancy, weave many stories and shape the protagonist’s character multiple times in the same book. Does Ursula gets to die one last time, with some kind of purposes fulfilled? (You really don’t think I am going to reveal that. Do you?)

What if we are all Ursula Todd and living this life just the last time of many? What if wisdom is simply from the increase number of dying, or reincarnations? (You are stupid because you haven’t died enough times.) How Buddhism.

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10 Tips for Better Email at Work

For 2015, try this for resolution: “Always edit your email at least once.” And its corollary, “Never send out email right after writing it.”

  1. Have an informative signature text that includes your full contact data. Avoid Latin quotes, political or philosophical statements. If you are plugging for something, make sure it is short. Edit your mobile signature text. This is a place to be informative, not thoughtful. People generally don’t need to know your message came from whatever device.

  2. The first paragraph of the message should be less than 5 simple sentences, preferably 3, in active voice. Each of the “simple sentences” has 2 to 5 words.

    This first paragraph is the “summary” of your message. If the recipient stops reading after this paragraph, not much would be lost.

  3. If you found the first paragraph empty of actions or decisions. Consider not sending this message. The exception is the “acknowledge” message as in “Got it. Thanks.”

    Consider seriously to delete everything after the first paragraph.

    If not, provide supporting facts, rationale, arguments, etc. in the following paragraphs. If there is an attachment, mention or list them as the sole purpose of the second paragraph.

    These days, it is better not to reply “inline.” Instead, reply point-by-point and quote the original text verbatim at the end.

    Remove unnecessary quotes or forwarding texts, particularly long signature blocks.

  4. No matter what, limit your entire email message to 5 paragraphs. If you absolutely cannot finish within 5 paragraphs, state this fact in the beginning of your second paragraph (“I apologize for the length of this message.” Or something like that.)

  5. After writing the body of the message, examine the subject and consider its appropriateness. The subject line serves two purposes: giving your message a “punch line” and helping the recipients to organize the message under the same thread.

  6. Take a very close look at the list of recipients. Why does each of them need to read this message? Consider revising the recipient list.

  7. If the message is humorous in nature. Be conservative. When in doubt, make sure you deprecated only yourself. Generally, don’t do it.

  8. If the message is to dole out accolade, gratitude, or appreciation, spend a bit more time to make it heart-felt by adding some details or personal connections.

  9. If you want to express anger, disapproval, or any negative emotion, save the message in the draft folder and wait minimally 24 hours before you send it. When you are about to send it, read it over again. If you have any doubt, wait another 24 hours.

  10. If you are replying to a thread that has gone back and forth several times, stop. Pick up the phone and call the person, or arrange a meeting.

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My 2014

Facebook has “my year” automatic services. This is the same 2014 retrospective, the hard (manual) way.

This year saw many new babies and firmly established my “grand uncle” status. I tried to train every grand nephews/nieces to call me “Xiao Ming Shu Gong” — a continuation of the tradition of their parents calling me “Xiao Ming Shu Shu.” Of course, these babies must acquire vocal control first, that could take several years.

Kids settled into their routine, knowing quite well that stability is not for their changing ages and generation.

2014 entered our 5th year in Seattle, elevating Emerald City to our third longest staying locale, followed by Silicon Valley and Taiwan, surpassing China. Our feeling of being a local is getting stronger every year. I like the cooler climate, the slower pace, and the more spatial feeling. Of course, coffee, beer, and wine are critical factors too. I continued to explore the greater Seattle area, albeit quite slowly.

I travelled nearly 20 times! Many were day-trips or over-nights. Four times I went to Asia, mostly greater China and there were several east coast trips. Those, mostly business, trips were exhausting, but have the nice side effects of providing times to read, catching up with movies, and keeping long-distant personal connections.

I have long fully converted to eBooks. After losing my, beloved, Kindle Paperwhite, I switched to an Android tablet. For the year, I read 34 books, 9 of them non-fictions. Among the fictions, fantasy, SciFi, and thrillers are my main genres. Orson Scott Card’s “Mither Mages”, Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, Haruki Marakami’s 1Q84, Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy are my recommendations. The non-fiction favorites were Taylor Clark’s Starbucked, Mike Brown’s How I Kill Pluto, and Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef.

I worked out more regularly and frequently: on average 5.1 times per week, up from 4.5 last year. My routine is mostly at night, alternating among elliptical, treadmill, stationary bike, and lap swimming. On weekends, when the weather is nice, I jogged outdoors. To battle those muscular atrophia, I do weights probably once in 4 to 6 weeks. I continued to lose ground on the war against cholesterol and blood glucose, only slowly. That was probably related to genes, aging, and my failed attempt to get my BMI down to 25 (from the current 26). Guess I should really have fought harder by indulging less on foods and drinks. Sigh…

Job-wise, like last, this has been a tumultuous year. As a crew on this big boat, I am in for the wild ride. The hope is a reasonable success within a couple of years and that means, yes, I will be in this Emerald city for a while still.

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Empire of the Pig

The Economist’s December issue has a startling article on the economy of pig, particularly about its consumption in China: Chinese now eat half of the pork in the world.

During my recent trip to Chengdu, we got stuck on the tarmac for nearly 3 hours before taking off. My seat mate was a senior person in the Academy of Agricultural Sciences (農科院). “Not to make Tofu,” she dismissed me with laughs. “We import soy to raise pigs.”

Pig’s “conversion ratio” is roughly 6:1 — every pound of pork needs 6 pounds of feed. China’s soy imports now accounted for more than 50% of the total global soy market. The majority of them become feed.

Like cattle, pigs pollute heavily. Porcine waste gets into tributaries and ground water. They also generate massive amount of methane and nitrous oxide: far worse than CO₂ in their greenhouse effect.

This is one extra point for the Malthusian catastrophe: we will collapse under our own weight of population. The progress toward peace and prosperity, as defined by the first world countries, will be met by the demise of the human civilization. China is now the worse polluting country in the world, yet its pollutant per capita is far less than the first world countries. This means the situation will get worse before it gets better. If India joins the same game, followed by Africa, the global collapse becomes imaginable.

History demonstrated this problem is highly solvable, given the right incentives. Chinese have several obvious choices: gradually raise pork prices to contain consumption, engineer a way to produce pork efficiently without straining the resources too much, outsource pork production to elsewhere to spread out the environmental impacts, change the dietary habit to consume other protein to diffuse the dependency, etc. They will probably do all of the above, albeit slowly.

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A Highly Effective Holiday Diet

I lost nearly 5% of my body weight with this diet. It was not an easy diet for me. Good thing that I have a good partner ♥♥♥. It worked at the end.

  1. Book a long-distance trip to an destination that has about 8 hours of time difference. The flight-time must be more than 10 hours, particularly the final leg that returns home. Multiple destinations works even better. The trip should last 10 days or so.
  2. Eat whatever adventurous, exotic, spicy, or delicious looking. Invite friends and companions. Drink excessively. Pay no attention to weight gains.
  3. Use no pharmaceutical sleeping aids.
  4. Come back home. Book a middle seat on the airplane. Eat everything the airline offers.
  5. Once return home. Acquire roughly 10 movies (Netflix works). Stockpile bathroom tissues, Pepto Bismol, and your choice NSAID. (My choice was Motrin.) Arrange to have no direct contact with any human beings. Arrange to not work, or reduce your workload to 25% or less. Prepare Oatmeal, porridges, or chick soup enough for 4 days. Do all these within 24 hours or less.
  6. Switch to a strict “Pepto-NSAID-Oatmeal” diet. Pepto and NSAID both come with instructions, follow them to the letters. Go to the bathroom every 30 minutes (no exception). Drink equal amount or more fluid as that come out of your orifices. Drink only clear and non-stimulating liquid, or any soda drinks. Ignore shivering or sweating if they go away with the NSAID, otherwise, stop this diet and seek professional medical helps. Prepared deep life questions (why, why, why?) to ponder but avoid making any major decisions. Arrange someone to clean up the bathroom once a day.
  7. End step #6 in 4 days. Pre-arrange someone to take you to a medical facility if you insist to continue after 4 days.
  8. It is preferable to have one single person staying with you during step #6 of the diet. This person must be a sound sleeper. Statistically, female works 99% of the time.

Diet variation #1:

You may start step #6 anytime after step #1. In that case, the consideration in #8 is highly recommended. The diet is far less enjoyable in this variation, but effective never-the-less.

Diet variation #2:

Step #6 must start immediately after #5. Otherwise, restart from the beginning.

Cultural variations:

Several eastern Asian countries created local variations of this diet. Among them, Western Chinese, Southeastern Asian, Indian (all regions), and Parkitani are most effective. You can experiment with them with your own preference. There are also Eurasian and mid-eastern variations that are very good.

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Leave for the memories

A couple of hundred young engineers met me in 2005 in Beijing. The expectations were high: they needed to grow up fast to take on intense and difficult software development projects, working for leadership positins that were 16 hours away and they did not speak the language. Politically, offshore promoters were considered traitors and not to be trusted.

Three years later, dozens of local leaders grew up quite nicely. Bi-coastal collaborations were common place. Inter-racial friendships, even marriages, were forged. People migrated, in both directions, and started new lives. Those three years changed my and many others’ lives. I made life-time friends.

And not needed anymore. It was time to go. And I left. China history taught that starting something anew is hard, and keeping it going well takes a different kind of people.

I guess it is an art to recognize the transition from the starting phase to the “on-going” one. These changes are hard, since there is no fault on the people involved. It is simply the timing that forces that change.

The expat community in Beijing is dwindling as companies pull out of China. A close friend is ending his 10-year tenure. He founded the establishment when he came, built it into a ~500 people facility, and has been closing the doors for the past several months. He told me about the new employers, the ambitious and scary new young, and the glee that his car licenses are worth more than the cars themselves.

Know when to leave. That takes strength, courage, and wisdom.

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Employee Turn-Over

Employees leave for greener pastures all the time. I learned a couple of the ex-employees quickly left where they went for: Amazon. They were starry-eyed to join this prominent employer in Seattle. “That’s not surprising at all,” said someone at the party when I brought this up. “They chew people up and spit them out.” Really? I did not know that about Amazon.

A bit search showed that Amazon tops the turn-over chart. It also has the policy to cap employee’s cash compensation to $160k and make up the rest with stock grants. This does not work when the stock price is not going anywhere. This brings up the topic of work culture, talent retention, and pay.

High-tech companies like employees who are self-motivating, a trait associated with individual creativity. Self-motivation promotes a bit driven personality and those with that actually enjoy being challenged at work. A good tech manager, therefore, does not baby his employees. He stretches them, sets a higher bar, and pushes the employees in ways not much different than a good coach of a sports team.

What happens after the talent has grown up and reached their optimal market desirability? Simple, they want to be rewarded.

There are two categories of rewards: the ones that motivate and the ones where the lack of them will be demotivating. Money, stock options, vacation days, etc. are the second kind. The key for managers is to make sure they are in sufficient supply so that they are not demoralizing.

The real motivating rewards are difficult to give, since they are all personalized: the more individualized, the better the effect. You can give an employee $1000 bonus and it will be forgotten in a couple of weeks. If, however, you give him a weekend get-away for two in the cozy romantic B&B on the seashore, it will be remembered for decades. The costs are probably the same.

The combined rewards of both kinds, in their relation to the marketability of the individual, is the dominant factor of talent retention. There are other factors: camaraderie, management style, culture, technological challenges, etc. They all play some role in talent retention. The strongest factors remain to be this “reward quotient” (RQ).

I suspect both Amazon and Google have low “RQs”. Amazon probably does not reward its people enough and Google’s people are probably highly marketable.

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A Time to Kill

On one of my many trips, I noticed John Grisham’s new book. I am really never a fan for legal thrillers, or John Grisham. But I knew he’s famous and never read any of his works, so I searched. Clearly, A Time to Kill is his first novel that he struggled to publish in 1989. It was not a hit that made him rich and famous. That will be The Firm. After that, people re-discovered this book which gradually became the most loved one by his fans. Now that’s interesting. So I checked out a library copy. I liked the book, but it did not convert me to a legal thriller person. Now that I have made acquaintance to Mr. Grisham, I planned to move on to my usual genres.

Then I noticed the movie, acted by then less shiny stars in 1996: Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, and Ashley Judd. Again, against my usual practice of avoiding movie adaptations, I watched. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. The movie was well adapted, well made, and well acted. In fact, as a rare event, it made the book more enjoyable after the fact.

So, in this double review, I recommend you to watch the movie and read the book, yes, in that sequence. You would thoroughly enjoy Mr. McConaughey’s performance.

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