47th Samurai

Stephen Hunter’s #4 of the series took a strange turn. I have been reading Bob Lee Swagger slowly. I like Stephen Hunter and also the character, kind of the modern lone ranger more human than Jack Reacher. Up to now, Mr. Swagger had saved the day by killing bad guys with his kiss-ass gun shooting skills. In this book, he did not even touch one.

This is the modern rendition of the 47 Ronin folk-lore, all the way down to the snow scene of the big assault. For background, ronin are lord-less samurai that are like secret services to the president, only serving life-time. In ancient Japan, one of lord was humiliated and killed; his samurai became ronin. After a carefully planned and successful revenge, they surrendered to the Shogun and all committed seppuku (suicide by means of cutting through one’s own guts). This story centered around the sword used by the legendary lead samurai of those 47.

Stephen Hunter did very well introducing samurai, sword-making crafts, and swordsmanship, also touching the male-centeredness of the social structure. I stayed up to wee hours to finish it one night, not even thinking about why Mr. Swagger was not shooting anyone.

Bob Lee Swagger was almost 60 years old in this book and the series is still active. This made me wonder if the rest of the series are basically flashbacks or prequels. I am unreasonably stubborn in the way that I like the books in series to follow chronological order. Guess I will find out when I read the next one.

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Work on Productivity.

Taiwan was in the news recently when President-elect Trump accepted the congratulatory call from President Tsai. Giving her the title legitimized Taiwan as a country and infuriated China.

On this island, the hot news was the new labor laws. From afar, it seemed to boil down on over-time. Every versions increased the over-time pay from the existing laws; the protest was that the new president promised even more during the campaign. People felt cheated. This, sadly, missed the point by miles.

In an economy that is not growing (admit it, Taiwan), it is the zero-sum game: one side’s gain is the other side’s loss. Higher over-time pay means lower profit for the employer, or higher prices for the goods. But if the employer is the government, it becomes complicated. There are several ways to deal with this. The government can raise taxes (where would the extra over-time pay come from?), reduce services (famously cutting fire, police, and school budgets), or both. These are entirely unacceptable. More protests!

Soon, the government came to the last trick: debt financing. For most modern government, this means printing money, recently called “quantitative easing.” QE is not free money. It borrow from the future and make the next generation less competitive. Look only at Greece to see the results.

What about the private sector? That’s actually easier. If the cost of doing business is too high, they will simply disappear: moving offshore, closing shops, get merged, etc.

You see, none of these are really interesting. The only sure way to get better life is to increase the productivity: to acquire skills or knowledge. There is really no easy way. One just must work hard and engage in self-improvement. Waiting, or expecting, hand-outs from the government or employer never works. There is no free lunch!

All protesters framed the issue as a class conflict: that “we” are hopelessly exploited by “them”, that the system is not fair and the cards are stacked against “us.” This is rarely the case. More importantly, it does not matter. For any individual, the choices are really simple:

  1. Make self a better valued asset
  2. Accept that status quo is as good as it will ever be
  3. Fight the system to give self more for the same output

If the environment is not changing and you are not making yourself more valuable, option #2 is what you are going to get. You can try to change the environment (#3) or yourself (#1). The reality is both require energy, time, and/or money. If you don’t want to do extra, you are accepting #2. If you are willing, you need to choose #1 or #3.

Option #3 does not add value to the whole system. It moves resources from one pile to another. It is simply a re-distribution. Option #1 makes the whole system more valuable.

Take a look of GDP per capita for the country. Think real hard on why yours is worse than the other one. There is really only two possible answers: they have better natural resources or their people are more productive. There is nothing you can do about the former and if you choose #1, you add to the latter. If everyone does that, soon, your country will see an improvement on GDP per capita.

That’s when everyone is better off. Now, choose.

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The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Stieg Larsson died soon after finishing the Millennium Trilogy. The end of Lisbeth Salander or Mikael Blomqvist was a sad certainty. When I heard this novel, I dismissed it as a knock-off. One day, Kid mentioned the book. Seriously? It turned out the publisher sought out David Lagercrantz to write this sequel and he apparently did a good job. So I entered it into my reading queue.

This books crossed several classic genres: SciFi, cybersecurity, crime/suspense, and personal struggles. The original series were epic: Lisbeth’s battles were like David against an army of Goliaths. Her triumphs were not only inspirational in the winning, they were also personally warming in the transformation of Lisbeth through the support, friendship, and love. We cheered when she won and were also touched that she healed from those deep trauma in the process. This #4 missed both. It is a good thriller. The battle was not as big, the winning was less dramatic, and Lisbeth was equally dark, punk, and lonely at the end.

Stand on its own, it is still a very enjoyable book. But it did not hook me for the next in the series.

The nerd in me needs to point out some unbelievable creativities. A key in Elliptical Curve encryption (ECC) is usually about 10 digits or longer. A savant kid cannot factor that over-night. I was glad that one of the subplots centered around quantum computing, an area of vast interest to us computing practitioners. Lastly, the mention of the famed singularity (from John von Neumann, in 1958, when computer becomes smarter than human) distracted and disappointed me. It is a big enough topic to be a main theme of the book, yet it got meager treatment. At the end, I was glad the book did not turn out to be another chase on Skynet. Oh well, it is now out of my system. Sorry.

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Under Preparation for Job Interviews

“If they don’t like me for who I am, then I don’t want to work for them either,” said the job applicant. Seriously?

Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.– Theodore Roosevelt

Bad resume is the first mistake. The list of jobs in the standard reverse chronological order adds little value. Not getting fired is a valuable skill, but not really marketable. Hiring managers are interested in your productive skills and expertise, preferably the proof of them, not just the claim. For example, just saying you are “a Database Engineer for 5 years” is bad. “Implemented data query” is better. “Designed new algorithm to improved query performance by 35%” is much better.

What were your proudest accomplishments in recent jobs and personal life? What were your direct contributions and the differences you made? Was is your judgment, unique skills, or some of your personality traits? Can you describe them in one minute and also in five? Rehearse both the 1- and 5-minute versions out loud, preferably in front of an audience. Tell the story with an opening and end with a punch line.

If you are a manager, have several “war stories” on people management, budgeting, cross-departmental negotiation, and upward management.

It is OK to bring notes. Interviewers appreciate well prepared candidates. Everyone wants the time spent to be productive, at least entertaining.

Ask who are to interview you: name, position, his/her place in the organization. Google them, search them in social media and news, make notes. What’s the role you are interviewing for? What’re the sales, competitors, and recent announcements? Who is at the top of that business? Are you generally knowledgeable? Much preferably, do you have some insights on this business?

This may be a seller’s market and a talent, such as yourself, merely need to choose among the best suiters. Wrong! The best job in the best company always attract the best candidates and, for that, it is always the buyer’s market. You are always competing with someone equally, or better, talented as yourself. If you don’t prepare, study, rehearse, or practice, there is really nothing better will come your way. No matter how good is the job market for the talents. Remember what Roosevelt said. Does Steph Curry practice shooting? Do you know any author who does not edit his works? Or any singer who does not rehearse?

Job hunting is a skill. All skills require practicing. It’s always good to acquire skills before you need them. Whether you are “not really looking” has nothing to do with acquiring a job hunting skill.

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Getting to know Carole King, again.

I have never heard of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. But I knew many songs they wrote, and I bet you too. This is the bane of pop composers, people only knew the songs or singers, but not the song writers. And I did not know that Carole King started her career as one. Carole who? We geezers knew her as the combined of Taylor Swift and Adele in the early 1970s.

Some Kind of Wonderful was a song for her daughter. You’ve Got a Friend was for Cynthia and Barry when she was moving to California. I knew these songs well, yet they touched me deeper when I heard them again in this musical. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow was sung twice under very different moods. I honestly have never heard of Carole King’s husband, let alone he being her lyricist in the early days.

Mike said, in FB, that he and Linda were both big fans. I reflected that our “musical ages” are about the same — referencing pop music affiliation follow closely with ages. Anecdotally, the audience proved this theory that they seemed to be the same age group. And, like me, sang along or smiled when some songs stroke some long forgotten strings in our hearts.

Sigh, since when I go to a concert to remember my youthful days?

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I Belonged to You

Back in 2012, a Chinese conglomorate acquired the AMC theaters. Dalian Wanda (大連萬達)group became the world’s largest cinema chain. Most of us have been oblivious on this event and went our merry ways watching movies, or whatever. Then, one day, Wife suggested that we go see this one. “Sure,” I said, really more out of curiosity.

It was a touching movie set in the western city of ChongQing, a hilly city. Three couples struggled the daily grinds and tried to find love and meaning of lives. The tragedy heaet-felt, the acting very well, and the play well written. I liked the movie, even as a romantic chick flick.

It was in Chinese with English sub-title. The whole theater, a weekend matinee show, has total of 7 viewers. I needed to search in Chinese to find the poster picture.

The movie really explored the singular topic of “What do women really want?” And, of course, the flip side of the coin, “What can a man give to her?” I went out of the theater thinking of this for several days. For that, the movies worked. Of course, I really should have written this blog in Chinese, since I really don’t recommend it for my American friends.

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Sunshine is the Best Disinfestant

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman. by Louis D. Brandeis

I used to help Mother airing the comforters, particularly during a sunny winter day. Back then, our comforters were universally cotton filled. I loved going to the comforter maker’s shop. There would be a large flat surface laid with cotton. The master carried a big bow that arched over to the other end of the surface, probably 10 feet over. With the tout string hovering right above the cotton bed, he would strike the string with a wooden hammer. Each strike produced a sound, like a poorly harmonized harp. The vibration loosened the cotton to become puffier. This went on until the cotton bed looked like nothing other than clouds on earth. The master then pressed it down, packed it with a thin cover, and finished a new comforter core.

The puffiness gradually faded and the comforter became damp, heavy, and moldy. Sunny day would finally come. Mom would call out and every kids held up their comforters like a body-sized stuffed toy. We would spread them for maximal exposure to the sun. We would have beat up the comforters with sticks, flipped them over, and repeated. At the end, they would have smelled like sun and felt warm and puffy all over again.

A friend’s face always displayed rashes like a pumpkin, particularly around the eyes and mouth. For decades, he searched for the causes and remedies which included a vast dietary regimes: to no avail. Several months ago, with excitement, he established strong link between his rash episodes with dust mites.

Then he found a device that rid dust mites — a multi-hundred dollar wand-shaped apparatus promised to kill dust mites instantaneously. Weekly, he religeously worked his pillows, linens, and blankets. The effects was miraculous. His face became normal.

It was a ultra-violet light wand. It turned out dust mites cannot survive the exposure to ultra-violet light for just a few seconds. My friend now travels with this device and does his routine for every new beds before he lies on it.

Hmm, guess Mom knew better. Those sun shone comforters were not only puffy, they were also clean. Sunshine was the best dis-infestant. Free too.

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Indentured Servitude

Why would anyone in modern high-tech society even consider to be the employment side of indentured servitude? For money, power, and greed, of course.

Over a dinner conversation, I learned, first-handedly, that a company just erected a policy that they would not enter the permanent residence process in less than a year after an employee has obtained his or her H1B visa.

Having the H1B visa is a critical step in obtaining permanent resicence in the US. USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly INS) granted these visa by lottery. Statistically, about 30% of the applicants received this status. (233,000 applied for 65,000 quota. There are another 20,000 for people with advanced degrees.) So an aspiring high-tech worker needs to manage to stay in the US for possibly 3 years to get this visa.

From the immigrating worker’s point of view, this company’s policy essentially lock him in for 2 to 4 years: enter the country with another working visa, wait for the April H1B lottery, wait a year to start the process. If did not get the visa, wait another year to try again. During these years, he basically cannot change job. If he got fired, deportation came swiftly. Simply put, this policy is a form of indentured servitude. It incites only bitterness.

And it is completely not necessary. For the rest of the employees, majority of them, the employer must manage their growth, pay them fairly, and provide a productive working environment lest losing them to other companies. Employees generally change job only when mis-managed. Treating some of them as slaves is not good management.

My general practice is treating the sponsoring of immigration process like any large, one-time benefit expenditure, such as relocation expense reimbursement or tuition reimbursement. The employee, in exchange of the receiving the benefit, must agree to stay for a duration of time (typically a year), otherwise, he or she must pay it back.

The difference between slavery and a contractual agreement is in the fairness of those options that either side to exercise.

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The Mirepoix Experiment

Making mirepoix (meer-pwah) seems to be the fundamental skill for every self-respecting cooks. Alas and unashamed, I am not one. Then came the day, Wife far away, I thought to make myself a hearty soup. What was that flavor-base with a French sounding name? Google came through with both the right word and the general instructions. (This is a fine application of voice-based searching. “Alexa, how to make mye-roe-qua?” “To make mirepoix, you start with…”

I first chopped one onion, finely. Then I eyeballed carrots and celery to roughly half in volume. Turned on the stove and throw in onions and carrots and started to sweat them. When the onion became translucent, I threw in celery and garlic (just because) and simply stir them once in a while until the celery was soft. This completed the mirepoix, a flavor and aromatic base.

I needed a meal. So I poured water to cover, threw in tomato, potato, and tofu. Boiled them for about 10 minutes, threw in some pre-cooked beef, added chopped basil, and I had a stew. Hearty and delicious.

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Samaria Trilogy

Kid recommended #2 of this series. I have the general practice of always start the series from #1. So I ended up reading all three. Technically, Sharon Shinn has 5 books based on the Samaria settings. Unlike myself, readers should just read Jovah’s Angel, the #2 and the best one of this series.

Samaria was a continent of a planet far, far away. The people there were descendants of us earthlings millions of years from now. Somehow, in addition to races, they had a new species of angels. Yes, wings, flying, and gorgeous looking. Angels can interbreed with humans and, except for the wings, were pretty much the same as humans. They also had great voice and were very musically inclined. The God generally heeded angels’ prayers, typically delivered singing, for weather control.

For Samaria, God chose an Archangel to rule the world every 20 years or so. Like human rulers, these archangels varied in their charisma, political views, and general agenda for the world. There was no telling how God made his/her choices. Alleluia became the archangel under the most unusual circumstances.

Yes, Sharon Shinn seemed to like female protagonist. Maybe that’s why Kid liked it.

Spoiler Alert

It is not really a new concept for a computer to act as God for the world under-neath. It is interesting those “settlers” to genetically engineer angel and use their enhanced acoustic skills, and the ability to fly up to be closer to the orbiting computer, to act as the intermediary to God. Other than those abilities, these angels were as human as the rest of the population: corruptible, ambitious, and all other banes.

Alleluia, with the help of an engineer, found out the truth and had a decision to make. For those culturally less advanced than medieval, the concept of not having a god and an advanced computer were both controversial and difficult.

The protagonists of the series all being female was interesting. It appeared that Sharon Shinn could give them characters depth easier than those male parts. Other than this, the futuristic social themes were really simplistic: commerce, culture, slavery, and political power.

The description for the singing was interesting. Sharon Shinn depicted the sound almost as painting. I suspect she herself to be an accomplished singer, probably classical instead of pop.

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