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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1,500-Mile Road Trip

We started from Northern California, and visited Lassen Volcanic National Park, Crater Lake, Columbia Gorge, Washington Pacific shore, Washington State Capitol, and arrived at Seattle in the end. It was a long drive. We were tired at the end and yet wished the trip was longer.

Day 1: Getting to Redding

It was the drive day. We left around noon and reached Redding around dinner time. The hotel front-desk recommended a local Mexican restaurant that was cozy, delicious, and satisfying.

Day 2: Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen is about an hour away from Redding. We entered from the North entrance, hiked around Manzanita Lake (pictured), stopped by few places to hike or just walk-about. After about 3 hours, we traversed the same route back to Redding. Had we stayed at Red Bluff, we could have entered from the south, exited from north, and passed through Redding for the next stop.
Manzanita Lake

In less than 30 minutes from Redding, we came to Shasta Lake (really a dam). We lingered around for about 45 minutes and continue to Mt. Shasta City and straight to the City Park where we were surprised with a local picnic concert. Dinner was at the picnic tables listening to a local rock band with beer in-hand. Probably a hundred or so reveled around us or just lazed in the lawn with their dogs. Carefree kids (and young adults) were running bare-foot, some with ice-cream in-hand. We did not really see the mountain at the park, but it was a good stop.

About 90 minutes later, we arrived at Klamath Falls, OR, to stay for the night.

Day 3: Crater Lake

Crater Lake

This was the main attraction of the trip. The goal was to circle the lake. I budgeted 4 hours for this 35-mile loop. We arrived at the south entrance at 9am, and went counter-clockwise. The first stop was Pinnacle Peak. It was a easy stroll for the scene that seemed alien to this world. We came back to Plaikni Falls for an easy 2-mile hike along the well-paved trail. Afterward, we pretty much just drove along the rim roads and stopped at whatever Kodak points seemed interesting. The Phantom Ship and Watchman’s Point were clearly the must-sees. The rest were simply different view points of this magnificent lake.

Were I able to stay at Crater Lake Lodge, I would have made this a full-day stay for a couple of longer hikes. Campers will find very good facilities with firewood already split and staked near-by.

Even at 1:30pm, the nice restaurant at the Lodge had a 1-hour wait. We went to the Rim Cafe for a quick bite and went on to Columbia Gorge.

We pulled into Columbia Gorge Hotel around 7:30pm hoping for a nice dinner with a view. But the sun has already set too much. The dinner was very enjoyable. We went back to The Dalles to stay the night.

A supposedly light day ended up activity-packed. This Gorge is really a historical and cultural area. Expect rich local culture and activities surrounded by the grand expanse of river and gorge views.

We lingered at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center for a couple of hours, even strolled to the back side to have a look at the river. Next, we ventured on several stops along the Fruit Loop near Hood River. Mt. Hood Winery sold us several bottles of their own Pinot Noir (both red and white!). Apple Valley Country Store provided us with fruits and pies.

For lunch, we ate at the famous Full Sail Brewery. Good beers, good foods!

We then drove along the historical Route 30 and stopped by several waterfalls. The largest one is Multnomah Falls which offered a good hike up to the head. Those falls invited us to linger around. At the end, we stopped by the windy Vista House and enjoyed the panorama view of the gorge.
Astoria Bridge

At around 3:30pm, we headed to Astoria, skipping Portland. There was heavy traffic along the road, so we arrived at Cannery Pier Hotel around 7pm for a brief stop. Driving through the Astoria-Megler Bridge was a thrilling experience. There was this steep down-slope stretch that felt like you are diving into the water from mid-air.

Around 7:30pm, we reached our resting place in Long Beach, WA. Adrift Hotel has a nice restaurant on the 4th floor, Pickled Fish. We ate while watching the sun sinking below the ocean.

Day 5: WA State Capitol

Long Beach

The morning began with a nice stroll along the famed beach then we went for a very big breakfast at Laurie’s. After a quick fish-n-chip at Aberdeen, we went straight to Olympia where I peeked into the Senate’s chamber and found no session. The Capitol Garden had this sunken garden with Dahlia in full bloom and many more flowers.

The trip ended with a dinner at Ding Tai Fung, we were both hungry and tired and glad to be sleeping in our own beds, first time in 5 days.

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Managing Creativity

As I mature into management, I read less and less books about them. Most discuss a vigorous process which requires a transformation of the whole company. I don’t know any CEO who has such conviction; I am not one anyway.

Ed Catmull has been a giant in 3D graphics and my hero. I, of course, drew from Foley & van Dam and other classic books. But it was him and Pixar that inspired us at SIGGRAPH, the annual mecca for computer graphics practiioners. I was there when their short films debuted.

He wrote this book as his humble learning process to figure out how to succeed in a creative industry. He contrasted Pixar with Disney Animation, a creative power-house that lost its marbles. He then re-invigored Disney back to its glory that made Frozen.

Software development, what I do, is also a creative business. I, too, struggled to figured out how to made high-quality software, and to come on-budget, on-time, and on-spec at the same time. The secret, it also seemed, is to have a creativity vigor — latch onto a reasonable, not necessary great, idea, then work every mundane days to polish it into a great piece. Creativity is not about sitting idly to wait for the light-bulb moment; it is about taking candid inputs and working hard: struggling, pushing, and fighting hard to get the job done. Inspirations, or ideas, are easy and cheap. The skills to finish the piece are the key to innovation or creativity.

I enjoyed, equally, the history and the managerial wisdom from Creativity, Inc. and was sad to realize how many times myself, or someone I knew, fell into the traps he managed to escape or avoid. His tenet resonated with me that creativity, those high-quality ones, is fundamentally unpredictable. Allowing and even treasuring failures, not punishing them, is part of the deal.

I wanted to buy this book for all my managers.

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Let’s be like Swiss

A young man, long time acquaintance, talked about his recent 6-week Switzerland stay. He talked about the spotless cleanliness, the high-quality and near free public transportation, the harmonic social order, and the excellent welfare system. It is an exemplary government that others should learn from.

“It is a relatively small country,” I said. “What’s the secret that their citizens are so much more productive than other countries’?” My friend pondered, “It’s not their citizens are better. They are the bank of the world. So much money flows into Switzerland, so profitable.” “Oh, so it is like Alaskans getting money from the state,” I said. “The productivity is basically natural resources. For Switzerland, it is a WWII era strategy that is still paying off for the country. Handsomely!” He nodded. We both thought, “Can this be duplicated?”

Governments, big and small, wish to give citizens what they want: high-quality life-style and even better ones for their descendants. Other than Bhutan, GDP per capita seems strongly correlated to the “life-style” ask. Boosting GDP, therefore, becomes the goal. (It’s easier than distributing the wealth. Enter tickle-down theory.) History showed that productivity is fundamentally a function of natural resources, population, and geography. What can a country do? Most are stuck with these factors.

Government can also just print money and give citizens the illusion of better income. Many did just that. Printing money is government borrowing money from its own citizens. It is an illusion of wealth. That’s our own money from the future.

If you cannot afford it now, you won’t in the future. Boosting global competitiveness is the only way to improve general quality of life for the long-term. This is particularly true for smaller countries — Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, etc. — that rely more on global competitiveness to survive.

Learn from Greece.

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The Passage Trilogy

Finally, the third and final book is here. You may start now. Get all three and brew a nice pot of coffee. It is about a girl who saved the world.

In not so distant future, an obssessive scientist discovered a virus that transformed man into a vampire. Unbeknown, they were telepathic and therefore broke away. They killed off nearly the world population, by either infecting them to become vampires or simply killing them. The survivors garrisoned themselves into pockets of fortresses. A century passed in this stalemate.

Amy, a little girl, was part of the original experiment but she did not transform. She eventually arrived one of those fortresses and began the epic battle to save humanity, as a little girl.

I waited for the second book, then so long for the third. This is not the Twilight kind of the vampires. They are nasty monsters that violently torn people apart while devouring them. This is also not your Dracula derivatives. I think Justin Cronin intended the biblical parallel, just much more violent than Noah’s flood.

I do appreciate Justin Cronin’s vigor. The third book tied up all the loose ends and re-told the origin of the epic catastrophe that I have long assumed won’t be explained. The satisfaction of closure — ah, that’s how they knew each others — was very nice. The wrap-up was nearly a short story with a new set of characters. I felt that was not really necessary.

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Un Bien

On a whim, on this lazy summer Seattle Sunday, I decided to take the bus to Ballard to try out Un Bien. The story began with a legendary sandwich shop in Fremont, Paseo. People, seriously, described the sandwiches with words typically reserved for deity or unadulterated teenage love. For the years I lived here, I have not once gave Paseo a try. There was always the next weekend. Then it closed!

The scandalous closure of Paseo sent shockwaves across its huge fan base. It also saddened me for missing the chance to experience the legend. Of course, capitalism prevailed. The former employees re-opened Paseo and the original owner opened Un Bien in Ballard. Both offered pretty much the same Caribbean sandwiches.

They are both too far away for me to bother. Really how amazing can sandwiches be? Well, today, I found out. As sandwiches go, it is near perfect.

The #1 on the menu and best seller — Caribbean Roast (Pork shoulder coated in marinade and slow-roasted until it falls into succulent morsels) — was indeed delicious. The meat was tender and flavorful. The baguette bread toasted lightly to provide the texture, structure, and the absorption for the juice, the sauces intense and flowing, the condiments (onion, veggie) added the extra dimension. It was an elbow-dripping messy and oh-so satisfying sandwich experienced.

The also famous Fire-Roasted Corn featured small-kerneled corn that really served as the vehicle for the insanely unhealthy and delicious aioli. I finished it pretty much in 1 minute.

Was it worth the trip? The answer is really the same as Ding Tai Feng. There is an art-level of comfort foods whose craving is hard to quench once it hit you. At that moment — like Harry and Kumar go to White Castle — a great level of effort seemed well justified.

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Orange Pu’er Tea

Pu’er Tea 普洱茶 has been in rage for the past decade or so. It is a fully fermented tea produced in the Yunnan area, usually packed tightly as bricks. Some made the bricks into an art form, most assumed the simple circular or rectangular shapes. The well aged ones are so highly prized that many treat them as investments.

Lately, I received a gift that is a variation that I have never encountered. I learned that people have been drinking this tea for a very long time and the specific brand, XinHui Tang 新寶堂柑普茶, is highly reputable, essentially the standard for the category. This tea, however, is quite hard to find. The gifted, I believe, got it from Hong Kong.

The laborious process to make this tea begins with the unpacking of a high-quality Pu’er tea brick into loose leaves. Next stuff the leaves into an emptied orange — only the peel left that formed a spherical bowl. The orange is of a very specific varietal and chosen for the ripeness, shape, and size. After the stuffing, the whole thing is dried then packaged.

My mother’s hometown, FuZhou 福州, is known for producing this medicinal dried orange peels. In Chinese herbal medicine, dried orange peels cure coughing and hypertension. Pu’er tea is also well known for its medicinal properties: calming the nerves, melting away body fat, reducing blood pressure, and even slowing down aging. Drinking this orange pu’er tea is therefore doubly healthy.

I enjoy pu’er tea pretty much only for its strong aroma and flavors. Natural tea aroma is preferred, but those infused with Jasmine, Chrysanthemum, Osmanthus, or even rose buds are enjoyable as well. I am not sure about the claimed medicinal values. Chinese has been drinking this for a very long time, it cannot be bad for me.

Internet emphasizes the proper steeping method: take both the orange peel and the tea leaves, discard the first pouring of just boiled water, steep the 2nd pouring for 20 seconds and drain to the cup promptly, repeat 3 to 5 times with progressive longer time until all flavors are extracted. Do not prolong the contact time of the tea leaves and hot water.

We drain the 2nd and 3rd pouring into a cup and drank it. It was strong, rich in flavors, and nicely for the nose. The 4th to 6th pouring went into my standard and favorite jar-size cup. I drank it slowing through-out the evening, way after it has cooled down. This tea is good. I like.

To health! Take another sip.

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Mither Mages Trilogy

For 1,500 years, the Olympic Gods, as those in Greek and Roman mythologies, were stranded on earth. Their descendants gradually got weaker in their mythical powers as depicted on those myths. Soon, they might became just like us drowthers (muggles as in Harry Potters), unless a gatemage emerges. A good gatemage can enhance their power and make them rulers of the earth again. Danny North was one such gatemage, in fact the greatest ever.

A gate can instantaneously transport any object from one location to another — violating rules of physics. If the object of the transportation is a living thing, it also restore it to perfect health. A capable gatemage could create such things at will. A Gatefather can create many such gates. This is like the movie Jumper.

Orson Scott Card was actually disappointing. The story line and characters were creative and great. But he went overboard in the philosophical department. He theologically re-interpreted God, Satan, devils, and afterlife. He indulged in teenage silly verbal jousting. The love and other emotions were superficial and shallow. If you expect a repeat of Ender’s Game, this is not it.

It is a good library borrow over a lazy weekend. Don’t forget that there are three books in this series. You would want to finish all three in one sitting.

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Cupertino 5K Jogging Path

Jogging outdoors is a event rarely happened in Seattle. When it does, many unreasonable conditions must be met: the the weather being nearly perfect: clear day and between 65°F and 80°F; asphalt or well paved paths; a loop, instead of out and back a path; few traffic lights and no fighting cars; flat paths; and, lastly, not crowded by many fellow joggers.

Summer mornings of northern California are just perfect. I discovered this jogging path only recently. This loop that starts at the intersection of De Anza and Stevens Creek crosses the fewest traffic lights and mostly through the residential area.

The best part is the Creekside Park tucked along Miller. It’s a big swab of green paved along the perimeter. The path pretty much is going for it as the destination and coming back.

Back to the treadmill in the gym when I go back to Seattle.

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Jack Reacher: Persuader

I read fictions only from the library. I figured the good ones will eventually work their way into the system. The popular one all have long waiting lists. I would request them, and patiently waited my turn, sometimes for months. While I am “between books,” I simply checked out one of those mass market series. There are many prolific authors who cranked out many books with very consistent style and format. Some call them the travel books: the one you buy at the airport bookstore and discard at the hotel when you are done. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series is in such category.

Although the plot largely predictable, I enjoyed reading every Jack Reacher so far. I guess I identified with the protagonist: a modern lone ranger who wandered into the small town and took care of people from the big bad wolf.

This time, however, he was a revenger: getting back to a big bad guy who wronged him 10 years ago. The general weakness of this book is Lee Child developed the story line too slowly, almost as if he added the flash-back subplot as an after-thought.

Several fight scenes were excellent, the fist fight with Paulie being the best.

Highly recommended for your next trip to wherever.

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