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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Interview Tricks for Old Job Seekers

The high-tech industry does not discriminate against the old. It is a hyper-competitive industry. The employers are pragmatic. They simply want the best value for their money. For that, old people usually are not a good deal. You, one of the old, need to develop some techniques to deal with this.

First, get rid of the entitlement that comes with so-called experience. Someone with 15 years of experience digging trenches is not better than one. In fact, the younger ones are probably less injured and more eager. Never assume that people will associate experience with skills. Demonstrate your skills. You need to show that yours are better, else you are simply older.

Are you mentally agile, flexible, and curious? Or are you rigid, bureaucratic, and hierarchical? Are you irritated that people do not defer to you, automatically? Employers want someone who gets things done, picks up what’s on the floor, and a team player. I am pretty sure that you think you are one such talent. But can you demonstrate that? Such demonstration should be subtle and indirect: show, don’t tell. Give examples of you being agile, flexible, and curious.

What’s your energy level? Are you perky, social, friend-seeking? During the interview, gather your energy before each interviewer walks into the room. Smile, give a good hand-shake, focus, and engage. Listen carefully, give appropriate social responses. Pick up clues and show interest. Be a fun person that has a wide range of interests, diverse hobbies, and large set of friends. I am not saying all young people are like this, but old ones are not.

Are you modern? Do you know the new tools? Do you keep up with the evolution of technology? What’s the latest of whatever? What’s your lingo? What do you call that thing that young people cannot live without?

Are you wiser? How so? Can you pick a positive example such as “You can improve this process by 200%. I tried it before and this is how it will work.” Instead of: “This won’t work because I tried it 10 years ago and failed.” The former is wisdom, the latter obstructive.

Most employers do not age discriminate, most candidates do it to themselves (the victim mentality). Remember that the job search is hard for everyone. The young probably fail even more frequently, they simply take offers more easily and accept rejection as the price they must pay to grow up.

Most importantly, complaining about age discrimination does not land you a job. You are unlikely to complain to your prospective employer directly. He or she will hear it second- or third-handedly. And your offer is off right then, “That guy has a chip on his shoulder. He will be too hard to work with.”

Me? I am too old for that.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Books rarely surprise me anymore. A suspense, mystery, or SciFi could, and frequently do, surprised me with their plot or storyline, but fictions do not venture into an area that I have not been before, let alone not even thought existed. Hence a critical difficulty in review this book without spoiling it.

Years ago, I read Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. It was a good mystery that I gradually forgot the details. Karen Joy Fowler aroused a memory from that book, about twins being forcibly separated and the trauma of such separation, only a couple of days, has inflicted on them. The lost of a twin sibling is said to be the biggest emotional trauma, more severe than lost of a child, spouse, or parent. The damage could last a life-time.

That’s as far as I would go without spoiling it. There!

I knew, yet completely forgot, that it was a fiction. I was truly submerged into the book and thought it was all real. That was the second surprise.

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One Month a Teetotaler

As the ball dropped at Times Square, everyone hugged and kissed, I finished the last drop of red opened for dinner hours earlier, the resolution began. I was to abstain from alcohol for a month.

This was not the first time. Years ago, I abstained during a February, the shortest month. A couple of years ago, I attempted one more time and failed; weak will-power succumbed to excuses.

Why am I doing this? The overt reason is for my health. Family members defined “excessive drinking” differently from myself, but we all agreed that I should drink less, so advised the Internet. Underneath, I needed to know that I can do it.

First I needed to get over with the need to pair foods with drinks. The temptation is almost impossible: steak with red wine, fish with white, and beers with pretty much everything salty and crispy, everything tastes better with a pairing alcoholic drink. At first, I substituted with club soda, juice, ice water, or tea. Then I tried just nothing and found the foods quite enjoyable and mouth not really parched.

I also need to fight the yearning for an unwinding agent (“Man, I can really use a drink now.”) Somehow, alcohol brings relaxation or the “loosening up.” I distracted myself or went to the gym.

Lastly, probably the hardest, was the social occasions: beer busts, gatherings after work, parties, etc. I found the trick of holding a club soda with a wedge of lime. My reputation would have established that I am having a clear mixed drink. Why do I need the charade that I was drinking? The answer surprised me: I did not want to be challenged or teased to take a sip. I wanted to go on with this private resolution on my own, quietly, without drawing attention.

I resolve to abstain one month each year.

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Napa Country

December, 2016

I learned there is such thing called “palate capacity.” It is the number of good restaurants or wines to over-whelmed one’s ability to appreciate them. Napa country is where one discover his palate capacity and train to expand it. Of course, suspension of all weight-losing attempts is a pre-requisite. I brought back probably 5 pounds on my belly.

Going to Napa requires planning. Every worthwhile restaurants and wineries requires reservations and some very long-time in advanced. A driving arrangement will be nice, if everyone in the party likes to drink; either a designated driver or a car service will work well. Since this is a place about drinking and eating, probably the most important thing is to come with company who like to eat and drink with you. Expect to double whatever you usually spend on foods and wines here. Trying to find “value” here is not at the best way to enjoy the trip.

Wine tasting is not about judgment or showing-off. Foods and wine appreciation is personal. The lack of sophisticated vocabulary is not an indication of lack of sophistication. My wine vocabulary can rival probably only King Kong. Talking about the “hint of espresso and Ethiopian dark chocolate” and that it reminded you the $1,500 bottle you drank 10 years ago during a trip to the Bordeaux region will find you all by yourself the next stop.

There is really no “the list,” Internet will give many. For boasting value, Opus One winery and any establishments by Tom Keller are musts. I stayed away from large iconic producers and mixed wineries that I enjoyed their products before and some that I have never heard of. This meant boutique wineries that are, mostly, a farm-house like building with small staff.

Dead winter is really the perfect time to visit Napa. This region suffers crowd onslaught in all other seasons. We got into restaurants and wineries with only light attempt to reserve a slot (yes, still needed). We stayed a night at the Marriott.

Where I went? Bouchon Bakery, Black Stallion Winery, Whetstone Winery, Luna Winery, Celadon restaurant, Model Bakery, Opus One Winery, Farmstead Long Meadow Ranch, and ZD Winery.

Opus One is really an obligatory visit. I always thought Opus One more as brilliant marketing: two demigods in wine industry, both beyond any need to prove themselves, setup to make the perfect wine. The wine is a blend, immediately drinkable, and not intimidating as those Bordeaux first-growth. We arrived at the reserved time, were led to the partner room, where three choices were offered: Opus One 2011 at $60 per 4-oz glass, 2013 at $45, and “Overture” at $20. We opted for the $60 and $20 and were blown-away! They were excellent wines: complex, tasty, balanced, and inviting you to keep on sipping. We discussed, debated, and compared the two and tried to savor every drops.

Just when we thought we have reached the peak of expensive wines, ZD topped the list with their Abacus XVIII at $625 a bottle. It is a uniqued Solera style blended wine that combined a series vintages. I did not even taste it. Their “reserved cab” is already $210 a bottle. These are way above my casual drinking range and I don’t really collect wines.

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How We Got To Now

Steven Johnson attributed innovation less to giant genii. Instead, he believed a combustion of innovations come when all the right elements evolved to the right maturity point.

Innovation is a continuous incremental improvements and tinkering, mostly waiting for the right technologies to emerge and then to apply them in a clever way. It is much less than a lone genius having a light-bulb moment: the apple that fell on Newton, the Eureka shouted out by Euclid, or similar stories were misleading. I like this for two reasons: I am not a genius, and I don’t want to count on genii for the success of my organization. Engineering is about a methodology. Luck helps, but not a necessity.

This is a different kind of history book. The angle Steven Johnson took was unique. One of the thread was on “Cold”. He tracked the history of how human cool down the environment: from storing ice blocks to the advances of refrigeration technologies, as well as their applications. Another one was on the history of human beings clean themselves. I did not know that, until recently, bathing was considered unhealthy! Submerging one in water was bad for health.

This book was a quick read and quite entertaining, at least for this geek. Clearly there was a PBS series on this. I might dig them out some days.

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