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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Detox from Laptop Addiction

I relish the offline time on the plane (to an extent). I would write programs, clear out my inbox, do presentations, or compose my thoughts into words. The epiphany is that those are transient works. Things really get “done” when I emerge back up to the connected world.

I am a laggard in this tablet revolution. There are two iPads in the household and I use them only to play some games. I am really a laptop person, needing the keyboard and mouse to feel efficiency.

Then I lost my beloved Kindle (dozed off in the train and left it in the seat pocket). Instead of replacing it, I bought an Adroid tablet (ASUS MeMO Pad). Things started to change.

For the first week, I used it exactly as an eReader. I quickly installed the Kindle App and finished the book (Awakened, books 4 to 6). Then, I saw that this tablet is simply the phone with larger screen. I email, text, voice call, map navigate, Yelp check-in, Uber, WeChat, Facebook, keep meeting minutes, remember shopping lists, etc. with my phone. Do I really need my laptop anymore? Hmmm.

I had a day-trip coming and, with trepidation, I left my laptop at home. This was going to be a 48-hour crash detox program. All I had were a smartphone and a 6″ tablet?

I read on the 5-hour flight, played some games, and did email, offline, with the clumsy soft keyboard. When I checked into the hotel room, the tablet sync’ed up everything. I plopped up the pillows on bed and pretty much continued as if I was still on the plane, only more comfortably, connected, and getting better with the software keyboard.

The second day, I did email in-between meetings, with improved soft keyboard skills. I charged the tablet when I was in meetings and unplug it when I use it. I was gleeful watching my fellow travelers taking out their laptops. Hey, I had no such thing.

The experience on the return flight was very similar to the outbound one. I got home near mid-night. Again, the tablet got online, delivered those offline emails, and got itself sync’ed.

In the morning, I flipped on the laptop with a strange feeling of getting re-acquainted with it. I missed the keyboard and the mouse, and the bigger screen.

I am not ridding my laptop, but I can now travel lighter, particularly on short-trips. I survived the detoxing from laptop. Would I survive without Internet? No, not experimenting that.

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The Soul of A Chef

I am not a talented cook. In professional speak, I don’t have a good palate. What’s a “good palate?” I live with a very talented cook. She knew what go together, what do not. She knew how much to season, which spices to use. She knew how long to cook, at what temperature. She can literally whip together whatever in the fridge and it will be delicious. I cannot. And this piqued my curiosity (which is easily piqued). Michael Ruhlman’s book depicted, somewhat, on the making of good palates.

First is the attention to detail and a good memory. A cook cannot be sloppy (like me). If 15 minutes are the right time, 14 or 16 would be wrong. And details are many. An organized and high-capacity brain that can hold them is critical, particularly when the kitchen is frenzy, obviously quite common for restaurants.

Good chefs put things together and season them almost magically and most likely unexplainable. Every cooks relies on his/her instinct and experiences. Of course there are cookbooks and recipes; they are merely guidelines. The cook must adjust and adapt to the condition of the ingredients and environment; they are never the same as the cookbooks or recipes. They are also rarely consistent.

This book demystified cooking and, at the same time, mystified the chefs: Brian Polcyn, Michael Symon, and Thomas Keller. It also did a great job depicting the working condition of restaurant kitchens: the non-relenting pressure, the long hours, and the impossible standards behind “delicious goods.”

The concept of CIA (Culinary Institute of America) came up a lot. This is the premiere cooking school of America yet Mr. Ruhlman repetitively hinted it getting irrelevant. You must be a very good cook before you entered CIA to survive the program whose tuition is out of reach for most professional cooks. The program is based on classical French cooking that pigeon-holes the graduates. The famed CMC (Certified Master Chef) tests are essentially, again, irrelevant: you are certainly a good cook if you are a CMC, but vice is not versa. CMC only certifies a very narrow kind of cooks: those who are mechanically perfect. If you are not robotic enough, you won’t pass, even if you can cook better than those who will.

Michael Ruhlman actually attended CIA, as a research for his writing. The attempt to become a good cook changed him, so he stated. I wondered what would happen if he had studied at Julliard instead. In fact, the attempt to become the best in any profession — painting, plumbing, software, or sport — changes a person. I am glad to have glimpsed at that for cooking. The chefs were lucky to have an excellent writer passionate at their crafts.

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The Paella Experiment

I am frequently in awe of Wife’s palate, much to her annoyance. She would literally whip something together and it just taste great. When I plastered her with questions on the theme of “how did you know it will come out this way.” She will usually give me the expression of “you would never understand.”

That does not stop me from experimenting. And I learned a couple of things about my own lack of culinary expertise, or training. I am a messy cook. I am also imprecise. You can say that I cook by instinct. That really just mean that no sane person should commit to eat what I cook beforehand, not even myself. Ha!

After the semi-disastrous Lasagna experiment, I was struck with idea of seafood Paella. After several rounds of Googling, I concluded that seafood Paella is a category, not a dish. Undeservingly creatively, I chose sausage, chicken, shrimps, clams, mussels, and scallops for the proteins; tomato, celery, bell pepper for vegetables; onion, garlic, and parsley for aromatics. Of course I got Saffron. For rice, I have whatever in the house. Yes, Paella is a complete dish.

It was a “one pan” method. Pan fry the sausage to begin with. Sauté onion to translucent, then add chicken. When chicken are cooked, add tomato, bell pepper, celery, and saffron. Within a minute, add broth and rice. Brought to boil, reduce to simmer, close the lid for about 10 minutes to cook the rice. Do not stir, check once in a while. When the rice look done, put in shrimps, clams, mussels, and scallops. Wait until the shellfish open. Add Parsley, turn off heat. Wait several minutes and serve. The rice were al dente. The part that were stuck on the pan was the best!

I declared the experiment a success!

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Double Defections

After decades, I abandoned FireFox and submitted to IE. Yes, Microsoft finally won. On my Windows 7 with various desktop protection things installed, FireFox stopped working. I Googled and found many users experienced the same. The only fix seems to be “clean re-install” — removing every files associated with FireFox and download a new one. I backed up my plug-ins and bookmarks, but all the certificates will be lost. So I gritted my teeth and severed my many decade relationship with FireFox. I still don’t like IE and may give Chrome try, but later. For now, I am slowing rebuilding my browser habitat.

After losing my beloved Kindle PaperWhite, I got myself an Android tablet (ASUS Memo Pad) instead. I was traumatized losing my kindle, particularly because I was deeply entrenched with a long book and eager to finish it. My instinct was to just buy another one; life goes on as it used to be. When I went to Amazon.com, I paused.

There is a new Kindle, Voyager, that appears to be interesting. So I researched. Once I started, I couldn’t help taking a look at my requirements for an eReader. I found that:

  1. I read a lot, but not more than 3 to 4 hours non-stop, even on a long flight.
  2. I need backlight. That’s why I like PaperWhite so much. It’s better than paper books plus a book light.
  3. I also read magazines and newspapers. I used to use Calibre to download them to my Kindle. But it stopped working recently. I suspected that Amazon blocked them for revenue opportunities.
  4. I don’t mind some casual gaming or light emailing on the device, even my primary purpose was to read.
  5. I really wish to have a better browser.

To my surprise, I really want a 6-inch tablet that’s light-weight and with good battery life. Among three candidates — iPad Mini, Google Nexus, ASUS Memo Pad — I chose the one with best review and also best in price/performance. It is actually cheaper than the new Kindle Voyager.

Of course, the first App I launched was Kindle reader, so that I can finish my book. I am delighted to find the App for my favorite magazine and also a news aggregator.

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