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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Memory Lane down Pixar

It was such a nostalgia seeing Luxo Jr. at Pixar Studio.

When I was in computer graphics, the industry leaders were Evans & Sutherland and Pixar; the show was SIGGRAPH. I attended the nerdy conference probably every other year. There were two main technological development directions then: photo-realistic rendering and 3D interactive graphics. (Later, when I exited the field, image processing and digital video became mainstream.) We understood the technologies cannot achieve both and this division was a compromise. Each side, then, sought inspirations from the other and tried to improve the state of the arts in partnership.

In 1984, Pixar produced a poster titled “1984 – Pool Balls.” It was mesmerizing to us graphics practitioners. I stared at the poster for hours and scrutinized every details: obviously the motion blurs, the reflective surfaces of the balls, the different shades of the felt and its realistic texture, and the physics of the ball movements. A rendering of that resolution took tremendous amount of computation and time. The break-through was a distributed algorithm that became part of the famed RenderMan program. Kids will come to me and asked about the poster. They expected artistic deep human meaning and I would have tried to explain the technologies and they would scurry away.

Normal SIGGRAPH short films were some boring tea pot rotating in various ways. Why tea pot? Simple, we engineers were lousy graphics modelers. Someone (Martin Newell) actually modeled the tea pot and make the file public domain. The Utah tea pot also became a de factor standard for rendering quality and speed.

In 1986 SIGGRAPH, Pixar showed the now famed Luxo Jr short-film. I was in the audience and felt like a teenager in a rock concert of my most loved band. The whole auditorium gave a standing ovation that lasted a long long time.

There were two light sources, cleverly the Luxo Jr and the little lamp. The lights played off the ball and lamps nicely. The physical modeling was flawless. The motions: jumps, bouncing of the balls, etc. were convincingly real. The film lasted about 2 minutes. For us computer graphics guys, that’s nearly 3000 frames at high resolution. Pixar had a break-through with rendering technologies to produce the film. But that’s not why we applauded.

The film was emotionally touching and told a nice story. Everyone in the audience understood that they just witnessed a historical moment: a fully computer generated motion picture was now within reach. If Pixar can produce Luxo Jr., a feature-length film was around the corner. That short film was a clear evidence that they had something none of us thought we needed: a real story teller — John Lasseter.

When I saw that Luxo Jr. statue in Pixar Studio in front of the Steve Jobs building, all those memories rolled back. Like the original Mickey Mouse of Walt Disney, Pixar remembered the significant break-through of that 2-minute short film 30 years ago. And I was there.

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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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