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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Occupy (Hong Kong) Downtown


Last year, Taiwan’s college students occupied the congress and demanded things. I think they achieved success. I did not follow up. This year, Hong Kong kids are doing the same, occupying the most active commercial district of Hong Kong. This activity is called the “Umbrella Revolution“. It rained during the protest and the students also used the umbrellas as make-shift weapons or shields against the police or the protesters of the other side.

I wonder if these protests would really accomplish anything.

Protests try to disrupt the establishments. The objective is to draw attention to the cause, gather support, and, of course, force the establishment to change course. Since most people need such establishment for their livelihood, these disruptions must have negative impact on the society. Further, the protesters generally need the logistical support (foods, wastes, shelter, etc.) to continue the protest. These very supports also come from the same establishment, that they are protesting against.

This means most protests will just peter out. The only thing the authority needs to do is to wait. When the time is about right, when the protesters are exhausted and dirty, they will make some superficial concessions. The protesters proclaim success. The event ended. Everyone knew who won.

China government will not repeat the massacre in 1989. They has long learned how to do this the right way. Let’s see.

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The Big Drought

The great drought of California is a surprisingly easy problem to solve. Price!

Since the drought, the price of water for farmers went up 10 times to over $1000 per acre-foot (that’s one foot deep of water to cover an acre of land, or 1.2 million gallons). The government forecasted that the price of fresh fruits and dairy products may go up about 4 to 6 percent. What it really means is the cost of water is quite insignificant compared to the other costs in producing fresh fruits and dairy products.

An average family in Los Angeles pays about $30 in water bill, compared to $75 in Seattle, an area with no water shortage what-so-ever. Why would someone in LA not turn on the sprinklers to water his lawn? The lawn costs far more than the water.

We have a rare and precious commodity whose price is just about zero. It makes no sense.

There are many argument against raising water prices. None of them apply to the needs to irrigate plants, flushing toilets, watering lawns, and washing cars. Yes, higher water prices will damage some farmers who depended on cheap water. This is not different from higher prices for other commodities that will damage other industries.

A higher water price can facilitate better recycling plants, desalination projects, transportation of water from far away places. It will encourage conservation and force farmers to become more efficient.

Of course, there are three other solutions that are cheaper: taking water from Arizona and Nevada, praying, and do nothing. After all, winter is coming.


Clearly, a bigger scale of the problem is happening to China. They constructed massive aqueduct systems to move water around the country, primary from south to north. At the same time, for both industries and residential, the water price is virtually zero. China, therefore, became the least efficient water using country in the industrialized world.

The world really has enough water for everyone and everything. The real question is the price of transportation (or treatment, conditioning, desalination, etc.) If people are not willing to pay for the water, then they will run out of it eventually.

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Apple eclipsed Intel on the opening day of IDF (Intel Developer Forum), announcing iPhone6, AppleWatch, and Apple’s mobile payment. Intel’s nerdy executives, this year, boasted Core™ M CPU. Most in the audience cannot hide the boredom. We knew that fancier gadgets will come. Blah, blah, blah.

Intel has been, obviously, shifting attention away from traditional computation, such as servers and laptops. Their focus is now on tablets and more on wearables.

It began with Newton, Apple’s famed pen computer, followed by Palm Pilot, the product that defined the PDA categories. When MP3 players and smart phones gradually converged, consumers saw the general trend of all cool things becoming one device and encouraged it. There is only one question left: where do they carry that device? It turned out there are simply 3 places to wear gadgets: clipped on the belt, worn on the head, or strapped on the wrist. There are three fundamental technological problems: sensors, battery, display, and networking.

There is a plethora of sensors and more from people’s imagination. There are also the Minority Report style universal retina readers for identification. My personal favorite is the concept of statistical authentication: if we gather sufficient identifiable devices on a person, the statistic of a positive identification will reach the point of acceptable risks. For example, if a person carries my cell phone, wear my eye glasses, and has three of my credit cards. I could accept the risk of charging the gasoline fill-up without further proof. If the person also has a pace-maker that was implanted into my body, then I will accept the risk of him knowing my bank balance.

For a device small enough to wear, there isn’t enough battery for it to last very long. Technologists have been working on this problem and made big progress. The devices now consume much less electricity, the batteries now last longer, and the charging of the batteries has become easier. I can see the day that batteries get charged from ambient energies: motion, temperature variation, background radiation, etc. People will simply go about every day not even thinking of their batteries.

The display is a big problem. We consumers want it big, bright, and high-definition. But we also want it small and convenient. Projection technology (like Google glasses) seems like the ideal solution. But this is the holy grail of computer graphics people. For many decades now, they couldn’t come up with anything that does not make you look like a Borg and satisfy your display needs. I have my fantasies on this area and will share with you later.

The last is the networking. People now expect the devices to be, wirelessly, connected nearly all the time, either by cell technologies (LTE) or WiFi. They also want devices to interact with each other. At this moment, this still require a small “brick.” All “smart watches” tether to a cell phone nearby, typically via BlueTooth technology. Those watches become dumb (basically can only tell time) when their mothership cell phone is too far away.

This leaves the final frontier to discuss: fashion and style. When my daughter was getting married, I received the order to get rid of my perfectly functional digital watch and get a dress watch instead. The world does not go by utility alone. Style is important. It is also very expensive. And that’s a good thing.

This pundit predicts the loss of display and sound on cell phones. Instead, all cell phones come with two separately carried devices: a strap-on display on the wrist and a speaker/microphone to clip on the lapel or hung on the ear. The cell phone today will become a little piece of non-descript pack got stuck somewhere in the brief case.

Good luck finding it when you forgot where you put it.

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Taiwan’s Food Safety Crisis

A large, strong-branded, everything-certified-by-the-government manufacturer of cooking oil was caught. They imported “feed grade” lard from China and Hong Kong, bought used cooking oil from restaurants, mixed in pure lard, and sold them as if everything was fresh and top-graded.

Like many parts of the world, Taiwan’s professional cooks prefer lard. It gives a strong aroma and flavor unparalleled to other cooking oil. Since the news broken, several restaurants, snack brands, or bakeries would declare themselves tainted — daily. They would automatically remove all products and apologized to their patrons. Taiwan’s food industry is in crisis. The head of the Administrative Yuan sworn to punish the perpetuator harshly. The opposition party is having a field day, accusing government bureaucrats inept.

In crisis like this, I see real ugly characters, and also true human spirits.

A customer of a bakery was angry. He demanded full refund of his prior purchases. He bought one item from the store and shoved it into the cashier’s mouth. He wanted to see her suffer as he himself did. The bullied cashier ate the biscuit, crying.

A vendor loaded a small truck with the tainted oil from the backdrop of his closed restaurant. He was going to lose lots of money: no customers will come for a while, all his materials will go bad, all those oil are now no good, and he still have to pay the rent. He was bitter and angry, but in a resigned way. “I am just so unlucky.”

A famous chef televised his apology. He knelt down in front of the camera and apologized for every eateries that he represented, or was a spokesman of. He does not want to portray himself as a victim. “The bucks stopped here. I served the customers and I am responsible.” (I paraphrased from a TV news in Chinese.)

Yes, someone wronged you. You are upset. This is the time to show your character.

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All Souls Trilogy

Deborah Harkness is a historian and a writer. When she ventured into fiction writing, she got an “instant” success. Yes, after many books of more obscure topics and limited audience. All Souls, I believe, was her first mass market fiction.

Diana Bishop, the protagonist, was probably the most powerful witch of her time, but she could not perform even the simplest spell when she went to the witch school. She gave up witchcrafts growing up and became a history professor, specialized in medieval alchemy. That’s when she encountered an ancient manuscript, Ashmore 782, in the library. She also fell in love with a vampire, Matthew. The story began with Diana looking for herself and learning how to love a forbidden creature.

It turned out there were 4 bipeds that look like homo sapiens: human beings, vampires, daemons, and witches. For centuries, a congregation forbade the fraternization among these creatures. Diana found herself in extreme danger: Ashmore 782 turned out to be a manuscript people will kill for, she herself couldn’t perform magic to save her life, Matthew was an unpredictable and mysterious vampire who was capable of killing, all other creatures, including the Matthew’s family members, will prosecute her for having a relationship with a vampire.

And the story begins! It took three books and that’s about the perfect length.

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