A Winter Morning and A Historian on Public Radio

Today is the last working day of 2007. It started to rain in SF around 1am.

The last couple of days have been so cold, that walking on the street of San francisco, under an overcast sky, and in the cold air reminded me of Beijing’s winter. Just a hint of it because Beijing is far colder right now. Beijing’s winter has always seemed romantic in my mind. The cold clear air was translucent, like ice cubes. The darkened northern sky, people bundled up in their long down coat, the white mist people breath out, and the warm interior of restaurants and bars with piles of coats that customer shed as they came in, and fogged up windows; all added to the romance of a northern city. Desolated landscape versus over heated social life indoors.

Driving to work in the late morning, I caught a pre-recorded session of “Your Call” from a local public radio station. The former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham was interviewed about his view of today’s politics and the importance of history.

Lapham(72 years old) sounded like an interesting character. He was born into a shipping family in San Francisco. His grandfather was mayor of San Francisco in early 1940’s. He went to Yale and wanted to become a history professor but changed his mind after one year in Cambridge. He started his journalist career in San Francisco Chronicles copy room, then Examiner, then New York Herald Tribune. Later, he was the editor of Harpers for thirty years (1976-2006). Now he started his own magazine called Lapham’s QuarterlyThe journal that enlists the counsel of the dead. The first issue was just released this month.

His advocating of history being the guide for presence agrees with my point of view. His comment on Bush Administration also seems quite to the point: “The lack of curiosity is fatal.”

I dug up a few of his interviews, and also looked over his new magazine. He also wrote for a documentary that sounded strangely interesting. The American Ruling Class. There are not may reviews of this strange little movie. Even though i haven’t watched the movie, this review struck a cord in my mind, because it expressed the same impression I have of Lapham, so far. A bit on the cynical side, but i have to admit it rings true.

…those who like their left-wing politics muddled with avant-garde artistic pretensions.

Despite his “avant-garde artistic pretensions”, I actually agree with lots of his views. I wonder if that means I’m fond of “avant-garde artistic pretensions”, too. Probably.

Among the interviews i read of Lapham, i really like this one done by progressive.org May 2006. Lewis Lapham Interview, By Ruth Conniff.

Lapham: …I graduated from Yale in the 1950s, and the word “public” was still a good word. Public meant public health, public service, public school, commonwealth. And “private” suggested greed, selfishness, and so on. Those words have been turned around. That was the great triumph of the Reagan Revolution. By the time we hit the end of the Reagan Administration, “public” had become a dirty word, a synonym for slum, poor school, incompetent government, all things destructive. And “private” had become glorious: private club, private trout stream, private airplane.

Q: You say you recognize the particular kind of venality of this Administration because of your background. Can you explain what you mean?

Lapham: I know the ethos of the American oligarchy of which young Bush is a servant. It was a tempting subject for discussion and commentary. He’s an agent of the selfish greed that usually overtakes a fat and stupid oligarchy. Aristotle makes this point in his Politics. He has a circle. At one point you have an oligarchy, and it becomes rancid with its own wealth and stupidity. That in turn gives way to tyranny. Then, after a period of time, tyranny turns into anarchy, and out of that comes some form of democracy, which then deteriorates into oligarchy, and you go around the circle again.

I like to read history. I wouldn’t know how to make sense of the newspapers unless I had a sense of history, a sense of context. Let us say that all of us are embarked on the human story that starts however many thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia. And here we are in Chapter 498, and unless we know what happened in the first 497 chapters, we are at a loss. We then become subject to magical thinking.

You see that in the Bush Administration. This is a form of magical thinking: the idea that you can transform the Middle East and make the deserts of Iraq bloom with small New England towns built on the model of Greenwich, Connecticut. Anyone with a sense of history knows that was unlikely.

Q: We on the left have been admonished that Bush is not stupid, just intellectually incurious.

Lapham: Bush is clever, I assume, in a somewhat limited way. I mean he’s incompetent in a way that a lot of corporate CEOs are incompetent. You could put him in a class with Bernie Ebbers or Ken Lay. But he makes a virtue of his ignorance: Don’t confuse me with qualms or history; I have the will to change the world.

He wants power. Whereas somebody like Kerry doesn’t want power and wouldn’t know what to do with it if he got it. And Kerry does not have the strength of his own supposed convictions. That’s why Bush got elected. I knew a lot of people who disagreed with him but who voted for him. They said, “At least the man knows what he thinks, and he’s not afraid to act.” Whereas Kerry, who knows what he thinks? He’s somewhere on a surfboard in a plastic suit.

Lapham: Well, the true idea of democracy is that we learn from people with whom we don’t agree. Societies perish when they become afraid of differences of opinion. So it’s not personal with me. I’m perfectly happy to sit down at breakfast with Newt Gingrich and listen to him present himself as a teacher of civilization.

Q: You write a lot about class.

Lapham: America is about class. To pretend that it isn’t is very ignorant. No society has ever existed without some kind of a ruling class. I don’t care whether you’re in Athens in 400 BC or in France in the 1770s or in America in the 1920s. At Yale for 100 years the class rankings were based on the wealth of the student; the richest kid in the class was the first student in the class.

Q: Whom do you admire?

Lapham: I admire Ralph Nader. I wish in 2004 he had run for the Senate. His Presidential campaign was mistimed. But I admire almost anybody that tries to speak up for himself or herself. I admire writers.

Any political regeneration comes out of a better concern for the language. This is Orwell’s point in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” He says it is the foolish and awful and thoughtless use of language that allows us to not think. And unless we pay attention to the meaning of words, we are subject to dealers in quack religion and political chicane.

A few essays written by Lapham on Harper’s Magazine:
Drums along the Potomac, November 2001
Res republica, November 2001
The Road to Babylon, October 2002

I like his writing and his lucidity. Two months after 911! That’s admirable.

Coetzee’s New Book

I’m not a J. M. Coetzee fan. For precisely the reason iterated in the introduction paragraph of the new book review in the New Yorker.

There are people who think of J. M. Coetzee as a cold writer, and he might agree, or pretend to agree. “If he were a warmer person he would no doubt find it all easier: life, love, poetry,” he writes of himself in his memoir “Youth.” “But warmth is not in his nature.” …that his father surely thought him a selfish child “who has turned into a cold man.” His art, he laments, is “not great-souled.” It lacks “generosity, fails to celebrate life, lacks love.”

The only thing i managed to finish reading by Coetzee and actually liked is “Youth”. But this new book of his, The Diary of a Bad Year, sounds extremely interesting. Not only because it contains some “strong opinions” on current events: Bush Administration and Guantanamo, but also because it seems to be using an unique format in print:

“Diary of a Bad Year” takes a daring form: Señor C’s essays occupy the bulk of each page, more or less, but running beneath them, like the news crawl on a TV screen, are what read like short diary entries by Señor C and by Anya, which offer a running commentary on the developing relationship of employer and employee, and which convey the plot of the novel, such as it is. So a typical page is segmented like the back of a scarab beetle, and the reader must choose to read either one narrative strand at a time or one page at a time and thus two or three strands simultaneously. In practice, one does a bit of both—a gulp of essay, a snatch of diary—and the broken form usefully, but relatively painlessly, corrupts any easy relation to innocent continuity.

Last but not the least, the protagonist of the novel is a J. S. Bach fan!! This is new. Knowing this little fact alone seems to make me like Coetzee a little more. How cold can a person be if he loves Bach?

The second part of “Diary of a Bad Year” records the private ideas and responses of Señor C—what he calls his “gentler set of opinions.” These are more passionate, more fragmentary, and more irrational than his public utterances. One of them, “On J. S. Bach,” begins:


The best proof we have that life is good, and therefore that there may perhaps be a God after all, who has our welfare at heart, is that to each of us, on the day we are born, comes the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. It comes as a gift, unearned, unmerited, for free.

Squall Lines – J. M. Coetzee’s “Diary of a Bad Year.”, by James Wood. The New Yorker, Issue of December 24th, 2007.

quarterlife

I heard about quarterlife on NPR, when Terry Gross interviewed Marshall Herskovitz on Freshair. It caught my attention because it is the first production quality tv series only showing on the internet. Herskovitz was one of the creators who created Thirtysomethings and My So-Called Life. The reason he put it on-line was to protest the current corporate control of the creative process of making a TV show in the real networks. He said that. Apparently the network exec are interfering with script writing, stage design, and even dialogs, “But they weren’t trained to be the creative types.” “It is wrong.”

Herskovitz’s protest worked, the show was popular on-line (apparently, but i didn’t know about it till the NPR show), and NBC decided to run it on-air starting next season.

I started watching it tonight and it was not bad! I’m only two episode (it is called parts on the site) into the show. But i’m definitely going to follow it.

Viva Internet! 🙂

A Story from the Past

I’ve been making my way slowly through my old diaries, in reverse chronological order. Last week I reached my college years. Over the weekend, i took advantage of being at Mom’s and looked up my old boxes of letters/essays. Came upon an essay i wrote for my college English class of my two highschool classmates. I was surprised that half of the essay read like someone else’s story to me. I totally don’t remember quite a few details mentioned there (e.g. the Christmas card with photo cutouts.) I was also surprised at how well i could write then.

If anyone who reads this is from my class, be warned that i have taken liberty at making up things to make the story tidy. So even though the characters are real, the events might not be, even their personalities have had some fiction in them, too. 🙂 Enjoy.

Lee and Lin

What’s more interesting to me was at the time the instructor wrote a full page comments in longhand, which post a big challenge to me. I couldn’t decipher half of what she wrote. I even asked one of my classmates to help, and she penciled in some of the phrases next to the instructor’s. Even with those I still failed to understand some sentences. This time, i was able to understand it in full. phew. Not trying to gloat (okay, a little, I’m actually a little envious of my former self. 🙁 oh well), I transcribed her comments too.

Instructor’s Comments on Lee and Lin.

This essay got me started reading my diaries from high school years. I am now constantly amazed at how oblivious i was then. Comparing to my peers, I seemed to be living in some kind of foggy romantic version of the reality. On one hand, I’m glad I was so innocent, so devoid of vanity and was able to deal with things as they came competently, in my own quirky way. On the other hand, i wish i could have gotten hold of that little girl and made her see things as they really were.

It was like in Harry Potter, those kids who were born with magic powers but they didn’t know how to use it. They stumble along, clumsy. In a way, maybe all teenagers are like that. They are not aware of the power they had, the magic they could cast on other people. To fully tune that power, to make them aware of their power, could either make them a more powerful person with more self-awareness, or make them into monsters.

Maybe it had been a good thing afterall, that I have been oblivious all these years…

The New Yorker Issue of Dec. 17th, 2007

Starting this year, I either like every single article of a particular issue of the New Yorker, or none of it. I wonder if they alternate editors over there on the east coast?

Dec. 17th, 2007 is another issue that i love wholeheartedly.

I’ve only read 2.5 articles so far, all interesting.

James Flynn’s “What Is Intelligence?” and the debate over race and I.Q., by Malcolm Gladwell

I.Q.s around the world appeared to be rising by 0.3 points per year, or three points per decade, for as far back as the tests had been administered. For some reason, human beings seemed to be getting smarter.

…If an American born in the nineteen-thirties has an I.Q. of 100, the Flynn effect says that his children will have I.Q.s of 108, and his grandchildren I.Q.s of close to 120—more than a standard deviation higher. If we work in the opposite direction, the typical teen-ager of today, with an I.Q. of 100, would have had grandparents with average I.Q.s of 82—seemingly below the threshold necessary to graduate from high school. And, if we go back even farther, the Flynn effect puts the average I.Q.s of the schoolchildren of 1900 at around 70, which is to suggest, bizarrely, that a century ago the United States was populated largely by people who today would be considered mentally retarded.

Interesting, isn’t it? Wait, but there is more…

To say that Dutch I.Q. scores rose substantially between 1952 and 1982 was another way of saying that the Netherlands in 1982 was, in at least certain respects, much more cognitively demanding than the Netherlands in 1952. An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are.

Okay, so what does “being modern” mean? The following is a fascinating example:

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement—that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits.

Journey Into Night, by David Sedaris. Flying to Paris is so much better in business class—you can do almost anything you like.
– Treasure Hunt not on-line. 🙁 by Hugh Eakin. How a rare statue of Aphrodite became the focus of the fight over antiquities, and led to the fall of a Getty Museum curator.

Atonement

Atonement
Director: Joe Wright
Writers: Ian McEwan (novel)/Christopher Hampton (screenplay)
Cast: James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Keira Knightley, Vanessa Redgrave
Runtime: 130 min
Country: UK / France

Anthony Lane did an unfavorable review for “Atonement” in this week’s The New Yorker magazine. But there was something about his intro and the few scenes i saw in the trailer that caught my attention, drew me toward the movie.

Almost the first sound we hear in Joe Wright ‘Atonement’ is the tap of typewriter keys. Soon, the tapping becomes regular, like drumbeats, and it sets the tempo for the music that comes surging in. Later in the film, it rings out as loudly as gunshots. The implication is clear: words can stir us and set us dancing, but they can also kill. That mysterious double power infused Ian McEwan’s novel, published in 2001, and it lingers in Christopher Hampton’s screenplay, which displays immense ingenuity in facing a basic conundrum: how do you film a story about language and not leave it reeking of books?
– via “Conflicting Stories” by Anthony Lane
Issue of Dec. 10, 2007 The New Yorker

The soft light, warm color and the perfect composition of each scene reminded me a little of Pan’s Labyrinth, a sense of mystery, the perspective of a young girl, and something dark and sinister stirring in the background. (Of course, the story is very different from Pan’s Labyrinth. )

Based on Anthony Lane’s review and the trailer, it looked like, at least, a well made movie. And I was attracted to the story line and the power of words. So i convinced Gui to go and see it with me. She was skeptical. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out either.

We were both pleasantly surprised. Contrary to Anthony Lane’s predicament that this is a movie “with smoke and mirrors” and it has “no heart” (when i read this, i thought, could it be like A Very Long Engagement All shiny surface no inner life?) We were deeply moved by the story. Not sure why Anthony Lane got such a different impression than us. Maybe because he read the book first? Could it mean the book is even better? Now i’m curious.

Later Gui commented that it has been a long while since we last saw a good and moving romance movie.

Like Anthony Lane pointed out at the beginning, the music of the movie was amazing. The movie has no voice over. But often the music seems to have a life of its own, the music seems to be a character, or a voice over, to emphasize, to elaborate, to hint what is to come, to double back and take a second long look at what had happened, to mourn what is lost, to jump in joy for a love that’s reciprocated. It is such a rich voice, that goes so well with such a rich palette of the English country side, even with a cold morning of French country side during the war.

Anthony Lane said he “didn’t believe in Robbie. …didn’t believe in the force of his love for Cecilia, or of hers for him;” Well, he was right, Robbie didn’t believe it either when he met her again in London before he went to war. He said, “we’ve only spent a few minutes in the library three and half years ago!” But she tried to convince him otherwise. And during the war, when he tried getting back to England, with her letters tied together in a neat bundle safely stored inside his shirtpocket, he started to believe in it too. Isn’t that the proof of “the power of words”?

Dearest Cecilia, the story can resume. The one I had been planning on that evening walk. I can become again the man who once crossed the surrey park at dusk, in my best suit, swaggering on the promise of life. The man who, with the clarity of passion, made love to you in the library. The story can resume. I will return. Find you, love you, marry you and live without shame.

For me, what really made this movie great (not just good) was the unexpected yet so powerful an ending. The story touched me throughout the narrative, and i was smitten with the beautiful cinematography and music. But the ending, omg! Speaking of “the power of words”. Such simple sentences, Vanessa Redgrave (as the elderly Briony) delivered them with precision. They are clean and hard, rolled off her tongue, calm, but sharp like a knife. My heart ached, and tears started pouring out as the screen darkened, and cast names started to rise.

Sunny Morning

San Francisco in a sunny morning is always such a lovely sight. Everything sparkles, the little hills, the colorful houses lining the street, the park, the trees, even the homeless in the park. ha. Everything unfold in the sunlight, happy and relaxed, “the world was a song and the song was exciting. ”

sitting in the sun on our balcony, with cats purring next to me enjoying the warm sunshine, i read.

Web Form Design Best Practices

It was not a very sexy title for a Tech Talk. But i was curious and it turned out to be an interesting talk. Little things that used to seem (to me) just a pure style preference actually would make a big difference in user experiences.

Luke Wroblewski is a free lance web designer and he worked on multiple redesigns for Yahoo and E-Bay. So he had real world data to back him up.

Here are a few things that I found interesting from his talk:

1. Top, Left, Right Aligned Form Labels
Top aligned form layout is the fastest. User takes the least amount of time to fill these up. So it is best for simple/familiar informations. If you want user to stop and think when filling out the form, then depends on how much time you want the user to take, use either Left Aligned (Slowest) or Right Aligned (in between of Top aligned and Left aligned)

2. Identify optional versus required fields
Minimize the special mark and notations to indicate a field is optional or required. So if there are more required fields than optional, then mark the optional field instead. Keep all the special mark in one vertical line (end of the input field box on the right, for example) so user can single out all the different fields in one glance

Leave out optional field all together. Don’t make it harder for users, no one likes filling out forms in the first place, keep it short.

3. Form Flow
Try to imitate real life conversations, for example, if you go in to the bank to ask for a loan, the clerk will engage you in a conversation first, why do you need a loan, what kind of loan, etc. He won’t start by asking for your name, gender, userid, etc.
Take a look at Yahoo’s new Sign in page for some idea on how people are adapting to this new approach.

And here is the complete presentation in pdf format: Best Practices for Web Form Design

Why is MSN so popular in China?

I’ve often wondered how did MSN become so popular in China all of sudden.

One example to look to is Microsoft, where its MSN China site is a joint venture with Shanghai Alliance Investment, a major city investment firm run by Jiang Mianheng, son of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Microsoft’s China business mainly took off after that particular partnership was forged, Yu noted.

via The Reuters

So that is why! :O

Leonard Cohen

I liked The Street from Leonard Cohen when i heard it on NPR earlier this year. As mentioned then that i didn’t find more of his poems that i liked. But after reading this interesting review from Orpheus: Poet with a poor voice, he quoted the lyrics of Joan of Arc that i really like. So I found some more interesting lyrics on-line: The best of Leonard Cohen. Note to self, when searching for good stuff in the future, try append “Best of” to the query. 🙂

Joan Of Arc

Now the flames they followed Joan of Arc
as she came riding through the dark;
no moon to keep her armour bright,
no man to get her through this very smoky night.
She said, “I’m tired of the war,
I want the kind of work I had before,
a wedding dress or something white

to wear upon my swollen appetite.”
Well, I’m glad to hear you talk this way,
you know I’ve watched you riding every day
and something in me yearns to win
such a cold and lonesome heroine.
“And who are you?” she sternly spoke
to the one beneath the smoke.
“Why, I’m fire,” he replied,
“And I love your solitude, I love your pride.”

“Then fire, make your body cold,
I’m going to give you mine to hold,”
saying this she climbed inside
to be his one, to be his only bride.
And deep into his fiery heart
he took the dust of Joan of Arc,
and high above the wedding guests
he hung the ashes of her wedding dress.

It was deep into his fiery heart
he took the dust of Joan of Arc,
and then she clearly understood
if he was fire, oh then she must be wood.
I saw her wince, I saw her cry,
I saw the glory in her eye.
Myself I long for love and light,
but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?

Bird on the Wire

Like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
Like a worm on a hook,
like a knight from some old fashioned book
I have saved all my ribbons for thee.
If I, if I have been unkind,
I hope that you can just let it go by.
If I, if I have been untrue
I hope you know it was never to you.

Like a baby, stillborn,
like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out for me.
But I swear by this song
and by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee.
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
he said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
she cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”

Oh like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

So Long Marianne

Come over to the window, my little darling,
I’d like to try to read your palm.
I used to think I was some kind of Gypsy boy
before I let you take me home.
Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.

Well you know that I love to live with you,
but you make me forget so very much.
I forget to pray for the angels
and then the angels forget to pray for us.

Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began …

We met when we were almost young
deep in the green lilac park.

You held on to me like I was a crucifix,
as we went kneeling through the dark.

Oh so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began …

Your letters they all say that you’re beside me now.
Then why do I feel alone?
I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web
is fastening my ankle to a stone.

Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began …

For now I need your hidden love.
I’m cold as a new razor blade.
You left when I told you I was curious,
I never said that I was brave.

Oh so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began …

Oh, you are really such a pretty one.
I see you’ve gone and changed your name again.
And just when I climbed this whole mountainside,
to wash my eyelids in the rain!

Oh so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began ..

A Day of Cello

Yesterday’s glorious sunshine was replaced with calm gray. A cloudy but still crisp day, if that’s possible.

As I walked into the cool autumn afternoon, Jacqueline du Pré’s Dvorak Cello Concerto came on in my headphone. Her passionate play matched so well with the overcast. The originally gloomy air suddenly seemed to be emotionally charged with energy. The entire bus ride to downtown was turned into a whirlwind journey. Humans are genius at creating something as beautiful, varied, and inspiring as classical music. I was so reluctant to turn it off as I got to the shopping center.

Came home as the dusk faded away, I started listening to Janos Starker’s Bach Suites for Solo Cello. This music was so rich and massive, it made me feel warm in the evening chill, warm and happy (okay, i didn’t get to Suite #2 then).

Drinking hot chocolate and finished listening to the rest of Bach Suites for Solo Cello during the evening. Then moved on to happier music given to me by Matthew – “Altre Folie” a bunch of early music from 1500-1750, performed on old instruments, performed by Jordi Savall‘s ensemble HESPERION XXI. It contains music from a wide range of geographic regions, including Peru(!), England, and of course Vivaldi. The night is still young, the night sky is still clear, there is a half moon shining down onto the peaceful city. Where is the rain?

Clicking on the album cover above you get to the detailed description of what a Folia is. A form of a dance music originated in Portugal’s country side, and often performed on Viol (viola da gamba, the ancient form of Cello). I’m not sure if any of the music in this album is performed on Viol, maybe it is all on on modern day violin?

For anyone who is interested in viol itself, check out this movie “Tous les matins du monde” (All the Mornings of the World). It is about a famous viola da gamba player Monsieur de Sainte Colombe. The movie strongly resembles Barry Lyndon‘s mannerism and cinematography. But the story is simpler and worth seeing. Many music was played on the ancient viola da gamba throughout the movie. Jordi Savall and his ensemble did all the music adaptation and performing for the movie.

Enough cello for one day. 🙂

Climbing Nutcracker Suite, June 16, 2001

I found this in my journal last night. I was amazed at myself had been able to pull this off then. I doubt I would ever be in that good a shape again. Thought I should transcript it here so Gui and M could maybe get excited of trying Nutcracker on their own? 🙂

========================
July 16, 2001 Saturday, Yosemite

We did it. 🙂
After all these planning & anxiety, we climbed nutcracker, in 5.5 hours, from 8:30am to 2pm. 5 pitches, 600 feet.

8am.
It was already hot to stand in the sun. We drove passed camp 4 on our way to this picnic areas in three brothers. The camp was bustling with activity already. I was worried there might be a line up at nutcracker. There were a few cars in the parking lot, two 30ish guys were sorting through their climbing gears.

We took 3.5 liters of water, 2 cans of liquid food and all the multi-gran, beef jerky, camera, headlamp, one rope, all the slings except the longest one, all the biners and all but one quick-draw, and the route map. C took his hiking books, i took my sandals. We stuffed all the water, food, and footwear into the backpack that i would be carrying. C took the slings, biners, and all the quickdraws.

When we got to the bottom of the route, there were 2 backpacks by the tree. We assumed one party was ahead of us. They were on at least the 2nd pitch by then because we couldn’t see them.

We put on our climbing shoes and insects repellent. The mosquitoes were still out in full force in the shade.

First Pitch

It was “crescent shaped lieback,” “clean rock”. C was panting loudly on the top. I yelled, “Hard?” “No! Not bad at all.” But he was panting, how come? I was soon to find out.

C climbed over the top of the lieback section, disappeared.

I felt the full weight of 3.5L of water on my back. I had to figure out the best way to use the lieback section. Very soon I understood C’s panting. It was extremely demanding. I had to stop a few times just to catch my breath. I soon learned the trick to keep going. Stop and go was way more tasking on my arms then keep going. At the top of the crescent rock, the continuous bomber hand crack disappeared. I fumbled and fell. C got me, he yelled over “after the 2 bad hand holds is another bomber.” he was right and I was over the top and I saw him smiling down on me.

He sat on a fat ledge, clipped in. We switched belay, he’s off again.

Second Pitch

2nd pitch was the “easy walk” in the guide book. I had trouble feeding him slack fast enough. he was soon on belay. I couldn’t see him. By then I was very rested. That little bit of doubt in my mind during the 1st pitch vanished. I followed the rope up. It was a very gradual climb. I won’t call it a walk, but it’s definitely an easy climb.

The 2nd belay station was on a flat rocky platform, surrounded by the grand view of the valley, very exposed, but secure and roomy. We drank our 2nd can of liquid food, took pictures of each other. C climbed on. The 1st step was a super exposed horizontal move onto the rock outside of the platform, watching C leading away, his body hanging on the edge of the granite, the valley spread underneath him, and the rocky spirals standing around us, I felt grand and happy.

Sidenote: we had a glimpse of the party ahead of us on the 2nd belay station. Their second was waiting for his turn. We thought we were making good speed. We also saw another party approaching when I was on the 2nd belay station belaying C, who was on the 3rd pitch.

Third Pitch

3rd pitch was crack/face climbing. It was almost eventless, I could recall very little details. The crack was slippery. I was again tired at the top. Seeing C’s face always gave me assurance and making me more aware of my fatigue. There was a small traverse. I was begging to rest on the rope, C asked me to rest AFTER the traverse so I won’t have to weight on the next protection.

It was amazing that I could always master up more strength even when I thought I was completely spent.

3rd belay station was a hanging belay, very narrow and uncomfortable. Our rope was falling away. C was off for the 4th pitch after carefully removing the waterbottle from my pack and we both drank some. Careful because we didn’t want anything to fall down 300 feet below us. While we were drinking our water, we could see the next party was at 2nd belay station right below us. They were FAST!

Pretty soon the leader of the next party was up at 3rd belay station, too. he went to the left of me to set up his own belay station at the tree. They waited for us while C was up. The lead gave C some beta, that he needed to get up higher till he used up all our rope!

Fourth Pitch

It was the longest pitch. The rock just started burning my hand while I was on the 3rd pitch, but now there was a breeze. Under the natural sling horn, there was water sipping out of the rock as if the rock was sweating with me. My toes were slowly melting away under the black robber sole of my shoes.

I couldn’t hear or see C. I felt the rope tense and then slacking off. I guessed C had to traverse and downclimb, which worried me. I thought he must be in trouble, and there was nothing I could do.

After the longest time, I was getting sick of listening to the obnoxious second belittling women in general next to me, C yelled down at me to climb. I was so relieved.

The 1st part was very exposed on the edge, there was hardly any hold on the smooth rock surface. I was seriously scared to death. Secretly, I was praying to God, or whoever out there cared to listen, I wasn’t being specific, please please let me get through this. I promise I won’t put myself in this situation ever again. I thought C was offroute cuz it was the kind of route in the gym that RZ would have set, tiny finger crunching holds.

I was relieved when I arrived at the crux, because I was no longer exposed.

I fell! The protection/rope held. The leader from the waiting party told me to try put my left foot in the crack then pull myself over.

I tried three more time, fell, fell, and fell again.

“You can do it.” The leader said.

I leaned my head to the rock, smelled the rusty surface, feeling the sun on my back. “I can do this, just do it. don’t dwell!”
Slowly I inched up, my feet (forgot which one) was in the crack and I actually stood up.

Holding onto the rock right above the crux, I felt so exhausted. I broke the skin of my right index finger, it’s bleeding profusely. Left some bloody finger prints on the rock.

The crack was clean and solid. One good hold after another. I concentrated on one step at a time, off I went. It was a breeze. Tiring yet breezy.

4th belay station was a fat ledge. I was filled with bliss. I made it! As if from a near death experience. I remember vividly when i was traversing on that exposed ledge at the beginning of this (4th) pitch, how scared I was how I kept on reminding myself don’t look down don’t look down. Even when I was looking down to check on a foot hold, I filtered out all the peripheral vision of the valley, concentrating on the rock surface, mentally I forced myself to see nothing but the rock surface.

Sitting at the belay station, the ledge felt so secure and welcoming, knowing that we were 1/5 away from the top. We happily drank up our 1st large bottle of water. “One mouthful of water” was all that I had been craving for while climbing this pitch. It felt so good when the water flowing down my sizzling throat. Sitting on the ledge, admiring the valley spread beneath us, it was like a dream. Hanging off the rock side, flying seemed such a plausible possibility right there and then.

Fifth Pitch

I watched C pulled off THE CRUX of the entire nutcracker. That infamous 5.8 mantle. He did it nicely. After that, all i could hear was the wind. All I could feel was the rope tensing and slacking.

Maybe my anxiety made it seem a long wait. Eventually I heard a joyful scream from the top… 🙂

The mantle move eluded me. I fell over three times. Afraid of sprain my ankle. Eddy, the leader from the other party was also a Yosemite Mountaineering School climbing guide, told me to pull on the pro that he had asked Cam to place there. I did and it held. It was the blue alien everyone on the climbing bbs talked about. I wanted to get to the top, I didn’t mind cheating a little, better than a broken ankle! 🙂

Seeing C again was like seeing the face of an angel. I was so happy. He smiled at me, “A hermit crab!” I smiled back, had no idea what he was talking about. “Jean, when you are in a comfortable position, I will feed you my end of the rope, hook the backpack to the rope, so i can take a picture of you. You look awesome from here!”

I couldn’t care less about the picture, or the view. I just wanted to get to the top and drink some water and not have to move. But I had no energy to argue. I got to the tree, clipped myself in, tied the backpack to the rope he fed me, he lifted the pack up.

I could see Royal Arch and Half dome in the early afternoon haze, they looked lazy and shiny.

So we did it.

At the top, C confessed he was very scared quite a few times, said it was a more sustained and demanding lead than his first lead in Arizona. He said I looked like a hermit crab when I surfaced on the last pitch, carrying that GIANT backpack (by then it had all the gears i cleaned after him, as well as his boots, my sandals, and half our water).

Descend

Descend was treacherous. My sandals were not good with slippery steep hills, and the top was quite exposed and we weren’t clip in anything! I was glad we were descending in broad daylight.

We rested a couple of times in the shade. Thank god we had one last bottle of water for the descend. All that heavy load finally paid off! C also said that every time when he reached a belay station, he so wanted some water but the water was with me so he had to wait. hehe.

In the parking lot, we fished out the last 2 can of soda from the cooler in the trunk. It stayed cool! Was like juice from heaven. We stopped by Merced River for a dip. Icy cold water. I was happy, content, and very very tired. El Capitan was massive, sitting right in front of us. I knew I would never think of climbing that thing from now on.

The Fun of Climbing

Haven’t climbed for over a year. After i kept up with running for a couple of months, i started miss climbing.

Went with Gui and M to Planet Granite a week and a half ago. I was a very depressing sight. So out of shape and out of practice. Gui said that i had stopped trusting the hold and my own ability.

Today we went again and the fun of climbing started to return to me. There were moments on the wall that I suddenly remembered why i loved it so much six years ago when i just started climbing. And Gui was right. My muscle memories are still intact. My body still remembers how to climb. It is the mental fear that I had conquered before that are now taking over. There were moves my limbs still remembered how to make, but my mental condition dared not to give the green light. There were moments my physical moves surprised me, as if my arms and legs were so impatient they didn’t want to wait for a “go” signal and just went on their own. Surprised the hell out of me.

My arms are heavy like led now. So tired, i could barely lift it to finish typing this paragraph. But it was fun. I should start climbing more often. Maybe getting the lunch pass back? and go bouldering on my own at lunch time? I will think about it.

Rainy Day

Forecast has predicted chillier weather and rain on Saturday all week.
Yesterday was actually sunny and relatively warm. So i was a little skeptical about the forecast.

Today I woke up to a warm and cloudy morning. I decided for a run, first time since i came back from vacation. It was such a gentle and warm morning, despite the cloudy sky. It felt cozy like a comfy sweater on an autumn day. The air wrapped you around, reminded me of the title of a Fitzgerald novel “Tender is the night”, although it wasn’t the night yet. The mood was fitting.

Came back from the run, i rested it a bit, talked to Gui about our plan for the day, checked out movie schedules on line, and reported to her the weather in the city “threating to rain but could go either way”. Then i went in the kitchen and made breakfast for myself, as i was sitting down to eat by the kitchen window, i suddenly realized it has started raining. The very very quiet kind of of rain, densely woven rain threads, the sky and surrounding still looked clear but moist. I could barely make out the slightly slanted rain tracks against our white painted exterior walls.

It made me a little sentimental. Slowly I finished breakfast, started thinking of writing a blog entry of all the good conversations I’ve had. Counting them out like Eugénie Grandet counting out his gold coin each evening…

Godwin’s Law

Heard of Godwin’s Law for the first time today:

On newsgroup and internet discussion thread, whenever “Nazi” or “Hitler” is brought up, “the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically “lost” whatever debate was in progress.”

Haha, we should apply this on all Chinese BBS! Could’ve saved so many wasted bits and bytes.

New Yorker Articles: Chocolate, Classical Music, and a Historian

Among the first things that Gui asked me since i came back from China was whether i have read the article on Chocolate in the New Yorker. I finally got around to finish reading the article: Notes of a Gastronome, “Extreme Chocolate,” by Bill Buford. Too bad there is only an “Abstract” online. The article is quite fascinating, especially the part about what a fresh chocolate “fruit” tastes like: honey, citrus and perfume. Here is also a slide show of the chocolate plantations they visited in South America: Food of the Gods.

As if to enhance the reading experience, we surveyed the chocolate section in a Whole Foods store while we were waiting to get in a restaurant for dinner. On Sunday we discovered the Argentinian icecream place we loved on Fillmore has been replaced by a chocolate shop. We couldn’t really complain cuz the chocolate shop sported four full shelves of exotic chocolate bars, among them there was some very interesting flavored ones such as: Szechuan Pepper, Spicy chicken, and celery (those are three different kinds of chocolates, just to be clear).

The description of each chocolate bar starts to resemble the descriptions we saw in wine shops, full of phrashes such as “a hint of blahblah note” and “such and such after taste”.

But somehow i can’t be too cynical about this “chocolate movement”. Not only because i love chocolate, but also because Matthew couldn’t resist the temptation of a “Szechuan Pepper” chocolate bar and we all ended up having the pleasure of tasting it in the evening. Sure enough, there really IS an after-taste! the szechuan pepper numbing taste in that bar! wow!

A few other interesting articles from recent issues of the New Yorker:
The Well-tempered WebThe Internet may be killing the pop CD, but it’s helping classical music. by Alex Ross (Issue October 22, 2007)
The Age of Reason (Abstract), Jacques Barzun at one hundred, by Arthur Krystal (Issue October 22, 2007)

Su Zhou (1)

1.
Looking at Su Zhou makes me realize what Beijing could have been. Not that Beijing is in any way similar in its characteristic. It is mainly how Su Zhou preserved the old so well, and created the new well too. The old town of Su Zhou was still lived in by many residents. So Su Zhou itself is more a normal Chinese city now. But the city planning people managed to keep the city structure, some of the old city walls and gates are still standing. The moat around this square city is preserved too. defining the city boundary.

Ping Jiang road is also preserved as an example of how people used to live. Similar to old towns in Europe today. Interior is thoroughly renovated for modern living, but exterior is left as is. The atmosphere is preserved. Of the old days. A bit like Vennice because of its zigzagging waterway, numerous stone bridges, and tiny alleys. James and Alice told me it is better than Vennice cuz people still live in Su Zhou while Vennice is becoming a theme park. And James also said Venice stinks, while Su ZHou is still pleasant. Let’s hope that will last.

Then there are the gardens.

Alice mentioned a book that we should read to understand how a Su Zhou garden is built and how to appreciate a good garden. We couldn’t find it in the bookstore, instead we got a similar one by a different author. We didn’t have time to read the book till we’ve finished seeing the gardens. Luckily beauty is universal. People don’t need to get a degree to appreciate what is beautiful.

We’ve only been to two gardens this time: The Lingering Garden and The Humble Administrator’s Garden.

According to the garden book, the former is supposed to be enjoyed sitting down at various spots and in peace and quiet, while the latter is more a dynamic garden that the visitor could continuously walking along and more and more scenery would unfold in front of you like a story.

That was the undoing for The Lingering Garden. It was filled with tour groups with their guides yelling over their battery powered speakers. The whole place was a circus. We had no place to hide and no way to enjoy the garden the way it is supposed to be enjoyed. It looked better on photo now when we looked at them. We realize how pretty it is now minus all that noise filtered out by a 2-dimensional photo. Pity.

2.
The Lingering Garden is famous for its “fake mountains”. Little hills built by piling up many of the rocks dug out from the bottom of Lake Tai. A pleasant surprise for me was these fake mountains have many built in caves and pathways. It is shady inside, but also with light streamed in because of the natural erosion of the rocks. The pathway inside usually has branches. So you wouldn’t know which way will take you where. No matter which way you took, you were delivered to a new spot in the garden and a new perspective would materialize and lightens up your eyes.

These rocks are part of the architecture sometimes. For example, in The Humble Administrator’s Garden, there was a two story structure along one of the paths, but it has no stairs. Instead, it was surrounded by these “fake mountains”, you pick your way in the mountain and suddenly there is a path going up. At the end of the path way among the rocks, you are on the second story of the little pagoda. very neat.

3.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园) is amazing!
Its design is such that no matter how crowded and noisy the main sections are, we just need to turn a corner or walk down a little further along the path to reach a secluded corner all to ourselves.

We found many such quiet corners and enjoyed them tremendously.

4.
I loved “Listening to the sound of rain pavilion”. I loved the abundant banana leaves planted outside of the window. Its lush green makes the pavilion looks tropical. Imagining reading a book there while the sound of rain maginified by these lovely leaves. cozy and quiet.

5.
I loved the names of these pagodas, pavilions, hall, bridges. They served as an extension of the view, added in the poet’s own point of view and another dimension to what you see. It seems to me that the ancient Chinese intellectuals wouldn’t ever leave a natural beauty alone. A human imagination, mood, story must be added to the scenery, only then would the scene be complete, becomes more superior. In some ways I actually agree.

For example, on top of the little hill by the main lotus pond in the Garden, there is a pagoda on top. Its name is “Waiting for the Frost”.

Another pagoda on the water is called “Lotus wind from four sides”.

A hall in the end of the stream in a more remote corner is called “Distance Fragrance Hall”.

The name brings what is not there into the scene, and excites one’s imagination. As if i was back in time when it was built and i could feel what the people felt then while they were standing at the same spot. The name connects two dots on the dimension of time.

6.
Stone foot bridges across pond are usually built to be lower than the water bank, to create the illusion of walking on water.

patterned window on the wall is used to “borrow” scene from the neighboring section into your current surroundings. This should only be used in a big garden a dynamic garden. Not suitable for a small garden, where hiding the next surprise is essential.

Hiding away what’s next is another essential part of Su Zhou garden creation. Nothing should be in plain view.