The New Yorker: Nietzsche’s Eternal Return

(wrote on Jan 20, 2020. Unclear why i left it in draft form then. publish as is.)

“The Eternal Return” – Interpreting the legacy of Friedrich Nietzsche, by Alex Ross. From Oct. 14, 2019’s issue of the New Yorker.

I knew very little about Nietzsche. Only vaguely aware of Nietzsche was used by Nazis because he was advocating for the existence of “superhuman” and how us little people should be deference to the “superhuman”.

This article opened my eyes.  Nietzsche was much more nuanced than that, and he was at once been used by both far right and far left. because he seemed to advocate for both sides at the same time, but apparently both sides misread him.  I didn’t know about his low opinion about democracy before. On this duality:

Nietzsche’s central insight about the modern state—one that greatly influenced the sociology of Max Weber and the political thinking of Carl Schmitt—is that it faces a crisis of authority. When power is no longer divinely ordained, the right to govern is contested. In “Human, All Too Human,” Nietzsche predicted that, as the democratic state secularized itself, there would be a surge of religious fanaticism resistant to centralized government. On the other side, he anticipated a zealous adherence to the state on the part of nonbelievers. Religious forces might seize control again, engendering new forms of enlightened despotism—“perhaps less enlightened and more fearful than before.” These struggles could go on for a while, Nietzsche writes. In one long paragraph, he prophesies the history of the twentieth century, from fascism to theocracy.

To the opponents of democracy, Nietzsche says, in essence: Just wait. Liberal democracy will devour itself, creating conditions for authoritarian rule. Disorder and instability will sow distrust in politics itself. “Step by step, private companies will absorb the functions of the state,” Nietzsche writes. “Even the most tenacious remnants of the old work of governing (the activity, for example, that is supposed to protect private persons from one another) will finally be taken care of by private entrepreneurs.” The distinction between public and private spheres will disappear. The state will give way to the “liberation of the private person (I take care not to say: of the individual).”

The article went on to clarify that both sides missed the point. what Nietzsche was really after, was a kind of balance.

In “Ecce Homo,” Nietzsche writes, “I attack only the winner.” He goes after the most tyrannical, domineering forces — hence, his critiques of God and Wagner.
….When one entity gathers too much power, the system ceases to function….Behind Nietzsche’s array of extreme positions is a much less alarming belief: that the only healthy state for humanity is one in which rival perspectives vie with one another, with none gaining the upper hand.

A few other interesting read from this same issue:
“Troubles” Edna O’Brien’s life of literary intensity by Ian Parker
“The Next Word” Could a computer write this article? by John Seabrook


I didn’t read Ursula Le Guin until 2015.  I read “The Left Hand of Darkness” first.  So profoundly touched by the story, i wanted more. So i read on and eventually come upon her Earthsea series.  For reasons i couldn’t recall, i seemed to be in a big hurry and was very impatient during that time. Earthsea struck me as good but i didn’t find it particular interesting, maybe it was overshadowed by “the Left Hand of Darkness”?  Or maybe i was not in the right mood.

At the end of 2019, Noah went through a period of Chinese fever. He asked me to read through our entire set of Hayao Miyazaki graphic presentation of Studio Ghibli animations, among them was the”Tales from Earthsea”.  Unsatisfied with the vagueness of every main character’s backstory, I picked up “A Wizard of Earthsea” from our library on the evening before the Christmas holiday.  Throughout the holiday, I would read one chapter to Noah before bed.  Both Noah and I were mesmerized.

Reading at a slow pace, the magic of “A Wizard of Earthsea” came to life for me. I finally appreciated how great the language was.

Browsing the other people’s quote selection, i realized many was touched as much as I was during the first meeting between Ged and the Archmage Nemmerle on Roke, in the court of fountain.

As their eyes met, a bird sang aloud in the branches of the tree. In that moment Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the water falling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirred the leaves: it seemed to him that he himself was a word spoken by the sunlight.

But what touched me even more was when Ged came again to that same court after he had unleashed his Shadow from the underworld.

The fountain leaped in the sunlight, and Ged watched it a while and listened to its voice, thinking of Memmerle.  Once in that court he had felt himself to be a world spoken by the sunlight.  Now the darkness also had spoken: a word that could not be unsaid.

Later in “The Farthest Shore”, i came across another phrase that was at once beautiful and precise. More over it was something I’ve been searching for since my teens, in both Chinese and English.  It was incredulous to have finally found it.  At the beginning i thought it must have been a common phrase, i just never crossed path with it. But google search seemed to indicate this phrase has only appeared this once in the vast data storage we call Google.  Which made this encounter that more magical.  As if it had been waiting for me here patiently since its existence. “The Farthest Shore”  was published in 1972.

The scene happened in the Immanent Grove, Ged was calling all the masters of Roke to come and consult about the rumors Arren brought, that magic is disappearing on the fringe of Earthsea.  After sending out the msg for a meeting, Ged “fall asleep in the leafspotted sunlight.” I’ve been obsessed with those sunlight filtered through branches and leaves since a young age. Finally i’ve found its proper name.

The actual copies we picked up from SF Public Library was from the 2012 reprint. Each has an “Afterward” by Le Guin, which I really enjoy, too.

Paris Review: Ursula Le Guin, The Art of Fiction No. 221 

“Well-run societies don’t need heroes”

Came across this fascinating article by Zeynep Tufekc, “a Turkish writer, academic, and techno-sociologist known primarily for her research on the social implications of emerging technologies in the context of politics and corporate responsibility.-wikipedia”.

The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones -It’s not just bad storytelling—it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological.

Zeynep thinks GRRM’s original writing employed sociology style of story telling, while the show runners style is psychological story telling.

One clue is clearly the show’s willingness to kill off major characters, early and often, without losing the thread of the story. TV shows that travel in the psychological lane rarely do that because they depend on viewers identifying with the characters and becoming invested in them to carry the story, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the society, institutions and norms that we interact with and which shape us. They can’t just kill major characters because those are the key tools with which they’re building the story and using as hooks to hold viewers.

The appeal of a show that routinely kills major characters signals a different kind of storytelling, where a single charismatic and/or powerful individual, along with his or her internal dynamics, doesn’t carry the whole narrative and explanatory burden. Given the dearth of such narratives in fiction and in TV, this approach clearly resonated with a large fan base that latched on to the show.

In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life.

She then moved on to more personal scenario which i also found fascinating.

When someone wrongs us, we tend to think they are evil, misguided or selfish: a personalized explanation. But when we misbehave, we are better at recognizing the external pressures on us that shape our actions: a situational understanding. If you snap at a coworker, for example, you may rationalize your behavior by remembering that you had difficulty sleeping last night and had financial struggles this month. You’re not evil, just stressed! The coworker who snaps at you, however, is more likely to be interpreted as a jerk, without going through the same kind of rationalization. This is convenient for our peace of mind, and fits with our domain of knowledge, too. We know what pressures us, but not necessarily others.

The hallmark of sociological storytelling is if it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of any character, not just the main hero/heroine, and imagine ourselves making similar choices. “Yeah, I can see myself doing that under such circumstances” is a way into a broader, deeper understanding. It’s not just empathy: we of course empathize with victims and good people, not with evildoers.

But if we can better understand how and why characters make their choices, we can also think about how to structure our world that encourages better choices for everyone. The alternative is an often futile appeal to the better angels of our nature. It’s not that they don’t exist, but they exist along with baser and lesser motives. The question isn’t to identify the few angels but to make it easier for everyone to make the choices that, collectively, would lead us all to a better place.

This resonated with me strongly because i’ve been reading up on the three Punic wars during Roman republic time. The first Punic war was played out very different from the second. The Romans fought the first Punic war as a republic, but shifted its style in the second. I’ve been wondering about the difference lately.

Zeynep’s article moved on to more interesting territory and gave me an ah-huh moment.

In German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s classic play, Life of Galileo, Andrea, a former pupil of Galileo, visits him after he recants his seminal findings under pressure from the Catholic Church. Galileo gives Andrea his notebooks, asking him to spread the knowledge they contain. Andrea celebrates this, saying “unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” Galileo corrects him: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

Well-run societies don’t need heroes, and the way to keep terrible impulses in check isn’t to dethrone antiheros and replace them with good people. Unfortunately, most of our storytelling—in fiction and also in mass media nonfiction—remains stuck in the hero/antihero narrative. It’s a pity Game of Thrones did not manage to conclude its last season in its original vein. In a historic moment that requires a lot of institution building and incentive changing (technological challenges, climate change, inequality and accountability) we need all the sociological imagination we can get, and fantasy dragons or not, it was nice to have a show that encouraged just that while it lasted.

During the first Punic war, the Roman society was well-run. It was smart and the senate could always make the right decisions. The consuls change every year, but the senate worked together with each new set of consuls managed to defeat Carthage. There was no heros, but the society grew stronger, and everyone else benefited around the Mediterranean.

But the success was their downfall, power and prosperity corrupted Roman, by the time second Punic war started, the society moved toward one that need heros. In responding to Hannibal, Roman got their Scipio. Roman empire started forming then. The rest is history.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon the fact that Michael Ondaatje has a new novel out, “Warlight”. I went to our local library and put a hold on a copy. It came to me a week ago.

Just started reading Friday after the depressing KavaNo saga came to a close. I needed something beautiful, i thought. I wasn’t disappointed. Just finished reading tonight. It was such a lovely lovely story.

First half was set in post-war London. It is refreshing to read Ondaatje’s signature prose with a urban landscape.

This afternoon when Noah was building combination robots using “plus plus”, I lied on the floor next to him reading this book. As i came across the paragraph where Nathaniel described how he picked lock in the Foreign Office archives (trying to find traces of his mother’s war time deeds), I read that paragraph aloud to Noah. “Wow, Interesting! I like it.” the 8-year-old commented at the end. Then he said something totally surprised me, “is it a poem? It rhymes.”

I always loved the way Ondaatje wrote his prose. The poet in him definitely came through. But this paragraph didn’t really particular seem poetic to me. Somehow the poetry in the prose was so evident that Noah could spot it. I loved that.

It was the veterinarian, the one who had inherited the two parrots, who taught me how to open locks on a filing cabinet. I had met her years earlier through The Darter and she was the only one I had managed to locate from that time. She befriended me on my return to London. I explained my problem and she recommended a powerful anaesthetic used on damaged hooves and bones that I could apply around a lock until a white condensation appeared. The freezing would slow down the lock’s resistance to any trespass and allow me to carry out my next stage of attack. This was a Steinmann pin, which in a more legal world provided skeletal traction and protected the damaged bones of a racing greyhound. The smooth stainless-steel intramedullary pins, petite and efficient, were almost instantly successful, and the locks on the cabinets barely paused before they slipped open with their secrets. I began breaking into the locked files; and, in the usually deserted map room, where I ate my lunch alone, I pulled the borrowed papers out of my shirt and read them. An hour later I returned them to their padlocked homes. If my mother existed in this building, I would discover her.

I loved The English Patient. But that wasn’t an easy book to read. Warlight, on the other hand, managed to keep the beauty of Ondaatje’s prose, yet the story telling was more focused and much easier to read.

As I was browsing reviews on line, I realized Ondaatje also wrote another book i missed, it is called “The Cat’s Table”. Will be reading that now.

The Mediterranean

We noticed the birds right away upon our arrival at Granada. They came out in droves at dusk. They reminded me of starlings in Rome. Nine years ago, on our last night in Rome, we saw the grand symphony of starling swarm from Campidoglio. We climbed to the top of the stairs of S. Maria in Aracoeli with a few dozen tourists. We stood in the fading light of the dusk, watched for over an hour. Mesmerized.

Golondrinas in Spain didn’t do swarms. They flew in a more chaotic fashion above the squares and churches. Initially, Noah even suspected they may be bats.

As we moved around in andalusia, i noticed more similarities between Spanish towns and Italian ones. Toledo reminded me of Siena, Tarifa Siracusa. Then as we ventured across the strait of Gibraltar, Tangier Kasbah reminded me of Turkey(or Greece that i’ve seen in pictures): whitewashed walls with bright yellow and blue splashes. The abundant cats wondering the streets and parks.

Paul Theroux’ Pillars of Hercules pointed out that all these cities and towns are distinctly mediterranean. They share more similarities with each other than with inland cities of their own countries. “Alexandria and Venice, Marseilles and Tunis, and even smaller places like Cagliari and Palma and Split.”

He was absolutely right. It is not just Spain or Italy, Roman or Greek, Byzantine or Moorish. They are all Mediterranean.

After we got back, i feverishly devoured a bunch of Moorish or Spain related books: Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain, Xiaofei Tian’s The Red Fort, and Robert Crowley’s Empires of the Sea. While still reading random chapters of Pillars of Hercules in between.

One sentence toward the end of “Empire of the sea” stunned me. Suddenly all the puzzle pieces fell into place. Coherence!

THE TREATY OF 1580 RECOGNIZED a stalemate between two empires and two worlds. From this moment, the diagonal frontier that ran the length of the Mediterranean between Istanbul and the Gates of Gibraltar hardened. The competitors turned their backs on each other, the Ottomans to fight the Persians and confront the challenge of Hungary and the Danube once more, Philip to take up the contest in the Atlantic. After the annexation of Portugal he looked west and symbolically moved his court to Lisbon to face a greater sea. He had his own Lepanto still to come— the shipwreck of the Spanish armada off the coast of Britain, yet another consequence of the Spanish habit of sailing too late in the year. In the years after 1580, Islam and Christendom disengaged in the Mediterranean, one gradually to introvert, the other to explore.

The diagonal frontier! That’s it! Once upon a time, such frontier didn’t exist. The entire Mediterranean functioned as one messy/quarrelsome family. They fought, they traded, they learned from each other. Empires ebb and flow along the tide of time. They might originate from different coasts of the sea. But they didn’t turn their backs on each other. The ancient egyptians hired greek mercenaries to fight off the syrians. The Greek then saw the grand pyramids, came home and went about to replace their original wooden temples with stony ones. The Romans kept up the tradition and improved it further. Then came the Arabs whose beautiful palaces and mosques covered with ceramic tiles in Cordoba and Granada had its roots in pompei’s mosaic clad mansions and aya sophia of Byzantine. They improved irrigation systems on top of Roman’s, brought their fountains and gardens to medieval Europe, they translated Aristotle and Plato and interpreted them in the context of religion. Those treasures were returned to Italy after the dark age, ignited the renaissance.
Until 1580.

In our modern history, in our life time, we’ve never known the mediterranean without this frontier. In my mind Mediterranean has always been two distinct halves, the more prosperous,progressive, and sunlight filled northern and western part, and the dark and backward south and eastern part. The boundaries is actually not just diagonal. The dark side also includes the Balkans.

I looked back further and realized this separation started in Byzantine time. After western Roman Empire fell to the Visigoth, the Mediterranean have slowly came to these two halves and stayed this way.  Coincident with the rise of Christianity and Islam.




Visiting Andalusia reminded me that it wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to stay this way, right?

Death of the Roman Republic and Birth of the American One

It was 5am on the Sunday before Christmas. I just dropped off family members at the airport. My car’s dashboard beeped as I got back to our driveway, “Out-Temp 37F”. Chilly pre-dawn darkness surrounded me. Original plan of going back to bed was scraped, I poured myself a cup of coffee, pulled out last night’s SNL and watched them again. The Weekend Update segment in SNL has become my new favorite lately, last night’s installment was no exception: Civil Wars Episode II: revenge of the south, brilliant! Notification of alerted me someone re-shared and liked my item on “finished reading John Adams”, which led me to re-read my previous note on “finished reading Dictator”. Laughters was quickly replaced by tears.

痛哭失声! 从Cato的自杀,Cicero给他写的悼文,到Cicero最后模仿Gladiator亮出脖颈求死。。。所有感动我的豪言壮语之中,最温暖的是Cicero关于搬家的一句话“I have put out my books and now my house has a soul.”


Weeping uncontrollably at the end. From Cato’s suicide, Cicero’s eulogy to Cato, to Cicero’s own death where he chose the Gladiator’s way of baring his throat to the killer…among all the words that moved me, this little passage about moving in to a new house warmed me profoundly “I have put out my books and now my house has a soul.”

Since the shocking results of election on Nov. 8, 2016. Amidst all the grief and disbelieve, I turned to reading. I’ve finished the following so far, mostly about the end of Roman Republic. One on the founding of the US.  I thought they would give me answers.

  • Rubicon by Tom Holland, on the last years of the Roman Republic
  • Cicero trilogy by Robert Harris: Imperium, Conspirata, Dictator
  • John Adams by David McCullough.

And they did.

1. Why read on Roman Republic in 62BC instead of Germany in 1933?

I actually didn’t know why i zoomed in on the Roman Republic when i started on my reading spree 5 weeks ago. Now with some basic information gleamed from these books, I think maybe because today’s US and Rome in 62BC were equally superior in its dominance of the world. Unlike Germany in 1933, there is no external force can threaten the US today, or Rome 2000+ years ago. Rome imploded. and the US looks like is on its way to follow suit.

The Sibyl’s Curse (for Rome)
“Not foreign invaders, Italy, but your own sons will rape you, a brutal, interminable gang-rape, punishing you, famous country, for all your many depravities, leaving you prostrated, stretched out among the burning ashes. Self-slaughterer! No longer the mother of upstanding men, but rather the nurse of savage, ravening beasts!”

-Rubicon, Tom Holland

Lacking a crystal ball that tells the future, reading the end of Roman Republic seems the next closest thing.

2. People can normalize anything

Ever since the election, the media has been abuzz daily about all the unbelievable behaviors of the president elect and the GOP. But last years of the Roman Republic demonstrated how adaptive citizens were. People were capable of normalize anything, and there were no reason to doubt we have lost any of those adaptability. Baptized by the bloody WWI and WWII, we are probably even more adaptive than the Romans from 2000 years ago.

During my schooling years, I developed a very efficient way of cramming maximum amount of information in my memory right before an exam and promptly forgetting all of them right after I turned in my finals. As a result, i remembered very little about history. I remembered “Rubicon and Caesar”. but I didn’t remember a thing about Lucius Cornelius Sulla nor his marching on Rome 40 years prior to Caesar crossed Rubicon.

With immense fascination, I read on…

In 91BC there was an “Italian war” because not everyone in Italy were given Roman citizenship. Unsatisfied to stay second class citizen, a few “alliance cities” of Rome in Italy revolted, led by Samnium. Sulla was the general who led Roman legions that put down the revolt swiftly, and trapped the last of rebels in Nola. The victory earned him one of the two spots of consulship, the highest executive power of Rome at the time, in addition, he was rewarded a commission to lead the war against Mithridates in the East, the most lucrative assignment all generals were drooling over. After securing the commission. Sulla returned to his army camp that’s still trying to finish off rebels cooped up in Nola. But in his absence, that Eastern command was maneuvered out of his hand in Rome’s politics, and the lucrative commission was given to Sulla’s mentor and rival Gaius Marius instead.

Up to this point, Roman legions had always answered to SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus – Senate and People of Rome) instead of any general. So following normal procedure, an officer of Marius was dispatched to Sulla’s camp to retrieve the command.

Sulla, first in consternation and then in mounting fury, retired to his tent. There he did some quick calculations. With him at Nola he had six legions. Five of these had been assigned to the war against Mithridates and one to the continued prosecution of the siege—in all, around thirty thousand men. Although much reduced from the numbers Sulla had commanded the previous summer, they nevertheless represented a menacing concentration of fighting power. Only the legions of Pompeius Strabo, busy mopping up rebels on the other side of Italy, could hope to rival them. Marius, back in Rome, had no legions whatsoever.

The math was simple. Why, then, had Marius failed to work it out, and how could so hardened an operator have chosen to drive his great rival into a corner where there were six battle-hardened legions ready to hand? Clearly, the prospect that Sulla might come out of it fighting had never even crossed Marius’s mind. It was impossible, unthinkable. After all, a Roman army was not the private militia of the general who commanded it, but the embodiment of the Republic at war. Its loyalty was owed to whoever was appointed to its command by the due processes of the constitution. This was how it had always been, for as long as the Republic’s citizens had been going to war—and Marius had no reason to imagine that things might possibly have changed.
– Rubicon, Tom Holland

So the unthinkable happened, Sulla became the first citizen ever led legions against his own city. To all frantic embassies sent his way trying to persuade him to turn back, his answer: he was marching on Rome “to free her from her tyrants.” This line made me laugh out loud. Every single rebellion that ended up overturning one Chinese dynasty and starting another almost all used that exact same slogan, “清君侧!”

…after Sulla’s coup ‘there was nothing left which could shame warlords into holding back on military violence – not the law, not the institutions of the Republic, nor even the love of Rome.’
-Rubicon, Tom Holland

But this slogan worked. Even though Sulla’s army defied all rules of the Republic and fought its way into the unarmed city of Rome, killed one of his enemy and forced another fleeing to Africa, declared all his rival’s legislation invalid, and put in place his own. Senate passed all his requests with his army looked on. Throughout all these Sulla insisted on his coup was aimed to “protect the constitution”.

The Republic, in the eyes of its citizens, was something much more than a mere constitution… To be a citizen was to know that one was free–“and that the Roman people should ever not be free is contrary to all the laws of heaven.” Such certainty suffused every citizen’s sense of himself. Far from expiring with Sulla’s march on Rome, … Yes, a general had turned on his own city, but even he had claimed to be doing so in defense of the traditional order. ..For all the trauma of Sulla’s march on Rome, no one could imagine that the Republic itself might be overthrown, ..
So it was that, even after the shocks of 88, life went on. The year of 87 dawned with an appearance of normality.
-Rubicon, Tom Holland

Comparing to Sulla’s march on Rome, what are the new cabinets selections? or Trump’s crazy tweets? If people could normalize a military coup in Rome during later years of Roman Republic, what couldn’t we normalize in today’s US?

3. Who would Trump be during Roman Republic?

Rubicon’s author Tom Holland likened Trump to Caligula . Since I haven’t read much on the Roman Empire, I will keep quiet. But someone on likened Trump to Publius Clodius Pulcher. After my limited reading thus far, I’m whole heartedly agreeing. Clodius came from one of the richest and noblest line in Rome, yet, he positioned himself as the spokesperson for the Rome commoners (plebeian), rallied a mob terrorized the streets of Rome, forced ex-consul, one of most prominent senators Cicero into exile, then Clodius led his mob to storm Cicero’s house and torn the place to nothing brick by brick.

What’s more, “The Good Goddess” scandal and trial for incestum played out just like Trump’s ascend during this election year. The shocking outcome was also incredibly similar to the election result for the US. It was a shocking revelation that common decency no longer mattered to “the people”.

4. “We’re going to go through your Cicero books again to check what happens next.” “Nothing good.”
I quoted this tweet conversation between author Robert Harris and one of his readers in my previous blog on Conspirata.

Harris’ response is very accurate. “Nothing Good” happened after the ascend of a candidate that swore to overturn the “corrupted elite.” But you maybe surprised how it turned out. I knew I was.

The eventual conflict that led to Civil War actually didn’t erupted between the two sides that contested the election, i.e. it was not between the rational Elite and the irrational Mob’s leader. Instead it was another implosion within the power that was in charge.

In other words, if the US were to follow the Roman Republic step by step, the next conflict to watch out for will happen within the Trump Administration. During Roman time, there were two Triumvirate period. Both failed and ended in bloody civil wars. One was among Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus; another was among Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus.

It is still to early to tell who were the ones really in charge in this upcoming administration. But at least we know what to watch out for.

5. An revolution by a mob always ends in an authoritarian state
It is shocking to see how alike Clodius’ mob terror was to Chairman Mao’s Culture Revolution. Caesar’s original bill that tried to divide up the public land for the poor was strikingly similar to how Mao earned popularity in his early years, too.
Mobilizing the mob seemed to be eternal method to start a revolution, from the dynasty change in China’s long history, to communist success, to French revolution, to Roman Republic’s demise.

All the labels matter not: communists, republic, capitalists, imperialists, colonial. The fundamental social change engine has always been the same, the polarization of society, the obscene aggregation of rich to the top 1%。不患寡而患不均。 The disenfranchised rose up like a tide, and delivered the shrewd to his/her throne, and demolished whatever social order there was. Misery, war, and death were the reward to the masses.

After the endless civil war and misery, eventually the people will settle for whoever can bring peace, even at the price of lost freedom. and tyrant/authoritarian can always bring peace more decisively than a democracy. Because they are more efficient.

We’ve seen this happening again and again throughout history, and these were only those that I know of. I’m no where near being a history buff.

– 221 BC, Qin Dynasty unified China after “Warring Period” started around 400BC, and thus kicked of the everlasting Unified and Authoritarian China till this day.
– Every Dynasty shift since then was a replay of exactly the same script, polarization of society, mob uprising, shifting to a new dynasty. Repeat.
– 27BC, Establishment of Roman Empire after ~20years of civil war started by Caesar and Pompey that ended Roman Republic founded in 509BC
– 1799 Napoleon’s coup following the French Revolution started in 1789
– early 1900s, Mao ZeDong’s rise and eventual defeat of Chiang Kai-shek after long period of civil war after Qing Dynasty’s collapse.

6. Great Man can’t change history
Reiterate my previous conclusion:”The last years of Roman Republic is truly the age of giants. Cicero alone delayed the death of the Republic by a life time, his life time. Yet, just like Caesar’s assassination couldn’t turn back the clock and revert Rome’s fate. Having one Cicero is not enough either. Maybe if there had been an army of Cicero, they could have kept Roman Republic alive and find a way for the Republic come out of the corruption and rule the world instead of an empire. But genius like Cicero only comes once in a lifetime of a republic. Like Obama. History will move on its own course, regardless of giants. It was fully illustrated in the aftermath of Cicero and Caesar. Mark Anthony and Octavia, as diminished as they seemed comparing to what came before them, they ended up “wrote” history its decisive chapters in that age.”

7. But there is always hope
I’m so glad that I returned to “John Adams” after my reading of the Roman Republic. Despite all the grim talk and conclusions above. Reading David McCullough’s Pulitzer award winning biography and watching the Emmy studded HBO 6 part mini-series, filled me again with hope and inspiration.

“Declaration of Independence” from 1776 moved me to tears.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

A really good highschool friend of mine introduced me to many of Chinese ancient history and stories. Despite Chinese government’s current purge of free flow of information for its citizens, my friend remained optimistic about China’s future. She firmly believes that no one can turn back time. The whole world is progressing in the large scheme of things. So will China.

In one of the darker times of American history, I find my friend’s optimism reassuring.

some encouraging signs i have seen are:
1. more people are paying for good journalism since the election: Washington Post is profitable! New York Times subscription going up after thump bashing. That’s a good start!
2. Lego ends its alliance with UK’s Daily Mail siting latter’s role in spreading lies during Brexit campaign.

“What do you give your kids if you can’t give them hope? — Michelle Obama”

Founding Fathers

johnadamsReading John Adams this morning, and came upon the passage when John Adams was serving as the first Vice President of the young republic, a friend told him the southern aristocracies held him in contempt because he had no “advantage of pride and family”. Adams promptly disputed it by saying he couldn’t be prouder of his family, and started counting up the lineage of his family in Braintree,

The line I have just described makes about 160 years in which no bankruptcy was ever committed, no widow or orphan was ever defrauded, no redemptor intervened and no debt was contracted with England.

This passage made me laugh and thought of colbert’s tweet from yesterday above. Founding father rolling in their graves, indeed.

Rubicon, Cicero

55% into Conspirata (2nd installment of Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy). Cicero ended his consulship on a high note. foiled Catilina’s conspiracy and executed the traitors. Catilina died in battle in Gaul.

Reading Rubicon and this series constantly reminded me of “Guns, Germs and Steel”‘s conclusion: great people don’t change history, people, great or small, only serve as history’s instruments.

The last years of Roman Republic is truly the age of giants. Cicero alone delayed the death of the republic by a life time, his life time. Yet, just like Caesar’s assassination couldn’t turn back the clock and revert Rome’s fate. Having one Cicero is not enough either. Maybe if there had been an army of Cicero, they could have kept Roman Republic alive and find a way for the Republic come out of the corruption and rule the world instead of an empire. But genius like Cicero only comes once in a lifetime of a republic. Like Obama. History will move on its own course, regardless of giants. It was fully illustrated in the aftermath of Cicero and Caesar, Mark Anthony and Octavia, as diminished as they seemed comparing to what came before them, they ended up “wrote” history its decisive chapters in that age.

what is history in store for us?



1453 the Book

I recently finished reading this wonderful book: 1453 by Roger Crowley. It was deeply moving how heroic the Greeks and the Italians who defended Constantinople have been. It also blew my mind how insignificant Byzantine has fallen in today’s history lessons. Western history doesn’t seem like to mention it despite its lasting over 1000 years in the world history. Comparing to that, we seemed to have formed unfounded confidence of today’s world order. The US history is merely 240 years. How could we be sure we would fare better than the Byzantines in the long run? Reading history definitely makes one feel humble.

Now i understood why i loved Aya Sophia so much when i visited it back in 2004. It has accumulated so much history and was created out of such a splendid empire. Every stone of that structure was saturated with human emotions and stories. It has seen so much!

Another fun revelation was that GRRM’s Kings Landing was emulating Constantinople. The Blackwater battle lifted so much detail out of all the sieges Constantinople has suffered and repelled. From the Greek Fire (wild fire in A Song of Ice and Fire) to the chain that ran across the narrow opening of Golden Horn (Tyrion’s chain!).

Yet, just like western history lessons rarely spending much time on Byzantine. Those fans digging through the histories behind A Song of Ice and Fire never mentions Constantinople. What’s up with that?!

“Wolf Hall” Reading Notes (1)

Half way through “Wolf Hall”. In love with Mantel’s writing.

In the Paris Review article, Mantel told the interviewer that when she was a teenager, for a while, she used to compose in her head the perfect paragraph for that day’s weather. She would work on it silently all day until she got it right. Now i read “Wolf Hall” and thought back to that teenager Mantel. No kidding. She could convey so much with so little and with such precision and beauty.

A wash of sunlight lies over the river, pale as the flesh of a lemon.

Rafe’s smile flickers, the wind pulls the torch flame into a rainy blur.

Katherine: he likes to see her moving about the royal palaces, as wide as she is high, stitched into gowns so bristling with gemstones that they look as if they are designed less for beauty than to withstand blows from a sword.

He would like her to shorten her account, but he understands her need to tell it over, moment by moment, to say it out loud. It is like a package of words she is making, to hand to him: this is yours now.

He took a linen towel and gently blotted from his face the journey just passed.

…the room felt so empty it was empty even of him.

It is a wan morning, low unbroken cloud; the light, filtering sparely through glass, is the colour of tarnished pewter. How brightly coloured the king is, like the king in a new pack of cards: how small his flat blue eye.

At Austin Friars, there is little chance to be alone,…Every letter of the alphabet watches you.

The light is fading around them while he talks, and his voice, each murmur, each hesitation, trails away into the dusk.

It was snowing at dawn on the day of the raid of Lion’s Quay, but soon a wintery sun was up, scouring windowpanes and casting the panelled rooms of city houses into sharp relief, ravines of shadows and cold floods of light.

More, Tyndale, they deserve each other, these mules that pass for men.

Lord Chancellor respects neither ignorance nor innocence.

The day is too mild for a fire. The hour is too early for a candle.In lieu of burning, he tears up Tyndale’s message. Marlinspike, his ears pricked, chews a fragment of it. ‘Brother cat,’he says. ‘He ever loved the scriptures.’

Pearls of Roman laughter unfurled into the Roman night.

The sun has declined; birdsong is hushed; the scent of the herb beds rises through the open window.

Also came across this article by Mantel in the Guardian on Cardinal Wolsey.
The other king“Hilary Mantel was researching Thomas Cromwell for her new novel when she opened a biography of Cardinal Wolsey and fell in love with the haughty charmer at the ‘golden centre’ of Henry VIII’s court.“
If you don’t have patience to try out “Wolf Hall” yet, then try this short article by Mantel first.

Sometimes you buy a book, powerfully drawn to it, but then it just sits on the shelf. Maybe you flick through it, the ghost of your original purpose at your elbow, but it’s not so much rereading as re-dusting. Then one day you pick it up, take notice of the contents; your inner life realigns. This is how I came to George Cavendish’s book Thomas Wolsey, Late Cardinal, His Life and Death.

I knew whose career I would like to follow – Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell. I couldn’t resist a man who was at the heart of the most dramatic events of Henry’s reign, but appeared in fiction and drama – if he appeared at all – as a pantomime villain. What attracted me to Cromwell was that he came from nowhere. He was the son of a Putney brewer and blacksmith, a family not very poor but very obscure; how, in a stratified, hierarchal society, did he rise to be Earl of Essex?

I needed to know Wolsey to understand Cromwell. But what was Wolsey? A great scarlet beast, I thought, a pre-Reformation priest who belonged to the old world, not the fierce, striving, dislocated society I wanted to write about. I thought of him as a means to an end; I imagined I would dispose of him quickly to get to the meat of the plot. Then the day came when I opened Cavendish’s Life; the author leaned out of the text and touched my arm, keen to impart the story of the man whose astonishing career he saw at first-hand: “Truth it is, Cardinal Wolsey, sometimes Archbishop of York, was an honest poor man’s son … ”

It is fascinating to know that in such an hierarchal society as England , one could rise from nowhere like Cardinal Wolsey, or Thomas Cromwell to be “the other king” or the King’s most powerful minister.

Hilary Mantel and Her “Wolf Hall”

I read New Yorker’s profile of Hilary Mantel in 2012 after she became the first female writer to win two Man Booker Prize. I was very intrigued by Mantel then, and put “Wolf Hall” on my to-read list. But never got around to do so.

BBC’s 6 episode “Wolf Hall” mini TV series was out earlier this year and i heard lots of praise. It is said that the screenwriter adapted Mantel’s work very nicely and captured the essence of the book.

PBS started broadcasting this series last Sunday.

I fell in love with it after watching Episode one.

The custom, setting, lighting were so well done, every frame looked like a painting.


The acting was marvelous as well. Even though most of them were not familiar to the US audience. But supposedly all of the main characters were seasoned stage actors in England, and it showed.

Some interesting comparison between the actors in the TV series and their actual portrait from the 16th century. Mostly by Hans Holbein the Younger, who was the official painter for the court of Henry VIII.

Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce)

Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)

Thomas More (Anton Lesser)

Henry VIII (Damian Lewis)

Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy)

Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips)

Apparently the soundtrack of the TV series was also a hit in Britain. Too early to tell how it will fair in the US. I myself really loved the music.

The Guardian had episode by episode explanation of the story line, it was very helpful for people who is not familiar with the Tudor history (such as myself), which was pretty complicated.

I went back and re-read the New Yorker profile of Mantel and was mesmerized once again. She is such a fascinating author! So the main character Cromwell had always been depicted as an evil man in most of historian’s record. Mantel thought otherwise.

Before she began to write, she spent a long time learning about Cromwell and reading deeply in the period. She had always been intrigued by Cromwell’s villainous reputation. Among both his contemporaries and historians, he was widely thought of as practically a sixteenth-century Himmler, and previous literary depictions—Robert Bolt’s 1960 play “A Man for All Seasons,” Ford Madox Ford’s “The Fifth Queen”—had taken this view. Even his own biographer hated him. But, beginning in the nineteen-fifties, Geoffrey Elton, a historian at Cambridge, had argued that Cromwell was a farseeing modern statesman who had transformed the English government from a personal fiefdom of the king to a bureaucratic parliamentary structure that could survive royal incompetence and enact reforms through legislation rather than through fiat. In so doing, he helped to bring about the English Reformation without the kind of bloodshed or descent into absolutism that took place in much of the rest of Europe. By the time she began to read about Cromwell, academic fashion had moved on and a new generation hated him again, but she found Elton’s arguments persuasive.

Despite all the hatred, very little information was known about Cromwell. Historian had still not determined his birth year. So Mantel had to do lots of research and to fill in lots of blanks. Even though Cromwell Trilogy(“Wolf Hall”, “Bring up the Bodies” and the upcoming “The Mirror and the Light”) had been labeled as historic fiction, Mantel said all characters (hundreds of them) but one servant of Wolsey were real, she didn’t like to make things up.

She couldn’t always be sure that a character was in the place she said he was in at the time she put him there, but she spent endless hours making sure that he wasn’t definitely somewhere else.

Some other interesting quotes from the New Yorker article:

One of Cromwell’s advantages at court was that he did not underestimate women—neither their usefulness as informants nor their cunning as enemies.

Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the jailers will owe him money.

She believes that there are no great characters without a great time; ordinary times breed ordinary people (of the sort—dull, trapped, despairing—who inhabit modern novels).

Some say the Tudors transcend this history, bloody and demonic as it is: that they descend from Brutus through the line of Constantine, son of St. Helena, who was a Briton. Arthur, High King of Britain, was Constantine’s grandson. He married up to three women, all called Guinevere, and his tomb is at Glastonbury, but you must understand that he is not really dead, only waiting his time to come again.

It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts.

The most recent issue of The Paris Review (Spring 2015) had an interview with Mantel. But one would have to pay $20 to read more than just the excerpt. I couldn’t find The Paris Review from SF on-line Library catalog last night. So i dropped by a bookstore this morning to read it. Since her teenager years, she liked not only to read, but also to analyze the structure of writing and to figure out how the author “did it”. Mantel had some interesting thing to say about which authors she liked. Her favorite writing is “Kidnapped” by Robert Louis Stevenson, she thinks it is the absolute perfect piece of work. She liked “Jane Eyre” when she first read it as a teenager because Mantel believed herself was also “an very unchildlike child.” But later she couldn’t re-read “Jane Eyre” since she constantly tried to edit it. “Kidnapped”, on the other hand, could be re-read and re-read and remain perfect in Mantel’s eyes.
(Paris Review only keep the new issues from been published on their website. One year later, you can now read the interview at its entirety.)

Interviewer: Did you read Middlemarch?
Mantel: Not until I was grown up. I’m not fond of Eliot. And I’ve never made my way through a virginia Woolf book. I can’t. I can read her essays, and I can read about her, and I can read all around her. I can’t read her novels. You know, it sounds terribly disrespectful to Virginia, but I like books in which things happen.

I’ve started reading “Wolf Hall” the book, finally. I’ve picked up a copy of “Bring Up the Bodies” at the bookstore. Looking forward to the publishing of “The Mirror and the Light”.

Reading David Mitchell

So impressed with his latest novel “The Bone Clocks(2014)” that i’m in the process of reading all of David Mitchell’s past works. I read “Cloud Atlas(2004)” shortly after seeing the New Yorker article on the movie back in 2012. I’ve just finished reading his first novel “Ghostwritten(1999)” today.

Found a Paris Review interview with Mitchell that I really like.
The Art of Fiction No. 204, Summer 2010.

Also this little article on Mitchell by The Atlantic,
David Mitchell on How to Write: “Neglect Everything Else”, Sep. 2014.
It quoted Mitchell’s favorite Poem by James Wright.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Michael Crichton’s “Travels”

s4273393I first read Michael Crichton’s “Travels” shortly after college graduation. His adventurous travel held a strong appeal to me: climbing of Mt. Kilimanjaro, night diving, wreck diving, diving with sharks, living with the natives, safari in Africa, etc. For many years, this remained one of my favorite books.

Gui mentioned this book to me this weekend when we were discussing the medical profession. “Michael Crichton talked about his medical school days in his ‘Travels’.” I totally forgot about that part of the book!

I reread it again during the last couple of days. Crichton didn’t just go to any medical school. He graduated from Harvard Medical School! What’s more, he actually went to Harvard wanting to be a writer but kept on getting C for his writing. This episode was hilarious.

I had gone to college planning to become a writer, but early on a scientific tendency appeared. In the English department at Harvard, my writing style was severely criticized and I was receiving grades of C or C+ on my papers. At eighteen, I was vain about my writing and felt it was Harvard, and not I, that was in error, so I decided to make an experiment. The next assignment was a paper on Gulliver’s Travels, and I remembered an essay by George Orwell that might fit. With some hesitation, I retyped Orwell’s essay and submitted it as my own. I hesitated because if I were caught for plagiarism I would be expelled; but I was pretty sure that my instructor was not only wrong about writing styles, but poorly read as well. In any case, George Orwell got a B- at Harvard, which convinced me that the English department was too difficult for me.

So Crichton switched to pre-med instead and got in Harvard Medical school. He was writing thrillers to pay for med school. One of his earlier books got bought by Hollywood while he was doing clinical rotations in hospitals and he decided to quit Medicine and moved to Hollywood after graduating from Medical school.

The Medical School years weren’t the only ones i forgot that was in the book. Almost more than half of the book was on his experience with psychic and paranormal phenomenons, which I had also erased from my memory, i suspect i might not even bother to read most of those stories during the initial read.

It is interesting to re-read this book i used to love so much. I appreciate the medical school stories a lot more than before. The adventurous travel stories were still interesting, but less thrilling than when i first graduated. I could also sympathize with his psychic experience a bit more and less skeptical about them than before.

“Lawrence in Arabia” – a Mesmerizing Read!


I started reading Sunday evening and could not put it down. Entire week, I’ve devoted all my spare time to it.

I just finished it this morning on my shuttle to work.

The entire book was a rather delightful experience, but my tears rushed out so suddenly at the end, I couldn’t do much but sit in the lovely winter sunshine by the shuttle window  and cried for a while.

Churchill’s eulogy was rather more loquacious: “I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time. I do not see his like elsewhere. I fear whatever our need we shall never see his like again.”

After i watched “Lawrence of Arabia” for the first time, I tried to get my hands on more background stories about T. E. Lawrence. I remembered trying to fight my way through the Seven Pillars of Wisdom for probably half a year but eventually gave up (probably 30% into the book?).

Scott Anderson’s “Lawrence in Arabia” is exactly the book i’ve been looking for all these years.  In addition to Lawrence, he also included a German spy, an American Oil man, and a Romania Jew who settled in Jerusalem during Ottoman’s rule and eventually played a big role in the formation of Israel.  All four of them were in their late 20’s or early 30’s. None of them had formal military training, yet they all contributed greatly to the event in Middle East during and after WWI.

The book illustrated the relationships among the empires and their people. Andersen is a great story teller and a wonderful historian who explained the intricate relationships so clearly.  He was also funny.

Suez operation had seemed to underscore the old maxim that war can kill all things except bad ideas.

On the incompetence of the American intelligence community, after William Yale (the lone American intelligence officer in Middle East during WWI) sent to the State Department, Anderson says:

“He was establishing a tradition of fundamentally misreading the situation in the Middle East that his successors in the American intelligence community would rigorously maintain for the next 95 years.”

On the incompetence of British military during WWI:

after all, repeatedly smashing up against the enemy’s strongest points had bcome something of a British World War I tradition by now

On the tragedy created by WWI and its aftermath:

…it’s hard to imagine that any of this could possibly have produced a sadder history than what has actually transpired over the past century, a catalog of war, religious strife, and brutal dictatorships that has haunted not just the Middle East but the entire world.


…four wars between the Arabs and Israelis; a ten-year civil war in Lebanon and a twenty-year one in Yemen; the slaughter of ethnic minorities in Syria and Iraq; four decades of state-sponsored terrorism; convulsions of religious extremism; four major American military interventions and a host of smaller ones; and for the Arab people, until very recently, a virtually unbroken string of cruel and/or kleptocratic dictatorships stretching from Tunisia to Iraq that left the great majority improverished and disenfranchised.

On why Lawrence rejected his former life so absolutely after the war:

As a boy, he had been obsessed with the tales of King Arthur’s court and the chivalric code, had dreamed of leading a heroic life. In the reality of war, however, Lawrence had seen men blown to bits, often by his own handiwork, and left wounded behind to die, and had ordered prisoners to be killed. Just as any thoughtful person before or after him, what Lawrence had discovered on the battlefield was that while moments of heroism might certainly occur, the cumulative experience of war, its day-in, day-out brutalization, was utterly antithetical to the notion of leading a heroic life.

Some of Lawrence’s writing that Anderson quoted were truly lovely. Maybe it is time for me to pick up “Seven Pillars” and give it another try.

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
    And wrote my will across the sky in stars
To earn you Freedom, the seven pillared worthy house,
    That your eyes might be shining for me
                                                                when we came.
Death seemed my servant on the road, till we were near
    And saw you waiting
When you smiled, and in sorrowful envy he outran me
    And took you apart:
                                                                 into his quietness.

…two months into his retirement, “at present the feeling is mere bewilderment. I imagine leaves must feel like this after they have fallen from their tree and until they die.”



In one of his interview, Anderson said that even though “Lawrence of Arabia” the movie got many facts wrong, but it managed to tell a bigger truth when it comes to Lawrence as a person. I couldn’t agree more. The movie and this book seem to be a great complement of each other. I love both.

Amazon vs. Publishers, Little Fish vs. The Whale?

Earlier this year, I read “Cheap Words” on the New Yorker, “Amazon is good for customers, but is it good for books?” by George Packer.


Bezos is right: gatekeepers are inherently élitist, and some of them have been weakened, in no small part, because of their complacency and short-term thinking. But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?

I wanted to write about it but didn’t.

This morning I just read “The War of the Words” on the Vanity Fair, by Keith Gessen. It is on the same topic, Amazon vs. Publishers. It did a great job documenting the evolving relationship between Amazon and Publishers, and summarized the conflict of today.



Amazon’s self-published authors’ books were particularly inexpensive, and also something else: they were a particular kind of book. In publishing terms they were known as “genre” books: thrillers, mysteries, horror stories, romances. There were genre writers on both sides of the dispute, but on the publishing side were huddled the biographers, urban historians, midlist novelists—that is, all the people who were able to eke out a living because publishers still paid advances, acting as a kind of local literary bank, in anticipation of future sales. Some pro-Amazon authors boasted of the money they’d earned from self-publishing, but the authors of books that sometimes took a decade to write knew that this was not for them—that in an Amazon future they would be even more dependent on the universities and foundations than they already were.

As a reader, the question is do i want to continue reading the serious book written by authors spent a decay research and produce?

It is actually a very similar argument seen in today’s world that’s filled with 140 characters sound bites.  They are fast-food culture. They are amusing. They keep me entertained every seconds of my day. But what if i still want to have the option to read serious biography, history, or great novels by the masters of words.

Kindle and Amazon’s efficiency did get more people back to reading, thank god. But reading what?  Do we want a world with only genre entertainments?

It reminded me of a conversation from Giovanni’s Room that i loved. It is on the topic of America vs. Europe.

   “Anyway,” he said mildly, “I don’t see what you can do with little fish except eat them. What else are they good for?”

“In my country,” I said, feeling a subtle war within me as I said it, “the little fish seem to have gotten together and are nibbling at the body of the whale.”

“That will not make them whales,” said Giovanni. “The only result of all that nibbling will be that there will no longer be any grandeur anywhere, not even at the bottom of the sea.”

“Is that what you have against us? That we’re not grand?”

I loved the Keith Gessen article on Amazon’s efficiency when he visited Amazon’s wearhouse.

So much ingenuity had been deployed to solve the problem of “reading”—in their different ways by the Kindle engineers, by the warehouse-software specialists, by Otis Chandler at Goodreads. And I remembered something a book editor, one of the best I know, had said to me about the Amazon situation. “They’re always talking about inefficiency,” he said. “Publishing is inefficient; print is inefficient. I mean, yeah. But inefficiency, that’s human. That’s what being human is.” The Kindle really is an extraordinary device—the fulfillment centers are wonders of undeniable efficiency. They too represent a remarkable human achievement. But art by definition is something for which there is no practical use.

What put a cold shiver down my spin is how close the future that Amazon is peddling resembles China.  The books are super cheap in China. No one, not even the most popular writers can afford to live on writing along. Only writers who can earn a decent living are those who joined the state sponsored “writer’s institution”. They are paid a regular salary by the government. All through Chinese history, the great books were either written by genius who died of poverty (“The Dream of Red Chamber”), or by state supported historians (“The Records of the Grand Historian” 史记).

I don’t want a world where published words can only go through Amazon. Yet, i don’t want a world that can only go through the old publishing house either. During my involvement during the Ping Fu scandal. I saw the worst of the elite publishing house world.  Amazon was the only place allowed “little fish” to speak up.

I want a world where little fish and the whale can co-exist somehow. Is that possible?



Green Apple Books and Music – 2nd Store

Green Apple Books and Music – My favorite bookstore in San Francisco – just opened their 2nd store near Golden Gate Park.  ZM and I used to love the original store on Clement for the books that we care about(ZM: Photographer Monographs, Me: used book of certain author i happened to be fascinated with at the time).
Recently we started taking Noah there and found out they have an amazing children’s book selection, too. It became one of Noah’s favorite places to visit after dinner on weekends.


First visit with Noah back in April. He picked up a great copy of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”

We visited the new store over the weekend. Fell in love with the children’s section. Noah even picked up a book.

After we left the bookstore. I walked across the street to pick up some macaroon, and told ZM and Noah to continuing back to the car and i will catch up. Noah was so eager to get going with his new book, they ended up sitting down at a sidewalk garden one block from the bookstore, and Noah started “reading” under street light.

Green Apple’s co-owner talks about how they thrive in the age of amazon, a fascinating read. 

This is my favorite passage from the interview:

But numbers don’t tell the story. Within our walls are real human interaction (sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much): parents read to their kids in our store, couples meet for the first time, Robin Williams and Dave Eggers once connected over our bargain bins, Tom Waits recently told us which book about him “really sucks,” a man had a heart attack and died in our military history section, a drunk lost control of his bodily functions in poetry, every day a lost soul finds someone to talk to, and it was at Green Apple that I was set up with the woman who became my wife.

Green Apple Books and Music
2nd Store: 1231 9th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94122
Flagship Store:506 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94118

March 17, 2014 The New Yorker – Lydia Davis, the Sandy Hook Killer, and Noah the Movie

A good issue again.

(Noah named everyone in this cover a friend of his at his pre-school class. He named the little boy on the bottom left wearing a “I HEART NY” tank top himself, and little beard dude to his right Daddy).

Long Story Short – Lydia Davis’s concise fiction, by Dana Goodyear
I’ve never heard of Lydia Davis until this article. She won the 2013 Man Booker International prize. She was also Paul Auster’s first wife. She sounds like a very interesting person. I’m not exactly sure i will like her stories, but I’m curious to read them.

The Reckoning – The Sandy Hook killer’s father tells his tory, by Andrew Solomon. Enough said. The only lesson i could draw as a parent from this article is never to keep a child in isolation with his/her parent only. Adolescent might be painful. Isolation is deadly. Children have to learn to adapt to their environment. But then again, in Adam’s case, if his parents had forced him to try harder, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference for Adam himself. Just to force his demon to surface sooner and maybe detected by more people earlier, at least there might be a chance to avert the mass murder at the end.

Heavy Weather – Darren Aronofsky takes on Noah, by Tad Friend.
This is my favorite of the entire issue. I’ve only seen two of Aronofisky’s films (The Wrestler, Black Swan) and didn’t felt too strongly about either. But Noah sounds interesting.

I’m fascinated by this custom-built desk of his.

Aronofsky writes his films on the second floor of his place in Manhattan’s East Village, at a custom-built desk of Bastogne walnut, inlaid with responsibly harvested macassar ebony and pink ivory. Twenty-five puzzles are concealed within it, cunning locks and springs and slides, and the front houses an octave of organ pipes you can play by sliding drawers in and out. As you solve the puzzles, you find hidden pieces of wood, each of which displays a few musical notes. When you put the pieces in order and play the resulting tune on the organ –an Irving Berlin song that was the first thing Aronofsky learned on the piano–it opens a secret safe: the final prize. It took him six weeks to pop the safe, and he had the plans. David Blaine told me, “The desk is a very cool thing that’s a lot like Darren himself–there’s always another twist and turn.”

An interesting anecdote.

 In the mid-nineties, Arnofsky wrote down ten film ideas he wanted to pursue. All six of his films have come from that list, and all have been informed by his early years: the stress and the bloody toes his sister incurred in ballet practice became Nina’s in “Black Swan”; his parents’ cancer scares informed Izzi’s cancer in “The FOuntain.” After he wrote a prose poem about Noah for his seventh-grade English teacher, Vera Fried, he got to read it over the P.A. system — “The rain continued through the night and the cries of screaming men filled the air” — and was transformed from a math geek into a writer.

Then there is the celebrity gossip that i didn’t know before. Aronofsky was engaged with Rachel Weisz for five years and had a son together. Then they broke off the engagement, Rachel started seeing Daniel Craig, whom she later married.

Joseph Kennedy, ‘Patriarch’ of An American Dynasty

It was a very interesting freshair interview yesterday: Joseph Kennedy, ‘Patriarch’ of An American Dynasty.

I didn’t know much about Joseph Kennedy at all. This interview was a great history lesson for me. Two things stood out for me.

One is that Joseph advised all of his nine children to go into public service, instead of going to business. “I’ve made all these money for you so you don’t have to. Give something back to the public, instead.”

Another is his remark to Churchill at the end of WWII, “what good did it do [referring to US entering the war]? now we have Stalin instead of Hitler? Both are threatening capitalism. One is no better than the other.”

The latter was such an interesting question. Indeed, why is Stalin better than Hitler? Is it because a cold war is still miles better than a hot one? Stalin won’t openly invade Europe like Hitler had?

Chairman Mao’s Great Famine

Gui left a pointer to this New Yorker article on Chairman Mao’s Great Famine. It is a very interesting read.

The main theme of the article seems to be how wrong the west has been about China. From their judgement on Chinese famines in the past to the vitality of today’s communist party. Although on the surface it is supposed to be a book review on two recently released books on Chinese’s Famine during the Mao years. One is an English (abridged) translation of a research published by a Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng–“Tombstone” and another by Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine, “Mao: The Real Story,” draws on Russian archives.

The opening paragraph of the article described the “Incredible Famine” happened during Qing Dynasty, between 1876-1879. 13 million perished.

…according to the British-owned North China Herald, an influential mouthpiece of the Western business communities clustered in Shanghai, the famine was proof of the folly of big government — the Qing imperial administration. A fatal Chinese indifference to science, to railroads, and most important, to laissez-faire economics was to blame. The famine and the many deaths in China would not have occurred “in vain,” the Herald editorialized, if they could persuade the Chinese government to cease its paternalistic interfering in the laws of “private enterprise.”

Never mind that more than twelve million people had died during the Madras Famine of 1877, even though India had been equipped by its British rulers with railroads and a free market in grains, or that Ireland, during the Great Potato Famine, thirty years earlier, had suffered from Britain’s heartlessly enforced ideology of laissez-faire. The herald deplored the “antiquated learning” of the Chinese, and described the heroic figure who could rescue China from misery: “The man wanted in China now, as in its early days, is a patriotic engineer,” someone “single-minded and energetic” and possessing “commanding energy and resolution.”

In due course, China got just such a big-thinking, single-minded “patriotic engineer.” His name was Mao Zedong.

That’s one fantastic piece of writing! Even though I won’t ever characterize Mao as an engineer.

The article went on to conclude that the West continuous to underestimate Chinese communist party’s ability to learn from lessons of their own and the rest of the world, and their ability to adapt and adjust itself to today’s world.

It reminded me of what Peter Hessler has noted in his first Book from his China trilogy, ‘River Town – Two Years on the Yangtze‘。

He was the only student who has anything like a dissident, and I remembered how I had imagined those figures before coming to Fuling. I had always assumed that they were noble characters — charismatic, intelligent, farsighted, brave. Perhaps that was the way it had been in 1989, and perhaps it was still like that in the bigger cities; but here in Fuling things were very different. My best students — Soddy, Linda, Armstrong, Aumur; the ones who were charismatic, intelligent, farsighted, and brave — those were the ones who had been recruited long ago as Party Members. If you had any talent you played by the rules; being a Party Member was good for your career, and in any case all of the students seemed to think that it was good to be patriotic in the narrow way that they were told to be. The image i had once had of the Chinese dissident had no reality in Fuling.

All I had was Rebecca — he was the only one, and he was a loser. He was a bad student, and he was socially awkward. He had no friends. He had a girl’s name. Some of these characteristics had conspired to set him apart, and in his bitterness his ideas had undoubtedly swung even further from the Party line. If there were big changes in China’s future, it was hard to imagine them coming from people like Rebecca, or, for that matter, from any of my other students.

Euro Crisis

In the midst of Euro 2012 Championship, but all the media attention were focused on Greece’s potential withdraw from Euro.

Germany is trying to save Euro single-handed-ly. Or i shall say the US is trying to ask Germany to save Euro on its own.  TV pundits are trying to predict the doom of Euro, and the hardship ahead for Europe.

I couldn’t help remembering the book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. The ultimate answer i was seeking while reading that book was, why did China fall behind while Europe blossomed in modern history.

“It[China] also led the world in political power, navigation, and control of the seas. In the early 15th century it sent treasure fleets, each consisting of hundreds of ships up to 400 feet long and with totla crews of up to 28,000, across the Indian Ocean as far as the east coast of Africa, decades before Columbus’ three puny ships crossed the narrow Atlantic Ocean to the America’s east coast. Why didn’t Chinese ships proceed around Africda’s southern cape westward and colonize Europe, before Vasco da Gama’s own three puny ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope eastward and lauunched Europe’s colonization of East Asia? Why didn’t Chinese ships cross the Pacific to colonize the America’s west coast? Why, in brief, did China lose its technological lead to the formerly so backward Europe?”

The book revealed its conclusion at the end, and it made perfect sense to me then.

“…precisely because Europe was fragmented, Columbus succeeded on his fifth try in persuading one of Europe’s hundreds of princes to sponsor him. Once Spain had thus launched the European colonization of America, other European states saw the wealth flowing into Spain, and six more joined in colonizing America. The story  was the same with Europe’s cannon, electric lighting, printing, small firearms, and innumerable other innovations: each was at first neglected or opposed in some parts of Europe for idiosyncratic reasons, but once adopted in one area, it eventually spread to the rest of Europe.

These consequences of Europe’s disunity stand in sharp contrast to those of China’s unity.  From time to time the Chinese court decided to halt other activities besides overseas navigation: it abandoned development of an elaborate water-driven spinning machine, stepped back from the verge of an industrial revolution in the 14th century, demolished or virtually abolished mechanical clocks after leading the world in clock construction, and retreated from mechanical devices and technology in general after the late 15th century.  Those potentially harmful effects of unity have flared up again in modern China, notably during the madness of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, when a decision by one or a few leaders closed the whole country’s school system for five years.

Europe’s disunity has been its strength!  So Greece’ breakaway from Euro is no accident. It is burned into Europe’s DNA.  Germany, as always trying to play the unifying role. But Europe, being the diverse Europe, doesn’t want to be China.

In the long run, it might not be a bad thing.

“Genius…, is supremely normal.”

“The normal is what you find but rarely. The normal is an ideal. It is a picture that one fabricates of the average characteristics of men, and to find them all in a single man is hardly to be expected.

“It seems to me that what makes genius is the combination of natural gifts for creation with an idiosyncrasy that enables its possessor to see the world personally in the highest degree, and yet with such catholicity that his appeal is not to this type of man or to that type, but to all men. His private world is that of common men, but ampler and more pithy. His communication is universal, and though men may not be able to tell exactly what it signifies that they feel that it is important. He is supremely normal.

–W. Somerset Maugham, “The Summing Up”

I read Maugham’s little autobiography of a book “The Summing Up” in early 2009. The quote above struck me as unique and amusing. Late 2011, when i was reading Jobs biography, i found myself kept on returning to this quote.

The world’s perception of Apple’s recent success (starting with ipod) was due to Jobs’ design genius, and his consideration for his users. But reading the biography, one realized that is a lie. Jobs couldn’t care less about users. 99.9% of us are nothing but moron’s in Jobs mind anyways. So how do we explain this conflict of superb received design and Jobs condescension of common men?

The only explanation i can think of is that Jobs wasn’t designing for the users. He was designing for himself, period. And it just happened, his taste has the mass appealof a genius. Using Maugham’s metaphor, most of us have our own little quirks. What we like don’t translate to what most others will like. But Jobs happened to have the “appeal that is not to this type of man or to that type, but to all men.”

On top of that genius, Jobs is probably the most persuasive deal maker silicon valley has ever seen. iPod, even with its gorgeous design and superb craftsmanship, would have still failed if Jobs weren’t able to secure those deals with record companies. That kind of deal making is what makes Apple stand out among all other tech companies.

The rumored Apple TV would be a good case to watch. I dont’ doubt Apple has the technical ability and design talent to make their TV a beauty. But the key is whether they can make the required deals with media companies like Jobs did for iPod.

Oh yeah, and the “rebel” image Jobs put up with the 1984 Superbowl commercial? That’s a lie, too. Jobs was probably the biggest control freak who won’t be out-controlled by anyone else. So if you think the deal he signed with carrier is meant to liberating the users, think again. Users are just being locked up by Apple instead of carriers. Pick your prison. But don’t’ delude yourself thinking you are free.

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The Dragon Wakes


I’m at 70% of Book 5 of “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Full of respect for GRRM’s discipline. Seemingly minor characters in previous books end up playing important roles in the following books. One example is Theon. I flipped through a lot of Theon passages in book 4, now I realized I need to go back and re-read those since Theon is a linchpin in Book 5. Similarly of those iron borns story. Both Gui and I had complained about them in book 4. Now I sensed the iron born fleet will be coming to main stage. The seemingly boring parts were just stage setting, in the grand scheme of things, they all matter!

A very satisfying reading experience. So grateful for a world with writer such as GRRM.

Recent New Yorker Articles

Just want to note down a few articles from recent issues of the New Yorker.

September 27, 2010 Issue

As new parents, we hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. We settle for second or third best when we buy a house or a car, and, when it comes to choosing a spouse, ninth best will often do. And yet, for some reason, we throw this time-tested principle out the window when we have a baby. We try to be “perfect” parents and raise the “perfect” baby, even if that means taking care of the baby “all the time.”
In reality, trying to raise a perfect baby is futile, because, behavior-wise, babies are pretty craptastic. Howling, vomiting, projectile-shitting—kind of hard to shoot for perfection when you’re doing appalling things like these around the clock.

Part of the power of “Gatz” may lie in the way in which it requires the audience’s submission to the exclusive experience of reading, without the distractions of family, television, laptop, or iPhone. Being shut up in a darkened theatre with “Gatz” is a strangel potent way to reproduce the increasingly elusive sensation of being enraptured by a book.

This reminded me a short conversation i had with Gui lately. She was saying that when Noah grew up, his world will not have physical books anymore. He will be reading from kindle or ipad or whatever the most trendy e-reader will be called.

“Will people still read ‘books’ if they’ve never read a physical book?” Gui was wondering out loud. I could see where her concerns come from, people would only consume reading materials in shorter form, like on-line newspaper articles, tweets, sms, facebook status. They would have neither patient nor time to read long “thick” book. But i somehow feel more optimistic. Because a world without the pleasure of reading a long novel is a sad sad world. People wouldn’t give up such pleasant experience, some people at least.

October 4, 2010 Issue

In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.

October 11, 2010 Issue (The Money Issue)

(I LOVE this issue! It is full of gems.)

he was the first Chinese student since the Cultural Revolution to return with an American doctorate in economics. His Ph.D. was from the University of Chicago. … Lin is also, it’s safe to assume, the first chief economist of the World Bank to take office as a wanted man. He faces an outstanding arrest warrant, issued by the Ministry of Defense in his native Taiwan, for “defecting to the enemy,” for abandoning his post in the Army at the age of twenty-six and swimming to the mainland and a new life under the Communist Party.

A million dollars each! I kept estimating, and dividing by four, and mentally spending the money. My husband and I had recently bought a house in East Hampton, and the renovation had cost much more than we’d ever dreamed.  There was nothing left for landscaping. I went outside and walked around the house. I mentally planted several trees.  I ripped out the scraggly lawn and imagined the huge trucks of sod I would now be able to pay for.  I considered a trip to the nursery to look at hydrangeas. My heart was racing. I pulled my husband away from his work, and we had a conversation about what kind of trees we wanted. A dogwood, definitely. A great big dogwood. It would cost a small fortune, and now we were about to have one.

I went upstairs and looked at the script I’d been writing. I would never have to work on it again. I was just doing it for the money and, face it, it was never going to get made, and, besides, it was really hard.

I never did enter the fifth stage of inherited wealth: Wealth.

I finished the screenplay and it got made. I am quick to draw lessons from my own experience, and the lesson i drew from this one was that I was extremely lucky not to have ever inherited real money, because I might not have finished writing “When Harry Met Sally…,” which changed my life.

(this article truly opened my eyes)
First the argument Nightingale had against the Red Cross.

The godfather of modern humanitarianism was a Swiss businessman named Henri Dunant,…, he founded the Red Cross, on three bedrock principles: impartiality, neutrality, and independence. In fund-raising letters, he described his scheme as both Christian and a good deal for countries going to war. “By reducing the number of cripples,” he wrote, “a saving would be effected in the expense of a Government which has to provide pensions for disabled soldiers.”

…Florence Nightingale…she rejected the idea of the Red Cross from the outset. “I think its views most absurd just such as would originate in a little state like Geneva, which can never see war,” she said.  Nightingale has served as a nurse in British military hospitals during the Crimean War, where nightmarish conditions – septic, sordid, and brutal – more often than not amounted to a death sentence for wounded soldiers of the Crown. So she was outraged by Dunant’s pitch. How could anyone who sought to reduce human suffering want to make war less costly? By easing the burden on war ministries, Nightingale argued, volunteer efforts could simply make waging war more attractive, and more probable.

It might appear that Dunnat won the argument… Polman has come back from fifteen years of reporting in the places where aid workers ply their trade to tell us that Nightingale was right.

Some examples to prove Nightingale’s case…

The conventional wisdom was that Sierra Leone’s civil war had been pure insanity: tens of thousands dead, many more mainmed or wounded, and half the population displaced — all for nothing.

[a rebel leader in Makeni] claimed, the R.U.F. had escalated the horror of the war (and provoked the government, too, to escalate it) by deploying special “cut-hands gangs” to lp off civilian limbs. “It was only when you saw ever more amputees that you started paying attention to our fate,” he said. “Without the amputee factor, you people wouldn’t have come.” The U.N.’s mission in Sierra Leone was per capita the most expensive humanitarian relief operation in the world at the time.  The old rebel believed that, instead of being vilified for the mutilation, he and his comrades should be thanked for rescuing their country.

More opinions(all negative) on humanitarian aid from various professionals or ex-aid-workers…

…as the Harvard law professor David Kennedy writes in “The Dark Sides of Virtue” (2004), “Humanitarianism tempts us to hubris, to an idolatry about our intentions and routines, to the conviction that we know more than we do about what justice can be.”

[Michael] Maren and de Waal expose more thoroughly the ignoble economies that aid feeds off and creates: the competition for contracts, even for projects that everyone knows are ill-considered, the ways in which aid upends local markets for goods and services, fortifying war-markers and creating entirely new crises for their victims. Worst of all, de Waal argues, emergency aid weakens recipient governments, eroding their accountability and undermining their legitimacy.

[Michael] Maren, who came to regard humanitarianism as every bit as damaging to its subjects as colonialism, and vastly more dishonest, takes a dimmer view: that we do not really care about those to whom we send aid, that our focus is our own virture. He quotes these lines of the Somali poet Ali Dhux:

A man tries hard to help you find your lost camels.
He works more tirelessly than even you,
But in truth he does not want you to find them, ever.

Staring into the Abyss – Reading “Too Big to Fail” by Sorkin, And A Couple New Yorker Articles from March’10

The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System---and Themselves

The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System---and Themselves


September 2008.

I remember it being the month where mainstream media is filled with bad news. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Washington Mutual, etc. etc… Stock market was crashing. Our company froze hiring, started cutting cost, the talk of laid-off started showing up in rumor mills. All kinds of unfamiliar financial terms started flying around, all flavors of economist are giving their opinion on TV/Radio/Newspaper/Internet. Some say it is going to be another Great Depression, some say no it won’t be that bad. Whatever the government and the Fed did or did not do, someone would hurl critics at them.

Chaos and confusion reigned the day.

Sometime around 2009, we suddenly realized the chaos seemed to have subsided a while back. But when? and how? What worked?

I wasn’t paying attention. Life somehow seemed to have moved on. The looming disaster that almost consumed wallstreet seemed to have been pushed aside by some unknown force.

I finally had some understanding of the tsunami like events during those days after i finished reading “Too Big to Fail” by Sorkin over the past few days.

What a great book it is! “Paulson, Gerthner, Bernanke and a dozen or so private and public sector figures who populated the drama”, they were the ones who actually stared at the abyss that they never thought would happen in their lifetime. They not only didn’t falter, but also managed to hold back the tide. Unbelievable.

We do live in interesting times. How lucky we are.

The book covered the approximately seven months period from the time when Bear Stern fell (3/17/2008) to the time when Paulse, Gerthner, Bernanke united to force the top 9 banks to sign up on TARP money (10/13/2008).

March 15, 2010 issue of the New Yorker magazine is jam packed with great reads. Two particular articles are relevant to “Too Big To Fail”. They read like sequels to the book.

One on current Treasure Secretary Geithner:

No Credit by John Cassidy – Timothy Geithner’s financial plan is working—and making him very unpopular.

One on President Obama:

Obama’s Lost Year, by George Packer.

I feel lucky to live in a time when great men like Paulson, Geithner, and Obama who manage to hold on to their conviction and who are always “willing to do the responsible thing, even when it is terrible politics.”

On the other hand, it came to me like a revelation. It is okay to be misunderstood, under-appreciated when you believe in what you do and was fortunate enough to be given the power to execute as you see fit. It is worth it when you can see the result of your work did pay off, even though most other people don’t. It is okay. They will. Politics don’t matter as much as doing the right thing.


The Obama article is only viewable in full to those who have a subscription. So let me quote some excerpts that I loved.

A very nice summary of this Administration’s first year.

The congressional senior aide… said, “One of the problems with this Administration is it has tried to have a grown up, sophisticated conversation with the public. That is the President’s instinct, it’s Tim Geithner’s instinct. And that itself is tone-deaf. You can’t say to people whose houses are in foreclosure, who are losing their businesses, ‘It’s a complicated situation.'” The aide went on, “The President is having a very eloquent, one-sided conversation. The country doesn’t want to have the conversation he wants to have.

A backstage view of how the President makes decision.

Meetings with the President, various Administration officials told me, are businesslike but thorough. Opposing positions are solicited and hashed out, and Obama steers the debate with tough questions, often demanding more information than his advisers can provide, and brushing off a policy’s political consequences. Tom Perriello, who admitted to sitting in “relatively cheap seats,” remarked that the surest way to win Obama over to your view is to tell him it’s the hard, unpopular, but correct decision.

This pride in responsible process is the closest thing to an Obama ideology. It champions pragmatism without pandering to the status quo, and conveys skepticism, even contempt, for Washington’s ordinary way of doing business.

So what exactly is “Washington’s ordinary way of doing business”? The question kept coming to my mind as i was watching “In the loop” and later “The Thick of it” (thanks to Isaac who shared it with me!) – original British TV series that “In the Loop” is based on. In between laughs at how ridiculous the behind scene British and the US government day-to-day operation looked, i was horrified, is it really how our governments are run? Purely reactive, constantly trying to cover up or to make something bad look good. Completely short sighted, no long term vision whatsoever. Everyone chases for sound bites and both afraid and long for the glow under a media light.

And this article seems to confirm that is not too far from the truth! And Obama is trying to put a stop to that. The fact we feel frustrated with the futility of Obama Administration’s first year was partly due to our being used to that kind of short-sighted, sound-bite-chasing politics.

Axelrod…suggested that the political failures in Obama’s first year were a result of the President’s conscientiousness in addressing difficult problems like financial instability and soaring health-care costs, regardless of the political fallout. “he violated the sort of day-to-day gestalt of Washington that says every day’s Election Day, everything’s tactical,” Axelrod said, ‘I honestly don’t think people elected him because they thought he would be a great political tactician.” Obama, Axelrod argued, does what he believes to be right in spite of “short-term political calculations. In that sense, he stands apart from the sort of prevailing politics in Washington. Now our bet is that, at the end of the day, doing it differently is good politics.”

I really really hope so and i hope that day in “at the end of the day” proved to be shorter than 4 years.

Here are some examples on how conscientious this Administration has been and why their first year seems such a failure.

The Recovery Act was meticulously designed to favor the substantive over the splashy, but an unintended consequence was that its impact became nearly invisible. The largest tax cut, for example, would not be sent out in the form of single checks, which, economists have learned, tend to be saved during downturns. (This happened to the Bush Administration’s stimulus in 2001.) Instead, refunds would be distributed in pay-checks over a two-year period, which made them less noticeable and, therefore, more likely to be spent. Money from tax cuts and programs like unemployment relief stimulated consumer spending, which led to workers being hired or retained, but those jobs didn’t carry the label of the Recovery Act. Large numbers of jobs that can be directly credited to the stimulus have come from aid allowing states to keep public employees on the payroll — and nobody notices that cats that don’t run away. Many investments in infrastructure and research and development were targeted less for their immediate benefit than for their long-term effects on transforming the economy; this led to spending, on areas like high-speed rail and clean energy, that won’t immediately create large number of jobs. The White House also set up an independent board to guard against waste and corruption, which inevitably slowed the awarding of contracts.

The article also talked about how Obama tried to negotiate for Republican vote in the face of “unprecedented soullessness” from the other side. It is similar to how Obama tried to have an “adult conversation with the public”. It is a little funny, and at the same time, moving.

Obama’s quest for bipartisanship, in the face of exceedingly discouraging facts, has been so relentless that it suggests less a strategy than a core conviction: reasonable people can be civil, exchange ideas, and eventually, find points of agreement. But shortly after the Inauguration, when Obama went to Capitol Hill to discuss his stimulus bill with House Republicans, party leaders informed him before negotiations had even begun that Republicans would vote against it as a bloc….Nevertheless, the White House continued to bargain for Republican votes throughout 2009, as if the two sides were negotiating in good faith.

There was an obvious reason that Obama did not want to abandon bipartisanship: he often needed Republican votes. But this conciliatory approach came at a high cost. The White House and its allies didn’t push for advertisements against insurance and drug companies; they didn’t take the offensive early on to create outside pressure on Republicans in Congress; and they didn’t effectively use the Obama grass-roots movement and progressive organizations to embarrass Republican senators in vulnerable states like Maine and Ohio. The Administration, busily negotiating with the opposition, considered such tactics counterproductive. Meanwhile, Obama’s opponents went on the attach, and his restraint came across as weakness. Close observers of the President said that, as a consequence, he lacks a key element of Presidential power: the ability to inspire fear.

The article mostly concentrated on a rural town in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, with a 20% unemployment rate, and how Obama’s Recovery Act’s money is impacting the town folks.

I finished reading this last night before the healthcare bill passed. So you could imagine my mood swing.

The decidedly treacherous future of this Administration suddenly seemed a little more hopeful. Maybe the 2nd year of this Administration will be looking up? We shall see. “Yes, we can?”

of Human Bondage

Finished reading Maugham’s of Human Bondage just now.

It is a good read and i enjoyed it, but didn’t care much for the ending.

I’ve only read one other full length novel by Maugham: The Razor’s Edge. Both have bad endings.

Notes to self:

  • visit Toledo and see more El Greco’s paintings.
  • Read “Don Fernando“, Graham Green hailed it as Maugham’s best work in his Collected Essays, 1938.
  • Read “Looking Back” and see how Maugham “blew up his own monument.”

On the book itself. What impressed me the most was still Maugham’s cool and sharp observations. Completely rational, completely surgical. Nothing escapes his laser sharp eyes. He has a gift to sniff out human weakness. Including his own. Rather than accusing him of being cruel, I think he was more a surgeon, dissecting and exposing human emotions to the last final detail, more out of curiosity rather than cruelty.

His description on the madness of passion was so precise and true. He redefined the term “love-hate relationship”. Instead of the common understanding of you love/hate the person at the same time, in Maugham’s world it means, you hate yourself for loving someone so unworthy yet you can’t stop loving her. One sees the comedy and sadness of it all. I wish i had read this in my younger days. I doubt it would have helped me in anyway, because you can’t reason with madness, but at least it would have comforted me to know that I was not the only one, and certainly not the most ridiculous.

I read the Introduction by Gore Vidal after i was done with the book. Found this paragraph hilarious.

For seven decades Maugham had rigorously controlled his personal and his artistic life. He would write so many plays, and stop; and did. So many novels, and stop; and did. So many short stories… He rounded off everything neatly, and lay back to die, with a quiet world-weary smile on those ancient lizard lips. But then, to his horror, he kept on living, and having sex, and lunching with Churchill and Beaverbrook. Friends thought that Beaverbrook put him up to the final memoir (Looking Back), but I suspect that Maugham had grown very bored with a lifetime of playing it so superbly safe.

Writer’s Room and Its View

First saw the photo collection of writer’s room on From there I was able to trace the source at, where you could read what each writer has to say about his/her room.


Then i came across Norman Sherry’s description of Graham Greene’s writing room in Antibes, where he first interviewed Greene for the 3-volume biography of the writer.

The Main room of his flat was modest in size, thirty feet by twelve.  There was a bamboo sofa and two bamboo chairs. Above the sofa was an abstract (flowers) given to Greene by Fidel Castro. White bookshelves filled two walls, and on another wall was a muffin-coloured print of lunardi making his ascent in a balloon in 1789. Near the window a table performed the dual function of dining table and writing desk. There was a black and white television set, used mostly to watch the 7.45pm news from Paris. There were some personal touches – eight pictures  but no photographs – and if our living rooms are places which reflect our personalities, was Greene’s an accident or a calculated revelation of character?

I’m incliend to think it was neither – just a statement of what its inhabitant needed in order to live and to work. None of the trappings proclaim a successful writer, merely the basic necessities for writing and living – nothing superfluous, a statement of fact. As Greene wrote of Scobie’s room in The Heart of the Matter: “To a stranger it would have appeared a bare, uncomfortable room but to Scobie it was home.  Other men slowly build up the sense of home by accumulation… Scobie built his home by a process of reduction’.

Writing at his dual-purpose table, Graham Green faced into the light through a window which shows a fine view of the marina, a few yachts in the winter sun (it had stopped raining) and on the far side of the basin the low slung, immensely powerful sixteenth century Fort Carre, mountain-solid.

– The Life of Graham Green Volume I by Norman Sherry

It shows the limitation of a single photograph used by the Guardian series. Often to capture the setting of the room, the photo had to omit the view. And you would almost always “hear” bout that missing view from the writier’s writing accompanied the photo. Without the view, the room is incomplete. It doesn’t have to be a grand view, a garden, some greenery,  or even another apartment building will do. It is an outlet, a place thought could wander.

Bloodshed vs. The Cuckoo Clock

Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel and la Cosa Nostra by Peter Robb

Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel and la Cosa Nostra by Peter Robb

Reading “Midnight in Sicily”. It is slow going. Not because the book is not interesting, but because it is too interesting. I feel like I owe myself one blog entry every couple of pages.

[Notes to self: a future device that i would love is a tablet sized, kindle-like thing where i could read a book, highlight passages that i like and type out notes on the side as i read easily. The notes and highlighted sections become bookmarks, search-able, and can be extracted into a draft of an essay that i could edit further if i want. The key word here is “easily”.]

1. The word “Bloodshed”.

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” – The Third Man, by Graham Greene

I’ve loved this quote because it is clever. Now i also realized i loved this quote because it is in past tense. “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had…terror, murder, and bloodshed,”  Under the false sense of progress, we could make light of bloodshed and terror when they are in past tense.

Now i’m reading Midnight in Sicily, and i realize that “terror, murder, and bloodshed” is never a past tense in Italy. It is on-going. At least till 1995 when this book seemed to be written.

That knowledge horrifies me. Reading the Greene quote above again, i feel more horror than humor. Substitute the cuckoo clock for Renaissance is not too dear a price to pay if we could do away with bloodshed in present tense.

2. Specialty in Trade

[1982]…in the north of Brazil, Tommasco Buscetta was … in the company of Gaetano Badalamenti. Badalamenti had been the first of the Palermo bosses Riina had defeated. He’d seen the writing on the wall in time and got out before the slaughter and was doing good business running drugs in north and south America. Buscetta too, after seeing the mediation between the Palermo families and the Corleonesi was hopeless, had returned to Brazil tohis own drug business and his wife and family.

This little paragraph on the two ex-mafia bosses from Sicily cracked me up. The specialty of trade seems to stay within a people from certain geography. Wenzhou-er from China is known to be great small business owners, all over the world (Paris, South America, Middle East, you name it). Cantonese are known for their restaurants. And Mafias drug business?

3. The South vs. The North

A political scientist from Harvard called Putnam has found the paths of northern and southern Italy were already diverging nearly a thousand years ago. The feudal kingdom founded in the south by the Norman mercenaries was, like the Byzantine and Arab states before it, a centralized and absolutist state. Administratively, economically, socially the southern regime was very advanced. Its constitution in 1230 included Europe’s first codification of administrative law in seven hundred years. It founded Europe’s first state university in Naples in 1224. It was a multicultural society ante litteram, tolerant in religion, in which Greek, Arabic, Jewish, Latin and Italian vernacular arts flourished together. But wealth in the south came from land, not commerce, and the regime’s efficiency of rule reinforced the social hierarchy. Its very strengths inhibited change, while in the north by the twelfth century Florence, Venice, Bologna, Genoa, Milan had already evolved into a network of communal republics.  They were city states with an active citizenry and a professional public administration. They made their money in finance, trade and commerce and the institutions of modern capitalism had their origins there.

Except the metropolitan style tolerance of religion and diverse culture, this reminds me the contrast between Europe and China. The Northern Italy described here symbolized Europe, while the Southern Italy resembled China almost to the dot.

What’s happening in Sicily and southern Italy at large is probably less an Sicilian or southern Italian character, more a human condition under certain geo and economic condition?

Chilly Summer

1. San Francisco
Seat warmer becomes my favorite feature of our car in the summer time. Only in San Francisco.

It was rainy during the week. Soft gentle drizzle, you could hardly feel it. Rain in July. Rare.

2. Plants
Woke up to a sunny morning! Glorious! Watered plants in the backyard. The Angel’s trumpet now sports TWO flower buds. Still very small, the bigger one is only an inch long. Can’t wait for them to materialize into the glorious giant “trumpet” bloom. Imagine the mysterious scent in the evening. Ahhhh!

Followed Mom’s advice, dug out the three barely alive cyclamen, which have been under continuous snail attack. Transferred them to a window box and moved them up to the balcony. Lined the window box against the wall under the windows, hopefully it is not too windy nor too sunny for them.

The sun was warm and inviting on the balcony. The lone window box with the cyclamen amplified the emptiness of the space, all that wasted sunshine! When we first moved in, i put a a giant pot of hydrangea on the balcony, and it was blew right over by the strong wind. I quickly gave up the idea of leaving any plants on this wuthering spot.

Today i decided to give it another try. Need to find things that’s wind resistant, sun loving and a pot that’s heavy enough that can stand firm in the gusty wind. I quickly took some succulent from the backyard and the central patio. Since i used sand to fill the pot, it would remain heavy even in between watering.

Our balcony immediately looked more cheerful with the new additions. We will see how that worked out.

3. Midnight in Sicily

Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel and la Cosa Nostra by Peter Robb

Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel and la Cosa Nostra by Peter Robb

Planning a trip to Italy in October, and Gui spotted this book at Greenapple last night. I took it home and started reading this morning.

Fascinating read so far. Italy/Sicily sounds horribly corrupted/violent, yet extremely intriguing at the same time. Greek speaking origin, conquered by the Roman then the Arabs then back to the Christians. Sun bleached hills, olive groves, orchards, mouth watering seafood, beautiful ocean, half ruined Palermo, politics and organized crime. assassination, murder, heroic effort by “the few honest Italians” to chase down la Cosa Nostra and their government backer(s).

I was horrified and hungry at the same time.

If we really ended up going, then we would have traveled “Roman Empire” backwards. First Turkey-Byzantine-East Roman Empire, now Italy-Western Roman Empire. 🙂

“The essence of travel was to slow the passage of time” – Rober Kaplan “The Ends of the Earth

Rebecca West: “The Court and the Castle”

Beautiful day!

After brunch at Pork Store on Valencia, we wandered past the used bookstore on 16th. It was open! So i went in and saw a 1957 copy of “The Court and the Castle” by Rebecca West. I’m still yet to finish reading her “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon”. But knowing her books are hard to come by, i decided to buy it even though i’ve never heard of this particular title.

Started reading on our bus ride home. It was a pleasure. I almost forgot how well she writes. She has some clever response to the well-known saying “we could see far because we are sitting on a giant’s shoulder.”

Bernard of Chartres found an apt image for its cumulative powers. “We are like dwarfs,” he wrote, “seated on the shoulders of giants; we see more things than the ancients and things more distant, but this is due neither to the sharpness of our own sight, nor to the greatness of our own stature, but because we are raised and borne aloft on that giant mass.” Paradoxically, we can prove his case for him by pointing out that he wrote in the twelfth century and that we of the twentieth century have learned many things which show the advantage to be not so absolute as he thinks. It is possible that the dwarfs may in the course of time rebel against the giants, and kick and scream, and insist on getting down to the ground again, because the extended view they see from the giants’ shoulders shows them things they would prefer to ignore, and that the greater the giants the greater will be the discomfiture felt by these dwarfs who cannot cope with too much knowledge of reality.

I still haven’t gotten to her main point of the argument yet, which is supposed to be how misunderstood Hamlet has been. Yet, i’m picking up little gem along the way in her writing.

such as this:

A major work of art must change the aspect of reality, for it is an experience of the order which breaks up the present as we know it, transforming it into the past and giving us a new present, which we may like better or less than we liked the one just taken from us. It must have a bearing on the question which concerns us most deeply of all: whether the universe is good or bad.

and this:

…But liberation had not meant the free enjoyment of the arts of peace,…

and this:

…For all self-awareness is a force.

I still need to find time to finish “The Europeans”. With Rebecca West’s writing lying side by side, Luigi Barzini’ words start to lose its sharpness, and seems coarse, and less eloquent. Somehow that made me feel guilty. I really should learn not to pick up another book until i’ve finished the one at hand.

To compensate, i decided to stick to “The Europeans”, to finish it first before i indulge myself in West’s beautiful writing. Who knows, maybe i will even get to finish her “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” finally!

Now back to reading.