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.

Mysterious Force At Work

Due to some strange force of Cosmo, we had a succession of baby visitors (and their parents) to our house recently, aged from 11 months to 3 years old. Our cats and these little humans shared mutual fascination toward each other. It was also interesting to observe how each baby reflects his/her parents’ temperament so accurately. Even at such tender age.

I forgot how i stumbled onto littlevanities photostream. But i’ve been following her creations for a while. Loved her photos and what’s more, her commentaries under the photo. I’m a word person afterall.

Read the commentary at this photo today: Only such pleasures as are prudent and modest, where she quoted a passage from Mila Kundera.

“In everyday language, the term ‘hedonism’ denotes an amoral tendency to a life of sensuality, if not of outright vice. This is inaccurate, of course: Epicurus, the first great theoretician of pleasure, had a highly skeptical understanding of the happy life: pleasure is the absence of suffering. Suffering, then, is the fundamental notion of hedonism: one is happy to the degree that one can avoid suffering, and since pleasures often bring more unhappiness than happiness, Epicurus advises only such pleasures as are prudent and modest. …

The first phrase that caught my eyes was “pleasure is the absence of suffering”. I couldn’t believe my eyes as i read, re-read, and re-read it. How pessimistic one must feel to say something like that! Then as i finally forced myself to get over this phrase and read on, i realized pessimistic was the wrong word. Melancholy was a much better expression.
This, i can agree, although with much reluctance…

“Epicurean wisdom has a melancholy backdrop: flung into the world’s misery, man sees that the only clear and reliable value is the pleasure, however paltry, that he can feel for himself: a gulp of cool water, a look at the sky (at God’s windows), a caress.”

– Milan Kundera, Slowness, p.7-8

Making good progress at my birthday gift book stack. Finished “Predictably Irrational” (from Gui) last week (very interesting, recommended), started reading “The Europeans” by Luigi Barzini (from sis). On p65/267. It has been a hilarious read so far.

It has gem like this sprinkled on every page.
Starts with the United State’s “alarmingly optimism”… [keep in mind this book was published in 1983]

The United States must always simplify complex issues so that the common ill-informed man may understand them. Ill-informed men include those who are extremely well informed in their particular fields but innocent of anything just outside their perimeters, and unfortunately also at times certain inexperienced political office holders, including a few presidents…The United States may appear uncomfortably tactless and arrogant at times. It is the arrogance of the man who knows that he is right, that the problem at hand has only one possible solution for a righteous man, and that anybody who disagrees is wrong.

Europe has the contrary defects. It is pessimistic, prudent, practical, and parsimonious, like an old-fashioned banker. It has learned not to rush into anything, even if it is the obviously necessary or advantageous thing to do. It always prefers to wait and see. It enjoys delving into the complexity of things; the more complexities it can find the better. Europe looks for nuances, the bad side of anything good, the good side of anything bad. It believes the devil is never as ugly as he is painted, the future is never (or seldom) as appalling as one fears, but never, never as wonderful as one hopes. ..It is sagacious, and its frequent miscalculations are often the product of its excessive sagacity.

or this…on how “free flow of armaments” tempt some countries to start wars.

As soon as they acquire enough armaments, credit, a patchy ideology, and a Great Invincible Leader, they invade one of their neighbors. There is not even the need to find a valid excuse. Anything will do. Journalists and historians will later invent suitable philosophic, historical, or economic motivations. That’s their job.

I just finished the chapter on “The Imperturbable British”, can’t wait to read about “The Mutable Germans”, “The Quarrelsome French”, “The Flexible Italians”, “The Careful Dutch”, and “the Baffling Americans.” Here is from the ending paragraph on the British.

Still today, when one asks a Briton, any Briton, pointblank, “Are you European?” the answer is always, “European? Did you say European? Er, er” — a long thoughtful pause in which all other continents are mentally evoked and regretfully discarded –” yes, of course, I’m European.” This admission is pronounced without pride and with resignation.

Shuttle, Paul Theroux, and The Reader

1. Shuttle
Ever since we moved to the south side of the city, i started using a different shuttle stop. Interestingly enough, the demographic of passengers at this shuttle stop seems to be quite different than the one before.

My old neighborhood belonged to the younger, more hip, more yuppy area of the city. Passengers were younger, more stylish, more preppy-looking. People in my new stop are more family people, older, more low-key, quieter, calmer.

In addition, the bus is less crowded, we have less frequent services, and we get a smaller bus than the large spanking new ones serving northern, trendier neighborhood of the city.

I don’t really miss my old shuttle. Until today, when i wanted to read a book on my way home. The reading light on this older shabbier shuttle are almost non-existent.

So i had to give up reading and came to my computer and try writing instead.

2. The Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
The book i’m reading is Paul Theroux’ new travel book “The Ghost Train to The Eastern Star” page 273/496.

He is traveling inside Burma.
I loved the part he did prior to Burma: Sri Lanka. He made it sound so beautiful and serene.
Prior to that was India, which i tolerated, and felt relieved that he finally left it behind.
The eastern Europe sounded very interesting. London and Paris, his starting chapters of the beginning of his journey were also interesting because he mixed it with his life stories.

Gui told me that the reason his prior books (those prior to Dark Star Safari) were so angry and rude, the reason that he as a traveler was so disliked by the readers (me included) were explained in the starting chapters.

He was going through a hard time personally when he was taking his “Great Railway Bazaard” trip. When he returned his wife had taken a lover, and eventually, many years later, they divorced. In this book, he said they divorced because “some betrayal is less forgiving than others.” I found that very hypercritical. Cuz he had affairs too, why is it that her betrayal is more unforgiving than his? But i guess when it comes to matters of heart, there is no fairness to speak of.

I am glad he is happier now with his second marriage. As a result, we readers get to read more pleasant writings from him like Dark Star Safari and The Ghost Train to the Eastern Star! I’m not complaining. 🙂

3. The Reader
I was re-reading “The Reader” about a month ago. I realized that i had forgotten lots of details in the book since my first read 9 years ago. I loved it then and i loved it even more after the second read.

Then a couple of weeks ago i saw it had been made into a movie that was scheduled to release this December, with Kate Winslet. I noted it down as a movie i would love to see. Because Kate Winslet is one of those actors who has a good track record of picking the best script. Last night i saw the movie trailer of “The Reader” on TV. Another surprise was revealed, it not only has Kate Winslet, but also Ralph Fiennes!

The film director is Stephen Daldry, who also directed the Hours, and Billy Elliot.

Possibly a good movie? Fingers crossed. It says LIMITED release on Dec. 12th. Usually that means NY and LA. I wonder when it will come to SF!

Cities and Ambition by Paul Graham

I first read Paul Graham’s essay “Cities and Ambition” a while ago. I loved it so much I remembered distributing to all my friends and got into a high energy discussion with my sister, both violently agreeing with Paul Graham’s assessment of many cities in his essay.

Today the link showed up again on, and I read it again. Still love it. Can’t believe i didn’t blog about it the first time around.

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.

When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful.

That’s not quite the same message New York sends. Power matters in New York too of course, but New York is pretty impressed by a billion dollars even if you merely inherited it. In Silicon Valley no one would care except a few real estate agents. What matters in Silicon Valley is how much effect you have on the world. The reason people there care about Larry and Sergey is not their wealth but the fact that they control Google, which affects practically everyone.

Here is one where my sister couldn’t agree more about berkeley. She should know, she lived there for 10 years.

I’d always imagined Berkeley would be the ideal place—that it would basically be Cambridge with good weather. But when I finally tried living there a couple years ago, it turned out not to be. The message Berkeley sends is: you should live better. Life in Berkeley is very civilized. It’s probably the place in America where someone from Northern Europe would feel most at home. But it’s not humming with ambition.

even though sis is thoroughly disappointed at Berkeley being so lack of ambition, it actually sounds like the ideal city for me. In my mind, San Francisco/Bay Area is largely that way too. At least the part of the bay area that matters to me, they are all sending me the same message “live better.” yay!

I found the following couple of paragraph intriguing.

A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It’s not something you have to seek out, but something you can’t turn off. One of the occupational hazards of living in Cambridge is overhearing the conversations of people who use interrogative intonation in declarative sentences. But on average I’ll take Cambridge conversations over New York or Silicon Valley ones.

A friend who moved to Silicon Valley in the late 90s said the worst thing about living there was the low quality of the eavesdropping. At the time I thought she was being deliberately eccentric. Sure, it can be interesting to eavesdrop on people, but is good quality eavesdropping so important that it would affect where you chose to live? Now I understand what she meant. The conversations you overhear tell you what sort of people you’re among.

Although in real life, I don’t have much dependency on eavesdropping. Maybe cuz i’m a rather anti-social person, i find interesting/passionate conversation with a couple of close friends a lot more satisfying, which is more essential to me.

Here is the message from LA.

The big thing in LA seems to be fame. There’s an A List of people who are most in demand right now, and what’s most admired is to be on it, or friends with those who are. Beneath that the message is much like New York’s, though perhaps with more emphasis on physical attractiveness.

Last but not the least, Paris and London. I’ve actually seen more bookshelves (full of books) in Paris than in any other city (granted, i’ve never really visited anyone in Boston, so i don’t know what the bookshelves density is like there.)

Paris was once a great intellectual center. If you went there in 1300, it might have sent the message Cambridge does now. But I tried living there for a bit last year, and the ambitions of the inhabitants are not intellectual ones. The message Paris sends now is: do things with style. I liked that, actually. Paris is the only city I’ve lived in where people genuinely cared about art. In America only a few rich people buy original art, and even the more sophisticated ones rarely get past judging it by the brand name of the artist. But looking through windows at dusk in Paris you can see that people there actually care what paintings look like. Visually, Paris has the best eavesdropping I know.

There’s one more message I’ve heard from cities: in London you can still (barely) hear the message that one should be more aristocratic. If you listen for it you can also hear it in Paris, New York, and Boston. But this message is everywhere very faint. It would have been strong 100 years ago, but now I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all if I hadn’t deliberately tuned in to that wavelength to see if there was any signal left.

Autumn in San Francisco

What a beautiful weekend we just had! The quality of light in the Fall is always the most gorgeous. Today was especially golden and warm. One’s heart can’t help but melt in such times.

Things that’s worth noting:

  • A Book “The Man Time Forgot”: Extremely interesting material, but not very satisfactorily told. Mainly the characters are not fleshy enough. Too much like reporting the long forgotten facts, not enough details to make it a real biography. characters stayed flat. The story stayed as a longer version of journalistic creation.
  • A Movie “The Religulous”: Like a longer version of Bill Maher show, not as entertaining.
  • A Restaurant “Aperto” on Potrero Hill in the City. Lovely neighborhood! Lovely Restaurant. Finally a local Italian restaurant that i’d like to go back to. Yummy Lamb Shank! and Chocolate souffle. Quite a few good restaurants on the little block, and a very nice bookstore called Christopher’s.
  • A Climbing Gym in Crissy Field “Planet Granite”: Unbelievable view of the bay and the city through its giant floor to ceiling windows. So many boulder walls. Too bad it is so far north in the city, too hard to get to. Would have been nice when we were living on Cole. But maybe we could pick a weekday morning, since it opens at 6am? We shall see.
  • An Air Show “Blue Angels”. Enough Sad. Especially in a day as beautiful as this…

Life is good. [sigh]

Strong Opinions

Was there on Sunday, The Green Apple bookstore’s used book division seemed to have gone through some re-shelving. Each alphabet section seemed to have expanded a bit. For the first time, i realized that I only linger in front of a selected few shelves.

I often start with N, which is always a good one. It helps that M (Maugham) is not far away. Afterwards, I moved deeper into the isle and would find I (Irving). A couple of shelves further up the chain, actually used to be horizontally shifting two shelves from I along the backwall of the store before they did the reshelving. Now I had to turn a corner to reach G (Greene). The last shelf i visit would be at the head of the alphabet, now back toward the front of the store where the cash register and the entrance to CD/DVD section are close by., A (Auster).

Under section N, I had been interested in Naipaul. But this time, Nabokov caught my eyes. The store seemed to have recently expanded both author’s selections. In addition to Nabokov’s fictions, there were a few non-fictions as well. I randomly picked up one thin volume “Strong Opinions” which seemed to have been mentioned in J. M. Coetzee’s recent work “Diary of a Bad Year.” Although I can’t be sure whether it was referring to Nabokov’s work or merely a description of Coetzee’s character’s work. But the connection seemed interesting enough. Turned out to be a collection of interviews given by Nabokov.

Would you agree to show us a sample of your rough drafts?
I’m afraid I must refuse. Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It is like passing around samples of one’s sputum.

Haha. So Nabokov prefers a flair of exaggeration. “hearty mediocrities”, interesting phrase.

And there is more:

Could you describe this work? [ referring to Eugene Onegin, Nabokov’s current translation work]
During my years of teaching literature at Cornell and elsewhere I demanded of my students the passion of science and the patience of poetry. As an artist and scholar I prefer the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to clear symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam.

“the passion of science and the patience of poetry”? I always thought it was the other way around…

In a couple of passages he mentioned 100 lectures he gave on Russian literature, and I could see that volume right on the shelf “Lectures on Russian Literature”. I opened the book at Leo Tolstoy-Anna Karenin:

…we might list the greatest artists in Russian prose thus: first, Tolstoy; second, Gogol; third, Chekhov; fourth, Turgenev. This is rather like grading students’ papers and no doubt Dostoevski and Saltykov are waiting at the door of my office to discuss their low marks.

Fantastic, isn’t it? I’m intrigued by his witty language. Despite his cockiness.

These two books have to go with me. As i continued browsing my usual sections, I picked up Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies as well.

Satisfied, I walked back to the N section where there was a chair and started reading. In that very moment, I wish i could just sit there and do nothing until i finish reading all three books. I was surrounded by books, sitting on a comfortable chair, even with a sky light right above my head. Not one, not two, but three books waiting for my consumption. Nirvana.

Sadly, I couldn’t sit in the store and read forever. As I was checking out. The cash register suddenly fell into character, for the first time, what was described by other author, a typical used bookstore clerk appeared in front of me. He looked at my selection and locked his gaze on Nabokov’s Strong Opinions. “Is this the one that has his letters?”
“Uhm, I think this is a collection of his interviews.”
“Oh, there is one with all of his letters and it is fantastic. We are not allowed to buy books here, otherwise i would have gotten that one.”
“…” [agonizing whether to rush back to the Nabokov shelf, locate the collection of letters (i thought i did see something under that kind of title, “letters by Nabokov”? “Nabokov letter collections”?) and bring it back and pay for it.
“You’ve read Pale Fire?”
“Excuse me, Pale what?”
“Pale Fire.” incredulous look as if i’m some kind of alien.
“Oh, no, don’t think so.”
“You like Nabokov but you’ve never read Pale Fire?!” [implying…SHAME ON YOU! You don’t deserve to own any Nabokov. Give back that book, put it back on the shelf!]
“…” smiled and shrug.

I guess people weren’t making it up that used bookstore clerk are judgmental. Oh well, what do i care? The only Nabokov I find interesting enough was Lolita. Until today. Maybe i will try pale fire someday. But no rush, really. My hands are full, for the moment.

“The Back of the World” – The New Yorker July 7&14, 2008

Accidentally, both articles i enjoyed in this issue of The New Yorker are grayed out, i.e. no on-line version.

Romeo, Romeo
The ballet gets a happy ending.
by Joan Acocella
The Back of the World
The genius of G. K. Chesterton.
by Adam Gopnik

I’ve never even heard of Chesterton before. Based on the quotes sprinkled throughout this review, I liked him already.

“All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window.”

The joy of the book[The Napoleon of Notting Hill] lies in the marriage of Chesterton’s love of feudal romance with his love of the density and mystery of the modern city. … “A city is, properly speaking, more poetic even than a countryside, for while nature is a chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious ones. The crest of the flower or the pattern of the lichen may or may not be significant symbols. But there is no stone in the street and no brick in the wal that is not actually a deliberate symbol — a message from some man, as much as if it were a telegram or a post card.”

In addition to “The Napoleon of Notting Hill,” the review also talked about this other book “The Man Who Was Thursday.” There are some quite fascinating dialogs from the latter book.

[a scene between the main character and an anarchist poet]
The book is also stippled with small epigrammatic moments, as when Syme comes upon an anarchist poet, Gregory, standing by a street amp (“whos gleam gilded the leaves of the tree that bent out over the fence behind him”) on a silent, starlit street:

“I was waiting for you, ” said Gregory. “Might I have a moment’s conversation?”
“Certainly. About what?” asked Syme in a sort of weak wonder.
Gregory struck out with his stick at the lamp-post, and then at the tree.
“About this and this,” he cried; “about order and anarchy. There is your precious order, that lean, iron lamp, ugly and barren; and there is anarchy, rich, living, reproducing itself — there is anarchy, splendid in green and gold.”
“All the same,” replied Syme patiently, “just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you woud ever see the lamp by the light of the tree.”

Another intriguing observation by the reviewer on anarchy in early 1900’s. Not sure how much exaggeration it is in the reviewer words below since i don’t know the history that well, but it is on the alarming side. Was anarchist that successful once? or is the reviewer lumped a bunch of different things into anarchist for the sake of “shock and awe”?

It’s easy to forget just how scary anarchists could seem at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the previous quarter century, they had killed a French President, and American President, and the Russian Tsar, and had bmbed the Royal Greenwich Observatory, near London. (The same score now — Sarkozy, Bush, Putin, and the London Eye — and we’d all be under martial law.)

Lastly, about the title of the review “The Back of the World”, it is a reference taken from the ending paragraph of “The Man Who Was Thursday”, and it is meant to indicates the two-sidedness of reality.

This double vision, where the appetite for romantic violence is imagined as the flip side of the desire for absolute order, gives the book its permanence. It ends with a powerful and strage image of reality itself as two-sided:

“Listen to me,” cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stopping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front–”

Reminds me of the days back in college, feeling totally lost after a lecture and only able to find clarity in a discussion session with the TA. Here the reviewer is the TA, and Chesterton, the professor. I liked the review because it makes something strange sounds interesting. Not sure i actually want to read Chesterton if i couldn’t have a page by page review by Adam Gopnik to go with it.

Stagflation and Ben Bernanke

Search for the phrase “stagflation” within my google reader subscriptions, turned up this article by freakonomics: The New head of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke by Steven Levitt, October 30, 2005.

These words written down two years ago sounded somewhat comforting.

I have two thoughts on Bernanke running the Federal Reserve:

1) If I had to guess, the Chairman of the Fed has a lot less impact on the day-to-day performance of the economy than most people think. Although Greenspan has been elevated to God-like status, I suspect that he has been at least as lucky as he has been good. One of the most important lessons of modern macroeconomics is that it is probably impossible at the present time to “fine tune” it. More or less, you just want the Fed to stay out of the way and not totally botch things. There is mounting evidence that the Great Depression (and maybe also the stagflation of the early 1970s) was due in large part to policymakers following exactly the wrong course of action.

2) With that in mind, I think Bernanke is a great choice to run the Fed. He has an enormous appreciation of the history of monetary economics and past failures of Fed policy (see, for instance, this book he has written on the Great Depression). But at the same time, he is not an egomaniac who will pursue dangerous policies because of illusions of grandeur.

Library Stairs!

Someday when I can afford a victorian little house, this is what I want for my stairs up to the attic!
From London:

The flat occupies part of the shared top floor of an existing Victorian mansion block. Our proposal extended the flat into the unused loft space above, creating a new bedroom level and increasing the floor area of the flat by approximately one third. We created a ‘secret’ staircase, hidden from the main reception room, to access a new loft bedroom lit by roof lights. Limited by space, we melded the idea of a staircase with our client’s desire for a library to form a ‘library staircase’ in which English oak stair treads and shelves are both completely lined with books. With a skylight above lighting the staircase, it becomes the perfect place to stop and browse a tome. The stair structure was designed as an upside down ‘sedan chair’ structure (with Rodrigues Associates, Structural Engineers, London) that carries the whole weight of the stair and books back to the main structural walls of the building. It dangles from the upper floor thereby avoiding any complicated neighbour issues with the floors below.

More at apartmenttherapy

2006 Movies and Books

As time gets closer to when douban was born, the tracking was no longer accurate. Because many books i’ve read earlier was recommended to me during the first couple of years of douban (2005/2006, or maybe the recommendation feature gained more momentum in 2006 after douban gained more users?)and i marked them as read in 2006 and 2005, but that didn’t mean i read them then. So i had to manually edit out some books from the final result returned by the api. Seems to mainly happen to Books. Probably because Book was the first category existed when douban arrived.

Google Chart API is such a niffy thing! Didn’t realize how easy it is to use when it came out a month ago.

Based on the movie charts for both 2007 and 2006, the first half of each year always looks like a a movie drought. Summer blockbuster and last Quarter of each year are the heavy moving going times. If someday douban decides to expose the rating information of its user data, then we probably can draw another interesting charts to show, statistically speaking, which month tends to have the BEST movies coming out. My bet is December. 🙂

2006 Books (total of 26):

2006 Movies (total of 77):


2007 Movies and Books announced their API right before end of 2007. A doubaner promptly created this little app to aggregate douban users books, movies, and music of 2007! 🙂

Movies I’ve watched in 2007 (total of 59)

Bookes i’ve read in 2007 (total of 25, less than half of movies!)

Looking through douban API’s reference guide. Wow! It is based on GData and Atom! Sweet! going to see if i can expand this guy’s tool to include 2005 and 2006 data as well. 🙂 First project of the new year.

Coetzee’s New Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Web Form Design Best Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random New Yorker articles

just lost everything due to a mistaken key stroke, start over.
In China. 5am. Jetlag.

Read two most recent issues of The New Yorker on the flight, cover to cover. Some interesting bits and pieces.

Both issues featured either interview or review of Phillip Roth and his new book “Exit Ghost”. Reminded me that there was also a recent freshair interview with Roth on the exact subject. Here is an amusing quote from the review and used by Terry Gross in the interview. NOTE: apparently, Nathan Zuckerman is the character that Roth has been using in many of his books. In the latest novel, Zuckerman is in his seventies.

“Late Roth” sounds a little like “late monopoly capitalism”—neither shows much evidence of frailty—yet one can now see that a phase of work opened with his great, wild novel “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995), in which the struggle between the vitality of sex and the fatality of the body was newly acute. For Mickey Sabbath, there is a constant veering between what he calls “the fantasy of endlessness” and “the fact of finitude.” Roth’s work since then has returned again and again to these two gates of being, one ever open and one ever closing. Ranged against the fact of death, against the body’s decline, the “fantasy of endlessness” means the ceaseless, self-renewing male urge to have sex; it also means the Rothian need to offend and offend and offend “the laudable ideologies”; and it means the ordinary human desire, as one ages, to bring back the dead—one’s parents, siblings, spouses, lovers—and keep them endlessly alive, and thus to live outside time. In Roth’s terms, sex can do all this at once: it restores unruly and unbiddable life, symbolically immortalizing the self by winding back the clock of finitude. And the novelist, of all people, is supremely endowed with the magical power to bring the dead to life on the page, which is one reason that this work has been so consumed with questions of artifice and fictionality.
PARADE’S END, The many lives of Nathan ZUckerman. By James wood
The New Yorker, 2007-10-15 Issue

Another article is about a “blow up artist”, a hedge fund manger who lost tons of money during 1997 Thai stock market crash: Victor Niederhoffer, and he just lost some more during recent crisis in the subprime-mortgage market: Annals of FInance: The Blow-Up Artist, by John Cassidy.

Victor seems to be the exact definition of what a genius is:

[in high school]Niederhoffer was the president of his class, the captain of the tennis team, the star of the math team, a pianist in the orchestra, a clarinettist in the band, the sports editor of the newspaper, and a frequent contributor to Vanguard, the school magazine.

He has some interesting things to say about stock market versus classical music. Reminded me of certain conversation by a quiet dusty back shelf in the library of CCSF, many many years ago. 🙂

Niederhoffer doesn’t claim to be able to say what the Dow or the S. & P. 500 will do next week or next month, but he believes that over shorter periods—hours or days—there are sometimes predictable patterns that can be exploited. In “The Education of a Speculator,” he devotes an entire chapter to this notion, comparing the market’s movements to some of his favorite pieces of classical music, and juxtaposing pages of sheet music with stock charts. “When the markets are moving in my favor in a nice, gentle way—never below my initial price—I often think of the ‘Trout Quintet,’ ” he writes. “Another frequent work I hear in the market is Haydn’s Symphony No. 94. . . . Right after lunch, or before a holiday, the markets have a tendency to meander up and down in a five-point range above and below the opening. The pattern is similar to the twinkling C-major fifths of Haydn’s symphony.”

There was one paragraph about how to be a great trader.

“To be a great trader you need discipline. You have to have certain strategies that you follow, but you also have to have the flexibility to know when it is going wrong. And you have to know to never go beyond what you can afford to lose.”

Then i read to the end of the article and realized, at the end of the day, none of those principles described above means anything. “Great” traders took greater risk, and sooner or later they end up in trouble. that’s what a risk is. In the end, it is just one big gamble.

The third is a book review for “On the Road”, which gave me more insight in the real definiton of “The Beat Generation”. Not quite what i imagined it to be. I”ve never read “On the Road”.

In fact, the characters in “On the Road” spend as short a time on the road as they can (ha). They’re not interested in exploring rural or small-town America. Speed is essential. The men rarely even have time to chase after the women they run into, because they’re always in a hurry to get to a city. A lot of the book takes place in cities, particularly New York, Denver, and San Francisco, but also Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Mexico City. Even there, the characters are always rushing around.

The bits and pieces of America that the book captures, therefore, are snapshots taken on the run, glimpses from the window of a speeding car. And they are carefully selected to represent a way of life that is coming to an end in the postwar boom, a way of life before televisions and washing machines and fast food, when millions of people lived patched-together existences and men wandered the country—”ramblin’ round,” in the Guthrie song—following the seasons in search of work. Robert Frank’s photographs in “The Americans,” taken between 1955 and 1956 and published in Paris in 1958 and in the United States a year later, with an introduction by Kerouac, held the same interest: they are pictures of a world not yet made plump and uniform by postwar affluence and consumerism.

Now i want to reach both “Exist Ghoast” and “On the Road”…

Sky is getting lighter, the dawn is arriving… i think i’m going back to bed for a nap.

“That Heav’n would want spectators, God want praise…”

I am a man who did not enjoy poetry until I heard a woman recite it to us. And in that desert she dragged her university days into our midst to describe the stars – the way Adam tenderly taught a woman with gracious metaphors.

These then, though unbeheld in deep of night.
Shine not in vain, nor think, though men were none,
That Heav’n would want spectators, God want praise;
Millions of spiritual Creatures walk the Earth
Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep;
All these with ceaseless praise his works behold
Both day and night: how often from the steep
Of echoing Hill or Thicket have we heard
Celestial voices to the midnight air,
Sole, or responsive each to other’s note
Singing their great Creator…

That night I fell in love with a voice. Only a voice. I wanted to hear nothing more. I got up and walked away.


A few months later, she waltzed with me, as we danced as a group in Cairo. Though slightly drunk she wore an unconquerable face. Even now the face I believe that most revealed her was that one she had that time when we were both half drunk, not lovers.


In the street of imported parrots in Cairo one is hectored by almost articulate birds. The birds bark and whistle in rows, like a plumed avenue. I knew which tribe had traveled which silk or camel road carrying them in their petite palanquins across the deserts. Forty-day journeys, after the birds were caught by slaves or picked like flowers in equatorial gardens and then placed in bamboo cages to enter the river that is trade. They appeared like brides in a medieval courtship.

We stood among them. I was showing her a city that was new to her.

Her hand touched me at the wrist.
“If I gave you my life, you would drop it. Wouldn’t you?”
I didn’t say anything.

-The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

Spy: Old and New

Was reading The Comedians by Graham Greene in the morning. I remembered his work being dark, superbly written, with marvelous insight, humorous, and cynical. But i didn’t remember him being THIS cynical.

Have been reading this on and off on shuttle rides. It almost never failed to put me to sleep. Not because it was dull, but because it was so heavy and depressing.

Naturally i end up having a good nap.

In the afternoon we went to see the new Bourne movie. Bourne Ultimatum.

Oh, such great fun!

There was not one dull moment. The story kept rolling out in front of your eyes while Matt Damon being chased in London, in Madrid, in Morocco, and then back in New York. Cars flying and glass shattering, yet audience managed to keep up with all the little details of Jason when he was chased, why did he buy a cell phone first thing getting off the train at Waterloo station? why did he call the police in a Madrid apartment that he was about to leave? why did he pick up laundry pieces as he was jumping up and down the roof tops in Morocco? why did he set himself up in a seemingly trapped intersection of New York City? All those little questions had an answer within the immediate minute of the scene. Speaking of instant gratification.

The editing was perfect, the music was perfect, the rhythm of the movie was flawless. Paul Greengrass had his audiences exactly where he wanted them to be. And they were never bored, they could never relax, yet they were pampered with humorous moments sprinkled throughout the action packed movie. Even till the last scene.

I couldn’t help smiling again and again till the very end. It was like being treated to a feast in a grand restaurant, every detail was well thought out, not one moment of the evening was overlooked. When you left the restaurant, you not only remembered the great food, you also gained so much appreciation on how well a dinner party could be planned and executed.

This is how an entertainment is supposed to be.

I wonder what Greene or Mauham would have written if they lived in today’s espionage world instead of their own?

Sunday Afternoon with Maugham

The prettiest time in our apartment. The sun is drawing bright squares on the floor. Breeze is amusing our seashell wind chime on the balcony. tibetan flags dance above the blooming geranium . Mi is slow cooking some delicious stew dish. The sunny space is filled with that lovely aroma of cooked meat and the sweetness of soy sauce. I’m finishing up a glass of slightly chilled Gamay Rouge. Two cats are sleeping on the two sides of me. Occasionally we hear kids laughter from the gardens downstairs.

I’m reading a thin volumn of short story collection by Maugham, which i got from Green Apples two weekends ago.

Delightful writing. Reminded me of Greene, but not so serious. A humorous and curious creature. And such lucid writing.

Needs to get the full collection of his short stories. English language seems to take on a new life when written by him.

Ashenden, leaving them to their emotions, strolled through the garden and sat down on a bench that had been prepared for the comfort of the tourist. The view was of course spectacular, but it captured you; it was like a piece of music that was obvious and meretricious, but for the moment shattered your self-control.”

What’s even more fascinating to me is how class-conscious the British society is. And Maugham’s eyes missed nothing, and his pen, merciless.

It amused Ashenden to see R., so sharp, sure of himself and alert in his office, seized as he walked into the restaurant with shyness. He talked a little too loud in order to show that he was at his eas and made himself somewhat unnecessrily at home. You saw in his manner the shabby and commonplace life he had led till the hazards of war raised him to a position of consequence. He was glad to be in that fashionable restaurant cheek by jowl with persons who bore great or distinguished names, but he felt like a schoolboy in his first top-hat, and he quailed before the steely eye of the maître d’hôtel. His quick glance darted here and there and his sallow face beamed with a self-satisfaction of which he was slightly ashamed.

Green Apple Seed and Park Life

ATTENTION! Used Book Lovers!

The famed Green Apple Bookstore is doing something new. They opened another storefront on Clement @4th Ave., where they sell tones of books at 50-75% off the already marked down prices. Some are marked as low as $2 a piece. The slogan is “Warehouse Clearance”. They are closing down their warehouse, so they are selling everything that were used to be stored in the warehouse, i guess.

248 Clement Street @ 4th Ave. (the old Busvan building)
10am-10pm every day

While we were there, we stumbled upon a very cool store two doors down. It is a gadget/design/gallery store called “Park Life”. Calling it a store seems to be an oversimplification. It is a space where usually a store will be, but it seems to encompass more than the normal concept of a store. It features interesting objects, gadgets, books, t-shirts, art… ranged from salk pepper shaker, to alarm clock that runs away to hide (so to get you out of bed), to one of a kind t-shirt, and even original art displayed in the back of the store.

And it is a store with a blog:

Michael Ondaatje’s “Divisadero”

Michael Ondaatje has a new novel out! Just read the review from current issue of The New YorkerThe Aesthete, by Louis Menand. The name is “Divisadero” and it seems that a large portion of the stories are set in Northern California! 🙂 I have to go and find a copy.

“We have art so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth. – Nietzsche”

to be cont’d…

A Magazine that Reads Like a Book

A friend I met, Orpheus, told me once that the New Yorker magazine used to be so good that “you can read it from cover to cover like a book.”.

I didn’t really understand what he meant till recently.

Starting with January 8th issue this year, one was treated to the pleasure of reading heavy weight authors like Milan Kundera writing a small and light piece on author’s identity (guess that doesn’t sound too light. But comparing to Kundera’s other writing, this little piece that titled “Die Weltliteratur” is light heated), and popular authors like Malcolm Gladwell. You have fascinating topics ranging from Enron’s “Open Secrets” to Tan Dun’s Opera at the Met: “The Last Emperor”, from The Origami Lab, to three Mexican fishermen surviving 9 months on the high sea in a small panga, from the motivation of popular TV series’ 24’s creator to a drastically different perspective from the main stream media on the HP chairwoman spying on her boardmembers.

Each article is so different from the one before, yet the topic and writing remains alluring, I couldn’t put it down. By the time I finished reading one issue, I often have the same sensation that i would have after finished reading a good book: happy contentment and slight regret due to the end of a pleasant reading experience.

The most recent issue is a The New Yorker’s Anniversary Issue, a double feature (Feb. 19th and 26th), too.

Whatever It Takes, The politics of Joel Surnow, the man behind “24.” by Jane Mayer

This season’s 24 has been so bad, that I stopped watching it. I liked it when i watched the first season on dvd. The cleverness of showing multiple thread on split screen, the intensity of each episode really gets viewer hooked easily. But after the first season, things started to deteriorate. It was slowly turning into the originally interesting and later turned disgusting reality show, Fear Factor. Instead of having participant eating more and more disgusting bugs, viewers are treated to more and more gruesome torture and screaming and bloody scenes.

Reading this New Yorker article makes me feel betrayed and a slight relief at the same time. Betrayed cuz I didn’t realize it was a show to re-enforce the Administration’s point of view. A slight relief because I don’t like the show anymore anyways.

The Origami LabWhy a physicist dropped everything for paper folding. by Susan Orlean

This is a fascinating article. I didn’t realize that a professional Origami artist(well, actually i didn’t even realize you can be an arigami ARTIST, neither) could earn a decent living, provided you are really really good. Apparently math, high-tech laser beams, and computer software are all needed for top Origami artist.

This is funny:

In Japan, the “Survivor”-style show “TV Champion” has often featured contestants engaging in extreme origami—folding with their hands in a box, or while balanced on stools with the paper suspended above them, or while snorkelling in a fishtank.

About the main character in the article, Dr. Robert J. Lang:

Lang kept folding while earning a master’s in electrical engineering at Stanford and a Ph.D. in applied physics at Caltech. As he worked on his dissertation—“Semiconductor Lasers: New Geometries and Spectral Properties”—he designed an origami hermit crab, a mouse in a mousetrap, an ant, a skunk, and more than fifty other pieces. They were dense and crisp and precise but also full of character: his mouse conveys something fundamentally mouse-ish, his ant has an essential ant-ness. His insects were especially beautiful.

Don’t you wish there is a photo of this great master Lang’s work? Certainly Google could come to the rescue, Robert J. Lang Origami Gallery, but since i was reading a paper issue New Yorker, I wished there were some color photos to show me the “mouse-ish” , “Ant-ness”, and many beautiful insects.

I like his mammals better than his insects.

A couple of more articles that don’t have electronic copy on The New Yorker’s website:
– “The Castaways” – A Pacific odyseey, by Mark Singer.
About three Mexican fishermen went out fishing and ran out fuel accidentally, and managed to survive on rain water, fish and sea bird for nine months while floating in their little fiberglass panga on the pacific. Eventually rescued by a Taiwanese fishing boat. It happened from Nov. 2005-Aug. 2006. What i found interesting was that at the beginning of their ordeal, they thought of the movie Castaway and the tv series Lost. But as time progresses they realized they have far exceeded any popular media had ever depicted in terms of survival skills.

– “The Kona Files” – Hewlett-Packard’s surveillance scandal. by James B. Stewart
Another perspective on HP’s “chairwoman spying on board members” scandal. Similar to the article on Joel Surnow and 24, this article showed lots of inside politics within the most famous Silicon Valley company, and the power of one man, Tom Perkins; and how he can utilize the power to generate the media storm which produced the story all of us heard at the end and thought that was the truth.

On the other hand, it is easier to blame on “old boys club” being evil to women executives. In addition to Patricia Dunn who is portrayed in this article, Carly Fiorina also comes to mine. I remember the day news broke that Carly was fired from HP CEO position, E, a senior company from my company at the time, said, “she was fired because she was a women. If she was a men, everyone would have been cheering her on. ” The fact is that business is business. Politics is fierce at the top, everyone up there is busy making alliance and shift positions to maximize everyone’s gain or to stabilize everyone’s own position. There is really not a place to feign innocence/ignorance and crying being victimized (unless you can capitalize on that victimization like Tom Perkins did). Hilary Clinton seemed to be setting a better example in this aspect. But we shall see what happens in the 2008 election.

All in all, I’ve been enjoying The New Yorker since the beginning of the year. Hopefully it is an upward trend. 🙂

The Street – Leonard Cohen

The Street
by Leonard Cohen

I used to be your favorite drunk
Good for one more laugh.
Then we both ran out of luck
And luck was all we had.
You put on a uniform
To fight the civil war
I tried to join but no one liked
The side I’m fighting for.

So let’s drink to when it’s over
And let’s drink to when we meet
I’ll be waiting on this corner
Where there used to be a street

It wasn’t all that easy
When you upped and walked away
But I’ll save that little story
For another rainy day
I know the burden’s heavy
As you wheel it through the night
The guru says it’s empty
But that doesn’t mean it’s light.

So let’s drink to when it’s over
And let’s drink to when we meet
I’ll be waiting on this corner
Where there used to be a street

You left me with the dishes
And a baby in the bath
And you’re tight with the militia
And you wear their camouflage
Well I guess that makes us equal
But I want to march with you
It’s just an extra to the sequel
To the old, Red, White & Blue

So let’s drink to when it’s over
And let’s drink to when we meet
I’ll be waiting on this corner
Where there used to be a street

It’s gonna be September now
For many years to come
Many hearts adjusting
To that strict September drum
I see the ghost of culture
With numbers on his wrist
Salute some new conclusion
That all of us have missed.

So let’s drink to when it’s over
And let’s drink to when we meet
I’ll be waiting on this corner
Where there used to be a street.

Heard this on NPR yesterday afternoon. It was a Freshair rerun, “Leonard Cohen’s ‘Book of Longing'”. At the end Cohen recited this poem, which he is still working out the melody for. It is very pretty. I got interested. Almost wanted to get that book they were talking about in the interview, “Book of Longing. I looked for other poems by Cohen on line. Didn’t like any of them.

But this one is good. 🙂

FreshAir: Murder in Amsterdam

Was listening to Terry Gross interviewing Ian Buruma, who authored Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.

When asked about difference between the US and Europe regarding absorbing immigrant populations, Buruma made an interesting point. He said that ironically enough, one of the reasons that Europe is now falling short in their effectiveness of absorbing immigrants comparing to the US might be: EU being such a welfare state while the US is not. When the US is not a welfare state, the new immigrants are forced to work. By working they had to interact with the US culture/language/people, and as a result become part of it. While in Europe, all the immigrants need to deal with are mainly government officials who distribute the welfare check, it left a humiliation mark on their face, makes them more angry. At the same time they have no need to interact with the host country’s culture/language/people. They stay apart as a result.

That’s the first time I realized the benefit of having such lousy welfare system. Interesting.

Neural Theory of Language

I stumbled onto this particular show on podcast: Neural Theory of Language, it is part of the KQED Forums program, a talk with Jerome Feldman, EECS professor at UCBerkeley, and an author of “From Molecule to Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language.” . I kept on rewinding it as i listened, learned something new every time. An amazing field.

How our brains work? How do we learn knowledge? What exactly happened biologically when you learned a new fact?

1. Our brain is completely different from a computer. Computer processes information in a linear fashion, while our brain is vastly parallel.

2. neurons are slow, but our brain is fast. The reason being most of our “knowledge” is hardwired between neurons. There are two forms of knowledge of our brain, one that relies on chemistry in the brain that is similar to a kind of “computation” to go from one neuron to the next. But when it comes to something we learned really well, there is minimum computation, but mostly direct “wiring” between one neuron to the next. The learning process is a process of subtraction, to reduce the multiple paths existed, and as a result to reduce “computation” required. I’m fascinated by this aspect of the talk. So when we were given a piece of knowledge, such as, Mr. Feldman was born in Pittsburgh. The moment this information was given, there certainly wasn’t a hardwired connection instantly created. Instead, there was a chemical reaction that “added weight” to certain path and resulted in a connection.

3. Children learn language by map an abstract concept, i.e. a word, with their real life experiences. When a child started learning to speak, he/she already accumulated roughly one year worth of experiences. The learning to speak process is a process of “subtraction,” a process of “hardwired.” So if there is to emerge a human-like robot, a simulation of real life experience is mandatory.

4. People who were bilingual since childhood are better equipped to acquire more languages because their neuron structures were adapted in certain way that become optimal to learn new languages. Neurons are most active at growth during childhood.

This professor’s favorite phrases are “That’s not my area of expertise, so i can’t comment on it.” “This is not my theory but … ” It is obvious that this area of research has been divided into very thin slices that each expert only takes on one and dives deep. But for us non-academic people, this sounds funny, because we could hardly grasp the basic knowledge of the landscape, how could we tell which leaf on a particular tree that belongs to Professor Feldman?

Things that You Learn at a Shuttle Stop

I took the late shuttle on Thursday. It was far less crowded than the 7:45 bus. Usually there were 5-6 of us waiting at the stop rather than the 10-20 during the earlier time.

It was hot. We all sorta huddled behind the Muni shelter, in the small piece of shade surrounded by blazing sunlight.

I was reading an article from a back issue of The New Yorker, a story about a dessert lab in New york city. It sounded more like a “dessert bar.” I was vaguely aware of some random conversation going on around me. Suddenly the guy who was talking to the group, pointed at the article from behind me and exclaimed,” I LOVE that article!” I was completely startled. Before I was able to conjure up a response, he continued, excitedly, “OMG! I love that article so much that I blogged about it. And I tried to find an on-line copy…” I asked him whether he loved it because what it talked about, the dessert sounds amazing, or because of the writer. He said that he loved the way the author writes. “I can’t explain. But i just think his writing is fantastic. I loved it so much that I bought the author’s book called ‘Heat!'”

I continued reading the article on the shuttle. Another passenger of the shuttle asked him more about the article. He explained that the author used to be the editor at the New Yorker but fell in love with cooking after interviewing/visiting this dessert lab he described in this particular article. The editor eventually quit his job and went to Italy to study cooking.

Later on, I looked for that article on google, just typed in the article’s title and the author’s name, up came on the 4th slot was a blog. I opened it up, it was by this guy at the shuttle stop! I spent the rest of the evening reading his blog’s archives. Turned out to be excellent reading. I collected his RSS.

His name is Omar, and he loves podcasting. This is the nth time i’m hearing this term, “podcast.” I asked around and finally understood how it worked–“Which planet are you from?” co-worker commented when i revealed my ignorance. Following Omar’s advice, i spent the evening downloading podcasting and listening to them: BBC Documentary Archive, NPR Books, best of KFOG, Bill Moyers on Faith and Religion, etc. etc.

I’m hooked! Downloading as much as i can find onto my ipod and will start listening on my shuttle ride. 🙂

Things are definitely more interesting when you no longer drive solo 2 hours a day commuting.

The Dessert Lab, article by Bill Buford in The New Yorker, June 26th, 2006.
Omar’s blog on this New Yorker article
– Google Video (FREE): Charlie Rose: an hour with author Bill Buford, An hour all about food, cooking, and restaurants with author Bill Buford. His new book is “Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany”


The savage world of Martin McDonagh
  In the March 6th issue of ‘The New Yorker”, there is an interesting profile on Martin McDonagh( didn’t put this one on-line), the acclaimed Irish playwright. He wrote total of 7 plays during a few months of time in 1994(he was 24 then). Six of them were produced and staged in London, New York, etc.. All were well received. Huge success.
  What fascinated me was how he became a writer/playwright living on welfare. He left school at 16, and decided not to seek an education because he doesn’t want to condition himself for a job, or to find himself a boss. He wrote stories, watched TV, did manuel labor when the welfare stopped and quit the job once he is allowed to receive welfare again.
  That reminded me of the story on how Harry Potter’s author also wrote her story when she was living on welfare.
  All writers, or writers-wanna-bes should go to England. 🙂 At least English writers.
A few quotes from the actual article.

McDonagh…At thirty-five, he is perhaps the most successful young playwright of the past decade — in 1997, he was widely described as the first dramatist since Shakespeare to have four works professionally produced on the London stage in a single season — and his plays, black comedies in which acts of extreme cruelty and violence are routine, are merciless rebukes to literary sentimentality.

McDonagh’s brother left school at seventeen, intending to be a writer, and started to live on welfare. (He is now a screenwriter–his script “Ned Kelly” was made into a film, which was released in 2003, with Heath Ledger in the title role.) As soon as McDonagh turned sixteen, he did the same. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “I didn’t want to educate myself toward some kind of job. I didn’t even want a job. I didn’t want a boss.”

He insists that he has no intention of writing another play.

“I think I’ve said enough as a young dramatist,” he said. “Until I’ve lived a little more, and experienced a lot more things, and I have more to say that I haven’t said already, it will just feel like repeating the old tricks.” For a moment, McDonagh looked disconsolate. But he sounded hopeful. “I want to just write for the love of it,’ he said.’ And also grow up, because all the plays have the sensibility of a young man.”

I’m amazed at the lucidity of his mind. How he just knew what he wanted (or at least what he didn’t want) at the age of 16, or at the age of 35. I’m amazed that so many novelist didn’t know it is time to stop when they have nothing new to say. But this guy does.

I have no desire whatsoever to see any of his plays.

For those who might, currently his play “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” is showing off Broadway in New York City.

One Billion Customers

Mr. McGregor is an excellent speaker.

In addition to the entertainment, he provided a Business man’s point of view of China: practical, no baggage, no ideology. He is so in awe with China’s rampant capitalism that he seemed a borderline worshipper.

He had many good story to tell and each attempted to illustrate a point. China being the giant it is, with the 1.2 billion population and rising, it is bound to be a good place where stories are created everyday, to everyone. It is a dramatic place. McGregor did a good job telling his share of the stories.

Many of his conclusions concur with my own observations during my recent trip back to China. But there are a few glaring blind point that he totally didn’t touch on. I will start with the items that I’m in agreement.

Government Structure:
I found it impressive that he understands that China is in essence a feudal society just like it has been in the past thousands of years. Communism was a historical accident. “Communist party” is the current Empirical court, Military/Judicial system reports to it. made up of a a few hundred elite families. Outside of it is the government.

In China, no one believes in communism, here he told an excellent story about the actor Gu Yue, who has been portraying Chairman Mao for many many years. I might come back and insert the story here if i have time.

He made an interesting choice of word here, when he said “China is an individualistic society, you take care of yourself, your family, your friends. that’s it.” I never thought to associate this “selfish-ness” with the word “Individualistic”. The maximum i would go would have been “self-sufficient”.

Because of this unfortunate trait of the society, “If there is ever a revolution in the near future in China, it would start in a hospital ward.” Here he illustrated the same point i had made about the deterioration of Chinese Healthcare system, it is basically non-existent. And the citizens sit on the lowest rank of the totem pole, the peasants, the unemployed, the remove villagers, are the ones to suffer the most.

Intellectual Property Right:
After reading “Guns, Germs and Steel” I started to take IPR problem in China more seriously. Without intellectual property protection, a society will never encourage its people to be creative, without creativity, China will forever stay in the “copy & paste” state, behind the West.

Here is what McGregor, the American, the Businessman has to say about that:
“IPR is eroding China’s support in the US Congress, the centric group on the Hill.” He said that when the pro-China business lobbying group goes to D.C. they will encounter the hostility from the extreme right and extreme left of the Capital Hill. But they had always been able to count on the support from a group of centric senators and congressmen. This group has been served as the voice of reason and the support for trade with China. Chinese violation of IPR is seriously hurting the businesses behind these centric group. That is going to, if it hasn’t already, eroded this solid support in the US government

West’s Wrong/Superior Attitude toward China:
Most of them still live in the past glory thinking the US is the leader in the world and they could tell others what to do.

A couple of contrasting example from Mr. McGregor:
When Mr. Bush visited Beijing recently, he is basically went to meet his banker. China is now the largest financier for the US government. In a way, the US government officials are paid by the Chinese government.

Under this situation what did the US treasure Mr. Snow do when he visited SiChuan Province? He told the governor there that China should spend more, save less! “That’s not what my mom taught me!! ” Mr. McGregor laughed, “why didn’t he just tell them to eat more and exercise less?”

Because he spent the last 20 years in Taiwan and China. All of his kids grew up in China. Recently he has moved them back to the US to save expense cost and also to give them a chance to live in the US and to live a not-so-previleged life. After one week watching American TV, his son asked him, “Dad, what is 0 percent APR Financing?”

Now let’s look at a a few points that I want to counter Mr. Mcgregor.

Several times, Mr. Mcgregor stressed this point that China is an extremely entrepreneurial country, everyone is in it to make some quick money.

This fact alone shocked him the most because most people from the west would be when they saw a people who are more shrewed at business than the western businessman. But i want to emphasis here is the “quick” part. That alone could cause the collapse of this optimistic, fast-growing, rosy economic empire that Mr. McGregor and many other international businessmen in China have been painting.

Right now China’s banking system is a mess. It is not a market economy because of that. It is half controlled half free. Because China’s size, the free portion looked bigger than normal to most businessmen, and they started to take that and assume the rest of the economy will work the way it did in a mature western society.

One major concern for Chinese government is what to do when this rosy picture started to break apart. What if when all the bad loans the state run banks started to come back and hunt them? What if the Crash of US’s economy in 1929 happened in today’s China, what then?

Everyone is in it to make a quick buck. Very true. Because no one here believes or tries to build a sustainable economy.

Sometimes i admire the optimism of a business man. But they deserve the admiration because that’s how the wild wild west was built. So maybe they have a reason to be optimistic and gamble with all they have.

Risk-averse MBA graduates, or historians don’t make history. The gamblers, the optimists, the adventurers do. So for that, i must say, Salute! 🙂

At the end Mr. McGregor offered this option to the individual investors:
Don’t invest in China if you are a value investor.

That makes Mr. McGregor a cool-headed businessman, not yet a adventurer or gambler. I wonder maybe he is in it more for the fun rather than the money?

Freedom of Speech and Democracy:

Internet is more important to Chinese people than it is to the US users. WE are bombarded with all kinds of media. We have access to endless information sources. In China, Internet is their only way to get real information while the state controlled media is useless.

Don’t expect to see freedom of speech in China in my lifetime.

I think this maybe more of a wish rather than a predicament.
From business point of view, if the Chinese people started demanding Freedom of Speech, it is probably time for revolution rather than economy growth. That’s not what a Business man wanting to see.

My question will be if the Chinese economy one day evolves into a true market economy, what will that do to the political structure? If a true market economy could endanger Chinese political structure that has been in place for the past thousands of years, will the government let that happen? Where is the break to this gloomy loop? Is there a break?

Mr. McGregor’s opinion on Taiwan and HK:

Taiwan and China are extremely similar
Don’t like HK, messed it up by HongKongers themselves, lots of money, very little brain

My final take away question from the talk and all the information i’ve been consuming and digesting about China is this:

Is China the future of capitalism?

Paul Theroux “The Best Year of My Life”

In one of recent “The New Yorker”, I read a short fiction by Paul Theroux, it was called: The Best Year of My Life.

I started reading Paul Theroux when Gui introduced me to his “Riding the Iron Rooster.” Later “The Old Patagonian Express : By Train Through the Americas .” The chapter where he described his meeting with Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires was one of my favorite travel story by him.

But there is something cold/angry in him that i don’t like. A friend called it his “negativity.”

Do you know who was Theroux’s mentor? V.S. Naipaul, the nastiest old man you can find in any profession.
  I read Naipaul’s “An Area of Darkness” a long time ago—before he got the Nobel and boasted of his prowess and exclusive sexual relationship with prostitutes—and the bitter aftertaste stayed with me for weeks. Indians deserve Naipaul even less than Chinese deserve 高行健.
  Although the master and the pupil have since bitterly broken up, it seems that Theroux’s takeaway from Naipaul was a shared negativity. His tinted glasses register all and only ugliness of his life and ours, and he tirelessly harass us with the 2-D cinema verite of his pen. Have you read his travel writings on his railway rides in China and India? Well, Theroux did teach thousands of young expats of the “Lonely Planet” crowd or the Peace Corps missionaries how to see, how to think, and how to feel superior.
  But what a great pen……
-by 旧精魂

Last year i finished reading Dark Star Safari while traveling inTurkey. That was by far the best travel writing i’ve seen from Theroux. He mellowed up too. Age does help, doesn’t it?

I was never into his fiction, though. Just travel writings. This short story in the New Yorker explained many things for me about him. Knowing this made me want to forgive all his coldness i’ve seen through out the pages.

Poor Paul.

“Smoke and Mirrors” – A Geek’s Book

I’m a borderline geek. But i don’t usually go for books that a true geek loves.

At work, we have fliers posted in the hallway when some famous authors are on campus to give a talk, and sign books. Usually the company would buy the books ahead of the time and give them out for free to employees who go to the talk. So the audience would have a book in hand for the author to sign. It is a nice way to get free books.

I haven’t been very interested in any of these talks. Mainly because i have never heard any of the authors and based on the fliers they seemed to be all in the fantasy writer categories.

What is this love affair between a geek and fantasy?

Last Friday we had Neil Gaiman. Another unknown to me. But one of my office mates brought back a whole stack of books by Neil Gaiman, left them on the table next to me, and went on her little getaway weekend trip.

I couldn’t resist books. Especially spanking new ones with attracting cover design. So i picked up the top one on the pile, “Smoke and Mirrors”.

The writing flows well. I got interested. Left a sticky on the book pile and took it home to read for the weekend.

Started reading last night and just finished it.

The first half of the book was truly a pleasant surprise. Creative, original, good writing, and interesting stories. The best part was how Gaiman mixed realistic modern life with magic and fantasy. I loved that. His prose had good rhythm, they ran smoothly like a beautiful river.

My favorites are the one about the black cat (“The Price”). “He looked like a small panther, and he moved like a patch of night.” and the one about Hollywood “The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories”. Or rather, i liked the courtyard in “The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories.” The main character’s friendship with the old black man. Their talks of past stars in that quiet courtyard. I always imagined there were leaves on the ground, damp and colorful, and the wind of the Fall blow through the desolate scene. All that used to be glorious are no longer, except the three gold fish running around and around in circles…

I walked out to my chalet through the rain, my overnight bag in my hand, clutching the set of keys that would, the desk clerk told me, get me through the various doors and gates. The air smelled of wet dust and, curiously enough, cough mixture. It was dusk, almost dark.

Water splashed everywhere. It ran in rills and rivulets across the courtyard. It ran into a small fishpond that jutted out from the side of wall in the courtyard.

The rain had stopped. The sunshine was warm and bright., proper Hollywood light. I walked up to the main building, walking on a carpet of crushed eucalyptus leaves – the cough medicine smell from the night before.

The other ones that I would recommend are “The Wedding Present”, which is hiding in his introduction; “Chivalry,” “Troll Bridge,” “Murder Mysteries,” and “Snow, Glass, Apples.”

These are cleverly written. Rich in originality and beautiful or tender imagination.

The rest fell back into the category of fantasy that i don’t care for, werewolf, vampire, and unnamed creatures took over something, someone, or someplace. The Stephen King stuff that would sure make you fear and sick to your stomach.

I also like what he wrote in his introduction, about writing.

Writing is flying in dreams.
When you remember. When you can. When it works。
It’s that easy.
–Author’s notebook, February 1992

Mirrors are wonderful things. They appear to tell the truth, to reflect life back out at us; but set a mirror correctly and it will lie so convincingly you’ll believe that something has vanished into thin air, that a box filled with doves and flags and spiders is actually empty, that people hidden in the wings or the pit are floating ghosts upon the stage. Angle it right and a mirror becomes a magic casement; it can show you anything you can imagine and maybe a few things you can’t.

Stories are, in one way or another, mirrors. We use them to explain to ourselves how the world works or how it doesn’t work. Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from the things in the darkness.