My friend Ewen invented a card game called Channel A where you make up pitches for anime series. We played the new high-quality-printed prototype on Sunday. It is a ton of fun!
Each round, one player takes the role of a producer of a TV station. They choose two premise cards to make a bizzare genre/setting combination. Like "Cyberpunk dystopia + Time travel" or "Space Opera + French Revolution"; this is they type of cartoon that the TV station wants to add to their lineup. Everybody else is making up a show to pitch to the producer. They have a hand of word cards that they can choose from to create a title for the show, and then they explain to everyone what their show is about and how it fits the desired genre.
Of course your hand is full of crazy words that don't go together, so inevitably all the titles imitate the over-the-top word-salad style that anime fans know all too well. Your show is probably called something like "Keichi 120% Lucky Lingerie" or "Super Fighting Fight Fighters EX"; how are you going to convince the table that "Future Vampire Ultra Peach" is not only a show about "high school romance" and "race car drivers", it's the best freakin' high school race car driver romance they'll ever see? An ability to think on your feet and spout ridiculous bullshit with a straight face is essential.
I was surprised that I like this game so much, since I generally hate "LOLrandom!" party games. Channel A is almost identical in form to the game "Apples to Apples". But Channel A is lots of fun for me, and Apples is painfully boring. What makes the difference?
Here's my theory: the reason "zany" party games make me bored is that it doesn't matter what I do. In Apples to Apples I don't do any better if I carefully choose cards than I do if I choose cards at random. (Same goes for Fluxx and Munchkin.) I find that boring because it feels like there's no reward for effort or for paying attention to the game. I'm not hyper-competitive; to enjoy a game, I don't have to win, but I do have to try my best to win; that's where the fun comes from, for me. Games where trying harder makes no difference don't keep my interest long.
But Channel A works for me because it rewards effort - creative effort. The cards are just a prompt; over and over I saw the player with a more genre-appropriate title lose to the player who improvised a better pitch.
Channel A reminds me of Baron Munchausen, in that neither are role-playing games but they exercise a very similar part of your brain to role-playing. There's a similar performance anxiety when your turn comes around. Improv is a demanding activity!
I was amazed at some of the pitches people came up with during this game. With only seconds to think about it, they pulled the most fascinating stuff out of nowhere. Sushu joined our game halfway through and after about ten seconds of explanation she was winning hands with her pitches for "Little Monkey Bride" (Chinese mythology + catgirls) and "Ninja Hearts Z" (tournament fighting + shonen ai), either of which I would totally watch if it was a real show. I was also hella impressed by Ewen's ability to make up appropriate anime names for every character in his pitch without skipping a beat.
I like to think that I have especially creative friends, but I think the structure of the game and the words on the cards did a lot to pull our creativity to the surface. I felt like we could take any of the winning pitches from a Channel A game and turn them into role-playing campaigns or webcomics.
Anyway I highly recommend this game. Whenever the final version comes out I'm going to buy a couple sets to bring to anime conventions with me.
Did you know that "Zen" is an actual religious practice? It's not just a cool-sounding word for "simple"?
Whenever I hear somebody describe a website or user interface as "Zen" because it has a lot of whitespace, I die a little inside.
Unless your website is whacking me with a stick while I sit in seiza position and meditate, or using koans to shock my mind out of reliance on logic and binary thinking, or otherwise helping me reach enlightenment through direct experience in the tradition of 6th-century Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, it is not Zen.
Most recent offender is something called Zendesk; passed a billboard for it today, which shows a grotesque caricature of a hideous grinning Buddha wearing a telephone headset. I'm not personally offended by portrayals of religious figures but I ask you: try to imagine a picture of Jesus Christ flipping burgers on a fast-food-chain billboard, and then try to think of a reason why one should be any more acceptable than the other.
Now I'm thinking about what an actual Zen customer-support line would be like. Can you imagine?
"I can't log in to my account, can you help me?"
"The teachings of the way are merely a finger pointing at the moon; you must discover the truth for yourself."
"No, seriously, I really need to get in here and check my payment status."
"Your suffering comes from your desire for a state of logged-in-ness, but all binary distinctions are illusion; in reality there is no difference between logged in and logged out."
I started a job on Monday with a startup company in the East Bay that does clean-energy financing. The commute was unreasonably long (2 hours by public transit, 1:20 by carpool). For the job to work out at all, I would have had to move. I was willing to do that, if the job was awesome.
The job turned out to be not the job I imagined when I signed up. I was hoping it would be an opportunity to learn about clean energy tech. But in practice the job was all about the finance side and not really about the technology side at all; it was a great opportunity to learn about investments, not so much to learn about solar power. Which is fine, it's just not what I was looking for.
I've got no hard feelings against the company. They're working for a good cause, they're pretty cool people, and I wish them lots of success. (And they're hiring web developers -- if that sounds interesting to you, contact me and I'll put you in touch!)
On Wednesday, I told them that I wasn't a good fit for the position. They told me that it was unprofessional of me to start a job and then quit immediately, and they were right. I wasted their time, and I'm sorry for that. It would have been better of me not to have accepted the job in the first place. But it's like dating: sometimes you go on two dates with somebody and then realize you're not looking for the same thing out of a relationship, and even though it hurts everybody's feelings it's better to cut it off immediately than to drag out the suffering, you know?
Somehow I got an unrealistic idea of what the job involved. They pitched me quite a glowing vision of the green-energy future, and I got excited. It's not their fault that I misunderstood, though; they never said anything misleading. It was a case of me hearing what I wanted to hear and disregarding the rest. Only after I started doing the work did I realize that my imagination of the job was unrealistic.
Live and learn. I realize now the questions that I should have asked during the interviews that I didn't ask. I'm quite good at aceing a job interview (especially the programming questions) but evidently I'm not good at using the interview to find out whether I really want the job or not.
I felt lost and discouraged for a couple of days. I wondered what was wrong with me. I'm in my 30s; by now I should know who I am and what I want. I thought I would be accomplishing things by now, not still trying to figure out what field I want to be in. I felt like a failure.
But today, my mood is better. I tried an experiment and it didn't work out; because of that, I've got more information now than I had last week. I've narrowed down my search. That's progress.
What a depressing election. (Warning: giant rant ahead.)
We have one party which is dismantling civil liberties, is building a total surveillance police state, is intent on continuing to wage unwinnable wars, is thoroughly corrupted by lobbying, and is in thrall to big banks and other corporate interests.
The other party... is the Republicans.
Everything I just said about Democrats applies double to the GOP, plus as a bonus the GOP is run by racists, homophobes, and Christian supremacists. Or, at best, run by plutocrats willing to pander to all the prejudices of racists, homophobes, and Christian supremacists in order to decrease the marginal tax rate on their capital gains. The Republicans openly support torture and reject science and they're itching to start a war with Iran. They just get crazier and crazier every year; they now seem to have retreated entirely to some alternate universe based on Ayn Rand / Leviticus crossover fanfiction.
I care a lot about civil liberties, OK? They're kind of my main issue. And both parties are terrible on civil liberties. A lot of the stuff that made me so mad about the Bush administration - Guantanamo, the warrantless wiretapping, the Patriot act - is still going on under Obama. Guantanamo's still open, our government is still spying on us without warrants, we're still stuck in an endless war in Afghanistan, and the Democrat-controlled Senate was happy to renew the Patriot act and then one-up it with the NDAA.
I guess what this has taught me is that I was wrong to blame the erosion of civil liberties after 9/11 on Bush specifically. It's bigger than one president or even one party. It's endemic to the whole system. Obama either couldn't change it or he didn't want to.
How can we have a democracy (or even a republic) if voters are not allowed to know what the government, that supposedly represents them, is doing in their name?
How does a citizen vote to change a bad policy when both parties agree on continuing to support that policy?
There's simply no party to vote for if I want my country to stop killing Pakistani civilians as collateral damage from drone strikes. Or if I want the 4th amendment back, or if I want Habeas Corpus reinstated, or if I think the FBI should get a search warrant before wiretapping citizens, or if I want to close Guantanamo Bay, or if I want the government to stop wasting money imprisoning non-violent drug offenders, or if I think the people responsible for torturing prisoners of war should be prosecuted.
You can vote for a 3rd-party or fringe candidate; that sometimes works in a local election, but in a national election I'm not sure that actually accomplishes anything other than making yourself feel good. I wish third-parties were viable, but the structure of our voting system works against it; until we implement some kind of instant-runoff voting, third parties in national elections will continue to be spoilers and protest votes.
I've got a friend who was a volunteer for the Ron Paul campaign this year, claiming that Ron Paul is the only candidate who wanted to end the war, dismantle the surveillance state, and restore constitutional rights. And while Ron Paul does agree with me on some things, wants to go back on the gold standard, abolish all public education, and fucking repeal the Fourteenth Amendment. And he opposes the Civil Rights Act. Paul isn't pro-freedom; he just prefers tyranny to be implemented at the state level instead of the federal level. This is not even getting into the openly white-supremacist newsletters published under his name.
I look at Ron Paul and other third-party/fringe candidates and it's like, they will never have to seriously face the consequences of their policies, because there's no chance their policies will ever get enacted. They can go on feeling superior due to their ideological purity and never have to make the hard decisions that come with governing a country.
There's a Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin, not wanting to take a bath, screams that he refuses to compromise his principles. Later, in the bathtub, he muses that he doesn't need to compromise his principles, because they don't have the slightest bearing on what happens to him anyway.
Maybe we just need to lower our expectations of politics. John Kenneth Galbraith said, "Politics is the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable." Mark Twain said "If voting made any difference, they wouldn't let us do it."
Maybe the best we can hope for is to prevent the worse of two candidates from getting into office. In practice, that seems to be how most people vote anyway -- not voting for a candidate, but voting against the party they hate more.
I'm not saying we should give up on changing things. Rather, real change is a long, hard process that takes a heck of a lot more involvement, work, and sacrifice than just voting. Sometimes it even requires being willing to go to jail for your beliefs.
So if the parties are near equally bad on the main issues I care about, then I guess I should vote based on the issues where the parties do differ. For me the big one is Romney's desire to start a war with Iran. Or at least he repeatedly during the primaries that he wanted one; some say he was just pandering to the base and he didn't really mean it, but is there any reason to think Romney would get any better at resisting the warmongers in his party after being elected?
I don't think so. I think there's a real danger he would really do it, having learned absolutely nothing from the disastrous failure of our attempts to remake Afghanistan and Iraq. Tens of thousands could die in a conflict that might not even succeed in stopping their nuclear program, or even delaying it for more than a few years. Obama's policy of containing Iran's nuclear program with diplomatic and economic pressure, imperfect as it is, is probably the least bad option.
There's plenty of other things to hate: the fact that Romney is an elitist scumbag who sees half the country as parasites, that his economic plan ("cut the deficit by cutting taxes on the rich and raising military spending") makes not a lick of sense, and that he's happy to pander to racist birthers by gloating that "nobody's asking to see my birth certificate". (Yeah, because you're white, asshole.) At the same time, he's aspiring to be even worse than Obama on civil liberties, promising to "double Guantanamo".
So as unhappy as I am with Obama's civil liberties record, it's a very easy decision to support the unpalatable (Obama) over the disastrous (Romney), and I'm glad to see Obama pulling ahead in the polls.
Meanwhile, we should use methods other than voting to work for restoring civil liberties. Speaking of that, my representative Anna Eshoo is a cosponsor of HR 3702, the Due Process Guarantee Act, which would undo the indefinite-detention-without-trial provisions of the NDAA. It looks like there hasn't been much movement on it Maybe find out where your representative stands on it and encourage them to support it too? It may not have much of a chance but it's better than nothing.
Sushu's Mandarin 1 class is my first group of beta testers. All last week she was coming home from school and reporting bugs, which I'd try to fix as quickly as possible for the next day.
Thus far it's not very fun - it's just a set of practice tools. I've got the educational part, not so much the "game" part yet. It's also extremely bare-bones visually -- it lacks colors, images, animation, etc.
But it does offer the following features:
Three practice modes: typing in pinyin, drawing hanzi, and listening.
To make drilling more interesting, each round is timed and scored; you earn bonus points for speed and for getting a lot of words right in a row.
It tracks how many times you've got each word right and wrong; the more you get a word right, the less often it reappears, while the words you've gotten wrong recur more frequently.
See your scores with all words, including the words you are having the most trouble with.
Study any set of words you want to study by uploading your own vocabulary set, which you can also make available to other students.
For teachers, there's a page where you can see an overview of how every student in your class is doing with the words they've been assigned. So you can see what's giving the class the most trouble.
I've tested it on Firefox and Safari so far; the hanzi drawing works with a mouse, or with a finger on a touchscreen (e.g. iPad).
The pinyin-entry practice is very awkward. Currently you have to identify the tones by typing numbers. I want to replace that with something less artificial. Especially since pinyin itself is a poor proxy for pronunciation. Ideally I would want the student to be able to speak into their microphone and have the program grade their pronunciation, but that will be (as mathematicians say) Non-Trivial.
Drawing hanzi is currently graded on the honor system: You draw them, then it shows you the right ones, then you tell the program whether you got it right or not. I'm poking around with some possible handwriting-recognition code to automatically judge whether you wrote it right or not, because right now it's easy to cheat. Then again, if you cheat, you're only cheating yourself, so maybe it's OK the way it is?
Eventually I want to write "Learn Chinese: The RPG". The infrastructure I've been building so far is designed to support that as well as be a practice tool in its own right.
I'd love to hear some feedback from any readers who know enough Chinese to try out the beta version. (I think that's... two of you? Unless there are some lurkers I don't know about?) Thanks.
I watched the first two seasons of this show this summer in Shanghai, so of course I had this song stuck in my head a lot. Went around humming it all day, etc.
My thoughts on the show itself (Minor spoilers ahead!)
The casting is pretty good for the most part. The actors who play Tyrion and Catelyn especially are just amazing, to the point where you forget there's an actor playing them; that's the real Catelyn right there caught on camera accusing the real Tyrion of trying to murder her son.
The costumes and sets were real nice. And they did a good job of conveying the plot almost entirely through conversations between characters; most of the big (and expensive to film!) battle scenes are conveyed indirectly, left to the imagination. It could have been a disappointing choice; in a movie you would definitely want to see that stuff, but for a TV series mostly focused on character interaction, it works.
The bad parts: wayyyy too much "sexposition". That's where they have an infodump to give you (which in the book would be an internal monologue or just a descriptive passage) and half-assedly attempt to make it interesting by combining the infodump with a sex scene. It's just as ridiculous as it sounds, and it happens in almost every episode.
Imagine if you were trying to have the hot sex with some sexy royal person and they were like "LET ME EXPLAIN TO YOU THE LEGACY OF MY PEOPLE!" the whole time. you would be laughing too hard to keep going.
Speaking of sex scenes, I didn't like how they changed the relationship between Dany and Drogo. In the book, Drogo cares about getting Dany's consent; granted she's not in much of a position to say 'no' due to the power dynamics, but the fact that he asks makes him a more likeable character than most of the scumbags in Westeros, and it makes their developing romance almost believable. The TV show, though, plays it as a straight-up rape scene. Guh! I don't want to see that! Also it makes the later romance arc into a "fall in love with your rapist" story, which is a sick and horrible trope.
I don't know if TED has gone downhill or if they were never good in the first place, but geez do they promote a lot of pseudo-intellectual garbage.
A random TED talk has about as much intellectual content as picking a random book out of the non-fiction new releases and reading the blurb on the dust jacket. It makes you aware that an idea exists and that somebody is promoting it; that's about all.
Some individual TED talks are decent and even good -- just as that random book with the interesting dust-jacket blurb might actually be good -- but so many are junk that the TED brand is useless as an indicator of quality.
The marketing around TED is carefully designed to make you feel smart and superior for watching them. The production values, the big-name speakers, the high price of tickets, the illusion that you're part of an elite audience... all designed to flatter the viewer and make the contents seem like something more than the shallow sound-bites they are.
And the Silicon Valley culture seems to have eaten it up. "Did you see the TED talk about..." is a standard conversation-opener at work. People think they're an expert on some topic because they watched a guy give a ten-minute slideshow about it in front of a bunch of rich people. Giving a TED talk is the ultimate status symbol in this culture.
It doesn't hurt that TED has a serious ideological bias towards things that make the target audience of rich, mostly white, industry insiders feel good about themselves for being rich, mostly white, industry insiders.
He's trying to explain how "The West" got so far economically ahead of "The Rest". He's talking about the importance of social institutions, but he tells his mostly-software-industry audience "you can't understand institutions so I'm going to compare them to something you do understand". Does the audience even realize how badly he's insulting them?
His list is: Competition, science, property rights, modern medicine, consumer society, and work ethic.
It should be obvious that property rights, competition, work ethic, and the consumer society existed in plenty of pre-modern and non-western societies. And "modern medicine" is begging the question of how you get to the point of inventing modern medicine. But even if we let those points slide, there's a glaring ommision from this list. Think for second; can you spot it?
He illustrates the wealth gap by showing how for centuries Europe was relativeley poor, but in the 1850s the UK shot way ahead while China and India got much poorer.
Gee Niall Ferguson, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY HAVE HAPPENED IN THE 1850s THAT WOULD EXPLAIN WHY THE UK BECAME WEALTHIER RELATIVE TO CHINA AND INDIA? It's a complete mystery, I can't figure it out at all.
So yeah, he's forgetting the "Killer App" where you use your superior military to invade another country, take their natural resources, kidnap their people as slaves, force unequal trade treaties on them, and deliberatly hold their devleopment back with an unequal colonial administration designed to make them second-class citizens in their own country.
The countries that have the lowest human development indices today are almost all former resource-extraction colonies of European empires. The ones with the highest indices are Western Europe itself, its former settlement colonies, a few Mideastern oil states, and Japan -- which did quite a bit of colonialism of its own.
Colonialism isn't the whole explanation because it doesn't explain how Europe achieved its military advantage that allowed it to do all this conquest and extortion in the first place. And obviously some of the wealth gap is due to the Industrial Revolution starting in Europe, which probably does have something to do with science and competition and so on. But I am highly dubious of any explanation for "The West vs The Rest" that glosses over the fact that The West spent centuries literally stealing wealth from The Rest.
Gee Niall Ferguson, WHY AM I SO MUCH RICHER THAN MY NEIGHBOR WHOSE HOUSE I JUST ROBBED? It must be because of my superior work ethic and my respect for property rights!
Ferguson brings up imperialism only to dismiss it with a couple of glib sentences. He says imperialism can't be the answer because "Asia had empires too" and because the peak of the wealth gap came in the 1970s, after colonialism ended.
These explanations are incredibly weak. Asia had empires too, yes; and in their day they were extremely wealthy and effective! If there were TED talks in the 16th century they would be attmepting to explain why Ming China and the Ottoman Empire were so far ahead of backwards Europe. All this comparison proves is that the advantage of empire doesn't last forever. Also the Ottomans and the Mings didn't have a military advantage over their neighbors remotely comparable to the military advantage that colonial Europe had over Africa and the Americas.
The wealth gap peaking in the 1970s? A mere few decades after the end of World War 2 and the beginning of the slow process of decolonization? When the rich nations had just finished reaping all the benefits of colonialism and the newly independent former colonies were just beginning their climb out of poverty? This is exactly when we would expect the wealth gap to peak if colonialism was the main reason for it. Ferguson is actually undermining his own argument by pointing out this fact.
And this illustrates the problem with TED: the format of TED videos makes this kind of sleight-of-hand easy to pull off. A couple of pretty slides, a nerdy joke or two to disarm the audience, and an appeal to your authority as a Famous Person are all it takes to paper over fundamental weaknesses in your argument.
There's a lot more to pick apart in Ferguson's terrible TED talk. Nobody should be surprised that he worships Adam Smith, but taking time to insult Gandhi for being poor? Classy.
Then he tops himself, when talking about property rights (which he says are more important than democracy itself: an interesting glimpse into the priorities of the ultra-rich.) He says one of the reasons America was able to "generate" so much wealth is because "most people in rural North America owned some land". Uh, yeah, they had lots of land after fucking stealing it from the American Indians. He's using land taken by force, and taken by broken treaties, as his example of the importance of property rights. Which presumably include the right to not have your property stolen. The audacity of this guy!
Then we get to the moral panic -- "is the west deleting its own apps?" OH NO! Here is a picture of some teenagers wearing hoodies! I'm not sure what that's supposed to prove, unless it's a clever way to invoke racism against black teenagers without actually showing any black teenagers. Ferguson then talks about the rest of the world catching up, which is a wonderful thing, a happy thing, what we should all be hoping for. Then he segues straight into "but Western decline isn't inevitable". Interesting that he equates worldwide equality with Western "decline", like we're only doing OK as long as we can keep the rest of the world poor.
He finishes with a picture of Obama bowing to Hu Jintao to illustrate that the great divergence is over. (Like no world leader ever bowed to another world leader during the last two centuries? It's a meaningless gesture to grease the wheels of diplomacy.) Nice way to invoke both Siniphobia and the baseless right-wing meme of Obama being apologetic for America.
So that's Ferguson's TED talk. That's the kind of thing TED thinks deserves a megaphone.
Ferguson teaches at Harvard. He's not dumb. He's not overlooking the history of colonialism by accident; he's trying to construct an explanation of the wealth gap that very specifically avoids mention of colonialism. This is part of a project to whitewash history, to promote a world view where the rich and the privileged are not beneficiaries of historical injustice but rather deserve to be rich and privileged due to their superior moral qualities.
That TED gave him a pulpit for this project says a lot about TED. Either they share his views, or they just don't care. At the very least, it says that TED doesn't care enough for this massive level of intellectual dishonesty to disqualify anyone from speaking there.
I have written software that has been featured in a TED talk on two different occasions: Ubiquity was shown off in a TED talk by Aza in 2009, and Collusion in a TED talk by the Mozilla CEO in 2012. But after seeing this video, I'm embarassed to have been associated with TED in any way.
Suzhou is a famously beautiful town a short train ride west of Shanghai. It may not be very well-known to Westerners, but to Chinese people it's one of the country's top tourist attractions. There's even a saying: "In heaven there is paradise, but on earth there are Suzhou and Hangzhou."
It was the capital of the state of Wu during the Spring and Autumn period (500s BC), but really reached its height during the Song dynasty (~1000s AD) when it was the center of silk production. In those days it was a city of criss-crossing canals, navigable by boat, and it still likes to call itself "the Venice of the East".
We took a day trip there one rainy, foggy weekend in July. Here are the pictures from our trip.
Suzhou train station.
Random trivia: The character "Su" in Suzhou is the same as the "Su" in Sushu's name.
A miniature model of classical Suzhou, on display at the Silk Museum, shows the pattern of canals and bridges.
Besides silk production, Suzhou is famous for its gardens.
The one we went to was built by a wealthy government official from the Ming dynasty. He retired and became a fisherman. But since he was still high-status, you can't just call him "fisherman". So they called him "The Master of Nets".
The back alley that leads to the Garden of the Master of Nets.
A map of the garden grounds.
This antique palanquin is one of the estate's many treasures on display.
A cool room full of fancy stuff. There were a lot of these.
Covered walkways crisscross the garden grounds so people could enjoy the fresh air while keeping out of the rain.
This carefully-designed pond is the centerpiece.
One of the key elements in a traditional Chinese garden is the reproduction of mountain landscapes in miniature.
More pretty pond view...
I like how this ancient tree is carefully propped up with supports to keep it growing just so. No tree in this garden is just growing haphazardly - they're all carefully designed and crafted to produce the desired views.
There were little details everywhere like this fish in the cobblestones.
...and artificial caves.
All of the rooms and buildings had windows and doors carefully chosen to frame different views of the garden.
Also, notice how each window in this wall has a different pattern!
None of the paths are straight; they're all zig-zagged.
According to Chinese legends, evil spirits only travel in straight lines - they can't turn corners. This is one of the traditional explanations for the architecture, but it's also likely they just build stuff that way to encourage people to walk slowly and enjoy seeing the view from different angles.
This round portal reminds me of something from a spaceship on a sci-fi TV show.
A pomegranate tree.
There's a tiny boat stuck under there for riding around on the pond.
My hot wife!
Goldfish in the pond.
No evil spirits getting across this bridge!
Beware of the pond!
Cool fancy rocks.
Bat mosaic. "Five bats" is a Chinese pun. It sounds like a phrase for good fortune ("wu fu").
OK, we're out of the garden now.
I'm pretty sure that's not the actual Google building.
One of Suzhou's surviving canals.
We had hot pot for lunch!
Motorcycles are super popular in China. Check out all those motorcycles!
COLONEL SANDERS IS WATCHING YOU.
Our next stop after lunch was a Daoist temple complex called the "Temple of Mysteries" (Xuanmiao).
Not just a historical monument, the temple is also an active place of worship.
The Chinese Communist party tried to stamp out religion during the Cultural Revolution, with horrifying results. But the 1978 constitution allows freedom of religion (within certain bounds - e.g. no Falun Gong).
I've been to lots of Buddhist temples but I've never been to a Daoist temple before. Of course they're not exclusive - lots of people follow principles of both Buddha and the Dao (as well as Confucius, and Chinese folk religion). It's all very syncretic.
The architecture and rituals (such as lighting incense) are very similar to a Buddhist temple, but there's yin-yang motifs everywhere instead of lotuses.
And then inside the temple, instead of Buddha statues there are statues of various Daoist deities.
They had a row of sixty statues - one for each year in the complete Chinese zodiac cycle. (Twelve animals times five elements = 60 years.) You could find the one corresponding to your birth year and make an offering.
Most of them just look like sages and warriors, but this one dude freaked me out, with tiny arms coming out of his eye sockets. I wonder what his deal is.
This is the Daoist god of money; you pray to him for prosperity.
At some point somebody must have decided that what his shrine really needed was a disco-style laser light show.
Huge incense burner outside the front gate.
It's always kind of weird being in a place which is simultaneously a tourist attraction, charging money for tickets, and also a sacred place for the locals. It was the same way at the mosques in Istanbul, and the Catholic churches in Peru. I try to be quiet and respectful, but still I imagine the people who are there to pray must resent the intrusion of foreigners who are there to gawk.
The Chinese ancestor of the Japanese taiko drum.
Cool statues of an old man and a child. I don't know what, if any, significance they have.
Some cool paintings from the hall of Wen Chang, Daoist god of literature and patron of students undergoing exams.
A narrow alley we explored after leaving the Temple of Mysteries.
It was pretty cool, but only led to a dead-end.
This is a famous pagoda in Suzhou, but we didn't have time to visit it - we had a train to catch and we still wanted to see the Silk Museum to see first.
Silk cultivation has been going on in the Suzhou area for five or six thousand years.
Some cool statues out front of the silk museum.
The silkworm is actually a moth larva, and it eats only mulberry leaves.
Closeup of the live silkworms.
When it's ready to turn into a moth, it spins a fuzzy cocoon like these. You boil the cocoon, killing the larva before it hatches, so that the cocoon can be unraveled into one continuous thread.
A complex loom for silk-weaving.
After the silk museum, we had dinner at a classy restaurant.
Their menu showed symptoms of having been Google Translated - the English names given for dishes were questionable and in some cases hilariously bizzare:
"Nestle honey-of-idyllic chicken"
"Miscellaneous bacteria squid"
"Born ridiculous amount of beans"
"Acid turnip intestinal duck blood"
But the food was very good!
The purple stuff was given the unappetizing English name of "Taro mud" on the menu, but it was a very nice taro pudding.
It started to rain very hard as we crossed the river on foot, hurrying to get back to the train station in time for our train back to Shanghai.
I've seen a lot of news lately about technological advancements that could make solar cels a lot cheaper - either by decreasing the cost of materials, the cost of production, or the cost of installation. I'm hoping to see the price of electricity from solar become truly competitive (i.e. without government subsidies) against electricity from fossil fuels in the near future. There are inspiring signs of progress!
UC Berkeley scientists figured out a way to make solar panels out of any semiconductor, allowing them to potentially be made out of cheaper materials than the high-quality silicon currently required. For example: Copper oxide.
Even more science-fictiony than the ion cannon: Vanderbilt University scientists have made a bio-hybrid solar cell by combining silicon with a photosynthetic protein. The protein, called PS1, is extracted from spinach leaves and continues to function outside of the plant, converting sunlight into electrical energy with nearly 100% efficiency (compared to ~40% for manmade devices). The bio-hybrid solar cell is still a long way from practical mass production, though.
It takes energy to make solar panels, and that energy has to come from somewhere, so this has to be factored into their lifetime cost (and environmental impact). The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has found a way to potentially cut the energy used to produce panels in half using an optical furanace to heat up the silicon substrate.
Flashback to 1995. I was in college but I was terrified of starting conversations with strangers, so it was hard to meet people.
When the internet started going mainstream. I was like "Cool! the Internet! I can use this to bypass my social phobias and make friends with people who share my interests!"
In the 17 years since, I've done that... maybe once or twice. That's all.
I always hear about how people have found great communities on the internet, and I am envious, because it sounds cool and I've never been able to do that.
I basically don't socialize with strangers on the internet. I talk to people I already know, or I send some terse emails to set up a face-to-face meeting.
I never decided not to socialize -- I just never figured out how you're supposed to do it.
I've tried many times to join gaming, programming, and comic forums -- Storygames, RPG.net, the Warmachine forums, the MSPaintAdventure forums, the Ubuntu user forum etc. Here's how that always goes:
1. I lurk for a long time deciding if the forum is interesting and trying to get the vibe and learn the lingo.
2. I finally work up the courage to post, agonize over my username, and spend hours carefully crafting my first post.
3. Zero replies. Nobody cares.
4. I try posting replies in some active threads. They are ignored.
5. I make a post that accidentally touches on some controversial subject in the forum. It gets fifty replies, but none of them are engaging with what I said, or with each other -- everybody just showed up with an axe to grind and used the thread as an excuse to re-post their favorite rant.
6. I read some other threads more carefully and discover that almost nobody in the forum is responding to anybody else in a constructive way -- it's not a conversation, just a series of people who come in, state their opinion on (or off) the topic, and leave.
7. I give up and go back to lurking.
Not sure what it was that I expected to get out of posting to forums, but I never found it. The internet is littered with abandoned Jono forum accounts with like six posts each.
Even at its best, text-based communication on the internet lacks body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, so it's a very poor aproximation of actual human contact. With forums, it's even worse, because you don't even know who (if anyone) you're talking to. It's like standing in a pitch-black, crowded tunnel and trying to introduce yourself to a bunch of invisible people who may or may not be listening.
I recently tried to engage with Hacker News after they linked to one of my posts. I thought I could contribute something to the thread since they were talking about my article, but... no. It was the exact same thing as every other forum.
I never figured out how to use "social media", either. I tried Twitter a few times but I wasn't getting anything out of it. Maybe I just don't know how to engage with Twitter, but to me it feels like a crowd of people all shouting for attention, none of them listening to each other. It's worthless for having a conversation or making any kind of meaningful connection. These days I only use my twitter account as a mirror of my RSS feed, to push out links to these blog posts.
I've been working full time on my own solo projects since leaving Mozilla. It's lonely! I wish I had some kind of professional community to be part of. I had a great one at Mozilla and I'm feeling the lack.
I know the "Mozilla community" is something that exists outside the company... but I don't know where to find them. I mean, I would know what IRC channel to go to for any technical question I want to ask, but I have no idea how to find Mozilla community members just to hang out, talk, build relationships, ask for general advice, etc.
I'm really curious to hear from anybody who has successfully found (or built) a functional online community. How did you find this community? How do people interact with each other there? What do you talk about? Do you meet up in real life or is it online only?
While we were in China, Sushu's mom planted green peppers and eggplants in our backyard vegetable garden.
She didn't plant those tomatoes. They just grew there all on their own.
I grew a lot of tomatoes there last summer; they all died in the fall, but I guess some seeds found their way into the soil.
Sushu's mom told me a Chinese saying about how the flower carefully tended does not bloom, while the willow branch carelessly dropped grows to provide much shade.
I don't know if it's the soil quality, the climate, or what, but our backyard is amazingly fertile.
So we've got all these eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers from the backyard. What do to with them all?
Tomatoes and peppers are easy to use in salads and pasta, but eggplants are a little trickier. I've made way too many curries where the rest of the vegetables were done but the eggplant was still tough and spongy. You can't just throw eggplant into a dish - you gotta have a plan for it.
The best eggplant I ever had was in Turkey. They do amazing things with eggplant, lamb, olives, and sheep cheese. I brought back a Turkish cookbook but I had never used it. Seems like a good time to try out some eggplant recipies!
One thing they do in Turkish cooking is to smoke the eggplant. We have a small charcoal grill in our backyard so I decided to give it a try.
First problem: We had a sack of coals in the garage, but no lighter fluid. I used junk mail as kindling, but the coals wouldn't catch. Finally Sushu offered me a bottle of baijou (Chinese sorghum alcohol). I poured some of that on the coals, threw in a match...
... and just barely yanked my arm back fast enough to save my arm hairs from getting set alight by the ensuing fireball.
Still, it's the best use I've found so far for baijou. That stuff is naaaaas-ty.
Anyway, you close the lid and leave the eggplant in there for like 20 minutes, then turn it over with some tongs and let it cook on the other side for another 20 minutes.
It'll get black and crispy on the outside, and you will think you have ruined it, but scrape the peel off (throw it away) and the inside will be a tender mush with the most amazing delicate smoky flavor. Seriously, it's the bomb.
Mix some milk and a few sprinkles of flour in a frying pan to make a sauce base, then mash the eggplant up with a fork and stir it in with the milk mixture. Add some feta cheese and salt and stir it until it all melts together.
Eat it with pita bread, or combine it with the meat dish I'm about to describe...
My mom hates lamb, so we never had it when I was growing up. But once I tried lamb, I loved it. Especially with the right blend of spices, it's delicious.
So for this one, chop up a whole onion and a few cloves of garlic and sautee them in oil. Then throw in a package of ground lamb.
The Turkish cookbook didn't list any spices (perhaps the spice blend is a Turkish trade secret). I tried it without spices and it was really bland. Through some trial and error, I settled on the following spices:
Salt, black pepper, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, sage, and cumin. LOTS of cumin. Don't be shy. Cumin is lamb's best friend.
While the meat is browning, chop up a bell pepper and a large tomato and throw those in. Keep tasting it and adjusting the spice mix. Stir-fry until all the vegetables are soft and the meat is well-done.
You can eat this stuff straight with a fork, or have it with pita and the smoked eggplant mush, or you can make it into a moussaka.
For the moussaka, take a couple of large eggplants and peel them. Chop them into half-inch-thick slices. Soak the slices in salt water for half an hour. This step is important as it tenderizes them and leeches out the water, leaving the eggplant ready to absorb oil and meat juices!
After half an hour, wring out the eggplant pieces by hand, and then fry them in oil until they turn dark, silky, and translucent. They will absorb a LOT of oil - you may need to keep adding more. I used canola oil but olive oil would be even better.
Once that's done, layer the eggplant slices with the meat mixture in a pan (like you're making a lasagna with eggplant slices instead of noodles) and bake it for 20-30 minutes.
"Trying to spend a lot less money" is the immediate answer. Honestly, I'm exploring several different opportunities at the moment. I've been tripping up and down the bay for job interviews with green-energy startups and internet-assisted education ("ed tech") startups.
There's a couple of companies who seem interested in hiring me. My current round of interviews is more about me trying to figure out whether I want to work for them. Is their business model legit? Are they likely to be able to achieve the results they're going for? Is it a job that would lead to further opportunities in the field? Are they people I would want to work with? And would I have to move closer to their office?
At the same time as I'm doing all these interviews I'm also continuing work on the backup plan: my own game business. I'm hacking on an game for learning Mandarin, since that's what I've been struggling with myself lately. I'm trying to land a bare-bones beta version by Tuesday. Sushu has volunteered her Mandarin 1 class as our first beta testers.
So even if some companies make me job offers, I might not take any of them -- if the educational game stuff looks like it could turn into a viable business, I'm going full time on that. (I've been up-front about this possibility during interviews).
I'm also turning down a lot of job leads. It's unreal - people are contacting me out of the blue several times a week to ask if I want to work for some startup or other. Most of the startups are boring and/or ridiculous. Some of them are OK, but if I just wanted to work at a software company I would have stayed at Mozilla.
I keep thinking aout all my friends and family members who are unemployed or stuck in jobs they hate, and I can't believe how lucky I am to be in the position of turning down job interviews. I feel like kind of a spoiled brat being so picky when so many are struggling to find a job at all.
I wish job offers were transferrable! I'd be forwarding these along left and right. But my unemployed friends and family aren't programmers, sadly.
My taiko drumming group, Emeryville Taiko, will perform at the Solano Stroll street festival in Berkeley this Sunday. We'll play the same set several times from morning to mid-afternoon, so if you're in the area, come listen to us!
EDIT: We'll be at the corner of Solano Ave and Modoc street, and we start playing our set at 1pm, 2pm, and 3pm.