Random thoughts

An uncommitted blog on just about anything

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Pathetic

July 9th, 2009 · Comments Off on Pathetic

http://www.bizjournals.com/twincities/stories/2009/07/06/daily37.html

There’s a lot of activities that can be helped by video conferencing. Medical care is not one of them. I don’t need a doctor who can’t even touch me to feel if I have a fever. How much better is this solution than a simple phone call? Sure, the doctor can look at you from his screen and say “Hey, mister Idontknowyou, you really look like shit… maybe you should go see a doctor… wait, I’m a doctor”.

Let’s pretend we’re not human beings, and we don’t have the needs of human beings. We don’t need to sense that someone cares about our health when we feel sick. We don’t need to feel in good hands. We just need to see a cool video conferencing system that can be activated with a button. How amazing, we’ll feel better just seeing how powerful the technology is.

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Priorities

May 25th, 2009 · Comments Off on Priorities

This statement caught my eye…

The rapid rise of China and Vietnam, accounting between them for some 20 percent of humanity, has ushered hundreds of millions of people from poverty since totalitarian Communism fell. The West is in no position to say it knows better.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/25/opinion/25iht-edcohen.html

The debate on “Is democracy the future for the world?” is raging.

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Some interesting reads

February 8th, 2009 · Comments Off on Some interesting reads

The Bank of America deal with Merrill Lynch: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/business/08split.html

How Lenovo missed the opportunity to take advantage of the IBM brand after buying the Thinkpad product line: http://siliconhutong.typepad.com/silicon_hutong/2009/02/the-lenovo-retreat.html

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What globalization?

February 1st, 2009 · Comments Off on What globalization?

Someone theorizes the 20th century never happened [I wish I had pointers, suggestions?]. A century of immense international instability, with global balances of power shifting, and yet, one century later, the subjects of our discourses don’t seem to have changed a whole lot:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/opinion/01irwin.html

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Internet addiction

January 31st, 2009 · Comments Off on Internet addiction

Back in november 2008, Xinhua reported of the newly introduced official diagnostic definition of “internet addiction”. I was first made aware of this by Imagethief’s post on his blog, and didn’t think much of it at the time.

Then came the latest issue of News China (volume 6, january 5th, 2009) with the article “Internet addiction: bad habit or clinical disorder?” [sorry, I couldn’t find a pointer online]. I disliked the article to the point that it triggered a new perspective. Now, I’m not saying that a clinical diagnosis of “internet addiction” is a bad thing per se. Nobody refutes other clinical diagnoses of  a variety of “addictions”, but it’s unsettling to attempt to portray internet addiction as a mental illness. I don’t have any reason to believe that the current work underway in China has any hidden motives, but sometimes ideas developed with the most candid and honorable objectives can be turned into monsters. Put the focus around the word “internet”, and around what “internet” means. Internet is the place where ideas find a home and a voice. Good and bad ideas alike. Let’s hope internet addiction does not become the tool of choice to shut the voice of whoever insists in shouting bad ideas out there. After all, it’s easy to expect that bloggers could spend many hours on the internet, is there anything to gain in qualifying some of them as mentally ill?

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Angel Island

January 31st, 2009 · Comments Off on Angel Island

Just to show off my ignorance a bit, the other day I was wondering where did new immigrants step off their ships when they reached the United States from the west coast.

On the east coast, immigrants at sea would be welcomed by the sight of the Statue of Liberty, shortly followed by the arrival to Ellis Island, often romanced as the entry point to a promised land of freedom and opportunity. On the west coast, I found myself oddly unable to answer that simple question. For some strange fortuitous coincidence, a few days earlier someone at The Time had anticipated the question and was coming to my rescue.

Angel Island, of course. I should take my head out of my cave a bit more often, I do live here in the San Francisco bay area! And although the name Angel Island does ring a bell, its tragic history as a detention center for immigrants awaiting approval is news to me. Nobody will find this funny, but if one compares the sight of the Statue of Liberty on the way to Ellis Island with the sight of Alcatraz on the way to Angel Island, hmmm… I wonder if that meant something.

Oh well, the museum of the old immigration center will reopen to the public on february 15th, I should pay a visit.

Thanks to the Wall Street Journal’s China Journal blog for the tip.

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Changes in China

January 25th, 2009 · 4 Comments

As a layman who spent a significant number of days in Beijing between 2004 and 2007 (large enough to delay my US naturalization application, anyway), I remember the macroscopic changes every time I was moving back there. Of course there was the turnover of foreigners that periodically made my circle of friends shrink back to zero, but the main impact was obviously in seeing the city change so quickly, physically and psychologically. In july 2004 I left a city swarming with red taxis, a place where as a foreigner you could not help but draw attention wherever you were going. I came back in june 2005 when the taxi fleet had just been updated, with new cars, new colors, and new drivers (you could not miss the occasional “I’ve just started a few days ago, I have no idea where’s this place you want to go to”). As you jumped into a taxi, the chances of entering a gas chamber (in the two arbre-magique fragrances of cigarette smoke or garlic-rich diet) went dramatically down over the same period of time. And as I spent the next year there, I observed how my presence stopped generating interest among the locals, to the point that during national holidays I could spot 外地人(wai4di4ren2, the visitors from other places in China) from the curious looks that a zoological phenomenon like a tall bearded white guy was still causing among them.

New streets, new buildings, new neighborhoods. The processing of airport departure formalities that transitioned from a collection of stamps and chops on your boarding pass and on the receipt of the airport taxes (strictly to be paid separately at the airport the day of departure), to a much more streamlined process that still required you to show your passport before the check-in (making completely useless to have anybody seeing you off at the airport), till eventually the new terminal 3 was organized for the perfect departure experience.

Since I’ve moved back to the bay area in 2007, I’ve experience quite a few changes related to the processing of visas to China as well, with requirements evolving by the day around the Olympics. I haven’t been able to visit Beijing as often as I wanted to since then. Now there’s the new subway lines, the new multi-language recordings on the subway made with help from native speakers and some consultant who probably thought that mispronouncing the chinese names of the subway stations would be beneficial to foreign visitors. Gone is the striding charm of line 13’s “Welcome to take Beijing subway and have a nice day” once you reach the terminal station. Not to mention the almost unreal landscape without an army of street vendors at every corner.

Imagethief and Shannon Roy have some recent experience to share on how pervasive change is becoming in Beijing, while some people seem to not take notice. I particularly enjoyed the definition of a “general-store-with-Chinese-characteristics”, very funny. A note of nostalgia for me reading about BLCU, the Beijing Language and Culture University that offered all the teachers for my chinese classes in 二里庄 (Er4 Li3 Zhuang1). Another place that changed quite a bit.

I can’t help but wondering what did Beijing look like before my first visit in 2004, but it’s too late to experience that first hand now.

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Happy niu year!

January 25th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Today is the first day of the year of the ox! Happy chinese new year to everyone! The spelling in the subject of this post seems to be very popular this year. The spelling “niu” is the mandarin pinyin romanization of the chinese character 牛 (“niu2”), which means “ox / cow / bull” in chinese. Since it’s pronounced a bit like the word “new”, it offers this funny double meaning of “happy new year” + “happy ox year” combined in one short sentence. Now, the chinese astrology cycles want that ox years repeat every 12 years, so I would be surprised if it was the first time this spelling is being used. If it is, that could signal an increased interest and popularity of chinese traditions among non-chinese speaking communities. Who knows, maybe 12 years ago it would have been much harder to hear anyone express his chinese new year wishes in any indo-european language.

For the dinner of my 除夕(chu2 xi1, new year’s eve), last night I chose to avoid chinese restaurants, and opted for a steak instead, without realizing I was going to eat 20oz. of the animal of the year! I wonder if there’s any superstitious caveat around that… I paid a lot of attention in keeping last year’s animal of the year out of my diet, but I might not want to be so careful this year.

Anyway, if you’re interested in learning about the chinese traditions around the lunar new year, the ChineseSession.com blog has done a good job at capturing them. I’m not sure why they list the pinyin for 除夕 as “chu2 xi4”, maybe it’s just a typo, but as far as I know the correct pronunciation is “chu2 xi1”. It would also be interesting to find out if the alternative word 大年夜 (da4 nian2 ye4) is solely used in Taiwan, I couldn’t find any reference on the web. And by the way, you might know that I really dislike the “western” stereotype (I will write more about it in a future post), but nonetheless, don’t miss the second half of their post too.

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A new view of the third tone in spoken mandarin

January 24th, 2009 · Comments Off on A new view of the third tone in spoken mandarin

A while ago, John Pasden posted on his Sinosplice blog an article about an alternative representation of tones for chinese in connected speech. I’ve been re-thinking about that post, and I find the reversal between “third tone” and “half-third tone” to be very intriguing. We all start learning mandarin with a third tone represented as falling then raising; later on we discover the so-called “exception” to the rule, whereby we often need to forego the raising portion of the sound when the syllable is not pronounced in isolation.

It’s never easy to answer questions like “why this exception?”, but in the case of the third tone, it sounds much easier to answer this question if we reverse the rule and the exception. If we start with the third tone being a flat low tone (the rule), and we introduce the exception of a tone that hints at raising when pronounced in isolation, we are in front of an obvious problem of ambiguity that the language tries to resolve. Hearing chinese requires to be accustomed to tonal variations, but the language doesn’t mandate perfect pitch capabilities. The high pitch of the first tone and the low pitch of the third tone can only be distinguished in the context of a multi-syllable sound envelope where they are relative to each other: first tone at the top of the envelope, third tone at the bottom of it. That is because different speakers in different occasions can choose a different overall pitch level for their voice. If a syllable is pronounced in isolation then, a high versus low flat pitch can’t be fully qualified, and all that can be said is that the tone is flat.

Knowing that a syllable in isolation has a flat tone would be insufficient to determine the word intended with that utterance. In order to disambiguate the tonal component of the sound, either the first or the third tone would then be required to have some “special characteristic” when used in isolation. Since the third tone is at the bottom of the envelope, a hint of “third tone nature” could be given with a raising ending; alternatively, since the first tone is at the top of the envelope, a hint could be given in that case with a falling ending. Although I don’t represent a good experimental subject since I’m very bad at tones in general, I feel I would find it harder to differentiate a first tone “falling exception” from a fourth tone. A third tone “raising exception” seems to be somewhat easier to distinguish from a second tone. Or maybe it’s just that this is what we’re used to, and the language could have chosen either option.

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Back online!

January 24th, 2009 · Comments Off on Back online!

On january 22nd I woke up and went to check my blog, after the 3 post I had left the night before. It was gone. The web server was not responding. I assumed there could be some problem with the network connection, so I waited. By the evening, the server was still down. My service provider acknowledged that my service was running on a server that was “having a problem”, and I was not the only affected customer. The customer service representative apologized profusely, and offered me a case number. As I asked about an expected resolution time, she could only say “as soon as possible”. It was 12 hours after I had first noticed the issue, so I processed her “as soon as possible” as a “I’ve no idea” type of answer. How empowering, a case number that can’t be checked online, an obscure problem, and a service that took 36 hours to be restored.

I doubt I can expect a better service for the little money I pay, even though 36 hours of downtime still leave me rather shocked. Maybe it’s just professional deformation, the high avialability “5 nines” story everyone in the IT industry hears. As a consumer who doesn’t pour millions of dollars in IT expenditures every year, I should already know the 24×7 fairy tale is far from true. When I was living in China, Fidelity had a maintenance window for the 401k web page every time I was trying to access it, regularly leaving me without service. But 36 consecutive hours? I’m glad this blog doesn’t generate any revenue, except for the extra inner peace I gain when writing.

But hey, I’m back online! I’ve spent a few hours yesterday setting up and customizing the bookshelf sidebar, I hope you’ll like it, it’ll help ridicule myself as you realize how long a book stays in the “currently reading” state. I’m either a slow reader, or I’m just reading the wrong stuff.

A disclaimer, I haven’t set up an Amazon “associate-ID”, so I’m not advertising books for money. The plugin author of the Amazon Showcase WordPress Plugin used to get money on the users’ back, but I’ve noticed that the code that randomly sets his associate-ID is commented out now (even though the version number is still 1.3).

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