Random thoughts

An uncommitted blog on just about anything

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The aftermath of George W.

January 21st, 2009 · 1 Comment

I’m sure in the next few weeks we’ll read a lot more about the legacy of George W. Bush’s 8 years at the White House, but I’ve found this post on the subject very entertaining:


Anyway, execution by slow slicing sounds terrible. We can be really creative when it comes to destroying things.

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“Little Italy” goes back to San Jose

January 21st, 2009 · Comments Off on “Little Italy” goes back to San Jose

The county of Santa Clara has begun plans to bring a “Little Italy” neighborhood back to San Jose. The web site is still under construction, or at least I hope the “coming soon” text when you click “Vision” does not refer to a lack of vision in itself. Jokes aside, from a sociological standpoint there’s something absolutely interesting about a “Little Italy” and the people it caters to. Little Italies around the United States are obviously a few generation behind compared to the “Madre Patria” (the motherland) [and doesn’t that word in itself sound somehow obsolete to an italian’s ears?], and they put under the spotlight a generational gap that I had never realized was that deep.

The fracture between the culture of my generation and the culture of Italy around World War II is clear. It’s hard to find anyone in his 30s who would not roll his eyes with contempt when listening to the type of music that would make my mom jump with happiness and nostalgia. But if it wasn’t for Little Italies, I would not imagine there could be an alternative world where that same transition can occur gently. A group of people who moved out of the country before these disruptive dynamics arose, and bred new generations that became able to better cope with the taste of their fathers. And so I wonder, what were these dynamics that made my generation so clearly reject what was happening just a few years before. I mean, it was never an open war, it just so happen that we felt we were different. And we probably felt that it was normal to reject what the previous generations had liked, to label it as old, boring and worth forgetting; that a cultural refresh every 50 or so years is the rule to be expected, not the exception. But now I start to doubt this rule.

Unfortunately I can’t really grasp what I’m referring to. Music, for sure, but there must be something else. There must be something else because when I’m in a Little Italy or surrounded by older italian immigrants and their progeny there’s this feeling… this feeling of not belonging there, this feeling of being dealing with a crystallization of the past. I can’t deny I’m an immigrant myself, I can’t deny I came from Italy, but if I had to start building a community that represents my origins, it would not look a single bit like a Little Italy. I don’t know what it would look like, really. It obviously would offer different food, different entertainment, but what else?

Come to think of it, it would be impossible to represent me with a “Little Italy”. A “Little Torino”, maybe. Because I have to admit I’ve never felt so italian until I moved out of Italy. My real origins are much more compartimentalized, and the idea of finding the essence of an “Italy” and its traditions is bogus from the start, because the only thing we all had in common when we lived our lives in Italy was national TV.

An italian friend of mine once was shocked as he told me about these “traditional italian cookies” that are well known in the United States to be a staple of the typical italian kitchen. He had never heard of them before. Our typical reaction to this kind of things is “yet another made-up american stereotype”… Americans know these cookies by the name “Pizzelle“. I thought this could only be a coincidence. When I found them in stores I started laughing. The pizzelle from my dad’s home town gained stature as no less than “an italian tradition” in the United States. Those same pizzelle I was running away from when I was a kid (yes, I’ve never liked them), are going to be here to hunt me for the rest of my life. That was funny, and although I hate to admit it, that really is a piece of my own tradition, and I can’t help but being proud of it. I’m not saying I’ll start eating them now, no, but I’m still proud of it.

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The sky is the limit

January 20th, 2009 · Comments Off on The sky is the limit

There must be a reason why english has an expression like “the sky is the limit”, but nothing like “the grave is the limit”. It’s not just a matter of glasses half full or half empty, it’s a matter of what’s in those glasses. There’s a lingering optimism hidden in the communicative ammo this language offers. An optimism that (I’m assuming) draws from the human desire to improve, the strive to move one more step forward, and then again.

And so even during this economic crisis, I still reflect about what I think is missing in my life. I’m sure I complain a lot about it, and I’m sure my friends are all tired of this broken record. On the other hand, I don’t find any comfort in comments like “in such times, you should be happy you do have a job!”. Where is the enthusiasm, where is the ambition if just being alive is good enough? “You should be happy you’re breathing”. Agreed, life is a great miracle, a great gift, but once it’s there, it should just be a starting point, why set the bar that low and be content with the status quo?

I’m sure a lot of this is cultural. I’m told in Iran, people actually have expressions closer to “the grave is the limit” than to “the sky is the limit”. I can’t think about anything equivalent to either of them in italian, so maybe we stand in between these two extremes.

Sometimes I surprise myself, I didn’t expect I could be such an optimist. I guess my glass is half full… of crap, of course, but now please forgive me, I’ll go wash it and fill it up with something better.

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A special day? (part 2)

January 18th, 2009 · 3 Comments

The other day, fresh from the US citizenship experience, I found myself with a lot to write, and very little time. This blog post is about the hour and fifteen minutes at the Campbell Heritage Theater, and I promise I will stay on track. [The “backspace” key on my keyboard is a friend that will help me be true to my word: I can always delete the previous sentence… yeah, that’s cheating]

The ceremony started at 10AM. I was not exactly late, but I was not exactly on time either. I did not know how many people were going to gather there before I arrived, but as you can expect, 476 new citizens can use up a lot of parking lot. So by the time I arrived, it seemed like the entire theater parking was taken. I had to spend a few extra minutes to reach a different parking lot, with a big sign “Restricted parking, violators will be towed”, and to reach the conclusion that I could consider the towing expense an incidental extra fee worth paying to finish off the U.S. naturalization process. In the end I parked there, and followed the procession of violators (obviously I was not alone) back to the main theater’s entrance. The form I held in my hand included a few questions, one of them was something like “Have you committed any crime since the day of your interview (including traffic violations)?”. I found it rather amusing that my answer to that question could change while I was sitting in the theater, but I hoped for the best. [Read more →]

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Dear Apple

January 18th, 2009 · Comments Off on Dear Apple

Yesterday my iPod died. Or did it? It was absolutely dead: it was not responding to pressing buttons (and, no, “hold” was set to off), it was not responding to plugging it into a power outlet, it was not responding to my USB. It was just a scratch-prone soap-bar-like piece of junk. I bought a new one. I don’t like the iPod interface, I don’t like iTunes, but I bought a new one. Why? Because I’m one of those people stuck in an ecosystem of accessories that would take too much time to replace. Who would want to go through that trouble? In other words, I’m one of those people that marketers would call “a loyal and satisfied returning customer”. Right. So loyal that as I was leaving the store, I secretly hoped the new iPod would use a new form factor for its plug, incompatible with all my accessories. That would have been my catalyst to throwing away all that is Apple-related in my home. That would have made me feel blessed. That would have beaten the inertia. So you can imagine my disappointment as I jumped into my car and quickly verified that my car charger cum line-out mini-jack plugs perfectly into my new iPod classic. iPods maintain backward compatible plugs? That’s unheard of! Lenovo quickly changed the power supply’s plug form factor and the docking station of the IBM Thinkpads as they massacred the brand with the new T60 a few years ago. Why did Apple stick to its pins? Or did it? Outraged I went back home to sync my iTunes library to my new iPod. That’s when I realized that at least on the top of the iPod, the headphones mini-jack is not accompanied by the extra little hole that my remote controller accessory used to take advantage of. Cool, so, at least one of my accessories became useless! We’ve got to beat this ecosystem to death, slowly.

I started syncing my new iPod, which is not accompanied by a power supply anymore, and can only be charged via USB, unless you’re a lucky owner of an older version of the product. Yes, charging with USB would be cool, if it wasn’t that it took some acrobatics to make my PC and iPod talk to each other. It all seemed very simple at first. Plugged in the iPod, iTunes beeped with joy when it saw there was a new little friend to play with, but it didn’t forget its duties and it informed me there was a new version of software for my iPod. I agreed to download and install it. It all happened without glitches, then my iPod took personal offense with this action, and decided to stop talking to the USB. No more charging, no more iTunes’s joyful beeping, no more. Just a fully functional (and fully empty) iPod, and a fully useless USB interface. A few furious searches on the help page and on the web helped me discover there’s a reset sequence. It didn’t do much at first, the iPod religiously observed its local USB embargo for a few more minutes. Then suddenly all my diplomatic efforts bore some fruit. iTunes beeped once again, and the sync started. It synced and synced for about 15 minutes. Then iTunes decided there was an error “reading or writing” the device. Let’s be vague. As a final user, it’s not like I can do much with a decent error message anyway, so let’s be vague. “Read or write”, and you know something must be very wrong when a software’s best friend (I’m assuming that must be the typical relationship between iTunes and an iPod) all of a sudden gets coldly called “a device”. So I diligently unplugged the iPod, and connected it back to the other USB port. iPod and iTunes were friends again, and I felt glad to be of help. A mediator, a peacemaker.

The love-hate ambiguity continued with little variations for about 3 hours. Unbearable “read or write” errors, followed by USB embargoes, and a sync that would never finish. 3 hours later, I had to go, so I just gave up my peace-making attempts. The sync was half-way through.

I can be stubborn, so today I continued. Lots more “read or write” errors today, sometimes as soon as 15 songs after the sync had restarted following a manual USB port switch. It then finished. I was dumb-struck. I guess this is Apple’s idea of entertainment, but it’s not mine. And I don’t want to think that “maybe” it’s my PC’s fault. My USB ports work perfectly well with other devices, while I’ve seen THREE iPods die on me so far, and iTunes can take up to 75% of my CPU just to play music. I don’t want to troubleshoot, I don’t want to be reasonable, I just want to say, it’s Apple’s fault.

I think back about my saturday (yesterday), and about all that I was planning to do with it. Instead, I ended up with an unforeseen accident that made me waste almost a full weekend. And I even paid over 200 dollars to Apple for the privilege of sucking two days of my life out of my limited carnet of days to be lived. The thing is, as far as I can see, the large capacity MP3 player space doesn’t seem to have that many options. iPod or Zune, make your pick. Is that all we can choose from?

Latest update: I’ve just witnessed a miracle. My dead soap-bar has resurrected. I plugged it back to the USB port and there it was, 40GB full and alive. The dilemma… should I go back to the store and return the new iPod? 40GB is slightly small now, and iTunes doesn’t like to deal with “a device” smaller than its own library. I’ll go back to the store, return the new junk, get back my $240, and a certificate stating that when the Grim Reaper comes looking for me, it should come back two days later. Unfortunately I won’t be 33 years old when I redeem those two days of wasted life.

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One month, three stories, one theme

January 16th, 2009 · Comments Off on One month, three stories, one theme

Joseph Needham was a biochemistry research fellow (then tutor, then fellow, then Master) at the University of Cambridge. For most of the first half of his life, Needham was engaged in establishing himself as a chemical embryologist of distinction. He then discovered China, started studying the language and the culture, and became intrigued with one question: historically, what kind of technological innovation should be attributed to the Middle Kingdom, and how did it occur that, regardless of their immense achievements, the scientific method and thought became peculiarly a western concept. He dedicated the rest of his life to answering that question.

John DeFrancis graduated from Yale University in 1933 with a bachelor’s degree in Economics. The Great Depression made his subsequent search for a job fruitless. He moved to China by chance, encouraged by a dorm-mate from a missionary family there. His objective was to learn chinese to make himself more marketable. Instead, he quickly learned to despise the career he had been training for, and developed a passion for China. By 1936 he was back at Yale, enrolled as a PhD student in the new Chinese Studies program. He ended up with a PhD in Sinology from Columbia University, and a life immersed in everything chinese (except for a few dark years ostracized at home, accused to be affiliated with communism).

Lyman Van Slyke taught Chinese history at Stanford before his retirement. His life started on a very different track, completely oblivious of Asia. He was then drafted to be on a U.S. carrier during the Korean war, and he was first exposed to Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, but didn’t visit China (that was the enemy, after all). Upon his return to the United States, he decided to join the PhD program at UC Berkeley, with specialization in Chinese history. After graduating, he joined Stanford faculty. China and Chinese history play a large role in his life ever since.

Three people, three different stories, one common theme: a life that starts on a random course, however successful, and then the disruption and convergence to a passion and love for the chinese culture. A passion that can find no home outside the academic world.

Three inspiring stories… forget what you happen to have been doing when you didn’t know who you were, and focus on what you really enjoy, now that you’ve found yourself.

A few things can be as powerful as this same message repeating itself three times in the course of less than a month. First it was Joseph Needham and the book on his life. Then the eulogy of the late John DeFrancis as he passed away a few days ago. And finally, the Stanford professor as he introduced himself during the first meeting of the evening class I’m attending. As he briefly told us about his life, he struck me when he said, “my life was blessed“. My life is cursed, stuck living someone else’s career, chasing role models that feel foreign and unfulfilling, for a simple fear to chase dreams, and then regret.

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A special day?

January 15th, 2009 · 1 Comment

Today, January 15th, 2009, 476 people gathered at the Campbell Heritage Theater for their Oath of Allegiance. 476 new U.S. citizens from 62 countries. I was one of them.

The Immigration Officers on the stage kept on insisting this was a special day for us. It turned out to be, but not for the reasons they expected. They went as far as saying that, for some of us, today could be the “most important day of our life”. I would not really put it that way, at least for myself. I understand many people have not been as lucky as me, born in Italy with as much freedom as, and better food than, the United States of America. We didn’t have as much money, maybe, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Today is not the most important day of my life. For me, this transition happens subdued and with shame, somehow. I haven’t even told my parents I’m becoming a U.S. citizen; Italy allows for dual citizenship, so that’s not such a big deal anyway. Well… dual citizenship is something that must be allowed by both countries in order to make sense, and although I’ve always thought the U.S.A. have no problem with dual citizenship, the actual verbiage of the Oath of Allegiance doesn’t seem to leave much hope for it. It goes like:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen […] and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation […]

I absolutely renounce and abjure allegiance and fidelity to a foreign sovereignty? Like, for example… Italy? I’m a bit confused about the meaning of dual citizenship then, but I guess I don’t have any mental reservation, I’m just too dumb to understand what all this means.

The second piece of Oath of Allegiance that leaves me a bit puzzled is what follows right next:

[…] I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic […]

I’m not a law scholar, but does “support and defend the Constitution” imply that I’m pledging the Constitution to be the utmost uncontestable Truth? Do I automatically qualify as a “domestic enemy” if I disagree with something in the Constitution? Not that I do, I’m just wondering what makes a “domestic enemy of the Constitution”, because I tend to be critical and the blanket statement above sounds a bit in contrast with the famous freedom of speech idea. Again, no mental reservations, I’m just too dumb to know what’s a domestic enemy of the Constitution, but I definitely hope I’m not one if I think that “the right to keep and bear arms” at home might be a bit of an obsolete and dangerous concept in the present context. I just hope I didn’t lock myself out of any debate around the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.

Why was it a special day? Because of all the trouble around my green card. But I guess I should write a separate post on this. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of fun observing the process today. And that’s probably going to be yet another post, I had so much fun that I took notes!

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Economic crisis and leadership

January 13th, 2009 · Comments Off on Economic crisis and leadership


When times get tougher, raise your voice and remind everybody that everything is still under control. Your control.

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About genome

January 11th, 2009 · Comments Off on About genome


If I had to build a list of people I’d aspire to know, Steven Pinker would probably be around the top of that list. That said, I don’t think I’ll try to know him through his genome.

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Old videos of Beiping

January 10th, 2009 · Comments Off on Old videos of Beiping

Ooops, no, Peking… wait, Beijing… ok, let’s just call it Dadu.

Some interesting clips of the city in the 1930s: http://www.quirkybeijing.com/?p=62

The train station is still so easily recognizable, though the entire area north of it is gone.

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