Sunday, October 24, 2010

Halloween Pumpkin Carving with AAGSA

Come celebrate the season of ghosts, goblins, costumes and candy! AAGSA hosts an afternoon of pumpkin carving on Saturday, October 30.

Grab a friend and create a   spooky  /  humorous  /  artistic  /  geeky  /  cinematic  ] display for Halloween. Or simply hang out and enjoy pumpkin pie, candy, and other treats!

Pumpkins will be provided FREE,  
but please bring knives and/or power tools.

Time: Saturday, October 30, 3pm
Location: Willis Lounge, Rains
Reserve your pumpkin here:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Another side of Singapore

Not much encounter with the law and order folks in Singapore, so I really don't know what the criminal justice system is like there. But I read this article today, and one line really caught my eye -- such a Singaporean reaction.
The Southeast Asian country boasts one of the lowest violent crime rates and highest standards of living in the world, but human rights groups often criticize the government for severe punishments, such as a mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers. Singapore also reiterated a ban on the sale of chewing gum and announced a crackdown on littering this year.

Earlier this year, Oliver Fricker of Switzerland was sentenced to five months in jail and three cane strokes for breaking into a train depot with an accomplice and spray painting subway cars. Fricker later appealed his sentence and a judge added two months to his jail term.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Let the debate begin!

Perhaps at times, it isn't sensible to dredge up old wounds, and a person should just let things go. But one also gets that impulse to make the other party understand what he/she did was inappropriate and wrong, and ask him/her not to do it again. And so the internal debate begins...

Of course, the person who writes the polite letter expressing concern or dissatisfaction doesn't get the final say. The recipient of the letter may take it in a good way and respond with an equally thoughtful reply, allowing for mutual understanding, enhanced respect, and a positive outcome. But more likely, the recipient refuses to acknowledge wrongdoing and lashes out in a defensive manner, creating more ill-will and pain.

The question is this: if there is currently no conflict, is it better to just leave well-enough alone? Should we let old unresolved issues rest undisturbed, or is it important to address them before an acquaintance/friendship/professional relationship can proceed?

Are we taking the high road by letting go of past provocations? Or should we worry about coming across as weak-kneed because we haven't (yet) actively responded to unfair and abusive actions? (By the way, letting go probably means actually letting go, not just ignoring it and holding an incident in reserve for future use. Then again, maybe one step toward letting go is to first express it).

Perhaps weakness is dispelled and control regained when you can frame an issue in your own terms -- expressing your thoughts and concerns. What of honesty? To oneself? To others?

Can a personal or professional relationship be healthy if there are issues from the past that remain unaddressed? What if one party has transcended the issue, but the other party merely forgets that it happened? Is it the responsibility of either party to make sure the other knows of his/her transgression and the impact it has had on others? What happens if Person X doesn't know what he did was wrong -- is it our job to inform him?

We can also frame the issue yet another way: When we let Person X know that his actions were detrimental or harmful to others, we are simultaneously protecting ourselves.

Do we hope for the best, but take no action and simply prepare for the worst (interpersonal outcome)? Can explicitly raising the issue be useful for signaling to the other person that a problem exists -- that contrary to his/her beliefs, all is not well?

Dispatching a message can be done in a civil manner. And though there may be further tussling, perhaps at the end of the day, it is something one simply has to bear, and from which one rises again.

But one wonders: are there other diplomatic strategies for approaching these matters? Is it a matter of the heart or the head?

Cinnamon, Sugar and Whole Grains

I went to the supermarket with my room mate yesterday evening. As we pushed the cart past a cereal display, I picked up a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I haven't had this brand of cereal in a long time -- such delicious childhood memories!

My room mate commented on how quickly I was adopting the "programmer lifestyle" this quarter, now that I'm taking CS. Then he made me put it back. =(

Darn healthy eating pact...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

When RenRen does it ...

My friend's RenRen account was shut down for some unknown offense.

She then posted her reaction on Facebook. One of her comments:
At times, I get the feeling that "也有海外背景" 的人更怕政府,because they don't want to get kicked out of the country or hindered from doing business. They love their profits too much, so they bend over backwards to please the government.

Sometimes these people exhibit scruples; sometimes they just don't. But unlike local firms, the outside firms really *should* have them because their leaders were born in an outside context.

For Chinese entrepreneurs, at least they have the excuse that they grew up in (Mainland) Chinese society, which for the last few decades has had a much more fluid idea of ethical behavior, in no small part because of political campaigns to "smash" tradition. They are more used to compromising their values, because the ethical foundation of society is arguably not so solid, and moral education doesn't play much of a role in people's lives any more. (Compared to, say, a century ago, or to other contemporary Sinic societies in the world, where values and morality are still a very important part of people's lives.)

Moreover, this compromise happens on a daily basis. For example, see this piece in The New York Times: "Rampant Fraud Threat to China’s Brisk Ascent".

(However, just because this is the case doesn't mean we shouldn't work for change in this regard. In fact, many people hope for ethics to take root more deeply in China.)

But as for outsiders ... how ironic. Those who enjoy freedom at home, once faced with an uncertain business landscape, often comply more zealously than the government would want. Because they are not a domestic firm, they overcompensate and please the government.

Only once in a while do you have a Google take a stand, but perhaps that's because the founders are unusually principled, in addition to having business savvy. It's a little sad. Just because you're leading a corporation doesn't mean you get to divorce all ethical considerations from decision-making. I know you're driven by profits, but you and your employees are also still human beings. 至少应该有最底线 ... ... the problem is when such a limit doesn't exist, or if it keeps shifting in response to real -- or anticipated! -- government requests.

In America, we believe corporations are engines for bettering society and human life, too -- not just tools for making money, as important as that function is. Whatever your fiduciary responsibilities, you also have an ethical responsibility to your employees, your shareholders, your company's founders and to your clients.

Corporations are business *organizations* -- another way human beings have found to organize, "get together" and serve a social function. As heavy-handed as corporate America is, people don't stop being human beings when they join a company. I suppose it's the best companies that help their employees and their customers fulfill their human potential, as opposed to just make money. Those who can only do the latter are simply machines. (And sure, there may be incentives to act in such a cut-throat way ... which is why we have things like laws, government regulations, and voluntary policies set by industry groups, etc.) Those who can do both are truly laudable, and become the best companies to work for.

Foreign corporations are good on some counts -- they seem less apt to compromise quality and safety than domestic firms, especially if their goods are bound for export markets. But on issues like this one? They can sometimes be just as bad or worse.

Starting to see why "triple bottom line" isn't just a concept, but something to be implemented on a daily basis.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Reminders of Singapore 新加坡的回憶

A few things that have made me think of Singapore this past weekend:

1. S'porean folks at the AAGSA barbecue.

2. Durian at the supermarket, large and spiky.

3. Bought kaya at the supermarket. I shall have kaya toast this week! =D

4. Had Singapore-style 炒河粉 for dinner on Saturday, after the Stanford vs. USC game. (Stanford kicked a**, by the way -- driving up the field in literally the last minute of the game, and winning with a field goal.) We ate at this restaurant in Mountain View. (See, I even used Yelp for that link.)

5. Listened to the Fried Rice Paradise sound track on my iPod.

Anyway, hope you guys enjoy! Nothing like picking up a durian, to bring back memories of gagging on odorously-flavorful ice cream, while strolling along Orchard Road with friends.

It's hilarious how Yuan Xiang despises this fruit. This one's especially for you!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Happy Double Ten Day! 雙十節快樂!

October 10 is the National Day of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

On this day, we commemorate the 1911 Revolution, which began with the Wuchang Uprising, and ultimately led to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China. It was a momentous occasion in Chinese history -- and the dream is still alive!

Let us celebrate the valor and determination of the revolutionaries, and join hands to continue putting into practice the principles the ROC stands for: Liberty (自由)、Equality (平等)、Democracy (民主)、and the Rule of Law (法治).

Today, despite the travails of the twentieth century, the ROC survives on the democratic island of Taiwan. For people of Chinese heritage all over the world, this is our legacy and the gift of our forebears. We willl never forget it!

Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Republican Revolution and Father of the Nation.


這一天,我們紀念1911年的辛亥革命。那一年的十月十日,發動了具有劃時代意義的武昌起義。 起義的勝利導致清政府的推翻和皇帝專政統治的滅亡,以及中華民國的建立。 這是中華歷史的璀璨事跡,夢想依然延續至今。讓我們繼續攜手實踐中華民國所代表的信念:自由、平等、民主、法治。


Scouts and the ROC Flag: Blue sky, white sun, red earth. (Image source)

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Great Prius Game

My roommate was recently bequeathed the family Prius, as his father had purchased a new Toyota Camry hybrid. This afternoon, as we traveled to Mountain View, we discussed the merits of different hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and all-electric vehicles, such as the new Nissan Leaf that will be coming out at the end of this year.

As we passed another blue Toyota Prius on the road, I asked if we should wave in a friendly manner. He replied that he used to do so, but now that Priuses were becoming so common, it wasn't really that special to acknowledge each other. I remembered from previous research on a paper that the San Francisco Bay Area apparently has the highest number of Prius/capita in the world.

We started counting the number of other Priuses on the street ... and boy, there were a lot of them. In fact, Toyota recognized that this place would be the most receptive market, and has sold more hybrids here than any other place in the country.

The results of our informal survey?

Distance traveled: 6.3 miles (10.1 km) from apartment to destination. Round-trip 12.6 miles (20.2 km)
Number of Priuses spotted: 59 white, silver, blue, dark blue, red and green vehicles
Total time spent on trip (including time spent at destinations): 65 minutes.
Estimated time driving: 45 minutes.

That's an average of 4.68 Priuses per mile (2.9 vehicles/km) traveled -- you'll spot one every 340 or so meters along the road. Or a Prius every 45 seconds.

Plus, we only started counting after we had driven for about 10 minutes, so we can safely say that we had a conservative estimate. We probably would have seen more than 60 of our Prius friends had we been counting for the first part of our journey. And that doesn't even include the Camry and Honda Insight hybrids also along the way.

Only in California ... Hooray!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Down the tubes. Honestly disturbing.

There was an article about fraud in China and how plagiarism and cheating are commonplace. There was one very shocking paragraph:

Ask any Chinese student about academic skullduggery and the response is startlingly nonchalant. Lu Xiaoda, an engineering student who last spring graduated from Tsinghua University, considered a plum of the country’s college system, said it was common for students to swap test answers or plagiarize essays from one another. “Perhaps it’s a cultural difference but there is nothing bad or embarrassing about it,” said Mr. Lu, who last month started on a masters’ degree at Stanford University. “It’s not that students can’t do the work. They just see it as a way of saving time.”
This guy is at Stanford??!? At first I was horrified, but then, at least he has the guts to admit it.
This is just so deeply disappointing. I started wonder if my friends from Tsinghua engaged in this kind of dishonest behavior as well.  (I think Mr. Lu needs to take a hard look in the mirror and consider his past actions. Does he even think this is shameful or inappropriate in any way? That somehow the ends justify the means? He opened up about this, which at least gets a discussion going. But he should also recognize that that sort of behavior won't be tolerated at Stanford).

Even if you tell me that "everyone in China does it," that's still not an excuse for cheating. Some kind of ethical jujistu is going on here for people to be able to live this way, and it's very problematic if the system is built in a way to force, compel, or encourage students to resort to academic dishonesty. But I don't know if that absolves the individual of personal responsibility.

[Update from summer 2010: My friend Phil Hannam, who attended Tongji University for his Master's degree, confirmed that among his classmates, virtually everyone cheated on the assignments. He was disturbed and frustrated by this phenomenon, because he was actually doing the work in full.]

The other side of the cultural coin:

At Stanford, we have an Honor Code (link here), which applies to all our work as students. The University and the faculty treat us like adults, and it is up to us to hold up our end of the bargain. For examinations, no professors or TA's are in the room monitoring the test: they sit in another room only to answer questions. They respect us and take us at our word.

Honor Code  
A. The Honor Code is an undertaking of the students, individually and collectively:
1. that they will not give or receive aid in examinations; that they will not give or receive unpermitted aid in class work, in the preparation of reports, or in any other work that is to be used by the instructor as the basis of grading;

2. that they will do their share and take an active part in seeing to it that others as well as themselves uphold the spirit and letter of the Honor Code.

B. The faculty on its part manifests its confidence in the honor of its students by refraining from proctoring examinations and from taking unusual and unreasonable precautions to prevent the forms of dishonesty mentioned above. The faculty will also avoid, as far as practicable, academic procedures that create temptations to violate the Honor Code.

C. While the faculty alone has the right and obligation to set academic requirements, the students and faculty will work together to establish optimal conditions for honorable academic work.

That is why Honor Code violations are a serious matter: a community built upon mutual respect has been created here. If a person chooses to ignore these basic tenets and betrays that trust, then the fabric of this enterprise begins unraveling.

This article highlights a serious problem: if there is such a contempt for rules in China, no wonder people grow up to be fraudulent. It's that mentality: everyone is competing, everyone is getting advantages, I can't be left behind, so I will cheat and make sure that I grab my share of the pie!

This kind of mentality is disastrous for a society. Without basic trust in society, how can anything productive get done? This kind of competition seems poisonous.

Now it's all about making the quick buck: everyone else is running along headlong, so you do what you can to turn a profit in the short run. Moreover, it leaves a very nasty relationship between businesses and clients:

For businesses, it's how many corners can I cut, and how much profit can I wring out of the client, without getting caught.
For consumers, their mentality is, how cheaply can I buy things, without getting poisoned. It's deeply problematic.

In some ways, that seems like a race to the bottom. It is hard to build true and lasting value if everything is undergirded by short-term thinking, trickery or fraud, and the consideration of only the present -- which seems like what much "development" of the Chinese economy is based on today.
I want quality, and I am willing to pay for it -- but how can I even trust what the quality is?


A last thought on these issues:

Moral rot starts from the basics. If you don't even follow elementary rules of conduct and disregard ethics on the small things, then how can we expect you to make the right decision when something more important comes up? If you train yourself to ignore "right behavior" on a daily basis, then it eventually becomes habit. You will easily ignore justice, overlook fairness, discount the rights of others. You only think about yourself and getting what you want. It's not even the grand statement of "The rules be damned!" It's more like a silent, insidious understanding that rules are empty and made to be ignored, instead of realizing that they reflect common principles of decency that we need for society to function in a just manner. Cheating and fraud are rendered 小事, "no big deal", and the mental calculus of dishonesty becomes casual and commonplace.

I don't know if that's the kind of society that I would like to live in.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Scoot to school

Another alternative form of transportation -- and one that kids seem to like. Neat! When they grow up, they'll have different transportation habits, and different conceptions of what mobility means.

It might work better in cities -- not sure if they could replace the cars and buses that are needed in rural or suburban America. But could definitely complement public transit networks, making it easier to travel the "last mile"  to/from the bus stop and the subway station.

Can we make our cities amenable to this kind of foot traffic as well?

Posted from The Economist:

Three wheels good

Scooters are taking over London’s pavements

Willingly to school
WITH hindsight, some strange fads marked the dawning of this millennium. There was the Y2K bug, and, for much of the year 2000, the spectacle of adults teetering about London on aluminium scooters. The craze ended swiftly: it wasn’t really becoming for grown-ups to scoot down pavements, scattering pedestrians. They also looked silly. A decade on, scooters have returned to London, this time powered by children. And some surprising folk, from school heads to local councils, are keen on them.
Many of the scooters in question are light three-wheelers, which even three-year-olds can ride with (alarming) confidence, and which offer a useful alternative to both bicycles (not pavement-friendly), and walking (not always popular among children). These were being imported to Britain in minuscule quantities until Anna Gibson, a former lawyer with three children of her own, spotted one in a park and began selling them from home. She and her friend Philippa Gogarty talked Micro Mobility Systems, the Swiss manufacturer, whose main interest was adult scooters, into granting them sole distribution rights in Britain.
The pair’s first order from a big department store, John Lewis, in 2005, was for 600 units; despite a price tag of up to £90 ($140), their scooters are now John Lewis’s bestselling toy. Last year, they sold 120,000 in Britain. They also hold distribution rights for America.
The devices and their proliferating cheaper imitations have drawbacks. At school-run times, some London pavements resemble racing tracks, as tiny speedsters weave and zoom. Parents subjected to intense nagging may not be altogether grateful to Mrs Gibson and Mrs Gogarty. But the benign impact on traffic and carbon emissions may offset such annoyances.
At Oxford Gardens, a diverse primary school in the inner-London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the number of scooting pupils has risen from fewer than one in 100 in 2005 to almost one in seven—while the proportion of children arriving by car has fallen from 20% to 16%. Half a dozen schools in the borough report scooter-commuting rates of over 30%. Transport for London (TfL), the capital’s transport overseer, is to begin collecting separate data on scooter use (it was previously bundled together with walking), to check whether scooters are replacing car journeys or other sorts.
The machines may also have a role in chivvying along reluctant pupils. Oxford Gardens won praise from TfL for its “Scooter Scoop” programme, aimed at children with poor attendance records or bad timekeeping. The school loans such pupils scooters, then sends teaching assistants (on adult scooters) to gather them into convoys in the mornings. When the children and the scooters have assembled, they trundle to school.