Thursday, December 22, 2011

A deep and thorough cleansing

Be proud of us! Eric and I cleaned the apartment. Too bad we didn't take before/after photos, or document things in process -- we were too busy handling the mess and making new discoveries. =P

Here are the results:

1. Sorted the dish cabinet, with mugs, glasses, plates and bowls all in their proper spheres. The dishes enqueued in the sink had their cases resolved.

2. Cleaned the top of the refrigerator, which involved removing a rotting bag of onions and scrubbing away the slime. Unfortunately, due to the lack of paper towels or rags, I had to substitute in toilet paper. Not pleasant. However, it is now a neat and tidy pasta station!

3. The counter top hadn't been wiped in ages, probably because of the accumulation of pots, pans and other detritus over the past couple months. We washed it down thoroughly with soap and water, removing some very sticky patches.

4. The cabinet which had been haphazardly stuffed with jars and plastic bags has been resorted. Clockwise from the top left: (1) teas, teabags, and other hot drinks; (2) baking mixes and non-traditional flours; (3) vegetable, canola oil and spices used for stove-top cooking; (4) canned goods.

5. Stove area has largely been cleared. Pans are currently stored in the oven, due to limited counter and cabinet space.

6. Overall, the kitchen feels more open, providing a pleasant and inviting work space. Pots, pans and dishes are no longer stacked precariously on the remnants of earlier culinary expeditions. Users will now have full access to the range of tools, ingredients and prep surfaces, yielding a more efficient -- and more fulfilling -- cooking experience.

Good marketing speak, right? =D With any luck, the apartment will stay this way for a little while. There'll be a few week's reprieve, at least, since we are all heading out for winter break.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Stanford is a University of California, too!

Stanford announced today that it is dropping out of the competition to build a new engineering campus in New York City. The Board of Trustees is meeting this week, and this is probably an outcome of one of those discussions. (The alumni association dutifully informed all alumni via e-mail early this morning, so I found out before The New York Times reported on it later in the day.)

So I'm not trying to sound heretical or anything ...

But I wonder what would happen if Stanford took all that money saved from not developing a $2 billion campus in New York, and instead forged stronger relations with the UCs, starting with a certain institution right across the Bay. In these challenging times, we ought to focus our efforts on rebuilding at home. There is a lot of room for collaboration with our friends and erstwhile rivals at Berkeley, and both our institutions -- as well as the State of California -- would be the stronger for it.

Last Friday at the "Occupy the Future" rally, former Stanford president Donald Kennedy (also editor-in-chief of Science; you can be a great scientist and have a social conscience =D) called on the Stanford community to be concerned with the fate of our brethren in the UCs. "Stanford without Berkeley just wouldn't be Stanford," he said, noting that we push each other to excellence. Investing in cooperative academic ventures would be one such concrete action, helping to engender good will and sparking a lot of innovation and creativity. It would also help maintain the high quality of tertiary education in our state as the education budget is continually slashed, leaving the UCs in dire financial straits.

Some naysayers might want to highlight differences in the undergraduate culture, but let's set those issues aside for now.* The graduate schools and faculty at both institutions are world-class, and that's where much of the collaboration would be happening. I bet this kind of arrangement would be at least as fruitful as any China or New York campus for at least several decades. Furthermore, by partnering with the UCs, we would be improving conditions at home for all Californians by helping to secure the future of education in this state. It sounds a little crazy, but unconventional circumstances call for unconventional measures, and it'd be interesting if we took a chance.

And you know, if Steven Chu can do it ...

*Go Card! =P

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Science, Technology (and Innovation?) 科學、技術 (與創造力?)

An article on innovation and technical advance in China:
Power in Numbers: China Aims for High-Tech Primacy

This appended note was hilarious: "Correction: December 5, 2011. An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Tsinghua University as Tsingtao." If only.

Now on a more serious note ...

1. The article points out two kinds of innovation: “We tend to equate innovation with companies that start from garages based on brainstorms. There is another kind of innovation that results in constant improvement that we are not good at — and they are.” Do you buy that sort of distinction, and do you believe one model or the other is more prevalent in China? It is a little scary to contemplate the idea that America is slipping, that we can no longer be as innovative or creative as before, whether this is because our students are getting worse and worse at math and science, the economic stagnation means fewer innovations come to market and fewer firms get funding, or just because the Chinese are advancing their scientists and engineers in leaps and bounds. (However, it must be pointed out that the "top-ranked" scientists and engineers only come from a small handful of schools or from abroad. So the "big numbers" here are less scary than sometimes cited.)

2. There is also a difference between state-backed projects, such as supercomputing centers that require massive government investment, compared to innovation among firms and the products they create more generally.

3. "What scares competitors is that China has begun producing waves of amazing hardware engineers and software programmers, winning international competitions and beginning to dominate the best engineering programs in the United States. The University of California, Berkeley, is about to announce a deal to create an engineering campus in Shanghai, raising fears about transferring technology from one of the best American engineering schools."

If we are worried about this, then get those graduates visas and green cards, and keep them here in the US! Many of my friends from China going to school in the US actually do want to stay and work in Silicon Valley firms (e.g. ZY went to NVIDIA) or in New York (LQ went there), etc.

I am a little bit worried about creating the UC outpost in Shanghai. What if in the future, Chinese don't have to come to the US for a UC-quality education? We have sold our competitive advantage, the one American thing that China doesn't have and could not replicate for decades.

Actually, that makes me a little bit mad. At a time of severe budget cuts and hardship for UC students in California, UC Berkeley is now expanding into Shanghai? So it's willing to provide quality education to Chinese students (and give up our competitive advantage), but it's not willing to help absorb the pain for California students who are now facing massive tuition increases and getting less for it?

4. “This is what Chinese companies need to do,” said Hu Weiwu, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is the chief designer of another Chinese family of microprocessor chips. “We can send a spaceship to space. We can design high-performance computers.”

Sometimes I really feel China has priorities misplaced. I don't think spending billions and billions on a space program is the best use of those funds when there are people living in rural poverty or urban squalor. Sure, Europe and the US have our own issues with poverty, but we're also not the ones who keep claiming that "We are only a developing country!" and trying to get out of climate responsibility, as it were.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Instead of Tiger Parenting, we could also try ...

Finland is a pretty amazing place! This article in The New York Times raises some neat strategies the Fins use to achieve high-performing but well-adjusted children.
From Finland, an Intriguing School-Reform Model (The New York Times)
An educator from the Scandinavian country that ranks among the world’s leaders in school quality visited New York and explained his nation’s success.
It also introduces some interesting concepts, such as "the right to be a child." In Finland, the education system "scorns almost all standardized testing before age 16 and discourages homework, and it is seen as a violation of children’s right to be children for them to start school any sooner than 7."

It's a little ironic, because I just finished reading Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" today, which is actually quite entertaining. And while the reasoning behind the Tiger Parent model seems sound and can work with some children -- would definitely adjust strategies to be less harsh -- Chua eventually also recognizes that such a strict model doesn't apply in all circumstances. (It often fails with the second child.) And now in Finland, we have a model that is precisely the opposite, which doesn't require endless brow-beating and slaving away, but can still yield high scores and sound education.

In fact, it's intriguing to hear that "Finland is going against the tide of the 'global education reform movement,' which is based on core subjects, competition, standardization, test-based accountability, control." (All of which might swing in a Tiger Parent's favor).

In any case, despite Finland's success and the interest in school reformers to adopt some of the Finnish approaches, apparently some "critics say that Finland is an irrelevant laboratory for the United States. It has a tiny economy, a low poverty rate, a homogenous population — 5 percent are foreign-born — and socialist underpinnings (speeding tickets are calculated according to income)."
However, I think it's a total cop-out when big countries claim, "Oh, those other countries doing a good job are small, so their lessons aren't applicable." A big problem can be broken down into smaller problems -- to the state and community level, for instance. "Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford, said Finland could be an excellent model for individual states, noting that it is about the size of Kentucky."

This is also why it's total BS when Chinese people say, "Oh, but Taiwan only has 23 million people, so things like democracy that happen there aren't applicable to China and can't be compared." Um ... I'm pretty sure you have smaller-sized units within your own country that require good governance, economic balancing, environmental protection, cultural preservation and obtaining support and buy-in from the public. (Also, not our fault that you incentivized population increase in the 1950s based on faulty socialist ideology, when you could have started implementing a softer population strategy that would have changed the tide sooner, so you wouldn't need to implement a draconian One Child Policy in the 1980s. #Mao'sLegacy)

And if lessons abroad aren't applicable, then why are the rulers in Zhongnanhai so intrigued by the Singaporean soft-authoritarian model as the way to go for China? There are only 4 million people in that country! The point is that lessons and models can be imported, adapted and scaled for the appropriate target. And you shouldn't weasel out of change.

Finally, the "cultural" argument is even weaker in the case of the PRC, because Taiwan and Singapore are both Chinese-speaking, with strong influence of traditional 華 Hua culture. If a conservative Sinic society in Taiwan can democratize (ditto for tradition-bound South Korea and hierarchical Japan), then I actually don't see why places that are even less "encumbered" or in thrall to Confucianism cannot. (Not saying the lack of Confucianism is a good thing. I'd probably argue that Confucian doctrine can in some cases help the transition to democracy by holding the community together. Moreover, moral appeals can be made on the basis of Confucianism. There is also stronger trust, and less outright materialism/moral vacuum. But that's a discussion for another time.)

Sure, America is culturally more distinct from Finland (well, ~Western Christendom, kind of), but that's why we can structure programs and incentives to help boost the right actions. It's called public policy.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Viennese Waltz means Rotate!

I don't know if this information is public yet, so don't leak it to others; but the funniest part of the Steering Committee meeting on Sunday had to do with selecting the logo for Viennese Ball this year.

Entry 12 was the winning logo:

Trust me when I say it's way better than anything else that was on the board. The image is classy and elegant, but with a spark of fun. However, when the committee heads put the entry up for vote, they first pinned it to the board in the wrong orientation -- rotated 90 degrees to the right -- which resulted in a rather more suggestive pose:

I still contend that it's just a languorous scene, as if the two dancers were falling down the rabbit hole together into Alice's Wonderland -- a floating, ethereal sensation. Quite charming, actually!

However, Karen Law (presumably with a different interpretation) was scandalized and called out, "Dan, please! Can you rotate the image the right way?" It was pretty hilarious. After the meeting, I attended a Julliard Quartet concert, and more than once, I broke out into giggles when I remembered the rotated logo. It pretty much made my afternoon.