Wednesday, November 30, 2005

To Fire a Pistol

Congratulations on owning your new Browning Hi-Power 9mm pistol, a beautifully crafted, perfectly lethal firearm. Please read the following instructions before operating your pistol, as the firing procedure varies under different circumstances.

In a Western: Stand upright facing your opponent, arms casually dropped on the sides, with elbows slightly bent outwards. Gaze at your opponent intensely. As soon as your opponent breaks down under your gaze and attempts to draw his gun, reach for your pistol and yank it out of the dust-caked holster. Spin the pistol three times around your index finger, and fire. Your opponent will slowly collapse to the sandy ground with his gun in his hand. Blow the smoke from the barrel of your pistol, and bow to the fair lady with golden curls who has witnessed the incidence calmly on the nearby terrace. Spin the pistol three times around your index finger and in one unbroken motion thrust it back into the holster. Walk up to the lady and offer to buy her a drink.

In a Schwartzenegger movie: Grip the bad guy by his collar, cock the pistol and point it at his head. Ask who he works for and where the hostage is. Having obtained the information, say "Hasta la vista baby", release the bad guy and he will fall down to the street from the roof-top of a fifty-story building. Pocket the pistol and tidy up your suit.

In self-defense: Usually you will be panicking in face of the approaching assailant, so try best to steady your hands. Take the pistol out of your pocket, grope for the safety slide and push it downward to free the hammer. Should you drop the gun in the course of this action, pick it up and repeat. Should you complete this action before the assailant wrestles the gun away from you, point the gun at the assailant and continue pulling the trigger until the magazine is empty or the barrel is jammed, whichever comes first. Check if any of your bullets has disabled the assailant. If not, scream and run away as fast as you can.

In a paroxysm of anger: Take out the pistol, cock the hammer, and aim at your object of anger. Threaten the person and demand an apology. Your request may be denied, which will fuel your anger even more. If a rush of blood to your head impairs your judgment, that is, if you lose your head, pull the trigger. You have killed your victim. Say to yourself: the person is dead.

And repeat: the person is dead.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Pity She is a Whore

Why is prostitution illegal in most places? Moral decadence in the profession, exploitation of female body, transmission of diseases, and abomination in God’s eyes, these have been foisted as reasons for banning the sexual service. But these reasons confuse cause and effect. The question is: how come prostitution is associated with evil in the first place?

Only one condition can trigger the legal ban of a human activity: that activity must harm the interests of a group of people whose collective power can rewrite the law. For example, cocaine was banned because its use by black slaves has lead to aggravated assault on white people. In Prohibition, alcohol was declared illegal because the factory owners felt that their workers’ productivity had been negatively influenced by booze. In contemporary time, marijuana remains illegal because the tobacco companies feared its powerful competition against cigarettes.

Prostitution must have suffered a similar fate. At one time or another, it must have harmed the interests of a powerful group ruling the society. That conflict lead to a lopsided legal battle that resulted in the demise of prostitution as a legal profession.

So the real question is: who are harmed by prostitution, so much as to take the trouble to drive the prostitutes underground?

Or rather, who stands to benefit by having the prostitutes underground?

First, let’s take a look at the profession. A man pays a prostitute to have sex with her. In this act, the man gets sexual satisfaction, the woman enriches her finance, possibly also gets a bit of sexual pleasure. No one is a victim. Of course, before the introduction of condoms, there was the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. For a believer of the Bible, prostitution is an abomination. But prostitution became illegal after the advent of condoms. Also, prostitution has been an abominable occupation even before the knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases. Bible was written by men. What in prostitution offended the society?

Why was prostitution considered immoral in the first place? From time immemorial, men have patronized the brothels and the streetwalkers. If they had no qualms in the purchase, what motivated them to declare prostitution evil?

Here is an idea. Prostitution is profitable. If it were also respectable, what woman would not do it? In a male dominated society, prostitution could be a way to independence for women. Now that was a threat to men. To insure that they pass on their own genes, men need the fidelity of their wives. There is of course no surer way to do so than making the wives financially dependent on the husbands. So men are comfortable screwing around with prostitutes, but they vilify the whores so that their wives would not pursue a similar career and gain financial independence. That, more than anything else, is why prostitution got its bad name.

Nonetheless, in many places, prostitution had been legal for a long time, before it was declared illegal. What happened?

In China, prostitution has been sanctioned until the communist’s rule. Why did the communist government ban prostitution? Simple, it was part of a scheme to control people’s ideology. A sexually deprived mass is a lot easier to control than a sexually active population. When life is bleak, one might as well believe in anything. It is for the same reason that institutionalized religions condemn prostitution.

In New York City, prostitution had been a prosperous business in the famous, or should we say infamous, red light district next to the United Nations. Then Giuliani decided to drive all the prostitutes out. Why? Not because the sinful profession is a blemish on the city’s reputation. Oh, no. The real reason is that the real estate developers coveted the untapped neighborhood. It is far cheaper to drive all the sexual workers out of the city, than to organize the profession and detach it from the organized crime.

Should prostitution be legal after all? By all means I think the answer is yes. Transmission of disease? Condoms can stop that. Exploitation of women? This no longer applies in a society where there are many careers for women to financial independence. Vulnerable to organized crime? Well, how many casinos in Las Vegas are still run by mafia?

The remaining question is just: how much?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Dating, Audition, and Interview

Nicholas Metropolis, the co-inventor of the Monte Carlo method – indisputably the crown jewel of numerical computation, was once asked how he conceived such an ingenious idea. He answered:

“By working with the right people.”

The reply was toned in humility and humor. But the statement, taken out of context, sounds trite. “Working with the right people” is the well-known secret of all successes. Jim Collins, in his best-selling business book, Good to Great, made it a clear principle: First who, then what. The paramount task of a successful business is to get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and assign the right people to the right seat. Jeffrey Skilling, the former Enron CEO, believed in this principle. He told reporters that the greatest asset of Enron was nothing else but its people. Consulting firms and investment banks can’t agree less. Each year, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, and their competitor firms lavish millions of dollars on fresh graduates from top universities in the grand endeavor to recruit the next superstars. In the style of a Mastercard commercial, the recruitment effort can be justified as:

First-class flight from San Francisco to New York: $1500.

Five-star hotel near Time Square: $300.

Lunch at Four Seasons: $70

Finding the next business superstar: priceless.

Finding the right people, however, is easier said than done. Like all principles of life, there is no concrete guideline to implement it.

The firm where I work now is obsessed with recruiting. It even has a fancy name for its recruiting department: Strategic Growth. (I half-jokingly call it Star Gate, which shares the same acronym and has pertinent connotation.) Shortly after joining the firm, I realized that everyone in the firm works for SG, since everyone is at SG’s disposal to be put on the interview schedule. And SG uses us good: I have had at least one interview each week. Before long, I wondered: am I conducting sensible interviews and hiring the right people?

One central premise of all interviews, it seems, is that past achievement is the best indicator of future success. Hence the resume-based questions. How did the candidate overcome obstacles, deal with failures, work in a team, demonstrate leadership, etc.? These questions are so prevalent that tons of books have been written on how to answer them. Nowadays no job-seeker shows up in an interview without preparing for these standard questions. This, of course, diminishes the value of these questions, much as the cheat sheets diminish the value of an exam. So a short memo circulating in the firm encourages the interviewers to ask candidates surprise questions. Regretfully, the memo suggests no example of such questions.

Unimaginative of surprise resume-based questions, I looked elsewhere to find my own interview questions. I started an experiment: I would not look at the candidate’s resume before the interview. Instead, I would just chat with the candidate about something of our common interests. With one candidate, I asked him about his favorite movies; with another, I talked to her about humor writing. This way, not only did I put the candidate at ease, I also gained a good idea of his communication skill and style.

I would then outline a technical problem from my past work to the candidate, and ask him to work out a solution together with me. Of course, the choice of the problem is tricky. A good problem should require no specialized knowledge, and can be solved to different extent so that the candidates’ abilities can be differentiated. Due to obvious reasons, I cannot reveal here any specific examples.

So how did I do with my resume-free approach? I took a look at my colleagues’ recommendations on the candidates that I interviewed, and found that most of them agreed with my own. There were differences. In the case of a recent candidate, my hire recommendation was overruled by unanimous no-hires from my colleagues. But overall, I was not an outlier. My resume-free interview technique seems to be working.

Knowing now that my resume-free interview works reasonably well, I wonder: does it work better than the resume-based interviews? I have no data to answer that question. But two analogies come to my mind.

In dating, we also look for the right person. Imagine dating as a resume-based interview:

Man: So tell me about your last relationship.

Woman: Well, we got along really well, and had a very happy relationship.

Man: What made your relationship successful?

Woman: I had a good sense of humor, and he knew how to appreciate it.

Man: Why on earth did you break up then?

Woman: I had to relocate. Now tell me something about your last relationship.

Sure that is no way to date. Dating, we go to restaurants, movies, bowling alleys, and other fun places. The right person is the one who we enjoy the time with. Success of a past relationship seems irrelevant.

Take another example: audition of actors. In choosing the right actors, the foremost requisite is that they fit the roles. Audition ensures that by having the actors perform the intended roles. The best performance stands out clearly. In contrast, interrogating the actors about their past performances is useless. (Of course, past successes get them the audition. But the influence ends there.)

The interview is supposed to answer the question: is the candidate going to work well with us? So why beat about the bushes and half-guess the answer, when we can directly address that question by having the candidate work with us during the interview? Why not create a real working situation and have the candidate solve a problem with us? Why ask about past experiences when we can create a present one first hand?

McKinsey, the leading management consulting firm, interviews by case questions. The candidates are presented with real business situations and are required to collect relevant information from the interviewer and produce concrete recommendations to solve the problem at hand. The interviews are not different from a real work day of a consultant. Hardly can there be a better way to select future consultants.

It is time that we all follow the suit. Toss away the resume-based questions. The resumes tell what the candidates have done in the past, and get them in the door. Interviews are time to find out what they can do here and in the future. Forget the silly brain teasers. Being smart is nice, but are they willing and able to use that intelligence in real work? Just get up and walk to the whiteboard, sketch the problem, and say to the candidate:

“Here is a problem that we will be solving today. Any ideas?”

And let the candidate disappoint or delight us.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Us, Them

The world consists of two groups of people: us, and them.

On Tuesday morning I went to the Immigration and Naturalization Service Center in Flushing to get fingerprinted. The center is located on Rooselvelt Avenue, under the rails of the 7 train, inside a plain, grayish and old one-story building, adjoined by a 99-cent store on the right and a florist on the left. It has one glass door openning onto the street. Inside the glass door is a small foyer, where a large paper box contains a stack of application forms. Applicants are to fill out the form before admission, apparently to expedite the transactions.

My appointment was at 9 o'clock in the morning. I arrived twenty minutes early, and there was already a long line outside on the street. Every twenty minutes or so, a guard would open the front door and let in a group of people. I waited for a good hour and a half before moving close to the front of the line. As the guard let the next group in, I thought I was going in with them, but he gestured me to stop, without a word. The guard looked sulky, and used no words but only gestures to direct the visitors. I thought: either he did not speak English, or he assumed that all immigrants did not speak English, and either way there seemed to him no means of verbal communication.

Finally, the guard opened the door again, and gestured me to proceed into the office area. Behind a second glass door was a spacious lobby, furnished with a few dozens of chairs, with just handful of vistors inside. I was beckoned to the counter, where a Chinese woman, in Chinese, directed me to the back office to have my fingerprints taken.

Like all great things in life, the excitement is in the waiting. I waited for one hour and a half to be fingerprinted in less than five minutes. The Immigration Service certainly knows how to thrill the aspiring immigrants. My 9 o'clock appointment seemed to be for mere reference. Also, standing on the street probably heightened the sense of anticipation, an effect that would have been lost should the applicants have been allowed to wait sitting in the lobby. Sadly, I went on a sunny morning of early winter. Wait until the first snow storm hits New York, and that will give the immigrants a more awe-inspiring experience.

I could not help noticing that nearly all the workers in the Immigration Service Center, like in many other government agencies in New York, are immigrants themselves. Had they not gone through the same irrespectful treatment themselves? Why, sharing once our indignition, do they choose to repeat the same disrespect on us?

Because once they were us; but now they think of us as "them".

Fifteen years ago, when I was in high school in Chong Qing, every spring break, I would take the train to go to my parents' city. In those years, the transportation system in China was severely undercapacitied, and spring spelt disasterous congestion for home-goers. The train was completely packed. If all the passengers in the train had taken off their shoes and laid them side by side on the floor, there would not have been enough room. I stood for hours on the train, pressed from all sides by people who were in turn pressed from all sides. Yet more people tried to get on the train. The doors were closed. So people started to clamber through the windows. As the train approached the stations, passengers frantically closed the windows. A window left open would surely invite an attack from the platform.

Unfortunately one open window close to where I was standing was neglected. Before the train could come to a full stop, a desperate home-goer started to climb into the window. The passengers on the train fought back. Someone tried to pry the man's hands off the window, another pushed down the man's head. It looked like a struggle of life and death. Neither side was willing to give up. With incredible tenacity, the desperate home-goer managed to clamber into the car, despite extensive bruises inflicted by the passengers on the train. I expected a real fight to break out in the car.

What happened next, though, was utterly unbelievable. As soon as the man entered the car, instead of giving a good beating of the ones on the train who beat him so hard to keep him off the train, he turned outside and started to push the next window-climber off the train. The man, just a moment ago in alliance with the home-goers on the platform, had switched side.

Before the man got on the train, other men on the platform were "us"; once he was on the train, they became "them".

The pain, once it is no longer one's own, is simply gone.

Friday, July 29, 2005

I Made The Meat?

“Some of them say that you made them.”

“I made them?”

“Yes, that’s what some of them say.”

“Impossible. Do they not know what they are made of?”

“They know they are meat. They even know their molecular constitution – proteins, DNA, and all that.”

“And they say that I made the meat.”

“Well, they do not say that you made the meat. They say that you gave them the soul.”

“The what?”

“The soul, so that they can think and feel.”

“So they have not discovered the brain yet?”

“They know the brain all right. But they say you made them think, not the brain itself.”

“ Ludicrous. What about evolution?”

“One of them, Charles Darwin, has speculated evolution. But some of them still refuse to accept it.”

“What about the monkeys? Even a fool can see that they are related to the monkeys.”

“They say you also made the monkeys.”

“This is too much. What else do they think I made?”



“Everything: the universe, the Sun, the Earth, the animals, the Man.”

“The universe. THAT is my proudest creation. Have they discovered the gravity and the space time invariance?”

“A man by the name Isaac Newton worked out the law of gravity. Another man, Albert Einstein, realized the space time invariance and called it the theory of relativity.”

“I am suitably impressed. At least some of them have a brain.”

“They all do. Just some of them do not use it.”

“Do they see the elegance in my creation? The symmetry and beauty in the physical laws?”

“A few of them do. The few that study physics.”

“And with all that knowledge of the elegance in my creation, they believe that I made the meat!”

“Some of them.”

“Then they should take a look at the proteins! Do they not see how ugly they are? A disorderly nondescript blob of atoms, obeying no rule but the rule of chance.”

“Max Perutz, the man who solved the first protein structure, made a similar remark.”

“They cannot believe that, having created a set of elegant physical laws, I went on to make something so ugly?”

“The ones that believe you made them apparently do not know how ugly the proteins look.”

“And the brain! It disgusts me to even think how messy the neurons are scrambled all over the place. If I were to make a thinking machine, I would make it nice and neat, using silicon and logic gates.”

“They made their own thinking machines using silicon and logic gates.”

“Remarkable. Who thought of such machines?”

“Von Neumann was credited as the father of these thinking machines. But it was Alan Turing, a homosexual, who proved a theorem showing that these machines were possible.”

“A homosexual?”

“A man who has sex with another man. Interestingly, the homosexuals are detested by the ones who believe that you made them.”

“Why is that?”

“Because they believe you see homosexuality as an abomination.”

“Whatever. They think that I had all the time to bother about a man’s sexual disposition?”

“They think you are omnipotent and omniscient.”

“I wish.”

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Dude, Where Is My Car?

I have one thing to say and I will say it right here at the beginning:
Never, ever use American Auto Transport, or M & E Auto Transport, to ship your car.
To leave no doubt as to which companies I am referring to, here is a little more information:
American Auto Transport, website:, telephone: 888-402-7447, fax: 954-327-7109.
M & E Auto Transport: 10929 Firestone Blvd. #181, Norwalk, CA 90650, telephone: 800-690-1796.

If you read this before you ship your car, you are enviably lucky. I learned my lesson the hard way.

Two days before I moved from San Francisco to New York, my car embarked on its treacherous journey across the continent. My car must have been in tears when it saw the pick-up truck. It was literally a pickup truck. Its small deck could accommodate only one car, and a Saab had already occupied it. The driver looked as if he just came off a pirate ship. Big, fat, with unkempt graying beard and bloodshot eyes, he casually fastened my Corolla to the back of his truck with ropes and chains. I would not trust this man to carry my car from coast to coast. But he reassured me. He told me that he was only there to tow my car to a rendezvous point, where another truck with an anonymous driver would pick it up.

Something did not add up. This was not what Ivan Fernandez told me. Ivan Fernandez was a sales rep for American Auto Transport, who called me ten days before in answer to my quote request on a website. Ivan spoke fast.

“We are the standard of the industry.” Ivan told me.

He also told me that American Auto Transport had the genuine door-to door service.

“You got to be careful with other companies. Their door-to-door service usually means terminal door to terminal door.” Ivan eagerly explained to me the truly superior service that I would expect from American Auto Transport. “The same driver who picks up your car from you will drop off your car, ... in 7 to 10 days.”

“We are the standard of the industry.” Ivan repeated to me.

Ivan sounded good. Twenty months ago I moved from New York to San Francisco, and I used Dependable Auto Shippers, with whose service I was quite satisfied. American Auto Transport, in Ivan’s words, seemed to offer similarly good service. I decided to go ahead with it.

But after the pirate-looking driver towed my car away, worries invaded my mind. The driver left me a yellow sheet of lading bill. The company name on the bill was M & E Auto Transport. Handing me the bill, the driver informed me that M & E would be the actual carrier of my car. He scribbled a phone number on the bill.

“You can call this number to track your car.” He said with a suspicious sneer.

I called that number three times in the following week. I got only busy signal.

Four days after the pick-up, I called American Auto Transport. After some wait, the agent informed me that my car was in Colorado. She told me that the driver did not work over the weekend, so there was a slight delay. But the car would arrive early next week. I had nothing to worry.

On the next Wednesday, figuring that “early next week” had passed, I called American Auto Transport to get the status of my car. Again it was delayed, this time in Michigan. Some customers were late in payment, which held the driver up. But the car would arrive early next week.

Another week passed. On Friday, I called American Auto Transport again. Finally the truck was in Ohio, and would move into the North East early NEXT week. I should expect delivery by Tuesday, the agent reassured me.

Tuesday went by. Then bad news came on Wednesday. In the afternoon, I receive a call. A woman, in impatient voice, informed me that my car was in Long Island, but the truck had a hydraulic problem and could not move any more. She told me that I had to go to Long Island to get my car.

“What about the door-to-door service? Should I at least get a refund?” I asked.

She replied that it was not her business. The truck had a mechanical problem and there was nothing that she could do. “You need to go to Long Island and avoid any further delay in delivering your car. The driver would call you shortly to arrange a pick up.” She made it sound as if it was all for my good.

I called American Auto Transport and complained. A different woman unsympathetically told me that there was nothing that she could do either. There would be no refund. It was useless to speak with the manager. Other customers, she confidently assured me, had similar complaints and none had received a refund. But she suggested that perhaps I could reason with M & E. She gave me a phone number.

Receiving no call from the driver that day, I decided to call M & E early the next morning. Miraculously I got through to a live man. I complained about the situation. The man angrily said that it was the way it was, his contract said that M & E was only responsible to ship the car as close as possible to the destination, and I was not going to get any refund.

I asked if there was really a mechanical problem with the truck, or it was really a laziness problem with the driver.

“It sounds like you should go to a school to learn to trust people.” The man said to me indignantly.

I was speechless. I was out of moves. They had my car. I had to yield. I ended the call by asking him for the driver’s phone number. The man gave me the number and a surprise.

“Remember you owe a C.O.D. of 800 dollars.” The man reminded me.

On my contract the amount was $795. I protested. The man would not listen. He insisted that on his contract it was $800. He became very agitated, and cursed American Auto Transport.

“These contractors tell customers bullshit, and I have to deal with all these bullshit.” He shouted. That was the end of the call.

I called the driver later. He answered briefly, saying that he was assisting another customer and would call me back, and was gone. He never called me back.

The next day I called American Auto Transport again, and complained to yet another woman about my situation. She said M & E simply rounded $795 to the closest integer. She seemed not to realize that $795 was an integer itself, and that this convenient round-off allowed M & E to steal 5 extra bucks from my pocket. But she was kind enough to tell me that the driver had flown back to California, and she told me the auto repair shop in Long Island where I could pick up my car.

The auto repair shop had its own surprise for me when I called.

“Remember to bring $850 in cash.” said the man who answered my call.

That was the last straw. I was incredulous. The due just kept going up. I questioned him why he did not say it was 8 thousand dollars, since he seemed to name the price arbitrarily. The man did not budge:

“It is $8000 then. Look, I ain’t got the time to argue this with you on the phone. Bring $850 and pick up the car. We charge $50 per day after today.”

Outraged, I called American Auto Transport one more time. This time even the woman assisting me was sympathetic. She told me that she would let the auto repair shop know that I only owed them $800. I gave up correcting the amount to $795.

The next day, my fiancee’s uncle drove me for 40 minutes to the auto repair shop. The car was there. Nothing was missing, no visible damage, and the engine started without any problem. I put down $800 and drove my car away. It was a relief. It was awakening from a nightmare.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Where do you work?

I ran into this woman in the elevator in my apartment building. She looked to be in her thirties, was smartly dressed, and was checking messages on her cell phone when I stepped in. Summer was in full swing in New York, and the elevator felt like a preheating oven. The woman promptly piped up: "It's hot in here." She spoke without looking at me and in a tone of soliloquy, as if talking to a phantom in the air. But I knew better and chimed in. It turned out that we lived on the same floor. She complained how she never got to know any of her neighbors. I assured her that it was not her fault since I had just moved in and would soon move out. Just as we walked out of the elevator, she asked me:

"Where do you work?"

Never had I been asked this question by a total stranger after 30 seconds of conversation. I told her my employer and reciprocated: "How about you?"

"I am a partner in Deloitte Touche." She said.

Partner, according to my knowledge of consulting, is the second highest rank one can hold in a firm. Now I understand the true meaning of her question. In the fast-paced business world in New York, it translates into:

"Are you worthy of my company?"

Friday, June 03, 2005

Dinner in Color

On the second night in my new apartment in midtown Manhattan, I prepared dinner for myself. This is my signature dish: Steak with Asparagus and Mushroom, garnished with Strawberry. I may well be a chef disguised as a chemist.

Inspection and Introspection

I am better, am I not?

Today, I took E train from Queens to Manhattan. Across the aisle from me, a woman took out an eyelash curler and a small mirror and started shaping her eyelashes. She appeared to have made the effort to look pretty, for she wore heavy make-ups and seemed to be dressed in the best fashion that she could afford. She kept pulling and curling her eyelashes for twenty minutes. First the right eye, then the left, then back to the right, for she scrutinized herself in the mirror and felt unsatisfied with the result. We got off at the same stop. That’s when she stopped eyelash-sculpting.

I thought to myself. Hmm, she just wasted twenty minutes on her vanity. She could have read a book, or a newspaper, like the respectable-looking passengers did. She could have taken a nap, which would leave her refreshed when she got off the train. Or she could have been like me – I usually pick a scientific problem and turn it in my head when I am on public transportation. Instead, she spent twenty minutes curling her eyelashes.

Maybe that is why I am well-paid in a technology firm and live on the 36th floor in a full-service apartment building, whereas she is probably a cashier in a grocery store and live in some rent-controlled building in Brooklyn.

Then I thought to myself. Wait. I just spent twenty minutes WATCHING her curling her eyelashes! I was not reading or thinking. I just wasted twenty minutes watching a woman wasting the meantime on her vanity.

Last Sunday, I had dinner with a few friends in Le Colonial, a posh French-Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco. A man and a woman sat at an adjacent table. The woman was very pretty. The man, on the other hand, was plain looking and balding. Kings, one of my friends, made a joke when the woman and the man posed together for a picture. “That’s as close as the guy is going to get tonight.” He said. But he was wrong. When they stood up to leave, the woman kissed the man on the lips. I whispered to Kings, “Your prediction was wrong – by two miles!” My whisper was a little too loud. As soon as the couple vanished from our sight, we heard the man’s angry voice:

“Try to judge yourself, not others!”

That is exactly what I should do.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Encounter with Homo Soccerfanus

Tell me nothing; I don't want to know.

There are two subspecies of humans: the rest of us, and the soccer fans (homo soccerfanus). The latter resemble the former in appearance; but they can be identified by occasional peculiar behaviors, such as extreme emotions after the victory or loss of their teams, shouting and yelling at critical moments in a game, excessive consumption of beer during a match event, and, sometimes, animosity and violence toward the fans of the opposing teams.

Yu Chen is one homo soccerfanus. He roots for Liverpool, which just won the European Champions League after a dramatic comeback against AC Milan. We watched the final game in Kezar’s pub. It was not a live broadcast, but every one of us arrived without knowing the outcome. That evasion, however, was futile, for as soon as we walked in the pub the result was obvious. A group of Liverpool fans, all dressed in the red uniform, were celebrating on top of the tables. Simultaneously happy and disappointed, Yu Chen sat down to witness Liverpool’s path to triumph.

It was a game of climax and drama. Each team played one half. AC Milan scored three goals in the first half. All hope seemed to have vanished for Liverpool, then miracle happened. In the second half, within a span of five minutes, Liverpool scored three goals. Eventually, Liverpool won in the penalty shootout.

Unfortunately, this dramatic twist was lost amidst the premature celebration of the Liverpool fans in the bar. It was outrageous. Each time Milan scored, Liverpool fans cheered. When Liverpool was three goals behind, its fans danced and laughed and toasted to their team and gulped down their beers. Yu Chen talked to us in a slightly patronizing tone.

Exhibit 1. The Liverpool fans in the bar cheered when their team was 0:3 behind AC Milan.

I took my camera with me, hoping to capture Yu Chen’s reactions in the course of the game. There was, of course, no emotional reaction at all. No intense pleasure or sorrow can come from certainty. Only at one moment was Yu Chen surprised, when Liverpool scored its equalizer. It was a penalty shot. Yu Chen’s reactions were recorded in the following sequence of photos.

Exhibit 2. The penalty shot by Liverpool's Alonso was blocked by Milan's goal keeper Dida. Stefan, sitting next to Yu Chen, was a Milan fan.

Exhibit 3. The ball bounced off Dida. Alonso on the second attempt kicked the ball into the net.

Exhibit 4. Now the score was 3:3. The Liverpool fans would smile to the last.

Simply Free

It has everything, and nothing more.

Nike just introduced a new running shoe, Nike Free. I tried it on in Nike Town. It was the most comfortable running shoe my feet had worn.

Holding Free in the hands, one will immediately notice its light weight. The upper of the shoe is extremely thin. It also has numerous tiny slit openings to enhance ventilation. The sole is flexible, so flexible that the shoe can almost fold in half. Running in Free is an exhilarating experience. I did it on the treadmill in Nike Town. My feet felt light and free, just as the shoe’s name suggests.

I also watched the TV spot for the shoe in Nike Town. It must be one of the most effective commercials ever made. A group of runners, all wearing white T-shirts and shorts, run barefoot on a wet sand beach. Yet it is no ordinary beach. The runners step over a manhole; they zoom past by parking meters, fire escape ladders, newspaper venders, mailboxes, and fire hydrants. A yellow cab drives by. Pedestrians. Then a bus crosses the screen. When it is gone, the scene has changed to a street corner in New York City. Only one runner remains. The camera switches to his feet. He is wearing Nike Free. The scene blurs, and a message appears on the screen: “Run barefoot”.

The music used in the commercial? Chariots of Fire. The tune, repeated twice, imprints in anybody’s mind.

What makes a great product? Invariably, a great product is built around a simple concept. It is conceived with a clear vision of how it will be marketed. Run barefoot, run free. Nothing can be simpler than that. Everything about Free revolves around this simple concept, from the choice of fabric to the shape of the shoe. It has not an ounce of extra weight. It flexes to conform to the shape of the foot. It is probably the most plain-looking sneaker that Nike has ever made. Once the simple concept is established, no effort is spared to realize that concept in the product.

Apple also makes great products. iPod Shuffle, for instance, took the flash player market by storm. The simple concept here? Life is random, so give chance a chance. So goes the tiny LCD screens, so goes the cluttered buttons of controls. All the fat is stripped off the Shuffle, and the result is a lean flash player that the market has never seen.

The technology that goes into Nike Free or Ipod Shuffle must be enormous. Yet Nike and Apple mention none in their commercials. They sell the concept, not the technology. Ever watch the infomercials? “Our product is made of materials used in spacecraft.” Hello! Anybody interested in buying a spacecraft?

So what makes Nike Free, or iPod Shuffle, a great product? In short, it has everything, and nothing more.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Hand versus Penis

We humans are obsessed with sex. Whereas other animals copulate only when they come into heat, which happens once or twice in a year for most mammals, we humans screw all year round. We enjoy sex; we view it as a recreation as much as the means for procreation. We seek sex when we are not having any. We seek more sex when we are having some. The proverbial wisdom has it that a man thinks about sex every three seconds. A woman thinks about sex not much less, if we believe Sex and the City.

Sex sells. Most magazines in any newsstand have on their covers some beautiful women in revealing clothes and suggestive postures. Nudity and strong sexual contents boost box office for movies and promote ratings for cable TV programs. Viagra has annual sales in the billions and has prompted a number of me-too drugs from competitors. Experts tell us: sex is important for relationships, marriages, and health.

Just how important is sex to us? We may glean some idea from how much we value our sexual organs.

The following is an excerpt of the schedule that the state of Connecticut uses to compensate for work-related injuries, in descending order of value.

Lost or Damaged Body Part and Corresponding Compensated Weeks of Pay

Heart 520
Pancreas 416
Liver 347
Arm (master) 208
Arm (other) 194
Hand (master) 168
Eye 157
Hand (other) 155
Foot 125
Penis 35-104
Vagina 35-104
Thumb (master hand) 63
Thumb (other hand) 54
Finger (first) 36

The most valuable organs are apparently the vital organs. We cannot live without a heart, a pancreas or a liver. The second most valuable organs are the ones that we rely on in everyday life and work: master arm and hand, and eyes. But the surprise is that penis and vagina – our reproductive and pleasure organs – are valued much less than the subordinate hand and arm, and foot. Sometimes, they even rank below the thumbs and the first finger.

So maybe we do not value sex THAT much after all. As the Chinese saying goes, he who is fed and warm desires sex. Foremost we want our arms and hands intact to fend for ourselves. Sex is a thought after that.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Price Index

What do you measure money in?

Purchasing power is an important concept in macroeconomics. Defined loosely as how much goods a unit of currency can buy, it is a measure of the worth of money. The most careful analysis of purchasing power usually looks at the average price of a basket of essential goods. But there is a simplification. The price of Big Mac turns out to be a good indicator of the purchasing power; therefore the famous Big Mac index.

Also important in macroeconomics is the consumer's price index, which can reflect the living expenses in a region. It is again measured by the average price of many things. But I accidentally discovered a simpler way.

I was talking to Johannes the other day, who was complaining how expensive it was to live in Milan. Exactly how expensive? A pint of beer cost 10 Euros! "How much does a pint of beer cost in New York City?" Johannes wanted to know. That was how he assessed the living expenses in a city.

Of course, Johannes is German. So the living expense will be different for a French, an Italian, and a Chinese. We all have our own essentials in life, and we measure money accordingly.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Time to Leave

When things start to break, it is time to leave.

I have lived in San Francisco for twenty months by now. Things started to break. About a month ago, I dropped the lid of my Brita water filter, and it broke. That was the first of a chain of incidents. The handle on my Dell laptop bag gave way two weeks ago, and I had to use the shoulder strap since, until last Friday when the strap also came off the hook. I lost my keys. Even my eyesights seem to have deteriorated.

Maybe it is a sign. When things start to break, I probably have stayed in a place for too long. Time to leave. I am moving to New York City in June.

Friday, April 29, 2005

What’s Wrong with the Force Field?

If people don’t understand it, they won’t trust it.

“I sense a great disturbance in the Force”, Darth Vader says as Obi-Wan Kenobi boards the Super Star Destroyer. I am a believer in the force field that Jedi knights manipulate with miraculous effects. But I have grown wary of the force fields that computational biologists use in their simulations.

To simulate on computers the behavior of a molecular system, say, the binding of a drug to a protein, or the conformational changes in a signaling molecule, it is crucial to calculate the interactions between the atoms accurately. Although quantum mechanics can compute these interactions in principle, in practice empirical energy functions have to be used due to limited computing power. Many empirical energy functions have been developed and affectionately referred to as force fields. In the beginning, there were only simple interaction parameters for inert gases, then carbon monoxide, then water. Then there was the need to simulate proteins, and complex force fields were developed. Many different force fields emerged independently, each christened with its acronym. There are Amber, Charmm, Gromos. There are OPLS-AA and MMFF. There are many more. Each is a cult with followers and they are constantly at war.

After decades of development, however, computer simulation is still greeted with skepticism by biologists. Compared to experimental technologies of similar age, this is a curious exception. True, almost everybody uses simulation now. But whenever there is a disagreement between the simulation and the experiment, the simulation result becomes the primary suspect. The Journal of Molecular Biology recently rejected a computational paper with the comment that it “will only accept computational works that AGREE with experimental results.” This reflects the general attitude toward computer simulation: it is only good for verifying experiments, but not good enough to generate independent hypothesis.

Sadly for the computational biologists, this dismissal of their work is largely justified. Currently, computer simulations are riddled with problems, and many a simulation have produced results far from well-established experimental observations. The force fields bear much blame. Everyone agrees that they are not good enough. (At the same time everyone contends that his or her force field is BETTER than others.) Everyone agrees that something has to be done about them. But what is wrong with the force field?

The common opinion in the computational community is that the force field needs to be more accurate. The definition of accuracy, of course, is tricky, and depends on the specific problems to which simulation is applied. So although everyone is talking about improving the force field, most people are doing just that, talking.

I think that the force field has a much more crippling problem than its inaccuracy. That is it is too complicated! Way too complicated! In the quest of accuracy, increasing number of parameters have been shoved into the energy functions, so that all present force fields are messy compilations of thousands of parameters. I doubt anyone, including the folks who parameterized the force fields, can correctly remember a tenth of the parameters, or even to recollect why these parameters are chosen over others. For example, in most of the force fields, there are many subtypes for each atomic element. Take OPLS-AA force field. It contains 329 subtypes for carbon atoms, 165 for hydrogen, 76 for nitrogen, and 47 for oxygen. Mendeleev would have turned in his grave.

The complexity of the force field is really the cause of its plight. Worse, it is the complexity without underlying order or reason. In the blind pursuit of accuracy, parameters are fitted ad hoc, without justification. The consequence of the Machiavellian philosophy – “the end justifies the means” – is that only the end remains meaningful. The only useful result from the force field calculation is the total energy. The components, such as van der Waals, hydrogen bond, or electrostatic energies, are only believed by the most faithful.

I was once in a group meeting where a graduate student talked about his calculations of the stability of a structural motif in proteins. He used his results to argue that hydrogen bonds were responsible for the stability. Yet the force field used had nothing to describe hydrogen bonds. I proposed that the stability could come from pure electrostatic interactions and asked him about the charges on the atoms as assigned by the force field. Unsurprisingly he had no clue. He was forgivable. How can someone be expected to know these numbers when there are so many?

Most people use the force field as a black box. Unfortunately, people tend to abuse black boxes. When the simulation works, people over-interpret the results. When it fails, people simply sweep it under the rug. Few try to understand the reason behind the success or failure. To do so one has to open the black box. But it is too messy inside.

Contrast that to experimental techniques. An NMR spectroscopist usually has a good knowledge of the chemical shifts of protons in different environments, and a biologist doing fluorescence experiments knows the absorption band and photon efficiency of the labeling dye. NMR spectroscopy and fluorescence labeling are respectable experimental techniques not because they always give correct results. It is because when they go wrong, the experimenters can understand why.

That is the problem with the force field. People do not know why their simulations succeed or fail. It is like a blind cat trying to catch a dead mouse. The cat may stumble upon the mouse, but the cat does not know why and how to do it again.

In science, the simple always supercedes the complicated. The clear is preferable to the confusing. Inaccuracy in the force field is tolerable as long as the applicability and limitations of the force field are understood and predictable. So instead of pushing for better accuracy by adding atom types and parameters, we should simplify the force fields first. Reduce the number of atom types, reduce the number of independent parameters, and minimize the set of standard data to which to fit the parameters. Make it simple, make it comprehensible, and it will be respectable.

May the force be with us.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Subterranean Magic

Saturday, Yang and I took subway from Queens into Manhattan. New York City subway got its weekend relief from its workday congestions, and there were only a handful of passengers in our car. Our ride was roomy and long, so I took the opportunity to show off my card tricks.

It is a challenge to do the tricks for Yang, for she is more interested in catching my sleights than being entertained. This is true for most of my friends. It is the amateur magician’s adversity. When a professional magician performs his art, the audience assumes that his technique is beyond detection, and gives up the attempt to catch his maneuvers. Besides, no one buys the ticket just to shout “wait, he just palmed my card!” Amateur magicians do not have the luxury of a lenient audience. Amateurs beg to perform for their friends, and they delight in any “well done” from the audience. My friends do not watch my tricks for entertaining magic – they go to Vegas or watch television for that – they watch me to catch me. They take it as a puzzle that can be solved. They take me as the weakest and breakable link in the ring of magic.

It was thus no surprise that after I made a card vanish, Yang held my hand and tried to see if I had anything up in my sleeves. I ignored her and continued my routine. Taking out the four aces and placing the rest of the deck into my pocket, I was getting ready for my favorite trick of twisting the aces. Then I heard a man’s voice next to me:

“Oh, that is the end of my fun.”

I turned my head and saw a man with dark curly hair and a strongly contoured face, looking to be in his thirties. Sitting next to him was an attractive young Asian woman, with rather pale complexion and short hair reaching the back of her shoulders. I vaguely remembered this couple sitting across the aisle and a few seats away from us. They must have moved to the adjacent seat after I started my magic.

It was not often that I got a voluntary spectator who enjoyed my magic. I was flattered. I reassured the man: “There is more.”

I did my twisting the aces. When I finish, Yang tried to guess, incorrectly, how I turned the cards between the cards. I looked at the man. He was quite amused with the trick. But he did not show any sign of puzzlement normally expected from a spectator of magic.

I did a few more tricks. Failing to catch my sleights, Yang lost her interest. It was almost our stop. I was about to put the cards away, when the man asked me:

“Who taught you this?”

I did not hear him very well in the clanking noise of the train, and he had to repeat the question twice. Then I told him that I learned card manipulation from McBride’s DVDs. On hearing the name, the woman casually turned her head to the man and asked:

“McBride. Do you know him?”

The man said:

“Yes, I know him.”

I felt something was not right. I managed to say how great a card manipulator McBride was.

The man took out a card, his business card, and handed it to me.

“You give me a call.”

I did not have to look at the card to guess its content. Printed on the card in plain Ariel font was

Richard D. Prestia

Saturday, April 09, 2005

My Operating System

I took a personality test to determine the most fitting OS for me. Not a surprising result.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Lessons from the Acquired Immunity

Evolution has no foresight. Neither do we.

This is an age of insecurity. Hijacked planes, suicide bombs, weapons of mass destruction, phishing emails, computer viruses. We are under attack everywhere and everyday.

But this is also an age of protection. National security advisory code, airport shoe check, National Missile Defense system, liberation of Iraq, sophisticated message encryption, antivirus software, firewalls, deadbolts on the doors. We live behind the shields of better and better defense.

But are we protected? A recent commentary published in the journal Immunity should make us thinking again.

In his article, Stephen Hedrick re-exams the usefulness of the acquired immune system. The acquired immune system is vertebrates' second line of defense against pathogens, and it is activated when the first barrier against infection, the innate immune system, is breached. The acquired immunity employs a sophisticated mechanism -- somatic hypermutations combined with thymus or germinal center selections -- to generate pathogen-specific T-cells and B-cells to search and destroy the invaders. These T-cells and B-cells then remember their specific targets, and become a fast response force against any recurring infection. Thanks to the acquired immunity, we do not get many diseases twice, and we can be vaccinated against these diseases before they strike. In contrast, the innate immunity, which is universal to vertebrates and invertebrates alike, uses seemingly mundane mechanisms: cell membranes and coagulation to deny pathogen's access into host, defensins and lysozymes to destroy the parasites before their entry, and other brute force measures.

Until now, the majority of immunologists view the acquired immunity as an optimal defense system, a superior weapon that confers great health advantage onto vertebrates over invertebrates. Hedrick's commentary overturns this conventional view. He argues that the acquired immunity overall does not benefit vertebrates as a kind. Comparisons between insects and vertebrates have yielded several surprises. For example, the morbidity and mortality of insects due to infection are not higher than that of vertebrates. Compared to the pathogens for invertebrates, the pathogens that infect vertebrates have developed more adaptive strategies to evade the acquired immune system. Influenza is one best known example of this adaptability. Not only the acquired immunity can be easily rendered useless by the evasive pathogens, it can also be exploited by the viruses for their replication, as in the case of AIDS, or backfire on the host and cause autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and lupus.

Instead, the acquired immunity appeared to be an evolutionary misstep. The strain that first developed the acquired immunity had a temporary advantage over the rest of the animal kingdom, so it multiplied, eventually developing into the vertebrate subphylum. Unfortunately, it underestimated the infinite resourcefulness of the pathogens. The fateful genetic mutation that gave rise to the acquired immunity inadvertently escalated the war between the pathogens and the vertebrate hosts, one that had inflicted heavy costs and casualties on both sides for the past four hundred million years. Meanwhile, the acquired immunity becomes an absolute necessity for vertebrates, because any deficiency in it will make the individual defenseless against the highly evolved pathogens.

Hedrick’s insight should reach beyond immunologists.

So much as our sophisticated acquired immunity cannot make us impermeable to germs, any defense that we can mount against foreign or domestic attacks can be defeated by a clever enemy. It is an arms race that no one wins in the end. The National Missile Defense system will not protect us, because it will be easily overwhelmed by inexhaustible possibilities of countermeasures. Hundreds of billions of dollars will only buy the Americans a false sense of protection, and will prompt the Russians and the Chinese into a race to develop missile technologies capable of circumventing NMD.

Neither will the antivirus software make our PCs virus-free. After all, it can only recognize a known virus and is useless against any new strain. It seems that the real defense against computer viruses is plain caution: do not visit suspicious websites, do not download programs without a proper certificate, do not open emails from unknown senders. It is just like the innate immunity, mundane but effective.

Yet all is too late. The acquired immunity is here to stay. So is the National Missile Defense, so is the antivirus software, so is the spam email filter. They have all become the cause of their own necessity. We pay for their existence because they protect us from all known forms of attack. But by the force of the unknown future, we remain in the shadow of menace.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Gender Equality with Wheelchair Access

To promote women, we must demote men.

When I first went to Columbia University, the Department of Chemistry had one female professor. A year later, the department hired a young woman as an assistant professor, doubling the size of its female faculty. The department had a total of twenty faculty members at that time.

In University of California, San Francisco, on the floor that I currently work, there are twenty one faculty members. Three are women.

When I interviewed in the Department of Chemistry in University of Washington, Seattle, I met 16 professors, out of whom only one was a woman. She was newly tenured in the department, along with four male junior professors.

Why are there so few female professors?

According to some people, including Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, women lag in science partially because they are biologically different from men. Perhaps testosterone stimulates mathematical genius; estrogen suppresses it. Perhaps women are innately more susceptible to beauty in a flower bouquet than beauty in a mathematical formula, more adept at counting inventories than counting neutrons, more disposed to mixing cooking recipes than doing chemical synthesis.

Wait a minute. As I remember, from primary school all the way to college, the top-scoring student in my class had always been a girl. In the College Entrance Exam administered by the Chinese Bureau of Education, girls do just as well as boys.

Anticipating such retorts, Dr. Summers contends that although average math aptitude may be analogous between the sexes, more men tend to occupy the tails of the distribution. In other words, the dumbest and the most ingenious are male. Women can surely do calculus, but only men can prove Fermat’s Last Theorem.

But that argument does not hold water either. Once appointed, female professors are as successful in contending for research grants and career fellowships as male professors. The McArthur fellowship, widely dubbed as the genius award, has been awarded to many outstanding women in the past decade. I have personally met many women who are absolutely the top-tier scientists in their field.

Well, if estrogen does not poison the brain, what hinders women’s advance in science?

In a different way, women are shackled professionally by their own biology. The optimal child bearing age of a woman coincides with that of the critical stage of her career. A twenty-two year old woman, just out of college, faces the tough choice between rearing children and pursuing a career. If she wants to go into academia, she will have to postpone having children indefinitely. Five years of graduate school, three years of postdoctoral study, six years of untenured junior professorship, that is fourteen intense years almost impossible for her to have a baby. Even fourteen is the most conservative estimate. Finally, at thirty-six, way past the optimal child bearing age, she is ready to have a baby, if she is fortunate to have a man who is willing to be patient for so long.

In a recent op-ed in New York Times, David Brooks advocated a rounded alternative: the sequential life style. In a nutshell, the sequential life style suggests that a woman out of college spend five years at home, rearing a child. She will then reenter the work force and pursue her career uninterruptedly like her male colleagues.

Superficially, Mr. Brooks laid out a perfect plan. But at closer scrutiny, this sequential life style does not hold up. Not only does it outright bereave women five years of their professional lives, it takes away five of their best career years, the years when they are mint with skills, knowledge and connections acquired in college, the years when a person’s drive to succeed is the strongest. Not to mention that these women will be competing at a disadvantage with men five years younger.

Some women chose to sacrifice their procreative rights for a fair game in their careers. But a great sacrifice it is. In science, quite a few successful female professors over forty are single and childless. Sadly, the highly successful but childless professional women will be out of the gene pool in just one generation.

Up to this day, the effort to promote gender equality is focused on creating more opportunities for women in the professional world. This emphasis is epitomized by the affirmative action – should a woman and a man equally qualify for a professional opportunity, be it a job or a promotion, the opportunity will be preferentially awarded to the woman.

Unfortunately, affirmative action, or many other similar measures, does not address a more fundamental problem rising out of the inherent biological difference between women and men. Only women can carry children, and breast-feed them. Most women still view maternity a responsibility and a joy. Yet it conflicts with their careers.

Therefore it is not enough to give women jobs. It is equally important to create an environment where women can excel professionally without sacrificing their personal, especially maternal, needs.

When I first came to the United States, I was surprised by the number of handicapped people I saw on the street and at work. In China, I rarely met a handicapped person. Was it because there were more handicapped people in the States than in China? Not likely. The true reason is that more convenience is extended to the handicapped population in the States than in China. From designated parking to the wheelchair accessible bathrooms, the American society has created an environment where the handicapped enjoy as much mobility as the otherwise privileged population. In contrast, China, until recently, has not provided the same facilities for its handicapped population, who are consequently confined in a narrower living space.

Similarly, if we want to foster women’s professional success, we must not only give them the initial access to an opportunity, but more importantly, we must create an environment where they can excel with as much ease and freedom from biological burdens as men. This is especially important for women with babies. A firm that provides wheelchair access to its handicapped employees should similarly allow new mothers to bring their babies to work and provide the necessary breast-feeding stations. It should provide daycare centers so that young mothers can go to business meetings without worrying about their children.

Significant changes must also be wrought upon social conventions. Feminists have long been arguing that men should share the burden of rearing children. Yet this is difficult to practice as long as the society exercise the conventional pressure on a man’s professional success. Just like women, men cannot simultaneously shoulder the responsibility of rearing children and pursuing their careers. Something has to give. The society must relent on its obsessive value set on men’s professional success. Women should cease to select mates based on their career success. Only when men can proudly declare themselves house-makers, can true professional gender equality be achieved. A single, childless woman should arouse no more pity than a single, childless man. Neither should a jobless househusband receive more frown than a housewife. Only then is gender equality a reality.

In Sex and the City, Miranda marries Steve. Samantha falls in love with Jared Smith. That should be a heartening ending for the professional women.

Life on the Crutches

Seeing the bus leaving the stop, I ran after it. My life changed for the next three weeks.

Exhibit 1. The swelling was still visible a week after I sprained my left ankle.

The accident

When I was thirty years old, I went on crutches for the first time. The accident happened on a Thursday night, when I severely sprained my left ankle as I ran to catch a departing bus. That night, Bosco and I were heading to Chinatown to get some authentic Cantonese noodles with beef tripes. Bosco, a chronic procrastinator, took his time in the men’s room. By the time we came to the bus stop, the bus was already leaving. I ran toward it, waving my hand. As the bus was stopping for us, the accident happened. My left foot twisted, the ankle bent sharply inward, and I started to fall. Yet my obstinate body resisted it, exerting a strong torque on my ill-positioned left ankle. The pain shot up my left leg and tore my brain. I wanted to lie down and wait for help. But I knew that the passengers on the bus must have seen my amusing accident, and I fear of being laughed at. Driven by that fear, I limped forward onto the waiting bus.

“Are you okay?” Bosco followed behind me, taking a seat.

In the next hour, we had our authentic Cantonese food. I ate the entire meal with my left hand pressing a bag of ice against my left ankle. Yet the ice was not enough to suppress the swelling. By the end of the meal, my left ankle doubled in size and looked like an orange wrapped in a sock. Clearly I needed to go to an emergency room.

“You want to come with me?” I asked Bosco as I stepped into a taxicab.

“No, I think I will just take the Muni home.” Bosco thought it inappropriate to share a cab with someone needing emergency care.

Emergency room

I had seen quite a few advertising posters for some hospital’s ER service. The posters generally showed some hapless yet jolly souls getting into an accident, such as falling over a banana skin, and a big “Whoops”. The text at the right corner said emergency care under 30 minutes in Blah-Blah hospital.

After a full hour of waiting in the corridor of the emergency room of UCSF Medical Center, I tried to remember the name of the hospital advertised in those posters. With an ice pack wrapped around my left ankle, I waited patiently for a nurse’s attendance. There was only one more waiting patient, a man sitting in a wheelchair next to me. “I have been here since six o’clock”, he said, “and I am still waiting.” I was dismayed. It was past ten.

Finally a nurse took me into a room, measured my blood pressure, put me onto a wheeled bed, and pushed me into a ward. Ward 20, as marked on the ceiling. The wards were separated by plastic curtains. There was a small bedside table, and a phone.

I called two friends. I hoped to have someone drive me home after treatment; if I could not have that, I wanted to have someone at least carry my laptop home for me. I called Wendy first. Not only because she had a car, but also because the companionship of a woman is preferable.

I got Wendy’s voicemail. “Hello, Wendy. This is Huafeng. I sprained my ankle and I am in ER. I wonder if you can drive me home tonight.”

Next I called Yu Chen. He did not have a car; but he lived nearby and he could at least take my laptop home for me.

Again, I got the voicemail. “Hello, Yu Chen. This is Huafeng. I sprained my ankle and I am in ER of UCSF Medical Center. If you can stop by on your way home and take my laptop home, it will be great. I am in Ward 20.”

For the next twenty minutes I stared at the ceiling. The ward was surrounded by curtains on three sides and a wall in the back, so I could not see anything outside. Everything in my view was white, including the phone. I imagined myself to be in a modern art exhibition, where the pieces had been variations of the white color on canvases. I imagined myself to be a wounded soldier in a World War, surrounded by dying fellowmen, neglected by the nurses and my government. I let my thoughts drift through the whiteness.

The curtain was pulled open, and a nurse came in. I thought my wait was over. She handed me a walkie-talkie-phone. “You have a phone call from your friend.” Surprised, I took the phone. It was Wendy. She just received my message and wanted to know my condition.

“Since the doctor has not attended to my case, I guess I am not dying.” I attempted humor.

Wendy wanted to know when I would get out of ER, so that she could pick me up and drive me home. I had no idea, and told her that I would call her again if I got out before some reasonable hour. I narrated my embarrassing accident. We chatted for some time. It was wonderful not to be alone in the ward.

After some time, Yu Chen called. He came in after another ten minutes. As usual, Yu Chen spoke of his trouble in finding the ER, and in finding my ward. Then we talked about this and that. Yu Chen stayed until a nurse came to take X-ray of my ankle. He left his Time magazine to me. “Just remember to return it to me when you are done. I want to keep this issue.” He carried my laptop away.

The nurse who X-rayed me was a chubby young Asian girl by the name Jacquelyn. She was either easily amused or professionally polite, laughing at every one of my jokes. As a result, I have forgotten all the jokes that I made to her. Having a nurse who laughed at my jokes at least made me temporarily forget my physical pain. The white, gigantic X-ray machine sat in a spacious room. Jacquelyn pulled the X-ray barrel over my left ankle, put a heavy apron over my chest, and walked into the adjacent operator’s room to push the button. She shuffled between my bed and the operator’s room several times, twisting my left ankle into different positions for panoramic effects. All the time, I tried to keep the jokes flowing.

A few X-ray bombardments later, I was wheeled back into my ward, and was greeted by an unexpected visitor, Wendy. Sitting in a chair, she smiled with genuine amusement when she saw me pushed in lying in the bed. I was very pleased when I saw her: female companionship, the best medicine for a man in pain.

With Wendy’s company, waiting for doctor was far more endurable. The meetings between Wendy and me were always far between, so we had a lot to update each other. I told her about my upcoming marriage proposal. She laughed at the formality of “popping the question”.

Soon came the doctor, a slim, kind-looking lady appearing to be in her late thirties. She introduced herself as Doctor Her-last-name, and informed me that my bones were fine, and the ligaments were badly stretched but not torn off, so I would be fine after sometime on crutches.

Somehow I mentioned I had a Ph.D. in chemistry.

“You should have let us known that earlier. I would have come to you much sooner had I known you were a chemist.” Doctor Her-last-name said.

I gathered that chemists had more vulnerable ankles.

After Doctor Her-last-name, a young, strapping ER technician brought me a pair of brand-new aluminum crutches. He smiled broadly, his dental braces flashing with a metallic sheen above his thick goatee. He sympathized with my sprained ankle. “But at least you have your wife here with you.” He tried to comfort me.

“Wendy is a friend of mine.” I corrected him.

“So you are dating this guy?” The technician said to Wendy. Apparently he did not believe in pure friendship between sexes.

Ten minutes later, I moved out of ER on the new crutches. Wendy drove me home.


Wendy was one of my fiancé’s best friends. I met Wendy in Columbia University a few months after I came to the United States, even before I met my fiancé. Later, through my fiancé, Wendy and I became better acquainted, although we rarely met. She moved to San Francisco after college. Two years later, I came to San Francisco for postdoctoral study in the University of California. We had met a few times since then.

Wendy was a rarity among my friends. She had more academic concerns for the world than pragmatic concerns for her own life. Three years after Columbia, two years after Berkeley, Wendy was still only half way descending the Ivory Tower. She worked as an engineer in P.G. & E., but aspired to a career in writing and journalism. Not completely a wild dream, since she had already published a few political essays in newspapers.

Like all Columbia graduates, Wendy was an ardent feminist. Although in heart I am a women’s rights activist, I sometimes speak to the contrary with Wendy just to instigate a more interesting debate.

But the ride to my home was too short for any debate of the political sort. Wendy helped me upstairs to my room, left Shere Hite’s book on female sexuality and a movie set in the Chinese Civil War, and drove back home.

Life on the crutches

The next morning I woke up with my left leg raised by four pillow cushions. The pain was still on my ankle. I clasped my crutches, sat up slowly, stood up on my right leg, and balanced myself on the crutches. I needed to go to the bathroom. Going to the bathroom, so easy before, now seemed a tremendous undertaking. Opening and closing each door, lifting up and setting down the toilet seat, getting down and getting up, between each action, I had to pause and rebalance. As I moved back step by step to my bedroom, I had an inkling of the difficult days ahead.

Going to work was out of the question. I lay in bed and read Shere Hite’s book. But the pulsating pain in my ankle made sexuality uninteresting. I flipped through the pages, nonchalantly reading women describing their sexual fantasies and orgasms. Later in the morning, Yu Chen stopped by and dropped off my laptop and two more movies. I ended up watching three movies on that day.

At noon I tried to fix myself some lunch. It was Mission Almost Impossible. I carried a pitcher of water while walking on my crutches, and I spilled water all over my pants and the floor. I managed to boil some dumplings in my rice cooker. But as I stood on one leg and scooped the dumplings into a bowl, I knew that was the last meal I would cook for myself for days to come. I left the rice cooker open and unwashed. In ten days, when I finally had the strength to clean it, I found a dead black spider in it.

In the evening, Yu Chen brought me dinner, a juicy cheeseburger from Sliders. He continued to bring me food for the next two days. He was a true friend.

For two days, I remained in my little room, venturing out no further than the bathroom. Immobilized, I began to realize how much of our lives depended on mobility. With a sprained ankle, my life was reduced to no more than a hundred square feet. I had no internet access. I had no desire to read. I was bored. On Saturday morning, I stared out of the window and looked at a beautiful Californian day. I normally would run six miles on such mornings, but not on that morning, not on the Saturday mornings of many ensuing months. I felt like an impotent man lying in bed with a beautiful woman, tormented by lust and shame. I was shrinking, body and mind.

On Sunday, the confinement became unbearable. With Yu Chen’s help, I walked outside on my crutches. Getting down the stairs was a challenge, but by the last few steps I had mastered a technique for descent. We went to the closest restaurant. I rested a couple of times along the way. When we finally reached the restaurant, my back was damp with sweat, my armpits sore. But I was as happy as a drowning man who surfaces above the water and takes a breath.

I stayed on the crutches for the next three weeks. When I crossed the streets, cars waited patiently. When I hopped on a bus, other passengers yielded the front seats to me. When I flew to New York, I enjoyed priority boarding. I was granted the convenience given to the handicapped, but I was not an object of pity. Because struggling as I was, I would soon rid of the crutches, and walk again.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Letter Writing in the Digital Age

Don't write beyond the subject line.

In the information age, brevity comes first. I sent the following message to invite my friends to a popular Peruvian restaurant:

Near the intersection of Valencia and the 17'th Street sits the legendary Limon restaurant, whose succulent ribeye steaks and tender grilled scallops have earned its reputation far and wide in the Bay Area. To this restaurant I invite you to join me, on the wondrous Thursday of March the Tenth, at the felicitous hour of 7:00pm.


Soon, I received a reply asking why I sent an email talking about a restaurant. It dawned on me that the person did not read beyond the first sentence.

Email was just getting popular when I entered graduate school. My very first emails were sent to American schools inquiring about their application procedures. Internet was still a rarity in China at that time, and I paid 20 cents per minute to type my letters in the terminal room of the chemistry department of my college. I wrote short messages to save money.

Then I went to Columbia University. Immediately I had a free email account with unlimited letter writing privileges. I could write for free to all my friends who were similarly blessed with an email account. The internet revolution had started in earnest. Two and a half years after its launch on the Independence Day of 1996, Hotmail had more than 30 million active users. It seemed that suddenly everyone in the States was sending emails, and our inboxes exploded. Our workdays were transformed: the morning would begin with composing, reading, replying to and deleting emails; frequent visits to the inbox would punctuate the day; one last peek of the inbox would invariably precede our departure from work.

With the advent of every new technology, an old way of life must die. The victim of email is the post; email is killing letter-writing. Before email, I corresponded by hand-written letters with my friends and family. The letters were infrequent but thoughtfully composed. In them, I not only narrated the most significant events happening in my life, but also told of my ideas and opinions. Every letter was an intimate conversation, and the delay in the reply provided anticipation and suspense.

To send a postal mail, one has to seal the letter in an envelope, write down the send and the return address, put on a stamp, and drop it in a mailbox. Emails, in contrast, are different. Push one button and the message is on its way. This ease exercises a subconcious pressure on one's mind: the letter can, and therefore should, be sent as soon as possible. As a result, one rushes to complete the letter, pushes the send button, and moves on to the next message. Convenience is the enemy of depth.

I am probably one of the few surviving dinosaurs from the postal age who still read my friends' emails from the beginning to the end. But I have an advantage: my friends' emails tend to be short. They average two paragraphs, consisting of no more than three sentences each. They fall into the following general format:

I did some cool stuff. The stuff I did was really cool. I wish you did the same cool stuff too.

Want to do some cool stuff together sometime?

After proposing to my fiancee, I sent an email to my friends, telling my engagement story with details and great excitement. I fell cold on seeing the following reply:

Congratulations! So how did you do it?

The subject of my email was: "I am engaged!" The narrative of the full experience began in the first paragraph of the text.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Harvard Exchange

Harvard University did not offer me a job, for one good reason.

This year I looked for faculty positions. I sent my application to Harvard University. It lead to the following exchange of letters.


Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Harvard University

Dear Members of the Search Committee:

Please consider my application for the junior faculty position in Physical Chemistry advertised by your department in C&E News. I have enclosed with this letter my curriculum vitae, a list of my publications and patents, and a statement of my research interests.

I look forward to hearing from you.


Huafeng Xu


Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Harvard University

Dear Dr. Huafeng Xu,

Thank you for your application for our assistant professorship in Organic Chemistry. We have received a very large number of excellent applications this year and can only interview a few candidates.

Unfortunately, the Department is not in a position to offer you an assistant professorship at this time.

Our best wishes for your future plans.


Akira R. Shave


Dear Dr. Shave,

I recently received a letter from you which stated to the effect that your department was not in a position to offer me an assistant professorship in organic chemistry. I am writing to assure you that the regret in your letter is completely unjustified and unnecessary.

Harvard is not the only school that is not in a position to offer me a job in organic chemistry. No institution on this planet is: I am not even an organic chemist! Sure, I took organic chemistry in college, and spent some time making pheromones in an organic lab. But that's it. I have not been near any toxic chemicals since graduate school. Consequently, I have decided to accept an offer in computational chemistry from another institution, and continue my chemical-free career.

I wish you success in identifying the best organic chemist in the world.

Sincerely Yours,