Saturday, December 30, 2006

Il Violino

Il Violino is an Italian restaurant on Columbus Avenue behind the Sony Theatre at Lincoln Square. Many a violinists seemed to have dined there, maybe for dinner as they performed at the nearby Lincoln Center, as their autographed photos covered all the walls. How these photos come into the restaurant is unknown. Did the artists bring a photo of themselves wherever they dined and gave them away as endorsements for the restaurant (a megalomaniac act), or did the owner of Il Violino anticipated the artists' visit and ordered the prints in advance (a precognizant act)? Most likely the owner simply stocked the portraits of all the violinists that have scheduled to perform in Lincoln Center and brought these out for autographs when the violinists dropped by. With scanty restaurants in the vicinity, the violinists are bound to show up in everyone of them some day.
My wife and I went to the Sony Theatre to see The Curse of the Golden Flower, which, incidentally, turned out to be an expected disappointment. Having two hours for dinner before the movie, we strolled into Il Violino for some pasta. It looked busier than its neighbors, but here even the busiest had tables readily available. The waiter, a stocky, balding man with well trimmed goatie, passed by our table. "What would you care to drink?" "Water will be fine." -- We never start with anything other than water, except for once in Dao, where we drank cocktail and my wife had some mishap for imbibing alcohol in empty stomach. The waiter continued on his way to the kitchen and disappeared.
Countless minutes later, the headwaiter came to our table and asked us if someone was waiting on us. Of course, and we were waiting for him. The headwaiter then apologetically took our order. The entrees were duly served, and their taste, considering their convenient location, lived up to the moderate price.
Dessert time, and our waiter was still no show. So we asked a passing waitress, who instructed a handyboy to bring us the dessert menu, who also took our order. Our waiter continued to block us from his sight even after the icecream started to elevate our blood sugar level. My wife suggested walking out without paying, as there was no check, but I refused to leave with a bad conscience on top of a bad dining experience. Again the aforementioned waitress came. "The waiter not doing his job?" She asked, rhetorically, and sent for our waiter, who came to our table the second time to present us our check, and vanished with my credit card into the backroom. Only after we asked the sympathetic waitress for help again did he return, one last time, with the receipt for my signature.
I wrote a small tip for our waiter. He was the waiter, but we did most of the waiting.

Book of Job

The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; at least the shipping and handling is free.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Tipping Misgivings

It is almost Christmas and I tipped my doormen. This is the first time that I have given the year-end tip to the doormen of my new apartment, therefore it is important and difficult for me to choose the right amount. Too little, the doormen can be unhappy and that will jeopardize my relationship with them; too much, it will set an expensive precedent that I will have to follow in the years to come, and that may jeopardize my wallet -- there really are quite a few door staff for my apartment. I did some research, and decided to err, if I would, on the generous side. Nonetheless, the moment I handed the tip to a doorman I dreaded my next encounter with him. Did I tip enough? From the body language, facial expression, and tonal voice in the doorman's next greeting, I looked for clues of his satisfaction. Was he making more eye contact or less? Did the vowels in the "Good night" get longer or shorter? Was he two seconds later in opening the door?

Year-end tipping is really undemocratic, since there is no mechanism for the tippers to act on fair ground. Each tipper, especially the inexperienced tippers, has to guess the amount with insufficient information, and that causes unnecessary anxieties, and often, because most people would rather be generous than stingy to avoid attrition with the recipients of the tip, inflation of the tip. By the same token, bribery in a corrupt society causes unnecessary economical attrition.

Monday, October 23, 2006

A free but not so super haircut

I got a coupon from Supercut offering a free haircut. I thought that there was no harm in saving a few bucks. So I went.

In retrospect, the big mistake that I made, aside from stinting on what I should have splurged, was that I presented the coupon right after I entered the shop. Every barber turned her head and frowned: here comes another person who is in just for the free cut. The head barber apparently had no interest in wasting her time. She disappeared immediately after finishing with her previous customer, leaving me waiting on the bench. The second barber available had no choice but to take me on the chair. But she cut my hair with as little care as if she were mowing down the remaining stalks in a wheat field after a year's harvest, paying no attention to either what fell off or what was left standing. I, conscious of the cut being free, patiently and politely pointed out the unevenness on my head, which she reluctantly corrected. By the end of ten minutes, she set down her clippers and scissors, and gestured that I was done.

My poor haircut did not escape being noticed the second day at work. My colleagues all wondered, some a little too loudly, why a man of decent salary would accept a messy head of hair for a saving of a few bucks. I wondered ruefully, too. But I feel as sorry for Supercut as for myself, for it just spent a few bucks to lose a potential customer. The management clearly lost touch with its employees. The free haircut that the management handed out in hope of promotion was taken by the individual barbers as an opportunity for the free-loaders to take advantage of their labor. What should have been a chance to attract new customers is thoughtlessly squandered, and that expended labor is lost forever.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

My fear of ghosts

I have always feared ghosts, and this fear grows stronger as I grow older. Every strange movement of untouched objects, every mysterious apparition, every inexplicable sound rouse my suspecion of an encounter with the unliving. Never could I watch a horror film without being on my toes for days afterwards; so I have quit those films altogether for a few years now.

This fear rather perplexed me, since I am an atheist and I never really believe in ghosts. But recently I start to rationalize my fear. I do not really fear that the ghosts, if they were there, would do me bodily harm. After all, my folklore knowledge tells me that the dead and the living cannot interact physically. What I truly fear is their mere existence. If there were ghosts, there would be an afterlife, and there might very well be a judgement day for us all. There might even be a God, who would probably have been very angry with me for years of unbelief. I would have to answer for all the things that I have done in godlessness. I might be roiling on a gridiron in hell for eternity. Worst of all, I would not know whether I would still have time to redeem myself in the remainder of my life, by giving up all the joys that God disapprove and all the liberal thoughts that the Church condemns. If I would be a good Christian for the rest of my life but still go to hell because of my earlier sins, I would have lost both in this life and the one after, and that thought would drive me mad.

Now I understand. It is not the ghosts that I fear. It is the perdition.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Gene of Art

Imagine an island, inhabited by aborigines untouched by civilization, innocent of art. Imagine a plane crash on this island, and the cargo, the treasures of western art, miraculously survives the crash. Imagine the aborigines, coming to the site of the crash, find that for their grab are Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, a canvas spoiled by Jackson Pollack, and, for their complete introduction to modern western art, Duchamp's signed urinal. Which piece of art will the aborigines vie for?

Such a hypothetical question has never been asked in reality. Surprising, considering the long debate throughout history about the meaning of art, and more specifically, whether we are innately conditioned to recognize certain objects as art. Simple experiments may help to answer this question. Art, like all things under the sun, can be dissected by methods of science. A recent paper, published in no less a journal than the most prestigious Nature, attempted to rationalize the structural harmony of a Japanese garden. A more famous example is the mathematical analysis of Pollack's paintings, which revealed that the fractal dimension in a true Pollack is consistently higher than the imitators. Such studies, few there may be, are more for scientists' self-amusement than for artists' enlightenment. They are usually scattered in scientific journals, and, as few artists read scientific journals, they are seldom heeded in the world of art, except sometimes as subjects of ridicule. The real artists prefer to debate the meaning of art based on subjective and metaphysical opinions, not on objective facts. Art, to the artists, is divine; to reduce art to its atomistic elements is preposterous and contemptible. In the world of art, science has no dominion.

Art, like Christianity, like science, is an institutionalized religion. The artists, art scholars and critics are its clergymen and evangelists. Like the evangelists of Christianity, the artists want to spread their influence. Art, they like to say, should be enjoyed by all men. Like the clergymen of Christianity, the artists try to keep some privileges to themselves. Art, they also say, can only be truly enjoyed by the initiated few. A layman can read the bible and follow the teachings of Jesus, but only the Church has the authority to interpret the Holy Script; anyone can go to the museum and contemplate the exhibition of art, but only the insiders of art can decide what to include in the collection. The doctrines of art are negotiated by the artists' Council of Nicene; there is no genuinely disinterested definition of art. The promoters of art, the critics, the scholars, and the dealers, do not share the same interests with the creators of art, the painters and the sculptors. The outcome of any debate of what makes art is a compromise among different interest groups, and it evolves with time.

By and large, art must be sold, to the elites of the society who can afford it. In the middle ages, art was sold to the nobilities, the Church, and the Venetian merchants. In modern days, it is sold to the industrialists, the financiers, and the Saudi princes. Among other reasons, the elites patronize art as a means of distinguishing themselves from the mass. The more the art can distinguish, the better. Yet the distinction must be subtle. The bourgeois should appreciate a decade later what the nobilities are enjoying now. The critics' job is to direct the Avant-Garde of art, so that the buyers of art are always a few years ahead of the commoners. When everyone is accustomed to Monet and Cezanne, they introduce Matisse. When Matisse becomes well received, they bring out Picasso. And so on, until a piece of warped metal appears in Christie's art auction.

Are we genetically predisposed to perceive certain combination of light and shadow, color and shape as art? Probably not. If art is beauty, and beauty is what attracts us biologically, we should see as the most beautiful a woman's vagina, or a man's penis, which of the two depending on, of course, the gender of the beholder. No, art is an acquired taste, and it needs a formal introduction. So much as a man unlearned in mathetmatics cannot see the beauty in e^(ipi)+1==0, a man cannot appreciate the wonderful play of space and color in Matisse's The Piano Lesson without first being familiar with the paintings of the classical masters. Art, in this sense, is what the artists tell us should be.

Back to the lucky aborigines who have the chance to choose between Da Vinci, Picasso, Pollack and Duchamp. Will they recognize the perfect symmetry and harmony in Mona Lisa, the grotesque beauty in Les Demoiselles, or the universal fabric hidden in Pollack's splashes of paint? Or will they marvel at the smooth, glossed surface of the urinal, its clean curves and solid construction, and see it as the acme of artistic creation? In all likelihood, the aborigines may scour through the wreckage and find a half-charred suitcase the most aesthetically appealing. But most probably each individual will have a different favorite and everyone will be happy with his share of the windfall. After all, in a world unspoiled by institutionalized art, everyone is entitled to an opinion.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Amazing Ronaldinho

This Nike commercial is making rounds on the internet. Ronaldinho, yet another Brazilian soccer genius, casually puts on a new pair of white Nike cleats, foot-juggles a football along the penalty line, and kicks the ball at the goal. Four times in a row, the ball hits the crossbar and bounces back, and Ronaldinho catches the ball with his foot and continues to juggle the ball. Incredible.

Is it real or fake? As much debate has surfaced on the web as that about whether Ben Affleck and J Lo were dating for real. Opinions range from total credulity to complete disbelief. One person thinks that the first two hits are real, while the other two are processed; another amusingly proposed that only the first hit is real, but it is unintentional and has inspired the following digitally-processed sequence.

When I first saw the video, I was so utterly amazed that I did not even consider the possibility of its being fake. Having recovered from my initial amazement, I now think that the video has been retouched. In fact, now I am amazed that there is even a debate regarding the video's authenticity. It is certainly impossible, ruling out that the gods were guiding the ball between him and the crossbar, that anyone, anyone, can kick the ball from 35 yards away, hit the crossbar four times in a row, have it bounce back each time precisely to himself, and catch it in mid-air with his foot. But many people think that the gods are indeed watching over Ronaldinho's shoulders. Many people think that Ronaldinho is indeed THAT good. Nike did not choose ANY soccer player for this video; they chose Ronaldinho to lend it credibility.

We all have this superhuman complex: we tend to believe that superhuman abilities exist, and that they must be found, if not in our mediocre selves, in other exceptional individuals. Don't we all love to tell the story of an extraordinary feat of some genius's doing? The vicarious accomplishment is truly, deeply satisfying.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Ill Formed URLs

Internet! There seemed to be a webpage for everything. And every webpage needs a URL. The most thoughtless, and easy-to-remember way of forming the URL is to concatenate all the words together. My apartment building, Ritz New York, has its own webpage:, and one AIDS coalition's website:

But this concatenation can misfire. The URL string can be parsed into completely different word combinations than originally intended. Just like the founders of the Super 8 Motel chain neglected to look up the meaning of suppurate, many advertisement men forgot to look out for the alternative and often compromising meaning of their web URL. This blog celebrates such negligence.

Go red for women, the new campaign of the American Heart Association, has its dedicated webpage. The URL is simply Unfortunately, it also reads

www.gored for

which, amusingly, may evoke similar visual images as the original slogan.

The O'Neill building in New York's Flatiron District, once a fashion emporium, is being converted into a new luxury condominium. It too, has its own URL for sales promotion: Well, the potential buyers might want to think twice about purchasing a unit in

www.the one ill

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Chinks and Japs

Let me preface this writing by confessing that I know very little about Japanese -- their culture and their history. Excepting my acquaintance with a few Japanese scientists, my love of Sushi and eel over rice, and my fondness of Japanese anime, I have no knowledge of Japanese literature and art, or its customs and mores. I have not read a single Japanese literary masterpiece, or seen more than half a dozen Japanese paintings, or known its long history, or visited any Japanese city, or learnt hiragana, or spoken its language. Recently, this began to alarm me. Having lived and been educated for twenty three years in China, a strait away from Japan, I feel uncomfortable about my ignorance about my neighbor. What concerns me more, though, is Chinese's collective ignorance about Japan. Nothing is taught about Japan in Chinese schools except the bigoted notion that the Japanese culture is rooted in the Chinese culture, and that Japan invaded China in the 1930's and was driven out after eight years of bloody war. Few Chinese learn the Japanese language, and no Japanese book is included in the school syllabus. In contrast, most of my Japanese friends at least have some knowledge of the Chinese language and the Chinese literature.

Yet there is an ingrained hatred in many Chinese for the Japanese, a neighbor they barely know except that some of their great grandfathers have died fighting this neighbor in the eight-year war. This hatred may date further back to the end of the nineteenth century, where the Japanese Navy defeated the Chinese Beiyang Navy in a series of short and decisive battles. These two Chinese-Japanese wars should be reason enough for the Chinese to learn more about Japan. Instead, they fostered blind animosity.

Blind, and humorless too. The Brits and the French have fought each other for centuries, and even today they have a contempt for each other. But they express their nationalistic prejudice by laughing at their old foes. I recently listened to Monty Python's John Cleese in a speech. Being British, Mr. Cleese opened by making fun of the French:

"Why did the French have so many civil wars?"
"So that they can win one."

"How many Frenchman does it take to defend Paris?"
"Nobody knows, it has never been tried before."

I do not remember hearing a Chinese joke about the Japs, neither would I know if the Japanese ever joke about the Chinks. How do you make up a joke about something you barely know?

There is, however, a true story that is almost funny. My mother-in-law's college classmate in China has been a professor in Japan for twenty years. Recently he took a vacation in China. To his surprise, many of his Chinese friends sympathetically asked him if the Japanese ever harassed him because he was from China. "It must be difficult for a Chinese to live in Japan." his friends said to him. When he returned to Japan, he was again surprised. Many of his Japanese colleagues sympathetically asked him if the Chinese harassed him when he was traveling China. "It must be hard for a man from Japan to travel in China." his colleagues said to him. This is probably the closest to a joke that the Chinese and the Japanese can tell about each other.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Why I Am Not a Vegetarian

Nobody turns vegetarian for the taste. Mothers always tell their children to "eat your vegetables", apparently because we do not have an innate appetite for the green leaves or the red roots of domesticated plants. From day one of our existence in this world, we hunger for an animal product: milk. Evolutionarily, we are genetically wired to eat meat: our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed high protein and calorie food to support their energy-hungry brains. Culinarily, meat is more versatile than vegetables: beef is stewed, roasted, broiled, grilled (to different degrees of cookedness), pan fried, stir fried, seared, or served raw in steak tartare; lettuce and tomato are chopped and served in salad; lobsters are boiled, baked, stir fried, stuffed in ravioli, stuffed with shrimp and crab meat, and served with baked potatoes or French fries; potatoes are baked or made into French fries, and served as a side to lobsters and burgers. Vegetable is secondary to meat in the following cuisines: French, Italian, British, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Brazilian, Argentinean, Russian, Vietnamese, Thai, Ethiopian, and, if it counts as a cuisine, the American. Entrees in the menus of the above-mentioned cuisines usually feature meat: veal, pork, lamb, duck, chicken, turkey, and a variety of fishes, accompanied by a modicum of vegetables.

Yet more and more people forgo meat in their diet. Vegetarianism, an ancient form of dietary restriction practiced by the Hindus and the Buddhist monks, has gone secular. Of course, involuntary vegetarians are common all over the developing world: people do not eat meat simply because they cannot afford it. In Mozambique, the average meat consumption per capita per year in 2002 is 5.6 kilograms, roughly the beef in 50 Whoppers from Burger King. Even as I was growing up in China in the seventies and early eighties, meat was scarce and rationed, and I did not see meat in my meal every night, and I recollect many fights with my cousin over who got more meat in his plate when we did have it. For most of the world population, meat is still not plenty. But this may not appear so in the United States, where the average meat consumption per capita per year in 2002 was 124 kilograms: 3 Whoppers a day. In the United States, we are eating too much meat.

Hence the epidemic obesity, and the attendant health problems. Throughout millions of years of evolution, when no animal can be sure of its next meal, the storage of the surplus calories in the form of body fat is crucial for survival. But evolution could not have foreseen this century of calorie abundance. Our bodies continue to store the excess calories, although we no longer need them, and each day we have even more calories to spare, which turn into more fat, until one day, someone woke up astounded by the body mass of Americans and announced that the nation had become too fat.

Hence the blame on meat. Multiple studies have shown that vegetarians have lower risks of cardiovascular diseases, lower mortality, and longer life expectancy than the carnivorous. These studies, of course, have been interpreted by many as the evidence for the health benefit of vegetarianism, even though further studies show that there is no significant health advantage of vegetarian diet over a similar diet with moderate amount of meat. The problem is not the meat, but overeating it, as anything taken to the excess can be harmful. Nonetheless, meat, with its high cholesterol and its high calories that once made it the most desirable item in our ancestors' menu, is suddenly shunned as a health hazard by the health-conscious.

Further undermining the meat's position is a group of ultraliberal people going by the name People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. Well, these people are the kindest of all people of the world. So kind, in fact, that they can not tolerate the slightest cruelty in this world. But this world is full of cruelties: the oppression in Iraq, the malnutritioned children in impoverished Africa, the genocide in Rwanda, the civil war in Bhutan. All this torments the kind people of PETA, but none of this troubles them so much as the cruelties that we commit to animals in this seemingly civilized country.

PETA first gained public attention in its fight for the animal rights in scientific labs, but it soon spread its interest to animal farming. PETA states that animals share same sufferings as you and me, and should be respected for their individual lives. Its propaganda vilifies the modern practice of meat industry. The animals, according to PETA, are raised in close quarters (like us in New York), overfed (like us in America), and cruelly slaughtered (like the folks in Iraq). They are also often mutilated to prevent internecine fights due to unbearable stress. They are bred for the sole purpose of being eaten. They have never experienced any joyous stimulus in their lives.

All PETA says is true. But the animal farmers are also kind and honest people. They also wish for world peace and like everyone to be happy, and they make everyone happy by making their meat cheap and plenty to everyone. They are also the simple people whose compassion usually do not extend beyond the order of primates. They can be kind to their chickens or cattles by having them living in spacious farms, but their families may not enjoy the diminished income.

Humans may be the only animal capable of compassion for its food. Of this, obviously, nobody can be certain. I will never know if the sharks had a pang of remorse when they tore off the legs of the hapless swimmers, or the wolves had a moment of hesitation when they carried off the human babies to feed their own calves. But they did it anyway. So maybe next time I eat my steak I will remember the cows' sufferings. But right now I am hungry, and I need to think whether I want beef, pork, lamb, chicken, or fish for dinner.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Chemistry in Haiku

Cis retinal sits,
Quietly, until the light hits.
Isomerize. See!

Today AMBER works,
Yesterday CHARMM does better,
Force Fields are like that.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Burger Joint Club

On West 56th Street, just steps east of Carnegie Hall, stands the Le Parker Meridien Hotel. Walk into the lobby, past the reception desk, and turn left, you will find an obscure neon light sign in the shape of a steaming double cheese burger. For many hours around lunch time, everyday of the week, you will also find a long line of people waiting underneath the neon sign. They are waiting to have a taste of the highly acclaimed burgers from the legendary Burger Joint, a tiny burger restaurant hiding in a corner of a grandiose hotel, hiding, that is, aside from the neon sign and the queue that advertise its existence. Tiny, as it boasts no more than six tables and a short bar, and can sit no more than thirty people at a time. One cashier takes orders and money from the customers, and two cooks prepare the burgers and the milk shakes. The joint may serve greasy burgers, but it certainly has a lean staff.

I have eaten in Burger Joint twice. The first time my co-workers took me; the second time I took my wife. The burgers were juicy and flavorful, but they were also awfully small. At over five dollars a burger, Burger Joint was a rip-off. After all, burgers are but beef in a bun; there are bad burgers and good burgers, but I doubt there are spectacular burgers that deserve premium prices and far-reaching reputation. The Burger Joint burgers are good burgers, but just one of the many equally good burgers that I have tasted in my peregrination of America. Why has it become a Manhattan culinary attraction, one that one-time tourists and returning customers alike are willing to wait for thirty minutes to eat over-priced burgers in a vociferous crowd? What makes Burger Joint tick?

The Chinese proverb says that an inn with good wines should not worry about hiding in a deep alley. What it does not say is that the inn can actually benefit from hiding in a deep alley. Secrecy, once its existence is known, becomes an irresistible draw. Everyone wants to discover its what-about. Eating in a hard-to-find restaurant heightens the joy of discovery, discovery not only of the tongue but also of the feet. This possession of exclusive knowledge gives the delight of being among the privileged few who are “in-the-know”.