Indoor second hand smoking — the one thing that pisses me off

I need to get in the habit of anticipating second hand smoking in restaurants during my China stay. This is my single biggest complaint throughout past, present and future visits. My nose is especially sensitive to cigarette smells. It used to be not like that, for instance when I was studying in the Netherlands a decade ago. I must have acquired the distaste for cigarettes during my miserable year in low income NYC apartment, where the entire unit was permeated from time to time by neighborly tobacco. Maybe European cigarettes were not as repulsive as the American or Chinese ones.

The fact that some of my wife’s family relatives work in the tobacco industry does not soften my stance against smoking. I had childhood history of asthma and even as an adult often had coughs and lung infections as a result of catching influenza. The recent article about a Beijing retiree’s miserable death by N3H2 that bankrupted his whole family, after they sold all their houses, makes me financially more conscious of lung protection.

As soon as I walked into my aunt in law (mother in law’s sister)’s luxurious apartment home, I was greeted by the familiar toxic puffs, radioactively spread from my half younger uncle in law (aunt in law’s younger half brother)’s shtick. Fortunately, the female in laws stepped up their complaints in defense of my daughter’s health, and my younger half uncle in law obediently stepped out to the balcony to finish his smoldering stub, and stayed smoke-free for the rest of the afternoon. I often marvel at how people like my aunt in law can stand such second hand smoking environment on a daily basis. It is almost cruel for me to remind them the carcinogenic risk of second hand smoking, in a society where it is virtually unavoidable.

Later in the evening, we walked over to a restaurant to bid farewell to my younger sisterly cousin in law (my wife’s sisterly cousin, for lack of a better term), who was flying back to Australia early the following morning, as well as my half uncles in law, who would be heading back to their small village town the next day as well. This time, I was much more alert to the possibility of indoor smoking. Sure enough, a gentleman sitting diagonally from our table puffed like business as usual. Smokers do strike me as tougher human beings whose rights are harder to infringe upon, just like my younger half uncle in law, whose tone became more gangsterly under the aura of cigarette smoke. Fortunately I knew better than confronting a puffing stranger directly, and turned to a young waiter looking for errands. “My good sir”, I walked over with a hand covering our conversation, “there are several young kids here, would you mind asking that gentleman there to not smoke indoor?” The waiter looked initially confused, defensively. Then as I insisted through my condescending gaze, he replied that some senior manager would need to intervene. I was briefly reassured and started looking forward to a worry-free meal, until he and a slightly more senior female attendant approached me at my seat and explained thus, “you know we do put up the smoking is prohibited sign at the entrance, but in our restaurant business, we really can’t upset the customers about smoking restrictions since it’s a local custom. You can move your daughter two seats to the left so that the smoker isn’t seated as closely.” While extremely unhappy, I knew there is little I can do and what they told me was largely the truth.

To my brief relief, the two staffs did walk over to the gentleman, and even though I didn’t overhear their conversation, the man did not pick up another shtick for the rest of the evening. And the relief lasted about 5 minutes, when a gentleman seated right next to our table became the next source of the local custom. At this point, I could only force myself to get used to it and have a nice meal.

Later that night I feverishly scoured and other almighty shopping sites for tobacco masks or nose filters, and did find a few. But even under the rage and rabidity of physical violated, I knew full well these contraptions were no substitute for a clean environment with strictly enforced indoor smoking bans.

There is nothing more irritating than cigarettes in this otherwise perfectly lovely and harmonious country. Is it the need to appear tough, calm, and carpe-diem, that propelled generations of male workforce onto the tobacco stage? Surely the political leaders did not act as great role models. Population density may be another important factor, since NYC was not in a very different situation. Even though I am not a big believer in marijuana legalization, concerned about its psychological effect on our young kids and social mores in general, I would not hesitate if it can completely weed out tobacco, a much more criminal substance that takes toll on my lung cells directly. Had cigarettes been invented in more recent history, it would have been strangled in the cradle by the FDA and similar organizations in other countries without a doubt. Traditions like that and islamic jihadism and Catholic condom ban unfortunately have to continually be tolerated in societies.

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A tour in the city

My elder cousin’s family happened to visit Guangzhou and surrounding area (mainly the Changlong zoo in Panyu) these days, so I invited them to come visit us at my mother in law’s home. He insisted that he came by himself, an obvious ploy to avoid receiving money for his son. Instead he brought over a basket of fresh fruit and money for my daughter, and refused to take ours. What a wonderful tradition. The money will keep me alive for a few days.

So we spent some time with his parents over wechat video. It was challenging to know the right names to call and there were about 6 choose 2 such challenges. But that didn’t matter much.

Afterwards my cousin and I went out to take the bus so that he could have dinner with his extended family while I look for a place to cut hairs. He offered a few expensive options but I thought I could find one myself in one of those alleys. Turns out I was quite wrong. The whole city is in semi-hibernation mode right after Chinese new year. I spent the remaining 3 hours scouring a radius of 2 miles from where I got off the bus, in search for a hair salon. It was also silly to never backtrack in a busy city where the roads are intertwined and not always in straight lines and often blocked by pedestrian overpass.

A few noteworthy observations on my aimless meandering. Various wall decorations suggest that democracy is a key pursuit of the society, along with virtues like freedom, equality. There were a few others that I can no longer recall. Pedestrians, while being numerous even during the holiday season, were peaceful, respectful, and optimistic looking. Also citizens here are a lot friendlier than those in Shanghai, despite me coming from the latter. Most people I talked to on the street for directions know mandarin fairly well. In Shanghai, I always have fear asking for directions, especially from security guards. Taxi drivers are also rude as hell.

The first major blow to my expectation during the walk was when I stopped at a muslim noodle restaurant and ordered beef noodle soup. Firstly there was no wifi in the store. When the noodle soup was presented, it had absolutely no green vegetables, unlike the picture. Instead it had a few potato and pumpkin shreds, along with noodle and beef shreds. The noodle was good, spongy and smooth. But the beef had visible embedding of blood vessels and the non-green vegetables were simply useless.

After walking out with 15 bucks, I kept strolling along some freeway sidewalks (another important distinguishing features in Chinese cities, compared to US suburbs) until it turned dark and I saw another Macdonald store. I decided to try my luck there for wifi and food. Half way through ordering of a “jumbo” burger and sprite, I asked about wifi and was told there were none. Extremely surprised, I cancelled the order and walked out until I found a pizza hut place, and decided it must have wifi. A cute impeccably looking waitress greeted  me but rolled her eyes when I inquired about wifi availability. She must have thought I was a free-rider. I assured her that I was here to eat, and was then shown a good table with a smile on her face and two beautiful menus. She then sat with another guy at a table right next to me, and I couldn’t recall if she was the waitress or just another customer, since she appeared to be eating something and the guy playing video games on his cell phone. After being unable to connect to the open access wifi the store provided, I walked over to her explaining that I didn’t have a local cell number in order to register the connection. She tried a few of her own numbers and was surprised that they didn’t work either, and told me to just wait for now, which effectively meant there would be no wifi. After some more time, it occurred to me that I might have to approach her myself for food order, so I did. I was going to quit the store except she already served me a glass of lemon sprinkled water, and I did not want to walk out stores twice in a single day, for some chivalrous reason.

The mini seafood pizza was not entirely disappointing, and somewhat honestly reproduces the picture on the menu, except there was no mention of imitation crab meat on the menu, a move I thought was honest by itself, since they could easily have put crab meat in the description, real or not, but might elicit customer complaints. After finishing, which took about 3 minutes, with the help of silverwares that came only after my request, but with due apology, I paid the 44 bucks and walked away again.

This time, I gave up on the notion of haircut, and sought straight for some grocery shopping venues, as my cousin suggested, to supplement my mother-in-law’s busy cooking schedule. Finally I located one situated many high rise department stores. I picked up some yoghurt, sweet rice balls, and cooked meat dishes, then ordered a cab back. The cab was just unloading some passengers so the driver must be pretty happy to pick up another one right away. The whole trip cost only 12 rmb, which is less than 2 usd. Cost is still fairly reasonable in China, especially for necessities like transportation, non-luxury food resorts, and service sectors. Houses and clothings are on the more expensive end, especially in big cities.

By the time I got back, I had no more energy for toothbrushing and as soon as my head hit the hay, sleep dawned on me for 10 straight hours — I woke up briefly in the middle of the night to brush teeth. My 9+ hour sleep requirement just got worsened during my China stay.

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Political thoughts from China trip

I am conflicted internally about the pros and cons of the so-called totalitarian Chinese political system. At a lunch one day one of my Australian colleagues suggested that totalitarianism has been a historical feature throughout ancient Chinese history, rather than a modern innovation. Indeed unification has been a recurring theme, only interleaved by periods of turmoil and unrest, which have always been considered undesirable for society at large. From a Chinese perspective the undesirability of a fragmented China is more than obvious: warlords engage in military campaigns against each other, with collateral damage of massive casualties and  and cultural and economic disruptions. The question is whether a unified nation-state is always good to its citizens. From historical accounts, that has consistently been the case. The possibility of partial and dishonest historians under the intellectual coercion of ruling emperors always exists, but we have learned many incriminating facts about ruling families throughout the centuries, and if Western schools were to take confucianism seriously, which they do to give the impression of pro-ethnic diversity stance, then they should treat the historians’ account with similar reverence, simply because those were continuations of the Confucian traditions, however self-perpetuating they may look.

One of the most contentious aspects of modern China is its suppression of freedom of press, which the west values highly, as a safeguard against corruption, and other forms of institutional abuse and degradation. China today is not shy about the fact that certain inconvenient facts are suppressed at the state level. The Great Firewall is an example, though the deterrence is not absolute. I’d like to draw some parallels with the early United States democratic history. Back during the founding period, slaves were not allowed to vote individually and yet boost the voting weights of slave-owners in the Southern plantation states. There is little justification aside from the fact that blacks were not recognized as legit humans back then by the prevailing Southern white community. Same goes with certain white indentured servants, Native Americans, women, and non-land-owners in general. In that sense, democracy is not absolute, and did not arise from the ideal of human equality, but through a compromise of self-serving motives. At least on paper this does not sound as great as how one might be taught at school, unless one belongs to the ruling class at the time. The voting is also not universal, but slightly hierarchical, in which general populations had to vote for representatives, who in turn cast votes for the POTUS and other important federal positions. This may be a result of technicality, but unfortunately (from the liberal perspective) the system is highly inert to change. From a conservative point of view, the two-stage voting system helps giving smaller states a comparable voice against large ones, and I would say prevent population from over-concentrating around the mega-cities, a problem China is struggling with today with varying degree of success.

The Chinese system today certainly does not embrace universal vote either, but chooses a rather hierarchical way of promoting leadership, hybridized with some top down successor-cherrypicking process. Because of the ostensibly longer feedback loops, and partial insulation from people’s wills, transparency is potentially compromised, and the prospect of corruption is viewed as higher. Indeed during the anti-corruption campaign spear-headed by Xi as well as earlier, several mega-corruption cases have been uncovered, with personal wealth reaching the 10s of billions, seating some political figureheads squarely on the FORBE’s list. American corruptions are usually of smaller magnitude, at least in terms relative to national income average or other measures of average wealth. Reports of senatorial net worth look paltry in comparison. Arguably, however, the extent of corruption goes beyond mere illicit wealth acquisition. Members of congress are not barred from inside trading, a rule that is meant to prevent conflict of interest, ironically. I do not know how the Chinese statutes stand on this matter. Spiritually, the party leaders should frown upon such capitalistic evil-doings.

In the media-dominated modern era, transparency, which is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy, is largely ensured by the media. That’s why China’s decision to ban certain websites is considered highly incongruent to western values. However, I would argue that juxtaposing American democracy during statutory slavery prior to 1865 and socio-economic slavery thereafter, the decision to ban certain media outlets is not worthy of much criticism. It is unreasonable to ask a 5 year old to reach the mental maturity of an adult by exposing her to pornography; countries also take time to mature to be ready for certain political forms. Cancerous material such as drug advertisement and violent pornography should arguably be outlawed completely. If slavery abolition was insisted during the US founding period, the British would still be ruling the continent, with her unjust taxation. If the Chinese government were to relax its media stronghold, unverifiable figures of governmental atrocities would surely instigate revolt by the under-informed mob, that would disrupt everyday lives of middle class families and free market economy. So peasantry/farming population in modern China played a similar role as slavery in the US, with an important distinction that peasants ascend socio-economic ladders through painful but viable migration waves to the cities, as did my grandparents generation, as well as millions of migrant workers who leave their children behind with grandparents in pursuit of better living. The blacks are struggling with basic civil rights even today, and gerrymandering is virtually a collective consciousness at the state congressional level, at least in North Carolina and possibly a few others. Granted the problem US is trying to solve has its unique challenges, mainly ethnic diversity. The Chinese challenges may be even more noteworthy, namely high population density. China also has ethnic diversity, mainly concentrated near the borders. It would be somewhat inconceivable to let a self-serving democracy run freely in the country and hope for a win-win happy compromise to come out. Anthropology tells us that usually there is only one winner in the end. The preservation of minority genomes is largely a conquerors’ hobby.

As the US confronts the spread of fake news, China’s state censorship seems to claim a rare but decisive victory. The climate denialism had no chance to go mainstream, and superstition driven policies find no home in the statutes. The US is developing its own defense mechanism against these manufactured truths, however it is in no position to counter religions, one of its core founding values. The process is somewhat similar to anti-trust laws, where corporate conglomerates were banned from collusions, despite operating under free market environment. Platforms like facebook and google receive injunctions to internally regulate media content, effectively injecting editorial discretions aligned with political agendas, however unquestionable the motives. Thus one should not be alarmed by the unsettling rise of fake news, but draw analogies with the legislative traditions of the past, and rest assured that the system will heal itself in due time. The Chinese government seems to approach the problem from another end, namely more strict starting point, gradually relaxed towards tolerance of dissension. I don’t think the government will ever tolerate fake news per se, since it is viewed as intrinsically bad, like mosquitos. Thus there is likely no formidable legislative adaption like what the US is going through right now. This does not mean the name fake news would not be mentioned many times in the written laws, but they will be more proactive rather than reactive. The disadvantage is that the system may be less resilient to future attacks of unforeseen kind. But there is always a tradeoff between explore and exploit, and the US path is definitely the more exploratory of the two. In terms of relative advantages, China can easily piggyback on US exploratory findings, and steer away from the failure cases to devote more energy towards key legislative improvements. The key however is not to copy the entire system, but only the end results and reconstruct it through more efficient means. In machine learning parlance, this is called distilled learning, and is known to improve results dramatically.

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A case calling for revocation of tenure in mathematics

Frank Calegari just wrote a blog post entitled “The ABC conjecture has (still) not been proved”. At the center of the spotlight is Mr. Shinichi Mochizuki 望月新一
who posted on arxiv a supposed proof of the conjecture about 5 years ago. Now 5 years have gone by and expert opinions officially converged that there is no proof (save a few referees for the journal RIMS). What’s really infuriating is that Shinichi did not spend the least effort explaining his proof in any detail, but left the public in a perpetual state of suspense, completely capitalizing on his former reputation as a somewhat productive mathematician and student of the great Gerd Faltings. This is in stark contrast to S.T. Yau’s approach of the Poincare conjecture, where the latter was all too eager to explain someone else’s proof. Math papers are already opaque enough to be accessible to general audience, to be impenetrable by experts for half a decade is simply a disservice to humanity. Perhaps what Shinichi did accomplish is raising awareness among the math and related community the importance of explaining their work in comprehensible details.

Update: to be clear, Frank’s post did not even suggest tenure revocation; and I am not seriously suggesting it either, given how much worse other academics have been compared to mathematians (post upcoming on a recent encounter). There have also been precedences of mathematicians whose works were discredited for a long time before accepted as correct, such as Heegner, and to a lesser extent De Branges (though people are far more certain about his recent claim to the Riemann).

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Random thoughts about politics I

I got cornered at a lunch conversation with some friends on issues related to North Korea. While a communist-ideology sympathizer at heart, I argued that North Korea isn’t as bad as western media has portrayed. But Daniel pointed out acrimoniously that NK lacks freedom of press etc, that makes it a completely loser to other major powers in the world stage today. So this is my attempt to regain some confidence in my original belief that an alternative political system to the western one is possible and potentially better.

  1. the 4 year election cycle in the US makes the leaders highly volatile, and coupled with the bicameral legislative system, it has suffered severe credibility crisis in recent decades. This resulted in a series of catastrophic foreign policy deals, including the failure to bring NK to the nuclear deal table.
  2. NK’s grain output per capita is higher than India; similar the life expectancy is slightly higher, despite the fact that the latter has been a “true” democracy for decades, and the western powers have sought to starve off NK for decades through many rounds of sanctions.
  3. Given all the precedence of states bombarded and annihilated by the US, including Libya, Iraq, and soon to be Syria, there is no reason for a sovereign state like NK not to resist at all cost and build up its own nuclear arsenal. US’s goal is simply to spread the ideal of democracy all over the world, similar to how Christians tried to spread their gospel around the world, in the form of crusade when necessary. Over time the abstract ideology becomes more institutionalized and outstrips the importance of its original motivation of helping humanity. In short, a bug in code is often worse than no code at all.
  4. The idea of nuclear containment is itself a highly unfair proposition. Why should smaller countries be banned from building an arsenal just like the big ones? Of course one could argue the fewer players have the technology, the less likely we will see armageddon, and indeed if I were a leader of a big country I would argue the same. But from the small players’ perspective, it’s completely unfair. Also if a country like Pakistan could own nuclear capacity simply because it’s a democracy, why shouldn’t a country with a better peace record and surveillance not be allowed to, simply because its founding ideology isn’t aligned with the major power?
  5. It is conceited to suggest that an ideology embraced by a whole nation is of no virtue at all, compared to the prevailing political system of the day. True, pure communism may not work in practice, but neither does true capitalism. The real world consists of a mixture of the two extreme visions, where capable workers are sufficiently motivated, and overall population is guaranteed an above-subsistence level of living. Communism has served as a check for workers’ rights during the cold war era, and income inequality has since skyrocketed after the collapse of the Berlin wall. At the same time, the prosperity of capitalist societies has motivated communist nation states to adapt themselves to improve living standards of their people. The greed of capitalists will go unchecked without some form of menace from the grass-root working class. This has been pointed out in the greater leveler book by Scheidel. Without western sanctions and embargoes, it’s very hard to predict what the welfare state of former and current communist states would have been.
  6. North Korea’s major disasters occurred during the 1990’s under the rule of Kim Jong-Il, who was a stuttering incapable ruler. The new leader appears much more capable and has no reason not to care about the welfare of his own population, even for the selfish reason (as all leaders would) of self-preservation of power. He is certainly a high stake gambler, but to do anything less would signal weakness to the outside powers like US who is seeking every convenient opportunity to dismantle the regime in the name of democratic freedom, much like how a well-meaning doctor wants to destroy the cancer cell, forgetting the true objective should be to save the patient. Given US’s track record in the middle east, no sane person would believe it can do anything better than status quo through its brute force intervention.

To be continued after I read more on the subject..

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A typo in a book that cost me a day

I have been insatiably reading the computational complexity book by Sanjeev Arora and Boaz Barak, which from the table of contents and review from big guns like Avi Wigderson, Mike Sisper, seems like the holy bible and culmination of all complexity research over the past 3 decades, despite being called a beginning graduate textbook. Eventually I decided to skip ahead to chapter 19 on error correcting code and hardness amplification, but got seriously stumbled by the description of Berlekamp-Welch algoithm (a name I cannot remember without the mnemonic resemblance to “Berkeley campus”). It turns out the author wrote 2d and d instead of 2d + d/2 and d + d/2 for the degrees of the univariate polynomials in the bivariate graph interpolating polynomials; I have been scratching my head trying to understand how one could solve a linear system of 4d equations with 3d + 2 unknowns. But thanks to this wonderful lecture notes by MIT , I was able to reconstruct the correct parameters. Another thing I wish the book had was in-line reference to papers/books where the proofs/algorithms were taken from, but I understand that’s a pretty time-consuming task as well.

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Buggy day

Being a software engineer means that it’s a constant struggle between depression and complacence. At the peak of either extremes, there is also the need for periodic introspection. Hands-on people, as are typical of engineers, tend to be negligent of more nurturing and routine things in life. These things are not as rewarding or exciting, but can make a difference in shaping us as human beings, how we perceive ourselves, how we want to chart the course of life, and our influence on people all around. One excuse we often give ourselves is that there is no time. Indeed, as a working class member, I have to take kids to school, do all the usual chores, as well as stay in office from 9 to 5, in addition to 1.5 hours on the road. But if we do not spend some quality time daily to nurture our soul, we run into the risk of leading a completely meaningless life, devoid of substance and purpose, and not only is this leading to a sad terminal state, but may also interfere traumatically as we drag our bodies towards that end state.

As we age, the amount of competitive pressure around us naturally rises. Also on the rise is the sense that our experience has enabled us to stay ahead of the game indefinitely. Even in my early 30s, I can feel that I am gravitating towards the same mental trap that millions ahead of me have experienced, the notion that a superpower, in the form of automated intelligence at my fingertip,  has dawned upon me that makes me invincible for life. Quite the contrary, this infatuation with and over-romanticizing of superpower is the death knell of the biological and sympathetic side of a person. The ease with which the said superpower is acquired should be caution enough against over-reliance on it. Unfortunately people often find the easy ways in life and follow their so-called passion without considering the context. The obvious thing to do is not always the right thing to do. The context is also very important. During the medieval age, a scribe is a very respectable job that has the status of a professor in today’s day and age, while nowadays a typist cannot even make a living, because virtually everyone is capable of that kind of skill. What truly distinguishes a person is some unique skill rarely seen in the mass. Unfortunately, the sheer multiplicative quantity of human beings has rendered such redeeming anomalies less and less likely over time, especially under the wave of globalization. So we often dial back to a second order competitive advantage, fostering a good habit by being persistent about it. This is a necessity, but alone does not lead to the age-old pursuit of life-long happiness. After all humans are conditioned to appreciate change (hopefully in the positive direction) in fortune, rather than an eternal possession thereof.

Habit that takes the form of robotic and thoughtless actions tends to degrade us as humans and contribute little to our characters. It merely enslaves our mind and numbs our sense of righteousness and ability to articulate. Habit that involves creative, presentational, and perhaps even mildly confrontational episodes tends to provide more utility as we chart through the difficult course of inter-personal relational quagmire at work, at home, and in the society at large. A scientifically trivial act of diary writing, for instance, juggles our mind in a spontaneous direction, with the collision of diction and emotion freeing us from the confine of algorithmic precision, a constraint imposed by our silicon nemesis to accelerate the process of intellectual polarization and squeeze the last breath out of an osmotic soul. Thus human life must be variegated, unanticipated, serendipitous, and original. To follow any predestined path is to defy the will of the Creator, which leads to misery by definition.


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