December 2006


The kitchen sink was clogged.

The dishwasher was stuck in rinse cycle for a whole night.

The washer’s final spin sounded like a dozen anti-aircraft machine guns.

And we went into the City and had a most wonderful time–Ahhh, the sweet images and sounds of escape.

A good trip to New York always starts with good parking, because after spending 40 minutes circling the blocks in vain and forced to surrender to the $15/hour parking garage you wouldn’t have much good temper left. We found a legal space at the corner of Madison and 77th without much trouble, which is a small miracle according to Murray Tepper because many spots in that area is marked for diplomats.

Our main destination is the “El Greco to Picasso” exhibition in Guggenheim. We heard about it from from NYTimes a while ago, and finally got a chance to see it. Like the article suggests, anything covering 500 years of paintings in such a major force in European art is bound to be a tapas sampler. The taste is still excellent, since the tapas from which it samples are all world-class.

Now that I think of it, Spain seems to have the only unbroken stream of truly great artists in Europe from Renaissance to modern time. Italy was kind of silent after Renaissance; France only has Realism and Impressionism; Flanders has nobody between Rembrandt and Van Gogh; and the rest of the European countries have some spotty presence like Durer, Turner, and Kandinsky. Spain, on the other hand, produced one monumental artist in each of the 5 consecutive centuries: El Greco, Velazquez, Goya, Gaudi, and Picasso. Yeah Gaudi is in a different category, but I’m just trying to make a point 🙂

That is actually the theme of the exhibition: the “endless return and reappropriation on a formal and iconographic level that binds together the works of Spanish artists” (from the exhibition page). The unusual order by theme instead of the usual chronicity emphasizes it, however I feel it’s a bit artificial: you can find “common” themes and styles and techniques or whatever you want to find in any random collection of 10 paintings, barring pure abstract expressionism stuff, maybe.

Another downside for this “greatest hits” exhibition is, well, there’s actually no greatest hits from any artist. There’s no way, for example, to borrow Las Meninas from Prado or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from MoMA–angry visitors would rip down those places feeling cheated. There are well-known pieces, for sure, like several Dali.

It’s still a great exhibition, after all, for an overview of Spanish art. The thematic display is freshening, and I particularly like the fact that all name plaques are placed very far from the paintings, forcing you to focus on the art itself instead of the names of the picture and the artist. I’ve got a terrible habit to look at the name plaques before the art, and sometimes skipping the art piece altogether if the names don’t ring a bell. So in the beginning it was a bit frustrating to spend much time looking for the plaques, but very soon I got used to this “right” way of viewing art itself, even though I can never get rid of the “this must be a Goya” kind of speculation.

One more interesting thing is the reassurance of Picasso’s stupendous productivity. At least 3/4 of the displays contain at least one painting from him. Wikipedia says “it has been estimated that Picasso produced about 13,500 paintings or designs, 100,000 prints or engravings, 34,000 book illustrations and 300 sculptures or ceramics.” I remember seeing a documentary on Andy Warhol where he claimed that on some days he makes more “paintings” than Picasso. How preposterous!


When we got out of the museum, the sky put on a faint glow of the freshly fallen night as the perfect backdrop for those Manhattan streets in fabulous holiday fashion. Our car idled down the super crowded 5th Avenue in a speed that would drive me crazy in any other time of the year, but Christmas ain’t any other time of the year!

The sidewalk was filled with people like I’d never seen before, progressively more toward and climaxed at Rockefeller Center. It’s a miracle that nobody was crushed or stampeded in that multi-block sardine can. We caught a glimpse of the 88′ Christmas tree (this one from Ridgefield, CT)–boy is that magnificent!

And a nice trip to New York must not conclude in traffic jam. Seeing the throngs of people I knew I had to take the secret entrance to Lincoln Tunnel–the only useful thing I learned from my boss in the previous job. In no time we were cruising (or rather, crawling) through the tunnel, leaving thousands of frustrated drivers behind…

  1. 秦颂 1996, budget ~$4 million (3000万元)
  2. 刺秦 1998, $10 million (8000万元)
  3. 英雄 2002, $31 million
  4. 秦始皇 2006, $2 million

Tan Dun’s opera was premiered last Thursday by the Met Opera and LA Opera. The storyline seems to follow 秦颂. The cost is of course only a fraction of those “Big Movies”, disproportional to the bad review in NYTimes, its worst parts quoted here:

Mr. Tan’s approach to operatic lyricism and vocal writing seems ill-conceived… His music does sing. And sing. And sing. On and on. Whatever the mood of the moment, whether dreamy, defiant, sensual or tragic, as soon as the characters break into song, the melodic lines are inevitably long, arching and slow… “The First Emperor” gives soaring melody a bad name.

The expansive lyricism begins enticingly but soon turns saccharine and, worse, inert.

Mr. Domingo(‘s)… best friend onstage often seemed to be the experienced prompter, Donna Racik, invisible to the audience but quite often the focus of Mr. Domingo’s attention. And though the role was written for him, he could not disguise the effort involved in singing it. Despite his trouble with top notes in recent years, Mr. Domingo’s voice sounded freshest when the lines took him into his still clarion upper range. The man takes on too much.

With one intermission, the opera lasted just 3 hours 20 minutes yet seemed much longer. In the final scene… after… in what may be the longest farewell aria in opera, which is saying something…, Mr. Domingo breaks one final time into lofty flights of ponderously arching lyricism. Listening, you cannot help thinking, “Oh, no, not again.”

“Oh, no, not again” is the exact reaction when my dad told me about the opera a while ago. It’s easy to find reasons for the Chinese quote-unquote artists’ obsession with our first emperor, but enough is enough! There may be more reasons to believe this string of “epics” indicate almost everything that’s bad going on in China these days. There are always good arts and bad arts. More money, more epic, more emperors don’t make bad arts good.

My dad taught all of those 5th generation directors. My mum taught Tan Dun musicology. I kind of feel sorry for my parents as teachers, not that they did anything wrong, nor that they could’ve done anything to let those guys grow up in a better way. They couldn’t have foreseen the future, but I wonder if they could, what they would’ve told those students–go back to your farms?

It hurts even more knowing that those guys are very capable of good stuff. I think 活着 is one of the best Chinese movies I’ve seen, 千里走单骑 and 秋菊打官司 very good, 霸王别姬 decent, or even 最后的疯狂 not bad in a historical term. And Tan Dun could become one of the greatest composers of our time unless he goes down on a road like this one.

Wake up, guys!

What a fitting topic for this holiday season.

I just read this cute report on a female Komodo dragon giving birth without any male involvement. And naturally I wondered: could this be what happened to Virgin Mary?

Wikipedia says parthenogenesis can only produce female offspring since there’s nowhere Y chromosome can come from, and it’s never been observed naturally in mammal.

However, it’s possible and a reality that a person with XX or even single X may be male, if the SRY gene can somehow find its presence–maybe by a one-in-a-billion rare mutation. So the Virgin Birth can be truly a miraculous act of nature!

Or, what’s wrong if Jesus was actually a woman? Dan Brown would make 10 times more money on a story telling the true identity of Jesus and Mary Magdalene: They are one and the same person!

You gotta see this to believe technology is truly great for humanity.

I learned about it from a blog talking about the Mozart’s Musical Diary on the site. I haven’t tried all the books, but it seems the Mozart one has the most voluminous contents and cool features.

And how about that AD868 Diamond Sutra from 敦煌? Wow. It takes a true artist to create such a beautiful and fitting presentation.

What other books should be made into such technology marvel? The Dead Sea Scrolls, Gutenberg Bible, Declaration of Independence, 广陵散, …

Several, actually.

One of my best friends blogged about his dreams. It made me sad because I thought I didn’t have any dream any more.

After a while I started to remember that I did have some dreams. And it made me even sadder because I had all but forgotten about them.

To break the saddening trend, I decide to write down my dreams, at least those that I can remember now.

First, some quickies:

  • I mentioned a while ago about making the letters between J and me into a book just for ourselves.
  • After watching Tintin et Moi, I wish I can live in a room covered by the complete series. The room size has to be precise, of course, to accomodate all pages from the 24 books, no more, no less. It’d be very hard for me to step outside.
  • This one is actually from J: get a piece of land, maybe a few acres, build a 胡同/弄堂/巷子 with some traditional Chinese folk dwellings, and have all our close friends live together. My grandma lived in a 四合院, J spent her childhood in Shanghai, and we also love the architecture we saw in 安徽歙县 and 山西祁县, so it’d be a real blast if we can build and live in such architectural and cultural gem.

A more elaborate one is to study movie from my dad and music from my mom. It sounds ridiculous but I’ve never watched a classic movie or listened to a significant composition with my parents in a non-casual setting. I’m a lot more familiar with classical music than movies simply because I grew up in the Music Conservatory but not the Film Academy (which used to be very far north of the city), and played the piano; and the total time that my dad was home is maybe just 1/10 of my mom’s. I used to flip through their collection of VHS and cassette tapes when they’re not home, so I learned many names of movies and compositions without knowing their contents, and of directors and composers without knowing their merits at all.

Once a neighbor boy a few years older than me came to our one-room apartment (yeah it’s exactly like 邻居’s setting) and saw a tape of Antonioni’s Blowup. He asked me to play it, and I obliged though being a bit nervous about touching my dad’s stuff. I was maybe about 10, so the movie was of course inappropriate and incomprehensible. Just when we were about to finish, my dad came home and was very upset, and you don’t want to be anywhere close to him when he’s not happy. So that was it–I never dared to watch any movie from his collection again.

My mom didn’t like her stuff being messed around either. “I won’t be able to find it for my course preparation!”, as they always exclaimed. And I didn’t care much, because I got into rock music and couldn’t bear classical pieces. I wish I could turn back the clock…


I also have a couple of dreams related to piano. The first is to be a jazz pianist. Back in UIUC, I took one course for introductory jazz piano but it turned out to be a total disaster. The teacher was kind enough not to fail me, but I absolutely learned nothing. I didn’t have much time, if any, to practice, for one thing; but I just totally couldn’t get the idea. Yeah I was supposed to learn the scales and chords and harmony progression and rhythm and so on, but when I looked at the textbook and listened to the teacher I couldn’t get anything. So it seems like this dream is pretty much out of whack.

Another one is to perform in a concert with an orchestra: Grieg’s Concerto in A minor in the first half, Rhapsody in Blue in the second. And the encore would be the 18th Variation of Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody, only if I haven’t been buried by rotten tomatoes and stinking eggs. My mom used to tell me that it’s a orgasmic feeling (of course she didn’t use that word) to play with a full orchestra. One of the last pieces that I formally practiced was a simple Mozart concerto with my teacher playing accompaniment, but I never finished or performed it. A few years later when I picked up piano again by myself I tried a few pages from Grieg’s A minor and found it not entirely out of reach.

When I bought our piano here, I went on a spree to buy some famous piano scores, none of which I bothered to practice–heck, I haven’t played at all in 3 years. Among those are a transcription of Rhapsody in Blue for solo piano and a dual piano version of the 18th Variation, which I’ve always felt as the most beautiful melody of all time. I first heard it (maybe junior high) in the movie Somewhere in Time and was dazed by both the tune and the story. I got the mental image of Jane Seymour as a goddess of beauty and love after seeing the movie, but years later when I saw her picture again she doesn’t look even pretty. So I guess it must be childhood infatuation.

I glimpsed through the Rhapsody in Blue score a few times, and realize that it’s way out of my league, especially in its jazz/blues spirit (back to my first failed dream on piano). The 18th Variation is very short, and I merged the two pianos into one and practiced a while, but couldn’t finish it. Even such beautiful tune gets boring after hundreds of repetitions.


Lastly, a dream about something technical: to build a web application to archive one’s life and share with friends and family. It sounds like another stupid Web 2.0 site, but I haven’t seen anything close to enabling users to create and maintain an integrated online presence. Nowadays my stuff is scattered all over the place: WordPress, Bloglines, Flicker, del.icio.us, Google Spreadsheet, Yahoo Calendar, and probably YouTube soon… My life is becoming more fragmented and less manageable.

I think the foundation of what I want is an easy-to-use WYSIWYG database schema builder. You can create a simple schema very quickly, such as one for CD collections or stamps. And for something potentially very complicated such as an European trip, you can build it up step by step, with everything linking to everything via foreign key–but the user should never have to create “columns” and “keys”, everything needs to be intuitive and drag-n-drop.

Your schema library can be shared, copied, and modified by anyone else for their own use. So when a new user registers, s/he can pick from a growing schema library to manage whatever data s/he wants to manage. And all data can be shared in a group or publicly.

I started to have the idea after our 2nd European trip. There are vast amount of multimedia data that needs to be organized and linked: photo, video, map, brochure, journal, web sites… I made a very lame-ass attempt to use very simple PHP to create a photo-based presentation, but soon found that the lack of authoring is fatal–I was just putting entries in Excel and importing into MySQL.

The idea was reinforced after another best friend of mine wrote a list of major events in her life in the last 10 years since she came to America. I told her to use Google Spreadsheet so that she can invite friends to view and comment. It was really fun, but Google Spreadsheet is way too limited.

The application probably should have a rich client that can run locally, because authoring would mostly use local resources (image, video, Word files, etc). But the web presentation must be transparent and identical to local rendering.

Maybe a drunk VC will stumble onto this and throw my $10 million to build it. Now that’s what they call a dream. Dream on, dreeeeeam on well…

No, not the big bad gas guzzler.

hummer n. One that hums.

I was listening to Sibelius No. 5 by Colin Davis and London Symphony Orchestra at work, and noticed in the music several times something like humming. At first I thought someone close by happened to be talking in a similar tune, or my headphone was picking up some radio noise (no that’s not nonsense: the headphone cord acts like an antenna. At my previous job my headphone used to pick up radio and walkie-talkie all the time). But the noise was too closely related to the music for too many times. Could it be the conductor humming along?

Some Amazon UK reviewers confirmed my suspicion: yes (e.g. 7:00-7:45 of the first track, the same span in the 2nd, or 1:40-2:00 in the 3rd), and Sir Davis is kind of known for it. If there’s a mic hanging from the ceiling in the center of the stage, which is usually the case, conductor’s humming will be easily picked up.

Davis can’t possibly be the only humming conductor. Lenny Bernstein seems to do it too. Glenn Gould’s legendary humming is of course a hell lot more noticeable, and unfortunately branded as his “trademark”. I find it distracting, but not too obnoxious. It’s very understandable why they can’t help the humming–they shouldn’t. But the recording engineers should try to reduce/eliminate it whenever possible.

I recently bought a wonderful 4-CD collection set of Segovia, and the booklet says Segovia likes to keep the fingering sound (finger moving along strings on the fingerboard) in the recording, while some other guitarists would do anything to remove them. I actually like that sound because it’s idiosyncratic and part of guitar’s natural sound.

Comparably, the sound of piano pedaling is natural, although a pianist should learn early on how to avoid making it excessive, unless a crazy composition actually contains something like “bang your feet on the pedals while playing this chord”. The conductor’s only natural sound is the whole orchestra, maybe also the sound s/he makes whipping the baton like mad or jumping up and down on the podium as if it’s a trampolin.

Humming, on the other hand, is not natural for a pianist or a conductor in a performance. Unless, again, the crazy composer asks for it; or, well, you’re Glenn Gould.

CRAZY. CRAAAAZY!

It’s not as bad as “Corporate Counsels Payroll, Nina speaking. Just a moment.”

Sometimes it’s pretty close, like just now.

  • The never-has-nothing-to-do sys admins are looking at restricted web sites again. Restricted to other employees, I mean. One of them has a truly explosive and hysterical laugh. Worse than the “hyena lady” in Sleepless in Seattle. I used to sit 2 rows away from him and was tearing my hair cell out. Now I’m 5 rows away and it still hurts.
  • The fast-talking MBA project manager has been asking everybody when they’ll finish their projects as always. Only speaking faster today.
  • The sales partner’s secretary has been typing like mad, when she’s not calling places to reserve/cancel appointments. Donno why her seat is among the developers. Donno why her keyboard sounds so loud, either.
  • The guy who always strolls around the floor is doing it for the 36th time today. He always wears a suit. And a hat.
  • 3 guys sitting on my back side have been talking about all kinds of stuff. In Russian Serbian, Argentine, and a monotonic robotic origin-unknown accents. Maybe the 3rd guy IS a robot. Gosh, why didn’t I think of that before?! That explains a lot of things…
  • The guy sitting next to me just started today. In the morning he stared at the screen for about an hour trying to log in. Then he’s been making phone calls to insurance company, asking sys admin how to do this and that, etc. In Polish accent.
  • A guy just bought a handheld GPS and is showing it off. He can’t get a strong signal so he opens up a window and sticks it out. The wind is howling through the crevice and he’s bragging that the device can talk. In good old American accent. The other guys marveling at this modern marvel are my compatriots with you-know-what accent.

I myself is to be blame for the ordeal, though. I brought the super nice Bose QuietComfort headphone to work a few times, but got tired of commuting with it–certainly I can’t leave that expensive thing in the office. Now what I have is a cheap headset and my ears hurt after wearing it for 30 seconds.

I figure that there are very few tech companies in the world where developers have private offices. That’s why Fog Creek always looks to me like Google’s next door neighbor in programmer heaven. In my current company of more than 100 employees, there are only 8 private offices for the partners, CFO, and sales/finance/HR managers. Even the director of development sits among us in sprawling grey desks.

Oh wait, the receptionist kind of has her own office. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll trade for her space if it gets too rough and tough around here.


UPDATE: There’s one distinctive noise missing yesterday: the guy who skypes our outsource team in Ukraine for about 4 hours continuously everyday, in Russian-accented Russian.

But I don’t care any more since I have my QuietComfort now. In a month I’ll be able to transcribe all of Beethoven’s string quartets from memory 🙂