(Another ancient draft, and I don’t remember much of anything from the book.)

Wang-3-Watch mentioned his book American Vertigo (the blog was deleted for whatever reason), and after almost 3 months I finally finished it. Not that it’s dull–just the opposite. It’s just that I only have a few commute minutes on weekdays to read, if I’m awake at all.

Before I say anything, you’d better take a look at this piece.

Then if you still have any interest, how about another one, which says “Noël Godin has hit him a record five times”.

Still with me? Are you nuts?! Or is it because my hair is perfect?

If I had read those, I wouldn’t in a million years have borrowed the book from library. The book is a good read, almost like a road trip reality show, and if anything, I learned about Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which I promise to never read.







豆瓣的一条评论更有些细节:“何先生的中学、大学同学骆静兰女士,时任商务印书馆的副总编辑···来问老同学有没有兴趣翻译罗素的这本书。因为这是工作之外的“私活”,最后何先生只接了上册的一半,另一半商务委托了南开大学的李约瑟教授(此李约瑟非彼李约瑟,这位李教授已故,其公子任职国家图书馆)。”终于了结了我多年来关于Joseph Needham为什么会去翻西哲史的疑惑。



  • 文:院长冯友兰,历史系钱穆、陈寅恪,哲学系,中文系朱自清、闻一多、沈从文,外文系吴宓、卞之琳、钱钟书
  • 理:数学系陈省身、华罗庚、许宝騄,物理系叶企孙、吴有训、饶毓泰、吴大猷、周培源,化学系曾昭抡
  • 法商:院长陈序经、周炳琳,芮沐
  • 师范



This must be one of the most delicious books ever. As usual I was reading it on my evening commute, and boy did it make me hungry. The book isn’t particularly well written, but those things would look just as delicious in a People’s Daily editorial.

There are a few obvious omissions of famous gourmet materials, as the author mentions, e.g. olive oil and foie gras. His criteria for inclusion is more about exclusiveness: there’s only one place in the world that can possibly produce it.

This post is simply a note. The story of each one can easily fill a book.

Aceta Balsamic Tradizionale di Modena

  • Material: Trebbiano, lambrusco grape
  • Environment: Wood barrels in attic
  • Production time: >= 12 years. > 25: Extra Vecchio
  • Production volume: 20,000 100ml bottles
  • Brand: Acetaia Malpighi, Acetaia del Cristol
  • Cooking and gourmet companion: Roast vegetable, Parmesan cheese, strawberry
  • Comparable: Aceta Balsamic Tradizionale di Reggio-Emilia


Huître Bélon de Bretagne

  • Material: Ostrea Edulis
  • Environment: Brittany seashore, then Bélon river head
  • Production time: 18 months in the sea, 2 months in river
  • Production volume: 1000 tons
  • Cooking and gourmet companion: Chablis white wine

Poulet de Bresse

  • Material: 2kg (sans feathers and intestines)
  • Environment: Grassland, 5000m2/500 chicken, fed with corn and milk
  • Production time: 5 weeks in house, 9 weeks on grass, 2 weeks in epinette
  • Production volume: 1 million
  • Brand: Chapon de Bresse (osten) > 3kg; Poularde de Bresse (fat hen)
  • Cooking and gourmet companion: roast

Fleur de sel de Guérande

  • Material: sea water
  • Environment: 1000 acre, 7820 oeillet
  • Production time: 2 large tides/month; 5 days to oeillet
  • Production volume: 10,000 tons of salt; 200-400 tons of fleur
  • Brand: Le Guérandais
  • Cooking and gourmet companion: as condiment
  • Comparable: Ile de Noirmoutier, Ile de Ré, Ria Formosa, Camargue

Jamón Ibérico de Jabugo

  • Material: Iberia pig (pata negra, “black-foot”) 150-180kg, leg 10kg
  • Environment: Dehesa (acorn wood), 1 hectare/pig
  • Production time: 18 months live, Salt 1day/kg, Dry 3 months/kg, Cellar 6-18 months
  • Brand: Grade: Bellota > recebo > cebo/campo/pienso. Region: Huelva, Guijuelo, Extremadura, Pedroches
  • Cooking and gourmet companion: Fino/manzanilla sherry, La Rioja red wine
  • Comparable: Prosciutto de Parma, Prosciutto de San Daniele, Jamón Serrano de Trevélez



  • Material: 16l milk makes 1kg
  • Environment:
  • Production time: 1-1.5 years: fresco, 1.4-2: vecchio (best), 2-3: stravecchio
  • Production volume: 300,000 cubes
  • Brand:
  • Cooking and gourmet companion:
  • Comparable: Grana Padano, Lodiagiano, Trentino


  • Material: Lacaune sheep, 5kg milk makes 1kg, Penicillium roqueforti
  • Environment: Causse, Fleurine
  • Production time: 4-9 months
  • Production volume:
  • Brand: Société des Caves, Papillon (black is best), Cabriel Coulet
  • Cooking and gourmet companion: Sauternes, Pecan, grape
  • Comparable: Bleu d’Auvergne, Blue des Causses, Gorgonzola, Cabrales

Tartufo bianco di Alba;
Truffe noire du Perigord

  • Material: truffle
  • Environment: Loose gravel ground, acorn wood
  • Production time: 1 year
  • Production volume: white 2000kg, black 30,000 kg
  • Brand:
  • Cooking and gourmet companion: Demi-deuil, Risotto
  • Comparable: Champignon Terfez, Tuber aestivum
white truffle

black truffle

It’s one of the few things that I actually got done recently.

I got 131 books in LibraryThing (not even hitting the 200 limit for free membership, sigh) and 461 in Douban.

For Chinese books, I ended up using J’s keypad instead of CueCat, because too many don’t have bar code, and it’s not any slower.

Douban really lacks a lot of features, and books–I think I had at least 30 new entries. One most obvious missing thing for social networking is to show members with the most shared books. And the “work” concept in LibraryThing would help tremendously, since many Chinese books have a sickeningly large number of editions.

LibraryThing’s “top books and authors” is another Douban miss. I’m really surprised that 1984 is #9 and Animal Farm #19. There’s hope in humanity, after Harry Potter.

I’ve always wanted to catalog our library. I heard about LibraryThing a while back, but didn’t pursue it.

Last month we brought a stack of books back from China, as always. And I forgot what drove me to buy a CueCat from LibraryThing, but yes, I finally decided to do it.

I regretted as soon as I got the PayPal confirmation email. Why did I buy a bar code scanner when I can just type in the ISBN?

It turns out as one of the better mistakes I’ve made lately. There’s only one issue here: efficiency.

We have far more Chinese books than English ones, and I immediately found that LibraryThing can’t find any Chinese book from its few alleged Chinese sources. Then I remembered Douban.

Douban is a lot more of a social network than a library as LibraryThing, as you can’t even sort your books. But it does a pretty good job of finding Chinese books, so I happily entered about a dozen ISBNs manually.

Then I realized how efficient CueCat is with LibraryThing. Ignore the time to take a book from the shelf and put it back, it takes less than a second to get a book into LibraryThing after I mastered the scan speed, whereas it takes at least 15-20 seconds for Douban: type 10 digits (my laptop doesn’t have a num pad), enter, click “Reading”, “Want to Read”, or “Have Read”, pick tags.

Granted, I need to tag books in LibraryThing later, but that can be done in a batch.

So after a few more Chinese books I couldn’t stand it any more. I found a site with JavaScript to decode CueCat string, but it’s still a hassle to copy-n-paste the ISBN into Douban. Then I found Douban has API (python, php, and Java), and thought I could write a simple web app to decode CueCat, search Douban, and add the book.

It would probably take a web programmer less than 15 minutes to do it, but I was too lazy and too dumb. Instead I found a Java app that decodes and launches a browser, and Douban has a search URL like Now it takes about 5 seconds. Good enough.

After I finish scanning all the books, hopefully I can gather some courage to write something with Douban’s API to better display the books.

For now, here are our English books, and here are our Chinese books.

Don’t even think of borrowing them.


One of the “trilogy” books related to the neurophysiology of brain that I’ve read in the last year or so, the other two are “What’s going on in there?” about baby’s brain development, and “Mind of Market” by Michael Shermer. One of these days I’ll write about them.

I think these are indeed related as they show different aspects of how and why our brain is what it is in terms of evolution and development, which is exactly what defines a human. Shermer covers more on evolution, the baby book on development, and Kluge a combination of both.

A couple notable quotes:

The machinery of language and deliberative reason has led to enormous cultural and technological advances, but our brain, which developed over a billion years of pre-hominid ancestry, hasn’t caught up. The bulk of our genetic material evolved before there was language, before there was explicit reasoning, and before creatures like us even existed. …

Our memory, contextually driven as it is, is ill suited to many of the demands of modern life, and our self-control systems are almost hopelessly split. Out ancestral mechanisms were shaped in a different world, and our more modern deliberative mechanisms can’t shake the influence of that past.

The author’s advice for dealing with the limits of our brain:

  1. Whenever possible, consider alternative hypotheses.
  2. Reframe the question.
  3. Always remember that correlation does not entail causation.
  4. Never forget the size of your sample.
  5. Anticipate your own impulsivity and (try to) pre-commit (to avoid impulsivity).
  6. Don’t just set goals. Make contingency plans.
  7. Whenever possible, don’t make important decisions when you are tired or have other things on your mind.
  8. Always weigh benefits against costs.
  9. Imagine that your decisions may be spot-checked.
  10. Distance yourself.
  11. Beware the vivid, the personal, and the anecdotal.
  12. Pick your spots. (Make a decision, don’t’ procrastinate forever)
  13. Try to be rational.


I learned about the book from this NY Time article. I pretty much skipped through all but the first chapter, since it’s mostly way too detailed musicology, but it’s really fun knowing about the tremendous changes in piano performance since 1800’s. The author must have done a huge amount of research into concert programs, reviews, personal correspondence, besides standard musicology materials. Very respectable.

The NYT article touches on many aspects of the changes. In a word, a 19th-century “classical music” (it was contemporary back then) concert was as much entertainment as a 21th-century rock concert. It’s not too long, noisy (“Concertgoers, Please Clap, Talk or Shout at Any Time” as the title of the NYT article), mostly variety (all kinds of instruments and pieces), improvisational (with prelude, cadenza, and all sorts of things), and sometimes with only selected movements of a “long” and “severe” piece such as a Beethoven sonata. And wrong note? What wrong note? From the NYT article:

My favorite music criticism is from a German on Brahms’s playing his own B flat Piano Concerto. “Brahms did not play the right notes,” he wrote, “but he played like a man who knew what the right notes were.”

I think the ultimate goal of music, or art in general, is to connect with and move audience. So it really doesn’t matter how it is presented. I don’t mind the modern concert ritual (described as “funeral procession” by Hamilton) since I’m used to it, but the book certainly opens up my views and confirms some of my secret doubts, such as whether all the movements in a piece are really inherently cohesive, and if classical music popularizers like Lang Lang should be lauded. I wouldn’t necessarily call those people who condemn Lang Lang snobs, but I’ve always thought there’s nothing wrong in popularizing classical music. Hey, Super Girls can be popular, why can’t Chopin and Rachmaninoff?

Back to the book, one of the more interesting thing is the custom of playing prelude. I never thought preludes were meant to be, er, preludes: short pieces leading up to the main program. The book gave several reasons for the then-ubiquitous and now-unimaginable practice:

  • It sets up the right mood for the main piece. So it’s usually in a related (if not the same) key with related melody and rhythm. It may even introduce some themes in the main piece so audience can be more familiar with them.
  • It quiets down the audience, let people know that performance has begun so they can take their seats and stop socializing.
  • The most fun (and important) of all, it tests the piano’s quality and timbre so the pianist can adjust the playing accordingly. That was the age before modern piano mechanism and production, so every piano can be quite different and powerful pianists (Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, et al) are known to break pianos during performances.

(UPDATE 6/30)

I forgot to mention that Hamilton attributes the dramatic changes in piano performances mostly to recordings. I think while that’s a major influence, it’s not the only one, or the most important one.

To me, it’s the collective conscious and unconscious “ivory towering” by the professionals (composers, performers, critics, publishers, etc.) and audience that make classical music performance serious and somber to the brink of hypocrisy. The professionals want to distance and elevate themselves above pop music–jazz at first, then rock, so that they can carry on the great and noble “dead white male” traditions. Improvisation? Leave it to blind black piano player at the street corner. Crowd pleaser? Those long hair druggies with twisting hips will do. We are the safeguard of the sacred and pure classics for future generations!

And the audience take that all in smugly as a ritual, to the extent that it feels like kitsch. I’m not saying it’s kitsch for classical music to invoke sacred and pure feelings, but it’s definitely kitsch if you get the “second tear” listening to, say, Swan Lake (I don’t mean to pick on Tchaikovsky, but some of his stuff sounds just a little bit too teary).

Jazz can be sacred and pure. So does rock. Any music is transcendental by definition: it abstracts and transcends the everyday experience of sound. Anybody can, and should be moved by any kind of music. It doesn’t matter where, or how.

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