Writing


Cohen Goes to Work

Paul Cohen is not famous. And he has nothing to do. He got his PhD from University of Chicago under Zygmund–the godfather of American analysis school, but has done nothing good in the area. He would’ve been stuck at Rochester if his high school and grad school pal Stein didn’t help him get short stints at MIT and IAS. Now his Stanford professorship is again in peril.

“I have nothing to do and I’m not famous…” Basking in California sunshine in the Quad, he had a revelation: he has to do something that makes him famous, and do it in 5 years before he’s too old for the Fields Medal.

During lunch, he casually asks his mates: “How can I get famous?”

“Shoot the President.”

“I’m not in CIA yet.”

“Break Dick Feynman’s safe.”

“He hasn’t got Nobel yet.”

“Solve any Hilbert’s Problem.”

“They haven’t been solved yet?”

That pesky Dilberto von Hilberto made a list of things he couldn’t figure out on his own, so his name will always be tagged along. Nobody cares if you solved something really important yet not in any of those “problems of the century” lists, but as soon as your hiccup sounds like “Hilbert 9” your picture is on the front page.

One day Cohen sneaks out of a snoring seminar to the library and found a list of Hilbert Problems. He flips to a page and sees No. 8, Riemann Hypothesis. “That will make me even more famous after I become famous. I’ll leave it for icing on the cake.”

A few more random page turns give him solved problems (“they are too trivial!”) and unsolvable problems (“they are too vague!”). “Is there anything not crappy?!” Going back to the Table of Contents, he sees a page that is almost blank.

Almost, except a single line:


No. 1. Continuum Hypothesis

Cantor Goes to Sleep

Georg Cantor wakes up in cold sweat all over his body. He cannot recall to which cardinality he had counted when he fell asleep.

It started a few days ago when he realized how to count infinity. In his definition, anyway. If he can establish an exactly one-to-one correspondence between the elements of two arbitrary sets, even if they have infinite number of elements, it means the two sets have the same “size”–cardinality as he calls it. In this sense, the set of all natural numbers is as large as the set of all integers, and–surprise!–the set of all rational numbers too.

He started to conjure up an infinite set with a larger cardinality, and he found one by brute force: the power set, which is the combination of all subsets of a set, including itself and the empty set. And it took him two sleepless nights to prove that power set has more elements than the original set.

He would have had a nice sleep had he stopped right there. But how could he stop? The power set has its own power set with an even larger cardinality. And it can go on and on and on, ad infinitum, just like Hugh Everett’s many worlds.

Is there an end? If there is, what is it?

That was what startled Cantor from his sleep, dreaming about larger and larger cardinality. Too scared to recall the dream, he goes back to the first power set of counting numbers. It doesn’t take too long to realize that power set is exactly the set of all real numbers, since any real number can be represented by a subset of counting numbers.

But soon a question looms: is there anything in between the set of counting numbers and real numbers? The real numbers is a continuum on the number axle in which the counting numbers take infinitely small space, so it seems likely that there’s a set whose cardinality is between the two.

“I’m too tired to solve it, so let’s call it a hypothesis for now.”

Cantor knew his mentor Weierstrasse would like these results, but suspected Kronecker the Red-Knecker would throw him into an asylum over such crazy ideas. “God made the integers; all else is the work of man”, so proclaimed Prof. Knecker, sitting firmly at the top of University of Berlin’s math department. “Knecker is right that the cardinality of an infinite set is the work of man. One Man, that is me.” Cantor’s conscious faded with a grin.

Gödel Goes to the Door

Knock, knock. “Who is it?”

Kurt Gödel asks even though he knows who is at the door. But he doesn’t actually know the person, and in this crazy world, it doesn’t hurt to be a little paranoid.

“Mr. Gödel? This is Paul Cohen from Stanford. The secretary said she had called you about my paper…” The door squeaks open a small slit.

“What do you want?”

“People told me you’re the only one who can put the final word on the Continuum Hypothesis.”

“What do you have?”

“You proved the hypothesis can’t be disproved within Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory, and I think I proved the other half: the hypothesis can’t be proved within ZF. So it’s a certain piece of uncertainty.”

Gödel grabs the envelope. “Quite forceful. Are you certain about the uncertainty?” He shuts the door without waiting for an answer.

Three days later, Mrs. Gödel answers the phone.

“Hello, Adele, this is Magritte from the Institute. A fella from Stanford sent a paper to Mr. Gödel a few days ago, and we’d like to know what he thinks of it. You see, we can’t accommodate the guy any longer if the paper is no good.”

“Hi Magritte. You haven’t seen Kurt yet? He went to the Institute this morning. I’m not sure if he likes it or not. He looked quite distressed for the last few days, and I heard him saying ‘I can’t let Albert know it’. He even forgot to ask me to taste his food once.”

Gödel hasn’t been to Princeton for years, so he stays in the only familiar common room and grabs any passer-by:

“Where is the famous Paul Cohen? He has done something that makes the rest of my life meaningless!”

Everyone Goes Away

Paul Cohen (1934 – 2007) won the 1966 Fields Medal for resolving the Continuum Hypothesis in 1963 with the forcing method that he invented. He died from a rare lung disease, after spending much of his late years in solving the Riemann Hypothesis with no success.

Kurt Gödel (1906 – 1978) created the two Incompleteness Theorems in 1931 and resolved part of the Continuum Hypothesis in 1940. He died from starvation when his wife was hospitalized for an extended period of time and could not taste his food for him.

Georg Cantor (1845 – 1918) created set theory and proposed the Continuum Hypothesis around 1880. His career was gravely compromised by strong opposition from renowned mathematicians like Kronecker and Poincaré. He was hospitalized in mental institutions many times, and died in one.


The basic story came from my colleague LJ, who is Cohen’s academic grand-nephew as LJ comes from the Elias Stein line. It can’t be all bogus, according to a 1st-person account of Cohen’s IAS trip within a super tedious autobiography page (search for Cohen). No wonder why most math is so hard: most mathematicians can’t write! Cohen’s 1-page memorial website provides some corroboration as well.

Mayor Bloomberg asked, and my answer is: in the office. There can’t be a less common answer than that, but everything else is uncommon.

ConEd, the utility company for New York City, came to our building in the morning and reset the meter, so we were asked to turn off everything, and the power went out for less than one minute. With our CEO on vacation, the rest of us chatted happily with sunlight seeping through the blinds. So when the power went off at about 4:10pm, we had no other thought than that it’s another meter reset. Our office manager went out to check with the building owner, and she came back quickly to tell us that the whole block was out of power. Soon everyone found out that no one’s cell phone can connect a call.

Of course the first thing that came across my mind was that it’s 9/11 all over again. The Empire State Building must have been hit. I ran down to the street. There were not too much more people on the street, and no one was panicking. I walked half a block and saw the tip of the Empire State Building through the forest of buildings under a bright blue sky. No smoke, no fire, no siren. It’s just a blackout.

And it’s a big one! There was a blackout in 1965 that affected 25 million people in Northeast US. In 1977, 9 million people in New York City lost power. This time it’s reported that 50 million people throughout southern Canada (Toronto and Ottawa), Michigan (Detroit), Ohio (Cleveland), Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York may have an answer to the Bloomberg Question.

We soon learned about the blackout from a battery-powered radio, the same good old one that brought us news on 9/11. Fortunately our cordless phone base station has batteries in it, and the whole phone system must have an independent power supply, so we were able to make phone calls as usual. I called Ding Qi, and learned that her building was operating on backup power and she still got Internet on her laptop. The cell phones were actually working, only that the networks were too overwhelmed.

As we learned from 9/11, we need to get out of Manhattan as quickly as possible. There’s a ferry station right beneath Ding Qi’s building, and she would take the ferry across the river to Hoboken. We four Chinese engineers at BrainMedia would go to Port Authority Bus Terminal. It was about 5pm when we started walking. The streets were jammed with no traffic light. Lots more people were on the streets, and more every minute. People were popping out of the ground through evacuation wells from stranded subway trains. I couldn’t help but have Bob Marley singing “Exodus/movement of the people” in my head.

We got to the bus terminal in less than an hour, not much longer than it usually takes. It was closed. We continued to the entrance of Lincoln Tunnel two blocks further away, wondering if we could walk to the other side. It’s also not far from the midtown ferry stations, where we could use the ferry to get across the river (later we learned from other people who went to the ferry that it’s a huge mess and the waiting was 3-4 hours). Turned out that it’s not allowed to walk in the tunnel, but we saw cars and buses moving, slowly but indeed going through the tunnel. Most drivers were kind enough to give people a ride, and we got on a New Jersey Transit bus going to northern New Jersey and upstate New York. I asked the driver to drop us off before getting onto New Jersey Turnpike, where it’s just a couple of miles from our home. When I saw the light at the New Jersey side of the tunnel, I knew it’s nothing like 9/11.

We got off the bus, slide down a few meters on a slope from the highway to a fenced area, and found ourselves on the street of Secaucus through a door secured only by a bungee cord. There happened to be a taxi company close by, and 5 minutes later we arrived at the basement of our building. It’s surreal that everything was normal in our building because of the powerful backup generators. Next month I’ll feel much more at ease when I pay the maintenance fee.

Meanwhile Ding Qi was waiting to get on a ferry with at least one thousand people. It’s grueling under the sun, but it’s orderly and she got to Hoboken in 1.5 hours. We drove to the ferry station to picked her up, and had a nice big dinner with our colleagues celebrating the easy escape.

When I turned off the light before sleep, I still forgot to remember that it’s quite a privilege to be able to turn off the light by yourself.

nymoonmars_APOD2003-08-13.jpg

一个星期了。

昨天灾后第一天进城上班,与Penn Station依旧川流的人群一起浮上地面,发现在门口等出租车的长队不见了,因为任何车辆不准靠近Penn Station的大门。每个街口都有警察,每个电话亭上都贴满了寻找亲人的绝望。经常经过的一个消防站里,死于废墟中的消防队牧师在相片里微笑着,透过天堂般的烛光。从第六大道上向南望,第一次看到了尖顶的世界金融中心一号楼(美国运通大厦),才发现其实它比周围的楼已经都高了。灰烟散尽以后,估计从帝国大厦顶上就可以直接看到自由女神像了。

今天到了公司才知道8:48时全美国静默了一分钟。那时我一定刚刚从火车上下来,在自动扶梯上闭着眼睛醒觉;等我上到地面,街道繁忙如常。Canal Street以上的纽约到底并没有什么不同,出租车依然鸣叫,Broadway两边批发店的韩国老板们依然抽着烟搬着箱子。百万城市居民加百万进城的上班族,受到直接影响的几万人最多只是一个统计百分点。纽约市长朱利阿尼早就开始呼吁人们恢复正常生活,而正常的生活和华尔街一旦重新启动,恐怕要再倒一座楼才能轰然停止。忘却的力量是残酷的,可我们只好倚仗那力量来摆脱电视里无数次地重播各个角度的撞击和坍塌,以及一家家的人们一次次的缅怀。说实话我无法想象他们如何面对着摄像机平静地讲述着他们接到的最后一次电话,但愿那也是一种忘却的手段。

能够忘却的人是幸运的。犹太人不能忘却毒气室。巴勒斯坦人不能忘却家园。中国人不能忘却南京。现在美国的阿拉伯人没有时间忘却或记忆,他们随时担心飞驰的车中射出的子弹。现在阿富汗的老百姓没有时间忘却或记忆,他们收拾着从上次战争结束以来积攒的血汗不知该在什么时候向哪个方向逃亡。我不知道该不该忘却,该忘却什么不该忘却什么。

一个星期了,纽约扬基队又开始赢球了。

2001年9月11日星期二

大约上午8点一刻我和丁琦坐PATH到达世贸中心地下站。她通过天桥从世贸一楼(北楼)过街走到世界金融中心的公司里,我转地铁到23街我们公司。

大约9点,我看到一则Yahoo Alert说飞机撞到了世贸中心。我们公司的秘书接到她姐姐的电话,说电视上在直播。我还以为是小事故,但也试图给丁琦的手机打电话,总也不通。

9点丁琦正在与其他几十个和她一样周一刚开始上班的新雇员接受培训,感受到了第二次撞机的震动。世界金融中心被疏散,她和几个新同事走到河边离WTC一个街区的地方站了一会儿看着WTC着火冒烟,看见有物体从被撞以上的楼层坠下来(后来知道是绝望的人)。她感到那里不安全,就和两个同事向北走,准备去我们公司。

大约9点半我和两个中国同事上街看“热闹”。我们沿着第五大道往南走,街上全是人。快到华盛顿广场的时候,一辆大卡车挡住了我们的视线。忽然周围的人开始大叫大嚷地往前跑。等卡车开走了,WTC二楼(南楼)已经只剩一股浓烟了。我心里开始发虚,但是想着要去找丁琦所以继续向downtown走。与此同时丁琦已经走开大约10个街区,听到了一声响回头正好看到WTC二楼坍塌的过程。她继续向 uptown走,幸运地打到了一辆出租车到了我们公司。

快10点时我们走到了大约Houston街与Canal街交界处,大概离WTC有不到20个街区的地方。路边有一家酒吧敞开着所有的门,里面放着电视直播。我们走得累了,我也想再打个电话试试,就进了酒吧。等电话的人有五六个,因为手机根本打不出去(我根本就把手机落在家里了)。排队的时候我看着电视,忽然一楼开始坍塌。我一心以为是在重播刚才二楼坍塌,播音员也在说“is this live??!!”(这是实况吗)。我跑到街上看,一楼已经没了,一片极浓的烟从地面迅速卷起,立刻把整个downtown 地区淹没了。我跑回酒吧里打电话,丁琦的手机还是不通。我又给公司打电话,我们秘书听到是我立刻大叫“your wife is here!!!”我跟丁琦说了几句话就往回走了。

中午和下午我们一直在公司上网看新闻。几乎所有连接曼哈顿与周围地方的桥与隧道都封锁了。我从广播里听到有些火车通了就准备走,后来一察发现只是新泽西部分的线路。我同事郭林峰的夫人在家里看电视看到有许多人从曼哈顿最北端的 George Washington桥上走到新泽西去,于是我们决定离开公司。

大约下午4点我们出门坐地铁。大约一半地铁已经恢复,但车次很少而且快车都改成慢车开了。终于到了177街GWB车站已经5点多了。桥上挤满了车,已经不许人走。警察叫着说可以排队坐公共汽车过桥到新泽西那边的汽车站,我们绕过整个汽车站才找到队尾,前面大概排了四五百人。等到快6点队伍一点没动过。我走到桥边去一问才知道桥上可能有炸弹,所有交通都中断了。这时等车的队伍已经绕了车站一圈,开始排到第二层。

大约快7点知道是虚惊一场,开始通车。公共汽车走得不慢,但排在外圈的人开始等不及,只要有车经过就会上前请求搭车。许多车上就挤满了人,也有不少司机把门锁住把窗摇起绝尘而去。我们终于等上了一辆公共汽车,慢慢地开过了桥。同时步行通道也开放了,有不少人还是象以色列人出埃及似的排队走过桥。汽车过了桥就把人都放下来了。许多人换上其他的汽车走了,其他人和我们一样在陌生的Fort Lee的路上等人来接。

这时大约快8点,天已经黑了。郭林峰家离Fort Lee大约有30英里,但是与曼哈顿相连的所有高速公路都封闭了,他夫人只能从城里的道路慢慢开过来,在Fort Lee的街上找到我们已经10点多了。他们把我们送回家,大概是11点。

进了家门看见电话上有31条留言。我和丁琦分别用家里的电话和两部手机又打又接,告诉大家我们安好。同时打开电视看各个台的新闻一直到快4点才抗不住睡觉了。

9月12日星期三

早上7点多有人打电话来问候。之后电话不断,我们也就起来继续看电视打电话。我的老板晚上打电话来说明天我自己决定去不去上班。新闻里报道帝国大厦和Penn Station都因假炸弹警报而被疏散。明天还是不去的好。丁琦的公司总机没有人接。

A friend of mine who’s been in America for a couple of years told me a funny experience. Once he was visiting NYC with a few fellow Chinese students. All of them were in Manhattan for the first time, so normally they felt frighteningly lost, especially in the subway. Whenever in a subway car, they always tried to find a corner and sardined themselves on the bench no matter how vacant the car was. My friend said that in those moments he felt completely identified with those “min2 gong1” in Beijing. I guess I would’ve acted the same under similar circumstances. But after 5 months of commute and a dozen visits around town, now I feel quite safe and unlostable above and under the streets of Manhattan. It’s said that every street, every park, and every subway train in New York can be dangerous at anytime except for a commuter.

I would’ve been happier if the streets that I zigzag through everyday were 20 blocks more uptown–the real Midtown where all offices, restaurants, shops, and theatres are. The regions I tread upon is actually called Chelsea and Gramercy. Yes there’s the Empire State Building to the north and the Flat Iron Building to the south, but what lie in-between are mostly, and strangely, hundreds of small wholesale stores that sell everything from stuffed animals to Chinese medicine. Many owners are Chinese or Korean. I just can’t imagine how they survive by selling Made-in-China anonymously-branded items that you may not even find in Kmart. Maybe that’s exactly New York–everyone can survive and anything can happen.

There is one place in my commute route that I really love: the Madison Square Park. It’s one of the numerous angular-shaped parks created by Broadway cutting across the otherwise perfectly checker-boarded midtown streets. People know the Madison Square Garden much better from the Knicks and Rangers, the arena used to be right beside the park then it relocated a couple times and finally settled down right above Penn Station. Every day I start from the Garden and usually pass through the Park–sometimes deliberately. It’s literally an oasis in the heart of the city, and I’ve been witnessing its reincarnation for months. Fountains are cleaned, lawns replanted, and sculptures erected. Now there’re always all kinds of people in the park, some for a break, some for a book, some for the whole summer. Dogs bark merrily in the playground, or gaze curiously at the squirrels running around and up and down. Pigeons sleep with heads tucked under wings when I walk by in the morning, and lurk on the branches in the setting sun when I return. I feel refreshed by the scent of the grass and elevated by the facade of the Flat Iron Building every time in the park. Why? Well…

“I don’t have any reasons
I’ve left them all behind.
I’m in a New York state of mind.”
(Billy Joel, New York State of Mind, from his 1976 album “Turnstiles”)

It’s been more than 2 months since I become a commuter bound for New York City. I’ve been reading books on my train rides, a luxury that I hadn’t enjoyed for the past 3.5 years. It makes me think, and want to, as always, share some flickering thoughts with you.

My apartment is on 9th floor facing east. It would’ve been a cover-photo quality view of Manhattan skyline, if there weren’t a crowd of old, ugly, and unorganized buildings in Elizabeth downtown that stands right in the middle. Nevertheless, I can still watch the eternal confrontation of the Twin Towers of World Trade Center and the Empire State Building on a fine day or evening. Of course on a typical morning I don’t have the leisure of a scenic outlook. If I do look outside of the window, I’ll be checking if the trains are on time–the train station is also in my view. In most of the time the trains are very punctual, except once during a blizzard the electrical wire between Newark and New York broke down so not a single train could get across the Hudson River. Unfortunately there’s also the PATH train, which is more like a subway that feeds on its rails rather than hanging wires, so I still can and must go to work instead of enjoying the snow.

Elizabeth, the city where I live, is a bit south to Manhattan. The train crosses the River and arrives in Penn Station, which is at midtown 32nd St. So the train route from Elizabeth follows a curve with a constantly changing perspective of the City. When the Twin Towers merge into one, the train descends into the tunnel and stays in the underworld ever since. Just before entering Penn Station, there’s an open area as large as a whole city block, as if King Kong happened to step on this hollow block and trap its foot on the rails. I get a last glimpse of skylight, which looks so different than the same skylight on my shoulders after I take the stairs up to 7th Avenue from underground.

There’s always some Baroque or early Romantism chamber music that permeates slowly and indifferently in the hugh Penn Station, a rendezvous of all lines of New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road, PATH train, and several subways. People walk up and down frenzily and look all preoccupied. Sometimes, mostly on rainy days and Mondays, I feel that the City I ascend into is not somewhere I belong. It’s the Matrix. I’m injected into its grid together with three million people everyday in trains, subways, buses, ferries, and taxis, and tossed out in the evening like water in a tumbling washing machine. Life only seems real to me again when I see the shimmery houses sprawled across the land on the other side of the River–my side, where my vacant but cozy apartment hides in the darkness that guards it safely from the dazzling lights of Manhattan.

I. Synopsis

(08/09/00)

Hi all! I just came back from a 3-week trip from Los Altos, California where I’ve been doing an internship (a bit south of San Fransisco, right in Silicon Valley), to New Orleans, Lousiana where the Missisipi River embraces the Gulf of Mexico. We did an audio installation in Siggraph 2000, the largest conference in computer graphics and interactive art. Another intern (from Sweden) and I drove a van fully loaded with computers and audio gears down to New Orleans in 2.5 days covering about 2,250 miles, and back in 5 days visiting NASA in Houston, Grand Canyon, and a few cities in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona along the way.

It is a very long trip with many interesting sites and things. I plan to write about various topics in a series of water buckets, so if you’re not interested, simply trash the following mails, maybe one each day or two.

II. On The Road

(08/09/00)

As I said in the previous mail, the trip from Los Altos to New Orleans is about 2,250 miles one way. On our way back, we took a longer but much more scenic route so the total odometer reading was about 5K miles. That’s about 8K km, more than the distance from Mo4 He2 to the southmost point of the South Sea.

I still like driving a lot even after this long trip. We were mostly cruising at over 90mph on our way to New Orleans, and that feels good baby! Didn’t go as fast on the way back because we didn’t need to and there’s much more to see. We basically took Interstate 10 across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Lousiana down, and it’s as boring as it gets for the most part. It’s all Gobi or desert in AZ and NM, and flat flat withered grass land in TX. Lousiana is kind of interesting at last, with rivers, lakes, and mostly swamps all around. It’s not like the swamp that the Red Army passed, more like a shallow lake with vegetation. The largest one we passed by is more than 10 miles long (don’t know how wide), and I-10 is just a super-long bridge on the swamp.

On our way back, we turned north at Houston onto I-45 to Dallas, 287 to Amarillo, then I-40 all the way back to California. I-45 and 287 are as boring as I-10 (now I think I can tolerate the flatness in Illinois a bit more–at least there’s cornfield around while Texas has nothing at all), but I-40 in NM and AZ is fascinating. Actually it follows the historical and legendary Route 66 in that part. I only heard of name of Route 66 before (from jeans of that brand, actually :-), this time I got to know that it used to be a long road connecting Chicago and Los Angeles, which has been replaced by several interstate highways including I-40 from the 1950’s. A couple driving in a 50’s-flamboyant-finned car along Route 66 is a symbol of the mobile spirit of America. There’s a very interesting memorial kind of thing outside Amarillo, TX for it that I’ll talk about later.

NM and AZ are also the home of numerous Native American reservations, as well as the typical setting for a western movie, where Indians, train robbers, and stage wagons ride on the vast mesa. It’s a view that I never got bored of. The best scene to me in this trip is sunset outside Albuquerque, NM. The city lies in a basin surrounded by smooth mountains and mesa, and we climbed to a pass west of the city around sunset time. Suddenly the whole plain unfolded before me, stretching out like a thousand miles with endless mountains and roads, while the setting sun shedding bleeding colors onto the clouds and the earth. It’s a manifestation of the grandeur of nature as well as human exploration. We went down a ramp longer than one mile and is perfectly straight, providing constantly changing perspective on the majestic view.

III. New Orleans — General Impressions

(08/11/00)

New Orleans is a quite distinctive city. The dozens of American cities that we’ve been to are somewhat the same, with few exceptions like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I think Chicago epitomizes most large- and medium-scale cities quite well, with skyscraper-filled business downtown, dilapidated residential area surrounding downtown, many mid-class suburban towns, and interstates running all across and around. Las Vegas, on the other hand, exemplifies and, alas, glorifies the concept of thousands of one-street towns. Then come the rest miserably boring and uncharacteristic places like Urbana-Champaign 😦

New Orleans is kind of a distorted mixture of all these types. The downtown that we went to has some tall buildings, but most of them are hotels. There is but one major street (with railed buses in the middle) that’s wide and flashy. There’s one pedestrian street that’s narrow and more flashy. There’s I-10 as well as the Mississippi that winds through the city. All in all, it qualifies for a “tourist city”.

I didn’t really have time to tour the city until the last day we’re there. We arrived on Thursday 7/20 evening, work-till-drop’ed for the opening on Sunday afternoon, and never stopped tweaking the thing until it ended on Friday. We only had some chances just to walk through parts of the city. The most visited place for us (at least 10 times) is a long arcade along the river called Riverwalk with dozens of fast-food booths and hundreds of small stores along sides, because it’s in the middle between the hotel we stayed in and the conference venue.

Another reason why we wanted to detour to the AC’ed Riverwalk is the weather. The summer of New Orleans is 90/90: 90-degree Fahrenheit(86 is 30 Celsius), 90% humidity most of the time. In afternoon it’s always over 100 even in the shade. One night there was a huge thunder storm at about 6pm that lasted more than 1 hour. When I got out of the conference hall at 9pm, there’s virtually no water left on the street–all had evaporated, or the city’s drainage system is too efficient.

Sorry that this has already got too long and it’s over midnight. Will cut to the chase in the next part: Jazz on Bourbon Street.

IV. New Orleans — Jazz in Preservation Hall

(03/03/01)

Gosh it’s been such a long time! Finally I’ve got some free moments to write something. (RBs: I’ll finish the 4 Purdue journals after this 🙂

Another reason that I decided to write this chapter is that I had a very interesting lunch chat with my boss about New Orleans. He lived there for a few years after undergrad, paraded in two Mardi Gras and had two cars stolen there. He had some interesting remarks about the city, such as the people is the laziest you can find, and Mardi Gras is nothing but a legitimate total chaos in which 3 million people get drunk (it’s legal to show and drink alcohol in the streets–probably the only American city like that. No 4 Gang: ask Xu Ling about that!).

Back to where I left off 6 months ago. We went looking for a tourbook site called the Preservation Hall in the French Quarter, very close to the notorious Bourbon Street. It’s said to be one of the oldest American jazz concert hall, and it’s New Orleans–the birthplace of jazz, so I thought it would be something like Carnegie Hall. And boy I was wrong about that!

We almost missed it on the street. There’s no sign (or maybe just a tiny one that no one can see). The entrance is no wider than an apartment door. There’s a really beat doorman sitting on a barstool charging $10 (or maybe $5?) per person. We’re then in a narrow corridor, and to the left is a really small room–how small? Go check out yourself!

Let’s cut to the chase why the 3 hours that we spent there are still so vivid in my mind. Not because the stark contrast between the reality and my imagination, not because everyone was sweating like icecream in an oven, not because the music is good–

It’s just the feeling of being there as if it’s 2 hundred years ago that I can’t get out of my mind. That gotta be the way how jazz started. Well Louis Armstrong moved north and Miles Davis is cool, but the stuffed room and sweating crowd in New Orleans is where you find the root. That’s what jazz is really about. It makes you relaxed and swing and smile.

Getting out at midnight, the 80 degree street felt like a fridge. Submerged by the wild crowd, gaudy stripbars, and deafening rock music, I felt completely lost. I wish I could go back to the pure and simple and small Preservation Hall–at least I can do it now in my head.

V. On The Road Again

(04/07/01)

I haven’t heard a lot of Willi Nelson’s songs, but his “On The Road Again” is one of my favorite songs of all time (and he played himself really good in “Wag The Dog”), simple and true:

On the road again
Just can’ wait to get on the road again
The life I love is making music with my friends
And I can’ wait to get on the road again

On the road again
Going places that I’ve never been
Seeing things that I may never see again
I can’t wait to get on the road again

On the road again
Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway
We’re the best of friends
Insisting that the world be turnin’ our way
And our way
Is on the road again

We’re on the road again after the show in New Orleans was over, me and Michael, our Swedish intern. Oh BTW, did I talk about being inspected in Texas? That’s the funniest thing in our journey. When we’re going down to New Orleans, we drove an extremely long distance in Texas–the most boring part of our whole trip, because there is virtually nothing as far as eyes can see. One night we’re driving on a part of I-10 that’s pretty close to the Mexican border and almost as dull as George W. Bush, and all of a suddenly we saw some kind of sign that ordered everyone to pull over. Turned out there’s an inspection station on the side. We stopped, an officer came to the driver’s side and asked:

“Are you American?”
Michael answered: “No, I’m Swedish.”
The officer was obviously surprised, so he paused a bit and turned to me: “Well are you American?”
“Not really,” I said innocently, “I’m Chinese.”

Now the officer was really surprised! Then he flashed his beam in our car–a full-size van cramped with boxes of computers and audio equipment and magnetic trackers, so full that we can’t see anything in the rear-view mirror. He looked a little suspicious now:

“What are these?”
“Computers.”
“Where are you guys from?”
“California.” It just kept going wilder.
“Where are you going?”
“New Orleans.”

This must be the weirdest case that officer had ever dealt with. A Swedes and a Chinaman going from California to New Orleans passing Texas in the middle of the night in a van fully loaded with gears. After a while he figured out that although it seemed as strange as it gets, it’s not what he’s looking for, which is probably smuggler, drug dealer, or illegal immigrants from Mexico. So he relieved: “Oh, so you must be going for Mardi Gras!” I didn’t know what Mardi Gras is back then, and Michael said “No, it’s too early.” –seven months early!

Texas isn’t always that boring, though, like NASA is a fun place, especially for the cows grazing right beside a rocket park. On our way back we couldn’t stand I-10 any longer so we headed north from Houston, also because we would go to the Grand Canyon. There’s a very interesting place called Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo, the only large city in northwest Texas. I was reading AAA Tourbook when we drove across Amarillo, and it mentioned the Cadillac Ranch as a prominent “environmental sculpture” piece in the 50’s. It doesn’t tell where it was exactly located, so I kept a constant lookout for it. Suddenly there it was on the other side of I-40, standing out in the most vast and vacant field I’d ever seen. We exited and made a U-turn. There’s a long walkway leading to the landmark from the ranch entrance, providing great vista points along the way.

The scene is kind of surreal. There’s a large rectangular bare ground in the middle of the ranch. From a distance you can’t figure out what’s on the plot. What you see is a few–to be precise, as Dupont’n’Dupondt always say, 8–colorful blobs sticking out of the ground. I knew what they are from the tourbook, but I couldn’t believe what I saw until I went up to one of them and touched it. Yes it is indeed a 50’s Cadillac with its nose planted in the ground and finned tail pointed to the sky. Rainbow-colored graffiti covers the car all over–I don’t know if the original artist or the later visitors do it, but that’s what makes the cars alive. So there they are, eight flamboyant Cadillacs diving into the bleak and blank Texacan ground like a fleet of dolphins. The tourbook says that the sculpture was intended to look like dolphins swimming in the sea of wheat during harvest seasons. To me, it’s more like a dolphin suicide–not to protest oil leak in the ocean, but because they got incredibly drunk. In a word, it looks very American: flat field, wide-open land, empty atmosphere, busy Interstate, Cadillac, and–of course, American graffiti!

The rest of our journey was rather uneventful. The only thing worth mentioning is that Michael got his first speeding ticket of life after we visited the Grand Canyon, which is so humongous that all other objects, especially a police car, become infinitesimally small. We then had to find the municipal court in Flagstaff to file an exemption from court appearance since Michael would soon go back to Sweden–with a forever-blemished record–poor boy! While we’re looking for the court we bumped into a city jail right in downtown Flagstaff. A staff asked: “Are you visiting anyone?” I almost laughed out “yes we’d like to talk to Mr. Grand Canyon” before Michael pulled me out in a hurry.

Well that’s all, folks! I’m glad I finally finish this thing after almost a year. I’ve forgotten many details about the 2-week trip, but one thing I won’t forget is the enormous vastness and varieties across the land. Many tourists and New Yorkers think that America is just a suburb of the Big Apple–in a sense it’s true because the Suburb is where the American Beauty lives. And to think about all the fascinating places in China and the rest of the world, ten thousand cats don’t have enough lives to live!

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