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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Windup Girl


The book has many striking qualities, among which is the grammatically correct use of Chinese curse words. Of the multiple (third person limited) points of view --- a white man, a Japanese sex toy, a couple of Thai police officials, a Chinese refugee --- most characters are quite believable. What impressed me the most though is the sense of urgency and tension anyone who's lived in social instability and material scarcity can recognize, but unexpected coming from a white, male, American author.

Most of the time Bacigalupi's writing style sits in the sweep spot between efficiency and literary flourish. The descriptions of a tropical and crammed city teetering on the edge of destruction are often so vivid one could taste and smell it. Occasionally it becomes a bit ponderous and slows down the story. There are passages that immediately recall Graham Greene and the imperialist period SE Asia. What's old is new again, indeed.

In general I am perfectly fine with the moral ambiguity of the story. Oddly, the worst drawn, most underdeveloped character is the white man representing the West. A corporate man who acts more like a CIA agent, a scrubbed version of Alden Pyle ("The Quiet American"). He is the only POV character without a back story.

The title character, the Japanese "windup girl", a genetically modified human who was both vulnerable and physically superior to humans, is also less than satisfactory. A few elements in her story line do not add up --- for example, why did she yearn for a fabled community of New People in the north but never made a real effort to escape the city? She was physically superhuman and, although prone to overheating due to genetically designed small pores, she could have jumped in the river and swam. When she became the target of city-wide manhunt later in the novel, it got increasingly unbelievable that she could have eluded people's eyes. She lived in a slum, a crowded small neighborhood where everyone knew everyone and any strange woman --- especially a pretty one --- would instantly attract attention. Ultimately there is just something about the stereotypical Japanese heroine (in the eyes of white males?), who must be both vulnerable and tough, innocent and kind of dumb, with an unmistakable streak of dependence on men, that really turned me off. Also, the premise of a cyborg trying to become human is a bit old and tired.

The chapters on the always tenacious, calculating Chinese refugee, the passionate Thai policeman, and the Thai policewoman are the best parts of the novel. They are completely believable and vivid, full of layers of complexity and an irrepressible vitality.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Doctor

Motioning me to sit down, he picked up a pair of hearing aid from the desk and put them in his ears. "When you get old, your hearing goes," he smiled apologetically. "This way I can hear you better." His hair and beard were mostly white and both needed a trim, but he had obviously reached an age and place in life that allowed him to completely ignore appearances. On the bookshelf sat several Freud dolls, one porcelain and one cloth. Both had the characteristic white beard too.

When he talked, his blue eyes, magnified behind the thick glasses, were fixed on an invisible spot behind my left ear, as if to concentrate his thoughts or to recall something important. They would flick back to my face every minute or two, and then went back to that spot.

"I am toxo positive, but I have not developed schizophrenia. My sister is also toxo positive and she has schizophrenia. Presumably we were both exposed in childhood. So why is it that she is affected but I'm not?" He said it matter-of-factly, but my mind immediately romanticized this detail. Did he become a psychiatrist and devote all his life to the research of the cause and cure of this disease to save his sister? A psychiatrist might scoff at such simplistic deduction. Still, I imagine that it made for as good a mission as any.

For decades almost no one believed him. Contagious madness? What a crazy idea! It didn't make sense intuitively. A lone voice in the wilderness, making do with whatever funding he could scrape together, he continued to make noise about his cause and made small but steady progress, not unlike Captain Ahab's pursuit of the great white whale. Near the end of his career he was finally heard, and people began to convert to his ideas, after other, more glamorous and fashionable theories failed. Vindication was so close he could taste it. But he was too old and weak to slay the whale with his own hands and might have to hand over the pursuit to others. Yet for the moment he was still hanging on, lingering for another day, another year, even if just to witness the kill, which, perhaps, would be as sweet as revenge.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Bewildered

Recently I started going to a writers group. As any writer groups, people share their writing and ideas at every meeting. Some time in October, a writer brought in a short narrative of a slightly odd idea. In a world like ours, there are velociraptors running everywhere. They randomly attack and kill about 200 people a month, but they are allowed to run free, protected from human intervention because, supposedly, they can secret something that are medically precious, a cancer-curing substance from their glands.

During the discussion, we scratched our heads over the synopsis. Suggestions veered into all directions. Finally, the writer himself explained. The idea behind the vicious velociraptors was handguns. Approximately 200 people are killed accidentally by handguns every month (I have not confirmed the statistics), but Americans are absolutely and completely unwilling to even have a conversation about gun control laws. As a French immigrant he found it utterly bewildering.

We discussed this some more. Someone pointed out that, unlike his setup for the story, handguns don't cure cancer. There is no reliable, verifiable benefit to handgun ownership comparable to curing cancer, which accounts for about one in five or four deaths. So the premise does not quite work.

For a brief moment the room was filled with sighs as the memory of the Aurora cinema massacre hung over us. This being in a Washington suburb, there were immediate comments all around that gun control is political death. Nobody, but nobody in national politics, regardless of party affiliation or ideology, dares to speak up against gun rights, and everyone who is not backed by NRA knew to avoid the subject altogether. And the Supreme Court, led by Dick Cheney's hunting buddy Scalia, have put the final word on this in DC vs Heller.

But the French immigrant shook his head and said he just did not understand. Why can't people even have a conversation about this? A cloud of threat seems to gag everyone with any connection to politics. If one is elected (except in DC or Chicago), one had better keep one's mouth shut about this subject. In this day and age, one can talk about racism, slavery, torture, legalizing addictive substances, but one can't talk about handgun regulation, because representatives have been effectively and quickly thrown out of office by the NRA again and again. The tide of public sentiment rapidly turned from 2-to-1 in favor of gun control in late 1990s to majority favoring no more gun control in late 2000s, despite the increase in gun-related killing sprees. Whoever is running the show, don't they strike fear in your heart if you were an elected official? When someone mentions children accidentally shooting themselves with daddy's gun in the house, immediately dozens of people spring up to argue that swimming pools kill more children than unlocked guns. But swimming pools are fun and useful and bring joy to families. What do guns do?

So I wonder, because I don't understand it either. What is it about guns that make people feel so strong, tough, and safe? What is the emptiness that is filled by the possession of guns? It has to be related, in some way, to the potential power of killing other people, killing them dead, without soiling your own hands. What does that mean? How urgently do we need to possess this power to kill our fellow human beings? And how much are people willing to pay for the sense of contentment and satisfaction knowing that one possesses the power? Obviously, the blood of a few small children is not enough, as Huckabee has convincingly demonstrated. It's just a perfect opportunity to blast liberals for not requiring Christian prayers in public schools.

I'm a woman and cannot kill anyone with my bare hands. If I were to live in a society full of danger and fear, I'd want to possess guns too. I think, if we look at who are the most fervent gun right activists and believers, it becomes clear why they have become louder and more fervent, for they have reason to fear, fear the loss of their power and privilege, because the world in which they ruled over others is slipping away. This is one of the few conversations they still dictate.

But still, although it is true that people kill people every day, part of me do not and cannot understand. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mystery of the Squiggly Lines



After visiting Dom Pedro, I made my way to Sackler Gallery. Strolling from the ancient Arabian and Iranian collections to the ancient Chinese and Indian collections, an inevitable observation emerged: We are the same people. How can we not be? Who else, from the Neanderthals in Europe to the Homo floresiensis on Indonesian islands, ever engaged these impractical and meaningless activities? Look at the squiggly lines, repeated dots, and neatly organized markings on pots and pans and dishes and wheels. Look at the drawings flowers, animals, water, the sun and moon, and human bodies. Look at the mixture of colors. What is the use of carving patterns onto a vessel that holds water or wine? Do they make the liquid taste better? And the imitation of flowers and lion heads on plates and dishes, do they make the food more nutritious? There is no practical use for these little "extra touches." And don't get me started on those little colorful beads, stones, shells, and glittering metals. You can't eat them, hunt or gather food with them, cure diarrhea with them, or have more babies with them. Yet they quickly became this all-important thing called "currency" and were traded for all kinds of critical supplies like food and clothes and houses. Everyone did this, all over the world, instinctively and spontaneously, without fighting a few wars or at least holding some meetings to come to an agreement. We couldn't help ourselves.

We are so used to our own behavioral patterns that we take it for granted. Sure, everyone does this, everyone thinks this way. It's so natural that we don't realize how damned bizarre it is. Nobody else does this. No other animals nor our ancient cousins of the Homo genus has shown any interest in seemingly useless symbols. Sure, Neanderthals and Cro-magnons experimented with making and using tools like stone knives and hammers. Even certain smart animals, like ravens, can use tools. But we, modern Homo sapiens, from 100,000 years ago till now, are positively obsessed about abstract representations of concrete, tangible objects and events. For no apparent, practical reason whatsoever, people just began drawing and painting with bright colors on walls of caves in southern Africa. We are not satisfied with a bowl that can hold water and food. We are not content with a piece of animal skin or cloth that can keep us warm. We have to make them pretty. We have to keep the past alive by painting symbols on clay. We have to carve people's faces and bodies into stone, so that we can imagine they are still alive when they're really dead.

So here is the answer to the existence of art, stories, music, language, consciousness, love, the pursuit of happiness, and all this seemingly useless crap. It was probably an accident that we began to convert tangible, concrete thoughts into abstract ideas and play with them as if they were real. We live in our mind and our dreams of symbols. Weird, isn't it? And, somehow, after all, this obsession with the abstract and symbolic is probably the biggest reason that this little tribe spread throughout the world like wildfire, squeezing out and obliterating at least six cousin species who had survived pretty successfully in their settlements as well as many, many other animals. This is what makes us human. 

Dom Pedro



The world's largest cut aquamarine gem came on display at Museum of Natural History only last week. Unlike the Hope Diamond, which has its own Harry Winston display room, Dom Pedro is, at least for now, stuck by the door of the gem display room. This morning, I walked past the glass case twice before finally seeing it.

It is beautiful in a way entirely different from all the other jewels and gems in the room. Not just because it is large, standing 14 inch tall and nearly 5 pounds in weight. Not only because its haunting blue-green clarity reminds me of swimming in Hawaii. It is all these, plus the ingenious "negative cuts" into the back sides of the obelisk, which creates an illusion of light glowing from within. But that is not all. There was something else, something distinctive, that puzzled me as I strolled from one end of the room to the other, comparing the exquisite rubies and intense sapphires set in silver or gold or platinum rings or necklaces with the unadorned Dom Pedro.What makes it so distinctive in this room?

Compare Dom Pedro with, for example, the diamond necklace Napoleon gave to Josephine:


Or the astonishing Hope diamond:


Or, one of my favorite, the star sapphire:



Finally it dawned on me hours after I went home: Most gems and jewels are cut and set in a way that suggests femininity, while Dom Pedro, with its phallic shape, straight lines, and sharp angles, is unmistakably masculine. One can find absolutely no curve in this massive piece of gem. Even the cold, hard, and sharp diamonds are usually cut into shapes that somewhat suggest rounded edges or curved surfaces in order to temper the fragility of straight lines. Not Dom Pedro.

I can imagine the jewel designer Munsteiner chose to cut it just so because of the original cylindrical shape of the uncut beryl. Perhaps he decided that an obelisk was the best viable choice to preserve the most amount of the gem. Or perhaps, I suspect, this was an artistic statement to depart from the traditional feminine cuts of most gems. And how serendipitous to have Dom Pedro housed in one of the museums lining the National Mall, looking out to the Washington Monument.

Somehow this ultra-angular aquamarine reminds me of the ultra-curvy jade carvings of New Zealand's Maori tribes. In the abstract shapes of fish, fishhooks, waves, and animals, there is never a straight line.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Fish in the North Sea

A giant fish lives in the North Sea. Its silvery smooth body stretches for thousands of miles. When it turns, millions of tons of seawater churns up small fish from the bottom. When it flips its tail, islands far away are drowned in a tsunami. It swims in the familiar north sea but dreams of the strange south sea. The birds that fly between the two ends of the world tell stories of pink and purple coral bushes as large as islands, the sky that remains blue for years to decades without a shred of cloud, and the waves that glow green in the black night.

The fish is giant, but the world is vast, and there is much it has never seen. His heart yearns for the south sea.

So one day, when the air stirs with brewing wind and the sea stirs like boiling pot, the giant fish leaps into the air and morphs into a giant bird with brilliant white wings stretching for thousands of miles. It rises with the wind lifting the massive wings that tremble and shudder, struggling with the new way of swimming, swimming in air. Soon the bird learns to glide, glide with the flow of the air, just like it used to glide with the current in the ocean, the tips of its wings sensing and adjusting to the tiny turbulence.

The north sea retreats rapidly, ten thousand miles below. For a fleeting moment the bird is touched with melancholy, and it whispers goodbye to home and friends. The world opens a new dimension. It rises higher and higher, above layers of gray clouds, until it is bathed in blazing sunshine. A freedom sweeps through its entire being.

Errol Morris' Documentary: Tabloid




Despite the rave reviews "Tabloid" received when it came out, I did not enjoy the documentary very much. Indeed, it was slightly disturbing in that it confirmed one of my long-time suspicions: Depictions that are claimed to be true (biographies, documentary films, memoirs) are more likely to be false than fiction.

The facts presented may be facts, but the order of presenting these facts made me think of Errol Morris as a particularly manipulative man who seems to take pleasure in controlling the audience's expectation and interpretation. Of course, every writer or filmmaker does this to some extent, but the way Morris does it is a little too heavy-handed for my taste. I don't like to be so forcibly manipulated. This is in part why I tend to find more truth about human nature and motives in fiction than in biographies and documentaries.

Also slightly disturbing about the filmmaker's invisible hand is a sense of crude judgment exuding from the way facts are presented. The best observations of human frailty tend to contain a kind of amused compassion, which is missing in Morris' approach to "Tabloid."

Friday, December 7, 2012

Pain in the arm

It began with a tingle in the skin, the tender patch on the inside of the upper arm that never sees the sun. Within half an hour, the tingle turned into spontaneous, sporadic firing of the nerve endings that sent wave of pain down the arm to the fingertips. The skin surface pulsed with pricks of thousands of invisible pins every few minutes, with a layer of trembling numbness over the pain.

I put my left palm on the right arm trying to stop the pain from flaring up, to hold it down or squeeze it out, but the skin quivered again nonetheless. I held the right arm tightly against my body unmoving and depriving it of cool air. This seemed to reduce the intensity, if not the frequency, of the tingling.

The formula that finally alleviated the pain was holding the arm completely still and distracting my attention with videos. It receded into a constant simmer of tolerable burn with an occasional twitch to remind me of its presence.

After a night's sleep, the pain was largely gone, but the entire right arm was heavy and sore, as if fatigued from heavy lifting the day before. I suspect a virus. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

这个要看


Wagner and Me, Stephen Fry's documentary about his conflicted feelings about Wagner the person and his music.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Emotional Memory Extraction Machine

The machine has an adjustable metal arm extending above the patient's head. At the end of the arm is a hollow shell that looked like a helmet. The patient is seated in a chair comfortably, and the arm is lowered so that the helmet gently fit onto the head. Inside the helmet is a layer of iron mesh that must be snugly wrapped over the patient's skull. The mesh is soft and flexible; it can be expanded or tightened depending on the size and shape of the skull.

The patient is asked to sit back and relax and try to clear their mind. The machine will first take a scan of the patient's brain and map the three-dimensional locations of all the major brain circuits, because every person's brain map is different. Next, the machine will stimulate the relevant brain regions to induce a hypnotic state and suppress the inhibitory regulation of the prefrontal lobe.

Under this hypnotic state, the patient is not unconscious, but rather relieved of all conscious resistance. The patient is then prompted to recall the events and people associated with the disturbing, intrusive, or unpleasant emotions central to her chief complaints. Each piece of memory associated with the emotion of complaint is "treated" by the machine to erase the emotional aspect while preserving the factual memory. This treatment is conducted by applying a short burst of electrical impulses that counteract the frequency of the emotional memory of concern, thus casting the memory into permanent oblivion. The patient is then free of the disturbing or unpleasant emotion whenever she recalls the event or the person, leaving only facts.

For example, a person who has been bitten by a dog in childhood may be traumatized for life and recall the intense fear when she sees a dog or even a picture of a dog. However, once the fear associated with the memory of the childhood incident are removed, she can still remember having been bitten and the pain, but she does not remember the fear. Consequently, she will not be frightened by the mere image of a dog. The treatment has the same effect on the sadness and loneliness associated with one's memory of his or her parents' divorce. The patient would remember all the events and people but lose the feelings associated with the experience. This would allow the patient to view the past with a cold detachment and move on.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Pharma Drama

Met up with a former colleague today and chatted about merger drama that exploded after I left so-and-so company. I have heard of similar stories playing out again and again for two decades. Mergers are one of the most wasteful, inefficient, and pointless activity in the pharmaceutical industry. I doubt Pfizer had done any real work at all in the past quarter century besides the endless, exhausting of reorganization. Yet they all keep doing it like lab rats running in the wheel, for no better reason than keeping Wall Street stock analysts happy. Wall Street, who doesn't know the first thing about R&D, is running the show. No wonder productivity and success rate have been dropping like an airplane with both engines blown out.

A few years ago, when mega company bought medium company, everyone was soothed with comforting announcements: We will let you run it as you've always run it. We don't want to disrupt your operation. We want you to run like a well-oiled machine just like before, that's why we spent so much money to buy you.

Before the sound of the microphone dissipated, the backstabbing had already begun. The head cashed out and made his exit. A few others near the top saw the writing on the wall and bailed. Like a boat with a few holes in the bottom, water began to leak in. The vacuum left on the top layer ignited the ambition and hunger among the middle managers like honey on flypaper. A great jostle began.

To make things worse, the mega company gave the medium company a couple of smaller companies to absorb into its structure. Here, they said, you guys get together and figure it out yourselves. This was like throwing a couple of alligators into an already frenzied snake pit. I wonder whether the mega company did this intentionally, just to see who would survive the snake pit and become the last man or woman standing. For the next five years, departments were broken up and shuffled, territories were consolidated and re-shaped, the org chart --- oh the infamous org chart --- was drawn and redrawn and drawn and redrawn again. Bosses came and went. Today you reported to Ms A, tomorrow you might be reporting to Mr B, and the day after? Both.

It is no surprise, then, people at the bottom of the totem pole were overworked, confused, and exhausted, but nothing got done.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

盗亦有道

昨晚熬夜看 Fuchsia Dunlop 的鱼翅与花椒,里面提到庄子“庖丁解牛”的典故,今天心血来潮地去翻蔡志忠漫画之“庄子”系列,找到了动漫版,还挺长的。

讲到“盗亦有道”的话题,把我笑死了:能猜到财物藏在哪里,是为圣;偷东西时一马当先,是为勇;偷完东西殿后,是为义;判断状况是否该下手,是为智;分赃均匀,是为仁。

拍桌子大笑,太犀利了。这么简单的道理,但接受它是违反人性的。

Timon of Athens

During the intermission of Timon of Athens at Folger, I eavesdropped on a discussion among the 3 persons (who looked like a mother with t...

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