Monday, October 30, 2006

photo of Egyptian temple

Ramses II built the temple Abu Simbel (wikipedia) ostensibly to honor the god Amun, but in reality to honor himself. Half the walls are carved with twenty-foot-tall scenes of him shooting three arrows from a bow while riding a chariot, him holding five enemies by their hair, him crushing the bodies of Hittites under his feet.

Me: "Ramses was probably an old man by the time he built this temple, and he's still depicting that one battle from his youth. I wonder if his subjects got tired of listening to him talking about it? Well, at least he's fair to his queen. Her statue out front is the same size as his."

Dan: "Which queen statue?"

Me: [pointing to the two seated statues to the right of the entrance]

Dan: "That's not the queen. That's the god Amun sitting to the right of Ramses. His queen is that tiny statue you see standing by his foot."

Me: "God damn it."

[Wikipedia claims all four depicted statues are of Ramses II, but my point still holds.]

Friday, October 27, 2006

lifestyles of the rich and pharaonic

For 1500 years, the pharaoh's main job was to lead the country in worship of the gods of air, love, mummification, and other important matters. The pharaoh was always drawn and sculpted with a lean body -- in Brian's words, the "19-year-old swimmer's build".

Then came Akhenaten, who insisted on his statues having enormous hips and thighs.

He also decided to disband the religion, and switch to a single god Aten. Aten is the sun god. Akhenaten changed his name to have "aten" in it, moved the capital of Egypt, and sent a band of workers around the country to scratch out the names of other gods. These workers scaled temple walls and 30-foot obelisks, carving out the denounced gods.

Akhenaten was pretty badass.

Unfortunately, after he died, the pissed-off former priests labeled him a heretic, and then formed their own coalition. This time the name scratched out by these migrant workers was Akhenaten's.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

AFD (or: what are friends for)

In Egypt, driving laws are apparently just suggestions. My Cairo cab driver straddled two lanes on the highway. Other drivers did the same, effectively converting two lanes into three. Walking in the Friday market, I heard a round of honking and looked up. A van five feet away headed straight at me, a boy of ten in the driver seat, bouncing with the bumps in the road.

Yesterday as our group rode back to our hotel from the Luxor Museum:

Me: That van next to us is driving with its door open.

Dan: [glances over at white van driving 30mph with sliding door fully open and five Egyptian men inside] Yeah.

Me: The driver is probably a ten-year-old boy.

Dan: He's still better than you.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

pharaoh's revenge

I read yesterday that if event A happens at the same time as event B, then your subconscious will link the two. If your dog collapses while you walk him under a willow tree, then future glimpses of willow branches will remind you of poor Fluffy's demise.

I fear that I will henceforth associate the majestic Saqqara step pyramid

with 1). trying to sell my Google stock at the start of the trading period, via a Sidekick hiptop running lynx (text-based browser) with a lag time of several seconds, and

2). stabbing stomach pains ("Mummy's Tummy" according to the guidebook). Julie warned me that the so-called bathroom near the pyramid is actually a trailer whose walls were covered in shit. After the stomach pains set in, I was very grateful for that bathroom.

even from the dark continent

An hour before group dinner in Cairo hotel.

Dan: [clicking away at Sidekick hiptop]

Me: Are you reading work emails again?

Dan: [glances at me and then back down] [smiling] Maybe.

Me: Why are you working from Egypt, during your vacation? None of the rest of us are.

Dan: [wordlessly clicking]

Me: [after some silence] Do you think Google does this to people? Where we work so much?

Dan: No. We do it to ourselves, at Google.

Me: Surely it's not normal to work like this.

Dan: It's also not normal to do amazing things.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Otto Frank

Yesterday I visited the House of Anne Frank, during my 9-hour stopover in Amsterdam en route to Cairo.

I expected to be moved. But it came as a surprise that the story which made me blink back tears was not that of Anne, but rather her father Otto.

Otto Frank ran a business selling jars of spices. He occasionally brought his daughters to his warehouse overlooking the canal. Anne didn't like the creepy dark of the warehouse, "Why spices?" she said. "If we're in the food business, might as well make something tasty like candy!"

In 1942, during the German occupation, a "work summon" came for Margot, Anne's older sister. Otto took his family into hiding two days later, in the attic annex above his warehouse. His henchman created a secret bookcase to hide the annex entrance stairs.

Otto continued to run the business from hiding, giving orders to his two assistants. He transferred the company to their name, but they consulted him every day on business decisions.

In 1944, two years into hiding, the Franks are betrayed. The Germans search the attic and confiscate the valuables, but leave Anne's journals scattered on the floor.

The Franks are sent to separate concentration camps. Margot dies in March 1945 of typhoid, one month before the liberation. Anne says, "I have no one left to me now," not knowing that her father is still alive. She dies a few days later.

Otto lives through the end of the war. He comes back to the warehouse, and learns that his wife is dead. He asks everyone if they have news of his daughters. He takes out an ad in the newspaper, week after week.

A couple of months go by. One day, Otto is sorting the day's mail with his assistant Miep. Suddenly he goes completely silent. Miep turns to look at him. He's very pale. He hands her a letter, "Read this."

It says, "I hereby notify you that Margot Frank and Anne Frank are dead. I was a nurse in camp XXX along with them."

Miep pushes back her chair and stands up. She opens the desk drawer and with both hands takes out a pile of bound journals and loose leaf papers.

"These are Anne's journals," Miep says. "This is the legacy of your daughter."

Saturday, October 14, 2006

To nanowrimo or not to nanowrimo

JTR is participating in NaNoWriMo again this year, and encourages me to do the same.

NaNoWriMo grew to 59,000 participants last year. To use their own words,

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

I participated in the event three years ago. I had just joined Google, and every day after work, I went home and wrote my 1667 words. On November 26, 2003, I crossed the 50k-word mark, which made me a "NaNoWriMo winner".

Except that it was 50,000 words of drivel. I've since deleted the file from my computer, and hope to God no traces of it exist anywhere.

I can identify with the protagonist in this video. (In a display of irony, the quality of the video is also crap.)

Almost all the other NaNoWriMo excerpts I read online and at Bay Area readings were the same way, except JTR's novel which is condensed genius.

beautiful lies

Omar: I also heard Malcolm Gladwell speak at the New Yorker festival.

Me: I hate that guy!

Omar: [laughing] He was such an amazing storyteller. He had no slides, just him standing there talking, and the audience was spellbound.

Me: I have no doubt of it. His books are beautiful stories. They really work their way into your heart. But they're depressing and they're lies. For example, he says that 4% of the population is over six feet tall, but some large percentage of CEOs are, like 50%. He concludes that height leads to people thinking you're powerful, and hence success.

Omar: I remember this.

Me: It's really annoying for me, since I'm not as tall as you are, Omar. But there could be some third factor that leads to both! Maybe it's actually that rich families feed their kids well (so they grow up to be taller) and give them more education and connections (so they grow up to be CEOs). Maybe height isn't the cause at all.

Omar: Yeah, there's another part where he says that crime in New York City fell, and it was due to punishing small crimes like littering. But there are studies that have shown that wasn't the reason.

Me: In Freakonomics, they actually did regression tests on all the factors. They ran a scientifically controlled algorithm, and found that it wasn't the small crimes at all. It was by legalizing abortion.

Omar: Right.

Me: At least if Gladwell's books are uplifting, there would be some redeeming value. But they're not. He has another section on sexism, and how it's subconscious and pervasive. He doesn't motivate by saying, 'Hey, let's band together to fight and make a difference!' No, he ends on a note about how it's everywhere and there's nothing we can do because it's so deeply rooted.

Omar: The story of the female trombonist.

Me: His stories are so compelling that it's hard not to be influenced, and a lot of it is not even factual. I fall into all the unfortunate categories that he describes. I'm not six feet tall, I'm a woman, I'm not Caucasian. If I were to believe his books ...

Omar: You're fucked!

Me: His message is: "Well, you're boned. But thanks for buying my book!"

bathroom chess

Omar: I went to the New Yorker festival last weekend.

Me: Cool, how was it?

Omar: I heard Garry Kasparov speak. He doesn't play chess any more. Now he's in Russian politics. He told a story about a game between a Russian champion and a Bulgarian champion. The Russian champion went to the bathroom a ridiculous number of times. Then he won, and people think he was getting signals in the bathroom.

Me: But he's the Russian champion. Who would know better than him what move to make next? If he's getting tips from a better chess player, why isn't THAT person playing in the game instead?

Omar: Someone could be using a computer to narrow down the top choices, and then analyze each one. A human paired with a computer is unbeatable.

Me: Oh.

Omar: The champion sometimes has two directions that he could analyze, and he just needs a signal to tell him which direction to focus on. The judges take the game very seriously. While the champions are playing, they sit behind huge concrete blocks so that they can't see the audience. Even someone in the audience raising their hand could be a signal.

Me: Didn't his time run out while he was going to the bathroom?

Omar: He went during the other person's turn. Afterwards the Bulgarian team protested, so the judges made a change. Up until then, each team had its own separate bathroom, but for the next match, they only allowed one bathroom for both teams.

Me: But maybe he had an upset stomach, and that's why he went to the bathroom.

Omar: He went a ridiculous number of times, like forty times within a single match.

Me: Forty?!

Omar: They called it the "toilet chess match".

Friday, October 13, 2006

gothic hippie: "tie-dye with black fishnets"

My translated interview article is the current post on Google's China blog. This time they used a professional translator, who did a better job than I did on my two previous China blog posts.

I was very amused to see that this section:

One candidate came to an interview wearing a gothic mesh shirt with holes through which his nipples were clearly visible. He still got the job. (I don't recommend taking this risk.)

mysteriously became this in translation:


One candidate came to an interview wearing a wrinkled and dirty T-shirt. His T-shirt even had ripped holes in it. He still got the job. (I don't recommend taking this risk.)

They turned the goth into a hippie!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


I finally finished the movie 2046.

The movie starts with Tony Leung pursuing the unattainable Zhang Ziyi.

He employs a combination of aggression and patience, to seduce her. She falls in love with him . She pleads with him to stay true to her, and he refuses. She cries. He brings another girl home. Zhang Ziyi moves out, but can't get over him.

Repeat with the seduction of Gong Li, considered for a decade the most beautiful actress in China.

Flashback to a repeat with the impossibly graceful Maggie Cheung.

My first reaction was, "WTF? Does this director not get laid enough in real life? Why is his movie living out the fantasy of seducing every famous Chinese actress?"

Then I read the wikipedia article. It claims Tony fell so hard for Maggie Cheung that everafter he looked for traces of her in other women. Seeing her traits in them drew him, but couldn't keep him, since his heart belonged still to Maggie.

That is a more generous theory.

The same director made a prequel where the main guy is a playboy who feels abandoned by his mother. He seduces two women and promptly breaks both their hearts.

I think the theme is a good one. Sometimes we're broken by events early in life, and then we keep looking for a repeat of that event so that we can re-live it and fix it this time around. Except we can't actually fix it, so it never quite works out.

with me

Lately it takes me a long time to stop thinking about work. I don't know whether other people switch off the work thoughts when they walk out the building, but it takes me hours.

Friday I carpooled with Dan to the Berkeley opera "King Arthur" (which had nothing to do with King Arthur). Dan was curt in his responses. There was little emotion displayed, just words chosen for maximal efficiency.

"What's wrong?" I kept asking. "Are you tired? Distracted? Did you fall in love with someone?"

"No," he said.

Finally I asked, "Are you in work mode?"

This prompted a long pause as he deliberated. Finally he concluded that yes, it was work mode.

I felt somewhat vindicated. At least Dan has the same issue that I do.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


Eating a midnight dinner at Zuni with Dan and Charles.

Me: Today is Mid-Autumn Festival, the day of the year when the moon is at its roundest. You're supposed to spend it with family. It's the chinese version of Thanksgiving.

Dan: Yes, I was impressed by the moon tonight. It was very round.

Me: Are you sure it wasn't a shark?


Me: [to Charles] Dan was two years ahead of me at Caltech, and I participated in his Ditch Day stack.

Charles: What's that?

Dan: It's an annual tradition where seniors construct elaborate puzzle hunts. My stack's premise was that an AI was loose in the system. It communicated with you via light bulbs scattered around campus, that flashed in morse code. There was always a switch next to the light bulb, that you tap with morse code. I put a light bulb in the steam tunnel. I even had a fridge where you open the door, and the fridge light flashed morse code.

Me: In preparation for Ditch Day, seniors hid their preparation materials behind sheets that they marked "Seniors Only". Months before the event, Dan strung a 50-foot cable across the entire Dabney House courtyard. (Imagine a black cable strung across this courtyard):

with an Atari joystick hanging from it, eight feet in the air.

Charles: What was the joystick for?

Me: Nothing. It wasn't used in his Ditch Day stack at all. He put it there for months, just to build hype.


Dan: On the day before Ditch Day, we stayed up all night coding. Seniors had to get off campus by eight a.m., or they'd get duct-taped to a tree. [mimes rapidly encircling a tree with tape] At 7:30am, the code was still hitting asserts everywhere.

Me: [breathless]

Dan: So we said, "Crap. Re-compile without asserts."

Me: [laughing] That's your solution?

Dan: We rebuilt the thing without asserts. We ran it, and the intro segfaulted. So we skipped the intro, and went right to the first puzzle. The program worked perfectly the rest of the day.

Me: Awesome.

The evening reminded me of my favorite story involving Dan. In college, we liked to use the unix utility "figlet" to make ascii art. For example:

> figlet "hello world"
_ _ _ _ _
| |__ ___| | | ___ __ _____ _ __| | __| |
| '_ \ / _ \ | |/ _ \ \ \ /\ / / _ \| '__| |/ _` |
| | | | __/ | | (_) | \ V V / (_) | | | | (_| |
|_| |_|\___|_|_|\___/ \_/\_/ \___/|_| |_|\__,_|

In our college online chat, we discussed how one would write "un-figlet". The idea is that it would take ascii art input and extract the original words. The challenge is that letters overlap (witness the "e" and "l" in the example above), and it would have to handle the multiple fonts that figlet supports.

Twenty minutes into the conversation, Dan announced that he had written un-figlet while we were talking. We were shocked at the speed, but figured, hey, it's Dan.

"The algorithm is really slow though," he said. "You might have to wait up to a couple minutes."

We ran queries against it. Indeed it took at least a minute, sometimes two or three, but it always generated the correct answer. We were amazed. We lauded Dan for his impressive performance.

The next morning, our friend ran it again, and this time it hung for hours.

When Dan came online, we told him that his program broke. He confessed how his "un-figlet" worked. It emailed the input ascii art to him. He looked at it, and wrote the answer to a file which un-figlet polled. When un-figlet detected content in the file, it would print it out to the user's screen.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Gross-Off Battle

You may recall Alipé and my Gross-Off battle from July. Alipé asked for a recount, so I am expanding the vote to all of you, gentle readers.

Niniane's Story

I had a friend Jeff, whose dad is a paramedic. One day, I asked Jeff about the most disgusting case his dad saw.

A little old lady was shopping in a supermarket, and wanted a jar off the top shelf. It sat above her reach, and there was no stool in sight. She stepped onto the bottom shelf and reached her hand up as far as she could.

Even standing on the bottom shelf, she was barely tall enough to reach the top shelf. She fumbled with her arm fully extended, and her finger got caught in the hollow metal junction of the shelf edge.

She struggled to free her finger. In the ensuing kicking, she fell off the bottom shelf.

Her finger was still firmly wedged in the metal hollow. The shelf tore off the end of her finger and then pulled out a vein all the way from her elbow out through her finger.

When the paramedics arrived, the vein stretched from the shelf to the tip of her finger, as she stood on the ground.

Alipé's Story

Alipé: "I went to the Folsom Street Festival last year. This is a fetish fair, so you'll see a bunch of gay men dressed in leather. They like to wear assless leather chaps."

Cue: "'They'? Why are you talking about yourself in the third person?"

Alipé: [ignoring] "There were bondage fetishists and S&M fetishists. Some people had paddles, and you could pay them and then hit them with the paddle. [mimes swinging a paddle]"

Cue: "So how much money did you spend that day?"

Alipé: "I was walking, and I heard the sound of dogs barking. [mimes bark] Woof! There was a huge circle of people gathered on the corner, watching.

I walked over, and in the middle of the circle was a naked woman. She had upended two nearby garbage cans onto herself. [mimes dumping a heavy cylinder onto his body] There were scraps of rotting food, dirty dishwater from restaurants ... It reeked!

She was covered in the garbage, and the smell was causing her to vomit. The sound of barking was actually her retching. [mimes retching]

She was vomiting onto her own body, and using her hands to spread the vomit over herself. The smell was so awful that it caused her to retch even more -- a perpetual cycle of vomiting."

Which story is more disgusting?

Niniane's veiny woman
Alipé's vomiting fetishist

(Alipé, don't yield to the temptation of voting for yourself more than once to fake a victory. You don't want to turn this slander into truth.)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Yesterday I searched for a chinese song "是否我真的一无所有" ("Do I truly have nothing left to me"), and the top youtube result was a rendition by a singer named 王啸坤. Turns out he was a contestant in a singing competition, the Chinese version of "American Idol".

By the end of the two-minute song, I had a crush. He sings with such emotion!

But don't just take my word for it.

I raved to Elad, who said, "You should email him. Hey, you never know."

"That's preposterous," I said.

Then I thought some more. "Instead I should contribute to Google China, and persuade them in return to hire him as the entertainer for one of their parties."

Today I googled for 王啸坤 and discovered that he's only 19 years old. Almost illegal. I felt dirty.

What makes us attracted to celebrities? My theory is that we develop an emotional closeness from seeing them in intimate situations: singing their heart out, crying in a movie scene, getting it on in a bedroom scene. We start to feel the bond from seeing them naked, emotionally (and perhaps physically). Then suddenly the movie credits roll, or the last chords of the song die out, and we are abruptly cut off.

It's the ultimate push-pull rubber band effect.

"Who do you think is the most popular celebrity right now?" I asked Dan. "I wonder if it's Paris Hilton or Britney Spears. Or Angelina Jolie."

We used Google Trends to find out. Way to go, Paris.

She doesn't fit my theory though. She hasn't starred in movies. Her music videos only came out recently, long after her fame stretched across the land. Any emotional connection generated by that sex tape can't have lasted for two years.

How do you do it, Paris?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

my brother's views on female beauty

Tom: I chatted up a girl last week.

Me: How'd you meet her?

Tom: At a Stanford party. She seems really smart.

Me: Cool. Is she cute?

Tom: Her body is good. I can't remember about the face.

Me: How could you not remember? What were you doing?

Tom: Looking at the body.

Me: Tom Cruise's baby is really good-looking.

Tom: Oh really? [types at laptop, peers for a few seconds] ... Yeah, she is.

Me: Seriously!

Tom: That's weird, because Kate Hudson isn't that good-looking.

Me: Good thing his wife is Katie Holmes.

Tom: [smiling for a few seconds] ... You never know.

Me: [startled] Yeah, I guess. [pause] So do you think Katie Holmes is pretty? I guess she has that girl-next-door look.

Tom: Girl-next-door isn't a good connotation for us. 'Cause in Silicon Valley, the girl next door isn't going to be that good.

blogging about blog

My recent switch to blogger beta and construction of a "favorite posts" list caused a number of old entries to resurface in RSS feeds.

Dan emailed me about "Sex in Church", asking "Which coworker is so angry that he walked away for a few days???"

That was from 2004, on Desktop Search. (For more Desktop lore, go here).

While I'm narcissistically talking about my own blog, I have a burning question. I get dozens of hits from China. I thought blogspot was banned in China? Are all these readers coming through VPN? If you are reading this from China, give a shout-out in the comments and tell me how you're getting past the firewall.