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Reflections of a Workout Newbie: Part 1, Possibly, of 1

21 Jan

The other day, I received my first text message from my mother. She hardly uses her cellphone, so it was like a milestone, and I quickly opened the message to see exactly what this milestone marked.

“Dear Paulina, Please exercise OK. Love, Mom.”

It was as unexciting a choice for a first message as Thomas Edison’s “Mary had a little lamb” on the phonograph. But both she and Thomas Edison share something in common, here: both likely had these words quickly spring to mind as a result of repeated past utterances.


This morning, I went to the gym for the first time in — suffice it to say that the last time I went, there were no WikiLeaks, iPhones did not exist, and Bush was still president. So I entered wide-eyed, experienced embarrassing difficulty getting past the card-activated turnstile, and set off for the treadmill.

People around me were either reading texts, listening to music, or watching television. Having forgot a book, an iPod, and my glasses, I set my eyes on the treadmill’s red dot matrix display.

Duration: 30 minutes
Incline: 0
Speed: [omitted]

My eyes were anxiously fixed on the countdown clock, which I felt was more like a bomb timer which marked the steady pace to the point at which my legs would detonate. I don’t know what else hands-free, non-TV watchers do. Occasionally, my eyes would dart toward another category, “Calories burned.” At first, that was a fun display to watch. Two calories, that’s like burning off a tic tac. Four, okay, two tic tacs. And so on it went, until I realized I didn’t know of any other edible items between 1 and 60 calories.

The rest of the time passed quickly, in between recounting to myself the last chapter I’d read last night, and doing mental math problems of percentages of my completed workout. Then I cooled down, waved goodbye to the Saline People I had just met, and exited — high on endorphins, and full of wonder at how many more times this can actually go on.

Life Without a Computer: It Really is as Horrible as it Sounds

7 Dec

On Wednesday, the day before one of my final papers was due, my computer charger started sparking and smoking. I used Amazon’s one-click purchasing to buy a new charger, and later found out that is en route to Los Angeles instead of Berkeley.

It’s been hard dealing with this new unplugged reality, since my computer was both my entertainment and productive console.

There’s one development that I have mixed but mostly positive feelings about, and that’s my newest purchase: a transistor radio. I buckled yesterday and confessed to the RadioShack cashier that I was going absolutely bonkers without some source of activity in my room. After laughing at me, she rang me up — at $14.99, it was the cheapest radio in the store.

I’m listening to the news a lot now, but the frequency is a little shaky in my house; I have to shuffle around and wave my radio in the air for it to land on Public Radio International. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, the channel will be interspersed with neighboring ones. For example, today’s report on Julian Assange was punctuated by the — que saaaaaaaa — beautiful sounds of — borrrriiii — mariachi music.

Food: San Francisco Bans Most Happy Meals

3 Nov

San Francisco McDonald’s now serving sad meals (sorry, couldn’t help myself). Again from the Los Angeles Times, apparently the paper with its finger on the irregular pulse of our nation’s favorite grease joint:

San Francisco’s board of supervisors has voted, by a veto-proof margin, to ban most of McDonald’s Happy Meals as they are now served in the restaurants.

The measure will make San Francisco the first major city in the country to forbid restaurants from offering a free toy with meals that contain more than set levels of calories, sugar and fat.

The ordinance would also require restaurants to provide fruits and vegetables with all meals for children that come with toys.

Life After Facebook: Quitting You is So Hard to Do

30 Oct

I quit Facebook at 11:12 PM yesterday. Rejoined at 6:46 PM today, quit 2 minutes later at 6:48 PM. Logged in again at 9:29 PM, deactivated at 9:33 PM.

The Internet without Facebook is a lot like a Las Vegas without casinos, i.e., a desert wasteland. Today, I’ve read New York Times articles on cancer cells, how to prepare braised short ribs, a woman’s touching post on how it felt to lose her father, among other pieces. I’ve also played three past “This American Life” podcasts today: #317 Unconditional Love, #389 Frenemies, #359 Life After Death.

I’d like to think that I’ve flexed my brain muscle more as a result, or at least that this was a better use of time than browsing Facebook, but the truth is I’m only scrambling for some divertissements. Something — anything! This is really as sad as it sounds. Recovering crack addicts probably feel similarly, as if they understand everything they’re engaging in as “not doing crack,” and thereby unconsciously still defining things in terms of what they don’t have.

Objectively speaking, this has been a more productive Saturday than previous ones, and right after I finish this post, I’m going to continue my offline reading and do my best to finish a translation. However, there is yet the persistent urge for me to broadcast the mundane little things:

  • Berkeley sound bite at Cheeseboard, 1:05 PM: “Sarah keeps complaining about her knee surgery. I tell her, ‘Go watch Grey’s Anatomy. Now those patients have real problems. There was someone with no arms last time.'”
  • If I were still on Facebook, I would have “liked” Karl Pilkington by now.
  • … there was something else, but I’ve forgotten.

Those seem to have lost some relevance once typed out in a medium that’s not a feed. Anyway, cheers to the coming Day 2.

Lines from a Semi-Luddite: Ugh, Facebook

29 Oct

First, a word from Warring States philosopher Xun Zi.

Xun Zi states that rites “trim what is too long and extend what is too short.” Here, he is specifically referring to mourning periods — i.e., if the rite stipulates a two-year mourning period, someone who is in deep sorrow must learn to move on at the two-year mark, while someone who is relatively unaffected must at least try to process the event for two years.

I dislike Facebook for several reasons, but one of them is that they’ve turned social rites à la Xun Zi on their head by trimming what is too short and extending what is too long. That is, I’m not hanging out with cool friends nearly as much as I should, in part because I’m at my computer, learning wall feed minutiae of people I hardly know.

Second, Facebook introduced a new feature called “Friendship Pages” today. Mashable (via CNN) gives the breakdown:

Facebook is rolling out a new breed of Pages called Friendship Pages that pull together the public wall posts, comments, photos (based on tags) and events that two friends have in common.

The Friendship Pages feature was cooked up by Facebook software engineer Wayne Kao and then brought to life in an internal hackathon event.

The Pages are designed to the tell the story of two friends on Facebook through their shared activity.

Friends recalling how they met one another should happen in the context of a “remember when we … ?” back-and-forth. Not a “let’s click and see” type process. This new feature takes all the fun out of remembering the good ol’ days.

It’s also, erm, really creepy, considering you can chart not only your Facebook friendship with Friend A, but you can also track the friendship trajectory between Friend A and Friend B, given they are friends with each other.


Okay, I can barely bang out another sentence; I’m yawning right now. I have more proof of why I’m a curmudgeonly septuagenarian, but it’s past my bedtime and I have to go clean my dentures.

Lines from a Semi-Luddite: On Forgetting

29 Oct

Jeffrey Rosen wrote an NY Times Magazine cover story, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” in which he addressed the impact of the Web’s archival nature on our online — and offline — reputations. Given the Net’s inability to “forget” our every tweet, photo, and update, we are scrambling for mechanisms to deal with its social ramifications. Because, after all, sometimes there’s nothing we need so much as a blank slate. There is a value to forgetting.

There’s another dimension to this. For one, the Internet does not help us to remember so much as it helps us to retrieve. A brief example, using one of my favorite memories: I was wide awake in DC at 1 AM, and figured I would call home because of the forgiving 3 hour time difference. My dad and I began talking about poetry, whereupon he decided to recite some Tang dynasty poems to me. Just as I was falling asleep, floating downstream on images of boats ten thousand miles away, I bolted awake, realizing these poems that coursed from my father’s lips came forth so naturally — but not easily. The words he spoke that night were the same words he recited a short while before, which were reflected upon months prior, which were taught to him by his own father years earlier. With that sort of constancy, I get the impression that these poems are some of the strings that bind the length of my father’s years together.

It’s an understatement that my command of poetry pales in comparison. Case in point: I had to Google search a few phrases in that poem in order to provide the link above, since I never memorized it well. The whole process didn’t take that long — certainly, not as long as it would to commit such a short poem as that to memory. The boon of the Internet is quick retrieval, which is totally different from quick recall. Possessing a fast recall is the end product of a slow effort.

Precisely speaking, I should not say I forgot any of the lines from the Li Bai poem, because indeed I never truly remembered them. This is the other value to forgetting. It seems obvious, but you only forget what you remember. That said, I think it’s good that the human memory is limited, because it’s only under such conditions that I have to make an effort to prioritize and hold onto otherwise fleeting memories.

Facebook rolled out a new feature today that allows users to track the trajectory of their Facebook friendships. Surprise, surprise — this neo-Luddite finds this horrible, and will write on it soon. Although, as an interesting note: this very post was collecting dust as a draft since late-July.

8th Annual Spice of Life Festival

17 Oct

On my way home from church, I briefly stopped by the 8th Annual Spice of Life Festival, located in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto.

Two pictures below are of Paul’s Paella. In the first bite, I could distinctly taste the chorizo, bell peppers, and lemon. However, I thought the rice was too mushy.

The next two photos are of Carolyn Tillie‘s remarkable food jewelry.

I gave Carolyn some of my paella. In return, she gave me a small slice of her okonomiyaki.

Symbols: Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize

9 Oct

Liu Xiaobo is, and now is probably much more so after Friday’s announcement, one of China’s most well-known dissidents — or activists, depending on the term you prefer. Most people who have heard of him know about his hand in penning part of Charter 08, a manifesto based on Charter 77, which advocates broad democratic political reform and human rights protections in China. Those who are more familiar with Liu’s name know of him for his hunger strike in Tian’anmen, or his prolific number of essays published in print and on the Internet.

For his role in drafting Charter 08, and writing 6 essays, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison on December 25, 2009 for state subversion. The sentence is an extraordinarily harsh one, considering other noted activists like Gao Zhisheng and Hu Jia were also sentenced for state subversion, but received sentences of 3 and 3.5 years, respectively. (For more on “incitement of state subversion,” see Article 105 of PRC Criminal Law.)

There is a well-known phrase in Chinese, 杀鸡儆猴 (shā jī jǐng hóu). Literally, it means “kill the chicken to scare the monkeys,” but should be more properly understood as “punishing one to warn the others.” Arguably, the state used Liu’s heavy sentence as a lesson to others as an example of what happens when one fails to adhere to Party ideology. In so doing, Liu was recast not only as a criminal, but as a pedagogical symbol.

Never mind that some people find the particular 6 essays to not be particularly reactionary, or wonder about whether Liu contributed so much to the Charter that his name appeared at the top, or if he just acceded to hedging the blow to come. These hinge on personal opinion and speculation, and are therefore moot. However, because Liu’s wishes for political change and human rights have not yet come into being, I think these documents remain firmly within the realm of political thought and speech. Though — or because — they are not concrete, they hold a lot of symbolic power, regardless of one’s subjective reception.

In some ways, the December 2009 sentencing seemed to be a layering of one symbol on top of the next. Now, the 2010 prize conferral appears to be yet another layer. This is largely because the goal of the prize is unclear. From Alfred Nobel’s will:

“The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: /- – -/ one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

The prize is in large part, a recognition of an individual’s or group’s efforts. However, it has either had, or has come to have, other purposes as well. I use the following quotes to probe more deeply at this issue.

From Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief,

An article [Liu] wrote for the South China Morning Post in February 2010 contains the statement “Opposition is not equivalent to subversion”. This sentiment was echoed by the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s remarks, following this year’s Nobel Peace Prize announcement, regarding the sign that they hope this award will send about the importance of supporting debate, and those who champion it, in all countries of the world.

See also the Nobel Peace Prize press announcement:

China’s new status must entail increased responsibility.

Given the prize’s stated prescriptive aim (“this award will send about…”) and its instructive claims (“must entail”), it is arguably also a type of pedagogical symbol.


Symbols lie within a tricky territory because they are so open to interpretation. Earlier, I wrote that Liu’s work has a lot of symbolic versus concrete power. That is not to rob it of its value in the least. If anything, I think it speaks to the might that is harnessed by a seed of thought, as made manifest through open — while not yet free — speech.

So I do find it somewhat ironic that while the prize is a recognition of freedom of speech advocacy, there won’t be much human rights dialogue going on.

First, because many of Liu’s ideas are rather broad-based, there is no settled understanding of what kind of human rights need to be discussed, or what China’s “entail[ed] increased responsibility” is. Nobody disagrees that China should have better human rights, not even its central government. The points of contention are which specific rights should be protected, how following legislation should be implemented, and in what time frame reforms must take place.

But who are the actors to make such decisions? The international community, or the Chinese state itself? If this prize conferral does not bring human rights dialogue to the table, it will provide heated discussion on national sovereignty and international relations. For one, you will be hard-pressed to find news on Liu’s prize in Chinese-language newspapers. But you will find governmental condemnations of Liu as a criminal, as well as questions over the validity of the Nobel Peace Prize more generally.

Notably, these same articles refer to fractured ties between China and Norway; Norway has effectively become conflated with the Prize Committee. Granted, the Committee’s members are appointed by the Norwegian parliament (Storting), but I think most people conceive of the Nobel Prize Committee as being a supranational entity. Perhaps that is too naive. In any case, clearly the Chinese government does not perceive it as a supranational entity.

Not only this, but Chinese activists have hailed Liu’s selection as indicative of the “West’s recognition.” In this case, the Committee is the West.

Most recently, the U.S. has also been implicated in this symbolic fray; see an Associated Press report “US-China Ties Strained by Dissident.”

A quote from Ma Ying-jeou that states the award is for all Chinese people around the world also lends no clarification to this extremely tangled topic.

In essence, if any human rights dialogue is to happen, we need to know what is going to be talked about, and who is going to talk about it. These very important components have become obfuscated in the past two days.


In the short-term, I don’t expect any constructive developments. The long-term is of course the big question. But I hope that in the years to come, Liu Xiaobo will not be seen merely as a contentious symbol, a tool utilized by various powers for condemnation or glorification purposes, but as an important human being who had something to say.


Note: My thoughts on this have been highly influenced by Lydia Liu’s The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (2004), and to a lesser degree, James Hevia’s English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China (2003).

Making Di San Xian 地三鲜: Sautéed Eggplant with Potatoes and Green Bell Pepper [Day 16]

25 Sep

Since my favorite vegetarian foods are fairly easy to make, I’ve been cooking a lot more often. One of my favorite foods is di san xian, or 地三鲜, a northeastern Chinese home-style dish (东北家常菜). The first time I had it was one year ago, when my friend Vishal serendipitously pointed at the ‘di san xian’ photo in the restaurant menu.

Transliterated, ‘di san xian’ means ‘earth three fresh,’ no doubt because it incorporates 3 fresh elements: eggplant, potato, and green pepper.

I’m notoriously wacky — er, okay, bad — at giving cooking instructions, so I hope the following recipe will be fairly comprehensible.

Di San Xian: Sautéed Eggplant with Potatoes and Green Pepper

3/4 medium Chinese eggplant
80% Russet potato, or 2 small potatoes “borrowed” from your roommate
1/2 green bell pepper
3/4 green onion
2 cloves diced garlic
1 smidgen of minced ginger
1.5 Tb-ish of soy sauce
Corn starch

  1. Peel the potato, then slice it and the eggplant into thin chunks. (See 1:14 of this video for an example, or see the slices below.)
  2. Place the eggplant pieces in a bowl, sprinkle with salt to get rid of excess water. Wait for 10 minutes or so, then pat dry with a paper towel. (See Photo 1)
  3. Put some oil in a pan. Once it gets hot, carefully put in the potato pieces. I recommend using a slotted spoon (see Photo 3) to avoid crazy oil/water splash catastrophes. Start the heat on low, and once the potato starts looking cooked, turn up the heat.1 Remove the potatoes, place on a plate with a paper towel to absorb oil.
  4. While you’re waiting for the potatoes to fry, you might want to make a slurry of soy sauce, corn starch, and water. I can’t really tell you the proportions. But you’ll get it right. Also, I added a few drops of sesame oil the last time around. I’m not sure if it made a difference or not.
  5. Shallow fry the eggplant on medium heat. Look at how vibrant the purple is! Once the eggplant chunks starts looking translucent, transfer them to the same paper-towel lined plate.
  6. Chop the green onion, dice the garlic, mince the ginger, cut the green bell pepper into whatever shape you’d like. I recommend chunks about the same size as 2/3 of your index finger, assuming you have normal hands. Also, don’t chop off your finger while thinking of my size referent.
  7. Get rid of most of the oil in the pan, and use what remains to sauté the green onion, garlic, and ginger. Once it starts to get fragrant, add eggplant and potato on medium to high heat.
  8. Add the slurry, stir it around. You’re done! (See Photo 5). Serves 1.3 people as a main dish, 2 as a side dish.

1 Low heat will cook the potatoes, high heat will give it a nice browned exterior. This method, as well as the double-fry (one pan on low heat, another already on high heat), is also the key to good french fries. (See Photo 4 for the beginning of the process)

Why Being a Vegetarian Sucked [Day 6]

16 Sep

I have some theories as to why vegetarian foods weren’t so popular in the recent past, but I’ll share those another time.

That quote, from a previous entry was unclear. Better put: I have some theories as to why being a vegetarian sucked, prior to the popularization of the diet/lifestyle. But first, let’s start at the very beginning.1

My problem with the word ‘vegetarian’ has to do with its etymology: veget(ables) + -arian.2 And vegetables, in my mind and in the minds of many others, translates to leafy greens.

Lettuce. Kale. Okra. Spinach. Arugula.

The images of those vegetables alone, firmly planted in the bed of my consciousness, made the vegetarian diet seem decidedly unappetizing. For a long time, my understanding of the archetypal vegetarian was the giraffe — someone who extends his long, almost serpentine neck towards thorny branches just to pluck at some bitter leaves with his black tongue.3

But if you think about it, that kind of green and leafy arched framework does not fit around what most vegetarians practice in their daily diets. A looser and more realistic definition of ‘vegetarian’ is one who eats leafy greens as well as fruits, nuts, grains, mushrooms, and more.

When I realized this, I had a complete paradigm shift: being a vegetarian means eating anything that doesn’t move on its own, is fair game. The world of food possibilities less fins, wings, and legs is still a very rich one. So now, I have a renewed sense of appreciation for the classical cornucopia:

Look, people! It’s the horn o’ plenty! And it’s vegetarian!

There’s more to say on this topic, but I first need to catch up on my reading. It seems that as a student, I always have promises to keep, and pages to go before I sleep. And pages to go before I sleep.

1 A very good place to start.
2 -arian: indicating a person or thing that advocates, believes, or is associated with something. I am not even going to try and define “vegetable,” which sounds like an easier task than it actually is. (For an introduction to the debate, see vegetable’s Wiki page.) This ontological ambiguity gave rise to the confusion I expand on above, in the main body of the text where the real meat of my argument lies. Whoops, did I say ‘meat’?
3 I almost want to apologize to my real (i.e., not 1-month spree! whee! people like me) vegetarian friends, but why should I? The giraffes would probably be among those most grievously offended, and very few of them read this blog anymore, if I’m to trust what the traffic stats are saying.