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September 20th, 2014

How I Like “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” – Let Me Count the Ways

The long-running 10-season (2001~2011) series of Law and Order: Criminal Intent have a special place in my heart. Having completed watching the entire 5 seasons on Netflix and learned all the criminal intents or psychology, I can now summarize what I learned from the series and why I liked the characters and stories.

1. The fine detectives, Robert Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Zack Nichols (Jeff Goldblum) and Mike Logan (Chris Noth) maybe just as human or even more damaged than the criminals they were trying to catch. I guess that’s what makes them so good at catching the bad guys; they can get into the minds of the criminals.

2. Each episodes starts out with some clues and usually the death(s) of some victim(s), before the “Major Case” squad come in to solve the crime. This involves the audiences to jointly solve the crime too. The downside is that too many details/characters are shown too quickly in the first few minutes and one may need to go back to review the early to tie the story together.

3. The extensive use of the CSI (or CSD) to provide the evidences and drop the clues here and there make the story interesting – better than CSI whose heroes are the CSI technicians who went beyond their charter to solve the crime on their own – not very realistic.

4. Robert Goren is very believable in his role as a borderline insane detective in getting into the minds of the criminals especially in catching his “White Whale,” Nicole Wallace. I just loved how Goren faced his own demon (like being a son of a serial killer) while battling the wit of Nicole Wallace. Wow, what a great bunch of episodes.

5. The partnership between Robert Goren and Alexandra Eames (Kathryn Erbe) was one of mutual trust, admiration and support. They worked well together though there were some episodes when they ran into conflicts but they ultimately resolved their differences.

6. Jeff Goldblum and Chris Noth were backups to Goren on some seasons to spice up the series. They are not as good as Goren but do have their own personality and “baggage.”

7. The moral dilemmas are the “grey” areas that most people have trouble with. Often doing the right things means harming the ones you love. The writers of the show have fun pushing the envelope and exposing/exploiting the human character weaknesses.

8. I strongly believe that the borderline between a regular Joe to a heinous criminal is a very thin line. It doesn’t take much for one to cross it. For examples, greed, false perception, and thinking they’re too smart to be caught are often the reasons why one commit a heinous crime. By watching this kind of show, I became aware of the “triggers” that cause one to become the criminal that these smart, relentless major-case squad pursue.

This Law and Order: Criminal Intent is a true classic, thanks to the great writing and acting. I utterly enjoyed most of the episodes.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Movies at 12:00 AM PDT

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September 17th, 2014

A Farewell to My House

Today, my house of the last 10 years officially become another family’s home. The escrow closed today. I felt sad and would like to take this opportunity to reminisce and share some thoughts about this house.

The house presented several challenges to me like several cases of “mini-flood” or puddle inside the dishwasher that I had to research and figure out how to fix, a leaking water heater that burst by a small thumb push, the toilet overflow and backup in the middle of night until a rooter hired by the city snaked from the rooftop (later we found the secret clean out buried under the decorative pebbles), the laundry sink with a poor flow that required several snaking attempts (this was how I sharpened my snaking/rooting skill), frequent caulking of tub and showers (this was how I became so proficient at caulking – each time last longer than the last), the loud banging/hammer of the water pipes upon turning on/off the faucet or sprinkler which forced me to painstakingly fasten and anchor the pipes in the crawl space, the sprinkler system that blew the fuses constantly – fixed by finding the wire short, and finally, the replacements of many parts (faucets, toilet valves, and etc.) and appliances (cook top, washer).

We also improved the house by re-positioning the master room door, re-surfacing the floor, installing the skylight, sun tunnels, and new roof, re-organizing the master room closet, and planting the Fuji apple tree, and etc. We were able to enjoy the improvements.

There were happy moments too: Walking my daughter, who was just 3 when we moved it, to her Stocklmeir elementary school and the Ortega Park just a block away, enjoying family quiet time in the den where all three of us had our own tables; my daughter had her tiny table and chair next to us, teaching my daughter to bike at the park where she learned on Father’s Day, decorating and trick-or-treating on Halloween, and many other memorable moments…

Farewell my friend! You have sheltered and served us, enriched our life, and taught us many lessons. Thank you.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Personal at 12:00 AM PDT

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September 15th, 2014

Book Review: “Antifragile – Things That Gain from Disorder” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a real winner in this book. This is a consummation of all the thoughts and beliefs, including the book “The Black Swan” he authored. I had a review on that book.. There are numerous concepts that Taleb presented which I will not attempt to summarize; I’ll just cover my key learning/takeaways:

My key takeaways:
1. Being anti-fragile means the more you get beaten the better you get. It’s not just being “robust” or “rigorous” but thrive on the punches being thrown at you. It’s an antidote to the “Black Swan” events, like Mother Nature.
2. The strategy of being anti-fragile as applied to your livelihood or survival is to have a barbell strategy – a steady risk-adverse job with consistent income while pursuing a risk-seeking opportunity on the side. I interpret it as having a dual-path income streams: one that pays the bill and another that has a potentially huge upside. I believe this can be applied to your investment portfolio as well.
3. Via Negativa is an interesting chapter about taking things away to increase your anti-fragility.
4. “Never trust the words of a man who is not free.” Trust a mobster (e.g. Meyer Lansky) but not a civil servant (e.g. Lawrence of Arabia).
5. On ethics, “If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.”
6. Fat Tony’s character is rather interesting – he’s an epitome of the author himself. I like his straightforward and take no-prisoner style.
7. Redundancy is a form of anti-fragility; it gives you the option to be opportunistic. Like having extra oil reserve can be profitable during a oil squeeze.
8. Post-traumatic growth may allow a person live up more than his/her potential after subjecting to traumatic stress – like author’s lifting weight and turning into a “bodyguard.”
9. Some criticism (stresser) can be validating your position – it means you’re generating envy from others. A corporation or government may be fragile when they try to “instill” confidence – unlike a book author can generate publicity by making a news, e.g. beating up an economist.
10. What kills me make others stronger – like plane crashes result in better design for all travelers due to the lessons learned in designing a safer product.
11. Evolution like randomness (like random mutations) to a certain point.
12. Organic products tend to be more reliable than the mechanical.
13. Bottom-up governing (like Switzerland) is more anti-fragile than the top-down bureaucracy due to randomness that strengthen the structure. A taxi-cab driver’s income has more variation than a civil servant or bank worker (or a turkey until before the Thanksgiving) but it’s more anti-fragile.
14. Iatrogenics is doing more harm when trying to be helpful like certain medicines and Fed’s policy during 2007 to iron out the “boom-bust cycle,” and etc. Sometimes, procrastination (like seeing a doctor while healthy or for an elective procedure) may be a good thing.
15. Forecasting or trusting the forecast could be downright harmful to the risk-takers.
16. Having the “optionality” (like going to a “drop-in” party, not obligation, or living in a rent-controlled apartment) allows one to be antifragile. In author’s term, option = asymmetry (benefits more than losing) + rationality (keeping what’s good and ditching the bad). “Life is long gamma” = Life benefits from volatility and variability.
17. Author’s dislike of academia is clear throughout the book. He doesn’t believe it fosters innovation and antifragility except for the administrators and the professors themselves.

Overall, this is a real masterpiece. It’s funny and full of ideas that make you think once you get over Taleb’s sense of humor and his abrasiveness. It’s a must read for everyone for his/her career, investment, and how he/she perceives the world and the systems driving it.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Book Reviews at 12:00 AM PDT

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August 28th, 2014

Book Review: “My Beloved World” by Sonia Sotomayor

From the Bronx Housing Project to graduating Summa Cum Laude from Princeton, and Yale Law School and then becoming a district attorney, and finally becoming a federal judge and US Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor’s journey is nothing short of perseverance, determination, great effort and a little of luck. Though I know the ending of the story (she became a US Supreme Court Justice), the memoir reads like a thriller full of twists and turns like a novel. Hard to imagine the Perry Mason show could have inspired her to reach the ultimate goal of being a Supreme Court Justice.

My lessons learned from reading this book:
1. Being a Type 1 diabetes since 8 years old in a poor family and an alcoholic and yet loving father, Sotomayor beats the odds and turns the disadvantage into a constant reminder of her mortality and works with great sense of urgency toward achieving her goal of becoming a judge. That’s a lesson for most of us endowed with reasonably good health.

2. From her memoir, I learned a little bit of dilemma of Porto Rico and its residents. Is it a US territory with all the benefits of being part of US or a true second-class entity caught in a web of history and politics? Probably both. Would love to visit Porto Rico someday as she painted a picture of a paradise.

3. Having the right mentors and advocates makes a huge difference. She had several good mentors and advocates (like Senator Daniel Moynihan) along the way.

4. She could have gone the way of her childhood pal, Nelson, who ended up being a junkie and died of AIDS at his young age of 30. Two people growing up in almost the same environment came out very differently. The shocking tidbit was when she drove unknowingly her friend to a heroin joint to shoot up while she waited outside as an off-duty district attorney.

5. Like a good judge, Sotomayor is brutally honest about her marriage and her analysis of the situation in retrospect painted a pretty dire picture of the people in the law enforcement sector. They’re so independent and self-preserving – making the relationship difficult with their loved ones. Here’s a good video interview of Sotomayor by Oprah.

6. Behind a successful person is a cast of people cheering her/him on. Sotomayor has loving relationships with her mother, and her brother (“Jr.” as she called him), her grandma, and aunts. She attributes her success to her hard work and to their support.

7. On Affirmative Action, Sotomayor was clearly a successful case out of the Affirmative Acton movement and hence supporting the policy. I wonder without it, where Sotomayor and her brother would end up? With a little of luck (being born in the Affirmative Action era) and a lot of effort on her part, she came a long way to get to where she is now.

8. There is so much Spanish, her native tongue, in this book. It made me want to learn Spanish. Maybe I will some day learn Spanish to reduce the likelihood of an Alzheimer disease as the study shows.

Overall, this is a great memoir for those who enjoy a good real-life underdog-turn-victor story. The depth and the honesty of the author makes the book a real joy to read.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Book Reviews at 12:00 AM PDT

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August 25th, 2014

An Interesting Conversation With a Barber About Kids

Getting a haircut is usually a not-so-pleasant experience for me because it’s hard to strike an interesting conversation with the barber beyond the usual “you live around here?” conversation during the haircut and the end result of my haircut invariably gets a thumb down from my wife and daughter. So I normally wait one or two weeks more than necessary to get a haircut. Today was no exception.

I keyed my name into the SuperCut (Yes, SuperCut) wait-list system and waited my turn. No more than 3 minute of wait, I got called by Tommy, a new guy. “Here we go again,” I thought, “gotta go through another ice breaker.” Tommy was friendly, having just given lolly pops to two kids waiting for their daddy’s haircut. He asked about my plan for the rest of the day. I casually griped about having to drive my daughter around for her drawing class like a chauffeur. He asked how many kids I had. “Just one,” I replied. Then came the shocker, “I’ve got 5 kids! 4 boys and 1 girl. The last ones were a twin of a boy and girl” “OK,” I thought to myself, “what am I complaining?!”

Then the conversation turned into shopping for the kids as the school was about to start next week. I jokingly mentioned that with 5 kids, he could economized by using the hand-me-downs. “No,” he corrected me, “at their age (13 years old – his youngest twins), they don’t take hand-me-downs any more.” He even bought sneakers well over a hundred dollars a pair because “he’s really good at basketball” and they “compare among their friends.” Yap, the parents have to bear the burden of their children’s vanity.

It’s hard for me to imagine having 5 kids in the family nowadays with a barber’s income, probably helped by his wife’s income. It’s a struggle nevertheless. As the conversation continued, I saw my hair was getting thinner and thinner. I shut up quickly for the fear of turning into a skinhead.

As I walked out, I tipped Tommy an extra dollar and wished him good luck. It’s a good day after all.

My lesson learned: There is always someone else had it worse than you do and they compensate with something else. Need not complain, just enjoy while you can.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Personal at 12:00 AM PDT

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August 23rd, 2014

Getting My House Ready for Sale

I have been spending last few weeks trying to get my house ready for sale. This is a house that we’re been renting out for a couple of years. After the tenants moved out, my wife and I decided to sell it in order to capitalize on the tax free exemption.

Due to the drought, the tenant have been cutting back on watering resulting in yellowing of the lawns and plants. I had to first rescue the plants and lawn by increase the frequency and duration of irrigation. Somehow the personal interest overrides the public good of conserving water. Sorry. Then, I got the interior repainted by a professional painter. I also repaired window screen, vent cover and etc. and cleaned miscellaneous things like the dish washer, kitchen wall, and etc. Of course, as part of the local real estate tradition here I had to get the house inspected by a termite company (as expected, we’ve got termites) and a general property inspector for the roof/chimney, appliances and etc. The reports will be a part of the disclosure.

Then we power washed the exterior stucco wall, which resulted in some paint damages. I hand to repaint and touch up some of the exterior wall and the decorative window shutter. This was no small effort due to the difficult in matching the color.

To enhance the aesthetic, we planted lots of fresh, colorful flowers along the front walkway, and the backyard. The bare soil areas got covered with mulches – 15x 2-cubic-ft bags. The flower bouquet next to the front door looked extra appealing. It was both exhilarating and exhausting to “stress” up the house for a quick and hopefully profitable sale.

The last thing we had to do was to hire a professional stage company to stage the house with beautiful furniture and decoration to pique the interest of potential buyers. You can see the end result in this virtual tour.

The open house will happen on 8/23/14 and 8/24/14. I’m hopeful that all our efforts will yield good results.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Personal at 2:33 PM PDT

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August 15th, 2014

Fence Door Jams on Floor – How I Fixed It

I have a fence door that tends to jam the floor on the bottom after a couple of years. I had to move the hinge screws and bias the screws up a bit to fix the problem. Here’s how I fixed it:

Posted by Derek Tsai as Tips at 12:00 AM PDT

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August 10th, 2014

Screw Won’t Stay Put, Thead Stripped – How I Fixed It

This is a quick tip on how I fix all the screw holes that have their threads stripped:

Posted by Derek Tsai as Tips at 3:11 PM PDT

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August 5th, 2014

My DIY Coconut Milk Story

This is my story of making my own coconut milk. Enjoy!

I learned how to make coconut milk from John Koehler of See below:

You can find all of John’s Coconut Milk videos here. He is a real authority on coconut milk.

Remember to do all things in moderation, especially drinking coconut milk, or you may suffer the same consequence I had.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Tips at 12:00 AM PDT

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August 1st, 2014

Plant vs. Mushroom

For several months, my indoor Bromeliad plant has been attacked by mushrooms attaching themselves to the wall of the outer leaves. The mushroom seemed to grow overnight and would create a black spot on the leaf surface, making the plant look like a Dalmatian. According to what I read, cinnamon powder can be used to keep the fungi out. So I spread the cinnamon powered around the soil of the plant. For two weeks, I had not seen any mushroom growing until today. This little sucker seemed to pop out of the seam around the plant overnight. I recorded a video here:

Posted by Derek Tsai as Gardening at 12:00 AM PDT

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