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October 21st, 2014

Movie Review of “Dead Poets Society”

Dead Poets Society is one of the best movies that Robbin William ever performed in. Today I watched the DVD with my 13-year-old daughter. I remembered when I first watched the movie at the movie theater, I was quite moved by the message that one must “seize the day” (“Carpe Diem”). I often found people, myself included, allow days to go by as if it’s another day to check off without living each day to the fullest.

One doesn’t have to join the Dead Poets Society to the suck the marrow out of the life. But it does help to have people around you push and encourage you.

I was taken back by Neil’s suicide because his Dad commanded him to drop acting where his passion lied and forced him to become a doctor. I hope none of the youths should take away from the movie that it’s the proper approach to resolve the conflict with their parents. And I also hope that parents nowadays (tigers or not) are more inclined to listen to their kids’ plead to pursue their own passion.

On one hand, I do not agree to the old academic way of cramming the students what they think the students should know – often the dry and boring materials. Teaching the kids to think for themselves is one of the critical teaching objectives. I cheered when Todd could break out of the shell and poured out a beautiful poem when pushed by Mr. Keating and Charlie could push himself to win the heart of his dream girl (though it’s mostly hormone driven). Of course, Neil Perry went against his dad’s command to pursue his acting gig. On the other hand, I also do not subscribe to Mr. Keating’s (Robbin Williams) ripping (literally) the pages out of the old ways as the young children can easily misinterpret the message as the license to rebel without the right reasons. The tragic suicide of Neil was a case in point.

Having watched the movie when I was younger empathizing the high school kids and now watched the DVD as a parent of a teenager, I can now see the both sides clearly. It’s important to have good communication between parents and children. The children must see the good intention of the parents and force the conversation upon encountering conflicts. No reason to wrap up the negotiation too quickly or jump the “gun.” After all, it’s your life any how. The parents must not push the kids beyond the “breaking” point. They may need guidance sometimes but they have the free will. It’s best they hold on to their passion to achieve happily something great than to live their lives like a zombie.

I especially like Mr. Keating for asking the students to step on top of the table and forcing them to see things differently. It’s a nice trick to keep life interesting.

What a great movie! Robbin Williams was brilliant in this movie and suit his character well. I truly feel the loss of his talent.

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

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October 19th, 2014

Tour of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffet Field – 75-Year Anniversary Open House

To celebrate the 75 anniversary of NASA, it held an open house at the Ames Research Center in Moffet Field of Mountain View, California – the heart of Silicon Valley.

Despite the reservation system to limit the number of people, it was like a zoo traveling in and out of the center. The bus shuttle between the front gate and the center of the complex seemed a bit silly that created lots of traffic and long lines for the visitors. And there were many long lines trying to have a hands on cockpit experience and a few popular spots.

For me, it’s the first time visiting the center, having lived in the valley for well over 25 years and driven by almost every week day going to and from work. I was surprised by how huge the place was. The hanger, long a symbol of Moffet Field, where it served as a garage for the aircraft was a lot bigger and elegant than I thought. The old planes and helicopters were museum pieces and had lots of history behind them. Here are some of the pictures I took:
Hanger
Inside the Hanger
Hanger Different Side
Hanger Near the Entrance
Plane1
Plane2
Helicopter1
Helicopter2
Plane3
Helicopter2
Plane4
Cargo Plane 1
Cargo Plane 1 Side
Helicopter 3
Cargo Plane In Front of Hanger
Propeller In Front of Hanger
Survey Plane
Hanger with old tower
Helicopter 4

Overall, it was a good day to venture into a place long held a mystery and pride in the minds of the Silicon Valley residents.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Travels at 12:13 AM PDT

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October 15th, 2014

Book Review: “The Chemistry Between Us” by Larry Young PhD and Brian Alexander

Until reading this book, I didn’t know how much of our behaviors are shaped by the chemistry in our brain, especially the ones between the sexes. Many kinds of our bodily chemicals are introduced here: oxytocin, dopamine, vasopressin, tosterone and etc. I learned a lot about the sexual behavior of animals like Angler Fish, Bonobos, and etc. This is a very interesting book. In a way, it ruined my perception of love but it explains a lot of our human behavior between sexes. We owe a lot to our human evolution that shapes our brain to propagate our species. Most of time it’s above our “free will.” This is an excellent book if you’re interested in how the various chemicals affect our brain.

A short summary is here:

Chapter 1: Building a Sexual Brain
The story of machihembra was the first I read about. Interesting that girls turn into a boy at twelve years old in Dominican Republic. Society does not make sexual gender. Boys and girls are made differently started in the brain, not dictated by socialization nor the genitals which they’re born with.

Chapter 2: The Chemistry of Desire
Estrogen or production of progesterone receptors during ovulation (in estrous) puts animals (mouses, cats) and women in heat or more receptive to mating. Testosterone drops when men are near their babies or losing a sports match. It rises when encountering another ovulating female, also more mate-guarding behavior.

Chapter 3: The Power of Appetite
Our appetite is based on MPOA (medial preoptic area), nucleus accumbens, the amygdala, and the VTA. Dopamine hits D1 receptors of MPOA, we become attentive to sex-related cues. MPOA directs the parasympathetic nervous system to send blood to the genitals, creating erections in males and clitoral engorgement in females. VTA transmits dopamine into the prefrontal cortex (disinhibiting sexual desire and giving us tunnel vision for cues that lead to satisfying the desire. After orgasm, Endocannabinoids, the brain version of marijuana, make use a little sleepy. Serotonin gushes, inducing a feeling of calms, satiety, and satisfaction. Endorphins floods into the limbic system and hypothalamic area. Fetishes or partner preferences can be developed from early sexual experience due to satisfying the specific appetite via dopamine release.

Chapter 4: The Mommy Circuit
Oxytocin causes contraction for giving birth and induces maternal behavior. Prolactin stimulates the breasts to make milk and stimulates the MPOA, which signals the amygdala to suppress the fear and cause the mother to be calmer. Dopamine rewards the mothers for caring for their children.

Chapter 5: Be My Baby
Prairie voles (Monogamy, mated for life) vs. Meadow (Polygamy) voles. More oxytocin receptors in the accumbens, reward center in the brain, are seen in the Prairie voles. Bonding takes all oxytocin, dopamine, opioids, and good social memory (recognizes faces/smell) with the partner when the feel-good cocktails are released. Couples when nose sprayed with oxytocin (or having the vaginal-cervical stimulated as in sheep) tend to be exhibit more “positive” behavior/communication toward each other and create the bond. “A man is a woman’s baby.”

Chapter 6: Be My Territory
Vasopressin in males stimulate territory guarding behavior. Switching on the avprla gene makes the male meadow voles monogamous and good bonders due to increase of Vasopressin receptors. “A woman is an extension of a man’s territory.”

Chapter 7: Addicted To Love
Drug addiction is parallel to falling in love.
Vasopressin serves as a chemical trigger (like in a loaded rifle) in the CRF system to fire off the HPA axis during separation from partner or drug in an addict. For humans, “falling in love is like putting a gun to your head.”

Chapter 8: The Infidelity Paradox
Normal self control, your prefrontal cortex’s talk with your amygdala, ventral tegmental area (VTA) and accumbens, said “cut it out!” before cheating takes place. Once married/bonded, male’s testosterone and stress hormone drops, hence having less sex. This is a phenomenon named after Calvin Coolidge: slow death of passion experienced by many human couples, and rejuvenation of sexual appetite and performance by lure of novelty and infidelity. There is a D4, cheating gene, associated with human ability to resist impulsive desire or yield to temptation.

Chapter 9: Rewriting the Story of Love
Knowing how all the various chemicals work in our brain, do we feel we still have the free will or are we puppets of those “drugs” inside our brain. Is love induced by a drug still a love, real and true? That’s the difficult question.

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

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October 12th, 2014

A Volunteered Sweet Potato Flower In My Garden

One of the funnest things about gardening is that you often find things that surprise you. Sometimes they are bad (like pests) and sometimes they are simply pleasant.

Two weeks ago, I discovered that there is a sweet potato growing in my raised garden – a volunteer. Its vines are growing all over the raised bed. It must have stayed behind from last year’s harvest – a pleasant surprise.

A couple of days ago, I discovered that it actually grew flowers. See below picture:

Sweet Potato Flower

Sweet Potato Flower


For a tuber plant like the sweet potato, flowers are almost redundant because most people grow them out of “slips” or slices from the “eyes” of the potato. But I like the way it adds the white and purple color to my raised bed.

There are just a couple of months left before the weather gets too cold and the day gets too short to grow something like a sweet potato. But I probably keep it as long as I could. The potato leaves makes a healthy green sauteed dish too.

Sweet!

Posted by Derek Tsai as Gardening at 10:33 PM PDT

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October 3rd, 2014

My Watermelon Harvest

I waited long enough to harvest my Orangeglo watermelon that I planted from seeds since March. I planted 3 and only this one survived. It’s my first time planting watermelon. I will definitely try again next year.

Please enjoy the video:

Posted by Derek Tsai as Gardening at 10:09 PM PDT

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September 25th, 2014

Book Review: “On Wings of Eagles” by Ken Follett

This is a story about how Ross Perot of EDS (Electronic Data System) rescued two of its two employees from Iran when the revolution happened in 1979 that overthrew Shah’s government. The chaos that ensued was simply incredible and mind boggling.

EDS was involved in setting up and running Iran’s social security system. When the government ran out of money and didn’t pay for their service coupled with the Shah’s departure from power, they decided to retreat back to Dallas, TX. The last two US employee, Paul and Bill, became the hostages of the tenacious antagonist of the story, Dadgar, who jailed them without an accusation/indictment, then managed to chase them to the edge of the border.

Ross Perot tried to rescue them through diplomatic means without success. So he resorted to hiring a squad of people consisted of Bull Simon and other EDS recruits to go into Iran trying to bust them out of the jail. Thanks to the revolution, the mobs and the quick wit of Rashid, an EDS Iranian employee, they escaped the prison and ran into the rescue team. Now the hard time of getting out of Iran in the middle of anarchy where warlords of each village would stop them from reaching the Turkey border.

The readers can glean from this book what it is like to be in a modern revolution, which doesn’t happen often. The lawlessness in a middle of government transition from that of a dictator to that of a religion zealot, combined with the race conflicts made this country a tinder box until this day. It’s amazing how ordinary people live through that era and it’s probably difficult for Americans to comprehend in our stable and law-binding (mostly) society.

I am impressed by the courage of the EDS people to go into the line of fire to rescue a colleague. Employees nowadays would not be least expected to do anything like that.

This book should serve as a warning to the big corporate executives that doing business within a country lacking legal infrastructure is difficult like in this case.

In summary, this is a well researched story that read like a thriller novel. Ross Perot really showed his leadership and pure guts in getting his people out of Iran. I total changed my opinion of him since his run for Presidency back in 1992. The audiobook was quite enjoyable. Ken Follett did a great job in writing this book. Someone should make a movie from this book. Simply mesmerizing!

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

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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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