Sunday, December 21, 2008

Crashing Through the Snow

Does anybody remember the movie Lost World: Jurassic Park? If you blocked it out (because really, that movie is kinda embarrassing), there's a scene where a T-Rex nudges a couple of trailers towards a cliff, so a quick thinking hero hitches the trailers onto the back of his truck and he floors the gas pedal so that he can pull the trailers back onto safe ground. And of course, the truck is hydroplaning on muddy ground from side to side, but somehow manages to his goal.

I sometimes wonder if that film was used in lieu of proper driver's ed.

Vancouver residents are usually used to two types of weather: rain and sunny periods. However, the tendency seems to be that a single flake of snow hits the ground, and all the lessons of driver's ed are spontaneously forgotten. It's not complete rocket science. Drive slowly and leave plenty of room behind the vehicle in front of you.

It's quite simple, actually. If your wheels are spinning, it means that they aren't getting a proper grip on the road, so you aren't going to be moving that fast. And to avoid that, you lightly touch the gas pedal so that your tires get a proper grip on the snow and move you forward. I don't even consider myself a "great" driver, yet I was able to get home safely without sliding or spinning, and all without the benefit of snow tires and chains. And yes, the road conditions on Granville street were pretty horrendous.

And of course, I encountered at least three drivers that managed to completely forget the basic rules of driving in adverse road conditions. I could make a few concessions for the guy in the Ford Mustang GT. It's a rear wheel drive vehicle, which makes it more difficult to climb up steep inclines. We watched as he slid completely off to the side.

The guy in the Mazda 3 fared slightly better, as he was able to at least sort of keep up with traffic. I'm assuming that he had decent tires, even though he was spinning his wheels the entire way. He also had front wheel drive. but I still made a point of giving this guy a clear path.

What really made the trip truly memorable was the young woman driving an Audi Quattro. It's times like this that remind me that there's a good reason why the Chinese are stereotyped as bad drivers, and as much as I would prefer to deny it, times like this make me hang my head in shame. And I'm Chinese, and I drive, which by definition, makes me a "Chinese driver."

For starters, she was gunning the engine, causing the wheels to spin in place, yet she wasn't going very fast. As a result, she was seriously impeding traffic, and I wasn't able to overtake her for a while, as traffic in the other lane was being impeded by another guy who was also spinning his wheels. What made it even better, was the fact that her passenger actually got out of the vehicle to kick snow out of the way. And yes, they were both Chinese.

It's bad enough that she's impeding traffic because she doesn't know how to drive in adverse road conditions, but the logic behind their alternative attempt at moving just boggles the mind. It's pretty certain that the vehicle isn't going to be moving very fast while the wheels are spinning, but there is still the off-hand chance that the wheels will catch a grip somewhere...while the guy is in front of her kicking snow out of the way. And then there also begs the question. For how long were they planning on doing this? There's a pretty good chance that they live in Richmond too. Do they plan to cross the Oak street bridge like that too?

I'm really anticipating tomorrow's morning news showing some guy got run over by an Audi because he was trying to clear the snow by kicking it out of the way.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Gold Medal in Complaining Goes To...(cue anthem)

The Olympic games has always invited controversy no matter what. Allegation of doping, bribery of officials, poor sportsmanship, and misappropriation of government resources to hold games have all been sources of controversy. The 2008 Beijing games are especially controversial, especially over China's human rights records and air quality. As to the games themselves, the Chinese women's gymnastics team has gotten controversy as they look a little bit young to be 16, the minimum age for competition. And of course, the Chinese team landed gold.

At one point, the words "never accepting defeat" usually meant taking your mistakes, learning from them, and trying that much harder in the next competition. Now, it seems to mean something else entirely. In certain cases, such as bribing of officials or illegal substances, the case is certainly legitimate. For example, in one swimming event, the Chinese winner came first, although was immediately disqualified after a false start.

So, when the favoured American team fails to land gold, it's nothing to do with training tactics of China being superior to Americans or their the Americans unable to focus under pressure. No, it's the stadium official's fault that Alicia Sacramone fell off the balance beam and didn't stick the landing during a floor exercise.

There is no doubt that athletic training is a very strict discipline, even more so in the Olympic levels. You literally eat, sleep, breath, live for the sport and have nothing else. However, in China, they take it a bit further. Chinese children are hand-picked from their homes and daycares when they are just able to walk, and are put to long training regimens, and if they're lucky, they get to see their parents once a year. Western countries have side-line parents that berate coaches and officials when their precious little snowflakes don't see ice time.

Simply put, the Chinese get things done, human rights and individual liberties be damned. It's a bit of a frightening way to look at it, with the notion that individual liberties and democracy are highly overrated, but look at the results. China's economy is a juggernaut with no signs of slowing and their athletes are cleaning up. Western countries place a lot of emphasis on individual liberties and freedoms, and are somehow shocked when these things don't come at a price.

Everything comes with a price, including the rigorous Chinese training regimen. Athletes training with rigorous pace can achieve excellence in sport, but once their bodies are no longer able to maintain the pace, what else can they do? Unfortunately, there are a lot more athletes than coaches, so they really have to come up with a new game plan. This is doubly the case for athletes in communist states, where they have zero skills in any other application. Look at Jackie Chan, one of the most well known actors from Hong Kong. He was inducted into the Beijing Opera School at a very young age and considered a great athlete in his day, but now in his 50s, he's functionally illiterate. And for Chinese athletes that are permanently injured, they're essentially treated like American war veterans, and no one ever remembers Chinese athletes after their glories have long past, because of the emphasis on the state over the individual. People still remember Mary Lou Retton.

Sometimes, you have to wonder if the Beijing Olympics are a metaphor for the direction the world is taking. China, not previously a strong medal contender, is a serious force to be reckoned with. America, previously strong in most events, especially women's gymnastics, is forced to take second, and can only complain.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Vancouver Open 2008, post mortem

After years of practice, I entered my first Rubik's Cube speedsolving competition...only to get schooled by a 7th grader.

The first official competition outside of Toronto, the event conformed to standards held by the World Cubing Association, complete with judges, scramble algorithms, and trash talking only done in the most light-hearted sense.

I've been eagerly awaiting this competition, even though I have yet to crack the sub20 second mark (one of the desired benchmarks is a 15 second average, and the world record is currently under 9 seconds), but was able to hold my own enough to make final round. Among the highlights of the competition:

  • Top three places for Rubik's Cube held by newcomers Ibrahim Vajgel-Shedid (average of 15.47 seconds), Kristopher de Asis (average of 18.14 seconds), and Deseree Aune (average of 20.83 seconds), making her the fastest female Canadian cuber.
  • Ibrahim Vajgel-Shedid winning at pretty much every event he entered - MiniCube (2x2x2), Rubik's Cube (3x3x3), and Rubik's Revenge (4x4x4).
  • American Jameson O'Connor bringing his entire twisty puzzle collection, ranging from eBay rarities to custom pieces...many of which ended up getting broken. Oops.
  • Organizer Hong Chen capturing the first place rank for blindfold solving, followed by Kristopher de Asis. Everyone else didn't finish.
A respectable showing, but hopefully the first of many. Now to get a sub20 Rubik's Cube solve.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Weird Eats

"Ancient people found that their clothes got cleaner when they washed them in a certain point in the river. Y'know why? Human sacrifices were once made on the hills above the river. Bodies burned and water seeped into the wood and ashes to create lye."

"Look at your hand. The first soap was made from the ashes of heroes. Like the first monkey shot into space. Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing."

-Tyler Durden, Fight Club

While having dinner with my girlfriend and a mutual friend, the dinner conversation turned to odd foodstuffs and the mindset required to actually resort to consuming them. My girlfriend is a bit of a coffee connoisseur, so she inquired about obtaining kopi luak, a type of coffee that has been processed in the digestive system of the luak, the local name given to the Asian Palm Civet, a wild mammal native to South East Asia.

In theory, upon consumption, the luak's digestive system enzymes partially break down the coffee beans, removing much of the bitter taste after the undigested beans pass through the system. Upon harvesting (a task destined for Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs, if there ever was one), these beans are cleaned, ground, and turned into the most expensive coffee in the world (never mind the fact that a 2008 Stanford study indicated that 1000 random taste testers couldn't tell the difference between that and the cheap brands).

This is but one of the weird foods that have become delicacies in parts of the world. Others may be familiar with durian, a fruit with an extremely foul aroma that has gotten it banned in public transportation in South East Asia. The Simpsons episode "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Bluefish" taught the world about fugu, a Japanese pufferfish that has been known to cause fatal poisoning when prepared improperly.

The conversation turned to us speculating as to how certain things defy all logic and wisdom and somehow end up being turned into food. If it's excreted from an animal's bottom, we leave it where it lies or we put it in a bag and toss it in the trash. If it's prickly and spiky and smells like turpentine and raw sewage, we leave it alone. If parts of it are poisonous, we don't touch the things. So how do they fetch stupidly high prices at the gourmet supermarket and restaurants? And why did we end up eating them in the first place? And who thought it would be a great idea to go to all this effort just to figure out how to eat it safely?

My first theory is that it's to do with desperation. When people get really hungry, people start eating just about anything. It's been established that dandelions, often the scourge of proud lawn owners, are edible and can even be found in salads. Denise suggests that everything is so accessible, that we've got bored with everything else.

So, that leaves the next question. How many people had to die before they figured out the proper way to prepare fugu? Fugu has been around as a foodstuff since at least 2000 years, so they've had at least that long to get it right, which invalidates my original theory that the Yakuza was using it as a method to kill off their enemies, and the survivors figured out that they were eating the right portions of it. An alternate theory is that they studied what predatory animals left behind and figured that those parts were toxic.

Denise tells me of a specific type of nut that must be prepared in a very specific manner -- it must be mashed, chewed, cooked for an exact period of time. Anything else and it will be toxic. And apparently, this was a traditional type of dish too (ie: before the invention of stopwatches and egg timers and the use of laboratory animals in research).

And then there's another alternate was force fed to the peasants so that the rich would know what food to eat without dying horrible deaths.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Crisis? What Crisis?

While most people take comfort in knowing that they may be/are right, this is one case where I really, really hope that I'm wrong.

As of this writing, oil is over $126USD/barrel, the local gas station now charges $1.35 per litre of gas, food riots are occurring in Asia and Africa, global grain are increasing, leading to higher prices for staples here in North America and starvation and famine overseas, subprime mortgages are causing mass foreclosures and homelessness across America, and the world population just went past 6.666666666 billion people.

All of these are just ingredients to a perfect storm that will easily erode the global social infrastructure, leading to panic, chaos, civil unrest, and the downfall of western civilization.

This is something I've written about previously (see archives for more details) and I've realized that most people don't want to deal with it directly. Heck, I don't want to deal with it directly. The concept of the downfall of civilization is sobering and depressing. Who wants to think that their way of life is going to change for the worst? Who wants to think that all of humanity's great achievements will be lost and forgotten? Who wants to think about all of the mass employment that will result as the vast majority of industries dependent on energy will gradually become irrelevant? Aerospace, computers, film, electronics, robotics, automotive mechanics, airline travel, space exploration...all obsolete.

As much as I can hope and pray for a soft landing after our tumbling from the peak of civilization, I fear that it's not going to happen. Hurricane Katrina served as a horrible warning of what we can expect - the dissolution of social infrastructure leads to chaos. Katrina was evil mirror opposite of 9/11, where 9/11 was responded with an immediate outpouring of support, but the people of New Orleans were left to their own devices. So, when social infrastructure is completely powered by oil, what can we expect, except mini Hurricane Katrinas all over the world?

Ass-backwards approaches to the way we do things hasn't been helping matters along. In an effort to conserve oil, somebody thought it was a great idea to divert food stocks (ie: corn) and turn them into ethanol to power our monster SUVs and minivans, even though research indicates that the energy return on energy invested is negative. We regularly consume meat, even though we're essentially running at a fraction of energy efficiency, consuming 7 kilograms of grain to breed 1 kilogram of beef.

Many of our problems are indicative of a peak in oil production, given how much the price has increased lately (a gain of $30 a barrel in less than 5 months, $12 gain in less than a week), but we've been all focused on trying to curtail global warming and climate change. In effect, there's a strong possibility that the peak in oil production may essentially take care of the problem. With everybody priced out of the market and too poor to afford stuff, trucks will stop hauling our coveted Walmart crap across the country, China will stop spewing factory fumes into the air, and cars will be pulled off the road because no one can afford to fill up their tanks anymore.

Maybe, JUST MAYBE, after all the dust has settled, then we can work on rebuilding civilization to a more sustainable state. More emphasis on family, community, and the environment, less emphasis on consumption and individual achievement. The people will live healthier, happier, with less environmental toxins and pollutions and stress.

So will it be a soft landing or a crash landing? Well, at least if it's a crash landing, we'll recover faster.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

In Memoriam

In Memoriam
Victor Yim
July 5, 1937 - April 16, 2004

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Friday, January 25, 2008

They needed a specialist for THAT?!

Over the past few months, I've developed a moderate case of eczema, which is usually a manifestation of impaired liver function or allergies. I bit the bullet and went to a dermatologist in November and was scheduled to undergo a patch test to determine what I'm allergic to. This appointment is booked for December 19th.

I receive a phone call two days prior, telling me that the specialist was going on holiday. On the day of my appointment. While I admit that it was my bad not giving the right phone number, which resulted in a delay in them contacting me. However, I really question the professionalism when they give such last minute notice that they're going on vacation. And, they even tell me that there are no other appointment dates within a day or two of the original appointment date, so I now have to wait over a month.

Flash-forward to January 25th. I'm not really looking forward to this because I know allergy tests involve them scratching allergens into your skin. Then I finally find out that a patch test only involves them taping strips of chemicals to your back and then you come back 48 hours later to see what induces a reaction.

This takes a total of five minutes. This also obviously required the expertise of a specialist, because there was no way they could get just about anybody else from the office to TAPE FOUR STRIPS OF MATERIAL TO MY BACK, because that's just so difficult and requires years of training and experience to do properly.

The upside is that I'll finally figure out what I'm allergic to so I can know what to avoid eating. The downside is that I can't shower until 48 hours after the patch test is administered and the chemical patches are removed.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

1 Guy 1 Bowl

My old supervisor once said that whenever a civilization is about to go under, they start doing all sorts of messed up stuff like human sacrifices, Roman showers, vomitoriums, and cannibalism. Somehow, I don't think we're that far off.

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