Saturday, April 08, 2006

Feminism for dummies

One of my favorite readings on the web is Bitch, PhD.

She talks about being a woman in academia, about child rearing and about feminism in terms that are very concrete and understandable. This post where she explains feminism to her five years old is something that even I can follow.

I wonder if she writes pseudonymously because, in gender studies circles, it would be shameful to write so clearly.

By the way, since she writes pseudonymously, we don't even really know that she is a woman. It would be really interesting if Bitch, PhD, is written by a man who switches all genders when he talks about his life experiences. So he is a professor with a stay-at-home wife who gave up her career so he could move to his university of choice. And he has a mistress in a nearby city: his wife knows and she does not object. Suddenly, a radical and cool lifestyle becomes suspect and objectionable, even though it is, of course, the same lifestyle (only the genders of the involved people have changed).

Which makes me wonder: has liberal and feminist thought come up with its own double standards? (I have my own answer, but I wonder what you think.)

On a somewhat related note: has feminism made flirting less fun?

Beware of the tomato-wielding terrorists

The car of the US ambassador in Caracas was pelted with eggs and tomatoes yesterday. Venezuela's ambassador was summoned at the White House and was warned of "severe consequences" if such an incident were to happen again.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Brian Penn tells the Associated Press this harrowing tale:
We were under attack by these motorcyclists throwing fruits and vegetables.

Update: as of April 10, the text of the AP article has changed, and the hilarious Brian Penn quote is not there any more. I wish I had saved a copy of the April 8 text.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Tao of Berkeley

Whenever I saw a prominent inscription in a palace within the Forbidden City, I would ask the guide for its meaning. One inscription was 為無, which, read right-to-left, is wu wei in Pinyin, or 无为 in simplified characters. The tourist guide gives a long, and fascinating, explanation. More or less, wu wei means "not doing," or "inaction." The character 无, wu means "not having something" and 为, wei, means, among other things, "to act." In this context, wu wei is a principle of Taoism, and it means something like "letting things take their course." The emperor who put that inscription in his room wanted to be reminded not to be a tyrant, not to unduly impose his authority. A famous maxim of Taoism is wei wu wei 为无为, that liberally translates into "getting things done by doing nothing."

Wow, I realize, Umesh is a Taoist!

Ever since coming to Berkeley, I have tried to practice wei wu wei, without knowing that it had a name and that it was a centuries-old concept. It is not so easy. After six years, I have gotten pretty good at the "doing nothing" part, but anybody who has ever sent me a paper to referee knows that I am still struggling with the "getting things done" part.

I like Chinese calligraphic art a lot, and so I definitely wanted to find a calligrapy of wu wei and put it in my office as an inspirational poster of sorts. Unfortunately, it was one more thing that I did not have time for.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Trojan pandas

You probably know about the history of Taiwan. When the Kuomintang lost the civil war against the Communists, more than a million people fled to Taiwan and created their own independent state. After a long period of one-party rule, Taiwan is now a democracy, and a fairly liberal one at that. In 2003, Taipei hosted the first gay pride celebration in a majority-Chinese country, and the Taipei mayor took part in it. Taipei is also considered one of the capitals of Chinese food, and you'll read all about it on this page next month.

This is all wonderful, except for the "independent state" part, a matter of fact that is not recognized by China, which considers Taiwan a "renegade province." The efforts of the PRC to negate, in every possible symbolic way, the independence of Taiwan are legendary. If you live in a big city pretty much anywhere in the word, and you search your phone book for "Taiwan consulate," you will not find it. That is because in order for a country to have diplomatic relations with China, they must not recognize Taiwan as an independent country. Instead, Taiwan has Taipei Economic and Cultural Offices that provide consular services under the name of a trade and cultural office. This is the one in San Francisco.

Arriving in China, you have to fill up a form to be given to the customs officer. It has a box to check if you are a Chinese national, and another if you are a foreigner. If you are a foreigner, there is space to write your nationality; if you are Chinese, there are a few more boxes to specify if you are from one of three "special" provinces: Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. (Note the double symbolism here.)

At the airport, flights to Taiwan leave from the international terminal, and, obviously, we can't have that. So all signs refer to the international terminal as the "International/HK/Macao/Taiwan" terminal. By the way, in the US, flights to Canada leave from the domestic terminal.

Did you hear the story of the Trojan pandas, by the way? As part of a recent series of initiatives targeted at the Taiwanese public, China wanted to donate two pandas to Taiwan. The catch was that the pandas would be sent to Taiwan under the law that regulates domestic transfers of pandas. Taiwanese authorities rejected the deal, and called the animals "trojan pandas." Wonkette makes the obvious 5th grade joke.

I wish I had found Chungking Express

In Beijing, I bought a DVD of Crash for 75 cents from a street vendor.

I was advised not to buy movies off the street, because they would be likely to be very bad pirated copies, shot by some guy with a video camera in the movie theater, like in the famous Seinfeld episode. Indeed, this only made me more eager to buy DVDs from street vendors. So what if the video quality is bad and you hear other people's voices: just to be able to tell the story of that one time I bought a movie in Beijing and it turned out to be shot illegally in a movie theater, I am more than willing to spend 75 cents.

The movie, however, is an original copy, or perhaps an illegal copy of an original one. It has all the extra features, the subtitles are available in English, Chinese traditional, Chinese simplified, and Spanish, and so on.

Even in legitimate stores, DVDs rarely cost more than $4. I had a long list of movies I wanted to buy, but that I could not find in the short time I had to look for them. One more reason to regret the shortness of this trip.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The things I notice

Scott summarizes in thirteen words what I have been writing so far
Luca is filing travel reports from Beijing, where apparently the food is excellent.

Where were his powers of synthesis when he was writing his thesis?

Is there anything else to write about China except the food? Surely there is. What about the shortage of unskilled labor? Is the increased funding of higher education and research a preparation to a future when more skilled, and better paying, jobs will move to China? If so what can we do to keep these jobs in America? What's going on in the West of China, with peasants rioting in the countryside against developers grabbing land with the help of corrupt politicians? How are people dealing with privatized health care? What will the consequences be of an increasingly independent judiciary? And, most importantly, what's up with the Chinese patriarchy in these post-colonial times?

These are all good questions, but I'd rather talk about cell phones and security guards.

A typical undergrad gets about \$60 a month from his/her parents as an allowance (the university provides room and board but the \$60 must suffice for clothes, entertainment, dining out and so on). A typical salary of a recent college graduate is in the range of \$200 to \$400 a month. Some jobs in the private sector, or in profitable state companies run like private ones, pay much more, but they are relatively rare. Even so, everybody, even the undergrads who subsist on \$60 a month, has a cell phone. While making calls is comparably expensive, text messaging is very cheap. So, everywhere, you see people typing messages in their phones, while they wait for the bus, while they walk, in clubs, in restaurants, while they are talking to you. (How do you type in Chinese using a 10-keys keyboard? I'll let you guess.) Hoeteck procured a local phone for me, and so I too could be seen walking around typing into the phone like a local. A cute note is the use of '88' as an abbreviation for 'good-bye'. That's because the word for 'eight', 八 ('ba' in Pinyin), is pronounced 'pah' with a high-pitched tone, and 'pah-pah' and 'bye-bye' are close enough. The wonderful thing is that, in a place where everyone has a phone, it never happens that, at a very bad time, you hear a ring and then someone says loudly "Hello. No, it's not a bad time at all."

The Chinese have a thing for uniforms. In every shopping mall, in every parking lot, most everywhere, somebody is standing in a military-looking uniform, even if he is just the security guard or the valet parking attendant. Tsinghua is an exception: the security guards wear dark suits and go more for a secret-service vibe. All these people, and, even more so, the real soldiers, have a small built, and, especially, they have really thin waists, that are emphasized by tight belts worn outside their coat. As Hoeteck noticed, they also all look the same, with fine features and very narrow eyes. The look seems to get more extreme the more important is the place they are guarding. The soldiers at Tiananmen square hardly had any eyes or any waist at all. Even the Tsinghua guards have this uniform look, and the day I was sent from one security guard to the other, all dressed in dark suits and looking the same, it felt like the scene in the Matrix will all the clones of Hugo Weaving. To me, these guys look adorable, but this must be a matter of cultural dissonance, it cannot possibly be the vibe that their employers want to give. I have wondered if this look might actually read as menacing to the locals: maybe the narrow eyes are read as aggressive, and being thin is read as being fit. More likely, these guys are just seen as elegant in their uniforms, and the purpose of a security guard is not to protect a building, but to decorate it. If you break the rules, the subtext may be, you are going to be in such big troubles that whether the security guard will hurt you or not will be the last of your preoccupations. In any case, I am sure even the smallest of those guys is trained to kick ass if the need arises. And I cannot shake the suspicion that they always also have, out of sight, a bunch of huge ugly guys that will come out if trouble starts.

Monday, April 03, 2006

P, NP, and Mathematics

Avi Wigderson has just posted the paper based on his forthcoming ICM plenary lecture.

I suggest you stop doing whatever you are doing (I mean, come on, you are reading a blog, you can't be too busy...) and read it now.

In August, Avi will bring the lieta novella of the P versus NP question (and of complexity theory in general) to, literally, thousands of mathematicians: ICM 2002 in Beijing was attended by more than 4,000 people, and many of them went for the conference not just for the food.

This will be an important turning point on how other mathematicians look at what we do. Even now, of the latest generation of pure mathematicians, those who like problem-solving more than theory-building (and who naturally gravitate around analysis, combinatorics, analytic number theory and probability) can be very sophisticated in their appreciation of complexity, and, I think, they see it as one of those parts of pure mathematics that one should know something about, even if one does not work on it.

When Terence Tao (analyst, number theorist, and combinatorialist of "primes in arithmetic progression" fame and likely 2006 Fields Medalist) visited Berkeley, we talked for some time and he asked a few questions. "When you have a subset of the hypercube whose Fourier spectrum is concentrated on a few Fourier coefficients, is there a way to find them without looking at the whole hypercube," yes, it's the Goldreich-Levin theorem (he wanted to see the proof, we went through it in about five minutes); "if P!=NP, would this settle the question of whether there are problems that are hard on average?" It's unlikely; "is it plausible to use Fourier analytic techniques to study the circuit complexity of functions?" not for general circuits, because of Razborov-Rudich (he had heard of it before, and he wanted to know what exactly is the statement of Razborov-Rudich).

If you have enough time to read my Beijing restaurant reviews, you also have enough time to read this article by 1998 Field Medalist Tim Gowers titled "on the importance of mathematics." The P versus NP question figures quite prominently. Since you are at it, you may try to find the video of his talk at the Clay Institute web site (the link from Gowers' page is broken) [Update the talk is available at] on the same topic. And, I don't mean to boss you around, but you should also buy and read this book, a masterpiece of mathematical exposition for the general public. (Circuit complexity and NP-completeness are featured.)

The next New York Times bestseller

Despite all the things I have eaten, and faithfully documented, I have lost two pounds. What the hell? Soon you'll read all about it in my upcoming book The Beijing Diet, the asian male response to French Women Don't Get Fat.

In Theory: now with pictures

You can now see pictures of the visiting faculty apartments at Tsinghua, of the Great Wall and of the soldier with the fire extinguisher on Tiananmen square.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

A party I had to miss

Near the Hu Tong neighborhood we saw the advertisement for this party:

Hoeteck cleverly commented that the concept of the party is probably that you go there and nobody shows up.

This is a public service announcement

If you are reading this, chances are that you are a theoretician. And if you are a theoretician, chances are that at some point Andy will invite you to Beijing. If he does, then obviously you will accept, and your number one question will be: where are all those restaurants that Luca has been talking about?

Ask no more. Hoeteck has compiled a list of the places I have been to. For each place, the name is spelled in the Pinyin romanization (without accents) and in Chinese characters. (In "simplified" characters, as currently used in mainland China.)

Friday, March 24

name of restaurant: gan guo ju 干锅居
location: near Tsinghua University east gate

This is where we had an awesome whole fish as well as a delicious frog dish. (It was my first time eating frogs.) More here.

Saturday, March 25

name of restaurant: xin jiang ban shi chu yi si lan fan zhuang 新疆办事处伊斯兰饭庄
location: "Xinjiang office" in northwest Beijing

This is the islamic Chinese restaurant with the lamb skewers costing 25 cents. More here. Unfortunately we have no idea how to find the marinated fish place again.

Sunday, March 26

name of restuarant: jiu tou niao 九头鸟
location: near Beijing University south gate

This was incredibly cheap and still quite good. It is within walking distance from Tsinghua, and the walk is pleasant. (See here)

Monday, March 27

name of restaurant: kou fu ju 口福居
location: da yun cun (大运村), near zhi cun lu subway station

This is the hot pot place.

Tuesday, March 28

name of restaurant: zui ai 醉爱
location: beside lotus center, near Tsinghua University east gate

This is the Fancy Place with the elevator attendant where we ate for $12.5 per person. The eggplants and the yellowtail tuna were amazing.

Wednesday, March 29

name of restaurant: li chang 黎昌
location: off Beijing University west gate, on the way towards the
summer palace

The place with the private banquet room with our own two bathrooms.

Friday, March 31

name of restaurant: xin kai yuan 新开元
location: off Beijing University

Andy's favorite place in Beijing.

name of restaurant: qiao jiang nan 俏江南
location: wang fu jing shopping district (multiple locations)

Very good, but the other branches are likely to be less expensive.