Thursday, May 11, 2006

Green men, scooters and dumplings

A city like Taipei is too complex to be "grasped" after just one day. For now, I am happy just noticing little things.

The little green man, for example. At pedestrian crossings, the "walk" signal is, like in most places, a green image of a man. Except that here the image is animated: the little green man walks. What is most entertaining, however, is that when the time is almost up, the image starts flashing (again, like almost everywhere else), and the little green man starts running.

Unlike in Beijing, here they allow portly guys to be security guards. This gentleman, for example, works at the CKS memorial, one of the most important sites in the city.

Like in Rome, scooters are the preferred veichle of transportation here. At rush hour, swarms of scooters engulf the comparatively fewer cars and own the road. Away from rush hour, one sees parked scooters everywhere, in designated parking slots along the streets but also on sidewalks, when space allows. In the picture below, Unidentified Motorist with Red Helmet blocks the view a bit, but it's actually all scooters till the eye can see. (Click on the picture for larger view.)

Unlike in Rome, however, scooters respect traffic law. This means that neither crossing the street as a pedestrian nor riding a scooter as a passenger of a local are death-defying experiences.

Many scooter drivers wear masks (mask as in surgical mask, not Halloween mask) presumably to protect against pollution. In such a style-conscious country, it is unavoidable that a market for designer masks would arise. I have seen women wearing masks with the Burberry's pattern, and even one woman wearing a leopard-dotted jacket and having a matching mask with the same leopard-dots pattern. (By the way, men wear fancy masks too.)

On the important subject of food, yesterday I had street food for the whole day.

For breakfast I had some kind of fried dough wrapped in a flat bread, a bread sandwich, if you will (I didn't do it, but, for best results, you should say "Mmh, fried dough" in the voice of Homer Simpson when you eat it) and an omelette thing also wrapped in flat bread.

Of the various small things we ate for lunch, the dumplings were the highlight. There are, in fact, a few different Chinese terms that all translate into "dumpling" but that are considered to be very different food items. As I was pondering this excessive linguistic specialization, I was told "In Italy, you have dumplings too." "No, no," I had to explain, "not dumplings, we have ravioli that are made from two distinct sheets of dough, you put the fillings on the bottom sheet and then press the other sheet on top. Then there are tortellini, where you use a single sheet of dough and wrap it around the filling. Then there are agnolotti, then ..."

Taipei is a city that does not go to bed early. Lots of people are around in the street on weekdays well past midnight, and, among the many things to do at night, there is a visit to a "night market." Night markets are big outdoor collections of small booths selling various things, mostly clothes and food. They run along small alleys, with booths on either side, and sometimes clothes vendor laying out stuff in the middle, so that one feels very cramped. I mean cramped in a good "look how much is going on all around me" way, not in a bad "will people stop bumping into me" way. Perhaps on weekends it turns into the bad way, I will have to see.

The food at the stalls was better to look at when it was prepared than to eat, but it was not bad. I am just partial to squid: this is before being cooked:

and then while being cooked:

We should see other people

Lance adds more thoughts on the subject of rejection, and he talks about rejection letters. On this subject, Oded had interesting thoughts in an earlier essay. Oded was writing about papers rejected from conferences, but perhaps his point applies more broadly. If I may paraphrase, Oded says that a rejection letter should contain constructive criticism, as appropriate, but it should not explain the reason of the decision. In Oded's view (reiterated in his more recent essay), rejection of papers from conferences and decisions not to hire certain people are simply decisions about the allocation of scarce resources. Typically, they have no sensible rationale, and, in any case, they are not meant to be a judgement on the value of the paper or of the person. It is confusion between allocation decisions and value statements that creates much needless frustration, and it should be avoided.

Offering specific reasons for rejecting a paper or passing on a candidate is then, in Oded's opinion, a step in the wrong direction, because it makes the decision sound indeed more like a value judgement.

Making a job offer is, for a department, a significant long-term commitment, and so it is for a candidate to accept an offer. Deciding where to work greatly affects one's life, and deciding whom to hire has a great effect on a department's life as well. It is no wonder that the comparison to romantic relationships always comes to mind. Indeed, if one thinks of an academic job interview as a blind date set up by common friends, everything makes sense.

So, I was wondering, what does Oded's ideal rejection letter sound like when translated to the setting of romantic relationships? And then it hit me:
It's not you, it's me.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The brutal and savage travel itinerary

Taiwan's president Chen is visiting South America, and, like any wise traveller, he wanted to stop over in New York or San Francisco. Lately, the US has had a strained relationship with president Chen, because of some symbolic pro-independence steps he took, which complicated the relationship between China, Taiwan and US, at a time when international politics is complicated as it is.

So, no New York and no San Francisco for Chen. If he wants, they told him, he can stop over in Alaska. As reported by the BBC:

"They sought brutally and savagely to block the transit stops and foreign trips of our senior officials," Mr Chen said.

"We will not be defeated but will become bolder. The more we are suppressed, the more we will try to walk out," he told the Associated Press.

Now I just hope that my own pro-independence statements won't land me in Alaska too, on my way back from Taipei. I take them all back! Long live the status quo.

What Google thinks of this site

In theory has more than the three or four readers a day that I expected and, interestingly, almost no reader comes from a random web search. (As opposed to, say, a targeted search like "Luca Trevisan in theory".)

The exceptions are interesting, especially because they show what Google thinks that this site is relevant for.

  • Some readers were directed here when searching for "P NP", a search for which In Theory is in the top 20.
  • A few readers came searching for "feminism for dummies", a search for which we are ranked number 3.
  • Most amusingly, a reader came here searching for "evil masterminds", a sentence that I never wrote. (The power of anchortext and google-bombing.) This is site is ranked number 3 for this search.
  • Finally, some readers have found this place as the number 1 result for "Beijing stinky tofu".

Draw your own conclusions.

p.s. these are the rankings before this entry was posted. Your results may vary.