Traffic engineering search-and-replace

A few months ago, Norman changed its traffic signals.  At left turns, instead of a steady green light for "yield", we now have flashing yellow arrows. The first couple of times, the flashing yellow arrow was a surprise, but then I got used to it.  It is better to distinguish between a green for go and a green for yield.  Hurray for change.

Yesterday, I found myself waiting for a light at a T-intersection. The light changed ... and I saw that we had a flashing yellow arrow for the left lane (to turn left) and a flashing yellow arrow for the right lane (to turn right).  But wait a second, who are we yielding to?  After all, at a T-intersection, there is no traffic coming from the other side ...

Is this a simple case of search-and-replace where they changed all turn lane signals to flashing arrows without thinking through the scenarios?

Why American universities excel at research

I was on an airplane in India a few years ago and got to talking to the fellow in the seat next to mine. When he heard what I did for a living, he said he had something to ask me.

 "What is it?," he wanted to know, "that makes American universities so good?" The universities are not all that much better than those anywhere else in the world, I told him, it's just that American universities luck out in getting extremely motivated students. This explanation made no sense to him. "When all the good students in America go into finance and law," he insisted, "how can the science and engineering departments be any good?" I tried to tell him that intelligence is over-rated and that enthusiasm and persistence are usually the deciding factors in terms of what someone accomplishes. But he could not grok that -- the bias in India towards "innate ability" is too deep-seated.

The enthusiasm and motivation that the best students are capable of was on display this Saturday. We had been invited on a Nature Conservancy field trip to their newish preserve in Southern Oklahoma. Boehler Seeps and Sandhills Preserve is a marshland that is home to a surprisingly diverse set of animals. We gathered in a community hall just outside the preserve to listen to talk by a graduate student who'd spent the last couple of years doing research there.
A dam built by beavers in Boehler Seeps; home to chicken turtles
The research involved doing a survey of the animals in the preserve and studying in detail the life-cycle of the chicken turtle, an almost-but-not-quite-endangered species that made its home in the two beaver dams on the preserve. To do the survey, the student had to build the fences and the traps and check up on them several times a day. Every time he caught a turtle, he would drill a radio transmitter onto its shell, collect its feces (to see wha the turtles ate) and release them. He also talked to private land owners around the preserve so that he could monitor turtle movements into their ponds. He spent several weeks at a time camped out in the preserve so that he could build the fences, tag the animals and monitor them.

Notice the considerable range of skills needed here -- carpentry, electronics, field work, camping, neighborliness, statistics ... This sort of diverse skill set and can-do spirit is quite common on American campuses.

The result? This slide shows the amazing amount of data he had collected:

Nearly 8000 captures of 53 different species, including 1814 captures of 7 species of turtles.

Well, okay. That's the mechanics of research.  Did he understand the state of the science? Did he discover anything new?

Glad you asked. Turns out that there are three subspecies of chicken turtles. Two of them have bimodal estivation periods and it was assumed that this, relatively rare third subspecies of chicken turtles would too. He found that, on the contrary, they had a single estivation period.  Other chicken turtles of the species are purely carnivorous. But the ones in this marsh had diets that included lots of plants. A subspecies or a new species?  Turn into the News at 11!  Very exciting.  His advisor, sitting in the back, was beaming.  Body language speaks volumes and these guys were onto something.

Talk over, we moseyed over to the preserve.  He had an antenna and honed in on the frequency of the largest of his turtles which had burrowed onto land ("you don't want to see me wading into the marsh and catching a turtle") and quickly led us to where it ought to be.

And started digging.  All of a sudden, there was a note of the frantic to the effort. We soon discovered why he'd gotten so worried. The transmitter was there, but no turtle. A raccoon had probably gotten the turtle.  The heartbreak was palpable.  He would download the data, correlate it with temperature data from the lake and figure out when it had happened.  But this was sad. And this had been his favorite turtle.

So, I asked him, what he did plan to do after this?  He was going to finish his MS soon and apply to several other schools for a PhD in tropical biology because the college he was currently studying in doesn't have a PhD program.  Process that for a bit -- he was not in a big name college, or even a flagship university or a regional research college. He was doing a MS in a small, regional college with no PhD program. And yet, he was doing very high-quality work.

That is how deep the bench of American graduate schools extends -- all the way to teaching colleges that happen to have small research departments. The work done there is probably on par with "national  universities" elsewhere in the world.  And it all comes down to having great students. Of course, not all students are this good and this motivated. But enough of them are.

Preserving figs

We've suddenly discovered the drawbacks of growing figs in Oklahoma -- by the time it's warm enough for figs to start appearing, it's end of summer and frosty nights are here.

What do you do with 5 pounds of unripe figs? The internet to the rescue ... figs in sugar syrup!

Fig preserves turn out to be quite easy to make.  A little time-consuming, but easy. You start by almost quartering the figs and washing the milk off them:
And then you immerse it in water, boil it and drain.
Rinse and repeat.

The last time around, you boil it in sugar syrup that has lemon peel, lemon juice and cloves. Amounts are to taste. I used half the sugar of the recipes I found on the internet, and it is sweet enough.

Let it cool, and bottle it up:
I got three big bottles of fig preserves.

Something tells me the kids are going to be sick of fig preserves by next week.

Harmonic mean

Math can be cruel.

So, let's say you have a strong wind.  Oklahoma-strong.

On your bicycle, you ride a tailwind and zip along at 20 mph. Unfortunately, you have to come back home fighting a headwind all the way.  You manage to grind back in at 10 mph.

What was your average speed?

15 mph? You wish.

Answer: the harmonic mean of 10 and 20.  This works out to 13.3 mph.  Grrr.

Rehabilitating Neville Chamberlain

The magazine Slate is infamous for their counter-intuitive arguments wherein they argue that every expert is wrong on something because of one minor detail.  However, this reads true:
Chamberlain's story is of a man who fought for peace as long as possible, and went to war only when it was the last available option.
Hitler was not Hitler before 1939.  Before that, there was little to distinguish him from, say, Mussolini. And the world could have lived with another Mussolini.  Britain declared war on Germany on Chamberlain's watch, not Churchill's.

Even as the war-mongers throw around "appeasement" and "peace for our time" as naive pronouncements, historians are coming around to a more balanced and sympathetic view of Neville Chamberlain.

A late fee for paying early

Can you get charged a late fee for sending in your payment a month early?

Citibank seems to think so.

The wife said that her credit card got rejected yesterday. I looked up the account online and discovered that the payment was overdue. That seemed curious and sure enough, on checking my bank account records, I found that I'd paid the bill in full on Aug. 13.

Time for a call into Citibank.

The Aug. 13 payment was for the bill that was due Aug. 14, I was informed.  I had missed the payment that was due Sep. 14.  But what about my July 20th payment, I asked.  That, too, was for the Aug. 14th date.

I started laughing at the logic involved here.  So, I owed $176. I paid it on Aug. 13. The bank closed the billing cycle that day but credited the account for the period that ended before, charged me a $20 late fee for missing a payment on what should have been a zero balance, and then said that my account was $20 overdue ..."

But the phone representative didn't see the abuse of common sense. She kept going on and on about how I'd paid in the previous cycle.  She's probably paid not to understand logical fallacies. Finally, I asked to speak to her supervisor who did agree to remove the charges.

A late fee for paying early.  Who would have thought American banks could be this innovative?

Ambiguous Hand Signal

I was bicycling in the sparsely populated section of East Norman and had stopped to swap out water bottles.No traffic. Rolling hills. Lovely countryside. It's some of the best bicycling around in these parts.

Seeing me stopped on the side of the rather desolate road, a passing big, red truck started to roll to a halt. I gave the driver a thumbs up, the universal sign for "It's okay; I'm fine". It was only when I saw the quizzical look on her face that I realized that the thumbs-up is also the hand signal for when you need a ride.

Was I okay, or did I need a ride to town? No wonder she was confused. I smiled and waved and made happy faces and she drove away.

No traffic. Rolling hills. Lovely countryside. And to top it off, SAG vehicles.

Making Syria safe for Al-Qaeda

The lack of any sense of history in this whole debate about Syria is astounding.

All those people talking about "red lines", whether they are Obama's or America's or the world's ... answer me this.  Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war in the mid-80s.  For thirty-five years, until Assad did so, no one in the world used chemical weapons.  There is no need, in other words, for the world to police the use of chemical weapons -- the most despicable thugs know that once they use chemical weapons, they cease to have a country they can govern.  So, why should America enforce any kind of red line here?

Look also at what has happened in Libya -- the last place we provided air support and trained the rebels.  Gaddaffi is gone, but the place is now overrun with jihadists.  Syria will be no different.

All that we are fixing to do is to make Syria safe for Al-Qaeda.

Being Indian in New York

Living in Oklahoma, it is easy to miss how much Indians are becoming part of the American fabric.

For example, this was an ad on the train from Manhattan to Newark:
The ad is for TV coverage of a pretty minor cricket tournament!

On August 15, Indian Independence Day, I happened to be working at a bank in the New York area. How tony and upscale is this bank? Well, this was the view from the window of the nondescript space that I was stuck in for two days:
That's Ellis Island, Liberty Island in the foreground and Verrazano Narrows bridge off in the horizon.  Since offices with views are hot commodities anywhere, it will take an embarrassment of riches before 2-day visitors are offered this view.

The bank had been plastered with variations on this flyer:
In case, you can't quite read it, it talks about an Independence Day celebration in the company cafeteria and asks people to show up, if possible, in Indian Ethnic apparel.

Quite a few people showed up to work on Thursday wearing Indian clothes.  And not all of those people were of Indian origin. Not me, alas. I had packed only shirts and pants.

How long do you think it will be before there is something Indian on the American calendar? On the lines of Columbus Day or St. Patrick's Day ...

New mansions come to Chettinad

This is what the area around a small pond in my parents' village used to look like:

And this is what it looks like now:

The five-story building that is coming up is being built by a nouveau-riche family who have built their fortune in the new India.  They do not live in the village of course -- they only visit. The arid villages of South India have never been the place to get rich. Even the original mansion that flanked the pond (and that has been recently repainted) was built out of fortunes created during the British empire (the trading network flanked as far away as Burma, Ceylon and Malaya). And if you go into the old mansions, you'll see Burmese teak, Ceylonese elephants and statues of the goddess Lakshmi flanked by British soldiers -- the traders knew who kept the peace that kept their networks humming.

As Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, Vietnam, etc. became independent, they threw the foreign Indian merchants out and the go-go era of mansion building in my parents' village ended. I used to think that the village was now forever stuck in the slow lane.

Seems not.

How Shakespeare Changed Everything

When a book's title is "How Shakespeare Changed Everything", one expects either hyperbole or an underwhelming list.  But Shakespeare, it turns out, did change everything.

He changed the nature of adolescence.  When he wrote "Romeo and Juliet", most children (whether rich or poor) were expected to become apprentices at around the age of 10 or 12. It was Shakespeare who described roving bands of young people, thugs and mall rats, and the impact of raging hormones.  Essentially, he invented teenagers and how society perceives them.

He of course changed the English language but I was surprised by the extent to which he did.  Apparently, even in his day, a full 30% of the language would be new. How he could get people into a noisy, unmiked theater where they couldn't understand a significant portion of the words is beyond me.  The author points out how so many phrases we use are Shakespearean in origin. Without even knowing it, we quote Shakespeare every day.

But where the book really excels is in talking about how Shakespeare, without really meaning to, changed the world. For example, Othello is a racist play, relying for much of its power on the audience's visceral reaction to seeing a black man and a white woman on stage. Yet, the play did change how we see race. Similarly, the character of Shylock was anti-Semitic, and even the famous "I am a Jew, do I not bleed" speech only attributes animal characteristics to Jews. Yet, it too changed the world. Slowly, but surely.

The funniest part of the book is the story of how Shakespeare was indirectly responsible for some of the worst environmental damage the United States has experienced.  Some Connecticut banker, obsessed with introducing every bird Shakespeare mentioned in his plays to the US, brought in nightingales and starlings. The nightingales died off but the starlings became a major pest, and continue to be responsible for much environmental disaster.

Towards the end of the book, the author loses his way. The book would have been good at 150 pages. But his publisher probably made the author pad it, and that spoils the book. Still, this is a book worth savoring.

My identity gets stolen ... in a scientific review

You can pretty much tell who wrote a supposedly anonymous review of a scientific paper. Just look at the papers the reviewer cites. Reviewers very often cite a whole bunch of their own papers and say that you need to address/acknowledge the issues raised in those papers, etc. etc.  This is a rather cheesy way to raise the citation count of one's own articles, but it is quite widely practiced.

Editors these days mail out the complete set of reviews to all the reviewers at the same time they send them to the authors.  That is how I found out that someone had essentially stolen my identity in a review -- their review was full of citations to my papers.  Worse, their final recommendation was to reject the paper, and the editor actually did this.

I am tempted to email the author of the paper -- he is a sort of acquaintance -- and deny writing that review and say this reviewer was stealing my identity by peppering his negative review with citations to my papers!

Engineers of Victory, but in a book club?

As with most book clubs, women are the majority in ours and so, all the book selections tend to a distaff taste.  It was my turn to select a book last month and I simply picked the next book on my pile of books to read.  This was an atypical book for any book club -- whereas many books have "reading guides" with pointers for book club discussions, this book (now, as I write) doesn't.

The book I chose was Paul Kennedy's "Engineers of Victory".  The book talks about 5 problems that the allies need to address if they were to win World War II and about the series of small bottom-up innovations that made it happen.  It is an engrossing book if you are interested in how innovation happens in large, diverse enterprises (science in general or even weather forecasting in specific is one such enterprise, so I am very interested).

But the book is also a long, hard read for anyone not interested in military strategy or familiar with the geography, timeline and general contours of the second world war.  As I was reading the book, I started to feel guilty for imposing it on a group of people none of whom would have picked the book on their own.  The reason for the long, hard slog is because there are so many people who are obsessed with military history, especially of World War II. Paul Kennedy needed to carefully marshal his arguments against those who would argue for a single brilliant coup that turned the course of the entire war (such as breaking the enigma codes or the development of radar).  He starts out by describing how hard a problem is, why the allies were deficient in that area and then walks you through the history of the innovations and changes in strategy that allowed the allies to turn the tide in that realm.

For example, one problem the allies faced was to protect trans-Atlantic shipping from U-boat attacks. At the beginning of the war, U-boat attacks were devastating. By the end of the war, the U-boats were no longer a threat. What happened? A series of small innovations, from changing how convoys of ships were organized, to better engines in planes, to refueling flights, to aircraft carriers, to lights on planes, to ships that could fight back ...  The book is also about managing such change, and building a society nimble enough and confident enough to accept these improvements as they come along. Absolutely fascinating stuff.

But would it go over in a book club? On the one hand, this was the smallest book club meeting we've ever had, but on the other, those who'd come had engaged with the book.

Japanese Old People

How screwed up is Japan demographically speaking?

In Japan:
  1. More adult diapers than baby diapers are sold.
  2. There are more elderly shoplifters in Tokyo than there are teenaged ones.
  3. Old people on farms have twice the voting power of young people in cities.
Numbers 1 and 2 will probably get all the derision, but it is #3 that actually causes problems for Japan.

Beijing Blues

I spent last weekend in Beijing, enroute to the US from my work trip to Qingdao.  This was my first time to Beijing, and I was looking forward to it.  But even as the train came into Beijing, it was as if a pall was descending.  By the time we were 100 km from the city, the air was milky white and visibility was down to a few hundred meters.

The smog obviously played havoc with sightseeing. For example, in the Forbidden city, I could hardly see beyond one gate to the next.  Strolling around the lake in the summer palace, you could hardly see around the corner. All those picture postcard views under clear-skies? They must have taken them after a thunderstorm or something. Those sights were simply not to be had.

On the other hand, there is nothing like travel to bring new perspectives on things.  Beijing was the first place in China where I was essentially on my own . So, I learned to recognize Chinese characters.  Because so many subway station names end with "men" or have "qian" in them, I know those characters. Bei=north and jing=capital, so I learned to recognize those two letters as I did the characters for "dong" or "east", and "nei" for "inner".  My eyes no longer gloss over when I see Chinese writing, and that's quite cool.

Since I had only one two days there, I decided to pack as much as I could into those two days and I maximized my use of public transport.  I took the subway and buses everywhere, learning to navigate the system.  The subway is quite well signed (in both English and Chinese), so it was quite easy.  I got into Beijing Friday afternoon and managed to see the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven that day itself.

I also booked a car to take to the Great Wall near Mutanyu (a lot less touristed than Badaling) on Saturday early morning.  "My own car," I specified, "so I that I stop only at the Ming dynasty tombs and at Mutanyu and nowhere else."  The travel agent agreed, but the driver who came to pick me up at the hotel said he had to make extra stops at a jade gallery, a foot massage place, etc. "it's part of the tour and it is included," he kept saying. I refused -- I did not want to spend half my vacation dealing with hard-sell.  Finally, they agreed to refund me my money and let me go my way.

That is how I ended up going to Mutanyu all by myself.  The person I asked for directions gave me this chit of paper:
It was a rather funny scene.  She quickly wrote down the Chinese characters, then took a deep breath and carefully wrote down the English pronunciation "huai rou qi che zhan".  I took a bus to that place from Dongzhemin and then hired a taxi to take me to the foothills of Mutanyu.

Mutanyu is famous for its cable car ("run by an Austrian businessman", the ad copy read) but there is also a nice steep path to the Wall.  I took the steps up, walked along the wall for a couple of guard stations and took a different trail back down.  It was very nice, but the smog was not far away, so the scenery was always rather shrouded.

I managed to get back to Beijing after hiking the Great Wall by 2pm on Saturday.  So, I had enough time to do a quick lunch at a fast-food place at the train station and make it to the summer palace.

Talk about a place being crowded.  The summer palace was really, really crowded. Not as bad as the Louvre, but quite bad.  But even in that crowd, I guess I stood out because a couple of groups asked me to pose with them for their pictures.  If you ever see a picture of me with two grinning Chinese freshmen or several weather-beaten farmers, that's why.

When the summer palace was near closing, I went off to the Olympic stadium, walked around there and finally called it a night.

Sunday morning, I visited the Confucius temple.  These stone tablets are inscribed with the names of Confucian scholars -- those who passed his examinations!  Forget about having a graduate thesis stored in a dusty library.  These stone tablets are how you really make a mark!
The temple is full of stone steles that mark a variety of imperial pronouncements, and each of the steles is in its own pavilion.  It's all rather impressive.

After this, the Lama temple which is just a block away from the Confucius temple was a big let down.  The sandalwood Maitreya is quite impressive, but that is about it.

After that, I went back to the hotel picked up bags and went to the train station where I could catch the Airport Express to the airport.  The plane was scheduled to leave at 3.45 and I was at the train station a little before noon.

Enough time to do another bout of Chinese fast food.  This time, I didn't know where to pay.  Everything in China is huge, and it turned out that I was the wrong side of the restaurant.  The counter where you ordered and paid was on the other side of the wall.  And in any case, I didn't know the name of the dish I wanted. So, I pointed to a pot and gave the cook some money.  She asked me some questions pointing at some spices. I shrugged saying I didn't care what she put inside the soup. She called a colleague who went over, paid and brought back a card that he swiped.  This brought up an order and the cook now made it for me:
A little convoluted of a process, but I think this is the way things work in a low-trust society.  Everything is monitored closely.   The noodles were delicious and the cook was all smiles to see me attacking it with gusto.

So, between Friday afternoon 2pm to Sunday noon,  I saw pretty much all the sights in Beijing:  Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Mutanyu Great Wall, Summer Palace, Olympic Center, Confucius temple, Lama temple. The only thing I didn't go to see (and it was a conscious decision) was Tienanmen Square.  And I did it all with public transport.  Try doing this in an American city. Pollution or not, Beijing rocks.

Life in Qingdao

The best place I went to Qingdao, a sea-side town in China, was the Zhan Shan temple.  A quiet, awesome, working temple.  Better than the Temple of Heaven or the Lama Temple in Beijing in my opinion. This was one of the buildings in the front courtyard:

The thing I will remember most about Qingdao, though, are the couples being photographed on the beach. See if you can spot all eight couples in this photograph. It's a wonder they manage to keep out of each others' wedding albums.

In the ability to capture all the idiosyncrasies of Chinese style, this guy stands out:

Rolled-up T-shirt? Check. Man-purse? Check. Cigarette? Check. Personal grooming in public? Check.

Rendering the fat

The photograph that accompanies this NY Times article is an amazing, implicit commentary on what a bunch of Southern people look like to (I"m imagining things here) a thin, reedy New Yorker.  It's ironic because the article itself is a commentary on lingering racist attitudes in the South. Is the photograph a commentary on lingering regional stereotypes in the Northeast?

I am quite sure the photographer was going for this exact look, by taking the photograph from street level and using a wide angle lens.

Still, I can not fault the photographer too much, because pretty much the same thought strikes me when I come back home after a week or two abroad.  The plane on the last leg of my trip -- from Dallas or Chicago or Houston to OKC always seems to be full of large people.

But you don't  need to travel to other countries to see how we cease to see how large the normal Southern person is. You just need to go back in time a bit. Alfred Hitchcock used to be considered fat.  So was the actor who played Hardy in "Laurel and Hardy".

If you saw either of these people at lunch on Monday, would you even notice? Or would their supposed fatness simply be what you see day in and day out?

Living in the South, one becomes accustomed to the girth of the population, and it is only when you come back after time spent outside that you are struck by the contrast between what people look like anywhere else.  Or what people used to look like just two or three decades ago.

Becoming My Father

The kids made cards for Father's Day.

S2's card was strips of gift-wrap paper pasted to look like a tie. The  background of the card was another gift-wrap paper

"Your watch is so boring," S2 informed me, "you need to get watches like these ones on my card."

"These are not watches," I told her, "these are compasses."

"My teacher said they were watches," said S2.

S1, who never misses a chance to put his sister down chimed in: "S2's teacher doesn't even know the difference between a watch and a compass!"

"No, the teacher probably said it was a compass, but S2 heard it wrong," I said.

This is exactly what my father would have said.  When I was growing up, my teachers were never wrong or even mistaken. If they'd said something that was incorrect, I would be told that I must have misheard the teacher or missed some nuance of what the teacher was saying.

"Listen properly in class next time!", I would be told.  Looks like I am carrying the lesson forward.

Happy Father's Day.

Illicit happiness of other people

Manu Joseph's "The Illicit Happiness of Other People" is a witty look at the meaning of life, youthful idealism, adult ennui, talent (and talentlessness), and male aggression and its aftereffects.

As a bonus, the book is set in Madras (now Chennai). Manu Joseph is a wonderful writer, and his observations of Chennai life are incisively drawn: of crowded lower-middle-class apartment complexes, men leaning languidly and starting their scooters in sudden jerks, housewives on balconies making distinctions between the "front-facing" and "back-facing" balcony, youthful rides along deserted nighttime streets ... they all ring true of Madras as it was when I went to high school and college there.  Chennai is different now, of course, but the book is a wonderful look at the city of my youth. Well, he also pokes fun at IITians (actually more of the parents who desperately push their kids to get into the IIT), but I suppose I can forgive him that.

It would give away the plot to say more of the story, and you need to read the book knowing nothing of what it really is about. Instead, you follow a father as he desperately tries to figure out why his older son committed suicide. And you learn more and more as the father learns more and more.  For a book about the larger meaning of life and happiness and the sort of things that can destroy such happiness, this is a wonderful, literary device.

This is a book that is worth savoring. Read it slowly.

The land of good Chinese food

I'm sitting in the airline lounge in Hong Kong, slurping noodles and waiting for my flight back to the US. This was my first visit to China, and perhaps it is apt that I started in Hong Kong and then across Shenzhen Bay to the first region that benefited from the economic opening.  And benefited, it has.

Shenzhen is vibrant, in every sense of the word. The buildings are tall, the streets are clean and people are busy. It is closer to the wide-open parts of Europe (Estonia, say) than to other developing countries like India. The fourth biggest city in China, Shenzhen, beats Delhi or Bangalore on pretty much any measure.

The most surprising thing to me about Hong Kong is how green it is.  The picture you have of Hong Kong (at  least the picture I had before coming) was of Hong Kong Island.  But Hong Kong is not just that one island. It also comprises quite a bit of Kowloon peninsula.  And the peninsula is full of hills and completely wooded. Hong Kong, in other words, could have sprawled Phonex-style, but they have done the smart thing and remained compact.

This is the ferry that takes you from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon.  Pretty cool ride.  You can also take the metro, but the metro is not as cool.  It is, surprisingly, also more expensive.

Hong Kong is most famous for its shopping. America, however, spoils you because nowhere else do you have the selection or the prices that you have in pretty much any medium-sized city in America. So, it was more amusing than anything to see people lining up to enter a handbag store:
It is not just handbags, of course. I have not seen as many ads for luxury watches than I saw in Hong Kong. I used to think the Lake Geneva was quite tacky with huge signs representing different watch brands, but Hong Kong beats it in sheer quantity.  Wonder who buys all those watches. When I mentioned the watch ads to my Chinese hosts, one of them pointed to his smartphone ("who needs watches any more?") but the other one said that she was wearing a Swiss watch. So perhaps every Chinawoman will one day own a Swiss watch, and these ads are simply fighting for that market share.

The night-time view of Hong Kong Island from Kowloon makes Manhattan look provincial.

I was visiting China to visit the Shenzhen meteorological department and Sunday happened to be "open" day.  These are Chinese citizens visiting the observatory.  The TV screens with familiar weather forecasters reading the forecasts were the big draw.

The radar in Shenzhen is atop the observatory. In fact, the observatory was specially built to house the radar. The building has 15 floors, but the floors are 30-40 feet tall. So, with their high ceilings, the office spaces feel light and airy.  Before they moved here, the meteo department was in what is now the second tallest building in Shenzhen:

The hospitality was astounding. When we have visitors to NSSL, we may do one dinner with the visitors at a local restaurant. Here, one or the other of my hosts accompanied me at lunch and dinner each and every day. I told them at the outset that I loved food, was not picky and as long as they chose food without beef, I would be quite happy. They seemed thrilled that I ate with chopsticks and that I would eat fish with bones.

I also told them about cooking my way through Fuschia Dunlop's book on Sichuan food. "An English book," waved one of my hosts dismissively.  But he was from Sichuan and so he had to show me what real Sichuan food tasted like.  Off we went to a gourmet Sichuan restaurant.  That clothesline-type thing in the picture are cold cuts.  The noodles and vegetables were awesome. I think I come close in how my noodles taste, but the variety and taste of Chinese food in China is simply incredible. Chinese food in America doesn't hold a candle to this. Even the supposedly authentic Chinese places are poor echoes of Chinese food. I wonder how Chinese people can stand it (perhaps, they get served proper food when they visit and I get crap because I am not Chinese? -- I know that I can get proper Indian food at Himalayas, a local Indian restaurant in Oklahoma, but what they normally serve in their buffets is creamed-up junk).

Close to the observatory is one of the largest parks in Shenzhen. It was built for some flower expo and consists of houses similar to what you will find in different provinces of China.  A very cool park, and I took advantage to people watch in the mornings ...

The really cool thing was that people would "walk" their birds and hang them from trees.

One evening, I went to Darfen "village", a colony of painting shops. I had read about it in the NY Times a few months ago and thought it would be cool to get an oil painting of the family done.  Turns out, though, that it is the completely wrong mix of convenience, price and quality.  The painting would take two weeks to do (so it would have to mailed to me), would cost about $300 and consist mainly of transferring the photograph to canvas.  The examples they showed looked nothing like paintings -- the art was lifeless and failed to capture the spirit of the subjects.  There is no point to a low-quality painting -- I might as well hang a high-quality photograph -- and so I decided to not get a painting done.

With my work mostly complete, I had a day of looking around in Shenzhen. Unfortunately, the city is only 30 years old, and so there is nothing historic here.  The best option was "Splendid China", a theme park that  has small models of architecture from all over China.  A little cheesy, but it was perfect for me, with my passing acquaintance of Chinese provinces and building styles.

The entrance to the park has these three "gods" reflecting Chinese aspirations. The first one is the god of family, the second the god of wealth and the third the god of long life.  And I think that order is roughly right, because nothing provoked as much admiration in China as the size of my family -- two children!, everyone remarked, one boy and one girl. Put together those characters mean the word "good". Very fortunate, etc.  etc.

 All the Chinese forecasters and scientists had exactly one child each, of course.  We seem to take for granted that this means that the population of China will slope gently downward in the next few decades and so the demographic dividend will lag behind that of the United States (or India) whose populations are yet to peak. I think we are mistaking quantity for quality.  I observed that, because they have only child, Chinese parents pour all their hopes and resources into that one child. Get ready for a generation of extremely well-educated, well-rounded children.  Good for the world as a whole, but it is going to be a tough country to compete against.  Think South Korea, but more focused, militaristic and ten times as large.

Any way, back to the theme park. There was a quite a bit of Tibetan stuff there, placed in the context of grottos and Buddhas from other provinces in China. The subtext here was quite clear.

They also had quite a few shows of minority (i.e., non-Han) peoples. The subtext here seemed to be that these were primitive peoples practicing primitive religions and lifestyles.  Maybe it is even true.

The last evening in Shenzhen, one of my hosts (who is from Guanxi) decided that he had to introduce me to food from his hometown. We went to a restaurant that sourced all its food from that province. In other words, they did not shop the local markets. They got all the fish and meats and vegetables from Guanxi to Shenzhen. And yes, the food was delicious.

But the really interesting thing was the ordering of the food. We ate in a private room (Chinese restaurants have huge halls, but they also have dozens of private rooms, and most companies get one of these rooms for their groups. As far as I could tell, there was not a significant price difference between eating in a hall and eating in a private room). But we had to go downstairs, to where the food was kept and select the fish and vegetables and tell them how we wanted it cooked.  Selected fish would get whacked right there. The manager would write up a bill and then as the food got served, it would get crossed off the list.  The cost of a dinner for five with about a dozen dishes ran to about sixty US dollars.

All in all, in less than a week in China, I got to taste five different Chinese cuisines -- Cantonese (mostly steamed), Guangdong (cooked in meat fats), Mongolian (mostly grilled), Sichuan (mostly pickled-peppery) and Guanxi (cooked in mild sauces). I could live in China forever for the food -- the US now feels like the land of bad Chinese food ... but then you also quickly notice the drawbacks of living in China. No, not the pollution. It rained like crazy while I was there, so the air was quite humid, but clean. There was the time when one of my colleagues posted a link on Facebook to a New York Times op-ed about being a woman programmer and I found that I could not access it.  I could not access any New York Times article while I was in China. It was only when I was back in Hong Kong that I could read even that rather innocuous article.

Interesting story about the rain photo (above), actually.  The colleague who had taken me to Splendid China resolutely kept his phone-camera pocketed for over two hours. Meanwhile, I had taken about 200 photographs.  But the rain moved in, and out came the camera.  Weather geeks!  They are the same every where.