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It is time to get a new laptop, and I would like it to be as light as possible subject to having a full-size keyboard and a not-too-small (at least 12”) display. So it is down to the MacBook Air versus the Lenovo X300.

I have been planning to move to OS X, and I appreciate superior design, so the MacBook is the default choice, but I also like to be able to connect a computer to other devices, which leads to the problem described in the video.

My last week in China was marked by the First China Symposium on Theoretical Computer Science, the old people’s version of the China Theory Week.

(Various pictures can be seen here.)

The meeting was marked by a stellar performance by Silvio Micali, who easily gave the best talk I have ever attended, and by the presentation of a number of new results that I had not heard of before. I may return later to the content of Dana Ron’s talk on the power of adaptivity in graph property testing.

The last day included a panel discussion on higher education in (theoretical) computer science in China. It was the first panel discussion I have ever attended that actually made any sense (and in which I did not embarrass myself by mangling my remarks – I achieved this by not making any remarks), no doubt because Andy Yao prepared well before chairing the discussion.

But the most distinctive feature of the symposium was the vastness of the resources of the organizational machinery. A few days before the symposium started, a banner went up on the top floor of the Future Internet Technologies (Computer Science) Building. In letters that were two feet tall, the banner said, in one line, Read the rest of this entry »

Let it not be said that they are useless.

There is still time to donate to the No on 8 campaign, and prevent a constitutional amendment that would eliminate same-sex marriage in California. As of the beginning of October, the Yes on 8 campaign had raised about $25 million, of which about 10 millions came from the Mormon church, and another 7 from Mormon families; the No on 8 had raised about $15 million. (The figures have changed substantially in the past two weeks, but I haven’t found a precise reference.) So if you don’t want the Church of Latter Days Saints to dictate what should and what should not be in the California constitution, and you are an American citizen or permanent resident, here is your chance.

Moving on to a happier subject, I’d like to describe what it’s like to eat in a restaurant in Beijing. To make a long story short, it’s fantastic, but here is the long story.

In any nice resturant, each chair has a pillowcase-like thing; one wraps one’s jacket on the back of the chair, as usual, and then one puts the pillowcase thing over the jacket and the chair’s back. This way there is no risk of food spilling on the jacket, and the whole setup is quite aesthetically pleasing.

As we do this, a waiter or waitress, usually the latter, brings one menu to the table, and waits for us to order.

One menu is brought regardless of the size of the party, and when I say menu I don’t mean a half-page minimalist listing of three or four choices per course one may find in the US, the fewer choices the more upscale is the restaurant (culminating in the choiceless prix-fixe menu of downstairs Chez Panisse). I mean a whole booklet, featuring ambiguous pictures and captions. (“Is this fish?” “I don’t know, it’s called ‘delicious three-cooked stew’ on the menu, and to me it looks more like mushrooms.” “But isn’t that the character for ‘pork’?” and so on.)

The waitress will hand over the one menu, and stand there, awaiting for an immediate order. A party of six westerners, say, is going to order ten courses, and each course is going to be discussed (and guessed about) by all six, for a total of at least 60 steps. In one episode, a party of eight took 25 minutes to complete the order (the waitress never budged from the side of the table).

After a short while, the dishes start coming. Except the rice, however. For reasons that no westerner understands, rice is almost never brought to the table when ordered; one needs to ask for it again, sometime three times, and it finally arrives in tiny cups which I finish halfway through the meal.

It could, of course, be worse. At the Little Sheep hotpot restaurant, known for its cumin-flavored soup base, we ordered rice and I noticed the waitress wrote nothing. Then we asked again and the waitress nodded. Then we asked a third time, and finally she said

没有米饭

“we are out of rice.” Out of rice? In a Chinese restaurant? In CHINA? Do you ever go to an Italian restaurant only to be told, sorry, we are out of pasta?

This brings me to another surprising discovery: except on some University Campuses, there are no laundromats in Beijing and there are no laundry stores which will wash and fold clothes by weight. (This has been a bigger surprise than when I moved to San Francisco and I was told that fortune cookies were invented there.) There are, however, dry-cleaning operations, but they are quite expensive by local standards. Recommendation to visitors planning an extended stay in China: bring (or buy) plenty of clothes.

Returning to dining, one has to plead for rice, but it is even harder to get napkins. Very upscale restaurants have cloth napkins which the waitresses pin under your plate so that they hang over the side of the table and your leg. Wiping your face with them feels uncomfortably close to doing so with the tablecloth and appears to not be done. Less fancy places may give a wet cloth to wipe your hands and, upon request, give postage-stamp-size paper napkins. I have taken to always bring a pack of kleenex when I go for dinner. (It should be noted that the combination of no laundry, no napkins, and eating splashy things with chopsticks can be stressful.)

People like to eat early in Beijing, with most restaurants officially closing at 10pm, but often having no customers but us by 9pm or so. At this point, subtle hints are offered that we are overstaying our welcome. Lights are dimmed in other sections of the restaurant, we are told that the kitchen is closing and if we want anything else, we are asked to pay, the kitchen staff comes out to eat, they start washing the floors. In at least one case, the waiters and kitchen staff finished eating and left, leaving behind a couple of waiters to look after us, and we kept eating in the darkened place. Only once, however, (and not in the above episode) were we ever explicitly asked to leave.

Usually, when one tries to understand something very complex, there is a first phase when one learns a lot, has no idea of the vastness of the subject, and feels like he is quickly grasping it. Then one begins to appreciate its complexity, and feels completely lost.

This was my second year of graduate school, and also how I feel about China now. I do, however, have three pieces of advice for foreigners going to China: bring lots of clothes, keep a packet of kleenex with you, and watch out for cars turning right.

Let’s start from the last item.

I have grown up in Rome, and I assumed I knew all there is to know about crossing the street, but I felt out of my depth in Beijing. Waiting for the green signal did not seem to help, and following other people was dangerous too, because they would suddenly stop and I would stop one step futher, uncomfortably close to a bus zooming by.

Then, this time, I got it. Cars can turn right on a red light, and have always precedence over pedestrians and bikes. This means that all there is to it in crossing the street is to ignore the pedestrian lights, cross when it’s red for the cars, always stop to let cars turning right go through, and be aware of bicycles.

Allow me demonstrate. Here is me crossing Caijing East Road coming from the Wudaokou subway station. Note the car turning right at 0:39

.

And this is crossing Chengfu road at the same intersection. (Note the two buses going by after the pedestrian light turns green)

With my newly found understanding, cab rides don’t stress me any more.

It used to make me very uncomfortable to sit in a cab that would turn right without slowing down and plunge into a row of people crossing the street or cut through a full bike lane. I anticipated a carnage, and wondered whether I would be forced to delay my flight in order to be present at the trial. Now I know everybody will just get out of the way.

Indeed, as someone who drives a car in San Francisco, I have been in awe of these yielding rules, and I have been fantasizing about renting a car, and then just driving it in circles, turning right at the busiest intersections, and forcing bikes and pedestrians to get out of my way, while laughing manically, Bwaaah!! Unfortunately my schedule did not allow for it.

After a month spent in China, whose highlight was the First China Symposium on Theoretical Computer Science, whose highlight was Silvio Micali’s spectacular and unstoppable talk, I am back home.

Here, in another two weeks there is going to be an election, which might be not as close as it has been in recent years (Obama is trading above 85% at Intrade, with solid leads in states summing more than 350 electoral votes). To be sure, the Democrats’ ability to lose elections is legendary, but this time there is a candidate that seems to know how to run a campaign, and who has been avoiding the usual approach of starting strong and then self-destruct.

While the electoral votes of California are uncontested, there is an issue that California voters will have to decide on. Last May, the California supreme court ruled that preventing same-sex couples from getting married violates the state constitution, and same-sex marriage has been legal since June. On the electoral ballot, voters will find Proposition 8, which seeks to introduce a constitutional amendment ending same-sex marriage. Such a desecration of the California constitution (which would, for the first time, be amendment to remove a right) is opposed by our Republican governor Schwarzenegger , by the mayors of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, and, until recently, by a majority of polled voters. Obama is one of those politicians who “oppose same-sex marriage because [he] believe[s] that marriage is between a man and a woman,” a circularity that is passed off as an argument, but he too has
stated his opposition to Proposition 8.

The Campaign on No on Eight is, however, not doing too well: it is vastly outspent by the rival campaign, which is well-funded from out of state and has been able to air a lot of commercial which may be charitably described as misleading, and which have taken a distinctly Helen Lovejoy tone. (“The Children! Will somebody please think of the children!”)

If you are an American citizen or permanent resident, I urge you to contribute to No on Eight; it’s an excellent use of your money, certainly better than losing it in the stock market.

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