Happy Qi Xi festival, everybody. This is the “Chinese Valentine’s day,” which falls on July 7th on the lunar calendar, which this year is August 20th. The festivity relates to a story that, like many Chinese stories, is a pretty long story.

The gist of it is that the (seventh) daughter of a goddess at some point came to earth to live as a mortal and met a cowboy (as in, a guy whose job is to herd cows). The two fell in love, got married, had two children (I told you, it’s a long story) and they were pretty happy, until the goddess mom realized what happened.

As is mothers-in-law’s wont, she did not approve, and she recalled the daughter to heaven, where she is now the star Vega. The guy was desperate, but then one of his cows suggested that he kills it, and then use its skin to fly to heaven (don’t ask) and reunite with his wife.

He does so, and it works, so that he is now the star Altair, but then the mom-in-law found out again. So she created a river, the Milky Way, to separate them once more. And now they are forever separated, except that, every year, magpies (which are a kind of crows) fly to heaven and use their bodies to create a bridge over the Milky Way, so that the two lovers can use it to meet. And this happens on the 7th day and the 7th month of the year.


Mystery solved!

This interesting article in today’s NYT tells the story of the fad of Tibetan mastiffs as high-end pets in China.

It is an appealing story about social changes, new riches, inequalities, and so on, but it also, finally, explains why I could never find in San Francisco hot pot that tasted like in Beijing:

Instead, earlier this year Nibble and 20 more unlucky mastiffs found themselves stuffed into metal chicken crates and packed onto a truck with 150 other dogs. If not for a band of Beijing animal rights activists who literally threw themselves in front of the truck, Nibble and the rest would have ended up at a slaughterhouse in northeast China where, at roughly $5 a head, they would have been rendered into hot pot ingredients, imitation leather and the lining for winter gloves.

(Emphasis added)

I hope it ends well

When Hong Kong was “handed over” to China on July 1st, 1997, the plan was that the city, now a Special Administrative Region, would retain its independent laws and institutions for 50 years, and it would have elections with universal suffrage (one person one vote). In 2007, it was decided that universal suffrage would start in 2017.

Discussion on how to regulate the 2017 elections has been going on for the last several months. A coalition of pro-democracy groups ran an informal referendum on the preferred system of election, gathering about 800,000 votes, or a fifth of the registered electorate. All the options in the referendum assumed no vetting process for the candidate, contrary to Beijing’s stance that any system for the 2017 election would only allow candidates pre-approved by the mainland government.

Afterwards (this happened during the summer), the pro-democracy groups organized an enormous rally, which had hundreds of thousands of participants, and announced plans to “occupy Central with love and peace” (Central contains the financial district) on October 1st if the Hong Kong legislature passed an election law in which candidates could run only with Beijing’s approval.

This was followed by an anti-democracy rally, partly attended by people bused in from across the border, which is a rather surreal notion; it’s like people are saying “we want our voices heard about the fact that we do not want our voices heard.”

A few days in advance of October 1st, a group of university students, some of them associated with group scholarism started a sit-in at a government building. Scholarism made news three years ago, when it (successfully) fought the proposal to introduce a “patriotic education” curriculum in grade school.


People have been facing the police with umbrellas and goggles to protect themselves from pepper spray.


The plaza in front of the government building, where the sit-in started, has been cleared, but for the whole weekend both Central and the neighboring district of Admiralty have been filled by thousands of protesters, day and night.


There is a petition at whitehouse.gov that has already exceeded the threshold required to receive a response, but that people might want to sign on.

Considering how the Chinese government feels about students rallying for democracy, there is reason to be worried.


[photos taken from Facebook, credits unknown]

This week in history


The great earthquake of 1906 struck San Francisco on April 18, around 5 in the morning. While the earthquake already caused a lot of damage, it was the subsequent fire that ravaged the city: the earthquake had broken the water pipes, and so it was impossible to fight the fire because the hydrants were not working. Except for the hydrant at Church and 20th, which saved my house and a good part of the mission. The hydrant is painted golden, and once a year, on the anniversary of the earthquake, the fire department repaints it and leaves a token of appreciation. (They actually do it at 5 in the morning.)

By the way, there are two faults that can cause earthquakes in the San Francisco Bay Area. One is (our stretch of) the San Andreas fault, which runs close to the ocean, and which caused the 1906 quake and the 1989 one, and which may not be an imminent risk given the energy released in 1989. The other is the Hayward fault, which runs near Berkeley. The Hayward fault had big earthquakes in 1315, 1470, 1630, 1725, and 1868, that is about every 100-140 years, with the last one being 146 years ago…


25 years ago on April 15, Hu Yaobang died. The day before his funeral, about 100,000 people marched to Tiananmen square, an event that led to the occupation of the square, and which culminated in what in mainland China used to be referred to as the “June 4 events,” and now as the “I don’t know what you are talking about” events.

Also, something happened, according to tradition, 1981 years ago.

A Genius Writes on China and Colorado

Although I was disappointed that, this year, the MacArthur foundation did not recognize any theoretical computer scientist or pure mathematician, I was delighted that Peter Hessler is one of this year’s fellows.

Hessler used to be the New Yorker’s correspondent from China, and he wrote a number of extraordinary articles from there. His masterpiece is probably the one about getting a Chinese driver’s license, which became the starting point of a book. Last year, he moved back to America, to Colorado, and wrote a great article about moving (as unlikely as that sounds), and he has been reporting from Colorado since.

The basics of great non-fiction storytelling are having a good story and telling it well. Surely, Hessler can write, but what about the stories themselves? Living in a hutong, getting a driver’s license, traveling alone in the Chinese countryside, and so on, are all ways to make interesting things happen, but a story is more than a series of interesting things that happened. Indeed, interesting things happen to all of us all the time, but it takes a rare sensibility to recognize the meaningfulness of small details and seemingly mundane events, which is where Hessler excels (see his article in this week’s New Yorker’s about a pharmacist in Colorado).

Those who read in theory probably also read Claire Mathieu‘s blog. Claire has this ability to an uncanny degree. If she was not so brilliant and successful as a computer scientist, I would say that it’s a waste that she is not a writer. If you are not familiar with her blog, read this post about squeezing toothpaste, and you’ll see what I mean.

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Royal Society Report

A few days ago, the Royal Society released a report on “Global Scientific Collaboration in the 21st Century.” Usually, when a document has “in the 21st Century” in the title, it can only go downhill from there. (I once had to review a paper that started with “As we enter the second decade of the 21st Century…” and, hard as it is to believe, it did go further downhill from there.) But the Royal Society is one of the most hallowed of scientific institutions, so one might have still hoped for the best.

The report was widely quoted in the press as predicting that China would overtake the United States in scientific output by 2013.

Indeed, in Section 1.6 (pages 42-43), the report uses data provided by Elsevier to estimate the number of scientific papers produced in various countries. We’ll skip the objection that the number of papers is a worthless measure of scientific output and go to figure 1.6 in the report, reproduced below.

The figure plots the percentage of scientific papers coming out of various countries, and then proceeds to do a linear interpolation of the percentages to create a projection for the future.

While such an approach shows China overtaking the US in 2013, it also shows, more ominously, China publishing 110% of all scientific papers by 2100. (The report concedes that linear interpolation might not make a lot of sense, yet the picture is there.)

First Day of FOCS

FOCS 2010 is held at the Monte Carlo hotel in Las Vegas (yay randomized algorithms jokes!), which is next to the City Center, an unfortunately timed new development with a beautifully designed hotel, condos, and a shopping center with all the usual expensive firms (Hermes, Prada, LV, …) and some remarkable ones (Balenciaga!). The architecture is playful, modern and tasteful, the scale is rather grand, everything is very clean. I surprise myself thinking, this looks like Asia.

Talking about which, I finally found a place where coffee is more expensive than in Beijing: $3+ for an espresso at Starbucks.

Ketan Mulmuley did a great job with his tutorial. Even I, that knew nothing whatsoever about his program to proving circuit lower bounds via algebraic geometry and representation theory, got quite a bit out of it.

At night, I take a cab with another theoretician. “We are going to Double Down.” “You know” says the driver “you have to be careful around there.” “Careful? is it an unsafe area?” “No, no, it’s just that Double Down is the only bar in that area that…” The driver gives a good look at the two us in the rearview mirror and starts again: “… All the other bars in the area are for the ‘alternative lifestyle’…” He gives us another look. “Unless that’s what you are looking for… Which is cool… But then don’t go to Double Down, because it’s the only straight bar over there.” I want to explain to him that my friend is not gay, he is just Israeli, but we have arrived and we’ll have to have that conversation another time.

Auspicious flights

The number 8 is considered lucky in Chinese popular culture. The Beijing Olympics, for example, took place in August, which is not the best month to be here, so that the opening ceremony could start at 8:08pm on August 8, 2008.

United Airlines, which has a major hub in San Francisco, labeled its daily flight from Beijing to San Francisco the flight United 888. The flight from San Francisco to Beijing is United 889. Without looking (no cheating!) guess what is United flight 887?

Goings on in Beijing

Contrary to common belief, Beijing does have gorgeous days of clear and blue skies; the mountains in the above picture are probably 50 miles away or more, and rather clearly visible. This is, however, a couple of days after a sandstorm.

In this trip, it was decided that I needed a Tsinghua university id card and so one dusty morning I went off with a secretary to the university HR offices. After walking about a mile (the campus is rather big), we got to the oldest and prettiest part of campus, the one where one expects administrative buildings to be. We walk into an office, where the secretary has a short discussion with the person in charge. Then we move to the office next door, where an administrator prints some documents and stamps them with official red-ink stamps. We take the stamped documents, and go three doors down, where we drop off one of them. Finally, we go to another building, where the id-making guy sits.

(This sounds a bit convoluted, compared to the American approach of going directly to the id-making person and showing him/her a driver’s license, but it is positively streamlined compared to getting anything done at the University of Rome. Incidentally, at no point was I asked to prove my identity, which seems the one important step in the process.)

The id-making guy’s office has a stool facing a professional camera and lighting, the machine to produce the id, and… a desk full of glasses. I would guess the glasses are fake (that is, have no corrective lenses) and are meant as props for taking pictures, but I couldn’t understand how. Was the idea that someone who does not wear glasses would take his id picture with glasses? So that he doesn’t look too much like his id? Then why not have fake mustaches? Or maybe it’s for people who don’t like their own glasses? But it’s not like the ones on the desk were particularly fashionable.

I elect to take my picture with naked eyes, but a new problem develops. Like the superstitious sports fan who always watches games wearing the same clothes he wore the last time his team won a big game, I was wearing the same shirt I wore the last time I had a good picture taken of me, which is the one on my home page. (For context, previously I had on my home page a picture taken at my first communion party, which was the previous picture to come out good.) Apparently, however, that shirt is “white,” and this is no good because it would reflect too much light on my face.

So I take the picture with my overcoat on, covering the offending shirt. “Good,” I am told, after taking the picture, “your eyes are open.” Apparently the previous foreigner to have his picture taken had closed his eyes when the flash came on, on three consecutive attempts. The bar for acceptable foreigner’s pictures having been so lowered by my colleague, the id is printed, and the secretary keeps it “for safety.”

On my last night in Beijing I experienced firsthand a startling Chinese driving convention. As we are stuck in traffic in a taxi, another car rear-ends us quite hard. The driver gets out, the occupants of the other car get out, and haggling begins. In this kind of situation, that is, the offending party pays some money, negotiated on the spot, to the offended party, so that everybody can drive off quicker, and not bother the police and the insurance company. The other people start at $3, and after much haggling, with the meter running, they settle for $7. You have to love a country where you can bump into another car and drive away like that. After we get to our destination, we haggle ourselves for the part of the fee wasted in waiting. We get $.50 off.