Beijing Welcomes You — on YouTube

During the summer Olympics I got hooked on the song Beijing Welcomes You. See one of several YouTube versions: YouTube - 2008 Beijing Olympics, Beijing Welcomes You [High Quality MV English Sub Pinyin Sub:

I've been in playing it often, trying to learn the lyrics, even though my Mandarin is extremely basic. Tears off until my sentimental eyes when I listen to the song; I find it hard to believe how it taps into some deep, not fully understood, ties I have to China, even as a Chinese-Canadian living in the USA.

Some other references to the song on the web are:

Moving Experiences

In August, Laura and I packed up our apartment in Albany, CA and shipped most of our stuff to our new house in Pittsburgh, PA while moving a few of our items to a little studio apartment we're keeping in Albany. It was a rather big project that left us quite exhausted; two months later, we're still dealing with the aftermath of our move.

During our move we may do so quite a few services, which were on the whole quite helpful. Here I want to share some of my experiences with those companies, both the upside and downsides.

DAS Auto Shippers

DAS Auto Shippers and our carWe had our car shipped across the country by Dependable Auto Shippers, one of the largest auto shippers in the country. I was a bit concerned about its reputation after reading some online reviews,with their typical horror stories. However I decide to go with DAS after someone I know reported having had good experiences (and timely delivery) with DAS. I found the first agent I talked with on the phone to be extremely friendly and reassuring. The guy who picked up our car was pleasant and knowledgeable.

The problems came down the road when after 10 days our car still hadn't left the Bay Area. DAS had given us its standard estimate of 14 days to ship a car. Laura and I needed to have our car on August 25 for a road trip. I thought that I would be playing it safe by planning to have the car delivered by August 22. Allowing for 14 days and another two days for padding meant having my car shipped on August 6. Our car wasn't delivered until August 25 -- 19 days after it was picked up! Even that late delivery required several phone calls and a bit of pleading on my part to get any action at all. (BTW, the agent who convinced me to go with DAS was nowhere to be found after DAS had gotten my money.)

The bottom line: our car got here okay, but if I were ever to ship a car again, I'd like to find a more reliable service.

City CarShare

IMG_1164Once our car was shipped off on Aug 6, we still needed to have the use of the vehicle during most of the last two weeks of our move. We thought about renting a car for that whole time, but decided instead to try City CarShare, which allows you to rent cars on hourly or daily basis. We picked City CarShare over its rival ZipCar because City CarShare has a pod at the El Cerrito Plaza BART station, an easy walking distance from our apartment.

We were really pleased with City CarShare. Driving a Prius, the model available at the local pod, was fun. For a couple days we rented a Toyota truck, which turned out to be indispensable for our move. The last night, we got to the airport by driving the Prius back to the pod and hopping on BART to go to SFO.

The only complaint I had was being locked out of my car once in Berkeley because the car was (for some unexplained reason)out of radio contact with City CarShare headquarters. It's a bit disconcerting to think that you can be stranded one-day while far away from any other means of transportation. But I don't expect it to be a regular occurrence

One Big Man And One Big Truck

One of the challenges that we face as we were running out of time the last week of our move was moving furniture out of our apartment and to our studio. We turned to One Big Man And One Big Truck, a local company that I had used in 2005. One thing I find attractive about One Big Man is that you pay by a 15 minute increments. The movers were friendly and reasonably efficient. They were real troopers in its extracting and moving a large IKEA cabinet out of our apartment, which unfortunately, we couldn't give away.


EcoHaul and our IKEA cabinet
We surprised ourselves by underestimating how much junk we would be left with even after packing everything up that we want to save. We had envisioned that we would make a lot of trips to GoodWill and places like Urban Ore (which thankfully did take a recliner and a large file cabinet from us).

EcoHaul came to our rescue. Without EcoHaul there was no way that we could have emptied out our apartment in time, let alone dispose of the giant IKEA cabinet. I'm hoping that EcoHaul did manage to find a home for the cabinet, rather than having to dump it into a landfill.

Learning about Opera By Books and Bits

Last week I picked up a book from the Squirrel Hill branch of the Pittsburgh Public Library -- Sir Denis Forman's A Night at the Opera. I had been looking for exactly this type of book because I've long wanted to immerse myself in the study of opera -- both Western and Chinese. Forman's book is primarily composed of chapters devoted to individual operas. Chapters have plot summaries, musical highlights, and overall critical appreciations/evaluations of specific operas.

I've long wanted to broaden my knowledge of opera. It's certainly not a bad thing for me to reacquaint myself with the operas I've already listened to dozens of times. (Some great opera are boundlessly rich.) Operas with which I already have some level of familiarity include:

  • Mozart's Don Giovanni, Marriage of Figaro, Magic Flute, and Così fan tutte
  • Puccini's La bohème
  • bits and pieces from Wagner's Ring Cycle (primarily Das Rheingold, the first of four operas in the cycle)
  • Olivier Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise.

But I want to grow beyond listening over and over again to the same operas. There must be many new friends to be found -- Forman's book lists a good set to try out. But which ones to start with? It might be a caricature to say that the big three composers and Western opera are Mozart, Wagner, and Verdi. I've long wanted to learn more about Giuseppe Verdi. so I would pick one of his operas but which one?

When I saw that Verdi's La Traviata is being performed in San Francisco next year, I decided to start with that opera. The opportunity to see a live performance of an opera under study is too much to pass p on.. So La Traviata it would be to start. (Moreover, Forman gives a rave review for La Traviata -- ( grading it as an "alpha plus") -- so this opera seems to be as good a place to start as any other Verdi opera. It turns that La Traviata is been extremely popular opera in general (it's #3 on a list of the 20 most performed operas in North America). Moreover, the Met is also performing it this season.

Rhapsody for online listening

As much as I would love to spend my time (and money) attending live opera, most of my exposure to opera will be through recordings. I was a big fan and subscriber of Yahoo! Music Unlimited when it was still in operation. I am even happier with Rhapsody (which took over my subscription), primarily because it gives me access to a substantial online classical music collection. (Classical music was not represented at all in Yahoo! Music.)

(By the way, there is also an API for Rhapsody. It be interesting to quickly brainstorm what I would use it for. (One idea comes to mind: writing a mashup that lets me quickly correlate albums that correspond to a given work -- for example, something that shows me a list of all the recordings of La Bohème))

I've been listening to music primarily through Rhapsody's desktop client (for Windows XP) although the web interface is intriguing for not only providing cross-platform access to my account but also the possibility of generating URLs to correspond to the given work or album or even track. (Unfortunately, the search results from the web interface cannot seem to be as good as those that come from the desktop interface. For instance, I had a hard time locating many recordings of Così fan tutte using the web interface. I wonder how well the API works for searching for albums.)

Wikipedia as a source of information about opera

The Wikipedia turns out to be an incredible source of basic taxonomic information about operas is in general. There is, of course, the article about the opera itself ( La traviata - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) as well as the composer (Giuseppe Verdi - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). There are all sorts of efforts to list and categorize operas and their composers:

In addition, there's an effort to identify important operas and major composers. There are categories lists which are computed:

Show me that you are up for being president

Over the last couple weeks, it has become my morning routine to watch the Daily Show and the Colbert Show while eating breakfast and drinking tea. I not only get a lot of laughs out of these shows but learn a lot about having a proper perspective on the issues. Not so much who is right and wrong necessarily but whether the stuff the country is talking about is really that important in the first place.  While chuckling at skillful deconstruction of last week's vice presidential debate by Stewart and Colbert, I had the sinking feeling that the one of the fools in the whole equation was myself for having spent much time at all worrying about whether Palin or Biden would end up making the first gaffes -- instead of devoting my time to educating myself and others about the truly important issues.

So tonight, I plan to tune in to overnight on how Obama and McCain will take up the issues rather than engage in further character assassination. I suspect that we won't be here to totally avoid negative campaigning tonight, given how the McCain campaign has already promised to focus on questioning Obama's character and Obama's determined response to not become swiftboated (à la Kerry). however one can still hope that the two candidates will actually have serious answers to serious questions.

Of course this realization will stop me from watching Comedy Central – the shows are entertainment after all!

I was right, more or less

I went out on a limb (sort of) and made some predictions about yesterday's vice presidential debate. This morning, I am now prepared to claim that I was basically right about my predictions: that Joe Biden won't say anything really silly, that Sarah Palin would do well in the debate (by not making any big gaffes), and that overall the debate won't shift things too much for the two tickets. It might be too early to declare victory but I can say that James Fallows would (more or less) agree with me: James Fallows (October 02, 2008) - Your VP debate wrapup in four bullet points (Politics)

Learning as an amateur pundit

Although I always suspected that I was a political junkie, I only had unmistakable confirmation of my obsession these last couple weeks. Laura knows how much like to talk about politics. One of the fascinating aspects about political culture is that everyone seems to have an opinion, whether it is well-founded or not. I also have opinions, some of which are based on deep thinking and care for the reality of the world -- and others that are probably just unexamined prejudices. I do tend to be reticent about expressing my opinions about things that I've not through very carefully. Overall, I'm pleased with my disposition towards careful, thoughtful expression.

The downside though is that you can learn a lot by actually just saying what you believe, without worrying primarily about whether you have all the facts and reasoning straighten out. I find it difficult to say what I feel in my gut to be true if I haven't had a chance to carefully think everything through. The problem is that some matters are so complicated that it's difficult, if not impossible, to reason everything through Before saying anything at all. The end result would be confused silence.

The upshot of this musing: make a prediction on something relatively minor and then to see how my prediction bears out. OK -- I'm pretty keen to watch tonight's vice presidential debate, wondering how it will affect public perception of Obama/Biden vs. McCain/Palin. Let me guess what will happen:

  • I don't believe that Sarah Palin is adequately prepared for the job of vice-president, as evidenced by her weak answers during her interview with Katie Couric. However, I think she'll do quite well in tonight's debate. She'll be able to come across as very personable in her prepared remarks, and I think she'll be successful in staying vague in areas she doesn't know much about. I expect her to be well prepared. I think that Joe Biden, in trying to exercise restraint in not indulging his trademark loquacious, won't be able to put Palin in a bad light. I also don't think the moderators of the debate will be too effective in highlighting Palin's shortcomings.
  • I don't expect Joe Biden to say anything really silly. In fact, I'm concerned that item will be to restrained because he might get dinged for appearing to be overbearing (too knowledgeable???)
  • It's too bad that we are wondering about matters (such as whether Biden or Palin will slip up), stuff that really shouldn't be the focus of our attention. I don't know much about Joe Biden, but was deeply impressed with him when I heard him on Sept 11, 2001, urging the country to remain calm and exercise restraint.
  • Overall I don't think this debate will shift things too much in terms of the public perception of the two tickets, though some think it might.

This is what I think will happen, though I'm far from confident that I'll be correct. I may have to eat my words! I'm struck by how much my expectations for this debate -- and my whole framing -- have been strongly influenced by media coverage and analysis. The interesting thing for me will be to compare the predictions with what actually happens and analyze where and how I predicted correctly and where I didn't. (The outcome of tonight's debate isn't necessarily the most important thing for me to be pondering today but it was the first thing I reached for as the subject of my amateur punditry.) I hope that this process of making predictions and seeing how I do will help me become a more insightful -- and humble -- analyst of the world.

P.S. I'll have to compare my views with something like Cue The Comeback:

    So, my advice to Governor Palin is to stop letting your fussy handlers freak you out. You're going to do just fine. You won't be on that stage alone. Biden is bound to open himself up for at least a couple of good scoldings. The media is poised to write your comeback story. Your base is going to love you no matter what. And if things do happen to go badly, you can always claim that Ifill wanted to take you out as a way to sell more books. All things considered, there's really no way you can lose. Unless this Ifill book dust-up compels the debate commission to replace her with Katie Couric tomorrow night. Then you're pretty much screwed.

Summarizing where the presidential candidates stand on the issues

Although I am an Obama supporter and have some sense of where he and his opponents stand on various issues, I haven't worked to make my understanding systematic. In addition to reading widely and compiling my findings, I figure that I could get a jumpstart by first studying the Wikipedia article Comparison of United States presidential candidates, 2008. One thing that you immediately learn at a glance from the article is that there are people other than McCain and Obama running for President. I like most people tend to ignore those minor candidates because they have very little practical chance of winning. However, their advocacy for other positions serve to critique and illuminate the mainline candidates' positions. It's all too easy to confine ourselves unnecessarily to the relatively narrow spectrum of thinking represented by Democrats and Republicans.