Jackson He

Pandemic in My Neighborhood

Here is a new type of chart I made that demonstrate the severity of Covid-19 pandemic in my backyard. The chart is very information-dense, and I have no name for it.

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The data are all from March 18-28, for a total of 11 days.

The 4 data series all started from the origin on the lower-left corner, at the beginning of the pandemic. As the days go by, the lines push to the upper-right direction, because both the case and death numbers are cumulative–the best they can do is to stop moving, at the end of the pandemic. In the exponential growth period, the distance between neighboring points expand as the lines move to the right. The angle of each point from the horizontal axis is the death-to-case ratio.

What can we see from this chart?

  • New York City has about 10 times the cases and deaths, compared to the nation. It is the indisputable epicenter of the US epidemic.
  • Our county, Suffolk, has about the same cases per-capita as the state, but both are much higher than that of the US average.
  • Our county has a bit lower death rate (per case). There could be multiple explanations. Maybe we are testing more thoroughly. Or maybe while the death count is low, statistical variance is high.
  • In contrast, NYC has the worst death rate, but it was better only a few days ago. It may be an indication that the hospitals are overwhelmed, which is very disheartening.
  • The case numbers are doubling roughly every 3.5 days for NYS, NYC and Suffolk county.

One Day in Tokyo Narita

On the afternoon of October 25, my sister Eva and I flew to Tokyo Narita from Sapporo, basically on time. Right about the time when we were supposed to land, the head flight attendant announced that due to weather our landing would delayed. With her English not easy to understand, we thought she said the delay was for five minutes, which did not make sense — a short delay like that would not be announced.

We ended up circling over Tokyo for about an hour, in a gray soup of clouds. I joked that we were flying in miso soup. Eva said it’s whiter than miso, and more like tofu. We were in good spirits, because it wasn’t turbulent, and we were not in a hurry. My connection was in about 4 hours, and hers in 10, although her flight was from Haneda Airport, which is much closer to Tokyo.

Our plane was greeted by a covered stair truck and a bus on the tarmac. It’s raining lightly. The bus took a long time to get us to terminal 1, and my connection was from terminal 2. Eva needed to go to Haneda Airport, but all trains and buses out of Narita were suspended then. We said goodbye at the airport bus connecting to terminal 2. 

With mobile boarding pass in hand, I rushed to the security checkpoint at Terminal 2, and was promptly stopped. They couldn’t let me through, because Japan Airlines had not started checking-in that flight yet — my American Airlines flight was operated by Japan Airlines. I asked when I would be able to go through security, and was told that it’s for Japan Airlines to decide.

I went to talk to people working for Japan Airlines. Eventually I found a sympathetic woman, who thought I should be able to go through security — I had no luggage to check, and I already had my boarding pass. I asked her to talk to the security line person for me, and she did, but it wasn’t successful. It’s just like in the movie “Lost in Translation”, where a negative answer was given in a speech spanning several minutes.

One train out of Narita resumed operations, and Eva asked me, via phone messaging, whether she should take it. I told her “definitely”. Her staying in Narita couldn’t help me. The train was a slow one, she found out eventually, but she had time enough.

Meanwhile, I had no choice but to wait. The airport started to collect more and more people, as more flights were put in a state of limbo — they were neither cancelled nor delayed, only their check-ins were “temporarily closed”. JAL is the flag carrier of Japan, and their flights dominated the terminal 2 display board, by far. Upon close inspection, all of the flights with such a remark were JAL flights. JAL kiosks were all taped over with a piece of paper, indicating that they were closed. The check-in counters were similarly closed and unstaffed.

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I got a late lunch at 3:30, not knowing that that would be my last meal in some 16 hours. More wait. I join a crowd sitting on the floor of the check-in hall, looking up at the display board. There were maybe a couple dozen seats in the hall, but hundreds of people were milling around waiting for their flights. As any well designed check-in hall, there were no outlets for people to charge their phones. One had to get through security to find outlets, but they couldn’t do that.

A sliver of hope went through my mind when JAL started to manually check-in some flights, first one to San Diego, then one to Vancouver. The announcement was made through the airport’s PA system, but not shown on the display boards. In addition, several people in JAL uniforms, mostly female, were walking the check-in hall with tablets showing the flight numbers and destinations of the flights being checked in.

At 7:40 pm, more than one hour after the scheduled departure of my flight, the display board came alive. All of the “check-in temporarily closed” status lines got wiped at once. My flight was cancelled. Most others got some other status first, before getting cancelled. 

I called our company’s travel agency. The travel agency’s phone system told me first that I should consider booking online to save the company money, then that it was not yet the travel agency’s regular business hours, both of which were pathetically long speeches that I wanted to short-circuit but couldn’t; and then I had to listen to some more speech in order to make some choices by pressing a few buttons. After some wait, I got connected with a real person! Hooray!

I answered all the questions she posed to me, my name, my company, my birth date (yes, that too! Just in case someone was trying to impersonate me to get out of Japan, I guess), my company email (“no, not that, maybe there is another form of the company email?”), and which flight I was to take. And then, boom! She couldn’t see that my flight was cancelled. I told her it was. By this time my flight disappeared from the display boards, inexplicably. She insisted on me getting some verification.

I line up at the JAL counter. I was the third or fourth in line, but the line was not moving. Eventually I was able to grab the attention of a JAL person outside of the counters, and had her confirm that my flight was cancelled. And the travel agent on the phone went to look for replacement tickets. Meanwhile, I stay in the line at JAL counter. 

While I was on the phone, the physical line I was in was barely moving. The agents at the counters had to call someone and talk a lot, before anything could be done. And, incredibly, the man in the line immediately in front of me was there to get his boarding pass issued, because he did not know how to check in on his phone — he behaved as if he’s never heard of such a thing before. During the more than half an hour in line, he tried unsuccessfully to look into the phone check-in process.

Eventually the findings of our remote travel agent were that many of the seemingly available tickets were not really available, because the underlying carrier of them all was JAL, which wasn’t reporting the correct flight statuses online yet. On other airlines a business class ticket, with a connection, would cost me, or my company, an extra $16,000+, and they wanted me to say it was OK. I wasn’t sure it was OK. An economy class ticket would be some half of that, which was too dear also. I said no.

Finally I was served at the JAL counter. The agent found my reservation, made several calls (most were not connected successfully), and after a long time, came back to tell me that since my tickets were bought with American Airlines (AA) flight number, I had to go to them to resolve it.

After some wandering around the terminal, I found that there were American counters, but they were closed. There were a couple of men there, apparently not on behalf of AA. I talked to one of them, and was reassured that the counters were closed for the day.

I found AA’s phone number online and called them. They were extra busy, the automated system said, due to some weather conditions (probably in the US). I was given the option of either holding the line or having them call me back. I chose the former, and was dropped soon after that. 

My new phone was dropping calls from time to time, for different reasons. Once my call was dropped and I was not allowed to dial again, because my phone was “not registered”, meaning international roaming was not activated. And at other times calls were dropped when I was working with the phone, such as trying to turn on the screen to search for my prior reservation info, or to turn off the screen to save battery. A day later I started to suspect that maybe the power button was programmed to hang up the phone. And some 5 days later I found a way to turn that off. 

In any case, I called back and agreed to have the AA system call me back. The system told me it would be 48 to 57 minutes, or something like that. When AA system did eventually call me back, I was on the phone talking to our travel agency. I tried to switch to the incoming call, but resulted in dropping the travel agent without picking up the AA call. And they never called back.

During all this time a couple of things helped me a lot. One is a power-bank my son gave me. It didn’t have enough power to charge my phone completely, but it did charge it from almost empty to half way, while keeping it running for an hour non-stop. The other is a wired headpiece. In the noisy airport, with people yapping around me and the PA system going on from time to time, it gave me a much clearer and consistent sound, while also made using the phone as a note taker a lot easier.

With one phone call after another, it finally was nearly 10 pm, or 9 am US Eastern time. By this time our normal travel agents were on duty, and the effect was vastly positive. For one thing, they knew our system, and asked for my Core-ID, instead of my birth date etc. For another, they volunteered to call AA for me. And thirdly, they worked as a team. When my call was dropped and I called back, I didn’t have to start from scratch. They would know who I was and what the previous agents had done for me. This was such a time saver.

After a long time, an agent found a ticket for me. Because this was through AA, I didn’t have to pay for a new ticket. I gave them my OK to issue the ticket. After some more long wait, it was done. I’d leave the next day, at 1 pm, to fly home via London, on a British Airways flight. I was elated. By now it was about 10:45 pm. I asked if they could book me a hotel. The agent told me that the nearest she could find was one near Tokyo Disney. I asked her to book it for me. She apologized to me for not having something nearer. I assured her that I was grateful that she could find anything at all, considering the number of people stranded here.

By this time all the shops have closed in the airport already, and the security checkpoint was closing as well. When the “doors” of the security checkpoint came down, they formed a solid looking wall, blending nicely with the walls of the check-in hall, and giving people who had the (mis-)fortune to watch it happen such a hopeless feeling. There was no way out of Japan through Narita anymore for the night.

It was drizzling outside, and not cold. A long line was formed at the taxi stand, more than 100 meters (or yards) long. The line moved forward from time to time, not due to people being picked up by taxis, but due to attrition. I waited for about thirty minutes, during which time only one taxi showed up. There were a few other taxis, but they were in the private cars lane, apparently to pick up particular people they were in contact with. I searched Uber and Lyft. Uber suggested Uber Black, a special service that I had never heard before, that would cost me $800 to $1000 US to get to my hotel 59 km away (less than 40 miles). I could have paid for it out of my own pocket, but I decided against it. This was highway robbery to me!

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People sleeping on the floor of Narita Airport, Oct. 25, 2019

I went inside the terminal, and saw that majority of the people there had gotten sleeping bags. I inquired about it, found the place where sleeping bags were distributed — no more sleeping bags were being given out, and nobody was apparently working on it any more.

For a place to crash, I found an unmarked hallway behind the shops, leading to a pair of restrooms. There were other people there too, but there was enough room left for me. Chatter from people gradually died down as the night deepened. The only loud noise was a PA going about every 10 minutes, saying in 3 languages (Japanese, English, Chinese) that all transportation out of Narita had ceased, and ending with a “thank you” for no apparent reason. There being a pair of restrooms, every time someone moved, or maybe the light flickered, a small loudspeaker on the wall would announce, in Japanese and English, “This is the toilet. Follow along the wall to the right for the men’s toilet. Follow along the wall to the left for the women’s toilet.” But fortunately I was able to get some water to drink from the restrooms sink — not easily, as when I withdrew my hands to stick my water bottle under the faucet the water shut off very quickly. 

After about half an hour, the PA content changed. They got more sleeping bags, and they had some crackers and water to give out. I went and got myself a sleeping bag, a packet of “Disaster Preparedness Cracker”, and a bottle of drinking water. The cracker was too sweet for me, but I kept it for memory’s sake.

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“Disaster Preparedness Cracker”

I was able to sleep on the floor of Narita airport, for about 3-4 hours.


I believed then, and I still do now, that JAL computer system broke down on the afternoon of October 25. But they blamed it on the heavy rain, which doubtlessly relieved them from a huge financial liability. Here I list the indications to show otherwise.

  1. All of their counters and kiosks were closed. At the same time, other airlines were mostly operating. Was the rain particularly heavy on JAL?
  2. All their flight check-ins were shown to be “temporarily closed” on the airport’s display boards. And no other airlines displayed this message.
  3. No delays or cancellations were shown. Even for those flights whose scheduled time had passed.
  4. Eventually they started processing some flights, but only one by one, such as flights to San Diego and Vancouver. They never displayed these on the display board. Instead, they had people walking around the airport with tablets displaying these flights. And they put the message through the PA system. This clearly showed these procedures were processed by hand.
  5. When the system came back alive, it was a complete revival. All flights with the “check-in temporarily closed” status were changed to something else at the same time.

It’s Complicated

In 2015, Prof. Kishore Mahbubani of the National University of Singapore gave a very provocative speech at the Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.

The view points expressed in this speech are very different from those we hear in the press, from politicians or pundits in the United States. They are different from expressed opinions in the US from the left or the right. They are different from expressed opinions in the US from the intelligentsia or from the general populace. The speech is a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, it did not stir up a thing in the still air that is the political discourse of the United States.

In this speech, he discussed three issues:

  1. What are China’s goals and aspirations as it tries to emerge and rise?
  2. How does the relationship between the US and China influence the rise of China?
  3. How China behaves as #1 will be strongly influenced by how America behaves as #1.

I’m afraid I can’t quite take the first question very seriously. After all, how can a country have goals and aspirations? If by that he meant those of its leaders, wouldn’t that suffer changes when its leadership changes? To wit, see how the US positions on everything changed when president Trump came to office, or every once in a while while he is in  office.

So I’d remove that point, and add one from the Q&A section, to make up another three. And let me skip the questions and jump to the conclusions:

  1. The rise of China from number two economy to number one economy is a probable event in the foreseeable future.
  2. It is in the best interests of the United States and rest of the world to maintain and enhance the international institutions.
  3. China has no intention of exporting its own ideology or government system.
If China’s growth didn’t slow down around 2014, it would have become #1 economy by now. On the other hand, India is not catching up any time soon.

OK. This issue #3 is very much in the same vein as the original #1. It talks about intention. Which is illusive. But beyond making up a triple, I also happen to have a couple of points to make. But let me discuss these items in turn.

First, how probable is the rise of China to #1 in the world, and in what time frame? According to Prof. Mahbubani, it should happen just about now (since his talk was given about 5 years ago), or maybe 5 years from now. But taking the World Bank’s numbers, and project forward rather pessimistically, we get that China’s economy should surpass that of the US by 2040, if China’s grows at a compound annual rate of 4%, and that of the US grows at 2%. This projected date changes to 2033 if the two rates are changed to 6% and 3% respectively.

But that’s just numerical projection. Chinese official policy has vacillated between promoting or suppressing private enterprises. What does that matter? To me, a private enterprise, especially one with competition, has to chase profit. Therefore, its investments are in areas it anticipates to have real demand. Unless there is fraud. One former CEO of my company (in its former self) is still being wanted for committing fraud. The fraud he’s accused of is to sell products to nobody, in order to create the illusion of profits, especially predictable profit growth. On the other hand, a government-owned enterprise can exist without a profit motive. And it can fraud at a bigger scale. And can do it with impunity. That’s why the GDP figures from China are somewhat fluffy. And the marginal rate of return for new investments is quite low. I’m not saying that I can give a projection of China’s GDP, or its growth. I can’t.

On the second point (according to my summary), I can readily agree with Prof. Mahbubani. In international affairs the US has been behaving quite irrationally, and sometimes capriciously, and it’s not good for the US or the world at large. I actually think that there is a grave mistake in the way the country’s government is setup. While there is plenty of check-and-balance in the arena of domestic policy, there is none, legally, in international policy.

On the third point, there is actually historical evidence pointing to China actively export its ideology to other countries, particularly southeast Asia and Latin America. This was mostly before the Cultural Revolution. Hopefully it has changed.

But the biggest problem I have with Prof. Mahbubani’s speech is his benevolent assumption that all economical growths and forms are good. History is not as kind. For example, German GDP grew significantly under Hitler. You may point out, and rightfully so, that he was the appointed leader in a democracy, and it I’d agree. But he did dismantle the democratic institutions and became a dictator. Now I’m not saying that the current condition in China is comparable to that of Germany before and during WWII. But someone in China is seemingly afraid of such a comparison. The example I have is that when I wrote a blog entry entitled Auschwitz, it cannot be transmitted via the Chinese social media app WeChat, unless I avoid using that word in the title. The content of the blog entry had nothing to do with current politics, or China. But the word in the title is too sensitive.

So what am I saying about Prof. Mahbubani’s speech? I like it being different from everything one regularly hears in the US media. I agree with some of his observations, especially about the US government’s hypocrisies. But I do not agree with some of his assumptions, or conclusions. It’s complicated.

A Chance Encounter

Yesterday my dissertation adviser came over to visit with me, with his 10 years old grandson in tow. We had lunch at a restaurant across from the Stony Brook Railroad Station. While we were eating, in came a black woman who sat at the next table. She asked whether I could order lunch for her. I told her that the servers could speak English. She said no, she wanted me to buy her lunch. Okay, I said, finally understanding her meaning.

When I first came over to the United States, an American roommate told me that I should not give cash to beggars, but I’d much better give food. For with money, they could potentially buy drugs, and that would not be what I wished for. But food could not be changed for anything illicit. In this case, for me to buy her lunch, I thought, would be quite reasonable. Only that I’ve never seen, nor heard of something like this.

So there we were, the three of us, eating and chatting, while she ate by herself at a nearby table. When she was done, she stood up, gave me a deep bow, said pleasantry loudly to everybody in the restaurant, and proceeded to leave. The server chased after her to hand her the check, and both she and I gestured for the server to hand the check to me. The check was for $13.52. In this restaurant many dishes were more than that, some quite a bit more! In other words, she was very disciplined when ordering food. I was quite touched!

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At a park nearby, where we went after lunch 🙂

Auschwitz

It was not easy to go to Auschwitz, emotionally. We knew of holocaust, knew of the scale of the killing, and the method, and even of the entrance gate marked with the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free). But to brave it all, and to be reminded of the depth of human bestiality where it happened, was an emotional journey of a completely different level.

Coming to pick us up from a hostel near where we lived was Conrad, a friendly young man with a Western History degree, and a superb command of English. He drove a small van that can sit about eight passengers, and we made two more stops in Krakow to pick up others. It turned out that Conrad was going to be our guide for the day as well.

DSCF5542When we arrived at Auschwitz, we met the other people of our guided tour. They came from the UK, probably as a part of a multi-day tour—in contrast, the few of us who came with Conrad only booked this day-trip from Krakow. Now we had a group of about 30 in total. Fortunately for the Auschwitz I part, which is run as a museum, we each got a radio receiver which could be dialed into Conrad’s channel, and as such we could hear him clearly without having to be close to him, or for him to raise his voice in order to be heard. This is a good thing. His voice was subdued, due to the solemn nature of the topic, and the place, even with hundreds of people, was quite silent. This is where tens of thousands of people died.

We saw stats. We saw pictures, of the camp, the people, and the running of the camp. We saw where people were housed (crammed), treated medically (not for cure but for medical experiments), and imprisoned (this even inside a concentration camp!), and killed, either in small groups in front of an execution wall, or en masse in a gas chamber. We saw piles and piles of shoes, glasses, and suitcases left by the killed, but the most heart-wrenching sight was the pile of human hair. When the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, they found seven tons of human hair. Apparently they were shaved from people who had just been gassed to death, for the purpose of making some kind of cloth. It’s such a despicable act, people don’t even kill the sheep in order to harvest their wool! Then I realized that I was totally wrong. Nazis didn’t kill for financial gain; that was only a byproduct. Killing was the goal. It was the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question”.

DSCF5550The museum tour at Auschwitz took about an hour and a half. After a quick break, we rode the vans to Auschwitz II/Birkenau. We could use the time to grab a bite, but Conrad apparently didn’t eat anything, and I decided to abstain as well.

The Auschwitz II/Birkenau concentration camp is massive. And in this part of the tour we didn’t have radio communications any more. Unfortunately the place was huge, and we were often stragglers of the group, due to my wife’s health condition, and struggled much to try to catch up with the group.

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A “shooting wall” in Auschwitz I, where many people were executed in small groups. On the right side of this wall is Block 11, the prison inside the camp. There, Franciscan friar Father Maximilian Kolbe volunteered his life in place of another man, and was given a deadly injection after the punishment of hunger and thirst for two weeks. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II.

Auschwitz II/Birkenau is a purposefully designed place to kill people in larger quantities and efficiently. People freshly off the trains were sorted by the SS, where children, women, the old, and the sick, were marched to the gas chambers at the end of the rail line, and gassed in large gas chambers, up to 15,000 a day. It’s truly unfathomable that people can repeatedly commit mass murders, using a cheap and streamlined method, day in and day out. And they did this mostly not for what the victims had done, but for what they were. Jews. Gypsies. Homosexuals. Jehovah’s witnesses.

How can some human beings be so evil? How can we tell that some living among us are not just like them, waiting for the right moment to jump out and do the evil deeds? How can we be sure that enough people have learned this lesson, and will come forward to stop the next Hitler? It’s scary to reflect that we do not have clear answers to any of these questions.

Coming to Auschwitz and reflecting upon these questions made me more humble. Humans can be noble, yet when they are villainous, they can be worse than any other animal!

Birgit

With the meeting yesterday ended early, I was looking for something to kill time. Hopefully something local, and outdoors. I asked my friends from China whether I could give them a ride back to their hotel, as they didn’t have a car. No, that was not necessary. Their landlady was on her way to the meeting place to pick them up already. Then I had the idea to ask her. She’s perfectly local, and, from the brief encounter with her the night before, when she came to the restaurant to pick my friends up, I knew that she spoke English quite well.

Birgit wasn’t really their landlady, as I later found out. The farm/hotel/restaurant, established by her great grandfather, passed on to her brother some fifteen years ago, but she did help out when she could, even though officially she’s not really associated with it. And it was she who answered the phone call from China, when my friends called to ask whether they could rent bikes to ride to meeting. The roads, she told them, were not convenient for bike riding, but she could drive them to the meeting place in the morning, and pick them up in the afternoon, for both days, for free. She could even go pick them up from the local train station. So they took her up on her offer.

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A watch tower at Franken Berg, seen from the main tower.

When I finally maneuvered my car out of the patch of mud holes on the side of a small road acting as an unofficial overflow parking lot, Birgit and my friends were standing in the middle of the road waiting for me. It turned out she was thinking of showing them the Frankenstein castle, and she offered the extra seat in her car to me. I gladly accepted. Reputed as the castle that inspired the Frankenstein story, I was intrigued.

The castle, named Franken Berg, is very close to where we were. Unlike the Heidelberg castle, this one was built as a military outpost, not a noble residence, she told me. The German words for the two concepts are different, though both became “castle” when translated into English. In German, the former is a Berg, while the later a Schloss. The Franken Berg was built in 1200s or 1300s, she conjectured, and was damaged during WWII. Owned by a private party, there is no entrance fee, except during Halloween time, when they put up a good scare. Family-friendly events are held in the day, when mildly scary scenes are put up for the entertainment of the kids, but the more scary stuff are reserved for the adults, in the night. Ghosts may come out of nowhere to grab you, and once in a while a lucky guest is put in a casket, and people would cheer and celebrate when the lid is closed.

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As the Berg is by definition not that extensive, we covered it rather quickly, and had time to spare. Birgit suggested that we go visit a rock formation near her place. For that I’d better drive, following her car. So that’s what I did. We drove on roads that were one lane wide, but shared with vehicles coming the other way, some of them big bad farming equipment with menacing sharp appendages hung about them. The only sensible thing to do, when one of those came our way, was to quickly spot a place where the shoulder of the road looked more friendly, get our cars over as quickly as possible, and wait patiently for it to slowly move over. In the small towns we passed by the situation was hardly any better, where the roads, often designed just barely wide enough for bi-directional traffic, were commonly sprinkled with cars parked on the sides, with one set of their wheels on the sidewalk.

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Birgit’s family farm is rather expansive. Its sheep barn is large enough to contain quite comfortably the little hotel I was staying at. There were dozens of sheep and almost as many lambs, mostly a few weeks old, but with one of them with its umbilical cord still hanging under her. All of the sheep were ear-tagged, including the baby lambs, who wore baby-sized tags, red for the girls, and blue for the boys. The lambs would be raised on the farm, until they were large enough to be served as dinner, she said.

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The stone formation in Felsenmeer is right behind the farm, on the other side of the hill. She used to walk up this hill nearly daily, when she was young, but this time she drove us up. Legend has it that two giants held grudges, and hurled these boulders, against each other, and one could still hear them brawl if one listened carefully. Felsenmeer stones were discovered and made use of during Roman times. On one piece of stone we could see tool marks, while another piece was an already-finished column, abandoned for some reason. The stone column was meant for Trier, only some three hour’s drive away, plus a few months in ancient times. Many years ago we visited Trier, I told Birgit, and saw quite a few Roman ruins, including the Roman Bridge, and Porta Negra.

We came down the hill on the same steep winding road that we went up, that was one lane wide but allowed two-way traffic, and that was a private road such that you drive on it at your own risk with the government having no part of it, and sat for dinner in their restaurant. At first we sat outside, in what they called the beer-garden. But the temperature was going down fast, and not far from us a big truck came by to spread manure. It dawned on us that the inside was much more attractive.

Birgit couldn’t find a menu in English, and felt obligated to translate the whole menu for us. Poor thing! This menu was ten times more extensive than the one in the hotel I stayed with. I tried to follow her translation to see if I could save a few key words in my memory bank, but came to the conclusion that the leaky nature of this particular memory bank and the low frequency of potential recall made this endeavor quite futile. She ordered the food for us, including an alcohol-free beer for me as I had to drive back to my hotel. But in spite of the insistence of my friends, she would not eat with us. She had to go home in a reasonable hour to eat with her children, before turning in early in order to get up early for her work, which would be from two in the morning to eleven thirty. She has two boys, fifteen and eight years old, and they could prepare dinner while she showered and took off her makeup. The dinner would be simple, sausages plus a green salad. She would not have my friends pay for her meal there as it’s a family business and she normally gets to eat for free. Etc.

How many hours a week does she have to work? Nine and a half, including a 45 minute break. As a single mother she’s got privileges, such as the reduced work hours, and a choice of the time slot to work. Fortunately the older boy could feed the younger one in the morning and send him off on the school bus. And after school the younger one could stay in an after-school care program for a few hours. They spoke English well, partly from her teaching, she said. They were also learning Spanish in school. As for herself, she learned English from school, the very same one that her kids went later, and used English at work. Her work was at the duty-free store in Frankfurt airport, but in Terminal 1, instead of the smaller Terminal 2 I was going to depart from.

She’d been to many international destinations, including New York. But she would really like to go to China. To see the Great Wall, among other things. How far is the Great Wall from Beijing? The great wall is very long, and only some sections are close to Beijing, I said. Yes–isn’t it like so many thousands of kilometers long? She asked. I had no idea. She said proudly that she learned about it in school. I didn’t, but I didn’t have the courage to say it.

There was one small embarrassing moment in the restaurant after we said goodbye to Birgit. I wanted to use the restroom, but that word did not elicit any response. Nor did WC, man’s room or washroom. Feeling that maybe hearing me more closely could help, the two ladies at the counter came up to me, which made me feel quite uncomfortable, due to the nature of the business at hand. After a few dreadfully long seconds that felt like an eternity, I finally came up with the word “toilet”, which I knew was the correct word the moment I thought of it. It is used this way in many languages in the old world, but is not used in the new world in that sense. The place I was looking for was right there, outside a set of double doors, and down a couple of flights of stairs. There was even an elevator, I eventually realized.

Back at my hotel, I found the lady manager cum cook in the restaurant. We smiled at each other, and she told me that she was wearing the white apron, which was good for the kitchen but not the office. This was mostly understood through gestures instead of words. I said that she must now change her hat, which she didn’t understand. After the change of attire, or the removal of the apron, we concluded our business quickly, with her happy that I paid so much, and I happy that I paid so little. She asked if I were to move to the city the next day. No, I would fly away. New York? No, Moscow and Beijing. Putin? She said. No, I knew him but he didn’t know me, I said. But that did not produce any comprehension, apparently. I gave up. Moscow and? Beijing. She was puzzled. China, I said. It still didn’t work. Chine. A young lady in the back of the office turned and said. Ah, Chine. I really should have known. Where is Beijing in China? It’s the capital. That word should be easily understood by Germans–Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, and at least in English, it’s the same word! She gave me a card and a brochure, and wishes I’d stay with them again if I came to this area again. I smiled at her, and thought of Birgit’s family’s hotel. A half hour’s drive, and a world apart. How I missed clear verbal communication! I knew the problem was completely on my side, but now I also knew there was an easy way out, and that’s not learning German.

Back when we were on the rampart of Franken Berg, Birgit pointed out the direction of Frankfurt, somewhere far away behind the trees, the city of Darmstadt, and the haze. From there, many years ago, a young lady came to Beijing to study, and became the first foreigner I got to know by myself. It’s she who taught me that the correct term is Frankfurt am Main, as there is another Frankfurt in Germany, in what was then East Germany. Despite of the two governments, there was but only one Germany. She believed, and therefore I believed, years before it came true again in form. My eyes fogged up. Wherever you are now, 贝尼尼, I hope you are well!

(Written on 3/17/2017)

Heidelberg

It has been more than 20 years since I was last in Germany. But last time I was never in this part of Germany, and I did not drive. Besides, I have not driven a manual shift car for a couple of years.

It took the car a couple of tries to remind me how to get a manual shift car started. And when I finally did get it started, it moved the wrong way, going forward instead of backward. The car beeped at me, for getting too close to the wall. My first manual shift car, which I’m the most used to, had a “standard H” configuration, with the reverse gear in the lower right corner. This car had six forward gears, and you have to use a lever to get into reverse.

Once I got out of the airport, the fun started. Very quickly, I was on the Autobahn A5, and I got up to 160 km/h (100 mph) on some stretches of the road. I’d done 110 mph in the States, but that was in the dead of the night, in the middle of nowhere, on a stretch of road that’s completely empty, except for myself, and the policeman who caught me. But A5 on a work day is full of traffic, and that made this experience very enjoyable. Not only I passed many cars, but I was also a very polite and gentlemanly driver, moving to the right to let others pass whenever I could. The road was super smooth, especially near the Frankfurt airport. Traveling alone has its drawbacks. For this drive I really would have liked to switch to my sun glasses, which was right next to me, in my computer bag, inside its case. But with the constant traffic, I decided to go without. The GPS, while far from perfect, helped out a lot, as it spoke reasonably good English.

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Heidelberg, seen from the Castle

My first day of business starts tomorrow, so today I am just here to relax and to get over the jet lag. I have a whole half day to kill, and I wasn’t going to let it go to waste. Besides, they say that the best way to fight jet lag is to stay outdoors, especially if there is sun out. So I went to Heidelberg. This is the nearest small town that was highly regarded in online reviews.

My first problem, after getting into Heidelberg, was that I did not know where to find parking. So I just stopped in front of a random building, which turned out to be a tourist information center. I went in and asked, and was directed to somewhere that I wasn’t sure how to get to. Fortunately, after a couple of the seemingly wrong turns, I got there and parked my car. And then I found out that the parking place, an underground parking garage, required payment in cash. It took me a few tries to find somebody to direct me to an ATM machine, as it seemed that ATM is not the correct term in this part of the world, and most people did not react to it. Come to think about it, it might have worked better if I pronounced the letter A as Ah, the way Germans would, but unfortunately I came to this idea one day too late.

After some wandering around town, where there is a university, and a large pedestrian district, I got myself a lunch in an Italian restaurant :P. The food was quite alright, but it was super salty. I used part of my water to wash off the creamy cheese sauce in the spaghetti.

castle

Next stop was the famous Heidelberg Castle. I was smart enough to find a place to buy the ticket before getting to the castle, as the ticket for the castle included a ride on the funicular. Except that the funicular was closed down for annual maintenance. In its place there was a bus service, but then the bus had a minor accident, when somebody bumped its rear-right lights off, so we wasted a good twenty minutes or so, and had to walk the rest of the way.

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Frederick’s building, Heidelberg Castle. This is the only building in the Castle that was restored, although some other buildings are currently in use.

I asked for the guided tour, which was highly recommended in TripAdvisor reviews, but it turned out that my timing was not quite right, and the next tour in English was to start in more than an hour. So I went in without. After quite a while, I saw some visitors with audio guides. I had to get back out, and go across the street to rent it, I was told, when I asked for that. I did that anyway and I was lightened by €5, which was quite worth it.

The Heidelberg castle was quite large, and it is in a state of deep dilapidation–on purpose in the latter years. There are stories of romance related to it. One of them involved an English princess by the name of Elizabeth. She came over as the young wife of the Elector Palatine, and was Queen of Bohemia briefly, when her husband Frederick became the “Winter King”. Another involved Goethe in his sixties and a young poet by the name of Marianne von Willemer. A very nice verse by Goethe was narrated in the audio guide, and here is a version of it that I found afterwards:

Still may the cypresses confess
To thee, the water leaping, flowing,
From Zuleika to Zuleika
Is my coming, and my going.

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Elizabeth Gate, Heidelberg Castle

After the Castle trip I decided to walk down to the city and to the parking place, which probably was a mistake. I had a picture of the place on my phone, and most people could readily recognize it. But finding it was a different matter. Most people directed me to the correct direction, but one lady actually directed me 180° wrong, and a couple of other ladies just did not know the way. They were all very friendly, though.

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Wine Barrel, Heidelberg Castle. Reputed to be the largest barrel in the world to have been filled with wine.

Getting to the hotel in the evening was troublesome, because I had to fight rush hour traffic–manual shift is painful to use in stop-and-go traffic. Besides, jet lag was finally catching up with me. Once there I found that the lady on duty was also part cook, and did not speak much English. Still her English was much better than my by now basically non-existent German. And when one’s language facilities are restricted, one can be quite inventive in how to use it: “This key is for door #1; this key is for door #2”, she said, effectively. There was no lion nor lady behind either one, it turned out. Door #1 was for an outer door to the rooms, which is left open during the day. Door #2 was my room’s door. She also promised me that she made a great soup, which I made sure that I ordered for dinner, in addition to something that was a specialty of another cook. The soup was OK, only slightly too sweet for my taste, but the corned-beef-with-vegetable roll turned out way too salty, and a side dish of “dumplings” was rather tasteless. I cannot give the proper names to these dishes, because the menu was completely in German. The restaurant also preferred to be paid in cash, but I have run out by this time, so they agreed to add the bill to my room bill, to be paid for with a credit card. I really did not expect that so many businesses don’t take credit cards today. I’ve been spoiled in the US, I guess.

(Written on the night of March 14. Revised on March 15 and 16.)

9-11: One More Thing We Could Learn

Another September 11. Another opportunity to reflect upon that tragic day, and the turbulent time since.

I do not directly know of anyone who died in WTC on that day in 2001. But I did have a former classmate who told me a harrowing tale about evacuating from another WTC building that day and walking miles to safety. And I had a neighbor who was serving on FDNY and missed worked that day due to family reasons, which could very well have saved his life.

But here I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about the safety of the rest of us. This is triggered by the story of Rick Rescorla and Daniel Hill. Somehow the two of them foresaw the terrorist attacks on WTC, both by truck bomb and, later, by airplane. The key is to see things from a terrorist’s eye. Somehow I missed these stories until today. And I only got to hear them through WeChat, a Chinese social media app.

Something I felt deeply years ago came back to me. Something similar to what Rescorla and Hill felt. That sense of knowing that there is something we know the terrorists would do. That sense of knowing that there are things we can use to protect us. And that sense of helplessness when our government is not doing enough to protect us.

It was Independence Day, 2005. We were celebrating on the National Mall, with a gazillion people. Security was tight, this being only a few years after 9-11. We got into the security perimeter in the morning, with bags checked and people scanned. The security perimeter was large, enclosing the entirety of the Mall, including the Smithsonian building, Natural History Museum, etc. The traffic patterns were changed, with no street parking nearby. And the nearby subway stations, such as those at Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, National Archive etc., were all closed. People trickled in all day, through early evening.2005-july-dc-wait-for-fireworks

We had a good time. The music was great. The fireworks started and ended at the precise hours and minutes as scheduled and published in the newspapers. Then the mass exodus from the Mall started. Remember, there was no bus, no cars, and no subway near the Mall.

We walked to the nearest subway station that was open, possibly Waterfront. It was the most crowded place we’ve ever been to in the US. People were packed standing on the platforms.

Right then and there I realized that were I a terrorist, I could simply make some big noise, or smoke, or some other commotion, and a pandemonium would ensue. Especially if I timed it with the coming of a train.

And worse yet, I could have with me a gun, or a bomb. Not only the station itself was outside the security perimeter, the trains were all coming from unsecured stations.

What we observed:

  • People arrive at very different times. But most leave at the same time.
  • It’s hard to mount an attack inside the security perimeter, but it’s very easy to do so outside of it. And the crowded Metro stations were perfect locations for it.
  • And from the terrorist’s point of view, it’s easy to plan. The schedule was public info, and its adherence was perfect.

What we decided to do as a family:

  • Avoid holiday celebrations at important landmarks.
  • Avoid venues known to be packed.

But thinking a little more today, when I was preparing this blog in my head, I realized that there are things our government could do to make us all safer. I don’t know if they are listening, but I sure hope they are (supposedly they are scanning all of the Internet, which is completely legal):

  • Do not close the Metro stations by the Mall completely. Instead, allow people to leave from them, at least and especially around the time when the fireworks end.
  • Allow only completely empty and secured trains to stop at these stations to pick up passengers.

Be safe. Be vigilant.

A Miracle

I’m not religious, so I would normally not choose such a word. And I’m a scientist by training, so I’m generally suspicious of anything other people call miraculous. But given the circumstance, I have not a better word for what we witnessed yesterday.

Not able to walk by herself, nor to stand, nor to sit, nor to turn her head around, my wife got to Dr. Yali Li’s clinic with a set of Meniere’s symptoms: vertigo (not the worst this time, but more long lasting), headache, fullness of the ears, tinnitus. In other words, a complete package of misery.

She had the first, and the worst, vertigo about three weeks ago. We went to the emergency department of Stony Brook Hospital. She was given a bunch of medication, which we were told would be able to treat the symptoms. There is no treatment to the disease—she’s suspected to have Meniere’s.

In the following weeks we learned about Meniere’s Disease. Basically, if you’ve got this list of symptoms, and there is no known cause (such as a stroke), they would attribute (blame) it to the French physician Prosper Ménière. He’s the first one to group these symptoms together—something in the inner ear is messed up, causing all these symptoms. And soon enough, we got kind of confirmation: her head MRI scan came back normal, so were her Halter test measuring the heart.

Back at the clinic, the receptionist asked us to sit down. It’s hard for her to sit. There were not good chairs there, only a long bench that could easily sit ten. But there were only the two of us. She prefers her head to be horizontal—in the vertical orientation the head tunes in more closely to the attitude signals from the ears, signals which are of course completely misinformation in someone with Meniere’s. So she leans back, and her head banged against the wall—her eyes were shut and she didn’t guess the distance to the wall correctly. Then the single long cushion covering the bench started to slide down to the floor. I caught it in time.

She’s not under many drugs at that moment. From the various doctors, ER, primary care, ENT, we got about eight different drugs. The drugs all come with horrible side effects. Dizziness, light-headedness, low blood pressure (systolic, the high number, being lower than 90 at some point), tinkling hands, stomach discomfort, etc.

After filling out the forms for first time patient—I did it, as she, with her face skyward, and eyes shut, was in no shape to do it herself, a nice lady (Dr. Zheng) came over to ask us whether she could go to the office for a short interview, or would rather go to lie down in the treatment room directly. We chose the only option feasible. Shortly after, Dr. Li came in, together with Dr. Zheng. He has a large frame, but not over weight. His handshake is powerful—probably from the massages that are part of the traditional Chinese medicine. Yes, they can treat her, he assured us.

We heard of Dr. Li by way of my oncologist, Dr. Lan. It just happened that my regular appointment with him was on the day before, and I mentioned her condition. We gave a lot of weight to his recommendation, especially when most doctors tell us plainly there were no cure, and no good treatment. And the online literature says the same. The best hope we could get there is that often the symptoms would lessen, and with time they could completely disappear.

While the sign on the outside of the clinic indicates that he has a PhD and an MD, Dr. Li is trained partly in China, where the education necessarily includes western as well as Chinese medicine. But his practice specialty is Chinese medicine. And we can see why.

After about a minute, in which time he put some five acupuncture needles into her scalp, he asked my wife to sit up. She couldn’t believe she could do it herself, and asked for my help. She was not able to sit up, or stand up, when coming into the clinic. At home, to avoid making a couple of extra turns, she even chose to get into the back seat of my van instead of the passenger seat. But now, after sitting up, she kept her eyes open, and felt okay. She then came down the bed by herself, walked a few steps, and even moved her head around, up and down, left and right, under Dr. Li’s encouragement. She even stood unaided for several minutes!

A treatment of one minute! One minute! With no drugs! And no side effects!

Sitting pic.
Sitting up with needles in her scalp, she had her eyes wide open, and a big smile on her face.

In time, several more needles were inserted into her scalp. And her attitude sensation was steady. Now her main complaint is the sense of fullness in the ears and head, which apparently couldn’t be treated by acupuncture, or at least not at the moment.

Dr. Li told us that the illness can be cured in two to three treatments. That’s even more amazing. We were only looking for ways to relieve the symptoms without the terrible side effects. We were not even dreaming of a cure. And like a truly Chinese trained doctor, he claims that he is nothing special—any Chinese doctor could do the same.

We left in about an hour. She had ten needles left in her scalp, to be removed by me at home. One day later, she is worse than yesterday right after the treatment, but is still much better than before.

According to the NIH, there is no cure to Meniere’s. And acupuncture is not proven effective in treating the disease.

O Sole Mio, Part 2

Sungevity and Solar Lease

Sungevity is a California company, but does business in NY, kind of. I was attracted to them from their ads on Google search. They boast of being able to design a solar system remotely, without setting their feet on our roof. This is a relief. I cringed a little when the Level Solar rep told us that their people would get on our roof, jump up and down a bit while tethered, to see that the roof can take the extra weight. Well, someone may still have to do that at some point, but at least not before the design is done.

A first hurdle must be overcome. The first person (not the actual sales person/rep yet) from Sungevity I talked with was using Google maps, which did not accurately locate our house, but was pointing to a piece of undeveloped woods. We got better results once I asked him to switch to Bing maps, which also come with very detailed “bird’s eye views”.

I talked with the next person for several hours over two days, and with his manager for more than an hour. At the beginning, while he talked with me, somebody designed the system for us. The talk was not very informative, as I was in no need of convincing on the benefits of Solar. But within half an hour, two designs were presented for me to review. As it turned out, their design team actually was using Bing maps, and the outcome was pictures of solar panels overlaid on the bird’s eye views of Bing maps. Alas, the online maps are not that detailed, and I’m afraid that when they come to install the system the design must be adjusted.

Sungevity PlanA Sungevity PlanBWhen I looked at the two designs, I wasn’t very happy about either one. I asked for an alternative design where the solar panels were all on the back of our house, for better aesthetics. Soon that was accomplished. Because the back of the house faces east, while some of the front panels were placed towards south, this design needed more solar panels to generate the same electricity, and therefore was more expensive, but only by 2.3%.

Sungevity website gave a very nice graphical interface to play with the different financing models. The available choices include the different designs (three in our case), buy or lease, and if lease, how much down payment is desired. Unfortunately, the conditions of each financing option are not spelled out on the page, not even in digest. I was most intrigued by the comparison of the buy option and the prepaid lease option.

The buy option is more expensive, but I get to eventually deduct the federal tax credit, at 30%. In addition, I also get the $0.20 per KW credit from NY-Sun initiative. The prepaid lease option gives me the same system with less up-front out-of-pocket expenses, but I lose the two credits above. I could also choose a low- to no-down payment lease option, but that turned out to be a finance deal with approximately an 8.7% interest rate—which I only found out much later, when I got the contract and did the calculations.

Whether I buy or lease has no bearing on the service I get. In both cases I get 20 years of monitoring and performance guarantee by Sungevity, the same software for myself to monitor the production from the system, and the same 20 year warranty on the equipment.

Over the next two days, I had discussions with the sales person (the rep) and his manager. The questions I had and they answered were mainly these:

Residual value

The reason I chose the prepaid lease plan was that I was convinced that after 20 years I get to keep the system for free, which gives this plan the same outcome after 20 years, but with lower out-of-pocket expense. The representative even helpfully shared with me a page from someone else’s contrast, showing the depreciation table of the equipment, and after 20 years the buy-out price of the system was indeed $0.

But unfortunately, when I got our own contract, this table was nowhere to be found. On the contrary, the contract clearly spells out that at the end of the term “Sunrun will remove the Solar Facility at no cost to you.” The contract mentions Sunrun a lot, and the rep’s explanation is that Sunrun is the financier, while Sungevity is the service provider. I’m not sure I can buy that, given the contract language to the contrary, but I was willing to overlook the difference—as long as someone is there on the other side of the contract, I can forgive the switching of entity. But taking a promised value away is not something I can freely forgive.

With this term change, all of a sudden the prepaid lease option becomes a lot less attractive than the purchase option. At this point I felt very much cheated, because if they only disclosed ahead of time this important detail, I would not have given them the permission to run my credit report—for if I am to buy the system, there really is no need for it, is there?

Performance Guarantee

The contrast says, and the rep happily paraphrased, that, for our “peace of mind”:

  • “Sunrun offers a Performance Guarantee. If your system does not produce the power output guaranteed in this agreement, we’ll refund you for lost power.”
  • “If your system overperforms you keep the excess power free of charge.”

But when I got the contract, the performance guarantee is pretty empty. Firstly, it pays me $0.13 per KWH for under-production. When I asked why it was so low, the rep had the audacity to tell me that I’m so lucky that I had locked in a great low rate! “No, you’ve locked in a great low rate, not me! I still have to buy the electricity from my utility company at $0.20 or so”. Then he took another tack: “Now you’re going down a rabbit hole! You’re behaving as if we couldn’t make the amount of electricity as promised.” To that my answer was: “Well, it’s really you who don’t believe in your numbers! If you do, you could guarantee under-production at any rate!” There were other arguments presented, which were even less persuasive or upright, and I’ll not mention them here.

The other problem with the performance guarantee is that it lists cumulative production rather than per year. When I asked, I was told that over-production from any year is reset at the end of the year, and not rolled over to the next. This would have been nice, and would have agreed with their ad-speak at the top, the part about “you keep the excess power free of charge”. Well, in careful reading one finds the exact wording in the contract as this: “Sunrun may use this overproduction amount (kWhs) to offset future underproduction.” This is the exact opposite of what the rep told me!

As such, there is no such thing as “you keep the excess power free of charge.” To begin with, one can’t keep excess electricity. It goes to the utility, and the utility pays me bulk rate, about $0.04-$0.05 per KWH. Then in the following year, if there was an under-production, I’d buy the electricity from the utility company at their retail rate, currently at about $0.20/KWH.

The rep’s manager offered me $500 off, if I could sign the contract that night. I said that my wife was in bed already. He told me that “you could sign for her”. Since we’re talking about electronic signature, it would not look any different. But that sounds illegal to me.

I have not fully given up on Sungevity, neither have they on me.