“O Sole Mio”, Part 1

So we want to look into going solar, mostly for the environmental benefit. But we also want to avoid a bad financial deal. And it turned out the latter is not easy to do.

First, there is really almost no objective evaluation and comparison on the Internet. When I did searches with various terms, such as “solar panel comparison”, “solar panel installation”, “solar power companies”, etc., combined with “Long Island” or “New York”, the first few pages that Google presented to me are all advertisements on Google, or solar power company websites.

Even more discouraging, Solar City, supposedly the largest solar power company, one of the several companies founded and run by Elon Musk, whose vehicle came over to our next door and installed a system on their roof, decided, through its automated website, that they didn’t serve our area.

Fortunately, there are companies which do. We caught a guy from such a company knocking on doors in the neighborhood, and through him made an appointment with Level Solar. Little did we know the amount of untruths and lies that await us.

Level Solar and Power-Purchase Agreement

Level Solar prides itself as a local company, headquartered in Ronkonkoma, in the middle of Long Island. Its sole business model is power-purchase agreement. Their representative was friendly, and we didn’t have any predisposition for or against any financial arrangement at this point.

The first point of business is to figure out how much electricity we used for the previous year, and for what price. The representative helpfully calculated the answer to the second question from our most recent electricity bill, and came up with $0.22 per KWH.

Level Solar’s current deal is like this: they’d put a Photovoltaic (PV) system on our roof to produce electricity, and we’d be buying the electricity at a “locked in low price”: $0.15 per KWH initially, increasing at 2.4% per year, for 20 years. What if we sell our house, and a prospective buyer doesn’t like the deal? Well, “find other buyers” is the answer. So we’d better make sure that the price we signed up for is going to be below the electricity rate in 20 years!

We were told that while we are currently paying $0.22 per KWH, the electricity rate has been going up at 6% per year. So if we pay Level Solar $0.15 per KWH to begin with, going up at 2.4% per year, we’d get a better and better deal as the years go by. With such happy calculations, we were given a bunch of papers to sign, mostly relating to governments of different levels, but the last of which is the contract. (This is a tried and true sales tactic, I eventually reflected, as once you’re in the habit of signing your signature, one more of those does not make any difference. But I was not in the right mind then.) When we asked about the effective date of the contract, we were told that we needn’t worry. The contract wouldn’t be effective until both parties signed it, and they wouldn’t do that until later, when they come to present their design to us.

After the rep left, my calculations and modeling got underway. Seriously.

The first problem is that we don’t actually pay $0.22 per KWH. While the representative used our bill to get the number, he did it by dividing the total monthly payment by the total KWHs used, even though he helpfully pointed out that there was a “Basic Service” amount that couldn’t be offset by solar installation—this is the per day amount we pay to be connected to the grid! Once we deducted that amount, the same bill yielded slightly less than $0.19 per KWH. The average over the whole year is a little more, but still less than $0.20 per KWH.

I happen to have back electricity bills for the last 17 years. Although they are not for every month, they gave me a long enough time frame, comparable to the 20 years for the power-purchase agreement. Using these, I found that our local utility has been increasing the electricity rate at a compound rate of 2.25% per year, far below the 6% that Level Solar suggested. Furthermore, if we use the last 8 years, the rate is actually pretty stagnant, going up at 0.84% per year. Going forward, the local utility has filed a plan to increase their delivery charge by 4% per year for 3 years, and delivery charge is approximately half the per KWH we pay (the other half being the cost of electricity). This plan is now being debated, and its passing is not certain. So in the next three years, the maximum increase we are facing is about 2% per year, and considering the uncertainty, and that the cost of electricity is actually dropping slightly due to the new technology of fracking, the expected rate increase is less.


Still, using our historical numbers to predict the future, we get that if electricity rate goes up at 2.25% per year (as from our last 17 years’ data), we’ll have less and less savings per year; and if it goes up at the 0.84% per year as from the last 8 years’ data, we’d be paying more for solar in the last two years of the contract than the utility rate!

And then there is one more problem. If their system produces more than the amount we use, either due to their being conservative in their calculations, or due to our using less energy, such as what could happen as our kids leave the house, and we switch to more energy-saving appliances (such as fluorescent and LED lights), we’d still be on the hook to pay the solar company the set rate ($0.15-0.23 per KWH), while the utility would either pay us the bulk purchase rate (currently at about $0.04-0.05 per KWH), or nothing at all (which happens in some parts of the US).

As it turned out, paying a commercial entity to use my roof to generate electricity for others to use is not something I planned on doing.

Now there is only one thing to do: cancel the contract, which supposedly has not come into effect. Our friendly representative told us that we could simply call and tell him that. So we did. But the contract says that to cancel we must fill out a form and mail it to a NY city address, presumably that of Level Solar’s lawyers. So we did that too. Certified.

Deserters in June

It was June of a different year. I was working in Beijing for one of the big three U.S. media companies. That was an eventful spring. In the beginning of the year, President Bush visited China. Then came the death of a former Chinese Communist leader[1]… One night in June, the eventful spring was given a large exclamation mark, and an even larger question mark.

I was then still a Chinese citizen. The next morning, I hastened to my boss. Now a dangerous place, I couldn’t stay there anymore. I wanted to resign, and leave.

Unexpectedly, my boss was also looking for me. In Beijing Hotel, one of our Australian cameraman and his British sound assistant had just recorded something very important. My boss asked me to personally go and get the material, rather than send one of the some 20 college interns working under me. This gave me a dilemma. I came to resign, but now I was given a mission, apparently a very important mission—to that day, I had never had to personally go somewhere to send or retrieve something.

I was young then, and was easily excited. Besides, the company had treated me well. In China, in 1980s, they paid me $200 (US) a day, in cash. I thought it over a few times, and felt that I couldn’t drop the ball at this moment of need. So I agreed. Right after giving my words, however, I began to regret it, when my boss said, “They say it’s fairly safe outside.” From his tone, I could hear that his words might as well not have been said. Apparently it was not so safe outside.

From our office in the Palace Hotel, I walked to the Beijing Hotel. It was after 10:00 AM, but there were few pedestrians. Occasionally, you could hear crispy sounds like firecrackers coming from all directions. In the corner of Long Street[2], I saw some Beijing residents beating their chests, stamping their feet, and whispering curses. A few young people helped an old man hobble forward, towards Union Hospital. I was told that a bullet entered his mouth from side and exited the other. The old man’s head bowed down, body leaning forward, he was apparently in excruciating pain.

At Beijing Hotel’s entrance, I saw that the row of glass doors were all shut, except for one in the middle, which was half open, barely enough to allow a person to pass by sideways. By the door, both outside and inside, stood at least a dozen people dressed in civilian clothes, on some assignment.

I bit my tongue, and went towards them.

In my backpack was a newly unsealed videotape. I meant to swap it with the tape that had been recorded. Facing these fellow countrymen on assignment, I tried to calm myself by telling myself that I had nothing on me, even less on this tape.

While thus thinking, I had passed them by, and was in the lobby. I felt the multitude of eyes on my back. But I walked into the elevator, watched the elevator doors close, and still nobody called me to stop. On the 14th floor, I found our camera crew’s room, and knocked on the door. There was some rustling noise inside, and the door was opened after a long time. It turned out these two foreigners thought someone came to arrest them, so they removed the camera from the balcony, hid it under the bed, and put on pajamas. They looked laughably like a pair of homosexual men[3]. Seeing it was me, someone they knew, they were relieved, and immediately set up the camera on the balcony again. The cameraman put the tape I brought into the camera, while the sound engineer put the tape I came for in my hands.

I took the elevator down and walked towards the front. This time the tape in my bag had content. When I walked to the front door I was walking towards light, and could only see that inside and outside the door, there were silhouettes of people, motionless, obviously watching my move towards them. Those dozens of steps were the weightiest, longest steps I made in my life.

When I reached the door, I could finally see the faces of those people. I felt that a silent pressure, a… wrath. But, they still did not stop me, and let me walk out.

From Beijing Hotel I walked briskly back to Palace Hotel. Immediately upon arrival, our editor made a copy of the videotape I brought back. When they were making the copy, I intentionally stayed away; I did not want to know what was in it. Thus, if there were problems, I could plead ignorance. Of course, this was just my own wishful thinking, or self-deception.

I was on the verge of mentioning the resignation business to my boss, when he asked me to take a copy the videotape to the airport, and to “fly the pigeon.” Resignedly I went to the airport. I comforted myself again with my ignorance of the content on the tape.

“Fly the pigeon” is a jargon of American television industry, meaning that one brings material to an airport or some like place, looks for a reliable passenger, gives him/her some compensation, and asks him/her to bring the material to where the flight goes. This is an ancient practice, before satellite transmission became popular. However, at this time the satellite transmissions in Beijing had long been cut off, so we had to return to this method.

Capital Airport was packed with people, all foreigners trying to leave Beijing in haste. Although crowded, it was a little creepy: in the huge terminal, with masses of people in queues, squeezing by and looking for places to go, most of them were silent, anxious, and grave. Compared with the usual noisy bustle of life here, this time the air actually felt a kind of creepy—silence. Occasionally someone whispered, but with such caution, as if afraid to be heard by the interlocutor.

In the line for a flight to Hong Kong, I found a businessman-looking American, about 40 years old. I took the videotape from my bag, and handed it to him, along with a $100 bill. I explained that I was with this American television company, and requested him to be our messenger pigeon. I asked for his name, so that I could go back to the office and fax it to Hong Kong, so that when he got off the plane he could immediately hand the tape over to our people waiting for him there… It was several years before 1997[4], Hong Kong’s satellite transmission system naturally had not been cut off.

That American looked at me and the tape in turn. Then he nodded his head expressionlessly. I jotted down his name. Robert. Robert said a few words to me, which I would never forget. But let me retell them later.

When I left the airport, perhaps it was all in my head, I constantly felt someone was following me. My sole consolation was, of the content on the tape, I knew nothing.

Back in the city, in our office, I no longer dared any further delay. I found my boss, told him I completed the final mission; but at the same time, regrettably I was a deserter, and had to resign at this time. It dawned on my boss that I was different from him, in that I held a Chinese passport. He thought for a moment, said that he understood, gave me my salary, and let me take flight.

How many years have passed. This matter slowly faded in my mind. Until one day, I saw a picture, one called by some as a best illustration of the dauntless human spirit in the 20th century. My memory is activated.

In the year of I9B9[5], at 10:00 AM on June 5, an unarmed Chinese young man in a white shirt stood in front of a roaring row of tanks, staring down death. Several foreign news agencies, including ours, from upper floors of Beijing Hotel near the Long Street where he blocked the tanks, took in those images.

A few minutes later, before I was able to tell my boss I wanted to resign, he told me to go personally to Beijing Hotel to retrieve a videotape. After taking it back, and he urgently sent me to the airport to “fly the pigeon”…

From the time, place, and the importance my boss gave it, I the deserter, with no knowledge of the case, repeating “I do not know the contents of the tape” to comfort myself, inadvertently passed to the world the images of the last person in China to desert.

I would like to say here that I was not without help and support. Thinking back, I would like to especially thank those at the entrance of Beijing Hotel, in plainclothes, on their assignment. From where they were, and the intelligence they had, and the technology in their disposal, it was impossible that they did not know that our camera crew was on the 14th floor, that I was going to the 14th floor, and that I took back the tape. As I said, they looked at me with eyes filled with anger. When all I was thinking was to desert, I thought their anger was directed at me. However, I missed one point. These people, after work, were but ordinary people of Beijing. Bullets would not shy away from their relatives, friends, or neighbors, just because of what they do during the day. Today, I have only one explanation why let me get into the door that admitted one person at a time, and then let me out again. That is, they made an individual or collective decision, not without danger to themselves, to let the world see the image of that morally upright countryman of theirs, and the halo over his head.

Finally, let me tell you what Robert told me at Capital Airport: “I am very, very sorry that when China needs help the most, but I cannot do anything for her. I can only choose to escape, and I have the privilege to escape. This money I cannot take. Although I do not know what is on this videotape, please be assured that I will do my best to protect it, and deliver it to where it should go. This little bit I do for the Chinese people.”

When I write down this remembrance, my only regret is that between Robert and me, the two deserters, one will probably never know what we did for the world, intentionally or unintentionally, on our way to desert.


[Original was published on the Internet, in Chinese, anonymously. It was dated June 2, 2011.]

[1] Published online in China, the original Chinese text used a lot of vague references. Here the person meant is Hu Yaobang, ex-Chairman of the CCP.

[2] The main thoroughfare in front of Tiananmen is the Street of Eternal Peace. Dropping one character, it became the Long Street. See the previous footnote.

[3] Homosexuality was then illegal in China.

[4] 1997 is the year when Hong Kong was transferred to Chinese sovereignty.

[5] An intentional “misspelling” of the year 1989.


“You are going to be the pilot today.” Mike deadpanned.

This is no simulator.

“OK… I’ve taken the ground school, you know.” I said matter-of-factedly, pretending to not notice his attempt at humor.

After ascertaining when and where I took the ground school (where one learns all the theoretical knowledge of flying without taking to the sky), Mike was apparently not reassured. It had been so many years that the answer caused me more pain and consternation because it dated me as that much older than him than because the course material must have been outdated by now, or that I might have forgotten most of it already. I volunteered that my then girlfriend, now wife, forbade me from going any further than that. And I regretted it immediately. By this time he must have formed a pretty determinedly negative opinion of me, having no balls in addition to no sense of humor. Fortunately I was not on a charm mission to please him.

I was at Island Aviation because of a gift certificate for my birthday from my sisters, and because after this many years my wife had decided she could stomach the idea of my taking a small-airplane flight now. And she was there to see me do it. Among her questions was “how high are you going to fly?” “A couple of thousand feet.” Mike, my instructor of the day, answered her directly. But I knew her better. “Actually height is our friend. It’s the ground that’s dangerous.” She seemed to understand, so I gave no explanation.

Approx. flight path
Approximate flight path

Mike had gone through the preflight check already, he told me. But he went around the airplane with me and asked me about the different control surfaces. I did all right with ailerons and flaps, and even elevators, but not so well with the rudder. Those damned years! Or maybe I should blame the failing memory due to my age.

Inside the cockpit I was given a brief overview of the instruments. No tests this time. Some instruments look more familiar than others, but the most important ones are all directly recognizable. After all, other than the flight school, I had much experience on the Microsoft Flight Simulator, which I didn’t mention to Mike. It might count negatively. It’s interesting to notice that the instruments were easy to calibrate, but also easy to get out of whack. During his short demonstration, Mike had to repeatedly calibrate the attitude and altitude gauges, as they seemed to be jiggled by mischievous cherubs behind the instrument panel. That I didn’t mind. The less fancifulness, the less likely things could go inexplicably wrong.
Mike pointed out the throttle to me; and I correctly identified the trim wheel. But when I asked him about the radios, he was alarmed. “I’ll take care of the radios,” he said. That was totally cool with me. I didn’t have a clue how to communicate with Air Traffic Control (ATC) any way; nor ground control, for that matter. But I did have my own headset, which brought me an incessant stream of chatter, much more than I imagined possible for a small airport like the Islip/McArthur.

Don’t try to clean your screen–that dirty stuff was on the airplane’s windshield.

One other thing I didn’t get to learn in the flight school or practice on the MS Simulator is the pedals. They control the wheels and brakes while on the ground, and the rudder in the air. Mike let me try to taxi the airplane, which turned out to be very difficult to do—I just couldn’t get it to go along a straight line as I wished, or turn around at will. Fortunately we weren’t on the ground that long.

Taking off was surprisingly easy. Mike pushed the throttle to full, and I waited for the plane to hit 110 knots before pulling up its nose, all the while letting Mike work the pedals to align our Cessna with the runway. Within a couple of seconds, and before I could get used to this new attitude (of the plane), we were lifted off the ground, seemingly swept up by a puff by the big bad wolf. The sensation was definitely not the same as a passenger jet plane, but probably more like a raptor taking flight. With wind pockets hitting our wings at random, we soared upwards along a jittery slope, with my innards going up or down, left or right for no apparent reason. Now I assure you that I can drive a car very straight on the ground; and unlike the pedals, the control yoke didn’t feel hard to handle, so this did not reflect my abilities. I looked to my right. Mike was a model of nonchalant and unconcern; which could only mean one thing—I just had to get used to this sensation. In a few minutes we reached our cruising altitude, 2000 feet, for this part of the flight. Mike helped me to set the trim, and the plane could practically fly itself—only I was more comfortable clutching the yoke tightly in my hands.

Once we got over the coast, right about Heckscher State Park, we were out of ATC zone. Mike told me to turn to the east. I execute a mild bank, and he asked me to put a little “back pressure” on the yoke, to maintain altitude—strictly speaking, it’s probably more like we executed the turn, as I was working the yoke only, and didn’t even think about the pedals. (Having no pedals for the MS Simulator, I always left it in its “auto-rudder” mode. And coordinating the rudder with the yoke to make a turn is akin to driving a manual shift car.) Coming out of the turn, I tried to reach my camera on the back seat, and found it nearly impossible. The cabin being that much smaller than the inside of a Geo Metro, (and the plane probably lighter than the Metro too) I had to lean my upper body way forward so that my right arm can swing around without hitting Mike’s face with my elbow.

Along the coast we went, looking over Long Island and Fire Island below us. Some of the signature places I was able to recognize, but far fewer than what Mike could. Most importantly, he pointed out the various airports. In an emergency, we’d have to pick the nearest airport to land, I secretly tell myself. We went as far as Riverhead before turning up north and then back west along the north coast of Long Island, carefully flying around the airspace of Calverton airport, where sky divers might be dropping down from above our altitude. I executed smooth and wide turns, a smooth ascend to 3000 feet, and a smooth descend to 1000. I’m just not a dare devil. Not only I didn’t have the desire for steep banks or dives, my guts wouldn’t have taken it nicely either.P1070126

Before heading back to the Islip airport, Mike wanted me to fly over our house. But when I got to within about 5 miles, he realized that we were about to enter the ATC zone. He took over the controls, wheeled us around in tight loops, while talking with Islip control tower on the radio. I felt uncomfortable, and Mike saw it. I told him I was a little air sick. The air traffic controller sent us in via a flight path that was to the east of our house, but eventually passed over my work place.

When we were coming down to land, I again wasn’t aggressive enough on pushing the yoke forward, and had to be reminded where we’d like to hit the runway. Mike took over the controls when we got closer to the ground, as the wind tugged more strongly on our airplane. Flaps down, nose up, we let the plane kiss the runway where it wanted. It felt so good to be on the ground at last.

In the end, although I didn’t enjoy the experience completely, I was glad that I had the opportunity. Maybe flying was never in me, but I wouldn’t have known it beforehand. It’s very different from driving. Also prone to car-sickness, I almost never felt sick driving a car. When I am in the driver’s seat, I try to be gentle on the gas and brake pedals, and road is predictable, exactly in the way the air is not. I don’t know whether I could have overcome air-sickness if I persisted. But at this stage of my life, there are many other things that call for my time and energy. There is no regret giving up flying.

I am grateful to my sisters and my wife for giving me this opportunity. And I am grateful for this country—not only there was no concept of general aviation at the time when I left China, I don’t think it is an option even today. You learn to fly if and only if that is your job. But here, I fly because I want to. And that is priceless.


A letter to United Airlines CEO

Jeffrey A. Smisek
President and CEO
United Airlines
77 West Wacker Drive
Chicago, IL 60601

Dear Mr. Smisek,

Last Tuesday, August 15, I was scheduled to travel from O’Hare to LaGuardia on United flight 696. Eventually the flight was cancelled after several delays, and the alternative flight I was able to fly on, flight 694, was found to have an equipment problem, and we had to switch to another aircraft, incurring further delays.

I do not blame the airline for the weather and ATC related delays that befell flight 696, or the equipment problems related to flight 694. I do not even begrudge United for the three round trips I made between Concourses B and C trying to get alternate flights. However, I noticed many areas where United Airlines employees could have exercised greater compassion towards their passengers and better professionalism. Or at least, United could improve its processes significantly, if it couldn’t trust its employees taking the most appropriate initiatives in critical moments.

  1. When flight 696 was cancelled, there was no announcement at the gate that it was assigned (I forgot the exact gate number but this was on Concourse C, and different from the original gate due to the delays). Instead, the gate signage inexplicably started to show that the gate was to process a different flight. The cancellation was only listed on the departure notification screens. The next available flight for LaGuardia was over on Concourse B.

    Flight cancellation is a business decision on the part of the airline, but it is a disaster for its passengers. United should not simply announce the cancellation on the flight schedule boards. Instead, the first line of business after the decision had been made should be to reach out to its affected customers as quickly as possible and offer relief.

    I think a much more appropriate process calls for at least one verbal announcement over the PA system near the gate, and clear instruction that the passengers affected could get their rearrangements made either at the same gate, or at a nearby gate. Extra gate agents assigned to the task would have been welcome—after all, O’Hare is a United hub and there is no reason that it couldn’t mobilize some more resources for the task.

  2. When many of the passengers from the cancelled flight 696 reached gate B9 for rebooking on flight 694, they were left standing in line for more than 30 minutes, with none of them being processed in the mean time. At the beginning there were three United associates at the counter. Eventually two of them left, and the only one on duty left word with one person at the front of the line that he would not be able to process the change requests until the Pittsburgh flight, which was to start boarding soon, was sent off.

    Even though people standing in line may not be a planned event, it should be treated by the airline like a fire that needs to be put off. I don’t know why the two female employees left the counter without processing any of the people in line, or why the sole male employee who was left behind couldn’t process some of us before the boarding process for the Pittsburgh flight began, but mostly, I don’t understand why there was never a call for backups, for some additional gate agents to help out with the situation. Clearly, the airline and its gate agents did not care enough about their customers’ physical fatigue and mental anguish caused by the delays in processing their alternative flights.

  3. Our alternative gate for flight 694 was B19, and we were let to believe that we could just get over and board a plane available there already. We hurried over and waited in line, for another 30 minutes. It was after 20 some minutes that there was an announcement that we couldn’t board because they were waiting for the flight crew. Why was there no announcement at any time that people didn’t have to wait in line, but would be called in due time by boarding groups?
  4. On Thursday (August 16), I got an email from United saying that due to delay or cancellation, I was now scheduled to fly on United 3484, scheduled for Friday August 17 at 10:00 AM, from O’Hare to LaGuardia. I understand that this was due to some clerical error, such that United had not realized that I had reached my destination already. But…

    If a passenger of yours were delayed by more than 36 hours, should s/he be reached through email? Shouldn’t some customer service person be on the phone already, offering apologies, compensation, in addition to the alternative flight?

In fine, I suggest that United retool its processes in dealing with delays and cancellations, retrain its gate agents to treat each passenger with ultimate respect and compassion, and seize each instance of delay and cancellation, whatever their causes, as an opportunity for providing exceptional customer service.

And when the airline fails to excel at such an opportunity, a little apology and compensation for those gravely inconvenienced could go a long way towards earning some good well from its customers.



The Apoptosis of a Color Printer

(Ok, I understand apoptosis is usually not used (or useful) relating to an inanimate object. But bear with me.)


By my totally unfounded estimate, our Canon IP2000 Inkjet Printer must have died some two years ago. This is not an anniversary or any other special date, but I thought if I don’t write something down now, I’d never do it.

No, the printer was not that special to me that I’d treat it like a pet or something. It did print brilliant pictures, as brilliant as some good inkjets other people had did, especially when we gave it good inkjet paper. And it did not misbehave more frequently than printers of similar birth and persuasion. What made it special is the way it died, suddenly, unexpectedly, with a lot of good paper waiting for it because of the untimeliness of its demise.

That day was nothing particular; not warmer or colder than usual to be remarkable, and no storms of any kind like the Chinese would like to believe that a day would be if it were to herald something significant. All I remember was that the printer refused to print after a few good nights’ sleep. It simply blinked one of its lights in a mysterious sequence, and sat there quietly.

We looked up the User’s Manual, which was never consulted with unless we, or the printer, was in trouble. It did not clear up the matter much. The mystery only deepened, as the particular explanation for that sequence of blinks is that the print head is not installed, or installed incorrectly. Now I am not confident that I can tell the print head from the print tale, but no interior parts of the printer was touched between this moment and the last time the printer printed something.

Eventually I was able to find the Service Manual of the printer on the internet (it does not come with the printer). This was not something I could download, but only to view on the website. (I did show it to my son, so at least there was one witness. A minor, though.) This document cleared up things a lot better. In it, it is stated that the same sequence of blinks can also signify, can you guess it… the end of the printer’s life.

Now this printer was not used a whole lot, as we have had a laser printer all along, longer than the inkjet. And most of our printings were of text, which the laser printer reproduced with much better clarity and endurance. But this Canon printer’s life is calculated based on a number of pages or a number of days, whichever comes first!

I felt betrayed. This is madness! They planned the printer’s death before it was sold, and never bothered to tell those who bought it! Then I felt bewildered. If the printer’s like the razor and the ink and paper are like the blades, isn’t it to the manufacturer’s advantage to let it live as long as it could? Then I felt disgusted. I don’t want to keep the product of such an evil manufacturer in my house any more! We dropped it off at Best Buy, where they have an electronics recycling program.

Soon we bought a color laser printer, of a different brand, and forgot about this Canon.


But now I realized, I cannot simply forget. At least not until I’ve written about it, told some people, and maybe asked them to share its story with even more people. Then, there is a chance that we can help others to avoid the feeling of betrayal, bewilderment or disgust its brethrens might bring. And that would be a lasting legacy that’s worthy of this printer of mine!

Now let’s get back to the title. Apoptosis is the mechanism through which an organism refreshes itself. Instead of living with aged and damaged cells, the organism lets the old and damaged cells die, and generate brand new ones in their place. The peaceful death of some cells prolongs the survival of the organism.

In the case of our Canon printer, the apoptosis is not in the sense that certain parts of it died for the good of the whole printer. No, it’s the death of one printer for the betterment of a much bigger organization, the Canon Corporation. They have decided secretly that the printer should die some time after it was bought, while as buyers we had fully expected that the printer would last its “natural” life, and nobody ever bothered to tell us otherwise! Do they understand that even though I bought a Canon printer, my action did not mean I support the survival of the Company?

That was the last Canon printer I bought. Hopefully, whoever is reading this, you’ll not buy one in the future either.

[While I cannot find the “Service Manual” any more, I was able to find a “Simplified Service Manual” on the internet. And below is a section from it.]

Page from Canon IP2000 Simplified Service Manual

Jeena’s Story

This is copied from two of my postings at LightTheNight.org. It is copied here because LightTheNight seems to be temporary, and my posts disappear some time in the spring of each year. The originals were posted on Sept. 6, 2011.

My sincere thanks to all of you who have given me encouragement, either through moral support or through donations to LLS.

Often, upon learning of my predicament of having a treatment but not a cure, one friend or another is astounded that I was resigned to live with it. Is there no cure? I say, yes, there is. It’s called Stem-Cell Transplant (SCT). But why am I not pursuing it? Well, it’s complicated…

Let me introduce you to Jeena (pseudonym). She’s middle age, married, with children. Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with AML, a different type of leukemia. The first letter of AML stand for Acute; this contrast that of CML (my type), for chronic. AML is more serious, more aggressive.

A mutual friend introduced her to me. Since the leukemia type is very different, I’m not at all familiar with AML’s treatment regiments and prognosis. I introduced Jeena to a bunch of websites, including the main site of Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and its BBS, where a lot of patients congregate and share their stories and experiences. Unlike medical professionals, patients don’t hold back when they discuss their understandings and their issues, with their illnesses or their treatments. But Jeena doesn’t have the time or patience to read through all that. So I help her to dig for information.

Time is of the essence. Her doctor pressed her to start chemo ASAP. I encouraged her to brace herself, and go for it. But it didn’t turn out well. Chemotherapy, the traditional kind, relies on the drugs killing the faster growing cells more than the slower growing ones, in the hope that the faster growing cells are more likely to be cancer cells. But the drugs are poisonous to normal cells as well. In her case, the chemo sessions did not significantly bring down her white blood cell (WBC) count, although she did suffer from the side effects. After a few sessions, the chemotherapy was stopped.

Fortunately Jeena’s Cancer Center is participating in a clinical trial, and she signed up with it, after a couple of weeks of recuperation from the chemo. This was her best hope, and it delivered. Her WBC came down. The problem is, her neutrophil (one subtype of white blood cell) level was by now very low, making her vulnerable to infection. And what I worried about, I told her, was that there was no follow-up regiment. If (or more likely, when) the leukemia comes back, there was nothing else to try. So we discuss SCT.

SCT is the modern variation of bone-marrow transplant (BMT). In this treatment, the patient’s white-cell making stem-cells are killed off, through a combination of chemo and radiation. Donor stem cells are introduced, which eventually take hold in the patient’s body and repopulate it with white cells. The new white cells contain the donor’s DNA, and would find any leftover white-cell from the patient to be foreign and kill it. This is called the Graft-vs.-Leukemia (GVL) effect, which brings about a cure. One can also have a SCT from her-/himself. But because the stem-cells are one’s own, it could not cause the GVL effect.

To get a SCT, the first step is to find a good matching donor. The better matched the donor is, the better the prognosis. But the SCT donors are very limited, and Jeena wasn’t able to get a good match in the short time frame she had. Fortunately a couple of close matches were found with cord blood. (I’m not sure how this works—I thought usually cord blood is banked for the baby to use after s/he grows up.) Both were needed because the amount of stem cells in cord blood, although in much higher concentration than in adult’s blood, is limited due to the limited volume of the cord blood.

The next questions are when and where to do the SCT. One of the best cancer centers for SCT, or most other treatments, is Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York City. Jeena very much wanted to do it there, partly because the center she’s using had had several issues in her treatment alone; I promised her that I’d go to meet her in New York City if she was to come for treatment. But Sloan-Kettering is in such a high demand that she had to wait for several months before they can operate on her. Yet she might not be able to wait.

You see, to be able to even start SCT, the patient must be in some relatively stable condition, such as in a remission. If Jeena’s leukemia comes back, there may not be another opportunity to do this. I’m usually not a big risk taker, but I encouraged her to go for it. The center is not her choice (it’s close to her home, but not of the reputation that she’d like to have), the match is not perfect, but the opportunity could be once in a life time. Literally.

She went for it. I don’t know if my discussions with her played any role in her decision.

Chemo and radiation treatment to kill off all her bone marrow took two weeks. She’s super-critical now. No defenses against infection. Isolation ward. The only people sharing her ward were those in similar plight, those without defenses. SCT. After about one week, it was found that at least some of the transplanted stem cells took hold. These were from one of the two sets of donor cord blood. This I guess is expected. When one set of the stem cells got successfully grafted, their progenies, the fully functional white blood cells, would kill off the other set of stem cells and all their progenies—as well as all of the leftover host stem cells or white blood cells.

Once the transplanted stem cells took hold, and Jeena’s white blood cell count recovered to near normal ranges (actually doctors care more about neutrophil count), she was discharged from the hospital. Hooray! But by now she started to experience the onslaught of Graft-vs.-Host Disease (GVHD).

GVHD is when the newly introduced white blood cells starting to attack the patient—think a newly imported army, which by instinct recognizes all local citizenry as foreign enemy, and starts to attack them. Her symptoms include high blood pressure (her diastolic pressure, the low number, is over 100), swollen neck, and upset stomach. These symptoms, although severe, are not unexpected, and are manageable. Jeena’s doctor prescribed heavy-duty steroid to tame down the GVHD, which unfortunately comes with the side effect of lowering her immunity.

So this is still a critical period. Jeena’s steroid is being gradually dialed down, as long as her GVHD does not flare up. But this cannot be done too slowly, otherwise her immunity is suppressed, and she’s in danger of succumbing to common infections that do not affect you or me. The use of steroid for immune suppression may be a life-long commitment. But that would only be a bad side-effect of a good treatment: a long(er) life is a precious gift.

So we celebrate, one step at a time.

ps: Your donation dollars at work. When I first saw the research published on main stream media, how I wished that the work was funded by LLS. Now I’m so relieved that it was.

pps: As of late August, Jeena’s condition is still improving. She now suspects that she’s not actually suffering from GVHD, but from an alergic reaction to her antibiotic medication. (She’s on immunosuppressant drugs, and at the same time on antibiotics as well as anti-viral drugs.) Hopefully the reactions will lessen with time, especially when she’s weaned of her meds.

How to change the world in three easy steps

That was the title of my talk given to some students in Beida (Peking University), in September this year. Beida is my Alma mater, where I got my undergraduate degree in Physics. The talk was given in the College of Physics. Below is an outline of the talk.

I started with a couple of preliminaries:
1) Which language to use. Previously I talked with a Beida student in the humanities, and her opinion was that it did not matter whether I used English or Chinese, as some courses were given in English any way, and there was no problem of students understanding it. I posed the problem this way: (a) I, a student of the Phys. Dept., had certainly not forgotten my mother tongue, and could give a talk in Chinese with ease, (b) But (this part I said in English, so that they could better gauge the language production by me and language reception by themselves) since I’d been away for so long, I was not sure of the politics of the current time. If I happened to say something not exactly politically correct, I could more easily attribute it to the possible inaccuracies of translation if the talk was to be given in English. Switching back to Chinese, I asked for a show of hands. It turned out the overwhelming majority preferred me to use Chinese. Which I did. But I led a short excursion on voting schemes. While the one-person-one-vote method we had just practiced was commonly used, it is not the only one available. For example, there is the one-person-several-votes scheme, representing the strength/conviction of the vote. I gave the US presidential election as an example. While one person can vote for the president of choice with one or zero vote, s/he can contribute money up to $4500, which can in a way represent how eager one would like to have one candidate to win.

2) Why change the world? I asked to see how many of those present (about 25? see the pictures) wanted to change the world. There were preciously few. I asked them why. The answers ranged from the existence of official corruption (官倒), uneven wealth distribution, to general corruption. So I told them how I felt. When I was in school in China, I was taught (and some present indicated that they were also taught) that Karl Marx said that the main differentiation between humans and other animals is the usage of tools. With nothing against Marx, that pronouncement was made a long time ago, without the aid of modern science. As we know now, not only other primates can make and use tools, even some birds, with their size of the brain so little (I indicate with the end of my pinky), can make and use tools. So now what differentiates us from other animals? My own understanding is, humans are the only animal who intentionally want to change the world. Other animals inherent the world as it is, surviving in it if it can, and repeating the living styles of their parents; but we don’t. We see the world and want to change it, hopefully in the positive direction–we want to make the world better, for ourselves and our children.

3) How to change the world? It does not mean revolutions. Changing the world mostly means to change the way people think. If we change the leaders, the world is not really changed, because new leaders may simply repeat the ways of the old. But if people changed their mind, and acted differently, the world is changed.

Then the main story: how to change the world in 3 easy steps.
A. Understand oneself. I didn’t mean 自知之明, which is often associated with a negative connotation [as in, know your place]. I meant knowing one’s strengths as well as weaknesses. I didn’t, when I was in Beida. After some time in Beida, I realized that those in my class and from Beijing region had their student IDs assigned according to their entrance exam scores, ranging from 1 to 13. I asked the students to guess which number I had. Some guessed it correctly: 13. So I knew that I entered the Physics Dept. at the bottom of the pack. And in the four years there my standing did not noticeably improve. Yet outside of Beida, wherever I’d been, I was generally at the head of the pack. For example, presently I work with a group of smart people doing mostly automatic image processing. While most of these people had their PhD’s in CS, CE or EE, and learned image processing in school, and I didn’t, I have the role of the technical lead. The reason, I believe, is the vision. One don’t have to know all the details of how to solve each problem, although knowing some is necessary, and it helps to know more, but one definitely needs the vision to lead. And the vision, one can probably learn better in a Phys. dept. than in a CS dept. I gave some other examples from my life as well.

B. Prepare oneself. It is never sure when and from where the opportunities come, so one must prepare oneself in many ways. I knew I must be able to work with people, so I tried hard to work on my introvert personality. I knew I needed to learn English well, so I read English novels in college while many others read Chinese ones. I knew I needed to learn computers, so I sought out any opportunity there was. And by the end of four years of undergraduate studies, I believe I had had more time on computers than many people in the CS Dept had.

C. Seize opportunities. One should keep eyes open for opportunities not directly sought. I gave a few examples, several of which were from my technical areas. For example, when I got my first job, one of the tasks I was given was to design a barcode scanner’s optical package. I quickly designed one exactly to my manager’s requirements, but when a prototype was built its performance was deemed lousy. I soon realized that my manager didn’t know how to specify the requirement for a good scanner. Through observing how another manager and our test robot tested the performance of the scanner, I figured out what I needed to do. In the end, not only I got a better scanner, I got a patent describing the characteristics that made a good scanner.

I also mentioned our attempt at commemorating Sept. 18. The argument was: the Chinese did not really win the Sino-Japanese War, as Japan basically surrendered due to other factors; yet we celebrate the winning of that war while Japan commemorate Hiroshima. That was backwards. We should commemorate Sept. 18, when Japan upgraded its aggression with an aim of taking over the whole of China. Some from the government said: not so fast–we’d agreed with Japan that we would not seek retribution. Our argument against that was, the agreement was between governments; we should allow that the Chinese people might have a different mind. The official then said, wouldn’t that make our country less strong, in the sense that what our government agreed upon was not in accordance with the people? Our answer was: well, look at the US, where the people often did not agree with the government: Did we think it was weak because of that? Then our official said, what if we allowed this demonstration, and in the future there came one that had a lot of echo from the populace? Wouldn’t the country deteriorate into chaos? One of my classmates said, well, if the government ever found itself on the opposite side of the populace, it would be time to worry about something more serious. In the end, the demonstration was not allowed. But that only meant that we caught the opportunity at hand, while our government let it pass. Consider the alternative: wouldn’t our democracy have moved into a new phase if that demonstration, which was not aimed at our government, was given a green light?

I conclude by saying that when I was in Beida, I would never have dreamed to volunteer to make this speech in front of so many people. Over the years I have changed myself. But then I have also learned that one really couldn’t change oneself from an introvert into an extrovert. Yet here I was, making this speech. And this was my little attempt, at changing this world.

I hope they got the message.


Earth population at 7 Billion

Overcrowded train in India
Overcrowded train in India

The world population is to hit 7 Billion around Oct. 31, which is a couple of weeks away. In particular, India is rapidly catching up with China, to become the most popular country in the world around 2030.

Yet in some parts of India, the Catholic church is encourage people to have more children! See http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44856793. Of course, use of condoms is also against Catholic teachings. Would somebody please wake up his Holy See?

Nuclear Power Plant’s Plan B Can Be Improved

I’m no nuclear scientist, and it is probably too early to have definitive information for what went wrong at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. From armchair guesstimation, I came up with this possible series of events that led us to the current state of affairs:

  1. The earthquake near Sendai disrupted the power grid in the Northeast region of Japan.
  2. The power generators automatically shut down for self-protection (they don’t want to generate power and keep it!).
  3. The nuclear generators automatically shut down, also for self-protection (the heat they generate was no longer needed by the turbines). This stopped the controlled chain reaction, but the radioactive fuel still generated some heat due to spontaneous radioactive decay.
  4. The back-up (diesel) generators started automatically, to keep the reactors cool.
  5. When the tsunami came, it knocked out the diesel generators.
  6. At this point, the backup batteries were pressed into service.
  7. About an hour later, the backup batteries were exhausted, and there were no more levels of backup.

Maybe Plan B often works out badly, causing the disasters we get to know. But they don’t have to.

In this case, it is apparent that the secondary backup system was started correctly, and the tertiary backup system was not destroyed or damaged, but rather run through its designed cycle. The problem is that the tertiary system was never designed to last many days while the primary and secondary systems were out of commission. (It’s also possible that the batteries were not even designed to power the cooling system.)

And why did the secondary system fail? After all, it was designed to run independently, without external resources, and it is apparent that the reactor buildings were not damaged by either the earthquake or tsunami. Here I venture a hypothesis. It failed because it did require an external resource after all, albeit one that was generally ubiquitous and plentiful.

You see, diesel is fossil fuel, and a diesel engine cannot run without air. And in a tsunami, the air intake would be inundated, smothering the engine. Furthermore, the seawater and debris would cause long term damage to the air intake and outlet systems.

This leads to the obvious solution: why don’t we design a completely independent and enclosed backup power generator system to run the cooling system? We can use the radioactive decay heat to run a small generator, which runs either a secondary cooling system or the main cooling system at a reduced level. This would not require any external resources, not even air, and therefore can be completely enclosed (a friend of mine relates the design to the generator in a nuclear-powered submarine). The only point where this system would fail is where there is no enough heat to run the generator, but the point is also one that relieves the necessity to run the secondary cooling system!

(Admittedly there is another possible failure mechanism for this design: if the surrounding environment is too hot—its definition depends in turn on the design of the cooling system—the backup turbine might not run, or the cooling system might not remove enough heat from the reactor. But if that happens, we have a much bigger problem on our hand than a runaway nuclear power plant.)

That Security Appearance (TSA) is only Skin-Deep

There was a time when traveling was fun and exciting. Then the excitement gradually went out of the flying part–which unfortunately is often where the traveling starts and ends. The excitement. Ah–those were the days.

I remember once I was getting out of JFK in cold weather. The security line was not very long, fortunately. A young lady was immediately in front of me. She took off a leather jacket, revealing a garment that is in a high-quality satin-like material, and, possibly consequently, in very limited quantity. Then she took off her boots (Uggs?), showing off her bare feet, lower legs, and parts of her thigh. And then she took off her belt (a wide and fashionable piece!), without ever a prompt from airport security. In all this time, she never looked back.

That imagery helped me to brave the enhanced security pat-down this summer, tested on me through a random selection process, when a TSA agent decided that it was high time that his new trainee got a new victim subject. The intimate touches I got were uncomfortable, embarrassing, until I think of others who could feel even more so. I wish they gave me the choice of using a body-scanner.

Fortunately for the terrorists, the body-scanner is only skin-deep. And these terrorists, they are smart. They learn from drug-traffickers, who have not lost in the “War on Drugs” against the powerful US government. It is a known fact that some drug-traffickers use certain body-cavities for their illicit transport!

So TSA is molesting the American traveling public just to make them feel safer, rather than actually make their traveling safer (of course they are making some companies richer, but that is for another day’s discussion). To make the traveling safe, even only to as far as known terrorist tactics go, would require that they enhance the security procedures even more.

I wonder when that enhanced-enhanced security procedure (EES, or E2S) will arrive, and in what form. And then I think of that young lady who was once in front of me in the security line. And I cringe.