I’ve moved…

•June 26, 2008 • Leave a Comment

The blog that is.  Now hosted at www.therandomoracle.com. Nothing but high class, baby!

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No credit, no problem

•June 25, 2008 • Leave a Comment

So buying plane tickets in China is not an easy proposition.  I don’t think any of us remember when you actually had to use a travel agent in America to get a plane ticket, but that’s still the norm here.  Even though there is a profusion of travel websites, most of them still require you to book online and then wait for the deliveryman to show up in person, and then you pay them in cash.  I guess credit card penetration here is still low enough that it makes more sense for these companies to hire deliverymen than to just charge you online, but still it should at least be an option (without a ridiculous 3% credit card surcharge!).

The two main websites are elong.com (elong.net for English) and ctrip.com, but as far as I can tell the prices are not the best deal you can get.  I got a ticket from Shanghai to Tokyo then Tokyo to Beijing for about 3000元 (roughly $440) at the local travel agency inside Tsinghua’s campus, whereas the best deal I found online was over $600.  And then booking the ticket from Beijing to Bangkok was even worse; first I thought I found a really good deal on elong.net but then when I booked it, it turned out the ticket was already unavailable.  I ended up booking through one of the random agencies (ruyijipiao.com) that have a page filled with ads, some of which are valid and others not, and ended up getting a ticket on an Egypt Air flight.  Apparently Bangkok is the layover on the way from Beijing to Cairo or something.

Anyway both of these tickets necessitated multiple trips to the ATM in order to pull out enough cash to pay for them.  And the ironic thing is that they were both etickets!  I wish they could have just taken my credit card and emailed me the receipt or something, I’m sure that would have saved us both some pain and effort.

Anyway, for those of you in or around Asia this summer and are up for some traveling, here’s my itinerary:

  • Until 7/9: Beijing
  • 7/9 – 7/16: Bangkok, maybe Chiang Mai
  • 7/17: train or flight from Beijing to Suzhou
  • 7/17 – 7/24: Suzhou, daytrips to Shanghai
  • 7/24 – 7/27: Shanghai
  • 7/27 – 7/31: Kyoto
  • 7/31 – 8/5: Tokyo
  • 8/5 – 8/18: Beijing

    Biking around Beijing

    •June 22, 2008 • Leave a Comment

    AY and I decided to do a little bike tour around Beijing today to see some of the less accessible sites. We ended up going along the Fourth Ring Road (北四环路), where the Olympic venues are located. This was a bad bad bad decision because today was one of the smoggiest days since I’ve been here, seriously about 4km into the ride I had trouble breathing. But anyway, my pulmonary calamity is your good fortune, because I took pictures of some of the places along the ride.

    Our main goal was to see the Olympic Stadium and Natatorium, which dominate this plaza north of the 4th Ring. Unfortunately we couldn’t really get close because the area is still fenced and people are putting the finishing touches on the place, but things look like they’re going to be done in time for the big day.

    The Epic Journey from West to East

    •June 22, 2008 • 3 Comments

    So one of the convenient things about Beijing is that I’m actually sort of able to afford cab rides here. The going rate is 11元 for the first 3km, and then about 2元 for each successive km, and with the exchange rate at about 6.9元 per $1 it turns out to be somewhat reasonable. But deep down my commie heart would still prefer to take the subway, so I try to avoid cabs when I can.

    Since I actually live within biking distance of the office now (instead of a 2 hour train ride, god how did I manage that?!) the only reason I need a cab or subway now is to get my eat on and my drink on. This usually means going to Chaoyang (朝阳) all the way on the East side of town, because the main bar areas are all clustered around Sanlitun (三里屯) and Gongtixilu (工体西路). Since where I live (Wudaokou, 五道口) is all the way on the Northwest corner of the city, the cab ride is still pretty expensive (around 50-60元) so I try to take it only on the way back since the subway shuts down around 11PM.

    The subway is pretty modern, Line 13 opened just a few years ago and even Line 2 which is much older has been renovated with new train cars. Unfortunately that’s about the only good thing I can say about it; it’s crowded, slow, and the transfer between the 13 and 2 is a good 15 minute walk. Seriously, if you think the transfer from ACE to the 123 in Times Square is bad, you ain’t seen nothing. To get from the 13 to the 2 here you probably travel a good 2 km horizontally and a good 500m vertically, going up and down stairs. Whoever designed it must have decided that Beijingers didn’t get enough exercise and so this transfer should make up for it…

    Anyway, here’s a diagram of my weekend going out trek:

    Catching a FOCS

    •June 21, 2008 • 3 Comments

    I just found out that our paper “On Basing Lower-Bounds for Learning on Worst-case Assumptions” was just accepted to FOCS! Yay! Guess this means that I’ll be visiting Philly in October. Too bad BA won’t be around!

    Anyway I’m sure you’re all dying to know what exactly the title means. For the lay-person, computational hardness results typically come in two flavors, “worst-case” and “average-case”. “Worst-case” hardness means that no matter what algorithm you try to use to solve a problem, there exists at least one input on which the algorithm makes a mistake. “Average-case” hardness says that no mater what algorithm you try to use to solve a problem, there exist many inputs on which the algorithm makes a mistake. So average-case hardness implies worst-case hardness, but in most cases the reverse implication is unknown.

    In general, when we want to prove a statement X and we can’t do it unconditionally, then we try to show that some kind of hardness implies X. We prefer to show that worst-case hardness implies X because worst-case hardness is a more reasonable assumption than average-case hardness.

    However, in many situations we only know how to prove that average-case hardness implies X. In our case, we know that some versions of average-case hardness imply that the task of learning how to label (for example, label pictures as “landscape” or not) is difficult, but it’s unknown whether we can show that learning is hard based only on worst-case assumptions. Our paper tries to address this, and basically we show that a wide range of proof techniques, including all hardness of learning proof techniques known in the literature, cannot be used to resolve this question. I know, there’s a lot of double negatives going on, but trust me it makes sense!

    What a way to go…

    •June 16, 2008 • 1 Comment

    Shaoxing yellow wineWhen I saw that this restaurant Kongyiji (孔乙己) served drunken shrimp (醉虾) and drunken crab (醉蟹) I assumed that it was something like drunken noodles at Spice. Of course, the restaurant specialized in Hangzhou cuisine, but I figured it couldn’t be that different. When the waitress described the dish I think my jaw must have dropped a little, but since it was the house specialty we ordered it out of curiosity.

    But the first thing that we had was “Shaoxing yellow wine” (绍兴黄酒). I’d only known the brewery Shaoxing for making the best cooking wine, but apparently they also make a stronger version for drinking. The server brought us the wine, which was served hot, and some huamei (话梅), which are some sort of dried berries, sweet and sour in taste, to soak in the wine. The taste from the huamei seeped quickly into the wine and the whole concoction tasted surprisingly good.

    Drunken shrimpNext came the drunken shrimp. Now the Chinese are very fond of eating their meats and seafood recently slaughtered, but the drunken shrimp takes this to a new level: they actually bring out live shrimp marinating in a wine sauce and they tell you not to open the lid on the bowl for 10 minutes, until the alcohol from the wine kill the shrimp and they stop moving.

    Now EV was already freaked out at this point and he ended up not even trying any. AY and I were a bit more brave and tried it after the requisite 10 minutes. They tasted pretty good; unfortunately the shrimp were all very small so you didn’t really get much meat, but the sauce was very tasty. I tried a couple and was going to grab another one when… I saw one of them move. Ever so slightly, its tail flexed without anyone touching the bowl. And at point I’d decided I’d been brave enough and I could bear to let the rest of the bowl go.

    Follow your nose

    •June 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment

    I took the subway today for the first time this visit. I was heading towards the East City (东城) and so I thought I’d save myself one transfer by going the long way around on the #13 line and transfer to the #5. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that the map really wasn’t drawn to scale and that I ended up taking a 45 minute subway ride when the 2-transfer trip would probably have taken less than 30.

    After finally getting off the train I walked on over to this hip new hutong called Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷) that’s been taken over by expats and hip cafes and bars. I was supposed to see a film screening in one of the cafes there but there was road construction right outside the window and I couldn’t hear anything so we ended up leaving 10 minutes into the movie and just wandered around.

    We eventually wandered over to Qianhai (前海) and Houhai (后海) which form a nice little scenic area with small alleys filled with shops and food stalls. All was fine and dandy, and then a familiar scent hit me. The scent was faint at first, but the stink wasn’t your average Chinese hot summer stink. As we kept walking the smell got stronger and stronger and at some point I was just following my nose towards the stinky heaven that I knew was waiting for me.

    Now if you’re not Chinese (and maybe even if you are) you might never have heard or appreciated the sublime delicacy that is stinky tofu (臭豆腐). It’s tofu that’s been slightly fermented to make it a little pungent, and then deep-fried and served with hot sauce. It’s more of a snack food than a meal, and so it made sense that there would be a stall there that was making it, but it’d been so long since I’d had it that I didn’t even think to look for it here.

    We finally found the stall and my friends stood back a healthy 20 feet or so while I got some. I had to wipe away the drool as I finally got my batch and bit into the first piece. It was pretty good, the texture was right but it wasn’t quite as flavorful as I would’ve liked it. I offered one of my friends a piece and he tried it, but one piece was enough for him. I on the other hand, didn’t budge until I’d finished the whole thing, yuuuuuuum.