Monday, January 31, 2011

The Dim Sum Business Model

There are probably several business journal papers and articles written on this topic already but here is my own take on how the Chinese dim sum restaurants are doing (almost) everything right.  I've been going to dim sum in Arcadia ever since I moved to Pasadena in '95 (Chinatown and Monterey Park before that) and the efficiency of how they run the business is amazing.  First of, I cannot think of any big restaurant where within 60 seconds of sitting down, I have food at the table.  Typically, half dozen carts with food roam the aisles between tables so for a restaurant with about 3 aisles, I'm looking at 2-3 carts per aisle at all times. Odds are always good I'll be eating before the tea and hot sauce even arrive.  As soon as I'm seated, I am given a tab at my table that is stamped for every item I choose from the carts.

Also at dim sum, your table is not assigned a waiter.  Meaning every employee helps the customer with any need -- none of this "not my job" excuse.  Need a dish you haven't seen stroll by, just ask and within minutes, they personally bring you the plate straight out of the kitchen steamer.  Speaking of plates, there is a tendency to accumulate empty plates on the table but they also have a solution for that.  Several waiters/bus boys roam the aisles back and forth picking up empty plates, thereby making more room for new dishes.  I estimate a plate gets picked up within a 2-3 minutes of it being emptied.  The less there is to clean up to set up for the new customer, the better for the business.  I've seen a table for four cleared, tablecloth changed, plates/teacups/chopsticks/napkins arranged in about 30 seconds.

And for a restaurant with no menu, the food just keeps on coming. The absence of a menu makes it easy for the chefs to prepare the same dishes but most importantly, there are no orders to screw up.  And when I've had too much to each (happens every time), I just wave the tab and within seconds, any one of several waiters will arrive, count the stamps, add the bill and hand me back the total.  Yes, these waiters can add -- and add quick, given that most of the dishes cost the same amount.

There are still a couple problems with dim sum though.  First, the wait can be long and I've learned to avoid that by showing up before 10am on weekends.  Also, the bathrooms aren't the cleanest (meaning the kitchen is probably kept at the same standard of cleanliness but I don't want to know for sure).  Both of these seem to be a direct result of the volume of business that they do.  Nevertheless, American businesses can learn from this business model that had served over a billion people quite well for a very long time.

Miles And The Art Of Creating Art

I once read that Jackson Pollock listened to Miles Davis endlessly during the creation of his paintings.  You don't need to look hard to see the parallel in the structures of Miles' groove and Jackson' drip layers -- omnidirectional, chaotic and yet has a sense of completeness and purpose.  Why does the process of visual creation require some kind of aural companion?  If it applies to abstract expressionism (and with obviously great results as in Pollock's work), it surely must apply to other forms of art.  We almost will never know for sure what music inspired certain artists but I can almost imagine Basquiat with a Miles Davis Bitches Brew cassette in his walkman while trying to figure out what text to add to his Mona Lisa painting.  I've personally exprerienced some creative block in previous artworks so I put on Spanish Key (from Miles' Bitches Brew CD) and voila! -- instant gratification. For some reason, listening to his grooves unblocked whatever was keeping my creative juices contained.  I've read Don Campbell's book "The Mozart Effect" several years back but given what I just said,  I think it's time someone write a dissertation on "The Miles Davis Effect".

Through The Discard Piles

I always look forward to the first Sunday of each month where I spend a couple hours scouring the vendor booths at the Pasadena City College Flea Market. For a collector of "found" photographs, spotting a single image that speaks to me out of literally thousands of items that I flip through is what makes the effort pay off. Paying only $20 for an original vintage print is even more satisfying as with this photo that I found yesterday. On this particular day, the young couple walking in tandem is a metaphor for the kites flying in close proximity to each other. The landscape is empty except for a few cars parked in a field and structure in the distant background. Could easily be late 70s judging from the style of cars. As I look through this, I find that this particular image seems to tell me all that on this particular day, just this day, maybe, everyone's worries will be forgotten even for a just a brief period of time. Funny thing though is that I feel exactly the same way every first Sunday of the month as I look for treasures in the discard piles of life.

(Originally posted on Multiply 4/7/07)

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Law Of Supply And Demand

Took this photo in the drive in to work on 11/29/10. Somewhere in Glendora around 6am, I was contemplating on the simplicity of the economic supply-and-demand model. My further take is if you can shorten the distance between supply (of bad haircuts) and demand (to mask bad haircuts) to say, about a dozen steps, you've got a successful business model.

Eight Windows

"You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege."

From Institution Rules & Regulations, United States Penitentiary, Alcatraz, California

I've lived in California for 30 years and had not visited the island of Alcatraz until last year. It's been closed for 47 years yet I could still feel it's power to break down any spirit that attempts to escape its cold isolation.

Photo Collage: "The South Windows, Dining Hall, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary" (2010)

Nautilus Portrait

The nautilus is the most photographed shell in all of recorded history.  So what's another portrait, right?  I got this shell after Christmas 2010 when the kids and I headed to Cambria for our annual visit.

Reworking Works Of Art

While listening to an instrumental version of "Manha de Carnaval" by Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin today, I started wondering why it's perfectly acceptable for musicians to interpret someone else's original piece and in the process, give the listeners a different and sometime better listening experience.  Music fans don't go around saying the Di Meola/McLaughlin version is not worth listening to as the original version from the Black Orpheus soundtrack almost 50 years ago.  So I wonder why music fans are more accepting of artists interpreting compositions other than their own but when it comes to visual arts, new works done is an established style, say cubism or impressionism, is not given much weight by art critics and audiences alike.  (I'm not even talking about redoing an existing piece line-by-line, color matched with subtle variations.

You can't really accuse music as stale since there are always a new emerging music niche in the underground, say gangster-trip-hop-death-metal that is ready to become the next big thing.  However, the emphasis on doing something "new" in music movement is not as explicit as it is in the visual arts -- where only the cutting edge is revered.  One really needs to look at the history of music and visual arts to fully realize the contrast between them.  To prove my point, name 20 cubist artists other than Picasso and Braque.  Having trouble coming up with five?  I think this is due to the fact that artists consider cubism as having been done before, so they stay away from it as far away as possible.  In contrast, I can think of at least 20 well-established jazz guitarists (with recording contract and sales) where each one contributed to advancing the genre and oh, by the way, in the process, recording a remake or two of a known classic (i.e. Manha de Carnaval).  Imagine an painter of today doing a remake of a Dora Maar portrait or even worse, Guernica.  Sacrilege is what every art critic would scream.  But the question stands, does re-painting an existing work of art add anything different? Maybe or maybe not but at the very least, try.

Another example of how musicians uses previous works to cross-pollinate into another genre is Joaquin Rodrigo's composition Concierto De Aranjuez.  Just imagine if musicians we satisfied with the (now) original 68-year old melody and were too afraid to take the essence of Aranjuez to the next level.  We would not have have been fortunate enough to experience Miles Davis' entire Sketches of Spain album or Chick Corea's "Spain".  Each of these artists took Rodrigo's original melody and put it through their own dissections, improvisations and interpretations.  Yet no music critic would dare attach the label "unoriginal" to Miles Davis or Chick Corea. I must qualify though that there is evidence that some well-known painters did interpret works from previous artists but that seems to be in the minority.  Picasso did some of this (others would argue that he did a lot) but Warhol took this to the next level -- I think both of them did it out of reverence or creative necessity.  Maybe you need to be a Picasso or a Warhol to get away with this -- but in general, I don't see how this is possible in modern art for the average working artist, where only the ones the push the envelope are fully appreciated.

So in closing, before any of us are quick to point out that art does not have any value because “it’s been done before”, just give it a second look to see if the artist had something new to say, albeit subtle, with his or her piece.

The Elegance Of Concepts And The Clutter Of Execution

Over the past 3 months, I've done over 100 grid drawings and while it has led to an interesting series, I can't help but be introspective about the artistic process -- the time from which a concept is born to the time a piece is completed. After the problem had been defined, coming up with an elegant solution is what I try to get to next.  Elegance in art, the beauty of an idea, is not too different from mathematical proofs, where symmetry and simplicity trump process and neatness of execution.  I go back to an old college professor in spherical geometry, Dr. Glaser, who really emphasized the elegance of solving problems using the simplest of concepts.  The problem for this particular grid drawing was I needed to link each of 345 dots to exactly 8 other dots within its line of sight.  While I came up with the algorithm pretty quickly of how to execute the drawing in an elegant manner, it took me a good two days, off and on, to complete it.  I had to use a pencil in order to make sure my mistakes are not irreversible -- and I did make several.   The initial joy of finding the most elegant solution was quickly overshadowed by the frustration of keeping track of 345 dots.  In the end, I was pretty happy with the exercise because it made me realize that thinking of a novel idea won't get me anywhere unless I spend comparable time to the process of making my concept instantiated.  In art as in life, following up thoughts with plan of action do make a difference in achieving personal satisfaction.

Image: "345/8" (2010) Gel pen on 11"x17"

Found Note In My Blackberry, Written Sometime In 2008

The things that make everyday worth getting up for
Are as transparent as the air I breathe
A hello, a kiss or even a goodbye
Few things are more common yet essential to daily living
If and when you get hit with a curve ball
The instincts are raw and defenseless
You watch it fly by, freeze frame, bam!
Run, hide, fight?


The idea came to me when I saw a paint-by-number kit at the arts & crafts store a while back. Basically, art for the masses that originated sometime in the 50s, paint-by-number allows anyone to create a work of art by following simple instructions.  I've always been intrigued by the different pedagogical methods of learning how to draw so it was a simple extension of thought that brought me my own creation.  Drawing-by-number is a combination line drawing practice and mental exercise where the goal is to draw an object one is familiar with, like for instance, my Fender electric guitar, with a single continuous line i.e., not lifting the pen.  Proportion and realism is important but my main emphasis is more on the mental challenge of making sure all the parts of the object are drawn and the fluidity of the sketch.  The end product is a drawing that can be copied by anyone who follows the numbers in sequential order - which I put in the finished image.  Below is a collage from my sketchbook of several objects I've drawn using this technique.

The Shelf Life Of Art Concepts

Art projects and ideas have a shelf life where the artist must act on the concept or risk obsolescence before the idea is fully realized.  I learned this lesson in 2007, when the political atmosphere of the country is conducive to my idea -- giving away free artwork in the form of "special" paper printed with an image of a certain politician.  I made the relief print and a prototype as shown in the image above but other more pressing matters somewhat shelved the project.

The idea is that I would have only one condition upon receiving the free art -- that is, the recipient email me back a picture of the artwork after he or she uses it, preferably before flushing the toilet and I was going to publish all received photos in a website.  The project would have provided people who were extremely frustrated with Vice President Dick Cheney some avenue for relieving their frustrations.  Well, Change (capital "C") happened in November 2008 and the idea lost its relevancy as the country looked to brighter days ahead.

Records Of Consumption

No, these are not currency rolls that make up some huge stash of money.  However, I will argue that the cash equivalent that these several wads of receipts add up to will need a bigger box to fit in.  These receipts were in several plastic bags before my obsessive-compulsive nature turned them into some orderly installation, taking a couple weeks to patiently flatten and roll up.  As I was rolling receipts from each bag, I can't help but think that this is some detailed record of my life from late 2005 through early 2010.  Receipts from grocery, gas, furniture, hardware, bookstore, art store, department store, name it, it's all here. I don't think my life is interesting enough for anyone to even consider going through my Trader Joe's receipt in Jan 2007 and find I bought some prepackaged Indian food, sparkling water, some roasted almonds and frozen mochi dessert.  Like some form of consumption diary, it's mind-boggling to think how much each of us consumes over a lifetime.

Plagues And Pleasures On The Salton Sea

I admit the only reason I got this DVD was because it is narrated by one of my favorite personalities, John Waters. (Although I know of his work starting with Pink Flamingos, it’s his art collection that I find more interesting.) “Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea” is both a depressing and funny documentary about the man-made disaster called the Salton Sea. For over 70 minutes, the DVD showed several current residents of the communities surrounding of Salton City, Bombay Beach and Niland. There is an aura (and literally, the smell) of death around the Salton Sea and you can see it in the demeanor of several of the residents interviewed for the film. Once a year, I will see an article on the LA Times with a photo of a million dead tilapias, victims of the high alkaline levels at Salton Sea. And yet, there seems enough motivation for these locals to stay. There is always hope that the State of California or the Federal Government will clean up – Congressman Sonny Bono was the champion until “he went skiing,” as one of the residents stated. Some people stay in hopes that real estate prices will pick up and provide them their own version of the California Gold Rush. As I watched the DVD a second time, I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to not have options in life. Residents of the surrounding cities each had a story to tell about what makes them stay.

So where does John Waters fit in all of this? Any other narrator would have worked just fine but John’s steady monotone is the perfect complement to several humorous scenes. To inject humor in the most tragic of conditions somehow distracted me from the reality of this environmental disaster, that our planet can only sustain so much stupidity and money-making opportunities.

Soundtrack is by one of my favorite instrumental bands, Friends of Dean Martinez.

My Independent Bookstore

I've been a fan of Amazon for the last 10 years ever since I found out they do not charge for shipping and sales tax.  And I do place several orders with Amazon every year, including the bulk of this year's Christmas shopping which a completed in a 1 hour session in early December.  So today, in Pasadena, I went to Vroman's in Hastings Ranch and bought a couple art books and the kids each bought a book as well.  In spite of me buying most of my books from Amazon, I do have a sense of loyalty to Vroman's, who I've patronized for over a decade and will do long after both Barnes & Noble and Borders go out of business.  Vroman's has a very strong local consumer base in the Pasadena area and actually manages to operate the main store in the theater district and this offshoot next to Whole Foods off Foothill Blvd and Rosemead Ave.  Funny thing about this much publicized financial problems for B&N and Borders is that they put the independent bookstores out of business when they first came out and now Amazon is putting both of them in the red.  And yet, Vroman's, an independent since 1894 (yes, eighteen ninety-four) will outlive both B&N and Borders primarily because they provide what most of us book buyers want -- knowledgeable staff, great selection and strong community relations.

1.21 Gigawatts!

"1.21 Gigawatts!!! What the hell's a gigawatt?" Taken somewhere on the Westbound 10 freeway on New Year's Day. I was going 80 and he dropped me around Pomona. License plate read "TYMECAR".

Found Polaroid

"She wore ... blue vel-vet." Movies have soundtracks and so should photographs. This polaroid, I found at the PCC flea market sings that tune every time I look at it.

Sunrise, 1/26/11

It would really suck to be a black and white photographer on a morning like this. Photo taken on Route 66 in Irwindale, California on Jan 26, 2011 at 6:45AM.

Really "Hot" Lights

Since moving to this house, I realized I could use these bannisters to hold pumpkin lights for Halloween, Christmas stockings and for the rest of the year, chili pepper lights.

Back In Time

If someone told me a year ago that I will be paying $15 each for a used vinyl album today, I would have reasoned that it's highly unlikely since I don't even buy CDs anymore -- and if I did buy a CD, I typically spend $8 or less since I would buy them used. Fast forward to October 1, 2010.  Having gotten the turntable spinning again after a 15-year hiatus, I went to the antique circle in the City of Orange in search for vinyl.  This time, it's for both the music and the artwork - and the potential that these jazz vinyls are only going to get more expensive.  While they still occasionally release a U2 or Pearl Jam on vinyl, the limited market for jazz vinyl probably does not justify any production run.

Last week, I saw brand new vinyl copies of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and Birth of the Cool in a box set for a mere $117!  So in retrospect, paying $15 each for an almost mint condition John Coltrane double LP and a Buck Clayton classic is probably a bargain.  The past has such a grip on my generation that it's not even funny.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Totally Geeked Out!

I've been waiting for 2010 to end so I can finally get some trend data on all my digital photos. Totally geeked out. There is the "out-of-family" data point in 2009 where there is a definite dip in the total pics taken and this can be explained with the move from Pasadena to Rancho Cucamonga taking up most of my free time.

Another Store Closing

It was good while it lasted. A used vinyl store in IE (Ontario Mills Mall), Second Spin, sells other used media like CDs & DVDs and other electronic stuff. Looks like they lost their lease so everything is at least 30% off before they close at the end of February. Got these cool red rastafari headphones last night for $20.

I Am What I Drive

From an '80 Firebird to an '84 Camaro to a '94 Blazer to an '02 Tahoe to an '06 Infiniti G35 to a '65 Lincoln Continental.  Evolve or die.


(Originally posted on Multiply 3/15/07)

About 4 months ago, my cousin Jimmy passed away after a year and a half bout with lung cancer. What follows in this entry is factual. At his burial that warm November afternoon, when we we were all walking to say our goodbyes, I gave his 3 brothers a hug (all my first cousins) and could not even hold myself. I have not been to a blood relative's funeral since my uncle Leonardo. So this was not easy at all. Anyway, I'm the last one to believe in anything that cannot be explained by physics or the natural order of the physical universe. But as soon as I stepped away from my 3 cousins to compose myself, I looked down on the ground asking why the fuck do people have to die. And as I look down, I found this little plastic toy Lilo, from the Disney movie "Lilo & Stitch". Now, I have seen this movie several times with my 2 kids and the most famous line in the movie, after the human Lilo adopts the alien Stitch is "Ohana means family. And family means nobody get left behind...or forgotten." So maybe it's pure coincidence that I find this Lilo toy as they were about to lower Jimmy's casket into the ground for all of eternity. Maybe some toddler dropped it into the ground that sad day in November. But within a second of seeing this Lilo toy and picking it up, that line from the movie hit me "Ohana means family..." Or maybe it's Jimmy's way of using the lines of communication that's about to close. Anyway, I still keep that toy Lilo in my car and it always reminds me of that day in November 2006. Jimmy is family and he will never be forgotten.

Add'l Thoughts 12/30/10. Jimmy in 2006, then Maura in 2008. I keep telling myself that death is part of life. And in spite of what I read and what people tell me, I don't think it gets any easier -- I think you just get numb to the goddam pain of the loss of a loved one.

Buying A Book For Its Cover

The hardcover book was marked down at Vromans to $29.95 so for a 250-page book of Matisse's lesser known works, it was a simple decision to buy myself a Christmas present on 12/21/10. However, the bonus came when I realized that I had just seen this piece for the first time in my life a month ago on 11/20/10 when I visited LACMA. Talk about buying a book for its cover.

43 Days

(1/4/11: Some notes I wrote after visiting the Dennis Hopper show at MOCA last year. I had since re-watched most of my favorite Hopper movies -- Blue Velvet, Easy Rider, True Romance, Hoosiers, Speed and Apocalypse Now.)

He almost made it. 43 days and he would have seen how the world (ok, at least Los Angeles) had come to appreciate his art. Instead, fate with its usual sick sense of humor, decided otherwise. 43 days separated the day Dennis Hopper died (May 29, 2010) and the day (July 11, 2010) Dennis Hopper: Double Standard opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. After spending a couple hours at MOCA going through countless photographs, paintings and sculptures, I realized that he was a bigger loss to the artworld than most would appreciate. We know him from the 60's landmark film "Easy Rider" or as the crazy bomber in the 80's action-packed "Speed" or as the drunk assistant coach in the hoops classic "Hoosiers". I knew very little of Hopper's work outside of acting prior to my exposure to Double Standard and although, it's very impressive, I can only wonder what directions he would have taken his art if he did not have to do acting. At the end of the day, it's also sad to think you can distill a lifetime's worth of work in a warehouse-sized art exhibition but I think he will forever be in our collective consciousness like some cool, crazy uncle we see every once in a while.

When I visited, most of the visitors at MOCA Geffen Contemporary had this somber look, not very different from when you attend a funeral wake. I suppose almost everyone there knew of his death just 43 days prior to the show's opening. At the same time, a lot of people also had very surprised looks of amazement. Like going to the house of that crazy uncle for the first time and realizing that he had very special talents. Dennis Hopper, I hope you're as stoned as always, where ever you are. You're one of a kind.

Overheard at the Staples Center, Clippers vs Warriors (1/9/11, 1230pm)

(Originally posted on Facebook 1/9/11)

Woman: "You know I have this secret power?"
Man: "Yeah, what is it?"
Woman: "At work, I can just tell when certain people are coming around the corner or to my cubicle. For some reason, I can tell who the person is just by their smell. You know, I can tell different people by their unique smell. Yeah, for some reason, I can just tell."
Man: "Did you see Blake Griffin block that guy's shot?"
Woman: "No. But anyway, someone around here smells like my friend at work."
I overheard this conversation very clearly in the Staples Center filled with thousands of people because she is sitting in the seat behind me. Section 117, Row 13, Seat 19. I'm on Row 12 just in front of her. Two things. First, I showered and shampoo'd last nite so if it was me, it was probably not too bad an odor - I hope. Second, I've known this about women and their powerful sense of smell. I read that this higher sense of smell (compared to males) has an evolutionary basis where females needed it in order to protect themselves and fetus when pregnant - from things that may cause harm, near or long term. I'm also aware that some male body scents trigger hormone release in certain women that results in sexual arousal.

So given what I have read, I disagree that she has special powers. In fact, I would argue she is in the middle of the distribution curve for women in child-bearing age. Nonetheless, I was very curious if I sat next to a cat in heat.

Interlocked (A Game Concept)

(Originally posted on Facebook 1/15/11)

I think I have the general concept for this game. This is a two player strategy game consisting of 81 unique shapes that are designed to be interlocking. The game starts by picking a seed shape placed on the game board. Each player then picks 40 shapes each from the pile. Selection may be done via alternating selection of 2 each until all 80 shapes are distributed equally. Each shape placed on the game board earns points by counting the number of edges and corners that is shared with the played shapes. A play of a multi-corner and multi-edge shape placed inside surrounding shapes can get the most points, as well as a bonus. The least amount of points is 1, where a shape played shares a single side with the already played shapes. Of course, I just blogged a while back that an elegant concept is really not sufficient. I need to find a way to manufacture the prototype, get my copyright and find a market. (Ok, I'll settle for someone willing to play a couple rounds just to see how the rules may be improved.)

Above: Two possible outcomes when all 81 game pieces have been played.

An Inherited Trait

(Originally posted on Facebook 1/23/11)

I thought I was being visited by a ghost. I asked my 12-year old to write a draft of some essay for his school and all of a sudden it hit me. I cannot believe what I was staring at.

Maura had all these note pads, scribbles and lists all over the place -- phone numbers, grocery lists, call back notes, etc. I compiled a book full of them and although I'm used to seeing her handwriting over the years, pasting every single one of those notes on this blank book made me realize how unique her penmanship was -- part print, part cursive, beautiful. Only a spouse or a parent would appreciate the way she wrote. So it took a little over a month to gather all these notes and I just realized how I already miss her little post-it notes and scribbles and how I am going to miss her handwriting. Until I reviewed my son's draft that night.

I don't know if it was one of those postcards from beyond but here's the rest of this anecdote. My eldest is not as good as speller as his younger sibling so I found a couple misspelled words. I asked him to please fix the spelling errors. I told him to write down the correct spelling on a separate sheet. And as he was writing, that's when I just froze staring at the paper like I saw a ghost. The way he formed his letters is every bit just like his mother. Not only was his penmanship identical but his penstrokes like the tail of an "a" are every bit handed down maternally as I've observed countless times over the years.

So, I really don't know if there is a biological explanation but I definitely am very interested if there is any research on handwriting as an inherited trait. I suppose traits passed on to offsprings is just nature's way of ensuring continuity of the genes.