The Little Things We're Talking About 

Piedmont man builds a Chinese-American museum in Marysville; someone misnamed Ron Cowan's $40 million airport shortcut the "Ron Cohen" Parkway; and meet the Cal researcher who wants to save you from spoiled milk.


Enter the Dragon
Brian Tom thought it was time to re-explore his cultural history, and so he set out to create the Chinese American Museum of Northern California. But the Piedmont resident isn't building it in the Bay Area, where most of his target audience resides. His museum is taking shape two and a half hours north in Marysville, a small town by the Feather River, where the total Asian population is just 6 percent.

In the mid-to-late-19th century, though Marysville was the second-largest and most important Chinatown in the country, reports UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies Professor Ling-chi Wang. For Chinese miners during the Gold Rush, the city was a recreational haven with restaurants, mail service to China, gambling, and opium dens. It's also home to the Bok Kai Temple, the only Chinese temple from the Gold Rush era still in existence. "It was a very lively place up there in the foothill of the mother lode," Wang says.

Tom, whose prior occupations include attorney and designer of "Asian-American-themed" houses in the Oakland Hills, hopes his museum will uncover hidden aspects of Chinese-American history, such as the psychological effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act. He also wants to dispel the stereotype of the misogynistic Chinese male made famous by The Joy Luck Club. Tom will host an event in Marysville this weekend as part of the town's 126-year-old Bok Kai Festival ( Tom hopes to kickstart his dialogue via lectures and films, and public interviews of the town's more prominent Chinese Americans. His challenge will be to get Bay Area residents to make the trek.

The curator, whose grandfather settled in Marysville, says he hopes his museum, which is still a few months away from being open full-time, will be an opportunity for people to view history objectively. "Truth has a value in itself," he says. "I'm willing to go wherever the truth leads us."
-- Kathleen Richards


Commuter Glitch
Someone, it seems, has named Alameda's new $40 million roadway for Ron Cohen. Now would that be Ron Cohen the Children's Hospital physician, or perhaps the Cal chemistry professor? Or maybe some pen-pusher simply screwed up, and nobody noticed for two years.

In fact, this four-lane boondoggle, which links the Oakland Airport to a corporate park built by politically connected Alameda developer Ron Cowan (see cover story) is officially the Ron Cowan Parkway. But you won't find that on Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, Mapquest, or your onboard navigation gizmo. How Cowan was electronically converted to Judaism (apologies in advance if he's already Jewish) is a mystery. This glitch, after all, transcends a simple typo.

The big map sites get their street data from global companies such as Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ, each of which claims to deliver the most accurate data available. These companies get their intel many ways -- besides having contacts at thousands of state and local government entities, each employs hundreds of drivers to scour the roads and verify, as NAVTEQ puts it, "everything from addresses and road signs to turn restrictions for each segment." But apparently they, like most East Bay residents, haven't discovered Ron Cowan Parkway.

Regardless of the error's source, the beleaguered developer may face a rough road to immortality. Just consider VIPTone, an Alameda company located near the airport. Visitors seeking directions to its corporate HQ in Harbor Bay Business Park -- Cowan's magnum opus -- are advised to get there via "Ron Cohen Parkway."
-- Michael Mechanic


What the Nose Knows
Milk lovers rejoice: Josephine Chang wants to save you from the horror of sniffing a carton on the verge of expiration.

The Cal engineering grad student is hard at work on an electronic nose that would leave the unpleasant task to the container itself. A thin, organic transistor sensitive to compounds produced by the spoiled beverage is printed (yes, printed) right on the milk carton. When the nasty stuff binds to the transistor surface, its electrical conductivity changes, and a cheap detector -- yet to be developed -- picks it up. Instead of you turning green, a little spot on your milk carton would.

The concept isn't new -- electronic sniffers have been around since the 1960s -- but they've been used to go where real noses can't, detecting land mines or bacteria in blood, for instance. This new technology is aimed primarily at food spoilage. "That's the holy grail of electronic noses," Chang says.

Her e-nose -- which is at least five years away from commercial use -- would ideally add only five or ten cents to food products, she says. But wait. Aren't humans born with a superior device? "Our own olfactory senses are pretty keen," notes Daniel Erickson, who was interrogated as he bought a Galaxy refrigerator at the downtown Oakland Sears. He said he'd pay a little extra just to see if the technology worked, but added that it was unnecessary. Chang's answer: "You can't open your carton of milk in the store."
-- Kathleen Richards


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