The introduction of Ottawa in Lonely Planet guide reads “Description of Ottawa read like an appealing personal ad: young, vibrant, clean, bilingual, likes kids, long walks on the river”. It is a small city, with no more than 1 million people. It is in Ontario, but it borders Quebec. The city is chosen to be the capital as a compromise between Toronto and Montreal.

I arrived in Ottawa on 29th Dec, and stayed at Barefoot Hostel. (I found out later that there is another hostel called Ottawa Jail Hostel, built from a deserted jail.) It is a small Hostel, with about 16 -20 beds in mixed 4-beds rooms. It conveniently located within walking distance to most of the attractions.

On second day, I visited the Byward Market and the National Gallery of Canada. Byward market is a “convivial” four-district cluster of restaurants, boutique shops, and vendor booths. On arriving at the market, I immediately noticed a long queue in front of Beavertails, a pastry shop. This must be a good shop, so I joined the queue. After about ten minutes, I had my first Beaver tail, with maple butter. The crust was crispy, and the maple butter tasted like sweet chocolate.

Despite the ugly spider in front of the national gallery of Canada, the gallery is a beautiful piece of architecture and well worths visiting. (Too bad that it does not allow photography.) It features a very comprehensive collection of Canadian artists and a decent selection of European paintings among other collections. I was most interested the works of the group of seven, and baroque period of European paintings. It took me seven hours to go through major exhibitions. Also I was once again reminded that I just don’t get modern arts.

The most picturesque building, the parliament building at night. The snow flakes are projected by light. In front of it was the eternal flame.

Parliament building during the day. A neo-gothic style building with grotesque decorations.

Parliament Hill is the other major sight. The architecture is of neo-Gothic style, with lots of grotesque decorations. They must have biblical references. (I should probably read the bible for going to Europe.) At night, snow flakes are projected onto the building, giving it a winter feel. It carries a sense of majesty, elegance, and peace, especially when put together with the eternal flame.

I walked around the city on my third day and saw the supreme court, university of Ottawa, Rideau Canal (closed though), and Arts Center, and then got tired and sat inside a movie theater to watch The King’s Speech. (It is a good movie, highly recommended.)

When I left the city today, I said to myself, it is indeed a young city. Though it does not have grand architectures, humongous museums, and a long history, Ottawa does offer a more friendly and cosy feel that is missing in larger cities.

More at my facebook photo album.

Henry VIII

I have always wanted to write something about London since I came back in early September. But there were so many things to say: the history, the art, the architectures, the religions, the science, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Sherlock Holmes’ imaginary residence on 221b baker street, and Samuel Johnson’s House. So naturally, I don’t know where to start, and haven’t written anything yet. Now it seems that my memory is fading, and I have to resort to photos to remember what I have seen in London.

I still remember there is one piece of advice in the Lonely Planet Travel Book: if you have to pay for one ticket during your stay in London, make it the Tower of London. Even though it is called the Tower of London, it is more of a castle than just a tower. When I visited it, there was an exhibition on Henry VIII going on. Many of his original manuscripts, weapons he has used, armors he wore, his portraits, clothings and many other things were on display. His biggest contribution, according to the history book, is that he separated England from Roman Catholic Church. And that separation has a lasting effect in the politics and religions of Europe. Besides being a king, he is also a great athlete, a strong warrior, and a master of various languages. Body, mind, courage, he has them all, so he seems to be the right king material.

But there is another side of his marvelous genius, as most talents do: the ego. It was mentioned in the exhibit that he was only concerned about his own glories and care little about others. The separation from Roman Catholic Church freed him from his last constraints. He is effectively the only power in England. He was famous for settling dispute on gallows, disputes in politics, religions, and in personal aspects. Especially astonishing is his disastrous family life. Though the eager to father a son might be a reasonable human desire,  to attain this goal, he has literally destroyed his family: He had 6 wives: two were divorced, two beheaded, one died, and one survived.

It is often said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is true for Henry VIII. And it also seems to me that any man, even without power, needs a balancing force just to counter one’s own ego.

Cambridge – Why So Serious?

Associated with names such as Francis Bacon, Sir Issac Newton, James Maxwell, Charles Darwin, Watson and Crick, in Cambridge one has every reason to be serious, yet Cambridge students decidedly do not take themselves too seriously. The photo is the front page of Cambridge student newspaper May 2009 issue, which I took from the tourist center in Cambridge University. The year 2009 happens to be the 800th anniversary of this ancient institute, and the front page depicts this 800th graduating class in the most disarrayed form.

The student newspaper is merely one illustration of the light-hearted spirit of Cambridge. Another amusing story I learned is about the champion of the Cambridge pub crawl. The latest winner drank 14 pints in 17 minutes, and was presented a green scarf after his feat, “presumably to match the color of his face”. The university administration certainly does not like its students spending all their time entertaining themselves. And that’s why the Cambridge railway station is built so far away from the university town. The campus police, as I was told, had the authority to arrest any student in possession of a ticket to London on the platform when the station was first built. Another anecdote has to do with the first woman college Girton College. When it was first opened in 1870s, it was located 30 miles from Cambridge, with the intention to keep its female students from “male distractions”.

The name Cambridge alone inspires awes and admiration, yet the campus is full of refreshing youthful spirits, sometimes defiant and mischievous. Despite its age, Cambridge is still a quintessential example of vibrant university town. Its success may just depend on this very defiant and mischievous spirit of youth, which is best captured by Rudyard Kipling in “Taking everything you like seriously, except yourselves. “

New York City

Started as a trading post for the Dutch West India Company in 1624, New York City (Manhattan more precisely since the rest four boroughs didn’t join officially until 1898) gradually became the major port of trade between North America and Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. And as the business in the then “new” continent flourishes and with more and more immigrants coming in, NYC grew bigger and bigger in much the same ways as the new land did. The inevitable clashes between the old and the new worlds began in August 1776. They won, of course, and George Washington delivered his first inauguration address in 1789 in this city.

The layout of Manhattan streets indicates the city is very well planned: the neatly divided streets in middle and uptown, and the naming of the streets — 1st to 7th ave from east to west, and 1st to around 160th streets from south to north. This would be boring for many, but is very convenient for visitors to locate themselves in the overcrowded little island.

Some of the traditional must-sees in Manhattan include the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum of Arts (the Met), Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Arts (MoMA), Central Park, Financial district and Times Square. Central Park is by far my favorite in the city. Its size is relatively large considering the limited real estate in such a narrow island, and the crowd doing morning exercising is most impressive to me. They jog, bike, doing stretch and yoga and all other kinds of exercises. In central park, I feel the real vitality of the city, and lively, natural, warm and human aspects of the land, whereas the busy bees in business attire on wall street offers a tense urban passion. The Met is huge, which could easily take up a whole week, or even a life time, as one of the museum curators told us: he had been in the Met for 32 years and yet has not seen it all. Millions of other smaller museums offer collections that will satisfy your special interest.

Manhattan is of course not just about museums, parks and streets. A whopping 46% of the population speak another language at home. Here on subway, you can hear most major languages around the world. Chinatown, little Italy, and other ethnic centers are scattered around the downtown areas. Walking around the streets in Manhattan is already a scene by itself, but if you need “a higher dose of entertainment”, theaters are abound. Mamma Mia!, Lion King, Chicago are some of the current shows, costly though.

Some practicalities. Cost is the major concern for budget travelers. The hostel I lived in costs $35 per night, and plus the food around $15 per day, so $50 per day is for barely survival. The museum admission fee is around $10 each, and if you want to really learn something, an audio set is a must, which would add another $5. The theater ticket is totally another story: they could easily go up to around $100 if you are looking for a decent seat or a popular show. Eating at a common restaurant would cost you around $15 for lunch and $25 for dinner, and tax (8%) and tipping (10-20%) will add 15-25% more of whatever you pay.

Though the best way to explore the city is on foot, at least in theory, the subway/bus is a cheap way to get around. You can get the Metrocard in any subway station by cash or credit cards. They offer prepaid card (2.25 per ride), one day pass($8.25), and seven day week pass($27.25). You may benefit from studying (yes studying) the subway system fully before entering the underground because it is the most complicated subway system I have ever seen. They use colors, letters, numbers, and geometry in order to distinguish trains. Two or three trains may share the same line for quite a distance. For example, 4,5,6 trains share the same line on most part of the east Manhattan, and only diverge when they are near the boundaries of Manhattan. The difference between “local” and “express” are usually distinguished by the geometry around the number. Take 7 for example, 7 in diamond is the express train, meaning it won’t stop in some stations, and 7 in circle is the local train, meaning it will stop at all the stations. So you may guess already that the symbol for the stations are different as well, plus different types of connections, shuttle buses, and stations that you cannot get to the opposite direction without getting out of the station. Anyway, good luck reading the map.

WD Sailing Log

People always like to see themselves as being at the center of the world and proudly enjoy doing so. A map sold in China will put China at the center, one sold in Europe will put Europe at the center, one sold in Australia, as I was told, will put the south hemisphere on the top and Australia at the center. The fact is that the earth is, thank heaven, round. You can see it in whatever ways you like and whatever ways that satisfy the collective pride of a people, a pride that is sometimes justified and necessary.

This summer trip starts from the unabashedly dubbed capital of the new world, NYC, to the de facto capital of the old world, London, with an excursion to Edinburgh to satisfy my own longtime curiosity of Scotland bagpipe and kilt.

Five years ago, Bob Xu showed me a book called With Three Thousand USD, I traveled around the world. It was a fascinating book to read at that time, for it not only gave an account of a world totally exotic to me, but also showed the possibility of seeing the world without first being ridiculously rich. As my younger cousin recited the lesson Nothing to Sell and Nothing to Buy in New Concept English to me over Skype several weeks ago, I was quite delightful to see the connection between me and a tramp, or in fact, any backpacker and a tramp. A part of the lesson reads “His few material possession make it possible for him to move from place to place with ease. By having to sleep in the open, he gets far closer to the world of nature than most of us ever do. He may hunt, beg, or steal occasionally to keep himself alive; he may even in times of real need, do a little work; but he will never sacrifice his freedom.”

Backpacking is not about a bag, a ticket, a hostel and a destination, that’s what backpacking needs, not what it is. What backpacking really is is wherever you want to go, you go.

A week at Stanford: Only the paranoid survive

I arrived at San Fransisco airport on 30 Dec. 2008 for a 12-day trip in Bay Area, to visit my aunt’s family and friends. After skiing in Lake Tahoe over the new year, I spent a week at Stanford, reading, writing, and meeting old friends. Chatting with old friends is one of the most enjoyable things in life. We have talked about lives, people we know, and mostly plans for the future.

One friend is preparing LSAT while doing his materials engineering PhD, and he plans to apply for a joint degree in Law school. The prospect of being among the first waves of Chinese oversea students obtaining both PhD and JD and joining the elite group of lawyers drives him. He has even worked out his schedule of the application, from taking LSAT prep course, to test date, to the year of application.

Another friend, who quit Intel before joining an EE master program, is searching for something more interesting to do for her life. She took me to the headquarter of Intel, where she used to work. I had a chance to learn about the history behind Intel and how the chips are made. The personal stories of the founders, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moores, as well as the first CEO Andrew Grove, are the most intriguing among all the technologies and science demonstrations. One picture showing all three of them injured either from skiing trip or some other sports is hilarious. One quote from Andrew Grove has a lasting impression on me: ” Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”

The last friend I met is in her first year in business school. Heavy course loads have consumed most of her energy, but she still looks lively. Stanford business school offers her a big jump in her career, and she is looking for something big for her life. With the knowledge of what she enjoys doing and a realistic picture of what the world could offer, she has laid out several priorities for her career without losing sight of other options in this dire economic situation.

Most of the three conversations revolves around our future plans , not surprisingly, given our age. These talks help me refine my own career plans. Though the details of the plan still need fuller considerations, the rationale seems to have emerged: Use what I enjoy doing and what I am good at to satisfy the need of the society. The first half is personal. The second half, which is more important, is to ensure the plan is relevant to my time. Curiosity is sometimes aimless, especially in science, so relevance helps keep the aimless creature on the right track. Being relevant to the current need of the society also adds significance to the work, and serves as a perpetual source of motivation.

So the question is what is relavent. On the science and technology side, the big things are new energy, biotechnologies, (especially bio-pharmaceutical revolutions), bioscience (the origins of life), nanotechnology (especially quantum computation and new materials), information technology, neuroscience (especially the answer of what is consciousness), space science and technology (especially the prospect of space travel).  On the social/political side, the rise of China and India, the intergration of people from every corners of the world into an exceedingly connected world, the healthy aging of the superpower US, and the prevention of any large scale war. On the humanitarian side, poverty, the access to equal opportunity of education for the poor, fair distribution of wealth among nations and their citizens, spiritual harmony among various religious groups.

What one man can do is little, but as long as it is rightly guided by conscience, the contribution will be meaningful, and hopefully significant.

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