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Archive for the 'Musings' Category

In search of a supermarket

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

The teeming cities of South Asia I think I will now always associate with this acridity of the air, which mercifully today has nonetheless been light and cool.  It might almost be called refreshing, if you somehow ignore the omnipresent and insistent charred notes mixed with something earthier.The resulting light is also strange; you are always straining your eyes to make out hazy shapes in the half darkness of no streetlights and dusty clouds, or else squinting to see through the blinding glare of a single functioning headlamp accompanied by the blare of klaxons and the roar of motorized impatience.  Always straining and squinting, and trying not to breath too deeply or slip off the shallow, pitched seat of the rickety rickshaw.  Must not let anything fall out of one’s grasp, or venture limbs too far off the spatial footprint of the carriage, and even that strategy often seems risky, what with oncoming traffic and swerving mad dashes across highways, racing against trailer trucks and buses.  It’s also strange how the strength of the headlamps can throw certain details into such stark relief, making a surreal dream sequence of hazy silhouettes contrasted against a chiascuro dirt road.


Am thinking about consumerism, after walking about a dusty mile in dress boots in search of a supermarket as malls are plunged into intermittent darkness by brownouts, or fuses being blown or something.  I failed to find one, so have not been able to buy pseudo necessities like tissue and more genuine necessities like breakfast and bottled water.  I suppose I always imagined India to be more like China – masses of destitute juxtaposed against gleaming icons designed by Herzog & de Meuron, ancestral villages displaced to build glittering malls filled with flagship stores for Zara and Banana Republic.  Indeed I did walk by and into malls boasting what I think to be outrageously expensive stores and restaurants–that is in relation to the products (e.g. United Colours of Benetton, Tommy Hilfiger, Lacoste, Friday’s) mixed with more reasonable yet still definitely “lifestyle” brands (The Body Shop, Nike, Pizza Hut, Subway).  But still, the dismal appearance of the international airport (currently undergoing much-needed renovations) and the general state of affairs tells a very different story.  I have to say that I am both completely spoilt by, and wholeheartedly approve of, the sort of full-spectrum consumer-oriented array of goods you find in Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong.  Of course there should be dozens, if not hundreds of salty snacks available at any corner 7-11–quick game, name 3 types/brands for each country of origin: Japan, Australia, China, US–and at least as many chocolate-involving snacks.

Or at least if I’m going to have to be thrown into a development/environment/social studies mental mode then I shouldn’t have to straddle the divide between business-class travel and NGO-budget housing.

Hanoi Hello!

Saturday, February 2nd, 2008

So… I’m currently in a Hanoi hotel, gaping in disbelief at the TV, which I’ve turned on for the first time in three days in the hopes of finding FTV.  Instead, I’ve chanced upon a National Geographic documentary called “Wild S-x” that made me gasp.  Really, my inner prude is thoroughly shocked!  They’ve covered, and very explicitly descibed (along with suggestive background music) the notable practices of about three dozen species, including Bonobo monkeys, snails and sea hares.  The wry narrator has used lines  like “writhing”, “giving new meaning to the phrase ‘swinging in the trees'” and “shocking climax”.  Ugh. 

Yes, so I’m in Vietnam and excitingly it’s my first visit here.  The catch is that I’m working on a case, so I’ve been running about non-stop doing interviews and checking-out price lists.  I’m not complaining though, although everything seems like a health hazard: the second-hand smoke, the hectic motorcycle traffic, the industry I’m investigating…

I want to go see the water-puppet show!  Apparently it’s a must-see, surprising and intriuging.  Maybe tomorrow, after we done the last of our planned interviews and site-visits.

Whew, I need to get some sleep.

I finished Freud’s Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious as well as Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic and Baby this past week, and I’m fairly proud of myself of actually getting some reading in.  Now all I need to do is squeeze in a few more cultural activities and I’ll be a semblance of my old self 🙂  Although honestly who knows what I was thinking when I imagined that I might get to attend the opera or ballet at the Opera (directly opposite the hotel, I can see it from my window)??  Already I’m grateful that we even got to drive past Ho Chi Minh’s masoleum earlier while hurrying from one late-evening interview to another.

The pre-war architecture is beautiful, and I’m finding the city quite romantic and very picturesque, perhaps aided by the unsually chilly weather (I should have brought fluffier winter-wear!), and my admittedly selective vision and strong imagination.  I keep viewing everything through the hazy lens of a cinematographer dreaming about Indochine.  All of which I can easily see as perverse and astheticism of the worst sort (“ah, what charmingly decrepit alleys and crumbling French Colonial villas!”).

I’m thinking I must pick up a few glazed dishes and maybe a silk lantern or two while I’m here.

The food here’s been pretty good.  I’ve only had the pho at the Hilton Opera Hanoi and I like it.  For restaurants I recommend Wild Lotus, Opera Club, Vine and Wild Rice (whose decor I’m in love with).  For bars and clubs I like Ibox (sp?), and Chic Mambo (more a cafe), as well as Funky Monkey.   For hotels definitely stay at the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi (the historic Opera wing is fantastic).

I wanted to talk about nostalgia, and how nice its been to chat with people from college (K, S, R, and E), as well as visits by Kevin and Eric etc. etc.  Maybe next time.

I have one fluffy now.  I call it “Puff Puff”…  perhaps I’ll say its name is “Puffin”, as inspired by Louis.  Puff-puff!!  I miss my fluffy pet.


Friday, June 8th, 2007

Yes, there was Bill Clinton yesterday, and Bill Gates today, and honors and ceremonies and prayers and cheering and parties and toasts and family and hugs and pictures and perfect weather…

 After Afternoon Exercises (7 Jun 2007) This was about an hour after the newly-minted Dr. William Gates gave his inspiring address to the Harvard Alumni Association.  I sat alone in a nook on the top of the Widener steps while the rest of family had great seats somewhere nearer the stage.  This gave me the space to let the profound sadness of Commencement sink in past the pomp and jubilation.

There should be more weeping, that’s my feeling about all this. 

Yes, it’s a jubilant, joyful, blessed, exciting, hopeful, inspiring, beautiful, precious time, but it’s also a time of ghosts, of memories, of finality, of fleeting youth, of loss and separation.  To weep seems to be the only appropriate response.  Weep for joy, weep in relief, weep in exhaustion, weep in mourning, weep in gratitude.  Weep for the bittersweet tang of unrealized relationships, forgotten dreams and missed opportunities.  Weep for the painfully beautiful metamorphosis of nebulous possibilities into sharpened minds, coherent personalities, and recognizable individuals.  Let the tears of rejoicing and anxiety and disbelief comingle and stream freely down in respectful acknowledgement for the kindness of time, of others, and of God. 

What else can we do but weep for the ghosts that we will add to the multitudes already wandering the hallways of the buildings we loved and the dining halls where we ate and the libraries where we worked?  The accumulation of emotions and energy and effort that we have expended here over the years echo ever and only louder and more poignantly as our rooms become empty, and we violently, unceremoniously, and even unwillingly erase the physical evidence of our time here.  Every bare shelf and abandoned bed starkly attests to the existence of their previous owners.  And these owners no longer exist – where is that boy that worried about a midterm grade, or that girl that threw everything into her student group?  We will be different tomorrow, we have no choice, and the future promises so much.  How can we not weep?  There should be much more weeping.

Weep, and you will know then that in some small way, perhaps without noticing or even acquiescing, in this place and with these people you encountered the mystery and meaning of life.

This is the last time…

Friday, May 25th, 2007

That’s it.  I took my last final exam for my last college class today.  And of course it had to be, erm, Ec1010b (ugh), and of course the exam was almost inconceivably long and hard.  I mean it was literally almost inconceivable – during the exam I wondered a couple of times if I had somehow become drugged or affected by heatstroke (it was about as hot as Singapore today – high 80s) because everytime I looked up it seemed 35 minutes had passed and I had only completed three points worth of questions despite working as quickly as possible.  This was a problem because there were 180 points on the three-hour exam, i.e. you had to work at a rate of one point per minute to finish in time.  In the end I completed the first 30 points in 90 minutes and the last 100 points in 40 minutes.  Awful.

But it doesn’t matter anymore.


I’ve been reflecting a lot about my Harvard experience, unsurprisingly, to fill out the many various surveys and end-of-course evaluations that accompany graduating college here, and also in preparation for Experiences, for the admissions office tours and other related projects.  I’ve already said all the harsh, critical things I’ve wanted to express about my academic, social, extracurricular, advising and residential experience (lots of appreciation to the people who listened to my rants), so I shall not repeat them.  But it must be remembered that in the end I am overwhelmingly happy, and grateful, and very, very sad to leave. 

I remember Jeff telling me last year about how he cried before we left on Tour, and now I think I will cry too.  Even just typing that makes me a little tearful. 

Ryan and I have been indulging in so much nostalgia recently.  Every day is the last day now, every time is the last time now.  The last time we’ll work HUCEP, the last time we’ll turn in blue books, the last time we’ll use Board Plus.  It’s a little heart-wrenching to think about, which may be partly why we don’t think about it much and usually don’t remember.  But then we do, and it’s a little blow. 

The last chance to say goodbye to the underclassmen, the last opportunity to take pictures, the last access to that favorite professor’s office hours…

Right now I’m finishing up my last two CUE-guide course evaluations, and I’m writing the most glowing praise I can come up with for this particular class. 

For the question “Would you recommend this class to other students, and why?”  I indicated the most positive possible response: “recommend with enthusiasm”, and then wrote in the reason:

Professor L. is one of the best professors at Harvard, no question.  She is brilliant and willing to share her wealth of scholarship and incredibly rich first-hand knowledge, yet also wonderfully down-to-earth, irrepressibly curious and eager to hear about new ideas and technology.  Professor L. is warm and interested in students and genuinely concerned with gently but firmly pushing them towards excellence in this class and all other areas of their lives.  Anyone who has the privilege of taking any class with her is blessed, and will likely remember the class as one of the most motivating, intellectually invigorating, relevant one they’ve taken.  This is what all Harvard courses should be like, so perhaps you shouldn’t take this if you don’t want most of your other classes to pale in comparison.

And then to the prompt “Please comment on this person’s teaching”, I write: 

Superb.  Almost beyond superlatives; the quality of Professor L.’s teaching is matched by only a very small, precious group of professors at Harvard or anywhere, I imagine.  What more can I say to laud her ability to put students at ease and make them feel engaged and valued despite her intimidating intellect plus her daunting scholarly AND noble (humanitarian) accomplishments?  I have never encountered such a thoughtfully and successfully designed seminar – one proof was that we never wanted to end discussions on time, and I wouldn’t be able to decide which sessions were most highly anticipated, useful or generally enjoyed, those where Professor L. lectured, those where invited guests spoke or those where fellow students presented.  Professor L.’s leadership of the class must be credited for this exceptional learning experience with quite literally never a dull moment.  I will stop only because I imagine my praise will start to be undermined by seeming to be embarrassingly effusive and hyperbolic.  But I stand by what I’ve written as my accurate and well-considered opinion.

I *heart* my professors.  Can you tell?

Coming up

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007

View from the Quincy Master's Residence (8 May 2007) OR Sunset over Cambridge

It seems so unreal.  The end of the semester (in just 3 days!) will mark the end of my college career.

I feel as if I’m wasting time not thinking carefully about what I should be doing and people I should be spending time with before the opportunity slips away forever.  Already lots of underclassmen have completed their final exams, moved out and taken off to start their summer vacations, which means I won’t get to say goodbye to them.

But the truth is I don’t really know how to say goodbye to this place.  Will these four years worth of relationships and experiences all turn into a distant, hazy memory of a mirage in the years after I leave?  I don’t know, and not knowing is also scary.

I’m no longer very scared, in truth; I suppose I’ve reconciled myself to the inevitable, and I also feel some excitement for the dim promises of the future.  I’m tired of trying hard, so I’m just going to relax for a while, and see where God takes me.

UNEP Executive Director at KSG (8 May 2007) 
Achim Steiner, the new Executive Director of the UNEP spoke at the JFK Jr. Forum at the Kennedy School earlier this month (May 8th).  He is outrageously only the second speaker I’ve ever seen at this public forum, which hosts several speakers a week, from former Iran President Khatami to the current Director of the FBI to Queen Rania of Jordan.

 My first Red Sox Game! (12 May 2007)

Can you believe this was my first time at Fenway Park? Ryan was very good about explaining what was happening – the Sox trashed the Baltimore Orioles (May 12) 🙂 

PS: I got my thesis comments and final grade today.  Meh.  I thank God for the (emotional) damage control.

PPS: I got a blood titre drawn today to check if my previous Hep B immunization worked.  And I managed to pass out.  Huh?!  I will declare that I am not consciously afraid of needles or blood.  I’ve also felt faint before when having blood drawn, but this was my first full-out loss of consciousness.  Very odd.  When I woke up I didn’t realise I had fainted until I discovered that I was in a different part of the room in a different (reverse reclined) chair that I must have been carried into.  I didn’t even think to ask how long I’d been out.

The best of times

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

I am not ready or willing to leave the excitement, the richness of resources and the very comfortable community that I’ve grown accustomed to here.

And that’s part of why I’m so busy all the time now.  I’m rushing to enjoy the opportunities that I’ve complacently taken for granted for years now at the College, the University and the Boston area.  The photos below offer a selection of these opportunities from the last couple of days (lots more photos on Flickr):

 Brown Bag Lunch (1 May 2007)

Today I went to an open brown bag lunch discussion at the Kennedy School with Kishore Mahbubani, currently the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS (and for over a decade previously the Singapore ambassador to the UN).  The three of us seniors (Shi Ming, Xin Wei and myself) all arrived late from different places and settled for various nooks at the back of the room.

 The Sticky Bun Throw-Down (30 Apr 2007)

Another random but cool opportunity – on Monday the Food Network was filming a tangentially Harvard-related episode so whoever wanted to go to the filming could enter a lottery to go into Boston.  I made Ryan sign up with me  and while at the venue we recognised another half dozen of our friends in the crowd of about 90 Harvard affiliates.  Those were some fantastic sticky buns they made!

Here we are with the stars of the episode.  From left: Ryan, Joanne Chang (of Flour Bakery and Cafe), me, Bobby Flay (one of America’s Iron Chefs!), Tiffany.

 Old State House (30 Apr 2007)

Here I am playing tourist (after four years of living here!) right outside the Old State House in downtown Boston, which I’d never seen before.  We accidentally came across the building while walking from the filming to the Harvard Club of Boston at One Federal to Macy’s at Downtown Crossing; I’ve always loved the compact-ness of Boston.  Ryan (who took this picture) tells me that is the very balcony from which the American Declaration of Independence was first proclaimed in 1776.

I was struck by the incongruous discovery that part of the building now houses the State Street subway station (on the orange and green lines).

Can you see why I don’t want to leave?  Sigh.

Tomorrow evening (Wednesday) I will be presenting my senior honors thesis as part of the series of informal “Senior thesis desserts” (implying the free Finale desserts which will be served).  Quincy House SCR, 7pm in case you’re interested.  Which also means I now need to go and re-read my thesis for the first time in weeks and prepare some slides and speaking notes.  What an anxiety-inducing task.

Response to: “The Great Global Warming Swindle”

Monday, April 9th, 2007

Ok, so here’s my public service post.  A couple weeks back I saw a film that first aired Mar 8, 2007 on Channel 4 in the UK titled “The Great Global Warming Swindle” that (in brief) rejects the idea that climate change (global warming) is significantly prompted/accelerated by greenhouse gases produced by human industry (namely carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels). 

It was a disturbing film to watch, to say the least.  Anyhow, I was disturbed enough to ask some questions and do some research on my own, so here’re the results.  In summary: “Swindle” is a big swindle.

Read my more detailed comments below (originally posted to the campus discussion list where I first heard of “Swindle”):

To C and everyone else,

I’m glad the Channel 4 “polemic” (their label, not mine, but note this is NOT an objective “documentary”) has come up on this list again so I can post about it. I can say that when I first saw it I thought it seemed pretty persuasively put together, and being a complete non-expert in the very specific fields covered (oceanography, atmospheric dynamics etc.) I wasn’t prepared to come to any conclusions. As background, I am a senior in ESPP, so it’s not as if I haven’t had a substantial amount of exposure to these fields or their experts; I’m just not an expert myself, as I imagine to be generally the case in society.

So I went to the head of ESPP, Professor James McCarthy, who’s worked on the IPCC report (co-author and/or co-chair for parts of the two most recent Reports). (Unrelated: He’s also Master of Pforzheimer House.) Anyway, I sent him a copy of the video and asked for his response. After he saw it, he rejected the arguments presented as being generally without merit (which is putting it mildly). Which of course skeptics and cynics might find unsurprising. However, here’re some revealing facts that emerge, which you can verify from various online sources.

To summarize:

(1) The main scientific counter-theory (or theories, if you like) to a significant human contribution to climate change via greenhouse gases has been roundly refuted a number of times already by a slew of other papers in Science and Nature, and mostly before 2005! (For example, the clips of Professor John Christy talking about discrepancies in troposphere/surface warming are outdated since Professor Christy has already authored a paper admitting that his earlier findings were wrong.) For more details on all this, here’s an easy-to-read summary:,,2032572,00.html

(2) The journalistic integrity of the filmmaker, Martin Durkin, is very questionable, which you can easily verify for yourselves. See the complaints of intentional and complete misrepresentation levelled by one of the scientists who appeared:

Carl Wunsch, the MIT oceanography professor in the film, has posted his official response to the “The Great Global Warming Swindle” program on his MIT website. In it, Professor Wunsch says that he was completely misrepresented, and is very unhappy about that, to say the least. He opens his response with: “I believe that climate change is real, a major threat, and almost surely has a major human-induced component.”

And specifically on the way his comments were edited into the film: “By [my comments’] placement in the film, it appears that I am saying that since carbon dioxide exists in the ocean in such large quantities, human influence must not be very important—diametrically opposite to the point I was making—which is that global warming is both real and threatening.”

On the film “An Inconvenient Truth” (heavily attacked by “Swindle”): “I am often asked about Al Gore and his film. […] Some of the details in the film make me cringe, but I think the overall thrust is appropriate.” (emphasis mine) In other words, one of the few credible scientists in the film (and the only credible one according to Professor McCarthy) in fact believes the exact opposite of what the filmmaker(s) portrayed him as saying/believing!

Read Professor Wunsch’s response in full (and see links to other revealing news articles and websites about the science and filmmaker behind “Swindle”) online here:

I appreciate the attention of those people who’ve read this far. I think debate is important, including in the natural sciences (and of course in the policies that lean on that science). At the same time I think the definitive conclusion to draw about Durkin’s film is NOT to take anything in “Swindle” very seriously without careful consideration.

Jason Yeo

PS: Please feel free to forward this to other lists where you’ve seen “Swindle” discussed or mentioned. I think it’s important that people have an opportunity to conclude for themselves whether the film has any actual merit.

PPS: Kindly refrain from making overly broad assumptions about the details of my personal (non-expert) opinions about climate change or how individuals and societies should respond to the issue.

I wish I’d been there

Saturday, April 7th, 2007

This article made me cry a little. 

Because the devaluation of beauty should always cause us to weep.

Téotihuacan and Mexico City; Day 6 and 7

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007

Woah, that week went by pretty quickly, no?  I am now at the Mexico City international airport waitingfor my flight back to Boston via Houston.  I am not terribly excited about these flights, because I am going to have to somehow produce two essays due tomorrow and the day after (and these are already the extended deadlines due to thesis).  On the brighter side, it looks like I might manage to catch the tail end of the first senior bar of the month 🙂

Today I only had time for a quick turn about the Chapultapec Park area and a visit to the stunning Museo de la Anthropologia.  Wow.  All museums should look like that, I think; architecturally striking yet not overpowering or inconvenient.  And the galleries were fabulously laid out, curated and displayed (at least to my non-expert eye).  Two thumbs up.

PS: Little known benefit of being multi-lingual – when visiting tourist sites a linguist is much more likely to be able to mooch off nearby guided tours.  I definitely listened in on a French group in the Toltec room this morning, and a couple of days ago I benefited from a Spanish teacher leading a school group around the Templo Mayor (very simple Spanish).  Thinking back, I recall listening to Mandarin guides in Japan and English guides everywhere else, of course.  Actually, being able to speak a language that you might not be expected to speak is better, because then the mooching seems a little less apparent 😉

Yesterday I spent most of the day at Teotihuacan, the impressive, almost mythical Aztec city about an hour outside of Mexico City.  Breathtaking.  It was everything I expected, and perhaps a little bit more.  The highly recommended La Gruta restaurant, nestled in a subterranean grotto just outside Gate 5 of the archaelogical zone, made a nice finish to the day.  I spent the day exploring with a Japanese nurse who had spent the last two years volunteering in Honduras with the Japanese international aid agency (think USAID or Peace Corps).  It was hilarious trying to communicate with her, because she understood but could not really speak English, yet spoke fairly fluent Spanish.  So she would speak in Spanish, I would guess-translate into English and reply in my English-pidgin-Español-plus-random-Romance-language mixture.  After several hours I was confused enough that when taking a picture for some French tourists on the Pyramide de la Luna I think I said “Una, deux, treize!” :p

Mexico City, Day 1

Friday, March 30th, 2007

Still here, and still yet to suffer from  turista despite eating all kinds of street food and drinking all kinds of iced, juice-based goodness from random street vendors.  Clearly, I´m pushing my luck, we´ll see how that turns out soon enough.

I had a fantastic day today, despite not being able to drag myself out of bed before 10.30am, despite having been in bed before midnight, and despite all kinds of noise in the room that morning as various guests moved in and out.  The crowd here is really fun and international, which I suppose is normal for a youth hostel, although I´ve never actually experienced the real thing before, i guess.  I´m getting by with communicating in a weird hodgepodge of English and pidgin Spanish cobbled together from French, Italian and even Portuguese.  The funniest experience was trying to communicate with the German guy in the same 12-bed dorm who speaks passable Spanish and very little English. In the end the Dutch girl who speaks some Spanish and a little more English had to translate.

Today, I made it to the Templo Mayor, the Palacio National, and to the floating gardens at Xochimilco.  A very lovely day which ended with another free concert, this time at the zocalo (I say another concert because last night I saw a couple of other free performances).  More details and pictures at some point when I get back to campus.

Right now it´s time to head to bed.  Tomorrow morning, a long bus ride to Oaxaca City.

I´m so happy to be here.

PS: Even though Alan (and Ari) will probably be offended, in agreement with Terence I must say that Mexico City really does remind me of New York City.  Except there´s a much better subway system here.  Cleaner, much more frequent, not stinky, and at 2 pesos (US$0.20) a ride anywhere, much cheaper too (take that MBTA fare hikes!!).

PPS: It´s interesting to be travelling again, the first major trip since the summer travel-ganza.  Everywhere is both the same (in shade and texture, if not the exact hue)–particularly in the way I react to them (picking up the vocabulary, forming expectations, mentally settling down) but also so different and wonderfully so.  Mexico is just bursting at the seams with culture and history, literally.  Witness the Diego Rivera murals (Montezuma, Cortés, Trotsky, and Kahlo all in one massive mural series!) in the national palace next door to the excavated ruins of the central Aztec temple.  This is in the same league as Istanbul or Rome in terms of the sheer density and scope of the cultural and historical offerings.