My Favourite Places (US East Coast edition)

My wife and I had a great time the United States in June-July. The country is so massive and so diverse — for this trip we concentrated on a few major cities along the east coast: New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia.

While things are still (relatively) fresh in my memory, I wanted to share my favourite places in each city.

New York: High Line

The High Line was hands down one of the highlights of my trip. It is an elevated freight rail line on Manhattan’s Lower West Side that has been converted into a park and pedestrian walkway. I love the combination and juxtaposition of nature with human creations. Often the beauty is found in abandoned places, but in this case the setting is carefully maintained.

It felt surreal at times to be surrounded by lush greenery while concrete and glass towered around us. At regular intervals the high rises would give way to an intersection, providing us with a unique perspective of the city as people and yellow cabs bustled below. Eclectic pieces of art dotted the path, alongside inviting benches and grassy patches to take a break in the summer heat. Walking the High Line should be near the top of every New York to-do list.

dsc04174 dsc04208

Honourable mention: Metropolitan Museum of Art

A comprehensive collection of art and artifacts spanning classical antiquity and ancient Egypt to modern day, as well as civilisations from every continent. A particular highlight was the Department of Arms and Armour, which featured the kind of cool stuff that I’ve only encountered in historical fantasy video games.

dsc05361 dsc05366

Boston: Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum

We were in Boston only for a short while and speaking as an ignorant tourist, the city was rather unremarkable. We went on a walking tour of the Freedom Trail which I recommend for history buffs. In terms of places, the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum was probably the most memorable.

The Museum provides an interactive experience, allowing visitors to re-enact the Boston Tea Party. This was a political protest in which British American demonstrators destroyed a shipment of tea to protest against taxes imposed by the British Parliament, serving as a precursor to the American Revolution. We began at a town hall chaired by Samuel Adams, proceeded to a replica ship where we could throw boxes of tea into the harbour, then finished with some indoor exhibits. It was a fun and educational way to spend the afternoon.


Honourable mention: Piers Park (East Boston)

We stayed in East Boston and decided to go for a jog one morning. Piers Park was a pleasant spot with a neat view of the Boston skyline.


Washington DC: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

This one is a bit dark, but I have to go with the Holocaust Memorial Museum in terms of memorableness and impact. While Washington D.C. is rich with memorials and museums exemplifying American history and culture, this particular museum stands out in recording the heroism and depravity of humanity. A brief synopsis and photos from my visit can be found here.

One thing that I didn’t mention was that just before you enter the elevator that takes you up to the permanent collection, you are encouraged to take an Identification Card. Each ID card tells the story of a real person who lived in Europe during the Holocaust, including their brief biography, experiences before the war, experiences during the war, and their last-known fate. The ID cards added a personal touch to the often clinical descriptions of the exhibits.

I picked up the ID card of Willibald Wohlfahrt. He was born on 15 December, 1927, the youngest of six children. He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. The Nazis took power in 1939 and executed his father for opposing military service. One by one his siblings were taken away by the Nazis, and Willibald was sent to the battle front to dig trenches for the German home defense. In 1945 he was killed while on work detail, aged 17.


Honourable mention: National Archives

If you are into American history, I highly recommend a visit to the National Archives. Of course the big draw cards are the original Charters of Freedom — the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights — on display in the rotunda. It was really cool to read the actual writings of the far-sighted Founding Fathers.

An unexpected highlight for me was the museum downstairs. The temporary exhibition was called Amending America, which explored the history of successful and unsuccessful amendments to the Constitution. It featured a Prohibition-era proposal to ban drunkenness, alongside a snarky retort by an unnamed official. The permanent exhibition is arranged thematically in various rooms, including one that contained correspondences between the President and ordinary citizens. Some of them are absolutely golden.


Snarky official’s comment: “Why not add: Section 3. That period of time, commonly known as Saturday night, is hereby stricken from the calendar of the United States, and abolished. Section 4. Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to change human nature from time to time in its or their discretion.” 😂😂


Baltimore: National Aquarium

I was caught up in the Serial phenomenon, which was based Baltimore, and decided that it’d be an interesting place to stop by. Anecdotally and statistically speaking, the city is a relatively dangerous place. We stuck to the main streets and pedestrian centres, and it felt pretty safe.

One of Baltimore’s main attractions is the National Aquarium. The aquarium is expensive but features lots of good stuff. It is a huge complex with a shark tank at the bottom and multiple tiers above displaying different marine habitats. There was an interactive area where we could touch rays, horseshoe crabs and jellies. I really enjoyed the puffin enclosure — these birds are so fast and graceful, it seems as though they’re flying in the water. There was also a large exhibition space dedicated to native Australian birds, reptiles and fish. A staff member was on hand to demonstrate the awesome ability of the archerfish to shoot down crickets with projectile water. Of course, no visit to the aquarium is complete without seeing a dolphin show. The theme of the show was about taking care of the dolphins — in particular, the presenter talked about the importance of keeping them mentally and physically stimulated.

Version 2

Philadelphia: The Barnes Foundation

My wife became a fan of Impressionist art on our trip to Europe last year. In particular, she loved Pierre-Auguste Renoir for his colour and soft brushwork. Imagine my delight when I searched for “things to do in Philadelphia” and came across the Barnes Foundation, which has 181(!) paintings by Renoir in its collection.

While most galleries tend to hang their works side-by-side at regular intervals, the Barnes Foundation arranges them in a deliberate and dense fashion, with paintings from wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling. The sheer quality and quantity of the works (including by Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Degas and van Gogh) is breathtaking. If you are a fan of Impressionism, the Barnes Foundation is unmissable.


Honourable mention: Independence Hall

Independence Hall’s historical significance far outstrips its humble visage and decor. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and adopted here. Once again, there is interesting stuff to be learnt if history is your thing.


Song On My Mind XIII

My friend Aaron recently got a glockenspiel. Always quick to make seemingly random connections, my mind reached back into the past to grab an indie song featuring the glockenspiel and played it endlessly on my mental stereo system.

After several futile attempts at Googling for the song, I gave up and sent a voice recording of me humming the song to a friend. Bingo. The song is called Blood by the Middle East, an Australian band who broke up several years ago. It is at various points charming, haunting, soothing, uplifting and touching. It is a great song.

Remembering the Holocaust


This gallery contains 14 photos.

Earlier this month I visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. It was a harrowing but also rewarding experience. The mood and lighting was dark, as befitting the subject matter. The exhibits were laid out in a logical and … Continue reading

Learning to Teach (Superhero Perspective)

I recently spent four weeks teaching in a comprehensive high school in Sydney’s south. It was my first ever teaching experience, and it was intense! Two things that hit me early on:

  1. lot of preparation goes into each class (e.g., lesson plan, PPT slides, finding resources, making worksheets, designing activities, etc). I’m sure it does get easier over time as you build a portfolio of things to draw on. It also depends on whether you want to be great, or whether you are content with being mediocre.
  2. lot of things are happening all at once inside the classroom. In addition to ‘delivering’ the content, I’m trying to familiarise myself with names/faces, monitor behaviour, formulate questions to ask students, respond to input from students, keep track of time, keep track of environmental factors — good teaching requires expertise in multi-tasking.

What I also began to realise as the weeks went on is that the process of learning to teach is like being a superhero who begins to discover and explore my superpower. Teachers have tremendous power over students, both in terms of how they learn and how they behave. Think about it — we have the power to control people. “Line up outside, two straight lines.” “Open up your books and write this heading.” “Turn around now. Look at me.” “Write down three things you learned today.” “Pick that up. Put it in the bin.”

Being an effective teacher requires having the confidence and capability to exercise power over people. This brings me to a really great quote from Haim Ginott, a child psychologist and author who wrote this about the power of teaching:

I have come to a frightening conclusion.

I am the decisive element in the classroom.

It is my personal approach that creates the climate.

It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.

I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.

I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.

In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.

Lots of things have being proposed to improve/reform the education system — money, syllabus, testing, technology, parent choice; the list goes on and on. Ultimately however, learning happens in the classroom, as facilitated by teachers. Developing the knowledge, skills and motivation of teachers is paramount; and also, I would suggest, their character. As we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.

Song On My Mind XII

Confession time: I have fallen into the addiction that is Hamilton the musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda and co have produced an astonishing work of art—more accurately, a series of small pieces of art—on the fascinating life of US founding father Alexander Hamilton.

It is bold, wondrous, uplifting and highly educational. With each re-listen I uncover more of the plots, themes and elements that Miranda has deftly weaved throughout the musical—love, war, friendship, rivalry, betrayal, fatherhood, loss, legacy, and more. This is a soundtrack that richly rewards multiple listens. It is crazy good. Here is an emblematic song that tells of Hamilton’s rise:


The Reasons for Trump

If you’re reading this, chances are that you are (i) intelligent, (ii) well-educated and (iii) bemused by what’s going with Donald Trump. If you’re at all into US politics, you have probably seen this video of John Oliver demolishing Trump. It sure feels good to ridicule this outrageous and dangerous public figure. One can also derive some righteous anger from blasting Trump’s supporters for their hypocrisy and short-sightedness.

I can’t help but think that these feelings—superiority, self-righteousness, smugness, and yes, schadenfreude—are just empty calories. The Trump phenomenon is real. Nobody took him seriously, and now he’s on the verge of becoming the Republican candidate for President of the United States. His supporters (albeit only 40-45% of Republican voters so far) are real people, with real grievances.

I think 2016 is a genuine turning point in US history, with monumental implications for at least one side of politics. Instead of ridiculing or dismissing Trump and his supporters, we need to understand what’s going on.

Below are some articles I’ve encountered over the last couple of months that shed light on the Trump phenomenon. Some of them made me feel uncomfortable. I hope you will be able to bear with some discomfort as well—if you’re a liberal reading about a conservative perspective; if you’re an atheist/agnostic reading about a Christian perspective; if you have a pro-immigration stance reading about anti-immigration sentiments; if you have grown up in prosperous, metropolitan environments reading about life on the ground in struggling towns and communities hollowed out by globalisation and outsourcing.

If you have the time, please take a look.

On the favourable environment created by broad changes in media and technology

On the failure of the elites

Among the angry, the voiceless, the dying

Personal testimonies

  • A life-long Republican and conservative writes an open letter explaining why he no longer considers himself part of the conservative movement, as the Trump phenomenon exposes the movement’s past failures and present delusions
  • A Christian author and preacher makes the bad, awful, no good, terrible confession that he likes Trump—Trump is not honest, but he is honest about who he is, and he effectively channels something:

    [T]he rage and desperation of a people who know they don’t matter anymore. Whose lives and wellbeing have become a blight, an embarrassment, who are now disposable. Yes, they have may been a privileged people once, knowing the order of the world arising from the great struggles of the first half of the 20th century was arranged for them, and may be struggling for privilege again, but they also know politics has told them — economically and socially — “lie down and die.” That they are white, and crude, and prone to brutality and violence, frequently not very compassionate or empathetic, all-too-often confused by the world, and that their religion is simplistic and mostly idolatrous, all that makes it hard to sympathize with them. (I find it hard.) But you leave people behind at your peril. You can tell them to “lie down and die,” and some will. But many won’t.


A lot of people in America are hurting right now. And rightfully so. Conventional politics have left them—more tax cuts for the rich on the one side, demonisation and dismissal as bigots on the other, and a consensus on more globalisation that, however great it is for humanity in the aggregate, makes their lives objectively worse. In their rage and desperation, they turned to a dangerous figure in Trump.

Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.