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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.” 😂😂

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Remembering the Holocaust

Gallery

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

Favourite Things of 2015

For my last post of 2015, I thought I’d summarise my favourite things of this year. In no particular order:

Movie – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The movie that many people have been eagerly anticipating. I went in with high expectations and was not disappointed. If you go searching for them, you will find plenty of flaws with the movie’s plot, execution, its derivative nature, and so forth. However, you would also be missing the point. J.J. Abrams’ reboot packs a whole lot of pathos. It filled me with wonder. It made me feel. It was space operatic escapism at its best.

TV Show – Damages

I’m not a big TV-watcher, so this one basically wins by default. However, having recently binged on Season 1 with my wife, I think Damages deserves acclaim as a compelling legal thriller. The show follows the story of recent law graduate Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), who must navigate tricky legal, professional and personal waters as an associate at the law firm of Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). The characters are multidimensional and the plot twists relentlessly. As a former student of law I found the issues explored here—especially the nature of trust, ethical boundaries and what makes for an effective lawyer—to be engrossing, even if somewhat heavy-handed at times.

Album – 1989

Taylor Swift hooked me in with Shake It Off and I had to listen to the whole thing. I am extremely impressed with this album. Every song holds up on its own, even if it took a while for some of them to grow on me. 1989 makes me happy, and I’ve gone back to it again and again without any diminishment in joy.

Show – 1989 World Tour

Swift is the best entertainer in the world right now. It was a privilege to take part in the live spectacle.

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Book – Creativity, Inc.

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walter Disney Animation Studios, wrote Creativity, Inc. to distill his experience on how to develop, nurture and sustain an organisation that produces top-notch creative work. As someone who is interested in the power of culture and psychology, this was a fascinating read.

Catmull has written an engaging and informative book on, as he put it, the noble endeavour of managing people. It also contains neat stories of how various Pixar films came to be, and also Catmull’s dealings with the irrepressible Steve Jobs.

Article – Unsustainable Liberalism

This article by Patrick J. Deneen was written in 2012 but I came across it recently. It is a long but worthwhile read on the contradictions of liberalism and how its unfettered growth leads to illiberalism. What I found most interesting is the idea that the contemporary Left and Right are both species of liberalism and are problematic in their own ways.

The Left wishes to carve out ever-more personal freedoms under the rubric of “if it doesn’t hurt anyone it should be permissible”, and using the power of the state to enforce them. The Right, as Deneen puts it, “embraces a market orthodoxy that places the choosing, autonomous individual at the center of its economic theory”, and seeks to expand the reach of the free-market in all human spheres. The result?

Both the left and the right effectively enact a pincer movement in which local associations and groups are engulfed by an expanding state and by the market, each moving toward singularity in each realm: one state and one market.

[The right] seeks to promote family values but denies that the market undermines many of the values that undergird family life. The left commends sexual liberation as the best avenue to achieve individual autonomy, while nonsensically condemning the immorality of a marketplace in which sex is the best sales pitch. The encompassing Leviathan daily attains more reality.

Fascinating stuff, and I hope to write more on this in the future.

App – Instapaper

I browse Twitter and the web daily to look for interesting stuff to read. Instapaper is invaluable in collecting them, synced across my devices and the browser, for later offline consumption. When my eyes could use a rest, there is also an option to speak the text. Neat.

Scientific Event – New Horizons Flyby of Pluto

On January 16, 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons probe on a mission to Pluto. After nine and a half years zipping through cold space, New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, forever transforming our image of the dwarf planet from a pixelated blob to breathtaking high resolution pictures. As with any good scientific endeavour, the data sent back so far raises as many questions as it answers about our understanding of this icy body.

Place – Château de Chenonceau

In the Loire Valley, on my honeymoon. A château over the water, surrounded by immaculate gardens. Magnificent.

 

Back to the Motherland: First Thoughts on Nanjing

It is a truism to say that “the only constant is change”. I was reminded of this when I arrived in Nanjing on a hot summer’s day in July. The last time I visited my birthplace was January 2010. I can’t be bothered to rattle off important events that have happened in the intervening period, maybe you can think of some.

The city has changed a lot — what else is new?

Welcome to Nanjing

My uncle (mum’s older brother) picked my dad and I up from the airport. Trudging through the outside car park under the piercing sun, I noticed that all the vehicles were covered in a fine layer of dust. Nanjing’s dirt is fine, light and oft-disturbed by the unceasing construction taking place all across the city. Looking above I’m heartened to see that the sky is (relatively) blue.

On the way into the city I caught portions of the conversation as my uncle filled my dad in on what’s been happening here. Here are some things I found noteworthy:

1. The looming demographic crisis

This is something that’s been spoken about for a long time and we’re on the cusp of seeing it unfold. In the post-WWII years, China had a baby boom like many other countries. My mum is one of four siblings and my dad is one of five. Faced with a burgeoning population and a poor agrarian economy the central government instituted the one-child policy. Most families complied and had only one child, subject to some exceptions. And now those mums and dads are into their 50s and 60s. Whereas you had 4, 5, 6+ children taking care of their parents in the previous generation, for the most part a single child now bears this burden today. Unless you’re in the top one percent, this is hard.

Retirees engage in water calligraphy at Xuanwu Lake Park.

Retirees engage in water calligraphy at Xuanwu Lake Park.

My uncle made an astute point: since government policy made this happen, then it should be only fair that the government steps in to take care of the baby boomers. But fairness is in short supply in the PRC. I think this is one of those stealth topics that people will either brush off or ignore until it’s too late. Is this going to be the Chinese century? It won’t be unless they adequately address the demographic crisis.

2. Pollution

We all know China has a major problem with pollution. Here are some reasons:

i) The mass exodus of the rural population into urban areas invariably leads to more pollution in the cities. However, I wonder whether this is also a good thing, at least for the country as a whole. Less poor people in the countryside = less deforestation, less burning of dirty coal, less reliance on backward, dirty machinery.

ii) For the most part, the population lacks an environmental consciousness. They simply don’t have the same standards of behaviour and cleanliness as Westerners. I think this is changing — anecdotally, there’s less spitting and littering and other unsavoury behaviour. I also encountered more garbage bins, street cleaners and public toilets in my time here than ever before.

A goose tied to the post in my neighbourhood street market. Next door, pigeons and geese are housed in cramped cages ready for slaughter. These outdoor vendors have been making a comeback since the crackdown several years ago when bird flu became a major public concern.

A goose tied to the post in my neighbourhood street market. Next door, chickens and geese are housed in cramped cages ready for slaughter. These outdoor vendors have been making a comeback since a crackdown several years ago when bird flu became a major public concern.

People are also much more aware of pollution; it’s in the air, in the water, everywhere. The Communist Party is probably most acutely aware of this. They know that environmental disaster = social unrest, which must be Avoided At All Costs.

iii) There are so many cars everywhere. Nanjing is a relatively wealthy city in the relatively wealthy Jiangsu province. Traffic is getting worse. It’s going through the growing pains of every other modernising city. Hopefully they can transition quickly beyond reliance on cars. The good thing is that the city has solid foundations: a long tradition of cycling, the proliferation of electric motorcycles, decent road infrastructure and a shiny new metro system that is set to expand from the current two lines to a whopping 17 lines by 2030. And of course, the CPC will to Get Things Done.

The main roads of Nanjing are well designed, with separate lanes for cars, buses, (motor)bikes and pedestrians.

The main roads of Nanjing are well designed, with separate lanes for cars, buses, (motor)bikes and pedestrians.

3. Keeping up with the Joneses

Materialism is the national religion. We all know of Tiger Parent Syndrome and Little Emperor Syndrome. For those in the aspiring middle class and above, they have the means to spend lavishly on their children’s education. My uncle’s daughter married a wealthy businessman. They coughed up 70,000 RMB to send their daughter — my niece — to a ‘good’ primary school. For those who can afford it, this is the new norm.

We drove past a lot of new-ish apartment blocks along the highway. Apparently it costs ~AUS$200K for a home, which is considered quite affordable. That’s a definite sign of (urban) China’s increasing wealth.

Old and new: the 450m tall Zifeng Tower rises up behind traditional Chinese architecture.

Old and new: the 450m tall Zifeng Tower rises up behind traditional Chinese architecture.

More pictures and thoughts to come…