Reading about the LIGO project … their struggles and coming of age

Modified from an email written on Aug. 14, 2016:


9780307958198I’ve just finished reading a new book “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space” published a few months ago, written by Janna Levin who is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University.  Somehow, my summer student this year is from Barnard College which is a women’s college that somehow doesn’t merge fully with Columbia U. (unlike Radcliffe and Harvard) while Columbia U. accepts their own women students.  ( I haven’t heard of Barnard College before I read my student’s resume earlier this year. )

The book is better than I have expected in terms of the descriptions about the internal struggles and conflicts in the LIGO collaboration, especially in their earlier history. The book tells you something about cosmology and astrophysics but I don’t think one would easily find inspiration from this book in this aspect.  It’s the human characters, their chaotic behavior and the process how to get to build a BIG project that I have gained the most satisfaction.  You need to fight with and/or convince your colleagues and then the NSF (in this case, not DOE) and the Congress etc.

I have always heard of LIGO like everybody else but I had treated it like another desperate effort for decades (almost like SUSY or superstring theories … though not quite as they’re after all largely an experiment).  Though I feel I know about Kip Thorne (from his books or recent involvement in making movies like “Interstellar” etc.), I’ve never heard of the other two LIGO founders, Rai Weiss and Ron Drever.  In this book, the most you’ve learnt are about these two persons (among other characters) in addition to the entire LIGO project/experiment.  I didn’t even know that at least in the early days, LIGO was mainly a collaboration between Caltech (Kip & Ron) and MIT (Rai).

The author herself is a cosmologist and astrophysicist but in writing this book, she’s more like a journalist.  Almost always, she’d tell you where the quotes or the stories have come from …. almost as “rigorously” as in physics journals.   Her writing style in this book is often poetic.  But mingling this feature with the scientific description and personal gossips seems to form a bizarre product.  I’ve often needed to consult with dictionaries even for some words that I thought I knew.  Maybe, the author could be even less self-aware of herself while writing the stories of this book. [ A cruel comment (from me) ! … I know 🙂 ]  It’s probably really difficult to get rid of a physicist’s ego.

I guess the book is published this year mainly because of the announcement/publication of LIGO/VIRGO’s “Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger”.   From reading most of the chapters, I’ve felt that she didn’t know of the discovery while writing most of the book.  The last chapter “Epilogue” was probably added almost like an after-thought.  In the “Acknowledgments” (the last line on p.213 and the first line on p.214), the author reveals that the book was originally meant to be longer.  It now has only 215 pages up to the Acknowledgments (with additionally LIGO/VIRGO collaboration list + Notes + Index → >~240 pages).

The entire LIGO project at the end integrates to about a billion dollar (3rd line from the bottom on p.185) compared to the initial ~$194 million dollars (5th line on p.135) in their 1989 proposal under the leadership of their first director Robbie Vogt.   My laboratory is trying to build a new collider called eRHIC (on top of RHIC) and the general belief is that we need to build it under a billion dollar; otherwise there is no chance for funding approval.   The LIGO/VIRGO collaboration list in their paper has more than 1000 authors but it’s still not nearly as many as (say) the Atlas Collaboration, one of the LHC experiments at CERN.  I’m well aware of the internal fights and conflicts that can happen in a big collaboration.   I read with amusement how Rai found it difficult to work with Ron in the early days and how ugly the fight between Ron and Robbie was.

When the speaker from LIGO/Columbia University came to our laboratory to give the talk about the gravitational wave discovery, he kind of predicted at the very beginning of his talk that Thorne, Weiss and Drever would get the physics Nobel Prize this year 🙂  This is quite likely even though it may not be this year.  But this book’s author actually reminds us that the LIGO events have not been corroborated by some sort of  telescope measurement (LIGO not being a telescope) as Jerry Ostriker has advocated all along (p.156-157).  From this book, one reads that Ron Drever didn’t seem to be able to work well or share decision-making with other people ; whereas Rai probably seems to be the most down-to-earth experimentalist who is still trying to improve the precision of their instruments and reduce the noise here and there, when he’s now over 80 ages old. In the later stage, Ron has largely left the picture (though Rai, Kip and latter LIGO directors all tried to get him back to LIGO) while Kip has had other endeavors (such as movies !).  Rai seems to be the constant in the LIGO project.  It’s sad that Ron now apparently suffers from dementia (just like my mother !).  { I wonder whether this may prevent him from getting the Nobel Prize ?! }  I certainly didn’t know about Ron’s sickness when I watched the discovery announcement in Feb. 2016.

At the end, it’s probably always the personal interactions that are the most interesting in all the book reading.  Though not as shocking as when I first read about Schrödinger’s private life in P. Woit’s book “Not Even Wrong”, I feel that I’ve learnt quite a bit about the personalities of Kip, Rai and Ron and LIGO even seems to have a pseudo-personal character in my mind.  Furthermore, though I’ve read about Joe Weber’s bar measurement story before, his image and character (to me) has now become even more vivid than before.

One new word to jot down here is “inspiral” : when two binaries (black holes or stars) generate ripples at the expense of orbital energy, they spiral a bit closer to each other → “they inspiral” (12th line on p.152).


p.69 (10th– 11th lines): I think “It is” in “It is true central operations are primarily maintained in a trailer” should be “Its”.  p.106 (10th line from the bottom): “principle” in “…the principle reason to do …” should probably be replaced by “principal”.  p.120 (14th line) : “malintentions” should probably be “malintents” ?!

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Elba Island & Pisa … why not just video-conferencing ?!

This is the 1st time that I’ve  joined the Elba workshops on “Forward Physics”.  So far, all (3) Elba workshops have been organized at the Hotel Hermitage of Elba Island.  While I was there, I was told that a senior management/physicist has got very good relationship with the management of Hotel Hermitage.  Therefore, future Elba workshops are also expected to hold at the same hotel.  The organizers have chosen this time as it’s just before the high season and most facilities are ready while there aren’t too many tourists competing for rooms yet.   Nevertheless, since it’s still not in the high season,  there were not many flights to the Elba Island.  Eg. between Pisa and Elba Island, there seem to be only 2 flights per week by Silver Air.  I flew from Pisa to Elba Island but on the return trip, I’ve needed to take ferry and shuttle to go to Pisa before flying to US.

May 28, 2016:

0528161351When I arrived at the Pisa airport (Aeroporto Galileo Galilei), it’s already May 28, 2016.  There was no transit channel at this small airport and one just walked out of the security area and checked in again.  This “Let L-410 Turbolet” aircraft  (from Pisa to Elba Island in Italy) should be the smallest plane that I’ve ever taken. ( My last small plane was one from Eilat to Tel Aviv in Israel but that one was not as small by comparison. )  I’ve counted that there were a total of 17 seats including those for the flight attendants. The flight time (between takeoff and landing) was about ~30 or 31 minutes.  Maybe, the European inflight service still has an edge over American that we were offered water and choices of biscuits and candy at the end 🙂  ( Southwest Airlines wouldn’t bother to do so from Islip to Boston … ) 

There was no security barrier between the pilots and the passengers (there were 7 of us including a child).  I sat in the first row and if I fully extended my arm, I more or less could touch the back of one of the pilot seats.  It’s an interesting experience.   One of the passengers was an Atlas colleague (J. Pinfold) but we didn’t readily recognize each other at that time.

0528161627When I first arrived at Hotel Hermitage, it was cloudy and the lack of sunshine made the beach (as shown in the picture here) not as spectacular as in their webpage.  Somehow, I didn’t have the intention to swim.   In fact, during my entire stay there, it’s either cloudy or raining almost like half of the time.

I would probably never  have visited this island if it was not for this 3-day conference/workshop.  My duty was to give a talk ≤ 30 minutes.  People know about Elba Island probably only because it was Napolean’s first exile island (May 4, 1814 – Feb. 26, 1815 : http://shannonselin.com/2016/02/how-did-napoleon-escape-from-elba/ ) before he escaped and started his restoration effort, “The Hundred Day” … which eventually ended in June 1815 when he was defeated at the bloody Battle of Waterloo.

In this conference, Hotel Hermitage has somehow provided the so-called “full board” accommodation, ie. including 3 meals.  Each of the dinners (and some lunches) has 3 courses + dessert/salad … Too much to eat !  One not so favorable consequence is that there is not much per diem left for me to “save”.

 


 

May 29, 2016:

0529161533This photo was taken while I was in the cable car going up towards the peak of Mount Capanne.  The cable car is more like a yellow cage or basket without any cover.  Each “cage” can hold up to two persons only and one could only stand.  I used it alone.  You can easily commit suicide (which I considered for a little bit …) and it should be the most unsafe cable car that I’ve seen.  One had to jump or run into the cage in order to get on it.  It’s certainly working nicely but looks primitive compared to my last cable car experience in Sugar Mountain in Rio de Janeiro a few years ago.  The entire cable car journey takes about 18 minutes one way. The ticket was also €18 (andata e ritorno) — which apparently hasn’t changed for quite a few years.

0529161602aAfter one gets off from the cable off, one might still climb the last 50 m or so to go to the real peak.  A few people were already there when I reached there.  A couple guys have helped me take some pictures.   When a nice guy (Dutch ?) asked me whether I was from the States, I was pleased, or actually more pleased than if he asked whether I was Japanese/Korean/Chinese. ( Not sure how he realized that I was from US … maybe he has been to US and noticed the Verizon sign on my LG G3 phone. )  He and his friend drove to a place which was like ~600 m above sea level (higher than where I took the cable car) and hiked the rest of ~400 m.

The place with red houses should be Marciana, just below the Cabinovia, where I took the cable car.

At the beginning of the cable car ascent, the yellow cage was oscillating left and right and I was mildly scared or worried.  However,  the more or really scary experience was probably the drive to reach this “Cabinovia”.  I “blindly” trusted “Google Map” (from my phone).  Soon after Procchio, it suddenly told me to make a sharp left turn and drive steeply upwards to “Via Redinoce” !  I thought it’s weird but I didn’t have time to analyze and just thought to stick to Google’s instruction.  It was a very narrow road and a large portion of this route didn’t have concrete/cement pavement but just mud/soil.  It’d be very difficult if there was another car.  But it seemed to me nobody would drive normally on that road.  Only stupid tourist who would trust Google like me ?!  The Renault Clio that I rented found it very hard to go uphill and in that rocky condition.  At one Y-junction, I turned into a wider path that I thought looked more like the right path but I was wrong (as it’s blocked 20 m or so after I turned into it).  I tried to made a U turn in the narrow road bordering a cliff.  I reversed the Renault into a ditch.  I couldn’t get the car out from the ditch at first.  At one point, I thought I might never get the car out.  I tried to see whether I got any strength to get it out using my hands and body, but it just seemed impossible.  After some 10 trials of pumping the gas and relaxing the gear at the right time (otherwise, it just stalled), I finally got the car out.  Wow !!! …  I had worried that I might be stuck there for the whole day, awaiting rescue.  After that, I almost wanted to retreat in the original path but a quick calculation in my brain told me to continue to drive forward.  I made it to the Cabinovia (of Mount Capanne) at the end.  On the way back, I of course didn’t make the same mistake and took the usual road SP 25/SP 24.  In fact, Google didn’t suggest that nasty shortcut any more.

0529161050I rented the Renault Clio mainly to go to take the cable car but I also went to Portoferraio (which is the port that I’d go to on June 2 to take the ferry to reach Italy Mainland in the morning when leaving for US).  Approaching Portoferraio, I noticed a COOP (supermarket) and I immediately decided to park my car there (as it’d be free !).  The things in COOP were certainly much cheaper than what you’d pay at the hotel and around.  It’s less than 100 m from the COOP parking lot to the center of Portoferraio.  The car rental cost €60 — quite a bit of rip-off. Originally, I was hoping for the Chinese-made ZD electric car which would cost €20 only (from 09:00 to 19:00).  But before I left US, they already told me that the new ZD electric would arrive only on June 2 — too late !  That day, with €5 for the gasoline that I’d refilled before I returned, the total transportation cost was €83. … Hmm … Hmm …

The drive in the Island has almost always been full of “S” bends and I just kept turning left and right alternately.  I guess it’s because the roads are just around the hills/mountains.  It could be exhilarating but I was more tense than anything else.  From time to time, other cars just overtook me as I didn’t drive fast enough 😦  Most drivers didn’t seem to want to stay on the other side and came dangerously too close to the middle

One of the photos that I’ve taken at the peak of Mount Capanne has become the background of my first/title slide presented in the “3rd Elba workshop on Forward Physics”.   My talk was the first one in the entire conference.   While I’ve made a habit of using the scenery at the conference location as the background for my titile slide, a few other people also have done the same.  But their background were just the scenery around Hotel Hermitage, not at the top of Mount Capanne 🙂


June 2, 2016:

0602161439bAfter more than 20 years, I’ve come back to Pisa again (due to flight scheduling). In 1995 summer when I visited it for the 1st time (due partially to an Italian friend Graziano in Pisa whom I met in the CERN summer school in Dubna/Russia), the Leaning Tower was undergoing a structural strenthening project and tourists were not allowed to climb up. But it finished in ~2001 and today, I’ve climbed to the top of the tower 🙂

0602161635_HDRI arrived at the ticket office about 14:30 and the line was not too long.  After 5-10 minutes, when I got to choose, the earliest time for me to climb was 16:15. Each person is assigned a specific time to go in and you have 30 minutes — but I’m not sure they’d really force you out if you don’t go after half an hour.  A staff gave an introduction at the beginning in Italian and English (each about a couple minutes).  Then, you’re free to climb the ~260 steps.  The 2nd photo was one that fellow tourists have helped take a photo of me when I was at the top and one could see the Cathedral behind and Baptistery a bit further behind.

One note I’d like to drop : One could just go and buy the ticket when one arrives, even though one may need to wait a couple hours before climbing the tower. But if one wants to buy the Leaning Tower tickets, one should go to the official site: http://www.opapisa.it/en/tickets/buy/ (which would tell you that the price is €18) and not this one : http://www.towerofpisa.org/tickets/ which would sell you a ticket at the price of €30 including tour guide. I was slightly confused as the name of the second website looks more relevant and more official than the first one 🙂 But one probably wouldn’t make the stupid mistake anyway because the €30 ticket is not available every day.

In this “Piazza del Duomo”, there are the Cathedral and Baptistery in the center plus “Camposanto” and a “Sinopie Museum” at the side. Paying €5/ €7/ €8, one may visit one/two/all of the Baptistery/Camposanto/Sinopie Museum. The Cathedral can be visited any time if you buy any of the Leaning Tower ticket or the above-mentioned 3 places. In fact, if you don’t buy any ticket, you may still go to collect “the fixed time free ticket” to visit the Cathedral.

Since I had a bit of time, I paid €5 to go to Baptistery. As a miser type of person, I didn’t find Baptistery worth €5. But it does have a 2nd floor that you could climb up and look down from above for a different view. Just before I wanted to leave, I heard the ‘echo demonstration’ which I didn’t find really spectacular when I was there because I thought it’s just broadcasting a choir’s singing though I saw a woman at the center. Now (after reading a bit more), I realize that then it’s NOT any choir’s singing being broadcasted but it’s really just the woman at the center singing a few notes and the dome structure created amazing echo (intereference !) effect which made you feel that many people were singing at the same time ! I was so stupid and it really truly was amazing how the constructive interference works 🙂 … I noticed that nobody was guarding the exit and so if you dare, you can enter the Baptistery from the exit, free of charge ! When I was walking out, I saw a tall Caucasian girl enter from the exit. Yeah … she’s the “practitioner” of this “theory of mine” !!

I also went as far as possible in the entrances for Camposanto and the Sinopie Museum and I could pretty much get the feeling what they were like without really visiting — of course, another theory 🙂

While I was the Elba Island, I heard (~second-handedly) some Italians claim that Pisa is the worst place in Tuscany of Italy.  A bit of exaggeration … I guess it’s probably because it pretty much has got only the Piazza del Dumo and almost nothing else. If it’s not due to the engineering mistake of the Leaning Tower, tourists might not even notice Pisa ?! ( By the way, the staff at the bottom of the Tower told us that it’s not clear who/which engineer has actually designed/built the Tower … probably due to its failure. )

0602161715aFrom my B&B (250 m from the PISA airport), it’s only ~2.9 km in walking distance to the Leaning Tower according to Google Map.  After I arrived at the train station (~10 minutes’ walk from my B&B), the places started to seem more interesting and one would see more tourists.  I’ve come across a few Piazza.  On the way back, I found and visited “Piazza del Cavalieri” as the B&B had recommended earlier. I’ve quickly noticed the “Scuola Normale Superiore” and I believe that Graziano more than 20 years ago must have shown me this place — though I’m not sure whether we walked or drove past here — as I immediately remembered that this is the place/university for only geniuses. The famous particle physicists and Nobel Prize winners Enrico Fermi and Carlo Rubbia were both this school’s alumni.

One thing I forgot to mention: when I arrived at Pisa and saw quite some ethnic Asians and Africans, it’s suddenly made me realize more readily that I had never seemed to see any Asians or Africans back in the entire Elba Island. The webpage for this “Forward Physics” workshop has listed only ~42 participants who actually came to the Elba Island — as quite some speakers actually gave their talks remotely via video-conferencing facilities.  There were some additional secretaries and technicians from INFN/Pisa — the main organizer. Also due to the problem of small sampling, I think I was the only non-Caucasian in the conference and my last name “Yip” was the last one in alphabetical order (no Z’s !) 😃   The talks were all related to CERN experiments/detectors EXCEPT two, one about the Tevatron/Fermilab results given by a colleague via video-conferencing from Rockefeller U. in New York and the other being mine about the RHIC/BNL results. Of course, the CERN/LHC expts. have some substantial North American involvement; but it was only about ~10% in this conference.  Occasionally when I was consciously aware that I was the only Asian in this conference or hotel (or even the entire Elba Island ?), I certainly found it awkward and a little bizarre. Though it may be just a consequence of small sampling, I wonder whether this “feature” could be harder to happen in North America ?!

 


 

June 3, 2016:

I flew non-stop from JFK/New York to Pisa and then to the Elba Island on May 28, 2016.  But on the way back, not only did I have to take ferry and shuttle to get to Pisa, I also needed to change at Rome (June 3, 2016) in order to catch an Alitalia flight to JFK/New York.  Rome was just a short flight from Pisa (~45 minutes).  I believe I was at the same Rome Airport in ~Oct. 2002 for a conference in Frascati.  But this time, the airport seems much more modern than what I can remember. … and on a very trivial note,  I have noticed a very similar arrangement of the soap/water/dry air delivery system at both Pisa and Rome airports.  Probably a made-in-Italy thing ?!

At the airport or during the flights, I’ve had a lot of time to think, in addition to reading my novel.  I don’t really enjoy going to conferences mainly because I’ve had to socialize with the other participants and speakers during the meals.  Many people like to talk with their old acquaintances and not all people are talkative.  I usually only talk with my immediate neighbors in the dining table during a meal.  I’ve found it hard to talk across the table most of the time (even though sometimes I’ve tried to) and I can’t hear well when it’s beyond the immediate neighbors unless everybody starts to shout.  I’ve found that I have often needed to initiate the talking points.  Over the year, I’ve got tired of “cultural conversations” or pretending to be interested in other people’s culture/custom, even though I still need to do it and sometimes still have some curiosity left in me to probe into various cultural peculiarities.  I’m certainly anti-social and I’ve found dining alone more pleasant 🙂

image3

Several speakers actually gave talks via video-conferencing facility (Vidyo, this time).  It made me wonder why we all do video-conferencing rather than spend money and time to come to a remote island ?!  Though journalists haven’t made reports to tell the public that it’s a waste of tax money for scientists to go to conference, I sometimes think so.  On one hand, I’ve come to join this conference mainly because of the timing and opportunity just working out for me; on the other hand,  I haven’t been to a conference for a year or two and I think it’s not good for my academic record or annual performance appraisal that I haven’t gone to any conference recently.  In this small conference or workshop, I’ve actually learnt from the participants through personal interactions more than other conferences, esp. from physicists who actually do the work such as Mario Deile and Sune Jakobsen.  Nevertheless, I still have doubt about the usefulness of all the scientific conferences.  Maybe, it’s an unspoken “benefit” (such as a semi-vacation ?) for the not very well-off scientists ?!

I’ve met a couple former DELPHI collaborators (more or less ~20 years ago) such as Kenneth Osterberg and Ronan Mcnulty.  They didn’t recognize me and though I found Ronan’s face familiar, I didn’t remember where I had know him before at first.  I guess, since I’m such an “anti-socialist”, this is the natural consequence 😦  They all reminded me of my former Oxford colleagues (in our conversations), Guy, Paula, or even Ainsley.

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How I view Panama and practicalities

Mar. 24-27, 2016 :

I’ve read a bit about Panama in travel guide books and searched online before my trip to Panama.   When I arrived at Panama, Panama seemed a bit more modern and wealthier than my expectation (which I was not too sure how I had formed in my mind before I stepped on the land of Panama).  Not just the currency (US dollars), Panama seems a bit too similar to US to be anything near exotic for a tourist from USA 🙂  Apart from the metro and metro bus, everything else in the 3 days has seemed to be more expensive than I have expected / hoped.   The restaurants seemed to be at least as expensive as in US.  Maybe, this is only true for tourists whereas the locals know how to find the best deals ?!

From what I’ve experienced in the 3 day, this country basically “works”.   But underneath the surface, the quality or value that one gets from the high cost is not very satisfactory (except the metro/metro bus), at least as far as a tourist is concerned.  Even though the original hardware may be good, the maintenance was not nearly as good; eg. the electric hand driers or the paper towel dispensers usually didn’t work during the  3+ hours that I have spent in the Tocumen Airport (PTY).

 

Walking to the main post office was my first task on the first morning of this trip.  After I found that it’s closed (on a Good Friday, Mar. 25, 2006 !), I tried to go to test my luck at the second destination, Pamaná Viejo.  I made use of the best bargain in town, the public transportation, metro bus and metro (subway).  The metro card (usable for both bus and subway) cost $2.  Each bus trip then cost only 25 cents or 35 cents for the subway ride.  Though I was not happy to have to pay $2 to be able to use the metro card, just one trip was worth the $2 fee compared to the taxi (which may easily be $3 or $5 for each ride) !  After I purchased the metro card, I had difficulty in adding $1 to the card as I couldn’t insert the newly bought metro card into the required slot.  ( One has to add value to the metro card.  $2 is merely to buy the physical card and it has $0 value if one doesn’t add anything to it ! ) I asked a local lady to help and then realized that the card didn’t need to be inserted all the way and I could just leave it sort of half-inserted when I charged it.  No matter how detailed information one might have found before, there might still be surprising detail that has not been written before by anybody else !

0325160925_HDRI found and waited in a bus stop in Av. Justo Arosemena for about 10 minutes or so before I found a bus arriving but not with the sign for Panamá Viejo.  I then used my poor Spanish to ask a guy whether that was the stop to go to Panamá Viejo.  That guy told me that I had to go to Av. Balboa to find the bus stop to go to Panamá Viejo.  I kind of knew/expected the answer (as I had been wondering) before he replied and though I didn’t recognise most of his Spanish words, I kind of understood what he said.  This has been the “norm” in all the 3 days.

I easily found the bus stop in Cinta Costera, just south of Av. Balboa.   Most shops were closed in Good Friday (Mar. 25, 2016).  Fortunately the charming Cinta Costera at the ocean front was readily approachable in any day of the year.  I took a couple photos near the monument of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa before going to wait for the bus.

0325161008_HDRI took my first metro bus (like locals!) to the ruin area of Pamaná Viejo and “tripadvisor.com” indicated that it was opened that day.  Online sources told us to stop at the Nautica Tower but the driver, after knowing where I wanted to go, let me get off at the far end of Pamaná Viejo, near the most prominent Bell Tower.  Unfortunately, when I got off the bus and talked to a very young guard, I realized that Pamaná Viejo was closed that day (except for  some travel agents if I understood him correctly) .  Nevertheless, from outside the fence, I could see the Bell Tower and all the ruins inside the fence.  All of Pamaná Viejo seemed to be just insde the fence along Via Cincuentenario and so I just walked along Via Cincuentenario for a km or a mile or so.  I felt that I essentially saw all (?) of Pamaná Viejo free of charge 🙂  But there’s not really much to see and just ruins (as some people have honestly commented online).  While planning, I hesitated whether I should come and now I really think Pamaná Viejo is not worth my visiting.

The walk was not bad at all if the temperature could have been considerably lower.   After I arrived at the visiting center of Pamaná Viejo (near Nautica Tower, the originally intended starting point), I asked and found the bus stop to go to Multiplaza for lunch and for a curious visit in the mall there.  This mall there and probably everywhere in Panama City (or the World ?) was pretty much the same as in US.  The restaurants had very similar brand names as in US.  I ordered “Mango fish” in “Ruby Tuesday” and it cost more than $15 (including 10% service charge).  I was happy to read that Panamanians don’t expect tipping and I easily complied 🙂   In the later afternoon, I went back to the beautiful Cinta Costera area, east of where I had been that morning.  I’ve always like getting close to the waters.  Inside Panama City, Cinta Costera and later Amador Causeway were my best experiences.  Sitting in a random place at the promenade of Cinta Costera and staring at the Pacific Ocean with its seemingly static surface, I could almost spend many hours there reading my novel, if it was not nearly as hot.

 

0326161003_HDRThe Panama Canal partial transit tour on the next day was the highlight of the entire Panama trip.  In fact, the dates of this Panama trip was basically determined by this partial transit trip.   After listening to 3 languages (English, Spanish and German) of explanation, I understood that it’s simply letting the ships/boats go into the “lock system”, shutting the gates of the locks, pumping in 26 million gallons of water into the “locks” in ~ 8 minutes to raise the water level, then the ships just going through the canal on the elevated water level — something they have done for >100 years.

The northbound Panama partial transit trip (~half day) has cost me $150 as I bought it directly from one of the two ship companies (“Panama Marine Adventures” — the website of the other company “Canal and Bay Tours” didn’t work well for making reservations and didn’t provide detailed information when I tried to make reservation in Jan. 2016; in addition, they didn’t respond as quickly as their competitor).  If one bought tickets from other travel agencies, they would charge you more and the only additional thing that they did was just to deliver you from your hotel to the marina and back.

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Passing the locks was very very slow, slower than the US-Mexico border or the HK-Mainland China border.  Most of the time, the ships just sat there and waited.  I’ve read and concluded that it’s a bit too much for a full transit trip (they say 8 hours, but it can be considerably longer due to the traffic).  I could feel the boring wait when we got stuck in our first lock.  Our ship/boat was small compared to some cruise ship. In fact, there was another ship like ours side by side and even touching ours, while sailing through the locks. In addition, there was one considerably bigger cargo ship in front of us, making it 3 at that time inside the locks.  The most interesting or even exhilarating part was when I saw that the gate was shut and the ship was gradually raised by the water to the level almost as high as the shut gate.

After passing through just the first set of locks, I already felt “mission accomplished”. The partial transit trip was probably the right choice 😁  Apparently, after the first set of locks (Miraflores Locks) — at the southern end, people or at least I have sort of lost interest very quickly.  I didn’t even go out to see and take picture at the 2nd set of locks (Pedro Miguel Locks).  The one going into the Caribbean Sea that I didn’t visit was called the Gatun Locks.  All 3 set of locks are now being built with larger lock systems to allow for wider and larger ships to go through; otherwise the Panama Canal would lose a lot of business.

After passing the 2 sets of locks, we got off the ship at Gamboa and the bus was meant to take us back to Flamenco Marina where we started.  But I asked them to drop me off at the Biomuseo.

Going to the Flamenco Marina that morning was the only time that I paid cash to take taxi.  In this exercise, I’ve realized that the hotel taxi was so much more expensive than the normal yellow cab.  One day earlier, before 6 am, I walked down the hotel to practise bargaining.  The hotel taxi driver asked for $25 for the trip from my hotel to Flamenco Marina at the end of the Amador Causeway.  I bargained it down to $20.  Later that day, I emailed another driver and she also wanted $25.  That morning, I just walked around the corner and waved down a yellow taxi. When I asked him “Cuánto …”, I was hoping $15 and then I might offer $10, it might end up in between.  I didn’t understand his reply at first as it was totally out of my expectation range.  After him repeating a bit (maybe even with some finger counting), I finally realized that he was saying “Ocho”, $8 😮  I hesitated for a second and decided to just get on his cab.

The driver drove very fast and it probably took not more than 15 minutes to get to Flamenco Marina from my hotel and I arrived ~50 minutes before the required check-in time.  If not taking the taxi, I could take the metro (subway) to Albrook and then take a bus to the last stop on Amador Causeway. But the availability of metro and esp. the bus was not clear and I couldn’t really practise to test the viability of this indirect route that early in the morning.  So, I decided that it’s not worth the risk.

0326161453_HDRThe best about the Biomuseo was the funky and bizarre architecture designed by the famous American architect Frank Gehry.  This was probably the third piece of architecture of F. Gehry that I’ve personally visited, after the Getty Center in LA and  Guggenheim Museum in NYC.  The entrance fee for a non-resident adult was $22, almost as expensive as the suggested donation/admission ($25) for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC but with much less to see.  Inside, the best thing may be the 6 minute video in multiple huge screens on the side walls, ceiling as well as the floor, about the wonderful nature, plant and animal.  I walked a bit too fast at the beginning as I didn’t know how small this museum was.   I slowed down in the middle and prolonged the visit to nearly one hour but I could have stepped out easily after half an hour.

After visiting the Biomuseo, I “tested” the bus system again in Amador Causeway.  After finding the bus stop, I was happy to see a local couple ( a man and a woman), who walked to the same bus stop almost at the same time as I did.  I asked them whether that stop was for the metro bus to go to Albrook with my metro card.  Since their answer was what I had hoped/expected, my limited Spanish was more than enough.  Later, I saw another local person also asked the same question when she came to the bus stop.  There was no real written sign or anything there (like most other places).   Usually, the metro bus has got a written orange sign but there it was a blue vehicle sign with no word.  That had made me want to ask.  At the end, the bus arrived after 30 minutes’wait.  But the mild breeze plus hiding under the canopy canvas and trees has made the wait in the middle of the Amador Causeway more or less pleasant.  If it’s not so hot, I might have walked a bit more in this Causeway.

In contrast to the previous day walking along Via España or around Cinta Costera, the Albrook bus terminal and the Albrook Mall were full of people.   In the “Boulevard Cafe” in a corner of the mall, I ventured to have a bowl of “Sancocho” (~chicken stew in Panama) which turned out to be the best food that I have had in Panama.  This assertion also takes into account about the price which was like $5.90 (including tax) for the bigger bowl (probably $1 cheaper for a smaller bowl).  Though I also went to try pork chop over rice dish in a very local restaurant along Av. Central the next day, this was about the only special Panamamian food that I’ve tried in Panama.  The picture in the menu and the photo high on the front of the restaurant showed a lot more meat and stuff in the bowl but in reality, the bowl was mostly just the soup.  But it tasted delicious and mild, not too spicy nor salty.  Sancocho may be cooked differently in various Latin American countries but this Panamanian version of Sancocho seemed to be stewed with chicken and was just good and right for me !

0327161408a_HDROn the last day, the major destination was Casco Viejo, which was also my last stop in this trip of Panama before I left for US that night.  Unlike Pamaná Viejo, people very much actually live in this old town.   After getting off from the metro station “5 de Mayo” and finding Av. Central, I strolled along the busy Av. Central bustled with all kinds of local shops and people.

At the center of Casco Viejo, it was the Plaza de la Catedral (also known as Plaza Mayor or Plaza de la Independencia).  After asking a girl to help take a photo, I wondered how I spent my last few (~3) hours in Panama.  There was the Museo del Canal Interoceánico that I planned to go; but I’ve also found that to hide from the heat, churches or catherdrals were good choices, especially the one called “San Francisco de Asis”, very clean and brand-new-looking, next to Palacio Bolivár with good air-conditioning, was probably about the best in the old town.  In fact, the old town was full of churches and cathedrals. I guess that’s what people liked to go to in the old days 🙂

The entrance fee to Museo del Canal Interoceánico was $10 (for a non-resident adult).  If I wanted an English guide, it’d cost $3 more.  I knew that the exhibition was mostly Spanish in this museum but I was never interested in all the glorious details anyway and I’d rather walk around myself than having somebody accompanying me.  [ Haha … I guess I am truly a solo traveler and just the idea of companion scares me. 😀  ]  On the 2nd floor, though the exhibition was mostly in Spanish, there were some English summaries here and there.  They were actually good for me as I didn’t enjoy reading every detail everywhere and the summary just had the right length for me.  However, on the 3rd floor, it’s really all Spanish (except a couple English newspaper cuttings).  And yet, it’s OK as people have always said “a picture is worth a thousand words”.  With the pictures and my limited Spanish vocabularies, I at least knew what it’s going on.  At the end, I did feel that I learnt a lot about the Panama Canal as well as the history of Panama.  They like to say that Panama is not just the bridge between the North and South America, but also the crossroads of the World.

***********                       ***********                       ***********

I guess, at the end, there were something above my expectation and also something below my expectation 😛  I don’t think I’ll go back to visit again (as for most other places in the world).  The canal was certainly once in a lifetime experience and the rest was not too elegant but also not too shabby.  Just the prices were too high (except the metro bus and subway), at least for tourists.

 

One awkward or unfortunate experience was with the postal mail service which is handled by “Correos y Telégrafos” in Panama.  I arrived at the Tocumen airport and hotel (Hyatt Place Downtown Panama) in the night of Mar. 24 and my flight left in the night of Mar. 27.  As these 3 day were the Easter holiday, the post offices were all closed.  I actually walked to the main post office opposite to Basílica Menor Don Bosco as well as the one in Plaza Concordia near my hotel.  There was no hole/opening outside these closed post offices and nor any post boxes in the streets for me to throw in my postcard, even if I could find a stamp.  And of course, I couldn’t find any stamps to buy.

I tried a few times to talk to the receptionists in my hotel and it seemed that the hotel didn’t want to help their clients with the mails such as my postcard.  There was one guy in the reception who smiled and declared that he could help me personally if I just gave him $2.  His smile etc. somehow didn’t make me trust him and at the end, I didn’t take up his personal offer as I was not sure whether he would just throw away my postcard.   At the receptionists’ suggestion, I did go to the Bristol hotel just a block down the hill but they couldn’t sell me any stamp and told me to go to Plaza Concordia.  I also went to Marriot nearby and got the same result.  Both Bristol and Marriot did ask me whether I had a reservation with them and esp. Marriott explicitly said that if I stayed there, they could help me mail my postcard.

It’d be great if Hyatt Place would be willing to do the same for their clients’ mails, esp. in holidays when the post offices are closed.  I had suggested to them when they sent me email to ask for my feedback.   I unfortunately have had to mail my postcard when I got back to US 😦

 

… One tiny bit to add : Though US coins are accepted and used in Panama, they did mint their own coins.  I got a couple Panamanian quarters but I gave them up when I bought a 75 cent ice-cream on the way of leaving Casco Viejo.  I still have the $2-worth metro card with 20 cents left in it 😎

 

 

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… 勝我舊家鄉

最初的誘因是,曾經多次,我都有同樣的疑問,到底我的手機能不能當(真的)收音機用?今日終於下決心去查查看。結果發現,本來技術上是可以的,但據聞電訊公司(如 Verizon 等)令製造商在製造他們的手機時,芯片的某端不連上(收音機)天線,所以不能接受電台的電波訊號。

當然, 我可以利用數據網或Wi-Fi 以網絡streaming 的方式來收聽某些電台。如果手機定有無限數據, 這也不是大問題。買了新車後,我經常用Bluetooth 來播放我手機裡所收藏的音樂。今天我順理成章地想到,我是否也可以用Bluetooth 來聽收音機?在手機裡,聽音樂和聽 streaming 收音機的應用程式不一樣,所以不成功的機會在沒有嘗試前不完全是零 🙂

另一方面,從我家開車接近 Flushing 時(超過一小時的車程),我比較喜歡聽的本地電台的訊號逐漸減弱, 最後完全聽不到了。所以如果能夠利用streaming 收聽我鍾愛的本地電台,這也蠻有用的。

一想及此,也就馬上去試了一下,在不是太困難的情況下,一舉成功!那些即時的 streaming 似乎和電台當時播放的是一樣的(相差~10秒左右,應該是由於應用程式裡一開始播出的廣告的阻延)。

成功聽到本地的電台後,我在那個流行的“TuneIn”應用程式裡,也留意到不同的國家、地區的各種選擇。今午開車去吃飯時,我『無意』中挑選了香港的『民間電台』來聽。畢竟,在家附近,紐約長島或康州的電台用車上真的收音機就可以聽到了,用“TuneIn”還是聽些不一樣的東西比較具新鮮感。

有趣的是,在短短的約莫廿分鐘內(去餐館的車程),我竟然聽到了主持人(Jordan—事後才挖出來的名字)在那電台主持節目最後的一刻。我當時以為那真的是即時的節目,但後來發現那其實是2016-1-7的『金曲歲月情』的重播,內容在民間電台的網址上也可以找到。

主持人當時好像說,視乎當晚有否聽眾打電話來和他討論、隨談,如果沒有,那節目就從此結束。這香港的『民間電台』,跟在香港爭取民主一樣,看來都是在艱苦經營啊!得不到多少的共鳴。

當我收聽時,似乎真的沒有香港的聽眾打電話來,倒有一位移民到德國的女士打電話來。電台主持笑中有淚地說,全香港都沒人聽,想不到在德國倒有一位聽眾。那一剎那,我多麼想告訴那主持人,你在美國也還有一位聽眾喔!女聽眾希望主持人不要停止那個節目,說那電台、眾主持人講出了她的心聲。在我收聽前,他們已經談了一陣。不過不難察覺,那位女士對香港今時今日情勢的傷感、鬱悶,跟我的感覺也許相當接近。她不明白、感到心痛,為甚麼香港被人家欺負、打壓到如此這般,大多人竟然都不大動作地憤然起來抗爭,而好像只會默默承受。只有那麼的一小撮人認為有堅持抗爭的必要。

這也許是曾在香港長大、之後長年在西方國家生活的人的『通病』。我多年前,曾向某香港朋友強烈表達過類似的意見、情緒,結果被說成是沒有顧及他們的感受、和只會在遠方的安樂窩指指點點而實際上甚麼都沒有做。啊哈,這也不是完全沒有道理的,呵呵 🙂 也許,在美國,有甚麼真不公平或假不公平,很多人都會起來抗爭。感覺上有種公平的制度和程序,可以讓我們去努力爭取,只要有足夠的力度、足夠的堅持和足夠的民意支持,終於都會成功。這或許只是一種一般性的感覺,真實也許不都如此,但就是這種感覺讓人們覺得這個世界好像還能夠住得下去。但在現今的香港,可能有種大石砸死蟹的感覺吧。政治的決定不是要看香港人的民意怎樣,而是取決於北方『新殖民統治者』的好惡 😦

『金曲歲月情』的最後,主持人說由於沒有香港的聽眾打電話來,那節目就到此為止。他最後播放了林子祥的舊歌『抉擇』,說是講出香港人在獅子山下的故事,也反映出今日香港人在三岔路口所必須做出的抉擇。最後叫我們留意歌詞。(主持人起初以為是鄭國江作的詞,大概後來才看到作詞人其實是黃霑。)

大概已經很多年沒有聽過這首歌了,歌詞如下:


幾多往時夢 幾許心惆悵
別了昔日家 萬里而去 心潮千百丈
收起往時夢 拋開心惆悵
任那海和山 助我尋遍 天涯各處鄉

*闖一番新世界 挺身發奮圖強
要將我根和苗 再種新土壤
就算受挫折 也當平常
發揮抉擇力量 再起我新門牆*

似那家鄉樣

(repeat *…*)

勝我舊家鄉


電視劇『抉擇』於1979年第一次在香港播出。我當時剛到香港(1979-1-4)不久,可能忙於功課和幫忙家裡裝配(從工廠拿來的)錶帶賺錢(之類?!),當時根本沒有怎麼看過這齣電視劇。雖然那首歌前前後後都曾聽過很多次,但就從來沒有怎麼留意過歌詞吧。現在注意到『似那家鄉樣』和『勝我舊家鄉』在歌曲最後那微妙的分別。

就如看到畢加索的抽象畫,不同的人對同樣的事與物可能會有不同的理解。歌詞的最後或者可以被理解為,在新的地方建立了一個比從前更好的家園。當年,從越南(如電視劇『抉擇』裡朱江所飾演的角色)或大陸來到香港的人,在香港建立了比越南或大陸更好的家園。然而,此道理放之四海皆準的吧。八九十年代香港移民潮最盛的時候,當時在香港的我,大概由於家裡完全缺乏條件,根本沒有考慮移民這回事。然而後來,由於學術追求和工作的關係,因利乘便,從歐洲輾轉來到美國定居,也變成了美國公民。回頭看香港,我也可以高唱『…勝我舊家鄉…』,但心中始終黯然替香港(人)感到不值。在『金曲歲月情』的主持人和那女士談話的最後,主持人替(不好意思說出來的)女聽眾說,怎樣的人民就有怎樣的國家、地方 😦 … 唉!

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Myanmar … brimming with optimism/hope/confidence ? …

Nov. 5-7, 2015 (Yangon/Dallah, Myanmar) :

Downtown Yangon is just too densely populated and congested, which makes it dirty and filthy.  As a significant fraction of the roads/streets have been occupied by the street stalls or hawkers selling all sorts of stuff, their widths are considerably shrunk.  Only on the last day did I realize that just a bit north (~1 mile) of downtown — such as the area around the National Museum or north of the central station, it suddenly looked like a nice suburb area in US that I can even consider living.

As a tourist, it’s just too hot to walk around comfortably. The atmosphere and chaotic street scenes and traffic have reminded me of Bangkok > 18 years ago.  But of course, Bangkok (or anywhere else) then didn’t have 3G (or whatever) data network which was very good in Yangon (as good as in US or Luang Prabang of Laos).

In the first morning, I finished the task of sending a postcard (stamp costing 500 kyat) — an old habit/tradition of mine.  But before I could buy a stamp with kyat, I had to exchange the local currency.  My US$50 was in good enough quality as nobody gave a fuss. The exchange rate for US$100 is 1:1273, only 1:1268 for $50, 1:1253 for $20 or $10 and only 1:1213 for $1 – $5, in the KBZ Bank — one of the biggest banks there.  Somehow they had preferred bigger notes exactly as the tourist guides etc. have stated.  I saw other people carrying passport which I didn’t have.  In the form that they asked me to fill in, they asked for a passport no. and I filled in a no. as much as I could remember — which (after I checked later back in the hotel) turned out to be correct for only the first half of the digits 🙂

1105151644What is shown here was one of the 4 photos at Yangon’s most famous site, Shwedagon Pagoda, taken by a nice girl.  Getting to this Pagoda in late afternoon, it’s like I had achieved my purpose (though maybe meaningless !) of coming to Yangon.  That afternoon, in my heart or mind, I had an internal struggle whether to stay inside the hotel for the air-conditioned comfort or walked under the scorching sun for more than half an hour from my hotel to reach that Pagoda 🙂

Like everybody else, I walked barefoot there as it was a requirement, just like many of the Buddhist places — last year I walked barefoot in the Royal Palace (also of Buddhist nature) in Kandy of Sri Lanka for a couple hours.  It’s worse than Mosque in the sense that I couldn’t even wear socks.  Men also dressed in similar fashion like women — but they are called “longyi” for men.  Of course, there are some men/women in Yangon who dress themselves in more westernized manner.  In any case, these dresses are kind of like a “norm” to me when I have been visiting a different Asian country every year.  They are all slightly different but also kind of the same to me, just some leptons and quarks …… In the photo, my eyes were not really closed, but probably because my eyes are small and I was just tired, they just looked that way.

1106151644The most refreshing bits of my entire Myanmar trip was probably the ferry trips between Dallas and Yangon on my 2nd day.  From the angle in the this photo, Yangon looked quite industrial 😁

It is said this ferry trip should take 10 minutes but it’s more like 6 minutes.  10 minutes probably includes the time to walk out of the terminal.  Foreigners these days needed to pay US$2 each way or $4 return (compared to virtually nothing ~100 kyat for locals).   Nobody (in tourist guides or online) mentioned anything about paying in kyat (for tourists) and when I asked, it turned out to be 5400 kyat — about 6% more than $4.  But since I have too much kyat left, I chose to pay in kyat.  Somehow, they also gave me a 300 ml bottle of purified drinking water.

Probably I seemed to know what I was doing and was very determined in my refusal, nobody in Dallah really chased me for long.  It is said that there was a big contrast between Yangon and Dallah, but to me there wasn’t that much a contrast to me — again, it was due to too high of an expectation value. It’s just city vs rural village, it’s as dirty or filthy on both sides of the river. But just that Yangon has taller houses/buildings, modern development such as a few shopping malls and higher class hotels — I am typing from the most famous one, “The Strand” (not sure since when, I have learnt to make use of the lobbies/reception areas of luxurious hotel to take can rest and enjoy the air-conditioning). The houses in Dallah (that I have seen 10 minutes away from the ferry terminal) are suspended up from the ground by posts as if it is water underneath. I guess there must be substantial flooding … Overall, it’s just poorer than Yangon, not really fundamentally different.

The (short) time spent on the ferry with the breeze was the best part of the journey and actually the most enjoyable moments in my entire Myanmar stay, both spiritually and physically.

By the way, when I reached Dallah, away from the ferry terminal, the data signal was still “H” (HSPA, an enhancement over 3G), the same as in the Yangon side.  Myanmar has just reminded me of Laos 2 years ago that data network has been everywhere which had allowed me to upload to Facebook (and both countries don’t seem to do much censorship, at least not for Facebook, unlike Mainland China !).  I think, due to different frequency spectrum for 4G, my smartphone (LG G2) configured for US could not be used for 4G outside US.  [ 3G doesn’t have this frequency problem and this phone has all 4 frequency bands for me to make phone calls (2G) if I want to. ]

Earlier in the morning, I went to visit the National Museum.  The major exhibit there is said to be the only Lion Throne left, which one could find on the ground floor.  Then, one would encounter all kinds of other exhibits from model statues of various Myanmar ethnic groups and paintings to 40 million years old rocks and even a small piece of rock from the moon (from the Apollo era) given by President Nixon.  There was certainly much space left over for even more exhibits.  I guess the Museum has achieved the purpose of introducing Myanmar but it has given me a feeling that they just tried to fill the space, even just sparsely.  Nevertheless, there were 5 floors which in any case are still a lot to be seen, impressive or not.

The surprise later was that a couple blocks south from the Museum across the Pyay Road, I came across the only modern and multi-story shopping mall “Taw Win Center” in my entire Yangon stay and because of sufficient air-conditioning here, I have physically enjoyed myself much more than in the Museum honestly speaking.  It had  restaurants but I was not that hungry and only bought some cakes in the supermarket at the basement.

1107151335On the last day and afternoon in Yangon, I took the Yangon Circular Railway (Circle Line) which has been said to take 3 hours.  But it actually only needed ~2 hours and 31 minutes, for my experience; but at least I’ve finished reading my novel.  The train goes around the entire Yangon and comes back to the same Yangon central station. On one hand, I’ve got time to kill; on the other hand, I tried imbedding myself among the Yangon people and told myself that this was real travelling and real experience. Though one sometimes got to see some rural green fields, there was just too much trash along the rail track and overall, it was quite boring. I chose the air-conditioned train (even though it was not really strong) to make it slightly more bearable and I didn’t really care of taking photos for the scene outside.  Air-conditioned or not, it’s all US$1 for the entire trip (or even the entire day). It’s obviously not the cleanest but I have only occasionally smelled something 😅

I have typed the above paragraph (in Facebook) from the Sule Shangri La Hotel, not too far away from the train station, enjoying their A/C, toilet, electricity (to recharge phone) etc. I’ve killed a couple hours there before I went over to the East Hotel (just across the Sule Pagoda Road) for dinner as it’s cheaper there and also one of the suggestions of the “The Rough Guide to Myanmar (Burma)” before I headed to the airport for my 1:10 am flight (actually on Nov. 8th).  By chance, the previous night, I also went to one of the Guide’s suggestions, the 999 Shan Noodle Shop, which was even cheaper ~2100 kyat and tasted good enough.  This restaurant was probably run by ethnic Chinese and it’s quite deep into the 34th St. from the main Anawratha Road — ie., if not suggested by the Guide, I’d not have come across it myself.  At the end, I have chosen not to eat street food in Yangon due to the questionable hygiene and the fact that the street food (a lot of frying and oily stuff) didn’t really appeal to my appetite.


Everyday news has shown us bit by bit the election results from Myanmar’s general election which happened a few hours after I left Myanmar. The last day before I left, on the train, I saw in a glimpse one of the few big slogans that I could read (as it’s in English) which said “Myanmar, brimming with ….”. I don’t quite remember the word after “brimming with” …. Maybe, it’s “optimism” or “hope” or “confidence” 🙂  I can write a reason for each …

Let’s hope that the ruling party/army will accept the election results and it certainly looks much more likely than 5 years ago. Among other things, the right to vote in the general election or being able to use facebook is something that the Burmese seem to have but not their neighbors across the northern border. The right to vote may not lead to prosperity or anything and it’s just something which seems more difficult to have than owning iPhone or iPad in some parts of the world. Though my choosing to study physics instead of engineering (or medicine) in college didn’t guarantee any bright future (some people might argue it’s certainly a less prosperous one), it probably gave me my life some meaning as I seemed to choose a path of my own decision instead of my parents’ — which would render my life meaningless. I certainly cherish this right/freedom to choose at that particular juncture even though I never know what’d happen if I had chosen to study engineering or medicine which might be disastrous or might lead to a more financially wealthier life — but for the latter, if they were not my own choosing, I’d sometimes feel that I’d be merely a robot under my parents’ or the government’s super-computerized control. Hehehe … I think even the Chinese novels “家、春、秋” written more or less 80 years ago gave me such a strong emotion in terms of “love” and personal life/choice, when I first read it in early secondary school — I remember that the teacher gave me a “A” for my review — maybe like : if you don’t choose your own lover but only follow your parents’ arrangement for you, life is meaningless 🙂

Interestingly, soon after I left Sri Lanka about a year ago, Sri Lanka also had an important election which made the ruling President Rajapaksa step down in a narrow margin (~51.3% vs 47.6%) . It seemed so unlikely when I was there because I only noticed Raja’s posters in Colombo and nobody else. My Sri Lankan friend/colleague told me that Raja sort of “sold” Sri Lanka to China for his own benefit. Election result is diffiult to predict, especially when you try to do so beforehand 🙂 { Just like many theorists, people like to claim to have “predicted” the unavoidable result afterwards. } The existence of election is certainly interesting than its absence … not the least with the entertainment of Donald Trump. ( I’m very liberal in my voting right … Once you get the voting right, you could vote based on their look, the one sentence they have said or whatever. You only need to bear the consequence of the result collectively, good or bad, such as G. W. Bush or B. Obama et. al. )

The right to vote (in a real election — that people like Donald Trump can try) is probably more “expensive” to get than iPad and iPhone…. And of course, some people don’t care about iPhone or iPad (like me) and some people may not care about the right to vote or the freedom to use facebook 🙂 { What is also interesting is that you can use facebook in Laos and Myanmar — or all the Asian countries that I’ve been in recent years — but not in Mainland China. } These days, I more and more look up to, like and prefer the place that people actually care about the right to vote and I can’t bear with a place that people seem to be satisfied without the genuine right to vote/choose.

I watched the French TV channel in my apartment in Meyrin of Switzerland (near CERN) after the 1995 French Presidential election. Seeing virtually like hundreds of thousands (if not a million) of people around the Arc de Triomphe, it was probably the first time that I suddenly realized and was so moved that people could be so overjoyed by just the sheer existence of an election (somehow I didn’t feel that people were happy whether Chirac had won, but it’s more like people cheering after a successful midnight party). Probably because of language barrier, I didn’t really feel anything about their elections in Myanmar or Sri Lanka when I was there as a tourist. The 2015 Sri Lanka election had the turnout of >80% ! Which is a number that itself just shows a kind of emotion or at least “!” ! { Voting turnout would probably come down after it becomes routine … just like your love for your iPhone would dwindle after the initial excitement. } I’ve long thought that people’s happiness is ~ dX/dt — X can be anything and t is time. You don’t really feel happy or sad just because of the absolute magnitude of X but its change would affect your happiness. Walking down the Champs-Élysées from Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde (even after a few times) is probably still more enjoyable/romantic to me than walking in Yangon downtown (the temperature must be a factor here, too). Nevertheless, if I had a machine to measure happiness, I’m not sure that the richer Parisians (or other richer people in richer cities) are happier than the Burmese. Certainly, at this moment, the Burmese is probably brimming with more “hope” or “optimism” than the Parisians; in other “words”, d(Hope)_Burmese/dt > d(Hope)_Parisian/dt .

Aung San Suu Kyi had created the famous statement before the Nov. 8 election that she would be “above the President” and run the govt. if her party NLD could win enough seats to take over the presidency. The military has written the Constitution to exclude her from the presidency but she can play tricks to get around the Constitution to practically run the govt. That’s probably what the uncertain negotiation before the coming Feb. will be about. Later, if they get enough votes, they may even change the Constitution so that she may be the President herself (rather than having to have a puppet President for the lack of a better term). That’s the obvious path but it seems so far away from now. There are female artists who are called “Goddesses” but Aung San Suu Kyi is the real Goddess in Myanmar and one would find her posters for sales more than anybody else. Some people criticize her for her ignoring the matters of minorities such as the Rohingya people. Nevertheless, her fight against the dictatorial rulers and her toughness to endure her being practically “jailed” at home for ~20 years (instead of staying in her comfortable home in Oxford — also my alma mater — with her kids and husband) has deservedly won her the Goddess status in Myanmar. Though it doesn’t guarantee that she knows how best to run the govt. (as the revolutionaries may not be the best rulers), her greatest contribution/legacy will be her tremendous efforts to lead Myanmar to democracy (esp. if it happens to work).

Last but not the least, 5-6 days after I mailed my postcard from Yangon, my family in Hong Kong received it !  According to my own experience, this is considered fast among all the countries that I’ve visited or compared to Vietnam/Cambodia/Thailand which are not more distant from Hong Kong than Myanmar.  I have used to have the “theory of public transport” (as seen by tourists) to judge how good a country is.   Now, I may have another “theory of communication” to judge a country.  In the public transport aspect, Yangon hasn’t scored well at all.  But for the communication aspect, from the above postcard experience and that of the network data, Myanmar or at least Yangon has left me a very good experience which has somehow made me feel hopeful for their future. Communication is not everything but good communication to the outside world would at least help keep their government honest, among many other benefits.  Maybe, Myanmar is even brimming with confidence as Myanmar is not afraid of letting the outside world see them as they are and at the same time not afraid of their citizens seeing the outside world.

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小題大作 …. Eligo, ergo sum

約莫一個月前,曾有意跟剛下飛機的我媽和妹到法拉盛(紐約皇后區)的敦城海鮮酒家飲茶。但到達後發現酒家門前大排長龍,可能需要等半個鐘頭,結果就只好作罷。今日(2015-7-25)十一點半後到法拉盛,思考去哪裡午膳時,便想起這酒家,何況又好像幾百年都沒去過了,於是就決定和媽去那裡飲茶囉。可能由於今日到得早,等了兩三分鐘就有位給我們,而且還不需要「搭」檯,好極了。

點心都很經典,不能說有甚麼很特別的地方(畢竟我們只吃了四碟),但也算不錯吧。倒是這裡很戮力推銷她們推車上的點心的阿姐、阿姨使我留下一些印象。也許在市郊住久了,太純樸和悠閒了,城市始終比較激進、複雜一點。

譬如,雖然我只要了兩碟,一位推車阿姐就前後幫我打了三個印。我先要了個叉燒腸粉,不知當時她打了幾個印。本來阿姐已推車離開了一步,但她又回過頭來向我推銷她的據說很傳統的糯米雞。我考慮了數秒後就表示我要,她給了我糯米雞後自然又再打印。連之前叫的一碟,我們才叫了三碟,但我居然看到四個印。我馬上發聲,向阿姐表示不滿、疑問。她一開始不認為是她的問題,和氣地說『唔知你啦!』數秒間,我也沒有即時想到怎麼才能證明是她的錯。倒是當她看到了3個「23」的印後,就說「對哦,怎麼可能…」我也很快意識到3個「23」的意義,那就是證明喔!看似老實的阿姐隨即連聲道歉。最後她還說我很精明,竟然會察覺!有可能阿姐是企圖欺詐,但從她的表情開來似乎是無心之失。呵呵呵 ……

然而,之前還有位阿姨,推銷她的點心態度就更強硬一點。這位阿姨,看我對他的推車上的煎、炸食物不感興趣,她竟拿起當中一碟炸蝦球,指著說什麼平日沒有,只在週末才有,之後更口裡嚷著「很好吃的,你信我啦!」、硬將那碟炸蝦球放在我們的檯子上。我有1 ps 的猶豫,考慮是否可以順從那位阿姨的硬銷,要下那碟炸蝦球算了?!可是,當我想到別人硬要幫我選擇,我心裡突然有股說不出的強烈反彈。老舊『新紮師兄』的那首『堅持心中理想…』的歌聲又裊裊在我腦中縈迴盪漾,我毅然將那碟炸蝦球放回那位阿姨的推車。笑著笑著,我對阿姨以強碰強的姿態、中肯地說出『我不要、我不要』。

那阿姨之後就沒再糾纏我,沒有和我揮刀舞劍起來。其實,我有時還是蠻喜歡、期待以強碰強的真實場面,對著對方大吼、大聲呼喊,表示我的反對和不滿!雖然有時事後要做補救工作,但那一刻的高昂、激奮有時還是蠻教我享受的,即使只是一剎那 🙂

不過,我之後陪我媽在華僑文教服務中心坐下來回想起來,不禁聯想到另一件我還有點熟悉的『別人硬要幫我選擇』事件:中國全國人大硬要塞給香港的政改方案,這和「很好吃的,你信我啦!」是何等的相似!想著想著,就愈發感到有趣、好笑。慶幸的是,香港仍然有一班人及一股力量不順從別人告訴他們真正喜歡的是甚麼,不肯像人大代表那般戮力參與全國人大的所謂選舉而就號稱中國大陸有選舉的一幕幕自欺欺人的滑稽戲。…… 忍不住又要說我喜歡用的比喻,儘管我父母的選擇可能有多正確、他們有多愛我,但因為不是我自己的選擇,我絕不會順從他們強烈推薦給我的配偶;就算我不知道我的不順從將失去甚麼,我仍毅然拒絕接受他們幫我的選擇,而堅持我自己的選擇───單身!也又要濫用和改造笛卡兒的名言,『我選擇,故我在』(大概是”Eligo, ergo sum” ?!)!因為如果我自己不積極去選擇我的人生(就算是別人認為是多麼差的選擇,如我選的顏色、閱讀的小說等),我就好像不再存在了。

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The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter

Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter [ 2014 ]Quite a few books have seemed good at the beginning but at the end, they just haven’t pass my (not very high) threshold of recommending.  But I can recommend this one as long as one can get past the author’s ego 🙂

After reading this book, one’d be very up-to-date about the current status of the Dark Matter searches as well as Dark Energy and other astrophysical / cosmological matters.  Though the book seems to have been written in an effort to educate the general public, the author has delved a bit deeper into the matters of Dark Matter and also Dark Energy (to slightly less extent).   I’ve found the Chapters 7 & 8 the most informative for me.  When I have been listening to seminars about Dark Matter searches, I’ve sometimes found them quite confusing as the experiment results are often contradictory to each other.  The comparison plots with so many experimental results all in one (in various colors) are very difficult to digest.  But this book is effectively like nice colleagues giving us lectures summarizing the search results of the Top quark (in ~1995’s) or the Higgs boson (in recent years).   I’ve also learnt some tidbits here or there in the last chapter (Chap. 9), not to mention the “dark star” which I probably have never really/seriously heard of and might explain the origin of those supermassive black hole with millions or billions of Solar masses.

Excluding the pages of Notes/Index, this book is only a bit more than 200 pages, certainly easier to read than Roger Penrose’s >1000-page “The Road to Reality”.  I don’t remember that I’ve heard of the author’s name before reading this book.  Apparently, she’s a professor & theoretical astrophysicist in the U. of Michigan and she’s introduced her contributions quite fully throughout this book.  From my judgment, her most significant contribution was probably her calculations with 2 other collaborators for the rates of WIMP scattering off various target materials, which has led to the start of the Dark Matter direct searches (p.131-134).  I’ve learnt that for spin-independent WIMP-nucleus interactions, the rate is amplified by A2 where A is the atomic mass or even A4 for nuclei lighter than the WIMP (p. 134-5).  But for spin-dependent scattering, there is no such factor and “a WIMP interacts only with the total spin of the nucleus” (1st sentence of the 2nd paragraph on p.135).

Dark Matter searches have been going on for years and the author has thoughtfully and interestingly divided a dark matter project into 5 stages (p. 141).  To me, dark matter project is like a conglomeration of physicists from the fields of astronomy, particle physics and condensed matter physics.  I’ve always only had a vague impression of what they’ve been doing and often assumed that they were doing the impossible.  This book has modified my impression quite substantially and though I may not be as optimistic as the author, I won’t be surprised that they might have a breakthrough in a few years.  But Dark Energy is a more difficult matter.  I remember Frank Wilczek has said that it’s the problem for the next generation in a colloquium in our Lab. a few years ago.  And of course, this kind of Standard Model of Cosmology (with Dark Matter and Dark Energy) assuming General Relativity’s validity to infinity can be totally wrong and we may need another revolution before we make real progress.

A few noteworthy points in Chap. 8: Dark Matter experiments of DAMA, Cogent and CRESST seemed to favor the evidence of WIMP whereas CDMS, XENON and LUX, up to early 2014 (I guess), seemed to have shown null results.  DAMA (famous for its annual modulation as predicted by the author and her collaborators) apparently has refused to share their data with outsiders, which makes the community skeptical (last paragraph on.151).  The indirect search in the South Pole or the space have generally found no evidence of WIMP so far.  10 GeV WIMP has been mentioned quite a bit in this book but the fact that LHC and other accelerator experiments have never seen such a not-so-heavy particle makes me personally very skeptical of its existence.

I like reading about personal things mixed with scientific discussion.  Eg. I still remember what Peter Woit has told me about Schrodinger’s personalities in his book of “Not Even Wrong”.  In this book, the personal stories in the middle of all the researches are often interesting.  Eg. two of the four co-authors of their paper (on decaying vacuum energy) has included her former fiancé and her then-fiancé (lines 5-6 of p.203) !!   She was originally an experimental particle physics graduate student in Columbia U.  She told us that her first task was to check 1000 phototubes, having to remove input cables and then replace them.  This has immediately reminded me of my friend who came to Fermilab as a gradudate student of the same Columbia U.  His advisor (our senior colleague in Dzero) told him to check hundreds (?) of our Fermilab-designed IC chips — though boring, it’s somewhat easier than the author’s task as my friend has just needed to put each chip into a socket and check whether a LED lit up.  My friend somehow felt frustrated and gave up on physics research totally soon afterwards.  But this author didn’t !  Now, I feel that it’s like an apprentice test that one has to pass before you can be a particle physics graduate student in Columbia U. … Hahaha … The advantage or luck of the author over my friend was that she knew how to drive.  When she drove to U. of Chicago to look for acting classes (!) — lines 2-3 of p.4, she has somehow ended up signing up for a cosmology class which has changed her life.  Subsequently, she left Columbia U. for U. of Chicago to work with David Schramm in theoretical astrophysics.

Nevertheless, her skills of intertwining physics with personal stories may not have achieved the optimum.  It’s obvious that she’s mentioned her contributions whenever there was a chance, and at times, you cannot but feel that she’s just wanted to brag even though the stories might not really add anything to the book.  Like on p.52 (4th line  from the bottom), when the COBE result was announced (and she’s not a member of the COBE collaboration), she wrote “At the University of Michigan, I convened a meeting of the faculty to tell them about this important result”.  If I were the editor, I’d have crossed out this sentence.  Because it doesn’t even add any glory to herself, almost like I told people that I drove to work or ate lunch that day.  Another example is on p.172-3 when she received an honorary doctorate from Stockholm University in 2012.  But there is no joke to laugh at or anything, except probably to have the chance to praise herself as “one of the world’s best known astroparticle physicists” used in the nomination.  Near the end, though not much to add to the scientific content, the author seemed to feel compelled to tell us and very proud of what she said in the annual World Science Festival when 3 women represented “dark matter” and 3 men represented “dark energy” : “Dark matter is attractive while dark energy is repulsive.” (on p.213).  I guess there are physics point of view and also that of sexism.

The least appealing chapter to me is Chap. 6 when the author discusses the Higgs discovery and I guess she probably has grabbed quite a bit from the websites and/or literature of CERN and the LHC experiments.  It’s one of the very few places that I’ve felt more familiar on certain subjects than she is.

p.85 (lines 22-23): “2009” in the sentence “The Tevatron was the premier high-energy physics laboratory until it was shut down in 2009 …” should really be 2011 as Tevatron was shut down on Sept. 30, 2011.  p.92 (8th line from the bottom): “… a radius of 3 kilometers (5 miles) …” has the obvious mistake that 3 km is not 5 miles.  p.124 (lines 16-17): “… the least powerful of the four fundamental forces, the weak force” and similarly on p.130 (4th line): “weak interactions, the least powerful of the four forces” are erroneous as in general the gravitational force should be the least powerful !

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