Saturday, October 23, 2010

Humbling and be a man or a lamer?

1. Over the past few weeks of travel, I have met two of mom's friends from her high school days and from her early career. We slept at their places, and I had the chance to browse over the books and certificates of their children. They, as every other parents in their shoes would act, told us about their children's education and careers. Their children are awesome, really.
1.1. I feel very happy going over their books and certificates. Even though I have never met them, I felt a strange connection with them. Looking at their pictures, reading their books and sleeping in their beds probably have such an effect.
1.2. I like meeting high achievers who are happy. (These children look happy from their pictures.) I always feel humbled and motivated after learning about these people.
1.3. For reasons unexplained, I feel like meeting their children in person. I hope we will meet one day.

2. There's this girl whom I find very attractive and charming. I have no idea if she has a boyfriend or not, or even if she's married or not (or if she even like guys in a romantic way). If I were to stay here for two more years at least, I would make a move. Now that I am leaving, I wonder if I should be a man and tell her in person, or be a lame romantic and tell her via a card, or be a lame lamer by saying through email.
2.1. If you like someone, you should let that person know. Let him/her know, doesn't mean that you need to take action, but at least let him/her know. It's flattering for that person to know. I know, because I have always wanted people to tell me they like me hahaha.

Count down

One week to go
before I leave the States.
For good.

I am already worried about
what to do
the day after I return to KL.
No more labs,
no more Netflix,
no more ...
Davis :(

The only immediate solace
I can hope for
are the delicious durian puffs in Uptown
and meeting up with my CH friends.

Well, it will be a weekend
right after I get home,
and I will see my niece for the first time,
hopefully that helps.

What I learned however
is that being basked in new found joy
doesn't wash away the lingering sadness.

Davis, I shall miss you terribly.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

金刚经: 应无所住而生其心。

When I was alternating between like and dislike, hatred and love, disgust and gratitude,
when I was on the verge of ending a friendship, calling someone by ugly names,
I read the Buddhism book my mom was reading the train.
And I came across this line, again.

I feel good now.

For the past four years, I haven't cooked meat for myself.
Yet during these years, I have cooked meat on several occasions.
For a friend who was leaving and really wanted to taste my pork dish,
for a friend who was sick, who was too tired to cook, who refused to eat vegetables.
I cooked meat for them.
Meat or no meat, it was irrelevant to me;
but to them, it meant a lot.
One friend left saying he wished I had started cooking meat earlier,
another had dinner before she slept.

I shouldn't insist on any one thing, because it's all in passing, all the same.
I shouldn't mourn for my lost love, and I shouldn't rejoice over winning some attention.
But I should be kind to others, and treat them as best as I can.

My purpose in life isn't to have others make me happy. No. How long have I been stuck in this false pretense? I truly apologize to those whom I have given much trouble due to my skewed perception. Especially you, you know who you are.

My purpose is to contribute positively as much as possible, and in the process, happiness and good will shall never be far from me.

Someone told me that Jesus once said something along the lines of "If someone slaps you on the right cheek, give him your left too."
How wise.

on Ph.D. (1)

I obtained my BSc. in May 2006. Following a short break, I started my Ph.D. program in September 2006. Four years later, in September 2010, I completed my Ph.D. in Entomology. I was also four months shy of my 28th birthday when I got my Ph.D.

Many people have expressed surprise, mixed with a hint of amazement, at the speed at which I went through my Ph.D. program. I wrote almost nothing about this new adventure of mine when I started my Ph.D., and perhaps now I should write something about it, if only to serve as a reference for others who are working on their Ph.D., or plan to do so.

What’s a Ph.D.?
Nobody ever told me what defines it, or what truly distinguishes a Ph.D. from other diplomas. I can however, tell you what makes a good Ph.D., and from that perhaps you can get an idea of what it entails.

In my opinion, and in the opinion of many professors (who may one day evaluate you, since the academia is very much peer-evaluation focused), the quality of a Ph.D. is measured by the research done. Specifically, it’s not really just the research done but the publications generated by the research done. Good research amounts to nothing if it’s not published, and you won’t be able to publish research of inadequate quality (at least not in any respectable journal).

In the first month of my Ph.D. program, I was reminded by a professor that “Forget the courses, forget the homework, forget the GPAs. Papers. Papers is what you will be judged by first and foremost.” He has remained a member of my committees since the beginning and I am thankful for his pivotal tip.

If I can put it more bluntly, in a Ph.D. program, one should never be concerned with scoring ‘A’ in any classes. Just make sure you don’t fail, learn what you need to learn and move on with your research ASAP. Some programs subject the Ph.D. students to heavy class load, and though I find that foolish, there’s little a student can do to change his fate (Depending on the policies of your department however, students may be able to voice their opinions about program curriculum and make a change. My department is one such awesome department.) What you can do to improve your fate is to cast away the ‘undergraduate mentality’ of ‘being the best student in the class’. When you are looking for a job later, NOBODY cares about your CGPA of your Ph.D. program. Remember that Stats class that you studied day and night for and finally got an A+ in? Well, nobody cares. If a recruiter from a research institute or university wants to know if you have the adequate stats skills for the position, they read your papers and see what statistical methods you have employed in your research.

(And truth be told, it’s much easier to score As in graduate-level classes than in undergraduate-level classes. Cheap scores = no value, savvy?)

Most Ph.D. students understand the important of research and publication very well, and thus most of us labour away to get more data. And then more data. Data, data, data. In some programs, data are easier to get than in others, and both are cursed. Too much data and you will easily lose sight of the big picture once you are buried in numbers; too little data and you will be shaking your fists at empty datasheets. I have encountered both situations in my Ph.D. career, so let me tell you how I dealt with them.

Never lose sight of the big picture, or the questions you started to ask. If you forget where you wanted to go or what you wanted to seek, then no number of maps would help you get to the right place. If you forget the general objectives of your studies, you will most likely miss signs of interesting data (think, alternative hypotheses) even if they are laid out right before your eyes. To help me with my bearings, I draw models. If you can think it, you can write it, and you can put it into a model. Draw circles, connect them, use colours, whatever. A professor once told his lab that “experiments and stuff are all good, but once you draw everything into a model, it’s like ascending heaven”. That professor has one of the clearest minds I have had the good fortune to witness, so his words should be heeded. A model does more than summarize your thoughts, it also helps you see gaps, formulate ideas, and facilitate discussion with others. I have drawn countless models during my Ph.D. career, and most of them on scrap paper or the back of paper napkins. Pick up the modeling habit, but ditch the napkin part =).

Once I lacked data for a question that I really wanted to answer. Time was running out for me to repeat the investigation. I was very disappointed, needless to say. Yet there’s nothing to be gained from disappointment (and that’s a good lesson too!), so I moved on to other easier projects. I made notes on what went wrong with this round of examination, and sought to improve on investigation the question next time (summer’s my only research season). Sometimes you would have nothing to do while waiting for materials to arrive or your collaborators to get their part of the projects done. During then, I did two things: i) have fun playing Warhammer Online, and ii) work on other projects, like writing a review paper or conjuring up other projects. Furthermore, there are stats method that deal with small sample size. Whatever I did, I never sat down, did nothing and hoped for things to get better.

Hmm…sounds like a Ph.D. student needs to be slaving away 24/7. Nope, definitely not. I have many colleagues who party much more than I do and still accomplish more. I have also colleagues who work much more than I do and progressed much less than would be expected. I say, work hard when you should be working, and make the work counts. Make it efficient, and make it effective. I don’t work/study when I know that I won’t be efficient in doing it, e.g., when my mood is bad, when I am tired, when I am distracted, when I want to play. Looking back, I realise that my habits are to work efficiently to save time, but play to waste time.

Somebody once said that I had it easy because I was smart. Well, she was correct—I was smart in using and managing my time, but not smart in terms of IQ or brain power. I was also smart in making sure that I work when I want to and when I need to. Being really smart can be a dangerous curse in disguise, as smart people often rely too much on their intelligence and refuse to work more to achieve more. If I need 30 minutes to understand a paragraph, whereas you only need 10 minutes to do so, that’s okay. I will read when I am most efficient such that I don’t spend more time than necessary, and in that way I have achieved my ‘maximum’. That makes me feel good about myself, and my performance will not be impaired.

Feeling good about myself was very critical for the health of my Ph.D. career. I have never once thought badly about my capabilities as a scientist or as a teacher, even when my experiments failed again and again. I don’t compare myself to others (though I do observe how others do things and what they achieve), only to myself. As such, I have no place to go but forward, nothing to do but progress. If you feel sorry for yourself, begin to doubt your abilities, then your next step will be harder, you will be less inclined to do something new, you will procrastinate and run away. Naturally, your speed will be slower, your results less elegant, your data of less quality. People will criticize, and you will feel worse. The vicious cycle starts again and you will soon find yourself spiraling down, down, down. I hope you never get there, and if you do, QUICKLY do the following: do something easy, make it work, and start to feel good about yourself again.

Oh my…I have written too much already. Let’s stop here, for now.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

October Trip 3.4: Hood River->Orchards/Alcapas->Welches/Mt.Hood (Oct 19)

Today we spent the morning in Hood River visiting a museum of antique aircrafts and cars, an Alcapa farm and a fruit orchard. After that we headed down south on #35 to Mt. Hood area where we took a short hike on a beautiful trail beside Salmon River before checking in at our upscale resort, The Resort at the Mountain.

We started our day by eating the leftovers from yesterday's dinner...then checked out and drove to the Western Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum (WAAAM).

I kind of like watching antique cars, and I have always found airplanes unbelievable. Every time I sit in a plane 30,000 feet in the air, I remember that the first successful flight was merely 100 years ago. We humans were not meant to fly, but we cast that handicap aside.

 Outrageous rat bike...
 Ford's Model T.
There were also some antique firearms on display, including this Maxim machine gun, the first automatic machine gun invented in the 1880s. Machine guns changed the speed of battles, you know? Later it was tanks, then airplanes.

Hehe...look at the design of the car horns last time...Gears on the outside too. Cool~

We met one of the owners of the antique car on display. Don's car was a Chrysler Imperial Cabriolet E-80 (DonBriggs) that he bought in the 70s and took 10 years to restore. When he bought it, it was burnt and looked good to be salvaged and nothing else. Don, whose hobby is metal work, made the parts and carefully restored it. Now it looks BEAUTIFUL. I was impressed by the dedication, patience and expertise these guys invested into restoring the cars. Well worth it, I think.

Our next destination was an Alpaca farm. Alpacas..what are they? I thought they were llamas and it turned out that Alpacas, Llamas and camels are all in the family Camelidae. Alpacas are South-American and there are no wild Alpacas now--all domesticated for thousands of years. They produce fiber, and it's supposed to be many times warmer than wool and doesn't cause allergy reactions.

Well, I almost never wear wool and I don't stitch/knit/weave, so I went just to look at them. I knew Mom would be interested in the knitting part, and she was. The place we went to was Foothills Yarn & Fiber in Hood River. Pretty easy to miss the road leading into the farm, particularly because we didn't use the busier route.

Next, we got onto #35 and stopped at Draper's Farms to check out the orchards and buy some fruits. I don't really eat apples nowadays after my 4 years of apple-a-thon in Montreal, but this place smelled wonderfully of apples and pears (or the other way round?). Mom was happy to see apple trees loaded with apples, while I was very excited to see many insects buzzing away on the plot of flowering plants beside the orchard. We bought some apples and pears on our way out.

We had lunch at a campground on the way to Welches. Our tasty and filling lunch consisted of several snack bars, some Japanese rice-biscuits and plain water. The only real treat was the fruits that we just bought--sweet and aromatic.
 Mom washing her pear after I did. The water was cold...

 Our very appealing lunch table, with more bags than food.

 The environment was nice though. Driving on the Mt. Hood Scenic Loop has been a real joy because the roads were in excellent condition and lined on both sides by tall conifers and aspen or some trees which leaves turn yellow and orange. Very pretty.

I had to pose...just to test Mom's progress with the camera.

We got to Welches early, so we decided to hike on the Salmon River Trail for a bit before checking in into our accommodation.

Salmon River Trail starts at the bridge where Salmon River Road crosses the Salmon River, just east of Welches.

The temperate rainforest was what I came to see, and saw it I did. It's all so wet and cold. Lichens, mosses, algae, mushrooms, everywhere!

Tonight we are staying at The Resort on the Mountain. Nice place with golf course, spa, pool etc. We aren't going to use any of those of course..because our practice has been to travel the day, eat and sleep at night. Dinner was taken at the Altitude, the resort restaurant. Nothing's special about their food except for~~their Mint Panna Cotta with strawberry soup, strawberry-mint relish and champagne meringue. OH MY...this thing was so good! We need to do this at home.

OK...time to zzz....

Monday, October 18, 2010

October Trip 3.3: Columbia River Gorge--Bonneville Dam & Hatchery-->Hood River (Oct 18

Today was a day of wet rainforest, waterfalls and driving on really scenic roads.

I am however too tired to write now, so please come back tomorrow night for more. In the meantime, I have finished the Portland (Oct 17) entry below, and added the missing Grand Canyon Day 3 post, also below.


But to reward you for checking on this post, here's a picture of how they direct visitors at the Bonneville Hatchery near the Bonneville Dam. They drew these signs on the ground.


We bid farewell to our host Samantha at the Terwilliger Vista B&B and departed for the Columbia River Gorge. We planned to drive on the Historic Columbia River Highway (#30) for a stretch to see some waterfalls before joining #84 again to proceed to Hood River, where we will pass the night.

The Columbia River Gorge is really beautiful. Having seen the Grand Canyon and its gorges just a few days ago, you would think that we wouldn't be amazed by any other gorges anytime soon. The Columbia River Gorge however, is different. Very different. First, it's wet, it's green and the Columbia River can easily be seen flowing gracefully through the gorge.
View of the Columbia River Gorge from Women Forum Lookout Point. That's the Crown Point Vista House there on the cliff. We were on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, Washington State is on the other side of the river.

After Women Forum Lookout, we drove off the Highway up onto Larch Mountain Road to ascend the peak of Mt. Larch and get a view of several peaks in the distance. The drive was once again, beautiful. In fact, I think driving on this phase of our October trip has been enjoyable all throughout thanks to the wonderful scenery (and FayeWong's songs).
Larch Mountain Road. On certain stretches the trees reached up so high, one could hardly see their tops from within the car. Felt like driving through narrow streets in metropolitan NYC, except that we had trees instead of skyscrapers.

 To our surprise, we had to pay $5 to access the park at the peak of Mt. Larch. Even more surprising was that it was all self-service. You put the payment (cash or cheque) into an envelope (provided) and slip it into the slot in a box. You place the stub on your dashboard and you are done.

 It was only a 0.25 mile hike to the top, but certain stretches were steep and required the seniors to trod slowly. The lively and colourful views made it easier though.

 Mt. Hood in the distance.
Mt. Hood a bit closer.
Do you see something in this rock + wood formation? I saw something!

After Mt. Larch, we proceeded on the Historic Columbia River Highway. Over the next several hours, we visited several waterfalls, namely Latourell Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Multnomah Falls.

 Latourell Falls. The lichen growing on the wall was amazing. Neon yellowish green.  Apparently it's Chrysothrix candelaris.
 Yeah, no kidding. The whole area is moist, moist, moist.  Look at the amount of ferns, algae, lichen growing happily everywhere.
 Bridal Veil Falls.
 Mom at Bridal Veil Falls.
 The very magnificent Multnomah Falls. It's the second tallest year-round waterfall in the USA. 189 meter, including upper and lower falls. We only walked to the bridge, which sits between the lower and upper falls. You can continue to hike all the way to the 'top of the falls'.
Notice the chain cage they put up to prevent rock falls onto the trail.
View from the bridge on Multnomah Falls.

After the falls, it was already close to 2.30pm or 3pm. We still had Bonneville Dam and Cascade Locks to check out before we get to Hood River~ quick!

At Bonneville Dam, we visited the Bonneville Hatchery first to learn about the process of harvesting salmon from Columbia River, collect eggs and sperm for artificial fertilization in trays, rear them in controlled environment till they are fingerlings (an inch long) then release into rearing ponds. Some time after that, the young of the year are released into the river. Somehow I didn't learn the purpose of all this trouble...I assume it must be to maintain the salmon stock in the wild. Bonneville Hatchery has been running since 1909!
 The trays in which the fertilized eggs develop. Click on the picture and read the top sign to see how many eggs there are...

 The rearing ponds with the Egg Hatchery in the background.
 They have several sturgeons there too, though they don't hatch the sturgeons. They have one huge white sturgeon, Herman, who is their superstar :).

 There were also some rainbow trouts there purely for entertaining the visitors. Bonneville Hatchery doesn't process trouts.

Ignorant me didn't know that Chinook, Sockeye etc. were all salmons. I thought 'Salmon' is a fish in itself...

We then hurried over to Bonneville Dam. The thing I really wanted to see there were the Fish Ladders that allow fishes to swim upstream (against the dam) back to their spawning sites. We found that at the Visitor Center.
This was how the fish ladders look like from the above. The design is actually pretty ingenious, where the ladders have a series of pools and weirs of different heights to allow fishes to gradually swim upstream. There are also slots inside the pools that give fishes the opportunity to swim through rather than jump over the weirs.
If you go to the lower floors of the Visitor Center (like we did), you would find a large windows that allow you to look into the ponds and the fishes as they swim up the fish ladders. 'Swim' isn't the correct term, 'Struggle' and 'Fight' are more suitable. We saw sturgeons and salmons struggled against the current as if their lives depended on it. They would wriggle their bodies vigorously, gain a yard upstream then get swept back two yards. I have videos but I think they are too large to post here.

The Visitor Center closes at 5pm, and at 4.50pm we heard an announcement saying that we had 10 minutes left to exit the Visitor Center and the whole Bonneville Dam area before they lock the gates and we would have to spend the night there...

At 5pm, we left for Cascade Locks nearby. Once in Cascade Locks, we decided that "Neh,,,,let's go straight to our motel and zzz". So we skipped the Marine Park at Cascade Locks and headed straight on #84 to Hood River, where we spent the night at Sunset Motel.

Sunset Motel looked and plain on the outside, but was actually pretty good on the inside. The owners should really put a bit of work on the exterior deco.

Tangent: On the platform looking out at Bridal Veil Falls, I saw these carvings on the wood railings. These declarations of love are very common, and they showcase two things: 1) vandalism is prevalent, 2) only naive, immature people believe in love enough to put it on wood and stone. The rest of the world doesn't even bother to lie no more.