February 12th, 2017

When I visited Mount Vernon last summer, I noted that I might be considered contrarian for reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington, while the rest of the world was reading his Alexander Hamilton. I enjoyed the Washington bio so much, however, that I too succumbed — & found the Hamilton work equally enjoyable & fascinating.

Paterson’s Great Falls & Hamilton statue

So much so that it led me to visit a place very important for his vision of establishing a vibrant manufacturing economy – Paterson, New Jersey. This was the site of the Great Falls of the Passaic River, which Hamilton envisioned as the water power source for a planned industrial city that would allow the new country to become economically independent. He described his vision in a Report on Manufactures, and established the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (SUM), New Jersey’s first corporation. The water channels and raceways developed did indeed lead to a booming manufacturing hub, for locomotives, textiles, sailcloth, airplane engines, and a host of other manufactured products. Today, the Paterson Museum documents this industrial history, while the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park has a statue honoring SUM’s patron and the city’s founder.

Hamilton memorial in Weehawken

And since I was in northern New Jersey, I also visited a place that was a lot more familiar: Weehawken, site of his famous (and ultimately fatal) duel, and my weekday home for four years during my United Nations posting. Every morning I would run along the palisades overlooking the Hudson River, passing by the memorial marking the site above river where the duel took place (and holding the large boulder he leaned against after receiving the fatal wound). Today, the skyline across the river is itself an even greater tribute to his genius.

There is one problem in reading such illustrious biographies, however — the recognition of just how far our political system has devolved. The conflict amongst parties remains the same…. but some current participants have succeeded by leaving science – and now even basic facts – far behind, in a scary political fantasy. It portends a rather troubling future when the facts catch up (as they surely will).

Virginia’s Eastern Shore

February 12th, 2017

Wachapreague, VA

A visit to SAIS in DC (including an HNC Chinese New Years reception there) offered an excuse to head down to see a friend of many, many years – Dr. Michael Willingham – who has now retired on Virginia’s ‘Eastern Shore.’ This is the narrow Delmarva peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay…. and Michael’s new home there offered a couple of days of respite from a rather hectic schedule.

I’ve known Michael for more than 35 years now (& mentioned him back in an April 2010 ‘Florence’ posting), and his career is definitely one of the most fascinating I’ve ever encountered: MIT mathematics degree; U. Pennsylvania M.S. & Ph. D.; defense industry quant jock; Peace Corp. in Uganda and Peru; maritime archeological hunting off the coast of Honduras; energy specialist on the Navaho Indian reservation; DC policy analyst in U.S. President’s Coal Commission & the National Commission on Air Quality (NCAQ); Technical Advisor in UN headquarters in NY; and, finally, one of the most well-read individuals I’ve ever come across!

You might have noticed quite a few overlaps: U. Penn, NCAQ, and the UN – and it is perhaps not surprising that we get along so well. Michael wanted to make sure that my visit was not wasted, & so – in addition to early mornings at a nearby cafe with his breakfast regulars (local salt-of-the-earth types, brimming with Eastern Shore know-how!) — we took in a number of other highlights.

One was a visit to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Eastern Shore Laboratory (ESL) in Wachapreague. Michael recently prepared a proposal that looked at utilizing macroalgae to capture excess nitrogen in the Chesapeake Bay – it’s very hard to keep him retired! – and hopes that future (part-time) efforts in such a maritime setting will prove fruitful.

We also visited Chincoteague Island, well known to my daughters because of its feral horses and Misty of Chincoteague, a children’s novel about one such pony (that I have somehow completely eliminated from my memory bank). Most of the horses are actually on nearby Assateague Island, however, and Michael and I went there to the National Seashore to update his nighttime surf fishing license. You can see us standing near the surf, Michael wearing shorts despite sub-freezing temperatures […then again, perhaps that’s what Eastern Shore nighttime surf fishing-types actually wear (??)].

Dr. Willingham & an Eastern Shore tourist

Palm Springs redux

February 12th, 2017

A couple of months ago, I visited Palm Springs…. & noted two significant features: lots & lots of wind turbines, & also lots of ‘mid-century modern’ architecture. So I decided to follow up on both fronts, and re-visited the city in January, on my way back home for HNC’s Spring Break…. taking a couple of local tours to check things out in a bit more depth.

San Gorgonia wind farms with Chinese solar

The Palm Springs windmill tour does a really good job of laying out the historical development of renewables in the San Gorgonia mountain pass, a site which now has 40 wind farms, four major solar farms, and a number of natural gas-fired peaking plants. We had a chance to see all of these types of facilities, a harbinger of the mix likely to play an increasingly important role in the electric sector in the future.

Vestas 3 MW unit

What I particularly liked about the tour was that it wasn’t a ‘rah-rah, rose-colored-glasses’ type of renewable energy presentation. Instead, it spent considerable time showing numerous earlier failures – blades that flew off, towers that collapsed, gears that jammed because of wind-blown sand. One of the solar farms (with significant Chinese investment) had its own teething problems, and now has fixed rather than sun-following panels. But it’s very clear where the future lies – and despite the technical learning curves, the tour makes that readily apparent.

Trevor O’Donnell runs PS Architecture Tours, a fun and fact-filled tour of the ‘mid-century modernism’ found in the city – with some interesting learning curves there as well. Albert Frey, the architect who designed the city’s first ‘modernist’ building (& also the gas station/visiting center shown in the previous posting) had worked for Le Corbusier in Paris, and the post-WW II expansion of the city built upon Bauhaus and other internationalist influences.

Kaufmann house

One of the most interesting – and famous – buildings is the Kaufmann desert home, built for the same couple who a decade earlier had commissioned Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece in the Pennsylvania woods. Their Palm Springs home was not designed by Wright, but rather by Richard Neutra, one of his former employees – and Wright was not exactly happy. After the Kaufmanns divorced, the wife commissioned a new (larger) design that would sit on the hill overlooking the Neutra project….. and Wright’s design was essentially an anti-Neutra one (i.e., curving, feminine lines instead of the sharp, angular plan), with an unflattering image of the former in one rendering. But Wright’s Palm Springs project was never built, and today the site holds one of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s former residences. [Given the twenty marriages of the three Gabor sisters, however, former Gabor residences are not exactly a rarity within the city.]

Ho Chi Minh City

December 14th, 2016

Cu Chi tunnel guy

For many years (since my mid-teens) I’d heard about & read about & wondered about Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) – called Saigon then & still commonly called that today – and I had finally arrived. We started off at a well-known war site: the Cu Chi tunnels, located some 70 km northwest of the city. This was a network of tunnels – by some estimates, 250 kilometers long – serving as underground cover, & hiding a host of stealthy military activities (including weapons caches, meeting rooms, hospitals, and kitchens). It was initially dug during the French occupation in the 1940s, and expanded during the Vietnam War era of the 1960s. The tunnels frustrated American forces, and U.S. Army ‘tunnel rats’ had the extremely treacherous job of going down into them to search for – and eliminate – the enemy. Today, the open sections have been expanded a bit – for larger Western tourists like me! – but I can attest that the tight, narrow tunnels are scary enough, even without having to worry about booby traps, getting shot, or other wartime perils!

Other notable war-related sites in HCMC were the Reunification Palace (formerly the Presidential Palace), whose gates were crashed by North Vietnamese tanks on April 30, 1975 during the Fall of Saigon; and the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes). Especially notable in the latter was the Requiem Gallery, featuring photos taken by 134 journalists (of 11 nationalities) killed during the war.

But Saigon today is about much more than history & war, and we took full advantage of that….. by dining at some incredible Vietnamese restaurants, such as Nhà Hàng Ngon. I’ve really become quite a fan of Vietnamese food – and the coffee as well! Another interesting site was Cho Lon, Saigon’s Chinatown….. & a famous market & shopping area. We visited the Thien Hau Pagoda there, one dedicated to Mazu, the Chinese goddess of the sea…. yes, the very same goddess found in Nanjing’s Jinghai Temple (noted in my Zheng He posting). You can see that the incense was thick & heavy, & we bought some of their long-lasting, multi-day incense spirals that hang from the rafters, holding petitions for good luck & other necessities.

Air quality at Thien Hau Pagoda

On this part of the Vietnam trip I was reading the quintessential Saigon novel: Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. It’s truly amazing how prescient this 1955 book was…. & while the symbolism is very upfront – the cynical European journalist Fowler; the naïve, idealistic American aid-worker Pyle (looking for a ‘Third Force’ beyond colonialism and communism); and the beautiful, complaisant Vietnamese Phuong – it nonetheless is an extremely well-written and fascinating look into an interim (i.e., essentially post-French, pre-American) era. It’s really a shame that Americans didn’t learn much from such knowledgeable views.

Academics have had a field day examining Greene’s views about innocence vs. experience… a theme which runs through much of his work. Upon returning to Nanjing, I re-watched the 2002 movie starring Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser & Vietnamese actress Do Thi Hai Yen. Caine received a well-deserved ‘Best Actor’ Oscar nomination for his world-weary Fowler, & the movie – and its Saigon settings — was certainly very entertaining. Greene had disavowed a 1958 film adaptation of the book (a gung-ho, pro-American, Audie Murphy version), and the later movie was certainly more closely attuned to his novel. Pico Iyer’s comments on NPR about the novel are really spot on: The Quiet American has a “disquieting resonance,” he notes, but leaves plenty of room for complexity & dissonance: “The old in their wisdom, as he writes elsewhere, sometimes envy the folly of the young.”

Hoi An and Hue

December 14th, 2016

We headed down to the central part of Vietnam, to visit the old trading town of Hoi An, & and then drove up along the coast – through Da Nang & over the scenic Hai Van mountain pass, eventually joining National Highway 1 into Hue, the imperial capital of the country during the Nguyen dynasty.

Hoi An was an international trading center during the 16th and 17th centuries, and ships from China, Japan, the Netherlands, India and many other countries visited…. & established trading emporiums and quarters within the town. These have been quite well preserved, and the Ancient Town does a brisk tourist trade today. One of the notable sites is the Japanese Covered Bridge, built in the Japanese district at that same time—and proudly displayed on the country’s 20,000 Dong note (worth just a little less than a U.S. dollar).

Hoi An’s Japanese Bridge

Hue is the site of the Citadel, a part of the Imperial City complex in the heart of the city, on the banks of the Huong (i.e., Perfume) River. We took a cruise up the river to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda, a Buddhist sanctuary built in 1601 by the first Lord of the Nguyen family – and later came back to explore the Citadel and its surrounding area. Hue was also the site of a major battle during the Tet Offensive in 1968, one of the bloodiest and longest of the war. Considerable portions of the city (including the Imperial City’s grounds) were destroyed during the battle, with American aerial bombing playing a key role — but the communist side did its own damage, with a purge of civilians (the massacre at Hue) that later led to tremendous fears in the South, especially as the victorious People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) moved onto Saigon.

The Citadel at Hue

Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

December 14th, 2016

We enjoyed our trip to Cambodia & Laos last year so much that we decided to arrange another one through that same company – About Asia Travel — and the obvious target this year was Vietnam. I had spent a considerable amount of effort (as well as six years in the National Guard!) making sure I avoided that place earlier in my life….. & so it was perhaps fitting that I now had to pay to go there. We were joined on this trip by my sister Susan (whose late husband was a Vietnam vet), and their daughter Laura…. & it was really great to hang around & travel with family once again!

It was certainly a remarkable trip, and those war years loomed very large in our memory – and also in the country itself. We started off in Hanoi, with visits to the infamous Hoa Lo prison (i.e., the “Hanoi Hilton”), where John McCain and other U.S. POWs had been held after being shot down…. as well as the Army Museum which highlighted the effects of the 1972 “Christmas bombing” of the city by B-52s. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, and his modest residential “house on stilts” was next, as well as a stroll through the city’s Old Quarter; and we made sure to check out the commemorative marker at Truc Bach Lake where McCain was shot down.

Hoa Lo prison & Truc Bach Lake

I’m sure many of you can guess my Hanoi reading material on this trip – yes, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year. It’s a fascinating tale about a communist mole working for a South Vietnamese general, & following the general to the U.S. when the war effort collapsed in 1975. Such a structure gives the author plenty of opportunities to comment about America from a Vietnamese perspective, as well as the ultimate betrayal of the Vietnamese people by the victorious ‘liberating’ communist forces. The author does so in a mordantly funny manner, although there are times when the observations are sufficiently grim to give pause….. & to bring to attention the seriousness of the subject matter. Certainly a well-deserved literary award – and I look forward to the (sure-to-come) movie version as well.

After Hanoi, we headed over for a (more peaceful!) overnight cruise amongst the incredibly beautiful karst formations at Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Island caves, slow-moving sampan rides through water villages, & some beautiful scenery made this a relaxing part of the trip, far, far removed from the country’s urban hustle.

Ha Long Bay

Wuxi and Nanxun

November 8th, 2016

China certainly does things on a gargantuan scale – and nowhere is that more apparent than in newly-developed tourist attractions. New AAAAA (i.e., Five A) tourist sites have been developed over recent years….. and Nanjing University graciously decided to treat their international faculty in a corresponding manner on a recent October weekend. We stayed in five-star hotels in Wuxi and Nanxun, visiting some quite amazing ‘hyper-reality’ locations – as well as more sedate traditional fare.

The first stop was in Wuxi, an ancient city located on Lake Tai (Taihu) – one of China’s largest freshwater lakes. I’ve written about the lake’s pollution concerns in a previous posting, but this visit included a stop at design and textile schools at Jiangnan University, and then a trip to the huge 100+ acre CCTV Wuxi Movie & TV theme park/studio. That site was built in 1987 to film the 84-episode historical television series Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a series based upon my very favorite Chinese novel — I even use it in my air pollution classes [please drop a note, and I’ll send you the article]. The waterfront site is used for other TV and movie productions as well, and while the Wu king’s palace certainly has no historical significance – the vast scale & ambiance of the place certainly made the visit a lot of fun.

Lao Tzu at San Shan Dao

The next morning brought a visit to Yuantouzhu (Turtle Head Peninsula), a scenic area built up by wealthy Wuxi industrialists at the turn of the previous century…. and a boat ride over to San Shan Dao, a set of islands in Tai Lake with temples, teahouses and a huge stone stature of Lao Tze (the founder of Taoism). I had shown a rather coarse statue of him in a previous Peking U. posting—but this one was much more conventional, and certainly more in line with the natural and scenic setting of the island.

Lingshan Grand Buddha

Next up was another new – and quite overwhelming – religious site. Built two decades ago, the bronze Lingshan Grand Buddha is just that – 288 feet (88 m) tall, and towering over the nearby landscape. (By way of comparison, the copper Statue of Liberty is 151 feet [46 m] tall.) Near the base of the statue – and following a loud musical crescendo — six lotus petals bloom in the middle of Nine Dragon Fountain, and a 24 foot (7.2 m) golden Buddha arises in the middle of a water cannon show every bit as dramatic as comparable displays in Las Vegas.

The final stop was the ancient town of Nanxun, a more rustic, Venetian-type landscape, with canals and waterways linked to China’s Grand Canal. It became well known for its silk industry during the Southern Song Dynasty (13th century), and was later an important commodity hub during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Its narrow lanes, old houses, arched bridges & waterways made for a very pleasant Sunday morning stroll – & the end of a delightful weekend getaway.

Nanxun waterway

China, 1945

November 8th, 2016

We’ve had a number of distinguished speakers at HNC since our Fall semester started (including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus) – but one of the more interesting ones was Terry Lautz, an U.S.-China expert and former V.P. of the Henry Luce Foundation who is now at Syracuse University. Lautz recently authored a book about John Birch — a name I remember well from my childhood, since the John Birch Society was a strong anti-communist, right-wing political organization active in the U.S. in the 1950s and early 1960s. Birch himself was a Baptist missionary in China who became a soldier — and unfortunately became the first American killed by Communists immediately after the war with Japan had ended.

Lautz suggests that there was plenty of blame on both sides for that fatal incident – Birch probably suffered from what today would be called PTSD, and his actions were not necessarily appropriate given the situation…. but Communist soldiers also over-reacted. His name was subsequently adopted by an organization which became synonymous with right-wing extremism – but Lautz makes the case in his book that Birch himself probably wouldn’t have become a member.

A couple of other books similarly document that fascinating transition period – China, 1945. Richard Bernstein, a former New York Times reporter, has written one with just such a title. It’s a very detailed and even-handed description of the complicated political period at the end of World War II, as U.S. and Soviet allies maneuvered into a new adversarial face-off…. with China one very important playing field in a complicated world-wide strategic game. Another book, The China Mirage by James Bradley, covers a longer historical period – but shows how Chiang Kai-Shek’s ‘China Lobby’ was able to build upon American misperceptions about the country (fostered by Christian missionaries, Henry Luce’s media empire, and simple naïve idealism) to support a corrupt and very unpopular political regime. Critics have noted that Bradley’s book makes it seem that all major decisions about China’s domestic situation were made in Washington – certainly an unwarranted overstretch. But the book is absorbing and very well-written…. and another window onto a complicated and extremely interesting place and time.

Palm Springs

September 15th, 2016

We stopped in California to visit our daughter & her family before heading back to Nanjing…. & it was a very pleasant visit, as always! She took us on an excursion to Palm Springs, a desert resort area about 100 miles (160 km) east of LA – home of the ‘Rat Pack’ entertainers (i.e., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., etc.) back in the 1950s & 1960s.

Palm Springs Visitors Center

That was also the time & place of an architectural movement called ‘Mid-Century Desert Modernism‘ – a movement characterized by buildings with dramatic rooflines, wide overhangs, lots of glass walls & windows, open floor plans, and outdoor living spaces incorporated right into the building’s design. Today the city holds a ‘Modernism Week’ every February, and even the Visitors Center on the outskirts of town – a former gas station – has that distinctive look. We checked out the structural sights, & also took the Aerial Tramway to the top of the mountain for a nice regional overview.

The city is modern in another way too, clearly evident from that mountain view. One could see row upon row of windmills, helping to meet California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) which requires that 50% of the electricity generated in the state must be generated by renewable sources by 2030. California has also led the country in developing a very progressive ‘cap & trade’ carbon market, which sets a statewide limit on emission sources responsible for 85 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Johns Hopkins Glacier

September 15th, 2016

Two hundred and fifty years ago, Glacier Bay in Alaska was all glacier, and no bay. Today, however, cruise ships can travel sixty-five miles inside the U.S. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve (itself a part of a 25-million-acre UNESCO World Heritage Site) to reach its farthest tidewater glaciers.

Johns Hopkins Glacier

Near the end of that passage, they enter Johns Hopkins Inlet….. and see a glacier that is about a mile (1.6 km) wide, and 250 feet (~75 m) deep. U.S. Park Rangers who boarded our vessel described it as the “most beautiful” one in the entire region — and indeed it really is quite spectacular!

Harry Fielding Reid, a geophysicist who was educated and later taught at the institution for 35 years, named it the Johns Hopkins Glacier in 1893…. & we reached it by passing Reid Glacier, named six years later (by another expedition) for the scientist himself. Reid’s early works were all about glaciers, but he shifted his focus after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and developed elastic-rebound theory to describe earthquake mechanics…. a cornerstone of today’s geological science. A National Academy of Sciences biographical memoir notes he was “ahead of his time,” and might well be considered the “first American geophysicist.”

Although Glacier Bay holds the record for the fastest-ever-recorded glacial retreat, Johns Hopkins Glacier itself has actually been advancing (fed by snowfall in the Fairweather Mountains)….. a nice, contrarian metaphor, no doubt!