Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Anthurium plantation in the world's biggest flower export country

I used to wonder what are those big patches of land around some small towns in the Netherlands. Like this image on the right which I cut from a screen print of a google map of the Westland area. They look like big factories, different from the green grass land. There are so many of them... Now I know, they are huge green houses: they are the plantation for all sorts of flowers, vegetables, all year round. They create the best possible man-made environment for the growth of these vegetations - a mass production factory at an amazing scale. Following the previous post about the flower auction, I will write about the flower plantation in some greenhouses like these. The one we visited is called Rijnplant.

Basically, flowers auctioned include two kinds of flowers: cut flowers and pot flowers. This factory I visited is specialized in one special kind of Anthurium, mostly in pots. The picture on the right shows you the scale of flower plantation, it covers several hectares. The whole plantation is so much controlled that you will have to be surprised by its careful management, and advanced technology.

Entering the plantation greenhouse, we were asked to wear a cover on our shoes - because our feet might bringing in some bacteria into the field. (It was not the most strict, since later when we visited a tomato plantation and packaging factory, a full covered clothes and hat were required.) All flowers are spread out on the ground, evenly distributed to get enough light from the top. There are sophisticated equipment developed to measure the interior environment, tempreture, moisture, lighting, tempreture on the leaves surface. Intensive researches have found out the perfect environment for the growing of Anthurium. So the continuous monitoring, data collected every 15 minutes and sent to a control center through internet, will inform the instant adjustment decisions. Remote control across countries is also possible. Rijnplant has collaborated with Wagningen University and a private technology firm to develop this sophisticated monitoring system. Their investment on technology is currently paid off - since the sales of this monitoring machine is also bringing back a good revenue for their business.

The breeding of this Anthurium is also an interesting story. They used to use the seeds from the flower to grow new plant. It is not perfect since the next generation anthurium might bring in some different color flowers. Now they are using the colon technology. All anthurium flowers are breed from a cut piece of leaf. In some special lab, leaves are cut into small piece, and each piece will grow into a small plant. This way, the new generation can be guaranteed to be identical to the plant leaf that produced them. Amazing!

What is the most unbelievable, is the sorting process after flowers are ready to go to the market. Some flower buyers have certain criteria for the flowers they want to buy, something like the minimum breadth and height of the plant, minimum number of flowers in each pot. It used to be a job of human beings, very tedious. Now they developed a WPS sorting system. All pots are put in a blue color holder. Underneath the holder, there is a computer chip, which gives this pot an identity. After putting into the holder, all pots will go through a camera room, where a top view and a side view picture will be taken, and some data will be calculated. As a result, the characteristics of each flower pot are recorded. After the camera room, all flowers pots are lined up on tracks. They first waited in rows of tracks. Later these pots are literaly walking and being directed to different directions according to the different chracteristics. At the junction, the machine can recognize according to the chip under the holder, whether this pot is qualified or not. Then it will decide whether to push this pot aside, or let it keep going... ... Because of the adoption of this system, the labor on this sorting process reduced from 60 persons to 30 persons.

There are too many interesting things about growing these flowers. The heating systems spread all over the green house. In the gloomy winter when sun light is not sufficient, artificial lights will turn on. I got to know that roses need the light the most, and we saw several glowing greenhouse in that afternoon when sky turned cloudy. The ground of the green house is not even, and where the pots stay are a few centimeters low. Water mixed with necessary nutrition is directed and filled in this sunken locations. The water was then sucked up into the pots. There are certain equipment monitoring the insects population in the greenhouse, indicating the time for action.

The profit of the greenhouse is not necessary from growing flowers. Most of them get a big part of profit from generating electricity and feeding back into the national grid. The green house itself always has its own generator, burning gas to supply all necessary energy. However, when the interior need is less than what it can generate, the government would buy back the extra electricity to the national grid at a pretty good price. So there were stories like one tomato grower's last year's profit includes a bigger share from selling the electricity than selling tomato. To some extent this is a big subsidy these green house growers are benefiting from.

It is getting too long, and I still feel there are more to share... ... until the next post then.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Flower auction in the Netherlands

Many know about Holland being the world number one flower export country, few might have really witnessed the scale of its flower industry. Due to some work reasons, I went with a group of Indonesian civil servants to visit the largest flower auction site, Flora Holland, in Naaldwijk, westland, a place not far from Delft. Since the auction happens early in the morning from 6-8am, the taxi came to ring my door at 5 o'clock in the morning. The morning traffic hasn't started yet, so the whole group reached our destination at 6:30am, half an hour before the time we planned. This place is already busy working, lots of people are working in their offices. I might have to think about whether I would like to work everyday starting from 5 in the morning...

Looking inside the building, the big interior part is bigger than a stadium, full of flower carts, with both cut flowers, and pot flowers. These cut flowers were put right straight up with bottom of their stems soaked in the water. They were just auctioned, and ready to be shipped to different part of the world. In this big stadium space, these carts with flower boxes are moving constantly. The track on the floor direct them going into different queues, and waiting for the next step.

The auction rooms is just around the corner. All flower carts have gone through these auction rooms. In the process of auction, flowers are randomly picked up and shown to the buyers on the audience seats. Actually, many more bidding happens outside of this room, through the internet. However, the arrangement of shipping should start from this building. On the buyers' table, there are buttons to be pressed for bidding. On the front wall those big clocks, and other series of information board, show all information about the flower, quality, quantity, growers' name, as the flower cart passing the front of the auction room. Everything happens in a blink. It is hard for me to read all those information on the wall. Our tour guide also decided to give up explaining further - you do not need to learn that in detail. What I learned, roses worth more if the stems are long. The one meter long stem roses can be expensive. Flowers are evaluated with A, and B quality levels. Those flowers in buds are much better than those already bloom. I remember a colleague told me, those second level flowers usually goes to the domestic market in Holland. People in the Netherlands do not mind not perfect flowers, as long as they can pay at a much discounted price.

The flower auction is managed totally from growers' transition. If a grower wants to join in the corporation, it means that he/she has to commit that all his/her flower produced would be sold in the auction. 2.5% of the transaction money would be kept for the maintenance of the place. The use of the cart and boxes involves separate rental charges. On the buyers' side, they might need to rent space around before the shipping is arranged. Everyday the transaction is around 5 millions euro, while the winter time is relatively slow.

What is interesting to know is about the growers and buyers' dynamics. Growers need to make their credibility high. There is a system that evaluates their credit history. Growers with a higher credibility can sell their products at a higher price. Although in this auction place, growers do not literally meet with buyers, it is true that if your flowers do not show up often, your previous buyers might forget you. So what growers do, is to plant their flowers at different time so that they can collect almost every day. Big growers can make selling everyday in the auction hall possible.

I will have a series of stories about the flower plantation, tomato plantation, and tomato packaging, for my last week's trip. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Doing research in China - Difference between being a native and a foreign researcher

This came into my mind recently after talking with a PhD student who recently got NWO funding for her PhD study and research in China. She did her master thesis in China and has spend more than half year over there. I had very similar experience several years ago, so we had a meeting and exchanged our interest.

My field work told me that some gated community in China was under high level surveillance. I remember when I tried to enter into a gated neighborhood, the security guard stopped me immediately. He knows everyone who lives inside. I was allowed to go in only if I made a phone call to someone living inside, and that person answered the phone and told the guard that I was allowed to enter. Once I was able to enter into a neighborhood during the busy after-work hours. There were too many people crowded around the gate area, and I was able to slip through. However, I was soon spotted by some other guards inside, and asked to go out.

That is not a problem for her! Why? She is a foreigner. She said that her foreign look really helped her in getting through many neighborhoods' security check points. Maybe people would assume that foreigners would have no other purpose to come other than visiting someone they for sure know living inside. It sounds really unfair...

What can be problem for a foreigner? Communication. She had someone volunteered to help her in interpreting the interview process. What happened at the end is that the volunteer wrapped up a total an hour discussion with the interviewee in two sentences. What else? The answer was, oh, you do not have to know the rest.... I am wondering who is the researcher in this case.

I would imagine it might be very hard to find a Chinese language translator who could exactly interpret everything. Maybe the best way is to record and later translate and transcribe. It is so easy to have some meaning lost in translation if you do it intentionally.

I find some balance for being a Chinese studying China.
The image is from GettyImages.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Saturdays' street market

It has been a quiet summer for my blog - I haven't posted anything new for a long time. Although not much new posts from me on the blog, it seems that I haven't stopped checking who is visiting my site... It is nice to see that when you have some content in your blog, it is more easier for people to find you out from search engines. I always feel guilty to those of you who have been visiting my blogs regularly: I know that you must be dissapointed to see that there is no update from me.

Anyway, I am back, and wish to keep my blog writing at a steady pace, if I keep my promise. I will continue writing about my orange journey.

A big reason for not updating my blog, is because Mrs. Aawara's Mom is here for a visit during the summer time. It is her first visit in Europe and the Netherlands. However, Mr. and Mrs. Aawara were both working and did not save enough holidays for her visit. Life for her were basically staying by herself during the day time. Living in an old dutch style apartment with winding staircases, it is our fear that she would be stuck in the apartment and not wanting to go out by herself when we were working in offices. It is true, she gave up her normal early morning walk habit which she has kept for a while while living in US.

Surprisingly, she found back her fun of shopping! She goes out to the town, and visited almost every single shops. During the weekend, she would drag me to some of those shops, which I had never visited till then, and show me what she saw and ask me whether I am also interested in. She always has something in mind to buy. She complained that I don't have a proper board for making dough. So during two months she was here, she brought home two wooden cutting board. The first one turned out to deformalized after soaked a little water in. The second one is better, and more expensive. She wanted to buy Mr. Aawara a vest, but we did not agree on anyone. So it might be still hanging in her mind for other shoppings in the future.

What she enjoyed the most, is the market. On Thursdays and Saturday, there are market selling vegetables and some other cheap stuff. I have lost my interest in the market not long after I came here. It is not that cheap, and also not that good. Sometimes the supermarket has better and cheaper deals. However, being with her, we found out a great fish market close to Rotterdam Blaak station on Tuesdays and Saturdays. She thinks it is very fresh fish, according to the fish eyes. Fish eyes will be sunken if it died too long. Our big worry is that each time we can not buy much. Our little frig only has a little freezer.

Mom grew up close to the sea, and she loves sea food. She enjoys the most picking up mussels and sea-weeds, digging out shells whenever she goes to beach. She was quite dissapointed in the Scheveningen beach, there is nother for her to collect there. Her conclusion is, because there is no rocks and only sand, there is nowhere they can grow upon. She might be right. On a Tuesday, I bought some crab legs home from that Blaak market. Those crab legs were in huge size, she said she had never seen that big crab legs, they must be very old crabs. How old can a crab live?

Comparing to the suburban life in the US, small towns in Europe does have some little charms that you need to live here long enough to find out, and to enjoy!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Living in the Netherlands without knowing Dutch

It has been more than a year since we moved to the Netherlands. I still remember those days last year this time we were walking around towns to look for signs of "Te Huur (For rent)". Once in a while, we got the interest to study the language, and for a while, we stopped learning, and all those we learned was slowly forgotten later. When you got the interest again, most of the things have to be learnt from the beginning again. We even paid for a computer software, Rossetta Stone, to learn the language. However, since Mr. Aawarra's boss paid for the cost of the software, we are not self--disciplined enough to being persistant in learning either.

So why not learning? My excuse most of the time when talking with people is that, most of the Dutch speaks English well. It is true. Almost everyboy you met on the streets, a shop, secretaries, doctors, all speaks good English. As long as you ask, you most of the time get your answers. Ture, there was once, we tried to ask the direction on the street to an old couple, we had trouble communicating. We tried hard to explain, still failed to get their answers. The frustration we found of not knowing the language is, we are some of the time excluded from knowing about what is happening. Once we passed by a synagogue, a group of people were listening to one person talking. We stopped, and not wanting to disturb them. So we didn't ask questions, and we didn't know what happened that time.

It is true that Dutch is not that difficult for English speakers to learn at all. It shares many similar workds, at least similar pronounciation. You could easily guess some of them if you pay attention. But I have to say that this country is not that English friendly country. Many website has both English and Dutch webpages. However, the information behind those clicks are highly varied. The Dutch website information are much more comprehensive and complete than the English version. It is not only in the website, but also in some service platforms, things like the train ticket machine in stations. You have to know Dutch to buy some certain kind of ticket.
I got to know this when I consulted a colleague about how to get the cheapest train tickets for a months' travel between two cities, which is like a train monthly ticket. She told me the name of the ticket she bought on NS ticket machine, and I only found the information in the dutch version of the website. Then I browsed through the website and there are quite a lot of information lack in the English website. It is really a disvantage of living in a country without knowing their language.

In your work environment, it might be also a frustration when others talking in Dutch around you. It is the most often instances that you feel yourself being excluded. Mr. Aawarra sometimes during the lunch time felt he was only physically present there, since his colleagues talking in Dutch. He can tolerate it well since he has been used to this kind of situations. After I worked, I started feeling a little discomfort when others came to talk with my officemate in Dutch. It is a feeling that you were kept out of knowing something, although this is already a very English friendly environment. The good part of this is, you got less disturbed by an unknown discussion while you are working on something important. You tend to be staying focused on your work.

The picture is from here. Dames means ladies, and heren means gentlemen. For lage, and Grote, try to think some similar English words.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Oranjekoorts - Dutch orange fever

You will get to know this country is linked to the color orange when you land in this country. You will feel it present in some national holidays, such as the Queen's day at the end of April. People dressed up with orange color accessories. However, the fever has been at its highest temperature in recent days - the European football season. You will be amazed, how much this country is fascinated with the orange color, and the way they use to claim their national identity.

It is said that "Oranjekoorts" can occur when the Dutch get excited about any Dutch representative competing in any international sports event when the probability of victory increases. People with "oranjekoorts" suffer from increased body heat and adrenaline due to a sudden outburst of unusual patriotism and national solidarity. Usually there is a bit of "oranjekoorts" leading up to the sports event and it will abate when we (there is always suddenly talk of "we") do badly, but it will increase significantly when we do well. Many Dutch people have "oranjekoorts" right now as a result of the unexpected victory against Italy recently. This is a bit premature of course :-)

"Oranjekoorts" can turn into "oranjegekte": orange madness. This is the word for the behaviour and appearance of Dutch supporters, ranging from decorating your street with orange and national flags, to dressing up as an orange lion. It is expected that 50,000 Dutch fans will populate the city centre of Bern when the Dutch play against the French this Friday: there will be "oranjegekte"!

We started noticing this recently when an apartment building close-by was decorated with lots of orange flags. We were told it is the football season. I wore an orange color fleece sweater yesterday to show my support, in the time of the quarter final between the Netherlands and Russia. Sadly, Dutch team lost. The orange fever will cool down soon. (Picture is from here.)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Is Amsterdam an ideal city? - comparing drug use between US and the Netherlands

Recently there is a call for papers among American sociologists on a conference called "Ideal City: New Perspectives for the 21st Century!" It thus brought a interesting discussion about whether Amsterdam is the ideal city, since the organizer of the conference tries to justify having this conference in Amsterdam because it is.

Amsterdam is known as the "Venice of the North." Progressives have called Amsterdam an ideal city when measured by the standard of social justice. Holland has what many call a "radical," "progressive," "unique" and for some a "sinful" approach to housing, drug laws, transportation, prostitution, crime, brown fields, and urban design. The Netherlands has turned our American urban policy and planning programs upside down and found innovative ways to solve social problems. Many American visitors who come to Holland come away shocked, amazed, impressed and changed forever. Holland is controversial. Indeed, Amsterdam is a laboratory of innovation that provides a national model for the rest of the world. It's a place where we can honor their successes and learn from their errors in urban policy and planning. Without a doubt, Holland is also the home of world class architecture that is envied around the world.

"Amsterdam is the great liberal experiment in Europe. No part of the city announces that liberalism as boldly as the red light district, where in the Oudekerkrsplein—there coexists the Old Church (possibly the oldest building in Amsterdam, believed to be consecrated by the Bishop of Utrecht in 1306), all the prostitutes in their doorways and windows, and a kindergarten. What other city in the world would believe in the hopeful coexistence of religion, prostitution and early childhood education?…But it is both brave and original of the Dutch to celebrate human differences."

It is a kind of proud for being close to this city. However, what really caught my attention is some data on drug usage comparing Americans and Dutch. I am just copying the following directly from the circulated email written by Dr John I Gilderbloom:

Drug use is higher in the Amsterdam because the vast amount of users is tourists who come there from around the world where they can do it legally and get the highest quality marijuana in terms of potency. But if you ask Dutch citizens, you get a much different result and goes against conventional wisdom on drug use (including the many U.S. comedies on the Dutch starting with Austin Powers). My sense is that U.S. Drug laws and prevention strategies simply don't work---it's the old axiom that if you tell a teenager not to do something or its against the law they will rebel and try it. I think that is part of the dynamic going on between the U.S. and Holland.Drug laws in the U.S. do not deter, they encourage. They need to be changed and Holland provides the ideal. Another reason, the potency of Dutch marijuana is so much more powerful than the weed smoked Jerry Garcia at Woodstock--as my family in Holland warned me--if you don't smoke make plans to be a zombie for 2 or 3 days with a possible big headache.
Here are a few numbers concerning drug rates per capita in the U.S. and in the Netherlands, which backs up my argument: along with the reputable multiple sources:

Comparison of Drug Use and Behavior United States (U.S.) and Netherlands (D)

Lifetime Prevalence of Marijuana Use 37 (U.S.) 17 (D)
Marijuana ever 46 (U.S.) 23 (D)
Marijuana in past year 14 (U.S.) 5 (Dutch)
Marijuana usage in past month 5.4 (U.S.) 3 (D)
Age first used marijuana 17 (U.S.) 19 (Dutch)
Cocaine ever 15 (U.S.) 3 (D)
Used cocaine in past year 11 (US) 1 (D)
Age first used cocaine 20 (US) 25 (D)
Lifetime prevalence of heroin use 1.4 (US) 0.4 (D)
Heroin ever 1 (US) 1 (D)
Smoked in past month 25 (US) 30 (D)
Teen smokers (past month) 13 (US) 19 (D)
Teen drinkers 29 (US) 21 (D)

1. US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Volume I. Summary of National Findings (Washington, DC: HHS, August 2002.
2. Trimbos Institute, "Report to the EMCDDA by the Reitox National Focal Point, The Netherlands Drug Situation 2002" (Lisboa, Portugal: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Nov. 2002.
3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2006). Results from the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-30, DHHS Publication No. SMA 06-4194). Rockville, MD.
4. Van Laar, M.; Cruts, G; Van Gegeldonk, A.; Croes, E; Van Ooyen-Houben, M., Meijer, R., and T Ketelaars. (2006) Trimbos Institute, Report to the EMCDDA by the Reitox National Focal Point, The Netherlands Drug Situation 2006. Numbers gathered by J. Gilderbloom, M. Hanka and C.B. Lasley.

It is astonishing to see the difference. I am not sure how has the drug mainly become a tourists' consumption rather than locals. First time coming to this city, people are all interested in seeing the red light district, and wanting to taste the grass in 'coffee shops'. It is only a desire for the new comers, not the locals. In streets of central Amsterdam, you sometimes see one guy standing in front of a shop, rambling something when you passing by. I guess they are those drug dealers. But I haven't seen any trade going on. On the other hand, the red light district is more exposed than the drugs. For me, the fun was to watch those potential customers negotiating in front of the glass door about the price. When everything is about money in this exchange, it somehow makes you feel that it is less dirty. I am not sure whether I am the only person who felt this way.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Mooi Weer Spelen (Theater festival at Delft)

The past weekend in Delft was a big festival, full of street artist everywhere. It attracts crowds from everywhere, and the city center market has kept crowded for the whole weekend. Most of the programs are planned on a time table, with locations spreading all over the city. However, there are some interesting smaller skill efforts made by some individuals also attracts the crowd.

Saturday afternoon, suddenly a man dressed like a superman appeared: he wears a pair of roller skate shoes, a helmet, glass, carrying two tanks on his back. The tanks are making loud noise, and he was going to make something interesting happen. He guided the crowd around him to a street along the canal, and spread the crowd on both side of the street. He perform the high speed roller skating! As he bent forward, and start igniting the tanks on his back, it is like a jet plane, the force pushed him going forward, at a high speed with loud sound! Check out the video:

Four person dressed is bright green color costumes, fully covered while their face were formed in the shape of gas mask. They performs in a way of improvising, with posing and walking at different styles and pattern, and cooperating with each other. A little kids got scared when these four aliens walking toward him. While some older kids started making faces in front of them when they stood still for a while.

There are a group of five remodeled vehicle on display in the center of the market. They were all made seemingly out of junk yard materials, with most of the medal parts rusted looking. It also has some political connotation in their work, such as a tank hanging with radioactive symbol on it, a bomb made cart, a human skeleton sitting on top holding a black umbrella full of holes, ... They are all functioning very well! they once in a while gave a parade along the city canals.

A class of school kids joined in the crowd, in their customized birds dress. I would like to imagine that the teachers made this happen. The birds are all with different design, with kids controlling the birds' wings with two sticks. The bird is just carried on their backs, with its neck and head stretching up. The crowds just follow wherever they go.

Saturday night at 23:00pm, there was a program called Spectacular. We decided to wait and see. The sky is still bright around 10pm, and we thought they might really show some light and fireworks so that it need to be even later. Our waiting along the railing in the first row of the stage really got paid back, it was excellent show. I am posting the video I took during the show, and hope you can feel the spectacular as it was named. (It was the crane that lift those fairy ladies flying in the sky!)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

What is a Dutch bike?

When living in US, a colleague used to bike back and forth to office every day. His home is 11 miles away, and he has a nice racing bike, and a full set of equipment for biking: helmet, speed indicator, shoes. Everyday seeing him coming and leaving the office, I all the time felt impressed. He bikes along the highway.

Recently I met a lady in her 30s, told me that she bikes everyday 20 kilometer to her office! It took her around 45 minutes one way. I am sure she doesn't use helmet, not even a racing bike. She said she had a strong bike and strong legs, that way she doesn't need to do any other sports at all. Since she already bikes 200 kilometers every week.

I like the idea of biking in the Netherlands. A big advantage of this country is that, since most of the land were reclaimed from water, the ground is rather flat. It is good for biking because there is not much uphill or downhills. However, the wind in the winter time can be rather harsh that you still need bike with gears to bike in the wind. We like this country that save so much energy in daily commute. Come and see, you will be surprised to find out that kids start biking alone maybe from 3 or 4 years old.

Here a good bike has nothing to do with mountain bikes. A good bike always relates to strong frames with back seats to carry load, normal width wheel for city biking, possibilities to add one, two or three small seats for kids in one bike. The chain is always covered, and wheels with mud-guard secured for rainy days. In US we used to have strips to bind the bottom of the right leg pant so that you clothes won't got winded into the chains. I have never seen another single person doing the same as I do. Also, there is few people using helmet. Only those people who bikes as exercise sometimes use helmets.

Another interesting attachment to the bike is its lights, front and back. It is automatically generated by your biking, through letting a motor touching the inner side of the bike frame. It generates the light as you bike, and stops lighting as you stop. To carrying load, the backwheel of the bike are most of the time covered with bags on two sides. It is enough to carry home enough supplies for two three days. Here you shop a lot more often since your home frig is smaller, faster since the stores are closer, and greener since you bike.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Hydrological hypothesis in Netherlands' planning culture

It has been a busy month and I didn't get time to blog. Coming here today I just realized that in the passing month i just wrote on the first day of the May, and then today is the last day of the May. Almost one year after coming to this orange country, I have recently thought several times that I am slowly appreciating more and more about this tiny country, a place that I call home now. Especially when you travel to some where outside, you will deeply feel what has been missing and what is going wrong in different places.

Once we took the train to the Northern end of the Netherlands, we saw the wide open Eems canal, which is bordering with Germany, it reminds us that we have been missing open water for a while. Back in the US, our most favorable place in Rhode Island was the Colt State park, which is surrounded by the water body close to the sea. Another time I traveled to the middle-northern part of the UK, I suddenly realized that I have been missing moutains in my life in the Netherlands. It is such a flat country that you can only expect some hundred meter above sea level altitude close to the German border.

There is the saying: The God made the world, and Dutch made the Netherlands. 41.5 square kilometer, which is only one fourth of the size of the New York state, and total population fewer than the Beijing Municipality. Much of this country is below sea level and thus dependent on engineer
ing works. Two days ago, on 28 of May, it was the 75 years anniversary of the Afsluitdijk. It was on 28th May 1932 that in the presence of Queen Wilhelmina the final gap was closed between the Zuiderzee (Southern sea) and the Wadden Sea / North Sea. The south side of the Afsluitdijk was named IJsselmeer . Finally the province North-Holland was connected to the province Friesland. Many of the often weak dykes around the lake were less of a risk during storms, like the great storm of 1916.

In terms of the planning culture in this country, people always like to put forward a 'hydrological hypothesis': since the dutch have had to wrestle their country from the sea and protect it against flooding ever since, they have learned to put common good above their own individual interests. In this way, Dutch respect experts. Dutch planners thus are able to shield from direct political interference. Dutch planners have made good use of being the professionals, and come up with convincing fomulations of developmental challenges and how to deal with them.

The biggest achievement of this planning effort is the maintainence of the polycentric ring of towns and cities called the Randstad, (see the picture) around a 'green heart' of relatively open land. Three major cities around the Randstad are Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Utrecht. This planning concept has held the suburban sprawl at bay, by chanelling growth to existing uban areas and only in the last resort developing a limited number of well defined green field sites.

Biking trails are the great place to enjoy your time. Only in cities it is parallel with slow moving vehicles. In most places these trails are part of the green. Trails sometimes parrallel to the highway for a while, but always with full partitions. If you can imagine biking along a eight lane express way with cars driving at more than 50 miles per hour, you would appreciate how much Dutch have appreciate in their city planning.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

April 30th Queen's Day celebration

Queen's Day celebrates the birthday of the former Queen Juliana and is one of the largest, most vibrant celebrations in the Dutch calendar. Flags fly, music pumps and millions take to the streets for a national holiday. It was our first time seeing so many more people packing in the narrow Delft streets.

The current Queen Beatrix decided to maintain the holiday her mother set, and the festivities have become an integral part of the national culture. Every city and town in the country transforms itself into a fairground: bright orange pendants wave in the wind; town choirs welcome the day; all shops are shut and all trade is unregulated - the streets become an open-air market as attics are emptied for hidden treasures to sell.

That is the greatest idea: any person can set up your own stalls to sell things. As a tradition, most family will excite their kids to participate, and give the income to kids. So you will see lots of business were owned and managed by little ones. They are really not great stuffs at all. We all felt that in US you can collect much better stuff from around the trash cans :-) but on the other hand, it does show different attitude of people towards things. Americans like to renew their stuff much more often, or maybe they have to move more often. In a world when environmental concern is spreading around, Dutch people have a much smaller footprint in the world than Americans from the beginning.

Check it out:

On a slightly different note. I watched a program recently called Human Footprint. It says a two years old born in the western world have a bigger footprint on earth than a person's whole life footprint who live in Somalia - just because of the diapers consumed in those two years!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Flowers blooming in the field

It is the best time of the spring to take a train ride along the west of the Netherlands. On the way between Leiden and Harlem, you can see big field of flowers, red, yellow, purple, white, ... ... big patches of color spread out.

We were enjoying this beautiful scene a few times recently. Yesterday it was the warmest day lately, and we took the train to Amsterdam to visit a colleague for Lunch. Two young ladies sitting across the corridor besides us were reading tour guides for Amsterdam. They spoke some eastern European language that we do not understand, but I could recognize the Amsterdam map in their hands. They read to each other, and discuss sometimes, very concentrated. Sunday travelers are mostly for fun.

Mr. and Mrs. Aawara started discussing what are the funs of traveling in today's world when you mostly know everything that you would expect from the travel guides all over you. You know which hotel to live in, which train, at what time you need to take. You even know that you are going to try a special local food, with picture on the web. The only surprise left of the fun of travel is the exact feeling over there, which almost all surprises are removed before your trip. I am hesitating to plan trips too much in details.

Passing Leiden, flower fields started to appear in both side windows. I looked around, and pointing to Mr. Aawara views appeared in different windows, and noticing those two ladies were still focused on their research on touring Amsterdam. I looked at them and turned back saying, "look they are missing the most beautiful scene of the flower land." The guy sitting opposite to us heard me, and also laughed. He seemed to be a Dutch person since we heard him calling in Dutch.

After a while, suddenly he stood up, and leaned his body towards the other side of the corridor, and tried to interrupt those two ladies by touching one of them shoulder, "look outside!"

It was great. I thought I should have done this earlier.

When the train passed a highway ramp, he pointed to us, this is the way to Keukenhof. We smiled and told him that we went there last weekend. He told us that his wife worked there, at the gate. So I can't stop asking my question about the flower field: why do they let so many flowers bloom in the field rather than sell to the market?

Here is the answer: the profit of this flower business is not only on flowers. The most amount of profit is from selling bulbs. Bulbs are harvested after the blooming season and can be sold all year around. Do you know this? How come I haven't thought about this before. Here are some new knowledge about this topic:

The Netherlands' climate provides nearly perfect conditions for spring-flowering bulb production. Holland is protected by its proximity to the ocean and to the North Sea and by being 5 to 10 feet below sea level. Its winters are moderate and its springs are long and cool with almost constant rainfall, giving the bulbs the best chance for an optimal growing season. If there is too much or too little rain, an amazing, complicated engineering system involving the ditches, canals, and dikes can raise or lower the water table when needed. The soil in the western part of the country, where most of the bulbs are grown, is almost pure beach sand amended with organic compost, which provides excellent drainage for the bulbs and allows for easy, clean, mechanical digging.

This small country has focused on making the most of every inch of ground and developing specialized machinery to increase productivity. There are more than a thousand producers of spring bulbs in a relatively small area in Holland, which facilitates cooperation among growers in sharing equipment and swapping land for crop rotation instead of using chemicals. Also, because of the large numbers of people involved in the industry, much of the culture and the local activities center around spring-flowering bulbs and their flowers.

However, I still have one more question that I am not very clear. For those flower land, would it be better to be able to sell flower and bulb at the same season? Is this the optimal choice for the growers, or cutting flowers earlier would affect the growing of the bulbs?

Picture is from here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Some online tools to share

We recently came across several online searching tools that is quite unique and helpful.

One is the song searching website, called Songza.

The site launched on November 8, 2007, and instantly generated significant buzz around the world. Hundreds of bloggers and news writers have praised its elegant user interface, beautiful design, and all-around utility. Like all good ideas, both the concept and design came to Aza while he was in the shower.

Another one is an image search engine, you might also like:

This is an search engine that allows you to search inside Flickr photos. I find it has a much better quality photo collection than the Google image search. Also, it lets you to search for 'creative commons' picture that you will be free to use. The best is it gives you thumbnails of hundreds of pictures in one page so you can easily browse through. It is even better than search within Flickr.

What these two search engines share, are their simple interfaces. When you set up your goal to search for something specific, this kind of quiet interface is really a plus in enjoying your work.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The ability to embrace empathy

Things happened lately on the Olympic Torch relay, and the triggered protests around the world is bothering me a lot, especially the respond from the Chinese community abroad. The heating up angry feeling, hatred towards Tibetans is not at all a thoughtful reaction to the current situation.

It has also been a mystery for me for quite a while, why some people are so passionate about far away countries that has little to do with their day to day life? Why does Darfur matter to one single person living in the west? Why do they stand up to talk for Tibetans? Where was this passion originated from? This has nothing to do with the government level foreign aids programs, since there was no organization involved.

I was touched by a recent news about London Marathon, A father was running for his daughter, a lady ran for her husband, since the latter both died of cancer. They ran for the belief that they would raise the attention on cancer research that might benefit future patients. For Chinese, at least for me a while ago, I would really doubt: will this help? What is more common is the attitude that "let things drift if they do not affect one personally" (Shi Bu Guan Ji, Gao Gao Gua Qi). At least, I agree that it is not a positive attitude in dealing with problems in the society.

We tried to dig out some reasons for the emotion, and I surprisingly stumped upon the feeling of empathy.
It is all about the basic human feelings: empathy.

Empathy is one's ability to recognize, perceive and directly feel the emotion of another person. As the states of mind, beliefs, and desires of others are intertwined with their emotions, one with empathy for another may often be able to more effectively divine another's modes of thought and mood. Empathy is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes".

By the age of 2, children normally begin to display the fundamental behaviors of empathy by having an emotional response that corresponds with another person. Empathy is the most valuable thing in today's society. MOST of people's basic feelings today includes four things: Love, Hate, Apathy and Empathy. Here is a short brief introduction about empathy that I like:

Empathy is the acceptance that all humans should feel for one another. Empathy is the emotion that makes you cry when you see a stranger get hurt. Empathy is understanding without scrutiny or persecution. Empathy for other human beings is pure. Some would scrutinize empathy and say that it is just produced by a cheap self-interest, i.e. "I sure wouldn't want that to happen to me". This is a misunderstanding of a basic principle of empathy. Perhaps it is driven by self-interest but maybe that's the point. It doesn't matter what drives people to Empathize with one another but as long as they do people will always get along.

Empathy is the level we all relate on as human beings. It should be embraced above Love (the undefinable would-be-solution to all our problems), Hate (the all-too-easily definable pointless abuse of fellow humans) or Apathy (the nihilistic lack of common decency.) Empathy is understanding.

Empathy is the feeling that we all feel but sometimes have no name for. When you're sick and you realize how terrible it is to feel that way and for a brief second think to yourself "How horrible it must have been for everyone else who has ever gone through this".

It means far more to relate to a stranger than to die for "love" which probably caused more confusion and hardship in life then any true caring.

It means more to understand a person who you may not like than to "hate" a person you don't understand.

It means more to create bonds between humans than to permanently sever them with the trend known as apathy.
The conflicts in the world is only possible to be resolved if people can turn their empathy into action. This reminds me of the most striking sentences written on the Boston holocaust monument (a poem attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the inactivity of German following the Nazi rise to power and the purging of their chosen targets, group after group.):
They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
What is the most surprising to me, in Chinese translation of these empathy and sympathy, there are no differences. I guess this might make Chinese people harder to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. It is not about feeling sorry for others, but more an effort to put yourself in other's situation to understand their feeling, and feel what they must be going through. True compassion comes from a place of empathy, not sympathy. In fact, most people don’t want our sympathy. They don’t want us to feel sorry for them, they want us to have compassion and empathy for them. It is different in a way:

Sympathy is, "I'm sorry for your pain."
Empathy is, "I understand how you feel."

Empathy implies a breakdown of the barriers that separate two people. Empathy is when you allow yourself to become another person. The only way you can do that is to care enough about them that you allow empathy to happen. You must be willing to surrender to the dissolution or obliteration of the boundaries separating the two of you.

What lacks in the Chinese culture is the idea of Empathy. Human beings are interdependent.
what if later things happens to ourselves? Everyone needs support. I hope things won't happen till the stage that,
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
In the case of Tibet, Chinese people need to embrace empathy as the first step, same is true to Tibetans. It is the first step to true peace and harmony. Try to think assuming you are one of them, understand their culture and their reasoning of their behaviors. If this world we still believe in that conflicts are possible to be resolved, we better be more empathy than apathy.

Picture is from here.

Spring at Keukenhof

Nowhere else in the world are the flowers and olours of the spring as glorious as at Keukenhof. This is what we have been expecting the spring in the Netherlands in our first year here. Dutch friends also told us, that is some place anyone who came to the Netherlands at the right time should go visit, since it only opens around two months in the Spring time in a year.

Weather forecast told it was going to be a mostly sunny day. We decided to take route that not everyone would take to the park: only by train. From the map, it shows that the distance to the closest train station is around five kilometers. It should be a pleasant walk for us in a beautiful spring day. We got off the train at the station called Hillegom. The only problem is that some part of the roads here in the countryside are not pedestrian friendly. They still have bike paths, but not the sidewalks. What is the most exciting part, is that we were passing by those tulip lands with colorful patches of flower lands! That is all my fascination about tulips in my heart, and it came true.

Inside the park, flowers were nothing spectacular. They planted well in organized small piece of land carved out from grass land, with detailed name tags around it. Too many kinds of them to name and to remember. There are also sculptures scattered in the park.

The most enjoyable scene for us, was people's enthusiastic of picture taking. It is claimed to be the most photographed place in the world, definitely true. Almost at any spot, people are shooting, with all kinds of big or small cameras. We soon get our interest of taking pictures of those who take pictures. It is a lot more fun, to see, and everything there are in pictures.

Another interesting scene for us, was some people dressed in traditional Dutch costumes. It is quite eye catching in the park. We talked with a three ladies who seemed to come to the park together. They were volunteers to walk around in the park, with their grandma's old dresses. I really love this idea, it adds a lot more fun in the park. I even saw a family with kids, and with a small pulling cart. You somehow feel that is a movie scene, but it is real there. That is fun for everyone else, who keep asking them to take pictures with.

Being the most touristy place, it has the problems of being crowded. Being in the Europe, toilets are not free even with 13.5 euro entrance fee. For me, I wouldn't think it is necessary to come to the Netherlands just for this park. There are more pictures here.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Connection with China - Delft Blauw

When we were planning to move to Delft, a Dutch-American friend told us about cities in the Netherlands, and Delft was special for its famous porcelain. After we came, I noticed the tourist stores selling all kinds of blue and white color porcelain products. I was wondering, it was so similar to Chinese Qing Hua Ci - Blue Flower Porcelain. However, I didn't question much further.

The past weekend was a Museum weekend, and most of the museums in the Netherlands are free to the public. We took the opportunity and visited several museums at Delft. In the Prinsenhof museum, I was really amazed to find out the origin of the Delft Blauw. There were several ancient porcelain containers, it depicted Chinese figures: with special ancient style costumes. It must be either from China, or imitated Chinese porcelain. It also displays some colored porcelain products that were claimed to learn from Japanese porcelains.

I then went on to check the history of Delft Blauw. Delft was famous earlier for its brewery. Later, due to the water quality decrease in the city, many breweries had to close. After that, ceramics was developed fast since potteries imported from abroad were very popular. Delft became synonymous with ceramics - ceramics have been produced in this city for many centuries. In many Dutch households you will find a bowl or a vase with a hand-painted motif.

In the 1600’s the beautiful white and blue Chinese porcelain came to Europe, with the Dutch East India Company. It soon gained major popularity and Dutch potters started to imitate the technique. At this time porcelain was an unknown material in the Netherlands. The potters aimed to copy the Oriental products with local clay, and they were successful. It became so popular that it turned into serious competition for the local potters. In order to save their trade, they imitated the porcelain and created Delftware. Although the Delftware potters liked to use the word ’porceleyn’ for the product they produced, this was technically incorrect. Porcelain is made from porcelain clay (kaolin), whilst Delftware is made from a clay mixture that is covered with a tin glaze after it has come out of the kiln.

Although sometimes I question whether those Delft blauw souvenirs sold in the market were actually made in China, I have to agree that the varieties and functions of these porcelain products are developed quite differently in the Netherlands. Blue tiles on the wall are very special in Dutch culture, which was absent in China. Similarly in both places, the plates decorated with blue paintings are very common. However, the display of plates in shelves might be more as a western culture, in which stories and real life scenes cover the full plate, still in contemporary times. Maybe it is necessary to visit Jingdezhen again, to really think about their differences.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A belated marriage as a 50th birthday gift

During the weekend I called home and talked with my nephew who is 24 years old this year. I asked about his girlfriend, and asked whether they were planning to get married. He said, 'we both felt that marriage is only a piece of paper. Maybe when we decided to have a kid, we might get married for that'. Okay, I agree. When I was in China, I seemed to agree that the legal marriage certificate is the most important sign for a married couple. When Mr. and Mrs. Aawara got married, a social wedding was regarded as much more important than the certificate. Your relatives and friends recognize you as a couple only if they witness the wedding.

Different countries have different culture. Here in the Netherlands, marriage seems to be even more treated as 'a piece of paper'. When we just came here, Mr. Aawara's office-mate told him that 'his girlfriend is pregnant, and he is going to take parental leave'. We were both shocked to hear. A friend's brother didn't like to get married although his kid is in high school. The lady wanted, but was ok to live without a certificate with him. Recently she had her 50th birthday, and he gave her the marriage vow as the birthday gift! They were both very happy. I have heard before that 50th birthday is very important for Dutch people.

All these are due to the partnership law in 1997. In the Netherlands, Once marriage stops being about binding mothers and fathers together for the sake of the children they create, the need to get married gradually disappears. Some argued that this was due to the successful campaign for same-sex marriage, in which they tried to differentiate marriage from parenthood. This also led to the spike in Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrates, which I don't feel it makes sense to calculate any more in the Dutch context. Convince the public that marriage is not about parenthood, and increasingly parents simply stop getting married. Being registered as partners in the city hall, you have the full range of benefit that the legal married couple have: welfare benefit and tax breaks as well.

When we first moved in this current apartment, our landlady asked me, are you bf-gf, or couples. I hurriedly said, 'we are married'. And I also added, ' you live together without getting married?' Why not? Many people are like this in the Netherlands. Now thinking back, my questions was really not a question here in the Netherlands.

Since I mentioned a little about the same-sex marriage, really I haven't noticed any gay/lesbian couples here. I remember in US, people would like to announce their existences, by either putting a rainbow sticked on their car bumper, or raising a rainbow flag out of their windows. I have seen their signs many times in Providence, where the city mayor was a gay. I remember that in Denver there was a gaylord street where they liked to live. There is a 'King-sooper' grocery was called 'Queen-sooper' since you could see lots of gay couples there. However in the Netherlands, I haven't noticed any sign. I asked my Dutch friends, she said you know it exists if you know them personally. They are just part of everyone. Since their rights are protected well, there is no need to show up. Netherlands was the first country that legalized same-sex marriage in 2001.

The picture is from here.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Can Gymnasium become a power plant?

We have all seen today's world economy is depended highly upon resources, especially energy resources. Much of the world political conflict are around the competition of natural resources. The development of green technology to generate energy power thus becomes the top priority in most countries' development agenda. It is a recent news about a young kid designed a man-powered washing machine. So my idea came from two parts of recent technology development:

First is about collecting the man power. It is an exciting field, but actually nothing new. In the Netherlands, most bikes have a dynamo to generate enough power to light up for bikes, both front and back light. It is just a little dynamo touching the inside surface of the rolling front wheel. You can control whether to let it work or not just by moving it towards or away from the wheel. So it is easy to let it work when it is dark. So this power is generated and used immediately. It is not saved for other uses.

Recently, similar dynamos are designed to attach to human body's move. US and Canadian scientists have built a novel device - a bionic dynamo that effortlessly harvests energy from human movements. It can generate enough energy to power a mobile phone for 30 minutes from one minute of walking. The basic idea is similar to the design of the hybrid car. When you walk, the part of your stride that is before your foot hit the ground, there is power used for braking to slow your steps down. That part can be collected.

The second part of my idea is about selling electricity back to the grid. It seems that in UK it is already a possibility if you can generate more electricity than you needs. When you have a wind mill or solar panel that is possible to generate more than your own needs, you can set up a meter and monitor how much you refill back to the grid. The energy company will pay you back for the amount you created.

So my idea is about collecting and selling electricity back to the grid. Isn't the gymnasium the great place for this invention? There is not need, maybe, to collect individual muscle power. But all those treadmills are the most powerful collector of man-power. There must be a way to collect them. The gym can be operated together as a generator for the national grid. Currently all these energy were wasted if not making all those treadmills worn out.
The amount of money it generated might be quite enough to cover the operation cost. It might be necessary to attach a meter to calculate how much power you produce, rather than how much calories you burned. If you produce a certain amount of power, you can use the gym for free. Isn't this great? People would feel like to going to gym because they are also contributing to the society, and it is free!

Let me know if you think this is a great idea. Also let me know if you want to start to explore it. I haven't done enough calculation to prove it really economic feasible. It is just an exciting idea in my mind recently.

The image is from here.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Experiencing China's censorship

It is astonishing for me to realize that your yahoo email might be blocked to China through its content. Here are the threads between me and a friend in China about the recent issue about Tibet. The exchange was fine till I received her email yesterday. When I tried to send today, it was bounced back continuously. I later sent an email just saying I am trying whether my email can go through, it went. The previous try with content only with her last email message, was also returned as:

Hi. This is the qmail-send program at
I'm afraid I wasn't able to deliver your message to the following addresses.
This is a permanent error; I've given up. Sorry it didn't work out.
Hope she can manage to get out of the firewall to see my reply here.
The colored part is from me.

I know you are very busy with your work. The recent news in Tibet brought my attention to your city. I read this just now, 3月18日,成都发生了极度惨烈的事情,几乎在同一时间,分别在成都的东面、西面、南面同时发生了藏族人恐怖的袭击活动。


我觉得一个有矛盾的社会是一个正常的社会,但如果政府总是想把所有的矛盾掩盖起来,就是不正常的了。昨天有20名外国记者被‘邀请’去西藏采访,当然是一切安排好的行程。今天又有许多的报道。最近两天国内的网络解禁了BBC News,我认为是国际上相对公正的新闻网站,你有空可以看看。

Update: I tested several times with several email addresses to see where the problems occurred. It seems that the problem might not be with yahoo. Email with similar contents were also bounced back sending from other email addresses. Emails without sensitive words went well. I am not sure how this worked. Does this mean that the server at the other end is censoring my email?

Censorship not only in China

We recently invited a Dutch couple with their 13 years old daughter home for a Sunday lunch. After eating, we let the girl watch the recent Oscar Cartoon Ratatoulli, and four of us had a nice talk. If you haven't seen this, I would suggest you watch it, if you also like cooking like me.

One thing struck me during the conversation was a story they told us when we were talking about the recent anti-Muslim film made by far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders. Mr. told us that several years ago, there was an affair happened in between two politicians found out by some people. I tried to Google this story, but couldn't find it. What is interesting to me is what happened next: Media came in, and later decided to cover it!

This doesn't sound right to me to happen in a country like the Netherlands. Isn't this self-censorship? I do not know what went on that time, and there might be some logic in that situation. I do feel that a free media is so important in preventing bad things happen in the society. Certainly I am for the social censorship that stops things like pornography in the media. But for political reasons, trying to hide things will always lead more troubles in later time.

This is also very true in our daily life. Be relaxed and open, hiding can take away a lot of unnecessary trouble in your daily life. My impression of my Chinese friends circle, is that many people being secretive. It lacks some degree of openness that make me feel free to interact with. In terms of this, I found similarities among Dutch people. I should try to attract some dutch audience to my blog, so that I can have some debate on this. If you feel that I am similarly secretive, let me know, and ask me what you want to know :-)

To make this post a little longer, here are some sentences of Chinese interpreted by a western blogger, quite right and interesting. (You can find even more in the link, and i just copy a few here.) It deserves some reflections.

1) You're a foreigner, you wouldn't understand

I'm Chinese and I don't understand either, but I'm not going to admit it

2) Because China has 5000 years of history

A) Because I can't think of a better reason right now
B) ..... Just because

3) Things are different here

I know that it's messed-up, but I'm too stubborn to admit it

4) In China people think.....

In China the government tells us to think.....

5) Do you have a Chinese girlfriend?

My cousin is ugly but of childbearing age

6) Tibet is an integral part of China

A) I can name you the leaders of every Chinese dynasty for the last 5000 years, but not one incarnation of the Dali-Lama
B) If you can have outposts all over the world, why shouldn't we.

7) Taiwan is an integral part of China

They said it on CCTV1, so it must be true

8) The situation in China is much better than it used to be

A) The situation in Beijing and Shanghai is much better than it used to be
B) .... unless you're a farmer

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The purpose of living a longer life

Mr. and Mrs. Aawaraa always have disagreement on their desire for a long life. Mrs. is interested in all kinds of health related information, while Mr. has the Buddhist belief that living is painful process and only lucky person are given a sudden ending of their life, which is the minimum pain. We recently watched quite a lot of programs on air crash investigation in the National Geographic Channel. I am interested in the thrilling settings these programs created, while Mr. Aawaraa always regrets that he couldn't be that "lucky". Of course, there is always argument after his comment. It thus also bring me more seriously thinking about death and the reason for a long life.

Whenever I watch or read about the universe, it is a little discomfort to think about "I" in the universe: at most being a piece of sand in its history. Everyone will die, and the earth may die also one day. The desire of living is from the desire of happiness. Sometimes you are so happy or satisfied that you feel there is nothing to regret if you just die at the moment. You want to enjoy the happiness the life brings. Recently we watched a movie "Into the Wild", about a new college graduate who was troubled by his parents' relationship and the world. He left every one and started traveling alone to look for the meaning of life. His goal was to go to Alaska and live there by himself for several months. He learned his lesson at the end as he noted down in his book "Happiness needs to be shared", but it was too late for him to be able to save himself.

So, the desire to live, is actually originated from the connections you make in the society: those who you love, and those who loves you. That is the main reason that you feel you would want to live longer, and share the maximum time, and experiences with them. It will be ideal that a loving couple could die together. The one who dies earlier is the lucky one since the left-over pain might be unbearable to the other. I wonder whether a person without any relatives or friends in this world would care whether to live or die.

A friend's parents, in their 90s, were occasionally sad because of their friends' passing away. Her Dad plays Golf, and his playmates have changed several turns. It might be a complicated feeling when you are in that situation. Maybe that is the reason that people have their children, someone to love, to live longer.

Lots of efforts have been put on research on how to fight the aging, diseases so that people can live longer. Three towns with the most number of centenarians are investigated, and different reasons are i
dentified as the reasons for their old ages people.
OKINAWA, JAPAN: food varieties, and eating habit of 80% full;
OVODDA, SARDINIA: family long life gene preserved in close marriage;
LOMA LINDA, CALIFORNIA: faithful church goers.

It is still not sure what are the main reason but it is true that there are a series of reasons that contribute to a long life. You might learn from these researches how to live a longer life, by eating healthy and less, and living in communities with people. A longer life gives you longer time to experience and enjoy the happiness the life brings to you. We might not be lucky enough to be born in these lucky towns that have better environment for a longer life, but we always have the control in pursuing a happy life. It is possible that a life of 60 years can bring as much happiness as a life of 100 years. In that way, the number of years might not be as important as the amount of happiness in your life.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What Spielberg did, less to Darfur, more to China

Recent news about Darfur and China have generated a lot of media attentions on the 2008 Olympic games, and what Beijing can do to stop the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Knowing about this connection was not new to me. Last year at Providence, there was a "Photojournalism Record of Life and Death in Darfur" organized by groups at Brown university. Giant images of the escalating crisis in Sudan were displayed on big walls in the reception hall. Later the lecture attracted thousands of people, although I am not sure whether I was the only Chinese there. Speakers included Mia Farrow, the UNICEF’s goodwill ambassador who has pushed Steven Spielberg's resign from the Olympic artistic adviser. That was one year ago. It was clearly pointed in the lecture, China can do more, and we should push Chinese government to do more to stop the genocide.

Another time at Brown, when the Chinese ambassador came for a talk, the Darfur was brought up in the QA session. After coming to this orange country, we also came across a lecture on human rights issues in China. Certainly, Darfur was one of the issue. It is really not a easy task for a Chinese living in China to accept the fact that Beijing's Olympic is connected with the Darfur genocide. However, there are some understandings that might be useful in sharing.

The common reaction to China's role in the African countries are, US and European countries did worse in Africa in terms of exploitation and slave trade in the history. It seems to be an easy argument to make. One made a mistake, and hope that cursing someone else who made similar mistake would make his own mistake less blamable. It is important to know that mistake is always mistake. It is impossible to justify one's mistake by the other's mistake. One criminal kill a person. It doesn't mean that you can also go and kill someone.

So here is the point I want to make: what China is doing in African countries have some impacts that China is ignoring but other countries are worrying. It is very likely that their worries are reasonable. China's development aid in Africa most of the time are for the exchange of natural resources, without any extra condition that western foreign aid would most of the time restrict with. Chinese are good at making things done, build the road, build the factory, with the whole crew sent from China, including farmers planting Chinese favored vegetables in Africa. This kind of aid is questionable because it just give rather than teach the locals how. When this aid is removed, there is no sustainable impact left in the local community.

How can Spielberg help then? In fact I do not think Spielberg's resign will have much to do with China's behavior. China has tried to help in the Darfur issue, and its help is limited. What China can do is to put some pressure, but whether the pressure works or not is out of China's control. However, what Spielberg did, generated a great voice, to act as China's conscience. It push the government to think about its actions in Africa, more carefully and more responsive. China knows that China can not act in a vacuum, and has to be responsible in the international community. Being responsible is important for the government of China as well.

China and Chinese will argue, it doesn't make sense to mix sports with politics. Spielberg might have to face a big entertainment market that might stay hatred to his films in the future. But the important task is done, China will act more cautiously in the future, avoiding leaving any tails for others to blame upon. That is enough.

If we believe that politics should not be mixed with other things, Chinese should not boycott Spielberg's movie in the future. If we do that, then we are making the same 'mistake' that Spielberg made. Politics are everywhere.

The picture is from here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Rabbit-proof fence and government apology

It is today's first news that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized in parliament to all Aborigines for laws and policies that "inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss". He singled out the "Stolen Generations" of thousands of children forcibly removed from their families.

It is interesting to me since we recently just watched the movie "Rabbit-proof fence", which was about the 'stolen generation' in Australia until late 1960s. It brought to me part of Australian history that I was not aware of before.

During the early years of the 20th century, white Australians panicked about the supposed disaster of an "unwanted third race" of "half-caste" Aborigine children. By 1950, it has been alleged the widespread removal of children from their parents and exercise of sundry guardianship powers by Aboriginal protectors over Aborigines up to the age of 16 or 21. The alleged aim was to culturally assimilate mixed-descent people into Australian society. Policemen or other agents of the state (such as 'Aboriginal Protection Officers') were given the power to locate and transfer babies and children of mixed descent from their mothers or families or communities into institutions. In these Australian states and territories, half-caste institutions were established in the early decades of the 20th century for the reception of these separated children.

The movie was based on true events. The author of the book "Rabbit-Proof Fence", Doris Pilkington Garimara, her mother was forced to separated from her family and the story was based on her recollection of her experience. It is about three girls who were taken from their parents and sent to a mission far away from home. They managed to escape, and walked 1,500 miles to finally find their mothers following the rabbit-proof fence. They knew that their home "Jigalong" was along the rabbit fence and it stretched all the way from north to south. The story is quite simple, but clearly depict a disastrous, racist policy that brought about the misery of the so-called "stolen generations".

I am happy to see the new Australian PM could stand up and say sorry. It is not easy and previous PM were not able to do it. Maybe there is some insider's policy that I am still not knowing. It is a big lesson that people learned when they treat different racial groups of people as different people, rather than admitting they are equal human beings. When the policy makers talk about assimilation and integration in today's politics everywhere, they might learn something from Australian's experiences.

I start to like the courage people have to stand up for whatever they believe right or wrong, rather than messing up or watching as an outsider. My similar appreciation also goes to Spielberg today, for his resignation in the 2008 Olympic artistic adviser. China always claims that sports and politics should not be messed up together. In fact, politics is everywhere that you can never single it out alone. I would love to have these international forces working as conscience for China, and let China moving in a better direction for the whole world including all Chinese people.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The north end of the Netherlands - Groningen and Eems canal

Last time when we went to the southern city of Maaschtricht, it was the first day you could buy a discount NS train ticket, 25 euro for two persons traveling for one day unlimited. Before the tickets expired in March, and also a sunny and warm weekend like spring, we hopped on the train for the northern city of the Netherlands, Groningen. The G in Dutch is pronounced somewhere between G and K, also with some vibrating sound, I bet you might not be able to say it right.

It was such a warm day in February, and the train was crowded from the beginning. Many people are traveling, especially you see lots of white hair couples. Now we know that this might be a fashion in the Netherlands: go visiting other cities. They might be like us, bought a discount ticket, and take a one day trip. The three hours' journey passed easily with our Ipod fully loaded with the latest Economist podcast. The return trip was felt to be longer than expected, maybe also because the train was running in the dark, and nothing to see outside.

We found all cities are very similar, when you travel on a Saturday. A Saturday market in the center of the city with fruits, vegetables, kaas (cheese), flowers. Things are all the same as what I saw at Delft. I am not a big fan of the open market, because I do not feel it is much cheaper than grocery stores. There is a kind of fried fish, Kimbeling, which was our occasional snacks in the market. But soon both of us felt it was oily and stopped buying. Things I bought from the open market always get rotten faster. One stalk at Delft I sometimes visit is a grocery stalk. In the afternoon of Satuday, they will sell some vegetables at very cheap price. 50 cents you can buy a big cauliflower, or a Chinese cabbage.

Maybe it is around the Chinese New year, there were two museums hosting China related exhibitions. In the canal in front of a modernist museum right across the train station, there was a boat with some post, like in the picture. I am not sure why a canoe was used, maybe for fireworks? I was reading it as "I love China, you shoot China, We all love China". The Netherlands seem to be promoting its relationship with China. The NS trains already painted 2008 Olympic signs in the front. This coming year Tulip seaon flower show also has one theme as the coming Olympic in Beijing.

Briefly browsed the city, we decided to go further to the north. It was about another half an hour's train journey, we reached a town called Delfzijl. It was along the Eems canal, and out to the North sea. We were excited to see the water, big and open view of water. Mr. Aawaara commented, we have been bored of seeing all man-made things, we need some natural scenes. Actually, it was not totally nature either, it was a canal. Maybe it is because we were bored of the crowded city, and in need of some openness.

Across the canal, the other side is Germany. We could see many windmill along the canal on the other side. Germany was said to be the global leader in green energy, which seems to be true. We took a walk along the dike, the man-made bank along the canal. You can clearly feel that the water level is much higher than the land inside the dike. The whole country, more than half of its land, is protected by these dikes. Some teenagers were playing along the dike with their bikes, rushing down the steep slope again and again. A tiny tiny sand beach was made in a corner, almost the size of a basketball court. Two kids wearing rain boots play in the water with their grandparents watching besides. There were some kind of sea-weeds growing along the bank, and you can also see some broken shells washed on the shore. Not too far away, we saw some ducks are swimming. It might be the connecting part where the fresh water and sea water mixed together. I did not dare to taste the water.