A Protest in Time

Dear Father Time,

Two words: Slow. Down.  I mean, is it really necessary to flash through 8 weeks of summer so that it feels like literally yesterday when I landed in Singapore?  So that in 1 month, I’m going to be entering my second year at MIT?  I understand the need for your steady yet relentless march forward, but I demand an explanation for the unreasonable discrepancy between expectations and reality.  Just because we are all forced to walk to your beat does not mean you can take advantage of us poor, unfortunate souls and toy with our hearts and minds.

And would it really hurt to give us a few minutes every now and then to just stop and stare?  Even for those of us who love to fill our lives to the brim, would two minutes really kill you?  I mean, “managing” you has become a skill all on its own.

My new-found movie love from this weekend says it best:  “From the moment we enter this life we are in the flow of it [time].  We measure it and we mark it, but we cannot defy it.”

Seriously, I had higher expectations of you, oh Fourth-Dimension.



The Problem with Problem-Solving

Things are not always what they seem.  Appearance vs. Reality–a basic high school literary theme.  Stuff is just complicated.  It’s not black or white, but a spectrum of greys.  In fact, it’s grey, blood-red, midnight blue, cotton candy pink, emerald green, burnt orange— I think you get the point.  Colors of complexity.

I know this is true.  But every once in a while, I think I forget.  It’s inevitable when throughout the entire year, we’re made to work on problem set after problem set.  MIT teaches us to solve “real problems,” we are told.  It’s pretty easy to slip into that mindset and believe that all problems can be solved eventually, and that there is a fastest, most efficient, easiest way to solve each one.  That everything can make sense.

But every once in a while, something will come up that will jolt me back to the reality of this complex world.  Last fall, I took a class called Making Public Policy (11.002 for any of you MIT-ers who want to know the real number 🙂 ) that basically took us through the political process.  But this was not your usual how-a-bill-becomes-law lesson.  In this class we learned exactly how little scientific fact often has to do with the passing of most legislation.  I remember my frustration, listening to the political “stories” that were told to kill the Waxman-Markey bill (also known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act), when the science on global climate change and energy usage often clearly said otherwise.  There were just personal motivations, warped public perceptions, power struggles, desired ignorance, and plain old complications– sometimes it just made my (mostly) rational mind completely uncomfortable with the blatant disregard to the “obviously” correct answer (okay, it’s not always that obvious).  And maybe in my better moods I could actually appreciate the complexity of the system– you know those few times when you’re desperate to see the silver lining.

Well this happened again last week in my building when we had one of our usual seminars.  Technically it wasn’t that “usual” considering it was by a visiting architect to the Future Cities Laboratory, a research competitor of sorts with the center I work for, SMART (Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology), where I work in the division called the Center for Environmental Sensing and Modeling (CENSAM).  So of course with the promise of a break from work, a friend and I went down to the pretty impressive lab.  In front of us stood Felix Heisel, an architect from Zurich, who had spent much of his working life in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.  Addis Ababa, he told us, is a rapidly changing city, particularly in its use of space.  As newer, more modern housing developments (“condominiums” and Western style “budget” apartment complexes that are too expensive and antagonistic to the way of living for whom they are intended) are granted by the government, Heisel expressed a concern that Addis Ababa’s traditional ways of city life were disappearing, particularly a tie to community living, neighborly concern, and interestingly, the street itself.  And to express this, Heisel and his group have created a series of videos, of which we watched the first one concerned with these “disappearing spaces” of Addis Ababa.  But before I say anything else, watch the video!

After watching the video, I was definitely impressed.  There’s something about hearing of a rather unknown situation, problem, and complications that is exciting, disturbing, and inspiring, all at the same time.  But I almost fell for the worst possible thing you could do.  Almost.  See, it’s really easy to watch a video like that and immediately rally behind the cause of promoting the small, informal housing settlements that make up the cultural history of Addis Ababa– to romanticize the slum areas as this place and time that we need to return to for the sake of purity and tradition.  Yes, the new condominiums are too expensive; yes, they don’t take into account the native livelihoods and communal culture of the people because of their Western foundations; yes, they are trapping the poor in an unbreakable cycle by offering the house to them with a rent they cannot afford, forcing them to rent out the apartments to the middle class and return to government-owned slums from which they can be thrown out like trash at any moment.  But that does not mean that the solution is to allow the retention of these informal housing settlements.  It’s not that simple.  Things are not always what they seem.  And although the discussion after the movie confirmed Heisel’s view that this was not the simple answer, the movie (to me) did not convey that rich complexity which I believe the problem inherently called for.  Those spaces that hold Addis Ababa’s traditional past may be disappearing, and that is definitely something that needs to be taken into account, but I think that for many who watch this video without a critical eye, may not see that the project is not meant to idealize these slums as quaint, “cute” little areas, as we tourists so often call them.

The center of Pasar Ole Ole- the fact that I don’t have a picture of the back of the town is a bit shameful in and of itself

It’s funny the way associations in your brain work.  When I watched this video, I immediately thought of my weekend trip to Bintan, Indonesia in the beginning of June, where the only place to go besides resorts was a small town called Pasar Ole Ole– a one street town literally devoted to the tourists, complete with an outdoor restaurant, spa, and the stereotypical shops.  I remember how I too exclaimed in excitement at the village-y feel of the place–that is, until we walked behind it.  Suddenly the scene changed.  We were met not with gazebos and pretty strings of lights, but with large rectangular buildings with peeling, yellow paint and standardized housing.  We came not to a red-checkered tablecloth to eat a dinner while we were serenaded by Indonesian guitar players (singing English songs), but to a fly-infested set of stalls and tables.

Dinner and a show? Our entertainment for the evening in Pasar Ole Ole.

And really, much of the reason for this situation was me– it was us, collectively.  It was the fact that this island is meant entirely for tourists and nothing else.  Appearance vs. Reality.  

I think a lot of experiences are easy to take as face value, especially when they are new, unprecedented situations, be it a video of a city you’ve never heard of, or a touristy visit to a country halfway across the world.  But it only takes just a little bit more effort to hold back, remember that not every problem has a beautifully simple solution, be willing to challenge the information you receive, and also take care about the way in which you spread the information you want the world to hear.

If All the Raindrops Were Lemondrops and Gumdrops…

…oh what a rain that would be.”  Or so the song goes.  I actually beg to differ because that would be pretty painful, and it’s only really profitable if one falls right into your mouth.  (Question: How many of you actually know where that song is from?)

Okay first things first.  I love rain.  That’s probably an understatement, and I would have bolded it or something, except that if I “love” rain, then I LOVE thunderstorms (so obviously using the font modifiers on rain would make thunderstorms indescribable on the word scale).  Though I think my high school English teacher would put his head down in shame, knowing that I resorted to bolding and capitalizing my letters instead of “capitalizing” (see what I did there?) on my skills in diction.  I love rain, but I adore thunderstorms… relish thunderstorms…cherish, venerate, worship, idolize thunderstorms.  Oh thesaurus.com

Anyways, I’m not quite sure what it is about rain.  Now that I’m on the English train of thought, I immediately thought of the metaphor of a rebirth, like a baptism or something… but that’s not quite it.  It’s just refreshing.  The best kind of rain is on a hot summer day, when you can feel the sky wanting to burst open, and suddenly this cool, amazing, goodness somehow seems to wash away everything– every concern, every worry, every confusion.  I defy anyone with a personality to not want to spin and dance around.  And when it starts to absolutely pour, to the point where the drops are so hard they almost hurt, but not quite there yet– that’s when you want to just stand perfectly still with your face up to the sky, your eyes scrunched closed, and your arms spread out to catch every drop.

This is what happened yesterday.  When: 6:30pm.  Where: National University of Singapore (NUS) tennis courts.  What: Getting completely drenched in the middle of a tennis workout.  Now if this was high school and I was with my high school doubles partner/best friend, we would have just continued playing, priding ourselves over our inclination toward “danger,” as everyone else ran off the courts.  I mean, we even played through tornado sirens once (to be fair, we thought they were thunderstorm warnings 😀 ) This time I was with people who are definitely more adept at tennis than either of us, and refused to let me do this for my personal safety and the safety of my racket. (But I mean, it’s a thunderstorm, how can you possibly refuse?!)  So instead, I just stood there.  I spun.  I twirled.  I laughed.  (side note: Yahoo Answers to the question, “Have you ever played tennis in the rain?” says “Yes, but I stopped when I discovered that a smile makes a lousy umbrella!”  To which I say, who needs an umbrella when you have a smile?)

Now I could spend the next paragraph discussing the larger-than-life realizations I made in those twenty minutes while the rain poured down on me.  I could talk about how the rain was a turning-point in the development of my character (typical college-essay material).  And I could spend a not-insignificant amount of your brainpower trying to draw a variety of analogies, metaphors, allusions (where is that literary handbook…) relating the rain to a spiritual force that interacted with my soul or something.  I could.  But I think it’s simpler than all of that.  Sometimes it’s just standing outside in the rain.  It’s just having a childish carelessness about whether or not you’re going to get sick as long as you have some fun.  That’s what it is.  Fun.

A Garden in a City or a City in a Garden?

Marina Bay Sands
Marina Bay Sands

I have to say, there are a lot of things about Singapore that really impress me.  The excitement that the grandeur inspires wears off after the first week, but it’s beyond that when you start to really appreciate (or reject) this unique city-state.  Take MBS, for example, local acronym for Marina Bay Sands, an indescribable building. (side note: I love Singapore’s inclination for acronyms– reminds me of MIT where everything is either a number or an acronym.  For example, what’s the name of the program I’m in this summer? SMURFs: Singapore-MIT Undergraduate Research Fellowship 😀 ).  When you stand across the Singapore River, next to the Merlion and look out at MBS at night, there’s a huge, snazzy light show that comes from the ship on top of the buildings.  And the first time, it’s cool.  But the second time, and especially the time you actually go into MBS, you realize you can do without the show, without the facade.

But one of the first things I noticed about Singapore that has stuck with me through the past 5 weeks (how has it been 5 weeks since I got here?!) was how good Singapore is at promoting greenery throughout the city.  Yes, I know, it’s a tropical region, they probably get enough rain to fulfill all of America’s needs for precipitation and more, but it’s still impressive because they don’t have to do it.  But they do, and it makes the city all the more alive and natural.  Vines cover bridges and buildings are architecturally designed to incorporate garden hangings, trees, unique flowers, and plants.

One of the several balconies in my office building.
One of the several balconies in my office building.

I also must confess that I have a bit of a personal history with the idea of greenery in a city.  In fact, I almost spent all of last semester on a class project related to it.  I’m in a program (a “learning community”) at MIT called Terrascope, which would probably require an entirely different blog post all together to describe.  It’s kind of one of those things which once you start, if you get hooked, you can’t do without it, and yet you want to gripe about it at every waking moment (ask any of my friends for proof of the last part).  Anyways, for a quick synopsis, in the fall, we take a class that involves sixty or so freshmen creating a plan to solve some large complex problem (it was the biodiversity crisis for our year) with little to no professional/adult guidance, create a website for it, and put together a presentation for a panel of experts.  No biggie.  Just a couple of all-nighters, hair-pulling debates, and enough drama to create an entire season of soaps.  Second semester, we wise up a bit (not really) and focus on solving a specific design/engineering problem relating to the topic.  And OUR topic, for a long time, was going to be creating a model of the incorporation of greenery and growth into the Innovation District in Boston.  That is, of course, until we decided that it was impossible to complete in the time frame we had, and turned instead to creating a switching system for a pedal-powered monorail (come back later for explanations). 🙂


Either way, that’s my personal bias.  So when I went to Singapore’s latest attraction last Saturday, the Gardens by the Bay, I already had some expectations for a city that finds a way to incorporate these things in daily life.  Instead, I was transported to somewhere far, far away from the concrete jungle that is the Marina Bay area.  As soon as you enter, you meet the “supertrees,” which, I have to admit, although a bit unnerving at first, were a pretty interesting combination of city and nature.  After all, you don’t see artificial trees that use solar panels to capture the sun’s energy every day.

Waterfall in Cloud Forest
Waterfall in Cloud Forest

Without a doubt, though, my favorite attraction was the Cloud Forest.  Imagine the vegetation and greenery you would expect in a mountain high above the tops of clouds, but in a glass dome.  A crystal-clear waterfall cascades gently down, spreading a thin mist in the surrounding air.  Climb up to the first level to find yourself in the midst of flowers with colors you didn’t even know could exist and Pitcher Plants that catch and eat insects and other small animals.  Another level displays an entire exhibit dedicated to the energy-saving, sustainable features of the garden, its usage of biodigesters, and renewable energy.  Walk across a bridge with the mountain fog spreading around you, and only when you look up to the glass and see the Singapore Flyer or Marina Bay Sands Hotel outside do you remember that you’re currently inside the nature in one of the most modern cities of the world.  (And maybe after, if you’re like me, you kind of stand there, with a weird mix of awe and disgust, wondering at the amount of money it must have cost to create this).


A Drop on a Petal Pitcher Plants Sparkling in the Mist

Regardless, I think it’s worth it.  The importance of greenery in a city is highly underrated and if a small country like Singapore can afford to show the world how it’s done, then all the power to them.  But I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that it’s more than just for show; it’s for the health and mentality of people.  You just have to look at the battle going on back home in Kendall Square near MIT for proof of that, where petition after petition is signed to prevent the public roof garden from being torn down.  And I don’t know about you, but on a bright spring day, with a gentle wind blowing green grass, sitting in that garden, I can’t help but smile.  Smiling for true beauty.