Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Trip to Rome

I celebrated Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday in Rome. Tze Wei came to visit from the US, and we traveled to Europe during the long weekend break. If you've read some of the comments in this blog, she's the one with the initials "TW". We were ex-Gamuda scholars and it was great meeting up again in a foreign country.

Piazza Venezia

Before I went to Rome, I had great expectations of this city. Rome is a "cocky" city that makes bold statements like "come with high expectations, and we can surpass that!".

I was overwhelmed! Vatican City is a country within a city-Rome. It's like saying a carpark in a car. I know it makes no sense, but this tiny country is also the most stable and prosperous country in the world, as reported yesterday.

They say, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do". But I ask what exactly do the Romans do that we must do in Rome? Roman bath? Gladiator? Drink water from the public tap? Worship the sun? or...errr pick pocket? I have no idea.
Do as the Romans do?

But I found out that running the Rome marathon backwards is gaining popularity there. That's running 42.195km backwards! I can't imagine doing that for 4.2km! Probably that's something I can do when I return to Rome next time.

Rome is an old and historically rich city. It's more than 2500 years old. It is a city of great architectural and engineering splendour. That means this city has started appreciating art and science 500 years before Christ was born and that's really impressive especially when you see the ruins of the Roman Forum. I can't even imagine what is Malaysia like 2500 years ago.

Palatine Hill

Roman Forum, here since 2500 years ago

Ape-like people were probably still playing stones in Malaysia when the Romans were already talking about sustainable development (who knows!).

If Rome is a showcase of art and science, then Vatican City is a representation of "heaven". Or at least the country's interpretation of that. Vatican City is not another country that has passport control before entering. In fact, it charges visitors! And your passport to enter is a 16 Euro barcoded ticket!
Queue to get into Vatican City
(click to enlarge)

Vatican City is perhaps the most unreal thing I have ever come across. It's not about the carpark in a car analogy. It's the entire content packed into this country. In fact I didn't feel like I was in another country. I felt like I was in another world - an unreal world. The last time I felt like living in another world was when I was in Cambridge.

I read that Rome is nicknamed "The Eternal City". I think Vatican City is "Eternity in Art". Almost every nook and cranny on the ceiling and wall in the Vatican Museum are covered either in paintings, drawings or sculptures! Whoever painted them must have a sore neck!
Tze Wei

Tze Wei and I were absolutely in awe admiring those paintings on the ceiling. We joked that the people then must have been really free to spend so much time on the ceiling. Mind you, these are not wallpapers! Even if they were, they will probably have broken a few printing machines trying to duplicate the entire work of art!
Vatican Museums

We also came out with more questions as we stumbled upon more paintings. "How on earth did he do that!?", "How are those paintings maintained?", "Does the Pope keep and view all of them?", "Does the Pope ever need or bother to see other paintings in the world???"

We took 2 hours to finish the Vatican Museums before reaching the apex of the tour - Sistine Chapel, residence of the Pope and great paintings by Michelangelo. By that time, we got really "sick" of seeing anymore paintings. We felt numb in our thoughts. It's like having a nice jewelery and admiring it for 48 hours. You get "sick" after a while.
Sistine Chapel

The feeling sunk in. This is unreal because in the real world, an art by Michelangelo the size of my laptop could easily cost me a leg and a limb. Vatican Museum measures in kilometres!

Our trip also covered a few other places like the Colosseum, where the gladiators fought, St Peters Basilica, The Forum, Palatine Hill, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and a few churches.

Above two photos taken in St Peter's Basilica

Pieta by Michelangelo (St Peter's Basilica)

Panorama of Colosseum
(click to enlarge)

Verita, the mouth of truth

Italian food is always known for five things - Pizza, Pasta, Mozzarella, Coffee and Gelato. We had them almost every meal except the last when we decided to try Chinese food in this part of the world. We found it amusing that my favourite Fried Wonton is known as "Fried Ravioli" here.

There are just too much that I could write about this trip. However, I think I will keep it up to here for now. Pictures are more self-explanatory.

I threw a coin over my shoulder when I visited the Trevi Fountain. The people believe that when you do that, you will return to Rome.

Trevi Fountain 1

Trevi Fountain 2

I did that not because I already know that I will return to Rome in May when my parents visit. I did it for....**how can I tell what I wished for**....

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Serious talks at LSE

Last month after weeks of stultifying fug of stuffy investment numbers floating in the office, I made trips to London on two separate days to listen to two great speakers talk. The events were held at the London School of Economics (LSE) and were opened to the public.

It was great opportunity for me to sharpen my focus on issues that have a wider concern and keep me in check of my struggle to be a T-shaped engineer (read my profile). T-shaped engineer is neither a position that you can find in job recruitment agencies (or even Google) nor a creature from the North Pole.

The first was Joseph Stiglitz who came to present and launch his new book on "The Three Trillion Dollar War: The true cost of the Iraq Conflict". He was the Nobel Prize winner in Economics in 2001 and is a professor in the world renown Columbia University, New York.

Professor Joseph Stiglitz

The second talk was by Sir Nicholas Stern who presented his views on "Climate Change, Energy and the Way Ahead".

Sir Nicholas Stern

I wouldn't get into academics now about what I've learnt or felt about their talks but there are some serious concerns out there that need our concerted actions to make things happen. That's the shortest possible one-liner summary I could make for both talks.

Social work

Life's been extremely hectic this week. We have to meet an internal deadline to finalise our investment numbers before Easter break - less than a week from now. I can't even cook a packet of Maggi mee in that time!

In the midst of our busy schedule, we took half a day to clean up the mess in a wooded area, near our office - Lousehill Copse. Corporate social responsibility?

What looked like a barren woodland turned out to be a treasure trove of rubbish. Our team of 50 came out with bags of rubbish in 3 hours that could easily fill up an entire double decker bus.

And if someone's creative enough, the furnitures and stuff that we found can be refitted to make a complete home. Maybe a car too.

I learnt that UK is a throw-away society, so our collection didn't surprise me at all.

I remember the last time I did something like that was 13 years ago when I was a Scout. We used to have clean-up campaigns and job weeks. We get paid in the latter and free publicity in the former.

Looking back 13 years on, you can bet how glad I am to have nailed down my most-feared subject in SPM and STPM - Chemistry; to avoid doing this for a living.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Malaysian General Election 2008

I was not enthused at all by the election happening in Malaysia but when I read the feeds in the afternoon that Works Minister, Samy Vellu has been defeated, I started paying attention.

Another casualty was Shahrizat Jalil, who's the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development. I thought I heard a third casualty, Najib, but later found out that it was only a rumour. Fantasies played in my mind; what if the Deputy Prime Minister loses his seat? What will happen? Then I imagined Badawi.

I follow the Obama-Clinton presidential election as closely as the American Idol. I was glad that Danny Noriega, the guy who can't stop moving his head while talking, was out of the Idol run but hearing news of Samy Vellu being kicked out of the parliamentary seat was like what I felt when I first saw England covered in snow.

The area which I belong, Seputeh, is a stronghold of the opposition. I have profound respect to Teresa Kok who has again, won with a massive majority this time. Before you draw conclusions of my political leaning, I am actually neutral.

I first paid attention to Teresa Kok in 1999 when chauvinist pig, Sua Chong Keh, made a sexist remark on her. It was a story of sympathy transforming into election victory. I still couldn't forget what Sua said. By the way, does anyone know what happened to him?

Barisan Nasional (BN), remained as the nation's strongest political party that will still form the new government. However, this is the first time in history it has been deprived of a 2/3 majority needed to make legislation without consultation in any form, shape or size. It has lost 5 states - Penang, Kedah, Selangor, Perak and Kelantan - most of which are important economic powerhouse to the country. What does this mean? Loss in confidence by the business community? It's pretty telling how much those economic policies that were put forward were in fact resented by the business community in those regions. I think the message is clear. I didn't bat an eyelid when I heard about the casualty. I thought it was a tragedy waiting to happen and one that is long overdue; an erosion chipped away by its own arrogance!

Having said that, I do not entirely support the manifestos proposed by the oppositions as well. There were some plainly crass political rhetorics. An example: pegging petrol price to RM1.20 a litre if they come into power?!! Are these guys mad?! Are they not driving down the country to a $h!Tho73 or something???!!! They need to get out of it and make sense between subsidy, reality and fantasy!

So when I had two bad options to choose from, there are three ways about it - choose either, neither or together. I choose together. Either is dangerous, neither is personal irresponsibility but together is accountability. Choosing accountability will ensure the political parties keep each other in check at all times. I really don't want my country to screw up so that I still have a place to call home, when I return later.

This is a wake up call to BN. There is a new generation of Malaysians in the country. A generation of fresh blood hunters, feral killers who lack tolerance and can't wait to tear political leaders into pieces at the first sign of weakness. The latest polling result is a testament. The time that Malaysia is driven by arrogant and corrupt politicians is over. The people don't want to see another incompetent leader who is a shame to Malaysians! Zainuddin Maidin for example, has been booted out as a result of this. It's one thing if you can't "speaking speaking" in English but it's a serious issue if you can't portray yourself professionally whether you're in or out of the country. I don't know about other Malaysians but I found this so-called politician annoying! Worst of all, he's representing the views of Malaysians in an international news agency! Check out the vid...

First of all, this fight is no longer arbitrated by the same people who are cherry-picked by the members of the stronger ruling party of the day to undo the oppositions. If anything, technology or the internet has played a huge role in the success of the opposition. Youtube and mobile phone technologies have made it possible at all levels of communication and information for people to get their information. When I see the news in TV3, it's full of rubbish. It's a source of one-sided information. Alternative information are aplenty and can be easily found from elsewhere; email circulations, SMS or the Youtube - and you can cross-check between them if in doubt.

The failure of TV3 to be an independent source of information has made many Malaysians dump it and look for better sources elsewhere.

Secondly, the government couldn't have chosen a worse time to have an election. Global economic uncertainty, high oil prices, inflation, corruption and racial tension. There are so many past and present resentment that have not been resolved or just played down by the media. In fact, from the random emails that I read, I could feel there was already an air of resentment by the themes of "let's teach BN a lesson" or the Obama enlightenment "vote for hope, vote for change". Aren't these recipes for disaster?

Thirdly, the maturity of Malaysians were greatly underestimated. Whenever I watch the news in TV3, I can't help but to think if I had just tuned in to "Barney and Friends" on reports like "hey kids, those are bad people!", "they have crooked teeth like monsters..waarrrghhhh!!!" The fact that Badawi called for a snap election has already shown the level of confident that he has. That's what snap election is all about. You don't do that unless you know you will win!

Lastly, over confidence. I can only picture Samy Vellu licking his wounds right now, not a very befitting way to celebrate his 72nd birthday. But what I initially imagined was a pregnant woman who's over confident of her ability to play football half way through her pregnancy. Now she has a miscarriage.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Asics Reading Half Marathon: The Report

My time: 1hr 36mins 28secs
Overall Position: 1397
Total runners: 11181
Actual distance: 21.095km
This is my personal best thus far. It's the half marathon assault after my last race in KL back in September. My previous best was 1 hr 44 mins in the 2004 PJ Half Marathon. But that was also because it was shorter and flatter.

I still feel it's unreal that I have smashed my previous record by 8 mins because it was a race with lots of undulation. If I can describe the race course in the "Pacesetters Unit of Measurement", I'd say it's like stretching the "10km double-hill" into a 21km race course.

One of the two long marquees dedicated as storage tents for runners' belongings

Free shuttle: Double-deckers used to ferry runners from the train station to the stadium

It's a weather-driven performance. The weather was great, around 10deg C this morning. But still proved to be too cold for me in dry-fit and shorts. The sky was cloudy interspersed with some sunshine, which was heavenly.
Runners in bin bags to shield the cold

A long strip of cloud?

The event started at Green Park and ended at the Madejski Stadium, just a stone's throw from the park. What I do like about the stadium is that it is home to the Reading FC. Even though these guys don't play good football like other clubs, they do have an iconic stadium.

Their home ground image is enhanced by the presence of a humongous wind turbine that has formed part of this icon. And what I just found out today, it doubled up as a fan to us! Now you get electricity from wind and you get to cool runners off. Happy days...

The crowd was massive but I felt lonely. Previously in Cambridge, I get to mingle with college mates prior to start time. This time, none of my colleagues were in. So I was all by myself in this.
These guys are serious! And they play great songs too!

Like previous marathons, I make it a point to try new things. Previously I played with food in the name of science and see how I perform in a race. This time I got into mind manipulation, I call it "performance mimicry".

Well if you Google it, there's really no such thing as performance mimicry. I made that up, so forgive me if you're about to throw stones at me. At least, it's scientific!

I attempted performance mimicry at the start of the race. I mimicked the performance of a car.

I know this sounds ridiculous, and I do feel stupid typing this as well. This is what you probably get from TopGear overdose! What I actually did was to visualise the performance of a car; a car doesn't feel exhausted, doesn't cramp, shifts the right gear at different road gradients and has a radio!
Mimicry of a speed trap camera??

Before start, the engine was conditioned at a warm-up session. Yes, it's a VVT-i, so it doesn't tire in idle state. Radio check, shoe lace check, time check, time reset check, champion-chip check. The champion-chip is tied to the ankle instead of the shoe lace. That's the first for me.

When the race started, it took me 2 mins to cross the start line. It was a Pamplona Bull Run thereafter, rampaging through the roads without knowing exactly where each of those turns lead to . I felt nice overtaking most of the time but with 11,000 people, it was also difficult to shake off those around me as well as those who are already in front.

The spectators cheered. I turned on my iPod. It wasn't a good start. Come on! Guang Liang in a road race?! You have to be kidding! Can you imagine the damage it has done in the 5 seconds of me trying to get to the controls. It didn't get better either. Guess what...Gedo Senki's soundtracks! I felt like pulling the earphones off!

The ascend started from Mile 2-4. VVT-i worked well at optimum rev without undermining speed. No sign of exhaustion. But the radio went dead. I forgot to charge my iPod last night! What an absolute disaster! But it was a blessing in disguise. I kept the earphones on. It was better than putting into the pocket and risk losing it while running. It was an added burden since it's no longer serving me. Thing is, iPods are not like Vittel bottled drinks where you can toss them at the roadside when you feel like it.
Vittel water bottles

I counted if Work = Force x Displacement, then I'd have wasted 0.3kJ of energy carrying this dead gizmo by the time I cross the finish line. That's the amount of energy Raymond Hee has probably used to do an Ironman!

The second ascend was humiliating. That was at Mile 8. An IS220 was reduced to a mere Clio 1.2. If that's not enough, drive it on a flat tyre then! I was clearly feeling the drag. I downed a gel and a Lucozade at the water station. I thought it was necessary to arrest the steep decline into a Perodua Kancil. It worked! I was back in form in 5 minutes. But the effect didn't stay long and by Mile 9 onwards, performance flatted out and gone into a gradual decline.
So what happened to performance mimicry? Did it work? Was it effective?

If I measure by peak performance, then it worked. If I did it by consistency, then probably not. Well to be fair, I did think it helped in consistency in 3/4 of the entire race. If I were to take the last 1/4 show and prove as evidence that it has failed, then it's probably not fair or true either.

I certainly liked its effectiveness in pushing new limits to performance, I would say that the initial mimicry has provided frontiers in the game of mind over matter. This is a first for me and I certainly wouldn't want to use it for long-haul at the moment. A 15 to 20k run is fine and like any other skills, can be honed and improved further over time.

The last mile was the most frustrating. We were already in the vicinity of the Madejski Stadium but couldn't see the finish line. So near yet so far! When we finally entered the stadium, the finish line was in sight. Running with 11,000 people means that there would be at least hundreds crossing the finish line at the same time no matter how fast you are. Therefore I didn't bother jostling through to get a good spot. It's not the same like Malaysia's half marathons where those hundreds were probably the event total participants. And that is also after pointing a gun at school children's heads to make them run and make up the number for the event!
Runners crossing the finish line at the same time

One particular downside in UK runs is that they sell the event T-shirt rather than providing them for free. The one in Reading costs 12 quid a shot and that's half the price of the run! I have outgrown converting since studying in Japan but I couldn't help converting the T-shirt price. If I were to pay 12 quid in Malaysia, I could probably get a very good quality and branded T-shirt.
From bin bags to proper shields

Sweeper bus to pick up runners

The medal was nice. It's shiny on the embossed area and coarse on the invert. I am not sure what's it made of but the global price of tin went up in tandem with the months leading up to the race. So, my guess is tin, if not it has to be silver!