Got education?

As promised, I am going into a little bit of detail in terms of this student movement in Montreal. The gist of the matter is that the Quebec Education body decided to double the tuition for all universities in the province, from ~$1500 to ~$3000, roughly. Before we debate the numbers, which is triflingly low if you apply the US standards; the heart of the matter is what we should consider a society’s responsibility to its citizens. Should we, as denizens of a particular city/state/country, support free and accessible education to our young?

I happen to believe the key to a society’s success in modern world is a well educated and adequately informed population. Maybe I am just a nerd, maybe I belong to the minority, but I firmly believe education should be high on the list of priorities for any governing body. The US boasts the largest and most influential economy in the world, and it is, as US self-proclaimed, largely driven by innovation and its high tech industry. However, 39% of the US science and engineering PhDs are foreign born (2000 data, compiled 2004 by National Bureau of Economic Research), up from 23% in 1966. I would venture a guess that the number may be higher now. Is this a testament to the quality of US higher education, or the failure of its college education? I would leave that debate to you.  But more importantly, with the advancement of world’s economy and increasingly competitive environments, would US be able to maintain its attraction for foreign brain power?

This debate can go on and on, when you look into total expenditure on education as % of GDP, public vs private, developed countries vs developing ones. I don’t know if there is a clear indicator(s) to use, but I am just going to park my thoughts here and see what you guys think.

Montreal awakes from hibernation

Throughout the months of January and February, the temperature hovered around -10C during the day and went as low as -30C at night (14F to -22F, that is, for you Ferenheitly inclined). My neighborhood, near the west end of downtown, cleared out after work hours. Streets were deserted at night with icy sidewalks glistening in the neon lights. Weekends came and went, the quiet inactivity lingered. I started to wonder why people rave about Montreal’s charm, the city that’s supposedly full of liveliness.

Then came March, unseasonably warm, and piles of snow started to melt. St. Patrick’s day arrived on a weekend of 20Cs. It is like dropping water into a hot oil pan, the streets came to life. I missed the St. Patty’s parade, which was supposed to be quite a scene. But I did witness the aftermath: a full street block carpeted with crushed beer cans;  never seen anything like it.

The week after, came the student protest. 150000 students took to the street to voice their opposition to the tuition hike (more on that later). For someone without a daytime job, I was happy to be an aimless gawker. It was a well organized event with police cars blocking off streets for the protesters to march. Dozens of city blocks filled with costumes and effigies, almost like a sober Halloween parade.

You learn something everyday, I had no idea the versions of keyboards.

I am completely used to the QWERTY keyboard in the US and am utterly ignorant of other keyboard versions.

Here is the German one, notice the y and z switch, which is a real pain in the ass for me here in Zurich. (until this idiot found out there is a button to click to switch it back.) Also note the additional vowels on the right side.

Of course the French won’t lose the battle of oddity, here is the French keyboard. For me, this is like WTF, for real? I am sure there is a perfect reason for this. Or just the French being French?

Just to make it interesting, here is a Persian one.

First week in Zurich

I arrived in Zurich with high expectations, no one, not a single person, had anything bad to say about the city.

It rained incessantly during the first week, which severely hampered my attempt for sightseeing. But I did manage to see a good eastern part of the city. Zurich abuts Lake Zurich and hugs the Limmat River. Yes, that massive nerve-bundle like structure is the famous city rail way, will update on that later.

Most of the city center is built along the hills so much so that it is not easy to find a perfectly flat street. I have to climb over 2 hills to work every day on my 15 minute walk.


I feel so out of place here that I don’t know how to describe it properly. It is like you walk into a party that you weren’t invited and can’t really fit in. I have never wished to speak another foreign language so badly, not since my first year in college while I was struggling with my colloquial English. Die Zurcher do speak English, somewhat, but far worse than the Montrealers. I kept running into problems at supermarkets and in the streets.


If I have to find one word to describe my first impression, well we all know the Swiss are efficient, I would say “orderly”. I arrived at a sparkling clean airport, streets are old but in good shape, very little litter around, trams run on schedule, most people follow the “walk” signs. It is just damn difficult to find something wrong with the city.  You know, in high school, there is that perfect person everyone loved yet secretly hated? staight As, good looking, teachers’ favorite, popular with other kids, plays sports, may even play first violin in the school symphony, that’s how I would describe Zurich. It is picture perfect, everyone other building downtown is photo-worthy. It is also as exciting/sleepy as a picture. Nothing, well, almost nothing is open after 8pm, except one grocery store and bars. There is so little clamor, even the city center sounds quieter than Northampton on a week night. I know, I sound like the “sour grape” syndrome in full display. It is hard not to like this city. I am very sure there are parts of the city that are more “exciting” and less glamorous than what I have seen, I’ll just have to find them.

These are just random buildings during my daily walk. The first one is actually Univ. of Zurich center campus.




Concluding with Cambridge and pasties

I thought it was a good idea to conclude my London trip by getting out of London.  Instead of spending 20 pounds to tour the tower of London (which is highly recommended by the Lonely Planet guide), I decided to use that for a round trip ticket to Cambridge.

Half an hour out of London, city gave way to green fields and elegant yet modest-size houses. It turned out that on this Sunday the train was running on reduced schedule, so I had to switch to a bus at Royston. Perfect,  that made up for my lack of double decker bus experience in the city.

Cambridge appeared to be this little sleepy town as I walked by the main church, then things turned lively near the center where all the shopping is. Farmer market was in full swing right next to this century old church.

A steam engine car came by and sounded its horn, just like a real train.

A 6’4 street performer playing guitar out of a litter can. Had to cheer for that.

Oh, here is a weirdly looking but fascinating pendulum clock.

And btw, there are some awesome looking colleges around here, under some big name university, I think.

And a nice museum (Fitzwilliam) to go with.

My biggest find? Pasties. I think the English committed a massive blunder with the marketing campaign for their national foods, fish and chips? Bangers and mash? Please, neither is worthy the tiny crumbs that fall off a hot, tasty pasty. They are like turbo charged calzones with a real dish for the center and croissant like outer shell. I don’t know how to describe it properly not to offend the true value of a pasty.

Anyway, I kept going back to this store to buy more.

During my third trip back, I decided to get two, turkey cranberry and lamb mint. As I was eating off one while clutching the other, I walked through the farmer’s market in search of dessert.  There were several carts full of home-made baked goods. Well, yeah, send me to hell for my gluttony.  I found an open seat outside a “starbucks” near the square. Yup, amidst all the wonderful local coffee shops,( and btw, European coffee is nothing like the US, far more flavors if you ask me), starbucks manages its US image and trying to carve out a corner for itself, mostly amongst expats, I would imagine. I happened to sit at a table with this woman surrounded by grocery bags. I struck up a conversation with her.  Her name is star and she appeared to be a bit cold. So I offered her my lamb mint pasty. She gladly enjoyed it and offered me a Sainsbury lager in return, as she happily washed down her minted lamb while drinking beer with a straw. Our conversation went form casually jovial to weird. She started to complain about the beggars and a few guys near us who love to people watch. Eventually I excused myself , more so because I could go back to get another lamb mint pasty, but also just to get away from her. As I wondered back an hour later, she was still sitting there sipping beer out of her straw, and you guessed it, enjoying herself people watching.

All in all, it was a nice end to a lovely trip, except  for the bloody rain at the end that got me soaked all the way back from Cambridge.

Cheers all, off with London and onward to Zurich.

a few notes about the English

Just when I thought the coins in Canada was annoying, here are what I collected first hour in London.

For those of you who haven’t been to England, if you can correctly guess the values of all of them, I’ll bring you a few.  I will post the first picture with descending  sizes, then I will post the one with descending values.  Yes, the hint is that the value has nothing to do with the size. (btw, coins do last 50 times longer than paper money, so it is a good austerity measure.)

And yes, the English are keenly aware they are driving on the wrong side of the road, on top of numerous one way streets in London.  In order to help the hapless tourists (like me?), it is painted at most intersections where you should look. Cute, eh?

Also, unless you are in a fairly modern building, modern like a couple years new modern. Otherwise, all the sinks are installed with 2 faucets, one for cold and one for hot water. Hrmmm, I don’t know if that has gone beyond the realm of peculiarity into the stupid zone. maybe you can use one for each hand?



Riding the London Tube can be a challenge at times, cramped trains and endless tunnels, and it does feel like a tube. yet I found it quite a worthy experience.


Being the oldest system in the world, there are clear marks how 11 lines and 270+ stops were constructed at different times and realigned later. Forget about sticking to a color, it is all about hopping between lines to find the shortest route possible. During partial closures of several lines on the weekend, finding your way around can be a puzzle game that is sometimes frustrating, but rather interesting to me.

Some of the stations are so old that they don’t have room to add in escalators, so elevators are installed. At Russell square, there is this spiral staircase that ascends 175 steps, equivalent of a 10 story building. No wonder most people are taking the lifts, only stupid tourists like me who had no idea would venture out and happily count the steps up from the subterranean tunnels.

One thing I liked about London is that you never know when you would walk into a grand old structure in the midst of glittering modern buildings. Such as the Royal Academy of Arts at Burlington place 2 blocks away from Piccadilly Circus (see gallery “walk about west London”), or this nice looking old pile of bricks right outside Russell Square, it used to belong to Duke of Bedford, I was told.

Around the block from the Russell Square park lies the British Museum. A student of history and science,I had been itching to visit the most comprehensive museum  for human history and cultures in the world;or otherwise known as the trophy house of grandest larceny, courtesy of my interpretation.The museum is so large (>8 million items ranging from rock fracas of 15 tons to the feathers of extinct birds) thanks to the colonial history of the British Empire. Now, I am no big fan of the colonial era of mankind, although I have to admit it fostered the unprecedented cultural and technological exchange between the conquerors and the conquerees; however the entire period  was marked by extreme cruelty, unfair treaties and all came at a huge human cost. ( If you care to know why the Chinese in the mid 19 century had their asses kicked by the British, then paid the Brits obscene amount of reconstitution so that the Brits and Americans can sell opium to china to offset the trade imbalance resulted from tea exports, here is your wiki page. that sure brings new meaning to the phrase “war on drug”, isn’t it?

sorry I digress. Undoubtedly most of the pieces in the museum were acquired during the 200 years of English expansion into the world. Look, here  is a 7 ton marble lion from Syria,


and 2 giant red wood totem poles from the indigenous first nation people in Canada.

The numbers of the disputed items from other countries are staggering, the massive amount of Pantheon Marbles from Greece,

thousands of southeast Asian scrolls and potteries.

Hence I call it the house of grand larceny. I don’t think there is anywhere else you will see 8 million pieces of stolen or robbed foreign goods proudly on display. Don’t get me wrong. The museum is a totally fantastic place that everyone should visit. I just think it is mind blowing to think how much the british had taken from other countries, but I don’t hate them for it. I think any nation in the same situation would most likely have done the same thing. It is just human nature. However I have to mention the raging debate between the British government and the countries that lost those precious items. Does the museum or the British government have the right to keep them? The Greeks said no, they have been asking for the return of hundreds of Pantheon Marbles for years. They even built a new museum to match the preservation conditions that the British claimed to be superior. The Chinese government wants their stuff, naturally.  Personally, I don’t know what my position is.  I look at it this way, if my neighbor down the street broke into my house, punched me in the face and poked me in the eye, then took my finest silver and put them in the display case in his living room, where more people visit each day than my humble abode. I don’t know. I would be mad but also proud that my stuff is showing off to the world, especially if it happened during my great great great great grandpa’s time. It would’ve been nice to have them back, but hey, the world doesn’t operate on niceness last time I checked.

Let me know what you think and check out more amazing stuff from the museum at the galley page “trophy house of grand larceny”.


greatest one line ad- only in canada


I thought it would be prudent to sample the neighborhood watering hole before signing a lease.

As I strolled down Crescent street, I decided to pick the first bar with an intriguing name. so here I ended up, at Ziggy’s Irish bar.

It is smallish cozy place with a dive feeling. I had a few pints while watching the hockey game on TV.  It was Tuesday night, nothing much was going on. The bartender was nice enough but too busy talking with her friends.  I got bored of the game and decided the visit was an unremarkable waste of time, despite the decent beer shipped in from Nova Scotia. (remember Alexander Keith, ehawk?) Before I left unimpressed,  I made a discovery in the bathroom that totally worth my while.

Ok, before you go wild with your imagination what happened in the John, here is the picture. I had to explain to the guy behind me so he wouldn’t beat me with his hockey stick while the camera went off.

This is, I guess, a typical Canadian joke.


For those of you who are not familiar with the jerseys, on the left is Toronto Mapleleaf, and the right one is Montreal Canadiens, rivals in the same division of NHL.

And when I laughed my way out of the bar, I realized that was a breathalyzer right by the exit, brilliant!

I happily threw in a dollar and blew a .05 after 2 pints, I almost went straight back in before I decided better.


Play tourist in ottawa I

Well, as the Occupy Wall Street movement raged and endured batons + pepper sprays, global capitalism never missed a beat. Starting from? The English.

On my first day in the city I discovered first-hand that the English consulate in Montreal is nothing more than 2 closed glass doors on the top of an office building downtown. Supposedly, its sole function is to serve the English nationals who make investments in Montreal. Last example I can think of that notion, the Brits were dropping bombs in Normandy. If not for the Americans and a few Canadians as well, the Brits would’ve been driven into the English channel by the Germans for a second Dunkulk. And their heavy bomb investment would’ve made no better than the Lehman brother’s mortgage bets. But sorry I digress.  Now, rhetoric aside, the English do have a good reason. Back in 1970, in an a series of events dubbed “October crisis”, the independent activists of Quebecois kidnapped an English diplomat in Montreal  and demanded an exchange of political prisoners. (for more details on the only peace time War Measure Act in effect in Canada, here is your wiki link  Well, I can’t really blame the English for holding a grudge, it was only 40 years ago. Northern Ireland, anyone? OK, I should shut up, there may be a few English men in the audience.

Consequently, I need to go to the nearest post, Ottawa for an appointment.  As I explored my options on the internet, it appeared that, the Brits at the consulates do not see applicants in person anymore. All “personal” contacts have been outsourced through a commercial entity, the World Bridge. OK, fine, since that’s my only option, I happily handed over $150 online just to have “an appointment” with a World Bridge “officer”.

The day started when I woke up at an ungodly hour to catch the 2nd bus outbound for Ottawa. If you have never driven on a Canadian highway, it is just like the US highway, minus the cars. I counted about 2 cars per minute before I fell asleep from heavy boredom. It was not until 5 minutes outside Ottawa, I started to see a reasonable traffic flow, semi-resembling a lazy afternoon through Amherst MA.

Now don’t be fooled, traffic jams in cities can be as bad as DC rush hour. I walk by a thru-city parking lot called Rt15 everyday in Montreal. But once outside, there are probably more moose than cars.

Anyway, so I arrived 15 minutes early as instructed to see this “Officer”.  My expectation was high since I paid $150 for a 15 minute appointment, a rate even the 1% would envy.  I checked and rechecked everything before I left for the 2 hour bus ride. Now, I am standing in this pristine lobby of an office building downtown Ottawa, took a deep breath and checked in to get a security badge.  As most things in life, the higher the expectation, the more disappointed one ends up. The officer was obviously in a hurry so he powered through everything in 10 minutes. One picture, ten digital finger prints, staple together the support documents, stuff my passport and legal papers in an envelope, another 300$ for visa fees and expedite service. Then I was out of the door. For all three of my visa related questions, I received the same answer 3 times “as long as you followed the online instructions, you are fine.” Well, it was too late then to pretend I didn’t speak English. but oh well, I guess at least I am doing my part to stimulate the Euro economy. Oh wait, the damn Brits are not even in the bailout program.

As I carried the envelope stuffed with all my neatly stapled legal documents downstairs to the DHL service. Yup, even with a $600/hour rate, I don’t get to leave it with the company.  I couldn’t help but feeling cheated. Well, there are a lot of disadvantages not being born in the “right” country, eh? The Brits charge the same rate for most Asian/African citizens.

I believe there is more common ground than not between societies. You throw money at a problem and get some stamps in the end. Except that, in a capitalist country, you pay an entity and get a receipt; in less savory places, you hand it to a couple of shady individuals with or without names and you certainly don’t get a receipt.  In the end, shit may get done somehow.

Since now I have 6 hours to kill before my bus ride. I wondered into an afternoon of fun in Ottawa, a small and quaint government town.

(PS The British did mail back my visa stamp in 4 days, expedite indeed. So I considered that $450 well spent. On the other hand, the Swiss was much more pleasant despite their 14 hour work week. I was able to hand in my application without my passport, and speak to a lovely quadruple lingual officer who looked over the entire application on the spot. After I brought in the passport and $84 CAD, the visa was in my hands within a week. They are so efficient that they only gave me 2 weeks leeway at the end of my trip, while the Brits gave me 6 months. I guess you get what you pay for.)