Friday, January 03, 2020

Boston University: 1987 vs. 2020

I've done some volunteer mentoring for my alma matter Boston University at the graduate level, but today I got to see the school through prospective undergraduate eyes after taking my daughter there for an info session. It's interesting to see how much has changed since I attended BU some 30 years ago, even while some things have remained the same.

Being an urban campus spread out along Comm Ave, BU never had a "center" of campus the way many other schools do. That said, when I started my undergraduate degree back in the 1980s the center of gravity was generally the area from Marsh Chapel/Warren Towers/GSU down to Kenmore Square, where the BU Bookstore and Myles Standish Hall were located. Kenmore was a lively and somewhat gritty place, not just because of its proximity to Fenway Park, but also because of the clubs, restaurants, and shops. There was even a movie theater a short walk from Kenmore, the Nickelodeon behind Warren Towers and the College of Communication.

West Campus in the 80s was a distant planet, a mile up Comm Ave from Marsh Chapel. This is where athletes and fine arts students roamed. BU had three large dorms there, as well as SFA and a few real estate holdings like the old brick armory. I only went up there when I was in the BU marching band (BU still had a football team) or when I attended concerts in clubs such as the Paradise or Bunratties.

How things have changed. In 2020, Kenmore is a luxury dead zone. The Rat, Narcissus, Nemos, and the BU Bookstore are all long gone, along with the many small record shops and cheap restaurants that students used to frequent. They've been replaced by high-priced hotel rooms and condos. Just about the only holdouts are the Buckminster and of course Kenmore Station, as well as the dorm and a few brownstones BU bought decades ago.

West Campus is now totally transformed, thanks to a slew of new dorms and facilities including Agganis Arena and a very modern fitness center. The BU Bookstore is there, too (moved up to 990 Comm Ave.) And the cultural attractions including food and activities seem to have multiplied. The Paradise is still there (and better than before with a more concert-friendly layout), but now there are new clubs (Brighton Music Hall) and far more Asian restaurants and small shops down Brighton Ave and up Harvard Ave.

Indeed, the new BU axis seems to have flipped to the west. Students still live in Warren and take classes across the street in the old academic buildings, COM, and the expanded School of Engineering, but they are more likely to be drawn up to West Campus to use FitRec, go to the BU Bookstore, or sample the student haunts in Allston than to go down to Kenmore. Why go to Kenmore when there's nothing to do there?

One of the few buildings that hasn't changed much on the outside is COM, at 640 Comm Ave. The exterior still looks as it did 35 years ago (a squat 50s-era classroom/lab building), although the interior has been refreshed and WBUR is no longer on the third floor (it moved to West Campus, naturally).

BU Academics

The academics at Boston University have evolved and gotten stronger. I have seen some of this through the pages of Bostonia (the alumni magazine), which highlights research and other activities. BU's physical expansion has been going on since the 1980s, thanks to some smart real estate investments in the second half of the 20th century, but a lot of organizational change and a focus on research and academic excellence across the university has taken place under President Robert Brown, who was recruited from MIT 15 years ago.

This excellence is reflected in the many research initiatives as well as scholars and students attracted to the school. According to the handbook I was given today, the middle 50% for SAT scores ranges between 1420 and 1530, and the admit rate is below 20% -- roughly what Harvard College experienced in the 80s. It's pretty clear that BU is now in the upper echelons of second-tier private colleges. In the 80s, BU was considered a good school, but wasn't at that level.

During my student years in the late 80s and early 90s, it was clear that President John Silber sought to raise BU's profile as well, and succeeded in the sense of moving BU from a regional college to an international university. But Silber also held it back. He was a condescending, polarizing figure to students and faculty. Silber delighted in steamrolling campus voices that spoke out or took stances he didn't like, and would go to great lengths to shut them down, such as his move to establish WBUR as an independent entity (as a COM student, I was not able to even intern there). It wasn't until both he and his protege Jon Westling had left that the university could enter a new phase of development, and I think Brown's stewardship has been wonderful.

Brown and his people brought over some concepts from MIT that are a breath of fresh air, including UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) which matches undergraduates with labs, studies, and other academic research initiatives.  I really wish we had something like this when I was there (at the time, serious research was typically the domain of grad students) but I was able to do other activities that matched my academic interests.

It's interesting to me that some of the academic activities I took part in as a student 30 years ago are still around, including the London Internship Program -- a combined internship/study abroad program that literally changed my life (long story for another post). The London campus has also become a bigger part of the undergraduate experience thanks to integration with the College of General Studies -- from what I understand, CGS students starting in the Spring spend their first semester in London with faculty, which seems like a fantastic opportunity for learning and bonding.

Anyway, those are some thoughts I have after visiting BU with my daughter. Are you a current or former BU student? Please feel free to share comments below.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Ardoch, Scotland in 1830: Recreated map and census

I've posted in the past about Ardoch, the tiny Scottish Highlands hamlet in Glengairn, Aberdeenshire from whence several of my forebears came. Ardoch was abandoned long ago, but those blog posts generated a fair amount of interest from all over the world -- I'm not the only Ardoch descendent looking into his or her genealogy!

One of the emails I received was from Peter Brown, an Australian who descended from one of the other 19th century Ardoch residents, Charles Calder, who ran a shop in the village. Peter noted that in the the mid 1950s a Reverend Mark Dilworth wrote about the famous Father Lachlan McIntosh, who lived in the village and tended to the hundreds of Catholic families residing in Glen Gairn and surrounding valleys north of the River Dee. The report was titled, "Catholic Glengairn in the early nineteenth century."

The Dilworth report included recollections collected by Mgr Meany (a missionary serving the Glen Gairn area) one stormy night (the interviewees may have been stranded in an inn during a storm) from several elderly ladies who had grown up in Ardoch 60 or 70 years before.

I had seen an abridged version of these accounts in Nita Caffrey's extensive 2006 genealogy, and wondered about the rest of the primary source. Peter speculated that it was located in Aberdeen University library, but he also had a PDF of the Ardoch pages, and from it had drawn up a map of the crofts at Ardoch circa 1830.

Peter and I decided to embark on a fun genealogy project: Publishing the 1830 map online (see below) and also building a census of the Ardoch occupants from the late 1700s to the mid 1800s based on data from Dilworth, official censuses, and other documents.

Ardoch was marked on a 1755 British topographical military survey; the arrows below point to "Ardoch" and "Ardoch Pinzey":

In 1785, according to the Dilworth paper, Father McIntosh built a chapel at Ardoch. The shape of the village was roughly like a horseshoe, as this 1868 UK Ordnance Survey map shows:

 The earliest recorded inhabitants I could find were a Stuart and Lamont families (doubtful that the latter were related to me) who had infants born in Ardoch 1799 according to Catholic baptismal records. I took recreated census snapshots at 1814 and 1830. The official UK census for Scotland did not start until 1841, which is also included on the spreadsheet and people mapped to specific houses in the village.

First, here is an description of Father McIntosh and the village of Ardoch from Caffrey's 2006 genealogy:
The priest lived in a predominately Catholic hamlet, called Ardoch ( high field). This higher area was known to be of the ‘old faith’. It had about fourteen houses and it was a muddy place (and still is). “The houses were stragglin’ back and ‘fore as if they had fan’an oot o’ the air”, said one resident. There was steep land behind the houses. They had a school there but was “just a reeky hole”. A little burn (creek) came down between the houses and every house had a tiny dam, an outlet spout and a bucket underneath. It was a place for gossip and friendship.
My parents visited the abandoned village in 2015, and took pictures of the grassy ruins
“It’s a rough landscape with steep slopes and lots of stones and boulders. Few crops are seen except hay and potatoes, and few of the latter. The old tenant farmers were kicked off the land to make way for grouse and deer hunting, or for religious reasons. ... That said, the scenery is majestic and serene. Rugged peaks, burns, falls, deer everywhere and red grouse. The people are friendly and quite jolly, too. Pubs are crowded in town with locals and visitors. Two Highland weddings took place in town yesterday and they were dancing until 1 am next to our hotel.”
The map based on the Dilworth report was rough, but working with Peter and other sources I was able to create a digital version. The map notes a path leading northwest out of Ardoch to  Clashinruich, the site of a simple chapel (Latlong coordinates: 57.097421, -3.134536). Citing James Dyas Davidson in this Flickr photo:
[The Clashinruich] chapel was built in 1785 by Father Lachlan McIntosh, a priest who tended the Catholic community in Glen Gairn for sixty four years. He died in 1846, aged ninety three. He was known as the apostle of Glen Gairn. ‘The altar was just a rough table. The roof was open and showed rude beams. Father Mann had the chapel lathed. Some of the folk had kneeling boards, but maist of them prayed kneeling on the clay floor.’ According to Ian Murray’s book, In the Shadow of Lochnagar, the field below the chapel was a burial ground, mainly for children who died in infancy. There is nothing today to indicate that it was a site of such tragedy. 
Here is a map of Ardoch in 1830:

As for the Ardoch census, I started working on it in Google Sheets. It's ugly, but helps to track the evolution of the town in the early 1800s.

Peter also proposed tracking residents of Ardoch to their respective countries of emigration, which as far as I know include Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, and possibly Canada. That's a project for another day, but if you have insights to share, please leave them in the comments or contact me. 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

A look back at the Cold War, 30 years after it ended

My daughter just interviewed me about growing up during the Cold War for a school project. The way I described it: It was constantly in the background and a source of great concern, kind of like Global Warming is now.

As a young kid in the 70s, awareness of the Cold War was driven by some types of activities, such as drills in our elementary school to file down to the school basement which was supposedly a fallout shelter. I was also aware of news events driven by Cold War conflicts, such as the Boat People crisis, defectors or athletes crossing over or seeking asylum, the 1980 Summer Olympics being cut short, and concern when Brezhnev died or stepped down - would someone even more grim take over the USSR?

As a teen in the 80s, we knew about the risk of a full-on nuclear war breaking out and M.A.D. ("mutually assured destruction" IIRC). And there were the hot wars and conflicts popping up, usually in hot places. Grenada, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Angola ...

We were the good guys and they were the bad guys, as evidenced by our value on freedom and the fact that they kept their people in line with fences, minefields, and cruelty. Hollywood played up this good guy/bad guy thing too, from Rambo to Rocky to Red Dawn.

But there were some questions in the backs of our young minds when it came to things about the Cold War that didn't quite make sense. Like: the leaders in client states we backed and gave free reign to oppress and kill in the name of "freedom." Were our strongmen morally superior to their strongmen? Were their policies and goals all bad?

And what about the people who lived under these regimes? The media was good at concentrating our loathing on the evil leaders, military forces, and the extensive police-state apparatus. We didn't know much about the ordinary people, except that some went to great lengths to get out. But most of them didn't. Was it because they were incapable, didn't want to go, or didn't care?

Sometimes media made us ponder the divide. The ending to the movie "Wargames" was kind of corny, but it made a point. And that Sting lyric: "Do the Russians love their children too?" I had issues with Sting breaking up his fun pop band and turning into a pretentious artiste, but nevertheless that particular line struck a chord, and made me think.

What are your Cold War memories or stories?

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Chinese Summer Camp Review (2018)

In the summer of 2018, our son returned to National Taiwan Normal University to attend the NTNU Mandarin Training Center summer program for children and teens. We liked the Chinese summer camp in Taiwan experience the first time around when both of our kids attended.

This time, we wanted to help our son's Mandarin improve while having a special cultural experience in Taiwan. This is a review of his 2018 Chinese Summer Camp experience at NTNU. I will also talk a little about other things to do in Taipei and Taiwan while you are on the island, and how we handled living arrangements via AirBnB.

The 2018 Chinese summer camp experience

My son was in the "Little 1" group four years previously; this time he was in the "Big 3" group as his Chinese had improved in the interim, thanks to classes in his American middle school.

One issue I noticed this time is the program has many students can actually speak Mandarin quite well (thanks to exposure at home) but cannot write. As a result, at the "big" levels for older kids, many students are bunched up at the big 2 and big 3 level, but they don't have enough kids to attend the higher level classes (4 and 5). As a result, they encourage kids from the middle levels to attend the higher-level classes.

On the one hand, this really challenges the kids to improve rapidly on their spoken and written Chinese. On the other hand, it may be too much for some. My son was placed in the level 4 class, but it was just too hard -- his written Chinese was better than many, but his spoken Mandarin was not as good and he couldn't understand the level 4 vocabulary. The program is very good about moving kids up or down in the first week, so he dropped down to level 3 which was just right.

My advice to anyone attending the Chinese summer camp program in 2019 or beyond is to really pay attention to what the kids are saying (too easy, too hard) in the first few days. Also ask for feedback from the teachers and assistants. If it doesn't seem like a good fit, let the teachers know in the first week and they can reassign your child.

Not many things changed in terms of the structure or approach to education. Mandarin is spoken almost all of the time at the middle and higher levels. The quality of the instruction was identical, and a very high level. But some of the learning materials did change -- I actually preferred the older Chinese textbooks for the beginner levels as the printing was better quality and they had side-by-side simplified and traditional versions of each lesson. My son was able to learn a lot regardless -- in fact his aunt and uncle were honestly quite impressed at the improvement over one month.

Even better: The 2018 summer experience at NTNU in Taiwan supercharged his Chinese writing and speaking ability for his middle school Chinese class in the Boston area. It made a huge difference. He was average in his 7th grade Chinese class at school before he went to Taiwan, when he came back in the fall for 8th grade he was advanced. He surged ahead and qualified for honors-level Chinese for 9th grade, when he starts high school. I asked him how/why he thinks he was able to do so well in 8th grade Chinese, and his answer was "Chinese summer camp."

Taiwan summer camp: side trips

One other thing about this trip that is worth mentioning: I made a point of doing a lot of extra stuff with him over the four-week period. Almost every night we went somewhere to eat, and two or three nights per week we did special excursions to night markets or other attractions. He was older, and our apartment (an Airbnb about 15 minutes' walk from National Taiwan Normal University) was far more convenient for getting on the MRT subway system and getting to the Taipei Main Train Station. Sometimes we went with relatives, but most of the time we were on our own using public transport or sometimes a rented car. Our 2018 excursions included:
For the last side trip, I pulled him out of the summer camp on a Friday (it was field trip that day, not classes) and took a train to Hualian, where I rented a car from Avis and did all of the driving. It was a lot of driving that weekend, but it was utterly spectacular mountain and country scenery and an amazing experience for us both. You can also take tour busses to Taroko directly from Hualian, too. It's amazing and worth a side trip!

There are many more opportunities for trips near Taipei or further afield: Shopping, Taipei 101, fishing in cement pools, travel to the beach, travel to other cities and towns ... there are too many things to list! 

During the day while he was in camp, I usually worked at a coworking center in Taipei (I have my own publishing and consulting business) but I also made a point to do a hike in the nearby hills on my own or with friends once per week. How many other chances will I get in my life to do something like this?

A few photos from our summer in Taiwan are below:

Jilong night market

Northern style Chinese restaurant in Taipei

Our Airbnb

Taiwan professional baseball game in Taoyuan

Doing homework on the balcony of our Airbnb

Taroko gorge

Taroko gorge

Tea harvest, Taidong county

Chinese summer camp homework project

Cliffside temple, Xindian, New Taipei City

Hiking markers near Maokong station, Taipei

Puppet show on the last day of the Chinese summer program

Tang Dynasty sculpture at National Palace Museum

Notes: I was not paid money to write this post, and we don't have any affiliation with NTNU other than sending our kids to camp there in the summer of 2014 and again in 2018. I just wanted to share my experience, after finding it so difficult to locate real reviews about the program!

However, since posting this review, I have added affiliate links for Amazon and Airbnb on this page. I get a small commission or travel credit if you click on them and spend money on those sites. If you don't want to use the links, here are the plain old links: Amazon/Airbnb. I also use advertising on the page, which you can turn off by switching to reader view in Firefox or Safari, or by using an ad blocker. 

Thursday, October 04, 2018

One week in Taiwan in autumn: Where to go

A friend who lives in Singapore recently wrote me, asking about places to visit in Taiwan to see fall foliage and good beaches.

The question about foliage was interesting. I lived in Taiwan for 6 years and don't recall autumn scenes, other than some yellowing leaves on a few types of trees in the parks and hillsides near Taipei. Most of the island remains green throughout the winter, at least at the lower altitudes.

I did a little Internet research and found that there are a few places on Taiwan to see autumn foliage. Can it compare with what I'm used to, here in New England? Probably not. But where Taiwan excels in natural scenery is in the mountains, which cover 50% of the island.

Over the summer, I took my son to Taroko Gorge (太魯閣) in eastern Taiwan and the first 25 kilometers of the South Cross Island highway in the southeast, which follows another massive gorge deep into Taiwan's interior. They are quite amazing -- possibly two of the most spectacular roads outside of the Himalayas or southwest China. Here's a brief clip from our drive through Taroko:

Another area which is spectacular and has lots of hiking areas is Alishan National Scenic Area in Chiayi County. I used to like to go up to Hehuanshan (合歡山), too, for hiking and scenery, which includes the "sea of clouds" phenomenon. The advantage of going to these areas in the fall is there are fewer tourists, the air is drier, and there are probably opportunities to see some foliage, especially at the higher altitudes.

As for beaches, unfortunately the once-sleepy beach town of Kenting in the southwest has been totally overrun by commercial development in the past 20 years, including hotels somehow cordoning off sections of the beach for private use, even though it's within the grounds of a national seashore. However, this summer when I drove down to the southeast there were many beaches between the industrial city of Hualian (you can rent a car right outside the train station) and Taitung in the southeast, about a three hour drive along route 11. The ones close to Taitung are rocky, but the small towns and cities on the coast further north from Taitung are sandy and look deserted for the most part ... which is good if you like deserted beaches but not so good in terms of a lack of lodging and infrastructure for tourists (there might be some B&Bs, though).

There are alternatives to beaches which I think would make a fun fall vacation in Taiwan. B&Bs in the countryside around Ilan County are easy to get to from Taipei and are quite striking. I stayed in one about ten years ago right in the middle of the rice fields, and you can do things like rent bikes, go to local town markets, etc. There are also similar B&Bs in the rift valley north of Taitung. The scenery there is really beautiful with many Taiwanese and Aboriginal farming communities and mountains on either side. It's possible to rent bikes and travel these roads and lanes, and I think in the fall it would be really nice as the temps are moderate and the air is dry. Here's a clip of the tea harvest in early August in the rift valley:

Bottom line: If you only have a week in Taiwan in the fall, I would recommend going to Hualien, renting a car, driving to Taroko Gorge where there are some hiking opps of varying difficulty and you can stay in Tianhsiang (or Tianxiang) about 25km up the gorge. After a few days, drive back down the gorge and head south on Route 11 in the direction of Taitung, finding some B&B to stay at near the beach, and exploring around by car or bike. You can also do the return trip to Hualian via the rift valley mentioned earlier. Taroko is one of the natural and man-made wonders of the world -- there's nothing quite like it that I am aware of outside of remote parts of China or India or Nepal, and it's something adventurous travelers should try to see once in their lives.