June, 2010

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MIT – Out of the World Buildings

MIT isn’t a small University. There are 10,000 students on campus – but what’s very different is that there are more postgraduate than undergraduate students of about 3:2 ratio. Compared to NTU whose ratio is 2:5, and I’m thinking that it’s for this reason among others that MIT is known as one of the best scientific and technological research institutions anywhere, with a large number of its alumni serving as scientific advisers to the US presidents over the decades. One thing NTU though can boast about is the huge land mass it sits on: MIT is compact at 168 acres. NTU is a sprawling 494 acres – more than twice as large; NUS occupies a more modest 370 acres.

Architecturally speaking, the buildings in MIT aren’t as gothic looking as say, those of nearby Harvard (which MIT apparently has a quasi-friendly rivalry with by calling them “the other school up the river”). But there still several funky looking buildings that perhaps exemplifies the well-known ‘nerd’ culture of the 149 year old institution.

Like for instance, the building below:


No, there’s nothing wrong with the lens – nor did I do any sort of Photoshopping to alter the straight lines you find in normal buildings. That’s the Ray and Maria Stata Center, which houses several of the university’s computer science, artificial intelligence and information system laboratories. I had a look inside, and its internal floors are indeed pretty wild. It’s easy to get lost in the building’s unusual shape and odd corners.

Or the building below:


Is that…

1) An alien spaceship

2) A massive beehive

3) A huge silver-colored sponge

4) Or someone who’s just completed level 47123124 of a Tetris game?

It’s none of the above actually. It’s one of MIT’s student dormitories, called Simmons Hall. Built at a cost of USD78.5 million, it’s 10 floors high, and features 5,500 windows each measuring about 2 feet. The building’s supposed to be smart-designed with its window design providing shade in summer, and helping generate heat in winter.

From the outside, it does look pretty damn impressive. However, complaints apparently abound from the students who actually have to live inside it, and they range from poor telephone reception from the way windows frames are designed, to difficulties getting from one spot of the building to another. You know, like some of those old HDB flats in Singapore where to get from one unit to another on the same floor, you have to take a lift down to a corridor floor, cross it, take another lift to the other floor etc.

And the below is a HUGE brick and brown building that runs along Massachusetts Avenue. Big enough to have required several panoramic frames stitched together. When I walked past it, I thought this was some kind of prison cell, with its iron grill windows and foreboding look. Or maybe it’s a massive warehouse storing several BattleMechs!

But take a look at the titles mounted on the length of its brick wall:


It’s a fireproof warehouse, and it’s been in operation for the last 90 years.:)

And lastly; the building below is pretty modernistic, and at least more conventional than the above two:


It’s the Kresge Auditorium, which is used by the university for its formal events. The lawn in front of it seems to be a popular leisure spot, with many persons reading, resting or just hanging out there.

Oh yeah; these pictures were all taken in mid-afternoon after an exceptionally heavy lunch. Had to walk off all those calories from the American-sized portions you get for meals here! :)


The center I’ve been working from for the last three works is MIT’s Media Lab Complex, a futuristic looking glass-paned building that almost directly faces Charles River, Prudential Center and the Boston skyline.



I didn’t do a lot of exploration on my own of the campus though, but after one lunch, my co-partner in the project brought me for a fast walking tour around one part of the campus. The early Friday afternoon sun was gorgeous, and the pictures turned out pretty well on the E-PL1…. except for the indoor ones – too many people milling about to do proper set up shots!)


Above: Killian Court, with the Great Dome in the background. The Dome itself houses the library for the engineering faculty. Took a panoramic composition inside there.


Above: The distinctive Great Dome, and also site for some of MIT students’ greatest pranks. They once (somehow) put a fire truck on top of the Dome in 2006! You can Google for those pictures.:)



Above two pictures: At 77 Massachusetts Avenue lies Building 7, the entrance to the University campus. There’s a magnificent looking dome inside (took panorama shots).


Above: Block 16, or Dorrance Building… I think!


Above: Main Street. My summer program interns are working in a lab that’s down the road on the left. On the left of this picture is Marriott Hotel. A full 5-star hotel on campus – wow.

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Above two pictures: The MIT COOP that offers MIT memorabilia and a great bookstore too (brought a book for Ling there), and the Gray Way, a shady walkway that brings visitors to McDermott Court.


Above: McDermott Court.


Above: Not sure what this building is for, but it’s marked Prichett Dining.

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Above two pictures:  Left is the Infinite Corridor that runs for 251 meters, connecting several buildings on campus together. Right is simply called the Green Building, a 21 floor block that serves MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Science.


Above: Kendall/MIT Subway station that commuters come up from to Main Street.

Next – the out of the world buildings on campus.:)

Harvard in Late Afternoon

These pictures of Harvard were taken more than a week ago in the late afternoon at about 6 PM after work. They were sort of just sitting in the desktop folder, so posting them up. The sun at this time wasn’t still setting – it only really gets totally dark past 9 PM – but there was still a relatively pleasing blue sky layer. The color tones of greenery and bricks came through a little better than the earlier pictures.

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Above two pictures: Harvard Hall, near the Johnston Gate towards Massachusetts Avenue.


Above: Weld Hall, just across Tercentary Theatre and beside the University Hall.


Above: Widener Library. It was just after closing time again when I got here. Have to try to at least see the inside of the library once before I leave.

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Above two pictures: Memorial Church, with its distinctive white spire.


Above: Memorial Hall, surprisingly devoid of visitors on group tours this time.

There were lots of people abouts, many making use of Harvard Yard as a thoroughfare to get from one point to the other. Real feat to take images without human persons in the fore or background!

Thousand Islands

The Thousand Islands isn’t even an appropriate descriptor for the region: there are about 1,800 islands compacted into a relatively small area along St. Lawrence River and right smack in the Canada/US border. Ownership of the islands is split between Canada and the United States, with many privately owned as summer and holiday homes for the rich, famous and powerful.

The region is supposed to be really scenic – except again that the Saturday mid afternoon we arrived was all mood and gloom, and even rainy. Sigh.

Anyway: pictures. Some islands are barely just 12 meters across, like the below that sits a single cottage and a couple of chairs:


Some are slightly larger, like the below:


Below: Though not by that much: same island. Maybe about 100 meters across only.



Below: This has got to the be smallest lighthouse I’ve ever seen. It’s practically a baby.:)


Below: Some of the larger islands have beautifully built-up residences that also make for tourist places of attraction. Yep, that’s Boldt castle on the left, in addition to the smaller Power House in the foreground.


Below: Other islands are little more than rock croppings:


The boat ride lasted for about 45 minutes, and we – momentarily – crossed into Canada. So, while we didn’t go through customs, we can claim to have visited Canada for a couple of minutes, if as illegal entrants!

The detour to Thousand Islands on our way to Niagara Falls added about 5 hours of travel time though. Was it worth it? Well, if you have time to spare, it’s worth a look-see. But if you’re in a hurry, this region can be safely skipped in sight-seeing.

Niagara Falls – From the Tower

blog-Pana58The second day of the trip – Sunday – saw us getting up bright and early, and heading from our hotel in Buffalo City to the Falls again. The first item on the itinerary was a 45 minute IMAX movie at the Niagara Adventure Theatre situated at the Visitors Center. The movie explains the history of the falls, starting with how the old Indians native to the continent worshipped it, to early explorations, and finally to crazed thrill seekers wanting to challenge the power of the Waterfalls.

For those persons who’re going to visit this place at some point, you can skip the film if you’re in a rush or on a tight budget. It’s watchable and informative, but you’re not missing too much if you give it a miss.

The massive structure on the right is the Observation Tower, situated on the American side. The ticketing and admission booths for the famed Maid of the Mist boat trip is situated at the Niagara Falls State Park – which is ground level – but to actually get to the boat’s berth area on the river, you take a fast elevator within the Tower all the way down to the river bed. The tower is massive and I judge it to be about 14 floors high. Most of the pictures later below are all taken from the tower’s observation deck.

From the Wikipedia entry of the trip, a number of the Maid/Mist’s boats work the area – as many as seven. I didn’t see all of them out on the Sunday morning; just perhaps four boats. So, while the area was pretty crowded on the weekend, crowds going for the boat trip were moving along briskly.


The above picture is of the Canadian side of the Boat ride as seen from the Observation Tower.

The boat trip itself lasts for a brisk 15-20 minutes. Yep, it’s really short. But if you’re going to the Falls, this is the only way to actually experience the sheer power, noise and din of one of nature’s most spectacular sights. Victoria Falls is of course even better than this, but also in a far less accessible location in Africa. But Ling now wants to go there – maybe we’ll end up skipping Japan this December and going to Zimbabwe instead.:)





The above four pictures were all taken on the Observation Tower’s deck at various perspectives and zoom levels, and of the American and Bridal Veil falls (the smaller one). You can’t really quite see the Horseshoe Falls from the American side because of the huge mist that’s thrown up. And yeah, the weather was no good. Very little sun, all cloudy. Both the E-Pl1 and D300 had difficulties dealing with the poor color tones, and I tried to recover whatever I could from Photoshop.

OK, two more perspectives of the falls. The picture below is taken of the Crows Nest, a small stoned paved walk away that brings you to take a really close look at the American and Bridal Veil falls. Lots of tourists walk this route, but because the path way is so narrow, a lot of human traffic jams result, thanks to persons who stop and pose to get their pictures taken.

Funnily though, I didn’t get drenched when I made the climb myself. The wind was blowing the mist in the other direction.:)


The below was taken at the Niagara Falls State Park, which lets you get a great review of the Rapids leading to the American Falls.


To be honest, I don’t think the pictures have turned out well at all. The weather was less than pleasing, and the viewing perspective of the falls the Americans get is all wrong, though admittedly if you want to experience the physical prowess of the falls and are less interested in taking great pictures, this is the preferred side rather than the Canadians.

The videos fared a little better, if nothing else they give you an idea of how big the area is. The first video was taken on the climb up the Crows Nest:

And the second video below is taken from the Observation Tower’s deck:

I still have a whole bunch of panoramas taken of the area, which I’ll comment on at the end of the trip. If I’m coming to this region ever again, I’ll want to be on the other side – and hope for better weather too.:)

Niagara Falls – From Terrapin Point

If there’s one recommendation I’ve got for persons who’d like to visit Niagara Falls from Boston, it’s this – unless you’re up to busing 705+ kilometres – and that’s about 9 hours without traffic and if your driver zooms at about 100 km/h on the Interstate – your best bet is to just fly into Buffalo International Airport, then taking a bus or coach from Buffalo City to the falls.

I was considering two options for visiting Niagara Falls; make my own way by flying in using the above mentioned route, or take the convenient route of a tour agency arranged bus trip. The flight would have required more planning and about 1.5 times the cost, the tour package would had let me travel on the famous Interstate I-90, something I’ve always wanted to try out just for the experience.


Truth to tell, the bus journey wasn’t so bad, though the tour group was pretty packed with Asians, Middle-Easterners, Indians, East Europeans, and I suspect a couple of Russians. The group on balance was pretty well-behaved, though towards the end of the return trip when we’d been on the road for 8.5 hours and just about 5 km from Boston, a couple of them started singing “Memories”. I would have gladly got out of the bus and walked the remaining distance back. That said, I’m just happy though that there were no China aunties yakking in Mandarin all the way throughout. Small mercies!

The trip had a major detour: to visit the Thousand Island region from Alexandria Bay (you can see it near the map’s top edge), which added about 5 hours to the outbound journey to the Falls. I’ll blog about this in another post later.

As described in the earlier post, there are two falls in the area: the American and Bridal Veil Falls (marked ‘A’ on the satellite map below) and the Horseshoe Falls (marked ‘B’). There are also two sides to view the Falls, and there are pros and cons to both. The Canadians enjoy a spectacular view, since their side of the river is directly facing both waterfalls. Their side of the river is heavily built up – you can see it from the pictures – with casinos, parks, restaurants, and swanky hotels. However, they’re also – literally – across the river and have to see the falls from across it!


The American side doesn’t quite get the same view perspective (the Observation Tower alleviates it somewhat though), but you get a lot closer to the Falls, in some spots just meters away through walkways, and close enough to get millions of gallons of water crashing on your head.:)

We got to the Falls proper on Saturday night at about 10 PM, after having left Boston 15 hours earlier. The first stop was Terrapin Point to see the Horseshoe Falls, all spectacularly lit up by the Canadian side. These four pictures were taken of the Horseshoe Falls with very slow exposure times, handheld.:)





That’s us on the American side, with the Top of the Falls Restaurant to my rear. The powerful strobe lights change shade and color every once in a while, and it makes for spectacular photography.

Next post is on pictures taken on the following morning (Sunday).:)

Niagara Falls – Maid of the Mist Videos

Videos taken during the Maid of the Mist boat ride.

Passing by the American Falls:

Passing by the Horseshoe Falls:

If you listen hard enough, above the din you’ll be able to hear Mandarin-speaking voices. There were these two aunties standing beside me yelling at their top of their heads to be heard.:)

There’s a bunch more of other videos taken from the Observation Tower that’s easier seeing the waterfalls from. I’ll post them up later alongside the other photos taken from the tower.

Niagara Falls – Maid of the Mist

Well, that’s another item checked off the “to do list” in my visit to Massachusetts. Just about every person who visits Niagara Falls take the Maid of the Mist boat ride, as there’s really no other way to experience the sheer power of millions of gallons of water pouring into Niagara River.

Here’s the first series of pictures: focusing specifically just on the Maid of the Mist boat ride first. The other pictures taken from the observation tower I’ll post up later… after I’ve slept the night (dead beat after 9 hours just to get back to Boston).

Below: sightseers and thrillseekers boarding one of the boats that will take its passengers to the falls. This picture was taken from the observation tower straight down. It’s very high up.


Below: A boat departing from the American side of Niagara River, and on the other bank, passengers boarding a boat on the Canadian side.


Below: Depending on how drench you don’t mind getting, you’ll have to decide which spot on the boat you want to be at. All of us get the blue ponchos. It’s like a boat full of smurfs.:)


Below: There are really two falls here: One is known simply as the American Falls, and the other the Horseshoe Falls. The Horseshoe Falls is the much larger one, but it’s also just about impossible to see anything because of the huge water mist the crashing water throws up. The boat brings you right to the falls edge.


Below: Another boat passing by ours just about to reach the American Falls.


Below: They are so about to get drenched.:)


Below: The American Falls as my boat passed beside it. The boat goes quite close to the rocks.


Below: The Horseshoe Falls. This was one of the very few good pictures that came out of it. It’s impossible to see anything.


Below: Just to give you an idea of the scale of the thing. On the left is the American Falls, and in the backdrop with the huge mist is the Hourseshoe Falls.


The million-dollar question: how was it possible I got any of these pictures or video (see later) to begin with, what with all the water crashing down on the boat? I didn’t use plastic bags or waterproof equipment. And short of using waterproof cameras or equipment, it’s next to impossible to take good actual footage or imagery of the experience without ruining your equipment.

I did think of a novel way: a lot of shrinkwrap and scotch-tape! I couldn’t wrap up the D300, so the Olympus E-PL1 got nominated for the water dunking, alongside the Panasonic HDCam for video. Now, whether both equipments will survive the experience long term I’ll know soon enough in the weeks to come. But at least I got some nifty pictures and video of it.:)

Videos next – after I’ve processed them.:)

Washington Drives

My work place everyday is actually in a large common lounge area in MIT’s Media Lab. While I do have an office space in the research center, I actually enjoy working in a common area. There’s a scenic view of MIT and Charles River, great morning and afternoon lighting – and best of all, a very large 60 inch LED TV that MIT staff occasionally come by to watch segments of the key matches of the World Cup now. I’m not really following the world cup this time round myself, but it’s still fun to soak in the atmosphere when the staff come out to watch.

A view of the lounge; yep I sit on the carpeted floor when I work (panorama composition):


My view of MIT (panorama composition):


This is what I mean.:)


There was a hilarious commercial running on TV just now too. I’m not gonna say much about it, but watch it!

There’s a making-of feature of too that talks about how this very innovative commercial was made.:)

Knight and Day

blog-knighday-01 Knight and Day (2010) – AMC Loews Harvard Square. No American experience is complete also without catching a film at the local theatre. There’s been movie trailers running of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz’s new action-comedy for a month or so now – the Best store at Compass Point has a big LCD TV at the entrance showing its trailer – so after work on Thursday evening I headed to the theatre at Harvard Square to get a ticket for it.

In the film: Cruise plays a super agent, Roy Miller, and Diaz, June Havens, a slightly ditzy-headed, coming to middle-age woman whose profession involves restoring antique cars. Her hormones go ringing when she bumps into Cruise, seemingly accidentally at the domestic airport. What starts looking like a typical boy-meets girl on airplane turns upside down when Cruise kills everyone on board, and proceeds to crash the plane.

A lot of action-comedies are oriented around the cop-buddies subgenre, so it’s refreshing to see a film like Knight and Day return to the likes of True Lies. The super secret agent, alongside a female partner who has no clue early on what he really does, and when she finds herself dodging bullets, flying cars, and explosions and high-octane action, the comedy follows. The film has been compared to Mr. and Mrs. Smith for its cute couple interaction dialog when bullets are flying, but the comedic stuff in Knight and Day is more pronounced.


What’s especially worked well is that Cruise is tremendously likable in this film. He’s super proficient as an super-agent/assassin on the run, but it’s equally supported by that toothy and boyish grin of his as he tries to calm a near hysterical June who has no comprehension why she’s constantly getting shot at.

Several of the action scenes are pretty inventive, including one involving Roy on a motobike getting chased by bulls and the aforementioned airplane fight, and others approaching James Bond in the camp factor, e.g. a scene involving a remote-controlled drone on his personal hideout. The action scenes don’t drag too. They’re compact, and not filmed, thankfully, with the steroid-induced monkey cinematography that’s typical of Michael Bay’s films. There’s also a subplot that’s mined ruthlessly and to varying effect: specifically one about June constantly getting drugged into unconsciousness for her own good and it’s hilarious, but when it occurs again at the film’s end, it’s feels tacky.


The film smartly keeps its attention on its two main leads – Cruise and Diaz – and they play off each other well, and the sexual tension is deliberately kept low-key until the climatic last act when June gets injected with truth serum and has a line about sex that will put you in stitches of laughter. There’re supporting actors of course, several of which I immediately recognized: Peter Sarsgaard playing an almost similar role to Flight Plan (starring Jodie Foster from 5 years ago), and Dale Dye in a rare acting and speaking role – he’s well-known in films but normally as a technical advisor.

A good portion of the film was shot in Boston too, and it was a real kick for me as a visitor to recognize the different locations throughout.

Knight and Day is by no means perfect however. There are huge plot holes that make zero sense and you won’t even need to look very hard to see them. But that I could live with. More seriously is that while the film is enjoyable for the first 100 minutes, it’s shockingly silly and outright absurd in the last 10. The ending, starting from how the antagonist is disposed all the way to the end credits is so lackadaisical it’s really jarring.

Still, the film was worth the USD10 admission ticket. For those of us in Singapore catching the film, you can always leave early 10 minutes early when the film is at its high point.:)