Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A few notes on public transportation in Seoul and Singapore

It's always interesting to ride public transportation systems in other countries. Riding the bus or subway in another land can be inspiring as I see good ideas (as an engineer, good ideas have an intrinsic value of their own), and also bring a little despair as I think about the generally lousy implementation of public transit in the United States.

Seoul, South Korea has a truly amazing subway system, with ten lines that contain scores of stations (take a look at this map of the system to see what I mean, or visit the SeoulMetro Traffic Center interactive map to plan a trip). With so many stations, they have given each one a number, and then show that number prominently on signs in the station. The photo below shows a sign at Gyeongbokgung, station number 327. On one side is station 328 (Anguk) and on the other is station 326 (Dongnimmun).

An even better idea — one that I've also seen in Singapore and Tokyo — is numbered exits from the subway station. The photo below shows a local map for the Hoehyeon Station, with seven exits marked. After getting off the train, you look at the map, find where you're trying to go (the tourist information center, for example), figure out which exit you need (number 5 looks like a good choice), then follow the signs in the station that point to exit number 5.

Guidebooks and advertisements also know the value of numbered exits. In several of the guidebooks that I consulted the authors would specify which exit would take you to this palace or that shopping mall (e.g., to get to Seoul City Hall, take Line 4 to the City Hall stop, use exit number 3).

Numbered exits would be of great value to riders of my local subway systems, BART and Muni Metro. Instead of leaving their riders to figure out whether the Asian Art Museum is closest to the Grove Street exit, the 9th and Market exit, or the UN Plaza exit, BART could simply number the exits and create a map like the one shown above.  Simple, inexpensive, and helpful.  (Which is why they'll probably never do it.)

In Singapore I frequently rode the bus, and came to appreciate the signs at the stops. The photo below shows a clever way of describing a bus route. To the left of the red line they have placed the road that the bus travels on, and to the right they list a landmark. So if you know you want to go to Depot Rd., for example, you can scan the list of buses and see which ones have that in the description.  Of course, a map would do the same thing, but when there are a lot of buses with overlapping routes (as there are in Singapore), the map can become too chaotic to be comprehensible.

 Photo of Singapore bus stop sign 
The next photo is of rather poor quality because of glare, but I hope you get the idea anyway.  It lists the roads covered by the buses that stop at that location and which buses serve the roads.  Amber Rd, for example, is served by bus 196.  Buona Vista Flyover is served by bus 95. 

Singapore also has electronic cards that can be used on buses or the subway, so that you can simply swipe when boarding and exiting, without needing to worry about having exact change. The Bay Area has a card that currently works on many systems, but it will be a few more months before it can be used everwhere.

Random link from the archive: Food Bloggers on the Farm in San Francisco

Technorati tags: Seoul : Singapore : subways : buses : maps

Friday, May 22, 2009

Seeing cacao pods and other spices up close in Bali

When I read Bill Buford's 2007 New Yorker article about cacao plantations in Brazil and the Dagoba chocolate company*, I thought, "After all of my work with chocolate, it would be amazing to see the trees up close, but I will probably never go to Brazil, the Ivory Coast or another major cacao producing area." **

Then, after my family decided that we would be spending time on Bali during my recent vacation, my excitement was increased further when I discovered that cacao trees — the trees that provide the raw material for chocolate — grow on that fabled island. So I started doing research on the internet, trying this search or that search, sending e-mails here and there.  I came up with some tantalizing clues — like this great post by Anthony in the Stanford Raw Food Community (who also has a collection of helpful Bali posts at Raw Model) — but no concrete information about where to find the trees.

And so I when I got to Bali, I had sort of given up.

But in the end, finding cacao trees turned out to be fairly easy.

One day my family hired a driver to take us to see some of the sights near Ubud, like Mount Batur and some temples. We told him that we wanted to see cacao trees and spice-giving plants.  He knew exactly where to go: to an Agrotourism (or Agrowisata, in Indonesian) facility. Our visit was to the Amertha Yoga Agrotourism facility, an small, informal botanical garden and retail shop on the road that goes from Ubud to Tampaksiring (I don't remember exactly where it was, I think it was north of Tampaksiring).

It turns out that there are quite a few agrotourism places on the island — on the next day, we stopped at one while on a bicycle trip run by Banyan Tree, the Agrowisata Adhitya Jaya in the village of Marga, in the Tabanan region of the island. The two agrotourism sites we visited contained a collection of food plants, like cacao, coffee, pepper, vanilla, bananas, papaya, and so on; demonstrations of processing, like coffee roasting or arak making (arak is a potent alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented palm tree nectar); tables for tasting coffee or hot cocoa; and a retail store with all sorts of food and non-food products, mostly derived from products shown at the site (but I doubt that they are made from plants grown on-site, given the amount of merchandise available and the small size of the gardens).

Here's a photo of a cacao pod on a tree. If my memory serves me well, it was about 6 inches long and 4 inches in diameter. The pods I saw were in many sizes and many colors — crimson, greenish-grey, yellow, red with green speckles.  They grow directly from the branches and the trunk, as the photo below shows. 

Here are some of the blossoms and a newly formed pod. The flowers are quite beautiful and complicated; they grow right out of the trunk or a branch.

The next picture shows the inside of a cacao pod. Apparently, this pod was ripe, and so I was able to taste the fruit that surrounds the seed (which is what is eventually turned into cocoa powder or chocolate after fermentation and roasting) and the seed itself. The fruit had that subtle aroma of bananas, apples and yeast; and a mild, slightly tropical flavor.  The seed itself was bitter and almost flavorless — it is a great example of how roasting foods creates wonderful flavors.

At the agrotourism site, we also saw the plants that give us pepper, clove, banana, coffee and more.*** On the bike ride the next day, we saw vanilla and nutmeg. It was quite a thrill.

* Unfortunately, only the abstract of the article is available for free on-line.
** Cacao trees can be found in places that are far easier to get to, like Hawaii (as a post by KCRW's Good Food shows) and even in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park (until November 1, as a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle explains).
*** My Plants in Indonesia flickr collection has more photos.

Random link from the archive: Refrigerator Unedited
Technorati tags: Indonesia : Bali : chocolate : Food

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Making up for travel by buying political activism instead of 'offsets'

Air and Fire
After a few years with barely any flying, I greatly expanded my carbon 'fly print' this year with a big trip to Southeast Asia. And so I've been thinking about my impact.

When it comes to greening your travel, most lists (like this one at Gadling) suggest buying carbon offsets. I thought about doing this, but I've decided to do something else: I'm going to donate to a political action group.

The idea comes from climate activist, writer and deep thinker Bill McKibben. During the run-up to the nationwide Step It Up rallies in 2007, he was asked on a call-in show about the most effective personal action one can take to fight climate change. His answer was that even though personal actions are important, the most critical action is to "organize politically, organize politically, organize politically." Without significant legislation that remakes the energy system, caps carbon emissions, and helps us work with other nations, the planet is in big trouble.

My first step is to use the on-line calculator at TerraPass to find my emissions and the offset price. The next step is to pick one or two organizations to receive the offset fee (and probably a lot more). The first one is easy:, a group co-founded by McKibben to work for legislation that aims to keep the concentration of CO2 below 350 parts per million (ppm). Other ideas include Repower America (the group with the upside-down 'me' logo) and Kyoto USA. Who else is doing great work?

Water and Earth
The trip also made me appreciate America's excellent (but neglected and crumbling, as the ASCE reports) water infrastructure. Drinking from the faucet, washing fruit and vegetables with tap water, are things that are easy to take for granted. To be sure, the hardships we faced in Indonesia were nothing compared to what millions face around the world — it was simple and affordable for us to walk to a convenience store for bottle water, as opposed to the multi-mile walk or hours-long wait that many face (e.g., see this New Yorker article). So I think I should direct some of my charitable giving this year to groups with a water focus. Who are your favorite charities and NGOs that are working for clean water around the world?

Also on the subject of water, we found two locations in Ubud, Indonseia that were trying to fight the plague of plastic bottles (this photo by artist Chris Jordan gives a good idea). Roda's restaurant (on Jalan Kajeng*) and Roda's Internet shop (on Jalan Bisma) allowed you to refill your water bottles from reusable five-gallon containers for a small charge (2,000 IDR), less than half of the price of a new bottle (at least 4,500 IDR).

The photo above shows the southeastern tip of the island of Java (probably Alas Purwo National Park), taken during a flight from Yogyakarta to Denpasar.

* Next door to the remarkable Threads of Life gallery

Random link from the archive: Save the Basil! A Tip to Keep it Fresh

Technorati tags: Indonesia : climate change : travel : water

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Last minute Mother's Day gift idea: heart-shaped barbecue

Still looking for a gift for Mother's Day?  How about gift pack of heart-shaped Chinese barbecued meat from Bee Cheng Hiang? Apparently they are offering a special price for the "To Mum with Love" package.

I saw the sign above at one of their shops on New Bridge Road in Singapore's Chinatown during my recently completed vacation to Southeast Asia.  The shops specialize in thin sheets of pork, something called "floss" (meat or seafood processed into a cottony texture, usually used as a topping for dishes like congee), and sausage.

Another interesting thing I spotted in these shops (and many others in Singapore) were labels on many packages of foods that said "HACCP Certified."  HACCP stands for "Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point" and refers a comprehensive food safety process (here is the U.S. FDA's page on the subject).  ISO is the International Organization for Standards, a group that defines the proper way to perform hundreds of procedures and how to document adherence to the procedures.  The labels seem like a way to assure Singaporean eaters that the food they are buying has been processed and packaged in a facility that is concerned with food safety, as opposed to a fly-by-night facility.

Random link from the archive: Let sunshine cook your dinner: building a solar cooker

Technorati tags: Singapore : Food

Monday, May 04, 2009

Drinking in Indonesia: avocado-chocolate shake and sludge-bottomed coffee

Open many menus in Indonesia to the fruit juice page and you'll see the expected offerings — banana, pineapple, mango — and also a few surprises.  Like avocado. Indonesians, it seems, look at avocado as a fruit as well as a vegetable, and therefore avocado appears on the fruit juice page.  They make it into  thick shake, often with an artistic addition of chocolate syrup to the bottom and sides of the glass (as pictured above).

I tried one for breakfast at the Bedhot Resto in the Sosrowijayan area of Yogyakarta (Bedhot is an old Javanese word for creative), along with a banana pancake (a standard breakfast item in the tropics).  It didn't scream 'avocado' and the chocolate was not an ideal pairing for me, but I'd try one again.  But probably not at breakfast, as the shake felt like a brick in my stomach for the next few hours.

We also got many views of a popular Indonesian way of making coffee:  grind the beans as finely as possible, mix with boiling water and serve.  No filtering required.  Eventually, the heaviest grounds settle to the bottom of the cup or pot, leaving a thick, strong brew in the top of the cup or pot.  This method presents a problem for those who add sugar or cream to their coffee — when you stir after adding the sugar or cream, you'll need to wait a few minutes for the grounds to settle, whereupon the coffee might be too cold for your liking.

Random link from the archive: A weekend of cooking from the internet

Technorati tags: Indonesia : Coffee

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Making sense of the swarm: notes from Indonesia

Almost as soon as you walk out of the airport, Yogyakarta, Indonesia immerses you in its chaos and liveliness. After a block or two of an airport road, you are cast into a sea of motorcycles (which carry all sorts of things, and all combinations of people), cars, bicycle taxis (becaks) and trucks, all somehow flowing without major incident. On the edges of the street, people do their shopping, fix motorcycles, grab a bowl of meatball soup with noodles and fried wonton (bakso), catch up with neighbors, smoke a clove cigarette.

We went to this city of 500,000 in the middle of Java because it is close to two ancient religious monuments from the 8th and 9th century:  Borobudur (a Buddhist monument) and Prambanan (a collection of Hindu and Buddhist temples). It is also a cultural center of Java, especially in terms of batik painting, music, dance, and shadow puppetry (wayang kulit). (The city's name might sound familiar because it was devastated by a major earthquake in 2006, as the New York Times reported at the time.)

The city also has its calm places, away from the hawkers and persistent becak drivers ("Hello mister, transport?"). While we were looking for the Water Palace one day, we somehow picked up a self-appointed guide to the area, and over the next hour he took us around the palace ruins and through the narrow alley of the neighborhood, giving us a brief look at another side of the city, where regular people do regular things (and also some extraordinary things, like painstakingly cutting and painting sheets of water buffalo hide into elaborate wayang kulit puppets).

I'm slowly digesting what I saw, heard and smelled during the trip (which included time in Seoul, Singapore and Bali). Eventually, I'll have some posts about the trip as I collect my thoughts and process my pictures (the best will be posted in my Flickr collection).

Random link from the archive: Choc-ing the Rubicon
Technorati tags: Indonesia