Saturday, February 27, 2010

Participation in Democratic Process

"People have spoken" is a frequent sentence used after each election, whether it is a triumphant candidate claiming victory or a gracious candidate conceding defeat. More precisely, it is voters who have spoken.

Since becoming a U.S. citizen one year ago, I participated a couple of local elections, and most recently Texas primary. One thing, I observed, and frequently reported, is that participation rate in local elections is low, very low. To me local election is as important, if not more important, as national elections. Local elections can have direct impact to our daily life: the increase of property tax due to a passed bond issue, an enactment of a new ordinance due to elected city council members ......

Register to be a Voter

In order to participate in the Democratic process, the first thing one needs to do is to register to be a voter in order to vote. It was the first thing I did after I became a naturalized citizen. One can register to be a voter at local office of DMV. One can register at county courthouse - you don't need to go there to get registration form - typically this form is available at a local library. If you don't have time to go to those places in person, you can register online.

After registration, I was sent a voter registration certificate - voter ID. On it, listed which congressional district I am in, as well as state senate or representative district; most importantly as voting is concerned, which precinct I am in. Different precinct may have different ballot, because of difference in congressional district, state districts.

Be an Informed Voter

One reason that the participation rate is low is that there is no announcement of local elections. I got to know that there was a local election because I saw signs from election candidates. Then I went to city government website - there it was, there was an announcement of a local election or special election. More frustration arose since I could not find any information about the candidates - just their names.

It was not easy to be an informed voter. After the two local elections, and before the Texas primary, I decided to do a bit research to find resources for information on when election will be held, who is on the ballot, and where the candidates stand on the issues important to me. The information is out there, scattered, not widely known, especially to new voters.

General election information - time of election, pooling place and candidates are listed on a county government website - I believe that it is about the same all over U.S. List of candidates and issues can be found in a sample ballot. For Collin county, the website is (there are sample ballots).

General information is available as well

The county website does not have information about candidates.

I found the information on where a candidate stands from voters' guide from League of Women Voters ( their state branch(, as well as local branch ( Most likely one can also find voter's guide from local newspapers. Printed voters' guide from league of women voters might be available from local library.

I also go to a candidate's website via Google search if I am really interested in where she/he stands on issues.

For this primary, it took me 2 ~ 3 hours to research, to decide who/what I would vote. I believe that I will spend much less time in general election in November since I identified where I can find information to be an informed voter.

Cast your Vote

In a democratic society, elections have impact on all aspects of our lives. On local level, it can be ordinances, bond issues, property taxes, water rate ..... On national level: Laws that impact our life directly (do you know that concealed weapons are allowed at Yellow Stone National Park?); How we live (Health care reform, Social Security Reform....); how TAX dollars are spent (wasteful spending eventually will lead to more TAX), ...... The list can go on and on.

Participation is a key to democracy.

Time to Vote!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Staying Fit and Young

During a conference on applications of finite element analysis at Boston, a few Tsinghua Alumni at U.S. were chatting during a break. A younger alumnus, who was a China Representative of commercial software ABAQUS, joined our conversation. A few moments later he raised a question to us -" All of you look so fit and young! Men in China your age typically are fat, have pot bellies, grey hairs. How do you do it?" He was flattering us of course but also kind of pointing out an obvious truth about us. Looking around, we - the older alumni, all had flat abdomen, looked healthily lean and none of us had obvious grey hairs on our heads.

Being fit and Looking young has a lot do with your genes, but it also depends on your diet, exercise and your attitude toward life.

Monitor Physical Conditions

Nobody can escape illness. On top of exercise and diet, one needs to monitor his physical conditions, have any symptoms treated at early stage

Every Tuesday at work, during my mid-morning stretch exercise, I go to nurse station to measure my weight and blood pressure. I go to my annual physical diligently since turning 40. I also have my teeth cleaned twice a year. When there is a persistent symptom that worries me, I go to see my doctor. Most of the symptoms went away right after I saw my doctor without any treatment - as Lily said, I am a little too sensitive to the symptoms.

But annual physical and check up do occasionally reveal less than good conditions.

Good health is the prerequisite of being fit and staying young.

Balance Energy input/output

Eat a lot, and eat a lot right before going to bed is a sure thing to pack on pounds fast. Even if you eat the right portion, but you eat shortly before sleep, you may still gain weight.

My theory is, if one has dinner 3~4 hours before sleep, and No snack after dinner, the person will lose weight gradually. It is also my practice, and one reason my weight is about the same as it was when I graduated from college more than 20 years ago. I pitch this theory to anyone when the topic of losing weight comes up.

Lily, for one, did not believe in it for a long time. One day she came home telling me a female graduate student in her department lost enough weight to look slender by doing exactly what I pitched. Apparently other people discovered the nature's secret like me. Now she wants to try.

No snack after dinner is easy said than done. When you watch TV/movie after dinner, it is hard to refrain from having snack; when you work overtime at home for your project, research proposal......., you may want to chew on something even if you are not hungry.

It will take some effort and will to accomplish having dinner 3~4 hours before sleep and no food of any kind after dinner. Once you accomplish it, and you work too hard, you will find out that you may lose weight more than you want. That is why the real key to have proper weight is to balance your food intake and body energy consumption.

Exercise Regularly

Having the right body weight is one of the many elements to be healthy, strong and energetic. To be physically fit one needs to exercise regularly. Exercise is not hard, everyone can do it; the hard part is to exercise regularly at high enough intensity.

Ever since I joined corporate America, exercise daily is near impossible - time wise and energy wise. What I do now is walking around my office buildings during morning (~ 10am) and lunch break daily, and then jogging/running 2 miles twice weekly around our community on Saturday and Sunday morning. It has been my habit for about a dozen years. Initially I just walked around, then mixing walk and run, and now run about ~1 mile and half and walk the remaining distance.

In addition to trying to be fit, there are a lot of other incentives for me to go out of the house - fresh air, birds around the community , my curiosity about what is going on around our beautiful neighborhood, ..... Exercises regularly is a good start, to really gain cardiovascular benefit, one has to have high enough exercise intensity. Since started work, I sat in front a computer almost all day long daily and quickly my HDL became low. Despite years regular exercise, my HDL number did not improve until I volunteered to be Nicholas' soccer coach, playing soccer with kids weekly on top of my exercise routine.

For each person, there might be different incentives to achieve the goal of exercise regularly. A friend could not do it despite his wife's nagging. Then they bought a dog, he walks the dog daily, and soon enough he slims down.

Look young and Stay young at heart

I hold the belief that being who I am, not trying to be who I am not. So plastic surgery is definitely not in my book. The exception I take is to dye grey hairs if one has them at relatively young age. A young co-worker, who had a lot of grey hairs, once asked me about suggestions for how to improve his chance of finding a girl friend. I asked his age, he said he was 32 years old. I told him blatantly that he should dye his hairs so he would look his natural age. A few weeks later, he came to chat with me, he looked so much younger than before because he had his hair dyed!

I don't dye my hairs just yet since I don't have obvious grey hairs. But I do have quite a few grey hairs. A secret to have a full head of black hairs for me: When I had just a couple of grey hairs, I pulled them; now I have too may of them to pull, but just a handful would show, I cut my grey hairs short, usually only a couple near forehead.

Another important but simple step one can do is to take care of skin. Ladies usually take good care their skins, men, on the other hand, typically not pay attention to this aspect at all. I did not use any cream at all except soap when I wash. In recent years, I started to use moisturizer, it did make me feel better, and skin seemed to look better too. More recently I stared to use some sort of anti aging moisturizer Lily bought for me, twice a week - I am weary of all the chemicals that come with it.

Looking at our wedding picture, all I can say is that nothing beat youth as far as looking young is concerned. No matter what one does, one can not turn back the clock. Wrinkles will creep up in my face, grey hairs will eventually spread all over my head. So I think that it is more important to stay young at heart - stay active physically and mentally, be curious, and be optimistic.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Big Bend: River Rafting in Rio Grande at Santa Elena Canyon

In the 4th day of our 2006 Big Bend trip, we went for a full day river rafting at Santa Elena Canyon section of Rio Grande.

As the river rafting outfitter was located 40 miles out of the park, we had to get up really early, ~ 5:30am, to be there for 7am shuttle to the "put-in" (where the river raft is put in the river). It was a clear and chilly morning. The sky was full of bright stars. The stars looked even bigger than what I saw at Rio Grande Village since this time I was a mile closer to the stars. (note: we stayed at Chisos mountain lodge that night, elevation ~ 8000ft)

Once we arrived at the "put-in", we were given life jackets and a safety lesson. There were total of 10 tourists, our family, my friend's family of five and a single young European man. We were divided into two rafts - my friend's family was on one and my family would ride with the European man.

Beautiful Scenery

The water was really good that year. The river was 9 feet deep. We started at a very wide section of Rio Grande. The water was slow and the ride was smooth. There were a lot vegetation's a long the river. As the river turns, we saw different rock formations on the cliffs we passed, green plants along the river, birds flying over head.

Fun and Exciting Ride

To make the river rafting more exciting in the smooth slow flowing river, the two rafts engaged in a bit race first - our guide instructed us to row with him and tried to pass the other raft, which was in front of us. When the guide of the other raft noticed our action, they started to accelerate. As we caught up with them, we started splashing water on them, and they fought back. The kids and adults alike, all were got very excited.

The river started to run faster as we were near the mouth of Santa Elena canyon - and the guide now got serious, preparing for the rocks and white water, no more joking around. Rockslide Rapid loomed ahead. That day, I estimate, the rapid was a level 3 river, and rafting passage was narrow. Our guide had to concentrate and use all the skills he had to maneuver our raft through the turbulent, and somewhat dangerous water, and the narrow passage. After we passed, our raft anchored at an eddy behind a big boulder, we got off the rafts to explore the rocky area in the river, and enjoy the white water from the safety of unshakable boulders.

Downstream from the rockslide rapids, there is a rocky beach. We stopped there for restroom break and for lunch. The guides were good rafters, and good cooks as well. The subway style food they prepared was delicious.

The rest of river the rafting was mostly in the canyon. The canyon walls on both sides of the river go straight up for hundreds of foot. Our guide described to us what it was like in the canyon in a full moon summer night - it sounds romantic and enchanting.

Interesting Young Men

The two young men who rode the raft with us were our guide and the European man. Our guide was a handsome white man with long blond hair, he was as white as I can imagine for a man. He was a college student, who travelled around the country during vacation seasons to work as river guide at various locations. He spoke softly, and very nice to everyone, especially easy on kids, and eager to please. He was apparently well prepared for the job - he was not only very good at rafting, he was also very knowledgeable about rocks, plants, the canyon, and big bend and surrounding area in general.

The European man was a well tanned handsome man. I guessed that he was in late 20s or early 30s. He told us that he quited his job to travel around the United States. An European, came to the states to visit Big Bend solo! He was truly an adventurer.

Santa Elena Canyon

In millions of years, the Rio Grande has carved through over 1500 feet of sheer limestone rock, creating Santa Elena Canyon. As we approached the canyon from upstream Rio Grande from west, we saw a chasm in a humongous rock. The river is narrowed quickly as we were about to enter the canyon, and it ran faster, changing from a level 1 (slow moving river) to a level 2 or 3 white water (fast moving river). The start of the canyon is really deep, rock walls hundred of foot tall, straight up, revealing only a narrow strip of blue sky, and soaring hawks over the top edge of the canyon.

Then gradually it widened, and the river became calm again until we reached rockslide rapids. Huge boulders were standing in the middle of the river, narrowing flow passage, accelerating the water. Rockslide Rapid was formed many years ago as the cliff face gave way choking the river with house-size boulders, it could be a class IV river, with adequate water. We explored the rockslide rapids area on the rocks a bit after we passed it in water.

After the rockslide rapids, there is a rocky beach, where we parked our rafts for relaxation and lunch. The canyon apparently is not a straight passage, time and again, it seemed that the river was blocked by huge rocks, but just made a sharp turn there.

Looking ahead, the river seemed to lead us to snow white clouds as we were about to exit the canyon. What a view. What an awesome ending to the river rafting.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Our Big Bend Trip plan

We did a lot of research for the trip. The main resource of reference was the website of national park services, Texas map, Texas Wildlife and Park website. The trip was actually divided into three parts: one stop at the McDonald Observatory on the way to Big Bend, Big Bend National Park, and a stop at Monahans Sand Hill State Park on the way home. The whole trip took 8 days including the two days on the road.

Basic items that must have:

Jackets, long pants, swimming trunk/suit; bug repellents, first aid, sun screen; flash lights, camping gears, personal identifications (because big bend is at international border).


Day 1: Drive from Plano, TX to Fort Davis, TX

McDonald Observatory Star Party at 7:00pm. For current star party information, please check the observatory website.

Day 2: Drive from Fort Davis to Big Bend National Park

Arrive Rio Grande Village around Noon. Set up tents.
Hiking at Boquillas Canyon Trail (1.4mile round trip), then visit hot springs
View sunset at the end of Rio Grande Nature Trail - best place to view sunset at Big Bend

Day 3: Move to Chisos Mountain lodge

Breakfast and uninstall tents

The window trail ( 4 mile round trip) - This trail begins from the Basin Campground near site #52. This trail is unique in Big Bend in that it descends 800 feet from the trail head for two miles. Hikers then must gradually ascend on the way back. At the end of the trail is the "window"...the pour-off that drains the entire Chisos Basin. It is a narrow slot in the canyon wall at the top of a 100 foot dropoff.

Check in at Chisos Mountain Lodge

Day 4: Santa Elena Canyon River tour

A full day event - the outfitter we chose was in Terlingua - outside Big Bend National Park

Day 5: Ross Maxwell Scenic Dr and Cat Tail Falls Trail

Cat Trail Falls end at a peak - view from there is gorgeous.

Check for details about other choices of trails - there are many excellent trails to chose from

Day 6: Camping at Chisos Mountain Basin

Visit west side of Big Bend - Cottonwood area - beautiful scenic drive, access to the mouth to Santa Elena Canyon

Day 7: Leave Big Bend for Monahans Sand Hill State Park

Monahans Sandhills State Park consists of 3840 acres of sand dunes, some up to 70 feet high.

Activities: Visit museum, Sand Sledding

Day 8: Go home

Note: We had great experience at Big Bend. Big Bend is MUST visit place if you are interested in outdoor activities or wilderness.