Happy New Year


Just a quick note that, I’m once again spending a winter in Thailand. This time I’m doing most of my teaching at Kaw Tha Blay. While I’ve taught here before, that was only 1 day a week. This is quite a bit more remote than my previous school Has Tho Lei, in Mae Sot. As a result we work over a satellite connection. It’s a smaller school, with ~65 students spread over 2 years. Most are roughly 17 years old, and quite a few are touching a computer for the first time. So far I’ve focused on Excel, Email, Wikipedia, and the use of a USB 16GB USB stick onto which I’ve preloaded 10G. The contents are intended to serve as a library for students who return to Karen State, and have occasional access to computers, but no access to internet. It includes offline copies of wikipedia in English, Simple English, and Burmese viewable through kiwix. There are books such as ‘Where There is No Doctor’ in English and Burmese, and similar books for Dentistry, Childbirth and Women’s Health topics. Audio and written English lessons, Aesop’s Fables written in Karen, Libre Office, Portable Apps, Burmese and Karen Fonts, Typing skills practice, Lesson Plans developed by Curriculum Project and much much more. All of the second year students will be given one of these USBs before graduation, but now we spend class time learning how to use it effectively.

More Travel, More Protests

"The blog goes quiet when I'm stable in one location" well there is no excuse, because I'm definitely not in a stable location.

Tuesday afternoon I moved out of my Rockville, MD apartment, then Suhyeon and I drove her new car down to Hickory, NC for Thanksgiving with my folks. Friday morning we drove back to DC and I flew out of Dulles and into Abu Dhabi, en route to Suvarnabhumi Airport Bangkok, Thailand. I was supposed to catch a flight from the other airport (Don Mueang) to Maesot, but I couldn't get to that airport in time. Instead I was standing at the checkin counter while my plane was taking off. Originally that would have been a big problem, but shortly after I booked the travel, the wedding of Min Min Soe was postponed a few days, so I've got some time. Min Min Soe was one of my students the first time I taught here, back in 2005. I'll be seeing him, and Chitlay/Kpaw Htoo, for the first time in many years, along with many old friends and students. Rather than pay top dollar for the next flight, Instead I've taken the A1 bus to Mochit bus station, where I'm killing 11 hours waiting for the bus to maesot.

As usual there is a political crisis timed for my arrival. As usual it is about Shinawatra, with a few deaths and mass protests of the red shirts vs the yellow shirts. Last time this was happening, I was sitting in the same bus station, watching video of tanks rolling into the city. No tanks yet, but otherwise, Same old same old. At least there is no flooding this time.

Whenever I finally get to Maesot, I'll work my way a bit further north, to Mae Tam to begin 3 months of computer teaching at Kaw Tha Blay. I've taught here before, but it has never been my permanent base. Cathy and David who founded the school have had a satellite internet connection, and with it I feel I can finally focus on the material I want to teach, internet literacy, and perhaps computer programming, while maintaining sufficient connectivity to maintain my work for Keygene and SNPedia.

Google reader bogosipeo

thuis, thuis nog eens

There are many reasons why I should try to put one more post out there, before google reader shuts down. But more interesting perhaps, is the reason I shouldn't. The blog goes quiet when I'm stable in one location, because the blog has a way of altering life, not just documenting it. This isn't anonymous, so that isn't really surprising. But it is part of the calculus. When I'm traveling, tomorrow's life is disconnected from today's, so the effect is minimized. And so now, as I'm about to depart, it's worthwhile to ... 'splain.

When we last saw Mike, it was -45 degrees (Celsius and Farenheit agree) and he was in Harbin. Not the nudist hot spring commune in California, but the Bangor, Maine of China, during their Ice and Snow festival (awesome pics). From there I skiied into Korea, and re-met some old friends Hong, Dong, and Nicole. She and I have maintained a long distance relationship since then, but by June she'll be moving here to join the NHGRI Myung Lab doing RNASeq studies of genome instability.

During that time, I've settled into a nice little routine. I still work for KeyGene and now live just a minute walk from their Rockville, Maryland office. We're a small office, but it's given me a nice opportunity to steer us into the cloud and do some interesting science. The best evidence of that is being one of the coauthors on the Tomato Genome paper, but as usual in corporate ... (hmm I was going to say Corporate America, but I guess that doesn't apply with my Dutch employer) ... science, interesting work is not always visible from the outside.

Most evenings I'm tapping away at SNPedia and Promethease. These are my long term side projects to help people understand what is in their DNA. $99 + some spit = a surprisingly detailed, but far from perfect, look inside you. We got a nice mention in the New York Times a few weeks ago, and it continues to be a interesting hobby for me.

On Thursday I'll return to the Netherlands for 3.5 weeks. The timing allows me to enjoy my birthday with some wonderful friends who I've not seen in almost 18 months. At the same time, I'll catch Liberation Day in my old home, the transition to a new monarch during Koninginnedag, and Keukenhof in full bloom. I split my time between the old home of Wageningen, and the client site at Enkhuizen. First and foremost, this is a work trip, but I think it promises to be a very enjoyable one.

At the end of this year, I'll again go traveling for a few months. I expect to begin in Kosovo, and then back to teach computers at at Kaw Tha Blay.

So now, with the universe happily under control and some quiet before my departure, I've stopped to pause and reflect, and catch up with you, my few dear readers. People who take 10 minutes from their own lives to wonder about mine.

Before I left the Netherlands, I recall Saskia asking me, why? Was it something I missed about America, or perhaps something I disliked about the Netherlands. I did miss some of the convenience of America. Which is not to say it is so convenient for everyone, but it does treat me kindly. Unquestionably, the Netherlands does a better job of treating everyone one that well. But for me, I did miss the convenience and it was a factor. What I wanted was not the destination of America, but the everything in between even with its substantial inconveniences.

IMG_20130416_203047.jpgIMG_20130416_203209.jpgIt's a Tuesday night. That means 'cheap chicken' tuesday at Dawson's Market. The locally sourced organic friendly don't-call-us-super market across the square. For $5.99 I get a whole roasted chicken, really nicely done. Returning 2 milk bottles, bringing my own bag, and walking gets me some store credit, so I leave with a head of lettuce and a very ripe tomato for $6.66. I've enjoyed it with some wine, and a few sips of Wageningse Bitters. This is similar to Jaegermeister, but easier and more pleasant. It is served in a clever Japanese sake bottle, with a pocket that keeps the melting ice water separate from the liquor. My laundry is tumbling, and I've switched to these little premeasured packets of soap you toss into the machine. Those didn't exist when I last lived here. For my dishwasher they defintely improved the results. This is very convenient. Time for Daily Show and Colbert. Life is grand. Tot ziens.

Heat Stress and Chillin in China

About a year ago, I did some data analysis on how Brassica uses microRNA to respond to heat stress. The data was produced by Prof He Yuke's group here at the Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences. My analysis work was enough to earn me a spot as a co-author on the published paper, but I'd never actually communicated with any of my Chinese contributors. This week, we've been making up for
that. In particular, lead author Yu Xiang picked me up at the airport, took me to a few restaurants, joined me for the Urban Planning museum and generally made life pleasant. I've returned the favors in the only way I know how, hacking perl and playing linux administrator. WeiLi Zhong isn't on the paper, but she's booked my train tickets, and helped me locate then haggle for warm clothes to replace the Thailand attire that just won't cut it for the rest of this trip.

On Sunday I'll take a train to Wuhan, to spend a few days visiting a human genomics company still in 'stealth mode'. You will forgive me if I don't say much more. Tuesday of the following week is Chinese New Year. I've seen the San Francisco version of the holiday, with lion dances, lanterns, and enough firecrackers to remove all 10 Billion fingers here. I expect the mother country version to actually be a bit more subdued, but only time will tell. On the 24th I head to Harbin, for the Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Feb 1 sends me to Seoul for the Korean Genomics Organization's Winter Symposium a mix of Next Generation Sequencing and Skiiing. By March 1, I'm back in Washington DC to resume work for KeyGene INC.

Pack it up, Pack it in, Let me begin

IMG_20120107_180651.jpgIn 24h I'll be in China. This means I've left the schools sooner than I expected. At the moment I'm in Khon Kaen, Thailand here to attend the wedding of my friends from Wageningen, NL, Jeab and Gunnar. Being here has long been a plan, but it was expected to be only a brief diversion before returning to the schools for my final 2-3 weeks. Instead I learned 2 old colleagues from Gene Logic would be in China. This gave me the opportunity to visit one of the few countries in this region which I had so far missed, and to do it with locals who knew the language and shared my professional interests. It cost precious time with the students, but I felt it was an acceptable trade.

P1080323My interest in the schools (and work for that matter) is not particularly focused on long term face to face relationships. I want enough of that to build some personal relationships, but virtual work is more scalable over the long term. To that end I've got one more school connected to the internet. The Science and Technology Training Center teaches employable skills, with an emphasis on electrical and mechanical. There I've setup 5 new computers, and the students know how to use a set of CDs to restore them to a clean stable state. This gives them more freedom to experiment and occasionally break things, which is perhaps the only way to learn. I've gotten most of them email addresses, and intend to offer some ongoing support that way. For a few of them I already am. But leaving them early absolutely breaks my heart. I feel like I'm riding a motorboat through the wreckage of the Titanic, smiling and waving to those struggling in the water, as I call out "Sorry no room, I must hurry off".

Real programming has remained a Bridge On the River Kwai Too Far, due more to my over-extended schedule, than any lack of abilities in the students. To help get us there, I've got a few students signed up for Stanford's Intro to Computers class in mid-February. I've signed up as well, to follow the lessons to act as a supplemental teacher. Hopefully the idea of virtual learning, the prestige of a real university, and the benefits of well structured class will catch on. Time will tell.

Not even close to a white christmas


Open these 3 links to see thumbnails of all of the photos

P1070833Most of my students are Karen and they celebrate the new year according to a lunar schedule. This year that was on the evening of Dec 24/25, better known as Christmas to most of my readers. Out here Christmas is celebrated on a different day, apparently the 29th this year. That may seem strange, but the Dutch celebrate it on the 5th, so I've come to accept the confusion.

P1070817Karen new year is a celebration of Karen culture. Each week I drive to Kaw Tha Blay to teach computers, and on the 100km drive I pass Mae La Refugee Camp, a guarded city of bamboo and leaves with ~50,000 residents. This year it was hosting some of the Karen New Year celebration so I was (more or less) allowed in to watch the students sing and dance.

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Peace on earth, goodwill toward men

Mae La refugee camp, ThailandI spent xmas-eve inside Mae La Refugee Camp to watch some of my Kaw Tha Blay students perform traditional dances. This morning I wandered through the camp with a santa hat on, passing out candy to the kids I saw. Quite a few of the recipients were novice monks. I'm now back in Mae Sot, sitting in a restaurant which is playing the Bob Dylan christmas album. Life is pleasant, and certainly not boring. I hope your christmas was very merry too.

Lots of photos up shortly.

Just a good ol Bo, never meaning no harm. ขอให้ไปสู่สุขคติ

P1070052The last post was a month ago and it said I was on a mission. The mission is going well, but rarely smoothly. During my last visit I slept a few doors away from another teacher, an orphaned native Thai of about 25 years, named Bo (โบ). In addition to teaching Thai, he drove a schoolbus and installed a water heater I'd bought. On quite a few evenings we sat around, drank a beer and talked while I'd fixup an old laptop he owned. When I returned on this trip, it was nice to see his familiar face with enough English, Thai, and electronics skills to be very handy.

About 2 weeks ago I was with some of the Canadian donors who noticed a neighbor dog struggling for air, after it had gotten it's chain tangled. I jumped the fence to move a table to where he could stand on it and breathe easily, but was bitten when I got too close. The bite wasn't bad, but it certainly drew blood. Dogs here are much less likely to be vaccinated, so I had some concerns about the need for rabies shots. I asked Bo to speak with the owners and inquire about whether I would be wise to go for rabies shots. There wasn't a huge urgency, but it couldn't be too much delayed either. When I finally saw him again 3 days later, he said he'd not had a chance, and I shuffled off a bit grumpily thinking "I could die from this".

P1000942P1000944Yesterday while crossbow fishing he became trapped underwater and drowned. This afternoon I learned the news when someone asked me "did you hear about Bo?" as they handed me their camera with photos of his bloodied and stiffened body. 

This school, Hsa Thoo Lei, will be closed for 2 days, but it will slow me down only a bit. Only the 6h of my week which go formal classroom teaching of the 50 students in the 2 oldest grades will be affected. Using our 14 classroom computers I try to emphasize Internet (gmail, facebook, wikipedia, youtube, khan academy, wikihow, URLs and HTML) so far. This week they've been working on maintaining a blog and posting how-tos. Some students are fresh from camp with limited english, and negligible typing. Others have access to a computer at home and turn in high quality assignments at late hours.

There are 3 other schools [STTC, Kaw Tha Blay, and (unnamed - I go there for the 1st time tomorrow)], where I have a more irregular or emerging schedule. I may be able to say more about them in a future blog post. But as in the past, I try to ignore organizational boundaries, adapt to geographic ones, and focus on students who show talent and the ability to teach to others in native language.

More of my time goes to being a network administrator. Our network has grown from 4 machines and 80 students during my trip in 2005 to ~60 machines and 800+ students. We've kept the internet quite accessible (never enough for my taste, even facebook is a learning experience out here) but students with limited english are easy prey for viruses, trojans, and malware. Much of the last 2 weeks were an attempt at building a virtual machine environment which quickly cleans itself after each class. This would allow students to learn from the freedom to play with the control panel and install programs, without messing it up for whoever comes next. Sadly, as of this morning I'm writing off the whole effort as a wash. The standard tool for typing in Burmese relies on a ctrl-shift keyboard combination, which is silently dropped by Microsoft Virtual PC. I'm not willing to sacrifice their ability to use their own language, to make the admin job easier. So this job takes my time, but not my heart.

P1070434My heart and my evenings are reserved for teaching programming (the new Latin). Not because I'm the sort of person who compares programming languages and idioms to poetry, but because most of these students are poor, stateless, and legally forbidden from most local travel, education and careers. This time I'm trying with a new book and a new IDE. There have been setbacks and disappointments, but the successes glow like 1000 suns. And so each day we will try again. Wish us โชคดี.

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PS. Checkout the pics from Thanksgiving and Loi Krathong

Swimming to (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=coxoEhQmjzY) Maesot

The reason I've come here is not to lay in a hammock counting sunsets, but to volunteer. I'm a fundamentalist missionary from the church of the internet, proselytizing with a fire in my belly that cannot be stopped by Hell or high water. The high water did however force a longer route.

P1060998The bow waves of trucks splashed over the top of my windshield.

P1070004After driving several sections which got progressively deeper, Nonthaburi was finally too deep. I had to turn back, burning hours navigating a new route.

P1070010North of Chai Nat it wasn't standing water, this one flowed like a river.

P1070014At the origins of the Chao Phraya river nearly the entire 1st level of this building was submerged.

P1070020Outside the flood zone, supply lines had been cut. Here was a 7-11 which had almost nothing to sell.

Undeterred, the car and I made it, crossing 2850km together as I arrived in Maesot (map, wikipedia) my home for the next 3 months.

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I didn't come for the pretty scenery, the generous accommodations, the sporting events, fine dining, spas or nightlife.

I've returned for the 4th time, to Hsa Thoo Lei, a school of 800 refugees from Burma. I teach computers, internet and programming, install networks, remove viruses and do whatever other vaguely related tasks seem possibly helpful.

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Malaysia to Krabi

P1060567P1060521P1060661Malacca was historically interesting, but lacked the local interactions I enjoy when traveling. Moving onto Penang, the first thing a local said to me was "chinese girl? vietnamese girl?" and this was not the sort of local interaction I was hoping for. I made the best of my time, which meant sampling the local foods, for which Penang is justifiably famous, and enjoyed every bite. The car got better use, and fewer parking tickets, as I explored at an improptu pace. Monkey beach earned it's name. But when the opportunity to move on came, I took it with no regrets.

P1060942P1060966Thailand is a bit cheaper, and I like the food a bit better. (Regrettably it does lack the wonderful indian breads). Cultural stuff can wait so I headed for a beach with a nice vibe. Tonsai lacks the perfect white sands of the panorama above, but at low tide, it's a 10 minute walk away, and the atmosphere is far nicer than that posh end of town. Here reggae bars keep going until the last customers decide to call it a morning. A dreadlocked alaskan named Shane plays drums during a spontaneous and amazing tap dance routine, then later fields guitar requests and sustains the mood while I talk to an Iranian guy and the two pretty girls (Rianne - Dutch, Lucia - Viennese) who are all doing this for the first time. I'm a grizzled old veteran of the road, able to speak some helpful thai, offer wanted band-aids (plasters is the non-USA name) for sandal blisters, and probably too much unwanted advice. It's a merry mix until near sunrise, when those who came to do some of the world's finest rock climbing start by climbing out of bed. Due in part to a sprained thumb, and some world class apathy, my own climbing is only into and out of the hammock which finally gets some glorious use, on the beach in an overhanging rock directly below some climbers on a 6 route.