Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Feb 02 2016

Things, and a rant

So some things are happening (I really should just stop right there, for all the difference it would make to any readers I have left). BME, the photography collective I’ve belonged to since it was founded in 2011, is preparing for a new show and adding a few promising new members. Closer to home, I’ve finally, after eight years, gotten a new computer. It’s an iMac, like my old one, but obviously (I should hope so, at least). Bigger, more resolution, more power, yada yada…I did consider going back to PC world and its maddening error messages and virus updates, but when I looked at what I could get for the money, and calculated in other factors, I still felt that Apple was the way to go. For now, anyway. Of course if I want to get a VR rig in the future, be it either the Rift or the Vive, I’ll be screwed, but I’ll gaze at the empty space where that long-burned bridge used to be when I come to it.

So, now that I have a shiny new computer, now I need a shiny new external hard drive to go with it. This is mostly my fault, because I’ve been using a Sony A7r for over two years now, and damn but those files pile up. I could go with a Thunderbolt drive, but the large SSD drives that could take advantage of the Thunderbolt2 connection are expensive; for a spinning disk system, I might as well go with USB3.0. If I get into 4k video, I might look for a dedicated Thunderbolt2 drive. For now, USB, while still expensive, is doable. As it is, I haven’t really looked at anything I’ve shot in over a year, except for travel stuff and film shots. Kind of turns the whole “digital is instant, film takes time” theory on its head. Film I can scan and get uploaded the next day, while most of the digital shots I’ve taken over the last year I have yet to look at.

While we’re on the onerous subject of gear, I’d like to address some deficiencies of the Sony. Sony, are you listening? I thought not. Anyway: Sure, the shutter is loud and sounds like a coin-changing machine, the “VIDEO BUTTON YOU ACCIDENTALLY PRESSED DOESN’T WORK IN THIS MODE WHICH YOU KNEW BUT WE THOUGHT WE’D ANNOY YOU WITH THIS MESSAGE AND MAKE YOU LOSE ANOTHER SHOT BECAUSE WE’RE MORONS AND THINK YOU ARE TOO,” message is annoying, and it took me a while to figure out just when during the long blackout time the actual photo will be taken.

But the thing that irritates me the most is the sucky battery life. I know, I know…battery life sucks on almost every small mirrorless camera these days, and that’s because the companies listen to the techie nerds at dpreview.com more than to actual photographers, and subsequently, useful things like battery life are tossed aside in favor of useless things like wifi and endless menus. Yes, I realize that you can turn wifi off, and the camera can sleep and wake up in a second or so. “How could this be a problem?” the techie camera-owners ask. “You used to have to change film every 36 pictures!” 1) Yes I did, and 2) that was the state of the art in 1985. I still shoot film, but honestly, would it be that difficult to make a modern, decently sized digital camera that is responsive and didn’t have you constantly wondering if it was actually working or not? Techie camera owners aren’t worried about this because they tend to “go shoot,” which means they pack up their camera in a bag, take it to some scenic place with flowers and uniform brick walls for lens tests, shoot video of their kids being obnoxious to various small animals for an hour or two, and then pack up the camera to go home. “What could possibly be the problem? I got 900 shots of Little Xander stomping on squirrels in one charge!”

But think about how things used to be: You had a camera on you. You knew how many frames you had left. You could see the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. You could see where your focus was set. None of those were a concern as you went about your day; you could concentrate on seeing and responding to the world around you. all. damn. day.

With most of today’s reasonably sized and priced digital cameras, you have to switch the camera on when you step out the door, check to see if it’s working, and spend the rest of the day wondering if it’s still on, if the battery’s run out, and what the shutter speed, aperture or ISO are…Fuck it, use P mode, whatever. Then you see a potential shot, raise the camera, not really sure what the settings are because none are marked on the body (except for some Fujis and Leicas, sure), and find that the battery’s run out, even though it was at 34% only a few minutes ago when you checked it last, missing another shot then as well. Sure, a battery change only takes a few seconds, but it’s the constant nagging that it might not work that keeps you checking it, again and again. It’s like a ticking time bomb, except your fear is that when the moment comes, it won’t go off.

Would it be so hard to have a proper power management system, an instant wake-up time? Fixed-lens, single focal length cameras don’t even really need EVFs. The Fuji X100/s/t would have wonderful battery life if the EVF weren’t always on, even when you’re not using it. If you’re not into dials, a simple passive screen on top of the cameras could show battery levels, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc. Shades of Mike Johnston’s DMD, but it never quite happened.

Because people want wifi. They want to chimp. They want to go take videos of kittens for half an hour before forgetting again that the world exists, because, by god, those kitten videos have been uploaded with wifi to Facebook and Instagram: Mission Accomplished.

Ok, I should stop ranting. I realize that most photographers don’t shoot the way I do, they’re after things that have been carefully placed and made pretty, and making photos of actual life simply isn’t an issues for them. Fair enough. I also have a perfectly good Leica M6. So I’m good, thanks. Just need to stop and take a breath. And change my battery.

Again.

posted by Poagao at 12:28 pm  
Jan 04 2016

Recent stories

My usual shoe cobbler disappeared some time ago. He was an older fellow with bristly white hair, always smiling as he pounded people’s leather foot coverings back into shape at his stall in an alley off Nanyang Street. He’d been there for decades, as long as I could remember. I brought him hot drinks sometimes in the winter. But then I stopped frequenting the area as much due to an employment change, and the last time I went, he was gone. None of the neighboring shops knew anything about him. “He must have taken ill,” one said, shrugging.

So I went in search of another cobbler to patch up my old Nikes. I know what you’re thinking: Just buy another pair! But when I happen across a pair of comfy shoes, I like to make them last as long as possible, and I’ve found that even cheap sneakers can be made to last a bit longer with some glue and stitching. I recalled seeing a shoe shop next to the old Futai Mansion on Yanping, just south of the North Gate, so there I went. Sure enough, the older fellow was willing to take on the job. We talked about the area as he fixed my shoes, appropriately, on a foot pedal-driven machine.

“We used to live right up there,” he said, pointing towards the intersection of Zhongxiao West and Zhonghua roads. “Right by the railroad tracks.” I nodded. I remember those tracks, and the Chunghwa Market that had been built next to them. Both were gone by the early 1990’s.

“When I picked my lot in the army, I found I’d been sent to an outer island base,” he continued. “Back then, you couldn’t tell anyone you were being sent to one of those places, not even your family. When we set out from Taipei Train Station down south to catch a ship, as luck would have it, there was an accident on the road, and my train stopped right next to my house. I could look out the window and see my family going about their business, but I couldn’t call out to them., even though I wouldn’t see them again for years.” He shook his head at the memory, sighed, and then gave me my shoes. “That’ll be NT$300.”

As I was crossing the bridge on my way home, I spotted a cat prowling around the swan boat docks, looking over the edges into the water for fish. Its orange and white coat was conspicuous among the largely blue hulls, and its striped tail waved to and fro as it snatched perfect balance from thin air even as it leaped across the water in pursuit of a small bird it had no hope of catching. Some small children at the ticket stand on the shore shouted at it, beckoning with loud MEOWs, but it simply stared, shrugged, and moved onto more serious pursuits. We had been dismissed.

Further along the bridge, I took some photos of the makeshift ferries plying the still-muddy waters, carrying debris from the destruction of the lone house on the hillside. “They’re tearing it down because the Forestry Bureau doesn’t need it any more,” said the bridge guard, apparently worried that I was a spy. “It’s an illegal construction now.”

“And those illegal constructions?” I said, pointing to the row of far more accessible and actually dangerous buildings on the hillside just past the bridge, also on national land. The guard waved dismissively.

“Those aren’t our concern. We’re only concerned with national matters,” he said. I just stared, shrugged, and moved on.

posted by Poagao at 3:26 pm  
Dec 14 2015

VR

I’ve been interested in the prospect of virtual reality for some time now, but only recently have I been able to actually experience it for myself. The first opportunity I had to try it out was at one of the stores on the ground floor of the new tech shopping mall next to the Guanghua electronics market. They had an Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 rig set up there, where one could experience a roller coaster ride as well as a solar system demo. As it was my first experience with VR, it was bound to be impressive. I gripped the stool with one hand and tried to right myself as well as I could while the roller coaster tossed and turned, climbed and dove. I could look around, which was novel. I’ve always been interested in the little corners of video game environments that nobody else paid any attention to, and VR provides the potential for people like me to explore those corners better than any previous system has been able to so far. I like the exploring part of these environments far better than the shooting part. I’d turn on the god mode of FPS games just so I wouldn’t be distracted by all the killing and playovers, letting me just walk around and look at things. That was one of the main reasons I preferred PC gaming to console units back in the day.

The solar system demo was also impressive, sitting in a little cart jetting around based on eye movements, but somehow too abstract to convey the real experience. I found myself thinking, if I could just see some more detail in these massive things, I’d have a better idea of their size.

But what the Oculus DK2 set provided was just a glimpse of what VR could offer. The main feature was the low latency; at no point did I feel sick or dizzy, though I’d think providing chairs with actual backs wouldn’t be a bad idea for people trying out VR for the first time. What it didn’t provide, what it was sorely lacking in fact, was sufficient resolution to really make the view believe that they are seeing these things for real. Also, it felt limiting to be constricted to sitting in one spot and be led around by the program. It’s not the way we operate in reality, so it feels somewhat at odds with the concept of virtual reality. There’s movement, but you don’t feel it with your body; there’s no inertia to be overcome, no real sense of the movement involved. Also (and this is not an inherent fault of the Oculus), after being tried by so many people, the DK2 headset was kind of ratty and smudged. It felt very much like wearing dirty goggles.

My next opportunity with this technology came at a recent Taipei tech show, where I was able to try out HTC’s Vive setup. This meant waiting in line for a period of time before being ushered into a black room with a solitary chair. I put on the headset and found myself in a large white space. The controllers on the virtual floor matched their actual position at my feet so exactly that bending over and picking them up was completely natural. “Ok, we’re going to start the first demo,” the HTC people told me through the headset’s speaker.

And immediately I was on the deck of a sunken ship. Yeah, I’ve read about this demo, but it really can’t be described. The Youtube videos of it don’t come close to matching the experience. It’s really…almost…like you’re there. Unlike with the Oculus, I could walk around, to a limited extent. I walked over to peer over the side of the ship, down to the bottom, and the handlers said, “Be careful, you’re about to run into a wall.” The detail was far better than that of the Oculus DK2, as was the field of view.

This! I thought. This, I’ve got to have. But maybe not; in the first quarter of 2016, not only will the Vive arrive on shelves, but the new Oculus, which has better resolution, etc. as well as Sony’s Morpheus, which plays with an updated version of the PS4 called the Playstation VR, and Samsung’s Gear VR, which can be used with your phone (Your phone, not mine. I’m still using an old iPhone 4, which is pathetically unable to handle such things).

I don’t have a powerful PC set up, but I have been thinking of getting a console, so it might be that the Morpheus and a PS4 would work better for me. If the Vive plays well with my iMac, I might go that way. If the Oculus lets me move around, maybe that. Who knows? Nobody knows, at least for the moment; it’s a free-for-all, and it might not go anywhere if the developers don’t over the problem of integrating physical motion in games. Many, if not most of the proposed game demos feel like ordinary games forced into a VR medium, and don’t really take advantage of anything VR has to offer. Who wants to be in a cart the whole time? I’ve seen rigs with a guy standing on a movable plate and harnessed into a ring around their waists, but that seems half-assed to me. What would be better? I  have no idea, but I have to admit the idea of making my living room into a VR space just for games, where I am free to move about in a roughly five-square-meter area, appeals to me. The games would have to be specially designed to fit these limitations, though. How would that work? Would all of the rooms be of that size or smaller? Would you have to turn around at each door? Will longer distances necessarily be done on little hoverboards, etc.? Could a special chair be made to simulate motions in the game? Shouldn’t the controllers be more like gloves and have force feedback inside? For now, it seems they’ve got the head motion tracking part down, including binaural audio feeds. Improvements from here on out will be in resolution and field of view, as well as the mechanics of physical motion in the games.

How well will MMORPGs work with VR? Who wouldn’t love to simply wander about the Enterprise, or Mos Eisley spaceport, or the bath house from Spirited Away, or Hogwarts? Even if there were nobody to fight, no challenges or anything, just spending time in those worlds would be fascinating.

Interesting times lie ahead. But I can’t help but wonder how much of their lives people will invest in these environments. Surely within a few short years they will become perceptibly indistinguishable from reality, and if we can choose to inhabit crafted worlds, what happens to our ability to deal with the actual physical world? What happens if the populations of more affluent nations are mostly immersed in these worlds, while everyone else has to deal with reality? What happens if there’s a point where everyone is in these worlds, and not in this one? Will it be mandatory? Will reality become unpopular, or even illegal to experience, or both? Will there be a backlash? If so, will anyone care? I suspect we’re going to find out.

posted by Poagao at 1:05 pm  
Dec 14 2015

Retirement community gig

Yesterday afternoon I met up with Chenbl and his fellow floutists at the Danshui MRT. We’ve done a couple of shows in the past with them on flute and me on trumpet; somehow word got out, and a retirement community out there invited us to play for their residents. One of their people met us at the station and took us up the hillside, past Tamkang University, to the hillside establishment. The lobby was a mixture of hotel and hospital, flanked by an atrium with large windows facing the ocean and the setting sun.

We got ready and warmed up in the place’s library, and I sat next to the side door of the small stage while the other groups played old Mandarin and Minnan favorites to the large group of elderly people, many in wheelchairs, caregivers feeding them small pieces of cake by hand. The retirees hummed and even sang along to the old songs; it was actually kind of touching.

renfuThough our performance went well, musically speaking, the people handling the technical part of the event weren’t quite with the program, cutting off “Rose Rose I love You” halfway through the song. Then the MC said “And next is ‘Summertime’, a song frequently played at funerals!” Chenbl and I both stared in horror as he said this, but the MC seemed to think it was perfectly ok, so we shrugged and kept playing. Hopefully our rendition of the song managed to avoid any kind of funereal intimations.

After the show, the audience trickled out slowly, back to their games of chess and mahjong in the building’s atrium. A couple of them told me they really enjoyed the show, which was nice. We took a bus back down the hill, and a long subway ride back to the city.

 

posted by Poagao at 12:00 pm  
Dec 14 2015

Nanjichang Community

nanjichangOn one of the photo walks I do as part of my class, I recently took my students to the Nanjichang Community, which is slated for demolition so that developers can put up even more useless, soulless empty high-rises. The chief of the community took us around to the various interesting bits of the community, which was the first of its kind in Taipei. It was built on the former site of the south airport used by the Japanese, thus the name Nanjichang, which means “south airport”, and includes rows of multi-storied buildings containing tiny apartments connected by central spiral staircases that never caught on in subsequent designs. Over the years, residents have built out and up, so that once-wide lanes are now narrow alleys. Some of the added balconies themselves have added balconies, and it’s a miracle that one of them hasn’t collapsed by now. There is also a market, a compact elementary school, a surprising number of cats and an unsurprising number of smells. The whole place is a fascinating mix, the residents mostly poor people, the elderly, the handicapped, Southeast Asians, caregivers and orphans. The community chief wants to highlight the existence of the place, even though he is powerless to stop the demolition. I’m thinking of doing another photo walk there with my friend and fellow photographer Craig Ferguson. There are plenty of spaces around that could be used for a small exhibition. Who knows, we might be able to play a part in somehow preserving the history of the place or even helping the people who live there, people whom I doubt will be compensated very well when the place is torn down.

One of the buildings in the community, a triangular building with a courtyard in the center, strictly prohibits random people entering and photographing the place. The reason is that they charge for such things, and actually make a tidy profit from various photography, TV and movie shoots. The community chief took us in and let everyone wander for a period of time. Chenbl and I stayed in the courtyard chatting with the community chief, and at one point one of the residents came storming up to him, cursing up a storm. “One of those photographers came into my home and took my picture!” He spat in Taiwanese. I found this surprising and unlikely as I’ve always told my students that respect for the people they photograph is of the utmost importance.

The community chief was also suspicious, and he volleyed back with his own, even more impressive string of Taiwanese expletives, expressing doubt over the man’s story, and asking for proof. “Which one was it?” he demanded. But the man couldn’t point anyone out or say anything specific. Chenbl and I stood in between the two, listening in frank admiration to these two men shout and gesture at each other.

“Fucking renter,” the chief muttered after the man left, unable to prove his claims of injustice. “He doesn’t even own that place.” Eventually I was able to ascertain that a student had taken a picture of the hallway outside of his apartment, not even shooting the guy himself, and he had construed this as “barging into his home.”

Something tells me that that particular building will be one of the less-missed parts of the community when it’s gone.

posted by Poagao at 11:44 am  
Dec 14 2015

Don’t be stupid

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been teaching a photography course at the Zhongzheng Community College, and although it’s been a good deal of work, it’s also been interesting. I’ve learned a lot in the process, not just about photography but about myself, and some of it’s been kind of, well, stupid.

I’ll illustrate this with a story: I often tell my students not to get too upset when they miss a shot, because in my experience you miss even more shots while you’re busy being upset about missing the original shot. Still, I can’t help but rile myself up when it happens to me. Recently I was on my way to my favorite photobook shop, Artland on Renai Road across from the old Air Force base, when I noticed some nice light and patterns on the Lotus Building. I walked around the back and saw a wonderful composition of a woman on a smoke break with her hand just so among the lines of the building amid the plants. Just as my finger pressed the shutter, however, she moved and it because a rather ordinary shot. Then she went inside, the light disappeared, and I was left in a heavy funk I had no right to be in.

Usually the gods will taunt me in these circumstances by with a series of other tasty opportunities to miss, but this time I needed a Proper Lesson, it seems; just as I was stewing over the lost shot, heading down the stairs into the basement where the bookstore is located, I took a wrong step and began the seemingly interminable process of falling down the concrete stairs. Anyone who has fallen down stairs can tell you that it just…goes…on…and…on. Eddie Murphy’s entire comedic bit on the process (“my shoe!”) went through my mind as I waited for myself to come to rest. At one point I felt and heard my camera strike the concrete with a loud THUNK, and I thought, well, that makes sense; it’s just out of the two-year warranty.

I ended up sprawled in a leisurely fashion on a group of potted plants at the bottom of the stairs. I could feel what I hoped was wet sod from one of the overturned pots under me. I ached in various places, but unlike the case of my friend and fellow BMEr Justin Vogel’s recent mishap, nothing seemed broken, and I took a shot with my camera to make sure it stilled worked. A fashionably dressed woman hurried down the stairs, glanced at me, and kept going. “Thanks for the help!” I offered her retreating figure. I must have looked like a drunk, homeless person who has just woken up with no idea where he is. But this, I realized, was what you get when you stew over missing a shot. It’s stupid and a waste of time, and if you get too upset, some wandering spirit will toss your ass down some stairs into a photobook shop doorway just to knock some sense into you.

posted by Poagao at 11:12 am  
Nov 08 2015

Videos, etc.

As my ancient iMac is struggling mightily to deal with photos these days, I’ve been letting files build up on a stack of SD cards, and of course using my M6 for film photography. One thing the computer can handle is my travel videos, as I use iMovie and the 720p resolution of my even-more-ancient Canon S95 is not difficult for it to digest. So for the past few weeks I’ve been finishing off all of my remaining trip videos*, which I’m putting below.

These three videos are very different, as the three trips they cover were very different kinds of trips. I’ll start with the most recent, my trip to the U.S. in September. This journey, much as I intimated at the beginning, didn’t go very smoothly. I was on my own, and I was glad to be able to see my family as well as some friends in San Francisco, but things just. kept. going. wrong.

Next is my trip to Vietnam earlier this year. It was great to see my old friend Prince Roy again, and Vietnam is a fascinating interesting country. I was travelling with Chenbl, however, which means a full, busy schedule and not much leeway for unplanned detours. It was an interesting, but not particularly restful trip.

Last of all is the trip I took last September to Tokyo. I had no schedule, no plans, no particular reason to go, really, except maybe the fact that I’d never visited Tokyo outside of winter before. I stayed in a business hotel in Ueno and…basically just walked around. I met with my friend Louis Templado now and then, but most of the time it was just me. This is the kind of vacation the appeal of which I have a hard time explaining, but it’s really the only kind that restores a bit of my soul. And I sorely needed it.

So I’ve now got a grand total of 49 videos on my Youtube account, which has 300-some subscribers. This surprised me when I checked it for the first time a week or so ago after seeing someone talk about how to get subscribers. Granted, he was talking about getting literally millions of subscribers, which is clearly out of my league. I might do a Vine compilation at the end of the year or something, but I don’t have any further trips planned, except possibly for a visit to Northern Spain/Southern France next year to visit friends. Right now I need to save money for a new computer, either a new 5K iMac or, if I can’t afford that, the equivalent PC, loathe though I am to return to the murky world of Windows. I am not particularly tech-literate, and suffer more than your average PC user due to my ignorance of such things. But it’s not just my computer that needs replacing; my old phone is due to be replaced when my FarEasTone contract is up next March, and now that my Sony camera has surpassed its two-year warranty, who knows what will go wrong with it.

*Note to people in Germany and possibly some other particularly paranoid countries: Youtube won’t let you watch my stuff because someone is afraid of the non-existent possibility of me making money off of the fragments of songs I occasionally put in the soundtracks. 

posted by Poagao at 11:50 am  
Oct 26 2015

New developments

Things have been busy since I got back from my trip to the states; the main thing has been preparing for and teaching my photography course at the Zhongzheng Community College. I’ve never really taught before, so it has taken some getting used to. Over the past couple of months, however, I’ve gotten into the swing of it, and of course Chenbl has been a tremendous help in organizing things. I’ve been purposely avoiding telling students how and what to shoot, preferring instead to give them the confidence and tools to find what they’re looking for, photographically speaking. Having been wrung through the Taiwanese educational system, however, most students feel the need to be told every little thing and what it means, whereas I’ve mostly been emphasizing the importance of intent, of communicating one’s personal truths by telling them what others have done and how, showing them quality work and analyzing it together. And I’ve been incorporating photo walks along the way, which have been pretty successful. Most of them have responded positively to this kind of instruction. But it’s a little difficult to overcome the feeling that being a teacher means that one must know everything and be right all the time, which of course is BS. Teacher Xu warned me about this when we were talking about teaching Tai-chi. Now I can see what he was talking about.

Speaking of Teacher Xu: He’s back, back in the park and teaching again. Everyone is happy about this, and a lot of old faces have been showing up in the park, as well as some new students.  Practicing tuishou is different with everyone, and it’s always refreshing to switch styles. I’ve stopped updating the tuishou blog, by the way; I’m planning to incorporate all of my various blogs (although I’m not entirely sure how to do this in WP…importing? Exporting? I have no idea) once I can get my website updated, somehow. Finding someone to do this has been a challenge, so for now I’m continuing with my antediluvian design. It’s not as if people still read blogs anyway.

I noticed that a large temple procession was taking place in front of the Presidential Office by the park as I practiced on Sunday, so afterwards I went over to take a look. It was for the Chenghuang Temple, and involved seemingly hundreds of palanquins, costumed dancers, flags, trucks, fireworks, etc. After that I decided to walk over to the CKS Hall MRT station, but on the way I found myself in the midst of a large Retrocession Day activity in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where I used to work. Well, when I say “large” I mean the preparations were large-scale, but there weren’t many people there, and the ones who were were rather old. The only young people there were police and completely obvious plainclothes officers, as well as brigades of black-shirted young men who wouldn’t have seemed out of place standing in the background while jets and sharks danced with each other. New Party banners waved over the small crowd, and the “military” brigade posed for photos by the East Gate. I’d actually forgotten that Sunday was Retrocession Day, and I imagine that most of the country had as well. A for-hire military band stood in front of the stage, and policemen ringed the barriers, standing outside the yellow police tape and checking the bags of people who wanted in. They weren’t very busy. 

Curious, I went in just as President Ma took the stage to give a speech on the Potsdam and Cairo declarations. After a few minutes I felt a prod on my shoulder. It was my old college roomie, Yao Fu-wen, who has worked for the Kuomintang for many years. We chatted for a bit; he seemed a bit discouraged; the whole thing was really kind of sad. The production felt cheap, and the regurgitation of references to ancient Japanese aggression felt as old and tired as the audience. It’s hard to believe that the KMT doesn’t know how out-of-touch they seem these days. Chu’s initial refusal to run for president, followed by Hung Hsiu-chu’s bizarre nomination and subsequent hard-core unificationist rants, resulting in the party’s realization that they’d not only lose the presidency but also the Legislature if this shit continued, and their dumping of Hung in favor of a still-reluctant Chu, all point to a party that has lost its way. It’s almost a certainty that Tsai Ying-wen will win the presidency; the KMT must know this; the only thing they can hope for is to maintain a majority in the Legislature, otherwise they wouldn’t have even bothered to replace Hung as their candidate, but it seems that internal bickering has taken priority over the actual reform they so desperately need. I guess we’ll see what happens, but it seems to me that if the KMT were willing to focus on the future of Taiwan rather than the past of other countries, it might stand a better chance.

Leaving the Retrocession event, I walked over to CKS Hall, where huge crowds of people were watching military-themed demonstrations, including hand-to-hand combat, paratrooper “training” rides, tanks and other equipment, all under a Discovery Channel banner. It seems that the uniforms have changed again, to a grayer, more “digital” design from the camos that we wore in our time. Hopefully this will result in higher recruitment rates for the volunteer military, because the numbers have been disappointing so far.

Behind all this, right in front of the CKS Memorial, was a “Chinese Culture” exhibition, including wood carvings and people in ancient costumes, and a female choir singing on the stage. Only a handful of people sat in the hundreds of chairs set out for an audience. I could only hope that this was a rehearsal and not the actual performance, because, well, damn that would have been embarrassing.

The weather’s been strange lately, quick successions of wet and dry that we’d expect in Spring rather than Fall, and the water in Bitan is still a murky yellow from the typhoons. It might be a while before we once again see that beautiful jade-colored expanse again. In any case, it seems that change is on the way.

 

posted by Poagao at 11:04 am  
Sep 05 2015

…and back

As I said, I got rested up in Ardmore, and probably put on a few pounds. Most of the time it was just me and my parents, but one day both Leslie and my older brother Kevin came to visit. It was the first time in umpteen years that the five of us had been in the same room, and it was wonderful to see everyone together again. Everyone behaved, both at home and at the catfish restaurant where we stuffed ourselves. It was a great day.

But Leslie had to leave that evening, and Kevin left the next morning to go see his daughter in Dallas before flying back to his home in Kentucky. I’d actually shaved off my goatee after days of protests by my mother, but it had turned out that Kevin was sporting one as well. Mom told him he should shave it off. “Not gonna happen,” he said.

But I had to leave as well; I got on a train bound for Norman, this one running a little late, on Monday evening. My parents saw me off, and almost immediately I regretted sitting in the first car, as the train’s horn was rather annoying at such a close range. Still, I did enjoy the sunset ride up into the night. Leslie and Kelly picked me up in Norman and took me back to the old house where I’d been staying. It was unused to me, but still not too spooky. I didn’t sleep well. I’d set my iphone alarm, but it has been known to misbehave, especially as my phone is old and struggles to keep up with modern apps. But I was ready at the door when Leslie arrived the next morning. We got to the airport in plenty of time, as I was wary of shenanigans. They started almost immediately when I was going through “security” and they told me to step into the controversial Rapiscan machine that I’d thought been discontinued due to worries about radiation. “Can I, uh…not do that?” I said.

The woman at the machine sighed and yelled out, “MALE OPT OUT!” to roughly everyone in the state. I was taken over to a corner after going through the metal detector and patted down. It wasn’t entirely unprofessional, and I didn’t mind having to take off my shirt, but I did wonder if they knew how useless and actually dangerous those machines are. If not, they should; they’re standing next to them all day, every day. And of course, there’s that name…Jesus.

I got to my flight in plenty of time, however. As we flew west over the increasingly wrinkled landscape, we began to pass just under what looked like the contrails of other planes. I know those don’t last long, and wondered how close they plan these routes. An answer came not long after when I spotted another small jet flying towards us at 11 o’clock, just a few hundred feet above. Due to our combined speeds, it had passed before I could do more than startle the people around me with a quick “Holy shit!”, but if had been just a little lower and over a bit, I wouldn’t be here writing this. If I’d been quicker I would have gotten a photo, but alas, I wasn’t.  I did get a shot of another jet that passed much further overhead, but that was probably a bit more normal.

Eric Kim had wanted to meet up for coffee in San Francisco, but he messaged, saying he had horrible jet lag as he’d just gotten back from Northern Europe and couldn’t make it, so I bummed around the airport instead, while the city beckoned from over the hills. If I hadn’t had my luggage I would have gone out and back into it for a bit, but I also wasn’t enamored with the idea of taking my chances with “security” again, so I stayed put, having some sandwiches for lunch and buying some snacks to take with me.

The waiting area slowly filled up with passengers bound for Beijing before we lined up to board the big 747 across the Pacific. I was lucky and had just one empty seat beside me, enabling to lay down and soothe the headache resulting from watching three Marvel action movies in a row, before we arrived. It was late afternoon in Beijing, but it felt like morning to me. Falling night convinced me otherwise as I was dropped off at the actual hotel I was supposed to have been staying on my trip over. This hotel was actually nicer, though they didn’t provide water, and the wifi didn’t seem to be working.

I didn’t feel like revisiting that particular sordidity, so I hailed a cab and had him take me to the Wangjing area, where I had some nice Korean food. The roads around Tiananmen were the site of a big parade earlier that day, so I avoided that area. Instead I walked to Sanlitun, past trendy bars and massage parlors, people sitting on the street staring at their phones, and dance clubs hidden in old hutongs. I wonder about living in Beijing; I’d think the bad air alone would put me off. Surely there are much better places to live. I’ve heard good things about Chengdu from Prince Roy. Perhaps I should visit there some time. But Beijing…no, I don’t think so.

I got another taxi back to my hotel, arranged my luggage, and slept. The next morning I got to the airport early, so early that I was sitting at the gate two hours before it opened. But better early than late. I sat and watched the planes and passengers as the airport woke up around me; a group of three young Chinese people took a picture that would have been surreptitious except for the fact that they’d forgotten to turn off the camera sound.

Another flight and I was back in Taiwan, skirting the immigration lines to pass through the electronic kiosks practically without stopping. After previous trips to the U.S., I always felt a certain amount of fresh surprise, but not this time. This time I was immediately and indisputably back home in Taiwan. Everything felt normal and welcome, but at the same time, I didn’t feel even a little bit a part of the fabric of American society this time. I couldn’t even fake it. I was simply an outsider. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but it is different. Many people thought that a certain level of paranoia was not surprising after 9/11, but it seems as if the general Fear of Things is escalating regardless. It’s self-sustaining now, I suppose, or at least some people seem to want it that way.

So that was my trip. Now I’m getting back into the swing of things. The fall semester is approaching, and I’m gearing up for the start of the photography course I teach at the Zhong-zheng Community College. This will be keeping me quite busy for a while, but it should be fun.

 

posted by Poagao at 11:50 pm  
Sep 05 2015

In Oklahoma

Leslie, her husband Keith and I had breakfast at the Diner before they took me over to the train station. I’d gotten tickets online, which was fortunate, as I don’t think the station technically even needs to be there any more. It’s something more like an art space, and only one woman showed up to tell people trains still stopped there. I didn’t see anywhere one could actually buy a ticket.

A few people were waiting there, including one white guy with a confederate flag on the back of his shirt. The handful of black passengers-to-be ignored him, but I can’t believe they didn’t notice it. Perhaps they’re used to such things, but it put a damper on my mood.

The train arrived right on time, and the conductor scanned people’s tickets before letting us on the train. They’d said we’d need picture ID, but nobody asked me for it. That was just as well, as I’m sure my Taiwanese passport would have resulted in more questions than answers for them. Instead, I got on, stowed my suitcase downstairs, and walked up a flight of steps to the upper level, where there were plenty of big, empty seats, complete with electrical outlets and wifi. I waved at Leslie and Keith as the train departed, blowing its horn in what I’m guessing is an attempt to avoid lawsuits should it hit anyone on the tracks. Few people realize that trains can sneak up on you, but they totally can.

It was a really nice trip, gliding southwards towards and through the Arbuckle Mountains, stopping only a couple of times and not seeing anyone else get on or off the train. Fields, cows, red rivers and stone cliffs, an occasional factory, all flashing by. I love travel by train. I’d like to do more of it. I wish the American people were more into trains, it would be better for many people if they’d just realize it.

My parents were just pulling up to the station when I got off, and they took me to their house. On the way we passed a man in a white pick-up truck who was installing a huge confederate flag on the back of his truck, place, apparently un-ironically, next to the U.S. flag.

Over the next week I got a lot of much-needed rest, as they take a lot of naps and watch whodunnits in the evening on Netflix before turning in at around 9 p.m. Ordinary television has become almost unwatchable in the U.S., full of “news” anchors shouting at viewers about whatever threats are the order of the day, occasionally interrupted by “medical” ads shouting at viewers in a threatening fashion about whatever symptoms will let them sue someone. Scaremongering and appeals to idiocy, mostly; I don’t know how anyone can stand it.

Occasionally, tired of the constant televised haranguing, I would take walks around the neighborhood. One day I decided to walk down to where my grandparents used to live, in the house my grandfather built. I had to walk by the side of the road most of the time, as nobody had bothered building sidewalks. I can see why; nobody there seems to walk anywhere, and anyone who does is viewed with suspicion. Just how much suspicion I quickly found out.

I was used to hearing cars approaching and passing by, many of them slowing down for a better gawk at me as they passed, but as I walking towards a convenience store I heard a car drive up and stop just behind me. I turned around and saw not one, but two police cruisers behind me. One officer was quickly out and calling loudly, “You want to tell me what you’re doing?” I could almost hear the mental …boy? at the end.

I was surprised, to say the least. I knew Americans are paranoid these days, but I never imagined how paranoid, or that it seems to be increasing for no reason. “I’m, uh…walking around?” The policeman approached me and told me they had gotten calls, reports of someone “taking pictures.” I wanted to ask if that was my crime or was it just walking around, but I held my tongue. Too many images of recent police violence were running through my head; it wouldn’t take too much imagination on their part for me to become some foreign-looking insurgent on a surveillance mission or whatever they chose to believe. The cops were both stocky young white men, and another cruiser pulled up almost immediately, this one producing a white woman officer. Three police cruisers and officers, all for little old me. I would have been impressed if it hadn’t been so depressing. I wondered how long they’d been looking for me. An hour?

“You have any ID we can see?” the cop asked. I didn’t; I hadn’t imagined I’d need any, but at the same time I was glad I didn’t think to bring my passport, which surely would have raised entirely too many questions. I did show him my Taiwanese driver’s license, but he just shook his head in incomprehension at the Chinese text and handed it back to me. I could see this wasn’t going well, and told him what I could of my family history in Ardmore, that I was visiting my elderly parents, I wanted to see my grandparents’ house, etc. “So you’re taking pictures?” the cop said, looking at the camera hanging on my side. His blonde hair was in a short crew cut.

“Yeah,” I said, and adding, because I couldn’t resist, “…I like to take pictures…but I’m not from Google Streetview or anything like that.”

Thankfully the cop didn’t take this the wrong way. I’m not entirely sure he even understood what Google Streetview is, or else he would have seen the irony of people reporting someone “taking pictures” in their neighborhood to the police. The police went over and called in the information I’d given them in. Perhaps they were looking up my grandmother. Whatever it was, eventually they came back and told me that, even though I didn’t have a real ID, they weren’t going to arrest me. I had the idea that had my skin been even a shade or two darker, things would have gone very differently; it was a close call as it was.

I walked away before they could change their minds, as the fellow in customs in San Francisco had done, heading towards the convenience store to get out of their line of sight. Once inside, I felt more like a person again, and bought a candy bar to calm my nerves. I kept the wrapper to remind me that, though America is full of open spaces, it is also full of walls, most of them invisible, and far more damaging for it.

I didn’t stray far on my subsequent walks. I guess that’s the idea.

posted by Poagao at 10:29 pm  
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