Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

May 23 2022

In it

So as I mentioned last month, Taiwan is in the middle of a huge (for us) covid surge, as a result of the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant as well as the central government’s decision to “Live with it”, by which it means continuing to relax restrictions, decoupling case numbers from policy. And so while we’re seeing our daily official case numbers approach 100,000 at this point, the actual number is most likely far higher since the reporting only includes those people who are infected, symptomatic, have been tested and those test results reported to the government. As we’ve seen, most cases are asymptomatic, so those people have no reason to test except if they have been in close contact with an official case for a certain amount of time. However, though the contact app has been useful in the past with hardly any cases, as cases skyrocket, contact tracing is far less effective. Rapid testing kits were scarce for a week or so but are plentiful now, but that doesn’t mean everyone is testing all the time, and a positive result on a rapid test means going in for a PCR test, which means lining up at a clinic or hospital with a bunch of other likely positive people, so…not that attractive an option. And those with mild symptom also are likely to dismiss them as allergies or an ordinary cold. And those who do test might see an initial negative result and dismiss it, even if they are infected. And those who get a positive result may just keep it to themselves. And the significant others of positive cases might just…shrug, dismiss it and go out to meet up with other people because fuck them, I guess. No, I’m not making that scenario up.

So those who are listed as official positive cases are a tiny subset of the actual number. And nobody knows what that is. By the way, I highly recommend Cookiebandit on twitter as a good resource on this topic.

Basically, we might as well assume that it’s everywhere. But as we as a culture are committed to the idea of being at physical places of employment, oblivious to the possibility or advantages of telecommuting because the bosses are paranoid that their workers might be goofing off at home instead of goofing off at work, people are still going out. Restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, etc. are all still open. Concerts are still going on, for some reason. Fewer people are taking the subway, so the MRT decided more people should be crammed into the cars and therefore reduced the number of trains. So far, most of the dozens of people dying daily from covid are older, unvaccinated, and/or have prior conditions, but not all. Looking at the vaccination numbers inching up so verrrry slowly even over the last couple of months, it’s clear that those who are unwilling to get their shots are simply not moved by anything, and it just ain’t gonna happen.

So in April I said that Taiwan seemed to be going for a middle path between the US/UK “Let ‘er rip” approach and China’s “Zero Covid” approach. On paper, perhaps we still are, but it’s looking like we’re veering a bit towards the former while paying mere lip service to many of the reduction measures. Which tracks, I suppose. I’ve seen a greater proportion of white people without masks than I have Taiwanese people without masks, and even those expats who claim to be concerned about covid will, immediately after saying so, pull their mask down, possibly to smoke but also possibly just for no apparent reason. And I don’t know what happens after that because I. am. gone.

But I am still in the office every day, on the subway every day. Classes are still going, concerts are still scheduled. I can’t do anything about the two coworkers in my office who don’t bother wearing masks, but I can at least insist that my students do. Other than that, we’re on our own. People have been throwing darts at the “When will it peak?” board, with most landing on some time in June. We’ll see, I guess.

Or at least most of us will.

posted by Poagao at 10:50 am  
May 22 2022

Above and Beyond

I just finished the VR version of Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond. There are six “missions” in the game. It starts out in Tunisia, takes you to occupied France, England, though the D-Day invasion at Normandy, through to various battles in Europe, on planes, parachutes, trains, motorcycles, ships, sleds and submarines, and finally a rocket base in Germany before a thrilling escape sequence. The game was first released in 2020, but was ported to a standalone VR version just this year. Obviously some compromises in the graphics had to be made, but with the quality set to high the game looks fine and runs smoothly. I’ve never been much for the shooting part of shooting games; I’d much rather enjoy exploring the spaces and atmosphere, and this game does that well despite being a few years old and made for mobile VR.

Now that I’ve finished it, I feel like I’ve just completed a series of good books…happy that I got to experience it, but a little sad that it’s over, and wondering what’s next. Though the lines of the NPCs are scripted, they’re reasonably well acted, and the feeling of immersion with the environment was good in general and sometimes even quite strong. I turned off the accompanying music as it interfered with the sense of being there, and sometimes lingered in spots to just enjoy them. There’s the time right after I’ve jumped onto a German train from a motorcycle; I just stand and watch the scenery go by, walk around the engine listening to the sounds it makes, maybe taking a seat in one of the cars and sitting quietly for a while looking at the luggage on the racks, at the wood and leather seats and all the other little details as the mountains and forests slide by outside. The game doesn’t care if I linger, so linger I do.

At another such point that sticks in my head even more than the storming of the beaches in Normandy (which is intense, obviously), I find myself behind a little shack in occupied France in the late afternoon of a sunny day, and I watch through a gap in the wall as the German commander orders his soldiers off and walks dejectedly back to the shack where he shakes his head, pours himself a drink and slowly sips it as he looks out over the countryside and sighs. It’s obvious he knows he’s doomed. I’m meant to just go shoot him, but for some reason I find myself just standing there watching him drink his Schnapps, thinking about how that moment really felt at the time. I found myself wandering around bombed-out cafes in France, wondering what they might have been like before the occupation, musing about what submariners’ lives were like while perusing their cramped bunks and notebooks, uniforms and other things. Throughout the game I just found myself stopping and just being in whatever moment I was in and wondering how it really felt to be there back in the day. On the ship heading towards Normandy before I shimmied down the rope into the landing craft, I looked at a sailor working in another craft on deck and actually caught myself thinking, “Damn I wish I had my camera on me, that’s a nice shot!” Obviously simulations are still a way from being able to even approximate the reality, but they fire my imagination and curiosity in areas of my brain that literature and movies can’t quite reach.

And here we come to the part of VR experiences that I simply cannot seem to communicate to people who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. They are fixated on how silly people in headsets look, they see references in media like Community and Lawnmower Man and all the other derision hurled at the vomit-inducing early 1990’s-era simulations that are presented as modern-day VR tech, while the 80’s nostalgia-ridden mess that was Ready Player One just created less realistic expectations. And the recent attempts by tech bros to tie virtual reality to NFTs and cryptocurrency has done even more harm to the medium’s reputation.

More and more I’m convinced that people have a deeply held, tribal-level reaction to the act of someone willfully subtracting themselves from our shared physical reality. Think of how we all make fun of groups of people staring at their phones, how people used to do the same for people with their heads stuck inside of books and newspapers. It all comes from the same place: How dare you not be a part of our tribe by taking your attention elsewhere! The VR companies have tried to combat this, portraying VR as a fun group social thing in their advertising with people sitting around together, one or two with headsets and the others watching raptly on a screen, but I feel this approach is pointless and misleading. Whenever I’ve been at such gatherings, whenever you put on a headset, you were no longer really there, and people would just leave you to it, screen or no. Because the feeling of not being in your physical location is much stronger with VR than it is while looking at a phone or reading a book. Would you want to go over to someone’s house and sit in the same room reading books or looking at your separate phones? I realize this happens, but people don’t tend to make a whole thing of it. And in these Covidian Times, it would seem like a bad idea at any rate.

So all I can do is shut up about VR in the few “normal” social situations I find myself in, unless I’m asked by someone who is genuinely curious and interested. Instead I watch as the companies fumble around trying to port this or that console game into the medium, looking for all the world like the producers of stage plays in the 1920s setting up movie cameras in the back row of theaters. I hope that someone, somewhere is working on developing the true advantages of this medium, attributes that are unique to it. Meta’s Horizon Worlds continues to exhibit the worst of humanity, simply-formed spaces low on detail or subtlety yet full of screaming kids and other trolls, as Horizon basically leaves moderation to the users, a tried and true recipe for disaster. The result is, despite the more advanced avatars they’ve come up with, a greater feeling of fear and trepidation, and a consequent lack of true engagement in those spaces. AltspaceVR, nominally run by Microsoft, has done much, much better in terms of moderation and engaging worlds, though they seem of late to want to follow Meta’s terrible example and are getting rid of some of those tools. VRchat and Recroom=more screaming children/trolls. The Multiverse is a shoddy, poorly-made sham designed to separate users from their money. It all feels a bit like the period of the Internet when everyone started to come online, and the social media companies hoovered up all the possibilities for creativity and put everyone at each other’s throats. That could happen in VR as well, but I still hold out hope that interacting as avatars with voices and expressions can pull in a bit more of our social interactions than just text, which hasn’t worked terribly well in that respect.

The next step, if we get that far, could feature a mixing of social apps and games…the upcoming GTA: San Andreas could theoretically become a place not just to play, but to hang out. Disney might be working on creating another Star Wars Galaxies-esque gaming/social world. Are the big dogs working on VR MMORPGs where users can inhabit places such as Star Trek or Hogwarts? Or are they all just sitting and waiting for someone else to do it first? MMORPGs such as Zenith and Illysia are doing quite well, and are both small independent companies with few resources. But Apple seems intent to get into the game as well, and if they take the iPod model of letting a few companies do their thing before modifying and perfecting it themselves, we might see something interesting as a result.

So people seem to see that there is potential in VR, but few seem able to pinpoint exactly what that potential is. Artificially intelligent NPCs, hinted at in the movie Free Guy, might be instrumental in providing more interactive experiences…we already have decent AI-driven bots, so that shouldn’t be a problem; rather, maintaining some kind of orderly storyline under those circumstances would be a bigger challenge. We’ve learned, unfortunately, from previous iterations of online behavior that people can largely suck if you promote hateful interactions, which media like twitter/Facebook/etc. have long been doing and seem poised to rip society apart. In fact this has been given as a reason why VR will never work, but it seems to me that the more intimate, multifaceted engagement afforded by more closely replicating physical presence online creates an opportunity to redefine the often toxic nature of online interaction.

I suspect that VR has the capability to let us see who we really are. Let’s hope that’s a good thing.

 

posted by Poagao at 3:41 pm  
Apr 14 2022

In for a ride

Covid cases are surging in Taiwan these days. I say “surging” in our context, which is after months of just a handful of cases now and then, suddenly seeing hundreds a day and probably over a thousand soon, which while by Western standards is paltry, is unprecedented here. Part of this was likely inevitable, considering the virulence of the Omicron variant as well as the situation in many other countries, but it’s also part of The Plan. This is because, having seen not only the disastrous results of Western nations just giving up and pretending Covid isn’t a Thing but also the differently disastrous results of China’s zero-case approach, our government has chosen in the face of skyrocketing cases to take a kind of middle path, continuing to ease restrictions slowly, keeping mask mandates and tracking in place, and letting mild and asymptomatic cases quarantine at home. So, each day we are greeted with “record numbers” of cases in the headlines, where they are generally located, and….well, that’s about it. Just wait for more shocking numbers tomorrow.

As we’re just coming off the tomb-sweeping holiday during which a huge number of people traveled around the country and gathered in large numbers at various events and temple ceremonies, it would be surprising if we didn’t see exponential spread in the coming days, limited only by limitations on testing capacity (which is a significant factor). Currently we’re at 84% first shot, 79% second shot and 53% boosted, which aren’t bad numbers, but the elderly have rather poorer numbers. I’ve had conversations with some of them about getting vaccinated, and it’s quite frustrating. Generally it comes down to their assumption that they know better because they’re older, and there’s nothing you can do about it. They’re at once sanguine and fatalistic almost to the point of pride:

“Have you been vaccinated?” I ask.

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

“I have (some ailment such as high blood pressure or cholesterol, etc.).”

“Did your doctor tell you you shouldn’t get the shot because of that?”

“Nope.”

“What did your doctor tell you?”

“I didn’t ask.”

And that’s that.

It’s partly a cultural thing as elderly people tend to be respected and given a certain amount of leeway here, something that might change as the population in general ages. But for now, I also feel that government policy should have not only been able to enforce some standards on our admittedly shoddy media coverage, but also been able to suggest that doctors work actively to convince their elderly patients to get vaccinated. Alas, that didn’t happen, and now I’m thinking, if this gets much worse, which it most certainly will, our aging population suddenly might not be so aging, if you know what I mean. The costs of disinformation, so sadly avoidable, are great and likely only realized, if at all, after the damage has been done.

Speaking of which, of course the white dudebros on Forumosa and the other expat groups are fine with that, as their convenience apparently outweighs other people’s welfare and lives. Many of them are still saying that vaccines are a hoax and masks are tyranny, and IMHO the people that run those sites and let them post such things should be held responsible for spreading disinformation. My theory as to why white people and especially white Americans are so anti-mask in general is because they have become so used to being judged as individuals instead of by their race that anything that potentially takes away from that “freedom” of individuality is a horrendous crime in their minds. It’s no wonder that being anti-mask has become known as a kind of dog whistle for white supremacy, a way to say the quiet part out loud.

In any case, we’re in for a ride as the government grapples with what is shaping up to be an unprecedented surge in cases here. Serious cases, for which the elderly population is at much greater risk, will have to be managed without overwhelming our medical capacity to the detriment of other patients. We are fortunate to have national health insurance, but our system is not without its flaws, mainly overworked staff, and this is something that has the potential to greatly exacerbate that situation.

For now I am still going to work as usual, as I have throughout this whole thing as we never had WFH, and our classes are continuing as usual. I have tried to make the places we go for photo walks more remote and hopefully safer, avoiding huge crowds. I don’t know how much longer that will last; it depends on evolving government policy, as I can’t imagine that we will get through the semester without at least some cases at the college and/or the office. For now the only thing we can do now is just try to take the only precautions we can, avoid crowds especially in enclosed spaces, keep masking up, and just hoping for the best because, on this ride, the only way out is through.

posted by Poagao at 11:07 am  
Apr 04 2022

Space-age childhood

Recently my friend Sean Lotman tweeted about a Richard Linklater movie he’d seen that he said gave him nostalgia about growing up in the states, so I took a look, expecting a generic childhood in some random American town, but when the flick started:

“The time is spring, 1969,” the narrator, voiced by Jack Black, says at the beginning of Apollo 10 1/2. “The place is Ed White Elementary School in El Lago, Texas.”

I went to Ed White Elementary in the late 70s/early 80s. We lived in El Lago for six years. Damn.

I waited for someone to pick me up from school many times on this portico.So I’m just going to go through the film and comment on what stood out for me. From the start, it’s interesting what they got exactly right and what seemed off. The sound of the kickball game is exactly right, but their depiction of the school doesn’t look quite right. I know it was supposed to be 1969 and I only started there in 1976 or so, but still, it doesn’t look like they had any actual alumni on staff, and the school’s been added to over the years. It was from that kickball court that I watched the first space shuttle fly on the back of a 747 over the school, possibly while I was wearing my puffy silver astronaut’s jacket, complete with patches, but I never had any aspirations in that direction. They did get the big fields next to the school right, but the hallways had windows at the top that don’t show up in the movie. I remember being so frustrated that I kicked my bright red plastic lunch box into those walls so hard that it broke into pieces. I also remember the beatings that the film passes off as just the way things were then. To me, Texas was a different world from Florida where we’d lived prior to that. Toxic masculinity permeated the entire society. From what I read on the news, it still does.

The houses of El Lago look different in the film too, smaller, simpler, with simpler, smaller yards. That doesn’t seem like it would have been too hard to research…you can go on Google Maps and look at them to know what they look like; they’re still there. Ours was built in 1960, like most of them, but the movie claims everything was being built in the late 60’s, which I don’t think was the case. It said there were no trees in 1969, but if that was the case the large trees we had everywhere grew very quickly in only seven years. We even had treehouses. Perhaps Linklater grew up in Houston, but I don’t think he grew up in El Lago.

I do remember the Astrodome games and the electronic sign. The interior decor of the film’s family’s house looks a bit too modern, too stereotypically 60’s. I can’t say whether our decor was in step with the times, but it seems to me from seeing other people’s houses that our Ethan Allen standard wasn’t too far from the norm. We certainly did have that coiled rug though; I spent many an evening and Saturday morning lying on that thing watching our big Zenith.

I remember the occasional flooding; to this day I get nostalgic about walking on grass with a few inches of water over it. The U-tote’M, yeah I remember that place where I spent my allowance on Mad Magazines and Hubba Bubba bubble gum. I also remember the rocket in the playground. I think one of them is still there actually, according to Google Maps. The TV shows and cartoons seem largely the same, though the ones we saw were largely already in syndication by the 70’s. These kids, though, they were allowed to stay up til midnight? How?

I remember “sewage park”, though we never called it that. It was just a field by the plant; we had to ride our bikes through the fenced-in bottleneck between the two to get to and from school without going miles out of the way. You can see it here, complete with some kid riding their bike towards the bottleneck after school. Substitute that red bike for a black Huffy Bandit and it could have been me. It was, alas, a great spot for bullies to ambush kids, which I managed to avoid until my last day of 5th grade, when I was attacked and all my stuff from my elementary school career trashed and strewn around that damn field. In fact, there was plenty of trauma during those years.

I don’t recall the fumigation trucks, and certainly nobody thought it would be cool to ride bikes behind those things. As for “Big bike adventures”, I would explore the woods nearby, finding an old cemetary that I now realize probably should have been a protected historic site, and unwisely hid in a storm drain in the rain. It’s all condos now.

I remember the Baskin-Robbins (damn, it’s still there too?), but not the bowling alley or arcades. Then again I didn’t really have many friends, got into too many fights, and my brother and sister were too much older to want to have much to do with a little kid like me, so I was alone a lot of the time. We did have that same stereo cabinet to play records, and I had a small radio to listen to music to make things seem ok late at night. We never had parties either; perhaps my parents also didn’t really have friends, or, as they both worked and were raising three kids, they were just too tired.

Astroworld I remember going to but not much else other than that it was across from the Astrodome. I have much better memories of concerts in the park and at Jones Hall. Our station wagon was a 1973 Pinto Squire, baby blue with fake wood trim, but the family car was a 1969 Buick Electra 225, gold and white two-tone. We called it Burt, or at least my sister did, as she was a fan of Burt Reynolds at the time.

Then again, the film Apollo 10 1/2 is about the summer of 1969, and things were different by the time I came along. I missed the moon landing, and by the time we were living in El Lago moon missions had stopped, Vietnam was over, and indeed the whole culture was undergoing huge changes. We left in 1981.

It’s nice that Linklater is nostalgic for his childhood, but it was apparently very different from mine. The film, while light-hearted and interesting, just brought back too many ghosts, and I kind of wish he’d picked somewhere else.

posted by Poagao at 8:37 pm  
Mar 21 2022

Hengchun jaunt

Thursday night was spent getting all my stuff I needed for our series of weekend gigs at the folk music festival in Hengchun, the southernmost town in Taiwan, into either my instrument cases or a small backpack. In the end I managed, but it was a close thing. It had been a while since I’d taken such a trip. Indeed, it had been a full cycle, 12 years since we last played there, in 2010, which was also the Year of the Tiger. Tiger to Tiger, as it were.

I lugged the whole kit to work on Friday morning, nearly forgetting to print out the set lists before heading over to the train station to meet up with the others on the train. Electronic tickets make meeting on the train doable, avoiding the anxiety produced when someone or other is late. Thumper was missing from our ranks this time, alas, due to family issues. Zach was filling in as best as he could amid all his other duties, including being a parent as he and Cristina were bringing little Miss Scarlett Danger with them, but Thumper’s reassuring rhythmic sense would no doubt be missed.

I snagged a window seat and let my mind unwind as we slipped out of the basin and away south, away from offices, classes and the daily grinds. By the time we hit Kaohsiung an hour and a half later I was in a much more appropriate mood, but the longest part of the journey remained, as there is, alas, no railway to Hengchun; it’s a glaring example of the lack of resources devoted to the southern part of the country. Politicians haggle over whether we need another metro line out to Keelung, but Hengchun remains accessible only by a long, two-hour traffic-ridden coastal road to this day. Fortunately the organizers had sent two nicely appointed vans to take us down, and even though conversation made the ride go by quickly, it was night by the time we pulled up to our hostel. Or rather, what we thought was our hostel. It turned out there were two similar ones, so we got back in and drove down the road a bit to the second one, the Lovestar Lakeside Hotel, which, unlike the first one, is not actually on the lake (thus the confusion). As David and I walked into the lobby, a man in glasses and a green shirt rushed out from behind the front desk, exclaiming, “It’s you!”

We looked at each other, confused. “You’re TC Lin!” he gushed. “I’ve seen all your videos and interviews!” Then he asked me to sign his shirt. It was all a bit discombobulating, but he was very nice. In fact the whole staff there were very nice, and got us all sorted into our rooms while we waited for some Uber Eats dinner to enjoy before heading over to the event for our late-night soundcheck. The West Gate square, where we’d played 12 years before, was filled with a huge stage and a lot of people. A classical violinist was doing his soundcheck, and groups of elderly women with traditional instruments sat in groups behind the stage, chatting. Out along the square some interesting cafes and art stands made the place seem quite different than it had on our last visit. The sound staff were professional and did a great job.

Our first show was late Saturday night, so we basically had all day to ourselves. After a nice breakfast of Eggs Benedict and coffee provided by the hotel, most of the others headed down to the beach, but I headed out to walk around Hengchun. I’d wanted to take a bus but a cabbie offered to take me for NT$50 so I hopped in. He dropped me off at the south gate.

Hengchun’s old city wall is remarkably well preserved; most cities tore theirs down long ago, but for whatever reason Hengchun kept most of its wall and all of its gates. Unsure of where exactly to go, I chatted with a restaurant owner by the gate as he played with a hefty grey cat sitting at the door. “Is that an M?” he asked, spotting my camera. It turns out he uses an M4 and does a bit of photography himself. We exchanged IGs and he suggested following the wall. This I did, and I was surprised to find streets lined with hip and trendy cafes, art spaces and restaurants, tourists and other young people walking around snapping shots and staring at laptops. Was it usually like this? I had no idea.

I continued to walk towards the West Gate and then through the town. Once I left the trendy old street area things got pretty quiet. I somehow wandered into a construction zone and then found myself on a school campus without knowing how. Lunch was salmon quiche and coffee at a cat-themed cafe that, like many of the places I saw, I can’t find on Google Maps because it’s so new. “Why have that?” Chenbl complained when I told him about it on the phone. “You should be having local delicacies!” He was right; I was just enticed by the cats.

A bus took me back to the hotel, where I rested up before getting ready for the night’s show. Standby was 9:30 as we were the last act, but we went over earlier to eat first. When we got there, we found that apparently the entire population of the southern peninsula had arrived; the square was packed with people. One of the reasons for this was the fact that the Taipei Philharmonic Orchestra was playing. Police led various officials through the crowd to the stage to give speeches. We found some of our friends from Taitung and Dulan who had set up stands nearby. I tried to get up on the West Gate but apparently there was a musical group up there as well, so I wandered on the periphery of the crowd instead.

Photo by Zany Feng @zanyfeng

Zach, David and me on stage. Photo by Zany Feng.

Our show, when we finally got on stage, went well. Perhaps too well, as shortly after we’d started one audience member, a tall man in light blue shorts, sauntered up on stage, first filming us before being escorted back down, then coming up to “sing” before being escorted back down, and then actually taking an empty CD cover David had placed there and setting down a NT$1000 note on the stand to pay for it, before being escorted back down. The crowd apparently knew him and roared their approval whenever he came up; we just smiled and kept playing. Later the man’s friend, who had been trying to keep him in check the whole time, apologized, saying that, even though he was quite drunk at the time, he was pretty much like that when he was sober too.

After the show we got in the vans and, still high from the show, drove out through the west gate, which was much more thrilling than it sounds. It felt like a magic portal.

Our show on Sunday afternoon was listed as a “workshop” rather than a show, but the organizers had planned for it to be simply another show on the big stage. We realized, however, that it would be quite cool if we went down off the stage and actually had more interaction with the crowd, explaining how to play some of our more interesting instruments, the background of our music, etc. One older fellow claimed the washtub, so I quickly taught him how to play it, and a young woman did a great job playing the washboard. The crowd loved it, as did we; it was a great success. In fact the whole event has evolved beyond recognition of the last 12 years in fact, and it bodes well for Hengchun’s cultural development. After the show I got some local delicacies, including some delicious crispy basil danbing and green bean ice. I also had some nice ice cream and coffee from a lovely place on the square, located in a renovated building, called Spoon in Pocket.

Too soon it was time to go; we piled into the vans and headed back up the coast. I put some tunes on my portable speaker and hung it from the window to provide a soundtrack for the journey through the heavy traffic. Fortunately we made it to Zuoying Station with enough time to get some dinner; I picked up a Mos Burger meal and headed down to the platforms to find our High Speed Steed awaiting, but none of the others had shown up. I got on the nearly empty train wondering if I’d got the wrong one, but eventually everyone showed up and we were speeding north once again. Slim and I caught a cab; when the cabbie asked if he could take the elevated expressway we agreed, happy to see the lights of the basin.

If I’d had my druthers, I wouldn’t have minded spending a week or two in Hengchun, getting to know the place a bit better. It seems like more young people are moving back there and opening new businesses; there’s a real feeling of potential. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

Now all they need is a railway link.

 

posted by Poagao at 12:44 pm  
Jan 21 2022

Tianmu walk

The weather was semi-nice yesterday when I got off work, so after a nice salmon bento lunch at my favorite restaurant on Chongqing South Road, I walked over to the park station and took the subway up to Zhishan Station. Chenbl thought an area over there might be good for a photowalk with students, so I wanted to take a look.

I exited the north gate of the station by the Ewhat Camera store, remembering fondly the days when I would go there to handle the latest models that I couldn’t afford. Then I walked over to the bus stop by the SOGO to hop on the 280 bus over to the area Chenbl had mentioned. I pay a monthly fee of NT$1,280 for all my bus and subway rides, a nifty deal that saves me a bit of money and also includes some free Youbike rides.

The area in question, however, was almost completely deserted when I arrived, as most areas with rich people tend to be. I can understand the reason, but I still find it a little sad that we are moving from general environments where people tend to interact, i.e. rowhouses with arcades, to more closed-off circumstances such as gated communities and apartment blocks. In fact, a lot more areas seem deserted than they used to, if I’m not imagining things. I skirted the edge of the mountainside, following drainage ditches by abandoned and newly built mansions. It was hot so I took off my sweater and stuffed it with some difficulty into my tiny bag. Occasionally a security guard on an e-scooter would ride by looking for illegally parked cars or whatever it is they do; otherwise nobody was around. Is this what people desire when they think of ideal living circumstances? Perhaps for a large  family it would be fine, but I imagine for a single person it would be mighty lonely.

I walked though the one old veterans’ community Chenbl had mentioned; again, nobody was around, nothing to see, really. So I walked back towards town on Dexing East Road. The weather became cloudy and misty, blustery and cold, so I stopped into the Takashimaya Department Store for a bit, looking halfheartedly for something I wouldn’t find downtown department stores, but there weren’t any surprises. It used to be that stores in the Tianmu area often held certain imported treats that weren’t sold elsewhere in Taipei, but that no longer seems to be the case, especially with the demise several years ago of the wonderful Wellman’s Market. Jake’s Country Kitchen also seems to have vanished, taking their exquisite pancakes with them. Perhaps there are other newer stores now that hold such things, and I just don’t know about them. I can’t bring myself to go onto expat forums to find out, because I’d have to thread the needle through all the BS those places are so full of for very little payback in the form of treats that I probably shouldn’t be eating anyway.

I walked through the alleys rather than the main road on my way back to Zhishan. It still has a fair amount of old two-story houses with yards, a testament to the long history of wealthy people living in the area. A quick glance on Google Maps will show you the swimming pool/movie star mansions dotting the hills above. Times may have changed, but the area still has that expat/bourgeoisie feel to it, with “bilingual” schools and kindergartens and international cuisine here and there. The bias towards the areas north of the city is still clear as opposed to the “sticks” south of town where I live. Each has its own appeal, though, I figure.

Despite the lack of people walking around those nicer neighborhoods, stores and restaurants in the vicinity were fairly crowded. So far we are still at Level 2 vis-a-vis the covid situation, so if things continue to be stable, our class will start up again in March. I have noted my continuing hypersensitivity to people coughing or not wearing masks, though. Smokers in particular seem to get a pass in this respect, as they do in many others for some strange reason, and some days I feel as if my appearance in any one space just makes the people there suddenly want to cough. Today as I crossed the bridge in the rain I saw a man standing holding his umbrella over another man, who was lying on the boards waving a hand and muttering something I couldn’t make out; I wasn’t sticking around to find out, and as an ambulance had just pulled up I figured they had the situation in hand.

It’s still anyone’s guess how the government will proceed in the face of the latest wave of covid cases, which, although significant for us, pales in the face of the scales of outbreaks seen in other countries at this point, even countries that have previously handled things quite well. If this were last summer I’d be predicting that we’d soon be going back to Level 3, but the authorities seem eager to keep things open, and vaccination levels seem to be climbing reasonably fast. Chenbl’s parents have both had their boosters, and we should be eligible to get ours soon. The CDC director,while still expressing hope that it can be contained, has also spoken on the distinct possibility of living with covid, so I suspect that contingency plans will incorporate that as well. We’ll see, I guess.

posted by Poagao at 11:41 am  
Jan 17 2022

Keelung jaunt

As it looked like a nice day on Saturday, I met up with Chenbl at Songshan Station to hop on a train to Keelung to scout potential photography walks with students if next semester happens. Only this time we didn’t go all the way to Keelung, but got off one stop early, at Sankeng, a narrow station in the valley the train follows before it opens up into the city. The weather in Keelung was cloudy, but at least it wasn’t raining, as it often is there. We took the fenced-in walkway towards the city and found ourselves at a railway crossing bordered by two alleys, one creepily dark with shadowy figures moving around inside, and another, leading back towards the station. We took the latter and passed several small rooms, pink fluorescent light spilling out into the alley, each inhabited by an apparently young woman; it was a red light district, but nobody spoke to us or called out.

After some tasty egg-based snacks at a restaurant that claimed to have been opened in 1938, the same year both of our fathers were born, we walked across the tracks and up the hill, passing an abandoned Catholic church, mold growing on the cross on the metal gate. Inside I spotted the discarded box of a synthesizer among the detritus. I wonder how long it’s been abandoned, and what happened to the people who founded it. A religious statue had been built along the street nearby. Most of the houses on the hillside seemed to be abandoned as well, but from the little gardens and terraces it seemed that someone had once seen great potential in living there, though the place seemed quite humid, and the smoke and noise from the old trains constantly passing back in the day would seem to have been unpleasant at best.

We came back down the hill as there was no way on except for mountain paths, and found a Japanese-era tunnel, along the length of which were mounted old photographs of the Japanese military base that had been located in the area in the early 1900s. Closely shorn soldiers stared from the pictures as they stood in their barracks doing various tasks. The ceiling of the tunnel was less than six feet high, and I kept having to duck as we traversed its length.

Dense alleyways lay on the other side of the tunnel as we approached the city. I’d never really explored this part of Keelung before, and it’s quite interesting. We passed under the massive highway bridge, which used to be home to a large market but is now full of people playing sports, and though another street market as we skirted the hillside through the alleys.

An interestingly shaped old building in Keelung

An old building in Keelung

Dusk was falling as we passed by a the huge, Hong Kong-esque Guanghua housing complex and arrived at the river, covered by a highway branch, that we’d seen from a bus on a previous trip. I’ve always been interested in how rivers interact with urban environments, and this was a rather sad example as rivers are too often ignored here, cemented away and forgotten about. Cats abounded, which Chenbl says is a sign of decay while dogs represent prosperity, but as I like cats in general I couldn’t complain; indeed I greeted every one as I usually do, and most were quite gracious about it. I feel like I should keep some cat treats on me though.

We approached an unusually shaped building that seemed to be literally falling apart, featuring several interesting shades of light and a market downstairs, rusted rebar poking out of the frames. People still lived there, though. We then followed the underground stream through the neighborhoods, picking up its traces every so often as it reappeared here and there, often frequented by birds and rats, occasioned by temples, streams of wastewater pouring in from showers, laundromats, kitchens and who knows what else. Every time I’m in Keelung I wonder what living there would be like on a day-to-day basis. Commuting would be a pain, though, at least until they run a subway line out there. It’s a special place, no doubt.

Hungry and tired, we made our way to the Miaokou market, where a guard monitoring the crowds sprayed disinfectant on my hands and camera lens just for good measure. Inside, we lumbered up a flight of steep stairs for a meal of dry noodles, spinach and hot pork soup. It was nice to sit down after a day of walking and climbing, but the throngs of people at the market unsettled me considering the looming prospect of Omicron. I’ve been wearing K94 masks lately for their greater coverage, but it seems more and more people, especially smokers and older people, are just not bothering any more.

After dinner we had some bitter tea from a stand. “Don’t give that to him!” the stand operator scolded Chenbl as he handed me my drink, but I just drank it while staring blankly at the operator.

“It’s ok, he’s fine with it,” Chenbl explained, needlessly. We then walked back towards the harbor, to the new train station. The site of the old station is still swathed in construction; I have no idea what they’re doing to do with it. If it were up to me I’d build a recreation of the old Japanese-era station and make it a tourism/cultural center. That’s just me though.

posted by Poagao at 12:08 pm  
Jan 13 2022

Movie Sign!

A week or so ago I watched a movie in a theater for the first time in literally years. Chenbl had a couple of free tickets, so after work I met up with him for a lunch of questionable quality at the chicken place next to the previous location of the Vie Show Sun theater, which has sadly been torn down. It’s particularly sad because it was an IMAX theater, and now we have to go elsewhere, such as all the way out to the Miramar Cinemas for IMAX movies. Fortunately for us, the free tickets weren’t for the demolished Vie Show, but the Shin Kong theater in the old Lion Plaza building, that golden monstrosity on the corner of Xining and Wuchang Roads. The escalators up past the first few floors of little shops weren’t working, so we took the small, blue-lit elevator up to the completely empty lobby. The theater was big enough, but the projection and sound weren’t great. The movie was Spider-man: No Way Home, which was…fine. I mean, it was fun and entertaining, and the extended cameos were fun (though sadly missing my favorite version of Spider-man), but it became more about them than about the current Spidey’s character arc, which really only the first Tom Holland movie explored to any degree. I enjoyed the nostalgia, just as I also enjoyed The Matrix: Resurrections and Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Encanto is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year, though). But the whole time I was thinking: I’d rather be watching this at home. Note: I do not have a terribly big-screen TV, just a 16-year-old 37″ 720P set that cost a pretty penny in 2006 but now just emits static in one speaker whenever I watch Star Trek due to the ship’s engine rumble, so I tend to watch things on my iMac. But the point remains: I wonder if the age of theaters is on the wane, due to be something only old people remember.

My views on the future of theaters and public gatherings in general are perhaps biased by the steadily growing number of Omicron cases pouring in from everywhere but mostly the U.S. Americans seem to have just given up on any preventative measures and are just watching case numbers explode. Some Americans in Taiwan, well, white dudes in particular, it seems, think that Taiwan should just roll with it as well, pooh-poohing any attempt at controlling spread of the disease. But I’ve noticed an interesting, or perhaps obvious correlation: The expats who feel the most entitled to a consequence-free lifestyle here are the ones who rail the most against any kind of COVID-based regulations. “I can’t take another months-long lockdown!” I heard one such dude say, apparently unaware that we’ve never had a real lockdown, let alone one that lasted months. Most people just go along with it, but to him, it’s an egregious affront to the “freedom” to which he feels entitled.

Fortunately Omicron has yet to overwhelm our system, though it’s being sorely tested as so many incoming passengers have it these days. It has inspired more people to get vaccinated, though, and the government has changed the previous 5-month time between 2nd and 3rd shots to 12 weeks, meaning I can likely get a booster next month. Older people seem to be the holdouts, for the most part. It remains to be seen how the government and the CDC will alter their protocols to deal with the nature of this latest wave. We’ve scheduled the photography course to resume next semester, but we’ll have to see how things develop and where we are by March. One thing that helps immensely in planning photo-related excursions is the partial return of Google Maps’ 3D capability; this is wonderful for getting a feel for an area before actually going out to the area in question, I’m glad it’s back and I hope it is expanded more around Taiwan in the future.

I took advantage of the pre-Omicron state of affairs to finally meet up in person with Alexander Synaptic of Spectral Codex last week at a cafe in Xindian’s Dapinglin. I have long appreciated the wealth of information encapsulated in Xander’s online exploration pieces, and he has helped me out a lot with website advice, but we had never actually met IRL. He showed me an old map that showed that my old army base used to be an even older Japanese landing strip, which explains how the area “Big Flat Top” might have gotten its name in the first place.

In other news, I’ve been asked to perform in an ensemble paying tribute to the late Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five group. This is both an honor and a challenge, as I consider Satchmo to be the GOAT. I will need to put in some real work to get ready for that level of syncopation, range and just cool-ass 20’s jazz. Again, nobody knows where we’ll be by March; we’ll just have to see.

posted by Poagao at 11:18 am  
Jan 03 2022

This Old Blog

So, I realize that this site may seem stuck pinned to circa-2003 design, but it’s kinda grown on me over the decades. However, despite a mid-run refresh a la my friend Mark of the now-defunct Doubting To Shuo, it has over the intervening years become rather run-down and broken, code-wise, and my provider kept asking for more money to update it with new, more expensive packages. I did a bit of research and found that I was paying about three times more than I needed to to keep the site up and running. An online friend of mine generously offered to whip it into some kind of shape for the mere pittance of a cup of coffee, a copy of my book, and my somewhat-less-than-august presence, Covidian social conventions permitting. Now the basic house-cleaning is pretty much done, so allow me to go over some of what’s new under the hood, so to speak.

The one consistent part of this site from the beginning has been the blog, which was previously separated into several different blogs on Blogger and then WordPress. These have all been integrated into one main blog, which is now the landing page, with category options should a reader have an interest in, say, my attempts to engage in tuishou, or our little film projects, or my Chinese-language journal entries, etc. You can also explore various categories, such as entries involving exploits with the Ramblers, for instance, or musings/interactions with photography. I’ve also cautiously opened up the comments function again, though I doubt many people read these, if indeed many ever did…the thing these days seems to be the email newsletter, but in the end content is content, and I don’t do this for an audience or profit, but rather just to record various things I’m doing or thinking about.

The links on the sidebar, long-neglected, had become a litany of 404 pages and a sad reminder of just how interesting and wonderfully individualistic the internet was back then, so I had to update that, and will try to keep it current. The photos link, which previously went to a page of snaps, then to my flickr, now points to my main Instagram account, which is more current even though the photos are still just tiny facsimiles of the shots. I don’t really write fake news stories any more, as the “real” news these days is just so literally incredible that 1) my stories might potentially be taken for genuine news, and 2) the impact isn’t there in any case. So I dumped the old ones into a tumblr for historic purposes, but I might just get rid of them entirely if and when I redo the site from the ground up.

I don’t have the list of “accomplishments”, publications, exhibitions, awards and the like…I figure if someone’s interested they can Google me, and also: Does anyone really enjoy reading those? Do people go to someone’s site and eagerly look for how many articles someone has gotten into SuperiorTaste magazine/website, or how many times they were featured on BokehDrool dot com? I have, to this day, precisely zero blue checks, and it actually feels kinda good. If you’re the type of person to be awed by such things, well, there’s the internet for you (gestures).

In the end, as in the beginning, this is just a blog, with very few bells and whistles. It works a little better now, thanks to my online friend who has said he prefers to remain anonymous. I’ve enjoyed penning my various thoughts and deeds in there for the last 21 years, and I hope y’all have enjoyed the ride so far.

posted by Poagao at 11:38 am  
Jan 02 2022

New Year

So, it’s 2022 now. On the 31st I met up with Chenbl and some of my students at the City Hall bus station for a long-delayed outing. I got there first despite thinking I’d be late again, so I walked around and tried out some allegedly blueberry-flavored bread from the 7-Eleven there. The results of the analysis showed no evidence of blueberry flavor, alas. We caught a bus out to Badouzi and walked eastward along the coast, to the scenic railway platform facing the rocks on which fishermen braved the cold wind, splashed by the largish waves. I hopped down onto the tracks at the end, where I could see that trains weren’t using as they were covered in grass, but still, for those playing at home, I must stress the importance of not straying onto active train tracks for photography or any other purposes, really, basically because trains are huge, silent and deadly things, particularly if you’re not on them but around them.

We kept walking over to our destination, the photography exhibit on coal miners by Chang Chao-tang at the HOHO Base, a complex made largely of cargo containers that is operated by photographer Ching-tai Ho. The entrance to the exhibit was fraught with potential lawsuits as far as physical dangers went, perhaps to get visitors in the right frame of mind to appreciate the photos inside depicting the dangerous conditions under which the miners operated before the 80’s. There weren’t many photos, it being a small space, with quite a few repeating scenes, but it was a nice exhibit. The villages in the area tend to be populated by cats, and, true to form, one cat watched us approach through a window. When we eschewed the neighboring restaurant, out of which snaked a long line of people, for the HOHO art space/restaurant, we found a well-fed grey cat sitting on a bench near the cashier/chef, who was none other than Ching-tai Ho himself. I sat down to pet the cat, and she jumped onto my lap and sat down to be petted, which was probably the best thing that happened to me that day. It’s been too long since I had a contented cat sitting on my lap.

Brunch, had in the container upstairs, was delicious; they use good stock for their recipes, and the cinnamon tea and carrot cake filled up the corners nicely, all while looking out at the seascape opposite. I wish it were more convenient to get to; I can only imagine how he stays busy on weekdays.

We had planned to take the bus over to Keelung, but it had begun to drizzle, so we took the train to Ruifang and walked around there for a while before heading back to Taipei. Nobody was interested in fighting the NYE crowds, so it was good to get back to the Water Curtain Cave and get to bed just as the fireworks were dying down.

The students were asking about next semester’s class and if we were going to resume…all I could tell them was that we’d see where we were regarding the COVID situation at the time. I still expect that Omicron will eventually make its way into the general population here, and how the government will react is a question. Fortunately a good portion of the population has been vaccinated, but if we’re going to keep to a zero-covid strategy I’m not sure how that will work. The past weekend has seen record crowds out and about, not just here in Bitan but all over the country, it seems, and I wonder if everyone is thinking the same thing: Get out now before the shit hits the fan. But then again I’m fairly cynical about these things. And also it seems that other countries, at least the Western ones, seem to be rolling over and giving up. No masks, no mandates, parties galore, everyone just saying Fuck it and then claiming surprise at record infection numbers.

So what’s the plan for this year? The usual: No plan, really. Do things and hope things get done. Good things, anyway.

 

posted by Poagao at 8:16 pm  
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