Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Aug 15 2022

4th shot

So the student exhibition of work from the last semester is up and running at the Ren An Hospital Museum exhibition space on the second floor. I made a video about it, using just my iPhone and a little stabilizer unit which turned out to be surprisingly effective. It’s going until mid-September, so if you’re looking for some good street photography and are baffled at the confusing art pieces that crowd Taiwan’s photography galleries these days, go have a look.

One day before the one-year anniversary of getting my first covid vaccine, Chenbl and I went to a clinic on Sanmin Road to get our second booster shots. It was a rather casual experience, just a few people waiting around instead of the strictly organized lines and zones I’ve encountered elsewhere. When we were at the counter a woman came in with a form to show the nurse. “You don’t need to show me that,” the nurse said, rather brusquely. Chenbl gave me a look.

“What’s up?” I said. He glanced at the women, who was now heading upstairs.

“I think she’s a covid patient getting meds,” he muttered. “The nurse didn’t want anyone to see her diagnosis.”

“I’m just going to wait outside,” I said. He laughed.

We were getting the Novavax vaccine this time, though my first three were Moderna, and Chenbl got BNT. Just for a little variety, to keep covid guessing. And a little payback for it keeping us guessing, I guess. My shoulder was sore for a few minutes, and I felt a little drunk for the next couple of days.

This might have affected my views on the two plays we went to see on the following two days. The first was at the National Theater at CKS, a grand affair. We were sitting on the very side of the theater above the stage in a box with a single file of seats, oddly not facing the stage but forward, necessitating a certain amount of rubbernecking. The play, featuring the complicated life of a woman from the 70’s to the 90’s and featuring a great deal of jumping around in time, was by Wu Nian-jen and was entirely in Taiwanese, so I missed a good portion of it as my Taiwanese is rather basic. Still, it was quite moving. The second play was up at the big new traditional theater complex near Zhishan Station in Shilin, and featured the marriage-related travails of a family of women. It was also quite good, and it being in mostly Mandarin I didn’t have to guess at any of the meanings. Afterward Chenbl and I walked over to an old neighborhood for dinner, and then back to Shilin Station, where they have unfortunately cut down all the trees to widen the road. That’s a shame.

I’d thought I was done with the after-effects of the vaccine, but after a couple of days feeling drunk and posting ill-advised rants on DPreview, I started just feeling exhausted, like bone-tired on an existential level. This is the first non-mRNA shot I’ve had for covid, and it was not playing. Fortunately it only lasted a day or so, and I got by by watching the excellent new season of The Orville. The BA4 and 5 variants are making their way into the general population, and cases, which had been falling, seem to be on the rise again. More people are maskless outside, and I suppose I can understand why in this spectacular combination of heat and humidity that, if I hadn’t come up in Florida and south Texas, might be unbearable. I took a bike ride along the river the other day and took my mask off to do so, as that is now allowed when exercising outside, and it did feel good. I’m keeping my (color-coordinated) mask on in crowds, though.

In other news, I’m looking at making a photography page for this site…well, not poagao.org, but poagao.com. Squarespace is looking like the best option for a technically impaired person like myself. In a way it would be coming full circle; when I started this site in 2001 my aim was to just have a place online where I could put my photos, that being before the photo sites had started up. Then came this blog, and the photography kind of just did its own thing. But now people are abandoning flickr and sites like Instagram are focusing on becoming TikTok, so perhaps it’s time to make a page on here where I can showcase various projects and topics. Feel free to let me know which particular photograpic websites you like most; I’m looking to keep it simple, but I’m open to suggestions. In any case, I’ll let y’all know when I get something up.

posted by Poagao at 11:35 am  
Aug 02 2022

Busy days

Things are getting busy again, on several levels. Despite all the Twitter-based hullabaloo about Pelosi’s upcoming visit to Taiwan (most of which can’t even be called journalism and completely misses the point), life goes on as normal here as ever.

Last week the Ramblers played a three-day-long gig at the Lin Family Gardens in Banqiao, in a courtyard out in front of one of the old halls. My instrument cart no doubt scuffed several of the centuries-old stone door frames on my way in, but I’ve always liked the place so it was nice to play there despite the oppressive heat. The staff were nice, providing us with tasty bento dinners, souvenir photos of us playing in cute frames, and even umbrellas when a heavy downpour followed our second performance. Thumper and Red Man missed the first show, so Sylvain filled in. Our old friend Chalaw worked wonders at the soundboard to make us sound good, and despite not having played in a good while we managed to put out three solid shows in three days. In between the brutally hot soundchecks and the shows later in the evening I would walk around the neighborhood exploring the various alleys and bridges, the markets and temples. Police on scooters zoomed around checking people’s IDs. After the shows it was cool to be able to wander the complex at night, when it’s usually closed, imagining all the shenanigans and goings-on that happened there back in the days when it was an oasis of culture and taste amid empty fields and swamps. Now it’s an oasis of culture and taste amid apartment buildings and shops of every description.

On the morning after the last show, I met up with Chenbl  and his parents at the Taipei high-speed rail station; we had breakfast on the bullet train south, arriving in Taichung in short order. Chenbl’s parents were staying at The Lin Hotel, a ritzy place near the National Theater, whereas we were staying at a place called simply The Place in another part of town. The neighborhood is crammed full of  swank high-rises now, totally unlike when the Ramblers performed at Tiger City so many years ago, the bitterly cold wind blowing across empty lots as we played. We took a train to the impressive Nantian Temple, which features a giant statue on top, and then a bus to the Second Market, a hexagonal affair, where we had delicious noodles for lunch.

We then strolled through the city through the artsy West District. It’s been too long since I visited Taichung; I miss it. Chenbl’s father commented that Taichung seems to have more potential these days. While Taipei’s been content to rest on its laurels as the capital, Taichung these days seems more about exploration and experimentation. It’s also more physically spread out, which makes a second metro line a must  if the city’s going to continue developing.  Residents apparently don’t even have to pay for bus trips under 10 kilometers. We walked to the Place where Chenbl and I were staying, put some stuff away, and headed out again when what had seemed like imminent rain did not manifest.

As a lot of walking was going on, we all packed light, though Chenbl’s father insisted on carrying several heavy bottles of water in his backpack. I only brought one bag as it was just one night and all I needed to bring besides what I usually have on me was an extra shirt. After going through a series of cheap bags whose zippers would break almost immediately, not to mention a Domke that eventually disintegrated, and on the recommendation of some local photographer friends as well as the badge of approval of DPreviews’ Chris Nichols and Big Head Taco, I recently spent bag to get bag from Wotancraft, a local company, and so far I like it a lot. It looks heavy but is actually quite light and comfortable.

Sunset was seen from the odd and interesting roof of the National Theater, which reminded me of that of the Casa Mia apartment building in Barcelona. Chenbl’s parents were fine dining at The Lin’s popular restaurant, so Chenbl and I headed over to the food court at Tiger City for some excellent beef rice bowls.

On Monday morning we took a bus over to The Lin, and then walked to Taichung City Hall, a trim and efficient pair of buildings linked up in the middle. We browsed the exhibition and then took a bus at one of the failed BRT “stations” to another part of town to look at Literature Museum which features a huge old tree in the courtyard. As we were wondering how old said tree was, rain began pouring down. Chenbl’s mother was the only one of us with the sense to bring a real umbrella; she took refuge in a small pavilion while Chenbl’s father and I moved to a tin structure where we could feel the rain pounding on the roof reverberating throughout the entire structure. Chenbl had found a handy arcade. There we all waited for the rain to ease, and it did after about an hour. Chenbl’s father is always full of interesting stories and advice, so the time went by quickly. We then walked to the old martial arts hall, and then took a bus back to the train station, where we spent the rest of the afternoon having ice cream treats and dinner at the Miyahara Confectionery, previously an Optometrist’s office but now more like a rebranded Harry Potter exhibition with cookies. At one point Chenbl and I popped out to get some of the obligatory suncakes. Chenbl refused to be seen carrying the other store’s suncakes into the confectionery, as apparently there’s some rivalry going on there, so he made me carry them instead as I apparently DNGAF about such things.

Chenbl’s parents were itching to get back home, so we took an early train from the huge new station, dwarfing the stately old one next to it, back to the high speed rail station, and then back to Taipei and home. It was good to get out of town for a bit; we need to do it more often. Chenbl and I are scheduled to get our second booster next week, and case numbers are dropping steadily, though I still suspect that when the new variants might arrest that trend, but most people seem to still be wearing masks (despite all the white dudes on those sites howling in protest all day), so perhaps we can still get through all of this ok.

posted by Poagao at 12:00 pm  
Jul 08 2022

Their Way

I was planning to meet Chenbl later yesterday at Jiantan, so instead of getting my usual salmon bento to take back to the Water Curtain Cave for consumption, I had a pleasant sandwich/coffee/carrot cake combo at the Metro Cafe on Chongqing South Road. As it does just about every day in summer, the weather went from bright sun to threatening skies during the course of my meal, so I went back to my office to get an umbrella, planning to take the subway up to Jiantan to have a look around before meeting up with Chenbl after he got off work.

The sound of singing that was entirely too awful to be a recording, however, drew me to the square in front of Zhongshan Hall, where a large group of mostly elderly people huddled under tents as rain began to pelt down. Most of them were wearing vests sporting various military-themed logos, and they seemed to all know each other. The songs being sung were old-timey patriotic/nationalist songs (plus the first part of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” with the phrase “the final curtain” replaced by “the final battle”(!), and even more disturbing: Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Please Release Me”); the KMT was in heavy presence, as were various police officers, obviously armed, with one sporting a clump of white zip ties on her belt. I didn’t know what they were expecting; there were no counter protesters and hardly any media around.

They held a ceremony consisting of people lining up to lay yellow flowers on the “Monument to the Victory of the Anti-Japanese War and the Restoration of Taiwan” plaque opposite the hall. Several speeches were made conveying the disturbing message that the “real enemy” was the DPP, not the CCP. A Buddhist monk spoke, as well as various KMT officials. I walked around the edges of the crowd, taking a few photos but not daring to get too close as entirely too many of the old people were maskless and sitting clumped together under the tents. A few of them gave me some strange looks but mostly I was left alone as they probably assumed I was just some random tourist. It all felt a little sad and desperate, the last gasps of a disappearing world. But it would be dangerous to discount this demographic; although they are diminishing in numbers, especially due to covid, they still wield substantial financial and political power.

“Are you a photographer?” an unmasked Asian American man who looked to be in his 40’s asked me. As always, I didn’t know how to answer that question, but he wasn’t concerned with my lack of a definitive answer. He was, he said, a YouTuber, and a quite well known one at that, focusing on political analysis of both the U.S. and Taiwan. I didn’t contribute much to the conversation, mostly listening and nodding at his rather, uh…unconventional views. He stressed, with no prompting, that he wasn’t a fan of Trump, though I hadn’t asked or even mentioned Trump. That always strikes me as odd. But when he was talking about the “mystery” of Republicans gaining ground in Florida, I couldn’t help but ask if perhaps DeSantis’ agenda had been having an effect. “Who?” he asked, puzzled.

“Ron DeSantis?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“The governor of Florida,”

“Oh, I don’t know who any of those people are,” he said, dismissing such knowledge as unimportant. The real issue, he said, was the DPP stuffing ballot boxes. I asked if he had participated in the voting process here, but again, no, he wasn’t a citizen; his source was…and you might want to sit down for this…a mysterious friend with connections to U.S. intelligence. I only hope I haven’t said too much.

The sun had come out again at this point, and Chenbl said he was on his way, so I caught the subway up to Jiantan. While Chenbl got his hair cut, I walked over to the river and spotted a nice puddle that would surely, I judged from the top of the flood wall, reflect the sunset and skyline. As I approached, another man approached from the opposite direction, a large DSLR around his neck. Surely he will see that reflection, I thought, so I adjusted my path to let him approach it first, but he didn’t. When I crouched down to get my shot, however, I heard the clack of his shutter and looked up to see him photographing me. So if you see a photograph of me crouching by a puddle, 1) this is probably what I was doing, and 2) this is not a rare thing for me. My fellow BME member Don Hudson always points this out, and I am not ashamed of my inability to resist the attraction of a reflective surface. I’ve been doing this shit since the Mirror Project of yore and even before, and I don’t plan on stopping.

posted by Poagao at 12:08 pm  
Jul 04 2022

Egography

ego

/ˈiːɡəʊ,ˈɛːɡəʊ/
noun
  1. a person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance.

Numerous discussions of the practice have been popping up on social media platforms such as Twitter, where one can come across diatribes centered around the evils of what is being called ‘toxic’ street photography; the practice of Bruce Gilden, described as running around rudely violating the personal space and ‘rights’ of hapless pedestrians with his closely held flash and brusque New York attitude, is often brought up as an example. Garry Winogrand is also criticized for his admittedly questionable “Women are Beautiful” work. Many speakers state the remedy to this state of affairs can only be first engaging with one’s subjects before any photography can take place, which would seem to negate the possibility of truly candid photography unless a great deal of time is spent becoming familiar with all involved, at which point it would then become pure documentary work. The work these critics point to as “ethical street photography”, and in many cases the work they themselves produce, is however more akin to staged portraiture, often photos of people standing on a street, staring blankly at the camera, many of them posing.

While some of this kind of photography can be interesting, much of it seems to be more about satisfying the photographer’s ego than the people being photographed. And the photographers themselves, satisfied that they got the shots they had planned, don’t even seem to be aware of nor care about this limitation, let alone the degree to which they have inserted themselves into the work at the expense of their subjects.

Of course, all photography is about the photographer to some extent. But in the course of such an interaction between photographer and photographed, the demand placed upon the subject to react to the photographer’s presence according to whatever social contract applies removes that subject from their original purpose and authentic emotional state. It wrests their attention to the lens and the performative act of ‘being photographed.’ When viewing such work, I can’t help but wonder what the photographer interrupted, what these people had been doing, what they’d been thinking before the photographer called their attention to them: “Hey can I take your picture? Could you stand there? That’s it.” The insistence that a subject acknowledges the photographer’s presence and purpose, then acquiesces to their requests – rather than making a photograph respectfully and without intruding – could almost be bordering on narcissistic.

On the other side of this debate, of course, you have what I’d refer to as the “street bros”, who are quite vocal about expressing their right to “shoot” and “capture” strangers on the street. To them, as they stride down the thoroughfare with GoPros recording their safari adventure for their YouTube channel and TikToks that will no doubt be accompanied by fast-paced percussion music in their videos, street photography is an almost vindictive, chest-beating pursuit, getting as close and aggressive as possible. One of these guys (and yes, it seems to always be guys), popped up in a Flickr street group the other day, slamming anyone with the view that the feelings of one’s subject should be considered: “Enough said: street photography is a harsh genre and not for the faint hearted,” he posted. “You must be committed to the genre and retain a stiff upper lip when it comes to snowflakes and their feelings…these snowflakes will always find me, and a bunch of others, ready to confront them and put them in their place.” The use of the term ‘snowflakes’ is quite revealing here, and reeks of the kind of toxic masculinity and straight-white-male entitlement that accompanies the subjugation of others, fueled by an egocentric worldview and lacking human empathy.

“…the demand placed upon the subject to react to the photographer’s presence according to whatever social contract applies removes that subject from their original purpose and authentic emotional state. It wrests their attention to the lens and the performative act of ‘being photographed.’“

I’ve only run into a few such individuals myself. Again, while there is potential for interesting results, the work produced tends in most cases to be rather sloppy, jarring, and lacking contemplation. It seldom says anything except, “Look at me!” But as much as this behavior is described as being fundamental to street photography, it doesn’t correlate with the majority of photographers I have encountered.

Perhaps, as dichotomous as these two extreme positions of “street photography should be banned” and “street photography should be practiced ruthlessly” may seem, these two approaches could be said to be essentially about the same thing: the photographer’s ego-driven urge to impose themselves into the work, making the purported subject a secondary consideration.

The obvious reason for this migration towards these particular binaries is the desire to invoke public perception: The kind of photos that get attention these days on social media tend to be straightforward, obvious pieces that immediately hit the viewer over the head; after all, they only have a fraction of a second before said viewer swipes on past on their tiny screen, and these days attention is capital. Thus, details, subtlety and contemplation have receded from our template.

That street photography is being boiled down to two such unappetizing choices isn’t just depressing, it’s a gross misrepresentation of what was once seen as a much more diverse and complex genre of photography. There is an entire-disregarded world in between the two poles, a world encompassing multitudinous ways of engaging with subjects without imposing oneself onto them…photographs that are instead gentle, detailed, reflective and poetic observations without the need to either shove the crux of the content down the viewer’s throat for the ‘Likes’ or decry the ethical nature of one’s practice with a diatribe on ‘consent’ as a corollary to quality. Instead, these two strikingly similar extremes have somehow come to bear false witness to the entire genre.

How did we get here? Perhaps one extreme created the other, and the two polemics have expanded and reinforced each other, overtaking more moderate and nuanced positions, strict black and white crowding out all the tones on the spectrum in between. Social media companies have thrust us into this paradigm to keep our attention riveted on the ensuing drama, which in turn keeps their bottom lines going up, and they’ll continue to do so as long as it can make them more money.

Might it just be that the deeper problem isn’t how we choose to photograph, but rather how the role of personal photography is perceived in the context of our ever-more tenuous connections with each other amid the constantly growing encroachment of 24/7 surveillance by the government/corporate realm trying to wrest such observational authority from our purview? This would explain the compulsion of the ‘street bro’ crowd to assert their ‘rights’ to take pictures, as well as the desire for other individuals to insist on the conscious, consensual participation of the subject in all pictures made in public spaces. Yet, in both of these binary counterpoints, the imposition of the photographer’s ego erodes authenticity in the relationship between photographer, subject, and audience. Real photography should be about genuine connection, at its best conveying the human condition, but as we lose touch with each other, as social media paradigms encroach upon our sense of self, seeking to replace generations of actual social connection, we have lost much of any basic sense of trust we ever had.

Our true masks in these times are not made of fabric or paper, but of mistrust. As our connections have been siphoned off by media manipulation, blue checkmark validation vainly attempting to replace actual self-validation, our attention being redirected to bolster corporate bottom lines, our desperate urge to prop up our sense of self has overflowed into the space we previously reserved for others in our hearts and minds.

Observation with compassion and empathy may be cynically described as nearly impossible in such a state of affairs, driving the view that street photography can only be either inherently exploitative or a billboard for the ego, but it is vital that we keep it alive. Otherwise, it won’t just be photography that disappears from view, it will be our very humanity.

posted by Poagao at 10:40 am  
Jul 01 2022

George’s Folia

I get earworms sometimes. They seem more common in this Spotify-driven era, or perhaps it’s just brain chemistry. Regardless, like most people with earworm tendencies, I have a method of removing them. Some people swear by the “By Mennen” jingle as a definitive way to end the constant cycle. I’ve found that putting the opening to one of the many versions of the authorless renaissance tune La Folia on the record player in my head, I could reset my mental song palate, to mix a few metaphors.

One night as I was attempting to get a certain song out of my head (probably something like Lil Nas X as that man can make a catchy tune), I put on La Folia, but somehow in my mind it morphed into the 1955 recording of George’s Dilemma by trumpet legend Clifford Brown. I tried to wrest it back, but even though one is in D and the other in C# minor, the two overlaid each other until I realized that one of the reasons I love George’s Dilemma so much is that is seems to follow closely the chord progression of La Folia. When I looked up the roots of the song, Caribbean roots are mentioned, but not La Folia. I suppose the two are not exclusive, as La Folia is such an old tune that has been incorporated into many other forms of music.

I’ve always loved La Folia and often wondered if one could do a true jazz version that would lend itself to an improvisational style. Brown’s composition seems to be just that, and you can tell from his solo, which pounces on the notes that are at once the least expected and the most satisfying. Harold Land follows with a rather standard sax solo that does the job but doesn’t explore out the possibilities of the tune. Then Richie Powell constructs a delightfully exotic and evocative piano solo before the instruments come back in for the ending, which is a reprise of the beginning, all underlied by George Morrow’s bassline and Max Roach’s percussion. I would have loved to have heard another sax player take on that piece, Coltrane or even Parker, who died the year the song was recorded. Sometimes I take out my horn and try to follow Brown through the song, getting little hits of satisfaction on the few bits I can keep up with, but it’s a difficult key for trumpet, and all I can say is that Brown must have loved the workout his fingers got from it.

I’d still be interested in hearing more jazz adaptations of La Folia, particularly as I can imagine renaissance musicians in some small Spanish village getting together, eating, drinking, smoking and jamming to it all night, resulting in the tune becoming stuck firmly in their ears the next day.

posted by Poagao at 8:41 pm  
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  
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