Good morning

I was awoken at around 6 or 7 this morning by a brief earthquake, and then again at about 8:30 as a series of monks, in their straw sandals and wide-brimmed woven-reed conish hats, starting wandering back and forth down the road, chanting at the top of their lungs. I wonder perhaps if there was a causal relationship, some sort of special prayer or spell given in the wake of an earthquake to calm the restless earth dragons. Even some of the Japanese neighbors seemed startled and amused by this curious occurance, and the entire family in the house just across and over from mine got out to watch in mild wonder this anachronistic scene, and one monk stopped to give a personal blessing to their little girl.

Roppongi is Tokyo’s toilet bowl

Walking from Nogizaka Station to Tokyo Midtown this morning, I joined thousands of commuters who were forced to step over what appeared and smelled to be a smear of human feces on the Roppongi sidewalk. Was it anti-capitalist terrorism, or just the work of a partier who couldn’t contain himself?

Now that some of my anger has subsided, I can’t help but see this as an aptly pungent metaphor for modern Roppongi. While conveniently located in the center of Tokyo, for a long time the Roppongi area was not considered a business district but overwhelmingly the notorious nightlife center of Tokyo. But the construction of business centers such as Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown over the past few years has re-branded the area as office-friendly. Yet as long as the dozens of clubs continue to infest the Roppongi Crossing area, workers such as myself will be forced to commute each morning using the same streets taken by the drunks and gangsters to go home the previous night. I have had more than one run-in with drunks returning from a night out, but needless to say today’s experience trumped them all.

Photo festival part 2-B: Adjoined slum and cemetary in Taipei: Part B-Cemetary

This is the third installment in my rapid photo gallery posting series to prepare for my new camera, following Part 1 Osaku amateur photographers in Akihabara and Part 2-A: Adjoined slum and cemetary in Taipei: Part 1-Slum.

Last summer when I was in Taipei I stayed for a week and change at my friend Cerise’s house, located in a nice new looking development up the hill a bit from Xinhai Station, on the Muzha MRT elevated train line. The area immediately around the station looks to have been a center of carpentry and similar workshops since well before the station was built in the early 1990s (Muzha was Taipei’s first MRT line, built from 1988 and opening in 1996), and still surround it.

Behind the station are several of the aforementioned workshops, beyond which is a hill, upon which is a traditional Chinese cemetery of the kind popular in Taiwan. This is not particulary weird, but what is kind of weird is that in between the cemetery hill and the immediate vicinity of the station is a small cluster of private homes that I can’t describe in one word any more appropriate than “slum”. These photographs are of the cemetery itself, and Part 2-A: Slum is the gallery of photographs of the area from the station to the area to the cemetery proper.

All photographs here taken with a Canon 300D camera with 17-85mm EFS lens, on August 1, 2008.

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Here are a flash slideshow, recommended for full-screen mode, followed by HTML for the flash challenged.

Here is the view from the path leading up the hill into the cemetery.

Continue reading Photo festival part 2-B: Adjoined slum and cemetary in Taipei: Part B-Cemetary

Good news for Losheng?

Since I visited the Japanese colonial era Losheng Leprasorium in Northern Taipei last summer I have been keeping tabs on developments in the battle between government officials trying to destroy it and preservationists trying to…preserve it.  Things had been looking grim when elderly wheelchair-bound residents were dragged out of their homes, but a high level apology may mean that things are getting sorted out.

Premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) yesterday offered an apology to patients with Hansen’s disease— also known as leprosy — for the “grievance” and “unequal treatment” they have suffered in the past, promising that his administration would take good care of their nursing and medical needs. The apology came six months after the enactment of the Act of Human Rights Protection and Compensation for Hansen’s Disease Patients (漢生病病患人權保障及補償條例), which detailed measures the government must take to care for leprosy sufferers.


“I will not accept the government’s apology, because they did not apologize for what they did to me in December,” said Lan Tsai-yun (藍彩雲), a Losheng resident who was removed by the police from the Joan of Arc House. “I asked them to give me two more weeks to pack, but they refused. They cut the power and water while I was still inside, then they cut through the door with an electric saw and took me away by force. But look, Joan of Arc House still stands there today, a month after that incident — why couldn’t they give me two more weeks?”

Here is a video from Taiwanese TV showing activists being dragged away when protesting in support of Losheng preservation back in December. At exactly the 1:00 you can actually see my friend Em having her camera taken away as the police pull her away, although I think she got it back later on.

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Architectural preservation and history in Taiwan updates

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed three stories in the Taipei Times on the topic of preserving notable or historical architecture in Taiwan.

  1. Taipei County looks to rebuild site of weird UFO houses – I had actually written that I wanted to stop by this area and see the UFO houses before my trip to Taiwan last summer, but just couldn’t find the time. Alas, they may be completely gone by the time I next visit Taiwan.
  2. Taipei to preserve historical Japanese-era buildings – I have previously discussed the many Japanese houses that can be found all over Taiwan in stages of repair ranging all the way from crumbling ruin to well preserved monument. Here is a gallery of photographs I took at one ruin in Taichung, and here and here are photographs of the one behind my apartment building in Taipei. Although Taipei is not proposing a general preservation rule for such historical buildings, which might be nice, they are designating an area near the intersection of Zhongxiao E Road and Jinshan S Road, which contains a cluster of 10 surviving houses built for Japanese civil servants – reportedly the largest single cluster in Taipei – as a special historical zone.
  3. Miaoli officials caught in a lie – Another piece of grim news. Apparently officials in the Miaoli County actually pretended to hold a meeting to discuss the historical preservation of the last three surviving kilns in what was a center of the pottery industry during the Japanese colonial period, but in fact never even convened the meeting. The claim that the kilns had “no historic or cultural value” sounds shaky at best, and it seems that they likely violated the Cultural Heritage Protection Act [文化資產保護法] to make way for an industrial development. Angry preservationists are filing lawsuits against the officials who cleared the kilns for distruction.

There were also three other stories of note related to historical topics I have discussed on this blog before.

  1. Chiang Kai-shek plaque to return to memorial hall – “Rectification of names” continues in Taiwan. I have discussed this phenomenon several times in the past, as committed by Chen Shui-bian’s DPP administration here and here, who was replacing China-centric names with Taiwan-centric ones, and then with the reveral of Chen’s Taiwanization moves by Ma Ying-Jiu’s KMT administration here and here. As of January 22, Democracy Hall nee Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is now once again Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. However, the new KMT administration has magnanimously decided to preserve the renaming of the area surrounding CKS Hall to “Liberty Square”.
  2. Descendents of ‘Orphan Army’ dream of home – I previously discussed the KMT/ROC army remnant of Southeast Asia here, noting in particular their fascinating historical association with the SE Asian drug trade, and the unlikely direct connection forged with 1970s Harlem druglord Frank Lucas, as portratyed in the film American Gangster starring Denzel Washington. As descendants of KMT soldiers, there are actually a fair number of “overseas Chinese” from Burma or Thailand who have gone to Taiwan to study using fake documentation, and although they are apparently not deported from Taiwan due to the tricky historical ROC links, they also find it difficult to obtain proper documentation that would allow them to travel back and forth. I imagine there is some sort of process by which they can apply for legal status, but it may very well require geneological or other documentation that is hard to come by. This is a story well worth checking into more.
  3. Study backs findings on Polynesian origins – Linguistic, genetic and archaeological research in the past has suggested that the entire Polynesian/Austronesian group of peoples, ranging from the Malays of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to the Maori of New Zealand and the native Hawaiians, are all descended from seafaring explorers that set out from Taiwan thousands of years ago. Although only about 2-3% of Taiwan’s current population officially belongs to these “aborigine” tribes whose ancestors were also the ancestors of the Polynesians, a much, much larger percentage of “ethnic Chinese” Taiwanese are actually at least partially descended from aborigines who became culturally Sinicized generations ago. This is of particular pride to proponents of Taiwanese independence who use it as evidence that Taiwan is not inherently Chinese. It is actually a popular theory (if not fact) that much of the “Han” population of southern China is actually descended from natives who became culturally Sinicized in a similar way hundreds or thousands of years ago, and have a noticably distinct genetic history from the northern Han Chinese.
  4. Descendants of victims mark ‘Taiping’ tragedy – Not specifically related to anything I have written about before, but the story of how over 1000 immigrants from China to Taiwan died in a shipwreck near Shanghai in 1949 is new to me, and well worth knowing. I am a bit skeptical of how one can wring out a 20-episode drama from this story though. James Cameron’s Titanic was long enough for me.

Stimulus or investment? Japan vs. USA

Ever since the start of our current financial disaster various economists and pundits have been comparing first the US banking problems with Japan’s, and then more recently the infrastructure-heavy stimulus program with Japan’s construction state. Today’s NYT has a substantial article that easily marks the most high profile comparison yet. I’m certainly no economist and I’m not even taking the time to look at numbers right now, but my quick take on the issue is that the comparison is being significantly overblown, but it is still a very worthwhile comparison to make, so that Japan’s various successes and mistakes can be absorbed as lessons. See the following summation of Japan’s massive pork spending:

Dr. Ihori of the University of Tokyo did a survey of public works in the 1990s, concluding that the spending created almost no additional economic growth. Instead of spreading beneficial ripple effects across the economy, he found that the spending actually led to declines in business investment by driving out private investors. He also said job creation was too narrowly focused in the construction industry in rural areas to give much benefit to the overall economy.

He agreed with other critics that the 1990s stimulus failed because too much of it went to roads and bridges, overbuilding this already heavily developed nation. Critics also said decisions on how to spend the money were made behind closed doors by bureaucrats, politicians and the construction industry, and often reflected political considerations more than economic. Dr. Ihori said the United States appeared to be striking a better balance by investing in new energy and information-technology infrastructure as well as replacing aging infrastructure.

Japan’s huge boom in public works spending was less a national stimulus program than a gigantic rural welfare program of pork-barrel projects designed to prop up the ailing LDP in its long decline. The money was largely directed not to the areas where it would benefit the largest number of people, but the areas where it would benefit the largest number of politicians. This was not done entirely out purely cynical political motives but also due to a genuine desire to arrest the decline of the rural regions themselves, in the face of continuing urbanization and a decline in Japan’s traditional and lionized (if anachronistic) agricultural lifestyle. Regardless of intent, a huge proportion (I won’t use words like “most” without looking at actual numerical research) of the spending was “stimulus” but not “investment”.

I am very, very wary of the general principal of “economic stimulus.” I am not opposed to government spending, or even large amounts of government spending, as long as it is being spent on something that is actually necessary or build further value in the future, i.e. services or investment. I think this attitude should be obvious from the mass transit funding letter I wrote and posted here a few days ago. In short, I worry that the discussions on spending currently ongoing in Washington may turn into a series of worthless boondoggle projects oriented at unpopulated rural areas, combined with random tax cuts and other expenditures poorly aimed at short-term (i.e. one election cycle) economic recovery, while continuing to ignore the trillions of dollars in outstanding repairs or upgrades as well as vital new investment that the country needs. I think it’s safe to say that politicians are going to spend this money. The question is, what will it buy us? Would we rather have a bunch of bridges to nowhere, vacant museums and amusement parks in virtually deserted rural towns, and paved-over mountain tops, or would we rather have a modern electrical grid, mass transit that at least meets late 20th century standards if not 21st century, a safe and reliable water system, bridges rated to not collapse, and maybe even an adequate system of public health care?

Fishing with poison

Upon seeing the photo Joe posted of a sign prohibiting kinds of fishing that no one should ever engage in, I was somewhat skeptical at the prospect that anyone might actually try and catch fish using poison. Well, I was wrong. The NYT today has a rather distressing account of Jamaicans catching shrimp in just this manner.

And in the Blue Mountains and John Crow Mountains here, people go fishing by dumping poison in the Rio Grande.

Any toxin will do. Some favor the pesticide used to keep insects off the coffee plants. Others use the potent solution used to rid cows of ticks. When subjected to the poison, the shrimp — large and small — float right to the top. So do the fish. Catching them is as easy as scooping them up before the river washes them and the poison away.

“You have to put all morals and conscience aside, and then you throw a toxic pesticide in the river,” said Kimberly John of the Nature Conservancy, which is leading an effort to stop what it considers the principal threat to the ecosystem. “It’s a very cold, hard reality to put poison in the river, and whatever jumps out, you catch.”

If I read many more articles like this, I may have to start reconsidering eating food at all.

More on plastic bags

Following up on my post about three weeks ago on the movement to curb plastic bag use, the NYT has an article focusing on the success of the Irish campaign.

In 2002, Ireland passed a tax on plastic bags; customers who want them must now pay 33 cents per bag at the register. There was an advertising awareness campaign. And then something happened that was bigger than the sum of these parts.

Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable — on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog.

I think that imposing such fees, essentially a pollution tax being paid in direct response to the pollution itself, may be effective as a means to use market forces for environmental protection. While some libertarian hardliners claim that the only market which matters is the so-called “free market,” operating with no governmental interference whatsoever, in a completely unregulated market the costs of pollution and environmental damage are simply externalized, and born far away from either the producer or consumer of the offending product. By raising the cost of a polluting product, such as a plastic bag, consumers are not just made intellectually aware of the abstract cost which consumption of such a product imposes on the system as a whole, but are forced to make a choice whether or not they, as the responsible party, actually wish to pay the real cost.

Could this be a model for the larger market? It is essentially the same philosophy behind the proposed carbon emissions tax, in which industrial emitters of carbon dioxide are charged fees to encourage thrift and conservation, to reduce the production of greenhouse gases.

On a side note, the article said two more things of which I was not aware. First:

Whole Foods Market announced in January that its stores would no longer offer disposable plastic bags, using recycled paper or cloth instead, and many chains are starting to charge customers for plastic bags.

A positive development from  a major US supermarket, and one whose up-scale yuppie customer base will doubtless embrace. Unfortunately, there is still no sign of a nationwide -or even statewide effort, but perhaps competitor supermarkets will be spurred by Whole Foods.

And on a related, yet surprising note:

While paper bags, which degrade, are in some ways better for the environment, studies suggest that more greenhouse gases are released in their manufacture and transportation than in the production of plastic bags.

Rather unfortunate news, I would say. I hope that recycled paper bags, such as the ones which Whole Foods uses, are in fact less polluting. Still, even if paper bags may pollute the air slightly more than plastic, they certainly don’t have as much impact on the sea.

Plastic bags of doom

It looks like fresh attention is being paid to the fact that plastic bags are among the most troublesome and pernicious forms of waste. How bad? Well, “continents of floating garbage” for a start. Think that’s an exaggeration? Well, “One plastic patch is estimated to weigh over 3 million tons and covers an area twice the size of Texas.” And how much ecological damage does it do?

The United Nations Environment Program says plastic is accountable for the deaths of more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals every year.

That almost certainly dwarfs any damage to cetacean populations that could be caused by, to take a far more famous issue, Japan’s “scientific” whaling program. Not to mention the yet-unknown effects that all of this plastic is likely having on fish, algae, plankton, etc. Could the collapsing fishing stocks be attributable not just to the direct action of over-fishing, but also to poisoning and choking by gargantuan amounts of plastic?

Since the plastic tends to gather in isolated and rarely trafficked patches of sea, so deep into international waters that no country even crosses path with it, much less has responsibility for it. As yet, there is no world body with either the political motivation, technology, or infrastructure necessary for embarking on what would easily be the largest cleanup project in history, and it is difficult to imagine any realistic way that such a huge mass could be removed.

Still, as hopeless as the cleanup is, at least the world is beginning to work to phase out the manufacture and use of such plastic bag, which will at least slow down the rate at which the problem worsens. An announcement earlier today that China-the world’s largest and most polluting nation-will be drastically cutting plastic bag usage is an important step.

As in most countries that have attempted to tackle the problems causes by plastic bag waste, China will primarily be relying not on a total ban on their use, but a requirement that stores no longer give them out free with purchases, but charge extra for them. It is hoped that imposing a surcharge on the bags will encourage customers to bring their own environmentally friendly reusable bags when they go shopping, as has been the case in other countries.

While, as far as I know, Bangladesh is the only country which has as yet completely banned the distribution of plastic bags, a number of countries have imposed bag surcharges similar to the one proposed for China. Taiwan introduced a charge equivalent to something like 5-7 US cents per bag, Singapore has a similar system, and Ireland-an island about twice the size of Taiwan, and formerly a consumer of over 1.2 BILLION plastic bags per year-has imposed a 15 cents/bag fee that is credited with reducing their use by 90%. Other countries in Europe, most likely starting with Ireland’s next-door neighbor of Britain, will likely follow.

Some other countries, such as Japan, have been relying on voluntary conservation to combat plastic bag proliferation. Although some Japanese supermarkets have taken the bold step of simply not having bags at all, they are still given away for free in most businesses. However, convenience stores recently began offering a discount of several yen to customers who refuse a plastic bag. Although the clerk is officially supposed to ask customers if they need a bag, in my experience they almost never do, and simply give them out habitually.

Although I have yet to hear a serious proposal to either ban or charge for plastic bags in the heavy consuming United States, I have recently noticed two well-meant but minor initiatives. The first was at the New York University campus bookstore and computer stores, where if you refuse a plastic bag they give you a token you throw into one of four or five bins near the exit, each one representing a charity. Each token pledges a 5 cents donation to that charity. The other was a sign at my local A&P Supermarket, promising a discount of a few cents for customers who bring their own bags. Unfortunately, this will certainly prove as ineffectual as the convenience store initiative in Japan, particularly since I only saw the sign by the exit, in an area not even visible from the cash register/bagging area.

Will these various measures have a major effect on the plastic bag problem? The answer to that thankfully seems to be a yes-but a qualified yes. It is still to early to know how much ecological damage the vast amounts of plastic already in the ocean have caused, or will cause in the future. And despite movement towards curbing the future growth of the “continents of floating garbage,” we may never be able to get rid of them.

For more information on the oceanic plastics quandary, have a look at this short documentary, filmed on location in the Pacific Ocean.