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    Posted by Sean at 22:34, January 24th, 2008

    Since I don’t have Larry Craig tendencies, I was startled to use a train station toilet in Taipei for the first time last night and discover that it appeared to be hitting on me:


    I beg your pardon! Here? I’m not that kind of man, buddy.


    Posted by Sean at 21:59, January 23rd, 2008

    If you know Japanese, Taipei can be a really frustrating city. Reading literature, all the way up to the beginning of the Showa Period, generally requires you to know the traditional forms of kanji–at least at first. But modern pocket additions*, while not otherwise abridged or bowdlerized, frequently use the official Japanese simplified forms, so you get used to not having to recognize the older characters. Taiwan still uses them, though, so even though I can’t pronounce them here, I’ve been using the writing to get my bearings.

    It took me several days to remember that 點 is, in fact, 点. (Well, I didn’t remember so much as realize that a crawl inside a subway car that said 終點 wasn’t likely to mean anything else.) Amritas used to tell me that you didn’t really know an Asian language with a Chinese-derived script until you’d started with the traditional stroke-choked characters. He was right, I suppose, at least in terms of transferrable skills.

    Something you notice right away traveling around Taipei: it’s a very pious city. I’m not referring to the people (though they may be as devout as they come for all I know). I mean the place names. Streets in Japan don’t usually have names–don’t get me started on the resulting headaches involved in trying to get somewhere for the first time–and blocks, train stations, and intersections are often named for a nearby landmark. Otherwise, they tend to be named for things in nature: Greenleaf, Middle River, Wisteria Mountain, and the like.

    In Taipei, several of the major east-west arteries are named for Confucian virtues. My office is on 忠孝路 (“Loyalty and Filial Piety Avenue”). On the way, we pass 仁愛路 (“Humaneness and Love Avenue”). There’s a place between my friend’s apartment and our office called 明徳 (“limpid moral probity,” though as in Japan I guess it may refer to an era or exalted personage or something). I’m not sure I can handle quite that much uplift so early in the day, even after my second cup of coffee.

    And I’m pretty certain that having a Catholic mother disqualifies me from working on a street called “Filial Piety.”

    Taipei is also significantly slower-paced than Tokyo. I was listening to Roisin Murphy the other day on a run. Perfect soundtrack to Tokyo but all wrong here. Taipei isn’t brittle and frantic and electronic. It’s not a mountain hamlet, either, but even the center of the city doesn’t press in on you. I’m not sure how well that suits me; I like my cities to be cities. On the other hand, my friend’s apartment (where I’m staying) is in the north of the city on a mountain road, so hiking and hot springs and things are right out the door. That part’s not bad at all, and it’s helpful given all the bulky Western food I’ve been hoovering up since I got here. (American food is much better in Taipei than in Tokyo.)

    Ack. Time to hie myself to the Straight Path of Loyalty and Filial Piety for the day.

    * Nice malapropism, huh? Apparently, I can’t write in my native language anymore after two cups of coffee, either. editions/additions…affect/effect…mucus/mucous…okay, I think I’m all right now.


    Posted by Sean at 11:19, January 23rd, 2008

    I used to have a friend or two who covered health care here as journalists or consultants, so I’d have been able to ask about the recent efflorescence of reporting about patients’ either being turned away from hospitals during life-threatening emergencies or being turned out of hospitals after their course of treatment was over if they had no home or family to go back to. As in, I’m not sure whether we’re looking at relatively new phenomena, widespread phenomena that are finally getting coverage, or a few scattered incidents that eager reporters want to interpret as a larger pattern that may not exist.

    I do know that there have been several memorable stories like this over the last several months:

    An elderly woman died after 11 hospitals turned her away and paramedics struggled to find a medical institution that would accept her, it has been learned.

    The 95-year-old woman fell ill at her home in Kiyose, Tokyo, on Jan. 8, and was picked up by emergency workers. However, 11 hospitals in the areas refused to accept her, citing such reasons as a lack of beds, and the woman died about 2 1/2 hours after the emergency call was made.

    The article ends, “Among the medical institutions that refused to accept the woman was a third-level emergency medical facility that was equipped to handle patients whose lives were in danger,” which raises the possibility that other institutions that were contacted may not have been able to handle her case (though that would normally make them clinics rather than hospitals in English translation). Another article in the Mainichi relates that an anorexic teenager was refused admission by seven hospitals. She was delirious and unable to walk and died the same night.

    One of the incidents covered in the story I linked here may produce charges for four of the hospital staff involved:

    Four workers at a hospital here face charges for abandoning a blind patient with diabetes at a park in September last year after his former wife refused to take him under her care, law enforcers said Wednesday.

    Police are poised to send an investigation report to prosecutors, accusing four workers at Toyokawa Sogo Hospital in Kita-ku, Sakai, of abandoning a person they were responsible for protecting.

    The four transported the patient to his former wife’s home in Sumiyoshi-ku, Osaka, after doctors deemed that he could be discharged from the institution, only to be rejected, investigators said. They then abandoned him at a park in Nishinari-ku, Osaka, according to local police.

    One of the four then called for an ambulance saying, “A man has collapsed at the park. He appears to be visually impaired.”

    It’s hard to determine from the thin detail given whether the four hospital employees implicated actually decided to dump the guy; that they called an ambulance (to take him to another hospital!) indicates that they were interested in more than just getting rid of him and high-tailing it out of there. Perhaps their supervisor told them to take the man out of the facility and not to come back with him.

    Pig of the river

    Posted by Sean at 10:41, January 23rd, 2008

    Here‘s the first fugu-eating accident of the year that I’m aware of:

    A woman who ate parts of a poisonous fugu puffer fish sold to her illegally is fighting for her life in a hospital, Ibaraki Prefectural Government officials said.

    Sale of fugu without its poisonous parts requires a special license under the Food Hygiene Law and the fishmonger that sold to the woman did not have one. Hitachinaka public health authorities have shut down the fishmonger.

    Prefectural officials said the woman bought six fugu on Jan. 11 and cooked them in a stew at her home. About three hours after the woman ate the puffer fish’s skin and liver, she started complaining of a tingling in her mouth and hands. Her husband ate only the fish’s flesh.

    I’m assuming she didn’t eat all six livers, or (if my understanding of the strength of the neurotoxin TTX is accurate) there’d be no question of her “fighting for her life” right now, even unconsciously. The liver is full of poison, so much so that it has to be rinsed under water for a VERY long time by a licensed chef in order to be fit for consumption. (The toxin that’s left produces a slight tingling in the lips and mouth that’s supposed to be part of the sensory experience that makes it a delicacy. I also know people who have gotten raging headaches from it, though thankfully they were still alive to complain to me about them.)

    Posted by Sean at 08:42, January 17th, 2008

    Previous times in Taipei, I haven’t really talked to anyone about Taipei 101 much. It’s an impressive building–distinctive without being aggressively ugly, which is a balance many super-skyscrapers don’t manage. I don’t think it looks much like a stalk of bamboo, but it has its own personality.

    Unfortunately, that apparently isn’t its only distinguishing characteristic. The building’s nowhere near capacity with tenants. “Bad timing on the rental market?” I asked. “No, bad feng shui,” I was told.

    Wang Chung-ping, vice chairman of C.Y. Lee and Partners, which designed Taipei 101, is often asked to accommodate feng shui concerns, but sees little science in it. “To me, it’s very much a psychological thing,” he says. “We don’t encourage building owners to hire feng shui masters, but most seem to.”

    In many cases, it is the richer building owners who pay more attention to feng shui, and as a result, architects have picked up some feng shui knowledge to avoid problems later in the design process. “We have some very basic knowledge of feng shui: back to a hill; face to an open area; no street running in your face. It’s common knowledge in our culture. Usually what we do is OK,” Wang says.

    Even so, architects trained in western design methods frequently ignore the finer points of feng shui. In design, for example, straight lines are seen as attractive, capable of producing an eye-catching sense of symmetry. Feng shui, however, views straight lines with suspicion, as they transmit chi too quickly. China’s first railway, constructed by Europeans, so disturbed those living near it that it was ripped up and thrown into the sea.

    Wang ran into the problem of straight lines while designing Taipei 101. An alley ran straight into the side of the building, so he was advised to place a fountain containing a marble ball at that entrance to slow the chi entering the building.

    For some feng shui masters, Taipei 101 has many other problems. Zhang Hsu-chu, one of the feng shui masters who worked on the project, acknowledges the site is not that good. He says the building’s foundations destroyed one of the dragon lines flowing through Taipei, and the site used to be a place of execution, meaning there are a lot of ghosts in the area. These ghosts, he says, were responsible for the deaths of three men working on the building during an earthquake in 2003. He told the owner that praying to the ghosts would placate them, and there were no further problems. “The chi for this area has been drained,” he says, “but it’ll return.”

    Apparently, one of Taiwan’s most successful pop stars had an apartment with a view of Taipei 101, and she didn’t release an album for years after it went up. Maybe we could convince Mariah to move in?


    Posted by Sean at 04:42, January 15th, 2008

    Work, busy, wontons, Chiang Kai-shek, blah-blah-blah. Will have more to report soon. Two quick notes on the latest (though now several days old) Camille column at Salon.

    First, Jeff of Beautiful Atrocities got a letter published and answered. At least, you don’t think there could be another Jeff Percifield who would begin with “Longtime fan here. As a Reaganite homo, couldn’t disagree with you more on politics, but who cares?” and then go on to write about a Ukrainian drag queen, right? Me, neither.

    Then there’s this beyond-satire letter about the Iraq occupation:

    Thank you for giving us a voice of reason before and during the Iraq war. At a time when many people resorted to clichés or did not speak out openly against the war, you made a strong case for peace. I also commend you for continuing to speak out against this pointless war.

    My thoughts about our world, expressed in Haiku form:

    War afflicts our world
    Random murder and bloodshed
    The scourge of our time

    No armies in ranks
    Just sporadic explosions
    Maiming and killing

    Serving no purpose
    Ending lives before their time.
    When will peace arrive?

    Again, thank you on behalf of the Peace Party.

    I’m not Japanese, so maybe it’s not my place to say this, but on behalf of grown-ups everywhere…please don’t say things in haiku that are better said in normal prose. Please. If you’ve had some kind of epiphanic experience in nature and feel stirred to write a haiku, fine. That’s right in line with the tradition. In fact, that is the tradition.

    We use haiku in elementary school to teach second-graders about poetry because…well, it helps reinforce the concept of the syllable, it’s a less confusing way to teach discipline and rules in composition than the sonnet, it introduces the idea that non-Western countries have very different poetic traditions, and most kids can find something about nature that they think it would be fun to write about.

    However, it is a mistake to believe in something one might call the Haiku Effect, that (it is assumed) simply expressing something in seventeen syllables on three lines somehow imbues it with major big-time profundity. Pointless line breaks actually come off kind of kitschy, which presumably was not the intention here.

    She’s everywhere

    Posted by Sean at 06:14, January 11th, 2008

    So I thought I was LEAVING Japan, but here it was at my office in Taipei, ranged like the vanguard of the Army of Fatal Cuteness poised to attack:


    Oy. Have a good Friday.

    Added on 17 January: Thanks for the link, Virginia. I wish I’d actually posted about something aesthetic. :)


    Posted by Sean at 22:57, January 8th, 2008

    Hope everyone had a great holiday. I stayed in Tokyo this year, as did more of my friends than usual–a good thing, since I’ll be out of town for the next two months.

    For eleven years, I’ve lived in a country vulnerable to earthquakes and typhoons that sits a missile’s-throw from a nuke-hungry enemy. What could be more exciting? Hmm…how about a country vulnerable to earthquakes and typhoons that sits a missile’s throw from a super-huge country that already has nukes AND regards it as a renegade province? So I accepted an invitation from an old friend who owns the Taiwan branch of my former company to spend a few months in her office as a consultant. I leave at the end of this week, and I’m looking forward to it. To judge from my visits to Taipei, it’s not somewhere I’d want to live long-term, but I’ve always wanted more time to explore the place. Seven or so weeks seems like a good length of time, with some time back when the country shuts down for Chinese New Year.

    For the moment, I’m gearing up for the jump and watching the Clinton-Obama numbers in New Hampshire.


    Posted by Sean at 23:07, December 30th, 2007

    Dave Barry’s class-clown humor doesn’t always do it for me, but his year-in-review column always has a few passages that make you laugh out loud. I think this is my favorite part for 2007:

    Abroad, the six-party talks in Beijing conclude on an optimistic note as North Korea’s leader, Insane Lunatic Liar Il, announces that his country will dismantle its nuclear-weapons program just as soon as it receives the nuclear dismantler that it ordered on eBay. All six parties agree that this sounds reasonable; they resume partying. On a more ominous nuclear note, President Bush warns Iran that it is, quote, “awfully close to Iraq, if you look at a map, which I have.” In another increasingly tense international arena, the U.N. Security Council sends 1,000 peacekeeping troops to New York City in an effort to quell Rosie O’Donnell, who repels them by shouting.

    But the big news in February is the death and subsequent wacky adventures of Anna Nicole Smith, whose body remains in a refrigerator in the Broward County medical examiner’s office while her infant child is embroiled in a paternity dispute that eventually comes to involve pretty much every adult male resident of the United States except Richard Simmons. The news media cover this story with their usual taste and restraint, keeping the public informed of important developments via such journalistic innovations as the Refrigerator Cam; Greta Van Susteren jets to Aruba in case there is a Natalee Holloway link. The dramatic finale takes place in a Florida courtroom presided over by Judge Weeping Twit, who, in a display of Solomonic wisdom, rules that everyone involved will get a TV show.

    Scary how much of an improvement over reality that would actually have been, huh?

    Happy New Year, everyone.

    Spaing partners

    Posted by Sean at 08:36, December 28th, 2007

    Virginia Postrel links to a true story with the kind of happy ending that can literally make you cry: Afghans get a new industry that provides environmentally-sustainable work and brings cash into the economy…and affluent Americans get access to a broader array of fabulous beauty products!

    Anyone who writes to ask which part moved me more will be ignored.

    Of course, every narrative like this needs a villain to add drama and make our heroine’s eventual triumph sweeter, and this story has a great one:

    The letter I received from him a few days later confirmed my premonition. It requested a ream of further documentation, such as a breakdown of the raw-materials cost of a bar of soap and our financial accounts from previous years. “Maybe even more importantly,” the letter went on,

    we need to show the real raison d’etre for all of this. It’s because there’s real demand for your products. Demand is not your problem, Sarah, satisfying it is. You’ve already established a vibe in the market. You’re selling in Manhattan and sundry other swanky places. You’ve had plenty of free publicity in media with the appropriate reach to capture the attention of the chattering class whose hands you’re washing. The wind is now behind you and you’ve an opportunity to make a significant contribution to establishing Afghanistan as something other than a squalid state exporting only smack and terror. This is what USAID wants to hear.

    Peppering this and subsequent communications were colloquialisms like “the first thing we’ve gotta make plain …”

    I replied, providing the requested information, but also a statement of frustration. I was swiftly scolded for my tone: “unbusinesslike, unmannerly, and just plain unaesthetic.”

    Ick. No one who uses gotta in a business context–who would, indeed, use gotta for any purpose other than transcribing soul lyrics–should be passing judgments on the aesthetic value of someone else’s prose. Especially when he himself appears never to have met a cliché he didn’t like. Guy should be sentenced to wash with Duane Reade soap (“Compare to Irish Spring!”) for the rest of his life.

    Anyway, seriously, Sarah Chayes’s piece confirms what you hear elsewhere about funding provided by big-guns organizations for entrepreneurship in developing countries–namely, that it has a way of vaporizing in the pipeline from the West to the target population. It’s a very good read.