Monday, June 29, 2009
One of the awesome things about this conference is that most of the talks are great AND they are all recorded and published on line for anyone to watch.
Last Friday, Nick and I spent our entire afternoon watching TED talks - and I don't feel like we wasted the day at all. On the contrary, I feel like I bettered myself!
I highly recommend anyone who is interested in hearing some great talks by some of the most intelligent people in the world right now to go check out their website (http://www.ted.com/).
Below I have embedded two of my favorite talks that I have seen thus far:
This first one is Dan Gilbert asking the question: Why are we Happy?
And the second one here is a really interesting one about some phenomena that occur in the brain... crazy stuff!
Anyway, next time you catch yourself watching something mindless on YouTube, check out some TED videos instead... you'll feel much better spending an hour learning something than you would if you were watching someone taser themselves!
Saturday, June 27, 2009
The Kenting Aquarium is by far the best aquarium I have ever been to. It was absolutely amazing. The aquarium consists of three or four buildings set right next to the Ocean, complete with outdoor promenade and an authentic ocean breeze.
The best part of the aquarium, by far, was the coral reef section. This exhibit had the biggest fish tank that I have ever seen complete with THREE tubes for visitors to walk through (that's 3 tubes going through 1 massive tank!) to provide for amazing fish watching from all angles. It was spectacular.
Almost the entire coral reef exhibit was done in a sunken ship theme so you kind of felt like you were walking through a sunken ship, exploring the marine life that had taken up residence inside it.
One of the more unique things about the aquarium was that in some exhibits they actually simulated fish tanks with huge video screens hung on the walls that were playing videos of fish swimming by.
It sounds kind of lame, it's actually pretty cool. They used this set-up for instances where it would be very difficult or impossible to have actual fish tanks. So it kind of felt as if you were looking at a huge fish tank, but it was actually just a big video screen.
For example, here is a short little video of one of their fake fish tanks for viewing deep ocean bioluminescent fish:
pretty neat, huh?
After leaving the Deep Sea Exhibit (which consisted mostly of video screens) we headed to the Prehistoric Oceans Exhibit. As we walked through we saw more video screens and lots of recreations of extinct fish (interestingly enough, we learned that whales actually evolved from a land mammel that made it's way back into the sea!). At the end of the exhibit we were given 3-D glasses and ushered into a video theater, and I thought to myself, 'are you kidding me!'
I kept walking through the theater, not wanting to waste any of my time on something as lame as a 3-D aquarium movie, but as I reached the theater's exit, I realized that my friends had decided to stop and watch.... ugh!
So, I hovered at the edge of the room, waiting for my friends to loose interest.
As I watched impatiently, an ancient dinosaur-looking fish lunged towards me to gobble me up for lunch, causing me to let out a loud yelp! Thankfully, another ancient fish swooped in and saved me at the last minute!
Ok, so I have to admit, it was by-far the coolest 3D movie I have ever watched - we stayed in the theater to watch the whole thing!
I would definitely recommend the Kenting Aquarium to anyone who has the oportunity to go... it was awesome!
and this is the two story kelp forest exhibit
We also saw a praying mantis - the only one I've ever seen in the wild before - and he was even holding a little fly captive in his hands, until we distracted him and it flew away!
Right next to the praying mantis, we saw a huge, iridescent fly! I was a bit grossed out by this thing, but it was cool none-the-less. This guy was as big as my thumb from tip to knuckle, no joke. Things sure are bigger in tropical rain forests! And, it was apparently mating season for caterpillars, because we saw lots of them engaged in what appeared to be caterpillar copulation!
Just like the hike we went on on Green Island, this 'hike' had lots of little lizards running around;
however, there was another creature scurrying around on the forest floor that I had never seen before: these little yellow crabs!
One of the more unique things about the Kenting national forest is that all of the trees and plants grew up around what was once a coral reef. Every where you look you can see big rocks that were the base for what must have been a huge coral reef.
The forest had all kinds of trees that I had never seen before, including a huge population of crazy banyan trees with massive root systems - here is a picture of Nick walking through one of them:
Occasionally during our walk the path diverted from the forest and took us underground into some pretty cool cave systems. At some points the paths were fairly narrow, but they were well kept and easy to navigate.
A short way into the second cave, I stopped dead in my tracks when I spotted a colony of bats sleeping on the ceiling. I instantly froze and started envisioning the freak-out I would have if we somehow disturbed the bats and they all started flying around our heads inside this small cave! (picture Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom)
Upon discovering the bats, we all froze and became very silent - in an attempt not to disturb their slumber!
We then took about 3-4 minutes to survey the situation, take pictures, and gather up the courage to walk past the bats. After watching them for a while I noticed that a lot of them were actually moving, stretching their wings and readjusting themselves. In hindsight, I can see they were just getting more comfortable with their sleeping position, but at the time I took it as a sure sign that they were about to attack!
After a long pause, and thanks to the bravery of our friend Neil, we finally did manage to get ourselves together and continue on our way exploring the cave without disturbing the bats!
About mid-way through our hike we came to a look-out point with a great aerial view of the forest below and the beach in the distance. One of the best things about this look-out point was that it was on top of a building (a rest area with a snack bar and toilets) and there was an elevator to the top! Hiking doesn't get much better than this!
It was a bit over cast and windy while we were up there, but the view was beautiful none-the-less.
A good time was had by all!
Friday, June 26, 2009
On the first full day of our 3-day trip we were on our way to the Kending National Forest when we stumbled upon a Zorbing Place! Zorbing is an activity where you basically get inside a huge bouncy ball and roll down a hill.
I had been Zorbing once before in Rotorua, New Zealand (pictured above and posted here) so when I first surveyed the Kending sight - with a noticeably smaller and less developed Zorbing hill - I thought 'eh, been there, done that.'
My friends, however, were very keen to try it out, so I decided to go along for the ride... and I definitely wasn't disappointed.
Being that it has been 6 years since my last Zorbing experience, I had forgotten how much fun it is to do something as ridiculous as roll down a hill inside a huge rubber ball! But let me tell you, it's definitely worth the $200NT fee!
As with anything that has been imported to the island, our Zorbing experience had it's own little Taiwanese twist - can you guess what it is???
If you guessed KTV, you're right!
ok, ok, there isn't exactly KTV inside the Zorb, but... kind of! There was actually a microphone affixed to the inside of the Zorb so that everyone watching from the top of the hill can hear all of the fun that you're having inside the Zorb. How awesome is that!?
My friend Claire took two videos of Nick and I Zorbing. The first is us getting climbing inside (with a shot of the microphone!) and the second is a video of us going down the hill - thanks to the microphone inside the Zorb, everyone can hear just how much fun we're having!
It's a great way for those watching or waiting their turn to get involved in every one's individual Zorbing experience (not to mention a great sales tool!)
I'm constantly amazed and delighted at the Taiwanese people's insatiable appetite for KTV and microphones! I love it!
Friday, June 19, 2009
Since living in Taiwan I have been going regularly to the World Gym here in Taichung. They have some great spinning classes and I usually go a couple times a week in the morning. Last week, however, my schedule was moved around a bit and I ended up attending a spinning class on a Friday night.
At first glance, this was a class just like any other class I'd been to before. The instructor had a little microphone on and would occasionally sing along with his music track, but over the last couple of months I've gotten used to the instructors serenading us during the class - it always puts a smile on my face.
It wasn't until about 15 minutes into the class when the instructor played a remix of "We will rock you" when I realized that this class was special. During the song, all of the class participants join in the chorus - so the song says 'we will we will' and then everyone says "ROCK YOU!"
The first time I was in the class, I assumed that this would be an isolated incident, but I turned out to be wrong. (as I typically am). There was lots more singing to come!
Of course the participants weren't singing continuously during the spinning class (due to the fact that we were all vigorously exercising), there were small parts of many songs that everyone would burst out singing in unison throughout the evening. It was awesome.
Last night I revisited the class with my digital camera so that I could capture the awesome-ness! Check it out:
One of the things that I love about the class is that the instructor chose a lot of songs that are popular karaoke (KTV) songs here in Taiwan to play during the work-out. So, even though at some parts the whole class can't sing together, the instructor has his own private audience for indulging himself in a KTV sing-a-long.
(in this video the instructor is singing the parts the class isn't!)
What a wonderful country Taiwan is for those of us who love Karaoke and sing-a-longs!
Monday, June 15, 2009
'Stop Beating Kids'
Published in the China Post on June 15, 2009:
TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Up to 88 percent of junior high schools in Taiwan still practice physical punishment as a form of discipline despite repeated instructions to stop from the Ministry of Education, according to the latest survey by the Humanistic Education Foundation (HEF).
The HEF said the survey results indicate that school life for a high ratio of junior high school students aged between 12 and 15 remains miserable.
The HEF survey, covering 250 schools and 1,550 students on the main island of Taiwan, also shows that 91 percent or 223 schools administer the punishment of forcing students to copy handwriting for more than one hour.
As many as 83 percent of schools force students to run laps in the sports field or jump while maintaining a squatting position as corporal punishment.
There are as many as 71 percent of schools disciplining students by paddling their palms or behind, said HEF officials.
Other major forms of corporal punishments include standing, squatting, kneeling or holding heavy objects, which accounts for 62 percent; and verbal humiliation, 47 percent.
Close to 25 percent of schools administer corporal punishment by forcing students to strike themselves or others and teachers at 20 percent of schools slap their student in their faces.
Sixty percent of junior high schools still fail to faithfully comply with the MOE on the policy of normally organizing classes without grouping students based on academic performance. The proportion is higher than the 57 percent failure rate registered in 2008.
Tests have become a routine in most teenagers' daily life.
A great majority of 96 percent of the students said teachers give them tests during daily morning preview sessions that start before the formal study in accordance with scheduled courses.
Up to 40 percent said they have daily tests in the early morning although subjects vary based on curricula schedule.
HEF officials criticized many of the junior high schools for turning themselves into “cram schools” or “testing factories” with the singular goal of preparing the students for getting higher scores in the examinations in order to enter better senior high schools.
For the length of time that junior high students are required to stay at schools, 83 percent of students have to stay for more than 40 hours per week while 2.5 percent reported that they have to stay for as many as 68.8 hours in school because they cannot go home after normal classes end.
Almost 25 percent, or more than 220,000 of the 940,000 junior high students, have to go to schools on Saturdays or Sundays, the survey shows.
MOE officials reiterated that school teachers and educational administrators at the 22 municipal and county governments should all comply with the rules of abolishing the practices of corporal punishment and assigning students to certain classes in line with students' academic performance.
Faculties or schools violating the rules will be referred to the Control Yuan, the nation's highest watchdog agency, for disciplinary actions, they said.
Since I've been in Taiwan I've learned a lot about the school systems here and plan to write more about it in the near future. The subject of corporal punishment, however, was something that I hadn't heard too much about until now - there are always stories from other foreigners about their Taiwanese teaching assistant being too harsh with the kids in the class, but I was quite shocked when I read this article today.
As I am not working in a school (I work for a private company that teaches conversational English to small groups of adults), this isn't something that I deal with personally, so all I can do is say... wow! who knew? I sure didn't!
Sunday, June 14, 2009
The creation of this drink (which is popular world-wide) is something that the Taiwanese are very proud of - and rightfully so!
Pearl milk tea is a sweet and refreshing drink consisting of tea, usually black tea, with milk and sugar and chewy tapioca balls, mmmmmmmmmmmm yummy! It might not sound like anything too special but it is definitely a unique and delightful treat. (something which I will truly miss when I move back to the states)
These are in basically every single tea house on the island and they are used to seal plastic lids to to-go cups. Then you just poke a straw through the top and you have the perfect spill-proof drink!
Saturday, June 13, 2009
As you may or may not be aware, there are currently two systems for writing Chinese characters in use: Traditional (used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau) and Simplified (used in Mainland China, and put in place beginning in the 1950's). (here is the wikipedia entry on simplified characters).
Here are a couple examples of characters in both forms (traditional on the left):
學生 --> 学生 (student)
覺得 --> 觉得 (to think or to feel)
國 --> 国 (country)
媽媽 --> 妈妈 (mom)
If you do a quick google search you can find that there is a pretty heated and extensive debate over the two writing systems. (for more check out these links: wikipedia entry, NY Times article, the Atlantic)
Almost everyone can agree that it is impractical to have two writing systems for one spoken language, the Chinese government asserts that simplified characters are a necessity for the improvement of literacy in their country, while the Taiwanese (defenders of traditional Chinese culture) stand as a shining example that high literacy rates can indeed be achieved with traditional characters.
Now, I have to point out that I -in no way - am an expert on the topic, but it seems to me that the Chinese government used the guise of an illiteracy campaign to render their general populous unable to read anything not specifically published for or approved by the PRC. Eileen Chow said, "The inability to read traditional characters is to close oneself off to Chinese history and arts before the 1950s."
I have found it completely mind-boggling to read comments like this one: "This debate really goes nowhere. It looks really foolish when some commenter's on NYT related the topic to politics. (posted here)"
In a sense, I tend to agree with the first part of this person's statement "the debate really goes nowhere." Simplified characters are here to stay, and we can only hope that Traditional characters are as well (although it is frightening given the relatively small percent of the Chinese population world-wide who learns to read and write traditional characters).
But, I think it is foolish to separate politics from the simplification of characters. All languages evolve over time, and Chinese is no exception. But the organic evolution of a spoken and written language is dramatically different than an abrupt, government imposed simplification of the written script.
Keeping in mind that this is a government that imposes media censorship and restricts freedom of speech, how can one think that the overhaul of the Chinese written language is anything but politically motivated?
Friday, June 12, 2009
I must say that once you get used to the generally accepted driving etiquette, the insane traffic patterns actually become logical, or at least predictable. Since I myself have adopted some of the more local driving habits, I have cut my daily commute to school in half from almost 15 minutes to just under 8! Driving through Taiwan on my scooter is one of my favorite things about living here.
One of the most interesting differences between American traffic and Taiwanese traffic is the use of the horn. In the US, we use the horn to tell the other driver "hey! you're driving like an asshole!" Here in Taiwan, however, the horn is used to tell people "hey! look out! I'm driving like an asshole!"
The most common example of this is when a driver is running a light that has just turned red; this move is particulary popular among cab drivers. The beeping of the horn tells everyone, 'Wait! I know your light just turned green, but watch out - here I come!!'
It should, however, be pointed out that it really is necessary to beep your horn to alert the intersection of your impending arrival because of the next rule: The mear fact that your light is about to turn green is reason enough to begin to cross the intersection. The rule is that if no one is running the light, you can feel free to jump it.
For example: If I'm sitting at this red light --> now, would be a good time for me to start going through the intersection.
As one person told me (and wrote on his website English In Taiwan) - Driving in Taiwan is a bit like down hill skiing:
The people in front of you are the downhill skiers, they have the right of way, no matter what they do. Don't worry to much about the people behind you because they are also worried about the people in front of them. The only difference from snow skiing is if a person merges from one run onto a new run they must yield to the people on the run they are entering. People don't do this in Taiwan when going onto another road, they just go directly onto the new run without looking. So again just think of them as downhill skiers and give then the right of way.
Keeping this in mind, here are some other generaly followed rules of the road:
- Even though right turns on red are technically illegal, it is acceptable, and in some cases expected, to do so. More importantly, it does not require yeilding to - or even looking for - traffic that is legally crossing through the intersection.
- At some intersections, you can also make a left turn on red as long as no one is coming in any other direction.
- It is acceptable to drive the wrong direction down the outside lane of a road when it is more convenient than crossing to the proper side of the street.
- Scooters generally do not have to stop at red lights in T-intersections.
- U-turns are acceptable any time, any where - I have found the best time to make a U-turn is during a red light.
- Generally speaking, no one is ever expected to slow down or yeild to anyone else. Decisions (like whether or not to make a left turn across traffic) are made based on the assumption that everyone will continue on their current path at their current speed regardless of whether or not a car is headed their way. Therefore, if you see someone ahead of you who looks like they're going to turn right into you, don't slow down! That will screw up their internal trajectory calculation and disrupt the order of the road.
All of these rules - or observations of generally accepted points of 'etiquette'- basically flow from two tenets ruling all traffic behaviour in Taiwan:
- The bigger automobile always wins: There is a hierarchy on the road, with bicycles at the bottom: Scooter trumps bike, car trumps scooter, taxi trumps car, truck trumps taxi, bus trumps all. The general train of thought is that whoever is smaller is more likely to get injured in the event of an accident and therefore it is their responsibility to prevent the accident by getting out of the bigger car's way.
--> this becomes terrifyingly obvious when driving a scooter next to a bus: if a bus wants to change lanes and you happen to be in that space, you better get the hell out of there because he's coming whether you move or not!
- He who has the bigger cajones has the right-of-way: many traffic situations come down to a basic game of chicken, and whoever is more determined to stay on their set course will ultimately reign victorious.
Over the last 5 months I have been ridding myself of my American expectations for the flow of traffic and adapting quite nicely to the local way of doing things. Both fear and frustration have, for the most part, disappeared and I've come to enjoy the thrill and excitement of driving through the city. It's a bit like playing a real-life version of the old Atari game "Paperboy"!
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
This is a 1988 clip from Inside Edition where Bill O'Reilly attempts to answer that deep philosophical question: Who are Mario and Luigi?
It's pretty fun to see where "Papa Bear" Bill O'Reilly got his start and to take a walk down a video game memory lane.
I remember when we got our first Nintendo, I was probably between 6 and 8 years old, and I remember sneaking down the stairs and watching my parents play the game after the kids had gone to bed... ahhhh the good old days!
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Yes, this is an actual photo of a real ambulance scooter! I assume it's used to send medics around the city, it even had little boxes on the back, presumably to carry first aid kits.
Monday, June 8, 2009
Sunday, June 7, 2009
We had heard stories from our friends of people walking along the beaches of southern Taiwan in life vests - to protect themselves in case a spontaneous super wave came up and swept them out to sea - but we just laughed at what we assumed was a gross exaggeration. However, now that we've been SCUBA diving and snorkeling on Green Island... I'm not sure that he was so far off the mark after all.
As I mentioned before, Green Island is almost completely surrounded by coral and most of the snorkeling is done right off shore, with people simply walking from the beach straight into the water.
On the second morning of our Green Island trip, Nick and I had a plans to go off-shore snorkeling, so we woke up early and headed down to the dive shop. As were preparing for the dive, putting on our wet suits with a group of Taiwanese tourists, the snorkeling guide started handing out life vests.
Boy was I wrong!
I had been diving several times before and even I was completely discombobulated during the descent. I had thought that the instructor was just showing me how to inflate and deflate my vest and the next thing I knew I was 10 feet under water with this guy pulling me down to the bottom! Nick had never been diving before and had no idea what to expect! Needless to say it was a bit of a traumatic experience for both of us. - they took us down so fast that we both had trouble regulating the pressure in our ears for almost a week afterwards!
Once we got down there, we were just standing on the bottom of the ocean while they fed the fish soggy bread! (so much for the "eco-tourism" that they claim to be developing on the island!)
Any time we wanted to move more than a foot or two, they had lift us up by our tanks and carry us around like puppets. It was a really disconcerting feeling, being basically unable to move on my own 10 meters under the water. I kept thinking, 'what is the point of coming all the way down here to just sit in one place while you feed the fish bread!? I might as well be in an aquarium!' At least when we were snorkeling we could move around and explore, but that was virtually impossible during the SCUBA trip.
(Incidentally, I would not recommend anyone not PADI certified to go SCUBA diving with 好朋友 (Good Friend) diving company on Green Island)
So, there you have it, SCUBA and snorkeling - Taiwan style! There are definitely some beautiful things to see around Green Island, but make sure you ask for flippers before you leave the dive shop!!