For you animation lovers, here’s a FLASH cartoon from Japan sure to astound and amaze:

It takes a while to load, but since it’s a short movie that’s understandable.


Episode III

So, yesterday Connie and I went to see Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and I have to say that overall I liked it. I’m a big fan of Star Wars, I have been since I was 8, but I have been very disappointed with the new films prior to this one, and I admit that even this one doesn’t rate as highly with me as the old ones do.

I guess the problem I run into is that the new ones are all about spectacle, with character and story taking an almost second place position to trying to wow the audience. This is wonderful if you’re trying to create a movie that the audience will view once and then forget about, but if you want to tell a real meaningful story that people will remember and want to see again you have to give them something with more substance. In this, Lucas comes closest with this new movie, but still falls really short of the mark.

Someone really needs to tell George Lucas when enough is enough, because if he wants to make a giant visual painting using special effects that’s fine, but this is suppose to be a story. The biggest problem I found was that even when there was something important happening Lucas feels the need to have a huge number of “cool special effects” going on around the characters which keeps the audience from focussing on what’s important. The end fight is a blazing (if you’ll pardon the pun) example of this, with the environment getting just as much attention as the fight when in fact the environment should be a minor detail compared to the fight itself. I’ve always felt that an artist was best served when they were given limits to push and to sometimes break, because I have seen so many artists who have no clue what to do when you given them complete freedom. Editing is good, it can be your friend, and boy does Lucas need an editor.

That said, it really isn’t a bad film, just one in need of better storytelling, dialogue, artistic thought and acting. Still, there are some good moments in the movie that will probably be remembered for a long time, one being Padme’s comment when the Chancellor becomes the Emperor and the other being the look in Anakin’s eyes as he has the mask put on him. Those two moments stuck with me far better than any of the special effects shots of the movie, because they were human moments, and I was there to see a story about people, not computer special effects.


Written Chinese (full)

Yesterday during my Chinese Language class an interesting topic came up: why do the Chinese people keep using their traditional writing system. Currently, as I’m sure almost all of you know, the Chinese use a system based on writing picture symbols (although the picture element has become extremely abstract) where each Chinese Character (called HanZi in Chinese) represents both an idea and a sound. Unlike English, Greek, Arabic or any of the other phonetic writing systems used by most of the world where each symbol represents a sound, HanZi have no inherent sound beside the one that people memorize to go with it. If you study English alphabet and pronunciation for a week, you can read almost anything ever written in English, your pronunciation might be off and you won’t understand what you’re reading, but you will be able to read it because it’s just codified pieces of sound. If you know the code, you can read it, it’s that simple, and on top of that it ties the written language and the spoken language deeply together.

In Chinese, this connection is made more difficult because with HanZi, you either know them or you don’t, and if you don’t you have almost no hope of pronouncing them. (There are a few tricks that can allow a native speaker to guess, but it’s nothing certain.) This makes learning to write Chinese infinitely more difficult than learning to write English, and creates a situation where people who study Chinese for years still cannot read a book if they haven’t been also memorizing the HanZi as they go.

And, there are over 50,000 HanZi! Of them roughly 10,000 being in common use, and roughly 3000 being essential to handling a general language text like a newspaper. This means that while growing up Chinese children are spending huge amounts of academic time just memorizing HanZi through rote memorization. And that’s just the individual HanZi, they’re usually used in combinations of 2 to 4 characters which can change the meaning completely so they also have to be memorized. Quite the feat, actually, maybe they really are smarter than us!

So, we come to my classmate’s question: “Isn’t that a huge waste of time? Wouldn’t the children and society be better served by using a phonetic writing system like English and spending that memorization time on arts, history, music, physical education, science or any number of other subjects or activities?”

The Japanese, Koreans and even the Taiwanese realized this to a degree, all of them developing phonetic writing systems to use alongside the HanZi in varying degrees. The Taiwanese just use their phonetic system as a stepping stone for children to learn first before they learn HanZi, the Japanese use a hybrid of HanZi mixed with phonetics and the Koreans do the same as the Japanese but use the least number of HanZi of all three in their writing system. Both the Japanese and Koreans are actively trying to remove the HanZi from their writing systems, but finding it difficult for the same reason the Chinese are reluctant to remove them: homonyms.

For those who slept through grammar (I know I did, and now I teach it! O_o! Ironic!) a homonym is a word that is pronounced the same as another word so they share the same sound but have different meanings. Well, these asian languages are filled with Homonyms, especially Chinese which has an almost horrific number of them. In speaking, they tell them apart by pronunciation tone and context, but in writing the only way they could come up with to tell them apart was to create separate characters to represent them.

Now, I do have to admit, HanZi are pretty useful once you get used to them, and in fact during Chinese class there are often times when I wish I was looking at the HanZi so I knew which Chinese word written in PinYin the teacher had just written on the board. While PinYin does use Tone Markers to distinguish between words with the same basic sound, I find it’s often not enough to be sure which word you are looking at since often several homonyms can also be pronounced with the same tone.

Also, HanZi, as some have pointed out, are the spirit and culture of the Chinese people. Those symbols represent a way of thinking different from western thought (so different they use the other side of the human brain when decoding them) and contain deep meanings that often go beyond simple sound. When a Chinese person reads a poem they are not just reading the sound, but looking at a piece of artwork as the HanZi are also carefully chosen to elicit certain ideas or feelings on a level beyond simple phonetic communication. Of course, through word choice an English poet can do the same thing to a degree, how big a degree I don’t know because I’m not bilingual enough to compare the two. Nor am I likely to be for a long time, thanks to the degree of difficulty in learning the HanZi system.

Newsweek and Time have both recently had cover stories questioning Does the Future Belong to China? and as someone who is sitting on China’s doorstep I have often asked myself the same question. Having a neighborly view into China’s windows I have been watching the giant carefully as it moves and deals with an exploding economy and world class status in it’s higher levels of society. I often ponder China’s future in the world, and consider where it will go from here and if it can overcome the numerous obstacles it faces.

One of those obstacles I can clearly see hindering them is their language, specifically the writing system I am talking about in this journal. As someone who has studied both Mandarin Chinese and Japanese (both touted at times to be the “language of the future”) I can’t help but notice how few people (foreigners) actually manage to stick with and learn these languages to any real degree of proficiency. Most get as far as “survival” level, and then tend to quickly give up anything more simply because it’s just too hard, and one of the major obstacles I’ve noticed kills most of their enthusiasm is learning to read and write.

If I were to study Spanish, as soon as I began to master the spoken language I could begin putting the written language to work, and the same is true for almost any other phonetic language. This would let me practice and work in that language; improving my skills even if I didn’t have a person who spoke the language to practice with. Yes, each phonetic language has it’s quirks, and sometimes languages vary in their spoken and written forms, but for the most part phonetic languages are intimately tied with their written forms. And, it’s the very discontinuity between spoken and written Mandarin (and Japanese and to a lesser extent Korean) that makes them not only hard to learn but will prevent them from becoming global languages.

When you couple this with the simple point that it’s hell to program a computer in Chinese, which means that programmers learn how to program in English, and the languages of business and science are still English, you see why Chinese learn English and not the other way around. I’m not complaining, it means more work for me, but since my classmate brought up the above point I have been thinking about this a lot. Wouldn’t the people of China be better served by creating and using a new written language based on phonetics instead of symbols? I’m not saying they should use the English system like PinYin, but even that would be better than being stuck with a language that is both impractical and in the long term limits their ability to compete on a global cultural scale.

And any language which can’t compete will eventually die off, no matter how many poor people speak it. Like a corporation, if a language is not expanding, it’s dying because another language will be expanding around it.

I know it won’t happen, but if Chinese is to be around for another 6000 years, there’s going to need to be a few changes made, because they’re not isolated anymore and they can’t afford to be sentimental if they want their culture and language to survive.


Roaches and Snakes and Lizards….Oh my!

So, late last evening when I was out for a stroll after returning home from work, something caught my eye. Something reddish brown that moved very quickly through the lighted areas of the Taipei sidewalk, trying to return to it’s shadowy home: a cockroach!

Now, in a subtropical city which isn’t known for being the cleanest place in the world, seeing a roach, even a large one as the locals are (a good 7-8cm in length) shouldn’t even be something to bat an eye about, much less write up on my blog. But, you see this was actually one of the first roaches I’ve seen since I’ve been here for the last 4+ months, and the other noteworthy thing was, it wasn’t alone.

For the first time since I’ve been out walking at night, I saw many roaches last night skittering everywhere, it was almost like the horde had been unleashed and was rushing through the city on a quest to eat it’s garbage scraps. (That left behind by the hordes of stray dogs and cats that populate this city, not many mice or rats though, because the cats do good work.) I was actually pretty shocked to see them all, and wondered where they were coming from, until I thought about it a while as I walked.

Although last night was fairly dry and calm, it followed a good solid week of rain and a torrential weekend which caused no small amount of flooding outside of the city. So, I reasoned, what was happening was that the roaches had been flooded out of their sewer homes and were forced up into the light with the rest of us.

“Welcome to the party guys, watch out for the scooter drivers, they’re nuts!”

An interesting additional note came today during my Chinese Language Class when one of my classmates by the name of Eugene (a pleasant older man with a definite love of travel) related to me that this morning during a walk in the forrest he’d suddenly found himself surrounded by an abundance of wildlife. Making it clear this was not a usual occurance, he said that he’d found the forrest floor to be teeming with lizards and even saw a snake. (Which are quite the rare, if dangerous, thing in these parts.) He also said the birds were more plentiful than usual, and saw a wide variety of beautiful plumage during his walk.

Well, I can’t explain the birds (although perhaps they’re there to eat the bugs and lizards…) but I related my roach story to him and commented that probably the lizards and snake were also flushed out by the water and forced to seek open ground. It seems the water makes life more interesting for everyone around Taipei.



I have done it! Yes! I have officially become a resident of Taipei!

How, you ask, did Rob accomplish this?

I have…dumped garbage!

Before you laugh, I must relate to you the ordeal which is getting rid of your trash in Taipei. (Then you can laugh…)

Thus far, each weekend when I make a trip to Connie’s I have taken my trash (appropriately separated for ecological quality under penalty of death by girlfriend) with me and it’s gone out with Connie’s family’s weekly garbage. But, it was determined recently that I should handle my own trash from now on since Connie got tired of carrying the garbage on the bus. (Appropriately hidden inside innocuous looking shopping bags, of course!)

So, with this in mind, I stored up my garbage for the past two weeks, and tonight once I got home I quickly assembled the bags and set out on a quest for the garbage truck.

For you see, in Taipei, getting your garbage out is something between a community event and a sport. The Garbage truck (and accompanying recycling truck) moves between designated community drop-off points wherein the locals must rendezvous with the truck and get their garbage to the truck before the truck leaves to move on to the next spot. This is not as easy as it sounds, not only is the time the truck will be there limited and somewhat imprecise, each pick-up point serves an area which can be up to several square kilometers in size.

So, tonight when I set off in search of the legendary drop off point, I actually had only a vague idea of where to go coupled with hope that I could make it in time. After 5 minutes of winding my way through my local streets I found signs of the truck; locals carrying the required clear plastic bags with their coupons to pay for said garbage firmly attached. Following the locals I found myself among an ever growing mass of people, those going to the garbage dropoff and those returning stopping to talk to their neighbours.

Eventually, the trucks with their flashing lights came into view around a corner, and I nervously moved with the masses towards the lights. I wondered, did I separate enough? Would I be nailed for having left one or two plastic bags inside my garbage? (I’m a sinner…I confess…) I had even left my recyclables at home, deciding that they would be dealt with on my next trip: basic garbage was a difficult enough task to worry about dealing with leftover cartons of papaya milk!

Finally it was my turn.

I stepped forward. The man at the back of the truck looked at me as I tried not to look at him, praying for no comments or awkward situations. I tossed my trash in with the others, and then quick as I could I slipped away, affording only a glance back to see if anyone had seen my crime. But none had! I was a free man. And, giddy with the thought of what I had just accomplished I strode off past the gathered people; proud that I too was now capable of doing that thing which truly makes one a resident of a city…dumping my own trash!


Plum Rained Out

A little over a week ago marked the start of what they call the “Plum Rain Season” here in Taiwan, or as it’s known in most other places just “the rainy season”. This is a little climatological phenomena we’re spared in Canada wherein it rains, and rains, and rains some more for about 3-4 weeks almost continuously. Imagine looking outside and seeing the hardest rain you have ever seen, a good torrential downpour, and imagine it doing that for hours at a time, every day, and you will know what it’s like to be in the Plum Rain Season.

I’ve actually be through it before when I was in Japan, of course that was a little over 7 years ago now and I’d forgotten what a lovely experience it is. Of course, living in Taipei where there are a large number of sheltered walkways it’s not too bad, the city is actually built for this since it’s a normal part of life here. I carry my folding umbrella with me and it does the job for rushing between sheltered walkways, dashing to buses and getting back to my home.

Today, however, I went out to my weekly assignment in DanShui, literally the end of the line for the local transit system. I love it out there, and it’s nice to get out of the city, but what’s not so nice is when my 15 minute walk to the office I teach at turned out to be during a particularly hard bout of rain. Needless to say my poor little folding umbrella turned out to be nigh useless as water came at me from all directions, and by the time I got to the office the term “soaked to the skin” just didn’t do me justice.

But, as they say in entertainment, the show must go on! So, after putting my shoes and socks out to dry and slipping on some borrowed flip-flops I proceeded to teach my two and half hours of class with a smile.

Speaking of which, I must tell a story.

Today in class we were practicing describing foods, and when it came to local foods it turns out a lot of the local special foods eaten on Holidays use peanuts as a sweet element. No problem, but as one of the students was explaining the food to me the first time he kept dropping the “t” sound in Peanuts, which makes it into ‘Peanus”. And, I was trying to figure out why he was telling me this dish used “chopped penis”, not entirely far-fetched given the Chinese tendency to waste no part of an animal. When I realized he meant “peanuts” I corrected his pronunciation and went on with the class, but slowly realized that almost the whole class was pronouncing it “Peanus”.

At this point, I had to stop the class and explain to them very directly what happens when you drop the “t” from Peanuts, and what the word “penis” meant. Actually, when I wrote it on the board, being the bunch of biologists they are, they knew that English word so I didn’t have to define it. I told them in no uncertain terms they need to pronounce the “t” sound, and practiced it with them.

That said, I have no doubts it’s not the last of “chopped penis” that I hear of. Shades of Lorenna Bobbit.


How to profit from the encroaching Oil Crisis!

So, we’ll peak production in 2008 and oil will become more expensive than ever, possibly causing a whole lof of financial problems for the Western world. Why is this happening, and better yet, how can you profit from it? Go here for a few ideas!


So, today Connie, her mother and I decided to get out of the city proper and visit one of the national parks to get some fresh air. We caught a bus, hopped on the MRT, and then grabbed another bus for the long drive up into the YangMingShan mountain range. I was shocked to find a whole city-sized community living hidden beneath the trees up in the mountains I looked at fondly each day from the MRT as I worked. This picture is the bus terminal which marks the point where the residential area proper ends and a national park begins. Being a beautiful day, the park was filled with tourists and sightseers, but it’s so big that hardly matters. Posted by Hello

At first, Connie, Her mother (in black behind the woman in orange) and I were going to take a park tour bus. But, then we decided we didn’t have time so we left this place next to the bus station and started to walk to one of the garden parks. Posted by Hello