Thursday, April 23, 2015

Unearthing a forgotten Taiwan music video: 廢物樂隊:這不是一首芭樂歌

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I was a member of the Taiwan indie rock band Feiwu (廢物樂隊). The band existed from 1997 through 2001. Here's how I described the band in 2012:
The songs we wrote were original. Some were English, some were Mandarin. We recorded two CDs, and were signed to a local music label. We played all over the island, at clubs, festivals, universities, on the streets and under highway overpasses. One of the songs, "我愛台灣啤酒" ("I love Taiwan Beer") was a minor underground hit, and is still covered by local bands today.

One of the best things about Feiwu, besides writing and performing music with a group of close friends, was becoming a part of the local indie music scene. It was small when we started, but very dedicated. There were about three or four dozen bands around the island writing and recording their own music, a few practice spaces and recording studios in the main cities, clubs where we could perform, and the Spring Scream music festival (春天吶喊) which we played in 1998, 1999 and 2000 (see the inset picture below). There was a very strong DIY spirit throughout the small scene, and a feeling that people who loved music could make special music on their own terms.
Feiwu disbanded in 2001. We had two reunion concerts in 2013 in Taipei and Queens that were well-received -- in fact if we weren't so dispersed geographically (with members living in Taipei, Taidong, New York, and the Boston area) I am sure we would have done a few more shows.

As we were preparing for the Taipei reunion show, we unearthed lots of old photos, flyers, magazine articles, and even some practice videos which you can see on our Facebook page. As we went through the old materials, Andrew (guitar and vocals) mentioned a low-budget music video that I dimly remember being shot at some of our shows in the late 1990s but never saw in its completed version. I'm not even sure where we could have distributed it, as this was in the early days of the Internet when streaming video was rare and expensive (there was no YouTube at the time) and local television shied away from indie rock. Andrew said he had a tape somewhere, but we never got around to finding it or converting it to digital formats.

Earlier this year, I opened up my 20th-century media vault, which contains old audio cassettes, digital audio masters for music projects, videotapes of the newscast I used to work on, and even old film reels. I was looking for the old betacam tapes of the newscast to convert to digital, but I also found an old VHS video tape marked simply "KD Studios." Something clicked -- "KD" was the guy who had shot the concert videos so many years before! Someone had probably sent me a copy and I never got around to watching it (I didn't own a VHS player). I thought, I am already converting the betacam, why not convert the music video too?

This week I got the USB drive with the mp4 of the videos. The music video was awesome -- it's a song that Andrew wrote and sang, called "這不是一首芭樂歌" which translates to "This is not a ballad" but we often referred to as "Ballad." KD had spliced together concert footage from 1998 and 1999 along with Taiwan street life. Here's the video:

There are a few rough patches, but overall it's a lot of fun to watch and brings back some fun memories.

If you're interested in learning more about the band, check out our Facebook page or the interview we did with GigGuide. We also have two Feiwu albums for sale on Amazon.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The fall of tech media and the rise of PR

I was employed as a journalist from 1994 to 2010, with breaks in 1996, 1999, and 2002-2005. I worked for a TV station, a newspaper, a trade magazine, and then in various online news ventures. In this post, I will share a short history of the decline of traditional media, and how many talented news veterans have ended up working for PR.

In October 1999, I began working in the tech media. This was the height of the dot-com era, when magazines were as thick as phone books and money was pouring into high tech advertising. From 2000-2002, after the first dot-com bubble burst, the industry experienced the first wave of mass layoffs. At that time, the newspaper and magazine sectors were still relatively strong and were able to absorb some displaced writers and editors, but some started to go over to the "dark side" (PR). At my company it was also possible for senior writers and editors to go into research, which was seen as a more respectable alternative career path than corporate PR.

There was a slight recovery from 2003-2004, but then an interesting thing started to happen: a steady trickle of slow-motion layoffs, consolidations, and other cost-cutting measures. The weaker pubs began to fail as demand for print advertising dried up, and events began to feel the heat too as new entrants muscled their way into the scene. In some cases, staff were shifted to growing online units, but overall there was a net loss of staff in editorial, ad operations, and events.

Starting around 2005 or so, I began to notice a curious thing: Many of the 30-something journalists in my organization were voluntarily moving to industry. Some started to work for PR agencies, but in many cases they moved to in-house marketing units of large tech companies -- Microsoft, CA, Bose, etc. Certainly the pay and benefits were attractive but my own sense was there didn't seem to be much of a future staying in journalism. Why keep a job which offers little chance to advance and could probably lead to layoffs in the near future?

People stopped using the term "the dark side" around that time. It's hard to make some ethical stand about the purity of the profession when people are getting laid off or taking a salary cut while serious journalism is being sacrificed for the sake of pageview-heavy slideshows and blogs.

Friday, March 06, 2015

The rise of ISIS and the rise of social media

Grainy camera footage of teenagers sneaking away to Syria to join ISIS. Tweets showing support for beheadings of hostages. "Lone wolf" attacks in New York, Ottawa, London, Paris, and Sydney. A lot of people want to know: What the hell is going on?

In my opinion, the rise of ISIS is not an ordinary tale of a rebel group or youth movement. This the consequences of a society that goes from one dominated by mainstream media and "authorities" (government, academic, community, etc.) to one in which anyone with a message or belief or outlook can transmit it to a sympathetic audience. Malcontents now have a much larger voice, "underground" movements can make a much bigger impact, and people can find information that better fits their beliefs and worldviews. ISIS has been particularly skilled at using these tools.

It's not just terrorists. All kinds of people, groups, and organizations are finding they have ways of connecting with audiences that simply weren't possible in the 20th century. And they are taking advantage of these channels to spread their own ideas and achieve their goals.

What I am starting to see now are large organizations being a lot smarter about harnessing digital media to serve their own ends. To give you one example: My daughter showed me a YouTube video about healthy production methods at McDonald's. It was utter propaganda, but she and her friends watched it and were receptive to the messaging in it.

With the exception of political campaigns and limited efforts to share information with the public via social media, government has been very slow to react to the new information order. However, the seemingly nonstop string of crises amplified by social media has shown officials that responding with press conferences and interviews with professional reporters is not enough. Government not only has to respond to stories involving police brutality, conspiracy theories, government incompetence, twisted/misconstrued photos, scandals, fringe groups using digital and social platforms, but also needs to proactively connect with the public in order to build trust and manage the message and the mood.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Our review of Chinese summer camp in Taiwan

Over the summer, our kids attended Chinese summer camp in Taiwan. Actually, they attended two camps: the Mandarin Training Center (MTC) camp at National Taiwan Normal University (師範大學), and a shorter program called Camp Taiwan in Wanli, near Keelung. This blog post will serve as a brief review of the two programs and also to share some of our thoughts about Chinese education for non-native speakers. Overall the programs were wonderful, but there were a few unexpected issues that we had to deal with.

There are a few reasons why we chose these unconventional summer camp programs in Taiwan:
  1. We have family and friends in Taiwan, and for our children, it is important to maintain these family and cultural connections.
  2. We wanted our kids' Mandarin to improve. For our oldest, it was shaky before she started (despite lessons in her American public school), and for our youngest, it was practically nonexistent. An immersive language program was the ideal situation for us.
  3. Since I started my own publishing company for how-to guides, it is possible for me to work practically anywhere, including overseas, so I could supervise them in Taiwan.
For those readers who are unaware of Taiwan's history, it is a modern democratic island nation of more than 20 million people that China's communist government claims as its territory. Most people in Taiwan speak Mandarin (the same dialect spoken in China) as well as a much more difficult dialect known as Taiwanese. Taiwan uses Chinese characters, although the more traditional "difficult" characters that China largely abandoned in favor of "simplified" Chinese more than 50 years ago.

We began to research summer language programs in Taiwan late last year. I quickly discovered there were very few resources to turn to. Of course, there were about a half-dozen programs that had their own websites, but there were no independent reviews that I could find for any of them, other than some short posts on expat forums. Besides having a strong Mandarin language component, we wanted to make sure the programs we selected were age-appropriate (many are aimed at kids under 8) and affordable.

We eventually settled on the NTNU program. The university's reputation was an important reason -- it's the premier teachers' college in Taiwan, and the Mandarin Training Center has been running the camp for more than 5 years, which seemed to validate the quality of the program. The cost was surprisingly affordable compared to American camps, although our Taiwanese friends with kids who are used to more subsidized experiences thought it was expensive. It came to roughly $1500 per student per 4-week term, with classes starting at 9 and ending at 3. They also fed them lunch and a snack, and had all kinds of activities, from arts and crafts to limited sports. I thought that was very reasonable, considering many American day camps cost more than $2,000 for one month, and sometimes a lot more, particularly if there is some special sports activity, technical specialty, or artistic element involved.

We also decided to enroll them in Camp Taiwan, which was billed as a "North American-style" overnight camp for a week in rural Taiwan. It targeted Taiwanese parents who wanted this sort of experience for their kids (the official camp language is English) and it was staffed with a mixture of Taiwanese and foreign young people, and had all kinds of outdoor activities, from archery to kayaking to ziplining. Importantly, there were no electronics which was very appealing. The cost was about $500 per child per week, which I also thought was reasonable, although most of the other kids appeared to come from well-off families.

I have to say that the registration and pre-start communication for both camps left a lot to be desired. Here were the specific issues that we encountered:
  1. Fees for international students had to be paid by bank wire, which is an absolutely terrible arrangement that is prone to error and extra fees. I understand why a Taiwan business would be reluctant to accept a personal check from someone in another country, but credit cards are widely used in Taiwan and offer various protections for all parties involved.
  2. There was no confirmation in writing that our payments were received and the kids were all set. We had to circle back to the staff via phone and email to confirm, and even then it was like "we have recorded the deposit" not "we have received the deposit and your kids are confirmed for term X." NTNU had a website confirmation, but it was simply a "Yes" next to our kids' registration numbers. The fact that the confirmation was not clearly explained in writing meant if we were asked by anyone -- such as airport immigration officials -- what we were doing in Taiwan for the summer, it would have been quite difficult to prove that we had registered and paid for camp, and had a legitimate reason for being in Taiwan for such a long period of time. 
  3. Communication from the time we paid to the time the camp started was poor. American camps send emails from the directors, reminders about XYZ, and lots of other information before camp even begins, but this sort of communication was practically nonexistent from NTNU and only partially handled by Camp Taiwan, which sent a big information packet to my brother-in-law about two weeks before camp started. However, once camp started daily communications was great (see below) -- maybe even better than most American camps.
  4. While both programs had nurses on staff, neither one asked for health confirmations/vaccination history/physicals. We did them anyway before we left for Taiwan in case they asked, but the two programs didn't ask for the forms. I suspect it probably relates to local regulations (or lack thereof) as well as differences in the way countries handle vaccinations and health information.
We arrived in Taiwan in early July. We stayed with friends in a suburban area of Taipei, which was conveniently located near the MRT, which is the capital city's inexpensive and well-run subway system. It took us about an hour to get to camp each day, via walking, the MRT, and a bus. It was roasting hot and very humid. My weather app said "Temp: 91, feels like 105" and it was true. Fortunately, the NTNU camp was almost entirely indoors with air conditioning.

The NTNU camp started the following Monday. It was the second term, which ran until August 8. There were counselors outside the building on Taipei's Heping East Road to point us to the right place to go on campus. We had to finish up some registration details (including giving local phone numbers and addresses) and then the kids had a placement test while the parents went to the orientation.

Immediately it became clear the NTNU program staff were very, very serious about Chinese language instruction. The materials, pedagogy, and other elements were very well thought out, and it was immensely reassuring.

To give you an example, the textbooks used both traditional and simplified characters, and students could use pinyin (the romanization system used in China) or bopomofo (the phonetic system used in Taiwanese schools). The faculty understood that some students may have studied Mandarin with mainland teachers or teaching materials based on simplified characters, and wanted to make them feel comfortable. On the other hand, if the kids wanted to learn traditional characters, that was OK, too.

We were warned that the teachers would not speak English in class, but that was not completely true -- if someone was struggling, or didn't get a particular word, the teachers and their assistants would switch to English to help them.

All of my interactions with the teachers (usually the assistants, who I would see every morning when I dropped off my kids) were in Mandarin. The orientation was also in Mandarin, although they translated some parts of the presentation (not the Q&A session, though). For parents who couldn't speak Mandarin, this might have been difficult, although at the end of the day everyone seemed to make it through the program OK. NTNU was very good about communication during the program, compared to the lack of communication before the start of camp. 

There were about 85 students in all, most of them American- or Canadian-born Chinese with parents or grandparents from Taiwan. There was a sizable number of students who attended expat schools in Hong Kong, some Europeans and Australians, and a small number of Japanese and Korean kids. About a quarter of the kids were mixed race. When they all got together, they were loud (or louder than Taiwanese students in the presence of teachers) but clearly they had a fun time being together.
NTNU Mandarin Training Center Summer camp

The camp was organized according to age and ability -- five classes for "big" (大) and five for little (小). The youngest students in the little classes were about 7 or 8, while the youngest in the big classes were 12, going up to about 15 or 16. Our children were placed in the beginner levels for their respective age groups. We found that the range of abilities even within a group was large -- for instance, there was a child in the little beginner's class who could actually speak Mandarin pretty well, but could barely write.

There were four core activities that were emphasized: Listening, speaking, reading and writing. My youngest, who had almost no Chinese language skills before he started, made very great progress in all four, to the point where he could ask and answer very simple questions and even write down the characters after a few weeks. I was so impressed.

Mandarin Homework at NTNU

Learning Chinese at National Taiwan University Mandarin Training CenterThere was a lot of homework, but it was varied -- sometimes they had to practice writing, other times they were supposed to read sentences or ask questions. It was about 60-90 minutes each day after camp. I found that I had to be involved with this -- my kids didn't understand some of the characters in their homework, or needed to practice Q&A with someone speaking Chinese. Fortunately, my own Mandarin and Chinese reading was sufficient to assist (I lived in Taiwan in the 1990s) and I was happy to help them and keep track of their progress (it even boosted my own Mandarin and Chinese reading comprehension, which was a nice bonus). The only drawback to this is I had planned on doing work every evening, and between homework, getting dinner, doing laundry, and making sure they cleaned up, there was very little time (I was the only parent in Taiwan in July). This impacted the amount of work I could do, which was basically limited to about 5 or 6 hours during the day (I went to a local coworking space not far from NTNU called CLBC, and worked on my guides, including a title that's kind of like Dropbox for Dummies).

The NTNU program wasn't all work, though. One of the teachers told me they did not want to cram the kids with Chinese, because they wouldn't be able to remember it all and they would be miserable. Therefore, there was a daily limit of about 6 characters, plus speaking and listening exercises, and lots of opportunities for other activities, from field trips (glass and pottery factories, kung fu) to arts and crafts and basketball on campus.  It was just the right pace, in my opinion. Of course, we had lots of other family and cultural activities on our own (see my video about this, called Quick Taipei), and there is so much to do in Taipei that we rarely felt bored.

The program had a nice graduation ceremony, which included performances and the receipt of certificates and grades. The school also made sure that we had access to all kinds of online resources, although in our case we try to keep up their Chinese at home with one-on-one instruction from my wife.

Camp Taiwan

After NTNU ended, we got the kids ready for Camp Taiwan. We had to get some supplies (poncho, flashlight, etc.) but once we dropped them off at the bus they were the camp's responsibility for the next 5 or 6 days.

Before Camp Taiwan started, I was honestly worried because of the heat and humidity, but it turned out that the camp was in the hills near the coast, so it was notably cooler. There were all kinds of outdoor activities except swimming, but they did manage some water activities -- river tracing and kayaking for our older child. The camp was a lot of fun for them, even for my oldest who is not an outdoorsy kid. The camp was also great with communication -- there was a daily password-protected blog with pictures and an account of the day's activity that we could review every night. The camp warned parents about attempting to contact their kids or drive to the camp during the session, which I think speaks to the fact that overnight camps are a bit unusual for most Taiwanese kids and parents.

One other thing about Camp Taiwan: Even though the official language of the camp is English, and some of the counselors only speak English, practically speaking it was mostly Mandarin when the kids were amongst themselves. There were very few non-Taiwanese kids at the camp -- I'm guessing maybe 5% or 10% during the session they were enrolled in. This was fine with us -- it gave our children more opportunities to practice Mandarin and make friends from different backgrounds.

Camp Taiwan review
Overall, both NTNU MTC Mandarin Camp and Camp Taiwan were positive experiences that really expanded our children's perspective and language ability. It is something they will remember for the rest of their lives. I would definitely do it again, if the flights to Taiwan weren't so expensive (about $1500 round trip, Boston-Taipei).

Feel free to ask questions about Camp Taiwan or NTNU's Mandarin Training Center summer program below.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Odd jobs: Working on the conveyor line at the Newtonville Star Market

This is an unusual post. It was prompted by a website I spotted on Hacker News, devoted to conveyer belts.

As a teenager I briefly worked at the end of a delivery conveyor belt for a supermarket. A conveyer belt was unusual for a supermarket, and the supermarket itself was unusual: It's located over a major highway. It's the Star Market (since purchased by Shaw's) over the Mass Pike/I90 outside of Boston:

Why does a supermarket straddle six lanes of an interstate? The story dates back to the 1950s and early 1960s when the state and city of Boston were undertaking a series of massive infrastructure and redevelopment efforts, including the construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike. Whole blocks of homes and businesses in Boston and Newton were razed to make way for the toll road. The Star Market in Newtonville was one of the businesses that was demolished. However, the Turnpike Authority was simultaneously developing the idea of "air rights" over the new highway, and the first two development projects that benefited were Star Market in Newtonville as well as the Prudential Center in Boston. Both opened in 1963. Additional air rights were granted for other Pike parcels, including the hotel in Newton Corner (opened in the late 60s) as well as more buildings in downtown Boston.

Getting back to the conveyer belt: The supermarket had an unusual layout. Customers had to take an escalator to the second floor to do their shopping. After checking out, their groceries were loaded into carts. There were 2-3 paper grocery bags per cart, each of which was numbered from 001 to about 500. The customers were given plastic cards with the corresponding numbers for their carts.

The baggers swung the carts onto the top level of a double-decker conveyer belt. It went down to the first floor (street level) and into a long, basement like room with a conveyer belt and a road paralleling it. Customers would drive their cars into this long room, pop the trunk, and hand me their cards. I would match up the bags, and place them in the trunk. The empty carts were placed on the bottom level of the conveyer belt, to be brought back to the Muzak-filled main level of the supermarket.

The room was filled with fumes and noise from the waiting cars and the Mass Pike tunnel that was next to it. The incessant rattling and squeaking of thousands of metal rollers on the conveyer belts were irritating -- upstairs where the customers were it was an actual belt, which was quiet, but down where we were it was those damn rollers, which were like 1950s-era metal roller skate wheels. We were paid $3.85/hour (minimum wage at the time). But the things that worried us from day to day was the cry of "mix" (human error, wrong bags placed in wrong car) or a spill.

Here's what happened with the spills. As the carts came from the 2f to 1f, they went through a series of turns, including at least one 90 degree turn and a full 180 at the bottom of a decline. This spot was where most of the spills took place. It was apparently unavoidable, owing to the layout of the store, the needs of the customers to get their cars loaded quickly, and the location of the slopes on the belt, the road and loading area. The nature of groceries (heavy/light loads, multiple packaging sizes, etc.) and the technology used at the time made it hard to find an easy fix to the problem. Watermelons rolling around the bottom of the carts were the worst.

I don't have any profound observations about this, other than spillage is a consideration for people who design and manage conveyer belts, and that the cost can be made manageable for both small and large systems. And these belts can be engineered to last years or decades. The belt that we used in that market was in use for more than 20 years by the time I started working there in the 1980s, and it (or a similar system, using the same route) is still in use today, some 50 years after it was installed.