Thursday, October 04, 2018

One week in Taiwan in autumn: Where to go

A friend who lives in Singapore recently wrote me, asking about places to visit in Taiwan to see fall foliage and good beaches.

The question about foliage was interesting. I lived in Taiwan for 6 years and don't recall autumn scenes, other than some yellowing leaves on a few types of trees in the parks and hillsides near Taipei. Most of the island remains green throughout the winter, at least at the lower altitudes.

I did a little Internet research and found that there are a few places on Taiwan to see autumn foliage. Can it compare with what I'm used to, here in New England? Probably not. But where Taiwan excels in natural scenery is in the mountains, which cover 50% of the island.

Over the summer, I took my son to Taroko Gorge (太魯閣) in eastern Taiwan and the first 25 kilometers of the South Cross Island highway in the southeast, which follows another massive gorge deep into Taiwan's interior. They are quite amazing -- possibly two of the most spectacular roads outside of the Himalayas or southwest China. Here's a brief clip from our drive through Taroko:

Another area which is spectacular and has lots of hiking areas is Alishan National Scenic Area in Chiayi County. I used to like to go up to Hehuanshan (合歡山), too, for hiking and scenery, which includes the "sea of clouds" phenomenon. The advantage of going to these areas in the fall is there are fewer tourists, the air is drier, and there are probably opportunities to see some foliage, especially at the higher altitudes.

As for beaches, unfortunately the once-sleepy beach town of Kenting in the southwest has been totally overrun by commercial development in the past 20 years, including hotels somehow cordoning off sections of the beach for private use, even though it's within the grounds of a national seashore. However, this summer when I drove down to the southeast there were many beaches between the industrial city of Hualian (you can rent a car right outside the train station) and Taitung in the southeast, about a three hour drive along route 11. The ones close to Taitung are rocky, but the small towns and cities on the coast further north from Taitung are sandy and look deserted for the most part ... which is good if you like deserted beaches but not so good in terms of a lack of lodging and infrastructure for tourists (there might be some B&Bs, though).

There are alternatives to beaches which I think would make a fun fall vacation in Taiwan. B&Bs in the countryside around Ilan County are easy to get to from Taipei and are quite striking. I stayed in one about ten years ago right in the middle of the rice fields, and you can do things like rent bikes, go to local town markets, etc. There are also similar B&Bs in the rift valley north of Taitung. The scenery there is really beautiful with many Taiwanese and Aboriginal farming communities and mountains on either side. It's possible to rent bikes and travel these roads and lanes, and I think in the fall it would be really nice as the temps are moderate and the air is dry. Here's a clip of the tea harvest in early August in the rift valley:

Bottom line: If you only have a week in Taiwan in the fall, I would recommend going to Hualien, renting a car, driving to Taroko Gorge where there are some hiking opps of varying difficulty and you can stay in Tianhsiang (or Tianxiang) about 25km up the gorge. After a few days, drive back down the gorge and head south on Route 11 in the direction of Taitung, finding some B&B to stay at near the beach, and exploring around by car or bike. You can also do the return trip to Hualian via the rift valley mentioned earlier. Taroko is one of the natural and man-made wonders of the world -- there's nothing quite like it that I am aware of outside of remote parts of China or India or Nepal, and it's something adventurous travelers should try to see once in their lives.

Friday, September 21, 2018

YIMBYs in Newton co-opted by developers?

There's an article in Commonwealth magazine that's worth reading to understand some of the forces at work trying to promote affordable housing. Members of the YIMBY movement (Yes In My Back Yard) among other things are demanding local governments remove restrictions on building apartment buildings and other "dense" housing in areas where it doesn't exist now, such as in certain neighborhoods in Boston as well as Newton and other nearby suburbs of eastern Massachusetts.

The idea is, if a massive amount of new housing hits the market, prices will come down and young people and others will have more housing options close by to where they want to live and work (preferably using public transport and other shared transportation resources). The movement has also taken off in Washington D.C., San Francisco, and other space-constrained areas where a lot of young professionals want to live.

The idea of making more affordable housing is admirable, but there's a big problem. From the Commonwealth article:
A coalition of low-income tenant groups says unbridled growth only promises to worsen the affordable housing crisis in Boston and make for more losers at the bottom of the economic ladder. The YIMBY effort “often finds ways to make it easier for developers to build, and that often leads to housing that people can’t afford,” said Darnell Johnson, coordinator for the Boston chapter of Right to the City, a national alliance advocating for low-income tenants.

He's right. Developers want free reign to maximize profits, and they are leveraging the YIMBY movement, sympathetic politicians, and the local media and business communities to get their way. The figures in that article show that 20% of permitted construction in Boston since 2011 has been set aside for affordable housing, another ~22% for middle income people (up to $125k/household income) which means all of the rest is "market rate"/luxury.

In Newton, the numbers are far worse, and its exacerbated by the relentless teardown phenomenon that removes relatively affordable units from the marketplace -- the types of places that young people, new families, and seniors could live. This has translated to an onslaught of luxury/"market rate" condos and multimillion dollar single family homes where modest houses or apartments once stood. What little affordable housing is being made available is utterly insufficient for the need, and it turns into a convenient negotiation point for other developer giveaways.

YIMBY proponents in the article are sensitive to the criticism that they are "mindless shills" for developers. I can't blame them for wanting to find a solution to the affordable housing problem in the Boston area. I do, however, disagree with the way they are going about doing it, which includes the demand that developers be given free reign to build high-density, market rate/luxury housing and often attacking anyone who questions such plans. Follow the #newtonma Twitter hashtag and you will see this attitude in action.

I am also very disappointed in how the administration of Mayor Ruth Fuller and the previous Warren administration have tried to ram through a "vision" that lets developers maximize profits at the expense of ordinary people in Newton. We are now witnessing the impact--large luxury condo buildings planned along Washington Street, at the Riverside T stop, and elsewhere, while McMansions go up in once-modest neighborhoods in Auburndale, West Newton, Newtonville, Newton Corner, and Nonantum. I've observed that developers in the north side of Newton who are unable to build by right almost always get what they want when they go to the city to ask for a break.

As for Fuller's "Washington Street Corridor" plan, here's one of the proposed building scenarios:

YIMBY development washington street developer newton massachusetts

I don't believe the city was serious throwing this out there, and many of the notes express similar skepticism. Rather, this is an attempt to get residents to accept something less outrageous put out by city planners and developers -- say, a five story "market rate" development instead of 12 stories.

I am not the only one who is skeptical of how this is being carried out. The residents of Newtonville have been highly critical of the city's support for the Korff family and other development partners over the past 5 years. Here's an excerpt from one letter to the local paper from 2016:
Like many residents of Newtonville, the looming Korff development makes me very uncomfortable.

The 20 existing affordable residential units would be replaced by 171 units, 85 percent of which, by implication, would be unaffordable. The existing residential tenants would be forced out. A sizeable number of long-term and well-loved local businesses would be forced out, and they will not be able to return either. What good does this do for Newtonville?

A few weeks ago the TAB had a delightful article about the mother and daughter team of Jill and Jackie who run the The Paint Bar on the northeast block of the intersection of Washington and Walnut. I bet Jill and Jackie are counting their lucky stars that they aren’t located on the northwest block, soon to be the Korff block, or they would be spending their time now looking for somewhere affordable to relocate.

At the end of this week’s article on the Orr block plan, Mr. Korff’s attorney Steve Buchbinder was quoted as saying that while “not everyone’s going to be happy” about this project, ”...others see this as something, frankly, that’s exciting.” I wonder who those people are? Korff and his team, looking forward to the profit on investment that they hope will be coming their way? Tax assessors at City Hall? The residents of Newtonville? I don’t think a lot of them are looking forward to this project with excitement.
Of course, the developer knew a 15% affordable, six-story building wouldn't fly. In the "negotiations" that followed, most members of the Newton City Council gave the developer just what he wanted: A giant building with 75% market rate/luxury, and 25% reserved for everyone else. 

If big developments are built in Newton, those numbers should be flipped if there is to be any hope for low-income, young families, young professionals, seniors, and people with fixed incomes to move to Newton. It's the right thing to do, and I think it's something that most people in Newton --YIMBY and otherwise -- would agree with.

For this to happen, the developer land-grab for luxury/market rate housing needs to stop. Things will only get worse unless the people of Newton and their local representatives stand up to developers and find a way to make more affordable housing without turning Newton into a sea of McMansions and condos for the rich.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Facebook, fake news, and the impact on our children: A hard lesson learned

Many years ago, I laughed when The Onion parodied a TV talk show discussing Facebook as if it were a CIA-devised surveillance and pacification tool.

No one is laughing anymore. In the past several years, and especially after the 2016 U.S. election, people have come to realize that Facebook is not just a tool to connect with friends, neighbors, and family members. It's one of the most powerful communication platforms ever devised, and like other platforms before it, has the ability to propogate false information on a massive scale. Unlike earlier platforms, however, Facebook's masters have handed over control to other parties, given these parties pretty much an open pass to say and share whatever they want, and "automated" account oversight and discussion.

The "Houston, we have a problem" moment came right after the election. That's when Zuckerberg let loose this gem:
"The idea that fake news on Facebook—of which, you know, it’s a very small amount of the content—influenced the election in any way, I think, is a pretty crazy idea."

Until that point, I naively assumed the company knew how its platform was being used, and had safeguards in place to moderate abuse and scammy behavior ... not just in the United States, but in other countries, where the potential outcomes can be far more serious. That's clearly not the case. (Among other things, Facebook contributed to the demonization of Rohingya in Myanmar, which morphed into ethnic cleansing).

In reality, this platform -- as well as YouTube, Twitter, etc. -- are being played like fiddles. The comment revealed that he did not realize what was going on, or totally underestimated how pervasive it is.

Sometimes it even seems Zuck wants to appease those who would rather use social media as a tool for spying and information control -- surely his charm offensives in China are paired with back-room discussions with Chinese companies and the Chinese government about partnerships and acquisitions, which would require Facebook to help authorities curtain discussion of sensitive topics and turn over the identities of people who dare to speak out against widespread nepotism and corruption, Tibetan occupation, the illegal occupation of islets in the South China Sea, and other sensitive topics that supposedly "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people."  

The other thing that's going on is how we personally are impacted by this platform. I've been on since 2004 and still enjoy the opportunity to see what friends and relatives are up to. But the downside of the platform has really taken a toll. It's not just fake news or political stories favoring one group or another. This platform is optimized for outrage and obsessive use. What I see in my friends' feeds makes the early waves of viral games and chain-letters seem quaint now. I really worry how technology will affect our children - something that MIT's Sherry Turkle has been warning people about for decades but has only emerged into the public conciousness in recent years.

I think it's easy to say this is little different from the wake-up calls and inevitable transformations related to earlier forms of mass media (incidents involving "yellow journalism" in the 1800s, Leni Riefenstahl and Orson Welles in the 1930s, the impact of TV on youth in the 60s and 70s, debates over video games in the 1990s and 2000s) but I really feel we as a society are crossing into new, more dangerous territory with some of the new digital platforms. We are starting to see the long-term impact, and the future doesn't look good. 

Monday, October 02, 2017

How to place a freeze on your credit reports

Sharing a PSA that may help some American readers. In the wake of the massive Equifax security breach exposing the personal information and social security numbers of most American adults, consider ordering the three main credit agencies to place a credit freeze on your information (required by state law upon request).

The contact numbers are listed below, and it takes less than 10 minutes per person, per agency. Freezes will prevent most types of credit-based identity theft, although you will need to lift the freeze when applying for loans, mortgages, or credit cards.

Note that if you do have your identity stolen, it is a mess to clean up, taking lots of time, bureaucracy, inconvenience, and costs, including potential legal problems or extra airport scrutiny. Most victims say it takes YEARS to clear up.

The process of freezing your credit takes about 20-30 minutes for one person if you use the automated online or phone systems offered by the three main credit reporting agencies (see below). DO NOT BE FOOLED by other services they offer, such as "credit monitoring" - Trans Union is particularly bad, exploiting the Equifax breach to sign people up for "True Identity" which is a paid premium service that offers limited protections.

Have your credit card number and social security number ready to use the following systems (you can also do it by mail, but it's slower and requires additional paperwork including a scan of utility bills and drivers' licenses). All services will send you a PIN to use later if you want to lift the freeze.

Please share this with friends, family, or colleagues.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Chinese as a world language?

There's an interesting article in LitHub by Tom Mullaney titled TO ABOLISH THE CHINESE LANGUAGE: ON A CENTURY OF REFORMIST RHETORIC. A couple of thoughts to share, as someone who studied Mandarin in Taiwan the 1990s, encouraged his kids to learn Mandarin here and in Taiwan, and still loves to study 4-character colloquialisms:
  • "Chinese is a world script" - The author notes the rising popularity of Chinese classes in schools all over the world. I love the challenge of learning this beautifully complex system of communication, but I think Chinese script is actually holding back Mandarin (and other Chinese dialects) from becoming more widely spoken. It's difficult to write properly, and adds another layer of complexity to remembering vocabulary. I think it's much easier for people to learn a language that has an alphabet-based script, and it's possible to go further with such a language in a given period of time. For students in the West, the prospect of gaining a little proficiency in Spanish in two or three years' time -- not to mention being able to read and write a fair amount of Spanish -- seems very appealing. I don't think that's possible with Chinese, unless the student makes a significant effort and/or endeavors to do an immersion program in Taiwan or China. (One interesting exception: Japanese students have very little trouble with written Chinese, thanks to their own use of kanji, a set of 1,000 or so Chinese characters used for place and personal names and certain vocabulary).
  •  The rise of software to write Chinese characters has really made it much easier to write. I say this as someone who learned in the dark ages before such software was widely available. If I had to write a sentence in Chinese using a pen and paper it would be painful for both myself and the reader ... but on my phone or using a laptop or desktop computer I can manage social media, email, and other lightweight uses thanks to easy pinyin input systems. It's improved my reading ability, too, because now I am interacting in Chinese on my devices using written language that's more like spoken Mandarin, whereas 20 years ago most of the printed materials I encountered tended to be written in more formal style.
  • Mandarin as a world language. The increasing importance of the Chinese economy is becoming a big driver for spoken Mandarin in other parts of the world. I've encountered Thais and Vietnamese who can speak it quite well (but not write) in order to do business or interact with Chinese tourists. A friend who recently visited Italy saw the same thing in high-end shops with young Italians behind the counters being able to speak proficient Mandarin.
  • I disagree with the idea that the lack of spaces between words are a problem. Chinese grammar is very straightforward, and once you have sentence structure and a large enough vocabulary it's not hard to figure where words start and end (even if you don't know a specific term).
  • There are interesting examples in Vietnam and Korea of societies that abandoned Chinese characters in favor of their own alphabets. It's true that cultures lose the connection with ancient literature and older historical documents ... but not their history, thanks to the spread of literacy and public education combined with a strong interest in history and famous people from centuries past.