Thursday, May 30, 2019

A look back at the Cold War, 30 years after it ended

My daughter just interviewed me about growing up during the Cold War for a school project. The way I described it: It was constantly in the background and a source of great concern, kind of like Global Warming is now.

As a young kid in the 70s, awareness of the Cold War was driven by some types of activities, such as drills in our elementary school to file down to the school basement which was supposedly a fallout shelter. I was also aware of news events driven by Cold War conflicts, such as the Boat People crisis, defectors or athletes crossing over or seeking asylum, the 1980 Summer Olympics being cut short, and concern when Brezhnev died or stepped down - would someone even more grim take over the USSR?

As a teen in the 80s, we knew about the risk of a full-on nuclear war breaking out and M.A.D. ("mutually assured destruction" IIRC). And there were the hot wars and conflicts popping up, usually in hot places. Grenada, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Angola ...

We were the good guys and they were the bad guys, as evidenced by our value on freedom and the fact that they kept their people in line with fences, minefields, and cruelty. Hollywood played up this good guy/bad guy thing too, from Rambo to Rocky to Red Dawn.

But there were some questions in the backs of our young minds when it came to things about the Cold War that didn't quite make sense. Like: the leaders in client states we backed and gave free reign to oppress and kill in the name of "freedom." Were our strongmen morally superior to their strongmen? Were their policies and goals all bad?

And what about the people who lived under these regimes? The media was good at concentrating our loathing on the evil leaders, military forces, and the extensive police-state apparatus. We didn't know much about the ordinary people, except that some went to great lengths to get out. But most of them didn't. Was it because they were incapable, didn't want to go, or didn't care?

Sometimes media made us ponder the divide. The ending to the movie "Wargames" was kind of corny, but it made a point. And that Sting lyric: "Do the Russians love their children too?" I had issues with Sting breaking up his fun pop band and turning into a pretentious artiste, but nevertheless that particular line struck a chord, and made me think.

What are your Cold War memories or stories?

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Chinese Summer Camp Review (2018)

In the summer of 2018, our son returned to National Taiwan Normal University to attend the NTNU Mandarin Training Center summer program for children and teens. We liked the Chinese summer camp in Taiwan experience the first time around when both of our kids attended.

This time, we wanted to help our son's Mandarin improve while having a special cultural experience in Taiwan. This is a review of his 2018 Chinese Summer Camp experience at NTNU. I will also talk a little about other things to do in Taipei and Taiwan while you are on the island.

The 2018 Chinese summer camp experience

My son was in the "Little 1" group four years previously; this time he was in the "Big 3" group as his Chinese had improved in the interim, thanks to classes in his American middle school.

One issue I noticed this time is the program has many students can actually speak Mandarin quite well (thanks to exposure at home) but cannot write. As a result, at the "big" levels for older kids, many students are bunched up at the big 2 and big 3 level, but they don't have enough kids to attend the higher level classes (4 and 5). As a result, they encourage kids from the middle levels to attend the higher-level classes.

On the one hand, this really challenges the kids to improve rapidly on their spoken and written Chinese. On the other hand, it may be too much for some. My son was placed in the level 4 class, but it was just too hard -- his written Chinese was better than many, but his spoken Mandarin was not as good and he couldn't understand the level 4 vocabulary. The program is very good about moving kids up or down in the first week, so he dropped down to level 3 which was just right.

My advice to anyone attending the Chinese summer camp program in 2019 or beyond is to really pay attention to what the kids are saying (too easy, too hard) in the first few days. Also ask for feedback from the teachers and assistants. If it doesn't seem like a good fit, let the teachers know in the first week and they can reassign your child.

Not many things changed in terms of the structure or approach to education. Mandarin is spoken almost all of the time at the middle and higher levels. The quality of the instruction was identical, and a very high level. But some of the learning materials did change -- I actually preferred the older Chinese textbooks for the beginner levels as the printing was better quality and they had side-by-side simplified and traditional versions of each lesson. My son was able to learn a lot regardless -- in fact his aunt and uncle were honestly quite impressed at the improvement over one month.

Even better: The 2018 summer experience at NTNU in Taiwan supercharged his Chinese writing and speaking ability for his middle school Chinese class in the Boston area. It made a huge difference. He was average in his 7th grade Chinese class at school before he went to Taiwan, when he came back in the fall for 8th grade he was advanced. He surged ahead and qualified for honors-level Chinese for 9th grade, when he starts high school. I asked him how/why he thinks he was able to do so well in 8th grade Chinese, and his answer was "Chinese summer camp."

Taiwan summer camp: side trips

One other thing about this trip that is worth mentioning: I made a point of doing a lot of extra stuff with him over the four-week period. Almost every night we went somewhere to eat, and two or three nights per week we did special excursions to night markets or other attractions. He was older, and our apartment (an Airbnb about 15 minutes' walk from National Taiwan Normal University) was far more convenient for getting on the MRT subway system and getting to the Taipei Main Train Station. Sometimes we went with relatives, but most of the time we were on our own using public transport or sometimes a rented car. Our 2018 excursions included:
For the last side trip, I pulled him out of the summer camp on a Friday (it was field trip that day, not classes) and took a train to Hualian, where I rented a car from Avis and did all of the driving. It was a lot of driving that weekend, but it was utterly spectacular mountain and country scenery and an amazing experience for us both. You can also take tour busses to Taroko directly from Hualian, too. It's amazing and worth a side trip!

There are many more opportunities for trips near Taipei or further afield: Shopping, Taipei 101, fishing in cement pools, travel to the beach, travel to other cities and towns ... there are too many things to list! 

During the day while he was in camp, I usually worked at a coworking center in Taipei (I have my own publishing and consulting business) but I also made a point to do a hike in the nearby hills on my own or with friends once per week. How many other chances will I get in my life to do something like this?

A few photos from our summer in Taiwan are below:

Jilong night market

Northern style Chinese restaurant in Taipei

Our Airbnb

Taiwan professional baseball game in Taoyuan

Doing homework on the balcony of our Airbnb

Taroko gorge

Taroko gorge

Tea harvest, Taidong county

Chinese summer camp homework project

Cliffside temple, Xindian, New Taipei City

Hiking markers near Maokong station, Taipei

Puppet show on the last day of the Chinese summer program

Tang Dynasty sculpture at National Palace Museum

Notes: I was not paid money to write this post, and we don't have any affiliation with NTNU other than sending our kids to camp there in the summer of 2014 and again in 2018. I just wanted to share my experience, after finding it so difficult to locate real reviews about the program!

However, since posting this review, I have added affiliate links for Amazon and Airbnb on this page. I get a small commission or travel credit if you click on them and spend money on those sites. If you don't want to use the links, here are the plain old links: Amazon/Airbnb. I also use advertising on the page, which you can turn off by switching to reader view in Firefox or Safari, or by using an ad blocker. 

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.