Saturday, 26 September 2015

Terminological Inexactitude

I'm sitting in Taichung HSR station for the next hour or so while I wait for my black motorbike to get new tyres fitted to it; preventative maintenance not emergency repair. In the meantime I can write a quick blog post on a thought that occurred to me this morning whilst reading an editorial at "Thinking Taiwan" on the KMT presidential candidate.

It is the old problem of naming political creeds; identifying and articulating what is wrong with the old name and finding an adequate replacement. In the particular case, I think the word "authoritarian" is not fit for purpose and that it should be replaced by something like "cryptocrat". Let's see if I can adequately explain this suggestion...

The first problem with "authoritarian" is that the current concept it refers to is at odds with the root concept of "author", one who authors or creates something which did not previously exist. An authoritarian does not author or create society. Society is an emergent phenomenon that arises from the iterative transactions of large numbers of people. In that sense the term "authoritarian" is a kind of oxymoron.

The second problem is that the intermediate concept of a public "authority" which is "authorized" to spend certain funds and to perform certain functions does not by itself encompass the concept of "bully", which is the essential connotation of the term "authoritarian".

So there is basically nothing in the antecedent concepts of "author", "authority" and "to authorize" which allow for the concept "authoritarian". It is derivative in linguistic form only and not in content. Why does it matter? It bothers me to use words that are badly contrived for a given purpose. They are in a certain sense false.

My proposed substitute is "cryptocrat". An individual who regards opaqueness as the essential principle of government. A government that both fears the society from which it is drawn and holds that society in a certain kind of contempt, will be tempted toward secrecy of information and decision making, "black-box" agreements and clandestine operations. Although it has a "techie" feel at odds with the obvious lack of tech-savvy in people like president Ma or candidate Hung, it does integrate the concept of a government run on secrecy and this is the basic objection to the current KMT government that groups like the Black Island Alliance have expressed in the last few years.

Ok, so the bad guys are "cryptocrats". What about the likes of Tsai Ing-wen? The obvious counterpoint is "democrat", but this too is a term not entirely fit for purpose. There is more than one way of governing "by the people" and the term democrat allows no conceptual distinctions. Of course there are terms like "populist", "socialist", "democratic socialist" and so on, but these are all imprecise and in any case faded from overuse, like old tyres. I need to give some thought into how Tsai and her government-in-waiting would be best characterized and how best to express this. Anyway, my motorbike should be ready now so I'd better get moving.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Comment On "How The Republicans Forgot Taiwan"

Last week, on September 16th, Thinking Taiwan published an editorial entitled "How the Republicans Forgot Taiwan". I wanted to comment on it, but have been too busy with work and my own priorities and now it has been taken off the front page. Now that I have time, I will comment anyway, even though it will no longer receive much, if any attention, but I post it here too...


In a rational political universe, everyone would immediately understand how a sitting two-term Democratic president who does not face re-election could be "forced" to focus foreign policy on one area of the world and not another, and against his own wishes. Is it not more likely that the Obama administration's focus is one of their own choosing (or of their own failing?). Occam's razor would seem to suggest so, as would a number of historical facts. For instance, was it the Congressional Republicans who "forced" the Obama administration into the attack on Libya in 2011? The fact that that intervention was conducted without congressional assent indicates that it was an act of the Obama administration's own choosing.

That is the main point of contention with this article: it lets the Obama administration off the hook for their own foreign policy failures in the Asia-Pacific region. They failed because... the Republicans wouldn't let them. Now that that is out of the way, there are some specifics that cannot be allowed to stand...

"President Obama’s victory in getting the Iran nuclear deal past a reluctant Congress should have marked the beginning of the end of the 9-11 era in U.S. foreign policy."

That has arguably transpired already, given that U.S. troops have largely been withdrawn from both Iraq and Afghanistan.

"That era has been characterized by an extreme obsession with the Middle East... as well as ongoing American efforts to nick Islamic extremism in the bud (by attacking al-Qaeda personnel at every turn, for example)..."

Except at Benghazi, where the U.S. State department did nothing to prevent their own diplomatic people from being slaughtered by Al Qaeda.

"The Republican establishment’s approach includes obsessive criticism of Hillary Clinton’s admittedly problematical handling of a fatal assault on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya..."

That criticism is not nearly obsessive enough. Why was that permitted to occur? What was it Der Rodham was up to in Libya (and was Obama even in on it?). There have been rumours and conspiracy theories, but little in the way of real investigative journalism. Instead we are treated to sneers about how one political party is "obsessive". But that is an obsession necessitated by the concept of justice, and the lingering suspicion that a political crime of the highest order was committed here. To let it go without reaching a final, definitive conclusion would be a disgrace and an insult to the slain staff who purported to serve U.S. interests by working in that embassy.

"While President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was clearly interested in forming closer ties with Beijing, the fact remains that the degree of his China tilt... might well have been controllable had the U.S. not been so preoccupied with Middle Eastern events."

As a counterfactual conjecture, there is a reasonable case for that. But what establishes that as a "fact"? Nothing.

Of course, "the fact remains" is a stock phrase used by journalists all the time, but that doesn't mean it should be used when describing what are, after all, opinions. That distinction between opinion and fact must be maintained whatever the minor costs of re-wording something are. Perhaps the last thing we need is further conflation and confusion of fact and opinion.


Monday, 21 September 2015

Following The Old Central Cross-Island Highway: The Tienlun Dam (天輪壩) In Taichung County

Today (Sunday - I wrote this up late on Sunday night) I arrived at Taichung HSR station early in the afternoon for my second trip eastward up along provincial highway eight (also known as the "central cross-island highway"). Last weekend I had driven around Taichung city and Fengyuan proper to get to the Shihgang barrage west of Dongshih and on as far as the Ma'an barrage on highway eight. This time I wanted to go straight to the central cross-island highway and take in as much as possible. To do this, I drove eastward out of the HSR station and east through the city's Dalin district and out east via the 136 and north-east over the farm hills of Xinshe district via the tortuous 中99 and then along the 中95 and across a bridge to join the central cross-island highway going north-eastward up into Taichung's spectacular mountains.

As ever the drive around Taichung city is horrendous, and the 中99 is a battered old industrial / agricultural road with poor signing and sharp hairpin bends for miles. It's a nightmare. Once I was out of that and onto highway eight, everything seemed so much more tolerable - even the tourist buses. I drove straight up past the Ma'an barrage where I had stopped previously, and kept going all the way to Guguan district which is a famous hot springs resort stacked with large hotels, numerous big-round-table restaurants, 7-11s, post offices and the like. Naturally I drove straight through all this right the way up to the police check point whereupon I discovered something I hadn't previously known...

The central cross-island highway is not in fact, indefinitely closed to the public. Once the staff had asked me where it was I wanted to go to (I told them the truth: that I wanted to photograph the enormous Guguan dam), they told me I would be allowed to pass if only I came in a car: the route is forbidden to motorcycles and scooters. I would have to sign a waiver form for insurance purposes as the route is still very dangerous for obvious reasons, but so long as I return in a car (or more likely in my case, a van), I'd be fine. Now to me, that is a more significant bit of news than endless streams of headlines in the newspapers.

On the way back down, I stopped to take in the dam I had hoped to see in liu of the massive Guguan dam itself: the Tienlun dam (天輪壩)...

Overlooking the dam from the east gazing westward; the dam is the third in a series of hydroelectric dams and barrages downstream from Deiji reservoir after the Qingshan and Guguan dams.

Water leaving a tunnel after most likely passing through a hydroelectric generator in the mountainside somewhere.

Water-intake structure for another tunnel leading downstream to the Tianlun hydroelectric plant just upstream from the Ma'an barrage.

A bridge crosses over between the water intake gates and a series of buildings adjacent to the main dam itself.

Another view of the water intake gates; four to release water into a penstock, and a larger, central gate behind that to release water into the tunnel.

The bridge crossing over to the management buildings.

A slightly hazy long-range shot of the five hydraulic spillway gates on the dam itself; only a small amount of water is allowed to pass through into the riverbed downstream (presumably via a fish ladder or some other sluiceway).

Looking back upstream and down onto the exit for the first tunnel connecting the river behind Guguan dam with that section of the river immediately behind Tianlun dam.

This was as close as I could get to a view of the downstream face of the Tianlun dam; a shot overlooking the crest whilst perched on the wall of the highway far above.
I have a few ideas for a return trip next weekend (the van trip to Guguan and Qingshan dams will have to wait), as I would like to make more time to look at the Tianlun hydroelectric plant and one or two other things. I have actually already seen the Qingshan dam  (青山壩) when I was at Deiji reservoir last year, but the view was poor and partly obscured by foliage. So I would also like to see that again and get some clear shots. But of course the big prize is the Guguan dam (谷關壩) further downstream.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Last Sunday Trip To Taichung: Shihgang Barrage & Ma'an Barrage

I haven't got around to posting this until now, due to work reasons, but last weekend I did two trips. On the saturday, I took a friend out to see Wushantou reservoir, and on Sunday I took the HSR up to Taichung. The aim was to take my first trip eastward along provincial highway eight taking in the series of barrages that lie downstream from Deiji reservoir. The first of these is the Shihgang barrage which was famously damaged during the "921" earthquake which struck Nantou county in 1999. Somewhat irritatingly, this is often referred to as the Shihgang "dam". It is in fact a barrage, like the Tees Barrage in Stockton.

The western, downstream face of the Shihgang barrage viewed from the southern shore. 

Only four of the barrage's tainter gates were open.

The collapsed section of the barrage on the northern shore.

A twisted pipe section, damaged during the 921 earthquake on display at the northern shore.

The collapsed section of the barrage, with the original fencing still intact.

A tourist information panel about the earthquake and the damage done to the barrage. The sign has faded almost to the point of illegibility and should be replaced.

A view out over the small reservoir (really just a slight bulge in the river) formed by the barrage.

The first two operational gates on the northern side of the barrage.

Looking south along the upstream face of the barrage. 

Peering down into the collapsed section. 

Westward, the Dajia river continues to flow downhill toward the Taiwan Strait.
After spending a short time at the Shihgang barrage, I headed east on provincial highway eight for the first time. I wanted to see the Ma'an barrage further upstream and to familiarize myself with the road and its' particular hazards for a return trip. I already knew that much of the road would be very narrow in places, and the traffic (especially the presence of tourist buses) would render over-taking more dangerous than it usually is. At one point, a guy driving one of those large scooters (300cc or more) ended up coming off the road at a sharp bend before a tunnel - he almost crashed into the side of the tunnel. That wasn't going to happen to me.

First glimpse of the Ma'an barrage.

Complete view of the downstream face of the Ma'an barrage from provincial highway eight.

Unusually, this barrage comprises two distinct sections: the northern side is a series of nine tainter gates, whilst the southern side consists of five ogee-crest open overflow spillways.

Telephoto shot of the hydraulic gate on the northern shore which serves as the water intake for a tunnel leading to a small hydroelectric plant further downstream. 

Water spilling out of the fish ladder.

A view of the upstream face of the barrage from the southern shore.

A quick parting look upstream to the next bend in the river, before heading back to Taichung to catch the 6pm train.
Note to self: a point to remember is that even though I made good time on the drive back into Taichung city, arriving at just after 5pm, the traffic lights are absolutely horrendous and what should have been a twenty minute drive ended up costing me more like forty to forty five minutes. I only just caught the train in time. So budget more time for the return drive.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Units Of Measurement

Six years on from when I first adopted Tinkerbell as a pup I found on the streets near Tainan's "science park", and the subsequent adoption of my other dogs (all but two I found abandoned as puppies in the park), I find myself faced with the necessity of buying yet another sofa. Erhjen, the tan-coloured pup I found up on the mountain earlier this year, has finally chewed a hole in the still relatively new sofa I bought only last year. I knew at the time I took her in that this would eventually happen.

I have now had six sofas in as many years, with five of them having been worn out in that time. That little fact occurred to me this morning as I was having my coffee with three of the six dogs all curled around me on the flat sofa. It's a cost I can only pretend to be annoyed at having to pay.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

An Insomniac's Chest

On and off throughout last week and into the weekend, I suffered from insomnia. My first guess was that this was due to a lack of exercise over the past couple of months, and so for the last couple of nights I did some jogging and cycling and that seemed to work. Tonight however (it is now close to daybreak on Wednesday morning) the sleeplessness has returned. I find myself turning over in my mind things both great and small again and again... the washing machine, the cleaning out of the garage I did the other day, Peter Enav's disturbing recommendation of Hillary Clinton, various things Tsai Ing-wen appears to have said which are receiving scant attention in the English-language media... and so on.

Let's go with Hillary Clinton first.

Where to start with this? It's the picture that I feel reluctantly compelled to look at and which is framed by the one aspect of what she is and by the other aspect of her continuity, or rather the fact that she has still not been stopped, after all these years. The terrible sickness in this is not merely the long history of outrageous lies and slurs and attempted deceptions and it does not stop even with thoughts of the specific individuals who have all since lost their lives in horrible ways, but the absence of even any attempt at justice. I could suggest to myself the absence of inculpatory evidence with which to get her convicted of even one of the many crimes of which she is suspected as a reason to let it go, but the gut feeling will not allow this. There are too many points of inference in her history and in the history of how she has been treated all pointing to the same nagging conclusions. It is not, in my opinion, a fact to be ashamed of that western civilization can occasionally facilitate the rise of the odd monster now and again. Suppression of evil is not the chief value. But it is, in my opinion, a thing of indelible shame on western civilization that as monstrous a H.P. Lovecraftian impersonage as she could have survived in public, and so scarcely concealed by the most transparent of lies for so long.

Tsai Ing-wen. Later: my eyes are finally starting to close on me now...

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Astrology & Driving: WTF?

"Cross-referencing the scofflaws’ date of birth, the office found that 1,282 of the offenders were Scorpios, or 9.2 percent, while 1,238 Capricorns came in second with 8.89 percent of the total."
The Taipei Times reports on new statistics released by the Taipei City Motor Vehicles Office.

Now then... either somebody is taking the piss, or the MVO are releasing stats demanded by the public or some VIP's housewife (it wouldn't surprise me), or one of the statisticians would probably be better off writing for a women's magazine.

One conjecture that might explain the terrifying stupidities of Taiwanese driving culture is the prevalence of superstition and what me might otherwise call "magical thinking". Somebody once told me, for example, that Taiwanese drivers will turn right at a busy intersection without so much as a glance at oncoming traffic to their left because to do so - to actually look to see if it is safe to move or not - will ensure "bad luck" and an increased likelihood of an accident. However, I have not yet met anyone who would actually own up to holding such a view.


There is a further point I wanted to add when I wrote this brief post this morning (I was busy and ran out of time), which is that I sometimes wonder whether - and how far - this "magical thinking" pervades the culture. For example, would one expect to encounter its' assumptions among people who work for the DMV or who conduct driving tests? I think it is possible. Consider this quote from the conclusion to the same Taipei Times article...
"...“Scooter riders should not violate traffic rules or think their luck might hold forever. This kind of behavior is dangerous to the riders and to others, and inflicts tragedies on many families,” office director Chen Tsung-chien (陳聰乾) said."
There are two possibilities. One is that Mr Chen has in mind scooter riders who blindly run red lights believing they will be lucky. Obviously these people are irresponsible morons and must be discouraged lest they injure or kill other people. The second possibility is that Mr Chen regards the traffic rules as a kind of magical talisman, which, if everyone obeys them scrupulously, will protect each and every individual from harm. Another way of putting that is to ask the question: are concepts of civic behaviour in Taiwan infected with new forms of superstition?

A thought-experiment I sometimes invite Taiwanese people to entertain is to posit a particular driving circumstance (e.g. the turning-right-into-a-busy-road-without-looking situation mentioned above) and ask them whether they would first look left to check for oncoming traffic even if there was no rule prescribing this. Obviously the correct answer is that you still should check first to ensure your own safety and that of others. The point I hope to raise, is that traffic rules - like nearly all rules - are instrumental in character; the important thing is the end (public safety) that the rules are designed to facilitate.

However, some of the rules are enforceable (e.g. traffic lights) and some of them are not, or are more difficult to enforce for various reasons (e.g. there is no obvious way to enforce the mirror-signal-move procedure without in-car surveillance which is objectionable on a number of grounds). For as long as that remains the case, the enforcement of and obedience to traffic laws can be no more than an adjunctive means of ensuring the safety of each individual on the road. The primary means must always lie with each individual driver being cognizant of the flow of risk and responsible to the value of safety for oneself and others. In other words, driving is an activity that must be governed primarily by a virtue ethics, and secondarily by a rule ethics. In some ways, Taiwan's driving culture does approximate this in a way the British driving culture (for example) does not, though I do not trust Taiwanese drivers in general and regard them as especially susceptible to jaw-droppingly appalling lapses in judgement.

Whether and how Taiwanese driving culture can be improved through better education is a very worthwhile question. A large part of the answer may involve eradicating the "magical thinking" and superstitious mental habits I suspect may lie behind some of the problem behaviours.