Travel

Tribute to train travel

The first time I ever took a train was in my 20s when I visited East Asia before my final year of university. Since then, I’ve taken trains across China, Japan, Taiwan, and several other countries in Asia, as well as Western Europe. Taking the train, whether high-speed or regular or sleeper, is to me an essential part of travel. While taking a plane might be faster, it’s also too easy and too convenient. Riding a train lets you see more of the land, people, and scenery, and it can also be comfortable and pleasant. Of course, it can also be noisy and jarring if your train is one of those antique ones that shake with every turn of the train wheels and give off a loud racket incessantly. Whatever the case, I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy this form of transport that was alien to me during my childhood and adolescence.
Here, I’ve listed trains I took in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka
I took trains along the West coast (Wellagama to Colombo), then into the central highlands from Colombo to Kandy and Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. The trains were either very old or relatively new but modest in speed and appearance. Finally, I took an overnight train from Eliya Nuya back to Colombo, but on a seat, not a bunk. That last ride was quite rough because the train was several decades old and provided a turbulent and noisy ride that prevented me from getting any sleep. Thankfully, it was the only bad train trip I had in Sri Lanka. All the other train rides gave me the best views I’ve ever had from a train, and the one from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya was amazing as it went up mountains and along a ridge overlooking deep valleys and tea plantations.


Malaysia
I took the train from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh, then from that city to Penang (actually to Butterworth station then ferry). The trains were modern and clean, and the rides were smooth. They weren’t particularly fast but as the duration of both of my trips were only a couple of hours, that was ok. While Kuala Lumpur’s train station was quite large and busy, most train stations in the rural areas between KL and Ipoh were small structures that were basically platforms and covered roofs. Ipoh’s stately colonial station, built in 1917, is the most attractive train station I’ve seen. Continue reading “Tribute to train travel”

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China

Some rare positives in the news

It’s not easy to feel positive these days, with so many bad developments in the world and all around us, but at least this week there have been a few good news. First, the missing youth Thai footballers and their coach have all been rescued from the deep cave where they had been stuck for over two weeks. Far from straightforward, the rescue took three days and involved Thai and foreign divers accompanying the youngsters and coach one by one through over three kilometers of dark, narrow, flooded cave tunnels. The sheer magnitude and complexity of the search and rescue campaign was a heartening example of international cooperation involving Thais and Australians, Americans, British, Japanese and others.

Second is the World Cup, which has been running for the past three weeks and is now at the semifinal stage. It’s been a great tournament, with a lot of shocks and big teams getting knocked out. My favorite team Germany suffered the humiliation of failing to advance from the group stage, the first time since 1938 but the way they were playing, it was actually deserved. The tournament, which is held in Russia this year, has also been relatively free of violence and racism, which many feared would happen, though there were some reporters who got sexually harassed while doing their jobs.

Third is that Liu Xia, the widow of the late Chinese Nobel laureate and activist Liu Xiabo, was finally freed from eight years of house arrest in Beijing and able to leave for Germany. What makes Liu Xia’s imprisonment vile is that she was never accused or charged of any crime.
Hopefully being in a free and democratic country will help her recover from her serious mental and emotional trauma in China. The photo of her in that article I linked to basically says it all. China had been under pressure from the West to release Liu, which is probably why they finally did. However, China promptly sentenced another democracy and human rights activist to another 13 years of prison. Qin Yongmin had spent over two decades in jail and had most recently been arrested in 2015 but only tried in May this year.


Taipei on a very good day

Books · China · Taiwan

Lord of Formosa- book review

Lord of Formosa is another book about Taiwan I recently read. The lord is Zheng Chenggong or Koxinga, a Chinese nobleman-warlord who seized Taiwan from the Dutch in the early 17th century. Often overlooked, this was a period of time covering several decades when the VOC (Dutch East India Company, a Dutch trading organization which owned its own navy and conquered places for its country such as Indonesia) ruled southern Taiwan. In China’s Fujian Province, Koxinga was a loyalist to the Ming Dynasty which was in its death throes after being defeated by the Manchus (who would go on to found the Qing Dynasty). As Koxinga was the son of a wealthy noble who had a strong naval fleet that often preyed on Dutch trading ships, it was natural that Koxinga would, after failing to withstand the Manchus, eventually set his sights on Taiwan. The Dutch didn’t give up without a fight despite being heavily outnumbered by over 15 to 1, and it took Koxinga a lot of men, time and subterfuge to eventually defeat them.

Koxinga was actually born and raised in Japan, as his mother was a local lady who met and fell in love with Koxinga’s father. After he turned seven, his father called on him to come to China where Koxinga was trained in military matters and business, specifically in managing his father’s trading affairs and fleet. He would grow up to become a very capable general but troubled by sudden fits of anger and serious illness. Koxinga is still remembered in Southern China and Taiwan, where a university in Tainan, the capital during the Dutch colonial period and Koxinga’s reign, are named after him.

Readers get a good sense of Taiwan as a frontier settlement, as the Dutch only really controlled the south of the island, while trading and trying to control local aboriginal tribes; settlers from China lived in villages clustered around the Dutch forts in Tainan. It is important to note that this is when the ancestors of the majority of non-aboriginal Taiwanese first came to Taiwan to live, most coming across from Fujian.

The book flows very well, and the political and historical details and military battles are described in rich detail. However, the narrative lacks depth at some points, as Taiwanese characters are one-dimensional and hardly feature. The Dutch characters and Koxinga are the main focus, which is not surprising since the author is from Holland.

Lord of Formosa is a historical novel that is entertaining while also highlighting a turbulent and formative period of Taiwan’s past and a fascinating personality.

I reviewed it for the Asian Review of Books, so you can check my full review there as well.

Taiwan

Tough times for Taiwanese brand HTC

Once one of the world’s best smartphone brands many years ago, Taiwan’s HTC just announced it will lay off 1,500 people, one-quarter of its workforce. HTC has actually been in a very long slump in revenues and profits, so this news is not that big a surprise. But it is still sad because I’ve only used HTC smartphones and it really was one of the top smartphone brands in the world, a rarity for a Taiwanese company. I didn’t just get HTC because it was Taiwanese, but also because its phones were good and stylish. My current phone, a HTC E8, has lasted me for over three and a half years and counting. And my previous one, HTC Incredible S, is still running though I only use it as a backup when traveling. Both of those phones worked really well, and were reliable, robust and easy to use. And that is why it’s a shame that HTC has kept falling. They still keep making really good phones.

However, tech site Techcrunch has felt compelled to proclaim HTC as good as “gone”.
HTC’s technical prowess didn’t prevent it from being overshadowed by Samsung in the Android market, and it was never as cool as the iPhone (noone was or is). While its phones were comparable to Samsung, HTC could never match the Korean conglomerate’s marketing muscle. And to be honest, given the Taiwanese corporate habit of neglecting marketing and spending little, one wonders whether HTC really did as much as it could in that area. But I’ve read things online claiming that HTC was also the victim of false reviews, and that it was frozen out of component supply chains by larger companies so it either had to suffer delays or source lesser parts. It is ironic that Chinese smartphone companies like Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo have boomed, both in China and in developing markets like India, though they were able to take advantage of a large domestic market and being able to price their products cheaply.

HTC has always perceived itself as a mid-to-high-end brand but this means they lose out on the lower-end market while finding it hard competing with Apple and Samsung. If only HTC could have succeeded in its marketing and branding, more people would have seen it as a viable alternative to Samsung, LG and even Apple. Last year, HTC signed a US$1.1 billion deal with Google in which half of HTC’s smartphone R & D team went over to Google, which provided some kind of life support.

However, HTC has gotten into virtual reality and they’ve been putting a lot of effort into their Vive product line. While it hasn’t been too successful yet, hopefully this can help HTC carry on into the future. It would be a pity if HTC were to really end up like fallen phone giants Nokia and Motorola. It would be bad for Taiwan as well, which needs more companies to succeed as brands and not as OEMs that only make parts and goods for other companies. Asus and Acer are two other Taiwanese electronics brands that are relatively well-known worldwide (the latter more for PCs), but neither has come close to HTC’s success in phones.

 

Books

The Lives of Others, and Thrawn-book reviews

I initially thought The Lives of Others would be one of those multi-decade epics. Instead, this hefty Booker Prize shortlisted novel is about a wealthy Calcutta family that is rocked by a tragedy during a Marxist strife in the late 1960s.

Three generations of the Ghoshes live in a multi-level house, built from a fortune amassed from paper-making. From the outside, the family, like its house, seems opulent and secure, their wealth and prestige as lofty as the height of the house. But the family is divided by jealousies, hierarchies, and domestic politics, as well as hidden secrets that include drug addiction, a nasty sex habit, and even childhood incest. The biggest problem is the most disastrous, financial trouble in the form of the family’s paper mills failing. There is also an intriguing subplot with the oldest grandson joining a Marxist Naxalite movement and taking part in armed struggle against the state.

The book starts off slow but gradually gets better, especially as the rebel grandson’s tale unfolds, mainly in the form of journal entries that detail his time in the forest and villages taking on landlords and police. While his rebel experience becomes more precarious, with murders and police chases, his family also becomes more torn as tensions erupt and the financial problem worsens. To make it worse, the family patriarch is battling the effect of a serious stroke, leaving him a shell of the man he was.

The Lives of Others is a decent read once you can make it past the first couple of hundred of pages. Besides the family drama and the Naxalite rebellion, author Neel Mukherjee provides lots of interesting snippets of Bengali culture and society in Calcutta (now called Kolkatta), such as socio-economic and religious differences and the value placed on literature. West Bengal has a strong literary tradition, which still manifests in the present with novelists such as Jhumpa Lahiri (born in the US to Bengali parents) and Amitav Ghosh, my favorite writer, and Mukherjee himself. The famous Indian poet Rabindranth Tagore, who was also a Nobel laureate, was also Bengali.

[Warning: the below review contains some material that may be a bit too nerdy for some readers]

I know the world has become inundated with Star Wars movies in recent years, but the movies actually represent a small portion of the Star Wars world. This world also exists in dozens of novels spanning the movies, the time long before the prequels, and after the end of Return of the Jedi. As a result, there are tons of characters and worlds that aren’t even in the movies. Admiral Thrawn is one of these characters and as a blue-skinned alien from a mysterious world who becomes an Imperial Grand Admiral, perhaps one of the most intriguing. Having been absent from the disastrous Empire defeat in The Return of the Jedi due to being assigned elsewhere, Thrawn attempted to lead the remnants of the Empire against the new government in a trilogy of novels known as the Heir to the Empire.

Thrawn the novel tells of how he came to the Empire in the first place, presumably before the time depicted in The Empire Strikes Back movie, and started his rise up the ranks after convincing Emperor Palpatine that he had special knowledge of a distant but large alien threat. In the meantime, Thrawn’s tactical genius and gift at reading people sees him trying to take down a smuggler (not Han Solo) who seems to be forming a resistance. As Thrawn’s star rises as an officer, there is a parallel plot with a cunning human who works her way up from an administrative assistant to the governorship of her world through deceitful ways.

It would help to be an ardent Star Wars fan, but even if you don’t know much of Star Wars, you might still enjoy this book.

Europe travel · Travel

Italy travel- Roman glories


It might be long gone but the glory of the Roman Empire still lives on in Rome. Mostly in the form of the city’s most famous attraction, the mighty Colosseum, where gladiators and wild animals fought each other, and the Forum, where Roman senators and leaders used to meet to run their empire, but also numerous other buildings, ruins, castle, and even a 1.5 km road that is still very much in use.

I found the Colosseum impressive as it was built over 2,000 years ago as the Roman equivalent of today’s football stadiums but it was still quite as large as modern stadiums. Obviously, it’s been extensively renovated but it was good to see that the Colosseum is very much still intact. Once inside, you get to walk around the inner bowels and the spectator stands where you can imagine watching gladiators fighting in front of tens of thousands of bloodcrazed Romans.

The Colosseum is next to the Forum, which was the centerpiece of ancient Rome where the government used to meet, but which now exists as an impressive collection of ruins including towering columns, halls, and statues. Next to the Forum is the Palatine Hill, where many rich Romans used to reside.
After you leave the Forum, one can walk straight up the Capitoline Hill to the Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by the great Michaelangelo. A statue of Marcus Aurelius (one of Rome’s greatest emperors and who was in the movie Gladiator) mounted on a horse stands in the middle of a piazza surrounded by three exquisite buildings which house the Capitoline Museum.

My next stop was to fast forward over a thousand years in history to visit a giant hall that pays tribute to the first king of modern Italy, Vittorio Emmanuelle II, who ruled a unified Italy from 1861 to 1878. This massive all-white building fronted by columns looks impressive though apparently some locals feel it looks very out of place and is too extravagant.
From the Vittorio Emmanuelle memorial, one can walk across the roundabout to the Via del Corso, a 1.5 km road which the Romans built. On either side of this straight shopping street are elegant low-rise government and historical buildings, stores, and many lanes. To the east of the Via del Corso are historical structures like the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. I know Rome was full of history, but actually being in the midst of all these historical structures that still existed as part of modern neighborhoods and not as isolated sites was a memorable feeling.

It was notable that Rome’s subway was the grimiest and dodgiest one I’d ever taken (Toronto’s TTC subway was previously the dodgiest I’d ever taken). The trains were covered in graffiti and the platforms were slightly dark, which made me feel a little uncomfortable. Fortunately, I encountered no problems.
All in all, this was a fantastic first full day in the Eternal City.



From the Palatine Hill looking over the Forum. The Colosseum is in the back next to the tower.

Piazza del Campidoglio

Some Romans consider this monument to Italy’s first king Vittorio Emmanuelle II a little too grandiose.
  Continue reading “Italy travel- Roman glories”

Books

Civilization- book review

Why does the West dominate the world today? Why did the West become so successful in advancing from a chaotic backwater 500 years ago to overtaking Chinese, Indian, Ottoman, Arab, and other civilizations? Niall Ferguson attempts to tackle this major question in a fascinating and informative book. Despite its provocative subtitle – The Six Killer Apps of Western Power, the book is nuanced and not some form of propaganda advocating Western supremacy. According to Ferguson, six major factors allowed the West (Europe and later, the US) to become the world’s leading region: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption, and work.

Competition arose from compact populations that led to a multitude of kingdoms and city states that eventually became the dozens of countries in Europe today. China, for example, is equivalent to most of Europe in area and has a far greater population. As a result, while Chinese emperors put a lot of effort into administering and securing their giant empire, European states constantly fought and competed.

Science is self-explanatory. Europe experienced the age of Enlightenment and Reformation that led to the questioning of old dogmas and religious ideas that were erroneous or nonsense, like the earth being flat. In contrast, in civilizations like the Arab world, religion became a central force and dominated thinking and education.

Property rights meant people could own their own land and be assured of ownership by ensuring the state or other people could not simply seize it. Ferguson compares North America to South America, which were colonised by different countries and had vastly different experiences. Hence, North America had a more “liberal” experience (not trying to excuse slavery) in which private property rights payed a key role in legal, political and economic liberalization, while South America had a more feudal colonialism in which land was concentrated in the hands of the few.

Similar to science and also a result of it, a lot of medical advances took place in Europe in various fields (surgery, dentistry, psychology etc) and led to things like the eradication of smallpox, rabies, polio etc.

Consumption refers to materialism. Simply put, this was a big part of the West’s economic success over the last century (and East Asia’s in the last few decades). Industrialization meant both more goods produced and more wealth generated, which would be spent on goods and hence lead to greater demand, in an ever-growing cycle. For the US, this helped it become the world’s most dominant economy due to a vast domestic consumer market and because it made goods that the world wanted like jeans, Coca Cola, and planes.

Work might sound strange, because people everywhere work, but Ferguson’s main point is that Protestantism, which originated in Germany, helped promote economic development. That’s because its emphasis on hard work and prosperity encouraged people to focus on economic activities by making generating wealth seem sanctioned by the Lord.

There is much, much more than what I’ve summarized up here. There is a lot of facts, arguments, and examples in Civilization that make it a very compelling book, whether you agree with its points or not.

One might argue that China, as well as India, Southeast Asia, and Russia, is challenging Western dominance and Ferguson addresses this directly in the conclusion. In this, he says the West’s problem is not the rise of China, India etc but that it has lost faith in its own advantages. That might be true but it remains to be seen whether the West can regain its dominance or shrink from the challenge of China, Russia, and the developing world.

Books

1356, and Taipei- book reviews

These two novels may have single-word titles but that is the only similarity. One is about a military conflict hundreds of years ago between England and France, while the other is a contemporary semi-autobiographical novel about a New York writer and his aimless, drug-taking life.

During the 14th century, England and France fought a series of battles and campaigns which went on so long they were known as the Hundred Years War. The majority of these battles were fought on French soil, though at that time, much of France was actually semi-independent duchies or English possessions like Poitiers and Normandy. One of the most famous battles was Poitiers and 1356 is a novel by historical fiction master Bernard Cornwell about events leading up to it. But instead of being a retelling of real events, Cornwell puts a fictitious quest for the lost sword of St Peter led by The Bastard, Thomas of Hookton, a knighted archer from England.

While European military history in the Middle Ages is best known for armored knights, it is a time of great violence and brutality, which the book sometimes casually describes such as in the beginning, when the losing count of a skirmish is castrated and tortured to death. On a greater scale, the English were trying to force the French king to fight a battle by launching campaigns across France, destroying countryside, ransacking cities and raping, killing and pillaging. The English longbow was especially feared during this time, being a weapon that could destroy knights from great distances and launched dozens of times per minute in the hands of a skilled bowman.  The Catholic church also played a large role in the novel, with the Papacy based in Avignon, France, during that time and very much on the side of the French. As with the circumstances of that time, the church held a lot of power and wealth (it still does). Among the key church characters are a stern bishop and his enforcer, a callous priest who uses a hawk to terrorise and blind prisoners.

With a name like Taipei, you’d think the novel would be about Taiwan and perhaps take place mostly in Taipei. But nope, the only association with Taipei is that writer Tao Lin’s parents are Taiwanese, and in the book, the main character, Paul, is also from Taiwan. But other than brief trips to Taiwan and to Canada, the book takes place wholly in the US. Paul is a writer in New York who basically just hangs out, goes to parties where he hardly knows anyone, and takes a lot of drugs. Now, Paul is allegedly Tao Lin, and.

Here’s the thing about Taipei. It’s a unique novel that charts Paul’s life through every interaction, feeling, and conversation he has. Unfortunately, the end result is probably the least interesting novel I’ve ever read. I think that it’s a useful indicator of how empty modern urban life can be, but surely, readers did not need this point to be figuratively beaten into them repeatedly.
Once I realized midway there was no plot, it was a chore to struggle and finish the book. Paul is not interesting to me, and neither are his drug habit or casual relationships. Near the end, he gets married to someone almost on a whim, then he takes her to Taipei to meet his parents, and within weeks, he is already thinking the marriage was a mistake.

It’s a pity that the title Taipei was wasted on such an insipid book, because the city certainly deserves better.

Books

Smarter Faster Better- book review

A lot of books claim to boost your productivity, efficiency, thinking etc, but Smarter Faster Better makes it very clear about what it intends to make readers become.

Using 8 main concepts, each of which is described in one chapter, Charles Duhigg aims to help readers become better in work and in life. These concepts include motivation, teams, focus, goal setting, managing others, decision making, innovation and absorbing data. Like other books on behavioral economics and neuroscience, Duhigg provides lots of interesting facts, studies and examples from the real world to illustrate his concepts.

What makes the book especially good are a number of vivid real-world examples, such as how Disney made the massive animated hit Frozen, how a woman won a $2 million professional poker tournament, the creative process behind Saturday Night Live (the US late night weekend sketch show), and even how the FBI solved a kidnapping case.

There are interesting points that go against conventional wisdom. For instance, it’s normal to think that in a successful and creative team, everyone in the team should get along well and like each other. But Duhigg uses Saturday Night Live to illustrate that people don’t need to be friends or be nice to each other to be productive and creative, but to be able to express their opinions openly. It’s not about team members agreeing with each other all the time, but to be able to listen to their fellow team members and in turn have their ideas listened to.

Another surprising point is that the most innovative ideas aren’t necessarily original and new, but combine existing ideas in new ways. This can be seen for plays, electronic devices and even scientific papers. Duhigg uses Frozen and West Side Story to illustrate how those hits came about through their creators meshing different ideas.

We all wish we could predict the future but of course, that is impossible. But what is possible is being able to come up with multiple outcomes in your mind and estimate the various likelihoods of them happening. This is called probabilistic thinking, which according to Duhigg, helps decision-making significantly, as it did the female poker player who beat more established players to win a US$2 million jackpot.

The tragic loss of an Air France flight flying to Brazil over the Atlantic in 2009 is used to illustrate the problem of cognitive tunneling or overly focusing on something to the detriment of the overall situation. Basically, the pilot reacted wrongly after encountering a stall and his copilots focused too much on the flight display screen unknowingly ignoring the pilot’s mistake.

According to Duhigg, the key to countering cognitive tunneling is to have strong mental models. This means thinking up ideas or stories in your head relating to your work or other areas of life and coming up with possible solutions. This is useful for a lot of work situations, whether it be a nurse figuring out a patient’s abnormal problem or flying a plane. Not only does this help you become more focused on details, but you can understand how things work on a deeper level. This chapter on focus started with an air tragedy but ended with a positive story. A Qantas flight lost a wing in mid-air but avoided crashing and landed successfully. The captain had a habit drilled his crew constantly before each flight, so when disaster struck, they were able to react calmly and correctly. Thus, a great example of the importance of developing mental models.

Some of these ideas do seem obvious, such as combining both short- and long-term goals instead of fixating on only one, but the hard part is implementing them. The examples in the book show why and how they work.

Smarter Faster Better is a very helpful book that should enable readers to achieve at least some of what its title promises. I’d say it is one of the most entertaining books of its kind that I’ve read.

Taiwan

Taiwan shut out of World Health Assembly, “demoted” by companies

Taiwan has been under a lot of pressure lately. After losing a diplomatic ally Dominican Republic at the beginning of May to China, Taiwan has been excluded from the World Health Organization’s annual assembly that kicks off tomorrow (May 21), despite calls from the US, the European Union and Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies. WHO head, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, even said that because of China’s opposition, Taiwan would not be allowed to participate. It’s a very shameful and absurd situation that a country of 23 million can be excluded from a world gathering to discuss vital health issues simply because another much bigger and powerful country claims it and uses its clout to dissuade multilateral bodies from acknowledging it as a country.

Taiwan basically doesn’t exist as an independent state, even though in reality it is very much so, in the eyes of a lot of countries, corporations and multilateral world bodies. As this excellent article states, Taiwan exists in a “unique diplomatic purgatory.” While unofficial ties exist, such as with the US and , the problem is that Taiwan cannot participate in or be a member of world bodies such as the WHO, the UN, or even the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), which oversees global aviation standards and practices.

This lack of recognition even extends to international companies, especially airlines such as Air Canada, which recently changed its listing on its website of Taipei, Taiwan to Taipei, China, therefore implying Taipei (the capital city of Taiwan) is part of China. British Airways, Lufthansa, and Etihad had also made this change earlier this year. It is very disappointing that Air Canada did so as Canada has always been a very progressive country with good ties to Taiwan. I actually regret flying on Air Canada last year when I visited the country and if I had to repeat the trip, I would certainly consider flying on a Taiwanese airline even if it were to be more expensive.

China also tried to pressure American airlines into changing how they listed Taiwan, but thankfully the White Houses responded by calling it Orwellian nonsense. There’re lots of problems with the current American government, but when it comes to dealing with China, they’ve actually done a few things well.

The changing of Taiwan’s name by international organizations was actually happening much earlier, as I personally experienced when a charity I used to donate to sent a letter to my Taiwan residence listing Taipei as a “Province of China.” I tried to leave a message on their Facebook account but never got a reply. I’ve recently contacted them again by Twitter and email so I’m hoping to get a response. I don’t doubt they do valuable work, which is why I donated to them in the first place, but their listing of Taiwan as a “Province of China” is very blatant and false.

I haven’t donated to them since and won’t consider doing so until they stop listing Taiwan as a “Province of China”, but don’t worry, I can still help “save the children” by donating to other worthy organizations.

The growing danger is that while right now, many organizations, companies and world bodies are forced to recognize Taiwan as part of China and not its own country, in the future, China can push this to justify military invasion and attacks.