Greatest City on Earth (tomorrow)™ Plenty of things to do in this fast moving, typhoon powered metropolis of nearly 3 million. Hardware junkie paradise, Chinese culture heaven. Food lovers dream.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Stormy Weather

If memory serves me right, a bold prediction earlier this year by the CWB said that there would maybe only three typhoons this year. With two currently heading towards Taiwan, and a few already behind us, obviously the black art of weather predicting is as black as ever.

Typhoon Talim is first in the queue, and should be here in a couple of hours.

The weather is also getting to people's heads a little, trying to get some breakfast this morning found one foreigner (on sandals) surounded at Yamazaki's bakery for apparently trying to steal a sandwich. Meanwhile things weren't much better at Starbucks, where everyone stayed in the far corner as a very unhappy housewife was talking and shouting loudly by herself while stirring her remaining latte.

A couple of years ago I took a overseas mental health professor to the mental health hospital on the outskirts of Taipei. Inside the locked up areas, things get bizarre. Surrounded by Taiwanese drugged out on relaxation elixer , but speaking fluent English, the stresses of the Bushibans become just a little clearer. Go up a floor, and you will find the foreigners for whom the stresses of Taipei became too much.

Feeling stressed out? Do take it a little easier, and of course, buckle up, get your bottles of water and whatever and ride out the storm tonight.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Voodoo Dolls & Marketing

Are you really hating / loving someone at the moment? (its just two sides of the same coin). You can now buy your very own Voodoo dolls at one of the many roadside stores. Nothing much more than a couple of ragged threads, they come with a helpfull tag where you can write the name of the object of your hatred.

Great marketing, they must cost less than NT$10 to create, and sell for NT$200 or more.

Just be carefull where you stick those needles, you might accidently hurt yourself.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Taiwan National Health Service -- Good & Bad

Chinese parents value their children’s education -- and although it is less than in the older days, many still want their children to become doctors. Hence, competition is extremely stiff for entry into the top medical programmes.

Another result is that there is no lack of doctors, in any town there is at least several small clinics spread over the main streets, with a couple of dentists in between. The quality varies of course, but even the smallest ones get the basic plumbing (colds, coughs) done. Small family run pharmacy's litterly dot the landscape, together with the odd more prestigious Chinese medicine stores.

Taiwanese eagerly swap recommendations on the better doctors, and of course, each family has a stash of traditional recipes that are handed down and made into medicine at the local Chinese medicine store.

A nation wide National Health System ensures that more or less everyone has access to low cost medical care, although costs are rising. Payment is usually through the salaries for the working family members, and then each associated family member (parents, children) is added into the costs, which can become quite a stiff part of the family income as salaries are low.

A consultation to a doctor will set you back between NT$ 100 - NT$ 200 (US$ 3-6), with the remainder being paid out of NHS funds. This low entry fees ensures that there is no shortage of people visiting the doctors. Older people have access to good medical care, making sure that their quality of life has become much higher.

For someone used to European style small private clinics, one or two per town, the Taiwanese system is a relief. You are not linked to any private practitioner, competition sorts out those clinics who can handle and those who can't; and if you do pick up a bug (this is a sub tropical country with a whole range of interesting diseases) that brings you down rapidly, all the major hospitals (and there are quite a few) offer 24 hour emergency access to services.

Of course, some of it is too good to be true. The national health system is relatively new -- extremely popular -- and thus costing the government a fortune. The open access allows people to shop around, and potentially waste a lot of precious resources. Costs are rising -- a family of four already pays a significant part of its income, especially if its a single income family -- to medical care.

Finding a balance -- affordable health care; without sacrificing its strongest points is going to be a major challenge, but of course the same is true in any 1st world country.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Chinese Valentines Day

Ouch, and yet again I forgot about Chinese valentines day. That was yesterday, hard to see how I could have missed it. Flowers were sold in abundance on the street corners, akward couples with single roses in the subway. Love was in the air.

Going for a bite to eat was even more difficult than usual, all the restaurants were booked full, and so were the hotels. Especially the ones that rented out rooms for blocks of two hours only.

Taipei is home to a new generation of love hotels, it already had the seedy ones. Now if you are looking for appartment sized rooms, luxery style decoration, the works it is available for some NT$ 2000 for 2 hours. The top establishments reported that each room was rented out between 5 to 7 times in a single day, and that eager couples had to queue for up to 2 hours.

The mind boggles, what do you do while queuing for a love hotel? Idle chit chat with the other people waiting for their room to be cleaned and made available?

Related Link
Taipei's new love hotels

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Romanization is dead -- how about Klingon?

Basically, Taiwanese do not care about how Chinese characters are transformed into a latin alphabet, a proces called romanization. How else can this mess be explained? Being helpfull and courtous to overseas visitors as always, they try, but basically it is a very low priority problem. And why bother? If you have even junior high school Chinese you can get around fine.

On the picture, "Jhorg" get about 257 hits in Google, most of them related to a little trol, or a persons name. Candy for those unable to read Chinese, and being able to correctly pronounce it.

Leaving it to academics and politicians has resulted in nearly every single sign post using a different romanized spelling. It depends which political party is in power, over what area (Taipei City, Taipei county, different parties, different spelling), which company (railroad, bus) and what flavor is favored currently (more similar to mainland chinese, as impossibly unique as possible). Each time the dust settles, a new generation of posts is placed, to be changed again before the paint dries.

The purpose of signposting should be that overseas visitors who do not grasp Chinese characters have a fighting change of pointing out where they are, and understand where they are going. These are not academics, so the whole Wade-Gilles thing with apostophes is probably too complicated, but would be a nice touch.

If you stay in Taiwan for more than a little while, memorize the characters and proper pronunciation for your most frequent visited places and your life becomes a lot easier. Ignore the characters at the bottom, these are for decoration only.

Related Links
http://www.romanization.com/tongyong/qanda.html -- this link is endlessly funny if you even remotely understand the problem

Traffic Jams -- Call in or Call out?

One of the wonders of big city life is the fact that there is always less parking spaces than actual cars. To counter the city applied private tow companies who work on a commision basis (tow more, earn more) who are incredibly effective, together with an army of traffic police on motor scooters zipping around giving out tickets.

But listening to the radio this morning, call in shows are still a main outlet to vent anger about parking problems, city problems, police not responding, parking meters not working and still being ticketed. And not all the private companies (like those who are supposed to operate the parking meters) respond as efficiently, if at all, to their phone numbers.

So how about establishing a single city wide call in number ? The New York city wide response number 311 seems to work well. One number for all problems, whether its a pothole, electricity disconnected, trash problems or broken parking meters. This way nobody has to sort through dozens of different phone numbers just to solve one annoying problem.

Related Links
New York City 311 profile

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

MSc/Phd income less than NT$30,000

The Liberty Times published an article today showing how education and degree qualifications influence renumeration for recent graduates. Going from secondary school graduates, through college, university and MSc/etc degree holders each step up earned an additional NT$ 2,000 per month.

Most Masters holders made just under NT$ 30,000 per month (US$ 941/Euro 762), with some exceptions; those in services and business made quite a bit less.

That the difference between a university degree and a masters degree is so small seems to indicate that employers much more heavily value experience, and that there is no shortage of highly educated job applicants.

If the difference especially at the beginning of a carreer is only NT$ 2,000 per month between a university degree and a postgraduate degree, spending well over a million NT$ for an overseas degree requires some serious thought. Of course, it is likely that after a few years the difference will grow significantly.

Related Links
Liberty Times Article (chinese)

Cultural Differences -- Nun Promotion

One of the delights of being in a different culture is that the usual set of DO's and DON'Ts do not always apply.

After having Adolf Hitler promote (to much outcry) electric heaters, the nun's are currently busy promoting the use of condoms in the Taipei subways.

In a government health promotion poster, the sister is pictured as saying "I have no use for them, but I know that they are usefull"

If only she had called Rome before putting out the posters. On the other hand, lucky she didn't.

Monday, August 08, 2005

How Hello Kitty went shopping in Taiwan

It is official, President Enterprises summer campaign to boost sales at its 7-11 stores has come to an end. If you missed this campaign you have been living under a rock as every fridge in Taiwan is now more or less plastered in Hello Kitty fridge magnets.

For those not yet in the known, the 7-11 stores gave away Hello Kitty fridge magnets for every NT$ 77 spend (NT$ 62 being the pre-summer average amount of money spend by customers, so they tried to raise the minimum amount sold per transaction) Hello Kitty being adored on this island, and a more valuable brand name than probably all the Disney acts together, this led to instant madness.

Under the banner "Hello Kitty craze tough act to follow" the Taipei times performs a post-mortem on what will become a business and marketing case study for years to come. Interesting tidbits, there are 41 different magnets, President Enterprises spend NT$ 200 million on this campaign , and succceeded in raising their sales by up to 36%.

Related Links

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Japanese Visa -- No More

One of the positive bits of news this week was that Taiwanese will no longer be required to apply for short term entry visa for Japan.

Call it the battle of the Disneylands -- go to the new park in Hong Kong -- but you will need a visa or go to Japan Disneyland (Taiwanese are the No 1 foreign visitor group) without trouble.

Tough choice? I am having sushi while the children visit the house of mouse.

Friday, August 05, 2005

WiFly -- Still Not Wireless in Taipei

I like the idea of being wireless, and I'd love to go wireless in Taipei. Like many others I lug around a portable, and sit in Starbucks. So I am the protoype city dweller highly interested in going wireless. So far I haven't.. call me shy.

Wireless Taipei -- the intention is for the whole city to go wireless by the end of 2005 -- is being constructed as I am sipping my latte's. Turn on your portable in an MRT station, and you can find the WiFly signal. WiFly being the company building the network.

The city has a cool promotional video, grandparents with portable's the thing. From a PR perspective everything seems A-Ok. So why I am not online yet?

So surf to www.wifly.com.tw and try to find the sign up form. You can find it, with some luck, and the first thing it asks for is your credit card, ID card and name of your first born child.

Now, remember this service is free at the moment. Why the credit card ? A query to WiFly staff returns that this is a city government requirement.

Ok, so far I am stuck. The issue is trust. They are asking for my credit card details on an unencrypted page. Sloppy, not only that, they would like to have your ID, name, address and everything else. This page is supposed to be used by people signing to their wireless service -- wirelessly. With all known wireless security measures comprimised, this is just a credit card theft exploit waiting to happen.

If you have just looked at the website, you will agree that it doesn't exactly inspire trust. It looks clunky, badly designed and barely works. Take it from me, if you don't have Internet Explorer with Flash player it won't work.

So how to improve my trust? Three easy steps.
  • Dump the website, and build a new one without the flash player requirement.
  • Use webstandards, make it clean. Get a decent web designer who does not overdose on the graphics. Taipei must have tons of them.
  • Make it multi-lingual. Chinese, English, Japanese and Korean should be the minimum! This is a battle of the world cities show-off project. It needs to shine!
Why is this so important? We announced to the whole world that Taipei is going wireless. So visitors come over, want to be impressed, but find out that it doesn't work.

Ouch... come on guys, galls, at the moment it looks like a dot-bomb waiting to happen... which will happen if nobody signs up. Get it to work!

Taipei Subway / MRT

Before the Taipei underground opened, this for the old timers, you were supposed to take a bus. Going from A-B took ages, and you got to smell like diesel from waiting at the bus stop in the streaming rain.

Life became much more convinient with the opening of several subway lines, suddenly this city became easy to travel around in. Clean, graffitti free subway stations, airconditioned and spacious trains.

Still, plenty of places do not have a subway station near,but that is also changing.

More stations on the road to Banciao should open soon, and even more are on the way. For those speculating, (wondering why the buildings next to the new Taipei stadium just got a facelist?) or just curious about the future, have a look at UrbanRail.net which has some nice maps of the planned future stations.

For insane details (including completion statistics all the way to 2018) have a look at the Wikipedia page for the Taipei MRT.

Personally, I would like a connection from Songshan to the Nangang line, but even 2018 doesn't seem to have this planned... there is just no pleasing some people.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Typhoon Matsa


The guy in the train next to me asked his family whether he would have to work tomorrow. Turns out he didn't. Northern Taiwan doesn't have to go to work or school.

In the meantime, boarding up seemed a bit excessive for this Typhoon, but the boards were not ready in time for the last (big) typhoon. So nice opportunity for a try-out tonight.

Tamago Ya

Taipei is a great place to eat great things, but sometimes a simple omelet will do !

I found this over-designed omelet flipper in the subway malls this afternoon around ChungHsiao Dung-Hua subway station. It looks like a Japanese franchise, but as I can’t find a reference to it on the web it might be just a clever Taiwanese design job.

This place is yellow, if you haven’t woken up by lunch time, just sitting inside will do. Yellow walls, yellow menu’s, staff and chairs. For styling added a cartoon chicken logo with Fuji mountain backdrop and Japanese characters on the wall.

The food is basic, omelet + anything that fits with an omelet.

Smart business model. Omelet’s are cheap, can be made by any teenager (which is all they employ) and there really isn’t anything you can do wrong. Rice tastes like rice, omelets taste like, well you get the idea.

Which brings us to the price. The minimum meal (omelet + rice & tomota ketchup) sets you back NT$ 99. Add a little meat and it becomes NT$ 180.

Pricy, but they had no lack of customers, for now.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Typhoons & Holidays

Another Typhoon is coming soon.

Taiwanese do not have holidays, they just work. Except maybe for Chinese New Year. If you want a holiday, quit your job and in the (tiny) interval just have a little break abroad. Of course, that is the outside appearance, its just hard to find the cracks in it.

Back to the topic. Typhoons are natural disasters, they wreak havoc. Each year a handfull of them bear on the island and kill people, cause landslides and basically a lot of nastiness; in supermarkets the food prices go down, in traditional markets they go up.

They are also a great time to spend with your family, as you can't go out, can't go to work (except for the real junkies). The government will tell you in advance whether you need to show up for work or not, and whether you need to go to school.

So you stack up in 7-11, buy crackers, drinking water, batteries for the flashlights, refuel your generator and maybe tape the windows.

Then, sit back, and watch TVBS / CTV and hope the the cable TV does not cut out. Round the clock reporting ensures you can watch anchorman and woman get seriously soaked on life TV.
Great fun for the whole family.

If the TV cuts out, you hope that the electricity does not cut out. If it does, well, go to sleep and hope that things do not get flooded. If that does... bugger.

In Taiwan, do not live on the ground floor if you can avoid it. Generally wise advise, after all an earthquake might lower the building by one floor, and its easy for the water to seep in.

Clean up is quick, this place is efficient. If you life in Northern Taiwan, in the south things tend to be a little slower, distances longer. Roads might dissapear. Usually, you are back at work the day following the typhoon, a little soggy but perfectly ok.

Relevant Links

Central Weather Bureau - Watch the storm go by on radar & satellite

Taipei CKS Airport

The CKS Airport is located in the city of Taoyuan, about half and hour to one hour (depending on traffic, rush hour take at least an hour) from Taipei city centre.

In the past couple of years a brand new second terminal was opened in addition to the most definately retro looking terminal #1.

Taiwanese love to travel, and this being an island, by plane is (nearly) the only way to go. Frequent flights connect the country to nearly all places in the planet.

It is no match for the nearby Hong Kong airport, as people either come or go and don't live for days on end on the airport. Few stop over in Taipei on the way to other destinations so don't expect exotic shopping. Duty free sigarettes, touristy items and alcohol are the only products on offer.

Relevant URL's
http://www1.cksairport.gov.tw/english/

More Related Pictures at Flickr

First Post

May it be the first of many ! Time to get that PDA & Camera and hit the road.