Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Balancing Frogs

Since I seem unable to update this blog with any sort of frequency, I've decided I'm just going to switch over to balancingfrogs.blogspot.com, where I've been posting quick write-ups of books and TED.com talks and the like.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Cultural Difference: Political Cartooning

When I went to Kaohsiung last summer, I saw cartoon avatar pictures of Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu everywhere I went.

I assumed it was all politicking for the upcoming mayoral elections (which Chen won easily). But I returned to Kaohsiung this month, over Chinese New Year, and Chen's avatars were if anything even more ubiquitous.

These posters are all over Kaohsiung. To celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, Chen appears to be wearing a rabbit head as a hat.

Portraying people as cartoon avatars is more common in East Asia than in the West, and it's not uncommon to see little cartoon figures of other prominent politicians on official city merchandise elsewhere in Taiwan. But I haven't seen any politician portrayed in cartoon form quite as much as Chen.

You can buy Chen merchandise in Formosa Boulevard MRT.

I'm not offended by any of this, or think it is improper. But I do think it illustrates a cultural difference between East and West. This would never fly in the United States. Sure, there are lots of souvenir shops in Washington DC where you can buy Barack Obama bobblehead dolls. But that's just the market filling a demand; it's not as if the White House is actively producing and promoting them.

Chen Chu's official title is Mayor. But Greater Kaohsiung includes a huge hinterland and is not part of any larger administrative unit, so Chen's position is really equivalent to a state governor in the United States. I'm trying to imagine the reaction if American state governments started distributing official signs, leaflets and brochures with adorable cartoon depictions of Andrew Cuomo or Rick Perry or Chris Christie or Deval Patrick.

I'm guessing the reactions would include quite a bit of mockery.

We're on Offbeat Bride!

Our wedding has been featured on Offbeat Bride! With a lovely write-up by my wife Jenna, who was quite active in the OB community before the wedding (and after).

I read the Offbeat Brides book on the plane ride home for the wedding. It's awesome and fantastic to see us on the site.

Saturday, December 04, 2010


So now that we're seeing iPad ads all over, my question is this.

What's up with the iPads in local advertisements showing the New York Times? I understand that reading American newspapers is a big selling point back in the United States, but this is Taiwan. Why not localize a bit?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Dust Has Cleared

So what actually happened in those Taiwan municipal elections?

BEFORE THE ELECTION, I believed Su Tseng-chang had a real shot of knocking off Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin, and in any event the race would be close.

WRONG. Hau demolished Su by 12 percentage points. There are rumors that Su's unexpectedly large loss has ended any realistic shot he may have at winning the DPP presidential nomination in 2012, though I think it's a bit too early to tell.

BEFORE THE ELECTION, I thought the KMT would achieve a better performance in Sinbei than in Taipei. I thought Tsai Ing-wen could only hope to win election if she rode a nationwide DPP wave.

MOSTLY WRONG. Tsai lost, but she made it close, winning a greater percentage of the vote than Su.

BEFORE THE ELECTION, I thought the Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung mayoral races would not even be close, with the KMT winning easily in Taichung and the DPP taking the other two.

PARTLY WRONG. Tainan and Kaohsiung voted pretty much the way everyone expected them to, but Taichung mayor Jason Hu got a real scare on Election Day when his opponent, Su Jia-chyuan, came very close to unseating him. Now Su's getting a lot of praise in the DPP and people are talking about him as a real 2012 presidential contender.

The day before the election, people told me they expected something surprising to happen on Election Eve. Sure enough, that evening a prominent KMT politician (not a candidate for anything, but a famous face), Sean Lien, was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt in Yonghe, not far as the crow flies from our apartment. Lots of famous and non-famous people have theorized that the KMT got a good deal of sympathy vote as a result, which may well have denied Tsai Ing-wen and Su Jia-chyuan victories in their respective cities.

As a result, of course, we're already hearing the conspiracy theories.

The sad thing is, unsuccessful attempts to assassinate politicians the day before elections, causing people to argue over whether it skewed the results, is something of a tradition in Taiwan. Hopefully it won't happen in 2012.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Taiwan Elections 2010

Has it really been 2 months and I've neglected to update this blog with our trips to Honduras and Guatemala? Wow, it really has.

Well, that's going to have to wait, because I have Taiwan Election 2010 Pictures!

Also see Jenna's election coverage here.

Elections are Saturday, November 27 for the mayorships of Taiwan's five biggest municipalities, as well as a host of lesser offices. Taipei is now absolutely covered with signs for various candidates, and the streets are full of campaign workers distributing flyers to passers-by as if to say, "Here, you throw this away".

Little cartoon avatars of the candidate are pretty common, as you can see with Popeye here. If it's common in Taipei it seems to be even more common in Kaohsiung, which is full of cute little Chen Chu cartoons.

In Kaohsiung, Tainan, and Taichung the mayoral races are not expected to be especially close. DPP candidates are generally expected to win election in Kaohsiung and Tainan, and the KMT mayor is expected to be re-elected in Taichung.

That leaves Taipei and Sinbei, the latter of which is not, properly speaking, a "city", but rather the suburbs of Taipei packaged together and newly incorporated to form the new largest municipality in Taiwan.

The incumbent mayor of Taipei is Hau Long-bin, seen here in improbable clothing on the side of a Taipei City bus (if I'm reading the Chinese correctly, it's about Hau's tireless efforts to prevent flooding).

Here's Hau with a local City Council candidate. It's common on election posters for local, lesser-known candidates to pose with a much more prominent member of the same party.

Hau's opponent is Su Tseng-chang of the DPP. It's universally believed that Su's real goal is to be elected president (he unsuccessfully campaigned for the DPP's presidential nomination in 2008), and many go so far as to say he entered the Taipei mayoral race expecting to lose, hoping the publicity and campaign organization would give him a stronger platform from which to challenge Ma in 2012.

If that's so, it looks likely to backfire for him. A year ago, nobody thought Hau's numbers would be as weak as they are now. Su looks very likely to actually topple Hau, which will put him in the position of either having to scuttle his 2012 ambitions or going back on his promise to serve out his term if elected. (I'm not certain, but I believe he'd be legally obligated to resign as mayor if he ran for president.)

Local candidate Zhou Ni-an's truck there has lots of political imagery. That's not only Su Tseng-chang in the right background, but former president Lee Teng-hui on the left. He's the former KMT president who has since turned his back on his former party and actively campaigns against it every time election season rolls around. On the right there's a pun, which is pretty common on election posters; it says something like "Wishing you well," which sounds like Zhou's name.

I don't live in the not-yet-existing Sinbei City, but as it comprises most of Taipei's suburbs, plenty of Taipei city buses whose routes are partly in Sinbei are festooned with Sinbei campaign advertising.

On the left is Sinbei mayoral candidate Chu Li-luan; on the right is a local candidate for, I believe, city councilor. They're trying so hard to convince us that they're cool, with their "MiB" getup.

Chu, universally referred to in the English-language media by his Anglo name Eric, is considered the KMT young handsome rising star right now. If you asked Taiwanese people to predict the likely KMT presidential nominee in 2016, you'd hear Chu's name more than any other.

Tsai Ing-wen is the chairwoman of the DPP and Chu's opponent for mayor of Sinbei. She's also generally thought to be planning to challenge Ma in the 2012 election, which means the DPP will be in an interesting position if Tsai and Su both win their respective elections.

I'll probably make another election-themed post in a couple of days once we know more of the fate of Mr. Hau, Mr. Su, Mr. Chu, and Ms. Tsai.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Granada & Masaya

Sorry, no pictures yet because this computer has no working USB port (and three non-working ones!)

Ever-popular with foreign tourists and with good reason, Granada is a city where you can take pictures of the beautiful architecture almost without effort. Casco Viejo in Panama City was being restored to its former glory when we were there, but in Granada the process has been completed.

Tourism is clearly a huge moneymaker in Granada, with backpacker hostels and tour companies all over the place, as well as many touts and independent vendors clearly targeting the tourist market. But this is not to say Granada is in any sense not "the real Nicaragua". There are bustling markets catering primarily to locals, and all over the place one sees political banners and graffiti pertaining to next year´s Presidential election.

Granada´s got a reputation as a historic center of right-wing politics (nemesis of lefty Leon) but the political signs and slogans we´ve seen have been overwhelmingly pro-Sandanista. Same in Ometepe, come to think of it; maybe the Sandanistas are just more prone to decorate walls and buildings?

We spent a day and a half exploring the city, taking pictures of its old buildings (which I hope to have on the blog soon). We saw several churches, and heard much on the history of the city, much more about William Walker than the Contras/Sandanistas. Walker was an American warlord (he´s usually called a "filibuster" or "adventurer", but "warlord" sure seems like the best term from our perspective) who tried to conquer all of Central America in the 1850s with Granada as his capital before he burned much of the city to the ground.

The next day was a day trip to Masaya. Lonely Planet describes Masaya as having a touristy handicrafts market which is a good place to shop for local handicrafts, and a local market where all the, well, locals shop. We got off the bus in the pouring rain (Tropical Storm Matthew´s advance scouts) and made for the local market, which turned out to be HUGE, partially covered, and in parts very touristy. We bought umbrellas (at which point the rain abated) and sat down for lunch at a very non-pretentious counter. I was amused that, while we both ordered pollo asado, what we got was chicken cooked in very different ways; she got warm roast chicken, while I got room temperature fried chicken, possibly from the day before.

With the rain stopped, the two of us walked across town to the touristy market. It turned out to be very touristy indeed; the only people we saw who appeared to be locals were working there, and the stalls mostly all sold the same sorts of merchandise, much of it rather generic Nicaraguan souvenirs (including tacky cups shaped like women´s breasts featuring Nicaraguan slogans, which were being sold by vendors across the market). But it wasn´t all bad, and we bought a table runner, and we relaxed for coffee and tres leches in the cafe. (The waiter initially said they didn´t have tres leches; then he reconsidered and said they did. After a wait, we received two servings of tres leches, in cheap plastic cups. We think he ran out to the neighborhood panaderia to procure them for us. They were pretty good, at any rate.)

Then we went over to check out the baby spider monkey that someone had brought to the cafe. He took quite a liking to Jenna. She wouldn´t have been able to pry him off her neck without his keepers´assistance.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Ometepe is rural. It`s rural enough that on the island`s main highway it`s common to see pigs crossing to get to their preferred foraging spots. Buses have to honk so that horses (roaming freely) will get out of their way. Traffic is regularly brought to a standstill because some cowboy is taking too long to get his herd of cattle across the road.

Ometepe is an island where cars that aren`t 4-wheel-drive will have their movement severely curtailed, and for many sorts of journey the easiest and most practical mode of travel may be on horseback.

A pole painted by the local Sandinistas, and some dogs. Political posters, murals and graffiti was everywhere we went in Nicaragua, and it was almost entirely pro-Sandinista.

Ometepe`s located on Lake Nicaragua, an inland body of water so vast that it could pass for an ocean depending on where you`re looking out from. A lake so big it`s got sharks, though not as many as there used to be.

We went for a hike halfway up Maderas, the shorter of the two volcanoes. Although not an inherently difficult path, our hike was made more tortuous by the fact that the trail was so muddy and slippery. (I`m not convinced that there are times in the wet season when the trail is not muddy and slippery.)

But we saw many beautiful insects - including several huge owl butterflies that I had little hope of taking decent pictures of - and a couple of howler monkeys. The views from Maderas´halfway point were spectacular.
The taller of the two volcanoes, Conception, from Maderas. This picture does not do justice to the view.


After our flight from Osa to San Juan - in the smallest airplane I have ever flown in - we took a bus up to Liberia. Liberia is a handsome little city in northwestern Costa Rica, an hour and a half from the Nicaraguan border. We only spent one night there on our way north, but we liked it a lot. The area around the central square reminded me of popular images of old-timey American small towns. There was even a brass band giving a free concert in the evening.

Outside of the city center, though, Liberia`s got its share of chain stores, including the first Cinnabon we`ve seen in Central America. Or outside of the United States.