Observed and Overheard

Observed: After an Aikido demonstration, he bowed to his uke, then bowed to the front. This was customary. Then, he paused, and bowed to the audience, which struck me as  original.

「站在底的橋下,身體挺高,也只是撞到自已的頭。」
“When standing under a low bridge, standing tall only causes you to hit your head.”
(compare with Japanese: 出る釘が打たれる。 The nail that sticks out gets struck.)

「大家忘了台語,很可惜,但是這個是時代的潮流。我也有聽不憧台語的朋友。我們不可能講台語然後翻給他聽。語言也只的一個方法。說出來,意思通就好了。」
“That people are forgetting to speak Taiwanese is too bad, but this is the direction of history. I have friends who don’t speak Taiwanese. It’s not practical for us in a group to speak Taiwanese and then translate so that he can understand. Language is just a means. What’s important is understanding.”

我覺得我可以從這個很蠢的東西感到動力。
不是蠢。是夢想。
別人也許會覺得很蠢。
你就做你的夢想。也須不會有回報,但是沒有夢想,什麼都沒有。別人怎麼感覺,是他們的事。
你不會覺得很蠢嗎?
這個說法沒有在我的詞彙裏。

I think I can keep going if I lose myself in this foolishness.
It’s not foolishness. It’s a dream.
Some might say it’s naiveté.
Work toward your dreams. Without them, what do you really have? What other people think is their business.
Don’t you think it’s naive?
Such a statement is not in my vocabulary.

我有障碍… 只是,我還在學。
I am handicapped… Well, it’s only that I’m still learning.

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In Focus

We had a teacher visit from Japan with two students, to teach an Aikido seminar. During the seminar, I was doing freestyle with the bigger one. I’m about 60kg, so he must have been about 90kg, a former sumo wrestler, I heard.

The teacher walked by when it was my turn to throw. “You’re being nice.” She observed. “You should throw harder.”

“Harder?” I asked. I did a series of three iriminage techniques on my partner, at growing intensity.

“Yes, that’s better.” said the teacher.

Turnabout is fair play, so when it was my partner’s turn to throw me, he threw hard, too. Aikido has ancient jujitsu roots, but the techniques have been de-lethalized just enough that they can be done at full speed for practice. For a few minutes, I felt myself acutely alive. When I was slammed into the ground, I rolled out of the fall to attack again. When he attacked, I broke his balance, led him along, then slammed him into the ground. Everything curiously in focus. I can play the experience back in slow motion.

Over a decade of training. Freestyle practice brought into focus by the intensity of training with an unpredictable and skilled attacker. Aikido is many things. It is aerobic exercise. It is postural improvement. It is a bone-strengthener. It is good for metabolism. It is a way to meet people. But it is also the joy of finding a compatible partner and slamming each other into the ground until you each are panting and sweaty, and bow to each other saying “thank you for this experience.”

Cities

Reasons to live in a city as opposed to the country. Walking distance to work or school, plentiful transport links, more diversions for leisure (parks, libraries, concert halls, bars, restaurants); a wider selection of goods; food stalls with cheap, good food; access to markets.

All of this is mitigated by building codes that specify minimum house size, a lack of public transport and the resulting traffic and parking lot sprawl, zoning laws that keep businesses and homes separate, and a permit and finance regime that works for chain stores and against independent stores.

Los Angeles is more expensive than Tokyo, and not as fun.

Degrees of Freedom

Today at practice we did pair work with wooden swords. It occurred to me that under normal circumstances, both parties fear death, and this limits the choice of possible movements. If it is possible to strike a fatal blow, but doing so opens one up for a simultaneous fatal blow, one will still not do it. Unless one does not fear death. The one who does not fear death is less restricted.

In the time of Caesar, the warriors of Gaul were willing to burn their cities so that Caesar would not have them. Given the choice of surrender or death, many chose to fight to the death, perhaps better to kill more Romans so that other Gallic tribes would have a chance. One tribe, the Aedui, had a long-standing peace with Rome. Caesar used their capitol, Noviodunum, as a granary and weapons store from which to launch his campaigns to incorporate Gaul into the Empire. By standards of the time, Noviodunum would have been a modern city, complete with political and civic institutions modeled on Rome. To preserve Gallic freedom, the Aedui joined the Gallic coalition against Caesar, and carried away all the all the grain they could, threw the rest in to the river, then evacuated and burned Noviodunum so that the Romans could not have it.

Degrees of freedom emerge from lack of fear, and this is present in circumstances that don’t necessarily involve life or death: whistle-blowers that end their careers in order to satisfy their sense of justice, politicians that negotiate compromises that will cause them to lose their jobs. Where this involves a statement of some kind, it makes the person more trustworthy – the messenger, by putting something at risk, must necessarily believe in the importance of his message.

Unfortunately, this is one of the seductions of IS and suicide bombing, though these are now subject to “reverse attacks” by people who bear-hug suicide bombers to prevent them from detonating explosives in a populated area.

I am looking forward to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s upcoming book Skin in the Game, which is supposed to have related discussion.

Gilan to Taipei via Sãtiau Kak

Set out at Gi-Lan at about 10:30am, rounded the cape at Sãtiau-Gak lighthouse, passed Hok-Liong beach, went through the Ping-Siang tunnel, then passed through Ping-khe and Chhim-khenn. Personal record: >100km. Weather generally good, but there were three surprise downpours before i rounded the cape. The owner of the B&B I stayed at had given me some rainwear, which I was thankful for, but it was a bit of a hassle to pack and unpack. next time – maybe wear quick-drying clothing, and it wont matter if I get wet.

Everything from Gi-lan up to the Peng-Siang tunnel was relatively peaceful, with wide shoulders or dedicated bike lanes. There were scenic stops, but the nature of cycling is that the countryside rolls by at a scenic pace, from ibises on the fields to fishermen on the sandy beach, to huge rolling waves crashing into rock strata. Downpours aside, there were occaisional light showers that did not block outbthe sun, and I was happy for these, as they cooled me off.

At about 2, I stipped for lunch at 品逸屋, which boasted locally caught seafood. I had 鰾, which I thought was a type of fish, but I learned is the air bladder of a fish. It was cooked in a good sauce of celery, chilis, leeks, and touban sauce. I will try to make this. I scarfed it down with three bowls of rice. The proprietress asked me when i paid – did you eat your fill? Yes, I told her simply.

I could have had a fourth, but I didnt want to become sluggish.

Ping-khe to Chhim-khenn was dangerous. Visibility limited by curves. Traffic flowing but heavy. Narrow shoulder. Jockeyed for position with cars. Reminds me of highway 17 to Santa Cruz, but here the tighter curves limit the speed of traffic. On the balance, more dangerous, as people take mire risks. At first, I stayed close to the shoulder, but took to occupying the entire lane when I found I was just as fast as the cars, especially as I could corner faster. Any distance that opened up on a straight stretch, I could gain back on cornering.

I got passed by two ambulances, and saw two accidents on the stretch from Ping-khe to Chhim-khenn alone. Emerging from Chhim-khenn, I got passed by another ambulance.

It was my second time riding that stretch. The first time, I saw a car marked off by police tape, with its front end wrapped around a telephone pole. There was a spider web cracking of the windshield on the driver’s side which must have been made my the driver’s head.

Arrived home about 5. After that adventure, it is a privelege to be able to fix up a dinner with stuff in the fridge and not to have to go out.

Feeling the Traffic

A long-time Japanese expatriate friend of mine once told me, when I first moved to Taiwan “the traffic culture is not like in Japan. You have to stay aware of your surroundings, otherwise you might get hit. But, after you get used to it, it’s kind of fun.”

I understand now. I started commuting by bicycle a few months ago. I live a 20-minute bike ride away from the office, and I have made my bike commutes more frequent.

When I first got to Taiwan, it seemed to me very dangerous. I saw people almost getting hit, and almost got hit myself.

I can attribute to both parties almost involved not paying attention, and the latter to my lack of understanding of the driving culture in Taiwan. But now, when I bike to work, I am both paying attention and also have a grasp of driving culture.

Gradually getting used to the environment and what to pay attention to, I no longer had any issues.

When riding in a taxi with a visitor from the States, he said to me “it’s scary how the scooters weave in and out of traffic suddenly.” I knew then than I was adapting, because it no longer seemed to me that they were so sudden. I could anticipate what they were trying to to, and their movements no longer seemed sudden, but seemed to flow.

Now, I flow. I know that the motorcyclists can’t hear me on my bicycle, so I yell if they get too close. I know that cars do not expect me to be riding so fast, so I am cautious when cars are about to turn in. Before I change my line, I look to see if there is someone approaching from behind, and often this action is enough to signal my intent, and the traffic opens for me. I use hand signals to point where I want to go, and traffic opens for me. I can accelerate out of a light faster than the motorcycles for a couple dozen meters, so that by the time the motorcyclists try to pass me, we are already going 20kph.

I avoid stupid stuff like competing for the inside line against a car that is about to make a right turn, or trying to take a curbside line against a bus that is ahead of me about to make a stop, though I often see motorcyclists taking these risks. In dense traffic, I can move faster than cars. In gridlocked traffic, I can slip into spaced that the motorcycles can’t. In Japan, they would call this 車の間を縫って行く, which is “sewing a line through traffic”

The road is so crowded, but there is plenty of space to move, just like fabric is solid, but there is plenty of room for the needle to pass through.

And sometimes, if I haven’t ridden my bike to the office, I’ll rent one of the bright yellow-orange uBikes that are maintained by the city, and take a leisurely ride home. The traffic expects be to be slow, so they give me wide berth when passing. I used to hate the traffic, but I’ve discovered a certain set of rules that make sense.

Road rage is so rare – I’ve only seen a man get out of his car once, and it was to say something, and he got back in. Somehow, people are generally interacting with each other as people even on the road, and generally driving with awareness.

I saw a man cross the street today, and a car slowed to make a right turn where he was crossing. Pedestrians don’t necessarily have right of way in this case. If the two had continued, they would have collided. The pedestrian stepped back. The car stopped. The pedestrian bent a little to look into the car, made eye contact with the driver, nodded thanks, and crossed the street.

Today, I was going against the traffic on a one-way road. A cyclist unlocked his bike, and was about to turn into traffic. I slowed in case he didn’t see me. Before turning into traffic, through, he did look my way and see me. He yielded. “Thanks!” I said. “But careful – your kickstand is down.” He looked. “Oh, thanks!” he said.

But, accidents are frequent. I saw a burned-out taxi at the intersection of Tunhua and Keelung not two months ago, and a week ago I saw a motorcyclist sitting on the curbside at the exit of a parking lot in Sikkho Technology Park with an ambulance close by. There is an ambiguous traffic light arrangement there, and I have seen a couple near-misses there. Traffic lights are for reference. They might be ignored or misinterpreted. One still has to be careful.

In Japan, the intersection would have been designed better, or someone would have reported the danger to the city, and it may have been fixed. But there are limits to making things safe. It is possible to make things too safe, such that people lose awareness of their surroundings and become more prone to certain accidents. For example, the sidewalks in Taiwan are uneven, but people adapt to walking on them. The sidewalks in Japan are very even, but people adapt to them, too. The wife of a friend (who is in her mid-eighties) was walking recently where she could not see well, there was an unevenness of pavement that in Taiwan people wouldn’t even notice. She mis-stepped and sprained her ankle.

The author 内田樹 in 修業論 describes the necessity for cleanliness in the dojo as a means for increasing one’s awareness of thing. There being reduced of stimulus in the environment, one can attuned more to fine variations in the stimulus that is present during practice. One can increase ones sensitivity. But, in a way, sensitivity is also fragility. By reducing variation in the environment, the people living in that environment become more prone to injury when there is a change in the environment. Whereas Taiwan, because of high variability, trains people to take uneven pavement into stride, both figuratively and actually so.