Wednesday, February 28, 2007

On trips to the US, I have noticed that at cash registers I often get a slightly different kind of service than other customers. It is a feeling that I have been keeping an eye on over the years. At first I thought it might just be me, or the luck of the draw.

On this trip to Boston, I refined that. This is more noticeable in the East, and hardly occurs in California. I observed that if the person at the cash register speaks English with an accent, I get the same service as anyone else, but if the person at the cash register clearly speaks American English as a first (only) language, the service I get is slightly different from that accorded 'real' Americans. Whether the clerk is Black or White doesn't matter. They will greet other customers with an easy smile, Hi how are you having a nice day, but when I get up, it's just: Nineteen dollars and ninety eight cents. There is some impatience, get this guy out of the way. It is not pronounced, but they seem just a little beat eager to get me gone.

I am sure they are not aware of it, because it is subtle, but this has happened so often that I have to wonder, am I wearing the wrong type of shirt or something? What goes? My guess is, since I have lived most of my life in Taiwan, my body language is a bit different from that of most Americans, and the clerks unconsciously pick up on that. Their attitude is not racial, since I am a white American male getting slightly different treatment from the other white American males.

I am writing this not as an explanation or conclusion, but as a comment on something I have observed. This is speculation, not definitive.

Prejudice may not always be racial, but sometimes a reaction to something strange, a way of dealing with an uncertain situation.

Or am I just weird?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ken left a New Yorker magazine with an article discussing films on the web: "You can shoot a movie on your cell phone, transfer it to your computer, and post in on YouTube three minutes later." Clear enough, but consider: to a reader in Lincoln's day that sentence would have been incomprehensible. For a reader 150 years ago, the only identifiable noun would have been 'minutes.'

Ken told me he knew an old woman whose nanny had seen Abraham Lincoln.

So close yet so far!

Monday, February 26, 2007

If you wonder who won the war on terrorism, take an international flight out of Los Angeles. After checking in, I was instructed to take my checked luggage for inspection. I took my place at the end of a long line and inched forward for half an hour. Three or four TSA agents were chatting leisurely as they slowly moved luggage, piece by piece, into a screened off area to X ray. One of the agents was so fat that he could barely walk; he had to get his arms and legs swinging to launch himself forward to take a step. Yes, they are fighting terrorism with science and machines, but he was hardly a sight to inspire awe. Just so you don't get under him if he stumbles.

Maybe the Security people figured they were working too hard, or maybe they decided it was time to irritate the passengers: the line froze, and we didn't move for fifteen minutes. I worried I would miss my flight, so Chao watched my luggage as I sought an airline representative. She came over and interceded on my behalf, so I was jumped to the front of this line, where I had the privilege of turning over my luggage to a rude, surly TSA agent; the airline representative commented that he was much nicer than most.

After the unpleasant TSA agent took my luggage, I had to go stand in another line until they said I could go. Then I rushed to my gate, where I got to stand in another line, take off my shoes and jacket, and prove that I was not carrying anything dangerous, such as bottled water, onto the plane. No wonder the flight took off late.

My feeling was very strong that passengers are subjected to all this bother not for security, but to intimidate: you are in our hands now and you WILL obey.

A repeating announcement said that we were being subjected to this harassment for our traveling safety. Traveling safety, my ash. In Taiwan when I checked in for my flight to LA, a conveyor belt whisked my luggage directly to an X ray machine at the end of the counter: no fuss, no bother, no danger or inconvenience to anyone. If the authorities here in Taiwan badgered passengers the way American authorities do, people would make such a fuss that our civil rights would be quickly restored. Why do Americans tolerate such rudeness? Do we have no right to civility in American airports?

Americans should remain silent for the last line when they sing the national anthem: the land of the free and the home of the brave? The country has been cowed

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A day for parting. This morning we said goodbye to Mom and made our separate ways. I came back to Taiwan, Chao went back to Boston, Steph went back to SF, and Mom went back to bed.

When Steph dropped us off at the Cathay Pacific terminal, I told her, "Safe flying."


<Safe flying.



>Okay, flying.

<Yeah, safe flying.

>I just did.

>Did what?

>Say flying.

<Yeah, you too.

>What do you mean?

<I said, safe flying.

>I said it already.

<You said what already?

>Flying. You told me to say flying.

<…. Steph. I said… safe. flying. I was wishing you safety on your flight.

It was about then that we noticed the lady next to us about to fall over guffawing.

Saturday, February 24, 2007





Friday, February 23, 2007

You can barely believe your eyes. At Roland Heights, I saw a steakhouse sign that read BLACK ANGUS. Fine, but I read it without the G. Something like parson's nose?

My mother's bookshelf boasts a title I thought read Alternative Curses. What kind of church has Mom gotten involved with? My eyes had inserted an extra S in the second word of the name of a book about homeopathy, reflexology, and acupuncture.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Today we flew to LA. At Boston's Logan Airport, we saw signs for a no-frill airline called Jet Black, if I recall correctly. Chao explained why their prices are so low. First, the passengers push the airline to the runway, which cuts down on fuel costs. Federal law requires in-flight crew perform the exit-lifevest dance, so Jet Black provides one in-flight crewperson per flight; anybody qualified may also perform the duty for an additional five bucks off their ticket. If there is a Flight Attendant, that Attendant appoints a passenger Chief, and parachutes out the stern of the plane to serve on the next flight. Then the Chief is in charge.

Of course there are no in-flight meals. As a matter of fact, in addition to bringing your own sandwiches, you have to bring your own stool or chair to sit on, and on all flights lasting more than one hour, the passengers are required to chip in whatever they brought to help feed the pilot. Needless to say, there is no luggage allowance. The only carryon luggage allowed is either A, lunch, or B, a begging bowl. To circumvent this requirement, some passengers wear so many layers of clothing that they can barely bend their arms. Just as well, because not all the windows have glass, and it gets cold up there, not that the planes fly very high; they routinely clip telephone poles and douglas firs, but hey, anything to keep costs down!

Once the plane has landed, the passengers help push it to the gate. This may be more difficult than it sounds, because Jet Black planes frequently don't carry enough fuel and come down miles shy of the runway. There are even accounts of passengers ferrying a jet across a river to reach the airport.

Anyway, that's what Chao told me, and it must be right, because she heard it from Daiwei, who flew Jet Black from Buffalo.

Flew, I mean really flew. Daiwei got designated Pilot, for twenty dollars off her fare, plus a Quick Guide to Flying. But she had to sign for that, and return it at the end of the flight.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

People in Boston don't kid around about sweets. At Rosie's Bakery on Mass Ave in Cambridge I chose a luxurious, enticing black slab subtly named a Chocolate Orgasm Brownie. Instant Diabetes would serve just as well as its name. After an hour's work, I arose, stuffed and content that I had met The Brownie to End All Brownies.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Two things I really like about Boston:
Pedestrians take jaywalking as a natural right, to be exercised often and enthusiastically.
Passengers on the subway read good books.

The snow cover froze overnight, so you see a lot of broken and bent snow shovels discarded by the way.

Monday, February 19, 2007

frozen solid
the advantage being that you don't have to worry about anyone stealing your car.
not before spring, at least

The falling snow was soon replaced by freezing rain. The snow covering the ground turned to slush, which filled the gutters. I was amazed by the result. Greater Boston is home to MIT, Harvard, and a host of schools, all of which produce engineers, city planners, and urban designers by the gaggle, and they can't manage to keep their streets and sidewalks endurable during the winter. Hasn't it ever snowed here before? Plunging off the sidewalk onto the crosswalk, you have to wade through frigid water backed up in the gutter and trust that your boots are waterproof and high enough to stay above waterline. Where have all those engineers gotten off to? Or do they worship rarefied theory so fervently that mundane practical applications that might keep feet dry are beneath their exalted gaze?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

blaq kwara smuran kawas na bzoq


Happy pig!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Americans call Boston Beantown, but I think Oniontown would be more apt, or even Garlictown. I haven't seen a lot of beans on menus, but the only restaurant dishes that don't have onions have garlic. Onions and garlic are not kosher for Buddhists, so eating here is difficult.

Restaurants in other American cities I have visited offer vegetarian dishes that generally do not have onions or garlic, but here even the Chinese restaurants put these smelly, petulant vegetables in their vegetarian dishes; they may never have heard of "Buddhism."

The other day we finally found a pizza without onions or garlic! … it had scallions.

note: onions, garlic, leeks, and scallions are not eaten by Buddhists, because they unsettle the mind and body. Plus they reek.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Hurrah, it finally began to snow!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

General Talovich prepares to lead the attack on Canada. Photo by Chao, Charles River, Boston

Monday, February 12, 2007

JAP: "Other people go to Paris and take pictures of the Eiffel Tower, right? So when Ronny went, what did her parents take pictures of? They took pictures of Ronny shopping. 'Oh, here's Ronny going into Chanel – what will we find here?' Disgusting!"
overheard in Porter Square Dunkin' Donuts

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Before I reached Boston, I had mentally prepared myself for Bostonian pronunciation: pahk the cahh in Hahvahd yahd type of thing. To my surprise, Bostonians mumble. They slur and slosh their words about so that I have trouble understanding them. Subway announcements could be in Lithuanian, for all the help they are: Disstren zapproachin Pwodaskwayuh frawyupassnguhz wid hyup hyup whoo kickapoo tippecanoe n Tyler too.

Harvard Cooperative has a bookstore called the Coop, pronounced not co-op, but coop, as in chicken. Ringing up my purchase, the lady at the counter asked me, "Dyoo have a cucumber?" Fortunately, I did not answer, "No, but we bought some carrots earlier." I realized she had asked me, "Do you have a Coop number?"

Friday, February 09, 2007

Overheard in LAX: "I'm a proud father today! My son got an award from his school for tardiness!"

Thursday, February 08, 2007

A week before my departure, Yumin started sulking. I told him, keep an eye on the place for me, and look after your sister, and I'll be back in a couple weeks. He brooded and moped.

When I took Ken out for a walk, Yumin went part of the way with us and then turned back home. Ken said, Maybe he's worried he won't get fed. When I got home, I told Yumin, the neighbors will feed you every day, you don't have anything to worry about, just stay near home and play with your sister, and bark if anybody comes near; you'll get fed every day.

Since then, he has been a happy beagle again.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007



Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I've decided to become a professional skeptic. Every time a real breakthrough is achieved, reporters round up a professional skeptic who will make sour noises of disapproval. That's what I want to do: easy money, easy fame.

It's a cinch to be a professional skeptic. What are the qualifications?

First, if it wasn't something you knew by the time you finished high school, it can't possibly be true.

Second, if it's something you never heard before and doesn't fit the narrowly restricted pinholes through which you view the universe, it can't possibly be true.

Third, you have to be absolutely sure of yourself. No room for introspection or conflicting viewpoints. Rigid dogma, that's what you need.

And you're in business! To prove my acuity in this line, I have posed some real stingers of questions and provided my professional skeptic answers.

Methane trapped undersea could contribute to global warming if it escapes into the atmosphere. T or F?
F, of course. Nobody ever told me that there was methane trapped under the sea, and if there were, who trapped it? And then it might burst its shackles and arise to terrorize the earth? Oh dear, this reads like a dreadful Grade B- sci fi flick.

In the interests of utter objectivity and thoroughness, I phoned a prominent scientific researcher connected with the Bush administration. He assured me that there is no methane undersea whatsoever, but in case there is, that will necessitate immediate drilling for oil in the Artic, as well as a further troop buildup in Iraq.

Automobiles produce pollution. T or F?
F again. Automobiles produce enormous amounts of pollutants, but not pollution. True scientists pay special attention to the exact utilization of verbal vocabularical units. That's why we sound so scientismistic.

It is possible to tell when someone is staring at you, even if you do not see that person. T or F?
F, utterly F. In the interests of rigorous scientific rigmarole, I personally performed exhaustive tests. I placed myself in highly frequented local malls and stared at sexy young females who were not looking at me. Not one of the 247 SYFs I ogled even glanced at me. Although I did get followed home by a young man wearing pink pants and a violet shirt. Yoohoo!

Eating eggs is good for your health. T or F?
T, absolutely T, because my mother always fixed eggs for me when I was little, and if you can't trust your mother, who can you trust? Some pointy headed geeks who do research without approval from the dairy interests? Let's get realistic!

Global warming is caused by human activity. T or F?
Global warming again? What's the matter, why do you hate America? Do you realize that your hatred for freedom and democracy are aiding Osama bin Laden and his buddy Saddam? This sort of question proves the necessity of drilling for oil in Arctic nature preserves, further troop buildups in Iraq, and a crackdown on nuts like you.

Katrina was god's judgment against the US because the US has flirted dangerously with Darwinism. T or F?
T. I consulted highly respected scientific authorities, such as the West Texas Christian Prayer Circle, Oklahoma Synod Against Darwinism, and the Orange County Christian Crusade Against Filth, among others. They all concurred that Darwinism was one of the main causes of Katrina, although they also listed other factors including civil rights, gay rights, abortion, improperly worn baseball caps, environmental protection, illegal immigrants, long hair on men, foreign languages, vegetarianism, spotted owls, gun control, anti-smoking legislation, abortion, restrictions on prayers in school, body piercing, and so forth. The West Texas group informed me that 7 of their 12 snakes were adamant that Darwinism was the cause of Katrina, so you see we have a very definite, very authoritative scientific figure to use here, that is, 83.6%.

Guns kill people: T or F? People kill people: T or F?
F and F! Both wrong. Guns don't kill people, people don't kill people, bullets kill people.

Traditional Chinese pharmacists used to grind dinosaur fossils into powder to use as medicine. Dragon bones have therapeutic properties: T or F?
F. Absolutely no empirical clinical trials have ever been carried out to investigate whether or not ground up fossils cure diseases, but because traditional Chinese doctors worked according to centuries of experience rather than Western laboratory procedure, we need no experiments to know that they are superstitious. Their practical experience does not conform to our prejudices; that in itself stands as proof positive that our skepticism is the Truth and that their knowledge is superstition (that's what being a professional skeptic is all about, reinforcing your own biases). Who you gonna believe, a white man in a lab coat or suit and tie, or some heathen Chinee who may not even speak English? Sheesh! Next question.

Aura Lee Bacillus (known to you non-scientific peons as the Northern Lights) is caused by the earth farting, T or F?
T. For scientific discussion, please refer to November 2, 2005 this blog.

Dogs are capable of sensing their people's return long before any distinguishable physical signs are evident: T or F?
F. In all the experiments purportedly carried out on this subject, actually the dogs were alerted by text messages sent to receivers hidden in their collars. I was tipped off on this one by the so-called 'scientists' gardener, who said he picks up the text messages in his fillings, but he can't take them out to read them, so he doesn't know what they say.

People used to think that fighting bulls charged the matador's red cape because the color red enraged them, but actually bulls are colorblind so they cannot see red. T or F?
Now this is a question for a real professional skeptic, one that separates the men from the boys, and we professional skeptics don't believe in sexism. Of course this is F. Of course bulls can see red. However, they are colorblind, so they cannot distinguish red from other colors.

There! I have proved the caliber of my skepticism, so bring on the contracts! Just throw the latest scientific advance at me, and (for a fee) I will prove that it just ain't so. After all, being a professional skeptic is not very different from the last question: it's all a bunch of bull

Monday, February 05, 2007

Here's how my doorbells work. Here you see Ken jingling one of the little bells attached to the new doors. When you ring the bells, the dogs rush out and start biting you. When I hear you scream, I go out to see who it is, and decide whether to invite you in for tea or let the dogs finish their meal.

And it works without electricity!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Before, when people asked me how to say 枸杞 in English, I was always at a loss. The Chinese-English dictionary had a Latin name, but there was no way to say it in English. Besides, who ever saw 枸杞 in the US?

Last year in the States when I saw 枸杞 being promoted as the latest great health food, I was immediately eager to see how they said it in English: goji, a rough transliteration. Ok, great, we've got something we can work with. Gojis, or goji berries.

Yesterday I took Ken to see the Jade Market and Flower Market. Near the 信義end of the Flower Market there's a stand selling delicious drinks. They had hot ginger soup with goji, just the thing for the dropping temperatures of late afternoon! I suggested Ken try some. He wanted to know what was in it. Aha, a chance to use the new word for which I had searched so long! I told him, "Ginger with gojis." Aghast, Ken said, "Ginger with goat cheese? That sounds

Saturday, February 03, 2007



Friday, February 02, 2007

The death penalty is one of those things that all right-thinking people are supposed to oppose: be dead set against, if you will pardon me.

Very vividly I remember an event that occurred shortly after I arrived in Taiwan. One Tuesday night, a youth with a knife tried to mug an old lady in New Park; a Military Police patrol (憲兵) caught him. He was tried by military tribunal on Wednesday morning and shot Thursday morning. You could walk around any place at any time of day or night and never catch a scent of fear.

Four or five years later security was deteriorating. Four young men broke into a rich actress' apartment, murdered her maid, and robbed the place. They were sentenced to death. Two were brothers, so the father knelt before the judge pleading him to spare one, to carry on the family's incense (香火). The judge said something to the effect that if you valued your ancestors' bloodline so highly you would have done a better job raising your sons. The execution was televised up to the point the four terrified young men were dragged before the firing squad. Western experts say the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime? Maybe because executions are not televised. All I know is, the police didn't have much work on their hands for years afterwards.

Detective novels usually end with the murderer getting killed by the hero. Very few novels end with the hero delivering the dreadful murderer to the courts and waiting cheerfully for justice to be done. A novelist may strive for realism, but to succeed a novel has to be psychologically valid. How well does the court system heal psychological wounds? To be sure, the perpetrator has rights, but the victim does too, as well as the victim's family and friends. American imprisonment can be hell on earth for the common criminal (not the white collar criminal), but how much satisfaction does it afford the victim's family to know that the beast who murdered their beloved is presently smoking cigarets retrieved from somebody's rectum?

I am not sure if I am for or against the death penalty. If chickens can be tortured for eggs, and cows butchered for beef, how immoral is it to eradicate someone who has viciously taken the life of another citizen? Rape should certainly warrant the death penalty, provided the courts guarantee fairness and justice. Ah, there's the problem. How much justice is to be found in modern courts? Ask OJ.

The death penalty supposes that the individual is ultimately subordinate to the state and to society. If the state has no right to kill a murderer, what right does it have to march soldiers into death in battle?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

One day when I was delivering pizzas to Long Binh, the largest US military base in Viet Nam, our Toyota had a flat. We pulled over to the side of the road, jacked up the truck, and started to remove the bolts to change the tire. We couldn't. The bolts wouldn't turn. We tried different bolts, the driver and I took turns, but we couldn't turn a single bolt.

If the bolts wouldn't turn, we couldn't change the tire, and we couldn't leave the base. The military wouldn't permit us to spend the night on the base, driving back to Saigon after dark would be dangerous, spending the night somewhere outside the base would be suicidal. A pretty predicament, but the bolts just wouldn't budge.

We needed help. There was a motor pool nearby, so I trudged over and explained our plight to the head mechanic. He was happy to help. Even though he was overseas in a combat zone, his work was pretty routine. Not often he got a chance to help one of "my fellow Americans" in distress! He picked up his bolt gun and we headed back to the truck. With a modest smile, he applied his bolt gun to the wheel…. and the bolt still didn't turn. He tried other bolts, with as much success as we enjoyed. He was flabbergasted. He told me, "Wait a minute, I'll go back and get a stronger bolt gun."

He came back a few minutes later with a stronger bolt gun. We all took turns with it, but none of the bolts would budge. The sun was sinking in the sky, taking with it my heart.

He returned to his garage and came back with a couple other soldiers from his motor pool and the strongest bolt gun in the garage, so big that they had to load it onto a truck to bring it to us. "This'll take the bolts off a tank, let's see how tight your tire is bolted on!" ZZZzzzzzRRRRRPPPPPPbbbbb! The bolt stayed put. Consternation.

One of the soldiers pulled a long bar out of the truck. "Okay, let's use leverage, let's slip this bar over a tire iron and take the bolt off that way." We placed a tire iron firmly on a bolt, fitted the bar over the iron, and we all pulled down on the bar, the three soldier mechanics, the driver, and I. We must have looked like some sort of Iwo Jima reenactment, but the bolt did not move any more than it had before.

The soldiers were astonished. They had never seen anything like it. We had brought the might of the US military-industrial war machine to bear on those bolts, and not a one would budge.

Until the sergeant adjusted the bar for a better grip, and with that light touch, the bolt turned. We had all been turning the wrong way….

The mechanics were too sheepish even to swear. Once we got the direction straightened out, it was a simple matter to change the tire, and within a quarter of an hour we were on our way out the gate, beating the sunset back to Saigon.

Sometimes when you are faced with a problem, even a problem so onerous and intractable that it may kill you, you just have to approach that problem from a different direction.