Friday, 1 August 2014

Last Night's Gas Explosions In Kaohsiung City

I was only just made aware of this now this lunchtime after being at work all through this morning. Sometime after 1am last night in Lingya district to the south of the city from Sanduo (3rd) road down to Yixin (1st) road. Apparently twenty two people have been killed and nearly three hundred injured. I found the video disturbing to watch, not because it shows much but because of the horrible volume of the explosions in the middle of the night. Had that happened where I now live in Tainan (I used to live in Kaohsiung), those explosions would have terrified my dogs. A number of possibilities would probably have crossed my mind upon hearing those explosions before the notion of a mains gas pipe failure occurred to me. There will have to be an investigation to determine what went wrong and how.

Linked via Turton.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

M13 On Cops

I agree with the general thrust of M13's argument, but I'd add a couple of things. By and large the cops in southern Taiwan seem to me to be reactive rather than pro-active in enforcing laws. In some ways this may be good because it seems to result in the cops being less likely to abuse the law for predatory purposes. The other thing is that I sometimes wonder whether there is a cultural difference on this point between cops in northern Taiwan and cops in southern Taiwan. I'm not sure.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Second Trip To The Two Baoshan Reservoirs

I'm too tired to write this up and probably won't get time this week, so this post will amount to no more than just a few pictures from Sunday's trip to Hsinchu. If what I wanted to do is considered as two puzzles, then I think it's fair to say I solved one but have not yet solved the other - though I do now have additional information that should help me to solve it another time.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

On "M13" & BaoBao

I had an anonymous comment early this morning (so presumably from someone across the Pacific) concerning the accidental death of M13's dog "Baobao". Apparently he was getting a lot of stick in the comments about taking his dog on a scooter with him. I used to enjoy watching M13's youtube uploads regularly some years back and I had since forgotten all about him. From the video description...
"BaoBao just finished doing a 1500km tour on my scooter....only to fall off unexpectedly and for no reason when I was buying lunch and while I was doing walking speed through an intersection. There was only one other vehicle anywhere near me....and its rear tire went over BaoBao's back crippling her and smashing her pelvis. She would have needed extensive surgery and with no guarantee of being able to walk ever again... she was almost 17. Over the next year or two she would have aged/worsened a lot. So I made the call to put her down while she was still "herself" and not in too much pain."
It's very sad of course, and I'd have struggled emotionally with that decision myself, but the rationality of it is clear. Sometimes you just have to take tough decisions, go through with them and live with it afterwards. That's life.

On the actual accident itself, I'm sure M13 will have his own thoughts in hindsight as to whether he could have done this or that differently. For my own part, whenever I take Tinkerbell with me on a longish trip somewhere (e.g. to the beach or the mountains), I use a harness and lead to keep her tied to the bike between my feet. With the other dogs I can also put both feet to the front of the bike to fence them in using my legs as makeshift "guardrails", though admittedly I cannot do this with Tinkerbell as she always stretches to see where we are going. There is no perfect solution though as all I am doing in effect is trading one set of risks (e.g. her falling off the scooter) for another set of risks (her inability to get clear of the bike should we suffer a collision and the bike take a tumble).

It seems natural to claim that putting the dogs in a car is safer than taking them with me on a scooter, since a car obviously eliminates the risk of them falling out of the vehicle and also offers the protection of a cage in the event of a collision. That is true, but again this may simply be the act of trading one set of risks for another; whilst the protective value of a car against small collisions is positive, its' value in the event of very large collisions (e.g. a freeway pile-up) may be negative in that escape is so much more difficult if not impossible. Another example might be parking; the small size of a scooter means that it is possible to leave the road and park on the relative safety of sidewalks and paved recesses in public parks; with a car, this is not possible and you are often left with no other choice than to open the tailgate into oncoming traffic - which requires more training for the dogs to wait and not leap out as soon as it's open.

Of course the other thing to bear in mind here is that safety is not the only value at stake. There are always trade-offs.

I walk my dogs at two local parks; the first one is a relatively short distance away, but rather than walk them to that park I prefer to drive them on the scooter; the second one is just behind my house so is even closer and I walk them to that park. I use the scooter to take my dogs to the first park because I want to minimize their exposure time to the road and because I want them to have as much time to run around freely in the safety of the park as I can afford. The reason I walk them to the second park is because the distance is very short meaning that there is almost no time-saving to be gained from using the scooter. However, I walk my dogs to the second park without leads; I have trained them to stay close to me and wait when I tell them to (there are two exceptions to this: Black & White, who was already mature as a stray dog before I adopted her and so has become accustomed to navigating the roads and alleys on her own, and Wanwan, who is so excitable that I carry him under one arm and don't let him walk on the road by himself). In both cases however, the values at stake and their evaluation are entirely mine and my responsibility only.

The accusations that M13 was "reckless" in taking his dog on a scooter with him seem to me to be impertinent. Accidents will happen, and none of us are infallible. We do not need laws to punish people who take their dogs to park on scooters on account of the reactions of a bunch of self-appointed banning-fannies. Without me (and my scooter - which I bought expressly for the benefit of Tinkerbell), all of my five dogs would likely have died painful deaths from disease or worse some years ago.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

On DPP Strategy & Taiwan's "Status Quo": A Brief, Tangential Response To Timothy S. Rich's Article At "Thinking Taiwan"

It is now after 8pm in the evening and typhoon Matmo has long since left Taiwan and is on its way to China. It has been perfectly safe to go outside since about lunchtime and I could have been working for at least the second half of today but there is an election coming and the city mayor felt it necessary to cancel the greater part of everybody's economic activity for the day. Lost earnings.

Anyway, I have been meaning to read some of the recent articles up at "Thinking Taiwan" for a while but have been too busy with work and my own interests. Now is an opportunity to do so. One of those articles is very brief and is entitled "Defining Taiwan's Status Quo". The context of the article is the DPP's electoral strategy for the upcoming local elections this year and the presidential and legislative elections in 2016. The foreground subject is the question of whether the DPP should continue its charter support for de-jure independence for Taiwan, or whether it should replace this clause with one favouring the status quo of de-facto independence in some form or other. The author, Timothy S. Rich points out some problems with the definition of "status quo". I found a couple of semi-interesting points in his article...
 "For others the status quo is just a game of wait and see, both in terms of what China may or may not do, but also as Taiwanese identity evolves." 
This was a strange point that I didn't understand. In as much as the stipulated context here is Taiwan's political status viz China, is not Taiwanese nationalism a simple binary? You either are Taiwanese or you aren't. Remember that the political point at stake here is a simple binary: Taiwan will come under direct rule from the government in Beijing or it won't. So in that strict context the only political implication of how people in Taiwan identify themselves is whether they are Taiwanese (and thus do not favour direct rule from the government in Beijing) or not. What else is there for Taiwanese identity to "evolve" to? How many bicycle trips they make, how many pictures they take of Taroko gorge and other such fluff is strictly irrelevant.

Other than that, if nationalism is going to affect Taiwan's political status at all, it will surely be the nationalism on the other side of the Strait, in that a less and less strident Chinese nationalism may reduce popular support in China for any aggression against Taiwan, though I don't think too much confidence could be placed in that even if it were to happen and besides there are many other factors that would affect a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

The second point I found interesting...
"While greater appeals in general to status quo identifiers benefit the DPP’s electoral chances, redefining the status quo — for example to focus on strengthening the quality of Taiwan’s democracy — may provide a better means to this end."
It is easy to see the logic behind that point; after all there does not appear to be anywhere else to go for a DPP intent on replacing its' charter support for de jure independence. All they can do is make noises about how China needs to change to become more like Taiwan before they would support unification.

However, I still think this is a mistake. If they are going to insist on something like that at all, it would be better to state the object at a higher level of abstraction as governance or systems of governance rather than democracy. The reason for this is that the term "democracy" necessarily implies electoral mechanisms, and these are not necessarily the best (and may in many cases be the worst) and certainly not the only means for establishing and sustaining social orders. Whilst a commitment to "strengthening the quality of democracy" sounds like a relatively safe substitute for de-jure independence as a means of articulating opposition to rule from the government in Beijing, it may also commit the DPP to all kinds of votist idiocies where alternative means of sustaining social order might have worked better. In particular, I am thinking of private property rights, optional purchasing agreements for major infrastructure projects and the despised Land Theft Act and the Urban Renewal Act which facilitate such projects by simply legalizing theft. The problem lies with the fact that both of those pieces of legislation rest upon the democratic, utilitarian premise that the many get to violate the rights of the few on the basis of contestable "public interest" claims. If I were asked what I would alter the DPP's de jure independence clause to, I would say "depoliticization" as I continue to argue repeatedly.

On the other hand, a commitment to "strengthening the quality of democracy" might allow the DPP to pull an unexpected move or two. For instance, they could argue for dropping the nationality requirement for election to public office. That would allow Chinese and other nationality candidates to directly stand for election in Taiwan and to explicitly compete with Taiwanese politicians. The possible advantage of that is not that the foreign candidates would be better politicians and administrators, though in some cases they might, but that Chinese candidates may force Taiwanese candidates from the KMT to move closer to the DPP. Competition with the Taiwanese may in turn affect Chinese candidates and require them to adopt policies that more Taiwanese would support - possibly to the frustration of the government in Beijing. Imagine for instance a Chinese candidate in a Taiwanese election; in order to win election, he or she is going to have to make significant overtures to an electorate worried about annexation in order to garner votes. In so doing, the fact that the candidate is Chinese may mean he or she will have to go much further than a Taiwanese candidate would be willing (or able) to do. These may include things like more transparent oversight of trade agreements. The logic here is similar to the claim that Richard Nixon was able to carry public support in opening talks with Deng Xiaoping only because he had previously established anti-communist credentials in the U.S. media.

However, I am not in favour of voting on other people's values for basically the same reason I am opposed to cannibalism. I'd rather have competing and cooperating systems of private governance that tend to respect individual property rights and to produce more efficient outcomes. Of course that may be dismissed as unrealistic, but I don't see that I have any other acceptable choice than to support liberalization and depoliticization against centralized, monopolistic, Statist forms of governance whether of the red, blue or green variety.


I see J.M. Cole has published a piece about the DPP's independence clause at the Diplomat.

Typhoon Matmo & Vegetable Prices

Typhoon Matmo made landfall earlier this morning; I had to wait until lunchtime for it to pass and take the dogs out to the park. There is no significant damage, just leaves all over the ground and a few broken branches. There is however, an editorial in the Taipei Times complaining about the spike in vegetable prices over the last couple of days before the typhoon hit.
"Consumers obviously bear the brunt of the price increases, but farmers are not benefiting from it — it is the traders and wholesalers who are profiting, and the government seems unable to do anything about this."
The implicit premise is that income from vegetable sales should be split equally between traders and farmers or that farmers, rather than traders, should receive most of it - hence the squeal of frustration with the government.
"It is common in Taiwan for the prices of agricultural products to spike before a typhoon hits. Yet this is an unusual phenomenon in terms of supply and demand, as prices should either go down or at least remain unchanged when supply and demand rise simultaneously. In this case, while many consumers are eager to purchase more vegetables — fearing a price hike if the storm damages crops — farmers are also racing to harvest their produce before the typhoon hits. That means that although demand for agricultural products surges, so does their supply, hence prices should drop or remain unchanged."
The writer vaguely points to supply and demand, but doesn't really think about it. What is missing from this view is what happens to vegetable supply immediately after a typhoon. How are the farmers to produce more vegetables from waterlogged fields? Obviously there must be a temporary drop in supply following a typhoon to allow vegetable farms time to recover and start producing regularly again. In other words a fall in supply. Vegetable prices are set by traders in response not just to the immediate ratio of supply to demand, but also to the expected ratio in the short-term future. The reason there is a spike in the price of vegetables before the typhoon makes landfall is not that there is a brief increase in supply, but that there will be a comparatively larger drop in supply after the typhoon has made landfall.

This, after all, is the reason many consumers try to stock up on vegetables before the typhoon hits - they know there will be a drop in supply (or more accurately, there will be a drop in supply of local vegetables - foreign imports will still be available, which is what I will be buying (and in the case of broccoli, have been buying for the last few weeks long before the typhoon formed)).

Of course the other point to be made is this: if traders kept vegetable prices stable or even lowered them, then a surge in demand would result in shortages because each consumer would buy more vegetables when stocking up than they would if the prices were substantially lower. In the world in which the managing editor of the Taipei Times were tinpot dictator of Taiwan, many people would now have to go without vegetables until the local farms recover. As things stand, I should have no problem buying as many vegetables as I want at the market tommorow so long as I am prepared to pay a higher price. Alternatively (and this is what I will be doing), I can just go to the supermarket and buy foreign imports at prices cheaper than the post-typhoon prices for local vegetables.

So whilst prancing about pretending to support local farmers against wicked, "price-gouging" traders, what the managing editor of the Taipei Times is actually saying by implication is that he is in favour of food shortages.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

"Roko's Basilisk"

I just now came across this quixotic horror via an article at Slate that I reached through my regular stop at Marginal Revolution for bits and pieces. I've often thought that, in fiction, the hardest thing to do well is horror because it demands the most from both imagination and deference to reality at the same time. Neo-calvinist singularitarianism was not something I was previously familiar with, and nor was "timeless decision theory". Fascinating.