Battlepanda: March 2007


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

I met David Ho!

Well, perhaps "met" is not quite the word. I got to ambush him with a bunch of other reporters to ask some questions after he finished his speech. He looked upon us with apprehension, having just been worked over by a bunch of Cable TV reporters, who asked him the most dumbass questions. Really. How can you go to the man who pioneered the cocktail treatment of HIV and ask, with a straight face, whether he thinks green tea can cure AIDS? Anyhow, that was an honor. I still remember his face on the cover when he was Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1996.

Here's the story I wrote.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Making Jayson Blair look like a paragon

If you despair about America's media environment, remember, it can always get worse.
Video footage televised by nearly all news channels on Monday featuring a gangster demonstrating an array of firearms and threatening to kill his estranged boss was discovered yesterday to have been fabricated by cable television station TVBS.

TVBS issued a statement last night that said it had fired Nantou reporter Shi Chen-kang (史鎮康), who filmed the video, and his superior, chief correspondent Chang Yu-kun (張裕坤).

In the video, Chou Cheng-pao (周政保), a member of the Celestial Way Gang, sat next to a table with a number of pistols and rifles.

In addition to threatening to shoot his former gangster boss, Chou said in the video that he was also behind three recent shooting incidents in the Taichung area.

In its statement, TVBS said an internal investigation had found that Shi had helped Chou film the video.

TVBS news director Pan Tzu-yin (潘祖蔭) and vice news director Sun Chia-juei (孫嘉蕊) were also given citations for their lack of oversight, the statement added.

According to the TVBS, Shi explained that Chou asked him for help on Saturday afternoon. He decided to make the video because he found it newsworthy, the station cited Shi as saying.

Shi asked Chang not to tell TVBS managers about how he got the footage, TVBS said.

Yang Ying-lan (楊英蘭), an official with the National Communications Commission (NCC), disagreed with TVBS' position that the two reporters were solely responsible for the incident.

"The footage has been broadcasted again and again," she said. "How can the management at the station get away with simply saying that it was just the reporters' fault?"

When asked if the incident will cause the station to lose its broadcast license, Yang said the penalty will ultimately be determined by the commission's members.

If the commission finds the Chou video to be a serious violation, the station will be asked to stop broadcasting for three days.

In addition to the little charade, TVBS (yes, that really is their name) were also responsible for an erroneous reports stating that Taiwanese Ducks are plucked by dunking in hot asphalt and that cheap buffet restaurants are recycling funeral offerings to serve their customers. The infamous asphalt duck incident caused so much damage to duck sales TVBS had to run weeks of apologetic stories about the tastiness and wholesomeness of Taiwanese duck.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Anselm's Girlfriend

Jonathan Ichikawa presents the Ontological Argument for the existence of the Perfect Girlfriend.

(Via Neil the Ethical Werewolf.)

Swarm entrepreneurship

I can attest to Taoyuan Night's observation about the frenzied copycat entrepreneurship that often goes on here in Taiwan.

What happens is this:

Day 1: Person A has a genius idea - selling ice cream for people’s pet dogs to eat.
Day 5: Persons B,C,D… notice that A has been making a tidy sum of money, selling ice cream for dogs.
Day 6: 20 new dog-ice-cream stores open up a few metres away, using cheap borrowed money.
Day 10: Persons A,B,C,D go out of business…. [tumbleweed].

It really does happen this quickly. You wouldn’t believe it. I’ve seen businesses last less than 5 horrifically unprofitable days. They open up, try to grab some of the hot money by copying someone else’s idea on the same street, then close down again right away if they can’t. Usually, a stream of people trying their luck at this game results in the painful destruction of the original, innovative business.

The most famous example of this is the Portuguese custard tart fever of 1998 (Link to Chinese page). Truly, for a few short heady summer months, it was like the dutch tulip craze writ pastry. People queued around the block and (probably because they needed to justify the queuing) bought the fatty little pies by the dozens. The price of eggs went through the roof. Naturally the number of stores selling nothing but custard tarts started opening up at exponential rates. Until that magical point where supply overtook demand and the queues were suddenly gone. Without the queues, it's as if people finally realized that portuguese custard tarts are really just the greasier, heavier cousin of the traditional custard tarts we've known and loved all along and demand evaporated.

There must be a few lone survivors here and there, but I don't know of them. Once the fever receded, portuguese custard tarts took their rightful place as a minor player in the Taiwanese baked goods market.

It's sadder when it happens with live animals:

"It's over for red poodles," dog breeder and proprietor of the Master Dog salon Lin Chiu-li (林秋麗) said.

Even in the fickle pet market, the rise and decline of the red poodle was remarkable for its swiftness. Called "teddy dogs" because of the puffy hairstyle they are usually given, red poodles became fashionable when Taiwanese supermodel Lin Chi-ling's (林志玲) red poodle, "Coffee" started appearing in commercials and fashion shows alongside its owner. [snip]

"Puppy mill" operators flout the rules of dog breeding when they try to churn out as many puppies as possible -- as cheaply as possible -- before a breed becomes passe, she said. [snip]

By the middle of last year, red poodle fever had already started to recede, she said.

Taoyuan Night have an interesting theory for how the "swarm of bees" (meaning a crowd mindlessly moving in the same direction) phenomenon came to be -- Taiwan's low low interest rates: "There has to be some risk - some higher cost for borrowed money - to deter stupid amounts of profitless copycat competition. Otherwise, a good business idea has no chance of surviving, and entrepreneurship is punished rather than rewarded." Of course there has got to be more to it than that since Japan has even lower interest rates and you don't see the same kind of crazed, unstructured entrepreneurship there. Besides, a rise in the interest rate will punish all entrepreneurship, not just copycat ones. In fact, it could concievably have the perverse effect of suppressing original ventures more than copycat ventures because it is risky to innovate, which is why there are so many copycat ventures in the first place.

So I don't know what the answer is for Taiwan's "swarm of bees" phenomenon. But it's an interesting case study from the economics point of view. As in econ 101, continual entry into the market drives profit down to zero. But many factors that are not accounted for in Econ 101 also comes into play -- start-up costs, distorted risk perception, "brand" dilution...

Sunday, March 25, 2007

A thousand autobiographical novels blooming

Awesome book review, not of a book per se, but of a whole literary phenomenon.
[T]his book is part of a distinct modern literary genre, a tale of Cultural Revolution woes, both lived through and finally escaped from. All the stereotypes are here — the wicked petty tyrant (in this case Old Crab, the local "team leader" and the only Communist Party member in a small village), a populace happy to chant "Your plans to restore a bourgeois society have been revealed and smashed" one day and something close to the opposite the next, Western literary classics hidden under mattresses and treasured as bulwarks against the Red Guard onslaught, senior academics being made to crawl through the mud to collect animal droppings, the persecution of "black" (as oppose to "red") families and their eventual banishment to remote mountain areas, and the meeting up of the hero with some kindred spirit (who invariably also has Western books secreted about his person).

There are many other ingredients that make up this formula. To repeat, these books certainly reflect some of the realities of what were undoubtedly dreadful times, but, as is the case with all literary creations, they represent only a selection from a far larger mass of possible material. You don't write about casual kindnesses or increased crop yields in this kind of book. The formula requires horrors, just as the formula for crime stories requires a dead body, a hidden weapon, a couple of key witnesses who only show up late in the tale, and the final unmasking of the murderer.


And the invariable ending of Cultural Revolution horror stories is always the same — the Death of Mao. Finally the pressure is off, the lovers of Western literature can at last bring their old paperbacks of David Copperfield and Les Miserables out from under the cowshed and file applications for entry to elite universities, their natural home.
I would really like to see some books in English by Chinese writers that isn't about their experiences in the cultural revolution or novels about defiant young woman growing up in a oppressive culture (or both). And I would like to see some books in English by Chinese-American writers that's not about the clash of cultures between their mother's generation and their's.

I feel bad, because it is not that I have anything against Amy Tan or that lady who wrote Wild Swans per se, it's that their work epitomizes the two big ghettos for Chinese or Chinese-american writers. Their feelings and works may indeed be authentic and sincere, but when publishers only seem to favor books that feature certain scripts it make them all seem like cookie-cutter efforts to fit the mould of what's expected from their background.

I used to know a woman who wants to write sci-fi fantasy novels and and once said she didn't like her name because it immediately recognizable as a 'black' name and everybody would know her race as soon as they pick up the manuscript or book. When she said that she wished her name did not identify her as black, I felt like everybody at the table (all non-black) put pressure on her to explain herself. But I understand the impulse -- she has no desire to write her works from a 'black' perspective and she won't have to suffer being put under that bracket immediately if her name was Alice or Jennifer or something. Anyhow. I feel like I've wandered off topic enough.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Garrison Keillor: Creep?

I've always tried really hard* to like A Prairie Home Companion and failed miserably. Sometimes I'd fool myself into thinking that I'm getting it, but those mild spasms of amusement never sustain themselves long enough to make the two hour nostalgia-nza worth it. It's like the radio equivalent of drinking a huge mug of weak, tepid tea. Make that two of them.

So, while I'm not Garrison Keillor's greatest fan, I do know him and his style. And I have a really really really really have a hard time believing that Keillor is the kind of unabashed hypocritical bigot that this howling Dan Savage post makes him out to be even though the article in question did kind of make my jaw drop by its cheerful trade in stereotypes so stale they would never pass muster at a Lutheran bake sale. "Keillor really didn’t come to praise heterosexual marriage and monogamy. He came to bury gay couples—particularly gay couples with children," said Dan, "What an asshole. Asshole, asshole, asshole. What Keillor wrote today on Salon is every bit as offensive as Ann Coulter’s “faggot” joke about John Edwards and relies on the same set of cultural prejudices."

Dan's criticism of Keillor basically breaks down into two components:

(1) The man is a hypocrite. He has had a string of failed marriages while advocating mommy-daddy monogamy and leftover boiled potatoes in the 'frigerator.

(2) He is an anti-gay bigot.

It occurs to me that I am well into a longish post accusing the man of all sort of unpleasant things without actually mentioning what it was that raised Dan's ire, so let's look at what the man wrote. Let's look at a long-ish chunk, since Keillor is somewhat elliptical.
I grew up the child of a mixed-gender marriage that lasted until death parted them, and I could tell you about how good that is for children, and you could pay me whatever you think it's worth.

Back in the day, that was the standard arrangement. Everyone had a yard, a garage, a female mom, a male dad, and a refrigerator with leftover boiled potatoes in plastic dishes with snap-on lids. This was before caller ID, before credit cards, before pizza, for crying out loud. You could put me in a glass case at the history center and schoolchildren could press a button and ask me questions.

Monogamy put the parents in the background where they belong and we children were able to hold center stage. We didn't have to contend with troubled, angry parents demanding that life be richer and more rewarding for them. We blossomed and agonized and fussed over our outfits and learned how to go on a date and order pizza and do the twist and neck in the front seat of a car back before bucket seats when you could slide close together, and we started down the path toward begetting children while Mom and Dad stood like smiling, helpless mannequins in the background.

Nature is about continuation of the species -- in other words, children. Nature does not care about the emotional well-being of older people.

Under the old monogamous system, we didn't have the problem of apportioning Thanksgiving and Christmas among your mother and stepdad, your dad and his third wife, your mother-in-law and her boyfriend Hal, and your father-in-law and his boyfriend Chuck. Today, serial monogamy has stretched the extended family to the breaking point. A child can now grow up with eight or nine or 10 grandparents -- Gampa, Gammy, Goopa, Gumby, Papa, Poopsy, Goofy, Gaga and Chuck -- and need a program to keep track of the actors.

And now gay marriage will produce a whole new string of hyphenated relatives. In addition to the ex-stepson and ex-in-laws and your wife's first husband's second wife, there now will be Bruce and Kevin's in-laws and Bruce's ex, Mark, and Mark's current partner, and I suppose we'll get used to it.

The country has come to accept stereotypical gay men -- sardonic fellows with fussy hair who live in over-decorated apartments with a striped sofa and a small weird dog and who worship campy performers and go in for flamboyance now and then themselves. If they want to be accepted as couples and daddies, however, the flamboyance may have to be brought under control. Parents are supposed to stand in back and not wear chartreuse pants and black polka-dot shirts. That's for the kids. It's their show.
As Dan points out, it's a bit rich for Keillor to wax lyrical about monogamy and sacrificing one's emotional well-being for the children. He has been married three times with children from two of the marriages. Hypocrite a la Newt? I say no. The whole thing about Keillor's schtick is that it's a schtick. He is not a real down-home Lake Wobegonian any more than Ho-hos are powdermilk biscuits. His seven-bedroom Georgian house was featured in the New York Time home and garden section under the headline "Where All The Rooms Are Above Average." He has real-estate in Manhattan, for goodness' sakes. But it doesn't matter. The attraction of his show has always been that he gently pokes fun at a heart-place that is the hometown you've never had. It's a happy place. A place that resonates with many. But it's not real. I would say that far from being hypocritical, Keillor is cutting close to the bone here in a way that must be hard to do.

The second charge, that of anti-gay bigotry, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. As we've already established, Keillor (assuming he is in his Lake Woebegone character for the column) is not speaking for himself. What Keillor is doing is a parody of small-town Middle America. It's whole humor lies in exaggerating modesty to ridiculous lengths -- "Where all the children are above average." Is it possible that Garrison Keillor is pulling a Borat on us? Showing us a dark side, not of himself, but of Lake Woebegone?

Which of these things is not like the other: Powdermilk biscuits, Jake's Autoharp, Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery, the Ketchup Advisory board, and anti-gay prejudice? I know one of those thing don't seem to belong for me.

APHC is satire, but Keillor is not Borat. Borat is Sacha Baron-Cohen saying "look at these people and how ridiculous they are. What a bunch of ignorant creeps." Keillor is saying "look at these people and how ridiculous they are. Aren't they adorable? Aren't they better people in their simple, stoic way then we'll ever be?" By slipping in several some really ugly assumptions about gay people in the same down-home hokey manner as if he's just making fun of big-city folks with their blackberries, Keillor is saying that, whether or not he personally shares those values**, they are not beyond the pale in our society. Keillor would never be as gauche as to complain about "welfare queens in Cadillacs" or tell "she's on PMS" jokes even as he make cracks about gay couples sharing wardrobes living in overdecorated apartments with tiny dogs.

It just goes to show that even in polite society, and there is no society more polite than Lake Woebegone, gays (and don't forget us atheists) are still considered legitimate targets just for being gays and atheists.

Garrison Keillor: Creep? Yes.

* I tried really hard to like APHC because NPR is like my favorite thing and APHC is their flagship non-news show. I used to be an even bigger NPR geek than I am now. I would listen to Car Talk every week even though I didn't drive.

**Look! He has gay friends and they defend him***!

***Actually, I think I find his response to the shitstorm his column has wrought almost more offensive than the column itself.
A man stood outside the theater where I did a show Saturday night and handed out angry pamphlets calling on the audience to protest my homophobia. A gay writer friend was at the show and got a big kick out of the pamphlets and had me autograph some for his partner and his partner's mother. I asked him what I had done wrong and he said, "You mentioned us." I looked at him quizzically. He said, "I'll handle gay parenting and you stick to the Norwegians." It's a deal.
So what Keillor is subtly implying here is that he's being attacked for mentioning gay parents, that somehow his critics are constructing a PC wall of silence around the subject to which he fell victim. This is such transparent bullshit that of course it has to sprout from the mouth of the very group he has just so carelessly stereotyped so it must have credibility. Right.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Taiwanese Nazis

Isn't that an oxymoron, like "afgahnistani KKK"? I was very confused when I first heard about the phenomenon. But after writing a story on Taiwanese "National Socialism Association", I feel less shocked and more saddened.

One of the founder claimes to be moderate and not a racist. "Our goal is to turn Taiwan into a well-governed state like sweden or singapore," he said. So, erm, why all the Nazi regalia and worshipful allusions to Hitler and chinese translation of "Mein Kampf"?

"We are attracted to the feeling of unity of that period," he said, "isn't that why people joing political groups of any sort? That sense of belonging and togetherness?"

That was both so wrong, yet accurate in a way that it took me a beat to get back my bearings again.

UPDATE: Reuters and AP have both picked up on the story too. Reuters mistook the Hsu's internet handle for her name though, amusingly. Her internet handle, is "Joshua" translated into Chinese as "Yue Shu Ya" (約書亞), which reuters took to mean her surname is Yue! Forgivable on one level, but not really given her name is all over the Chinese (and English) language press. AP's Peter Enav does a good job though.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The low-point of my journalistic career thusfar

Cucumber or jelly?

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Fightin' Ninth

My congressional representative, Steve Cohen, appeared on The Colbert Report last night.

(Via Theology and Geometry.)