Friday, 17 January 2020

Letter from Taiwan: Elections and Electric Scooters

I have written about Taiwan before in this blog, and my first impressions are reinforced with every return trip. However, visiting with my son and his family in Judong, a township to the south and west of Taipei, we do get to know the place a little better over time. On this occasion two things stand out: one political, the other environmental.

I jogged most days through the busy streets of the town and up into the surrounding hills. As I ran the first thing to strike me was the sheer number of national flags that were on display: elections were coming and we would be present while they took place. Usually elections in a foreign country are mysterious and of little concern to a visitor, but we, embedded in a mixed race family home, were soon enmeshed – especially since my son arranged a family sweepstake around the presidential candidates.

The election was called to determine the next president together with new members of the legislature and, though the inevitable complexities were beyond me, the basic issues seemed clear and very Taiwan specific. Of the two main parties the DPP stressed continued independence from China (which claims it as part of their republic), whilst the KMT had a very different view springing from its historical claim to be the Republic of China. Naturally, there is a lot of history here and gathered behind those two key viewpoints there are many other political differences.

The initial results of the election, though totted up manually and in a very open fashion, came in very quickly. It was soon clear that the incumbent DPP president had swept the board as had her party in the legislature and so I lost my bet.

I was intrigued by the reaction of the KMT’s top dogs as their defeat became clear, many of them were crying openly as their leader made his parting speech. The re-elected president, Tsai Ing-wen, was much less emotional when she gave a very serious press conference to international reporters. During this she did not smile once and was flanked by three dark-suited men who were immobile throughout. The first query was from the BBC reporter who asked a clever-dick question implying that Xi Jingpin, China’s president, had won the election for her. She replied diplomatically, asserting Taiwan’s independence, but willingness to work with its dominant neighbour.

Later we saw her with party compatriots and here she was dressed much less formally and was all smiles. Later again I saw an interview where she was pressed on her position as a woman at the head of her country where she made it clear that this was not a gender issue, but solely concerned with having the right qualities for the job. She also stated that Taiwan was an immigrant country which also respected its aboriginal citizens - who were traditionally led by women.

On the environmental side Taiwan, together with many other Asian countries, is scooter land. These two wheelers buzz around the streets and countryside like petrol driven flies, noisy and polluting. But a revolution is in progress in Taiwan. My son and daughter-in-law both have electric scooters now, as have many Taiwanese. In fact they have Gogoro scooters a brand that saw sales more than double in 2019 making it the second- largest motorcycle brand in Taiwan. It’s an interesting development and key to Gogoro’s success, I believe, is its elimination of the battery charging problem for users. They pay a monthly subscription then simply ride to a battery swapping centre and change the battery for a charged one, a process that is much, much quicker than filling the tank with petrol.

The scooters look good and are user friendly in surprising ways. It was my son’s fortieth birthday during out stay in Taiwan, the scooter knew this and played the happy birthday song to him! Naturally enough, you can link your scooter to your phone and they have even built in a reversing function for ease of parking. In use the scooters make a whining sound so that pedestrians know of their approach, but they are much quieter than their petrol equivalents. Finally, by the nature of brushless electric motors, the scooters are almost maintenance free. See here if you want to know more.

Could this business model apply in western countries? Probably not since the popularity of scooters is much less there. Good idea though.

And there’s a glimpse of Taiwan for you. Next stop Vietnam.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Oxford, my Oxford

It’s the end of a year and the new one has a great ring to it: 2020. That’s pronounced twenny-twenny if you cultivate the currently trendy glottal stop – or, if like me you doan’ speak proper. Looking back over twenny-nine’een I think how lucky I am to live in this great ci’ty with its history, fine buildings, good pubs, live music and free lec’ures.

Enough of that, it’s the lectures I want to reminisce about. I probably go to two or three a week when I and the students are in residence (not many outside of term time). They span a universe of subjects from politics to geology, quantum computing to genetics. Here’s a few that have stuck in my memory from last year.

A very topical one held at the Martin School was entitled ‘How China will save the planet’. That brought them out – or was it the free wine following the lecture (happens sometimes)? The lecturer shocked us by saying that China has the most solar panels in the world. What’s more China has the most wind generators in the world. But then again he told us that China burns more coal than any other country in the world. Actually, he told us, their use of coal had been declining, but economic incentives to encourage that were removed and it has risen again. I have seen piles of the stuff lying about in the streets of some Chinese cities.

Then there was the lecture by the Geology Group on the origin of plant roots. There were very few of us there for some reason but I found it fascinating. Most fossils are derived from quite large things of course, but roots, especially pre-historic roots are thin and wispy, hardly likely to become fossilized. But there is a fine grained rock called chert in which fossilized plants have been found in extraordinary detailed form – particularly in Scotland. This provides views of root formation from the Devonian period some 400 million years ago and provided some strong theories of how plants evolved roots .It might sound a dull subject, but with a good speaker and many colourful slides it was fascinating.

Around the same time there were a couple of lectures which updated the whole subject of human migration out of Africa. The lectures were intent on combining knowledge gained from the fossil record with that available from the analysis of DNA. They introduced me to the term anatomically modern humans (us) and how our genetic make up contains DNA from other extinct human groups such as the Neanderthal, which I knew of, but also the Denisovan which was new to me and contributes as much as 5% to the DNA in Asians, including, presumably, my half Taiwanese grand-children.

Another lecture addressed time: its measurement over the ages from the basic egg-timer to today’s cesium clocks which are accurate to one second in 150 million years! The lecturer was quite old, which sort of befits the lecture, but his lecture was bang up to date. He told us that all the measures that we use in everyday life, like the meter or kilogram are derived in some way from the measure of time and other constants of nature. Disappointing really, I always like the idea that that there was a rod and a ball which standardized these things in a triple locked cellar somewhere near Paris.

Other lectures covering everything from the gig economy, to fracking to Brexit filled many pages of my indecipherable notes and maybe, just maybe, improved my understanding of the world in 2019.
In conclusion don’t forget to listen out for the glottal stop in twenny-twenny. Still not sure what it is? Laager drinkers can try the Elocution Bar within my website pub for elucidation.