Sunday, May 30, 2010

Investing in Gold

GOLD! It is everywhere in the news. We have hit a new high, but gold may go to $1500 or even $2000, so there is still an opportunity to buy. And of course there are all the commercials that talk about gold out-performing stocks (if you conveniently forget certain periods of history), being a hedge against inflation (if you conveniently forget certain periods of history), and never losing all of its value (which is true, but is also true of every bankrupt company's stock certificates - they still have a heating value and can be used as a fuel source).

Gold is a rather mundane element. Up until the 20th century there wasn't much use for it (except money). Iron could be worked into all manner of tools, as could copper, bronze, brass, and steel. Gold had the intrinsic property of being shiny. Even in the 20th century, besides its decorative value, gold's only real use is in electronics and as a protective coating (it doesn't corrode).

Like every other commodity, the price of gold has fluctuated. Once Nixon completely dissolved the connection between gold and value of money in the early 70s, the price of gold has gone up and down. Before that time in America, the price of gold was mandated by law. So, if anyone tries to compare gold using a price scale that started before about 1975 with stocks over the same period is just pulling a fast one. Once the price of gold was no longer mandated by law (less than $40/ounce), it quickly traded up to a market value of $200/ounce).

So buying up gold, why? If you are doing it because it outperforms stocks, then you need to take a look at the historical record. If you are doing it because it is a hedge against inflation, you need to take a look at the historical record. If you are doing it because gold will always have value, then think about the situation you need it in.

Are you talking about a natural disaster where there is no access to electricity and ATM machines? Last I checked, the pimply faced kid at the grocery store didn't have a clue how to ring up a sale with gold. The manager knew about twice what the kid knew - nothing. Besides, I don't think they are going to be working at the grocery store during that time, and by the time you lug your backpack of gold down there, it will probably be all looted anyway. Using gold to conduct business requires that the population have an idea of what the value of gold is and a means of verifying that what you have is really gold. Our society has neither for small scale transactions. When the government controlled the price of gold they could do this by minting their own coins and stamping the value on it. Companies that buy and sell gold today have the technology to determine the amount of gold in an item, but unless you are buying your eggs and milk from Zales Jewelers, I wouldn't count on them.

How about a complete societal breakdown. Well, gold is nice because it looks pretty. But in the end it doesn't help you survive any. You can't eat it (well, you can but you don't get much nutrition from it), it isn't good for making tools (hoes, rakes, firearms, etc) because it is too soft, and it is heavy. Besides, even if you were going to do some small transactions with it, how are you suppose to break apart the 1 ounce gold coin (that is now theoretically worth $50,000) so that you can buy the two dozen eggs from the farmer for $30? If I was the farmer, I would much rather have a bolt of cloth, an extra shovel, or perhaps three gallons of gasoline. In other words, in spite of its theoretical worth, the practical worth of gold during this scenario is zero.

A lot of libertarians like gold. I like gold too, as jewelry. Do I think the US needs to get back on the gold standard - heck no. Do I think hoarding gold is worthwhile - heck no. Do I own gold (outside of jewelry and electronics) - not that I know of. Do I think you should drop everything and invest in gold - only if you are a moron, if you bought when gold was around $250 per ounce, then sell now and celebrate, if you are going to buy now at $1200 and ounce, don't cry when it falls back to $500.

What is the Role of Government?

Problems are everywhere. You have them, I have them, we all want them solved, but for some reason, we just can't get rid of them. Which brings me to the topic of what is the role of government?

Listening to some people, you would think that government exists to solve everyone's problems. On the other extreme, some people would say that government has no purpose. The vast majority of people believe it lies somewhere in between, however, the in between part is rather large, so you would be hard pressed to get me to agree that we all want something in the middle.

One of the first things that people need to understand is that at the present moment, we have a finite number of resources. Let me elaborate on this concept further. Broken down to its simplest components, there are people and raw materials (although some might argue that people are raw materials). People have the capacity to create ideas and work. Through ideas and work, raw materials can be used to create technology. Technology may then make the kind of work that created it obsolete, but people still retain the capacity to create ideas and work.

So people and raw materials are resources. They are both finite. However, what can be created with people and raw materials is infinite. That does not mean that we have access to this infinite amount of technology now. What we have access to at this moment is finite. So knowing that resources are finite, if one subscribes to the philosophy of government solving every problem, then resources will quickly be depleted. But where along a scale do the resources run out (assuming anarchy at one end and totalitarian control at the other)?

Well, that is the wrong question first off. Because it supposes that government is actually capable of solving the problems in the first place. Government is nothing more than a collection of people and their raw materials. Sort of like a corporation, a collection of people and their raw materials. Or an athletic team, or a family, or even an individual. If government is going to solve a problem, shouldn't we compare how well it has handled similar problems to how other organizations have fared? Furthermore, shouldn't we look at objective evidence of both the means of accomplishing some objective as well as the objective itself?

Rarely do you hear about that in a political discussion in America. One group says "We want clean water", another says "We want drug free America", another says "We want 35 mpg on cars", and on and on. All of these things may or may not be good things. But the question should be, is it up to government to provide it?

John Locke talked about the natural rights of life, liberty, and property. I believe that the government should be focused on protecting these. Infringements on these natural rights in any form should be justified by an overwhelming evidence of benefit to another of the natural rights. Probably much to the chagrin of family and friends, at this point in my life there is very little that the government does that I support. Rather than voting for a new law to fix some perceived injustice, I would rather repeal the laws that caused the injustice in the first place. Voting for half-baked fixes only perpetuates the problem of the government creating problems to begin with.

From a federal government standpoint, we could still have 536 elected officials, but there would be no need for most of the millions of other government employees. Do I support term limits as a means to reform government? No, not at all. If you want to be in government your whole life that should be your choice. I would like to see the power that government wields minimized, that would naturally have the effect of keeping people who seek power out of government (which I believe is the major reason politicians want to be elected). Return the "service" part to public service and do away with salaries for elected officials (or at least limit it to the average salary for the whole nation).

From a state and local standpoint, that is up to the state and local constitutions. If a city wants to provide endless welfare benefits, fine by me (I won't live there), just support it from your own tax receipts. There is no reason for people from North Dakota to pay for the welfare largess of California.

I would just prefer if the government (federal, local, and state) just left me alone.

A Primer on Electricity Generation

Most people in the United States take electricity for granted. Whenever we need something we simply plug it in and electricity magically powers whatever instrument we have. Having been in the energy business for my entire adult life, I thought I would write an introduction for the average person on where electricity comes from. Since the country is currently debating items that could drastically change how energy is produced in the US, it is important that people understand the basics how where electricity comes from. After reading this, you will probably know more about electricity production than 90% of the adults in America.

To begin let me start with what everyone does know about. Our homes. Most homes in America have two services of electricity: 240 Volt AC and 120 Volt AC. There are normally three wires that come into your home, two 120 volt wires and one ground wire. Large appliances like oven ranges, dryers, electric furnaces, and air conditioners use 240 volts, while all of the rest of your home uses 120 volts. The first thing to remember is don't ever try to plug a 120 volt appliance in a 240 volt outlet. For one, the plugs are different so it shouldn't work. Secondly, you are going to fry your appliance. If you do try to plug your 240 volt appliance in your 120 volt outlet most likely, you appliance won't work (it is not getting enough electricity), although it probably won't be permanently damaged.

AC stands for alternating current. This means that the direction of flow changes. In the US, we use 60 Hz or 60 cycles per second. So the direction of flow switches 60 times each second.

As an analogy, voltage can be looked at as pressure. Water pressure (from a water tower) pushes water through the pipes which is why it comes out when you turn the faucet on. Voltage pushes electrons (electricity) through the wires so that when you plug something in, it turns on. No voltage, no electricity. The other key term is amps or amperage. For the analogy, amperage is like the amount of electricity that is flowing. When a water faucet is off, there is pressure (voltage) in your pipes, but no water flow. When you turn the faucet on, you get water flow (amps).

Besides your normal appliances and lights, your doorbell runs on electricity as well. This is usually a lower voltage of around 12 volts. To do this, a transformer is connected to a 120 volt circuit. A transformer is a simple device that has two sets of windings, input and output. Based on the ration of loops per winding, will determine what voltage the output will be.

All of the electricity in your house flows in through a meter and a breaker box. The breaker box allows loads (lights, appliances, etc.) to be disconnected without affecting the rest of the house. The meter is where the electric company measures the amount of electricity you are using so that it can bill you.

Working backwards, the 120 volt lines that run to your house are probably coming from a transformer. As before, the transformer steps down the voltage from a higher voltage. Higher voltage allows for more efficient distribution of electricity over long distances. Depending on your locale, the power lines you see overhead could have any number of different voltages and more than likely there are several transformers in between your home and the major power lines. Major power lines have voltages in the neighborhood of 14,500 volts to 345,000 volts or more.

The major power lines run through substations. Substations are sort of like your breaker box for your home. They may include stepdown transformers, but they also include breakers and disconnects so that electricity can be cut off to different areas of a city or county without affecting the entire network. Neighborhood substations feed into major substations.

Major substations are like the clearinghouse for power. Major substations may be near a power plant or not. In all cases, major substations have incoming lines from several sources. Our modern reliance on electricity makes it impossible for a city to lose power just because one power plant is not producing electricity. It is not a matter of backup sources, all of the sources are the primary sources. To return to the water analogy, a city may have only one water tower, however it might use a dozen wells to fill that water tower. The residents of the city never notice that any of the wells are not working as long as the water tower remains full. The major difference, is that a water tower is storing water, electricity in the electrical distribution system is either used or not created. (More on that later.)

Major substations are fed by power plants. Besides some solar power plants (which account for less than 1% of all electricity production in the US), electricity at a power plant is created by a generator. A generator is a machine that rotates magnets passed wires (or wires past magnets). This creates electricity (you can generate your own electricity with a magnet and a piece of copper wire - but don't plan on running anything from it). Electricity and magnetism are related. Electricity creates magnetic fields and magnetic fields create electricity. A generator uses rotational energy to create electricity from wires and magnets (a motor is the opposite, it uses wires and magnets to create rotational energy).

A quick word about solar plants. There are really two types, direct conversion and generator conversion. Direct conversion uses solar cells (like what is found on a calculator) to generate electricity. The materials on the solar cells produce electricity when light shines on them (conversion of visible light to electricity). Generator conversion types use a generator like any other power plant.

The generators are turned by a turbine. A turbine is another rotating machine that has blades attached to it. As a fluid (usually steam) passes over the blades, it causes the turbine to rotate (like a pinwheel in the wind) which turns the turbine. Hydroelectric dams use liquid water to rotate specially designed turbines. Wind generators use a wind turbine which is open to the environment because air is the fluid that is pushing the blades. But the blades on the windmill are connected to a generator. All other power plants (coal, gas, nuclear, solar) use the same type of turbine, and in some cases if a company (say GE) designed two different types of plants (say nuclear and coal) at the same time (say 1975), it is very possible that they have the exact same model of turbine and generator. So except for those solar and wind plants I already mentioned, from the turbine out to the electric distribution lines they are all the same (and in some cases exactly the same).

And since all of the electrical lines are interconnected, the electricity is all the same. In other words, lets say that you are a rabid environmentalist and want to get all of your electricity from wind power. If you have a wind turbine in your yard and your house is not connected to the grid, then congratulations. However, if your house is connected to the grid, then you are getting electricity that was made from coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, solar, and wind. There is no device you can put on your house that is going to filter out the "bad" electricity. 1 kilowatt of electricity from coal is indistinguishable from 1 kilowatt of electricity from solar.

So, why hasn't wind and solar energy taken off, in spite of promises that it would for the last 40 years? In a nutshell, the answer is energy density and reliability. (Coincidentally, the same issue that has kept the electric car from being the savior of mankind since the late 1800's). Energy density could be described as the amount of energy that can be derived from a certain volume. Wind and solar's energy density sucks rocks. Sure it is all over the world, however it is in such small amounts that huge tracts of land are needed to supply energy. For instance, an average size power plant is around 1000 MW. For a coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear plant all of the equipment can be located on 50 acres or less (with room to spare and build walking paths for the employees at lunchtime). A comparable wind or solar farm would need several thousand acres to produce the same electricity. Wind does have an advantage over solar in this case, because 95% of the land could still be used for farming or other uses.

Energy density has to do with the fuel itself. Nuclear has an extremely high energy density. 95% of the mass of nuclear fuel is made up of non-fuel (uranium 238 that isn't fissile, stainless steel, zirconium, and some other metals). In spite of this, a nuclear plant produces only a few hundred tons of waste each year (which includes the 95% of non-fuels in the fuel). Compared to a coal plant which produces millions of tons in ash alone.

As you can begin to see, every type of fuel has its tradeoffs. So reliability is coupled with energy density to determine what fuels we use to make electricity. We need electricity all day long, although in varying amounts. Simplified, there is a base load and a varying peak load. The base load is the minimum amount of electricity that is needed. Plants that produce baseload need to be the cheapest plants that can be continuously run. Since plants will always be shut down for maintenance on a periodic basis, there is little to no "extra" base load, unless a new plant is started up. Coal, nuclear and hydroelectric plants are the vast majority of this country's baseload. Coal and nuclear plants also cannot just be started and stopped at will. The process takes several hours to days.

Peak load is during those times (daytime, early evening) when more electricity is demanded because of industrial needs. In hot climates, the use of air conditioning can greatly affect the peak demand. Because this electricity is not needed at all times, certain peaking plants are used. Natural gas is the primary fuel for these plants. Gas turbines plants are basically glorified jet engines (really, really BIG jet engines). They can be started up rapidly, and are designed to go through lots of start stop cycles. Solar is a great option for peaking plants since it is available at the prime peaking times. Unfortunately, it is not predictably available at the peaking times. Cloud cover can decrease the effectiveness of solar power to near nothing, so any solar plant is going to have to be backed up by a gas turbine plant.

Wind is even less predictable than solar. While some areas have great wind resources, Mother Nature doesn't always cause the wind to blow like the average of the last 30 years. Sometimes it is significantly below that. And when the wind isn't blowing, there is still the electricity demand. So while wind and solar may someday provide up to 20% of the electricity we use, there will be another 20% of unused fossil fuel capacity just in case. Running two power plants (even though one is inactive) is more expensive than running one.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Regulation of Reporters

Michigan to me is a whacked out place. They are always running commercials in my state about going to work in Michigan or vacationing to Michigan. I have zero desire to do either one. My guess is the vast majority of Americans feel the same way, hence the reason their economy is in a worse slump than the rest of the nation.

But now one of their politicians is coming up with the bright idea of "licensing" reporters. This is a bad idea on so many levels.

First, that pesky 1st Amendment was made so that reporters would not have to fear or kowtow to any politicians. Now, whether a media organization decides to get into bed with the political party of their choice is their decision. That doesn't mean the government should step in to help us out.

Second, who is going to verify that the politicians that license the reporters are of good standing moral character? It certainly isn't a qualification and you can't say that politicians are even more moral and upstanding than the population at large. No need to mention names (Spitzer, Sanford, Craig, Clinton, etc, etc). While some reporters may "not know what they are talking about" some politicians know nothing of what they are making laws and regulations on. At least the reporters are just talking about stuff they don't know.

Third, just because it used for hair dressers, auto mechanics, and plumbers doesn't mean we should license everyone. Frankly, I see no reason to license hair dressers, auto mechanics, and plumbers through the government. Why not let private organizations provide their stamp of approval, you know the ones whose members actually engage in the trade for which they are approving. What do politicians know about hair dressing, auto mechanics, and plumbing?

Fourth, the chance for corruption from this is so great. Want to silence a reporter, just start planting some rumors of bad moral character. Do you not think that cronyism, kickbacks, and corruption reside in every single regulatory agency of the government? Then you haven't been paying attention to the news for the last 2 millenia.

I am not a real fan of reporters anyway. I don't trust most of them, and most of them don't know what they are writing or talking about. That being said, I will stand up for their right (yes, freedom of the press happens to be a right) any day, even though they may not like most of my political views.

The nice thing about the article is that only the one politician is sponsoring the bill and it has next to zero chance of actually being passed. Said legislator is on his way out and wants to start a "discussion." Why not propose a bill to round up people of a certain ethnic orientation that we are actively engaged in combat against and put them in internment camps? At least we have precedent to do that, in spite of being a really bad idea.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

$73 Billion for Food Stamps?

40 million Americans are using food stamps. At a cost of $73 billion (with a B). Something is just wrong with this when 13% of the country leaches money to buy food. I am assuming that those 40 million don't have cars, dvd players, computers, iPods, and Playstations. Because afterall, food is a necessity and why would you want to spend your money on play things if you need to eat? Oh yeah, because our welfare state has bred it in to some people. Its disgusting!

Put $73 billion into perspective. For 40 million people, that is $1825 a year. About $150 per month, per person. Our family's food budget is just under $100 per month per person. And we eat out fairly regularly. And I wouldn't consider us anywhere close to poor. If this isn't a bloated government welfare program, then I don't know what is.

The stigma of using food stamps has all but disappeared too. At one point in our nation's recent history, people were for the most part ashamed to use food stamps and tried to hide it as much as possible. Since the adoption of debit cards, it has made it less obvious that anyone is using food stamps. Plus, the government has gotten into a large ad campaign to "encourage" people to sign up for food stamps. What irks me is that probably 75% of the people on food stamps don't need it or are there because of conscious choices they made.

Case in point, when I was going to college, there were quite a few couples I knew who were living in subsidized housing and getting food stamps. And they had chosen to do that by going to school that they couldn't afford and not wanting to lower their standard of living below what they were accustomed to in their parents home. Every now and then my friends would offer us milk and cheese that they got as part of their allotment because it was too much for their family. I don't think my wife and I ever took any of it, even though that sure would have helped our food budget at the time.

So what would I do? Scrap the whole program. Why should the government be in the business of providing food for people? But, but, but ... then people will starve .... Uh, no. They won't. They may get their priorities in order and not buy the latest movie on Blu-ray and instead feed their family for a couple of days. Perhaps they will cut back on the beer and buy Wheaties instead (their both made from the same stuff, one just has more nutritional value and you don't have the hangover the next morning). There are lots of charities that provide food for the poor, and can feed a family for a lot less than $150 per person a month.

So, am I a heartless cretin? If you rely on food stamps, you probably think so. However, in my mind (and in practice) I can separate what are legitimate roles of government (blowing things up, printing money, and building some roads) and what should be the role of private charities. Unfortunately, I only get to selectively choose which charities I donate to. I don't get to selectively fund government programs.

Bans on Flying the American Flag

When are groups going to learn that this (or this, this, this, this, this, this, and this) is just not acceptable to Americans? If you refuse to allow the display of the Stars and Stripes, you are going to look like a schmuck. In spite of our different political opinions, I find very few Americans who object to the flying of the American flag, apartment and condo restrictions be damned.

So why would anyone (or association) try to ban the display of the American flag? Probably because they are on some kind of power trip and get some sort of thrill from it. Almost invariably, any group that has tried to enforce a flag ban has ended up reversing their policy and/or apologizing.

At the beginning of the 1st Persian Gulf War, I remember news reports that the Saudi's didn't want the US flag on the outside of the US soldier's uniforms. So they put it on the inside of their helmets. It wasn't more than a week or so when the American public began to question why the Saudi's would ask us to save their butt's and simultaneously tell us how to dress. Sorry those two don't go together. That policy changed real quick.

I am still amazed that there one to two stories a month of some apartment organization requiring the removal of a flag from some WWII vet. I have been a landlord, and the thought of banning the US flag never occurred to me. Why does it occur to all of these people?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Taiwan Journey Home

Well, after one day of flying and 4 days in Taiwan it was time to go home. We stopped at the hotel's breakfast buffet one last time and had a light breakfast of fruit and croissants. And then off to the airport we go. Since this was an international flight that passed through two countries, we had to go through security in Taiwan, Japan, and again in Chicago. In a nutshell, Taiwan let me wear my shoes through the screener and I didn't have to take out my laptop. Japan made me take out my laptop, but I still could wear my shoes. Chicago had me take off my shoes and take out my laptop.

In the end, I could have had a couple bottles of liquid explosives in my cargo pants and not one of the airports would have known. Then again, I am not a terrorist although the TSA likes to screen me as one, especially when I am traveling with small kids. In Chicago, the mother and her infant daughter in front of us in line were pulled for screening. Chicago also had the announcements of being at "condition orange" or whatever fancy color they have. Seriously, the get rid of that stupid announcement. What, when the color is yellow or green we don't have to report suspicious activity, but when the color is red or orange we do? Give me a break, your dealing with adults here and in most International airports in the US 75% of the foreign travelers don't have a clue what the color code is, and 99% of the travelers don't pay attention anyway.

The flight to Japan was relatively uneventful. We had a great meal on the plan (Japan Airlines, not American). In the Tokyo airport we had a 4 hour layover. I spent the first hour wandering the airport while my wife slept. I still had 8,000 Yen to spend. I collect coins and bills so spending the large bills helped to break it down into smaller, collectible amounts. Then I came back and woke my wife up so that we could go shopping. Primarily we could candies and treats for the family. Afterwards, we got a bite to eat at one of the cafe's. I have always wondered about the shops that you find in airports. For instance, a Mont Blanc pen shop. Who would buy a $200 pen at the airport? At the electronics shops in Tokyo airport there were video cameras identical to the one that we had, only for twice as much as we paid, and that is after taking into account the 30% discount the store was offering.

We boarded our plane to Chicago, another 777. My wife and I began with our meal and watching "The Tooth Fairy". I like the Rock in non-serious movies. Perhaps it is the dumb jock personna just doesn't come work in serious dramas (or I just don't like serious dramas). Shortly after the movie finished, I closed my eyes for a few minutes, and woke up 6 1/2 hours later. I had just slept longer in an uncomfortable airplane seat than I had in the uncomfortable hotel bed in Taiwan. The flight landed with no incident and we sailed through customs without being shaken down (I didn't even declare the $10,000 cash I had on me - ok, so it was $10,000 Taiwan which is about $350 American).

A short delay for our plane home and we arrived safely. All of our bags made it and none of the gifts were destroyed. I was most worried about the paintings and calligraphy, but my masterful packing had preserved them. I can't wait to go again (although if I can avoid the back to back 10,000 calorie days I'll be happy).

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Taiwan Day 4: Tainan

After a somewhat restful night of sleep, I woke up at 3am mostly refreshed. As usual, I found something to occupy my time until my wife was up and we went down to breakfast by at 7 am. We ate a more normal sized meal, after two days of having food crammed down our throats (OK, I admit we voluntarily did the cramming because the food was good and you just can't get Chinese food like that in the states).

When the stores opened up, we went to buy some jade and pearls. And it was over so quick that we had time to relax until my friend picked us up. This day we were going to Tainan, she said it has more touristy type things than Kaohsiung. At around 9am she and her husband picked up up to go. They do have freeways in Taiwan and the traffic there is as smooth as the traffic on freeways in the US (nothing like the city street heart stopper). We stopped at a rest stop on the way up and if you replaced the Chinese characters with English words then it would have been like any rest stop in the US.

The first place we went in Tainan was Anping Fort. This fort was originally built by the Dutch in the 1600s. Then after a war with the Chinese it was taken over by the Chinese. Later the Japanese cleaned house and built up more of the fort. Finally, the Chinese got the fort back after WWII, and being the good capitalists that they are, turned it into a tourist attraction. It was definitely as good as some of the historical sites I have been to in the US. There were a couple of museums with lots of artifacts that had been excavated. Map placards denoted where each part of the fort was and plenty of posters and maps explaining the history and different uses of the fort. In both Chinese and English. And of course, they had the gift shop which we naturally had to spend some money at.

My friend mentioned to me about the Taiwan lottery for our receipts. Basically, every receipt you get has a lottery number that is part of a drawing every two months. Prizes are up to $2 million (Taiwan). It seems the government found a way to "crack down" on under the table purchases by offering the lottery. All of the registers that print the receipts are connected to the lottery system and so the revenue department knows what your total sales are. People will ask for the receipts so they can have a chance to win. I like this idea, maybe we could adopt it in the states (or at least my state).

After Anping, we ate lunch at a small fast food place (Chinese fast food, not American fast food). My wife and I insisted that we don't get too much as we wanted to save plenty of room for the evening meal. After lunch we went to the Confucius Temple. At one point it had been a school but now it was more of a tourist attraction. The best thing about it was the traditional Chinese architechture with the rolled up roofs, pagodas, entry gates, and lacquer. My wife even found a sign in the ladies room that the English translation didn't make much sense, but sure sounded a awful lot like something Confucius would have said. In the middle of the courtyard was this giant banyan tree that had to have been a thousand years old. It's branches were being held up by posts since it had "died" and been brought back to life. Banyan trees are neat to look at with all of their knarled, intertwined roots and branches.

Those were the two main places we went in Tainan and then went back to do some shopping in Kaohsiung before dinner. I had a simple list: some presents for the kids and some paintings/caligraphy for our home. I also wanted to get some of the Chinese New Year door hangings, but since it wasn't near New Year, I figured it would be unlikely to find them. We first went to a department store and found some of the gifts that we needed for the kids. My friend's husband did some haggling in Taiwanese (which I barely understand any of) and got us about 30% off. Haggling is almost a requirement of shopping in Taiwan. They had some paintings, but they were rather pricey and I didn't want them. The best Chinese paintings and calligraphy are found in mom & pop shops.

After talking on the phone to her parents, my friend led us to a couple of other artwork and calligraphy shops. In one shop I found a calligraphy work that I wanted. It was done in various ancient forms of Chinese characters. Since it was unsigned (it didn't have the calligrapher's stamp) it was very reasonably priced. I didn't care about the stamp since I wasn't going to be selling it anyway. After some more haggling, we were able to get the mounting (basically smoothing out the wrinkled paper and gluing it to another piece of paper) included in the price. We would pick it up after dinner.

For dinner, my wife and I treated my friend and her husband to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. We hadn't been to one before and never lived in a city with one, so why not have an American steak halfway around the world. It was just as expensive in Taiwan as in the states, their portions are just as big, so my wife and I split a meal, and my friend and her husband split a meal. The food was great. We had an 8 oz filet minion and they had some other kind of steak. We ordered julienne potatoes but got french fries. I guess french fries are sort of like julienne potatoes. For desert we had the chocolate cake and they had the cheesecake. What we noticed is that everyone else in the restaurant was also splitting meals. (At $75 for the full meal - appetizer, steak, side, salad, and desert - it makes sense to split it.)

In the middle of the meal we had a surprise. My friend's parent's showed up with a Chinese painting to give us (from their home) and a set of New Year's door hangings. The door hangings were done by a famous artist and had his stamp on them. My friend told me that these were very valuable and I should hang them on the outside of the home where they would be weathered and ruined. I assured her that I wouldn't. I offered to pay her father for the paintings, and I gladly would have, but he refused. He wanted them to be a gift for us. Of all the things we brought back from Taiwan, I will probably treasure these gifts the most.

Since we had a flight at 8:30am, we said our goodbye's back at the hotel. We stayed up and packed our stuff until around 11pm.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Taiwan Day 3: Kending National Park

Another night of little sleep (although progressively more than before, I think I had about 4 hours), and I was awake at some other awful hour of the morning when I should have been asleep. My wife woke up with a bit of a headache so on the way down to breakfast we asked the Hotel front desk where we might buy some medicine. Immediately they asked if we needed to go to the hospital, no, just medicine.

Breakfast was great again, although I tried to hold back since I was still full from the day before. At 7 am we were down in the lobby to wait for the tour bus. We told my friend about stopping by a pharmacy to pick up some Tylenol (she had lived in Canada so she knew the brand name). Naturally, they don't have Tylenol in Taiwan. So, if you are going overseas, make sure you know the medical name of the most common drugs you may want. For Tylenol it is acetiminaphen. The tour bus stopped by the pharmacy around the corner and we found the Taiwan version of Tylenol: Panadol (made by GlaxoSmithKline - actually the British version which is sold throughout the world). For those who think we pay an arm and a leg for drugs in the US, imagine this. I can pick up a knock off brand of Tylenol, in a 100 count bottle for about $5 in any city in America with a population of more than 5000 (and the name brand is still less than $10). The pharmacy we went to in this city of 1.5 million only had a 10 pack and it was about $5. Even taking into account economies of scale, that is expensive for an over the counter drug.

After the brief stop we were on our way to Kending National Park. We watched the Disney movie "Old Dogs" on the way down. The Taiwanese and Hong Kong people's impression of it: "Do Americans really take so many pills?" Convincing them that only old people do was a little more difficult since we had stopped at the pharmacy to get pills for my wife.

Taiwan was a little late in getting the National Park thing started. Of course when your country is being ruled or invaded by outsiders and then you are ruled by a military dictatorship for several decades while your standard of living changes from a third world nation to an industrial nation, that can put a damper on the recreational areas. The lower southeastern portion of Taiwan is part of Kending National Park, but it is really a conglomeration of parks with roads, towns, cemeteries, and even nuclear power plants in between. The other major difference with Taiwan national parks and the US national parks is safety. Go to the Grand Canyon and you have to physically climb over a fence to take a dive down the rock face. Kending, just step off of the rock cliffs or hop off the rock staircase and you get to plummet to the rocky crags below.

That being said, the views were absolutely beautiful. The second place that we went was a junky looking parking lot with a bath opening up into the forest. We were told there was a beach down that path. Sure enough, 100 yards down the winding path and the forest opens up to a beautiful beach with the prettiest blue water I have ever seen. It made the beaches we went to in California look like rejects. In spite of being at the beach, there weren't many people in swimsuits, lots of people went into the water in just their clothes. There were a couple of models on a photoshoot and they were the only ones wearing bikinis. The guys in our group (from Hong Kong) were excited to "see some skin" and had their girlfriends position themselves so that they could take photos of the models without being too obtrusive. My wife thought it was funny and took a photo of the guys taking photos of the bikini girls. We told them to come and visit us in the states and every beach in the nation would be full of girls in bikinis.

For lunch we went to a seafood restaurant and was served (guess what?) a 10 course meal. Once again we stuffed ourselves. In the afternoon it was a couple of more scenic parks and then down one of the market streets in a town (complete with three 7-11's, a KFC, and McDonalds). Lots of pictures were taken because we probably won't have a chance to go back there (besides there are lots of other things we have yet to see from Taiwan if we do).

The bus ride back to Kaohsiung began with some Karaoke (Mandarin and English). Then someone put the movie "Taken" into the DVD player. In case you haven't seen it, I am not sure what the plot is (more than likely something completely implausible), but the purpose was definitely to show Liam Neeson kicking the crap out of as many people as possible. I am sure he had some lines in the movie, but primarily I just remember him beating people up in so many different ways it was mind boggling. If you want a movie that has a coherent, memorable plot, scratch "Taken" off of your list. If you are just in the mood for non stop violent hand-to-hand combat, "Taken" is definitely one you should watch. (Oh yeah, and there was a Britney Spearsesque character, but I am not sure why she was in there).

Back at the hotel, my wife laid down for a nap, and I went window shopping. There was a mall in the lower floors of the hotel and I wanted to check out some prices on jewelry (pearls and jade) to help my wife figure out what she wanted. In one of the department stores, I spoke with a saleswoman extensively about the coral jewelry. That is what I really wanted to get my wife, a coral necklace. Unfortunately, the price tag on those was anywhere from $1000 (American) to $6000. Since I haven't been able to convince her on the utility of spending $4K-$6K on a Barrett 50 BMG, I can't see how she would strangle me for buying a $6K piece of jewelry. "But they had to kill some coral reef to make it, it is the ultimate symbol of man's dominance over nature!"

After looking for a while, I went walking about town. The streets were filled with small restaurants, 7-11s, and then other shops interspersed. I enjoyed walking around for an hour just seeing the area. One thing I did find was a laundromat right around the corner from the hotel. We could have washed our clothes there rather than the bathtub the the night before. Back at the hotel, my wife woke up and we ordered some dumplings and fruit from room service. I fell asleep by about 9pm (by this time I had gone 140 hours with maybe 16 hours of sleep interspersed). Suprisingly, I slept for around 6 hours.

Taiwan Day 2: The Wedding

Well, after waking up bright and early (around 2 am), I watched a movie on the portable DVD player and waited for the sun to come up. Suprisingly it did at around 5AM. I was a little confused, until I realized that there is no Daylight Savings Time in Taiwan. That is purely a US energy saving scheme that failed to work once air conditioning became widespread (the energy savings on not having lights on for the extra hour is far outweighed by the energy consumed to keep the house cool during the hour that people are awake and it is roasting outside - but I digress, that is a blog for another day about 18th century ideas that were never updated for technology, sort of like mailing out census forms in 2010!).

My wife was awake about this time so we had plenty of time to shower and get cleaned up in time for breakfast. Now, the day before we had had breakfast at a little fast food place in the train station. At the hotel, the breakfast buffet was complimentary. In every hotel I have ever stayed out in America, England, and India that had a complimentary breakfast, the breakfast was mediocre in the States, odd in India, and a decent sized platter in England. But still nothing that I would write home to Mom about (although blood pudding in England is something to taste at least once, no more than once, but at least once).

The breakfast buffet was on the 41st floor so we still had a great view of the ocean and the shipping docks. And the buffet was probably enough to rival most casinos in Las Vegas (never been there but going next year so I can make a true comparison). It was a very interesting blend of western and asian dishes. Pancakes beside Kimchee. Cold cereal and congee. Even a garden salad if that was your fancy for breakfast. There was ham, sausage, bacon, eggs in 20 different varieties, and omelets. Along with this was noodles, chow mein, seaweed, and rice. A couple of soups. Some lunchmeat, cheese, and crackers. Milk, soymilk, orange juice, apple juice, coffee, tea, even hot chocolate. And the bread table was well represented by countries of the world: baguettes, irish soda bread, bread pudding, croissants, sour dough, italian rolls, plus plain white and wheat bread. And Fresh fruit.

This buffet was so big (and all you can eat) that you could stay there for a month and probably not have sampled everything. I and my wife had a good mix of western and asian foods. The one thing we didn't try was the oatmeal, it was way too runny. If we had have known what was ahead of us for the day, we probably would have skipped breakfast. As it was, we both pigged out.

My friend and her maid of honor picked my wife and I up at 8am to take us to her house for parts of the wedding tradition. There was no ceremony like we would envision in the US. Getting married was a matter of signing the correct legal papers and then doing whatever traditions you wanted. My friend's family was from China (coming over with the Nationalists in the late 40's) while her husband's family was Taiwanese (having immigrated from southern China a hundred or so years before). So in traveling to her house she told us all about the different traditions that we would see.

First, before the wedding the wedding pictures were taken. My friend had 5 or 6 dresses for her pictures. Wedding pictures in Chinese culture are a major affair that have the goal of making the bride look like a supermodel. And they do. In fact, I have never seen Chinese wedding pictures (even from poor people) that didn't look like supermodels. In one case, my wife came up to me and saw some pictures on the computer from one of my friends from facebook. She probably initially thought that I was surfing the Glamour or Style or Cosmo website until I explained it to her.

My friend was bejeweled by her mother and aunt to make it look like the family had lots of money. Then my friend asked an important question of my wife. "How do you go to the bathroom in your wedding gown?" She explained that you have others lift up the dress and look away to do your business. My friend decided to fore go the bathroom and just hold it until the afternoon. Since she didn't get to eat much that was probably fine.

The groom arrived a little later in a caravan of expensive cars (not necessarily owned by the groom or his family but in most cases borrowed from whoever has them), to make it look like his family had lots of money. Firecrackers were ignited as the groom exited the car. He started by touching a couple of oranges for good luck. Then coming into the home he had to go to the backroom to retrieve his "shy" bride. In the front room the bride's father and mother were seated and the rest of the family stood around while the groom's family was served a soup by the bride's family (soup plays a role in everything in China, while teaching one Chinese family about Thanksgiving in Canada, they asked what kind of soup we had with our turkey and stuffing - we don't - they made some anyway and that is the only Thanksgiving that I have had soup at).

After eating the soup, the bride and groom bowed three times before the bride's mother and father to thank them for raising her. And then the bride and groom exited the house to go to their new home together. The bride had an aunt holding a shade over the bride so that she wouldn't get any sun on her. In the west, we strive to get that golden brown for special occasions, in Taiwan (and China) they strive to get white (they even have whitening cream from Nutragena - no I am not making that up, my friend gave us a packet of it). After leaving the house, the bride drops a fan which is picked up by the bride's family to give them something to remember their daughter.

The entourage then rides to the bride and groom's new home. We got to ride in the Lexus SUV about 4 back from the lead car. All along the way, the lead car would periodically drop strings of firecrackers out the window, having them go off in the street. And this was on the busy streets. There were a couple of motorscooter riders that got a shock when the firecrackers started popping directly in front (or underneath) them. I kind of wish we did more of this in the US. It might help keep some driver's on their toes (and off their cell phones) if at any moment a string of blackcats could land on your hood and start popping off).

One of the traditions is that the couple's vehicle can not go in reverse while they are in it. This would portend a marriage that is going backwards. Because of this a lot of planning goes into getting cars positioned correctly before the bride and groom get in, scoping out the route beforehand for any construction that may detour the entourage. Of course, some things you can't plan for. At the couple's new apartment building, their car was suppose to drive up to the front door to let them out. Unfortunately the driver waited just a moment to long to do the turn and wound up half in the driveway - half in the street, and the front passenger corner a few inches from having the paint ground off by the concrete planter box. Big dilemma, the car can't go backwards, and they aren't at the front door. I suggested that the guests lift the vehicle up and move it. After about 15-20 minutes of waiting and consulting the elders (those that actually knew and cared about the traditions) someone declared that the entrance to the apartment building was right where the car had stopped, so they got out and went up to their apartment.
In their apartment, more traditions ensued. The bride and groom entered their bedroom and invited everyone in. The groom then jumped on the bed in hopes of having a male child. One of the family members then fed a gelatinous rice ball (sort of like large tapioca) to the bride and groom and they then swapped the balls while kissing. Yes, it doesn't leave anything to the imagination if you know that the 3/4" ball from the bride's mouth ended up in the groom's mouth and vice versa. My friend who was very proper and demure was embarassed beyond belief. The bride then sat by the window and looked pretty while everyone else (including my wife and I) took pictures with her, touched her for good luck, and ate our rice ball soup.
At precisely 10:30 (probably another good luck omen), we left for the hotel to prepare for the reception. I put the finishing touches on my speech and then we went down to the bride's preparation room. She was getting her hair and make up finalized and chatting with friends. She had not eaten much all morning (except the aforementioned rice ball), so I convinced her maid of honor to feed her a large dumpling all at once, rather than cutting it up. She ate it in a very undignified manner, but her parents weren't there to scold her. My wife and I then headed down to the wedding/reception/extravaganza.
I have been to several weddings in my life. Some were small, family affairs. Some were larger. I have never been to one with a sit down catered meal before, although I have seen them portrayed on TV and in the movies. Let me just say that the size and scope of this wedding (for a couple who came from rather average backgrounds) far exceeded the extravagance depicted in something like "Father of the Bride." The ballroom was the size of three basketball courts and jam packed with tables. There were literally 500+ people in attendance. The grooms family and friends on one side and the bride's on the other. Outside there was the greeting tables for the bride and groom where you dropped off your red envelope of lucky money for the couple (we had previously given them their "American" dishes earlier since wrapped presents are usually not given. Looking at the stacks of envelopes on the tables, I estimated there was probably in the neighborhood of $20K to $30K American (about $600K to $900K Taiwan) in cash.
The ballroom was a cacophony of noise, we couldn't find our table and eventually located the bride's father and asked him where we were suppose to sit. He sat us at a table with some relatives including the bride's uncle who was from England. He told us not to get too comfortable because he had been moved three times already. Eventually the program started and the bride and groom entered with much fanfare. There were Chinese dancers, flashing lights, rock music. I am guessing that the fireworks didn't go off because the hotel probably didn't want the liability. Up on the stage the bride and groom went through a cake cutting ceremony (although, we never ate any cake), and then filled a champagne fountain, and then the speakers started. During the first one, I realized that of the 500 people in attendance, probably 4 were actually paying any attention to the speaker. I quickly made some adjustments to my speech in my head to shorten it down from 10 minutes with audience participation to about 3 minutes with no audience participation.
Eating is a very social event in Chinese culture. As such, they don't get hung up on talking with your mouthful, reaching across the table, etc like we do in America. Also, it meant that there was a constant hum of conversation going on such that you could not hear the whisper of the person next to you. We had a great time. The dishes came out were wonderful. Twelve dishes to be precise (my wife and I were stuffed after the first three, but the food kept coming). Lobster Salad, Shark Fin Soup, Fruit platters, pastries, rice, noodles, etc. I have never eaten for three hours before (even at Thanksgiving). There was eating for three hours.
After all of the speakers were done, one of the people sitting at our table went up to the stage to sing. She sang songs in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English (and maybe Taiwanese as well). Very talented. The bride changed gowns to get in her toasting gown. She and the groom then went to each table (50 of them) to toast all of the guests. 50 sips (no matter how small) will probably make you a little tipsy. Near the end, the waiters were packaging up all of the leftover food for take homes (did I mention that there was a LOT of food?). We just took some of the desserts that my wife liked since we were staying at the hotel and probably wouldn't have to eat for the rest of the week. I estimate that I probably consumed 4-5000 calories at that meal (this was after pigging out at breakfast as well).
The bride changed again into her going away gown to thank the guests as they left (yes she wore three dresses that day, which were all different from the dresses she wore for her pictures - including her wedding gown). My wife and I went upstairs to our room, changed into our Kalahsnikitty T-shirts and then took a cab down to the Dream Mall to relax for the afternoon.
The Dream Mall is about twice the size of the Mall of America (in retail floor space) and has about 5 times as many stores. There is an amusement park on top of the mall with the Hello Kitty Ferris Wheel. Our hotel window faced the mall so we were able to see it all lit up at night. The mall was very well laid out with a "theme" for each floor: kids, teens, housewares, food court, furniture, jewelry, etc. We spent a couple of hours there and bought a few things and then made our way back to the hotel.
In the meantime, the main elevator in the hotel had decided to die. So we were able to get up to the 39th floor, but not to the 59th floor where our room was. We waited outside the ballroom we had been at for the wedding which was being set up for another wedding that was about to happen. We joked that if we were hungry we could always try to crash this wedding. We could have climbed the stairs, but our legs were already tired from walking around the mall. Besides, how long can a 85 story building last without an elevator. After about an hour, we were able to go up a service elevator.
Later that evening, my friend, her husband, some of her friends from college and us went to a guitar bar. There was a "famous" musician playing (and taking requests) in English, Taiwanese, and Mandarin. A smorgasbord of food was ordered, which made me wonder how Chinese people could eat so much in such a short amount of time and still be skinny as a rail. (I probably weigh close to twice what my friend weighed and I am not exactly an obese guy - her husband barely weighed more than she did). My wife and I left at around 9pm to go back to the hotel since we had both been surviving on minimal sleep. Didn't get much more that night.