As the coronavirus epidemic advances in Italy with a 25-30% growth rate (meaning that the numbers are doubling every 3-4 days), and after two weeks of “lockdown-lite” in Northern Italy seems to have made no difference, the Italian government imposed on Sunday morning a stricter lockdown on the region of Lombardy and some cities outside the region including Venice. Several people have reached out to ask how things are going, so here is a brief recap.
I would like to congratulate my Taiwanese readers for being in the first Asian country to introduce same-sex marriage.
A week after coming back, what is it about Taipei that has stuck in my memory?
Men’s hairstyles, for sure. Indeed, every time I saw someone with his hair spiked sideways like a fan, I had to wonder: isn’t he driving a scooter, like everybody else? And so, doesn’t he have to wear a helmet? I still don’t understand how they manage.
In most cities, an address is a simple two-dimensional thing: you give the name of the street and the number, like 742 Evergreen Terrace. Sometimes, a street may have a North side and a South side, or a East side and a West side. So you may have to say 129 West 81th Street.
In Taipei, this is just the start. Each major street, besides possibly having a North and a South (or East and West) side, is divided into sections, each section being about one or two miles. My hotel, for example, was off Zhongshan North Road, Section 2. Now, this is just the beginning. Side streets of main roads don’t get a name, but rather a number, as if the street itself had a street address. So my hotel was on Zhongshan North Road, Section 2, Lane 11. Now you can add the number of your building and have your address. Unless, that is, you are in a side street of the side street. Such side-squared streets are called alleys (in the English standard translation). This, for example, is the name of such a street:
I want to stress once more: this is just the name of a street, not a complete address. It’s like the sign near my place that says “18th.”
Both at the museums and at the clubs that we went to, we found lockers instead of a coat check. It works very well, especially in clubs. It is safer, and there is no queue. It is a bit odd that a corner of a club would look like a gym, but you get used to it. I was reminded of my first entrance in a club in Beijing. The coat check had a long line (which was brazenly jumped by a person while I was waiting), at the end of which there was a short but wide woman in a tiny coat check room, completely surrounded by hanging clothes. She was wielding a sort of broomstick with a hook on it, that she used to hang clothes on hooks that were running all over the walls. She said something in Chinese to me when I gave her my jacket. Someone translated for me. “She says to look where she is putting your coat, so you can tell her where it is when you pick it up.” Evidently, the number of my coat check ticket had no relation with the location where she hanged it.
The club that I liked in Taipei, besides the lockers, had good music and a nice vibe, as already reported. The cover charge entitled each of us to two drinks. When I asked for a beer, the barman gave me a warm beer. (It was Heineken, not Guiness.) When he saw my face when I started drinking, he helpfully offered a glass full of ice. I remembered reading about the warm beer on the web, but assuming it was just an urban legend, like the friendly shopclercks. And so I had two warm beers that night, and two more the following night. You can’t let something free go to waste.
The following monday, I was taken to an “all you can drink” night. For a substantial cover charge (about US\$15) one could have any drinks all night, and there was a DJ, a dance floor, and quite a few people for a Monday night. A sign at the entrance informed the patrons that there was an extra charge for spilling drinks on the floor or for throwing up. We did not stay long enough to see if anybody was charged extra that night.
It was only in the last night that we had some dignified drinking. We went to a small, nice place called Bistrot near the Taipower Building stop of the subway, which I highly recommend to any other theoretician who should happen to visit Taipei. They had a very wide selection of beers, including, amazingly, Chimay, which was served in a proper Chimay glass. They also had Hoegaarden, and pretty much anything you can name.
One day, I drank soda with lunch in Taipei.
The other side of the bottle is more familiar.
The chinese label reads 可口可樂: in pinyin that’s ke kou ke le. The ‘ou’ is pronounced ‘o’ (for example, the common name Zhou is pronounced like “Joe”) and a final ‘e’ sounds similar enough to the ‘a’ in “cola,” so the Chinese name sounds sort of “caco cala.” Why isn’t the Chinese name 口可口樂? Apparently, the other name sounds better.
When looking for the Chinese name of a foreign brand, it is common to privilege the “niceness” of the name over the phonetic faithfulness. Google’s Chinese name is 谷歌, which is gu ge in pinyin and it means something like “song of the valley.” Perhaps what they did was to privilege phonetics, instead. (There is, by the way, an online petition to ask Google to change its Chinese name.)
This also came up when, in Beijing, it was decided that I should get a Chinese name. I suggested something that would sound like lǔ kà or lú kà. Apparently, however, either there are no such characters, or they would not sound nice. So far, the best we have come up with is 路卡, which is pronounced lù kǎ and is pretty good phonetically. The two characters mean “road” and “block,” respectively, so together they could mean “road-block,” which is a good name for a professor, except that they are never used together with that meaning. To me, 路课，lù kè, would also sound good: here 课 means “class” (as in “lecture in a course”) and 路 means “road.” But, I am told, you can’t have two 4-th tones in a name. “How are you going to call out a name with two 4-th tones?” Oh well, I hand’t thought of that.
See, this Chinese name business is not easy. I know that there are a few Chinese speakers who read this. Any suggestion that is better than 路卡?
On Monday I gave my talk on pseudorandomness and combinatorial constructions, and the whole Taiwanese complexity theory community showed up, all six of them. They are working on my favorite problems, like amplification of hardness, seedless extractors, locally decodable codes, unique games and so on, and we had a good discussion after the talk.
On Tuesday, Chi-Jen took me to see the Palace Museum, that contains Chinese decorative art and calligraphy including extremely old pieces. This is mostly objects that the fleeing Kuomingtan people took with them when they fled from mainland China. Much destruction of art and antiquitities went on during the Cultural Revolution, and so taking these pieces out of the country actually saved them.
We got there around 5pm, just when the schoolkids where returning home, and people were coming back from the offices, the night market had just opened, and the place was quite alive. In the middle of all this, someone was practicing calligraphy on the street.
In Danshui, I saw the only funny sign of this trip.
And the thing is, this was for a parking spot in a designated parking area for scooters. The same in Taipei, designated parking areas for scooters have a few spots reserved for the disabled. I have to say, it looks a bit bizarre: a disabled person riding a scooters? Indeed, there are three-wheeled scooters that are driven by people that walk with difficulty. (They are not at all like the small electric ones that are used in America, these ones have regular internal-combustion engines, and they are definitely not meant to be used indoors.)
Finally, this store in Danshui had the most arresting name.
Sometimes, even in very interesting cities, the club scene offers no surprise. The place closest to my apartment in San Francisco has a dance floor, and two spaces to hang out, each with a bar. On weekends, the dance floor is really crowded, and one can barely move. That is, until you hear
I don’t wanna hear, I don’t wanna know
Please don’t say you’re sorry
and then you cannot even move any more.
In Beijing, the place we went to has also two rooms to sit down, two bars, and a crowded dance floor. And then
I’ve heard it all before
And I can take care of myself
and it gets really crowded.
I was expecting more of the same in Taipei, but I was pleasently surprised. For one thing, the place we went on Friday had only one bar. More significantly, one guy was singing, and a screen was showing some music video. I was afraid we had found Karaoke night, but then the video featured the same guy who was singing. If I got it right he was Fan Ri Chen, a local celebrity. Later the music was a mix of the usual and of Mandarin pop, including Mandarin renderings of famous Western songs. The dance floor was already packed, but then we heard
and everybody came to dance. Sorry played, of course, but nobody payed much attention.
On Sunday we briefly hanged out in a shopping district.
A Malaysian singer, “Gary,” who is apparently a big Mandarin Pop celebrity was performing on a stage to advertise his latest CD. Seeing at it was Mother’s day, he was periodically joined on stage by his mother.
Hoeteck was there before me, and he told me that earlier they had a skit where the mother brought the singer some soup on stage, and then fed him with a spoon.
Being too late in the day to visit any major museum, we moved to the MOCA (“C” is for “contemporary”) where, of all things, they had an exhibit of Italian fashion design. We then recamped to a cafe in Ximending, a neighborhood that I would call “yuppie.” Locals who are around my age consider it “the place where college students hang out,” although college-age folks belittle it as “the place where high-scholl kids go.” I was not able to check with any high school student whether this kind of looking-down goes any further. In reality, Ximending has pleasent cafes, nice shops, and a mixed crowd.
Eventually, it was time to move to the Huaxi night market, which is famous for the restaurants that sell snake soup, snake meat, and liquors made partly from snake blood. Each such restaurant has a hawker in front advertising their stuff, and some of them handle a live snake. Every now and then, they feed a hamster to the snake, or even kill and cut open the snake in front of onlookers, but we were not lucky enough to see it. In front of each such restaurant there is a sign, in English and Chinese, that says “no pictures.” I was wondering why, and then I noticed another sign that said “none of the snakes served here is a protected species.” I did sneak one picture, anyways. These are preserved snakes, or something:
Hoeteck had been looking for Taiwanese eel noodles ever since tasting them in a Taiwanese restaurant in Boston several years ago. Apparently he never found such good eel noodles anywhere else. We found some good eel noodles in Huaxi, but apparently they were not as good as the Bostonian ones.
On Friday Hoeteck gave his well-received and well-attended talk. Later Chi-Jen took us to have dinner at Din Tai Feng, famous for its dumplings. Their specialties are the steamed dumplings called shao long bao, which they make with soup inside. How do you get soup inside the dumpling? (Think about it for a bit, the answer is at the end.) The kitchen is at the center of the restaurant, and it has glass windows all around. The cooks all wear white shirts and surgical masks, and work around a big table. The image of an operating room is very strong. The dinner was great. Later we went to Taipei 101, the “tallest building in the world.”
On Saturday, Chi-Jen took us to Yehliu, a seaside town famous for its rocks that have been eroded by the sea into amazing shapes.
Some of them look like mushrooms
This is the “sandal”
And this is the “Egyptian head”
But first, we stopped at a restaurant where we picked our favorite fish and crabs from an aquarium and had them cooked to order. The huge fish, which yielded three different dishes (sashimi, soup and grilled) was surprisingly cheap.
So, how about the dumplings? The soup is frozen, and a bit of frozen soup is put in the dumpling when it is made. When the dumpling is steamed, the frozen soup melts.
A city like Taipei is too complex to be “grasped” after just one day. For now, I am happy just noticing little things.
The little green man, for example. At pedestrian crossings, the “walk” signal is, like in most places, a green image of a man. Except that here the image is animated: the little green man walks. What is most entertaining, however, is that when the time is almost up, the image starts flashing (again, like almost everywhere else), and the little green man starts running.
Unlike in Beijing, here they allow portly guys to be security guards. This gentleman, for example, works at the CKS memorial, one of the most important sites in the city.
Like in Rome, scooters are the preferred veichle of transportation here. At rush hour, swarms of scooters engulf the comparatively fewer cars and own the road. Away from rush hour, one sees parked scooters everywhere, in designated parking slots along the streets but also on sidewalks, when space allows. In the picture below, Unidentified Motorist with Red Helmet blocks the view a bit, but it’s actually all scooters till the eye can see. (Click on the picture for larger view.)
Unlike in Rome, however, scooters respect traffic law. This means that neither crossing the street as a pedestrian nor riding a scooter as a passenger of a local are death-defying experiences.
Many scooter drivers wear masks (mask as in surgical mask, not Halloween mask) presumably to protect against pollution. In such a style-conscious country, it is unavoidable that a market for designer masks would arise. I have seen women wearing masks with the Burberry’s pattern, and even one woman wearing a leopard-dotted jacket and having a matching mask with the same leopard-dots pattern. (By the way, men wear fancy masks too.)
On the important subject of food, yesterday I had street food for the whole day.
For breakfast I had some kind of fried dough wrapped in a flat bread, a bread sandwich, if you will (I didn’t do it, but, for best results, you should say “Mmh, fried dough” in the voice of Homer Simpson when you eat it) and an omelette thing also wrapped in flat bread.
Of the various small things we ate for lunch, the dumplings were the highlight. There are, in fact, a few different Chinese terms that all translate into “dumpling” but that are considered to be very different food items. As I was pondering this excessive linguistic specialization, I was told “In Italy, you have dumplings too.” “No, no,” I had to explain, “not dumplings, we have ravioli that are made from two distinct sheets of dough, you put the fillings on the bottom sheet and then press the other sheet on top. Then there are tortellini, where you use a single sheet of dough and wrap it around the filling. Then there are agnolotti, then …”
Taipei is a city that does not go to bed early. Lots of people are around in the street on weekdays well past midnight, and, among the many things to do at night, there is a visit to a “night market.” Night markets are big outdoor collections of small booths selling various things, mostly clothes and food. They run along small alleys, with booths on either side, and sometimes clothes vendor laying out stuff in the middle, so that one feels very cramped. I mean cramped in a good “look how much is going on all around me” way, not in a bad “will people stop bumping into me” way. Perhaps on weekends it turns into the bad way, I will have to see.