31 May, 2014

The Taiwan MRT Stabbing

So a week ago Taiwan was shocked by an incident that took place on the MRT. A young man (a boy really) aged 20 or 21 boarded the last car of a train. Once the train had left the station he produced two knives and began walking down the cars, stabbing people. There were four casualties. When the train arrived at the next station he alighted and continued to wander around the station, menacing people. "Wander" is the right word here. He wasn't running, nor was he trying to find ways to escape. He knew he would eventually be caught and was fully conscious of what he was doing.



For Taiwan this truly was a shocking event. Nothing on this scale has happened in a very long time. To a places like Britain, South Africa, Libya, North Korea, the USA (and every country the USA has invaded) four deaths may seem inconsequential, paltry even. No one there would bat an eyelid.
In Taiwan, however, there's very little violence. The crime that exists is mostly white-collar crime in the region of fraud or embezzlements. Violence tends to take the form of passive-aggressiveness.


This youth was eventually disarmed by an old man with an umbrella and a few security guards. While being arrested and hauled away he kept asking the guards if he'd get the death penalty.

This youth clearly wanted to shock people and he'd wanted to do so for a while now. Subsequent investigations into his life showed that he'd been saying he'd like to kill people for a few years. He'd also wanted to do "something big".

What annoyed me most about this incident was the media. They jumped on the bandwagon with all the wrong notions. The main media story - which can be found on Youtube, along with some footage from the event - that was played over and over kept mentioning that he was a fan of violent video games.
So what?
Many people play games - violent or otherwise - and it has no affect on them. More people get violent about sports teams, but you don't see them being called into question; probably because they make people too much money. Games are an easy scapegoat, as are music, clothing trends and just about any other fringe interest.

More importantly, the main problem is that people are trying to find causes for his actions without looking at the obvious. Every time an event like this happens anywhere in the world, the media descends to make a huge deal out of it. That's what the assailants want - they wish to be known, to be famous even if only through infamy. They want to be remembered and the only way to do that is to make a huge scene. If it's been done before, then they have to try even harder to be better than the scene before. It's disgusting and it gets boosted to media coverage.

It was after that that I found this article. Strictly speaking this article is about killings in school, but the motivations and causes behind them are the same. The whole article is worth reading, but here's a brief summary of the main point:

When a person goes on a murdering spree, this is what happens.

"Gun control gets the headlines. Mental health care gets the headlines. Violence and video games and misogyny and internet forums and atheism — the list is endless at this point.
Here’s what doesn’t get the headlines: Empathy. Listening to those around you. Even if you don’t like them very much.
Despite being relevant and important discussions, the glamorous headlines are ultimately distractions — they just feed into the carnage and the attention and the fame the killer desired. They are distractions from what is right in front of you and me and the victims of tomorrow’s shooting: people who need help. And while we’re all fighting over whose pet cause is more right and more true and more noble, there’s likely another young man out there, maybe suicidally depressed, maybe paranoid and delusional, maybe a psychopath, and he’s researching guns and bombs and mapping out schools and recording videos and thinking every day about the anger and hate he feels for this world."

A link to the full article

10 May, 2014

A Chinese Orchestra

A few weeks back I had the pleasure of attending a concert featuring Chinese instruments. There were two parts to the concert separated by an interval.

Part 1

A middle-aged man, who I took to be the head musician and probably the teacher, came on stage and prefaced each song with what appeared to be rather witty dialogue. I cannot confirm that, as my Chinese is still underdeveloped, but the audience (unlike the queen) seemed amused. 
I believe he had a pipa (琵琶) with him, though it may have been a  liuqin (柳琴).

A pipa

 A liuqin

The music was charming and had a quality to it that's hard to pin down. I'm sure my friend with his musical degree could provide the technical words I lack. Needless to say it was a treat.
After a few songs (and jokes) he left, only to return accompanied by a string of thirteen lovely young ladies, each sporting their own Liuqin. They were all dressed in a mock qipao (旗袍) or cheongsam style. Traditionally the qipao is a one-piece dress with cap sleeves and ending in a cut not dissimilar to a pencil skirt. If I recall correctly, only two of the ladies actually wore a proper qipao. Two others wore evening dresses and the rest had a kind of qipao blouse worn with a separate skirt.


Sitting in a single, long, curved line they played flawlessly together. They played in perfect harmony even when altering the tempo of the music and they played with incredible speed, their hands seeming to dance across the strings becoming blurs.

After a quick rearranging by the backstage team (and I must commend the backstage team on their speed and efficiency) the head musician returned with an entourage of older musicians. They assembled themselves around a table with various instruments laid out. They had liuqins, pipas, sanxians (三弦) and huqins (胡琴). This stage of the concert also saw the introduction of a few woodwind instruments. There was the sheng (笙) as well as the dizi (笛子) which is a kind of bamboo flute.

  A dizi

A huqin

A sanxian

A sheng

During this time one thing became quite noticeable which put a dampener on the event, but not enough to make me stop enjoying it. Chinese instruments were designed and created to be played individually or in small groups, usually to a small reception. Putting this number of instruments together, whilst trying to amplify their sound to the whole chamber, means that some instruments were almost inaudible.
The Sheng I don't believe I heard above the sound of the strings.

Part 2

We returned after the interval to a complete rearrangement  of the stage. A mini orchestra assembled on stage. The orchestra is a relatively new concept to Chinese history. As such, not all of their instruments are designed to work well in groups. Certain instruments have been borrowed from the western orchestra, like cellos and double-basses.

There was even more excitement when a host of operatic singers lined the back wall, ladies dressed in deep, rich pink and men in tuxedos. This is when it became undeniably clear that we were listening to contemporary music rather than traditional.

The singers didn't sing a song. Rather, they had associated pitch to various words and as they sang these words (or perhaps sounds is a better way of describing them) they would alter their pitch. At first it they were simply changing to pitch to the sound "la".
Later they changed to short sentences in Chinese, each word holding its own pitch.

The strangest part of this was the karaoke section. I don't know what else to call it. No other word seems to fit. Whilst in the middle of a tune two of the elder musicians stood up with mics and began singing a duet. Later in the same song the were replaced by two others. The audience seemed impressed by one of them, as though he was singing tongue-twisters or something in a similar vein. It was interesting, but most confusing. I'm still unsure what I witnessed.

Then, because you can never have enough, the thirteen young ladies from before were brought out and added to the orchestra for the finalé. Though odd, it was a wonderful evening out.