Solipsism and Me

Idle reports from an idle fellow

A week in Taiwan

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It must be at least ten years since I taught Yet Another TEI Workshop at Academia Sinica in Taipei, as part of the Electronic Buddhist Text Initiative.Buddhist texts in TEI have gone from strength to strength, and this year,  under the aegis of something called the Integrated Buddhist Archives Network, I was invited to speak about the history of the TEI on the occasion of the 20090415_0054142publication this week of a beautiful new Chinese translation of parts of the TEI which Marcus Bingenheimer and his students have been working on for the last year or so. Later in the same week, I was also invited to give a keynote at a conference on applied language teaching organized by BNC enthusiasts at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology. This seemed too good a coincidence to miss, so I took a week off work and zoomed off with Eva Air to Taipei on Easter Sunday…

(If you just want to check out the photos, you can see them properly on my Picasaweb Page)

Time and space being what they are, this meant that I arrived  at Taoyuan airport on Monday evening after a fifteen hour journey via Bangkok. And this photo is not a bad reflection of what it feels like; crumpled after fitful slumbering in steerage class, wondering what happens next.

Crumpled in the carpark

Crumpled in the carpark

Bihua buys buns

Bihua buys buns

Fortunately, Bihua had the sense to stop during the subsequent hour-long drive to Dharma Drum Mountain to buy me some restorative buns and warm soya milk.

Dharma Drum Mountain College (法鼓佛教研修學院 ) is perched near the top of an eponymous mountain overlooking the Northern sea coast of Taipei; its library contains one of the largest collections of ancient Buddhist texts in Asia. As well as a growing number of students it is also an active monastery, with an international reputation amongst Buddhist scholars.

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At the entrance to the library there is a set of inscribed stone panels each containing the start of the Tripitaka in a different language or writing system – including (bottom left) one on TEI P4

The buildings are appropriately austere but my quarters were comfortable and I slept well with a choice of three bedrooms, and limitless supplies of tea. On Tuesday, I toured the College and its library, and met Marcus and his team. Here’s a nice picture I took later, of him with Bihua (left) and Virginia, the student who actually did the bulk of the translation work.

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Photo opportunity

Photo opportunity

We went for a walk along the beach. Apart from a group of people using the waves of the Pacific as backdrop for some  glamour shots or maybe wedding photos, the beach was deserted.  Later we dined at a slightly surreal seaside restaurant featuring Mexican-Italian cuisine and free wifi.

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You think we're awake? Think again.

Fat man in tie makes good

Fat man in tie makes good

The next day, we had to get up infeasibly early for the drive down to Taipei to give my lecture at Academia Sinica.

My lecture was followed by a sequence of presentations about the various digital resources and projects making up the IBAN. These being in Chinese, I was excused from the majority of them. Instead, a friendly British geek called Simon took the time to show me round the Academia Sinica museum (where I learned that the TEI manuscript encoding module really needs something like <stamp> to document the detail of inscriptions added to ancient artefacts by their successive imperial owners) , to transfer me to my new lodgings at the Taiwan Tech and also to introduce me to the complexities of Taipei’s public transport system and climate. We visited the National Imperial Museum and joined several million other people gawping at evidences of Chinese material culture going back several millenia, notably a famous jade cabbage. We chatted about Ubuntu. A splendid day, culminating in a splendid dinner in a vegetarian restaurant somewhere in Taipei, which turned out to be one of the gastronomic highspots of the week. You may think it hard or impossible to make a feast for the senses out of beancurd, soya, rice flour, agar agar and more oriental vegetables than you can think of (mysteriously excluding onions) but you’d be wrong, trust me. I was particularly impressed by the vegetarian sushi and sashimi. The restaurant is called Lian chi ge — the Pavillion at the Lotus Pond — and features some happy fish, who are not about to be eaten there any time soon.

Happy fish in a vegetarian resto

Happy fish at Lianchi ge

I was woken next morning in my 15th floor room by my personal “hostess” bringing me coffee and a cheesy bun for breakfast to ensure that I was in time to register myself as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the ALLT conference. The hostess concept was a first for me: like each of the six or seven other DVPs, I had been allocated a personal minder, in the shape of a female student from the first year language classes. The minders were all dressed alike, in smart black dresses and heels, and mine was called Kerry.

Another day, another conference

Another day, another conference

The event itself felt a bit like the Sejong launch I attended in Seoul in November a couple of years back; I was given a nice flower for my button hole,  plonked in the front row of the massive auditorium, and invited to say a few words of self introduction before the proceedings proper got under way, with an invited lecture from Dr Bill Yang. Dr Wang is a very good speaker, who talked wisely and persuasively about Language from an evolutionary perspective, a subject about which I know nothing, but felt that I did after he had finished. I freely confess that I took most of the rest of the first day off, though I did get back in time from my snooze to hear Mike Scott introducing Wordsmith tools and Mariachiarro Russo (whose name remained a major challenge for speakers throughout the conference) from Forli presenting a detailed overview of the organization and practice of that august institution for the training of language interpreters.

Following which, we were bundled into taxis and driven round the corner to a restaurant for the first of several nice dinners, during which Mike Scott impressed everyone by managing to eat a large shrimp with chopsticks. Eventually.

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View from the 15th floor

View from the 15th floor

Next day I was up at dawn admiring the view from the 15th floor, and thus in good time for my own presentation, a shortened version of the standard BNC story.

Following which I listened to Robert Johansson, a local and enthusiastic American teacher of English enthusing wildly about his practice in using Blackboard and student blogs to facilitate something called “communal constructivism” (Williams and Burden, 1997). He was followed by Amy Tsui, another excellent speaker, discussing the need for “culturally relevant pedagogy”, after which we DVPs were all shepherded off to have a rather fine lunch with NTUST’s president, featuring a very large fish

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Remembering that I was supposed to be on holiday, I stopped taking notes around this point and went back to my room for a guiltless post prandial snooze, from which I was awoken only by torrential (but brief) tropical rain. I did manage to get back in time for the last session of the day, which included a breathtaking overview of Taiwanese activities in corpus/computational linguistics given at breakneck speed by Howard Chen and colleagues. The evening we were left to our own devices, so Mike Scott and I had a very enjoyable time exploring narrow twisty little streets full of vendors of strangely worded tee-shirts, delicious smelling food, and colourful fruit, before finally settling on a Vietnamese restaurant for dinner…

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This was such a success that we reprised it the next day, by day light, with some minor modification, taking in a stroll through what Mike clearly felt was uncomfortably like a Brazilian favela, further explorations into Taiwanese sweet beverages, and a Japanese shabu-shabu style lunch buffet. And we even managed to get back to the conference in good time for the closing round table, which in fact was not quite the closing event, since it was followed by an over-long presentation by distinguished Chinese psycho-linguist Ovid Tzeng about recent advances in using NMR scanning techniques to localize areas of linguistic function in the brain. Then our minders collected us once more into taxis and rushed us off to the Howard hotel for just one more splendid buffet dinner, made remarkable not only by the scale and variety of dishes on offer, but also by the fact that it eventually collapsed into an orgy of mutual photograph-taking as the assembled student helpers realised that yes, this event was really finishing and yes they really had acquitted themselves all rather well.

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Hostesses Kerry, Lea, and Vera

Alas, my camera battery had died so I could not take any myself; nor can I yet post any of the countless photos of myself mugging along with assorted happy students, though presumably these will soon be appearing on said students’ blogs…

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Hostesses galore

These and other photos from this trip are now available at my picasa website

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Written by Lou

April 21, 2009 at 16:40

Posted in Biographical

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