Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Alishan's Cherry Blossoms 阿里山的櫻花季

On March 9 & 10, we went on a family trip to Alishan in Chiayi County in central/southern Taiwan. Well, it was supposed to be a family outing, but James sprained his foot badly the day before and the doctor advised him to stay home. So just three of us went. We can always go again some time.
The real start to our adventure, as you will see below.
This little diesel train, and another further up the hill, were going to spend the next four hours transporting us to our destination.
The early stages of the train ride. Normal weather and plenty of betel nut trees (a cash crop that is not environmentally or medically friendly).About half way (a little above one thousand meters) and above one set of clouds. Morrison is already warmly dressed.

Somewhere in the middle of the trip we had to change trains which involved a 15-minute walk over hilly and muddy trails - all because of a landslide some time ago that broke the line in two.

As the afternoon wore on, we would occasionally see some nice cloud formations (now about 1,600 meters)

After we reached the end of the journey and our hotel at 2,200 meters and about 7 degrees celsius, we went out to eat our evening dinner - hot pot!The next morning we were up early and joined a prearranged tour that would take us to see the sunrise.

Two of the many sacred trees that we saw during our stay.

We were fortunate to see the sun as not every morning is clear.
The scenery up here (at 2,700 meters) is a lot different from what one usually has at sea level.
Some trees made people look like midgets.
The cherry blossoms that we saw later the same morning were the highlight of our trip, the icing on the cake as it were.

Hsiu-chin even had the clothes to match!
Many people have seen Christmas trees with lights, but they cannot compare with a Tokyo cherry tree like this. (To see the flowers more clearly, click to enlarge image.)

This tree was located next to the Alishan hotel (which we did not stay at, but would consider doing so another time)
These blossoms are unbelievable (thanks Morrison for the pic)
Blossoms by the roadside.

There are trees everywhere and also a lot of blossoms.Two generations at the three-generation tree.

Certainly a nice place for a walk! We did not have a lot of time, unfortunately, at at this point we had to make plans to get back the the hotel to check out.
The 21st largest tree in the forest here. This one is still standing.
This sacred tree, after a life of two thousand years, in recent years (with the help of an earthquake) finally bit the dust. One wonders of the struggles that the ones still living are having to face just to survive in this day and age.
Sadly, the prearranged tour had us taken down the mountain in a 9-seater van. Had I been traveling the usual way I travel, I would have just got on this train instead (at Fenchihu station).
After we go back to the old Chiayi station, we caught a bus which took 20 minutes to reach Chiayi's high speed rail station. Then, we rode the shinkansen for 35 minutes. After another 10 minutes we were back home. I really think we need to go again. We did not see it all.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Another New Computer

The addition of a new PC (a BenQ Joybook), was in my mind a necessary addition to complement the better quality MacBook that I also recently bought.

Not long ago I posted an article about a new MacBook that I had bought and compared it with the aging computers that I had previously been using. The other day, I bought another new computer, not to replace the MacBook, but to complement it. It is a PC Notebook, with a 13.3" screen (the same size as the MacBook). I had toyed with the idea of getting a "mini Netbook" (with about a 10" screen), but ended up getting this one, a BenQ Joybook S31VW-T27, at a special price (just under US$500 dollars). The reason it was so cheap was that it was a demo model in a large store. So maybe there is a little risk involved there, but the price I paid included a 3-year guarantee. The 10" screen PC is the craze at the moment, and a lot of people "follow the crowd". However, they are also around US$500 and, besides being "ergonomically challenging" (if that is the right expression), they are relatively weak. There is only so much stuff you can squeeze into such a small space.
This tree, which is situated next to the swimming pool I go to each morning, provides great shade from the strong sunshine we have had recently. There are wooden tables and benches next to it where I can work in the mornings.

My reason for buying the PC was that I occasionally have to do work that cannot easily be done on a Mac, and while I did install XP Home on the Mac, it does not work well, and so I just decided to get an extra computer. In addition, I plan to travel on longish trips by bike and I want to take a computer with me, as I need to carry a mobile office with me. Should something happen to this new PC (which runs on Windows Vista) on a trip, at least I will know there is another machine waiting for me when I get back home.
This pond lies next to the entrance into which I turn to ride the last few hundred meters to the swimming pool (along the road shown below). Views like this, seen from a bicycle, certainly help me relax. This pond is 4.4 kms away from our house.

Being slightly more than one-third of the price of the MacBook, the PC has some shortcomings compared to the MacBook, one being that the Mac is a lot better for playing Youtube videos, even though I am using the same ADSL cables at home. The Mac appears to be able to get a lot more power/receptivity out of a weakish Internet signal as it were. The Mac is ideal for blogging and editing photos and movies, for typing Japanese, etc., and so I doubt I will bother to use the PC for this. However, sometimes the Mac will reject a research paper with a lot of mathematical equations, etc., whereas the PC seems to be much better designed for this. A Taiwan PC is also better for handling documents in Chinese since the operating system is in Chinese, whereas Chinese to the Mac is just one of the many foreign languages.
As a friend remarked, the cherry blossoms are really nice. My family and I will go to see more of them soon.

The BenQ brand may not be known much outside Taiwan, but here their computers are well-known for their good looks. After all, the insides of the computer are often much the same whatever brand you get. It has an Intel core duo chipset. Not a high-ranking one, because the machine is about one year old already. This 13.3" model is also no longer made. A pity in my opinion (for other people, that is). A 12.1" notebook has a narrower keyboard (which is a factor I consider) and the now popular 14.1" model is a tighter fit in a pannier bag on the back of a bike. Now at least my MacBook and PC being the same size can share the same carrying cases and sleeves, etc.
The building on the right serves as the entrance to the outdoor 50m swimming pool. Because these private grounds are all part of a "youth activity center", there are a lot of activities like camping and get togethers for school children of all ages. So when the kids come, they really like to live it up. (Click to enlarge photo)

One word of advice when choosing/buying a computer. First, see what is available locally in case there are some good buys. Then go home and do some homework on the Internet, trying to read reviews, and finding out current prices and specifications. Then ask the sales clerk to switch it on and check things like the screen (for unusual lines, etc.) and the keyboard (in case kids have played games on it in the store). If you can make your mind up, then you won't be easily talked into buying a newer model or something you don't really need at a significantly higher price. This computer was the "last one" they had left of that line, and I think most people passed it by. If I get two or three years of good use out of it, I will certainly feel I got my money's worth.
This is a map (by the side of the road opposite the youth activity center) of the "Niaosong Bike Path". The red line refers to a separate path that is only for bikers and pedestrians. The youth activity center and the swimming pool are located about 1/3 of the way down the red path to the right.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Relaxed Freestyle Swimming

Cheng Ching Lake at about 7:00 a.m., which is about the time I reach the swimming pool.

February, being only 28 days this year, went especially quickly. At the end of January the pool temperature was still a chilly 66F. A few days ago, it had reached 78F, before falling to 76F today. So the winter appears to be past here, and the weather is generally very pleasant without being too hot.
Alongside much of the lake pictured above, is a separate bike path, designed to keep bicycles and other road users separate. That is my new bike on display there.

My swims in the last few weeks have typically ranged between 1,500m and 2,100m, maybe not a lot, but I have often not wanted to get too tired from swimming, as I have been busy most of the rest of the time. Life often appears to require trying to excel in a number of different areas, and for me swimming is only one of them.
While this path is intended for bikes, the surface appears perfect for running, and there are distance markers.

So, while I may not have been quite as fit as in times past, I have been compensating for this by trying to improve my freestyle swimming technique, and that means swimming as relaxed as possible (and often fairly slowly) as I think about and work on issues like breathing, head position, extending and pausing before taking the pull, and so on. While I don't attend swim classes here, I am constantly working through what I remember of the Swimming 101 classes I attended with Steve Borowski in Hawaii as well as some of the recent variations in my swimming technique that I have been learning from Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen.
On seeing these pictures with the blossoms and leaves on the ground (the pool is about 100m up this road), one would not think that the temperature when I took them was about 87F.

Timing is very important in swimming, and not just when one breathes. In particular, it is very important to learn just how much to pause after extending the hand and shoulder forward. Pausing before pulling does not mean one is wasting time. Even if the forward hand stops momentarily, one is still gliding in the water, and getting ready for a more powerful stroke.
As I swim each morning, I do attach a lot of importance to trying to relax. My life as it is is relatively stressful already, and when swimming it is easy to feel uptight, to feel "slow" and to worry. However, I find that if I relax, say, by taking the first half of the workout very easy, then it is much easier to crank things up later. Then, some of those shorter swims (like a 50 or a 100) feel barely moderate, with long smooth strokes, and the end result is a time which is equally as good as that hard swim only a couple of weeks ago.
The two tables here just behind and overlooking the swimming pool is an excellent place to get some work done before returning home in the mornings. Often one just has the birds for company.

My flip turns are a lot more relaxed now and at least in most cases I keep on going. I still have a little difficulty judging exactly how close I need to be to the wall when I flip, so I sometimes don't managed to plant my feet squarely on the wall, or else get a fairly weak push. However, it is coming, and since I am only occasionally getting water up my nose, I am tending to flip turn more often. Today most of my turns are flip turns where the intention (not always realized) is to push off the wall while lying horizontally on my back.

One reason I feel more relaxed is because my new mountain bike is so much more comfortable to ride than the old bikes (which are too small for me) that I had been using to get around town. It is a 15-min ride to the pool and about that coming back, so while I may not be doing any serious cycling, I am at least on the bike every day. The scenery close to the pool is particularly beautiful and I get to experience this just about every day.
The grounds of the youth activity center which houses the swimming pool are not always quiet. One day last week all these high-school students had an activity here.

On the subject of bikes, I passed a small bike store today and noticed that they had two "Argon 18" road bikes for sale (unfortunately way too small for me). However, I did ask the repairman there where they were made (Central Taiwan) and he gave me the name of the company. I don't know if they could make me a 61cm tri-bike frame, so I could get back to some road racing. One of my greatest triathlon heroes (or heroines) rides an Argon 18, and so surely if I was to get one, I would get a lot of respect wherever I go. Maybe the bike's name isn't important, but in many ways it is.
Bicycles serve many purposes, one being to transport heavy metal objects. In this case, the metal was on its way to a recycling center.