What I learned from a Taipei alley

I was in Taipei the past few weeks working on a documentary with friends. Because of a busy schedule, it wasn't like my usual travels abroad for fun, it felt more like a work trip. Still, even if I'd been there purely for vacation, I would've wanted to try a different mode of travel, one less focused on eating at nice restaurants or visiting notable tourist destinations and ticking them off the list like some big game hunter hoping to stuff and mount my quarry on Instagram.

Instead, inspired by my last visit to Italy, in which I spent many weeks wandering cities with knowledgeable locals, listening to them discuss their views on the past, present, and future of their country, culture, and institutions, I've been contemplating how to evolve my travel approach to gather more than just photos and memories.

I didn't have time to really put this fully into practice this trip. However, insight comes in odd ways. While filming in a cram school district of Taipei, I posted this photo of an alley to Instagram, wondering in my caption why American alleys did not contain such a density of food stalls and stands and restaurants.

In the comments on my photo, a friend asked me where all the trash in Taipei went? Indeed, I didn't see trash piled up on the sidewalks, or anywhere in public. In fact, much of the trip I couldn't even find a public trash can in which to throw out empty boba tea cups or the plastic wrap around whatever snack from 7-11 I'd just inhaled during a break in shooting. Why were there so few trash cans, and where was all the trash? That mystery led me down a rabbit hole.

I happened to interview some government officials for the documentary, and after those would wind down, or during breaks, I asked some of them to talk about trash collection in Taipei. They gave me an overview, the details of which I filled in online.

Like New York City, Taiwan once had trash piled up on sidewalks awaiting collection. As anyone who's ever wandered through New York City in the summer, huge heaps of trash on sidewalks, baking in the humid summer heat, are one of the city's least attractive features. It's not just the stench or the reduced sidewalk surface for pedestrians but the occasional rat nearly scurrying over one's feet that can induce regular surges of revulsion and horror.

New York City doesn't have many alleys. In contrast, if you've ever been to Chicago, you'll encounter many alleys between city buildings, and rather than pile trash on sidewalks, residents and businesses stash it in trash bins sitting in those alleys.

How is it that Chicago has alleys and New York does not?

According to Michael Martin, alley expert and professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University, the “why alleys” question is easy to answer. You just have to go back to the late 1700s, decades before Chicago was founded. America was young, and had hardly touched any of its newest territories to the west.
“There's one thing you can do without having to explore all of it,” says Martin. “Lay a grid over that giant swath of land, and divide it up in ways that you can then take that land and you can sell it, you can deed it over to people.”
The federal government’s National Land Ordinance of 1785 imposed a massive grid over everything west of the Ohio River, dividing uncharted territory into square townships, each 36 square miles in size. Those townships were then sliced into progressively smaller sections, all the way down to the city block. 
“As you think about finer and finer scales of design, what's happening is those squares are being infilled and infilled,” says Martin. “The big grid was always the framework within which people developed things, and that leads to towns having square blocks, and ultimately the alley inside of that block.”    

Path dependence of development has a time dimension that impacts many aspects of the world, one of the things travel is good at teasing out. New York City was built earlier than Chicago. By the time it was time to develop Chicago, the grid design style had become prevalent.

The particulars came into play with the Illinois & Michigan Canal. In the 1820s, the U.S. Congress had granted the state of Illinois enough land to dig a canal to connect Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. The state planned to finance the construction by establishing towns along the canal and selling the land to developers.
The I&M Canal Commission hired surveyor James Thompson to lay out Chicago at the eastern end of the canal in 1830. To attract prospective land buyers, the General Assembly ordered that the new town of Chicago be “subdivided into town lots, streets, and alleys, as in their best judgment will best promote the interest of the said canal fund.”

In the American consciousness and pop culture, the alley is a place of danger and grime. It's where Bruce Wayne's parents were shot and Batman birthed, a place of drug deals, prostitution, gang fights, and dumpsters. This squalid reputation may trace back to the functional roots of the alley in America.

The city [Chicago] was a filthy, stinky, disease-ridden place in those days. Rear service lanes were essential for collecting trash, delivering coal, and stowing human waste — basically, keeping anything unpleasant away from living quarters.
“This was one of the reason why alleys have this dark and nasty reputation,” says Martin. “They were very much the grimy service part of daily life. It wasn't expected that this would be a well-maintained landscape; it was kind of a landscape of raw utility.”

Despite that, alleys do offer Chicago a place to stow trash that in NYC would pile up on sidewalks. However, Taipei has alleys that don't house trash dumpsters and are an improvement, to my mind, over Chicago alleys in their contribution to civic life. How does Taipei manage it?

Once, like New York City, Taipei had trash piled up in public, the stench of trash stewing in the tropical weather permeating the city and attracting rats. In an effort to remove this highly visible trapping of third world status, the government made a concerted effort starting in the mid-80's to overhaul their trash collection policies.

Für Elise” is one of the world’s most widely-recognized pieces of music. The Beethoven melody has been played by pianists the world over, and its near-universal recognition has been used to attract customers for companies as big as McDonald’s and as small as your local ice-cream truck. But if you hear the song playing on the streets of Taiwan, accompanied by the low grumble of an engine, the only ice-cream you’ll find if you follow the tune will be the soupy remains of a neighbor’s Häagen-Dazs. In Taiwan, “Für Elise” means it is time to take out your trash. Directly out to the truck. Yourself.
In the capital city of Taipei, trucks play two different songs along their garbage-routes (the other one is “A Maiden’s Prayer” by composer Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska).
Five nights a week, Taipei residents head to out to designated street corners, where the yellow garbage trucks will stop for a few minutes (and turn off their music), so that people toss their bags of trash in themselves.

Having shot a documentary outdoors for almost two weeks in Taipei, I'm by now well-acquainted with these garbage trucks. It's a nightmare for sound recording as the musical chimes from the trucks makes it very difficult to edit around footage in post.

However, seeing citizens lining the sidewalks, official government required blue trash bags in hand, was a remarkable vision of civic cooperation. The idea that trash collection would occur multiple times a day, five or six times a week, is stunning to this American. In effect, Taiwan moved to a just-in-time trash collection system. As noted in this article:

This ‘trash-doesn’t-touch-the-ground’ system makes each person responsible for his or her personal consumption. Every plastic fork, every bottled beverage, and every food scrap needs to be accounted for by its consumer. The implementation of a few clever policies encourages this new relationship with trash.
It’s compulsory for the people of Taiwan to use a special blue ‘City of Taipei’ garbage bag to dispose of general waste. They’re available at most corner stores and come in different sizes, ranging from 3 to 120 liters. On the other hand, recycling is free and can be brought to the truck in any kind of bag.
This encourages people to recycle more and produce less trash.

What did this have to do with the paucity of public trash receptacles which also forced me to carry plastic wrappers and bottles in my pocket as we wandered around the city? City officials discovered that citizens had been skirting recycling mandates by dumping things in public trash bins. To increase recycling compliance, the government removed public trash receptacles, conducted occasional audits of trash and recycling when the trucks came by, and started posting videos of and fining violators.

All together, these policies have been remarkably effective.

[Taiwan was]  producing 3,296 tonnes per day and recycling only 5% of it. Today, they have reduced that number by more than 2/3, of which they recycle an impressive 55%.

The difference in philosophy and ownership of trash collection between the United States and Taiwan is striking.

The difference between Taiwan and other nations is the way waste management sits in the public’s consciousness. In the US, waste management is run by private companies. Companies place the emphasis on quality of service, aiming to reduce the burden on the consumer.
People don’t have to think about the amount of trash they produce – once it’s in the can, it’s no longer their responsibility. Garbage trucks come in the dead hour of the night or during office hours, to be as inconspicuous as possible.

For some problems, achieving a breakthrough requires a holistic solution, with interlinked policies as Taiwan implemented to avoid any Cobra effects.

It depresses me to think of San Francisco's reactionary, incrementalist governance in comparison. The MTA recently voted unanimously to cap the number of total electric scooters in the city to 1,250 for the first year of testing. That's among five different rental companies.

I don't mind that government agencies implement codes and regulations; some policies save lives, like earthquake and fire building codes. But the incrementalist approach likely dooms the city to a series of local maximums at best, and at worst locks out all the dynamic improvements that characterize the most vibrant systems.

Electric scooters might be a wonderful addition to the city's transportation options, but it's something that needs to be tested at scale because it's a solution that depends on scale for a good customer experience. I've tried to take electric scooters a few times, and either the nearest one is too far away, or the one I walk up to has a dead battery. If you limit the number of scooters during a test you might as well just ban them.

A much more vibrant and livable San Francisco likely involves something like 25-50% fewer cars, sidewalks 50% wider, buildings 50% taller, twice the population density, and 25X the number of electric scooters, just to throw out some back of the envelope guesses of enough magnitude to alter one's conception of the city in a significant way. But no incrementalist approach will get the city there.

The efficient tourism problem

Everywhere I travel, I hear a common lament. Such and such a place is overrun with tourists. Everyone tries to discover the undiscovered gem of a spot.

However, the internet makes information flow so efficient that all travelers have easy access to the list of the top sites, restaurants, and hotels in every destination, just one mouse click away. Today's undiscovered gem of a beach is dotted with hundreds of pale white American bodies tomorrow.

A tourist complaining about other tourists is travel's version of NIMBY-ism, except it's not “my backyard,” it's someone else's. In a perfectly efficient travel market all the best sites will be overrun. Hotel vacancy rates might act as an artificial limiter, but the ability for massive cruise ships to dock in a port at noon and disgorge thousands of tourists each afternoon has long since rendered such ceilings meaningless.

[Everyone will complain about the tourists until virtual reality suddenly depresses tourism, and then everyone will complain that the local GDP has cratered and that no one bothers visiting places in person anymore. Perhaps cities will try to trademark their physical sites so they can collect a vig on any sale of any virtual reality experience based on their location.

And of course, some tourists are obnoxious and boorish. For this piece I'm setting those barbarians aside, no one likes them.]

Even docile, respectful tourists can alter one's experience of a place when they amass in great enough numbers. Yet how can I complain when I'm one of them? This is the traveler's conundrum.

I've learned to have a certain zen about it all. Some sites are great and will always draw a crowd. I revisited Michelangelo's David in Florence a few weeks back, and it is always surrounded by dozens of tourists snapping photos. It's still a fucking masterpiece, and it still stuns me.

If you're lucky enough, the most exploitable inefficiency remains visiting places in the offseason or in off peak hours. It's not just how much free time you have, but when you can call upon it that determines its value.

Hiatus, Italian style

Sorry for the light posting here recently. I'm in the midst of a vacation trek through Italy, and it's been surprisingly difficult to get online. The bulk of my trip so far has been an 8 day bike trip through Tuscany, and while many of the hotels we've stayed at claim to offer wifi, that's about as genuine as their offer of air conditioning, which is to say a complete lie. I did want to come here to get off the grid, but perhaps not so literally.

I have not experienced the information withdrawal shakes, though I have been nervous about stumbling upon Game of Thrones spoilers since I can't watch the last two episodes over here (Twitter is the worst offender on the spoiler front, so I've been especially wary of checking it, even though I'm on it all the time at home). The mental serenity of stepping out from under the information waterfall has lowered my stress. Living here feels healthier.

And yet I'm not sure I'd want to go back to a world of such slow or unreliable internet access. I miss the mental stimulation of being plugged in, as wearying as it can be. Being without internet access can feel like being Tony Stark without his Iron Man suit. Having an internet-connected smartphone is a modern superpower, but having one that isn't, one that's just a plain old phone, must feel like being Spiderman in the countryside, without tall buildings to swing from. Maybe he just hops a ride in an Uber or rents a car for those situations.

And I miss writing, if for no other reason than to organize my thinking (I lost my power adaptor the first week in Italy, and I've yet to track down another, so for a couple days my laptop was just dead). I need to find a better way to combine the healthy, active life here with the sedentary but mentally stimulating life back home.

One of my biking buddies loaned me his power adaptor for the rest of my trip here, so I'm back in business, in a way. I was scanning through my blog draft folder and realized I have over 2,000 unpublished, unfinished posts! When I'm not out seeking out gelato or sightseeing under the Italian sun, I'm going to try to clear some of those out.


Visualizing open-ended travel via Google Flights

While I'm on this break from working, I've been planning some travel, and my new favorite site for open-ended travel exploration is Google Flights. Just enter your starting airport and a start date (and optionally an end date), leave the destination blank, and Google Flights can return you a map of the world with lowest one-way or round trip ticket prices for any destination (I assume this is powered by data from their ITA acquisition).

It looks like this (click it for a larger view).

You can use a price filter slider and drag it down in price to reduce the number of destinations. Now they just need to add in hotel pricing for all-in open-ended travel budgeting.

It's a luxury to be able to plan travel this way, but for those rare times when you can, this is a fun way to do it. I was using this just a few weeks ago and found a random discount fare to Taiwan, and now I'm onboard a flight there.

Once we all are wearing virtual reality goggles we'll undoubtedly be able to spin a virtual globe with this visualization mapped on top of it. Though I suppose, at that point, perhaps we'll just travel places virtually, for much lower prices.


Wanderers is a very short film about what it might be like when humans move into outer space, and “The locations depicted in the film are digital recreations of actual places in the Solar System, built from real photos and map data where available.” It's like a highly condensed version of Interstellar, without the expository dialogue, though I think at one point if you squint or possess a 5K iMac display you can see Matthew McConaughey floating around Saturn.

“F***, we’re dead.” [UPDATED]

On the last day of May in 2009, as night enveloped the airport in Rio de Janeiro, the 216 passengers waiting to board a flight to Paris could not have suspected that they would never see daylight again, or that many would sit strapped to their seats for another two years before being found dead in the darkness, 13,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. But that is what happened. Air France Flight 447 carried a crew of nine flight attendants and three pilots—their numbers augmented because of duty-time limitations on a 5,700-mile trip that was expected to last nearly 11 hours. These were highly trained people, flying an immaculate wide-bodied Airbus A330 for one of the premier airlines of the world, an iconic company of which all of France is proud. Even today—with the flight recorders recovered from the sea floor, French technical reports in hand, and exhaustive inquests under way in French courts—it remains almost unimaginable that the airplane crashed. A small glitch took Flight 447 down, a brief loss of airspeed indications—the merest blip of an information problem during steady straight-and-level flight. It seems absurd, but the pilots were overwhelmed.

An absolutely riveting read about the crash of Air France Flight 447 in 2009. I'm simultaneously devastated and enthralled by air flight disaster stories.

Much ink is spilled about self-driving cars, but in the meantime we've shifted into a self-flying world, and that means the airplane crashes that do occur are at the intersection of an old model of flying, completely human dependent, and a newer model of flying that is heavily reliant on computer flying. Also worth reading for an example of an area where user interface design is a matter of literal life and death, unlike that of most of what those of us in technology dabble in. 

Despite all that, it's worth remembering that flying has never been safer.

The events of the past several months, punctuated by the losses of Malaysia Airlines flights 370 and 17, have given many people the idea that flying has become less safe. In fact it’s much safer than it used to be. There are twice as many planes in the air as there were 25 years ago, yet the rate of fatal accidents, per miles flown, has been steadily falling. The International Civil Aviation Organization reports that for every million flights, the chance of a crash is one-sixth what it was in 1980.

Globally, 2013 was the safest year in the history of modern commercial aviation. This year will be something of a correction, but we can’t expect every year to be the safest, and the overall trend shouldn’t be affected. If you think the past 12 months have been bad, go back to 1985, when 27 (!) serious aviation accidents killed almost 2,500 people. Two of history’s ten deadliest disasters happened that year, within two months of each other. The 60s, 70s and 80s were an era rife with horrific crashes, bombings, airport attacks and so on. Recent events notwithstanding, large-scale disasters have become a lot less frequent.

UPDATE (12 Nov 2014): Patrick Smith of Ask the Pilot fame disagrees with the author of the piece, William Langewiesche, that increased automation and declining human piloting skills were the key culprit in the crash.

As Langewiesche has it, the piloting profession doesn’t amount to much. At one point he writes of pilots: “All of them think they are better than they are.” I wonder if he’d make such a rude and cursory blanket statement about doctors or other professionals.

At that, at least, I was able to laugh out loud. The point where I had steam coming from my ears came a few pages later: “In professional flying, a historical shift has occurred,” writes Langewiesche near the end of the piece. “Pilots have been relegated to mundane roles as system managers, expected to monitor the computers and sometimes to enter data via keyboards, but to keep their hands off the controls, and to intervene only in the rare even to failure.”

That is about the most asinine and misleading characterization of an airline pilot’s job that I have ever read in my life.

Smith includes Langewiesche's response at the bottom of the post.

Hidden-city ticketing (UPDATED)

The NYTimes with a tip on one way to find cheaper airfares. It's called hidden-city ticketing.

Well, there’s a way to save some of that money. It’s called “hidden-city ticketing,” but before I explain how to execute the maneuver, you’re going to need some background. Passengers flying to or from airports that are dominated by a single carrier — like Memphis, Newark or Dallas/Fort Worth — pay fares 20 or 30 percent higher than at non-hub airports. The prices are even more inflated when you’re flying from a smaller city with a limited number of flights. A nonstop one-way ticket from Des Moines to Dallas/Fort Worth is $375 on American Airlines, for example — more than the $335 Delta will charge you to fly from Miami to Anchorage.

But what happens when you’re interested in flying American from Des Moines to Los Angeles, which hosts a more competitive airport? That flight is only about half the price ($186), despite its being more than double the distance. Now, here’s the trick: American flights from Des Moines to L.A. have a layover in Dallas. If you want to travel to Dallas, the best way to get a reasonable fare is to book the flight to Los Angeles instead, and simply get off the plane at Dallas.

Making a habit of this certainly won’t endear you to the airlines. Most of them — the major exception being free-spirited Southwest Airlines — expressly forbid it in their ticketing rules. But those rules don’t carry the force of law, and most travel lawyers say that their recourse is limited. They could probably preclude you from flying with them in the future, but their case for demanding penalties is weak, and the risk of detection is low if you don’t book these kinds of routes more often than a couple of times per carrier per year.

Fly Shortcut is an airfare search engine focused specifically on this pricing loophole. Has anyone tried this technique or Fly Shortcut?

UPDATE: United Airlines and Orbitz are suing the travel website Skiplagged over this loophole, and that lawsuit has put Fly Shortcut into hibernation for now as well.

Interesting facts about airlines

This comes from a site called Viral Quake, so I suspect it has been laboratory engineered for maximum virality. Take it with a few grains of salt. Still, many of these amused me.

2 pilots are served different meals and cannot share, this is done in case of food poisoning.


Arm rests – aisle and window seat: Run your hand along the underside of the armrest, just shy of the joint you’ll feel a button. Push it, and it will lift up. Adds a ton of room to the window seat and makes getting out of the aisle a helluva lot easier.


Do not EVER drink water on an aircraft that did not come from a bottle. Don’t even TOUCH IT. The reason being the ports to purge lavatory shit and refill the aircraft with potable water are within feet from each other and sometimes serviced all at once by the same guy. Not always, but if you’re not on the ramp watching, you’ll never know.


Lock your bags, carry-on bags included.

Look online or in a travel store for TSA-approved locks. The TSA has keys to open those locks in case they need to further inspect them (and hopefully not steal from them). And most people don’t think to lock their carry-on, but especially now with load factors very high, more and more people are having to gate check bags. Once you drop your bag at the end of the jetway for gate-checking, anyone from a fellow passenger, to a gate agent, to a ramp agent has access to your bag.


The majority of domestic flights have human remains or organs on them. I work below wing as a baggage handler. Watch out the window for long boxes that say, “Head” at one end… Oh, and I can fit 150 bags in bin 3 of a Boeing 737-300.