A bunch of random thoughts from Taiwan

I have been lucky enough to have spent the past two weeks in Taiwan. Although two days back at work is enough to make it feel like I haven’t had a holiday for months! While I was there I got to catch up with family and friends that I haven’t seen for many months. I also found myself with lots of opinions on a wide range of topics, I have included these here…

The nanny state can sod off

Not that I want to brag (too much), but I had the pleasure of enjoying a few days in Kenting, in the south of Taiwan. While I was there, I took a trip out on a Jet Ski and Banana Boat. Then I went for a swim in the warm, crystal-clear ocean. Thinking about it afterwards, such fun would never be allowed in the UK. Leave aside that playing in the sea in the UK is horrible – the water’s cold and dirty. The health and safety lot would have had a field day with what I saw. Jet Skis coming and going next to where people are swimming, boats moving about randomly on the water, and a trip to the beach on the back of a quad bike.

You know what though? I’m still here, and so is everyone else that was on the beach. I think the biggest injury anybody suffered was a spot of light sunburn. The people running the boats knew what they were doing, and everyone had to wear a life jacket. While the drivers of the boats have to be licensed, there was no safety lecture either… Just a whole lot of fun. Yes, accidents happen here, but no more so than in places with quite strict safety rules. This is why it’s annoying to see safety rules used as a replacement for common sense.

Tesco Express on your doorstep? Be happy

In the UK, one of the more common stories is that the residents of [some town] are trying to stop [some chain] from opening a new mini supermarket. You know, because the town already has two of them! Compare and contrast this to a piece of news I read in Taiwan where the 7-Eleven chain of mini-markets has just opened its 5000th store on the island. Along with its competitors OK, Family Mart and Hi-Mart, a conservative estimate puts the number of stores at 11000 on an island of 21 million. In other words, a store for every 1900 people. For anybody who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, there is supermarkets selling hot and cold food, drinks, snacks, cigarettes, alcohol, bill payment and parcel delivery services, and in some cases, a cafe. Almost all of these stores have a sales-floor space of under 100 square meters. Here’s the thing though, they’re all busy and they haven’t put all the other shops out of business. Plus when you find that you’ve run out of milk at 4 o’clock on a Sunday morning. No problems, just go to 7-Eleven and get some more. I’ve heard stores of people refusing to buy properties in Taiwan unless there’s a mini-market within so many hundreds of meters.

Perhaps then, the way to re-balance the retail market in the UK is to adopt this approach. Instead of granting planning permission for all-under-one-roof hypermarkets, only allow permission for local 24-hour mini-markets. The chains can use their massive buying power to offer low prices, but can only stock a limited range of items, allowing other retailers to compete. Take fresh meat, once you’re restricted to a single fridge, it focuses the mind on stocking only the best selling items It also means that a butchers can open up next door without having to compete against companies that are infinitely larger. Of course, if ASDA wanted to open a butchers shop next door to its mini-market then that would be allowed. It would have to be a separate shop with a separate planning application though.

Another benefit would come from this business model. As it stands, the large supermarket chains are trying to automate away as many jobs as possible. With small stores, that simply isn’t possible. If we scaled up the Taiwan model to the UK, you’d have approximately 35,000 mini-markets, all open 24/7. You’d want three people per shop for two 8-hour shifts and a single person for the overnight shift. That’s seven people per shop, per day that cannot be replaced. Add in extra staff to allow for weekends and shift rotations and now you’re talking about a staff of ten per shop. That’s a third of a million people with permanent employment. Now add in the other shops that would be created using this model and you have half a million jobs that simply can’t disappear.

The downside so far as I can tell is that prices would have to rise to cover the increased fixed costs in such an operation from the diseconomies of scale. On the other hand, a healthy economy relies on the flow of goods and cash, sustained employment being one way to achieve this.

The benefits of easy-access Wi-Fi

There’s something fundamentally annoying about the kind of person that spends more time in a restaurant rearranging and photographing their food than actually eating it. I don’t think that it’s a particularly classy thing to do, especially in a good restaurant. It is a symptom of our always-on, always-connected, social bollocks lifestyle that we’ve created. That said, I will hear nothing bad said about one of the enablers of this behaviour, ubiquitous Internet access. As I write this, I’m sat in a Taipei café, using the free Wi-Fi service. This restaurant I am going to will offer Wi-Fi, and if it doesn’t, then I can get onto the municipal Wi-Fi network, meaning that no matter where I am, I have access to maps, and a translator.

When back home in the UK, I have unlimited 3G data, so it’s not really an issue to be without Wi-Fi. However, the UK, and London especially prides itself on being a tourist destination. Given that only the most desperate of tourists will pay the extortionate international data rates to get online, providing free, easy to use Wi-Fi seems to be a great way to welcome people to our country. Better still, it’s easy implement and relatively cheap to do.

Taiwan: Go to the beach, see the sights, have a root canal

In a long running dental saga, I’ve needed to have a root canal and crown done on one of my teeth that was damaged by a (now removed) wisdom tooth. My dentist in the UK told me that he was unable to do this, and the NHS refused to fund it (useless failures). This left me with the option of having the tooth removed, or going private at a cost of about £1000. Neither of these options appealed, so I found a third way in Taiwan. My wife’s dentist in Taipei did it for me at a quarter of the cost! A root canal and ceramic crown for NT$13500, or about £270. This is for a high quality job done to a higher standard than what is possible on the NHS here in the UK, and easily equal to the standards of private dentistry here.

It begs an interesting question. If you need expensive but straightforward treatment, why not go to Taiwan or countries that can offer similar. Obviously, it’s not such a great idea if it’s something major like dental surgery, but for anything else, why not?

The news is better when it’s not sanitised

Take a look at the picture below. It’s the front page of the Liberty Times. Look at the image they have chosen for their front cover. The story is about the downing of MH17 in Ukraine. And yes, those are dead people lying there. So what? This one photo caused more of an emotional reaction than all of the coverage by the BBC and CNN put together. No words, just this one photo. I’m sure that for some people, this image will be difficult to look at, and potentially upsetting. So be it. I expect a lot from the news if I’m honest. I expect it to be truthful, accurate to the best of its ability and impartial, covering all the viewpoints. Despite what some may say, in the UK the BBC and the other news sources are pretty good at this, especially compared to come of the American news channels. What we aren’t so good at is leaving it up to the viewer to decide what is important or not. A picture of plane wreckage is totally different to a picture of dead people. The choice of words and images conveys massively different emotions. I think that it is the purpose of the news to give us the full story, no matter how unpleasant it may be, and leave it to us to decide what it means.

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