Just like make graph

The 台東 [Taidong] elders asked me to ship an unused bench press from 新竹 [Xinzhu] to their apartment for them to use. President approved, so I set about finding a way to ship the unwieldy exercise apparatus across the country.

The shipping company told me the weight wouldn’t be a problem, but insisted that the bench press had to be packaged in some way before they could ship it. I searched far and wide for a supplier of super-voluminous cardboard boxes or plastic bags, but could find none near the 新竹 missionaries’ apartment. I called plastic companies, camping supply outlets, and storefront equipment retailers, but to no avail.

Finally, one plastics company told me that, although they didn’t stock bags that large, they could manufacture and ship a custom-sized bag for me (!). I was hesitant, but they offered to give the bag for free and only charge the shipping price. It was a deal too good to turn down. So, I’m going to ship a custom bag to the west coast of Taiwan so I can ship a bench press from the west coast to the southern end of the east coast.

In other news, I have a new companion! By the rules of missionary genealogy, Elder Smith is my son, and I his mother, because I was companions with his trainer Elder Montierth immediately before his "birth" on the island of Taiwan. Elder Smith and I both began our missions in 中和 [Zhonghe], and now we’re in the same place again. Elder Smith’s computer and Chinese skills are great, and we share a common love of Minecraft. It’s going to be a great time!

Elder Elliott, Elder Smith, and Elder Ure.

The one unfortunate consequence of having a new companion is that he doesn’t have his international driver’s license yet. Yesterday, we had to close an apartment in 木柵 [Muzha], swap a dryer in 三重 [Sanchong], and clean out extra furniture in 松山 [Songshan]. Elder Ure had to hold down the fort in the office, so I was left to drive the monstrous diesel van through Taiwanese traffic, in the rain, during rush hour. It would be my first time driving in more than a year and a half.

Keys in hand, I tentatively approached the hulking beast. I inserted the keys into the door, turned them, and gently pulled on the handle.

A deafening alarm shattered the silence of the parking garage. I slammed the door closed, but the alarm continued! "Put the keys in the ignition," Elder Smith hollered. I fumbled around in the dark, and finally found the hole where the key was supposed to go. The engine roared to life, but the incessant honking continued. We tried to call Elder Ure, but realized that Elder Smith was carrying his cell phone.

​After about a minute, Elder Ure strode into the garage. He had heard the alarm and came to help. We figured that the batteries in the key fob were dead. After switching to the other set of keys, I was able to open the door without the alarm sounding.

After two prayers and several circuits of the parking garage, I cautiously throttled the van up the ramp and into the pouring rain, and we were off!

The traffic was horrible, the rumbling van wide and sluggish. I had never driven a vehicle larger than a station wagon before. The GPS took a while to load the satellites, so I drove in the wrong direction, made a bunch of U-turns, and went around a roundabout before it finished recalculating. It was nerve-wracking at first, but I adjusted after a few minutes, and it was slightly more tolerable. I just went slowly and tried not to hit all of the taxis and scooters that zoomed in front of me.

Driving the van.

​We spent almost five hours driving around Taipei in the rain. I drove over freeways and bridges and coaxed the great lummox through mazes of tiny alleys so narrow it fit with only inches to spare on each side. I knocked over a scooter (parked), but Elder Smith stood it back up with no damage. At one point, I drove into a dead end and had to make a several-dozen-point turn.

The old 木柵 [Muzha] elders’ apartment was overgrown with mold. Black mold plastered the damp walls, and even the boxes left on the floor were moist and slick with a frosting of noxious growth. I was glad we were getting rid of it.

To close down the apartment, we had to remove a washing machine from the balcony. Upon dismantling the machine and lifting it up, Elder Smith and I realized it wouldn’t fit through the door frame back into the house. So, I used a screwdriver to remove the door hinges, and we put the door back up after carrying the washer through.

With one apartment contract terminated, we headed over to 松山 [Songshan], where we hauled a bunch of extra shelves and desks down and loaded them into the van. A Buddhist monk saw us taking the shelves away and said he would take them, so we gave them to him. Last, we drove to 三重 [Sanchong], where we carried a new dryer up and an old dryer down.

I was exhausted by the time we returned. Elder Smith says he enjoys driving, so I hope he doesn’t mind doing all the driving once he gets his license.

Good news: we found a paper supplier for the old testament language study edition. It’s coming soon!

That’s all for this week.

Love,
Elder Elliott

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Alpinists

Elder Ure and I went mountaineering on 陽明山 [Yangming Mountain] last Saturday. Here is the photographic documentation of our 七星山 summit trip.

This geothermal pool is known as the "milk pond." It smells the part. The white color is due to the interaction of sulfur with thermophilic bacteria in the stagnant water.

A suspension bridge. The trails are all paved, which kind of takes away from the wilderness feel, but it’s better than nothing.

Wild cattle on the mountain. The number of cattle in Taiwan is limited by law, and it is illegal to import cows.

Elder Ure and I stand in front of a shallow pool, clearer and better-smelling than the milky variety.

The trail winding to the summit.

Elder Ure was stricken by high-altitude pulmonary edema on the east summit approach, and I was forced to carry him in a Gamow bag the rest of the way.

View of Taibei from the summit ridge.

Looking the other way, one can see the ocean in the distance.

​On the way down the mountain, the trail passed many sulfurous vents. Here, you can walk through the putrid clouds of geothermal steam! I was thrilled, and even felt the hot sulfur crystals with my hands. The stench of hydrogen sulfide didn’t leave our clothes for the rest of the day.

It was a lovely hike, even though the trail was paved and crowded the whole way. 陽明山 is a steep composite volcano. Its slopes are coated thickly with long grass, and the lower foothills are decorated in bunchy juniper forests almost identical to those in Utah. The air was exceptionally clear, and we could see the entirety of Taipei city from the peak. Even the Pacific ocean and the coast of Jilong were visible.

I’m not sure what it was, but Elder Ure and I quickly became the most famous people in the whole national park. The people who on the streets normally flee as soon as we greet them were awestruck when we said hello to them on the trail and wished them a happy new year. "How can they speak Chinese?" I heard several of them whispering in awe. Huh. Maybe it’s the lack of white shirts that makes the difference, or maybe the hiker demographic has never been contacted by missionaries before.

The rest of the week was pretty good as well. I finished the referral system for the mission, which allows missionaries to send a potential investigator’s information and residence area by text into a central server, and then redirects the information to the proper companionship responsible for that area. We made some laminated cards with a list of all the areas missionaries can send referrals to. Taibei is so convenient it’s ridiculous. We had to have 300 of the cards printed and laminated in two hours, so I just copied the file to a flash drive and walked around the block. Within two minutes, we found four different printing shops, and we had the cards printed and laminated in no time at all.

I also made a ton of Excel graphs, as usual. These graphs are really pretty and neatly-formatted, and they all draw out of a huge database of information I collect automatically every week from missionaries’ texted reports. I would include a picture of the fruits of my labors if the data weren’t confidential. Oh well.

Elder Ure and I were working late at the office when President Jergensen invited us upstairs to his home for dinner! He made us some waffles and scrambled eggs, and we talked with the twins. They showed me some of their C++ code for their robotics class. It was really fun, and a nice gesture.

That night, Elder Johnson crammed a huge down comforter into our washing machine. I was on the balcony when I heard an awful squealing and a burning smell, so I stopped the washing machine and opened it up to find the sodden blanket packed and twisted firmly around the central auger. I tried to extricate the blanket, but it was so heavy that Elder Ure and I both had to exert all our might to drag the sodden mass slowly from the machine’s barrel. Suddenly, the wet blanket started electrically shocking us as well! Sweat and soapy water drenched our clothes as we heaved the bedding from the arcing washer. At last, we painfully extricated the comforter, and the washing machine began to spin normally.

Another cool adventure: we started working with a member’s unbaptized sons, who we hope to help get baptized soon. They’re twelve and ten years old, and we got along perfectly. They like Minecraft, robots, and paper airplanes as well, which helps. Elder Ure and I were overjoyed to meet them, and we were even happier when the older son came to church on Sunday.

That’s about it for this week!

Love,
Elder Elliott

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Lives on a playa

Eating at a member’s house during 過年 [Chinese New Year].

We met up with one of our ward members on our way to the subway station.

"This is a really great referral," I started telling him. "The other missionaries said she can’t speak Chinese, because she’s from Japan, but her English is fine."

I saw the woman waiting by the subway entrance. We waved to her, and she joined us to walk back to the chapel. I started conversing with her, and she was very prepared, a perfect investigator! She told us in fragmented English that missionaries had met with her before, but stopped teaching her after a month. Elder Ure and I taught her about the Book of Mormon and showed her the Japanese Book of Mormon we’d brought. "Yeah, I’ve seen that book," she replied. "I love the Book of Mormon, and I’ve read through 2 Nephi."

Elder Ure and I were super-excited. We shared some scriptures about baptism. "How do you feel about baptism?" She replied that she thought baptism was excellent.

Then, Elder Ure paused and thought for a second. "Have you… already been baptized?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "I was baptized here in your chapel last year."

Needless to say, we were both a little disappointed that she wasn’t a golden investigator after all. However, it seemed like she hadn’t been to church in a while, so we invited her to come on Sunday, and she agreed. We also asked her if she had any service we could do for her. She told us that she had some "heavy luggage" she needed to move, and we readily agreed to help her move it.

On the moving day, we enlisted the help of another companionship of elders. We drove the diesel mission van, which we’ve dubbed "the beast," to the address she provided, found an exorbitantly-priced parking space, and made our way on foot to the meeting place.

She led us into a glitzy department store, and we rode several flights of escalators to the basement. She gave a slip to the service desk, and they procured the so-called "luggage:" a single tiny duffel bag.

We four elders walked back to the van feeling really dumb, me carrying the duffel bag in one hand. We drove in the night to the address she gave us and parked the car. She wasn’t answering her phone. We walked along the street until I saw building number 326, where we pushed the door open and entered. I planned on giving the bag to the security guard to keep until she arrived. I awkwardly walked past a long line of people waiting at the front desk, and held up the bag.

"Um, someone named Emily who lives here asked me to carry this bag for her, so I’d like to leave it here," I said.

The two women at the desk looked confused. "She lives here? Our clients come and go all the time," she said.

"Yeah, this is the address she gave us," I said. All the people waiting in line glared at me. I suddenly felt very uncomfortable.

Elder Ure nudged my shoulder. "We should probably step outside," he said.

We walked out the door. This time, I looked at the front of the building, which I hadn’t payed attention to before, and realized it was a brothel. We were all super-confused. We couldn’t exactly wait for her to come and take her bag, so we started walking around the block. Before long, we ran into her, and I gave her the bag with relief. We four elders walked back to the van. It was quite an odd series of events.

Besides our interesting luggage-delivery excursion, we spent a lot of time this week eating with members because of 過年 (Chinese New Year). Almost all stores were closed, and the streets were deserted because everyone goes back to their hometown to be with their extended family. We ate a variety of traditional Taiwanese foods, even more pizza and fried chicken ("the missionaries in the past said we gave them too much Taiwanese food," the members told us), and a big slab of yucky meat at the House of Pork Knuckle.

The House of Pork Knuckle.

​The food wasn’t great, but the suit of armor totally made up for it.

Also, 過年 gave me a bunch of unfettered programming time, so I was finally able to finish writing a text-based referral system that directs referrals to the proper missionary companionship. Remind me never again to write an application that deals with PDU-encoded text messages and binary file I/O, all with support for both Chinese and English. I ended up having to write a GSM modem driver and a PDU message encoder-decoder library from scratch. I’ve never done so many horrible radix conversions, bitshifts, and string operations in my life. When I finally properly implemented message concatenation, I shouted for joy. I sent a fictional referral describing a potential investigator who lives on a playa [a dry lakebed], hence the title of this email.

I also made lots of graphs in Excel. President Jergensen has given me many data-analysis tasks. In order to create the reports he envisioned, I calculated that I’ll need to create 278 Excel pages of graphs, each page having a minimum of 11 separate graphs. Oy vey!

That’s about all for this week.

新年快樂
[New Year Happy]
恭喜發財
[Congratulations and Get Rich]
大吉大利
[Big Lucky Big Profit]
吉祥如意
[Auspicious Like the Wishful]

Love,
Elder Elliott

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The Herbst appliance

Elder Ure took a really sick picture of me stamping a contract, but he can’t find his camera, so this email may lack the usual feast of visual imagery.

After countless hours of devoted effort, I finally finished Project Keys, my quest to update our collection of all 80+ apartment key sets in the mission and provide every zone leader with a copy of all the key sets within his zone. This was a massive task, much to the profit of the local locksmith. I’m pretty sure we’re his biggest source of income.

I called about six landlords to close down apartments that were out of use. I felt really bad, because the contracts hadn’t expired yet, and the Chinese new year would make it much more difficult to find new tenants, so this would hurt them financially. When I called the landlords to tell them the bad news, I could hear their family members start yelling, crying, and arguing in the background.

Chinese new year is a huge problem for us, because every company shuts down for an entire week. Even the banks in Taiwan won’t accept or send wire transfers, so none of our payments will go through. Yesterday, we were in a mad rush to get everything done before 5:00 PM. The financial department didn’t get some payments through before they closed down, so a bunch of landlords are on my case now.

New year brings other inconveniences as well. Our apartment toilet got clogged yesterday, we didn’t have a plunger, and the stores were all closed. I ended up making use of a bent wire coat hanger to remove the blockage. It was super effective!

There was an earthquake last night which dealt severe damage in some southern regions of Taiwan. I woke up suddenly and felt the building rocking back and forth. It was dark, and I could hear some tiles and debris falling outside. I was ready to stand up and run under the door frame in case the swaying intensified, but the tremor died quickly. It was no more severe than the many other earthquakes I’ve felt here in the past.

This week, I also found out that one of the people I found a while back during the tsunami activity in 頭份 [Toufen] was baptized. 張弟兄 [Brother Zhang] is a 30-year-old engineer I contacted near the Zhunan Science Park. He didn’t believe in God, but he wanted to give us a donation, which we told him we couldn’t accept. He started paying tithing way before he was baptized. It was good to know that my few days of finding in 頭份 really did have an effect on someone’s life.

That’s about all for this week!

Love,
Elder Elliott

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