Wednesday, October 31, 2007

D'ye Ken Kermit's Cousin?

If I'd thought of it earlier, I would have saved my recent vampire post for Halloween today. Oh well, Happy Halloween to my readers, and let's take a look at some other creatures of interest instead.

Being lucky enough to have a garden, I get quite a range of visitors, from the welcome - birds and butterflies; the odd gecko - to the decidedly uninvited - various slugs and snails, including the horrendous giant African snail, which some deluded nutcases apparently keep as pets. Austin Coates included an entertaining anecdote about these monsters in "Myself A Mandarin", one of the essential Hong Kong books, which sadly seems to be out of print at present.

One occasional welcome visitor is the little brown tree frog, quite common in Hong Kong and easily identifiable.

One time last year a different, and larger, frog came visiting. Now, I have most of the excellent series of books published by the late lamented Urban Council in the 1980s on the natural history of Hong Kong - different volumes cover trees, fish, flowers, fungi, minerals, etc. With luck, you may still be able to find a few copies at the government bookshop; although they may not be very up-to-date, to the best of my knowledge there is no more recent convenient source for much of the information they contain.

Anyway, I dug out the Amphibians and Reptiles volume to try to identify my little friend. Among the 19 species of frog in Hong Kong, based on appearance and size, the closest I could find was the dark-spotted pond frog, also known as the three-striped pond frog, but according to the book, this species is quite rare in Hong Kong, being known from only two specimens here. However, both of these were found in the Taipo area where I live, so it can't be ruled out.

There are a couple of other frogs and toads in the book that appear to be possible candidates, but either their size or their preferred habitat or some distinguishing feature doesn't seem quite right. So, do we have any wildlife experts here who can help me identify Kermit's cousin?

It's good to see that frogs still appear to be thriving in Hong Kong, because in many parts of the world their numbers are being massively reduced by a fungus infection. Now comes a report that New Zealand scientists have taken a major step towards finding a cure which could help to preserve them. Given that many frogs eat mosquitoes and other insect pests, that's good news for humans as well as amphibians.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Here I stand; I can do no other

Martin Luther's famous words seem to make an apt heading for today's piece. Crossing the harbour by tunnel bus on Saturday, I was wedged in, unable to move, against the notice of licensed (and routinely exceeded) capacity which appears on every public bus in Hong Kong. I don't remember the actual numbers, but it was something like this:

Upper deck: 72
Lower deck: 48
Standees: 28

Being a compulsive proofreader and amateur etymologist, I fell to wondering if "standees" was the right word. If we rely on the analogy with other words such as employee (one who is employed), trainee (one who undergoes training) and payee (one who is paid), then "standee" should surely mean, not one who stands, but one who is stood upon. The correct form should perhaps be "standers", or more readably, "standing passengers".

On the other hand, considering the experience of trying to board an overcrowded bus at peak hours in Hong Kong, with other passengers stomping wildly on one's toes from every direction, perhaps "standees" is correct after all!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Watch the news, but be careful out there

Though I occasionally enjoy the unusual sensation while on holiday of not bothering to keep up with what's going on in the world, for the most part I'm a news junkie. In my university days, a few friends and I would go to the TV room in the Students' Union to watch the early evening news before hitting the bar. There we would upset more serious folks with our cynical laughter and sarcastic comments deriding the pompous political nonsense of the day.

Much has changed since then, though politicians' propensity for dishonesty, greed and hypocrisy has continued unabated, indeed intensified dramatically. But though much of today's news induces sickening feelings of disgust and despair (Iraq, Darfur, Burma, Pakistan, Israel and Palestine), there are still more rewarding feelings to be gained by newswatching. A look at a few recent stories indicates some of the varied responses that the news can evoke.

On the "disgusting" side is war criminal Dick Cheney's pronouncement that Iran can never be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. What hypocritical arrogance! I don't want to see any country owning nukes (and I applaud the four that have given them up), but who gave the country with more weapons of mass destruction than any other the right to decide who else can have them? Iran is a sovereign state, not a US colony.

Some news stories merely appear to state the obvious, so one wonders what's the point of printing them: "China rulers 'silencing dissent'" (surprise, surprise); or The Standard's report that former psychiatric patients in Hong Kong do better with outreach support after being discharged, a message tragically reinforced by the murder/suicide in Tin Shui Wai a few days after the publication of that entirely predictable research finding.

Some stories make you think: while ATV News was saying something like "these are the nine men who will steer China's course for the next five years" when the new Politburo Standing Committee was wheeled out a few days ago, I was thinking not of the balance between various factions of the party, but how come with half a billion to choose from, they can't find a single representative of China's women to include?

Other stories are questionable or even deliberately misleading. The Morning Post's front page story last Sunday that Burmese monks were trained in nonviolent protest techniques by the American-backed National Endowment for Democracy could be taken as suggesting that the US government was behind the recent wave of protests in Burma - certainly the military regime will seize on the opportunity to claim this. In fact Burmese sources make it clear that, while a few monks may have attended these courses, the uprising against the vicious and corrupt dictatorship was essentially spontaneous and (sadly) uncoordinated.

Incidentally, it's interesting to observe that some news media (BBC, ATV) still use the name Burma, while others (TVB, Morning Post) have switched to Myanmar. Personally I continue to refer to the country as Burma (and its former capital as Rangoon, not Yangon), because its people were never given any choice in the change of name, any more than they were in the change of capital.

Sometimes poor choices of words can be amusing, as when ATV declared on 12 September that, following an injury to one of its players, the US team in the Women's World Cup was a man down for ten minutes. Er... there is a difference, you know.

Other mistakes are just careless: the Sloppy Morning Post on Sunday captioned a photo of a light plane crash as being in Montreal when it was actually in Richmond, BC - only 4,800 km away by road. At least they got the country right, but Canada is an awfully big country! By a happy coincidence, the same issue placed a picture of the odious Australian PM John Howard next to the caption "Teacher denies molesting boys". I had to look more closely to see that the two were unrelated!

Perhaps my favourite part of the news is the quirky little "what the..." stories that are often used as filler in the papers or closing items for the TV news. Several recent headlines on the BBC website are good examples: "J K Rowling outs Dumbledore as gay"; "Man, 24, loses 82-year-old wife", and "Monkeys kill Delhi deputy mayor". The last story itself is rather tragic, but for Hong Kongers there is something else noteworthy about it: the aggressive monkeys responsible, rhesus macaques, are the same species as those that live around Kowloon Reservoir in Hong Kong's Kam Shan Country Park. As they used to say on Hill Street Blues, "Be careful out there".

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Finally, some bloody good news!

Only this morning, I was complaining about all the bad news we've been getting recently. Finally, there is some effing good news: according to a recent study, swearing at work can help reduce stress. Remind me to try it.

Death in the Deep

I'd really like to blog about more nice happy things, but just about everything I read these days is full of more depressing news. Like this story: not content with murdering over a million Iraqis (so far), the US military (with some civilian help) are also killing off the largest creatures we share our tiny planet with.

How much longer will we tolerate having the world run by the idiots who do this sort of thing?

Making It Better:
Save the Whales Again: Stop Deadly Underwater Sounds!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Oops! There goes another 747!

If China Airlines' appalling safety record wasn't reason enough already to avoid them, this picture (taken from a spam email I received advertising their cargo services) won't do much to increase your confidence in their navigational abilities. By my reckoning, if the plane is really at the location shown here, it's about to slam into The Peak!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

How to start a riot

"You Must be From Away" has an entertaining account of the policing of the Republican Party convention in Mainz (that's Germany's far right nutters, not the far right nutters in the American White House).

No fireworks there, but where riots do occur at such events, my view is that the authorities often create problems for themselves by over-zealous security measures. Protesters want to be seen and heard by those they are protesting against, to make their anger felt. So long as they can achieve this, most of them will be content to shout their slogans and wave their banners peacefully.

However, politicians are so paranoid today (not surprisingly when you consider how heavily their guilty consciences must weigh on them) that they invariably seek - as at most recent WTO conferences, for example - to have protests swept away out of sight and hearing (if not banned altogether, as in London this past Monday) to a remote "designated protest zone" miles away from the action, so they will not have to be reminded of their own culpability. Deprived of the opportunity to get their message across to the delegates and/or the public, some of the protesters will inevitably try to break through police cordons to get closer to the meeting, leading to clashes and sometimes full scale rioting. So whose fault is that?

Shame, Shame, Shame

Shame on the CIA, which seized German citizen Khaled el-Masri in Madedonia in 2004, suspecting him of al-Qaeda membership, and flew him to a secret prison in Afghanistan, where he was tortured for four months, before realising they'd got the wrong man and dumping him in Albania.

Shame on the US Supreme Court for refusing to hear el-Masri's case against the CIA, after the US government intervened to claim that the case should not proceed because state secrets might be revealed. As el-Masri's brief to the court says, this means that, "The privilege as asserted by the government and as construed by the court of appeals ... has permitted dismissal of these suits on the basis of a government affidavit alone—without any judicial examination of the purportedly privileged evidence. Accordingly, a broad range of executive misconduct has been shielded from judicial review after the perpetrators themselves have invoked the privilege to avoid adjudication." Or in non-legal language, the government is entitled to treat its own wrongdoing as a state secret and is therefore immune from accountability for it before the courts.

And shame on the German government for failing to protect its own citizen's rights by dropping its arrest warrants for the CIA operatives involved, after the US government indicated that it would block any extradition request.

Dirty deeds done in the dark, by countries that claim to be civilised - and then they wonder why so much of the Islamic world regards the west as morally bankrupt.

Serious Stuff

Headline of the week: "Lindsay Lohan Says Rehab Was 'Sobering'".

Er - isn't that supposed to be the point?

Former teen star Lindsay Lohan is best known for periodically declaring that she wants to be taken seriously as an actress - in between episodes of being photographed by the paparazzi without her knickers on after nights out getting drunk with Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and other equally serious(ly knickerless) celebrities.

Still, given that most popular newspapers have largely given up any pretence of covering real news, I suppose it gives the press something to fill their pages with.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

SCMP: Supine Cowardly Morning Post

Text of an email I just received from, organisers of the petition on Burma which has now reached 600,000 signatures:

"Dear friends,

Today, our petition to China and the UN Security Council to stop the brutal crackdown on peaceful Burmese protesters is being delivered to the world in a full page ad in the Financial Times worldwide -- but the ad was rejected by other newspapers like the South China Morning Post and the Singapore Straits Times. Our message is an invitation to China to do the right thing in Burma, not an attack -- yet even that seemed too much for media that fear Chinese reprisals."

Sadly, this will not surprise anyone in Hong Kong, where the SCMP is well known for its craven subservience to China. Nor will it be much of a surprise to Singaporeans, whose country, which has a far from free press, just happens to be one of the biggest foreign investors in Burma. Obviously money talks far louder than human decency in both places.

Friday, October 05, 2007

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch - but breakfast...

It is an economic truism that "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch". Breakfast, however, may be a different matter...

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine stopped off at a small local restaurant in Mongkok for breakfast on his way to work. After he ordered, four mainland men sat down at the next table and immediately lit up cigarettes, in contravention of Hong Kong's 2005 law banning smoking in restaurants. Not wishing to have his enjoyment of his meal spoiled by their illegal action, my friend asked the waitress to tell them to stop smoking. Perhaps fearing a confrontation, she ignored his request and did nothing.

A little while later, he asked another waitress to tell the men to stop. She also did nothing. My friend hastily finished his food, then walked over to the cash desk (it was one of those little cafes where you pay on the way out), tore up the bill in front of the cashier, informed her he was refusing to pay, and asked her to call the police.

The cashier called the manager over. After an exchange of words in which my friend continued to press his point, the manager got fed up with the whole situation and told my friend to get lost, or words to that effect - which he did.

Obviously he won't be welcome in that restaurant again, which doesn't bother him in the least. He does have one regret, however; in his words:
"If I'd known I was going to get a free meal, I would have ordered something more expensive!"

Making It Better:
Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Burma - You Can Help

The continuing tragedy in Burma has been much on my mind for the past week or two. I don't have time now to write all I want to say about the depressing situation there, but I do just want to get the word out to as many people as possible about the global petition to China (Burma's main trading partner and ally) and the United Nations, urging them to put more pressure on Burma's brutal military dictatorship, which is now arresting thousands of peaceful protesters and, according to reliable sources, massacring many of them, particularly monks. Half a million signatures have already been gathered - please add yours now (link below), and tell others.

Making it Better: Stand with the Burmese protesters

Cuba Libre; America Unfree

It's very rare indeed for me to agree with anything George W. Bush says, but his recent comments at the UN General Assembly concerning the lack of human rights in Cuba deserve attention. It is well documented that there is a concentration camp on the island where hundreds of prisoners, many of them kidnapped from other countries, have been kept under armed guard in appalling conditions, often including long periods of solitary confinement, for years. They are denied internationally recognised human rights, interrogated under torture, refused legal representation, and not allowed visits from their families or friends. Some have even been driven to suicide.

All this, of course is in the US-controlled corner of the island, at Guantanamo Bay. I am sure the rest of the Cuban population are yearning to experience such "freedom" for themselves.

Meanwhile, while Bush calls for democracy around the world at the UN, he says nothing when his own military chief bluntly declares in his presence that the American people cannot vote to end the war in Iraq. Nor does he correct General Pace's blatant lie that Iraq declared war on the USA. With a democracy like this, who needs dictatorship?

I often wonder if Bush actually believes his own bullshit, or if he is conscious of his hypocrisy. At the least, he must be experiencing some degree of cognitive dissonance, which could explain the perpetual slightly puzzled look on his face, as if he can't quite understand why reality won't conform to his own perceptions of the world.

Those perceptions, of course, like those of General Pace and most of the rest of the subhuman crew in Washington, are shaped by their oft-proclaimed religious principles. Perhaps they should actually read the book they claim to live by; for Bush, I recommend Matthew 7:5 as a good starting point.