Sunday, December 19, 2010

Keeping up with the news

I usually pride myself on keeping up with what's going on in the world. Just a moment ago, for the first time ever, I scored a resounding zero out of seven in the BBC's weekly news quiz. Obviously I'm losing my touch. You try it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Come on, it's not the Spanish Inquisition

The Catholic dioxese in Hong Kong has won a legal battle which will enable it to challenge the constitutionality of the government's education reforms in court. The Chirch objects to a government policy requiring aided schools to set up management committees, 40% of whose members will be drawn from parents, alumni, teachers and government representatives. The Church argues that this contravenes its right under the Basic Law to control its own schools.

Fair enough, but the key word here is "aided" - meaning subsidised by the taxpayer. There is a very simple solution to this problem - if the Catholic Church wants 100% control, then it should also provide 100% of the schools' financing. If public money is involved, it is not unreasonable to require some degree of public accountability over its spending.
Otherwise the Church is trying to "render unto God that which belongs to Caesar", and should be firmly rebuffed.

City Limits

Memo to ATV News: if Luton is "on the outskirts of London", then Sheung Shui is "on the outskirts of Kowloon". No skirts are that far out.

And while you're paying attention, can you tell one of your reporters that Chan is not pronounced "Charn"? As the most common surname in Hong Kong, it shouldn't require a pronunciation guide.

Friday, December 10, 2010

IgNobel Support

With imprisoned Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in enforced absentia today, China’s fearsome Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu has again been required to spout nonsense with a straight face, solemnly declaring that “most of the world” supports China’s opposition to the awarding of the Prize to Liu. “Most of the world” apparently means the 17 countries other than China which have declined to send an official representative to the award ceremony – out of 65 embassies invited, and representing less than ten percent of the world’s almost 200 nations. One country, Serbia, has reversed its earlier decision not to attend.

The BBC analyses the reasons behind these countries’ boycott of the event. Broadly they either object to a dissident receiving the prize for fear of encouraging their own internal opposition movements, or have close economic ties with China and fear reprisals from the PRC. But really, what a sad list of countries to parade in support!

Several of them (*) score highly on the Failed States Index: Three of them (plus China) are ruled by leaders who feature in the list of the World’s Ten Worst Dictators (#), which also includes several other close allies of China. Four of them are among the world’s heaviest users of the barbaric death penalty (&), a list again led by China (though the supposedly civilised United States also ranks highly, to its shame). And several of them appear on Transparency International’s list of the world's most corrupt countries (@), while several others (including Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan and Pakistan) are not far off inclusion in this category..

Almost all countries on the list are repressive and authoritarian dictatorships, and in most of them, a wealthy ruling elite enriches itself while the majority of the population lives in dire poverty. Afghanistan, for example, has the world’s second or third highest infant mortality rate, and an average life expectancy of 44 (Japanese live nearly twice as long, with Hong Kong a close second). Pakistan and Morocco have literacy rates barely above half the population. Saudi Arabia denies women the right to vote in local elections – and indeed most other rights; for example, they are not allowed to drive. In at least three countries on the list, it is doubtful whether the results of the most recent national election truly reflect the people’s will (%). Both Saudi Arabia and Iran strictly limit religious freedom, while Vietnam also does so to a lesser extent. And in Sudan, the government has done little or nothing to stop the ongoing genocide in Darfur.

With friends like these, China does indeed enjoy impressive support – from a handful of the world’s most backward, repressive and corrupt countries. Here’s the list:

  • Russia – the only major nation on the list, an ostensibly democratic country where almost all media outlets are now controlled by the government, organised crime has tentacles everywhere, and local democracy has been replaced by central government appointment of provincial governors.
  • Saudi Arabia [# &] – an absolute monarchy where the royal family enforces strict Islam at home while many of its members make frequent overseas trips to enjoy the illicit pleasures they deny to their subjects.
  • Kazakhstan
  • Algeria
  • Tunisia
  • Pakistan [*]
  • Sri Lanka [%]
  • Iraq [* & @]
  • Iran [# & %]
  • Vietnam [&]
  • Afghanistan [* @ %]
  • Venezuela [@]
  • Egypt [&]
  • Sudan [* # & @]
  • Cuba
  • Morocco.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Three-Legged Tool

What is this obsession that Hong Kong shops have with giving you a free tripod every time you buy a camera? I just treated myself to a new Nikon D7000 (I still love film, but my all-time favourite film, Kodachrome 200, is no longer made, and my old film photographic gear is getting worn out), so Fortress threw in a tripod with it. When we bought a movie camera, free tripod. Compact digital camera, free tripod.

The problem is that cheap tripods are generally no use. To be effective, a tripod needs a certain degree of weight, rigidity and solidity - qualities I looked for when I bought a Cullman tripod, with the added advantage that its interchangeable shoe also fits my Cullman monopod and shoulder/table pod. Now I'm stuck with several unneeded giveaway tripods that are too flimsy and flexible for serious photography. Anyone want one?

With most things in life, it's worth searching for a bargain. But one thing I've learned in life is when it comes to tools (and a tripod is a photographic tool), always go for the best, not the cheapest.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Safety First

I never used to take too seriously Aussie jokes about Kiwis being, so to say, a few sheep short of a flock, but seeing New Zealand's apparent failure to grasp the concept of emergency rescue, I'm beginning to wonder if there may be something to them after all.

In the recent mine disaster there, rescuers were kept waiting on standby for severasl days on the basis that the mine was still full of dangerous gases. Finally a second explosion extinguished any lingering hopes that the trapped miners might still be alive.

Going by this policy, presumably New Zealand does not allow its firefighters to rush into burning buildings to save fire victims until the fire has gone out, or its lifeboatmen to set out to sea to save those aboard a sinking ship until the storm that causes the sinking has died down?

Better not send any doctors to Haiti, either - they might catch cholera.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It was Christmas time at the synagogue

In case you haven't already picked up on it from every music blog around, Paul Simon has released a free MP3 download of a new Christmas song as a foretaste of his coming album. Iit's all over the Web, but if you pick it up here you can read the lyrics as well.

But what, I wondered, is Simon, a Jew, doing writing about Christmas? Well, it turns out he's part of a long tradition. About half the most popular Christmas songs - including perhaps the all-time favourite, White Christmas - are by Jewish songwriters. You can read the stories of some of them here - including how Irving Berlin, composer of White Christmas, did not himself enjoy the holiday after one of his children died on that day. And there are plenty more songs not in the list, including Elvis Presley's Santa Claus Is Back in Town, written by the brilliant Jewish duo Leiber and Stoller.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Dental care - or should that be caries?

Suddenly it's Christmas
Right after Halloween
--Loudon Wainwright III

In Watson's Star House branch in Tsimshatsui today, two sections of shelves labelled "Oral Care" were stacked full with ... chocolate bars. Must be some new dental treatment I'm not familiar with.

Or perhaps there just wasn't rrom for them in the "Snacks" section, which was filled with obviously inedible plush teddy bears in Santa Claus caps. I guess you'd need the chocolate to get the furry taste out of your mouth.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Next door across town

Another ATV news boo-boo - tonight they described Chelsea Football Club's victory over "cross-town rivals" Fulham. Not cross-town rivals - that would be Spurs, Arsenal or West Ham. Look at the map and you'll see that Chelsea and Fulham are practically next=door neighbours.

Tainted Government

China's government has become much more adept at public relations over the past two decades, but once in a while they do something so stupid you have to wonder where their brains have gone. Such a misstep is the jailing of consumer protection activist Zhao Lianhai, who fought for compensation for victims of the so-called tainted milk scandal. What the hell were they thinking of? The clear message this sends to the world is that China puts the protection of baby-killers ahead of justice for their victims. That's really going to boost consumer confidence in the safety of Chinese products, isn't it? Idiots!

And while we're on the subject, can we get the vocabulary right? "Tainted" suggests accidental contamination, as in the Perrier case a few years ago. The correct word for deliberately introducing impurities into a product is adulteration.

As for what goes on in the mind of an industrialist who deliberately adulterates their product with a substance they know will be harmful - possibly deadly - to consumers, I have no idea. It's common enough to put profits before people, but at the cost of their lives? It's ironic that many of the worst excesses of capitalism now seem to occur in the world's largest "socialist" country.

Sunday, November 07, 2010


Has anyone else noticed that every time a mobile phone rings in a TVB drama series, the ring tone is always the same? Can the TVB props department really only afford one phone?

Saturday, October 30, 2010


President Barack Obama has, unfortunately, not done a very good job of cleaning up the mess left by his predecessor. America is still deeply embroiled in two distant wars that look increasingly unlikely (if they ever did) to achieve anything of benefit. And unemployment remains high following the financial crisis which resulted from the previous government's letting big bankers run wild. Even the Gulf oil spill, though it occurred under Obama, can be blamed on the lax regulatory regime instituted during the Bush ers - but Obama's administration is perceived as not having handled it well.

So how are American voters going to punish the Democrats for their ineffective handling of these problems? If polls can be believed, probably by handing control of Congress back to the very party that created all the problems in the first place, and has come up with no better plan for resolving them. Pretty smart, huh? I am reminded of Winston Churchill's maxim that "Democracy is the worst political system, except for all the others".

On the other hand, perhaps they may have been deterred from considering a possible third party vote by looking at Britain, where millions of people voted for the Liberal Democrats because they were sick of "New" Labour and didn't want the Tories back in, only to see their leaders jump into bed with the Tories in their greed for a share of power. In the end, another political maxim says it all: "Whichever party you vote for, the government always gets in".

Friday, October 29, 2010

Wake-Up Call

I added the Hong Kong Observatory to my RSS feeds a while back, then forgot all about it because it never actually fed me anything. Suddenly yesterday it's woken up and started actually feeding me local weather forecasts.

Perhaps this is a sign that there is hope for the Hong Kong government yet. Now I am waiting eagerly for other government departments to similarly stir from their slumbers and get on with what needs doing around here: rein in the big property companies, extend recycling, move quickly towards full democracy, fulfil the long-delayed promise to extend the North Lantau Country Park, clean up the air, reform the widely abused village house policy, conserve what little is left of the city's architectural heritage, spend police effort getting dangerous drivers off the roads instead of giving out unnecessary parking tickets, and a million other things.

Dream on...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Go to the mirror, boy

In its latest objection to the Nobel Peace Prize, China complained that awarding the prize to a convicted criminal "shows disrespect for China's judicial system".

Well, yes. Maybe they should ask themselves why.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Hovering up and down

ATV's weather report tonight reported that the relative humidity today "hovered between 76 and 94 percent". I wonder if they know what "hover" means - if we see a helicopter hovering, we expect it to stay at approximately the same height above the ground. If its height varied between 75 and 96 feet above the ground, perhaps "yoyoing" would be a more appropriate term - or even "oscillating" if the variation is repeated regularly. Why don't they say "fluctuated" instead?

Alternative History

Beijing, 8 October 2010 - Foreign Office spokeswoman Jiang Yu, her characteristic beaming smile even broader than usual, today expressed the Chinese government's pleasure at the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. "The entire nation shares in congratulating Liu on the award of this great honour, whose tireless work for human rights and democracy in China has benefited and endeared him to so many of our people." Jiang said. "A prestigious international honour given to any Chinese citizen is a matter of national pride for China."

Sadly the above is of course not the way it went - instead the sour-faced Jiang delivered her usual predictable stern lecture about not interfering in China's internaal affairs, and how it was shameful that such an honour should be given to someone China regards as a criminal. (Curious how many Nobel Peace Prize laureates have been regarded as criminals by their own governments in their time - Nelson Mandela and the still imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi come to mind - and even former terrorists such as Menachem Begin and Yasser Arafat.)

So the opening paragraph above can be regarded as a piece of alternative history - a genre which has always fascinated me. The Man in the High Castle, Pavane, Bring the Jubilee - these were all on my reading list as a teenager. The great thing about such works is that by presenting a different yet strangely similar world to our own, they invite us to think about how even small changes could transform the world we live in.
"Some men see things as they are and say why - I dream things that never were and say why not." - George Bernard Shaw

P.S. Actually it appears they may have used a different spokesperson yesterday - which means that my "reality" is yet another alternate universe. Oh well.

And what is all this stuff about "China's first Nobel Peace Prize winner"? Since China insists that Tibetans are Chinese, shouldn't that be the second? They should feel doubly proud.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

That's, like, a smart career move, Emma

Amid the predictable furore over actress Emma Thompson's attack on sloppy language (good for her, I say), there seems to have been little comment on her statement in the same interview that she would not consider having cosmetic surrgery, something she described as "psychologically dysfunctional".

This may be a good career move on her part. With the passing of Gloria Stuart at age 100, there is hardly an older actress left in Hollywood who isn't trapped in some weird unnatural timewarp of facelifts and Botox. Therefore when a producer needs an actress to play an old woman convincingly, he picks up the phone and makes a Transatlantic casting call to Judi Dench or Maggie Smith. When they retire or pass away, Emma will be the natural choice for such roles in future.

Incidentally, she is not the only entertainer to object to the current misuse of the word "like" - Loudon Wainwright III cleverly wrote a song attacking the practice without ever once mentioning the actual word in the song. Unfortunately I can't remember its name right now.

PS - it's called Cobwebs and you can find it on Loudon's Grown Man CD.
Disclaimer - I get a small commission from Amazon UK if you buy the CD through the picture link here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Like "Mother" Like Daughter?

The BBC reports today that Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler are to become judges on American Idol. No big surprise, but the picture they used on their front page amused me - it looks like one of those "mother and daughter" shots - add 30 years to Lopez's age and see what she could look like. Yuck!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

No Car No Go

Yesterday was supposedly No Car Day (not a smart time to choose, on a Chinese festival evening when everyone in Hong Kong leaves work early and rushes home to celebrate with their family). So of course senior members of the government were all seen making their token once-a-year trip on public transport. But you just know that they'll be back in their chauffeur-driven Beemers and Benzes today. In three decades in Hong Kong I have only once seen a LegCo or ExCo member on public transport - Szeto Wah, when he was still in LegCo, sat across from me on the MTR one evening. So next time you wonder why public transport fares are allowed to go up by more than the rate of inflation, or why there are so few cycle paths in urban Hong Kong, ask yourself how these decisions look through the eyes of decision makers who have no idea how the ordinary person gets around.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

If you can't see it and can't touch it, it may not be there

Ulaca has already commented on the speech by 1967-rioter-turned-Home Affairs Secretary Tsang Tak Sing announcing Hong Kong's exciting plans to bid for the 2023 Asian Games. However, it simply cries out for another of our Orwellian deconstructions of politicians' utterances. Let us quote it first:
"It will put Hong Kong on the map and reinforce Hong Kong’s position as Asia’s World City, which will bring in long-term, though perhaps intangible, benefits."

What does this mean in plain English?

It will remind people [unnecessarily] that Hong Kong exists and has pretensions to being a world city. We can't think of any other real benefits at the moment, but we want to go ahead anyway.

Whenever a politician talks about intangible benefits, you can be sure that the tangible benefits are rather thin on the ground.

This case raises a number of interesting points about Hong Kong's peculiar system of governance. For a start, it will no doubt give the government an excuse to construct another quasi-national stadium, when we already have a very good one which is criminally underused. This is largely because the government caved in to pressure from a handful of nearby residents and refuses to allow it to be used for concerts, thereby both wasting a valuable community resource and denying Hong Kong people the opportunity to enjoy performances by major stars for whom no other venue in the city is capacious enough. The fact that there was already a stadium on the site long before most of the residences around it were built, and that the inhabitants should therefore have expected occasional noise when they moved in, seems to carry no weight.

This plan also illustrates the tendency for such schemes in Hong Kong to be cooked up behind closed doors. Witness the presence of Timothy Fok, the man the media like to describe as Hong Kong's Olympic supremo, at the announcement. Despite having the worst attendance record of any Legislative Council member, Fok seems to be able to persuade the government to go along with anything he wants to do.

Fok also exemplifies one of the failings of the Functional Constituency system - despite supposedly representing the Sport, the Arts and Culture constituency Fok, ubiquitous at any major sporting event, doesn't seem to know his arts from his elbow. When was the last time he was seen at a Hong Kong Philharmonic concert or a performance by the Hong Kong Ballet? Effectively, this means the Arts are unrepresented in LegCo, with no one to fight for funding for them

Another point illustrated by this case is Hong Kong's warped financial priorities. The government is happy to spend money it admits will be unrecoverable on a sporting event, while insisting there is no cash in the kitty to invest in the city's future by taking advantage of falling birth rates to reduce class sizes in secondary schools. The schools already exist, the teachers are already trained - at public expense, and it is almost universally agreed by educationists that smaller classes obtain better results, but the government claims that using these already existing resources would be too costly. What can you do with people who think like this?

Monday, September 20, 2010

That'll Learn 'em!

In the latest spat over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Chinese demonstrators have been calling for a boycott of Japanese goods. This is an excellent way to punish Japan - if no one buys their products, it will force Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, Sanyo, Canon, Konica Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, NEC, Toyota, etc., etc. to shut down their factories in China, throwing millions of Chinese employees out of work. That'll certainly learn ' on a minute...

Well thought out, indeed. Equally thoughtless are China's calls for the immediate release of the fishing boat captain at the heart of the row. This seems to be a case of double standards - if a Japanese boat ran into a Chinese coastguard vessel in disputed waters, does anyone seriously think China would just give him a token slap on the wrist and put him on the next plane home? So why should they expect Japan to do so?

Note: I take no position on the rightful ownership of the disputed islands - frankly I have no idea which nation has the better claim to them. I comment only on how the dispute is handled.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

More money than sense

So George Michael has (again) joined the long list of celebrities found driving under the influence of various substances, legal or otherwise - a list that in the last few years has included Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie and Mel Gibson.

What puzzles me is why? These people have truckloads of money - Michael's estimated fortune is US$90 million; Hilton inherited less of her father's fortune than she expected, but makes millions herself each year; Lohan reportedly makes US$7.5 million per film, though relatively poor Richie has to make do with a net worth of a mere US$5 million (still more than many people earn in several lifetimes), far less than Gibson's estimated US%850 million pile (about to be severely depleted by his impending divorce, but still leaving him enormously wealthy). Any of them could easily afford to hire a chauffeur. So why is it that someone who thinks nothing of ordering a thousand dollar bottle of champagne is seemingly too mean to fork out a hundred bucks for a taxi ride home after a night on the town?

Is it simple stupidity? Or could it be that their egos are so swollen they truly believe their desire to drive themselves is more important than the safety of everyone else on the road? Or both?

Incidentally, the word stupid is etymologically related to "stupour" (stupor for Anericans), which is what George Michael seems determined to spend the rest of his life in. A great pity for someone so talented.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Doctor of what, Father of where?

For some reason, the Hong Kong media have recently started to refer to Ocean Park CEO Allen Zeman as "Dr Zeman". However, I have been unable to discover what he is supposedly a doctor of.

The other nystery about Zeman is why the media constantly refer to him to as "the Father of Lan Kwai Fong". Those old enough to remember how the area got started on its development into an entertainment district know that this title should rightfully belong to the late, and now almost forgotten, Gordon Huthart. The South China Morning Post (surprisingly) tells his story sympathetically. [You may have to Google it, as somehow Google gets round the Post's subscription-on;y front door.]

RSS Feeds - any recommendations?

Bloglines, the RSS aggregator I've been using for the past couple of years, is closing down. Any recommendations on what to use instead? It must be a) free and b) simple.

All suggestions gratefully received.

Friday, September 10, 2010

You know you're getting old when...

... you walk along Lockhart Road in Wanchai and the bargirls hanging around in front of the nightclubs, who used to be half your age, are now one third of it.

But I had another reminder the other day that I'm not getting any younger. Receiving HK Magazine's latest email, I saw that they were offering valuable prizes for those completing their annual "Readers' Choice Awards" survey. OK, I thought, the prizes seem quite attractive - let's have a go.
  • Best brunch - Cafe Deco on Sundays. Easy so far.
  • Best dim sum - hmmm, I don't often go for dim sum, and then only where the wife's family decides to go.
I would have thought of somewhere, I suppose, but then it got harder:
  • Best new restaurant; Best new coffee shop - I can't think of the last time I went to a new eating place (as opposed to visiting an old one for the first time). Anyway, restaurants, like jeans, are more comfortable when they've been worn for a while.
  • Best new dining trend - I have absolutely no idea.
  • Best place to take a date - nowhere if I don't want my wife to kill me.
  • Best restaurant to blow your expense account on - since I don't have one, I can't afford to eat at that kind of restaurant anyway, so how would I know?
  • Best new club - I think it's about 20 years since I last went clubbing.
  • Bets new bar - does the King's Belly in Taipo count? Actually it's not new, just a new name for After 5 when it changed ownership. My favourite bars/pubs in Hong Kong don't even exist any more - the original Mad Dogs in Wyndham Street, and the Frog & Toad out on Lantau. These days if I do go out for a drink, it's usually to Delaney's.
  • Best local DJ -I don't think I can even name a local DJ except Ray Cordeiro, and somehow I don't think he's the type they have in mind.
  • Best clothing store - does the Ten Dollar T-Shirt outlet in Causeway Bay count? Being tall, I tend to stock up on clothes when I visit Europe or Canada - most of the stuff here doesn't fit me (shoes too).
  • Favorite fashion brand (note the American spelling) - whatever fits me and doesn't cost too much.
  • Best gym - haven't been to one for years - or to a yoga studio ever.
  • Best spa - the one my wife takes me to, I guess -I can't remember the name.
  • Best new mobile phone - if it existed, would be one with a large enough screen to actually let me read it; failing that, anything that makes and receives calls.
And so on - you get the picture. They do eventually get to some questions I could answer:
  • Best beach - I'm not telling you because I like the fact that it's usually deserted. Ditto for Best Hong Kong hideaway, but by now I'd given up.
So, I conclude that I am either:
  • An out-of-touch old fogey who's totally clueless about all the important trends around town; or
  • A mature individual who's grown out of his juvenile fascination with trendiness and the pursuit of novelty for its own sake.
And you?

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Stamp Vultures

I;m sure I'm not the only shopper who's irritated by the stamp vultures - those people who hang around the exits from Wellcome supermarkets - particularly the one in Great George Street in Causeway Bay - pestering departing shoppers for their gift stamps.

What's with these people? When the giveaways were something with some intrinsic value, like cooking pots or luggage, I could understand it. But the current offerings are just unremarkable stuffed toys. How many Shreks can one person need?

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Reach out and touch...

A fundamentalist Christian church in the US is planning to mark the anniversary of the September 11 World Trade Centre attacks by burning copies of the Koran - thereby ensuring that more Muslim fundamentalists will be enraged into carrying out further acts of terrorism.

This is pretty much the kind of intolerance and mutual lack of understanding one expects from religious fundamentalists on both sides of the Muslim/Christian divide. What makes it noteworthy is the name of the church concerned - the Dove World Outreach Centre. They certainly know how to reach out to the Muslim world, don't they? Perhaps some Muslims should reach out to them by burning copies of the Bible outside their church. All in the spirit of peace symbolised by the dove, of course.

Fact: Islam also recognises the Bible as a holy book - though fundamentalists on both sides seem unaware of this. Or indeed of anything much except their own bigotry.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Invasion of the Great White Dolphins

ATV News a minute ago brought the welcome news that a large pod of the rare Chinese White Dolphin has been spotted off Shantou - the largest group of the endangered creatures seen for some years. However, according to ATV, the dolphins can grow up to 350 metres in length - more than a third of a kilometre.

memo to ATV - try moving the decimal point two places to the left. Otherwise I shall start to wonder what the Daya Bay nuclear poweer station is pouring into the South China Sea.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Catherine's Cancer Karma

Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones has recently declared in interviews that she is furious with her husband Michael Douglas's doctors for not detecting his throat cancer earlier. And well she may be, but perhaps she should be turning her fury in a different direction. Zeta-Jones has often been quoted as a vocal advocate of the so-called right to smoke - and has even been reported to travel by private plane so that she and her husband can smoke during their journeys.

It is well known that smoking is the most common cause of throat cancer. If you spend your time defending and indulging in dangerous behaviour, perhaps you should look in the mirror when it comes back to bite you - or your loved ones - in the throat.

P.S To be fair to the Douglases, after posting this I read that they have been trying to quit smoking in recent years - with what degree of success, I have no idea. Anyway, this is not meant to be a personal attack - I have enjoyed both their movies over the years, and wish Michael a speedy recovery.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Blair in the Brown Stuff

It's been a while since we had one of our stories where, in the tradition of George Orwell, we translate the language of politics into straightforward English. Appropriately, today's example comes from the just-published memoirs of Tony Blair, never a man to say what he means straight out if he can make it sound better with a little obfuscation. To quote the BBC, speaking of his successor:

Blair argued that, had he sacked or demoted the Chancellor, "the party and the government would have been severely and immediately destabilised and his [Gordon Brown's] ascent to the office of Prime Minister would probably have been even faster".

In plain English, what this means is: If I'd sacked Brown, he would have stirred up the party against me and grabbed my job earlier. So what sounds on first reading like a principled decision in the interests of the party and the country turns out to be a self-serving calculation on how best Blair could hang on to his job at the top.

In tennis, six means something

Is there anyone at ATV News who understands tennis? After telling us in tonight's broadcast how Rafael Nadal had an "easy" first round victory at the US Open, they then gave us the score: 7-6, 7-6, 6-3. Need I say more?

P.S. TVB's late news talked about Nadal's "smooth path" to the second round, but did at least mention that he was on court for 3 hours - not usually a sign of an easy victory.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Understanding the Australian election

As both main parties in Australia struggle to form a viable minority government, another in our series of single sentence explanations that make everything clear. This one came from a friend in Melbourne.

"Neither major political party deserved to win - and they didn't!"

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Easy for you to say

Following yesterday's tragic events in Manila, Hong Kong politicians from Chief Executive Donald Tsang downwards have been quick to express their anger at the handling of the hostage situation by the Philippines police. It is of course easy to sit back in a comfortable room in front of your big screen TV and pass judgement in such cases. Perhaps they should give a thought to whether the right course of action is so obvious when you are out there with inadequate protection facing an armed kidnapper in torrential rain. Yes, the Philippines police appeared to lack training, equipment and leadership - all the fault of politicians, not the officers themselves. Despite this, they put their lives on the line, facing gunfire and eventually successfully rescuing at least some of the hostages alive. Don't they deserve some credit for this?

As for the Hong Kong government placing the Philippines on its tourism blacklist, advising against travel to the country, this is a silly knee-jerk reaction. The proper use of this mechanism is in cases where the security situation in a country presents a general threat to visitors, such as in Bangkok a few months ago during the clashes between the government and redshirt protesters. There is no such general danger in the Philippines - the biggest risk most Hong Kong tourists face there, unless they visit the remoter parts of Mindanao, is that of the occasional pickpocket and the country's appalling driving standards, both of which can be found much closer to home.

This was a one-off incident of a disgruntled armed nutcase running amok and killing innocent people who just happened to be there at the time. Such incidents happen from time to time in many countries, including in recent years Canada, the UK, the USA and China. It is hard to imagine the Hong Kong government advising against travel to any of those countries had a similar event occurred there.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

I'm In, You're Too Late

Another of the little ironies that make life interesting: both Australia's two main party leaders, promising to get tough on immigration as part of their campaign for today's election, themselves arrived in Australia as Pommie immigrants.

When I hear people complain about asylum seekers, I think of my Huguenot ancestors - French Protestants who fled to England to escape persecution by the Catholic church - the same church, renowned for rampant child abuse, that would-be Aussie PN Tony Abbot belongs to.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Understanding Afghanistan

Sometimes one sentence is all you need to make sense of a complex situation. Last year in England I happened to ride in a taxi driven by an Afghan refugee. We got chatting, and he told me "All the politicians in my country are bandits, thieves and warlords". Just bear that in mind when watching the news.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Trouble and strife

Probably the silliest story of the week comes from Italy, where a mother complained to the police that a young woman on the beach was "troubling" her two sons, aged 12 and 14, by rubbing suntan oil into her "ample" breasts in a sensuous manner.

Having been a teenage boy myself, I can assure the mother that the only thing troubling her boys was probably their mother's presence at the scene.

"Used to wear iron shoes with ease"

Watching Aljazeera a couple of days ago, I saw a trailer for a coming programme on the experiences of a Liberian immigrant to the USA. What struck me about this is that the state of Liberia was founded as a refuge in their ancestral continent for freed slaves from the harsh treatment and oppression they faced in America. As a keen student of the ironies of history, I find it an interesting comment on changed racial attitudes in the USA that the flow of people is now in the other direction.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

A tunnel too far

Almost the first thing you learn when studying economics is the basic law of supply and demand. Simply put, lower prices increase demand, higher prices reduce it where substitutes are available.

For some reason, the management of the Western Harbour Tinnel seems never to have grasped this elementary rule. Their response to years of losses has always been, not to lower tolls in the hope of attracting more business, but to raise them even further, thereby driving yet more potential users to divert to the congested but much more affordable Cross-Harbour Tunnel between Hung Hom and Causeway Bay instead.

From tomorrow Western Harbour Tunnel fees, already the highest among the three tunnels beneath the harbour, will go up yet again. This could be an indication of chronic stupidity, but I suspect there is another agenda behind it. The company may figure that the government, exasperated by the impact of CHT congestion on traffic management, will eventually solve its problems by taking the Western Tunnel off its hands, implying that the company would receive substantial compensation and rid itself of a loss-making asset. Watch this space.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Silly Vanilli

32 years on, it emerges in a legal case that Belgian singer Plastic Bertrand did not actually sing on his big hit "Ca Plane Pour Moi". Never mind, it's still a fun record.
These days, of course, it makes no difference who actually sings on a pop record. Today's over-processed production style makes every song sound computer-generated anyway.

Disclaimer - I get a small commission from Amazon UK if you buy the CD through the picture link here.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

You learn something new every day

Did you know that a zebra's stripes form concentric rings around the base of its tail? No? Neither did I until I came face to face - well, face to backside - with this specimen.

So much to learn, so little time...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A small start

Israel is reported to have destroyed the homes of 300 Bedouin villagers in the Negev Desert which it claims were illegally built.

It is good news that Israel has made a start on destroying homes constructed illegally. Now perhaps they will get to work on demolishing the thousands of Jewish settlements erected on stolen Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, in clear violation of international law. But I'm not holding my breath....

Way off course

Oddest headline of the day: from the BBC News website, Sailor found dead in Afghanistan. Considering Afghanistan is a landlocked country, you'd have great difficulty sailing there!

The actual story, when read, turns out to be about the death of a US Navy man serving with the American forces there. Which brings us to the Wikileaks release of numerous documents suggesting that America's war effort in that country is also well of course. However, is anyone really surprised that the war is apparently going less well than we are led to believe from public statements? War is a matter of psychology as well as brute force; success depends partly on demoralising the enemy, so why would you want to let them know how badly they're hurting you?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The last place to look

A few months ago I lost my sunglasses - a rather good pair. I looked everywhere - in every drawer and bag I could possibly have left them in - but to no avail. Reluctantly (and expensively, because I need prescription lenses) I finally gave up and bought a new pair.

This morning, in preparation for a coming trip, I took out my video camera to recharge the battery, opened up the camera case, and there were my old sunglasses! I must have popped them in there while filming on our last trip, but really, who woulda thunka looking there? Oh well...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

My country 'tisn't of thee

As the World Cup kicks off in South Africa, it is hard to imagine any participating nation discouraging its citizens from flying the national flag in support of their team. Any nation, that is, except my native land, where my departure has clearly lowered the national average IQ even more than I previously thought.

English - as opposed to British - nationalism is rarely as fervent as the Scottish and Welsh varieties - there is no English Nationalist Party in Parliament, and unlike Scotland and Wales, England has no Parliament of its own. Only major sporting events generally bring out displays of English patriotism, when the cross of Saint George, England's patron saint, is seen more often than the United Kingdom's Union Flag ( as the Union Jack is properly called).

One of the reasons being given by killjoys for banning the flying of the flag is fears that it might appear racist. Where do these people live? Clearly they haven't noticed that England's football team has been racially integrated for two decades - indeed, several black players have captained it over the years, and mixed-race player Rio Ferdinand would be doing so in this tournament had he not been injured.

It is true that members of the odious British National Party like to cloak themselves in the flag, but singer Billy Bragg neatly put their bullshit into perspective when he pointed out that their anti-immigration policies would make St George, born in the Middle East, unwelcome in England. (Ironically, the YouTube clip was apparently posted by a BNP supporter). But then logic has never been racists' strong point - I am old enough to remember people arguing that no black player would ever be good enough to play for England - at the very time when Pele (certainly not white) was establishing his reputation as the greatest footballer of all time.

Thursday, June 03, 2010


Chutzpah: (Yiddish) unbelievable gall; insolence; audacity, effrontery

A multinational group of unarmed volunteers on an aid mission are sailing peacefully in international waters when a large gang of heavily armed men board their ships, shoot several of them dead, detain the rest, seize their vessels by force, confiscate their cargo of humanitarian supplies (which is found to contain no weapons), and steal their personal possessions. The legal name for this type of action is of course piracy. Some of those on board may have forcibly resisted the pirate incursion, as they are legally entitled to do, though accounts differ on this.

Just another day in the Middle East - but what males the episode even more bizarre is that the pirates then turn up at the UN Security Council claiming that their victims were in breach of international law and painting themselves as the victims of unwarranted violence. Chutzpah is not a word I use myself, but in this case I am irresistibly reminded of its Hebrew origins.

"Welcome to America, Captain Hook"
Though most countries express outrage, the USA, so quick to condemn piracy when it occurs off Somalia, is strangely hesitant to condemn the actions of the pirates on this occasion. Perhaps the next step should be for American peace activists to mount their own aid mission to Gaza in an American-registered ship. If it receives the same treatment, I wonder if public opinion in America will still let Israel get away with murder?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Swallow your poison now and you'll get ice cream later

The Hong Kong government's publicity walkabout yesterday and "Act now" promotional campaign for its constitutional reform package cannot disguise the essential hollowness of what the package contains.

The Functio0nal Constituencies lie at the heart of the lack of democracy in the present political system, unfairly giving certain selected groups a greater say in the makeup of the Legislative Council than ordinary voters, contrary to the democratic principle that everyone should have a free and equal say. Any proposal which seeks to increase the number of FCs is therefore poisoned from the start. However, the government's position asks the democratic parties to swallow this poison now in exchange for a vague promise of some more democratic system later.

The questions Audrey Eu should be asking Donald Tsang when they have their debate are:
  • Why should democrats accept a change which runs contrary to basic democratic principles?
  • Why is the government presenting this undemocratic move as a step - the only possible one, they claim - towards greater democracy?
  • Why is the government unable to come up with any reform proposal that reduces, rather than enlarges, the role of the FCs, and would therefore be acceptable to democrats as a transitional measure?
  • Given that it has twice presented poisoned proposals to LegCo, and on both occasions insisted that there is no alternative, is it really committed to democracy?
  • If not, why can't it just say so honestly, then we will all know where we stand?

Behind all this, of course, is the bigger question of Beijing's role in what's going on - but I don't think we're going to get open answers on that one.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Two Steps Up and One Step Down

After many years of public education, most Hong Kong people have by now grasped the basic rule of escalator etiquette: stand on the right and overtake on the left. Obviously, therefore, this is the perfect time for the Hong Kong government to launch its new TV advertising campaign, advising parents to stand next to their child on the escalator, holding hands, with both parent and child holding the handrail - thereby ensuring that no one can get past them.

Coming next in the government's diseducation series: "how to push your way onto trains and buses instead of joining the queue". That will be followed by "how to spit on the street".