Monday, December 31, 2007

Hong Kong - Ignoring the Sky

Looking at a list of the world's tallest skyscrapers, I find that Hong Kong has several entries in the top 100, including a couple I've never even heard of! My lack of awareness could either indicate how much we now take skyscrapers for granted here, or reflect the fact that we don't often notice how tall our buildings are because Hong Kong's appalling pall of smog hides the upper half of them from our sight.

Another reason may be that, unlike those almost everywhere else in the world, Hong Kong's skyscrapers do not incorporate public observation platforms. In a city that seeks to attract tourists, this seems daft to me, but I suspect the reasons are driven by financial considerations like most things here. Perhaps revenue from tourist admissions can't outweigh the exorbitant rents that high floors can command.

For the record, Hong Kong's entries are:
7. IFC Two
11. Central Plaza
12. Bank of China Tower
17. The Center
27. Nina Tower I
55. Cheung Kong Centre
68. The Cullinan I
69. The Cullinan II
90. Hotel Panorama

Hong Kong therefore accounts for 9% of the world's 100 tallest buildings, with another 7 entries in the next 100. Note that the list counts twin towers as two separate entries; if you prefer to count Petronas Towers (ranked 3 and 4) as a single building, then Hong Kong has two in the top ten.

China is well represented overall, with Shanghai, Beijing, Chongqing, Wuhan, Nanning and Guangzhou all in the top 100, as well as our neighbour Shenzhen at number 9. Taipei 101 heads the list, with Shanghai's new World Financial Centre just behind. Remarkably New York's majestic Empire State Building - the first of the world's great skyscrapers, dating back to 1931 - remains in the top ten today, thanks to al-Qaeda. Not for much longer, however - Dubai is now constructing a new building expected to top the list when completed.

Height rankings vary between lists depending on how they define a building - most lists exclude communications towers such as Toronto's CN Tower, the world's tallest free-standing man-made structure (North Dakota's even taller KVLY-TV Mast is supported by cables); how they measure masts, antennae and other twiddly bits on top of the buildings - see here; and when they regard a building as completed. You can find other lists here, here and here.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Most Dangerous Country in the World

Whatever your view of Benazir Bhutto, her murder yesterday can only further destabilize the already chaotic situation in Pakistan. Forget George Bush's obsessions, potential nuclear powers North Korea and Iran; one misstep in Pakistan now could deliver existing nuclear weapons into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. And if that doesn't scare you, nothing will.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


Even if you regularly use to buy books and CDs, you may not be aware that you can also order a diverse array of such exotic items as an internally fully carpeted armoured vehicle with built-in stereo system (a snip at only US$20,000), a UFO detector, a can of uranium ore, a fresh whole rabbit (dead) or a vaginal speculum.

If some of these sound like self-parodies (as do other Amazon items like the book "What Would Jesus Eat?"), what makes them even more enjoyable is that many people are now posting spoof reviews of them (as I learned from BoingBoing via I'm Learning to Share!) Take for example the reader who offers the helpful hint that using uranium ore as a facial scrub will give your skin a beautiful glow...

Read these reviews and enjoy before Amazon tracks them down (possibly with the aid of the UFO detector?) and exterminates them.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Private Beach's "People of the Year" Award

Time Magazine has named Russia's president, the "steely and determined" ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin, as its Person of the Year for "imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it" (didn't some guy named Adolf get praised for doing the same thing in Germany back in the 1930s?)

Time is at pains to point out that its designation is a reflection of Putin's historical significance, not an endorsement of his placing "stability before freedom". Here at Private Beach we have a different approach - it is not enough to change the world, our person of the year must reflect this blog's values as well.

Private Beach's first annual "People of the Year" award this year therefore goes to the courageous monks of Burma for doing the exact opposite of Putin: putting freedom before stability, even at the cost of their own lives. Their brave nonviolent stand against one of the world's ugliest regimes - a military dictatorship that has maintained "stability" for decades through repression, murder, torture, forced labour, rape and genocide - is in the finest traditions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and though unsuccessful in the short term, has reawakened world awareness of their country's woes and placed Burma's rulers on the defensive. One day the country's people will be free.

[Picture by "Forest of Orchids", found on Flickr; I hope he/she doesn't mind me using it in a good cause.]

Delusion of the Week

"I go around spreading good will and talking about the importance of spreading freedom and peace".
--President George W. Bush

Reality and George have never been close friends, but now they seem to be drifting even further apart. Unless, that is, you think that illegal wars, torture, kidnapping, secret prisons and spying on your own people are conducive to good will, freedom and peace.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Author, Heal Thyself

The publication of a book on parenting by Lynne Spears, mother of role model Britney Spears, has been postponed indefinitely after it was announced that Britney's younger sister, 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears, is pregnant.

However, other new books expected soon will appear as planned, including:
- Staying Sober by Amy Winehouse
- Monogamy by Elizabeth Taylor
- Peacemaking by George W. Bush
- How to Be Nice to Everyone by Simon Cowell
- The Fast Road to Democracy by Donald Tsang

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Poor, Poor Pitiful Me

Great birthday yesterday - spent most of the day at home with a throat infection, feeling crappy. Not the best birthday I've ever had.

Some changes coming in my life. Not sure I want to blog about them. (Damn, I'm starting to sound like another local blogger...)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Some good news for a change

Amid all the news of war and torture and bombings around the world, every so often civilisation takes a small step forward for a change. In July 2007 Rwanda became the 14th African country to abolish the death penalty, while in Europe only Belarus now retains it. Now New Jersey is becoming the first US state to abolish the death penalty since the Supreme Court reinstated its use in 1976. Good for them!

The number of executions in other US states is also decreasing, as is the number worldwide, although the USA still ranks sixth behind those other great champions of human rights, China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Sudan, in the use of capital punishment. Between them, these six countries accounted for 91% of all known executions in 2006.

Incidentally, there is something I never understand: why is it that many of those who define themselves as "pro-life" are often strongly in favour of capital punishment? It seems they value unborn lives more highly than born ones. There is an interesting debate on the religious ethics of this here.

Making It Better:
Amnesty International

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sinister Dexterity

On further thought about my post of yesterday, a better analogy to Giulani's deliberately ambiguous statement would be, "It's OK to be left-handed so long as you only use your right hand". Being gay, like being left-handed or having ginger hair or blue eyes, is part of the hand dealt to some people in life - an innate characteristic, not a choice. For many years, left-handed people were forced to use their right hand; today we know better.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Giulani wants it both ways

In his latest convoluted attempt to gain votes from both sides of the fence, US presidential hopeful and serial publicity-seeker Rudolph Giulani is quoted as saying that homosexuality is not aberrant. "The way somebody leads their life isn't sinful. It's the various acts that people perform that are sinful, not the orientation that they have."

If this makes any sense at all, I think it's saying that it's OK to be gay so long as you don't act on it. Which is a bit like saying that it's OK to be a carnivore so long as you don't eat meat. Or maybe that it's OK to be black so long as you don't have dark skin. But I guess what he's really saying is, "I want both gays and the religious right to vote for me, so I'll try to please both sides by talking nonsense and hope each side interprets it as agreeing with them".

A Tale of Two Cities - and Two Hygiene Standards

Hong Kong, December 2007
In McDonald's at City One Shatin, the manager is walking around overseeing the staff and helping out during a busy lunchtime session, when he covers his mouth with his hand to cough. Knowing the poor general level of food hygiene in Hong Kong, I was pleasantly surprised to see him immediately walk over to the antiseptic handwipe dispenser and disinfect his hands.

Quite a contrast to another scene I was reminded of:

Shanghai, December 2001
A girl in a glass-fronted kitchen in the old town area near the Yuyuan Garden is energetically picking her nose, in between assembling hand-made Shanghai dumplings with the same unwashed finger. Needless to say, we chose to eat elsewhere.

Hmmm - I never thought I'd be comparing McDonald's favourably with anywhere else!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Rude and Ignorant

The verbal personal attack on newly-elected Anson Chan by Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing in yesterday's Legislative Council meeting was not only gratuitously ill-mannered, but also revealing of Tsang's political ignorance.

In describing Mrs Chan as a "sudden supporter for livelihood" who had not displayed such concern during her past service as Chief Secretary under British rule, Tsang appeared not to understand the difference between Chan's past and present roles. As a legislator, she now has a responsibility to speak out on policy matters; as a senior civil servant before, she was expected to implement whatever policy the government decided, not to express her own views on it. Neither we nor Tsang have the right to assume that Chan did not care about these matters before, but it would have been unprofessional of her then to say what she thought personally - and Mrs Chan has never been less than professional in her work.

If Tsang, once praised for his "profound and sensitive grasp of Hong Kong and mainland affairs", does not understand such simple distinctions, is he really qualified to hold a top government post?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Sitting on a barbed wire fence

It is apparent to anyone with half a brain that the Bush regime in the USA generally wants to have everything both ways. They control more weapons of mass destruction than any other power on earth, but insist that other countries should not be allowed to acquire or hold such weapons.

They insist that they are fighting a "War on Terror", but refuse to give their captured enemies in that war (many of them kidnapped from third countries in defiance of international law) the internationally recognised status of prisoners of war. Now, facing yet another attempt to gain some legal rights for these unfortunates, the government once again undermines its own case by self-contradiction.

The US Supreme Court will today hear appeals from two detainees in the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp arguing that the 2006 US law removing their habeas corpus rights (following an earlier Supreme Court judgement upholding them) is unconstitutional. To quote the BBC report, the prisoners "say that habeas corpus does extend to Guantanamo Bay because, even though the territory is not under formal US sovereignty, it is under US control", to which "US government lawyers have responded by saying in their brief that the US does not own Guantanamo Bay and therefore the writ of habeas corpus does not run there".

Now pardon me if I'm too dense to understand the subtleties of the argument here, but if the US doesn't own Guantanamo Bay, which is a corner of Cuba that the US clung on to after Castro's Cuban revolution, then it must be either international territory, in which case international law should apply (as it does, for example, to ships outside territorial waters), or it must be Cuban territory held illegally by the USA (since the Cubans certainly didn't lease it to them, unlike say Diego Garcia which the US leased from Britain). There are other types of territory - for example, territories under a UN mandate pending resolution of their status - but Guantanamo Bay is not in any of these categories.

What this means is that the US is effectively arguing that it has no right to Guantanamo Bay, in which case the US prison there cannot be a legal establishment. So what they are saying is that the Guantanamo prisoners have no legal rights because they are being held in an illegal prison in the first place. Or am I missing something?

P.S. In case we forget we are dealing with human beings here, not just legal principles, here are the stories of the two men concerned.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Defeating the machine

Anson Chan's decisive victory in yesterday's LegCo by-election is the more creditable because her main opponent, Regina Ip, enjoyed the benefit of the pro-Beijing camp's powerful electoral machine. This works in three ways:

  1. the DAB uses its strong grassroots organisation at local level to get its supporters out to the polls;
  2. China-owned businesses in Hong Kong instruct all their employees to vote for Beijing's favoured candidate; and
  3. Hong Kong owners of businesses in China come under varying degrees of pressure to vote Beijing's way, with hints that failure to comply will be found out and may impede their future operations in the mainland.

Chan's victory indicates that the majority of Hong Kong people still want early democracy, but ironically it may have the opposite effect. I suspect that Beijing would feel more comfortable with letting Hong Kong people choose their own administration if they could be confident that a pro-Beijing result on the scale of that in the recent District Council elections was a near certainty.

Chan and Ip were both strong candidates: intelligent and articulate women with a long record of public service in Hong Kong and a deep inside knowledge of how the local political system works. The other six candidates were a very mixed bunch indeed: several seemed to represent the "Give Me My 15 Minutes of Fame Party", while one stood for the "Shouting Loudly in Putonghua Party", and another for the "Look at My Nice Black Silk Robe Party". The "Special Favours for the Transport Sector and Waving Big Yellow Hands Party" candidate did best, coming third.

Fourth placed Ho Loy, another intelligent and articulate female candidate, was the only minor candidate who could really be taken seriously. Standing on a single issue, heritage preservation, she never had a hope of winning, but her issue is an important one to which she succeeded in drawing more attention. The remaining female candidate, Cecilia Ling, proposed improving welfare provision for the elderly poor; however, she also opposed the introduction of a minimum wage, thereby helping to ensure that another generation would be unable to earn enough during their working lives to provide for their retirement.

I saw Anson Chan out campaigning in Causeway Bay a few weeks ago - in person, the woman is tiny! Why do public figures (Yao Ming excepted, of course) so often look much taller on television than in real life?