Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Stilton Blues

As most people know, Europe has "Protected Designation of Origin" laws designed to protect the names of distinctive local foods and drinks from being copied elsewhere. Champagne, for example, can only come from the Champagne region of France; and Newcastle Brown Ale could at one time only come from Newcastle, until its brewer applied in 2004 to cancel its protected status because they wanted to move the brewery across the river out of the city. (This is the same unlovely company, then called Scottish & Newcastle, that also closed its last brewery in Scotland, leading one writer to suggest that it should change its name to Ampersand, since that was the only valid part of the name left.)

Usually this system works well, though some names had already become so widely (ab)used that it was impossible to save them. Numerous inferior cheeses around the world bear the name Cheddar, for instance, though the finest examples of the style are still produced on farms around the Somerset village of that name.

Cheddar can at least still produce its local speciality, though not exclusively. Not so lucky is the Cambridgeshire village of Stilton, where the magnificent blue cheese of that name was first sold. The current landlord of the historic Bell Inn, where the cheese originally came to fame, commendably wants to sell locally produced blue cheese. Unfortunately for him, Stilton can by law only be produced in the three counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire (where the Inn's owner in the early 1700s obtained his first supplies) or Nottinghamshire. So the Bell Inn can sell the product it is most famous for, but only under a different name. Crazy, huh?

Personally, as much as I love Stilton, I find Blue Wensleydale even more delicious, though often hard to find. That is, believe it or not, still made in Wensleydale.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Fleet Street and Sour

The Guardian newspaper in Britain is so notorious for its frequent typos that Private Eye long ago dubbed it The Grauniad. Just now I Googled "Matt Driscoll" (a British sports journalist) after reading about him in a BBC story. Driscoll challenged his harassment and sacking by Rupert Murdoch's now defunct News of the World newspaper after he fell ill, and won a court settlement of £792,736 - good for him!

But that's not the point of this story - what is, is the extract turned up by Google from the Guardian blog: "Matt Driscoll is now being taken [by Britain's Leveson inquiry into press ethics] through his 10 year stint at the NoW chronologically. He worked under sour editors - Phil Hall, then Rebekah Wade, ..." Well, it's hardly surprising they're sour after the revelations about the paper's shameful behaviour under some of them which led to its closure.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

World's Worst Brand Names

What's your brand called? "Nipple Silly". Yeah, sure.

Even worse (sorry for the poor picture quality):

This is one of the packets of tissue they give away free when you buy a newspaper. They probably have to give it away - would you purchase from someone who tells you "Our brand is BS"?!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Google this

Try this: Google "Epson scanners" and see what comes up first.

Now if I type in "scanners", I don't mind Google taking money from HP to place theirs ahead of others. But when I specifically search for Epson, I don't want to see HP at the top of the list. In fact, Epson only comes 4th. True, Google identifies the first 3 entries as ads, but still...

It doesn't feel right to me. What do you think?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Here comes the Terminator

From a BBC story about the Korean robotics industry:
The South Korean defence company DoDAAM is also developing robotic gun turrets for export which can be programmed to open fire automatically.
Does this sound to you like the beginning of Skynet? And who are they exporting them to?

Have these people never sen Dr Strangelove?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Handy Health Hint

Shown on a screen on the Hong Kong side of the Lo Wu border crossing:
Prevent influenza
Wash hand frequently
Yes, but which hand - left or right? Decisions, decisions...

And while we're on the subject of public announcements, who changed the MTR announcements from "This train will terminate at..." to "This train will stop service at..." Unless it's the last train of the day, it is more likely to go back in the opposite direction than to stop service when it reaches the terminus.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Coach Trip to the Dentist

When setting the video recorder for another programme the other day, I caught a few minutes of Coach Trip by chance. For those who don't know this programme, it's a kind of "Big Brother on Wheels" - the idea is to dump a bunch of publicity-hungry strangers together in an artificial environment, in this case a coach tour around the sights of Europe, and hope to derive entertaining television from their ego trips and petty squabbles.

As with all "reality TV", it bears about as much relation to reality as Britney Spears does to real music, and what I saw convinced me that I would never want any of the participants as travelling companions. But what struck me particularly about it was that almost all the participants appeared to have awful teeth. I wonder if the producers secretly intended it as a searing satire on the sad state of British dentistry?

Football on Ice?

Since I often make fun of ATV News's errors here, it's a pleasant change to have a go at their rival TVB instead. Listen guys, when you're talking about the NFL (National Football League - or at least what Americans call football), it may not be a good idea to display the NHL (National Hockey League) logo on the screen. Clue: if they're playing on a green surface, it's not ice.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Signs of the Times in China

One of the things that makes visits to China interesting is the signs there, either for their curious English , or for what they reveal of Chinese thinking. The last line of this direction sign in Jinan Airport, for example, tells you all you need to know about flying in China.

Then there is this. "Bumf" originally meant bumfodder or toilet paper in English usage, but then came to be applied more commonly as a slang term (now somewhat archaic) for unnecessary paper such as unwanted circulars, junk mail, pointless memoranda and the like. It seems that someone in China wants to restore its original meaning.

Friday, October 21, 2011

British Broadcasting Miscorporation

What's up with the BBC these days? From a time when "BBC English" indicated the highest standards of grammar and punctuation, it seems to have declined to a point where not even its headlines get properly proofread. Here are some random examples of scrambled English found on the BBC News website today:

Ohio animal Terry Thompson owner shot himself - police

The uprising that eventually overthrew him started in Libya's February 2011 in second city Benghazi,

Another story spells skis as skies and minuscule as miniscule (the word comes from the same root as minus, not miniature).

Has the BBC's budget been cut to the point where correct English is no longer affordable!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fanning the Flames

Does anyone in Hong Kong really believe Rita Fan's claim that she knows little of what happened in Beijing in June 1989? Asked about the Tiananmen massacre, she said she was in Hawaii at the time and only knew what she saw on CNN. But considering that CNN was giving an almost literally blow-by-blow account of the events as they happened, does Fan really think she would have learned more if she had been watching CCTV? Furthermore, as a member of China's parliament (I do not say a representative of Hong Kong to it, since Hong Kong people have no say in who supposedly "represents" them), is it plausible that she has not bothered to acquaint herself with the details of one of the pivotal events of modern Chinese history?

All this would be academic if Fan were not a probable candidate for the post of next Chief Executive of Hong Kong. But since she is, do we want to be led by a woman who appears more concerned with not contradicting Beijing's official line on the massacre - sorry, "unfortunate incident" - of June 4th 1989 than with finding out the truth? Or, if we accept her story, by a woman who can't be bothered to do her political homework? Either way, I think not.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Flying the Flag

I went to the British Consulate in Hong Kong this week to renew my passport. The consular officer who processed my application (politely, quickly and efficiently) was wearing a Mickey Mouse tie.

I'm sure this says something about the British government, but I'm not sure what.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Syn Tax

A couple of weeks ago, ATV News unwittingly gave a perfect illustration of why users of English need to pay attention to syntax.

"Several men were arrested following an investigation into cigarette smuggling by Customs officers"
was their story. Unless Hong Kong's Customs officers are far more corrupt than I believe they are, I think what they really meant was:
"Several men were arrested following an investigation by Customs officers into cigarette smuggling".

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Paying for Trains

Some LegCo members have recently been objecting to the government's policy of granting land for development by the MTR Corporation to fund the construction of the South Island Line. The problem with this is that they don't seem to be offering any alternative.

No one who observes the air pollution and traffic congestion in Hong Kong can doubt that the territory's railway network needs to be extended. And most would agree that it makes sense to integrate any extension with the existing network, which means putting it under the MTR rather than a new operator.

If we accept these assumptions, the several planned new lines will not build themselves. Given the vast sums of money required to construct them, what is the least painful way of financing these developments? The government could hand out cash to cover the cost, which means taxpayers would bear the burden directly. Or it could require the MTR to fund it out of its own revenues, which would almost certainly mean fares rising substantially to pay for it. With many already objecting to the recent modest fare increase at a time of inflationary pressure, this would be politically unacceptable and would probably drive many passengers back on to the overcrowded roads as a cheaper alternative.

Of course, the property method is also depriving the taxpayers of the potential revenue that would otherwise accrue to the government from the sale of these sites, but in the current circumstances it seems the least objectionable way of achieving the desired goal. The real objection in my view is that, since the MTR is partly privatized, some of the eventual return from this handout will go into the hands of private investors at the expense of the taxpayers. The MTR should have been left in full public ownership.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Americans are Winning

Being out of England for most of the time, I tend to notice small changes when I'm there that may be imperceptible to those who live there. One of these is the creeping Americanisation of the English language. Not only do we have a whole generation who use American spelling because they've never bothered to change the default spell checker in Word to British English, but American vocabulary is gradually replacing British usage.

One of the changes I observed on this year's visit is that the original British "railway station" has largely given way to "train stati0n", which in my childhood would have been understood but considered an Americanism. Now that usage makes sense, since "bus station" was already common British usage, but why don't we call an airport a "plane station" to be consistent?

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Football Fatcats

Sepp Blatter's statement that FIFA - world football's governing body (that's soccer for American readers) - is "not in crisis" is about as credible as Muammar Gaddafi's claims that all the Libyan people love him. Nevertheless, Blatter's re-election as head of FIFA was entirely predictable - and not just because his only challenger was conveniently accused of corruption and sidelined before the vote.

In the welter of corruption allegations, firings and reinstatements, and general chaos it's hard to know the truth. But a look at most of the FIFA bigshots will tell you one sure thing - from the size of their waistlines, most of them have not actually played football for a long time - indeed, it's doubtful they would last more than 5 minutes on the pitch before collapsing.

The fact is that FIFA is an entrenched bureaucracy - and the first task of any bureaucracy is always to perpetuate itself. While Blatter likens his role to captaining a ship, what he is really doing is driving a gravy train. And as long as he keeps the gravy - free tickets to big games, lavish banquets, foreign trips, and perhaps additional benefits - flowing, most of its recipients will continue to support him. As the French say, the more things change the more they remain the same.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Racial Scaremongering

A "shock, horror!" headline on the website of British tabloid The Sun claims "Third of rapists and killers 'are foreign'". Except they're not. When you actually read the article, this figure is only true in a few police districts. The figure across the UK as a whole is 1 in 7, or less than half the quoted proportion.

Further evidence that The Sun is engaging in racial scaremongering is that in three successive paragraphs it refers to immigrants, foreign nationals, foreign-born suspects, and in a later paragraph to non-English speaking suspects, as if all these groups were synonymous. Furthermore, despite the fact that the majority of recent immigrants to the UK are white EU citizens, they chose to illustrate the piece with a photo of a black convicted murderer.

Apart from the article's obvious racial bias, the ill-defined 1 in 7 (14.3%) figure is even more meaningless unless we know how many foreigners are in Britain at any given time for comparison. A recent estimate suggests that the figure may be around 11.4% - so far from the shock picture of the headline, the reality is that foreigners account for these crimes in only a slightly higher proportion than their total numbers would lead us to expect. Furthermore, it would be helpful to separate rape and murder for comparison in analyzing the figures, since cultural misunderstandings can play a part in some rapes.

The Sun should be ashamed of itself for peddling racist propaganda.


During a recent trip to Europe, I spent nearly a month without following the news. I didn't feel I'd missed much - when I got back, most things were going on exactly as before.

Two stories did filter into my consciousness - the death of Osama bin Laden, and the wedding of Prince William, at which time I was in Britain. I'm no monarchist - far from it - but this did at least demonstrate that a country rapidly descending into Third World status can still put on an excellent show of pomp and pageantry. Now if only they could apply the same impressive level of organisational skill to the chaos of Terminal 3 at Heathrow Airport. Considering that this gives many foreign visitors their first impression of the country, isn't it time the whole overcrowded mess was pulled down and rebuilt to the standard of Terminals 4 and 5?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Scary Vegetables

The 1978 movie Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is generally regarded as a good-natured spoof of the science fiction genre. Now today's BBC news site has a deadly serious headline: Deadly cucumbers claim more lives. We really are living in a science fiction world.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Who are my friends this week?

What is this craze that some people seem to have for changing their names in Facebook? You log in and suddenly find you have a whole lot of friends you never heard of. Weird.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Irish Stewpidity

I never set out to make this blog an exercise in ATV-bashing, but they do set themselves up for it. They are currently filling the gaps between programmes, when they don't have enough commercials, with little snippets of information under the title "The World at a Glance". Nothing wrong with that, but the one asking "Are You Prepared for St. Patrick's Day" was still being run as late as 22 March. That should give you plenty of time to get ready, because St. Patrick's Day had already passed on 17 March.

Mind you, the Irish have their own ways of measuring things. I still vividly recall many years ago setting out from Rosslare Harbour to Wexford. After a while I passed a signpost saying "Rosslare 2 miles, Wexford 7 miles". A mile further on, the sign said, naturally enough, "Rosslare 3 miles" However, in the other direction, it still said "Wexford 7 miles"!

Ireland is a beautiful country, but expect the unexpected there.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Q&A - the Definition of Stupidity

Q. What's the definition of stupidity?
A. Building nuclear power plants all over one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world when you're sitting on a vast reservoir of free geothermal energy that you could use instead.

And a really bad joke:
Q. What do you call a tiny tsunami?
A. A microwave.

Yeah, I know, it's not funny. And incidentally, why is Iran so insistent that it needs to develop nuclear power when it's sitting on the world's fourth largest oil reserves? I think we can guess the answer to that one.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Freepost - Bugs can "bee" useful

Hong Kong readers of the South China Morning Post online will be aware that unless they have a paid subscription to its website, clicking on a link on its main page will only bring up the first couple of sentences of a story, with the rest supposedly available to subscribers only. But try this:
  • Copy the headline of a story (I did it with "China's mappers take on world and get lost today.) and paste it into Google.
  • Do a Google search for the story.
  • Click on the resulting link back to the Post.
In all 3 main Windows browsers (IE, Firefox and Chrome) this gives you the entire story without payment, not just the limited version.

Making It Better
And here is another story showing that bugs can "bee" useful. Please sign the petition to save these undervalued creatures who are vital to our food supply.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Misunderstanding China and Economics

The South China Morning Post reports that "newly elected Republican lawmakers are itching to act against what they see as an undervalued yuan that is costing American jobs".

They are unlikely to have any more success in changing China's course on this matter than the previous Democratic majority did. All they are doing is displaying both their lack of understanding of China and their simplistic ignorance of basic economics. There is no mystery over China's policy - Chinese leaders have made it clear for years now that they are willing to let the yuan rise gradually and to move step by step towards making it freely convertible - both of which they have been doing. But anyone who knows China is aware that what its leaders fear most is any sudden disruption that could lead to mass social disorder - and an abrupt jump in the value of China's currency could trigger exactly this by throwing millions out of work.

But if by some unlikely chance the Republicans did achieve their objective, what then? In the short term, there would be a sharp rise in inflation in the US (and Hong Kong, incidentally) as all the China-made goods on supermarket shelves (which these days means most manufactured products) jumped in price. And in the longer term, would all those jobs in China come back to the US? Not likely, with so many other cheap labour countries lining up with open arms - far more probable that they would move to Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, Bangladesh, South Africa, wherever ...Meanwhile, those products that America does still produce would become more expensive in China, throwing even more Americans out of work.

Hong Kong, with its currency peg to the US dollar, would suffer collateral damage from all this. I have always maintained that, while the institution of the peg was a necessary - indeed, vital - move at the time, it should have been to a basket of currencies and not to one alone. America was at the time our main trading partner, but changing times have seen the Mainland fill that role. The reality is, no matter how much our leaders may deny any plans for a change (as they have to do, or the currency speculators would be circling overhead like vultures), sooner or later we will probably have to realign our currency to the renminbi rather than the US dollar. The only question is when.

Monday, January 17, 2011

I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass

The Hong Kong government's decision to implement a pilot project for glass recycling in East Kowloon is a waste of time. The fact is there is absolutely no need for a pilot scheme when glass recycling has already been proven to work well in countries such as Britain and Canada for more than two decades. What we need is not a timid pilot project but a full-scale recycling scheme for the entire SAR immediately, before the government tries to steal any more of our irreplaceable country parks as landfills.

If we're truly "Asia's World City", why aren't we leading the world instead of always lagging lamely behind?

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Going Chrome

I use Firefox as my default browser, but I also use Chrome quite a lot (and IE only for those few sites that insist on it). This morning my PC crashed. When it recovered, all my Chrome bookmarks had vanished - many of them marking sites from which I planned to download files. The backup bookmarks file (.bak) was also empty and therefore useless.

When I went to the Chrome help page for a clue on how to recover the bookmarks, I found that this problem has been repeatedly reported by users for more than a year, but Google appears to have done nothing about it. Their corporate motto may be "Don't do evil", but it seems there is a coda to that: "... or much good either." Maybe I should stick to Firefox in future.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

A Public Life

First of all, let me wish all my readers (who seem to have increased dramatically in number recently for some reason) a happy, peaceful and prosperous New Year.

The start of 2011 was saddened here in Hong Kong by the news that Szeto Wah died today. Szeto was a leader of the movement for democracy in both Hong Kong and the mainland who earned respect on both sides of the political divide for his steadfast dedication to his principles.

For myself, I shall remember the time he sat across from me on the MTR late one night. While other Legislative Council members (as he was then) generally ride around in fancy cars, Szeto, an unassuming man, was happy to use public transport. He will be missed.

Rule of Flaw

Further to my post about the absentees from the recent Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony, it later emerged that the Philippines was also among those countries refusing their invitations to attend - one of only three democracies to do so (the others being Colombia and Ukraine).

It is hardly necessary to comment on the irony of this decision coming from the son of a father who was murdered for opposing the Marcos dictatorship and a mother who led the successful People Power revolt to overthrow it and restore democracy - for which she herself was nominated for the Peace Prize. But why was this decision made?

Reports suggest several reasons: close trading ties with China; a desire to buy Chinese weaponry; a desire not to be sen as caving in to American pressure (always a sensitive issue in this former US colony); and a wish not to further offend China when the Manila bus siege has already left scars on the relationship. After the Philippines government initially suggested that its Ambassador in Oslo had a "scheduling conflict" (as if they couldn't send a substitute), Philippine President Benigno Aquino Jr. did eventually come up with a more noble reason (though qqually implausible, suggests one commentator) - the decision was, he explained, intended not to prejudice the fate of five Filipino citizens on death row in China by angering the Beijing government.

It is not yet clear whether this will lead to any leniency deal for the five, but neither Aquino nor the Beijing authorities, who publicly welcomed the decision, appear to have noticed the deeper irony at work here. The Philippines' decision makes it clear that they believe political relationships, rather than judicial decisions, will determine the fate of the convicted Filipinos. In other words, they are agreeing with Liu Xiaobo's argument that China lacks judicial independence and the rule of law. So by supporting the Chinese government in its objections to Liu receiving the Prize, they have unwittingly reinforced Liu's case against that same government.