Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Shooting themselves in the foot

The stupidity of the pro-gun lobby in America is clearly shown by their call for British journalist Piers Morgan to be deported because he attacked the appropriately named Larry Pratt, director of Gun Owners of America, on CNN.  Their petition calls for Morgan to be kicked out of the country on the grounds that by calling for gun control, he is attacking the US Constitution, the Second Amendment of which guarantees the right to bear arms (though contrary to a recent wrong-headed decision by the Supreme Court, explicitly in the context of a "well-regulated militia").

If these people are so keen on protecting the Constitution, perhaps they should read the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech.  They might also note that these are Amendments, not part of the original Constitution - the Constitution provides for its own amendment.  In other words, it implicitly allows people to attack it so they can call for it to be changed.  Furthermore, Morgan is saying little more than what most sensible Americans, from President Obama downwards, are saying, albeit in less temperate language.   I suppose if you're going to shoot the messenger, a foreign messenger makes an easier target.

Christmas Carnage

I've noticed over the years that Boxing Day usually brings a rash of headlines reporting disasters, natural or man-made.  This year the disaster season seems to have started a day early - the South China Morning Post leads today with a bus crash that killed 11 children in China, while the BBC features yet another senseless shooting in another small town in America.  This time the shooter, who subsequently killed himself, had already served a 17-year jail term for killing his grandmother.  No doubt the NRA would argue that he nevertheless had a legal right to own a gun for self-defence.  They appear to be blind to the irony that so did Nancy Lanza, and it killed her.  They also want every American school, at a time when many are already reducing teaching staff because of budget cuts, to have the extra expense of hiring armed guards - a strategy that obviously worked so well at Columbine.  The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, argues the NRA, is a good guy with a gun.  Personally I agree with the late Isaac Asimov that "violence is usually the least intelligent solution to any problem".

Back here at home, anyone who drives in Hong Kong knows that the roads are full of pedestrians seemingly hell-bent on suicide, because they wander all over the street totally oblivious to traffic.  (If they can do it wearing black clothes at night, so much the better.)  For some reason, the number of these lemmings seems to multiply around Christmas time - any idea why?

Oh well, Merry Christmas to all my readers!  And hey, hey, hey, be careful out there!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

So Far So Good

I saw a furniture shop in Hong Kong called Sofa So Good.  Quite witty, but puns are not my subject today.

English is a wonderfully ambiguous language.  This notice appears beside the lifts in the Taipo Public Library.  That's on the fifth of eight floors, so if I followed its advice, I would end up in the basement car park - that being the farthest possible destination accessible by the stairs from the fifth floor.  But I only wanted to go to the ground floor!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Alternative History

As Mo Yan accepted his Nobel Prize for Literature this week - the first Chinese author to receive it -  while carefully attempting to stay out of political controversy, it may be appropriate to post this, which I wrote a couple of years ago but never got round to completing at the time:

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 congratulations on the award of this great honour to Liu, whose tireless work for human rights and democracy in China has 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 stern-faced Jiang delivered her usual predictable  lecture about not interfering in China's international 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 winners have been regarded as criminals by their own country's governments in their time - Nelson Mandela, for example - not that I agree with all the Prize Committee's dubious decisions.)  Incidentally, if China considers Tibet part of China, then wouldn't that make Liu not the first, but the second Chinese national to receive the Nobel Peace Prize - the first being another notorious "criminal", the Dalai Lama?

Dam Nonsense

The Civil Servants General Union issued a statement a few weeks ago supporting the government's plan to build an artificial beach at Lung Mei in Taipo - a plan opposed by a broad coalition of green groups in Hong Kong because of its damaging impact on an area rich in marine life, including the increasingly rare seahorse.  Explaining the union's stance, Chairman Chung Kwok-sing said on TVB news that his members "just want the public to respect mechanisms that are put in place", saying that "the District Council is elected by residents, so if the Taipo Council approves the plan, that should represent the views of people living in Taipo".

Wrong, wrong, wrong, on several levels.  First of all,  it is naive to assume that because the District Council wants something, this necessarily reflects the views of local residents.  District Councillors often have their own agenda to pursue which may not represent the wishes of their constituents.  I have lived just a couple of miles along the road from the proposed beach site for the last ten years, and they certainly don't represent my views.  In fact, I never even heard of the proposal until it hit the news a couple of months ago, and although the beach site is in my constituency, I don't remember it being mentioned in either of our local candidates' manifestos in the last District Council election in 2011.  I suspect that many other Taipo residents were similarly unaware of the plan before and do not support it now that they know about it.

Secondly, the civil service should not be making political statements - it is not their job to decide whether something should or should not go ahead, only to implement it once it is decided to proceed.  Civil service neutrality is a key element of our political system, and needs to be understood and respected.  One who does not seem to understand it is former civil servant and now New People's Party leader in LegCo, Regina Ip, who commented on the case, saying that "in a democracy political neutrality means not favouring one party or politician over another".  Ip says this doesn't mean civil servants are not allowed to express opinions.  True, as individual members of society speaking in their private capacity; but collectively, they should stay out of arguments about whether or not a particular policy is correct.

Thirdly, it is clear that governmental consultation mechanisms in place are totally inadequate - but I will keep that for another post.

I wouldn't mind having a swimming beach close to my home, but the environmental price is too high to pay.  Why doesn't the government look into the possibility of constructing an artificial beach at the base of the Plover Cove dam, just round the corner from Lung Mei?  I have no idea whether it's possible, but if so, the damage would probably be much less since that's already an artificial environment.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Genghis Khan, Grandfather of Kublai Khan

"Renowned Beatles Influencer Dead at 92" says the Huffington Post's daily email of links to its headline stories.  The story itself is headed "Ravi Shankar Dead: Indian Sitar Virtuoso Dies at 92".  MTV's website has another version: "Ravi Shankar, Beatles Influence, Dead at 92".

Then there are numerous variations on another theme: "Sitar superstar Ravi Shankar, Father of Norah Jones, dies". "Norah Jones' Father Ravi Shankar Dies at 92 After heart Surgery".  Some headlines even manage to combine the two: "Beatles Muse Ravi Shankar, Father of Norah Jones, Dies".

Somehow I find all this offensive.  I love Norah Jones' music, but to write of her father's death as if his most noteworthy achievement was to sire her - or to teach George Harrison how to play the sitar - is insulting to a man generally recognised as the leading Indian musician of his era, so renowned that the Indian Prime Minister was among the first to pay tribute to him on his death.  It's particularly ironic when you consider that Shankar had little contact with Jones during her childhood, unlike his other daughter - also a respected musician in her own right, and the bearer of her father's musical heritage - Anoushka.

Furthermore it's insulting to the readers of these various publications to imply that they are so ignorant that they will not have heard of Shankar, or that they will not be interested in him unless there is a connection to someone they have heard of.  CNN gets it right: "Sitar legend Ravi Shankar dies at 92".  If you're a legend, you don't need any introduction.  Nor do you need to be defined by your relationship to others - Woody Guthrie's legacy stands secure with no help from Bob Dylan, for example.

There are many famous fathers of famous children.  I suspect Loudon Wainwright III is resigned to being labelled "Father of Rufus", but when Paul McCartney eventually passes on (at well past 64) will we see "Oasis Influence Paul McCartney, Father of Stella, Dies" headlines?  I hope not.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Never and Future King

It seems to be taken for granted in the UK that the popular Prince William will one day become King, and that his expected child will follow him to the throne in due course.  But curiously, there seems to be almost no speculation on a possibility that could upset this scenario.

Queen Elizabeth, unlike her younger sister Margaret who drank and smoked her way into a relatively early grave, appears to take good care of herself and to be in excellent health for a woman in her late 80s, and given that she presumably gets the very best medical care available, could go on to match her mother by living to 100 or beyond.

Prince Charles has those same genes for longevity plus more on his father's side - Prince Philip is now in his 90s and still in good shape for his age.  Charles is already older than any previous heir in waiting, but there is no guarantee that he will outlive his mother.  Men tend to have shorter life expectancies than women, and there is always the possibility of accidental death - say a fall from a horse, or a plane crash.

So what if Charles were to die first?  Then by tradition the crown passes to the eldest surviving son of a deceased monarch, followed by the eldest daughter if there is no surviving son.  So instead of succession passing to William, the Queen's second son, the not enormously popular Prince Andrew, would be next in line to the throne, followed by his two daughters.  With Prince Edward and Princess Anne and their children also in the line of succession, William would move a dozen places down the list.

What would the British people make of that, I wonder?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Headline Blues

All I usually see of the South China Morning Post website is its headlines, because you need to subscribe to read the full stories on its website, and I don't.  But those are a most peculiar mix.  On the one hand, there are some - usually one or two a day - that would be more at home in Fashion Week than a serious newspaper.  Today's example, Louis Vuitton holds reopening party at Pacific Place, may be of interest to some, but it's hardly headline news.  Do the companies they promote so blatantly pay them for this publicity?

Others could come straight our of the People's Daily: Xi Jinping wins support with his forceful yet peace-driven persona sounds like a puff piece for the next Chinese President.  Or is there an implied hint of criticism here?  After all persona, the dictionary tells us, means "a person's perceived or evident personality, as that of well-known official, actor or celebrity; personal image; public role".  But more deeply, in Jungian psychology, it means "the mask or fa├žade presented to satisfy the demands of the situation or the environment and not representing the inner personality of the individual".  In other words, Xi is putting on a face which is winning him public popularity, but one one knows his real thoughts.  Sounds like another leader closer to home (though he can hardly be said to be winning support!)

Coming back to the SCMP, then we have its readers' polls which invariably ask the wrong question.  Today's, for example, asks "Do you support legalising euthanasia in Hong Kong?"  I would want to see the word voluntary or involuntary in front of "euthanasia" before I could answer that question, and my answer would be different depending on which of the two words appeared.  Such polls tend to over-simplify complex issues, so that I often want to respond with an essay or a supplementary question rather than simply a "Yes or No".  Older British readers may remember Professor Joad on Brains Trust, who invariably opened his answer to any question with "it depends what you mean by..."

Thursday, December 06, 2012

There's a chance peace may come

I was struck by the juxtaposition of two headlines on the South China Morning Post website this morning.  One says

The new Communist Party general secretary, Xi Jinping, assured foreign experts in Beijing yesterday that China was not seeking hegemony and would continue to open up to the world.
Immediately below it, the next story is:

Xi calls on P.L.A. to get combat ready

The People's Liberation Army Air Force finished a large-scale, 12-day military drill in the Gobi Desert on Friday that chimed with new Central Military Commission (CMC) chief Xi Jinping's emphasis...

Ready for what?  An alarming outbreak of peace?

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Talking to the oppressor

The UN General Assembly's recognition of Palestine as a "non-member observer state" is long overdue.  Every sensible person recognises that the so-called two-state solution is the only realistic way out of the Middle East impasse.  Everyone, it seems, except the US government, which continues to insist that Palestinian statehood can only come through negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel.

There are times in human history when an oppressed people obtains its freedom through negotiations with its oppressor - South Africa comes to mind.  But that moment usually comes only when the oppressor is under such intense pressure that the status quo is clearly no longer supportable. That generally comes as a result of years of resistance and building up strong international support.  To tell the Palestinians they cannot do everything in their power to put pressure on Israel is merely to side with the unjust Israeli occupation under which the Palestinians have suffered for more than half a century.  President Obama should know better.

Eats Stabs and Leaves

An "Eats Shoots and Leaves" moment on last night's TVB news, reporting on the arrest of a woman suspected of stabbing her husband to death:
"Police said the woman had a history of mental illness and took away the knife for further investigation."