Friday, 19 December 2008

Heading Down Under

I'm off on my hols to Australia and New Zealand, visiting relatives and trying out the B&Bs in the South Island. Normal service will be resumed on 12 January 2009.

It only remains for me to wish you a Happy Christmas (New Year's never done much for me) and hope some of you at least will come back and read about the trip.

Leaving the house this morning, I spotted my daughter's "Travelogue", being, I suppose, the record she intends to keep of our journey. Once I've censored it (she can be strangely unsympathetic to my foibles), if it's up to scratch, I fully intend to exploit it in these pages.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

A Sowell Sampler

Many people may not be familiar with the work of Thomas Sowell. An economist by training, he used to be a Marxist but gave all that up years ago. He pulls no punches and baits his enemies (academics, judges and journalists head the list) by calling them "deep thinkers" and "self-anointed".

To whet the appetite, here are two passages from his edited collection of essays, Compassion Versus Guilt.

First, he turns his sights on "sex education":

"One of the great, tragic frauds of our time has been the name 'sex education' for courses that indoctrinate fad thinking on sex, behind the backs of parents. Those courses are not about biology but about ideology."

... before launching into the nimbys:

"Too many judges seem to miss the difference between a chance and a guarantee. People who bought homes in a quiet little town often become resentful when other people begin moving in, expanding and changing the community. They pass laws depriving other people of the right to buy and sell property freely. The excuse for depriving other people of their rights is that the people who were there first came to enjoy an atmosphere and lifestyle that will no longer be the same if they can't keep others out.

What the original people paid for when they moved in was a chance for a particular way of life – not a guarantee. If they wanted a guarantee, they would have to buy up the surrounding property as well. Instead, they go into court to get a guarantee free of charge."

More of this fellow in the new year.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Poll Results Stun Academics

Not that that takes much doing. Remember Robert Chung Ting Yiu ("You're welcome"), the fellow who brought the world's 18th greatest university to its knees with his revelations that he had come under pressure to stop conducting his polls on former Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa?

Whenever Robert pops up on the box, he looks like a rabbit caught in the headlights, as he "analyses" his latest results, which reveal, as they have done for the last 17 years, since he set up his POP, that when times are tough politicians aren't so popular.

In contrast, when I set up my series of polls in October, I had a higher purpose. I wanted to find out what sort of people visit a site that typifies the new journalism. And, my goodness, have the results been instructive!

Stalin gets the nod over Hitler as the twentieth century's most successful despot, P D James's Piers and Candace edge out Ruth Rendell's inner city kids with no parents and no names, and Sarah beats Michael for title of world's funniest Palin.

None of these results can be considered unexpected, which is more than can be said for the revelation that journalists are held in higher esteem than politicians. I see I'll have to do a post on Thomas Sowell in the new year.

Last week, I promised lighter fare for the festive season, and I've been as good as my word. But don't be fooled. Surveys carried out by top academics have shown that an individual's position on the Christmas Tree Lights Issue correlates strongly with a cluster of other indicators.

If they close me down over Christmas, now you'll know why.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

SCMP Gets McCombover

I'm not the squeamish type but I admit to getting nervous when I get "A Personal Invitation" from south-east Asia's leading newspaper. This time I was being asked to join the "SCMP Readers Panel" (notice how they hedge their bets on circulation by doing away with the apostrophe altogether).

Apparently, by "weighing in on various topics" I'd be "making a big difference on how they make their paper more engaging and relevant to everyone". I thought they did that by writing properly, checking facts and not substituting individual sob stories for thorough and even-handed analysis.

Although I'm a firm believer that journalists shouldn't give the air of being specialists in everything, I do feel that they should have a pretty decent idea after years spent working in the industry of how to produce something people want to read.

My loss, though, is another's gain. If you want to receive "exclusive benefits such as complimentary wine, musical tickets, restaurant vouchers and spa coupons", drop Michael McComb, Director of Marketing & Communications, a line. Simply "register your interest" in the panel and you'll receive a VIP ticket to any of the SCMP Business or Innovation Conferences in 2009. If I wasn't in such a festive mood, I'd call that bribery and corruption.

Seasonal goodwill only stretches so far, however. "The SCMP community" assures me that I "may opt-out at any time". Well, all I have to say to that is, "Piss-off" and, while I've got the bit between my teeth, "Don't send-out any-more of your emails".

Monday, 15 December 2008

I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me out of Here!

Actually, it's Gung Gung, who was born in China, thirteenth of 23 children, orphaned when he was a babe, left school at four to work in the paddy fields, was forced to write a self-criticism for stealing rice husks, sentenced to read Lenin's Imperialism and Margaret Thatcher's My Path to Power, escaped and swam to Hong Kong. His first meal over here was the shark he karate-chopped to death in the Pearl River (them were the days).

So, before you get judgemental, he has every right to pole position at the hotpot.

A Beef with the Chef

Someone's taking liberties with Gon Chau Ngau Ho, one of the great staples of the cha cha teng.

Story and photo courtesy of my daughter and her cousins.

Tips For Parents

I've decided to make this an occasional series, given how many people are fascinated by bringing up baby.

1. Ask "What happened?" not "Why did you do it?"

Friday, 12 December 2008

University Challenged

The power of the Internet! Just five weeks after I drew attention to the notice at the University of Kong Kong's audio-visual library that read, "When alarming please go to counter for clearing", it's been changed.

Now we have:

When alarm rings please go to counter for clearing

One step forward and two back, though, it seems. The latest signage to appear reads as follows:

We closed

11pm Mon-Fri
7pm Sat-Sun

Interesting for the historian, but not so helpful for those wanting to know what the current operating hours are. Are the librarians getting too tensed, I wonder?

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Sun Yat Sin Signage

Spotted recently at Ding Hu Mountain in Guangdong Province:

That should of course be the Sun Yat Sen Swimming Spot.

And (click to enlarge):

Unorthodox PR, but full marks for honesty: "Sun Yat Sin's" second marriage was indeed bigamous – he was still married to his first wife at the time of his marriage to Soong Ching Ling.

Is this a token of what we may expect as the PRC ushers in a new era of openness and transparency?

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Palin Edges Palin in Photo Finish as Jockey Club Cries Foul

The last poll went right to the wire, with Sarah Palin just edging out Michael Palin for the title of world's funniest Palin, even as the Hong Kong Jockey Club got on its high horse and thundered that neither should be allowed in a race anywhere in the world after years spent taking unfair advantage of punters. In the process, incidentally, the stewards of the Jockey Club made history, as this marked the only time they've ever been on a horse.

This week, perhaps the toughest yet: who's worse, journalists or politicians? I promise you some light relief in next week's bumper Christmas edition.

Cheap Petrol

Cheaper, anyway. Until midnight today, Sinopec is offering an 18 percent discount (HK$2.5) on its unleaded petrol, bringing the price down to HK$11.29 a litre. After that, it's back to a 12-13 percent discount, so I'm told. Sounds like a better deal than you can get from Caltex and its cartelised cousins.

Full list of Sinopec service stations here (pdf file).

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The Road Not Taken

Robert Frost, the American poet, had a tough life. His parents died when he was young, he was unable to finish college because he needed to earn a crust, his wife and four of his six children predeceased him, and one of his two other daughters was committed to a mental hospital.

One of his best known works, "The Road Not Taken", published in 1916, was the poem chosen for first year secondary students to recite at this year's Hong Kong Schools Speech Festival.

Since my daughter won, with a little coaching from dad, that seems a good enough excuse as any to reprint it.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Monday, 8 December 2008


I've just skimmed through the token English-language contribution to the Hong Kong Public Relations Professionals' Association newsletter, which is named, rather racily, "2-Way". (These guys will do anything to grab your attention.)

The article, "How to Measure PR in the Ditigal Age", is written by Mazen Nahawi, Managing Director, MediaWatch ME (as in Middle East).

A couple of things stood out. One of the sections was headed "Goodbye to Spillage; Welcome Precision", which was about "audience penetration", appropriately enough. "Spillage" is a word I automatically associate with Hong Kong, a place where perfectly serviceable words such as "use" and "sign" get aggrandised to "usage" and "signage", in such gems as "Our goal is to reduce the usage of plastic bags" and – my favourite – "Please read the signage to ascertain which registration table you should approach to register yourself for the meeting".

The other thing that struck me was the nine-fold repetition of "professional" or "pro" in the article, as in "this gives every PR pro wonderful data to understated [sic] if we are in fact reaching the correct target audience" (a nice proofreading cock-up, as the one thing you can't really say about the usage of "wonderful data" is that it represents an understated approach - or a particularly professional one, for that matter).

"Professional" is one of those words that has multiplied its uses as a noun (or "nominal usages", if you're into inflationary language). In the good old days, you had Doyle and Bodie and their mullets in The Professionals, handled rather incongruously, I always thought, by Gordon Jackson, the butler from Upstairs, Downstairs (how my teenage loins ached for Lesley Ann Down!)

Then there was Len Hutton, the first professional captain of England, in the days when the Gentlemen (amateurs) used to take on the Players (professionals) each year at Lord's.

But now they're everywhere: you've got health professionals, customer relationship management professionals, and even (lord help us!) teaching professionals.

Fearing lest he should become just another statistic himself, the author has, according to the blurb, morphed from a former PR professional into a "measurement guru". Don't be surprised if, by the next issue, our man hasn't leveraged more wonderful data which tells him that he is in fact a colossal wastage of spacage.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Homo Superior

Spike's post "Gay marriages will save the economy" and his link to the sketch, from which the line is taken, starring Jack Black and attacking the passing of Proposition 8 in California, set me thinking.

For those who are unaware, Proposition 8 is a proposal to amend the California Constitution by a ballot of the state's 17.3 million registered voters, requiring a simple majority to be enacted. Proposition 8 sought to change the state Constitution by restricting the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman and eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry. A high turnout (73.1%) saw the proposition passed by Californians 52.3% to 47.7%.

The furore over the popular vote – and the perceived wisdom that gays tend to be found disproportionately among high income brackets, from which the quip derives its humour – reminded me of a comment made by C S Lewis in a letter to an American correspondent, and former student, more than fifty years ago:

"Male homosexuals (I don't know about women) are rather apt, the moment they find you don't treat them with horror and contempt, to rush to the opposite pole and start implying that they are somehow superior to the normal type."

It seems there really is nothing new under the sun.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Making Munceys of Themselves

Yesterday evening, as we were leaving the Mei Lam Estate car park in Tai Wai after enjoying a game of badminton, it was announced on the RTHK news that Australian jockey Chris Munce had been cleared to ride in New South Wales.

Munce, fittingly born in a town called Casino, was sent to jail last year for the crime of "gaining a material advantage from his work without the knowledge of his employer", an offence which appears to exist only in Hong Kong. He was given a two and a half year prison sentence for giving tips for cash, and pretty good tips they were too, if I recall correctly, as 25 percent of the horses he tipped went on to win, with him on board to steer them home. Munce was in effect backing his own horses to win, which seems far from criminal to me, but as we shall see the Hong Kong Jockey Club isn't so keen on rewarding winners.

On Monday, the monopoly in charge of gambling in Hong Kong added to his punishment by disqualifying Munce, released on 30 October, from riding anywhere in the world until September 2009.

The racing authorities in New South Wales reacted to this development by saying, "Struth, mate, enough's enough! The bloke's served his time, you can't punish him twice for the same offence, and anyway he didn't break the rules of racing, just your ridiculous law."

As he considered his response to this lack of fealty, chief executive of the HKJC, Winfreid Engelbrecht-Bresges, was clearly struggling to keep the toys in the cot:

"The unprecedented decision of Racing NSW not to reciprocate the penalty of 30 months disqualification from racing on Christopher Munce is in breach of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities' principle that penalties will automatically be reciprocated whenever natural justice has been afforded."

At last! A German with a sense of humour. To be fair, he's already shown this by routinely closing the accounts of those who win too much money on his horses. As I've pointed out before, this is rather odd, as, according to Winfried, Hong Kong racing is clean, which means that those who win big do so by being talented and hard-working, qualities you'd have thought he'd be keen to encourage and reward.

But, I am saving the best till last. The RTHK news segment included an interview with Winfried's number two, Director of Racing Bill Nader. The American sounded even more frumious than his boss. Picking up one of the toys that Winnie had jettisoned, Nader proceeded to tear it limb from limb, dismembering the English language in the process, as he chuntered on about it being "a dark day for race horsing internationally".

"Has this guy got a speech impediment?" asked my daughter.

"Sounds like it," I replied. "Maybe he should do the handicapping."

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Palin vs. Palin

By an extraordinary twist of fate, Stalin won last week's Operation Barbarossa rematch against Hitler by exactly the same score as he prevailed 66 years ago in the home match at Stalingrad.

My thanks to Hong Kong's most glamorous journalist for providing the seed which was duly fertilised to provide us with this week's poll.

Since it's so fiendishly tricky, I've dug up some of their best routines to help you make up your mind.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Take a Hike

In common with his contemporary George Orwell, one of C S Lewis's hobby horses was the abuse of words. Hardcore Lewis nuts will all have read (and some will have understood) his Studies in Words, the 1960 book based on a series of lectures he gave at Cambridge on "Some Difficult Words".

In this book, Lewis uses the term "verbicide" to refer to the act of killing a word by reducing its meaning to the same thing as an already existing word. Lewis notes that words tend over time to be reduced to meaning "good" (for example, "quality shoes") or "bad" (the list is endless – "awful", "terrible", etc.) because people prefer to judge than to describe.

In a letter of 1954 to science fiction writer Idrisyn Evans, Lewis talks about the abusive passion for "specialising" ordinary things. I thought it ties in rather nicely with the subject of yesterday's entry:

"About the word 'hiking' my own objection would lie only against its abuse for something so simple as taking an ordinary 'walk': i.e. to the passion for making specialised and self-conscious stunts out of activities which have hitherto been as ordinary as shaving or playing with the kitten."

I shudder to think what old Lewis would have said about the sort of garbage PR types have to churn out in these days of "corporate social responsibility" and "customer relationship management".

Monday, 1 December 2008

Wooded Walks

With the weather set fair, we've recently revisited a couple of favourite haunts, which offer pleasant half-day walks in the woods.

The walk round the Shing Mun Reservoir is a bit of a doddle, and therefore suitable for the elderly, the young or the hung over. Try going round clockwise, starting with the nature trail to Pineapple Dam. This way, you get the metal road section of the walk out of the way first, allowing you to enjoy the twisty sandy path following the contours of the reservoir on you way back to car, taxi or minibus (there's a regular service to and from Tsuen Wan). Total walking time's around 2-3 hours, depending on your fitness and the time of year.

The other little jewel is the Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve, which is on the Tai Po Road a few miles north of the Chinese University. There are four signed walks of different length and degree of difficulty (Red, Blue, Brown and Yellow). Yesterday we basically followed the Yellow route (the longest at 10 kilometres), with a couple of modifications. At the start we took the nature trail (just 50 metres up from the Tai Po Road) rather than the 500-metre walk up the road, and towards the end we crossed over onto the Blue route to avoid walking on tarmac for the final two kilometres.

There are fine views towards Grassy Hill to the west and across Tolo Harbour to the Pat Sin Leng range and Ma On Shan to the east. As the sun, which had been dappling through the leaves, began to get lower in the sky, my Lord of the Rings fanatic of a daughter intoned gravely that the westering sun was telling us to return to the Shire and watch Addams Family Values on HBO.