Pop go the people

Imagine that your loved one suddenly disappeared and you have not seen or heard from him or her ever since. I believe the feelings of uncertainty, worry, agony and helplessness can be even worse than if that person is confirmed dead.

People don't just disappear without a reason. Except in the rather rare instances that the disappearance is self-induced, such as when the person has to flee from someone or something, most cases of disappearance involve the subjects being abducted. In such cases, the ones who suffer are not only the disappeared, who are under grave danger of being harmed, tortured or killed, but also their families. And that is what makes the International Day of the Disappeared, which took place yesterday, very meaningful.

Here is what Amnesty International USA says about "enforced disappearance":

"You could be taken at any time, day or night. You might be at home, at work or traveling on the street. Your captors may be in uniform or civilian clothes. They forcibly take you away, giving no reason, producing no warrant. Your relatives desperately try to find you, going from one police station or army camp to the next. The officials deny having arrested you or knowing anything about your whereabouts or fate. You have become a victim of enforced disappearance.

"Enforced disappearance is a grave human rights violation and a crime. Amnesty International defines an enforced disappearance as the detention of someone by the state or its agents, when the authorities deny that the victim is in custody or conceal what has happened to them. Enforced disappearances have occurred across the world - in Sri Lanka, Russia, El Salvador, Morocco, Iraq, Thailand, Pakistan, Bosnia, Equatorial Guinea, Egypt and Argentina, to name a few. No one is immune; victims have included men, women and children.

"An enforced disappearance violates the rights of both the disappeared person and their relatives. Disappeared persons are denied the right to a proper arrest and to a fair trial. They may be tortured, detained in poor conditions and eventually killed. The relatives of the disappeared persons suffer anguish every day, not knowing what has happened to their loved one; they are victims, too. They often encounter social isolation, with relatives and neighbors being too afraid to offer aid or support. If the disappeared person was the main breadwinner for the family, they can also suffer economic hardship."

While these paragraphs talk about disappearance enforced by countries, typically the totallitarian ones or ones where the rule of the law is not respected, there are also cases where people, usually helpless ones such as children or young women, are abducted or enticed. In the film Slumdog Millionnaire, for example, a cold-blooded man lured the children living in the slum in Mumbai with bottles of coke, then made them blind and forced them to beg for him. Similar stories are often heard from across the border of Hong Kong.

Do not think that just because you happen to live in a democratic or relatively safe country, such a thing will not happen to you or someone you hold dear. Here in Hong Kong, once in a while there are high profile news story about some girls or children suddenly evaporating.

Should such an unfortunate thing happen to your dear one, a website like www.personsmissing.org, which provides information and a registration service, should offer some hope and help.


The problem does not lie with the journalist

In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about how media journalists like to propose a cause for news items to make matters more concrete. After describing the phenomenon he says:

"The problem of overcausation does not lie with the journalist, but with the public. Nobody would pay one dollar to buy a series of abstract stastics reminiscent of a boring college lecture. We want to be told stories..."

I would like to argue that we can take the structure of these sentences and apply them to aspects of the media that we are so critical about, such as sensationalism, editorial bias, and they will make perfect sense. Just try:

"The problem of [put down what you don't like about the media here] does not lie with the journalist, but with the public. Nobody would pay a dollar to.... We want to be ...."

The truth cannot be more obvious. We, the media consumers, are the problem. The media are just feeding us with what we are wailing for.

Much as we believe we are helpless against yellow journalism, the day we all refuse to pay that one dollar, everything will be cleaned up.


No newspaper is good newspaper

My media consumption has become more and more sparing and selective in recent years. Take newspapers for an example. Until a few years ago, every Sunday I used to return home from the church with a Chinese newspaper. Not that any of the local papers was ever worthy of anyone's time, but I found leafing through the only non-compliant paper in Hong Kong a leisurely way to spend a Sunday morning. But as I became increasingly disgusted with and disillusioned by the hypocrisy and consumerism, I felt that having to pay a few dollars and sacrifice a few trees for information of such ludicrously poor quality an insult. I turned to reading the same paper online for a while, but even that has now ceased to be a habit.

But I do browse sometimes, to look for something just to sneer about. There is no disappointment or anger because the expectation has long gone.

In the last few days, what I paid attention to was the frontpage headlines following the shooting incident in Manila. One can find, in mega-text, something like "MOST PAINFUL", "COME HOME - FEEL THE LOVE OF HONG KONG", "PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER JASON", "HONG KONG HAS AN IRON MOTHER" and "EVIL POLICEMAN". I don't know how many people see these as words of compassion and encouragement, but I certain think they are perfect examples of cheap sensationalism, reflecting an attempt to profiteer from a most unfortunate incident.

These may not be as bad as the frantic scramble in 2008 to publish the obscene photos of some Hong Kong female stars that had been uploaded to the Internet, but the ultimate purpose remains the same - to sell more copies.


Hokkaido photos (2)

These pictures were taken in Kurodake:


Hokkaido photos (1)

The photos taken in Hokkaido have been organised.

Here are three taken at Asahiyama Zoo:


Big Ear vs Jarhead

In the Hong Kong film Echoes of the Rainbow, which won the Crystal Bear award in the Generation category at the Berlin Film Festival this year, the eight-year-old boy Big Ears was portrayed as always running around with a fish tank in his head.

In a recent piece of news, a six-month-old black bear cub was seen to cut a similar figure. But it was nothing hilarious at all.

"Jarhead", as the cub was affectionately dubbed", and its mother and two siblings were regular visitors to rubbish containers near Weirsdale in the Ocala National Forest in Florida. In late July this year, a local resident saw him running around with a clear plastic jar stuck in its head. The jar made it impossible for the cub to eat and drink. The concerned resident called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which then developed a plan to capture Jarhead. They knew that the cub would die if the jar was not removed. The team of rescuers set traps in different areas, hoping to catch and tranquilise the mother, which would then allow them to catch the cubs.

After ten days without success, in the last two of which there was no more sighting, the team feared the cub might have died. But when they were about to pull the traps and give up, a fresh sighting was reported. So they rushed back, shot the mother with a tranquiliser dart and then subdued the cubs. The family was later released in a less populated area nearby.
While the story ended happily, it raised concerns about issues related to wild animals scavenging in human neighbourhood.


Ready for the black swan

This picture of some canned food on the shelf, which I took in a supermarket in Furano, shows how well prepared the Japanese are about things.

The pictures on the cans suggest that the content is fruitcake. The label says that the food is for storage in case of disasters. The food can be preserved for a long time, up to five years.
That means some Japanese people stock a number of cans of this food at home and have them replace every five years, just to prepare for the worst.

They take no chances and are always ready for the Black Swan, to use Nassim Nicholas Taleb's famous analogy.


Money for value

My unofficial estimate, based on my experience during this trip, is that the prices of daily necessities are on average about two to three times higher than those of Hong Kong. On average, mind you. The range is quite big. While some items, such as a loaf of bread, cost about the same, some categories, mainly agricultural produces such as fruits and vegetables, carry a price difference of between three to five times.

A more official and often quoted indicator of the consumer price differences between countries is the Big Mac Index. 2009 figures show that a Big Mac in Japan, sold at USD3.46, is double the price of a Big Mac in Hong Kong, which costs USD1.72.

While it is obvious that the cost of living is higher in Japan than in Hong Kong, it is equally obvious that the generally more expensive products are also generally of higher quality. Their food tastes as good as it looks and gives the consumer absolute peace of mind. It is only fair that products (not to say services) of such superior quality fully deserves a hefty price tag.

Another interesting phenomenon is that the difference in GDP per capita between Japan and Hong Kong is not as marked as that of consumer prices. According to IMF figures for 2009, the GDP per capita for Japan, at USD39,731, is only about one-third higher than that of Hong Kong, at USD29,826. But before jumping to the conclusion that Japanese citizens are hard done by, take a look at the difference in the Gini coefficient, which is an index reflecting income inequalities (it is a number between 0 and 1, where 0 means perfect equality and 1 means perfect inequality). While Japan's Gini coefficient, at 0.25 according to 2008 UN figures, is ranked the second lowest in the world, Hong Kong's figure, at 0.43, is a staggering 80 places higher. So the situation in Hong Kong is one of very few people having most of the income whereas that of Japan is that people have similar income.

I remember reading from a travel guidebook that the Japanese boast about most people in the country being middle class. It seems that this is not far from the truth. It is therefore likely that the considerable difference in consumer prices quite accurately reflect the difference in the power of consumption between the majority of people in the two regions.



A friend sent me an PowerPoint file with some amazing images by Víctor Molev. While the miniature versions of the images are portraits of some famous people, the enlarged versions are beautiful paintings which are thematically related to what the people are famous for. Two examples are the small images above, which portray Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud respectively, and the large ones below, which show what their theories are about.

The PowerPoint file contains the following biography of Víctor Molev:
Victor Molev was born in Nizhniy Novgorod (Russia) in 1955.He graduated from architecture faculty in 1976 and has worked as an architect and theatre set painter.

He immigrated to Israel in 1990. Victor was a member of the association of artist and sculptors in Israel. He is painter and graphic artist. He had participated in numerous exhibitions (both solo and general) in Russia, Europe and Israel. His works can be found in private collections throughout Europe, United States, Canada and Israel. In august 2006 He immigrated to Canada. Up to day he lives in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

These images and many more of his great works are available at his website: www.victormolev.com.


Exercise, discipline, affection

The article What the Dog Saw in Malcolm Gladwell's book of the same name is about how a dog whisperer called Cesar Millan handled rambunctious dogs. His guiding principles were "exercise, discipline and affection".

"When we love someone, we fulfill everything about them," Cesar Millan was quoted in the article as saying. "That's loving." Exercise, discipline and affection are the "everything" he was talking about.
These elements were mentioned in St Paul's letter to the Hebrews (Heb 12:5-7, 11-13), which is the second reading in today's mass. St Paul reminded us not to disdain the discipline of God or lose heart when reproved by him but to endure our trials as "discipline". Such discipline is a sign of God's affection, a sign that he treats us as sons. "For whom the Lord loves, he disciplines," he said.

St Paul also reminded us to exercise. He said that we should "strengthen [our] drooping hands and [our] weak knees so that they may be healed".
Like Cesar Millan who works with the most difficult canines, God never gives up on us but always looks to give us a healthy dose of "exercise, discipline and affection".



Every time I come back from a trip abroad to my native city, I have this terrible sense of being lost. And coming back from a country as cultured and civilized as Japan makes this sense of being lost all the more deeply felt.

As absurd as it may sound, I am well and truly lost in my own native city. This city which brands itself as “Asia’s World City” is a heartless and soulless place. I feel terribly lost when I have to spend fifteen more minutes to walk to the new ferry pier because the old one has been ruthlessly pulled down in the name of development. I feel terribly lost when I walk along a street in a forgotten part of the city where some middle-aged prostitutes hang out for the next patron and some ethnic minorities set up the stalls for the night market. I feel terrible lost when I am in an MTR carriage, surrounded by people who all speak at the top of their voices not so only because everyone else around them is doing so but also because this has become a routine.

It typically takes maybe a week or so, when I can yet again grow numb to all these, when I begin to forget that it doesn’t have to be that way because elsewhere in the world it usually is not that way.

It can be done. It has been proven to work, all my life, hasn’t it?


"Be thankful", "Smile at it"

While on the topic of Japanese people, there is one remarkable Japanese man I have to mention.

Ohno Katsuhiko was born in 1944. He had been tending to his family's agricultural business since graduating from high school, until a tragic accident in 1989 changed everything. His hands got caught in a machine. His mother was standing by his side when it happened, but she could not help because she did not know which button to press. Both forearms had to be amputated.

After the accident, he had to wear a prosthesis. Amazingly, he started writing painting and writing calligraphy using two metal fingers wrapped with a rubber glove to hold the brush. He even started to teach painting and to give positive energy and encouragement to people through talking to them about their problems.

One thing he likes doing is to walk in nature to sketch the landscape and write words of encouragement that come to his mind.

His paintings, poems and calligraphy are on display in Kaze-no-Oka Aso Katsuhiko Ohno Art Museum in Kyushu, which his students donated money to build for him, as well as in Seibi no Mori Museum in Hokkaido.

Despite his hardships, Ohno Katsuhiko is remarkably optimistic. The optimism is shown in his works as well as his motto, which is always "to be thankful" and "to smile at it".


A magical scene

Along many roads in Japan, one can see the road sign which suggests that there can be deer crossing the road.

During the ten days in Hokkaido, we actually saw that scene once, on our way from Shintoku to the Higashi Daisetsu-sō hot spring. The pair of Ezo Deer looked to be a mother and her fawn. It happened in a split second and there was simply no time to grab the camera, but we were really lucky to be able to see the almost magical scene of the deer prancing across the road in the serene forest area.

But during that journey, we were able to take shots of some Japanese red foxes. Unlike the deer, they don't seem to be very scared of people, strolling across and along the road self-assuredly, showing an interest in our vehicle and even letting us pull the car really close to take these pictures:

In different countries, we keep reading or hearing stories about the conflict between human development and protection of wild or endangered animals and the Ezo Deer is no exception. This paragraph is from a publication by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment:

"The Ezo Deer has been increasing in number all over Hokkaido, and in Daisetsuzan region, it is often seen from the road. The increased population has caused damages to agricultural crops, trees, and even to alpine vegetation. There have also been problems such as collisions of cars and the Ezo Deer. The national and local governments have been making efforts such as investigating the damages caused by the deer's feeding, alerting visitors and implementing measures to prevent accidents. The Hokkaido governent is undertaking the population management program for the Ezo Deer."

The name of this program doesn't sit right with me. How they manage the population is anyone's guess. Obviously, this conflict between human and animal interests is a hard one to resolve. Inevitably, it is always the animals who are the big losers.


Home sweet home

This is the place we are to come back to later this evening, after spending ten days in picturesque and pleasant Hokkaido.

I may need the inspiration from a quote in a placard I saw in the toilet of one of the minshukus for some badly needed motivation. It says: "Bloom where you're planted."

Another huge injection of motivation is of course the prospect of seeing my cats which I have been missing for the whole trip. Parker, Piper, Fred and Francis, we are on our way back!


Common people leaving an impression

These may be ordinary people like the countless other ones in the country, but they leave a bit of an impression to a visitor like me.

A 10-year-old school girl who plays baseball and an old man selling sweet corns

The former was featured in a documentary programme on TV one morning. The latter we bought some sweet corns from. On the surface, they may not have much in common, but what impresses me is how well groomed and well mannered they are, and how they exude a sense of dignity and self-assuredness.

This says much about what a country like Japan has achieved. Unfortunately, one cannot say the same about China, even though it has just surpassed Japan as the world's second largest economy.

Two men in a car park

Not knowing how to operate a self-service parking machine which, like so many other things in Japan, has no English instructions, I asked two men for help. I approached the first one when he got off his car. "Do you speak English?" I asked. "No," he said, and quickly walked away.

I stopped the second one when he got off his van. He too spoke no English, but he was very patient and helpful. He tried to find out what the problem was and what it was I did not understand, and he tried to give detailed explanation, only his Japanese was all Greek to me. When it was obvious, after a few minutes of hard working but futile communication, that it was not going to work, the man left apologetically. You would think that the first man was rather curt, but later, when he returned and saw me in the car, he took the trouble to come forward and check to see that I was okay. This attempt to follow up was totally unexpected.

I have visited the country two times and I have yet to meet someone who is impatient or unhelpful when you ask for help. Two men even took some minutes to walk me to the place for which I had asked for direction.

Again, where I come from, such helpfulness is rather rare.


From Japanese cartoons to Japanese culture

Japanese cartoons are, among other things such as celery, bitter melon and jazz music, something I used to loathe.

Having been used to American classics such as the Merry Melodies series, the Flintstones, Popeye, etc. as a schoolboy, there were a few things in particular that I didn't like about Japanese cartoons:

(1) They are inundated with sentiments of extreme nationalism and doggedness. It's always Japan is the greatest nation in the world, Japan or its heroes will save the world, one has to achieve the 'noble' nationalistic cause at all costs or die, etc.
(2) There is a lack of variety of the facial expressions of the characters. Except for the expressions of emotions that are very exaggerated, such as crying with tears and snots flowing like floods, the facial expressions typically lack changes or subtlety.
(3) Similarly, there is also a lack of 'real' movements and animation. They use the trick of making small changes to a still picture, such as flashing it or zooming in and out, to create a false impression of movement. Also, they don't use too many frames per second so that the movements are not seamlessly smooth like the American cartoons.
(4) The features of the characters, such as girls' doll-like eyes and wavy blond (or other outlandish colours) hair, and the manners of the characters are always so exaggerated that they look and sound bizarre.

But as one grows older, one also gets a bit wiser. Down the years I have learned to turn from understanding, accepting, appreciating to truly admiring the Japanese culture. I have to say that Japanese cartoons are still not my cup of tea, as much of what I thought about them still holds true, but at least I now understand that those characteristics reflect, for better or worse, key features of the Japanese culture. Firstly, Japanese people are very proud of their nation. Whether those cartoons and TV programmes are implanting patriotism or simply portraying a national sentiment is just a chicken and egg issue. Second, beyond the elaborate expressions their social etiquettes require, Japanese people do not wear their emotions on their faces. Behind the polite facade, they are quite inscrutinable. Again, those cartoon characters may just be reflecting this. The third and fourth characteristics reflect the Japanese philosophy of doing business and providing service that the appeal is not in the quantity but quality and packaging. Think about Japanese cuisine, for example. It's tidbit after tidbit of fresh, choice food complemented with the finest presentation and service.

Given that Japanese cartoons, along with Japanese cuisine and confectionery, are so popular all over the world, such philosophies have proved to be successful. There is absolutely no question of consumers feeling short-changed or wooed.


Haiku - Saving a moth

Wing caught in fissure
helpless moth in death's firm grip
could I set you free?


"In Japan, this is NO!"

One big advantage of travel is that it provides opportunities for learning about cultures other than our own. Understanding and respecting other people's culture is not only for broadening horizons, it also helps us avoid potentially embarrassing situations. An incident of a couple of days ago was a good example.

That day we bought some sushi for lunch. After having it in the car, we looked around for a bin to dispose of the rubbish and couldn't find any. So we kept the rubbish in the car and drove to our next visiting place, which was an art gallery.

When we got there, we searched again for a bin nearby, but again there was none. So we took the small bag of rubbish inside and gestured to the lady at the ticket counter that we would like to find somewhere to dump the rubbish. But the lady, well mannered and elegant like so many other women we met in Japan, said in stuttering English: "Sorry, this is a museum." Thinking that she didn't know we were about to visit the gallery, I tried to communicate our intention through words as well as gestures. Seeing a waste basket next to the office, I hopefully gestured to put the rubbish in. The lady was stone-faced, the smiles quickly evaporated, and she declared solemnly, again in stuttering English: "In Japan, this is NO!" I immediately apologised and took the rubbish back to the car.

The good lessons I have learned from this incident were: (1) in Japan, don't expect to find a rubbish bin in public places, (2) definitely don't take any rubbish to the places you visit, and (3) take the rubbish back to where you live and dispose of it there.

So those sushi containers had the privilege of travelling with us for a day before eventually finding their way in the little basket in our room in the minshuku.


Haiku - old man in onsen

eyes that have seen all
fixing at running water
old man in onsen


Haiku - on a farm

flies on sheep droppings
and butterflies on flowers
aren't they the same thing?


"Labour and manufacture makes man"

Visiting galleries and museums is an indispensible part of my travel. It is one of the best ways to understand and appreciate the life of the people in the country. And while the coming of a typhoon means outdoor activities were impossible today, those visits were even more timely.
One museum I visited today was Tsuchi No Yakata (Museum of Soils and Tractors of the World). The museum is a memorial of Toyoji Sugano, who returned to Japan after the war to resume his old business, and the site of the museum was the very first factory he re-opened. It wasn't the most interesting museum in terms of exhibits (to me at least), as they were, exactly as the name of the place has suggested, just soils and tractors. But I was impressed by the work ethics and philosophy of the founder and his son. Toyoji Sugano's motto is "Labour and manufacture makes man". And this sense of appreciation of work is beautifully exemplified in the following exhibits.

The words in this slate means "Agriculture is like a word-cut print carved with a hoe on the earth".
And here are two poems written by Syokoh Sugano (the founder's son?). The first one is called Soil:
This year again the motherly terra gave us the food for life.
If it were not for the soil, or if the soil was poor, or if we did not have the skill to make use of soil, could we exist now?
Our life is worth living because the soil is there.
The soil covers everything of our life.
When we thank the soil with our whole heart and with our enthusiasm, it will accept our heart beyond any human knowledge.
The soil lived in the past, is succeeded in the present age, and bears all the possibility in the future.
The second one is called The Way of the White:
The plowing is the ultimate contribution in agriculture.
On a good soil grow crops automatically.
This challenge which seeks for the simple original idea of agriculture is the was in which people of the same view throw away their ego, improve their inner spirit together and seek for integration and independence.
This is neither for our self-respect nor for our self-profit.
This is not meant to force the authority.
This is also by no means for the egoism of the company.
The sequential effect of the idea of the white is to seek for the harmony but not for the uniformity.
The harmony depending on the uniformity is also denied here.
This is the way of the white, the way for mastering the plow of Japan.


Haiku - outdoor hotspring

dragonfly on rock
white butterfly flutters by
naked me look on


There is no free lunch

As I've always noticed in my daily life as well as during my previous visits, Japanese products do not come cheap. Particularly noticeable are the agricultural produces and foodstuff. Be it bread or bean or berry, Japanese produces are many times more expensive than their counterparts in China. For us who are used to the inexpensive Chinese foodstuff, the high prices of the Japanese produces are off-putting, but I can see the strong justifications. The high prices guarantees those who are engaged in farming a decent standard of living. They also guarantee that the produces are of high quality. The fact that the general public agree to pay the high prices ensures that wealth is distributed more evenly and that the food they eat is tasty and safe. Compare that with China where the farmers live a pretty miserable life because they are exploited and their livelihood is insecure, and the general public pay little for their food but are exposed to all sorts of risks because the food has been tempered, conteminated and sometimes intoxicated in all sorts of ways.

As the old adage goes, there is simply no free lunch. We pay quite a lot for our lunch when travelling in Japan, but in return we can enjoy some gastronomic delights and much peace of mind, and it is worth every penny of it.


Is long flights really so bad?

I'm doing this update on the plane on my way to Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan. Not a live updaate of course. There is no Internet connection, but I have brought my notebook.

Up above the clouds, I remember the often mentioned dread or hatred about being stuck in the pigeon hole they call an economy class seat during long flights. and I would like to say that I don't think it is that bad.

The enforced sojourn is confining of course, but on the other hand it provides an opportunity for me to do something that I otherwise do not get to do because of my hectic schedule, such as reading a book for an extended length of time. Before writing this, I have actually finished one whole book which I only started reading when waiting for boarding. I can imagine what the country I am about to visit is like, even though invariably the subsequent trip will prove the imagination to be wildly off the mark. I can look out of the window and see different scens I don't get to see often. Depending on the weather, the time of the day and the elevation and inclination of the plane, the interesting things may range from an authentic 3D map to a firmament with the colours of the sky and shapes of the clouds so fascinating that one has a feeling of being in heaven. In short, it is a time for me to experience the wisdom that making the journey is more valuable than reaching the destination.

Not being able to sleep well or at all is the hard part of course, but if we try to accept it as part and parcel of the trip and to properly equip ourselves with such things as a neck pillow or a blanket, that should make it more tolerable.

And if you really cannot sleep, try looking out of the window, you might see an angel waving at you.


Members of the "lucky sperm club"

In an open letter published in Fortune in June, Warren Buffett made his "Philanthropic Pledge".

"More than 99% of my wealth will go to philanthropy during my lifetime or at death" was the commitment.

That was an incredibly kind and generous gesture, but for a man of his wealth and stature, he was remarkably humble. Having said that his commitment, measured by dollars, is large, he added that his family and himself will give up nothing they need or want by fulfilling the 99% pledge, whereas many individuals who regularly contribute to churches, schools and other organisations relinquish the use of funds that would otherwise benefit their own families. He also said that the pledge does not leave him contributing his time, which is the most precious asset, admitting that he had given little person-to-person help that often proves far more valuable than money.

He then attributed his wealth to himself and his children having won the "ovarian lottery", quoting a combination of factors that have helped him remove huge obstacles, including being born and living in the US, being male, being white, and living in a market system that generally serves the country well. (Mr Buffett has elsewhere referred to those who grow up in wealthy circumstances as "members of the lucky sperm club".)

The reaction of his family and himself to their "extraordinary good fortune", Mr Buffett said, is "gratitude". And that is why they have decided to "keep all [they] can conceivably need and distribut the rest to society, for its needs."

It is worth noting that while Mr Buffett sees the market system as serving the US and himself well, he doesn't think it can address the root causes of poverty. He once said in an interview that "a market system has not worked in terms of poor people".

It is this view about the market system and poverty, along with other passions he shared with Bill Gates, such as their love for cherry Coke, burgers, college football, playing bridge, solving complex math problems and their distain for inherited, dynastic wealth, that has forged a close friendship between the two wealthiest men in the planet. This friendship has resulted in Mr Buffett donating USD31 billion to the charity foundation run by Mr Gates and his wife, and in the two launching a campaign that has so far successfully lobbied thirty-eight US billionaires to make "The Giving Pledge", which is pledging at least 50% of their wealth to charity.

Who can deny that the success of this "Giving Pledge" is attributed to Mr Buffett's "Philanthropic Pledge"?


Slam junk

It's 8:04pm and I'm laying the dinner table.

The phone rings. Uh-oh! It's most unlikely to be from my wife, who should be at the door any minute now. Experience tells me that it's one of those irritating junk calls. This is the time of the day these calls come in most frequently, probably based on some market research or previous knowledge that people have just finished dinner.

My hunch is confirmed. "Good afternoon, madam," says a manufactured male voice.

The offense from this voice, these few words and the utter mindlessness of the caller give me the perfect excuse to slam the phone, before declaring: "I am not a madam and it is not afternoon now."

It is amazing how such muppets believe they can woo people into listening to them, not to say buying or subscribing to whatever service or product they are trying to tout, without even having to think or bothering to get some basic facts right. Such arrogance or folly or complacency is simply shocking!


Worse than the SARS times

It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the recently announced Quality of Life Index for 2009 is the lowest in six years, worse than in 2003 when the city was condemned to utter hopelessness and panic because of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak. Two indicators that were most telling were the increased rate of infectious disease and the drop in the housing affordability ratio.

Regarding the latter, the researcher said: “The average property price of a 400-square-foot apartment in Kowloon is actually eight years’ average household income.”

What that essentially means is that for the average household, a whole month’s income buys you about four square feet of living space – and that is only assuming that every single penny is spent on the purchase. Given that, to be on the safe side, a family should spend no more than half of the household income on mortgage, that means they can buy no more than two square feet of living space per month. It takes an average Hong Kong family 16 years to be able to call that 400-square-feet apartment their own.

And how much money are we actually talking about here? According to the General Household Survey, the median monthly domestic household income for the fourth quarter of 2009 was HKD17,500. The average price of a 400-square-foot apartment in Kowloon, which is worth eight years' income, is about HKD1,680,000, which means about HKD4,200 per square foot.
"You're seeing university students applying for public housing now," the researcher said. "That hasn't happened in the past."

Again, this is hardly surprising, in a city where a few property tycoons are wielding so much power and the government is so impotent.


Who's Hu?

Sometimes, the carelessness as reflected in the errors of the newspapers makes you wonder whether the editors and journalists bother to verify or even proofread the articles.
One of the most blatant and hilarious instances is the “Whose Hu” blunder a few months ago, where South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's leading English newspaper, translated Chinese President Hu Jintao's name as "Hu Jia", which is the name of a prominent Chinese dissident in the front page.

And there are frequently other less high profile but equally glaring errors. Take the two court cases discussed in the blog yesterday, for example. A local blogger spotted the following discrepancies in reported 'facts' between the two English newspapers in Hong Kong, The Standard and the South China Morning Post:
  • The age of the defendant of the first case: The Standard says 33, the SCM Post says 34
  • The fine the defendant of the second case has to pay: The Standard says HKD12,000, the SCM Post says HKD15,000
  • The compensation the family of the defendant of the second case paid to the injured taxi driver: The Standard says HKD180,000, the SCM Post says HKD288,000

Which left the blogger wondering whether the reporters went to the same court hearings.

Or, look at the article below, published recently in The Standard. While the name referred to in the headline is "Kevin", the whole article was about a teenager called "Kelvin Lee Chin-kin".

The newspaper should be happy that in this case it is not the Chinese President's name they have meddled with.


Some are more equal than others

Two recent court cases appear to underline the truth of George Orwell’s immortal line "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Let’s first look at what the guilty parties were convicted of. The defendant of the first case pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer (her third such conviction, by the way), careless driving and refusing to take a breathalyzer test. The defendant of the second case pleaded guilty to drink-driving, careless driving, driving without a license, taking a conveyance without authority and using a vehicle without third-party insurance.

How about the sentence? In the first case, the sentence was one-year probation, a one-year driving ban and a fine of HKD8,000. In the second case, the sentence was 150 hours of community service, a one-year ban from applying for a driving license and a fine of HKD12,000. In other words, no jail terms. And for such serious offences as drink-driving (which runs the risk of causing injury and death to innocent people) and assaulting a police officer (look at how some protestors in demonstrations have been charged and convicted of this offence and thrown into jail) too.

And the rationale? Apparently, besides the seriousness of the nature of the offences, it appears to have a lot to do with the defendant’s background and what family he or she was born into. The magistrate of the first case said this of the defendant: “She has a clear background and was born into a good family with caring parents. She also has an outstanding academic record.” The magistrate of the second case also referred to the defendant’s good background and academic results.

So what are the backgrounds of these defendants which have played such a key role in determining what sentence they received? The defendant in the first case is the niece of a Court of Final Appeal judge. The defendant in the second case is the son of a director of a listed company. Not only that, the latter was also able to produce mitigation letters from well-known figures such as a Basic Law Committee member and a former lawmaker.

So if someone in Hong Kong happens to be in trouble with the law, whether he or she is well-to-do and well-connected can make a world of difference.