20100930

Autumn is in the air

Not having gone on my lunchtime escapade for a few days, not only did I find the long flight of steps and the very steep trail leading up to the hiking trail more unforgiving than usual (I maintain, though, that this is the most rewarding part of the hike, providing the challenge as well as the aerobic exercise), I also felt the strong presence of autumn.

About a week ago, we had an interesting Mid-Autumn Festival night where the harvest moon fell at the same time as the autumnal equinox (a rare occurrence which will not happen again until 2029). From that point onwards, the days in this year became shorter. This seasonal change is pretty much like the human life cycle. The onset of autumn then is like a man who is just past his prime. He is no longer as flamboyant and powerful. But he is also less headstrong and aggressive. Having come of age, and realising that from now on more and more doors are going to close behind him, he becomes more mellow, more incisive and more inviting.

That was the feeling that the crisp air, gentle breeze and caressing sunlight gave me. As I moved along the lush green trail, I got drunk in the romance in the air and lost in the nostalgia in my mind.

20100929

The past, present and future of mobile phones

Here are some interesting facts about the world's first mobile phone:
  • It was born in 1973.
  • It was invented by someone called Martin Cooper from Motorola.
  • It weighed two kilos. (Not very mobile then!)
  • Its battery alone weighed four or five times an entire mobile phone now. Its lifetime was 20 minutes.
  • Its production cost was the equivalent of USD1m in today's money.
  • The original idea for its production was to help doctors and hospital staff improve their communications.

There were a few things that Martin Cooper, the Father of Mobile Phones, could not have predicted about the development of his invention in three and a half decades, such as

  • its pervasiveness - more than half the people on Earth now have mobile phones
  • its social implications - he had no idea that concepts like Facebook and Twitter would ever happen
  • its annoyance - "We could not have predicted the annoyance that people have when the phone rings at the opera," he said. "But it doesn't take a cellular phone to make people be rude."

And what is his prediction for the future of mobile phones?

He believes that users will be able to dispense with the device altogether. "The cellphone in the long range is going to be embedded under your skin behind your ear along with a very powerful computer who is in effect your slave," he said.

If the prediction is correct, we may well live to see this sci-fi-like scene.

20100928

Are customers always right?

In the workshop on handling complaints that I mentioned yesterday, the facilitator talked about a conversation between two women that he said he overheard during a train trip.

Woman A: I hear that your son has recently got married. How is your daughter-in-law?
Woman B: She isn't much help, doing nothing except eating, sleeping and watching TV at home.
Woman A: How about your daughter? She has recently got married, too.
Woman B: My daughter has married well. She just stays at home and doesn't have to toil.


This sounds much more like a funny story the facilitator made up than a real conversation, but the facilitator made good use of it to bring home the message that people are not always fair-minded when they make complaints. They may complain about things that they themselves are exactly guilty of.

He went on to ask us whether we agree with the statement that customers are always right. My take was: it depends on what 'right' means.

20100927

The L.A.S.T. resort to handling complaints

I attended a workshop on handling complaints recently and learned a few useful tips that can be applied not only to the workplace but also to other interpersonal contexts.
  • The three steps to take in handling complaints are cooling down yourself, helping the other person to cool down and solving the problem, and it is crucial that the steps should be taken in this order.
  • Of course when people complain, it is invariably about something or someone, but at a deeper level, there is always some untold reasons which prompted them to take the trouble to make the complaint. They may be trying to seek attention. They may be seeking help to more than just solve the problem at hand. They may be trying to serve some self-interest. Or they may simply be having some mental problems. The appropriate strategy may be worked out according to one's judgement of that agenda or reason behind the complaint.
  • A useful service recovery approach is L.A.S.T., which is the acronym for Listen, Apologise, Solve and Thank. Of these, apologising is probably the most difficult thing to do, especially when you think that it is not your fault or the customer is rude. But an apology doesn't have to be an admission of wrongdoing or guilt. It can be a sincere expression of sorrow that the matter has led to inconvenience or bad feeling on the part of the customer. (Here is a good blog on this L.A.S.T. approach.)
  • Simply seeking to judge the right and wrong and then respond accordingly is almost certainly not a good tactic in handling complaints. In fact, it may even be disastrous. After all, it can be very difficult to determine what or who is right under a given situation, especially when you yourself have a stake in it.
Successful handling of a complaint can make a world of difference to all parties concerned.

20100926

Make yourselves at home





It is hard to believe that shown in these pictures are the apalling conditions of the athletes' village used for the 2010 Commonwealth Games that will take place in Delhi in less than a week's time.

Team organisers are worried, and some countries have already delayed their departures. There is no telling whether the problems will be fixed in time before athletes move into accommodation.

We can say all we like about China, but preparing for an international sporting event like that is one thing the Communist regime would never ever allow to happen.

Not in a million years.

20100925

Cat, in the bag!

Two days ago, we went to the vet's clinic to have the threads in Piper's ears removed. The incision had healed well. The only thing was that there were still too much black matters inside the ear to the vet's liking, suggesting that the inflammation was not completely over. We will still have to apply the ear drop for a couple of weeks on a daily basis.

While we can breathe a sigh of relief regarding Piper ear, it is the ear of another cat that I am concerned about. I wrote on 11 September that Francis's right ear gave out some stench. We wanted to bring him to the vet but simply couldn't put that hyper alert and defensive feline into a bag. We made another what we believed to be a well-planned raid using a blanket, but the only result was some nasty scratches on our hand and bodies. The odour seems to be getting worse and I simply do not know what to do.

In a recent email, a friend of ours in Canada said that he has the "mind blowing and exciting" ability to communicate telepathically with his cat, and when there is a need, he would ask his cat as an intermediate to communicate with other animals.

If only I could "talk" to that stubborn cat and convince him that I am only trying to help. Alternatively, if only our friend could help us talk him into getting in that bag so that we can take him to the vet.

20100924

Extremistan vs Mediocristan

In the sermon in this Sunday's mass, the readings of which are about the rich and the poor and handling wealth, the priest quoted three phenomena as reflecting the situation of social inequality today:

One in seven people in such an affluent country as the United States are living in poverty.
About forty percent of the wealth in China are controlled by about one hundred people.
About forty percent of the wealth in Hong Kong are controlled by about one thousand people.

This is in line with Nassim Nicholas Taleb's notion, as elaborated in The Black Swan, that in the modern era, wealth belongs to "Extremistan", not "Mediocristan" as many people assume. The two terms need some explanation. Extremistan is a hypothetical province in which "inequalities are such that one single observation can disproportionately impact the aggregate, or the total". Mediocristan, on the contrary, is a utopian province where individual instances, even the largest observations, do not significantly change the aggregate or the total. Broadly speaking, man-made, social matters such as company size, income and book sales belong to Extremistan whereas physical matters such as height, weight and calorie consumption belong to Mediocristan. To illustrate this, imagine two samples of 100,000 people each. One is a sample of people of different heights. The other is a sample of people of different incomes. Compare the effects on the averages of the two samples by adding the world's tallest person to the first sample and the world's wealthiest person to the second sample. Adding the world's tallest person, a Turkish man with a height of 8 ft 1 in, to the fist sample will only make a minimal difference to the average height of the first sample, but adding Bill Gates to the second sample will certainly have a significant effect on the average income of the second sample. Taleb argues that in modern times, not only are there more domains belonging to Extremistan but also the effect of some very few individuals on the collective is more significant, to the extent that it is almost like "winners take all".

In terms of wealth, my own observation is that in my father's time it was possible for people to accumulate wealth through hard work and saving and narrow the difference between those who were rich and those who were not. Now, the gap is not only much wider but also much more difficult ot bridge. These days most young people have become increasingly frustrated and furious because they see themselves being exploited and deprived of opportunities for upward mobility. Such sentiments, if left unchecked and unchannelled, can potentially threaten social stability. Ruling parties have the responsibility to address such inequalities, but in Hong Kong the government has hardly any determination or commitment to do anything in this direction.

20100923

"All right reserve"

While this self-proclaimed "Asia's World City" is supposed to be "bilingual", there are no lack of linguistic blunders behind the well-packaged fa├žade, if one cares to look into the details, which are, as they say, where the devil is.

On the MTR yesterday, I saw, at the bottom of a poster by Motorola, these sentences in the fine print:

"All other trademark and product or service names are the property of the copyright owners, Motorola, Inc, 2010. All right reserve"

I think there are at least four grammatical errors there, some of which quite glaring. This is probably drafted by someone with limited English, but I wonder whether the mobile phone company bothered to proofread so as not to have its image tarnished by stupid errors like these?

20100922

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival

This is a design I made for a Mid-Autumn Festival many years ago in memory of my beloved cat who had died of liver problems.

On this festive day today, my thoughts again go to this lovely cat who I am sure is now in heaven.

On the other hand, my prayer goes to those people who do not have a family to celebrate the festival with. May God's peace and comfort be with them and help to dispel their loneliness and bitterness.

20100921

Poor animals

Here are three depressing video clips about poor animals.

The first two, among the most viewed clips on the Internet recently, show a woman and a man in Britain callously abandoning pets. The woman dumped a cat into a garbage bin. The man left a limping dog behind and drove away.


The third one was a heart-wrenching love story about two street cats. Here is a Youtube caption of the footage:

"This stray cat was filmed in Turkey trying to reanimate his female friend who got hit by a car. Even though some people tried to help him, the white cat wouldn't let them come near for two straight hours. Finally a vet arrived and took the injured cat. Sadly, it was too late and he couldnt resuscitate the feline."

God save the animals!

20100920

A shrewd squanderer and swindler



In the blog yesterday, I talked about a class of shrewd consumers who choose to buy the expensive state-of-the-art products and then pay the difference between upgrading to the next generation of item and trading to get rid of the old one. In so doing they manage enjoy the latest innovation and avoid the situation of their old items sharply falling in value.

It is interesting that in yesterday's Gospel (Luke 16:1-13), Jesus told a parable about how a shrewd steward, after being told by his rich master that he would lose his position because he had squandered his master's property, went on to make use of his master's possession to befriend his master's debtors in the hope that they would take care of him when he lost his position. Upon finding out, his master commended him for his shrewdness.

This is a parable that I used to find rather confusing. Why is it that a manager who not only squandered but also swindled his master's wealth was commended? Did Jesus also commend him? It was after subsequent re-reading, reflecting and researching that I began to understand that he was commended by the master, who valued worldly material wealth just as much, not by Jesus. Jesus, on the other hand, did remind the "children of light" (us?) not to follow the example of the dishonest "children of this world". Instead we should be "trustworthy in very small matters", make good use of our worldly wealth, and serve God rather than money.

Seen in this light, the act of making unnecessary purchases and consumption just for the love of it, while appearing to be shrewd, does not represent making good use of our worldly wealth.

20100919

Trade and upgrade before the values fade

Thanks to the situation mentioned yesterday, that the lifespan of electronic gadgets has become shorter and shorter, there have emerged in recent years consumers who opt to buy state-of-the-art models and then trade them as soon as the next generation becomes available. While it may look like this is a rather expensive mode of consumption, there is a certain rationale behind it. Of course cutting-edge products are costly. Of course trading means selling their items at discounted prices. But these aficionados are only too happy to pay the difference and keep staying ahead of the pack. They are also mindful of the fact that if they hold on to the items, the re-sell value will drop so dramatically that they will be worth next to nothing in just a couple of years' time.

This is something to which I can testify. A few months ago, I took my mobile phone to a collector for a quote. The offer for a phone that I had paid nearly HKD2,000 (about USD250) for a little more than two years ago was a mere HKD350 (about USD45). That is a massive drop of over 80% in value! I wonder how much that phone is worth now that it is a few more months older. From an economic point of view then, the more prudent consumer is none the wiser, although he may find solace in the fact that he is not guilty of producing another piece of electronic garbage.

20100918

Dying young


I have always noticed how manufacturers of consumer products, especially electronic and digital products such as computers, mobile phones and digital cameras, try to boost their sales by doing two things:

Periodically and strategically upgrading their products: Every year or season, they launch new products that perform better than those of the previous generation. These products may be faster or more powerful; they may have greater memory or storage capacity; they may be equipped with more new features. By maintaining the selling prices, the manufacturers try to give consumers the good feeling that they pay more or less the same amount of money but are getting products of better quality. They also try to avoid the undesirable situation of decreasing revenues as a result of the prices of their outdated products decreasing. The net outcome of such frequent and agressive "upgrading", which typically involves the seamless collaboration of hardware and software developers, is that after a certain during of time, say, two to three years, the performance of the "old" products becomes so "poor" that most consumers would be inclined to go for an upgrade. Even the few who refuse to play the catch-up game may eventually find that they have no choice, as the technical support for the old products will stop.

Making their products a fashion or status symbol: This is what most brand names try to do but of course some are more successful than others. Those who manage to make the consumers feel that it is cool or prestigious to be the proud owners of the latest or most powerful model of their mobile phones are the ones who earn hugh profits. Of course this strategy of linking products with fashion and status works the other way too. When consumers feel that being seen to be using an old or inferior model is a shame, there is pressure for them to seek an upgrade.

Like it or not, we are in an era when the lifespan of products is becoming shorter and shorter, and this may have nothing to do with performance at all. Think about how many old mobile phones you have at the bottom of your drawer despite still being in good working condition, and think about why you went for yet another one.

20100917

Getting absolutely everything you want?

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.

All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would come his way." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The book The Ultimate Secret to Getting Absolutely Everything You Want was given to me by an Indian shortly before he left Hong Kong a few months ago. For a long time it lay forgotten on the bookshelf, until when I looked for another book to take for the Hokkaido trip besides Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw. I decided that the thin book was the right length.

I didn't expect much of the book with a rather tacky title. But after finishing it in the four-hour flight, I found that it was not bad at all.

The theme of the book is of course as the title suggests, "the ultimate secret to getting absolutely everything you want". The "ultimate secret", according to the writer, lies in this principle:

In order to accomplish something, you must be willing to do whatever it takes.

And here is how the principle works:

You may not need to actually do what it takes. When it comes to getting results, intention is more important than action. You must not judge or refuse. Just be willing.

You are the cause, the source of everything that happens in your life. Once you see that everything that exists for you now is your creation and no one else's, you will see that everything that can and will exist in the future is your creation also. As soon as this happens, you accept sole responsibility for creating the situation. You are then ready to assume responsibility for changing it. And when you assume responsiblity for changing it, you take control of your life.

To achieve a goal, you need two things: (1) a sharp, clear and specific idea of what you want (an objective); and (2) commitment, not in the sense of a self-imposed obligation but a feeling of confidence and a firm, unwavering belief that you will continue to pursue what you want, no matter what happens.

When you have a clear objective and a commitment to reaching it, you will naturally be drawn to doing the things that move you toward that objective. You don't need to excessively rely on plans and processes.

The mechanism behind the principle brings four elements into play: (1) a concept; (2) a law; (3) a phenomenon; and (4) a power.

The concept is that thoughts are things and have an objective reality.

The law is the law of attraction. If thoughts are physical things, they would fall within the operation of the same physical laws that govern everything in the universe. One extremely important universal law is the law of attraction, which is about how things attract other things. When applied to thoughts, the law means that whenever you think something, the thought immediately attracts its physical equivalent.

The phenomenon is that when things begin moving toward each other, they move at an ever-increasing rate. This is the phenomenon of accelerating acceleration. Not only are the things themselves moving faster, but their rate of movement is getting faster with each passing movement. The law of attraction is so powerful that once things pick up momentum, they fly toward each other with increasing speed. The things you want fly toward you more quickly and easily as time goes by.

The power is the power of an open mind. An open mind is a window to the limitless possibilities in the universe. It is the catalyst for chemical reactions in unbounded number and variety. An open mind allows the law of attraction to work without interference. It allows the phenomenon of accerlerating acceleration to run free.

If reaching your goal involves a number of items, you must be willing to do all of them. If it involves something that you are unwilling to do, forget that goal and start looking at others. It could be a sort of Murphy's Law: If something can go wrong, it will. If something can stop the principle, it will. It is your willingness that gets the principle going. The mechanism then starts bringing your goal to you with ease, shortcuts and accelerating acceleration. Without that willingness on your part, the mechanism stops. Willingness is the key.

Goals have a certain "tyranny" in them. The attainment of goals is almost never as good as you imagined it would be. It is also a momentary thing. In no time at all, you will begin looking for another goal to shoot for. You become the victim of the tyranny of your own accomplished goal.

Once you have learned to use the Secret, you will soon find that your greatest reward is not in the actual attainment of your goals but in the journey you undertake in going after them. While goals disappear the moment you achieve them, the journey go on forever, as does the joy that you experience along the way. If you approach life with that attitude, it becomes not a string of achievements and not a rule of tyranny but a continuous, joyous adventure.

"Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Begin it now."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

20100916

Blood, torture, death!




This year's El Toro de la Vega festival took place in the Spanish town of Tordesillas yesterday.

Here is how Wikipedia introduces the festival:

"The toro (bull) to be sacrificed is driven by horsemen wielding spears across the bridge from the town to a meadow (vega). Only when it reaches the meadow across the river is it finally allowed to receive a lethal lance from one of many competing lancers pursuing the much debilitated animal on foot. During the run (corrida) lancers are only permitted to wound the beast (which causes adrenalin rush and blood-loss and is said to alleviate undue suffering, as well as greatly improving the flavor of the beef so produced). The person who finally delivers the fatal blow is entitled to cut off the beast's testicles parade them through the town impaled on the tip of his spear. The City then awards him a gold medal and a commemorative forged iron spear.

"This is a form of ritual sacrifice which has been denounced by animal rights groups for the especially prolonged process of slaughter involving terrifying horses, crowds and very many wounds."

And here is how an animal rights group, called, League Against Cruel Sports, describes the festival:

"Each year in September, the town of Tordesillas (in Valladolid, Spain) is host to a horrific fiesta known as “El Toro de la Vega.

"The festival begins with the release of a bull into the countryside surrounding the town, whereupon dozens of people then pursue the bull on foot and on horseback, stabbing it with daggers and spears until it collapses exhausted on the ground. The bull’s tail and testicles are then cut off and held aloft as trophies, and the bull is paraded through the town amidst the cheers of bystanders.

"In recent years this brutal spectacle has been attended by increasingly large numbers of international tourists, with event organisers trying to ‘sell’ the event as an example of traditional Spanish culture. Needless to say, this is utter rubbish. Spain has an incredibly rich history and culture, and events such as this are nothing more than a dirty stain on its international reputation."

People who are against such an event may go to the League Against Cruel Sports website and sign an online petition that can be sent to the relevant authorities in Spain.


20100915

Arc-en-ciel secondaire

I have set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Men and the earth. (Genesis 9:13)

Beautiful rainbow in Tuscany, Italy.

No, I mean, beautiful double rainbow in Tuscany, Italy.

20100914

Tumbling bear

Like Jarhead (reported in the 26 August blog), the young black bear in the photo wandered into human neighbourhood in the US and was caught and then rescued.

This incident happened in downtown Missoula, Montana. The 70-pound bear cub confronted a driver at a street intersection. He then climbed up a maple tree, found a resting spot about 30 feet off the ground and lay on the branch swinging his paws in the air.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officers spread a net and waited catch the bear before shooting him with a tranquilizer gun. After about five minutes, the bear tumbled into the net.
After doing some tests to check the bear's health, the FWP officials relocated the bear outside the city.

20100913

Helping is a blessing

There have lately been so many calls for help from my friends, relatives colleagues and even pets that I feel that my time is being stretched to the limit. But I'm glad that after a while I have learned to get over this subjective feeling of resistance and to see the ordeal differently.

I can see that it is an honour that people think of you and turn to you in times of need.

I can see that it is a blessing to be in a position where you are able to offer help instead of to receive it.

I can see that it is a pleasure to know that what you do for others can bring some positive changes to their lives.

I can see that the worries about not having enough time is totally unnecessary. Just commit yourself to the service of others. The rest will take care of itself.

20100912

The Meltdown Queen came through

“If you perused the press notes this morning, you might have been inclined to send Vera Zvonareva a note of condolence even before she took to the court this afternoon for her U.S. Open semifinal against Caroline Wozniacki.”

This is how a columnist began his article on underdog Vera Zvonareva’s victory over hot favourite Caroline Wozniacki in this year’s US Open semifinal. In the article, the writer talks about how the media wrote the Russian off before the match, based on statistics which were heavily in favour of the Dane, such as her winning streak, the WTA tour singles finals she has won this year, the very small number of games she dropped en route to the semis. Of course, the media also highlighted “facts” that reflected badly on the Russian, such as her being the semifinalist who has won the fewest titles this season and collected the least amount of prize money, and cited examples of how she had a tendency of blowing away victories, branding her as the WTA Meltdown Queen even though she has gone a long way towards dispelling that reputation this year. The columnist cheekily wrote:

“You could almost write her concession speech for today: And on top of everything else, it was terribly windy out there and that really helped Caroline because she plays with so much topspin, while poor me hits flat and likes to be inventive. Hey, pass me that Kleenex, wouldja?”

Such reports are likely to affect any player not with great mental strength. Credits to Zvonareva, she didn’t let them get at her. “Last year is something that was in the past,” she said. “I had some experience last year, not only here at the U.S. Open, but the while year overall. I played a lot of matches. I take that experience and try to use it to my advantage. Never look back. I'm just looking forward all the time.”

The result of the match for which few people thought she stood any chance shows that it is probably this positive attitude which has seen her through the difficult circumstances. It also serves to prove two things. First, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb so strongly emphasizes in his book The Black Swan, experts are no better at predicting outcomes at their own business than outsiders, and the problems lies in their arrogance, namely, they think they know more than they actually do. Second, consuming the information from the media does not make us any wiser.

Another good reason not reading the newspaper.

20100911

A matter of trust

As this picture may to some extent illustrate, the degrees of trust that our four cats have in humans are very different. Look at how they react to my approach to take the picture.

There was absolutely no difficulty in taking Piper to the vet a few days ago. I didn't even need to put him in the bag. I just left it on the floor. Sure enough, Piper and Parker started playing with it. Before long, Piper got in and all I had to do was to zip it up. There was no struggle at all. Likewise, if Parker needed such a visit, bagging him would be a piece of cake. He always crawls into my backpack, and when I playfully put the backpack on my back as though I was taking him somewhere, he just pokes out his head curiously and comically, making no attempt to jump out. Such is the trust he has in us.

But not Fred and Francis the very apprehensive ones. Lately, I have noticed that there is also something wrong with Francis's ear. Whenever he comes close, I can smell a stench of decay which I judge to be coming from his right ear. The fact that his sibling Fred often licks that ear confirms that there is a problem there. Last week, I made a booking with the vet and tried to take him there, but we simply couldn't put him in the bag. Francis never tried to attack as he is not a vicious cat, but he struggled for dear life, whined plaintively and even peed involuntarily when he was cornered. It was sad to see him suffer like that and we had to give up.

Both nature and nurture may have played a part in shaping their characters. Maybe Fred and Francis have that great mistrust in their genes and Parker and Piper do not. But I believe their past history does have a lot of bearing. Piper and Parker were rescued by a volunteer from a garbage can when they were babies, so while technically they were street cats they have never experienced a fugitive street life. All their lives they have been living in a safe, loving and caring environment. To them, we are like their parents and they have complete trust in us.

The lives of Francis and Fred are a different story altogether. They had been living in the street before being captured by SPCA volunteers under the Trap-Neuter-Return programme. As if the trauma of being caught in a trap was not bad enough, they had been roughly treated afterwards, such as having to live in cages and being moved from one foster home to another. Under such circumstances it was hard for them to develop a people-friendly disposition, and then it was precisely because they were judged to be unfriendly that the volunteers were about to put them back to the street before we stepped in and adopted them. As I said, they are not malicious cats, but they were aloof and alert and even hostile when they first came. It took a whole year for them to learn to trust us, coming for a nudge and letting us touch them.

I have worked out a plan to put Francis in the bag, but it has to be executed masterfully. If we fail, it will take much time to build the trust again.

20100910

Piper in trouble

Here’s another example of how women’s intuition prevails.

For a couple of days I had noticed that Piper our blind cat was less lively than usual, but I didn’t make anything of it. It was my wife who noticed what was wrong.
“Look inside his ear!” she exclaimed three days ago after dinner. There was urgency in her tone.

It was then that I saw Piper’s badly swollen right ear. So that was why Piper had looked a little like Yoda in the Star Wars movies to me as his ear seemed to be drooping. And that was why he had lost his sprightliness.

So the next day I rushed him to the vet after work. The vet said the swelling made it impossible for him to examine the condition inside the ear. Although the swelling might go after some time, the muscle in the inner ear might contract and block his hearing during the long process. The vet suggested an operation to remove the fluid in the swelling and to enable him to take substances out for testing to determine the cause.

The operation was a success, although Piper’s ear looked horrible with all the stitches and the incision. He also had to wear a protection mask for about two weeks to prevent him from scratching the wound. “No cats like to wear this,” the vet said. “But he should get used to it after a few hours.”

Piper didn’t, however. While he had shown no resistance at all at the clinic and on our way back, once he got back to the safe and familiar environment of our home, the usually timid cat revolted violently. He so phenomenally detested the device that he struggled and wriggled with all his might. It didn’t take a few minutes before he yanked it off, and he wouldn’t let us put it back on again. We had to call the vet and take Piper back to him for help. He taught us some more secure ways of fixing the mask should Piper force it off again.

Those ways turned out not to work against the little despot. He managed to remove the mask whatever we tried. In the end we had to give up and pray that he wouldn’t savage his own ear. Watching his every move and racing to stop him whenever we saw the slightest sign of scratching was both tiresome and nerve-wrecking. Fortunately, he soon seemed to have got the message and the scratching began to die down.

We cannot afford to be off guard though. The next few days are critical and we have to ensure that the ear coalesces well. Otherwise another trip to the vet will be required.

20100909

20100908

All work and low pay

After prolonged debate, it is becoming clear that the minimum wage is likely to be set at HKD28 (about USD3.6) per hour - an obvious compromise between the shameful HKD20 (about USD2.6) per hour proposed by the business sector and HKD33 (about USD4.2) per hour that the pressure groups have been fighting for. Hardly a victory for the unskilled or low-skilled workers in the labour force.

Elsewhere, according to the latest government statistics, workers in Hong Kong are having to work longer hours. In the second quarter this year, the number of workers having to work for over 50 hours per week has increased by 11% compared with the same period last year. The 128 million workers having to do so constitute over one-third (36.7%) of the labour force. Some 30,000 workers even have to toil for over 75 hours, representing an increase of 5.5% compared with the same period last year.

Let's do a bit of calculation. If a worker receiving the proposed minimum wage works for 75 hours for 52 weeks per year, his annual income will be HKD109,200 (USD14,000), which is not even half of the 2009 Hong Kong GDP per capita of USD29,826.

If a worker receiving the proposed minimum wage would like to have an annual income equivalent to the GDP per capita, how many hours does he has to work? The answer is that he would have to work 22.8 hours per day every single day of the week!

This says much about the plight of the poor and the gap between them and the rich.

20100907

Haiku - triumph of the cross


o reflugent trees
arms open, in reverence
triumph of the cross

20100906

Can it possibly be from Italy?

China being the Factory of the World, its commodities are of course very competitive. Consumers are able to buy products they make at a fraction of the cost they have to pay for products made elsewhere. But there are often certain more or less universal standards that many of these cheap products fail to meet.

I went to a hardware store to buy a showerhead recently. There were lots of choices, most of which were within the USD10 price range. From the more "expensive" items, I spotted a stylish one that I liked. The only problem was that while the box had some illustrations showing that the spray jet was adjustable, I couldn't see how the adjustment could be done. So I went to the counter and asked the woman. She said that that one had no adjustment function. When I pointed out that the illustrations suggested that there was, she opened the box and let me examine. Of course she was right. So that's one problem that many Chinese products have - the packing claiming that the products are equipped with some functions that they actually don't have.

In the end, I went for a "less expensive" item. This one has the word "Italy" printed in the packing. They haven't said "Made in" so technically there is no lying. But why else should the word be put there except to try to mislead the consumers into believing that even if it is not made in Italy, the brand is owned by an Italian company?

But any such attempt would end up in dismal failure when one looks at the pitiful English in the printed description. From the following description that I have reproduced from the product, how many mistakes can you find?

The Bendt's handshower has been designed with a special spray head & available in different colours. It complete with 1/2" threaded flexible hoses.
-stylish spray head, easy to clean,
-fits all standard 1/2" threaded shower hoses & easliy installed.
-ensure constant efficiency with longlasting service,
-high performance, reliable & enjoyable

These mistakes often show that the text is copied or drafted by copywriters with very limited English. No reputable Italian company would allow such irritating mistakes in their products, would they?

20100905

The opacity of events



As the Manila shooting incident reveals, human inadequacy in confronting black swan events is far more than just a lack of anticipation and readiness. After all, who can blame the holiday makers for not being able to see beforehand that a gunman would board their coach when they are having fun in another country? The major part of our inadequacy, according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, lies in our grasp of the events. Taleb says that history is opaque because we can only see what comes out of the events but not the script that produces them. He identifies three ailments of the human mind as it comes into contact with such events.

First of all, the human mind suffers from the illusion of understanding. We think we know what is going on in a world that is more compicated than we realise. When the civil war broke out in Lebanon during Taleb's childhood, he was constantly told by adults that the war, which ended up lasting close to seventeen years, would end in a matter of days. Likewise, as a survivor of the Manila incident painfully and regrettably recalled, the hostages wasted many opportunities to overcome the gunman, even though his sense of self-protection had been low. They did secretly conspire to save themselves by rising against him, and they saw various occasions in which they could have done so, but they had been fooled by the apparent "friendliness" of the gunman, who had apologised to them and had released some weaker hostages. They had also fatally misjudged the ability of the Filipino police to peacefully resolve the case. "We thought that if we could see how easy it was, so could the government," the survivor said. "And if they didn't take action even though there had been so many opportunities, surely they had other plans." And so they decided not to take risks - a decision the survivor would live to regret.

Second, the human mind is inclined to look at past events in a distorted way. This is what Taleb calls "the retrospective distortion". I don't mean to be disspectful, but in the past two weeks since the shooting incident happened, the media have been inundated with with reports of how brave and selfless those who lost their lives had been and even what great people they were during their lifetime. Why is it that such accolade is always lavished to people who died in such cases?

Taleb's third ailment of the human mind - the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of the authoritative and learned people - is also very evident after the shooting event. The people around me, many of them very well educated, were so desperate in milking every ounce of information from the media. They would then discuss and comment on the event as if they had grasped all the "facts".

The crucial question we should ask ourselves is, why is it that history keeps repeating itself even though there is no lack of lessons from such black swan events for us to learn from?

20100904

Black swan boarding a bus

I have no wish to comment on the recent tragedy of a few Hong Kong tourists being shot dead after they were held hostage in a bus in Manila. As in so many other incidents in life, too there are so many unknown facts that making a story or passing judgement is an ignorant and reckless thing to do. Unfortunately, not only is that exactly what media reports are so inclined to do but also the readers and viewers like to dance to the tunes set by the media and the authorities according to their own agenda.

But there is one thing I feel strongly about the case and it is that the incident is a lamentable vindication of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's observations about Black Swans.

Black Swans are rare events whose occurrence and impact tend to be ruled out, overlooked or under-estimated because such events exist outside most people's realm of knowledge and experience. Even though some of us may have taken the trouble of buying travel insurance, how many of us, when we plan or make a trip, would ever imagine that a disaster of such nature or magnitude would happen to us? Rare as it may be, however, something like this incident in Manila does happen, just like the Lebanon in Taleb's childhood, a "paradise" where the Christians and the Moslems had co-existed peacefully for nearly thirteen centuries suddenly "evaporating" because of "a few bullets and mortar shells". The conflict was to evolve into a brutal cival war which lasted over a decade and a half.

Black Swans can and do exist, whether we are ready or not.

20100903

Back to school

Here are some pictures showing how school children from some countries started a new school term.

These highly drilled children in China demonstrate their commitment to working hard under the national flag.


The spirit shown by these children in Kiev Ukraine is quite a stark contrast.



These children in a refugee camp in Sukkur Pakistan are visited by British vice-Primier Nick Clegg.

And these Hong Kong children look happy and ready enough for another school year.

20100902

From the Yellow Kid to Kidd Millennium

The Yellow Kid may have long been forgotten, but he has had his successor. At the turn of the millennium, journalist Ron Callari and illustrator Jon Donohoe created a 21st Century version equivalent to Yellow Kid, an online cartoon character called Kidd Millennium.

Like his predessor, Kidd Millennium is the spokesperson for social ills. But unlike his predessor, his existence is in e-format rather than print form. His cartoons and merchandises are available in a website dedicated to him. His first graphic novel, entitled Crude Behavior, are sold in as e-readers in Kindle, Apple and Google versions.

20100901

The Yellow Kid (no, not a child from a China!)

The rather unimposing cartoon character in the blog on 30 August may not be recognised by many today, but he is one of the most influential icons in the history of American comics.
Created by Richard F. Outcault in the late nineteenth century, the Yellow Kid (so called because he was donned in a yellow nightdress) was the lead character in "one of the first Sunday supplement comic strips in an American newspaper", according to Wikipedia.

The Yellow Kid was the one to whom the term "yellow journalism" was attributed to. The two major newspapers that ran the Yellow Kid comic strips, the New York World and the New York Journal, were often referred to as the "Yellow Kid" papers or simply "the yellow papers". When later the two newspapers resorted to sensational and unreliable reportage, that style became known as "yellow journalism".


The importance of the Yellow Kid was shown in the cartoon character featuring in the first of the twenty "Comic Strip Classics" stamps issued by the US Postal Service in 1995.

The influence of the Yellow Kid to US newspaper comics was illustrated by the fact that in 1998, an exhibition on comic strip art held by the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, Washington, one of the largest museum-displayed exhibitions of original comic strip art in the world, was called "Children of the Yellow Kid: The Evolution of the American Newspaper Comic Strip, 1895-1997". At the entrance to the exhibit was a huge Charles M. Schulz drawing of Snoopy, dressed in a yellow nightdress with the words "Hully Gee! A Century!" printed on it.

All the comic strips on display at the exhibition have been included in a book called - you guessed it - Children of the Yellow Kid.