01 February, 2016

a rough guide to world travel


healthcare
If you develop pneumonia
while visiting Estonia,
if you pick up malaria
on a trip to Bulgaria,
don’t rely on that quack
from a street in Iraq.

If you fracture your tibia
on a tour of Namibia,
if you contract ebola
in rural Angola
or severe diptheria
in coastal Nigeria,
you might think that’s bad,
well, don’t visit Chad.

If you suffer a seizure
in remote Indonesia
or acute kidney failure
in the heart of Australia,
don’t count on that man
whom you met in Bhutan.

weather
It’s sometimes dry
in Mumbai
when it’s wet
in Phuket,
but there’s no rain
in Bahrain,
only a downpour
in Lahore.

It’s often windy
in Rawalpindi,
although it’s windier
in India,
and the monsoon
in Rangoon
makes it wetter
than Quetta.

transport
You can’t ride a tram
in Vietnam
or a trolley bus
in Belarus,
but you can hire a van
in Azerbaijan
and a luxury car
in the state of Qatar.

By the way…
If you’re ever in Tijuana,
try the barbecued iguana.

24 January, 2016

brrr!

I’ve spent 25 of the last 42 winters in Hong Kong, and I’ve never known it to have been as cold as it’s been this weekend. And it’s set to become even colder tonight! The Hong Kong Observatory has quite an array of weather warnings in its repertoire—heavy rain; strong (northeast) monsoon; cold weather (activated if the temperature is predicted to drop below 12 degrees Celsius); fire danger; and eight separate typhoon alerts—but I’d never been aware that it also issues frost warnings. There is one in force at the moment.

The urban heat island effect is likely to ensure that the temperature never drops this low in town, where the Observatory is located, but frost may indeed affect the northern New Territories, where I live. In fact, I’ve just returned from shopping for essential supplies (i.e. beer) on the edge of Fanling, and at 8am the electronic time/temperature display in a public five-a-side football pitch there was reading 1 degree (see photo below; click to enlarge). Even the Observatory was recording a temperature below 4 degrees at the same time, and on only a handful of occasions during the past 40-odd years has it registered even as low as 5 degrees.


I remember thinking yesterday, as I walked with Paula to Fanling station, that the down jackets were out in force. This item of clothing has become popular in recent years, and you rarely see anyone wearing a traditional padded silk jacket, or minap, nowadays. I have one, but it’s in my house in the UK, where it serves no useful purpose. It’s easy to dismiss silk as a luxury fabric that is worn only by women who can afford it, but it is much warmer than wool, and much more comfortable when worn next to the skin. And a minap is warmer than the kind of down jacket currently being sold in Hong Kong, of which I have two. On the other hand, they are ideal for wearing around the house when the temperature drops sufficiently far that a cold weather warning from the Observatory is triggered.

However, I do have a duvet jacket that I bought as long ago as 1969 for mountaineering purposes, which I had no hesitation in wearing today during my excursion to the shops (see photo above). It was designed for polar conditions, so you might comment that I was overdressed, but then I’ve never placed fear of being laughed at above being warm.

At least the wind has dropped. It was gusting up to gale force yesterday, so even if I had suitable clothing for cycling in such low temperatures, the force of the wind would have been more than enough to deter any thoughts of doing so.

Here endeth my rant about the bloody cold weather in Hong Kong, although I might just mention that I’ve checked the weather in my home town in the UK, and the temperature there is currently 10 degrees. Ah luxury!

Incidentally, if you want to find out whether we actually do freeze overnight, I intend to update this post tomorrow. It won’t make any difference in practice though. It will still be bloody cold.

update: 25/1/2016
The temperature may have dropped to zero during the night—there is now no way to tell— but by the time I walked past the same display board at 7.45am this morning, it was showing 1 degree again:


It was dry though, and the sun was out for only the third time this month. For the past two nights, I’ve done something that I don’t recall ever having done before: wear socks and a woolly hat in bed. At least I was snug and warm, and although it will be warming up gradually over the next few days, I expect to do so again tonight.

By the way, I learned today, courtesy of the BBC News website, that you have to go back 59 years to find temperatures colder than it has been over the past couple of days, thus confirming the subjective opinion with which I started this post.

17 January, 2016

animal adjectives

The names of animals are some of the first words that young children learn, even if, in English, this is often in a debased form. Few things irritate me more than to hear an adult describe a sheep in a field to a young child learning to talk as a ‘baa lamb’, a cow in an adjacent field as a ‘moo cow’ or the animal pulling a cart along the road as a ‘gee gee’. Or their pet as a ‘bow wow’ or a ‘pussy cat’.

However, when that child finally learns the proper names for these animals, it will not help them to learn the formal adjectives that describe them, because such adjectives are usually derived from the Latin names for these animals. For example, canine, from the Latin canis, describes a dog, while equine, from the Latin equus, is the equivalent adjective for a horse. Other adjectives of this type that refer to a common animal include bovine (cow), feline (cat), ovine (sheep) and porcine (pig).

Canine and feline are sufficiently familiar to most people to be used frequently as nouns in addition to their primary function as adjectives. On the other hand, you would almost certainly need some acquaintance with Latin to recognize that anserine refers to geese, aquiline to eagles, cervine to deer, corvine to crows, lupine to wolves, murine to mice and vulpine to foxes. All such adjectives are neutral in tone and refer only to the animal being referred to, although some dictionaries do claim that they can be used to describe people whose characteristics match those of the animal in question.

Note that the only common adjective combining the English name of an animal with the –ine suffix, elephantine, refers only to the animal’s size and is not used to refer to the animal itself. The usual practice when forming adjectives that are intended to reflect the perceived characteristics of an animal but are used to describe people or their actions is to use the suffixes –like, –y or –ish.

In all cases where the –like suffix is used, the result is a hyphenated compound (dog-like, cat-like, etc.), although the tendency is for such compounds to lose the hyphen if used often enough. For example, because Sir Arthur Sullivan had the pirates sing “With cat-like tread…” in the operetta The Pirates of Penzance, the typical modern listener is likely to hear the adjective he used as a single, unhyphenated word. However, the key point here is that such compounds, when used to describe people, are usually positive in intent and refer directly to the characteristics of the animal in question.

Compare this with the addition of –y to an animal name, where the prescribed usage is distinctly negative. Thus batty means daft or insane; catty describes a person who has a tendency to make spiteful remarks; fishy means of dubious integrity; and someone who is described as ratty is bad-tempered. Note that there is no evidence that bats, cats, fish or rats exhibit any of these characteristics. Also, spidery handwriting, which resembles the movements of an intoxicated arachnid, is unattractive for that reason.

The –ish suffix is usually appended to other adjectives and is used to indicate approximation. Thus bluish, greenish, reddish and yellowish are not quite the colours hinted at, but a typical observer would understand the difference between reddish brown and brownish red. In other words, words formed in this way are purely descriptive. Yet when –ish is added to the name of an animal, the intent is invariably negative. A person who is shy and easily embarrassed is often described as sheepish, someone whose every action is slow and ponderous is likely to be labelled sluggish, a stubborn person can be said to be mulish, and someone who is aggressive might be described as waspish.

However, there are a couple of caveats to make: bullish refers only to the metaphorical bulls of financial markets, who seek to make money in a rising market (as opposed to bears, who hope to profit in a falling market), while hawkish is the usual descriptor for those who advocate military solutions to international conflicts, another metaphorical usage.

Once again though, while the stubbornness of mules is legendary, slugs are the epitome of sluggishness, and people can be sheepish, sheep never are, as far as we can tell.

12 January, 2016

bittersweet

There may not be a consensus as to how many categories of taste a human being can differentiate—I understand that a new category was defined by scientists recently—but everyone will know what I’m talking about when I mention bitter, sweet and sour. Or will they? A surprising number of people appear to believe that sweet and sour are opposites. That one will cancel the effects of the other. Such people are clearly unaware that the Chinese demonstrated, centuries ago, that sweet and sour can coexist in the same dish, although you won’t know what I’m talking about if your only experience of gu lo yuk (sweet and sour pork) has been in the UK.

The real opposite to sweet is bitter, not only in taste but also in language—one is more often associated with positive outcomes, while the other has only negative connotations. We talk of the sweet spot on a tennis racquet or cricket bat, the spot that provides the maximum impact for the minimum of effort, but we fight to the bitter end—endings are never sweet. The ingestion of something sweet is most likely to elicit a smile, while the reaction to ingesting a bitter compound will probably be an involuntary grimace.

But are these natural reactions, or are they the result of acculturation? The notion that sweet is good and bitter is bad goes back at least as far as the Old Testament, as the following quotations demonstrate:
Pleasant words are as an honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones.
Proverbs 16:24 (Authorized Version)
The full soul loatheth an honeycomb, but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.
Proverbs 27:7 (Authorized Version)
Ironically, it is bitter compounds that are more likely to be beneficial to the human body, even though when we talk about a setback being a bitter pill to swallow, we are making a negative comment. In fact, the idea that medicine is intrinsically bitter is now so ingrained in popular culture that Mary Poppins could sing about a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine to go down, and Max, aide de camp to the chief blue meanie in the movie Yellow Submarine, could say this to his boss:
Here Your Blueness, have some nasty medicine!
And His Blueness giggled as he slurped it down (blue meanies were contrarians who hated everything that humans found pleasurable, including music).

Yet two of the world’s most popular beverages, coffee and beer, are intrinsically bitter, and the key ingredient in tonic water is quinine, another bitter compound. On the other hand, it is now widely recognized that the consumption of large amounts of sucrose is injurious to health, with serious illnesses such as diabetes a likely result.

I see the bitter/sweet dichotomy as a kind of morality tale in which sweet is the easy option and bitter the hard road, after which ‘but few enquire’:
Don’t you see yon narrow, narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briars?
That is the road to righteousness,
Though after it but few enquire.

Don’t you see yon broad, broad road,
That lies across the lily leaven?
That is the road to wickedness,
Though some call it the road to heaven.

Thomas the Rhymer, traditional English folk song.
And what about the well-known oxymoron ‘bittersweet’, which is to my mind essentially meaningless? I suspect that people who use this word are reflecting some level of personal disappointment: they expected a positive outcome to a situation, but it turned out not to be as positive as they had hoped, or expected.