Thursday, 30 June 2011

size matters

It is often said that primitive societies do not have any words for large numbers; their counting systems go something like this: ‘one, two, three, many’. Such a list clearly implies that such a society would neither have encountered nor devised a system of money, because in a society with money few people would have been happy with knowing only that they possessed ‘a lot’ of it; they would have wanted to know rather more precisely how much they had, and this requires that words for larger numbers be devised.

By the time of the Roman Empire, the concepts of ‘hundreds’ and of ‘thousands’ would have been understood by merchants, bankers and bureaucrats, because there was a practical need for numbers this big in both commercial and military affairs. The concept of ‘a million’, on the other hand, may have been imagined by a few philosophers and mathematicians, but it would have remained unnamed for centuries because without any practical applications it was in effect the new ‘…many’.

However, in the fourteenth century, Middle English acquired the word ‘million’ from French, although it probably took until the advent of modern science in the seventeenth century for the word to acquire the precise meaning it has today in both French and English. And, nowadays, most people will have an instinctive grasp of how many items make ‘a million’, of how big it is: a very large but not an unimaginable number.

If you can imagine ‘a million’, then you should also be able to imagine ‘a million million’. Your only difficulty would be in deciding what to call the new number. I always called it ‘a billion’, but if you read my blog regularly you will have noted my occasional use of ‘a billion’ to mean one thousand million. I bow to necessity, because the American version, that one billion equals one thousand million, is now universally accepted. However, I deplore this kind of inflation, which forces you to run out of words for exceptionally large numbers twice as fast as if you’d stuck to the British way. On the other hand, I can see some merit in the system: regarding ‘a trillion’ as ‘a thousand thousand million’ goes some way towards explaining the apparent equanimity with which politicians in Washington view their country’s national debt of more than $15 trillion. But I do wonder if any of them now ask themselves whether it would have been wiser to stick with the British system, in which they could have been able to claim that the deficit was ‘only’ $15 billion.

Here is a question to which few outside the specialized world of mathematics will know the answer: what is the largest named number? It certainly isn’t measured in the trillions, as you will have probably already guessed. Quadrillions and subsequent words with similar prefixes are also very small in the context of this question, while ‘a zillion’, which I take to mean the largest number I can possibly imagine, isn’t a genuine number anyway.

So what of numbers with many more digits than those that have been discussed so far? In 1939, a nine-year-old boy in a New York kindergarten wrote a ‘1’ on the blackboard, followed by one hundred zeroes, and called this ‘a googol’. Because the boy’s uncle was a leading mathematician, the name stuck. However, we are still not in the numbers big league with the googol.

‘A googolplex’, a name devised by the aforementioned uncle, is ‘10’ multiplied by itself googol times. Now we really are up in the stratosphere. A goolgolplex is almost unimaginably large: it’s larger than the number of subatomic particles in the entire observable universe, yet it too pales into insignificance compared with the current record holder, which goes by the prosaic title ‘Graham’s number’.

Graham’s number, usually shortened to G, is so large that it is impossible to write using our conventional notation. Indeed, were the entire universe to be converted into paper and ink, there would not be enough of either to write it down. So how can such a gargantuan number be described? There follows an attempt at a non-technical summary.

We start with the convention that 3á3 = 3 × 3 × 3. In other words, the up-arrow tells you that the number to its left is to be multiplied by itself a number of times indicated by the number to the right of the arrow. Therefore, 3áá3 = 3á(3á3) = 3 multiplied by itself 27 times, or 7,625,597,484,987. So what about 3ááá3? This expression can be expanded to 3áá(3áá3), which is 3áá7,625,597,484,987. This, in turn, can be expanded to 3á(7,625,597,484,987á7,625,597,484,987), which would take a lifetime to calculate without the aid of a supercomputer.

With the next expression in the series, 3áááá3, we are contemplating a number of such mind-boggling size that it would not register in any meaningful way with the non-mathematical mind. Yet Graham’s number only starts here. Imagine the expression 3áá3, in which the number of up-arrows is 3áááá3. Once this value has been computed, it becomes the number of arrows in the next iteration of the calculation. This process is continued through 63 iterations before we arrive at Graham’s number.

The first question to present itself is why there should be precisely 63 iterations. It does seem to be an arbitrary number. However, an even more obvious question is this: what is the use of such a number? It turns out to be useful in calculating the number of possible permutations in certain types of complex combinatorial problem, where it is seen as an upper limit to the range of possible answers. Well, yes, it probably is an upper limit to anything you can think of, but does that really make it useful? It’s like saying you have between none and ‘hundreds’ of parents, which is self-evidently silly. I’m just relieved that I’ve managed to keep infinity out of the discussion. Transfinite numbers, which record the number of items in infinite sets, must be larger than Graham’s number, but their values cannot be calculated. Thankfully. And the important numbers in everyday life can still be reckoned on the fingers of one hand. Thankfully.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

jumping to conclusions

It is very common that people make judgements without having the information needed to make such a judgement. Their apparently rational appraisals are in fact no more than prejudice. If you have a tendency to jump to conclusions, you may want to consider the following Chinese folk tale, which relates the story of an old man who resolutely refuses to accept anything at face value:
This is the story of an old man who lived in a small village on the frontier during the Warring States period. Although he was poor, he was the envy of his village because he owned a large and powerful stallion. Such a majestic horse had never been seen in the district before.

People offered huge sums of money for the horse, but the old man always refused.

“It’s not a horse to me,” he would say. “He is a friend, not a possession. How can you sell a friend?”

The man was poor, so the temptation was great. But he never did sell his horse.

One morning, he discovered that the horse wasn’t in its stable. All the villagers came to see him.

“You old fool,” they derided him. “We warned you that someone would steal your horse. It would have been better to have sold him. You could have got whatever price you wanted. No amount would have been too high. Now the horse is gone, and you’ve been cursed with misfortune.”

“Don’t be so quick to speak out,” the old man replied. “All you can say is that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is mere opinion. Whether I’ve been cursed or not, how can you tell?”

“Don’t make us out to be fools,” his neighbours argued. “The simple fact that your horse is gone is surely a curse.”

The old man spoke again: “All we know is that the stable is empty, and the horse is gone. The rest of the story we don’t know. Whether it is a curse or a blessing, we can’t say. All we see is a fragment. Who can say what will happen next?”

His neighbours laughed. They believed that the man was crazy. They had always thought him a fool; if he hadn’t been, he would have sold the horse and lived off the proceeds. Instead, he was a poor woodcutter, still cutting firewood, dragging it out of the forest and selling it. He lived constantly in abject poverty. And now he had confirmed their opinion: he was indeed a fool.

A week later, the horse returned. And it was not alone. It was accompanied by a strikingly handsome white mare that rivalled the stallion in strength and speed. Once again, the villagers gathered around the woodcutter.

“Old man, you were right, and we were wrong. What we thought was a curse has turned out to be a blessing. Please forgive us,” they said.

“Once again, you assume too much,” the old man replied. “We can say only that the horse has returned. How can we tell whether this is a blessing or not? We see only a fragment of the story. Unless we know the whole story, how can we judge? If we read only one page of a book, can we judge the whole book? If we read only one word of one sentence, can we understand the entire sentence? Our lives are complex, yet you judge the whole of life as if it were one page or one word. All you have to work on is one fragment! Don’t say that this is a blessing. Nobody can tell. I’m content with what I know. And I’m not bothered by what I don’t know.”

“Perhaps the old man is right,” they said to one another.

However, all their instincts told them that he must be wrong. He now owned two horses, so they knew that it must be a blessing.

The old man’s son soon discovered that the mare was more docile and thus easier to ride than the stallion, and he fell into the habit of riding it around the district. Some time later, while he was following this practice, the horse was spooked by a sudden noise and reared up, throwing the young man to the ground, where he sustained a broken leg. It was a nasty fracture, which left the young man with a pronounced limp even after the bones had knitted together again. Once again, the neighbours gathered around to pass judgement.

“You were right,” they said. “The white horse wasn’t a blessing after all. It was a curse. Your only son has broken his leg and is now crippled, and in your old age you have nobody to help you. You are worse off than ever.”

The old man spoke again: “You are all obsessed with passing instant judgements. Don’t assume so much. We can say only that my son broke his leg. Who knows if this is a blessing or a curse? Nobody can possibly know. We have only a fragment of the continuing story. Life always comes in fragments.”

Shortly after the old man’s son had recovered sufficiently from his injury to be able to hobble around the village, war broke out with a neighbouring state. All the young men in the village were conscripted into their country’s army. However, the old man’s son was exempted on account of his physical disability. The fighting in this war was exceptionally brutal, and the army of the old man’s country was eventually routed. Many of its soldiers were killed.

The villagers gathered around the old man’s house, weeping and wailing because their sons were unlikely to be coming home.

“Once again you were right, old man,” they said. “Your son’s accident turned out to have been a blessing. His leg may have been permanently damaged, but he is alive and here with you. Our sons are gone. Gone for ever.”

“It’s impossible to talk to you people,” the old man said. “You are always jumping to conclusions. I can say only this: your sons had to go to war, while mine did not. Even now, nobody knows whether this was a blessing or a curse. No one is wise enough to have known. Who knows what the future holds?”
The moral of this story appears to be that you should regard every setback as a blessing in disguise and every piece of apparent good fortune as the harbinger of disaster. However, there are two lines in Rudyard Kipling’s sententious piece of doggerel If— that encapsulate this point of view rather more succinctly than the didactic tale related here:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same…
We may conclude that the old man’s neighbours would not have recognized this imposture, because they failed to understand the old man’s dictum that nothing is ever quite as it appears, and they also failed to grasp that extrapolating from the known to the unknown is a risky process with the ever-present possibility of being proved wrong.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

future imperfect

In 1900, the material condition of the human race was unquestionably better than it had been a century earlier. In a country like England two hundred years ago, the poor lived in conditions that were worse than those endured by all but the poorest in the world today. Smallpox, cholera and typhoid were rife. Judicial punishments were often unbelievably harsh. Violence was part of the everyday landscape. Even children were required to work. In factories. Down the mines. And education was only for the privileged.

Although the main beneficiaries, in financial terms, of much of the progress that was achieved during the nineteenth century in England and other industrializing countries were the grande bourgoisie, the owners of capital, many advances also benefited the general population: public sewerage systems, railways, changes in medical practice, including the use of antiseptics and anaesthetics, and universal education are among the most obvious examples. Hence the positive appraisal of the human condition framed in the opening sentence.

A hundred years later, and despite two catastrophic world wars, the human race was once again in a position to assert that real progress had been made in the intervening century, with inventions such as motor cars, aeroplanes, computers, antibiotics, radio and television, and double glazing to set against the nuclear weapons and general brutality of the most violent century in the entire history of civilization.

Now fast forward to 2100. Will the human race be able to say that, on balance, progress has been made in the twenty-first century? The portents are not good. Although the problem had been brewing quietly for a couple of decades, the rise of militant Islam registered with the general public only after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001. There have been plenty of reminders since.

It is unlikely that this problem will be resolved anytime soon, and the potential for a global conflagration, originating in the Middle East with terrorism as the spark, should not be discounted. Islam and Christianity have been in conflict since the emergence of the latter in the seventh century, and the grievances that motivate modern Islamist terrorists are unlikely to disappear overnight.

However, there are even more serious threats to global stability. The most critical is probably population: the world’s human population is currently 6.9 billion. It was 2.3 billion in the year I was born. The rate of growth peaked at 22 percent per decade in the 1950s but has since declined. It is projected to continue to decline, but world population is still likely to exceed nine billion by mid-century, by which time the total will have stabilized, according to most projections.

If these projections are even reasonably accurate, then a major problem presents itself. The example provided by developed countries suggests that a population will stabilize only in response to increased prosperity, which is in effect a proxy for improvements in healthcare and thus increased life expectancy. As birth rates fall, the population pyramids of individual countries, then regions and finally the world will become increasingly top-heavy. A numerically stable population is an ageing population.

The pressures imposed by an expanding population impact heavily on resources, a catch-all term that includes food, energy and raw materials. The availability of food, in particular, is a serious problem: fish stocks have already collapsed in many parts of the world’s oceans, famine is an ever-present threat in some poor countries, and commodity speculators have entered the market, pushing up food prices beyond what many can afford. In addition, huge quantities of processed food are discarded in rich countries merely because it has reached its sell-by date, while in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa up to one-third of all food produced is lost through spoilage because harvesting and distribution systems are woefully inadequate.

Sell-by dates are a blunt instrument as a measure to protect public health. A few years ago, I visited my local supermarket about ten minutes before closing time. It was selling Galia melons at five pence each because it had only ten minutes in which to get rid of them or be forced to dump them. I bought six, because they weren’t even ripe! It took between two and three weeks for that to happen. They were delicious, but that’s not the point. It’s just one small example of the kind of inefficiencies in our food distribution systems that if sorted out would go some distance towards alleviating what is probably the most shocking statistic on food, that an estimated one billion people in poor countries don’t have enough to eat and are often hungry when they go to sleep at night. Meanwhile, I can buy Galia melons in my local supermarket, even if I usually have to pay the full price. I feel vaguely uncomfortable with this kind of privilege.

The availability of energy is also likely to be an increasing problem. Eradication of poverty worldwide, a laudable goal that was set by the G8 group of countries just a couple of years ago, is not possible without almost unlimited supplies of cheap energy, yet energy costs are skyrocketing, principally because there isn’t enough to go round. Consequently, we hear the familiar exhortation by environmental activists to conserve energy. This may be the correct short-term strategy, but it is counterproductive in terms of alleviating global poverty. On the contrary, there is no solution to this problem without invoking a radical new source of energy. And there is only one candidate that fits this description: nuclear fusion.

I’d like to be able to predict that success in harnessing the vast amounts of energy available from nuclear fusion is just a decade or so away. Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic. Here’s the problem: it’s relatively easy to smash atoms to pieces, but it’s much harder to stick them together, and it requires a lot of energy to get started, because atoms only stick together at very high temperatures. Hydrogen–helium, the simplest of all fusion reactions, requires a temperature of 20 million degrees, at which point individual atoms no longer exist. Everything becomes a kind of subatomic soup, known as a plasma. As you can imagine, the behaviour of this nuclear fireball is difficult to control, which is the object of the exercise.

And here’s the rub: you may think of someone who studied physics at university as a physicist, but by the time they graduate they will have already started on the path into one or another specialism. In this case, because nuclear fusion is a nuclear process, research in the field is conducted by nuclear physicists, yet they are attempting to control a plasma, something that plasma physicists know a lot about. But because there is so much to keep up to date with in their own field, nuclear physicists don’t read plasma physics journals. Oh my.

Using raw materials unsustainably has been the default position since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and little has changed even though reserves of some key commodities are now perilously low. Although there is little likelihood that the ores of common metals like iron, copper and aluminium will run out soon, the availability of rare earth elements, which are vital in the electronics industry, is already severely constrained, mainly because, as their name implies, they were scarce to begin with. There aren’t many minerals of which you could say supplies are plentiful.

Many raw materials can be produced sustainably, including timber and natural fibres, but this is never enough to meet demand. So we still see clear felling of old-growth boreal forests around the world, and tropical hardwoods such as teak and mahogany cannot be replaced fast enough to meet demand for luxury toilet seats from consumers in developed countries.

Natural fibres would seem, self-evidently, to present a ‘natural’ and sustainable alternative to their man-made counterparts, most of which derive ultimately from petroleum. However, it is instructive to look at two examples of the kind of environmental damage that can result from using land to produce these materials.

The mountains of the English Lake District were once covered with trees, which were cut down during the Neolithic period, when it must have seemed like a good idea. By the time the Middle Ages rolled around, wool had become an important commodity, with lots of money to be made, which is why sheep were introduced to the area by monks from local abbeys. It is a matter of regret that the monks’ successors continue to graze sheep on the mountains in large numbers, because one effect has been to prevent the regrowth of trees. Sheep are aliens in this fragile ecosystem because they will eat anything—except bracken. Nothing likes this highly adaptable fern, except fungi. So it continues to gain ground, choking everything in its path that hasn’t been eaten by the sheep.

Cotton is even more environmentally unfriendly, mainly because of the quantities of irrigation water required. Cotton cultivation can even be said to be behind one of the world’s worst man-made environmental disasters: the slow disappearance of the Aral Sea, which currently has an area only 10 percent of what it was in the mid-twentieth century. Planners in the Soviet Union in the 1940s decided that it would be a good idea to divert the two principal rivers flowing into the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, in order to irrigate what had previously been desert in order to grow rice, other cereals and, principally, cotton. In keeping with this ramshackle plan, many irrigation canals were appallingly badly built, and up to 75 percent of the diverted water was (and still is) lost through either evaporation or leakage. And cotton is a notoriously thirsty crop anyway.

This sorry tale is one facet of a critical resource problem that is likely to become increasingly serious in the coming decades: the availability of water. In addition to individual requirements for drinking, cooking and washing, water is needed in large quantities for both agriculture and manufacturing industry. To take two examples, 6,000 litres of water is needed to produce a pair of denim jeans, while between 15,000 and 30,000 litres is required to produce a kilogram of beef. And, as usual, when there isn’t enough to go round, the potential for international conflict increases. We can safely assume that China knew what it was doing when it started building dams on the headwaters of the Brahmaputra in Tibet, and that India didn’t when it recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

One aspect of the water supply crisis is inextricably linked to the phenomenon of climate change as a result of global warming, because as the temperature of the atmosphere rises turbulence increases, so precipitation events (rain, snow, hail) become shorter and more intense. More water disappears as runoff, resulting in more catastrophic floods, and less percolates into the soil, so the water needed for agriculture has to come from other sources.

The Ogalalla Aquifer, which underlies most of the Great Plains of the United States, is the type example of environmental mismanagement here. This huge source of what is essentially fossil water has been tapped on a large scale since the 1950s to transform a vast plain whose natural climate is semi-arid (this is ‘dust bowl’ country) into the most productive agricultural region in the United States. Unfortunately, the level of the water table has been falling by as much as 1.5 metres per year in some places. And recharge rates are extremely slow. Does America have a Plan B?

It will be obvious that all these factors—population, food, water, raw materials and climate change—are interrelated, so any measure designed to address one must take into account the effect that it will have on all the others. And nobody will want to make concessions, so nothing significant will get done, even though we’ve already moved beyond taking our own bags to the supermarket, in case you hadn’t noticed.

A cosy theory has been doing the rounds since the early 1970s. It’s called the Gaia Hypothesis, after the Greek goddess of the Earth, and it postulates the planet as a gigantic, self-healing super-organism. It’s a seductive idea. However, a counter-theory has emerged recently. Palaeontologists studying mass extinctions in the Palaeozoic era noted that in the run-up to the extinction event, the dominant life-forms progressively bespoiled their environments, until, within a surprisingly short period, complete ecosystems collapsed. They have therefore proposed the Medea Hypothesis. In Greek mythology, at least according to Euripides, Medea ate her own children. Oh my.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

contemplating contempt

The English language has a number of informal words for members of specific social groups that are almost never used by such members to describe themselves, largely because these words have negative connotations and are used by people outside the group to disparage the group as a whole and by association any individual member of that group.

A typical example is the word ‘toff’ to denote a member of the upper classes in Britain. It is used by left-wing activists to label people like the current British prime minister, David Cameron, as if his social background, including his having attended the most well-known public school in England, somehow disqualifies him from the office.

On the other side of the coin, many of those who have attended such schools are liable to refer to members of the lower classes as ‘oiks’. This is intentionally insulting, in the same way that labelling David Cameron a ‘toff’ is intentionally insulting.

A similar word from the United States is ‘redneck’, originally a derogatory term for a poor white farmer from Appalachia but now used to refer to anyone with socially conservative views, someone who is in favour of the death penalty, who opposes abortion and who calls for the reintroduction of corporal punishment. Rednecks also tend to regard other ethnic groups as inferior, an attitude that is often found in but may not necessarily be typical of an oik.

What these words have in common is that they are all stereotypes. and perhaps the most stereotypical term of all is ‘boffin’. Scientists and what they do are often misunderstood by non-scientists, so it becomes routine for non-scientists to label someone a ‘boffin’ whose inventions, discoveries and pronouncements are far too arcane to be understood unless one is a member of the cabal. Curiously, the only time the word ‘scientist’ is ever used, it is invariably prefaced by the word ‘mad’, a sure sign that prejudice is at work.

The most egregious of these terms is probably ‘squaddie’ to describe a private soldier in the British army. To anyone likely to use a word like ‘oik’, such men are probably seen as oiks in uniform, but it is not their fault that most army privates have had no more than a basic education. Even though I was less than impressed with some of their public behaviour in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony (for a start, many appeared to regard the local Chinese as unsophisticated coolies, and they had no time for Chinese culture), I would not wish to belittle their courage and dedication in Afghanistan by referring to them as ‘squaddies’. While concerned intellectuals argue over the practical and moral justification for the presence of the British army in that country from the comfort of a television studio in London or a public house in the English countryside, these men face lethal danger and extreme discomfort, with little or no respite, simply because they have been ordered, by ‘toffs’, to do so. It is fatally easy to be contemptuous of those who do our dirty work and allow us to keep our hands clean, but these men deserve our respect; these men are soldiers.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

in praise of trees

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The next best time is now.
Chinese proverb.
If you mention Fanling to someone who is familiar with the place, they are most likely to comment about the trees. There are rather a lot of them, and they make the town more attractive than it otherwise would be, given the often horrendous traffic. In fact, they are what make Fanling such a pleasant place, especially in the springtime, when new growth and intensely colourful flowers combine to create the illusion of an urban woodland with high-rise apartments, factories and other buildings merely set down in the spaces between the trees (see the first photo to get an idea of what I mean). This post is a follow-on from Spring Fever.

The traffic seems almost incidental.

The cotton trees are always the first to flower, probably because they do so before bothering to poke out any leaves. They were in full bloom throughout March this year, which is up to ten days longer than usual. I believe that the explanation for this is a lack of rain during the month, because a heavy downpour soon dislodges wilting flowers.

I like trees. I like to look at them. I like to photograph them. I like the way they take their time. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we slow our lives down to keep pace with trees—we’d probably have to hibernate in the winter for a start—but they do provide a steady reminder that living life at breakneck speed means only that you will get to your destination more quickly than you intended. With this in mind, I offer the following photographs, to be perused at leisure:

The Chinese are tenacious in hanging on to their traditional cultural practices, and I imagine that this impromptu shrine among the roots of a venerable banyan tree, alongside the busiest road in Fanling, is to some local tutelary deity.

And this is the busiest road in Fanling. The tall, straight trees on the right of the picture are paper-bark trees (once used for that purpose by indigenous villagers), and they form the beginning of a majestic double avenue for the next half-mile leading off the picture to the right. I’ve not yet identified the flowering trees in the middle distance, but there are a lot of them around the place.

A cycle track running alongside the avenue of paper-bark trees.

Half a tree, half a tree, half a tree onward….

Among the many introduced species of ornamental tree in Hong Kong, none is more spectacular in bloom than the flame tree, originally from Madagascar. This is a relatively small specimen in a public basketball court in Luen Wo Hui. Eight of these trees are visible from our balcony, but only one was in full bloom when I left for the UK. I’m not going to come here so early next year. At least Paula has been taking some pictures, so I’ll know what I’ve been missing.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

turf wars

I live in a village about a mile from the eastern edge of Fanling. Although I have frequently described the intervening area as ‘fields’, it would be more accurate to designate it a wasteland. Admittedly, it is a fertile wasteland, because it is part of the floodplain of the local river, but it is a disturbed landscape. Crops have been grown here sporadically, and still are, but the population density is extremely low, and most growers live in makeshift shacks of doubtful stability in bad weather.

The resident population is also transient. As one group of people is rehoused by the government, another group moves in to work the land. Once-cultivated plots are abandoned and are soon overrun by weeds, while fresh areas are cleared to grow vegetables. In the past year, the ranks of newcomers have been augmented by an evangelical Christian group from the city, whose plot has been named Ma Po Po Farm. This is not merely pretentious, it is also notably prudish: ‘Ma Po Po’ means ‘horse poo area’, but the area is actually known as and signposted as Ma Shi Po (‘horseshit area’).

Like many city dwellers, the Christians have an idyllic view of farming: although they spent a huge amount of time painting their shack—and very fine work it is, with images of bats and snails painstakingly rendered—nobody seems to have remembered that vegetables require constant weeding. Neglect this and planted vegetables, mainly cabbage, lettuce and other leafy vegetables, soon get choked out. Ma Po Po Farm is easily the worst-kept plot of those I walk past regularly.

This situation has almost certainly obtained for many years, although I’ve been observing it for only the last three. However, the status quo was interrupted at the beginning of April by the appearance of warning signs like the one pictured below. As a rough estimate, there were between twenty and thirty of these signs, although there aren’t as many now, because before I left for the UK I decided to uproot as many as I could find and discard them in inaccessible undergrowth.

“This is private land. No entry or use unless authorized. Trespassers will be sent to court”.

Then, a few weeks later, a series of countersigns began to appear. This is the first I came across:

“Farmland aggressor, give our land back and stay away from us”.

The old man pictured is Lee Shau-kee, the geriatric chairman of major property developer Henderson Land. Although it isn’t obvious, because the superimposed photographs cover the relevant details, Lee is pictured holding his three recently born grandsons. His response to this event is instructive:
I never felt so happy before, much happier than when I earn a lot of money.
He doesn’t look very happy to me. In fact, he looks distinctly uncomfortable: that smile must have taken some forcing, although this is not surprising. Uncle Four, as he likes to be known, is a typical Chinese box wallah, obsessed with making money that, at the age of 82, he is never going to spend. In any case, I’ve always been deeply suspicious of any local who goes by the self-styled sobriquet ‘Uncle’. It suggests benevolence while concealing a shark-like tenacity for exploiting his fellow citizens. Presumably, the manga horde in the lower picture is what Lee is up against here.

All the remaining countersigns are essentially messages of support, in most cases placed directly in front of the original warning signs. Here are some examples:

“Land for farming”.

“Land should continue to be used for growing crops. Land development should give way”.

“When the weather is fine, it is good for growing crops”.

“Support you for ever”.

The Christian operators of Ma Po Po Farm are probably behind this protest, given the content of one message:
The Lord said: “Land developer, please leave the land for people to have a life.”
Other messages include “The land developer’s action is despicable”; “We need to keep growing crops to continue educating our next generation”; and “Give us a way to continue living”. I detect youthful idealism here, but I’m on their side, as you’ve probably already guessed.

Unfortunately, this dispute has already taken a more sinister turn. The following picture is of a row of an unidentified leguminous vegetable. A few days before this photo was taken, the row appeared to be thriving, with luxuriant growth in every direction, but it now looks as if someone has been spraying the plants with a defoliant.


This is the current state of play. Any further developments in this story will be reported as they happen.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

spring fever

I rarely use Americanisms in speech or writing, but when it comes to naming the seasons, I’m bound to say that I regard the American version as more descriptive than the British. I therefore have no hesitation in stating that my favourite season in Hong Kong is the fall, the time of year when the leaves fall from the trees.

There are few genuinely evergreen trees in Hong Kong, but most of the territory’s trees keep their leaves during the winter. However, when the temperature begins to rise at the end of winter, and new growth begins to appear, this is a cue for the old leaves to depart. When the northeast monsoon is blowing, the fall of leaves can seem like a blizzard, and were it not for the continuous work of a small army of roadsweepers, whose efforts can seem like trying to empty a bath using only a colander, large parts of rural Hong Kong would be knee-deep in dead leaves by Easter.

A windswept street in Luen Wo Hui (picture taken on 10th March 2011).

This year, February saw a reversal of the usual climatic conditions, which are that it always seems to be cold during the Chinese New Year period, regardless of where it falls in the Gregorian calendar. This year, however, the festival coincided with the only warm spell of the month, which was otherwise unrelentingly cold, wet and miserable. The house began to feel like a walk-in refrigerator.

Things began to improve at the beginning of March with the piecemeal return of the summer visitors that augment the local bird population. These new arrivals include all those species with distinctive calls, some of which I described last year in Birdsong. I noticed the ‘swanee whistler’ first, although I should point out that ‘noticed’ is too understated a word to be entirely appropriate here, because you would have to bury your head in a large pile of pillows not to notice if one was in the neighbourhood.

This year, I discovered the swanee whistler’s real name: it is an Asian koel. The male is glossy black, about the size of a jackdaw but much slimmer: in flight, it looks like a racing pigeon. The word ‘koel’ is Sanskrit in origin and is said to be onomatopoeic in that language, although I remain unconvinced by the claim on a website operated by Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department, that ‘it gives a repetitive and loud ko-el, ko-el call’. There is no l sound, although we do occasionally hear, but not see, a bird that sings “tweet! tweet!”, each consonant being fully enunciated.

The koel shares with the European cuckoo the habit of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds, which made me wonder why it advertises its presence so blatantly. It turns out that the swanee whistler is the male bird, but the female koel is just as noisy. I described it last year as ‘a malevolent cross between a kookaburra and a rooster’, while this year I gave it the name ‘laughing chicken’ before discovering its real identity. The most common victims of the koel’s parasitism are black-collared starlings, otherwise known as ‘stripeys’ (my description—the black and white stripes make this species easy to identify) and ‘noisy buggers’ (Paula’s description—they are the ones that sound as if they are arguing all the time).

However, this is where the story becomes complicated. Black-collared starlings have a range of calls, one of which is a passable imitation of the laughing chicken. Only a difference in timbre betrays the real origin of the call. The repertoire of these birds also includes an imitation of honking geese, while what might be described as its default call resembles that of another common local species, the crested mynah. Or are the mynahs imitating the starlings? I’ve not yet reached a conclusion on this question. There is a lot of scope for observation here, because a pair of black-collared starlings has constructed an enormous nest in the tree in front of our house, so there is much (noisy) coming and going.

Crested mynahs are among the commonest birds around San Wai. They are dull black in colour, with white patches on the underside of the wings that remind me of the roundels that once graced the wings of the aircraft of the Royal Air Force. The illusion is reinforced when an individual flies straight towards you, because the blur of white on the rapidly beating wings resembles the propellers of a twin-engined Second World War bomber such as the Wellington. When seen in large mobs, these birds are almost as noisy.

Perhaps the most interesting of the common local birds are the magpie robins, which, like the crested mynahs, are resident throughout the year. They are larger than European robins, to which they probably aren’t related, and as you might guess, they are black and white rather than brown and red. However, during the winter months, the only sound they utter is a cross between a rasp and a hiss. It sounds very threatening, and it could be mistaken for an insect, except that it is much too cold for insects to be abroad. Then, in March, I began to notice short songs that I hadn’t heard before. Each one was different, but I really should have spotted that the timbre and intensity were always very similar. The penny finally dropped when I caught a magpie robin in the act of singing its heart out on my television aerial.

A typical magpie robin song consists of six to eight notes and is a very piercing but not unpleasant whistle (the poor buggers are popular as caged songbirds in Hong Kong—a barbaric practice that is out of step with the sophistication of the rest of Chinese culture). Once an individual has secured a suitable perch, its song is repeatedly reprised, with only minor improvisation, until it decides to fly off and sing somewhere else.

Once I was able to identify a song as that of a magpie robin, I found that I could also identify individuals, especially if there was some element in the song that stood out. One in particular caught my attention because it added a distinctive “beep! beep!” coda at the end of each iteration of its song. The day after hearing this performance for the first time, I was describing it to Paula when suddenly we heard it being repeated from the large tree alongside our house. Since then, we’ve heard it from time to time, and the question I now want to answer is whether this really is the same individual, or whether individuals construct songs from elements they’ve heard others use in their songs. However, further research will have to wait until my return to Hong Kong in the fall autumn.