Monday, 31 December 2012

guardians at the gate

I explained the origin of the ancient Chinese custom of pasting posters of ‘door gods’ on the front door of a house in Leaping Dragon, but for my final post of 2012 I’ve chosen to compare how these ‘gods’ are depicted on various public buildings in the area where I live. The buildings described are the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall (left in the two pictures below), the Hau Ku Shek Ancestral Hall (centre) and the local Tin Hau temple (right).

I assume that these painted figures are repainted from time to time, and if you compare the figures that guard the two ancestral halls, you will see that those guarding the Hau Ku Shek Ancestral Hall appear to have been repainted quite recently, but all the various elements of the designs, from the oddly effeminate gesture of the hands not holding a weapon to the details of the costumes, are replicated in both cases, albeit with a degree of artistic licence involved, particularly in the faces.

This leads me to assume that a template exists for painting door gods on wooden doors, and that both painters followed it. I assume too that what we see today is a constantly retouched and repainted version of the work of the anonymous artist who painted the original figures. The template would also prescribe the weaponry carried, a Chinese halberd or ji and a broadsword by Yuchi Jingde, and a pole sword and a longsword by Qin Shubao.

However, if such a template ever existed, it wasn’t followed by whoever was responsible for the door gods guarding the Tin Hau temple. Only the ethnicity of the guards (Qin Shubao was obviously Han Chinese, while Yuchi Jingde appears to have been of Turkic origin—and the name isn’t Chinese) and the weapons they hold are the same. But the temple version of Yuchi Jingde is vastly more fearsome than his counterparts at the two ancestral halls, and the stance of Qin Shubao is more confrontational.

Three versions of Yuchi Jingde.

Three versions of Qin Shubao.

Finally, here is the cheap commercial version. The two posters are mirror images of each other; the only differences are in the overprinted facial hair. However, such posters are at least as effective as the elaborately painted door gods guarding temples and ancestral halls. And at least as effective as Janus, the Roman god of doorways and entrances, after whom next month is named. Janus is said to have had two heads, allowing him to look both ways at once, but he is unlikely to have done a better protection job than Yuchi Jingde and Qin Shubao, who have tirelessly been guarding Chinese homes from evil spirits and the harbingers of bad luck for almost 1,400 years and seem as popular as ever.

I will conclude with a traditional Cantonese salutation, appropriate at the change of years: lung ma ching san (may you have the strength of a dragon or horse).

Sunday, 16 December 2012

across the tracks

Before my accident, if I wanted to do any cycling I would head south. For the first three or four miles, the only route is a series of country paths and back roads, where it usually isn’t possible to cycle at speed, but once south of Taipo the main cycleway is the width of an ordinary road (two double-decker buses travelling in opposite directions could pass each other without either having to slow down), so in ordinary conditions it is possible to go as fast as I like. I should note that ‘ordinary conditions’ do not apply at weekends (Cycling in Hong Kong).

However, when I started cycling again after the accident, I didn’t want to go too far, so I opted to cycle along the local river, following the concrete access road provided by the Drainage Services Department. I pointed out in Owt Fresh? that technically this is not permitted, although so many locals use the road, which cannot be accessed by motor vehicles, that there is no enforcement. The only drawback is that the accessible stretch of river is only about 3km in length, which doesn’t justify getting the bike out in the first place.

Back in May, I started looking for a different option, and I was able to find a way to cross the main railway line into China via an extremely cramped tunnel:

The main difficulty cannot be seen in this picture. Immediately the track emerges from the tunnel, it turns left and up an extremely steep ramp, the only hill I’ve found in Hong Kong where I have to get off and push, although it might be feasible if it were possible to take a run at it.

Once I’d emerged through the obstacle course (there are other difficulties, see below), I found myself on the banks of a much larger river, the Shum Chun River (‘Shum Chun’ is the Cantonese rendition of the large metropolis on the other side of the border that is now universally known as Shenzhen), of which our local river is a tributary:

Hong Kong

This photo was taken from a road bridge over the river, looking upstream. There are no fewer than five grey herons in the picture, and the rail crossing is behind the trees on the left. Further downstream, this river forms the border between Hong Kong and the rest of China west of Shenzhen.

The access road alongside the river continues past the bridge, but it enters the so-called ‘closed area’, a measure that was put in place by the British colonial administration to deter illegal immigrants but maintained since the handover in 1997, so it is necessary to cross the bridge. This leads to a quiet road that climbs past a modern prison, the Lo Wu Correctional Institution.

During my initial explorations, I then took a road that drops down into the village of Ho Sheung Heung (literally, ‘village above the river’), where I was delighted to find the Hau Ku Shek Ancestral Hall:

Hong Kong

This ancestral hall was built in the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and was extensively renovated in 1762. As can be seen in this photo, it follows the standard three-hall, two-courtyard design for ancestral halls and features red sandstone corner pillars and bases for the alcoves on each side of the main entrance. These are drum platforms. The red sandstone is a highly prized material for important buildings, and it must have been transported a considerable distance, because there are no sources close to the village.

Hong Kong

The hall will feature in a more detailed post eventually, but this photo shows some of the intricate plaster mouldings that are typical of ancestral halls, and a large ceramic lion in the corner of the roof. Don’t worry that it doesn’t look like a lion. There are no lions in China, and if you’ve ever seen a lion dance you’ll be aware that a Chinese ‘lion’ looks nothing like the real thing.

There is an open space in front of the ancestral hall that functions as the terminus of a minibus route from the nearest railway station. Naturally, most of the passengers are local villagers, but the minibus also brings in a lot of wildlife photographers armed with tripods and 1,000mm telephoto lenses. I assume that the photos that they take are a lot better than mine, which were shot with a cheap digital camera. On the other hand, I get to see a lot more because I’m constantly on the move, and over the past few weeks I’ve seen a number of interesting sights.

There was the time when a heron grabbed a fish just as I was passing, and the vision of the sun glinting on the fish has stuck in my memory. On another occasion, a black-capped kingfisher burst from the trees in front of me in a riot of blue and orange. A few days ago, I saw what I confidently identified as a crested kingfisher, only to discover that Wikipedia claims this species to be 41cm long, which strikes me as being too big for any species of kingfisher. This bird too was in the process of grabbing a fish as I rode past, and I saw a second individual 100m or so further along.

The best area to see the local birdlife is along a tributary of the Shum Chun River, the mouth of which is visible in the second picture above. The following three photographs are of this tributary.

The first picture shows the mouth of the tributary; the bridge carries the access road along the bank of the main river. The second picture was taken from this bridge, looking upstream, and it shows, inter alia, a herd of feral cows, which occasionally represent a hazard on the roads. The ferality of cows seems like an odd concept, but there is an even bigger feral herd in the Sai Kung area, and it roams across a large territory. The third picture was taken from a point about a kilometre upstream, looking downstream.

I managed to cobble together a 25km route that covers the access roads along the banks of the main river and the tributary and that I could do regularly. It involves covering most of the route twice. If I see something that interests me, I’ll stop to take a photo, but otherwise I don’t bother stopping for anything as mundane as a rest. However, last week I decided to see where the road leading past the prison went, so instead of following the side road down to Ho Sheung Heung, I kept going straight ahead. My reward, although this probably isn’t the best way to describe it, was a pig of a hill and an alternative way into the village. This adds 2km to the overall route and has Paula’s approval (she likes long hills).

I’ll end with three photographs that I’ve taken recently. They don’t show the detail that would be visible if I’d had a telephoto lens, but they do give a good idea of what I see as I ride alongside the various rivers. Egrets are extremely common here, and on one recent occasion I counted no less than seventeen grey herons (plus or minus one—I may have counted up to two twice).

The first photo is of a grey heron perched on a partly submerged tree branch in the main river. The second shows a greater egret (left) and a grey heron in the tributary, and the third shows a buffalo on a mud bank in the main river. These beasts were used regularly for ploughing at one time in Hong Kong, but the few people who farm in Hong Kong use mechanical aids nowadays, so I speculate that the erstwhile ‘owner’ has simply turned the animal loose to fend for itself.

Anyway, it’s time to head off home, and the railway crossing is much easier this way, but I still flatten myself on the crossbar to pass under this gigantic pipe, which is Hong Kong’s water supply (there are actually three pipes, all the same size). It isn’t too obvious from the photo, but you need to pedal out of the depression under the pipe: you cannot rely on momentum to get you through.

The cycling itself is fairly uneventful. The access roads along the riverbanks are flat, and the only hills are therefore those described above, where my route moves away from the river. Unlike the access road that runs alongside our local river, there is some (limited) motor traffic here—mainly local villagers—but the access roads are quite wide, so this presents no problems. However, the area is popular with cyclists and is to be avoided at weekends, when large (dis)organized groups of up to thirty cyclists can be encountered. I’ll stick to mid-afternoon, midweek. It’s very quiet then, although I did encounter up to 200 policemen and women on an organized run last week, which forced me to alter my usual route.

update: 21/2/2013
The description “the only hill I’ve found in Hong Kong where I have to get off and push” is no longer valid, although it is probably accurate to say that this hill is too tricky to guarantee success every time, especially if there is a puddle of water at the bottom.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

bad habits

I probably have more bad habits than you could shake a stick at, and some are probably so ingrained as to be incurable, but I appear to have developed a quite unwelcome habit over the past couple of years: falling off my bike every December. In December 2010, my bike disappeared from under me (An Apology), skidding on smooth concrete as I turned a corner. Then, last year, I caught my pedal on the ground as I turned another corner (A Momentary Lapse of Concentration), dumping me on the ground before I’d had time to react and fracturing my patella in the process.

This time, it wasn’t my fault; I was taking evasive action to avoid an idiot who had appeared in my path suddenly when I hit the kerb alongside the cycle track. I lost control as a result, and once again I was spared serious injury by my helmet, although I now have a black eye, and extensive abrasions to my left hand mean that I cannot grip the handlebar of my bike.

I had been doing a lot of cycling lately, which is the main reason for the lack of activity on my blog. It had been going extremely well—I’ve been working on an illustrated post that reflects this progress—but I’m now going to have to rest for a few days. It won’t be easy to endure an enforced lay-off, especially as my knee, which gave me a lot of trouble during the summer, has improved rapidly over the past few weeks. Even tough hills have been causing no discomfort, and I’ve been optimistic that a full recovery was within easy reach. I still am, although I now have other injuries to deal with.

I plan to post the article referred to in the previous paragraph within the next day or so, unless my headache gets worse.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

playing piano to a cow

I thought that I was familiar with all the Chinese ‘four-character idioms’, or chengyu, that I could usefully deploy in my own vocabulary (some of my favourites are described in The Proverbial Fool), but I recently came across an unfamiliar one that has obvious uses when dealing with fools. Unfortunately, judging by the various explanations that are available on the internet, there is no consensus as to the meaning of duì niú tán qín (Cantonese: dui ngau taan kəm), literally ‘to a cow playing piano’ (qín can refer to any stringed instrument, but ‘piano’ is the most common modern usage).

One Anglo-Chinese website explains its use in ‘a situation where someone is not being appreciative of your efforts’, while another uses as an example the notion of sharing something on Facebook that no one ‘likes’. Neither is a satisfactory explanation of the idiom. Like most chengyu, this one comes with a backstory, but in this case the story does not help to elucidate the meaning. It sounds more contrived than most backstories.

During the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history (771–476 BC), a musician of countrywide renown decided that he would perform a musical recital on his zheng (a stringed instrument that is plucked and strummed like a modern zither) for the benefit of a cow grazing in a nearby field. Even though the musician was thoroughly enraptured by his own playing, the cow was unmoved, apparently preferring to eat the grass in the field rather than respond to the serenade. The story goes on to relate how the musician couldn’t understand the cow’s indifference to his playing.

The ambiguity in this story is obvious: the cow lacked the intellectual capacity necessary to appreciate the music, but the musician must also have been stupid to expect the cow to do anything other than continue eating. The story could be another example of yān ēr dào líng (‘cover ears steal bell’) or kè zhōu qiú jiàn (‘drop sword mark boat’), an example of gross stupidity used to chide someone who has done something unutterably foolish.

However, if, as seems likely, the focus should be on the inability of the cow to appreciate the music, then there are a couple of English aphorisms with roughly the same meaning as duì niú tán qín. The first is a saying attributed to Jesus:
Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.
Matthew 7:6 (Authorized Version)
It is important to remember that Jesus was a Jew, so in this verse he is citing dogs and pigs as ‘unclean’ rather than stupid animals. There is also some evidence (‘trample them under their feet’) that Jesus intended his words to be taken literally, that he was talking about real rather than merely metaphorical jewellery. However, it is in its metaphorical sense that ‘casting pearls before swine’ has become an established phrase in English, in which it is used to describe a situation where someone is too stupid to either appreciate or understand a second person’s ‘pearls of wisdom’.

The second English phrase was used most famously by artist James McNeill Whistler in his libel trial against art critic John Ruskin in 1878. Ruskin had published the following critique of Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold — The Falling Rocket:
…Sir Coutts Lindsay [the gallery owner] ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.
Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold — The Falling Rocket.

It is not surprising that Ruskin was affronted by Whistler’s painting, because he believed that art should have a moral purpose, while Whistler was a proponent of the modernist maxim ‘art for art’s sake’. In other words, this little spat was really about the purpose of art and not the kind of discussion that is often played out in a court of law.

According to contemporary newspaper accounts, Whistler’s testimony during the trial was heavily loaded with sarcasm. This may have played well with the public gallery, but the wily old barrister who represented Ruskin, attorney-general John Holker, clearly knew what he was doing when he asked Whistler a simple question about the success of Nocturne in Black and Gold:
Do you think you could make me see beauty in that picture?
If Holker’s intention had been for the witness to appear condescending, his plan worked perfectly. Juries tend to distrust witnesses who appear too clever:
I fear it would be as impossible as for the musician to pour his notes into the ear of a deaf man.
A courtroom is no place for light-hearted banter. Whistler may have thought of himself as witty, but insulting a lawyer who asks disarming questions is not a tactic that is likely to impress a jury. And so it proved. Ruskin’s statement is clearly libellous, and the jury’s verdict confirmed this, but when it came to assessing the appropriate level of damages that should be paid, the jury awarded Whistler the smallest possible amount, the derisory sum of one farthing (1/960th of a pound).

Whistler’s retort in the witness box is probably tainted because it has become standard practice to use it in the same condescending manner that Whistler employed, which is where ‘playing piano to a cow’ can perform a useful function. It is unsullied by negative connotations and can be used freely in the type of context in which I heard it: to describe someone who is contemptuous of other people’s ideas because they have absolutely no ideas of their own, someone who is too stupid to understand those ideas. However, if you do choose to use this expression, and most readers will know someone who fits this description, be sure that you are not the cow. It’s an easy mistake to make.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

troubled waters

I was cycling along the bank of my local river yesterday when I suddenly became aware of what appeared to be some kind of chromatic halo out of the corner of my eye. My first thought was that it was being caused by my sunglasses, but it quickly dawned on me that I hadn’t paid a ridiculous amount of money for a pair of shades that would produce such obvious distortion.

When I turned my head to look more closely, I saw that there was a long oil slick on the water, so I stopped to take some photos for use in future editions of my Photographic Abstraction series. However, once I’d had a closer look at the images, I thought that a special edition to showcase the best would be a good idea. The first photo is a general shot of the river and has not been doctored in any way. The slick is clearly visible.

The following seven pictures are high-contrast, cropped versions of some of the pictures I took. They show sections of the slick from different positions and angles. Only #5 was taken from directly above, looking down. The others were shot at fairly shallow angles and include some reflection of the opposite bank of the river. It is interesting to compare these pictures with Rainbow (Photographic Abstraction #3), where an entirely different effect has been achieved. I attribute this to three factors: the nature of the light (sunny in the present examples, cloudy and dull in Rainbow; different disturbance patterns on the water surface; and, possibly, different pollutants (the slick in these photos appears to be of a lighter, less viscous liquid, possibly diesel or kerosene.

Of course I decry this kind of pollution, which occurs all too frequently in Hong Kong, but there is no point in crying over spilt milk, or in this case oil, especially when such a spill provides a splendid opportunity for some abstract photography.

Don’t forget to click on the first picture for a complete slideshow.

oil on water #1

oil on water #2

oil on water #3

oil on water #4

oil on water #5

oil on water #6

oil on water #7

Sunday, 4 November 2012

young sid

I recently had occasion to reproach someone for complaining that, having just turned 40, they felt old. My reproach took the form of a personal story, and in case any of my readers feel that they too are ‘getting old’, I reproduce that story here.

Everyone knew young Sid. He was a regular visitor to Shepherd’s Crag in Borrowdale in the 1990s, and this is where I first met him. Shepherd’s, as it is universally known, is probably the most popular rock-climbing venue in the Lake District, although it is far from being the best. However, the crag’s singular advantage is that it is only two minutes from the road.

Many of the best climbs are located on North Buttress, which, confusingly, is not the most northerly part of the crag, and my favourite has always been a climb called Adam, which has a difficulty rating of very severe (VS). It consists of two contrasting pitches separated by a large ledge. The first is a brutal 40-foot corner crack that is impossible to climb with any degree of style or panache. It is what I would describe as a ‘grunty’, and the usual method used is what climbers call ‘thrutching’ (the word speaks for itself and should need no explanation). It is extremely strenuous and always feels precarious. If it were not for the spectacular joys of the second pitch, a 90-foot vertical wall with lots of good handholds, I might have climbed Adam only once and made a mental note to avoid it at all costs in the future.

However, because the second pitch is so exciting, I was always prepared to endure the purgatory of the first pitch and in fact climbed Adam every year between 1989 and 1999. On one of these occasions, I was climbing Adam with Paula, and we had just completed the first pitch when I noticed young Sid walking past the bottom of the climb.

“Hey Sid!” I called down. “If I drop you a rope, d’you fancy coming up?”

The rope would be a safety measure and would not be used to assist upward progress. Anyway, Sid duly climbed up, and after we had completed the climb and Sid had left, I asked Paula how old she thought Sid was. I didn’t tell her until later that he’d cycled 30 miles to get to Shepherd’s, and he would have to cycle another 30 miles to get back home.

Young Sid was 85 years old.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

photographic abstraction #4

I present the latest in my series of photographs inspired by abstract expressionism. They do have something to say as artistic statements, but I believe that it is more important to stimulate the individual viewer’s imagination, so you can ignore any messages that you think I may be trying to convey and substitute your own.

The invitation that I extended in previous instalments, that you may want to suggest alternative titles for these pictures, remains in place. Background on how and why these images were created can be found by checking the previous posts in this series. And don’t forget that you can create a slide show by clicking on the first picture.

other posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction.
Photographic Abstraction #2.
Photographic Abstraction #3.



autumn rhythm


Sunday, 28 October 2012

food for thought

When I was growing up in the 1950s, chicken was a luxury dish, to be eaten only on formal occasions such as wedding receptions. However, this situation began to change towards the end of the decade with the advent of factory farming, but this increased availability of chicken came at a price, a price that seemed inconsequential at the time but now has assumed critical proportions.

There are two problems: the huge energy input to light and heat the enormous sheds in which most chickens are reared nowadays; and the need to feed all these captive birds, which cannot forage for themselves. The two problems are closely related.

If we focus on the amount of energy that is needed to raise an individual chicken to a size where it can be eaten, it becomes apparent that the process is inefficient, because in addition to the parts of the chicken that can be eaten, energy has gone into producing feet, feathers, a head, blood and guts, which are essentially waste by-products. These can of course be reprocessed, but that requires yet more energy.

How would this reprocessing be achieved in nature? The animal kingdom divides neatly into two: herbivores eat plants, and carnivores eat the herbivores. But there is a third category, the detritivores, whose function is to clean up the mess left by the other two. Vultures and hyenas are part of this process, but by far the most important member of the clean-up brigade is the humble fly, without which the world would soon be buried under the weight of detritus generated by the twin processes of life and death.

However, it is not the adult fly that carries out this function but its larvae. Adult flies are justly reviled for spreading disease—they vomit on food and transfer contaminants from one food source to another—but this revulsion also extends to its infant offspring. Note that the larvae of butterflies and moths, widely acknowledged to be beautiful creatures, are called caterpillars, a name that has a romantic ring to it, even though the amount of damage they cause to food crops is often considerable. Fly larvae, on the other hand, are known as maggots, an altogether more sinister word and one that is often appropriated as a term of abuse. Yet once the large carrion eaters have had their fill, it is left to legions of maggots to scoff the rest before metamorphosing into more adult flies to carry on the cycle.

What if we could harness this process to deal with the waste from factory farms? This idea might sound far-fetched, but it is already being pioneered on a small but workable scale. The idea originated in South Africa, where chicken waste was routinely left in the open to rot. An astute observer noticed first the huge number of flies that this practice attracted and second the speed with which the waste disappeared.

Industrial trials involving millions of flies and tens of millions of maggots have shown that significant quantities of chicken waste can be consumed in just 72 hours. And this is where the feeding problem alluded to above enters the picture. Currently, chickens are fed fishmeal. Some of this is made from by-catch, unwanted fish species caught in the nets of trawlers fishing for other varieties. However, a lot of industrial-scale fishing, which itself requires huge energy inputs, is solely to produce fishmeal, and particularly worrying is a recent move to start fishing for the tiny crustaceans collectively known as krill to meet the demand from chicken farmers for fishmeal. In other words, having all but destroyed the top of the food chain in the world’s oceans, humans seem bent on destroying the bottom too. A better example of myopia would be hard to find.

However, the maggots that ate the chicken waste in the previous paragraph can be dried and processed into chicken feed that has been given the proprietary name ‘magmeal’. If current trials can be scaled up sufficiently, it should become unnecessary to continue to pillage the oceans in order to feed factory-bred chickens. There is just one tiny problem: would consumers knowingly eat chickens that have been fed on maggots, given their likely revulsion at such things? Well, chickens raised naturally routinely scratch about in the soil for worms and grubs, and this does not appear to deter those consumers who are willing to pay extra for organic chicken. And most people were happy enough to eat beef from cows fed processed sheep’s brains, until, that is, it became apparent that they ran a significant risk of contracting a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

all must have prizes

…the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’
This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead…, while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
In the triumphalist aftermath of the recently concluded Olympic Games in London (the British team had had its best result at an Olympiad since 1908), Prime Minister David Cameron called for an end to the ‘all must have prizes’ culture that had poisoned the provision of physical education (PE) in British schools for forty years, and a renewed emphasis on competitive sport. The culture to which Cameron was referring took root in the British schools system in the 1960s, in parallel with the move towards ‘comprehensive’ education.

This latter policy, which was introduced by the Labour government of the time, involved the closure of grammar schools, many of which were hundreds of years old but seen by left-wing critics as elitist, and secondary modern schools, introduced by a Conservative government in the early 1950s. They were replaced by one-size-fits-all comprehensive schools.

The ostensible rationale behind such schools was to improve the quality of education being offered to those pupils who were less academically inclined, and this goal was probably achieved in some cases, but the practical effect, most of the time, was to drag clever students down to the level of the rest. In fact, being clever was usually viewed as undesirable, because, it was alleged, it dented the self-esteem of those who were not as clever.

This mindset was reinforced by a generation of lecturers with extreme left-wing views, who dominated colleges of education—where future teachers were being trained—at the time. It was a philosophy that also invaded the provision of physical education, leading to types of activity being promoted that bore an uncanny resemblance to the silly Caucus Race in Lewis Carroll’s famous story. Losing in sport was regarded as inimical to the emotional development of children, so competition was not only frowned upon; it was frequently dropped from the curriculum entirely. It is worth noting that the teaching of English grammar was abandoned around the same time for broadly similar reasons (it stifled children’s creativity).

Nevertheless, Cameron’s crass remark betrays an ignorance of how the promotion of competitive sport in schools would actually work. I’m old enough to have had first-hand experience. When I attended my local grammar school in the late 1950s, a games lesson during the winter months consisted of a full-blown game of rugby whatever the weather, although the weather, harsh as it often was, is not what I criticize about my experience. The really galling aspect of my introduction to the world of Kipling’s ‘muddied oafs’ was that the entire game was played out between half the boys on the pitch. I was lucky if I touched the ball twice a term, even though I tried hard to get involved and was often in the right place to receive a pass. The ball carrier always went down in the tackle rather than pass to someone whom they perceived to be one of the ‘wallies’. A similar scenario plays out every time a group of children pick sides for an informal game of football. The weakest are always the last to be chosen.

In fact, Cameron’s comments beg a very important question: what is the purpose of PE in schools? I left school with a fierce dislike of any kind of organized physical activity, and it was entirely fortuitous that, during my first year at university, I discovered a physical activity that I thought was worth doing. I’ve been active ever since. I conclude, therefore, based on my own experience, that the purpose of PE in schools is not to raise a generation of footballers who are good enough to play for Manchester United or rugby players who can beat the All Blacks in their own backyard. The real job of a PE teacher is not to build sports teams that can beat every other school’s teams but to help the weaker children to find a physical activity that they enjoy doing, and perhaps excel at. It doesn’t have to be a competitive sport; running, swimming and cycling are worthwhile in their own right, and it doesn’t matter if someone is never going to become the next Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps or Bradley Wiggins. These activities can be enjoyed without the competition, although a kind of self-competition is probably necessary if the maximum benefit is to be gained.

And there is a major payoff: we are constantly being reminded that obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the developed world, and although it is probably too late to help the current generation of couch potatoes, it is possible to encourage today’s children to adopt more active lifestyles. However, finding the right activity for each individual child is crucially important and will not be an easy task.

Friday, 19 October 2012

leaping dragon

When I came to live in Fanling in 2008, I quickly spotted an intriguing road sign at the first set of traffic lights on the main road leading east from the town. It informed me that if I turned right, I would be on the ‘Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail’. As soon as I could find the time, I followed it, on foot, only to become hopelessly lost in Fanling’s industrial area.

I was aware that this trail passed through the village where I live, the walls, corner guard towers and gatehouse of which have been designated ‘declared monuments’ under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance, but until two weeks ago I had assumed that the rest of the trail merely linked the scattering of traditional Chinese houses that can still be seen in the area, so I thought no more about it.

However, following a depressing summer in the UK, I returned to Hong Kong two weeks ago. If you were to ask me about my first priority whenever I come back to the territory after an extended absence, I could summarize it in two words: yam char. However, we no longer patronize the restaurant described in this link, which is within easy walking distance of our house. There is a much better restaurant next to Fanling railway station, although we do need to catch a minibus or cycle there. We chose the latter option. Given that it was a Saturday afternoon, the restaurant was packed, but we soon found a table. More precisely, we were allocated space on one of the twelve-seater tables, but we have long been accustomed to sharing tables with other diners.

Having enjoyed all the delicacies I’d missed while in the UK and drunk huge amounts of tea, we set off home. However, when we reached the fourth set of traffic lights on the main road, where we’d normally turn left to San Wai, we decided to turn right instead and explore (we’d never done so previously). Rather than follow the road, we chose to follow a maze of narrow footpaths, but eventually we were reunited with the road, and I noticed what looked like a traditional Chinese building along the road to our right. It turned out to be the entrance gate of another walled village, Tung Kok Wai. Naturally, we couldn’t resist taking a look around, but there were more surprises in store when we continued along the road.

First, we came to the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall, the largest such hall in Hong Kong, which was originally built in 1525 but extensively rebuilt in the early eighteenth century. It too is a declared monument. The Tang clan, one of the biggest in the New Territories, came to this area from Jiangxi province in the thirteenth century, during the final chaotic years of the Song Dynasty, and established a network of eleven villages in the area now known as Lung Yeuk Tau.

According to the website of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, Lung Yeuk Tau means ‘mountain of the leaping dragon’, which is inaccurate. The first two characters do mean ‘leaping dragon’, but ‘Tau’ actually means ‘head’. Perhaps the error reflects an earlier name for the area, Lung Shan, which does mean ‘dragon mountain’. The same website also has the following statement:
It is said that a dragon could once be seen leaping in the mountains here, which is how the area got its name.
Before anyone attributes the origin of this statement to the credulity of superstitious villagers, take a look at the photograph at the bottom of this page (an enhanced version of the same photo appears at the beginning of this article). It was taken from my balcony and shows mist swirling along the ridge of the mountain overlooking Lung Yeuk Tau just as the sun is rising. It does look vaguely like a dragon.

There are two words for ‘village’ in Cantonese: tsuen is the word usually used, but if a village name includes the word wai, literally ‘enclosure’, this is an indication that the village is surrounded by a defensive wall. There are no less than five such walled villages in Lung Yeuk Tau, suggesting that the dangers posed by bandits and pirates were once considerable.

Next to the ancestral hall is a temple dedicated to Tin Hau, goddess of the sea, which may seem odd given that this area is as far from the sea as it is possible to be in Hong Kong. The explanation is that Tin Hau is widely regarded by those Chinese who believe in such things as a tutelary deity. Her temple here is yet another declared monument.

Only a short distance further, we reached Lo Wai, the walls and gatehouse of which are also a declared monument, although the walls are nowhere near as imposing as those of San Wai, which looks more like a military fort than any of the other walled villages and was probably where the leading members of the clan lived in earlier times.

There is much more to see in this area, and much more to describe, but I shall leave this task until my health has improved. However, I have included one photograph here as a kind of trailer for future posts on Lung Yeuk Tau. It was taken from the outer courtyard of the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall looking out through the only entrance. Note the exquisite plaster mouldings underneath the eaves and the hand-painted door gods, the posting of whom to guard against intruders is an ancient Chinese custom dating back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907).

The models for these fearsome warriors were two of the first Tang emperor’s most loyal generals, Qin Shubao and Yuchi Jingde. According to the legend, the emperor was being harassed each night by an unruly ghost and was thus unable to sleep, so he asked that the pair stand guard overnight to protect him from this unwelcome visitor. Apparently, the emperor subsequently spent a peaceful night, but, not wanting to impose further on his generals, he ordered his servants to hang giant portraits of the generals to perform the guard duties. It was a practice that caught on quickly with ordinary Chinese keen to ward off evil spirits and attract good luck.

Cheaply printed posters of the generals in highly stylized poses are widely used in Hong Kong, especially around Chinese New Year, but the generals portrayed here have been rendered in meticulous detail (and are considerably larger than those seen on a typical poster). Note that the pair are shown facing slightly to one side. This means that Yuchi Jingde (the dark-skinned one) must always be posted on the left-hand door, and Qin Shubao on the right. If this is not done, both guards will be facing away from each other, which would allow an intruder to walk between them unseen, and for good luck to slip away unnoticed.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012


I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to my regular readers for a lack of new postings on this blog. When I came back to the UK at the beginning of June I’d been cycling 50–60 miles a week, and I could walk short distances without discomfort, but I reckoned without the wettest June on record, which meant that I was able to do very little cycling.

I don’t know what is cause and what is effect, but three months later I cannot walk at all without pain, and I’m no longer convinced that cycling is beneficial (60-65 percent of all the work being done is by my uninjured leg). I’ve found this very frustrating, and there has been a wholly unforeseen side-effect of this deterioration in the condition of my left knee, which I originally damaged in a cycling accident at the end of last year: I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since June!

The problem is that although I can fall asleep easily enough, any movement while asleep is likely to generate pain, which wakes me up, so a night in bed consists of a seemingly endless series of interrupted snoozes, and as far as I can tell, I never reach the state of deep sleep that my body needs to rejuvenate itself—I am no longer aware that I’ve been dreaming, for instance.

The result is that during the day my head feels heavy and my mind sluggish, and even though I have plenty of ideas on what to write about, I simply cannot concentrate on the task in hand. I think that I need the attention of an orthopaedic specialist, which means that I will have to wait until I return to Hong Kong in about five weeks, because the way the National Health Service is organized in the UK, long waiting times for treatment are the norm.

It is therefore unlikely that I will be posting anything of significance until mid-October at the earliest, although I could post another hard question or collection of photographic abstractions in the interim if there appears to be any demand. For example, you might like to test yourself against the following puzzle, which was originally posed to me by my son Siegfried and which took me three days to solve.
What connects the following?
 • A metal.
 • A weapon.
 • A Roman goddess.
 • An American state.
 • A native American ‘tribe’ that gave its name to an American city.

Needless to say, the solution turns on being able to identify which metal, weapon, etc. is needed to make all five clues refer to the same thing. No further clues are necessary, and I think that this question is much easier than the one that I posted in June.

Saturday, 7 July 2012


I haven’t done a crossword puzzle for many years, but I understand their fascination. I should add that although there are puzzles with one-word clues, and there are puzzles that are de facto quizzes, the only type that interests me is one with cryptic clues. These are nothing less than a battle of wits between the compiler and the legions of would-be solvers. They test a person’s ingenuity in the use of language. There are many words and phrases that immediately alert the solver to the nature of the clue, and there are often a few literary and cultural allusions. The conventions vary from compiler to compiler, and the first thing a potential solver must do is master the quirks of that particular compiler.

If you’ve never looked at a typical cryptic clue, then a clue is likely to be without obvious meaning, because a stilted sentence immediately gives the game away as to how the clue should be interpreted. The usual practice is for one part of the clue to define the word or phrase being sought, while the other part provides directions for constructing the word or phrase from bits and pieces. The following is a typical example, taken from the Daily Telegraph:
Little creature in a poem ran all over the place. (10)
The number in parentheses is the number of letters in the word being sought. This clue is an anagram, although why this should be the case isn’t immediately obvious. At first glance, it is easy to imagine that ‘Little creature in a poem’ is the defining phrase, but in fact the defining phrase is merely ‘Little creature’. The anagrammatic nature of the clue is hinted at by the phrase ‘all over the place’, although the anagram is disguised and thus easy to miss because it chimes with where we would expect a little creature to run. So we are looking for a ten-letter word for some kind of little creature that is an anagram of ‘in a poem ran’. The answer is pomeranian, which is a breed of small dog.

Clever clues rarely stick in the memory, but my favourite is this unforgettable gem from British satirical magazine Private Eye. Given its provenance, you can expect the answer, which is a four-word phrase with words of five, two, four and four letters, respectively, to be quite rude.
Listen! Aural intercourse. (5,2,4,4)

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

I, robot

From the Arnold Schwarzenegger character in the Terminator series to Lieutenant-Commander Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, from R2D2 and C3PO in the Star Wars series to Marvin the paranoid android in The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy, we have become accustomed to thinking of robots as machines with personalities. We take them for granted and rarely pause to ponder how difficult it might be to construct such a machine. If we did stop to think, we might begin to realize how perfectly suited for its purpose is the human brain.

In fact, the gap between imagination and reality is exceptionally wide. Although it would be a foolhardy prophet who predicted that this gap will never be closed, the human race is not on the threshold of replicating itself in machinery. To imagine otherwise is to underestimate the complexity of the mental processes that humans employ as a matter of routine. The truly awesome aspect of this complexity is not the intellectual output of a William Shakespeare, a Ludwig van Beethoven or an Albert Einstein but the routine calculations performed by the mind of a five-year-old child. They are no less marvellous because they happen below the horizon of consciousness.

Take vision. The cinematic convention for the view through a robot’s eyes is either that of a distorted fish-eye lens or the cross-hairs of a gunsight. We, as viewers, understand the convention because we have brains that have evolved in order to interpret what our eyes see, but such a view would be useless to a robot. The first requirement of any visual system is that it be able to determine where an object ends and the background begins. However, the world is not like a child’s colouring book, with comforting black lines to delineate the boundaries, and the light falling on a human retina does not produce a ready-made picture. It merely generates a series of electrical impulses, which to be of any use must then be interpreted by the brain.

The best analogy for what a robot would ‘see’ is a rectilinear grid of numbers in which each number represents the brightness of a small portion of the visual field, with larger values indicating brighter cells within the grid. We may reasonably expect the robotic brain to be able to interpret any significant difference in the values of adjacent cells as indicative of a boundary, but this is where the process of interpretation becomes vastly more complicated. A large number next to a small number could be the result of a light object against a dark background, a dark object against a light background, a dark and a light object touching each other, the edge of a shadow, two different shades of the same colour on the same surface, and many other combinations, all of which the human brain can distinguish so easily that we fail to appreciate how difficult an achievement this is.

And the difficulties are just beginning. Once the objects and background in the visual field have been delineated and distinguished, a robotic brain then needs to identify these objects, which means that it needs to identify fundamental properties such as colour and composition. At first glance, the problem appears to be a trivial one. Compare a lump of coal and a snowball, one black, the other white. If larger numbers represent brighter regions of the visual field, then large numbers must, intuitively, indicate the presence of a light material such as snow (and small numbers the presence of a dark material such as coal). Not always. More light bounces off a lump of coal outdoors than off a snowball in a typical indoor setting, because the brightness of a given object is merely a measure of the amount of light it reflects. Nevertheless, the human visual system can see a bright outdoor object as black and a dark indoor object as white. Unlike a robotic system, it is not easily fooled by trompe l’oeil confabulations, perceiving the world as it is rather than the world as it is represented on the surface of the retina.

The next problem is the estimation of depth and relative size. In the absence of clues, even the human system can fail here, unless there is a basis for comparison. A postage stamp in your hand and a building on the horizon that is the same shape will produce the same effect on the retina, and it is only by experience that we learn which is which. In my own experience, when working in the barren, featureless landscape of the Sahara Desert, I found it almost impossible to decide whether a distant object was a stick driven into the sand a quarter of a mile away or an oil rig ten miles away.

Finally, having solved the problems of shape, brightness, colour and size, our artificial vision module will also need to assign identifying tags (names) to the objects it detects and be aware of their purpose. This is difficult enough for simple geometric shapes and letters of the alphabet, but it is an almost intractable problem to construct any kind of artificial template for the recognition of human faces. Yet, unless a person has sustained damage to one or more parts of their brain that deal with vision, they will still be able to recognize people whom they haven’t seen for twenty years or more, despite the subtle changes that will have taken place in the intervening period. The template would also have to take into account what a face looks like under a huge range of different lighting conditions, a compensation that a human viewer performs effortlessly.

In other words, a seeing robot simply cannot be built with just the fish-eye viewfinder of movie convention, and it should not come as a surprise to learn that the human visual system is not built this way either. And there is one more factor to consider: an early evolutionary adaptation of our sensory input systems ensures that we pay attention only to signals that are changing. This adaptation is most obvious in relation to our senses of hearing and smell—how often have you totally forgotten an annoying racket emanating from a nearby construction site, or a nauseating smell that made you feel sick when you first encountered it—but even our vision shuts down if absolutely nothing is happening in the visual field, to give our video-processing circuitry a break. There is more to seeing than meets the eye.

Once we have mastered the problems associated with artificial vision, the next challenge is locomotion. The optimum engineering solution to the difficulties that arise in moving an object around is to set that object on wheels, especially if it is heavy. For this reason, it is tempting to think that a robot would be much better off with wheels than with legs, except that wheels are of limited use on rough or uneven terrain.

However, a mere two legs is not the intuitive choice. As one leg moves, the other has to maintain the body’s balance, which involves constant monitoring and feedback in order to make instant fine adjustments. All of this requires processing power. While four legs may be a better technical solution—creatures with four legs can move far more quickly, and far less effort is required to maintain balance—there is an unexpected advantage in bipedalism that offsets these assets.

The human hand, even more than the hand of other primates, is a machine exquisitely adapted to its purpose. And the evolution of that hand, over the last million years, has driven the evolution of the brain, to the extent that a significant amount of grey matter is now dedicated to the operation of the hand. While the human brain has not increased much in size during this period, there has been a considerable increase in the size of the cerebral cortex, especially the frontal lobes, which are associated with such so-called ‘executive functions’ as self-control, planning, reasoning and abstract thought. However, like every part of human behaviour that we take for granted, building a robot with these functions presents challenging engineering problems.

We often hear on the news about the latest in robotic hands, and what they are capable of doing, but if you think about the range of grips that the hand has available, you will quickly realize just how versatile is the human hand, and how much further researchers in the field have to go to design a robotic version of equivalent versatility. There is the grip between thumb, index finger and middle finger used to hold a pen, the grip between thumb and index finger for turning a key in a lock, the grip between two fingers to hold a cigarette or a spliff, the grip that employs all five fingertips to pick up a flat disc like a beermat, and the way we grip a glass of beer or a hammer.

In this last case, the grip is the same, but the amount of pressure applied by the fingers differs considerably, illustrating another characteristic of the human hand: the ability to vary the amount of pressure applied depending on the object to be picked up. And then there is the dazzling dexterity required to manipulate a pair of chopsticks effectively, a skill at which, incidentally, most Chinese demonstrate only moderate competence. The point to bear in mind here is not that the human hand is a masterpiece of engineering, which it is, but that achieving this level of dexterity requires a colossal amount of processing power.

Imagine that we have finally succeeded in designing suitable visual, locomotor and manipulation systems, but there is another problem lurking on the horizon. An intelligent system cannot treat every object that it encounters as a unique entity unlike anything else it has ever seen. It has to have some means of deciding whether a new object belongs in a previously seen category or whether it should be assigned to a new category, and in making that distinction it has to have some way of distinguishing between essential and incidental properties. At the risk of repetition, this is another skill that humans are good at, but designing a comparable artificial system is a massive engineering challenge.

One of the most interesting commentaries on robotics is Isaac Asimov’s novel I, Robot, in particular the book’s three laws of robotics:
• A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
• A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders conflict with the first law.
• A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

Asimov showed remarkable insight by including the third law, because self-preservation is not an automatic property of an intelligent system. However, with the first and second laws, the author fell into the trap of echoing the ancient fear, illustrated, inter alia, by the rampaging golem of Jewish legend, Faust’s bargain with the devil, the sorcerer’s apprentice, Frankenstein’s monster, and the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, that artificial intelligent systems would one day become so smart and so powerful that they would turn on their creators.

Unfortunately, Asimov was unable to step outside his own thought processes and recognize them as artifacts of his mind rather than universal and scientifically verifiable laws. The human capacity for evil is never far from our thoughts, and it is disarmingly simple to imagine evil to be an inescapable aspect of our existence, just as it is almost instinctive to think that a self-aware system must possess an ego, as envisaged by the title of the novel (and ego, or intention, is a necessary component of evil).

On the other hand, although machines built originally by humans are unlikely to turn on their creators, we have no way of knowing whether other civilizations on other planets have developed machines that are programmed to kill. Even now, it is possible that a civilization in a not too distant star system, having picked up I Love Lucy on its radio telescopes, many years after the original broadcasts, has dispatched a fleet of murderous robots, like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, to exterminate the perpetrators of this outrage.

Friday, 15 June 2012

peculiar pronouncements

You say eether and I say eyether,
You say neether and I say nyther,
Eether, eyether, neether, nyther,
Let’s call the whole thing off!

Ira Gershwin, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, from Shall We Dance, 1937.
The catalyst for this post was the BBC’s reporting of the conflict in Syria, in particular reports of the bombardment of the city of Homs by government forces. It is of merely incidental concern that there has been no consensus on how this beleaguered city’s name should be pronounced, but it does point to a general malaise within the BBC that was not present thirty years ago, when a newsreader, faced with an unfamiliar place name, was expected to consult the corporation’s Pronunciation Unit for guidance before broadcasting.

Whether this unit still exists I have no idea, although it does seem like the kind of outfit whose services might be dispensed with if the BBC is required to cut its costs. Certainly, the variety of pronunciations heard on the BBC nowadays suggest that it is no longer in business, and individuals are thus left to make their own decisions.

So what is the correct pronunciation of ‘Homs’? I have no idea, although I can make an informed guess. However, it should be noted that ‘correct’ in this context does not have an objective meaning, and in using the word I am merely reflecting the way in which residents of the city might refer to it. With this in mind, I have noticed that the majority of reporters and newsreaders say ‘Homz’; very few refer to the city as ‘Homss’, which I believe to be the ‘correct’ pronunciation.

There are two pieces of evidence for this view. First, I cannot think of a single English word in which a voiced consonant is followed by an unvoiced sibilant (‘-ss-’), so it is natural for a native English speaker to voice the sibilant in any unfamiliar word (we say ‘bedz’ and ‘dogz’, for example, not bedss’ and ‘dogss’). Second, most Muslims pronounce words like ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ with the sibilant unvoiced, so I deduce that they would do the same with ‘Homs’, although a counter-argument here might be that in ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ the sibilant follows a vowel, and therefore the analogy is not valid.

There are times when I wonder whether there is a conspiracy not to agree on a specific pronunciation, because some words may be pronounced in three or four different ways. When the existence of al-Qaeda first registered with the general public, after the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, President Bush pronounced ‘al-Qaeda’ to rhyme with ‘raider’. Later, a pronunciation that rhymed ‘al-Qaeda’ with ‘rider’ became popular, and hapless former British Home Secretary John Reid muddied the waters by rhyming it with ‘reader’. There has always been the odd journalist or newsreader who eschewed all three of these options and instead pronounced the two internal vowels of ‘al-Qaeda’ separately. I suspect that this is closest to how it should be pronounced, and that the other three versions are the result of the natural tendency of English speakers to seek to pronounce two adjacent vowels as a single vowel or diphthong.

That English speakers might have trouble pronouncing Arabic names is predictable, but you wouldn’t expect those same speakers to have problems with their own place names. Even Americans know that Gloucester, Leicester and Worcester are not pronounced the way they read, but there are hundreds of English villages that also retain their mediaeval spellings but have acquired a modern pronunciation. If you think that you can work out that modern pronunciation from the name, I invite you to try the following quiz, the source for which is a booklet produced by the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English in 1936: Broadcast English II: Recommendations to Announcers Regarding the Pronunciation of Some English Place-Names.

It may seem that this exercise is already out of date, but the trend is clearly towards a simplification of pronunciation, and long names will inevitably be shortened, usually by elision of their middle syllables. For example, the village of Faldingworth in Lincolnshire was pronounced as it read in 1936, but by now it may well be most commonly rendered as ‘Falworth’, or something similar. With these caveats in mind, how do you pronounce the following place names?

1. Almondbury (a village in Yorkshire).
2. Barugh (a village in Yorkshire).
3. Brougham (a village in Cumbria).
4. Caldmore (a village in Staffordshire).
5. Cholmondeley (a village in Cheshire).
6. Cholmondeston (a village in Cheshire).
7. Congresbury (a village in Somerset).
8. Happisburgh (a village in Norfolk).
9. Hardenhuish (a village in Wiltshire).
10. Puncknowle (a village in Somerset).
11. Trowse (a village in Norfolk).
12. Wyrardisbury (a village in Buckinghamshire).

To give some indication of how difficult this is, Garboldisham in Norfolk is pronounced ‘Gaarblshəm’ (where ‘ə’ is the indeterminate, unstressed vowel heard in the second syllable of ‘often’), while Maugersbury is Gloucestershire is pronounced ‘Mawzbəry’. There are also regional variants to consider: the initial letter of Gillingham in Kent is pronounced as in ‘Jack and Jill’, while the same letter in the Gillinghams in Dorset and Norfolk is pronounced like the gills of fish; the Houghton in Hampshire is pronounced ‘Hotən’, the Houghton in Lancashire is rendered as ‘Hawtən’, and the Houghton in Norfolk is known locally as ‘Howtən’.

Local pronunciation is clearly the guiding principle of the BBC’s booklet, mainly because it is unlikely that anyone living more than 50 miles away from the place in question will have heard of it. Newcomers to a town or village are unlikely to listen carefully to what the locals call their new home, so they make up their own versions. My own home town (Penrith, in Cumbria) ought to pose no problems with regard to pronunciation, but locals pronounce it with the stress on the first syllable, and newcomers invariably place the stress on the second syllable, especially if they came originally from the south of England.

If you want to know how well you have done, the correct pronunciations are listed here (in a comment at the end of the post). When I’ve tried similar quizzes in the past, even natives of England struggled to get more than three or four correct, so this quiz is really for amusement rather than a genuine attempt to assess your knowledge.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

a hard question

I shall shortly be embarking on my annual pilgrimage to my home town in the UK, and while I’m there I shall be tuning in to one of my favourite programs, Radio 4’s Round Britain Quiz, which is unlike any quiz show airing on mainstream media. It pits two teams drawn from the UK’s regions against each other, and in the space of 30 minutes only eight questions will be asked.

You might suspect that the questions will be fiendishly difficult, and you would be right. Each question requires that the two people in the team being quizzed piece together a series of convoluted connections. A correct answer is worth six points, and each clue provided by the questionmaster entails a one-point deduction. This method of playing the game is made necessary by the time constraints of the program, but the game is far more interesting, and challenging, if both the time allowed is unlimited and no clues are given.

With this in mind, I offer the following conundrum:
How might a Greek letter, a saddle, a member of the human race and three points in the English Premier League lead you to the Christian name of an American president?
I could have posed one of the many questions used on Round Britain Quiz, but then the answer might be available either online or in one of the books published to accompany the program, so this is one of my own devising. In terms of difficulty, I think that it is on a par with the program’s usual fare, although the answer should be screamingly obvious once it has been explained.

As noted above, I will not provide any additional clues, and because I will be travelling, it may be several days before I am able to respond to any comments. Correct answers will be acknowledged but not published until the end of the month. Please note that in order to gain six points, all components of the question must be identified, but points will be awarded for partial answers.

Friday, 25 May 2012

photographic abstraction #3

Welcome to the latest instalment in my series featuring photographs that are not of or about anything. They are merely ‘compositions’. Part #1 of this series featured photos that had nothing done to them apart from cropping to achieve the desired composition, while Part #2 included one photograph (Let There Be Light) where the effect I was trying for was achieved by cranking up the contrast.

This time, in addition to cropping, I have boosted the contrast in all these photographs, which I think has been very effective. What I like is that this process gives the pictures a ‘painted’ look. All four photos are of concrete objects, but I’d be surprised if anyone can identify all these objects without prompting from me. However, if you really are curious, just ask.

I pointed out in Part #1 that my attempts to create interesting images are inspired to some degree by abstract expressionism. I admire the paintings of Kandinsky and Pollock but am much less enthusiastic about the work of Rothko and de Kooning. To date, I’ve managed one photo that I’d like to think is a passable imitation of a Jackson Pollock drip painting, which I shall reserve for a later instalment, while Rainbow in the present collection does bear a passing resemblance to work by Clyfford Still.

As always, you are welcome to suggest alternative titles for these pictures.




a streetlight named desire

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

dawn along the indus

Our local river is much smaller in both scale and power than its namesake in Pakistan, and unlike the original it no longer floods. I won’t pretend that it’s a riparian wilderness, because it was canalized in the 1990s and nowadays looks distinctly artificial, but it’s home to a wide variety of birds, and it is full of fish. There are remnants of the old course of the river, where the outer parts of some of the widest meanders have been bypassed, and these marshy areas are home to thousands of frogs at this time of year.

This year has been exceptional, in that millions of periodic cicadas are now drowning out the routine bird calls:

It takes a lot of insects to make this much noise (click to play):

…making it necessary to do any bird recordings before the sun rises:

The local birds kick off up to an hour before sunrise (click to play):

Early morning is a pleasant time for a gentle stroll along the river, as the following series of photographs shows:

Looking downstream (west). The high-rise buildings over the hill are part of Shenzhen, the ‘Wild East’, a city of ten million people that was a fishing village just three decades ago.

“As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow bend”.

Looking upstream from the same point where the previous photos were taken. The high-rise apartments mark the eastern edge of Fanling.

The confluence of the river’s two main tributaries.

And if you come back after dark, you will discover that the frog chorus has changed dramatically from that of a month ago:

Yet another frog chorus (click to play):

Compare this recording with the third one in We All Stand Together. Both were recorded in the same place.

Friday, 18 May 2012

empty gestures

It isn’t often that political activity in Hong Kong makes the news elsewhere in the world, so it’s unlikely that many people will be aware of the latest shenanigans in the territory. Briefly, in January 2010, five members of what the local media call the ‘pan-Democrats’ resigned from the territory’s Legislative Council in order to force what they claimed as a de facto referendum on democratic reform and the abolition of the territory’s so-called ‘functional constituencies’.

Functional constituencies are voting blocs based on voters’ occupations, but they cover only professional occupations such as medicine, law, education and accountancy and are thus fundamentally anti-democratic, because those who are eligible to vote in functional constituencies have two votes to the single vote that the remainder of the population are allowed.

The key point in this saga is that these five legislators immediately stood for re-election in the subsequent by-elections. The Hong Kong government is now trying to introduce a bill that would bar anyone who resigns from the Legislative Council from standing for re-election within six months of that resignation. The pan-Democrats are incensed.

It should be noted that not every Hong Kong political party with ‘democracy’ or a similar word in its name is genuinely supportive of democracy. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), which supports authoritarian rule in the rest of China and takes a pro-Beijing stance on matters related to Hong Kong, reminds me of a comment made by George Orwell in Politics and the English Language:
…the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.
Needless to say, the DAB is not included in the term ‘pan-Democrats’. And although the government’s proposed bill is opposed by all the parties that are included, most restrict that opposition to asking the government to withdraw its proposal. However, a couple of radical legislators have taken their opposition one step further by staging a filibuster in the Legislative Council. This has caused utter chaos in the council, with all-night sittings and suspension of proceedings because not enough members have been present to make up a quorum according to the council’s rules of procedure. This farce has also attracted a lot of hostility from the general public, because important business is being blocked.

The radicals believe that preserving the right of legislators to resign protects the fragile democracy of Hong Kong, but nobody is suggesting that a legislator cannot resign on a point of principle. Resignation in such circumstances has long been a cornerstone of democracy, but a resignation must involve a real personal sacrifice, or it is worthless. Resigning merely to stand for re-election in a subsequent by-election for the post that is resigned from is arrogant, and it is an empty gesture. It treats the electorate, collectively, with contempt.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

a close shave

Ancient Egyptian sailors visited Central America. Although this statement is both widely believed and impossible to disprove categorically, it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. It is an excellent example of how easily ‘evidence’ can be misinterpreted.

The principal reason for this belief is that the ancient Egyptians built pyramids, and so did the Maya and other Mexican civilizations, in places like Teotihuacán and Chichén Itzá. Obviously, either Egypt and Mexico developed their architecture independently, or the earlier civilization influenced the later. No other explanation is possible.

Apart from the purported similarity in architecture, what other evidence might support the second of these possibilities? Well, Thor Heyerdahl did cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1970 in a papyrus boat built to an ancient Egyptian design, but this proves no more than that such a voyage is possible. Set against this fatuous exercise is the observation that the pyramids of Mexico were built as temples. Egyptian pyramids were built as tombs.

In fact, the pyramid was the only option for any ancient civilization wanting to build high that had not invented the arch. Despite the many fanciful illustrations that have been produced by well-known artists over the centuries, the legend of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 3–5) would have been based on the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, which were also a type of pyramid. And the top of the tower, if it was ever built, would have fallen well short of being ‘in the heavens’.

In addition, we are asked to believe that Egyptian seafarers stayed long enough to pass on the secrets of pyramid building but failed to notice that their hosts had not invented the wheel, which would have been a screamingly obvious piece of technology to pass on. Finally, the Egyptian hypothesis is anachronistic: Egyptian civilization had collapsed by the time the first cities were being built in Central America. In other words, the Egyptian hypothesis violates the mediaeval scholastic principle known as Occam’s razor (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem: ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’), which in simple terms means that when faced with competing explanations for a given phenomenon, the simplest one is the most likely to be correct.

Thor Heyerdahl himself was notable for ignoring the strictures of Occam’s razor. His Kon-tiki expedition of 1947 is a classic example. Despite the overwhelming linguistic and ethnographic evidence that Polynesia was populated from the west, that is from Asia, he was influenced by oral histories in South America to attempt to ‘prove’ that at least some Polynesian populations, notably that on Easter Island, originated from this continent. He failed to take into account that pre-literate societies (no pre-Hispanic society in South America developed a system of writing) invariably have wild, fantastic notions of their own history. As with his ‘Egyptian voyage’, all he succeeded in proving was that such a journey is possible.

Unfortunately, thanks in part to a documentary about Kon-tiki that won an Academy Award in 1951, Heyerdahl succeeded in capturing the public imagination, which no doubt inspired and encouraged his later boating holidays. In the process, he has done almost as much damage to the practice of legitimate scholarship as Erich von Daniken, that other well-known popularizer of implausible hypotheses.

So, if you are tempted to put forward an idea without thinking it through, be forewarned that William of Ockham, the demon barber of woolly thinking and inventor of the razor that bears his name, stands ready to give your proposition an extremely close shave: his razor will carve it into little pieces, pinpoint the non sequiturs and logical fallacies, and spread them out for everyone to see the weaknesses in your reasoning. Occam’s razor: don’t leave home without it.