Friday, 27 March 2015

a hanging offence

I had always thought that I had been given a thorough grounding in the complexities of English grammar, at a time when English grammar was still being taught to ten-year-old schoolchildren (the 1950s), but it wasn’t until I worked as a magazine subeditor, thirty years later, that I came across the term ‘dangling modifier’ or the offence that the phrase represents. Since I became aware of the problem, I’ve sometimes wondered whether the reason I hadn’t previously been aware was that the problem hadn’t existed half a century ago. It is a modern phenomenon.

So, what is a dangling modifier? The following sentence, from an article about the writer Somerset Maugham on the BBC News website, provides a perfect example:
Born William Somerset Maugham at the British Embassy in Paris in January 1874, Maugham’s mother Edith died of tuberculosis when he was eight.
It is possible to argue that the intended meaning can be apprehended without difficulty, so what’s the problem? But look again at the way the sentence has been constructed. The subject of the main verb in the sentence is the noun phrase ‘Maugham’s mother Edith’, yet nothing preceding this phrase describes, or modifies, it. ‘Born William Somerset Maugham at the British Embassy in Paris in January 1874’ is actually a description of Maugham himself, not his mother, so it has been left dangling, modifying nothing. This is my suggested rewording:
William Somerset Maugham was born at the British Embassy in Paris in January 1874. His mother Edith died of tuberculosis when he was eight.
If you still think that this is a lot of fuss over nothing of real importance, then consider the following sentence, also from the BBC News website, which is part of a report on an illegal drug that is having a devastating effect on South Africa:
Easily accessible from dealers around the shops of the township in Delmas in Mpumalanga province, the group she is with is smoking in public view.
In this case, the modifier ‘Easily accessible from dealers around the shops of the township in Delmas in Mpumalanga province’ clearly refers to the illegal drug itself, but this is not even mentioned elsewhere in the sentence. The way the sentence has been constructed, it is the noun phrase ‘the group she is with’ that is (unintentionally) being modified.

Slipshod. It’s not a word that one hears much nowadays, but it is exactly the word I would use to describe such sentence structure. Language changes, of course, but changes that are driven by the ignorance of the perpetrators of such change are to be resisted as strongly as possible if our language is not to degenerate into incoherence.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

the end justifies the means

I've been listening to the many tributes to former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew since he died yesterday. How he transformed Singapore from a third world country into one of the wealthiest in the world. How he developed an education system that is the envy of the world. Fair enough, but in order to achieve these goals, he jailed those who disagreed with him without trial, clamped down sharply on the media and had those guilty of minor offences flogged. And this supposedly advanced country retains the ultimate symbol of an uncivilized polity, the death penalty. Never mind, the apologists are saying in effect, the end justifies the means. Communist apologists for the excesses of Stalin in the 1930s used the same excuse. The obvious question being avoided here, given the strategic location of Singapore on the world’s network of trade routes, is whether the country would have been equally successful without such hardline leadership. I think it would.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015


It has been a strange winter, with 30-degree temperatures in the last week of November, which is unheard of, and higher than average temperatures throughout the last three months. It’s unlikely that we’ll be needing any of our heaters this year. It has also been much wetter than usual, with humidity so high on occasion that condensation has been running down the walls. Hours of sunshine have been well below average. It’s all down to El Niño.

El Niño is a climatic phenomenon that occurs every five years or so. It manifests itself as an anomalously warm plume of surface water along the equatorial Pacific, and the name derives from its tendency to appear around Christmas. This warm surface water blocks the upwelling of nutrient-rich cold water off the west coast of South America, and it can last up to a year.

The El Niño phenomenon is closely linked to the position and amplitude of the Rossby waves in the circumpolar jet stream, which this year has led to record snowfalls in parts of North America, although which is cause and which is effect is not well understood. However, this post is not an attempt to explain but is merely an account of some of the strange goings-on that I’ve noticed this winter in Hong Kong.

Mile-a-minute is an alien vine that may not spread as quickly as its name suggests, but it nevertheless propagates at a prodigious pace. Fortunately for the native vegetation, it’s an annual, and it’s usually in full dieback mode by mid-October. However, the following photo of the tree opposite my house shows an explosion of new flowers; it was taken in mid-November In fact, I noticed some sporadic outbursts of new flowers as late as the first week in February!

Similar anomalies include the acacias, which usually flower in late April. This year, however, many trees were putting out flowers in early February, although the total coverage on a single tree was never more than 1 percent (an individual acacia usually carries thousands of tiny yellow flowers, as shown in the following photograph, also taken from my balcony).

Cotton trees are one of the few species to shed their leaves in autumn in Hong Kong. Not this year though. Flowers usually appear on the bare trees in late February. Flowering was on time, but it did look strange to see so many old leaves among the flowers.

It may simply have been the warmer than average weather, but insect activity has been quite noticeable over the winter (there is none in a normal year between December and March). Crickets, cicadas and ‘clickety clackers’ have been making themselves heard on many winter evenings (I have no idea of the true identity of the last of these, because although the sound they generate is distinctive, I’ve never actually seen one).

I’m not sure if any of the avian activity I’ve witnessed over the last couple of months is atypical, but I have noticed a few things that have struck me as odd. The courtship ritual of the spotted dove is one of the most comical to be seen in Hong Kong, and it is usually a common sight at this time of year, but I’ve seen only two examples thus far this year, and in one of those it was the male that lost interest (in normal conditions, it’s the active disinterest of the female that makes the ritual worth watching in the first place).

Other bird-related observations may relate to year-to-year fluctuations in the population of a species rather than the baleful influence of El Niño. For example, at the turn of the year I had the sense that there were more red-whiskered bulbuls about than normal, and I also felt that their songs were not quite what I’d previously thought was standard. Two years ago, I wrote about their distinctive four-note song and wondered why they didn’t sing the notes in a different order. Well, they haven’t changed the order, but this year I’ve noted a few nonstandard variants based on those four notes. For example, an additional, shorter, note has often been inserted between the first and second original notes, or between the third and fourth. Sometimes I hear both insertions. Yet another variant is to omit either the first or fourth note, making it a three-note song. Perhaps the strangest of the ‘new’ songs is a three-note song repeated, the approximate cadence being tum-ti-tum[pause]tum-ti-tum. The second triplet is at a lower pitch than the first.

Other markers of spring have not been out of the ordinary. I heard the first koel of the year on 17th February and the first large hawk cuckoo on 14th March. Both are now in full ‘shouting’ mode.

Has anyone else noticed unusual behaviour in their parts of the world? If so, do please leave a comment. I’m particularly interested in hearing about the activities of plants and animals rather than unusual weather patterns, but news of anything that strikes you as bizarre will be welcome here.

The acacia opposite my house started flowering again in late April, when it’s supposed to, but the total flower output was less than 5 percent, and if the acacias in the photo above did flower again, it wasn’t possible to detect this from a distance of 50–60m.

Flame trees, another ornamental tree that has been introduced to Hong Kong, usually start flowering in the second week in June. The following photo was taken on 15th May.

update: 28/12/2015
The Hong Kong Observatory declared an El Niño event more than a year ago, which should mean that things are getting back to normal now. But they aren’t. Last month was the warmest November since records began in 1884, with an average 2.5 degrees Celsius above the long-term average. This may not seem much, but we are comparing averages, so 2.5 degrees represents a considerable deviation from the norm. And the mean temperature for the month was 24 degrees, which would be a hot afternoon in a normal November.

El Niño usually lasts only one year, so I was surprised to learn, a couple of months ago, that droughts in some parts of Africa, and floods in others, were being linked to this phenomenon. However, this has already been one of the strongest El Niños on record, so I shouldn’t be surprised if it lasts well into a second year.

Here in Hong Kong, the situation has developed from strange to bizarre. Several tree species have been flowering in recent weeks, including the acacia in front of my house, which would normally be flowering in April:

The flowers in this picture represent less than 5 percent of the normal flower load, but any flowers at this time of year are not to be expected.

A similar situation exists with respect to flame trees, which usually flower in June. The following photo was taken in early November, and once again it represents only a tiny fraction of the normal flower load:

The next photo was taken around the same time and shows a cluster of paper-bark trees in flower. Trees of this species can flower at any time between late spring and the start of autumn, but these trees are significantly late.

Perhaps the most bizarre event of all happened on 8th December. Magpie robins are around all year, but they usually sing only in spring, and all you will usually hear at this time of year are threat calls. However, on this day I heard a full-on, this-is-my-territory song from an obviously confident individual, and a few hours later I spotted three males chasing each other through the branches of the acacia, pausing occasionally for short bursts of song. This turned out not to be a one-off event, because on 27th December I returned from shopping to be greeted by another virtuoso performance, almost certainly not by the same individual.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

south side story

The area of the New Territories known as Lung Yeuk Tau, named after the local name for a nearby mountain, extends on both sides of Sha Tau Kok Road, and it offers many unusual sights. This is a post about some of those sights on the south side of the main road.

Despite living here for seven years, I’ve started to explore the neighbourhood only in the last few months. I’ve now managed to string together an interesting cycling route along the paths and through the alleyways in the area, although unlike the route that I’ve concocted on the north side of the main road, there is very little that is technically difficult. The following photo shows one of the few tricky sections and is the first narrow path on the route. The path is as narrow as it looks, and because it isn’t straight, getting the speed right is crucial if you want to avoid going over the edge.

If you’ve read the account of my cycle route on the north side of the main road, you will know that in trying to put together a contiguous route I try not to backtrack on sections that I have already traversed, but there is one section where this is justified. Along the northern edge of Lung Yeuk Tau, there is an extensive flat area that may once have been farmed, although nowadays it looks quite boggy:

As can be seen from the photo, the path across the bog is a substantial one. The route snakes away to the left and, a steep hill later, comes back down the path that leads up into the trees on the right. On one occasion, I was at the top of this path, taking photos, when a local cyclist passed me with the soles of his feet scraping along the ground. Clearly, he didn’t trust his brakes, but it left me wondering why he’d come this way if he thought the hill was too steep, because there is a road that he could have taken instead. Incidentally, in case you were wondering, based on my assessment of cycling skills to be seen around Fanling, this man would not be of below average competence.

Organizing the route in this way means that the path followed to reach the bog is traversed in both directions, and as the following photo shows, it is another path where wobbling is not an option, although it is wider than the path shown above.

Unfortunately, this route is too short to justify getting the bike out—I live on the top floor of a three-storey village house—except as an add-on to one of my other routes, so I’ve been nosing around on foot, which has at least allowed me to visit and document a few things that I wouldn’t have noticed had I been riding a bike. The remainder of this post is about a few of those things.

*  *  *

The next photo was taken from the forested hillside overlooking the area and provides an overview. The high-rise blocks in the distance mark the eastern edge of Fanling, while the large building in the middle distance is Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall, the largest example of an ancestral hall in Hong Kong. To the right is part of what I’ve taken to calling ‘rural sprawl’, the massive proliferation of so-called village houses, which no longer seem to be tied to the original villages in the area but instead are almost everywhere.

Directly behind the ancestral hall, less than 100 metres away alongside a concrete path more than 1.5 metres wide that feels as if it ought to lead somewhere more exciting than a small cluster of squatter houses, is a tree that has a fair claim (unverifiable, obviously) to be the oldest in Hong Kong:

It is impossible to photograph more than a small part of the tree, because it is huge—the trunk has a diameter of about 3 metres—and I do not believe that it is here by chance. It is likely to have been planted to improve the fung shui of the ancestral hall—there is a second tree, only slightly smaller, close by—and the hall dates back to 1525. Deliberately planted fung shui woods were once a common sight around New Territories villages, until the need for land to build more houses took precedence, although a few other big trees do still survive around the area. Almost next door to the ancestral hall (but not visible in the above photo) is the village of Lo Wai. This photo shows the single entrance to the village:

It is not obvious in the above photo, but there is a square projection from the middle of each wall. The next photo, which was taken from the back of the village, shows this more clearly. My conjecture is that they would have been used by defenders to shoot along the walls. It makes an interesting contrast with Kun Lung Wai, which has guard towers at each corner and embrasures at regular intervals along all four walls. Lo Wai has no embrasures, although it does have gun platforms above the entrance.

On the hillside behind Lo Wai, hidden in the trees, is a large complex of graves, many of which are guarded by mythical creatures. I’m unfamiliar with any Chinese bestiaries, although I’ve seen some strange animals on the roofs of temples and other old public buildings, but this one looks vaguely Assyrian to me:

Very few traditional Chinese houses survive in this area, and those that have are usually rundown and dilapidated. The house in the following photo appears to be abandoned, but there is a secure fence around its grounds, so closer inspection is not possible. Like many similar houses, it has painted friezes underneath the eaves and plaster mouldings on the gable end under the roof, but also like many other such houses, these have not been maintained and have faded badly.

Finally, I include a photograph that was taken in this area but could have been taken almost anywhere in Hong Kong. What it shows, for me, is the sheer inventiveness of Hong Kong’s Chinese population.

Industrial catering, village style