Sunday, 20 May 2018

(can you) solve this easy puzzle?

I’ll be jetting off to the UK for the summer later today, and as usual I have a puzzle that I really do think someone ought to have solved by the time I get back online. Although I do like to set puzzles that are not easy, I’m disappointed that nobody seems able to solve any of my recent creations. Consequently, I’ve decided to pose an incredibly easy one this time around. And here it is:
What is particularly unusual about this seemingly cryptic sentence?
lock quick goose foot in side door.
If you want a more robust challenge, here are a few currently unsolved puzzles:
A Hard Question
An English Question
Quæstio ad Libitum
A Rotten English Question
A Light-Hearted Question

Friday, 18 May 2018

photographic highlights: 2017–18

I will soon be heading off back to the UK for the summer, and as I’ve done for the past four years, I’ve put together a collection of what I consider the most interesting of the more than 2,000 photographs I’ve taken over the past seven months. As usual, I’ve not included any photos that I’ve used in other posts on this blog, but even with this proviso, I was unable to whittle the list down to fewer than 20.

I’ll start with a giant teapot. My golden rule for any visitor to Hong Kong is this: expect the unexpected. Yet, even though I’ve lived in the territory, off and on, for more than 40 years, I was surprised to come across a teapot almost three metres in diameter during my cycling explorations east of Fanling in October.


I posted a photograph of the next image in Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes, but because a parked car forced me to take that photo from an oblique angle, I’ve included a straight-on take of this stunning image, painted on a derelict building in the village of Chow Tin. Holding one’s head in one’s hands will never seem the same once you’ve seen this masterpiece.


I was taking photographs for The Gates of Delirium when I cycled past the entrance in the next photo. An elaborate gateway such as this one would usually provide access to someone’s residence, so an articulated lorry (US: ‘semi-trailer’) immediately struck me as anomalous. The giveaway that this is not someone’s house is the sign on the gatepost on the right. The third and fourth characters read ‘company’, so despite the appearance these are commercial premises.


You should already be getting a sense that no sight is impossible when touring around the New Territories, but the next image still takes some believing. It’s a statue of what I interpret as a nineteenth-century American intellectual. Why American? The hat doesn’t seem quite European, but the real question is this: what was it doing in the middle of the Hong Kong countryside? It is no longer there.


The ‘frontier road’ is an exceptionally picturesque part of the New Territories that was part of the so-called ‘frontier closed area’ until 2013. As I cycle along this road, I often stop to take photos, but anyone seeing the scene that is shown in the next photo would do the same. While the Chinese side of the border is everyone’s idea of a twenty-first-century cityscape, the Hong Kong side is completely rural. The fish pond in this photo is now disused, and it isn’t often that it’s this smooth.


I post the next photograph with due respect. I was cycling along Kam Hang Road, west of Fanling, when my attention was attracted by the plaintive wail of a particular Chinese wind instrument whose sound is instantly recognizable, although I don’t know what it’s called. This is clearly the funeral of someone important, because I rarely see anything quite this elaborate. The interesting things to note are the sedan chair with bearers, the horse and the bridge. These are made of paper and will be burned, not as offerings but specifically for the use of the deceased in the afterlife.


Much less of the area around where I live is cultivated than was the case ten years ago, when I first moved here. And the most common crops are sang choi (Chinese lettuce) and other green vegetables. However, this winter, for the first time ever, sunflowers have been grown in three separate locations. I assumed at the time that this was because they were more valuable as cash crops. Of the three locations, I’ve chosen this because of the background—the painted huts.


But that isn’t the end of the story. In all three locations, the sunflowers were simply allowed to die off without any attempt at harvesting. Why? I suspect that the farmers had been told that they could make more money growing sunflowers, but they simply didn’t know what to do.

I was wandering around the south side at the beginning of January when I came across the aftermath of quite a large oil/petrol spill, which appeared to have originated on Sha Tau Kok Road, the main road out of Fanling to the east. As usual with this kind of photo, I’ve cranked up the contrast and the colour saturation:


A few days later, I attempted to gain access to Shek Lo, an abandoned Chinese mansion that is purportedly part of the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail, even though it can only be viewed from a distance. I have been inside before, as you’ve probably already guessed, but new fencing has now made access impossible. The next photo was taken around the back of the mansion, where there is a small bamboo ‘forest’. The most common bamboo species in Hong Kong grows in clumps, like grass, but in this case each stem is separate. And it’s quite difficult to find any way through!


I usually include something that strikes me as bizarre in these collections, and the next photo definitely fits that description. If it’s such a nice garden, then why surround it with razor wire? It’s actually the entrance to a nursery where you can buy ornamental plants.


I also like to include an abstract image and challenge readers to work out what it is. I don’t think that this one is easy, but it will be obvious if I point it out:


Every time I cycle out west, I look out for Buffalo Bill as I ride alongside the Shek Sheung River. I didn’t see him this winter until mid-December, and I haven’t seen him for the past few weeks, but his comfortable lifestyle has been disrupted by the construction of a bridge across the river for cyclists, which is a complete and utter waste of money!

This is Bill in jah tan (lazy) mode, which is how we most often see him nowadays:


We’re back on the frontier road for the next photo, which shows a large number of cormorants in a tree, with Shenzhen in the background. Cormorants are a common sight along the frontier road in December but have usually gone by the end of January, yet we were still seeing sights like this until the end of March this year. I blame global warming, but I have it on good authority that this idea is a Chinese hoax, specifically designed to address the ridiculous notion that cormorants would outstay their welcome along the Chinese border with Hong Kong.


Serendipity #1 is now a regular highlight of our Saturday bike ride, which means cycling past this mural and bougainvillea. The artwork is quite crude, but once again the very idea that someone would paint these images on a wall that very few people will ever see is, for me, an affirmation of the human spirit. But unless you’re familiar with Chinese culture, you will not be aware that the tree on the right is a ‘wishing tree’. The idea is that you write out a wish, weight it with coins and throw it up into the tree. If it lodges there, then your wish will come true. There are trees in the New Territories that are believed to have this property.


I’ve taken other photos here where the magenta of the bougainvillea is far more intense, but the papaya in the foreground is almost twice the height. Papayas are unbelievably easy to grow by the way, and you will have fruit within two years of planting the initial seed.

After posting Jeepers Creepers last year, I had intended to do a follow-up this year, but I couldn’t find enough new examples of a firecracker vine to justify such a step. However, I did find one example that is more spectacular than any of the ones I photographed last year. It is located at the top of an alleyway that starts from the Ng Tung River, several kilometres downstream from where we live. This alleyway is a fun cycling challenge, by the way (the section shown in the photo is much steeper than it looks).


The next photo is of the Ng Tung River close to where we live. At first glance, it might seem like a nondescript view, but focus your attention on the water. I’ve recorded pollution here before (Troubled Waters, Rainbow River), but this seems more subtle. Obviously, I’ve avoided any manipulation of the image, which I think is aesthetically quite pleasing, although of course I deplore the pollution. I’ve a pretty good idea of where it came from, and if I could have pinpointed the culprit, I would have had no hesitation in dobbing them in.


It’s Bill again! He’d been idling on the mudbank off the picture to the left, but what this photo shows is how tricky it is for him to make his way back to where he can get something to eat. You’ve probably seen it: concrete with regularly spaced round holes. Well, that’s what the riverbed consists of here. Bill is trying to reach the ramp on the right, and it does look awkward. It’s the only time I’ve seen him in this particular area.


The next image is this year’s mystery candidate. I was cycling along Ma Tso Lung Road back in March when I spotted what appeared to be the remnants of some kind of quasi-religious ceremony. It was on the surface of a passing place, which may or may not be significant. The five yellow pieces of paper appear to represent some kind of mythical beast, and it probably isn’t a coincidence that there are five smashed eggs. The black area in the bottom left is probably the ashes of something that was incinerated at the time, while the candles in the top right have been stuck into what look like Tientsin pears. There are what might be two sugar mice, while the white receptacle in the middle contains candy. If you can explain any of this, please leave a comment.


I’ve been saying for years that the last time I saw rice being grown in Hong Kong was in 1975. However, as part of the exploration of the so-called Long Valley that I described in Farmland Fandango, I came across the following:


I do wonder if this really is rice (not having seen it being grown for more than 40 years), because it would not seem justifiable economically to cultivate such a small area for this kind of crop, but the photo does convey the rural nature of far more of Hong Kong than most people realize. And it explains why I enjoy cycling around the New Territories so much. You never know what you will find.

Goat meat must be pretty popular in Hong Kong nowadays, if the sheer number of goats I encounter on my travels is anything to go by. A few days ago, I was cycling along the Drainage Services access road that runs alongside our local river when I encountered a huge herd with no one, apparently, in charge. This guy was the back marker:


And that’s what I spend my time doing in Hong Kong.

Monday, 14 May 2018

dan taat theory

Although I’m a huge fan of Chinese food, I’m bound to say that I’m not impressed with Chinese desserts. With one exception. One of my favourite Chinese delicacies is the dan taat (egg custard tart). They were also a favourite of Fei Pang (Fatty Patton, the last colonial governor of Hong Kong) and probably go some way towards explaining the latter’s corpulence. However, a dan taat is quite unlike the egg custard tarts found in many English cake shops, which are several hours old, cold and usually sprinkled with nutmeg. It is almost impossible to buy a cold dan taat, because the traditional Chinese bakeries that produce these things sell out within minutes of a new batch coming out of the oven.

Unfortunately, there has been a trend over the past decade for the dan taat to be made with puff pastry, because, so I’ve been told, “Hong Kong people like puff pastry”. I don’t. In any case, this is probably bullshit. The traditional dan taat is made with shortcrust pastry, but when hot it crumbles like a biscuit, and if you’re not careful, you will end up with half of it on the floor. Puff pastry, on the other hand, has greater structural integrity and is therefore much less likely to disintegrate in your hands, but it is tasteless rubbish, which is why until a couple of weeks ago I hadn’t had a dan taat for several years.

However, Paula and I were cycling in the Shatin area when she suggested that we check out a bakery in Tai Wai, just a few kilometres further south. A few kilometres is neither here nor there, because at one time we used to visit this bakery from Fanling just for its egg custard tarts, a round trip of about 50km. Anyway, I would keep an eye on the bikes while Paula went to buy the dan taat. How many would I like? Two, of course!

This is what I’ve frequently described as ‘the dan taat principle’: if you were to buy only one, you would soon discover that you enjoyed it so much that you wished you’d bought more; but if you bought three, you wouldn’t enjoy the third one as much as you enjoyed the first two. It applies to any pleasure that comes in discrete quanta. Oysters spring immediately to mind. Why anyone would order half a dozen, let alone a dozen, is beyond my comprehension.

If you think that this is an over-simplified analysis, then you would be correct. Paula returned from the bakery with a box of six dan taat! And as we were eating, Paula brought up the subject of ‘dan taat theory’. Of course, she had misremembered that it was only a principle, but it got me thinking that there was more to the question than I’d originally postulated. In this case, Paula bought six simply because although individual tarts were $5 each, she could buy three for $13.50. And while I may not have enjoyed the third one quite as much as the first two, it was still bloody delicious.


In other words, dan taat theory states that the conventional answer to a question may not be entirely convincing. The example that came to mind at the time was this: how do you share a cake between two people such that both are satisfied with their share? The conventional answer is that one person cuts the cake, while the second has first choice of the two pieces. However, many years ago, I had a friend with whom I shared a passion for quasi-mathematical puzzles. Whenever we came to a situation where something like a cake was to be shared, it was simply a question of who was quicker to say: “You cut, I’ll choose”. Because whoever cuts the cake is at an immediate disadvantage. There is a similar question relating to how one shares a cake between three people, but the cutter is at a much more severe disadvantage in this scenario, so I won’t elaborate on possible answers. I don’t believe there is one that’s completely fair.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

journey to the west: video action

It is now more than five years since I worked out the bike ride I called ‘the journey to the west’, after the Chinese literary classic of the same name. The initial exploration was documented in Journey to the West and Journey to the West: Part 2, but it quickly became apparent that there was a lot of scope for improving (i.e. extending) the basic route.

For example, I described the ‘yellow brick road’ that is featured in the following video in Journey to the West: Part 4. Check out the photos in this post: there are no ‘no bikes’ signs. I described why we’ve ignored them since they appeared in Outrageous. However, the most amusing part of this video occurs before we reach the yellow brick road, when a lizard runs across the road in front of us, causing Paula to swerve across in front of me. This still from the video shows the lizard:


The yellow brick road was quite dirty in my original photos, because for some unknown reason construction vehicles had been coming this way, but thankfully they no longer do so:


And these are the offending ‘no bikes’ signs:



I had intended to make this video and the next contiguous, but Paula went to the left at the point shown in the previous image, while I went to the right. The two routes rejoin further on, but Paula decided that she had gone the wrong way, so I had to wait for her to catch up before proceeding.

The narrow path featured in the next video was probably the first I ever explored. I can still recall how it went on and on, and I kept expecting it to peter out eventually, as many such paths tend to do. This is Paula at the start of the path:


Notice how good—and wide—the path is to start with:


It’s a while before the surface begins to deteriorate:


I’ve included the next two images because the fence on the right wasn’t there when I first came this way. In the first image, the original path probably continued straight on to the right of the fence, although it is no longer obvious:


This image shows the original path, no longer accessible, coming in from the right:


I’ve no idea what lay behind this blatant encroachment on the original path, but at least whoever was responsible provided an alternative!


I’ve just realized that I’ve never previously described the narrow path that is featured in the next video. The start of this path (1:18 on the video) represents the furthest point from home on the journey to the west. I did try to extend the route hereabouts, but I was not successful.

Here are four video stills that provide a flavour of this path, which doesn’t harbour any serious technical difficulties:





Paula doesn’t appear to be trying too hard here, but the section shown in the last picture is downhill—and exciting if nobody is coming the other way!


The previous videos feature the results of my explorations in the west, but I found two extended diversions on the way back that provided an alternative to simply following the outward route. I described the first of these in Fish Pond Alley, which added 4km to the overall journey. I’ve not included any video stills, because Paula wasn’t sure of the route, so I went in front, but the video follows the causeways between individual fish ponds out in the northwest of the New Territories.

These fish ponds, and nearby wetlands, are important stopping-off points for migrating birds in December and January. I’ve seen cormorants, spoonbills, avocets, ducks and a few other species I don’t recognize—I’m no expert—here, and I plan to try to capture some of this on video next season.


I call the second diversion ‘the Tam Mei loop’, after the village that it passes through. It starts with an uphill dirt road, which I’ve not included in the video. The rest goes along what might be called ‘proper’ roads. There is almost no traffic on the first section, which is something of a switchback—and therefore fun to ride at speed! Each of the following video stills captures a separate downhill section, but watch the video to get a true sense of the excitement. You can find more information in Journey to the West: Part 5.






By far the most difficult section of the entire route is the snake path, which I discovered when I was trying to avoid having to pass through San Tin Barracks and which I first described in Journey to the West: Part 4. I’d only ridden this section once this winter before trying to shoot a video, and this was the first time ever that Paula had been in front, I was surprised to spot her scooting across the fourth dodgy bridge, although to be fair there is no railing on the far side of the bridge and quite a big drop into the stream if you cock up the turn. Nevertheless, I have no hesitation in publishing the evidence:


Not once have I ever put my foot down here!

Further on, I was disappointed when Paula stopped at a section that had become quite overgrown. However, none of this section is easy, and here is a video still from beyond the point where she stopped that I’d been wondering how to handle:


Paula’s handlebar is not as wide as mine, so she can keep left here. I have to drop onto the right-hand section, and although it isn’t obvious from the image, it is canted at quite a steep angle to the right and feels as though it’s about to slide off into the pond on the right, possibly with me on it! I scrape my left pedal when riding across it, which provides a good measure of how steeply tilted it is.

I really must do this route more often, although in justifying why I haven’t, I can point to a huge list of other cycling options that I’ve discovered in the past year, none of which is any easier than the journey to the west.