Thursday, 21 March 2019

jockeying for position

In case you are unfamiliar with the geography of the New Territories, Sheung Shui is a town to the north of Fanling. In fact, the two towns are so close together that it is now impossible, with modern developments, to accurately define the boundary between the two, although Sheung Shui police station is indisputably in Fanling.

The main north–south road through this joint conurbation is Jockey Club Road, which is a dual carriageway carrying most of the through traffic. I’ve cycled along the dedicated track that runs alongside this road from time to time, but in ordinary circumstances I would be going well out of my way to walk along it.

However, I’ve been undergoing outpatient treatment at North District Hospital recently, and although I could take a variety of different routes on foot, or even a minibus from my village to Fanling station, then the train to Sheung Shui station, I’ve tended to walk back home via Jockey Club Road. Two days ago, as I looked ahead, it seemed as though I could see some colour on the low concrete wall surrounding a public housing estate:

It hadn’t been there a fortnight earlier when I passed this way.

I didn’t have my camera with me at the time, so I made a point of coming back yesterday to take some photographs. This is what I’ve recorded here:

There are a couple of references here to the name of the estate—Tin Ping Estate—so I assume that the motifs used reflect something about the estate, although with the exception of the yellow and orange hexagons, which almost certainly reflect the use of hexagonal pavers throughout the estate, albeit not in these colours, I have no idea what is being represented here. The presence of the blue fish is particularly puzzling.

My general impression is that all the artwork here has been produced by pupils from a local school, and in any group of children, some will have little or no natural talent. So how do you include such children in the project?

I bet they had fun with that!

The next three photos suggest to me a vision of this high-rise estate as just a village. In fact, the character that I’ve translated here as ‘estate’ actually means ‘village’:

Things to note: (1) The use of primary colours, apart from orange; (2) the networks of orange and yellow hexagons, which also appear in the first images; and (3) more blue fish!

To the right of the last image is an entrance to the estate, and to the right of this gap in the wall is the most intriguing of the artwork here. But first a caption:

I’m not going to provide a detailed translation, but in brief it says that during the winter months, lights come on early, and you can see into people’s houses. And each one tells a different story:

Not all the stories are obvious, so I’ve enlarged the previous photo in three segments to allow you to make your own interpretations:

The final photo describes street snacks that you can buy in the evening, although I don’t think that a mere $1 will buy you curried fish balls on a stick nowadays. I’d like to think that the image just right of centre is not a reference to McDonald’s, although it probably is.

The background colour of all the artwork here is white, but to the right of the last photo, the wall is unpainted concrete grey. This doesn’t mean that work here has finished, and I will keep an eye open for possible developments in the future.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

year of the (wild) pig

Despite having spent much of the past 45 years in Hong Kong, I still find myself doing things for the first time from time to time. Dotting the eyes on a lion to bring it to life is a recent example, and yesterday produced another.

I was out cycling with my friend Vlad. We’d been to Plover Cove Reservoir as the first stage of an attempt to ride 100km in a day, and on the way back into Taipo I wanted to show him a little diversion that I knew he’d find interesting. It involved a series of narrow country paths that lead, eventually, to the Shuen Wan Temples:

However, we were still on a road when Vlad shouted from behind me.

“Look! A wild boar.”

I looked, but I couldn’t see anything. A feeling of frustration crept over me. I used to see wild pigs regularly when I lived and worked in the Sai Kung area in the 1970s and 1980s, but I’d seen only one since moving to Fanling—while descending a mountain path into the Lung Yeuk Tau area—and that had quickly disappeared as soon as it saw me, so I’d had no chance to take a photograph. I didn’t want to miss this one.

Then I spotted it:

Can you?

“There are more in the bushes,” exclaimed Vlad.

And so there were:

Then one of the animals from the bushes decided to join the first one we’d seen:

However, there was no social interaction between the two:

You may have noticed that all this time I’d been getting closer and closer, but shortly after a third pig arrived, they started to amble off into the ‘long grass’:

I emphasize that they were in no hurry.

I had thought that there were only three pigs altogether, but the previous two photos show a fourth that was too shy to show its face. This is the most revealing:

The pig on the left appears to be eyeing me curiously, perhaps wondering what I’m doing. The others have definitely lost interest.

By the way, in case you were wondering, the ‘new’ part of this encounter was taking the photographs. And, yes, we did complete 100km for the day—the first time this year.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

the dunning–kruger effect

In 1999, two academics from Cornell University in the United States, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology with the title ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’. The so-called Dunning–Kruger effect has since become an established trope in the field of psychology, although most people outside that field have probably never heard of it. However, the conclusions reached by this pair have never been more relevant.

The authors begin by relating the story of McArthur Wheeler, who robbed two banks in Pittsburgh on a single day in 1995 in broad daylight. He was arrested that evening, less than an hour after footage from surveillance cameras was broadcast on the local evening news. When police showed him that footage, Wheeler was incredulous.

“But I wore the juice!” he muttered.

Apparently, he was under the impression that smearing his face with lemon juice would render him invisible to video cameras. I think that I can guess what gave him this idea—lemon juice can be used as a primitive form of invisible ink—but to believe that it would render him invisible to video cameras betrays a level of ignorance that beggars belief.

The authors then make three points. The first two are probably uncontroversial: (1) in many areas of life, success depends on knowing which rules to follow and which strategies to pursue; and (2) people differ in the knowledge and strategies that they apply in these situations. The third point, which is more likely to evoke skepticism, is that when people are incompetent in the strategies that they adopt to achieve success, they suffer a double blow: not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and therefore make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence deprives them of the ability to realize their mistakes. Or, as Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man in 1871, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

One example used by Dunning and Kruger is the ability to determine whether a given sentence is grammatically correct. If a person’s knowledge of grammar is incomplete or incorrect, then such an assessment would be impossible. Another example is the widely reported ‘above average’ phenomenon: when people are asked to assess their ability in a given task, more than half of those polled rate themselves as ‘above average’, which is of course mathematically impossible. Both are perfect examples of what psychologists call ‘cognitive bias’.

The current relevance of this concept should now be obvious: the present occupant of the White House clearly thinks that he’s a genius when he is probably of below average intelligence. The fact he has stated that he is more likely to trust his ‘gut instinct’ than the opinion of an expert merely confirms that diagnosis. And the possible consequences of such arrogance are likely to be beyond his ability to comprehend.

For example, it is doubtful that he is aware of what happened the last time tariffs were imposed on goods imported into the USA on the draconian scale he has implemented. The Smoot–Hawley tariffs, named after the Utah senator and Oregon congressman who sponsored them, were signed into law by President Herbert Hoover in 1930. And while they may not have actually caused the Depression of the 1930s, they certainly made it much worse than it otherwise would have been.

There is also an echo of that period in the pre-Christmas turmoil on global stock markets; the Wall Street crash of 1929 didn’t cause the Depression either, but it was predicated on irresponsible speculation, and it did lead to a drying up of credit, thereby aggravating the economic situation at the time. So trade wars are a good thing, are they Mr Trump?

And because fools don’t understand nuance, this buffoon has decided to pull the 2,000 US troops currently in Syria out of the country on the grounds that Islamic State has been defeated (and he can take the credit). No it hasn’t! The kind of poisonous ideology espoused by these perverts may have suffered a military setback, but its attractiveness to a small minority of Muslims will take much longer to eradicate. And he is too stupid to realize that President Erdogan of Turkey is rubbing his hands at the chance to go after the Kurds in northeast Syria without interference from the USA. There is a moral aspect to this situation too: as President Macron of France has commented, albeit less crudely, you don’t shit on your allies.

There is another aspect of the Dunning–Kruger effect that I haven’t mentioned thus far: if a person is functionally incompetent, not only are they unable to recognize that failing in themselves; they fail to see it in other people too. Trump supporters: take note.

Monday, 25 February 2019

the frontier road mystery

The quiet country road that we refer to informally as ‘the frontier road’ runs between Fai King Road in the east and Ha Wan Tsuen East Road in the west. All three of these roads were part of the so-called ‘frontier closed area’ until 2013 but have since become popular with recreational cyclists. Last week was probably the first time—other than as a result of illness, injury or absence from Hong Kong—that I hadn’t cycled along it since our first visit back in 2013. Unfortunately, despite all my attempts to inform Google Maps of the error, the legend ‘closed area’ still appears on their maps:

The frontier road, as defined above, starts at the turn-off to the village of Liu Pok and ends at the red circle in the bottom, left-hand corner of the map. The green circle marks the position of a ‘police operational base’, the only practical consequence of which is that approximately half of the traffic west of the base is police vehicles.

The entire road when we first came this way was single-track, with occasional passing places:

Given how light the traffic still is, this has never been a problem. The occasional truck driver, heading to the fish ponds between the road and the border itself, is invariably considerate towards cyclists:

The truck is waiting in the entrance to the police operational base.

The road west of the base is much wider, so it is possible for smaller motor vehicles travelling in opposite directions to pass without either having to stop or slow down. However, a couple of years ago, the road was resurfaced, and a continuous concrete ‘kerb’ was constructed along the southern edge. I don’t recall ever experiencing any disruption, so it’s likely that a lot of this work was carried out while I was in the UK over the summer.

This is what the descent from the entrance to the police base looked like last year:

In case you’re wondering why I’m so far over to the right in the second image, it’s so that I can see whether anything is coming in the opposite direction.

The next still, from a video that I shot last winter, is exhibit #1 in the mystery that I’m about to describe:

At the time, the only road markings were a continuous white line along both sides of the road and the admonition ‘SLOW’ (in English and Chinese) where someone in authority had decided that such advice was necessary. Incidentally, I estimate that the average distance between such warnings on this road is less than 30 metres!

Now look at a recent photo of the same position:

A short section of the concrete kerb has been removed, and the road has been widened slightly. Some lines have been painted on the road itself.

And this is the mystery. As a former British colony, Hong Kong continues to follow British traffic regulations and road signs. However, I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere in Britain, so I can offer only conjecture as to its intended meaning. This is what it looks like if you’re heading east:

…while this is another view of what it looks like if you’re driving west:

It seems to me that traffic going east is expected to give way to traffic coming towards it. But why would it, given that the road is wide enough for both vehicles anyway? And why not use conventional give-way markings if that is the intention?

You probably won’t want to hear my answer to this conundrum, especially if you’re a local cyclist who often comes this way. The widening of the westbound ‘lane’ implies an expectation that wider vehicles will be using this road in the future. And work started recently on the construction of a ‘science park’—a joint venture between Hong Kong and Shenzhen—in the so-called ‘Lok Ma Chau loop’, an incised meander in the local river. There is now a constant stream of eight-wheel tipper trucks along Ha Wan Tsuen East Road, bringing in materials, which means that Paula and I no longer cycle that way because these behemoths take up the entire road.

A few weeks ago, I was forced off the main frontier road by these big trucks twice within a few days, at the locations shown in the following video stills:

Both locations are east of the police operational base, where the road is much narrower. In the first image, I was cycling in the direction of the video, and I realized immediately that I had to get out of the way. At the second location, I was travelling towards the camera, but the result was the same.

I don’t know for certain what these trucks are transporting, but it does seem likely that they are bringing in materials, such as sand and gravel, for use on the construction site rather than taking away unwanted material such as soil. This isn’t necessarily important, but the key point to make is that the trucks that forced me off the road could have reached the construction site by following the main roads. Most obviously do, given the sheer number entering and leaving the construction site, but if the long-term plan is to allow trucks to use the frontier road, which the recent alterations to this road suggest, then the frontier road becomes a no-go area for cyclists.

Fortunately, there are some grounds for optimism. My two encounters with big tipper trucks happened several weeks ago, and although I’ve been alert to the possibility that it might happen again, it hasn’t. I wonder whether police vehicles have stopped the drivers trying to use the frontier road as a rat run—common behaviour in Hong Kong—and told them to stick to the main roads. Unfortunately, the mysterious road markings suggest a different interpretation.