Saturday, 30 January 2010

our friend tom

Paula and I have just returned from visiting Tom Li, who has been out of Hong Kong for many months, so we’re completely cream-crackered. Tom has a store in the remote New Territories village of Sham Chung, and every Saturday when he’s in town we cycle down from the north, a round trip of 45 miles, to eat his incomparable pan-fried noodles.

The cycling is an adventure in itself, keeping entirely to country paths, back roads and dedicated cycle tracks, but that’s a subject for another day. Tom grew up in Sham Chung, which has no road access and is now almost completely abandoned, but he left to work in Chinese restaurants in the UK while still in his teens, more than forty years ago. He has a very low opinion of Chinese food in Britain, a judgement that I share, but he eventually moved to the States, where he opened his own restaurant. Nowadays, he comes back to Hong Kong regularly because he enjoys cooking for people who appreciate his food, and he has a lot of ‘fans’. His regular menu is basic country store fare, but in no other store will you find food this good. And if you phone him well in advance he’ll make anything you want.

We arrive in mid-morning, so there are no other diners, and we have time, over a bottle of ice-cold Tsingtao (a Chinese beer), to catch up on what we’ve been doing since we last met. Then it’s time for Tom to disappear into the kitchen. The first two pictures show Tom frying the noodles, and the third shows the end-product: Tom always complains that we polish off the plate in less time than it takes him to prepare it. After a second bottle of Tsingtao, it’s time to take our leave. We need to reach the bridge over the Shing Mun River (the halfway point) before one o’clock to avoid the worst of the crowds on the main cycle track north. A perfect day. We’re already looking forward to next Saturday.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

slow food

A few years ago, while I was back in the UK, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen for some time. In the course of the ensuing conversation, he happened to mention that his family had been to New Zealand en masse to attend his sister’s wedding. On the return journey, they had a six-hour stopover in Hong Kong.

“Guess where they ate,” he said.

“No need to guess,” I replied. “They ate at McDonald’s.”

I feel deeply sorry for people who have a chance to eat one meal in Hong Kong and this is what they choose. But I’m not surprised. People like McDonald’s because every item on the menu tastes exactly the same, whether it’s in Beijing or London, Moscow or New York, or in the same restaurant, every time. It’s somehow ‘reliable’. It’s also why I dislike it. Variation is, or should be, part of the attraction of eating the same thing regularly.

Every time my wife and I go for breakfast at our nearby restaurant, a dish we always order is har gow, which are small dumplings consisting of fresh prawns wrapped in rice-flour pastry and steamed. And every time there is something different: the pastry is thicker or more glutinous; or the seasoning varies; and the crunchiness of the prawns depends on precisely how long they’ve been steamed. We eat them slowly and compare notes. We drink tea from very small cups, and we chat about the restaurant’s clientele. Well over a hundred of them at any one time. And at 63, I’m probably below the average age.

Yam char (‘drink tea’) is an important cultural ritual here, and this is the only restaurant in Luen Wo Hui (plenty of eateries, but this is the only restaurant). Everyone shares tables, but it’s still more or less full by 7am. Once we’ve found somewhere to sit, we order the tea (usually sow mei). The waitress brings two pots, one with tea and one with boiling water, and a large empty dish. The water is for us to clean our bowls, spoons, cups and chopsticks, which are on the table beforehand and have in fact already been washed. Anyway, cleaning the utensils is my responsibility, and I have my own method, but the best thing about this process is watching how other people do it. And everyone has their own method, not all of which are good or sensible. Some people even use the tea rather than the water, which I’ve never understood.

In the old days (1990s), women pushed heated trolleys around the restaurant laden with steaming baskets and with signs on the front telling you what was in the baskets (going back to the old, old days (1970s), the trolley pushers used to shout out what they had on board, making a noisy room even noisier). Nowadays, however, we can fill in an order card, and we always order the same three dishes. There is a large open counter in one corner, and while we wait for our three dim sum favourites to arrive (freshly prepared, so it takes about 15 minutes), my wife selects a couple of other dishes to keep us going. Everything is relaxed, despite the loudness of the background chatter. This is slow food, where eating is never done in a hurry, and nobody is hassling you to leave to make way for incoming patrons.

This last point reminds me of an Italian American restaurant my wife and I once visited in the posh district of Kowloon Tong on the recommendation of her then boss. We were aware that it was very popular, so my wife called to reserve a table for seven o’clock. Sorry, you can book for six o’clock or seven thirty, but not seven o’clock. I’ll gloss over the meal itself, which wasn’t bad but wasn’t exciting either. The one incident that has stuck in my memory came at the end. We’d finished eating, and a waiter asked whether we’d like dessert or coffee. No we wouldn’t. Less than a minute later, the same waiter returned.

“Excuse me sir,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve taken the trouble of preparing your bill.”

In other words: “We aren’t going to get any more money out of you, so fuck off!”

This may seem like an extreme interpretation, but it is how I felt at the time. And we would have left within the next five minutes anyway. We’ve never been back.

When I analyse it, this is a restaurant run by accountants, who may know how to maximize income but have no feeling for the adventure of eating. They sell you a homogenized, pre-packaged, standardized, ninety-minute dining experience. It may be more expensive than eating at McDonald’s, you may have your food brought to the table, and you may pay at the end of your meal, but the underlying philosophy is the same.

I’ve no doubt that McDonald’s has a business plan and a mission statement, and that in neither document will you find any reference to what the company really stands for. In fact, like MTV in the music field, McDonald’s is representative of an accelerating trend towards the homogenization of popular culture throughout the world. The company can only expand at the expense of indigenous cultures; for example, it opened hundreds of new outlets in the 1990s in Beijing, and now almost no local under thirty years of age knows, or is interested in learning, how to prepare traditional Pekinese dumplings. Within a generation, no one will remember what they tasted like either, although some ersatz replacement may well be available at the nearest McDonald’s ‘restaurant’, complete with ‘tangy’ sauce, whatever that means.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

hong kong country

Given that this blog is called ‘The View from Fanling’, some readers may have wondered who or what this Fanling is. Wonder no more. Fanling is a large town in the northern New Territories, and it’s where I live. It’s not a notably photogenic town, except in the spring, when the trees are flowering, but I took a small liberty with my earlier statement anyway: in fact I live in a small traditional village about a mile east of town, and what follows is a (mis)guided tour of the neighbourhood.

My village is called San Wai, and it’s a walled village. This view is of the west wall, and the gateway you see is the only way in and out. There is a squat defensive tower at each corner with embrasures through which crossbows could have been fired in earlier times. However, I don’t live within the walls. Too claustrophobic. I live in a modern house close to the east wall, built on what was once the village’s paddy fields (no rice has been grown in Hong Kong since about 1975).

If we now turn around and walk about 60 metres from where the previous photo was taken, we come to the River Indus (not the one in Pakistan, obviously, but it is one of the largest rivers in Hong Kong). It was probably given this name by some wag in the British colonial administration in the distant past. It has been canalized, like all the rivers in the area, which suggests that flooding was once a regular occurrence here. Egrets are common, herons are often seen, and if you’re lucky you may catch the turquoise flash of a kingfisher. An evening stroll along the river bank in springtime is a ‘musical’ delight. The air is filled with the cacophonous croaking of thousands of frogs, and if my hypothesis is correct that each species has its own distinctive croak, you will hear at least ten and possibly twelve different species. The most ‘entertaining’ are the frogs that live in the drainage traps. These are concrete shafts about a metre square and four metres deep that are designed to trap debris during heavy rain. The shaft acts as an acoustic resonator (the same effect that you get when you hold a seashell to your ear), and as a result the croak is so loud you might think it was a cow mooing.

Our route now takes us across the footbridge that can be seen in the distance in the previous picture and across what was once the floodplain of the river. Much of this plain has been overtaken by weeds, but given that the soil is extremely fertile, some enterprising locals have taken advantage by growing vegetables here. It is a curious fact that most of the people tending these plots are old ladies, and it is not an exaggeration to say that many of them are in their eighties! The high-rise apartment blocks in the distance mark the eastern edge of Luen Wo Hui, a working-class district of Fanling where I do most of my food shopping and where my wife and I often go for yam char (literally, ‘drink tea’ but in practice ‘breakfast’).

However, before we reach Luen Wo Hui, we pass Koon Garden. The derelict house that can be glimpsed through the gateway bears the date ‘1960’ on its front elevation, which means that in the space of half a century, someone has built a substantial house, lived in it and abandoned it, and a tree has grown to partially block the entrance.

Returning to San Wai by a shorter route, we pass another gateway. This one proudly proclaims that it is the dwelling of Mr Lee Ming Sang, and like Koon Garden the house within is in ruins. Every time I pass it, I’m reminded of Shelley’s poem:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Yes, I am aware that I’m employing a degree of hyperbole here, but no more than might be expected from a former hack journalist. A recently abandoned wood-framed tin shack can be seen on the right of the picture. The last occupant removed all the tin before leaving, presumably to use elsewhere, leaving the frame to the termites, which won’t take long to finish it off.

Further along the path, we come to the ‘sun gate’. This is what I call a ‘story picture’. The story may not be true, but it is certainly plausible: the substantial house behind the gate, well hidden by trees, is owned by a Chinese millionaire, who may well have grown up here. It is not occupied all the time, but it is still in use. This house is about half a kilometre from any road, and the anonymous millionaire uses this address in all correspondence with the tax authorities, which, knowing that all the other houses on this plain are tin shacks, assume that this dwelling too is merely a shack. In this way, the millionaire is able to declare less than his real income without arousing suspicion. However, this very expensive stainless steel gate is the giveaway, betraying an opulence not seen anywhere else in the neighbourhood.

The tin shack in this picture is more typical of the dwellings scattered across the plain. It is taken looking back along the track from a footbridge, from which the next picture is also taken.

This is a tributary of the River Indus, the name of which I’ve not yet been able to discover; the confluence can be seen in the middle distance. Although in winter the river flow is confined to the narrow channel on the right, I’ve seen a three-foot catfish in the channel. Egrets can be seen frequently here, standing motionless along the edge of the channel watching intently for smaller fish. From this point, it is less than 200 metres to where we started, but the skyline in the far distance is our next destination. It circumscribes a narrow side valley now used as a firing range by the People’s Liberation Army but set up originally by the British army.

A narrow concrete military road runs along the ridge line. It too was built by the British and demarcates an exclusion zone along the border with the rest of China that was once a preventive measure against illegal immigrants. It is no longer used by vehicular traffic, except possibly mountain bikes, but the occasional hiker may be encountered. The murkiness of the background is a measure of the pollution level in this area, all of which is a result of the rapid industrialization of southern Guangdong over the past three decades.

Finally, on the descent from the ridge, we pass this grave. Graves like this are scattered all over the hillsides of the New Territories, and the exact location of each will have been determined by the dictates of fung shui. Although it may not be obvious, this is something of a puzzle picture. The white area in the foreground is all that remains of another grave, one that has been almost completely obliterated. Fragments of engraved and polished granite litter the immediate area. My wife and I have discussed this at length: it is clear that the smaller grave must have been desecrated by people associated with the larger grave, but the sequence of events is not obvious. Which grave was established first? If it was the larger, why would anyone make a new grave so close? If it was the smaller, how does one account for the observation that the lichen on the larger grave makes it appear to be older? The solution to this conundrum may not be discoverable: this photograph was taken in the autumn of 2008, shortly after a major hill fire. I have a second photo, taken last year shortly after the autumn grave-sweeping festival of Chung Yeung, and the grave is almost completely engulfed by new vegetation. Had the grave been visited during the festival, that vegetation would have been cleared. So there it remains, neglected and forgotten.

And that concludes a whistle-stop tour of the district. It may not have been a tour de force, but I hope it wasn’t a wild goose chase either.

update: 24/11/2010
A recent visit to Koon Garden revealed some inaccuracies in the interpretation set out above.

update: 01/02/2013
Koon Garden, the house of Lee Ming Sang and the millionaire’s house have been demolished, although the sun gate is still there. I assume that the henchmen of Uncle Four were responsible.

Friday, 22 January 2010

confucius he say...

Very little that happens in Hong Kong makes the news internationally. Stories that do invariably have a sensationalist angle to them, such as the case of the phantom acid thrower, which made the BBC’s World News recently probably because in the latest attack tourists were among the injured. Another example is the sordid wranglings over the will of eccentric billionaire Nina Wang, Asia’s richest woman, some details of which can be found on the BBC News website. ‘Little Sweetie’, as she was affectionately known locally, died in 2007, apparently leaving her entire fortune to a local fung shui ‘master’. Given that in Hong Kong fung shui is principally a vehicle for extorting money, and any self-proclaimed ‘master’ is certainly a charlatan, some degree of skullduggery is likely. It could be years before the case is resolved, but don’t watch this space for updates, because you won’t get any.

Meanwhile, one local story that doesn’t appear to have been picked up by the international news media is the campaign to have the birthday of Confucius declared a public holiday. My first reaction was to applaud: Hong Kong is already well provided with public holidays, but one more wouldn’t hurt. Apparently, it would, however: there is a local ordinance restricting the number of public holidays each year to seventeen, and the quota has already been filled. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Hong Kong is amenable to the idea of scrapping Easter Monday—a hangover from the days of British rule—and replacing it with a holiday on the twenty-seventh day of the eighth lunar month.

So why do I think this would be a bad idea? After all, you might think, not for nothing is Confucius known in China as the ‘Great Sage’. However, a closer examination of Confucian philosophy reveals the damage that this man has inflicted on the country in the past, succinctly summed up in the phrase ‘filial piety’. Without doubt, China was technologically the most advanced civilization in the world 2,000 years ago, at a time when Britons were still painting themselves blue and the Americas were home only to hunter-gatherers and civilizations that never got beyond the Bronze Age or used the wheel, except on children’s toys. A list of Chinese inventions from this period includes the magnetic compass, fore-and-aft sails and the stern-post rudder, which enabled China to develop rapidly as a seafaring nation—Chinese ships sailed as far as India during the Han Dynasty (206 BCAD 220). By the time of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), widely regarded by scholars as the zenith of Chinese civilization, woodblock printing, gunpowder and silk, together with a sophisticated device for detecting and measuring earthquakes, had been added to the list.

So what went wrong? During the early part of the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism had taken hold in China, but Tang officials regarded it as a disruptive influence and contrary to Confucian harmony, so much so that in AD 845 a massive purge was launched, resulting in the destruction of more than 4,000 Buddhist monasteries and 46,000 temples. Confucianism thereby became the dominant ideology in China. However, this so-called Confucian ‘harmony’ was based on a hierarchical system with the emperor at the top and women right at the bottom, with each individual owing allegiance to those higher up the hierarchy. At the top of the pyramid, the emperor's duty was to attract “all under heaven” to be civilized in Confucian harmony. In practice, this system also meant that sons had a responsibility towards their fathers (‘filial piety’) rather than parents to their children. This backward-looking philosophy, combined with the fact that Chinese civilization developed in relative isolation from the rest of the world, bred an insularity and disdain for other cultures that is reflected in the Chinese name for China: ‘Central country’ (right).

Fast-forward to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and the seven voyages of Admiral Zheng He (1405–33). With a fleet of the largest ships on Earth at that time under his command, Zheng was dispatched with orders to sail to “the countries beyond the horizon, all the way to the end of the Earth.” His mission was to display the might of Chinese power and exact tribute from the “barbarians from beyond the seas.” During these voyages, Zheng sailed as far as Calicut in India, Ormuz in Persia, Jeddah in Arabia and Mogadishu in present-day Somalia. A Chinese map (see below) purportedly dating from this period suggests that Chinese sailors may have ventured even further afield, although the authenticity of this map has been widely questioned.

Following Zheng’s last voyage and his subsequent retirement, the emperor and his court officials, motivated by Confucian ideals, decided that there was nothing more to learn about the world, so both the ships and Zheng’s logs were wantonly destroyed. Within a hundred years, Portuguese sailors were venturing further and further down the west coast of Africa, eventually reaching the Indian Ocean, and Ferdinand Magellan had led an expedition that successfully circumnavigated the world. Consequently, instead of the Chinese discovering Europe, European sailors discovered China.

By the eighteenth century, the big European colonial powers (the French, the Dutch and above all the British) were in the process of grabbing as much of Asia as they could lay their hands on. And although China remained more or less intact, save for the enclaves of Macau and Hong Kong, it endured systematic humiliation throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in the eight-nation alliance that finally suppressed the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion in 1901.

It was not until Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76) that Confucius was finally denounced as a reactionary, but China is now a forward-looking country that is on course to become the hegemonic power of the twenty-first century. However, when the country finally achieves this, the Chinese will discover that, like the British in the nineteenth century and the Americans in the twentieth, everybody hates you when you’re top dog.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

knowledge or certainty

‘Epistemology’ is not a word that you can infiltrate into everyday conversation, but it is a word that is frequently used by academics who want to sound clever. Unfortunately, such people tend to use the word inappropriately, as a mere synonym for ‘knowledge’, as in the phrases ‘social epistemology’ and ‘feminist epistemology’. However, the word’s true meaning can be summed up in the title of a book that I once edited for Routledge: Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge by Robert Audi, which is concerned with how we know what we think we know, what justifies us in believing what we believe, and what standards of evidence we should use in seeking the truth about human experience of the world.

This is especially relevant in discussions about religion, which tend to degenerate into a shouting match between confirmed skeptics (scientists and atheists mostly) on one side and religious fundamentalists on the other. I believe that atheism is the default rationalist position and that a belief in God is completely irrational. However, I have no quarrel with anyone who has a personal faith in God; it is their choice, and I respect that. It is with the extreme ends of the spectrum that I take issue. There is no doubt that militant atheists, Richard Dawkins being the best-known example, actually sneer at believers, even if they are not aware that they are doing so. Because they have reached their conclusions by a process of rational deduction, they look down on those who have reached their conclusions entirely on faith. Obviously, religious faith is, ipso facto, the acceptance of a set of beliefs without concrete evidence, but that is not a good reason to ridicule those who hold those beliefs unless, as a result of their beliefs, they stray into areas of thought about which they know nothing.

The problem with the fundamentalist viewpoint is that those who hold it know that they have the necessary evidence, a principle source of that ‘evidence’ being the Bible, the Qur’an or other ‘holy’ book. From this point, however, I will confine my commentary to the Bible, which is the only scriptural text with which I am reasonably familiar. A common phrase that you will read on Christian websites is “the Bible is inerrant”. In other words, everything that you read in the Bible is a true account. I think that the Bible contains a great deal of wisdom, the passage from Ecclesiastes that I referenced in Fact or Fiction being a classic example. However, to suggest that there are no errors in the Bible is a logically untenable point of view. Out of the many examples I could have selected, I put forward just two, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament:
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

Genesis 1 (Authorized Version).
One is bound to ask, if the first thing that God allegedly created was light, how is it that he didn’t create the source of that light until the fourth day.
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

Matthew 2 (Authorized Version).
It is a reasonable deduction that these wise men will have come from somewhere in the region of Mesopotamia, so if they were following a star in the east, how is it that they didn’t end up in India?

Of course, these are trivial errors that do not invalidate the Bible’s status as a valuable document. You will perceive a problem only if you believe that the Bible is the word of God and is therefore inerrant. On this subject, I came across an interesting article while researching this essay. The author starts by quoting an acceptable albeit imperfect definition of science as “knowledge of natural phenomena that is subjected to some degree of skeptical rigour and explained by rational causes.” He then states:
Natural, in this definition, is opposed to supernatural. Rational is opposed to philosophical, spiritual or theological. Science, according to this definition, only allows for the examination of the natural. It will not allow the possibility of the supernatural.…No matter what evidence these scientists see, they are not allowed to see God.…Evolution, therefore, begins on a godless foundation. You don’t arrive at evolution because the evidence demands God played no part. You arrive at evolution by removing God’s involvement before you even look at the evidence.
Franklin Church of Christ (The Origins of Man: Fact vs. Story).
You have to look very closely to see the flaws in this argument. First, the word ‘evidence’ is not used in anything like the sense that most people understand it. It suggests, misleadingly, the process used in a court of law to determine the guilt or innocence of someone accused of a crime. Evidence in the scientific sense is even more rigorous than its forensic equivalent: scientific evidence is verifiable, or it is not evidence. Claiming that the Bible is the word of God because you believe it to be so because it says so in the Bible is, unfortunately, a self-referencing or circular argument. It is certainly not evidence.

Second, there is the a priori assumption that God exists, which violates the mediæval scholastic principle known as Occam's razor (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem: ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’), explained by Sir Isaac Newton as “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” The bulk of the writer’s argument is therefore invalidated by the absence of verifiable evidence for his conjecture. However, this should not be taken to imply that science doesn’t make assumptions; it does. A classic example is Newton’s laws of motion, which do work well enough in everyday situations and were the best approximation to reality for 200 years. However, they are based on the assumption that space is absolute; in other words, Newton regarded space as a Euclidean three-dimensional grid that stretches unchanging into infinity, so it was inevitable that this limitation, pointed out at the time by Liebnitz, would eventually have to be confronted. And although the successor to Newton’s laws, Einstein’s theory of relativity, eliminates Newton’s assumption, it too is an approximation to reality, albeit a closer approximation than its predecessor. The interesting philosophical question that arises here is whether it will ever be possible to explain absolutely everything.

Science has also made plenty of wrong guesses in the past, the phlogiston theory of combustion and the æther theory of light transmission being classic examples. There may be more to come, although the theory of evolution won’t be among them: hard, real, evidence for this theory is being accumulated on an almost daily basis. However, I did suggest one possible candidate in Who’s Fooling Who? In fact, there are key areas of science where a measure of faith is a prerequisite. Theoretical physics is a case in point: modern entrants to the discipline have been schooled in mathematics and taught that experiment and observation are an inferior road to knowledge. This leads to concepts such as string theory, an elegant hypothesis for which there is no observational evidence and which produces no testable predictions. Another example is the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle the existence of which has been calculated mathematically but never confirmed experimentally. However, the difference between this and religious belief is that experiments are now underway (the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland) that will either confirm or deny the existence of this hypothetical particle. Science never stands still, while theism is frozen in time and space.

Third, there is the implicit assumption that the theologian is as much an expert in his field (the supernatural) as the scientist in his, someone whose opinions carry as much weight. And because the theologian deals in certainty, he assumes that the scientist does too. However, this is a delusion. The scientist deals with uncertainty; the scientist knows that there is a limit to what we can know, what we can prove beyond reasonable doubt. The scientific basis for this insight is Werner Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, which relates to the subatomic world and states that if you know how fast an electron is travelling, you will have no way of knowing where it is. Conversely, if you know where it is, you will have no way of determining its speed of travel. I have to confess that this is a crude formulation of what is in practice a very precise law, one of the bizarre consequences of which is that an electron can be everywhere in its orbit at once. Well, not really. The orbit is merely the sum of the probabilities of all the possible positions that the electron may be in, a tolerance within which all possible information is confined.

I have used the word ‘tolerance’ here in its engineering sense, but it would be equally appropriate to use it in its conventional meaning. It is one of the grim ironies of history that within a few years of Heisenberg’s seminal work, Hitler had risen to power in Germany. The idea that science is an adventure on the borderland between knowledge and uncertainty was suddenly confronted by the arrogance of monstrous certainty, of dogma.

Dogma has its roots in beliefs that are unshakeable, beliefs that the holder will never countenance changing. Which is why I detest it. Dogma is a denial of the human spirit, a closing of the mind against questioning, against adventure, against discovery, against knowledge. Dogma would turn us into a regiment of ghosts, a tortured host of manipulated automata.

However, it is important not to confuse dogma with faith, and I do not do so. I close with a quote from Oliver Cromwell, a man not otherwise noted for his tolerance:
I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

call my bluff

I presume erudition in my readers, but I’m going to be even more presumptuous and put that erudition to the test. For the benefit of non-British readers, Call My Bluff was a panel game that ran on BBC2 from 1965 to 1988 and on BBC1 from 1996 to 2005. It consisted of two teams of three taking turns to define a word provided by the game’s chairman. Each team had a permanent captain who was a noted wordsmith and two celebrity guests who had no previously known skills in that department. According to a prearranged system, one member of the defining team was given a card on which the real definition was printed, while the other two members were given cards bearing the single word ‘bluff’. The job of the opposing team was to identify which of the three definitions presented was the correct one. A small fraction of the words used came from the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, but most were from the twenty-volume dictionary, the one that you would need a large wheelbarrow to transport from one place to another. However, unlike in Call My Bluff, I’m not going to provide competing definitions; I will merely ask the following questions to test your knowledge of English:
1. What would you be doing if you were faccing?
2. If you were to scunify something, what would you be doing?
3. What is a thrag?
4. If someone is behaving sedly, what are they doing?
5. What is a siblet?
Now, be honest, how many of the above words did you define correctly? Be even more honest: how many of you spotted that these are not words at all, or if they are words, they are words that you would not come across in any dictionary. I discovered them in the process of commenting on other people’s blogs; they are examples of the sequence of letters that you are required to type in order to verify that you are not some spam-generating automaton. Most of these are actually pronounceable, but most are also readily identifiable for what they are. The ones that I selected do have a modicum of credibility though: ‘scunify’ and ‘faccing’ have recognizable suffixes; ‘siblet’ is not so far removed from ‘tablet’ and ‘goblet’; ‘thrag’ has a Saxon feel about it; and ‘sedly’ might just be some obscure adverb. However, they are all meaningless, although this shouldn’t be taken to imply that they cannot be given meanings.

This is where you, the reader, come in. Not every action, process, object or concept has its own word, so can you identify a vacant niche where one of the five ‘words’ could usefully be parked? In other words, can you provide a suitable definition, one that you would have been proud to think up on the spur of the moment had you been a panellist on Call My Bluff?

Saturday, 16 January 2010

is anybody there?

Have you ever wondered why alien visitors to this planet never contact anyone even remotely sensible? And have you noticed that this same ranking of mental acuity can be applied to those who believe the notion that when President Bush (the not quite so stupid one) proclaimed ‘a new world order’ after the end of the Cold War, this was code, for those in the know, for the takeover of the world by a race of reptilian aliens? This is not to suggest that there aren’t aliens out there. The problem is the lack of evidence.

Which is where scientists come into the picture. Some of them have been looking for that evidence. SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) is the collective name for the various attempts to identify intelligent signals from space that have been conducted over the past fifty years, so far unsuccessfully. In the meantime, we’ve sent out maps (Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 in 1972 and 1973, respectively) telling any passing spaceship that happens to retrieve one how to get here. And the Voyager probes carried the same maps, together with sufficient information to give the finders a very good idea of conditions on Earth.

There is clearly a presumption that a race with the intelligence to intercept and decipher this information will be benign, but this is mere guesswork based on our own experiences here on Earth and an optimism about the future of the human race that may be misplaced. What if the information were to be intercepted by a military civilization that already rules half the galaxy with a level of ruthless efficiency and routine cruelty that the police states of the twentieth century couldn’t even begin to dream about? An empire that is driven by moral imperatives that would not have been considered out of place in Nazi Germany, led by beings compared to whom Pol Pot would have been diagnosed as someone with a mild personality disorder? An empire that has the technology to cross the intervening distance in a matter of days? The military mismatch would be beyond imagining. The best that we could hope for would be perpetual enslavement. At worst, we might be considered a substandard species, to be exterminated to make room for incoming colonists.

However, as with the invention of the atomic bomb, our actions cannot now be rescinded or reversed. We live with the daily threat of sudden invasion, although it has to be said in mitigation that the probability of this occurring is vanishingly small. The moral of this story is that it is pointless worrying about something that you are utterly powerless to influence or prevent. Have a nice day.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

food for thought

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, because this is the best time to eat them!

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 informed, “Hong Kong people like puff pastry”. I don’t. So when I talk about a dan taat, I’m referring to the original type made with shortcrust pastry, which when hot crumbles like a biscuit. Not many bakeries now make this type of dan taat, so whenever I find one that does, a mental note is made for whenever I’m next in that locality.

The question then arises: how many do you buy? This seemingly straightforward question turns out to be trickier than you might think, but the short answer is two. Why? Well, if you were to buy only one, you would soon discover that you enjoyed it so much 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.

I sometimes wonder whether Chris Patton observed this rule, which I call the dan taat principle and which turns out to be applicable to a wide range of consumer choices where the enjoyment comes in discrete quantities. Take oysters: people often order half a dozen, or even a dozen, but I find it hard to believe that the pleasure taken remains constant between the first and last oyster eaten.

The principle can also be applied to vacations. You might well return to a place where you had a truly magical holiday, but if you go back a third time, you will notice that the magic has become a little tarnished. The contrast between the excitement of the exotic and the sheer mundanity of the daily grind is the only reasonable motive for someone to return to the same holiday destination year after year. It’s either that or simply habit.

For a more esoteric application of the principle, take the case of hallucinogenic drugs, especially DMT (dimethyltryptamine), which was described by Timothy Leary in the 1960s as “the lunchtime trip”, lasting as it did only 15–20 minutes. I was informed at the time that you would try it once, and because the effect was so intense that you simply couldn’t believe it, you’d try it a second time. But then you’d never try it again. I never did try it, but I understand perfectly well what my informant meant.

By the way, glutton that I am, when it comes to the dan taat I often buy three, even though the third doesn’t taste as good as the first two.
• • • • •
Do you like Chinese food? This is actually a completely fatuous question, like asking whether you enjoy watching football. It depends on whether or not it’s a good game. There are plenty of examples of football matches that are terminally boring for even the most ardent of fans. And so it is with Chinese food.

And so it is with lor mai gai (literally, ‘sticky rice chicken’), a large dumpling of glutinous rice with pieces of chicken wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed, and another of my favourites. In the mid-1990s, my wife and I used to go frequently to Maxim’s restaurant in Tsuen Wan, an industrial town in the New Territories, for breakfast. At that time, Maxim’s produced the best lor mai gai in Hong Kong.

The quality that set this lor mai gai apart was the ingredients. The chicken came in big meaty chunks, and each dumpling also contained a slice of abalone, a piece of lap cheung (Chinese sausage), a quail egg and dried Chinese mushrooms. But then the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s began to bite. The first thing to go was the abalone, followed a few months later by the lap cheung. Then the egg and mushrooms disappeared. Finally, those meaty pieces of chicken were replaced by the mid-joint of a chicken wing.

Why? Maxim’s could easily have raised the price and kept all those expensive ingredients, but, as I heard frequently at the time: “Why pay $20 for lor mai gai when I can get it at Tai Ka Lok [a local Chinese fast-food chain] for $10?” In the end, there was no difference between the lor mai gai from Maxim’s and that from Tai Ka Lok, and the wonderful but more expensive version of this delicacy that we’d enjoyed in Maxim’s is now a distant memory.

Which brings me to the lor mai gai principle: when deciding to purchase a given item, most people judge that item on relative cost and ignore relative quality. And that, ladies and gentlemen, should give you food for thought.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

fact or fiction

Do you trust everything you read in books? I pose this question because it is my belief that if the information you want is important, then it is a sensible strategy to seek independent corroboration.

In my previous incarnation as a freelance book editor, I worked on hundreds of science and philosophy titles for Longman and Routledge. Many of these were second or third editions requiring a complete re-edit because the author had rewritten large segments of the book. When this happened, I was provided with a copy of an earlier edition for reference.

I mention this because I frequently found gross factual errors that had escaped the notice of the editor of the earlier edition. In a book on environmental science, for example, the author had written that 15 degrees of longitude is equivalent to five minutes instead of one hour. I discovered many mistakes like this, but I’ve forgotten almost all of them now.

However, two do still stick in my memory. In the fourth edition of a general science textbook that I was proofreading (I did that too), I came across the following sentence, which had appeared in all previous editions:
One is reminded of the psalm: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”
Aargh! It may seem pedantic to some to insist on correcting this in a science textbook, especially at proof stage, when this type of correction will cost the publisher money, but it is from Ecclesiastes, for heaven’s sake!

But if you think that was bad, I came across a real howler while editing the third edition of An Introduction to Global Environmental Issues, a standard textbook for second- and third-year university students of environmental science that is the size of a typical telephone directory. I’m bound to say that the glossary in the third edition contains an incorrect definition of chaos theory, but I disclaim all responsibility: I was unable to convince the author that he was wrong. The book also has a chapter on the effect of volcanic eruptions on climate, which inter alia includes an account of how the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 had fired so much volcanic ash into the stratosphere that it had affected sunsets around the world for several years thereafter. The account concluded with this sentence, which appeared as written here in both the first and second editions:
This was captured by John Turner in his paintings of the period.
If you think you know what is wrong with this sentence, do leave a comment. My reaction was to delete it completely, which in retrospect may also have been a mistake.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010


That nice David Cameron
sailed down to London
on a tide of promises.
He said: “Begging your pardon,
I’m counting on Gordon
to quickly vacate the premises.”

Friday, 1 January 2010

chaos theory

Have you ever seen a gelgin? Probably not. But before you decide that the only reasonable answer to such a mystifying question is ‘no’—or you take the more cautious option and ask, warily, ‘what’s a gelgin?’ before submitting your answer—consider the evidence. Carefully.

Did you ever set something down somewhere, a pair of spectacles or your house key perhaps, or a piece of paper on which you’d written something important, only to discover later, when you needed it again, that you couldn’t remember where you’d left it? And did you assume that you must have forgotten where you’d left it because it was no longer where you’d been so sure you’d left it in the first place? Of course, you do eventually find the missing item, but when you do, it always turns out to have been where you’d convinced yourself it couldn’t be. Or where you were certain you’d already looked. Does this sound familiar? Well, it should, because it’s happening all the time. But, and this is the awkward part of the puzzle, just what happens to the item you can’t find? Inanimate objects don’t have free will in the matter of whether or not to move, or so you have been taught to believe. So what exactly is happening here? Could it be that our conventional systems of explanation are wrong?

You may well conclude that someone moved the item when you weren’t paying attention. But if so, then who? Or what? Well, try this: it may have been moved by a gelgin. A gelgin? A what? This is not a notably promising line of enquiry, you might suggest at this point, but a hopelessly inadequate theory with a serious shortage of solid evidence to back it up. Nevertheless, there is more proof of the existence of gelgins than you can even begin to imagine. Yes, they do exist. What about that fugitive, barely audible, hard-to-identify murmur, almost entirely drowned out by the soft, staccato patter of raindrops against the glass, that you can sometimes hear outside your bedroom window on those dark, stormy nights when everyone in lawful possession of the basic, government-recommended, minimum allocation of common sense is tucked up safely in their beds with the lights on, the curtains drawn tightly and all the windows and doors securely locked, bolted, shuttered and barred? That was the wind, wasn’t it? Or was it?

There’s more. Did you ever catch the briefest hint of movement out of the corner of your eye? And, presumably, you turned your head to look. What did you see? Of that fleeting movement there was no trace. Nothing. Wrong again! That was also a gelgin—and this time you were simply too slow to see it with both eyes at once, or it was too quick. But if you missed such an obvious clue, then the question being begged here is whether you have even a remote idea of what is going on, right now, behind your back. Well, do you?

Still not convinced? Have you forgotten that feeling, a moment before tripping over something that you were sure you had already seen—a broken paving stone, perhaps, or a carelessly misplaced chair—the feeling that your attention had been distracted by something, but you immediately put that thought out of your mind when you realized that your senses were being diverted towards another focus of attention, the rapidly approaching pavement, ground, floor, whatever? The original distraction is easily forgotten under the pain of such an impact.

And, strangest of all, have you ever noticed how often something that you know needs to be repaired—and should have been weeks ago—breaks, tears or otherwise gives way on the very day you planned to do the repair? Uncanny, isn’t it? What’s more, the failure of the object in question always results in discomfort for someone, and if you think about it, potential for great hilarity so long as you don’t happen to be the victim. Someone must be responsible.

You might suspect that if gelgins are such masters of mischief they would be very elusive, and this time no one would doubt that you are right. In fact, it has been suggested that they have devised a way to overturn the laws of physics as we understand them, because their incredible speed of movement and remarkable agility exceed, by several orders of magnitude, what their physical appearance suggests they are capable of achieving. How they are able to accomplish this feat has not been determined, making this alleged control of time and space something of a mastery mystery, but you might want to remember that gelgins cannot fly, pass mysteriously through solid walls or distort their bodies so that they can squeeze through narrow crevices, even if, sometimes, it does seem that way.

Some gelgins are addicted to making a noise. When the mood is upon them, which is almost all the time, they are unable to resist the temptation to practise ‘interesting’ animal noises—usually in the most inappropriate of places—but they are extremely adept at this skill, to the extent that no human could possibly spot the difference between a gelgin mimic and the real animal, although the sound of a sheep in your attic or a wildebeest in your garden might seem a little out of place, if you stop to think about it. At the same time, the sibilant hiss of a snake in the grass is too obvious to be unexpected, and the choking croak of a frog in the throat cannot fail to be overheard, while any noise made by a toad in the hole is likely to be something of a giveaway. In this climate of deception, it would clearly be a big mistake to let the cat out of the bag, but it should be pointed out that anyone who has ever been taken in, even briefly, by the crocodile-in-the-bathroom gag must be quite a few coins short of a bus fare, unless, that is, the bath is where they keep their pet alligator whenever the ornamental duck pond has been taken over by invading gaggles of garrulous geese. But for those whose pet-keeping habits follow a more orthodox pattern, or who live far from any duck pond, much less a landscaped boating lake, the deduction is obvious. Come on! It was probably the plumbing, wasn’t it? Or was it?

Some gelgins are very inquisitive, poking their long noses into matters that are none of their concern. This could easily land them in more trouble than they could possibly handle, if only we knew they were there in the first place. However, because we don’t know they are there, or, rather, because we think we know they aren’t there, it doesn’t occur to us to take even the most elementary anti-gelgin precautions. Not, it might be mentioned in passing, that this would be anything less than a complete waste of time.

But it is the third characteristic of gelgins that is the most significant, the one for which they are known, the one whereby they leave their indelible imprint upon the world. They are utter, utter nuisances. They simply love to play elaborately planned little practical jokes, although this should not be taken to imply that they will eschew the opportunity to cause some spur-of-the-moment mayhem, should such an opportunity arise. In any case, they are so highly skilled at their sneaky pranks that even the most vigilant of victims never suspects the real perpetrators, blaming instead, if not their own clumsiness, then mysterious markings on the palms of their outstretched hands, the planet Mars in an undefined role, the government advisory committee on card games for three, even the theory of relativity. This last hypothesis turns out to be close, as it happens, although this isn’t because the explanation has anything to do with hard sums about time and the speed of light, or even with the odd notion that it’s possible to have third cousins twice removed (to where, one might ask). No, it’s because international finance, like wealth itself, is a relative concept. One person’s idea of extreme penury is another’s vision of the ultimate in luxury, just as one person’s fierce and dangerous dog is another’s yapping little terrier, barking unendingly for reasons that should now be clear.

This, in fact, is a clear demonstration of the brilliance of gelgin tactics—by appearing not to exist they confuse their victims, who cannot point an accusing finger at what they are unable to see and must therefore look elsewhere. As a result, when trying to determine who to blame for a series of mishaps, or who to hold responsible when a carefully thought-out plan has failed to work, a victim will offhandedly dismiss the only genuinely plausible theory available on the terminally weak grounds that somehow they had been led to believe that gelgins do not exist, forgetting that this deliberately misleading notion had originally been implanted into their subconscious minds by the gelgins themselves using the esoteric techniques of Japanese flower arranging for beginners, painting by numbers and letter writing without a pen to create a grand illusion of non-existence.

This may also help to explain why gelgins are so relentlessly annoying—and why they are so good at it. If ever a world championship were to be staged to decide the best, that is the most accomplished, annoyer of people, all human competitors would be eliminated well before the final stages of the tournament. Think of the most annoying person you know. How irritating is that? Well, double it and add the number you first thought of. Gelgins are much, much worse. Time after time, a gelgin would win in the final, and what’s more, win without having bothered to train. Being a large piece of sharp and abrasive grit in the otherwise well-oiled clockwork of human existence comes as naturally to a gelgin as, well, eating, which is what they most enjoy doing after playing practical jokes, and which is what they were doing, most likely, instead of training for that annoying world championship.

Although you will find no direct evidence of gelgin activity in the historical record, there are a few linguistic clues. For example, it is well known that crows are woodland birds, yet sailors named the look-out post at the top of the main mast of a sailing ship ‘the crow’s nest’. Why? One can speculate about this story, but no more. It may be that when look-out platforms were first used on sailing ships, most sailors did refer to ‘the seagull’s nest’. But one sailor, originally from a country village but press-ganged into service aboard a large sailing ship while on what became the last of his previously regular visits to the midsummer fair that was held every year in the nearest large town, which just happened to be a seaport—naturally, this is all conjecture—may one day have overheard a gelgin practising its squawking crow routine in what at that time was still known as the seagull’s nest. But, having recognized the sound despite the length of time since he had last heard a real crow, he began to refer to the look-out platform as ‘the crow’s nest’, because, he said, it reminded him of home. To humour him, his shipmates began to do the same—as a joke, you understand—but its use spread, presumably because it was for a short time a very funny joke. After all, a crow doesn’t spring to mind as a natural seabird, just as a puffin masquerading as a bird of prey would fail to convince, and a vulture is a poor substitute for a budgerigar.

Gelgins are gregarious creatures. They make their homes in vast networks of halls and tunnels that have been excavated over many generations in river banks, grassy knolls and the sides of wooded hillocks cloaked in brambles, briar and sundry other thorny things. And this is where you realize that gelgins are consummate masters of the arts of concealment, because every gelgin knows instinctively that the true art of concealing an object lies not in hiding it, much less in camouflaging it, but in placing it in plain view and making its presence so screamingly obvious that nobody notices it, even if they are looking for the object, and especially if they have been searching for the object for some time. This artistry is what makes their tunnels so difficult to locate, although the occasional well-contrived malfunction in the laws of physics does help.

Although gelgins live as far away as they possibly can from places frequented by humans, they venture far and wide to play their practical jokes. All the funniest are ones that require elaborate preparation, as you might expect, but many a gelgin will casually jog a man’s arm as he hammers in a nail just to watch his reaction as the hammer hits the thumb of the hand holding the nail. The man neither sees nor hears the gelgin and therefore blames the mishap on his own clumsiness. This is not to suggest that there are no clumsy people, merely that many people who have hitherto thought of themselves as clumsy may have been plagued by gelgins more frequently than is usually the case. The same argument can also be used to explain why some people have acquired a reputation for absent-mindedness, for forgetting where they leave things, when in truth the problem is a gelgin furtively moving (or removing) the items in question. And this is where the discussion began, with objects being moved mysteriously when nobody was paying attention. But in coming full circle, has anything been established beyond doubt? Not really, except that gelgins are no joke.