Saturday, 27 June 2015

colour field analysis

Readers of my photographic abstraction series will know that one of my favourite motifs is oil or petrol on a wet road. What they won’t know is that most such photographs used in this series were taken on the same day several years ago, in the village where I live in Hong Kong, which I put down to the activities of a single leaky vehicle whose owner had finally fixed the problem. Good oil spills are just not that common. I often take photos of oil stains, but these invariably turn out to be almost completely devoid of colour, and as a result increasing the colour saturation and cranking up the contrast has little effect.

However, it was drizzling steadily when I went out for my morning walk yesterday, and to my surprise (and delight), there were vivid oil stains everywhere. Some stains covered such large areas that it was all but impossible to capture them in a single photograph. I could have collected these images and posted them one by one in future editions of the photographic abstraction series, but just as I did with the oil slicks on my local river in Troubled Waters, I’ve decided to post everything together here.

Photos #3–5 are overlapping sections of the same oil stain, but all the others come from different stains. Photos #8–10 were taken when the roads had started to dry out. I’ve given neutral titles to all these pictures so that anyone who feels so inclined can suggest their own.

colour field #1

colour field #2

colour field #3

colour field #4

colour field #5

colour field #6

colour field #7

colour field #8

colour field #9

colour field #10

Thursday, 25 June 2015

early one morning

I can’t believe it. I’ve been back in my home town for more than five weeks, and I still haven’t been out on the bike. Too bloody cold! The unusual weather in Hong Kong, which I complained about in Haywire, is being replicated here in Britain, although clearly the culprit here is not El NiƱo. Equally clearly though, it seems to me, the two phenomena are connected.

I may not have been doing any cycling, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been idle. I’ve been out for a walk around my home town every morning, whatever the weather, although I won’t cover more than 5–6km if it’s raining. There is usually plenty to see and hear as I walk the town’s ‘green’ footpaths, quiet residential streets and even quieter country lanes.

The first ‘checkpoint’ on my walk is Thacka Beck Nature Reserve, a small wetland area on the northwest fringe of town. Thacka Beck is an artificial stream that was created in the fourteenth century to provide the town with a water supply. It connects the River Petteril to the north with the River Eamont to the south, and at one time it split the town in two, but nowadays it is completely covered over apart from one very short section.

The wetland area is essentially a buffer zone that was built to ameliorate the potentially catastrophic flooding that used to occur all too frequently in the town centre. Ducks are a common sight here, and the occasional moorhen can also be spotted:

There are also four cows that have been left to graze the marshy area around the central pond:

I have mentioned these animals mainly because they do not appear to belong to any of the common breeds found on British farms. It would not be surprising if they did turn out to be exotics though, because there is an agricultural college a mile or so down the lane, and you wouldn’t believe the strange-looking sheep I’ve seen in some of the fields.

The other day, all four cows were making extensive use of the sign that proclaims that the nature reserve was constructed using funds from the European Union:

This one had what I can only describe as an excruciating itch in its right cheek, which it didn’t seem able to alleviate, although that didn’t deter it from persevering. I thought that the scratching looked painful.

Leaving the nature reserve behind, my route takes me under the railway, but on one occasion a few weeks ago I’d just passed under the bridge when I heard a very striking birdsong. I managed to make several recordings, and although it was very much a case of point and hope, I also took a photograph that was at least good enough to help with identification (if not much better).

An unidentified songbird (click to play):

I sent the photo and recording to a friend, who prefers that I don’t mention his name. He suggested that it was a mistle thrush, an identification that I was able to confirm on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) website, which provided an audio clip. I’ve since noted several on my walks, often in the same tree, at the same time, but this bird has never been back.

The route then leaves town to the north, following a series of quiet country lanes, before doubling back across the town’s golf course and through a short wooded section…

…to reach the edge of the built-up area.

Most of what was farmland to the southeast of town when I was growing up has long ago been developed for housing, and this process is continuing, but there is still a pleasant path through the fields that avoids current developments:

On several recent occasions, I’ve encountered this small group of sheep, which appears to have become trapped in this area after forcing its way through a spring-loaded gate. These individuals are remarkably calm and relaxed given how close I was (I couldn’t get any further away).

It even has a traditional stone stile, although this one is a tight squeeze:

I had been in the habit of heading back through town shortly after crossing this stile, but this morning it occurred to me that if I kept going until I reached the River Eamont, I’d find a public footpath along the north bank. Here are some photos taken from this path:

Although this isn’t the end of the walk, there is no option, once the next road has been reached, but to head back into and across town. And that’s enough exercise for the day.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

send in the clowns

I’ve followed every US presidential election since 1960, and I can make two observations that have applied to every contest since then. The first is that whatever the result, it will have an effect on my life, as it will on the lives of billions of non-Americans, even though none of us will have had a say in the outcome. The second is the incredulity I feel when I contemplate the sheer mediocrity of many of the candidates.

The problem, of course, is that because this is a contest to determine who will be the next person to wear the label ‘most powerful person in the world’, it attracts contenders whose most striking asset is the size of their heads. I’ve long believed that the criteria for candidates—must be born in the USA; must be at least 35 years of age—should exclude anyone who actually wants the job. In case anyone thinks that I’m lecturing the United States on how to run its politics, I happen to believe that such a rule would bolster the democratic credentials of any country that adopted it, including my own.

There are actually two types of US presidential election, and the political landscapes that characterize the two are strikingly different. The first type is an election where neither of the candidates has any prior experience of the job. This type is comparatively rare—only six of the seventeen presidential elections held since the end of the Second World War have not involved an incumbent president—although the election to be held in 2016 will fall into this category.

Only three of the eleven elections involving a sitting president resulted in that president being booted out. And in two of those cases, there were significant factors that militated against the re-election of the incumbent (Gerald Ford pardoning Richard Nixon; Jimmy Carter failing to resolve the Iran hostage crisis). It is even possible that George Bush lost in 1992 because a third candidate, Ross Perot, received almost 20 million votes, more of which would have gone to Bush than to Clinton had Perot not been standing. It really does seem that a president has to perform spectacularly badly in office to fail to win a second term, although there may be another factor that bears on the result: the quality of the challenger.

I’ve begun to wonder whether there is a tendency by whichever party does not hold the White House to field an obvious no-hoper against the man in power. Republicans may, looking back, regard Barry Goldwater (1964) as a good conservative candidate, but from the other side of the Atlantic, he was seen as a lunatic likely to trigger a nuclear war.

The Democratic candidate in 1972, George McGovern, was a single-issue politician who had no chance against a slick operator like Richard Nixon, while Mitt Romney in 2012 was a rich man with no idea of what it is like to be poor. Bob Dole in 1996 might have seemed like a good choice, especially given the impeachment of the incumbent, but Bill Clinton was able to ride the crest of an endless wave of good economic news, and I was left wondering whether Dole was handed the nomination as the reward for a lifetime of service to the party, given that the party was unlikely to win.

I do sometimes wonder whether Ronald Reagan was this stooge in 1980, and it was only Jimmy Carter’s problems in Iran allied to Reagan’s undoubted skills as an actor—in B movies, lest we forget—that upset the usual order of things.

It seems that the Democratic Party is more likely to field a strong candidate against a sitting president—former vice president Walter Mondale in 1984 and John Kerry in 2004 are recent examples—but this doesn’t explain why the party fielded probably the weakest candidate to represent one of the major parties in an election not involving an incumbent (Michael Dukakis in 1988) during my lifetime. Adlai Stevenson may have been a reasonable choice to go up against Eisenhower in 1952, but the Democrats must have been short of potential challengers in 1956 to give him a second go following his landslide defeat in the previous contest.

In fact, with the exception of 1988, elections without an incumbent president have been fought between strong candidates on both sides, and I expect next year’s election to be no different, although it isn’t yet clear who those candidates are likely to be. Given the low approval ratings of the current president, I expect the Democratic Party candidate to lose, which is probably a good thing if Hillary Clinton is that candidate.

“Wouldn’t you like to see a woman president?”

This has been a prominent slogan since Clinton began her campaign for the presidency, and it is hard to gainsay. Some people will vote for her merely because she is a woman, without examining her credentials, her suitability for the job. I couldn’t help but notice how much was made of the sheer distance she covered around the globe as secretary of state, as if this is somehow a reflection of how well she did the job. Meanwhile, I noted her public haranguing of China, which marks her out as a grade-one ignoramus.

However, a Republican victory would also be a bit of a worry. There is the possibility that the next American president will believe that the Earth was created a little more than 6,000 years ago and will encourage more public schools to teach ‘creation science’ instead of real science. Some of the current crop of Republican hopefuls wear their religious convictions like badges of honour and do their best to repudiate the intentions of the founding fathers that church and state be kept separate.

Is John McCain standing again? I’m certain that he would have won in 2008 had he not been lumbered with a running mate who made stupid people seem clever, but that is yet another reason to be worried about the Republican Party. Sarah Palin remains a star as far as the Tea Party movement is concerned, and you have to worry about any candidate chosen by such people.

What the party needs is a white knight who will ride to the rescue. And, guess what? It has one. After several electoral cycles during which he toyed with the idea of putting his name forward before deciding against it, Donald Trump has declared his candidacy this week. I haven’t yet found the time to listen to the entire proclamation, but the following brief extract gives a flavour of what this embodiment of the American dream is likely to sound like on the campaign trail:
…How are they going to beat Isis? I don’t think it’s gonna happen. Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.
Send in the clowns? Don’t bother, they’re here.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

badinage de chine

One of my favourite activities when I’m in Hong Kong is quite a mundane one: drinking tea. Of course, there is more to yam char (‘drink tea’) than the name suggests. There are the accompanying savoury delicacies known collectively as dim sum, which I never grow tired of. Over the years, depending on where we were living at the time, Paula and I have been regular patrons at several different restaurants, but the one we go to nowadays has an attraction like no other.

It doesn’t have the best dim sum we’ve ever tried, but the food is certainly good enough to ensure our continuing custom. In fact, if you were to accompany us for morning tea, or afternoon tea, you might wonder what was so remarkable about the experience. But then comes time to pay.

The restaurant is a mere five-minute walk from Fanling station, which is in turn a mere five-minute journey from the border with the rest of China, so there are likely to be quite a few Chinese tourists in the afternoon (not at 7 o’clock in the morning though, which is one of the times we usually go). When such tourists are ready to leave, they call for the bill (‘mai dan’). Locals like ourselves follow a different procedure: we take our dockets directly to the cashier’s desk in order to pay.

And this is where it becomes really interesting. The two ladies behind the counter—one to tot up the bill from the rubber stamps on our docket and one to take the cash—seem intent on testing out my Cantonese, which isn’t all that good if I’m to be honest.

What follows is not a typical exchange but an imagined scenario that incorporates most of the best examples of the kind of banter I have to deal with. The romanization here is my own, because the Wade–Giles system used for Cantonese is rather silly, especially in its treatment of initial plosive consonants.

I hand my docket to the first lady.

Gei cheen? [‘how much?’]” she asks, angling to see whether I can give the correct answer in Cantonese.

This may sound like a silly question, but Paula and I don’t always order the same dim sum baskets, and—this will probably seem odd to Westerners—prices vary depending on whether you are there in the morning, lunchtime or afternoon, and also whether it is a weekday, Saturday, Sunday or public holiday. The cheapest time is in the early morning during midweek, and the most expensive is lunchtime on public holidays. I sometimes know the answer, but unless I’m shown the calculated bill, I can have only one reply.

Ngor m’gee [‘I don’t know’].”

However, occasionally I have a different remark to deal with. This is a typical example.

M’sai cheen [‘no need to pay’].”

There is only one possible reaction to such a comment.

Ho yeh [‘excellent’]. M’goi sai [‘thank you very much’].”

And I walk out the door. Of course, I know that she’s joking, and after ten seconds or so I come back to continue the exchange, which often involves me being quoted an absurd price, as much as double the real bill. There may be other ways to reply to such a blatant attempt to overcharge me, but my favourite, especially since both ladies collapsed in hysterics the first time I deployed it, is the following.

Yow mo gow chor [‘you have to be kidding’].”

Then there was the time when the bill came to $85, and, not wishing to be lumbered with heavy coins, I proffered a $100 note and a $5 coin.

Ngam ngam ho [‘just right’],” said the second lady.

This was an expression I hadn’t encountered before, but I thought it would be a good one to use myself. Consequently, the next time we went to the restaurant, I made sure that we ordered the same dishes so that the bill would again come to $85. I placed $65 on the counter.

Ngam ngam ho,” I said confidently.

Needless to say, this ploy didn’t work.

Other ‘tricks’ that I need to watch out for include not being given the correct change, to which the only possible reply is “m’gow ah! [‘not enough’], and, if my proffered payment includes coins, being told that I haven’t paid enough (because the cashier has blatantly palmed one of the coins).

I don’t want to give the impression that there is any genuine dishonesty involved here. On one occasion when I went to the restaurant by myself, I discovered that I’d forgotten my wallet after I’d placed my order, but the ladies were very understanding, allowing me to pay the next time I came. It’s just a bit of fun, and as I sit here in cold, rainy Britain, I can’t help but miss what is an integral part of my life in Hong Kong.

The restaurant’s combination basket is an ideal choice for someone who is on their own.