Friday, December 26, 2008

0812261100 The day known throughout all of Christendom as Christmas Eve

On Tuesday, the day known throughout all of Christendom as Christmas Eve, I went with a friend and his son, Brad and Michael, to a golf driving range.
The golf driving range is a lot of fun, it takes all the administration and tedium out of the game and
just leaves the fun part, that is, whacking the ball downrange without having to go and get it.

When I was kid growing up in rural Australia we played cricket in the summer and football in the winter. There was an interesting primary school variation on both these games that made them a lot more fun. The variations basically
removed all the rules. In cricket, there were no teams. Whoever owned the bat would bat first, whoever owned the ball would bowl first and all the poor kids that could not afford either would be fielders. I always started out as a fielder. The idea was to get a turn at batting. If you caught the ball, it was your turn to bat. This is a game of cricket at it simplest and purist form. Football, or Australian Rules, was refined to its simplest and most basic level of fun. Two teams of kids of roughly equal numbers and ability would stand a reasonable distance apart and kick the ball to each other. If you caught the ball, or “marked” the ball as it is called, then it was your turn to kick. There was no score, no teams and no stopping. Sometimes, in an utterly unheard of variation on every sport, there was more than one ball in play. The golf driving range is like that – just hit the ball. Players compete against their own internal perceived, real or imagined shortcomings.
Golf is an unusual sport. The winner in a game of golf is the one who played the least. There is no way that anybody can get that little ball into that little hole, all the way over there relying on their hard-earned skill and practice alone. When anyone gets a hole in one, anybody, it is simply one of those cosmic coincidences where everything that the golfer does is utterly canceled out by everything else that the universe is does. The hole itself is only 108mm across – about 10cm. A trained soldier must fire five rounds into an area 10cm across at a range of 100m to pass a marksmanship test. It takes a specialised weapon designed and built for the purpose of delivering accurate aimed fire to achieve this. A golfer tries to do this by a method that is more or less an overly complicated way of hitting a ball with a stick.
The driving range, like an army shooting range has a variety of targets in the impact area. In the centre was a basket about two meters across that the owners must have set up in a moment of either hopeless optimism or insanity. Their idea is that the golfers simply and effortlessly hit the balls downrange and pop them into the basket, thus making the whole laborious job of retrieving the balls so much easier. I spent most of the time trying to hit the basket. It was soon apparent that I do not have the golfing skills to do this and having a military background I resorted to a tactic that would increase probability of hitting the target by increasing the rate of fire. Brad said “I have never seen a golf game turn into an aerobic workout”.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

0812201630 Abandon Ship.

Star-date 0812201600 - The crew have left the ship and taken a journey across time and space to the home planet. The crew quarters have been abandoned and so in an attempt to save power and conserve oxygen they have been locked in a time-freeze vortex and hermetically sealed. The remaining crew have retreated to the common areas and set up life support and communication systems while the crew are on planet leave.

There is a strange emptiness about the ship, silent and motionless. The only sounds being the humming of exterior life-support machinery and the long lonely wailing of the ships mascot, the friendly EBE known as Taj – also known in the local language as “Mau mau mau” as he stalks the silent corridors, sniffing at the air trying to pick up the trail of his beloved and conspicuously absent crew. He has elected to remain in hypersleep rather than face the bitter solitary loneliness alone, by himself, unaccompanied without company, companionship or other people.

With the remainder of the crew temporally absent, an immediate change in rations was instigated consisting of a local resupply of curry, hot chillies, lush succulent mushrooms and abundant local fruit and vegetables. Dinner menu for the remaining crew on day-one consisted of Ki-Si-Min – a meal from the home planet with the main ingredient being curried cabbage. This particular meal is rarely on the menu due to it being unpopular with the Jr. Navigation Officer. Menu for day two: Spaghetti with mushrooms and bacon.

The usual daily routine continues unabated with reminders for regular customs and rituals being handled by various mechanical and electronic devices.

The ship is empty and bereft of life, it drifts slowly through time waiting for the return of the crew. Estimated time of return: 384 hours.

References: I was genuinely surprised to see this!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

0812182200 Teaching English as a Foreign Language

I have started an online course in TEFL - Teaching English as a Foreign Language and I am about half-way through. I had to write an assignment for lesson seven about what I learned regarding grammar.

What is Grammar? & Language Awareness

Describe your experience in school learning grammar.
My experience learning grammar at school is non-existent. I do not remember a single lesson although I am sure the public school system in Australia in the nineteen seventies was at least up to world standards. I can vaguely remember being corrected by my grumpy grandmother, now deceased, whose grammar was such that she spoke as if she had learned the language from an illiterate Spanish pirate.
One of the many motivators for learning grammar as an adult was when I found it odd that managers at work seemed to use personal pronouns the wrong way. They all referred to themselves as “myself”. One day, after a particularly nasty corporate restructure, a new manager walked in and grandly stated “You have been transferred to myself”. I looked at him in bewilderment. I had only been speaking English for forty odd years at the time and so I wondered if it was just me that had the grammar rules all wrong. Maybe there really was a rule that allowed authority figures to abuse personal pronouns in the same manner that the Queen of England can refer to herself as “We”. There is no such rule, and if a rule ever becomes acceptable then Baden Powell, if he was still alive, would turn in his grave.
How much preparation will you need to be ready to teach in the ESL/EFL classroom? Or, do you prefer to ´learn as you go´?
I will need, and I will do a great deal of preparation for the classroom. It can either be hard now, at the beginning of my new career or even harder later, and probably more embarrassing when questioned by a student. I believe that preparation is also a major component of confidence. The December school holidays will be a good opportunity to catch up on some of the grammar rules and get ahead in the lesson plans. It has already been said by a greater man than I, “Be prepared”.
How could knowledge of the basic rules of grammar work to your advantage?
Some of the great advantages of knowing the grammar rules will be confidence and professionalism. Part of my career plan is to be a TEFL teacher in China – having a professional approach to the role must include a working knowledge of the rules. This approach may result in favourable references and lead to a lucrative contract.
A working knowledge of the grammar rules is the shifting-spanner in the tool box of a TEFL teacher. It should be a goal of the TEFL teacher to become a general authority on the English language at the workplace. Someone is paying a TEFL teacher to solve any and all English language problems at a school or an international business. It would be like hiring a repairman and have him scratch his head and walk away saying that he can’t fix it. I, for one, would not call that company again.

You saw many examples of ´metalanguage´, or, language about language, (noun, verb, clause, etc.) in the test. How important will this be to you as a teacher?
Metalanguage will be important to me as a teacher because it enables conversation among peers. It enables other professionals to discuss specific terms within their professions. It will be used in the classroom to describe the rules, phrases and conventions used in the English language that result in specific actions being carried out. A clear, unambiguous and concise description of the grammar rules can be conveyed to the students who in turn will be able to ask the right questions using the correct terms.
Were there any surprises that you encountered in this module? Describe them and what they will mean to your future as a teacher.
This module had a few surprises. It has taken me four days of constant pondering to accept that the statement “I have gone” is really present perfect tense. My mind was perplexed – I was riding my Vespa along a winding mountain road on the south side of Hong Kong Island oblivious to the majesty and splendour of the scenery because of this grammar rule. I was thinking “Surely it must be past tense?” as I instinctively rounded a sweeping left corner without paying much attention to the speed at which I was travelling. How can being gone be present? - I pondered as I deftly flipped the Vespa between a bus and a tip-truck while zipping through a busy round-about. Eventually it became apparent, the rules state clearly that the sentence is quite definitely a present condition of being gone. Being gone is also a condition that I nearly found myself in as I realised that riding a motorscooter around Hong Kong requires constant attention.

Monday, December 1, 2008

0812012130 One day while riding a Vespa in Hong Kong.

Today while riding my Vespa scooter along one of Hong Kong’s most treacherous industrial arterial roads, I noticed a truck in front of me with an interesting load. It looked expensive. It looked like one of those huge missiles that the former Soviet Union liked to bring out by the hundreds and parade through Red Square in Moscow on their version of National Day – except this one was shorter, as if they were only transporting the dangerous business end. It was wrapped in its own custom made green thermal blanket and then secured with a snug fitting cargo net. When I pulled up closer I could see that it was an engine for a Boeing 747 that probably belonged to Qantas. There was a documentary for the A380 Airbus that said that each of the Rolls Royce engines cost more than their equivalent weight in gold. I wondered what the insurance was for this thing, it was just hoiked on the back of a truck and was now the responsibility of a Chinese truck driver who was being paid the very minimum that they could and still have him diligently arrive for work with a smile each morning. There were no guards, no escort, nothing.

Aeroplanes are a frightfully expensive commodity in our modern society. They take an enormous amount of land to land and they take up just as much to take off. The area of the Hong Kong airport is bigger than the CBD of Hong Kong or it could cover the Kowloon Peninsula. The land on which the old Tia Tak airport in Hong Kong used to occupy has not been fully developed even after ten years of record population growth.
I can see a day in the not too far future when air travel will be a dreadful inconvenience. The security measures that we must endure now are already bordering on absurd but soon we will look back at a time when it was so easy to board a plane.

One day all travelers will have to arrive five hours before the departure time in order to undergo the rigorous security procedures.
Travelers will have to change into disposable airline-issued flight overalls. One size fits all. The luxury of wearing the clothes of your own choice will be done away with because some idiot will try to sneak onto a plane wearing a jumper made from nitrocellulose. All passengers will have to wait in a quarantine until they have a bowel movement because some criminal will try to swallow something dangerous in order to use it later – despite the obvious social faux pas and embarrassing risk of disease. All baggage will go on separate aeroplanes – having baggage and people on the same plane will be too risky – the cargo planes will be radio controlled pilotless airliners. The risk of your baggage not being at the same airport, or even the same county, will increase in proportion to the distance that you travel. There will be no meals, not even drinks, and no movi
es during a flight. There will be no need. Passengers will be sedated via an intravenous drip so that everyone will be unconscious. The airlines will save a bundle on all that service that passengers insist on while hurtling along at some inhuman speed at a height where nothing that lives chooses to go. After a few hours of enforced unconsciousness, passengers will arrive fresh and rested as if they have just had their appendix removed – now there’s an idea – seeing as they will be anesthetised for a few hours, why not take the opportunity to have that rhinoplasty done.

This is the sort of thing that goes through my mind while riding my Vespa instead of paying attention to the traffic.


I had a typical wonderful day at the Chinese Catholic Girls School at which I work. First up, three lessons with delightful first year students where the lesson plan called for the teaching and testing of just two words – sunny and raining. Then my favourite subject – lunch – one of the wonderful
students bought me some che faan. I know that there is a saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch but I had one today. Then, as if I had planned it to happen this way, students spontaneously arrived to practice their performance song to be ready for Christmas. They have an amazing music program at Our Lady’s Primary School and it is to this music program that I attribute the students ability to be able to sing Away in a Manger after hearing the melody once. Rhythm, rhyme and meter all assimilated in one pass. It was as if they had read the notice board and decided to learn the Christmas song 3 months in advance. Then something occurred that I always wanted to happen – one of the teachers was not expecting me for the “Speaking English” class in the afternoon and after a brief exchange of “I can do the lesson if you like” and “Oh no it’s OK I have a plan” and “I can help with if you like” and other such niceties I went and had a extra bonus little-lunch break.

On the way home I was reminded again of trucks with expensive loads when I saw that a truck had lost its load of Christmas decorations and there were hundreds of silver and gold baubles lining the road.

Tent 900 engine is 14190 lbs. 14 190 lb, lbs = 227 040 ounces = about USD$170M

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

0811251300 Uncle Dan.

One of my earliest memories of Uncle Dan is of him competing in a motorbike race. He was racing for something that was apparently worth risking his neck for when he was involved in an accident.
It was a bright day, the track was out in a field that had just the right amount of rolling green hills to make seeing the entire race almost impossible. As a kid, I was looking for the motorbikes, but they were always going into a valley where I could not see them. Suddenly, Everyone seemed very concerned – Dan was in some sort of accident – he came off his bike and, according to the story that I was told when I was five years old, another rider ran over his arm.

Later, much later, about 25 years later, Uncle Dan told me more about what happened. There are no details on who, what or how this particular accident occurred, but it does not take a great imagination to see how an accident just might possible when a bunch of young amateur motorbike enthusiast get together for the sole reason of seeing who can go the fastest.

Dan came off his bike and in a manner that is feared by bike riders, he slid along the rough hot asphalt, rolled into the gravel and finally stopped on the edge of the track with, among other injuries, a broken nose, a broken arm, various cuts, abrasions and a temporally deflated ego. He was smacked in the face by a racetrack at a speed that can be described as "as fast as I can go" and it sure made his eyes water. Dan just lay there, on his back, gathering his thoughts, with his eyes closed. There was blood on his face and his eyes were stinging. He heard the approaching footsteps of a track marshal as he ran towards Dan, the marshal stopped nearby and there was a long silence. After a while the marshal started to walk away. "Aren't you going to help me?" Dan asked, mustering all the dignity that he could given that he could not see and his arm, between his elbow and his wrist, had an extra right-angle bend. The track marshal was surprised and said "Oh sure, I thought you were dead!"

Uncle Dan had some amazing stories about his adventurous outdoor lifestyle that frequently involved some sort of horrific injury. The stainless steel pins that held Dan's broken arm in place were later used as a macabre trophy for an athletic event at one of the fabulous family picnics.

Dan Nightingale 28/07/1934 - 23/11/2008.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

0811182030 Staff training day at Our Lady's Primary School

Sometimes I feel like I am an observer sitting inside David Nightingale's head and I am merely along for the ride, curious to see what he will do next.

When I was a soldier in the Australian army there were some instructors, who had no idea about political correctness, who said that if the Chinese wanted to take over Australia then all they would have to do is send one million troops into Darwin, unarmed and unprovisioned and then simply surrender. The whole idea of this mythical Chinese tactical masterplan would be that the Australian army would not have the local resources to manage one million Chinese prisoners of war and would then, and in a manner that was never explained to my satisfaction, surrender to the Chinese. Some of the army instructors that I worked with had actually been in a war when they were young men and while I was in primary school, and although they never mentioned the Chinese specifically, they did mention a few of Australias northern neighbors.

I was thinking about what these army instructors said about a Chinese invasion the other day while travelling on a bus full of Chinese Catholic Nuns on my way to the Chinese border. It was one of those moments when I asked myself “What am I doing and how did I get here?”. As an Australian soldier, one of my main tasks was to avoid going to the Chinese border. The Chinese Catholic school at which I work had a staff training day and we all went to the Mai Po wetlands. It is a sanctuary for migrating birds and thousands of migratory birds go to Mai Po on their way to Australia from Siberia.

We all had a pleasant day at Mai Po walking, talking about life the universe and everything and being generally relaxed. Although I have worked at the school for nearly a year, I have not met some of the other teachers because we are all in classes at the same time - so the only time we see other teachers is for a few minutes in passing. It can take days to exchange pleasantries in this manner. The department head for the English program, Catherine, was the Chinese teacher that drew the short straw and had to be an interpreter for me all day. We mostly talked about languages.

The Mai Po bird sanctuary is like a military base. Visitors are reminded to avoid wearing bright colored clothing that may disturb the flora and fauna - it is this minor detail that makes the dedicated staff take this small point seriously and wear camouflage. There was even a wildlife scientist who was riding a camouflaged mountain bike. The guided tour took us to an interesting observation post overlooking the lake. The entrance to the observation post was via a covered walkway set up so that the birds would not be disturbed.

The observation post was a three story high rustic timber building made from solid railway sleepers and built in the style of a Chinese army field shelter type ZW-45 sans OHP. The design had been adapted from a military design for the avian scientists - the machine gun mounts had been replaced with camera tripods. The building had small but serviceable open windows on every side. The minimal area makes a small target. Each station had a diagram of the view with labels showing the distinct features. This is the standard operating procedure for artillery forward observers. There were a few bird watchers who reminded me of an anti-aircraft crew – every time a bird flew past they would open fire with their cameras sporting huge telephoto lenses while panning smoothly across their arcs of fire. The whirring sound of motor drives replacing the din of a Chinese PGZ95 25mm machine gun. When the cameras stopped there would be a short debrief while they gave a target description and damage report. I instinctively looked on the floor to see if there were any spent cart cases. I had such a mix of emotions.

We watched some scientist tagging and releasing some rare and endangered birds. It was all explained in great detail at the time, however I don't remember much of what was said because I only understood one out of every seven words. It only takes a few missing words to completely alter the gist of a story.

Lunch was fantastic. A huge Yum Char with all the staff. The delightful Chinese teachers decided to teach me some Chinese table manners. The sort of Chinese table manners where it is socially acceptable to drink from a bowl, slurp noodles and I literally can only begin to describe how we ate Bok Choi. As a foreigner, and only at first, it seemed strange to me to see educated, attractive and intelligent women elegantly spit chicken bones onto the table. I can eat using fie tse,( 筷子) but there is a lot more than just being able to pick up a ready-cut morsel. The real skill comes when trying to hold a chicken wing, and to hold it in such a way so as to keep control of all the bones but still be able to get to all the meaty bits without dropping anything. I did not feel entirely comfortable using the new table manners and so when it came to the "how to eat rice" lesson I shoveled some rice into my mouth Chinese style, but in an awkward sort of way that actually caused the very situation that I was trying to avoid, that is spilling rice on my chin. The happy Chinese teachers said that I should practice at home and that there would be a test on Monday. I have a new nickname – Chicken Bones.

They dared me to eat chicken’s feet.
They dared me to eat Pig’s skin.
They dared me to eat spicy seaweed.
They dared me to eat marshmallow.

Seeing as the meal is called Yum Char which means "Drink Tea" they naturally asked why I do not drink tea. I told them that there is a long story and a short story, but in the end of both stories I still don’t drink tea. The simple reason is this - I am too lazy. It seems to me that it is simply too much trouble to go through all that mucking about with boiling water, tea bags, tea cups and waiting. Waiting for the water to boil, waiting for the tea to steep and then waiting for whole thing to cool down again. I will not even mention the ghastly process of cleaning up. The whole rigmarole does not pass the “effort vs. reward” test. Same for coffee, mostly the same for hot chocolate.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

0811152230 I have my Vespa back

I have my Vespa back.

The repairs took about 37 days – most of that time was waiting for parts. Enough said.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

0810042030 Things said in haste...

This letter was not sent to the head office of Vespa.

I have heard it said that just writing a letter of complaint is enough to alleviate the frustration. I feel better now.

Dear Vespa Dealer

Dear Sir,
I recently bought a beautiful new GTS250ie but last Tuesday morning (30th of September 2008) , my new Vespa suffered an electrical problem and stopped. There was smoke coming from the engine compartment caused by burning wires. Later that afternoon, I pushed my Vespa to the authorised repair centre at San Po Kong where I told the friendly and helpful staff about the problem. They told me that they understood that I was disappointed. Everyone was polite and there was no need to discuss warranty claims - it is understood that my Vespa has done only 1000 kilometres, and had been serviced at the San Po Kong service centre on Monday the 29th of September and the fault will be repaired under warranty.

Today, (Saturday 4th of October), at about one o’clock, I went to the service centre to see what progress has been made on the repair. To my disappointment, I found that nothing has been done to repair the faulty wiring. I was told that the good people at the authorised repair centre have taken photos of the damage and have asked head office for advice. I understand that this may be part of the process when making a warranty repair, however, I am disappointed that the authorised service centre seems to be more concerned about getting advice and asking what department within the Vespa company will pay for the warranty claim rather than focusing on customer service and doing the actual repair.

I would have liked to have seen some progress on replacing the wires. A service centre should put the customer first. The good people at the service centre have said that they understand that I am concerned and they have even “apologised” for the inconvenience. Actions speak louder than words, or as it is said locally, “Talk doesn't cook rice” and I am sorry to say that I have seen no action on the repair.

Sadly, as a result of this electrical failure, and the lack of progress in the repairs, I have lost confidence in the product. My confidence in the quality of Vespa scooters went up in smoke – the same as the wiring – when it stopped on the side of the road. I bought a new Vespa partly because I see a lot of old Vespa scooters still running. The research into my decision to buy a Vespa lead me to conclude that the quality of Vespa scooters would make them reliable.

Can you please do one of the following:
1) Repair my Vespa in a timely manner. I am sure that a skilled Vespa technician could replace the wiring harness in two days. It would restore my confidence if the service department could repair my Vespa soon.
2) Replace my Vespa. I can be reasonable if another black GTS250ie is not available.
3) Refund.

Could you please reply informing me of your preferred course of action by return email by close of business on Monday the 6th of October 2008.

Please feel free to ask any questions by return email at any time.
Thank you.
David Nightingale
Vespa owner NM 1207
66224730 Saturday 4th October 2008


They have a million and one things to do - mine is somewhere in near 345,876.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

0809302030 Vespa in Hong Kong.

The Vespa went in for its 1000km first service and all went well. The good people at the Vespa Service Centre emphasised the importance of keeping the official "receiving document" and told me that they absolutely cannot return my Vespa without it. My Vespa seemed noticeably smoother after its first service – this could all be psychological in the same way that a motorbike feels faster after it has a good wash. The service cost about two hundred Hong Kong dollars – about $30 Australian.

One of the interesting road rules in Hong Kong is that is illegal to enter a tunnel without sufficient fuel to pass through to the other side – you are also not allowed to load or unload any animals. I needed
petrol, the low fuel light was on but I was confident that I would not only make it through the tunnel but also to my home town. I made it back to my neighbourhood quite happily and filled up my Vespa for the fourth time in its entire life. I love the feeling of having a full tank and day off. It is as close as a free man gets to feeling like a free man. This obscure detail will become relevant later.

The next day I felt unnaturally confident about riding to work. It has taken a few weeks to get into an established a routine – I now know how to get through the labyrinth of expressways and I have free parking the school where I work. My work-day starts with a blissful mid-morning ride along the twisty mountain roads from Stanley to Chai Wan. Although it only happened once, I took the opportunity to overtake
a Porsche 911 along a stretch of dotted lines while a double decker bus kept the whole column of traffic to a dignified forty five kilometres an hour. I love leaning into the sweeping left handers so that the side stand just touches the road and leaves a spectacular Vespa sized spark. I woop with joy at the long smooth downhill where, if I plan it right, I can disengage the centrifuge and free wheel in silence until I glide to a stop at the lights at Chai Wan. Chai Wan is where the character of the ride changes into city traffic. Three lanes, tunnels, overpasses and a lot of traffic. A few minutes of controlled mayhem later I was passing through Wong Tai Sin and stopped at the intersection of Po Tong Village Road and Fung Tak Road. As fate would have it, I was first in line at the lights. This is not my preferred position because I have to pay constant attention. I checked my mirrors as part of the safety drill to be aware of my surroundings just in time to see a Hong Kong Double Decker bus bearing down on me with its headlights flashing. “Why is he flashing his lights?” I asked myself. I found it hard to look away from my mirrors but did so and noticed that the lights had turned green. I had turned into rather flimsy road block for a 70 ton bus, but not for long – a gentle twist and the Vespa engine revved up and hurled me across the intersection and out of harms way. I was in the middle of praising the little Vespa for this deft manoeuvrer when it started misbehaving.

My routine went bung.

The little Vespa lost all power – that thing that I do with twist-and-go throttle not longer went when I twisted. While still moving through the traffic but rapidly running out of speed, I checked the kill switch – I must have bumped it on, that was the only feasible explanation for why a perfectly good, brand new, just back from its 1000km service, Vespa scooter would spontaneously fail to scoot.
Nope - not the kill switch – check the key position – still in the correct position. Engines stop for a variety of reasons, but it usually gets down to either fuel or spark. I was running out of forward momentum now, and as good pilots say, I needed a place to put this thing down. I looked down at the scooter and saw what looked like someone having
a barbeque under my luxurious genuine leather Vespa seat. Smoke! This can’t be good – I had heard on some of the Vespa forums about an exhaust gasket that can fail after a few thousand kilometres and it is usually replaced at the 5000km service. If the gasket fails, it can direct hot exhaust gases onto the brake line and the fuel overflow. I was rolling to stop, in the middle of traffic, billowing smoke with my head filled with thoughts of my new Vespa being engulfed in flames. I found a place to pull over, rolled to a stop and in one smooth motion, kicked the stand down, stepped off and opened the seat. I took off the engine cover and looked in– there were no flames – so far so good – but there was smoke. At this stage there seemed to be less smoke – good news – this may not be a fuel fire after all. I could smell burning plastic, but not burning fuel. It was an electrical fault – the insulation on most of the wires was smoking. It seemed like turning off the power had at least stopped anything from getting worse. The standard issue Vespa tool kit was used to disconnect the battery to make sure.

It is at this point, standing on the side of the road in China next to a smoking Vespa that I was reminded of one my favourite heroes of the Apollo space program – Jim Lovell. He was the first man to go to the
moon. He didn’t land on the moon, but he, and his crew went to within 30 miles of the surface. And he is the only astronaut that did not go the moon twice. He didn’t land on the moon on the Apollo 8 mission with Frank Borman and William Anders and he did not land again with the Apollo 13 mission with Jack Swigert and Freddy Haise. To me, 30 miles out of the 238 odd thousand is close enough. I like his positive outlook. When Jim returned home from NASA’s most successful failure, Apollo 13, he said that of all the times for something to go wrong, the explosion that crippled the command module happened at the best time. If the oxygen tank on the command module had exploded on the way home, instead of on the way there, then they would have died in space. The Luna Lander would not have been there to provide the extra power and air for the return trip. That is the story that came to mind when I was standing on the side of the road watching the faint vestiges of smoke disappearing from my crippled, lifeless Vespa.

Of all the times for something to go wrong, this was a good time. I was within walking distance of the school and the Vespa service centre. It had just had its regular scheduled service, so it is definitely, absolutely covered by warranty – I am sure that the good people at Vespa will do whatever they can to sort this out. It was good that it was an electrical fault
and not a fuel fire. The damage seems to localised to the wires and has not caused any structural damage. I was not injured. I did not cause and accident. The hill that I had to push my 150 kilogram Vespa up and over was really not that steep.

After work, I pushed my Vespa to the service centre. I was pushing my Vespa along the busy streets of Wong Tai Sin and at one stage I had to go along the footpath to avoid some dangerous traffic. I had just pushed my Vespa through a busy market place, a pedestrian tunnel and was now on the footpath when two motorcycle policemen pulled up in front of me. “Where is your helmet?” asked the Chinese policeman from the Special Administrative Region of the Peoples Republic of China. It seems that riding on the footpath is perfectly acceptable here and my helmetless vunerable head was his only concern. I explained that my Vespa had broken down and I was pushing it a few kilometres to the dealer for repairs. He understood the situation, he applied his extensive local knowledge and knew where the dealer was and then he asked me if I needed any help. I was fairly astonished. I don’t know if he was going to help push it or give me a police escort but I told him that I was OK and he left me to it, but not before he shared some of his acquired wisdom as a cautionary warning: “Be careful.”

The manager at the Vespa service centre was, like all the Chinese I have met so far, very polite. He recognised me and asked “Is there a problem?” “Yes, my Vespa was on fire.” He raised his eyebrows in surprise. The good people at the Vespa service centre were
concerned about the problem and had the salesman at my side in a few minutes. “Mr David, we are concerned about your problem and we understand that you must be disappointed.” I agreed. They said that they could not fix it right away and would it be alright if they took a few days. I agreed. There was a big difference in the amount of paperwork needed for the regular service compared to this “unscheduled breakdown”. When I put my Vespa in for a service they “emphasised the importance of keeping the receiving document and told me that they absolutely cannot return my Vespa without this document.” This time they did not ask me to sign anything. My cynical side, which I am seriously trying to suppress, believes that they will find out if this is their fault before they try to contact the Vespa head office for a warranty claim. I am ashamed to admit that I have thought of this because it is exactly what I would do. The Vespa will need all new wiring. I would like this story to end with the good people at the Vespa Service Centre sending me on my way with all repairs done free of charge under warranty. I would like to think positively like Jim Lovell and be confident that I will return home safely from my own successful failure on my new Vespa.

References: A bit from Jim Lovell’s Lost Moon:,M1

Distance to the Moon

Vespa Gasket:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

0809241930 Typhoon Day

One of the amazing differences between Australia and the Special Administrative Region of the Peoples Republic of China are the spontaneous public holidays brought on by the weather. These days are locally called T8 days, which roughly translated means “Typhoon 8 day”. The Chinese have such a sincere regard for the safety of their fellow humans that the Hong Kong Observatory will call a holiday so that no one is at risk of injury during a storm. The risk of personal injury increases significantly during a typhoon and this fact is well known and documented so yesterday afternoon the Hong Kong Observatory called a T8 typhoon warning at six o’clock at night and as a result, this morning, everyone had a day off to go fishing.

Hugo and I went to the waterfront, that is, we went to the edge of the pier which is just outside our house to watch the waves come in. The water of the usually peaceful Stanley Bay was churned into an earthy brown colour and we sat and watched the waves roll and were memorized by the rhythm and movement. We noticed that the waves were breaking far out into the bay. The size of the waves was such that anyone who had travelled a fair distance to Surfers Paradise for a leisurely swim and a half-serious body surf would probably frown and hope that the surf would improve later with the incoming tide and now would be a good time to light the barbecue and have a decent lunch and a game of cricket while waiting, however, for a sheltered cove in Hong Kong the size and power of the waves was causing a minor public spectacle and attracting a curious crowd.

Hugo and I watched a few waves come in and noticed one wave in particular that could be described as a hill of water slowly coming towards us. This wave was clearly much bigger than the other waves around it, it was nicely proportioned and rounded with undulating curves. If it really was a hill and not a wave, it would have been a dainty little hill, like the hill on which Charlie Brown and Linus laid down on, flat on their backs, and looked at the clouds. It made such a pleasant sight and moved silently and gracefully towards us when all of a sudden, without changing its character at all, it became menacing. I took a step back from the edge and asked Hugo in a calm voice that was intended not to convey, but, due to the tone of my voice had completely the opposite effect, panic. “ Hugo, do you feel a sense of impending doom?” The innocence of his answer reflected how secure he must have felt standing behind a solid granite wall on a concrete platform elevated a few meters above the water level – “No” he said, indicating that he was unaware of the afore mentioned doom. There was an audible thud as the weight of the wave heaved itself against the barrier wall. We were instantly surrounded by a blast of water as the energy of the wave was dissipated into spray. We saw white, we felt wet. One second later we were soaked, standing in the aftermath, dripping wet and laughing. The wave hit with such force that it dislodged some of the masonry bricks. The wave, the sea, nature herself simply demonstrated her power by disregarding all man-made barriers and the wave barged its way out of its bounds and onto what was previously known as dry land. We, and a nearby family, burst out laughing at the spectacle.

Friday, September 19, 2008

0809191130 Bite Your Tongue And Breath Out

0809191130 Bite Your Tongue And Breath Out

Language difficulties take on various forms. I have more trouble speaking “American” than speaking Cantonese. One of Hugo’s friends asked me a computer related question the other day – he asked if a certain game can run on his “V-Star” computer. I thought about some different brand names and tried to remember a company called V-Star. It sounded like the name of any other computer company that makes an “IBM clone” as they were known way back in the early days of computers in the 1980s. He could see that I was having some trouble with this seemingly easy question that required a simple yes or no answer and offered some help by saying “You know, a V-Star computer, like PSP and Xbox and XP.” Then it hit me. I had to translate from his American accent into English – he was asking if the game could run on a “Vista” computer.

The different tones in Cantonese have pulled another ghastly trick on me. As a Native English Teacher, I thought it would be nice to show some respect and courtesy by telling the students that they are behaving well in class in their own native language. The rough transliteration of the word behaviour is “Gwai”. This is similar to the word “gwylo” which means “foreigner” or “White Ghost”. The all important correct Cantonese tone is vital. When the students were sitting quietly I would say “Nay Ge Ho Gwai” which I thought was Cantonese for “Your behaviour is very good.” It turns out that I was telling the children that their behaviour was “very expensive”. The students are so polite that they rarely correct me.

For the last few days the students have been practicing for an English recital as part of their assessment. The wonderful little Chinese Students have to remember a few paragraphs in a story. One of the more difficult words for them to say is “Athlete”. The “th” sound is not so easy to describe. The minimal research that I have done in order to continue my crude masquerade as a teacher tells me that this is known as an unvoiced consonant. It is not even a real sound - I have been telling the diligent students to “bite your tongue and breath out.” I will continue my campaign against the horrific mutilation of the word vegetables into “wedge-a-tab-ells”.

Linux experiment.
Linux is not as easy to setup as Windows. I am having an ongoing argument with my Linux computer about who owns the network. It insists on passwords to run a printer and this may be the reason that I return to the tried and tested Windows XP. There is a truism in life – you get what you pay for. It is a shame that Linux comes so close and then one simple thing that does not work makes the whole project unusable. The only duties that I can get my Linux computer to perform are to run a browser so that I can check my email while my real computer plays games and to show really interesting screen savers.
It is a nightmare to get a wireless card working on Linux. It will take more mental energy than I can muster – it involves setting up a windows emulator to run an NDS wrapper so that the WiFi driver can work. It is laborious because due to the unforgiving nature of typing commands into the shell Konsole that involve unfamiliar path names only to be told “bash: file not found” that I find particularly unrewarding. I am told that help is only a as far away as the Linux forums online. With all the complaining it is hard to tell that I am having a lot of fun with it. What I find interesting is not so much that it works so well, but that it works at all. Someone decided, with no promise of any financial reward, to write an operating system. They, that is, the Linux people, whoever they are, did this just to see if they could. The strange thing is that they probably used a Windows PC to get started.

Last week, the whole family was invited to a friend’s place to look at the moon for the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. We had an amazing barbeque the likes of which I have not seen since I had a barbequed roast beef the Ormsbys. Our friend, even though he is an American, understands the purpose and intent of a barbecue. He had at least the three essential ingredients: meat, metal and fire to which he added about 10 kilograms of onion, capsicum and chilies. He knew that cooking steak on a barbecue requires the sort of temperatures that produce smoke. A steak needs some black on the outside while the inside remains so tender that a gifted veterinarian might be able to give the beast a decent chance of a full recovery. There are few things worse than a steak that has met its unfortunate fate of being boiled in its own lukewarm juices and those things are usually found when doctors clean up after a cancer operation. The steak was perfect, the onions and capsicum were delicately seared and the portions were generous to the point where it was socially acceptable to have a second helping while still leaving enough for our hosts to have some for lunch the next day.
After dinner, during desert of a ferociously delicious and blatantly American dish that involved chocolate and pumpkin, we all sat around the table for hours talking about where we used to live and how we have adapted to living in another country. Arthur Dent must have felt somewhat like this when he was with Ford Prefect and Zaphod Bebelbrox – they all had amazing stories about fabulous adventures in wild far-off exotic places. It occurred to me that Arthur Dent was also from a pretty amazing place and had his own interesting stories.

Alex called the other day to tell us about his freshman university pranks and antics. It seems he found a big cardboard box that one of his cohorts used to ship his big screen TV. Alex packed himself inside and was delivered by his mates to the cafeteria. This is the sort of behaviour that typifies unsupervised teenagers. Carolyn and I watched, as proud parents, while Alex was sealed inside amid the packing foam and trundled off to his adoring audience. Even though Alex is all the way over the Pacific Ocean and some of the Rocky Mountains, we keep in contact all the time. I feel as if I should be sad that my son has left home, but I am really happy for him – he is off on a fabulous adventure. There is no sense of him being “gone”: - I do not have a sense of distance because he is always on the computer chat or a video call on Skype or on Facebook. I wonder if, as a society, or as a species, we have an ancient instinct that makes us feel sad when someone in our family leaves home. It must have been terrible for the pioneers or the explorers when they left their families and they could only write letters that took months or years to reach home. There is no feeling of loss.

This is for
I feel like everything is going well, and with only a little more effort, I could be a lot better.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

0809111930 The Use Of Indicators Is Optional.

Riding a Vespa in Hong Kong.

Here is what to do if you want to ride a scooter in Hong Kong – forget it. There are hundreds of more convenient ways of getting around Hong Kong that are more likely to deliver you
to your intended destination in a safe, comfortable and timely manner rather than depositing you ignobly under the wheels of a bus. It is not simply the sheer number of cars, trucks, buses and old ladies crossing the road with trolleys full of old cardboard that is the problem. The roads in Hong Kong, and more particularly the roads around the industrial area of Kwun Tung are like huge, loud conveyor belts like those that haul tons of raw coal from the pits to the docks – the roads here are an endless procession of huge chunks of hardened steel, hot exhaust and revving engines.
While scooting happily along amid the noise and tumult on this unforgiving conveyor I am constantly
aware of the many laws of the road such as giving way to the right, and, the first into a round-a-bout has right of way. There are also the immutable laws of physics including the ever present Mohr’s scale of hardness, on which scale human skin comes in at about minus one-million compared to asphalt.
The speed limit is 50 kilometres an hour on all but a few expressways but that does not stop the general motoring population from streaming past me at a speed that I can only guess at as being “much faster”. There is a strange law in Hong Kong, in tunnel areas, that says that it is an offence to travel 25 kilometres slower than the posted speed limit. I find it odd that the some of the rules of safety that I learned in Queensland simply do not apply in Hong Kong. For example, it is not necessary to indicate when waiting to turn in a turning lane. There are other oddities that I have to wonder about - the drivers in Hong Kong seem to regard the use of turn signals as an invasion of privacy.

A long time for a six-year-old to pay attention.
I have a class of first-year students that goes for one hour. This is a long time for a six-year-old to pay attention – some six-year olds cannot pay attention to a lively colourful cartoon for that long so it is easy to see how difficult it must be for these little tykes to pay attention in a language that they do not yet understand. Today, I had to establish some order into our routine. It was fun, they laughed until they cried. They are so well mannered and polite - at the start of the lesson they all stand up while the teacher says good morning and wait quietly to be told to sit down. Being normal six-year-old children they will start to chat to their friends within a few seconds of sitting down. “Stand up!” bellows me in a slightly restrained army instructor voice. They all stand up again with some concern showing in their little Chinese faces. I introduced our lesson again and gave instructions, in simple Cantonese so they can understand – Please sit and listen. (Chin Cho La – Tang Ha m’goi.) Again, towards the back of the room, there rose a confined but definite din – they were talking again. This time I counted down from three and then - “Stand up!” I bellow in a slightly less than restrained army instructor voice. They all stood up again with more than a little concern showing in their Chinese faces. We did this about twenty times with some of the students breaking into fits of laughter while others bemoaned their futile task to remain silent. After a few more attempts, they changed roles and the kids that were laughing starting moaning and vice versa. During the lesson, when it finally started, the students were aware of the noise levels and reminded each other to stay within a simmering discussion level. A few minutes before the lesson ended they all lined up to have their work checked. They seem to relish getting a stamp. I have a few stamps from which to choose but the favorite seems to be the green “Excellent Work” that also has a picture of Princess Jasmine.

Free parking.
Today when I was talking to Sister Maria, the kind dedicated principal at the Chinese Catholic girls’ school, she noticed that I had my motorbike helmet and immediately offered me a free parking space. This job just keeps getting better and better. Today I received a routine email from the job agencies. I looked at the goofy titles of some of the jobs and imagined what sort of person actually wants to be an “Oracle EBS Developer” or even worse, a “Solutions Facilitator, Subject Matter Consultant”. I think back into my not so distant past and remember with horror the daily mind-numbing routine of working in an office. I went to Hugo’s school parents night this week and was interested to hear that several of the teachers had started careers as “not teachers.” One teacher was a pharmaceutical engineer until she realised that she would rather teach wonderful little children than stand on a little elevated platform in a chemist and dispense medicine.

Recommended TED talk: Jonathan Harris: The art of collecting stories
“ Jonathan, I feel happy.”
This will make sense when you see this.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

0809042030 Another fantastic day at the best job I have ever had.

As if my life wasn’t easy enough. Thursday is the day that I have to be at work early, that is, I have to be at work at half past ten. My rigorous day consists of reading stories to Chinese Catholic School girls. Upon arrival, promptly at 10:20, I was told that there would be a change in my classes today - one class would finish early, the next class was cancelled, and the next class might start late. All this was due to a special event where the whole school was to attend a demonstration of Indian Dancing.

Moving groups of people in an orderly fashion can be a challenge for some organisations. Various armies around the world have resorted to an overly complicated system of orders and commands that involve a lot of shouting, foot stamping and an unnatural amount of self-discipline. None of these fairly ineffective mechanisms are at my disposal when I have to move thirty-odd Chinese Catholic school girls. I don’t shout at them - there is no point in shouting and I believe that doing so is poor leadership. They are not soldiers, most of them never will be, not even Chinese soldiers, so there is no self-discipline, and it has always been a mystery to me why soldiers have to stamp their feet so much. My daunting task was to take these “troops” a total distance of about 100 meters, a distance which the winner of the gold medal for the recent Olympic games managed to cover in 9.69 seconds. I thought that ten minutes should be enough time considering that the students have not had the same rigorous training schedule as an Olympic athlete.

I was late. The last of the year 5 students, being lead by the new Native English Teacher, were greeted by the concerned and lowered eyebrows of the English faculty.

It took a few more minutes to have the entire school seated, shushed and listening for the
introduction. An Indian man came out and announced that the long anticipated Indian Dance demonstration would start soon but before it can begin, can all the children take their bags and put them at the back of the room. It had just taken several well trained professionals, some with qualifications in Chinese kick-boxing, fifteen minutes to arrange the students in a precise order. Within two seconds we were back to a room full of pandemonium.

I no longer find it odd when reality does not deliver what I expected. I expected a demonstration of
Indian dancing by, oddly enough, Indian dancers resplendent with vibrant colourful saris, tinkling bells attached to their ankles, henna on their hands and feet and that unique cultural red dot on their forehead that looks like they are being targeted by a SWAT team . The Indian dance demonstration consisted of one man, albeit an Indian, wearing a white skivvy as if he was the lesser known and now missing White Wiggle. The skivvy itself was odd - it looked like it had some sort of combined and integrated built in bra. He was very enthusiastic and athletic, he had music, he had rhythm – could he ask for anything more? His demonstration was an astounding repartee of delicately controlled and precisely delivered side-steps, arm flailing and those unique Indian gestures where they make “OK” signs around their face while smiling with their head beset at odd angles. He did this for about three minutes while the Chinese Catholic girls looked on in wide-eyed bewilderment.
He then asked the Chinese Catholic girls to do something totaly unexpected – he asked them to dance.
To understand the awkwardness of the situation one has to understand the conservative, reserved, shy - almost to the point of debilitating, nature of the Chinese Catholic girls. It is one thing to expand their knowledge of other cultures through dance, art and music but it is another situation entirely to ask them to activley participate. There was no way this side of breakfast that the Chinese Catholic girls were ever going to do that dance move that involved wiggling their hips. There was a lot of embarrassed laughing, there was a lot shuffling from one foot to the other, but there wasn't much Indian dancing.

Later, I asked a few students, and I admit that my sample audience was quite small, if they liked the Indian dancing and some replied with a rather blunt “No, it is so ugly.”

The picture of the Indian Dancer who did not appear at the demonstation was taken from this add on eBay -

Saturday, August 30, 2008

0808302200 - His Divine Physical Supremacy

The last few days have been hanging over me like the sword of Damoclease. I was asked to teach a class a few months ago and it has been niggling at me with a mysterious sense of foreboding. I have been constantly preoccupied with lesson planning and wondering if the lessons that I was preparing for the Chinese Catholic girls were good enough, or if they were interesting and challenging – my biggest worry was if the lessons were “right”. The summer classes for the Chinese Catholic girls went mostly according to plan and now there is a bunch of happy Chinese Catholic girls that can sing another of Peter Combe’s fabulous kid’s songs - Its So Hot Today.The school is preparing for the new year and so I was asked to speak at the parents open day. I had to speak to a group of about 200 parents of Chinese Catholic girls and give a speech that would allay their fears about what their children would be learning. I tried not to be like Jack Black in School of Rock and I introduced myself using a bit of Cantonese and explained that I would be speaking in English for the next few minutes. I told a few stories about what their kids have doing in class and read some of their better creative sentences. My summary was this: Some of the handy English phrases taught in class include: “I’m sorry, I do not speak English.” I would like to teach your children so that they can say: “I’m sorry that you do not speak Chinese, let me help you – I can speak English”. There was some applause but I think that they were being polite.

Alex has left home to go to college. He has started the first steps into his life as a free thinking independent adult. He called us the other day at 04:30 in the morning to tell us that he needed a chest x-ray. I had half a heart attack. The combination of timing and content of this phone call did not pave the way for good news. It turns out that everyone entering the good ol’ US of A needs to undergo this minor procedure. Even though he called at a time when we are usually incapacitated and unconscious, we were happy to hear from our son all the way out there in the big wide world. He told us, with unbridled enthusiasm, how he has some new electronic device to keep track of his busy schedule. Among its vast array of features, it has a world timer, Alex can refer to this amazing gizmo and tell what time it is in any part of the world. Apparently Alex doesn’t use that function.


I have had my first brush with the local law enforcement in the Special Administrative Region of the Peoples Republic of China. This is a country where the locals have a national pride in abiding by the law and conforming to social customs. Flouting the law will bring shame on an entire family, for generations in this life and the next. To have the police visit is a great embarrassment. My efforts to understand the road rules in Hong Kong was a perfunctionary glance at the free pamphlet on the correct way to negotiate a Chinese round-about. It is one of those things that I thought would be the same everywhere in the world but turns out to be significantly different – particularly in a city that has the problem of keeping the equivalent of the entire population of Queensland on an island that is about 15 kilometres wide. Most places in the world will let a motorist park on the side of the road. This seems fair enough. In the Special Administrative Region of the Peoples Republic of China a motorist can only park in a designated area. The side of the road is not, apparently, a designated area. The fine was not overly expensive but served as motivation to read the road rules more carefully.


I have started a Linux experiment to see what all the fuss is about. The Linux people, whoever they are, say that Linux is the most amazing, fastest, most nutritious and least flammable operating system in the world and possibly the known universe. My opinion is that if, I say again “if” Linux is so good, then why are we not all using it? Linux is free and so if it is compared to Windows XP, the “value for money” side of the equation should be so good that it causes a division by zero error. I think that the use of Linux versus Windows can be compared to the rise, rule and fall of VHS. DVD not only delivers a better quality picture, it also does it so cheaply . When the DVD was invented it turned out that the little laser gizmo is far cheaper and better than the whole complicated system of tapes and mechanical wizardry used by the VHS system. A VCR is truly an amazing piece of hardware – the way that cold hard steel interacts with the delicate thin tape is astonishing. There is a hidden, unappreciated and gorgeous ballet of technology when the VCR carefully takes the thin tape from the VHS cassette and with gingerly precision, wraps it around the spinning head of the VCR that is truly a work of art. However, all that technology and all that hardware has a price and that price is way more than a DVD. The last VCR ever made was the most efficient, the best quality and was the closest to perfection of its kind but it could not compete with the low-cost efficiency of the DVD. So without another thought, society in general simply stopped using the trusty and faithful VCR. One day when the time came to replace the ageing family VCR, we, as a society of consumers all bought the new fangled DVD at one fifth the cost. VHS is now a part of our childhood memories, the remaining units, with their rubber belts dry and cracked, their overly complicated timers and their expensive front loading cassette mechanisms, can no longer be found on the shelves of our homes next to the Nintendo. There are some diligent and hardy units remaining that are like the veterans of a war barely remembered that serve their last years of useful existence as a clock. The point of all that is this: if Linux worked as well as a DVD player then we would all be using it.
The first big question for the big Linux experiment is which, out of hundreds of different versions, Linux will I use. My choice was limited to the several versions that come free with computer magazines. Fedora seems like a good enough place to start. It failed to start. Knoppix started to work, it displayed how busy it was with a huge list of files being started here and initialised there, and then it then simply lost interest and did not complete the install – all the writing stopped, the disc stopped spinning and the machine fell silent. It did not even clean up the mess it made on the way out. The next on the list was SUSE 11.0 – it booted as promised and installed with so little fuss that I can barely remember it happening. I have been using SUSE 11 for a few days now and have managed to make an internet connection. After a few days SUSE insisted on installing a few updates in the same manner as windows – and, in the same manner as windows SUSE did not work afterwards.


His divine physical supremacy.Our wonderful new cat – his name is Taj and he has the ability to double his size every two weeks. He is learning what it is like to live with another species, what the new species finds valuable and is learning a new language. Rachel Ruby says that I should not speak to the cat in Cantonese because she wants the cat to speak English. He can be seen here on YouTube watching a show about pandas on Animal Planet. – search for “Bengal cat panda” or copy and paste this -

Saturday, August 16, 2008

0808160900 Vespa

I went to the Vespa dealer on Thursday to pick up my scooter but was told that it was not ready however it will be ready on Friday morning. The friendly and helpful staff seemed to realise that if my scooter would be ready “first thing on Friday morning” then logically , it would have to be ready “last thing” on Thursday afternoon. “I’ll call you when it is ready” was the assurance offered as I set off to wait for eight hours on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. I decided to start my research for a GPS. I searched the Hong Kong Yellow Pages and it showed that in all of the land with a population equal to Queensland, there was only one listing for a shop that specialises in selling these little marvels of electronics that significantly add to the realism of pretending to be James Bond.

While looking for the last and only shop that sells GPS units in Hong Kong by wandering aimlessly in a town that had the same letters albeit in a different order than the town I was looking for, and while waiting patiently for the call to
say that my life would no longer be Vespa-less, I stumbled upon a Chinese book shop “Ahh”, says me to myself, but not too loudly “ this looks like a great place to soak up a few hours.” I read the back cover of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink for the fourth time and made an instant decision that I did not have to buy it. As luck would have it, the Chinese book shop was having a back-to-school sale and there was a multitude of text books for Chinese students on how to learn to speak English. One of the many problems that I face while pretending to be a teacher is the ongoing need to produce that elusive product of teaching called “lessons”. For me, being a teacher is more like being an actor that has the good fortune to be an extra in a Kung Fu movie – he has to know enough about martial arts to be convincing, even if his role is to fall down after Jackie Chan gives him a good solid kick in the head. As a telecommunications technician pretending to be a teacher, my role is more like a comedian that has to write his own show. I need material to be engaging and entertaining while being true to the reason that I was hired in the first place – to teach English. I couldn’t believe my good fortune at these English textbooks. The books are full of lessons – already prepared on a CD – all I have to do is print and present. It is like being an apprentice cook, who has studied the fine culinary arts, and has slaved and experimented in subtle textures and flavours, by adding a tincture of cinnamon here or some Nepalese whopping vanilla there, all in the endless and noble pursuit of perfecting his own special sponge cake and then, while shopping in the markets for some exotic ingredient, he suddenly discovered that he could have bought a better product at a discount from Sarah Lee.

This is the fourth time that I have picked up a new motorbike. The most exciting part is the first ride, while waiting with the engine revving, for that break in the traffic.
One of the first motorbikes that I ever owned was a little Kawasaki 250 – it did not quite have enough power to be scary. The next bike was a Yamaha XT600 – it had the power to
be scary and my first ride had me suddenly on all fours in the middle of the road looking startled and bewildered while wondering why my motorbike was no longer in its correct position uptight and underneath me, but instead it was all the way over there lying on its side spinning in a circle like a 1980's break-dancer.

The first ride on my BMW K1200S did not go without incident. The dealer asked me, as I finally sat on my bike and started it, if I could handle it. I didn’t know whether to take his strange comment as an insult or a warning so I took that comment as half of each. The first manoeuvre on my K1200S was to get out of the dealers driveway – sounds easy – the throttle on a K1200S delivers the full range of power in a quarter of a turn. I had to, on the first attempt, balance enough power to get rolling against the embarrassing possibility of stalling
- or the other likely scenario where the new rider rockets into traffic with legs wide apart in a desperate grapple for balance while wobbling the handlebars left and right in a fruitless attempt to avoid pedestrians and other solid immovable objects only to end up with the option of controlling the process of stopping safely under control taken from him when the bike tips him off and falls over and does an expensive slide into a parked car. The first turn that I would ever make on the most powerful bike that BMW every made would occur 0.2 seconds after completing the first ever start-off manoeuvre into traffic. A reasonable amount of revs, smooth out the clutch and the next bit will seem anti-climatic when I mention that a few seconds later I was trundling along on the most powerful superbike that BMW have ever produced capable of a top speed of 300 kilometres an hour at a rather more sedate and pleasant fifty-five. I had to stop at a set of lights and so I had a few seconds to appreciate the riders-eye view of my new BMW and while doing so I was interrupted by the sound of sirens. A fire engine was approaching the intersection and I had to make a small everyday slip-in-front-of-the-next-car type manoeuvre. A K1200S is not exactly a light bike, the designers really wanted the riders to take advantage of the 122 available horse-power to move it forward, however moving the bike backwards was never a design consideration. A handful of revs later I zipped in front of the cars, all went well, “Hey”, says me to myself, “I am getting used to this bike.” Minutes later I was confronted by the bane of everyone using the road – roundabouts – the fear of roundabouts is not that I don’t know how to use one, it’s the fact that everyone else does not use one the same way. I saw a car indicating to get off the roundabout – so I pulled out in front of him, expecting him to make a left turn to get off at the next exit, familiar story here, we have all seen it, instead he continued along in the roundabout as if he was heading towards a spatially-displaced left turn that exists only in another dimension. I stopped, and then stalled my new K1200S superbike in the middle of the roundabout. He stopped and beeped his horn, the cars behind him also stopped and so began a series of events that would create a traffic jam that rapidly extended towards the state border. I was slightly flustered but calmly pressed the starter button – nothing happened – what amazing BMW safety feature was trying to save my life now? I squeezed the clutch, pressed the starter – life! Off I went in second gear, like a diesel truck, into the roundabout then with speed and confidence building in direct proportion to each other I went out the other side and disappeared into the distance leaving the cars to beep their horns at each other in an attempt sort out their own mess.

I picked up my Vespa scooter on Thursday afternoon, at the end of the day, at the
start of peak-hour traffic in Hong Kong.

This is what it looks like when I stop.
This is what is looks like when I go.

The answer to the question of “when am I going to publish this?” is; I am working on it.

Never do this:


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

0808122030 - The strange circumstances in which we find ourselves


Today I had to go outside. I have been couped up inside for what seems like, but is really two days, years.

There has been a nagging administration task that I have finally finished after more than a year – a new watch battery. I was under the impression that I would have to go into a never-before-attempted area of Hong Kong. It turns out that I had to go two blocks from the small apartment in which lives my home teaching family – it is next to a pet shop that sells birds and with a pang of disbelief, packets of live crickets that loving pet owners feed to the birds. My watch is supposed to be solar powered but it has been gradually losing its functions over the course of about 3 years. First function to go was the light – it would not come on automatically, then my watch simply refused to tell me the temperature and finally it would stare back at me blankly when I needed a bearing or direction. The last time it actually worked was when I was sitting in the bright Queensland sunshine on the front step of our old house at number nine Shields St in Mount Warren Park. That was at least a year ago. I really needed find directions when I was a new guy in Hong Kong – before I became familiar with the lay of the land. Every function of my watch now works again – I think that the battery could not provide the amps needed to run the sensor. The repair centre in Hong Kong was amazing – they had every Casio model – every Casio ever made ever. Ever! I found this really interesting.

We went to a friend’s house for dinner on Sunday night and was pleasantly surprised to see that they had invited some other friends. There was a new family that has moved into the ward – it happens during the USA summer – there is a changing of the families when contracts expire and posting are posted. One of my good friends has been sent to Iraq. The conversation meandered into an area that was sort of apologetic for the strange circumstances in which we find ourselves. It seems that there was a general observation that when ex-pats and travellers talk about their adventures, that there is a general feeling of disbelief and resentment from their friends “back home”. Some people see it as bragging. Some commented that their children rarely discuss their lives in other countries when they return to their homeland. One child returned school in the US and was learning about The Great Wall of China in social studies class. The kid has not only been to The Great Wall of China, but hiked for kilometres along it and camped at the foot of the wall on the “Mongolian” side as part of their Chinese studies. This kid did not even mention this fact to the teacher, classmates or even close friends. It was easier to stay silent than to “prove it”.

One of our friends has said that he has found it hard to find a flying instructor for a reasonable price in Hong Kong. He needs to log some hours to maintain his private pilot’s licence. He used to have his own plane, a Mooney Bravo, and has found that it is prohibitively expensive to maintain. This is not bragging – it is how he has pursued his passion. He also has had some trouble selling his share in a yacht. Once again, not bragging, this is how he pursues his passion for sailing. His family do not particularly like to go sailing – apparently it is not a spectator sport – a sailor is constantly setting sails and trimming and tacking and all that sailor stuff. The rest of his family think that he is constantly fiddling with the ropes and want him to leave it alone make up his mind where he is going and stop changing direction all the time.

Another friend has an interesting problem because he cannot find a place to store his ski-boat. It seems that if one leaves ones ski-boat in the water then barnacles and crustations will find a way to live inside the engine cooling system – at least until the cooling system stops being cool, in which case, the cooling system stops being fouled with barnacles and crustations and instead becomes fouled with dead, cooked barnacles and crustations. He is now planning to bring his boat from the US to Hong Kong. I did not volunteer, but I would love to go on that adventure.

One of the blokes talked about moving house this week, he has to be shifted around regularly because of his job at a local embassy. He was once a US soldier and has served in Bosnia. He has some interesting war stories.

My strange travel story is more mundane, but it shows the strange situation in which I find myself. I received an SMS the other day from the local phone company in Hong Kong that gently reminds me to pay my bill – the SMS is in Chinese. It shows up in my inbox next to a similar message in French.

I mentioned that I was getting a Vespa scooter this week and was surprised to hear that three other blokes were also interested in getting Vespa scooters. Someone said that they had a scooter in storage for when they go back home to the US. Almost immediately I was asked to give one of them a lift to church on Sunday mornings. Sure, I can - I am glad to help out where I can – with my luck I could end up crossing the Pacific Ocean in a ski-boat.