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.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

0808060800 A visit from the Ormsbys

Our good friends from Australia, the Ormsbys, came to see us last week. The whole project was kept a closely guarded secret so that Karen could spring the surprise on Whitney. In one of those things that is beyond coincidence, Whitney met one of Rachel Ruby’s friends in America. They were both at the same summer camp and went to the same summer camp activity, and ate at the same summer camp activity lunch table and, according to the story, almost, but not quite, talked about one of Rachel’s friends from Australia coming to visit, but it’s a secret so don’t tell anyone. Rachel Ruby had talked about Whitney coming to visit secure in the knowledge that her friends from opposite sides of the earth would “probably” never meet. That whole six degrees of separation thing is halved if you go to church.

With the Ormsbys here, we decided to become tourists in our own hometown and went with them to all the markets that seem to be so popular. It doesn’t take long to recognise the same things for sale in thousands of small stalls set up by the roadside in various parts of the city. The good people of Hong Kong have learned that a decent living can be had by buying a box of stuff from China and selling it to one of the thirteen million visiting tourists.

Copy watch? I asked one of the copy watch vendors if he had a watch that said “Made in China”. I told him that I wanted a Chinese watch – but not an ordinary Chinese watch – I wanted a genuine Chinese watch. He looked at me as if I was mad. “Why do you want a Chinese watch? – this is better” he said while pointing at a picture of a Rolex.

We all went to Ocean Park on what turned out to be the hottest and most polluted day in the history of Hong Kong. We had a great time. The temperature was such that it made the place inhospitable and unable to support human life so there was a general trend towards the exits at midday. Drinks were being sold at twenty-five Hong Kong dollars – that is about three dollars Australian – that is also three times their normal price. Alvan and I stayed for a while to go on some of the rides – it was well worth it. They have a ride called the Abyss – it's the same idea as the Giant Drop. It was during that part of the ride where it goes up, slowly, with anticipation that I had the vaguest, almost perceptible feeling that I was going to lose control of my bladder. It dropped, it bounced, it stopped. Alvan summed the entire experience up - “That bought a smile to your face.”

Having our friends from Australia stay with us has made our Hong Kong flat a bit more like home. It was if Australia is not all that far away due to the fact that our friends can just pop in for a visit. After living in Hong Kong for a year, Carolyn and I feel slightly but immeasurably more “settled in”. “Settled in” is a strange Australian term that roughly means “Are you comfortable in your new home” which is a feeling that I can only look back on and say that I feel more or less comfortable in the past than I feel now. We are now settled in to the point of getting a cat and taking on the challenge of registering vehicles with the Hong Kong Traffic Authority.

Groucho Marx said “House guests, like fish, start to smell after a few days” – Groucho obviously never had friends like the Orsmbys that looked after themselves. They have had house guests themselves and know exactly what behavior to avoid. We were sad to see them go.

Some of the unexpected behavior of house guests I have been shocked and amazed to see from invited guests:
Shouting at children because they were talking when the TV was on.
Leaving cotton buds in the pot plants.
Pooing on the lawn.