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:

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 wefeelfine.org
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 - http://cgi.ebay.com.sg/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=180216025877&indexURL=