Sunday, September 30, 2007

Credit card worries

We live in an apartment overlooking the second largest shopping mall in Asia – the Mid Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur – which is a bit of a worry when you have a wife who is a shopaholic (I guess most wives fall into that category). Mid Valley often promotes itself as the largest shopping centre in Asia, but I always put that down to marketing hype because the SM Megamall at Ortigas in Manila has always been larger.

However my worries were heightened this weekend (in terms of impact on my credit card) when Mid Valley opened an extension called The Gardens which doubled its size – now properly making it the largest shopping mall in Asia. I had a browse through the new section yesterday morning. It’s nice and airy, and more upmarket than the older section (lots of leather armchairs for weary shoppers to rest their feet), but it’s all designer stores – women’s dresses, shoes, bags, etc. – so I don’t think I’ll be shopping there much myself.

KL has so many upmarket shopping centres these days – Suria KLCC, Star Hill and the new Pavilion mall in Jalan Bukit Bintang which also opened this weekend – that you wonder where all the money comes from to support the multitude of designer stores. Perhaps they survive on the patronage of the Arab tourists that come here over the summer months and spend up big in those stores. The rest of the year they look half deserted most of the time.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Air Asia’s turnaround secret

We arrived back in KL in the early hours of the morning after our Air Asia flight from Shenzhen. For this flight I had to compete with about 20-30 other passengers who had bought the express boarding option (see Sept 23 blog). I was lucky though as I was fourth out of the boarding lounge door and managed to overtake two other passengers in the race to the aerobridge, and thus succeeded in getting a front seat again.

I realised then how Air Asia manages to achieve its 35 minute turnarounds, which full-service airlines would never be able to do: Because there are no allocated seats, the passengers start queuing at the gate at least half an hour before departure, and then run to the plane in order to try and avoid getting stuck in a middle seat. That means boarding is over in about half the time it takes normal airlines to fill their planes. But having to queue for so long and then having to run to the plane takes all the pleasure out of traveling by air.

The flight attendants must have problems on this particular flight with non-English speaking passengers not knowing what the words 'flush' and ‘press’ mean. They had taped a piece of tissue paper in the toilet, next to the flush button, on which they had written in Chinese the words “Please press flush button, thank you” and an arrow pointing to the flush button. I thought that was very ingenious of them. Maybe they’d had problems with nobody flushing the toilet on the flight from KL to Shenzhen.

Disneyland for adults

OCT East, where we have been staying for the past week, is sort of like a Disneyland for adults. It promotes itself as an eco-tourism mountain resort and theme park, where stressed-out urban residents can get ‘back to nature’, but it’s a park in the true sense of the word (i.e. constructed gardens) not a park with roller-coasters and kid’s rides. It comprises a ‘Swiss’ village called Interlaken, a golf course and health spa, the Sanzhou tea plantation (which includes an ‘ancient’ tea town), a large wetlands area, a botanic garden inside a large greenhouse, and a steam train that winds it way along a tall viaduct through some reforested valleys. The train is the closest resemblance to Disneyland, and the main street of the Interlaken village looks a little like the Main Street USA that you find inside the entrance to every Disneyland – except the one at OCT East has more of a Swiss look to the architecture (as you would expect given that it’s called Interlaken).

That part of OCT East didn’t appeal to me at all – it’s all tourist shops and over-priced restaurants – but the ‘ancient’ tea town further up the hill is quite relaxing because it’s not so touristy and there are some nice relaxing walks radiating out from there, either through a real tea plantation, through bamboo groves or through the wetlands at the bottom of the hill.

At the entrance to the tea plantation, there is notice that reads: “Surrounded by mountain, river, tea garden and wetland, it is a lovely area where the bamboo flourishes and rivulet gurgles. Fresh air is rich in ion content, and hundreds of acres of fluctuant tea garden is a great place to learn knowledge of tea. Travellers may wander along the sinuous plank road to seek for loneliness.” I suppose given the air pollution down in Shenzhen, having “fresh air rich in ion content” would be a major drawcard for the locals – and the residents of nearby Hong Kong too. Perhaps given the crowded conditions under which people live in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, “seeking loneliness” might also appeal.

It’s certainly a good place to get some exercise as the roads are not crowded (at least not during the week when we were there – it might be a different story at the weekend). The only thing I didn’t like about the roads around the tea plantation were all the plastic cherry blossom trees that had been ‘planted’ in amongst the real vegetation. I think the guy on the right in the picture below is checking out one of the trees, trying to make out whether it is real or not.

The “sinuous plank roads” (I think they mean boardwalks) go for miles, through the hills, across suspension bridges, and down into the wetlands. The views along the way are very relaxing and on the day that I walked up there (mid-week) I saw only three or four other people in about an hour.

About every 500 metres or so there are clean toilets in either bamboo huts or stone buildings (made to look like ‘ancient’ buildings) so it’s almost like bush-walking with all modern conveniences laid on. However, I didn’t like the music coming out of speakers in the trees (the Chinese instrumental music wasn’t so bad, but it was the constant interruptions by ads for KFC or tofu burgers that I didn’t like) – that really spoilt the ‘back to nature’ feel.

Down in the bamboo groves, mists of water hiss from pipes hidden behind the bamboo to create a foggy atmosphere to help you imagine that you are walking through a ‘real’ bamboo forest.

The only thing I didn’t like in the bamboo forests were all the giant fake insects that were scattered through the forest. At one stage I was climbing a hill in an isolated part of the forest and looked up and saw this giant ant in front of me. Although it took only a second to register that it was not real, my heart missed a beat in that moment.

The wetlands offered some nice boardwalks through valleys and around large ponds. I didn’t see a lot of wildlife except a small snake on one of the boardwalks. I don’t know whether it was poisonous or not (it was brown with a yellow-banded neck) but I stepped back and let it have right-of-way. I don’t think you would find any real snakes like that in Disneyland.

Next year OCT East will expand to include a ‘Red Wine Town’ (sounds interesting) and a “Statue of Guanyin Sitting in a Lotus Throne” according to the promotional literature. If you are not staying at the Interlaken hotel (in which case entrance to all the park areas is free) you can buy a day pass on arrival for 128 yuan (about US$15) which is quite good value. It takes about an hour to reach OCT East from downtown Shenzhen, and about two hours from downtown Hong Kong.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A magical finale under a full moon

The closing show of the Asia-Pacific Youth Arts Festival was held on a stage built over the lake in front of the Interlaken Hotel at OCT East. It was a spectacular location for the concert which lasted about an hour - not as long as the previous shows because it followed the AYAF prize-giving ceremony held in the nearby Interlaken Theatre. However, the fireworks and laser displays that accompanied the show gave it a magical atmosphere under a full moon (the rain finished yesterday) and it was a fitting finale to a fantastic week here in Shenzhen.

At the end of the show, as fireworks lit up the sky, cannons shot brightly coloured streamers and confetti out over the stage and over the lake. It was a spectacular sight, but as the smoke from the fireworks cleared, I thought of the old man that I had seen each morning in a rowing boat cleaning up bits of rubbish from the lake with a small fishing net. I imagined the look of horror on his face when he got to work this morning and found the whole of his lake covered with streamers and confetti.

The only act that fell flat – and I would say the only one of the whole festival – were a couple of ‘famous’ rap artists from the US who appeared as special guests courtesy of MTV (I can’t remember their names). I’m not a great fan of rap, so it was hard for me to judge whether it was a good or bad performance, but even the applause from the young audience was very muted.

Later that night when I was going back up to my room in the hotel, the two rap artists got in the lift with me. They were wearing baggy pants, basketball shirts and basketball caps on back to front. I was wearing a suit and tie (because I had been participating in the prize-giving ceremony earlier). One of them looked me up and down disdainfully. He didn’t say anything but I sensed a rather wide generation gap in the way we were dressed.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Another night, another show

After four nights and four shows, I feel like I am starting to suffer show overload – and there is still one more night to go. That’s not a reflection on the quality of the performances – they are all superb, and tonight’s show was no exception. It’s a bit like having your favourite food every night of the week – after a few days you feel like you need a break for one night otherwise you start taking the best for granted.

There were more dance presentations in tonight’s show than singers or bands. The dances included a classical Cambodian peacock dance, a vibrant Bollywood dance routine, a traditional drum dance from Vietnam and a very impressive modern adaptation of South Pacific traditional dances by a talented group of 16 dancers and musicians from Fiji.

As all the performers gathered on the stage at the end, they received a standing ovation, and now we hold our breath for the judges to determine the prize-winners which will be announced at a gala closing concert tonight.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bums, bumps and balancing acts

The third night of the Asia-Pacific Youth Arts Festival saw a lot of variety in the 13 performances that were presented. A rock and roll band from the Philippines opened the show followed by some traditional dancing from Micronesia, a solo performance from a young Japanese pop singer, Takuya Kumats, and a traditional Apsara dance by some performers from Cambodia who were wearing exquisitely intricate costumes.

Then came a group of very energetic dancers from Bangladesh, but during one of the moves in which male dancer jumped over three others, he slipped on the stage on landing and fell flat on his back. He was knocked unconscious, and lay there not moving until the end of the dance routine. Most people thought it was part of the act – until all the other dancers had left the stage and two stagehands dragged the unconscious dancer off the stage. Someone later told me that they could see them administering CPR on the dancer in the side wings, but I heard later that he had been taken to hospital with concussion, but was otherwise okay. It was fortunate that he was not more seriously injured.

The Bangladesh dance routine was followed by a more traditional dance from Thailand in which several dancers took the part of puppets, with other dancers manoeuvering their arms and legs. It was a dance that I had not seen before and was very well presented with the ‘puppet’ dancers wearing spectacular costumes:

After a guest performance by popular Malaysian singer Tan Kheng Seong, the Chinese entry of the night comprised a solo acrobatic performance by a teenage member of the Chinese Acrobatics Group in which he enthralled the audience with his amazing sense of balance on the soft steel wire:

Then a conservatively dressed solo female performer from Indonesia presented a soft ballad in English that she had composed herself, which was followed by two very unconservatively dressed singers from Mongolia called Sister Twins. They were dressed in sexy lingerie outfits and they performed a hard hitting number which involved gyrating their bums towards the audience which generated some loud cheers and screams from the appreciative young audience:

Then another very unconservative act from five male and three female dancers from Pakistan, which on the programme was labeled ‘Traditional Dance’. It was more like a Bollywood performance than what I would call a traditional dance – as I was watching it, the thought crossed my mind that the Taliban definitely would not approve if they saw it.

Finally a performance from a cultural dance group from Mauritius, and that wrapped up another very entertaining night with just as much variety as the previous two nights. The amount of talent that has assembled here in Shenzhen this week for these performances is mind-blowing. I feel very lucky to be here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Stars walk the red carpet in Shenzhen

The second night of the Asia-Pacific Youth Arts Festival (AYAF) in Shenzhen kicked off with a red carpet walk of international stars and performers from the 24 countries participating in the event. The loudest screams were reserved for Jay Chou – the young Taiwanese heartthrob that Time Magazine labeled as Asia’s hottest pop star. He performed a number in the concert that followed as a guest artist. Another guest artist was the 24-year-old Chinese classical pianist, Lang Lang, who has been described as one of the greatest classical pianists of the current generation.

The contrast between the performances of the two guest artists was as marked as the contrast between the performances of the other performers competing for the AYAF prizes – they ranged from elegant classical dances to heavy rock numbers – and just about everything in between.

I particularly liked a group of dancers from Macau, who performed a very elegant flamingo dance (not the Spanish flamingo dance, but a dance based on the movements of flamingo birds) and a group of eight male dancers from South Korea called B-Boy who performed Michael Jackson type dance numbers (but in comparison to those guys, Jackson looks like a stuffed doll). Their energy was unbelievable.

But the performance that surprised everyone and generated the loudest applause was by a group of young Mongolians who made up a horse-hair string instrument band. They were dressed in traditional Mongolian costumes, and everyone thought they were going to deliver a classical number – but it turned out to be hard rock. Their voices were amazing and the instrumentation most unusual – the audience loved it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Showers and stars in Shenzhen

Last night we went to the opening show of the Asia-Pacific Youth Arts Festival (AYAF) which was held in front of a large man-made waterfall at OCT East in Shenzhen. It was organised by China Central Television and they did a magnificent job of staging the open-air concert given that it was windy and showering. We sat through most of the concert with umbrellas over our knees to keep at least the lower parts of our bodies dry. We couldn’t use the umbrellas above our heads otherwise that would block the view of the people behind us.

The rain made the stage wet, and a few times various artists – especially the acrobats and kung fu artists – slipped on the stage, but fortunately there were no serious injuries. They had a few ‘stars’ like Joey Yung from Hong Kong, Stephanie Sun from Singapore, and performances that ranged from cultural dances by ethnic Koreans living in the northeast of China, to Japanese rap singers and a hard Russian rock band. There was certainly a lot of variety and talent on display throughout the two-hour concert. I particularly liked the China Disabled People's Performing Arts Troupe which performed their ‘dance of the thousand hands’ which I had seen last year in Beijing. The dancers are deaf and take their cues from the hand movements of two instructors positioned on either side of the stage. The elegance and grace of the dancers is just incredible knowing that they can’t hear the music. It is a very moving experience to watch them.

Here are some pictures from the concert:

China blocks my blog

Last night after updating my blog from Shenzhen, I clicked on ‘View Blog’ to check that it had uploaded okay, but all I got was an Internet Explorer error message. I checked a few other websites to make sure there was no problem with my Internet connection – and there wasn’t – but try as I might I couldn’t access my blog (I’d uploaded the post, and this one, by logging on through my Goggle account, and not via the blog). This morning I tried again, and kept getting the same error message for my blog. It seems that the sophisticated filtering systems that the Chinese government uses to block access to dissident websites were blocking mine.

What could I have said in my blog that could have upset the Chinese government? I’m certainly no dissident. I travel to China frequently, have many friends here, and I’m sure that in all my blogs I’ve said at least ten times as many good things about China as bad things. My guess is that my blog last week titled “Is Chinese food safe to eat” triggered something in the government’s Internet filters that labeled me as a ‘critic’. Actually it wasn’t a critical blog post at all. It only focused on the fact that the Chinese government has a big public relations challenge ahead of it in order to restore confidence around the world in the quality of Chinese produced foodstuffs, given all the tainted food scandals that it has had to deal with in the last three years.

They can’t be blocking my blog because the Chinese government doesn’t want its people to know about the food scandals – you can read all about those on any number of news and information websites like CNN or BBC – and those aren’t blocked. Therefore I can only assume that the filters for blogs are set to a higher sensitivity setting than for mainstream media sites.

Oh well, I suppose it shows that China still has a long way to go when it comes to freedom of speech (I expect that sentence will now cause my blog to be double blocked!)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Express boarding - Air Asia style

I arrived in Shenzhen last night. It was my first flight on the Asian budget airline, Air Asia. Although I’ve flown on a few European budget airlines (and had no complaints with any of those) I’d avoided Air Asia up until now because I had heard so many horror stories of the mad scramble for seats when boarding their planes. Unlike many European budget airlines that offer advance seat allocation (and with some you can even choose your seat online), Air Asia has a free seating policy.

Two things prompted me to fly Air Asia on this occasion. One was that there are only two direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Shenzhen each day – one at 8.00 am with Shenzhen Airlines and one at 4.15 pm with Air Asia. I’m not an early riser, and didn’t fancy getting up at 4.00 am in order to get a taxi to the airport at 5.00 am. So that was the main reason. The other was that Air Asia recently introduced an ‘express boarding’ scheme, whereby if you paid an extra RM10 (less than US$3), you get to board first so that you have a greater choice of seats.

After buying my Air Asia ticket online (which actually turned out to be not much cheaper than Shenzhen Airlines which is a full service airline) I said to a Chinese friend that I wondered what would happen if everybody bought the express boarding option. My friend said she didn’t think that would happen because to a destination like Shenzhen, most of the passengers would be Chinese, “and Chinese don’t like to pay anything extra if they can avoid it – they would rather fight for their seats”.

She was right. When I got to the boarding gate yesterday afternoon, and they called for those with express boarding tickets, only my wife and I, and a Malaysian family of four stepped forward. Nearly all of the rest of the passengers were Chinese, and none of those stepped forward – except until the PA announced that senior citizens over the age of 65 could join the express boarding queue. Then there was a rush of about 30-40 senior citizens towards our door, and the ground staff had push them back. They started to check their passports, and found that most of them weren’t over the age of 65, so they sent them back to the other line, which caused a lot of grumbling. There were about 10-12 that were over 65, and they started to push their way to the front of the queue. Three grannies had elbowed their way in front of me by the time the ground staff opened the door and shouted “Okay, go!”

At that stage there were already eight in front of me – the Malaysian family, my wife and the three grannies. As we pushed our way through the door, two more senior citizens stood on my foot and elbowed their way past, so I was eleventh out of the door. As we headed towards the plane, the family at the front put on a sprint, and the senior citizens picked up speed behind them. I guessed what they were racing for – the front seats. I’d heard that the bulkhead seats have more legroom than all the other seats on Air Asia planes – so that would be the prize for the first to reach the plane.

We had to walk along three covered walkways and then across the tarmac to the plane. I picked up speed myself, and as we turned the corner at the end of the first walkway, I’d already passed my wife and two of the Malaysian family members. My wife shouted a few words of encouragement as I sprinted down the second walkway, this time overtaking all of the senior citizens except one – a very sprightly granny who was gunning for the tarmac with a determined look on her face. But as we exited the third walkway onto the tarmac, I cut inside her and pulled ahead, leaving only two of the Malaysians in front. They cast a glance over their shoulders and saw me narrowing the gap, so they put on more speed and made it to the aircraft steps ahead of me. As expected, they grabbed the front row, and threw their bags down on two of the other seats to reserve them for the family members trailing behind. I thought they might go for the window and aisle seats, to discourage anyone sitting in the middle, but they didn’t – they took three seats on one side and the aisle seat on the other side. That left a window and a middle seat for my wife and me, which was fine.

The senior citizens were next to board, and they scowled at us when they saw the front seats were gone, so they all settled into the two or three rows behind us.

The four hour flight to Shenzhen was uneventful. We had a nice fiery sunset on the way as we were flying over the South China Sea:

The plane was new and the flight attendants worked hard throughout the flight as it was nearly full. The food that you could buy onboard wasn’t as good as I’ve had on some European budget airlines, but apart from that I had no complaints about the flight. At Shenzhen we used an aerobridge and our baggage was already on the carousel by the time we got to the baggage hall. We were through immigration and customs in less than five minutes, so all that was very painless.

So my first experience with Air Asia wasn't too bad an experience – and now I know that 'express' boarding means that if you can run a four minute mile, you have a chance of getting a good seat.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Mooncakes: A 700-year-old tradition

You can tell the Mooncake Festival is approaching in Malaysia because the mooncake stalls have been springing up in all the big shopping centres in the past week, and already they are doing a roaring trade. Strictly speaking the festival should be called the Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, because it is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, but it has become increasingly commercialised in recent years and is now often referred to as the Mooncake Festival, because of the pastries that are made specially for the festival. Mooncakes are eaten in small wedges, usually with Chinese tea, because they are quite rich (and relatively expensive too). The Mooncake Festival is celebrated in China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia; and Thailand and Vietnam have their own versions of mooncakes (in the latter they are often square instead of round); and Japan and Korea also celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival with similar delicacies.

Mooncakes are quite heavy, and are made with a variety of sweet or savoury fillings, most often lotus paste with a salted egg yoke or two inside (which looks like a moon when cut in half). Other fillings include red bean paste, coconut paste and durian paste. Savoury fillings include chicken floss, ham, pork and mushrooms (especially the Cantonese varieties). They are usually stamped with Chinese characters on top which mean things like ‘harmony’ or ‘longevity’ and may also show what’s inside them and/or the name of the bakery. I read in the local paper that there were over 400 varieties of mooncake on sale in Malaysia this year. In recent years, ice-cream mooncakes, jelly mooncakes and chocolate mooncakes have appeared on the market too, and yesterday I saw an ad for Garfield mooncakes. None of those sound very ‘traditional’ or ‘oriental’ to me.

Even for the traditional mooncakes I think some of the advertising goes overboard. The menu cards in the picture below say: “Experience full happiness and sensational indulgences with our amazing flavours – pamper your taste buds to a lifetime of memories.” Actually, I have difficulty remembering what mooncakes I ate last year, let alone a lifetime. The varieties offered on this menu card include: Cherry Blossom, Ginseng Gem, Noble Delight, Royal Fairy, Scent Temptation, and Golden Starlight. With the exception of the Ginseng Gem, I wouldn’t have a clue what’s in them. Some new varieties I spotted this year were Spicy Dried Shrimp with mixed nuts, Green Tea and Pandan, and for the health conscious - Low Sugar Chinese Yam and Wolfberry. For the not-so-health conscious I saw a Lotus paste mooncake with four yokes.

And what does the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrate? Well, try googling it, and you will find a myriad of different explanations for different countries. Wikipedia describes it as “a popular Asian celebration of abundance and togetherness dating back over 3,000 years to China's Zhou Dynasty.” Mooncakes themselves date back to the Yuan Dynasty, which makes them about 700 years old. Best to check the use-by date when buying yours!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Chinese food: Is it safe to eat?

“Safe to Eat” was the front page headline of today’s local paper. It was referring to the scare about tainted foodstuffs from China that has had shoppers around the world worried since China recently executed the former head of its Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, for accepting nearly US$1 million in bribes from manufacturers.

The first paragraph of the story read: “Have no fear, says the Health Ministry, foodstuffs from China that can be found on the shelves of supermarkets is safe for consumption.”

But how can they be so sure? The food scandals have been surfacing in China for the past three years, and nobody really knows how long the breaches of health safety regulations were going on before that.

It all started in 2004 when it was discovered that noodles being produced in Yantai in Shandong province were contaminated with lead. To cut costs, the manufacturer had decided to use corn starch instead of mung beans to make the noodles, and to make them transparent like the mung bean noodles, they had treated them with a lead-based whitener. And in the same year there was the scandal about the fake baby formula that caused the death of 13 babies - and for those that didn’t die, their heads grew bigger but their bodies became smaller.

Then in 2005 several multinational food manufacturers with factories in China were found to be adding a petrol additive as a red dye in chili sauce and some canned vegetables. And in 2006 there was the scandal about the adding of a similar additive to duck feed by poultry farmers in Hebie province to produce eggs with a deeper orange yolk – as well as the carcinogenic turbot fish scare.

This year we’ve seen the recall of Chinese-made toothpaste in several countries around the world because it contained the anti-freeze agent diethylene glycol (a cheaper substitute for glycerine), and in Panama the same additive in cough mixture caused over 100 deaths. That was followed by the recall of Chinese-made pet food in Canada because the manufacturer had added melamine to wheat gluten to increase its apparent protein content. That caused some pets to die of kidney failure.

And just a few months ago, both Japan and the US discovered that fresh ginger imported from China had been treated with the dangerous pesticide aldicarb sulphoxide.

Yes, the Chinese authorities are now clamping down on those manufacturers who are found to be breaching the regulations, but as a friend in the Chinese government told me recently: “There’s no way we can control what is going on in every factory across China. There’s just too much corruption at the local level, and the temptation to use cheaper ingredients to reduce costs and maximise profits is too great.”

Last year, food inspectors found problems in more than 350,000 factories across China, and shut down half of them. But are the authorities taking the problem seriously enough? The Vice-Minister of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, Li Dongsheng, was quoted in one of the Chinese dailies as saying: "Yes, we have some problems with the food safety of Chinese products. However, they are not that serious."

If there are any more scandals it will be difficult for the Chinese government to restore consumer confidence in Chinese-made foodstuffs. Confidence is already at an all-time low. Just last week I was in a supermarket in Bangsar, and I overheard a woman next to me tell her daughter (who had just picked up a can of something from the shelf): “Put that back, darling. It’s made in China. It might be contaminated.”

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Changing times in Hanoi

Today is an historic day for Hanoi. As from today, it will be compulsory for motorcyclists to wear helmets. The new rule came into effect this morning, but I wonder how long it will take to enforce. When I was there about three weeks ago, only about 1 in 1,000 motorcyclists were wearing helmets. I guess the motorcycle helmet shops are going to do a roaring trade this week if the traffic police do start enforcing the new rule.

I snapped this picture from the car window on a drive into the city – this rider was the only one I saw that morning wearing a helmet. I guess the guy in front of him is already well protected by his coconuts if he has a fall.

Britain to repossess the US

A friend sent me a copy of a letter today that was purportedly written by John Cleese. I thought it was funny. I’ll share it because I’m sure my British friends will also find it funny. Not sure about my American friends though – some might, but some might not.

A Message from John Cleese to the citizens of the United States of America:

In light of your failure to elect a competent President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective immediately. Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths, and territories (excepting Kansas, which she does not fancy). Your new prime minister, Gordon Brown, will appoint a governor for America without the need for further elections. Congress and the Senate will be disbanded.

A questionnaire may be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed. To aid in the transition to a British Crown Dependency, the following Rules are introduced with immediate effect: (You should look up "revocation" in the Oxford English Dictionary)

1. Then look up aluminium, and check the pronunciation guide. You will be amazed at just how wrongly you have been pronouncing it.

2. The letter 'U' will be reinstated in words such as 'favour' and 'neighbour.' Likewise, you will learn to spell 'doughnut' without skipping half the letters and the suffix -ize will be replaced by the suffix -ise. Generally, you will be expected to raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels (look up 'vocabulary').

3. Using the same twenty-seven words interspersed with filler noises such as "like" and "you know" is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. There is no such thing as US English. We will let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take account of the reinstated letter 'u' and the elimination of '-ize'. You will relearn your original national anthem, God Save The Queen.

4. July 4th will no longer be celebrated as a holiday.

5. You will learn to resolve personal issues without using guns, lawyers, or therapists. The fact that you need so many lawyers and therapists shows that you're not adult enough to be independent.

6. Guns should only be handled by adults. If you're not adult enough to sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist then you're not grown up enough to handle a gun. Therefore, you will no longer be allowed to own or carry anything more dangerous than a vegetable peeler. A permit will be required if you wish to carry a vegetable peeler in public.

7. All American cars are hereby banned. They are crap and this is for your own good. When we show you German cars, you will understand what we mean.

8. All intersections will be replaced with roundabouts, and you will start driving on the left with immediate effect. At the same time, you will go metric with immediate effect and without the benefit of conversion tables. Both roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.

9. The Former USA will adopt UK prices on petrol (which you have been calling gasoline) -- roughly $6/US gallon. Get used to it.

10. You will learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips, and those things you insist on calling potato chips are properly called crisps. Real chips are thick cut, fried in animal fat, and dressed not with catsup but with vinegar.

11. The cold tasteless stuff you insist on calling beer is not actually beer at all. Henceforth, only proper British Bitter will be referred to as Beer, and European brews of known and accepted provenance will be referred to as Lager. American brands will be referred to as Near-Frozen Gnat's Urine, so that all can be sold without risk of further confusion.

12. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as good guys. Hollywood will also be required to cast English actors to play English characters. Watching Andie McDowell attempt English dialogue in Four Weddings and a Funeral was an experience akin to having one's ears removed with a cheese grater.

13. You will cease playing American football. There is only one kind of proper football; you call it soccer. Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which has some similarities to American football, but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or wearing full Kevlar body armour like a bunch of nancies).

14. Further, you will stop playing baseball. It is not reasonable to host an event called the World Series for a game which is not played outside of America. Since only 2.1% of you are aware that there is a world beyond your borders, your error is understandable.

15. You must tell us who killed JFK. It's been driving us mad.

16. An internal revenue agent (i.e. tax collector) from Her Majesty's Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all monies due (backdated to 1776).

17. Daily Tea Time begins promptly at 4 pm with proper cups, never mugs, with high quality biscuits (cookies) and cakes, and strawberries in season.

John Cleese

Talking about John Cleese, I wonder if many people remember the wonderful series of TV commercials that he did for Compaq Computers back in the 1980s. This was my favourite:

That commercial reminds us of how far personal computers have come in the last 20 years. I remember how people used to say “Wow, a portable computer with 4.1 MB of memory!” These days our flash drives have more memory than that.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The seedy underworld of

Have I done the right thing moving my blog to That’s the question I’ve been asking myself the past two days.

My doubts started when I found I couldn’t upload a small profile photo to my blog, and I started trawling through the Blogger help forums looking for clues as to what was wrong. I’ve never seen help forums with so many desperate posts from bloggers whose blogs had disappeared, bloggers whose blogs had been hijacked by sex sites, bloggers that couldn’t upload photos, bloggers with layout problems, bloggers with linking problems – in fact anything that you could think might go wrong, had gone wrong, and it seemed that thousands of bloggers were affected. Maybe my impression from the demo that Blogger was easy to use was misconceived.

I’d already uploaded a profile photo to a Picasa web album. I figured that because that was a Google sister site, it would be the easiest picture to which to link. Picasa makes it easy to link because after opening a photo in an album, you see a box in the bottom right hand corner of the album page that says “Link to this Photo” - and in the box there is a URL to copy and paste somewhere else, or some HTML if you want to embed the picture somewhere. So I copied and pasted the URL into the URL box for the profile photo on the profile edit page in Blogger, and pressed the SAVE button. Nothing happened, even though a brief message appeared in red letters saying “Fetching profile photo.” After attempting that a few times without success, I ‘tested’ the URL by pasting it into my browser and found that it didn’t bring up the photo, but the whole album page instead. So obviously the URL provided by Picasa for linking was not the right URL for the photo.

Out of curiosity, I copied the HTML script from the box below the URL box on the Picasa album page to see if it contained the same URL. The URL copied from the first box was this:

And I noted the same URL was in the HTML script which looked like this (I’ve changed the angle brackets to curved brackets to avoid embedding the picture again into this page):

(a href="")(img src="" /)(/a)

But I also noted there was a second URL in that script, namely:

I copied that into my browser, and it turned out that was the correct URL for the photo. Then I tried pasting that second URL into the URL box on the Blogger profile edit page, and it worked. My profile photo appeared and the problem was solved.

So my particular problem wasn’t with Blogger after all, it was with Picasa (you do wonder how they can make such a silly mistake!)

That temporarily provided me with a sense of relief, but that didn’t last for long as I started browsing through some of the other blogs on Blogger.

I clicked on the “Next Blog” link at the top of the page and immediately my Avast virus protection software sprang to life with a loud siren and an onscreen warning that the blog I had linked to was trying to download malware to my computer. I disconnected, went back to my blog and tentatively clicked on “Next Blog” again. This time no malware download, but it was just a page of links to hardcore adult videos. So onto the next blog. This had just one paragraph of gibberish and a page of advertisements for sex sites, pills for erectile dysfunction, gadgets for enlarging penises, so-called penny stock tips and some pop-ups that my browser blocked. On this page the menu bar at the top disappeared, and there was no more “Next Blog” link, so I pressed the back button to the last blog, and tried the “Next Blog” link from there.

Another site trying to download malware appeared - more siren and another warning. So after disconnecting again, I went back to my blog and tried the “Next Blog” link again. The next blog was in Polish, so I skipped that. Then one called ‘Carvalho City News’ came up, which looked quite interesting, but it was in Portuguese, so I couldn’t read that.

After about the 12th attempt, I eventually came across a ‘genuine’ blog in English. It was written by a guy from Alabama in the US, who described himself as “ravaged by mental illness and alcoholism from an early age” and who had a best friend who was “an ex-prostitute and crack cocaine user”. I read a few of his posts. They were well written and quite interesting, but overall the blog was rather depressing.

The next blog was called ‘Sex Tape’ and apart from the fact that it had four Google ads at the top for adult dating sites and adult sex cams, I couldn’t see what the blog had to do with sex because all that was posted was a paragraph about fake trees made from woody vines which "are available in a range of sizes from a compact 12 inch all the way up to a large, dramatic 46 inch tall. Already popular on front porches in the Midwest - usually found with a string of clear lights - these 'trees' are a growing year-round trend." A strange blog indeed.

The header disappeared again, so back button once more, and then to the next blog (fortunately I had worked out by then that when you do that, clicking on the “Next Blog” link didn’t take you to the same blog again – they must be random samplings). The next blog had about 500 links to nude celebrities (I never knew so many of them took off their clothes) and ‘girls kissing’ links and lots of gay sex sites. Quickly moving on from that, the next was another list of sex links – this time to teenage sex photos (and some others I won’t mention) and more blocked pop-ups. At this stage I was starting to wonder where all the ‘real’ blogs on were, or had I gone and posted my blog to a site that’s nothing more than a front for sex links?

A few more clicks, a few more lists of sex links, a few more pop-ups, and then hey, this looks like a real blog. But then I realise it’s not quite what I’m looking for. An extract:

8:40 pm: Arrived home from work, had my dinner, watching TV.
9.50 pm: Brushed my teeth.
10.00 pm: Now snuggled in bed with a book.
10.20 pm: Trying to stay awake to finish the first chapter.
10.28 pm: Going to sleep now.
10.30 pm: Goodnight world. Love you honey.

Not quite what I was looking for. Surely there must be something better than this on Blogger. Click again, and this time the ‘blog’ seems to have been hijacked to run animated ads for funny videos (at least they weren’t sex videos again). So onto the next one, which was in a language that I didn’t recognise, but it was clearly adult content (and pretty gross at that) so another click and up comes the malware siren and warning again. At that point I gave up, wondering what sort of twisted cyberworld I had stumbled into. My browsing experience through Blogger reminded me of an episode of Futurama about the Internet that I saw on YouTube recently:

That was last night. I was feeling quite dispirited about whether there was any decent content on Blogger at all, but decided tonight to give it one more try.

My initial click on “Next Blog” looked encouraging at first. It was a genuine blog alright, but all the content was about a couple’s baby who was obviously the only thing that they felt was important in life. Baby pictures galore, and gushing comments like “We’re sure, real sure, she said dada today, we are so soooooooo sure. We are so sooooooo excited. We are by her side waiting for her next word. Will it be mama? Oh exciting and happy times for us here on South Street.”

Next click and the Avast siren sprang to life again – another attempted malware download – and then two more sex link sites and a couple of sites advertising dubious personal products, complete with pop-ups. Then another baby site – but this one was all ultrasound pictures because the baby isn’t born yet (“Doesn’t her forehead and nose look like her daddy’s?). And then, hallelujah, a blog that wasn’t about sex or babies – a guy who described himself as a graduate of a culinary arts college had posted a blog comprising videos showing how to prepare various ‘fine dining’ dishes. For someone whose culinary skills doesn’t extend much beyond preparing baked beans on toast, it wasn’t a blog I got excited about, but at least it was a REAL blog, and it helped start to restore my faith in Blogger by showing that there are some decent blogs on this site – if you can find them amongst all the junk and the porn. The next blog I came across reinforced that conclusion. It was called ‘Accountants Are Cool’ and was written by a young female auditor in Texas. I’m not so sure about the ‘accountants are cool’ bit, but the blog had some intelligent posts and many of them were interesting to read.

After a bit more experimenting I discovered that the best way to browse for worthwhile blogs, is to include your interests in your profile, and then click on those links to bring up blogs of people with similar interests. There’s still a few that pop up that are nothing more than bogus blogs with links to sex sites, but at least browsing that way brings up more blogs that are genuine than are not. Using the “Next Blog” link in the header at the top of the page seems to take you into the seedy underworld of Blogger – like that explored by the Futurama characters. So now I know.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The American way

I’ve been blogging on my own website ( since the middle of 2002, but today I decided to shift my blog to Blogger as the new version of Blogger is more user-friendly than the pages on my own website – at least in terms of being able to upload photos, which I want to start adding to my blog on a regular basis.

So here I am on Blogger, with a nice ‘green’ layout, but one frustration – and that is that I have to write the date the American way. I would have thought that the guys at Google would have learnt by now that most of the world writes the date the little endian way (day, month, year) – and only the US, Canada, Philippines, Micronesia and Palau write it the middle endian way (month, day, year). The Philippines, of course, was once a commonwealth of the US, and Micronesia and Palau were trusteeships, so that explains why they are out of step with the countries around them.

So in setting up my blog I had the choice of Tuesday, September 11, 2007 (or Tuesday, September 11 2007 without the comma), or September 11, or just 9/11, but I couldn’t have Tuesday, 11 September 2007), or 11 September, or 11/9. We are forced to choose an American format rather than what is most commonly used internationally.

When Americans refer to 9/11, they are of course referring to the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon – but I have to keep reminding myself that happened on 11 September, and not 9 November. Before the 9/11 events in New York and Washington (and Pennsylvania as well), most people (at least those in Europe) associated 9/11 with the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, but of course the 2001 events have since overshadowed that.

One of the things that frustrate me about Americans is that they think the world ends at their shores. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against Americans – I have lots of friends who are Americans – and have spent about a year of my life in the US (adding up all the ski trips and other vacations!) but sometimes I don’t think they realise that 96 per cent of the world’s population does NOT live in the US.

I remember once when my wife and I visited an old school friend who had married a Texan and moved to a small town near Austin. Her husband didn’t have a clue where Australia was. He didn’t know that Austria and Australia were two different countries, he had no idea of what countries were in the southern hemisphere, and was completely bewildered by the fact that we had spring between September and November, and autumn between March and May.

And then there was the time more recently when I tried to order a map from a mail order map store in the US. Even though they took credit cards, they said they could not sell a map to me because I didn’t live in the US or Canada. I offered to pay for the full cost of the overseas postage, but still they wouldn’t relent. They said the postage was not the problem. They stated very firmly that their policy was that they don’t sell to people outside the US and Canada. They couldn’t tell me why. That had always been their policy. It was like we are second class citizens because we don’t live in the US or Canada.

Fortunately not all Americans are as myopic – especially those that have traveled outside of North America – but it looks like whoever designed the Blogger templates is one of those who has yet to understand that not everyone in the world does things ‘the American way’.