Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Everybody hurts sometimes.....

In my line of work - being a corporate shrink - there's a movement at the moment called "Authentic Happiness". this is all based on the premise that you can learn the tricks of being happy. Happy people live longer, have more fulfilling relationships, are healthier and generally live "better" lives. Psychologists have, traditionally, looked at what causes abnormality - depression, obsessions, anxiety and the like and sought to cure these conditions. Then someone (bloke called Seilgman, actually) decided to turn the paradigm on its head and look at what factors promote psychological wellness. He found that gratitude, forgiveness, investing in relationships and playing to strengths are all correlated with psychological well being and a feeling of contentment. Check it out at

All good stuff.

Apart from, for me, a nagging doubt at the back of my mind about the value to individuals of experiencing the full range of emotions. Don't get me wrong, extremes (clinical depression, anxiety and so on) are debilitating and I wouldn't wish them on anyone. I've had too much personal and professional experience to glamorize them for a moment. But there's something about this current trend to cure, avoid, medicate or otherwise deny experiences that seems to me to lessen and diminish the overall experience of what it is to be human.

I wrote this post a while back, apropos of goodness knows what. Nice to see that sometimes random musings and thoughts are validated by mainstream opinion. The news broke this week that Prozac is no better than placebo (the drug not the band - not sure that anyone's run that comparison) in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. Eli Lily, the corporate monster who've made a stack from licensing the drug, suppressed results that didn't fit the party line (i.e. span the story). A team of researchers, using the Freedom of Information Act, demanded to see the whole lot, and, wouldn't you know it, when you take all results into account the treatment effect disappears. Oops.

The other interesting (to me anyway) part of the story has been a rush of articles on the upside of depression (or at least why, in an evolutionary sense it's survived as a thing rather than being selected out). Check out for one view on this.

Monday, 25 February 2008

(Pipe line) Pure as the driven snow.... (Running through my mind) And now I'm having fun, baby....

Holidays are a funny business. Like Christmas, the promise is often more alluring than the reality. This is a short preamble to the deconstruction of a trip away that, with hindsight, seems to have been jinxed from start to finish.

On paper, it showed great promise - a week's skiing in Niseko, powder capital of the world and somewhere I had a fantastic weekend away last year. Although not a skillful skier, I'm certainly enthusiastic, and normally well able to throw myself reasonably safely (if not stylishly) down the slopes. Add in beautiful surroundings, interesting company and a week out of the office - what could go wrong??

Where should I start?

Involving my parents was, with hindsight, a mistake. Whilst their sole role was to mail a parcel (at my expense) to HK (containing all my ski kit) this in the end proved so difficult and stressful (and ultimately pointless) that I really wish I hadn't bothered. My parents can not only create mountains out of molehills, they can create huge, spiky, impassable ranges out of absolutely nothing. Nothing is easy, everything is a "disaster" and oddly enough usually my problem to sort out. Suffice to say, once they had found the boots (one bag) and mailed it (i.e. taken it to the Post Office) - all involving extraordinary amounts of contact with me to check they were doing the right thing - the bag promptly went missing somewhere between Crewe and Stoke. Brilliant. I can only assume that some pikey bastard somewhere in the Midlands is now wondering what to do with a pair of ski boots tailored precisely to my feet, some aging goggles and, I really hope, socks that haven't been washed since my last ski trip.

So, problem one, no kit.

The next hiccup was one more of my own making. HK is not a place that's easy to stay well. Coughs, colds and bugs abound. I have been suffering from a cold for the past month, but, true to my Protestant work ethic, didn't do anything as slack as take time off. Oh no. Struggling on, feeling tired, miserable and contagious was clearly the better option. And, predictably, one that ensured I turned up on holiday and promptly got really ill. So, having travelled for a day, I spent the first 2 days in bed, occasionally struggling out and then really wishing that I hadn't bothered. Wonderful.

Problem two - felt crap.

This then led into the next issue - ski holidays are great, sociable occasions - as long as you are feeling sociable. I wasn't. But neither did I want to be a party pooper. But then again any time I went out I tended to ruin the ambiance of the evening with my hacking cough. My inability to manage small talk didn't help much either.

Problem three - social leper.

By the end of the week I was quite looking forward to coming home, curling up in my flat and getting better properly. I chose not to extend the trip for another day (not least because of the absurd amount of cash I'd burned through on the trip already). So - I waved goodbye to the rest of the group and headed off to the airport. Which was promptly enveloped in the biggest blizzard in living memory. All flights cancelled. As the full implication of this became apparent, a fellow passenger and I hatched a plan to get to Sapporo to stay in a hotel. Don't hold your breath - this isn't a story that will have a sudden happy ending.... My traveling companion was a charming, 70 year old German physics professor on a trip to Tsingdao. He was truly fascinating company, and thank the lord I ran into him otherwise I would have had an utterly grim stopover in Sapporo. As it was, the highlight of the trip home was dinner watching the snow pile down, whilst talking about the second law of thermodynamics and the links between physics and philosophy.

Problem four - it never rains but it blizzards.....

Anyway, said snow meant that all forms of transport from the airport to Sapporo were suspended, leaving no option but to sleep on the terminal floor and then hope that it all picked up the next day. And so it was that 24 hours behind schedule I finally schlepped back to HK, tired, ill and smelly.

Have I had a holiday?? Doesn't feel like it. I've now been signed off work for the next 3 days ("You've got flu" diagnosed my HK GP astutely) and will pioneer an urban mini break instead.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air.....

Poor Benny. This, I would assume, is a comprehensively crap start to the year of the RAT. Sadly, as I'm now off skiing for a week I won't be able to follow the paper trail further, as undoubtedly Benny, or maybe Benny's boss (one can only hope) will pick up the baton and respond. Dear reader, if you have a moment and can be arsed, please keep an eye out for the next salvo from the EPD?

Reply cannot be taken seriously

Feb 15, 2008

I would like to thank Benny Y.K. Wong from the Environmental Protection Department for his response ("All views on air quality welcome", February 5) to my letter ("Wrong day for crucial meeting on air quality", January 27), inviting public consultation on the air quality objectives.

Sadly the department's website recommended does not have a way of actually giving feedback other than through a generic e-mail address. I have shared my views but have little confidence that they will be acted on in a meaningful way.

A friend involved in public consultation for local and national government in Britain, and who worked for a company that specialised in public consultation, notes the type of consultation that occurs in Hong Kong is about 20 years behind best practices.

It seems that the government culture in Hong Kong is one of actually being scared of public input. And as to the assertion from Mr Wong that, "We take all views from the community seriously", this hardly squares with the paltry numbers who were at the consultation meeting - 200 participants, that says it all.

In a city of 7 million people, all of whom have a direct interest in air quality, only 200 people were able to attend. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong answer, Mr Wong.

La Grande Poobah, and friends, Mid-Levels

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Can you hear them, talking about us....

From today's SCMP - told you this one would run and run......

"Endless talking does not curb pollution"

I found the statement by the assistant director of the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), Benny Y.K. Wong - that the government welcomes and takes seriously the community's views on how to tackle the air pollution problem - quite depressing ("All views on air quality welcome", February 5).
So the EPD needs our help? I thought they were the experts. Shouldn't the people responsible for clearing our skies already know what to do? I guess not

Mr Wong, here are some suggestions. I am only a teacher, not an environmental expert, but these ideas seem easy to understand. We should implement an idling-engine ban, something discussed since 2000, and introduce road pricing - also discussed for years.

All vehicles that do not meet the most recent environmental standards should be removed within six months. London imposes a daily fine of more than HK$3,000 on polluting trucks. This is action, not consultation.

Make catalytic converters mandatory immediately on all vehicles that do not meet current standards.

Our two power companies should be required to install the most advanced technology that is available to reduce emissions.

Finally, we should use the new World Health Organisation scale for assessing pollution, not the 1987 scale now in use. This is the easiest one to do immediately, but is currently in the consultation process.

These ideas are not new. They have been "discussed", some for many years, but no action has been taken. So, Mr Wong, can you please tell me what good it does to make suggestions when no action is ever taken?

It is sad that the ones who could make a difference just do not seem to care enough. Mr Wong, the people cannot make any of these changes. We need action, not endless consultations, which it seems is the only thing this current administration is good at.

Terry Scott, Sha Tin

Monday, 11 February 2008

Blue Moon, you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own....

I was going to blog about my recent trip to the mainland, about the extraordinary development there and the mixed emotions that it evokes in me. Incisive comments about the march of development in China, how awe inspiring and terrifying it is in equal measure. About how your own relative wealth is jammed down your throat before you can scream "too much!! of everything!!! just stop it can't you!!!!". Shape shifting narrative about the unstoppable rise of the wild east....

And then City beat United 2 -1 AWAY and completed the double for the first time in 38 years, and the scales fell from my eyes and I saw with utmost clarity what's truly important.

It makes me laugh, being in Asia and seeing how the Premiership is so utterly commoditised out here. A friend in KL pointed out recently that if you watch Man U's premiership games, all the billboards in the grounds are for Asian businesses. Tells you exactly who's watching. The bit that is really poignant for me is that the "fans" of these clubs really do engage with the brand as a lifestyle choice. They could no more find Manchester or name Arsenal's home town than I could reliably locate Nanjing on a map.

Being a City fan to me is not a matter of choice, it's part of my identity. My dad, uncle, brother, mother, cousins and grandparents on both sides were/are City fans. I grew up listening to my maternal grandfather's tales of watching Ardwick AFC (as they were). I have been bored to tears by reminiscing between my dad and his brother about great City sides of the past. Their cat used to be called Bert, named after Bert Trautman, the German goalie post WW11 who nevertheless found favour with City fans for somehow managing to play out a game with a broken neck (I can only assume it wasn't badly broken - rather than that he was really good at playing prone). I watched the Division 2 playoff at Wembley between Gillingham Town and City that we somehow snuck in extra time - my cousin was so overexcited by it that he had to have his appendix out the next day. And on and on. The idea of not supporting City, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, is simply not an option, even when now they are funded by a highly dubious, discredited Thai politician and managed by a Swedish serial shagger who looks suspiciously like Mr Burns off the Simpsons. No - despite all of this, I'm City 'til I die, I'm City 'til I die etc etc.

Of course the real irony of this, and bear with me as I try to desperately link the two themes within this post, is that there would be no City or United had there not been the huge influx of people into Manchester as a result of the industrial revolution and the corresponding increase in population along the banks of the Mersey. Poor farm workers, my forebears very much included (apart from the German Jewish lot who turned up a tad later) moved towards the money and king cotton, off the land and into the factories (or, I'm told, for some, working below stairs in service in the better off Victorian households of well to do Manchester and its suburbs).

Not too hard to find parallels between that and the huge migrations and social changes that are all too evident in China right now.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

oooh - I'll get by with a little help from my friends....

This one will, I feel, run and run. Thanks to Mummy and Lottie P for their insightful comments on Benny Wang's response to my SCMP letter. True to my views on recycling, I've taken the liberty of cut and pasting them into a reply, sent to the SCMP this morning. Watch this space for further thrilling action in the on-going case of The People vs EPD! Maybe we could have a private audience with Benny?? Maybe this blogspot will become a focal point for urban activism in HK? Maybe, just maybe, I'm getting ahead of myself.....

Anyway, here's the original, submitted online today. Lottie P/Mummy - if you would like clearer (OK, any) recognition for your plagiarised words then let me know!

I would like to thank Benny Y.K. Wong for his response to my letter inviting public consultation on the air quality objectives ("All Views on Air Quality Welcome, February 5).

Sadly the website recommended doesn't have any way of actually giving feedback other than a generic email address. I have shared my views but have little confidence that they will be acted on in a meaningful way.

A friend who used to do a lot of public consultation for local and national government in the UK, and worked for a company that specialised in public consultation notes that the type of consultation that occurs in HK is about 20 years behind best practices.

It seems that the government culture in HK (URA et al) is one of actually being scared of public input.

And as to the assertion from Mr Wong that "We take all views from the community seriously" this is hard to square with the paltry numbers who were at the consultation meeting. 200 participants - that says it all. In a city of 7 million people, all of whom have a direct interest in air quality, only 200 poeple were able to attend. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong answer!

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

You say you want a revolution.......

Wonderful! The pages of the South China turn out to be an open forum for debate. I shall naturally be replying in kind. :-)

From today's South China, under the helpful strap line "All VIews on Air Quality Welcome":

I refer to La Grande Poobah's letter ("Wrong day for crucial meeting on air quality", January 27).

We take all views from the community seriously and would like to hear from them on how best the current air quality objectives should be reviewed and how a long-term air quality management plan should be developed. In choosing the time and day of the forum, we took into account the availability of the speakers, audience and suitable venue. We understand that any day we chose may not have suited everyone's schedule.

Nevertheless, the forum held on January 31 attracted some 200 participants. It seems the choice was largely acceptable though it may not be convenient for some.

For those who could not attend the forum we welcome their views and comments by e-mails at our website at

Benny Y. K. Wong, assistant director (air policy), for director of environmental protection

Naturally I invite you all to submit your views to Benny and his cronies on the website post haste!

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Baby it's cold outside....

Before coming to HK, I was woefully under prepared in terms of what to expect of this city state. Aside from the usual images of tall office buildings, and some notion that there was a harbour here, I was truly clueless. I need to remember my ignorance (only 2 years ago after all) when, as happens frequently, I end up having a frustrating conversation with colleagues in London about some basic fact of life in Asia.

Common bugbears include:
My colleague who insists on referring to HK as "South East Asia" - what does he think is in the north?
Another who lectures me on expanding into China - I had to break it to her that HK IS in China;
Those who think it's perfectly possible to have a morning meeting in Singapore and an afternoon one in Shanghai...
and so on, and so on.........

When I head back to London I'll be taking an atlas with me as a gift.

ANYWAY, prompt for this post is that HK is going through a cold snap, one of the coldest on record. For the past week we have shivered as the temperatures plummeted below 10 degrees. It's been horrible, and for just about the first time since arriving here I've felt properly cold. Before my arrival I had in mind that HK was kind of tropical, and that the only thing to worry about was the heat. Not any more.

As a Mancunian I'm hardly a stranger to crap weather and really should not be finding this spell quite as challenging as it's proving! However, my local colleagues really don't seem to know what's hit them. They are presently modeling a look best described as "urban dumpling" - plenty of layers, top to toe coverage, round in the middle.

Of course, what's going on in HK is nothing compared to the mainland right now where the terrible weather is in danger of causing all sorts of civil unrest. Problem seems to be that the awful weather and the subsequent disruption to travel has coincided with Chinese New Year. Traditionally this is the time that migrant workers travel home - for many this is the only time of the year that they will see their families. Thus you have the scary sight of 800, 000 disgruntled workers queuing up in Guangzhou desperately trying to get back for the New Year celebrations. Scary because this is exactly the type of urban unrest scenario that "the authorities" work overtime to prevent. Witness the Chinese Premier zooming around the country, exhorting, praising and generally doing everything and anything possible to keep the show on the road.

All this makes my current discomfort small fry (to anyone other than me of course) but for the record this will be a weekend spent largely under a duvet, ingesting large amounts of lemsip (yes, I have a common or garden cold to boot as well, poor me) and in general moaning on to any friends who will listen in a vain attempt to get sympathy from them. You have been warned.