Different rules for different groups

February 18th, 2016 atam Posted in Building, Earth | No Comments »

Here’s a tip for all those opposed to the construction of a third runway at Chek Lap Kok: get a big-name developer behind your campaign against the project, and you can get it stopped even at this late stage.

Oh, so you’re just a dolphin or green group? Sorry, too bad, forget about it.

The government’s prompt response to the opposition of powerful business groups to the proposed renovation of the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade by a single developer – by withdrawing the proposal and opting to carry out minimal upgrading instead – shows whose opinion it really cares about as well as how little it cares about the community it purports to ‘consult’. Despite the public objecting to the proposal during the ‘public consultation’, it was prepared to steamroll the scheme like it’s done with every other scheme until those business groups launched a judicial review.

How remiss of it; typically, the government is quick to rope in business interests, then claims that it has already consulted ‘stakeholders’. That applies even where business interests have no business being involved – like the Lantau countryside.

A Christmas Carol

December 21st, 2015 atam Posted in General | No Comments »

Thanks to the Guardian for reprinting an old essay by the late Christopher Hitchens, on the subject of Christmas. Thus inspired, reproduced below are the lyrics from the Tom Lehrer song “A Christmas Carol”:

“Christmas time is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly,
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don’t say “when.”
Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,

Mix the punch, drag out the dickens,
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.

On christmas day you can’t get sore,
Your fellow man you must adore,
There’s time to rob him all the more
The other three hundred and sixty-four.

Relations, sparing no expense’ll
Send some useless old utensil,
Or a matching pen and pencil.
“just the thing I need! how nice!”
It doesn’t matter how sincere it
Is, nor how heartfelt the spirit,
Sentiment will not endear it,
What’s important is the price.

Hark the herald tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things.
God rest ye merry, merchants,
May you make the yuletide pay.
Angels we have heard on high
Tell us to go out and buy!”

Half a degree to go

December 18th, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, Greenwash | No Comments »

There goes Cassandra again. While everybody’s celebrating the climate deal struck in Paris following COP21, some people just can’t help but wonder how the world’s going to limit temperature rise to 1.5ºC.

Consider this: a 1ºC rise in temperature has already been locked in. Hong Kongers should know: we’re in line for the warmest Christmas for years. It would take a lot of effort to limit future rise to just 0.5ºC, for all kinds of reasons. For starters, proposals to build new coal-fired power plants have been approved everywhere, with China and India accounting for 76% of the new capacities. According to the World Resources Institute, the 1,199 proposed new coal-fired plants have a total installed capacity of 1,401,278 MW.

For another, nobody’s saying anything about keeping fossil fuel reserves in the ground. The share price of oil companies depend on how much they have in reserve as well as how much they extract and sell, and neither they nor their shareholders are prepared to let their holdings drop in value by committing to keeping reserves in the ground. Despite recent trends by some institutional investors to divest their holdings in oil-related stocks, there are still too many pension funds and others with substantial holdings in oil companies. Is somebody going to launch a business in helping them ditch oil stocks and rebuild their portfolios?

Then there’s meat. You’ve heard about the carbon emissions associated with meat, particularly beef, but as developing economies mature, they’re demanding more and more meat in their diet. Such is the demand that an American meat producer plans to spend hundreds of millions on promoting its products in China.

Finally, can world leaders really commit to combating climate change without taking the slightest look at the current economic model? They’re still anxious about economic growth and thinks every country should encourage consumption as an economic driver. Sorry but planet Earth simply doesn’t have the resources or resilience to sustain the level of consumption pursued by an ever-increasing number of humans.

Don’t just protest; act

December 1st, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, Food | No Comments »

The climate change counter on this blog started, if I remember correctly, with more than 80 months before it’d be too late to do something to save the earth. Now it’s down to 12 months.

So, will they strike a meaningful deal in Paris this week? Don’t hold your hopes up. For as long as the big corporations that profit from globalisation hold sway while paying lip service to climate change, the planet will go to the dogs. For as long as we buy the argument that the world economy is more important than the planet, and that stimulating consumption is the only way to revive the economy, the planet will go to the dogs.

If we truly care about climate change, if we really want those who are still kids today to enjoy a beautiful countryside that changes with the seasons, clement weather that doesn’t flood, blow away or bury homes, and a decent, healthy and secure life, then we ourselves must take action. The most important things we can do are:

  • Eat less meat. Livestock generate huge amounts of emissions and take up huge amounts of land that can be used to grow food to feed many more people instead.
  • Travel less. Aviation emissions are particularly bad because of the altitude at which they are generated. Anyway, do you really want to go through increasingly tiresome airport security and delays, for the privilege of taking pictures at tourist sights that do not remotely reflect the way locals really live?
  • Spend less. Retail therapy is not really therapy; you end up more stressed staring at the credit card bill and wondering whether to rent a mini-warehouse to put all your stuff, and whether to throw a lot of it into the landfill.

These are not sacrifices; these are ways towards a healthier, less stressful life. And it also helps the planet. Time to act.

Trees have no money or lobbying power

November 11th, 2015 atam Posted in Building, Earth, General | No Comments »

Listening to ex-Hong Kong CE Tung Chee-hwa talk about how sad he was to hear about a family having to pay HK$3 million for a 170-square feet flat and his think tank’s idea of chopping down trees to provide enough land to build housing for everyone, a tree may groan.

“Sigh, I clean the polluted air and provide a home for different species of animals that keep the environment healthy. My roots hold the soil together so it doesn’t slide away when there’s heavy rail, and I help filter the rain so what goes into the reservoirs is fairly clean. And yet, all Hong Kong people can think of is cut me down.”

The tree may have added that, right next to the country park where it stands, a sprawling village has just sprawled further with new three-storey village houses built to be sold to outsiders for a profit, or former farmland deliberately ruined as the owner awaits the knock of a developer. The tree may have one or two NGOs with no official position and zero financial clout arguing on its behalf, but they’re hardly a match for the wealth and power of village chiefs, which have successfully put a stop to all conversation about the unsustainable small house policy. So while there’s endless talk of a shortage of land to meet Hong Kong’s housing needs, no one dare suggest the land’s right there, occupied by three-storey high village houses rather than the 50-storey high housing estates that could accommodate thousands more people.

There are villages where the occupants genuinely care about maintaining their rural way of life, but those who have clamoured against any encroachment on their turf are doing so purely for profit. So while their chiefs rub shoulders with the high and mighty, the poor trees can only sigh and hope for the best. After all, the way things are going, climate change may claim them if the chairsaw doesn’t, right?

Signs of age

September 11th, 2015 atam Posted in General | No Comments »

Ever wonder how a sufferer of Parkinson’s disease would cope with a smartphone? How long would it take for the sufferer to hit the right virtual buttons and successfully make a call?

Tremors are not restricted to those with Parkinson’s disease; many elderly people suffer tremors too. Even the perfectly healthy ones with a pair of steady hands often don’t know what to do with a smartphone.

Sitting at a table with friends who have elderly parents or grandparents, I heard so many tales of frustration that were amusing to us, but not at all amusing to the old people who have to put up with them. One recalled his mother gleefully replying to Whatsapp messages – without realising that they were never actually sent. Another realised why he’d been having difficulty contacting his parents after giving his mother a smartphone, when he watched her attempt to answer a call but not quite getting which virtual button to press, despite his having explained it all to her before. I once saw an elderly gentleman, stopping in the middle of his morning exercise to pull out an iPhone to make a call, then fumbling in his breast pocket for slips of paper with the names and numbers of those he wanted to call.

Aware of these pitfalls, I hunted high and low for a mobile suitable for my own aged parent, with no luck. The one and only model ever available in Hong Kong, provided by the social services to the elderly in need, was discontinued a few years ago. There are several good models available on the internet, but as they would have to be shipped from Europe or the US, they’re only available in English/Russian or English/Spanish only. That left just one option, the iNo Mobile Simple 3G from Singapore, which comes with English/Malay/simplified Chinese. Why do I have to go to such lengths to find a mobile for the elderly? Because they’re designed with the elderly’s needs in mind: big, actual buttons, a torch, an SOS button at the back and high volume for the hard of hearing.

Isn’t it funny that a place that’s constantly fretting over its ageing population should offer so little to an ever-growing demographic? The assistants in every phone shop shook their heads with disdain when I approached about a mobile with good old actual buttons; they wanted to make big money selling expensive smartphones, not cheap basic phones for the elderly. Whilst Japan has long spotted the business opportunities offered by ageing customers, in Hong Kong they’re still considered nothing more than an inconvenience, it seems.

Oh, if you have an elderly parent, hold off giving the iNo Mobile Simple 3G a try: it’s already broken down, after barely ten days’ use.

What’s Hong Kong’s transport policy?

August 25th, 2015 atam Posted in General | No Comments »

When I first heard about Google’s driverless car, my heart sank: here was another example of the way technology was writing mankind out of a meaningful future. From a human behaviour point of view, it was a good idea to invent a car that would make road rage impossible; sensors would ensure the driverless vehicles maintain a safe distance from other cars. Considering people’s attachment to their own motor pods have much to do with their being able to drive their own ‘baby’, driverless vehicle could possibly also put them off the auto obsession and make public transport more attractive.

But what about the commercial drivers who rely on taking goods and passengers from A to B to make a living? Driveless vehicles would make them redundant. In an overpopulated world, isn’t it ridiculous to introduce a technology that removes an employment opportunity just when there are more and more people looking for jobs?

However, this doesn’t apply to Hong Kong. Forget about the taxi vs Uber debate; let’s have a fleet of electrically-powered, driverless taxis ASAP. No cheating, no speeding, no roadside pollution, no prolonged queueing during shift changes. People can simply log a call and the nearest available taxi will be automatically assigned to pick them up.

All the commercial establishments, from printers to food suppliers who are now short of drivers to deliver their products because the filthy rich are paying them top dollars to be their chauffeurs will then be able recruit the younger members of the taxi trade. Meanwhile, the older drivers who now have passengers fearing for their health and eyesight can switch to safer occupations as building caretakers or restaurant staff. Unemployment may be a concern in many places, but here in Hong Kong, the job market is so tight many a construction worker is well over 50 and still in high demand.

If the taxi fleet is automated, the roads will be much clearer because there won’t be empty taxis constantly cruising for customers, wasting loads of energy in the process. The current problem, of course, is not so much a new service competing against the taxi trade, but the government’s unwillingness to lose the support of the many cast-iron votes it gets from the taxi component of the transport constituency.

Hong Kong has no sensible transport policy because it is under the pressure of cast-iron votes to protect their interests. Hence the construction of more new roads and the failure to introduce electronic road pricing. The push to extend the MTR network is all well and good, but officials who are chauffeured around town have no idea of the human congestion on MTR trains and don’t appreciate urban planning that will disperse employment opportunities so half the population aren’t jammed in train carriages at peak hours heading in the same direction.

If there were a sensible transport policy, there wouldn’t be any need to fret over spending billions of dollars to build an underground car park at West Kowloon Cultural District. Instead, we have a former government planner who thinks it’s better to scrap the low-carbon trams so more space would be available for gas-guzzling, polluting cars.

Said planner now heads a ‘think tank’. What does that say about Hong Kong?

The assault on trees

August 11th, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, General | No Comments »

Have you ever seen trees walk? No, not like those in “Lord of the Rings”, wading through a flood, but real ones that, over years, even decades, grow new branches and drop new roots into the ground.

I’ve seen one such, on a slope. Over time it has ‘walked’ as it grows, supporting new branches with new roots so no typhoon can topple it. Whenever its branches overhangs nearby buildings, they get trimmed off, so over time it has learned which way it can ‘walk’, and has kept within the slope. The authorities did a good job here, using wire mesh and retaining walls to stabilise the slope without strangling the trees, so now the trees help stabilise the slope with their roots too.

Many of Hong Kong’s oldest retaining walls would have collapsed long ago but for the extensive roots of old trees holding them together. Now the West Island Line’s open, go take a look at the one on Forbes Street in Kennedy Town. Or the one in …. oh, I’d better not tell you where the others are in case the government’s ‘Tree Management Office’ takes a saw to them as well. RIP, Sai Ying Pun tree wall.

The safety of pedestrians is important, yes, but does that justify chopping down trees whose stability has been compromised by a comprehensive failure to take them into account in a city’s development? At a time when the urban heat island effect has exacerbated climate change to such an extent that Hong Kong experienced the hottest day in 130 years, we can ill afford the callous approach towards ‘tree management’, which, basically, is to chop down any tree that might give the government bad press should they topple during bouts of heavy rain or a typhoon.

Trim them, fine, but how ’bout allowing them room to grow healthily too? What’s the point of all the so-called greening when saplings are literally imprisoned in railings over tiny patches of soil? Go take a look at the pavement outside the Jockey Club’s headquarters on Morrison Hill Road (considering the power that institution wields, maybe those trees are safe). Yes, they’re confined to their little holes, but they’ve also been allowed to grow under the brick pavement, which has now become wavy terrain as the roots push up from underneath. Those trees are now providing healthy cover for passers-by.

You can have concrete solutions to clearing heavy rain, by shotcreting slopes and diverting runoff into huge drainage tunnels, but these solutions don’t give you the oxygen this city badly needs.

Ah, but why all this moaning? Perhaps the latest episode of tree slaughter is just a warning from the government: criticise us for letting trees topple in heavy rain, and we’ll chop them all down to shut you up.

Quote of the day

August 3rd, 2015 atam Posted in Quote of the day | No Comments »

“The Leisure and Cultural Services Department has no culture.”

Michael Lynch
Departing CE of West Kowloon Cultural District

Paying the price for a concrete jungle

July 23rd, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth | No Comments »

Remember the days when the government simply sprayed shotcrete over dangerous slopes to prevent them from collapsing?

I even remember an interlude, after one too many protests over the ugly grey shotcrete all over what are supposed to be green areas, they started adding purple to their shotcrete mix. At least, that must have been what happened given the interesting colour scheme of some slopes that were repaired during that time.

And then, finally, the government moved on. They started to invest in more aesthetically pleasing and plant-friendly methods of slope stabilisation, building retaining walls with planters and using wire meshes along with soil nails to hold up slopes so roots can still breathe.

Alas, the damage has been done. Over the years that the government had shotcreted slopes, they were also aggressively strangling the trees, ostensibly spraying the shotcrete around them but leaving rings so small that tree trunks can’t grow and roots can’t get the nutrients they need. Now, after years of struggling on limited nutrients, some trees just don’t have the strength to withstand storms anymore.

But what does the government do when another tree falls and injures people? Blame the rain.