Sunday, September 28, 2008

Not a lot of money these days

Thank God the US Treasury, in charge of resolving the financial meltdown, are using appropriate reference to the extent of the problem, cold hard logic and statistical analysis to identify the appropriate extent of the bailout:

In fact, some of the most basic details, including the $700 billion figure
Treasury would use to buy up bad debt, are fuzzy.

'It’s not based on any particular data point,' a Treasury spokeswoman told [on] Tuesday. 'We just wanted to
choose a really large number'.

Dr Evil couldn't have put it any better.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Cleft palate

Admittedly, competition is fierce, but surely these are hot contenders for the most revolting shoe ever designed? Shoe-boots for goblins.

Look on the light side

Yesterday was a really long day, completely swallowed up by paddling: I was up at 7am to register for a 21K race from Stanley to Po Toi and back again, and the women’s race set off at 8.30. It was already too hot by that time and 21K is a hell of a long way by any standards (2 and a half hours of effort). I was steering my first distance race, which made me feel pretty nervous: it’s a lot of responsibility. I don’t mind taking responsibility at work (and I have to), but opting for it out of work is a different matter. It was, in any event, an object lesson in what can go wrong: having been right behind the leaders (our club’s main Hong Kong rivals) for much of the race and battling with a much more experienced women’s crew for second place, I made a mistake, we went in the wrong direction and I had to correct our course substantially to get back to the yellow buoy we were supposed to go around, which cost us three places. I was really gutted, but had to continue to project a positive outlook to the crew so that we didn’t lose out even further due to sheer demoralisation. The paddle back across the bay seemed to last for aeons and everyone was struggling, but we somehow kept going and the boats behind us couldn’t catch us.

Despite everything, I thought I steered a pretty good race: I kept the boat straight and managed to paddle a lot instead of just "poking" (sticking the steering blade in the water to change direction) all the time. I felt pretty upset immediately afterwards though: as steersperson it’s my responsibility to take the right course. Lesson learned – pay attention during the race briefing. And I was amazed by the magnanimity of my crew, who’d seen their hard-fought second place disappear due to my error. They were so nice to me about it that it was humbling.

Later on the club held a barbeque for everyone who raced and I spent a happy hour or two slaving over a hot grill looking after an excess of meat – the grace under pressure and camaraderie of my fellow barbeque operatives, not to mention the absurdity of trying to cook 100 sausages on a tiny grill, being much more enjoyable than standing dourly around with a can of beer talking about paddling. We had so many sausages that one of the barbeque chain gang, James, ended up going down to Deep Water Bay beach that evening, after we’d finished clearing up, and handing them out to the legions of Filipina helpers who gather there under the trees on their day off. I've already told him that next week there will be a rapidly growing crowd. Word will have got out that there are free sausages on a Sunday - it will be just like Life of Brian, except that they'll be worshipping sausages instead of a gourd.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Back to black

It's been somewhat po-faced round here of late. Definitely time for some frivolity: Roland Mouret Pigalle dress, from Net-A-Porter. Part, apparently, of the new minimalism.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Aural testimony

When I was 7, in the summer of 1976, I had post-aural lymphadenitis (this is what it said on the plastic tag around my wrist, and I memorised it, much to the annoyance of anyone who subsequently asked me why I'd been in hospital). I remember blinding pain in my ear, which started when we were at the beach, 1976 having been a long hot summer; and I ended up in "the Sick Kids", Edinburgh's children's hospital, crying with pain and fear at being separated from my mum.

Piercing little memories from that time come back to me. I remember them in much the same way as I can recall, as a three year old, not being able to read and looking uncomprehendingly at street signs (much like being in a foreign country). I had a room of my own, and it was the first time I had ever seen, much less eaten, liver, which wobbled alarmingly on the plate and which I comprehensively rejected; a neighbour brought me "Five Children and It" to read - I'm still, even now, unsure what or who "It" was, although I remember he/she/It could grant wishes which somehow had a Monkey's Paw-like tendency to backfire; I watched the diving in the Olympics on a tiny TV perched high in the corner, and really didn't comprehend that it was a sport; I cried hysterically when I was told that I had to stay in hospital for three more days; I fell in love with my nurse and insisted on giving her a mawkish plastic rose when I left, which has forever haunted me since as having been quite possibly nicked from someone's graveside tableau; and being transported, for one horrible night, to the general children's ward and lying awake, terrified, to the sound of others' breathing and moaning.

Afterwards, of course, as a manipulative little sod I turned the experience to my advantage as a badge of courage and source of stories, including an entirely made up tale of a child dying in the bed next to me and being taken away in the night. The thrilling story retold never, for some reason, included a description of a terrified 7 year old crying abjectly at being abandoned.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Motorcycle emptiness

During our week in the US we unwittingly stumbled into a strange netherworld where monstrosities like the above are considered attractive, even desirable: there was a Harley convention in Kona while we were there and thousands of Harley riders on lovingly-rendered custom bikes like these descended on poor tiny Kona town to ride mindlessly around, with the apparent highlight of the whole tour being the humble, grass-covered mini-roundabout outside our hotel (I've ridden on a Harley, and an extremely boring and uncomfortable experience it was too: a perfect example of form over function). Helmets aren't mandatory so no one wears one. I know they are going more slowly than a horse and cart, but to my mind (and I speak as someone who had several near-serious accidents riding my scooter in London traffic) it makes the legal principle of "eggshell skull" seem a little more descriptive than necessary.

It reminded me of the leaked comments of a Harley executive about the appeal of their bikes: "We sell Harleys so that a man whose job title is 'accountant' can roar though a small town and feel good about himself".

Monday, September 08, 2008

Hard news

I've remarked before that it's almost impossible to get proper news of any description while in the rural US. International newspapers are non-existent; I found a single copy of the exotic New York Times in Honololu, and after the first day avoided the vacuous local press, but TV news is worse than useless. The focus of every "news" channel? Tracking the path of Hurricane Gustav (CNN, ludicrously, was billing itself as "Your Hurricane Headquarters") and the evacuation of New Orleans which, while undoubtedly important for those involved, is less pressing than any of the other multitude of things that happened while we were in Hawaii, such as the political crisis in Thailand or Fukuda's resignation, which I didn't know about till I got back.

Even more saturation coverage, however, was afforded to the arrest of "Casey" Anthony, the mother of "Caylee", a missing 5-year old girl from Florida, on unrelated chequebook charges. Speculation, the principle of sub judice clearly not being an issue here, was running riot. The nadir of this prurient coverage was surely reached by a dessicated harpy, eponymous star of the current affairs show "Nancy Grace", who asked a reporter broadcasting live outside Casey and Caylee's apartment: "Did they make this arrest at this time because they knew Nancy Grace would be live on air?" To which the hapless reporter replied, bravely: "Uh, no, I don't think that was a consideration". Presumably Nancy's next words to her offline were "You're fired!"

On the other hand, the local paper, West Hawaii Today, reported every race we were in on the front page of the following day's issue. And you could buy a copy of something called "Da Jesus Book" at the airport.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Where the clouds are far behind me

View from Waimea Canyon, Kauai, Hawaii, September 2008 (© Simon Zeng Hao)

Although we did redeem ourselves by coming 8th in a double hull, 12-person race the following day, our anti-climactic start in the 18-mile race took the shine off the racing experience; the better part of the trip for me was the camaraderie amongst the team, the way that obscure catchphrases always develop and take a life of their own ("I haven't had a moustache since 1972!"), the sheer pleasure of new landscapes and experiences, with nothing more pressing to do than read books, talk, sit peacefully by the sea, or lie on your back in the sand looking up at the astonishing array of stars.

On the first day of the race I dropped my Blackberry in the water in the bottom of a canoe we were removing from the water. This wasn't deliberate - I also managed to wreck a camera one of my fellow crew-members had given me for safekeeping - but it did mean that I could no longer check work emails and was reprieved of technology-induced anxiety and the sense that my time is not my own, even on holiday.

We spent a few days on the island of Kauai (where, of course, Elvis filmed the incomparable masterpiece Blue Hawaii, and other incomparable masterpieces such as Jurassic... Raiders of... and South Pacific were also filmed), home to the entirely benign Pacific Missile Range facility. Five of us shared an old sugar plantation cottage in Waimea, where James Cook first came ashore from the HMS Resolution in 1778 (although he appears rather imperiously to have sent William Bligh ahead first to make sure the natives were friendly) right by the black volcanic sands of a tumultuous shoreline. We explored Waimea Canyon in our unwieldy hire car.

On our last day we took a catamaran trip along the Na Pali coastline. Nonchalant goats tripped along precarious ledges high above, dolphins swam with the boat, and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's ukulele version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World played on the PA system as they served us mai-tais and we returned home through a gap in the raincloud.

Smoked on the water

I've just spent a week in Hawaii racing in the Queen Lili'Uokalani Long Distance Canoe Race. The women's course runs from Kailua-Kona town to Honaunau Bay. As always at these events, the women go out first, at the crack of dawn. The start is often the best part of the race: over 100 canoes tightly packed along the start line waiting for the gun in a maelstrom of incredible energy and excitement. Unfortunately our canoe missed the gun; at that point we were about 50 meters behind the line and rather than powering off the start galvanised by the boats around us, we were forced to set off somewhat bathetically on our lonely 18 mile course, already behind.

The water itself is not particularly exciting: nothing like the 4 meter swells we encountered at Hamilton Island; but once we had shed our frustration, we began to pull back against the other boats and enjoy the race, particularly when the 9-member change race crews, who started 15 minutes behind, began to catch us: when the top women's crew steamed past us, we caught the wake from their support boat and some of their power and started to feel better again.

Our time was 2 hours 42 minutes, a good 30 minutes behind the winners but better than the 3 hour marathon we'd been training for. Huge turtles surfaced in the bay as we brought our boat to shore beside Danny Ching's crew who were preparing for the men's race, returning all the boats to Kona. The area where we landed is sacred in Hawaiian mythology as a place where you could seek refuge for any number of transgressions: if you were a woman who made the sacreligious error of eating with a man, or even worse, eating a banana, or a man who crossed the shadow of a great chief, you could find sanctuary there.