R.I.P

Rest In Peace, to the victims of the Manila bus siege.

Rot In Pain, to the gunman, for that’s what awaits you in Hell. There, I heard, they RIP out scumbag’s heart and guts as a punishment. Too bad you have neither.

I don’t care if you had been wrongly dismissed. What you did proved you should not be in the police force anyway.

Shame on you, the police, for your incompetence; and on those who send hate comments against the Filipino people in general. That kind of thinking makes you no better than the madman who thought it right to kill innocent tourists to avenge whatever wrong done to him.

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London 2010 – Day 5 (afternoon) – Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Harrods

In the afternoon, I went to the more typical London attractions, starting with the Houses of Parliament.

Even though the iconic building has been photographed countless times, I haven’t seen any picture that does justice to its beauty. You really have to see it up close to fully appreciate its scale and grandeur. It is an artistic and technological marvel even in the age of spamming skyscrapers. They just don’t make buildings like this anymore.

The interior is definitely worth a visit despite the long line and phalanx of security measures. History buffs (like me) will feel like a glutton in Harrods’ food hall. Signs and plaques marking locations of historical events or burial places of famous people are everywhere. Even if you’re not interested in history, the splendid architecture and statues will leave you in awe.

I also saw the House of Commons in action. Newly elected MPs were giving “maiden speeches” about government support to industrial development and Britain’s over-reliance on the financial sector. Many of the spectators were tourists and most left in less than 10 minutes, except those who had fallen asleep.

Still feeling peckish about history, I went for more at the Westminster Abbey. Some of the most famous historical figures of Britain are buried or memorialised here, including Queen Elizabeth I and Geoffrey Chaucer.  Again, it gave me chill to be so close to history. To put the feeling into Chinese context, imaging standing before the tomb of Li Bai, knowing that the monumental poet is buried right in front of your eyes. The most historically significant monuments are explained in the well-designed audio tour, but you’re unlikely to understand the rest unless you can read the Latin inscriptions.

In one room, a mirror is cleverly placed on the floor so that visitors can view the spectacular ceiling design without spraining their necks.

It’s sad that they no longer allow photography in the abbey. No words can capture its magnificence. But then, no picture can.

There was still some time to check out Harrods before it closes. Despite its fame, it is just another luxury store filled with designer brands, although there are unusual items such as antique maps. The food hall is nice but again not really special. I bought a chocolate fudge but nothing else. Gone are the days when Harrods was the only place of its kind in the world.

Dinner was bouillabaisse at Harrods’ Sea Grill. This is only a “starter” portion but with all the prawns, mussels, clams, fish and scallops, it is enough as a full meal:

And the fudge… to say it was too sweet would be an understatement. I frantically looked for contacts of diabetes doctors on the package but there was none – what a blatant disregard of consumer safety! (By the way, does my travel insurance cover diabetes treatment?) Just one bite and I already felt my teeth decaying…

That night, I went to bed after brushing my teeth twice as hard.

London 2010 – Day 5 (morning) – Hampstead Heath

I felt I’d seen too many tourists and shops. It was time to go somewhere less-trodden.

But first let me recommend a good place for coffee. Instead of the repetitive hotel breakfast, I had this really tasty sausage and egg sandwich from Lo Spuntino. This is a family-owned cafe just round the corner from Queensway station. The cappuccino was the best I’ve had anywhere.

My destination was Hampstead Heath, a large, hilly parkland in northern London bordering on zone 1 and 2. It is about the same size as Hyde Park, but is less manicured and has a more diverse landscape.

I exited Hampstead station into a street that sloped gently upwards. 15 minutes later I reached one of the heath’s entrances. This one led to a woodland.

It’s probably not a good idea to venture alone into a woodland in a strange city, but the presence of other walkers eased my worries.

The paths were lined by memorial benches:

There were no road signs, but with a map and compass, I found my way out of the woods…

… and into one of the vast meadows. This is one of the highest points in London and the view is protected by law. Office buildings of Canary Wharf can be seen from here.

This dog tried to give me a hug. Now nice! It’s not everyday that you get to meet a friendly Londoner.

Beyond the meadows were several ponds. The sky was starting to brighten up:

After more walking, I found myself at one of the gates of Kenwood Estate (click to enlarge):

More meadows:

This is Kenwood House. Isn’t it magnificent?

The Kenwood House was formerly a villa of some nobles. Signs here also refer to it as “Iveagh Bequest” because it was donated by Lord Iveagh to the nation in 1927. It also appears in the film Nottinghill.

I took a rest in its garden and had a scone and tea. I have no idea why they didn’t provide/sell cream and jam with the scone. Eating scone without them is like washing hair without shampoo.

Entering the house was like stepping back in time (sorry for the cliche). Paintings by important artists were on display inside and they were marvelous. However it was the atmosphere that I found most memorable. Despite the opulent decoration, the interior managed to have the kind of tranquility in a Japanese garden, indicative of the refined taste of the its former occupants.

My mom, after seeing the pictures, said the heath didn’t look much different from country parks in Hong Kong, which she thought have much better natural scenery. It wasn’t the nature that I was seeking, but rather the quintessential Englishness that the place exudes.

Time for lunch. I left the heath and went to the nearby Spaniard’s Inn. This place is very old: it was built in around 1585. During those times, highwaymen frequented the area and used the inn to target wealthy travelers.

Thankfully, its patrons are less deadly these days. Again, as I pushed open the heavy wooden doors and stepped on the creaky floor, while trying not to hit my head on the low doorway, no one responded to my presence. This time, however, I saw people ordering at the bar and realised the mistake I made yesterday. This is how they do it in an English pub: you order your food at the bar, and tell them which table they should bring the food to. Drinks, however, must be carried yourself.

I got myself a huge fish and chips. The fish was silky smooth like Cantonese steamed fish, though the batter was a bit soggy. Of course, I wasn’t able to finish the chips.

The inn had a lovely garden. Note the white board exterior of the building.

The lunch gave me the energy to walk all the way back to the tube station…

The street was lined by real estate agencies and I checked out some of the ads. This is one of the more expensive areas of London and two-bedroom homes here generally cost HKD8-12 million. None of the ads, however, mentioned the size of the flat.

Clogged train, cluttered announcement

Frequent riders of Hong Kong’s MTR should be quite familiar with this announcement:

Please move along the platform to the rear/front of the train for easier boarding. Thank you.

I’ve long found this sentence rather clumsy. The most puzzling bit is “move along the platform”. There is really no need to stress that because, how else are passengers supposed to move along? Everytime I hear that, I feel compelled to check if there are shortcut takers crawling through the airducts above, in the Aliens fashion.

“For easier boarding” is vague. It can mean the absence of a whole range of difficulties: gaps too wide, train floor higher than platform etc. You may say everyone understands it to mean “less crowded”. Then, why not just go straight to the point and say that. After all, this is why we tell people to move.

If possible, drop “please”. This is too much courtesy for idiots who fail to realise the train is longer than the three carriages in the middle. Start with the imperative form “move” to make it more forceful.

Why so much fuss over a simple announcement? Because it is played at deafening volume and in loops. So the simpler it is, the better for our peace of mind, especially when queue jumpers, people pushers and door blockers all threaten to destroy our sanity. People will be less likely to exchange greetings to each others’ mothers just because someone stepped on another’s toes.

Yet such discussion of improvement might still be unnecessary after all, for one simple reason: people do it without being told. I’ve never actually seen people leaving sections of the platform empty; they get filled up naturally. It’s in the blood of Hong Kong people. Telling Hong Kongers to grab an open opportunity is like telling the Japanese to eat fish raw.

So the best way to improve the sentence might be just to scrap it entirely.

I end this post by recounting how a London tube driver dealt with this kind of situation. It was during busy hours and passengers were clogging up the middle platforms. Out came his angry voice from the PA system:

“WILL SOMEONE PLEASE MOVE UP THE TRAIN? IT’S PRACTICALLY EMPTY OVER THERE!”

The meaning of “Inception”

I watched “Inception” with a friend and we are a bit intrigued by the film’s title.

Both of us had previously only known the word as meaning “beginning” or “commencement”. But what Cobb and his team does is to put an idea in somebody’s mind. So how come a word meaning “commencement” is used to describe the act of “insertion” or “implantation”?

What Eames (Tom Hardy) says in the film might shed some light. When explaining how to make inception less difficult, he says the trick is to reduce the idea you want to plant to its simplest, most visceral kernel. That way, the idea can take root and grow naturally, so that by the time it flowers into action, its foreign origin will be impossible to discern. In other words, what Cobb and his team plant in Fischer is not an idea in its matured form, but rather one in infancy, or, its beginning. The whole point is to make a start.

There is, however, another sense of inception. The verb “incept” can mean to “take in; ingest”, according to http://www.thefreedictionary.com. Indeed, the subject of inception in the film is taking in a foreign idea. I didn’t know this other sense until the film encouraged me to look the word up.

A post on the film’s title on Johnson, the language blog of The Economist, says “I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up entering the language as a new meaning of inception: ‘the planting of an idea; the introduction (perhaps surreptitious) of an idea from an outside source'”. This is already happening. My friend told me Urban Dictionary lists this use of the word:

1. (in-ˈsep-shən)–n. the act of convincing a female (usually out of one’s league) to have sex with you by making the female think it is her own idea.

“But we already have a word for it. It’s ‘seduction’.” I said.

“No, I think it’s more about an ugly man convincing a gorgeous woman…”

“Isn’t that just ‘deception’?”

Is “Book Fair” an oxymoron?

Rachel Ng’s article Hong Kong Book Fair in Muse adds to the recent discussion about the appearance of teenage models in the book fair and the event in general. Her comments hit the spot:

“These pint-sized celebrities [referring to the teen models], they said, don’t belong here. I can’t say I agree. Rather, what disturbed me was how well these plastic dolls, preening for the cameras, fitted right in.”

“The thing about the Book Fair is, as its name suggests, it’s a marriage of misfits. A ‘fair’ is everything reading culture is disdainful of: commercialism, carnivalesque good fun and crowd-pleasing environment.”

“This year, for example, mainland writer Han Han made an appearance. Han, who spends half his time on the internet writing scathing comments about government bureaucracy, the thwarted values of the media and China’s increasing materialism, is now invited to an event that more or less represents all of those things.”

“The problem lies in one simple, but absurd premise the Book Fair is based on: to promote reading as if it were any other commercial product.”

“But none of this changes the fact that reading is about thinking and feeling, and most of all, thinking and feeling on one’s own terms. It is, has always been, and will stay primarily a solitary activity. And this solitary space… is what you will never find at the Book fair.”