The man in the check shirt

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Let's stop bickering about climate change

When people ask me what I think about climate change and global warming, I don't usually have time to explain myself properly. A short answer is likely to be glib and one-sided. A blog post allows me more space to set out my current thinking. I say "current" because I am always learning. You will see in the personal story below how my initial acceptance of the anthropogenic global warming case has been challenged and how -- without self-contradiction -- I support efforts to make the world greener.

I am not a scientist. All I can contribute to this discussion is a simple proposal that everyone should be concerned about the environment they live in, that any decisions should be reached on the basis of scientific evidence rather than emotion or prejudice, and that it is better to come together to reach a positive consensus than to divide into warring factions or to blame and shame those who may not agree with us. So please hear me out before judging.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

No ifs, ands or butts, e-cigarettes not welcome here

by Sylvia Chang

Hong Kong is moving rapidly to join others in snuffing out the e-cigarette craze, as new, local research reveals the smoking alternatives contain toxic chemicals. Sylvia Chang reports.

No ifs, ands or butts, e-cigarettes not welcome here

Latest research, undertaken by Hong Kong Baptist University reveals that electronic cigarettes, marketed as the safer alternative to tobacco, are not safe at all. Studies of 13 randomly selected brands of electronic cigarettes contain formaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), flame retardants used on furniture, automobile interiors, textiles and plastic products. Health risks include a list of maladies ranging from impaired fetal development to cancers

The research findings are clear validation of the administration’s determination to play it safe on the subject of e-cigarettes. Of equal concern was the fear that e-cigarettes might be seen as chic, fashionable and stylish, and could undermine years of effort to make Hong Kong one among the most smoke-free cities in the world.

The final verdict on the health hazards associated with e-cigarettes remains in abeyance as scientific tests are carried out around the world. The question of whether or not to sell has been whirling around for a few years and is now the subject of a heated controversy. People have been arrested, puffing on e-cigarettes at sites where smoking is prohibited by law, all the while protesting that they are not smoking, but “vaping”.

The battery powered e-cigarettes create a vapor from replaceable cartridges, offering an experience similar to smoking. Sales of e-cigarettes hit $3 billion globally in 2013, according to figures produced by the World Health Organization. Market projections anticipate retail sales will be seven times that amount by 2030.

The School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong covered e-cigarettes for the first time in its annual household survey of smoking patterns, released in early February.

The survey revealed that among 41,000 students from 92 secondary schools surveyed, nine percent said they had smoked e-cigarettes when they are not even legally on sale in the SAR. Researchers interpreted the finding as a “red alert” to health authorities and urged greater efforts to raise awareness of the potential risks of e-cigarettes.

Catch ‘em young

Teenagers are prone to smoking addiction. By the time they’ve smoked about 100 cigarettes, they are hooked as life-long smokers, says anti-tobacco advocate Judith Mackay, director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control. Mackay is also a senior policy adviser to the World Health Organization.

Many e-cigarettes contain nicotine, the same addictive substance found in normal cigarettes, but in lowered concentrations. Many other brands claim their products contain no nicotine. Another argument in favor of e-cigarettes is that they produce vapor instead of highly toxic smoke. Still, latest studies show that both “vaping” and smoking suppress the normal function of 53 genes of the body’s immune system. Alarmingly, 305 more immune genes were shown to have mutated under exposure to e-cigarettes, leading many researchers to believe that e-cigarettes pose serious, long-term health hazards.

That study was presented on Feb 12 at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. Lead researcher Ilona Jaspers of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was quoted by Ars Technica as saying that it was still unclear whether the changed immune response will lead to more infection risks or other immunological diseases.

Despite all these findings, even experts seem a bit ambivalent about the issue. “If all smokers changed to smoking e-cigarettes, it would mean a lot of lives being saved. But it’s not as simple as that,” Mackay told China Daily. “Only in the next three or five years will we have a clear understanding of the effects of e-cigarettes.”

Health authorities fear that non-smokers, mistakenly believing e-cigarettes are safe, will be enthused to take up the habit and that people who have quit smoking may pick up the vaping habit, exposing themselves to the same sort of Pandora’s Box that can afflict regular smokers. This is a matter for the social sciences, and as Mackay explained, there have been no definitive studies as to how e-cigarettes will affect the market if they were to become fashionable.

Fashion statement

With their attractive design and multiplicity of flavors, e-cigarettes are targeted at the youth market. There are more than 8,000 e-cigarette flavors available in the global market, with approximately 200 new flavors being added every month.

The majority of e-cigarette manufacturers have argued their products contain no nicotine at all and thus shouldn’t even require licensing or the levying of any “sin tax”. The selling price is usually 60 percent less than that of normal cigarettes, another way to attract young people.

Also there are several instances of batteries exploding during recharging, and getting inside the clothes of e-cigarette smokers, raising dangers of serious burns or fire outbreaks.

As the debate goes on, the tobacco industry already is moving in, buying e-cigarette manufacturing companies, recalling days gone by when smoking was portrayed as sexy, cool, refreshing and sophisticated. As medical evidence condemning tobacco piled up, the tobacco industry changed tactics promoting “better filters”, “low tar and nicotine”, and commissioned spurious research aimed at undermining the influence of serious scientific findings.

In 2012, a US Federal Court judge ordered that tobacco companies publicly confess to lying to consumers in their efforts to minimize health concerns.

Mackay supported the Hong Kong government’s adoption of a “precocious principle”—to ban e-cigarettes completely. “When we don’t know, when we’re not sure, it’s better to be really careful, and to get more science before allowing them to go market,” Mackay emphasized.

Under Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said that the department will finalize an initial amendment on e-cigarettes by the end of the year for presentation to the Legislative Council for approval. The prohibition is expected to cover importing and manufacturing, selling, distributing and advertising.
Under the current law, only e-cigarettes cartridges containing nicotine are banned. The new rule seeks to ban all cartridges, even those containing no nicotine.

No ifs, ands or butts, e-cigarettes not welcome here

And you thought tobacco was toxic?

Tests by Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) show controversial e-cigarettes, pushing hard for admission into the Hong Kong market, contain deadly chemicals.

The polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), among other toxins found in the samples tested, are derived from petroleum hydrocarbon contamination and the burning of other organic materials known as carcinogens. Inhaling carcinogens could lead to malformation of human tissue, potentially leading to cancer.

The result showed that the highest level of PAHs concentration in fumes rising from a concentrated solution reaches 504.5 nanograms/ml, almost 1 million times more concentrated than its presence in Hong Kong’s outdoor urban environment.
Tested e-cigarettes were also found to contain high amounts of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). PBDEs create a risk of disruption of thyroid hormones and reduced fertility. They also pose risks for fetal development and may cause cancers.

This is the first time electronic cigarettes have been scientifically proven to contain PBDEs, said Chung Shan-shan, assistant professor of Croucher Institute for Environmental Sciences from HKBU.

The discovery hints that other harmful substances, which may have been ignored in previous studies, will be found in the future, Chung added.

This is a “clear sign” that e-cigarettes affect human health, said Lam Tai-hing, chair professor of Community Medicine in the School of Public Health, the University of Hong Kong. The Council urges the government to ban e-cigarettes.
“The more you look into it, the more problems are indicated,” Lam said, citing that quick changes in technology have resulted in more variations of e-cigarettes in terms of temperature, chemical components and so on.

The Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health also released a survey conducted by the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong to monitor the prevalence of e-cigarettes use.

The survey shows that smokers in the age group of 15 to 29 comprised the biggest chunk (7.9 percent) of e-cigarette smokers. 

The study is alarming and is a step forward on extending our understanding on those potentially cancer-causing substances in e-cigarettes, said Judith Mackay, director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control.

“It clearly sends out the message that e-cigarettes need strict regulation before there is a clear and comprehensive understanding on what they contain, how they work, how dangerous they are, particularly to pregnant women and young people,” Mackay said.

Contact the writer at

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Friday, January 2, 2015

Lament for a lost arrow

I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
I still can't locate the bloody thing
Despite the fact it has bright yellow and red fletchings.
Scouring my land with binoculars has so far failed
To pinpoint the costly carbon fiber shaft with its 100-grain field point head.
I hope that, like the great poet's projectile
I will find it, still unbroke, in an oak*, and that I, too, will thus be unbroke.
I will then also be able to breathe a song into the air
So it can fall to earth, I know not where.

With sincere apologies to the great bard of the North East, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for stealing his famous opening lines, which you should all know by heart, and equally sincere apologies to e e cummings for having borrowed his fiendish technique of ignoring rhyme and metre in the interests of plain speech. I also like the equally metrically unconventional Ogden Nash, who is currently the most misquoted poet in all of the United States of America, with liquor stores transmuting his great maxim "Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker" into "Wine is fine, but liquor is quicker". O tempora, o mores! 

* Either a red oak or a chestnut oak. I also have in my forest eastern white pine, hemlock (the former bulwark of the Catskills economy in tanbark days), both white and yellow birch, both red and sugar maple (yes, the one used for maple syrup), trembling aspen, big-toothed aspen, basswood, musclewood, hop hornbeam, ash, hickory, beech, weeping willow and others. Quite a good variety.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Marcrest roasting pot

Food is important to all of us. We have to eat every day, so we might as well eat well, for pleasure as well as for survival. And our cookware should give us pleasure as we prepare our repast.

A year or two ago I picked up this wonderful piece of oven-proof stoneware for a few dollars at a yard sale in the Catskill Mountains. It has various names: Dutch oven, casserole dish, family baker, cooking oven. Take your pick. It's large enough for a family meal, whether that be a small chicken, vegetable stew or whatever.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

J K Rowling says vote NO

J K Rowling (the author of the Harry Potter novels) has issued a statement on the September referendum on Scottish independence:
I came to the question of independence with an open mind and an awareness of the seriousness of what we are being asked to decide. This is not a general election, after which we can curse the result, bide our time and hope to get a better result in four years. Whatever Scotland decides, we will probably find ourselves justifying our choice to our grandchildren. I wanted to write this because I always prefer to explain in my own words why I am supporting a cause and it will be made public shortly that I’ve made a substantial donation to the Better Together Campaign, which advocates keeping Scotland part of the United Kingdom.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The origins of the Check Shirt

The first tartan known to man is the fragment of cloth known as the Falkirk Tartan.

This piece of cloth, from the third century, was found at Falkirk in 1930 stuffed in the mouth of an earthenware bottle full of Roman coins.

Other blogs

I maintain (occasionally) a few other blogs that you are welcome to check out:

Growing Capacity         Chinability         Writing Clean, Clear English         Photos

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Ukraine has had a troubled history. Some of the worst massacres of the 20th century occurred there, including during the Russian civil war, Stalin's great terror famine and of course the holocaust. I am, I confess, happy that I wasn't born there.

Nevertheless, the country survives, and its people now have the possibility of living normal, peaceful lives, which is what I expect the vast majority of them would like to do. The prospects for a peaceful life are, though, looking bleak.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

No secret to losing weight

I lost over 30 pounds (13.6 kilos, 2.1 stone) last summer, reducing my blood pressure from hypertensive to normal. It wasn’t hard. You can do it too, if you need to. More people should.
Too many people in Hong Kong are overweight. The resulting health problems require hospitalization that costs somewhere between 8% and 10% of the SAR’s total health expenditure. Around 5.5% of the population are using proprietary drugs for obesity and related conditions, and large amounts of money are known to be spent on obesity management schemes of no proven benefit. An unknown amount of sick leave is caused by health problems related to obesity.

Friday, April 4, 2014

An idea whose time has come

This article by Staff Writer was published in the China Daily Hong Kong Edition on April 4, 2014
(Did you detect Man in the Check Shirt style in some paragraphs? I could not possibly comment.)

The minute I read of the Civil Service Bureau's proposal on Thursday to raise the retirement age of newly hired civil servants from 60 to 65, the great French poetnovelist and playwright VictorHugo's words come to mind: "Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come."

In realitythis is an idea that is long overdue as current retirement ages in most parts of the world were established during the Industrial Age - well over half a century agoSince thenmost countriescitizens have gained by at least 10 years in their average life expectancyThe result is an ever increasing pool of pensionersmany of them in their prime and raring to work.

A life for a life?

Capital punishment has been in abeyance in Hong Kong since it was last used in 1966 and was officially abolished in 1993. Unlike in many other jurisdictions, it is not usually a hot issue. Even if the death penalty is not restored, it is worth revisiting the arguments from time to time to make sure we are doing the right thing.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Hong Kong government should ban the sale of cigarettes

This article was published in the China Daily Hong Kong edition on January 17, 2014

Smoking is forbidden in public places, but it continues to damage health. Banning the sale of cigarettes is a logical next step to reduce the incidence of lung cancer and end passive smoking.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Say no to drugs, no matter 'hard' or 'soft'

This article was published in the China Daily Hong Kong Edition on January 13, 2014

Illegal drugs are not harmlessThey reduce your mental capacity and can cause serious physical   and mental health problemsOnly someone with no understanding of simple logic would be duped by the arguments of the pushers and their doped-up hangers-on in favor of wasting money on these harmful substances.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Music for the Growing Mind in Hong Kong

Great oaks from little acorns grow...

Hong Kong Southern District Summer Concert

This simple piece is just a taster of what they can do. Considering that this is only a few months after they started learning in January, this is tremendous. They have made even greater progress since then.

The Christmas concert, with full orchestra and complete works of music, will be held in the Concert Hall of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in Wanchai on 15 December 2013. (Most of the players are very young, but you may see some older people in the orchestra; one of them might be wearing a check shirt.)

Come and bring the kids. They can hear a reading of Babar the Elephant followed by the first performance of a new piece of music based on it. It's free, no need to book.

Friday, November 29, 2013