Driving slower in HK

Filed in General, Hong Kong

Driving is a part of the culture that is Hong Kong. Most people don't drive because they cannot afford to buy a car, and public transport is pretty good even if it is controlled by government and large corporations with self-pointed motives. I have driven in Hong Kong for most of the 18 years that I've lived here and am now very used to it. That doesn't mean that driving here is easy for me but just that it's familiar.

When you drive in Hong Kong, one of the first things you realise is the attitude of other drivers. In particular, everyone seems to be in a rush. It's more noticeable when you return from a relaxing holiday as I just did. After driving in Queensland Australia for two weeks, driving here in Hong Kong just really got on my nerves. The worst thing about it though is that the rush attitude is contagious so even if you intend to take it easy and remind yourself that rushing might not even get you to your destination any faster, you'll still eventually end up rushing anyway. It's extremely difficult to avoid.

To increase the pressure of driving even more is the fact that there are now other things you can do while driving. The mobile phone probably takes first place in this category, allowing people to communicate and work while they're driving. I have friends who claim that talking on the phone does not affect their driving but I can't believe that. Personally, even with a hands-free accessory, it is still impossible to devote the majority of my attention to my driving while trying to listen, interpret and understand what the person on the phone is saying. Maybe I'm just dumber than the average driver. Who knows?

One thing we hope not to see when driving is traffic jams. This is a big city and despite the cost of car ownership, there are a lot of drivers here. Traffic accidents are going to happen whether you like it or not. What is especially curious though is how accidents on the other side of the road can affect the traffic on your side of the road. As the cars pass by the accident site, everyone slows down to get a good look at the cars involved in the accident. How many cars were involved? Was anyone hurt or killed? How much debris is there, and so forth. As soon as you get past the accident, the traffic speeds up again really quickly.

I also find it curious that one car stopped on the side of the road with a flat tire can cause three lanes of traffic to slow to a crawl. Surely those two extra lanes of traffic can handle all of the traffic for a short while without impeding speed too much.

And talking about things that slow down traffic in Hong Kong, I have to include street lights and rain. Almost every street and road in Hong Kong has lights and Hong Kong drivers are used to having those lights. So when the lights go out for whatever reason, or if perchance the people have to drive on streets without any lights, they slow down; a lot. On a major freeway running between Kowloon and Lowu on the Chinese border, the speed limit is for the most part 110km/hr. On a normal night, most people will drive at 110km/hr and a few will drive faster. If the lights are off though, most people will drop their speed to just 80 or 90km/hr. They are simply not used to driving without street lights.

If it rains, most people drop their driving speed a lot too. Usually, this is obviously a good thing because it reduces the number of accidents. Sometimes, it's not necessary though and being a driver from Australia where we are used to driving in whatever weather at whatever time, it can be a little frustrating. I have to admit though that there have been a few times when I've driven in rain so heavy that it was not possible to see more than 50 feet in front of the car. In such weather, you can only hope and pray that there aren't any clueless drivers in front of you neglecting to turn their lights on. Without their tail lights on, it's almost impossible to see them.

More about driving in Hong Kong later.

‘Park-anywhere-you-like’ day

Filed in General, Hong Kong

Today is one of the few days in the year that you can park your car anywhere you like. Unlike other countries like Australia and the U.S.A., people can only park their cars in designated stretches of the road. If the sign does not say "Parking", then you can't park there; period.

So what's so special about today? It's the Chinese New Year. For four days, people don't have to go to work. They get to spend time with their friends and family and relax or get bored as the case may be.

There are a few traditions associated with Chinese New Year; the giving and receiving of Lai Sees, money enclosed in fancy, normally red, envelopes; the burning of strings of tens, sometimes hundreds of banger fireworks; huge crowds gathering to watch the government financed fireworks display in the harbour; walking through the flower markets the night before New Year, and the meeting and gathering of friends and family.

It's all a lot of fun. We don't do all of these things. We hear the explosions of bangers going off in our village, usually just after midnight to celebrate the new year, and our dogs hear them too almost certainly responding with lots of barking much to the annoyance of others in the house trying to sleep. We didn't walk through the flower markets this year and we didn't go to see the fireworks display. We did visit with family and friends though and to me, that's the most important tradition of the Chinese New Year.

We visited my wife's father on Cho Yi, the first day of the new year. We also visited the 'super doctor' who treated my wife's mother for more than a year before she died of diabetes complications. And today, friends will be coming to our home for dinner. It's a great time of the year if only for this gathering of friends and family. It's unfortunate but even Christmas doesn't measure up in this aspect. For as long as I can remember, Christmas was always about family and never about friends. With Chinese New Year, everyone is involved.

And that brings us to the 'park-anywhere-you-like' day. The police understand that people everywhere will be driving all over Hong Kong to visit with family and friends and therefore are especially lenient about parking in non-parking areas. You can even park on the sidewalk if there is no space on the road. This only happens for the first two or three days of the year so make the most of it.

Happy Chinese New Year to all.

Gongxifacai    Shentijiankang

Digital photos are good?

Filed in General, Technology

For the past 6 months, I've tussled with trying to set up a reliable backup system for my digital photographs and film scans. I have been scanning my photographic film with a film scanner at 4000 dpi. The raw images are around 130MB each and it takes a long time to scan a whole roll of film. My 200GB external drive had numerous scanned images on it and the last thing I wanted was a hard disk failure. A backup was of the utmost importance.

People using computers today are working more and more with digital photos, movies and music and all of these require massive amounts of disk space. Archiving these for protection is not easy. Tape drives are expensive. RAID 5 towers are probably the best option but are also too expensive. That leaves DVD because CDs are too small to consider.

So in August of 2004, I purchased a 8x DVD writer and upgraded my backup software to take advantage of it. Little did I know that the road to successful and reliable DVD backups was going to be so difficult.

Frequently and randomly during backup, the backup program would report DVD drive errors. More than a hundred hours of problem shooting and more than 50 coasters later, I discovered that the DVD drive was the problem. It wasn't good enough for the strict requirements of my backup program. I have now swapped the drive for a wonderful Sony DRU-720A Double Layer 16x drive and everything is right again in the world. My backups work and my hours of scanning are secure.

However, this episode has made me examine the idea of digital photos much more closely. What so many people with digital cameras don't seem to realise is that it's very easy to lose those photos. Hard drives die. CDs and DVDs change and become unreadable. There is simply no way to guarantee that your photos will always be there for years to come. My research has shown that the best option is probably to backup to DVD+R, maintaining at least two separate sets of backups, preferably on two different brands of discs just in case one brand is not as durable as the other. It would also be prudent to duplicate the backups to new disc media every 3 to 5 years. That's a lot of work but remember; once those photos become unreadable or inaccessible, they're gone, forever. Nothing you can do will bring them back. It will be as if they had never existed.

I have a nice Canon EOS 5 camera. It shoots film. I've decided to go back to shooting film instead of digital. If I shoot slide film, scanning with calibration is simple and I'll always have the original film to go back to if the scanned images evaporate from the world of the living.

Digital photography is extremely convenient, but until there's a more permanent way of preserving those photos, film may still be the better option (as long as you can afford the film scanner of course).

USD. I feel the pain.

Filed in Current Affairs, General, Hong Kong

我地今早喺邊? Where are we this morning?

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USD. I feel the pain.

Filed in Current Affairs, General, Hong Kong

I have a 200GB external hard disk which has developed serious media problems. A surface scan of the disk produced more than 900 bad blocks with 2 million blocks remaining to be scanned. After three days of scanning, I cancelled the scan. The Maxtor Diamond Plus is less than 2 years old but because it's an OEM, the warranty is only 1 year. Consider carefully before you purchase an expensive OEM external drive. It might be cheaper to buy a lower capacity drive and swap the bare drive for a full-warranty high capacity drive yourself.

Anyway, I had a quandary. The 200GB drive contains full resolution film scans of many of my photographs. The thing which many people tend to forget these days is that digital media can evaporate before your eyes and there's no way to get the material back, whether it be Word files, your favourite music (Apple iTunes music store) or your memories. A lot of people are backing up to CD or DVD believing the hype that the media will last for 10 to 20 years not realising that there are different grades of media, that CDs don't last as long as DVDs, that DVD+RWs don't last as long as DVD+Rs and that with temperature changes and exposure to light, NONE of these are certain to last over time.

The solution for me was to purchase a hard drive unit with RAID 5 capabilities. For those of you not in the computer business, such a unit is made up of 4 or more individual hard drives with the data shared among all four of them. If one of the drives dies, the unit keeps working and supplying your data. You can often switch the dead drive out without even turning off the unit and the unit will automatically rebuild the new drive with the data that would have been on the old drive. These units used to be very expensive but prices have come down a long way.

After some research, I decided on the "Lacie 800 Bigger Drive with RAID". A 1TB (ie, 1000 GB) unit would cost me around USD1,500 which is not too bad for that much storage and for the peace of mind it would give me. In addition, it sports FireWire 400, 800 and USB 2 connections so it would serve me well for many years to come.

I asked my friendly local Hong Kong reseller for a quote. The unit is not due for release until the middle of February so the price could not be finalised but he estimated about HKD16,000; ie, USD2,000! Why the price discrepancy? The Hong Kong government has decreed that all imported electronics must be grounded. The power plugs must have three prongs. Unfortunately, the USA is not as stringent so many appliances there are supplied without the grounding prong. The same apparently is true for the Lacie 800 Bigger Drive. Consequently, my reseller who happens to be the Hong Kong Lacie distributor has to get the drive from the Lacie head office in France.

The Euro is EXPENSIVE! Remember that the Hong Kong dollar is currently pegged to the US dollar. If the US dollar depreciates, so does the Hong Kong dollar. So if European product is expensive for US citizens, you can be sure that it's expensive for us in Hong Kong too.

So what to do. At USD2,000, I feel the unit's a little too expensive for this at-home user. I'll probably just swap out the faulty Maxtor drive for a better and larger Seagate Barracuda (with 5 years warranty ;-) and make regular backups to DVD+RW. Did I mention that DVD+RW is not absolutely reliable?

I wonder which lawyers will be getting filthy rich in a few years time when multiple class-action suits are brought against the CD-R manufactures for false promises of 10 to 20 years shelf life?