Interview in today’s HMC

Filed in Entertainment Ind., Press

There's an interview with me in the April 2005 edition of HMC magazine (Chinese language, Hong Kong publisher). The interview and photographs were taken a couple of weeks ago. I'll be getting a copy myself today to see how it was written up.

Update: The interview was laid out on a four-page spread with one large photograph and several others. Much of the text was based on research that the reporter had done from other older interviews. Even though some of it was inaccurate, the interview overall was pretty good. I'm happy with it. I had hoped that the reporter would list the URL of this blog in the interview but that didn't happen. Maybe next time…

I’m an addict!

Filed in General, Technology

I've been an addict for quite some time, and not just to one thing either. I've been drinking coffee for several years and usually have to drink at least one cup every day, sometimes two or three cups every day. Off and on, I've also been a TV addict, and I'm probably a dog addict but that's still up for discussion. My biggest and worst addiction though has been my computer!

While others get addicted to surfing on the internet or playing online games or participating in online MUDs (are they still around?), I'm simply addicted to my computer whether I'm surfing, checking email, scanning photographs or watching videos. Every morning when I wake up, the first thought that comes into my head is whether there is any email for me even though I receive very few non-spam emails. All through the day, rather than consider useful things to do, it's much easier to sit down in front of the computer and find stuff to do. You can waste countless hours putting all of your computer files in order.

For years, I spent hours perfecting automation scripts on my computer to 'make life easier'. I became an excellent AppleScript scripter but that was the only benefit. While running a computer software distributorship here in Hong Kong, I spent more time perfecting my databases and forms systems than actually selling the products. Maybe it's a symptom of agoraphobia. While sitting in front of the computer, you don't have to face other people.

The reality of an addiction to computers though is very harsh. You wake up in the morning thinking about email. Once you've poured yourself a cup of coffee, you sit down to see what came in the mail. You then surf your regular web sites even though you surfed them just the evening before because something new may have been posted on the sites. When that's all finished, you think about scanning more of that film lying around and cataloging it for easy future reference. Or you watch a few tv series while surfing some more. After dinner, you're back on the computer surfing those sites again and watching more tv series. At around midnight, you feel the first pangs of being tired but you stay seated anyway and half an hour later, you're not tired anymore. Two hours later, the tired feeling comes back with a vengeance and you decide finally that it's time to go to bed. While you're having your shower, you're imagining all of the great productive things you're going to do tomorrow and then you go to bed. When you wake up in the morning; usually not so perky and sprite because of the very late night you had; you pour yourself a cup of coffee and check your email, and the circle continues.

After doing this for a very long time; think years; I decided that I really had to do something about it. (The irony here is that while fixing the problem, I'm here writing this blog on the very computer I'm trying to avoid.)

I'm using Apple's OS X which supports multiple users. I searched for a time-limiting application over at www.versiontracker.com and found one. After trying it for two weeks, I purchased it. It's called Watcher and I've set it up to limit my computer time to just two hours a day. After two hours, Watcher logs out of my account and I have to wait until the next day before I can begin using my account again.

Now I have admin rights and many people will think that installing the time-limiting application is going to be useless in the end because I can always use my admin rights to increase my time allocations. While that's true, I have found that the simple reminder that my time is up is almost always enough to let me walk away from the computer. In any case, I have already assigned admin rights to my wife and taken admin rights away from my own account. Once my wife changes her password, I will not be able to change the time allocation on my account without asking her for the password. That extra complication will almost guarantee that I'll walk away from the computer when my time's up each day.

So what happens when you're forced; albeit gently; to leave your computer after just two hours of usage. Well the first thing that happens is that you suddenly begin thinking about what you're going to do on the computer before you log into your account, and you prioritise those tasks, something you never did before. It's a good thing. Right? But wait. It gets better. (sounds like one of those TV advertainment shows) Suddenly, you don't want to sit down all the time. You actually go out for runs and activities. You play and practise the piano more and you begin doing all of those things that you imagined at night while showering. You sleep earlier because you're not glued to the computer. You eat less because you're not fatigued and glued to the computer. You're healthier because you're sleeping more, eating less and exercising and your mind is clearer and begins to function the way it's supposed to. Overall, it's a great thing.

Are you addicted to your computer? For me, other than the daily routine that I mentioned above, there was another tell-tale sign. I was bored while surfing the net or watching the tv series. That's the kicker. If you're bored while on the computer but you continue to use the computer irrespective especially when there are plenty of other productive things that could or need to be done, then you're addicted and it's time to think about limiting your access to the computer.

My experiment with the Watcher application and time allocation has been a huge success so far.

There was one other thing I did. I created another account for myself. It doesn't have admin rights and doesn't have time limits but it only has access to specific applications. One of those is my backup application so that the computers in our house can get backed up any time of the day without restriction. Another one of the applications is Practica Musica. I figure if I'm addicted to the computer, I might as well use that addiction to improve myself. I need to continue improving my music abilities and Practica Musica can teach me a lot; in particular, ear training, perfect pitch and intervals. Another one of the 'approved' applications is Rosetta Stone's language application. I'm sure you get the idea.

So, I'm a computer addict but I'm doing something about it. Life's looking much better already and I'm actually living again. The future looks promising. What about you? Are you a computer addict?

Mrs Cheung, my friend and tutor

Filed in General, Memoirs

In 1987, I arrived in Hong Kong to stay, to become a pop singer if possible, without any clue as to how I was going to do that. By pure accident or perhaps fate, I discovered that teaching English was a good way to make money for foreigners staying in Hong Kong and I ended up with a teaching job at a commercial English school called 育城 which literally means "Education City". It was while I was working at this school that a coworker notified me of an opportunity to act for television and I became one of Hong Kong's few television foreign actors.

At the time, I had two jobs; my teaching job and the new acting job. Working for television was not a steady job. How many days you worked at television depended on how much your character involved, and you were never sure when you'd be asked to work until one or two days before the shoot. That remains true even today.

It was at this time that I met a new friend, a wonderful lady who we referred to as 張師母 or Mrs Cheung, the wife of Reverend Cheung. Mrs Cheung's husband was working for a bible college and they had rented class rooms from the school I was working for. It was therefore by chance that I met and became friends with her.

Mrs Cheung was my first tutor after arriving in Hong Kong. In fact, as far as Cantonese goes, she was my only tutor. While her husband was teaching in the class rooms, Mrs Cheung and I were outside in the reception/corridor area seated at a table reading over my television script. She would teach me the characters I didn't know, and also taught me a few of the basics of writing in Chinese. Eighteen years ago and I still remember it quite well.

That tutoring relationship didn't last long. Because television could not be scheduled and would often collide with my teaching work, I had to leave the school. That meant no more lessons with Mrs Cheung but I was already well on my way to learning the language, and we would be friends for life.

Over the years, my wife and I have met with Reverend Cheung, Mrs Cheung and family at least once a year. Mrs Cheung's daughter was born on exactly the same date as I, and we would often calculate the difference in hours taking into account that Queensland Australia is two hours ahead of Hong Kong. As a result, we would at the very least celebrate our birthdays together at lunch or dinner each year. It's curious but we are great friends even though we only see each other once or twice a year and don't really know much about what each other is doing.

Today, I phoned Mrs Cheung's daughter to see if our families could meet again for dinner sometime. It's been a long time since we've gathered together and I wanted to see them again. That was when I discovered that Mrs Cheung has passed away. She had been sick for a long time, probably with cancer, but kept it secret from everyone; even her own children. She never wanted anyone to worry. In fact, she passed away two days before the Chinese New Year and many of her friends were not notified because the family didn't want to affect the holidays for their friends. That's how considerate they are of other people.

Mrs Cheung was my tutor and my friend. I will miss her dearly.

Bare feet in Hong Kong

Filed in GeneralTags:

I grew up in the country, on the outskirts of a small town in Queensland Australia. It's only natural that I grew up running around the farm and countryside without shoes.

Skip forward 30 years and here I am in Hong Kong, still living in a 'country' area and still preferring to not wear shoes when possible; and getting lots of strange looks and questions when people notice. City people simply don't understand, and they usually have misconceptions about barefoot walking and running.

I've been taking my dogs for walks without wearing shoes for the last 4 years. Now that I think of it, my barefoot walking/running didn't really begin until my wife and I moved to this area of Hong Kong and began raising dogs 4 years ago. Rain or shine, I would always walk my dogs without wearing shoes, even at night while walking a track through a small bush area on the edge of our village. So you could say that I've been conditioning my feet for the last 4 years.

A couple of weeks ago, I went for my first run. I haven't run for several years so I'm basically beginning again from scratch. I chose a road near home which slopes down to a recreation area next to the ocean. I ran down and back again, taking it easy with the clear understanding that my feet weren't ready for a full-on run.

That night, I had four blisters on one foot and three on the other. Rather than puncture them, I let them be hoping that they'd go away on their own. Unfortunately, one of the blisters was just behind the first and second toes and it was irritated every time I wore my Birkenstock sandals (incredible shoes to wear, even for a barefooter). In the end, I had to puncture it with a needle and release as much fluid as possible.

A week later with the blisters still present but drier, I went for another run, this time a little shorter than the first run. Since most of the blisters were on my toes, I focussed on trying to keep my toes off the road while running. It seemed to work because at the end of the run, my feet were ok with very little damage. In fact, I suspect that the skin of the drying blisters helped to protect my feet. It's also one of the reasons that I decided to run before the blisters had completely healed. That night, I did have to release fluid from a couple of the blisters.

For the last three days, I've run every day. Running a short steady 20 minute run was a good decision. It's long enough to help condition my muscles, joints and feet but short enough to not cause damage or discourage me from running again. For years, I ran too hard and I always dreaded the next run a little because I knew it was going to be hard. Hopefully, that won't happen this time.

I plan to run this short run for the next three weeks and then extend it a little. With some persistence and patience, I'll be able to run longer distances comfortably and enjoyably before year end.

Today, the weather turned wet and cold again with a constant drizzle. The first few minutes of my run were very chilling but I warmed up and was fine for the rest of the run. My most recent runs have been very reminiscent of my life and runs in Katoomba, Blue Mountains (if that link doesn't work; Katoomba City Council). It's been fun.

I'm cynical by nature and one of the establishments I distrust are the sport shoe manufacturers. They've been selling us bad advice and shoes for a long time. Barefoot running is so much safer and better than running with shoes. Unfortunately, people without a barefoot childhood will find it extremely difficult to adjust to barefoot walking and running.

If you're interested in learning more about barefoot running, one of my favourite sites on the subject is Running Barefoot. From personal experience, I can testify that most if not all of the information about barefoot running on the site is true.

More next time including the advantages of walking and running barefoot.

Leo Koo, a ‘True Music’ experience

Filed in Entertainment Ind., Music

My wife and I went to Leo Koo's (古巨基) concert tonight at the Hong Kong Colosseum. We were given the tickets by a friend of mine, and were very surprised to find ourselves sitting in the second row. My wife commented that she probably wouldn't need to wear her glasses. That's how close we were.

Leo's a music man. He's loved singing for a long time, so much so that even after becoming quite successful as an actor for China-produced television serials, he chose to give up the television work and resume his singing. Tonight simply proved that he made the right choice.

The concert was great. Leo really knew how to make the music live. There's a difference between a singer who can keep key and a singer who knows how to make use of volume, emphasis and timing to bring a song alive, and Leo did everything right.

It became obvious that music itself was an important part of this concert. The arrangements and band were excellent and the volume wasn't too loud. There was even a whole segment where the backing singers came up on stage and sung alongside Leo. I've never seen this in Hong Kong and it was executed extremely well. The singers obviously had a lot of fun too.

The dancing was appropriate. The dancers employed for Hong Kong's concerts are always top notch but the arrangement can sometimes go overboard or become inappropriate for family viewing. That didn't happen tonight. All of the dances were related to Leo's own personality and nothing too spicy happened during the dances.

Leo's waited 11 years for this concert. He had the opportunity to open a concert eight years ago when one of his songs became a big hit here in Hong Kong. After considering the number of hit songs he had on hand and his experience, Leo passed up the invitation. In some ways, he regrets it because it took another 8 years before that opportunity re-introduced itself. I on the other hand think everything worked out well for him. He's more famous and popular now than he ever was, and he's a very strong singer and performer. With the bad economic times of 1997 and SARS behind us, his career can only soar from this point on.

He's going to be one of the greatest singers that Hong Kong has ever seen. Just wait and see.

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).