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spikegifted.net - Year Review 2003

Personal, Other News
1st Quarter, 2nd Quarter, 3rd Quarter, 4th Quarter

Personal

1st Quarter

The year started off like the last - busy with work. However, the overall situation of my work was overshadowed by the reorganization, in the previous autumn, of department that I worked in. There was a great deal of uncertainty of our future in the bank. Nevertheless, the work continued. One or two of the transactions that I've been involved in was due to come to the market later in the year and I was looking forward to get more involved in these deals. However, the immediate tasks were to engage myself in supporting the marketing staff (the directors and managing directors of the department). As expected, due to the poor performance of the entire financial services industry (and specifically, our organization), our annual bonus was a non-event. As things developed, it would appear that my fate with the bank was already decided at that stage and I was 'living' on borrowed time in the organization. 

Mom had an accident on her way back home after a shopping trip. She was taken to hospital. Although her health was not in danger, she was deemed too weak to be allowed to return home by herself (as she was having trouble moving around) and she was put into a recovery clinic after her brief stay in the hospital. She was eventually allowed to go home and she was assigned with some care by Hong Kong's Social Services. However, the main burden fell on her brother Daniel, who along with his wife, has been endless caring for her. I felt (and still feel) bad that I wasn't 'at hand' to offer my mom more help and comfort, but situation here was getting worse...

2nd Quarter

At the end of April, I found myself being made redundant from my job. This was only the second time in my working life that I find myself forced out of a job (the first time was subsequent to Yamaichi Securities went into voluntary wind down). When the news came, I was devastated - my entire working life has collapsed! The Ruler_of_spike was being incredibly supportive of my plight, but there was nothing she or I can do. For the first month after leaving ING, I was in a state of shock and I was feeling sorry for myself. The recurring question was: "Why me?" Of course, there was no answer to that. After the initial phase of denial, I picked up the pieces and figured out what I should be doing - find a job!

To be completely honest, that was the first time in nearly eight years that I've an opportunity to sit down and figure out 1) what my skills are, 2) what I want to do and 3) where would I find employment. These are not questions that one would often ask oneself while in employment. However, the situation was forced upon me and I had to be honest with myself. A few ideas came up, some realistic but others less so. Having figured out what I wanted to, I started calling head-hunters... My spirit was low and there was little to put a spark back into my rather grim existence. Joining the dole queue for the first time in my life certainly did not help - the whole process was like a sophisticated form of begging - a thoroughly demeaning process to obtain a minimal amount of money. If it wasn't for the Ruler_of_spike's constant support and comforting presence, I would have struggled even more than I did. She has been a constant source of encouragement and enthusiasm - a shining torch in the dark.

Calling head-hunters had its own dynamics. My résumé was not the easiest to work with for I was attempting to return to a field that I left nearly two and a half years ago. I tried to be positive in putting my case across and making sure that each and everyone of them was 'in tune' with my thinking. Over a period of months, some have turned out to be more helpful than others. I'm grateful to all those who helped, in any shape or form. While positive results did not come out of every conversation, it was often nice to talk to a sympathetic ear. Additionally, I cannot express gratitude for my out-placement consultant who through all those terrible months had been a constant supply of encouragement - helping me to look at things from different angles and searching for different approaches out of my joblessness.

3rd Quarter

After couple of months of fruitless search, around the end of July, I had my first interview at JP Morgan. What was surprising was that it came not through any head-hunters but via applying directly at the company's online careers website. I guess I made an impression of sort for I was invited back for a second interview which was delayed for quite some time and did not take place until the end of August. In the mean time, I went to couple of other interviews, but nothing much came out of them. At the same time I engaged myself in other projects which occupied much of my time and energy. I was settling into a routine - a terrible thing to happen when unemployed.

It turned out to be one of the most glorious summers this country has ever experienced - for over a period of weeks, it was hot and sunny. It has certainly broken many records. However, because of my constant fear that I would miss an important call, I spent pretty much the entire time indoors. That was completely irrational for there was usually little developments during the summer months and I was just grinding myself to a state. In fact, it was one of the worst summer I've ever experienced. The uncertainty of being jobless was getting to me, bouts of fear surfaced from time to time. Luckily, the optimistic side of me won most of the times and I carried on to the next day with some hope of finding something soon.

4th Quarter

Much of September came and went without any news and I was terrified to call to find out what has happened at JP Morgan. My line of thinking was: "no news is good news", since if I've been rejected after the 2nd round of interview, I would have been told long ago. At the beginning of October, the HR contact called to inform me that they plan to offer me a temporary position (with a view to become permanent down the line) instead. That wasn't the plan but I was allowed into the organization, I was certain that I'd do a good job and, of course, may be become a permanent staff. Still, it was another two weeks before I heard anything back. In the mean time, I was offered a job in a French investment bank. If the opportunity had come three months earlier, I would have taken it without hesitation. In the end I stuck with my choice and started work at the end of October.

While I was struggling to find a job, there was trouble on the work front for the Ruler_of_spike. The owner of the company had decided to wind up the London administrative operation (London was the only operation in the UK, but the owner also had operations outside the country), which means that she was going to be out of a job also. There was so much uncertainty at the end of August that we were both reeling from the pressure. However, the pressure for her was even greater as she was in sole charge of the operation here and to some extent she also had the responsibility towards the staff.

As if all the trials and tribulations were not stressful enough, another shock was due for us. Over a year ago, the Ruler_of_spike had observed some unusual behavior to her breast and seeing that her family has a long history of breast cancer, she went to see the GP to find out if it was something that needed further attention. The GP reassured her that it was nothing out of ordinary. However, in late September, she made another observation which together with the previous one made her worry. The GP wisely sent her to an oncology specialist for further checks. The two weeks between seeing the GP and the specialist was incredibly worrying. It must have been exceeding difficult for the Ruler_of_spike - stress of imminently losing her job, worries about her health and the additional burden I put on her. Somehow, she soldiered on. I was (and still am) in owe of her courage and bravery. As it turned out it was nothing to worry about. A huge sigh of relieve for both of us!

Having decided to wind down the London operation, the owner was making every possible excuse not to break the news to the staff during his visit to the UK (while the Ruler_of_spike ran the operation, the staff was working for the owner, so the responsibility for breaking the news was the owners, not hers). Eventually, she was forced to tell the staff of the situation because the owner simply did not show up at the appointed meeting, using some lame excuse to avoid the staff. Aside from the continuation of the administrative part of job, there was the additional task of transferring the work to offices overseas, the Ruler_of_spike was simply overwhelmed. The owner had the cheek of asking her to become responsible for the winding up of the administrative company. I was outraged by his suggestion and the Ruler_of_spike sternly refused, but the pressure was still on. Then suddenly, it was all over. It stopped just like that - the doors were closed for the last time, the remainder of the work was transferred away and the wind down passed over to the administrators. End of an era and hopefully the beginning of a new one.

It had had been a very long and difficult year and since it was only recently that I started working again, I felt the need to work through Christmas and New Year. Additionally, the Ruler_of_spike had recently taken on a project which will keep her relatively busy up until the beginning of January 2004, we had decided to stay in London for the Holidays season. Through the trials and tribulations, we had provided care, support and love for each other. We've been together for nearly five years and spent over two and a half year living under one roof. We need each other and we complement each other in so many ways, so just before the end of the year, I asked the Ruler_of_spike to be my boss for the rest of our lives. And she agreed.

Finally, just before Christmas, having decided that the cost of buying a diamond for the engagement ring for the Ruler_of_spike, I took advantage of the incredible favorable GBP/US$ exchange rate and went over to Antwerp to select and purchase a diamond from one of the diamond brokers in the city. Basically, for the budget that I've set aside, I was able to pick a larger and/or better quality diamond over in Antwerp than I would otherwise in the UK. I managed to pick up some very cheap flight tickets (£0.01 per each leg of the journey) to fly over to Brussels-Cherleroi and then via bus and train to Antwerp. Having purchased the diamond from the broker (in cash), my return trip was interesting, for in between the hours of leaving in Cherleroi in the morning and returning to the airport, flights had been interrupted by a snow storm, which meant that all the flights were delayed. I returned back home and hit the bed 23.5 hours after getting up the previous day. The unbelievable thing was that I didn't feel tired throughout the trip until after I got home and show the stone to the Ruler_of_spike. We were both relieve and happy...


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Other News

Iraq

The year started with a hangover from the last - the crisis created by the US and British governments over Iraq. There seemed to be little alternatives but go to war. I watched with amazement as these two countries marched themselves to war over the possible existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). For the first time in a generation, some Continental Europeans had chosen not to support the action of the US and I believe their reasoning to be sound and legitimate. What followed could only be described as a disgrace! The name-calling, the public humiliation of and the vicious attitude towards the French by both the American politicians and the American public shocked me to the core. This was what I now call the "Henry Ford Model 'T' Diplomacy" - you can have any political or diplomatic stance as long as you're in agreement with us. By their actions, the US's standing in world opinion had dropped a few notches.

While the US position could easily been justified as their President had set out 'regime change' was the aim in raising the pressure against the Iraqi regime, the position of the British Prime Minister was less certain. His case for war was relying solely on the fact that the Iraqis possessed WMD and these weapons presented an immediate threat to this country's security. Not everyone was convinced. Ministers resigned, or at least they threatened to anyway; protests were organized and the PM ignored the protestors concerns. The UK was dragged kicking and screaming into a war.

The shooting war happened quickly enough - over the course of 5 weeks, forces of the US, the UK and other coalition countries overran an empty country with few significant population centers. The Iraqis did not exactly put up much of a fight - the weather caused more delays than enemy action. I could see genuine joy in some of the Iraqis when Saddam's statue in the center of Baghdad was symbolically pulled down. However, joy for these people quickly replaced by more fear, more uncertainty, more deaths and more suffering. Looks like someone had forgotten to plan for the contingencies after throwing the world's most finely tuned military machines at a bunch of conscripted no-hopers.

It had been over seven months since the end of hostilities, yet the quality of life for the average Iraqis was no better than under Saddam's regime. Military personnel from Coalition as well ordinary Iraqis were still being killed and wounded by armed gangs and terrorist. The war was won, but they forgot to bring the peace. As the post-war situation in Iraq remained stubbornly volatile, the US sorted to bring in international help. NATO allies who were previously implicated as uncooperative were invited to contribute towards the cost of bringing stability and improvements to a country whose invasion they previously refused to join. It was no surprise that the US was given the diplomatic 'cold shoulder'.

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)

At first, it was nothing to it: Some people in southern China picked up some viral disease that exhibited flu-like symptoms - high fever, headache, sore throat and cough. However, they rapidly developed and if the patients did not obtain good quality medical care, these symptoms could lead to death. Due to historical, social and environmental influences, Southeast Asia has been the hotbed of respiratory diseases and since the advent of international air travel, the number of global outbreaks of influenza had their origins traced back to the region. However, this time was a little different. The first cases of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) were reported in southern China (believed to be the Guangdong province) back in November 2002. Nearly three months later, the Chinese ministry of health reported that there had been 300 cases of an "acute respiratory syndrome" in the province. Since SARS wasn't seen as a major health problem at the time, not in China and not in the rest of the world, the Chinese government did not respond adequately to the developing situation.

In mid-February, SARS outbreak reached Hong Kong when an infected doctor travelled there from Guangdong in China. He seeded a cluster of cases among guests in the hotel where he stayed. The virus spread to Canada, Singapore and Vietnam as infected guests flew home. From then on, SARS became a global outbreak. The WHO global alert triggered responses from health experts in dozens of countries. One guest in the hotel triggered an outbreak at Hong Kong's Prince of Wales Hospital. Another cluster of cases - more than 300 - developed at the city's Amoy Gardens apartment block. An official report concluded that the virus had spread through a sewage pipe. The initial response by the HK authorities were slow and the situation there appeared to be getting out of hand. The World Health Organization imposed to travel ban to the territory and the economy was hit hard by the outbreak as tourist numbers fell.

Other countries in Southeast Asia were similar hit - Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam were amongst the countries affected. Outside Southeast Asia, Canada was the worst-hit country. The virus entered the country when a woman infected in a hotel in Hong Kong returned home. Five members of her family caught the virus and a chain of infection began, extending to health workers at one of Toronto's hospitals. By late April, quarantine measures seemed to have brought the outbreak under control. The WHO lifted its travel advisory on Toronto which had hit the city's tourism industry hard, but the disease resurfaced a month later, with a new cluster of cases in a hospital in the north end of the city. Toronto become the first place to be taken off and then put back on the WHO's list of affected areas. Health authorities were criticized for letting their guard down too soon, amid reports that some quarantined people had been ignoring isolation orders. The authorities appealed to hundreds of health workers in Toronto to voluntarily put themselves into quarantine.

Four months after it came to the world's attention, SARS outbreak seems to have been contained. However, the cost has been high. The virus, which killed more than 900 people worldwide, also cost nearly US$60bn (£35.9bn) in reduced demand and lost business revenue. The obvious casualties are the airline servicing and tourist industries of those affected countries. However, given that the outbreak took place at a time when the Coalition forces were building for war against Saddam's regime, together they amplified their effects.

The Iraq Weapons Dossier, Dr. David Kelly and the Hutton Inquiry

The British Prime Minister's case for war was entirely dependent on Saddam's WMD posing an immediate threat to the UK's security. Nothing more and nothing less. However, even before publication of the British intelligence dossier on Iraq's WMD, there were trouble with the reliability of British intelligence - one of the earlier 'disclosure' was based on an old PhD thesis and much of the information contained in the 'disclosure' was considered old or inaccurate. Fast forward to the end of military campaign in Iraq, the BBC announced that a senior intelligence staff alleged the UK government's September 2002 dossier on Iraq's WMD contained inaccurate information and it was 'sexed up' (under pressure from the Prime Minister's office) to make the evidence more appealing.

What followed was a spitting match between two great British institutions - the BBC and various branches of the government. Dr. David Kelly, a senior government scientist, revealed himself to his seniors that he was the probably source of the BBC comment and his name was somehow given out the public domain. The scientist was forced to be quizzed in two parliamentary committees, one of them on live television. In the end the pressure was too great and he took his life. The Prime Minister called a public inquiry, chaired by the High Court judge Lord Hutton.

What followed were first hand insights into the opaque worlds of a modern British government and the civil service. Moreover, there were evidence from former colleagues of Dr. Kelly of their unease towards the September weapons dossier, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee deliberately used misleading language to blur the difference between battlefield WMD and strategic ones and the way the scientist was being used as a piece on the chessboard in the spitting match between the government and the BBC.

Although Lord Hutton's report on the inquiry is not due to be published until some time into 2004, speculation has been intense as to who in government and/or the civil service are likely to receive most of the blame for making decisions which ultimately led to the death of Dr. Kelly. My personal feeling is that unless the Prime Minister is either sufficiently removed from the situation or not mentioned in a negative way at all in the report, his position as the leader of the government and his party will be difficult to maintain. In any case, the report is bound to cause more difficulties for the government and the PM, whether he is blamed or not.

The Lost of Space Shuttle Columbia

By every description, space travel is not easy, otherwise ‘space tourists’ won’t have to pay millions of dollars for their very own ‘trip of a lifetime’. It is certainly no walk in the park - space travel is, in every respect, very dangerous. To think otherwise is just plain naïve. The fact that the media is paying little or no attention to space shuttle launches and missions does not mean these missions are becoming routine - a million and one things, both big and small, can go wrong. While we seldom hear about minor complications encountered in space missions, they are recorded and are public available.

On the other hand, while big complications don’t happen often, but when they do, we certainly hear about them. Still, when the news of the lost of space shuttle Columbia, it was received with genuine shock. For over two decades, the space shuttle fleet has been the workhorse of the American space program. The only blemish before the lost of Columbia was the Challenger disaster. That in itself is an impressive safety record.

It is believed that a piece of thermal protective foam over the weakest area of the shuttle was struck and loosened at launch. The thermal protective foams and ceramic tiles are often damaged by debris, like other foam pieces and ice, falling off the external fuel tank. As Columbia re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, it is possible that the loosened or missing thermal foam over the wheel-well door, failed to withhold the heat, which ultimately led to the disintegration of the shuttle. The footage of the broken-up parts of Columbia traveling at high speed and burning up in the atmosphere was a chilly reminder of the dangers of space travel. NASA has rightly grounded the remainder of the fleet to investigate and eliminate the problems. However I believe that, just like the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, the Shuttle will return and provide further service to human space travel.

Protest in Hong Kong on Hand-over Anniversary

On the anniversary (July 1) of the hand-over of sovereignty of Hong Kong from the UK back to the People’s Republic of China, half million of people (out of a population of 7.4 million) marched in Causeway Bay in protest. The march was against the introduction of Article 23 of the new national security legislation to be added to the Basic Law.

Article 23 states that Hong Kong must enact laws to prohibit "treason, secession, sedition and subversion against China or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the region, and to prohibit political organization or bodies of the region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations and bodies." In another word, with the introduction of Article 23, much of the freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of association are lost for ever and the gradual erosion of the democratic model enshrined in the Basic Law would be completed.

Moreover, the protesters also vented their frustrations of the city’s administration, including the poor performance of the local economy since hand-over, its failure to revive it and the poor handling of the SARS outbreak. It would be easy to dismiss the protest as a knee-jerk reaction to an unpopular law, but in fact it is the manifestation of the unhappiness of many residents of territory.

China put a man into Space

Modern geopolitics is like the gentleman club culture of a bygone age. Nearly every country can join one or more of these 'clubs' - the United Nations and the British Commonwealth are just two I can think of that do not require much to join, except for the Commonwealth, a country needs to be a former part of the British Empire. Then there are the more exclusive ones: NATO (well, you pretty much need to be in North America or Europe to join that one), the European Union (located in, or very close to, Europe certainly helps), OPEC (your country needs to have oil and you need to be exporting it), the Arab League (eh... your country needs to be an Islamic state, I think), etc.. Then there are the really exclusive ones: the 'Nuclear Club' (we're talking about nuclear weapons here, not energy; with the nuclear non-perforation treaty, you need to keep it very quiet to succeed... by the way, it costs a lot of money to research and build a device!) and the 'Space Club'.

The 'Space Club' is the mother of all clubs. There are only four members - Russia (as it continues the tradition set by the USSR), USA, the EU and China. Moreover, there is upstairs lounge in the club and only those who have succeeded in manned space flights are allow to enter. Previously, only Russia and USA have access to this lounge. However, this year, China has become the upper lounge's newest member. Why only two countries have previously achieved the last feat? Why are they both are (or at least were) 'super powers'?

It costs a lot of money to put anything into space and putting a man up there and returning him back safely is even more so. For this kind of money to be devoted to such a project which brings ‘national prestige’ to a country, you need clear vision on a national scale. The cases for the Soviets and the Americans were simple - there was a space race and as ‘super powers’ they viewed the price of winning the race as something worthwhile to throw money at. However, I’m not entire sure of the motivation of Chinese Communists. As it was clearly demonstrated in the Soviet Union, and to a large extent the US, you can only throw such level of national resources at these projects if you country has the ability to recover from such huge expenditure.

Having spent a significant part of my childhood in Hong Kong, I try to follow news related to Hong Kong and China. However, there is little from what I have learnt in the news that would suggest this is money well spent. The PRC may have been enjoying double digit growth rates for most of the past two decades, but it started from a very low base. While the show-case cities like Shanghai and Peking and coastal regions like Guangdong have been the clear indicators of this period of growth, people in many more places that news and documentary cameras don’t go to are still in extremely poor conditions. The following has been extracted from the CIA The World Factbook website:

Economy - overview:

...In 2003, with its 1.3 billion people but a GDP of just $5,000 per capita, China stood as the second-largest economy in the world after the US (measured on a purchasing power parity basis). Agriculture and industry have posted major gains, especially in coastal areas near Hong Kong and opposite Taiwan, where foreign investment has helped spur output of both domestic and export goods. The leadership, however, often has experienced - as a result of its hybrid system - the worst results of socialism (bureaucracy and lassitude) and of capitalism (windfall gains and growing income disparities). China thus has periodically backtracked, retightening central controls at intervals. The government has struggled to (a) collect revenues due from provinces, businesses, and individuals; (b) reduce corruption and other economic crimes; and (c) keep afloat the large state-owned enterprises, many of which had been shielded from competition by subsidies and had been losing the ability to pay full wages and pensions. From 80 to 120 million surplus rural workers are adrift between the villages and the cities, many subsisting through part-time low-paying jobs. Popular resistance, changes in central policy, and loss of authority by rural cadres have weakened China's population control program, which is essential to maintaining long-term growth in living standards. Another long-term threat to growth is the deterioration in the environment, notably air pollution, soil erosion, and the steady fall of the water table especially in the north. China continues to lose arable land because of erosion and economic development. Beijing says it will intensify efforts to stimulate growth through spending on infrastructure - such as water control and power grids - and poverty relief and through rural tax reform aimed at eliminating arbitrary local levies on farmers. Accession to the World Trade Organization helps strengthen China's ability to maintain strong growth rates but at the same time puts additional pressure on the hybrid system of strong political controls and growing market influences. China has benefited from a huge expansion in computer internet use. Foreign investment remains a strong element in China's remarkable economic growth.

How can a government justify spending billions of dollars in a manned space program when the average GDP per capita is just US$5,000, along with a whole list of problems, some of which are listed above?

As someone who cares about the welfare of my fellow countrymen, I don’t feel any pride in seeing the Communists succeeded in sending a man into space. In fact, I feel a pain in my heart. Billions of dollars that could otherwise be spent on food, education, healthcare, transport, etc, have been wasted on a project that brings ‘pride’.

Soham Murder Trial

In the early evening of August 2002, two 10-year old girls went out for a walk in the village where they lived and disappeared. Subsequently, a huge search was launched in an attempt to find the girls. The clothes that were worn by the girls were first found, with signs of someone attempting to set it alight. Later, the girls’ bodies were found in a field near the village having been set alight. Two people were arrested and charge with the murder of these girls - the caretaker of the school where the girls attended (Ian Huntley) and a former classroom assistant in the same school (Maxine Carr).

The trial of these two started in early November and dominated the news for the next six weeks. The nation was absorbed by details of the trial. In the end, Huntley was convicted of two counts of murder and was sentenced to two life sentences and Carr was convicted of perverting the course of justice and was given three years of imprisonment.

What was shocking though was that there had been numerous allegations against Huntley: one of indecent assault, four of underage sex and three of rape (one resulted in a charge). Somehow, the police force in the area where these allegations were originated (Humberside) has deleted the records, citing the Data Protection Act. Additionally, the police investigating these murders (Cambridgeshire) failed to cross reference Huntley name with his alias. These bring police record discipline into the spotlight. Moreover, being employed in a profession with regular contact with children, the vetting checks failed to show up sex attack allegations made against Huntley before he arrived in Soham.

In effect, the brutal murders of two innocent 10-year old girls were the result of incompetent police record keeping and inadequate vetting. An incredible high price to pay to highlight institutional failures.

Decommissioning of Concord

For over 30 years, commercial supersonic passenger flight was a reality. The ability for passengers to travel at Mach 2 was an incredible achievement. In the decision to discontinue commercial flight of the Concord, passenger aviation took the first ever step backwards. Up until that point, every step taken in aviation has been a forward step, be it a large one or a small one, be it on speed, comfort, efficiency of fuel or passenger numbers. The plane itself is both a work of art and an instrument of engineering excellence. Everything about the Concord's appearance screams of speed - the slim fuselage, the delta wings, the two pairs of jet engines... The list goes on and on. Moreover, the plane is a thing of beauty  from the graceful glide down the landing path that I observed on a regular basis, to the unmistakable nose cone, to the slickness of the overall package.

Personally, having spent the past two and half years living under the landing path of Heathrow, home of British Airways' base for the Concord, I have mixed feelings of this event. As an aviation enthusiast, it was a very sad day - for all the reasons above. However, the unmistakable sonic boom from the plane is just an unavoidable annoyance. As soon as the feeling of gladness for not having to withstand the noise resulted from the daily landings of the planes went away, a certain sadness overcomes me, for our civilization has lost a true treasure - the one and still only supersonic passenger plane has been forced to retire.

 


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