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spikegifted.net - Archive Q2 2009

June 2009: 
Home: Having had two wash-outs in the past two years, we could really appreciate when the weather was nice. The sunny weather during the second half of June has certainly brought a spring back to our steps. The Ruler_of_spike and I could finish work, enjoying the sunny weather walking home from the station and have dinner outside. Our back garden is west-facing and near the time of the summer solstice, with clear skies, there is sunlight well past nine o’clock in the evening. We could relax after dinner, enjoyed the garden and slowly wound down from a day’s work. It certainly beats the horrible summers we have had during 2007 and 2008.
Home: At long last, we were close to finish painting the long fence in the back garden. It has taken many weeks, thanks to my refusal to spend any longer than 90 minutes painting in one day. Yeah, I hear what you’re saying: “You lazy so and so...” There was a genuine excuse for that: my knees. I am still not sure what the reason was, but my knees were really giving my trouble. For many years, my knees and hip joints have been giving me occasional trouble. Not real trouble, just enough to let me know that they are still there. However, the knees were really giving me a good strong reminder that they were there when I was bending down to paint the lower parts of the fence panels. I also noticed that they seemed to complain after I have been sitting for a while. The first few steps seemed to cause the most ligament strain, but they got better after a few steps, perhaps due to the stretching. It would appear that my sitting posture had something to do with it. So I paid more attention on how I sat at my desk at work and other times when I was sitting. Things improved a little, but still not great. I just need to focus on my posture and my leg placement to ensure that as little strain is put on my keens at all times.
Opinion: Rugby - what a fantastic sport it is! For people who have spent time getting to know this sport, particularly playing it, they would understand its beauty and attraction. While some would say that rugby is in some ways similar to American football, it is far more sophisticated. Make no mistake about it: rugby is a full-on, highly physical, contact sport. However, violence has no place in the game. Rugby is all about channeling aggression and power through a team effort towards a continuous series offense and defense for 80 minutes on the field and hopefully overcome the opposing team. Unsportsmanlike conduct is not part of the game and should never, ever, allow the perpetrators of violence in the game to get away with it. From this standpoint, the opening minutes of the second test between the British and Irish Lions and the reigning world champion, South Africa, was a disgrace. Something close to being considered a farce. One of the SA forwards was caught eye-gouging one of Lions. This should be an automatic sent-off, but the guilty player was only sin-binned (for ten minutes). At three different levels, this was a massive disappointment for the sport. First, like I said, violence has no place in rugby. Playing at test level is the pinnacle of a rugby player's career. Younger players look up to test players, especially world class players, as their role models. What kind of example is the guilty party providing? What a disgrace! Second, the referee refused to 'do the right thing' by sending the offending player off. I don't care when the eye-gouging took place, first minute of the game or the last, it is an unacceptable behavior, an unsportsmanlike conduct and therefore should be dealt with by delivering the harshest punishment - immediate sent-off. By not doing that, despite being alert by the touch judge, the referee has failed to deal with an unacceptable offense against a player and send a message to future offenders: you can get away with your inappropriate violent conduct. What a disgrace! Thirdly, and lastly, the coach refused to condemn the conduct after the match by brushing it away. He was telling everyone that it was ‘part of the game’. It would appear that, for the sake of winning, violent or unsportsmanlike conduct is considered acceptable. What a disgrace! In my opinion, any player caught such conduct should be sent off immediately, with a suspension from playing for a number of games and possible further action against him. The world does not need another farce like soccer. Look after the discipline and the sport will look after itself.
Opinion: Have the leadership of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) lost their plot? There is something perverse about going on strike over job security and seeking pay rises in the middle of one of the deepest recessions for decades and a financial crisis. During this recession, there are millions of workers up and down the country who have working with an axe over heads, yet they come to accept their situations. For those who haven’t lost their jobs, many have taken pay cuts to help their employers during these difficult times. Yet, the RMT is ‘fighting’ to secure its members’ jobs and pay rises. While I agree that unions should do their upmost to secure the best possible pay and conditions for their members, the unions’ demand should be inline with comparable work and be economically realistic. While there were times the public would extend their sympathy for the striking Tube workers, their union’s excessive demands have lost all of public support.
Home: Back to the main reason for the trip to the garden center - the expanding trellis. There was a good reason for getting more trellis. We have been mounting trellis to block off all the obvious routes that had allowed cats in our neighborhood to enter our back garden. What started us using trellises was that cats were visiting our back garden and using it as their bathrooms. Of course, no cats would leave a visible mess behind, so there was the expected dug-up soil around the place, trampled shrubs and other annoying ‘calling cards’. Anyway, with all the obvious routes already blocked, we figured that there was only one possible route left, without going over the fence, that is. There is a gap between the end of the wall and the beginning of the fence that divides our back garden to our neighbor's. The gap is not that big, roughly ten to twelve centimeters wide, but we figured that was wide enough for most cats to simply walk through. So a section of the expanding trellis was cut to size to cover that gap. We didn’t do anything too ambitious, just a simple case of securing the section in place and hope it was good enough to take out the last of the obvious routes into our garden...
Home: We love going to the garden center / nursery near our house. On a weekend when we have nothing to do, we just hop in the car and in fifteen minutes, we would be a world away and admiring the plants and trees in the place. There is a small downside to this place - it is so easy to get carried away and ended up investing in more plants. Take last weekend as an example, we went to buy a new expanding trellis and some bird food, but we ended up buying a fuchsia plant and a jasmine plant - one looks good and the other smells good. You may remember that we bought a fuchsia last year after laying the lawn. Unfortunately, being ignorant of the fragility of plant, we planted it and it didn’t survive the winter, which was even more painful given that it gave us beautiful flowers for nearly six months. So the new fuchsia is in a pot - fully maneuverable so that we can move it out of the cold in the winter.
Home: We have started painting the fence on the other side of the garden, the longer side. Progress was actually faster than before. However, probably because it doesn’t get significant direct sunlight, the paint was not aging as well. So, the color was still quite shocking. We were just keeping my fingers crossed that when the rain comes, the right color would emerge down the line. So now that we’ve experienced nearly a week of rain, we noticed (or to be honest, we thought we noticed) that the color was calming down a little. The problem was now that we’ve started on the fence, we just had to get it finished. So we were hoping that the weather would hold up in the next few weeks so that we could get the job done and allow the paint to age.
Opinion: In a few days’ time, it will be the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Patriotic Chinese outside China will probably be marking this significant day, but not in the People’s Republic of China. Personally, as a university student at the end of the 1980s in London, UK, I firmly believed (and continue to believe) that the Communist Party has done more harm than good to China. The shock I had on hearing the student demonstration was brutally put down is as fresh today as it was back in 1989. Back then, I was young and relatively naďve. At the time, I could not believe that the Communists would harm the ‘flower of a generation’. Instead, I was hoping that, as these students were the children of the Cultural Revolution, if they have a collective grievance, they should have been listened to. Yet, they were, and still are, labeled as ‘counter-revolutionaries’. The Chinese Communist Party is really good at calling people they don’t like as ‘counter-revolutionaries’. Shame on them! The other thing that the CCP does, which I find completely unacceptable, is the complete lack of acknowledgement of the events during April and May 1989, which ultimately led to the dramatic ending on the night of June 3-4. The leadership doesn’t talk about it; the press doesn’t mention it; and the people are scared of discussing it. But why? It’s because the truth hurts. I strongly believe that the thinking parts of the CCP, those in the leadership recognize that their credibility is really wearing thin, the last thing they want was the ugly truth from the past surfacing at a time the leadership is trying to give the impression that the party is being more responsible, more accountable. They knew what they did twenty years ago could not be justified by normal standards. Therefore, they hide behind the ‘counter-revolutionary’ label they put on others. They fear a public backlash when the truth of their uncaring behavior two decades ago will find resonance today in their ways of dealing with other groups who threaten their authority: dissidents in Tibet, the earthquake children victims, other victims of Communist corruption, oppression of Falun Gong and many more. Truth hurts, but what hurts more is the lies that covers the truth. 
May 2009:
Home: We invited a company to come to give us a quote on some work we wanted to carry out in our house. At first sight, the company was offering a really good deal - owing to economic climate, they claimed that they were offering to complete some work at a deep discount. So we invited one of their representatives to come to show us their product/service and provide us a quote. And here came the problem. The quote provided by the representative was so outrageously high that, even after a deep discount, it was substantially higher than other quotes we got from other service providers. We don’t necessarily have a problem with a quote that is out of line, we just won’t use the company. However, when we pointed out that his quote of out of line, he countered that the company he worked for was a national company and hence better placed to service us. When we informed him that his quote was so out of line compared with the quotes provided by some local companies that it was difficult to justify the extra expense. Now, this was the bit that really bug us, this guy, without knowing anything about his competitors, started to talk them down, along the lines of these local guys are ‘cowboys’, they’re unlikely to survive the recession and their service quality would not be as good. That was a grave mistake. These local companies have been around for up to 25 years, they won’t survive that long for being cowboys or provide a poor service. Additionally, they have all been around for long enough to know how to survive a recession (typically not expanding too much during the good times, being careful with cash flow during the bad). In short, we invited the representative to leave and informed him that we would not be interested in his company’s product/service nor to hearing from them again.
Opinion: If an employee over-claims expenses or cheat money out of the employer, under normal circumstances the employee would be disciplined or possibly even fired. Fast forward to the UK in the 21st century, where our elected politicians fought tooth and nail to maintain their expense claims a secret, despite numerous requested under the Freedom of Information Act. So, it took a deliberate leak to a broadsheet newspaper for the ugly details to come out. And boy, it was ugly! Now we know why they fought so hard to keep their expense claims from the public. Those who claimed outrageous amounts kept saying the same line: we did nothing wrong, our expense claims were within the rules. Eh... Within the rule they might have been, but they were wrong, morally wrong. Our Members of Parliament have abused a poorly designed system. To matter worse, when there were opportunities to reform the system, they had repeated resisted change, hiding behind their own power base. When the truth came out, they justify their extravagance by blaming the rotten system. While some have offered to repay the money, others see their claims as god-given right to free-load. Not that long ago, politicians have been sitting on the high chair slamming excess in the banking industry, making comments about banking bonuses equated to rewarding for failure. However, as events turned out, the politicians are no better. In fact, they are worse, far, far worse, than bankers - they’re defrauding the taxpayers. Executive pay is usually reviewed by the remuneration committee of a company, approved by the shareholders. In case of the MPs, they are poacher and gamekeeper rolled into one: they have been making their own rules and some have gone on to abuse this very same set of rules. The pressing question is not “whether expenses rules can be tighten up to prevent abuse”, but “whether politicians can regain the electorates’ trust". Even if trust can return, it will take a long, long time!
Opinion: It was the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province. Many thousands died in this natural disaster, including many school children. In commemorating this disaster, the Chinese authority looked on the bright side and declared that “[c]onfronted with this immense disaster, the masses of Chinese people and military were as one, forming a fortress of unified resolve”. That, at least, was the official propaganda. This earthquake has, in my view, become a fine reflection of modern China under the Chinese Communist Party. After the first images of the devastation of the disaster zone, it appeared that while many buildings had been destroyed, there were places where most buildings survived except for some public buildings, including schools. Would it not be a coincident that it is a well known fact that many local Communist officials do not have the best interest of the people in mind and that many of these officials have colluded and probably continue to collude with local businesses to award building contracts at very favorable terms from which these officials somehow benefit from? It is my, and many others’, suspicion that these companies have completed the contracts using the poorest of building standards which led to even better profit margins for the owners and possibly the “sponsoring” local Communist officials. Then there was the continual denial of access of the mourning parents to those collapsed schools, even refusing those parents the right to commemorate the anniversary of the disaster. And the more determined few have been harassed for their public display of grieve. Why? What is so bad that people can’t grieve publicly after an event that forced all those families into sharing their incredible loss - the loss of their only children? Thanks to the Communist Party’s wisdom, couples in China are only allow one child. For any given child, the hopes and dreams of two parents, four grandparents are focused on him or her. This one child is everything in their world. Now, imagine this child being taken away from these people in the most tragic of circumstances (a massive earthquake) through a set of wholly man-made problems (corruption, incompetence and negligence). I know that, culturally speaking, Chinese are different from Westerners, but grieve is grieve, there is no way of hiding it. Is the Communist Party so inhuman that it does not comprehend this very basic human emotion? (Well, judging from other events and happenings, I think I know what the answer is.) The leadership of the PRC has missed a massive opportunity here - to expose all the corruption, incompetence and wrong doings of the officials and companies involved; to demonstrate to the common people that it cares; and to show the world that it is capable of adapting to the changing circumstances. Instead, we are given a glimpse of a bunch of people living in the ivory towers, who are more interested in keeping the status quo; who are more interested in protecting their own, in covering for each others’ incompetence; who have lost touch with the common people; and who are incapable of change. Ten thousand years to the Chinese Communist Party! May you rot in eternity!!
Home: Finally, after much effort from the Ruler_of_spike and I, we finally finished painting the fencing on one side of the garden. This job has taken a lot longer and required much more effort than we originally thought. We invested in a paint sprayer, but that actually didn't help. It was using too much paint. Moreover, owing to the rough finish of the fence, the paint was splashed everywhere. Lastly, the paint eventually clogged up the sprayer. So it was back to the brush. It turned out to have taken less time that I feared. When the job was finally completed, I looked at the fence again and it looked great. When it was only partially painted, it did not look that great - the bare fence was almost grey in color and the contrast with the newly painted parts just spoiled the whole look. When the painted completed, the color was uniform and it formed a great backdrop to the foliage and plants in front of it. Now that the shorter fence has been done, we would have to tackle the longer side. Hmmm... 

Home: Glorious long weekends. With Easter being so late this year, it was only three weeks between the Easter weekend and the May Day long weekend. Three-day weekends are just so habit-forming. For the May Day long weekend, we went to Kew Garden in southwest London. I’ve been living in London for over 20 years now, and this was the first time I went there. What a fantastic place! Before going there, we were both really looking forward to going on the Tree Top Walk. But as things turned out, the walk up in the canopy was not the highlight. The highlights were instead the glass enclosures, particularly the tropical enclosure. They have recreated the highly humid environment of the tropics and the plants just love it. There were so many different palm trees, banana trees and ferns. Many of them have grown to majestic heights, almost reaching the roof of the enclosures. Those were just some of the highlights. The whole place was just full of treasures. We finished off going through the ‘blue bell walk’ which was just fields of those plants on both side of the path, mixed with other flowers that were yellow and white, together they gave excellent contrast against the shrubs and trees in the back drop. We spent a good three hours in the garden, but to be completely frank, we would gladly spend that kind of time every week in such a wonderful place.
Home: This fence painting business is not for the faint-hearted. Clever me thinking that just a brush and large amounts of elbow grease would get the job done. As things turns out, these were not enough. Even the Ruler_of_spike had a couple of shots of painting it but progress was just so slow. It took us, on average 40-50 minutes to paint one third of a panel! We have six panels down one side of the garden and at least 9 down the other, plus another two and half in the front garden. At this rate, we’d still be painting the darn things in the autumn. So we went back to the DIY/hardware store to find help. And we got it: a hand-pumped high pressure paint sprayer. The marketing blob on the box says it can do a whole fence in four minutes! Bring it on! We just have to wait for some fine weather to get the job done.
April 2009:
Home: I know it was only April, but given how poor the weather had been the past couple of summers, we needed to take advantage any good weather. So, with the first bit of good weather that happened to coincide with a weekend, we decided to have our first barbeque of the year. Big thumbs up for the Ruler_of_spike, she did a fantastic job marinating the lamb cutlets and we had a great meal to kick things off. The weather was approaching warm, day was long and the food was good. What a great start to spring/summer.
Home: At last, we had a bit of nice weather when we’re not at work. What a glorious weekend it was! With the garden in good shape, it was nice to spend time there. We’ve decided to paint the fences, seeing that this would be the fourth summer in our house and the fences haven’t been painted even before we got here. Picking a color turned out to be not that easy. We wanted something that will stand out from the foliage, without drowning out the flowers. It was a difficult choice, but we eventually settled on something called “autumn gold”, between a dark yellow and a light brown. We also found out that painting a fence was not that easy, owing to the rather rough finish of the wood panels. This little project would be stretched out several weekends, weather permitting.
Home: It’s now just over a year since we put the lawn down and the back garden is really taking shape. Even after the long and harsh winter, the grass is in a nice shade of green. There is a little bit of moss in areas of the lawn that has been damaged by rotten leaves from our neighbor’s shrubs. Weeds have continued to show up in a small part of the garden despite all the tilling prior to laying the lawn. These are minor problems which can be managed. Although some of the plants have done less well than others, they are in general in very good shape. As are the trees – both the Japanese cherry and the apple tree are both full of blossom. The blue spruce from Christmas 2007 is doing well and the fir from 2008, which we put down after Christmas seems to be doing well, also. The rose bush and ortencia in the pots are both showing buds. Given that this is the second year the plants are in the ground, we are hoping that they would really take off. I guess time will tell. There are some disappointments, though, especially the fuschia, which unfortunately didn’t survive the harsh winter. We’re looking to replace it with a hardy variety later in the year. All in all, the back garden, while it is nowhere near being mature, is a pleasant place to be.
Home: We decided not to travel for this Easter break, instead try to find things to do a little closer to home. Good Friday and the Saturday were complete washouts. That was doubly disappointing given the weather was fine on the preceding days. On Easter Sunday, we drove down to the south coast. We visited the cliffs at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. The landscape was dramatic: we were walking near the edge of the cliff and at places we could see the drop further along. It was high tide when we were walking, so the view was even more dramatic as the sea came directly against the bottom of the cliff. We had a good workout walking along the cliff, although it was a little foggy, the air was very fresh. Interestingly, my sense of smell wasn’t assaulted by the salt-laden air that I would normally associate with being close to the sea. I guess is that we were high up the cliffs and the sea was very flat. We visited couple of nice village at lunch time and on our way back. We stopped at Litlington, a Saxon village, for a pub lunch. Then we went to another medieval village called Alfriston and had a walk around. The place is like a picture postcard. We were saying to each other: if we were not constrained by our occupations, we’d be living in a place like this.
Opinion: There are a lot of tough words spoken during the recent G20 meeting in London about strengthening regulations of banks, hedge funds, other financial institutions; about executive pay; and about off-shore tax havens. What a massive load of hogwash! In my humble opinion, the first step for the global banking industry is to de-risk and deleverage. That is partly being done. Then, there is an urgent need to decouple the risky parts of the sector from the safe parts. There has to be a permanent disassociation between the savings and commercial banking activities on the one side and investment and merchant banking on the other. One should not be allow be involved in the other. Let the savings and commercial banks be boring: taking deposits and lending money to people and companies, at the same time bar them from proprietary trading, market making and engage in derivatives. On the other hand, let the investment and merchant banks do all the risky stuff - market making, derivatives, etc. As such failure in the risky parts of the industry cannot bring down the boring part. In effect, I am asking for the re-introduction of a law similar to the Glass-Steagall Act, but applied globally. Only after we have separated the risky parts from the rest of the banking system can we look towards improving regulations, which will be specific to the sectors: capital requirement, credit prudence, leverage, etc. Why people want to regulate hedge funds is beyond my rather simplistic understanding of how the financial industry works. Hedge funds are there to allow people to invest in potentially risky assets which may provide a superior return when compared with ordinary, vanilla investments. If people have money to spend, let them spend them. If they want safer alternatives, there is a whole world of regulated funds and other methods of investments. Regulating hedge funds will not solve our current and future financial crisis. One of the things I understand in living in a liberal democracy is that governments have no right to regulate pay and reward of the individuals. This right is that of the employers, in case of high level executives, it is the right of the shareholders. For too long, shareholders, either direct or by proxy, have failed to exercise their rights to regulate those they employ to run their companies. If we have any wish to maintain a functioning employment market, where long-term achievements are properly rewarded, regulating executive pay is not the step that should be taken. Finally tax haven. Why do governments have such desire to name and shame tax havens? The only reason why tax havens exists is because tax rules in their home countries are so complicated that people can find loopholes and try to minimize their tax burden. By simplifying the tax rules governments can actually achieve higher tax receipt (fewer loopholes) and lower expenditure (fewer people needed to investigate tax breaches).
Home: It was the first anniversary of mom’s passing. After the torrid time back in January, at the time of her birthday, I was hoping that things would be easier. As events turned out, it was no that easy. Being a weekday, with work, commute and just being generally occupied, it was relatively simple to brush the emotion away. It was the weekend that was difficult. In one or two quiet moment, the emotions came flooding back. To this day, I cannot remember exactly what happened that day. The confusion of my emotions at the time surely did not help. I was both saddened by and relieved of her passing - she wasn’t with us anymore, but she suffering has come to an end. Despite all the trials and tribulations she endured during her life, it is her smile that I miss most. Mom suffered problems with her gum and she had dentures at a relatively young age. When she took her dentures out, the way she smiled, without opening her mouth, was radiating. She didn’t tell many jokes, not that I can remember anyway, but when I told her something amusing, at the right time of the day, she would bring out that smile. Oh, how I miss her.