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Java from Australia

Filed in Food & Drink

Here's that coffee article I promised.

I have some friends who I have known for a long time. We met in Australia while attending the University of New South Wales, were together frequently for most of the time I have been in Hong Kong and still stay in touch since they moved back to Australia. We're good friends.

Occasionally, I help my friends out with their Apple Mac computer problems. I've been working with Apple Mac computers since the late 1980's and know enough to be helpful to my friends. So when my friends announced that they were coming to visit their families in Hong Kong, I quickly asked them about bringing me a coffee espresso maker.

While in Australia last Christmas, my family's neighbour mentioned that the Australian Choice magazine had done a study and comparison of espresso makers. Remembering this little tidbit, and the fact that the leading espresso maker was not the most expensive one, I went online and found the study. It turns out that Breville makes good espresso makers at a price that I could justify. I researched the Breville espresso makers and promptly asked my friends to check the local pricing for me.

Now I've had one or two bad experiences with buying electrical appliances overseas before. Back in April of last year, I purchased a KitchenAid countertop cake mixer while in Los Angeles because the price was great and decent cake mixers are almost impossible to find in Hong Kong. The average Chinese person does not make cakes. My wife brought the mixer back with her but we later discovered that the mixer had developed a problem. In Los Angeles, we actually tested the mixer once and it worked fine. Back in Hong Kong, the vaunted "very slow stir" was malfunctioning. I can only conjecture that the mixer was damaged while being transported by airport cargo staff. If you've ever watched the video seen of airport cargo staff on 60-Minutes, you'll understand that your cargo is definitely not in the best hands at the airport.

Unfortunately, the mixer's warranty only applied to the U.S.A. so unless I could get the mixer back to the States, it wasn't going to get fixed. It never got back because we couldn't find any friends to take it back for us. We then discovered that KitchenAid actually does have a distributor here in Hong Kong, one that even supplies 220V models. If we'd known earlier, we would've bought it locally. They can fix our mixer for us but it will cost HKD600 for inspection and extra for any parts they need to replace. The price of the mixer could easily double once the cost of the repair is included. It's a really nice mixer so we'll have to fix it; soon.

So this time, I was a little more careful and checked to see if the Breville espresso makers were available in Hong Kong. It turned out that Breville has a local office and distributes product locally but they don't distribute the espresso makers locally. Bummer!

My new Breville espresso maker Well my friends came to Hong Kong and were anxious to see me asap. They completely surprised me by bringing over Breville's top model; the 800 Class Espresso Machine; and giving it to me as a gift. I was one very happy customer.

I've now had the espresso maker for almost two weeks. The available options are extremely limited but its two primary functions work extremely well; making espresso and frothing milk. There are no electronic LCD control panels and there are no complicated choices to make. And the machine is made extremely well; no plastic! It's a work of art.

So I won't be visiting Starbucks as often as I used to. The coffee I'm making at home is pretty good and getting better every time I make another cup. All I'm missing are a couple of shot glasses to measure the espresso output.

For those of you into coffee, here are the primary characteristics of the espresso maker from my perspective:

  • The entire machine is made of stainless steel. There's almost no plastic used in its construction. Almost every other espresso maker I've seen on the market is made of plastic unless you're buying the really expensive models.

  • It uses a 15 bar Italian-made thermoblock pump to deliver the espresso and the steam. 15 bars is a lot of pressure and espresso makers with that much pressure usually cost a whole lot more.

  • The water tank is easily removed for refill. It also features a transparent plastic gauge on the front so that you can instantly see how much water is left. It even uses a small blue light above the water so that the water level is extremely obvious no matter how bright or dark the room is. In addition, the water tank can be refilled by removing the tank or by flipping down a door at the back of the espresso maker and pouring water directly into the tank.

  • The milk frother just works. It's extremely easy to froth milk and it's quick.

  • There's a 'full' indicator in the drip tray so you'll know instantly when it needs to be emptied.

  • Maintenance and cleaning are simple and it doesn't require priming before or after each cup of coffee as some espresso makers require.

So if you're in the market for an espresso maker, take a look at Breville.

If you have any suggestions for coffee brands, please let me know.

Update (26 March 2008)

The Breville 800 Class Espresso Machine is now available locally here in Hong Kong. I've seen it in the B&Q store at Megabox.

A running update

Filed in LifeTags:

One of my friends asked me how I was getting on with my barefoot running. I had to tell him about the cramps on my last run and how it turned out that they weren't cramps at all. The pain was actually an injury which you could say was caused by not wearing shoes. Does that mean that I'll go back to wearing shoes? No and here's why.

The injury was in the calves of my feet. I say "injury" and "calves" because both calves were injured but the left calf is the one with the serious injury while the right calf has already recovered. The injury was in fact a type of tearing; tearing at the point where the tendons from the base of the ankle connect to the muscle. The calves will need four to six weeks for full recovery. In the meantime, I have to stretch them regularly every day.

What caused the injury? Without shoes, there are no heels to lift my ankles off the ground. Without the heels, the angle between my shins and my feet becomes smaller. On flat ground, this doesn't pose much of a problem but the territory around my home is hilly and that poses a very serious problem. When running up a slope, the angle between the shin and the foot becomes extremely small. This in turn stretches the calf muscle to a length it's not used to. With the repeated bouncing of running, the calf muscle's tendon will eventually begin to tear away from the muscle.

There is one section of my short run where the road begins to slope upward rather steeply. It's a very short stretch but seemingly enough to cause the damage that I've experienced. If I had stretched diligently before each run and nightly before sleeping, the injury would not have occurred because the muscle would have been long enough to accept the full stretch.

Ankle angle flat

The angle at the ankle without shoes on flat ground.

Ankle angle shoe

With shoes, the heel is raised and the angle at the ankle is larger. The calf muscle is slightly shorter.

Ankle angle uphill

When facing uphill, the angle at the ankle is much smaller. If actually running, the leg would be leaning forward at the end of the stride, further reducing the ankle angle and further stretching the calf muscle.

So what now? Well I'll rest for another three or four weeks, stretching every day and then begin the running again. If you never get back on the bicycle after falling off, you'll never learn to ride. My calf injuries are just a learning step in the process of becoming a barefoot runner. I'll be back on the road again soon, although I may have to face the prospect of blisters again.

I promised an article about coffee. I'll deliver it soon. I promise.

A better look for my blog

Filed in Technology

A few days ago, I began looking at the way my blog was styled and considered methods of improving it or at least making it look nicer. I'm a perfectionist in many ways so placing style information within the actual web page was not the way to go. Instead, I used style sheets (technically known as Cascading Style Sheets or CSS for short). They're similar to the way text styles work in word processors. They were developed by the World Wide Web consortium as a way to simplify and centralise the visual design of web pages but took a very long time to be fully embraced by the web community at large. These days, we're looking at version three of the CSS standard and other than Internet Explorer, almost every browser is on board to fully support the standard soon.

I'm not going to bore you with the techie details because they are boring for all but the people actually using CSS to make their web sites more attractive, functional and manageable.

Anyway, after three nights of customising the layouts and style sheets, my blog's pages are fully scalable. So if you think the text is too small to read, simply enlarge it using your web browser's Bigger Text function and the whole page will scale appropriately; even the left and right columns. If you need really big text, I'd suggest getting a 17" monitor and enlarging the page to the full size of the screen. I tried it, and it works great.

Other improvements: Pictures within the stories will scale down if you narrow the middle column, and they now have a nice black border for better definition. The calendar in the left column now indicates dates with linked stories much more effectively.

And in case I forget, there's also the new Subscribe to email notification feature in the right column. If you'd like to be notified every time I post a new article, type your email address into the field and click the Subscribe button. RSS news feeds still work too if you'd prefer to use RSS.

I'm definitely not a web expert, so if you find any glitches in my blog regarding the placement and size of the text or pictures, please let me know.

As advanced as CSS is, there are still a few aspects of it which are quite mind-numbing. How properties 'cascade' is a little complex in some situations, and creating a scalable page using relative em values was not easy either. The technology still has a way to go before it's really mature, and we're still waiting for wysiwyg web page layout applications which fully support CSS rather than tables and in-tag style properties. On the other hand, if you write the code for your web page with sound structure, then laying it out and adding appearance properties to it becomes relatively easy; once you fully understand how CSS works.

I won't talk much about web technologies. I suspect that for the majority of my readers (Douglas excepted of course), web technologies would be very boring to read about.

My next article will be more to the liking of most of my readers: ie, coffee!

Fog, fog and more fog

Filed in General, Hong Kong

The last time I wrote about the weather here was back before the Chinese New Year when it was foggy and wet. Guess what? It's still foggy and wet. In the last eight weeks or more, we've only seen six or seven days of warm weather with sunshine. Otherwise, it's been foggy and wet. The only difference now is that the temperature is on the way up with average temperatures of mid-twenties (that's celsius for those of you in fahrenheit countries). By summer time, the temperature will be up in the high twenties and sometimes near the mid-thirties. It can get very warm here.

Living in the fog, the humidity is very high. The tile floors inside the apartment and outside the back door are still creating water without any help from us or the dogs. It makes it very difficult to keep the apartment clean when the floors are constantly wet or at least moist.

I've lived in Hong Kong for the last 18 years, and I've lived in our current area for five years. This foggy weather is very unusual. We normally get foggy weather each year, but it's normally in March and only lasts for three or four weeks. It even has a name. It's called "Return of the Southerly Winds" or 回南 as it's known locally. With this big change in weather this year, I believe we can look forward to some really strong and powerful hurricanes in early and late Summer. We had a couple last year but I haven't really seen anything really strong since 1985 when I visited Hong Kong the first time for just a week with a fellow student from the University of New South Wales.

You have to remember that I come from Queensland, Australia where they have real hurricanes except that they're known as cyclones there because they rotate in the opposite direction. At least that's what my friend says. I remember that we had cyclones in Queensland when I was growing up, but I also seem to remember having hurricanes. I always thought that hurricanes were larger in diameter than cyclones. I guess I was wrong. If my father reads this, I'm sure he can enlighten us all.

Which brings me to another small detail that came up as a consequence at lunch the other day. Supposedly, water while flushing down the toilet rotates or swirls in opposite directions in Australia and Hong Kong because they're on opposite sides of the equator. I believe it but I've never actually made the effort to compare the directions for myself. Maybe I'll check the next time I go back to Australia.

And that brings me to Annie's song: "Oh, the sun'll come up, tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there'll be sun." I hope so; soon at least.

Whose dog barks louder?

Filed in Dogs of our Lives

Our little village has gone to the dogs; literally. Our up-door neighbours moved out several months ago because they couldn't handle being surrounded by dogs. Our own dogs bark but thankfully not incessantly but there are plenty of other dogs to make up for the silence.

The view from our village

In clock-face terminology, try to imagine this arrangement.

At 2 o'clock, a new neighbour has moved in and surprised us by laying claim to having not 3, not 5 but 13 dogs. Only four of them reside on the roof where we can see them. The other nine reside within their third-floor apartment. Three of the roof-residing dogs bark occasionally and who can blame them? Life on a walled-in roof can be pretty dull.

At 3 o'clock, our neighbour owns four or five dogs. We almost never hear them bark because the windows are almost always closed shut.

At 4 o'clock behind the 3 o'clock building is another building whose ground floor occupier owns four beautiful and extremely human-looking Afghan hounds. They spend much of their time standing on their hind legs leaning on the brick wall and watching the people and other dogs pass by below. They of course bark every time a dog goes past, and occasionally when people go past.

At 5 o'clock on the second floor, there are two small dogs. On the roof belonging to another person are another three, possibly four dogs. I'm not exactly sure how many because we've never seen them, just heard them fight and bark on occasion.

At 7 o'clock just behind us, there are another two or three dogs. They're pretty bored inside so they spend some of their time looking out the window and barking at us whenever we pass by. The alley-way between their building and ours makes an excellent amplifier so their barking is sometimes the loudest and one of the main reasons that our up-door neighbours moved away.

At 9 o'clock on the second floor is another dog. He spends almost all of his time on the balcony. He's not really allowed inside the apartment. As a result, he's the watchdog for our little row of buildings, barking at each and every man, woman and dog that passes by the back of our building. Our own dogs respond in kind to each of his alarm signals by barking and running outside. I wish I knew dog-talk because our dogs instantly know by his language whether the passer-by is a human, a dog, a monkey or a man pulling a small trolley and yelling at the top of his voice "buying old television sets, buying old air conditioners" (always in Cantonese of course; 收買電視機,收買冷氣機).

At 12 o'clock on the other side of a forest area are more dogs.

And in our home, there are ten dogs. They're wonderful members of the family and we love them all. Thankfully, they're not as noisy as they could have been and generally keep pretty quiet. The things that really rile them up to a full barking frenzy (and frenzy is exactly the right word to use here) are people walking their dogs past our gate (ie, an intrusion on their territory) and monkeys.

Some of our dogs watching the neighbours

But back to the question; whose dog barks louder? I would have to say that our dogs bark the loudest but it's not really a question of decibels as much as a question of responsibility. When other dogs bark, it's not my responsibility and I don't have to worry about them or the noise they're making. When our dogs bark, at some point I have a responsibility to quiet them down. There's a psychology angle to all of this and it has to do with the pressure of being a responsible neighbour. Consequently, our dogs bark the loudest, especially if they're barking at 8 or 9 in the morning when some neighbours might still be sleeping.

Thankfully though, our ten wonderful dogs are relatively quiet; except when the monkeys comes visiting but I'll tell you about them another time.

There is no random

Filed in General

There is no such thing as random. Rather, random is an ordered order, the order of which is beyond our comprehension.

Within the world, everything is the direct consequence of another action and this is true down to the very smallest of the physical and atomic and sub-atomic world. We think things happen randomly because we can't explain them. We use probability to calculate the chances that an outcome will occur but the outcome will in fact be a sure thing if we understand all of the factors involved.

Do people have free will? On the surface, yes. In reality, no. People are chemical and electrical machines. Our feelings are the results of the environment in which we live, combined with the chemical makeup of our bodies. Our thoughts are electrical and everything within our minds is a result of what we've seen or heard. We appear to have free will because we appear to have a choice. In reality, the choice was made before it was shown to us and our decision was never really a free decision.

In science fiction (and non-fiction) circles, people talk about parallel universes. The concept of parallel universes is based on the concept of random outcomes, that even every microscopic movement of air can lead to countless random outcomes. Consequently, all of those outcomes are actually occurring, all at the same time but in different zones of the 'space time continuum'. If random is a fallacy, then so is the notion of parallel universes.

Unfortunately, if random is a fallacy, then so is choice and decision. For many people, that would be the equivalent of fateism and that would in turn lead to apathy. In todays world, that wouldn't be a good thing so it's probably better that most people don't understand the truth about random.

The Anti-Christ nears?

Filed in Current Affairs, General, Hong Kong

Many many years ago when I was still a young person growing up in Australia, a New Zealand evangelist by the name of Barry Smith used to make the rounds of the churches preaching about the future of the world. In very basic terms, his message was the usual "repent or die with everyone else". Many people did convert and become Christians at the time but the end of the world didn't come. However, Barry's message was much more than simply that the world was coming to an end. He included many specifics, his (divine?) interpretation of the prophecies found within the bible. A few of his specifics may have been wrong but many were correct although they occurred much later than he had predicted. You can't fault him on that. Throughout history, many evangelists and foretellers of doom were very enthusiastic to see the end of the world sooner rather than later. Even now, we really can't be sure how close the end is, and if it will in fact actually occur.

In any case, some of Barry's specifics were correct. One in particular was that Europe would become the world power after unification. He also predicted according to the bible that a few more nations would join the E.U. He was much more specific than "a few" but I don't have his book on hand to refer to. In any case, the Euro is now worth far more than the USD which makes sense if you are aware that the U.S.A. is in fact in extreme debt and has been since the early 60's after people from the Bank of England were able to get into the U.S.A. and influence the way the Federal Reserve works. Extreme debt is probably not the best word to use. Broke would be the better word. But if a country is in debt or if it's broke, then someone owns it by virtue of the debts, so who owns the U.S.A.? The Bank of England and its owners. Come to think of it, the money part of this prose didn't come from Barry. It came from another book about the history of money. If anyone is interested, I could locate the book and publish its name for you.

Barry also predicted that governments would introduce money denominations in odd sizes and shapes to confuse their citizens. The ultimate goal was to introduce electronic money as soon as possible. In Australia, they introduced smallish one dollar coins, and even smaller two dollar coins. Some people might explain that this is a reflection to inflation but you can always dilute the metal content of a coin so the size shouldn't be a direct result of its metallic content. In Hong Kong, the government introduced a ten dollar coin to replace the ten dollar note only to re-introduce the ten dollar note again later. The ten dollar coin is smaller than a five dollar coin, and to add to the confusion, the government released new editions of paper denominations whose colors likened the colors of other nominations. The color of the twenty dollar bill is similar to the color of the original ten dollar bill. Confusion reigns supreme, especially in the dark when you're paying the taxi driver. (I once gave a taxi driver a five hundred bill instead of a one hundred bill by mistake and the driver happily accepted the four hundred dollar bonus without a single syllable of surprise or an attempt to pay back the correct change)

So where is this all going? There's a lot more that can be discussed and there are countless books out there that talk about various current and futuristic developments but my point today relates to the death of the Pope.

One of Barry's points discussed the Pope. According to the bible, the number of popes was counted, metaphorically of course. Near the end of the world (well actually at least a thousand years before the the destructive end of the world if you include the thousand years of Christ-reigned peace), a pope would die, another would take his place but not survive long. This pope in turn would be replaced by one who would turn out to be the anti-Christ. The question therefore is how long will the next pope last? I'll be watching even though he might last five or even ten years. In any case, if he dies prematurely; possibly by gunfire; it'll be a sure sign that the future is near, one filled at first with wonder and peace and then followed by world war, the last and the most real of the religious wars of all time.

People will be fooled by the anti-Christ because he'll introduce amazing cures and treatments for illnesses and ailments of all kinds (probably including AIDS), and he'll introduce world peace. That won't be difficult given that government agencies hold many technological secrets within their vaults, and given that the government agencies sponsor most of the war factions out there. One word from the true world leader and all these can be used to seemingly and miraculously bring peace and well-being to the world.

In any case, we'll have to wait and see. As I said before, people have always foretold that the end was near and it never happened. It might be another case of "the sky is falling" and only time will tell.

One other thing that Barry mentioned which is of particular importance in my part of the world refers to communism. Barry said that communism would only appear to go away. It would in fact go to sleep until a time at which it would awaken with more strength than ever more. The Chinese government is truly the subject of this foretelling. While pretending that it's becoming more and more open every day, and that democracy is a possibility, it will in fact always remain communist and it gets stronger by the day. It is however not communist in the true sense of the word. With true communism, every one shares in the profits of the community. With China communism, only party members share in the profits of the community.

For now though, I'll keep my eyes on the new pope.

Comments in Chinese?

Filed in General, Technology

This is a heads up for those of you who might want to leave comments in Chinese. It's not a problem. I can comfortably read Chinese and even reply in Chinese if necessary.