I'm a Star with a Starbucks

Starbucks has broken the stranglehold of the burger and fries triumvirate, McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's, and become the third-largest chain restaurant in domestic sales in the US, according to an article I read from USA Today.

The article, entitled Starbucks sales pass BK, Wendy's, said that the coffee kingpin has leaped ahead of Burger King and Wendy's and now ranks behind only McDonald's and Subway in total 2010 US sales.

What has contributed to the success of Starbucks? Sandra Stark, the company's vice president of food, said that one key is an ongoing shift in how consumers define "healthy". She said that people's idea of healthy food has evolved from low-calorie and low-fat to food whose ingredients they can understand and pronounce. Starbucks, she said, was among the first chains to remove all artificial ingredients from its food.

While that may well be true, the more important reason for Starbucks's growth may be a matter of image. As Ron Paul, president of Technomic, the research firm that just released the listing of America's top 500 restaurant chains in total 2010 domestic sales, said: "Carrying a Starbucks cup in your hand says something about you as a person."

"Starbucks keeps gaining and gaining," says Ron Paul, president of Technomic. "Carrying a Starbucks cup in your hand says something about you as a person."

Obviously, people pay the relatively high price not just for a sip of the coffee but also for the impression that carrying a paper cup with that logo creates.


Let's Grab a Bite of the Apple!

One of my missions for this trip to New York was to buy an iPad as a surprise birthday present for my wife. It wasn't because of the price, as I had an idea that it was slightly more expensive in the US, with tax and all. It was just that I believed it would be less of a hassle buying it in New York.

But it turned out that I was wrong. One afternoon, I went to the state-of-the-art Apple Store at Fifth Avenue and found lots of shoppers there. I got hold of a shop assistant and asked him about availability. He said there was no stock, handed me a card and told me that the best thing to do was to call the number after twelve midnight everyday to see if there was a new shipment for the next day. If there was, I would have to get to the shop very early.

"Sale begins at 8 am," he said. "But people get here and queue up once they find out that there is a new stock. So if you get here at 8, you probably wouldn't have a chance."

I took the card, thanked the shop assistant for his advice and left. I was thinking, "Forget it!" There was no way I would queue up outside an Apple store in the middle of the night for an iPad. But I have to give Apple my applaud for its sales ploy. There is no doubt that this latest generation of iPad is much sought-after, but I am sure that they have also been cleverly manipulating the supply so that there are always people queuing outside their stores waiting to soak up what small number of units they mete out.

Only I wasn't prepared to be one of them.


A Trip That Has Taken More Than a Quarter of a Century to Complete

I am about to set foot on that piece of land, to which my access was denied more than a quarter of a century ago. Back then, it was such a big dream to chase, a huge desire to fulfill. Going home with a passport without a visa but a date scribbled in it, I cursed my fate. I felt utterly devastated.

It is only when I look back now, many years later, that I can see how that rejection, like so many tests and trials in life, was in fact a blessing in disguise. Had I been given the right to embark on a plane, to fly to this land of dreams, to join the one who was at that stage of my life "the woman of my dream", I would have missed the right to feel wretched as I do now, on a trip to this land of dreams, for leaving the woman of my dream behind.

God always has that mysterious way of knowing what we need and giving it!


Have They "Closed Their Eyes and Prayed in English"?

"For more than three and a half decades, Catholics across Hong Kong have closed their eyes and prayed in English using the exact same words as fellow believers the world over."

I have to say that this opening paragraph of a front page report in the SCM Post a couple of days ago, which was about some rituals in the Catholic mass soon to be updated so as to be closer to the Latin origins, was misleading, if not downright wrong.

The majority of Catholics across Hong Kong have never "close their eyes and prayed in English". To be more precise, the writer should have said: "For more than three and a half decades, those Catholics across Hong Kong who have closed their eyes and prayed in English have used the exact same words a fellow believers the world over."

I cannot help wondering whether there has been a conscious attempt to generate an impression that English is widely used in the city here.


Logic and Chinese Logic

Most probably, to the Chinese, what I said yesterday represents no confusion at all.

It is because, as young Chinese writer Han Han famously said: "There are two sorts of logic in the world: logic and Chinese logic."


Confucius Confusion

Confucius is called into action again.

This time the mission is to link an exhibition about the Chinese thinker with one on Albert Einstein in Shanghai. The exhibition, which began its tour in Beijing, then moved to Guangdong, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Ten days before the exhibition was due to open in Beijing, there was a request that all references to the first world war be removed. The censorship request so angered the government of Switzerland, which financed the exhibition, that it insisted that the exhibition be shown as it was or it would cancel the whole thing. Beijing eventually gave in, but now Shanghai is demanding that the exhibition be coupled with one about Confucius. The Swiss are, as before, opposed to the additional demand, and it remains to be seen how events will transpire.

Nobody knows why the German-born father of modern physics and the ancient Chinese sage should share the same exhibition hall. But one thing is certain. Communist China extols or expels someone as it pleases, depending on what use it sees in him. So while Confucius was vilified in the Cultural Revolution, he is now almost deified, with Confucius institutes springing up around the world in recent years to promote the Chinese culture, the film "Confucius" taking up the showtime supposed to be for Avatar when the latter was shown in China in 2009, and last year's ludicrous Confucius Peace Prize orchestrated in reaction to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo.

While such contrasting taken by what is supposed to be the same administration is baffling, it is by no means atypical. The Confucius statue that was unveiled in Tiananmen Square in January was mysteriously removed last week without any official explanation.

It is all Confucius confusion.


"Lord, I am ready to go with thee..."

In today's sermon, the priest reminded us that Easter is no graduation for us.

This is something I have learned from the Bible's account of the events leading to the crucifixion of the Lord. Judas, one of the world's most condemned traitor, most certainly did not intend to play that role when he chose to become a disciple. Likewise, Peter did not never planned to deny Jesus, for three times, not once, before the cock crows on that fateful day. It was with total conviction that he said "Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death". Both of them could not see that they would go on to betray or disown their teacher. That was what made their remorse so strong - Judas killed himself while Peter wept bitterly. It was, in their own reflection, so out of character.

But Jesus knows them (and us) so well. He knows their (and our) weaknesses so well that He was able to predict what they (and we) would do. And His love for us is so great that He is not only ready to redeem our sins with His own blood but He also prays to God for our forgiveness on the cross: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."

We must by now be very clear that, because of the weakness of our flesh and body, our belief when we were baptised one Easter many years ago that it was our graduation was a shaky one. We have to keep up our lifetime commitment and draw strength from our Lord Jesus to take our learning forward. This is well and truly lifelong learning.


Journée Mondiale du Livre

UNESCO says on its website that it was "a natural choice" that today is chosen as the World Book and Copyright Day, as 23 April is a symbolic date for world literature, because "on this date and in the same year of 1616, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died", and it is the date of birth or death of some other prominent authors.

I can understand why UNESCO sets the day as "Book and Copyright" Day. As it says on its website, it is not just reading but also publishing and the protection of intellectual property that it seeks to promote. That is fine in itself, but as someone who so loves reading, I would say the day would be better focused if it were dedicated to celebrating reading alone. Couldn't another day be set for the promotion of copyright?


Haiku - Triumph of the Cross

redemption of sin
forgiveness of betrayal
triumph of the cross


Fifty Books for USD1.79

I was relieved to receive the call from the bookshop a couple of days ago informing me that Bruce Feiler's Walking the Bible which I ordered had arrived. The book that I planned to give the friend who will be baptised at Easter (see my blog entry on 5 March) has come just in time.

There was only the owner there when I went to the bookshop to pick up the book yesterday evening. He was very friendly so we started chatting away. I confessed to him that I have made the shift from reading printed books to e-books, and it was only because the book was for a friend that I visited his bookshop and made the purchase. I then brandished my Kindle and told him that I have a copy of the same book in it and started harping on about how I found it better to read on the device. Interestingly, he not only told me how his daughter, who is a teacher, has a larger one because she likes the larger keys for typing, he also pointed at the Kindle next to his computer to show me he has one, too. He told me how he was able to buy and read Scottish writer George MacDonald's fifty books for less than USD2.

So it says a lot about the popularity of Kindle if even the owner of a bookshop has now jumped on the bandwagon!


"I Love Italy"

Today, while I was reading an e-book in my Kindle on the train, a young guy with a book in his hand got on in one station. He sat next to me and started reading.

After some time, my curiosity (nosiness more like) got the better of me and I glanced at his page. Amazingly, I saw a line I knew, from a book that I had in my Kindle. Now it was my cheekiness which got the better of me and I switched to the page in my Kindle which showed the list of books therein, nudged the young man, and showed him the title of the book. He gave me a smile to confirm that it was indeed the same one and said in perfect English (which told me that he is an Asian or even a Hongkonger brought up in the western world): "There is no story line. The author is just chit-chatting, but I love it." Then we both went on with our reading and soon he got off.

The line which gave the book away was "I love Italy" and the book was none other than Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love.


"Wow, You're So Smart!"

What harm could some words of praise like "You learned that so quickly, you're so smart!" possibly do to your child or students?

Much, apparently. That's according to a BBC article called The words that could unlock your child. I found the article so useful that I have shared it with some colleagues.

What makes the above statement less benign than it looks is that it praises talent, which is something that hingest on genetic inheritance.

The writer, Matthew Syed, argued by citing some research studies that what sets the top performers and those with lower levels of atainment apart is not that the former group learn faster but simply that they practise for more hours. What often looks like a particular gift that some students possess is often the product of extra tuition at home by their parents.

Why does that sort of extra practice make all the difference? Syed said that it is because "over time, with the right kind of practice, we change so dramatically". What is more, it is not just the body that changes but also the anatomy of the brain. This lends strong support to what Norman Doidge has said about the plasticity of the brain in his book The Brain That Changes Itself.

Back to that statement which praises "smartness". The problem lies in its perpetuation of the "fixed mindset", a belief that excellence is all about talent. Why bother to work hard then?

On the other hand, the "growth mindset", a belief that effort trumps talent, will make a child persevere and "approach tasks with gusto".

To illustrate this difference, Syed quoted an experiment by psychologist Carol Dweck many years ago, in which 400 students were given a simple puzzle, after which half of them were praised for intelligence ("Wow, you must be really smart!") and half for effort ("Wow, you must be hard working!"). The result showed that the group raised for intelligence not only tended to choose an easy test as a next challenge but also showed a 20% decline in performance in that next test which was actually of equal difficulty to the first. The group praised for effort, on the other hand, chose the tough test and showed a 30% improvement in score.

"These were some of the clearest findings I've seen," the researcher Dweck said afterwards. "Praising children's intelligence harms motivation and it harms performance."

So what children decide about effort and talent will make a world of difference, and how we praise them has a huge influence on which of these they attribute their performance to.


Father and Children

What is remarkable about this photo is not only its wonderful composition but also the identities of the characters. Standing so stylistically on the fence is none other than the Beatle Sir Paul McCartney. The photo, taken by Sir Paul's late wife, is included in a new book entitled Linda McCartney: A Life in Photographs.


Mother and Child

Today, I witnessed with disbelief and fury the following scenarios at a dinner with a mother and a little child, both of whom happen to be endeared to me.

Scenario 1: In a conversation, the referred to someone as a "weirdo". The child heard it, found it funny, grinned, and repeated the word to himself. Apparently, his mother was a little alarmed upon hearing it because she said immediately: "The fact that I've called someone a weirdo doesn't mean you can do that, too."

Scenario 2: I told the mother that the jack of the adaptor of my notebook computer was not working and asked whether I could buy a replacement from her company. "No need," she said. "I'll tell the supplier that one of their adaptors has not come with the jack and they'll give me one for free." This was said in a most matter-of-factly way in her child's presence.

I am sure that this mother, who dearly loves her child, would like him to grow up as someone of integrity, but what she probably did not realise was that it was a sort of disastrous education the way she used that double standard in the first scenario and lied so blatantly in the second. These are classic examples of the hypocrisy that is inherent in the Chinese culture. "Don't do what I do. Do what I say." This is what parents often tell their children and would like to see happen. But which is the more powerful form of education - the word or the action? Whether it is that these parents cannot see that this kind of wishful thinking will never work or that they simply do not care, this is something that I find very hard to accept and believe.


lshccomnaiweda... What?

"OMG! LOL's in the OED. LMAO!"

I have no idea whether the expression above shows how the English language is going to be like in the (not-so-distant) future, but there are signs that such "Net Speak", has not only infiltrated into daily usage but also been inducted into the canon of the English language. Increasingly, in the work emails (not so many years ago, my supervisor at work maintained that one should say "email messages" rather than "emails" as "email" should not be taken as a countable noun) written by my colleagues, I see more and more occurrences of BTW, Thx, etc. I haven't seen any LOL (meaning "laugh out loud") yet, but the fact that the Internet slang term is, as the opening sentence says, in the Oxford English Dictionary, means that linguists have acknowledged its place in the language. As Graeme Diamond, the OED's principal editor for new words says, love it or loathe it, it is now a legitimate word in our lexicon.

While such initialism has become the trend, some slang abbreviations may have gone a bit too far, such as "lshccomnaiweda", which means "laughing so hard coke came out my nose and i wasn't even drinking any". Language purists understandably regard the situation as a literacy crisis, while the liberals see it as enriching the language and such "code switching" by children as beneficial. Like it or not, as Diamond says, "language is a vibrant, evolving animal". It is bound to change according to popular usage.


You'll Never Walk Alone

The name Hillsborough has always evoked much less emotion in me than Heysel, although the number of deaths incurred in the former incident more than doubled that of the latter. Happening so far away from home, such tragedies are bound to have less impact on us Asian fans than those whose own countrymen or even mates in their own cities were affected. The reason why Heysel has left a special memory was that, as I wrote on 17 March, I stayed awake in the small hours on that fateful day to watch the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus and witnessed the event on TV.

But my knowedge of Hillsborough has been enriched and my feelings deepened after reading Kenny Dalglish's account of it in his book My Liverpool Home. I read about how the 96 innocent people lost their life in the stadium twenty-two years ago today, how a newspaper fabricated stories about the behaviours of the fans, how some people's mistakes might have been responsible for the avoidable accident. Mr Dalglish has never been able to get over the tragedy, and he was so gripped and devastated by it that he eventually stepped down from his job as manager of the club. But his unwavering support of the families of the bereaved, from doing everything possible to comfort them right after the deaths to pursuing justice and accountability to this day, is truly admirable. There is no better example of walking the talk of "You'll Never Walk Alone".


It's Not Disorganisation, It's Reorganisation

A recent research study has revealed that the brain areas that in autistic people, the brain areas that deal with visual information are highly developed. That may explain why some autistic people have extraordinary abilities to perform some types of visual tasks, such as drawing and remembering objects in detail.

With brain areas that process visual information being highly developed, that leaves less capacity in brain areas which deal with decision-making and planning.

The study by University of Montreal scientists counters the common belief that autism is a form of disorganisation.

"The natural tendency is to think that autism is a form of disorganisation," said Dr Laurent Mottron from the University of Montreal. "Here, what we see is that it is a reorganisation of the brain."

What Dr Mottron said echoes well with what the book The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge has been stressing - the amazing plasticity of the brain. In the next few days, I will be highlighting the main points from the excellent book.


It's Not Me, God, It's You

When I was sitting in the room waiting for my turn to do an important oral presentation today, my mind was searching for some thoughts that might help lessen the pressure. An idea came up for me to say to God: "It's not me, it's you."

So this presentation is no different from many other tasks I am given in life - to fulfill God's purpose in one way or another. What I need to do is to always put in my best effort. The outcome, whether it is a success or otherwise, I will offer it as a tribute to God.

This submission to God and His purpose reminds me of Psalm 139:

You have searched me, LORD, and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”

even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

How precious to me are your thoughts,[a] God! How vast is the sum of them!

Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand— when I awake, I am still with you.

If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!

They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name.

Do I not hate those who hate you, LORD, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?

I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.


An "Early" Dinner

It was a little after eight when we finished our dinner at home this evening. When we were eating an orange, I was about to say to my wife: “It’s nice to have dinner so early.” But then I put it in check.

Early? I thought, how early was that really?

It is true that our dinner today was earlier than most other working days, when my wife would call me no earlier than 8 pm from her office and say: “I’m off now.” And then dinner would be forty-five minutes later.

I remember that when we visited India a few years ago, the Jain who invited us to have dinner in his home told us that Jains do not eat after the sun has set. To this day, I still admire them for being able to maintain this very healthy way of life, which in most places in the modern world, not least Hong Kong, is almost impossible.

We devote most of our waking hours to making money, but where is all that money taking us?


One Month On

It has been one month since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 11 March, my prayer goes to the country and its people. May its cherry blossoms bloom more brightly than ever.


"Do you believe this?"

Obviously, the theme of today's Gospel (John 11:1-45), which is about Jesus resurrecting Lazarus, is death. But I can see that it talks about two kinds of death. I would say that one kind is the worldly, physical one and the other kind is the spiritual one.

The worldly, physical death is caused by, or is itself even, illness. So when Jesus said, knowing that Lazarus was to meet this kind of death, that "this illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it", Jesus is making a distinction between one kind of death and the other.

The worldly, physical death is temporary, not permanent. "Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him," Jesus said.

But the worldly, physical death is very powerful. It causes fear and suffering, rocks our faith to God and, worst of all, may lead us to the eternal, spiritual death if we do not know how to handle it. Our suffering caused by this death is so great that Jesus, who so loves us and is so compassionate, seeing this, is "perturbed", "deeply troubled" and even weeps for us.

But the great news is that, with the help of Jesus and our belief, we will not only rise from this worldly, physical death but also avoid the eternal, spiritual one. This great news is clearly told by Jesus when he said:

“I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."

He followed this up with the all important question:

"Do you believe this?"

I do, my Lord.


The Patrick Miracle

Here is the latest development of the case of the dog Patrick who was dumped by his owner and found by a maintenance worker in a garbage bin.

His owner, a woman living in that apartment building, has been arrested and is facing a felony charge. The torture that the woman had brought to the dog and the fact that she discarded the dog while he was still alive prompted the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to ask that she be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

As for Patrick, he is now under the care of the Garden State Veterinary Specialists (GSVS) in Tinton Falls. As these recent photos (available at the GSVS Facebook page) show, while still very thin, Patrick is now in much better shape.

Better still, Patrick is receiving greetings from all over the world.


Two Rotton Shows

Watching the two top officials of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government respectively made speeches in response to the resignation of the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development citing health reasons, it was difficult to say who has put on a more pathetic show.

The speeches, broadcast on TV today, contained the usual messages one would hear on such occasions, such as how good a job the person had done and how she would be missed. The problem was the ungainly way they were delivered. The Chief Executive read from the script, including the part in which he was supposed to reminisce memorable episodes. The Chief Secretary for Administration might have seen that performance, not liked it, and decided to memorise his likewise prepared speech and deliver it like it was impromptu. Unfortunately, his memory failed him so miserably that he just embarrassed himself by stuttering all the way. Both shows were simply painful to watch.

Talk about sincerity.


Death of English

The dwindling position of English in Hong Kong society after the changeover of sovereignty is evident in the difficulty in the vastly reduced number of cinemas showing animation films in English.

Ever since I was a child, I have avoided films with Cantonese voiceover, treating the poor quality and lack of creativity with contempt. Cartoons and animation films are especially bad as the twisted voices of adults impersonating children are simply hair-raising.

It didn't use to be a problem as there were many cinemas showing the films in English version. But that is not the case anymore. Like the movie Gnomeo and Juliet that I am interested in seeing, in one chain of cinemas, only one out of seven cinemas show the English version, and that is the one which is on Lantau Island, the one which is furthest away from the city centre.

It is understandable that businesses provide commodities and services that are the most popular so that they may maximise their profit. Obviously, in today's Hong Kong, there is a much larger market in Cantonese films. Truth to speak, English has never had a role to play in the average Hong Kong people's daily life. Now it is as marginalised as ever.


"Guesi House"

Unfortunately, English errors in other countries, such as the one shown above which is uploaded onto the Internet as a joke, are increasingly common in Hong Kong. The huge sign which says "Dinning" and the stick saying "Please singe and return to me" that I wrote about on 25 and 30 November last year were two examples.

The photo below, taken on a Hong Kong street by an Australian friend of mine, is another example. I wonder if the fact that the error is in the sign with simplified Chinese characters (the version used in the Mainland) but not the one with traditional Chinese characters (the version used in Hong Kong) can be used as an excuse.


An International City?

A recent report on the English proficiency of countries where English is not the mother tongue confirms a fact that should leave Hong Kong with no illusion.

According to the English Proficiency Index 2011 report released by Education First on 30 March, Malaysis is most proficient in English in Asia. In fact, it is the only Asian country given the "high proficiency" rating (out of the index's five levels of "very high proficiency", "high proficiency", "moderate proficiency", "low proficiency" and "very low proficiency"). Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan lag behind, ranked second, third and fourth in Asia respectively, and are all given the "moderate proficiency" rating. While Hong Kong is ranked above South Korea and Japan, the scores of the three places, at 54.44, 54.19 and 54.17 respectively, are really close. And if the fact that English is an official language of Hong Kong but not South Korea and Japan is factored in, Hong Kong's lead is even more shaky and questionable.

Given that English is an international language for communication, a report like this should serve to dispel any myth or hallucination that Hong Kong is an international city.


No Smirking?

Was it my hearing? Or was it the pronunciation of the lady who made the announcement at the MTR Station?

I wonder if I was the only one who heard "no smirking".

Hearing that just made me want to smirk even more.


Poisson d'avril

In France, the trick people play on each other on April Fool's Day is called poisson d'avril (literally translated as fish of April). It is so called because on the day children make fun of each other by sticking a paper fish on the back of others without them knowing it. When the trick is discovered, "Poisson d'avril!" is what they will say.


Every Day is April Fool's Day, Except 1 April

Today is the day to look out for pranks, especially in the media.

I used to fall for such reports, but after years of being an April Fool I have become less gullible. On Koptalk, the website for Liverpool FC fans, there is a report today that says the Club will not renew Kenny's Dalglish's contract and will turn to José Mourinho instead. I have learned to expect it and so the fun is somewhat lost. It is interesting that sometimes even governments play such pranks. For example, last year the French government announced that the navy would use octopuses for its special operations.

Unfortunately, not only do the Chinese generally lack a sense of humour but also the government is especially dead serious about everything, so having such fun is out of the question. Come to think of it, though, we can take many official announcements by the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, especially those regarding human rights and dissidents, as April Fool jokes too? In that sense, the Chinese people are entitled with such fun throughout the year except perhaps 1 April.