Reflections on Hong Kong

Last month I had the privilege of visiting Hong Kong for the first time to do some consulting work. The universities there are shifting from the British model of a narrowly focused three-year degree to the American model of a four-year degree, with broader educational goals and more general education courses, and they had invited me because of my familiarity with implementing such changes.

Arriving there, it was clear that they were taking the swine flu very seriously. All of us on the plane were given flu kits consisting of a mask and a thermometer, and most employees at the airport and in restaurants wore masks, though only a few ordinary people did. A week before my arrival an entire hotel had been quarantined for a week when one of their guests had tested positive for swine flu, and so I was nervous even to sneeze at the airport in case I was whisked off to isolation.

One thing that impressed me was the public transport. It seemed like everyone used it. There was a constant stream of double-decker buses on the street and the seats in them were like those in long-distance trains, high-backed, cushioned, comfortable, and in groups of four arranged to face each other. People waiting for the buses would spontaneously queue up and enter in an orderly fashion. There were also plenty of taxis. Everyone I spoke to at the university (with one exception) said they used public transport to get to work, and did not own a car. In fact, over 90% of daily trips are done on public transport, the highest rate in the world. Hong Kong is perfect for this, of course. The population of over 7 million occupies just about 400 square miles, making it one of the densest populations in the world. Also, there is very little street parking, and residents told me that the cost of parking is very high, further discouraging private car use.

Given the density of the population, the streets were remarkably clean. The traffic was orderly though drivers tended to go fast which meant that one should only cross busy streets at the designated crossings. At some large and busy intersections they did have pedestrian overpasses and they encouraged use of these by having up escalators from the sidewalk.

The main areas of Hong Kong are full of high rises, though the road from the airport passes through surprisingly remote-looking areas, with steep hilly sides by the road reminding me of driving on the highway through rural Pennsylvania, though with different vegetation. In fact, I was surprised at how hilly and uninhabitable most of it was, which is why everyone is crammed into the rest of the areas.

Although my visit was short, it was very pleasant. The people were hospitable and friendly. My hotel (Ramada) was not luxurious but the room, though smaller and with lower ceilings than a corresponding American hotel, was well-equipped. I particularly appreciated the slippers that were provided for guests. A nice energy saving feature was that you had to insert your room key card into a unit to get the electricity turned on in your room, which meant that all the lights and appliances automatically turned off when you left.

The legendary efficiency was on display. The bedside light did not work and when I told the maid, she first tried to fix it herself and when she couldn’t, she called someone on her cell phone and within an hour a technician came and replaced the unit. And this was on a Sunday morning.

I managed to visit the Hong Kong museum which was excellent. They traced the history of the region from 400 million years ago to the present, starting with the formation of the island from volcanic eruptions. The whole exhibit seemed to be done on the basis of strict science and there seemed to be no accommodation of absurd religious ideas such as that the Earth is just 6,000 years old or that humans were special creations. There were no caveats or suggestions that the geological and evolutionary history they were presenting were ‘just theories’, which was refreshing.

In going through the Hong Kong museum, I discovered something about myself based on how much time I spent in the various rooms. I really like ancient geological and biological history, showing developments over the long time scale evolution of the world. And I also like modern political history, events that occurred within the last 200 years. What I find boring is the part in between, after humans appeared. I tend to skip over all the stuff about early human life with the development of pots and tools and agriculture.

POST SCRIPT: Jokes are serious things

As most people know, David Letterman made a tasteless joke about Sarah Palin’s daughter. There has since been a concerted attempt to blow this up into a huge issue. A demonstration called to protest his show was held in front of his studio. But what the protestors lacked in numbers (CNN said that only about fifteen people showed up, vastly outnumbered by the media), they made up by being even more tasteless.

Watch this video of the protestors (thanks to Wonkette).

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Sam Seder was also at the protest and had some fun with them.

I wonder about such people. Do they realize how silly such over the top rhetoric sounds?

The inimitable Tbogg weighs in.

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