R.I.P. Prof. Sir David Mackay FRS

Two days ago my friend David MacKay died. We went to school together in Newcastle-under-Lyme between 1981 and 1985 and sat almost the same ‘O’ levels and ‘A’ levels. We were born one day, and one continent apart, and our lives seemed to dance around one another’s, always slightly out of phase but broadly in the same direction.  We were friends, and to the extent such terms can be used to describe relationships between two prickly, competitive, teenage loners, briefly best friends at school. He wasn’t the easiest person to be friends with. He wasn’t so much socially awkward as socially absent; I don’t recall him ever coming to any student discos, parties, gigs or the pub. The only time we did anything together outside of school was when we went to the preacher Billy Graham’s football pitch-scale sermon in Liverpool. David went because of his Christianity, and I out of curiosity. He of course excelled academically, but he also a good musician and a useful hockey player. I believe he had an austere home life, his parents were much older than anyone else’s, and they didn’t much care for frivolities like TV which were banned from his home. The photo above was our 6th form science class, led by by our inspiring form teacher Mr Beatson.

After school I went to Oxford and he to Cambridge. We didn’t much keep in touch. After his PhD at Caltech in US I visited him once or twice at his college. When we met I was surprised by our enduring similarities in tastes: we both enjoyed our Brompton bikes, our Psion organisers and our Raspberry Pis.

He had started dabbling in energy issues which were a bit of a diversion from his usual academic fare of information theory and machine learning. He was always incredibly modest about his achievements but I understand (but not from him) he had helped correct optical defects in the Hubble telescope algorithmically. By then I was working as Government economist on environment and climate change issues. We were both planning to write books on energy and climate change. We talked a few times about our respective projects and the gulf in our thinking was already evident. His Sustainable Energy was published in 2008, and I my Economical Environmentalist in 2009. We both mention each other in our acknowledgements, but I suspect neither much cared for the other’s book.

To me it was the Without Hot Air bit of the book that irked. The “Hot Air” of political discussion is necessary to align consumers, institutional investors and businesses. In Western countries (less so here in the East) it renders energy policy more than an arithmetic problem of balancing supply and demand. And amidst the book’s many useful facts and intuitions, there were also many niggling assumptions that betrayed David’s prejudices. We exchanged emails about whether he was being fair in his dismissal of combined heat and power (an area of policy I was then working on), his espousal of nuclear despite the clearly understated costs of the new reactor design evident even back when David wrote the book, and his overly simplistic caricature about wind power gobbling up an area the size of Wales. But he didn’t respond to my comments. But the book was well written, and revealed David’s excellent and seemingly effortless skills of simplifying and communicating. More importantly it sold by the bucket-load and has proved influential.

David at Maya's and my wedding

David at Maya’s and my wedding

David came to Maya’s and my wedding a few months after Sustainable Energy was published. But we didn’t communicate again until David was considering and being considered for the role of Decc Chief scientist. I told him while he had an excellent chance of getting the job, it would frustrate him. David’s clearly defined and often inflexible views of the world, were at odds in the nuanced and slow to change world of Whitehall. But I knew he desperately wanted to bring scientific rationality into energy policy making, so it was inevitable he would accept. I didn’t much speak to him while he was in that role. I have no idea whether he enjoyed it or not. His team developed a well received carbon calculator that allows people to develop their own energy scenarios. And I am told he retained his kind and patient manner with his staff. I doubt he bears much responsibility for the current mess that constitutes UK’s energy efficiency, and increasingly balkanized renewables policy.

By then I had left the civil service and joined the consumer movement. I was also active on the other side of the environmental fence. I had co-written a second book Repowering Communities featuring case studies and policies to promote locally planned decentralized energy, combined heat and power and energy efficiency. I took part in many working groups and community level actions to try and get these off the ground. Rhetorically Government supported such bottom up initiatives but the financial and policy support for such polices were slowly withdrawn from 2010 onwards. I was very much opposed to the large-scale nuclear, air source heat pump based future that David used to promote, and wanted to halt any further subsidy-junkie, nuclear power stations being built .

For several years we lived only a couple of miles apart on opposite sides of Hampstead Heath. But the only time I saw him after my wedding was the week before he moved back to Cambridge. It was late autumn and my son and I were cycling across Hampstead Heath. Ramesh was pregnant with David’s and her second child. He invited me to his going away event the following weekend. For some reason or other I couldn’t make it. I wish I had. A few months later I had left for Hong Kong.

I have recently been dabbling with data science. Bizarrely, I found myself drawing on his first book on information theory for an analytical problem at work about how to cluster people and draw inferences from  the vast amount of sometimes contradictory data from consumer surveys. I was  impressed with the lucidity of his explanation and quickly adopted one of his ideas to some work.

For the last few weeks I have been devouring his blog about how his stomach cancer is killing him. With his typical rationality and uncompromising forthrightness, he shared the slow shredding of his life in sleepless pain – researching and commenting on the efficacy or otherwise of each treatment he endured – even taking a side swipe at CHP in one of his final posts. I wish I could have been a better friend to him at school, or tried to make more of an effort to break into his busy schedule when he was in London. I feel so so desperately sorry his two young children, will only ever remember their father, ever so slightly.

When he died we were again in different continents. The night after his death I was overcome with a terrible nausea and pains from a stomach problem that have plagued me on and off for several months. The weird symmetry of our lives, displaced by one day and a continent, haunted me.

But I survived the night and I promised my wife I would go to the doctor’s and get my stomach seen to by specialists on Monday.


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Review of “Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future” – Paul Mason

PostcapitalismMason is best known to Brits as a broadcast journalist on BBC and Channel 4, and as a professional northerner-Trotskyist purveyor of political balance on the interview couch. He has drawn on an eclectic mix of economists, psychologists and futurologists to substantiate his obituary of neo-liberalism.
The book’s key argument is that several megatrends make it likely and desirable for traditional capitalism to collapse. Markets are becoming increasingly irrelevant in many of their key functions like the allocation of capital, price discovery and matching supply and demand. In a world of quantitative easing and dematerialisation of production there is excess capital rather than lack, digitalisation has meant that marginal production costs for many classes of goods are virtually zero, and the Internet is increasingly making geography irrelevant so the markets for many goods have become tournaments with a single supplier like Expedia or Amazon dominating the sector through unassailable network economies.
There is reference to a fascinating essay by Marx Fragment on Machines written in 1858 in Kentish Town (near my home) in which Marx argues that innovation in organisation and technology greatly increases labour productivity, more so than the simply accumulation of capital – and machines have the potential to cheaply displace the working classes. But as we know Marx dropped this line of reasoning and the first volume of his opus published in 1867 was called Capital rather than The Terminator. We had to wait 117 years for the other great seer James Cameron to finally identify the threat posed by machines.
The book also features a slightly quixotic discussion of an economist I had never heard of Kondratieff who reached the politically uncomfortable conclusion, at least in Joseph Stalin’s Russia, backed up by painstaking statistical analysis that capitalism instead of dying and being replaced by socialist utopia always survived its internal crisis, through increasingly traumatic structural shifts – like the 1930s crash – which took place every fifty or so years. This was roughly the interval of time that the collective human brain allows hubris to overcome caution.
Mason’s book could be criticised for its rather quixotic selection of writers and events to cite, but this would be missing the point. Mason is not projecting into the future, simply into a future if you buy into his thesis. But compared to his fire-in-the-belly analysis his policy recommendations are rather tame, and some naïve. Does anyone seriously believe that if his first recommendation “Model first, act later” that macro-economic crisis could be averted; that somehow cranking the wheel on some tired old model infested with dodgy data and prejudices dressed up as structural equations would provide us with actionable insight. His other recommendations similarly feel a bit like he’d reached the end of the analysis and was left struggling with how to finish. Unlike me.

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Cycling holiday to Kaiping

I spent Easter holidays cycling in Kaiping, Guangdong – a city of 0.7 million which was scarcely known by anyone at work. China is a hierarchical place and cities are categorized as tier 1, 2 or 3 depending on their significance. Kaiping is less a tier and more an illegal extra floor.

Rice paddiesWhen I told my co-workers about my plans they feared for my life. Hong Kong is such a safe place it has warped people’s concept of danger. So far this year HK has had two murders, 12 suicides, and one Darwin Award entrant short-listed for falling 400m off Lion’s Rock while taking a self portrait. No one is attacked in HK; harm is largely self(ie) afflicted.

The biggest danger I faced in Kaiping was my tendency to drift onto the wrong side of the road while cycling the quiet country roads.

Kaiping’s correctly famous for its Diaolous. These quirky fortified houses look ancient but are less than 100 years old. There are around 1000 scattered around the county. Four clusters are in particularly good nick all less than 20 km from Kaiping – they have collectively been designated as UNESCO sites.  Kaiping and nearby villages were used as a location for two well known Hong Kong movies: the beautifully shot Grandmaster about Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu teacher, and A Better Tomorrow once Hong Kong’s biggest grossing film. It also has familial connections to many western countries as the county was a major source of migrants fleeing the bandits, recession and opium addiction that marked the end of the Qing dynasty at the turn of last century.  Their remitted wealth was used to build the Diaolou a fascinating series of follies, which are so numerous they became the vernacular. Its other claim to fame is it’s the sanitary wares capital of the world.Kaiping diaolou

There aren’t many foreign looking tourists and people spontaneously came and practised their English on me. Typical dialogue: Where are you from? Hong Kong. Where are you really from? London before Hong Kong. Where are you really, really from? I was born in India, then moved to England. I had the feeling this still left their yin and yang out of kilter.

I stayed in the imaginatively named Kaiping Hotel. It was brilliant – the bathroom was bigger than our Hong Kong flats bedroom. It of course had exemplary sanitary-ware. I had an entire western restaurant to myself and was serenaded by a sultry jazz singer who crooned Nora Jones at me.

China’s got many interesting smaller cities like Kaiping, where the old hasn’t yet been pulled down and replaced. Well worth a visit.

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Netflix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger: Sword of Destiny

Crouching_Tiger,_Hidden_Dragon_Sword_of_Destiny_posterUnlike most of its reviewers I watched the second instalment of the Sword and Calligraphy epic last week and loved it. It’s shorn of the original director Ang Lee and star Hong Konger Chow Yun-fat, but gorgeous Michelle Yeoh is in. If you like fighting scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in the Royal Ballet or Cirque du Soleil and a cast of chivalrous warrior-clerics you’ll enjoy it too. My favourite scene was a fight on a frozen lake. The thought of being trapped under ice scares me silly but as these guys keep on with their pirouetting flying side kicks in the moon-light as the ice collapses under them.

The film debuted not in the cinemas but on Netflix (and also a few IMAX screens). Netflix entered the Hong Kong market just a few weeks ago and is having difficulties getting subscribers. None of my co-workers  see the point of subscribing. Most of the shows Netflix subscribers from USA and UK expect can’t be shown as the Asian rights have been bought-up some other companies. So the schedules are still a little thin. There is also a longer term cultural challenge for Netflix. Colleagues are just so used to downloading free films that the concept of paying for content genuinely confuses them.

The day after the Sword of Destiny’s Netflix debut was announced US’s largest cinema chain Regal announced they would not screen it. The next day the other big cinema chains followed suit. The economics are fascinating. Monthly subscription to Netflix is about the same price as a single adult movie ticket. The cinemas have declared war on Netflix. So far Netflix has free-ridden on the movie companies buying content for cheap, since the costs of production have already recouped from cinematic or TV subscription audiences. Whether its business model can withstand the costs of the originating high-cost material will be interesting. As Sun-tzu points out in Art of War – successful military campaigns require limiting the cost of competition and conflict. Perhaps originating new movies is too pricey a tool!


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Sustainable consumption

SCI_Info_watermark_ENG_LowThe Hong Kong Consumer Council published its first report on sustainable consumption a couple of weeks ago. The highlight are results from the first survey of Hong Kong consumers knowledge, attitudes and behaviours to sustainability. Also a chapter on firm’s listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange pitiful corporate social responsibility reports. The stock exchange is toughening up the rules so should see an improvement. The metabolic rate of policy making in Hong Kong is much slower than in the UK and we managed to get the two members of the cabinet to speak at the report’s launch. Organising an event in HK is very different to UK – with as much attention given to the group photos as the contents of the talk.

Organising conferences about sustainable consumption is much easier than making it happen. TRAFFIC arranged a three-day workshop to help activists in SE Asian countries stop illegal or unsustainable trade in rare wildlife – ivory, tiger parts but also less photogenic plants and animals like agarwood and the truly ugly humphead wrasse. Hong Kongers make a lot of money out of trading in illegal substances – a sad legacy of Britain’s imperial past!

Mainland China’s pushing the idea of “Ecological Civilisation”. Hard to tell whether it’s a coherent alternative to current neo-liberal capitalism with some market based environmental policy or just a soundbite. But certainly true that they’re quickly replacing old polluting factories with less polluting ones, poor air quality in Chinese cities is a high priority and there’s a substantial market in green finance opening up.

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Relatives over and Japan and Macau

After months of relative solitude Maya and I have had a series of visitors over the past few months. After school broke up Satish came for three weeks, Ayeisha came in late August and Prabhat and his wife Judith in September. Skype and Facetime is all very well, but you don’t realise how quickly your children grow from a four inch screen.

FujiFrom a certain angle, Satish now appears taller than me. From any bathroom scale, I still appear heavier than him. This is the two of us on Mount Hakone with Fuji 25 kilometres behind us. The crater on Hakone has been murmuring since April, but on June 30th (about five weeks before we arrived) there was a small eruption of ash and steam and it has been spewing ever since. We all dutifully walked up to the candela to see the lava but the Japanese are nowadays as health and safety conscious as the Hong Kongers and the area was all taped off. The beautiful resort was almost empty and the three of us had a 600 seat Mississippi paddle-steamer to ourselves.

I’d been to Japan once before, in mid-90s just when its quarter century long economic ‘malaise’ started. You all know the story – low growth, ballooning Government debt (largely owed to its own citizens so IMF has demurred from doing a Greece on the country), ageing and shrinking population (1 million fewer people each year from now on), and an endless series of Governmental macroeconomic defibrillations to get spending going. I had expected the country to resemble some economic ghost town – another France, except with decent food. But it wasn’t like that at all. It’s the most fantastic country. The shrinking population of young (there are almost twice as many 60-64 year olds as 0-4 year olds) have ceased to worry about getting a salaryman jobs since there are none, and seem content to mooch around on bikes and hang out in excellent coffee shops and cheap cafés.

The Japanese put thought and pride into the most mundane objects and everyday places. Look at the first two pics below: the first is an immaculately manicured and reasonably priced restaurant in Uneo, the second shows the torrent of technology bestowed into this renewably powered, LED lit, heat-pump cooled beverage dispenser in Ikebukuro. But the third pic shows Japan getting it horribly wrong, demonstrating why middle age men should not run records labels. It was taken in a pub in the basement of the Sony Building in Sinjuku. Last time I went there in the 90s it was a temple to Sony’s creative fizz. Now all six floors were themed around Maria Carey, linked no doubt to her recently signing to Epic records. I am not joking – look at the album covers behind and the beer mat! I wish her better luck on Epic than enjoyed by Michael Jackson and Witney Houston.

IMG_3992 Uneo Mariah

There’s a great book “Bending Diversity” about Japan by David Pilling written in the aftermath of the Tsunami showing how modern Japan copes with the its legacy of being the first non-Western developed country, being reviled and still living down its role before and during the Second World War and its stoicism in the face of its vulcanic and typhoon prone geography.

In August Ayeisha briefly visited. We all went to the excellent Nan Lian garden and then a Venetian piazza in Macau complete with gondolas.

IMG_4227 IMG_4266

Macau is a weird place. It’s about an hour’s high-speed boat ride from HK and soon to be linked to HK by a 50 km bridge. It is now, like Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China. It was administered by the Portuguese between 1557 to 1999, a far longer span than the Brits occupied HK. It’s much smaller than HK. At the moment its reported to have the second or fifth highest GDP per head in the world depending on who’s counting. But much of this economic activity is in the gambling sector. The gamblers are drawn from highly regulated Mainland China and Hong Kong, but Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corrupt officials has resulted in a massive drop in tourist flows. Much of the ‘domestic production’ anyway gets whisked away by the owners of the huge casinos: Las Vegas Sands who own the Venetian, the Hong Kong listed Galaxy. There is still some culture here – a rather good museum and the poetically superficial façade of the St Paul’s church, which echoes the relative importance of the Church to Mammon. Macanese food (in Hong Kong) is great but Ayeisha and I struggled to find a Macanese restaurant on the gambling island of Cotai.

IMG_4352 IMG_4363In September my brother and sister-in law arrived for a conference cum holiday. It was their first time in HK and thanks to the city’s compactness we managed to cram in a diverse programme of culture, food, beach and hiking activities in their three days of free time. Prabhat, armed with a guidebook bought my ex-colleagues from NEST, exposed me to a whole bunch of places in Wan Chai that I didn’t know existed; even a temple in Wan Chai, next they’ll build a cathedral in the City of London!

On the Saturday before the mid autumn festival we climbed a small hill in Kowloon, with a band of couch surfers, and watched the full moon. We fingered Hong Konger’s beloved moon cakes and discretely threw them away when backs were turned cursing their calories and awful taste.

Everyone’s gone back now. Maya wore jeans over the weekends. Despite my higher-spec insulation, I will only be able to sustain shorts and T-shirts for a couple more weeks. As Ned Stark so ominously and repetitively points out in Game of Thrones – “Winter is coming.”



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Manufacturing scarcity

Until I came to Hong Kong I thought debenture was a fancy word for pretty-young-things’ first grown-up party. It is only when I arrived here that I found out otherwise. Elite schools use debentures to borrow for free from wannabe students’ parents, and exclude the hoi-polloi. Try googling debenture and you’ll get sent straight to www.topschools.hk. There’s a thriving secondary market in debentures – prices vary from $25,000 for the not so grand schools to $10million for the most sought after. This is on top of the annual fees of around £15k.


Competition in my building

As the photo to the left shows education is where the rat race starts. And as the second picture reminds us there’s no need to wait till a kid gets is at school to start tutoring. Kindergarten kids can cram in another language while they are being potty-trained. (To be fair the nursery did also have some very nice climbing frames).

Education could be the great leveller, but money is able to frustrate such egalitarianism.

Why are so many expats, and wealthy local people, prepared to pay so much to avoid the local schools? Anyone who’s watched BBC’s fascinating reality show on Chinese education applied to UK schools knows that Chinese kids do incredibly well in international student comparisons. But ambitious Chinese aren’t interested in learning the syllabus. They want their kids to be taught in English and gain internationally recognised qualifications rather than the HK Diploma of Secondary Education so they have an exit strategy to a better life via a foreign university. A quarter of the state schools language of instruction is English but entry is highly competitive – and the educational regimes hellish with too much homework, boring rote learning and a lack of opportunity to develop creative skills.

Kinder garden in mid-levels

Kinder garden in mid-levels

It’s incredibly competitive getting a place in one of Hong Kong’s seven public universities. Government funds just 20,000 new enrolments per year, far less than the demand from the 100,000 young people that will reach 18 this year. Given that so many young Hong Kongers want to go to university many have no choice but to attend HK’s private universities or go overseas.

But it’s not just education where manufactured scarcity is driving up prices. You have similar secondary markets for membership of the Hong Kong’s elitist private clubs. Getting hold of a membership for Clearwater Bay Golf Club – the swish-est in the territory – will set you back a million sterling. By way of comparison the cost of private clubs in London is around £1500. In UK allocation is by queue, or through obscure nomination procedures.

Large plots of new space has to be created either as newly manufactured islands or reclaimed shoreline. It is used to site airports, motorways and high-end offices. No-one is likely to set up a new golf club or cricket club anytime soon. Instead membership to the existing ones is traded. The private clubs are great places to entertain clients or take the family on Sundays when the helper gets her day-off.

Cartoon from South China Morning Post

Cartoon from South China Morning Post

Uber has been in the Hong Kong news the last week after the police arrested several drivers for providing taxi services without a permit, and raided Uber’s offices taking several staff away for questioning. The number of red taxi permits in Hong Kong has remained fixed for twenty years. This is despite souring demand through increase in tourism and people’s income. This means the costs of the permit has now risen to over £600,000 and there is such a healthy secondary market in the permits. Investors treat them as another asset class to buy and sell.

So what else have I been up to? I took my bike on the ferry at Sai Wan Ho to Kowloon a few weeks ago. I had a vague ambition to see some of Kowloon’s more spiritual and ancient sites. Weaving through traffic and carrying your bike over six lane motorways wasn’t the most relaxing way of travelling but it was fast and exhilarating. Stupidly I had picked the hottest day ever recorded, in some parts of HK the temperature hit 38°C.


Chi Lin Buddhist nunnery

Nan Lian garden

Nan Lian garden

The most photogenic place was the Nan Lian Garden near to Diamond Hill MTR. It looks ancient but was actually created from a brownfield site in 2006. The stunning buildings use traditional wood construction techniques. You can, for an hour or two, from the right angle, totally forget you are in Kowloon surrounded by 2 million people in 50 square-km. The buildings are held together using clever joints instead of nails. There is a small exhibition in one building showing models of such traditionally built temples from the Mainland, some are almost a thousand years old and six or seven storeys high.

The garden was designed and is operated by the Chi Nin nunnery, which is situated right next door. Again this seemingly ancient building was constructed in the 1990s. There are some terrific Buddhas in the shrine rooms but no sign of nuns and little evidence of anyone practising religion.

Roof in Plaza Hollywood shopping mall

Roof in Plaza Hollywood shopping mall

Here is a photo is of the stain-glassed roof of Plaza Hollywood. The mall is over the road from the nunnery. Thousands of retail devotees take part every week in their weekly pilgrimage to the 130 retail outlets. Shopping must surely be Hong Kong’s truest religion.

A few miles from Diamond Hill is the fascinating Kowloon walled city. This tiny patch of space, just 2.6 hectares, used to be a Chinese enclave following the leasing of the New Territories in 1898. For a few years the Chinese maintained a garrison inside the walled city in the 19th Century but they very soon pulled out and the tiny plot of land became stateless and a safe haven for triads, drug manufacture and even some legit manufacture

Kowloon Walled City

Kowloon Walled City

(apparently a big centre for making toilet plungers!). Its population mushroomed and tens of thousands lived there. In 1994 the British Government agreed to sort it all out and the buildings were levelled and the land converted into a park. A few of the oldish

buildings still stand but they have no roofs, which made them less than ideal to hide from the 34°C. Memo to myself – check the weather forecast next time I go cycling.


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The High-Life in Hong Kong

HarbourOur new flat is on the 32nd floor of a 63-storey block. This is the highest I have ever lived by a margin of 30 floors (unless you count a week in the Algarve where I vaguely remember needing to take a lift to access our room).
We moved in over a month ago and the view from our flat still takes my breath away. I wake up to see some of the world’s biggest cruise liners glide into the cruise terminal juxtaposed with sampans quietly wending their way across the harbour. Looming behind all this is the 602m Kowloon Peak barely a kilometre from the sea.
Life in this sort of flat is a very different life to what we were used to. Exiting the building can take five minutes, with numerous doors and two lifts to navigate making you more inclined to hunker down at home once you’re inside. It’s small: 670 sq. feet, which is still large by Hong Kong standards – the average flat size being 450 sq. feet.
The atmosphere is like that of a holiday resort – the development boasts a shaded 25m all-year swimming pool, massive gym with sea views, café, Jacuzzi, BBQ space and lots of rooms for hire: bowling, snooker, events and music. While there’s no green space within the complex there are two municipal parks nearby. We do have an elevated walkway with exercise equipment and a tiny allotment for children to grow flowers and vegetables. The Internet speed is a blistering 50Mbps. The ISP was apologetic it couldn’t deliver the 1000Mbs available to others in the building. It had to restrict speeds for new customers because of a local capacity constraint. The building is popular with expats from Japan and Korea as there’s a Korean school just opposite so there is a great variety of excellent restaurants for the well-heeled executives. There’s quite a few ABC (American Born Chinese) judging by the accents. So far we’ve not properly met many other people and I still wouldn’t recognise my neighbours. Despite the having so many people packed together, it feels an anonymous place to live. Developments like this are sprouting up all over Hong Kong and other big cities.
Tower blocks are more made from electricity, than from matter. Our building has four high speed lifts, pumps to supplement the standard head of pressure, so drinking water can attain the building’s 210m summit, air conditioners to shed the heat gained from its acres of glass. Our electricity supplier, Hong Kong Electric, has maintained a reliability of supply of 99.999% since 1997 – which translates into around three minutes of unintended break in supply a year.

People sometimes compare Hong Kong’s appearance to the set from Blade Runner. But this is inaccurate, far too dystopic. A better Philip K Dick comparator would be the anaesthetically clean cityscape from Minority Report. Why are such vertical cities catching on? And how green are they?

Hong Kong has built vertically because land is scarce, developers have cheap access to capital and the electricity supply is highly reliable. For the other cities seeking to copy Hong Kong’s upward trajectory, reliable electricity is the most difficult precondition to meet: capital is anyway mobile (Hong Kong’s developers are turning this same trick in many other cities) and land scarcity is happening everywhere – the automatic consequence of urbanisation and local politicians natural aversion to annoying their current stable of voters.
That constructing tower blocks is favoured by developers should surprise no-one. Hendersons, the developer that built our home, says in its annual report: “Our strategy is to acquire sites with good potential for future value enhancement through development density intensification.”
And have they intensified! The tactic of developers is to get hold of prime land – either prising it off the people in the pre-existing 5-10 storey walk-ups, getting Government to create it afresh through land reclamation, or take over some green space – then quickly build the new tower block. Our development has 2000 flats spread over its five buildings. Looked at from Google maps its footprint is a mere 5000 square metres. By way of contrast our home in London, population 2, had a footprint of 100 square metres, and Highgate ward where we lived has a population of 10,000 and an area of 3,000,000 square metres (admittedly including quite a bit of Hampstead Heath). So my block is something like 40 to 240 times more densely populated than where we lived in central London. Land prices in Hong Kong are higher than those in London but not that much more expensive. The insanity that is the Hong Kong property market means that our flat in Hong Kong costs around 50% more than our home in UK despite being a third of the size and using around 2.5% of the genuinely scarce commodity – land. So the value-added created by the massive intensification of land use from high-rise living is not split between the developer and the resident. It’s shared between the developer and the Government.
Developers make a killing. Hong Kong has 55 US dollar billionaires compared to UK’s 53. The founder of Henderson’s is number two on the Forbes’ Hong Kong list with US$25billion. Number one, $33 billion, is of course Li Ka-shing who made his initial fortune from Cheung Kong property, Hong Kong’s biggest property company in the 1970s. His wealth now spills over into every other sector (like UK’s Superdrug and London’s electricity network company). Converting land into gold has proven a highly reliable form of alchemy. It magically transforms Hong Kongers’ prodigious work ethic, the increase in population from net Chinese migration and the gains in productivity from technological change and converts it into the wealth for the lucky few who have cornered the property market.
Government makes a killing too. Through the Land Premium charge developers have to hand over 80% of the gain in value from the intensification of land use to the Government. Last year the charge raised HK$84 billion, around two thirds more than the Government earned from salaries tax. Following the 2015 Budget the newspapers mocked the finance secretary for once again getting his budget forecast wrong. But the similarity with George Osborn ends there. The hapless minister’s error was for the 9th year running to underestimate the size of the budget surplus – HK$64bn instead of HK$9bn resulting in a giveaway budget cutting income tax on the lowest band of earnings.

Other cities are catching the high rise bug. Our building is the 51st tallest in Hong King, at 209 m. The Belchers estate in the west of Hong Kong island used to be the world’s tallest residential block, at 221m, until 2001 when Dubai started the frenetic development of its marina. In the last 15 years the world has gone on a high rise building boom and the tallest residential block, still under construction, will be 541m tall. Hong Kong used to be leader in building tall but now this model is being copied everywhere.
Are high rise buildings green? Well certainly they can be, especially in the hands of the Chinese. In the video a 57 storey ultra green building is constructed in just 19 days. It has walls with 20 cm of insulation, quadruple glazing and uses trigeneration to produce heat, cool and power. It is built off site to speed up construction, and reduce onsite pollution, risk to workers and noise. Carbon dioxide emissions have been cut by 80%.
China_buildingChina is making a reasonable claim to hard wiring resource efficiency into its every endeavour. But here in non-dirigiste Hong Kong I’m not sure. The developer builds to the minimum standard set by Government and no more. Double glazing which could reduce the need for air conditioning is unknown and even a simple technology like low-E window panes to reflect the hot wavelengths is uncommon. If you want a good laugh about lax building codes look like take a look at Hong Kong’s 2012 Building Energy Efficiency Ordinance which sets no standards at all on the building envelope for homes, and a few weak standards on air conditioning, lifts and lighting circuits. Buildings rarely have verandas or overhangs over the windows to reflect the bright sunlight. Instead air conditioning thunders away all summer. Government has just introduced a new requirement in April this year that residential buildings that want to apply for special concessions for green / amenity features have to be better insulated, and any area of verandas will be disregarded from the maximum floor area the developer is allowed to build on the site. But with just 3% of homes being built every year it will take decades for the energy efficiency to improve.
Energy efficiency standards are lax for appliances too. In a recent trip to the electronics chain Broadway’s, every appliance marked as grade 1 on the energy label. However my A+ fridge in UK uses just a third of the electricity of the grade 1 fridge here in Hong Kong. The current energy label standards (being revamped in November this year) are woefully lax.

High rise living is green but not because high rise buildings are intrinsically less energy intense. Small compact flats still need tough building codes to make them green. The big difference in compact living is that it radically changes the economics of mass transportation. Public transport buses as well as the MTR have high occupancy and as a result high frequency creating a virtuous circle. There are two floors of car park in our block but this isn’t many given the size of the development. Many of my colleagues don’t know how to drive, never mind don’t own a vehicle. If you only Hong Kong could learn to love bikes. The picture above is taken from the entrance to the wide seaside promenade next to my flat!


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Keeping Fit in Hong Kong

Swimming in the local municipal swimming pool is not usually considered a hazardous sport…but a Saturday morning dip in Kowloon Park should be. Once in the water all Hong Kong’s usual conventions sanctifying personal space cease to apply. Kamikaze fifty year olds hurl themselves in the water. Lean nimrods in Speedos juggernaut through the water unswerving, their plastic heads retracted . There’s giggles from women chatting around the sides of the pool using the water just to cool down. There are relatively few children in the pool they’re too busy cramming for their next academic hurdle.

KennedyStreetKeeping fit in Hong Kong can be a challenge. Because the city has been carved out of a mountain it’s hard to walk any distance without hitting some giddy gradient. The streetscape to the left, taken just outside my old house in Kennedy Town, shows the challenge of  jogging or simply walking on the ribbon of land around the harbour. Walkers are fenced in on the narrow pavements and jostle for space with street furniture, shop overspill and construction work. And Hong Kongers  umbrellas are as multifunctional as Douglas Adams’ towels –unfurled in fog, rain and bright sunshine alike – staking a half metre square claim on the pavement. Umbrellas usual depiction is as the mark of democratic protest, but to me they signify a threatened jab in the eye despite my undemanding stature. It’s rare to see children playing in the parks or streets. The city is asking itself soul-searching questions why its children are measurably weaker than other southeast Asian countries’, including children from China. The girl below is  a delightful exception. What terrible child exploitation and on a bank holiday!

Hopefully an inspiration for my kids

Hopefully an inspiration for my kids

So how come Hong Kongers are so skinny compared to westerners? The secret is of course they eat less, and avoid carbs. Portion are small. In Pret-a-Manger the standard sandwich size is half that in the UK. In Cantonese meals rice is served at the end, as an afterthought and largely thrown away. There’s little use for wheat – bread is sold by the half dozen slices – often with the crusts shaved off. I’ve been served ‘All-day breakfast’ with just half a slice of bread.

Elderly_exercisingLack of exercise isn’t a problem for seniors. Perhaps its because they spent their formative years in a different era that the parks, especially in  early morning, are filled with septuagenarians walking, stretching on the kids climbing frames or doing their Tai Chi. For the first time in my life I can go for a jog in the park and enjoy that giddy feeling or overtaking someone else.
senior_exerciseLuckily the space that has been designated for sports activities – the swimming pools, gyms and sports fields run by Hong Kong Leisure and Cultural Services Department are exemplary. For just HK$17 (about £1.50) you get to swim in spotlessly clean, Olympic size swimming pools perched on some of the most scenic real estate in the territory: overlooking the harbour or tucked in the parks. With public services so good the policy issue becomes how to ration them? In the case of Kowloon swimming pool on Saturday morning the answer is you don’t; thankfully the pools on Hong Kong Island are much less busy. But accessing the gyms or the Government organised sailing or windsurfing facilities means having to attend the compulsory half-day training course. These are held once a month and there’s a waiting list. The other gym option is the outlandishly expensive private gyms (none of which have swimming pools) aimed at the rich and chic.

Our bikes arrived with our luggage and I’ve started to cycle the 3km distance from our new home to the office. Saying that Hong Kong island is not designed with cyclists in mind is like saying Ikea store-designers do not plan for their customers to leave with just the one item they wanted. The whole of Hong Kong Island has been designed to either infuriate or kill cyclists. My Homerian commute involves first exiting the building, through a dozen fire doors and lifts, to a street system where drivers hoot you every few seconds, outraged or perhaps terrified to share space with cyclists. There have been cyclist 46 deaths so far this year – quite incredible given how few cyclists there are. It’s actually possible to walk to my office off-road on a gorgeous sea promenade through Quarry Bay park, through the huge Taikoo Shing housing estate, past sign posts that angrily warn: “You will be prosecuted for cycling “. In the UK, one cyclist I know’s favourite hobby is zipping through red lights and sail over paths he/she’s not supposed to. In Hong Kong, where they don’t have proper crimes, jaywalking and cycling on footpaths, relatively speaking, are proper crimes. One of my more Taoist colleagues, sensing my frustration, asked the profound question, do you cycle to work because you want exercise or because you want to reach here. What would Yoda have said to that? She answered before I could slip in “both favour I would” saying, “For exercise there is the gym, for travel there is the MTR or bus”. And in a way she’s right. Hong Kong’s success is down to its efficient ability to cater for conformity,  plurality of want is much harder to accomodate.


Our new apartment. We’re on 32 floor. You might see the Brompton bike in our terrace

Another option to become fit I am seriously considering is eschewing the use of lifts. That’s not as dumb as it sounds. My office is on the 8th floor and my new apartment is on the 32nd. Quick maths tests – how many floors would would I climb everyday if I abandoned the lift ? Wrong. It’s important  to understand floor numbers here are ordinal rather than cardinal concepts. Most blocks miss out floors ending with a “4” (deemed unlucky). My office block misses out 4, 13, 14 15, 24; what would Fibonacci make of that? My apartment block starts counting floors at 7. There’s a story about a developer getting into trouble for selling a 68th floor penthouse in a 46 storey building. Floors 40 to 59 were missing – I presume because there were insufficient buyers and he had some high rollers on his back itching to sue if they didn’t get their pre-paid penthouses pronto.

wind-turbineThe other way of keeping fit is hiking on the trails. But in May with the temperature hovering around 30ºC from dawn to dusk this is getting hard. The last time I walked up Victoria Peak from Kennedy Town I took this photograph of Lamma Island. I am currently mainly working on Hong Kong’s electricity market reform. The weirdest thing about the energy policy here, for a Londoner, is that 80% of Hong Kong’s electricity is generated within the territory. The island of Lamma just off the Hong Kong Island and easily visible from the Peak provides a quarter of the territory’s electricity. The balance between fossil fuels and renewables is all too visible in the photo. The 800kW wind turbine is barely visible next to the  4GW coal and gas plant. There’s also a small 550kW solar PV also on the site which is near invisible in the photo and equally absent in the output statistics.

Keeping fit watching the dragon boat race at Tai Tam

Keeping fit watching the dragon boat race at Tai Tam

Maya and I were glued to our phones on the Friday of the UK elections. Being six hours ahead the results came in over the course of the day. Maya was working in the British Consulate and she and her colleagues were all crowded around the TV, I was in my office patiently explaining about the UK election process and why was there a Green Party. Hong Kong will be holding its district elections in November this year, but few of my colleagues are registered to vote. When the districts were last contested, in 2007, only 1.1 million votes were cast from an adult population nearing 6.2 million. Everyone in Hong Kong is allowed to vote except foreigners, prisoners and the small garrison of the PLA. There are 412 district councillors in HK’s 18 districts councillors. They have similar powers to those in UK– bread and butter issues: local bus routes, social housing, waste collection. The noisy pan-democrats that are lobbying so hard for changes to the election for Chief Executive, got 40% of the vote compared to 55% for the pro-Beijing parties – mainly in the wealthy and westernised districts. It will be interesting to see whether this shifts in a few months time.

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Hong Kong food & Taiwan

The Cantonese are major foodies. I mean this in the sense they really care about the food they eat. They scour the globe for the choicest foods: live crabs from Cornwall, rock lobsters from New Zealand, sea cucumbers and abalone (sea snails) from South Africa and the infamous shark fins from whoever will sell them this illicit delicacy. (WWF has just persuaded the government to outlaw serving shark fin soup at its receptions).

fishFrozen seafood retails at a fraction of the price of live food so where possible these items are flown in, chilled but alive, at tremendous carbon and financial cost and then presented in restaurants, supermarkets and wet markets. Customers either select the fish at the restaurant or bring their own. The chef despatches the animal, then serve it a few minutes later gutted, and stuffed with rice and spices.

It’s not just fish. The Cantonese are proud of their reputation of eating absolutely anything. My colleagues delight in taking me to restaurants and serving me some harmless looking piece of meat and proudly identifying it afterwards as chicken’s feet, pig’s cheek, or squirrel’s testicle (I didn’t know squirrel’s had testicles, I didn’t even know they had gender).

Every neighbourhood has its wet market where you can buy these delicacies. These towering multi-storey Government inspected markets are laid out so the live and butchered animals are on the ground floor, the dry goods and vegetables on the floors above and the crowded cooked food centres sit at the top. One of Hong Kong’s top websites – openrice.com – which is packed full of user reviews, food photos and detailed price comparisons of eateries often showing the cheap and cheerful food courts, with their cracked formica tables, bric-à-brac plastic chairs and all the feng shui of a car crash with gushing reviews. And to this day the second best curry I’ve had in Hong Kong has been at the North Point wet market.


Pig snouts


Chicken Feet


Dried squid

But just because Hong Kong people are into their food – it doesn’t mean the food is necessarily all that good. Or even edible for that matter. At least thirty per cent of Cantonese food is off-bounds to me either because it uses gross parts of animals (feet, snouts, intestines), inedible species (crickets, sea cucumbers) or endangered species.

A friend from WWF told me the street in Soho close to where I lived was one of the top spots for buying illegally traded ivory artefacts, cunningly labelled as mammoth ivory. (The difference can only be discerned by looking at the material’s grain so take a scanning electronic microscope next time you go shopping for ivory!) It seems CITES is relaxed about using species that are already extinct, its disapproval is reserved for species on the brink of extinction. As an economist I do worry about the sort of behavioural signal this sends poachers.

The commonest food eaten by HK people, as per everywhere else, is McDonalds. Their zillion restaurants, serve 1.5 million meals every year – which I calculate to be around 5% of all food eaten in Hong Kong. This shouldn’t surprise anyone – according to The Economist’s McDonalds price index HK is one of the world’s cheapest places to consume a Big Mac. McDonald here tastes exactly the same as it does in UK. The same can’t be said of KFC or its Yum! stablemate Pizza Hut which serve insipid copies of their usual fare.

The one species that is safe from HK people’s chopsticks is the dog. I am used to being less groomed than the typical HK citizen but I have to admit it riles a bit to see dogs better turned out then me. Soho has several dog spas to pamper Fido and a dog crematorium to send him off to the great kennel in the sky. One of the big scandals running in the papers is a story about a Vietnamese restaurant accused of killing and serving dog meat. The photos of the purported dog carcass have gone viral.

Maya arrived a fortnight ago and almost the first think we did was go off to Taiwan. Colleagues at work gush about Taiwan. The island is located just 100 km off the coast of China. Inevitably it’s been colonised by wave after wave of Chinese refugee fleeing some political or climatic Tsunami. The most recent wave of colonisation took place in 1949 when the nationalist KMT led by Chiang Kei-shek fled from Mao’s communist hordes to establish the Republic of China. The bizarre double-think of the Cold War meant that until 1971 the ROC (population 20 million) was recognised as pukka China instead of the commie People’s Republic of China (population one billion). PRC’s first action was to blackball Taiwan from every international institution apart from the Scout Movement. Taiwan’s a hauntingly beautiful place. Taipei itself is a sprawling city with rice paddies alongside state of the art semiconductor factories (Taiwan is one of the world’s largest producers of solar PV panels), towering mountains, and national parks with jungles and hot springs within the city limits. Earnings spread, according to the gini coefficient, are less iniquitous than Hong Kong’s or indeed UK’s. Prices, especially of property, are a fraction of HK’s. But the country has been in relative decline compared to the other Asian tigers this last decade. Even though political ties are tetchy, familial links between Taiwan and the mainland are close and Taiwanese capital has been invested in the mainland, most infamously Foxconn, rather than the island which is less tolerant of the company’s murderous sweatshop work regimes.

Taiwan was colonised by the Japanese for fifty years before their defeat in WWII and they’ve left their imprint on the street layout and architecture. Its also inspired some great movies like The Crossing which is a collaboration between the Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese film industry. The film is basically War and Peace but set in China. The three-way war between is as much a national trauma to the present generation as the Napoleonic Wars were to Tolstoy’s.

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Longshan temple

Longshan temple

Wulai in Taipei

Wulai in Taipei

Ending on an uplifting note, and sorry if this starts off like a bad joke. A couple of weeks ago I sat next to a Buddhist priest with a bag of dead frogs. I looked at them disapprovingly, wondering where they would be served-up. One of the animals croaked. The priest gave me a beatific smile. “Where are you taking them?” But he spoke no English. He took an iPhone out of his tunic and started to play around with it like everyone else on the MTR. Five minutes later, as I was about to get off when he touched my sleeve and pointed to the screen and then the bag of frogs. The screen had the word “release” written on it. I got off the tube gob smacked it could take him so long to use Google translate.

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