Tuesday, January 31, 2006

No Japanese Buns Today

It's been hyped up.

'China in London', thanks to the Mayor.

Cold weather. Trafalgar Square where son won't be able to see a thing in the crowd? No, thank you.

We all headed down to Oriental City in Colindale instead.

But every other Chinese person and family seemed to be doing the same. We were stuck in grid-lock traffic on the access road to the carpark. It didn't help that huge lorries were parked on one side and other cars were parked on the other.

Cars heading out were blocked as cars heading in wouldn't give way.

"All it takes is someone to give way. Let someone else go," husband said.

So he waited as we could see some drivers struggling to edge their cars past the lorries.

Toot-toot. Drivers behind us were getting impatient. We kept waiting, knowing that we couldn't go anywhere further than thirty yards away any way.

Toot-toot. He's had enough. Swung the car round us and went ahead of us.

"Brilliant!" fumed my husband. "What next? Where does he think he's going?"

The precise answer is: no where fast.

So we edged forward bit by bit. It was clear that the situation ahead was not rosy. The thing was we could not even turn back at that point as cars were pouring in and blocking the way out.

Many minutes later and a little further on, young men with fluorescent yellow jackets tell us "the car park is full". Fine, we already suspected that and were resigned to the fact that there was no room for us at Oriental City on Chinese New Year's Day.

But they also closed the entrance to the car park so that we could not turn the car around either. Tempers frayed. More inconsiderate, well more like idiotic, driving, and son at the back burst into tears.

"Why does this always happen to me? Why can't I simply get my Japanese buns [from the Japanese bakery -- no where else can he get these buns]. Huh-huh-huh."

Thankfully I had my brother seated next to him who calmed him down. (Usually son sits in the back by himself.)

Eventually we managed to get ourselves out of the area where traffic actually flowed. Fuming husband had a few choice words for Ken Livingstone.

"Where are the police? Can you imagine organizing a major event at Wembley Stadium and not organizing the traffic properly? Why weren't people stopped from parking on the road?"

So on and on this ex-Wembley resident ranted.

"It wasn't just poor organization. It was NO organization."

Back at home, even before I took my coat and boots off, he was on the phone to the local Chinese takeaway.

Non-Chinese man want Chinese food on Chinese New Year's Day and he wants it NOW!

Thankfully our local does the authentic roast meats (saam siu: siu yoke, siu ngap and char siu*) on weekends. They even gave us some deep-fried peanut puffs as well. Which kind of made up for my disappointment.

We hope Ken gets his act together in a fortnight's time or there will be a repeat of this at the close of Chinese New Year fortnight. We are also hatching other plans such that we won't be caught out again.

*roast belly pork, roast duck and honey roasted pork fillet

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

String bags at 10% discount

My PSP (Payment Service Provider) is upping the charge on every online order made on my site. So I am lowering the price on the string bag bundles by 10% until end of February so that they do not have the satisfaction of making more money from this price increase immediately.

But the prices will have to return to 'normal' for the long-term survival of this business and mission of reducing plastic and paper usage.

Please do tell all your friends and family about this. Do buy bundles to give away!!

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Has 'golden rice' lost its shine?

The more I look into the Institute of Science in Society website, the more fascinated I become.

There is such a wealth of information here pertaining to GM technology, sustainability, organic farming, etc, that it makes me feel good that there is good science to back up my philosophy.

In that sense, knowledge should not be compartmentalized: science only for the scientists, classics for the classicists, humanities for the humanists (aren't we all humanists as such?). I was a pure science student at 'A' Levels, spent hundreds of hours in the laboratory, and then when I returned to university after working to raise some money was greeted by one of my favourite lecturers with: 'But you were a science student. Why are you opting for Philosophy?'

The whole idea of 'university', to a great extent, is to 'universalize' (ie expand) one's horizon. There should be depth as well as breadth. But so much of current so-called 'university education' in the UK actually limits education into tiny little niches to the exclusion of other disciplines which would make one rather more useful to society as a whole.

Instead of a 'univers-(s)ity' education, one runs the risks of being schooled in a 'mono-sity'.

The idea of 'monoculture' (as against biodiversity') also comes up a lot in the debate on GM crops.

Today, my discovery was the article on 'golden rice', the very rice noted by Sir John Krebs mentioned in a previous blog as one GM product that could prevent blindness in poorer nations.

The are, however, detractors. The conclusion by the I-SIS scientists is that:

"the ‘golden rice’ project was a useless application, a drain on public finance and a threat to health and biodiversity. It is being promoted in order to salvage a morally as well as financially bankrupt agricultural biotech industry, and is obstructing the essential shift to sustainable agriculture that can truly improve the health and nutrition especially of the poor in the Third World." (Quoted from http://www.i-sis.org.uk/rice.php)

Compare this with what I wrote in this same earlier blog that:

"Providing food for the starving is a good marketing line. Fiscally, the aim is investment solely to line the pockets of shareholders in years to come. GM farming by itself is not going to alleviate poverty."

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Oats as a gift?

Chinese New Year is upon us soon, this Sunday, and I'm feelings the pangs of homesickness a bit during times like this.

For some reason we have not been able to get to Oriental City or the nearby Chinese supermarkets to top up on festive supplies. So when husband came home with a tin of goodies from M, his Malaysian colleague, I was delighted.

When son came home this evening he asked to try the thin wafer-like biscuits he'd seen me eating.

'I'd like to try the oats,' he said.

I could not understand why he kept calling the biscuits (which we call 'love letter') 'oats'.

Then I realized that he was reading the label on the tin the 'love letters' were in. It was indeed a 'Quaker Oats' tin.

What son did not realize was that M had re-used a tin for the 'love letters'. She had also taken the trouble to cut out a Chinese character ('happiness', gold on red background, very auspicious colours) and stuck it on the top of the tin.

This is reminiscent of the sort of gift-giving we did when I was growing up.

In the run-up to Chinese New Year, tins, jam jars and any other suitable reusable containers were collected, cleaned, dried in the sun, lined with greaseproof or brown paper, and we put food inside to be given away. A bit of red paper or other decoration was stuck on the outside to denote that it is a gift.

None of these 'cakes in a plastic dish, sealed in a plastic bag and further sealed in a cardboard box business'. And loaded with loads of E-numbers and preservatives.

It is the hustle and bustle of buying raw ingredients, cooking, baking, and distributing them which make up my memories of Chinese New Year. Much of these are gone now.

We simply shop till we drop because all the special foods we used to make at home are now mass-produced in factories and can be bought any where.

I explained to son how tins and jam jars are all we had to put food in before plastic containers were invented.

'So every thing was recycled?' he asked.

'Yes, every thing that could be re-used was used again.'

He is pretty clued up on the concept of recycling as it is, but still, some practices 'of old' and from another culture are still alien to him.

No expensive paper gift wrap either, although M did put her gifts in a nice paper shopping bag she had been given.

The practice of gift exchange is a common topic of study by social anthropologists. While the western culture is big on gifts at Christmas, weddings, and flowers at funerals, etc, the Chinese tend to deal solely with money at weddings and funerals. But specific gifts are given at certain times of year.

I remember cousins (from my father's side) visiting us in the run-up to Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival with appropriate festive foods (in paper bags provided by the shops). Father, being the patriarch of the family, was duly presented with these gifts: dried mushrooms, Chinese sausages, waxed duck, barbecued pork, etc at New Year and 'mooncakes' and pomelo (a citrus fruit) at Mid-Autumn.

The cousins would stay for a short chat, drink a cup of tea, etc, and would soon take their leave. Father, or Mum, would then show their appreciation by giving these cousins a 'hong bao' (red packet) with money inside.

The phrase they used was 'yau lei yau hoey' (things come and go), signifying the reciprocity of the relationship.

In short, the younger relations are duty-bound to buy those gifts for the older generation, not the other way around. The older generation give them some cash in a red packet in return, for 'good luck'.

Then on the first day of Chinese New Year, these cousins would all take turns to come to our flat, pay their respects to my parents, give the unmarried cousins (including me, for many, many years) red packets (with money) and their children were, in turn, given red packets by my parents. My married siblings also gave these 'hong bao' to the children of our cousins, the next generation down.

My siblings and I would then troop over to the matriarch (Grandmother) on my mother's side of the family, and the customs are replayed again in a different household, with cousins from mother's side of the family.

This was repeated year after year for as long as I could remember, ceasing only when Grandmother and later Mum died. The matriarch was gone and with her passing went their responsibility of gift-giving, and with it, the mandatory Chinese New Year visits.

But my siblings and I still continue to visit the oldest surviving aunt on mother's side.

While there was a patriarch/matriarch, tradition ensures that us cousins met up at least once a year. Without one, our only meetings are now at weddings and funerals.

'Do not look a gift-horse in the mouth', they say.

Is that why son thinks we had been given a special kind of 'oats'?

Also, I wonder what some of my friends in the UK would think if I gave them some home-made cakes, etc, in an old tin.

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Hand up not hand-outs

When we ponder the issues of sustainability, disaster response and international aid, one cannot help but wonder if bigger organizations with their economies of scale or the small NGOs (espousing the 'small is beautiful' principle) with their local knowledge are better placed to serve the needs of those who need the help most.

It is blatantly clear now that giving money does not help. Billions of pounds of aid have been given to/through corrupt governments and the evidence of improvement on the ground is zilch.

My cousin and her husband work 'at the coal face' so to speak in supporting victims of major disasters. Raising the money is not a problem. It's getting the permission from corrupt governments to rebuild (eg after the tsunami) that so frustrates.

Government departments, cronies of rulers, bureaucracy all stand in the way of people with the ability to help.

I go for the holistic approach. Joined-up thinking you might choose to call it.

It's not good giving farmers land if they cannot get seed. It's no use giving them seed if they have to buy seed again the following year (as in GM agriculture). It's no use producing crops if there are no buyers. It's not good having buyers if there are no roads to take crops to the buyers.

When we look at the TV pictures of the tsunami, the one thing that struck me was: why do these people live so close to the sea? Maybe they are fishermen. But I suspect that answer is not all spot-on.

Poor people build shacks and whatever accommodation possible by the sea because it is easy to do so. What did Jesus say about the man who build his house upon the sand? The rains came down and floods came up and the house was no more.

Why did these people not build their houses on foundations of rock?

Because they did not have a choice. So when a disaster strikes, earthquakes, floods or tsunamis, the poor people are the first to be hit.

Why can't these people build their houses on rock?

You only have to see the obvious and wide class divides in some of the cities in the countries affected by the tsunami to understand.

The rich are very, very rich. The poor would do any thing for a living.

So I was really pleased to receive a newsletter from the The Leprosy Mission. In it were stories of how leprosy sufferers (we don't like the word 'lepers') have found life, hope and dignity through what this Mission is doing.

In many countries where leprosy is still prevalent, sufferers are deemed to have sinned or their families cursed. As such they are almost always stigmatized and ostracized. The attitude of people to lepers in Jesus' s time still exists today.

The Leprosy Mission not only provides medical aid where possible and necessary, they also provide means through which sufferers could become independent by teaching them skills and generally giving them a hand up.

I particularly like this story of a Thai sufferer who turned to organic farming


Here's an excerpt:

'Jamnian heard McKean Rehabilitation Centre was starting a new farm for leprosy patients, situated between the river and the main road. He applied and became one of the first settlers at Canaan.

'But the work was hard and the land needed irrigation. The chemical fertilizers and pesticides affected his health. The more chemicals he used, the more pests there seemed to be. Many patients gave up but Jamnian held onto Joshua 1:9: "Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you."

'He dug artesian wells and began to learn about the properties of various plants, attending organic farming seminars and trying out eco-friendly methods.

'Today Jamnian has 8,800m² of orchards,gardens and fish ponds. Beehives placed under the fruit trees produce flavoured honey. Instead of struggling to sell his produce at low prices, buyers now beat a path to his door and the quality of his organic fruit is acclaimed. He has encouraged local producers to form a co-operative.

'The Agricultural Bank invites him to teach at government seminars and professors of agriculture at Chiang Mai and Mae Jo universities bring Thai and international students to study Jamnian’s model farm.'

Here is an embodiment of an aid model that works. In healing the body, nourishing the soul, and providing the practical means initially, the Mission has succeeded in turning a victim who has been marginalized by society to provide for himself, his family, educate his daughters to degree level, and make a mark in organic agriculture.

Readers are probably familiar with 'Confucius said: Teach a man to fish and he would be hungry tomorrow ....'

Sustainability is also a question of teaching people to fish. Aid should be a hand up, not a hand-out.

Do note that you could contribute towards the work of The Leprosy Mission by purchasing from their trading arm TLM Trading.

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Friday, January 13, 2006

It's not nice being not nice

I spend most Friday mornings helping to run a parent-and-toddler (PNT) group checking in toddlers and their parents/carers at the reception desk.

There are lots of health and safety issues in the current climate and we are careful that people are accounted for. In case of fire, for example, I am supposed to grab the attendance cards and run.

In the area where this group is run (by volunteers at a local church), there is a great demand for PNT places. Childminders are now required by OFSTED or OF-whatever government department to take the children they care for to a PNT group. But it's volunteers like us who run such groups. The government is not giving money to set up PNT groups and yet they require childminders to attend such groups.

Perhaps a reader could enlighten me on how the logic works.

In a normal PNT group, children grow up, go to school, move on, and another toddler could take its place. As a result of this blinkered policy, childminders clog up the vacancies we have and mothers sometimes have to wait for a year before a place is freed up. Even first-time stay-at-home-mothers who usually need the space and benefits that a PNT group provide much more than a bunch of kids looked after by professional and experienced childminders.

The two groups that we run are over-subscribed. There are long waiting lists for toddlers to join. Each time we think we have managed to clear the waiting lists, they grow rapidly again.

This morning I had to be really nasty to one mother. Let's call her Q. Though she looked familiar, I couldn't find her card but she insisted that she had a card and quoted me a name. I asked her to fill in another card.

Subsequently when I have registered most of the other regulars, I checked all the data carefully and still could not find Q's original details any where.

What I had was a card filled in by her friend (a regular at the group). Let's call her friend R. But the card has totally different details. Q then gave me the story that her friend R had registered her and used a different name, using R's own address.

The child registered had moved up the waiting list and was invited to attend back in September. Q showed up once. (This is what she claimed, but we cannot now be sure although that card was stamped with a September date. She alluded to how when she last came I had asked her to change the address, but she had not done so.).

Any way, we never saw Q again for weeks. Usually children who have missed three consecutive weeks without giving us notice would be removed from the roll so that other children could have their place instead. But because we did not have her up-to-date address, we were not able to contact her.

So there were two things against Q: registering with a different name and subsequently not showing up for weeks. We had already decided in December that the person R had registered was coming off our rolls any way due to her long absence. It has taken us this long to remove her only because we could not contact her.

Q's excuse for her absence was that she was away on holiday for two months. 'Two months!' I thought, how nice it would be if I could go away on holiday for two months. But that's a different matter.

We also found it suspicious that Q's details were completely different from what we have on file (ie as given by her friend R). They were not slightly different. They were completely different.
The card I have shows a different name for the child and the mother, a different surname, and a different date of birth. Q's excuse was that her friend R knows her son by a different name.

'Why do you call your son by a different name?' I asked.

'Because I like that name'. That was all too convenient.

What about Q's own name? Did R also know Q by another name?

My hypothesis is that her friend R had indeed registered a friend, but it was a different friend who has decided to forgo her place. As with many newly-arrived immigrants and refugees we have contact with, there is often a lot of movement. When the toddler place became available, R has asked Q to pose as the person whose name was put on the waiting list.

In other words, Q (possibly on the advice of her friend R) is now giving us this story about a 'wrong' name to leap-frog the long waiting list.

As I write this it has suddenly occurred to me that Q has never given us a proper address. This is a slightly different matter. Today, when I asked for her details it was 'I've just moved and I don't know the new address.'

But she can't be so new at this address that a health visitor has called to say her son should go to a PNT group, which was what Q told me. We know the wheels of bureaucracy turn too slowly. One cannot expect to move into a new home and expect the health visitor to come straightaway to the new address.

So she can't be so new at this address. And if she does have all those difficulties with understanding English, surely she should be carrying her address with her everywhere just in case she needs it.

The plot thickens. Later, on further questioning, she claimed that she was still staying with her friend R who first registered her. There was never any consistency in her story.

What is Q trying to hide?

We run what we consider a community service and I find it very hard when people try to take advantage of us because as Christians we are supposed to be nice and helpful. There was a case when a mother claimed that she had lost £100 while her buggy was parked in our hall.

We said to her, perhaps she should make a police report. The best we could do was make an announcement to see if someone might have found something.

She refused to make a police report. And as another volunteer pointed out, for someone who's lost £100 in cash, she didn't seem very bothered. So we do get folks like that who think that just because we are a church, we could be taken for a ride.

The hardest thing for me was to be so firm and so 'not nice' to a mother who might have genuine needs that she could not discuss with me. But I find it so, so very hard to be nice when I know or suspect in this case, that there is something very, very dodgy in this whole matter.

Is it because this woman and her friend come from a culture where it is normal to have two or three different names? Is she just trying to dodge having to give us her real address?

Would making her carry an Identity Card make a difference?

What if -- had she continued using someone else's identity -- there was indeed a fire and I had run out with those cards and reported to the authorities that a child and mother cannot be accounted for?

My mind boggles and I am not satisfied that I have all the answers.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Applying science to society

In academia there's always the purists (or theorists) versus the applied people. The former deals with concepts and often intangibles and some might even say untestables. The latter (and I fall very much into this group) is concerned with applying knowledge to the real world.

I was really pleased to find this site: http://www.i-sis.org.uk/susag.php

Basically it's scientists helping us to understand and argue for/against different applications of science.

There are articles about organic cotton and organic farming:




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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Assaulted at our own front door

Saturday afternoon and we all look forward to family time, right?

Door bell rings and a man tries to sell husband 'cheap phone calls'.

Not interested, said he, as our phone bill is so small in the first place.

An hour later, door bell rings again. This time, pretty young girl talks to him.

Our phone rings and I had to get up from my sewing machine to answer the phone.

Caller: [well, actually I couldn't make out what he was trying to say].

Me: Who do you want to speak to?

Caller: [still can't make out what he was trying to say, but no mention of name I could identify].

Me: I think you've got the wrong number.

Caller [shouting]: Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Pizza! Order pizza.

Me: Not pizza. We don't sell pizza.

Caller [shouting even louder]: Order pizza.

Me: No pizza. Wrong number. Private home.

Caller: Pizza!

I hung up. He didn't even say "sorry".

While at the door husband tells pretty young thing, 'No, I'm not interested.'

Pretty young thing: You're not interested in saving money?

Husband: No.

PYT: May I ask why you're not interested in saving money?

Husband: I've wasted more money spending this time talking to you*.

PYT: What do you do?

At this point I had to butt in: Look! This man says he's not free. He's not interested. OK?

What with "Pizza!" shouted down my ears and an audacious "What do you do?", I've had enough.

It's none of PYT's business to know what my husband does. She and a colleague had intruded into our Saturday afternoon, and I felt like our privacy had been sorely invaded by people who have no right to bother us at our own front door in the first place.

Me, to husband: What do you do? What audacity! It's none of her business.

A bit later: You should have told her you are a pimp!

Yes, I should also have shouted down the phone: No pizza! Chinese takeaway!! What you want?

*Not really. But it makes him feel good talking that way!

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Friday, January 06, 2006

Sustainable development or sustainable population?

I am pleased somebody far more qualified than I am in this matter said it first.

In view of what I wrote in my last blog on GM technology being touted as the saviour of starving populations in years to come, Professor Rapley's call to go back to basics to discuss first of all how many people this earth could reasonably sustain seems common sense.

See Population size 'green priority' and Earth is too crowded for Utopia.


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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Salty Padi Fields

Backache and a crick in the neck have prevented me from writing as much as I wanted to.

We missed the first of the Ri (ie Royal Institution) Christmas Lectures on TV. The rest we taped and watched together with our son. He enjoyed it thoroughly.

Aimed especially at children, Sir John Krebs made science surrounding "Food Matters" so very accessible. Why can't all teachers bring lessons alive like that?

Sir John tried to debunk several myths about food. Most of these points are just common sense when we think of it. But the demonstrations and visual aids were effective in putting the messages across.

Then he touched on "Food for the Future" and the controversial GM foods.

Mention "GM" and we conjure up pictures of GM crops contaminating other crops to produce "superweeds" which cannot be controlled. Sir John did not dwell on this.

Instead he discussed the possibility that a food like rice could be genetically modified so that it can be grown in salty water. Now what a brilliant idea that is. Considering the fact that the earth would need to be supporting an ever-growing population, being able to grow rice in salt marshes seems the panacea for at least some of the world's ills.

Or is it?

In my earlier rant about how "conventional farming" has led to an over-dependence on chemicals, etc, my husband pointed out that without such means, a lot of the world would have starved.

I must concede that point. What we see now is that conventional farming cannot resolve all our food needs. It is the same reason for my now thinking / considering "hmm, GM might not be such a bad idea after all". Is it not a repeat of that same age-old problem of not growing enough food?

Being a social anthropologist it is clear to me, however, that a complex problem needs a complex solution. A holistic approach -- joined-up thinking -- is required and GM agriculture is but one tiny facet of any plausible solution.

Why is population growing so fast? Where is population growing the fastest?

Juxtapose this phenomenon with greying populations in most western and "westernized" countries. Why are there so many incentives set in place in Singapore, for example, for people to reproduce?

Therefore to say that the world's population is growing is ignoring the fact that it is growing faster in certain parts of the world. In many nations today, governments are hard pushed to get fertility rates to meet the replacement levels.

Big families are not the reason for poverty. Big families are a symptom of poverty. Poverty often means high infant mortality rates. Farmers need children to work their farms. Even adults die younger. So people have many children as their social insurance. The "western" world has been living so long in welfare states that this reasoning that "children are our pension" is quite alien to most of us.

Eradicate the threat of poverty and family size comes down drastically.

Impoverished farmers need seed to sow. Would the great GM corporations give seed freely to these farmers so that they could grow enough food to feed their families? Yes, and yes, provided governments, charities, non-government organizations, philanthropists, foreign aid donors would buy these seed at a high price.

Of course the purveyors of GM research and agriculture are not doing this for altruistic reasons. Providing food for the starving is a good marketing line. Fiscally, the aim is investment solely to line the pockets of shareholders in years to come.

GM farming by itself is not going to alleviate poverty.

We need the likes of Bill Gates to buy out the patents for these GM seed to make a dent in eradicating starvation.

The use of water, land, social and physical infrastructure to get people to work, and produce from the farm to consumers, eating less meat so that others might have more to eat, etc, all have a bearing on how we could feed the starving. ("It takes seven pounds of grain to give us one pound of steak" is what I read in either Sider or Sine. Sir John demonstrated how we need 12 litres of water to grow one gram of beef while only one litre was required to grow one gram of wheat.)

Some of these aspects can be sorted by people -- working hard and working smart on the farms, eating less meat, paying a fair price for their produce, giving to the poor, etc. Other aspects can only be taken care of by governments -- national security, eradication of corruption, building of roads, etc.

So while it is an attractive idea that GM technology could help us grow rice in salt water, until the owners of such technology are willing to share it freely with the poor, there is not a chance of alleviating poverty, and the resulting overpopulation, which would only lead to starvation. Many years down the road we will be discussing, again, how new types of agriculture are needed to feed the starving.

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