Category Archives: SpikeLife

Posts about me

Random Thoughts on My 60th Birthday

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I always thought that by the year 2014 I’d be rich, famous or dead, or some combination of those. Instead I am poor, unknown and still alive. Then again, I’ve just passed my one year anniversary at a job that actually does not suck, just passed the five month mark on my marriage and have a few good friends on whom I can absolutely rely. So I suppose it’s not a total loss.

Thursday May 1st and Tuesday May 6th are holidays in Hong Kong, so I decided to take the 2nd and 5th as vacation days, giving me a 6 day weekend. (Ha! So far I’ve spent a decent amount of time working on the 1st and 2nd, albeit from home.) However, it would not be possible to get on a plane and go somewhere because my wife couldn’t take off from her job.

I don’t drink alcohol very often any more.  Go back a decade and I was getting drunk 6 nights a week; these days it’s a big deal if I drink more than 2 or 3 times a month.  I often note that some of my Facebook friends’ timelines seem to be a celebration of inebriation and I find that less than inspiring. However, just for the hell of it, I declared that I would celebrate my birthday via “Six Days of Drunkeness,” one day for each decade that I have walked the earth.

Wednesday night was bar-hopping around Wanchai. I ended up at The Wanch where Tommy Chung was playing. If you don’t know Tommy, he’s a rousing blues guitarist and I always enjoy his playing. I’d even go so far as to say that I enjoyed what he was doing more than I enjoyed Robben Ford’s set the previous night.

But after the second song, I got a message from my wife telling me she’d finished working and needed my help to carry stuff home. I zipped over to TST to find that some friends were drinking at her restaurant, I of course joined in, and that stretched out into another couple of hours before we hopped a taxi home.  This was a night of a lot of Jack Daniels and Coca Cola.

Thursday we had a BBQ party at home – hence all of the stuff that we needed to carry the night before. My wife was able to buy a lot of the ingredients for our party wholesale through the restaurant and the chefs there gave her some preparation tips. So we served our guests parma ham with melon, pasta salad, potato salad, pancit, lumpia and fried chicken wings, followed by BBQ steaks, pork ribs and chicken. Not a bad spread although in what I’m told is true Filipino tradition, we probably had enough food for a small village. One friend baked a cheesecake for me.  As soon as the cooking was over, I bypassed all the bottles of wine and cans of beer and grabbed a bottle of Patron Anejo tequila, double shots with ice, and I found that a most pleasant beverage for passing the rest of the evening.

Friday was more bar hopping in Wanchai. (Seriously these days you practically have to drag me kicking and screaming to get me to go to Lan Kwai Fong or Soho.) I had this idea that I wanted the sizzling chili prawns from American Restaurant (a really old, old school Beijing style place)(I know, the place was probably never great to begin with and it ain’t what it used to be but I have a real fondness for this spot).  But then a pick-up truck pulled up in front of Spicy Fingers. They had a charcoal BBQ on the back and started grilling up – and giving away! – cheeseburgers, and really good ones at that. They were all gone in well under 30 minutes, long before any police might pull up and chase them away. It was a promotion for a new burger joint that will be opening in Wanchai in around 2 weeks and these were tasty burgers indeed. It was a welcome novelty in a place that so foolishly bans food trucks. So no chili prawns necessary. I’d thought this would be a whisky night but somehow I got started on Jack Cokes again and so Mr. Daniels remained with me for the balance of the night.

We spent a long period of time at the Wanch, about ten of us at one of the two outside tables they’ve got. Later, we were headed to Thai Hut for a late supper but we got tagged by one of the staff at Rio, a guy we’ve known for awhile, and he insisted that the food there was good and we should try it. We descended into the basement of this place and, okay, the food was decent enough. But they were playing the kind of disco music I stopped listening to ten years ago and at ear-shattering volumes. There were hardly any people in there and I suspect this is the kind of place that doesn’t get busy till after 2 AM – assuming that they do get busy at some point.

Tonight, day 4 of 6 and my actual birthday, I met my wife after she finished working and we went to a nearby favorite, Brick Lane Gallery, where I’d booked an outside table. Brick Lane (two branches in TST, one near Admiralty) is sort of a British gastro pub and their Gallery branch is on a quiet dead end street that has several restaurants and late night clubs. We had a long leisurely late dinner with a nice bottle of Italian red wine. (As I get older, I find that beer and wine hit me very fast and can leave me with a headache, whereas I can go all night with no problem on distilled spirits. Tonight was no exception. I wasn’t wasted from half a bottle of wine but I was really glad I’d left the car at home.) We then scooted over a couple of blocks east to Sticky Fingers for another few drinks while listening to their not-horrible cover band.

So two more days to go. I’m going to try to hit Picex, a photography exhibition at KITEC on Sunday afternoon and suspect the night will be spent sitting out on my deck with a bottle of bourbon I’ve been saving for awhile. Monday will be a few more bars, then Tuesday to recover from all the madness and Wednesday back to work.

I’m not certain that it’s entirely sunk in that I’m 60 yet. That’s one of life’s great jokes, isn’t it? Inside I feel the same way I felt when I was 20. My mother will be 93 in a few weeks and I know she feels the same way.

Maybe this is one reason that I consider Henri-Pierre Roché a personal hero. He wrote two books in his life, the first was Jules and Jim and it was published in 1953 when he was 74 years old. The book was not a success until Francois Truffaut found a copy in a second hand book shop and made it into one of the greatest films of all time in 1962 – since then the book has never been out of print. Maybe if I make it to 70 I’ll finally finish my semi-autobiographical book but with my luck if it then gets turned into a film, said film would be directed by the guy who does Adam Sandler’s movies.

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A Hard Act to Follow

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One thing about getting older, when you get some minor sickness it hits you much harder. I’ve been feeling like crap for 5 days now and not certain I will go into the office on Monday or not.

I’ve been doing this blogging thing for close to ten years now – my first blog post was December 4, 2004. Back then I was writing about something a bit different and I was getting pretty high numbers, for whatever that’s worth. Then a couple of years later the blog assumed its current haphazard form and the numbers dropped down and I’ve always been quite okay with that. I get around 15,000 visits per month (not uniques) and I’m always surprised that the numbers are that high. Oh sure, like everyone else, I fantasize about writing something that goes viral and brings me fame and fortune but I know it’s not likely to happen. My posts are written relatively quickly and I spend zero time on SEO. I like writing, I like communicating, and I do it for its own sake.

Then I get something like my last post.  If I normally get 15,000 views a month, that post got more than 14,000 views in about 5 days. Clearly it resonated with a lot of people. Biggest referer? Facebook, by far.

It’s not my first time ranting about conditions in Hong Kong and it’s probably not my best rant either. I would ascribe a lot of the views of that post to the general sentiment one encounters every day – which is one of increasing unrest and unhappiness with the way things are going here. I think some people share my view that the quality of life in Hong Kong is noticeably decreasing and nothing is being done about it. Other people of course do not share this view. That’s life for you.

So one might think that now I’m feeling the pressure to continue in that vein. But the fact is that I won’t. I’ll keep on doing what I’ve been doing – a little bit of this followed by a little bit of that – blogging as the mood strikes me. And I don’t see myself filling up the sidebar with ads or running a lot of sponsored posts (you wouldn’t believe how many inquiries I get every week to run that kind of stuff).  And I’m sure that in the not-too-distant future, I’ll have more rants, so stay tuned if that’s your thing.

Going off on a slight tangent here …. Big Lychee, Hemlock’s blog, infamous in certain circles, right? Well, he’s certainly got his followers. At the moment comments are broken on his blog and his RSS feed isn’t working (I suspect he doesn’t even realize the latter).  Hemlock’s been blogging longer than I have and his posts are more consistent than mine. Every day, 5 days a week, excluding holidays, he writes a thousand words of usually good analysis of what he perceives to be the issue of the day, often served with a side order of how much better he is than everyone else. (He has this annoying habit lately of attacking fashion models in ads for not looking the way he believes people ought to look. I think he believes that’s him being “snarky,” similar to the way he will occasionally go after dogs and dog owners.)

I kind of feel bad for him. I mean, just imagine, waking up every morning, almost every day for more than 10 years, and feeling it’s his mission to find something to be pissed off about (not that that’s so hard in Hong Kong, to be honest). He’s even written a book about Hong Kong political and economic scene, currently at #3,207,282 on Amazon’s best seller list. And then, having written so well and written for such a long period of time, he’s managed to change absolutely fucking nothing, at least not as far as I can tell.

He and I come from a different place and a different era. My experience is of battling the Vietnam War and Nixon and kind of being proven right and yet having lost at the same time. Hunter S. Thompson put it best:

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

I remember that wave breaking. Thompson wrote that book around ’71 so he’s referring to events in the mid 60s.  For me, I think it broke and rolled back in ’72 when despite everything we knew to be true, Nixon was re-elected. Even with eventually managing to drive both him and Agnew from office (and leaving America with a president that no one had voted for), well, things just weren’t the same after that. I guess it’s fair to say that I hunger for a similar wave in Hong Kong and that I’d like to be riding the crest of that wave. But I don’t really expect it to happen.

Anyway, for all those folks who discovered me via my last rant and are looking for more of the same and will get tired of waiting for me to revisit that theme, by all means do check out Big Lychee. There’s certainly no other English language blogger in Hong Kong who is as consistent as him in attacking the status quo.

 

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What Does This Mean?

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I’ve got this friend who goes by the name of William Banzai Seven. I’ve written about him here once before.  WB7 does these vicious satirical political images, here’s his latest:

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He gets his stuff published on this site and all of his images are embedded from Flickr.  The result is that he’s getting upwards of 2 million views of his images per day.  In his case, this is how he earns his living, by selling posters of his stuff. And so, most excellent for him indeed. He’s found his niche and found a way to exploit it and he’s doing very well and I’m extremely happy for him.

We had lunch a couple of days ago and he said that he would do a post embedding one of my photos. Tonight he sent me an email with a link and the words “blast off.” He embedded my Flickr photostream into one of his posts and here is the result after just 30 minutes:

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The image is small so let me explain to you. I don’t pay a lot of attention to my Flickr account. I only upload randomly to it. That means that I usually get somewhere between 0 and 100 image views per day. A few days ago, when I uploaded the photo of the (tastefully) nude tattooed lady I shot over the weekend, I got almost 1500 views that day. This was organic as I did nothing to promote this photo on social media or anywhere else.

So within about 30 minutes of his posting the link, I hit 6,175 views. I don’t know enough about embedding frames from Flickr to be able to say that 6,175 people actually viewed or paid attention to my photo on that page. But if you check these stats:

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you can see that roughly 500 people out of those 6,175 appear to have actually clicked on the photo and scrolled through my photostream – or at least the first 8 pictures, which are my recent uploads (I think this batch represents my first uploads there in at least a month, maybe two).

What do all these views represent to me? Right now I have no idea. I mean, it’s nice.

But the thing is – I don’t really expect any of those people to start visiting my Flickr page on a regular basis. (I haven’t gotten a single email so far “x is now following you on Flickr.”) I’m not selling images through Flickr. If it got people to come to my web site, that would be nice I suppose – the latest images are all watermarked with the URL spikesphotos.com. I don’t have any ads on that site. I don’t have any affiliate links (click here and buy this Leica and I’ll get 10 bucks, that sort of thing). But the stats for Spike’s Photos aren’t showing any bump.

I am selling “me”, my services as a photographer, I suppose. But in the past year I haven’t really done any promoting of those services due to limited time.

So what do all these views mean? Will I get emails asking to buy prints of my pictures or asking me to shoot something on a professional basis? Time will tell. I’m not counting on it.

I don’t want to come off as ungrateful because it’s quite the opposite. I’m thrilled so many people are looking at my images and I hope at least some of them like what they see. It’s just that if there’s a way for me to seize this opportunity and build on it, so far I’m not seeing what that way might be.  Anyone have any suggestions?

I kind of feel like Barkhad Abdi must be feeling at the moment. Everyone probably thinks he’s riding high right now. After all, he went from never acting at all to stealing scenes from Tom Hanks and getting an Academy Award nomination. But he was paid just $65,000 for his efforts and is living in L.A., unemployed, broke, crashing at friends’ places and hoping that something will come of all this newfound fame. Will he get a second acting job that confirms his talents soon? Or will he go back to being just another chauffeur?

So I think I’ll head to bed soon. I’ll check my stats in the morning of course. (I’m approaching 11,000 views after 1 hour, with over 800 views apiece for those 8 most recent photos).

Oh, postscript – I’ve had a number of responses to my previous post seeking more tattooed women to pose for me. I hope to schedule some more shoots in this series soon. I do feel that this could go somewhere but even if it doesn’t, it feels nice to have come up with a theme for the year, rather than just doing the random stuff I’ve done in the past.

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How I Started Smoking Cigarettes

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Just a coda to my previous post, Maybe interesting for some.

I never smoked cigarettes as a teenager and I never thought I would start. I did sometimes smoke a pipe, but rarely. I can remember being 19 years old and in this girl’s dorm room and the deal was pretty much sealed and then she lit up a cigarette and I told her to put it out or I was leaving and, well, the deal was unsealed. So how did I end up a smoker just one year later? It’s a long and maybe a funny story. I blame Mickey Jackson.

My first two years of college (university to you Brits) was spent at NYU. During my sophomore year I met David Peel in Washington Square Park. He liked the photos I took of him and so I ended up hanging out with him and his crew a little bit. If you know anything about David Peel, it may not come as a surprise when I say that I don’t remember a lot of the time that I spent with him.  Here’s one of the photos I took of him as it appeared in Mojo Magazine just last year.

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Anyway, I left NYU after the second year and transferred to Emerson College up in Boston. In retrospect, I probably should have stayed at NYU, but at the time I felt I really needed to get away from NYC and living with my parents. At Emerson, I lived in a co-ed dorm and the partying was pretty much non-stop.

So one day in my senior year I’m walking into this room and there’s this party and in this party there’s this HUGE black guy who stands up and walks over to me, very slowly, with this look on his face that said, “what did you just call my mother?” and I thought I was a dead man. And he finally stood in front of me and the look changed to a huge smile and he stuck out his hand to shake mine and said he knew me from David Peel. His name was Mickey Jackson (and people who called him Michael Jackson didn’t last long on this earth).

Mickey was well over six feet tall and at least 250 pounds. He had a huge black Great Dane named Shaft. We’d go on the Boston trains with the dog and he’d walk in and yell out, “Sit, Shaft!” and everyone would scatter – we’d get seats every time.

By this point I had my own room in the dorm and Mickey would stay at my room a lot. The room was long and narrow and he’d sleep on the floor next to my bed … and he’d bring women back to my room and have loud and smelly sex with them on the floor next to my bed while I was in my bed. Yeah, not really a lot of fun for me.

Anyway, you get the picture. Mickey was a big guy and people who didn’t know him were usually scared of him. Mickey was the kind of guy who’d go up to people and ask for a cigarette and they’d give him their entire pack and run away. And he’d smoke one from the pack and decide he didn’t like that brand and leave it in my room. I had enough packs of cigarettes sitting by my bed to open my own tobacco shop.

So many nights I’d be sitting there, studying, alone, and I was trying to stop smoking weed. So I’d reach over and grab one of the packs and light up. And pretty soon I was a cigarette smoker. I was hooked before I even had a chance to realize it.

(Whatever happened to Mickey? One day he just took off and didn’t return. And apparently he’d taken stuff from just about every other room in the dorm except mine. I never saw or heard from him again.)

Coda to the coda. I credit cigarette smoking with helping my career. In 1990 I got my first suit and tie job, as a database administrator at Barclays Bank in NYC. Back in those days, you couldn’t smoke at your desk but there was a smoking room on every floor. The guys around me didn’t smoke. They sat at their desks for 8 hours a day, heads down, working hard. I got up every hour or so and went into the smoking room. I met everyone from every department – well, at least the smokers – from secretaries up through VPs. And when it was time for the bank to start on its first client/server project (remember those days?) and they were trying to figure out who to assign to this project, I was the one everyone knew and everyone asked for. So I was the one who got to be DBA on the project and got to spend huge chunks of time in a company service flat in London (according to the guest register, the previous occupant of that room had been J.G. Ballard), which is how I got the idea to become an expat and get out of the U.S.  (I tried for London first, almost got moved to Manchester, and all of that fell through and somehow I eventually ended up in HK instead of the UK. No regrets on that one.)

I never thought I’d smoke for decades, as I have. And I still think about quitting, for many reasons. Maybe this is the year when I’ll give it another shot.

 

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The Smoking Gun

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(A late-night-I-can’t-sleep-so-I’m-gonna-blog-but-make-no-sense-rant.)

I smoke cigarettes. A lot. I know that many of my readers are anti-smoking and some of them may feel impelled to leave comments about how bad it is for me and everyone around me and how I should stop, but there is no need. I know I should stop. You don’t need to tell me. I’ve tried hypnosis, acupuncture, the Allan Carr method, going cold turkey. Nothing has worked, at least so far.

For those of you not in Hong Kong, up until yesterday cigarettes cost HK$50 per pack. That’s roughly US$6.50.  In the U.S. and Europe, cigarettes cost well over US$10 (or the local currency equivalent) per pack. In many other places in Asia, cigarettes cost far less.

The word was that the HK 2014 budget would raise taxes on cigarettes so that they would cost as much as HK$84 a pack – which would bring the pricing in line with most other developed nations.  Now that might have got me to stop, or at least cut back. Instead the price increased to HK$54 per pack (I paid HK$55 in a 7-11 tonight). HK$5 is US$0.65. Do you think that would have any impact on smokers at all?

You don’t have to search too far to find articles about how incompetent HK Financial Secretary John Tsang is. I’ll leave that criticism and analysis to people who are far more knowledgeable than I when it comes to financial matters.

The point is, this increase makes no sense whatsoever. “I wish to emphasise that this is not a budgetary measure to increase revenue,” said Tsang when he announced the new budget. So if it’s not enough of an increase to be a deterrent to anyone and it’s not meant to raise revenue (something HK has plenty of), then what exactly was the point of the increase?

Well, one can make a guess. Tsang probably was going to raise the taxes higher. But those who earn their living from cigarette sales protested loudly in advance. All those people with corner newsstands said that such an increase would put them out of business. I’m sure that 7-11 (which in Hong Kong is owned by Dairy Farm which is in turn owned by Jardine which is one of the six companies that really owns and runs Hong Kong) complained, as did the various cigarette companies that operate here. More than likely Tsang bowed to pressure but figured he had to do some kind of increase since it was expected and he’d lose face if he kept the price flat. That’s my guess anyway.

I know, there’s worse things to get upset about, not the least of which is the violent attack on former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau – regardless of what motivated that attack or who paid for it (and someone surely did), it is a horrific blow to the rapidly declining freedom of the press in our little SAR. (In one index, Hong Kong is now ranked at 71, alongside East Timor. In another, a smidge better at 61, putting HK in between Mauritania and Senegal.) The thing is, this kind of thing is just too depressing for me to contemplate this late at night, this sober.

Or what about the report earlier this week that says that key urban areas of Hong Kong had dangerously high levels of air pollution for 184 days last year – the worst in 18 years, since they started measuring? What about the fact that our fearless idiot leaders make empty promises while things just keep getting worse and worse? It’s one of the reasons I live in the New Territories, I suppose, where the air is noticeably less sucky.

“Asia’s World City.” It’s a fucking joke, right?

So with all this depressing shit, I choose to rant about the prices of cigarettes? Well, I don’t wanna be up all night, I’m hoping I can get some sleep.

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Yes, I Bought a Guitar

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And here it is:

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It’s a Fender Standard Stratocaster Satin in “Ocean Blue Candy”. The “satin” in the name is because of the satin urethane finish.

So I went to the main Tom Lee store (in Tsim Sha Tsui) where a guy named Nitro helped me out. (Nitro also showed me the huge AC/DC tattoo on his forearm and told me he’d been drinking for three days straight to celebrate Chinese New Year.)

When I showed him the guitar I was interested in, his suggestion was that I should consider the Fender American Standard instead.  With the current sale at Tom Lee, the one I wanted was under HK$4,000 while the American Standard was going for exactly HK$8,000. He grabbed both guitars and a cable and brought me back to a room where I could plug them in and try them both out.

To me, this was borderline funny. I’d already told him that I hadn’t touched a guitar in 40 years and basically remembered nothing. So I had no idea how to really compare the two guitars. I played the two chords I remembered on each of them and really couldn’t feel or hear any difference. I called Nitro back into the room and told him, “With my skill level, I can’t tell the difference and I’m just starting out so I’ll go with the cheaper one please.”

It turned out that there was no stock in the store for that particular model in that particular color. I’d have to wait four days for delivery. Argh! (Yeah, I know, first world problem.)

Over the course of the next four days I also bought:

  • Soft case for the guitar
  • Some guitar picks
  • A cheap guitar strap
  • An electronic guitar tuner
  • A guitar cable
  • A thingie that lets you plug your headphones into the guitar
  • A Pignose Legendary 7-100 practice amp (because it’s tiny and I’ve always loved the way these things look)
  • A book called “Guitar for Absolute Beginners” and a book called “Guitar Exercises For Dummies” (I’m also looking at some videos via Youtube and, um, other sources)

Finally the guitar arrived at my office. I pulled it out of the box and the pickguard looked scratched. How could this be? The box was definitely factory sealed. I frantically called two guitarists I know and asked them how much this might matter. After all, within a few weeks the pickguard would be all scratched up anyway. Then I finally realized there was a super thin layer of plastic over the thing – peel that away and it looked perfect. Duh – but do keep in mind that a couple of other people also looked at it and didn’t spot that it was a plastic cover either.

Anyway, the first thing to note is how good this feels in my hands. The weight and balance are just beautiful. The sound, whether through headphones or the Pignose, is pure rock and roll.

My plan is to spend at least 30 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week, as I get started. I’m not even close to thinking about chords or songs yet. I’m doing very very basic beginner exercises to get used to holding my hand and fingers in the correct position. It does take some getting used to, but of course one can instantly hear if one is doing it right or not and then make the needed adjustments. I need to strengthen my left hand and I need to toughen up my fingertips and I know this isn’t going to happen in a day. It will only come through repetition. I may spend a week or even two doing “lesson one” before I even take a peek at lesson two. At my age, the human body is a lot slower to bounce back. It’s three hours since I stopped playing and I can still feel my fingertips tingling.

(Check out this terrific article: How to play music faster: ideal practice methods for adult musicians by Dick Hensold – “The secret is this: the speed of your technique will increase on its own, on its own time, if it’s properly cultivated. I use the word “cultivate” deliberately, because you have to understand that the effects of practicing correctly will not be apparent in the current practice session, but will show up sometime in the near future.”)

For more inspiration, you absolutely MUST watch this short video on Vimeo. It’s Ira Glass talking about what it’s like to start out down a creative road, the tremendous frustration one feels because one has great taste and so knows that what they’re doing is absolute crap. I think this may be one of the most important lessons – patience is a virtue (and of course practice makes perfect, duh).

What I also do know now is that when I’m doing it right, my god it sounds fantastic. And that encourages me to keep on going, because I have this tiny bit of insight into where I’m going to end up, even if my goal is just to be able to strum rhythm guitar to some Springsteen songs.

I won’t kid you. This is hard work. I’m not used to holding my hand in that position. I’m not used to moving my fingers that way. But so far I feel really motivated to do this. I think this is also one of the main reasons I bought an expensive (for me) guitar rather than some cheap, crappy thing. If I bought something that cost a couple of hundred (HK$), then it would be too easy for me to put it aside. “Oh, I only spent 200 bucks, no big deal.” But HK$4,000? (That’s around US$520 or so.) No excuses. Play that funky music white boy.

Overall, I know what the biggest difference is between 40 years ago and now. 40 years ago I was looking at music as a possible career. I decided I wasn’t good enough and so I walked away. Now, I’m doing this first and foremost for myself. I’m doing it for its own sake; for the pure enjoyment of it. That’s a HUGE difference.  I don’t really care if anyone else ever hears me play or not. Well, maybe one day I’ll try showing up for an open mic night at the Wanch, but that one day is months away at the very least.

Tomorrow I will hopefully get out of the house early and head back to TST. Nitro promised me a free initial set-up on the guitar (one friend told me of someone who charges HK$1,000 per set-up; another told me about someone who charges $200; free is good).

Anyway, so far I’m feeling really good about this. I hope this feeling will continue.

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SCRAPED – Coming Next Week!

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SCRAPED, a photography exhibition, is coming. (Click on the image above to see it larger.) I’ll be joining with seven other Hong Kong photographers for an exhibition.  The exhibition is free and will be at Culture Club, 15 Elgin Street, Soho, Hong Kong.  The exhibition runs from February 5th through March 1st. There’s an opening party on February 5th, starting at 6:30 PM and open to all.

The photos on display will all be for sale, and a share of the proceeds will be donated to SoCO (Society for Community Organization).

SoCO (Society for Community Organization) was founded in 1972 and is a registered non-profit making non-governmental human rights organization for the underprivileged.

SoCO is active in lobbying for an improvement in the lives of the 1.3 million Hong Kong people who live below the poverty line – predominantly comprising the cage and cubicle dwellers, the single elderly, new immigrant women, children living in poverty, street-sleepers, people with mental illnesses, low-paid workers, refugees and ethnic minorities. SoCO also undertakes original social policy research, lobbies Hong Kong decision-making bodies and organizes direct action events.

The other photographers in the exhibition are Jonathan van Smit, Liam Fitzpatrick, Lai Yat Nam, Yolanda van der Mescht, Timothy Cheng, Kenny Yung and Scotty So.  It’s a small gallery so I’m told there will only be one photo from each photographer on display.  You can see more details at the Facebook event page here.

Here’s a collage of my work that the event curators put together to help publicize the show.

collageI hope you’ll all have time to come by and check out the show!

 

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I’m Buying a Guitar

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I’m gonna be 60 in 3 months so I guess I’m too old to call this a mid-life crisis.  An end-of-life crisis?

You guys know that I used to be something of a musician, right? As a kid, I played piano for around 15 years, starting out with classical, as all kids do, eventually studying with the great Barry Goldberg.  And I started playing the double bass when I was around 11 or 12, which is how I ended up performing at Carnegie Hall with a kiddy orchestra when I was 15 years old. I had an electric bass and studied jazz and tried my hand at a bit of rock. I could also play a smidge of violin and guitar.

Back when I was 20 and still in school, I thought I had to make a choice. I was majoring in film production, minoring in music theory and performance and got to a point where I didn’t think it made sense to continue with both. I sat down and did a painful self-assessment. I decided that if I continued as a musician, the best I could look forward to was playing bass in a band that did weddings or cruise ships. I didn’t see myself as an especially talented player – I could sight read really really well but I couldn’t compose or improvise to save my life. I figured if I stuck with film, even if I didn’t make it as a director I could try to be a cameraman or editor or something. So I got rid of my instruments and never really looked back.  I didn’t even stop to reconsider the music decision when I hit 30 and it became clear I wasn’t going to make it in the film industry. I did stuff in the music industry in the 80s  - managing bands, consulting to record companies on catalog reissues, working in syndicated radio – but never thought much about picking up an instrument again.

But for the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking about playing again. But rather than buying some keyboard or bass, it’s going to be a guitar.  In all of my rock and roll fantasies (and I have a lot more than I’d care to admit to), I’m always playing a guitar and not a keyboard or a bass (or one of those tacky keytar things).

So lately I’ve found myself going into Tom Lee Music, the big music retailer in town, and looking at the guitars. It doesn’t hurt (or perhaps it doesn’t help?) that right now, everything is on sale and that I just received my CNY bonus. It’s not like the U.S. here – we don’t have rows of pawn shops with used instruments hanging in the windows.  I’m looking at the classified ads online for musical instruments and not seeing anything of interest listed. So it’s going to be a new guitar.

The next question then is, what guitar to buy. I don’t want to buy some cheap piece of crap that will be totally useless if I actually get good at this or have zero resale value if I end up truly sucking.

There is the Fender Squier. Tom Lee sells some kind of bogus looking starter kit in a box – a Squier guitar, amp, tuner, case and instructional DVD, all for under HK$2,000. It just looks and feels cheap. Plus, even though I know there’s no relation, I can’t fucking stand Billy Squier.

Next thought is a Fender Telecaster. Why? Here’s one reason:

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And Keith Richards is also a big booster of the Telecaster.

But I did some searching on Youtube. You can find a lot of videos comparing the Telecaster sound with the Stratocaster sound. They’re very different and the Strat seems to lend itself more to classic rock and blues. As a friend mentioned, add enough distortion and almost anything sounds cool, and the Strat seems to do this better.

I went back into Tom Lee yesterday, held a few Strats in my hand, and they felt really right. Right now you can get a bottom of the line Strat for under HK$4,000.  The “American Standard” edition starts at around $8,000 but I don’t think I need that, I think the basic one will do. They come in around 57,000 different colors, really classic like the one up top here, although I do always have a thing for blue.

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And, well, one of my tattoos is a Chinese dragon holding a guitar, and the guitar he’s holding is a blue Fender Strat, so that would seem to settle that debate.

I have no thoughts of becoming a rock star at this stage. My goal is to be a halfway competent rhythm guitarist, maybe eventually working up the courage to show up at open mic night at The Wanch. I’m not even going to buy an amp at first – just one of those adapters that will let me practice wearing headphones. But eventually I’m thinking about one of those devices that lets you plug your guitar into an iPad or a MacBook and work with GarageBand and see what I can come up with.

I do worry, of course, about buying this, playing it three times, and then it just sits somewhere, turning into an HK$4,000 paperweight. I spoke to some of my friends in local bands about this and they basically said, “You’ll never lose money on buying a decent quality instrument in Hong Kong, you can always sell it off again.”

So I’m vaguely certain I’m doing this. Sunday or Monday I’m going to try to get to the main Tom Lee store in TST, where they have the largest selection, and buy one. Unless at the last minute I change my mind and go for the keytar.

keytar

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PCCW’s CNY Present to Me – Service

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Well, the epic saga comes to an end. We now have a landline, Netvigator and NOW-TV.  It’s not all peaches and cream – you didn’t think I would suddenly become Little Mary Fucking Sunshine, did you?

PCCW timed it well. We returned from Paris on Tuesday morning and they called me when I was still at the airport. (Did they somehow know my flight itinerary? Do they have access to NSA data?) They booked the appointment for Thursday morning, between 10 AM and noon – which of course means that the guy didn’t show up until 2 PM. By 4 PM everything was connected and working. Thanks to the holiday eve, I was home from work by 6 PM to check things out.

Landline: I’d previously had two landlines. The reason for this was that I was carrying a second line for my domestic helper, long story. So when we told them we just needed the one landline in this place, the number they gave me was the number that my helper was using rather than the number I’ve been using since 2001 and the installer said he could only use that number. I can call PCCW and see if they can change it back. Should be fun. At least we managed to make them take back that useless Eye-TV crap they forced on me “for free” two years ago.

NOW-TV: Of course my wife is thrilled to have GMA-TV again. But several years ago, for reasons I no longer recall, I’d subscribed to a whole host of channels that I no longer have any interest in getting. I’d told PCCW that I wanted to drop those channels now. They told me – they insisted – that I should wait until after it was all installed. I’m sure they have some Machiavellian scheme to make me keep all these channels.

Netvigator: I’ve got mixed emotions on this one, that’s for sure. It’s a matter of the better speed of my 4G connection vs. the presumed stability of a wired internet connection.

To recap, here’s what I’ve used for home Internet for the past year. Keep in mind that HK village houses are constructed of steel-reinforced concrete, which does an amazingly good job of blocking mobile signals and WiFi.  I get a 4G signal when I’m outside on my deck but as soon as I go in the house it drops to 3G. And the strength of a WiFi signal seriously drops between floors.  So:

  1. Outside the house, a 4G USB modem from SmarTone
  2. Plugged into a 4G WiFi router (TP-Link – and I gotta say, dealers will knock TP-Link as being crap made in China, but this sucker has been sitting outside for a year and gotten rained on more than once and still works flawlessly.)
  3. Inside the house, the WiFi signal gets picked up by a WiFi extender positioned by a window, direct line of sight to the outdoor router.
  4. An ethernet cable runs from the extender to a Powerline network adapter
  5. A second Powerline network adapter is upstairs in my office
  6. An ethernet cable runs from that Powerline to my PC

I know, it sounds incredibly kludgy, and it probably is, but it works. I get decent Internet for my desktop PC and we also get strong WiFi for the ground floor of the house. Here’s a screenshot from Speedtest that I did just a few moments ago:

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I’ve actually registered download speeds of up to around 17 Mbps at times but of course a 4G signal is subject to a lot of external factors. Also every few days I’d need to run around the house and reboot all the devices to keep things working well – actually there would be times I’d come home, go to my PC and see the little icon showing no internet connection, and then I’d also have to run around and reboot these devices, sometimes more than once, to get things going. But mostly it worked.

Here’s the Speedtest result I got with Netvigator a few minutes ago:

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So, just to emphasize, these two tests were done within a minute of each other, at approximately 5:20 AM today (I’m still jetlagged, okay?)

PCCW advertises their DSL service at 8 Mbps but no one actually gets that. My 5.89 Mbps is probably one of the better readings that DSL subscribers in HK get.  Bearing in mind once again that if one lives in the urban areas of HK one can receive a 1 Gbps line for less than us suburbanites pay for DSL and that PCCW has no interest in moving to fiber in the NT villages and other companies find all sorts of mysterious roadblocks that prevent them from running fiber to village houses (HKBBN wanted to do this).  And look at how PCCW throttles you on uploading – holy shit.

So mixed blessings indeed.  I’m keeping the 4G USB set-up for the ground floor since it does provide strong WiFi there and the monthly cost is trivial. And I suppose I will keep that line available in my office for when I have to do a lot of uploading or when I’m downloading larger files.  If someone knows of a way to bridge these two lines and then manually select between them, that might prove helpful.

So, Happy Chinese New Year, Kung Hei Fat Choy!

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Paris Trip Notes

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As many of my readers are aware, I got married on December 1st. I took a few days off following the wedding but postponed the honeymoon till late January. The reason for this was that I knew I had a business trip coming up to the UK (Windsor, outside of London) and I figured that with my plane ticket paid for, that would be a nice savings for the trip.

When I looked online to check out visas for Filipinos visiting the UK, I saw that visa approval could take up to 6 weeks. Then I checked France and saw that it would take just 3 to 10 days. So I told my wife we’d be going to Paris. She’s never been outside of Asia in her life and I knew that anywhere in Europe would be exciting for her. Yes, the weather would probably suck in January but who cares – it’s still Paris.

The only flaw in my plan was that my flights were HK -> Heathrow, Heathrow -> Charles DeGaulle, CDG -> HK. She would have to fly on her own to Paris and I couldn’t get her on the same return flight as me. As it happens, we saved quite a bit of money by booking her via Amsterdam, and I was able to set a schedule for her that had us arriving at CDG at almost exactly the same time and departing from CDG on flights that were about an hour apart.

The next nerve-wracking bit was the application for the French visa – actually the Schengen visa, good for the entire Euro zone. The French consulate requires one to make an appointment online, and the earliest appointment I could get for her was January 16th – too close to her January 22nd departure date for comfort in my opinion. But in the end, it all worked out.

Now, Anthony Bourdain’s advice for Paris is that people who go there exhaust themselves by trying to do too much. He suggests just getting drunk and eating cheese. Cute, but a bit arrogant as well, coming from someone who has probably been to Paris at least 100 times and will return there at least another 100. For people who get there just once or twice in their lives, you gotta do what you gotta do in order to see the things everyone wants to see. I tried to find a middle ground – an itinerary that would leave us plenty of time for relaxing as well as fitting in the core sightseeing activities.

So on the evening of the 22nd, we met at CDG and took a taxi to our hotel, the Hotel Jardin Le Brea, located right at the border of the 6th and 14th arrondissements.  We arrived there around midnight, tossed the bags into the hotel room and went out in search of a late dinner. The first few places we walked into had already taken last orders.

Then we found a cozy spot called L’Atelier (not Joel Robuchon’s place). “A friendly pub with a great atmosphere” is how they describe themselves on their web site – and the description was accurate. I just went with a croque monsieur, I forget what my wife ordered, and we had a cheese plate and a lot of wine. And made friends easily with the people at the tables around us. (Everyone else there was French except for one guy from Morocco.) A nice start to the trip.

On Thursday, following breakfast at the hotel, we took a leisurely stroll through the back streets, looking longingly into the windows of classic boulangeries, patisseries, bucheries, charcuteries and fromageries. We made our way over to the Montparnasse Tower, possibly the only skyscraper in central Paris (not including the Eiffel Tower, of course). You can buy tickets to go up to the 56th floor and from there to the 59th floor rooftop deck, which we did.

From there, we bought Metro passes and made a beeline for the Arc d’ Triomphe. No, we didn’t climb the stairs to the top. Instead we did a leisurely stroll down the Champs D’Elysee. (I can report that, just as in Hong Kong, when you’re out on the town and in need of a toilet, McDonald’s is always there for you.)  We stopped into a branch of Paul for some baguettes (jambon and brie for my wife, saucisson for me) and some cake.

Back to the hotel to drop off the results of our shopping and then over to the Eiffel Tower – I’d bought tickets online for 4:30 though this time of year, advance tickets are probably not required. Also this time of year they don’t sell tickets in advance for the top of the tower, just the “2nd floor” due to the possibility of shitty weather and indeed, once there, the booths on the 2nd floor selling tickets to the top were all closed. So we strolled around, got some hot chocolate and found a comfy place to sit. But outside on the deck, it was just too damned windy to stay out there for long.

For dinner that night, I chose Vagenende Brasserie, a brasserie along Boulevard Saint-Germain that’s more than 100 years old and the place where I had my very first meal in Paris. It was every bit as good as I remembered and my wife was delighted with the quality of their classic fare.  After dinner, the combination of jetlag and wine was really hitting her, so it was back to the hotel and time for bed.

Following breakfast on Friday, we went to Notre Dame. We then walked around the area a bit, doing some souvenir shopping and then picking up our tickets for the Louvre. (You can buy your tickets in advance but unlike with the Eiffel Tower you cannot print them out yourself and you can’t pick them up from the museum; you have to find a branch of the ticket agency – Virgin’s shop on the Champs D’Elysee used to be the most convenient but that’s gone now. And again, this time of year, the advance tickets probably were not necessary as the line to get in was quite small.)

We had one of our few bad meals of the trip – a cafe chosen at random, a tiny menu that led me to think, “well, if they just have a few things, they must really know how to make them,” but both of our dishes were really poor.  It was following this lunch that my headaches with HSBC began.

Anyway, after giving up on the bank, we hit the museum.  We saw two of the “big three” – The Mona Lisa (which you could actually get a clear view of, the gallery was not jam packed) and the Venus De Milo. Sadly, for some reason Winged Victory of Samothrace was not on display.  We walked around randomly for a couple of hours until our legs started to give out (well, mine anyway). Back outside the museum, there was a Japanese video crew and a life-size Hello Kitty. Before they could stop us, my wife ran out and I was able to grab a few quick shots of our “celebrity sighting.”

Back to the hotel to rest up before dinner. My plan was for us to go to La Coupole, a historic brasserie near our hotel. But it was Friday night, 9 PM, and we hadn’t booked. We were told we could wait at the bar but it would be at least an hour and we were too hungry to wait.  So we went a few doors down to Le Dome, another art deco jewel (one Michelin star), where we were served a platter with enough shellfish (at least 20 varieties!) to feed an entire country. Crabs, prawns, langoustines, many types of oysters, mussels, clams, cockles, whelks and stuff I didn’t even know the names of. We didn’t finish it all but we came damned close.

Saturday was shopping day. Actually we started by going to the Palais Garnier and then the rooftop of Les Galeries Lafayette for another magnificent view. Another lunch at another branch of Paul, some browsing at Printemps, and then over to Les Marais for some serious shopping.  And then another patisserie where we could sit outside with some amazing cake and coffee before collapsing back at the hotel. Dinner that night was at Le Relais de l’Entrecote – one of its four branches was close to our hotel. The line was out the door but it moved fast.  One thing about this place – it’s cheap (by Parisian standards).  You pay around 23 Euros for salad, steak, fries and bread. The menu only offers cheese, desserts and wine. The only questions from your server are basically “how do you want your steak cooked” and “what do you want to drink.” I don’t think any wine on the list cost more than 40 Euros.

I had everything planned for Sunday, our final full day. I wanted to start off at Centre Pompidou and finish off with a stroll around Montmartre. Alas, it was not to be. I woke up on Sunday morning sick as a dog. I was showing all of the signs of food poisoning. How or where I got it, I can’t say. My wife certainly didn’t have it and we’d eaten all the same stuff, sharing everything. But I was so sick that I got to the point where I’d just drink some water and then throw that up moments later.

Of course my wife had to eat so I went out with her for lunch. She selected an Italian restaurant called Auberge de Venise.  This place seemed to have some history to it – some photos on the wall were from the 1920s when it was an American bar called, I think, Dingo. And the food looked amazing. She had some pasta, that was perfectly cooked. I had to order something and went for a bowl of minestrone. It might have been the best minestrone I’ve ever had but the bowl was the size of my head and I barely made a dent in it. The manager actually seemed quite upset by this but I told him I thought it was amazing but I was ill and really couldn’t eat and he let us escape with our lives.

I went back to the hotel to die some more while my wife walked around Montparnasse one final time.  For dinner, I still wasn’t ready to eat. She wanted to try a branch of a chain called Hippopotamus.  I was afraid this would turn out to be the Paris equivalent of Outback and, unfortunately, I was correct. I didn’t order anything and the only thing she enjoyed there was the bearnaise sauce. After dinner I picked up some yogurt from a nearby market (nope, couldn’t keep that down either).

Fortunately by Monday morning I was feeling better and we left the hotel early for our flights back to Hong Kong. Yes, it was a damned shame that I was sick for that final day. But the rest of the trip was fantastic – and the best part of it might well have been when my wife turned to me and said, “I know you love me, because you brought me here.” (She did also ask if my company had an office in Paris and if so, could I request a transfer there.)

I do want to add that my second visit to Paris was every bit as amazing as my first, probably even better because this time I wasn’t there alone. And once again, despite the stereotype, I found Parisians to be universally warm, friendly and helpful. It may be that I can speak a little French (albeit with a horrendous American accent) or that I was accompanied everywhere by a beautiful woman (and more than few times she got hit on when I’d leave her alone to go to the toilet). It was every bit as memorable as my first trip there.

I know some of you are probably wondering where all the photos are. I’ve been to Paris before and taken all of the standard shots of buildings and monuments and I think you can find better examples in any guide book. Most of the photos this time are the touristy shots – my wife in front of the Louvre, the two of us on the Eiffel Tower, and so on. Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook can see them there; I’ll spare everyone else. (For those who care about this sort of thing, I did not bring my Nikon D800 with me as I didn’t want to deal with the weight and also the bulk of carrying multiple lenses. I brought my Sony RX-10 as my main camera, and it did a mostly excellent job. I also brought my Sony RX-100 to have something pocket-sized for carrying around at night and that did okay too.)

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