Monday, September 29, 2008

A museum & the Plague

'The Triumph of Death' by Pieter Breugel the Elder. From the public domain and the Wikimedia commons.Hello again,

DISCLAIMER Lord love a duck, that horrific time absorber from HK is back online and clogging up bandwidth again.  Sorry, I'm just built this way, apparently... DISCLAIMER END

So, this post is a bit unlike some of the previous posts; it is serious. Troy in Spain complained about a lack of substance to these posts (he apparently missed the rainpersimmon jam on my windows (see Update No. 5; now there was substance) so, today we delve into death.  I mean, if I am going to be serious, I might as well head straight to a big issue like death.  

(The cover piece, "The Triumph of Death" by Pieter Breugel the Elder is here simply because your Scribe loves it and a post on death is just too good an opportunity to skip for sharing this great painting (click here (and then click again on the image in the new site) to visit a site where you can see it in full screen-sized glory).)

So, back to Hong Kong. 

Your heroine and your scribe found a great museum focused on death (or hope, depending on your perspective) a while ago.  Your hero, Pommes, was feeling a bit under the weather and stayed home, but Regina and your scribe recently(ish) visited the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences, tucked above and beside Soho in Hong Kong. 

The museum is housed in an old medical laboratory and is quite nice, although the walls run with mould and algae in the building out back due to the rain, heat, and humidty. 

Your heroine and your scribe had to wonder how many samples and analyses were contaminated by mould and algae in times past (Sorry Dr. Chin, the ingrown toenail biopsy came back... apparently the patient has a significant algae problem.  We recommend two sucker fishes, leeches, and a good bleeding...), but that is not what was so interesting about this museum.

The Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences is located very close to where the community of Tai Ping Shan was before it (the community) was levelled physically and metaphysically. 

In the 1890's 97% of Hong Kong was Chinese, and (so sayeth the museum) most lived in squalor in Tai Ping Shan; no electricity, no running water, no sanitation.  

Well, that was common for much of the urban world of that time period, but Tai Ping Shan was very, very, tiny with a phenomenally high population density. 

If you were (relatively) wealthy for a rather poor Chinese gentleman in 1894, you could buy a license to keep a pig in Tai Ping Shan, as an occupant of Tai Ping Shan yourself.  

The only catch was that you could only keep the pig in your own flat or apartment.  With a pig in the place, you might think everything would be flattened. But no, with livestock in the house comes rats and other things, like waste. So things get lumpy, not flat.  

Now after a while of people having pigs in homes, the story becomes interesting.  

In 1894 the Hong Kong government diagnoses 3 cases of Bubonic Plague in one day. One hundred cases are diagnosed the next day... ...and things only get worse from there.  Thousands die, tens of thousands flee.  

Japanese medical researchers are invited to Hong Kong Island to hopefully determine the cause of the plague; their brief is to determine the vector which allows for the spread of the plague disease.

A Swiss doctor also comes over to Hong Kong because he studies the plague too (everybody needs a hobby; what is yours?).  

The Japanese researchers were not happy with competition so they, allegedly, pay off the hospital to deny the Swiss doctor access to the laboratory, the morgue, the cadavers, and everything else.  

Dr. Alexandre Yersin, the itinerant Swiss doctor, (and I am guessing that "Eureka" moments are occurring for a great number of you right now) is offered space in the hallway, where everyone is passing by; not precisely the best place to conduct medical research on the Black Death.  

So the good Doctor from Vaud (he grew up in Morges!) builds his own straw hut outside the hospital and obtains plague corpses for a fee. Hey, he's Swiss.  He knows what makes the world go around.

Dr. Yersin identifies the "buboes" of the Bubonic plague as the likely site of infection. Buboes are dramatically swollen lymph glands, see below. Engraving of Black Death victims showing buboes from the Toggenburg Bible, 1411, sourced from the Wikimedia commons
By taking samples from the buboes, Dr. Yersin identifies what he thinks the culprit is, a bacteria. Our good Swiss Doctor then isolates the bacteria and injects it into rats.  

The rats get buboes and die. The good doctor takes samples from the rats' buboes and he cultures, looks, and finds the same bacteria as he found in the humans.  

Dr. Yersin repeats this a few times with a few changes, and, upon receiving the same results, within seven days of his arrival in Hong Kong, Dr. Yersin has (a) solved the five and a half century old mystery of what causes the Plague and (b) identified that rats are a vector for spreading the bacterial infection.  


Who knew that up until 1894 nobody had realized that it was a bacteria, now named Yrsinia pestis (that should have been your Eureka moment), that was responsible for the plague? And no one had realized that rats carried it.  


This whole bit of history was just fascinating to your heroine and to your scribe. 

Your hero, Pommes, lost all interest in eating rats when he read your scribe's initial report.

Now it would take a few more years to realize that there was an important intermediary, fleas, that transmitted the plague from the rats to people, but still, this knowledge allowed the government to legislate public policy for public health regarding rats.  

Today everyone knows that rats can be dirty and can spread disease, but everyone didn't then. Your humble scribe supposes that a fair bit of people's modern day antipathy to rats is tied up with their being connected with the plague, the Black Death.

Simply finding a vector for the transmission of the Plague, in a metaphysical way, was a bigger deal than realizing that the actual vector was rats. 

The Black Death was big, and no one knew what caused it. It would rise in the population from time to time, and take away significant percentages of people; between 30% and 60% of Europe is estimated to have died in the first strike of the Black Death into Europe which started in the 1340s.  

The Black Death was a Capital Letter Concern, and demonstrated the sway of the unknowable.  Old engraving showing Death as the Grim Reaper, standing victoriously over a pile of harvested bodies, no life appears around. Image from the public domain and taken from course notes package for HISTORY 1140. World Civilizations to 1500 written by and taught by Prof. Robert Brown, Prof. and Chair, History, University of North Carolina Pembroke, used with permission of Prof. Brown.
The terrifyingly swift and massive death toll was seen as a punishment by God; many pogroms against "others", such as thriving Jewish populations in Europe, commenced after the onslaught of the Black Death to "appease" God.

The clergy (the Western Christian Church still being monolithic at this time) were decimated by the disease, suffering even higher mortality rates than other folk, because monasteries and churches were places of refuge and treatment for the afflicted.  

The rapid decline of the clergy meant that an equally rapid increase in the clergy was necessary, but a rapidly replenished clergy was not as well educated, and the educators were dead.  

A decline in the education level of the Church's leadership would let inevitably let in some rot, which would fester, and eventually (ostensibly) lead to the Reformation, and the Counter-Reformation, and a whole new round of bloodshed (cue up Geneva again and the acolytes of John Calvin, although Huldrych Zwingli out of Zurich was much more aggressive, ideologically speaking).

Wow. Was your heroine and your scribe ever pleased to have visited this lovely little museum in HK.  

Oh, and there are also two tiny pictures of "teeth worms" in the museum that were allegedly blamed for caries (cavities) for thousands of years. Very sweet.

Right, there you have it. Serious and informative.  Hopefully informative.  Let me know.  Show me love. Refer the blog on (higher readership "tickers" yield higher writer satisfaction).

And that is probably enough for today. 

Chris, Regina, and Pommes


If your humble scribe understood correctly, bubonic plague is still a problem in Hong Kong, albeit at very low levels. 

Further, the Hong Kong government has long had a policy of checking caught rats to determine if and when the problem is resurgent.  

There are certainly many signs indicating highly poisonous rat bait throughout Hong Kong and others noting that people should not touch the killed rats. 

And you thought that chocolate-covered mango margaritas and avian flu were all you had to worry about when you visit us...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Another typhoon, a whiff of grapeshot & magic

X-fileish CSIish militarystylish black and white photo with Cat Claw in red highlighted circle
Dear Gentle Reader,


Sorry for the long period of e-silence. Your humble scribe has not been well and has been unable to post.

Further, while your humble scribe has been unable to post, apparently neither your Hero nor your Heroine were interested in getting their paws/hands into the mud or around a stylus to carve out cuneiform "letters". Not even e-cuneiform letters.  No lines at all. *sigh*

So, sorry for the e-silence.

Your scribe has been sick and heavily medicated for a bit of time... ...and then another typhoon hit last night...

...and this time the rainpersimmons (see the first update on Rainpersimmons...) broke into the house.  They changed tactics this time; they came armed.

The rainpersimmons armed themselves with grapeshot. (!)  

(An aside: 

Talking of successful rackets
Modesty deserves a mention.
Exclamation marks in brackets
Never fail to draw attention.

The poem is entitled "An Ode to Modesty" and is by the Great Dane Piet Hein from his first collection of Grooks

This use of exclamation marks is not an ode to modesty, but I think that it still proves Dr. Hein's point.  OK, back to the rainpersimmons armed with grapeshot.)

Your scribe is now able to state that nothing compares to being woken in the middle of the night by a whistling spray of glass and water thrown by rainpersimmons moving in excess of 100km/hour as they ride the typhoon winds.

No worries, gentle reader, your scribe hears your sudden intake of breath and the question which you dare not ask. 

Your Heroine is safe in India this week. 

You can exhale now.

Your Hero, Pommes, was unable to get a visa for India, so he remained with your humble scribe here in Hong Kong.  

Pommes was actually curled up beside your humble scribe, ostensibly worried by the whistling of the wind. 

I should also note, and quickly reassure you, gentle reader, that Pommes is fine too, although he was startled by the spray of glass and water. 

However, your Hero, Pommes, was so startled by the rainpersimmons' univited entry with their whiff of grapeshot that Pommes decided to perform a magic trick.  

Pommes transformed from being a cat curled up beside your scribe to being a cat curled up inside your scribe.  

At least, Pommes' claws curled up inside your scribe.  

One of the now-removed claws is pictured at the top of this post.

This magic trick certainly increased the drama of your humble scribe's already interesting and glittering night.  

I note that your humble scribe was undamaged by the rain and mostly undamaged by the glass.  He stays silent as to any damage inflicted upon him by your hero. And where.  He definitely stays silent as to where this damage may have occurred.

So, with that little tale of woe, your humble scribe is off to continue recuperating, cleaning the apartment, and organizing a new window.

Hopefully something noteworthy comes up by the scribe-imposed deadline of next Monday for the next post. In the meantime, your scribe hopes to curl up with a lovely eighteen year old or a twenty-one year old tonight seeing as how Regina is still in India.  

It will be Lagavulin if it is the twenty-one year old or Highland Park or Talisker if it is one of the eighteen year olds.

Be well, stay well, and I promise to see that your humble scribe sends a proper update this coming Monday.  

Chris, Regina, and Pommes

Postscript regarding the apology at the top of the post:  It is unlikely that this great lag between updates will happen again because your scribe understands that blog posts must become temporally consistent, or people will not come back to check on the blog. He intends to post updates once per week, at a minimum. Make his day. Check once or twice.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Why we are in Hong Kong

Picture of your Hero, Pommes, and your Heroine, Regina

Hello Gentle Reader,

The point of this series of e-pistles is to maintain contact with the great people whom we have just met and to regain contact with many friends whom we had not stayed in contact with.  Oh, and hopefully to meet some more great people.  

Poor Yonaton was startled to discover that we had shifted continents before he had even come to visit in Switzerland, and fear not, Tilo, there is great hiking in HK too.

So, "why are you in Hong Kong?" a few have asked your trusty scribe.

We are here because of Regina.

And Interpol.

Never forget the clammy but remarkably long reach of Interpol...

But, our official and socially acceptable reason is that Regina was asked by a very large German conglomerate to be their Manager, Asia for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).  

As Regina's boss is one of the six members of the Board of Directors of the holding company for the conglomerate, it appeared that this firm took CSR seriously which meant that she could make a real difference in the lives of workers, so it seemed like a good idea.  

Anyway, Regina jets around Asia, and maybe back to Europe frequently, checking on Working Conditions, the Environment, and other Capital Letter Concerns and ameliorating them to keep her employer a respected corporate citizen. And her firm does take CSR seriously.  

As a slightly cynical lawyer, your trusty scribe considers CSR risk mitigation, but the outcome is very positive for huge groups of people, so it is a pretty good thing.  So that, dear Reader, is why we are in HK.

Besides Interpol.

Oh, and Pommes too.  

Pommes was dying to try Beijing Duck.  

Being a cat with vast geographical knowledge (having resided in North America, Europe, and now Asia) Pommes knew that HK SAR was simply a part of China.  

Being not so politically savvy (what cat respects borders?) or maybe because he was too influenced by Bismarck's realpolitik from his visits to Germany (both visits, that is, Pommes' and Bismarck's) Pommes figured that the separation of power between Beijing and Hong Kong was not that great.  

(For those that doubt that your Hero, Pommes, is that astute, Pommes frequently perches himself on books when I am reading them. Who is to say that he doesn't ingest the knowledge through osmosis?) 

Anyway, Pommes thought that he would get more Beijing Duck here than he does receive in reality.  

I blame his vegetarian mother, your heroine.  But Pommes, unlike his parents, was getting tired of raclette and fondue, so he voted for HK.

And that is the problem with democracy. Armes, armes hase Chris.  2 to 1.  The scribe lost.  How the mighty have fallen... ...Well, I supported the whole venture also. But...

That is it for this update. Your scribe will endeavour to find more practical things to report on, and hopefully he does not tax your patience too strongly, nor wear too heavily at your interest.  

Now really, TschuuuuuoousBut I promise that the next missive will have some meat to it.  It will be a local interest story which will warm the cockles of your heart, or the sub-cockles, or the buboes of your lymph, or something like that.

And with that, this e-pistle will e-ndeth.

Goodnight and goodrest and Tschuess,

Chris, Regina, and Pommes

Postscript:  Your heroine and your hero are both in the introductory picture. Your task is to figure out which is which.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Rainpersimmons & imposing order in the apartment

Image of Persimmons looking placidHello Gentle Reader,


Possibly another long(ish) post. If busy, wait.  

If not, enjoy. 

If irritated, blow away.  

I get a serious case of the trepidations every time I write one of these (who will read it?  Why?) 

No one has complained yet, except for Steven sending me the etymology for brevity, but he doesn't count. 

Volume-cadence Rick is only irate that I haven't mentioned him, viz. his manly chest hair, his mastery of the guitar, and his consummate skill at indigenous peoples law. 

Nonetheless, I am still unsure if people actually mind receiving notes about this or if I drive people frantic with exasperation, but I may become inured to the trepidation soon as a couple of you have indicated that these should "keep on coming", so beware, you may get what you wish for... 


Dear Gentle Reader (again), 

Apart from the trepidation of mailing or posting this stuff, the actual writing business is quite fun when there is no client or judge to worry about, besides of course for the judgement rendered by you, dear Reader.  

So, where does this e-pistle (e-epistle just doesn't look right) find our favourite heroine and hero, Regina and Pommes, and their trusty scribe Chris?  

Well, on Kowloon, still.  But what a battle they had to stay there...

A typhoon recently ravaged their outcropping of land, leaving them adrift in a sea of raindrops the size of persimmons (see picture above for size and shape)... rainpersimmons... which make a heck of a racket against windows.

On one side of the apartment the rainpersimmons came straight down, and then, with unerring aim and a queasy animosity last seen in kamikaze fighter pilots in The Great War, Part Two (The Sequel), they (the rainpersimmons) picked themselves off their trajectory for the earth, about faced, rotated 90 degrees and flew straight at your faithful scribe.  

Only the fine double glazed windows kept your scribe safe from potential drowning, nine storeys above the sodden earth.  

This is also how your scribe knows that said rainpersimmons (droplets really is too soft and mild a word) made such a racket as they dashed themselves against the windows.

But, there was a unique Hong Kong character to these rainpersimmons...

Presumably these rainpersimmons had started out somewhere in the celestial heavens, wherever it is that rainpersimmons are born and fitted with their angry, scribe-hunting consciousness (your scribe thinks the following facts deny charges of egocentricity, even if this e-pistle does not...). 

The rainpersimmons were aimed at your scribe, let fly, appeared to collide with the earth, then snaked their way around the building in a rapid flanking manoeuvre, only to hurl themselves up and away from the earth to attempt to attack your scribe from the rear.

I kid you not, gentle Reader, these rainpersimmons, on the opposite side of the building, came hurtling UP from the earth and then they picked themselves off their trajectory FROM the earth, about faced, rotated 90 degrees and flew straight at your faithful scribe.

If I'm lying, I'm dying and I'm still typing now. It must be true. 

That is what typhoons are like in Hong Kong.

Anyway, your scribe survived the Typhoon (Great Wind in Chinese) and the rainpersimmons. 

Your heroine survived also, as did your hero, Pommes. Pommes slept through the typhoon dreaming dreams of baked persimmons stuffed with Cantonese BBQ pork.

Next came organising the house as a natural follow-on from the unpacking of the great cardboard obelisk garden referred to in the Fine Plan/Fire Plan incident

Some of you have expressed sympathy with our plight in the unpacking department. We appreciate it. 

Don't send sympathy, however, send heavy lifting capacity helicopters and a team of sherpas.  

Some of you asked when I will send pictures of the interior of the apartment; that will be a long time away, baby.

Now, when organizing a vast multitude of things in a not so vast space certain tricks are required.  Having no sonic screwdriver a la Dr. Who, your scribe made do with a fine method of three dimensional stacking.  

Admittedly, the Tower of Hanoi principle would have to be used with any subsequent repacking, but your trusty scribe saw no grand problems. Your fine heroine, Queen Regina, did, and pointed them out repeatedly.  

Let me provide you with a sample of the witty reparteé doled out by your fine Heroine.  

"What?  What are you thinking of putting your field hockey stick and ball on top of the kayak on top of the armoires in that delicate balancing act?  It is going to drop on someone and then you'll be sorry..."  

Admittedly, not really that witty from an English-language strictly definitional perspective, but your heroine is German...  and German humour is considered by most scholars to be a bit of a lost cause, like Belgian resistance (as opposed to political infighting which is a finely honed craft in Belgium these days).  

But then, two days later, Fate dropped an unpleasant package on your scribe's proverbial lap... 

...a field hockey stick and ball weighing a cumulative 2 kilos(ish), dropping from a 2.6 metre height, and landing, en pointe, on your scribe's second toe of his left foot.

After the blue air cleared from the room, your trusty scribe, between brain jarring hops on his remaining footus intactus, thanked the heavens that he was not Christy Brown (the left foot now being damaged), because then how would he write out the fact that Queen Regina was right? 

The positive side was that your scribe could forgo five nights on the dreaded stairmaster in the gym downstairs (broken toe!).

After a jarring break like that, another is allowed, but I see I am hitting my two page limit. So, more in the next missive.

Not so much Hong Kong news this time except for the mighty typhoon, the rainpersimmons with visions of being a whiff of grapeshot, and the joy of organising. Maybe more local colour in the next update.


Chris, Regina, and Pommes