Category Archives: Miscellaneous

302 – India impressions

In February I spent two weeks on holiday in the north of India, visiting Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Jodhpur. For many years, I had been reluctant to go there, afraid of being overwhelmed by the culture shock and the poverty. In the end, there was plenty of both, but perhaps less than I expected, and I really enjoyed the visit.

Here are some quick impressions about some of the main things that stood out to me.

Poverty and prosperity

There is plenty of evidence that India is developing rapidly. Between 1980 and 2014 its Human Development Index increased by 68 percent, and its Gross National Income per capita (in constant dollar terms) increased from $1255 to $5497. Their economy is continuing to grow rapidly: at 7.6% (real) in 2016.

Still, there are many people doing it very tough – e.g. sleeping under overpasses or in train stations. There was more begging on the street or at traffic lights than I had previously encountered elsewhere.

On the other hand, there was less of that than I expected. We were able to give to many of the beggars we encountered without feeling like it was overwhelming.

The huge majority of people look like they are doing OK. And there are plenty of people who are clearly doing very well indeed.

Traffic and crowds

The population of India is 1.27 billion, and it’s growing at 1.19% (15 million people) per year. It will overtake China as the world’s most populous country in about 2022.

Sometimes in Delhi it feels like they are all on the streets! Indian traffic is like nothing else I’ve ever encountered. Countless millions of cars, tuk tuks, motorbikes, trishaws, and sometimes buses and trucks. Not to mention cows and pedestrians.

The congestion is absolutely terrible of course, but just as remarkable is the way the traffic works. It feels like one is in a school of fish rather than a flow of traffic. Lanes are completely ignored. One moves forward into any available gap, seemingly no matter how narrow it is. When roads intersect, the cars just sort of inter-mesh and weave their ways through. You can’t wait for a break in the traffic before you cross, because there will never be one. I never got used to the alarming way that our drivers turned left onto roads or into roundabouts – they just drive on, seemingly without even looking whether there is room for them. The traffic just has to make room.

People are also quite relaxed about driving into oncoming traffic if doing so would be convenient. Our own drivers did it several times, and we once encountered a large truck coming straight at us in our lane: the inside lane of a dual carriageway road! Pauline screamed, but our driver was quite unruffled. He just shuffled to the left as if it wasn’t surprising. Because it wasn’t.

Apart from the traffic, it can be pretty crowded for people as well. Walking through the market area in Old Delhi it sometimes seemed about as crowded as being inside a bus in peak hour in Perth, but we were in the open.

Crowding was most intense inside some of the vehicles. I was part of a group of three, and we felt quite packed in in the back of a tuk tuk, but I saw plenty of tuk tuks with about eight passengers and one that surely had more than 10. It was common to see three passengers in the front with the driver, and he only has a single seat. One person would often be sitting under the driver, the other two teetering on a few inches of seat on each side.

On the other hand, we did manage to find plenty of relatively uncrowded places too, particularly some nice parks. The crowds are intense but not continuous.

Animals in the street

I’ve never seen so many different types of animals in urban areas: cows (of course), dogs, camels, horses, donkeys and monkeys are commonplace, and in Jaipur there are elephants. I witnessed a pitched battle between rival monkey gangs near the Taj Mahal.

 Environment

Delhi is famous for its poor air quality. According to the World Health Organisation, Delhi has the worst air quality of any major city in the world.  I had previously visited Beijing and experienced its appalling air quality, but Delhi is 43% worse (in terms of fine particles, which are the most damaging to health).

Fortunately it wasn’t too terrible while we were there, but on average air pollution kills about 1.5 million Indians per year – their fifth highest cause of death.  There is increasing awareness of the problem, but they’ve got a long way to go. For example, burning rubbish (including plastics) in the streets is still common.

The other local environmental issue that stood out was garbage in the streets. Particularly in Delhi and Agra, the garbage situation is absolutely woeful. Jaipur and Jodhpur were much better, apparently due to official efforts to raise awareness and clean things up. They are also much better for air pollution. Hopefully, rising incomes will result in people in other cities wanting to follow the examples of those two.

With so many people to fit in, you have to go looking for relatively natural areas. We went to Keoladeo National Park south of Agra, and it was absolutely fantastic. The range of birds, especially water birds, was just amazing, and there are plenty of other animals as well. We saw jackals, mongooses, deer, antelopes and bats. Highly recommended.

Selling

I’m completely hopeless at haggling. When buying small items, my heart is not in it, because fundamentally I am quite happy not to pay the lowest possible price, on the basis that it is still cheaper than I’d be happy to pay in Australia, and these people need the money more than I do. Add to that the fact that Indian sellers are masterful and incredibly persistent persuaders, and you can see the risks I faced. Oh well, it was an experience. I’ve always wanted 12 crudely hand painted plastic elephant key rings.

Food

I’ve always loved Indian food and I was not disappointed. Absolutely delicious. Lots of great dishes you never see at an Indian restaurant in Australia.

Health

I used to always get really sick in developing countries, but over time I’ve developed a relatively effective strategy: carry hand wash and use it regularly, be cautious when choosing where to eat, and take Travelan before each meal. (And of course only drink bottled water.) I’ve now used this approach in Indonesia, Vietnam and India without getting a single serious stomach problem. In India I added another element to the strategy: only eat cooked vegetarian food. This was no hardship at all, given how good their vege food is.

Crime

We read a bunch of horror stories about the dangers before we went there, but never felt in any danger (apart from on the roads). Our guides warned us a lot about pickpockets, but we kept our valuables in pickpocket-proof bags, with metal reinforcing, so felt safe.

Overall, it was a great experience. Despite the various challenges, I’m really glad I went.

294 – Slovakia

Most people outside eastern Europe know little about Slovakia, and it’s not a noted tourist destination for the English-speaking world. But after spending two weeks there in June-July 2016, I’d recommend it highly as a great place to visit and explore.

I knew little about the place before selecting it, almost at random, as a place that would be interesting to go to. It turned out to be a great choice.

The Slovakian people have lived through multiple dramatic events and drastic changes over the past century. Here’s an extremely brief summary.

Before the First World War, the area we now call Slovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After 1918, the state of Czechoslovakia was formed, and was reasonably prosperous for a while, but then the country became a puppet state of Nazi Germany. After World War II, Czechoslovakia had a few years of independence, but in 1948 the Communist Party staged a coup and Czechoslovakia became a Soviet-controlled satellite state. In 1968 the country entered a period of political liberalization known as the Prague Spring, but this was brutally put down when they were invaded by the Soviet Union and three communist neighbours. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the communist government in Czechoslovakia resigned and there was a completely non-violent transition out of communism and into democracy and a market economy. Initially the Czechs and Slovaks stuck together in Czechoslovakia as one country, but in 1992 the Slovak parliament declared that Slovakia should become an independent state. It joined the European Union and NATO in 2004 and adopted the Euro as its currency in 2009.

What a roller coaster ride! Imagine the eventful life of a Slovakian who was born in, say, 1930 and is still alive.

After all that, it is quite remarkable to see what a stable, safe and prosperous place it is today. We observed clean, attractive towns, modern shops, well-maintained housing, new cars on the streets and people who are clearly doing pretty well. Their GDP per capita was 76% of the EU average in 2014.

Of course, the story is not all happy. The country’s treatment of its Roma minority seems quite disgraceful. Many Slovakians are disillusioned with the quality of their government (but who isn’t?) and they do seem to have more corruption scandals than you would hope. Amongst the new office buildings and shops, there are ugly and neglected old Soviet buildings. And many city people still live in large apartment blocks, presumably from the Soviet era, which look rather sterile, at least from the outside.

We spent 5 days in the capital Bratislava, which is right next to the Austrian border. If you ever visit Vienna, I suggest also making the short journey to Bratislava for at least a day trip. I can recommend going by boat, along the River Danube. Central Bratislava has lots of great old buildings and a big castle, and its setting on the Danube is fantastic.

slovakia2We enjoyed a relatively relaxing time in Bratislava, but the best part of the visit was yet to come. We caught a train to Poprad-Tatry, near the High Tatras Mountains in northern Slovakia, and then on to Stary Smokovec, part way up the mountains.

The scenery throughout the journey was just spectacular, with rivers, valleys, green fields, castles, hills and mountains. What an incredibly beautiful place!

slovakia3We spent 10 days in Stary Smokovec, resting, exploring and enjoying the region. It’s really cheap and convenient to get around on a small electric train. The main towns all have ski lifts, cable cars or funiculars to get you up the steep mountain sides. We tried out almost all of these and had a fantastic time, marveling at the views, walking along mountain paths, enjoying the local food and observing the locals.

Once we got out of Bratislava, we found that most things are really cheap compared to what we’re used to. Train travel within the country is an absolute bargain.

The area we stayed in had lots of tourists, almost all of them from within Slovakia, plus a few from neighbouring countries Poland, Hungary and Ukraine. We didn’t come across any other English-speaking tourinsts the whole time we were in the High Tatras. There must be some, but clearly not many.

Despite that, we managed to get by speaking only English, as there were enough people with a bit of English around, particularly among the younger generation. Innovative sign language can be remarkably effective too.

Pauline and I agreed that the High Tatras area is right up there with the best places we have ever visited. We’ve been talking about how and when we might make a return visit.

292 – Walking the Thames Path

My wife is a keen walker and has been angling to get me to do a long walking holiday with her for years. I finally said I’d do it, provided we avoid hills. She chose the Thames Path, which is not only flat, but also supremely beautiful and really interesting.

thames01Day 1 of walking, source to Ashton Keynes. The source is dry, as it usually is. About a kilometre “downstream” there is a gushing spring where the flow really starts. At this stage the Thames is just a narrow stream and the water is crystal-clear. We get stuck in a water-logged field and stung by nettles but still have a lovely first day. In Ashton Keynes the infant Thames runs down the main street, between the road and people’s houses, requiring mini bridges for cars at each house.

thames02Day 2, to Cricklade. The path departs from the Thames for a bit and takes us between a series of man-made lakes, which are the result of old gravel mining. I saw an otter in one of them! It is striking that as soon as we reach a paddock where cows have access to the river, the water goes from almost perfectly clear to cloudy.

Day 3, to Upper Inglesham. We walk under a busy road (the A419) near Cricklade, but after that it’s very peaceful and mostly remote from people. Apart from locals walking their dogs, we’ve seen only one pair of Thames walkers going upstream so far.

thames03Day 4, to Kelmscott. Just before Lechlade-on-Thames the river suddenly widens and becomes navigable to motor boats. Soon after that, we reach the first of many locks (there are 44 on the Thames). It is fascinating watching how they work. In the village of Kelmscott is the home of William Morris (famous 19th century designer, writer and socialist activist) and we enjoy looking inside his home which is open to the public this day.

thames04Day 5, to Newbridge. As on most days, there is a bit of the path that departs from the bank, presumably because of an uncooperative landholder. Chimney Meadows Nature Reserve is lovely. We meet a woman from the Wildlife Trust which manages the Reserve and learn how they manage meadows quite actively to maintain their appearance. We’re seeing increasing numbers of slow-moving power boats, mostly long, narrow canal boats.

Day 6, to Eynsham. Another day, another beautiful walk. We are amused by the toll bridge charging 5p per car crossing between Swinford and Eynsham. The locals we meet are mostly delightfully enthusiastic about us walking the Thames. We are also struck by how many of them have relatives in Australia – almost all of them, it seems.

thames05Day 7, to Oxford. We pass a beautiful wood and the first significant hill close to the river. We start to meet more other walkers. Signs of civilisation increase steadily as we approach Oxford. Close to Oxford the river feels more managed. We spend several days in Oxford, resting and exploring all the amazing things.

Day 8, to Abington. Beyond Oxford, it quickly becomes beautiful and verdant again. We meet Margaret and Gordon, septuagenarians who are also doing the Thames Walk. I hope we’re as fit as they are at that age. In Abingdon we learn about their eccentric tradition of throwing thousands of buns off the top of the County Hall to the crowds massed below, to celebrate significant royal events.

thames06Day 9, to Dorchester-on-Thames. Yesterday we both felt that we could have walked further, but today (which is not much further) we feel worn out by day’s end. It’s another beautiful day walking right by the water the whole way. Dorchester has many really old buildings. We stay at the Fluer de Lys Inn, built in 1520. These really old places tend to be rather crooked; the floor level in our room varies by about 20 cm.

Day 10, to Steatley. A long day of walking, with by far the worst weather of the trip. It rains heavily and consistently, the path gets muddy and then, unusually and unfortunately, the vegetation closes tightly in on the path. We get completely drenched pushing through it. The insides of my boots could not have been wetter if I’d walked in the river. We are so cold and uncomfortable when we reach Moulsford that we pike out and get a taxi the last few km to Streatley.

thames07Day 11, to Reading. After yesterday’s rain I fear we’ll be up to our knees in mud today, but it mostly isn’t bad. Near Whitchurch-on-Thames, the path goes up a hill and through a wood – one of the most beautiful stretches of the whole walk. The last part of today’s walk is into Reading, making it the least natural part of the walk. In Caversham (over the river from Reading) I visit the Fox and Hounds Hotel where, in April 1960, teenagers John Lennon and Paul McCartney played in public as a duo for the only time. This was well before the Beatles were playing regular gigs.

Day 12, to Henley-on-Thames. The river is very much wider than it was in the early days of our walk. The Saturday market is packing up when we make it into Henley. This market has been going since the 13th Century. Two other notable things about Henley are that it is world famous for its rowing regatta, and it’s where my grandfather lived up until 1910. He later took up rowing, and won the Kings Cup in the Western Australian crew of 1927.

thames08Day 13, to Marlow. I feel a bit melancholy knowing this is our last day. There is a lot more development along the bank today than we’ve previously seen. We’ve seen some pretty expensive houses along the way since about Abingdon, but today takes the cake. One place we get to walk through seems like it could be owned by a billionaire. Still, it’s a lovely walk. We celebrate the conclusion with a cup of tea in Marlow, and then get a ferry back to Henley where we’re staying.

Overall, a wonderful experience. I hope we get an opportunity to do the rest of the walk into London at some stage.

205 – Chinese television

Much of Chinese television seems to be pretty low brow. Of course most Australian TV is too, but perhaps this is another area where the Chinese have overtaken us.

My experience of Chinese TV was gained during a visit there last October. I didn’t watch much, just enough to get a biased impression probably, but what I did see (mainly in public areas) was gold.

The best was a soapy based around beach volleyball and kung fu. Ridiculously attractive, tall, western-looking Chinese girls wearing tiny bikinis play each other at beach volleyball. It seems to be professional, as there are big crowds watching, but it could just be that they are so attractive, I suppose. There are plenty of slow-motion shots and close-ups of body parts. One of the teams is “good” (sweet, poor, excellent at kung fu) and the other team is “evil” (bitchy, rich, with henchmen to do the kung fu for them). In between volleyball matches, when they are not dancing or hanging out at the beach, kung fu fights break out between the teams, with the good girls and their friends on one side and the evil girls’ henchmen on the other. The evil girls need to get better henchmen because they always lose the kung fu, even though they are dressed up like Men in Black, there are more of them, and they are fighting a couple of willowy girls. There is a touching love interest, with the incredibly handsome brother of the evil girls being in love with one of the good girls, and vice verse, but of course this makes things complicated! The boy’s mother and sisters are not happy about his taste in girlfriends because she is poor. They regularly order him to leave her, which he gallantly refuses. This gives the evils an excuse to send in the henchmen whenever they feel like it, only to see them humiliated yet again.

One of the airlines on an internal flight thoughtfully provided two episodes of this excellent show, to distract us from the fact that the plane with us in it was delayed at the departure gate for 90 minutes. It was riveting. Why can’t we have programs of this quality and interest in Australia?

If anybody knows the name of the program, I’d love to know.

 

204 – Describing changes in percentages

Describing changes or differences in percentages can be perilous, particularly if the thing that is changing is itself a percentage. If you aren’t careful, you can easily do it in a way that is interpreted differently than you intend.

People often describe percentage changes in percentages poorly. It’s a pet peeve of mine. Even in scientific research articles, in which the writing should be clear and unambiguous, it is not too hard to find something like the following.

In 1945, 26% of Australian women smoked. Over the next 30 years, this figure increased by 27%.

This has two possible meanings. It might mean that the percentage of Australian women who smoked increased by a factor of 27%. In other words, the initial percentage was multiplied by 1.27 (or 127%). In that case, the later percentage of women smokers would be 26% x 127% = 33%. The increase is 27% of 26% = 7%.

Alternatively, it might mean that the percentage of women who smoked increased by 27 percentage points. The later percentage would then be 26% + 27% = 53%.

The two interpretations can have very different results, as they do in that case. Here’s another similar example.

In 2004, smoking accounted for 18% of deaths from all causes among men. The equivalent figure for women was 8% lower.

Does this mean that smoking accounted for 16.5% of deaths among women (= 92% of 18%) or 10% (= 18% – 8%)?

The correct answers are 33% and 10% respectively, but there is no way that you could be sure of this from the way they were written above.

The issue is that a percentage change in a percentage can be expressed in relative terms (relative to the original number) or in absolute terms (the number of percentage points). If you don’t indicate which of these two you mean, then other people have no option but to guess, and they might guess wrong.

It is easy to avoid this ambiguity. If the percentage change you are referring to is measured in absolute terms, just insert “percentage points” in the sentence appropriately: “this figure increased by 27 percentage points” or “the equivalent figure for women was 8 percentage points lower”.

If the percentage change is relative, insert “a factor of” instead: “this figure increased by a factor of 27 percent” or “the equivalent figure for women was a factor of 8 percent lower”.

Or if you feel that these make the text a bit cumbersome, just tell us the second percentage, rather than saying how different it is from the first percentage: “this figure increased to 33 percent” or “the equivalent figure for women was 10 percent”.