Saturday, March 28, 2015

Building solar power systems

Our students have been learning to saw, drill, file, basic electricity, and photovoltaics for the past several weeks.  

Today, they put together all those skills and build their own working solar power system.  And all of the 10 systems, built by the 10 teams, with an average of 5 students each, passed!

Each system consists of 2 solar panels, held together with a frame made of plastic pipes.  The electricity generated is passed through a controller.  The sun also cooperated by coming out at the right time.  All of the solar panels were able to generate about 12 volts of electricity as expected.  

Next week, they are going to construct LED lights that run off a battery charged by the electricity generated by the solar panels.  They will continue to practice their skills and refine the designs in the coming month.  

In mid-May, the first team will travel to Rwanda to build 45 systems for a village near Kigali, where they is no electricity.  They will also train a team of the local youths to build and maintain the systems. 

In June, the second team will travel to Cambodia, to construct another 45 systems for the villagers on an island where most of the houses do not have electricity.  

Considering the fact that most of these students have never used a saw, a drill, or even a file, before taking this subject it is quite an achievement.  

Let the season of international service-learning begin.  

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Garlic bolt (蒜薹) at Shi Fang (什邡)

If there were no Great Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, most of us would probably never have heard of a place called Shi Fang.  But it did happen, and Shi Fang was one of the cities most badly hit.  Some of my colleagues came here to see what they could do to help, and I ended up coming here to learn how people grow wood ear, to try to come up with ways to improve the process.  

And I got to see and eat garlic bolt, a lot of them, because they are in season.  I found later that it is also called garlic sprout, or garlic stem.  

I was told by the farmers that there are three stages at which people eat the garlic plant.  At the first stage, when the leaves start to grow out of a garlic, it is 蒜苗.  Later, a stem will grow from the centre of the leaves, eventually bearing flowers at the top of the stem, and that stem is the 蒜薹.  Finally, the mature plant will be eaten as 大蒜.

I also saw a lot of white radish (白蘿蔔, 大根), whole car loads of them.  So pretty it is really a piece of art.

And beautiful fields of rapeseed flowers (油菜花).  They are everywhere.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Kam Tin (錦田) to Tai Po (大埔) Run

A friend took me, my wife, and my parents to buy organic produce from some weekend farmers from a farm at 謝屋村 on Kam Sheung Road.  Later we went to Kam Tin Red Brick House (錦田錦上路祠堂村紅磚屋), an interesting indoor market on Kam Sheung Road near Kam Tin, to have late lunch.  

Then I started running along Kam Sheung Road (錦上路), towards Tai Po.  Then Lam Lam Road (林錦公路).  It is only 14 kilometres, with interesting scenery along the way: farms, flower growers, rivers, tall trees lining both sides of the road, …  The one thing that was annoying was the big trucks that whizzed by me within 2 feet, because the side walk was very narrow or completely missing at some points.  

Along the way, I ran past the farm that we visited earlier in the morning.  And I recalled fondly the goat tender, with his 20+ goats that he referred to as his wives and children.  

And this goat that stared at me curiously.  

And this puppy that tried to chew my fingers, playfully.

And this morose-looking dog that would bark furiously if you so much as look at it.  

At Lam Tsuen (林村), right beside the road, is the Wishing Tree (許願樹).  It was dying from all the heavy oranges tied to lai-see (red envelopes, 紅包, 利是) that were thrown at it.  It is now forbidden to throw things at this tree.  Instead, people throw things at a fake tree.  So this one is still standing, defiantly. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Growing wood ear (木耳) at Shi Fang (什邡)

I went to Shi Fang in Sichuan to learn how to grow wood ear (木耳).  It starts with the mixing of nutrient into fine wood chips or coarse saw dust to form the growth medium for wood ear, and the packing of the medium into a cylindrical plastic bag. 

The bags are then packed into a steamer to be sterilised.  

The small mountain of bags is covered, and coal is burnt underneath the steamer to steam the bags for 24 hours.  The steamer is obviously a very old design.  It does not contain the steam very well.  The bags are packed too tightly, so the steaming process is not efficient and takes a long time.  There is no quantitative measurement of how successful the process is.  

The wood ear spores are then implanted into the sterilized bags of growth medium.  The process has to be carried out inside a box, which is filled with a chemical vapour to ensure that the bags are not contaminated in the process.  The process is hazardous for the workers, even though the workers stay outside and put only their hands inside the box, because the boxes are not completely airtight.  

The bags are then stacked in a darkened room to wait for the wood ear spores to sprout.  

If the sterilization is not done properly, or the environment is not clean (which obviously it is not), the bag can get infected at any stage, and it has to be thrown away.  If the infected area is small, it is cut away, to savage the rest of the bag, to cut down on the lost.  But the infection can also spread if not excised properly.  

After sprouting, the bags are transported to a growth shed, to give room for the wood ear to grow.  The shed is semi-darkened.  The appoint of light, temperature and humidity have to be just right.  Hence moisturization and ventilation are important.

The wood ear grows out of the bags.  When they are ready, they are cut from the bags, and dried under the sun.  For better quality and better price, they have to be cleaned with water, and then dried in a clean environment.  For this part of Sichuan, sunny days are rare.  Under a bright sun, the wood ear can dry in a day or two.  When it is cloudy or raining, it won’t dry even in one week.  It can even get mouldy, then the whole crop can be ruined. 

The whole cycle takes about a year.  There are many points where the process can fail, a whole crop ruined, and tens of thousands of dollars of investment going down the drain.  I now have a much better appreciation of how complex the process is, and how challenging the life of a wood ear farmer can be. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunny Bay 欣澳 to Tung Chung 東涌 Run

The run from Sunny Bay 欣澳 to Tung Chung 東涌 is shorter but less pleasant than I thought.   

I ran on Cheung Tung Road 翔東路, between the North Lantau Highway 北大嶼山公路 and the mountains.  At one point just past Yam O 陰澳, I got under a tunnel beneath the highway to get on a side road on the sea side.  It was wonderful, I can see the airplanes taking off over the sea every minute.  

But the road soon ended.  The highway passes over a small water channel.  I know there is another side road running between the highway and the sea on the other side of the water channel.  So I walked gingerly over the narrow ledge along the highway’ fence to cross over the water channel.  When I was just about reaching the other side of the water channel, another fence blocked my path completely!  I was forced to turn back.  It seems the government is determined to make it as hard as possible for the common people to enjoy the seaside. 

I was forced to get back on Cheung Tung Road, to continue on to Tung Chung.  Soon I realised that the road was rather bumpy.  I am amazed that Hong Kong builds such bad roads.  Perhaps the workers and engineers thought that their superiors would never come this way.  It is only the bikers and runners like me who will ever notice it.  There were many bikers but only one other runner on that road throughout my 2 hour run. 

At Tai Ho Bay 大蠔灣, I was at least rewarded by a nice peaceful scene.  

At Tung Chung, I bumped into an old secondary school friend and his wife.  Truly amazing.  

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Osmanthus fragrans, 桂花, again

This morning, while walking through the campus, I suddenly became conscious of the fragrance of the osmanthus fragrans, 桂花.   At first I thought I was imagining things, since they were in bloom less than 2 months ago.  I didn’t know they can blossom so soon again.  Then I took a closer look.  The dead flowers are still on the branches.  In fact, the fresh flowers bloom among the dead ones.  Amazing.  

I am thankful anyway.  

Monday, March 09, 2015

Run from Tai Mei Tuk 大尾督 to Tai Wai 大圍

I had estimated it was 18 kilometres from Tai Mei Tuk, at the western edge of the big dam of Plover Cove Reservoir, to Shatin KCR station.  It turned out based on Runkeeper’s record of my run yesterday, that it was more like 19 kilometers.  So I was off by a bit.  It was a good run, although I had to stop to catch my breath and to stretch.  

I was surprised to see quite a few whom I believed to be Filipinos and Indonesian migrant workers near Tai Mei Tuk.  They seemed to be going to those barbecue places along the coast. 

I suppose it is better  and healthier than sitting in Victoria Park or on the footbridges in Mongkok all day.  We really should do better to provide recreation and other support for them who come to Hong Kong to work for low wages, who take care of our home and children.  

I spotted a rich man’s huge Kuan Yin 觀音 statue looming over the plain and the road.  It must be nice to be rich enough to buy a bodhisattva 菩薩. In Buddhist legend, he is supposed to be full of passion for those in need. I wonder what he, if he does exist, thinks of all this commotion.  

In Shatin park, a crowd of mostly oldies were dancing to the tunes of oldies such as  一水隔天涯.  Those songs recall fond memories. 

At the end in Tai wai, I treated myself to a bowl of tofu 豆腐花.  It was very smooth, but not as fragrant as the tofu my wife and I had at a Japanese restaurant the evening before. 


Sunday, March 08, 2015

My glasses and consciousness

I was on the train on my way to …either Fanling or Taipo.  I was looking out the window trying to decide whether to get off at Fanling and run to Shatin, or to get off at Taipo, take a bus to Tai Mei Tuk, and run to Shatin.  

Suddenly I became aware of the two women sitting opposite me talking, with one of them saying about my glasses, “… they are bifocal … if you look at it sideways, you will see those lines …”  My glasses do have lines in them, but they are not bifocals. But that’s not what I am concerned about here.  They were also quite rude, talking about me in front of me.  But that’s also not what I am concerned about here. 

What struck me was how I suddenly became aware of what they were speaking about.  I wasn’t paying attention to them earlier.  I was thinking about where to run, and how.  I did not choose to listen to them.  Yet somehow, my ears heard what they said, part of my brain processed what they said, up to a certain point without me being aware, conscious, of that.  Then a part of my brain decided what they were saying were of sufficient interest to me that I should be aware of it, and brought it to my attention.  It was the conscious me that decided it was interesting, rather the unconscious me that decided that.  How much is the conscious me in control of me?  Isn’t that fascinating?  

Was what happened on the train influenced by the fact that I am reading the book “Consciousness and the Brain” by Stanislas Dehaene, a famed cognitive psychologist?  The neuroscientists have found that something such as speech is processed locally by various parts of the brain, with come communication among the different regions.  The information gradually propagate to higher and higher levels.  At a certain point, generally 300 milliseconds after the signal enters our ears, some part of our brain decides that the information is important enough that the information is broadcasted all over our brain, making us conscious of that information.  That’s what I experienced on the train.  The more I think about it, the more amazing it feels. 

Cognitive states, emotions, attention, and consciousness are all part of what we are investigating in out Computer-Human Interaction Laboratory.  Exciting stuff. 

I guess I have to thank the two women who helped to make science so vivid to me,  albeit unwittingly. 

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Sit on the money?

The Hong Kong government has collected so much money from us that it does not know how to spend it.  What does it do with the surplus?  It puts the money away, for a raining day, which, it predicts, will come in 10 years. 

My mother can do that.  My mother can be the finance minister!

How about investing it in education?  We all know the problems.  We do not have enough good teachers, well-trained teachers.  Many of the teachers of English are not trained to teach English.  We have no teachers trained to teach Liberal Studies.  The classes are too large.  The Science lessons are too theoretical and boring, there are not enough experiments and projects. There are not enough room for the students to be creative.  There is not even enough space for the students to exercise and have fun.  There are not enough places in the universities.  Many can help to solve many of these problems. 

It is well known that better education raises productivity of the work force.  Higher productivity will compensate for a smaller workforce, which is the anticipated “rainy day”.   If productivity is raised high enough, it can increase wealth accumulation beyond compensating for a shrinking work force.  It has already been done in many countries in Europe. 

What don’t we try it?  Rather than sitting on the money like old ladies?