15 April 2014

The Dating Game 過期照食

I have a perverse household routine. Every few months, I’ll go through my kitchen cabinet looking for expired food. Canned tuna, tea bags and rice – items for which I’d paid good money – will all go into the trash. Once I’m done with that, I’ll move on to the refrigerator to weed out the proverbial bad apples: a half-dozen eggs, a bottle of chili sauce that I used once or twice, a wedge of cheese still in its original sealed wrap. The purge is indiscriminate and my guilt palpable. I’ll start talking to the garbage can: “Sorry, “forgive me,” “I’m a terrible person”. But there’s nothing I can do: I’m just doing what the white labels say.

What does that mean?

I know I’m not alone. Each day we toss out perfectly good food that is past its prime, all because of that tiny, hard-to-read six-digit death sentence called the expiration date. But expiration dates are a modern mystery. For starters, the wording is confusing and inconsistent – no one knows whether “sell by,” “use by” and “best before” all mean the same thing. How much flexibility there is with the dates often plunge us into the metaphysical: Does the milk know to spoil at the stroke of midnight? Will time dilate if I move the chicken to the freezer? How can unopened wine go bad when it’s supposed to get better with age? We don’t know and we don’t want to take our chances. When in doubt, we toss it out.

According to the United Nations, over a billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted worldwide every year. In America, as much as 40% of all the food produced – worth US$165 billion annually – ends up in the landfill. A recent Harvard University study finds that a major driver of food waste is expiration date confusion. Over 90% of Americans prematurely throw away edible food because they misinterpret food dates. One in five consumers mistakes the date of manufacture (which is used by factories for record purposes) or the “sell by” date (which is used by retailers for inventory control) for the expiration date. The main culprit is the lack of government oversight. With the exception of baby formula, date labels are neither required by law nor regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Food waste is a global epidemic

Folks in Asia don’t fare much better either. In Hong Kong, for instance, the city produces 8,700 tonnes of solid waste every day, 40% of which is uneaten food. The problem is exacerbated by large supermarket chains that pull items off the shelves days before the sell-by date in the name of consumer protection. Friends of the Earth, a local watchdog, estimates that about a third of what stores throw out – around 30 tonnes daily – is still edible, an amount enough to feed over 48,000 three-member households for a day.  Worse, supermarket chains are known to destroy food that is close its expiration by shredding it or soaking it in chlorine to discourage waste-pickers from taking it home. They weren’t joking when they said there is no free lunch in Hong Kong.

To properly understand expiration dates, we have to start from the 1970s when date labelling emerged as part of the consumer rights movement. The dates were introduced by the food industry – and adopted voluntarily by manufacturers – to convey freshness. They indicate the period within which a product is at its peak, when it looks and tastes the best. Just because the food is no longer in its prime, however, doesn’t make it unsafe to eat or even taste bad. In other words, expiration dates are about quality instead of safety or public health. But perhaps because we urbanites are so far removed from food production, we choose to believe otherwise. Little do we know that most food-related illnesses are caused by contamination during production and delivery – by pathogens such as E.Coli and salmonella – instead of the passage of time. It didn’t take long for food manufacturers to notice that confusion and paranoia can be very profitable. Over the years, they began to put an expiration date on every product, even things that last a very long time like vinegar, honey and salt. The logic is simple: the more food we throw away, the more money we spend on replenishing it.

Buy, buy, buy

Exactly how food manufacturers come with up these expiration dates is also a point of contention. Consumers assume that a team of experienced scientists in white lab coats is stationed at every factory to perform elaborate tests on food. They can’t be more wrong. According to the Natural Resources Defence Council, 80% of all expiration dates are guesswork. Most small- to medium-sized companies lack the resources to conduct proper studies and they simply pick a conservative date to avoid lawsuits. 

As for multinational giants like Kraft and Nestlé, they take food dating more seriously but the devil is in the details. When determining shelf life, they build in a safety cushion by assuming that their products will be handled by the most irresponsible consumer: those who let their milk sit on the kitchen counter for hours or leave their potato chips under direct sunlight. And why not? No one will complain – or even notice – if the expiration date turns out to be too short. That, combined with increased sales from premature disposals, make short-dating a win-win proposition for food companies.

That's what we think

That takes me back to my household routine. I have decided to kick my old habit and rely on my own judgment instead of blindly following the white labels. For milk, bread and raw meat, I now add a three-day grace period. Things like potato chips and candy bars get an extra month or two. For more shelf-stable items like canned food and condiments, I simply ignore the expiration dates and revert to the time-honoured smell test. After all, our five senses are our best tools to determine what’s safe to eat. Millennia of evolution have given the human species the instinct to tell good food from bad, the same ability on which our grandparents relied before there were supermarkets. Besides, isn’t that what we do when we buy undated produce from street vendors or at the farmers’ market?

The idea of ignoring expiration dates may be difficult for some to swallow. But one man’s discarded food can be another man’s meal. For the germaphobes among us, they can pack items like expired canned soups and instant noodles neatly in a box and leave it outside their backdoor. Someone – whether it is the garbage collector or an environmentally-conscious neighbour – will pick it up and decide for themselves whether it is good to eat. That’s the same concept as the dozens of so-called “expired supermarkets” in America that sell just-expired food at deeply discounted prices to low income families. 

Yet, the best way to play the dating game is by trimming. We can substantially reduce food waste simply by buying less, despite the temptation to shop in bulk to save a few bucks or avoid an extra trip to the supermarket. Doing that will not only reduce carbon emission from waste disposal, but also cut down our grocery bill. Food waste may be a first world problem, but it hardly requires a first world solution. 

Win-win for both wallet and planet

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This article previously appeared in the April 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As printed in MANIFESTO

27 March 2014

Occupy Taipei 佔領台北

They call it the Sunflower Revolution. Last Tuesday, scores of university students stormed into the legislature in Taipei and took over the premises. Their grievance? Kuomintang (國民黨), the country’s ruling party, tried to ratify a controversial trade agreement with Mainland China without proper review by lawmakers. A few days later, a smaller group raided the cabinet building but were later removed by riot police. In all, over 10,000 people participated in the largest student-led protest in the country’s 65-year history.

Rebels with a cause

Things are relatively tame in the second largest city Kaohsiung. Around 200 people – students, taxi drivers, store owners and office workers – congregated outside Kuomintang’s local office on Jianguo First Road (建國一路). That’s where my brothers and I found ourselves this Sunday. We took pictures with our big cameras and chanted slogans with the crowd. The organizers spotted us and invited their “supporters from Hong Kong” to say a few words on stage. We thanked them for asking but politely declined. We told them our Mandarin isn’t very good. In truth, we didn’t know enough about the trade pact to say anything intelligent.

As it turned out, neither do most people in Taiwan. False rumors about the trade pact abound. The fear that Mainlanders will be allowed to buy their way into Taiwan, for instance, turned out to be misplaced. The agreement does not confer either citizenship or permanent residency. It all goes to show how little public discussion – and proper consultation – there has been over the agreement, which takes us back to what triggered the student protest in the first place: the government’s unilateral move to push through a contentious bill without a line-by-line review. 

Me, among the protestors in Kaohsiung

So what’s this agreement and what’s in it?

Formally known as the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA, 服貿), the pact was signed in Shanghai in June 2013. It is one of two major sequels (the other one being the not-yet-signed “Agreement on Trade in Goods”) to the high-level, largely symbolic Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA, 兩岸經濟協議) inked in 2010. CSSTA is all about opening up the service industry in both countries. It aims at creating cross-strait investment opportunities in dozens of service-related sectors (64 in Taiwan and 80 in China), such as banking, healthcare, tourism, films and telecommunications. Among other things, CSSTA will allow qualified professionals in Mainland China to apply for short-term (three-year) visas to work in Taiwan, and vice versa. Mainland corporations, such as banks and mobile service providers, will be able to set up branches and offices in Taiwan or purchase stakes in Taiwanese companies within the permitted industries, and vice versa. 

Overwhelming opposition

CSSTA is long on commitments but short on details. Exactly how many visas will be issued each year and what level of foreign investment is permitted will be the subject of further negotiations. Implementation is to be monitored and specifics are to be worked out in the years to come. So while CSSTA is a meatier follow-up to ECFA, there is still a way to go before the rubber actually hits the road.

Neither the lack of understanding nor the lack of details about the trade pact, however, has stopped people from condemning it. It is so for two reasons. First, the public is offended by not so much what is in the agreement as the way their government has tried to pull a fast one on them. President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) attempt to slip the bill under the radar screen is just another confirmation that he is more concerned about salvaging his tattered legacy than looking out for his country. CSSTA was intended to be the stone that kills two political birds: on the one hand, it is a step closer to the economic integration that the China-friendly Ma has been engineering. On the other hand, it is a badly needed jolt to the languishing economy for which he is blamed. But everything has now backfired. The Sunflower Revolution has not only turned back the clock on cross-strait relations, but also taken a further toll on Ma’s dwindling popularity. His approval rating has been hovering at a pitiful 9%, the lowest among leaders in the developed world.

He makes Nixon look popular

The second reason has to do with the natural suspicion of a unification-obsessed China. Many Taiwanese view ECFA and CSSTA as baby steps in Beijing’s quiet, carefully planned annexation of the renegade island. Bit by bit, Mainland Chinese companies backed by the Communist machine (to whom money is no object) will buy up Taiwanese assets and put the country’s economy and national security at risk. The dubious benefits of a hastily-drafted trade agreement are far too high a price to pay for the country’s autonomy. And people don’t need to look far. This kind of creeping economic imperialism is already happening to their cousins in Hong Kong, where signs of gradual Sinofication are everywhere. Before they know it, Hong Kong – and Taiwan for that matter – will become the next Crimea.

There is no telling how much longer the student protestors will stay, or be allowed to stay, in the legislature. Two days ago, Ma Ying-jeou agreed to hold talks with student leaders to try to end the standoff. One proposal is to set up a mechanism for the legislature to scrutinize the implementation of CSSTA and future trade agreements with Mainland China. Whatever the outcome is, the saga has been the best thing that happened to the Democratic Progressive Party (民進黨, the main opposition) since Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) won the presidential election in 2000. Here in Hong Kong, we watch the unfolding events in Taipei with interest and envy. With our own political crisis brewing over the 2017 chief executive electionwe wonder if our university students will be as brave as their counterparts in Taipei. We wonder if sunflowers will ever bloom in Hong Kong.

Today's Crimea, tomorrow's Taiwan

15 March 2014

When Friends Turn Toxic 當好友變毒友

I have known Thomas since we sat next to each other in third grade. Last month during dinner, I shared a piece of good news with my friend of 30 years.

“Guess what? I finally put a downpayment on this flat I told you about!”

Rather than hearty congratulations, I got a look of displeasure, or a “black face” as the Cantonese people would put it.

“They say the property market is about to crash, you know,” Thomas hissed, suddenly a macroeconomist. “I, for one, am not in a rush to buy.”

For the rest of that evening, a single thought kept playing over and over in my head: Thomas has gone toxic.

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Toxic friendships are a new urban epidemic

Toxic friends are friends who have grown bitter, unsupportive and downright unbearable over the years. They undermine our achievements but secretly compete with us. They may sneer at our career advancements, make cynical remarks about our love lives or call us names behind our back. It is their passive-aggressive way of reminding us that we are no better than them. They bring so much negativity to the relationship that spending time with them often leaves us mentally drained and physically exhausted. We call them “frenemy” because the line between friend and foe has become so blurred we have a hard time telling them apart.

Among the many manifestations of a toxic friendship, none is more common than the cardinal sin of envy. To our toxic friends, success is a zero-sum game and every achievement we make in life is a personal affront. As envy turns into jealousy and jealousy into resentment, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to share anything without first worrying about how they would react. Jealous people have a knack for making everything about themselves, as did Thomas when he took my home ownership as a jab at his renter’s status. While some people see that as narcissism, I think it is insecurity in poor disguise. Sadly, what happened with my friend that night was not an isolated incident but part of a pattern of growing bitterness I have observed over the years.

Sounds familiar?

They say a friend in need is a friend indeed. Though having seen friends like Thomas gone toxic over the years, I am starting to think if the contrary is true. I believe that it is far easier to find friends who would stick around when we are in trouble, than friends who would cheer us on when we succeed. The former is what I call “foul weather friends” – people who are there for us only when we are down on our luck – perhaps it makes them feel superior – but turn bitter the moment we start to do well. Foul weather friends lack the most basic ingredient in any human relationship: the capacity to be happy for one other. Thomas is a case in point.

But I can’t pin it all on him. In the age of oversharing and instant posting, peer comparison is intense and endless. Keeping up with the Joneses no longer means having a greener lawn or a bigger garage, but who gets more “likes” on a vacation selfie or restaurant check-in. If life is but a collection of happy moments, then our Facebook walls, where only the good is flaunted and the bad is conveniently left out, would be public chronicles of our fabulous existence. Even though Facebook has only been around for ten years, it has inflicted enough damage on our self-esteem that psychiatrists are advising us to stay off it from time to time for fear of social media depression. The pressure to outdo each other in the virtual world is beginning to poison friendships in the real life.

Objects on Facebook are less perfect than they appear

Hong Kong is a hotbed for toxic friendships, not least because the lack of personal space is constantly pitting us against each other in a cage match of one-upmanship. That’s why wearable wealth like Rolex watches and Chanel handbags is being rubbed in our faces on a daily basis. But in our concrete jungle, a falling tree doesn’t actually make a sound if there is no one around to hear it. That means neither a new BMW nor a two-karat engagement ring is real unless there is an audience to show off to. That, contrary to what Dionne Warwick has led us to believe, is what friends are for.

What’s more, the city’s rampant materialism is compounded by a peculiar cultural phenomenon: our insistence to hang out with our high school buddies well into our adulthood. Despite all the people who have come in and out of our lives, they are the ones we choose to be our BFFs. Over the years, however, the sharp edges of our childhood images are worn down and sweet memories of time past give way to meaningless competition. Even if we don’t have much in common with our school friends any more, we continue to keep tabs on each other’s successes and failures. Every time we get a news update from an old schoolmate, whether it is the class clown making partner at a law firm or the homecoming queen filing for divorce, we make a mental note to work harder to stay ahead of the curve. 

We love hanging out with high school friends

A toxic social environment breeds toxic friends. While not everyone will turn out like Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie, bad friendships are a reality with which many urbanites must wrestle. So what do we do when a friend turns toxic? The most common response is to suck it up and write it off as c’est la vie. Calling a toxic friend out will invariably get ugly, for someone who begrudges us for our achievements will unlikely take a constructive criticism well, much less do something about it. He will invariably turn the tables around and accuse us of doing the same to him. And we will most certainly be caught off guard and start wondering if he has a point, for who among us is without sin – or an occasional black face?

Another reason why we tend not to confront a toxic friend is that doing so will likely put an end to the friendship. It is an outcome most of us try to avoid, not only because we believe it is better to have a frenemy than an outright enemy, but also because we develop a certain level of emotional attachment to our friends no matter how draining the relationship has become. Criminal psychologists call it the “Stockholm syndrome.” It is another term to describe the fear of loneliness. After all, no one enjoys scrambling for company to go to the movies when the weekend rolls around. And so we choose to stay in a hurtful friendship even if it makes us unhappy.

Some friends are mutually toxic

But not me. After careful deliberation, I came to the conclusion that my friendship with Thomas was beyond repair. I decided to stop reaching out to him and, as if acting on cue, he too stopped reaching out to me. We haven’t seen each other for nearly a year now. Last November, I missed his birthday for the first time in 30 years. Breaking up with anyone – especially a friend I have known and cared about since I was nine years old – is hard, but sometimes it has to be done.

We make friends in different ways, but almost always by serendipity. Friends tend to fall into our laps, like the kid who happens to live next door or the co-worker we run into at the pantry by chance. Just like that, we become friends and start hanging out, bound only by thin threads of common interests and shared experiences. While a few of them will blossom into something rewarding and enduring, others will fail the test of time, not for the lack of a good heart, but because we advance in life at a different pace. In some instances, letting go is the only way to prevent a soured relationship from festering, as it is the case for Thomas and me. Even though the two of us are no longer friends, I will always consider him a good teacher.

You've got to do what you've got to do

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This article previously appeared in the March 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As printed in MANIFESTO

14 March 2014

Media Attention + Upcoming Events 媒體關注 + 最新動向

Speaking at Harvard Club Book Prize 2013

Venue: LPCUWC, Shatin
Date: 15 April 2014

Interview with Fermi Wong, Founder of Unison HK
Topic: Minority students falling through the cracks in the local education system
Date: May 2014

Q&A with Students at Hong Kong University Faculty of Law
Date: May 2014
Venue: HKU, Pokfulam

If you would like Jason Y. Ng, author of No City for Slow Men and HONG KONG State of Mind, to speak at your school or organization, please contact him at info@jasonyng.com.

*                              *                          *


2014 (to date)

Official Book Launch of No City for Slow Men
Venue: Bookazine, Lynhurst Terrace
Date: 12 April 2014

Guest Speaker at Author Event at Yew Chung Community College
Venue: YCCC, Kowloon Bay
Date: 10 April 2014

New Book Featured in Shenzhen Daily
Title: "Hong Kong - No City for Slow Men"
Date: 25 March 2014

Local Personality to Promote Hong Kong at the HK Tourism Board Public Relations Summit 2014

Venue: Soho
Date: 4 March 2014

Featured in The Sun
Title: "Defender of Migrant Workers' Rights"
Issue: 1 March 2014

Guest Speaker at Hong Kong University Faculty of Arts
Title: "From Blog to Book"
Date: 18 February 2014
Time: 6:00 pm
Venue: HKU, Pokfulam

Second Appearance on RTHK Radio3 to Discuss New Book
Show: "Asian Threads" with presenter Reenita Malhotra Hora
Date: 1 February 2014

Appearance on RTHK Radio3 to Discuss New Book
Show: "Around Town" with presenter Andrew Dembina
Date: 28 January 2014

Short Stories Going North and Going South Featured in Beijing-based Writers' Forum The Anthill
Date: 24-25 January 2014

Featured in TimeOut Magazine
Title: "Pick Up the Pace"
Issue: 22 January 2014

"Maid in Hong Kong - Part 3" Featured in Philippine Newspaper The Sun
Issue: 16 January 2014

Featured in Cover Story in the SCMP's Young Post
Title: "Mr. Do-It-All"
Date: 16 January 2014


Featured Author at "Meet the Authors on a Tram" Event by DETOUR Classroom
Venue: Repurposed tram departing from North Point
Date: 7 December 2013

Roll-out of Endorsement of "I'm FINished with FINS" Campaign
Date: 28 November 2013

Book Signing Event at Bookazine
Venue: Bookazine, 3/F, Prince's Building
Date: 28 November 2013

Author-Panelist at Hong Kong International Literary Festival 2013
Venue: City University, Run Run Shaw Creative Media Centre
Date: 10 November 2013

Spokesperson for "I'm FINished with FINS" Campaign
Date: October 2013

MANIFESTO  and Jason's Column "The Urban Confessional" Gone Global
News: Hong Kong's only unisex lifestyle magazine is being stocked in bookstores around the world, including the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Australia
Date: September 2013

Media launch for Hong Kong International Literary Festival 2013
Venue: Fringe Club
Date: 24 September 2013

Guest Speaker at "Tastemakers" Fall 2013 Event Organized by Hogan and Manifesto 
Venue: Pacific Place/Elements
Date: 12-13 September 2013

Featured in AGI China of Leading Italian News Agency Agenzia Giornalistica Italia
Date: August 2013

Guest Writer at British Council's Writer's Brunch
Venue: Chez Patrick, Wanchai
Date: 21 July 2013

Quoted in Influential Italian Literary Magazine Nuovo Argomenti
Title: Bruce Lee Blues
Date: 20 July 2013

"Maid in Hong Kong - Part 2" Featured in Philippine Newspaper The Sun
Issue: 16 July 2013

Guest Speaker at Hong Kong Book Fair 2013 Forum on HK Culture
Topic: Three Views on Documenting Hong Kong in English
Venue: HK Convention & Exhibition Centre, Wanchai
Date: 18 July 2013

Featured in Ming Pao Weekly 明報周刊

Topic: Anglophone literature and its impact on HK identity
Date: 13 July 2013

Featured in HKTDC's Online Weekly HK Trader
Title: In Focus: Literary Hong Kong
Date: 10 July 2013

Guest Speaker at Hong Kong's First "Asia on the Edge" Conference
Topic: Dialogue on Vision and Challenges with Publishers, Editors and Authors
Venue: The Fringe Club Ice Vault, Lower Albert Road
Date: 6 July 2013

Guest Speaker at HKTDC "Cultural July" Seminar
Topic: How to become a blogger/writer in Hong Kong
Venue: Pacific Coffee Emporium, Causeway Bay
Date: 3 July 2013

"Maid in Hong Kong - Part 1" Featured in Philippine Newspaper The Sun
Issue: 1 July 2013

Guest Speaker at HKTDC "Cultural July" Seminar
Topic: How to become a blogger/writer in Hong Kong
Venue: Kowloon Public Library, Ho Man Tin
Date: 30 June 2013

As I See It and The Real Deal Featured in the June Issue of Gafencu
Title: Online and On Topic
Date: June 2013

Venue: The FCC, Lower Albert Road
Date: 4 June 2013

Panel Speaker at "Transforming the Parasite"
Topic: Maid in Hong Kong, the social and cultural impact of the importation of domestic helpers on both the host and the migrant
Venue: Baptist University, Kowloon Tong
Date: 3 June 2013

Featured in The Clickbook by Filipino Blogger/Activist RJ Barrete
Title: How you do it
Venue: Four Seasons, Central
Date: 1 June 2013

Keynote Speaker at Harvard Club Book Prize 2013

Topic: How to live a purposeful life
Venue: Education Bureau, Kowloon Tong
Date: 10 May 2013

Third Printing of HONG KONG State of Mind
Date: 25 April 2013

Guest Speaker at the Ladies' Recreation Club
Topic: book club discussion of HONG KONG State of Mind
Venue: The Ladies Recreation Club, Old Peak Road
Date: 18 April 2013

Featured in The SCMP Education Post
Title: Balancing work and outside interests
Venue: Four Seasons, Central
Date: 20 March 2013

Featured in German blog "Lehrzeit"
Title: Hong Kong's education system and intellectual lethargy
Date: 8 February 2013


Book Signing at Blacksmith Book Booksigning Extravaganza
Venue: Bookazine, Prince's Building, Central
Date: 26 November 2012 

Became Resident Blogger at SCMP.com
Start date: September 2012

Became Contributing Writer for The SCMP Encounters travel magazine and LifeSTYLE/Getaways supplements
Start date: June 2012

Guest Speaker at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)
Topic: HONG KONG State of Mind
Venue: SCAD, Cheung Sha Wan
Date: 24 May 2012

Interviewed by Finnish Radio Station GB Times
Venue: Four Seasons, Central
Date: 23 May 2012

Guest Speaker at Savannah College of Art and Design
Topic: HONG KONG State of Mind
Venue: SCAD, Cheung Sha Wan
Date: 8 March 2012

Launched Second Blog The Real Deal
Date: 25 February 2012

Release of As We See It, the 2012 Anthology by the HKWC
(with two short stories, "Going North" and "Going South," by Jason Y. Ng)
Venue: The Globe, Soho
Date: 12 March 2012


Launched Official Website
Date: 31 December 2011

Featured in the December issue of The SCMP Post Magazine
Title: Wanderlust
Date: 2 December 2011

Launched Column "The Urban Confessional" in MANIFESTO magazine
Date: September 2011

Second Printing of HONG KONG State of Mind
Date: 20 August 2011

Named "Man of the Year" by Elle Men magazine
Date: May 2011

Featured in White & Case Alumni Newsletter
Title: Alumni spotlight on Jason Y. Ng
Date: April 2011

Official Book Launch of HONG KONG State of Mind
Venue: Bookazine, IFC Mall, Central
Date: 5 March 2011

Interviewed by RTHK Radio 3's Sarah Passmore on "Naked Lunch"
Venue: RTHK, Kowloon Tong
Date: 18 January 2011


Release of HONG KONG State of Mind
Date: 25 December 2010

Became Contributing Writer for Men's Folio magazine
Start date: May 2010


Launched First Blog As I See It
Date: 4 November 2008