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December 2003

I don't quite get it

I'm afraid that I can't say anything meaningful about the death of Anita Mui. Both Ron and Phil have paid tribute to her, whilst George Adams took the opportunity to print a very dubious obituary on his website. The dead can't sue, I guess!

I have to admit that in spite of living in Hong Kong for several years, I still don't have much of a clue about popular culture (by which I mean pop music, TV, films, etc.).

There are a number of reasons:

  1. Language - I don't understand enough Cantonese to know what they saying (though I suppose this might work the other round - listening to music and watching local films would probably do wonders for my Cantonese).

  2. It's all so different from British pop music, TV, etc.

  3. Perhaps I'm a bit old and set in my ways.

I think it's mainly number 2. Whenever I watch the local Cantonese language TV stations in Hong Kong (TVB Jade and ATV Home) I really feel like I am in a foreign country. The period dramas, the contemporary dramas (soaps) and those variety shows. Actually, in a way it reminds me of TV in the UK about 30 years ago. Upstairs Downstairs, The Brothers, The Cilla Black Show. Weird!

Pop music in Hong Kong seems much more manufactured (though I realise that with 'Pop Idol' this seems to be making a comeback in the UK), and the music again seems to be stuck in a bit of a time warp. I've never had much time for pop stars who simply perform someone else's songs - I'd rather have an Elvis Costello or a Bruce Springsteen who writes their own material.

So, as a result of this, I'm afraid I can scarcely recognize most of the big stars in Hong Kong. A few perhaps, such as "Fei Fei" because I was amused when one of my Cantonese teachers explained her Chinese name (at the time she seemed to be on TVB almost continuously).

This has certainly been a rather bad year for the entertainment business, with the deaths of two top stars (Mui Yim-fong and Cheung Kwok-wing) and song writer (Lam Chun-keung), and following on from the death late last year of Tam Pak-sin.


Predictions

The BBC has asked various well-known people to predict what will happen in 2004. Mostly banal stuff like Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles getting married. A year ago they asked the same thing, and now we can see whether they have come true. Two of the predictions were spot-on:

POLITICS - Tony Howard, veteran political commentator, said Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith would resign, and Michael Howard would be his successor.

TRANSPORT - Christian Wolmar, an expert on the UK's travel woes, predicted that against people's expectations, London's congestion charging scheme will not be a flop.

The congestion charge was a big success, and is going to be extended. My favourite prediction is this one:

TECHNOLOGY - Trevor Baylis, inventor of the wind-up radio, predicted this would be the year for wind-up laptops.

Er, maybe not. Guess what he is predicting for this year?

Mobile phones will become mini televisions in 2004. Pocket TVs have been around for many years and colour screens on mobiles are now common. The one drawback would be the drain on battery life. But, true to form, Mr Baylis has a practical solution - wind-up "dynamo" chargers, which are already available for standard mobiles.

Mad inventors - don't you just love 'em?


Hong Kong con tricks

From Monday's SCMP, the most common con-tricks in Hong Kong. Don't worry - it's still a relatively safe place. You will notice that apart from the first one, which takes advantage of people's willingness to help, and the second one, they rely on the greed of the victim.

1. "Help! I need your phone/money" Culprit poses as a tourist in distress and asks to borrow money or a mobile phone from the victim, leaving them a false contact number.

2. "Evil spirit be gone" The victim is taken to see a holy man to expel an evil spirit, in a ritual involving the use of personal valuables or money. When the victims are returned their "valuables" in a bundle, they find only worthless items.

3. "Let's split the money" A "passer-by" agrees to split some money which they find lying on the ground at the same time as a victim. Another person then arrives and accuses the passer-by of stealing the cash. They apparently decide to settle the matter at a police station and appear to give the victim the dropped money in a bag for safekeeping. In return, the victim hands over valuables or other cash as collateral. The pair then disappear, and the victim is left with a bag invariably containing only paper.

4. "Those electronics are worth a fortune" The victim is asked on the street to watch over some electronic parts, in return for a fee of about $300, while the conman "returns to the office". A second swindler then turns up, and tells the victim that the goods are extremely valuable and suggests that if they can be bought for the right price, a huge profit could be had. The first conman then returns and agrees to sell the victim what turn out to useless electronic parts.

5. "It'll cure anything" Culprits approach a victim trying to sell some herbs, pills, or medicine by exaggerating their clinical effect. Alternatively, they lure the victim into buying the products as a joint venture, with the promise of huge profits.

They missed one out, though:

6. "The Shanghai Job" Elderly businessman persuades central government in Beijing that he is just the man they need to run a small but important piece of territory that has returned by the previous tenant at the end of a long lease. It turns out that this is not true and in fact he is a bumbling idiot with no previous political experience, but by the time this becomes clear he has already been given the job.


The problem of leasehold apartments

According to the government there are 11,000 older privately-owned apartment blocks in Hong Kong that don't have an owners' corporation or management company to look after the building. This means that the individual apartment owners have to agree on any expenditure, and if they can't agree then nothing will be done. Unsurprisingly, many of these building are in poor condition. The Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau has produced a consultation paper on the subject. According to The Standard:

In a Legislative Council session yesterday, lawmakers said the consultation paper lacked concrete content. "It was the most hollow public consultation paper I have even seen in the past 10 years. The paper has depicted the problems but not provided solutions,'' said democrat lawmaker James To.

Many of the owners seem to think that it is the government's responsibility to maintain the common areas and so are unwilling to pay for the work themselves. The government in turn shows no sign of being willing to explain to people that it is the responsibility of the owners to maintain their property, or do anything else about it.

One complication is that many of these buildings are likely to be pulled down at some stage, possibly by the government's Urban Renewal Authority. Owners of these properties know that if this happens they will be compensated very well (regardless of the condition of the property), and the irony is that the more dilapidated the area the more likely it is that the government will want to re-develop. So for some of the owners, the reluctance to pay for repairs may actually be a cynical ploy. Not much consolation to those who have to live there, though.

When I lived in the UK, I owned a leasehold flat (as we call apartments). The owners of the freehold and the head lease had both disappeared, leaving the flat owners somewhat in limbo. A group of us managed to set up a company, buy the freehold and head lease and issue new longer leases for the apartments for those who wanted them. It was hard work and took a couple of years, but fortunately the majority of owners supported the initiative and we were able to ignore the small minority who didn't want to do it. Around the same time, there were some horror stories of similar blocks where the owner of the head lease (or freehold) had decided on a massive renovation program and sent bills to the leaseholders for £20,000 or more. If the leaseholders didn't pay they could lose their property, and there were suggestions that the contracts for the work were being given to associated companies without a public tender.

In Hong Kong, newer and larger developments have an owners' corportation that decides on the work to be done and appoints a management company. This is better than what happens for older blocks in the UK (which may well be owned by a third party), and not radically different to what happens with newer blocks.

The problem comes with older blocks where such arrangements were not made when they were developed, with the complication that there is no freeholder and no head lease. All Hong Kong property (apart from St John's Cathedral) is leasehold, and the freeholder is the government. So the term of the lease is fixed, and there is no possibility of acquiring the freehold (as I was able to do in the UK). Worse, if you want to re-develop the property you have to pay a substantial premium to the government.

As usual in Hong Kong, the problem is that the government interferes too much and yet seems reluctant to take responsibility for the difficulties this creates.

If the government didn't interfere, it's reasonable to assume that the price of these properties should fall to a level where someone would buy them in order to re-develop the site. However, prices are maintained at an artificially high level because of the prospect of the Urban Renewal Authority stepping in (and paying owners enough to buy a similar seven year-old unit in the same area). In addition, the developer would also have to negotiate with the government and then pay a Land Premium before re-building.

On the other hand, the overblown public housing system seems to make people believe that the government has an obligation to sort out the problem (which they don't in this case). So people stay put, expecting either that the government will carry out renovations or that the Urban Renewal Authority will buy their property.

What a mess! Unfortunately the government doesn't seem to have any idea how to sort it out.


Tung Chee-Hwa voted most amiable leader

A wonderful non-story in the SCMP today:

Tung rated most amiable city leader
Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has been rated the most amiable city leader in the country, a survey has found. In the study, carried out by the China Institute of City Competitiveness, Mr Tung made the list of the nation's best-known leaders along with Shanghai Mayor Chen Liangyu and Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou. He was rated the most amiable city leader, while Mr Chen was ranked the most successful mayor. Mr Ma was the most popular city leader.

Talk about damning with faint praise! Most amiable leader? Is that a polite way of saying he's out of his depth?

Meanwhile, Mr Tung proved himself yet again to be unimaginative, insisting on appointing 104 representatives to the District Councils (to add to the elected councillors). Of course he's entitled to do this under the Basic Law, but the District Councils don't have any real power so he doesn't need to do it. It's a gift to the pro-democracy movement, and makes it more likely that they will do well in the upcoming elections for LegCo.


Nodding Heads

Following on from my mention of Powerpoint, I found this:

In his book and DVD compilation, "Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information," David Byrne twists PowerPoint from a marketing tool into a multimedia canvas, pontificating that the software's charts, graphs, bullet points and arrows have changed communication styles.

The 96-page compilation, which debuted in September for $80, is best described as a coffee table book for nerds. The initial printing run of 1,500 copies sold out by mid-December.

The book includes mostly lucid musings on how PowerPoint has ushered in "the end of reason," with pictures of bar charts gone hideously astray, fields of curved arrows that point at nothing, disturbing close-ups of wax hands and eyebrows, and a photo of Dolly the cloned sheep enclosed by punctuation brackets.

The 20-minute DVD, encased in the navy blue hardback cover, features the same abstractions in motion. Byrne wrote most of the music.

Is this clever or pretentious?

[via Slashdot]


Tax time and Credit Cards

I am somewhat under the weather today, so I'll limit myself to a few trite observations about income tax and credit cards.

In Hong Kong, January is the month when you have to pay your tax bill. I am getting used to this, but at first it was quite a shock after having tax deducted automatically from my salary under the British PAYE system. Instead, it is common to receive a "13th month" of salary in December or January, which (for most people) covers the tax bill, but obviously not all of it for everyone. It's a strange system, and although some people regard it as a bonus, in effect the employer is holding back part of your salary and paying it to you at the end of the year. Legally you are entitled to receive the appropriate proportion of this if the employer terminates your employment, though you lose it if you resign. Plus, over the last few years, some companies have stopped paying the 13th month salary, but of course the tax bills still have to be paid.

The banks think they can help solve this problem for you. I've got used to receiving offers for 'tax loans', but this year the credit card companies seem keen to give people an incentive to paying tax bills using their card. Presumably they hope that some customers will take a few months to pay off the money, and end up paying interest at 24% per annum or whatever it is they charge.

Last year I was slightly surprised to discover that I could pay my bill through my bank's internet site and charge it to my credit card (so delaying payment and earning me a few measly bonus points). I wondered whether I had been a bit clever and discovered something that the bank had not really intended me to do, but this year they are advertising that this service is available, so obviously they wanted me to do it.

Another credit card company has written to me, suggesting that I can use their card to pay my tax bill. If I then spend a certain amount on the card in February and March they will give me 'cashback' (0.5%) in about a year's time. Too complicated, I fear.

I have also received a leaflet from HSBC credit cards advising me that they are running another scheme to try to encourage customers to spend more money. However, they seem to be rather confused about the meaning of the words 'at least' and 'maximum'. If you read the small print, you discover that you can get a maximum of 10 gifts, but they also say: "so you will get at least HK$200 in cash coupons". Not really - only if you make 10 purchases of HK$500 or more and phone their special 24-hour hotline (and enter a mass of detail) 10 times. The headline says "get up to HK$200 or more", which is wonderfully vague but closer to the truth. What they really mean is that you are unlikely to get more than HK$200.

Life has certainly changed for credit and charge card companies. Six or seven years ago it was unusual to get even the first year fee waived, but now there are offers of multiple years of automatic fee waivers, and many cards waive the fee if you spend a certain amount during the year. On top of that, many customers threaten to cancel the card if they have to pay an annual fee, and the banks usually agree to waive the charge when asked.

Nevertheless, I was surprised to receive a letter from one charge card that I use only rarely, telling me that as a valued customer my fee for the coming year had been waived. I only wanted the card because of the airport lounge access they offer, and I was quite willing to pay the annual fee, so that was an unexpected bonus (after my initial two years free). One of my cards is free because I spend over the minimum amount, another because we have a mortgage with the bank concerned, and another because the initial fee waiver lasts for five years! So, I am not currently paying for any of my cards.

This can't last for ever, and once the economy picks up I expect that the banks will quietly withdraw these concessions and we will have to start paying for our credit cards again. Not just yet, though.


Buy buy buy

I have to admit that the latest developments in TV technology interest me, even though we are still talking about very expensive products. There are three different options apart from the traditional CRT screen: Plasma, LCD and projection. Ever since I first saw a plasma screen I have believed they are the best option, but recent LCD screens from Samsung do look very good, and seem like a good choice for smaller screen sizes. I have never quite seen the benefit of projection systems - the quality doesn't seem good enough, though I guess they are a good option for bars or anywhere that needs a large screen.

So, I'm not quite sure what to make of this report in the New York Times. Judging by the picture, the sets have got smaller, and I suppose the image quality must have improved as well. I think that the film being shown is Antz, presumably from a selection that includes Toy Story 1 & 2, Monsters Inc., Shrek, Ice Age, etc. There's something about those computer-generated animations that makes them a natural for TV shops - they make the picture look great whereas live-action tends to highlight the flaws. Anyway, the story is that Samsung under-estimated demand for projection TVs, so customers have to order them and wait for delivery. Customers apparently like plasma and LCD but not the prices. There's a great quote in the story:

"Unless you're going to actually hang it on a wall, you don't need a flat panel," said Edward Maloney, president of Cowboy Maloney's Electric City, a 13-store chain based in Jackson, Miss. "Plasma's a futuristic Jetson product."

What does that mean? Personally, if I was living in the States and you gave me a choice between a 32" plasma screen for US$4,000 or a 43" projection TV for $3,500, I'd pay a bit extra for the higher quality and reduced bulk of the plasma screen. Or perhaps I would buy a 42" plasma set from Dell for US$2,900 (and I've seen plasma displays from no-name manufacturers on sale in Fortress in Hong Kong for a similar price). Or a good CRT set. Not a projection TV (unless the picture has improved dramatically).

Incidentally, the view seems to be that prices of LCD and plasma screens will fall substantially in 2004, possibly by 30-40%. So, no, not a "Jetson product", I think.

Here in Hong Kong, cheaper DVD recorders and HDD recorders (around HK$3,000) finally seem to be available, though I'm still waiting for a reasonably priced unit that combines both technologies. I reckon that they will soon be less than HK$5,000 - still expensive, but worth considering.


I've prepared a few bullet points...

Interesting piece in The Observer about that curse of modern corporate life PowerPoint.

People spend hours preparing presentations, trying to distill what they want to say into a few bullet points and stick them on to a few slides. Of course, bullet points are useful as an aide-memoire for the presenter, but to make an impact the speaker needs to have the knowledge and the confidence to talk about the subject naturally. The slides should illustrate the points that are being made, not list them all in detail. If the audience manage to stay awake, they are unsure whether to read what is on the slide or listen to what the presenter is saying, and probably end up doing neither. The presenter probably forgets what is on the slides, and finds himself missing out half the points on the slide that is showing and jumping ahead to what is on the next slide.

Powerpoint turns virtually everyone into a presenter, regardless of whether they have an aptitude for it, and so much effort goes into putting together the slides that there is no time left to think what to say, or to consider the objective of the presentation. Even if there are powerful points and interesting or valuable information, it is likely to get drowned in a sea of virtually identical slides. Poor presenters become competent but dull, whilst good presenters are likely made more boring. There is an amusing example of this here, with the Gettysburg address in Powerpoint form.

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