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February 2004

People change their minds

I hope I don't regret this, but I have changed my mind about NTSCMP. Perhaps it was George's holiday in Switzerland that did the trick, because he seems to have got over the compulsion to be rude to everyone and slimmed down the site somewhat. Even Blogwatch is a shadow of its former self, reduced to criticizing BWG for his tirade against coriander and Ron for publishing girlie pics. Yawn, yawn.

There's a new contributor creating photo montages, and both the technical quality and the humour content have improved as a result. The opinions I have read seem less vitriolic than in the early days, and George isn't making an idiot of himself on IceRed.

There's a certain irony in the fact that the NTSCMP seems to have changed its mind about Spike, recognizing that it is really a serious magazine that is dabbling in satire, not a clone of Private Eye, and that it puts The Standard and the SCMP to shame. This is, of course, what I said several weeks ago.

So if we go back to the RTHK radio show in November featuring Messrs Vines, Vittachi and Adams, what conclusion can we draw? At the time they were all trying to prove that they were more outspoken and "satirical" than each other, but actually this was about as meaningful as Hong Kong soccer teams arguing about who is the strongest. It hardly matters, because by international standards they are third division (at best). Nury is a nice guy who can write quite amusing stuff, Steve Vines understands how Hong Kong works and can write well about it, and, er, I'm sure if thought really hard I could find something nice to say about George.

I think my real point is that there's room for all of us (and I include bloggers as well), and even if we don't agree on everything we probably do share a love for Hong Kong and a healthy level of cynicism about the 'establishment' in this city. So, from now on, rather than ignoring NTSCMP I will be rude about it (and link to it) as appropriate. And I think I will subscribe to Spike.


Current affairs or modern history

One of the stranger features of our English language terrestrial TV channels (TVB Pearl and ATV World) is that they serve up current affairs programmes from the US and UK, but several weeks or months later.

Last night, I caught part of "60 Minutes" on ATV World, and they had an interview with 'Democratic front-runner Dr Howard Dean'. I don't wish to sound churlish, but wasn't he the guy who dropped out last week after consistently finishing 3rd or 4th in most of the contests? Obviously, before the start of the primaries he was indeed the front-runner, and that is presumably when the interview was filmed and shown on TV in the States. Now, several weeks later, it just looks silly!

Slightly more topical was the BBC Panorama document about the Hutton inquiry, shown in the UK shortly before the judge delivered his report, and shown here some time after Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke had resigned (following the criticism of the BBC in the published report). It was interesting and balanced programme, and TVB managed to find a primetime slot for it even though it was nearly two hours long. However, it would have been ever more interesting and topical if it had been broadcast in the week the report was published.

I assume that with "60 Minutes" there is some deal whereby ATV is only entitled to show the programme a certain period of time after it has aired in the States, but I bet that if they paid a bit more they could show it sooner. Or is it just one of those token gestures that is supposed to demonstrate a commitment to serious programming, and no-one is actually expected to watch it?

Coming soon on ATV World: "Financial Markets Two Weeks Ago" a round-up of what happened in the stockmarket a fortnight ago.


Is your teacher happy with your work, Daddy?

When I came home from work the other day, my son asked me whether I work hard. "Yes, of course" I replied (and actually I do). "So is your teacher happy with your work?"

I suppose it's an entirely logical view of the world when all you know is school. It has obviously never occurred to him that when you get older you don't have a teacher telling you what to do and whether you have done a good job or not.

Of course, teachers occupy a very special place in the life of young children, and a few words of praise mean so much. As they get older, the relationship changes and teachers often struggle to stay in control, but that comes later.

I don't think anyone would really want a boss who was quite like my son's teacher, but I have certainly come across some who seem to act more like a mother than a manager. But that's a subject for another day.


Department of pointless gestures

Typepad, who host this site, have apologized for the slowness and various problems over the last few days. As a pointless gesture they are giving me three free days of service. It just means that my next payment will be three days later than usual, not that I will actually pay them any less money.

So, in the same spirit, let me apologize to any of my readers who have been inconvenienced, and offer you an extra six days of free service. Plus I promise not to say any more rude things about Hong Kong bloggers this month.


Lost jobs or lost opportunities?

Simon mentioned this a week ago based on an article in The Economist, but here is another one that challenges the myth that outsourcing is bad for the American economy.

Someone recommended a book to me a couple of years back which takes an even more radical view. It is "Living on the Fault Line" by Geoffrey A. Moore, and his basic thesis is that companies should outsource every activity that doesn't give them a competitive advantage. Management waste their time worrying about things that don't really matter, and which could be taken over by a third party who would do a better job and care much more about what they were doing. Plus the people doing the work would have a better career in a company that was actually focused on what they did.

I still reckon that smart companies will outsource a lot more of what they do, whether to a specialist just down the road or one in India or China.



Euro 2004 fixtures and tables

If you are looking forward to Euro 2004 in Portugal this summer, you might be interested in this Excel spreadsheet that has all the fixtures and automatically updates the league tables and shows you who has qualified for the knock-out stage.

Thanks to Jim for sending it to me, but it appears to be the work of someone called Adam Bowie.

UPDATE: I have received some requests for the passwords that protect this spreadsheet. I suggest you try AAAAAABBAAB7 (Tools/Protection/Unprotect Sheet).

It turns out that Adam Bowie wrote the original spreadsheet and it was then adapted by persons unknown for Euro 2004. Also, the method for deciding places between two teams who are level on points is wrong! More details here.

You can find another similar spreadsheet here and the official UEFA version here.


Letter of the week

One of my favourite features of the SCMP used to be the idiotic letters they often published. Sometimes just plain barmy (Simon Patkin), sometimes meaningless drivel. Nowadays they seem to have cut back on this, and I have to rely on blogs for that kind of thing. Or the letters column of China Daily.

This letter, from someone in Singapore about '1 Country, 2 Systems' is a gem. Muddled thinking and insults for anyone who doesn't agree with the official party line.

Szeto Wah in his mid-seventies is a Christian, probably indoctrinated about the evils of communism by the Church, and hence a distaste and dislike for PRC. [...] What is so reprehensible about China putting Martin Lee and Szeto Wah under sedition law or treason? Would it not be that Singapore is anti-communist and China is communist?

Maybe it would not. It never ceases to amaze me that the socialist republic of Singapore is perceived as being a bastion of free enterprise when the government controls so much of the economy. At least China is moving in the opposite direction by selling off many state-owned firms.

It's an interesting argument that the democrats are against China because they fear communism. Does that imply that China has plans to introduce communism in Hong Kong? As I said, muddled thinking.

Wait - there's more stupidity:

Finally, it was easy to drum up '10%' of the populace to come out if the population was some six million. Out of the '500,000' how many were the curious and unintentional shoppers and people going about their normal daily activities.

Making comments like that got Tsang Yok-sing (the ex-leader of the DAB) in hot water. Hundreds of thousands of people queued up for several hours just to join the march, and when even the police say that there were 500,000 people taking part the chances are that there actually substantially more than that. Anyone who thinks that the people gave up a public holiday to walk (or stand) in the hot sun for several hours just for fun is very obviously deluding themselves. Or perhaps that's what China Daily is all about.


Fake irony

Yesterday, Phil reported on his expedition to buy pirate software. Today, Jake van der Kamp's column in the SCMP argues that the goverrnment should ignore requests from foreign companies to enforce anti-piracy laws. This has prompted both Conrad and Simon to have had a bit of fun at the SCMP's expense by reprinting the article, in breach of the newspaper's copyright. In the unlikely event that anyone missed the hilarious irony of this, Conrad rammed the point home in a comment on Simon's site.

Phil's account of his trip to buy pirate software in Wan Chai is interesting because it highlights the point that life has been made more difficult for these operators, but yet they are still in business. Phil is very careful to stress that all the software on his PC is legitimate and paid-for, and that he has no intention of installing the software he bought in Wan Chai. However, he has still paid money to the pirates, regardless of what he does with the CD!

Phil's conclusion is the same as Simon's (and Conrad's, I think), namely that this is a bad thing and ought to be stopped:

The bottom line is it is still far too easy to get this stuff in Hong Kong. And for people who want Office 2003 getting a fully working set of disks for HK$100 instead of HK$3000 is far to difficult to resist.

The point is that people do resist the temptation, and Microsoft and others are still very much in business. I have purchased my copies of Windows, Office, etc. legitimately and even pay for upgrades. Most medium-size and large businesses pay for licences for the software they use. If a few (mainly smaller) companies and some individual users install pirated software or illegal copies 'borrowed' from legitimate users, how much does Microsoft suffer? Ironically, they may actually benefit from it - if people who won't pay for Microsoft software 'steal' it instead, that leaves very little room for competitors who might otherwise be able to sell to that market.

As for the companies who sell luxury goods, about whom Jake van der Kamp was complaining, I believe that a similar argument applies. How many people decide against buying an expensive brand-name watch or handbag because a cheap copy is available? Not many, I submit. If you can afford the real thing you will still want to have it (though you may buy fakes as well, just for fun). If you can't afford the real thing, then who has lost out?

For luxury goods, surely the ultimate insult is to be ignored by the people who make fakes. The existence of fakes is an indicator that your product is desirable.

Of course it should be illegal to sell fake products, but the question that has to be asked is how the police and customs should deploy their limited resources. Many illegal things happen every day, and the police cannot stop all of them. When making these choices, the guiding principle ought to be the amount of harm that is done, and on that basis I have to agree with Jake van der Kamp that the Hong Kong government should ignore the pressure from foreign companies.


Junk faxes

I hate to miss out on things, and after having had a fax at home for several years I have finally started receiving junk faxes, at present just two pages each time (in the middle of the night). This is mildly annoying because it wastes my paper and ink, but thankfully it hasn't woken me up (so far) or made me worry who is calling, unlike BWG.

This was mentioned in Technology Post last week, and PCCW suggested that (as well as reporting the offenders in the normal way) you could subscribe to their "block the blocker" service. Two problems with this - the first is that you have to pay PCCW for this service, and the second is that it presumably blocks international calls as well (since they do not have a caller id). Since I do (admittedly very rarely) want to receive faxes from overseas this seems like a serious drawback. Of course, the low-tech solution is to switch off the fax at night - or I suppose the high-tech option is to use fax software and check incoming faxes before printing them.

I wonder if Bill Gates has a solution for this?


Idiots and email

This tale from Shaky reminds me of something similar that happened to me.

A while back my idiot boss (based in another Asian country) sent an email to all her staff in the region advising them of their bonuses. Thinking she was clever, she pasted the appropriate figure from an Excel spreadsheet into each email and then sent them out. I thought it looked odd and sure enough it was possible to open the whole spreadsheet and see everyone's bonus figures.

I saved my boss from further embarassment by letting her know what she had done, and the IT people then swung into action (with uncharacteristic speed) to delete the offending emails before anyone else had a chance to see the figures.

In a similar vein, I have also been sent Excel spreadsheets with some cells hidden and 'locked' to prevent me seeing some confidential information, but they are pathetically easy to crack open.

Going back to Shaky's story, it is extremely easy to select the wrong email group or person. I have seen several examples of this - a junior employee who had a similar name to a senior manager (in another country) was sent several emails not intended for him; my idiot boss sent a number of sensitive emails to "all staff" rather than "all managers"; and another email from another company that was mistakenly copied to a colleague of mine, hence revealing the other company's strategy in a fairly bitter business dispute.