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January 2005

Train spotters

This week’s Post Magazine (free with the Sunday Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English language Sunday newspaper) has a piece, hidden away at the back, about the Shenzen Metro.  It’s by David Evans, who I think was one of the SCMP journalists who had a turn running the Lai See column after Nury Vittachi was sacked.  Now he seems to be reduced to writing "colour" pieces for the Post magazine, but unfortunately it appears that he can only see in black and white.

It’s not entertaining, it’s not informative, and it’s certainly not well-written.  In fact, it would be right at home on a blog, if you believe some of the kind people who offer constructive criticism of HK blogs. However, I hope I’m never quite as dull as this: 

The machines operate just like those in Hong Kong and display destinations in both English and Chinese.  Taking my green plastic disc, I approach the barrier and search for [the?] slot in which to insert it.  A female staff member smiles as I wave my arms about helplessly looking for a coin-sized hole.  Suddenly the machine beeps and the barrier’s part.  It’s a stored-value green plastic disc [uh?].

As I start my journey at the beginning of the line, there is no hunting around for the correct platform.  Besides, this shouldn’t be a problem as everything is conveniently labelled in English and Chinese.

[..]

After a 10–minute wait the train glides noiselessly into the station.  I wait for the carriage to disgorge its passengers before entering.  Two casually dressed old men remain seated together in the carriage.  Day trippers?

That’s right – he bought a ticket, he went to the platform, he waited for the train, he got on the train.  Nothing interesting happened, and he has no insights to offer.  Could it be any duller? 


No pajamas

How come stuff like this never happens to me?

Retired doctor Mr Leigh-Brown, 67, said he picked up the DVD of The Pajama Game, which was sealed in plastic wrapping, for £2.99 from the bargain bin of a Safeway supermarket in Taunton.

"Some topless young women appeared and started talking in Italian... it's not what you expect from a Doris Day film," Mr Leigh-Browne said. "My wife and I were very shocked but we watched it until the end because we couldn't believe what we were seeing.

As you do, of course. If this wasn't on the BBC website I'd assume that someone had made it all up.

The couple, regular attendees at their local Baptist church, settled down with a cup of tea to watch the 1957 musical which has a U (universal) certificate.

Publish and be damned

On Wednesday I was glancing through the online edition of the SCMP and came across a rather idiotic opinion piece about Cyberport and PCCW by one John Tsang, Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology.  Well, no surprise there, as the SCMP prints all sorts of nonsense on its opinion pages.  What I didn’t realize until later in the day was that this drivel had been printed in no less than six Hong Kong newspapers.  Today’s Standard lifts the lid on what happened behind the scenes on Tuesday night:

The Standard was visited by what, in another democracy, would be considered an extraordinary request: Print, unedited and uncut, 1,800 words of the government's rationalisation for its 1998 decision to bypass the legislature and hand over 24 hectares of some of the most valuable land on Earth to the son of Hong Kong's biggest tycoon in a bid to belatedly drag the SAR into the cyber revolution.

The Standard refused to print the article, quite rightly so, but the SCMP and five other newspapers toed the line.  Unfortunately for the government, having gone to all this trouble it seems highly unlikely that anyone reading the article would be convinced by John Tsang’s line of argument. 

The government’s argument is that they wanted Cyberport built quickly so that they could beat off competition from Singapore (et al) and attract more high-tech companies to Hong Kong.  Giving the development to a single developer was the best way to do that, and Richard Li had already approached the government with plans for such a scheme, so it made sense to give his company the contract. 

Which is all very well, but the simple fact is that there was no need for Cyberport.  In the few years since the contract was awarded, broadband has become ubiquitous, and other developers have come up with several so-called intelligent buildings, most of them in much more convenient locations.  Cyberport has attracted some tenants, but mainly because the rental charges were so low, not because of its unique attraction to high-tech companies.

If it wasn’t vital to complete the Cyberport project so quickly, it clearly wasn’t necessary to rush through the process and award the contract to PCCW before anyone else could bid. I actually don’t think the government consciously favoured PCCW, but these and other decisions have the effect of giving a significant advantage to a small number of large and well-connected businesses run by the Li family and others. 

The most disingenuous argument used by the government is that we should simply be grateful that this development has taken place:

We have transformed a piece of disused land at Telegraph Bay into a lively modern community, enhancing the value of its neighbourhood and enriching the quality of life of Hong Kong. 

On which basis the government should release all the rest of the available land in Hong Kong so that more “lively modern communities” could be built.  Except, of course, that the large property developers persuaded the government to stop releasing land - because that way they could maintain high property prices.  One effect of that is probably to convince large high-tech companies to locate somewhere cheaper - which rather blows away the government’s main justification for Cyberport.

Incidentally, Simon and HKMacs are equally puzzled by all of this.


Grrrr....

I'm sure I have previously mentioned the frustrations of using badly designed computer systems that assume that you must have a postcode or zip code.  Hong Kong is one of several countries that doesn't have either, but often they insist that you enter something anyway.

I have just had a very aggravating experience with one of these systems.  Typepad (the people who host this site) sent me an email saying that they couldn't process my credit card payment because the card company thought that the address didn't match.  So, off I went to the Typepad site to check my address, but I couldn't see any problems.  Plus, they have successfully processed payments from me in the past, and absolutely nothing has changed since then.

Typepad replied to my complaint by saying it was the card company's fault (but, of course) and that the message indicated a problem with the street address and the zip code.  So I entered the street address in line 2 and tried again.  Same error.  Remove the zip code.  No, same error. 

Eventually, after a long process of trial and error I discovered that the second line of the address is actually the name of the estate, the "city" contains the street address, and the "state/province/region" contains the town. 

How am I supposed to know that Typepad and the card company are using this logic in comparing the address?  Why should it even be my problem?  Anyone looking at the address information I have supplied could tell instantly that the details are the same, but the computer system lacks this basic common sense and just treats it as an error.  What a load of nonsense.


Cash? From a cash machine? Very old-fashioned notion.

They recently gave an OBE to the man who was credited with inventing the ATM machine  (though someone else has claimed that he had the idea first).

In case you care, the first ATM machine was installed outside a branch of Barclays Bank in London in 1967.  Waiting to use one today, I was thinking how far we have come in the last 40 years.  Oh, alright, 38 years.

In the early days, an ATM dispensed a fixed amount of money when you inserted a special punched card, and that was it.  Now you can do almost anything you want using an ATM, and consequently I often find myself stuck in a queue behind people who are paying five bills, transferring money to three different accounts (written on the back of their hand or scribbled on a scrap of paper), and carefully checking the balance on their account before deciding to withdraw HK$200.  Couldn’t do that in 1967, you know (not that I was using an ATM machine in 1967, I hasten to add). 

Today I duly waited in line for my turn behind someone who had two different ATM cards and was seemingly transferring money from one account to the other, then inserting the second card just to check that the money had arrived safely.  As you do...

Which would all have been fine, except that when it was my turn I inserted my card to be greeted with the message that the machine had run out of money.  Of course, if everyone used the ATM to withdraw cash then it would soon be obvious that this machine had a problem and no-one would bother queuing up there, but now that you can do so much else it hardly matters that a cash machine can't actually dispense cash.

Such is progress. 

Continue reading "Cash? From a cash machine? Very old-fashioned notion. " »


Racing certainty

Fumier mentions the curious story of a so-called “betting scam” operared by a syndicate in darkest Yuen Long.  I saw this story on the TV news last night, but I wasn’t quite sure what was going on and I can’t find it in the newspapers today – so I am grateful to Fumier for filling in the gaps.  It seems that this enterprising group arranged for spectators at games in the English Premier League and La Liga to call them whenever a goal was scored, and then promptly placed a bet on on the next goalscorer – before the bookmakers had updated their odds.

This is nothing new.  Many years ago in the UK, before we had the Premiership, mobile phones or those darned Internets - or even much betting on football - people used to ‘do the football pools’.  This curious activity involved predicting which football matches would end up as draws (don’t ask) and entering this on the pools coupon, normally submitted to an agent before the games started on Saturday afternoon.  Naturally enough, from August through to May the list of matches was taken from the Football League, but during the close season, it was based on the results of Australian soccer games. 

However, the Pools companies still allowed punters to submit coupons on Saturday morning.  Someone figured out that due to the time difference, the games were already finished by that time, and decided that if they submitted their coupon at the last minute with the not insignificant advantage of knowing the results, they might stand a better chance of winning. Remember that this was in the days when making an international call required three days notice and cost slightly more than dinner for two at the Ritz, so it did require a certain amount of initiative and expense to operate this scheme.

I doubt that anyone was prosecuted because no criminal offence had been committed, but the Pools companies changed their deadline to prevent it from happening again.  I get in trouble if I describe Fumier as a lawyer, but his opinion (as someone who is “probably a member of the legal fraternity”) is that it’s hard to imagine that the syndicate in Yuen Long are guilty of any kind of scam.  However, it is illegal to place bets in Hong Kong except with the Hong Kong Jockey Club, so PC Plod arrested some of them and confiscated a few of their PCs.

I suppose it must have looked just a little suspicious to have a large bet placed on David Prutton to score for Southampton just a few seconds before the news came through of his goal. 


A small one please

I have to say that I am quite impressed with the new Mac mini, though I suspect that the headline price of US$499 is not what most people will be paying after they have added on everything they want (bigger hard drive, DVD writer, etc.).  Nevertheless, it does seem much more affordable than previous Macs.    

Designoptical20050111I have steered clear of Macs thus far, for two main reasons – the price and the availability of software.  This seems to fix the price issue (there’s an interesting article here comparing the Mac mini with a basic Dell PC), so we are left with the question of software.  It seems that the Mac mini comes with a reasonable bundle of software, and I suppose that now Microsoft have adopted their more restrictive licensing policy it isn’t possible to transfer Office to a new PC (is it?) so that takes away one reason to stick with the PC platform.

I’m no expert on operating systems, but I suppose Apple has an advantage here.  Not so much with stabilty (XP is a big improvement on earlier versions of Windows) but with viruses, spyware and popups, all of which are real aggravations for Windows users.  Yes, you can install tools to protect yourself, but they usually seem to almost be more trouble than they are worth, severely restricting what you can do or just being inconvenient to use.

The small size is a real advantage in Hong Kong, where space is at a premium, and prices for monitors and keyboards are very competitive so a quick trip to Sham Shui Po (or Wan Chai computer centre for the posh people on Hong Kong side) will soon have that sorted out.    

I’m certainly tempted.


Sleeping with the fishes

About ten days ago, my son was given three small goldfish (is goldfish a generic term or do they all have different names?). 

A few days later the first one died.  OK, these things happen.

So we bought two more goldfish (these ones really looked like goldfish and were bigger).  Then the second one started behaving very oddly, perked up when we put it in a separate bowl (this was intended as a temporary measure in the expectation that it was going to expire shortly), and then died shortly after being put back with the others.

Then the third fish died.  Then the fourth fish died.  Whoops.

I am beginning to suspect that there's something fundamentally wrong, but I don't know the first thing about looking after fish (that's probably obvious, I guess) so I don't know what it might be.  Is it too cold?  Not enough food?  Too much food?  Not enough oxygen (we've got hundreds of those small blue oxygen balls, so it can't be that).  Bird Flu?   

Now we have to contend with the fact that (allegedly) fish get lonely if they are on their own, but based on our past record I'm not sure we should be buying any more, and I fear that this one will be dead within a matter of days anyway.  So I'm not sure what to do for the best.

Any advice (or goldfish recipes) welcome. 


Never boring

I think it is time for my annual "cricket isn't really boring" post.  Yesterday England beat South Africa in the fifth test match of a series that has been very competitive.

In this match, England started well in their first innings, faltered but then recovered and seemed to be in a strong position.    In reply, South Africa seemed headed for a modest total and at that stage England must have thought a win was quite possible.  In fact, 161 from Herschelle Gibbs and useful contributions from some of the lower order batsmen actually gave South Africa a small first innings lead. 

By this stage it looked like ending up as a draw, all the more so when England ended the 4th day on 197-5, but South Africa apparently thought they could win it by bowling England out quickly on the final day.  This proved to be over-optimistic, and Marcus Trescothick's excellent innnings allowed England to declare and set South Africa a target of 325 to win. Advantage England, but surely South Africa could still hang on for a draw?

Turns out that they couldn't, mainly as a result of Matthew Hoggard taking seven wickets.  England's main fear was that this would turn out like the 2nd test, when South Africa's batsmen hung on until bad light stopped play 15 overs earlier, but fortunately it did have a happy ending (at least if you are English). 


The best investment

There was a small story in yesterday's paper that caught my attention. It refers to a PBS show Wall $treet Week with Fortune (the transcript of which is here), on which Matthew Kiernan of Innovest Strategic Value Advisers argued that socially responsible firms offer better returns to investors:

[W]e know from all our Wall Street friends that management quality is the number one driver of financial performance by companies, and for us a company's ability to manage that swirling constellation of environmental and social issues better than their competitors is simply a proxy for superior strategic management. And show me a better managed company, I'll probably show you a financial out-performer as well.

The programme also interviewed Jeffret Immelt, GE’s CEO, about a project the company is undertaking in Ghana (building a hospital in a remote town) and asked him why they had done this: 

You can't create commerce, but you can create citizenship. In other words, I can't go create a customer, put them right down in the middle of Ghana -- someday I can -- but I do know how to be a good citizen and I do think we can learn from this experience so that we can decide how to approach Africa over time. And there's going to be oil and gas projects and other projects that are in Sub-Saharan Africa and we're going to be in a better position to understand how to do business in those economies.

In other words, companies cannot exist in isolation and ignore the communities in which they operate (or hope to operate in the future).  Good management knows that behaving responsibly helps employee satisfaction (which in turn almost always improves customer satisfaction) and that it improves their public image.  Although we are talking about intangibles, they do impact the bottom line in a positive way.

So whilst it might be intellectually attractive to argue that companies should always choose profitability over popularity, it doesn’t mean that it makes sense in the real world.  What I find encouraging about the Hunghom Peninsula business is that some Hong Kong companies are starting to think in the same way as some of the most admired companies worldwide.