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September 2006

Round-up

Hongkong Disneyland are now offering an annual pass (Disney passes aim to lure visitors) with prices that vary according to when you want to go there.  My advice (for what it's worth) - don't go there on a very hot day (because there's not enough shade) or when it's very busy (the queues are too long, and very few attractions currently have 'Fast Pass' available) and definitely don't go next week or over Chinese New Year (for obvious reasons).  Apart from that it's a great place to go.  Well, maybe.

Bangkok now has a new airport (New Thai airport opens to acclaim) which follows the trend for being big and modern but also much further from the city centre, and (in the fine tradition of Kuala Lumpur & Shanghai) they will only get round to finishing the public transport links in a year or two.  Maybe they were anticipating further delays - it seems that many airlines must have been, because several haven't got their lounges open yet.

You have to feel a little sympathy for Thaksin Shinawatra - this was one of his pet projects, and if only it had opened a few weeks earlier he would undoubtedly have been there, "bigging it up".  As it is, he is in London with only his vast personal fortune to console him.  Meanwhile, the BBC reports that the US imposes sanctions on Thailand - because, I suppose, a pointless gesture is required. 


The wrong kind of fat

Last year I seem to recall I was rather dismissive of a food label that said "0g Trans Fat" - on the grounds that the product still had a high fat content.  However, perhaps that was a little unfair - it is widely accepted that there are good fats and bad fats, and Trans Fats are the worst of the lot (The Guardian has more on this).

This is yet another case of the food industry finding something cheap that has benefits for them (it makes their products last longer and look and keep better) but which has no nutritional value and is actually very bad for whoever eats the stuff (see this in the New Scientist). 

Unsurprisingly, junk food often has a lot of Trans Fat in it - McDonald's settled a class-action suit last year and KFC are currently being sued in the US - but it can appear almost anywhere.  Food manufacturers know a good thing when they see it - good for them, bad for us, that is.   

Since the start of this year, it has been mandatory in the US to itemise Trans Fats, and I guess the UK will follow suit - big supermarkets have pledged to remove all Trans Fat from their own-label products, and several large manufacturers have also announced that they will at least reduce the amount in their products (and I'm sure that they will be keen to tell us about it).

It's highly unlikely that Hong Kong will make it mandatory to identify Trans Fats, so we will have to make do with the usual hotpotch of different labels from different countries.  There are a few clues, though, if you can recognize names such as "vegetable shortening" or "hydrogenated vegetable oil", or you may be able to compare the total percentage of fat with the breakdown (saturated, poly-unsaturated, mono-unsaturated) to see what is missing (clue - it's probably Trans Fat). 

Going back to those Pringles with 0g of Trans Fat, I noticed that there is another similar product which proudly claims that it is "baked, not fried", but lurking in the ingredients is vegetable shortening.  I think I know what that is...


Unwellcome

Only this morning I was wondering how many ways there are that I hate Hong Kong supermarkets.  This thought was prompted by the discovery that the most of the blueberries I bought a few days now seem to become rotten.  Would it really be so difficult to put "sell by" and "eat by" dates on the packaging?

Then I went to one of the nearby Wellcome supermarkets and things got worse.  I suppose I should have been alerted to what was going on by the army of old people outside the shop and the woman with 10 bottles of cooking oil in her shopping trolley.  Yes, that's right, it's 10% off everything day.  Why do they do this to me?  I probably visit this shop less than once a month, normally to buy a couple of things for my lunch, and I want to be in and out fast.  No chance of that today, just the same as back in May when I previously wrote about it - and once again I only realized this after wasting 5 minutes selecting what I wanted to buy.  

At least the crazy reductions at Park'n'Shop are fairly harmless, but unfortunately, there isn't much choice near where I work.  It's one of oddities of Hong Kong that you often find areas where all the supermarkets seem to be run by one or the other of the big two, and here there are three Wellcomes and no sign of Park'n'Shop.  Where I live it's the other way round.

Anyway, do promotions like this really help?  The risk is that you drive customers like me away (probably no great loss) and encourage people with more time to buy in bulk and then wait until then next 10% off day.  I remember about 10 years ago when the department store chain Debenhams used to have maybe 3 or 4 big sales each year, and as a result of this hardly sold anything the rest of the year because customers could easily wait till the next sale came round.  I think the management did eventually realize that this was not a smart strategy.     

Of course, walking around a busy supermarket is made even more unpleasant because they clog up the aisles with cardboard boxes full of stuff they are promoting.  Again, I really wonder whether this helps them but, hey, maybe they get enough money from the suppliers for displaying their products for it to be worthwhile. 


Communication problems

I've just been reading the hilarious argument between George Adams and the rest of the world over at Flagrant Harbour.

The consensus seems to be that the problem is with the company hosting the website and its connection to Reach, rather than anything in Hong Kong. 

George refuses to accept this and insists that his site is being blocked.  He obviously doesn't understand the Internet, and he also thinks that PCCW offers two separate broadband services, one for Now Broadband TV and one for Netvigator.  No, they don't. 


Keeping cool

I see that after Spike's complaint, the SCMP published a series of sensible letters on Friday (Denying our role in global warming will cost the Earth - subscription required), including this one which I thought summed it up quite well:

Correspondents like Richard Straw miss the point. The argument that it has not been conclusively proved that we are responsible for global warming echoes protestations from tobacco companies that there is no conclusive proof cigarettes wreck your health. Whether or not it kills you, smoking is a filthy, antisocial habit.

The world is bent on pouring millions of tonnes of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, filling the seas, lakes and rivers with filth and devastating natural habitats. Stopping, or at least limiting, these activities is a fitting end in itself - and if it happens to help slow or halt global warming, that is a bonus. In the meantime, apologists like Mr Straw and Hong Kong's power stations use every flimsy pretext to carry on destroying the world for us and for our children. It is not my cornflakes that I am choking on, Mr Straw, it is Hong Kong's filthy air.

TREVOR HUGHES, Pokfulam

The thing that strikes me about all of this is that there are so many things that could be done without affecting our quality of life or costing very much money (indeed, some would actually save money).  

For example, if all aircons allowed the speed of the fan to be adjusted it would be possible to provide good ventilation without making the place too cold. 

Taking this a step further, buildings can be designed to have good ventilation and more comfortable temperatures without excessive use of air conditioning.  The initial cost may be higher, but the savings in energy costs can be significant. 

Several years ago (in the UK) I worked in a fairly old building that could be uncomfortably hot in the summer (often only on one side).  Then the company installed "comfort cooling", which seemed to quite effective at moving cooler air from the side of the building that was in the shade across to the other side where the sun was making it hot.  I am not sure how this all works or what is possible, but couldn't the hot air also be used to warm up the water from the mains supply for showers etc?

Anyone who has been to the south of France will have noticed that their older buildings have thick walls (and small windows), and hence stay very cool even on the hottest days.  Most Hong Kong building are almost exactly the opposite, with thin walls and large windows, so not only are they hot in summer, they quickly become very cold when we have our few days a year of wintry weather.  Surely it wouldn't cost that much to build thicker walls?

Finally, I have just noticed that Simon Patkin has responded to my earlier post on this subject.  He seems upset that I am "sitting on the fence" and taking my usual rather sceptical view of both sides in this argument.  However, I have to say that Simon himself seems not so sure what he is arguing.  The title of an earlier post Global Warming is Not Man-Made, seems clear enough, but then he concludes his later post with this:

There is no overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is man made as Al Gore claims

Which is probably a fair point (though the grammar may leave something to be desired).  However, clearly that isn't the same thing as saying definitively that global warming is not man-made.

I accept that there are scientists who have quite reasonable doubts about global warming.  What concerns me is that companies such as Exxon (Royal Society tells Exxon: stop funding climate change denial) and assorted nutcases are using this for their own ends.  

Even if there was overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming was man-made, I don't think that this would alter Simon's belief that we should ignore it and just get on with making as much money as possible (or doing whatever else is in our rational self-interest).  Fortunately, many large corportations take a more enlightened view (Business has to do more to tackle climate change).  


Not what I was expecting, but...

About six months ago I was hoping that the the problems in Thailand would get resolved peacefully.  It now rather looks as if they will be, but only because the military have staged a coup and ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, the democratically elected prime minister.  Which wasn't really what I had in mind as an ideal outcome.  And yet...

One of the problems with democracy is that sometimes the voters pick the wrong person.  You have to wonder what possessed the the British Conservative Party to choose first William Hague and then Ian Duncan-Smith as the leader of their party.  That would never have happened in the old days when the party grandees would rouse themselves from their comfortable chairs and choose a "suitable" person to take on the job.  It goes without saying that they wouldn't have chosen David Cameron (or at least not just yet).

The Thai people chose Thaksin because he seemed to offer a change from the past.  When he proved to be no different from most of his predecessors, he should have lost the next election and disappeared from public life.  Indeed, if the voters of Bangkok had their way, then that is exactly what would have happened, but Thaksin remained extremely popular with the electorate in the rest of the country.  As far as they were concerned, he had made a promise to help them and he hadn't let them down, so they were happy to vote for him.  In a democracy, the majority prevail over the minority, and the majority of people in Thailand live in rural areas. 

Thaksin could probably have remained in power, but he really pushed his luck by ignoring the King's opinions and also trying to put his own people in to run the military.  He must have know that this was a high-risk strategy, and hardly a wise thing for an unpopular leader to do, especially so soon after the fuss about the way that he had avoided paying tax on the sales of his company.  Winning an election does not mean that you can do whatever you want  

Nevertheless, I'm sure there are scores (if not hundreds) of leaders in newspapers around the world today expressing grave concerns about the way that democracy has been undermined in Thailand.  Well, yes, but I suspect that history will judge that Thaksin did rather more to damage to democracy in Thailand than Tuesday's coup.

So whilst I feel uneasy about Thaksin being deposed by a military coup, and by the King's role in all of this, it's hard to escape the conclusion that a new civilian government and a revised constitution could very well be the best outcome.


Now That Should Create More Publicity

An email from George Adams is a rare treat, especially when he manages not to be offensive.

His reason for contacting me was that his website is apparently not available to anyone who has Netvigator as their ISP, and he felt that I might be outraged by this.

Well, up to a point, Dr Adams. If you have a long memory, you may recall that a while back there was great celebration over at George's website because some blogs were being banned in China. This was hailed as a public service since all blogs are trivial, dreary things that serve no useful purpose.

So unlike George's website, which has lots of *important stuff*. Like, er, amusing photographs, pictures of George's girlfriend, tales of how much weight George has lost, whinges about how his part of Hong Kong has been spoiled by this or that development, jokes about Gweilos and their Asian girlfriends (irony alert) and even more amusing photographs.

George thinks that he has upset Li Ka-Shing, a theory that has been bolstered by news that HGC are also "blocking" his website (Hutchison Global Crossing is part of Li's empire, whilst Netvigator is owned by his son). I love conspiracy theories (especially when they are set forth on websites that use large fonts and brightly coloured backgrounds) so I do hope that there isn't a simple explanation for all this.

Update: I have just noticed that both Sun Gai Gweilo and BWG mentioned this yesterday.  Randall at BWG seems to think that there is a problem somewhere other than in Hong Kong that is preventing access to George's website. 


The same old rubbish?

The BBC is to replace BBC Sub-Prime with a new channel, BBC Entertainment.  It's not at all clear what this might mean (after all, BBC Prime is already supposed to an entertainment channel) but I suppose we can hope for fewer old sitcoms starring Geoffey Palmer and something more modern instead. 

The BBC will also offer three other channels, BBC Knowledge and BBC Lifestyle and CBeebies but it is not clear when (or if) they will be available in Hong Kong: 

  • BBC Knowledge was once a digital television channel in the UK "dedicated to the very best cultural and factual programming", but it was replaced by BBC Four.
  • BBC Lifestyle sounds as if it will be the lighter factual stuff such as cooking, gardening, travel, antiques and the like.
  • CBeebies is a children's channel (hey - more Teletubbies!!)

I suppose the decision the BBC have to make is whether to sell programmes to foreign broadcasters or put them out on their own channels.  Currently, TVB Pearl, ATV World (and sometimes even Star World) have BBC programmes scattered randomly across their schedule (ATV are currently showing Dr Who, for example).  Don't suppose that brings in much money, though.  Do subscriptions to BBC Prime bring in more, though?  Possibly not, which is why BBC Prime usually has old or obscure stuff.

I don't watch BBC Prime very much, but I caught some of it on Friday night.  They were showing a strange black comedy called Spine Chillers that was apparently first broadcast on BBC Three 3 years ago (see - old and obscure).  At the start there appeared to be an 'M' (mature) certificate, but they still bleeped out all the bad language.  Ridiculous.


On a roll

Sometimes it seems that Jake van der Kamp struggles to find things to write about in his daily SCMP column - you may recall that he was famously caught out by an April Fool joke earlier this year.

However, he has really got stuck into the debate on GST.  Unfortunately you need a paid subcription to read these articles, but they are worth some of your time if you do:

Great taskmaster Tang fails to do his homework on needless GST (which I wrote about here)

Make your own case properly before preaching to us, Mr Tsang

And how can you be so certain that GST is the right thing for us when most people seem to think it is the wrong thing? If your knowledge is so superior to ours, why bother with a public consultation on GST at all? You should disdain our faulty understanding in that case, as your financial secretary does.

"Evasion is never a way out."

Glad you recognise it, Sir. Here are some points not to evade then. 1) GST would not significantly reduce the volatility of government revenues. 2) We have a wide fiscal revenue base that you can call narrow only by ignoring significant sources of revenue. 3) We have plenty of savings to cover deficits in bad years. 4) We now have accruals accounting to show us that our past deficit - we are well into surplus at present - was never that bad anyway.

Don't listen to Henry, we're rolling in reserves and should use them

"The fiscal reserve totals about HK$300 billion, but the finance chief [Henry Tang Ying-yen] said: `We used HK$190 billion from the reserves to survive the last recession. When the next economic cycle comes, the total deficit we face could be much bigger than HK$190 billion. We do not have much left to keep us afloat'."    SCMP, September 9

[..]

What we are left with after taking out amounts owed to others is two items. The first is HK$312 billion in government placements, which, I assume, is the figure Henry refers to.

Then there is HK$468 billion in accumulated surplus. This is ours. The government is the sole owner of the Exchange Fund.

Put the two together and you get HK$780 billion in savings. So it is just not true, Henry, that "we do not have much left to keep us afloat". We have plenty.

I am waiting for the government to respond.

[Update: all links seem to be broken.  The SCMP appear to be messing around with their site.]


You have been warned

As you may have noticed, I have a strange fascination with Hong Kong's bewildering array of weather warnings. 

Yesterday we had a typhoon pass by Hong Kong.  Although it's initial track was towards Hong Kong, it then turned west and was always heading away from here.  The no.1 (standby) signal was raised on Tuesday afternoon, and that should have been the end of it.  However, the Observatory issued the no.3 (strong wind) signal yesterday morning, followed by all the other warnings they could think of (Torrential rain causes widespread flooding): 

Between 11.45am and 12.15pm, the landslip, thunderstorm and red rainstorm warnings were all issued alongside the No 3 signal. The Observatory said this had never happened before. The previous record was set in 1999 when a landslip and rainstorm warning was issued alongside a typhoon signal, an Observatory spokesman said.

The No 3 signal was raised for four hours, from 10.35am to 2.40pm. The only time it was raised for less than that, without a No 8 signal being raised, was on July 1, 1966, when it went up for one hour.

An Observatory spokesman said that although a tropical cyclone brought heavy rain, the winds were not particularly strong, but a sudden change in wind direction justified the decision to raise the No 1 signal to a No 3 signal.

"The tropical depression was edging west-northwest, but it changed direction to northwest. That meant that Hong Kong would be affected as winds would be east to south easterly," scientific officer Tam Cheuk-ming said.

The winds were not particularly strong, but they thought they would raise the "Strong Wind" signal.  Good thinking, that man.