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December 2006

Ron's back

That mysterious man Ron Goodden is at it again, getting his letter (Let Israel be Iraq's guide) published in the SCMP.  Yet again there is no apparent connection with Hong Kong, and Mr Goodden lives in Atlanta, Georgia - which wasn't anywhere near Hong Kong last time I checked.

It's not as if the SCMP had a prestigious letter column where world issues are debated - it's either about Hong Kong issues or by Hong Kong people, so a letter like this is distinctly out of place.  I suppose what it comes to is that they'll publish any old rubbish to fill up the space.

Yes, I know, but before I ever thought of doing a blog, I considered a website devoted entirely the weird and wonderful letters published in the SCMP.  So it could have been much worse.


BBC free?

The BBC has made an interesting announcement:

Hundreds of episodes of BBC programmes will be made available for free on a file-sharing network for the first time, the corporation has announced.

The move follows a deal between the commercial arm of the organisation, BBC Worldwide, and technology firm Azureus.

The agreement means that users of Azureus' Zudeo software in the US can download titles such as Little Britain.

The headline says said "free", but the story seems to contradict this: 

No pricing structure for the BBC content on Zudeo has been revealed.

It seems rather unlikely that the BBC would make Little Britain available for free when they are also selling DVDs commercially.  There's also a press release from Azureus that talks about 'premium content', which is usually code for charging money.  I think the confusion may have arisen because Azureus developed a BitTorrent client, which some naughty people may have used to download programmes illegally.  The latest idea is to use the same infrastructure to sell content, though it remains to be seen whether this will work. 

UPDATE: They have changed it so that it no longer says 'for free'.  Whilst they're correcting errors, shouldn't it be "Azureus's Zudeo software"?  And I hope that's the last time I have to type those horrible names...

As usual, it seems that this will be limited to users in the USA, at least initially.  Viewers in the UK can already access many BBC programmes from the BBC website (for free).  And Hong Kong?  I'm not holding my breath.   


Beware of the leopard

One of the better jokes in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is when Arthur Dent is informed that the plans for the (imminent) destruction of Earth were on display for nine months and no-one objected.  It seems that the something similar happened with the government's plan to demolish the Star Ferry Pier. After they started knocking it down, the  protests started, so the government pointed out that this had been planned for a long time and they had even been through one of their famous "consultation" exercises.  No-one had objected, and now it was too late.

Of course these plans weren't actually on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard', but the effect seems to have been much the same. 

Which is strange really, because you'd think that the opening of a new ferry pier (and all the talk about reclamation) would have been a pretty big clue that the old ferry pier would soon be gone. However, when the demolition work started the protestors arrived, and (as the SCMP explained last week) the government should have expected this:

For five years it has been in possession of a study of the historic value of the Star Ferry and adjacent Queen's piers, as part of an environmental impact assessment of the reclamation. The report describes the Star Ferry pier as a building of great significance in the city's transport history, and predicts accurately that its destruction would "likely raise public objection and dismay".

The few members of the public who had read the report could be excused for naively believing the piers would be preserved. But reading the report was easier said than done, until conservationists resurrected a copy this week in a last-ditch attempt at preservation.

Unlike other reports on the reclamation, it was not posted on the government website and the hard copy was available for public inspection only within working hours at a government office. Officials deny hiding the report for years and blame technical problems. Nonetheless, it is a cautionary reminder that it is not uncommon for governments to tell people what they want them to hear.

Communication is about listening to what people say, and making sure everyone understands what you say. If people haven't understood, then your "consultation" has been a failure, and you will appear arrogant and out-of-touch if you try to argue otherwise.   

I am not convinced that people in Hong Kong really care about the Star Ferry pier itself - it's not exactly a distinguished piece of architecture. It's more of a protest against the way that the government and big business simply don't seem to care what ordinary people think. There was nothing wrong with the Star Ferry where it was, but it got in the way of another grand plan, so it had to go.  That's why people are not happy. 

Incidentally, I see that there is now a plan to extend the tram system to the new Star Ferry pier. Well, I suppose we need something to replace the rickshaws.  All part of the integrated transport policy, no doubt.


Stubborn?

Hemlock has noticed this article from the Financial Times (also here):

Yet a belief persists in Hong Kong that its future interest lies, not in accentuating its distinctive strengths, but in blurring them by throwing in its lot with the mainland. Sooner or later, the argument goes, it will be enveloped economically by its giant neighbour, so why not accept the inevitable now?

The argument has been appropriated by Hong Kong tycoons, who calculate that telling Beijing what it wants to hear will win them commercial favours. Beijing treats their pleading as the voice of informed opinion in the territory.

Though superbly administered, Hong Kong is inadequately governed. The executive, led by Donald Tsang, lacks a political compass. Its strategic vision is dominated by an infatuation with big projects. Many seem conceived out of a stubborn desire to display political authority. When, like a recently mooted goods and services tax, they sink for want of public support, Hong Kong's leaders tend to conclude that the reason is not bad policies but failure to push them hard enough.

That's a favourite refrain of companies that don't listen (whether to their employees or their customers) - "if only we could get people to understand what we are doing, they would agree with it".  Oh no, they wouldn't, so please stop patronising us.


Not in Hong Kong

Buy an iPod? No, not me, they're over-priced and not really that much better than any other MP3 player. That was my view, so about a year ago I bought a small Creative MP3 player. Nothing much wrong with it, but it's not exactly user-friendly.

So now I have an iPod Nano. The GUI is user-friendly, and iTunes is easy-to-use. The problems so far are that if I am half way through listening to a podcast when I synchronize it disappears (because it thinks I have listened to it), and it 'freezes up' a bit too often for my liking (though it does make a full recovery after a reset). Apart from that it's very good. I think I am convinced,

However, the iTunes Music Store is STILL not available in Hong Kong, which means that I'm still looking for somewhere legal to download music. The latest possibility is eMusic - the plus point is that there's no copy protection, the negatives are that they don't have deals with the major labels (so their selection is quite limited - even more so for Hong Kong residents), the previews are far too brief and you have to subscribe for a set number of downloads each month. So far, I'm struggling to find enough songs to download to justify the monthly fee.

I think they could help by making the site easier to navigate (such as allowing you to view all tracks by an artist rather than forcing you to select an album first), having a track rating system (enabling them to make better recommendations), and (ideally) offer full previews rather than limiting them to 30 seconds. Actually, I think what I really want is Musicmatch, but that isn't available in Hong Kong.    

On the subject of iTunes, it was reported recently that sales at the iTunes Music Store were down by 65%:

Forrester said it got its figures by analysing 2,791 US iTunes debit and credit card purchases conducted by members of its consumer panel.

While overall US sales at the iTunes Music Store were down 65%, the number of monthly transactions had declined 58%, while the average size per purchase had fallen 17%, Forrester said.

Except that Forrestor now say that their report was misunderstood by Reuters, and reading the summary on their website this does seem to be the case. The report led to a fall in Apple's share price, which is even weirder when you consider that their profits mainly come from selling iPods, not selling music.  Apple say the report is wrong, but have not elaborated any further, and probably have no need to do so because the point of the Music Store is to boost sales of iPods (which they do announce, and which are still going up).

And still no news of the iTunes Music Store coming to Hong Kong.


Panic tank?

The blog with no comments continues to puzzle me not inconsiderably.

I was expecting large quantities of misguided rhetoric about rational self-interest (i.e. why companies should be free to do just whatever they like and hang the consequences), and I did really think that there might be some fun to be had from picking apart the dubious logic.  Instead it's like shooting fish in a barrel - this rather sad piece has been at the top for the last few weeks:

Panic Tank

In my not so humble opinion, Civic Exchange is not so much a think tank, but rather a panic tank. This time their press release screams "Climate Change: Will the Factory of the World Sink or Swim?". For various reasons, I am not going to bother replying to this nonsense coming from Loh and Co.

I mean, what's the point? 


Small election, not many hurt

When I was walking to the supermarket on Sunday I was slightly surprised to see a police wagon driving along and a couple of policeman standing by the side of the road looking bored. Then I remembered that we were having an election.  How could I have forgotten?  Well, maybe because (like most people in Hong Kong) I don't have a vote in this election - and of the 200,000 who do, only just over a quarter actually bothered to vote, so I'm not surprised the policemen looked bored.

Welcome to the surreal world of Hong Kong politics.

The only point of interest in the election was whether the pan-democrats could win more than 100 seats on the Election Committee, enabling them to nominate a candidate (Alan Leong Kah-Kit) to stand against Donald Tsang in the election for a new Chief Executive next March. They did, and they will, but they also know that he will lose (because the Central Government appoints most of the members of the Election Committee).

This brings us to the central problem of Hong Kong politics - the pan-democrats are by nature an opposition grouping, which will no longer be relevant when there is the possiblity of gaining real power. Like all single issue parties, the irony is that if you are successful you should cease to exist.

Therefore it isn't relevant whether Alan Leong would make a good CE or not, because he isn't going to win the election. His policies really don't matter. Equally, you may well think that Donald Tsang has proved himself to be a competent CE and deserves to be re-elected, but that isn't the point either. In fact, in a totally free election, Tsang might well win, but then if we had a totally free election he would probably be up against a stronger candidate...

I suppose the only positive thing that can be said about all this strangeness is that it's better to have an election than not to have one - even if we do know the result in advance.


Lost in translation

EastSouthWestNorth (EWSN) is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious English language blogs in Hong Kong - what Roland Soong mainly does is translate newspaper articles and blog postings from Chinese into English. This ought to be a useful public service for those us too lazy to learn Chinese, because the harsh reality is that Dr. Johnson's famous remark about dogs walking on their hind legs is all too apt when it comes to the English language media here, so it's quite important to know what is being said in the Chinese media (and Spike magazine had it right when they included articles translated from Next and Apple Daily).

Unfortunately, the problem I have always had with EWSN is that Roland is so obviously biased against the pan-democrats.  That's fine, of course, and if he chooses to spend his own time on translating articles and publishing a blog then he's fully entitled to say whatever he likes. 

However, what it means in practice is that I don't take his blog very seriously because I am always conscious of the not-so-hidden agenda.  For example, when he wrote at great length about the varying estimates for the number of marchers on anti-Tung, pro-democracy rallies I found it impossible to take him seriously as an independent expert (as he portrayed himself).

Now it seems that he has mis-represented a blog posting that referred to Alan Leong's campaign for the CE election, and Tom Legg is on the case (The Perils Of Taking Roland Soong Seriously): 

Some time ago, I learned a lesson to always check originals before trusting a translation from ESWN's Roland Soong. It was an embarrassing episode. It's one I'd rather not make again.

Simon at SimonWorld hasn't felt so burned... yet.

Would it surprise you if I suggested that you go investigate the entry for yourself before relying on Roland's translation/interpretation?

Unfortunately the best I can do when translating from Chinese to English is to use AltaVista or Google's translation tools, and they aren't much help here.  So I'll just have to assume that Tom knows what he's talking about!!   


Windy

Yesterday London was hit by a tornado! The Sun has photographs of what it did to houses in a suburban street.  Scary stuff. 

The Guardian's picture is rubbish, but their story may be more informative:

Wild weather: floods, gales and the terrifying sight of a tornado in London

Just before 11am in a fashionable part of north London, Caroline Phillips, a freelance writer, thought the apocalypse had come. Sitting at the front window of her home writing about the benefits of complementary therapy, she looked up to see the sky turn black. A grey tornado, taller than a house, spewing debris and roaring like a jet, was heading straight for her. 

"I dived under my desk and started screaming hysterically," she said. "I had my arms over my head. I heard the windows shatter all over the house." Roofs were ripped off cars, dustbins took to the air, and the facades of houses crumbled to expose the insides of children's bedrooms, as an 1,800ft tornado, gusting to 110mph, tore through the area. 

The tornado came amid wild weather across much of Britain yesterday. More than 60 flights out of Heathrow airport were cancelled, trains were delayed in the south of England after flooding between Eastleigh and Fareham in Hampshire, P&O ferry services between Dover and Calais were cancelled, and huge seas raged off the Welsh coast in force 11 storms.

Makes me glad to be in Hong Kong.


Now and the EPL

Wednesday's SCMP had a short piece about the English Premier League coverage moving from Cable TV to Now Broadband TV (Premier League loss not end of world for i-Cable):

Badge of honour

At Now TV, meanwhile, executives are proud of their Premiership coup, but they can't talk about it as much as they like because Cable TV remains the exclusive rights holder until the end of May. PCCW people attending this week's ITU Telecom World are wearing badges proclaiming: "Now TV - We Love Football", but without mentioning the Premier League.

Alex Arena, PCCW executive director, told us that Now TV won't begin advertising the Premiership until June.

The US$200 million that PCCW reportedly paid for the three-year football package is too much, according to some people in the industry but don't tell that to Mr Arena. He said the deal is very cost-effective.

"Our competitors say the rights aren't worth that much? That might be true if we were only leveraging on one or two delivery platforms," he replied.

"But PCCW has four platforms - Now TV, the internet, mobile phones, even fixed-line phones. Our costs are not very high when you calculate the returns according to this new model."

He held out the tantalising possibility that next year PCCW could become the first carrier in the world to broadcast football matches live to mobile phones. The obstacle until now has been overheating of the handset battery but Mr Arena said the CMB technology licensed to PCCW Mobile by Huawei Technologies gets around the problem.

"The CMB technology allows us to broadcast a match in a way that consumes less battery power. Users should be able to watch a full 90-minute match on their phones," Mr Arena said. Not only Huawei handsets support the service, he added.

Another advance that could arrive along with the Premiership matches is high-definition television. The Premier League is keen to have its games shown in HDTV format, though Mr Arena wouldn't say if it would happen next year.

He said Now has ample transmission capacity and plans to show every Premiership match live. He declined to say how much customers will be asked to pay for the service.

When I wrote about this previously, Henry pointed out that PCCW were advertising in the Chinese press promoting the ESPN/Star Sports channel and offering a 2 year contract at the current price (HK$88/month).  The problem with this is that it is not clear how much of the coverage you will get for your $88.  It's probably reasonable to assume that this will be similar to what ESPN/Star offered last time they had the EPL in Hong Kong, but with up to 4 live games simultaneously (for the Saturday 3pm games) as they currently do with the Champions League.  However, there's no guarantee of that, nor is there any indication how much they will charge for other services - I think it's likely that there will be a dedicated EPL channel (similar to Cable TV current offering) and a VOD service.  As the SCMP suggest, it's also possible they could offer a premium rate HDTV service (though personally I'd just settle for normal definition rather than the distinctly low-definition picture I get from Cable TV).

I am rather dubious about the idea of broadcasting football to mobile phones.  Highlights maybe, but who wants to watch a whole game on a tiny screen?