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August 2007

Euphemisms

I love it when companies try to get away with whopping great lies.

A drive-in cinema opened in West Kowloon at the end of last year, and it has had an advert in the SCMP for several months.  For the last few weeks the advert has solemnly announced that the cinema is closed for a private function.  Then the advert stopped appearing.  What can this mean?

One of the restaurants at the somewhat beleaguered Ngong Ping Village, has a sign announcing that it is closed for "emergency renovations".  Yeah, right.   


Slightly better - EPL on Now

After months of hype, the Now coverage of the English Premier League is finally here - and it's both better and (slightly) worse than I had expected.

The first big surprise for me was that none of the games are being shown on ESPN or Star Sports.  I am sure that when the deal was announced it was implied that at least some of the games would be on those channels, and when I enquired about subscribing to ESPN/Star Sports shortly after the EPL deal was announced, I believe that Now's customer service people confirmed that this would be the case.

Strangely, the pre-game show (in English) is being broadcast on ESPN, but for the live coverage you then need to switch to one of 6 Now Sports channels .  They are also showing Football Focus in midweek. 

The English commentary comes from the UK anyway, and generally would be the same on whichever channel in HK has the EPL rights - except that I recall that for some games ESPN/Star used to take the whole Sky Sports package of preview, commentary and analysis.  Excellent - but the basic English commentary is perfectly adequate. 

As expected, Now Sports 1 is a general sports channel and Now Sports 2 is basically an EPL channel. Now Sports 3 has live games from Italy (Serie A), Brazil & Japan, and the other 3 channels only burst into life when a live game is shown - and they show every EPL game live, so that's a clear improvement over Cable TV.

The other improvement is that they have an "on demand" service, and (surprisingly) there is no additional charge for this - but not all the games are included.  It may be that some games are featured on Now Sports 2 and others are available "on demand" but I haven't figured that one out yet.  There is also an Internet service (for an extra fee).

Finally, the HD (high definition) service is also now available, but only in some parts of Hong Kong.  It only covers selected games (presumably the ones chosen by Sky Sports), and the monthly fee seems to be about HK$100 (including the decoder rental charge).  However, you need to have a TV with an HDMI connector that includes HDCP (Copy Protection), and games can only be recorded in SD.  I haven't yet managed to see what it looks like.

The SCMP has printed a torrent of complaints about Now (and Cable TV) over the last few weeks.  One very valid criticism is that PCCW make great play of the channels being available 'a la carte', but they don't actually allow you to subscribe to ESPN & Star Sports separately from the 'Mega Sports Pack' (HK$218/month).  Well, not unless you complain long and loud, it seems - the SCMP published a letter from one reader who was eventually allowed to do this.  So I guess a few people will be pushing PCCW to get the same 'concession'.  Good luck!


Out through the window

New Scientist (subscription required) asks why so few eco-friendly buildings are being built.  Good question.

In Hong Kong (and large parts of China) that means designing buildings that can be kept cool in the summer without excessive use of air-conditioning.  It's not happening, is it?  Developers prefer to throw up apartments with thin walls and hardly any insulation.  Even if you are sceptical about global warming, surely it has to be a good thing to be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter without having to pay a small fortune to CLP or HK Electric? 

There are lots of things that could be done, but so far developers don't seem interested: 

Danny Harvey likes his Toronto office, especially the 8-square-metre window that lets the sunlight flood in. But one day last week he did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. Winter temperatures in the Canadian city can drop to -20 °C, and Harvey estimated that keeping his office at 20 °C in such weather pours 2000 watts of heat through the window. That wastes more energy than boiling a kettle all day.

For Harvey, a climate change expert at the University of Toronto who has developed plans to radically reduce energy use in buildings, that is hard to bear. What he sees outside his window makes it even worse. All across town, the energy sins committed by the architects of his office are being repeated. Apartment blocks are springing up and big windows are in fashion. High-performance windows that could drastically reduce heat loss are available, yet builders are not using the best products. "Every single apartment is a future liability," says Harvey.

It need not be that way. According to a newly published collection of studies by Harvey and others, the carbon dioxide generated by energy use in buildings - a third of the global total of man-made CO2 emissions - could be cut by almost 30 per cent in little more than a decade. The technology to achieve this already exists, in contrast with aviation or power generation, say, where reducing emissions may require significant innovation. What's more, future energy savings mean most of such spending would pay for itself in three to seven years.

That's a very short payback period.  One would also hope that such apartments would have higher resale values.

So are the studies likely to boost the fight against climate change? Unfortunately not. The papers, which appear in a special issue of Building Research & Information, may map the route towards a much more sustainable future, but construction experts say that much of the world is taking a different path. In China, rapid urbanisation is fuelling a construction boom, and the country's developers are ignoring environmental building codes. Meanwhile, the world's other big greenhouse gas emitter, the US, is building larger houses that are helping wipe out gains from improved efficiency standards. "The trends are in the opposite direction to what we need," says Danny Parker, a buildings researcher at the University of Central Florida in Cocoa.

Continue reading "Out through the window" »


F Off

I see that Fumier has closed down his blog.  It just disappeared on Monday evening, with not so much as a word of explanation, and without any warning. 

Where will I be able to read about the poor standard of driving in Hong Kong?  As if I cared...

Does this mean that Freddie Fumier will stop writing to the SCMP?

So many questions, so little interest.

Meanwhile, I have added Alice Poon to the list of Hong Kong blogs, but I still haven't got round to buying her book.


Boston Legal on Star World

I'd just about given up hope of Boston Legal season 2 (which I wrote about recently) appearing on Star World, but they have finally got round to showing series 2 on Wednesday nights (10 pm), just as series 4 is about to start in the States. 

Meanwhile, TVB had Desperate Housewives (Season 3) in their schedule for Thursday nights (starting tomorrow) until they changed their mind and replaced it with the 2nd series of Hotel Babylon.  Which means (I think) that Star World are going to beat them to the punch.

[UPDATE] I see that the SCMP TV page still lists Desperate Housewives for tonight, even though TVB have been advertising Hotel Babylon for at least a week. Words fail me (again)... 


Bunk Beds in the sky

A few years ago there was a TV programme, putting forward an interesting idea about how to make better use of the space available on board planes.  I didn't watch the programme, but I came across a summary of it on a website (though of course I can't find it now).

The idea was a sort of bunk bed arrangement, giving each passenger the space to sit or lie flat.  It's an interesting concept because you are taking the space above people's heads and converting it into something more useful.  Not so great if you are claustrophobic, of course, and there would surely be some safety concerns related to the amount of time it would take to evacuate the cabin, but the big disadvantage for airlines would be that they make money from selling business class seats, and this might encourage some passengers to use economy instead.

However, the idea has re-surfaced after Lufthansa asked its customers for some ideas for improving air travel (Daily Mail, news.com.au).  They appear to be considering this as an option for the new Airbus A380 (which has bigger cabins), though it remains to be seen whether they are really taking it seriously.  The mock-up certainly looks cramped, and it's hard to see how it would convert from seats (for take-off and landing) to beds.  It appears that passengers would spend most of the flight in their bunk-beds, not be served any food, and not have a TV.  If you choose this option you would be expected to sleep almost all the way.

It's certainly innovative.  Most flights from Hong Kong to London/Europe leave around midnight, and it makes sense to eat in the airport and then sleep on the plane.  Sleeping in an economy seat is hard enough, and even if you don't eat the food, the noise and movement caused by the meal being served is quite disturbing.  So if they let you (try to) sleep straight after take-off that sounds like a good idea.

However, not all long-haul flights are overnight.  For example, the Hong Kong-London legs of Qantas and Air New Zealand flights leave in the morning and arrive in the afternoon, and many flights from Asia to the USA leave in the morning and arrive the same morning (due to the time difference).  I don't think you'd have many takers for bunk beds on a day flight. 

They have said that they could offer this for a little more than the full economy fare, which I think means that the price would be similar to Premium Economy (roughly double the discounted economy fare).

At that price (and based on the mock-up) I don't think that it would attract people who currently fly Business Class - especially as it seems that this will become even more luxurious on an A380 - so I think it might really happen.


More choice, more confusion, more money

Tim Noonan in the SMP on the strange business of sport on pay-tv in Hong Kong (subscription required):

It all started a few years back when ESPN and Star Sports left Hong Kong Cable for Now TV. Cable subsequently bid for the rights to broadcast the coveted English Premier League (EPL), which was on ESPN Star at the time.

That's not strictly correct.  3 years ago Cable TV outbid ESPN/Star for the EPL rights, and following that the two channels switched to PCCW's Now Broadband TV.  There had clearly been a strained relationship between the two organizations for several years - 10 years ago they shared the rights, and then Cable TV got exclusive rights and dropped ESPN, and then a couple of years later ESPN/Star got the exclusive rights and only finalized a deal for the channels to be broadcast on Cable a matter of days before the season started.  So it was no surprise 3 years ago when ESPN & Star Sports switched to Now, though Cable TV did claim that they had tried to retain the channels.     

You figured that once Now TV acquired the rights to the EPL, for a number reputed to be in the range of HK$1.5 billion for three years, that it would seem like everything was under one roof, what with ESPN Star, the Golf Channel and Golf Tour network also on Now, what else would you need?

I'll tell you what you need. You need a quick primer, so here we go. Yes, the EPL is on Now and since they have a number of dedicated channels they can show every single match.

What they cannot show is the half-time studio show from John Dykes and his crew on ESPN. They show parts of his pre-game show as well as a post-game highlight show much later and that's it.

If English-speaking viewers want some sort of analysis with their half-time highlight package, they are out of luck.

There's a fundamental problem here.  No-one can seriously doubt that ESPN/Star have the resources to provide excellent coverage of almost any major sport (for baseball, basketball, etc. they can work with ESPN, for soccer, cricket, etc., they can work with Sky).  However that coverage will be in English.  Understandably, Hong Kong broadcasters want to provide their viewers with something in Cantonese. 

You might ask why Now can't offer a choice of English (ESPN/Star) or Cantonese (locally produced) coverage.  Good question.  I suspect the problem is that to get back the huge investment they have made, PCCW need to guarantee that their sponsors and advertisers are the only ones whose names are associated with the coverage (and ESPN/Star have separate sponsors for their coverage). PCCW must be worried that given the choice a substantial number of viewers would watch John Dykes et al.

For the EPL, it is (just about) possible to separate the pre-game and post-game shows from the matches themselves, and that is what they are doing, but for other sports it wouldn't be practical (particularly if the rights are owned by Cable TV rather than PCCW).         

But maybe you don't care about the EPL, perhaps your game is tennis and you were looking forward to watching next week's US Open on Star Sports, where it has been for years.

Well, forget it.

While everyone else in Asia will be watching it on Star Sports, unless you have Hong Kong Cable you won't be watching it here as they now own the rights to it to go along with the French Open.

And golfers who subscribed to the Golf Channel and Golf Tour Channel are now over par. The upcoming FedEx Cup as well as the President's Cup belong to Hong Kong Cable as well as every PGA tournament with the exception of the four majors.

So if you can get the British Open and US Open on ESPN and the Masters on Star Sports, why are you paying HK$75 a month for Now's golf package?

To watch the Scandinavian Masters? Granted, you get the PGA Championship, number four on the major scale, and the Ryder Cup every two years. But is that enough?

Probably it isn't, but if you signed-up for 18 or 24 months you can't do much about it.  As far as I know, most UK subscribers are on monthly contracts and can cancel at any time, which is not the case here.  If you signed up for ESPN/Star Sports (or any of the other channels) because of particularly sports events they were showing at the time, you can't know whether that they will continue to own the rights, but you will have to continue paying. 

Continue reading "More choice, more confusion, more money" »


Do you take Sugar with that?

The UK version of The Apprentice gave the impression that Amstrad (run by Sir Alan Sugar) was a large successful company.  It was once, but not any more.  Now Sugar has sold the company to BSkyB for £125m (of which he will personally get £34.5m).  Not bad, but at one time the company was supposed to be worth £1.2bn.

For BSkyB the deal will bring one of its main set-top box suppliers in-house and should speed up the development of new products as it seeks to stay ahead in the increasingly competitive pay-TV market.

Brentwood-based Amstrad supplies a third of Sky's set-top boxes and the broadcaster accounts for the lion's share of revenues at Sir Alan's company.

Until now, Sky's developers had come up with product specifications in-house then gone to potential suppliers asking them to come up with detailed designs. Making Amstrad a sub-division, to be run by Sir Alan, cuts out much of the costs for Sky and speeds up the process.

Sky chief James Murdoch said the deal built on a "long and positive relationship" with Amstrad. "The acquisition accelerates supply chain improvement and will help us to drive innovation and efficiency for the benefit of our customers."

Amstrad will keep its Essex offices and a smaller set-top box contract with Sky Italia, a broadcaster wholly owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

The idea of Sugar as an employee (with the much younger James Murdoch as his boss) seems totally at odds with his image as a successful businessman.  However, to be fair, he also owns 73% of Viglen and has his own property company:

A lot of Sir Alan's wealth - which is estimated at £830m, placing him as the 84th richest man in the UK - is tied up in property, and is controlled by the Amsprop investment company run by his son Daniel.

He also owns the aviation firm Amsair, which charters planes for businesses and private travellers.

The winner of the most recent series of The Apprentice went to work on a golf club project owned by Amsprop, rather than for Amstrad.  Everyone seems keen to reassure us that he will continue to work on the TV show:

Spokespeople at Amstrad and The Apprentice's production company TalkbackThames were quick to issue reassurances that there would be no changes at the business reality TV show. Sir Alan's "eyes and ears", Margaret Mountford and Nick Hewer, "are continuing as Sir Alan's sidekicks", said one.

One problem with the show has always been that working for Amstrad did not seem like a very attractive option.  In future, the job on offer will presumably be with one of his other companies, which ought to help.


Do it yourself

This comment about a recent post reminded of an article some time ago in The Economist (subscription required as this is so old):

MEET your airline's latest employee: you. You may not have noticed, but you are also now working for your phone company and your bank. Why? Because of the growth of the self-service economy, in which companies are offloading work on to their own customers. It is, you could say, the ultimate in outsourcing. Self-service can have benefits both for companies and customers alike. It is already changing business practices in many industries, and seems likely to become even more widespread in future.

The idea is not new, of course. Self-service has been around for decades, ever since Clarence Saunders, an American entrepreneur, opened the first Piggly Wiggly supermarket in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee. Saunders's idea was simple, but revolutionary: shoppers would enter the store, help themselves to whatever they needed and then carry their purchases to the check-out counter to pay for them. Previously, store clerks had been responsible for picking items off the shelves; but with the advent of the supermarket, the shoppers instead took on that job themselves.

On the heels of supermarkets came laundromats, cafeterias and self-service car washes, all of which were variations on the same theme. But now, with the rise of the web, the falling cost of computing power, and the proliferation of computerised kiosks, voice recognition and mobile phones, companies are taking self-service to new levels. Millions of people now manage their finances, refinance their home loans, track packages and buy cinema and theatre tickets while sitting in front of their computers. Some install their own broadband connections using boxes and instructions sent through the post; others switch mobile-phone pricing plans to get better deals. They plan their own travel itineraries and make their own hotel and airline bookings: later, at the airport, they may even check themselves in. And they do all of this with mouse in hand and no human employees in sight.

There was a time when most organizations had those real human employees available on the end of a phone, so you could call the local branch of your bank and actually speak to someone.  Not that this always produced the desired results, it has to be admitted.  Then they starting using call centres (which generally made things worse), and now you often have to struggle through an automated phone system - if you press all the correct buttons, listen to the pre-recorded messages ("if your remote control is not working, please replace the batteries") and are willing to hang on you may be able to speak to someone who might be able to help you. 

So doing it yourself is quite an attractive option.  I am happy to be able to select my cinema seat at home rather than queuing up to do the same thing.  It's handy to be able to choose your seat on a plane and check-in from home, and there are rarely queues to use the check-in machines at the airport.  The automatic gates at the airport (and at Lo Wu) for checking the new "smart" Hong Kong ID card have helped to reduce delays entering and leaving Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, not everything works so well.  There are too many badly-designed systems and many organizations seem to be reluctant to give customers all the options (and maybe all the information) they need.

Continue reading "Do it yourself" »