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August 2008

July 2008

In praise of....GMail

In the past I have expressed my puzzlement about people who use work email or shared email addresses rather than having their own personal email.  The solution is obvious - use a free online email service.

GMail is free and it works very well, so why bother to use anything else?  You can easily set up multiple GMail addresses if you need them (and forward all the mail to one account if you want to make life easier).  You can also receive messages in Outlook, Thunderbird or any other email client if you prefer to work that way.

GMail also has a very effective spam filter, whereas I gave up on Hotmail precisely because I received such huge volumes of spam.  Of course Hotmail have been forced to up their game since GMail came along, and have abandoned their crazy idea of charging for POP3 access and extra disk space and whatever else it is they used to do.

Yes, there's also Yahoo Mail, and I'm sure that's also wonderful, but none of this would have happened if it wasn't for GMail.


Those Secret Dentists get everywhere

I keep coming across a Google ad that reads "The Secret Dentists don't want you to know about yellow teeth." 

The thought did occur to me that they are being clever by putting in random capital letters to attract my attention to the secret dentists, but it seems unlikely (and I refuse to click on the advert in order to find out).


The HDTV con

Now that we have high definition (HD) television in Hong Kong (well, one channel plus ATV's pathetic two hours per night), retailers want to sell us HD televisions.

You will find that you have a choice between so-called 'HD ready' and 'Full HD' screens.  Both are high definition, but so-called 'Full HD' is a higher specification:

720i - 1280x720 interlaced 720p - 1280x720 progressive scan (HD Ready)
1080i - 1920×1080 interlaced (HD Ready) 1080p - 1920×1080 progressive scan (Full HD)

The catch is that there are no broadcasts of so-called 'Full HD' television in Hong Kong or anywhere else.  The best you can get are 720p (Now TV) or 1080i (TVB & ATV).  So the only way you will get 1080p is if you buy a Blu-Ray player and discs.  And we know how popular they are...

Perhaps even more importantly, very few people can tell the difference between 1080i and 1080p, and only on sets larger than 42".  And how much sense does a really large TV make in the average Hong Kong apartment?

And if you have a really large set with all those pixels and you watch standard definition television (which is still how most programmes are made), or watch a VCD, it looks pretty horrible.

So save a few dollars and buy an 'HD Ready' set.


Shoppes

image When I was at school, I remember a classmate getting told off by the teacher for his picture of life a few hundred years ago because it included captions saying "Ye Olde Shoppes' or some similar bit of Middle English whimsy.

So I was amused to see that there is a new shopping arcade in Macau called "The Shoppes at Four Seasons" - as advertised in today's SCMP.

What really struck me was that their advertising makes great play of the fact that the White Tiger and Java Rhinoceros are endangered species.  Quite what this has to do with a new shopping arcade or a "limited edition Versace Couture snap bag" is hard to fathom.

Unless it's something to do with one of the reasons why tigers and Java Rhinos are endangered species, perhaps? 

Both rhino horns and tiger bits are much prized ingredients in Chinese Medicine, so people will pay a lot for the horn of an endangered species and also for a Versace bag.  Is that it?

They also seem to have got their facts wrong - according to my research there are actually estimated to be only 50-60 Javan Rhinos alive today.  None of whom are to be found in Macau, as far as I know.


Not a leg to stand on

imageAn amusing mistake by The Sun newspaper, from Photo Shop Disasters via The Guardian.

The Sun carried photographs of a member of the royal family in a boat (he was actually on Royal Navy manoeuvres off Montserrat).

For some reason, they decided the local who was actually driving the boat (see right) should be removed from the photograph.  This can be clearly seen by comparing the photograph in the newspaper with the same picture in other newspapers (and on The Sun's website).

imageThe really funny part is that they didn't actually remove all of him -  his knee and lower leg.are still clearly visible in the photograph (see left) even though his arm and body - and his lovely hat - were all lovingly erased.

They also removed the boat's engine, presumably because having removed the man they were left with half of the engine, and that looked a bit weird.

Though not quite as weird as a stray leg, it has to be said.


Don't bother with Catchup TV

Catch-up TVLast week I mentioned that TVB Pearl has introduced a service for watching TV shows (well, one particular show) online. 

So I had to try it out, but I have to say that I was totally underwhelmed by the experience.  The show plays on a tiny embedded screen surrounded by black bars (it's the plane being lifted out of the sea), and if you expand it to a full screen it is horribly blurry.

The show is divided into 4 segments, and each one starts with an advert.  The first time I watched it, the programme started and then the advert appeared after a few seconds, which is rather annoying.

It'll never catch on, this Internet TV business.

Coming down but still over-priced

I thought the Magic TV 5000 was hugely over-priced at HK$4980 (as per their website and Post Magazine), and so I am not surprised that Fortress is now selling it for HK$3999 - which is more reasonable but still too high.

There's another similar box from Topcon, at HK$2199 for 160gb and HK$2599 for 250gb, and this does have dual tuners.  So I am sticking with my theory that Magic TV need to add a second tuner and reduce the price to HK$3000.  I think they will in the next couple of months.


On second thoughts

The government is apparently thinking of bringing forward the start date for the concession on the domestic helper levy.  It's often a mistake for a government to announce something too far in advance - the classic example being the abolition of dual mortgage tax relief by the UK government 20 years ago.  People rushed to buy before the deadline, prices shot up - and then fell dramatically, leaving many people with negative equity. 

Clearly this change is nothing like so dramatic, but it still creates opportunities for people to take advantage of the concession.  One option I hadn't thought about is mentioned in an editorial in the SCMP today (Relief on maids levy must be fair to all - subscription required):

The arbitrary nature of the relief for employers leaves potential loopholes that can be exploited at the expense of helpers. Their representatives have raised fears that unscrupulous employers would terminate helpers' contracts so they could sign new ones from September 1 without paying the levy, a tactic they could repeat before the suspension expires on August 31, 2010, in order to get another two years' relief. The Department of Immigration is expected to announce more details of the new policy next week. The change needs to be seen to work fairly for both employers and their helpers. The government tacitly acknowledged this yesterday by suggesting that suspension of the levy could be brought forward.

Most employers will eventually receive some benefit - when they sign or re-sign a contract with a helper during the two-year period. But if the change had been thought through better, the government would have made the changes immediate and refunded employers on a pro-rata basis for the part of their helper's contract that falls within the suspension period. This would ensure all employers are treated equally and none are tempted to break contracts or hold off on hiring in order to take advantage. It is not too late to make it that simple and transparently fair.

It can be made even simpler if they refund the levy on all current contracts (as of the announcement date).  I don't see why there is any need to make a pro-rata calculation - the levy will have been paid for a two-year period and that is the length of the concession.  Employers who sign new contracts after the announcement won't benefit, and the only case in which this would be unfair would be if an old contract had expired just before the date and a new one was signed just afterwards, but that would only affect a tiny number of people.    

However, I'm still puzzled that people seem not to realize that terminating a contract early means that you lose however much of the levy you have already paid.  


Another fine mess

They didn't think this through, did they?

On Wednesday, the government announced that the current domestic helper levy of HK$400 per month would be suspended from 1 September for 2 years (which is the length of a domestic helper contract).  However, this concession only applies to contracts signed on or after that date, so if you start a new contract on or before 31 August you would have to pay the levy for the next two years.  In theory, you would then benefit when you sign the new contract starting in August 2010, but that depends on a couple of things - if this turns out to be a permanent concession then of course you have missed out on the saving for two years, and if doesn't then you would need to sign the new contract by 31 August.

So, of course, employers are considering waiting until 1 September to sign a new contract, or may even terminate an existing contract in order to start a new one and get the benefit as soon as possible (though this may not be worthwhile doing).  Which would be fair enough, except for the big problems this will cause to the domestic helpers - would have to leave Hong Kong (because of immigration rules), which means paying the airfare on top of the loss of the salary they would have earned if they had started a new contract immediately).

The SCMP reports that the government thinks this will not be a problem (Fears that maids will be sacked rejected - subscription required):

The Immigration Department yesterday dismissed fears that the timing of a two-year suspension of the levy on foreign maids could lead to widespread sacking of helpers.  Suspension of the HK$9,600 levy, announced on Wednesday, applies only to contracts signed on or after September 1. This has led to fears that employers would terminate contracts of maids they now employ to take advantage of the decision.

Concern has also been voiced that employers whose helpers' terms are ending would delay hiring until September, forcing out-of-contract maids to leave Hong Kong until then.

A department spokesman said details of the new policy would be  announced early next week.  He said he did not think the new policy would lead to helpers' contracts being terminated.  "If employers terminate contracts, they have to pay for the air ticket, one month's pay and wages for the helper's holidays," he said.

It's strange that they don't mention the levy under the existing contract would have already been paid, so there doesn't seem to provide much incentive to terminate a contract early.  However if the contract expires in August you could simply wait until 1 September to start a new contract, so there would be no need to pay one month's wages in lieu of notice.  If you think that the levy will actually be abolished in two years rather than being re-introduced then you might think it worthwhile to give one month's notice to terminate the contract - but only if it expires within the next few weeks.

Joseph Law, chairman of the  Employers of Overseas Domestic  Helpers Association, said the government should backdate introduction of the policy to July 1.  "I am afraid if the government uses September 1 as a cut-off date, some employers will wait until then [to hire helpers]," he said. "As a consequence, the helpers who finish their contracts in the next few weeks will have to leave Hong Kong, as new employers will not sign new contracts."

That seems possible, except that parents are not going to want to be without a helper during the school holidays, so maybe the impact will be limited.

Part of the problem here is that this is such a strange tax. It is due upon signing a contract, and can either be paid as a lump sum or in four fixed installments.  If the contract is terminated, the government does not refund the money that has been paid (and any outstanding payments are still due), but it will be offset this sum against the next contract for the same employer.  It's not clear whether the government will follow the same rules and offset the levy that's been paid against a future contract that starts after 1 September 2010).   

If the levy was paid monthly, the government could suspend the payments for 2 years, which would make it all quite simple, instead of which we have this mess.

The other point that needs to be made is that when this levy was introduced it was really a tax on domestic helpers' salaries, because their salaries were cut by the same amount as the levy.  Now the government is suspending the levy, and it is the employers who are getting the benefit.