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September 2008

Hidden DVR

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I already have a device that can record digital TV. It's the Now TV/DVB combined set-top box that can receive Now HD and terrestrial digital channels.  All you need to do is add an external disk through the USB connector, and off you go.

Admittedly the functionality is rather basic and the user interface is fairly horrible, but it does the job.  The most annoying feature is that you can only set it to record something from the EPG, and that is only available 7 days ahead.  You can set it to record at the same time every week, but it's not clever enough to work out if the time changes, and there is no facility to add a few minutes at the start or end of the programme - and there appears to be no way to amend the start or end time manually.  So my reccording of Saturday morning's Presidential debate ends before the programme ended.

It does keep the subtitles with the programme, and the quality appears to be the same as the original (which is it as it should be with a digital device).  It's also possible to record one channel whilst simultaneously watching another digital terrestrial channel in the same frequency range (e.g. TVB Pearl and ATV World) or anything on Now TV.

The weirdest limitation is that it's not possible to record programmes from Now TV.  Seems kinda obvious that a Now box with recording capability would allow you to record Now channels, but no that definitely isn't included.

What they are offering is a facility to record programmes on to a central server to watch later, but this currently only applies to their own News & Business News channels, and EPL games.  I'm having trouble trying to imagine why anyone would want to record news or business news, but the facility to record an EPL game could be attractive - though some games are already available as part of their on-demand service, which is bundled with Now Sports, whereas this new facility costs HK$15/month.

Let me know when you have it available for other channels, and then I'll consider it.


Government gets something right

I'm still recovering from the shock of discovering that government has done something sensible for once.

They have increased taxi fares for short journeys and reduced them for long journeys, as The Standard reported on Wednesday:

Passengers who take short- or medium-distance trips - about 80 percent of the total number - will pay on average about 7.8 percent more while those traveling distances in excess of 12 kilometers could save up to 20 percent.

This adjustment follows one in February, when the government raised the flagfall from HK$15 to HK$16.  The new flagfall, effective on November 30, will be HK$18 while the incremental charge will increase from HK$1.40 to HK$1.50 up to a distance of 9 kilometers, when the total fare reaches HK$70.50.  After 9km, the incremental charge will be only HK$1.

In real terms, a trip of 4km will cost HK$33 against the current HK$30.

How bizarre that they can write this story without actually mentioning that the flagfall covers the first 2km, and the "incremental charge" is per 200m.  Oh, and on longer journeys you can save more than 20% (though not much more).  Ho hum...

It makes sense to re-structure the fares because so-called "gangs" offer discounts on longer journeys - though technically they are breaking the law by doing this.  If taxi drivers are willing to offer discounts on longer journeys, it makes perfect sense for the government to take this into account.

Will people who currently use taxis for short journeys really stop using them because they have to pay a few dollars extra?  I doubt it.   


Key culprits

Today's SCMP has a lengthy Bloomberg story about the credit-rating weasels - Bringing Down Wall Street as Ratings Let Loose Subprime Scourge by Elliot Blair Smith:

"I view the ratings agencies as one of the key culprits,'' says Joseph Stiglitz, 65, the Nobel laureate economist at Columbia University in New York. "They were the party that performed that alchemy that converted the securities from F-rated to A-rated. The banks could not have done what they did without the complicity of the ratings agencies.''

Driven by competition for fees and market share, the New York-based companies stamped out top ratings on debt pools that included $3.2 trillion of loans to homebuyers with bad credit and undocumented incomes between 2002 and 2007. As subprime borrowers defaulted, the companies have downgraded more than three-quarters of the structured investment pools known as collateralized debt obligations issued in the last two years and rated AAA.

Without those AAA ratings, the gold standard for debt, banks, insurance companies and pension funds wouldn't have bought the products. Bank writedowns and losses on the investments totaling $523.3 billion led to the collapse or disappearance of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch and compelled the Bush administration to propose buying $700 billion of bad debt from distressed financial institutions.

Honestly, what is the point of having credit-rating agencies if they do this kind of stuff?

The second part of the Bloomberg story is here:

The world's two largest bond-analysis providers repeatedly eased their standards as they pursued profits from structured investment pools sold by their clients, according to company documents, e-mails and interviews with more than 50 Wall Street professionals. It amounted to a "market-share war where criteria were relaxed,'' says former S&P Managing Director Richard Gugliada.

"I knew it was wrong at the time,'' says Gugliada, 46, who retired from the McGraw-Hill Cos. subsidiary in 2006 and was interviewed in May near his home in Staten Island, New York. "It was either that or skip the business. That wasn't my mandate. My mandate was to find a way. Find the way.''


Helpless

More great thinkers in the SCMP's marvellous Talkback column:

As a domestic helper gets a holiday on Sunday, if the Monday is a statutory public holiday the helper gets two days off. However when that happens, who does the cleaning for those two days? It means the house remains in a mess for that period of time.

The Mid-Autumn Festival last Monday was for the Chinese community to celebrate and I do not understand why the foreign domestic helpers should be allowed to go on holiday.

I hope some employers will join me in calling for this extra holiday to be cancelled.

T. Narain, Sham Shui Po

Actually, T Narain, you can give your helper Saturday off if you wish.  Then she could spend Sunday making your apartment spotless for you.

Or why not just clean up your own mess? 


The best stuff on Earth? Really?

Snapple ingredientsRecently I bought a bottle of Snapple Iced Lemon Tea, thinking that it really was natural (as stated on the label). 

Then I read the ingredients.  The second item (after water) is High Fructose Corn Syrup, the ingredient which is widely blamed for making the population of the United States so obese. 

From Wikipedia:

The process by which HFCS is produced was first developed by Richard O. Marshall and Earl R. Kooi in 1957. The industrial production process was refined by Dr. Y. Takasaki at Agency of Industrial Science and Technology of Ministry of International Trade and Industry of Japan in 1965-1970. HFCS was rapidly introduced in many processed foods and soft drinks in the US over the period of about 1975–1985.

So not really very natural at all, then. 

I found this rather amusing chart at GraphJam (see right).


AAA-rated pigs

It now appears that AIG is going to avoid Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but it's striking how much power the credit rating agencies have in determining whether it fails or not.

By threatening to lower AIG's credit rating, the agencies precipitated a crisis.  This in turn sent AIG's share price down, which was enough to persuade those very same credit rating agencies to carry out their threat.  This in turn caused the share price to fall again.

Let's not forget that these are the very same credit rating agencies who were earlier very happy to give AAA ratings to the exotic financial instruments that caused the downfall of Lehman Brothers, forced Merrill Lynch to sell itself to Bank of America and pushed AIG to the brink.

You might think that the whole point of having credit rating agencies would be to stop clever bankers sticking some lipstick on a pig and pretending that it's something altogether more alluring.  Instead the credit rating agencies admired their handiwork and handed out the AAA ratings that they needed.  Then other clever bankers were happy to buy because that was how they got their bonuses, and if it had an AAA rating then that had to be OK, didn't it?

Having been so negligent earlier, the credit rating agencies seem happy to force AIG into bankruptcy, despite knowing that if it was given time it could sell off assets and recover.

One more interesting statistic, from The Guardian: "Figures out today showed hedge funds and other investors that had been shorting Lehman's stock since March had made $29bn from the firm's demise."


Google Chrome

I'm rather liking Google Chrome.  It seems far more intuitive and easier to use that Internet Explorer (OK, that's not much of a challenge).

Of course Chrome lacks some features found in IE and other browsers, but Google clearly decided to start with something simple, and that's got to be a good thing. 

So far I've found a few websites that don't work properly in Chrome (and one that helpfully tells me to use IE, Firefox or Netscape, but still seems to work), and the built-in Google search is in Chinese and I haven't figured out how to change it.  But I can live with that in order to have a clean, uncluttered browser.

My preferred browser is still SlimBrowser (which uses IE as it base, but makes it more usable), though unfortunately it doesn't seem to be fully-supported any more.  It had tabbed browsing long before IE, and it still has several useful features that are either unavailable or well-hidden in IE, such as opening all links in a new tab, hiding tabs, and displaying multiple tabs simultaneously.    

What's interesting is that Google probably don't care whether Chrome is a success or not - as long as it prompts Microsoft to improve IE.  What matters most to Google is that users can access the web as easily as possible, and not which browser they use.  If the end result is a better version of IE, Google will benefit far more than if Chrome displaces Firefox as the no.2 browser.


TVB Pearl website

If you wanted to find out what was on TVB Pearl, you'd look on their website, right?  That should have up-to-date information about what's on the channel, shouldn't it?

Well, not always, it seems.

Yesterday, they showed Naked Science, but the website shows the information for last week's episode.  Tonight they have the Celebrity Apprentice, but their website has information about next week's episode (look away now if you don't want to know who got fired in tonight's episode).

And, best of all (as I mentioned previously), they are showing The Sopranos late on Thursday night, and are providing a synopsis of completely the wrong episodes.  They are showing series 6 part 2 (episodes 78-86), but they appear to think they are showing series 6 part 1 (episodes 66-77), which they actually showed at the start of last year.

Yes, it is a bit confusing, and it really ought to be called series seven (since it came more than a year after series six part one), but that's how David Chase and HBO chose to describe it, and one might hope that TVB Pearl could figure it out.  They still haven't.

Hong Kong TV guide


Legco - the final word

The big story was the collapse of the Liberal Party in the geographical constituencies, but there were two other things that caught my attention.

The first was that the pan-democrats were incredibly fortunate with the results.  For example, in NT East they got 57% of the vote and won 71% of the seats, and something similar happened on Hong Kong Island.  The DAB piled up more votes than they needed, and independent (pro-Beijing) candidates such as Scarlett Pong Oi-Lan in NT East and Priscilla Leung Mei-fun in Kowloon West must have taken votes off the Liberal Party.

The second was that the one party who ought to be really satisfied with their performance were the League of Social Democrats (who are not as moderate as the name might imply).  They won three seats, and who would have predicted that Leung Kwok Hung ("Long Hair") would get more votes than any of the other pan-democrat lists in NT East?  Yes, by  less than 600 votes, but at one stage the SCMP was predicting that he might lose.

Ah, opinion polls.  What's this I see in the SCMP?  Oh, yes - Exit polls largely accurate despite fears about response rate (subscription required):

The main exit polls appear to have gauged support for many of the candidates accurately despite pollsters' concerns that a poor response rate could compromise their reliability.

Questions about exit polls caused some of the biggest controversies of a largely uneventful campaign. Pan-democrats complained that their Beijing loyalist rivals might set up groups to conduct exit polls and use the results to adjust election strategy. They reminded voters of their right to refuse exit pollsters information. Many voters seemed to heed the reminder, and some even said they had lied to pollsters.

The value of the exit polls, including the one by the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme to help broadcasters shape their coverage on election night, was called into question. Some candidates cited leaks of exit poll data when they issued "situation critical" calls to bring out more of their voters.

Initial results, released yesterday, from two exit polls - by the HKU programme and Hong Kong Research Association - indicated a response rate of about 50 per cent. The association said the 50 per cent level was barely acceptable to produce representative projections.

While its projections were largely reliable, its results indicated Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, who was second on the Civic Party ticket contesting the Hong Kong Island constituency, stood an "extremely slim chance" of winning. However, Ms Eu won, with her ticket taking 26.4 per cent of the votes cast by the 313,429 electors in the constituency.

In the New Territories West constituency, its poll gave Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee of the Liberal Party and Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung of the Civic Party a "relatively bigger chance" of winning. But Mrs Chow won only 5.4 per cent of the vote and Dr Cheung just 7 per cent. Both lost. The association's data also gave James Tien Pei-chun, of the Liberal Party, a "relatively bigger chance" of winning in New Territories East. He also lost.

The HKU public opinion programme's exit poll gave five of the six eventual winners in Hong Kong Island a very high chance of victory. In New Territories East, it gave five of the seven eventual winners a very high chance and in New Territories West correctly predicted five of the eight winners.

This is obviously a new definition of "largely reliable".  We got several of our predictions wrong, but some were correct, so that's OK then.

Independent pollster Li Pang-kwong, of Lingnan University, who did not conduct exit polling on Sunday, believed the discrepancies were partly attributable to interviewees giving false answers.

Yes, people sometimes lie when asked how they will vote or have voted, and it's something pollsters have to deal with.