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December 2008

Bargain Books

Sometimes the price of books in Hong Kong is almost beyond belief:

Jamie's Ministry of Food

Page One, Kowloon Tong HK$474
Cover Price £25.00 HK$292
Amazon.co.uk* (shipped to Hong Kong) £17.97 HK$210
Typical UK bookstore price £12.50 HK$146

£1 = HK$11.68 

* Amazon price is £9.99, plus a delivery charge of £7.98 (£4.99 per shipment plus £2.99 per item)

So the price in Page One is more than three times the price you would typically pay in a UK bookstore, and 60% higher than the cover price. 

Of course, if you purchase multiple items from Amazon, you could split the shipment charge across all of them, making the books even cheaper.

My last delivery from Amazon took 6 days.  


Highly improbable

There's always a worrying period after a vacancy occurs in the Premier League, when Graeme Souness is linked with the job.   This is followed by sighs of relief when someone else (anyone else) is appointed.

It was hard to see why Souness should be linked with the Blackburn job, having jumped ship last time around when he was about to be sacked, and (to be fair) it seems he was as puzzled as everyone else to find his name mentioned.

Even harder to see why Alan Pardew was supposed to be on the short list, what with having just been sacked by Charlton.  Yes, he's available, but surely they can't be that desperate...


More podcasts

Danny Baker discovered the hard way that you can't make money out of podcasts.  His "All Day Breakfast Show" started off free but closed down only a few months after they started charging a fee.  As far as I know, no-one else has tried to do the same thing since then.

Of course, most podcasts are either radio shows re-packaged, or are run by newspapers or magazines to promote their website.  However, there are a few notable exceptions:

Herrin and Collings is a very amateur production (it's recorded on an Apple Mac in Richard Herring's attic).  Journalist and broadcaster Andrew Collins is the straight man to comedian Herring, and they fill an hour or so talking about stories from the day's newspapers.  Apparently Herring used to be a regular guest on Collins's Sunday show on (BBC Radio) 6 Music, and they seem to have quite a good rapport.    

Phill and Phil's Perfect Ten is rather more professional (it's recorded in a studio, and they have announcements read out by Stephen Fry), and ostensibly it's more structured (in that they supposedly answer 10 questions from listeners).  However, basically it's the same concept - two blokes talking away about whatever they want.

Here the two blokes are Phill Jupitus (comedian, longtime team captain on  "Never Mind the Buzzcocks", former presenter of the breakfast show on 6 Music), and Phil Wilding (who was the producer of his radio shows, and previously worked at GLR with Danny Baker). And, yes, they have a website  

The theory is that they have exactly 30 minutes to answer 10 randomly selected questions, but they often start with something like "why did you go to Wembley Stadium this weekend?", which clearly didn't come from a listener and simply gives them the excuse to talk about anything at all.  Entertaining enough if slightly self-indulgent.

Phill Jupitus can also be heard on The Game podcast (from The Times), and Andrew Collins sometimes fills in for Mark Kermode on the Friday film podcast, but I guess they get paid for those gigs.

So why do a podcast for no money?

Herring and Collins did a talk to the Radio Academy about their podcasts, and they said that it does give them each a higher profile for the work they do (probably more for Herring's stand-up comedy) as well as advertising their availability for a radio show - though it might be hard to accept the constraints of a show on the BBC after the freedom of being able to say whatever you like on a podcast.  Maybe it has even worked for Danny Baker, because he now presents 606 once a week (also available as a podcast) and is the temporar.y replacement for Jonathan Ross on Radio 2.

One standalone podcast that isn't presented by a has-been DJ is Stephen Fry's Podgram.  Far less frequent, shorter, not so funny, and clearly more of a vanity project than anything else - I doubt he is looking for any more work.  Of course he has a website


Red or Green

Once again the government seems to have made a mess of something that really shouldn't have be so difficult

Two weeks ago, the fare structure for urban taxis was revised, making short journeys more expensive and longer journeys cheaper.  However, the fares for New Territories taxis were left unchanged, whereas normally they are kept in line with each other (NT taxis being a little cheaper).

This means that for longer journeys (notably from the airport) it is currently cheaper to take a red (urban) taxi.  

The Transport Department were apparently handing out leaflets at the airport showing the fare comparison, highlighting the fact that red taxis would be cheaper for some destinations.  Which is true, and it seems fair to let passengers know about it.

However, the green taxi drivers were upset about this and blocked the highway to the airport for a few hours. 

So, let's see.  The Transport Department knows that red taxis are cheaper than green taxis for longer journey, and might be expected to understand that this might cause trouble, but they didn't think that it might be better to introduce the new fares on the green (NT) taxis at the same time. 

The official explanation is that NT taxi associations applied later, and it takes time to process the application.  It has been suggested that maybe they wanted to wait and see how the new scheme worked out before deciding whether to apply.  Except that in reality they don't have much choice because red taxis can operate throughout Hong Kong and if they are cheaper then of course passengers will chose them.

The real problem is that the government doesn't actually set taxi fares, but simply approves (or doesn't approve) the requests from the taxi associations - who don't agree on whether the new fare structure is a good or a bad thing. 

The answer, by the way, is that it's a good thing. Friday's SCMP seemed to confirm this:

Green taxi operator Ng Kwan-sing, who also operates an urban taxi business, said red cabbies' day-time income had risen after the new fare model was introduced on November 30, but night-shift cabbies had not seen a significant increase as illegal discount gangs were still cutting fares to attract long-haul passengers.

Oh, those terrible illegal gangs offering the public better value for money.  Put a stop to it immediately!


Chicken Tikka...and Masala

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According to the SCMP, tonight on ATV World you can watch chef Heston Blumenthal cooking Chicken Tikka & Masala. 

Call me old fashioned, but I think it's usually called "Chicken Tikka Masala", and that is indeed how Heston Blumenthal describes it in the programme. 

As ever, it's entertainingly bizarre - Heston heads off to Delhi to find out how to cook the dish, but of course he knows that it's not really an Indian dish at all.  He also tries building a tandoor, but admits that this may not be practical for most people. 

But, ATV and SCMP please note, the dish is definitely Chicken Tikka Masala.  In search of perfection, indeed.

As luck would have it, I caught part of an episode from the first series on BBC Lifestyle yesterday.  He was making fish and chips, and in true Heston style, he added beer to the batter, put it in the fridge - and then put it into a soda syphon. 

Well, OK, but what on earth do you do with a soda syphon after you've used it to spray batter on your fish? 


Must try harder

When I used to go on holiday to France, the Michelin Guide was essential reading - when you are somewhere unfamiliar you can't go far wrong choosing a restaurant from the Red Guide  Find a place with a red R you are pretty much guaranteed good quality food at a reasonable price, and once you get to the rosettes you are getting exceptional food (albeit at a price to match).

However, the Michelin Guide is a guide to French food in France.  I wouldn't take their recommendations for Indian or Chinese food very seriously, and I don't think any of the overseas editions are quite so authoritative.  Well, OK, it's probably safe to say that French-style restaurants in the UK that get rosettes are going to be pretty good, but I have visited a few Indian restaurants in the UK that are in the Michelin Guide and not been particularly impressed.

Now there's a guide for Hong Kong & Macau, with predictably hilarious results.  They have given three rosettes to one restaurant from Macau and one from Hong Kong, and there are 7 places with two rosettes, and 14 with one rosette (all in Hong Kong).

You can see the list over at Cha Xiu Bao, and frankly I haven't visited enough of the restaurants to make any detailed comments, except to observe that it's a trifle odd to find that two branches from the Lei Garden chain are supposedly in the top 22 restaurants in Hong Kong (a couple more of their branches are also listed).

Perfectly decent Cantonese food (if you like that sort of thing), but nothing exceptional - and I rather doubt that they would be so generous to a restaurant chain in operating in, say, Paris.

As a general rule, I wouldn't ask French people to recommend good restaurants in Hong Kong any more than I would ask a Hong Kong resident for advice on eating in France.  I think there may be a moral here somewhere.


What went wrong

Interesting article from The Guardian (We all go together when we go), based on Paul Krugman's new book about the current financial crisis:

The shadow banking system is formed by financial institutions that aren't banks from a regulatory point of view but nonetheless perform banking functions. The system includes innovative financial products such as CDOs and hedge funds. Often these products offered better returns than those of the conventional banks. Investors were paid higher interest rates than they would have received on bank deposits, while borrowers paid lower interest rates than they would have done on long-term bank loans. There's no such thing as a free lunch, Milton Friedman told us, yet these deals seemed to offer just that. How did they do that?

Well, the answer seems obvious, at least in retrospect: banks are highly regulated; they are required to hold liquid reserves, maintain substantial capital and pay into the deposit insurance system. In the shadow banking system, borrowers could bypass these regulations and their expense. But that also meant they weren't protected by the banking safety net: if they ran out of funds, they couldn't turn to the US Federal Reserve to bail them out.

Worth reading.


Not mad at all

It ought to be obvious to everyone by now that it simply isn't possible to stop audio and video content being freely distributed, and the challenge is how to generate revenue around that fact of modern-day life.

Recently The Guardian reported on the Monty Python response (Now for something completely different):

"For three years you YouTubers have been ripping us off, taking tens of thousands of our videos and putting them up on YouTube."

So begins one of the current hottest viral videos. It stars the Monty Python team, and explains why they have decided to stop attempts to remove the illegally uploaded videos on YouTube - and have instead signed up to the site's Video ID system, which identifies rights holders' material and allows them to choose to have it either removed from the site, or have adverts attached to it.

The Pythons have decided on the second option. And, while a year ago the industry might have thought this was one of the team's characteristically absurd plots, the Video ID system is becoming well-established. More than 300 companies have signed up since its launch (six months ago in the UK, nearer to 12 in the US), including Sony Music International, AFP, Electronic Arts and CBS. The vast majority of those rights holders - 90% of them - are choosing, like the Pythons, to place ads around the content.

However, the Guardian writer still seems not to have quite got it:

And there is method in the Pythonesque madness of giving away valuable content for free - Monty Python's DVD sales are up more than 1,000% following the launch of their YouTube channel, and that's on Amazon alone. Fans must have been listening to the Python message: "We want you to click on links and buy our movies and TV shows. Only this will soften our pain and disgust at being ripped off all these years ..."

It's not madness at all, it's common sense.  You can't stop people accessing your content for free, but you can give them the opportunity to pay for something. 


Wrong again

Ten years ago I probably knew nothing about Thailand.  Five years later I felt I knew something. 

What did I know?  Well, that King Bhumibol Adulyadej was admired and revered by the Thai people, and Thaksin Shinawatra was an effective prime minister - it so happens that my first visit to Thailand was during the election in January 2001 when he became Prime Minister, and there seemed to be a feeling that this was a fresh start for a country that had been plagued with weak and ineffective governments. 

Well, maybe.  The king is protected by the world's strictest lèse majesté rules, so criticizing him is a risky thing to do.  Thaksin seems to have been at least as interested in getting richer as he was in running the country,  and his "war on drugs" seemed to be based on a policy of shooting first and asking questions afterwards.  

In 2006 he was forced out of office by an army coup, at least partially because Thaksin's unusually strong position as prime minister represented a challenge to the king's authority.  A new constitution was introduced - one that was designed to produce a weaker government, and the hope was that Thaksin would keep away and life would return to normal.  In fact I was cautiously optimistic that it would be for the best

Well, I was wrong about that.  Thaksin has stayed away, and now spends at least part of his time in Hong Kong (apparently it’s a good place to get divorced and watch live Premier League games), but his supporters won last year's election and he seems to have no shortage of relatives who are willing to become prime minister.

This enrages his opponents, and they have been demonstrating against the government for months, culminating in the occupation of Bangkok’s airports that ended on Tuesday, the same day that the Thai courts ruled that the Prime Minister must stand down.  This enabled the demonstrators to claim that they had achieved what they wanted - though surely the court would not have been influenced by the protest. 

Which brings us back to the king.  This is the second time that a Thaksin-backed prime minister has been forced to resign by the courts, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they are doing what they believe the king wants.    

The expectation was that Thaksin's allies would form another government, but now it seems possible that the opposition Democrat Party might be able to form a coalition. Well, yes, but those pesky peasants are likely to vote for a Thaksin party again once at the next election, and so this is only going to be a temporary solution. 

If the king and his advisers really want a long-term solution, they will need to persuade the Democrats and their allies to govern for the country and not just the elite in Bangkok.