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June 2004
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August 2004

Not so bad after all

It's uncanny how often alarmist stories in newspapers prove to be totally wrong. Thinking back to 1997, I was in the UK shortly after the handover and everyone who knew I was living in Hong Kong asked me how things had changed. My answer was that life carried on as normal, and the only thing that impacted me was that I now needed a visa to stay in Hong Kong whereas I hadn't before. I still get asked the same question from time to time, and my answer is the same - nothing has really changed.

More recently, one of the stories prior to Euro 2004 was the problems that English football hooligans would cause in Portugal, and the possibility that England might be thrown out of the tournament if the fans misbehaved. In fact the fans were very well behaved and the organizers complimented them on this. Wrong again.

At the start of this week the British newspapers were full of talk about Tony Blair facing a grim week. On Wednesday he would be criticized in the Butler report, and then there were two by-elections and that might finish him off if Labour did badly. In fact, Lord Butler didn't blame the Prime Minister and Labour won one by-election and lost the other. Tony Blair lives on to fight another day, and the alarmist talk actually makes him stronger (as Andrew Marr points out).

When the European Union was enlarged, there was talk of vast numbers of people flooding into Britain from the new member states. Did it happen? No, of course not.

Going back much further, I recall the alarmist talk many years ago that the world's supplies of oil would run out by the turn of the century. In fact there are still vast reserves that will last for the forseeable future, and every prospect that more will be discovered.

The moral is simple - don't believe everything you read in the newspapers!

Damp squib

Hong Kong had its first no.8 typhoon signal of the year today. Almost everyone leaves work and rushes home, and some people join long queues in supermarkets. Wait an hour or two and the streets are clear, public transport is still operating (but with few passengers) the supermarkets are still open (and largely empty), and generally life is very agreeable. A few squally showers and a bit of wind maybe, but I can cope with that.

I really wonder what happens to otherwise sane people when the typhoon signal is raised. It's as if they turn into giggling schoolchildren. Oh, goody, I can leave work early. Oh, I must go and stock up on food even though there are long queues. Oh dear, what will happen if I don't get home immediately.

Two years ago I was in Causeway Bay when the no.8 signal was raised. I had a meeting arranged, and so we carried on regardless. By the time it was finished a few hours later, the whole area was deserted. I went into the (almost empty) supermarket and bought a few odds and ends and wandered across the road to catch a tunnel bus so that I could go home. No problem getting home, and no crowds of people.

Today I had to go to a meeting across the border. Over lunch I was amazed to hear people worrying about how to get home. The KCR will stop running, there won't be any buses, we'll be stranded. Of course we weren't. As I say, some strange form of madness seems to take over when the no.8 signal is raised.

No surprise there, then

Least surprising news of the week is that Cable TV is dropping ESPN and Star Sports from the middle of next month. Oh, sorry, what I meant to say was that Now Broadband TV has beaten off stiff competition from Cable TV to secure ESPN and Star Sports (more in the SCMP if you are a subscriber).

Last time Cable TV won exclusive rights to the English Premier League they dropped ESPN soon afterwards. Although ESPN made brave noises about coming back to Hong Kong quickly, in fact they couldn't find another platform, and reappeared on the Cable TV lineup once they had the exclusive EPL rights. Now that deal has expired, and so has the dysfunctional partnership between the two companies.

The version of ESPN and Star Sports on Now Broadband TV will be one without the EPL coverage, and although they do have some other football rights I can't see it being very attractive to most people. I suppose it depends how much they charge per month.

There is also some doubt about whether the channels will have a dual soundtrack (English and Cantonese). I don't actually know whether the Now setup provides this facility or not, but I'd be surprised if they couldn't offer it. If they can't, I forsee a big problem.

[Thanks to Denis for tipping me off about this announcement. I very rarely buy the SCMP these days]

It seems like everyone has been complaining about the Euro 2004 coverage from Cable TV, so we just have to hope that they have take note of these comments and do something better for the EPL. There's certainly going to be more games, but will they still have the dancing girls and the idiotic comedians?

Gangsters (and more water)

Spike actually had an exclusive this week, with a story claiming that a well-known local businessman was responsible for the threats that prompted Albert Cheng King-hon and Raymond Wong Yuk-man to quit their radio shows. They didn't name the businessman, but you might get a clue from Hemlock's take on the story.

The unfortunate thing is that the rest of Spike was a bit weak this week. There's a whole page devoted to the tricky problem of where domestic helpers go to the toilet on Sundays, and more fluff from The Spectator. Does anyone really care about Petronella Wyatt's weight?

Amusingly, a prominent Hong Kong blogger who recently attributed a Next story to Spike journalists now thinks that this 'Spike exclusive' was taken from Next magazine. I think the clue here is the word 'exclusive' on the cover of Spike.

Meanwhile, I fear that Hemlock is also a little confused. He takes issue with Brian Walker's advice that you shouldn't drink distilled water (or fruit juice) if your body is dehydrated, but claims that this advice appeared in Spike magazine. As far as I recall, it was in the South China Morning Post (front page of the second section). Makes me think that maybe Hemlock doesn't really buy Spike each week, as he implies. I hope this doesn't mean that the rest of it is made up as well...

Incidentally, last time this advice about distilled water was circulating in Hong Kong, it was strongly disputed by Watsons Water - though they now offer their distilled water with minerals if that is what you want, so maybe they are not so bothered. However, as I don't read the SCMP very regularly I may already have missed their reply. Incidentally, it's quite amusing to look up distilled water and health on Google. There are some people out there with some strong opionions!

Six and Out

Each country has its own rules governing how long foreign nationals can stay and whether they can work. However, as far as I am aware, normally the difficult part is getting a visa in the first place, and once it has been granted you can stay at least as long as your contract of employment lasts (and often longer, sometimes permanently). Not so in Bermuda, it seems.

According to The Economist, it is almost impossible to stay beyond six years.

So Bermuda is becoming a difficult place to live, not only for locals but also for foreigners. Already most of those see Bermuda as a short-term proposition—a good thing, because immigration authorities have taken to booting out work-permit holders after six years (marrying a local won't help unless you stay together for at least ten years).

How is that going to work if you get thrown out after 6 years?

I see from the photograph that bankers in Bermuda seem to wear shorts with long socks and formal shoes. Don't they know what they look like?

Mug Punters

This week the Jockey Club announced that although their turnover on football betting was lower than expected, the profit margins were much better than they had expected.

They say that this is because of some unexpected results in major competitions, but my information is that it is actually a matter of mug punters and good odds setting. Unlike racing, where there is effectively a pool of money to be shared out amongst those with successful bets, football bets are fixed odds and there is no guaranteed profit margin. On the other hand, if they get it right, the profits can be very high.

I understand that the exotic bets are the most profitable for the Jockey Club, presumably because they offer the prospect of a high payout if you get it right. One involves forecasting the 'result' at half-time and full-time in a number of games, which sounds pretty much like a lottery to me. The suspicion is that the punters are just picking numbers at random. If they are, they'd be better off putting money into Mark Six or the Triple Trio.

Two observations on this:

Firstly, it seems clear that the illegal bookmakers are still making a good living, so perhaps the shrewd punters are staying with them and the Jockey Club is attracting people who don't know much about football.

Secondly, this is another example of how lotteries and betting generally act as a form of regressive taxation. It's generally the less well-off who are making these bets, giving their money to the Jockey Club and thence to the government or to 'good causes'. The same thing happens in the UK with the National Lottery.