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September 2004
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Taken for a ride

It's a common sight to see couriers waiting by the exit gates at MTR stations with a parcel or some documents. They hand the items over to someone standing the other side of the gates, and go back on to the MTR. Maybe they then pick something else and take that to another station, and if they eventually exit from the MTR back where they started, they pay only HK$3.80 (as long as they don't stay on the system for more than 90 minutes).

From Monday there will be a charge of HK$10 for anyone who enters and exits at the same station after spending more than 20 minutes in the MTR system. However, as far as I can see, there is nothing to stop anyone travelling around the system and then exiting at a nearby station (for example entering at Central, travelling to TST,Admiralty,Mong Kok & Sheung Wan and then exiting at Wan Chai). The fare for that journey would still only be HK$3.80, so the loophole hasn't really been closed.

Predictably, politicians are whining about this, but I can't imagine how anyone could contrive to spend more than 20 minutes inside an MTR station by mistake. However, the MTRC have exempted old people from this surcharge, presumably on the grounds that they walk slowly and easily get confused, or possibly because they would attack the station staff with their zimmer frames if they had to pay. Anyway, if the average age of couriers on the MTR suddenly shoots up, you'll know why.

Ups and Downs

Via Phil, news that the Far Eastern Economic Review is to cease publication as a weekly magazine and will try to survive as a monthly.

I'm not at all surprised. I was a subscriber for a while, but I soon realized that I wasn't actually reading very much (if any) of the magazine each week, and was getting annoyed by the articles that I did read, so I let my subscription lapse. They kept calling me and writing to me trying to get me to re-subscribe, and I fell it for it once (because the price was so low) but I didn't renew again. I'm not surprised they were losing money - the subcription price was very low, and they must have been giving away tens of thousands of copies on top of that.

At the other extreme, I was slightly amazed to read recently that The Economist is poised to break through the 1 million circulation barrier.

The magazine's circulation stood at 100,000 in 1970, similar to rivals such as the New Statesman and The Spectator. Today more than four-fifths of its circulation comes from outside Britain.

I have been reading The Economist for a long time, and have been a subscriber for more than 10 years. I have no hesitation in saying that it's the best English language magazine in the world, with a breadth and depth of coverage that is unequalled. I can't say that I always agree with their opinions, but they are usually worth reading. My only regret is that I don't always manage to find time to read it from cover to cover.

It's rather reassuring that The Economist is hugely successful whilst FEER is struggling. I just hope that the management of FEER take the hint and improve the editorial quality rather than focusing on cheap subscriptions and giveways.

Update: Today's Standard says many of the same things and also makes comparisons with The Economist. Dow Jones are heavily criticised:

``They took something that made a lot of money and they trashed it,'' Philip Bowring, editor of the Review at the time of the takeover, said. He left after clashes with Dow Jones management. The new owners aligned the magazine editorially with The Wall Street Journal's arch-conservative, Amer-ican-centric line, he said, turning off many Asian readers.

Bowring said Dow Jones' efforts to boost circulation with the student and travel markets it is now jettisoning alienated advertisers by diluting the magazine's elite readership. Moreover, efforts to widen its appeal by simplifying stories and adding lifestyle articles on restaurants, tech gadgets and the like turned off the Review's original readership, he said.

``You don't notice The Economist dumbing down,'' he said. ``These people know who their readers are. They are not always trying to find new ones. They are trying to make sure the existing ones get what they need.''

The new monthly version doesn't sound very appealing:

[Dow Jones] will keep the Review name alive by relaunching the title in December as a sober, plain-paper monthly of essays by prominent academics, business leaders and former and current government officials with limited advertising and no editorials.

I can hardly wait.

John Peel

Very sad to hear that John Peel has died (whilst on holiday in Peru).

I have happy memories of listening to his shows on BBC Radio One (many years ago), particularly the 'Festive 50' when it was effectively a contest between the Sex Pistols (and other punk bands championed by Peel) and the likes of Joy Division and New Order (also championed by Peel).

The amazing thing about John Peel was that he never seemed to lose his enthusiasm for new music, and that has to be the reason why he was still on Radio One after all these years (he was one of the original presenters back in 1967) whilst other presenters were sacked. Radio One has changed its music policy and presenters many times, but John Peel was always there. From the BBC obituary:

But, in the mid-1970s, John Peel moved away from the mainstream rock of Jimi Hendrix and The Who to a new and radical sound, punk.

Bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash paved the way for new Peel discoveries like Joy Division and the Undertones, whose Teenage Kicks was his all-time favourite single.

The 1980s brought further joy, most notably in the form of The Fall and The Smiths, both refreshing counterblasts to the increasingly bland fare of the charts.

More here.

Continue reading "John Peel" »

Oh no, not mad at all

George Adams has a marvellously batty conspiracy theory about Peter Gordon, Nury Vittachi and IceRed. Last time he took it out for a spin, the central hypothesis was that Peter Gordon was the owner of IceRed and was using this power to supress any criticism of Nury (and presumably to be beastly to George into the bargain). It all went a bit pear-shaped when it was pointed out that Peter Gordon was nothing more significant than the moderator of the Books forum, and George was left looking slightly foolish.

Undeterred by this setback, he's back with a new and improved (and equally mad) theory. Actually, it's much the same as before, but Steve Vines has been added to the mix, and Peter Gordon is now accused of using his power as moderator of "the widely-read Media/Journalism forum" to censor comments if they criticize any of his chums. He's not, it isn't. Move along, please, there's nothing to see here.

Continue reading "Oh no, not mad at all" »

Go to hospital, get sick

Did anyone else watch that documentary on TVB Pearl three weeks ago about antibiotics? Unfortunately, having a good subject doesn't guarantee a good documentary.

Their concept was to send a presenter off around Europe within a hidden camera in his bag. This is a favourite technique of documentary makers, but for it to work you need a bad guy who can be confronted later when you have gathered the shocking evidence. Sadly for them, in this case there was no villain but rather a number of misguided but well-meaning doctors and pharmacists trying to give people what they wanted. Worse than that, the evidence was neither surprising nor shocking.

Nevertheless, we were treated to several trips to pharmacies around Europe. In each case, the reporter tried to get antibiotics for his imaginary cold. In Belgium, Spain and the UK he was successful. In the Netherlands he was not successful. Unfortunately we were not give any information about how many pharmacies in each country would have refused to sell antibiotics without a prescription (I am quite sure that many in the UK would have sent the reporter on his way empty-handed) nor whether any action is taken to prevent this abuse.

Continue reading "Go to hospital, get sick" »

Something new, something old

Mia points out another new Hong Kong blog, though the title is enough to put most right-thinking people off reading it (so it's not going on my bloglist*). She seems to have been rather confused by New Town Plaza, the hideously large and rambling shopping centre in Sha Tin. Me too.

Also [this time via Fumier], welcome back to Ran, who has a new blog. I just hope it's not quite as strange as the last one he did, because that was way too weird for me .

I'll be back in a few days when I'm not feeling so damn tired. Must find a way to earn a living without having to work...

* I changed my mind (see the comments).

Supersize that salad

I went into McDonalds at the weekend and was amused to see that on the one hand they are promoting their new range of salads, yoghurts, tacos and "healthy" stuff, whilst on the other hand they are offering the 'supersize' option that was withdrawn in the States following some adverse publicity related to the fact that eating large quantities of unhealthy food makes you, er, unhealthy.

This week's Economist has a special report about McDonald's makeover. Last time I read about the company it was all about their problems, but it seems that the new management have turned things round:

Remarkably, McDonald's has turned itself into the world's biggest seller of salads and its business is flourishing again. Yet despite all of its new lettuce, free-range eggs, bottled water and yoghurt parfaits, success remains, at least for now, all about burgers.

However, the salads and other new menu items do seem to be making a difference

The average sale in a McDonald's is just under $5. Typically what might happen is a mother comes in, buys her children a Happy Meal, and herself just a coffee. Now that salads and other lighter options have been added to the menu, many of those mothers now buy themselves a meal too, lifting the order value to around $12. The lighter options also encourage existing customers to come back more often because there is a greater variety of things to eat. Nevertheless, for now, the Big Mac remains the most popular item worldwide.

McDonalds has also tried diversifying:

In 2001 McDonald's also acquired a minority stake in London-based Pret A Manger, a relatively upmarket coffee, sandwich and salads chain that has done well in Britain and is expanding overseas, with mixed results so far. McDonald's management are guarded about what they intend to do with such investments. But clearly they provide a hedge against the future, just in case existing McDonald's sites needed to be replaced with something radically different.

I had assumed that Pret would have packed up and left Hong Kong by now, but apparently they are opening new outlets - there was a story in the SCMP a couple of weeks ago about another sandwich shop owner who was very indignant when the landlord refused to renew his lease and installed Pret in its place. I was quite a fan of Pret when I worked in London, but in Hong Kong terms their sandwiches do seem over-priced. They seem to be struggling to establish themselves here, and so far I think they only have 6 or 7 outlets.

McDonalds were experimenting with a new format in a few of their stores in Hong Kong, selling sandwiches and cakes from a separate counter. I think that format may have been abandoned, but I guess they are serious about diversifying. More from The Economist:

...the signs are that McDonald's is getting serious about sandwiches. Their experimental “Oven Selects” range, freshly made and toasted to order, is now going on trial at some 400 restaurants in America. If the sandwiches, which will sell for $4 each (relatively expensive for McDonald's), are a hit, they could become a global product.

Moving into the sandwich business means that McDonald's will compete more directly with the likes of chains such as Subway, and against countless corner delis and supermarkets. “Sandwiches outsell hamburgers by ten to one,” says Russ Smyth, president of McDonald's Europe. “So there is a great opportunity here.”

Although Big Macs and Happy Meals continue to be the core of McDonalds business, it does seem that they are getting a bit smarter rather than relying too much on the old familiar staples. Perhaps I could be tempted to try a salad the next I am forced to buy a Happy Meal, so I think they are on to something. However, it will take more than that to convince me that going into McDonalds could be a pleasurable experience!

Disgraceful? Divisive? Crass?

Conrad has managed to work himself up into a lather of self-righteous indignation concerning something John Kerry said in the final presidential debate.

He finds it "crass" that Kerry should have mentioned that Dick Cheney's daughter is a lesbian "for a vile and divisive political objective". Really?

So is it a secret? No. (from The Observer):

Cheney himself frequently mentions Mary as his 'gay daughter' on the campaign trail when he is trying to paint his party as compassionate conservatives, so being used is nothing new.

So Mary Cheney is totally unconnected with the Bush-Cheney campaign? No. (from The Guardian).

Mary Cheney is the director of vice-presidential operations for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. She held a public role as her father's assistant in the 2000 campaign, and helped the Republicans to recruit gay voters during the 2002 mid-term elections.

This has been an election of negative campaigning and personal attacks from both sides on the candidates. By the currently accepted standards this was mild stuff, possibly intended to embarass Mr Bush by highlighting that (in this regard at least) his running mate is more of a compassionate conservative than he is. Cynical maybe, but no more so than usual.

Anyway, Conrad, don't worry - the polls are turning back in Bush's favour. He doesn't need your help.

Meanwhile, The Guardian has started a silly and misguided campaign to get its (liberal) readers to write to electors in the State and ask them to consider the international impact of their vote. Yesterday they printed some of the responses, and, guess what, Americans don't take very kindly to foreigners telling them how they should vote.

Jim's the name

There is a Hong Kong urban legend that some people with the family name of Tsim have this mis-transcribed as Jim in official records maintained by the British adminstration. Hence their ID cards show what looks like an English name.

I am not sure how much truth there is in this story. I know there are people in Hong Kong who have this name, but how many, and was it really a mistake by a stupid Brit?

Jim done good

The new KCR extension to Tsim Sha Tsui was open to the public yesterday for the first time. The full service starts next Sunday afternoon.

Predictably, there have been complaints about the fares. Idiotic politicians have argued (amongst other things) that the fare from the New Territories to the new TST station should be the same as to Hung Hom, because both stations are in the same district. I thought Hung Hom was in a different district, but even if it isn't I find this a puzzling argument. Anyone starting their journey on KCR East Rail and wanting to get to TST currently has to change to the MTR at Kowloon Tong or take a bus or minibus from Hung Hom. The new service will be cheaper and more convenient, so why the complaints?

Meanwhile, the KCR has decided to replace all the signs in KCR East Rail that direct passengers to the southbound service. They used to say 'Kowloon', which seems a perfectly adequate description, but they are changing them to say 'East Tsim Sha Tsui". True, that is the new terminus, but last time I checked TST was also in Kowloon, so why the need for a change?

Finally, can anyone explain why they have chosen that English name for the station? The Chinese name is the much simpler Tsim East (sounds something like "Jim Done" in Cantonese), the same as the name given to the area between TST and Hung Hom - which was reclaimed from the harbour twenty or so years ago. This is usually rendered as TST East in English, and reversing this for the name of the station seems rather confusing!