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December 2004
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February 2005

Barking (up the wrong tree)

I see that the SCMP is apparently still printing nonsense (paid subscription required) from Simon Patkin. I hadn't noticed his article last Friday (mainly, I suppose because I didn't read the paper that day), but there have been a steady stream of letters to the editor pointing out the stupidity of his views so I went back to find out what he had said.  it was well worth the effort.

It seems Simon is still deeply concerned about the Hunghom Peninsula business (when SHKP and NWD bowed to pressure from campaigners and decided to renovate rather than demolish several apartment blocks).

Capitalism is based on the ethical foundation that man (and woman) must be free to use his mind to express his thoughts and to produce things based on his own thinking. In this way, capitalism alone allows man to choose the values that he thinks will help sustain his life, to rationally create these goods or services and to keep the rewards. This is all the Hunghom developers wanted to do.

It is this system of morality that the state must protect by enshrining the right to life, liberty, property, free speech and the pursuit of happiness. There is no place for mob rule or green theory here - just limited accountable government. For companies, this morality includes protecting the rights of their shareholders above trees and animals to maximise profits.

Trees? Animals? What's that got to do with Hunghom Peninsula?

Simon's idea of the ethical foundation for capitalism is really rather eccentric. If you were to ask people what that meant, my guess is that 99.9% of respondents would say that companies have to act ethically, towards their employees, customers and the general public, and that they have an obligation to consider the environmental impact of what they do. Which is exactly what the two property developers did with regard to Hunghom Peninsula. They made a commercial decision that demolishing perfectly good brand-new apartments was very likely to upset potential customers.

If Simon actually ran a real company I think he would probably understand this rather than claiming that the developers were "brought to their knees". Instead, sitting in his "free-market think-tank" (which I'm guessing is him and his computer in the spare bedroom) he comes up with these total absurd arguments.

Actually, I like to imagine Simon as a small businessman driving through a red light on his way to see a customer. When stopped by a policeman he would explain that he had no choice, because he has to behave rationally and waiting at traffic lights is reducing his profits - and his shareholders would never allow that.

100sq foot each

100sq foot each is a new blog noticed by Simon.  The author is another Brit married to a Hong Kong Chinese, and he claims to live in Island East (as Swire are trying to persuade us to call the area they are re-developing in the vicinity of Quarry Bay).  He wishes us to know that he is employed on local (rather than expat) terms and the title of the blog implies that he lives in a relatively small apartment, not one of those luxury apartments where will you find the real expats working for international banks.  So far he has posted some thoughtful comments on racism on Hong Kong, the ESF, and intellectual property. 

Just a thought - shouldn’t it be 100sq feet?

I should also note that I have changed my policy on listing blogs.  I have decided that I will list all Hong Kong blogs that I know of, and the criteria will be that they post regularly and in turn list a reasonable number of other Hong Kong blogs.  Accordingly, I have added Black and white blog to the list on the right-hand side - I blame Spirit Fingers, and if you want to complain, contact her.  It's probably not work safe, and not suitable for children.  The management wishes to make it clear that links on this page do not imply endorsement or recommendation of the blog in question.  Fumier, for example, is a big pile of poo.

275,000,000 miles

So what did I do with my useless Asia Miles (see below)?  Well, I gave them to charity - and I wasn’t the only one.  Amazingly, it seems that in the last couple of weeks Asia Miles customers have donated 137 million miles to the tsunami appeal.  Asia Miles offered to match those donations, so that means they have a total of 275 million miles for UNICEF, Oxfam and other charities.  Which is just about enough for an economy class flight to Colombo, by my reckoning. No, it isn’t - I think it’s actually about 10,000 return flights within Asia.  At a conservative value of US$500 per flight, that’s US$5m.  Not bad, especially considering that many of those miles would otherwise have been wasted.        

Assuming that they can actually use those miles (and trying to be a bit less cynical, I’m sure that Cathay Pacific and other airlines will do their best to let them travel when they need to do so) I’m sure that it will help. 

Miles and Miles

The Economist frequently has light-hearted leaders.  This week their subject is the large number of frequent flyer miles that are outstanding, and they claim (somewhat mischeviously) that they have replaced the dollar as the world’s main currency.  Shaky mentioned this a few days ago (based on a report in The Guardian). This sounds absurd, and of course it is, but I’ll come back to that shortly.

They are worried that the large number of miles in circulation is a problem to the airlines, and that it will lead to devaluation.  In practice the airlines have a more effective way of dealing with this problem - rationing.  It can be quite tricky getting the flights you want, and of course it suits the airlines very well if passengers end up redeeming their miles by flying on less popular routes or at less popular times.  Of course they have to be careful because if customers can’t get the flights they want then the value of having them does go down.  However, ultimately airlines do have that control in a way that central banks clearly do not.

I have to say that Virgin Flying Club have not devalued their miles at all – in fact they have made it easier to get miles, and reduced the number of miles you need for most flights.  Asia Miles has always struck me as a very poor scheme, but I haven’t noticed them making it any worse (or maybe that’s not possible).  So I think that the Economist’s fears about devaluation may be misplaced.

The Economist say that 14 trillion frequently flyer miles are in circulation, and that they are worth between US$0.01 and US$0.10 each.  That’s a big difference, and on top of that the best value is usually in upgrades (which they sometimes give away free anyway) and companion tickets, both of which mean that you have to buy a ticket to get the benefit.  As I’ve mentioned before, some people take this all very seriously and do their best to get the best value both in acquiring and spending miles, whereas others just fritter away their miles or lose them altogether.

Personally, I am only interested in one frequent flyer program (Virgin Flying Club), which is the only one through which I have managed to spend miles.  It’s also one of the most generous schemes, and on top of that I have had relatively few problems getting the flights I wanted (or at least something acceptable).  Locally, both Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines (who own 49% of Virgin) offer Flying Club miles (as an option), and I’m afraid that my miles in other programs go to waste because I never get enough to take a flight.      

So what’s wrong with the claims made by the Economist?  Well, first of all we aren’t talking about a single currency – Asia Miles are not the same as KrisFlyer miles or Flying Club miles or any other type of miles, and worse than that there is no way to convert from one to another.  Secondly, miles usually expire after three years, and if you don’t have enough miles for a flight then your choices are to lose them, pay to renew them (if that’s an option) or use them for a cash coupon at a fraction of the value.  So valuing miles at the mid point (US$0.05) is probably inaccurate – my guess would be that, of the miles that are redeemed, most are at the bottom end of that value range.  Which means that rather than worrying about the possibility of devaluation, we should be valuing miles more realistically (and, of course, if the true value is US$140bn – or even less – then The Economist wouldn’t have their story)

Finally, as the Economist admits, they are comparing all the frequent flyer miles that are outstanding against the value of Dollar coins and notes in circulation.  That isn’t comparing like with like, and they should obviously be including dollars in bank accounts.

So, in short, the Dollar really hasn’t been toppled as the world’s leading currency.  But I guess you knew that anyway. 

Firing duds

I am trying to resist the temptation to write about ‘The Apprentice’, but I did enjoy this week’s episode so I’ll indulge myself.  This week Trump actually did something that appeared to be spontaneous and also made sense, which must be a first.  Many is the time when I’ve sat there thinking that he should fire most of the damn stupid contestants, and after seemingly coming close last week he really did fire two people this week.  They both deserved it, I have to say.

Continue reading "Firing duds" »

Bye bye VHS

A few weeks before Christmas, British retailer Dixons announced that it was going to stop selling VCRs (video cassette recorders).  This story generated a lot of interest, but it seems Dixons may have acted too hastily.  The Sun recently reported that other retailers have seen a huge rise in demand for VCRs and VHS tapes since this announcement was made.  So it seems that VHS will be sticking around for a bit longer. 

Here in Hong Kong, I think pre-recorded VHS tapes disappeared 2-3 years ago (DVDs are better quality and VCDs are cheaper), but it's only in the last year or so that there has been an affordable alternative for home recording.  DVD recorders are now a fraction of the price they were a couple of years ago, and there are several HDD machines (recording programs on to a hard disk), though still no sign of Tivo. 

I reckon the best (though not the cheapest) option is a combined DVD & HDD recorder.  I have wanted one for some time, but decided that I would wait for them to come down to HK$5,000.  So when LG came up with a machine at that price, I was straight into Fortress with my credit card  (though, of course, if I had waited a few more months I could have paid less than HK$4,000 for the same machine).

Unfortunately, mine went seriously wrong after a few weeks (it seemed to record OK, but playback ended after a few minutes whatever I watched).  I wasn't happy about having to return it to a warehouse building in Tsuen Wan, and unimpressed when they failed to contact me to let me know that it was ready, but at least they fixed it and didn't charge me.  Since then it has worked without any problem.

I have a few (relatively minor) complaints, but it is so much more convenient than VHS.  The hard drive can store up to 40 hours of television (at medium quality, which is better than VHS), and anything you want to keep can be burned to DVD.  Editing out commercials is fiddly but it can be done, and combining or splitting programs is easy.  My main complaints are that adding a title is so frustrating that I rarely bother with it, burning to DVD is in real-time (90 minutes of video takes 90 minutes), and you can only set 7 programs in the timer.  Obviously the latter is not much of a problem in Hong Kong, where it is a rarity to have 2 or 3 worthwhile programs each week, but it seems bizarre when you can store 80 hours of TV (at the lowest quality setting).

Yes, I know that better and cheaper machines will be along before too long, but isn't that always the way?  Personally, I am just glad that I don't have to mess around with VHS tapes any more!

Asia Blog Awards 2004: it's all over

Simon has announced the results of the Asia Blog Awards.  When this all started I confessed my indifference towards the whole process, and nothing has really changed my views.  The top three for Hong Kong (as voted for by you, the people with access to several different computers) are as follows: 

1. EastWestSouthNorth - 307 votes
2. Glutter - 300 votes
3. Gweilo Diaries - 217 votes

GD was leading at the beginning, but presumably Conrad’s supporters must have realized that there was little point in voting for a blog that has disappeared (the domain is now owned by someone else and is up for sale, so I won’t bother linking to it and making it more valuable). 

Then once Yan encouraged her supporters to vote it turned into a battle between Glutter and EWSN, which the latter won by a narrow margin.  This result makes sense given that these two are more popular than the rest of the nominated sites (with the possible exception of Hemlock).

As if to confirm the absurdity of the whole thing, Hong Kong blogs that weren’t included on the short list for best Hong Kong blog did rather better in other categories.  Chase me Ladies won the prize for “funniest blog”, followed by Spirit Fingers, and Simon World walked away with the prize for “best design”.  

A whole lot of other blogs I don’t read won all sorts of other prizes.  If you care, the full results are on Simon’s site.  Both Mia and Spirit Fingers have complained that they got abusive emails from people who were (apparently) supporters of other blogs, which has turned something that was harmless and irrelevant into something rather unpleasant.  Time to call a halt, if you ask me (though no-one ever does).

No smoking in the street

You may be aware that The Dublin Jack banned smoking a few months ago (Shaky mentioned it at the time).  However, it seems that the government is doing all it can to sabotage this sensible initiative.  This from the Irish Examiner

The enterprising owner of the Dublin Jack banned smoking in his bar seeing an opportunity to court non-smokers. [Now it] is facing prosecution for sending its smokers outside.

Dubliner Noel Smyth was lauded in Hong Kong newspaper editorials for his move but he has received a notice for intended prosecution because alfresco smokers are causing “obstruction to the pavement”.

The government’s food and environmental hygiene department issued the proceedings saying it had received seven complaints from local residents and passersby about the blockage caused by smokers sitting on chairs outside using ashtray-covered wooden barrels.

However, there is hope:

The Health Welfare and Food Bureau (HWFB) has said they will give more slimline outside litter bins with ash trays to the bar to “facilitate” the pub’s no-smoking policy.

It is not clear yet whether the HWFB move will satisfy the hygiene department. 

I'm sure there isn't a law against smoking in the street, and it's not as if the Dublin Jack is in a quiet totally residential area of Hong Kong (it's just off Hollywood Road next to the Mid-Levels escalator).  Barmy.

Big news: shop closes down in Hong Kong

All the top news is in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's leading English language newspaper. Just before Christmas they reported the exciting news that the Marks & Spencer store in Pacific Place will be closing down in June.  It's obviously important because they returned to the story the following day, and again last Sunday!

The story is that Swire Properties have decided not to renew their lease:

British-based Marks & Spencer is to close its flagship store in the biggest shopping mall in Admiralty, and property-market observers believe the staid image of the retailer does not meet the landlord's requirement for trendy tenants.

After operating the store in Pacific Place for about 15 years, M&S said it would close in June because landlord Swire Properties did not renew its lease.

The space, over two floors, will be occupied by Spanish fashion retailer Zara and a number of other brands.

The SCMP returned to the story the following day with a waffly leader on the subject, and then again last Sunday, this time with the theory that Mainlanders prefer big name stores and aren't interested in dowdy old M&S.  The man from M&S was upset by this assertion, and said that "a careful observer can tell who is a Mainlander" and that they "do spend a lot of money in our stores".  He also claims that Mainlanders prefer M&S because they stock larger sizes, which seems to be making a virtue out of their biggest weakness - I can't help feeling that M&S would do better here if they stocked more smaller sizes for the local population.

This is all speculation, isn't it?  I doubt that anyone has asked people who shop in Pacific Place (or future visitors from the Mainland or elsewhere) whether the idea of shopping in M&S attracts or repels them.  Fortunately for the SCMP, there are plenty of people willing to offer their opinions on what is wrong with M&S and why Swire made this decision, so it filled several column inches with pointless speculation.  All I can say is that must have been a very slow news day.   

Perhaps the only interesting thing about this story is that it tells us that Swire must be very bullish about the prospects for Pacific Place. You don't eject a high profile retailer such as M&S unless you're very confident that you can make better use of the space.  Of course, M&S is not as high profile here as it is in the UK, where (even if they are having problems) there would be no question of any shopping centre wanting to get rid of them.  However Swire obviously feel that Pacific Place can manage very well without M&S, and they're probably right.

I think M&S would probably admit that they haven't been as successful in Hong Kong as they had hoped.  Nearly 4 years ago they announced plans to find a local partner who would run the business as a franchise (which is I think what they do in the rest of Asia) but they abandoned that plan and instead "localised" the management to cut costs.  At least two of their stores (Plaza Hollywood and Festival Walk) have been shrunk, and I don't think they've opened any new stores since then.  So perhaps it will suit them to move out of Pacific Place and open a smaller store somewhere (cheaper) nearby.

That's not such a good story, though.

Less than the cost of dim sum

I didn't see yesterday's SCMP, but apparently it had a self-congratulatory story about the generosity of Hong Kong people under the headline:

HK leads the world in tsunami relief

The figures apparently show that whilst the Hong Kong government has not been very generous (giving less than US$4m), individuals have donated an average of US$7 each.  I have to say that my first reaction is that US$7 isn't all that much considering salary levels here, but I'm not sure what to compare it with.

It's also very hard to make sense of these numbers.  Do "private" donations include the money given by very rich businessmen?  Come to that, does anyone really know exactly how much money has been donated to the large number of charities?

I think it's fair enough to report on the amounts that have been donated, but making comparisons with other countries is not very helpful.  For one thing it's still early days and doubtless there will be more fund-raising in the coming weeks.  Also, I doubt that the figures are particularly accurate (for example, they say that private donations in the UK total US$140m, but today's Sun claims that the figure is close to US$200m).  Also, there's no figure for Singapore, a rich country that would have surely been even more affected by this tragedy than Hong Kong.

It all seems rather unedifying.  I feel a similar unease about the emphasis placed on the comparatively small number of Hong Kong residents missing or killed, and the headlines in the UK given to the latest estimate of around 200 Brits presumed dead. 

Boris Johnson, writing in today's Daily Telegraph (free registration required) has another suggestion for how to help the people of Sri Lanka - abolish tarrifs on bras. 

If you are an Englishwoman, the chances are that you wear a bra, and if you wear a bra, there is a very high probability that you bought that garment at Marks & Spencer, and if you bought your bra at M & S it is a racing certainty that your bra was made in Sri Lanka.

Actually, I doubt it.  It could well have come from China or Indonesia or any number of other countries around the world.  However, it is a very good point - if the rich world wanted to help poorer countries, one easy step would be to abolish quotas and tarrifs (and stop dumping surplus agricultural produce), so I'm certainly with Boris on that one, though I'm somewhat at a loss to understand what relevance it has to the tsunami.