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February 2008
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Really free

Yesterday's Post Magazine reprinted an article from The Guardian (Listen now, pay never) about "free" music:

From the newspaper on the train to the magazine thrust in your hand as you leave the station, from the targeted ads that accompany your browsing to the ad breaks that punctuate your TV viewing, advertising-supported content is nothing new. Ever since ITV's launch in September 1955, viewers have broadly accepted that in return for watching advertisements, they can view the programmes that follow for nothing.

Now enabled by technology that allows advertisers to target consumers more precisely and efficiently than ever, the concept is spreading. From free, legal music to free mobile phone calls and texts, from online games featuring targeted ads to free movie downloads, a glut of startup companies aim to apply the same principle that led to the ITV of old becoming a "licence to print money".

Except that the references to ITV became "commercial TV" in the SCMP, but I'll come back to the changes made by the SCMP later.

Steve Purdham, chief executive of the Peter Gabriel-backed ad-funded music service We7, is troubled by the word free. "People will either pay for something with money or they will pay for something with their time. Music should never be free. There is too much value in its ability to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck," he said.

Ah, but that's the problem, isn't it?  Music is free now - if you want to download it you can do so very easily without paying.  So what's the advantage of a website that offers free downloads but generates revenue from advertising?  If I want to pay for music I'd rather have the opportunity to give money directly to the artist - something that bands such as Radiohead, the Crimea and the Raconteurs (Indie band bypasses critics by releasing album direct to fans) have started to explore.

Artists have to find new ways of generating revenue (see Free doesn't mean worthless), and ad-supported websites probably aren't the answer.

Continue reading "Really free" »


Stupid choices - the Rugby Sevens in high definition (on Jade HD), but with no English commentary, or with a fuzzy picture and an English commentary on Pearl. 

Why couldn't TVB arrange for an English soundtrack to be available on Jade HD?

Hong Kong style

When I lived in the UK, I used to enjoy eating in Chinese restaurants.  Well, how was I to know that it wasn't real Chinese food?  By the same token, eating so-called "Western" food in Hong Kong is generally a fairly painful experience, as Chopped Onions reminds us:

Order “French” onion soup, in a "western restaurant" and you get water flavoured with beef bouillon-powder and MSG, topped with a melted “cheese” that tastes of burnt plastic.

“Waiter, this is not French onion soup!”

“This Hong Kong style”

Locals have never eaten real French Onion Soup, so they are none the wiser, just as I used to think that Chicken Chow Mein and Sweet and Sour Pork were what Chinese people eat every day.

Fumier weighs in with the observation that going upmarket doesn't help.  The local "Western" breakfast may not exactly be authentic, but it is at least cheap.  Breakfast at the Flying Pan isn't:

Certainly the prices would not be out of place in London: at HK$85 for a full (if you do not regard tea or coffee as being a breakfast component) breakfast. However, I would beg to suggest that having just cinammon and salt containers on the table indicates a certain lack of attention to detail, especially since the average punter might assume the cinammon to be pepper. Hmmm, sausage and cinammon for that truly authentic western breakfast experience. Or perhaps this is the Flying Pan's own "Hong Kong style".

Now TV HD - not very good

Hong Kong's digital terrestrial TV isn't as bad as I had been led to believe.  So what about Now TV HD?  Well, it's not very good, I'm afraid to say.

For a start, the choice of channels is very limited - HD versions of Discovery and National Geographic, something called Voom TV, and the sports channel.  That's it - no movie channels, and no American or British drama shows (many of which are now made in HD).  But, it's early days, I suppose.

My main interest was in the HD version of the football coverage.  It's incredibly frustrating watching games with the grainy pictures that both Now and Cable TV provide.  Surely HD would be a huge improvement?  Well, yes, up to a point.  For close-ups and action replays, the difference is quite noticeable, but for the long shots the detail is simply not there - which is presumably a consequence of the compression they use. 

Also, the Now Sports HD channel is only available for a few hours a week.  If you're lucky there may be one EPL game a week (often at midnight on Sunday), and a couple of Italian Serie A games (often at 3 am).  That's it.  The rest of the time the channel has nothing on at all.  ESPN and Star Sports aren't available in HD.

Compare that to Sky Sports HD in the UK, which has two channels that are on-air 24 hours a day and features several live soccer games each week, test cricket, and other sports.  The only advantage of Now is that they have an 'on demand' service, but that doesn't even feature the 2 or 3 live games that they show on Now Sports HD.

Continue reading "Now TV HD - not very good" »

What risk?

After the deaths of two young children from influenza in Hong Kong at the start of this month, the government instructed all primary schools and kindergartens to close.  An over-reaction, obviously, but it was only a few days till most schools started their Easter holidays, so it didn't do much harm.  

Since then there has been no evidence that this current flu outbreak is anything out of the ordinary, so logically schools should re-open as normal after Easter. 

However, it seems that the government hasn't yet made a decision, and it is possible that they will be instructed to stay closed.

So I was interested to find a review (No good at risk - The Economist) of a new book (Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner) that addresses the irrational way these risks are assessed:

THE official death toll from the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001 was 2,974. But in 2002 America's death toll on the roads grew by more than 1,500—casualties of the terrorism-inspired exodus from safe aeroplanes to dangerous motor cars. A swan washes up on a British shore, dead from bird flu, and the press panics, while the 3,000 people who die every year on the country's roads (13 times the number of people who have ever died from bird flu) go largely unremarked.

Ordinary influenza kills quite significant numbers of people every year, and of course the very young, very old, and chronically ill are much more vulnerable.  The risks can be reduced by taking simple precautions, but does it make any sense to close all schools during the flu season?  Clearly not.

Sensible changes

The government has given the go-ahead for the so-called "Sha Tin to Central Link".

When this was first announced it was going to be a new railway line from Tai Wai (in Sha Tin district), via Hung Hom, to Central.  You might not realize this from newspaper reports, but it has become two separate extensions to existing lines - the Ma On Shan line will be extended south to Hung Hom, and East Rail will be extended south to Admiralty (but not Central, or at least not yet). 

This certainly seems more sensible - a direct line from Lo Wu to Central makes more sense than asking passengers to change at Tai Wai or Hung Hom, whilst the East Kowloon stations become part of the Ma On Shan line. 

In addition, there is a proposal for the Kwun Tong line to be extended to Whampoa via Ho Man Tin (where there will be an intersection with the Ma On Shan line extension). 

The other interesting thing about this is that the government has decided to fund the construction directly rather than the normal roundabout method of allowing the MTR to raise money by property development.  Of course it's easier for the goverment to do that when they have a huge surplus, but it's good to see someone making sensible decisions.



No scaremongering in the SCMP today (Flu fight recalls dark days of Sars), oh no:

Health authorities announced a string of contingency measures yesterday to combat flu that recalled action taken during the Sars emergency five years ago.

The measures, including shortened visiting hours in public hospitals, daily announcements of outbreaks and a public-education campaign, came five days after the death of a three-year-old girl in Tuen Mun.

Controller of the Centre for Health Protection Thomas Tsang Ho-fai  announced the measures in the midst of the peak season because of "general community concerns".

So how big is this flu epidemic?

In the week ending on Saturday, the centre's laboratory surveillance system confirmed 166 people had contracted flu.

This compared with an average of 144 cases a week during the winter flu peak season in 2006 and 177 a week last year.

So it would be fair to be fair to say it isn't an epidemic at all, just the normal flu?  And no need to start mentioning SARS?

MusicXS - what's the point of that, then?

There's a full page ad for MusicXS in the SCMP today, so I thought I would check it out.

It's a music download service, but you can only listen to the music for as long as you maintain your subscription.  For HK$56 per month you can listen on your PC.  For HK$96 you can also listen on your mobile phone (but only if you subscribe to Smartone 3G). 

That's right - you're out of luck if you wanted to listen on your iPod or any other MP3 player.

Well, thanks very much, Smartone-Vodafone.

Hong Kong digital TV - not too bad

I am rather surprised by this, but I think I have to report that digital tv in Hong Kong isn't as bad as some people have suggested.

The digital channels have been allocated to TVB and ATV.  TVB's Jade HD is one of the two high-definition channels, and (no surprise here) it is basically a high definition (HD) simulcast of Jade.  The obvious problem is that, well, this is TVB Jade. Eating a Big Mac and fries from the finest china does not make it any more delicious.    

However, as luck would have it, they only have a few hours of original HD material, and so outside prime time they also show US drama series (currently Heroes and Lost) that were made in HD, and even the odd NBA game or two, complete with English soundtrack. 

TVB Pearl is only available in standard definition (SD), but with potentially better picture quality and widescreen.  This means that US drama shows, such as Desperate Housewives & ER (which are filmed in widescreen HD) look much better here than on traditional analogue TV - as do feature films (when they remember to put them out in widescreen format, which isn't all the time).

Of course, other programmes look less impressive, the picture quality of the original being the limiting factor.  For anything that is in the traditional TV format of 4:3 the black bands on each side of the screen are rather distracting (though you can stretch the picture to fill the screen). 

J2 is the sole digital-only channel from TVB (as far as I can tell).  The listing are all in Chinese, but they do seem to have some English language content.

The "other" TV company in Hong Kong is ATV, and so far their embarrassing digital effort demonstrates why they are so far behind TVB.  ATV's high-definition channel is only on-air for 2 hours per night.  And when it is on-air, most of their other digital channels stop broadcasting.  Eh?

ATV World is also available on digital, but (unlike TVB) when they show something that was filmed in widescreen, it seems to appear with black bands at the top and bottom and at left and right, so it actually looks worse than on the analogue version of the channel.  Blimey.

However, ATV have at least made the effort to provide new digital-only channels.  One is a news channel, and another is a "cultural" channel with material from RTHK and bought-in documentaries (with English soundtrack usually available).  The other two appear to be called 'His TV' and 'Her TV'. 

One other advantages of the digital service is that it comes with an Electronic Programme Guide (EPG).  This is moderately useful if you want to know what's on (especially as the SCMP doesn't publish listings for the digital channels), but more importantly it should also enable someone to produce a more user-friendly HDD/DVD recorder.  In the UK I believe you can buy devices that record multiple channels, and will also 'buffer' all the channels for an hour or two - so you even if you missed the beginning of a show you can still watch it from the start. 

Well, yes.  Maybe not such a big advantage after all.  I'll get me coat.