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September 2008

Closed book

Sun Gai Gweilo was complaining recently about the price (and availability) of English language books in Hong Kong.  And, yes, I am sure I will be criticized for writing this, but English is an official language of Hong Kong, so you might hope that books would be readily available at a reasonable price.  And they're not.

In Hong Kong, it's standard practice for bookshops to convert US Dollar prices to HK Dollars 10:1 (rather than than the actual exchange rate of 7.8), and a similar mark-up applies to British prices - though the fluctuating exchange rate makes this more difficult to track. 

The thing is that even if they used a fair exchange rate, you'd still be paying more (for most titles) than anyone would actually pay in the UK - discounts of 30-40% are widely available in the UK, particularly on new titles and from online booksellers. 

The answer ought to be online, but once again we seem to be poorly served in Hong Kong.  You can order from Amazon, but delivery charges are quite steep.  However, their service is excellent, and books arrive a few days after ordering.  Paddyfield only charge a modest amount for delivery, and use the real exchange rate, but delivery on many titles takes up to 4 weeks, and they don't offer the range of titles or the discounts that you can get from Amazon.

The explanation is simple enough - lack of demand and lack of competition.  If you go to other major cities in Asia, such as KL, Bangkok and Singapore, you will find a better choice of English books at more competitive prices than in Hong Kong.

Reach for the mosquito fish

One of the things I love about The Economist is reading stories that tell me things I didn't know, and which I didn't know I didn't know.  I had never considered that the collapse of the housing market in the USA might increase the spread of the West Nile virus, but apparently it does, as the Economist reports (Meet the new neighbours):

THE empty house, in a middle-class corner of southern California, is two storeys high and boasts a three-car garage. Roses bloom around a kidney-shaped swimming pool, which is green with algae. Bill Bobbitt, a county inspector, dips a ladle into the water and brings up half a dozen wriggling larvae. Mosquitoes, and the West Nile virus that some of them carry, are thriving in California’s plunging property market.

West Nile virus arrived in America in 1999 and made it to California three years later. Since then it is known to have infected 2,300 people in the state, of whom 76 have died. In Orange County this is the worst summer yet. By this point last year officials there had discovered nine birds that had been killed by West Nile virus and not one infected mosquito. So far this year they have found 219 infected birds and 75 infected mosquitoes.

Some of this rise is due to better testing and co-operation with the animal services department, which receives most reports of dying birds. But a much bigger cause is the housing crunch. Fully 63,000 homes were foreclosed in California between April and June, according to DataQuick, a property data services outfit. In the past year the number of Orange County homeowners who have defaulted on their mortgages has more than doubled. Empty houses mean untended pools. Untended pools quickly breed mosquitoes.

Dead birds are also piling up in neighbouring counties like Los Angeles, San Diego and San Bernardino, which also have high foreclosure rates. Last week 170 infected mosquitoes were discovered in the state as a whole—the highest tally ever. So far this year 13 human infections have been reported in California, but the numbers are expected to grow rapidly as the summer moves on. John Rusmisel, president-elect of the board responsible for killing the critters, says a peak in infected mosquitoes is generally followed, two or three weeks later, by a peak in human cases.

In theory, owners are supposed to keep their properties in decent shape whether they live there or not. California has even passed a bill fining banks and mortgage companies that seize properties and then allow pools to fester. But Mr Bobbitt isn’t waiting for the lawyers. He has treated the pool in Santa Ana with oil and synthetic growth hormones, which will keep the mosquitoes adolescent, preventing breeding. Then he tips in a few dozen mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis), which begin happily munching larvae. You can buy a lot of the fish for what a lawyer charges per hour, and some authorities, with commendable creativity, even provide them free to help control the pests.

And again, I never realized that there were such a thing as a mosquito fish, but they seem to be a very practical solution.

In praise of...the BBC 5

In the beginning there was BBC Prime, and the people paid their subscription but found that it was not good.  Then it became BBC Entertainment, and the people wondered where Top Gear had gone and why they were still showing such very old sitcoms. 

Then the "BBC 5" was launched, and now we have Top Gear available all day every day (or so it seems), and plenty more besides.  The five channels are BBC World News, BBC Entertainment, CBeebies (kids) plus two factual channels - BBC Knowledge and BBC Lifestyle. 

BBC Lifestyle is a unique destination offering inspiration for home, family and life. It is the ultimate viewer's guide to getting more out of life. Serving up six programming strands covering food, fashion and beauty, home and design, parenting, personal development and health, BBC Lifestyle offers a truly international "window on the world".

BBC Knowledge showcases the best of the BBC's award-winning factual and documentary programming. Explore and experience the world like you've never seen it before, with in-depth storytelling and state-of-the-art production. Available now in Asia, this is the channel where facts from the past, present and future come together to broaden viewer's horizons.

According to their website, the BBC Knowledge programming strands are The World (that means Michael Palin), Science & Technology (that'll be Top Gear, then), People, The Past, and Business

Well, up to a point.  Business-based shows such as The Apprentice and Dragons Den are on BBC Knowledge (as you might expect), but similar shows about running a hotel (the Hotel Inspector), a restaurant (Ramseys Kitchen Nightmares), or a shop (Mary, Queen of Shops) are on BBC Lifestyle.  Interestingly, none of those three programmes are shown on BBC channels in the UK, and it's noticeable that they don't make any claim about BBC programming.

BBC Entertainment is mainly BBC shows, but there are other shows that are on ITV (such as Footballers Wives and the upcoming Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach).  And far too many old sitcoms for my liking, if we are going to complain.

However, the point was not to complain but to praise, and there's a lot to like about the "BBC 5".