Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Song for PCCW Directors

Listening to Bob Dylan's new album, Together Through Life, I was interested to see that he's apparently written one song for the Board of PCCW. "You took all my money and you gave it to Richard Li," he sings in one line of Shake Shake Mama. What could be clearer than that?  

Disclaimer - I get a small commission from Amazon if you buy the CD through the picture link here.

Bankers with a W revisited

Walking through Central earlier this afternoon, I observed that three banks - Citibank, Dah Sing and DBS - had protesters outside them, apparently aggrieved victims of the Lehman's minibonds saga.

We have already seen plenty of evidence that, on the scale of human decency, bankers rate only slightly above lawyers and politicians. Here's another piece: while waiting for a bus in Des Voeux Road, I noticed that Wing Lung Bank has cordoned off part of its broad front steps and has posted no fewer than four security staff there. So far as I can see their primary function - perhaps their sole function - is to keep non-customers from defiling the bank;s sacred steps with their presence.

Even at minimum wage, by the time you take into account MPF, annual bonus and uniforms, this means the bank must be spending close to half a million dollars a year just to prevent those waiting for a bus from enjoying the only spot of shelter from sun or rain in the vicinity. How mean can you get? (If any Wing Lung shareholder is reading this, they might like to question whether this is an appropriate use of the bank's money.)

The Rip-off Files 3B - Getting it right

As a follow-up to my previous post, Wellcome actually got it right for once. As well as matching PARKnSHOP's price cut on the individual cans of Red Bull, they lowered the price of the 4-pack to $48.

On my way to where

In another shining example of the Hong Kong government's dazzling intelligence, the Highways Departmnt (I assume) has covered all the direction signs on the Tsing Ma Bridge with bamboo scaffolding. So if you're coming from the airport and don't know which lane you should be in, don't expect much help in finding out.

And to the driver of the taxi running along the airport highway without lights at close to 10pm last night: the only reason I don't give your number here to tell eceryone what a prat you are is that it was too dark to see it clearly.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Redundant Redundancy

No, not the type that so many employees are facing in the current recession - what I'm talking about today is redundant words in company names.

We live in an impatient age, and companies pander to this by shrinking their names. The model for this is of course International Business Machines, who shortened their long name to IBM and for a while became one of the most successful companies in the world (before making the deadly mistake of letting young William Gates keep the rights to the operating system he created for them).

Every business with a long name now routinely contracts it to something shorter, or just initial letters. So the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation becomes HSBC, and even the venerable Liu Chong Hing Bank ditches the Liu from its name as one syllable too many.

The problem is that this often throws out the meaning of the name at the same time. This is fine if you're a household name like HSBC or IBM, and everyone knows what you stand for anyway. But some companies then start re-exoanding the name to restore meaning to it. So today I saw a van with FedEx Express on the side, and our electricity comes from a company called CLP Power.

What this means is that we now have Federal Express Express and China Light and Power Power. Am I the only one who finds this rather silly silly?

Lemming Fever

Funier today, in his usual inimitable style, castigates the media for whipping up a panic over a few cases of flu in Mexico and the US. A handful of infections hardly justifies those who have started running around like Cassandra on a bad day wailing that "We're all going to die!" We heard the same during the SARS outbreak, and how many of you know anyone who actually died from SARS? The only person I know who contracted the disease is my doctor, and he recovered. It eventually killed just one in every 23,000 Hong Kong people.

This is not to say you shouldn't take the flu threat seriously; just keep a sense of proportion.

One of the funny things about this latest potential pandemic is that they're calling it swine flu, but one expert on TV the other day said it's a new mutation of the flu virus and there's no evidence that it came to humans from pigs. By that logic it could just as well be called wombat flu or polar bear flu , though I think perhaps lemming fever would be the most appropriate analogy - unless the swine they're thinking of are Gadarene.

Update: I've just seen Donald Tsang on the news telling us to be calm, so perhaps it really is time to panic after all! I'm off to Canada tomorrow night.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Britain's oldest teenager

The Daily Mail newspaper has an article on a young lady they claim is Britain's youngest female funeral director. Nothing wrong with that, but since they describe her as being 20 in the heading, then call her a teenager in the main text, she must also be Britain's oldest teenager (Sir Jimmy Savile excepted, of course).

All together now: seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenteen, ...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Rip-off Files 3A - When will they ever learn?

Undeterred by the Consumer Council's recent criticism from pursuing bizarre and misleading pricing policies, PARKnSHOP was yesterday selling Red Bull at the reduced price of $12.90, down from the usual $13.90. No complaints about that - except that the 4-pack was still at its usual price of $54.80, i.e. $13.70 per can.

In most places, buying the bulk pack of anything gets you a better price, but I suppose that's too straightforward for Li Ka-shing's wonderkids.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

If we don't know where you are, we'll write to you there

In yet another example of the Hong Kong government's intellectual brilliance, the Transport Department is sending out a circular to all registered drivers and vehicle owners reminding them that any change of address must be notified to the department.

Whichever civil servant dreamed up this scheme must have been having a Homer Simpson moment, because it doesn't take an Einstein to spot the fatal flaw in it.

The Rip-off Files 3: Nothing super about it


The discovery by the Consumer Council that Hong Kong's cozy supermarket duopoly is routinely misleading customers with false "special offers" will come as no surprise to those familiar with Hong Kong retail practices. In some cases, the Council found, the "promotion" price was actually higher than the regular price!

What this does is highlight the need for long overdue consumer protection legislation in Hong Kong. This could be modelled on the UK's law which requires a "sale price" item to have been sold at a lower price for a minimum period before it can be advertised as a special offer.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority''s head has reported that the controversial Lehman's minibonds, which have also raised concerns about inadequate consumer protection here, were classified as high risk by some of the banks selling them, medium risk by others, and low risk by yet others. If even the banks don't understand these products sufficiently to agree on how risky they are, they are certainly too complex to be palmed off on to unsophisticated investors.

The further so-called derivatives stray from any link to real goods and services, the harder it becomes to determine their real worth. For example, a valuer can tell you the price of a house in California. but if the mortgage on that property is packaged up into bits, bundled with hundreds of others, and sold to hundreds of banks worldwide, what is each of those bits worth? Lose sight of the fact that such products have a link to the real world, and the risk that their price becomes uncoupled from the value of the underlying assets increases dramatically. Which is exactly how the credit crunch arose.

Making It Better: The Consumer Council of Hong Kong

Friday, April 03, 2009

Ho Ho, Very Satirical

Spike today has a piece about the current row over an allegedly racist article by local commentator Chip Tsao in HK Magazine. For those who haven't kept up, the Philippines government took exception to a sentence in which Tsao described Filipinos as "a nation of servants", and banned him from entry to the Philippines. Local domestic helpers have become equally overwrought about it and plan a demonstration to condemn him, even though he has already apologised.

As Spike says, the article was clearly satirical, and the magazine's editor should have defended its columnist instead of caving in to pressure by publishing an apology. However, while this may be correct in principle, I think it over-simplifies the matter.

Both Mr Tsao and HK magazine have a considerably larger, and probably more diverse, readership than the small coterie of Hong Kong expat bloggers like ourselves, Fumier, and Ulaca who trade in-jokes online. While it is clear that Tsao intended his piece as satire, the subtleties of saying one thing and implying another are often lost on those for whom English is a second language. For this reason, writers and editors need to take particular care to ensure their intentions are not misunderstood in a multicultural community such as Hong Kong.

I remember some years ago submitting a satirical article on how not to get a job to a local recruitment magazine, based on my years of experience in recruiting IT staff for a major bank. The article - which contained such valuable advice as "leave unexplained gaps in your CV" and "remember not to sign your cover letter" - was accepted, but only after the editor turned it around into a straight article on how to get a job, on the basis that the humour would be lost on the intended audience.

Even if HK's editor believed the intent was clear, there is another problem - once someone influential misinterprets such an article, most of those who subsequently get heated up about it have never read the original piece, only someone else's distorted version of it. Once matters reach this stage, there is little anyone can do except wait for the fuss to blow over - and in Mr Tsao's case, plan to take his next beach holiday in Thailand!