Sunday, December 24, 2006

Rise of the Machines - Closer Than You Think?

Private Eye magazine (essential reading) reports in Issue 1173 that the British army is establishing a new worldwide satellite-based communications system called Skynet. To anyone who has seen the Terminator series of movies (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger before he switched from acting to a less reputable profession), this will either be an extremely disquieting omen, or an indication that someone in Whitehall has a wicked sense of humour.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Rich: Not All Greedy Bastards

Slate has a list of the 60 largest American donations to charity in 2005. There are several interesting things about this list.

While there are plenty of familiar names - Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, Ted Turner of CNN, Oprah Winfrey, the odd Rockefeller and Ford - quite a few of those listed are much less well known. This suggests that their money is probably inherited ("family wealth" as the list delicately puts it) rather than earned through any newsworthy current ventures of their own.

Also noticeable is the absence of many other enormously bloated individuals who could easily spare a few million bucks: no Warren Buffett, no Larry Ellison, no Steve Jobs, none of Sam Walton's heirs (of course they could appear further down the top 100 list, and some have made big donations in the past). Essay question: compare and contrast with the Forbes rich list.

Another observation is that many of the donations are to already massively wealthy institutions: MIT, UCLA, Princeton, Stanford, Wellesley College, (probably most of these are the alma mater of the donor), the Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library - rather than the less glamorous but infinitely more vital needs like clean water supplies and childhood vaccination in the Third World, medical aid for war victims (no shortage of those thanks to America's foreign policy), rainforest preservation and [name your own cause here].

Final note: much as I admire the work of the Gates Foundation, which does address some of these causes, I can't help feeling that the best service Gates and Allen could do for the world would be to provide more reliable software at a more affordable price!

Geography Lessons

Bash a broadcaster Part 3 - in fact several broadcasters this time.

ATV News reported the big storm in the Pacific Northwest of the US a couple of days ago against a graphic of a US map showing a hurricane approaching Florida. Well at least they got the right country, even if they're 3,000 miles off course.

Then TVB Pearl's news summary last night reported that Hong Kong Electric was applying to increase its prices, while showing on screen the head office of China Light and Power, Hong Kong's other electricity supplier, which serves the opposite side of the harbour. (To be fair, their full news later used this clip to contrast HKE's prices with those of CLP - they are already 35% higher, which may help explain why major shareholder Li Ka-Shing is Hong Kong's wealthiest man. And to be fair to HKE, they have reduced their emissions of pollutants by switching from coal to greater use of cleaner but more expensive natural gas.)

Finally this morning a DJ on RTHK Chinese language radio introduced Enya as a Scottish singer (she's Irish) singing "O Come All Ye Faithful" in Italian (it was Latin, "Adeste Fideles"). Close enough, I suppose - two Celtic nations, and two languages from the same location separated in time, in fact one descended from the other.

Am I the only one pedantic enough to notice this stuff?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Hey, that's no way to say goodbye

Bash a broadcaster part two:

Listening to the car radio (Chinese RTHK) this morning. With unusual good taste, they're playing a Jennifer Warnes version of a Leonard Cohen song. So I'm just getting into that Cohen mood of mellow melancholy, when they abruptly switch to the next item by way of a fusillade of gunshots. Ever heard of gradual transitions, you insensitive idiots?

Accountants of the Serengeti

I was behind a jeep going into the Tate's Cairn Tunnel this morning that had a sticker on the back saying Hunter on Board. Yeah, sure, in urban Hong Kong where just about every animal species is protected by law except the rat.

Or maybe Hunter is the driver's surname....

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Good, The Bad and The Brainless

It's not often that I have two opportunities in one week to praise Hong Kong's politicians, but last night's TV news reported that the Legislative Council passed a bill increasing the maximum penalties for cruelty to animals. Good for them!

However, most cruel treatment to animals in Hong Kong (and even more so on the Mainland) more often reflects ignorance and failure to understand their needs than deliberate nastiness. For example, a vet told me on Monday of someone who keeps three large dogs (Labrador Retrievers) on a small rooftop and never takes them out for a walk.

Anyone who doubts that many Hong Kong people need more education in this area obviously failed to watch TVB's Beautiful Cooking (美女廚房) contest a few weeks ago (22nd October). The audience laughed when some brainless bimbo clumsily dropped a live octopus on the floor twice, and again when another octopus, obviously distressed, was thrashing around wildly trying to escape another brainless bimbo who was attempting to lift it out of a tank.

Don't bother commenting that "brainless bimbo" is not a PC term - I know. But the octopus is an intelligent creature that can feel pain; the only dumb animals on this show were the contestants.

Making It Better:
There are many dedicated people campaigning for better treatment of animals in Hong Kong; here are a few:
- Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Hong Kong)
- Animal Earth
- Hong Kong Dog Rescue - this site also has a useful list of other animal welfare organisations in the territory

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Listening to the people

In a rare departure from its usual practice, the Hong Kong government actually listened to the people for once, and announced that it is scrapping the proposed goods and services tax (GST).

Just about everyone opposed this tax: ordinary people because it was regressive and would transfer part of the tax burden from the rich to the poor; the business community because it would impose a heavy administrative overhead on every company in the SAR; retailers because it would hurt sales; the tourism industry because it would make Hong Kong more expensive to visitors, and therefore a less attractive destination.

Nevertheless, the problem that the tax was supposed to solve remains: the government's narrow tax base and over-dependence on revenue from property transactions. So here's a suggestion: listen to the people some more. Public concern about environmental issues in Hong Kong has never been stronger, particularly with regard to the filthy smog-laden air we have to breathe. So how about a pollution tax, or rather a targeted set of environmental taxes?

Tax retailers for giving out unnecessary free plastic bags that end up in landfills. Tax minibus operators that have not yet converted their vehicles to run on cleaner LPG. Tax the power companies for every unit of pollution they emit until they fit more efficient emission controls on their generating stations. Tax transport operators that don't fit new cleaner engines to their vehicles within a reasonable time. Tax excessive packaging. And so on...

You get the idea. Raise public revenue while hitting polluters in the pocket, until they find it cheaper to clean up their act than to continue dirtying the environment, thereby killing two birds with one stone. How about it, Mr Tang?

Making It Better:
- Clear The Air
- Friends of the Earth (Hong Kong)

Friday, December 01, 2006

Empty Promises

Hong Kong's Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee was quoted on local television a few days ago as saying that the Hong Kong government would do all it could within the one country two systems framework to assist the family of jailed journalist Ching Cheong. Which means they will do nothing.

Of course there are limits to what Hong Kong can do to influence the Beijing authorities, but as a minimum, the Hong Kong government could at least tell the Chinese government that no one in Hong Kong, even among the "pro-China" crowd, believes for a moment that Ching is guilty.

Too Much Monkey Business

An interesting fact from singer/songwriter Tom Robinson's website: "A download on iTunes costs [in the UK] 79p per track. The Performer gets 7%, the Writer 8%, Credit Card company 9%, Apple 15%, and Record Company 61%". As Tom says, go figure.

Furthermore, the greedy record companies are always moaning about their supposed losses because of illegal downloads, but they can't even be bothered to make music they already own available to those of us who are actually willing to pay for it. There is plenty of good stuff that has never even made it on to CD: to name just a few, two albums by Loudon Wainwright III, one by Vivian Stanshall, two by Dory Previn, and one by Kate and Anna McGarrigle are only available if you are prepared to pay inflated prices on eBay for the original LPs or get someone who has them to run off a CD-R for you. (Obviously I'm giving away my musical tastes here.) Even one Bob Dylan album (admittedly his worst) has only made a brief appearance on CD, and is currently only available on cassette!

Viv Stanshall's widow and a group of his fans have been campaigning for years to get his album Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead reissued on CD. To sign an online petition to Warner Brothers Records for this, go here.

The music industry, movie studios and software companies also try to make you feel sorry for them by inflating their losses due to copyright piracy. The figures they quote assume that everyone who acquires a pirated copy would otherwise buy a legal one, which is clearly nonsense.

Update: (August 2013). The LW3, Dory, and (finally) Viv albums are now available on CD. But that still leaves other masterpieces like Bright Phoebus by Lal and Mike Waterson (a whole story in itself) largely unavailable. And I've done a later story on the missing Dylan CD.
Disclaimer - I get a small commission from Amazon UK if you buy the brilliant Stanshall CD through the picture link here.

Annoying Programme Interruptions (APIs)

I turned on TVB's English channel soon after 8am this morning and found it relaying CCTV Channel 9 news. Switched to ATV, and they were carrying exactly the same programme.

Now I have nothing against China Central Television. The days when their "news" programming consisted largely of happy red-scarved peasants celebrating bumper rice harvests thanks to the all-encompasssing wisdom of Chairman Mao are long gone, and while I wouldn't trust their impartiality on topics like the Dalai Lama's latest speech or the pros and cons of Taiwanese independence, most of their English language news coverage is as professional as anyone else's.

But if Hong Kong is going to license two terrestrial broadcasters, shouldn't they make some effort to carry different programmes? Otherwise why do we need more than one?

However, that's not the most irritating thing about Hong Kong television. Nor, annoying though it is, is TVB's habit of giving away the key plot points of films in the trailers they show. (At least it saves you having to spend time watching the actual movie.)

No, that distinction belongs to the so-called "Announcements of Public Interest" (APIs). Now some of these carry perfectly harmless and even useful public information, like reminders to register for upcoming elections, or that it's your age group's turn to change your ID card for the new smart card.

What pisses me off are the fuzzy pointless ads that tell you things everyone with half a brain doesn't need to be told: "be a happy family" or "be good to your children". Is it really necessary to spend the taxpayers' money on this kind of stuff? Does the government imagine that someone watching this will experience a sudden epiphany and think, "Oh, I should really be good to my kids - I never realised that before"?

Where do they think this is - Singapore?