Blackest day yet for air pollution

Blackest day yet for air pollution
Olympic equestrian competitors shrug off concerns over heat and record smog levels
Cheung Chi-fai and Melanie Ho
SCMP Jul 29, 2008

Hong Kong was hit by its worst-ever air pollution amid exceptionally hot weather yesterday, raising fears that similar conditions could affect competitors and spectators at next month’s Olympic equestrian events.

But organisers and competitors said they were confident they and their horses would be able to cope with such conditions.

In the latest extreme in a year that has already seen one of the longest cold snaps on record and the wettest June, the air pollution index hit 202 on the outlying island of Tap Mun – a point higher than the previous record of 201 set at Tung Chung in 2004.

The Observatory recorded a maximum temperature at its Tsim Sha Tsui headquarters of 34.6 degrees Celsius, although higher levels were found elsewhere including 36.6 degrees at the equestrian host town of Sha Tin, where the air pollution index was an unprecedented 173. The roadside readings in urban areas were much lower, however, hovering around 100.

The Environmental Protection Department blamed the fringe effects of Typhoon Fung-wong for the hot conditions and still air that trapped pollutants, and an active photochemical process in the air that generated ozone, the main pollutant.

University of Science and Technology atmospheric scientist Alexis Lau Kai-hon said the weather would normally become hot and air quality turn bad whenever there was a typhoon near Taiwan. He said that while yesterday’s westerly wind had brought hot air and pollutants from the mainland, the city had also made its own contribution to the dirty air.

“The pollutants travelled to the city and mixed with locally generated ones under the strong sunshine, giving rise to high concentrations of ozone in the air. But the question of why the reading was so high remains unanswered,” he said.

Ground-level ozone is a secondary pollutant produced by a chemical reaction of nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds under sunshine. A high concentration can lead to eye irritations, coughing and even chromosome changes

Lobo Louie Hung-tak, an associate professor in Baptist University’s department of physical education, said he was surprised to learn that the pollution reading in Sha Tin was so high.

He said the equestrian event organisers should consider postponing competition in such conditions.

“Even if the well-trained riders and horses can cope with the pollution and heat, the spectators, who are not allowed to use any umbrellas, might still be exposed to the health risks of hot weather and poor air quality,” he said.

But three equestrian teams already in Hong Kong downplayed the impact of pollution and hot weather and said they believed conditions would be acceptable.

“We have no concerns at all. These are the horses that we flew over from Florida, where it’s been 37 and 38 degrees for the last few weeks,” said Canadian team leader Michael Gallagher. “We’ve noticed the haze, but it’s not black like it is in Beijing.”

Hans Melzer, of the German team, which had its first training session yesterday morning, said: “The horses were quite sweaty but nobody was too tired.” Australian Brett Mace said the hot weather was not unique to Hong Kong.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said during a visit to the equestrian venues that he found the weather no problem at all: “The city of Athens might be hotter than us. All players have to prepare for a fair competition, be it in a cold or hot place.”

The Equestrian Events Company refused to say if it would postpone events under similar conditions and said it had received no complaints about air pollution from the teams.

Temasek selling Merrill Lynch?

Temasek Selling Merrill Lynch
Half or total of 87m shares have been sold off at a loss, according to US recorded filings.
Seah Chiang Nee
Jul 24, 2008

Temasek Holdings has sold off half its ill-timed investment in Merrill Lynch – or about 87m shares, according to a mutual funds report on institutional trades on US stocks. The online report, MFFAIRS (Mutual Fund Facts About Individual Stocks), reported it sold off 86,949,594 shares (50%), leaving a current holdings of 86,949,594 shares (50%), according to the filings made public.

The report gave no exact date or price of the sale. Neither has there been any confirmation from Temasek, which had paid US$48 a share last year.

Last week Merrill Lynch was traded at $31.

At that price Temasek would have suffered a loss of $17 a share – or a total loss of about US$1.48b for the 87mil shares.

Despite massive write-downs and capital injection, Merrill Lynch’s outlook remains uncertain, reports Bloomberg.

The company’s equity capital position is weak relative to competitors, said Brad Hintz, a New York-based analyst at Sanford C Bernstein, reports Ambereen Choudhury.

“With $19.9b in CDOs still frozen on the balance sheet and with counterparty risk rising on the hedges underlying these troubled positions, the potential for additional material write-downs remains a concern,” Hintz said.

The New York-based firm’s credit rating was cut last week by Moody’s Investors Service to A2 from A1.

The third-biggest US securities firm probably will report a loss of $6.57 a share this year, compared with an earlier forecast of $1.07, Hintz said. The revised estimate assumes the company generates no earnings in the second half. Merrill may have to take an additional $10 billion of pre-tax write-downs related to its holdings of mortgage securities, Moody’s estimates.

Huge paper losses

The disposal leaves Temasek Holdings and the Government Investment Corporation (GIC) still holding substantial parts of big troubled Western banks. Its remaining investments in UBS (Switzerland), Citigroup, Barclays and Merrill Lynch – at an original cost of US$21.88b – have declined on by some 47 percent in value. That is a paper loss of US$10.28b. However, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had said these investments were made as a long-term strategy of 30 years. But as the Merrill Lynch sale shows, Temasek is not inflexible about cutting losses, if things threaten to get worse. The political leadership has defended its investment of these sub-prime banks as “an opportunistic” foray that can happen once in a long while. It believes these companies will survive the crisis and emerge stronger.

Some experts believe that Temasek has made an error of judgment. Investment guru Jim Rogers said in July he believed that US bank stocks could fall further and predicted that Singapore’s state investors would lose money on Citigroup and Merrill Lynch. “I’m shorting investment banks on Wall Street,” the successful investor said. “It grieves me to see what Singapore is doing. They are going to lose money.”

At the Nomura Dialogue recently, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew reported to investment mistakes, but that no one had benefited from it.

Singaporeans who want to see greater transparency in the government’s investments in troubled companies are unhappy with this vague answer to a serious problem.

One writer said, “Should we just move on? I do not think so. The patently huge mistake is not merely the result of recklessness but rather a systemic lack of accountability in making some of our largest investments.

“Let it be clear, the harm is terminally done. The entire reserves system must be re-examined and audited.”

Said slohand, “I saw the interview on TV last night and felt shortchanged.

“He brushed aside the issues with the logic that since the officers who made the decisions were not the beneficiaries in any sense of the word, such lapses are mistakes and are therefore acceptable…” ..The size indicates that it can only come from the very top.”

Law Jokes

ATTORNEY: Are you qualified to give a urine sample?

Q. What do you call an attorney with a 60 IQ?
A. Your Honor.

ATTORNEY: Were you present when your picture was taken?
WITNESS: Would you repeat the question?

ATTORNEY: What was the first thing your husband said to you that morning?
WITNESS: He said, “Where am I, Cathy?”
ATTORNEY: And why did that upset you?
WITNESS: My name is Susan.

ATTORNEY: What gear were you in at the moment of the impact?
WITNESS: Gucci sweats and Reeboks.

ATTORNEY: What is your date of birth?
WITNESS: July 18th.
ATTORNEY: What year?
WITNESS: Every year.

ATTORNEY: Are you sexually active?
WITNESS: No, I just lie there.

HK tycoon's mother paid US$77m ransom for him: report

HONG KONG – THE mother of one of Hong Kong’s richest tycoons paid nearly 77 million US dollars (S$103.7 million) for his release after he was kidnapped by a notorious gangster, a report said on Wednesday.

Ms Kwong Siu-hing, the 79-year-old chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties, met gangster Cheung Tze-keung, known as ‘Big Spender’, days after he kidnapped her eldest son Walter Kwok in September 1997, The Standard reported.

Accompanied by one of her younger sons and Mr Kwok’s wife, Ms Kwong offered Cheung 600 million dollars to get her eldest son back.

The ransom in 1,000 dollar notes was packed inside 20 large carrier bags and driven in two Mercedes saloon cars to a quiet lane in Central district, the report said, quoting a source close to the family.

Cheung and his accomplice drove the two cars away with the cash.

The report said the family did a global search of previous ransoms paid and decided to make the offer to Cheung by tripling the amount of the biggest ransom ever paid after the gangster kept changing his demands.

Mr Kwok was later found alive by his family in a wooden container box in a village house, according to the report.

For years rumours had circulated that Walter’s two younger brothers, Thomas and Raymond, were reluctant to pay the ransom.

The report on details of the kidnapping emerged during an ongoing family row over control of Sun Hung Kai Properties, the city’s largest property firm.

Walter Kwok was ousted from the chairmanship in May and his mother, the widow of the company’s former chairman Kwok Tak-seng, has since taken over the reins.

The ouster came the day after Mr Kwok, who had been on leave from the company since February, failed in a last-ditch legal bid to try and prevent a board meeting where the company’s directors were to vote on removing him.

Mr Kwok has accused his brothers, both vice-chairmen and managing directors of the firm, of falsely asserting that he had a mental disorder, court documents showed.

The rift was reportedly caused by Walter’s involvement with a female friend whom it was alleged had become increasingly influential on the married tycoon and his firm.

Gangster Cheung was tried and executed in mainland China in 1998. — AFP

The Nagasaki Spirit

On the calm clear night of 19 Sep 1992, the 100,000 ton crude carrier Nagasaki Spirit collided with the 27,000 ton container vessel Ocean Blessing. The collision occurred just before midnight at the northern entrance to the Malacca Straits. It was a classic T-Bone collision in which the Ocean Blessing is believed to have been making 21 knots based on the engine room log repeater found in the aftermath, and the V-shaped ripping in the side of the Nagasaki Spirit. A massive fire ensued and at least 12,000 tonnes of crude oil spilled out into the Straits. 44 sailors did not survive to tell the tale of what happened before the collision. The final message of the captain of the Nagasaki Spirit however leaves little doubt…

Have been fired upon and now have fire in Nos 5 and 6 and central tanks. Abandoning vessel immediately and into two 16 man life rafts and will activate EPIRB in lat 04.33N, long 98.43E at 1623 GMT Sep 19. No time to report further as abandoning vessel.

No lifeboats were ever found, onboard the Ocean Blessing investigators found only small piles of ashes — the remnants of human remains, and no remains were found on board the Nagasaki Spirit.

Speculation has it that the Nagasaki Spirit was taken by pirates, and the Ocean Blessing had also been pirated, or was trying to avoid the same, as she was observed by another ship “to move in an erratic manner — changing speeds from 10 to 20 knots, from side to side, as though the deck watch officer was trying to employ evasive maneuevers to avoid being boarded by pirates”.