Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Happy New Year, Everybody

Countries I visited in 2002
Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, United Kingdom, Turkey, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France.

Countries I visited in 2002 that I had not visited before
Malaysia, Turkey, Belgium.

Greatest product I discovered while travelling to one of these countries
Belgian beer.

Greatest product I discovered in a country I had visited before
Real Ale (it was that kind of year).

Total number of countries visisted in my life
32 (Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, China, USA, Canada, UK, France, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Kenya, Tanzania, Portugal, Spain, Monaco, Italy, Japan, Ireland, Thailand, Nepal, Macau, Finland, Estonia, South Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, Belgium, Turkey).

Number of these countries that no longer exist
3 (Czechoslovakia, Macau and Hong Kong, although you can argue both that Hong Kong and Macau are still countries or that they never were).

Best theatrical production I saw this year
Twelfth Night, at Shakespeare's Globe.

Movies I most enjoyed in 2002
Mulholland Drive, Donnie Darko, The Two Towers.

Most over the top (and very Japanese) movie I saw this year
Battle Royale .

Books that I most enjoyed reading in 2002
A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

Musical acts that I would have liked to have seen, and that I could have seen in London in 2002 if I had bought tickets in time, but didn't
Aimee Mann, Sigur Ros.

Favourite television program of 2002
Once again, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Most stunning place I visited in 2002

Place I visited where I felt most like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes, he spied the Pacific, and all his men looked at each other, wild with surmise, silent upon a peak in Darien
Troy (the one in Turkey, not the one in Michigan, although I salute the person who named a town in Michigan "Troy").

Great bridges I walked over in 2002
The Clifton Suspension Bridge.
The First Severn Crossing.
The Pont de Normandie.

Great Bridges I travelled over in vehicles in 2002
The Second Bosporus Bridge (which, as a bonus, is in the same location that Xerxes built his bridge of boats across the Bosporus as he headed East on the way to fight the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae in 480 BC).

Great Bridges I saw, but did not travel over in 2002
The First Bosporus Bridge.
The Second Severn Crossing.

Great tunnels I travelled through in 2002
The Channel Tunnel.
The Rotherhithe Tunnel.

Other places I visited in 2002 that are of interest to the hacker tourist
Bletchley Park, The Avon Canal, the Roman Baths at Bath. (I wanted to get to the Museum of Submarine Telegraphy at Porthcurno in Cornwall but didn't quite manage it).

Places that are of interest to Jane Austen fans that I visited in 2002
Various other parts of Bath. (I wanted to get to Lyme Regis where Louisa Musgrove fell over in Persuasion, but somehow didn't quite manage it).

Most upsetting event of the year.
The Sari Club bombing in Bali.

Rawest emotional reaction of the year
Unexpectedly bursting into tears while watching CNN reports about the Bali bombing while sitting in a McDonald's in Hamburg.

Moments in 2002 that most reminded me how Australian I still am
The Bali bombing again, a visit to the Gallipoli battlefields, and the silly, ridiculous, and frivolous pleasure I feel every time I see the Australian cricket team play.

Most time consuming but rewarding activity I took up in 2002.
I have commented before on the fact that different non-English speaking countries have different preferences on how they like their titles of their English movies. In some countries the posters and publicity have an English title, which may or may not be the same title as used in actual English speaking countries. In others they have a title in the local language. Once again, this may be a translation of the English title, or it may be something else entirely. To my previous observations that Bend it Like Beckham had become Kick it Like Becham, I now see that it is Joue-La Comme Beckham in France, which I believe approximately translates to Play it Like Beckham .

(English and German versions of the poster can be found here .

The film is still unreleased in America, and if it does get a release, I don't know if they will change the title. "Beckham" is immediately undertood in French, German, and British English, but an unknown word in American English.

On the other hand, Reese Witherspoon's Sweet Home Alabama has been changed into Fashion Victime for some reason.

I don't know quite why this is. The film's plot is the hoariest of cliches. Reese Witherspoon's character Melanie was a native of Alabama, but decided some years ago to leave her husband behind in Alabama and go to New York, where, seven years later, she is a successful fashion designer, who wants to marry someone else. She goes back to Alabama to get her husband to sign the divorce papers, but the movie gives us lots of southern colour, and eventually Melanie discovers that Alabama has small town charm, that she loves her husband after all, etc etc etc, although, to quote Roger Ebert,"The fact is that few people in Hollywood have voluntarily gone home again since William Faulkner fled to Mississippi. The screenwriters who retail the mirage of small towns are relieved to have escaped them. I await a movie where a New Yorker tries moving to a small town and finds that it just doesn't reflect his warm-hearted big city values". I will add that the filmmakers themselves were clearly so scared of going to Alabama themselves that they filmed the picture in Georgia and Florida. Yes, I have given away most of the plot, but to quote Ebert again, "Anyone who thinks I have just committed a spoiler will be unaware of all movies in this genre since 'Ma and Pa Kettle.'".

However, I wouldn't say Melanie is a fashion victim. Yes, she is supposedly a fashion designer, but this is entirely irrelevant to the plot. All that the plot requires is that she is successful in New York at something, and fashion design will do just fine. As to why the French needed to change "Sweet Home Alabama" into something else, I have no idea. My guess is that Jean-Paul of Bordeaux or Martine of Marseilles (and probably even Abdul of La Zone) know where Alabama is, and are probably even familiar with the song. So why the change. (And as to why "The Santa Clause 2" became "Hyper Noel", I won't even speculate).

And yes, Sweet Home Alabama is a pleasant enough movie, and Reese Witherspoon lights up the screen. Notice that the above poster is simply a picture of Witherspoon, and she is the only thing being used to sell the picture. And of course the film was a big success, as was Legally Blonde last year, another not all that great movie (but which had its moments) in which Witherspoon shone. It's quite an extraordinary achievement, really. Reese Witherspoon is now clearly a star. The last time young actress who could turn mediocre movies into hits just through being in them was the Julia Roberts of about 1991 . Reese Witherspoon might be on the verge of turning into that big a star (and I am certainly not the first person to observe this). So who is this girl?

In 1996, the local multiplex at Cambridge (that belonged and belongs to a joint venture between Warner Bros and Village Roadshow of Australia) had for some reason much more flexible programming than is the case for most chain cinemas. In particular, one thing it would do was show late films on Friday and Saturday nights that were not on its regular daytime schedule. Sometimes these would show strange Canadian-French adaptations of Japanese comic books. Sometimes they would simply show Hollywood films will a lower profile than their regular stuff. In any event, I made something of a habit of going along. One Friday night, they showed a thriller called Fear. Very simple plot. Teenage girl gets older boyfriend. After a while, she sleeps with him. After that, he turns into a psychopathic stalker, who gets crazier and crazier and eventually dies at the end of the movie.

The young actress who played the principal character in this movie had a similar way of pouting, and looked very similar to Alicia Silverstone, who had been so very good in Amy Heckerling's Clueless. In fact, I spent much of the movie asking whether the actress was Alicia Silverstone. (I was not the only person to think this: the similarity was commented on by quite a few people). I waited for the end credits, and noticed that the actress was someone named "Reese Witherspoon" and then thought nothing more of it. I dismissed her as some insignificant clone of Alicia Silverstone, and put her out of my mind.

At that point, it is easy to forget that Alicia Silverstone was once being groomed for stardom. She was really wonderful in Clueless: funny, adorable, and at the same time capturing the character of Jane Austen's Emma in a modern setting almost perfectly. After this, she signed a production deal with Sony Pictures, and we all waited for her future hits. But they never came. Only one film ever came from that production pact, the rather excrable Excess Baggage . I don't know whether it was that someone too young and inexperienced was given too much control over the film or what, but Silverstone had lost the sparkle, and the film appeared to have really low production values for a studio release. It looked and sounded dreadful, and it died at the box office. Next, Silverstone took the part of Batgirl in Batman & Robin . And while she certainly wasn't responsible for that particular debacle, again she did not look comfortable on screen. She was only in one major studio movie that many people were likely to see after this, the Brendan Fraser vehicle Blast From the Past . This was actually a much better movie and a much better performance from Silverstone, but she was only really in a supporting role, and she again lacked the obvious star power she had had in Clueless. This is one of those situations where the apparent star making role seems to have been a fluke, and was possibly brought out of her by a director who is good with actors, who can get what she wants on film and then put the performance together in the editing room. (I have thoughts on Amy Heckerling as a writer and director, but that would be too big a digression). In any event, at that point Alicia Silverstone faded into B movies and stage work.

In any event, the fact that she seemed so obviously to be copying Alicia Silverstone, who appeared to be a much greater talent, was why I rather dismissed Reese Witherspoon when I saw her in Fear. Bad call on my part. She was to keep popping up in films over the next few years, mainly in supporting parts: as Tobey Maguire's sister in Pleasantville and then more notably in Cruel Intentions, Roger Kumble's modern prep school update of Les Liaisons Dangereuses , which Witherspoon stole, although Sarah Michelle Gellar was nominally the female star (and she and the film were actually pretty good, although Kumble or perhaps the studio didn't quite have the nerve to confront the full implications of the ending of the source material and the film lost its way a bit in the third act). At that point I went back and looked at some of Reese Witherspoons earlier work, from the completely over the top Little Red Riding hood road movie Freeway, to the sweet coming of age movie Man in the Moon (from 1991, her first film, made when she was only 14, and a lovely piece of work). And then in 1999 she starred as Tracy Flick, the obnoxious over-achieving high school student, in Alexander Payne's Election, a brilliant satire of what David Brooks would later refer to as The Organisation Kid, American politics, and an assortment of other things. This film also brilliantly cast Matthew Broderick against his own usual onscreen persona, and is probably the best American film of the last ten years that you haven't seen. It was obvious at that point that Witherspoon was an actress of extraordinary skill and of great interest. The thought that I or anyone had ever considered her a lesser talent than Alicia Silverstone at that point seemed absurd.

But Witherspoon has not done anything as dazzling as that since. She appeared in an Adam Sandler vehicle, and then went on to make Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama relatively unambitious movies that were none the less perfect star vehicles for her. (In her defence, she did also recently (and hilariously) play Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest). I think she is inevitably now going to be a huge star. This is fine, This is probably good. Given that Witherspoon has always taken parts in mainstream and genre movies such as in fact Fear it is probably what she has always wanted, but I hope that it does not mean that there are no more performances like that in Election in her. Julia Roberts is more star than actress, but Reese Witherspoon is potentially a great actress, and stardom sometimes has an odd effect on roles. Stars are discouraged from playing unlikeable characters (and Tracy Flick was certainly that) and the presence of a star in a movie can lead to interesting scripts being rewritten and rewritten until they are middle of the road pap. Cate Blanchett is another potentially great actress who seems to not be especially bothered about being a star, and has instead spend her time seeking out interesting parts and people to work with. Her body of work is terrific. I hope Reese Witherspoon's can be as good.
Reader Paul Bauer, of somewhere in the San Francisco Bay area, writes to be about his Samsung CDMA cellphone

I somewhat disagree with your comments on Samsung being a "low-end" cell phone maker. That may be the perception; at least here there is a perception that Nokia makes the best phones. However, I don't think the perception about Samsung is true. I think my new Samsung SPH-A500 CDMA 1x phone is really slick; it looks really good and it has a quality feel about it, unlike many Nokias and the Sony/Ericsson T68i.

I'm not sure I ever quite described Samsung precisely that way. In fact, checking my blog, I find I said the following about Samsung. In my original response to Steven Den Beste I said:

If you want to buy a CDMA phone, it will generally be made by a South Korean company - Samsung or LG or Hyundai. And while these companies make decent products, they are deeply unfashionable: they are brandnames associated with cheap cars and cheap televisions. People do not want this for a mobile phone. So they have lost out.

When I was talking about cellphone operating system software I said

Although all the software mentioned in this article will likely work on either platform (plus existing 2.5G platforms like GPRS), Nokia's hardware may well be slower and buggier in the short term than that from some other manufacturers (eg Samsung). This could hurt the brand too.

Certainly in neither of these cases did I criticise the quality of Samsung's products. I would add that Samsung are clearly the high end manufacturer out of the three Korean manufacturers I mentioned. One very peculiar thing about the way that the cellphone market developed was that the traditional large consumer electronics companies did not achieve prominent positions in the cellphone market. (This may have had something to do with different technical standards in Japan). Sony, Panasonic, NEC, Phillips, etc are not big players in the cellphone market outside Japan. Therefore, the companies that did come to dominate built their brands largely on phones, and did not have very much other baggage attached to their brands. Samsung on the other hand did. Its brand is one people have traditionally associated with cheap televisions and VCRs. In a product where image and cool became extremely important, this baggage was and is a problem. Nokia on the other hand did a brilliant job of building an appropriate brand for cell phones.

Over the last couple of years, I have noticed that the quality of Samsung's other consumer electronics equipment has increased dramatically. Their Hi-fi equipment, DVD players, televisions and the like are getting much better reviews than they were even three or four years ago. Plus I think Samsung's presence in the plasma display market is working very much to their advantage. This is a 'cool' product, and they are able to price their displays much more competitively than the Japanese companies. People who would always buy a Sony for a conventional television (because it doesn't cost that much more than something like a Samsung anyway) are buying Samsung plasma displays (because in doing so they save several thousand dollars) and discovering they are of good quality, and I think this is helping the image of the brand a lot.

Samsung clearly doesn't want to be perceived as a low-end manufacturer (in fact I think it is pretty clear that they want to be perceived as a high end manufacturer and that the company they are trying to emulate is Sony). Here in Europe, where GSM is mandatory, they are not so much a low-end brand in the cellphone market as an absent brand. They do not make low end phones, but instead more expensive feature rich phones, and because Nokia has the better brand, most people who want high end phones get themselves a Nokia or perhaps a Motorola. Probably Samsung do have an advantage on price (because they make their own colour LCD displays, for instance), but the present market is rife with handset subsidies, and therefore the people who buy high-end phones don't see the sticker price of the phone themselves. (Of course, if you buy a low end phone you do, but Samsung are not really in that part of the market). In the CDMA market, Samsung clearly make the best phones. I do not know what the perception of Nokia's CDMA phones is in the US, but I don't imagine they are very good in quality terms, as the company's focus is on other technologies. (On the other hand, Nokia in Europe has made technically worse phones than Motorola for years now, and that hasn't stopped them from dominating the market). If CDMA really takes off (as it looks like it might) and if compelling features are available on CDMA that are not available on GSM and its derivatives, then this could signify a big shift in brand perception. Samsung may find itself perceived as the high quality brand it clearly wants to be, and Nokia might be significantly weakened. (As to what happens in Europe with its effective ban on CDMA, we have to wait and see). If this means that we end up with a world class Korean consumer electronics company, this would be great to see.

The other thing we might see is a big split between Europe and the rest of the world. Europe supports W-CDMA/UMTS, and America is going to be different. Sprint and Verizon will have CDMA2000, and AT&T, T-Mobile, and Cingular will have GSM. However, unlike in Europe, there are going to be difficulties upgrading the GSM networks of the last three to W-CDMA, even if the technology does work (and it doesn't seem to work well at the moment). Plus, I do not understand where you put it in the US spectrum allocations. The present version of W-CDMA is designed to work in the IMT-2000 2.1GHz spectrum band, which is not available in the US. There was talk of auctioning some of the 700MHz band, but this is stalled due to arguments with television station owners, and in any event even if this was available then the technology would have to be adapted to the new frequencies. If you read their publicity, T-Mobile, Cingular, and AT&T seem to be talking about upgrading eventually to EDGE (essentially GPRS with improved modulation) rather than W-CDMA. While this technology may eventually be used in Europe too, it is not the European priority (W-CDMA is) and it clearly isn't the best method for high speed data services. This means that the American GSM companies are going to have to wait for another generation of product development, and are not going to achieve the economies of scale through using the same technology as the US that they would like. I do not know why AT&T got themselves into this mess. However, the more the demand for high bandwidth applications in the US, the better it looks for Sprint and Verizon (and of course Qualcomm).

It may be that Europe and America end up running the same operating systems and applications on their smart phones over different hardware, but ultimately it is going to work better on one system than on the other. The rest of the world is likely to follow the better technology, particularly if the upgrade costs to the new technology are lower (as they are if you have a CDMA network already, which many places do). For 2G, the rest of the world followed Europe, leaving the US somewhat isolated. For 3G, however, there is a strong chance that the opposite may happen.

Update:With this "ladies phone" designed to look like a cosmetics case, Samsung certainly demonstrates that it gets the message that design is crucial. (Link via Bruce Sterling). That said, everyone now gets this. The issue is that Nokia got it a couple of years before everyone else did.

I wonder how Samsung's maket share in the GSM markets of Asia, particularly in fashion and brand conscious places like Hong Kong and Shanghai, compares with their market share in Europe. The phones they sell in Europe are feature packed, and tend to have decent but not great design, and their market share is low. However, models such as the A400 and T700 have not been sighted in Europe, so it may be that they are focusing their efforts on other markets. (It is no doubt easier to fight European companies in Asia than on their home turf). Samsung are now the number 3 cellphone manufacturer in the world in terms of volumes, behind Nokia and Motorola, but the question is how much of this comes from their dominant position in the CDMA market, and how much of that comes from genuinely making waves in the GSM market.
The Death of the Payphone

Via Slashdot

A woman at the Old Ebbitt Grill was asking strangers if she could borrow their cell phones one recent evening. She systematically worked her way through half the people seated at the bar, none of whom had cell phones to lend. Finally, she reached Hayden, who was sipping a beer. He suggested she use the pay phone he maintained in the restaurant. She haughtily replied: "I wouldn't be caught dead using a pay phone."

Monday, December 30, 2002

I cheated to get this answer, but I really love Mulholland Drive.

Which David Lynch movie are you?

brought to you by Quizilla

I am now 34 years old. How did that happen?
Update Tim Noah at Slate is talking about the disadvantages of dying between Christmas and New Year. I will observe that being born between Christmas and New Year is worse. Have you ever tried holding a party on December 30?
Andrew Sullivan (who needs to start attaching permalinks to each distinct post rather than to large chunks of text containing serveral) draws attention to this report about the vileness of the military regime that runs Burma. I repost the link, merely because Sullivan is right that more attention needs to be paid to this particular country.

Ian Buruma's book God's Dust: A Modern Asian Journey is 13 years old, but still very worth a read. The book is essentially a trevalogue, in which Buruma gives various insights into the individual people in the countries he visits. The chapter on Burma gives a lengthy description of how decent and civilized the Burmese people are, the legacy of the British Empire on the country, plus how the thugs took the place over. (He tells a lovely story of meeting a young Burmese man on a train who, upon learning he is English, wants to talk with him about Robert Browning's poetry. This man's father had been educated before the British left, and had made a point of passing the culture he had been taught on to his son, because nothing like that was taught in Burma any more).
The Australian Cricket Team and the Sun Tzu Incident

I see that American soldiers are being issued with copies of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, amongst other things. (Link via aldaily ).

Several years ago, the Australian cricket team was playing a series against New Zealand. John Buchanan, their coach, prepared a document outlining what he saw as the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing players. This document was pushed under the doors of the players' hotel rooms. Unfortunately, one copy was pushed under the wrong door, and it ended up in the hands of the press. The New Zealanders were a little miffed at the unflattering portraits of some of their players, but given that Australia won the series 3-0, they were probably fair. (However, when Australia next played New Zealand, the New Zealanders were even better prepared than the Australians, and New Zealand nearly scored an upset win in that series by targeting the strengths and weaknesses of the individual Australians extremely well, so they may well have learned something).

Eighteen months later, the same thing apparently happened again. A memo from Buchanan to the Australian team on the 2001 tour of England again ended up in the hands of the press. This one was more interesting, though: as it consisted largely of extensive quotes from The Art of War , explaining how Sun Tzu's "Nine Situations" could be applied to the game of cricket. The press had great fun with this. Australians like to see themselves as hard playing and uncomplicated, and referring to the thoughs of a fifth century Chinese warlord sounds extremely silly. (Seriously, this is the sort of thing you expect from the French rugby team, perhaps, but not the English cricket team). Much fun was made of Buchanan over this issue. However, in all the coverage Sun Tzu was seldom mentioned by name. The document was always referred to as quoting the thoughts of "a fifth century Chinese warlord". Presumably the sports journalists had never heard of The Art of War before this incident and they assumed that their readers hadn't either.

However, this outbreak of silliness all blew over, and the Australian cricket team kept winning. Buchanan is still coach, and a case can be made that the present team is the best cricket team of all time. So maybe the Sun Tzu business works. Perhaps this means that the US military will be as ruthless and successful as the Australian cricket team. (I think this is likely, actually, but whether it has anything to do with Sun Tzu in either case, I rather doubt it).

What I would like to believe is that the whole Sun Tzu incident was an elaborate joke that John Buchanan and the Australian cricket team played on the press. After the leak of the document in New Zealand, they contrived to have it happen again, and they made up a really silly document to leak, all the while laughing themselves silly. I don't think this is what actually happened, but it is what should have happened.

Sunday, December 29, 2002

Well, the story of the falling out between Sendo and Microsoft is starting to come out. Sendo claims that Microsoft stole its intellectual property and used it in its own products. I am sure this will make other phone companies want to work with Microsoft. This was one of the background stories to this piece on Microsoft's attempts to get into the phone software business that I wrote a few weeks ago. (I didn't mention the Sendo-Microsoft falling out explicitly, but it is discussed in both the Salon and Economist stories I link to).

Update: There is a further discussion of the Sendo-Microsoft affair as part of this editorial on Microsoft's tactics in general. Basically, Microsoft continues to behave like a bullying monopolist, even in markets where it isn't a monopolist or in which it doesn't even have significant market share. It seems less and less likely that Microsoft will be able to find willing partners.
Antoine Clarke has a good post on (amongst other things) why the threat of Saddam developing Nukes is to some extent beside the point, and that the real reasons for removing Saddam Hussein are simpler, but no less compelling.

I also question the double talk about nukes in Iraq when the good reasons for toppling/killing Saddam are...
  1. he's a national socialist tyrant

  2. he's allegedly one of Al-Qaeda's main financial and logistical backers.

I'm told there is evidence to back up this claim, so why the red herrings?

There is another simple reason for taking out Saddam Hussein. The job was left half fininished a decade ago, and it was hoped that sanctions and the like would lead to Saddam eventually falling. Instead, we have sanctions that are being used as an grievance by Saddam and America's enemies everywhere. Look at all the children who are starving and/or without medical care because of the sanctions applied by those nasty Americans. Such suffering is in fact largely caused by Saddam Hussein, but a great many Arabs feel sympathy for the argument (and whatever the cause, I feel plenty of sympathy suffering Iraqis, and I think it is vile that the cradle of civilization is now the place it is). Al Qaeda uses it in its training videos. The situation with sanctions is an ongoing sore to the Arab world, and one that needs to be removed.
Here is another positive coming from dramatically improving digital communications between passenger aircraft and the ground: in flight medical diagnoses. (Link again via slashdot ).
It's very interesting to see a huge conglomerate like Reliance of India launching a new CDMA2000 (initially 1x) network (link via slashdot, and see also this follow up comment), one of the main aims of which appears to be to offer Wireless Local Loop (WLL) to people without fixed line services. This is a 3G technology, folks. While European operators are busy fighting over their own government mandated 3G standard that doesn't really work yet, a large portion of India could well have 3G coverage by mid 2003. As my long term readers know, I have strong opinions on this subject, as does Steven Den Beste . I have also previously written about technology hastening development in the third world. Plus it seems that developing countries are questioning the point of paying the Microsoft tax to use modern technology. Why adopt the developed world's baggage if you don't have to? Also, perhaps somebody could nominate Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman for the Nobel peace prize.
This is enormously impressive stuff.

Update: Okay, we have some details on the structure of the Indian market and how competition is evolving here. It seems Reliance has a WLL licence and is not allowed to offer full mobility to its customers. (Essentially we have a situation where you have a mobile phone in your local area, but for regulatory reasons you are not allowed to use it elsewhere). Because of this, it has paid rather less for its spectrum than have GSM operators. The GSM operators claim that they will keep their customers because they can offer greater mobility and also SMS messages. Plus they are sowing as much fear, uncertainty and doubt as possible, and are stalling on things like interconnection agreements with existing cellular networks, although the law requires that they have such agreements.

Two observations here: Firstly, Reliance have chosen a technical standard that can provide full mobile phone service. In fact it is a 3G standard, significantly superior to GSM. If this system gets a lot of customers, as seems likely, then consumer pressure to allow these phones to be used to their full capabilities will be overwhelming. Secondly, there is no reason whatsoever why GSM operators should have a monopoly on SMS. CDMA also supports SMS, and interoperability with GSM SMS is no problem at all. (Australia has a mixture of CDMA and GSM networks, and SMS interoperability works fine). It seems that the GSM operators are trying to defend their situation through regulatory interia and obstruction. In the long term, that isn't going to work.

Finally, I love this

Not surprisingly, the cellular operators are incensed by this idea. They point out that all the players are either offering GSM or WiLL services. Says a senior mobile company executive: “There is already so much competition that there is no logic in having more players. All this means is that WiLL operators will be able to take full mobile licences at dirt cheap rates.”

There is so much competition in fact that allowing more competition would be bad. Who knows, it might even mean lower prices for consumers and a reduction in profits for the existing oligopolistic operators. Indeed, that would be a catastrophe. Yes, there is far too much competition.
Over at Samizdata, Perry De-Havilland is talking about the way in which computer games have evolved over the last couple of decades, and how high performance games are now just about the only thing driving the development of high performance PCs. I have to admit that at this point in my life, I am to computer games what William Gibson is was to computers when he wrote Neuromancer: I am more interested in the culture that surrounds them than I am in the games themselves. It was not always so, however. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I wasted much time and money on early coin operated games such as Pac-Man, Galaga, Penguin, Donkey Kong and the like, and spent far too much time hanging out in less salubrious environments than I should have in order to do this. I am very capable of being obsessive about games, and I know this, so these days I tend to avoid actually playing them in order to spend my time doing other things.

However, I feel a lot of nostalgia for those late 1970s and early 1980s games. And the nice thing is that I can still play them today. The hardware they ran on was by today's standards incredibly simple, and due to the tiny amounts of memory these machines had, the programs themselves are absolutely tiny (many of them run on machines with less than 10 kilobytes of memory). It was simply amazing just how much functionality programmers of the 1970s could fit into a few kilobytes by programming extremely efficiently. With memory now being cheap, these skills seem to have largely been lost to the world.

However, nostalgic programmers have written emulators, programs that run on your PC that make the PC emulate the hardware of those 20 year old arcade machines. The most famous such piece of sofware is the Multi Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), which is a piece of software capable of emulating virtually every piece of arcade machine hardware built from 1975 to 1990. It is really amazing.

The games themselves are copyright. However, nobody generally cares at this point. In most cases the games have not generated revenues for the copyright holders in years, and various people have put up sites on the internet containing hundreds and hundreds of games to download. We download them, and we play all those old games. It's great. Virtually the only time I do spend playing games is spent playing those old 1970s and 1980s classics. New games may be more sophisticated, but I like the old ones. This probably means I am officially an old fogey.

Of course, we play legal games to do this. If I did actually own an old Space Invaders machine, then it is just possible that it would be legal under fair use for me to play the same game on my PC. Therefore, whenever I do download a game over the internet, I am made to declare that I do own an old machine of the same game and I am downloading under fair use. This is ridiculous, and the owner of the download site knows it. (It is also unimaginable that the owner of the download site owns all the games). It is really unlikely that this defence would ever stand up in court, but still we do it. (My preferred solution is that copyright law be changed to allow copying for personal use in instances when works are "out of print" as it were, but I am not expecting such a change in the law any time soon).

There is now an interesting development, which is that there is another class of computer that is limited in similar ways to old arcade machines: mobile phones. There is lots of demand now for games on these phones, and they are clearly not powerful enough to play current PC games. In particular, the phone companies see a market in downloadable games: games that can be downloaded (for a fee) over the phone network and then played on a phone. Now though, the bottleneck is not memory and processing power. Modern phones have a lot more computer power and memory than 1980 vintage arcade machines (although a lot less than current generation PCs, due to cost constraints and the limitations of current generation batteries. However, phone network bandwidth is extremely limited. If we are going to download a game, the program has to be extremely small. It so happens that the extremely efficiently written arcade games of the late 1970s fit the bill. An emulator of the 20 year old hardware is written to run on the mobile phone, and these already written, tiny games can be downloaded. You can now get Pac-Man, Galaxian and the like to run on some mobile phones. As these are commercial enterprises, the original copyright holders have to be compensated, and the old games are again worth something to the copyright holders. One would think that this might lead to some sort of crackdown on unauthorised uses of the copyrights, such as people playing the games on PCs (particularly given that people are doing things like porting MAME to their cellphones so that they can play all the old games they like for free). Although the emulation world is wary, this doesn't seem to have yet happened. I have to say I think this is good.
On Christmas day, I visited a Commonwealth war cemetery just outside Bayeux in Normandy. This was the second time this year I had visited the site of large war cemeteries. The other was at Gallipoli in Turkey in June. I had never visited a war graveyard prior to this, and the visits were quite interesting. For one thing, you simply appreciate the scale of the war in a way you may not have before. Thousands of graves together make an impression, and quite a shocking one.

One thing was that from looking at the graves you could tell, almost instantly, how different the world of 1944 was from that of 1915. The graves in Gallipoli were a mixture of nationalities from the British Empire: Australians, New Zealanders, British, a small number of Canadians and South Africans, plus a substantial number of Indians. Most of the graves were decorated with a Christian cross, but I saw quite a few stars of David, and graves with Indian (presumably Hindu) inscriptions. (A few graves had no religious inscription whatsoever. I do not know what this means: possibly that the soldier was an agnostic or atheist; possibly that his religion was simply not known).

In Bayeux, however, the graves were almost entirely British, with a few Canadians. As far as the European war was concerned, the empire was gone. The Americans were fighting with the British (although they landed on different beaches and their dead are buried in different graveyards) but the Australians, the New Zealanders, and the rest of the empire were all elsewhere. The graveyard has much less diversity. (I did not see a single grave with a religious marking other than a Christian cross, although I once again I did see a few graves where religious markings were absent).

There are a lot of national flags flying outside the Battle of Normandy museum in Bayeux, but the Australian flag is not there.

Not that it should be there. Australia was not involved in the settlement of the war in Europe. This is in dramatic contrast to World War I, in which many Australians fought in France, and after which Australia was represented by separate delegates at the conference of Versailles, and was one of the signitaries of the Treaty of Versailles and one of the Founding Nations of the League of Nations. (This was the first act of Australian foreign policy independent of Britain, and is one important stop on Australia's road to independence).

And of course, this fits my experience as an Australian. For me, the second world war is largely the war with Japan. The key event of the war is the fall of Singapore (and the inadequate British preparations to defend it). Amongst older Australians, memories of such things as the terrible treatment of Australian prisoners of war by the Japanese army are well remembered. The way I perceive the second World War, I do not forget the war in Europe, but the war against Japan looms large. Which is not surprising, as Japan bombed Darwin, and Japanese submarines fired torpedos in Sydney harbour.

However, British people see the war against Germany, the Battle of Britain, and the D-Day landings as paramount. This is hardly surprising, as their country was bombed and their nation was threatened, and their nation stood and held off Germany. And of course they revere Churchill. I have occasionally been known to belittle this British heroic myth a small amount. Although I would not dream of belittling the sacrifices of the British people or the British war effort itself, my tendency is more to see the Battle of Britain and the subsequent Normandy invasion as just one campaign in a larger war. I have sometimes felt the British see themselves as a little too central to a campaign that was, when it came down to it, won by the Americans. (That said, everyone does this. And if you go by war memorials in some parts of France (although not in Normandy itself) you would get the impression that the Germans were defeated by Charles de Gaul and three other Frenchmen, acting by themselves). And my feelings about Churchill are a little more mixed than is generally the case in Britain. All the achievements that his proponents praise him for were undoubtedly real, but I find it harder to forget his role in the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War, and some of his attitudes towards colonials in general have been known to annoy me. Sometimes British people are surprised when my emotions about the second world war are not quite the same as theirs. (In the recent "Greatest Briton" discussion, my first thoughts went to people like Darwin, Newton and Shakespeare, rather than Churchill, possibly because they were more "great people who happened to be British", whereas Churchill was a "great man who saved Britain").

It may have been that the overcast December weather and the solitude of being a tourist on Christmas day added to it, but I felt a long way from home, in a way I didn't when I visited Gallipoli (although in that case I was surrounded by Australians on a beautiful June Day) and I suspect I wouldn't if I visited the World War I battlefields in France. Normandy is not a battle Australians have memories of, and this affects my reaction.

It doesn't make my reaction any less emotional, however. The simple size of the cemetery in Bayeux reminds you of the size of the sacrifice that occurred. There are almost 5000 graves close together in this particular cemetery, around 4000 of which were of British men (the others mostly being Canadians) Almost all of them were between 18 and 30 years old.

There are of course other British, German, and American cemeteries along the Normandy coast. These men were heroes, fighting a great struggle against a terrible enemy. The sacrifice was against a terrible evil, and in the end was clearly worth it. No wonder people in Britain feel the way they do about it.

Saturday, December 28, 2002

Okay, I am back in London, slightly earlier than I said. I had a good time and did all the things I intended to (and I also got a fair amount of reading done on trains/ferries etc) but I got to Cherbourg in time for last night's ferry, and I didn't feel like hanging around there for another 24 hours. France was very French. (I do like their habit of puting a newsagent, tobacconist, bar, and cafe all in the same shop, however. Plus the simple fact that you can get excellent coffee utterly anywhere is a fine thing about the country). I have more thoughts on France, but I will largely leave them until I get my photographs back so that I can provide some illustrations. (I am still mostly using a non-digital SLR). Meanwhile, I am catching up on what has been going on, and I shall no doubt blog a few comments over the next day or two.

Monday, December 23, 2002

Well, internet access here is expensive and the keyboards are non-standard, so no travelogues until I get back. Blogging shall resume Decmber 29.

Saturday, December 21, 2002

Jan Morris captures the joy of European travel very well in this piece from the Spectator.

I disagree with her about the French though.

There is is no denying that some parts of Europe are more assertively European than others, and for me crossing any border into France is still like entering the Big Time, the Real Thing. God knows the French have had their moments of ignominy even in my lifetime, but from every reverse they seem to spring back in crested-cock-like confidence.

I think the French are assertively French, rather than assertively European. I think over the last 50 years they have just done a good job and convincing some of the others that to be assertively French is to be assertively European. I think there are two poles of Europeanness, one of which is France and the other is Britain, and most of the other Europeans occupy more middle ground. As for more definitively "European", I go for the Germans, and the Spanish and even the Italians (somewhat problematically) over the French.(Not so much the Nordic peoples, who are more, well, Nordic. And the Swiss are Swiss). All of this, for reasons that I cannot go into now because I have a train to Portsmouth to catch.

You see, I yesterday read Morris' description of the joys of getting a ferry back to England across the channel and seeing the white cliffs of Dover. In any event, upon reading this, I was struck by the fact that I have never crossed the English channel by boat. I have gone underneath it by train a couple of times, and I have flown across it and the North Sea on countless occasions, but I have never gone by ferry.

My response to all this was to go to the P&O Ferries website, and book a ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre tomorrow afternoon, and a ferry back from Cherbourg on December 28. My plans are to visit Mont St Michel, the beaches of Dunkirk, and the Normandy Bridge, plus whatever else in that part of France takes my fancy. Plus I shall drink some wine and take advantage of a prix fixe menu or two. There may be a small amount of blogging over the next week, but I suspect not very much. Blogging shall resume in full force on December 29. (One thing that I shall blog when I get back is a lengthy essay on why I believe that the telco business (and if we are lucky the financial markets) have bottomed. Vast numbers of job applications shall be sent out from December 30. My life shall be back to working at full speed hopefully shortly in to the new year.

Of course, as I am going to Normandy rather than Brittany, the ferries go from Portsmouth, so I shall not get to see the White Cliffs of Dover as I return. This I shall have to leave for some other time.

Anyway, I am going to France, where I am going to have a damn good time. Happy Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Gurnenthar's Ascendance to everybody.
I have added a list of "What I am presently reading" to the left of the main blog. My usual practice is to have three or four books going at once, and I alternate between them as the mood takes me. I may also post brief reviews of books to this blog after I finish them, depending on how I feel.

Friday, December 20, 2002

David Brooks is again talking about what today's elite college students are doing. Brooks sometimes gets a little too attached to some cute thesis or other, and ends up focusing too much on small pictures that reinforce his thesis rather than bigger ones that are more complicated, but in this article is pretty much on the ball. It has been discussed fairly thoroughly already, but some thoughts.

Brooks observes something that I have noticed, which is that smart, driven 20 year olds today are often amazingly well informed and knowledgeable compared to the way they were even a decade ago.

(These students) are thus remarkably eager to try new things, to thrust themselves into unlikely situations, to travel the world in search of new activities. At Dartmouth and Princeton, too, every other student you meet has just come back from some service adventure in remotest China or Brazil. During my conversations with them, I would sometimes realize with a start that they were two decades younger than me. With their worldliness, their sophisticated senses of humor, their ability to at least fake knowledge of a wide variety of fields, they socialize just like any group of fortysomethings

I am 33, and I have to agree. I find that while people in their early twenties today are not necessarily smarter or more original that people of my generation were, they seem much more knowledgeable and they seem to have have much broader interests. I think a lot of this is due to their having been exposed to the information revolution from a younger age and in a more savage way than were those of us who grew up earlier. The younger generation at 22 seem much more sophisticated than my generation were at the same age. I think we got there in the end: but it took longer.

And Brooks also has some comments that hit me personally, even if I am ten years older than the people he is talking about.

Because many bright college students don't have a clue about the incredible variety of career paths that await them. They don't have the vaguest notion as to how real people move from post to post.

Some students believe that they face a sharp fork in the road. They can either sell their souls for money and work 80 hours a week at an investment bank, or they can live in spiritually satisfied poverty as an urban nursery school teacher. In reality, of course, the choices between wallet and soul are rarely that stark.
In a weird way, the meritocratic system is both too professional and not career-oriented enough. It encourages prudential thinking, and a professional mindset in areas where serendipity and curiosity should rule, but it does not really give students, even the brilliant students at top schools, an accurate picture of the real world of work. These young people are tested and honed from birth, from when they get their Apgar score until graduation, when they get their honors degree. Then the system spits them out into the world when they are in their twenties, and suddenly there is nothing--just a few desperate years as they search for some satisfying spot in the universe.

This one does hit home. Once upon a time, I was a wildly over-driven university student. I was something of an academic star. I got the highest possible grade in every undergraduate exam I ever sat. I came first in my year in applied mathematics at Sydney University. Then I went to Cambridge and I did a Ph.D. And at the end of all this, I did in fact go for the 80 hours a week at an investment bank option.

In some ways, this sort of thing is hard to avoid. You get the academic honours, and the scholarships and stuff, and people kind of expect you to go into some high powered, highly paid job at the end of it. You have spent your youth striving hard in the meritocratic system, and you have jumped hurdle after hurdle. You have to work astonishingly hard to jump them, but if you keep doing so, then in some ways the system remains easy for you, because it is so structured. What you have to do next always appears clearly in front of you. You just keep jumping.

The 80 hour a week investment banking job is just one of these hurdles. You jump it, they pay you a lot of money, and you continue puting in lots and lots of hours. You feel obliged to either do this, or reject it completely and go for spiritually satisfying poverty as an urban nursery school teacher, or something like that. However going for something more complicated in the world of work is harder, as when you do this then suddenly the structure is gone, and quite frankly it's terrifying.

My investment banking career involved joining a large international firm in the equities division in Australia. For some reason over the years I had become obsessively interested in telecommunications, media, and other related industries. After a little while in the job, my bosses discovered this, and I spent most of my time writing strategic overviews of the telecommunications industry, from both a regulatory and technical point of view. In the tech and telco boom, this was great, and I had no end of fun. This was a relatively unusual job, as most analysts spend their time analysing individual companies. However, in the boom, our clients wanted to know about the technology and the overall growth of the industry, so this is what I spent my time on. I did some work I am very proud of, and in retrospect my record on picking which technologies were likely to be successful has turned out to be really good. In a bull market, this was great. However, the boom collapsed, and I found that in a downturn people become less interested in strategic issues, and firms are less willing to employ analysts who look at them. Plus telecommunications was the industry that collapsed more than any other, and I had the misfortune to be working for a firm that downsized more than any other. The gist of all this is that I found myself without the investment bank job any more.

So I now find myself in the middle of this complicated world. The structured career path has vanished. Because investment bankers are paid very well (and I was paid off quite well) I was and am in no immediate danger of starving, but life was and is complicated. I've been looking for a job, but not with the desperation I would have if I was going to be broke tomorrow. I still hope to find something as a telecommunications or media analyst of some sort: perhaps in a specialist consultancy or the strategic planning department of a telco or media company. There are certainly lots of other jobs I am capable of doing, but finding one that will satisfy me and that I can convince someone to give me is hard. In the mean time, I have come back to London (because I like the city) and I have written a book on digital television which I am presently shopping around various publishers. (Perhaps I should post a couple of sample chapters on this website). I have done lots of blogging.

And David Brooks is right. The meritocratic career path did not prepare me well to figure out what to do once I was spat out into the world. I haven't yet found my place in the universe. At some point I no doubt will, but for now life is hard.
I am sitting in a branch of Easy Internet Cafe in central London. This is a chain of internet highly functional internet cafes that exist in many of the major tourist cities in Europe, as well as in New York. (They are owned by Stelios Haji-Ioannou, who is also owns the discount airline EasyJet). These are as automated as possible: you buy a ticket for a certain value from a ticket machine, and you then walk up to a PC and type in the number on the ticket. The amount of internet time you get is calculated dynamically. If the store is very busy, you get a shorter time for your money than if the store is empty. (Therefore the system charges higher rates automatically at peak times). These particular internet cafes have for some time had kiosks selling food and drink just inside the doors. Nothing fancy, just coffee, sandwiches, chocolate bars, that kinds of thing.

This week, however, the generic food kiosks have been demolished and very small branches of the Subway sandwich shops are being built in their place. This seems to be something of a trend, in which a chains of stores requiring a large floor area are subleasing parts of their stores to chains of stores (particularly those offering food and drink) requring smaller floor areas. Earlier this year, Borders bookstores in Australia, the UK, and no doubt other places as well, removed their own brand cafes, and replaced them with in store Starbucks outlets. In a slightly more unusual move, the Costa Coffee chain of Starbucks like coffee shops, has opened cafes in most branches of the Abbey National Bank in the UK.

This type of move makes good sense for both parties. The store with the large floorspace (be it a bookstore or internet cafe or bank or whatever) can presumably negotiate a much smaller rent per square meter than can a fast food restaurant or cafe (and a large bookstore may even get a concessional rent from a mall in the hope that it brings customers to other stores). The store can sublet a bit of space for less than the Subway or Starbucks would pay for its own lease, and in doing so the store manages to outsource its cafe or restaurant, and can then concentrate on its core business. The smaller business custom from the customers of the larger business, and if it is positioned near the entrance (or at least if it is well signposted) it can get passing trade as well. The smaller business doesn't have to worry about things like security, as the larger store has already taken care of this.

None of this is new. Department stores have long sold space in the store to the outlets of particular fashion labels and the like. The question is why I am seeing so much of it this year and why the smaller stores, be they Starbucks, Subway, or whatever, are well known brands in their own right.

I think part of this is that the large franchise businesses such as Subway are becoming much cleverer in terms of their ability to use space. The Subway outlets being installed in the internet cafes are really very small, but the necessary counters, ovens and whatever are all there. Subway have learned how to prefabricate the contents of their stores in such a way that they can operate in extemely small and odd shaped locations, if necessary. Starbucks are widely acknowledged to be masters of taking advantage of available space. (McDonald's are good at this, too. The smallest prefabricated McDonald's kitchen and counter (used mainly in mall foodcourts) can really fit into a tiny area also. I think the logistics of lots of businesses are improving, and this is one more type of example.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

Computer Movies, The Matrix, and incidentally more Aussie actors
While watching The Two Towers I noticed Hugo Weaving making a relatively brief appearance as Elrond. Weaving is something of an institution on Australian television and in Australian movies (check out Proof and The Interview if you want to see good examples of his work), but only seems to pop up in big Hollywood movies if they are actually filmed in Australia or New Zealand. I am guessing he is an actor who has simply never felt the urge to move to Los Angeles, but who is quite happy to take the money and the work if there is a big budget Hollywood production shooting locally. Peter Jackson has undoubtedly seen his television and Australian movie work, but I suspect that Hugo Weaving's name comes up frequently when a local casting agent is asked to name a good solid local actor who can do a good American or British accent and play the villain, or a key supporting part, or whatever, in an offshore Hollywood production. This is presumably how Weaving was cast as Agent Smith in The Matrix. If the two Matrix sequels to be released next summer and holiday season are as successful as I think they are likely to be, and taking the success of The Return of the King as a given, then Weaving will have been in six of the most successful films of all time. (Presumably he will be the lowest profile actor to have ever performed such a feat).

As I observed the other day, most big DVD retailers presently have two for one offers, where I can get two quite recent films on DVD for 20 pounds. Having found a DVD I thought my sister would like, I decided to buy one for myself, and I ended up with a 2 disk special edition set of The Matrix . I then went home and watched it.

This was the film that broke the genre of "computer movie" through to a mass audience. It was the right time for it. It corresponded with the point at which the internet was being used by the masses, and with the release of Windows 98 (which popularised the Universal Serial Bus (USB) that made "plug and play" for hardware a reality, which meant that most comsumer electronics devices we would buy subsequently would plug straight into our PCs). It was also the point at which people who had had computers as part of their lives for as long as they could remember reached prime moviegoing age. And the movie is kind of fun, managing to combine the computer and virtual reality genres with lots of jumping and kung-fu. However, it is also kind of stupid, particularly compared to some of the movies that came before it.

The revolution that came with the mainstreaming of the internet in the mid 1990s was the second mass market computer revolution. The first came around the year 1980, when microcomputers first became available to normal people. They got a lot of publicity then, but at this time it was a geek phenomenon. Hollywood noticed, though, and there were a series of movies from this computer revolution, too. There were a couple of "virtual reality movies" made about 20 years ago, which were rather more intelligent than what came later. In these, you see the first signs of silicon valley culture on celluloid. There is John Badham's teen movie War Games and there are actual virtual reality movies: Steven Lisberger's Tron - a hugely influential and surprisingly good film, the first film to use computer graphics in any substantial way, and a film that was grasping towards the idea of virtual reality. Douglas Trumbull's Brainstorm (1983): a flawed movie, partly because Natalie Wood died halfway through filming, but an attempt at a mainstream movie about vrtual reality that had some intelligence.

At the time, though, only geeks wanted to see the movies, and perhaps because of the financial failure of these movies, "computer movies" and "virtual reality" movies then went away, and Hollywood then forgot about computer movies for 10-15 years. It wasn't until the mid 1990s, when the media was full of "the internet" but few people had seen it, that they came back. We then got unrealistic stuff like The Net, the computer scenes in the first Mission Impossible film, and the like. (I have a soft spot of Iain Softley's Hackers though, which at least tried in places. It's plot was ludicrous, but I kind of felt that I might have met people like that if I had been at Horace Mann high school in New York in about 1990. And then, eventually, The Matrix came along and changed everything. This reflected the fact that computers were finally cool, and they weren't just being used by geeks any more, but by non-geeks as well.

This is well and good, but couldn't the breakthrough movie have been slightly less ludicrous in terms of plot? What do we have? In the future, artificial intelligences have been developed, and they have tried to take over the earth. In order to stop them, mankind has "scorched the sky" so that the sun's energy could no longer get through and the artificial intelligences would no longer have any power. In order to solve this problem, the AIs have set up huge farms of human beings in suspended animation in order to use their body heat and electricity from their internal electrical systems to power the world of the AIs. In order to keep the humans from getting uppity, they have all been plugged into a virtual reality world that makes them think that they are in a peculiar city that looks like Sydney but has Chicago street names in round about the year 2000.

Okay, lets start with the simplest question. Why use humans, precisely? To prevent them from getting uppity, it is necessary to create this tremendous, power consuming virtual reality. Why not instead use an animal that is less likely to get uppity in the first place. You need something warm blooded, and that is it really. Sheep perhaps? Secondly, the amount of power you get out of all the humans in the world isn't really very much, compared with, say, a single coal fired power station. Certainly it would not be enough to power all the stuff we see in the movie. And did the humans somehow make all the coal, and for that matter all the other fossil fuels, and all the uranium, and etc etc also go away when they "scorched the sky"? If so, that was clever. Or had the humans used up all the earth's resources before this time? (My goodness. Paul Ehrlich was right). And just where do the humans get their heat and power from? Well, from food. And how does food get produced? Well, from plants, which generally don't grow without sunlight. And as the sky has been scorched, there is no sunlight. We do see a nice little scene of the remains of dead humans being fed to other humans, but this isn't going to last long at all. You have to have some external source of calories. (This process is great if you want all the humans to die of some new-new-variant CJD, however). And assuming thatyou could somehow produce plants without the sun, why do you then need the humans. Just burn the plants in small power stations, or use them to drive fuel cells, or something). The whole thing is just too ludicrous for words. It is stupidity on top of stupidity on top of stupidity. I don't mind a little bit of silliness once in a while, and the movie is kind of cool, but is this sort of dumbness really necessary? Surely they could have come up with some slightly more convincing explanation for why humans are being farmed and kept in a virtual reality world. Something about harnessing their mental powers, because artificial intelligences lack certain types of creativity, and the virtual reality is a way of getting the humans to think about the things you want them too. Or something like that.

Perhaps I will get some kind of explanation with the next two movies. Somehow, though, I rather doubt it.

I suspect if I had an editor, I would be told to rewrite this piece, wandering less from topic to topic. Any thoughts from anyone?
More Reasons Why We All Love the Onion

This one is Ghost of Christmas Future Taunts Children With Visions of Playstation 5.

When you get a headline as good as that, you expect it to be a one joke article, but in this case the whole article is hilarious.

Younger children, he said, salivate upon seeing Level One of Zonic Fugue. In it, Zonic, the indigo-colored son of Sonic The Hedgehog, faces off against Chuckles The Echidna in a Terrordactyl sky-joust, attempting to earn the Ankle Rockets he needs to gather the five Chaos Sapphires that, when combined, form the master key that opens the Melody Dome.

"Sometimes, the kids will start getting defensive and say, 'Yeah, well, I don't know any of those characters, so big deal,'" the Ghost said. "That's when I pull out DC vs. Marvel."

My archives have vanished for now, which I assume is a generic blogspot problem, and that they will be back at some presently undetermined future time. This link would be appropriate if it were working. This means I cannot add links to my earlier writing for now. Further posts I make this evening may therefore contain some links that don't presently point anywhere. I will fix these when I am able to.
I saw The Two Towers. My response: I really enjoyed it, much more than I did The Fellowship of the Ring , to be truthful. Roger Ebert has criticised the movies for removing the hobbits from the centre of action, and instead concentrating on the more action oriented storylines, as well as for the fact that the characterisation gets a little lost in all the swashbuckling. Certainly these are fair criticisms. The central focus of the movie is on Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, rather than Frodo and Sam. But that said: the second book was quite tricky from a narrative point of view: the principal characters have been split into three groups, who meet up at no point in the story. It was always likely that one story would be in front and the other two would feel like digressions from the action, and that is what we have.

Visually, the movie is just stunning. My admiration for what Peter Jackson has been able to pull off in New Zealand is enormous. If evidence was ever needed that anything can be pulled off anywhere in todays technological, connected world, this is it. It used to be the case that George Lucas was considered eccentric for basing his movie empire in Marin County in northern California, but now the rules have changed again. Everything has been done in house in New Zealand, including all the special effects. And quite simply, wow. (The film deserves an award for its score, too, which is perfect without being too intrusive.

And, following up on what I said yesterday, Miranda Otto is absolutely luminous as Eowyn, in what is by far the largest female part in the films so far. Somewhat sadly, we lose track of her character a bit as the film gets swallowed by action scenes towards the end, but Peter Jackson may have just turned her into an international star.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Following up on my last piece on the music industry, look at this very piece by George Ziemann (via slashdot ), in which he shows that although music industry revenues are down, the number of CD releases is down by even more, so the average sales per release has actually increased . In this age in which consumer choice is generally exploding, the music industry actually gives us less choice. Ths agrees with what I was saying, which is that the music industry's has completely lost the plot. Its problem is that it is selling an obsolete product, and not only that but it is marketing the product extremely badly. Instead of attempting to find the plot, it instead blames everything on file sharing and piracy.
Brian Micklethwait over at Samizdata (who is once again kind enough to link to me) talks about being asked questions about blogging by a real journalist.

"Who is (Glenn Reynolds)? What does he do when he's not blogging?"

That seems the wrong question to me. I think it really must be "What other things does he do while he is blogging?"

I told her of particular bloggers to pay attention to, such as ...., and Reynolds of course (for the Lott story, and for his very different take on intellectual property).

I am not sure that Glenn's take on intellectual property is at this point that "different. He is pretty much in agreement with the intellectual property position that many technical people and the slashdot crowd have had for years. What is relatively new is that this position is slowly filtering out into the wider world. I have seen similar positions to the one Reynolds holds quoted in the Financial Times and similar places for a while. Over the last year it has been getting out into the realm of The New York Times and the Washington Post . Once, holding alternative views on copyright was really a very extreme thing to do. Now it is starting to feel almost mainstream. For one thing, fewer and fewer people are seeing the music companies as anything other than the semi-criminal (and sometimes not semi) organisations that they are.
Harry Potter and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link

When you read the Harry Potter books, you discover that the Hogwarts Express departs from King's Cross station in London from Platform nine and three quarters, which you can find if you magically walk between a barrier between platforms nine and ten. However, it is clear that J.K. Rowling did not actually look very carefully at King's Cross station before writing this. Kings Cross station contains is divided into two parts: platforms 1 to 8 are in a single large shed, and platforms 9 to 11 are in another smaller shed off the side. Trains going up the East Coast Main Line (to Peterborough, Durham, Newcastle, and Edinburgh) go from the main shed, and smaller more local trains to East Anglia go from the smaller shed to the side. (The main destination served from platform 9 in this smaller shed is Cambridge, so those of us who have studied there find the Harry Potter Books to be slighty amusing for this reason). This section of the station is in no way spectacular, which is why the makers of the Harry Potter movies filmed the inside of the main station, rather than the real platforms 9 and 10. This may not be too unrealistic, however, as wherever Hogwarts is meant to be, I really do not think it is in East Anglia.

(It has been claimed that J.K. Rowling was even further mixed up when she wrote the books, and that she was actually thinking of Euston station rather than Kings Cross. Euston is the terminus for the West Coast Main Line, and is where you go from if you want to go from London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow).

In any event, Kings Cross Station was built by the Great Northern Railway in 1851-2, and from an architectural point of view, the station is rather drab and utilitarian. It works fine, and looks okay from the inside, but is nothing much to photograph from the outside.

This is why, in the second Harry Potter movie, when the film-makers decided to show some outside shots of "Kings Cross Station" they instead showed outside shots of nearby St Pancras Station . St Pancras station is right next to Kings Cross station, and is the terminal station for the Midland Main Line. This is where you depart London from Nottingham and Sheffield. St Pancras Station is the most spectacular railway station in London. Its was built in 1863-74, and its main shed is one of the largest enclosed spaces in London, and the front of the station consists of a spectacular gothic facade, part of which encloses St Pancras Chambers once a beautiful hotel, but now run down and not used for anything.

And, curiously enough, St Pancras Station is not used for very many trains either. It was never as important a destination as Kings Cross or Euston, and there was even a proposal in the 1950s to close and demolish it. In 1989, many of the shorter distance services on the Midland Main Line were diverted from St Pancras through a disused 19th century tunnel through the middle of London to connect with South London services to either Brighton or Wimbledon. This scheme was known as Thameslink, and it reduced the number of trains terminating at St Pancras still further.

As you undoubtedly know, in the 1980s and early 1990s, a tunnel was built under the English channel. Whereas the French decided right from the beginning to build a high-speed TGV line from Paris to the tunnel, the British decided to defer this to the future, and instead route trains from Paris along existing train lines into an existing London station. However, none of the existing southern stations had enough spare platforms for the trains from Paris, and none of the existing stations contained train sheds that were long enough to house the 20+ carriage trains. Therefore, an extension to Waterloo station was built providing new (and much longer) platforms for the trains to Paris and Brussels. When the Channel Tunnel was opened in 1994, Eurostar Services from Paris and London came into this new Waterloo international station. (The French were not particularly amused about trains from Paris going to Waterloo). Comments were made about eventually building a high speed TGV line from the tunnel to London, and the general expectation was that such a line would be built eventually but not soon.

At the time of the opening, President Mitterand of France made some remarks about how travellers would speed with modern efficiency through France and then ease slowly down 19th century English railways into London. One English minister (I forget who) responded by making a comment about how the Kent countryside that passengers would be going through was a lovely part of England and the passengers would enjoy the view. While this is entirely true, this sounded feeble even to the Major government, and it was then decided that a modern high-speed railway would be built from the channel tunnel to central London.

Now, this reopened the question of how the channel tunnel trains should come into London. Clearly there was no space above ground for a new railway line into central London, so most of the final approach into London had to be underground. Once we knew this, then a variety of options were opened up. The simplest was to just build a tunnel into Waterloo, and use the existing Waterloo International terminal. The advantage of this was that the station had been built. The disadvantage was that once trains had arrived in Waterloo, it was difficult for them to go anywhere else. Plus, the government wanted the new line to go through as many places as possible where the government was trying to ensure that urban regeneration would occur. Two big places where this was so were East London, and the former industrial areas of Kent south of the Thames. Wouldn't it be great if we could bring the new railway through these areas, build stations in these areas, and so help the urban regeneration.

For these stated reasons, a proposal (follow this link for a map and more details) was eventually approved to build the line through the regeneration areas of western Kent and also east London. Additional stations were to be built at Ebbsfleet and Ashford in Kent and Stratford in east London, and hopefully the areas around these stations would get an economic boost. And as for the London terminal, the decision was to use the presently underused station at St Pancras. This station would need to be extended in length in order that the Eurostar trains would fit, and new platforms would also need to be built in order that there would be enough space for new domestic trains (using the new high speed line) from Kent to also fit in the station.

This proposal is now being built. The first stage of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) (costing 1.9 billion pounds) will open in 2003. This will include the above ground section of the line from the Channel Tunnel to the outskirts of London, from which for the next three years trains will then use existing lines to get to Waterloo. After that, the tunnel into London (costing 3.2 billion pounds, for a total project total of 5.2 billion pounds) will be completed, and services will come into a refurbished St Pancras. The grand old hotel in St Pancras Chambers will be refurbished, and will once again be a fine hotel (plus some private apartments). St Pancras, rather than just receiving a few trains from the Midlands, will be receiving services from the Midlands, Kent, and continental Europe. The most beautiful station in London will quite possibly also be the most important station in London.

(There is also a proposal on the cards (Thameslink 2000) which would see most of the shorter distance East Anglia services that presently terminate a Kings Cross instead stop at a new underground station at St Pancras before going through an upgraded Thameslink tunnel and coming out in south London, before continuing to Surrey and Sussex and other parts of Kent. This would raise the importance of St Pancras even further).

The above is the story that the railway engineers sold to the government. It is a good story, and the project so far is coming in on time and on budget. Rather than reinventing the wheel, the contractors are simply using existing French technology (and in a lot of cases experienced French subcontractors) to build the CTRL.

This is the story that we have been told so far. However, there is one issue about this that has bothered me a little. And that is, why is a huge station being built at Stratford in East London. The argument that building this station will aid development in east London sounds good, but isn't actually convincing. For high speed rail, the key issue is journey time. You are competing with air travel, and you must keep the total journey time below three hours at all costs, and if possible you want it significantly lower than this. And for a train travelling at 300 km/h, extra stops are extremely expensive in terms of time. The train must drop from 300 km/h to zero, stop for a minute or two, and then accelerate back to 300km/h. You really do not want two stops close together. A stop at Stratford before St Pancras is going to add 10 minutes to the journey time. Given that 5 billion pounds has been spent to cut the whole journey time to Paris by 45 minutes, then giving up a quarter of this time through an extra stop seems silly. If you listen to what the train operators are saying carefully enough, it is clear that they do not expect many trains to stop at Stratford.

So, what is happening? I think the key is that trains come into London, then they go through Stratford, then the line has goes through junctions allowing trans to be diverted to either the East or West Coast main lines, and then go into St Pancras. In theory, it would be possible for the trains to go up the ECML to Newcastle and Edinburgh, or up the WCML to Birmingham and Manchester. If trains were to do this, Stratford would be the London stop for through trains (in the same way that the station at Charles De Gaul airport in Paris is the stop for trains going from Lille to Lyon). However, this does not appear to have much potential, because although the ECML is fairly modern and can manage trains at 200km/h, there are no major destinations up that line until you get to Leeds and Newcastle, and Leeds to Paris is going to take well over three hours. Similar issues are also true for the WCML, and even services to Birmingham are going to take too long to be justifiable.

However, think about the situation. The CTRL is going to be Britain's first high speed rail line. If it is successful, the whole corridor between London and the tunnel and between the tunnel and Lille and Paris, is likely to be economically revitalised by it. If it is a big success, then another fact becomes obvious: the London/Kent corridor actually was not the obvious place to build a fast rail line in the UK. Traffic on this route is less and will always be less than traffic between London and the major cities of the Midlands: Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool. If the case is made for fast rail in the UK, then the case is extremely strong for a link from London to those cities. If this is done properly, then even London-Liverpool is less than an hour. Link this up with the CTRL, and Liverpool-Paris and Liverpool-Brussels come in at about three hours, the time at which fast rail becomes competitive.

Here is the issue: what the Stratford station and the north-east approach to London are actually about is building the station and the necessary links for the next fast rail line in England. Different reasons were made up to convince the government, because the government didn't want to hear grandiose future proposals for now. However, the people who designed this project knew what they were doing.

Get this right, and assuming that lines under construction in other countries are completed, and such long distance train routes as Liverpool-Manchester-Birmingham-London-Lille-Paris-Lyon-Marseilles, Liverpool-Manchester-Birmingham-London-Lille-Brussels-Antwerp-Rotterdam-Amsterdam and Liverpool-Manchester-Birmingham-London-Lille-Brussels-Cologne become possible (and maybe on to Frankfurt and other German cities if technical incompatibilities of French and German trains can (This will perhaps not be quite as useful trains between the string of cities in Japan from Tokyo to Nagasaki, but it would still be quite impressive) Railways respond to network effects. Extend them so they contain a lot of city pairs, and they are much more valuable than if they just connect two points. Building a fast rail line to the midlands would thus be very valuable.

Building such a line is not on the cards at the moment, of course. The government is presently horrified that the cost of a plan to upgrade the West Coast Main Line to something fairly but not very modern has blown out from 2.5 million to 13 million pounds, due to huge incompetence. (You could have easily built the new high speed line for that). This is the odd thing about infrastructure construction in the UK. Sometimes it is done right. The CTRL is an example of this. The rest of the time, though, it is done astoundingly badly. There seems middle ground. However, if passenger numbers on the railways continue increasing, and if the CTRL is a big success, then in ten years time, all will likely be forgotten. At that point, building it will be relatively easy, as the London links are in place. And maybe it will then be possible to get a direct service from Hogwarts to Beauxbaton.

Update: It has been pointed out to me that Manchester and Liverpool do not count as "The Midlands". (Forgive me, as I am a foreigner. I will not make that mistake again). If anyone from Manchester, Liverpool, or the actual Midlands is offended, I apologise. Still, I stand by my position that the corridor from London through Birmingham to Manchester and Liverpool has potential for a high speed rail line.

Further Update: Stephen Karlson informs us that the locomotive pulling the Hogwarts Express does not fit the loading gauge for the lines out of King's Cross (that is, the train is too high and/or too wide, and is going to crash into bridges, platforms etc).
David Krum of the National Review has good piece in which he observes that oil in the Middle East has been a very mixed blessing for the inhabitants of the region. Those parts of the world that have genuinely become rich have done so through improving their human resources. Oil has allowed parts of the Middle East to develop something akin to a developed world lifestyle, without the technical and cultural skills required to maintain it.

Plus of course there is the observation that to some extent that the war is about oil. The US's reasons for the wall have everything to do with its own security, and little to do with the oilfields. However, the Middle East would be a very different place without the oil being there. Either the region would be an impoverished backwater whose people would not pose any kind of threat to anyone, or the region would be evolving into something culturally and economically more akin to the developed world, in which case it would again be unlikely to be any kind of threat. However, this weird non-industrialised world but with money quality, which is due to the oil, is dangerous, and is why a war looks necessary.
Mickey Kaus is talking about the role of e-mail in spreading links to articles and other information around the blogosphere.

More to the point, like many bloggers I use tips from e-mailers all the time -- so often that I've come to rely on them. The vast majority of these tips are simply links to other published sources, not original bits of inside info.

Yes, and I suspect that many of the e-mailers are in fact bloggers of some sort themselves. I think this is the main way you rise through the blogging ecosystem. You find something interesting, you blog it yourself, perhaps with a little comment, and then you e-mail the link and comment to the highest profile blogger you can think of who you think might find it interesting, in the hope that they will give you a link. This is why a blogger etiquette system in which it is considered good manners to link both to the source itself and to the person from who you got the information, whether this is from another blog or through e-mail, has arisen.
The Coming Aussie Actress Invasion of 1997, with a bonus Lord of the Rings discussion.

In the period from about 1995-97, the Australian film industry was going through one of its relatively good periods, and there were more local pictures in the cinemas than is usual. One thing that struck me was that at the time there seemed to be only five actresses working in the Australian industry: Rachel Griffiths, Toni Collette, Frances O'Connor, Miranda Otto, and slightly later, Cate Blanchett came along too. It seemed impossible to see an Australian film that did not contain some combination of these actresses. This actresses seemed to drown out everyone else for the simple reason that all five were actresses of very high quality: their performaces seemed in many instances larger than they actually four.

Inevitably, all of these actresses have gone on to have international careers of assorted magnitudes.

Cate Blanchett had a very brief career (in film, at least) in Australia. She made three films only: Paradise Road, Thank God he Met Lizzie (in which Frances O'Connor co-starred and who probably had the better role) and Oscar and Lucinda, the seriously underrated film of the Peter Carey novel. She then made Elizabeth for Shekhar Kapur, got an Oscar nomination, and has made a dazzling body of work since. She may not be the biggest star in the movies, but she is one of the best.

Frances O'Connor has a very magnetic and appealing screen presence, and lots of big people in both Britain and Hollywood looked at her, thought she might be a future star, and cast her in their movies. Her Hollywood movies have been a bit of a disappointment: the misfires of major filmmakers, generally. Spielberg cast her in A.I., she was opposite Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley in Harold Ramis' remake of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Bedazzled (the original was much better) and John Woo's Windtalkers was not such a great movie. Still, A-list directors continue to cast her: she is in Richard Donner's film of Michael Chrichton's Timeline to be seen next year. Plus she has carved out a parallel career of "British" movies, and has been rather more successful in those. She played Fanny Price in Patricia Rozema's sharply divisive adaptation of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park , very successfully played the lead in Madam Bovary for British television, and was a delight as Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest earlier this year. I am still not quite sure where her career is going, but I am still watching it.

Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths co-starred in Muriel's Wedding . Neither are quite glamorous enough to be Hollywood leading ladies, sadly, but both have been quite successful, none the less. Rachel Griffiths has done a huge body of work in the US and Britain. She received an Oscar nomination for playing the mother in The Sixth Sense , is one of those actresses I am constantly seeing puting in excellent performances in what are theoretically the less important roles. (This year I have seen her in important parts in Changing Lanes and About a Boy, plus no doubt also elsewhere). Rachel Griffiths received an Oscar nomination for Hilary and Jackie, and was wonderful as one of the Southern bitch bridesmaids on My Best Friend's Wedding a few years back, and has since then received considerable acclaim for her TV work on Six Feet Under . Her movies lately have been less interesting, perhaps because she has been only able to choose those films that she could fit into the hiatus of television shooting. Personally I would rather she spending less time doing series television and more time doing movies, but that might be just me.

The last actress is Miranda Otto. Otto comes from a famous acting family in Australia, and probably in 1997 had the highest reputation and profile in Australia of anyone in this list. (Probably the Austrlian film she was in that had the highest profile abroad was Love Serenade , which is something that festival goers and serious film buffs in New York, LA, or Chicago might have seen, but not much more than that). She is very good, indeed. Oddly, though, her non-Australian work has until this point had the lowest profile of any actress on this list. My personal thought is that I have seen her for a few minutes screen time in What Lies Beneath , the very uneven thriller starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, and for a few seconds of Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line (which was filmed in Australia, so this may or may not count) and that is about it.

But, of course, one group of people who often do see Australian films are New Zealanders. And, as a consequence of this, Miranda Otto plays in Eowyn The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers , to be released today. Hopefully this means that Miranda Otto will subsequently be cast in bigger parts and better movies.

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