Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Part of my afternoon yesterday

In the comments of the previous post, Cecile Dubois was kind enough to ask me what I was doing to celebrate my birthday. As I answered there, the answer was basically that I met up with a friend and pottered around the South Bank of the Thames and then part of the City of London. My friend wanted to visit the Tate Modern art gallery, because she had heard that the present display in the turbine room was worth going to see.

Traditionally, the Tate Gallery has been the second art gallery you go to after the National Gallery. It's traditional specialties were both British art and modern art. In practice, modern art was not held in high regard in Britain for much of the last century, and although the Tate's collection of British art was (and is) marvellous, the modern art collection was at best patchy. However, it was decided a few years ago that London needed a big museum devoted to modern art, and with some lottery money the Tate got new premises on South Bank. The existing building at Millbank near Pimlico became Tate Britain, and the new museum became Tate Modern. (The Tate Museum has in recent years also been opening branches in other parts of the UK: one in Liverpool and one in St Ives in Cornwall). The really interesting thing about it was the building chosen for redevelopment was the Bankside Power Station - a disused (coal fired) power station on the South Bank of the Thames, just across the river from St Paul's Cathedral. This was and is a rather brutal structure, but it has the advantage for a modern art museum of being utterly enormous, although I can only find a tiny photo. (Photo © London Tourist Board).

It also has the advantage of being extremely central. The south bank of the Thames was once held in disrepute, so the power station was built just a few hundred yards from St Paul's Cathedral. To connect the two once the power station was converted into an art gallery, a footbridge was all that was needed. So they built one. (The footbridge has another story that I have written about before).

The front section of the building consists of half a dozen different levels filled with modern museum galleries, and the other associated things that go with them in a modern museum, including several restaurants, cafeterias, cafes and bars. If Brian Micklethwait is right that the major purpose of modern art museums is to provide places where middle class intellectually minded people people can look at a couple of paintings and sit down in a nice cafe and have a cup of coffee while they feel cultured, this museum functions very well. (In fact the locations of the relative facilities have been rearranged since it opened. I don't think this was admitted, but the take away cafeteria, which was initially placed on the top floor with the best view, was simply too popular. People would buy a sandwich or a cup of coffee and then sit at tables, on the floor, next to the window, or almost anywhere where they could watch one of the best views in London, and it was always extremely crowded. I think you now have to pay more money to eat with the best view).

But the back of the building is one enormous empty space, the turbine room. This must be the largest single room in any art gallery anywhere. In particular, the ceiling is vastly higher than it would be in any purpose built gallery. The main way of entering the gallery is through this room, and it can also be seen through glass windows from the back of each of the more conventional gallery levels.

However, the size of this room is good, because modern art can at times require large spaces, and there is a lot that can be done with them. When I visited the Bilbao Guggenheim earlier this year, the brochure they handed out that talked about the architecture mentioned this a lot. The Bilbao Guggenheim has one very big gallery on the ground floor that stretches under a nearby bridge and has a high section on the other side of the bridge, but nothing on the scale of the turbine room at Tate Modern.

The curators of the museum have changed the content of the turbine room a few times since the museum opened. Often these have been such things as giant spider like sculptures with ladders and observation decks that can be climbed. At the moment, however, the turbine room is devoted to something called "The Weather Project" by Olafur Eliasson. I will not bother with the discussion of its symbolic importance on the accompanying brochure, but essentially a large artificial sun has been installed on the wall. This has been done with a very monochromatic yellow light, so that everything in the room appears this one shade of yellow. The room is also partially filled with artificial fog, and the ceiling has been replaced with a giant mirror. There is a section at the far end from the entrance where people can sit on the floor and with the reflection on the ceiling it has the look of people sitting on a beach.

I am not sure what this symbolises, but it is certainly the sort of exhibition you walk into and say "cool". It probably doesn't require any more than five minutes of your time, but those five minutes are a pretty cool five minutes. It also demonstates the effect that weather and climate and light has on mood. You walk in from the grey English winter, and it is something different.

Make a point of looking at the reflections on the ceiling at the top of the photo.

So how old do you think I look?

It's interesting that different digital cameras behave quite differently in an optical sense in low light.

What I find interesting is that art light this is not possible without modern cheap technology. The fog machine, the large monochromatic light source, the very large mirror on the ceiling. Just a few years ago, these things were extremely expensive to create if they could be created at all. They are now cheap and easy, and the effects that can be achieved are quite spectacular. I am not sure whether it is art, however, or whether it would be better described as theatre - certainly effects departments in theatres do an awful lot of this kind of things these days too - or perhaps whether it simply belongs in the Science museum. Certainly when creating large artificial environments, these sorts of issues are considered in great detail by people who would not consider themselves artists. (Yes, Virginia Postrel has written about this kind of thing, too).

This is not the first time I have had this kind of feeling. When I visited the Saatchi Gallery with the same friend earlier this year, the best item in the whole museum consisted almost entirely of a tank of sump oil, and rather than being art in any meaningful sense it was more a demonstration of the very interesting reflective properties of high density liquids. The fact is that the surface of this oil scatters a negligible amount of light, the surface itself is not visible, it is close to impossible to realise that what you are seeing reflected in the oil is actually a reflection of the ceiling, because it does not look like a reflection. Again, it might better belong in the Science museum.

Or perhaps it is fine where it is. If a demonstration was ever needed that there is no hard line between art and science, I suppose this is it. The strongest argument for putting this Weather Project in Tate Modern is simply that they had a room big enough for it, although the obvious industrial qualities of the building help, too. If any of my readers are in London, I recommend going and having a look. (It is free). You can walk into Tate Modern, look at the turbine room for five minues, say "cool" and then head for the cafe. To be quite honest the art in the permanent collection at Tate Modern is a little lacking. (This may be simply the consequences of Tate Modern being a new museum. After 100 years of bequests it may have a very fine collection. For now though, it is a long way from being the Museum of Modern Art, or even the Pompidou Centre). What the curators of Tate Modern do have is a very unusual and extraordinary building and it is clear that they are learning how to use it effectively.

Today is my 35th birthday. How did that happen?

Monday, December 29, 2003


I have an overview of the three Boxing Day cricket matches around the world over at ubersportingpundit. (Quick summary: Pakistan beat New Zealand to win the series 1-0. South Africa beat the West Indies to go 2-0 up with two to play. Australia beat India to level the series at 1-1 with just the Sydney test to go). Also, I have had an epiphany about the rules of Mornington Crescent over at Transport Blog.

Sunday, December 28, 2003


I have link to a silly bouncing ball simulation over at Samizdata. (Yes, I am really clutching at straws today. Time to go and get a beer, I think).

Saturday, December 27, 2003


I have a (possibly slightly hyperbolic) piece on the present Australia v India cricket match, the Australia v India series, and Australia v India cricket generally over at ubersportingpundit.
Christmas decorations

Yesterday, as I was walking from the West End to Pimlico, I walked past the front of Buckingham Palace. A light show was taking place, with a series of patterns being projected on to the front of the palace. It was quite pretty.

The actual thing being projected was changing ever couple of minutes, but I was in a hurry, so I just took a couple of pictures of the Union Jack. (This is one of those occasions when my film camera would have been useful too - digital doesn't always do great in low light).

The flag was flying on the flagpole, meaning that Her Majesty was at home. I don't know whether all these strange lights shining in the windows were upseting her television viewing, but I am sure she was coping somehow.
Further repercussions of Virginia Postrel moments

Natalie Solent deconstructs my dress sense here. Yes, I think she is pretty much right. (Mum, go and read this. Right now).

Friday, December 26, 2003

The miracles of modern technology

In the late 1970s, I spent rather too much of my time and pocket money hanging out in milk bars with slightly unsavoury people and playing the first generation of coin operated video games. As an activity, this (and a passion for the very first microcomputers) was at the time not in any way cool.

Right now, I am in the cafe on the basement floor of Richard Branson's first (and flagship) Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street, London. The floor is mostly devoted to (electrical) musical instruments (this is probably actually an instance of the Virgin Megastore subletting space rather than selling musical instruments itself, but I digress). However, the cafe (which is part of a chain called "Costa Cofee") has a real retro look. It contains a mixture of serious and comfortable chairs (in the Starbucks manner), a couple of listening stations for sampling CDs sold elsewhere in the store, and also four cocktail version coin operated video games from about 1980. (Scramble, Galaga, Pacman, and one other that is out of order). It also contains a couple of pinball machines, but 1990s era pinball machines.

I was sitting here using the free WiFi to chat to Scott Wickstein in Adelaide about this, and he expressed a certain admiration for this - this is a cooler retail environment than in Adelaide. My immediate next move was to get out my digital camera, take a photo, transfer it to the laptop, and send it to Scott, so that he could see it for himself.

I will have to say that the fact that I was able to do this is just mindblowing when I think about it in the abstract. We live in an amazing world.

It's also interesting that what was not cool in 1979 has become cool in a retro sense. I understand that cool people took to computer technology in a big way in around 1995, but they weren't the people back in the milk bars in 1979. Certainly plenty of people who were like me in 1979 have since become rich and have started hanging out with cool people because they are useful in such environments , but I am not sure that they are cool themselves. I haven't become cool myself. (I haven't become rich myself either, largely I think because I have not really been very focused my late 20s and early 30s - I have certainly had opportunities to that I have not taken).

So who is responsiible precisely for the retro nostalgia that leads to a cafe looking like this? I'm not sure.

Update: When I wrote about the differences between cafes in different parts of the world earlier this year, I made the observation that cafes in Britain generally follow the Starbucks model and have only counter service. Generally I find this fine, but when I am working on my computer in a large cafe containing a substantial number of people, it is less so. My laptop is too valuable for me to leave it alone on a table for even a short time while I go to the counter to get another cup of coffee. This is a circumstance when some table service would be a really good idea. It would reduce the nuisance factor for people like me, and it would also I think quite dramatically increase the amount of food and drink being sold to people using the WiFi service.

Thursday, December 25, 2003


I am suffering from post-roast meat, post-Christmas pudding, post-port bloat. (With a head cold, which doesn't really help). More blogging when I return to earth.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003


I have a piece denouncing the Universal Postal Union (actually a reworking of a post I wrote here a year ago) over at Samizdata.
Merry Christmas everyone

Blogging may or may not be sporadic or even non-existent over the next couple of days. But everyone have a good Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

More thoughts on the computer

Okay, I will get off this soon, but getting a new computer is a big thing in a geek's life. When I was deciding what to buy, the choice ultimately came down to a machine from Dell, or a machine from Time Computers, a sort of British version of Dell - another company who make machines to order on a basic template and deliver them to your door if you order them. I ultimately decided on Dell because their Inspiron 8600 machine (a version of which I got) came with the highest resolution laptop screen I had seen, 1920x1200 WUXGA. The Time machines have good reviews, seem excellent value for money. They also seem to have read where the market is going. WiFi is virtually ubiquitous on their laptops, and they are telling customers that everybody is going to want or need it within a year or two so you should get it on a new laptop. Also they are onto the fact that in the last year or two the entire consumer electronics industry has turned into a collection of different devices that plug into the USB port of your computer, and their machines (for instance this one) have either four or five USB ports, and the USB ports are at various places on the computer, not just at the back. Time use AMD processors rather than Intel, but that really is not something I greatly care about one way or the other.

Dell have pretty much got it about WiFi (although their base models do not have it as standard) but not quite with the USB ports. The machine I got (quite a high end one) only has two of them, they are both at the back, and they are horizontal one above the other. These are slightly awkward to reach, and a cable plugged into one can make it awkward to get a cable in and out of the other. I have a four way USB hub, which I can plug in to use multiple devices at once, but this is awkward considering the other tangle of cables that you will sometimes have behind a computer. (The nature of a laptop is that you are unplugging and plugging in USB devices all the time, as you are constantly moving the computer around). My previous IBM Thinkpad also had only 2 USB ports (more understandable as it was designed before the USB hardware business really took off) but one of the two USB ports was on the left side rather than the back, which was much easier to reach in ordinary circumstances. Plus the one on the back was oriented vertically, which was easier to attach and detach things from than the horizontal orientation of the new machine. So this is a slight downside of the new machine. It isn't a problem in terms of functionality, but it is a little bit of a problem in terms of design and convenience.

The other thing I am struck by is that when I am using the computer at home, I have a slightly clunky USB external ADSL modem that I have to attach, drag after me when I want to use the computer in bed, and things like that. What would be really nice would be a laptop with a built in ADSL modem, so all I would have to do is plug a telephone cable into the back of the computer (perhaps with a filter needed). For a desktop machine, getting an internal ADSL modem on a PCI card is relatively easy, but such things do not seem to exist for laptops. (Or perhaps they do - but I have never seen a PCMCIA ADSL modem).

My first thought was that in a year or two laptops will come with internal ADSL modems as standard, but thinking about it some more this might not be so. Because, if you have WiFi, you don't really need it. What you really want is one of those all in one ADSL modem/router/wireless hub devices to plug into the phone line and then you use WiFi to connect the laptop to the internet. This has the added bonus that the modem/router/wireless hub device can be different for people using cable broadband rather than ADSL broadband. Perhaps this will be the standard way to connect laptops to the internet - even at home. This would have the added advantage of meaning that there is one fewer device to plug into the USB port at the back. I can actually do this now - I just need to buy the all in one wireless hub. But I may wait until I have a little more money.

And if I am willing to spend a little more money, I can actually solve the issue of the number and location of USB ports as well. My laptop does have a single PCMCIA slot on the left side. It is easy to get a PCMCIA card containing two (or three) USB ports. With one of these, I would have a larger number of USB ports in total and some of them will be on the side of the machine rather than the back, which would make things significantly more convenient. But this would mean that my PCMCIA slot would be full, and I couldn't use it for anything else. That said, I am not sure what other things I am likely to use it for. The most common use for them seems to be for a WiFi card, but I got one of those built in with the laptop. (Okay, it's techically an internal mini-PCI card). Still, this is another way in which the new machine is slightly inferior to the old Thinkpad, which has two slots, neither of which I have admittedly ever used for anything.

So, no big deal. A couple of minor shortcomings, both of which are fixable by spending a little money. When I have some income, I might solve the problems this way.

One thing that Dell have got right is the tracking devices. There seem to be two general ways for moving the cursor on laptops. One is a touchpad below the keyboard, and the other is a pointstick, a little moving thing that exists between the b, g, and h keys. Some people like one, and some like the other. (I like the pointstick, perhaps out of habit because it is what the Thinkpad has). Rather than choosing one or the other, Dell have given me both of them. This is excellent, because it means that everyone can keep using what they prefer.

So a couple of little niggles. But on the whole I am very happy with the new machine .

Update: Perry de Havilland (who is a hard core gamer) also tells me that if I had paid the extra £60 to get the ATI Radeon Mobility 9600 Pro graphics card instead of the nVidia GeForce 5200 Go AGP 4x, that would have been cool. Oh well.

Further Update: Just looking at the after Christmas sale catalogue fromMaplin Electronics, I see that they have an all in one ADSL modem/router/wireless hub for £69.99. That is by far the best price I have seen. They also have a Bluetooth adaptor that plugs into a USB port, so this is something that can actually be added without using up my one PCMCIA slot. This is an external solution, though, which may be a bit of a nuisance. (Of course, at the moment I have no use for Bluetooth anyway).
I have a cold

This is seriously going to affect my alcoholic beverage drinking over the next few days, which is something of a shame. On the other hand, pseudoephedrine is a fine thing.

Monday, December 22, 2003


I have a piece on forthcoming space probes and landers travelling to Mars and Saturn over at Samizdata.

I have an overview of the England cricket team's tour of Sri Lanka over at ubersportingpundit.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

A music post - what a novelty

I was reading an article in one of the papers (The Times, I think) recently discussing cover versions of songs. In particular, it said that most cover versions are cover versions of great songs, and that the remakes are often just carbon copies or pale imitations of the originals. What had clearly inspired the article was Westlife's cover version of Barry Manilow's "Mandy", which is one of those similar and fairly bland remakes. The article went on to suggest that there are one or two instances where a cover version is recorded quite differently from the original and is better. An example given was Joe Cocker's cover of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends". The writer suggested that the Beatles' version was uninteresting, but Cocker's slow, more emotional version was quite moving. I don't think that at all - I think it is just horribly overblown. Also, Sinead O'Connor's version of Prince's "Nothing Compares to You" was listed as a beautiful remake. I agree with that one - it is an utterly beautiful song and O'Connor's interpretation is just about perfect - but it is one of those instances where the original was completely obscure. There are a lot of such cases with Prince songs: at one time there were an enormous number of successful songs which were remakes of obscure songs written by Prince and originally recorded either by him or his proteges.

While my all time favourite cover version is actually is a Prince song, it is actually the precise reverse of this. "When Doves Cry" was probably Prince's biggest ever hit, but I didn't care for it. A lot of people did, but I found it a bit of a dirge. I like Prince's music, and I did at the time, but I didn't really care for this song. However, the version of the song sung by Quindon Tarver and a boys choir on the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann's film of Romeo and Juliet is in my opinion just amazing, mainly because Tarver's singing is so extraordinary. I think it is utterly beautiful. However, it was not released as a single, and was not even included in the original soundtrack CD of the film. (Tarver's performance of "Everybody's Free", which is almost as good, is on the CD though). When the film and the CD were unexpectedly large hits, a second CD was released, which did have the song. I don't have the second CD, and I really must get it. The use of music in that film is outstanding, but presumably its relatively limited budget meant that there were fairly serious restrictions in what Luhrmann was able to do in terms of releasing it on CD. It may be simply that the fee that needed to be paid to Prince was too large to affort it for the first CD. Once the film was a hit, these issues went away. (The other thing that happened was that Luhrmann and his friends put out a CD called "Something for Everybody", which included the full version of "When Doves Cry" as well as the intriguing mix of "Everybody's Free" and a spoken rendition of a comic article in the form of a mock graduation speech written by Chicago Tribune journalist Mary Schmich, which evolved together into a (hit) song called "Everybody's Free (To wear sunscreen)").

What brought these thoughts up for me, however, was the new Christmas number one. In Britain, the number one single at Christmas is a huge deal. Sometimes it will be a song with a festive theme, and sometimes just an ordinary song. A Christmas number one will sell a number of times as many copies as a number one at any other time, and there is a huge amount of publicity. One of the storylines in the recently released film Love Actually is about this. An effort was made to promote the song in that movie, "Christmas is all Around", as a real Christmas number one, but it didn't really work. And there have been lots of cyncial pre-Christmas records released for this purpose. In this era of Pop Idol, a group of people from that show released a version of John Lennon's "Merry Xmas (War is Over)", which was just one of those bland uninteresting clone type covers. Favourite for much of the week was another of these: "Christmas Time (Don't let the Bells End)" by The Darkness.

However, there was an interesting outside chance, which was a single of a cover version of "Mad World", originally performed by Tears for Fears, but in this case covered by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules. I am not quite sure how this came to be released now, because the song was recorded for the soundtrack of the movie Donnie Darko, which was released in Britain more than a year ago, and in the US more than two years ago. This film uses music as well as Romeo and Juliet and I commented on this when I saw it. This particular cover is I think better than the original - it is beautiful, slow and haunting and works perfectly with the dreamy quality of the film. (This is one case where the original is none the less very good). And, somehow it got released just before Christmas in the UK this year, and it came through as an outsider and actually succeeded in being the Christmas number one. People went past all the cynically made stuff and actually bought the CD of the best song.

Of course, there is another thing that Donnie Darko has in common with Romeo and Juliet, which is that it was relatively low budget and the filmmakers were quite restricted in what music they could put on the soundtrack CD. While the film includes wonderful stuff from Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, and original Tears for Fears recordings (as well as the cover version), the CD is the orchestral score along with the cover of "Mad World". It's a terrific CD, but it is an incomplete record of the music in the film. I would like to hope that the success of this cover of "Mad World" would allow director Richard Kelly to go back and release another CD with the rest of the music as happened for Romeo and Juliet, but this is not likely. The fees from the music are likely high, and (unlike Romeo and Juliet, which was a mainstream hit) Donnie Darko is still only an interesting cult film. Although, one reason why the song has risen in prominence may be that the film has been a substantially bigger hit on DVD than it was in the cinema.
The dream of every blogger

Long have I hoped for the day when the Almighty Glenn would link to one of my posts. I am resigned to the fact that he will never link to this blog, but as he reads Samizdata, I had been sort of expecting he would link to one of my posts there eventually. And finally, today it has happened. It is a slightly snide remark about my dress sense, but an Instapundit link it is.

Update: The consensus in the comments and around the internet seems to be that I am a hobbit. Unfortunately I am six feet tall and I weigh almost 200 pounds, so that would make me a large hobbit.

I have a photo and some observations about a Virginia Postrel moment at a social gathering over at Samizdata.

Friday, December 19, 2003


I have a piece on why it is bad that aviation rights between nations are decided by bilateral treaties over at Samizdata.
What is heaven like?

I'm sitting in my local pub with a pint of ale, working on my laptop and writing some blog postings. They (including this one) will have to be posted later, as there is no network here, unfortunately.

I think I have in fact realised what in my world, heaven would be like. A nice English pub. Real ale on tap. (Perhaps a Bavarian weissbier or a dark Belgian Trappist beer or two for variety as well). Good food. And free WiFi.

I am thinking that yes, heaven would definitely have free WiFi. Or perhaps it would have that CDMA2000 1X based cellular data service that Glenn Reynolds was talking about yesteday. That would be even cooler.

Thursday, December 18, 2003


I have a piece on the privacy implications of using electronic tags to charge for tolls over at White Rose.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Verizon Wireless service

Yes Glenn, that cellular wireless service that you are trying is CDMA2000. (Probably only 1X though). Stephen Den Beste will no doubt be happy.

I can't imagine there is any way it will interfere with WiFi. WiFi operates on 2.4 GHz or (not often just yet, but probably an awful lot in future) 5MHz. Verizon's wireless service is on 800MHz or 1.9Ghz. The frequencies are completely different.

Update: If I had really wanted to cover all my options, I could have bought my laptop with 802.11a/b/g, a GPRS modem (ie a cellular modem running over GSM networks), Bluetooth, and IrDA infrared. The version I bought has 802.11b/g and IrDA only. That's enough for me now. (Bluetooth likely does reduce the performance of WiFi if used at the same time, as it uses the same 2.4GHz frequency band).
Comments on my MP3 player, and some rambling about my computer

Warning: self indulgence to follow.

Dell gave me a "free gift" with my new computer. I had a choice of an all in one printer/scanner/copier, a second battery, a digital camera, or an MP3 player. I already have a printer and a scanner so I didn't get this (although given that my laser printer needs a new drum (which I knew, but was trying to pretend was not so) and my scanner's driver causes a BSOD on the new computer (which I did not know) I may have made the wrong choice in this instance. I already have a digital camera (somewhat better than the one they were offering) so I was never going to go for that. A second battery is likely useful (although the battery seems to last for about five hours of use, which is much better than my last laptop, and in any event it isn't that hard to find a coffee shop with lots of power outlets - Starbucks are particularly good in this department), but the final option was a new electronic toy I didn't already have, so I got myself a new electronic toy. The MP3 player in question has only 64Mbytes of (flash) memory, so it isn't like I got an iPod, but none the less it is quite useful. It is about the size of a cigarette lighter, weighs practically nothing, and is far, far better than a cassette or CD based Walkman of just a few years ago, and makes portable music easy.

I have ripped my entire CD collection to MP3 (using a bit rate of 160kbps) and stored it on my hard disc and I am playing music on my laptop using iTunes, which is fun. When I copy these MP3s to the MP3 player, I only get about an album and a half of music, unfortunately. It is a shame that the MP3 player does not have a memory card slot or simply more memory, but that is the price of getting about the cheapest possible MP3 player. (The player in question retails in shops for about £60 and a little less over the internet). The other option of course is to transfer the music to the MP3 player using a lower bitrate. The trouble with that is that I want the high bitrate for computer based use, and the lower bitrate for portable use, which probably means I need to keep two copies of all my music on the hard disc. I wonder how I get iTunes to duplicate the entire music library at a lower bitrate. I really don't want to go through the process of putting all my CDs in the CD-ROM drive again.

Still, not the end of the world. This sort of thing is why I got the 60Gbyte hard disc, which I am thinking was a very good decision. Certainly it gives me more flexibility than the giant 5Gbyte disc on the old laptop. (Of course, by standards of not very long ago, 5Gbyte was giant, but it now seems quite puny). On the other hand, it might have been better to have taken the "free" printer/scanner and just bought an MP3 player with slightly more features. Except that I wouldn't have done that. Getting an MP3 player was in indulgence I wouldn't have gone through if I had had to fork out actual money. However, if I now go and buy a new printer or scanner out of necessity, I will have spent a similar amount of money. The idiotic thing about laser printers is that I can now buy a new printer for the cost of a new drum for the old one. And I can buy a new inkjet printer for less than half that. So I am not sure quite what I will do.

But for all that, the MP3 player is fun. It doesn't eat batteries quite as fast as the digital camera does, but getting some rechargeables for it was also clearly imperative. It uses a single AAA battery, so I needed different batteries from the AA ones used by the camera. But sizes fit into my existing charger, however, so I just needed the batteries. The cheapest NiMH AAAs were £7 for a pack of four. I only needed one or maybe two, but that is not an option. And of course I could buy a pack of 12 for £10, which seemed a good deal, although I did not need that many. So I now have 12 AAA rechargeable batteries. But somehow, I feel I am going to need a lot of rechargeable AAA batteries in future, so this may be good preparation for the years ahead.

And I need to get myself a high income again, so that I can stop going neurotic over things like this.

Except of course even when I do have a high income, I still get neurotic about things like this. It is just my nature.

I am drinking another bottle of Argentinian Malbec from the Mendoza region. For a bottle of wine that only cost me £4 or something, it is outstandingly good.

It is the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight. I am the umpteenth person in the blogosphere to mark this, but I shall mark it anyway because it is worth marking. If you want to read somethng about it, go and read Friedrich Blowhard's fine piece on the subject.
Awaited movie of the year

I saw The Return of the King. More of the same, basically, but all coming together nicely in story terms towards the end. As in the book, there is a lot of tidying up after Sauron is defeated. Some reviews have criticised Peter Jackson for including all this (although to tell the truth one large episode is missing), but I think it is necessary. Firstly, it means that 20 minutes or so are devoted to the characters at the end, and this gives the film a little more depth after all the actions scens. Secondly, in the context of all three movies, it nicely bookends the story. The story starts in the comfortable world of the Shire, and also ends there, with the brutal wider world and decisions of life or death and fights for the world in between. If you throw away the ending, you might as well have done without the beginning as well.

And Eowyn rocks.
First, kill all the lawyers

The instruction book for my computer contains the following paragraph

California Residents

WARNING: Handling the cord on this product, or cords associated with accessories sold with this product, will expose you to lead, a chemical known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. Wash your hands after handling the cord.

Does this mean that cords only have lead residue in the state of California? (Is it the weather?) Does it mean that they do, but that the State of California doesn't care about non-Californians? Does it mean that lead isn't harmful to the rest of us? Does it mean that the State of California cares, but Dell doesn't? Callous bastards.

Actually what it means is that the State of California feels the need to mandate that computer manufacturers put stupid disclaimers in computer manuals, probably without their being any reputable scientific evidence, and computer manufacturers just go along with it. (Are those various combinations of bold and italics mandated by law?) It's probably Erin Brockovich's fault.

Monday, December 15, 2003


I have another piece (with extensive photos) on my trip to Antwerp over at Samizdata.
Look, no wires

Okay, Glenn and Virginia have been doing it for years, but I am sitting in a cafe working on my laptop, which has no physical connections to anything, and I am happily working away with a full (and fast) internet connection. This is really, really cool. Unfortunately, my regular ISP will not let me connect to its SMTP server from another ISP (or at least it will not without proper authentication) so I cannot send e-mail right now. Hmmm. I'll look into it.

Update: Okay, that's fixed.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

This is a public service announcement

Scott Wickstein informs me that his personal blog has moved again. The new address is http://wickstein.blogspot.com. Update your links. The blog now seems to be called "The Weekend Warrior". Personally, I quite liked the name "The Eye of the Beholder", but that could just be me.
Nobody's Perfect

Just when I was thinking how much more stable the new Dell laptop with Windows XP is compared to the old IBM Thinkpad running Windows ME, I attempted to install the driver for my scanner. (This is a Packard Bell Diamond 2400 if anyone is interested). And with no warning I got a full scale Blue Screen of Death. Horrible. I thought I wasn't going to have to face these any more. It's repeatable, too, as I tried again and I again got a BSOD. The CD at least in theory has an XP version of the driver, too, so I don't know what is going on. Is it some kind of hardware conflict?

In any event, I shall attempt to find a newer version of the driver.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Belgium last weekend

Exactly a week ago (was it really that long) I strolled into the famous bar 't Brugs Beertje in Bruges. There were Australians in there.

I joined them, and over the course of the evening asked that they take some photos of me.

You call that a beer glass?

That is a beer glass.

Actually, that is also a beer glass

Would you guess that this place sells beer, judging by the decorations on the wall?

When you have drunk too much of that Belgian beer (7% alcohol or more) it is sometimes possible to do embarassing things.

Some photos of Antwerp tomorrow.

The slow pace of Hollywood and lawyers

Over at Samizdata, Andy Duncan says the following about the prospect of a film of The Hobbit

let's just hope Mr Jackson gets the film rights for 'The Hobbit', to give us something to watch next Christmas.

Sadly, "next Christmas" is much too optimistic. Peter Jackson is making his King Kong remake for Universal next (which is scheduled for 12 December 2005 - remember that a two year gestation period is typical for a big Hollywood film), and he has also said things about making a smaller New Zealand based project at the same time or soon after. He has also mentioned that there have not been enough good zombie films made recently, and has expressed an interest in making one. This may or may not be the same project as his "smaller, New Zealand based project".

The rights for "The Hobbit" are apparently presently split between New Line and MGM (Miramax likely have some rights too, although I think these would be purely financial - they have some right to profit but no right to stop the movie being made). These parties will have to do some kind of a deal before the film can be made. Although this isn't an insurmountable obstacle (films are made by combinations of more than one studio all the time) it does mean that the lawyers of the various parties will have to get together to come up with a completely different deal from the one that applied for the Lord of the Rings before the film can be made. And while it is in the interests of everybody to make such a deal for a film that is a certain moneymaker, this will take time. Plus there is the simple fact that everyone is very tired. Despite the usual two year gestation period for big Hollywood movies, they have made three in three years. Yes, there has been a certain amount of effort saved because the films were shot back to back and were all one long story, but only a certain amount. A lot of things have had to be done separately for each movie. And remember, these have been very big movies.

In short, it would amaze me if this film is in cinemas less than five years from now. I could be wrong, but I doubt it.


I have been ripping my entire CD collection to MP3 using iTunes. (Well, there have been three or four CDs that are so embarassing to own that I have left them out. No I am not saying what). Interestingly, I have been playing the already ripped songs in random order as I do so. And this is a weird nostalgic experience through my musical tastes since about 1988, when I first bought a CD player. Actually, I am surprised how much I still like most of the stuff I bought, given that I am in no sense a music fan.

Update: Actually I don't have quite my whole CD collection, although I thought I did. I can think of half a dozen discs that are missing, and there are undoubtedly more. No problem: I must have simply left them in Australia. I will have to sort this out next time I am there.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Not much more from me today

I have been quoting some silly song lyrics at Transport Blog, however.
First computer impressions

Scott Wickstein observed to me yesterday over instant messaging that moving computers is like moving house. It is, but with the exception that you have both houses available to you for an overlap period. So moving files is something I can do slowly. As there is no CD burner on the old computer, the memory card and card reader that I purchased to go with my digital camera is suddenly extremely useful to me. However, more than transfering files, it is about configuration, which means finding the CDs that came with my hardware and installing appropriate drivers. I am also simultaneously upgrading from Windows ME to Windows XP. Whatever my feelings towards Microsoft, this is a vastly superior operating system. If I hadn't had to put up with all the earlier crappy versions, I might even feel better towards Mr Gates. Of course, when I am installing hardware, in a lot of cases this means that the driver I have is too old to be sure of working correctly with XP, and I have to download a new version over the internet, demonstrating that I didn't need the CD after all. It's interesting though the way that many new hardware devices will now essentially pretend to be an external storage device of some kind and latch on to the built in standard driver sortware, and don't need you to install driver software at all. We really have just about reached Plug and Play.

Plus there are little bits of software I like to be downloaded over the internet, and semi-essential things from non-Microsoft parties (Quicktime, the Google toolbar) that need to be installed. And I have just downloaded iTunes, which will be useful for keeping track of music for my cute little MP3 player that was my "free gift" that came with the computer. (The choices for me "free gift" were printer, digital camera, a second battery or an MP3 player. As I had the first two already, it came to a choice between a useful accessory or a new toy. The new toy won.

Now, having commented a few months back that my next computer needed to have lots of USB ports, I have once again got one with only two. This was because the Dell system I got was so good for the money in other ways that I went for it anyway, although other brands did in some cases have many more USB ports. As I followed the advice of my readers on that occasion and bought a USB hub, this doesn't matter so much. At least I hope it doesn't. I do have IEEE1394 (Firewire) port as well, which may come in useful if I ever buy a camcorder. Although given that my USB ports are the new high speed kind, it also may not be needed.

Anyway, having fun. I just now need to find a free WiFi hotspot in a nice cafe somewhere nearby.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Life could be worse

Freshly baked pizza - check

Kick-arse new laptop computer - check

Unpasteurised brie - check

20 year old Speyside scotch whisky - check

Interesting policy level job offer from the Australian federal government - check (I think)

Australian cricket team about to start test match against India - check

Update: India won the test match and lead the series 1-0. Damn.
New computer has arrived

More blogging soon.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Somebody had to

Virginia Postrel has posted her results for one of those instant quizes, this one answering the question "Which state is perfect for you?". She gives "No surprises there" for her answer being California. I took the quiz, and two of my answers were that I like states that are crowded and states that have mountains. Despite that, I kept getting the answer of "Iowa". So I am not going to post my results and I am going to suggest that version 2.0 is perhaps needed.
Good things

Dell tell me that my new laptop has been made to order, and it is in the "preparation for delivery" stage. Hopefully that means I will have it in a couple of days. Given the state of non-working of my existing laptop, this will be a huge relief. I have bought a machine with inbuilt wireless, so I will have to go around hunting in London for wireless hotspots, I suppose. I paid an extra £10 for 802.11b/g wireless rather than just plain 802.11b. I could have paid a bit more for 802.11a/b/g. I suppose I will find out in a couple of years time whether 802.11a takeup occurs in a big way and whether I should have made the additional investment. Of course, if it becomes an enormous deal, I will still be able to add an additional 802.11a card, so it is not like I have restricted myself very much.

And of course my last laptop lasted me for two years. Even if it was still properly functional, it was getting to the point where its featureset was not up to my requirements. We will see how long this one lasts.

Update: It has now shipped from Dell's European manufacturing facility, which is probably in Ireland. I wonder how long it will now take. For people who are wondering, my financial resources turned out to be greater than I expected, so I am getting a Pentium M 1.4GHz system with a 60 GByte hard drive, a 1920x1200 15.4" screen, a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, 512 Mbytes of RAM, onboard 802.11b/g, and a few other things.
The Belgians demonstrate that they are just as petty as the Canadians

Belgium is not a biligual country. It is a country in which different languages are spoken in different parts of the country. Generalising of course, Flemish people can usually speak French, but are very reluctant to do so. Walloons usually cannot speak Dutch, but even if they can, they generally won't. Signs are not bilingual. As you cross from one section of Belgium into another, the signs change from one language to the other. As most towns have different French and Dutch names, this can be highly confusing if you are just trying to go somewhere. The exception to all this occurs in Brussels, which is the capital, and is a French speaking city entirely surrounded by Flanders (ie by Dutch speaking country). Signs in Brussels are almost always bilingual.

Yesterday, I encountered a slightly absurd manifestation of this. I was on a train from Antwerp in Flanders to Brussels. It was a nice new train, and like new trains in many countries it had LED displays inside the carriages giving information about where the train was going to and which stations it stopped at. In Antwerp and as we travelled through Flanders, the information on the Display was entirely in Dutch. However, as we crossed over the city limits of the city of Brussels, it suddenly changed, and it was giving information in both Dutch and French. Presumably, if the train had continued on into Wallonia, everything would have changed into French only. Given that the display system could clearly operate in both languages and that most people on the train were travelling from one side of a linguistic boundary to the other, some of us would have thought it was sensible for the system to display information in both languages for the whole time.

But that would have implied that Belgium was a bilingual country. And we couldn't have that.

Monday, December 08, 2003


I have a little piece of travel writing over at Samizdata.
Citibank kind of save the day

When I travel, my practice is to simply withdraw funds from ATMs, which will be linked up via a global system to my bank. In the vast majority of the world, this works perfectly every time. However, there are some countries where this does not always work, as ATMs are either scarce or not linked into the global network. As I recently, Japan is one case, although not nearly as bad as it used to be. And, inexplicably, Belgium is another. There are very few ATMs, and most do not take foreign cards. And while it is easy to laugh at the "Citibank 24 hour banking centre" just across the road from Central station in Brussels that is closed between midnight and 6am, it does at least take foreign cards. I got some money from this machine between changing trains in Brussels but as happens this morning I ran out. I couldn't find a machine anywhere in Antwerp that would give me money. This was not ultimately a big deal. I had some pounds in my wallet which I could change to euros at a physical money changer.

However, the advent of the euro has dealt a blog to the money changing business in Europe, and those money changers that do still exist spend most of their time processing wire transfers of funds to Senegal and things like that rather than actually chaning money. So, just wanting to change £10 into euros, I found myself standing behind a man who had a tremendously complicated set of transactions. After some time, he and the man behind the counter proceeded from a civil conversation to a heated argument in French. (It contained the words "deux" and "gratis" frequently, so I think he believed he should be charged a single fee for two transactions). In any event, I wanted to make the simplest transaction in the world, so I moved to serious eye rolling mode. (This type of thing annoys me about post offices, too. People are receiving welfare payments, paying bills, changing money, getting drivers licence and passport applications processed, and all manner of time consuming things, which drives me mad when I am in the queue behind them and I merely want to buy some stamps).

Sunday, December 07, 2003

I'm in Belgium

Right now I am in Bruges. It is quite cold. I spent yesterday evening drinking a wide assortment of extraordinary beers with a number of other Australians, a Brazilian, and a fanatical Flemish Liverpool supporter (who even had a giant Liverpool FC flag that he apparently carries with him at all times) in 't Brugs Beertje, described by my guidebook as "the best bar in Belgium" and which has over 500 different beers to choose from. Bruges is full of English speaking people, or, more particularly, English and other London based people who are over here for the weekend. The options of cheap flights and train tickets seem to be being widely used. I am off the Antwerp. More then.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Christmas treats

About a year ago, a female friend of mine mentioned in some context that she had never eaten oysters. I promised her that I would buy her some oysters some time. In Australia, you can buy a dozen fresh oysters inexpensively from any supermarket, but in Britain it is somewhat harder. There are one or two posh oyster bars in various places, and there are no doubt fancy fish shops that sell them, but they are not a common foodstuff. Having mentioned this a couple of times in the last year, I finally decided that I would take her to the Oyster and Champagne bar in Selfridges (the old posh Victorian London department store which is not Harrods) as a Christmas treat. So, we went there at lunchtime yesterday.

I was thinking that we would get a dozen oysters to share and a glass of champagne each, but despite my friend's curiousity she thought that oysters looked kind of gooey, and that we should have just a few and something else as well. (If she had eaten one oyster and not liked it, I would have eaten the other eleven with no difficulty, but that perhaps wouldn't have ended up being consistent with the fact that I was treating her). So we ended up having a seafood platter for two, with some lobster, smoked Scottish wild salmon, crab, prawns etc. It is kind of weird to be eating this sort of thing in London, because here it is kind of exotic. (In Sydney I recall on one or two occasions getting a taxi with several colleagues from the office to the Sydney fish market, eating prawns and oysters and tuna and you know what for a Friday afternoon lunch, and then getting a taxi back to the office and (at least theoretically) getting some more work done. And it didn't even cost much).

And of course we had a slightly stroppy Frenchman serving us. This was a necessary part of the experience, somehow.

Thursday, December 04, 2003


I have a report on the first day of Australia v India over at ubersportingpundit.

Update: Also a report on England v Sri Lanka day 3.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003


I have a politically incorrect Tokyo travelogue over at Samizdata.

Update: I also have a cricket roundup, including a brief preview of Australia v India, over at ubersportingpundit.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003


I have a world cricket report and a piece on tonight's riot game between Portsmouth and Southampton over at ubersportingpundit.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Fragmented thoughts on Mark Steyn's review of Mystic River

Note: Spoilers to follow.

I've just been reading Mark Steyn's review (scroll down) of Clint Eastwood's Mystic River. I agree with him that it is a good movie, and I agree that Kevin Bacon's performance is the better of the three leads, and that Tim Robins' performance is a little too one note to be really good (although I think Sean Penn is actually great - I like this performance a little more than Steyn does). Laura Linney is superb, putting in a small performance of great subtlety that you don't really understand until the end. Steyn makes one other comment at the end.

The other interesting aspect, particularly after last week’s Kill Bill, is how timeless it is: despite all the detail in each shot – the coldness of a waterfront bar, the odd vulnerability of a corner store on an empty street – there’s no attempt to pin it down in time apart from some opening sports banter about the ’75 Red Sox season. Eastwood doesn’t use pop music to place his characters, preferring to compose his own somewhat lugubrious score. The result is something primal, elemental, tribal, as if the sleek modernity across the river is utterly irrelevant. If a Greek tragedy could be transposed to Boston, it would look a lot like this. I’m not saying Clint Eastwood’s Sophocles, but he does a passable impression.

Yes, but there is one curious detail. (Spoilers really coming now). The plot hangs on one enormous (and improbable) coincidence, which is that two characters die violently not only on the same day but at more or less the same time, and Tim Robbins' character appears to be guilty of a crime that he didn't actually commit. This all hangs on some blood being found in his car, and identified as being of the same blood group as Sean Penn's characters murdered daughter. Today, of course, this wouldn't be an issue. DNA testing would immediately identify the blood as coming from a different person, and the rest of the plot wouldn't work. So I suppose we have to say the film is set in the past somewhere, although when is not precisely specified, and the film's timeless "it might be the present or a few years ago" quality seems somewhat weakened. To me it felt like a screenplay that had sat on the shelf a few years between being written and being shot. (There are lots of screenplays like that). Although, given that it is an adaptation, I suppose it depends on what the original novel did. The time between the novel being written and the film shot is longer I guess, so one possibility is that the novel had a timeless quality in it but by the time the film was shot, the choice was either making it a period piece, blurring the dates still more, or changing the plot.

I suppose I should check.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Social events

There is something slightly worrying about leaving a party at 7am, and still not quite qualifying as a member of the "final hard core". Perry's chilli was as always excellent. I have quite a few photos, some of which I will post later if my ongoing technical issues allow it.

Update: Perry has now published his photos of the event over at Samizdata. If you scroll down, I have added several of my photos in the comments section.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Obligatory post

Interesting piece in BusinessWeek on the rise of India, the basic point being that America can use their demographic advantage, relatively high skill levels, and use of the English language. It's good to see that that this is finally being noticed, as it is one of the biggest stories in the world.

Friday, November 28, 2003

Bruce Sterling's good stuff

Bruce Sterling is often referred to as the other father of cyberpunk besides William Gibson. I don't think that this is in some ways really really accurate, as his work often has strayed far from what is usually described by that word, but maybe it once was. (That said, it is relatively easy to forget that he was perhaps more important as an editor than a writer at the time, particularly if you came in to cyberpunk late). Cyberpunk caught a brief glimpse in the early 1980s as to just how strange the future would be, and while the other cyberpunk writers mostly seemed to keep in touch with that future as it grew less strange, Sterling seems to have let go of that future and instead kept in touch with that sense of strangeness. Although his cyberpunk contemporaries are still in several cases writing good stuff, it feels conventional, as the world has come to resemble the cyberpunk vision of 1982, while Sterling's stuff does not. Sterling seems to have an unending desire to travel the world chasing things that are technology based as well as trendy and hip in a certain way, which is perhaps what keeps his work fresh. In any event, he is one of those writers who I find enormously refreshing to read, simply due to being so smart that I know whatever he has to say on anything is going to be mentally stimulating. (Virginia Postrel is someone else evokes the same reaction in me). Even though there are some things that he writes about with which I substantially disagree (most notably he is far more pessimistic about the consequences of global warming than I am) he always has interesting things to say. And in a world containing so much bullshit, that is a great relief.

Sterling has been writing features for Wired Magazine since it began (and he has always been on the masthead, so maybe they have been paying him a salary all along), but the current editorial regime seems to have rather sensibly ramped up his involvement. He is now writing a monthly column for the magazine, and they are also paying him to blog. He already had a blog somewhere else, but it seems to have moved for financial reasons and hopefully the volume will now increase. This is not to say that Sterling's volume has ever been low, precisely. As well as columns, non-fiction features, short stories, and about a book a year, he also is self-appointed "Pope-Emperor" of the Viridian design movement, which is nominally a movement to solve the world's environmental problems based on the belief that people will solve the world's environmental problems if you provide technological solutions that are really neat and have great design and fashion sense. (The name comes from the fact that "viridian" is a shade of green that is not found in nature, the point being that the viridian movement consists of pro-technology greens). Sterling operates a mailing list of "Viridian notes", which are sent out every now and then (perhaps once a week or two on average). These manage to stay on topic about half the time. the rest of the time, they are simply about whatever is on Sterling's mind. If you go back to what I said about finding just about anything Sterling writes to be interesting and refreshing because he is so smart, you will realise that I find this fine, or indeed actually good. (Sterling also has a tendency to invite readers of the Viridian notes to parties in his home in Austin, Texas from time to time. I really must contive to be in Texas at the right time one of these days).

In any event, I tend to think that if I ever become famous, this blog is going to look something like Sterling's, which is full of thoughts as to what is on his mind, links to things that he has written and that have been published, tantalising references to things that have not yet been published (His new book The Zenith Angle is out in April (although I don't yet know what it is about, other than that someone myseteriously invents a super weapon that attacks US spy satellites, although that sounds like something out of 1950s sf, apart from the satellites), links to interviews he has given, and more. (When I am famous, my blog might have an FAQ list like this, too. (Scroll down a bit) He even addresses the great religious issue as to whether you should use "target=new" to make your links open a new window, a point on which I disagree with the mighty Samizdata editors, but I digress). Like this interview for instance.

At one point Sterling is asked his favourite of his own novels, and his answers are that his readers seem to most likeSchismatrix and Holy Fire, but that he likes a lot of his short fiction. I will agree with him. I love his short fiction. And unlike many science fiction writers who for financial reasons stop publishing short fiction after getting novels published, he continues to write it.

The two novels listed are both good novels - Schismatrix is sort of (in both plot and mood) Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination retold in the computer age, and Holy Fire is set in a world in which demographic trends, medical tehnology, and a certain type of puritanism have been taken to logical extremes - but they are not actually my favourites of Sterling's work. These would be Islands in the Net and Zeitgeist. You could call both of these post September 11 novels in a way. Islands in the Net was published in 1988, but is set in a future world of failed states, multinational corporations, NGOs, organisations that are sort of blurred as to where they are on the continuum between corporations and NGOs, missing nuclear weapons, multinational police/spy organisations with arbitrary powers, and organisations preaching weird mixtures of idealism and terrorism. But despite all that, it's an optimistic future. Sounds weirdly familiar, although I am not always optimistic about the one we are living in.

Zeitgeist, on the other hand, is a (present day) roam around the marginal and somewhat decaying states of South Eastern Europe mixed in with a lot of shady Russian and Turkish crime figures, omniscient (and not) security organisations and a lot of girl band pop music. (Sterling has noticed that in real life, dubious military warlords and manafactured girl band pop singers who belong to some Turko-pop or Serbo-pop movement that would seem very tired in London but is somehow very exciting still in Belgrade or Nicosia seem to go go together somehow). And this is all mixed in with a lot of French deconstructionism. Sterlings readers were divided between those who found the book puzzling and those who found it hysterically funny. The book was written pre-September 11, but there is somehow something very post September 11 about it. (Think of the photos a week or two back of Jessica Lynch and Britney Spears together). Whereas William Gibson wrote a (excellent) post September 11 book post September 11, and Neal Stephenson in Cryptonomicon wrote what was perhaps the quintessential novel about the tech boom of the late 1990s, Sterling wrote his post September 11 novel pre- September 11, and maybe pre 1990.

Which makes me wonder what he will write next.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

Light blogging, perhaps

I am visiting a friend in Cambridge, which is beautiful at this time of year. I may or may not be doing any more blogging today, depending on whether my laptop is actually working when I get home. As for the new one, I think I am going for a Dell system with a Pentium 4 2.4 GHz. There is also an option with a Celeron at 2.4GHz for about £60 less, but I am working under the assumption that the Pentium 4 is worth the extra money. Anyone have an opinion on that? (Thanks for the advice on the previous question, by the way).
My regards

May my American readers (and indeed anyone else who wants to celebrate the occasion) have a good Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Posting search requests of the day is just too easy.

And this ended up here just why?

Yes, she is. Married, though.

I believe that lots of people do, although I kind of like the Indian subcontinent myself.

I'll remember to take my own food next time I am in Newfoundland. It's not a particularly pressing issue though.

If that's what turns you on, I suppose.

And I tend to think he was sacked. A poor decision from the selectors if you ask me.
Technical Question

Does anyone have a good idea how an AMD Athlon XP2600+ compares to a Pentium 4 at 2.4GHz in terms of performance, or where I can find some unbiased benchmarks?
Michael Jennings quote of the day

Q. What do you think is the main disadvantage of the contemporary computers, besides being slow?

A. They're full of products from Microsoft.

-- Bruce Sterling, in a Brazilian interview, getting to the core of how Bill Gates has been charging monopoly rents and generally hindering the progress of the computer revolution since 1976.

Update: My blanket anti-Microsoft sentiments have been challenged by a reader. And yes, I was being glib, to some extent. (My opinion of Microsoft is none the less not high). This is one of the occasions where I need to explain myself, the explanation is long, and I really do not have time for this right now. However, I shall do so by the end of the year.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Something worth reading

This article in Prospect on "Market dominant minorities" (ie ethnic minorities that dominate the economies of countries to which they are not indigenous - for instance Chinese in the Philippines or Indians in Kenya) and the problems they face when democracy is increased by Yale law professor Amy Chua is good. Go read.

Link via Patrick Belton, whose comments are also worth reading.

Monday, November 24, 2003


I have a (long) piece on the finish of the rugby World Cup over at ubersportingpundit.

Update: I also have a much shorter piece on England's continuing celebrations of their victory.
Search request of the day

No. I went to the real Cambridge.

After hanging around in the departure lounge at Heathrow for a couple of hours a few weeks back, I ultimately succumbed to one of the posh duty free stores in the departure lounge. In particular, I succumbed to the airport store of Berry Bros & Rudd, the poshest wine merchants in London. (By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen etc etc). This type of posh English shop (that also appeals to a certain type of American) is something I am entirely comfortable with after my years at Cambridge, but that is another story. Suffice to say that it contained some rather good drinks.

I managed to avoid paying £7500 for some stupendous aged magnum of Petrus, but I couldn't resist a (slightly cheaper) bottle of 1984 (bottled 2002) cask strength Dufftown (Speyside) single malt Scotch whisky. This cost more money than I really should have spent, but I will console myself with the fact that I saw a bottle of the same whisky for sale in a department store in Tokyo for three times as much.

Since I returned to London, the bottle has just been sitting in my cupboard, but I have just poured myself a wee dram. This is truly a stunningly good bottle of Scotch.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Another 40th anniversary

Today is the 40th anniversary of the broadcast of the first episode of Dr Who. It is a fine thing that it is coming back. It is a terrible thing that it was ever cancelled in the first place. I am in favour of abolishing the BBC. Besides the fact that the licence fee is obscene, one reason for this is that the BBC is full of the sort of self-important wankers who sneer at genre fiction, even great genre fiction.
Language shifts

David Sucher asks the question "What is genre fiction", and finds further down in his non-permalinked comments that the dictionary definition does not really fit the way in which the word is used nowadays. My thoughts are that in terms of current usage I would define "genre fiction" as fiction designed at a specific audience demographically, and not a widely diverse general audience. Certainly that is the way Hollywood uses the term. Hollywood uses the word for horror, teen comedies, "urban" films (which is code for films aimed at black audiences), certain types of thriller, certain types of animated film (ie those aimed specifically at children rather than those aimed at general audiences - so that "Finding Nemo" is not genre fiction but "The Powerfpuff Girls" is), certain types of fantasy film (By this definition "Underword" is a genre film, whereas "The Lord of the Rings" isn't) and similar.

Interestingly, what Hollywood thinks of as science fiction is (post Star Wars in 1977 at least) not "genre" but mainstream, as it is aimed at general audiences. Whereas written science fiction is very much a genre market, as only certain types of people read it.

In terms of books, I think you might say that "genre fiction" is anything that is filed in a separate section in a bookshop from the standard "fiction" section. In terms of film, it is anything with a budget under about $25 million. (If Hollywood spends more than that it needs to find a general audience in order to make its money back, so "genre films" are generally not made for more than that).

Some would say that as you quote it above, "genre" is a polite word for "ghetto". Certainly it is a term that self-important literary critics (and a certain type of self-important) reader use to snear at types of writing they don't like.

It's interesting to compare the usage of this word with "dialect", actually. Linguists will define a dialect as any specific varient of a language, so that standard American English is a dialect, and so is Glaswegian Scots, and that high German is a dialect, as is Swiss German. (None of these "dialects" can be defined all that specifically, either, as dialects tend to have further sub-varients and blend into one another and lines between them are hard to impossible to draw). However, the word "dialect" as used is often more applied to marginal and non-standard versions of the language than to standard versions.
Living in England, it is of course imperative to talk about the weather

Well, it rained in Sydney for the World Cup final, it is raining and the sky is grey here in London, and two cricket matches in Sri Lanka have been abandoned without play due to rain. Are these separate weather patterns, or is it one big patch of cloud and rain covering Europe, Asia, and Australia? (Yes, I do know the answer, and even that this speculation is silly, and in any event it is easy to check by looking at a satellite photograph or too. However, the weather is getting me down a little).

Saturday, November 22, 2003

International comparisons

I watched the World Cup final in a pub in Balham, London. I had three pints of beer. These cost £1.59 each, and together they cost the equivalent of A$12. I watched the semi-final in a faux Irish pub in Shibuya. During this I had two pints of beer, each of which cost about as much as all three put together did here in London. (They were ¥800 each).

This isn't a fair comparison between Tokyo and London, of course. I know London well, and that includes knowledge of where to get a cheap beer. And although I was in a perfectly nice part of London, it was not central and not all that upmarket, whereas I watched the match in Tokyo in a neighbourhood that was both these things. If I had watched the game in a theme pub in an expensive part of London, my pints of beer would have cost about £2.80 ($A7.00) or so each, still less than Tokyo, but not by so huge a margin

Friday, November 21, 2003

My laptop is working. Yay. But I am still in the market for a new one

This looks like a sunrise or a sunset, but it isn't. It is actually mid afternoon, and the 747 is actually inside the arctic circle, so it is dark below us, but it is possible to see the light of day to the south if you are 36000 feet above the ground. In fact, the view out the plane window looked like that for three or four hours.

Thursday, November 20, 2003


I have a lot on my plate at the moment, and as a consequence I am blogging short pieces about fairly lighthearted stuff. This is not so much due to time constraints as due to the fact that I don't feel like putting intense mental effort into it.
More good things

I had never flown Japan Airlines before, and I have to say I was rather impressed. On the (day) flight back from Tokyo to London, they had a "self serve corner", where passengers could just walk up and help themselves to chocolate bars, other snacks, and non-alcoholic drinks without having to ask a flight attendant.

All that said, one thing that regular fliers learn is that one should never be shy about asking cabin attendents for things. If you want another drink, just ask and they will give you one. Still, the self serve option is nice, and I have never seen it in economy class before. It was interesting to see just how fast the stuff went, too. People genuinely do seem bashful about pressing the "call flight attendant" button.

I have seen it in business class, but there it is almost redundant, as business class cabin attendants are pretty much constantly bringing you stuff without your having to ask for it. (Amongst other things, this means that getting drunk in business class requires no conscious effort).

I have never flown first class, so I can't comment on that. Presumably that will have to wait until my Hollywood career really gets going.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003


A technical problem (to do with my laptop - not the camera) is preventing me from posting pictures right now. Hopefully this will be fixed soon.
More Japanese details

On Monday morning I went to Shinjuku station and purchased a ticket for the bus to Narita airport. There was about ten minutes to wait before the bus left, and I put my suitcase into the care of a staff member of the bus company (who gave me a luggage receipt) and I went off to a vending machine to buy a drink. When I came back, the man in charge of my suitcase was holding a wooden mallet and he grabbed my attention, pointing to the bottom of my suitcase. My suitcase is rather old and has been handled roughly at times, and one of the little legs on the case designed to allow it to stand on its side had come partially off. This had been noticed, and my permission was being asked for him to attempt to fix it. He promptly did so, hitting the little rivet that held the leg back into its appropriate position.

Little things like this happen all the time when you are in Japan. The Japanese care about details.

I have a piece on the rugby World Cup final over at Samizdata.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003


It's always nice to actually talk to readers, and see what people get out of this blog. Comments are a help, but they only give you one side of it. Often you get a lot of comments when people disagree with something that you wrote, or in which people want to add something. Pieces on stuff that people don't know anything about will usually not get many comments, which does not mean that the post was not appreciated or liked. At the recent blogger gathering in Sydney, two people gave me nice pieces of feedback. One person commented that he liked my stuff on architecture and urban design. Another commented that he had enjoyed my writing about my visit to the Basque country earlier this year (much of which was about architecture and urban design, although he didn't say if that was the particular bit he liked). It was nice to get this feedback, as that aspect of my blogging does not usually get as many comments as some other aspects do, and because these are some of the subjects I enjoy writing about the most. So thanks.
Back in London

After a door to door journey of about 19 hours, I arrived back in London yesterday evening. Of course, my memory card was waiting for me in a package beside the door. My camera now tells me that it has space in memory for 347 pictures, which would have been useful when I was in Tokyo. Memory capacity was less of an issue in Australia, as I was able to connect to a PC and save to disk every evening. As it was, I took a fair few analogue pictures in Tokyo using the SLR, so readers may have to wait a few days for some of those. I have a few digital pictures as well, so some of those soon. The 347 pictures is for 1.2 Mpixel mode. Alternately I can have 208 pictures at 2.0 Mpixels, 138 at 3.0 Mpixels, or 69 at 4.0 Mpixels. That should be plenty, I think.

Sunday, November 16, 2003


The busiest airport in Asia (by far) is Tokyo Haneda airport. This carries around the same number of passengers per year as London Heathrow, but few people who have not lived in Japan have ever heard of it. The reason for this is that it is a purely domestic airport (the one exception being that flights to Taiwan used to depart from it, although I am not sure if this is still the case). Haneda is right next to Tokyo bay, and to get to it you go on a monorail that goes along the edge of Tokyo Bay through a landscape of smelters and other industrial artifacts. And when you get there, you find that it is indeed a major airport.

If, however, you wish to fly to anywhere outside Japan, you depart from Narita airport, which in terms of passenger movements is about half the size of Haneda, which is similar to London Gatwick. (For many years attempts to expand the airport were held up by rice farmers who refused to sell the land on which the extensions were to be built. Farmers are an incredibly powerful political lobby group in Japan, probably even more so than in France). And it is an immensely long way out of the city, being about 100km north. This means that getting to and from the airport is time consuming and expensive, which is extremely annoying.

But this morning it wasn't so bad. I caught the bus from Shinjuku station to Narita, and we went along the edge of Tokyo Bay, and then across the Rainbow Bridge, and across a few other bridge and causeway connected islands from the south of central Tokyo to the north. The weather was beautiful and the bay sparkled and the city was beautiful. (Beautiful is not a word you would always connect with this city). Then we went north through the industrial landscape of Chiba - somewhat lighter industry than nearer Haneda, but not especially light in absolute terms. I suppose I could have stopped off in Chiba to get some Zeiss Ikon eyes installed, but time was short. So on to the airport, where I am now.

Tokyo is of course a maritime city and a great port, but people who visit do not always fully appreciate this. The city is an immense mass of concrete, to put it bluntly, and the major attractions do not have anything to do with the water. However, a walk along the waterfront is a fine thing to do, as everywhere. Like everywhere else, Tokyo has had waterfront redevelopment since the retreat of container shipping. (Something I promised to write about previously but have not yet gotten around to). And, perhaps amazingly, one finds a little evidence of the past on sections of the waterfront. There is even a few remnants of World War 2 if you look carefully - gun emplacements and that kind of thing.

But I have a plane to board. To London.

And yes, the atrocity in Istanbul fills me with rage. I don't think the barbarians who do things like this can be argued or reasoned with. You just have to fight.
A great afternoon

The same sorts of people who go to Camden markets in London on a Sunday afternoon go to Harajuku on a Sunday afternoon in Tokyo. The two places contain the same sorts of shops full of iconic popular culture, and the same mixture of (very) independent stores, multinationals, cool definers, and cool hunters, feeding on and spitting out something close to ground zero in street culture. This is recognised by lots of people, and one consequence of this is that you see many Japanese in Camden Town in London. Possibly the British do not recognise this in the same way - there are plenty of westerners in Harajuku on a Sunday, but they do not seem to be British dominated in the same way Asians in Camden are Japanese dominated. Or maybe they do, and Harajuku is full of Londoners but my senses are not intense.

I find this cultural ground zero quality of certain places fascinating. I am not of it myself - I am about the least cool person in existence - but as an observer I am drawn to it. I don't quite know why.

More on this, and photos, when I return to London.

I have a piece on watching the Australian Rugby team's magnificent victory over New Zealand from Tokyo over at ubersportingpundit.

I spent the morning in Akihabara, the section of Tokyo devoted to selling the latest products of the Japanese consumer electronics industry, many of them not available and never to be seen in the rest of the world. I am in the market for a new laptop (and my travails so far in attempting to get one would fill a small and very funny book), and I utterly fell in love with a gorgeous little widescreen model that was in my price range and had all the features I wanted. All the features, that is, except the England version of Microsoft Windows. You see, this was a Japan only model. Grrrrr.

As a place, though, Tokyo blows the mind. There is nowhere else remotely like it.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Why I love to come to Japan

I am presently in an internet cafe in a Virgin Megastore in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. Shinjuku isn't my favourite part of Tokyo (although there is nothing wrong with it - it's an entertainment and retail district, but not as much fun - and not quite as surreal - as the younger districts of Shibuya and Harajuku).

William Gibson talks about Tokyo as the place where the future happens first. People have asked him whether this is still so after the Japanese economy's disasters of the last decade, and he says that yes, it is, and yes, it is in the small details. (He outlines the position in this three year old article from the Observer, amongst other places).

But, an example. I drink a lot of Diet Coke - probably a couple of cans a day. And I stress cans. Drinks in cans stay properly cold and keep their fizz. Drinks in plastic bottles do not. (Drinks in glass bottles are fine, but these are nowadays fairly uncommon). If I buy a drink from a shop or petrol station or vending machine for immediate consumption, I want it in a can. Plastic bottles are not good enough. However, in recent years more and more shops have started selling drinks in plastic bottles instead of cans. I don't know why they do this. Perhaps they think that bottles look nicer in the refrigerator, or perhaps they are cheaper, or something. Whatever the situation, I think it is one of those situations where the people in charge do not understand the situation because they are not big fizzy drinks consumers themselves. I have certainly had peculiar conversations once or twice when I have asked for a can of Coke, have been told that there are only plastic bottles, and have then asked for something else, or nothing. It is not been understood that a plastic bottle is not to me an equivalent product. It is widely understood by consumers, however. I have certainly heard other Coke drinkers complain. (Oddly, this same state of affairs has not occurred with beer. It is widely appreciated by people both buying and selling beer that beer is ruined by bein consumed from a plastic bottle, and they are not generally sold).

Interestingly enough, I yesterday morning for some reason had a conversation about why I didn't like drinking Coke from plastic bottles, and she agreed with me. I then got on a plane, flew to Tokyo, got off the plane, and bought a Coke from a vending machine. To my initial annoyance, I discovered that it was in a bottle.

Then I picked it up from the bottom of the machine. The bottle was made of aluminium. But it is definitely a bottle, with a screw top, a neck, and a wider base below. (Photo will be provided when I have returned to London). When in Australia and England, the industry that serves me drinks seems unaware that there is a problem in this small detail of life, in Japan the problem has been recognised. And the problem has been solved. This is cool. I suppose I should prepare to see these things in the rest of the world soon.

On the other hand, in some other ways Japan is frustrating. One of the most annoying things is that their ATMs still do not generally take foreign cards. (No, I don't know why), I know from past experience (and also from the airport yesterday) that those operated by Citibank do work with foreign cards, although the one at the airport took Mastercard but not Visa. (This type of thing happens from time to time when you travel, which is why I carry a Mastercard as well as Visa and Amex). I am sure that there will be one in Shinjuku somewhere. (If not, I remember the location of one near Roppongi from my last visit). I think I will Google for the location. If I had been sensible, I would have simply got more money at the airport.
Actually, I think the Onion was rather slow to get to this, but their response is as funny as usual

Unlike this (not actually real) guy, I told my Mum about this blog from the first. In actual fact, I think it has given her a slightly more accurate picture of who I really am. In a way, I think she might almost have been relieved if she found a diary of my sexual exploits or similar. As it is, it has just confirmed her (I suspect already extant) suspicions that I am really fascinated by urban design and cheese.

Update: Blogger now has an official policy on what to do if your Mum finds out about your blog.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

A great tragedy

My fortnight in Australia is just about over. Tomorrow I fly to Tokyo. I am arriving back in London Monday evening.

Today, I went to the Tyrrell's winery in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney. This winery makes wonderful pinot noir, and I tasted a recent vintage of their best pinot, which was indeed wonderful. As it happened, I had a bottle of the 1984 of the same wine that I had purchased when I was a stokbroker. The man at the winery said it was still probably nice. Therefore, when I got home I got out the bottle, and I looked carefully and noticed it was just a little sticky around the top. I immediately opened the bottle, and sadly the cork had failed completely. The wine was completely ruined. Therefore, I poured a 20 year old bottle of a wonderful wine down the sink. This was a horrible thing to have to do.

Still though, the earlier parts of the day were pretty good. Visiting vineyards is a fine thing to do.

And of course there is the tasting itself.

The latter two pictures were taken at Pepper Tree Wines in the Hunter Valley, another company whose wines I thoroughly recommend. Their cellar door operation is excellent and friendly, too. (They also were kind enough to pull a couple of "not for regular tasting" wines out from under the counter when they realised I knew my wine, too. This actually happens quite often when I go tasting wines at the cellar door, but it is always nice when it does).

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