Saturday, December 25, 2004

My missed plane story or Proving that I am the true Ponce de Leon

I have told much of the story of my trip to my trip to Spain and Portugal in August on various blogs already. However, the story of the last 36 hours of so of the trip is one I have not told until now. Perhaps I have not done this because I busy, or perhaps because I was a little embarassed by the fact that the story of the last 36 hours was almost entirely about my missing a plane. But now it is Christmas, my mood is good and I have just had a fine glass of single match Scotch.

I had been thinking of taking a trip across the top of Spain and down to Porto for a year or so, but this particular trip had to be booked in an instant. I had been offered a job, I had a couple of weeks before starting, and I had to go at once. Ideally I would have booked a flight into Bilbao or Santander and a return flight out of Porto, but at the time no discount airlines flew to Porto, and flights on full service airlines in August booked with very little notice were quite expensive. And in any event, it might be interesting to make my way back to Bilbao via an inland route rather than the coastal route that I was going on in the forward direction. So I didn't think about it too much, and I booked a return flight to Bilbao.

However, as I flew into Bilbao on the 17th of August, I looked out the plane window. Two weeks later I would realise this was a mistake. For out the window I saw the city of San Sebastian (known in Basque as Donostia), which looked simply gorgeous. I had been to San Sebastian before, and I knew in August the city would be full of bars, full of tourists, full of partying - not to mention full of Australians. I was struck by the immediate desire to go there and I had something to celebrate, so I went to San Sebastian for the evening. I did indeed find tourists, partying, beer, wonderful Basque food (the best in Spain) and Australians, so I had a fine evening. But I was a day into my trip, and I had gone a few miles in entirely the wrong direction to where I was headed. I compounded this by just following my vague wishes for a couple more days. A year before I had seen road signs pointing to "Iruna", and at the time I had not realised that this was the Basque name for Pamplona, famous for the running of the bulls. So this time I went there. Wonderful place. Must try to go there for the Siesta some time. Then the next day I went to Vitoria, administrative capital of the Basque region. (Waste of time, although the bars and food continued to be good. Never go to anywhere in which "administrative capital" is in the first sentence of the appropriate guide book entry).

Which was all fine. (I particularly don't regret going to Pamplona). But it meant that I found myself passing through Bilbao on the way to Santander three days after I had originally intended to go to Santander. Which meant that I was in a slightly greater rush to get to Porto than I had originally intended.

As I got to La Coruna, to Santiago de Compostela, past the beautiful estuaries of Galicia, I considered whether it would be better to leave Porto to another time, and to make my way back to Bilbao in plenty of time. But I checked those big yellow departure posters that one sees on continental European railway platforms, and there was an overnight train from Vigo near the Portuguese border to Barcelona. A quick check of additional train times in an internet cafe confirmed that I could get an evening train on the 29th of August (or even a morning train on the 30th) from Porto to Vigo, then the overnight Barcelona bound train from Vigo on the 30th, then I could get off this train in Burgos and spend a couple of hours at the railway station in Burgos before catching the overnight train from Madrid to Bilbao as it passed through, and be in Bilbao at 7am on the 31st, well in time for my flight back to London at 11am. Easy. Now a sane person would have bought a ticket in advance, but I find attempting to buy train and bus tickets in Spain to be a trial, as I speak very little Spanish and the person on the other side of the window seldom speaks any English at all. And anyway, virtually all British and European overnight trains that I have encountered in the past have sleepers that require reservations and a second class seating section that does not. I might have to spend the night in a seat on a train. I have done this many times before. No problem. So I put it off. Silly me.

So I went to Porto, and had a wonderful time. I walked my legs off in Porto, and got into Vigo, exhausted, at about 10pm on the 29th. I had some idea that I might go on a boat trip to the Islas Cies before getting the overnight train.

But I slept and slept, eventually getting up at what I thought was about 10am. But I had forgotten about the one hour time difference between Spain and Portugal. So it was 11am. No chance of a trip to the Islands. Still, fine. I would have a long leisurely lunch in a restaurant in Vigo, would wander around town a bit, perhaps look at the port, and then head for Bilbao. But first to the station to buy a ticket.

But once I had communicated (with difficulty) what I wanted to the people at the ticket office, things changed. No, it was not possible to book a ticket on that evening's train to Burgos. The train was entirely sleepers - no seats - and no tickets were available on overnight trains for three days. (As to whether this actually served the customers of the Spanish railways well, I guess they don't ask that question much. Such are the joys of state owned railways). The gentleman behind the counter did not laugh and was (as far as I could tell) sympathetic, but there was nothing that could be done. There were plenty of seats on trains to Madrid, but this didn't help.

Now my situation was not necessarily terrible. The distance to Bilbao was maybe ten hours travel. I had to be in Bilbao in about 22 hours. If I could find a series of transport options that could keep me on the road or on a train for a fair portion of that time, I could probably still make it. There would likely be a period overnight where travel would not be possible unless I was on a portion of a long distance train or bus. Local day transport in most places would probably start at 6am or 7am the next morning, so if I could get to somewhere close enough to Bilbao that the first bus or train to Bilbao in the morning would get me there in time to make my flight. That meant Burgos, or (on the coast) maybe Santander.

Rather than attempting to get a train some of the way, I went to the bus station to check whether there was a long distance bus going in the right direction. Bad move. Nobody at the bus station seemed to speak any English, and few timetables were posted. It was possible to get a bus to Ourense - which was in approximately the right direction. There were also plenty of buses to Madrid. Vigo was one of those cities where the bus station has been built a long way from the centre of the city to make it hard for people to use (or something) - so I didn't go back to the train station and just got on the bus to Ourense.

Having a couple of hours later got to the bus station in Ourense, I looked at timetables there. There did appear to be an overnight bus to Bilbao, but the woman behind the ticket counter was extremely unhelpful to people who did not speak Spanish, and eventually appeared to be indicating either that the bus no longer ran or that there were no seats. So no good. (There were however lots of buses to Madrid). I went to the railway station and there was a train to Leon a couple of hours later, as well as a train to Madrid. So I went to a cafe, had some lunch and perhaps a beer and a coffee, and then got the train to Leon.

On the train I encountered a couple of Americans. One was a college student who was spending a semester at a university in Oviedo, and the other was her boyfriend, with who she had been travelling prior to her starting her studies, and who was flying back to the US in a couple of days. I dicovered that they had also come up from Porto the previous evening, and had intended to get an earlier train to Ponferrada and Leon. However, they had forgotten about the time difference between Portugal and Spain and had missed the morning train, and were thus on the afternoon one.

Now discovering that there had been an earlier train was slightly annoying to me, as if I had got up and had got that one, I would have got to Leon in the mid afternoon, and there would have been no difficulty whatsoever getting to Burgos or Santander - or perhaps even all the way to Bilbao - by the evening. But as it was I would get into Leon at about eight in the evening, probably too late to get any further transport that evening.

But I had a nice chat on the train with the Americans, as in my experience one does with Americans.

And in any event, I had a slightly odd urge to visit Leon. My reason for this may or may not have been almost entirely stupid. When reading history a few years ago, I discovered that the first European to visit North America was traditionally considered to be someone named "Ponce de Leon", who visited Florida in 1513. (An episode of Seinfeld a few years back made fun of the name, merely because I think they thought it was an amusing name). The suggestion that he was the first European to North America is entirely ridiculous, as a great many Vikings, Basque fishermen, merchants from Bristol, etc etc got there first, but he probably was the first European to get to North America via the Carribean.

My immediate assumption from knowing this was that "Ponce" was a title of nobility and that this particular gentlaman came from somewhere near Leon, a place I found on a map of Spain and otherwise knew nothing whatsoever about. So I sort of had an idea that it might be fun to visit Leon. Also, on this trip I had been (quite deliberately) travelling through the ethnic and cultural fringes of Spain, and Leon was quite obviously in Castille. This was part of the ruling culture of Spain.

So when I had planned to come back overland by a more leisurely route, I had thought that I might stop in Leon and have a look around. This had left my schedule when I had got distracted earlier, but now I found myself in Leon at about half past eight in the evening, not knowing quite what I was doing. I first went to the ticket office and attempted to see if I could get a train ticket to Burgos overnight. There was only one train to Burgos, and this was the same train to Barcelona that I had been unable to get a ticket for in Vigo, so unsurprisingly I was still unable to get a ticket to it. I could get a ticket to Palencia (halfway to Burgos) or Valladolid (a bigger town, but closer to Madrid than Bilbao) on an overnight train to Madrid fom La Coruna that left Leon at about half past four in the morning, however. (And of course, if I wanted to get the train all the way to Madrid, there would be no problem).

I was at this point exhausted and hungry. I saw a McDonald's in the distance and went and ate, after which I felt much better. This delay may have cost me the chance to get somewhere useful on a bus, but I needed to sit down for a few minutes. I then went to the bus station. There were only a few overnight buses still to leave. As always, I could go to Madrid, and there appeared to be a bus to Santander.

Hurrah, I thought. Rather than deal with the woman behind the ticket counter, I attempted to check availability on a computerised ticket machine with an "English" option. After 20 minutes of sending me in circles the machine announced that it was out of order. I then spent 20 minutes in a queue, after which the woman behind the counter basically laughed at me when I said I wanted to go to Santander on the bus that was leaving in by that time about five minutes. So it was the train to Palancia in the morning.

Thus I had about six hours to fill in in Leon. So I went for a walk. Leon turned out to be beautiful, with walkways and parks beside the Rio Bernesga, and a cathedral and public buildings in a more pompous but somehow much more Castilian style. I was no longer in the cultural fringes of Spain, and it was obvious just from walking around in the night. Leon had nightlife, and the bars and restaurants were open. I found myself a fine Belgian beer bar, and had some Belgian beer. I sat in another bar, and had a little food. At around two I disvovered that bars had switched off their espresso machines prior to closing and that I could not buy coffee, although I could still have beer or wine. I went back to the station, where the cafe was still open and still serving coffee. (Imagine trying to buy a cup of coffee or a beer in a British railway station at half past two in the morning). The television in the bar was showing a bizarre Spanish game show in which women in bikinis were attempting to push contestants off conveyor belts with long poles, which was certainly intriguing, if nothing else. At 4.30am I caught the train to Palencia, where I arrived an hour later.

It was obvious upon getting there that I had made a bad choice. Palencia was a small town, and there were no early buses to Burgos or Bilbao. Perhaps there would have been from Valladolid, but the distance was such that they still might have been early enough. I attempted to catch the first train to Burgos at about 8am, but although it appeared on the timetable it never appeared on the electronic departure boards or in reality. I got the first bus to Burgos at about 9am. I then got a bus to Bilbao at about 10.30, and got into Bilbao at around 12.30 pm. My flight had left an hour and a half before. I had failed.

There was only one thing to do, which was to play the check-in desk game at Bilbao airport. My ticket was on Easyjet, a budget airline. The rules stated that if I missed my flight I would lose my seat and would have to buy another ticket. Which is fine. In the end it was my fault.

However, check in agents always have a little bit of discretion. In a genuine emergency they can waive the rules. (On the one and only occasion that I genuinely was prevented from making a flight by a natural disaster, getting onto a later flight really wasn't a problem). Even in lesser circumstances, airlines don't really want to piss off their customers, so come up with a good excuse and they might be nice to you. One thing which has a big impact on this is the period of time by which you miss your flight. Show up five minutes late and they may put you on the next flight for free. Show up a day late and you have no hope. I was going to show up two hours late at best. I wasn't hopeful but I had some chance. (I was helped by the fact that I was on Easyjet, who are more sympathetic in such instances than are Ryanair, at least in my experience). So even though I had missed my flight by two hours, time was still of the essence.

So I rushed for a taxi. The Bilbao bus station appeared to be surrounded by taxis on all sides, and finding precisely which taxi was at the front of the peculiar circular queue took some time, but I eventually found it


Twenty minutes later I was in the quite attractive Santiago Calatrava designed terminal at Bilbao airport. Calatrava is famous for his bridges, and his airport terminal looks a bit like one of his bridges, but I digress. I went to the Easyjet ticket counter. I explained that I had missed my flight by two hours. The woman behind the counter told me I would have to buy another ticket. I gave her my best beleagured and exhausted look, not hard as I actually was both those things. I asked her what I had to do to buy another one, giving her my best "Oh this is terrible - "I am completely exhausted and am having a really bad day, but I suppose I am resigned to paying extra, but I know you are only doing your job so give me the bad news" look, and told her that I was late because a train was cancelled. (This was as far as I know true, although I almost certainly would have still missed the flight if it had not been cancelled). She asked me where. I said in Palencia. She corrected my pronunciation - adding a lisp to make it "Palenthia", took the piece of paper with my flight details and typed something into her computer. She looked on her screen and told me that she could in fact save my reservation and put me on the next flight to London, although there would be a €30 fee. The flight was even to Gatwick Airport whereas the original flight had been to Stansted, and I live much closer to Gatwick. Easyjet fly London-Bilbao three times a day, so I would only have to wait a couple of hours. As the journey home from the airport in London would be much shorter, I would probably be home at about the same time I would have been had I caught the earlier flight.

This was far, far better than the worst case scenario (which could have meant paying something like five times that for a new ticket). The woman had used what powers of discretion she had and had been nice to me. I thanked her very warmly, pulled out my credit card and paid the €30. I headed for the bar, where I had another couple of beers and some Basque food before boarding the flight to London for my new job that was starting two days later.

And the lesson I learned from this? Well, Spain has a hub and spoke transport system. It is always easy to get to Madrid. If I had booked my return flight from Madrid rather than Bilbao (which I could have done) there would have been no trouble making my flight, regardless of how many trains I missed or failed to buy a ticket for. In future I will remember this.

And the other way in which the world is improving? Ryanair is about to start discount flights from London to Porto. If I were to do this next year I wouldn't have to get back to my starting point anyway. I am not going to do this next year, but I think I might perhaps go for a drive to some of the vinyards of the upper Douro, where the grapes from which port are made are grown. That sounds nice.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Some random thoughts on bridges

Brian Micklethwait made a post on his blog about the new, magnificent Millau viaduct over the Tarn River in southern France. Various people made further comments about it (which can be read if you scroll down the post). In particular Michael Blowhard made an observation that amounts to the fact that he doesn't like modern cable stayed bridges compared to more classical suspension bridges. I started writing a comment which got a little out of control, so I ended up deciding to post it here. I recommend you read the original post/comments first. It would also probably be better with pictures, but I don't have time to draw them.

There is actually nothing impractical in terms of physics with what Michael Blowhard suggests. You could build a viaduct with multiple suspension spans, just as the Millau viaduct has been built with multiple cable stayed spans. Each end tower would be anchored to the ground on one side, and would have one end of the cable catenary (not a parabola) from which the deck is suspended hanging from the other side. The non-end towers would have a catenary hanging from each side. This is in fact probably the way the bridge would have been built prior to the invention about 20 years ago of the materials that made long span cable stayed bridges practical. However, it wasn't done because it would have been too expensive. (There are also perhaps issues with safety. A catastrophic failure of a multiple span suspension bridge would be more likely to cascade from one span to another than is the case with a multiple span suspension structure).

Or perhaps Michael is saying that he would prefer a single span suspension bridge. Once again there is absolutely no physical reason why this couldn't be done across the Tarn at Millau, other than the cost of it. One possibility would be to actually build the two towers on the banks of the valley - that is have a bridge which does not touch the floor of the valley anywhere. This would lead to an extremely long span (2.5km) which would be the longest in the world, but not by a huge margin (the largest is presently 1.991 km long). Or you could anchor the towers on the floor of the valley and have a shorter main span. This would require pretty immensely thick towers, but again there is no reason why it couldn't be done. Other than the expense.

The reason why we now have lots of cable stayed bridges nowadays is of course simply cost. (cable stayed = the cables connect the tower to the deck directly but at a non-vertical angle. suspension bridge = there are catenaries between the two towers to which the deck is connected by vertical cables). In around 1980 new materials were invented that were strong enough to allow large cable stayed bridges to be constructed. As these dispense with an entire aspect of the design of suspension bridges (the suspended catenaries) the total mass of such bridges is much smaller, and the total cost of much lower.

But, this only hold up to span lengths up to about 1km. For lengths above this the lateral stresses on the deck are so great the the modern materials cannot cope with them, and a classical suspension bridge is still the only possible way to go. So, simultaneously with the construction of a great many cable stayed bridges around the world (This one in Normandy being one of the largest) the last decade has also been a great time for the advancement of the art of the classical suspension bridge. However, this is perhaps not noticeable to the casual observer, as while there have been a huge number of new cable stayed bridges build with span lengths of (say) 500m to 1000m, there have been fewer than ten new and immense suspension bridges. (List here). But, these small number of bridges have been particularly great. The longest is this great structure connecting Kobe in Honshu to the Island of Shikoku in Japan. (Unlike the Millau viaduct, this one is pretty genuinely a white elephant).

But all that have been built so far pale in comparison next to the bridge the Italians are planning on building across the Straits of Messina connecting mainland Italy and Sicily. This will have a main span of 3.3km, which will be by far the longest span ever built, massively further than the distance across the Tarn Valley for instance.

Unlike the Millau viaduct, this one will indeed be a colossal white elephant (and a lot of the money to pay for it will end up in the hands of dubious people, as happens in southern Italy). But somehow I just want to see it, and to walk across it. For white elephant or not it will certainly be magnificent.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004


I have a piece on visiting Christiana (basically a hippie colony close to central Copenhagen) over at Samizdata.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Michael Jennings poem of the day

Love in a Life.


Room after room,
I hunt the house through
We inhabit together.
Heart, fear nothing, for, heart, thou shalt find her,
Next time, herself!-not the trouble behind her
Left in the curtain, the couch's perfume!
As she brushed it, the cornice-wreath blossomed anew,-
Yon looking-glass gleamed at the wave of her feather.


Yet the day wears,
And door succeeds door;
I try the fresh fortune-
Range the wide house from the wing to the centre.
Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter.
Spend my whole day in the quest,-who cares?
But 'tis twilight, you see,-with such suites to explore,
Such closets to search, such alcoves to importune!

Robert Browning (1812-1889).

Monday, November 08, 2004


I have a lengthy piece telling some more stories about my August trip to Spain and Portugal over at Samizdata.

Monday, October 11, 2004

The decline of England

I now work in the office development at Canary Wharf in East London. The easiest way for me to get home from work near Selhurst station just north of Croydon is to catch an underground train on the Jubilee line to London Bridge, and to then catch a mainline train (there is one every half hour at 19 and 49 minutes past the hour) to Selhurst. When I started the job I found that I would leave work approximately on the hour or half hour. This would allow me to make the connection with the minimum possible time to change trains at London Bridge.

Inevitably, though, I did not always make the connection quite right. And on those occasions where I have missed my train, my subsequent behaviour has turned out to be eminently predictable. Like many railway stations, London Bridge has a bar. I have discovered a tendency on my own part to adjourn to this bar. Once last week I did something horrendous, which was stay in the bar rather than catch the next train after the one I had missed.

I find, sadly, that my aim is now to arrive at London Bridge about 15 minutes before (or alternately, after, depending on how you look at it) my train is due. I then go to the bar and have a pint before heading home. It is becoming one of the highlights of my day.

Sad really.

I think, though, that the railway station bar is an important thing, and while it is not threatened at major London stations like London Bridge, it is elsewhere. On a recent trip to Cambridge I discovered somthing horrendous. The bar in Cambridge station had been taken away, and replaced with a Marks & Spencer food store. The story about how Marks & Spencer's food business is strong while their clothing business is completely stuffed belongs somewhere else, but they are getting quite good at putting little food stores in relatively small locations.

But in a way I think it is sad. I can no longer stop for an alcoholic drink in a bar when delayed at Cambridge railway station, something I have done a few times over the years. The rather dirty and unimpressive little pub in the station is no more. Which is kind of sad. This is the place where Douglas Adams had the famous biscuit incident (as told in "So Long, and thanks for All the Fish"), which he always insisted really happened to him and which he did not steal from Jeffrey Archer). And an English tradition is being taken away and replaced by a store selling ready to heat and/or cook preprepared meals for stressed people like me who work hours that are too long.

Normally I would approve of such progress, but somehow here it is slightly jarring.

(This isn't a dead blog. But, sadly, it is now an occasional blog).

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Favourite fictional word

Guess which word I voted for?

Sunday, October 03, 2004

This is a blog post, albeit a trivial one

The other day, I was in the supermarket and I noticed some "Australian mature cheddar" cheese for sale. In Australia, the vast majority of the cheese that one eats is local (and in a lot of subcategories of cheese it is hard to buy an imported product, just as it is hard to buy imported wine). However, one doesn't see it very often over here.

As a consequence, I bought a piece. I have just tried it, and it is mighty fine cheese. Whatever maty be said about my native land, the agricultural products are outstandingly good.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Things I discovered at work today

I am still quite proficient in Visual Basic, despite the fact that it is three or four years since I last used it. I'm not sure if this is good.

Sunday, September 19, 2004


I have a piece on the finances of international cricket and the present ICC Champions Trophy over at ubersportingpundit.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Doing things other than blogging

Yesterday, I succumbed and bought the DVD of Kiki's Delivery Service that I have been eyeing for months but hadn't bought because it was a little on the pricey side. I have said it before, but Miyazaki is a god. His films are simply so beautiful, and they have a lovely sense of humor, and such delightful characters. (For some reason the main character is usually a child not far from adulthood).

But I haven't finished watching it yet.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

I love London

This evening I went to see the Pet Shop Boys and a full symphony orchestra play an original musical accompaniment to Sergei Eisenstein's great silent movie Battleship Potemkin in Trafalgar Square. The film was being projected onto a large screen above the musicians, where was either attached or adjacent to Nelson's Column. Despite a little bit of a drizzle, a large audience showed up to watch this, and some members of the audience were quite creative in their choice of vantage point. (The authorities were quite tolerant of this, too). I have particular admiration for the people who waded through the square's water feature and watched the movie and musicians from the top of the fountain in its centre. The view must have been excellent, but I do wonder how long these people took to dry.

I was also struck by how much Russian (and/or other Slavic languages: I can't really tell them apart) I heard spoken by people in the crowd. London today is quite a Slavic place.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Sorry for the lack of bloggage

But I am horrendously busy, and to be honest I was pretty blogged out even before I became horrendously busy. I will post a piece on the future (or not) of this blog and of my blogging at the weekend when I may (or alternately may not) have some time.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Brief Observation

The person sitting at the desk next to mine at my new job is Indian, and is as fantatical a cricket fan is is typical for people of that nationality. This is going to be fun. (Where can I obtaining a large poster of Ricky Ponting batting? If the picture was of him hitting one of those sixes in last year's World Cup final, that would be great).

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Back in London

Quite tired, as I spent most of last night crossing Spain before flying back today. I had a lovely holiday though.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Irritants, and a good lunch

Portugal is a "closed Sundays" sort of country, which is a little irritating on Sundays. For one things it means that the internet cafe with the beautiful woman is today closed, so I have had to go elsewhere. Also, it means that the port lodge where I think I left one of my possessions (nothing important) after a long and alcoholic lunch with an American physicist and his wife (who now live in Provence) and during which I somehow managed to discuss the various approaches to solving the Navier Stokes equations is today closed. No matter. I will send them an e-mail and see if I can get it back that way.

And I am now going to look at the Crystal Palace, which is in a park on a hill. Unlike the one in south London, this one did not burn down in the 1920s.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Three good things about Porto

1 - The city is extremely beautiful.

2 - Everything in the city is extremely cheap.

3 - port.
Now in Porto

All the ways I learned to order coffee in Spanish are no longer any good, and I need to start again. (For some reason Portuguese coffee seems to resemble Italian coffee more than Spanish coffee - I don't know why this is).

I have hard that the Douro valley is beautiful and I have seem photographs of it, but I have to say it really was splendid to come out of the Porto suburbs and then onto a railway line coming downstream on the side of the valley in the morning mist, into a tunnel and then finally into the main Porto railway station (which is quite spectacular, with the lines terminating at one end of a large metal trainshed, and the lines going straight into tunnels at the other end of the platform).

From a couple of hours, Porto is an interesting and rather magnificent city. Crumbling imperial grandeur, still the poorest country in western Europe, but with twenty years of solid growth starting to uncrumble things. (And of course there is all that EU money that has paid for infrastructure that Portugal by itself might not be able to afford for a few more years. A couple of nice modern bridges over the Douro beside a classical high deck steel arch. A large public works project working on beautification of the main square, but which makes it ugly and awkward to get around from now. Possibly some of the most traditional food markets in Europe, but also a couple of shopping malls that are modern and architecturally rather better than the equivalents in England. (I don't know whether to blame planning laws or what, but shopping malls in England are generally dreadful in this regard).

And the internet cafe I am in is perhaps an example. It is in the same street as the nice shopping malls. Rather than crappy four year old computers running Windows 98 and without properly updated software (as was the case in Santiago yesterday), the computers here are small form factor (ie Shuttle like), quite new, have Athlon XP2600+ CPUs, 480MB of RAM, Windows XP Pro, really nice Sony LCD displays (17" with 1280x1024 resolutions). And the person running the cafe is not a hard core geek, but a rather beautiful young woman. She is wearing glasses and looks a little studious and appears able to help people with their tech problems. I am not sure of her overall level of tech competence, but it can't be too bad.

I wonder if she will marry me if I ask nicely.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Tourists in Santiago de Compostella, and toasted ham sandwiches in Spanish bars

The interesting thing about travelling through the places I have been on this trip is that I have been off the package holiday and backpacker circuit. Bilbao now gets people visiting to see the Guggenheim, but these are more older independent travellers. San Sebastian is very much on the backpacker circuit, and Pamplona is on the tourist circuit during its fiesta and the running of the bulls, but less so at other times. But head west of Bilbao and you leave the English speakers behind, although many of these places attract Spanish holidaymakers. La Coruña is famous for its football team, but there are not many Anglophones around unless there is a big football game on. (I was of course there for a medium sized football game, which did mean I bumped into a few Irishmen. It must be interesting when Machester United come to town though).

Which is why arriving in Santiago de Compostella is a little bit of a shock. Santiago is the destination of a famous Christian pilgrimage, to the place where the body of St James was supposedly buried in 44AD. Santiago is a beautiful medieval city, and there are a huge number of people in town, some of them pilgrims who have actually walked one of the various routes to Santiago for religious reasons, some of who have walked one of the routes as they are famous walks, and some who have (like me) come to the city because it is a famous destination. In any event, you arrive in town and you are back on the tourist circuit. There are lots of shops selling souvenirs. There are lots of foreigners on the streets. There are lots of restaurants catering to tourists, the prices of which are more expensive than those in La Coruña (although still not very expensive compared to London). The first news stand I came to in town yesterday had that day's Telegraph for sale, which was nice. (I prefer to read the Times, but the Telegraph would do in the circumstances). The receptionist in the hotel I checked into spoke English. I attended a beautiful sung mass in the cathedral yesterday, and it was standing room only. (Somewhat sadly, security guards checked my bag before letting me in. In the first half of the second millennium the pilgrimage to Santiago was amongst other things a form of Christian solidarity against the Muslim occupation of Spain, and such a site is the sort of thing that the fanatics who now plague our world might target).

Of course, one can leave the medieval centre of town, and one then finds a modern town not containing so many tourists. The bars there charge prices that are about what one pays in La Coruña once more. Yesterday evening around 10pm I found myself wandering outside the medieval city. Whereas most bars have been showing the Olympics on their televisions during the day time, by that time of the evening every television had been switched to football - mostly to the Champions League qualifier between Real Madrid and Wisla Krakow. I found a fairly ordinary looking bar and ordered a beer.

In Latin countries I am never quite sure when a cafe is going to charge me extra for sitting at a table rather than at the bar. Often cafes in city centres will, but those in the provinces won't. (This seems particularly the case in France). Also, those catering to tourists are more likely to charge extra than those catering to locals. (This may be a way of charging extra to tourists given that they are more likely to sit at tables). In any event, as a non speaker of the local languages I find it easier to order at the bar. I can point at the beer tap to make it clear that I want draught beer, or I can point to the tapas in the case on the bar to make it clear I would like some of that. If I want to sit at a table, I sometimes sit at the table after this and take my beer to the table. As long as I do this before paying, the barman can charge me extra for a table if he likes, so an argument in Spanish is hopefully avoided.

And I did this last night, as I wanted to watch the Real Madrid match and there was a better view of the television from one of the vacant tables. The barman responded to this by putting a bowl of peanuts and a plate of crisps on my table. I had consumed a large meal a couple of hours earlier so I did not really want peanuts or crisps, but I appreciated the thought. However, I wasn't sure what to make of the next event, which was that the barman a couple of minutes later placed a toasted ham sandwich on my table. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this. Had I somehow made a random gesture that had been interpreted as ordering a ham sandwich? Do they provide ham sandwiches gratis to drinkers like peanuts in this part of Spain? Are ham sandwiches a way of asserting the modern Christian dominance of Spain?

In any event, it looked a nice ham sandwich, so I ate it. I am a London based equities analyst for a large international bank. I can afford a ham sandwich even if I am charged an extra Euro for it.

However, as I sat there for a little longer I realised something, which is that the mood of Spanish bars changes as the evening goes on. Whereas they are fairly commercial establishments in the daytime, later in the evening they can sort of evolve into more quiet establishments where a few regulars sit and argue about football as the evening goes on. The staff of the bar themselves get some food from the kitchen and sit down at the tables and eat their own meals, all the while chatting with customers and friends and watching football. While the bar is certainly still open and if a customer comes in and orders a beer or a cup of coffee they will certainly serve him, business is not fundamentally what it is about at this time of day. The customers made a point of not ordering anything when the barman was eating, for instance. They clearly did not want to disturb his meal. And I could see that at this hour the little courtesies went in both directions, such as the ham sandwich for me. When the football match was finished and the barman had finished his meal, most of the customers slowly got up, went to the bar, and paid for what they had consumed. I was just charged the cost of a beer. I walked out and headed to the university quarter where I had another beer in a student bar, before heading off to bed. It was a nice evening.

In Spain, English language movies are dubbed into Spanish. In Portugal, they are subtitled into Portuguese. This means that when I get to Porto tomorrow I can if I wish go to the movies. I may or may not do so (although knowing me I probably will) but it is nice to know that I can.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004


I have a post discussing my trip to the football over at ubersportingpundit.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Still in La Coruña.

I'm feeling perfectly fine today. I went to bed at 7.30pm and got up at 9am, and after a croissant and a couple of cups of coffee I now feel just great. I am going to go see the second leg of the UEFA Champions league qualifier between Deportivo and Shelbourn (of Ireland) at the Riazor stadium this evening. Should be fun. I will try to blog something on ubersportingpundit after the event. I wonder how many Irish fans will be here? Not all that many I suspect, as getting here from Ireland is not all that easy, and at this time of year not especially cheap.

Oh yes. By the way, do any of my readers speak Spanish? If so, could someone tell me what the phrase "I paid for the first night when I checked in" would be translated into Spanish? This might be needed, as I had a little trouble communicating with a hotel receptionist this morning.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Now in La Coruña

However, my day has been completely wiped out by a migraine. In my case these are usually instense but fairly short lasting - a few hours only - so I should be okay tomorrow. But for now, I am going for a little lie down.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

I continue to move west

I'm presently in Gijon. Between them, the two nearby cities of Gijon and Oviedo have about half a million people. I didn't realise that big an agglomeration was here, which is why of course it is a good idea to travel. I am by this point well off the normal Anglophone tourist circuit. We will see if it resumes when I get further along. Given that the second leg of a Champions League qualifier between Deportivo and Shelbourne will be played in A Coruna on Tuesday night, it is possible I will arrive in a city full of Irishmen. (And I suspect there will be tourists from further afield in Santiego de Compostela, and certainly in Porto). There are tourists here, but they are mainly Spanish. Still, nice beaches. Beautiful rugged country you come through to get here. Well worth a visit.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

This truly does take the cake for "coddled students".

One day these people will get out into the cold harsh world and discover that it is not like this.

(Link via slashdot).

Update: Non-freshmen are resentful

Friday, August 20, 2004

Moving west

I am now in Santander in Cantabria. This is a seaside town which looks like it had ambitions a century ago to become the Cannes of the Atlantic coast of Spain. Clearly it didn't quite work out, and the town went into a bit of a decline. The interesting thing though is that this has now obviously reversed. The town still has a rundown decayed look in some ways, but the prosperity of the last 20 years in Spain has clearly had an impact, and although it is not the Cote de Azur, prosperous people clearly now come here. Interestingly enough, discount airline Ryanair are commencing flights here next month, so that will mean it will be in easy and inexpensive reach of 20 million people in the south east of England. If I was running a hotel here that would certainly make me happy.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Note to Ros

You really need to see more of Asia. Going to South America is good, though. I have never quite managed it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004


The plan on this trip was actually to fly into Bilbao, and to go west along the Galician coast, eventually ending up in Porto in Portugal. As it happens, none of the discount airlines fly out of anywhere between Bilbao and Faro along the coast, so the options were either to buy a ridiculously expensive one way fare on British Airways or to come back to Bilbao. Thus I have a return flight out of Bilbao in two weeks time.

Also, as I was planning the trip, I found myself slightly annoyed by a failing of mine last year. On that occasion, I saw lots of road signs leading pointing to Iruña, but did not realise that that is the Basque name for the city that is known in Spanish and to the world as Pamplona. Added to the fact that Pamplona is in Navarra, which (besides being famous for its wines) is traditionally Basque speaking but has a quite different history the country a little to the west (and is thus not part of the semi-autonomous Basque region today) and I could find a few good reasons for making a little detour east before going west.

On top of all that, the plane flew over San Sebastian on the way into Bilbao, and the beaches and islands and steep hills of that city looked so beautiful that I got an odd urge to go there. Therefore I spent yesterday afternoon in San Sebastian, the evening in the bars and restaurants of the city, and this morning came to Pamplona. San Sebastian is a gorgeous and glorious beach town, but in August that makes it something of a circus. Pamplona received an enormous influx of tourists in July for the running of the bulls, but is slightly saner in August. So I have been wandering around the city this morning. It looks culturally different, too. Whereas the Spanish national flag is not to be seen in Bilbao or San Sebastian, it is more visible in Pamplona. Here it is more a case of the Navarra, Spanish, and EU flags side by side. And I haven't seen the ikurriña, the Basque nationalist flag, although they are everywhere in the other two cities. One feels that although Navarra is certainly part of the larger territory that Basque nationalists feel should form a greater Basqueland, the Navarrans themselves are a little more ambivalent about it.

And I forgot to pack my power adaptor to allow me to charge my iPod, phone, and camera using European mains sockets. I put it on my pile of things to pack, but it seems it didn't go in my backpack. A helpful woman at the tourist office this morning suggested I try one shop. They didn't have adaptors, but they suggested another shop that did. So all is well.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Watching sport in a foreign country

There is something deeply surreal about sitting in a bar in Bilbao and watching Australian equestrians compete in the Olympics with the commentary in Spanish (or was it Basque). The downside is that there is a nasty tendency for people in bars to switch the television to uninteresting basketball games between Spain and Argentina when what you really want to watch is the swimming finals.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Well, it's a good thing I have the remains of an old Thinkpad to put it on

Okay, so I now get the point of the dock. You sit the iPod on it when you get home, and it simultaneously charges and pumps the music through the speakers of your sound system. Clever. Although it is a shame it comes with such a short power cable.

Update: While I was wandering around London this evening my iPod suddenly stopped playing music. I initially thought that the switch that locks the key pad was not working, but after looking at it carefully for a couple of minutes I discovered that the problem was actually that the software had crashed and the iPod was frozen. I knew there would be some way to reboot it but it wasn't obvious, and as it has an internally sealed battery there was no obvious way to simply disconnect the power. I therefore had to wait until I got home and then consult the manual. I then found out which combination of keys to hold down to reboot it, and once I had done this the iPod was fine.

But this was all a little declasse somehow. Crashing software is so, well, Microsoft. Apple have a classier reputation, somehow. (Which is not to say I haven't had Macintoshes crash on me at inopportune moments. I have of course).

Friday, August 13, 2004

Things change so fast

In my recent sabbatical / period of unemployment, I have often found myself in central Croydon in the day time. Wanting to either check my e-mail, blog something, or surf the web without going home, I have gone to the public library, that provides free internet access. However, the normal thing has happened that happens when you provide a "free" service: rather than being apportioned by price, the internet access has been apportioned by queueing. Normally you have to wait for ten minutes or so for your hour's internet access. This is in irritant, but I have genuinely not minded very much.

However, this afternoon I received a telephone call from the head of Smith Barney Citigroup's quantitative equity research team, offering me the job that I have mentioned obliquely in this blog that I have been interviewing for. Rather than being completely broke, I suddenly find myself with a sizeable income once again. My future boss told me that he would be e-mailing me some information, and I therefore needed to check my e-mail. I walked to the public library, and looked at the queue. Whereas thirty minutes earlier my response to the queue would not have been especially negative, I looked at a prospective ten to fifteen minute wait and the thought that went through my mind was essentially "fuck that". I walked a couple of blocks and went into a pay internet cafe for which I did not have to queue, which is where I am now. (Working for a large investment bank does that for you, I guess).

Once I have sorted a flight out, I am going to Spain and Portugal for a couple of weeks, where I intend to drink a lot of crianza. I am then starting the job at the start of September. I don't presently know what effect this will have on my blogging, although I suspect the volume will decline.

I will have to confess that I am relieved.

Update: I just impulse bought a 40Gb iPod that I can't can easily afford. I never impulse buy anything, but I am allowing myself an exception for this. (Except that it isn't really an exception, as I have been telling myself for months that I will get an iPod when I get a good job).

Thursday, August 12, 2004


As I thought might be the case, it has been confirmed that British SAS and SBS Special Forces troops are in Athens. There have been various comments from Greek and British government sources that they are there in a "consulting" capacity, and that they are providing "advice", although they are apparently there with a full complement of weapons and equipment. Why do I get the impression that if (heaven forbid) there is a terrorist attack on the Olympic Games in Athens, the "advice" might well consist of "Please get out of the way".

I am very pleased to hear that these guys are in Athens. The British SAS genuinely are the best in the world at this kind of thing, and I have no faith in the Greek army. I wonder where the nearest American aircraft carrier is to Greece right now? Perhaps quite nearby with a SEAL team and a substantial number of Marines handy?

When the olympics took place in Sydney four years ago, it was taken as a given that the Australian SAS where poised and ready for action. I was comfortable with this, becausee the Australian SAS are very good indeed. The Australian troops have essentially the same training as the British equivalent (and people move backwards and forwards between the two, I think) and they are troops I have great faith in when it comes to the crunch. (I believe that the Australian SAS excelled themselves in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and they have had fairly recent business in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, too). But the Greek equivalent, not so much.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The taste of childhood

I mentioned a couple of days ago that at least a portion of Australian expatriates in London essentially make up an "economically successful minority". We are basically talking professionals who live and work in London and probably make three or four times as much money as they could make at home. (Such are the rewards of living in a genuine world city). But of course if you grew up in Australia in certain ways, including at some times gut feeling, London never becomes home.

When one travels from one country to another life changes. And the little details of life change in unexpected ways. When you are in a place that is not the place that you grew up things like tastes and smells are different, and this always means that in some ways the place you are now is a little alien.

And part of this is the things that you find in the shops. Often they are almost the same, but not quite the same. This is especially the case for food items, and I think very especially the case with food items when you compare between Australia and anywhere else. Australia is a big place. The country features several climate zones. All manner of things are grown and made locally, and due to the tyranny of distance importing things is often more trouble than it is worth. In a lot of cases why really would you want to? The quality of the local product is usually extremely high.

When one lives in London one normally just gets used to it. There are subtle differences between the ingredients you use to cook food in London and the ingredients you use to cook food in Australia. You could slightly different food. It may be a little different but it isn't worse. It may once have been, but British supermarkets are now full of high quality ingredients.

But you still miss things. More than anything you miss the distinctive and most intense tastes of things that you regularly ate during your childhood. Often, this is the tastes of confectionary you ate when you were a child. And as there are in most places, there are particular types of chocolate bar and sandwich spread and other like things that are distinctive to Australia.

The Harvey Nichols department store in Knightsbridge has a certain noveau riche quality about it. I don't think it on the whole sells terribly interesting products (although there is plenty of good stuff sold there), but it has a certain catchet, and its management know how to cater to a certain clientele.

It is the sort of place that you expect to find footballers wives, hosts of reality television shows, and people who work in the public relations business, thinking that it is the height of sophistication to shop there. (Large portions of the television show "Absolutely Fabulous", were filmed in the store). I get the impression that newly rich expatriates might shop there for a while due to receiving recomendations from their secretaries, before moving somewhere a little more understated after being in London for a few years. (Harvey Nichols is certainly a place where actual Londoners shop, unlike nearby Harrods, which has been transformed into little more than a tourist attaction at this point). Selfridges is a much better store than either of them if you ask me. Being in Oxford Street possibly helps, as this is where normal people shop and they don't so much in Kinghtsbridge.

In any event, on the top floor there is a bar, a coffee bar, a kaiten-zushi restaurant, some other kind of restaurant the details of which I can't remember, and a wine shop (selling some very good stuff, including an excellent selection of Australian wines) and a food hall. Besides selling fresh and high quality meat, seafood, and fruit and vegetables, this also contains shelves of immaculately arranged packaged foodstuffs, most of them imported from interesting places and of high quality. Look at what it includes.

(Sorry about the variable quality photographs. The light was so-so, and I took the photos surreptitiously and quickly, as the proprietors of many stores do not like people taking photographs inside. As it happened nobody hassled me about it though).

And there's this:

(On previous occasions they had Mint Patties in the place that is half-heartedly filled with chocolate truffles. Disappointingly there weren't any today. I would prefer a Mint Pattie to a chocolate truffle any time).

And of course it is marvelous what a difference Milo makes (even if it is a crappy photo).

But despite all this, these are all peripheral to the key way in which Harvey Nick's sustains Australian expatriates in need.

All non-Australian readers in London with Australian friends should appreciate a key fact. If your friend is suicidal or just needs cheering up, the way to solve the problem is to go to Knightsbridge, and buy a packet of Tim Tams (even for £3.35), and give them to your friend. This will solve the problem immediately. Judging by the size of the Tim Tams section, I suspect that this is a major money making venture.

Amusingly, while I was there a young woman walked down that aisle, looked at the Tim Tams, looked at the price, and then took one packet off the shelf. She then looked like she was about to move away but the though "What the heck?" clearly went through her mind and she took a second packet off the shelf before heading to the cashier.

Oddly, though, I am not a huge fan of chocolate or sweet stuff, and although I will eat Tim Tams, they are not quite as effective on me as on most Australians.

What I would really like is a packet of Twisties. (They're the number one extruded snack, after all).

Sunday, August 08, 2004

London today

The interview for the job for which I was learning the S+ went very well, and there is therefore a good chance that I will shortly be going to work in a quantitiative team in the equity research division of on of the world's largest banks. (Although one never knows, of course). The London based team I would be joining presently consists of a Greek, an Indian, a Romanian, a New Zealander, a Frenchwoman and (yes, really) and Englishman. I would be the only Australian in the team, but one of many working in financial markets in London. In fact, if things work out there will be two people I worked closely with in my last job in Sydney with who I will be working with occasionally, although they will be on different teams to me.

This is finance in London today. It has long been the case that the city is full of colonials from the ex-dominions, and for a few years the IT departments have been full of Indians, and we are now seeing the Indians spread to other parts of the businesses as well. And we are just beginning to see a few eastern Europeans. London is full twenty year olds with slavic accents working in basic service jobs, most who will probably be well paid professionals in a decade's time, and these are just starting to move up too. There have been eastern Europeans in IT departments for a while, too, although they are not as pervasive as Indians. They tend to be of type "guru" though, being concentrated amongst UNIX system administrators and things like that. The UNIX administrator who knows things about the operating system that no mere mortal should not know about, who is probably named Piotr or some variation thereof, and who has an accent that makes him sound like Count Dracula is something of a cliche in computer circles, and has been for a while. (The User Friendly comic stip parodies this cliche endlessly).

In any event, though, this is a sign of a broader trend, I think. Very international cities like London attract ambitious individuals from lots of places. The "economically successful minorities" from poorer countries tend to come in large numbers, too. Sometimes they do this because things get bad in the country they previously lived. Sometimes, though, I think they just come because it is simply less of a hassle to be a member of an economically successful group in a country where there are many economically successful groups (and where there is no poor majority group. And in a way there seems to be relatively little difference from groups who come from countries where they are an economically successful minority and those who come from somewhere like Australia, who come from countries with large middle classes and good educations systems, and who demonstrate a certain amount of initiative by self-selecting themselves and choosing to come in the first place. There is quite a distinct (and definitely prosperous) minority of Australians in London, who have, for instance, a reputation for being hard working. Getting responses like "Oh, he's an Aussie. That means he'll work hard" is definitely a good thing.

I have a piece on a trip to a Cambridge pub, and a slightly surreal phone call over at Samizdata. Oh well. At least I know the frequency was 1800MHz.

Saturday, August 07, 2004


Roger Ebert has published another of my e-mails in his letters column. I have lost count how many times he has done this, but it is at least seven or eight I think. This time he only published to first part of the e-mail. I added some stories about buying Thunderbirds toys for children of friends of mine in Japan, but he doesn't appear to have had the space to print that.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Wednesday evening song lyrics

I never liked George Michael much
although they say he was the talented one.
Andrew Ridgley drew the map
that rescued me, took me to paradise

I was brought up to the sound of the synthesizer
I learned to dance to the beat of electronic drums
I came alive to the smouldering fire in your eyes
I love you now and I will till the day that I die

I had a tooth pulled as a child
I put it underneath my pillow
and when I looked the very next morning
There was a ten pound note

I took it to the nearest record shop
and put it down upon the counter
I've got to tell you what I know to be true
I bought my first record because of you

I was brought up to the sound of the synthesizer
I learned to dance to the beat of electronic drums
I came alive to the smouldering fire in your eyes
I love you now and I will till the day that I die

I loved everything
I loved to be around money
a daughter of negative equity
a child of Black Wednesday)

This is Sarah Nixey talking
Midi'd up and into the groove
I've got to tell you
what I know to be true

I didn't do too well at school
they said I couldn't concentrate
The day you flew off into the sunset
was the day my education was saved

then years later on Kensington High Street
I saw you drive a white convertible Golf GTI
carefully edging out into the traffic
just like a real live human being

I was brought up to the sound of the synthesizer
I learned to dance to the beat of electronic drums
I came alive to the smouldering fire in your eyes
I love you now and I will till the day that I die

Daddy lost everything
Our beautiful house
His beautiful sports car
His beautiful wife
I held his hand and told him
everything will be all right

This is Sarah Nixey talking
Midi'd up and into the groove
I've got to tell you
what I know to be true

I was brought up to the sound of the synthesizer
I learned to dance to the beat of electronic drums
I came alive to the smouldering fire in your eyes
I love you now and I will till the day that I die

I was brought up to the sound of the synthesizer
I learned to dance to the beat of electronic drums
I came alive to the smouldering fire in your eyes
I love you now and I will till the day that I die

-- Andrew Ridgley, from Black Box Recorder's third album Passionoia (2003). (Actually I think it is more Luke Haines speaking). And yes, I also remember 1992.

I have a Samizdata quote of the day on John Kerry. No time for any more blogging than that today.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004


At the request of a potential employer, I have been giving myself a crash course in the programming language S (the most common variants of which are named S+ and R, just to confuse people). I am an old C programmer, mainly, and this language is much higher level than that. Plus it is object oriented and more more function based than what I am used to. Still, this is quite impressive, and very easy to code.

qsort=function(a) if (length(a)<=1) a else c(qsort(a[a<a[1]]),a[1],qsort(a[a>a[1]]))

That's right, one line. Works for an array of any data type for which the logical comparison a<b makes sense, too.

A new continental (or, more properly, just Belgian I think) style bar named the "Beer Circus" has recently opened in Croydon. It has around 15 Czech, Belgian,English (ie real ale) beers on tap, and over 150 bottled beers (mostly Belgian, but also a good selection of German and a few from other places).

Truly, a fine innovation. I asked the proprieter how long the bar had been open, and he said a couple of months, and that the business was doing very well.

Of course, it would be impossible for me to open such a bar in Sydney, as I would have to have a pub licence and these are finite in number and sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars each (thus meaning that if you have one, you have to open a huge soulless establishment also containing lots of slot machines to make a decent return on it). There would be no problem whatsoever if I wanted to open such an establishment in Melbourne, as former premier Jeff Kennett (who, whatever might be said for the man, didn't take any shit from anyone) reformed the laws a few years back.

No problem except for the logistical difficulties of importing the beer, anyway. If you want to run such a bar in London, you can stock it by driving a van to Belgium every now and then, filling it up with beer, and driving back. (Plus you have to then do some paperwork to make sure the appropriate taxes are paid). Doing that from Australia is a little harder.

Sunday, August 01, 2004


Until recently, instant messaging has been dominated by programs such as MSN Messenger and Yahoo Instant Messaging. Until about a year ago I didn't bother with such programs, believing that real mean use IRC, or possibly the UNIX "talk" program. However, about a year ago, I gave in and started using these programs. (For anyone who is interested, I can be reached as "" on MSN Messenger, and "mjj122" on Yahoo instant Messenger).

Both these programs are based on centralised servers. There is a centralised database of information about you, and this centralised information also includes a contact list. When you log on from any computer in the world, your contact list is loaded onto your computer and appears on your screen. The downside is that the owner of the system has a centralised database of information about you, and that if something goes wrong with the server, you are screwed. Also, for high bandwidth communication such as voice (which these instant messaging programs also offer) going through a central server is perhaps not ideal from an efficiency point of view.

Which is why people on the internet have taken to Skype in a big was recently. Skpe is sold as principally a voice communication tool, with instant messaging as a secondary feature whereas earlier services have sold it the other way round, but I think a better way of looking at it is that Skype is the same sort of application with two things changed: firstly it uses a far better audio codec so the quality of voice communication is much better; secondly it is not centralised but is instead peer to peer; (thirdly it is also encrypted end to end, and this is good, but I think it is less important as a selling point).

The peer to peer part is good from the point of efficiency and privacy, but it causes one little foible. Because there is no central server, your contacts list can only be stored locally on your hard disk. (Also because there is no central server, the information that you have gone on or off line takes longer to reach all your contacts, as it has to propagate around the network to them via a non-direct route, too. Again, this is important but less of an issue than the first). This means that if you log on to Skype from a computer other than your usual one, you do not have your contacts list with you. Personally I have thre Skype installations in this room with me now: one on a laptop, one on the Windows partition of my desktop, and a third on the Linux partition of my desktop. (Another good thing about Skype is that the people behind it have done a Linux version, for which they have my sincere thanks). These have contacts lists consisting of different subsets of my actual list of contacts. I am slightly concerned about logging onto each and adding the same set of contacts again, because I think it may annoy my friends if they are asked repeatedly if I may add them as a contact. (Actually, if Skype is well designed then they will not be asked again, but I am not sure if it is in this regard).

The Skype people claim they are working on a solution to this type of problem. Hopefully this does not involve going back to the whole idea of a central server, but I fear it may. Thems the breaks, I guess.

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Observation of the day

Cheap wine from Spain is often much better than cheap wine from France. Maybe this is due to the fact that when you visit Spain, Spanish people seem to start drinking red wine at breakfast time and then keep going all day, whereas in this day and age French people don't so much. I suspect that they did a century ago, however. If they did, does this mean that there has been a decline in French low end winemaking over the last century? Or is the relatively low quality of cheap French wine why they stopped?

Australia on the other hand doesn't really do cheap wine, or at least Australia does not export cheap wine. Australia does mid market wine, and has great quality control. (Australia also occasionally does fine wine, but only to a fairly small extent compared to the French or the Italians). The Australian wine industry's great triumph over the last 20 years is to have put its mid market wines on the British market (and to a lesser extent other markets such as Germany, Scandinavia and the United States) and to have moved people who were drinking low end French wine (or who weren't drinking wine at all) to mid market Australian wines.

And when I have more money (very soon, I hope) I may move back to mid market wines. But for now I am drinking a bottle of DOC Navarra 2002 for which I paid about £3.50. This is no great sacrifice, because it is really quite pleasant.
Buying OEM hardware and software, and does this mean the high street model of Dixon/PCWorld is doomed?

I have expressed my frustration with the poor service and the ludicrous prices that one pays on the British high street before. On that occasion I observed that the retail electronics business is even worse than most. Part of this is that electronics is something that a lot of customers do not know very much about, and as a consequence many people are intimidated by salesmen. More of it is that for a variety of reasons it is very difficult to open competing high street stores in the UK, and this leads to rather questionable sales tactics. That subset of the electronics industry known as the computer industry is even worse, at least it is on the high street. The good thing is that the computer revolution itself has also opened alternative channels that are much more competitive.

One favourite tactic is for electronics and computer stores to advertise a product at a genuinely cheap price. However, when you get it out of the box it comes without a cable to connect it to your computer / home entertainment system / telephone socket / refrigerator. The store will have an appropriate cable available, but they will charge you some extraordinary number of pounds for a cable that costs a few pence to make. They make little money if any on the product, but the cable is almost entirely profit. The customer in many cases realises that there is something absurd about the price being charged, but lacks the technical knowledge to buy the right cable somewhere else. And in any event he doesn't know where the "somewhere else" is that he might buy it, as the high street isn't precisely full of alternate retail channels. The answer is that you can buy appropriate things in many weekend and weekday markets, computer fairs, sometimes little shops run by immigrants in downmarket areas of town. And of course you can buy them on the internet, but often the cost of shipping will cancel out the price advantage unless you buy something else at the same time and share the shipping costs. Another option is to go to a large branch of Tesco that sells a lot of goods in addition to food, where a good selection of such items are often found at very reasonable prices. But once again one must understand first what one needs.

(Shipping without a cable is actually more forgivable in high end products where there might be seven different connection options and nobody but you knows which one you are going to use. However, high end products usually ship with the cable for the simplest option. It is low end ones with only one option that most often ship without a cable).

Sometimes things get ridiculous. I have seen standard USB cables that sell for £15, and I have seen standard telephone cables that sell for £8 or more. (Amusingly, in the latter case I also saw a telephone (that in this instance did include a cable) for sale in the same shop for £7).

And it isn't just cables. If you go into Dixons or PC World (a chain of stores that belongs to the Dixons group and devotes itself entirely to computer stuff) then it is pretty normal for prices for large headline products to be vaguely reasonable although still substantially more than you can pay if you know how to shop round (and for prices of sale goods to sometimes be actually good), but for the prices of accessories such as PCI cards, networking hardware, memory and the like to be absolutely outrageous. Such items come in fancy packaging, sometimes look like they are gold plated, and the prices are just ridiculous.

As an example, I have just had to buy a PCI Firewire card for the computer I built recently for my landlady. It was a fairly common problem. She bought a digital video camera (for a good price, but not the latest model), discovered that the only way to connect it to her computer was via Firewire, and discovered that her new computer did not have a Firewire port. When writing this post I initially digressed to explain what the Firewire bus is, why Digital Video cameras often use it instead of USB (although not so much as they used to), why many PCs don't have Firewire as standard, and why the one I built didn't have it. However, this was too much of a digression so I posted it on Michael Jennings Extra). This was no huge problem, of course. I simply ordered a PCI Firewire card (cable included) from one of my favourite online suppliers for £13.99 including postage, opened up the case of the computer and popped the card in one of the PCI slots. No trouble. Quite inexpensive.

However, imagine if my landlady had a computer without a Firewire port. She might well have popped into her local PC World, and explained the problem. What they would have done was steered her over to the section of the shop that sold PCI Firewire cards, picked one off the shelf. This Firewire PCI card came with gold coloured connectors, came in a very fancy looking package, and it cost £29.99. Of course, it did not include a cable. On the next shelf, the salesman would have picked up a similarly packaged Firewire cable with gold coloured connectors, which cost £19.99. So that is £50. And of course, most people are not confident enought to open their PC case and take a bracket off the back of the case, and install a PCI card. So PC World would then have offered to install the card for another £20 or £30 (for five minutes work). So, the upgrade in this case would have cost £70 or £80, about five times what it should have.

It's great if you can get away with that sort of thing.

Hardware and software manufacturers have long gone along with these sorts of practices, and typically they package their products in two different ways to take advantage. There is the "retail" version, which comes in fancy packaging and has connecters that are often gold in colour rather than silver because this looks good, and which costs ridiculous prices. And then there is also the "OEM" (Original Equipment Manufacturer) version, which comes in less fancy packaging (Often just a brown or white box), and is intended to be sold to PC builders and other tech savvy individuals. OEM products always include the necessary cables, screws, etc, because the customers (people who know what they are doing) are people who now how to go somewhere else. For all practical purposes the products are usually the same (although the licence conditions are sometimes different with software), and there are sometimes restrictions requiring you to buy other things at the same time to be eligible for OEM stuff. If you buy stuff on the internet you often get OEM stuff, because people who buy stuff this way know what they are doing and because customers cannot see the packaging anyway. (When "retail" versions are sold on the internet, they are often sold for much the same prices as "OEM" stuff). And if you buy stuff at a computer fair, you once again often get OEM stuff, which is what happens when your customers know what they are doing.

But, in the retail channels, something interesting is afoot. I will keep talking about PC World. In the back of many of the chain's shops, you now find a "component centre" which basically sells OEM stuff. I think the issue was that people like me would walk into a PC World store, and regardless of how quickly they needed it would not pay £50 for a Firewire Card and cable, because the cost was so outrageous. Often though, we would be prepared to pay a little extra for a product right now rather than waiting to receive it over the internet. So, we now have the "component centre" at PC World, sells basically identical stuff to what is sold elsewhere in the shop but without fancy packaging. (The component centre also sells motherboards, cases, power supplies, and other things for PC builders). For instance, they had a Firewire Card with a cable for £19.99. Not as cheap as I would get it at a website or computer fair, but cheap enough that I would probably be prepared to buy it if I needed one in a hurry. (If I was providing service for people's PCs and they needed this installed right now, once again it would be cheap enough for me to do this). A simple Firewire cable was about £5.00, once again quite reasonable, but not the cheapest one could find anywhere.

Presumably, if a not technological savvy person stumbles into PC world, they will be taken to the expensive, fancily packaged stuff. However, rather than turn a technically savvy person away they will now lead him to the component centre.

(I suspect that the component centre is also for such things as smart 15 year olds who want to build their own PCs but whose parents are a little wary about buying at computer fairs and/or over the internet. One can buy a complete set of PC components there for at least no more than the retail cost of an equivalent computer. The prices are still too expensive for a regular PC builder, but they are low enough to not be ridiculous).

Which is smart, if they can keep the two customer bases apart. The danger for their profit model is that their customers who would have bought the expensive stuff will find their way to the component centre instead and will buy the cheaper stuff, and their profit model will collapse. (For this to not happen their customers must remain ignorant). It is a common practice for old businesses to refuse to undercut themselves when new cheaper alternatives come along. Dixons/PCWorld do seem to recognise the threat of cheaper channels, and have responded somewhat.

And if you look at their website, one senses that this is perhaps where the real action is. My suspicion is that PC World have until now been selling very little on their website due to the fact that their prices are too high and people who shop online are more tech savvy and price sensitive than regular customers. For if you go to the website, you now see that this is divided in two the same way the physical store is. As well as a regular website there is a component store website. The sorts of stuff sold in the Component centre in the physical stores are not listed on the main website but are listed on the component centre website. Compare this with this for instance. (That second one is a very good price, actually). For now they have avoided putting the cheap Component store stuff on the main website, partly because in that case customers will type in what they want, see the cheap one and the expensive one, and just buy the cheap one.

Mainly, though, I think they are attempting to avoid having to answer an awkward question, which is "Why are things so much more expensive in your stores than on your website?" Hopefully on those occasions when the sorts of customers who buy the expensive stuff in stores come to a website, they will only see the main website and not notice the cheap stuff at the component website, while the people who genuinely would buy from the component website.

But it isn't going to work. Once you are on the web, everything is transparent. I doubt the separate websites business will last three months. The sites will be combined, and this and the ever growing component centres in stores are going to put real pressure on their business model, even for their physical stores. Which is good.

And the interesting thing is that the web prices seem genuinely competitive in a lot of cases. If Dixons / PCWorld were to make a genuinely aggressive move into the web retailing business that would be interesting. Their brand is well known, and they have a large chain of physical stores that people can take stuff to that doesn't work and/or which they do not know how to install themelves. Using the web for sales and the physical stores for returns and service makes a lot of sense (and not just in this industry). Except that the physical stores are in many instances too big, I fear. They may have to sublet some of the space.

Friday, July 30, 2004

A first time for everything

This evening I spent 45 minutes sitting in a stationary train on the Victoria line of the London Underground. Services had stopped "due to a suspicious unattended package on a train at Euston". This was very irritating (and in high summer the not air conditioned carriages of the London Underground were very uncomfortable) but at leat we were kept informed as to what was going on.

On the other hand, does the fact that I have experienced this mean that I am now a real Londoner?

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Sorry for the lack of blogging

Life seems to be taking up my time, sadly. I finally saw Before Sunset, which I thought was magnificent. (It is simply the most romantic thing I have seen in years). It was shot on a very small budget, and it shows given that the film contains an assortment of continuity errors - particularly quite noticeable changes in the light between shots. This is what happens when you only have a few days to shoot, and the film supposedly takes place in real time. You have to shoot all day long, and noon simply does not look like the evening. I was right about the locations too. As well as being cinematic, I think the Promenade Plantee has another thing going for it if you are filming on a budget. Although it looks like a part and in fact it is a park, because it is long and narrow you only have to use a very physically small area at any time. If you are filming in an actual park, you have to cordon off a relatively large area in order to make sure that people in the background and the like are not getting in the way of the film.

And the film is a little geographically challenged. Jesse and Celine walk (and go by boat, and go by car) through various bits of Paris and appear to have a continuous conversation, but the places they walk to aren't actually close enough to walk through all of them in the time they have. So director Richard Linklatter cheats a little.

A few issues of continuity driven by budget don't matter in the end, though. This film is so character driven that the only things it genuinely needed were Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, director Richard Linklater and a good script, and it got all three. Apparently the first version of the script was not in real time, featured more locations, and had a bigger budget, but they were unable to film that because they couldn't raise the money.

But in the end it didn't matter at all.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Someone good is writing for the Economist

There was once a time when giants bestrode the earth

(Link via slashdot).

Friday, July 23, 2004

Thought for the day

If you are interviewing for a job, there is actually something to be said for being interviewed on one day by all the people you are likely to be working with. It does in many ways beat being called back to the office a number of different times to speak to different people. However, three hours of interviews (involving a total of five interviewers) without a break is pretty brutal just the same. Yes, I am sure many of my readers can describe worse experiences. I have had worse experiences personally. But this was still pretty hard going.

(I think I did well though. I'd rate myself about 50-50 for the job in question).

And Perry de Havilland did manage to ring my mobile in the middle of it in order to ask how my job search was going. No, I didn't take the call. Not a good time to forget to turn your phone off, just the same.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Lots of iPod hype this week.

Including the Newsweek cover story, of course. The iPod mini is now available in Europe, as are the new cheaper 20Gb and 40Gb iPods. It seems to be normal for Apple to update the product once a year, keep the $299, $399, and $499 price points, but improve the models. However, we now have 20Gb at the $299 point, 40Gb at the $399 point, and nothing at the $499 point. This is an interesting coda to Toshiba's announcement a month or so back that it was releasing a 1.8 inch 60Gb hard drive, and that Apple had placed a large order. Steve Jobs was clearly not happy at this sort of pre-announcement of a 60Gb iPod from Toshiba, and conspiracy theorists might conclude that the absence of a 60Gb iPod model now is in a sense payback to Toshiba for not keeping quiet.

Except that I don't actually believe this. I suspect that Toshiba is simply unable to provide the 60Gb drives in large enough quantities for now, and I am sure we will see a 60Gb iPod later in the year: probably just before Christmas.

Another interesting thing is whether we will see an update of the iPod mini before long. This of course uses a 4Gb 1 inch drive from Hitachi/IBM, but Apple has had trouble getting enough drives to satisfy the immense demand for the iPod mini. Interestingly, Seagate now has a 1 inch hard drive, and they are producing a 5Gb version. Presumably Hitachi will not like losing the largest one inch drive crown, and they will announce a bigger drive before too long. At that point, Apple will no doubt announce an iPod mini with a larger capacity. (And let's face it, the 4Gb capacity is the weakness of the iPod mini).

Or of course Apple could source its drives from multiple suppliers. Creative are basing an MP3 player on the Seagate drive, and for now that means they have the highest capacity player of that approximate size. Apple could release a 5Gb iPod mini based on the Seagate drive too, but I doubt they will. 5Gb is not really sufficiently bigger than 4Gb that they can really gain much leverage out of a "new, bigger capacity iPod mini". I suspect they will wait for a bigger drive from Hitachi, although if getting enough drives is the real problem, they might like to have another supplier. I suppose they could sell a 5Gb iPod mini with a dock and accessories that don't come with the 4Gb version as standard, so as to properly distinguish this from the 4Gb version. They did this with the 15Gb and 20Gb full size iPods last year after all.

Monday, July 19, 2004

The Modern World
Yesterday evening, I was at a party with the other London based contributors to the Samizdata blog, and it was a very pleasant evening. However, some of the foreign contributors couldn't make it (although Frank McGahon did make it over from Ireland) . Scott Wickstein was in Adelaide, of course, but I was able to do something quite interesting later in the evening, which was to get out my laptop, launch Skype, and get Scott at least into the conversation. My laptop has an internal speaker and an internal microphone, so all that was necessary was to say something vaguely near the laptop and he could hear us. And of course the laptop was running off batteries and was connected to the internet by WiFi, so the laptop was not connected to anything: we were just using it to talk to Scott in Australia.
A couple of non-Samizdata people found this impressive. Hell, I found this impressive, but one lady felt the need to come over and participate in the conversation merely because it was an interesting technological advance, I think.
Update: There are some photos of the party here. You can just see the back of my head in the top photo. My mother should note that I have been a good boy and had a haircut.

Saturday, July 17, 2004


I have a brief piece on Microsoft suing spammers over at Samizdata.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Forthcoming movies

This looks like it may be a fun little romantic comedy. From looking at the trailer, the plot appears to be "Once promising British tennis player played by Paul Bettany who never quite made it is being ignored as he plays his last Wimbledon. He meets sexy champion tennis player Kirsten Dunst on the court one day, something happens between them, he gets his drive back, and suddenly starts winning matches. All of England is watching as he makes the final and ....."

Of course, Hollywood cliche requires that in such a movie some obstacle must get in our hero's way and, forced to choose between the game and the girl at the end he realises that his ambitions on the court are nothing compared to true love, and the film ends with the couple running away on a bus oblivious to the tennis tournament. Or something like that.

And in many situations the British would be quite sympathetic to such a story.

However, this is Wimbledon. No Englishman has won it since 1936, and the desperation to see a British winner is reasonably strong at this point, as Tim Henman knows. If a British tennis player were to give up a chance to win the men's single title for a small thing like the love of a woman he would be torn to pieces, or at least mocked for all eternity. It is not possible for this movie to have a happy ending without Bettany's character actually winning Wimbledon, and I hope the film-makers know this.

Of course, such an English victory would take the film from "romantic comedy" territory to "outrageous and ridiculous fantasy" territory, but in comparison that is a small thing.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

I love London

When you cross the eastern limit of the City of London, you enter the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. To the south you initially enter Whitechapel (most famous for being the location of Jack the Ripper's Victorian murders), to the north you come to Spitalfields, and Brick Lane in Spitalfields is where I am right now.

Spitalfields is London's first immigrant neighbourhood. In the 17th century it was the destination of Huguenots who fled France (the first mass migration to Britain in quite a few centuries). By the nineteenth century the Huguenots had integrated into Broader English society and Spitalfields was the destination for Jewish emigres from elsewhere in Europe. (Britain's first Bagel shop is a legacy from that period and is just across the road from where I am now).

In the twentieth century that pattern repeated, the Jews integrated into broader British society and moved elsewhere, and Spitalfields then filled up with Bangladeshis, who now dominate the area. Down the road is a building that has been both a church and a synagogue in its time, and which is now a mosque, the only building in Britain (I think) that has performed all three roles.

However, over the last decade, the area has gentrified, as inner city living has become more popular and as London has grown as a financial capital, and young childless people in particular have taken advantage of the proximity to the City of London. Brick Lane has filled with Bangladeshi restaurants catering to non-Bangladeshi customers as much or more than Bangladeshis, and the street has also filled up with bars, cafes, music venues, and it has generally become one of the hippest places in London.

However, it is still principally an immigrant (Bangladeshi) area. Local prosperity has flowed into the area though, and shops catering to young customers of various races have flowed up under the ruins of the Bishopsgate goods yard to the top end of Brick Lane, which until recently was rather run down and was only interesting when there were markets on Sundays. (To me, it feels like the way prosperity grew down the bottom end of King Street in Newtown in Sydney in the 1990s). The local Bangladeshi shopkeepers and the like are doing their best to cater to the hip young crowd as well as locals.

Which is why I am in a newly opened internet cafe in the top half of Brick Lane. This is clearly trying to cater both for the clientele that wants internet access and the clientele that wants coffee. They seem to be doing okay with the internet access, but on the coffee score they are mixed. I was served by a woman in a hajib, and the coffee is only so-so. (These Bangladeshis haven't quite got Italian by way of Seattle coffee right yet). The internet cafe section is filled with Dell machines with 15 inch TFT screens that look a couple of years old: I suspect that repackaging ex-office PCs and selling them second hand to internet cafes is a nice little business for someone. The seating is not as comfortable as it should be. The cafe breaks one of the cardinal laws of cafes, which is that it doesn't greatly matter whether you have table service or counter service (or whether you want the customers to pay at the beginning of the end) but you should make which arrangement that you are using very clear. (There is a nice selection of newspapers for me to read). There is free wireless, but I am not sure if it is provided in this shop (I doubt it) or if it is coming from somewhere else nearby.

There are other internet / coffee shops nearby, but they are run by white people and not Bangladeshis. Some of the Bangladeshis are trying to move into the trade, which is clearly good. And I am sure they will iron the bugs out soon enough.

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