Saturday, December 21, 2002

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

I disagree with her about the French though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 20, 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 19, 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

I am in agreement with Tim Blair and Paul Kelly and I disagree with Alan Ramsey on the question of whether Australian Prime Minister John Howard will retire any time soon. I think there is absolutely no way he will go any time soon.

Howard waited nearly 25 years between being elected to parliament becoming Prime Minister. He continued to believe he could eventually get the job despite being written off reapeatedly. Given that level of stubbornness to get the job in the first place, I really cannot see him giving it up if he doesn't have to. It is possible that he might give it up voluntarily if defeat is looming and he doesn't want to go out with an election loss, but defeat isn't looming. Defeat appeared to be looming 18 months ago, but he stuck it out and won. At this point the opposition looks hopeless and Howard looks likely to win another election if he chooses to fight it.

Plus I see two other factors. When Howard was first elected, he announced in interviews that he saw himself as being PM for "about ten years". I can see no reason why he would have changed his mind, and the 10 years will not be up until March 2006. Secondly, if Howard holds the job until December 2004, he will become Australia's second longest serving Prime Minister. The man he will overtake, Bob Hawke, was PM for many of Howard's years in the wilderness, and was the man who beat Howard in the 1987 election. I would think that passing Hawke is something that would be very sweet to Howard. December 2004 will be either after the next election or so close to the next election that Howard will have to fight the next election if he still wants to be PM at that date.

And seriously, how many politicians have you ever seen give up a Prime Ministership willingly? Politicians do not leave office willingly. It is part of their nature.I would personally like to see Peter Costello succeed Howard as PM, but I cannot see this happening any time soon.

Monday, December 16, 2002

Brian Micklethwait over at Samizdata asks some questions on why it is so much more expensive to make telephone calls to some countries than others.

Firstly, here is a map of the world, which has been rescaled so that the distance of a place on the map is proportional to the cost of calling the country from the UK. This is for 1998, and the effect has become even more dramatic since then.

Secondly, I blogged on this very question in August. However, that was before I had many readers, so I will largely repeat myself now. The cost of calls has mostly very little to do with international bandwidth (although it has something to do with it when calling places that have to be reached by satellite rather than fibre optic cable, but there are not many such places left) and everything to do with the charges made by the telephone companies for terminating international calls in the country you are calling .

The (simplified) answer to Brian's main question is this. Back in the bad old days, international phone calls were governed by what was called the "settlements" system, in which countries had bilateral treaties, and agreed to charge the same amount for calls in each direction. If there were more calls made from country A to B than from B to A, then a "settlement" was made of the number of minutes of imbalance times a "settlement rate" per minute, as defined in the treaty. Settlement rates varied from country to country, and the more backward the country generally the higher the rate, but they were always far more than the cost of domestic calls.

Since then, we have had deregulation of telephone calls in some countries. If A deregulated but not B, the margins of phone companies in country A were eroded and calls got cheaper, but the settlement rate still provided a floor under the cost of calls to B. This sort of thing is still the case when you are calling Nigeria or the Ukraine from the UK.

If you have deregulation of telephone companies in both A and B, then telephone companies in country B are unable to charge any more for terminating international calls than they are for terminating domestic calls. In this case, you get international calls that are comparable in cost to domestic calls, as is the case when you call Australia, the US, or most of Europe. How low the cost of calls actually is still depends on what those domestic terminating charges actually are, which in turn depends on how efficient and competitive is the domestic market in that country. This is why calls to other EU countries vary in cost, even though deregulation has occurred in all those countries.

A final observation is that a few years ago, the US unilaterally lowered the settlement rates its carriers paid to telephone carriers in many of the worst foreign countries, and simply told them to accept the lower rates or they wouldn't be able to receive phone calls for the US any more. This is one reason why international calls from the US are cheaper than from many other places. Other countries have done similar things, but not always as successfully, as no other country has as much leverage as the US.

As for calls to mobiles, it used to be the case that it cost the same to call a mobile in country B as it did to call a fixed phone in country B. In the days of settlements, this was fine and everyone was making money, as the settlement charge was easily greater than the terminating charge that the mobile operator in country B charged for domestic calls. However, with the end of the settlements system, and the rapid fall in the cost of international calls to deregulated destinations, the cost of a "standard" international call is often less than the termination charges charged by a mobile operator in country B. For a brief while, this meant that telephone companies were losing money on international calls to mobiles, and also that it could be cheaper to (say) call a mobile in London from Hong Kong than to call that same mobile from London. Over the last year or so, this situation has changed, and international calls to mobiles in other countries now usually cost more than international calls to fixed phones in the same country. There are still a few anomalies, but this bug in the system is now largely ironed out.
There is something almost sweet about this article from the Washington Post (via aldaily). It purports to tell the story of how Amy Nguyen of Atlanta, daughter of Vietnamese refugees, is being pushed hard by her parents who want her to go to medical school, but ends up giving a nice portrait of just how it is that poor immigrants turn into Americans in a generation or two. It also gives a nice demonstation of how Asian immigrants are moving away from the west coast and into the American heartland (due to the lower cost of housing, and due to business opportunities that exist in parts of the heartland that no longer to on the coast - in short essentially the same reasons why previous generations of immigrants have moved inland.

The situation in which parents from a poor country work extremely hard at relatively menial jobs and drive their children to go to medical school is a very common one. I have seen it in Australia as well as in the US. It's always medical school. This is a high status profession everywhere. Parents understand it, and they understand that it is an option open to their children if they study hard, wheras it would never have been available back in the country they came from, in a way they do not necessarily understand that wider and more amorphous range of opportunities that exist in developed countries today. On the other hand, the thing the parents do understand is that by studying hard, their children can properly enter the middle class. Studying hard is not the only way to succeed, but it is one way, and it is one that is open to you even if you are poor yourself.

Often this sort of pressure works: you end up with serious, intense doctors who are often very good at their jobs technically but sometimes are a little lacking in bedside manner, and have no idea how to have any kind of fun, but they themselves are members of the middle class, and their children end up fairly normal, well adjusted Americans. This takes two generations.

Sometimes, though, you find that parents push children who don't quite have the necessary ability. Sometimes this means that the children are driven to an early nervous breakdown. Sometimes, the relationship between the parents and the children gets a little strained. Sometimes the dream doesn't quite work, but the children turn out okay anyway. (That seems to be how it is going for our Amy. She seems rather well adjusted in the circumstances: a good kid). Sometimes, though, for whatever reason the medical dream doesn't quite work out and the drive ends up going somewhere else, and the child ends up going in some slightly different direction, to the parents' initial disappointment and ultimate amazement. (Isaac Asimov was the child of poor Russian Jews living in Brooklyn, and he was driven by his parents to go to medical school in the 1930s. However, he didn't get accepted due to the combination of an abrasive personality and quotas on Jews in medical schools at the time. Instead he got a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Columbia, and became a science fiction and non-fiction writer, became wealthy, rich, and ultimately famous, and ended up inspiring everybody from Paul Krugman and Newt Gingrich to Master Asahara and (perhaps) Osama bin Laden (Hmm, what is my point here, precisely?).

The thing that comes out of the story, though, is that these people are becoming Americans, and good citizens at that. Many countries are keen on getting foreigners to come and do work that natives don't want to do. Sometimes this is exploitation. But in situations where the children of the immigrants are given citizenship, and are given opportunities to succeed in the same way as are natives, and to be accepted as full members of society, it really isn't. It's a two way thing, and America generally gets this, in a way that many other places don't. (I think Australians generally get this reasonably well, too). Some coutries are less accepting than others. Many countries mix up nationality and ethnic identity. It is much harder to become a German than to become an American, and I think Germany is the poorer for this.

In Australia, the humanitarian component of our immigration program has declined in size in recent years. This saddens me, for simple humanitarian reasons, and also because on past evidence I think that refugees and similar immigrants are often the ones who make the most of the opportunities given them, and who try the hardest to become succesful members of society. In the long run, they and their families seem to me to become many of our best citizens.

And there is this. At a wedding:

Later that night, the reception is held at Happy Valley Seafood Restaurant, a Chinese banquet hall with gold dragons on the red velvety walls. All the Vietnamese wedding receptions are held at Happy Valley because the parents like it. Many of their children would rather be in a hotel ballroom in Buckhead. But it's here on Buford Highway they always come. Amy sits near the entrance, signing in the 370 guests, including her parents.

Happy Valley is jubilant bedlam. Waiters crashing into each other with platters of jellyfish soup and chicken feet. Guests taking to the stage to sing Vietnamese karaoke. Old men clinking Heineken bottles, their hands stamped with tattoos from the reeducation camps.

That's the other nice thing about this story: the actual Vietnamese immigrants themselves, despite lives of long hard work, actually seem to have found better lives for themselves.
An incomplete post entitled Harry Potter and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link accidentally escaped into the wild a couple of hours ago. I have recaptured it for now, but if anyone read the first half and is now eager to read the rest, I will post a complete version in a couple of hours.

Update: Actually I got distracted by the subject of international telephone rates, and this post will likely not go up until tomorrow.
I Must Try This

A court has rejected a 60-year-old man's attempt to invoke the ancient right to trial by combat, rather than pay a £25 fine for a minor motoring offence.

via Samizdata
Getting Priorities Right.

Well we clearly cannot have the US navy taking something as dangerous as rogue MP3s into Iraq, can we? I mean, the Iraqis are bad enough with chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear weapons, but if they learn about music piracy, that would truly be the end of the world.
Ah yes, another report (via slashdot that New Zealander Richard Pearse may well have been flying before the Wright Brothers. Even if true, this remains only a footnote, as the Wright brothers were the ones who actually managed to sell their inventions and thus actually found the aircraft industry. That said, over the last few years Pearse has become a little bit of a cult Kiwi hero.

Possibly the least known of Peter Jackson's films is the spoof documentary Forgotten Silver a which tells us that much of the technology of modern cinema was in fact invented by obscure and now forgotten New Zealander Colin McKenzie, who also went on to make the first full length feature film with sound - in 1908. Jackson was partly inspired by the Pearse story, and by reactions to the Pearse storyin New Zealand. (Forgotten Silver was so well done that when shown on New Zealand television, a great many people did not realise that it was a spoof and took the story seriously).

Sunday, December 15, 2002

It just keeps coming

We have now got to the views of Trent Lott's mother, and the question of whether young Trent was in fact brought up the way he claims. Lott surely cannot survive much more of this. (Josh Marshall also continues to excel on the Lott issue. He's not amazingly kind to John Ashcroft, either).
Adriana Cronin has a piece over at Samizdata on today's marches against the introduction of a very broad anti-subversion law in Hong Kong.

One of the striking things about Hong Kong is that the terrirory's elites when interviewed always make comments about how "Hong Kong is an economic city and the people are not interested in politics", and "Democracy requires a level of sophistication to avoid being the rule of the mob, and the people of Hong Kong lack that sophistication". (Plus various western sycophants have echoed the same words. For one thing if you can make yourself believe this, it is easier to pretend that you weren't screwing the people of Hong Kong over when you handed them over to the Chinese five years ago). However, whenever the people of Hong Kong are given the opportunity to show some democratic spirit, they always do so in huge numbers. We had enormous demonstrations after the massacre in Beijing in 1989 (and on its anniversary every year). We had huge numbers of votes cast in favour of democrats when the people were given limited voting rights by Chris Patten. And we had another demostration today. (If you read the chapter on Hong Kong in Ian Buruma's recent Bad Elements he goes and talks to ordinary Chinese people in the New Territories and he finds a very strong desire for democracy). A comparable country that is also ethnically Chinese is Taiwan, and that country has turned into a vibrant democracy.

I don't know what you do about it, but seeing the rights of the people of a rich, sophisticated and fairly liberal city slowly being taken away by the thugs in Beijing is pretty depressing.

I don't believe that China's fate is to be forever ruled by thugs, and I believe that in the long run China itself may evolve to democracy in the way Taiwan or South Korea did. (If this happens, it will be slow and painful, but it is not impossible). However, in the short term, having Beijing assert its power over Hong Kong is not at all good, although it was sadly predictable. The people of Hong Kong can protest and march for now, but if things really come to the crunch, the mainline Chinese can and will assert their much greater power. A military crackdown is not necessary to do this: you simply use laws like this anti-subversion law widely and arbitrarily.
This story of the Sydney police working with Asian shopkeepers to smash a protection racket is very encouraging. Ethnic gangs of various sorts exist in Australia (as everywhere) and they mainly get publicity when they terrorise or harass people outside their own ethnicity. However, the vast majority of their victims are people from their own ethnic communities, who often are not able to receive proper police protection because the police do not have contacts in the community, and do not understand the language and/or culture of the victims of the crime. Obviously, such people are entitled to the same help from the police as anybody else, and in this instance it is good to see them getting it.

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