Saturday, October 04, 2003

Me in Australia update

Just updating on what I said a week or so back, the plan is now for people to meet up in Sydney on November 8. As far as bloggers who will be present are concerned, Scott Wickstein is flying in from Adelaide, and Tex of Whacking Day and James Russell will be there too. The more the merrier. No decision has yet been made on the venue. My thought is that we all meet up in a pub somewhere in the Glebe area. (Is The British Lion still a nice pub?). It might be nice for at least some of us to have dinner first, too, so a pre-pissup trip to a restaurant might also be in order. Any suggestions as to venues would be appreciated, although if I don't get any I will just unilaterally make a decision. (Of course, it's a little over 18 months since I have been in Sydney, so there is always a danger that the place I choose will have been demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Therefore suggestions would be appreciated).

Friday, October 03, 2003

The times are a changing

When I first came to England in the early 1990s to study, we were in the era of letters and (expensive) phone calls. I often went off to travel in various parts of Europe (and at times Africa) and it was fairly normal for my family in Australia to not hear from me for weeks and sometimes even months. I am sure that my parents did worry about me, as parents do, but none the less not hearing from me for a while was normal.

Now this was at the 1991 stage of technical development. Regular phone calls were still possible. No doubt a few decades earlier when people were restricted to letters, contact in such situations was less frequent than that, and if people were poor correspondents and on the other side of the world, they were probably not heard from for months or even years at a time.

However, since the early 1990s there has been a dramatic acceleration in communications technology. E-mail became widely used, even to the extent that one's parents had it. (I personally have been using it since 1988, and thus I was in contact with more technical friends in Australia more frequently than I was with family). Once e-mail was available, my parents started to get worried if they hadn't heard from me for a day or two. Once I started using e-mail when I was on the road, they then started worrying if they hadn't heard from me for a day or two then, too. (Once when I was going on a round the world trip when based in Australia, I was visiting quite a few friends. I gave my parents a list of the various people I would be visiting and their e-mail addresses, and I found as the trip went on that many of my friends had received "Have you seen Michael"? e-mails).

Oddly enough, since I have been blogging my parents have felt the need to do this less. They can go on the internet, check that my blog has been updated and yes, this indicates that I am probably still alive. Of course, the scary thing about this is that as my life goes on, things are slowly getting reversed. I start worrying about my parents if I haven't heard from them for a few days.

However, I now see that all this could be worse. One well known figure in the blogosphere has been L.T. Smash, who was an American member of the armed forces serving somewhere in the Middle East. Since he has returned to the US, we have learned that he was a naval reserve officer who had been called up and was serving in Kuwait, and that he had previously been well known in the blogosphere as the Indepundit. We also know that once he started blogging, this happened

When I became “too busy” to post every day, I got a stern email from my father. “You must post EVERY DAY,” he warned. “Your mother is worried about you!”

Somehow, I know how he feels. On the other hand, given that Mr Smash was off participating in an actual war, I do see his mother's point too. On the other hand, I don't think this happened in the Boer War.

Anyway, that's my posting for the day. I might go and take a daytrip to France on the Dover-Calais ferry tomorrow.

Update: A careful check of ferry fares led me to discover that it is cheaper for me to go to Calais on a weekday, so I thus did not go today.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Observation of the day

Good things may be found in South London

What is really remarkable is that with the airfare I paid to go to Berlin last month it is actually cheaper to fly to Berlin, have 20 glasses of Paulaner there and then fly back again than it is to have the 20 glasses in London.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Michael Jennings quote of the day

First of all, it is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program. Its terribleness is of a piece with the terribleness of Windows generally, a system so overloaded with icons, menus, buttons, and incomprehensible Help windows that performing almost any function means entering a treacherous wilderness of pop-ups posing alternatives of terrifying starkness: Accept/Decline/Cancel; Logoff/Shut Down/Restart; and the mysterious Do Not Show This Warning Again. You often feel that you’re not ready to make a decision so unalterable; but when you try to make the window go away your machine emits an angry beep. You double-click. You triple-click. Beep beep beep beep beep. You are being held for a fool by a chip.

-- Louis Menand, writing in the New Yorker. Go read the whole rant. It is great. I actually pretty much agree with this. Microsoft Word contains a vast number of features, all of which have been grafted on top of others over the years without any logical design. Word can do almost anything, but actually figuring out how to make it do what you want, especially when what you want is complex but precisely defined, can be quite difficult. I am with Neal Stephenson. TeX doesn't look pretty and is harder to learn than Word if you only want it to do something simple, but once you have learned how it works everything is logical, and getting it to do exactly what you want is easy, no matter how complex the thing you want it to do (Word is absolutely hopeless at doing complex things systematically). On the other hand I am a vi man rather than an emacs man.
More redirection

I have a piece on why supermarkets are good, and what they have to do with the productivity paradox over at Samizdata.

I have a piece on the Australian cricket team over at ubersportingpundit.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Michael Jennings quote of the day

The manuscript of The Baroque Cycle was written by hand on 100% cotton paper using three different fountain pens: a Waterman Gentleman, a Rotring, and a Jorg Hysek. It was then transcribed, edited, formatted and printed using emacs and TeX. When it was totally finished, the TeX version of of the ms. was converted to Quark XPress format using an emacs LISP program written by the author.

--- Neal Stephenson, demonstrating that (a) he is my kind of geek and (b) there is still hope for people who hate Microsoft. (Somewhat disappointingly, his website is using Microsoft-IIS/5.0 on Windows 2000. This almost certainly means that someone else is maintaining it for him, but is still sad).

Monday, September 29, 2003


I have a piece on RFID tags over at White Rose.
Political developments

Australian Prime minister John Howard has reshuffled his ministry. Richard Alston, Minister for Communications and the most unbelievably stupid politician I have ever seen in my life, and who turned the computer and telecommunications industries of Australia into an international joke, has lost his job and has been replaced by Darryl Williams. Friends and family would never quite believe me when I told them just how internationally famous Alston was as a laughing stock. As a fine example, might I point to this wonderful British article with the title This man must be the biggest luddite in history. (My own opinion was that he isn't a luddite so much as just being amazingly and mindblowingly stupid. I once knew someone who went to a meeting with him, and Alston observed at one point in the meeting that only rich Australians would be likely to gamble using overseas internet casinos, because poorer people wouldn't be able to afford the international phonecalls).

The guys at slashdot are commemorating the event by ruthlessly mocking him.

Still, will things ever be better? As one slashdot commenter has put it "OTOH, Williams has possibly been the worst Attorney-General in living memory, and he's being replaced by the most embarrassing Immigration Minister of all time so he can replace Alston! This I gotta see".

That does pretty much sum things up.

A couple of thoughts on the Hokkaido earthquake

It doesn't appear that anyone was killed in the recent Japanese earthquake. (How much of this was due to good preparedness and how much due to the quake hitting a remote area, I don't know). This is obviously very good news. Virginia Postrel has a couple of posts on the question of earthquake preparedness in the country. One problem is that many buildings in Japan have wooden frames and tile roofs. According to one of Postrel's readers, new buildings built since the 1980s do not follow this pattern, and they survived the Kobe earthquake in 1995 much better than older buildings. Still, though, the majority of the housing stock was of the old kind, and this is one reason why that quake had an absolutely horrendous death toll of 6000 people despite occurring at 6am when most people were in bed. (Try to think of another natural disaster in a rich country that killed 6000 people?). Kobe wasn't considered to be as vulnerable to earthquakes as some other parts of the country, an was thus less prepared than some other parts of the country, but the level of preparedness and emergency response was sufficiently woeful that one wonders how much better it actually would have been in the rest of the country. (Japan does appear to have learned clear lessons, however, so things will certainly be better next time they have a major earthquake in a populated area).

Of course, the question is why in an area so obviously subject to earthquakes as Japan, buildings with tile roofs were still being normally built as late as 1980? I have heard some very cynical explanations. One of the less impressive things about Japan is the country is run for the benefit of (a) rice farmers and (b) the construction industry. The pre-eminent role of the construction industry is one reason why so much of Japan seems to be covered with concrete, and is also a reason why Japan's response to its economic woes over the last decade has been to build more and more railways, tunnels, and bridges to nowhere. Construction in Japan is extremely regulated, often for reasons that are overtly about earthquake preparedness. However, a these regulations have also largely kept foreign construction companies out of Japan. Some people would say that was the point, and in fact although earthquake preparedness was the overt reason for the regulations, it wasn't actually given due consideration. And a price was paid for that in 1995.

Japan's preparedness has clearly improved a lot since 1995, and it was clearly improving before then, although from a woeful base. The question is how much it has improved, and I don't think we will know the answer until there is another big quake near a city. Hopefully that will not be for a long time, but we do not of course know when it will be.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Having computer problems

Propper blogging should resume this evening, but if it doesn't, my apologies.

Update: It's now Monday morning, but things are fixed. More blogging soon.

Blog Archive