Saturday, December 27, 2003


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 26, 2003

The miracles of modern technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 25, 2003


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

Wednesday, December 24, 2003


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

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

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

More thoughts on the computer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 22, 2003


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

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

Sunday, December 21, 2003

A music post - what a novelty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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