Saturday, January 10, 2004


I have a tactical analysis of Australia's win over India in the first match of the VB series cricket over at ubersportingpundit.
Homage to Catalonia, or something

I am not an impulse shopper at all, but I have a slight problem with discount airline websites, and I find that if I can buy a return ticket to Barcelona for 25 quid, I have a slightly nasty tendency to buy one. And a month ago that precise thing happened. As a consequence, I am now in Barcelona. I have spent the last week wondering if I was well enough to go, and indeed that if I should simply not go in order to catch up on all the other things I should have got done but haven't due to being sick, but I managed to persuade myself that I could in fact bring my laptop to Barcelona, find a WiFi hotspot, and get some of that work done along with getting a change of scenery. With my ultracheap style of travel, being here does not actually cost much more than staying in London, but we will see if that actually happens.

The good thing, though, is that the sky and Mediterranean are both blue, the sun is shining, the temperature is about 20 degrees Celcius, and Barcelona remains one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The flu is just about gone, and the much nicer weather here will at least help on that front. My one previous visit to this city was in 1993, and this city feels the same, although there are a couple more lines on the underground map. And my dark little secret (that I have even occasionally lied about) is that I somehow managed to come to Barcelona in 1993 without visiting Park Guel, although I did see a great deal of other notable bits of Gaudi work. Sometimes this happens. You visit a city, and you manage to overlook one of the key attractions through absent mindedness as much as anything. This is about to be rectified, anyway.

Friday, January 09, 2004


Big blogger Andrew Sullivan, who is either in Provincetown Massachusetts or (more likely) in Washington, reports that he has the flu, and that he feels wretched. In fact, he says the following.

Man, this is brutal. I can't remember a worse bout. Now I know what everyone was going on about earlier this winter. I had one of those day-nights when you don't seem to be sleeping but you also don't seem to be awake. In bed, I get drenched every two hours. Out of bed, I get the chills. Thanks for your many emails. Is this a new genre: flu-blogging?

I can only agree. I have also still got the flu to some extent, and I am feeling slightly less than wretched, but I was wretched as recently as yesterday. Worse, I have had it for something like three weeks, and I simply had not been able to shake it. (The various bodily abuses we subject ourselves to over the Christmas / New Year period probably haven't helped. I should have gone off the booze for the whole time, but I didn't really want to. This had horrible consequences on New Year's Day in particular. But like him, I have to agree that this is just about the nastiest bout I have ever had in my life. And half of the people who I know in London seem to have it too. (This is a big factor behind the negligible posting on Transport Blog, and the low posting on Samizdata). I don't know if it is actually the influenza virus that I have had, but I suspect the answer is yes. If so, it is those bloody Southern China / Hong Kong chickens and pigs again, of course. These viruses cross the world and cross the Atlantic incredibly quickly these days.

Of course, a really nasty influenza virus actually kills lots of people, so we should be grateful. We got a little bit of a demonstation of this last year, although SARS was really just a a hyper-powered version of the common cold. An airborne hyper-powered version of influenza is far nastier, and we are not prepared for it.

But, for about the first time in three weeks I feel sort of okay rather than disgusting. May this last.
A little movie blogging

Yesterday, I read the review of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (which opened today in the UK) in the Evening Standard. It was a good review, but it said that the film was shot on digital video, which I had not heard before, and which struck me as surprising given Sofia Coppola's pedigree (although perhaps not surprising given the film's budget of only $4m).

However, seeing the film this afternoon I do see what the reviewer meant. The film takes Tokyo, one of the most cinematic cities on earth, and makes it dark and muddy looking, just like stuff shot on DV often does look dark and muddy looking. (At times the cinematic qualities of Tokyo shine through anyway, but it could have been visually so much nicer). I checked the credits at the end and found a credit given to the company that produced the dailies so no, it was not shot in a digital format. (When shooting on film, it is necessary to have the film processed and prints that can be watched immediately made every day - the director then watches these "dailies" to see whether the shots turned out and reshoots are necessary. This is not necessary on digital, because you just look at the LCD screen on the back of the camera, or equivalent). The Internet Movie Database tells me that the format was 35mm (which I knew already, as the film didn't have the grainy look of 16mm - it was just dark). So perhaps we should just blame the cinematographer.

I enjoyed the film. I thought the two central performances were just great. I liked the music. Despite having commented in the past that people who have not visited Japan do not always get how incomprehensible and over the top it can be, I actually have to say that I agree that the Japanese characters were slightly more in the way of being caricatures than they needed to be. Yes, in Tokyo you do indeed find everything seen in the film, but it is not quite such a continuous full on experience as it was portrayed as being in the film. And for the purposes of the film it didn't need to be.

But, unless I got a bad print or an incompetent projectionist, my main criticism of the film is the photography. (Given that the critic whose review I read yesterday saw the same thing but interpreted it in a different way, it probably is neither of these things). I didn't think it was well done at all. Perhaps I will have to become a cinematographer myself, to ensure that someone photographs Tokyo properly.

Update: The Director of Photography was Lance Acord, who also shot both Being John Malkovich and Adaptation for (Sofia Coppola's husband) Spike Jonze, and also Buffalo 66 for Vincent Gallo amongst other things. I can't recall anything wrong with the way those films were shot, so I am a little puzzled by this. Edward Lachman, who shot The Virgin Suicides, is someone who has a lot of experience and often shoots much bigger budget films, and that film featured much nicer photography than this one. But given that I am puzzled, perhaps it was a technical issue with my viewing of the film. Perhaps I should go and see a different print shown in a different cinema.

Further update: Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze are apparently getting divorced. This suggests that the allegedly autobiographical aspects of the film are more than alleged. If you have seen the film you will know what I mean. (It's worth remembering that as well as an actor and director of motion pictures, Spike Jonze is a very famous director of music vidoes and occasionally commercials).
I probably shouldn't go here

Time Blair skewers the late Princess of Wales' paranoia appropriately.

Do you believe that Prince Charles was plotting, in the manner of a 1930s Hollywood villain, to slash Diana's brake lines and send her to her death? Given the usual traffic conditions in London, where most of her driving was done, the old brake trick would probably only have sent the Princess into the rear of a minicab at 10km/h. Foiled again, evil Prince Charles!

It is an unbelievable story, so much so that Diana evidently did not believe it herself. If she did, she might have considered it prudent to take certain basic precautions . . . like wearing a seatbelt.

(Go read the whole thing. It's good).

It is now also being reported that Diana believed that the Saudi royal family was plotting to have her killed. Now that is paranoid.

As far as I can tell, the Saudi royal family wants to kill a lot of people. What made Diana think she was so special to have a specific plot against her? Talk about delusians of self-importance.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Virginia Postrel, and bridges

I have just about finished Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style which for some reason it took me a while to get into. The book actually is at its best at the end, when it discusses the economics of choice, I suppose you would call it. Better aesthetics means better products that people like more, but this is almost entirely not captured in economic statistics. I think this is one case of a more general thing, which is that modern economic growth is about increasing choices, increasing subtlety, and increasing variety and complexity rather than increasing production volume. This doesn't show up in the numbers, and this is how we show that the productivity paradox is not in fact real. I wrote about something very similar in this Samizdata piece about supermarkets.

However, the basic point of the book is essentially that people are more concerned with appearances and things that are aesthetically pleasing that was once the case. This is because aesthetics is something that people have always cared about, but that modern technology has made the marginal cost of making aesthetically pleasing choices relatively cheap. (In the days of mass production they were relatively expensive). Given this, people are being more concerned with aesthetic choices. This is good. This makes people' lives better. This is a good enough reason for being concerned with aesthetics as with any other economic activity, and we shouldn't belittle it or the skills of people that provide it. This is all a bottom up thing. Taste and fashion is not being imposed on us, but in fact it is a matter of choice. People's styles differ, and while we live in a society which cares about appearances more than was the case a couple of decades back, we none the less have much more choice with respect to appearances. It is an age of diversity and not conformity. Ultimately form and function are mixed together. Well designed products are easier to use and more pleasant to use than aesthetically less pleasing products. (That said, the book devotes a fair bit of time to discussing how people try to impose their own aesthetic choices on others, particularly in architecture and urban design, so this is a simplification, but I think the point still holds).

This is true, of course. I am much freer to dress like this and still be a fully functional (and indeed extremely economically productive) member of society than was the case a couple of decades ago. (This is the age of the geeks, after all).

Personally, though, I have a very mixed attitude to all this. I have long been someone who at least affected to despise fashion and to pay little attention to his own personal appearance, but I have been simultaneously fascinated by design for a long time. In fact I am almost obsessed by what things look and feel like. Industrial design is one of the most interesting subjects out there. There are historical reasons why I am like this, and I am most unlikely to change. It's a little self-contradictory - after all there is no real hard line between fashion and design anyway - but that's okay. I am allowed to be a little self-contradictory.

But as I was reading all this, one realisation came to me, and this is, I think, a reason why I love bridges so much. For some reason the construction of bridges builds a perfect, well, bridge, between form and function. Bridges are things that look beautiful if they are well designed in engineering terms. A structurally perfect bridge is gorgeous looking almost by definition. A more poorly designed bridge looks awkward. The beauty is in the engineering lines, somehow. Attempts to be ornate almost invariably do now work, and just make the bridge look awkward. Stronger materials do give bridge designers more flexibility than they once had (especially in terms of smaller bridges), but even so, they are always working within the engineering constraints. The structure is always paramount when you look at it. There is probably no other field in which form and function are so close to being the same thing.

Postrel actually mentions bridges once in the text. As a demonstration of how people's tastes can change over time, she quotes a critic in the 1930s commenting on the ugliness of the Golden Gate bridge, who decries how the great natural vista has been despoiled for all time. (I suspect actually that this was a minority view even in the 1930s). Like everybody else, though, I don't think that. The Golden Gate bridge is structurally beautiful, but I think the red colour is just a little over-ornate. I would like something that blends in with the greens and blues of the surrounding a little better. As far as large suspension bridges are concerned, I actually like the George Washington Bridge in New York better, and I may even agree with the caption on the photo that I just linked to that it is the most beautiful bridge in the world. (The view of New York I saw from it when walking across it at two in the morning in 2000 was one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen in my life, but it has of course now been spoiled for all time). When it was built, it was the longest span in the world, and was nearly twice as long as the second longest. And an interesting thing about this bridge is that the design originally called for more ornate towers, but the raw materials were left showing due to a budget crisis in the Great Depression. A few years later the plans to finish it to the original design were revived, but popular opinion was strongly against this and the bridge was left as it was. People thought it was just beautiful in its natural state. As do I.
Will we have these in the future?

Where can I get an all in one provigil/sudafed/aspirin/caffeine pill? That would be useful.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

My questions have been ripped off

Cool. I think that the questions might be slightly too bridge fixated for the list to be too widely distributed. And my opinion as to what is a "great bridge" is perhaps narrower than that of Ros. Might I also point out that if you count Wales and Scotland as separate countries, my "total countries visited" list goes out to 35, and I still win.

But that trip to Africa sounds like fun. I have been to Tanzania, but not to either Zanzibar or the Ngorongoro crater. I really need to go back, because these are two of those places that I think really must be visited.
Home theatre versus cinema

James Russell has some comments on the cinema versus home theatre experience, making the point that picture quality is much better in the cinema, and however convenient it is and how big your screen is, the home cinema experience does not match it. He gets a couple of things slightly wrong though, so I will elaborate a little here. (You may want to go and read James' post first).

Analogue PAL television is normally described as having 625 lines. However it takes time for the electron gun in a conventional television to move from the bottom of the screen to the top, so those lines which are being transmitted while the gun moves from the bottom to the top are not seen. The number of lines actually seen varies slightly depending on the TV, but as James says it is about 580. (The BBC invented a neat hack to transmit information in this hidden lines, which is how we got teletext). Digital television only transmits 576 lines, as this is enough to fill the screen, and with digital technology it is okay to not transmit quite in real time. (In fact it is required). High definition television uses either 720 or 1080 lines. (1150 was used for a couple of semi-experimental analogue HDTV formats, but is no more. The full resolutions for the two current formats are 1920x1080 and 1280x720). The digital movie cameras used for the best digital movies are produced by Sony, and use 1080 lines shot at 24 frames per second. (The 720 line HDTV mode also has 50fps and 60fps modes, and some people claim that these look better than 1080 lines at 24fps. However as film projectors normally use 24fps, this won't help if you are transferring to film and projecting in a cinema).

However, there have been a number of films that have been shot on digital equipment and blown up to film and then projected in cinemas that have used varients of the DV semi-professional format. (For instance "The Anniversary Party"). These have usually been shot in 576 lines and then blown up to film, and they look pretty muddy when projected. Films such as Russian Ark, which have actually been shot in 1080 line HD, look much better, although in my mind still not as good as film.

One final proviso is that one reason you have all that resolution for films is that you want it to look good from anywhere in the cinema, including right up the front. Most of these formats are fine down the back, but up front you can see the lines. In your living room, you are close to the screen, but the screen is much smaller and the lines are much thinner, so in terms of the arc width of each pixel, the situation is akin to sitting in the middle or back of a cinema. What that means is that although there are fewer lines on the screen, in practice a 1080 line plasma screen showing HDTV is in most instances going to look as good or nearly as good as watching a film in a cinema. (However, HDTV shown in a cinema is not going to look nearly as good as film in a cinema). In short, I disagree that cinema is always going to win out, but I agree that it wins out for now although in the best possible case only by a little.

The trouble is that at the moment we have few opportunities to actually watch movies in that best possible case at home. Plasma screens with 1080 (actually more commonly 1024) lines do exist, and formats for storing high definition movies on optical discs do exist, but not as consumer products yet. It is not generally possible to buy recorded movies in HDTV format (although there are one or two high definition movie channels on American satellite television). For now, even if we have high definition screens we are normally restricted to watching DVD format movies, and these have resolutions of either 720x576 (The PAL/SECAM world) or 720x480 (The NTSC/PAL-M world). So for now, home viewing is not as good as cinema viewing. But home viewing that is as good as cinema viewing is not far off.

And it is worth considering just how far things have improved. A decade ago we were watching pan and scanned VHS video tapes on 20 inch televisions and listening to mono sound on one tinny speaker on the front of the television. In my opinion, the distance to genuine cinema quality from where we are now is rather less than the journey since those days.

My good friend David Carr points to some of the wonderful photos coming back from the NASA Spirit rover on Mars, and expresses the sentiment that "That is the vista that will greet the first humans to set foot on that planet. I do not expect to be around to share in that experience but I still tingle with excitement at the prospect". I don't share his pessimism on this. I don't think that sending humans to Mars with our present level of technology is all that hard - it is certainly much easier than it was to send people to the moon with the level of technology we had in the 1960s. The trouble is that the resolve is not there, and the nationalised American space program has been sent off on useless projects with principal aims of political pork-barelling such as the space shuttle and (even worse) the International Space Station. If the amount of money spent on these two items had been spent sensibly on manned Mars missions, we would be there by now. The trouble is that NASA (particularly the parts that deal with manned space travel) is a bureaucratic monstrosity that is not capable of spending money sensibly on anything, and the political resolve is simply not there.

This is a different thing from saying that public desire and public interest is not there. The main Nasa website aplogises that some of the images are low resolution because "By early Tuesday, visitors downloaded nearly 15 terabytes of information from NASA/Mars Websites" and they are suffering bandwidth issues due to all the high resolution images. There is an awful lot of public interest in this.

This is good

Readership of this blog appears to be quite significantly up. I didn't have the expected drop over Christmas, and then in January I did have the expected after Christmas rise. We will see if this lasts.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Thwarting the MPAA

Okay, my DVD-ROM drive is now region free. That was easy. (How easy it is depends on the make of the DVD-ROM drive, however). Given that one of the main functions of DVD-ROM drives on laptops is to allow internationally minded people to watch movies while they fly from one continent to another, the whole idea of region locking does seem particularly ridiculous in this case. (I have a DVD collection which is a mixture of regions 1, 2, and 4, so doing this was particularly important for me).
Oh No

I allowed myself to be photographed wearing a suit. I am so embarrassed.

I have a wrap up of the Australia v India test series over at ubersportingpundit.

I have a terrible head cold. (I think it may actually be flu, actually). This is getting me down, and is somewhat restricting my ability to do stuff. A follow up piece giving more detail on this and I think answering many of the questions I would be asked in an interview, has been delayed a little due to a combination of my illness and the fact that MS Outlook Express crashed when I had been writing something for two hours in it without saving.
Trends in computer brands

I am sitting at a cafe in the food court at Victoria station, typing away on my laptop. Someone just interrupted me and asked me if I was happy with Dell. He said that his present machine was an Apple, but that he was planning in switching to a different brand for a new machine. I answered that yes, I was happy with the Dell. (I didn't tell him that the machine was only a month old, but that probably didn't matter). I could have qualified it with "but it needs more USB ports", but I didn't. Despite that small issue, I continue to think that my laptop is a lovely piece of equipment. It is big for a laptop, but that is just because I wanted a desktop spec machine in a laptop case, and I wanted a really big screen. And let's face it, a laptop with an "on steroids" look is very me.

Of course, I have one slightly annoying thing. My old laptop (an IBM Thinkpad) was smaller and lighter, and I generally carried it around in a backpack with other items. I tend to think that it got too much wear and tear that way, and that this is one reason why it eventually failed on me, and I have been thus carrying the new machine around in a dedicated laptop bag (which, ironically, I got when I bought the IBM). What is annoying is that this laptop bag came with a shoulder strap, and I cannot remember what I did with the shoulder strap, which I now need. Oh well.

Monday, January 05, 2004

A couple of thoughts on languages and accents.

When I was a child, my next door neighbour was an old, very self-reliant Scottish woman named Mrs Shepherd. (I still don't know what her first name was). Although she was invariably kind to me and to my brother and sister, she was very severe in a Scottish Presbyterian sort of way. And although she must have lived in Australia for something like 50 years, she also spoke with an incredibly strong Scottish accent. (I think she may have come from Inverness, but I am not sure). I remember her now and I think that she was more Scottish than anyone in Scotland could possibly be, but of course when I was seven I didn't think of it this way. These were not national characteristics. They were just the characteristics of Mrs Shepherd.

Which is why, when I was older and actually visited Scotland, I found the Scottish accent to be very familiar, but in some ways disconcerting. Regular people spoke with Scottish accents. Children spoke with Scottish accents. (That was the weird part, actually, when my mind assumed that Scottish accents were merely the accents of white haired 75 year old women). Beautiful young women spoke with Scottish accents. (That story is longer and sadder, and I am not going into it right now). The idea that the Scottish accent was an accent spoken by real people who went about their ordinary lives with it was something that deep down my mind took a little while to get used to.

Similarly, in 1992 I visisted France from the first time. In the same way, people in France actually went about their lives in French. They spoke to one another in French all the time, when they went to the supermarket, when they were complaining about poor postal service, and when they were insulting people. I was at least familiar with the sound of the French language, as my parents had taken me to see many French movies when I was a child and I continued to go to see them from time time time as an adult. (I am not especially fond of recent French cinema, however). When I went to France, my subconsciousness again had difficulty getting used to the idea that this was a real language used by everyone in France, and not just a language used for making pretentious movies.

Thirdly, in 1999 I went on a trip to the United States. I got on a flight from Chicago to New Orleans. When I got on the plane, I heard an accent that was extremely familiar to me, that I can only describe as the accent of blues singers. Of course, music from Louisiana is internationally famous (for the simple reason that it is often wonderful), and I had often heard people sing, and appear on TV chat shows the like in this accent. (I think that one reason I was familiar with the accent is both that it is a very distinctive accent and it is an intensely musical and charming accent to my ears, and a lot of people feel the same way. Of course, when I got on the plane I heard this accent coming from various directions around me. The stewardess was attempting to find a seat with an empty space next to it for an enormous black guy who looked like a blues singer (and probably was a blues singer) who spoke with the accent in question and was having a little difficulty fitting in one seat.

And what can I say. I went to New Orleans, met up with a friend, we went out to a club and listened to some live music, I drank some whiskey, and I generally had a marvellous time. The accent was part of the charm of the place, and it went with the music. Although I again found that an accent I had been familiar with in a small context was widely spoken, it somehow wasn't disconcerting this time. It was somehow comfortable. Perhaps it was that the "blues singer" accent is a minority accent even in New Orleans. Or perhaps it is that the accent is one associated with terrific music, and being in a place that the accents signalled was obviously the home of that music was a different experience to the other two. I'm not sure. It's emotional thing, and as Sherlock Holmes said, "all that is emotional is opposed to that cold reason that I hold above all things". Well, not exactly. It just felt like a good quote somehow.

And I am rambling.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Success at last

Nasa/JPL's lander Spirit has successfully landed on Mars, and has started transmitting pictures. Yay. Meanwhile, the British team are still saying that they are looking for Beagle 2, but nobody thinks that there is much hope. Various explanations have been made as to what might have happened to it, but the central message has not been emphasised by the media. This is that landing on Mars (particularly using the air bag bouncing landing method that was used) is difficult, that the tiniest of errors was likely to lead to Beagle suffering much greater stresses than intended and smashed to pieces, and that by far the most likely explanation for Beagle's non-transmission of signals is that Beagle was smashed to pieces on landing.

It has been interesting being in Britain during the Beagle mission, however. It was striking just how much national pride there was that Britain was attempting something like this. There was lots of media coverage and the overwhelming feeling was that this was a fine thing to be doing. Even after the mission apparently failed, the national pride didn't go away. It was still a general feeling of "Isn't it great that we tried. Bring on Beagle 3". This was actually a nice attitude.

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