Sunday, December 27, 2009

Arbitrary Rules

I recently posted to Samizdata my annual photoessay summarising my movements for the year (Previous years' efforts are here, here and here). I have a fairly strict set of rules as to how many photographs I allow myself to include in these posts. Basically, it is one photograph for each country I visit on each trip outside England. However, it is more complex than this. The actual rules are as follows:

  • The question of what is a country is hard to answer around the edges, but I choose a lenient definition. I generally include colonies, special zones with unusual history, and similar as separate countries for this purpose. If a place competes separately from its parent country in international sporting events or even the Miss World pageant, that is usually enough. Similarly, if a region has separate immigration controls from its parent country, that is generally enough. In the UK, I count Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales as separate countries. Having a separate ISO 3166-1 code and internet top level domain is a good sign, too, although not an absolute one. Hong and Macau have enough of these things that they get separate photographs, even though China is sovereign. Norfolk Island would get enough of these things to get a separate photograph, although Australia is sovereign. Puerto Rico has enough of these things that I would count it, although the US is sovereign.

  • Strange forbidden zones in which people may not normally enter and where one is required to give a passport to people in fatigues before entering get separate photographs, even if there is no sense that they are fully sovereign in any way. The two examples of these I have provided photographs for are the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, and the Zone of Alienation around Chernobyl. It happens that in both cases these zones lie on the borders between countries and the zones extend into each country, but in neither case is there any serious doubt as to where the border is. However, the zones have an otherness about them that makes them separate from their countries, so I give them an extra photograph. Any such zones that I enter in future that do not overlap borders will still get extra photographs

  • Disputed territory gets an extra photograph, assuming there is some substance to the dispute. In this latest post, I provided a photograph of Oliven├ža/Olivenza, which has been controlled by Spain since the Napoleonic Wars, but which is claimed by Portugal in accordance with the Treaty of Vienna which ended those wars. In that set, I put in photographs of Spain, Portugal, and Oliven├ža/Olivenza, which is three photographs. Nobody claims that there are three countries there, but I still put in three photographs.

  • In order to get two photographs of the same country, with one exception that I shall get to in the next point, I must return to England in the intervening period. If I am in Poland, and I fly back to England for a day, and then return to Poland (as I did this year) I get two photographs of Poland. However, if I move backwards and forwards six times between Poland and Germany without an intervening trip to England, I get one photograph of Poland, one of Germany, and no more.

  • If I am out of England for the New Year, I may include that trip on the list for both years, but in order to include a country for that year, I must still have visited it in that year. For instance, if I visit Korea in 2006 on the way to Australia, spend the new year in Australia, and then visit Korea again on the way back in 2007, I can include both Australia and Korea for both years. If on the other hand I visit Korea in 2006 on the way to Australia, spend the new year in Australia, and then fly straight back to England with no stop in Korea, I may include photographs of both Australia and Korea for 2006, but only Australia for 2007

  • In order to count myself as having visited a country, I must have left the transport vehicles and transport infrastructure by which I was traveling. Changing planes in a country without leaving the airport does not count. Going through a country by train and not leaving the train does not count. If I change trains the country does not count if I do not leave the railway station. Driving through a country and not getting out of the car does not count. Driving through a country and getting out of the car but only in service stations does not count.

  • While the existence of immigration controls is a strong indicator that a country should count, the absence of such proves nothing, as there are many national borders in which there are no controls. The question of whether I have personally gone through immigration controls is of little relevance, however. It is quite common to arrive in an airport, go through immigration controls, and fly straight out again, and this does not count. On the other hand, if there are controls, but they are not manned when I visit, then the country still counts. Similarly, if I enter a country illegally and avoid the controls, the country still counts if it otherwise qualifies

One or two of these rules have been made up to increase the number of photographs I get in these photoessays, but I have not allowed myself to do this without a vaguely convincing reason. The big weakness of these rules is that they do not do long trips to large countries justice. If I wander around Europe or South East Asia for three weeks, I may get half a dozen photographs or more. If I wander around an equally large area of the USA or India or Australia for the same period, I may only get one. However, extending the rules in such instances seems to be going a little too far.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Three Mobile have just upgraded their network near my home from HSDPA Category 6 to HSDPA Category 8. In practice, this means that the maximum download speed I can achieve is 7.2Mbps rather than 3.6Mbps as before. In practice, one never gets close to this speed, but "double the speed" is probably true in the sense that I will get twice what I had before.

The real reason for the upgrade is that as well as doubling the speed, it doubles the capacity of the network. Superior mathematics and code, and superior computational power allows more sophisticated modulation schemes to be used and the bitrate that can be achieved using a given amount of radio spectrum to be greater. When 3G networks first came along, they for some years had significant unused data capacity, but in the last couple of years demand for this has risen dramatically, driven by adoption of mobile broadband and adoption of smartphones such as the iPhone. (Three doesn't offer the iPhone yet in the UK, although most people seem to believe it will soon. The upgrade could partly be preparation for this). Therefore, networks are now being upgraded to newer, higher capacity technologies because they are becoming congested. Three have also recently introduced usage management software, basically meaning that if there is a heavy user in a cell, his usage is restricted sufficiently to allow other users to operate normally.

However, hardware capable of the higher speeds needs to be operating at both ends of the connection. If the user has an old modem not capable of the higher speeds then communication will continue to be at the old speed. So if everybody is using old modems, the network upgrade doesn't improve congestion. Thus Three sent me a letter offering me a new modem "to give you the full benefit of the upgraded network". No charge to me. No extension of contract required. Free as in free.

Of course, I said yes. However, there is a little secret. Upgrading modems to higher HSDPA speeds isn't generally about hardware. It is about software. Older modems are capable of handling the higher speeds just fine, but to do so they need upgraded firmware. Flashing the firmware is not that hard, and I had already upgraded my old modem myself. So Three are not actually getting any benefit out of sending me a new modem. They are simply giving me a spare. However, new hardware is new hardware. Yum.

Mobile phone networks in recent times have been trying to extend contract lengths, as the subsidies they have been paying on new phones have been high and they don't want to pay them as often. However, we here have a reversal. Three are trying to force upgrades on customers early, presumably because (a) network congestion is becoming a real problem and (b) 3G dongles are cheap. That said, I am not expecting them to give out free iPhones mid contract anytime soon.

Also, this particular contract only has about three months to run. I wonder if Three will still offer me a new dongle at the end of the contract, which is the normal practice if I renew.

Update: Thinking about it some more, there is another reason why no network is going to give out free iPhones mid contract, which is that Apple has no trouble getting iPhone users to update their software (including their firmware) whenever it wants them to. iPhone users plug their phones into their computers and sync them with iTunes regularly, and one of the things they do when they do this is upgrade them to the latest software. By providing a smooth software platform through which to do this and by providing lots of new functionality on a regular basis, Apple has given itself the ability to do upgrades that networks want as well as to fix bugs and the like.

This contrasts severely with other phone makers like Sony Ericsson and Nokia. Whilst it is theoretically possible to upgrade firmware on most of their phones, it is not something that customers heave learned to do. For one thing, there is lots of operator customised firmware that needs to be updated too, and operators generally prefer their customers to be using an old version of operator customised firmware than newer versions of unbranded firmware. Secondly, finding new firmware can be fiddly and often involves connecting the phone to a computer, which is usually not done for other reasons. Firmware upgrades over the air involve lots of messing around with network settings and operator policies and data charges and all kinds of stuff. Plus, firmware upgrades tend not to offer new functionality (as the business model here is that you will upgrade your phone when you want new functionality) so customers don't always see the point. If a phone doesn't work properly, the tendency is to take it back to whoever you bought it from, not to mess around with firmware upgrades.

That said, handling firmware updates is probably easier for 3G dongles. When I use the dongle I run a Three branded application on my laptop to manage the connection. This is not strictly necessary - as long as an appropriate driver is installed, both Windows and OS-X can actually manage the connection themselves - but this is the simple way of doing so. Once in a while this application updates itself over the internet, and there is no real reason why it couldn't handle firmware upgrades as well. I suspect though that keeping up with all the different models of dongle and firmware versions and the like is too much hassle for Three. Dongles are cheap enough that it is easier to simply send out new ones when this is called for.

It was of course once the case that PC software was more or less fixed in the state you bought it in with all the original bugs. It was only when being constantly connected to the internet became standard that this business of operating systems and other software constantly updating itself became the norm. This may not have been entirely good - once upon a time software had to work properly when it was released, rather than the now all too common practice of getting something out the door now and fixing it later - but it does at least mean that serious bugs and security issues can be fixed at any time.

This is going to have to become standard in phones as well, and I am sure it will. For the moment, though, this is a real achilles heel for the traditional manufacturers. Over the last couple of years Nokia and Sony-Ericsson have got into real trouble by releasing many high end phones with extremely buggy software. Rates of return for some models have been horrible. (20% or more in some instances). Some of these might have been fixable with firmware updates, but the overall impact has been a tremendous loss of reputation.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Evolutionary cycles

I yesterday went shopping for an LCD television for a friend of mine. I went to Richer sounds (a splendid and rather uncharacteristic British retailer known for selling high quality electronic merchandise at low prices from relatively unfashionable locations where the rent is low, providing fine customer service and treating employees well), and I ended up buying a Sharp TV. Interesting company, Sharp. People sometimes think the name is a little odd. For what it is worth, the company originally made mechanical pencils for engineering purposes, and they wanted to make it clear that they were very sharp. (True story).

Japanese companies seem to divide into two kinds. There were pre-WWII monoliths - the so called zaibatsus. American policy after the war was that these were far too powerful and that they were to be broken up into smaller companies. This American policy failed. They zaibatsus were theoretically broken up into smaller units, but they retained a complex arrangement of holding companies and cross shareholdings in which management control largely remained in place even though the companies had theoretically been split up. They evolved into post war industrial groupings known as keiretsus. These companies remained politically well connected, and when Japan attempted to grow its exports through government directed industrial policy, these were the benificiaries of it. These keiretsus included Mitsui/Toshiba, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Matsushita (Panasonic), and others.

As I said, these well connected companies were recipients of government largesse, and those who would wish to praise government industrial policy would tend to construct a story that this led to Japan's industrial success in the 1970s and the 1980s.

But of course, the story is more complex than this, There is a really good book about this, We Were Burning : Japanese Entrepreneurs and the Forging of the Electronic Age by my compatriot Bob Johnstone. The interesting part of the story is that although the keiretsus did benefit from the growth of the Japanese electronic industry, they were not where its innovation came from. The companies that were the heroes in this regard were small, non-existent or unfashionable in 1945, or were disgarded or disdained pieces of broken zaibatsus, In particular, we are talking companies like Seiko-Epson, Canon, Yamaha, or even Sanyo or Honda or Suzuki. (The Japanese government tried to micromanage the car industry, but the motorcycle industry was seen as less interesting, and so that is where the interesting companies ended up coming from).

In electronics, in the 1970s, Sharp's research was led by Sasaki Tadashi, whose enthusiasm earned him the truly glorious nickame of "Dr Rocket" - personally I would almost kill for such. In that era Sharp pretty much invented the electronic calculator and the LCD display. Sharp remains a leader in LCD display technology to this day.

To the extent, that in this day of LCD television, Sharp is the only Japanese company worth mentioning in this market. Sony - a company that rode a totally unique route between the keiretsu and the post war upstart, but which in the end did a better job of selling itself as a brand than an innovator - was the undoubted leader in the era of CRT televisions, but (perhaps as a consequence) totally missed the transition to flat screens. A lot of fancy televisions are sold today under the Sony brandname, but these were generally actually made by Samsung, or (in certain high end cases) by Sharp. The only Japanese company that actually makes televisions today is Sharp. The company that always was the great innovator: the company that Sony pretended to be.

Which is why I was happy to buy such a set for my friend.

Friday, December 11, 2009

I love discount airlines

And I love the fact that I can write a sentence like "I’ve been trying to get hold of James Waterton myself, mainly because I am going to be in Asia next month and I would like to buy him a few beers and have a chat". As in, I will be on the same continent, so we must catch up, with the understanding that the difficulty and expense of doing so will not be very great.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Grands Slam

In the sport of Rugby Union, there is a regular yearly competition between the strong countries of Europe. These days this includes Italy and is now the Six Nations Championship, but when I was a child it was the five nations: the five nations in question being England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and France. One of the peculiarities of this tournament is that winning the tournament is a less big deal than how you do it. Winning every game is a so called "Grand Slam", and this gets much more kudos than simply winning the tournament. The winners of the Six Nations also seems to win the Grand Slam about every second or third year.

As it happened, Ireland won the Grand Slam in the Six Nations Championship at the start of this year. This was a big deal for them: it was only the second time they had won it, and the first time in 61 years.

However, as it happens, achieving a Grand Slam in Rugby wasn't just a five nations thing. Back in the days when international travel was hard, the teams from the Rugby Union playing nations of the southern hemisphere would only tour the British Isles every few years. When they did so, they would play one test against each of Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales. Winning all four games was the same achievement that would be required of France to win the Grand Slam in the then Five Nations, and also became known as winning the Grand Slam, or at least it did in the southern hemisphere rugby nations.

Winning a Grand Slam this way was never easy, and prior to 1984, it was only ever done five times: by South Africa in 1912, 1931, 1951, and 1960, and by New Zealand in 1978. In 1984, it was achieved by Australia for the first time. I can remember this, and it was a huge occasion in Australian rugby. A lot of rugby fans in Australia would still describe it as the biggest moment the sport has ever had in Australia, and Australia have won the World Cup - twice - since then. This was the first time Australia had ever put a world beating rugby team on the field. Prior to that Rugby Union had always been a (very) poor relation to Rugby League in Australia and the Rugby Union team had almost always lost badly to New Zealand, South Africa, and the stronger British and French teams. Since then, Australia has been one of the leading powers in the game.

However, even before the 1984 tour was played, the various governing bodies had decided that it would be much easier for their schedules if touring sides were not playing all four home nations in the same season. It was decided that in this age of easier travel, the southern hemisphere sides would come twice as often and only play two of the four nations on each tour. This decision was unpopular with the boards in the Southern Hemisphere countries, because a tour in which a Grand Slam is a possibility is a bigger deal than one where it isn't. The boards in the British isles on the other hand either didn't realise this or didn't care.

However, the southern hemisphere boards discovered that they could negotiate with individual nations, and try to get additional tests added to these two test tours. I remember in 1996 Australia managed to get Wales to agree to add a game to a tour that already had Ireland and Scotland, and Australia tried very hard to get England to agree to a game too. When England refused to substitute a test match for a charity game at Twickenham between Australia and the Barbarians, I recall Australian officials getting very abusive, too. And it was a shame, because Australia had a pretty good side that year and won the three tests against Scotland, Ireland, and Wales quite convincingly. A final game at Twickenham for the Grand Slam would have been great.

Since then, Southern Hemisphere tours of Europe have become more common, and any regular structure is gone. Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand tour Europe most years, and fit in various combinations of tests with the four Home Nations, France, and Italy. They play all these teams fairly frequently, but there is still a lot of prestige attached to a Grand Slam tour of the British Isles for historical reasons, and winning a Grand Slam is a big deal, because it has been done so infrequently. South Africa managed to schedule Grand Slam tours in 1998 and 2004, but could not win the Grand Slam on either occasion. New Zealand scheduled Grand Slam tours in 2005 and 2008, and won the Grand Slam on both occasions, which probably made their inability to win World Cups even more annoying for them.

However, this year, Australia finally managed to schedule a Grand Slam series, for the first time since the famous 1984 tour. They are not seen has having a very strong side this year, having lost most of their southern hemisphere matches to New Zealand and South Africa, and were only given odds of 7/1 before the tour. Last weekend, they played England, and played well enough to win reasonably confortably , despite some problems in the line outs. They were ecstatic at the end of the game, mainly because the Grand Slam possibility made it a much bigger occasion that it would have been otherwise. Today against Ireland, the line outs were again a problem, but Australia none the less led for almost the entire match. Their defence was good, and they spent the last ten minutes defending a 20-13 lead. It looked like the Grand Slam was still on.

Except, Ireland got through in the last couple of minutes, and scored a converted try to draw the match 20-20. The Grand Slam is not happening this year. There is no disgrace in drawing with or even losing to Ireland at the moment - after all they won a Grand Slam themselves at the start of the year. However, if Australia beat Scotland and Wales, which they may not, they will really see this as a chance for glory that got away. There is a sense perhaps that a chance for a great occasion may have been lost. Australia should beat Scotland next weekend. A final game in front of a huge crowd in Cardiff against Wales for the Grand Slam could have been fun.

Oh well, though. If these things were easy, they would not be such a big deal when they do occur. Hopefully we will not have to wait for another 25 years before Australia get another chance to do this.

What is interesting, though, is that my Northern Hemisphere rugby friends largely missed why the southerners were taking this so seriously. This type of Grand Slam is not something thought of much by northern fans, possibly because it is something their own teams cannot win. but it's quite a big deal for us.

Monday, November 09, 2009


In my post on Samizdata about visiting Chernobyl, I use the Latinised form of Russian rather than Ukrainian spellings of place names - for instance Chernobyl and Kiev rather than Chornobyl and Kyiv - as these were the forms in use at the time of the disaster and these remain the names most commonly used outside the Ukraine and are hence likely to be the forms most familiar to my readers. Since the Chernobyl disaster, Ukraine has become an independent nation and has adopted Ukrainian rather than Russian as its official language, and this change has included encouragement of foreigners to use Latin transliterations of Ukrainian rather than Russian spellings of local place names. When a Latin script is used locally, one now sees Chornobyl and Kyiv. However, the world outside still tends to use the Russian forms.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Apple play a devious game.

The desktop PC that I built five years ago has this year died, had various pieces replaced with parts bought on ebay, and been rebuilt. At the end of this it was still unreliable, slow, and sufficiently frustrating to use that I was not using it any more, and was instead using my laptop most of the time. This was not ideal, as I have two very nice screens on the desk in my study. I could have plugged the laptop into one of these and used it at my desk, but this seemed wrong, somehow. In any event, constandly connecting and disconnecting the laptop from the screen and/or other peripherals in my study was just a nuisance.

So, I decided I needed a new desktop machine. Over the last couple of years I have returned to Apple. The first computer I ever used was an Apple II back in 1981, and I used these and (later) Macintoshes until about 1998. From 1988 or so, I used Unix machines in university and scientific environments as well. I actually almost never used a DOS or Windows machine until 1998, but I moved to Windows then for a mixture of work related reasons and because Apple as a company had lost its way and appeared to be dying.

However, Apple did of course not die, and Microsoft lost its way over the last decade. By developing OS-X on a Unix foundation, it managed to swallow up a lot of the Unix community as well. (Like everyone else, Unix geeks have been moving to laptops, and Mac laptops are the best Unix laptops by far). I rather delayed coming back, but a couple of years ago I bought myself a Macbook Pro, which has turned out to be the nicest laptop I have ever owned, by far. The Snow Leopard upgrade a couple of months back has improved its performance. It still feels like a brand new laptop and has none of the sluggishness that Windows machines seem to get after a couple of years.

So, having decided to buy a Mac desktop, I this week bought a Mac mini. Since being upgraded earlier this year, the mini has had quite a nice spec, including decent nvidia 9400 graphics with dual monitor support. Apple gave the mini a minor speed bump a couple of weeks ago, which gave me a great chance to get the just superseded early 2009 model cheap. As it happened, I bought it "refurbished" from the Apple store for £339. The computer may have been a return, or might have been and end of model sale. But it was cheap, and looks and feels as good as new. This was theoretically the low end model with a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU and 1Gb of RAM and a 120Gb hard drive. My intention was to upgrade the hard drive (probably to a 320Gb or 500Gb 7200rpm unit) and RAM at some point. I probably still will, but the machine that was shipped to me actually has 2Gb of RAM, meaning that the RAM upgrade isn't particularly urgent.

The Mac mini comes in a very small box which does not include a screen, mouse, or keyboard. Apple have always sold it as being a relatively inexpensive machine allowing people who have these things already to switch to Apple. People who want a fully new machine from the ground up should buy an iMac. And this suited me fine. The Mac mini is plugged into my (lovely) 24 inch Dell screen that has a few years of life left in it, and the (also nice, but older) 19 inch Sony screen I have sitting next to it will be plugged in also once the mini Display port to DVI adaptor that I have ordered on ebay arrives and I gain the ability to plug it in. And the (Compaq branded) USB keyboard and (Sony branded) USB mouse that I have plugged into the mini do indeed work perfectly.

However, they look wrong somehow. These are dark coloured and clunky bits of PC hardware. They look way too utilitarian to go with the Mac. And the keyboard has a Windows key instead of an Apple key. I can almost feel the urge to go and buy a Mac keyboard and Mac mouse for purely aesthetic reasons. Apple were not lying when they stated that "Most users will have compatible hardware already", but I fear they also understand that people - think "this is wrong" - and go and buy an Apple mouse and keyboard, and that this way Apple get much higher margins on them than they would have had they just put them in the box with the computer.

Except, of course, they do not fit in the box. If a keyboard had been included, Apple couldn't sell the Mac mini in such a cool, small box. And knowing Apple, this is quite possibly a fair bit of the reason.

Friday, November 06, 2009


On Wednesday evening, I was boarding a plane at Bremen airport in Germany. Earlier in the day, I had purchased a plastic bottle of Diet Coke, had consumed half of it, and then closed it and put the bottle in my rucksack. Of course, I then forgot about it. When I put the same rucksack through the X-Ray machine at the airport, it showed up and I was asked to remove it from my bag. I asked if I could simply drink the contents rather than have it confiscated. I was told that, yes, I could, but in order to do so I would have to take it back outside the secure area, drink it, and then go through security again.

I am almost tempted to offer a prize for the most creative reason that anyone can imagine for such a rule. Do they think I am going to explode if I drink non-approved Diet Coke on the wrong side of the metal detector? Even if they do, in what way would my exploding outside the secure area make things better?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A tale of woe, and a small plea

I have been taking digital photographs for about six years now. A year ago, these were mostly stored on the hard disk of my principal desktop computer at the time. I had backups on hard drives on a couple of laptops and also on some CDs and DVDs. Backups of recent files were in order, but older backups were not very well organised.

In March this year, I decided to fix this and simultaneously better organise everything by importing all my photos into iPhoto on my Mac laptop and then backing this up with Time Machine. Impatient about the idea of importing everything over my home network, I removed the (PATA) hard drive from my desktop, and put it in an external hard drive enclosure I had around. This worked fine, and I backed up some of my photos. I then discovered that I needed the hard drive back in the original desktop, and so I removed it from the external hard drive enclosure and plugged it back into the PATA connection of the desktop.

At this point , disaster. The hard drive would no longer work. Foolishly, I had left the motherboard plugged into the power when I plugged the hard drive back in. The CPU was not spinning and I believed the hard drive power cable was not live when I plugged the drive in, but perhaps the power was in fact live. Or perhaps some sort of static discharge occurred. In any event, the hard drive that had the only complete copy of my photo collection had failed. My belief was (and is) that the electronics on the hard drive was fried.

I then looked for my older backups. I found that one of the DVDs that had contained backups was physically broken, which presumably happened when I moved house. Another was unreadable. Still, however, I was able to retrieve about 80% of my photo collection from backups. However, I have lost some photographs from 2005 and 2006: specifically the some (but not all) of those of two trips to the US from 2005, and one trip to China and one to Korea from 2006, as well as a small number of European photos from those years.

I decided that the lost photographs were of sufficient value to me that I was willing to pay for data recovery if possible, so I sent the hard drive to a data recovery company. I chose it from advertising and online recommendations: I have no idea if I chose well. From certain aspects of their customer service that I will not go into, it is more likely that I chose badly than not.

My belief was that the drive simply had electrical problems, but the data recovery company claimed that

The primary failure is a failure of the read/write heads. The read/write heads have also made contact with the platter surface causing media damage and unreadable sectors. These unreadable sectors span the disk surface causing corruption. There is also a PCB fault.

It is entirely possible that they were exaggerating the damage in order to increase the price. After a little negotiation, I agreed to pay £450 on a no data no fee basis.

After several months in which I didn't hear from them, the data recovery company finally told me that they had been unable to get the hard drive to respond to a replaced PCB, and they returned the hard drive (and the spare PCB - they presumably sent this to me to show they had tried).

So, I was back where I started. I get the feeling it may be worth having one further try with another data recovery company, assuming that someone is willing to try. The model is a Hitachi hds722516vlat80

However I need to find the best experts I can find - preferably Hitachi specialists. Any thoughts as to who I might ask?

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The joys of indoctrination

When I was at primary school in Australia in the 1970s, the curriculum still had a certain colonial quality about it. I recall a spelling book which was full of dictation exercises containing passages talking about how the Queen had been received on her visit to India and discussing how "the Commonwealth makes good sense" and blah blah blah. Mixed in with this, we of course got the requisite stuff about polar exploration, and all the inspiring stuff about the heroic Scott and Shackleton and all that, with the nice fact being mentioned that probably the third most distinguished Antarctic explorer from the British empire (Mawson) was an Australian. Mixed in with all this was the sad acknowledgement that the first man to the South Pole was in fact Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian. What I was taught even included remnants of the standard British disparagement of the man, which was that he simply ran an efficient, straight to the Pole there and back expedition, whereas the heroic Scott was somehow on a morally higher plane for having scientific motives as well as the simple desire to be first to the pole, and that there was something not fair about Amundsen slaughtering some of his dogs and eating the meat, etc etc etc. Even to the young me, it was fairly clear that there were some sour grapes in this, and that Amundsen would likely have been written about as the greatest of heroes if he had done everything exactly the same had he happened to have been British. Plus there was the fact that Scott ate his horses. The only real difference was that Amundsen was smart enough to take the correct animals with him.

Of course, if I had gone to school in Norway, I am sure I would have found Amundsen talked about as the greatest of heroes, so the man certainly doesn't fail to get his due. It is just that he achievement was received with a certain amount of bad grace by the British.

One key point about the fact that Amundsen and Scott got to the South Pole within a few weeks of each other is that there is absolutely no doubt that they both got there. Amundsen left physical evidence behind, and Scott found that physical evidence a few weeks later and confirmed that yes, Amundsen had reached the pole.

Somehow, though, this morning, for the first time in about 30 years I found myself thinking about polar exploration. Wandering around Wikipedia, I found myself reading about Arctic exploration rather than Antarctic. My schooling spent more time discussing the Antarctic, probably mainly because the British were involved. The Arctic had been done by Americans, largely, and this was seemingly mentioned briefly, with a footnote that the reason why Amundsen went to the South Pole was because he had wanted to be the first man to the North Pole, but had changed his direction in 1909 upon discovering that Robert Peary had reached the North Pole. After Peary had reached the North Pole via surface travel, Richard Byrd of the US Army had then become the first man to fly over the North Pole in 1926

However, to my surprise today, I discovered that there is now pretty clear evidence that neither Peary nor Byrd got to the North Pole. Both apparently made sincere attempts to get there, encountered difficulties before getting the whole way, turned around and returned to civilization claiming falsely that they had made it.

Who led the first expedition that can be unequivocally confirmed to have reached the North Pole? Well, that was a Norwegian expedition which travelled there by airship in 1926, a few days after Byrd's claimed flight. The leader of that Norwegian expedition? One Roald Amundsen. Amundsen is justly famous for having led the first expedition that got to the South Pole. However, he almost certainly also led the first expedition that reached the North Pole as well. Amundsen did not land, and the first people to set foot on the Pole were apparently the crew of a Soviet aircraft who landed there in 1948. And the first expedition to reach the pole by surface transport (rather than an aircraft or submarine) apparently did not do so until 1968. A lot of these people did not realise that they were pioneers, because Peary's claims were accepted for a number of decades. Who was "first to the pole" depends on definitions, but giving it to Amundsen seems reasonably fair.

I am slightly disturbed that I did not know this until now. I suspect I probably would have if I were Norwegian.

Friday, July 10, 2009

This is obvious, really

With most mobile phone networks in Britain, when you call regular customer service the call is forwarded to someone in India. If the person on the other end of the call solves my problem efficiently, I am fine with this. When things don't work, the problem is ultimately caused by poor systems and poor management at the network, usually. For instance, I had a customer service issue with Vodafone (caused by a screw up at their end) in which it was impossible to be helped by the same person twice, and different people kept failing to understand things that I had already explained to one of their colleagues. Bad service. On the other hand, for a recent issue I had with Three (caused by a screw up by the Royal Mail) the first person who helped me took my number, and said he would escalate the problem and call me back when it was resolved, which he did. Good service.

However, there is one option in the phone menu that will always get you to someone in the UK, and that is selecting "I wish to cancel my phone". When you select this from just about any network, you get someone with a friendly Northern English or Scottish accent from the "customer retention" department, whose job it is to talk you out of leaving. These people will ask you why you are leaving, and have the power to offer you much better deals that people in, say, the network's retail shops. Such people walk a relatively delicate line, because if someone genuinely does wish to cancel they have a legal right to do so and the network must not refuse them, but it is their job to keep you on the line if there is some chance you will renew your contract.

If you genuinely do want to cancel your phone, there is a game to be played to get it over with quickly. Basically, you tell lies that are unanswerable by the person on the other end of the phone. "I am leaving the country" is a good one, but only works if you are doing a straight cancellation. If you are instead asking for a PAC code to port your number to another network, that doesn't hold up. Things like "This phone is in my name, but my ex-girlfriend used it. We have now broken up and she wants to keep her number" will usually work. Or one can just get confrontational and insist, but I don't like to do that.

Sometimes though, you say you want to cancel when you have absolutely no desire to cancel. This comes down to what I said earlier: the customer retentions department has the power to offer you a better deal than any other part of the organisation. Usually, though, they will not make their very best offer unless you seem sincere about leaving, and it turns into an experience akin to haggling in a market. It is very hard to know how low they are able to go, as the level of desperation to keep customers varies depending on how close to their monthly quotas they are, how badly they think the stockmarket will react to news that they have lost fifty thousand customers, and that kind of thing. Therefore, haggling exists here for the same reason it exists in markets - the seller does not want to reveal to the buyer how low he can go unless he absolutely has to, and he does so in the hope that the buyer will agree to pay more. I am reasonably good at this, but I suppose I should note that the cheapest deal I have ever obtained was received when I rang up genuinely intending to leave and they genuinely talked me out of it. (As a consequence of this, I generally carry two mobiles. That said, having a second number that is only known to my close friends has something to be said for it to).

In any event, the cheapest mobile deals to be had in the UK generally come from taking out a contract, letting it come to its end, and then calling the customer retentions department and threatening to leave.

Yesterday, however, I did something different. I have had a mobile broadband contract with Three for the last 12 months, for which I pay £10 a month for 1Gb of data. This isn't a huge allowance, but is generally plenty for those occasions I am away from home and where there is no free WiFi. However, I bought that original contract at a bad time. Three have at various times had 25% off or 50% off deals on this contract. In fact, I obtained a £5 a month deal for one of my friends during one of these offers. (Hi Brian). Therefore, I yesterday simply rang up the customer retentions department, and asked if they could give me the same deal. The response from the nice Scottish woman was "Let me check. Yes, sure, I can offer you that. It's nice to get someone who knows exactly what he wants".

Somehow, this seems deeply wrong, as the game of elaborate lies was missing. I suppose, though, that it was akin to knowing a fair price for something in a market, offering it, saying "take it or leave it", turning around to walk out, and seeing if the stallholder stops you. The woman at the other end of the phone seemed pleased. I suppose there is a fair chance she is paid on commission, and gets commission for a contract renewal, and someone who does a deal immediately without 15 minutes of lying and/or threatening to hang up is quite an efficient use of her time.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What does this mean?

This morning, I woke up at about 5am. I had a flight to Santiago de Compostella booked that departed at 8am. This had cost me some money (a few tens of pounds) a few months back. As it happened, I imagined climbing out of bed, the struggle through various means of transport to Stansted airport, security lines, flying through the need for more sleep, a bus into town at the Spanish end, and then finding and checking into a hotel.

At that point I decided to roll over and fall back to sleep. I now quite considerably regret this, as if I had done everything correctly, I would now be sitting in a tapas bar with some jamon iberico and a glass of red wine, or perhaps admiring a cathedral.

On the other hand, what does this mean? Possibilities.

  • I am finally growing up.
    I am depressed.
    I am ill.

  • On the other hand, I do genuinely regret this. I will get up and make the plane next time.

    On the other hand, if I meet the love of my life at the party on Saturday night that I wouldn't have been able to go to if I were in Galicia, I guess it will make a good story.

    (Sorry RSSers).

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