Saturday, January 04, 2003

The problem with publishing this blog to blogspot has now apparently been fixed, so my posts from the last couple of days have now appeared. A couple more posts are coming shortly.
Blogger is refusing to publish my front page. Although there is new material being written, it is only appearing in my archives. Some people are going straight to the archives due to a link from Iain Murray, but most people are not going to be able to see this explanation either.

Friday, January 03, 2003

Iain Murray has responded to the discussion going on in my comments section about best cricket teams of all time. Iain has challenged other people to select the best team for each country (from all players who have ever played for that country). Here is my first draft. When selecting a team like this, one wants to go beyond merely great players and into players who can be described as "giants of the game". For some reason, as Iain has demonstrated, the West Indies have an awful lot of these. Australia have plenty of great players, but relatively few of the giants. Anyway, my side:

Arthur Morris
Bill Ponsford
Victor Trumper
Don Bradman
Greg Chappell
Adam Gilchrist
Keith Miller
Alan Davidson
Shane Warne
Dennis Lillee
Bill O'Reilly

Some comments: Most of Australia's very best bats tend not to have been openers. I will take Morris, because both Bradman and O'Reilly had such a high opinion of him, and at his best he was clearly something to behold. As for the other opener, that is hard. (Hopefully, in five years time the answer will be "Hayden" but we are not quite there yet. You can take a pre-war great like Ponsford, or one of a number of outstanding post-war openers: Hassett, Lawry, Simpson, Taylor. I will go with Ponsford in the end because of his propensity to make big scores. As for the number three, I will go for Trumper due to his being held above all other batsmen of his day, at least in Australia, and because people who saw both Trumper and Bradman still often rated Trumper very highly. (Statistically, he was no great shakes, but I will blame that on sticky wickets). Of modern Australian batsmen that I have seen, the best was Chappell, who had great power and elegance, plus gritty determination when he needed it. Gilchrist isn't the best keeper to play for Australia, but given his batting I will forgive him this. Miller is the only absolutely top notch all rounder Australia has ever produced. Not quite Sobers, but still quite a player. Davidson is statistically the best Australian quick bowler of the last 100 years, and he also has the added advantage of being a left armer for the sake of variety. Lillee was the canniest and smartest of fast bowlers, and had as fine an action as you will see.

Finally, I have selected two leg spinners. This won't work for all conditions, but with these two spinners it will work for most. I commented on Australia having a lack of players who were giants of the game: well, O'Reilly and Warne both quality, so I need to select them both. If the strongest competition that this all time Australian side encounters is Iain's all time West Indies side, the two leg spinners might be an advantage. Perhaps the one weakness of the great 1980s West Indian sides were their inability to play decent legspin bowling. In the 1980s, they didn't encounter one bowler of the class of O'Reilly or Warne: two against them would be interesting.

If you were playing in Perth, you could drop one of the spinners and play another quick: perhaps Lindwall, McGrath, or even Spofforth. If you wanted to strengthen the batting, you could drop one of the spinners and play another batsman: maybe Harvey, Border, Steve Waugh.

All that said, I think Iain's West Indian side would mostly win.

Thursday, January 02, 2003

This Guardian piece (via BuzzMachine) contains lots of sense on what the tech trends of 2003 are likely to be. I think the observation that blogs are in some ways the new Usenet is a fairly astute one. When I first discovered the net in the late 1980s, Usenet was the key information application for me, and for me it was very interactive. Then, a few years later, I spent my time getting information from more static sites, from Hotwired to Feed to Suck to Word to even Slate and Salon, which was more a case of reading than writing. Now, however, where it is happening is in the blogosphere, and I am back to doing a lot of writing. Certainly I now write relatively similar things for my blog that I once did on Usenet.

One key difference though is that Usenet is divided up into reader spaces. All the readers interested in a subject are in one place, and will read an article that anyone posts on that subject. As an author, you post in different places when you are writing about different subjects. If you pick up readers in one place, they may not be familiar with the work you post in other places and on other subjects. With Usenet, you follow subjects rather than authors.

The blogosphere, on the other hand, is divided up into writer spaces. Everything an author writes is in the same place. He may write on different subjects, but these are mixed together. Readers tend to follow authors rather than subjects. If you write on your blog on a particular subject that you do not normally discuss, then your regular readers might not be interested, and readers who are interested may not find it. In the blogosphere, you follow authors rather than subjects.

What would be really useful would be a search engine that indexes large numbers of blogs, and indexes posts in those blogs individually. If you are interested in a particular subject, the engine lists all recent individual blog posts that are connected with that subject. Some google like factor ranks the posts in order of how many other people have accessed them / how often they are linked to / how often the blog that contains them has been linked to, etc. Once you have this, you would have a true successor to Usenet, only easier to use and less geeky.

Also on that Guardian article, I thorougly endorse the recommendation that people read Clay Shirky , one of the stars of the old Feed . And it seems someone has given Jim McClellan an Advance Reading Not For Sale copy of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition . Lucky bastard.

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

In most countries in which the GSM cellphone standard dominates, the sending of messages using the Short Message Service (SMS) is extremely popular. These allow short text messages of up to 250 characters or so to be sent from one cellphone to another. Mobile phone companies these days get something over 10% of their revenues from SMS messaging.

This revenue is close to free for the mobile carriers. Associated costs are close to zero. To carry an SMS message, they need to provide a maximum of about 2000 bits of network capacity. To carry a voice call, they need to provide around 15000 bits of network capacity per second . On my mobile phone, I am charged 10 pence to send an SMS message, and I am charged 5 pence per minute for a voice call. That is, I am being charged around 5 pence for 1000 bits of data for SMS, compared to around 0.005 pence per 1000 bits of data for voice. That is, the carriers are somehow able to get away with charging 1000 times as much for SMS. Even better, unlike for voice, where you are having a real time conversation, the transmission of SMS messages does not have to be instantaneous. If the network is busy, then the phone simply waits for a lag in network activity before sending the message. If the phone is in a network blackspot when the message is sent, then the phone simply waits until it is back in a coverage area before the message is sent. Therefore, while phone companies are constantly upgrading their networks to deal with greater demands on their capacity and blackspots in the network for voice, such upgrades are never needed due to increased demand for SMS services. Therefore, money spent on SMS is entirely profit.

The demand for SMS took mobile carriers entirely by surprise. The feature was built into the GSM phone standard from day one, but there was little expectation that many people would use such a limited service. The use of SMS only really took off when large numbers of teenagers got their hands on mobile phones. These are people who are price conscious. Although one SMS message is being charged at a much higher rate per bit than is a voice call, the cost of a message is still usually less than the cost of a voice call. More importantly, these are people who are willing to play with their phones and start using features other than the most obvious. This did not happen until mobile penetration reached around the 50% mark in individual countries. Once it did, and once the phone companies discovered there was money in SMS, then they improved the service. At that point, we got SMS interoperability between mobile networks, both in the same and different countries, information services giving you sports scores by SMS, and the market really took off. The thing worth noting is that network effects are dramatic when mobile mobile penetration rates are high. When penetration rates go from 50% to 70%, SMS message numbers may go up tenfold. Also, at that point, SMS usage escapes the teenage ghetto, as teenagers start sending and receiving messages from adults. Then adults start using them themselves. (I regularly send and receive messages from my 63 year old mother in Australia). Most recently, we have started seeing all sorts of hybrid uses for SMS messaging. The business model behind this is the equivalent of 900 numbers in telephone service: the receiving party and the telephone company split the revenue from the call. With 900 numbers, the caller is charged a premium for the call, but with SMS messages this is hardly necessary, as the margins on SMS messages are utterly enormous anyway. (However, the phone companies have created premium charge numbers for SMS regardless.

This type of arrangement has become particularly popular with the media, especially television companies. SMS messaging is an ideal way to add some interactivity to television programming, allowing viewers to enter competitions and the like. With reality television and talent shows having become a big deal lately, this provides an easy way for viewers to vote for the winners. Of course, television contests involving viewers phoning in have a very long history, but the advantages of doing it with SMS messaging are twofold. Firstly, your mobile phone is akin to a remote control. Most of us carry them with us most of the time, and we therefore don't have to get up from the television and make a phone call. Secondly, television stations do not need to maintain huge banks of operators to answer phone calls, as a computer can accept and process the messages very easily. (Plus, as an added bonus, networks are unlikely to be overloaded by SMS messages, however large their number).

All this was completely unexpected, and it just evolved out of a not very sophisticated technology being there, being useful, and being fairly ubiquitous. Which is why I am actually not all that convinced by this article by Brendan Koener in Slate, arguing that Americans are somehow different, and that American teens will not use data services on their mobile phones (including SMS) for what are essentially cultural reasons. My personal belief is that Americans will be sending SMS messages in surprisingly large numbers within a couple of years: yes, they have been slower in take up of SMS than have Europeans and Asians, but the reasons for this are largely technical. Penetration rates for mobile phones in America are lower than in most other developed countries. I blame this on one factor: Americans pay for incoming calls. This has hindered take up rates of phones in general, and has reduced the amount of time Americans leave their phones switched on. This has also led to the unfortunate idea that mobile phones are things you have "for emergencies", rather than constant everyday use. Secondly, Americans have been much slower switching from analogue to digital phones than Europeans and Asians, and therefore many fewer phones have been SMS capable. When they have switched to digital, Americans have used three different technical standards (D-AMPS/IS-136, CDMA/IS-95 and GSM). While all these standards support SMS, the differences between them have hindered full SMS interoperability between networks. All these factors have meant that the effective penetration of SMS capable cellphones in the US is much less than in Europe. Remember, SMS messaging did not really get going in Europe until penetration rates got over 50%.

Let us look at Koerner's arguments in detail. Firstly, internet access is cheap in the US, and teenagers often have their own computers and their own flat rate internet access in their homes. This is not true in many other countries. My response to this is that this varies widely from country to country, which is good, because you can then attempt to correlate these things If you do, there does not seem to much of a correlation between internet use (and/or the presence of flate rate internet plans) and SMS use elsewhere. My native land of Australia is culturally very similar to the US, flat rate internet access is standard and cheap, teenagers are pampered with their own computers and the like almost as badly as are teenagers in the US, and SMS usage in Australia is enormous. Britain is not as culturally American as Australia is, but it is more so than anywhere else in Europe, and flat rate internet access is once again cheap and very widely used. SMS usage here is enormous too. What Britain has is very high mobile phone penetration. (It may well be that the high take up of a more complicated technology like i-mode in Japan is related to high priced internet access otherwise, but I doubt it for SMS). In both Australian and Britain, teenagers use things like instant messaging all the time when they are at home. I see no evidence whatsoever that this makes them less likely to use SMS services on their phone when they are not at home. (People that age like to communicate with one another a lot).

And I am really not convinced that American parents are any more or less likely to blanch at their children's mobile phone bills than are European parents. European parents spend money on other things for their children too, and are less rich.

American analysts basically think that SMS messaging will not take off there because they see it as a feeble, unsophisticated little techology and think they can see better alternatives. The fact is, though, so did Europeans before it took off. And it took off anyway. To take off properly, the technology requires high digital mobile phone penetration and interoperability between networks. That's all. Its failure in the US until now can be blamed on the lack of these factors. These factors are now in place in the US too, and I expect a major increase (in the order of 300% or more) in the number of SMS messages sent in the US this year.

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Happy New Year, Everybody

Countries I visited in 2002
Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, United Kingdom, Turkey, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France.

Countries I visited in 2002 that I had not visited before
Malaysia, Turkey, Belgium.

Greatest product I discovered while travelling to one of these countries
Belgian beer.

Greatest product I discovered in a country I had visited before
Real Ale (it was that kind of year).

Total number of countries visisted in my life
32 (Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, China, USA, Canada, UK, France, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Kenya, Tanzania, Portugal, Spain, Monaco, Italy, Japan, Ireland, Thailand, Nepal, Macau, Finland, Estonia, South Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, Belgium, Turkey).

Number of these countries that no longer exist
3 (Czechoslovakia, Macau and Hong Kong, although you can argue both that Hong Kong and Macau are still countries or that they never were).

Best theatrical production I saw this year
Twelfth Night, at Shakespeare's Globe.

Movies I most enjoyed in 2002
Mulholland Drive, Donnie Darko, The Two Towers.

Most over the top (and very Japanese) movie I saw this year
Battle Royale .

Books that I most enjoyed reading in 2002
A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

Musical acts that I would have liked to have seen, and that I could have seen in London in 2002 if I had bought tickets in time, but didn't
Aimee Mann, Sigur Ros.

Favourite television program of 2002
Once again, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Most stunning place I visited in 2002

Place I visited where I felt most like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes, he spied the Pacific, and all his men looked at each other, wild with surmise, silent upon a peak in Darien
Troy (the one in Turkey, not the one in Michigan, although I salute the person who named a town in Michigan "Troy").

Great bridges I walked over in 2002
The Clifton Suspension Bridge.
The First Severn Crossing.
The Pont de Normandie.

Great Bridges I travelled over in vehicles in 2002
The Second Bosporus Bridge (which, as a bonus, is in the same location that Xerxes built his bridge of boats across the Bosporus as he headed East on the way to fight the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae in 480 BC).

Great Bridges I saw, but did not travel over in 2002
The First Bosporus Bridge.
The Second Severn Crossing.

Great tunnels I travelled through in 2002
The Channel Tunnel.
The Rotherhithe Tunnel.

Other places I visited in 2002 that are of interest to the hacker tourist
Bletchley Park, The Avon Canal, the Roman Baths at Bath. (I wanted to get to the Museum of Submarine Telegraphy at Porthcurno in Cornwall but didn't quite manage it).

Places that are of interest to Jane Austen fans that I visited in 2002
Various other parts of Bath. (I wanted to get to Lyme Regis where Louisa Musgrove fell over in Persuasion, but somehow didn't quite manage it).

Most upsetting event of the year.
The Sari Club bombing in Bali.

Rawest emotional reaction of the year
Unexpectedly bursting into tears while watching CNN reports about the Bali bombing while sitting in a McDonald's in Hamburg.

Moments in 2002 that most reminded me how Australian I still am
The Bali bombing again, a visit to the Gallipoli battlefields, and the silly, ridiculous, and frivolous pleasure I feel every time I see the Australian cricket team play.

Most time consuming but rewarding activity I took up in 2002.
I have commented before on the fact that different non-English speaking countries have different preferences on how they like their titles of their English movies. In some countries the posters and publicity have an English title, which may or may not be the same title as used in actual English speaking countries. In others they have a title in the local language. Once again, this may be a translation of the English title, or it may be something else entirely. To my previous observations that Bend it Like Beckham had become Kick it Like Becham, I now see that it is Joue-La Comme Beckham in France, which I believe approximately translates to Play it Like Beckham .

(English and German versions of the poster can be found here .

The film is still unreleased in America, and if it does get a release, I don't know if they will change the title. "Beckham" is immediately undertood in French, German, and British English, but an unknown word in American English.

On the other hand, Reese Witherspoon's Sweet Home Alabama has been changed into Fashion Victime for some reason.

I don't know quite why this is. The film's plot is the hoariest of cliches. Reese Witherspoon's character Melanie was a native of Alabama, but decided some years ago to leave her husband behind in Alabama and go to New York, where, seven years later, she is a successful fashion designer, who wants to marry someone else. She goes back to Alabama to get her husband to sign the divorce papers, but the movie gives us lots of southern colour, and eventually Melanie discovers that Alabama has small town charm, that she loves her husband after all, etc etc etc, although, to quote Roger Ebert,"The fact is that few people in Hollywood have voluntarily gone home again since William Faulkner fled to Mississippi. The screenwriters who retail the mirage of small towns are relieved to have escaped them. I await a movie where a New Yorker tries moving to a small town and finds that it just doesn't reflect his warm-hearted big city values". I will add that the filmmakers themselves were clearly so scared of going to Alabama themselves that they filmed the picture in Georgia and Florida. Yes, I have given away most of the plot, but to quote Ebert again, "Anyone who thinks I have just committed a spoiler will be unaware of all movies in this genre since 'Ma and Pa Kettle.'".

However, I wouldn't say Melanie is a fashion victim. Yes, she is supposedly a fashion designer, but this is entirely irrelevant to the plot. All that the plot requires is that she is successful in New York at something, and fashion design will do just fine. As to why the French needed to change "Sweet Home Alabama" into something else, I have no idea. My guess is that Jean-Paul of Bordeaux or Martine of Marseilles (and probably even Abdul of La Zone) know where Alabama is, and are probably even familiar with the song. So why the change. (And as to why "The Santa Clause 2" became "Hyper Noel", I won't even speculate).

And yes, Sweet Home Alabama is a pleasant enough movie, and Reese Witherspoon lights up the screen. Notice that the above poster is simply a picture of Witherspoon, and she is the only thing being used to sell the picture. And of course the film was a big success, as was Legally Blonde last year, another not all that great movie (but which had its moments) in which Witherspoon shone. It's quite an extraordinary achievement, really. Reese Witherspoon is now clearly a star. The last time young actress who could turn mediocre movies into hits just through being in them was the Julia Roberts of about 1991 . Reese Witherspoon might be on the verge of turning into that big a star (and I am certainly not the first person to observe this). So who is this girl?

In 1996, the local multiplex at Cambridge (that belonged and belongs to a joint venture between Warner Bros and Village Roadshow of Australia) had for some reason much more flexible programming than is the case for most chain cinemas. In particular, one thing it would do was show late films on Friday and Saturday nights that were not on its regular daytime schedule. Sometimes these would show strange Canadian-French adaptations of Japanese comic books. Sometimes they would simply show Hollywood films will a lower profile than their regular stuff. In any event, I made something of a habit of going along. One Friday night, they showed a thriller called Fear. Very simple plot. Teenage girl gets older boyfriend. After a while, she sleeps with him. After that, he turns into a psychopathic stalker, who gets crazier and crazier and eventually dies at the end of the movie.

The young actress who played the principal character in this movie had a similar way of pouting, and looked very similar to Alicia Silverstone, who had been so very good in Amy Heckerling's Clueless. In fact, I spent much of the movie asking whether the actress was Alicia Silverstone. (I was not the only person to think this: the similarity was commented on by quite a few people). I waited for the end credits, and noticed that the actress was someone named "Reese Witherspoon" and then thought nothing more of it. I dismissed her as some insignificant clone of Alicia Silverstone, and put her out of my mind.

At that point, it is easy to forget that Alicia Silverstone was once being groomed for stardom. She was really wonderful in Clueless: funny, adorable, and at the same time capturing the character of Jane Austen's Emma in a modern setting almost perfectly. After this, she signed a production deal with Sony Pictures, and we all waited for her future hits. But they never came. Only one film ever came from that production pact, the rather excrable Excess Baggage . I don't know whether it was that someone too young and inexperienced was given too much control over the film or what, but Silverstone had lost the sparkle, and the film appeared to have really low production values for a studio release. It looked and sounded dreadful, and it died at the box office. Next, Silverstone took the part of Batgirl in Batman & Robin . And while she certainly wasn't responsible for that particular debacle, again she did not look comfortable on screen. She was only in one major studio movie that many people were likely to see after this, the Brendan Fraser vehicle Blast From the Past . This was actually a much better movie and a much better performance from Silverstone, but she was only really in a supporting role, and she again lacked the obvious star power she had had in Clueless. This is one of those situations where the apparent star making role seems to have been a fluke, and was possibly brought out of her by a director who is good with actors, who can get what she wants on film and then put the performance together in the editing room. (I have thoughts on Amy Heckerling as a writer and director, but that would be too big a digression). In any event, at that point Alicia Silverstone faded into B movies and stage work.

In any event, the fact that she seemed so obviously to be copying Alicia Silverstone, who appeared to be a much greater talent, was why I rather dismissed Reese Witherspoon when I saw her in Fear. Bad call on my part. She was to keep popping up in films over the next few years, mainly in supporting parts: as Tobey Maguire's sister in Pleasantville and then more notably in Cruel Intentions, Roger Kumble's modern prep school update of Les Liaisons Dangereuses , which Witherspoon stole, although Sarah Michelle Gellar was nominally the female star (and she and the film were actually pretty good, although Kumble or perhaps the studio didn't quite have the nerve to confront the full implications of the ending of the source material and the film lost its way a bit in the third act). At that point I went back and looked at some of Reese Witherspoons earlier work, from the completely over the top Little Red Riding hood road movie Freeway, to the sweet coming of age movie Man in the Moon (from 1991, her first film, made when she was only 14, and a lovely piece of work). And then in 1999 she starred as Tracy Flick, the obnoxious over-achieving high school student, in Alexander Payne's Election, a brilliant satire of what David Brooks would later refer to as The Organisation Kid, American politics, and an assortment of other things. This film also brilliantly cast Matthew Broderick against his own usual onscreen persona, and is probably the best American film of the last ten years that you haven't seen. It was obvious at that point that Witherspoon was an actress of extraordinary skill and of great interest. The thought that I or anyone had ever considered her a lesser talent than Alicia Silverstone at that point seemed absurd.

But Witherspoon has not done anything as dazzling as that since. She appeared in an Adam Sandler vehicle, and then went on to make Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama relatively unambitious movies that were none the less perfect star vehicles for her. (In her defence, she did also recently (and hilariously) play Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest). I think she is inevitably now going to be a huge star. This is fine, This is probably good. Given that Witherspoon has always taken parts in mainstream and genre movies such as in fact Fear it is probably what she has always wanted, but I hope that it does not mean that there are no more performances like that in Election in her. Julia Roberts is more star than actress, but Reese Witherspoon is potentially a great actress, and stardom sometimes has an odd effect on roles. Stars are discouraged from playing unlikeable characters (and Tracy Flick was certainly that) and the presence of a star in a movie can lead to interesting scripts being rewritten and rewritten until they are middle of the road pap. Cate Blanchett is another potentially great actress who seems to not be especially bothered about being a star, and has instead spend her time seeking out interesting parts and people to work with. Her body of work is terrific. I hope Reese Witherspoon's can be as good.
Reader Paul Bauer, of somewhere in the San Francisco Bay area, writes to be about his Samsung CDMA cellphone

I somewhat disagree with your comments on Samsung being a "low-end" cell phone maker. That may be the perception; at least here there is a perception that Nokia makes the best phones. However, I don't think the perception about Samsung is true. I think my new Samsung SPH-A500 CDMA 1x phone is really slick; it looks really good and it has a quality feel about it, unlike many Nokias and the Sony/Ericsson T68i.

I'm not sure I ever quite described Samsung precisely that way. In fact, checking my blog, I find I said the following about Samsung. In my original response to Steven Den Beste I said:

If you want to buy a CDMA phone, it will generally be made by a South Korean company - Samsung or LG or Hyundai. And while these companies make decent products, they are deeply unfashionable: they are brandnames associated with cheap cars and cheap televisions. People do not want this for a mobile phone. So they have lost out.

When I was talking about cellphone operating system software I said

Although all the software mentioned in this article will likely work on either platform (plus existing 2.5G platforms like GPRS), Nokia's hardware may well be slower and buggier in the short term than that from some other manufacturers (eg Samsung). This could hurt the brand too.

Certainly in neither of these cases did I criticise the quality of Samsung's products. I would add that Samsung are clearly the high end manufacturer out of the three Korean manufacturers I mentioned. One very peculiar thing about the way that the cellphone market developed was that the traditional large consumer electronics companies did not achieve prominent positions in the cellphone market. (This may have had something to do with different technical standards in Japan). Sony, Panasonic, NEC, Phillips, etc are not big players in the cellphone market outside Japan. Therefore, the companies that did come to dominate built their brands largely on phones, and did not have very much other baggage attached to their brands. Samsung on the other hand did. Its brand is one people have traditionally associated with cheap televisions and VCRs. In a product where image and cool became extremely important, this baggage was and is a problem. Nokia on the other hand did a brilliant job of building an appropriate brand for cell phones.

Over the last couple of years, I have noticed that the quality of Samsung's other consumer electronics equipment has increased dramatically. Their Hi-fi equipment, DVD players, televisions and the like are getting much better reviews than they were even three or four years ago. Plus I think Samsung's presence in the plasma display market is working very much to their advantage. This is a 'cool' product, and they are able to price their displays much more competitively than the Japanese companies. People who would always buy a Sony for a conventional television (because it doesn't cost that much more than something like a Samsung anyway) are buying Samsung plasma displays (because in doing so they save several thousand dollars) and discovering they are of good quality, and I think this is helping the image of the brand a lot.

Samsung clearly doesn't want to be perceived as a low-end manufacturer (in fact I think it is pretty clear that they want to be perceived as a high end manufacturer and that the company they are trying to emulate is Sony). Here in Europe, where GSM is mandatory, they are not so much a low-end brand in the cellphone market as an absent brand. They do not make low end phones, but instead more expensive feature rich phones, and because Nokia has the better brand, most people who want high end phones get themselves a Nokia or perhaps a Motorola. Probably Samsung do have an advantage on price (because they make their own colour LCD displays, for instance), but the present market is rife with handset subsidies, and therefore the people who buy high-end phones don't see the sticker price of the phone themselves. (Of course, if you buy a low end phone you do, but Samsung are not really in that part of the market). In the CDMA market, Samsung clearly make the best phones. I do not know what the perception of Nokia's CDMA phones is in the US, but I don't imagine they are very good in quality terms, as the company's focus is on other technologies. (On the other hand, Nokia in Europe has made technically worse phones than Motorola for years now, and that hasn't stopped them from dominating the market). If CDMA really takes off (as it looks like it might) and if compelling features are available on CDMA that are not available on GSM and its derivatives, then this could signify a big shift in brand perception. Samsung may find itself perceived as the high quality brand it clearly wants to be, and Nokia might be significantly weakened. (As to what happens in Europe with its effective ban on CDMA, we have to wait and see). If this means that we end up with a world class Korean consumer electronics company, this would be great to see.

The other thing we might see is a big split between Europe and the rest of the world. Europe supports W-CDMA/UMTS, and America is going to be different. Sprint and Verizon will have CDMA2000, and AT&T, T-Mobile, and Cingular will have GSM. However, unlike in Europe, there are going to be difficulties upgrading the GSM networks of the last three to W-CDMA, even if the technology does work (and it doesn't seem to work well at the moment). Plus, I do not understand where you put it in the US spectrum allocations. The present version of W-CDMA is designed to work in the IMT-2000 2.1GHz spectrum band, which is not available in the US. There was talk of auctioning some of the 700MHz band, but this is stalled due to arguments with television station owners, and in any event even if this was available then the technology would have to be adapted to the new frequencies. If you read their publicity, T-Mobile, Cingular, and AT&T seem to be talking about upgrading eventually to EDGE (essentially GPRS with improved modulation) rather than W-CDMA. While this technology may eventually be used in Europe too, it is not the European priority (W-CDMA is) and it clearly isn't the best method for high speed data services. This means that the American GSM companies are going to have to wait for another generation of product development, and are not going to achieve the economies of scale through using the same technology as the US that they would like. I do not know why AT&T got themselves into this mess. However, the more the demand for high bandwidth applications in the US, the better it looks for Sprint and Verizon (and of course Qualcomm).

It may be that Europe and America end up running the same operating systems and applications on their smart phones over different hardware, but ultimately it is going to work better on one system than on the other. The rest of the world is likely to follow the better technology, particularly if the upgrade costs to the new technology are lower (as they are if you have a CDMA network already, which many places do). For 2G, the rest of the world followed Europe, leaving the US somewhat isolated. For 3G, however, there is a strong chance that the opposite may happen.

Update:With this "ladies phone" designed to look like a cosmetics case, Samsung certainly demonstrates that it gets the message that design is crucial. (Link via Bruce Sterling). That said, everyone now gets this. The issue is that Nokia got it a couple of years before everyone else did.

I wonder how Samsung's maket share in the GSM markets of Asia, particularly in fashion and brand conscious places like Hong Kong and Shanghai, compares with their market share in Europe. The phones they sell in Europe are feature packed, and tend to have decent but not great design, and their market share is low. However, models such as the A400 and T700 have not been sighted in Europe, so it may be that they are focusing their efforts on other markets. (It is no doubt easier to fight European companies in Asia than on their home turf). Samsung are now the number 3 cellphone manufacturer in the world in terms of volumes, behind Nokia and Motorola, but the question is how much of this comes from their dominant position in the CDMA market, and how much of that comes from genuinely making waves in the GSM market.
The Death of the Payphone

Via Slashdot

A woman at the Old Ebbitt Grill was asking strangers if she could borrow their cell phones one recent evening. She systematically worked her way through half the people seated at the bar, none of whom had cell phones to lend. Finally, she reached Hayden, who was sipping a beer. He suggested she use the pay phone he maintained in the restaurant. She haughtily replied: "I wouldn't be caught dead using a pay phone."

Monday, December 30, 2002

I cheated to get this answer, but I really love Mulholland Drive.

Which David Lynch movie are you?

brought to you by Quizilla

I am now 34 years old. How did that happen?
Update Tim Noah at Slate is talking about the disadvantages of dying between Christmas and New Year. I will observe that being born between Christmas and New Year is worse. Have you ever tried holding a party on December 30?
Andrew Sullivan (who needs to start attaching permalinks to each distinct post rather than to large chunks of text containing serveral) draws attention to this report about the vileness of the military regime that runs Burma. I repost the link, merely because Sullivan is right that more attention needs to be paid to this particular country.

Ian Buruma's book God's Dust: A Modern Asian Journey is 13 years old, but still very worth a read. The book is essentially a trevalogue, in which Buruma gives various insights into the individual people in the countries he visits. The chapter on Burma gives a lengthy description of how decent and civilized the Burmese people are, the legacy of the British Empire on the country, plus how the thugs took the place over. (He tells a lovely story of meeting a young Burmese man on a train who, upon learning he is English, wants to talk with him about Robert Browning's poetry. This man's father had been educated before the British left, and had made a point of passing the culture he had been taught on to his son, because nothing like that was taught in Burma any more).
The Australian Cricket Team and the Sun Tzu Incident

I see that American soldiers are being issued with copies of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, amongst other things. (Link via aldaily ).

Several years ago, the Australian cricket team was playing a series against New Zealand. John Buchanan, their coach, prepared a document outlining what he saw as the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing players. This document was pushed under the doors of the players' hotel rooms. Unfortunately, one copy was pushed under the wrong door, and it ended up in the hands of the press. The New Zealanders were a little miffed at the unflattering portraits of some of their players, but given that Australia won the series 3-0, they were probably fair. (However, when Australia next played New Zealand, the New Zealanders were even better prepared than the Australians, and New Zealand nearly scored an upset win in that series by targeting the strengths and weaknesses of the individual Australians extremely well, so they may well have learned something).

Eighteen months later, the same thing apparently happened again. A memo from Buchanan to the Australian team on the 2001 tour of England again ended up in the hands of the press. This one was more interesting, though: as it consisted largely of extensive quotes from The Art of War , explaining how Sun Tzu's "Nine Situations" could be applied to the game of cricket. The press had great fun with this. Australians like to see themselves as hard playing and uncomplicated, and referring to the thoughs of a fifth century Chinese warlord sounds extremely silly. (Seriously, this is the sort of thing you expect from the French rugby team, perhaps, but not the English cricket team). Much fun was made of Buchanan over this issue. However, in all the coverage Sun Tzu was seldom mentioned by name. The document was always referred to as quoting the thoughts of "a fifth century Chinese warlord". Presumably the sports journalists had never heard of The Art of War before this incident and they assumed that their readers hadn't either.

However, this outbreak of silliness all blew over, and the Australian cricket team kept winning. Buchanan is still coach, and a case can be made that the present team is the best cricket team of all time. So maybe the Sun Tzu business works. Perhaps this means that the US military will be as ruthless and successful as the Australian cricket team. (I think this is likely, actually, but whether it has anything to do with Sun Tzu in either case, I rather doubt it).

What I would like to believe is that the whole Sun Tzu incident was an elaborate joke that John Buchanan and the Australian cricket team played on the press. After the leak of the document in New Zealand, they contrived to have it happen again, and they made up a really silly document to leak, all the while laughing themselves silly. I don't think this is what actually happened, but it is what should have happened.

Sunday, December 29, 2002

Well, the story of the falling out between Sendo and Microsoft is starting to come out. Sendo claims that Microsoft stole its intellectual property and used it in its own products. I am sure this will make other phone companies want to work with Microsoft. This was one of the background stories to this piece on Microsoft's attempts to get into the phone software business that I wrote a few weeks ago. (I didn't mention the Sendo-Microsoft falling out explicitly, but it is discussed in both the Salon and Economist stories I link to).

Update: There is a further discussion of the Sendo-Microsoft affair as part of this editorial on Microsoft's tactics in general. Basically, Microsoft continues to behave like a bullying monopolist, even in markets where it isn't a monopolist or in which it doesn't even have significant market share. It seems less and less likely that Microsoft will be able to find willing partners.
Antoine Clarke has a good post on (amongst other things) why the threat of Saddam developing Nukes is to some extent beside the point, and that the real reasons for removing Saddam Hussein are simpler, but no less compelling.

I also question the double talk about nukes in Iraq when the good reasons for toppling/killing Saddam are...
  1. he's a national socialist tyrant

  2. he's allegedly one of Al-Qaeda's main financial and logistical backers.

I'm told there is evidence to back up this claim, so why the red herrings?

There is another simple reason for taking out Saddam Hussein. The job was left half fininished a decade ago, and it was hoped that sanctions and the like would lead to Saddam eventually falling. Instead, we have sanctions that are being used as an grievance by Saddam and America's enemies everywhere. Look at all the children who are starving and/or without medical care because of the sanctions applied by those nasty Americans. Such suffering is in fact largely caused by Saddam Hussein, but a great many Arabs feel sympathy for the argument (and whatever the cause, I feel plenty of sympathy suffering Iraqis, and I think it is vile that the cradle of civilization is now the place it is). Al Qaeda uses it in its training videos. The situation with sanctions is an ongoing sore to the Arab world, and one that needs to be removed.
Here is another positive coming from dramatically improving digital communications between passenger aircraft and the ground: in flight medical diagnoses. (Link again via slashdot ).
It's very interesting to see a huge conglomerate like Reliance of India launching a new CDMA2000 (initially 1x) network (link via slashdot, and see also this follow up comment), one of the main aims of which appears to be to offer Wireless Local Loop (WLL) to people without fixed line services. This is a 3G technology, folks. While European operators are busy fighting over their own government mandated 3G standard that doesn't really work yet, a large portion of India could well have 3G coverage by mid 2003. As my long term readers know, I have strong opinions on this subject, as does Steven Den Beste . I have also previously written about technology hastening development in the third world. Plus it seems that developing countries are questioning the point of paying the Microsoft tax to use modern technology. Why adopt the developed world's baggage if you don't have to? Also, perhaps somebody could nominate Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman for the Nobel peace prize.
This is enormously impressive stuff.

Update: Okay, we have some details on the structure of the Indian market and how competition is evolving here. It seems Reliance has a WLL licence and is not allowed to offer full mobility to its customers. (Essentially we have a situation where you have a mobile phone in your local area, but for regulatory reasons you are not allowed to use it elsewhere). Because of this, it has paid rather less for its spectrum than have GSM operators. The GSM operators claim that they will keep their customers because they can offer greater mobility and also SMS messages. Plus they are sowing as much fear, uncertainty and doubt as possible, and are stalling on things like interconnection agreements with existing cellular networks, although the law requires that they have such agreements.

Two observations here: Firstly, Reliance have chosen a technical standard that can provide full mobile phone service. In fact it is a 3G standard, significantly superior to GSM. If this system gets a lot of customers, as seems likely, then consumer pressure to allow these phones to be used to their full capabilities will be overwhelming. Secondly, there is no reason whatsoever why GSM operators should have a monopoly on SMS. CDMA also supports SMS, and interoperability with GSM SMS is no problem at all. (Australia has a mixture of CDMA and GSM networks, and SMS interoperability works fine). It seems that the GSM operators are trying to defend their situation through regulatory interia and obstruction. In the long term, that isn't going to work.

Finally, I love this

Not surprisingly, the cellular operators are incensed by this idea. They point out that all the players are either offering GSM or WiLL services. Says a senior mobile company executive: “There is already so much competition that there is no logic in having more players. All this means is that WiLL operators will be able to take full mobile licences at dirt cheap rates.”

There is so much competition in fact that allowing more competition would be bad. Who knows, it might even mean lower prices for consumers and a reduction in profits for the existing oligopolistic operators. Indeed, that would be a catastrophe. Yes, there is far too much competition.
Over at Samizdata, Perry De-Havilland is talking about the way in which computer games have evolved over the last couple of decades, and how high performance games are now just about the only thing driving the development of high performance PCs. I have to admit that at this point in my life, I am to computer games what William Gibson is was to computers when he wrote Neuromancer: I am more interested in the culture that surrounds them than I am in the games themselves. It was not always so, however. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I wasted much time and money on early coin operated games such as Pac-Man, Galaga, Penguin, Donkey Kong and the like, and spent far too much time hanging out in less salubrious environments than I should have in order to do this. I am very capable of being obsessive about games, and I know this, so these days I tend to avoid actually playing them in order to spend my time doing other things.

However, I feel a lot of nostalgia for those late 1970s and early 1980s games. And the nice thing is that I can still play them today. The hardware they ran on was by today's standards incredibly simple, and due to the tiny amounts of memory these machines had, the programs themselves are absolutely tiny (many of them run on machines with less than 10 kilobytes of memory). It was simply amazing just how much functionality programmers of the 1970s could fit into a few kilobytes by programming extremely efficiently. With memory now being cheap, these skills seem to have largely been lost to the world.

However, nostalgic programmers have written emulators, programs that run on your PC that make the PC emulate the hardware of those 20 year old arcade machines. The most famous such piece of sofware is the Multi Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), which is a piece of software capable of emulating virtually every piece of arcade machine hardware built from 1975 to 1990. It is really amazing.

The games themselves are copyright. However, nobody generally cares at this point. In most cases the games have not generated revenues for the copyright holders in years, and various people have put up sites on the internet containing hundreds and hundreds of games to download. We download them, and we play all those old games. It's great. Virtually the only time I do spend playing games is spent playing those old 1970s and 1980s classics. New games may be more sophisticated, but I like the old ones. This probably means I am officially an old fogey.

Of course, we play legal games to do this. If I did actually own an old Space Invaders machine, then it is just possible that it would be legal under fair use for me to play the same game on my PC. Therefore, whenever I do download a game over the internet, I am made to declare that I do own an old machine of the same game and I am downloading under fair use. This is ridiculous, and the owner of the download site knows it. (It is also unimaginable that the owner of the download site owns all the games). It is really unlikely that this defence would ever stand up in court, but still we do it. (My preferred solution is that copyright law be changed to allow copying for personal use in instances when works are "out of print" as it were, but I am not expecting such a change in the law any time soon).

There is now an interesting development, which is that there is another class of computer that is limited in similar ways to old arcade machines: mobile phones. There is lots of demand now for games on these phones, and they are clearly not powerful enough to play current PC games. In particular, the phone companies see a market in downloadable games: games that can be downloaded (for a fee) over the phone network and then played on a phone. Now though, the bottleneck is not memory and processing power. Modern phones have a lot more computer power and memory than 1980 vintage arcade machines (although a lot less than current generation PCs, due to cost constraints and the limitations of current generation batteries. However, phone network bandwidth is extremely limited. If we are going to download a game, the program has to be extremely small. It so happens that the extremely efficiently written arcade games of the late 1970s fit the bill. An emulator of the 20 year old hardware is written to run on the mobile phone, and these already written, tiny games can be downloaded. You can now get Pac-Man, Galaxian and the like to run on some mobile phones. As these are commercial enterprises, the original copyright holders have to be compensated, and the old games are again worth something to the copyright holders. One would think that this might lead to some sort of crackdown on unauthorised uses of the copyrights, such as people playing the games on PCs (particularly given that people are doing things like porting MAME to their cellphones so that they can play all the old games they like for free). Although the emulation world is wary, this doesn't seem to have yet happened. I have to say I think this is good.
On Christmas day, I visited a Commonwealth war cemetery just outside Bayeux in Normandy. This was the second time this year I had visited the site of large war cemeteries. The other was at Gallipoli in Turkey in June. I had never visited a war graveyard prior to this, and the visits were quite interesting. For one thing, you simply appreciate the scale of the war in a way you may not have before. Thousands of graves together make an impression, and quite a shocking one.

One thing was that from looking at the graves you could tell, almost instantly, how different the world of 1944 was from that of 1915. The graves in Gallipoli were a mixture of nationalities from the British Empire: Australians, New Zealanders, British, a small number of Canadians and South Africans, plus a substantial number of Indians. Most of the graves were decorated with a Christian cross, but I saw quite a few stars of David, and graves with Indian (presumably Hindu) inscriptions. (A few graves had no religious inscription whatsoever. I do not know what this means: possibly that the soldier was an agnostic or atheist; possibly that his religion was simply not known).

In Bayeux, however, the graves were almost entirely British, with a few Canadians. As far as the European war was concerned, the empire was gone. The Americans were fighting with the British (although they landed on different beaches and their dead are buried in different graveyards) but the Australians, the New Zealanders, and the rest of the empire were all elsewhere. The graveyard has much less diversity. (I did not see a single grave with a religious marking other than a Christian cross, although I once again I did see a few graves where religious markings were absent).

There are a lot of national flags flying outside the Battle of Normandy museum in Bayeux, but the Australian flag is not there.

Not that it should be there. Australia was not involved in the settlement of the war in Europe. This is in dramatic contrast to World War I, in which many Australians fought in France, and after which Australia was represented by separate delegates at the conference of Versailles, and was one of the signitaries of the Treaty of Versailles and one of the Founding Nations of the League of Nations. (This was the first act of Australian foreign policy independent of Britain, and is one important stop on Australia's road to independence).

And of course, this fits my experience as an Australian. For me, the second world war is largely the war with Japan. The key event of the war is the fall of Singapore (and the inadequate British preparations to defend it). Amongst older Australians, memories of such things as the terrible treatment of Australian prisoners of war by the Japanese army are well remembered. The way I perceive the second World War, I do not forget the war in Europe, but the war against Japan looms large. Which is not surprising, as Japan bombed Darwin, and Japanese submarines fired torpedos in Sydney harbour.

However, British people see the war against Germany, the Battle of Britain, and the D-Day landings as paramount. This is hardly surprising, as their country was bombed and their nation was threatened, and their nation stood and held off Germany. And of course they revere Churchill. I have occasionally been known to belittle this British heroic myth a small amount. Although I would not dream of belittling the sacrifices of the British people or the British war effort itself, my tendency is more to see the Battle of Britain and the subsequent Normandy invasion as just one campaign in a larger war. I have sometimes felt the British see themselves as a little too central to a campaign that was, when it came down to it, won by the Americans. (That said, everyone does this. And if you go by war memorials in some parts of France (although not in Normandy itself) you would get the impression that the Germans were defeated by Charles de Gaul and three other Frenchmen, acting by themselves). And my feelings about Churchill are a little more mixed than is generally the case in Britain. All the achievements that his proponents praise him for were undoubtedly real, but I find it harder to forget his role in the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War, and some of his attitudes towards colonials in general have been known to annoy me. Sometimes British people are surprised when my emotions about the second world war are not quite the same as theirs. (In the recent "Greatest Briton" discussion, my first thoughts went to people like Darwin, Newton and Shakespeare, rather than Churchill, possibly because they were more "great people who happened to be British", whereas Churchill was a "great man who saved Britain").

It may have been that the overcast December weather and the solitude of being a tourist on Christmas day added to it, but I felt a long way from home, in a way I didn't when I visited Gallipoli (although in that case I was surrounded by Australians on a beautiful June Day) and I suspect I wouldn't if I visited the World War I battlefields in France. Normandy is not a battle Australians have memories of, and this affects my reaction.

It doesn't make my reaction any less emotional, however. The simple size of the cemetery in Bayeux reminds you of the size of the sacrifice that occurred. There are almost 5000 graves close together in this particular cemetery, around 4000 of which were of British men (the others mostly being Canadians) Almost all of them were between 18 and 30 years old.

There are of course other British, German, and American cemeteries along the Normandy coast. These men were heroes, fighting a great struggle against a terrible enemy. The sacrifice was against a terrible evil, and in the end was clearly worth it. No wonder people in Britain feel the way they do about it.

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