Saturday, February 08, 2003

I love blogging. I can be as bizarre and ridiculous as I like, and it then gets sent to the whole world, or at least that small subset of the whole world who read my site. I can denounce Hilary Rosen and Jack Valenti, and nobody can stop me. When I am feeling reaIly absurd, I can even denounce the International Postal Union some more.

Friday, February 07, 2003

This article by David Cohen in Slate (via James Russell) discusses the history of Picasso's Guernica , including its use as a symbol by various anti-war groups, and the continuing bickering over its location. As mentioned in the article, the painting was moved from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Prado (and eventually the Reina Sofia) in Madrid, as Picasso had specified that the painting should be given to Spain once Franco was dead and Spain was a democracy. However, Cohen does not discuss the further chapter of bickering that has followed this. He writes:

In the first Spanish monograph on Picasso, published in Madrid in 1951, the author described Guernica as "the picture of all bombed cities"—a neat formulation that underscores the cost of universalism in art. Lack of specificity makes the image more potent and more tame.

Of course, there is one group of people who don't see Guernica as a picture of all bombed cities, or if they do this is secondary. These are the actual people of Guernica, and Basque people in general. The town of Guernica was the Basque's ancient capital, and their national assembly met once a year under the great oak tree of Guernica. (When Guernica was bombed, the town was almost completely destroyed, but the oak tree survived).

Unsurprising, the Basques to this day take the bombing of Guernica very personally, and the painting is considered by them to be a part of their heritage. (In the Basque country of northern Spain, you see images of the painting everywhere). The Basque terrorist group ETA exists because of the brutality of the Franco regime towards the Basques, and (although ETA was founded decades later) the bombing of Guernica was perhaps the most extreme example of this brutality.

For this reason, the Basques think that the painting should not be in Madrid but in the Basque country. And as it happens, a major new museum of modern art, the new Guggenheim museum, was built recently in Bilbao, modern capital of the Basque country, and just down the road from Guernica. The Basques strongly believe that the painting belongs there, and have been agitating for it to be given to them. It is extremely unlikely that this will happen any time soon, particularly given that relations between Basque separatists and Madrid are at an extremely low point at the moment. The Guggenheim Bilbao requested a loan of Guernica to commemorate the opening of the museum in 1997. However, the authorities in Madrid refused, believing (quite possibly accurately) that if the painting every went to Bilbao it would never come back again. Look for the saga to continue.

Thursday, February 06, 2003

Mark Steyn has a lengthy piece in the Spectator arguing that the United Nations is seriously dysfunctional, and America at this point wants no part of it. I have to concede that he has a point. Given that

1) The newly elected chair of the UN Human Rights Commission is Libya;
2) In May, the presidency of the UN Conference on Disarmament will pass to Iraq.

the organisation seriously has some problems.

However, towards the end of the article, Steyn tries to give examples of some non-controversial international organisations that he is in favour of.

I’m all in favour of the Universal Postal Union and the Berne Copyright Convention (America was a bit late signing that one), but they work precisely because Sy Kottik and his chums weren’t involved.

Let me see. In its present form the Berne Copyright Convention is an abomination being used by the American entertainment corporations to force the entire world to adopt copyright terms that are far too long, as well as DMCA like laws that outlaw reverse engineering and inhibit innovation. And as for the International Postal Union, thanks to it I was recently forced to decide whether my Christmas presents qualified for a special postal rate given to

advertisements, books, calendars, catalogues, diaries, directories, greetings cards, illustrations, magazines, maps, musical scores, newspapers, order/subscription forms, leaflets and pamphlets, plans, postcards, price lists, printed drawings and notices, proofs, prospectuses and timetables, but not letters, including personal messages or greetings (other than five words allowed on greetings cards), handwritten receipts, photographic negatives, slides or film, postage stamps or blank stationery

So no, I don't think I am in favour of these organisations either.

Update: Okay, I am not really opposed to the International Postal Union. The international postal system actually works pretty well. However, what is it with bureacrats. Why precisely am I prohibited from getting a cheaper postal rate if I write more than five words on a greeting card? The International Telecommunications Union by providing a framework for international phone calls that was based on the assumption that national telephone systems were monopolies, did for many years actively discourage competition and was partly responsible for international calls being too expensive. (In developed countries this is largely a thing of the past, but in poor countries the framework is still there). These types of international bodies need rules that are as simple and flexible as possible, and the types of bureacrats writing the treaties that create them don't normally get this.
Reminscence about Usenet, and Vernor Vinge .

The following is largely rambling nostalgia about the net of the past. Some people may want to skip it.

Brian Micklethwait has some comments on Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep . He is particularly taken by what he describes as the "e-mail chat" interludes in the novel, in which characters not connected directly to the action discuss what is going on over some computer net which looks suspiciously like worldwide computer networks did in 1990.

But the way that doomed emailers would send out calmly analytical descriptions across the depths of the galaxy about why they were about to be wiped into oblivion, or why some other emailer was perhaps not to be trusted, was, for me, charming. And I liked that the emails were easy to find in the text because typographically distinct. I read them all with great care.

Some of the emails that concerned the forthcoming arrival of The Blight were rather as if Dale Amon had been doing something like his Columbia disaster analysis for Samizdata last weekend, but while he himself was on board a space ship whose forthcoming incineration he was calmly trying to account for.

Anyway, some background. When I started using the net in about 1988, there were two main applications for communications. One of these was e-mail. E-mail was essentially the same application it is today, although e-mail attachments hadn't been invented yet. The other application was Usenet newsgroups. This consisted of a large number of topics or "newsgroups" in which people who were interested in a particular subject could argue about that subject. When you logged on to a particular newsgroup, everything that everybody in that newsgroup had said since you last logged on was visible for you to read. These discussions were worldwide, and often very technical and very knowledgeable. In a time when international phone calls were a luxury you couldn't usually afford, this was amazing. People were generally well behaved, and the signal to noise ratio of these groups was high. Newsgroup messages and e-mail messages in some ways looked similar due to being all text, and from a technical perspective had certain things in common, but they were separate applications. Brian may be right that e-mail is impermanent, but this was certainly not true of Usenet. It was at least as permanent as blog posts are today. For example, a frighteningly large number of my Usenet posts from the last decade and a half are archived online, if I care to look for them . The oldest archived message of mine dates from May 1989. (As a really geeky observation, note that my e-mail address then was . This was before official ISO country codes were used at the end of e-mail addresses, and in those days Australia was going by "oz" instead of "au"). If my blog postings are still readily available in 14 years, I shall be impressed.

Both of these applications were not necessarily real time. In those days, a lot of the net was not technically "internet". Instead of being connected to the rest of the world at all times, your local network would only be connected for a short portion of the time. When a connection occurred, any e-mail or newsgroup messages that had been sent on the local system since the last connection would be sent. This meant that e-mail could sometimes take hours, or days, or in some instances even weeks to be received. Usenet news messages would take a few hours or days or weeks to propagate around the world. But still, it was amazing.

In those days, the number of people using the net worldwide was quite small. It was not the case that everyone knew everyone else (although there was a time when that was true too, this was just a little before my time), but the net was small enough that people could become well known on the net at large. There were certain people who did gain net celebrity status, and certain people who were known for their particular idiosyncracies and writing styles.

And this was approximately state of the art when Vinge wrote A Fire Upon the Deep . And so, Vinge based the network discussion on Usenet as it existed in about 1990. Because of the superficial resemblance between Usenet messages and e-mail (very similar headers at the top, for instance), the messages are easily mistaken for e-mail by people who have never seen Usenet, but they are clearly based not on e-mail but on Usenet. (Vinge has actually explained this, but if you are familiar with Usenet, it is obvious anyway). And if you know this, they are also utterly hilarious, because they are full of in jokes. The various posters to this future network are in most instances obvious parodies of the style of particular people well known on Usenet in about 1990. (Vinge has admitted to this). They complain in familiar ways. They allude to the trustworthiness of others in familiar ways. The constant complaints about how bandwidth is expensive echo what network administrators were constantly complaining about in 1990. (Largely they were complaining merely for the sake of complaining, as Usenet only got sent when other demands on the network were low). However, this subject was constantly discussed. The most common Usenet software did in fact send you the following message whenever you posted anything.

This program posts news to thousands of machines throughout the entire civilized world. Your message will cost the net hundreds if not thousands of dollars to send everywhere. Please be sure you know what you are doing. Are you absolutely sure that you want to do this? [y / n]

This was of course complete codswallop, or at least it seemed to us that it must be. If I was genuinely costing someone thousands of dollars whenever I posted a message, I cannot imagine that I would have been allowed to do it for very long.

And of course, the posters in Vinge's novel complain about costs in exactly the same way. (In case you are wondering, the novel does contain an explanation as to why networks 30000 years in the future very closely resemble Usenet circa 1990. It is set in a part of the galaxy where the local laws of physics seriously restrict the bandwidth that can be achieved in faster than light data transmissions. This also explains why the level of technology is essentially static, too. Oh, go read the novel. It's great).

Of course, when more bandwidth did become available, and we were all connected to the real time internet, the World Wide Web came along, and we spent most of our time looking at static webpages. More importantly, the number of people using Usenet grew so great that it became largely overwhelmed by noise. Spam was invented, and Usenet was extremely vulnerable. (Spam was present on Usenet for a year or two before I ever received my first piece of e-mail spam. I also recall reading the post on Usenet where the world 'spam' was first coined). The newsgroups degenerated into the free for all that you sometimes see on bulletin boards and discussion areas that get completely out of control, but on a much larger scale. I suppose a tragedy of the commons occurred. Usenet newsgroups still exist, and in many instances valuable discussions still go on in them. (They are still often the best place to go if you have an extremely technical question and you want an answer). However, they are no longer the heart of the net.

In a way, the blogosphere is quite close to the spirit of Usenet. Some bloggers post the same sorts of things that once would have been posted to Usenet. (I certainly do). Dale Amon's pieces on the shuttle disaster last Saturday are exactly the sorts of things that once would have been confined to Usenet. (Go to the newsgroup, and you will find that they are certainly still present there, although the important posts are hidden amongst a lot of noise). Essentially a commons that became overloaded with noise has been replaced with a large number of private spaces, each of which has a landlord who keeps the noise down. The trouble with this is that people reading blogs choose what to read on the basis of author rather than subject. You tend to blog in isolation, whereas posting to usenet was always posting in the middle of a giant argument. In the days of Usenet, you would read all posts on a particular subject. Now, you read all posts by a particular author. This makes things difficult if you are interested in a particular subject. As an author it also makes it hard to initially make yourself heard, whereas in the old days on Usenet, you just jumped into the fray. These days you have to build an audience, but in those days you could have one at once. (I think that what the blogosphere needs is a really good indexing tool which allows you to search the content of large numbers of blogs by content. We don't really have that yet).

I agree with pretty much every word of this piece by Gregory Benford on the shuttle and the future of the space program. We need to design a modern, reliable launch vehicle instead of the unreliable 30 year old craft we have at the moment. We need to devote a lot of time to experiments involving artificial gravity (ie rotating habitats) in space, and in particular we need to see what are the long term effects of martian gravity (0.38g).

This is an historic moment, one of great opportunity. NASA can either rise to the challenge and scrap the shuttle, or just muddle along. An intermediate path would use the shuttles on a reduced schedule, while developing a big booster capable of hauling up the big loads needed to build more onto the station. This would be cost-effective and smart.
A Mars expedition would be the grandest exploit open to the 21st century. It would take about 2.5 years, every day closely monitored by a huge Earthside audience and fraught with peril.

This is what we should be doing. Such an adventure would resonate with a world beset by wars and woes. It has a grandeur appropriate to the advanced nations, who should do it together.

We have to stop pissing around in earth orbit, figure out what our long term goals are, and go for them. And the obvious goal is Mars. The status quo in the long term just means a retreat back to earth. In the short term, I think Benford is right. A reduced shuttle schedule until we get something better is exactly right. It signifies that we are not giving up. The thing that scares me about the idea of abandoning the suttle and saying that we will build something else is that getting the something else started might then be hard. Having the shuttle still operating, and its presence acting as a reminder that the somthing else is needed, might well speed up the development of the something else.

Of course, there are two working launch systems for manned spaceflight in the world. One is the shuttle, and the other is the Russian Soyuz launcher. This carries a smaller payload, and can only take three people into orbit at once, but it is a proven, reliable vehicle. (It was developed in the late 1950s, but age is not necassarily an obstacle if something was got right in the first place. The B-52 bombers that are the mainstay of the USAF's bomber fleet were built in the mid 1950s, and the Boeing 747 was developed in the late 1960s. The trouble with the shuttle is that it is unreliable and too complex for its task, not that it is old). In the worst case, the Americans could pay the Russians to increase the present Soyuz production from 2 to 3 per year to a larger number, and then as a temporary measure use the Solyuz for American space activities as well as Russian ones. This will not happen, because it would be too great an admission of failure on the part of NASA, but it seems perfectly practical. Having to rely on a foreign designed and built vehicle would be an even stronger encouragement for America to build something new, however.
This article in BusinessWeek (and this commentary on it from Harry Knowles on the deal between Pixar (makers of Toy Story and Monsters Inc. and Disney is quite interesting. Basically, Pixar's present contract requires them to make three more movies for Disney, and they will likely have finished this by 2005.

I mentioned the Pixar deal in passing when talking about animated movies the other week, but it is worth giving the whole story.

Pixar is a small company that once belonged to George Lucas, but was purchased from Lucas by Steve Jobs (of Apple Computer fame) when Lucas decided that it duplicated the function of one of his other divisions. In 1991, Disney signed a deal with Pixar to make and release three animated movies. They did this because they were interested in the idea of computer animation, and because they had been unable to lure John Lasseter, Pixar's top filmmaker, to come and work for Disney directly, despite several attempts. The deal involved Disney financing Pixar's movies, Pixar making the films, and then Disney taking more than 90% of the profits. This reflected the fact that Pixar needed Disney much more than Disney needed Pixar, and it gave Pixar a chance to get its movies made and into theatres. Pixar developed the movie Toy Story in 1995, and the movie turned out (somewhat unexpectedly) to be a major hit. At that point, the contract between Disney and Pixar became problematic. In order to properly motivate the filmmakers at Pixar, they needed to have a somewhat larger financial stake in their work, so for this reason the deal between Pixar and Disney was renegotiated. Pixar and Disney would split the cost of financing future films, and the income from the films would be split: Disney would first take a 12% distribution fee, and then the remainder would be split evenly. (A distribution fee is perfectly standard in the world of film. If a studio distributes a film it did not make, this is where it makes its profit. If it distributes a film it did make, this fee is taken by the studio prior to the calculation of profits out of which actors, directors, producers etc receive profit shares. In this case, it is one of many accounting tricks studios use to avoid giving money to other people. For a high profile film, 12% is about par for the course).

In return for this change of terms, the length of the contract was increased by three films, so that Pixar owed Disney another five films from that point onwards. There was also one other important detail in the contract, which was that in the advertising and promotion of future films, the Disney and Pixar names would have equal billing. If you look at a print of the original Toy Story , the Pixar logo is not seen until the very end of the closing credits, whereas the Disney name and logo are everywhere. If you look at subsequent Pixar films, the Pixar name and logo are very prominent as well. In addition to this, subsequent Pixar films have usually had a Pixar short shown before the features, which further emphasises the Pixar brand. This was all very deliberate, as Steve Jobs understood that he needed to raise the profile of Pixar's own brand if Pixar was going to become less dependent on Disney in the future.

In any event, Pixar got to work on its next film, A Bug's Life , and also got to work on a direct to video sequel to Toy Story . After some work on the Toy Story sequel, they realised that it was working too well to be wasted on direct to video. It was decided that it would be better to release the Toy Story sequel as a theatrical feature. However, the revised deal with Disney did not include sequels. Disney wanted to gain the full benefits of the merchandising of new characters from each film it got from Pixar (plus, at the time, theatrical releases of animated sequels was virtually unheard of), so at the time they had been excluded from the contract. Therefore, Steve Jobs and Disney boss Michael Eisner got together and did a one off deal for Toy Story 2 . The sequel would be made, and it would be made on the same terms as the other films in the revised contract, but it would not count as one of the five films covered by that contract. So, Pixar was up to making a total of seven films for Disney.

A Bug's Life was released in 1998, and was a huge hit, although not quite as huge as Toy Story . Toy Story 2 was released in 1999, and was an even bigger hit than the original. At this point, Eisner decided that Disney wanted Pixar to make Toy Story 3 , as the first two movies had been so profitable. The people at Pixar were more more interested in working on new material, but offered to make the movie if it counted as one of the four additional movies that Pixar owed Disney . (A sequel reuses the same characters as the original film, which have already been developed in the computer software, and so is easier to make than an all new film). Eisner would not play ball on this point: he wanted the sequel as another additional movie to those under contract. Pixar refused. In 2001, Pixar and Disney released Monsters Inc. , their biggest hit yet.

At this point, Pixar appeared very keen to gain control of their own destiny. They announced a fairly rapid schedule for the remaining three films under their contract with Disney: Finding Nemo , to be released in summer 2003, The Incredibles (directed by Brad Bird, director of the dramatically underappreciated The Iron Giant at Warner Brothers, and also the creator of the characters of Krusty the Clown and Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons ) in holiday season 2004, and Cars in holiday season 2005. At that point, Pixar would be free of Disney.

However, things had changed further at Disney. Disney's home grown animated films have been declining in grosses for some years, and whereas Disney had been extremely powerful in animation in the first half of the 1990s, in recent years the Pixar animated films had been their biggest hits. The BusinessWeek article suggests that more than a third of their profits from theatrical movies have come from the Pixar films in recent years. What is more, the audiences know this, too. Children are obssessive about things like this, for one thing, and children are a large portion of Pixar's audience. At this point, Pixar's brand is probably more valuable in animation that Disney's is. Whereas in 1991 Pixar needed Disney, Disney today needs Pixar.

So, what will Pixar do. There have been rumours going around for a while that Pixar were working on something really special to be their first movie after the deal with Disney expires. (This article gives some tantalising hints as to what it will be about. The fact that the main character will be a mouse suggests they are trying to make some kind of point). Pixar are going to make at most one film a year, which isn't enough material for them to need their own distribution arm. Therefore they are going to need some studio to distribute their films. I think that they are going to want all of the profits from their films (minus a distribution fee) and not just half of them in future. The type of deal where Disney puts up half the cost of the film and gets half the profits are going to be a think of the past. The question is whether the studio Pixar does the deal with needs to be Disney. The BusinessWeek article makes a comparison with George Lucas and Star Wars, and it is a good one.

In 1977, prior to the release of Star Wars, George Lucas did a deal with 20th Century Fox. He gave up his salary for directing the movie in return for personally taking control of the merchandising and sequal rights for the movie. This was possibly the best business deal in history, as he has made a few billion dollars from it. Lucas controls Star Wars completely. When it came to making the second Star Wars trilogy, he financed the movies himself, and simply needed a distributor for the movies. He shopped them around the various studios in order to pay the lowest distribution fee he could manage. A number of studios offered him 6%, which is much smaller than is usually paid. One of these was 20th Century Fox, who had financed and distributed the original Star Wars movies. Lucas went back to them, because it was simply easier to have all the Star Wars movies distributed by the same studio. In terms of releasing Box Sets of DVDs, and of having screenings of multiple movies together, and other issues to do with promoting the Star Wars universe as a whole, it was just simpler to have the movies all released by the same studio. So, 20th Century Fox have releasing the second Star Wars trilogy. However, they do not make much money on the movies. George Lucas negotiated too good a deal.

Something similar will likely happen with Pixar and Disney. Pixar will decide to finance their animated films completely, and they will take complete creative control over them. (At the moment Disney still have some rights to interfere, because they provide half the money). They will talk to various other studios, and the other studios will make them various offers as to what they will charge for distribution. They will drive the distribution fee downwards, perhaps not to the 6% that Lucas has for Star Wars , but something not too far from that. They will get Disney to offer something like that too, and they will take the money and have Disney distribute their films. The advantages of this are that Disney have been doing it all along, and they know how to distribute a Pixar movie. Another studio would need to be brought up to speed, although this isn't likely to be that hard.

There are two other factors suggesting that Pixar may stay with Disney in some form. The first is that Disney are able to make money through using the characters of Pixar's movies in their theme parks. This is quite a substantial source of revenue, and Disney are clearly the best at this. The other is that Disney share or will share the rights to Pixar's first six movies. Pixar cannot make sequels to those six movies anywhere other than at Disney. I think we shall see a third Toy Story movie at some point, but only after the present contract with Disney expires - perhaps in 2007 or 2008. A sequel to Monsters Inc. strikes me as fairly likely, too.

These reasons for Pixar staying at Disney are strong but not overwhelmingly so. If Steve Jobs and Michael Eisner have really reached the point where they can't work together any more, then Jobs could go somewhere else. Of course, if Eisner were to be replaced by someone else at Disney, then this might no longer be a problem. Eisner's position is not all that secure, and if his going was the difference between the renewal of the Pixar deal, or the loss of the Pixar deal, then conceivably the board might give him the shove.

Finally, there is the issue of what kind of a deal Pixar would want to sign with a studio. It could sign no long term contract at all, and then simply choose a distributor on a movie by movie basis. This way they probably couldn't negotiate quite as good a deal as if they agreed to use the same distributor for a number of movies, but this would give them the most complete freedom, and might be the best possible deal if they can continue turning out hit movies consistently.

For this is the other factor. Most of the above assumes that Pixar can continue producing movies as successful as the four it has produced so far. They have a reasonable amount of cash handy, but their pockets are not nearly as deep as Disney's, or those of any of the major Hollywood studios. If they were to produce a couple of movies that were failures, then they would have to get financing from someone else for subsequent movies. This would be more difficult after a couple of failures than it would be now. Now, they could sign a contract with a studio guaranteeing distribution for a few movies, and also guaranteeing Pixar a line of credit for the financing of future films if they need it. This would mean giving up a few more profit points in the near term, but would reduce their level of risk somewhat. Four huge hits out of four is impressive, but no other producer of motion pictures has been able to match this kind of record in the long term. (Steven Spielberg comes close, but even he has a misfire once in a while). It is worth observing that in 1994, Disney thought it could produce a hit along the lines of Aladdin or The Lion King every year. It couldn't, and this now looks like hubris. One of the things that hindered Disney was that they ramped up their production of animated films to a film (or even two) every year, and quality suffered as a consequence. Pixar is now upping production to a film a year. Their quality may not suffer. In John Lassetter and Brad Bird, they have in my mind two of the four best animated filmmakers in the world, which is encouraging. (The other two are Nick Park and Hayao Miyazaki, if you are wondering). However there must be some risk of this. This is possibly another reason for keeping a relationship with Disney. I would think that Pixar would be more inclined to make sequels in the event that some of their future original works are less successful, and staying with Disney keeps this option open.

Well I see Glenn Reynolds is now comparing himself to Indiana Jones, albeit in a subtle way. Hopefully this will continue. (And yes, we all hate these guys).

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Franco-German Cooperation in Action

People who are familiar with the railway systems of Europe will be aware over the last couple of decades, a substantial number of high speed (300km) railway lines have been built in France, in Germany, in Spain, and lines are now being built in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Britain.

In a great spirit of European non-cooperation, the French and Germans have each designed their own separate trains, the French TGV and the German ICE. These run on the same track gauge and with the same electrical voltage (25kV AC via overhead wires), but there are other incompatibilities. Early versions of the ICE were too heavy to run on the TGV tracks, and ICE trains can run on steeper gradient tracks than could TGV trains. Both trains are capable of also running on older rail lines, but simply not at speeds any higher than conventional trains.

Over the past few years, the high speed train networks have been expanding. The TGV has covered France, and is about to be extended to London via the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Plus the TGV has been extended to Brussels, and there are plans to extend it to Amsterdam, and to Cologne in Germany. Meanwhile, the Germans have just completed an ICE line from Frankfurt to Cologne. The Belgians have been building an ICE line from Brussels to Cologne.

That's right. In theory, the two systems are about to become connected to one another. We are not quite there yet, because only the first section of the Belgian line (from Brussels to Liege) has been completed. However, train services have commenced using the new line as far as Liege and then the old line on to Cologne.

In theory, this opens up lots of possibilities. Direct fast trains from Frankfurt to Paris, or from Frankfurt to London, or from Frankfurt even to the South of France. This is all good, in theory. However, it practice, it isn't so great. As I have mentioned, the French TGV trains cannot handle the gradient on the German track between Cologne and Frankfurt, so with present trains, through services to Frankfurt can only be run with the German ICE trains. However, for now, the German ICE trains are not compatible with the signalling on the French TGV track. So, between Brussels and Cologne, we presently have three types of train: slow trains using the old track, TGV services (branded Thalys) running from Paris to Brussels to Cologne using the new fast track, and ICE services from Frankfurt to Cologne to Brussels that are using the fast track between Frankfrurt and Cologne, but the slow track in Belgium because the signalling is not compatible. (The signalling systems will apparently be made compatible by June 2003, and then the ICE trains will also use the fast track in Belgium). And did I mention that tickets for the three types of train are not integrated with each other? It is not possible to buy a ticket from Brussels to Cologne and catch the next train: if you are going to catch a German train, you must get a German ticket.

However, things will become worse when the second stage of the Belgian high speed line is completed from Liege to Cologne. At that point, there will be high speed line all the way from Frankfurt to Paris, and beyond. The obvious thing to do would be to run through trains all the way from Frankfurt to Paris. However, the only trains capable of doing this will be the German ICE trains. Given the extent to which the French TGV trains are all about French gloire, it seems somewhat unlikely that the French will allow a German fast train to pull into the station in Paris until a French train can similarly pull into the station in Frankfurt. (Or who knows: they might insist on a French train pulling into the station in Berlin). Thus I suspect we shall be changing trains in Brussels or Cologne for some time yet.

(And just to make life even more confusing, there is another type of very fast train being built by the Italians. One suspects that they will be more willing to dispense with the bullshit, however).

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

This post escaped into the wild half-complete. The version below has now been completed, so it you looked at it earlier and were puzzled why it ended mid-sentence, you may want to look at it again.

James Russell links to this report on Warner Bros. plans to establish an arthouse specialty unit, and comments that he fears the prospect of major studios making arthouse movies.

It is a bit late for that, given that most major studios have specialty units already. Disney owns Miramax (although it is run as an entirely separate studio). Fox runs Fox Searchlight, Sony runs Sony Pictures Classics, New Line runs Fine Line Features. Paramount has a Paramount Classics division, although Paramount isn't a terribly large player in this area. The situation with Universal is terribly complicated, but they also promote specialty films. (Okay, Universal used to run Gramercy in partnership with Polygram, but then they sold their share to Polygram, and bought October films. Then Universal purchased Polygram, and got all of Gramercy back as part of the acquisition. Then, when Barry Diller left universal, he purchased Gramercy and October as part of the deal, and merged them to form USA Films. Then, when acquired by Vivendi, Universal bought back Barry Diller's parent company in order that he return to Universal as an exactutive, and thus USA Films became a subsidiary of Universal again. However, just to confuse matters, it was then merged with Good Machine Entertainment to form Focus Features, which is the present name of the arthouse subsidiary of Universal Got all that? (I wonder if there is anybody who initially worked for Gramacy who has been through all this and is still there). Meanwhile, Vivendi Universal has imploded, so who knows what is happening next). These specialty units have produced or distributed plenty of good films over the years. The majors keep them on because they don't cost all that much and they tend often make films that win awards. That is, they are largely about prestige and ego. Plus, once in a while they produce a breakout hit. ( The Full Monty made so much money for Fox to pay the overhead for Fox Searchlight for decades).

My problem is not with the idea of major studios producing arthouse films, but with Warner Brothers producing arthouse films. Warners are the most bureacratic and lumbering of studios. If the problem with Hollywood is that studios were once owned by people who love movies but they are now owned by bean counters, then Warners is the worst case of this.

For example, over the last few years, we have had something of a resurgence of films based on comics, and given that Warners have exclusive rights to make movies based on DC's properties, by far the richest in the world of comics, one would expect them to make something of this. Instead, most of the successful movies have come from the less rich Marvel universe. Warners have merely been screwing up their most valuable properties. Warners have spent $30 million on a new Superman movie, in which they have managed to hire people, bureacratically interfere with them, rewrite them, thoroughly piss them off, and then either fire them or have them quit in disgust. And what do they have to show for that $30m. No greenlight, no decent script, no confirmed director, and no confirmed actors. They might have well have spent nothing. If you are someone making an independent movie, do you really want to work with these people? Time Warner already have a specialty division in Fine Line Features, which is part of New Line Pictures, which reports to Bob Shaye, the man who greenlit The Lord of the Rings . As far as I can see, a much better move would simply be to give Bob more money.

The sad fact though is that Lord of the Rings or no Lord of the Rings, Warner Bros. remains the studio with the influence in Time Warner, and New Line is the poor relation. Therefore, if the egos of the people running Warners require that Warners have specialty division then it will probably get one. And these people are going to continue to run the studio for a while. Warners lucked out by finding itself with the rights to the Harry Potter books, which were virtually impossible to screw up, at least partly because creative control over the movies remained with J.K. Rowling. This has done no end of good for the studio's profitability. And in 2003, Warners are releasing two Matrix sequels, which will be gigantic hits. The first Matrix movie was a hit in spite of the studio rather than because of it: it was produced by Joel Silver and was a co-production with Village Roadshow of Australia. It was as good as it was because the studio wasn't watching. However, the studio has still reaped the profits, and will reap the profits of the sequels. This luck will mean that the studio's finances will look good for at least a couple more years, despite the general dreadfulness of the management of the studio.
Iain Murray has some comments on the prospect of reform of the House of Lords in the UK. He argues that for the Lords to be a genuine house of review, it needs actual power, and to have this it needs to be elected. Of course, the existing Lords do not want this, and neither does the government, as both these groups would have their power reduced, and it is one of the golden rules of government that no government will ever vote for a reduction of its own powers.

The proposal for an elected House of Lords that Iain describes is essentially what we have in Australia. We have a House of Representatives based on constituencies as in Britain and a Senate, in which the states are equally represented (with 12 senators each) and who have terms twice the length of members of the HoR (six years instead of three years, with half the senate up for re-election every three years). The senate is elected proportionally, using what is called Single Transferrable Vote in the UK, but is known as Hare-Clarke (after its inventors) or simply the "senate system" in Australia. The House of Representatives has the prerogatives of initiating financial legislation (granted in the constitution) and of forming the Executive Government (by convention).

All these things put together mean that the governing party very seldom has majorities in both houses - the last time it happened was in the 1970s. Governments have to negotiate with the opposition or minor parties in order to enact their legislation. We often end up with the same sort of horsetrading that goes on in the US: governments offer pork in return for votes.

The first comment to make on this is that as a general rule governments absolutely hate this system. Prime Ministers are constantly complaining that they have been given a "mandate" to govern by the people of Australia, and that it is somehow undemocratic that they cannot then enact their entire legislative program without obstacle. Spending a year watching a Prime Minister discover after being elected that he is not all powerful after all is something that we do every time a new one comes to power. (To change the system would require a referendum, and Australians are incredibly cynical about constitutional changes and almost always vote against them, so the politicians are stuck with it).

In actual practice, governments do tend to be able to enact most of their legislative programs after a bit of horsetrading. Legislation tends to be moderated a little (for instance, Australian VAT exempts basic foodstuffs, whereas the government's original plan was that they would be taxed) and once in a while something genuinely gets obstructed (the Australian government still owns 51% of the former telecommunications monopoly, because it hasn't got the votes to get the sale legislation through the senate). However, legislation gets a lot more parliamentary and public scrutiny before coming into force than it does in Britain. Whereas in Britain it is possible for really dumb legislation to get enacted merely by the force of the PM's will, a PM in Australia at least has to argue his case at length first, and if legislation contains something really dumb, there is a better chance that this will be pointed out before it becomes law.

It is possible for the government to control both houses, but only after an absolutely overwhelming popular vote in the government's favour. I think it can be argued that this is not necessarily a bad thing either. In exceptional circumstances, the level of checks and balances can be reduced by the voters, but the normal state of affairs is for them to be present. Even in this case, however, we have slightly less of an elected dictatorship than is the case in the UK, because the federal government's powers are enumerated in the constitution, and the High Court can declare laws unconstitutional if the government exceeds its powers (although it does not do this very often).

(There are provisions in the constitution for breaking deadlocks between the houses that involve calling early elections. However, for the sake of simplicity I haven't discussed, but the above is the gist of it).

Update: There has been some confusion over what I meant by "Single Transferrable Vote". (This is what election buffs in the UK tend to call it, and it is kind of misleading). This is a form of proportional representation, used for electing candidates to multi-member constituencies. In the Australian senate, the whole state is one constituency, and six senators are elected at the same time.

Each voter is asked to number all the candidates in order of preference. If the party you support has five candidates, then you would typically number them from 1 to 5, and then give lower numbers to the candidates from other parties.

A quota is established as the number of votes a candidate requires to be elected. Once a candidate has this many votes, his surplus votes (that is, the number of votes received above what he needed to be elected) are then allocated to the people who received the second preference on his votes until someone else gets a quota. Then his surpluses are reallocated, and this goes on until n candidates are elected. In practice this means that the number of elected candidates received by parties is approximately proportional to the numbers of votes received by the parties.

This system is proportional, but also allows voters to choose between different candidates that have been put forward by the same party. It is a very fair system, but it is a little complicated.

Again I have simplified the issue. I could describe it in more detail, but I think this would only create further confusion. There are some details here.

Just as a piece of trivia, this same system is used by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to select the Oscar nominees (in which five nominees are elected from a large number of eligible candidates). Simple plurality voting is then used to select the winner from these five nominees.

Further Update: I have a response to Jacob Levy's comments here .
Charles Krauthammer captures my thoughts on the future of space travel pretty well in the Washington Post.

The point is that the first 150 or so miles of space travel -- braving the gravitational well of Earth and shooting through the atmosphere -- is the most difficult and dangerous; the next million miles are comparatively easy. Yet going up and down that first 150 miles is the least glorious, least inspiring of all space adventures; it is the stuff beyond low-Earth orbit that speaks to our yearning as a restless, seeking species.

Of course, the long term solution to getting up the first 150 miles, or actually the first 25000 miles, is to build a space elevator. If such a thing can be built, then this will solve the two problems inherent in using chemical rockets to take people to and from orbit: specifically that this is extremely expensive, and that it is dangerous.

For now, we need to keep the shuttle going because we have no other way to get into space. And we'll need to support the space station for a few years, because we have no other program in place.

But that is not our destiny, nor our purpose. If we're going to risk that first 150 miles of terrible stress on body and machine to get into space, then let's do it to get to the next million miles -- to cruise the beauty and vacuum of interplanetary space to new worlds. Back to the moon. Establish a lunar base. And then on to Mars.

The Columbia tragedy will give voice to the troglodytes who want to give up manned space travel altogether. But the problem is not manned flight. The problem is this kind of manned flight, shuttling up and down at great risk and to little end.

However misguided the shuttle and ISS are, shutting these projects down now would seem to be giving in to the troglodytes: it even if this was not the intention of shutting them down, it could end up being the result. So keep them for now, but only for now.
I see that Paul Krugman was furious when Fox cancelled Firefly. I wonder if this meansthat Krugman is a Buffy fan?

Monday, February 03, 2003

This book review of The two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror by Stephen Schwartz (via aldaily) on the history of Wahabism and the rise of the house of Saud is really very interesting. In a sense it is optimistic: Wahab was a long way from the mainstream of Islam, and the Sauds were and always have been the most naked of opportunists. (Plus the American oil industry does not come off well, being clearly willing to cosy up to almost anybody in return for control of the oil). There are of course lots of more moderate forms of Islam, however terrorised they are by the extremists. Of course, the extremists control the holy places and have been able to use their petrodollars to export their form of hate throughout the world, but still, Islam does not need to be extreme. The tragedy is that extremism is being exported now to places where Islam was never extreme before (eg Indonesia).

Sunday, February 02, 2003

This piece in the Los Angeles Times reports that Spirited Away won the major awards at the animation industry's Annie awards, and suggests that this may indicate that it will win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature as well. While I would like to see this happen, I still very much doubt that it will. The trouble is the way in which the Oscar voting works. An animation committee decides the nominees, and then the academy as a whole gets to vote on the winner. And the academy as a whole is middle of the road in its tastes, relatively old, and not expert about animation. This does not increase the chances of a Japanese animated film that relatively few people saw winning, however great it is. (Given that the nominating committee does consist of animation experts, a nomination is certain, and I suspect that the film will receive the highest score from the nominating committee, although we will never know this as the results of academy votes are never released to the public).
If I go to all the sites listed on my blogroll on the left, I find that virtually everyone is between extremely upset and utterly devastated by the loss of the Columbia: Glenn Reynolds, Virginia Postrel, Steven Den Beste, Josh Marshall, Harry Knowles, Brink Lindsey, both the guys at nzpundit, Dale Amon and all the other people over at Samizdata (who hate the idea of taxation and government, but who love a space program just the same, government funded or not), Scott Wickstein, William Gibson, Jay Manifold, Dave Winer, Andrew Dodge, Iain Murray. There are at least two or three others on the blogroll who haven't posted but I would wager feel the same way, and of course if you go to all those blogs and follow the links, you will find thousands more. Some of these people may have found fault with NASA and the way the space program has been run over the last several decades, but the basic message is the same on virtually every blog. We love the space program. We love the idea of manned spaceflight. What happened to the Columbia is terrible. The seven astronauts of Columbia were doing a fine, noble thing. The space program must go on, and we must aim higher and further.

There is another subtext to the posts on pretty much every one of these blogs, which is simply this. I would gladly have got on the Columbia myself . It is actually more than this. It is closer to I would give up everything I have in order to join the astronaut corps, because there is nothing, ever, that I would rather do. I certainly feel this way. The astronauts themselves certainly felt this way. Yesterday, I saw the mother of one of the dead astronauts discussing her son. It was his first spaceflight, and she had spoken to him on the Columbia a couple of days earlier. He had been almost giddy with delight to be up there in orbit. Every dream he ever had had come true. As she said that, there was almost a smile on her face. She was being interviewed on television about the fact that her son had died a few hours earlier, and obviously she was upset, but none the less the fact that he had achieved his greatest dream was something that caused her to smile.

And of course like all the other bloggers, I feel exactly this way myself. My high school years were pretty awful. I went to a bad state school in a coal mining town in Australia. The environment was hostile to anything intellectual, and I committed the sin of being intellectually minded and (much worse) having pride and also some arrogance about this fact. As a result, I spent six years being unendingly tormented and bullied. Not a nice experience. However, as a scientifically minded person I found the space program to be an inspiration. I learned everything I could about the moon missions of the 1960s, and everything that had happened since. I watched shuttle flights on television. I endlessly studied the photographs sent back by planetary probes. (The Voyager mission to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune remains the most extraordinary achievement of NASA and JPL that has occurred in my lifetime. I am rather critical of NASA's direction over the last 25 years, but they did magnificent on that particular mission, and indeed on many other planetary probes). In those days, only 15 years ago, it wasn't generally possible to see the planetary pictures myself until a copy of New Scientist or similar arrived in my local newsagency after coming from England by sea mail . (Things have changed).

At about age 13, I picked up a copy of Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars , which turned me into a big science fiction fan, something I remain to this day. This particular book was a wonderful introduction to the genre, given its inspiring thoughts about mankind's destiny in the universe (and beyond), and its timescales of millions of years. After this, I became a huge science fiction fan, lapping up the works of the golden age: Asimov, Clarke, Weinbaum, Heinlein, Sturgeon, Pohl, Blish, Van Vogt. I was overwhelmed by the sense that the the solar system and the universe was an enormous, exciting place, and that it was the noble and extraordinary destiny of mankind to explore it. NASA had done little (In terms of manned missions, at least) since landing on the moon, but none the less what they were doing was part of this splendid destiny of mankind.

On January 29, 1986, I was woken by my mother, who told me that the space shuttle had exploded. The memory of this is clear in my mind to this day. I sprung out of bed, and turned on the television, and I watched that same shot of Challenger exploding shortly after takeoff, over and over again. It was terrible. I wanted to cry.It was the first day of my final year of high school. I went to school, devastated. When I got to school, there was much shouting and laughing, and discussion of the trivia of what had happened over summer. I felt the need to actually point out that the shuttle had exploded to one person, because everyone seemed so oblivious to this fact. I got a quick "I know" and then a resumption of the frivolousness occurrence. (To this day, I still don't understand this. I do not see very many of these people any more).

After this day, and after the enquiry into the causes of the Challenger explosion, I became more cynical about NASA. Clearly, the idea of the space shuttle, and the idea of a space station, were misguided. What was actually necessary was to figure out what was the best way to get to Mars, and to establish a permanant presence on Mars and perhaps the Moon as well. The US space program was being led by bureacrats and politicians who were not inspired in the way they should have been. Once in a while I read something inspiring, like Robert Zubrin's The Case for Mars , by someone who felt the dream as strongly as I did. I thought, and I still think, that at some point the dream would get back on track. At some point we would once again pursue this cause of so much nobility.

Still, however, manned space flight was a beacon, illustrating where we should go, and I remained extraordinary envious of those people who achieved it. And there remained something attractive and inspiring about the way they achieved it. In recent years, there have been two ways to become an astronaut. One is to generally become an air force or navy pilot, and then to apply to the astronaut program from there. The other is to get a Ph.D , become a research scientist in a field related to space science in some way, and become a mission specialist. The first course was a route for relatively high ocatane jocks, a group I have always been somewhat suspicious of, but who have risen in my appreciation in recent years. The other group were people like me, however. Smart, scientifically minded people. I was never good enough to go there myself, and in my early twenties I sort of lost that kind of dream anyway, but seeing my kind of people achieve the dream I shared was none the less wonderful. Plus there is something extraordinarily generous and egalitarian about the way NASA chooses these astronauts. Yes, they have to be American citizens. But, as far as NASA is concerned, someone naturalised yesterday is just fine. Because of this, quite a few foreigners who have shared the dream have gone to America, become American citizens, become astronauts, and gone into space. People who come to America with ambition and hard work can achieve this most coveted goal, simply through merit. Carl Sculley-Power, an Australian with the same degree as myself (Applied Mathematics honours from Sydney University) did this. Andy Thomas, another Australian, subsequently did the same.People from Britain and other nationalities have done it. Kalpana Chawla of India, who was on the Columbia yesterday, also made it this way. The possibility was actually there if you were good enough.

What do we need to do now? Well, we need to really evaluate what our goals are in space. We need to acknowledge that messing around in earth orbit with a 25 year old, not very reliable space vehicle isn't the way to go. It may be that NASA itself is simply too bureacratic and too set in its ways to achive major goals anymore. If so, this is sad. If it is necessary, reform or abolish NASA and transfer everything to the private sector, but keep the dream of space travel alive.

We live in a world fighting itself. The last 18 months have been the most depressing of my life. Amongst the terrorism and war, we need something to inspire us: something to remind us that there is more to our future than bickering on this one planet. We need a long term goal of colonisation of the solar system. And frankly, as a first step, that means we need to go to Mars. Not just to visit it and then leave, but to establish a permanent settlement there. We have the technology for this. With a really determined effort it probably isn't even all that hard. Devote the amount of money that has been spent on the shuttle and the space station to this, and create a goal so inspiring that our best young engineers will come and work on it, and we will get there, probably in just a few years.

As Dan Hanson was saying yesterday, dedicate a memorial to the seven brave and good people who died yesterday, and the seven who died in Challenger in 1986, and the three who died in Apollo 1 in 1967, and the one who died in Soyuz 1 in 1967, and the three who died in Soyuz 11 in 1971. And have an astronaut place it on the surface of Mars.

I think that is all I have to say about Columbia. May the seven astronauts rest in peace. My condolences to their families. Regular blogging will resume tomorrow.

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