Saturday, April 12, 2003

Hyper Asiatique sounds so French

Brian Micklethwait somewhat belatedly links to the legendary Kikkoman animation over at Samizdata, and has some thoughts on the mixture of advertising and online music. (Brian links to the version with English subtitles, which is easier to understand, but lacks the pivotal scene of a cat hanging itself in shame after eating food with an incorrect condiment which is in the uncensored Japanese version). Essentially, advertising jingles are a form of online music that people pay to have you listen to, so there may be some kind of business model in there. I have given my follow up thoughts on that in a couple of comments over there.

Now, a digression. A couple of years ago, I was living in Australia. Someone pointed me to this article about Japan by cyberpunk author William Gibson in the Observer magazine. I discovered that it was in fact one article in an entire "Japan issue" of the Observer magazine, and so I read the other articles. One of them drew my attention to the Oriental City shopping centre in Colindale in north London, in particular pointing out that the best sushi in London could be obtained there.

So, when I was back in London, I decided to go there. I had never ventured that far up the Northern Line before, but I was willing to risk it in the quest for great sushi. I got off the tube, and discovered that I was in a perfectly normal, nondescript north London suburb. Walking down the road, I eventually did fine the "Oriental City" shopping centre. I went in, and it was like suddenly being in Tokyo. The shopping centre contained such things as a Japanese bookshop, laid out exactly as would be a bookshop in Japan (there is a particular style they have). A Japanese clothing store. A Japanese furniture store. A store selling all kinds of Japanese dishes and cooking utensils. All with much less concession to western tastes than anything I have seen outside Japan. (There are pleny of places in London, and in Sydney where one can buy Japanese goods, but there is always an acknowledgement that many of their customers are not Japanese. Here, though, there is much less acknowledgement, although many of their customers are in fact, not Japanese.

And, in fact, Oriental City caters to other Asian cultures as well as Japanese, although the Japanese influence is strongest. The food court sells utterly authentic Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian (several varieties), Malaysian, Indonesian, and various other kinds of food. Plus there is a large Asian supermaket, that sells a whole variety of Asian goods (although again Japanese is dominant). In any event, this was great. I had some excellent sushi and had a generally nice time.

Recently, I discovered that one of my female friends had never eaten at one of those sushi bars where the food goes past you on a little conveyor belt and take little plates off the conveyor belt (a kaiten-zushi restaurant, as the Japanese call it). I therefore took her to an outlet of a chain of such restaurants in central London, and we ate excellent (but not quite absolutely first rate) but very expensive sushi there. After that, I decided to show her how it is really done, so a couple of weeks later I took her to Colindale and we had some truly superb sushi.

While there, we went and did a little shopping in the supermarket. There was an impressive array of Japanese beers. I am a little partial to Asahi Super Dry, so I got a few cans of this. The supermarket also had an array of the extraordinary range of canned non-alcoholic beverages one can obtain from vending machines in Japan. I allowed Suzanna (for that is her name) to wrestle with the question of "What the fuck is Pocari Sweat, and why is it so omnipresent?" for a little while, and then moved on to see just how extraordinarily expensive Kobe beef is this week. Plus, of course, the supermarket had a large range of condiments for sale, many of them types of soy sauce produced by Kikkoman corporation. At that point, I started singing "Show me, Show you, Kikkoman, Kikkoman, Show me, Show you, Kiiiiiiiikooooomaaaaan". Alas, I couldn't get it out of my head, and for the rest of the afternoon I started bursting into song. It was altogether a fun afternoon. Suzanna was still talking to me at the end of the afternoon, even after all the singing, which was something of a relief

In Paris last weekend, I saw the following on the side of a van.

which tends to suggest that there is a French equivalent of Oriental City deep in the Paris suburbs somewhere. Alas, I didn't have time to seek out Hyper-Asiatique, so no more on that. (More on the Paris suburbs, however).

Friday, April 11, 2003

Starbucks clones in Paris.

Long term readers will be aware that I am interested in the spread of chain stores throughout the world, and that I am of the belief that the more international chains you find in a city, the more culturally sophisticated and interesting a place it is likely to be. (The most interesting global chains are the upscale ones: those that only exist in a small number of countries, and usually only in large urban areas in those cities, these being the only places where they can find a large enought concentration of the particular type of upscale consumer they need).

This leads me to further discussion of Starbucks. Starbucks don't quite fit into that category, but they are actually a pretty upscale chain as these things go. They are spreading around the world by a strategy they describe as clusterbombing. What this means is that they enter particular countries, and cities within those countries, by opening up a substantial number of stores in the same city within months of opening their first. A consequence of this is that if you visit certain cities in certain countries, then it is easy to imagine that Starbucks is omnipresent throughout the world - your thoughts are something along the idea that if there is one on every street corner here, they will be slightly less dense in a slightly smaller city, slightly less dense still in a city a little smaller, and so on. In fact though, the "on every street corner" situation is all there is. It is that or nothing. (This is perhaps less true in North America than elsewhere).

Starbucks target cities one at a time. There is clearly a market for them in quite a few cities they haven't entered yet, and we thus have the "Starbucks clone" phenomenon. In this situation, someone else will set up a chain of coffee shops just like Starbucks in a city that doesn't yet have Starbucks. These are of variable quality. Sometimes the cloners will get it absolutely perfectly (as did the cloners I saw in Hamburg last year, and as did the cloners in the UK who got it so right that Starbucks entered the UK market by simply buying them out. Sometimes it is done less well. The key to getting Starbucks cloning right is to understand that Starbucks are selling the environment - the so called "third place" - as well as selling coffee. The environment is crucial, and has to be got absolutely right, including the temperature, the level of background noise, and (particularly)_the mixture of furniture. And, sadly, the one chain of Starbucks clones I encountered in Paris last week didn't quite get this right - at least, not as right as did the Germans.

The coffee was decent. The furniture, though, missed the mark. The "comfy chair" option was absent. The air conditioning wasn't on. The staff did not seemed well enough versed in making coffee. (They didn't seem to understand the word "latte" when I spoke it and initially gave me the wrong sort of coffee, although most of their customers were anglophones). The latte, when I got it, was quite good, though.

Update: Coincidentally, Virginia Postrel has just mentioned that there is not a single "free standing Starbucks" in Greenville, NC. (Her use of "free standing" suggests that there might be one inside a food court, or inside a Barnes & Noble, or something like that). It therefore looks like my qualification that "This may be less true in North America than elsewhere" is less needed than I thought. Greenville hasn't been clusterbombed yet.

Further Update: I have a few further comments here

Even Further Update: The clusterbombing of Moscow appears imminent.
Australian men and their big engines

Why do I feel that Tim Blair will post a followup to this piece by Micky Kaus (via instapundit) some time in the next 24 hours explaining that real men (ie Australians) never stopped driving rear wheel drive cars and that front wheel drive cars are for wimps.

(The Australian car market is more like the US market than the European market, largely because of the large distances involved. As in the US, the Australian government doesn't tax petrol very heavily, and people can thus afford to drive cars with high fuel consumption. For some reason, Australians haven't taken to driving trucks in quite the same way that Americans have, though . (Australians also drive a lot of SUVs, but very few minivans). The best selling cars are large and massively overpowered sedans that the local branches of Ford and GM produce specially for the Australian market).

Update: Tim is indeed going on about the joys of rear wheel drive. He does refrain from mentioning that unlike the Americans and Japanese, the Australian branches of Ford and GM never abandoned it.
Personality cults

Scott Wickstein talks about all the statues of Saddam Hussein in Iraq - or at least all the statues of Saddam Hussein that were in Iraq, and comments that there is nothing wrong with statues done in moderation, and that in Australia they generally are done in moderation, and sometimes even with a little humour.

In Sydney, there is a large Victorian building (actually an arcade full of posh shops) which is imaginatively named the "Queen Victoria Building". In a square near the building there is a nice large statue of Queen Victoria. The plaque on the statue states approximately that "This statue was unveiled at this location on such and such a date by so and so, after being presented as a gift to the people of Australia from the Republic of Ireland. It previously stood outside the parliament building in Dublin.

I still find this hard to read without laughing. (Presumably somebody thought it would be nice to have a statue of Queen Victoria near the Queen Victoria Building, and then wondered who might have a spare one that they weren't using. "Ah yes. Let's try the Irish").

More seriously, before erecting statues, it is generally best to wait until the person being commemorated is dead, or at least very old, or as a very minimum is out of power. When you visit a country and discover that the country is filled with statues of the same person, and most of the surface of the coins and banknotes are devoted to pictures of the same person, and the stamps all carry pictures of the same person, then it is time to worry a little.

A slight exception can sometimes be made if the person portrayed is a constitutional monarch. Normally, though, more restraint is shown in such cases. The Queen of England may have her picture on all English money and on all English stamps, but the pictures are often quite small, and there are pictures of other people as well. And again, while there are no doubt one or two statues of Her Majesty, there are lots of statues of other people as well. And I still haven't quite figured out why there is a statue of George Washington in Trafalgar Square. There are with very good reason statues of Roosevelt and Truman and Eisenhower (and others) in pride of place in other locations in London, but Washington in a square otherwise devoted to great British victories baffles me somewhat. Perhaps someone can explain it to me.
An ambition

When people start naming streets after me, I too want to be described this way on the signs.
Mopping Up

Mosul has fallen, and Tikrit is under attack from the air. Once Tikrit is taken (which could conceivably be unpleasant: it was Saddam Hussein's chief stronghold of support) the war will be over.
I withdraw the kind things I said about Sky News

Just heard (paraphrasing). "In the last hour, the exchange rate has risen from 3000 Iraqi dinars to the dollar to 4000 dinars to the dollar, so thats a 25% increase in the value of the dinar in just an hour. Despite that, Iraqis don't seem to want the currency, but are getting rid of it at every opportunity"

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Disney and me.

Steven Johnson, formerly editor of the much missed web magazine Feed, was apparently in Paris at the same time I was. His main reason for being there was to speak at a conference being run by Microsoft in one of the hotels at the Disneyland Paris resort way out in the suburbs.

Steven mentions nipping out of his conference so that he could go to the Magic Kingdom for a "Pirates of the Carribean" ride. He describes going on "Pirates of the Carribean" in various locations around 25 times, and considering the version in Paris to be the best. Which means he must have gone to the various Disneyland resorts at least a few times. Which brings me to my terrible confession, which is that I have never been to a Disneyland anywhere. I have always kind of meant to, but I have never quite managed it. There are Disneylands in Los Angeles, Orlando, Tokyo, and Paris, and I have been to all of these cities except Orlando, but I have never got round to it.

On my one trip to Los Angeles, I only had time for one theme park, and I chose Universal Studios, because it is the other famous theme park in Los Angeles (and it is the other globally franchised one, with clones in Orlando, Osaka, and Barcelona), and because it is actually in Los Angeles rather than Annaheim, and that is where I was. (It was very enjoyable). On my two trips to Tokyo I have sort of meant to go to Tokyo Disneyland, but I have never quite done it. And I could have gone to the one in the Paris suburbs this last weekend, but again couldn't quite be bothered. I have never been to Orlando. (Perhaps I should go to the new Disneyland in Hong Kong when they open that. This one is being built in an interesting location on Lantau island).

While on Pirates of the Carribean, Disney are releasing a film adaptation of the ride as one of their major summer releases, produced by uber-blockbuster producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and directed by Gore Verbinski. As far as I know, this is the first movie to be adapted from a theme park ride, although the reverse is, obviously, commonplace. We will see how this turns out, but I am not terribly hopeful. The last time Bruckheimer was instructed to produce a big summer blockbuster for Disney, he came up with Pearl Harbour which was actually profitable (although nowhere near as profitable as Disney had hoped) but perhaps more pertinently was a complete load of crap. Verbinski is a decent director (I liked his remake of The Ring) but we will see what he can come up with. This may be somewhat similar to making a movie out of a video game, and the history of that genre is not especially good .

I think that I need to go to Orlando to go to Disney World. Firstly, there isn't much reason for the exuistence of Orlando other than theme parks, so I am unlikely to be distracted. Secondly, when I am Tokyo, the temptation to go to some other, more indigenously Japanese theme park like, for instance the Hello Kitty theme park.
More wise thoughts

Alfred Croucher (aka China Hand) has a very good piece talking about why interventions such as the present war are sometimes justified. Croucher gets the obvious but remarkably often ignored point that not taking action to stop something wrong when you can does ultimately at least partly implicate you. The second world war surely made this obvious, but to some extent this was ignored due to the post war realities of the Cold War. Croucher then also gets the fact that in the post Cold War world the example of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and the west's failure to do anything about it, is central to everything. This particular point needs to be brought up over and over and over and over again, but it doesn't seem to be brought up really enough. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda is a monstrous atrocity hanging over the conscience of the world. We cannot forget about it. We must remember it and it must influence how we act subsequently.

Why is the US suddenly departing from a multi-lateral approach to a unilateral approach? Here's another question. What has the UN done to ensure the safety of the US? Is not the US a member in good standing? Does it not deserve the protection of the UN? Instead it stacks its Human Rights and other committees with Qadafi's minions and Iraqis, etc representative of brutal dictatorships. Will they protect us? Has the UN acted with strength against Iraq or just in a token way? He has used mustard gas on Shi'ites and Kurds. Slaughtering thousands. Is there to be no sanction? Do we not owe protection to the people of Iraq? Trade sanctions clearly punish the Iraqi people. The UN has betrayed the people of Iraq and left them to be slaughtered. Do the French have a morally justifiable position? By your standards yes - Better thousands of innocents die at the hands of a tyrant, than one innocent die by our hand while trying to help them. This is a very convenient position. It is a very comforting position. Nothing I can do! Screw'em. We didn't ask them to live in Iraq. Yes. Comforting, but of no moral value. You're only position of merit is that you recognize the problem when you say we ought to accept all Iraqi refugees. If we are obliged to help refugees, surely that means we have to recognize the problem and do something about that. People are being oppressed and even slaughtered for not loving Saddam. Does our responsibility end there? Is it still OK to stand by when a man beats his wife to death, just taking in his fleeing kids?

Sadly, it took September 11 and fears about its own security for the US to completely wake up to this reality, and to completely wake up to the inadequacy of what multilateral system exists, although I think Bosnia woke the partially. (Rwanda should have: Bill Clinton's inaction and his administration's apparent lack of concern about the events there is, of everything, the one thing I cannot ever forgive from him). America's presence in this war has a lot to do with its own security (when it comes down to it, it really is all about September 11, but largely in the sense that after September 11, a lot of people's minds changed about what can be tolerated in the rest of the world) but purely from a human rights point of view, it is justified. And probably required.

(Link via Gweilo Diaries).
There are one or two good kiwis out there

Otherpundit has some wise words

I will mourn for all the victims of this war - the soldiers, the journalists, the civilians. All the victims of the Hussein regime's brutality.

I will pray for all those who face the challenge of winning the peace from the ashes of three weeks of war and decades of brutal repression. This can't be done in 22 days, but the media won't be hanging around.

I will remember that one victory against the decadent and amoral at home doesn't mean the war is over. Its only just begun.


Wednesday, April 09, 2003

More bang for the buck

In a local computer store, I today saw a laser printer for sale for 75 pounds - about 200 Australian dollars. This is by far the cheapest I have seen, and I was rather amazed by this. Prices of consumer electronics continue to drop, and I continue to be impressed. The printer in question was a Samsung, who continue to impress me with their range of products and their competitiveness. (I personally use an Oki laser printer, that I purchased in Australia 18 months ago for about $450 Australian, of similar specifications to the Samsung I saw today and a nice piece of equipment).

I remember when a laser printer would set you back $10000.
Just to be unambiguous

One of the world's viler dictators has just been overthrown. I have just seen pictures of thousands and thousands of people celebrating his demise. My country participated in this action, and my fellow Australians have participated in removing him from power. This makes me proud.
Baghdad appears to have fallen

I am watching American tanks in the middle of Baghdad. There doesn't appear to have been much resistance. David Chater +from Sky News is wandering around interviewing the marines, who are all saying they hope to be back at home with their families as soon as possible. They are still looking a little tense and on guard, but they are getting interrupted and asked if they mind talking to Sky News for a moment. Remarkable stuff. (The marines look so young).

Apparently the Iraqi secret police headquarters have just been taken. It will be interesting but I suspect not pleasant to see what they find there.

It will be interesting to see whether anyone can find out just precisely who Salam Pax is, and if so who will manage to interview him.

The Americans have commenced bombing Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein and the home of the Sunni ethnic group that makes up his loyalists, We will see how much resistance there is there and what strategy the Americans will take. The town will contain lots of people with nothing to lose, which is always dangerous. (Of course, it is possible to cut off the town's infrastructure and wait for its supplies to run out).

Iraq is the cradle of human civilization. Agriculture may well have been invented there. The Sumerian civilization were the first people in the world to invent writing. I hope to be able to visit the country some time in the next couple of years.

Update: Two Iraqis are holding a sign saying "Go home human shields, you US wankers", plus some Iraqis want help in pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein.
Jørn Utzon, and the Sydney Opera House

Jacob Levy at the Volokh Conspiracy observes that Danish architect Jørn Utzon, who designed the Sydney Opera House, has been awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Jacob observes that Utzon "didn't see it through to completion for a variety of reasons". The New York Times article he links to states that "While the building was often likened to the Taj Mahal, the comparison was not always complimentary. Such criticisms eventually caused Mr. Utzon to withdraw from the project before its completion". This is all euphemism. What happened was the project (which was funded by lottery money) went over budget. In the election in the state of New South Wales that took place 1965, the opposition Liberal Party used the story of supposed excesses in the building of the Opera House to score political points off the reigning Labor government. When the Liberals were elected, in an act of great philistinism they decided to get rid of Utzon, because sacking people appointed by predecessor governments is something that you do. This was done in a particularly nasty way: the government messed up the finances of the project to such an extent that it was impossible for Utzon to continue and he was thus forced to "resign". (This was not the first or last sacking to be described as "resignation"). The project was then completed by local architects, much to the regret of many people both at the time and since. (The inside of the building is presently being refurbished with some input from Utzon, but sadly it will never be completed to his original design). The whole sad story is told in this article from the London Review of Books (link via aldaily).

Of course, despite all this, the Sydney Opera House remains a truly great piece of architecture.

Yes, blogging was light yesterday. Sadly, I am not able to come up with as good an explanation as Tim Blair.

Like most Australians my age, I watched Astro Boy as a kid. At the time, I had no idea it was Japanese. It's a genuine classic, though, and one of the most influential pieces of popular culture I can think of.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

The BBC retreats further into its corner

I see that the televisions on the HMS Ark Royal have been switched over to Sky News because the navy have become annoyed by the BBC. Sky's coverage over the last three weeks has really impressed.

Monday, April 07, 2003

Are the British troops really useful in this war?

Yes, definitely. They make good cups of tea. (via Iain Murray).

The British are so gloriously, well, British.
Chemical weapons

The Americans seems to have found a stockpile of sarin and other nerve agents in Iraq. This is not even remotely surprising, but if you believe that the presence of "weapons of mass destruction" are necessary to justify the war, this qualifies. Given that Saddam Hussein used nerve gas in the Iran-Iraq war, it isn't precisely surprising that they have some, methinks.
Back in London

I am going to bed quite soon, but I have lots of things to blog about over the next few days. The Eurostar is a fine train.
Reading the Guardian

As well as having the best designed website of any of the English papers, The Guardian for some reason manages to get its paper distributed throughout continental Europe far better than the Times, Telegraph, or Independent. It is printed in a number of European cities, and is available on more newstands, appears earlier in the day, and is cheaper. The International Herald Tribune is as widely available, but contains news a day old. As a consequence I often find myself reading the Guardian when I travel, whereas I don't read it when I am in England. (This has been the case for at least a decade too. As to why the other papers don't improve their distribution, I don't know).

Sunday, April 06, 2003

More astronomical achievements.

Another ten moons of Jupiter have been discovered since I last mentioned the subject a month ago, taking the total to 58. (Jay Manifold has some discussion). The obvious conclusion is that something has happened recently to dramatically improve our ability to analyse the data being received from Earth based telescopes. The discovery of the Jovian moons is interesting without being revolutionary. I am waiting for the same technology to be used to discover something revolutionary. I bet this is coming soon.

Update: Jay has now linked to this BBC piece on the imaging equipment in question, and has provided some further analysis. We are talking the ability to resolve a golf ball from 28 miles away.
Paul Brownfield of the LA Times, I salute you..

This guy describes walking in to see Chicago with a pizza under his arm, and nobody even questioning it. (I hope it was a deep dish pizza). I have never gone that far. While it is a common practice for me to take in a Coke and a chocolate bar that I have bought somewhere else, I tend to have them in my rucksack, or in my pockets or something. My reasoning is simply that I am cheap, and paying three pounds for a Coke seems somehow excessive.

The economics of movie theatres is quite interesting, of course. For first run blockbuster movies, the movie studio gets a very large percentage of the ticket price - in extreme cases as much as 90% (although 70-80% is more usual). The cinema makes its money from outrageously high prices on Coke and popcorn. People are generally willing to pay these prices because moviegoing is a social experience, and nobody wants to look cheap in front of their friends or a date by not buying a drink because it is too expensive. On the other hand, if people go to the movies by themselves this not wanting to lose face argument doesn't work any more, and the economic model of movie theatres starts to fail. Personally, I see a lot of movies - more than one a week on average. I tend to go by myself, at least partly because I take movies very seriously and seeing a movie with someone who takes them less seriously can be a distraction. I am a great customer from the point of view of the movie studios, but only a mediocre one from the point of view of the cinemas themselves. They do better out of someone who comes once a month and buys popcorn.

The author of the article also describes someone who he used to sit next to at football games who had the ability to somehow practically produce gourmet meals in his lap at football matches. This is worth describing because (I believe) spectators aren't normally allowed to take their own food into sporting events in the US. In Australia, spectators traditionally are allowed to bring in their own food (with the exception of alcoholic drinks, which must be bought inside). Prior to the Sydney Olympics, it was announced that spectators would not be allowed to bring their own food with them to Olympic events, "in line with international practice". This policy was denounced by newpaper editorials as being "un-Australian", was attacked on talkback radio, questions were asked in parliament, and it looked for a moment like the Olympic officials would be first against the wall when the revolution came (well, not quite). The Olympic organisers backed down, and spectators at the Olympics were ultimately allowed to bring their own food. This type of action has never been tried against cinema owners, however.

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