Saturday, September 06, 2003

Steven Den Beste does have his uses

I have seen one or two posters on walls advertising this. I don't know enough German to have figured out the whole story, but I guessed it was something along those lines. What are the odds they end up blaming the International Jewish Conspiracy?
Non-startling observations

I've just been to see all Friedrich the Great's palaces at Potsdam. There is not much to say, other than that Prussian architecture could at times be pompous.

Also, there seemed to be some sort of festival (Brandenberg Day?) going on in Potsdam. This seemed to involve eating a lot of sausage sandwiches and drinking a great deal of beer, mostly.

Friday, September 05, 2003

I'm with Lileks

Two years later I am still f*#king furious about it, too. And it's not because I lost a job at least partly because of it, either, although I did. It's because my civilization was attacked by barbarians who want to return the world to the seventh century, and who hate everything about the globalised technological civilization that I love so much.
And one more thing

Grammatical gender is stupid. I spent several seconds struggling to remember if a "biergarten" was male, female, or neither.
Another good thing about the blogosphere

All I need to do is mention I am in Berlin, and one of my regular readers immediately e-mails me a list of interesting things to see and do in the city. This is really nice. Thanks Alan.

Another interesting thing about Berlin, is that somehow the West feels a little like Sydney and the east like Melbourne. Partly this is because the west is richer, more brash, and a little more western in a franchised chain stores consumerist way, and the east feels a little more bohemian and studenty, and full of cafes, cheap restaurants and trendy stores. Mainly, though, it is that the east has an extremely extensive tram network and the west doesn't. Keeping the tram lines was one of the few things that the east got right.
This has been said before

German beer is a wonderful, wonderful thing. (I spent an hour sitting in a cafe next to the River Spree, reading a book and drinking a glass of wonderful Bavarian weizenbier. Quite enjoyable.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

How new is new?

On the way to Stansted airport yesterday, I found myself unexpectedly in Broxbourne in Hertfordshire for about half an hour. Near the railway line was something called the "New River Path", a walking track running beside a watercourse. Although this was called "New River", river was clearly the wrong word. It was far two straight, far too narrow, far too deep, and in the wrong location (on the top of an artificial looking ridge) to be a natural river. My first guess was that it was a canal. However, I found a sign explaining that it was in fact a channel forming part of the London water supply system. I have no idea how London's water system works, but I suspect it is made up of lots of little pieces of infrastructure like this rather than the more monolithic infrastructure in more marginally located cities such as Sydney or New York. I really must learn about it. (There was a fabulous piece on New York's water system and the immense third tunnel under construction in the New Yorker last week. Sadly, they haven't put the article on line).

In any event, the New River is not actually a river. Also, it has been flowing since 1613, which may be "new" relative to Stonehenge, but probably isn't to the rest of us..

(While on articles in the New Yorker, this piece on the Galileo Jupiter mission is excellent, too. (Every now and then, NASA seems to produce "the little space probe that could", and Galileo was one of those). The magazine seems to have improved a lot since Tina Brown left).
First we take Manhattan

I am in Berlin. I was last here in 1992, and since then there have been lots and lots of stories about the immense amount of construction that has taken place here in the last decade. And when you look at it, this both is and isn't true. An immense amount has been built in two areas, both of which were desolate wastelands in 1992 because they had either been underneath or very close to the wall. The two areas are the administrative centre around the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate, and a retail/commercial/entertainment development around and at Potsdammer Place. (The Holocaust memoral is being constructed in between these two areas. This will mean that the two areas will in some ways be permanently disconnected, which is perhaps the point). These areas join on to the historic heart of the city, that runs down Unter den Linden to Alexanderplatz, the showcase centre of the former east Berlin. The showcase centre of the former West Berlin is still largely disconnected from all this, so in some ways Berlin is a rather disjointed city.

Important news is that Berlin has been clusterbombed. As well as in many other places, there are Starbucks outlets just next to the Brandenburg Gate, and a couple of blocks from Checkpoint Charlie. In both cases they are on the Eastern side. That certainly makes it clear about who won the cold war.

Seemingly as lacking in Latin European style cafe culture as Britain, Germany seems to be following Britain down the line into Starbucks style coffee. As well as the authentic version of Starbucks, there are at least a couple of large, seemingly country wide chains of Starbucks clones, and the Germans seem to be taking to this kind of cofee with enthusiasm. Plus, there is also the real thing. This seems to be happening about five years after almost exactly the same thing happened in the UK. Interestingly enough, none of the British chains of Starbucks clones have seen to expand here. This seems a shame. One would think they have the expertise to get this right.

Also, the Starbucks world can be divided into two subworlds: those countries that get short, tall, and grande; and those countries that get tall, grande, and venti. Britain is in the second category with the US. Germany for now is in the first category with Australia. Heaven knows what this means.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003


Scott Wickstein has finally become too depressed about Australian politics to want to blog about it any more. I reached this stage some time ago. Both options are simply awful beyond words, and the prominent minor parties somehow manage to be far, far worse than the main parties. (Yes, I know, without any explanations to back my words up I am not saying very much). However, what do you expect with a political system that leads to headlines like this one.

Speaking of countries with disfunctional politics, I am going to be in Germany for a few days. Blogging will be fairly light, but will happen at some level. As to whether it will be possible to leave comments, who knows.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003


The comments system seems to be alive again. If anyone felt the urge to leave a comment on something I wrote over the last few days but was unable to, why don't you go back and leave it now. It will make me feel less lonely.

Update: Comments were alive again. Sadly, it seems not for very long.

I have a piece on excessive demands for ID from car rental companies at White Rose.

Monday, September 01, 2003

Comments on comments

I feel half naked posting here without having the comments system working. I like the feedback I get, and although my counter tells me that people are in fact visiting, it somehow feels that they are not. As I have mentioned before, the comments sections on this blog is nice and cozy, and I think it has the mood of sitting around a fire in winter with a few of my friends and a nice bottle of port, or something like that.

However, some comments sections are less friendly, and some can be downright nasty. People use rather more inflamed language than they would in person, and if you are on the receiving end it can be unpleasant. Certainly However, I am better at dealing with it than I used to be. Sometimes I just laugh. For instance, when I am told

shame on you for buying that horrible tasteless pre-grated muck.

because I have admitted on a blog to having committed the deadly sin of having bought the wrong sort of cheese, I tend to think the other person should lighten up a bit.

The lengthy article I promised a few weeks ago on Hollywood economics and the summer movie season is up at Samizdata.

Sunday, August 31, 2003

The impact of charging regimes on the growth of dialup internet services or Why do I have so many different e-mail addresses?

Traditionally, British people (and most other Europeans) have paid by the minute for all phone calls, including local phone calls. As an Australian, this is different to what I am used to, which is for local calls to cost a flat fee: you pay for the call but can talk for as long as you like without having to pay any extra. This is different still to what Americans are used to, because the situation in America is that local calls are free, or at least the cost of them is included in the line rental.

In the days of telephone monopolies and cross subsidies from one part of the network to the other, these differences didn't matter much. Some countries had high line rentals and low call charges, and other had low line rentals and high call charges. What some people lost on the swings, others gained on the roundabouts. That said, local calls tended to be shorter in Britain than they did in either Australia or the US. Charging people a fee per minute does this.

However, this difference in telephone charging arrangements became quite a big deal when people started using their telephones for dialup internet service. The obvious reason for this is that people using the internet like to make long calls. In the US, Internet service providers initially started charging by the minute, but by about 1997 unmetered service became standard. People were charged a flat fee by their ISP, and could dial the ISP using a local number. People using the internet a lot were on the phone a lot longer than before, but did not pay any additional money to the telephone company for the extra calls. The telephone companies made some extra revenues through people paying line rental on second lines for internet use, and made some more through ISPs themselves renting lines that they used to provide internet service. Telephone companies weren't especially happy about it, complained about additional costs, and argued at length about whether things should change, but basically they were stuck with it. The other way for telephone companies to make money from dialup was for them to actually own ISPs, and this happened in a big way.

In Australia, virtually all local phone lines are owned by Telstra, the (ridiculously still 50% government owned) former monopoly. As I mentioned, local calls cost a flat fee. An ISP market came into being in which customers pay a monthly fee to the ISP, which provides local numbers for connection. The customer then pays per call to Telstra for local calls. If you are a fairly heavy internet user who makes three or four calls a day, you end up paying about $A30 a month in call charges to Telstra and about $20 a month to the ISP directly. This is very lucrative for Telstra, which has had its revenues go up considerably due to the internet. However, it has a couple of negatives. For one thing, people will stay connected to the internet for four hours (or longer) rather than make two calls four hours apart, because this is cheaper. Secondly, dialup is so lucrative to Telsta this Telstra doesn't have much of a financial incentive to migrate its customers to DSL, which is one reason why the broadband market in Australia is so underdeveloped. (Another reason is that Telstra also owns the most important cable networks, so there is little competition from other platforms).

In the UK, however, we started with the other extreme. British people traditionally have paid by the minute for all their phone calls, including local calls. When the internet came along, this was a problem, as it made being connected to the internet for a long time very expensive. Initially, customers had to pay a fee to an ISP as elsewhere and a per minute charge to BT. Mass market internet did not take off.

However, in the 1990s considerable competition was introduced in telephone services in the UK, and at least some local numbers belonged to telephone companies other than BT. If a local call was made from a BT line to a line belonging to some other carrier, then BT would charge the customer for a local call and a portion of the money (the origination fee) would be kept by BT and the remainder (the termination fee) would be paid to the telephone company that operated the phone receiving the call. In 1998, a company called Freeserve was created by Dixons, a chain of electrical goods stores, and Energis, a telephone company competing with BT, to use this fact to launch an internet service that was cheaper than previous arrangements. Essentially, customers were given a dialup number to call that terminated on an Energis number, that was connected to the Freeserve ISP. The customer was charged for a local phone call, BT kept the origination fee, and the termination fee went to Freeserve. (Actually Freeserve took advantage of something called "0845 non-geographical local rate" numbers rather than local numbers strictly, as someone would no doubt point out if I didn't myself. However, the effect was exactly what I described). The customer only paid a single fee that appeared on his phone bill as the cost of a "local phone call", but this was split, and some of the money went to BT and the rest to Freeserve. Freeserve didn't have to worry about billing customers directly or anything like that, as this was all handled by BT's existing billing services.

This was cheap enough and simple enough that British people started using the internet in large numbers. Freeserve almost immediately became the largest ISP in the UK, a position it retains to this day. Other ISPs quickly followed, and dialup internet services that work like this - the only charge is for timed phone calls that appear on your phone bill - are still very common in the UK. Collectively they are known as "Pay as you go" services, and they are popular with people who only use the internet for a few hours a month.

Pay as you go services were a big advance, but they were still timed and still worked out to be expensive for people who wanted to use the internet a lot. There was pressure for the introduction of genuinely untimed dialup intenet services. BT was under pressure to deliver these from a variety of directions. One was that BT was receiving competition from cable companies that provided local phone services as well as other services, and which did offer untimed dialup internet services for their customers. This was a reason for some of BT's best customers to jump ship and get all their telephone services from other companies, and BT had to compete. Secondly, both customers and the regulator of BT's semi-monopoly looked at the rest of the world, saw that untimed dialup internet was common, and asked why we couldn't have it here. The regulator eventually announced that BT's wholesale charges (ie to resellers of its services, including ISPs) had to be related to its costs. In effect, this meant that ISPs could charge their customers a flat amount per month. A portion of this would then be paid from the ISP to BT. For this, the customer would then be able to call his ISP an unlimited number of times on a freefone (0800) number without there being any further charges to BT. Again, the customer would pay a single charge (although this time to the ISP rather than BT) which would be split between the telephone company and the ISP. (This is a simplification of the development of untimed dialup services, and there are a couple of other stages that I have left out. The company that introduced the key innovations and got its product to market first was AOL, which now consequently has a substantial share of the ISP market in the UK, although Freeserve remains the market leader).

(These wholesale rates also meant that resellers of BT's telephone services could also provide untimed voice telephone services to their customers. Essentially, this means that customers who pay a higher line rental can now have free local (or even national) calls, just as in the US. People who pay lower line rentals still pay by the minute).

So that is where we are. Most serious dialup intenet customers in the UK pay a flat monthly charge for as much dialup as they like, and there are no additional call charges. Less serious users pay by the minute and are charged on their phone bills. At all stages in the development of the market, BT has dragged its feet, and other companies have been the innovators. BT has usually offered similar services soon after, but has never really challenged for a position of market leadership. (This is typical. BT is a reasonably good wholesale company, but at the retail level is hopeless. This in some ways isn't so bad. If it was a good retail company, its retail arm might prevent the wholesale arm from selling its services to other people as happens with Telstra in Australia). In 2003, people in the UK have started to get serious about broadband, and there is a price war going on for broadband right now. BT seems to be doing a little better selling broadband than previous innovations, but is still a long way behind. (Just out of interest, the five most significant ISPs in the UK are Freeserve, AOL, BT, and cable companies NTL and Telewest).

Now, what does this mean for my e-mail addresses. Well, oddly enough the existence of pay as you go services makes it much easier to change ISP. The big hassle to changing ISP in the US or Australia is normally having to change your e-mail address, because once you have left an ISP they are unlikely to be willing to continue to provide you with an account on their mail servers. However, in the UK, if you are on flat fee untimed service from an ISP, you tell them that you don't want to continue using the untimed service, but you wish to keep an account with them on their pay-as-you-go service. Because you are still technically a customer, your e-mail account continues to exist and you can access it via POP without even connecting to that ISP. However, because you don't pay anything to the ISP unless you connect to it via dialup, you don't generally have to pay anything for continued use of mail (and also webspace) facilities. Sometimes the ISP will delete your account if you go a long time without connecting, but normally they will send you e-mail telling you this is about to happen, and you respond by connecting for a few seconds and paying a few pence.

In 18 months in the UK, I am now on to my third ISP. I initially used the untimed service belonging to BT, but after about nine months I decided to switch because BT were more expensive than the competition. They still weren't very expensive, but they were not especially reliable, and if you are going to charge premium prices you need to provide premium service. I then switched to Freeserve, which I used until quite recently. Although Freeserve are not the cheapest ISP out there, their pricing is about in the middle of the pack and I found their service to be considerably better than that of BT. However, after about nine months of them, I decided I wanted to upgrade to DSL. Freeserve's DSL pricing was once again in the middle of the pack, but (like many of their competitors) they require new DSL customers to sign up for a 12 month contract. I am not in a position to commit myself for 12 months. However, Richard Branson's offers a DSL service which only requires you to sign up for one month, and which has a monthly charge that is slightly lower than Freeserve. (Virgin requires you to pay for your modem, whereas many of the other ISPs throw in a free modem if you sign up for 12 months. When you take that into account, the cost of Virgin for 12 months is close to exactly the same as the others). So I have now been signed up to for a bit over a month.

However, I still have Pay as you go dialup accounts with BT and Freeserve. My e-mail address that I got from BT, which is, still works and I still use it as my primary e-mail address. (It is receiving so much spam these days that I may abandon it soon, however. BT's service is still occasionally unreliable, too, hence things like the e-mail outage the other day). My e-mail address from Freeserve, which is mjj12 at, also works fine. (This one does not get a lot of spam, hence the 'at' rather than '@'). Feel free to use this one. I have a third e-mail address from, which is michael.jennings1 at Again feel free to use this one. These pay as you go dialup accounts are also useful to have around as backup if my DSL connection fails.

And I fear this may be long and dull. Oh well.

As is no doubt obvious, the comments system has been down all weekend. Yaccs are claiming that they are subject to a server failure, and everything will be back in "24 to 48 hours". If I took that literally then comments would be back by now. Hopefully they will be back soon.

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