Saturday, January 24, 2004

Differential taxation

I just drank a bottle of (Belgian) Grimbergen beer that I brought back from Barcelona, where it costs about a third of what I would pay in England for the same beer. I brought back four or five bottles of Belgian and German beer, because it was so cheap. This was mainly because taxes on alcoholic drinks are much lower than in Britain, although it might also be because the Spanish have better taste in beer than many of the English. (Unfortunately it was also heavy - hence only four or five). There is something deeply absurd about all this.

Friday, January 23, 2004

More Redirection

I have a piece on rail transport to the rugby World Cup (and also the Sydney Olympics) over at Transport Blog.

I have a piece on the present stunning growth of the online retail business (especially in Britain) over at Samizdata.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Even more on Tokyo

People who have not already read the post below this one may want to read it first. Such is the joy of blog postings being in reverse chronological order.

Brian Micklethwait has some comments on the Landmark Tower in Yokohama, which are themselves a follow up to a conversation and e-mail exchange that I had with him a couple of days ago. (This post is an expanded version of a comment I left after Brian's post).

An interesting thing about Tokyo is that although it is a city on the water, the buildings of the original city center look towards the Imperial Palace rather than the water, which is why most visitors to Tokyo practically don't see Tokyo Bay. Lost in Translation is set mostly in Shinjuku, which was built in the 1970s as an alternate city centre to take pressure off the original city centre near the palace, and which is further inland. ("1970s" might be the reason why the skyskrapers in Shinjuku look a little lacklustre to Brian. I have to say that I have been there on a number of occasions and I cannot think of one building that is memorable enough to make me think of it now). There are some interesting recent developments on reclaimed land on islands in Tokyo bay, but they tend to be aimed at Japanese people and not to be the first places tourists visit, and in any event they aren't really high rise, being more in the nature of three floor shopping malls full of posh shops and with authentic looking Italian Renaissance murals on the ceiling. (Interestingly enough though, the second largest passenger wheel in the world - the largest when it was built a couple of years before the one in London - is on one of these islands, and going on it gives a great view of Tokyo).

Yokohama is for all practical purposes part of Tokyo, although it is and has always been a separate city in a political sense. Unlike Tokyo itself, it has always been very explicitly a port - you will sometimes hear the city referred to the city as the "Port of Yokahama". (Yokohama has the best Chinatown in Japan, amongst other things). Like most ports, its traditional docks have provided a place for redevelopment after traditional shipping has gone into decline and container shipping has had to move to places where the scale of the location is bigger. So in a sense, Yokohama has provided a location for the development of another urban centre the way that Shinjuku did in the 1970s, and you have the whole area of redevelopment that you see in Brian's picture, including the Landmark Tower. (It is also no coincidence that the final of the football World Cup in 2002 was held in Yokahama and not in Tokyo proper. There was room to build a suitable stadium in Yokohama, but finding space in Tokyo would have been hard).

The development at Yokohama is 20 years younger than that at Shinjuku, and I think the quality of architecture in towers was much better in 1993 than in 1973. This shows. Also, Yokohama is a city by the water in a way that Tokyo isn't and I think this adds to the architecture. (It certainly does in the photo). I think the quality of architecture in towers today is significantly better than it was in 1993, which is why it is probably a good thing that London has held off until now on the tower front. We are actually going to get them in an era when the quality of the architecture was good and after the era of ghastly architecture has passed. New York and Chicago got many great art deco masterpieces, and then architecture went to pot for 30 years. Now I think it is good again. The great thing about London is that it is such a famous and important city that projects here will be very prestigious due to their location. And I think that means better buildings.
Further thoughts on Lost in Translation, and on Tokyo.

Okay, I think I am willing to concede that I perhaps was a little overcritical of the photography in Lost in Translation when I first wrote about it. A group of bloggers went to see it in central London on Tuesday night, and I tagged along and saw it again. And while the photography is dark, and I still don't really like it, I am willing to concede that there is more subtlety to it than I thought the first time and that it does reflect the mood of the characters, although it is still too murky in places. Certainly, though, my reaction to this is slightly personal. I don't see Tokyo as dark. I see it as about the least dark city I have ever been to. For one thing, there is so much light bouncing off so much concrete. There are so many lights. There are so many noises. And while the film captures the foreignness of the lights and noises, it does not picture my Tokyo (one that in the end I find slightly less foreign than Sofia Coppola does, I think).

The things I praise about the film - the two central performances, the sense of mood, the quality of the music, I continue to praise, a lot. After The Virgin Suicides I knew it would have great music, so I actually bought the soundtrack CD in Tower Records Shibuya - perhaps my favourite record shop in the world and also one of the best places in Tokyo for buying the sorts of English language books that people like me would want to buy - and I therefore have the Japanese special edition CD. In this case this is necessary somehow. It would be fun to go and see Lost in Translation again at Cinema Rise in Shibuya - the ultra-hip independent Japanese cinema that made Sofia Coppola a big name in Japan long before she was in the west - but it hasn't opened there yet. (Apparently they had lots of other films booked that they had to show first. When I was in Tokyo in November they were showing The Brown Bunny so I tend to think that it would be better if they just got to it. But I digress...). In particular, there is a scene in the movie in which Bill Murray films his whiskey commercial, and the humour comes from the fact that the things being translated to and from Japanese consist of three words in English, and lengthy speeches with lots of passion and gesticulation in Japanese. They are not subtitled - the fact that the characters and the audience do not understand the Japanese is the point - and I would therefore be fascinated to see how a Japanese audience responds to them. Is this scene still funny, or does it not work. Getting it to work for both audiences who do not speak Japanese and audiences who do (and who are seeing subtitles of the English dialogue) would be quite impressive. (It would also be interesting to see how a Japanese audience respond to the perhaps slighly caricatured portrayal of the Japanese in this film).

I don't think I am likely to visit Tokyo again for at least a year or two, so I don't think I am going to be able to see the film with such an audience. This is a shame. And of course there is another reason why this is a shame.

At a party just before Christmas, I found myself chatting to Natalie Solent and Jim Bennett about compulsory purchase, and whether it is necessary and/or a good thing to get infrastructure built. Bennett mentioned to me that Tokyo had been built without compulsory purchase, and the city had still got built. He also mentioned that I should read the book Tokyo: City at the End of the World by Peter Popham. This was a fine recommendation, as it is a wonderfully good book. I am fascinated at the structure of cities, and how they grow from smaller towns, groups of villages, and nothing at all, and this is fundamentally what the city is about. Althout the book does talk about the development of the private railway system in Japan (and the value capture financing that simultaneously makes railways profitable and gets an immense amount of real estate developed) it is more concerned with real estate development, and how that occurs without value capture.

More than that, though, the book explains Tokyo's structure. The lack of permanance that means that Japanese people have a different attitude to the age of buildings than do westerners and Europeans in particular (Tokyo was destroyed by an earthquake in 1923 and again by bombing in 1945) is central, but so is the lack of compulsory purchase. (The clump of skyskrapers in which the hotel in which most of Lost in Translation is set is west Shinjuku, which was built after a reservoir was filled in, as there was no other way to obtain that large a piece of empty land in a political environment in which there was no compulsory purchase). And the structure of central Tokyo is driven by a series of circles around the Imperial Palace. What is really interesting about this is that it is generally not visible to people who are on the ground. The Imperial Palace is a huge no go area in central Tokyo as far as the public are concerned, but one which is largely irrelevant to modern life. Paying no attention to it (as is normal) you just wonder why the bit of Tokyo you are in is shaped the way it is, and there seems no good reason. In order to see the structure you have to look at it on a larger scale than any normal person would. And this book helped me too see things this way, for which I am enormously grateful, as well as many other things about Tokyo that I did not understand. (Including, for instance why there are generally no street names). I need to go back and look at the city again. Except that I am unlikely to be able to do this soon. And, to be honest, there are other places that I really do want to see again before too long and which will come first, most notably the Pearl River Estuary in China and certain parts of India, particularly Mumbai and Kolkata.

(Still, though, the book did not tell me definitively that there was no compulsory purchase involved in the building of Tokyo's railways. It spent most of its time explaining that there was no compulsory purchases for real estate development. I think this may be so, but I do not know for sure. I know that there were tremendous issues getting a second runway built at New Tokyo International Airport (Narita) due to rice farmers who would not sell, and I tend to think that an airport would fall under the same rules as a railway, but if anyone can definitively answer this question, I would like to hear from them.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Peculiar sign of the day

On Monday, I saw this sign on the front door of a mosque in Tooting in south London.

Does this mean that leaving torn copies of the New Testament, the Torah or the Book of Mormon on the steps of the mosque is okay?

(Sorry about the slightly blurred photo. I didn't want anyone to ask me questions about why I was photographing the mosque, so I only took one very quick photo as inconspicuously as possible).

In the month or two I have had the new laptop, I have connected to the internet using a USB DSL modem, I have connected to Perry de Havilland's wired LAN using the ethernet port, and I have connected to a variety of wireless LANs. What I have not done is use the computer's dialup modem even once. And thank goodness for that.

Just as an observation, because I bought an ADSL wireless router the USB ADSL modem that I bought last year is now sitting in a box in the corner. As well as sitting in a box in the corner, I think I would describe it as obsolete, or at least a technical dead end. The trouble with a USB modem is that it cannot be connected directly to a router, and so it isn't really practical if you later want to go wireless or share the internet connection between more than one computer. (Yes, I know it can be done, but it isn't worth the trouble). An ADSL modem that has an RJ-45 (ethernet) port - or better still a built in router - is much more flexible later. Anything that you want to add later can be added. As a bonus, an ethernet modem or router is also easier to set up, as it does not require you to install driver software.

The one exception to all this is when you have a computer without an ethernet port. However, many routers (eg mine) have a USB port, making it possible to connect one computer without an ethernet port. Even if this is not so, it is normally easy to add an ethernet port (via a PCI or PCMCIA card) even it it doesn't have one already.

I have a piece on the Australian cricket team's one day team selections over at ubersportingpundit.
A question

Last night I was talking to a couple of other bloggers, and the subject got around too blog design, and in particular the design of this blog. Now, my main thought in designing this blog was to make it easy to read and use. I think I have largely succeeded in that. One of the two bloggers (Hi Jackie) agreed with me when I said this. The main observation of the other (Hi Patrick) was that he really hated the light blue, and was almost reluctant to come here because of it. Now I quite like the light blue, although I did not put great thought into choosing the colour. (I started with one of the standard blogger templates and hacked around wiith it, and the one I started with happened to be light blue).

I am simply mildly curious about how other people feel about the look of this site. I have been using the present design essentially unchanged for about a year, and I think a redesign once every year or so is probably a good idea even if you have a good design. But right now I don't have the time to do it myself or the resources to get somebody else to do it for me. So the present design will likely stay for a few more months. But I would be interested to hear people's thoughts.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004


I have a piece on the death of former Australian international cricketer David Hookes (who was killed by a bouncer after leaving a pub) over at ubersportingpundit.
Is this art, or is it crap?

In Barcelona last week, I was attempting to take a photograph of myself in Parc Guell. Rather than ask someone else to take the photo, for once I decided that I would get out my mini tripod and put my camera on it, switch my camera to ten second delay between pushing the button and the photo being taken, and then sit down on Pac Guell's quite intriguing pearl like seating complex and let the camera take the photo. An added advantage of this was that I could get in interesting "looking up from the floor" angle.

As it happened though, I got this. You can just see a little bit of me. Just.


Nobody expects you to be taking a photo with a mini tripod and nobody notices your camera on the ground. I suppose it could have been worse. He could have accidentally given the camera a good kick.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Lost In Translation

I apologise for the light blogging. For now, I offer you this picture of a sign in the front wndow of a Tokyo "theme bar", which I took when I was there in November.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

More on the wireless thingamy

It's so cute.

You plug that into the phone line, and into a power outlet. You then plug it into the computer to configure it for five minutes (which essentially consists of telling it your username and password for your ISP), and then you disconnect the computer forever. Clearly this is how everyone is going to connect their laptops to the internet within a year or so. It wouldn't surprise me if these all in one router things come in the box with many laptops before long. And in fact it may well become standard for desktops before long too. I would certainly make setting things up in multiple computer households a lot easier.

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