Saturday, March 06, 2004


I have a piece on the cricket team of the United States of America's glorious qualification for the ICC Champions Trophy at ubersportingpundit and a silly photo over at Samizdata.

Update: Ubersportingpundit is down, but Scott promises it will be back in a day or two. As the Australian cricket team is playing a test starting tomorrow morning, I may cover it here for a couple of days until uber is back.

Friday, March 05, 2004


I have a piece on Samizdata commemorating the fact that today is the tenth anniversary of the first spam. (Yes, really).

Update: I also have a little travel blogging about a trip to Kenya I made in 1993.
A fun blog

I will say I have to find the 31st of January entry for this blog to be just sidesplittingly funny.
I am not a fan of Bill Gates

My laptop is a widescreen model. As I have discovered that I like to watch DVDs on it in public places, this is good. Most movies are made in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, although a substantial proportion are also made in 2.35:1. Widescreen televisions normally have an aspect ratio of 16:9 (1.78:1) which is close enough to be largely indistinguishable for most viewers, although either a small amount must be chopped off at the sides or the top and bottom must be cropped slightly less than is the case in the cinema.

However, widescreen computer screens such as mine usually use an aspect ratio of 16:10 (1.60:1). This means that there will be always be (very) narrow black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. This was a necessary compromise for laptop computers in particular, as a 16:9 screen is a little too awkward for computer applications.

Once you have a DVD player in your computer, it is necessary to get some software to actually play DVDs. There are a variety of solutions. I presently have four installed on my laptop: Cyberlink PowerDVD, Dell Media Experience (which I think is running using the same engine as PowerDVD), Interactual Player, and Microsoft Windows Media Player. The first three of these have no trouble realising that I have a wide screen, and when set to "full screen" they adjust to the full width of the screen. Windows Media Player seems incapable of realising this, however, and it for some reason assumes that I have a UGA (1600x1200) screen rather than the WUGA (1920x1200) screen that I in fact have. Therefore, with Media Player the whole picture is scaled significantly smaller and I get a wide black margin all the way round the picture. Well done Microsoft.

It may well be that there is some way to configure Media Player so that the pictures will scale to fill the whole screen, but 15 minutes of fiddling around with the menus and the laughably named "help" function did not enable me to find it. Whether it exists is not really the point. Media Player should be able to find out the size of the screen for itself, just as the other players can. And if it can't, a manual configuration option should be easy to find and set.
I guess this means I am a blogger

I went to slashdot this morning, and the top headline was "Glenn Urges Direct-to-Mars trip". The thought that went through my head was that I am sure that Glenn is in favour of Direct-to-Mars, but is he really so influential that this thought deserves a deadline on slashdot. Then, "Oh, John Glenn".

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Marketing that appears to be working

I was sitting in a pub today working on my laptop. There actually was WiFi in the pub, but it was ridiculously priced for pay WiFi, so I was working off line. However, I was writing e-mail for sending later. Someone else came up to me and asked me the following question.

"Have you got a Centrino connection on that laptop"?

I sad that I was working offline, and he went away, but the interesting thing is the brandname he asked about. Intel has been promoting the "centrino" brandname for certain laptops using its chips. Specifically, the laptop has to use the Pentium M, have 802.11b (or 11g) wireless, and use the Intel 855 chipset to use the brandname. Intel has been paying for lots of advertising showing people work wirelessly on its "Centrino" laptops. The point has clearly been to associate the "Centrino" name with 802.11 wireless. Judging by this resonse, it is succeeding. Presumably when the gentleman goes into a computer shop to buy his next laptop, he will ask for a "Centrino" system. Presumably, as far as Intel hopes, this will guide him to high end rather than low end laptops, and also will guide him away from laptops with AMD and other non-Intel chips. If he just asks for a machine with WiFi or "wireless", or "802.11" this won't happen, but this is presumably what Intel is trying to prevent. So good marketing for them. Trying to attach a proprietary name to a non-proprietary product is always fun. (Apple is good at this, too. Bring on airport extreme).

(As it happens, my laptop does satisfy Intel's requirements to be called a "Centrino" system. It has a Pentium M, it has 802.11g wireless, and it has the 855 chipset. However, you won't see the word "Centrino" on it anywhere, and the most prominent brandname is Dell's. (There are small stickers on the front right saying "Intel Inside: Pentium M" and also "Designed for Microsoft Windows XP"). Dell has no wish to promote Intel's brands excessively, I suspect, and Intel is unable to insist upon it. Dell must be Intel's single biggest customer, and Dell must be able to drive a very hard bargain. The big thing that Dell can threaten Intel with is the possibility that they might start offering AMD based machines as well as Intel based machines (or in an extreme case they could switch entirely to AMD, although this is not likely). Intel would obviously be appalled if they did this, so at the moment Dell gets to impose most of the conditions, I think. Competition is a fine thing. Shame it is so much harder to have any kind of similar hold over Microsoft).

Update: It turns out that to be called a "Centrino", a laptop also has to have Intel's own 802.11 hardware, whereas mine has an 802.11g mini PCI card that is Dell branded. Apparently the base (802.11b) configuration of the Dell Inspiron 8600 does use the Intel wireless hardware and so can be called a "Centrino", but this one cannot. That seems unnecessarily complex.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

I am meddlesome

While having a latte in my favourite bookstore cafe this afternoon, I was browsing M.J. Simpson's biography of the late Douglas Adams. When his daughter Polly was born in 1994, a room was redecorated for her, and Adams' wife Jane expressed the observation that the ethernet port in the room could perhaps be removed. However, Adams insisted that it stay, as he thought his daughter would need it soon enough. (Apparently, Polly's first computer (a mac) was indeed bought for her when she was three).

Reading this, though, I was struck by the fact that the wired house with ethernet ports seems kind of quaint now. I managed to avoid being in a position where I had a home that needed wiring in the 1990s, and I now know that I am never going to do this. I do now have a "home ethernet", but it just consists of a little box that is an all in one DSL modem, router, and wireless access point. If I ever want to connect more than one computer to the ethernet, I just buy a (trivially cheap) wireless card for the computer, and bingo. If I move house, I just take it all with me. No rewiring required. Soon I suspect that all kinds of devices: printers, speakers, scanners, set top boxes, televisions, you name it are all going to have inbuilt wireless. It is going to be an interesting time.

However, there are still complications. I was in PC World today, and a customer wanted wireless in his home for his laptop. He already had a cable internet connection, and the salesman was attempting to sell him a router/wireless access point. Or was he trying to sell him just an access point. The salesman had a puzzled look on his face. Because I sometimes can't help it, I interrupted, explaining that there were three things needed: a modem to connect to the internet, a router so that more than one computer coud use the same internet connection, and a wireless access point for wireless access, and that there were various combinations of these devices available in one unit. If he had a cable internet connection with a modem with an RJ-45 socket as supplied by his ISP (which I believe is standard) then he needed a router and a wireless access point, preferably in the same unit. I either may or may not have got the message across. (Talking about software routers was something that I think wisely I avoided).

But I can't help myself sometimes. Certainly the huge amount of similar but slightly different network hardware on the shelves of a place like that is complicated.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

That was a long hiatus from blogging

Alan Little discusses a list of the most successful 50 films ever in Germany by number of tickets sold.

This is actually an interesting metric, and one I have not seen before. Normally there are two ways of comparing box office grosses. The simplest is simply the nominal box office gross. This is simply the number of dollars spent on tickets for the film, with no adjustment for inflation at all. This is fine for comparing films released in the same year, and quite meaningful for films released in the same decade, but after that it becomes highly misleading if it is read in a simple way. The other was is inflation adjusted box office gross. It should be noted that the inflation rate that is being adjusted for is not the general inflation rate, but the inflation rate in cinema ticket prices. The box office gross for the film is divided by the average ticket price for the year in which the film was released, and the resulting number is multiplied by the average ticket price now. (This may be a multi-step process if a film has features multiple re-releases in different years).

Therefore, in crude terms, the inflation adjusted gross compares the films in terms of the total number of tickets sold. This is probably a better metric that simple (nominal) box office gross, but it is still a flawed one. The population of the US and other countries has increased considerably over time, so that the same number of tickets sold today means that a substantially smaller percentage of the population has seen a film than was the case in 1950. On the other hand, there are many other alternative forms of entertainment that people can spend their money on these days, so the comparison isn't really a direct one, but a key point is that it is possible for more people to see a film than in the past simply because there are more people.

And why did I say "crude terms" above. Well, the inflation adjusted box office gross would be a direct comparison in terms of ticket numbers sold if the average ticket price was the same for all films, and this is manifestly not so. Children's tickets cost less than adult tickets, and therefore the average ticket price is quite a lot lower for children's films than for films aimed at adult audiences. Therefore, if you carefully took this factor into account, and genuinely attempted to rank films by numbers of tickets sold, then children's films would jump considerably higher up the list than they do actually appear. Which is what appears to have been done wiith this German list. Grosses and numbers of tickets sold is further boosted for Disney films by the fact that Disney for many years made a lot of money re-releasing each of its its classic animated films every nine years or so, on the basis that there was a new generation of children every nine years who hadn't seen them. (Disney still does rerelease its old animated films from time to time in the cinema, but this is less of a big deal than it used to be because most of Disney's revenues on its old animated films now come from DVD and VHS).

And this, apparently, is the kind of list Alan is looking at. It has lots of children's films on it, precisely as one would expect in these circumstances. It has lots of recent children's films, which is unsurprising given that the current generation of people between about 10 and 25 (the "baby boom echo" generation) is the largest in history in purely numerical terms. Which is why the first Harry Potter film features as high as it does.

This is why the exhibition industry was so unhappy that there was no Harry Potter movie last year. Exhibitors make most of their money from selling Coke and popcorn, and the amount of Coke and popcorn sold is proportional to the total number of people there (and children may even consume more on average than adults). And the number of people who were there for the Harry Potter films was just gigantic.

As for The Jungle Book being at the very top, this isn't that surprising. It is one of Disney's finest animated films, and although it would not be at the very top of a similar list calculated for the US, it is possible that it might be in or near the top ten. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the highest grossing Disney animated film in inflation adjusted US terms, but the fact that it was first released in 1937 would have meant there were certain obstacles to its performing at the box office in Germany in quite the same way it did in the US. (Just out of interest, Disney a couple of years back chose what they considered the ten best (or at least the ten potentially most commercially lucrative) of their animated movies for special "Platinum editiion" treatment on DVD. The ones they chose were Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Bambi, The Jungle Book, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Lady and the Tramp, and 101 Dalmatians. Maybe the list is a little heavy on 1980s/90s Ashman/Merkin, or maybe not. (This genuinely was a golden era). But The Jungle Book always ends up on any list of Disney's best.
A sad announcement

I have a great many things on my plate between now and at least June, and as a consequence I am going to be unable to blog on a daily basis for at least the next little while. I am thus going to cease to blog daily on this blog. I may still write occasional pieces on Samizdata and ubersportingpundit, and when I do I shall link from here. But daily is just going to be too much effort.

Update: Just to clarify that, this does not mean I am abandoning this blog, but it does mean blogging shall be less regular, and pieces shall likely be shorter.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Some things really are inspiring.

When I was studying in Australia in the late 1980s, I would frequently visit the Valhalla Cinema in Glebe Point Road near the University of Sydney. This cinema at that time showed very offbeat and unusual films. (Soon afterwards it switched to more ordinary "art cinema" material, which is what it was still showing last thing I knew). In any event, in 1988 (I think) the cinema showed a "splatter film" from New Zealand named Bad Taste. So called "splatter films", in which characters run around at one another, waving weapons and covering one another with tomato sauce and sheeps brains, are a common thing to be produced by amateurs making films on miniscule budgets, because this is about the least expensive genre in which to make a film. This film had a more amusingly create plot than many - aliens come to earth to kill lots of humans to harvest the meat for the new human-burger bar that is being set up somewhere in the galaxy, and a group of people working for a special agency of the New Zealand government that does such things stop them, but, basically it is a film of the director and his friends running around, waving axes at one another and covering one another with sheeps brains and tomato sauce.

As splatter films went, it was pretty good. It had a weird sense of humor. And the audiences at the Valhalla enjoyed it. Playing an alien named "Derek" was the director, someone named Peter Jackson who had managed to rope his family and friends into making this with him. A couple of years later he made Meet the Feebles, a low budget parody (I suppose) of the muppets, which is the grossest, most disgusting film ever made with puppets. And after that he made another splatter film, Brain Dead (released in the US as Dead Alive), which helped spread his obscure cult following around the world.

After that, though, Jackson took an unexpected turn, making a film that was seen as an art film, Heavenly Creatures, the true and notorious story of two girls in New Zealand in the 1950s whose active fantasy life led to them murdering the mother of one of the girls. The film is notable for its remarkable character development, fine acting (this was the film that introduced Kate Winslet to the world) and particularly the extraordinary dream sequences of the actual fantasy life of the girls. This film was seen as a departure at the time, but these sequences in particular now seem a bridge between the splatter scences of the earlier movies and the armies of Orcs in certain later films. This film got Jackson lots of notice, an Academy Award nomination for screenplay for himself and his writing (and other) partner Fran Walsh, and opportunities to work with the Hollywood system. However, he insisted on making films for Hollywood in New Zealand with his existing crew. He made a film called The Frighteners for Universal, but it was not a hit. Perhaps largely as a consequence, his planned remake of King Kong was cancelled. (Around this time he made a hilarious spoof documentary called Forgotten Silver for New Zealand television. Then though, in a story I have told before, he then managed to persuade New Line Cinema to fund him to make three films of The Lord of the Rings. Again, he managed to make them entirely in New Zealand, and with his existing crew.

And of course the last of these films won eleven Academy Awards last night. The Oscar ceremony consisted of a succession of troupes of New Zealanders coming to the stage and thanking Peter Jackson and other New Zealanders, to the extent that Billy Crystal joked at one point that everyone in New Zealand had been thanked and it was time to start again from the top.

Brian Micklethwait, commenting on this, observed the following

With LOR3 (although actually what was being congratulated was the totality of LORs 1-3) doing so well, we also got to see lots of dreary New Zealander technicians making speeches. Their problem was that they sounded so pathetically apologetic. We're not worthy! We're not worthy! That was the vibe they gave off. NZers know how to look worthy winners of the Rugby World Cup (although they have rather lost the trick of actually winning it), so why can't they accept Oscars as if they think they deserved them? (Ghastly thought: maybe when the All Blacks do finally win the Rugby World Cup again, their captain will break down in tears.)

I actually didn't mind all the dreary New Zealanders making speeches. The main reason I felt this is because their story is as good as it is. The story of how Jackson started filming members of his family running around waving axes at one another and ended up making movies for hundreds of millions of dollars that grossed billions of dollars and won eleven Academy Awards on the same evening is an immensely inspiring one and is a great story for him. But is is a great story for most of the other people as well. 21 people won Oscars for The Return of the King last night, and almost all of these have been working with Jackson for a long time as he has slowly been putting his film-making crew together. A number of them have been with him since Bad Taste, and a large portion since Heavenly Creatures. And oh boy, have they come a long way. And boy, do they all deserve their awards.

And I will officially stop blogging about movies for a little while, I think.

Sunday, February 29, 2004


I have a piece speculating about the winners of this evening's Oscar race over at Samizdata (and some sidebars at Michael Jennings extra).

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