Saturday, March 27, 2004

A question

I have the opportunity to spend a day or two in Frankfurt next month. Does anyone know anything interesting to do in or near Frankfurt? (Yes, I have "drink beer" on the list, but that is about all so far). I've been to the airport lots of times before, but have never left it and somehow think I should. I also have the opportunity to visit Singapore briefly, which I think may well be the Frankfurt of South East Asia (except with better food, worse beer, and the death penalty) but I have been there before and don't feel any tremendous urge to go there again right now, although there is a new railway line that I would like to look at).
The march of technology

I was in a computer shop in Tottenham Court Road the other day, and I was just looking at laptops. A salesman asked if he could help me, but I said I was just having a browse. His immediate response was "The Sony TR2 is over there". So presumably this is the number one item of interest for computer store browsers at the moment. (At least it was in this shop, which was not in any way Apple focused). And it is awfully nice. That's a spectacularly good machine given the size and weight. If I were backpacking around the world and I wanted to have computer with me (as these days I think I would) this is the one I would want. It's very small, but it is a full function, powerful, no compromises machine - except perhaps for a little CPU speed, although a 1.0MHz Pentium M is still pretty good.

Or I could go back to Apple, as many people seem to be doing. The 12 inch iBooks and Powerbooks are awfully cute, although not quite as small as the Sony.

And what am I doing talking about such things anyway? My present laptop is three months old, and I love it. I am not getting a new one for at least a couple of years. But my eyes seem to be straying.

Friday, March 26, 2004

The modern world

In 1992, I was in Poland at a moment when Australia were playing Sri Lanka at cricket at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground in Colombo. In order to find out the winner of the match (Australia, thanks to the efforts of a then unknown spin bowler named Shane Warne) I had to buy a day old copy of the Sunday Times, for which I paid the equivalent of something like £5. (I had access to the internet for work at the time, but it was good mainly for sending e-mail to other geeks. The idea that I would ever have access to it while on holiday was not yet reasonable).

As it happens, Australia are playing Sri Lanka at the same ground again right now. I am in London, but if I were in Warsaw I could find out the score over the internet at an internet cafe, or if I had my laptop with me I could connect to the intenet and find out the score via a WiFi hotspot. Or I could get someone to SMS me the score on my mobile phone. Certainly there are now few places in the world where I cannot find out the score of an international cricket match almost instantly.

As an example, I suppose, over the last couple of weeks I have been getting cricket scores off a British server for matches being played in Sri Lanka and SMSing the scores to someone in Adelaide, who is unable to access score directly when at work. And I have been able to provide him with this ad hoc global electronic scoring system quite literally without having to get out of bed.

Thursday, March 25, 2004


I was browsing Aint it Cool News, and I was reading an article on some new long overdue DVD releases of Hayao Miyazaki's animinated films. As I did so, I had iTunes on "shuffle" (ie it was playing songs from my music collection at random) and it somehow came up with the song "Castles in the Sky" by Sarina Paris. There must be an omen in that.
Great moments in globalisation

Booking short haul plane tickets is these days very easy. You just look the fares up on the internet, type in your credit card number, and bingo, you have a booking.

However, long haul and multi-stop tickets are enormously difficult to book over the internet. Either you end up being quoted the laughable "full fare" which nobody ever actually pays, or the online booking systems are not sophisticated enough to handle stopover, open jaws, round the world tickets, and all the other funny little details that occur if you are travelling a long way. So normally you have to deal with a travel agent or you have to ring up the airline directly. (What I would like is a proper over the internet interface to the booking systems used by actual travel agents. Yes, I am sure it is complicated. Yes, I can figure out how it works. Let me do it.

Travel agents are fine when you get someone who knows what they are talking about. (I had a particularly good travel agent when I lived in Sydney. He worked for a "student" travel agency, which was actually good, as students are often the people most likely to want a round the world seven airline counterclockwise itinerary with twenty seven stops that doesn't cost any more than a simple return, and frequently having to book such things trains good travel agents). However, when as a customer I find myself explaining to my travel agent just precisely which airlines fly where, what approximate fares should exist, and so such. Given that I am the one paying them, this is irritating.

All that said, some airline websites are better than others. British Airways have one which is surprisingly good and allows me to book more complicated itineraries at good prices than do most, but still not close to the full range of all fares and itinteraries that are possible on the airline. Their partner Qantas has a relatively useless website which cannot give me what I want. The complication comes from the fact that if I book the same flight through Qantas I get rather more frequent flier miles than if I book it through British airways. Therefore, it is necessary for me to actually call Qantas to make the booking. Okay?

However, I made the mistake of ringing up Qantas in the evening, after their British sales desk had closed. (I didn't ring them up especially late - it's just that their British office closes at about six. Their telephone system announced that it was forwarding me to a sales office in Australia, and that I would not pay extra for the call. Fine. But I wonder precisely why they did this, given that the person at the other end of the phone was entirely unable to help me with obtaining the best fare from London. One would think that if they can globalise their telephone system they can also globalise their booking system. But no.

Not much to say here, other than "Qantas".

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

A retailing puzzle

Normally, when dealing with different retailers that operate in the same sector of the retail business, it is obvious which are better run. For instance, there are three major chains of Starbucks clone in the UK: Coffee Republic, Caffe Nero, and Costa Coffee. (I will exclude discussing Starbucks themselves here. Their rules are different, as they have a parent company with deep pockets). A couple of years ago all three had similar numbers of stores, but I found quickly that my preference was for Caffe Nero. Their prices were a little cheaper, their coffee was better, and somehow they just understood the little details of their business better than their competition. This made going there for a coffee simpy more comfortable, and in this particular business, comfort is everything. More than anything else what they are selling is a comfortable place to sit down.

And this has been reflected in subsequent events. Caffe Nero have since outperformed their competition in terms of profitability, they have gone on an expansion boom and have opened lots of new stores, and their stock price has gone through the roof. Coffee Republic have gone down the tubes, and Costa Coffee (who aren't quite in the same business, for reasons that are too lengthy to explain right here) have stood still. (Starbucks have also been expanding rapidly).

And this is fairly normal. Well run businesses have a certain vibe about them. Usually I can just feel it. (A few years back, it was clear from the vibe that Woolworths in Australia was a better run supermarket business than Coles, and this eventually filtered its way through to the stock price, too). But there is an odd exception, which is supermarkets in the UK.

Tesco have long been a stockmarket darling, and have expanded massively and rapidly due to their superb understanding of the market, and their superbly designed computer systems and logistics. Their competitor Sainsbury's have done far less well at these types of things, and are thus in decline.

At least , that is the conventional view held by most market analysts, and that is the view reflected in the stock prices of the two companies. However, I find counter-intuitive, because I like shopping in Sainsbury's more than I do in Tesco. Sainsbury's shops seem better designed and the goods better arranged. And they are full of all manner of really yummy things that I don't find in Tescos.

As it happened, after having a coffee with Brian Micklethwait in the new Pimlico Caffe Nero (once again, I think the market is right on that one) I popped into the new big Sainsbury's in Pimlico, and as is always the case when I go into that Sainsbury's, I found myself coming out with bags of groceries: in this case a freshly made pizza, a piece of smoked cheddar cheese (although they did not have the unpasteurised brie that I have bought there in the past today) and a few other things. This is a really nice supermarket, and I find it hard to believe that the parent company is in decline. Some would say that Tesco wins in computers, logistics and supply chains rather than store design, but I am not so sure. Stocking a supermarket as well as this one is stocked requires good logistics and supply chains.

But that is conventional wisdom. Perhaps there will be a shift back to Sainsbury's and my intuition is right. Or perhaps I just have weird tastes in groceries.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

A question

Does anybody know what the city is that is pictured in the British Airways advertisement? Although I don't think I have been there, it looks kind of familiar. Perhaps I have seen it in a movie or something.


I have a piece on the on field pecking order in test cricket today over at ubersportingpundit.
Business Methods

When I purchased my computer, it came with a "90 day free trial" version of Norton Anti-virus (these days owned by Symantec). This whirred away regularly for three months, telling me that it was finding and deleting lots of viruses in my e-mail. A few days ago the subscription expired, meaning that the software still works but that it no longer updates itself for new viruses. Given that the virus situation is bad, shall we say, and given that if I get infected my computer will then start spewing crap to all my friends and I would rather not do this, I just bought a subscription giving me another twelve months of updates. This wasn't especially expensive - costing about the cost of a nice lunch I suppose - but Symantec will no doubt be pleased that I am a paying customer. Which is of course fine, and indeed good. They provide me with a useful service and I pay for it. God bless capitalism. (Although the authors of the actual viruses can go fuck themselves).

What interests me though is the nature of the financial relationship between Dell and Symantec. Dell install the software on their computers, and it is beneficial to them to advertise the computer as having anti-virus software installed. (Most people do actually need it). So Dell are getting some benefits. However, Symantec get paying customers through the relationship - for instance me. (Paying customers who are paying rather less than customers who simply buy the anti-virus software cold, however). So what is the net money flow between the two companies? Are Symantec actually paying Dell to install Symantec's commercial software on Dell's computers? Or is it one of those neutral situations where no money changes hands? Or is Dell paying Symantec for the software? (I really doubt this). Or do Symantec pay a commission to Dell when someone like me becomes a paying customer? (I rather doubt this, as when I registered with Symantec the registration process was surprisingly low tech and I was not required to provide enough information for them to identify my computer as a Dell, although I suppose they could find this out some other way easily enough if they wanted to.

Monday, March 22, 2004


I have a piece on watching India play Pakistan in an Australian theme bar in south London, and what this says about the state of English cricket, over at Samizdata.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

I am sad

Ahhhh. This is so cute.

(Link via Slashdot).

Update: There is another picture of it here if you scroll down towards the bottom, which gives you an idea of just how small it is. Clearly we are talking one of the hits of Cebit.

Further Update: The other thing is striking (but in no way surprising) is that this motherboard borrows a few things from laptops. The first thing you ask is "Where does the memory go?", but of course the memory slot is of the kind that takes the SO-DIMM modules that are commonly used in laptops. And the first reaction I had when looking at it was "Nice, but it doesn't have any PCI slots". In fact it has one, but it is one that uses the mini-PCI connector, that is also something that you see mainly on laptops. Not all laptops have them - but more and more do. Mine does (and the slot is filled with a wireless card) as do a lot of Toshibas. Hopefully as they become more and more common there will be more and more cards made for them.

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