All entries for September 2006

September 08, 2006

We need Maglev… and we need it yesterday.

Maglev. About twenty years ago it was “the future”. Today, it remains a figment of our imagination unless you happen to visit Singapore or one of the ‘toy train’ test tracks in Germany and Japan. The world’s first commercial Maglev train was – believe it or not – in Birmingham, linking the NEC and the Airport. It was replaced a few years ago with a chain-based train.

But since the 2005 election, politicians are starting to take the proposition seriously again. Labour’s 2005 manifesto pledged a high-speed rail link between London and Scotland (presumably something Gordon Brown will eagerly approve if given the chance) and the government’s report into the various options (basically either Maglev or something like France’s TGV) will – hopefully – come out soon.

It’ll revolutionise British transport. According to pressure group 500km/h you’ll be able to travel up and down the spine of the country at 311mph, which means London to Manchester will take 45 minutes. That’s forty-five minutes. Liverpool to Newcastle (perhaps a more vital link than London-Edinburgh) would take under an hour. Linford Christie couldn’t even come close.

There’s a tonne of economic reasons why we should do it, but I’m not sure they’re the real reason we should start building now.

The real reason is that public transport in Britain is a shambles. Why would most people want to take a train from London to Manchester when driving there takes only a little bit longer (if you ignore the traffic within the M25) and costs considerably less (a London-Manchester return for tomorrow is a minimum of £60 and more like £200 if you want to go in peak-time).

The premise that many people would choose to travel by train is a nonsense. If you enjoy driving even a bit, it’s just not worth waiting at stations and missing connections. And don’t even mention luggage. The reason people do it is that they’re often going somewhere where parking their car is impossible. Or they don’t have a car. Today’s train system is geared towards the business traveller, and a huge proportion of its potential customer base is put off by the sheer stupidity of the way it works and the amount it costs.

For sure, Maglev isn’t going to be cheap. In Shanghai though, it’s about £3 for a single fare. Bear in mind that the length of track there is pretty short and that it was built with what we would probably characterise as slave labour (at British prices anyway). But it is the most reliable railway in the world, and from the video (see below) looks incredible. And the environmental cost is a fraction of aeroplane use.

There’s a danger that the North-South line in Britain will be scrapped because rail bosses think they can just squeeze more intercity trains on to the existing tracks. But this would be a disaster. The fares would still be extortionately high considering the lack of utility gained by travelling on a train (over a car journey).

This line shouldn’t be about increasing capacity. It should be about making the railway attractive again. Per mile, it’ll be half the cost of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which has been built on time and nearly to budget.

George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, favours Maglev. But apparently Gordon Brown’s allies say it’s too expensive and impractical. Brown needs to look above the parapet of Westminster bureaucracy and see the benefits of the Tories’ blue sky thinking. He has a simple choice between a revolutionary railway system or congested roads, environmental disaster and a growing North-South divide.

A final thought for you…

Cost of replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent: £15bn
Cost of building a Maglev line between London and Edinburgh: £16bn

Which would you prefer?


September 07, 2006

A quiet day…

I’m about to go and enjoy the hospitality of Virgin Trains for the day (lovely…). It’ll mean a quiet day on the blog from me, which I’m sure you’re devastated about. Don’t worry though, I’m assured that today’s a quiet day in Westminster so I won’t miss anything.

EDIT (11:30, Friday): For some reason I spent the journey with a living, breathing dog under my seat. I might upload a sneaky phone photo of it when I get home!


Israel's Megaphone: Desperation?

A coalition of pro-Israeli groups called GIYUS (Give Israel Your United Support) has launched a piece of software called Megaphone which brings up desktop alerts that encourage people to participate (and do so in a pro-Israeli fashion) in online polls, phone votes and discussion forums.

The website says:

Today’s conflicts are won by public opinion. Now is the time to be active and voice Israel’s side to the world.

What’s more, a spokesman from the Israeli Foreign Ministry has publicly called for Israelis abroad to download the software and get voting.

It’s potentially a controversial idea. By organising so carefully, GIYUS has the potential to sway almost any opinion poll in the world that allows anyone to vote.

BBC History magazine has already discovered that its polls can be swung in this way, and has had to pull a vote about whether holocaust denial should be a criminal offence.

Megaphone screenshotMany will argue that GIYUS is essentially trying to ‘rig’ the polls in order to make Israel look better. But how easily influenced are people? If they see that 67% of people think holocaust denial should be made illegal, are they likely to change their mind?

GIYUS will say that they’re doing what they’re doing because Israel needs defending against the pro-Palestinian media. And while it may be a questionable thing to do, is it surprising given the way these polls operate? Perhaps this piece of software might make media organisations rely less on the power of the opinion poll (Sky News does it with depressing intensity). Otherwise we’ll now have to take such polls with a greater pinch of salt.


September 06, 2006

Learning shorthand…

Shorthand


What the political journalists aren't telling you…

It’s clear that things are shifting pretty quickly in Westminster. Today seven members of the government have resigned because – essentially – Tony Blair won’t resign.

But we’re not quite getting the whole story, because we never do. The way these things work in Westminster are a bit complicated and full of as much conspiracy as you can probably imagine. I’m afraid I am speculating, but here’s what’s probably going on at the moment:

  1. The Labour backbenchers are furious that Tony Blair has announced a date for his departure, without actually saying so himself. Instead you had David Miliband explain the “conventional wisdom”, Hilary Armstrong tell us of the “perceived wisdom” and poor Hilary Benn speak of the “growing consensus”. It was pretty clear they were all singing from the same hymn-sheet, written by No 10. What’s more, the Sun were more specific in naming a date, which anyone who knows Westminster knows it will have come from No 10 too. Interestingly the leaked memo saying how Blair would enjoy a ‘farewell tour’ of the country is rumoured to have come from Gordon Brown’s allies. It may even have been written by them to embarrass Blair.
  2. The seven Labour backbenchers who have resigned their positions will have been getting a) a lot of stick from the Labour whips, who work for Blair and b) a lot of love from Gordon Brown’s allies, who have probably promised them jobs in his government. Expect more to sign-up for the Brown revolution as soon as his henchmen can convince them of their future opportunities for employment.
  3. While 17 Labour MPs signed a letter yesterday, calling for him to go, another 49 signed one declaring their undying love for the leader (practically). What’s interesting isn’t that the Blair-lovers trumped the Blair-haters, but that they could only drum up support from 13% of the party. The rest are conspicuous by their absence.
  4. May 31st is an interesting date for Blair to choose to leave. Notably because it’s after the local, Scottish and Welsh elections next year. Blair is pretty unliked in Scotland and Wales, as he is seen (not surprisingly) as a stupid Englishman. So staying in power during their elections will piss them off no-end.
  5. News organisations like the BBC and Sky are having real difficulties in finding ministers who will stand up and support Blair. Hilary Benn did so last night because he was told to, but few others are coming out of the woodwork voluntarily. Note that the 1 o’clock news on BBC One could only drum up a Welsh Lord, whose praise for Blair was extremely conditional on him going before May 31st. High praise indeed.
  6. While Labour backbench MPs want Blair out, they’re not entirely sure how to do it. There’s no formal mechanism for removing the leader (for some reason Blair decided not to create one!!!), and their best bet seems to be for the Cabinet to turn on him. As soon as you see a single member of the Cabinet say that they think it would be best for Blair to step down, he’s finished. They wouldn’t say so openly unless they thought they had support from others.
  7. Some of the Labour MPs who have resigned were slavishly Blairite before today. It suggests that their political career was built upon brown-nosing (no pun intended) whoever appears to be in charge. Now that Brown is in the driving seat, people are switching vehicles.

Personally it’s very frustrating I can’t sit in on the Lobby briefings that take place at Number 10. The tension must be incredible. Maybe they’d like to invite me? Ha ha! You can get some idea of what’s been said here, but you really have to read between the lines to figure out what sort of body language the PM’s official spokesman would have been using! I rather suspect he was trying hard to hide his dejection.

P.S. I notice from the PMOS briefing this morning: “As he had already said… David Miliband had decided to go on the Today Programme himself.” The question is whether he decided what to say himself…

P.P.S. The seven members of the government who’ve resigned all have one thing in common: their seats are in danger at the next election. They’re all from the Birmingham area (where Labour reckons it’s going to get wiped out) or Wales (see above for explanation). So it’s not about Tony going – they’re worried that if he doesn’t go soon, they’ll be following him shortly!


Imbecile of the Week #5: Ken Kutaragi

Last week Airbus announced it was replacing the guy in charge of its A380 superjumbo because of continued delays to production. The delays don’t help when the company is struggling to sell enough of the machines to break even.

Well a similar – and potentially more expensive – situation is going on at Sony, where the Playstation 3 has been delayed in Europe and its production volumes to the U.S. and Japan have been cut to a paltry 500,000 each. They were supposed to sell 4,000,000 consoles by the end of 2006 and will now only manage 2,000,000 tops. It’s causing major problems for Sony as it gives Microsoft yet another Christmas season to dominate as the #1 console.

The production of the PS3 has been delayed because of the Blu-Ray disc players that go inside them. Blu-Ray is one of two competing formats (the other being HD-DVD) hoping to replace the humble DVD as the disc of choice for film and video-game consumers. Both formats have been beset by problems such as a shortage of blue-coloured lasers, discs that just don’t work, and the new version of Windows not supporting either.

But there’s been no chopping of heads as seen at Airbus.

It might because there’s nothing Sony can do about it, so it’s no-one’s fault (hardly likely), or more probably, it could be because of a different management style (Airbus’s boss got into trouble because he didn’t warn the Board of Directors that the plane was going to be delayed by turbulence).

Sony have got a lot to lose from having the PS3 delayed: not just poor figures for 2006, but also a loss in market share as parents buy their kids XBoxes for Christmas, and a boost for HD-DVD which looks set to get to market far quicker than its arch-rival.

Ken Kutaragi (boss of Sony’s Computer Entertainment division) might have kept his job for now, but in the second round of Format Wars, HD-DVD has been dealt another card in its favour.


September 05, 2006

Monkeys Schmonkeys

I’m still not feeling the Arctic Monkeys. They might have won the Mercury Prize, but I still feel an in-built aversion to them.

Something about them doesn’t seem very original to me. Ignore the lyrics and everything else could have been written 20-30 years ago. The only thing they seem to have going for them is that they’re young. Well good on ‘em, but in my humble opinion kids that age ought to be a bit more creative.

Arctic MonkeysAll of the reasons given for their win this evening could have been translated (without much effort) into “They’re the band who’ve had the most hype”, which for me isn’t a good reason.

I know I’m gonna get random Google-oriented abuse from 12-year-olds (and probably plenty from the more cultured reader of my blog), but I’m still not won over by their music. Sorry.

===

P.S. Since you ask, Thom Yorke, Guillemots or perhaps Hot Chip should have won.


Blair is Finished

Let’s take a look at the evidence…

  • 17 Labour MPs have signed a letter asking him to resign.
  • A leaked memo details Blair’s “Farewell Tour”, indicating all he cares about now is his legacy.
  • BBC News 24 and Sky News can’t find a Labour backbencher who will support Blair.
  • David Miliband is backtracking on statements made at the weekend.
  • No-one’s paying any attention to Blair’s policy statements that he’s making today.
  • There are rumoured to be two more letters in circulation calling for Blair to go sooner rather than later.

Tony, when it became clear that you were more interested in changing the history books than in changing the country, you lost all the support you’ve ever had.

He might stay in power for a few more months, but as Michael Brown of the Independent has just said on BBC News 24:

What was a ‘lame duck’ Premiership has just become a ‘dead duck’ Premiership


Woss goin' on?

Friday: Tony Blair says he’s not going to announce a timetable for his departure, telling his party to stop “obsessing” about it.

Tuesday morning: David Miliband (one of Blair’s few close allies) says Blair will go in about twelve months time.

I think we have to assume that Miliband didn’t blurt this out by accident, so what’s Tony and Co. playing at?


September 04, 2006

Google's listening…

According to The Register Google is working on software which will use your computer microphone to listen what’s going on in your house. Not surprisingly, it hopes to use this information to serve you “content relevant advertising” which, in other words, means that you’ll be watching a football match on TV and Google will think “Hmm…sports fan, here’s an advert for Nike”. Similarly if you’re watching a news story about fishing, Google will listen and throw some angling adverts on your PC screen.

It’s an intriguing development. Obviously, they can’t do this without telling you, although they’re not likely to explictly go out of their way to offer you this amazing new ability to view more advertising. Instead I reckon they’ll package the software with the Google Sidebar, Google Talk or with GMail, meaning you’ll just have to tick a box saying you agree to their ‘terms and conditions’.

As the Register piece mentions, there’s a danger of being in a permanent state of deja vu, but the future uses of the software could be quite wide reaching. Imagine TV advertising tailored to the conversation you’ve just been having. Or radio ads which know which songs you like.

It’s the future, as Peter Kay would say, and it’s becoming more and more like Minority Report every day.


Why's Blair passing up the solar–powered bandwagon?

Tony Blair’s rarely afraid of jumping on other people’s bandwagons. Whether it’s school dinners or aid for Africa, Blair follows as often as he leads. This often extends – especially before the 2005 election – to stealing ideas from the Conservatives. So why hasn’t Blair jumped on David Cameron’s most successful bandwagon, the environment?

The Director of Friends of the Earth says the Conservatives’ stance on the environment is as important as Labour’s Clause IV moment. But the key difference is that the Conservatives couldn’t do anything about Clause IV, whereas Labour could easily steal a lead on the environment if it wanted to. True, it would make Blair look weak, but it would also be the pragmatic thing to do. Blair boasts of his environmental record, but the reality is that he could do much, much more. The words “environmental tax” or “green tax” have never been spoken by Gordon Brown (which doesn’t suggest much for his presumed Premiership), and there is little support for individuals or businesses who want to go green, just legislation.

At DEFRA you have a very competent minister in David Miliband, but he too has offered little on the environment. So why?

My theory is that DEFRA is simply too big. Many have called for it to be broken up in the past, but with the environment such a key issue I think it’s high time that we had a Cabinet-level Environment Minister and a separate Department for the Environment.

DEFRA seems bogged down in agricultural issues, and bunching the environment with ‘rural affairs’ seems to be a strange association to make. Surely environmental problems usually originate in cities?

Breaking up DEFRA would focus minds and allow new policy initiative to be made. Otherwise it’s inevitable that David Cameron will be able to steal a lead on the environment when it’s an area of policy that ought to be Labour’s strong suit.


New pressure group lobbying for direct democracy

Saira Khan (the annoying one from the first series of The Apprentice) is now styling herself as a “commentator on current affairs” and trying to bring about a change in British democracy. Under the banner Our Say , the group is trying to persuade the government to allow more direct democracy in the form of referendums to be held every year. Apparently:

It offers a creative and constructive way of giving people a renewed stake in the democratic process at a time when confidence in politics in Britain is at an all-time low.

To me it sounds like a potentially disastrous idea. The group uses the example of referendums in the United States and Switzerland. What it doesn’t mention is that these referenda often relate to regional issues rather than national ones.

We all know what would happen if we held referenda on issues such as the death penalty, membership of the EU and immigration – it’d be like every reality TV show where the wrong person wins. Politicians might be a corrupt bunch of reprobates, but they’re there for a good reason: the often make difficult decisions, guided by a knowledgeable civil service. If the public were asked to make the decisions, they’d almost certainly go for the easy option.

But the easy option is invariably the worst one. I mean, the easiest option would be to have private healthcare, but it’s not necessarily the best option, is it?

I think direct democracy does have potential when it comes to local and regional politics: a county council might ask its voters whether they would like their waste to be disposed of in landfill or incinerator, for instance. But on a national level, they would surely be used to decide the most emotive, divisive issues.

Saira Khan and friends are well-meaning. There does need to be a stronger connection between the public and politics. But direct democracy isn’t it. The Tories are being urged to support the campaign but I hope Cameron, Blair and Campbell all see this for what it is: blatant, unwise and dangerous populism.


September 03, 2006

Review: Guillemots – Through The Window Pane

Title:
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

Bugger me.

Upon reaching the end of an album, my usual reaction is to work out what CD’s going in next, decide whether I require the toilet, think about what’s for dinner (yeah, usually that one), or grunt something about the world being shit.

Upon reaching the end of Through The Window Pane, my initial reaction was “Bugger me”. My second thought was whether to replay the whole album from the start or just play Track 12 again.

In the end I went for Track 12. But then it is just shy of twelve minutes long. And bugger me, it’s an opus. It’s like taking a first-class transatlantic flight only to be told that the plane’s accidentally gone the wrong way and ended up in Kyrgyzstan. “Oh dear”, you say, “that’s a shame, I suppose I’ll have to sit here for just a little longer, sipping champagne etc.” It’s so long that halfway through it you take a double-take and see your CD player’s telling you that you’ve still got a whole Champagne Supernova left to listen to.

Before today I’d only ever heard Made-Up Lovesong #43 on the radio, and was mildly impressed, but I had no idea it came from such a stupendously brilliant band as the Guillemots turned out to be once I heard the whole album.

For a good five years I’ve been trying to find a band to compare with The Divine Comedy. I’ve often seen reviews on Amazon saying “If you like this, you’ll like this too…” only to be faced with some random, obscure drivel which completely misses the ‘pop’ element of Neil Hannon’s music. For some reason no-one’s ever said “If you like the Divine Comedy then Guillemots will give you wet dreams”. Well now I’ve said it, and anyone who searches for “If you like the Divine Comedy” in Google will find my recommendation.

To be honest, if you have even a faint interest in good music then you should go and buy this album. You remember how Avalanches were supposed to be good before they disappeared from the face of the planet? You’ll find enough of them here to be happy. Same goes for those waiting for the next Radiohead album. Same for Ben Folds. Same for anyone who liked Lauren Laverne’s early stuff. Same for anyone who thought David Gray was on to a good thing, but was a little bit… grey. And anyone who thought Damien Rice was a bit of a wet lettuce.

The Divine Comedy reference is the most pertinent one though, and is why I’m so excited by this album. The orchestration is very Joby Talbot, and while the melodies are less… ‘esoteric?’ ...than Neil Hannon’s, there’s also something a little more frantic about the way the songs are put together. Who gives a damn if not everything’s in time with everything else? This album shows you why you shouldn’t.

We’re Here is a brilliantly haunting track that is just too good for radio, while the aforementioned Made-Up Lovesong #43 has piano lines wasted at such a low volume, but subtle enough to make you realise this band is a bit special.

I’m tempted to go through other tracks and spout praise, but Sao Paulo, the final track, is still nagging at me, asking for yet more attention. It’s not so much of a song as a concerto, but somehow the many parts of the song fit together so you don’t notice.

If Neil Hannon could write music consistently, he’d make an album like this. As it is, we have to settle for one or two brilliant tracks per album. Guillemots will never be able to pull this feat off again, and I predict their second album will be shit. Through The Window Pane is sheer class.

Only as I flick through the vast expanse called the internet do I find out they’re nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, announced this week. If they don’t win, the awards should be put to sleep for good. If this album’s not better than Arctic Monkeys, Editors and Muse, then this world really is full of self-important twats.

Watch them live on Top of the Pops:

Buy their freakishly good album Through The Window Pane now. Seriously, Right Now.

P.S. This band are so freaking good I’ve just ordered gig tickets after hearing their album once.


ITV: Buggered

No, it’s not the name of a new primetime reality TV show hosted by Ant ‘n’ Dec. It’s the state of Britain’s biggest commercial broadcaster.

Advertising revenues (and many would argue the quality of programming) have been sliding downwards for at least a decade and the financial state of the company is a little risky.

Their solution has been to “diversify”, developing more channels. These include the originally-named ITV2, 3 and 4, ITV Play, CITV and (until recently) the ITV News Channel. They also own Men&Motors – which is essentially the same thing as ITV4.

ITV channels

Entering into the “multichannel world” is supposed to mitigate against the sliding audience figures on the main channel. But it’s not going to work, and here’s why.

Let’s compare ITV with Channel 4 (a comparison that’s been made a lot recently by ITV themselves). Channel 4 also have a multichannel strategy, encompassing E4, More4, Film4 and the truly brilliant (!) Quiz Call.

The key to those channels’ success is that the digital channels branch out from an existing theme on Channel 4. So you can easily spot the roots of each digital channel on Channel 4 (T4/Big Brother = E4; Dispatches/Channel 4 News = More4; Films = Film4; Deal or No Deal/Countdown = Quiz Call).

Channel 4 digital channels

The reason it works (and the reason their digital channels do well) is that they can cross-promote the digital channels after a very similar programme has broadcast on Channel 4.

The reason ITV’s buggered is that it can’t.

Take CITV for instance. You might not have noticed, but since we were kids, the amount of kids’ TV on ITV1 has gone through the floor. There’s typically about 30-60mins a day now, and they’re proposing to scrap it entirely. So there’s no way of cross-promoting the CITV channel to kids. Because they won’t be watching.

Similarly, ITV4 shows intelligent drama (apparently), much of it American. But where is that sort of programming on ITV1? They can’t cross-promote it after Neighbours From Hell XXVI because the people watching that won’t give a toss about the sort of shows ITV4 does.

The saddest thing about ITV is its news, or lack thereof. Their lunchtime bulletin is being cut in half, and their late bulletin seems to get later by the week. The ITV News Channel was scrapped just as it was becoming watchable, meaning at the end of the news bulletin on ITV1 the only thing they can promote is either Corrie (which they seem to do often!) or the fairly pisspoor ITV News website.

The company’s in a mess because it’s trying to be all things to all people, but is managing to be increasingly little to everyone. The potential is there on channels like ITV3 and ITV4, but those channels won’t thrive unless audiences think there’s anything with “ITV” at the front of it that’s worth watching.

ITV might be right in saying that Channel 4 can be a bit tacky (Charlotte Church? Her own show? Brilliant idea!), but they should be more worried about their own future.


September 02, 2006

Imbecile of the Week #4: Sven

It’s not exactly a weekly feature any more, but it’s worth resurrecting to celebrate the end of the Sven era for England football and the start of the McClaren one.

Today’s match against Andorra was hardly a challenging fixture. But it’s more Steve McClaren’s posture, style and communication skills which make Sven look like an imbecile. McClaren seemed comfortable in the spotlight, using it to his advantage and trying to bring the England supporters along with him. In a way, while his style of management makes Sven look like a fool, it’s really the Football Association who are daft for not getting rid of Eriksson sooner.

Here’s to more of the same from McClaren and Co. And good riddance to the Sven days. As Gary Lineker said at the end of tonight’s programme:

Miss you, Sven.

Not.


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