Archive for April, 2005

US vs UK

Saturday, April 30th, 2005

UK beats the US at:

  • Bread. In England, you can get a lovely, inexpensive, fresh-baked, unsliced granary loaf from just about any corner supermarket (the sort that is a 5 minute walk from your house). In America, any bread other than sliced prepackaged is some kind of speciality item, available only in the European or Jewish section of the store.
  • The postal service. While the Royal Mail isn't perfect, most of the time you can rely on whatever you post getting to its destination next day. America has size and lack of rail network working against it here, but also I am waiting for a package which tracking shows has been in a sorting office about 20 minutes away – for two days. Poor effort.
  • History. Bit of an obvious one – when I walk down the street in the UK, I immediately see buildings and features a century or more old; with only a little exploration I can find medieval stuff, and if I care to, I can investigate local Roman civilisation without too much effort. In the US, with the exception of a few East-coast historic places, I'm lucky to see anything man made more than 50 years old.
  • The driving experience. In England, drivers understand the concept of merging, will generally keep junctions clear, and drive cars that are roadworthy because they have to pass the MOT test. In America, we have potholes that cause double blowouts if you hit them, half a dozen road accidents every morning on the LA freeways, and zero lane discipline.
  • Banking. Everything that you see in bank commercials in the US has been standard for years in the UK. Free checking, free cash machine usage, free cheques, online banking. UK doesn't have problems with interstate banking or cheques. In fact cheques are so last millennium – for many young brits, the last resort of payment.
  • Broadcasting. For a hundred-and-something pounds a year, brits get the BBC. Americans pay ~$30 a month for cable and get approximately 3 shows worth watching in a given year. Adverts are less intrusive in the UK – a half hour show will have one few-minute advert break in the middle, for instance. The disparity of quality is even larger in radio. US radio is either: play the same 20 songs of a specific genre over and over again; or: talk radio expounding some very right-wing view of the world. Brits get Radio 4. Enough said.
  • Public Transport. Outside of a few cities (which have good systems, e.g. New York, Chicago) public transport is fairly non-existant in the US. By contrast, brits can travel from small town A to small town B on the train without fuss, and even without changing more than once or possibly twice. Try getting from e.g. Sheboygan, WI to anywhere on a train and the difference is clear.

US beats the UK at:

  • Shopping. Bigger stores with much more choice. Stores open all hours, not just until 5.30pm. As a consequence, I'm never in the same kind of queues that plague Tesco's on a Saturday morning. I don't think much of the ubiquitous mail-in-rebate and loyalty card marketing strategies though.
  • Space. Bigger houses, more places to park, and (where it exists) more space to walk. The US is a bigger country; there's more space to go around.
  • Recreation. US cities and towns are dotted with tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and other rec grounds which are free to use. Welcome oases in the concrete desert. The UK has some tennis courts and other places but not in the same quantity and never free of charge.
  • Consumer electronics. The USA has Fry's. The UK has Dixon's. Something that costs $100 in the US costs £100 in the UK. The newest, fastest, sexiest equipment arrives in the US 6 months before it arrives in the UK. No contest. Of course, both countries are put to shame by the far East.
  • Eating out. I'm going to give this one to the US, but it's a narrow decision. Both countries have the high street chains. Both countries have Italian, French, Chinese, etc. restaurants run by real Italian, French, Chinese, etc. people, with excellent fare. The UK puts up a really good showing of Indian restaurants which are sadly lacking in the US. But the US wins out on two points: average quality of service, and quantity of good small independent restaurants.
  • Special days. Again a close thing. Both countries have approximately the same number. Christmas is commercialised to approximately the same degree in both places. The UK gives us Boxing Day, but the US counters on the opposite side of the year with Independence Day. The US makes a bigger deal of Halloween, which is probably the most fun day. Britain has Guy Fawkes' night which can be brilliant if it doesn't rain. Sadly it often does. The UK has that wonderful period from Easter to June when practically every week is a 4-day week. But the US clinches it with Thanksgiving – the world's best holiday. Open to all, blind to race, creed, age, etc; and wonderfully uncommercial. They don't even sell cards for it! It's all about celebrating family and eating a lot.

No clear decision:

  • The Countryside. On the one hand, you have leafy country lanes, a wonderful public footpath network, and the ability to be in the country after less than an hour's drive. On the other hand, you have spectacular big country (Monument valley, Yellowstone Park) and real wilderness if you want it.
  • Weather. UK has the temperate climate; usually a sunny spell in Spring, with a couple of hot weeks in July, and maybe some snow in January. Assuming you're not in a flood zone, there's not much danger of weather destroying your house. But basically boring weather, with many drizzly mornings. US has the whole range of extremes to choose from. -40 degree Winters in WI. Hot and dry (AZ) or hot and wet (FL). Many places have hot summers and cold winters. And let's not forget the hurricanes and tornadoes.
  • Latitude. In the UK it's light at 10pm in June. But in the US, it's light at 4pm in December. Take your pick.
  • Cinema. US has earlier release dates and stadium seating. UK has ubiquitous assigned seating and absence of fat people sitting in front of you with their stinky nachos.
  • The Higher Education system. UK has earlier specialisation. By the end of high school, you're down to 3 subjects, and in university, only one subject. The upshot is that you get a degree in 3 years, and you can get out into the world and start being useful. Also, you are likely to graduate with less of a crippling loan. But you have a narrow education in comparison to the US.
  • Crosswords. US has Will Shortz. UK has Araucaria. I prefer cryptics, but I'm calling this a matter of personal taste. Neither crossword is in any quantifiable sense better than the other.
  • Broadband Internet availability. Both countries are putting on a poor show driven more by arbitrary marketing decisions than technology availability. Perhaps the US is slightly leading the UK in terms of highest available speeds, but there's not much to choose.

Impulse buy!

Friday, April 29th, 2005

Practical Common Lisp by Peter Seibel. I’ve studied a bit of Lisp; enough to get interested. Of course I studied functional programming in college so the concepts are not so mind bending as they would be at first. Hopefully this book will take my Lisp into the realm of the practical.

"You probably know a million songs…"

Thursday, April 28th, 2005

“…wouldn't it be nice to hear more than 20 of them?”

So goes one of JACK FM's tags. I take issue: let's look at the facts. Assume a song is 3 minutes long on average. Assume that I listen to songs for 3 hours a day every day, never repeating a single song. Assume there are no adverts or other song interruptions. And further assume that once I hear a song, I know it and I never forget it. I think these are pretty generous assumptions for computing an upper bound on the number of songs I know.

That's 20 songs an hour, or 60 songs a day, or 21900 songs a year (not counting leap years). I think you see where this is going. Under this scheme I won't be hearing my millionth song until I'm 45, and that's assuming that I still know all those songs I heard when I was a baby, before my memory was working properly. I'm guessing JACK FM's target demographic includes a large number of under-45s.

The irony of the situation was compounded by the fact that they then proceeded to play “Your Lyin' Eyes” by the Eagles.

The Da Vinci Code

Saturday, April 23rd, 2005

(Warning: spoilers ahead)

I read it. The plot was excellently contrived. The way it mixes fact and fiction is great. But as a whodunit, it's a bit rubbish. Dan Brown is continually treating both his characters and readers as simpletons. Now I realise it's not an easy thing to invent clues and a treasure hunt, and these clues are pretty well done. But does he have to layer on the dramatic irony so thickly? “Here's a clue which is really really obvious to you, reader. Now look at the stupid characters – they can't figure it out. Here's some more really really obvious clues this time, in case you didn't get it, reader. Ha ha! Silly characters – they're so dumb. Let's have the bad guy make an entrance and force the issue.”

– they steal an armoured car and don't realise it has a tracking device?
– they are really, really slow over the “knight a pope interred” clue. A Pope! Pope is even capitalised in the clue! OK so the American has an excuse, but surely Sophie does cryptic crosswords…
– Newton? Rosy flesh? Seeds? Suggests what?
– and surely any idiot would have scrambled the cryptex after re-closing it. But no, just go ahead and let the bad guy know you opened it…

It's a prime candidate for your typical Hollywood film.

SOE announce "Exchange Servers"

Wednesday, April 20th, 2005

Sony are launching an escrow/auction service for Everquest 2, whereby players can sell in-game items, coinage and characters for real-life currency. They are applying it only to certain servers (to be decided via an in-game poll, and with the option for players to move servers). It’s a $200m-a-year industry, apparently, and 40% of their customer service goes towards dealing with fraudulent transactions.

My personal belief: buying things “extra-gamerily” is cheating, in my mind, just the same as hacking a savegame file or entering an infinite health cheat in a single player game. However my stance on cheating is that people should be allowed to cheat if they want to, provided that people who don’t want to cheat have the option to avoid playing with those who do. That’s the crucial point, and one that’s currently lacking with the black market cash sales going on.

The real questions are:

1. Will there be any non-exchange servers left after the poll and conversion? Will there be any left in a year’s time?
2. Will the introduction of exchange servers reduce or eliminate the market for bought items on the normal servers?

And these questions are both cause for concern for those of us who want to compete on game mechanics and not on cash. The second question is particularly contentious, I think. It’s a question of an evolutionarily stable strategy. Sony is separating the hawks from the doves. There is no reason to believe that item sales for cash will not continue on the non-exchange servers just as it does now: when item-buyers move to exchange servers, the achievable differential for item-buyers on the non-exchange servers is greater, and therefore the incentive to buy is greater. The hawks will do better for a while among the dove population, until an equilibrium is reached.

Time will give us the answer to the first question. I’m not optimistic for the doves on this point where corporate finances are involved.

"London, England"

Wednesday, April 6th, 2005

Bill Bryson was right. The “London, England” effect is everywhere in the US; the media dumbs down everything to an absurd degree, hence “London, England” – as opposed to London, where exactly? To be fair there are plenty of other Londons, but I think it's pretty unambiguous in a story about the UK parliament.

Case in point: the recent death of the pope means that there are plenty of news stories right now with Italian people being interviewed. Last night, the interview of the proprietor of the clerical attire shop in Rome where any pope who's worth his salt gets his gear. This man spoke good English, and spoke slowly. Even so, we are treated to subtitles. Just in case.

He's speaking English!