Friday, December 30, 2005

Hypnotic hop

I said before that I'd be coming back to this quote - and I am. This is an essay I wrote for college some time ago, and a discussion of hiphop has prompted me to post it now.

There are some things I would like to add, particularly to the list of remarkable Nordic acts - if you can find anything by the Don Johnson Big Band, you should get it and listen to it.

This does not discredit me as a headbanger. Metal and hiphop are not mutually exclusive, and history has seen them blended much more successfully than the popular American acts you tend to think of when such a fusion is mentioned. (Also see: H-Blockx, 'Get In The Ring' or their cover of 'The Power'. Or, for something a bit more mainstream, Gorillaz.)

And now, the article itself:

The hardest thing for any musical artist to be is original. Very few people make music just for the fun of it, and fewer still have the clout to make something completely unique successful – and that is if they have the imagination to come up with a piece of art unlike anything before. But while most music can be classified into genres, any single style eventually begins to expand, to encompass offshoots that its founding fathers had no notion of.

While originality may be scarce in individual artists, it is not such a rare occurrence in the entire industry, which is effectively an embodiment of creativity in sound waves. The 20th century has seen the introduction and popularization of several brand new styles, but one of them stands out in a crucial way. Whereas the evolution of jazz was effectively a progression of skills with the saxophone and related instruments, and rock could not exist without the technical innovation of the electric guitar, the last original musical genre of the 1900s was centered on pure imagination. In the last quarter of the century, America came up with its second art form. And like anything so great, hip hop evolved and came to include concepts foreign to the culture that spawned it – but true to the spirit.
From ’84 to ’99
It’s been a very long time
Since the movement called hip hop arrived
In this cold country of mine.

Seen the old, the new,
And now the true school.
And for once I can say -
Something has changed.

Or is it just me?
In the place to be…
Actually, I am being a little coy. The canon stipulates that the four original components of hip hop expression were the skill of the DJ, the talent of the MC, plus the art of graffiti and the moves of the B-boys (often misrepresented as break dancing).1 But I would feel like a fraud analyzing old school hip hop, something beyond my era and turf. It is sufficiently curious to observe the parallel branch of evolution that is hip hop in Europe.

The problem with rap music is that there is no reliable way of transplanting the original ethos of the time of its birth into modern reality, when it isn’t just co-opted by popular culture, but reduced to the level of a marketing tool. Mainstream hip hop in America, with all due respect to the incredible artists keeping the flame alive, is involved in selling useless merchandise by proxy to an unrealistic lifestyle.
So I take my time, think for a minute
Why do they always go for the gimmicks?
Is it because no one told them better?
Or is it because society brings pressure?
Where’s all those brave enough to fight the system?
Where’s all the ones that know the difference?
Europe, however, embraced hip hop and made the new music its own. For the continental club scene, it was a match made in heaven. An obvious example would be the phenomenon of Scooter, but the craze was wider than that. The seminal music of the Nineties was Eurodance, defined as an electronic dance rhythm with a fast beat, female chorus vocals and a male rap.2 Admittedly, there was no great philosophy behind this music – but it never claimed such heritage, and that made it more authentic. Eurodance came and went, but it did leave behind a peculiar offshoot called freestyle – nothing like the American understanding of the term. This is still dance music, but it unites cheesy pop songs, party anthems and classic hip hop declarations, laying it over a synth beat that can be traced back to the mid Nineties, but that distinctly evolved past it. Limited mostly to Germany, its best representative is probably the Flying Steps – a B-boy group that also happens to make music.
Lay your ears to the speakers and feel the bass
Blow the dust off your sneakers, get back in the race
Keep on rockin’, never stoppin’, hiphopping the place
I’ve got a smile on my face, it’s like I’m back in the days.
Old school homies see me, recognize my face
Safe to say, hip hop works in mysterious ways
I quit my full time job to save the hip hop faith
But making money with the microphone is not the case.
Starting with the end of the millennium, more serious projects started to pop up over Europe. The explosion came with the Bomfunk MCs’ Freestyler, not their first single but the one that, in 1999, conquered pretty much every device in Europe capable of reproducing sound or moving pictures. This triggered a golden age in Scandinavian hip hop (which happened to coincide with the golden age in Scandinavian rock music), and it hasn’t stopped yet. Finland has given the European music scene acts like Redrama and more recently Beats and Styles, a loose collective of artists mixed and matched by two DJs, while the Bomfunk MCs themselves have recently released their third album, which features a collaboration with Kurtis Blow – one of the founding fathers of hip hop in the 80s and the first rapper ever to be signed by a major label. And of course, no mention of Scandic hip hop can be complete without Outlandish – a Danish trio, none of them remotely American, who are no less of an influence in European music than their countrymates The Hives. Britain meanwhile has been coming around as well. Most of their hip hop acts are barely disguised carbon copies of US pop rap, but a welcome breakthrough comes from The Streets, whose originality can no more be challenged than their authenticity. The proof that hip hop is indeed a global musical genre is that artists are choosing it for expression of ideas that have nothing to do whatsoever with the ethos of its creators.

Hip hop in Europe is not only popular, but more importantly it is extremely healthy. While America engages in decadence and ludicrous leaps of imagination to give itself a measure of faithfulness to the true spirit, the Old World simply utilizes a new art form, accepting it for what it is. There will be good artists, and there will be bad artists, and there will be some that are truly ugly. But all hype aside, this side of the pond is where the Rocking Nation has the best shot at greatness.
Not many of us get to do what we want
Not many of us don’t have to front
But if you know your song, and you know it’s strong
Then let me see you get-get up on
Because we drop the bomb in
We must rise up and prevent the wrong
Ain’t no joke, man, I wish it was,
But so many of us seem like they’re brainwashed.

All we need is, a little love
It doesn’t take a scientist to figure this ‘cause
It’s so – obvious
All this rush causes fighting and fuss.


1), accessed on January 12th, 2005
2) Eurodance Encyclopaedia -, accessed on January 12th, 2005

1) Bomfunk MCs – Spoken Word (from In Stereo, 1999, Epidrome/Sony)
2) Bomfunk MCs – Obvious (from Reverse Psychology, 2004, Polydor/Universal)
3) Flying Steps – Breakin’ It Down (single, 2002, MAR)

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Axles of evil

Why is the Veyron a pinnacle of human achievement, whereas the Maybach is a useless piece of OTT badge engineering?

The dichotomy is less far-fetched than may seem at first glance. Both these machines represent the ultimate implementation of different ends of the spectrum. The design of any car can be located in a system of coordinates where one axis represents performance and the other luxury. A manufacturer needs to trade one off for the other, although both are desirable qualities; in fact this compromise is responsible for premium cars today generally lacking in ride quality.

The Veyron and Maybach share a target market certainly, and they also enjoyed the same audience response when they were introduced. A few people hailed the newcomer as greatness embodied, and a lot questioned the maker's (and especially the buyer's) sanity.

Yet today the general consensus seems to be that the Veyron is a Good Thing(tm). It's certainly rare enough to not be a particular fright to the environment (for as much stock as you want to put in the whole global warming hysteria), and deep down it's a toy every man wants. Opponents are dismissed, as the only argument they can muster is "why do it?", the crushing response to which is "because we can".

The Maybach on the other hand has seen its reputation go down quickly. People see it not as a triumph of creation, but as a triumph of consumption; more wood, leather and engine than one man should have in a socially conscious Europe. Nevermind that it is not only practical, but more fuel-efficient per passenger than an Easyjet flight (and as Top Gear segments prove, most likely faster).

If you buy a Veyron, it is as if you have bought a work of art: the money is spent on something for all intents and purposes useless, but by a series of proxies you are seen to be stimulating creativity and generally improving society. If you purchase a Maybach 62, you may have as well spent it all on hookers and heroin.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Apples & Oranges

Among the great mysteries of this world is why the supermarkets never have any good fruit. Especially citrus.

I mean, all I want is an orange. But supermarkets don't stock good oranges. What they have are horrible, rotten Class II ones that shouldn't even be out on the shop floor for sanitation reasons.

Bananas, I know, are picked still green - they get ripe on the boat and then look very nice once they arrive. (Less so this year because the EU import quota for bananas was met by August...) Is there a reason why the same thing can't be done with oranges?

Apples, though, are not as much of a problem. Even the ones that come from faraway places, like China or South Africa. Admittedly apples are often covered in wax and other preservatives, but hey, they can just go ahead and do the same to oranges.

It's not that the shops can't get the oranges up here quickly enough (it all goes through Rotterdam anyway) - it's that they never stock anything better than Class II. I don't get it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


I used the word "paradigm" in a sentence today. May the Lord have mercy on my soul.

Wrote an article today for a trade magazine that wanted to run a news blob about a subsidiary of EmployerCo. (It doesn't have actual journalists on staff apparently, so it just gets the companies to do the texts. Lazy wankers.) Reminded me why I quit the newspaper world and went into technical writing.

If you're doing documentation, you can expect people to come and tell you what's wrong in your texts. That's fine. If you're doing articles, people will come and tell you what they don't like about your text. Which is infinitely more annoying.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Reliability vs build quality

The concepts of reliability and build quality are often confused, both in terms and in impressions. A reliable item may look fragile, and a well-put-together one may have fatal flaws.

Japanese cars are known to be hugely reliable. A Honda or Toyota will simply not go wrong, ever. At the same time they tend to be rather flimsy, especially for a person engaging in an experiment to study The Thousand Dollar Car Theory. Then you have the newer Audis, which are known primarily for excellent interior materials and feeling very solid; but they can hardly compete with a Civic in endurance.

What's more important?

The first proper mp3 player I had was a Creative Nomad Zen USB2.0. It had excellent audio quality, and was completely encased in anodized aluminium (as opposed to white plastic) over a magnezium frame. This made it more or less impervious to damage. I owned it for slightly more than a year, from July 2003 to November 2004. In that time it had been dropped many times, occasionally down flights of stairs, often while working (which is a particularly bad thing for hard-drive-based players). Through it all, it was completely reliable, bravely playing music until the day it was buried in a hunk of bent metal that was my Mazda 323 after a head-on crash. Unfortunately a few months after I got it, the display backlight failed. It didn't burn out - it was a LED, and besides, it came back intermittently afterwards - rather it was a bad piece of soldering somewhere. Later, some of the buttons began to pack up. Not completely you understand, they just worked in unexpected ways, or sometimes not at all. I couldn't have it fixed under warranty, because I bought it during my stay in California and thus it was not covered by a European warranty. Quite annoying really.

From early spring of 2005, I've been using an Archos Gmini 400. Now, Archos is a French company, and as much as I would like to express European solidarity here, the French are not known for building reliable things. The Gmini is also metal, although it naturally doesn't have anything approaching the Zen's body armor. So far it's suffered a couple bad falls, never operational. I can't say it's been easy on the poor bugger. It's scuffed at the edges, the back of the shell is bent and the CompactFlash slot hinge is more loose than I'd like it to be. And yet, every button still works as intended. The Gmini was not designed to be reliable, but the build quality is very impressive.

So what's better to have? Let me put it this way. I never regretted buying either gadget - but in aggregate the Gmini has given me a lot less grief. All with a more vulnerable design (the huge color screen doesn't help), more functionality and the same price.

All consumer electronics are made by the same Chinese OEMs these days. Reliability is a matter of design. Build quality is a matter of stimulating manufacturers to produce excellent results. In my opinion, the latter is a more difficult job; and experience shows that it does pay off more.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Ah shite.

My New Year's Eve plans just imploded. Just my luck, too.

Anyone in Small Country have room for one more opinionated bastard at their party?

In other news, Tycho writes:
It's disingenuous to refer to the most primitive, arcade exercises when trying to disprove the narrative potential of a medium, but that's what you get when you chat with people who don't know what they're fucking talking about.

I just wanted that quote in here somewhere - I'll be referring back to it in future pieces.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Respect my disreligion

Apparently America has switched from "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays". Undeniably useful, as it can basically be applied to everything, from Halloween through Winter-een-mas. The big argument in favour of it seems to be that it respects everyone's religion - or lack thereof.

The last bit is slightly redundant, in my opinion. We, the people who subscribe to Douglas Adams' distinction of "belief there is not a God" (as opposed to disbelief that there is one), are actually the least likely ones to get involved in a religious war or get offended by someone mentioning religion. I've mentioned before that I enjoy Christmas despite being an atheist, and I similarly enjoy Easter, and others; in Small Country, national holidays include Good Friday and the summer solstice, a.k.a. St John's Day. Both of these are religious holidays, one Christian, one pagan, but I am singularly unoffended by either. I'd be perfectly happy to celebrate Yom Kippur and the Chinese New Year if someone asked me.

One of my college teachers said that in Small Country, a religious debate consists of militant atheists on one side and any sort of believers in absolutely anything on the other. The CIA factbook says that the absolute majority of the people here are religious, Lutheran mainly, but in fact people here tend to believe nothing. In my experience, this improves one's social skills significantly. I certainly do think organized religion is a bad thing and has caused this world a lot of grief, but I am not offended by any religious symbols. I'm not even offended by Mormons. I'm not even offended by Jehovah's Witnesses. Any aspect of a religion, if implemented reasonably, is fine by me.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Season special

How very true.

(My boss keeps introducing me to these obscure gaming comics. I can barely follow Penny Arcade and the occasional CAD on my own.)

Hit the shopping districts the last few days, in Capital City first and then Campustown. I don't actually mind the holiday rush - in a perverse way I really enjoy it. It's a trigger for happier memories of Christmas, I guess - and a bit of retail therapy at that. The big department stores are selling these unbelievably cute stuffed animals, rabbits and pandas and things - fairly expensive, but it's WWF stuff (World Wildlife Fund, no World Wrestling Federation) so you get to feel good about yourself when you buy one. Unfortunately, I still have nobody to give one to. Which is quite possibly the most depressing thing about Christmas. Back around the time I started Antyx, I made a semi-serious promise to myself that I would not be spending this Christmas alone - but I suppose I already knew back then that it wouldn't happen. Just another one in a long line of failures I've gotten used to.

This year has been good in a lot of ways - I went to some excellent concerts, did a lot of traveling, bought a car and then actually sold it for a measurable amount of money (as opposed to writing it off)... graduated from college even. Still, my mom died this year, so I can't really count it as a success. (Cancer. Objectively, she was in a lot of pain and it probably put her out of her misery, but subjectively I just can't think like that.)

Bought a gun today. Not a real one, a toy Magnum revolver that uses pop caps. It's die cast, properly metal and satisfyingly heavy. The caps don't make much noise though, but they do produce the lovely smell. It's for the company Christmas piss-up this weekend. The theme is Mexico, so I have a sombrero as well. Slippery When Wet is supposed to get back to me tomorrow on whether a fleece blanket from the cheap crap store makes a convincing poncho.

Merry Christmas to all my regular readers - the person from Finland who checks the blog religiously (do I know you?), the person from Iceland, the person from right here in Small Country who occasionally drops by on a link, and all the Circle Jerk regulars. And, of course, each and every one of the people who find this place even remotely curious.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sacred Cow: Copyright

Another old piece of mine, this one from a forum. Please note that I am the son of a writer who gets plenty of royalties from published books and plays running in many theaters - so I'm not completely out of the loop on this one.

The poet Benjamin Zephanaiah performed at my college last year. He was completely awesome, probably the first person I've seen in modern English language who I would actually call a poet (I possess the greatest disdain for postmodernists). Anyway, he was talking about what constitutes poetry, and gave the example of the Don't Worry, Be Happy song, and the No Limit techno track. The guy who wrote No Limit apparently earned 3 million pounds for it. Never has to work again in his life. All for the lyrics "no no, no no no no, no no no no, no no there's no limit".

And of course, the guy will continue to get royalties every time the beat is used in a movie, TV show or commercial. The Making Of show for School of Rock mentioned that they paid $160,000 to use a quote - not a bit of the song, just two lines from the lyrics - by AC/DC.

Well, if you think about it, it doesn't really sound fair, does it? Most jobs you see, you get paid to do a task, and when you're done and you've received your money, that's that. You want more money, you do another task. But if you're a musician or a writer, you can have one successful work, and it will make you money for the rest of your life, and then some - the statute before a work of art becomes public domain is decades. But you're not doing anything to get the money - and certainly your kids who inherit the copyright after you die haven't done anything to deserve it.

You shouldn't be able to charge people $160,000 to use something you've said, many years after you've said it.

So here is my suggestion: abolish copyright. If the art is used as a tool to make money, the tool must be paid for. The final consumer however does not purchase the right to use the artwork for any purpose; the consumer buys a physical entity - the book or the CD. Use of the art is free.

If a movie wants to quote you or use your song in the background, they are free to use it (after all, the art of the movie can later be freely used in the same way). The artist makes money by selling content to a publisher, who then uses the content to attract customers to buy the books it produces. The customer pays for the book, not for the right to read the novel.

Result: a creative work is sold once for a fixed price to a publisher who releases it. After this initial run, it is free to use by anyone. Thus the artist is forced to constantly create new things and is stimulated to make them good.

Won't happen of course, but in a perfect world, this is how it would work.

P.S. Two important matters that arose from the discussion in that forum. One, huge-budget movies like LOTR would still get made because their budget is recouped on the initial big-screen run; if you want an interesting perspective on why people go to see movies in the age of DVD and BitTorrent, read "The Proud Robot" by Henry Kuttner. Two, copyright laws have indeed been made to protect the publisher more than the creator; a handful of world-famous authors earn very good money and get to dictate their own terms, while many others, no less brilliant, are forced to survive on lump-sum handouts and minute royalties. This has just recently been brought in focus by the death of Robert Sheckley, an undeniable genius who couldn't even afford emergency medical treatment on a trip to meet fans in Ukraine.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Joyeux Noël

Can I ask you a favour, please?

Next Christmas, don't watch The Sounds of Music. Or Night Before Christmas, or any other traditional film you watch on that day. Instead, get a copy of Merry Christmas.

The film is based on true events, the Christmas ceasefire of 1914, when WWI soldiers on both sides of the front line left their trenches to bury their dead and play football in No Man's Land. It ends with a disclaimer that any similarity to real persons is purely coincidential - but I have to say, such similarity is deeply flattering. This is a film that shows with profound sincerity the nature of human spirit, thrown into a place of concentrated despair unlike what was ever seen before (and quite possibly, since) - scared, broken, trampled upon, and yet still capable of sensing joy at the sound of bagpipes in the night, and a beautiful voice singing Silent Night in the language of your enemy. The spirit that experiences infinite truth, and through recognizing it, feels no shame for any act that men who have not climbed the wall of a trench would call treason.

On Christmas Eve, 1914, several hundred Germans, Frenchmen and Brits decided that the bloodiest conflict in human history would just have to wait. On this night, The Last War had no power over a small Belgian field.

As the credits rolled, half a thousand people simply sat there, not daring to break the magic of the movie. As the lights came up, they exploded in applause. Not formal theater applause, a reluctantly given tip for the time and effort of humans; there were no creators at the showing. Instead this was applause that every person in that room had no choice but to give.

Watch this film.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

World Wide Webshite

Saw a link to an article in the New York Times by one John Batelle:
"In fact, syndication has become the de facto business model of many start-ups: if you build a new service that garners a decent audience, syndication can provide enough revenue to give you time to refine your services and find your true business model."

What a comprehensively ridiculous notion. Not the syndication bit, although that's overhyped as well, but the bit about finding your true business model.

This seems to be the fundamental basis for Internet bubbles past and present (and probably future). People somehow get it into their heads that the Internet is a magic new entity that completely changes the way the world works. It is no such thing. The Internet is a tool for human communication, and its dynamics are no more than a minor evolution of the rules of society - the underlying forces are the same, and they manifest themselves in the same way. Opening a business with no clear understanding of how you intend to make money, instead substituted by a vague philosophy of people coming to your website just because it's there and clicking on banners out of sheer gratitude, is a good way to lose money and be ridiculed. I mean, take Antyx for example. It's got its own domain name, appears high up in a lot of Google results, and has a lot of absolutely killer content - and yet in the three months it's been up, it has been viewed less than three thousand times.

Joel Spolsky says that the goal of an IT company should be converting capital into software that works. In a recent podcast he gave an example of how this benefitted him, allowing a situation where his company managed to take a raw idea and implement it into an excellent product in a very short time, using resources that were already in place. According to Joel, what you do is create a team capable of building a better mousetrap, knowing that there are plenty of ideas for the better mousetrap out there that you can implement.

Then again, in that same podcast he admits that a software vendor cannot succeed unless they are actually solving a problem that a lot of people are having. His own company made a content management system, which was a popular thing to make back then, but it never went anywhere; then they made something as pedestrian as a bug tracking system, and it became hugely successful.

You know why Microsoft is the ruler of all it surveys? I'll tell you. It's because I have a document on my work PC that I made months ago. It has a bunch of Visio drawings in it. I usually keep the VSD file with the original drawings for when I need to update them, but this time for some reason I couldn't find it. I'd have to remake the whole schematic, half a dozen drawings, by hand. Except I wouldn't. Because (as it turns out) if you copy and paste a Visio drawing into a Word file and then double-click on the image, it opens an embedded Visio editor, with all the individual objects already recognized.

That's why Microsoft is more successful than any other software company. But it's not why Microsoft is, to begin with, a successful company. That would be because it has a couple of programs which allow me to make documents and draw UML diagrams. If it cared about ease of use, rather than giving people something they needed to do their jobs, it would be... Well, I guess it would be Apple.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


In my travels to various countries here in Europe, I have noticed an interesting trend. It is not without exception, certainly, but has caught my eye enough times to have me start looking out for it.

In an "old" European country with a large proportion of visible minorities, the people you see in a position of authority are usually the title race.

I first noticed it in Sweden, then in Norway, Finland, Holland, the UK... countries where you walk down the street and see a huge variety of skin tones. (This opposed to Small Country, where the permanent black residents can be counted on the fingers of one very deformed hand.) Immigrants are often accused of living off welfare and not working, but that's a whole different problem and one which, I believe, gets solved over a generation or two.

I also don't believe that visible minorities are discouraged from going into law enforcement and similar disciplines. I do, however, believe that they tend not to care.

The job where I have found many minorities was that of bus driver. Naturally, it is the biased view of a traveller on a budget that tends to use the cheapest form of public transport to get from the airport/ferry terminal to the center of town. But it does make sense. Driving a bus requires a couple months of training; unlike driving a cab, you don't need to know the language particularly well; and in Western Europe, it's a heavily unionized job. Here in Small Country with its national obsession with the free market, the transport workers are really the last trade union with the strength to demand something, as opposed to pleading for it. So your average bus driver in a European capital is going to be paid fairly well.

On the other hand, the police is not somewhere you go for the money. There's a huge problem right now in Small Country with the rescue workers (firefighters basically, but tasked with anything outside the strict responsibility of the cops and ambulance guys). Basically they earn nothing. The typical salary is half the national average. It's better in other departments and certainly better in other countries, but the pattern is still there.

The people who patrol the streets, fight fires, work the customs desks at the airport, are all people who care about their homeland.

Again I repeat, there are plenty of exceptions. But the next time you fly to Stockholm, the first stereotypical Norseman you are likely to see will be the border guard spot-checking you for drugs once you get off the plane - rather than the flight attendant or the cabbie driving you to your hotel.

Finally, the point about immigrants being lazy. The most non-European place I have been to was Rotterdam. Admittedly not a touristy city. Over four days in a metropolis with a population that matches the entire Small Country and perhaps exceeds it, I saw maybe three people who looked like you'd expect the Dutch to look. The rest of them were Africans, southeast Asians, Arabs, Turks... you name it. I was told by the people I stayed with that it wasn't just me - Rotterdam was in fact a predominantly non-white city.

And yet, it is the biggest seaport in the world, serving shipments to and from all of Europe, essentially. Keeping up that status takes a lot of hard work.

Oh, and the first Dutch-looking person I saw on that trip? The ticket-taker on the train from Schiphol airport.

Monday, December 05, 2005


Judas Priest concert on Thursday. Got off work early, caught the bus to Capital City. Saw the show (extremely good - better than Alice Cooper by miles), went to dad's place. Stayed up for hours playing TOCA Race Driver 2. Had four hours of sleep, got up at 5.30 am, caught the 6.45 bus back to Campustown. Came to work. Had a mocca and some energy drink. Interesting sensation: body completely knackered, mind wide awake.

I don't drink coffee normally, never did, not even during exam sessions at college. I don't have immunity, so even one has a serious effect on me. (My boss, on the other hand, imbibes the most vile brew you are likely to see in your meager existence, black as a lawyer's heart and bitter as Monday morning.)

I'm like a person that's convinced himself he's given up smoking. I won't purchase stimulants out of sheer principle, but a coworker has taken to hoarding energy drink in his desk, and as soon as he opens a can, I pounce. I have a fine-tuned ear for the scratch of tin on a desk surface and the pop of the tab.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Gadget porn

All right. I admit it. I'm a gadget wanker.

It seems fairly logical to me that the human brain just has a general capacity for producing pleasurable impulses. These impulses are most easily and commonly triggered by sexual references, but can be initiated by any desire sufficiently strong. Certainly the feeling I get when reading the specs and looking at pictures of an Archos PMA400 is close to sexual, and so is the one caused by witnessing the image of the new Lamborghini Gallardo roadster. (Like some others, its design somehow just comes together marvellously in droptop form - despite the fact that it's only a traditional electric canvas roof, basically the same as you'd get on a Miata. The Concept S, much more outrageous, somehow isn't quite as stunning.)

If this reasoning is valid, it is an interesting example of humans mutating to adapt to civilization. I'm sure the capacity for object desire has been ingrained in Homo Sapiens from the start, but while the effect of sexual imagery is easily explained - procreation requires men to become aroused, so nature has made it simple to accomplish - gadget porn, or car porn for that matter, is a bit of a conditioned development.

Interestingly enough, in my experience marketing is not particularly effective at emulating this sort of reaction. You can use all the black backdrops, suggestive angles and hip models you want, but a BMW 7-series will still be ugly enough to give you a sympathetic toothache. And an Alfa Romeo Brera in an unfortunate color, covered in mud, jacked up at the side of the road with a wheel missing, will still be absolutely stunning.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Sacred Cow: Offroad coupe

In the spirit of being more positive, this edition of Sacred Cow will not criticize an overhyped notion, but rather praise an undeservingly overlooked one.

For a lot longer than I can remember, manufacturers have built concept cars in the form of offroad coupes. The oldest of the current crop is probably the Audi Steppenwolf - originally slated to see production as an A3 Allroad, but axed in Berndt Pischetzrieder's war on needless niche models. There have been plenty since then, notables including the Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution (the shape of the Dakar hero that never made it to showrooms) and the Range Sportster.

It could be argued that the original offroad sportscar was the dune buggy, but the notion undoubtedly traces its roots to the Lamborghini LM002 at least. But, while I believe you could get Brabus to build you a 640bhp turbocharged V12 three-door Geländewagen if you asked nicely, proper offroad coupes have been notable by their lack of presence. The powers-that-be simply don't think there is a market.

In reality, there is. There are a lot of places on the planet where the road quality does not match the concentration of wealth. In the winter especially, SUVs are desirable even for urban use simply because they give you the confidence to proceed over rough ground - and city streets can be very rough. These cars are also very often devoid of passengers, and hardly ever carry more than one. It's hard to design an evocative, gorgeous SUV - personally I am partial to even the garden-variety Pajero, but the only one enjoying universal acclaim seems to be the Range Rover Sport. If you stop thinking of it as a two-box wagon on big wheels, things can get a lot more interesting.

In the age of platform sharing, it is not that expensive to spin a car like this off an established model line. It's purely a matter of will; unfortunately the decision-makers live in a whole different world from the target audience.

The only true offroad coupe you could actually go and buy was the Mega Track. But it was mind-bogglingly expensive, and only five are known to have been built.

Three of them are in Russia.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Hooray for gameplay

So, Dad's old machine finally kicked the bucket. I took the opportunity to flex the company's connections and get a discount on a new workstation. Athlon 3000+, a gig of memory and a 6600GT. An infinite improvement over the Athlon XP 1600/256mb/GeForce MX400 that we were stuck with for the last four years. Dad doesn't believe in upgrades.

And here's the thing: although pretty decent, it is by no means top of the line. Which means that it will not provide effortless performance on the brand new games, and instead I have been trying out the ones I've had lying around for some time, waiting for the hardware to make use of them. Namely Far Cry, True Crime: Streets of LA, and TOCA Race Driver 2.

Now, Far Cry is a game most renowned for its extraordinary beauty. It actually auto-rated the new machine as Very High on all accounts, but then it is a year old at least. I started it up, and... to be honest, was unimpressed. Oh, it's pretty alright, but despite the fact that I'm a shooter person myself (Serious Sam: Second Encounter is the most likely contender for my favourite game of all time, along with the original Unreal), it just didn't pull me in. First impressions are important, and the impression I got was, "run to the next location, shoot people in the face, keep running". It doesn't have the ambience of Unreal - which was the only game that completely terrified me in God mode - or the carnage factor of Serious Sam; graphics will only get you so far.

True Crime was infinitely better. In a couple of days (and using a trainer) I completed the core storyline. I am quite impressed by the idea of presenting different endings depending on in-game behavior, and intend to try for the two better resolutions to the plot. I'm not as convinced by the pressure to be Good Cop - KOTOR showed that it is possible to provide equally involving motivations for both good and evil. The other annoying thing is the sneak and follow missions, which in my mind have no place in a game that is supposed to be the more violent alternative to Grand Theft Auto. Otherwise it feels like a mod for Vice City, which is not at all a bad thing. Oh, and the console-port controls are preposterous.

And then there's TOCA 2. I actually got it to run on the old machine, but the framerate was too low for the game to be reasonably played. Now, it runs smoothly and looks great, and I'm really enjoying it. Still, it can't match the ultimate driving game of all time: Colin McRae Rally 2.

You can see what I'm getting at here. As a PC gamer, I am resolved to the fact that hardware becomes obsolete quickly. But the studios tend to lose the plot, and graphics is only a support branch of the industry - neither Far Cry nor Doom 3 are in any way revelations. I played through Half Life 2 on the old PC, and then got a chance to try it out on a friend's more powerful machine; it was certainly much more beautiful, but that's not why the game was so good.

At the end of the day, it's really all about gameplay.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The universal MP3 player dock

It's not like The Register to succumb to hype in the face of reason, but it does occasionally happen. It appears that Microsoft is pushing for an open standard to MP3 player connectors, a rival to the dock on the iPod.

The article does mention that the iPod dock was born out of necessitty rather than engineering brilliance, but only after mentioning that most other manufacturers "simply stuck in a USB port and and left it at that". The author then goes on to claim that it was the proprietary connector, made available to third-party vendors, that enabled the appearance of so many iPod accessories.

Now, I'm sorry, but this is a clear case of substituting cause for effect. The iPod dock did obviously come about because Apple wanted to provide both USB 2.0 and FireWire connectivity, and needed a charger plug as well - but didn't want to spoil the lines of their beautiful plastic box with too many holes. This is not in any way exceptional; if you look at mobile phones, each and every single one of them has an iPod-style flat port, where you attach the charger, or the sync cable, or (on most models) the handsfree. These ports are both proprietary and defiantly non-standard; the specifications and even physical dimensions change not only between manufacturers, but between model lines and generations.

The iPod solution itself is far from elegant. They made a huge effort to support FireWire, but that format has since become irrelevant - USB 2.0 is all the speed you'll realistically need, and this is coming from a person who regularly dumps episodes of Top Gear onto his Archos media player - and even obsolete: most new laptops and motherboards aren't actually wired for IEEE 1394 any more. In an ironic development mentioned in the Register article, Apple itself has dumped FireWire support from new generations of the iPod. As for power, my Motorola V500's charger takes up three pins out of about 20. And I can charge the phone off a USB port, just by sticking in the cable connector.

But the biggest crime against common sense committed by the abovementioned author is the assertion that the numerous iPod accesories came about because of the connector. As a matter of fact they appeared in spite of it. Let's be fair - the iPod may not objectively be the best product on the market, but it is infinitely desirable. The most popular accessory by far is the FM transmitter, and that is a two-bit chip replicated by every OEM factory in Taiwan. It doesn't even use the connector, but rather the bog standard headphone line out! The other accessories are generally either speakers of varying complexity (and daftness), or devices to attach the iPod to another system as an audio source. The iPod has so much shiny stuff available for it because a lot of people have it. Sure, Apple made it happen by letting the Taiwanese take a peak at the connector specs (an uncharacteristic move), but it would still be a hell of a lot easier if it was straight USB.

And that's what Microsoft's new unified MP3 player standard will be - same as the old unified MP3 player standard. The speed of USB 2.0 is sufficient even for HDD-based units with gig upon gig of storage, plus it can charge things well enough - the Motorola V3 RAZR is just one device that gets charges exclusively through a mini-USB port - plus it is a ready format for controlling pretty much anything. You have to remember that the audio player pretty much always connects as a peripheral, and if the Archos PMA400 has USB host functionality for hooking up a keyboard, it sure as hell won't be a problem for the OEMs to stick the right circuit in the next shiny white Belkin box.

No, what Microsoft is really after is not a unified hardware standard - Apple's a hardware company, but MS is a software one, as the Reg article rightly mentions - but a unified software standard. A generic driver that will allow absolutely any device, even the hard-drive ones (and not just Archoses either) to mount on any system right out of the box, and enable full access. USB inputs on car stereos? It's happening as we speak.


Warner got his house.

I'm happy for him. Truly. He's an irritating sort of person and I only know him from the Circle Jerk board, but the news that he got the log cabin he grew up in, his name still written in the concrete of the basement, just put a smile on my face - for no serious reason.

A small Christmas miracle, I'd say.

Congrats, you wanker!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Proof by repeated assertion

So I'm watching TV, some American show, and they bring in a guy that apparently sings cowboy songs. Here's the peculiar part: all through the show they keep referring to him as "Country Western star John Doe!". And yes, they actually enunciate the exclamation mark.

This is what Joel Spolsky calls proof by repeated assertion. The absolute majority of people around the world - in fact the absolute majority of people in America - do not follow Country Western music, and have no idea who the guy is; so the presenters are forced to keep reminding everyone that he's a big star. (Incidentally I've seen this happen before with cowboy singers in particular.)

My best guess as to what causes this is the fact that Country Western seems to be a field of amateurs by definition. To be big, you need to look like the guy or gal next door, and you don't need exceptional musical talent either.

It's an interesting phenomenon for me as a linguist, and a person with at least some basic training in semiotics. Normally singers are sold on image (who cares if Robbie Williams has anything profound to say?) or exceptional talent. Looks are more useful than talent though. Despite the fact that this is an area where people listen a lot - and portable music players have been a major blow to all-show-no-go MTV darlings - we still receive the most information through visuals. But Country Western can't make itself too polished, and the music is only good if it sounds like your best friend strumming his guitar by the fire on a nice camping trip. Unfortunately you still need to promote the artists, to make them into big names. And how do you do that?

Proof by repeated assertion, that's how.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Differentials and torque steer

Here's another useful reference article.

A lot of beginner car enthusiasts have trouble understanding differentials, both regular and limited-slip ones. In fact it is a very simple device. So simple in fact, that the first vehicle that is considered in modern terms a car, the Mercedes Simplex of 1903, was distinguishable from other self-propelling carriages by the fact that it had one. (Among other things.)

The differential is a part that splits torque, usually into two equal parts. It has an input shaft and two output shafts, one per each wheel (or axle if it's the central diff in an AWD car). Now, when a car turns, the outer wheels take a wider curve than the inner ones, covering more distance and thus traveling at a higher speed. This happens because the axles have differentials, as opposed to just solid pieces of metal connecting the two wheels.

The differential is made up of gears. The input shaft has a cone-shaped gear at the end. The output shafts are just simple gears. (Their teeth are cut as curved, not straight - this helps them interlock properly and cuts down on noise; straight-cut gears on old offroaders and such tend to produce a loud whine.)

Now, the cone works just like a set of gears, each smaller than the previous one. At the base of the cone, the gear ratio is high and the torque is low. At the tip of the cone, the gear ratio is low and the torque is high. While driving straight on a dry surface with good grip, the output gears sit at the same height on the cone. The gear ratio of the spin, transferred from the input shaft to the output shafts, is the same. Both wheels spin at the same speed.

When a car turns, the outside wheel spins more quickly, so its gear travels towards the base of the cone; the gear ratio gets taller, with the output gear making more revolutions per one cone revolution. The inside wheel travels away from the base of the cone, the gear ratio gets shorter, and its output gear makes less revolutions. Effectively this is the same as the outside wheel shifting up a gear and the inside wheel shifting down a gear. This is what happens when both wheels have the same amount of grip.

But the differential is primarily meant to transfer torque, and torque goes down the path of least resistance. The more grip the wheel has on the ground, the more resistance to spinning it feeds back to its gear - and the less grip it has, the less resistance it gives.

Now, here is the counter-intuitive bit that took me a while to figure out, pondering over a simple drawing of a diff. Resistance makes the gear away from the base of the cone, looking for a shorter gear ratio and less spin. In normal circumstances both wheels have more grip than torque, so when you feed the grip in, the wheels simply start turning and you go forward. But torque really just wants to make the wheel spin freely, so if one wheel has significantly less grip, it will be as if the other wheel is stuck. Its gear will move so far up the cone, looking for less revolutions and more torque to move it, that it will simply pop off the tip of the cone. On the other hand, the wheel with no grip will use less torque to start slipping and its gear will be happy at the base of the cone, spinning quickly but getting little torque.

So you see, torque does travel down the path of least resistance - but not because more torque can be used there, but because less torque is required there. Torque is lazy like that.

To combat this situation, where one wheel is spinning and the other is stationary, engineers use a limited-slip differential. It has a sort of bypass gearing setup, where a certain amount of torque from one output shaft is fed to the other. As long as they are both spinning at the same speed and getting the same amount of torque, it doesn't matter; but if one wheel pops off the tip of the cone and loses torque, it will still get some from other wheel. Limited-slip diffs are rated in percent, as in, how much difference in percent can there be between the amount of torque the wheels are getting.

Active differentials, like the ones on the Mitsubishi Evo or Subaru WRX STI, are limited-slip diffs that have electronics controlling the rate of torque transfer through the bypass.

Locking diffs are much simples. You push a button (or, much more satisfyingly, pull a lever) and the gears are simply held in place, not allowed to travel up and down the cone. Both wheels get half of the torque, but they can't move at different speeds, so turning is tricky. Useful for offroaders though.

And torque steer? Oh, quite simple. In a FWD car, for packaging reasons, the output shafts are different lengths (because the gearbox hooks up right to the differential, it usually can't be in the middle of the axle). Because it takes a bit of torque to spin the shaft itself, more if it's longer, one wheel will get more torque than the other. More torque on one side means that the car will pull in the opposite direction. Besides, differentials are made so that the torque actually travels to one side before the other - normally it makes no difference, but if there's a lot of torque to put down, it does; which is why very powerful RWD cars will throw the tail end to one side under hard acceleration.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Ah dammit.

I resent this. It's very close to being the betrayal of everything I believe in. But there is no other choice: fairness is paramount, and while I hate to admit it, I have to concede.

The BMW Z4 coupe looks good.

It's like one of 3D puzzles that you have to stare at. Out of a jumble of pointless lines and intersections comes a well-sorted sportscar. The roadster is awkward, although probably the least objectionable of the early Bangle designs, but fitted with a roof, it suddenly works.

Not the first time it's happened, either. The last E46 models (the previous 3-series) got a restyled front end in their final years. In pictures, it looks like crap, but in real life it actually fits in very well with the overall shape of the car.

I am one of the very few people who liked the shape of the Z3 coupe. Especially in M Coupe guise, with the wide rear arches, I think it looks wonderful - very purposeful, a proper sportscar that puts function over form. The function is to take two passengers and a reasonable amount of luggage around the continent, and at this it excels much more than any 911. It is also a great sports car - a popular choice with privateer teams in GT racing, getting good results with minor modifications and no factory support whatsoever. It is quite possible that the M Coupe will be my midlife crisis car. (That or a Z8, if things go well.)

And as long as I'm making confessions, I saw an iPod Nano today. It's still overpriced, and I'm not convinced by the small size - I like my gadgets chunky - but it is very desirable.

So there.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Now that that's over with...

So, I sold the car. Wanted 5000 for it, got 4000. (This is in Small Country Dollars, so bear with me.) Over the seven months I had it, I invested approximately 1000 in changing the oil, air filter and front brake pads, another 1000 in two new tyres, 500 in a new battery and 500 in welding up the exhaust. Considering I bought it for 10500, that brings the total money spent to (10500-4000)+3000=9500. Now, comprehensive insurance for even a supermini would be at least 500 a month, on top of the third-party I'm paying. So, not counting petrol or mandatory insurance, I spent about US$100 per month on running the Honda. If I also had to pay for comprehensive, my comparative budget would be $65 per month, with no money down. What sort of new car do you think I could have had for that sort of money?

So in my mind, the Thousand Dollar Car Theory is valid.

In other news: I decided to try Google AdSense. I've been getting a lot of hits for the AUX article and the taxonomy ones seem to be rather popular as well - so I'll see if I can make a buck on it. Hey, Google helped me find my inflatable dildo job, which paid for the Mazda, the Honda and the Archos, so it can't be all useless. I also turned on the squiggly words in comments - while I am against the concept in principle, under the theory that I must make it as easy as possible for people to post, it seems that most of what I'm getting is comment spam. If you really have something to tell me, you're at least vaguely motivated, so the squiggly word is not likely to put you off.

Google released a brand new Web-oriented utility today. (Are you old school enough to remember the word 'utility'?) I'm not sure what it's meant to do, honestly, ostensibly it analyzes your web traffic and referrals and tells you how to better drive traffic to your site - a glorified counter, basically. Anyway, I thought I'd give it a go, and put it in the template according to the instructions. Except the checker they have can't find it here on Antyx. Isn't it hilarious that Google's brand new toy doesn't work with Google's Blogger?

Or maybe it just doesn't work in Opera.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A real spirit-booster

Well, I knew it couldn't last. I tried so hard to banish anxiety from my life, but lately it's been a bit depressing. Not for any good reason, but a lot of smaller ones. The insurance has run out on the car, and I haven't sold it yet, so I'm having to take the bus to work - which isn't horribly uncomfortable, but I still resent it. And because sudden costs have piled up - a new battery for the car, winter driving courses, the cost of renewing my driving license, now the bank wants this year's interest on my student loan - I have not saved any money since my Sweden trip. I'm not starving, but it's still annoying.

Then it's the little things. I bought a new set of earbuds for the Archos, and they turned out to be crap. I found pictures of my old Volvo, which nearly drove me to tears - I really loved that car. And then there's the obvious. Christmas is coming up, and guess what - I have nobody to share it with.

But today it snowed. For the first time this year it snowed properly. It started after lunch, and by the time it got dark the scene was amazing: the black world outside the curved glass walls of the 12th floor, and snowflakes dashing past, reflecting the inside light. I leave the office, and it's a perfect snowfall - the world populated by huge flakes as far as the eye can see. I stand at the bus stop, looking at a streetlight with a couple cars parked underneath, and fir trees just on the edge of the lit area. It's amazing. This is Bridget Jones christmas snow: it doesn't happen in real life. Except it does. It is.

I'm sure it will all be melted and forgotten by the morning. But as I'm standing there, outside the bus shelter, letting the enormous flakes land on me - I'm happy.

Monday, November 14, 2005


Bloggers are assholes.

I mean, there are bloggers out there who are consumed by their assholes until their existence consists of nothing but it.*

But there are also bloggers out there who are self-obsessed dicks.

Case in point. I've talked before about Jalopnik - I've since had a mildly amusing email conversation with their columnist about his critique of articles in proper car mags, which I found terribly unprofessional - but I have to hand it to them, every time I've seen someone point out a factual error in their copy, they admitted it.

They link to a regular feature on the Hecklerspray blog, which talks about the good points of cars generally considered to be bad. (CAR started running a similar feature a few months ago - hmm...) Anyway, the last installment was about the Lada Niva. Their post says that the Niva went out of production in 1998. This didn't seem quite right to me, so I went on the Lada factory website; lo and behold, it's still very much in production, and in fact Lada's most popular export model for Western Europe. This I pointed out in a comment on the Hecklerspray website. Instead of admitting their error and rewording the copy to say it was simply not sold in Britain after 1998, they... well, you can click on the link at the beginning of the previous paragraph and see.

I don't really want to fill AnTyx with tales of woe about people being nasty to me, but this seems sufficiently weird - and very much in the spirit of human folly that I discuss here regularly.

* - an inside joke for the circle jerk regulars.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Pipe dream: Pay-as-you-go software

Saw a movie yesterday with Whoopie Goldberg, where she played a Wall Street analyst who had to invent a white, male partner for clients to take her seriously. This character then obviously took on a life of its own, eventually even getting a subpoena from the SEC. Which had me wondering how something like that could ever happen; I'm used to living in Small Country, where everyone has an identity code and there is a comprehensive database of the population.

Just one more of those things which Americans (and apparently Brits) wouldn't think of as consistent with a free, democratic state. In truth though, it works wonders. We're the first country to successfully implement online voting, and that couldn't happen without digital signatures. Using your ID card and a PIN number, you can securely identify yourself online.

Which leads to an interesting idea I had upon hearing all the recent ranting and raving about the Sony rootkit. If every person on the planet was identifiable online (something that IPv6 intends to do anyway, as far as I understand), the entire software distribution model could be changed.

Imagine a world where the code itself is free. The Open Source dream has become a reality. Access control has reached a point where it no longer makes sense to limit the amount of copies - thus exploiting the natural killer feature of digital technology, the ability to reproduce content without loss of quality. You can download any software you want, in fact most of what you need probably comes preinstalled on your computer. The business model is pay-as-you-go. Because the Internet knows who you are, you can pay the authors for using it, not for having it on your machine. Go to an Internet cafe, and have full access to Photoshop Professional, if you've paid for it. Couple this with the server-based functionality, and IT gets taken to a whole new level.

This isn't, strictly speaking, a new idea, but pay-as-you-go isn't currently useful for software, simply because micropayments are too obtrusive. But think of the interface used by You charge your account with a certain amount of cash, in $10 increments, and then download music at your leisure; the account is debited depending on how much of the website's bandwidth you're using. (And because you pay for bandwidth, they get to claim that they're a broadcaster, not a retailer. As such they only have to pay a nominal fee to the relevant copyright protection agency, which is why you can download the new Rasmus album for two dollars.

Alternatively, think how good this would be for independent developers. Specialized tools are hugely expensive, and even I, with my everything-on-the-Internet-should-be-free mindset, concede that for this purpose you need to pay the authors. Yet a startup, or a single coder working on his better mousetrap on the weekends, cannot possibly afford all the tools that would make their life so much easier. Even if you can afford the license, how can you tell that it's what you really need?

But what if you only needed a license for commercial use? What if you could download and use every framework, every environment, every bell and whistle without limitation, until you sell your first copy? If you know you'll make money off of it, then you can shell out full retail for Adobe's finest.

Not that this will ever happen. But hey - a guy can dream!

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Nearly Complete Taxonomy of Cars, Part II

The segmentation of vehicles is a complicated matter, mostly because of scale creep. Manufacturers need to convince buyers that the new model is better, so it gets bigger - although not necessarily roomier; my '82 Mazda three-door had more space in the rear seats than some of today's cars twice its length. New cars are also much heavier. The Skoda Fabia, built on the same platform as the current VW Polo, is bigger in every dimension than the original Golf - and weighs a ton and a half.

Body shapes are simpler. The basics are easily recognizable. Still, there are some fringe cases where it's hard to identify the style properly. There is also sub-classification, not terribly official, but nonetheless useful.
  • The classic car shape is a sedan. This is a car with four doors and a separate boot - a luggage compartment that opens separate from the glass above it. Note that the boot doesn't have to be in the back (cf old rear-engined Skodas) and doesn't even have to be horizontal; the original Mini was actually a two-door sedan, because it had a bottom-hinged luggage hatch that did not extend to the rear window. Also, a sedan is not necessarily a distinct three-box shape; if you think of the classic Saab 900 coupe, there was barely a transfer from roofline to trunk lid.
  • The sporty version of a sedan is a coupe. This has a separate boot and minus two doors; if you want to be strict, there is a distinction between a coupe and a two-door sedan. The latter has the same interior space as a four-door, whereas a coupe is a 2+2 at best. A great example of a two-door sedan is a BMW E30 (the 80s 3-series), whereas the succeeding E36 had severely less rear seat space. Basically, if it looks like they just erased the rear doors, it's a two-door sedan; to be a coupe, it has to look like it was designed like that from the ground up.
  • In smaller segments (C and below), the most popular bodystyle is the hatchback. Essentially this is any car that has three or five doors and is shorter than the equivalent sedan. Here you have a set of subclassifications. The classic hatchback is a MkIII and up Golf, with the tailgate close to vertical. If the rear window slopes, then turning into a dropoff sheet of metal, it's called a liftback - the term was, to the best of my knowledge, introduced by Toyota with the bug-eye Corolla of the 90s, which in five door guise had a very different trunk solution compared to the three-door. There is a subtle difference between this and the notchback which, as you may guess from the name, has a notch in the trunk line; the most obvious notchback shape is the Skoda Octavia, which actually looks like a sedan more than anything else.
  • The estate, aka station wagon, is distinguishable from the classic hatchback through length - it tends to use the floorplan of the sedan, and in some cases (like the new Opel Vectra) is actually longer than that. You can get confused sometimes as to whether a car is a hatchback or an estate, recently with the Kia Rio; however, because that car is demonstrably shorter than the sedan, it cannot be an estate.
  • The fastback is properly a type of hatchback; the problem is that a lot of sports cars these days have tailgates instead of bootlids. It would be improper to call them three-door hatchbacks, so this term has been adopted for things like the Hyundai Coupe/Tiburon, and the upcoming Jaguar XJ. Basically the difference between a notchback and a fastback is the same as the difference between a two-door sedan and a coupe.
  • The shooting brake is a rare breed these days, especially with the demise of BMW's metal-top Z3. It is a coupe with a raised glasshouse, a gentleman's touring car intended to carry enough luggage for a fortnight's blast around the continent. It doesn't even need more than two seats, or 2+2 at best. It's meant for speed, not space - and it's coming back; there are reports that the next-generation Audi TT will in fact be a shooting brake.

Now, there are fringe cases not covered by these increasingly specific guidelines. One such is the Mazda RX-8. Yes, technically it has four doors; but because you cannot actually open the rear ones independently, I'm willing to give it a little leeway and recognize it as a coupe. Especially since it is a proper sports car.

Oh, and for all my American readers, a clue: it is not pronounced 'coop'.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Nearly Complete Taxonomy of Cars, Part I

Based on the fact that the AUX input article has been giving me more Google hits than any other (with the Offroader 101 one a close second), I thought it might be nice to write another useful reference piece.

Car makers these days are obsessed with crossovers. The classic market is saturated and has established players, it's not really possible to achieve meaningful growth in that sector; whereas with completely new ideas, you can snatch away a competitor's customer base. Of course the problem is that your own buyers might start moving away from the staple diet - like buying the brilliant Mercedes CLS instead of the bland E-class - so you need to make your new model different from the sort of thing you usually do.

The last big thing was niche models; unfortunately there is a very good reason why it's a niche, why nobody has been selling a million cars a year to this audience - there is simply not enough demand to justify development. Not that this market has been without its success stories, which used a combination of reasonable creativity and existing platforms to excellent result. The Audi TT made an enormous amount of money for VAG; they had to invest in tooling for the new body, but underneath it was still a Golf, the development costs for which have been recouped many times over. With the New Beetle, they didn't even need to spring for real aluminium in the interior.

These days it's crossovers. The idea is that existing segmentation is somehow inappropriate, that people's needs have moved away from traditional sedans, wagons and hatchbacks. Of course if you give them just a little bit more functionality, you can ask for more in price - and it's not more expensive to develop an urban semi-SUV than it does a traditional sedan. In fact it's well known that the bigger the car, the easier it is to make good.

In an atmosphere of uncertainty, with dividing lines being blurred by crossovers - not to mention normal model growth from generation to generation - I feel it is important to remind ourselves of the established taxonomy for classes of car. In Europe, the following segments are generally recognized:
  • A-segment. These are small urban runabouts, ill-equipped on the motorway but quite appropriate on crowded streets. There aren't many of these left, but notables include the Daewoo Matiz/Chevrolet Spark, VW Lupo and now the Fox, and most famously, the original Smart. These cars often have engines under a liter in size, and offer only the most cursory rear legroom; also, don't expect them to be proper five-seaters. Basically this is the smallest vehicle that can still be reasonably termed a car.
  • B-segment. Known as superminis in UK parlance, these are what you get when you need a small car with decent room. Typical examples are the Skoda Fabia, Nissan Micra and Fiat Punto. There has been a major trend for making these cars more vertical, cramming decent passenger space into a small footprint; examples such as the Opel Meriva, Renault Modus and Honda Jazz are all quite adequate family cars in European terms. Interestingly enough the Toyota Aygo/Citroen C1/Peugeot 107 are officially termed sub-B - not because of size certainly, but rather because all three companies have significantly more upmarket B-segment offerings.
  • C-segment, also known as the Golf-class. Just like the warships classified on the first of their kind, the name comes from the fact that Volkswagen Golf is the founder and unassailable leader of this segment - although the Ford Focus certainly has something to say about that. The Japanese are very strong contenders in this class, with the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Formerly the biggest market in Europe, it has recently been overtaken by the B-segment.
  • C-segment minivans. This is a fairly recent development, but popular enough to merit a separate mention. The subdivision was started by the Renault Megane Scenic in 1995, and right now this is one of the bestselling ones. The secret of success is that by combining a Golf-sized footprint with a high roof, you can create a proper sense of exceptional space. Mentions go to the Opel Zafira, Toyota Corolla Verso and the new Mazda5.
  • D-segment. Whereas lower classes were almost universally ruled by hatchbacks, this is the first level at which we can see the classic sedan shape dominate. It is also the minimal classically appropriate segment for premium manufacturers. Typical examples are the Ford Mondeo, Honda Accord and Opel Vectra in the everyman section and the Holy Trinity of 3-series/C-class/A4 in the luxury department.
  • D-segment minivans. This is where minivans were born, in Europe at least. People carriers were introduced by Renault's Espace in the late 80s, and since then this has been the soccer mom's vehicle of choice. A Passat-sized footprint allows for genuine seven-seat space while still retaining manouverability around town. Major players, besides the founder, are the Peugeot 807/Citroen C8, the ancient Volkswagen Sharan and the outsized Chrysler Voyager, built for European purposed in Austria.
  • E-segment. This is well and truly the realm of luxury. The E-class, 5-series and A6 reign supreme, casually fighting off challenges from the likes of the Jaguar S-type and Lexus GS. Non-premium cars are few and far between, with the Opel Omega (beloved of cab drivers everywhere) discontinued and the quirky French offerings, consisting of the pointless Peugeot 607 and beautifully excentric Citroen C6, rarely seen outside their home market.
  • F-segment. The vehicles of choice for plutocrats. The Germans are still in charge, although the Jaguar XJ is a genuinely excellent car and the Maserati Quattroporte a compelling alternative. Interestingly enough, these cars - in standard wheelbases especially - are not as roomy as you might expect. The F-segment also contains, technically and purely because of size, the Chrysler 300C, which seduces with its looks and practicality: a lot of car for well-specced 3-series money.
  • Urban SUVs. The choice of soccer moms who don't want the stigma of the minivan. Based on C/D-segment platforms with token AWD capability, these offer more safety and a chance to see over the next car's roof. Notables are the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Hyundai Santa Fe/Tucson; interestingly enough the Land Rover Freelander seems to be the main European offering, unless you seriously consider the useless BMW X3.
  • SUVs proper. Don't confuse these with offroaders! Big SUVs have no business off the beaten track, but you can expect a bit more confidence in snowbanks. Honorable mention to the VW Touareg, Volvo XC90 and BMW X5.

That's the simplified explanation. Join me next time, when I explain the difference between bodystyles.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The last refuge of white pop culture

In the spirit of the frank discussion of race recently held at the circle jerk board you can find from the link on the right, I would like to call your attention to a peculiar fact.

You hardly ever see a caucasian face on MTV any more.

Now, there are some eminently respectable black musicians - from the grand masters of jazz and soul, to modern acts of considerable substance. I have more than a few tracks by these folks on my Archos, and this is down to a simple fact: good music will always be good music.

Unfortunately what you see on MTV is not, for the most part, good music. It's not even good pop music. With the exception of a few gems, the world's premier music channel is full of crap. Now, white crap I can tolerate, but black crap I cannot, because it is alien to me and thus very grating; I realize quite well that an enormous part of MTV's audience is still white, but I'm sorry, I haven't quite been bombarded with glorification of the pimp&gangsta culture to put on a sweatsuit and two pounds of gilded jewellery.

Rock music has been a refuge of whiteness for a long time, although I am aware of its roots in the original R&B scene. Unfortunately there just isn't any good rock music coming out these days. I've done my best to listen to Coldplay, I honestly have, and I'm sorry - it sounds like a cat being pulled by the tail. Franz Ferdinand is good, but by now, spent; they are an interesting contrast to The Darkness, which also recycled British rock of yore, but had the benefit of proper musical genius as opposed to doing one thing with impeccable skill. Metal? Nu-metal is insipid. The golden boys right now are Green Day, and they are good, but desperately outgunned by the last Judas Priest album - it's excellent that the old guard is still there to provide a fix, but it's not moving the game on any, is it? Even my dear Scandinavians have been dropping the ball; The Rasmus, which made excellent music until they became huge, have now relegated themselves to formulaic goth rock for thirteen-year-old girls with LiveJournals. The Hives and their followers really do sound, in the words of Jeremy Clarkson, like they're banging bits of garden furniture together.

But there is a major segment of pop culture utterly dominated by white people, and it shows no sign of giving in. This is extreme sports - skating, inline, BMX, FMX... Turn on EX, or whatever they have in the States (ESPN?), and name me one black person regularly shown there. There are a few Asians, most notably the Yasutoko brothers who dominate inline vert, and the scene is very much international, but you really won't see a black face anywhere.

And hey - it's a lot more entertaining than MTV.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Who needs choice?

Many years ago, just as mobile phones were beginning to be commonplace, I had a Motorola d520 and wanted an Ericsson instead. I was desperately in desire of one of those flip-down models. I'm ashamed to say that this wasn't because of some outstanding engineering solution; instead it was because I saw an accessories shop sell a replacement bodyshell for an Ericsson flipdown that was made entirely out of unpolished wood.

What can I say - I was fifteen, and it was the coolest thing ever. In fact I did get a T10 shortly afterwards, but I never bought the bodyshell. Eventually I got an Ericsson A2618s - a remarkable model in many respects, not least of which was the easy replacement of the front and rear panels; you could buy new ones and interchange them at will. This feature was shared by a later model I used, a Siemens C55. But guess what? I have never in my entire life bought an aftermarket panel for a mobile phone. Ever.

It really is an excellent example of marketing think triumphing over common sense and an understanding of reality. The customer may want to have a choice of colors when buying a phone - it was a stroke of genius on Siemens's part to offer the outstanding M55 in both 'youthful' red-on-silver and serious black-on-grey schemes - but with the exception of a small demographic of pink & fluffy schoolgirls with too much allowance, nobody in their right mind would purposefully spend money on something quite as ridiculous as a clip-on panel. If you see a Nokia 5110 in green leopard print, you can be sure that the current owner got it used, and the mobile shop replaced the worn bodyshell with one they haven't been able to sell for half a decade.

To my great relief, clip-on body panels and their progressively questionable companions like the flashing antennas of 90s folk legend have gone the way of the dodo. Nokia is still selling to fashion victims, but at least they don't soil the image of their more proper models with aftermarket paraphernalia.

The meme is still alive and kicking though: in the world of mobile phones, the preposterous customization itch is being scratched by ringtones, logos, themes and screensavers. But car designers are just beginning to rediscover the whole thing. Some applications have been good (the perfume cartridge in the Citroen C4 is a genuinely good idea), some bad (does any Smart owner actually have more than one set of body panels?) and some downright laughable. At the Frankfurt auto show this year, BMW presented the concept car that will become the next-generation Mini. Among the innovations offered to young buyers with active lifestyles are customizable rims: a central spoke-and-hub assembly onto which the driver can mount clip-on design patterns to suit the mood and fashion of the moment.

That's right. They've just discovered hubcaps.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Meant to be broken

Before I drove my car into a post, I was already worried about it. November is the last month in which I can drive it on public roads without passing the annual checkup. The reasons why it may have had problems with it are the smoke coming out of the tailpipe when the engine is cold, and the surface rust.

I mentioned this to Mutton, who was mildly surprised by the strictness of our rules; apparently in Britain the only rust that matters is structural. I proceeded to tell him that it was essentially a question of money; rather than taking my chances and maybe having to repair the damage and pay for the checkup again, I would simply acquire the necessary paperwork on a, shall we say, commercial basis.

Not something that's done in England either.

Now, this is certainly not something the local DMV takes kindly to, although they really have no way of stopping it; but it does raise a point worth discussing. Even within the strict confines of administrative and criminal codes in Europe, often enough
the stricktness of laws is compensated by the fact that you don't have to follow them.
It is, in my opinion, an important and overall positive factor. As I've said recently, there is a lot of room in legal practice for judging a case on its merits, rather than verified against the statute; and there is even more room in the everyday interaction between citizens and overseeing bodies for the exercise of common sense.

Bill Bryson told in one of his books, don't remember which, of his first encounter with this phenomenon: European laws being unnecessarily strict, and a local explaining to him that it was all right, because they could choose which laws they would enforce. This attitude startled Bryson, and he commented on it in a strictly negative way, but I find it eminently worthy. Laws are created by people for people; they are rules for a society to live by. If one person chooses not to submit to these rules, he is free to leave, or be isolated; but the society in general has the right to choose the way the laws are used, ignore some which are outdated or have been passed to deal with a specific situation, and invoke others selectively or in a reduced way.

If we were to put the letter above the spirit, there would be no need for human law enforcement. Society is fundamentally an interaction between people. The rules of this interaction can be, and should be, flexible and dynamic - and above all, reasonable.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The iPod in-car entertainment concept.

I've spoken before of various ways to connect portable audio players to a car's head unit - and I still get a steady trickle of Google hits from that article. There are some interesting developments that I've not mentioned back then, such as the desire of car stereo companies to integrate Flash-based players; Jalopnik ran a piece on a plan to put a USB port in the glovebox, ostensibly to stop the driver fiddling about while in motion, although in practice it will achieve nothing more than have you rummage for memory cards as opposed to CDs. I've actually already seen a head unit, made by some generic Taiwanese outfit - Mustek I think - that had both an SD/MMC slot and a USB port on the front panel itself.

And yet, there is a design that nobody has dared to implement so far. The absolutely most useful way to integrate an iPod into the ICE is to use a sunk dock.

The more diminutive iPods are easily smaller in size than a cassette, and even the fullsize model - including the 5th generation video one - will have no problem fitting inside a 1DIN head unit. Just replace the MC dock, leaving the usage similar: stick the iPod almost all of the way in, having it straddle the lock; then push on the edge to have it pop out. All of them seem to use the same connector spec, so a system of restraints that would enable a single device to deal with all models is simply an engineering task, surely one that requires skill and imagination, but eminently doable. Maybe do a side slot with a USB input for the Shuffle.

The head unit would then take over the iPod, with its own front panel interface, or even integrating with the wheel-mounted controls. (There's a thought: why don't they make the wheel-mount interface standard, so manufacturers can sell all cars with the controls in place and capable of operating any newer head unit?) A scheme like this is excellent for device safety - the iPod is held snugly, and because the stereo itself contains no moving parts, it can be improved tremendously.

I'm sure it will be done sooner or later, probably by the Taiwanese OEMs first and by the big names afterwards, but you heard it here first.

Oh, and this doesn't mean that I like Apple.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A jury of one's peers

Read this book a few months ago - David Lodge's Ginger, You're Barmy. It's a curious thing set decades ago, back when Britain still had conscription. Anyway, it has a scene where a man accidently kills himself during target practice, and the incident is investigated by something called the Coroner's Court. In this institution, the decision on whether the death was an accident or a suicide attempt (and therefore, whether the drill sergeant is responsible) was made by the coroner, who reviewed the scene and the body.

A very interesting idea! Trial by a jury of one's peers is considered a fundamental human right these days, and like all such things it was eminently sensible when it was established. Concepts like reasonable doubt were useful back in the days when the majority of crime was cattle theft or bar brawl killings.

But these days the legal system faces a major problem in the fact that in complicated cases, the juries are not equipped to understand the evidence. CSI-type situations are one thing, but let's consider economic crime. Essentially if the principle was followed to the letter, the defendant would literally be tried by a jury of his peers - stock brokers, accountants, analysts, etc. It is, basically, an extension of the common law concept, where the criminality of actions is decided on the merits of the individual case. The peers decide whether the person on trial had done something wrong.

The problem, besides the shortage of any jurors, not to mention qualified ones, is of course bias. Common law cannot be the sole basis of society, there needs to be legislation because the peers may not consider it a transgression if they dislike the plaintiff and in their hearts applaud the actions of the defendant. The trial would need someone acquainted with the details of the field, but at the same time unbiased, trained in the social and legislative definitions of right and wrong, and capable of making the relevant decisions. Interestingly enough that type of person is a fixture of the legal system already. The judge is assumed to be impartial, and in most cases a specialist in cases of a specific sort. In criminal cases, the jury simply decides guilt, and it is the judge who decides punishment.

So if we accept it as a given that the judge is impartial, then can we not establish the institution of the Specialist's Court? Would it not be more appropriate, and essentialy more fair, to let the guilt of a perpetrator of complex crime to be decided by the legal personality that is best equipped to do so?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

An opportunity has presented itself.

That is, an opportunity to test the Thousand Dollar Car Theory.

I reversed into a pole today. Fuck.

The bodywork is bent, and the left tail light is cracked. Considering the fact that the technical inspection runs out this month and the insurance on the 12th... not worth fixing.

I'll proceed to try and sell it, try to get something out of it at least. If not, I'll just junk it. Once it's done, I shall calculate the cost per month (not including insurance and gas), and report on the proceedings.

I also now need to find a new Thousand Dollar Car. There's a Mercedes W126 on sale right now that looks kind of promising (though it's more cash than I have), but I'm not going to give up on the dream - there was an automatic Volvo 240 sedan on sale a couple months ago for 200 Euro, so miracles do happen.

Still, from April 14th when I bought the car, to November 12th when I shall cease actively using it, it will have served me for longer than the previous two machines combined.

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Thousand Dollar Car Theory

Even though I do want a new car at this point, I have nevertheless always been a great fan of the Thousand Dollar Car theory. Here it is in a nutshell:
Cars cost money to buy and run. The more expensive a car you buy, the more money you will lose on it, by depreciation alone if nothing else. A good way to save money on a car is to buy an old beater for a meager sum, usually not exceeding the equivalent of USD1,000. If it is still capable of moving under its own power, it is statistically likely to stay mobile for more months than it would usually take you to spend $1k on payments for a new car. Once it requires anything more than a trivial sledgehammer-and-WD40 fix, you scrap it and get something new.
The assumption is that $1000 is just short of non-money, so the car will actually have some life left in it. You don't need to spend money on maintaining it, and you don't need comprehensive insurance. Plus, at that point the price of a car has very little to do with its class or prestige; you can buy a Mercedes W123 for the same money as a same-year Corolla. True, the Merc will use more gas, but other than third-party insurance it really is your only cost.

The obvious downside is reliability, but it's really not that bad. Unless you really don't pay attention when you buy the car, you'll probably get a fairly decent example - the ones that had major issues wouldn't have lasted this long. You don't need to worry about squeaks and bumps and grinds; get a RWD car and you'll eliminate one major source of trouble (front CV joints). Get a car with chain-driven cams instead of a belt, and you're rid of another.

I'm on my third car right now, and all of them have cost appreciably less than $1000. The first was a Volvo 245; a lovely machine by all accounts. It's something you fall in love with, and while some car nuts may ridicule it, anyone who's owned one will know just how special a Volvo 200 is. Mine was a 1977 estate, dull blue with the round headlamps. The tailgate wouldn't close, it just kind of hung there; the driver's door was opened and closed with a pocket knife instead of a key. The engine, a scrapped 2.3 injection unit from a later car (a 700, I believe) was retrofitted with a vertical carburettor; and the gearbox was a four-speed manual with electric overdrive. You simply pushed a button on the gearlever to swith from 5th to 4th, which was immensely useful when overtaking. Repairs for it were limited to 10 Euro for resetting the ignition tolerances; it also had an oil change and some new coolant, but that was it. Alas, I drove it into the back a panel van one morning.

The second was a 1982 Mazda 323 three-door. It had a 60bhp 1.3 engine with a carburettor that kept getting clogged up. I spent a bunch of money getting it cleaned, although the eventual fix was as simple as a fuel filter replacement. It also got a new battery, and a set of winter tires. It kept getting broken into, the rear hatch lock was torn out, so I just filled it with that hardening mass stuff - the one where you mix together two components, and it eventually becomes tough as stone. The carb thing was a proper pain, but otherwise it did a good job. At one point it got loaded up with five crates of spare parts for inflatable dildos! (Long story.) Oh, and it was nigh-on impossible to find windscreen wipers that would fit - it had this useless 80s Japanese attachment system with a pin that connected the blade to the arm. Anyway, the first proper snow day, I was driving it from Capital City to Campustown, saw a dog in a turn, swerved, lost control, slid down the Armco on the outside of the bend, and crashed head-on into a Mondeo. Thanks to seatbelts and the fact that the impact was on the passenger's side, I had no permanent injuries other than a bit of a recurring neck ache that limits my headbanging abilities somewhat. The Mondeo's driver, an older lady, had to spend over two months in the hospital, despite both seatbalts and airbags!

And now I have my third, a 1988 Honda Accord EX. Costs to date include welding the exhaust back together (it fell out twice, once on the highway), plus a new battery. Other than that, an oil change, new air filter and new brake pads. The oilpan has a leak in it (gasket, apparently) and it smokes a lot when cold, but hey - as long as it runs...

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Internet as an occult phenomenon

Can't be bothered writing a new article today. Here's an interesting little essay I wrote for a class on esoterics. Some points are rather corny, but hey - take it as an excercise in adjusting reality to a provided model.

Magic and supernatural phenomena in general are often believed to rely upon a greater force connecting every living and sometimes inanimate object in the universe. The Chinese call it chi; George Lucas calls it “the Force”. Proof of the existence of either is traditionally scarce, but we cannot deny that something so ubiquitous must certainly be supernatural.

The Western civilization, a technical civilization which denies the occult with great vigor, has in the meantime created an entity that strives to connect every single known sentient being in our world, and has had remarkable success in that mission. As the notion expressed in the prelude to Alistair Crowley's “Moonchild”, (the book we read for that class - FT) and other sources including the very modern and Western science of semantics, tells us that specific meaning can be uncovered in any object if one only knows how to look, we are able to trace influences of the supernatural in the very essence of the global network.

Indeed even a passing glance reveals exciting similarities. Information technology in itself is so incredible because it allows amazingly complex constructs to be created with the repetition of two basic characters. The central processing unit of a computer is in fact nothing more than a massive collection of transistors – mechanical devices which can exist in two juxtaposed states. We must not consider it accidental that these states have been dubbed “on” and “off”, 1 and 0. Herein lies proof that even the most artificial of man’s creations is based on the ultimate law of the universe – the duality of all things. Existence and nothingness, life and death, good and evil, God and Satan – the eternal struggle and alteration between these two provide the basis for the world as we know it.

A network that engulfs almost literally everything also provides its disciple with nearly limitless power – including the power to destroy the unwary zealot himself. Knowledge is power, and the Internet is the largest repository of data ever created; and the tools that come with the concept of a network connecting the administration systems of an entire civilization’s infrastructure allow a skillful artisan to find any information they may desire. Strip off our beliefs and prejudices, and how different is a power user from a shaman?

People have turned to the Occult for many reasons, but most of them grow out of the desire to improve their condition – physical, financial, social, etc. While there has been a lucky few that crafted obscene wealth from the Net, a great many more have been given an opportunity to create a virtual personality, a homunculus if you will, a representation of what they would like themselves to be. And if the falseness of these alter egos is apparent to any veteran, that doesn’t change the nature of the humanity that spawns them.

More peculiar similarities can be found when comparing the Internet to religious works, and particularly the Talmud, the book of teachings in Judaism – the oldest and beyond doubt the most occult of all major religions. In his book “The Talmud and the Internet”, rabbi Jonathan Rosen writes:
A page of Talmud bears an uncanny resemblance to a home page on the Internet, where nothing is whole in itself but where icons and text boxes are doorways through which visitors pass into an infinity of cross referenced texts and conversations. The promise of the Talmud is that it isn’t a book. It’s a sort of drift net for catching God, stretching out through time and space in ever-widening spools… We became the people of the book because we had no place else to live. The Talmud came along and offered a virtual world for an uprooted culture, and grew out of the Jewish need to pack civilization into words and wander out into the world. (Quoted via
Is this not what is happening to the world today – when technology and globalizm bring people closer than ever, thus destroying their connection to their homeland? And here is the Internet, a way for cultural groups to stay in touch, wherever they are physically.

All this, however, is much too vague. Significantly more entertaining is the analogy between the Internet and generally accepted supernatural symbols, even if it can be a little silly and far-fetched. For example, the peculiar connection between IT components and the Number of the Beast. While the Internet as a network has been developed by the US military’s research arm and the concept of the World Wide Web belongs to the mind of the recently knighted Brit, sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Net could not exist were it not for Bill Gates and Microsoft’s campaign to put a personal computer on every desk. The richest man in the world possesses the full title of William Henry Gates III. Since computers work with numbers, any alphanumeric character corresponds to an integer. The most widely used table of these relations is ASCII – the American Standard Code for Information Exchange. If we use this table to convert the letters in the name Bill Gates to numbers, and finally add the number 3 (as in Bill Gates the Third), we arrive at 666. This fact is made all the more entertaining by the wording connected to the Number of the Beast – that it shall be imprinted on the forehead and the right hand of the sinners; their minds and their mouse hand, perhaps? There is further proof that Microsoft is in fact the spawn of Satan: the Windows logo forms a swastika in the center of the four jigsaw pieces; and the company’s world headquarters are located in the very beginning of a street called Microsoft Way. Thus the address of the building is in fact “One Microsoft Way”! (Incidentally Microsoft’s nemesis, Apple Computers, is located at “One Infinite Loop”.)

So there is a supernatural influence in the nature of the Internet. How could there not be? Something so fascinating and culturally important will certainly be associated with a higher power, a power people call upon when they feel unable to control their own destiny. Still, in my opinion the Net is only paranormal to the extent that anything so vast and impalpable will be – supernatural, but very human.


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