catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

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Who’s in charge here?

with 68 comments

Have you ever been in one of those meetings, on an important subject, when everyone is wandering all over the place, then one person takes charge and the rest want to fight over whether he or she had the authority to take charge,  rather than work on solving the problem?

Seems to be happening in Haiti.

The French seem to have been arguing about clearance for flights evacuating French citizens. I understand that following the SE Asian Tsunami representatives of aid organisations were in some places tripping over each other looking for things to do.

In a crisis, someone’s got to take charge and pretty clearly in Haiti it should be the Americans. They are close and have the resources.

Written by Ken Nielsen

January 19, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Remembrance of Politicians Past

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Henry Ergas wrote a piece for The Australian this week in which he talked about Thatcher’s achievements in the UK and the need for politicians to change ideas about how the world works if they are to achieve reform.

The headline, not Ergas’s work I am sure, was “Thatcher showed Keating the Way” which was not what Ergas wrote in the article at all.

It was though, enough to spur Keating to write to defend his achievements and to say that he was not at all influenced by Thatcher (or anyone else it seems) but worked it all out himself. Keating may be right about Thatcher but I am sure there are a number of former Treasury officials who would say they helped educate him.

Many (including me) would say that Keating achieved more good things as Treasurer than anyone else in that office since the War. It is a pity in a way that he fears his reputation is so insecure that he needs to react to a misleading headline. In any event in twenty or perhaps ten years he will be little more than a footnote.

But why are politicians, as a class, so determined to maintain and indeed often promote their reputations? Most former prime ministers write memoirs that are usually unread and unreadable. I once thought that Menzies’s Afternoon Light might have interesting insights into an important period of Australia’s history but gave up after a hundred or so pages. (If you are interested there are plenty of copies in the  second hand bookshops for around $5.)

Howard is apparently working on his, for an advance of $1 million. I will not be a buyer.

As the cabinet papers covering 1972-75 were released under the thirty year rule, Whitlam made sure that his gloss on the events was given prominence, in case something in the papers might be misinterpreted. Fraser is now doing the same for his period of government.

Who cares? Historians will interpret and reinterpret recent Australian history out of all recognition many times, in the light of prevailing theories and fashions. Most politicians will be forgotten except by old men explaining boring history to their grandchildren.

I cannot think of another profession where people try so hard to create and promote their own legacy. Not businesspeople. Who knows the managing director of BHP who decided it needed to move into resources and away from steel making? This was one of the most important steps in recent business and economic history and no one remembers who did it.

Few academics are remembered. Perhaps some for scandals – Orr and Anderson – but almost no others. Generals, Archbishops, Surgeons: who?

So what is it about politicians that they want so much to be remembered and that they want so badly to control what they are remembered for?

Written by Ken Nielsen

January 14, 2010 at 6:15 pm

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The Australian Out on its Own

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News Limited has announced a very interesting reorganisation in Australia. The Australian, the national daily, will move out from under Nationwide News which contains the state based dailies. It will, says the report, “position The Australian for further growth in print and online, as well as through emerging digital platforms such as smartphones and electronic readers, at a time when the media group is looking to charge for online content.”

Reorganistations  can happen for all sorts of reasons: a slow week in the HR department, personality conflicts, a need to give a promising manager a chance to run something. With a well managed company like News though, we should give the benefit of the doubt and accept that there is a good business reason, though not necessarily the one announced.

Murdoch has been trying to thrash out an online strategy for quite a while. He (and on important issues we can assume that it is his decision) has made mistakes. MySpace looks like an expensive mistake. He has publicly canvassed whether he can or should charge for content online and seems to have changed his mind a couple of times on this. His  current position is that he will.

Many tech scribblers dismiss Murdoch and his organisation: “he just doesn’t get the internet” is a common theme. This I think is a misunderstanding of how, in the real world, companies develop strategies when technology changes the game. No-one can predict the future so trial and error is the only way to get there. Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Apple all did that.

I would not bet against Murdoch. If any old-media organisation will survive, my guess is that it will be his.

Coming back to the reorganisation, I suspect that The Australian has been chosen as the publication to survive in Australia. Classified advertising is dying and that is hurting the state papers – though not Murdoch as much as Fairfax – and the future is probably in national content and national advertising. It is a big bet, and ironic after those stories that The Australian was continued for many years to give Murdoch as bit of class in his home country.

It seems to me that The Australian has improved a lot in recent years. You might want to bleep over the leaders and some of the columns if they offend you and you are left with meatier and better news stories than you get elsewhere.

It will all be most interesting to watch.

Written by Ken Nielsen

January 13, 2010 at 9:52 am

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Tech Toys

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I am a tech junkie. I enjoy buying new toys. I do not wish to give up my addiction. In fact it gives me much pleasure.

I am also fascinated with the business side of technology – how the game is changing and how it creates winners and losers more quickly than in the FMCG markets I used to understand.

I came across this new product which got me thinking all over again about IBM. The story of IBM and the PC is pretty well known. The company was in a hurry to develop the product in the early 80s and cut a lot of corners. In the rush they allowed Microsoft to keep ownership of the DOS operating system developed for IBM and thus made Bill Gates very very rich. All Gates had done was to buy  someone else’s DOS and polish it up a bit. IBM’s carelessness over the OS must rank as one of the biggest business blunders of all time. Gates was not a technological genius but was, for this coup alone, a business genius.

For a while IBM just about owned the PC market, especially for business use. In my company during the 80s and early 90s, before any other PC could be bought or attached to the network, it had to be checked as “IBM compatible”.

IBM was never  comfortable in what was really a consumer market. Its heart was still in mainframes. By the early 90s the PC was a commodity and IBM’s share was sliding. It could not match the Dell model of making to order nor the Asian grey box prices.

In 2006 the whole IBM PC business was sold to Lenovo a company controlled by the Chines government. By then IBM was mostly interested in the IT service business (a very rare example of a large company successfully remaking itself) though it still makes mainframes.

Lenovo has done a very good job with the PC. It is innovative and fast on its feet – quite unlike IBM. It is almost impossible to imagine IBM launching the IdeaPad. That product might fail but Lenovo understands that in the tech market you need to keep pushing products out there. They also seem to understand the importance of design, something else IBM never did.

There is a lot of fascinating new stuff at CES. Most will disappear without a trace – Engadget has its own category of Crapgadgets which are as much fun to read about as the good stuff. The truth is it’s too early to say which is which.

This post was written on a Macbook Pro which will surely need replacing before too long.

Written by Ken Nielsen

January 10, 2010 at 11:55 am

Posted in Technology & Telco

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More on Whaling

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Australia has got itself into a very uncomfortable position over the Japanese whaling in Antarctic waters.

Pretty clearly, despite the ALP promising before the election to take international legal action against Japan, it has been advised that there would be no hope of succeeding. I guess the legal advice would be privileged and not available on FOI. Does anyone know?

The case of HSI v Kyodo Senpaku Kasha in which the Federal Court upheld the legislation establishing the Australian Whale Sanctuary means nothing outside Australia. The court said that the question of Australia’s sovereignty over the area could not be questioned in an Australian court. As we know, only four other countries (Japan is not one of them) recognise our claim and they do so because they have similar claims over other bits of the Antarctic.

Taking it to an absurd (but still I believe correct) stage, if Australia declared sovereignty over Tokyo and ordered all Japanese to leave, an Australian court should make an appropriate order. It could not question the clam of sovereignty. On this, I am open to correction from those whose law is more up to date than mine.

But because the country has made the claim of sovereignty over the Antarctic, it does imply a duty to take some responsibility for what happens there. I choose these words carefully – I suspect it is a fairly low level of responsibility. Again, I am open to correction on this from a superior mind.

That responsibility would probably cover prevention of piracy. Committing an act of piracy is as bad as you can get on the seas.It does seem to me that the activities of the Sea Shepherd and friends do amount to piracy, under almost any definition of the term, Arguably Australia also has a duty to enforce the rules of the IWC though Japan’s breach of those is much less clear than the evidence of piracy by SS.

My broad argument is that sovereignty carries responsibilities. Australia must do more than huff and puff. Of course if Australia sends a gunboat, as it probably should, the captain would want clear terms of engagement. Who does he fire at first?

If I am right, the government is now wondering how the heck they can get out of this mess.

Written by Ken Nielsen

January 9, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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with 18 comments

For many years I subscribed to the Spectator. It presented a idiosyncratic view of Britain – more Whiggish than Tory, it seemed to me – but almost always fun to read. I had in a previous life subscribed to New Statesman which arrived by sea mail 6 or 8 weeks after publication. It showed a different and perhaps more seriously worthy slice of Britain. I would not say it was fun to read but then I was a bit less interested in fun than in discovering the world.

I have recently let my subscription to the Spectator expire. The reason was simply that the 6 pages tacked on the front with what was claimed to be Australian content annoyed the heck out of me. For the first year or so it was edited by Oscar Humphries who lived in London. The content was mostly stuff from expatriates or from Australian writers who we had mostly already read in the daily papers. Not quite the same articles but there was a warmed over feel to it.

I wrote a couple of letters expressing my dissatisfaction. In one I pointed out that the magazine was British – well English really – and I was sure that was why people here bought it. Can you imagine, I asked, New Yorker or Atlantic tacking on a bit of English content and claiming it was a local publication? No reply was received.

Recently Tom Switzer has taken over as editor. At least he lives here and does not need to rely on a few old mates for contributions. But still, why do we need it and what does it do to the distinct character of the magazine?

I don’t know how much the Australian circulation has increased. There seems to be quite a few free copies about, which is the usual way  new magazines are launched. So far as I can see – I did buy off the news stand the Bumper Double Christmas issue – there is no Australian advertising, which must be a disappointment to them all.

My guess is that Spectator Australia will not survive. Will I return? Probably not. I can get as much of Britain that I want from the online publications.

Written by Ken Nielsen

January 7, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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The ABC and the Internet

with 25 comments

The BBC website is excellent. For many purposes, it is where I start when I want current information on the web. The best world news, sport, weather and, even, recipes. And of course through it you can easily listen to Radio 3, Radio 4 and the BBC’s other offerings.

Rupert Murdoch is unhappy about the BBC’s dominance and particularly about its free online news which makes it very difficult for him to charge for news online from The Times and other papers.

Our ABC online is, unfortunately, nowhere near as good. Its management would probably say that it is a matter of money and it needs more from the government to do a better job. The BBC receives the TV licence fee and is expected to live within that. The ABC expects to receive more money as it adds new services, as it did recently with digital TCV channels. So far as I can work out from its Annual Reports the ABC has not received money specifically for online.

The best online sites from broadcasters and publishers – including the BBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times – operate as content providers in their own right. Most started as online versions of the paper or radio station or TV channel but the smarter ones realized they were in a new medium with new rules and new opportunities.

So, where does all this leave our ABC? Its website is poor compared to the BBC. It is not even very useful for current news. The Sydney Morning Herald seems to do a better covering “News Just In”. For my money, SBS online does a marginally better job with news. On TV, SBS News does more than a marginally better job, but that’s a different argument.

The reason for the less-than-great online presence of the ABC might lie in its Charter. It revolves around the idea of a “broadcasting service” defined in the Act in a way that suggests “push” rather than “pull” publication of material. Perhaps for that reason the board and management limits its online activity to stuff that is related or supplementary to its conventional radio and TV broadcasting. This is broadly what it does with ABC Enterprises, now called ABC Commercial.

Or perhaps it is just a matter of money or lack of  belief in the future of the internet? If it’s the latter, it is a dangerous bet. Reading the last couple of annual reports, you don’t get the impression that the ABC believes that the internet is the future of broadcasting.

I must say that to me this result is a pity. I would like to see an online presence much more like the BBC. It would arguably be unfair to commercial broadcasters and others trying to make money online (the Murdoch complaint) but I guess I have grown up with the ABC as part of my life and I would be sorry to see it slip into obsolescence.

Note: I leave out of this any discussion of whether ABC News and Current Affairs are biased (they are) or whether it should be abolished entirely. If you want to argue that, please start your own thread.

Written by Ken Nielsen

January 7, 2010 at 1:33 pm

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