Saturday, February 12, 2005


I have a piece on buying a new antenna for my mobile phone from a guy in Singapore, and what this says about global e-commerce at the retail level over at Samizdata.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Everything in "Yes Minister" was true. The French are really like that

I watched the television series "Yes Minister" and "Yes Prime Minister" when they were first shown on TV in Australia in the 1980s and very early 1990s. These television series travelled exceedingly well, because politics is fundamentally the same everywhere. What I did not realise at the time that I watched the episodes in Australia was that the episodes were often quite topical and were about real events, some that had happened the week that the program first aired in Britain. (I later read an interview with one of the writers in which he stated that he had initially been surprised that the series was so popular throughout the world, because he had considered it to be principally about topical British events)

In any event, there was an episode of "Yes, Prime Minister" about 15 years ago that dealt with the arrangements to do with the opening of the channel tunnel. These presumably were a response to events that had occurred in real life, but I was not in Britain at the time that the things that happened in real life happened, so I know nothing about it. In the television program, we discovered that however antagonistic to one another Sir Humprhey and Prime Minister Hacker usually were, they were capable of uniting against the true enemy - the French. In this episode the French president initially makes some rather uneven demands concerning national issues with respect to the tunnel: for instance that menus on the trains should be only in French, and that the territorial line should be at Dover and not in the middle of the tunnel, and things like that. Eventually the French commit a diplomatic faux pas and an agreement is reached that the territorial line will be in the centre of the channel, the menus will be in both languages etc etc.

And in reality the system functions smoothly. When you are in France announcements are in French followed by English, and when you are in England the announcements are in English followed by French. (They are in Dutch as well on trains to Belgium, but I forget the order).

However, when travelling to Paris a couple of weeks ago I discovered that the French do still appear to be expansionist. When travelling on a channel tunnel train you now go through immigration before getting on the train. Getting on in London there is a French policeman who examines your passport, and in Paris there is a British immigration official who does the same. As I have a non-EU passport, my passport has to be actually stamped as well as examined. And it is interesting to look at the stamps. And what do they say?

Well, the British stamp I received in Paris states that I entered the United Kingdom, and that the location at which I did so was "channel tunnel". The French stamp on the other hand says that I entered France in "Londres". So it seems that France may still be trying to annex London, although Britain doesn't seem terribly concerned about annexing Paris. This is exactly what Sir Humphrey would have predicted.

And what do I think of this? Well, I think I am with Shakespeare.

This star of England: Fortune made his sword;
By which the world's best garden be achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown'd King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed.

Monday, February 07, 2005


I finally caught "The Aviator" over the weekend, and my good friend Jonathan Pearce is right: I really enjoyed it and it is a really good movie. Certainly it is Scorsese's best film since at least "Goodfellas".

I wonder how historically accurate it is. Fairly accurate, I suspect, but I am not sure quite how precise the details are. (The Spruce Goose did fly for longer at the end of the movie than it did in real life. It does boggle the mind that someone built an aircraft that large out of wood. It is still in a hangar in Los Angeles, and I must go and look at it next time I am in that city). The historical stuff about how the airline industry evolved is quite interesting, and fits in with what I know happened later. I know the history from the dawn of the jet age reasonably well, but didn't know much about what happened before that. Pan Am boss Juan Trippe is famous for later essentially making a bet with then Boeing boss Bill Allen on a yearly fishing trip that the two men took. The conversation supposedly went "If you build it, I'll buy it.". "If you buy it, I'll build it." and as a consequence Boeing built the 747 and almost sent both Boeing and Pan Am bankrupt by doing so.

In the movie, Howard Hughes is seen fighting for the airline TWA (which he owned) to be allowed to compete with Pan Am on major international routes, despite the fierce lobbying and dirty tricks of Pan Am and Pan Am boss Juan Trippe to prevent TWA from doing so. In the end he wins the argument, and TWA starts flying to Europe. It is quite refreshing to see a businessman being portrayed positively demanding the right to compete.

In reality, though, after the events of the film Pan Am and TWA were actually granted legal duopolies. Whether these came at the request of foreign airlines, Pan Am, TWA, or who I don't know, but it might be that Howard Hughes was not interested in more general competition, but was quite happy with a protected market as long as he was part of it. And of course in many instances the duopolies are still with us, although neither Pan Am or TWA exists as a company any more. (Pan Am's routes were bought by United and Delta before the company went into liquidation, and TWA's routes were bought by (mostly) American before the rump of the company was ultimately fully acquired by American).

Whatever may be said for Juan Trippe, one thing he had in common with Howard Hughes was that he had an enormous love for aeroplanes. When you see him in the film saying "We will force you to sell your airline and we will paint all those beautiful Connies in blue", you can see the two men understanding just how painful it would be to lose a fleet of aircraft like that. The Constellation (and the later and larger Super-Constellation) is regarded by a lot of people as one of the most beautiful aircraft ever built. Australian airline Qantas has one painted in their 1950s livery that they keep in airworthy condition to fly to air shows and use for other publicity purposes. I have seen it fly once or twice and it is indeed a thing of beauty.

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