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31 August, 2006

Broadband? What Broadband?

Australia’s a funny place. I’ve lived here a bit over ten years now and it never ceases to surprise me. Sometimes the surprises are good – like finding a 2 metre carpet python sunbathing in my garden. Sometimes they are bad – like finding that you can’t get broadband even in the major cities.

I live in Brisbane, Australia’s 3rd largest city. I live in the Brisbane suburb of Karana Downs. Brisbane is a big city. It has almost 2 million people in it and is growing fast. A city this size dwarfs most of the other places I’ve lived. Take Haslingfield, an English village in the East of England. Haslingfield has a population of about 3,000. The nearest ‘city’ is Cambridge, about 12 km away. The population of Cambridge is only about 300,000 and yet, in Haslingfield, I had fibre-optic cable to my door way back in the mid 1990s. The same in Auegstertal, a tiny little place with a few dozen houses, some way out from Zurich in Switzerland – itself with a population of less than half a million. Twelve years ago, I had cable in Auegstertal. Yet here in Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland, I can’t even get a primitive ADSL broadband service! Not even ADSL!

To be fair, I don’t live in the centre of Brisbane – where they do have broadband – cable even, some of them – I live in an outer suburb. But, when I hear from a friend of mine that he has bought an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in rural France and even there he can get 2Mb/s broadband, my blood boils. The fact that Queensland’s state slogan is ‘Queensland: The Smart State’ is clearly just wishful thinking.

For someone like me, whose livelihood is the Web and whose hobbies are very bandwidth-intensive (ever tried uploading a 5Mb MP3 to your band’s website at 56Kb modem speeds?), not having broadband for my home office is a huge nuisance that is building year by year into a catastrophe. Yet even for my wife, who is not into technology for its own sake like me, this is becoming a problem. She has an iPod and likes to listen to podcasts from the BBC and ABC. She has friends and family in the UK and elsewhere who increasingly often send her video clips, sets of holiday snaps, and animated jokes or cards. Because broadband has been such a normal part of their lives for so long, they don’t realise that files like this will tie up our phone line for hours as we wait for the mail to download.

And if it’s happening to me and my wife, it must be happening to millions of other ordinary Australians. Little by little, week by week, we are being excluded, cut off from the ordinary concourse of the rest of the world. It is very, very frustrating.

And why? Oh, don’t get me started on how stuffed up Australian politics is and how little competition there is in the Australian telecoms industry, or how a few big commercial interests appear to control the government’s whole media agenda. It’s pathetic. This is a country that has only a handful of big cities – one of the most intensely urbanised countries in the whole world – and yet they can’t get broadband out even to people in the state capitals.

4-Wheel Drives (And What They Say About Us)

I drive a lot. No, let me rephrase that. I drive for long periods. I don't get very far but I spend a lot of time in my car. That's because I'm a commuter. I drive 30km each workday from my outer-Brisbane suburb to my city-centre workplace and then back again each evening. It takes me between an hour and 90 minutes each way. Sitting in traffic queues for two or three hours each day, I get to watch the other cars a lot. Here are some things I've noticed:
  • there are a lot of 4-Wheel drives (that's SUVs to my American readers)
  • 4-wheel drives are big and clumsy and ugly and they look like vans
  • the people who drive 4-wheel drives seem very nervous about it.
I saw a report of a study recently from the UK that found that 4-wheel drive drivers are more likely to break the law in various petty, selfish ways (like talking on a mobile phone while driving) than drivers of other vehicles. The investigators concluded that this was because 4-wheel drive drivers feel safer in their big vans so they think they can get away with more. I think this is absolutely wrong and is clearly at odds with my observation that these drivers are actually very nervous - they drive more slowly than other drivers, they slow down more for corners, they become very skittish in bad weather, they are obviously anxious about changing lanes and other manoeuvres. So how do I explain the law-breaking behaviour?

I believe it is to do with the personalities of the people who buy these large, boxy vans. They are selfish, uncaring people and that is why they don't mind taking up so much space, using so much petrol, creating so much pollution, and mangling pedestrians with their roo bars (bull bars outside Australia). This is perfectly consistent with them also breaking laws that the rest of us can see are sensible safety measures - they just don't care what danger they place other people in.

And the nervous driving? Easy. They buy these heavy vans to feed their own egos (also thinking they'll be safer in accidents - the other guy gets mangled, of course, but that's OK by them!) but then find that they are quite scary to drive - they're too big, the all-round visibility is poor, they're too high to be stable, even with 4 litre engines, they're under-powered, and so on. So they mince around in these things like old women on bicycles. But, of course, this doesn't bother them because they don't care that people like me are sniggering at them, or cursing them for holding up the traffic. In fact, they rarely give a thought to other people at all. That's why they bought the ugly great things in the first place - to make themselves feel good, big, powerful, potent, etc., etc., even if the reality is a million miles from their fantasy. Frankly, there is no other reason why so many of these fools would pay so much for technology they never use (the 4-wheel drive capability).

I can only hope that the rising cost of petrol and the fast-falling value of their vehicles will give them pause next time they want to throw away wads of money on an ego-massaging device. Although it probably won't. The sheer number of 4-wheel drives on the city roads is evidence that many, many of us are selfish, uncaring people. Worse, it says that so many of us are not very bright, and that our insecurities easily overwhelm our judgement. It tells us that many, maybe most of us, would put propping up our egos above the harm we might do to other road users and the environment.

It tells us we're a pretty sad bunch of losers.

30 August, 2006

What the world needs now is yet another blog

It dawned on me the other day that I get most of my information these days from blogs. Most of these are related to my professional life - I'm a user interface design consultant - but it's starting to spill over into the wider world of other interests and opinion. In the past few years I have almost stopped going to conferences, I've drastically cut down on my professional memberships and journals, and yet I'm better-informed than I ever have been before.

It also dawned on me that there is a global conversation going on out there, not just in professional areas but in all areas of life and that not having a blog is like not having a voice. Frankly, I don't want to be a lurker in the Newsgroup of Life, so here I am.

Of course, no-one will read this post. No-one knows I'm here, standing on the outer fringes of the blogsphere, coughing politely. They say it takes a couple of years for any blog to get a decent readership and I suppose that means in the first few months I'll be talking to myself. But I look forward to the day when there are enough eyeballs here that my voice can be heard (who invents these metaphors?) and I get the chance to participate fully in this global chatroom.

The sea of voices I'm entering is deep - and getting deeper all the time. The Web equivalent of global warming is going on and people like me are trickling off the glaciers into the ocean by the thousand. Let's hope that, now I'm in these deep waters, I'll be waving, not drowning.

The Gray Wave Jukebox


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