21 July 2009

Sarkozy Speech in Le Havre

Dear readers,

As you are probably aware of, if you have followed this blog from the beginning (poor you), I am interested in maritime transport, from a professional point of view. I have worked in various positions for maritime companies or suppliers and I am still currently employed by a container shipping line.

So I had quite some expectations about the much touted new French policy regarding the sea and especially ports. This has been engaged quite massively since Nicolas Sarkozy became President (although in all honesty, his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, had largely began in the same direction). Anyway, last week, during a visit to Le Havre harbor, Nicolas Sarkozy made a rather long speech summarizing the efforts already engaged and defining priorities and concrete actions for the future. As you can imagine, I read it with attention.

First, I'd like to say that I never was a fan of Mister Sarkozy. I didn't vote for him in the last elections and I have no particular sympathy for him neither for his party. He is in general way too conservative for me, focusing largely on security rather than justice, business rather than people and image rather than content. However, I always decided to keep an open mind regarding specific policies, and give him the benefit of the doubt. I have to admit that I have been rather well surprised by this Le Havre speech. As a note, please remember that this policy (apart from a tangential exception) left aside anything related to the French Navy and defense in general. Such topics have been touched in other speeches and documents, unfortunately not to my liking either.

But for the port policy, I must say, Mister Sarkozy had it right. After a short descriptive of the current state of affairs (abysmal, as everyone in the field knows), the French President noted that France has a massive maritime potential, be it for trade (ports, shipping lines, shipping routes and other intermodal potential) fish resources, mineral resources and of course energy and science. He also noted that such a potential was either unexploited, poorly exploited or (in the case of fisheries) exploited in an unsustainable way. This is something that has been said by specialists and scientists for about twenty years, but I have to remind the reader that it is the absolute first time, to my knowledge, that it is admitted at such a high level in France.

So what about the solutions. Well, and that's where it becomes interesting, Mister Sarkozy went in quite some details... at least apparently. First he noted that Paris had to be better linked to Le Havre (its natural entry port) and that a TGV (high speed train) would be build for this. This annoyed me prodigiously. Of course, a TGV is a nice piece of technology. However, most of the needed traffic between Le Havre and Paris is merchandise (oil, ores and mostly containers). Adding a TGV will only make the merchandise traffic more difficult by increasing congestion on the line. But the next paragraph re-insured me a bit: Sarkozy asks indeed for a dedicated merchandise rail link too, and practically ordered RFF (the rail infrastructure company in France) to stop canceling merchandise slots already reserved for freight trains. This is a major new policy in France and could do a lot to change the way freight is moved in the country. At the moment, France relies massively on trucks for transports, which is congesting the roads, polluting the environment and economically stupid.

Nicolas Sarkozy went further on the port policy which is now largely engaged. Le Havre had just finished its negotiations on port reforms (and most French ports already did so in the past months), largely transferring the crane operations and ownership to private operators, as is done in most efficient ports around the world. This much needed privatization will hopefully help improve the disastrous competitive position of French ports. Despite their advantageous location in Europe, on the Asia route, Marseille, Le Havre and Dunkirk all together are not even reaching the level of traffic of ports like Antwerp or Hamburg (not even mentioning Rotterdam, which is a league of its own). This ridiculous situation is largely due to poor public infrastructure, a culture of social conflict and the absence of decent hinterland links to serve other countries via France. But it is also the symptom of a lack of interest in France for its ports and the maritime world in general. This seems to have changed with Jacques Chirac a bit (maybe via his personal links with CMA CGM and Perrigault) but took a new dimension with Sarkozy.

To my surprise, he even mentioned inter-modality, container traffic, train issues, port comparisons, trade routes and so on. Obviously, someone briefed him extensively and successfully on the question. I hope this is more than just words and will translate in actual policies and investments. I wouldn't hold my breath too much though. The "little Nicolas", as he is sometimes dubbed by comics, is used to big media appearances followed by very little or no realizations. But again, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Interestingly enough (and in a domain where I am much less proficient, I am afraid), he mentioned other aspects of maritime policies that are new. For the first time, he refused to blindly defend French and European fisheries and claimed that conservation and exploitation of the sea should be based on sound scientific studies and not local politics (something never done by his predecessors). This is a major switch in France and might foresee other ones... maybe even for the absurd French agricultural policy imposed upon the European Union? One can dream. Sarkozy took a similar approach towards the use of the sea for mineral and energy production. Coming from such a pro-business politician, this was a surprisingly "green" speech.

All in all, if only two of the four main proposal he discussed are actually implemented, this would be enough for me to swallow my opposition to Nicolas Sarkozy. I might not like him, but I would be glad if he at last does something where so many before him never even got informed on the topic.

20 July 2009

Mauritania election "fair"?

Dear readers,

I have been following the Mauritanian elections, both via the BBC site and the excellent analysis from The Moor Next Door. So I have been a bit surprised by Le Monde latest reaction to the very expected "victory" of putschist General Ould Abdel Aziz. Of course, Le Monde simply and factually quotes a civil servant of the Quay d'Orsay (French Foreign Office) and adds together the claims of two opposition leaders that the whole thing was a sham. But it doesn't go any further, neither qualifies or measures these claims.

I am not really surprised by the French government reaction. Ould Abdel Aziz, whether this is true or not, is seen in Mauritania and abroad as a French protégé, by Moroccan proxy. Therefore, and after the lukewarm condemnation of his putsch by the French authority, nobody was expecting France to take the side of his opponents. But I am more disappointed by Le Monde's reaction. A bit of analysis is also part of a serious newspaper's work. I know that being factual is a good thing, but not even mentioning the connection between the current winner and the usual "Françafrique" circles is a little bit light for the French evening journal.

When I compare this to the in depth analysis of every rumor in the Iranian vote, I can only say that this is unbalanced reporting... Another sad day for French journalism.

14 July 2009

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Dear readers,

If the Senate hearings of Sonia Sotomayor weren't in full proceedings, the other piece of news which would be on top of the US and not just international press would be the new Cheney scandal. Apparently, Dick Cheney would have prevented or delayed disclosure of a CIA program to send assassination teams against specific Al Qaeda targets. The whole problem is not the killings, from a legal point of view, but the hiding of the program from the Congress Intelligence Committee. I am not going down this road, because it is frankly of little interest (except if it leads to a Cheney indictment, but I am not holding my breath).

What I am more interested about are the assassinations themselves. First, a bit of irony... Since when did the CIA stop killing people? I mean the right people in the wrong place... or the other way around. ;-) I mean, what is their usefulness if they can't blow up a couple of self designated bad guys (and a bunch of civilians in the process)? You see, the problem is that the CIA switched from a traditional ground operational procedure (practised by nearly all countries and secret services on the planet, regardless of the regime) to the quasi exclusive use of drones. The unmanned aircraft went to be seen as the panacea when in need of safe removal of an annoying terrorist / freedom fighter / politician and so on. This led to the nearly daily use of MQ-1 Predator and later MQ-9 Reaper drones on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in Yemen and in Iraq (and probably a couple of other places).

However, and apparently (if we must believe Leon Panetta, the current CIA chief), the "new" assassination program began just after 9/11. Although the CIA is covering itself by saying it was never made operational, one can legitimately have some doubts. What could have taken them eight years? I know the US intelligence community is in dire need of Middle-East specialists, Arabic speakers and so on, but still, it took less time for the NASA to put someone on the moon... And it is not like you need these guys to be in constant contact with the enemy either.

Other countries, as I mentioned, have done this for decades: the Russians had and still use special units and killers abroad, while the French have killed or attempted killing their enemies abroad, when deemed feasible. The United Kingdom SAS assassination squad became famous when they slaughtered a couple of unarmed IRA operatives in Spain in broad daylight. The Mossad revenge killing of PLO terrorists after the Munich Olympics has been made a movie. So why not the USA? I suspect there is a certain reluctance in the USA (despite the extreme violence of its society itself) to engage into what the American mentality considers dirty stuff. It's like sex on TV, swearing in children programs or showing tits at the Super Bowl: you just don't do it. After Second World War, the USA were even in the process of dismantling all their war time intelligence operations (not just the special force units), such as the OSS, before the reality of the Cold War pushed them to create the CIA.

Anyway, I personally believe that murder is always unethical. However, I consider (but I would be happy to be proven otherwise) that politics, especially international one, can not be entirely ethical. It is a sad fact of humanity that some people are such remorseless killers that they would wage war on the most peaceful states, only to make their point, kill, rape and genocide, just name it... Most of these are of the ideological type, which means there is simply no reasoning them at all. In the long term, they will get back at you. This is why most decent countries (including the liberal democracies) have used assassination as a latest resort, usually to avoid more carnage. It is not considered pretty, it is not considered honourable and neither is it considered moral. But it is a lesser evil, one you carefully plan to be able to staunchly deny it later.

I think it could have saved a lot of trouble to the USA and the entire world, if this CIA program had been implemented a bit more seriously (providing that the necessary legal information of the Congress had taken place). Instead of invading Iraq (probably the stupidest adventure ever attempted by the USA and UK) or dragging into lengthy and costly operations in Afghanistan, a series of killings, based on sound intelligence, could have improved the situation tremendously. And even if it wouldn't have helped, at least it should have been tried, before engaging in a double war with hundreds of thousands of victims on all sides.

In comparison, I will let you with this little piece of French nastiness in Pakistan. I know all parties involved have denied anything of the like, but the fact is that a couple of Pakistani admirals have been knee capped and the fact is also that the ISI has been known to play for both sides for at least 20 years. The fact is also that French services are known to absolutely always avenge their guys, a way or another. The Syrians learned it the hard way in the Bekaa in the 80's. You don't make war in tutu...

12 July 2009

The Witcher review

Dear readers,

Because it is Sunday and I have no energy left for a clever article, here is a review of a video game I am currently playing: The Witcher. Before anyone complains about this review, please have a look at this other blog: Terminally Incoherent, and particularly these posts, to which I subscribe entirely. Let's face it, I consider Morrowind (TES III, by Bethesda Softworks) to be the best RPG video game ever made. I play nearly exclusively RPG's, and mostly not on line, so that narrows it a little.

In general (and quite in accordance with Luke's ideas as developed in the blog above), I like/dislike the following in video games:
* limitless is good. I hate being constrained by character choices, artificial barriers to the game world or artificial moral alignments.
* immersion is good. Anything which breaks the immersion process should be banned from RPG's (the typical example are doors which don't open because they are in the decor only). If you feel like you should be able to do something in the game and you can't, then it breaks the immersion. Alternatively, things that are in the game and should not be also break immersion (the best example being too repetitive dialogs or NPC faces).
* one should always be given the option to play in a first person perspective (i.e. like in most shooting games). I see the world from my own perspective in real life, so my character in game should also see it that way.
* DRM sucks and should not be allowed around any piece of software...
* of course, games should be pretty and artsy and look nice. There should be a good ambiance, lighting and so on.
* last but not least, games should tell a story and I should be able to change the story. That's all an RPG is about. Anything which goes against this is making the game too linear and/or boring. I hate linear games.
* as a detail point, but which should not be overlooked, a game should be exempt of too many bugs and problems. Conversely, a game which lets fans add good stuff and improvements to the game gets bonus points in my books.

So what about The Witcher. Well, it has pros and cons, like most games. Let's tell this immediately, it does not beat, in my mind, the 9 years old Morrowind, despite having been released in 2005. However, and in my world, this is a huge compliment, it comes close.

Let's see the bad stuff first:
* the game lets you no choice about the character, as you can play only one person, the "Witcher" Gerald of Riv, a white haired, amnesia prone, womanizer monster killer with a very murky past. This is bad, but there is however a good reason for this. Geralt of Riv is the hero of a series of Polish fantasy books. These are the basis of the game and the author seems to have participated to the game design. This makes the absence of choice bearable (added to the fact that the hero in question has quite a lot of depth and is kick ass to play), except of course for female players who will probably find his constant flirting (and subsequent shagging) quite annoying. Geralt keeps indeed a "card" for each of his female conquests... ;-)
* the game abuses the "impassable fence" trick, particularly in country side areas, which breaks the immersion. Geralt is not allowed to jump, climb or crouch (the UI simply does not provide anything for it) and I find this ridiculous for a supposed master killer. It is all the more frustrating when you see the intro videos where he does saltos and climbs the crumbling walls of an old castle.
* also about immersion are the rather repetitive faces of NPC's. I can excuse this for generic ones with no quest attached, but it is also the case for main quest NPC's (like the Leuwaarden one in the Wyzima area of the game). This is lazy development, I am sorry to say... :-(
* the game is hard to install and hard to make work on Vista SP1. There are countless bugs that make several tricks necessary just to launch the game and to avoid it crashing every five minutes, even on a solid and recent configuration. Additional point: although there is the possibility to add their own adventures for game fans, these are not included into the main game and must be played "apart". This, for me, breaks half of the interest of such an option.
* I would also like to nag a bit about "game containers", such as barrels and boxes. Unlike in the Elder Scroll series, it is impossible to place something back in a container, and they have no rightful owner. I find this stupid, immersion breaking and difficult to justify anyway. Plant containers (flowers and other bushes) also "grow back" and can be plucked again as soon as you leave and reenter the cell. This is totally unrealistic.
* last very bad point is the impossibility of playing first person. There are no less than three 3rd person views possible. This is ridiculous and should have been avoided. Considering how demanding the game is in terms of graphic resources, having one character less on screen should have been seen as positive.
* as an extra annoying thing, and a consequence of the absence of jump function, the smallest step becomes an impassable barrier too, which makes path finding in the game extremely tedious, even on interior game cells.

Now on the good things:
* first and foremost, the game has a very good story. It is dense, absolutely not easy. There are choices all the time, and the results of these choices have far reaching consequences on the hero, the story and the world. This is great. I would contend that this is even one of the only two cases where The Witcher beats Morrowind. The Elder Scrolls III had a great story, but it was fairly obvious from the beginning of the game. No such thing in The Witcher, where each quest gives very small clues on the main plot(s). The plot has to do with racism (but in an uneasy way), religion, science, ethics and knowledge. I won't say more...
* moral choices are complex. There is often no obvious answer, and ethics does bite you down the road if you make the "wrong" choices. The story becomes different, and the NPC attitude will change. This is very well done and does not feel artificial in any way. It helps bring back a lot of the immersion that was so badly hurt by the elements I mentioned above.
* combats are really cool. At first I found the 3rd person "clicking only" combats quite an immersion breaker. Then I got the trick (waiting the flame pointer) and I realized how visual and good and technical combat is in this game. It still feels a bit too much like rolling dices (no localization of damage...), but the various effects and techniques that can be bought and happen on good strikes are absolutely fun to watch. Combats are difficult in the game, although not as much as in Oblivion. After all, Geralt is supposed to be a master killer.
* I think a very important point is that the game is extremely beautiful. After Oblivion, I was quite demanding. But The Witcher is totally awesome for this. Lights are mysterious, there is art all over, NPC's are very nicely made, their animations are fluid. Monsters are frightening (the Cerber of the first part in Wyzima scared the hell out of me) and well drawn, without being ugly. The game world feels like a fantasy version of Central Europe (obviously not a coincidence for a Polish game). This is I think a second point where Morrowind simply can't compete with The Witcher.
* The passage of time is extremely well rendered and some missions have to be realized in limited time or at a certain time of the day (or night). This helps the immersion and does not feel artificial in any way. It is greatly done and well complemented by the weather effects. Also, some monsters or NPC's will appear only at a certain time, and this forces to some nasty choices too... ;-)
* Although the game had some basic DRM, this has been removed in the latest patch (version 1.5), released 8th July.

All in all, The Witcher is pleasant to play, good fun and a great story. I think it is still below Morrowind in quality, but not by much. If the studio had (would) allow jumping and crouching in the game, plus had removed some of the stupid barriers and modified the game "containers", it would even be better than the Elder Scrolls series. Although the plot is not linear, it is uncool that some areas are simply wiped out after the beginning of the game (such as the Witcher base or the suburb of Wyzima). It limits the freedom unnecessarily. Still I give this game a rank 2 on my list of best video games ever.

09 July 2009

Ireland will vote on Lisbon in October... again

Dear readers,

The Irish government just declared that a new referendum will be hold on the Lisbon Treaty in October this year. Although this time, analysts and polls suggest that the yes should win, the Irish Ministries in charge have left nothing to chance. Most interestingly, they have provided a website to explain the treaty in plain and understandable English.

This is, I think, a great move. It contrasts with the unreadable attempts made previously by the same government but also many other ones (such as France and the Netherlands...). I advise anyone interested in the Treaty to have a look at it. The beginning of the .pdf brochure which can be downloaded on it is very Irish centric, but everything after the Chapter 1 is invaluable information on the way the EU will function in the future, should Ireland, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic ratify it eventually. Even better, this brochure explains in layman terms what are the goals and common objectives and ideas of the European Union (as per the new treaty) and I found this a great reading. Something, which, I believe, should be taught in schools and published in the press a lot more often...

So, for the sake of it, here it is (from the brochure's Chapter 2):
The European Union as a Community of Values

2. The preamble to the Treaty on European Union, as revised by the Lisbon Treaty, will include for the first time a reference to Europe’s cultural, religious and humanist inheritance, “from which have developed the universal values of inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law”.

3. The opening articles of the new Treaty seek to establish the nature of the Union as a community of values, on which the Member States confer competences in order to attain their common objectives.

4. Article 1 of the amended Treaty on European Union will eliminate the old distinction between the European Union and the European Community. This article confirms the establishment of a single legal entity, the European Union, which will in formal legal terms, replace and succeed the European Community once the Lisbon Treaty has been ratified. The European Union will have “legal personality”. The Union’s current laws and all other aspects of its legal order remain in force.

5. The nature of the Union now established is further clarified as one “on which the Member States confer competences to attain objectives which they have in common” (Article 1).

6. Article 2 further develops the idea of the Union as a community of values in which human dignity, minority rights and equality are given Treaty recognition for the first time.

Article 2
The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

7. Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union provides that any European State which respects the above values and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union.

8. Article 3 describes the Union’s objectives:

Article 3
1. The Union's aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples.

2. The Union shall offer its citizens an area of freedom, security and justice without internal frontiers, in which the free movement of persons is ensured in conjunction with appropriate measures with respect to external border controls, asylum, immigration and the prevention and combating of crime.

3. The Union shall establish an internal market. It shall work for the sustainable development of Europe based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress, and a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment. It shall promote scientific and technological advance.

It shall combat social exclusion and discrimination, and shall promote social justice and protection, equality between women and men, solidarity between generations and protection of the rights of the child.

It shall promote economic, social and territorial cohesion, and solidarity among Member States.

It shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and shall ensure that Europe's cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.

4. The Union shall establish an economic and monetary union whose currency is the euro.

5. In its relations with the wider world, the Union shall uphold and promote its values and interests and contribute to the protection of its citizens. It shall contribute to peace, security, the sustainable development of the Earth, solidarity and mutual respect among peoples, free and fair trade, eradication of poverty and the protection of human rights, in particular the rights of the child, as well as to the strict observance and the development of international law, including respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter.

6. The Union shall pursue its objectives by appropriate means commensurate with the competences which are conferred upon it in the Treaties.

9. The aim of this article is to set out the Union’s core objectives briefly and in an accessible manner. In the negotiation of this text, particular attention was paid to achieving a balanced treatment of the Union’s economic and social objectives. The reference to “full employment” in paragraph 3 above is a significant change from the existing Treaties which mention only “a high level of employment”. The reference to the United Nations Charter, in paragraph 5, was inserted on the basis of a proposal from the Irish Government.

My apologies for this lengthy quote. And just because I am a nitpicker, here is my only criticism on this title. It writes lengthily about values. I hate this term which has no... value. Value is a relative noun and, as such, should not be used to define fixed referents. Let's speak about goals, objectives, ideas, ethics, but please, not about values! Let's please speak about the (positive or negative) value of common goals and ideas. That would at least make some sense.

But all in all, I highly recommend this white paper. I only regret it comes so late.

08 July 2009

Google Takes on the fight

Dear readers,

Google announced yesterday on its blog the launching of a "new OS", on the netbook market segment. The name of this Android bigger brother is Google Chrome OS. I could not ignore this, as it touches some of my favourite topics: computers, software, gaming and also economics.

But first a couple of comments: Google clearly aims at Microsoft quasi monopoly (although on the netbook segment it is rather a duopoly with Apple Mac OSX). The blog post alludes to MS' recurrent problems with malware and other viruses. It is also a move towards externalizing most applications. Google Chrome OS (Chrome is already the name of its home made browser) is clearly described as browser centered. For a netbook, this is quite logical, but it is also a departure from both the bloated multi-application route taken by Microsoft and from the overpowered choice of Apple.

As a note, some comments have pointed that the Google announcement seems to ignore completely Apple relatively recent successes, particularly in this segment. I doubt this is due to ignorance or despise. But Google is not really aiming at the same range of customers. Apple users are early adopters, who are finding price an irrelevant matter, and who will not only use office applications and communication devices. They are also Photoshop users, graphic designers, and so on... In other words, they are the (very) high end part of the market segment, completely at the opposite of the obvious target of Google: the lowest part of this segment. Google is going for a budget OS.

Like Apple though, Google has chosen a Unix based system. But of course, like with Android, the choice is also one for open source software and Linux kernel. The window manager will be brand new and (although this has not been announced by Google) one can expect this window manager to be completely integrated with Chrome and maybe Google Apps. This reminds me a bit of the old Nautilus system on Gnome. But maybe I am wrong and both pieces of software will be clearly separated...

As for the success of such an endeavor, I can only speculate. But there are basics in marketing as well as in the computer world that can't be ignored. The computer market is driven (in terms of innovation acceptance) by two main engines: the business/company customers and the gamer community. As a gamer and an employee, it seems obvious to me that Google is aiming at the business market only. The future will tell if that's a good approach. For myself, I will stick with my unreliable and buggy Vista for the time being. Until Google convinces me (and graphic card makers and game studios) that its OS can also perform for graphic intensive applications, I see no reason to switch.

So far so near

I have been away far too long from this blog. It is not that I have nothing to say, it is just that I have so little time.

Anyway, I am back from a good French holidays. Two weeks in family, having quality time, relaxing and generally enjoying good summer weather and the countryside.

I am going to start posting again about Europe soon. I might also from time to time drop in some rants about my other hobbies (photography and video games) as well as my work (maritime transport).

Just to treat you after this long time, here is a photo I took recently. Hope you like it. And her is another one from Casblanca (the city and the film...):