Saturday, June 21, 2003


When leaving a cinema in central Croydon a little after 1am this morning, I saw a lengthy queue outside the W.H. Smith store, which was the only shop in central Croydon to have opened at midmight to sell the new Harry Potter book. (The two main bookstores in Croydon are in a mall and the mall was closed, so they didn't have the option). Given that they had been open for an hour at that point, they were selling in awful lot of books given it was the middle of the night.

While I am looking forward to reading the new Potter book, I am not so enthusiastic as to stand in a long queue at one in the morning for it. (Some people were, however. I received an SMS message in the middle of my film consisting of the words "I've got it" from a friend of mine with an Oxbridge Ph.D.) I actually ordered the book from Amazon on March, and while I received an e-mail from them yesterday morning saying that it had been posted, I am still hoping that it gets delivered on time.

In any event, at about 8.30am this morning, I heard the doorbell ring. "Great", I thought. "It's my Harry Potter book". However, it turned out to be my photographs of my Spanish trip, which I had sent to a cheap, mail order film processing place for processing. (They used some alternative delivery service rather than the post office, so the two things were not delivered by the same person).

This was quite disappointing. I had quite forgotten about the photographs, and when I had answered the door I had thought that it was my book for sure. However, as a small consolation I can offer you this picture of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao.

Update: The book came at about 9.30am. Interestingly, rather than coming in a standard sized Amazon box, and containing a personalised receipt, as is normal with Amazon, it came in a special sized box designed for this particular book, and it also came with a mass-produced receipt which did not have my name (or the price) on it. Clearly, to make the process of getting a large number of Harry Potter books to customers on time as smooth as possible, Amazon had a large number of the books prepackaged in boxes, and they just slapped address labels on them. In any event, my compliments to them. They got the book to me in the morning on the day of publication.

As for the book, it is a bit slow so far. It takes 180 pages to get to Hogwarts. The mood feels right: there is a sense of foreboding about the fact that Lord Voldemort is back. However, to tell whether Ms Rowling is being self-indulgent or not, I shall have to see how significant the events of the first 180 pages are to the greater plot.

Friday, June 20, 2003

Thoughts on The Peacemaker (1997)

Brian Micklethwait has some revisionist thoughts on the 1997 movie The Peacemaker, starring George Clooney as a Special Forces soldier and Nicole Kidman as a government bureacrat chasing rogue nuclear weapons that have got into the hands of terrorists. I saw that movie when it came out, although it didn't make much of an impression on the world at the time. One reason I think it looks fresher now than it did then is the immediacy of what it is about. While some people were worried in 1997 about terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, it wasn't an immediate concern of most people, and the film's subject had a lack of immediacy for most people. People doing things that the Clooney and Kidman characters were doing almost certainly did exist in 1997, but their job didn't really seem as vital as it does today, and they didn't have the level of respect and attention that they do today.

Which is interesting, because Clooney and Kidman themselves didn't at the time seem as vital as they do today either. Both of them are very good in the film, and I particularly agree with Brian that George Clooney gets his character exactly right. (Kidman is good, but I think her part is less well written. She is in reality a bureacrat, and yet she goes out in the field as the partner of Clooney's Special Forces man. I am not sure this is realistic). Both of them had been picked by lots of people to be film stars, but in both cases it took rather longer than most people had anticipated for it to happen. At the time The Peacemaker was released, both of them were more famous for other reasons than for their actual movies (Clooney for his television work, and Kidman for being married to Tom Cruise). Both were regularly playing leading roles in movies, but neither had broken through. Clooney had been in a cultish movies (From Dusk Till Dawn), a reasonably well reviewed but not terribly successful at the box office romantic comedy (One Fine Day) and a disastrous intended blockbuster (Batman and Robin). Kidman was enormously famous in Australia for her acting, but after marrying Cruise had never really broken through to mass audiences in her movie roles either. However, both actors are now enormous stars, and this affects the way we look at the film. It brings them to the foreground, perhaps in the same way that the change in people's attitudes to the subject of the movie brings it more into the foreground.

Still, I don't think the movie has a great third act. The terrorists in the movie were from or at least were connected with the war in Bosnia, and were presented as being driven to fanaticism by the murders of family members. When I first saw the film, I remember finding this made me a little uncomfortable, as a real war in which lots of people were suffering at that time was being used for a movie that was basically entertainment, and in a slightly more realistic manner than usual. It was not so much the subject, as the way in which the film sort of merged with real footage and real locations that I saw on the news.

And the ending is ridiculous. After lots and lots of cool stuff, we end up with a red digital readout counting down how many seconds before New York is destroyed, and George Clooney wondering whether he should cut the red wire or the green wire. A little more originality might have been in order, but we didn't get that.
Ah, New Zealand

Okay, I have been familiar with the concept of politically partisan weather reports for just over a week, but having the words "George W Bush. Professional Fascist" appear at the bottom of the screen is perhaps going a little too far.
Cricketing update

I will get to today's game between England and Pakistan later in the post.

Firstly, though, the Australian squads for the forthcoming matches against Bangladesh were announced. As the selectors have indicated would be the case, there is no experimentation or pulling of punches due to the low quality of the opposition. (I have one caveat about that, which I will discuss at length in a moment). Australia have announced full strength sides for both the tests and the one day matches. Steve Waugh will continue as test captain for at least one more series, as expected. (Given that he had the second highest average of any Australian batsman in the series against the West Indies, he couldn't reasonably be dropped, and the selectors probably didn't want to drop him anyway).

For a squad of 13, Australia selected seven batsmen (including wicket keeper Gilchrist) and six bowlers (four seam bowlers and two spinners). This tends to suggest that they intend to continue the side balance they used in the West Indies of six batsmen and five bowlers. Martin Love appears to be the reserve batsman, and which bowler will miss out is hard to say and will probably depend on the conditions. (The complication is that the two bowlers most likely to miss out, Bad Hogg and Andy Bichel, are both good team men, quality players, and useful batsmen). Some thoughts on the balance (which is the caveat I mentioned).

When playing test cricket, it is generally considered asking for trouble to play with fewer than six top notch batsmen. Obviously you need one wicket keeper. If these players are specialists, then you have four spots left in the side to fill with bowlers. The Australian approach has traditionally been to choose the best six batsmen available, the best wicketkeeper, and the four best batsmen.

In England, however, there has been more of a tradition of looking for an all rounder: a player who can both bat and bowl. This will alllow them five batsmen, a wicketkeeper, and five bowlers, with one player in both the batting and bowling columns. This is fine when you have a very good all rounder: someone who would likely be able to earn a place in the side as both a batsman and a bowler. In the late 1970s and for most of the 1980s, England did have such a player in Ian Botham, so this obviously worked fine for them. However, when England do not have an all rounder, they tend to see the situation as abnormal, so they select an all rounder who is not really of test standard as either a batsman or a bowler. In the last ten years, England have selected a lot of players like this, without much success.

This strategy means that England are used to having five bowlers, however, and when they do not have an all rounder, they have a bit of a tendency to replace the all rounder with another bowler, rather than another batsman. (In recent years they have done this and had batsman Alec Stewart keep wicket, to bolster the batting). Australians tend to frown on this, as they believe it makes the batting too weak. However, when Australia were weak in the 1980s, the English press spent a lot of its time expressing its bafflement at Australia only playing four bowlers. Australians were generally baffled by this bafflement, and thought that the problem was more that the four bowlers selected were not bowling well.

In recent years, there has been a trend throughout world cricket towards wicketkeepers who were also good batsmen. Prior to about 1970, this was not generally done, and wicketkeeping ability was considered paramount. (No Australian wicketkeeper had scored a test century before Rod Marsh did it in the 1970s). From the 1970s, though, the batting ability of the wicketkeeper has always been taken into account. Each regular keeper seems to have been a slightly better batsman than the one before. Somewhat amazingly, present Australian wicket keeper Adam Gilchrist is one of the best batsmen in the world, as well as being a wicketkeeper.

This did give Australia more flexibility with selections, but until this year they didn't use it. They selected six batsmen plus Gilchrist, spinner Shane Warne, and three seam bowlers. Warne was so good that one spin bowler was adequate, and McGrath, Gillespie and Lee were plenty in the seam bowling department. So four bowlers were enough.

When Australia lost both Warne and McGrath in the West Indies, they decided to take advantage of their strong batting lineup and play one fewer batsman to bolster the bowling. They played five bowlers (either two spinners and three seam bowlers, or one spinner and three seam bowlers) throughout that series. This worked reasonably (although to be honest I five bowlers without Warne was nowhere near as effective as four bowlers including Warne). The selectors did not have to drop a batsman to do this, as Damien Martyn was out injured.

Which is where we are now. The selectors can either continue with five bowlers, five batsmen, and Gilchrist, or they can go back to four bowlers (in which case deserving players, probably Brad Hogg and Andy Bichel, miss out). If they choose to stay with five bowlers, then either they have to drop a batsman or not select Damien Martyn when he is fit. As Damien Martyn definitely does deserve to be selected when fit, they have a bit of a dilemma. For now, they seem to have avoided the situation by declaring that they will give Damien Martyn more time to recover from his finger injury by not selecting him for the tests (although they did select him for the one day games). This looks like a bit of an evasion to me. I would prefer to go back to four bowlers, six batsmen, and Gilchrist as soon as possible. As it is, the hard decision is being avoided, at least partly because it doesn't matter due to the quality of the opposition. This perhaps is pulling a punch, although only a small one.

The one day side is essentially the side that won the world cup and the series in the West Indies, with Damien Martyn back in for Michael Clarke. Martyn's selection is "subject to fitness". Presumably Clarke will come into the side if Martyn fails his fitness test.

In actual games of cricket being played, England are romping home in the second one day game against Pakistan. Pakistan batted first, and James Anderson took four wickets and had quite a remarkable morning. He took a wicket with the first ball of the match, and he later finished off the Pakistan innings by taking a hat trick. In between Gough and Flintoff bowled well. The only resistance was Yousuf Youhana, who was 75 not out when Pakistan were bowled out for 185 after 44 overs. This is one of those situations where the tail really let their side down. With a player of this quality still in, Pakistan could have managed an excellent score if only someone could have stayed in at the other end. However, nobody did. Kudos to Anderson for removing the tail in such a situation.

Martin Trescothick came out blazing with the bat, and scored 86 runs of 57 balls before being out in the 12th over with the score 1/109. The innings essentially won the match. It's a shame he didn't get the extra 14 runs for a century, because that would have been a quick one. As it is, the England team have lost a couple of extra wickets, but are now crusing home. As I write, they are 3/165 off 20.3 overs. I am not expecting them to have much trouble scoring the 21 runs they need to win of the remaining 29.3 overs with 7 wickets in hand. This will be a very good win for England, who are looking a good side. My expectation is that England will win the third match and the series at Lord's on Sunday.

Update: England took another nine balls to win the match ending up with 3/189 off 22 overs. A very good win for them.
Al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction

David Carr has some thoughts on the question of whether Al Qaeda is capable of obtaining weapons of mass destruction using them to attack a western city, and in fact whether they are capable of mounting large scale attacks any more at all. I wrote a lengthy comment giving my thoughts on the matter, which I may as well reproduce here

In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult released Sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo underground. This only killed a few people because they didn't get the distribution right (and because they deliberately used a lower concentration of sarin than they could have because they did not want the people who actually put the sarin on the trains to die). This is the only instance so far of a terrorist attack using what is commonly defined as a "weapon of mass destruction". What they did do was demonstrate that it is possible (and indeed fairly easy) for terrorists with a few competent chemists to produce a very deadly chemical weapon. Thankfully, in the longer term, Aum Shinrikyo was not very dangerous as a terrorist group. (They were a fruitcake cult that was relatively easily dismantled).

On the other hand, the only terrorist group to actually cause mass destruction is Al Qaeda, on September 11, 2001. They did this by exploiting weaknesses in America's transport networks, so that America provided the weapon as well as the target. This demonstrated to us that there are organisations out there with the will and ruthlessness (and I could say, the contempt for human life, both their own and that of their perceived enemies) to mount attacks on this scale. I think it possibly also suggested that Al Qaeda lacked much technological sophistication. They didn't use their own weapons because they didn't have their own weapons. Those weapons they have used in other attacks (explosives) have been relatively unsophisticated, although they have a thing for complex logistics (multiple attacks at the same time, for instance. And a failed shoe bomb attack doesn't impress me much). The Japanese example demonstrated that with a few good chemists, you could make sarin. Al Qaeda have not tried a copycat sarin attack, and this tends to suggest to me that they don't have a few good chemists. (Sarin seems to me to be the easiest weapon of mass destruction to make, which is why I would expect them to try to make some). As Al Qaeda are a lot weaker today than they were in 2001 due to America's intense war on them, I don't imagine that they are any more capable of mounting an attack with their own weapons than they were in 2001. This is not to say that they will never be able to obtain such weapons from somebody else, but again I think it is likely to be harder for them now than it was before 2001, and they clearly did not do it then.

So, if we see further attacks from Al Qaeda, I tend to think they will be the smaller scale, attacks on embassies, bombs in military barracks or similar type attacks, or they will attempt another September 11 like event in which they exploit some weakness in our infrastructure.

Of course, I could be wrong. I am utterly terrified about the possibility that I could be wrong, and the chance that I am wrong is sufficiently large that I still favour using immense resources to neutralise what is left of Al Qaeda.

And of course, even if I am right, all I am saying is that Al Qaeda are less of a threat than some people think. The prospect of somebody else with the will to attack the civilized world and the technical skills to make sarin or something worse is still out there, and to me it seems inevitable. I think we may find ourselves with an interlude of a few years to prepare for it, however.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Spending my time elsewhere

I have a post on European banknotes, British coins, and British bridges over at Samizdata.

Update: I also have a piece on the new Harry Potter book and the demise of the Net Book Agreement.

I am finding that more and more of my writing is going to places other than this blog. (There may well be other places soon, too, some of which I may even get paid for. I will keep you posted). This blog will continue to be the home of quirky and unclassifiable stuff, and I have also decided that I will use it as a central index page. That is, anything I write for anywhere else, I will link to from here. I haven't always been doing this up to now, but from now on I will.
A positive development

The new Blogger is now working properly with Mozilla. Well done, Google and Pyra guys.

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

I don't ask for much

This afternoon I changed trains at Balham (the gateway to the south) on my way into central London. My caffeine level was getting unpleasantly low. Thanks to the miracle that is capitalism, there are now espresso bars on the platforms at many British railway stations, so I stopped to buy a latte. I gave the man behind the counter a five pound note, and he was supposed to give me 3.75 pounds change. Fine, but he only gave me 2.75. As is my practice, I carefully and obviously counted my change. As he saw me doing this, he apologised and gave me the extra pound.

However, he did this as soon as he saw me counting the change, and before I had realised that the change was a pound short. The only explanation for his knowning I had been shortchanged before I did was that he had done this deliberately. So, obviously, I will not be buying any coffee from that particular espresso bar in future.

If people are going to try to steal from me, couldn't they at least demonstrate some competence in doing so? Like, for instance, by waiting for me to count the change, see that it is short, and then point this fact out to them. At least in that case there would be some possibility that we could maintain the pretence that it was a genuine mistake. As it is, the acting was really poor. I am in London, the city of Dickensian pickpockets, after all. The standard of the petty theives seems to have really dropped in the last 100 years.
Cricket update

Yesterday, England played their first game of the season against quality opposition, the first match of a three match series against Pakistain, played at Old Trafford in Manchester. This was Michael Vaughan's first game for England as captain. Somewhat perplexingly, Vaughan has been given the captaincy England one day side (for which he has never performed very well as a batsman) but not the test side (for which he has performed brialliantly as a batsman). Okay, I understand why the England selectors have done it (Nasser Hussein has retired from one day cricket, and the one day captaincy has been given to Vaughan as preparation for one day tacking over the full time captaincy role) but I question the move's wisdom (I think Vaughan should be given time to get his game right before being given the captaincy).

In any event, my feelings on the game are mixed. England were unimpressive with the bat, but managed to get back into the game due to some good bowling and fielding, but in the end the fact that they had scored too few runs ultimately prevented them from winning. My verdict on Vaughan's captaincy is somewhat mixed, because in the end he made one of the cardinal errors.

In any event, England got off to an excellent start, scoring 0/45 off 6.5 overs, 1/63 off 9.5, and 2/96 off 14.5, and even 4/152 off 31.4 wasn't terrible, although by that point the had lost a wicket or two too many. However, nobody could go on with a start, their middle order collapsed, and they slumped to 8/169 off 38.5. The last couple of batsmen did the only thing they could, which was grind out the last 10 overs, and England ended up with an inadequate 9/204 off the 50 overs. Flintoff top scored with 39, Solanski got 36, McGrath 33, and Vaughan 27. They needed one or two players to go on with it, but nobody did.

When Pakistan were 0/60 off 17 overs or 1/116 off 30.2, it looked like Pakistan would romp home. However, thanks to good bowling from Anderson, Giles, and a very welcomly back from injury Darren Gough, England managed to get Pakistan to 5/158 and then 8/194. However, Abdul Razzaq and Mohammad Sami (who had impressed earlier with the ball - the man can bowl really fast) got Pakistan home with four balls to spare. A narrow win to Pakistan. Despite a good fightback, England were never terribly likely to win. They were about 20 runs short with the bat. Had they got 20 (or even 10) extra runs, they probably would have run.

And what was the mistake? The very inexperienced Rikki Clarke (playing his first match for England) bowled the last over. Even if the situation is desperate and wickets appear needed at once, the best captains manage to keep at least one over from one of their best bowlers for the very end. In practice, it doesn't make a lot of difference if Darren Gough bowls nine overs or ten early on, but it makes an enormous amount of difference if he has one left at the end. Vaughan hasn't quite got this yet.

Two more one day games between England and Pakistan between now and Sunday. Plus, we have the very interesting first test between Sri Lanka and the West Indies. Updates from me as appropriate.
They sound thoroughly westernised to me

Salam Pax has been visiting a Baghdad university, to see whether the campuses are hotbeds of free speech and potential revolution, and he finds....

And what about the students? Well most of them just don't give a damn. I sat for an hour with 10 students under a tree on the main street in the university compound and all I could get out of them was a collective, "Eh, well ... I don't know".
Movies I love

I have been reading Sophie's World by Jostein Gaardner. In this book, a mysterious philosopher starts sending letters to a 14 year old Norwegian girl telling her all about the history of the last 3000 years of western philosophy. (The story later becomes more complicated). Early on in the book, one of these letters is concludes by saying that the next lesson will move on to the three greatest Greek philosophers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Fine.

The sad thing, though, is that I cannot hear these three names together without hearing the voice of Wallace Shawn in the film of The Princess Bride saying "Morons!", and giggling. If you have seen the film, you will know what I mean.

Some people will have noticed that the list of books I am reading that is in the left sidebar hasn't changed much in recent months, and although several books have been added in the last few months, none have been removed. Somewhat sadly, I haven't been reading much lately, at least not in the form of books. I must get back to them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

More public service announcements

Iain Murray has moved to this new MT site. Blogger is preventing him from posting anything to the old site telling people to go to the new site. Updating your links is thus even more important that is normal in such situations. Personally I am finding the new version of Blogger to be much more reliable than the old one. (Admittedly, this isn't hard).

Monday, June 16, 2003

Dumb Movies

Okay, I went to see 2 Fast 2 Furious. Compared to this movie, the original The Fast and the Furious is high realism. However, ignore the ludicrous plot (which many critics have greatly enjoyed making fun of - suffice to say this is one of those Hollywood movies where a crime lord who needs an illicit cargo transported from point A to point B chooses to have it transported in the most conspicuous way imaginable, in this case by hiring street racers to drive it at 150 miles per hour down public roads). Just enjoy the speed, and the setting.

Yes, we are in that American world that exists in Southern California and Florida, where hip hop music is the order of the day, and everyone is unclassifiably post-ethnic. There are no blacks and whites, but just shades of brown. People speak clearly enunciated English but switch to Spanish if they are really upset, and moustaches, sunglasses, and epicanthic folds are optional.

Personally, I find this sort of setting pretty cool. So, apparently do lots of audiences. And whatever may be said for it, this film isn't bland, and a lot of Hollywood studio product is these days very bland. And the fact is large portions of America are actually evolving into this sort of place, although in reality the cars are less fast, the music is less loud, and the English less well enunciated.

What is interesting is that this kind of movie does none the less come out of Hollywood, which is run by deeply neurotic white people with MBAs who never leave the right parts of Los Angeles unless they are going to New York. The most important thing to bear in mind is that this is a sequel, and the original was low budget and a complete surprise hit, despite that fact that its target demographic was large and growing. That is, it slipped in under the radar. As did the original Rush Hour, another movie that in some ways belongs to the same milieu. And films aimed at teens have for some time been seemingly closer to America's new cultural reality than films aimed at adults. This is probably because these are the films that have fewer studio executives' eyes on them.

Sunday, June 15, 2003

The bars

When I ran my blog through this poetry generator, I wasn't all that impressed with the results. Still, there were one or two good lines

Americans had
scored 75 not until this
many times
the greater Basqueland consisting
of the bars, I
was in So, heavily that would have two test
side, C

Ah yes. The greater Basqueland consisting of the bars. That is certainly a strong mental image.
Something unexpected

When flying out of Bilbao on Tuesday, I had an unusual experience, which is that the city's airport seems to feel no need to extort money from air travellers the way many airports do. Firstly, the bus to the airport was a proper airport express: non-stop from the city centre to the airport. However, the fare was just an ordinary bus fare: one euro. Normal practice with airport buses is to charge three times the fare for any other bus, but not here.

Having got to the airport and through to the gate, I discovered my flight was delayed. I did what I normally do when a flight is delayed, which is go to the bar. I ordered a beer, and was charged 1.40 euros, which is about the same as I would be charged in any other bar in Bilbao. Upon finishing the beer, I observed that the flight was still delayed, so I ordered a cup of coffee. For this I was charged 1.20 euros, again about the same as in any other bar.

Nobody ripping me off in the modern globalised way? What is this?

(Bilbao airport is in scale and operations rather like Adelaide airport. There are fairly regular flights to all the major Spanish destinations, and occasional flights to London or Paris or somewhere like that).

Update: I have also written some thoughts on the Bilbao Metro system over at Transport Blog.

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