Saturday, August 16, 2003

You were Confucius!

Your life began in 551 B.C. in the
Chinese village of Zou. You worked as a
teacher until age 35, when you became advisor
to the exiled Duke Zhou for a time. Later you
became a magistrate and even the Grand Minister
of Justice of Lu Province for a time. After a
while, you took to wandering with your handful
of disciples and unfortunately found that high-
ranking nobles in many courts were plotting to
have you killed. You continued, however, to
speak on morality and honesty until you finally
retired and spent your remaining days writing.
You died at the age of 72.

Which Leader Were You in a Past Life?
brought to you by Quizilla

(Link via the Blogatrice herself).
Cricket update

It's been a couple of weeks since I discussed my favourite game here. We are now half way through the third day of the third test between England and South Africa, being played at Trent Bridge in Nottingham, and a very interesting game it is so far. But more on that into a moment.

After England's heavy defeat in the second match, there was speculation as to whether the old guard of the England side, especially former captains Nasser Hussein and Alec Stewart, would continue in this side. And there were issues with injury prone fast bowler Darren Gough, who had been very effective in the one day series. And the question of whether Grahame Thorpe would be recalled. Thorpe is one of the best batsmen in England, but due to a messy divorce his concentration has not been on the game for the last couple of years. (He has gone home from tours, declared himself available, been selected and then has withdrawn from tours, and similar).

As it happened, Gough announced his retirement from test cricket a couple of days after the second game. It appears that the strain on his body was too much, and that restricting himself to one day games was all he had the strength and fitness to do. The British sports pages published generous summaries of his career, in which they sidestepped the basic point, which was that he had the potential and attitude to be a really fine player, but that the various injuries stopped him from quite getting there.

Anyway, the Thorpe question was deferred by the fact that Thorpe managed to injure his back and wasn't fit. If they had been going to drop Hussein, this development just about ruled out the possibility. The selectors more or less acknowledged that the selection of Anthony McGrath this season was a mistake, and brought in in form up and coming Cambridge man Ed Smith. Everyone thought this was a good selection, as he appears an outstanding prospect. And James Kirtley was brought in to make his debut in replacement of Darren Gough. And that was it, only two changes.

For South Africa, the important change was that Jacques Kallis returned from South Africa, where he had been attending his father's funeral. Gary Kirsten made way for him because he was injured. If Kirsten is back for the next match, someone will have to make way for him.

In any event, the pitch at Trent bridge had cracks and looked dodgy. It was clearly going to get worse as the match went on. Vaughan had some luck, won the toss, and batted. After an hour England were 2/29 with both Vaughan and Trescothick out. It looked look South Africa were going to continue their dominance. However, England then had an excellent day, with Butcher scoring 106, and England being 3/296 with Hussein on 108 and Ed Smith on 40 at the close. Overnight there was plenty of speculation as to whether England could score 550 and whether Hussein could score a double century, and whether Ed Smith could score a century on debut.

None of this happened. Hussein ended up with 116 and Smith 64. For the really big score to happen, one of them had to go on with it, and neither did. Alec Stewart batted well for 72, and although England lost steady wickets they ended up with a still pretty good 445 all out. One negative for them was that Flintoff got a duck. After his heroics at Lord's this was a bit disappointing, especially considering that this was a much more important occasion. The thing that England would have found encouraging was that the pitch was very clearly deteriorating. Bounce was very variable, and given that South Africa have to bad last, England would have found this encouraging.

South Africa batted, and for once England got the wicket they wanted quickly. Gibbs (who wasn't the wicket in question) was bowled for 19 and then Graeme Smith trod on his stumps and was out hit wicket for 35 and the score was 2/66. Not much credit to the English: it was a pure mistake on the part of Smith. But England would have been pleased.

This morning, Robert Kirtley took his first two test wickets off successive balls in the first over of the morning. South Africa were 4/88 and things looked very good for England. Kallis was out bowled by Anderson (after misjudging the bounce and not playing a shot) a little later, and then 5/132. People were speculating that England would be out for 200, and wondering whether Vaughan would enforce the follow-on if so. (I would have thought not. On this pitch the one thing you do not want to do was bat on the fifth day, even chasing a very small target).

Somehow though the pitch appeared to improve, or was it just that McKenzie and Boucher batted very well, but the two batsmen batted to lunch and then tea, and batted very well, before McKenzie was out for a fine 90 just after tea. The partnership was an excellent 129. Boucher followed soon after to an incorrect LBW decision, although a poor shot. (The umpire on this occasion misjudged the amount of bounce, so it wasn't an easy decision). The score was then 7/284. Soon after that, Hall was given not out to an LBW appeal when he clearly was out, so I guess you win some and you lose some. (Electronic systems are now clearly better than human umpires at judging these. At some point the ICC is going to have to address this issue).

In any event, the score is now 7/297 with Pollock on 24 and Hall 6. It seems likely that England will end up with a lead of at least 100. If they do, and they can score a couple of hundred runs in the second innings, then I think England should win. The pitch is still unpredictable, and if South Africa have to bat on day five they will likely find it difficult, unless someone like Smith or Kallis can do something miraculous. I am still predicting an England victory, although my record on doing that in this series is somewhat less than perfect.

Also, there is one other fact to observe, which is that South Africa are slowly pulling back into this match. England were a long way ahead at the end of day one. They were still well ahead, but a little less so, at the end of day two. And they are still ahead now, but by a little less than that. A good finish is possible. And the state of the pitch on day five remains crucial.

Plus of course does what happens now. Pollock has scored test centuries and Hall's best score is 70 (and he averages 32). If this pair could take the score up over 400, then that would be a very good effort and you could just about argue South Africa are back in the match, although South Africa would still have to bat on day five.

But a South African victory remains unlikely. They would have to outplay England quite dramatically for here. That said, that is what they have done in the series so far.

Update: Hall is out bowled, having played on to Anderson. Since then, Adams has had a very close lbw shout, and has been given not out after being caught behind, when the umpire didn't see a very fine edge. England are not having luck with the umpiring, here.

Further Update: South Africa were all out for 362 , giving England a first innings lead of 83. Pollock scored a very useful 62, as England had difficulty finishing things off. They weren't helped by another bad LBW decision. Ntini was absolutely plumb, but was given not out. Still, it was a good recovery from South Africa to get from 5/132 to 362.

England had to face one over before the end of the day's play. As it was, they ended up only facing one ball. (The rules state that if a wicket is lost in the last over of the day, then the over is not completed until the next morning). Pollock bowled the first ball of the innings to Trescothick, it went near the bat, the batsman's led, the batsman's forearm and there were a couple of noises. Adams caught it, there was a big appeal, and umpire Daryl Hair gave Trescothick out. The replay showed that the ball did not hit the bat, and the decision was incorrect.

Not a good evening's umpiring, but a great finish to the day for South Africa. England are still in front in the match, but they are under pressure. Dare I say it, a lot depends on Michael Vaughan. There are few times when a century from a captain would be more valuable.

This has the potential to be a fabulous game of cricket.

Friday, August 15, 2003

An observation

My hits are down today. Perhaps I have lots of readers in the Eastern Seaboard area. (I know I have some). Anyway, I hope you guys are doing okay.
Why I enjoy Roger Ebert's movie reviews

Try this:

Neither this movie nor "Dogtown," by the way, answers the question I have every time I see high-level skateboarding: In order to learn to fly free high into the air, and go through body twists, and land again on your board, you presumably must fail a lot of times before you succeed. It looks to me as if that would involve a drop of 10 or 20 feet to a hard surface. How many skateboarders are killed? Maimed? Paralyzed? What about that first guy who thought about flying free beyond the lip of his skating surface--how did he think he would get down again?

Really, though, I think this is a question that applies to a great deal of human activity, not just skateboarding.
Is it just me?

Or do other people also have trouble convincing themselves that Princess Diana was a greater person than Shakespeare or Darwin? (Newton is a good choice as the Greatest Briton though)

Apparently there was a very nice view of the stars from Times Square in New York last night. I saw some footage of the dark silhouette of New York city: just the outline in the night. Really quite extraordinary. I hope they get the power back soon. I will be interested in reading a detailed overview of the causes of this when they are known. There clearly remain many weak spots in our infrastructure, and possibly they have gotten worse since everything has been getting more and more networked.

The state of New South Wales in Australia had a year of major blackouts in the late 1970s (although in those days there was very little air conditioning, and peak power usage came in the winter, not the summer). In response, the state government (which owns and in those days ran the electricity system) was so frightened that it would lose the next election if it happened again that it built an enormous number of of new power stations. The excess capacity was so great that we only just caught up with it a few years back.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

A couple of photos of Avignon

If you are putting a new drainpipe on the side of your wall, and the drainpipe covers the street sign that is on the side of the wall, what do you do? I would have thought that you either move the street sign, or put up a new street sign, with the same name on it as the old one. Makes sense?

Apparently not. In Avignon you put up a street sign with an entirely different street name on it. I can't see what the old name was because it is behind a drainpipe, but it is clearly not "Rue Edmund Halley".

And I will also say I wasn't expecting a Rue Edmund Halley in Avignon. While there are clearly not enough streets in the world named after great English astronomers, I expect those that are to be mostly in England. On the other hand, perhaps I am wrong to do so. You do find many more streets named for great scientists in France than in England, even though England's scientific legacy is pretty clearly the greater one. It's simply a case of the French (correctly) recognising Halley's greatness, I guess.

Anyone who has been to even a single French lesson (and I haven't been to many more than that) will have heard the French song that starts like this

Sur le pont d'Avignon,
On y danse, on y danse,
Sur le pont d'Avignon,
On y danse tous en rond.

This is the pont d'Avignon from the song, at least what is left after most of it was washed away in the floods of the mid 17th century, or so says my guidebook.

It seems kind of impressive that the useless (except for tourism) remains of a bridge largely washed away 350 years ago could survive this long, which is why I feel I need to check the date somewhere else. The guidebook is a standard Lonely Planet guide to the whole of France, and it is usually accurate.
Something the French get right, or Why is it not possible to put a cafe and a bar in the same establishment in the Anglosphere?

France is full of shops with the word "Tabac" on the outside. Fairly obviously, this indicates that one function of the shop is as a tobacconist, and such shops sell cigarettes et cetera. Also not terribly surprisingly, such shops also function as newsagents, selling newspapers and magazines as well as phonecards and various other bits and pieces. However, there is more. You will find that at the back of the shop there will be a few tables, and a bar with a few stools. Behind the bar will be an espresso machine, a beer tap, and various other drinks in bottles on the shelf or in the refrigerator. As well as tobacconists and newsagents, these shops also function as bars and cafes.

And these tend to be the bars and cafes frequented by local people, who drop in to buy some cigarettes or a newspaper and stop off and have a beer or a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and a chat with the locals. They seem to be a way in which the people of a local community keep in touch with one another. So if you want to watch ordinary French people just going about their lives, visiting a few such cafes are a good way in which to do it. (Also, these being establishments catering to locals, the beer and coffee tends to be cheaper than in establishments catering to tourists).

For some reason this arrangement seems to be illegal within the fifteen arrondisements of Paris. Paris has Tabacs, but they do not contain cafes and bars. Cafes/bars are completely separate establishments. I do not know why this is, but I think it must be regulatory, as the moment you cross La Periphique into the suburbs of Paris, you find Tabacs with bars in them as in the rest of France.

And this seems to me a good arrangement. But it is one that we have completely failed to manage in the Anglosphere. By the standards of Europe we have done a lousy job of integrating our businesses like this. In particular, we are unable to even combine a bar and a cafe into one establishment.

Partly I think this was the strange puritan laws on the selling of alcohol that exist in the English speaking world. Pubs were places that were behind closed doors, with no windows through which people walking down the street would be exposed to the horrible prospect of seeing people drink alcoholic beverages. This aspect of society had to be kept away from decent, law abiding people who just wanted to go about their business. If somebody wanted to sit down and have an espresso in a cafe, they shouldn't have to do it in the same place where people were doing such immoral and ungodly things as having a beer.

Except that, possibly even more puzzling than this, the Anglosphere didn't have cafes. Supposedly (a little scrolling down needed to find the article in English) Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski arrived in Oxford in 1969, having been banished for political reasons from Warsaw University. He walked the streets for a few hours and came home slightly puzzled. "It's a nice town," he told his wife, "but where are the cafes?"

It was possible to buy bad coffee in diners in the United States (and in fact for most of the 20th century, US coffee consumption was very high on a consumption per capita basis), and it was possible to buy even worse coffee in greasy spoon type establishments in Britain (although British people tended to prefer tea), but actual decent coffee made with an espresso machine was out, except maybe in an Italian restaurant.

However, the Anglosphere is now full of cafes. Oxford is now full of cafes. Cambridge is now full of cafes. London is now full of cafes. (Less urban parts of Britain are less full of cafes). And one can at least get a good cup of coffee. However, the road to them has been a little peculiar.

In a way, Australia got them in the most straightforward way. Australia received a lot of Italian immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike for the bulk of Italian immigrants to the United States, this was after the invention of the espresso machine. And Italian style coffee spread out from the Italian community, but it evolved. The English habit of preferring hot drinks with milk worked its way in, and Australians took to drinking cappuccinos and lattes throughout the day, whereas Italians would tend to drink them only in the mornings. Australia adopted Italian as the language of coffee, with some English mixed in. So we have the cappuccinos and cafe lattes, but not so much the espresso. We do have the coffee, just not always the name. It's a "short black". There is also a "long black", which is a more traditional black coffee. There are interesting creations such as a "piccolo latte", and occasional abominations of the English and Italian languages such as a "mugaccino" (A large sized cappuccino, ie a cappaccino in a mug rather than a cup).

But, the key point is that in Australia, good espresso based coffee had become widely available and pretty much all encompassing by 1995. By that point, it was possible to get a decent latte in a Chinese Restaurant, and McDonald's had started opening "McCafe" counters (ie espresso bars) in their restaurants. It was good.

Cafes in Australia were and are more Italian than anything else. They generally have waiter service. However, they do not sell alcohol, whereas cafes in Italy generally do. The reason for this is simply that for a long time it was not legal for them to do so. Restaurants were not permitted to sell alcohol to people who did not also buy a meal, so sitting down and stopping for a beer was out. This law has been repealed in some of the country but not all of it. (It still holds in Sydney). There were also laws in some states prohibiting establishments with less than 50 seats from selling alcoholic drinks at all, although I believe this one has now been repealed everywhere. So coffee culture was necessarily non-alcoholic. (Perhaps some of my Melbourne based readers will tell me if this has changed since Jeff changed the laws. I suspect though that these customs only change slowly).

Which was why when I first came to England in 1991, things were not so good. The English were tea drinkers, and their coffee was terrible. But, things improved. By about 1995, companies with names such as "The Seattle Coffee Company" were opening stores in urban areas. These sold a product that was that clearly derived from the same Italian origins, but was typically a little more stirred and whipped than the coffees sold in Australia, and which perhaps had flavoured syrup added. It came in large paper cups with lids on, and cafes that sold it generally only offered counter service, although they often have nice comfy seats in which customers could sit down after buying their coffee. I took to this quite well. I went through a brief period of drinking lattes with flavoured syrup, but I ultimately got over it.

Of course, I later learned that there had been an Italian coffee revolution in Seattle over a period of a couple of decades, and that a company named Starbucks was now spreading this throughout America. And it came to Britain in a big way, probably because the existing coffee was so terrible. Starbucks itself entered the market by acquiring the Seattle Coffee Company and then rapidly expanding, and several other chains of Starbucks clone - Coffee Republic, Costa Coffee, Cafe Nero - expanded as fast if not faster. All adopted the American counter service model. Being American influenced, portions were large. Rather than the 8 ounce cup that Australians drink coffee from, these guys were selling 12, 16, even 20 ounce cups of coffee. The language of their coffee was once again bastardised Italian, but bastardised differently. In particularly it was bastardised to describe the sizes of the cups. English for the smaller sizes (Short and Tall) and Italian for the larger. (Grande, most notably. Starbucks started using "Venti" for its largest cup, but trademarked this, meaning that its competitors have had to make up alternative words such as "gigante".

In any event, because they are American derived, the one things that these cafes do not do is serve alcoholic drinks. I think there is something to be said for having a few bottles of beer in the fridge for people who would prefer one of those, and there is really no difficulty under English law opening such a cafe.

However, American model does not allow from this. The puritan culture still rather runs through it, I think. This is a country that thinks it is bad for college students to drink alcohol, and it would no doubt be a terribly immoral thing for a cafe selling coffee to people under 21 to also sell beer to adults. And in any event, people over 21 shouldn't have to watch such a thing if they don't want to. Selling alcoholic drinks at Starbucks or similar would be like selling alcohol at McDonald's or selling alcohol at Disneyland. It just doesn't really fit in the American cafe model. And that is the one we have in Britain for now.

Except of course that these things still evolve. When EuroDisney (now Disneyland Paris) was opened in France, it initially was completely non-alcoholic, just like in California or Florida. The French public responded to this by shaking their heads in blank incomprehension, and changing this rule was one of the first things done (along with changing the name) to help fix the situation when EuroDisney was initially loss making. (It now makes large profits). It may be one day that American-Italian Starbucks culture in Britain will evolve into some authentically British-American-Italian-Slavic-Armenian coffee culture, which does allow beer. But I think it is a while away.

So there we are. For the moment, the Anglosphere seems unable to to combine a bar and cafe as does the Latin world. I think this is silly.

But for now the American Starbucks coffee model seems to be spreading. Even Australia has Starbucks, and American bastardised Italian seems to be invading. McDonald's is rolling out espresso bars elsewhere in the world based on the Autralian model, but with Starbucks speak. The cafe-bar may even be in decline. This would be kind of sad, except that there is not much to decline from.

And I think this may be a little denbestian. But it is my blog.

I have a piece on naming European cheeses and (in passing) wine over at Samizdata.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Are they really sure I am not a super agent and an engineer. After all, I am an evil genius

I have written before at length about the various film adaptations of the writings of Philip K Dick. On one such occasion, I noted that director John Woo was making a film starring Ben Affleck based on Dick's short story "Paycheck". There is now a trailer available. (It's only small sized, so it is probably just about watchable over dialup). From just looking at the trailer, the film looks pretty good, and very faithful to the source material. We will see if the film retains the ending of the original story. The last film adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story was Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. That one completely changed the ending and in doing so thoroughly trashed the source material. I doubt this one will, however, given that the ending of the original story is unusually upbeat for Dick, and the story is constructed in such a way that changing the ending would render the rest of the story completely incomprehensible.

However, the main character did not have a first name in the original story. In the movie, he does. And the one they chose is going to make watching the film somewhat disconcerting, I fear.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Tiny cricket reference

I have a brief piece on Shane Warne's latest woes over at Ubersportingpundit.

Monday, August 11, 2003


I have a piece on globalisation and bookstores over at Samizdata.

Update: I'm an evil genius. Cool.
Old movies that are good

I just watched the DVD of The Manchurian Candidate, a famous film that I had never seen but that is every bit as good as its reputation says it is. In particular, it is wonderfully well written from a character and dialogue point of view. It is striking as to just how much dialogue the film has compared to modern films, too. Some of it is simply monologues, with one character explaining the situation to another. This isn't unique to this particular film, though. These days, Hollywood studios feel that the audience is going to lose interest if there is a camera on one character for more than a few seconds, and so there is a huge amount of cutting to another shot, and trying to do things visually. Cameron Crowe and Billy Wilder talk about this in Crowe's book Conversations with Wilder. Wilder was particularly fond of relatively long closeup shots of actors faces, in which you could watch their emotions unfolding. These days, such shots tend to get cut. Audiences are presumed to be too impatient to watch long scenes of character development. I don't believe that they are, but Hollywood seems to. (Why is this? Is it that directors these days tend to come from the worlds of television commercials and music videos? Is it that the non-English speaking world is more and more important to Hollywood and films with less dialogue travel better? Is it that in the age of special effects and amazing visual possibilities this is now considered to be all that matters? I don't know, although this is an issue which will come up again when I discuss the relative failure of this summer's Hollywood films.

In this particular film, I love Angela Lansbury's performance in this film. Her role appears minor at the start of the film, but slowly grows in prominence and importance as layer after layer is revealed about the character and her loyalties and motivations. Really good stuff. .
Big movie budgets

Spurred on by and article on Kevin Costner's return the the world of Westerns, James Russell get annoyed with the author of the article stating that Waterworld was the first film to cost more than $100 million, when this was clearly not so. He speculates that the author meant to say that it was the first film to cost more than $200m.

It's a bit hard to tell what films cost because studios and producers lie about it so much, but neither statement is right. When it was released in 1991, Terminator 2 was widely reported to have been the first film to cost over $100 million. However, the producers never admitted this, claiming that the budget was just under $100. A couple of years ago the Internet Movie Database was reporting the budget for the film at about $95 million, but they now report $100 million, and it is now widely acknowledged that it actually did cost $100m. James Cameron's next film, True Lies (1994) was the first film for which the producers actually admitted a $100m budget. Both these films were expensive, but also seriously profitable (especially Terminator 2) so in the end people weren't too bothered about the costs.

Waterworld was widely publicised as an out of control production at the time that True Lies was in the theatres, and it was eventually released in 1995. (Original director Kevin Reynolds was sacked towards the end of the production and Costner ended up directing a fair bit of the movie, but was not credited). At the time, rumours were that the budget was around the $160-170 million mark, which was massively in excess of the cost of any other movie up to that time, and way over budget. At the time, I didn't hear any claims that it cost over $200m, and the IMDB now reports it at $175m.

As for Universal's claims that the film made a profit, don't believe them. At the time, the rule of thumb was that if film's domestic (ie US and Canada) gross exceeded the budget, then it would make a profit when all the revenues came in from various sources. Waterworld grossed $88 million in the US, which was way short. Things were helped by its non-US grosses being much greater than that ($167m), but still the studio would have been hard pressed to get its outlay back. The best that can be said is that the film did find an audience, so Universal didn't take a bigger bath than it would have with most unsuccessful films. That said, given that the best thing that can be said is that Universal risked $175 million and although they may have got most of the money back they made no return, they would certainly have rather done without the whole thing. (And in my opinion it was a really bad film).

The first film with a $200m budget in actuality was likely Titanic (1997), which was also widely reported as an out of control production. (Like most out of control productions, it was filmed on water. The reason for this is that on land if you mess a shot up, you simply have another take. On water, your set and props have floated away, and setting everything up again takes a lot more time). That one grossed $600m domestically and $1.2bn in the rest of the world, which was so immensely profitable that nobody cared about the budget in the end. And that has been the pattern with James Cameron generally. He has broken the record for most expensive film three times, but has always managed to produce interesting films that have made money.

Just as a final point, the old rule of thumb that a film must gross its budget domestically to end up profitable is much less true than it used to be, because films gross a larger portion of their box-office revenues outside the US than they used to, and because DVDs are now responsible for a much greater proportion of revenues than VHS tapes ever were. All that said, Hollywood is having a terrible summer this year, because at least half a dozen movies have cost $150m, $200m or more to make and have then fizzled at the box office. I shall be writing a report on just why Hollywood's films this year have cost so much, why Hollywood didn't believe this mattered, and why in the end it did, but this shall not be seen from me for a couple of weeks.

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