Saturday, May 17, 2003

I am busy

Blogging is going to be extremely light for the next two weeks. I will try to stick to my daily posting schedule, but it may be that my "posts" end up being just a couple of sentences.
Eurovision Song Contest

Adam at the Supermercado Project has a preview of tonight's Eurovision Song Contest. I usually watch the show for its surreal camp goodness, but I may or may not have time to watch it this year. It would be a shame if I missed it, because not only will our favourite Russian schoolgirl lesbians be competing, but I also need to find out whether the opening of border crossings over the Green Line will affect the tradition of Greece giving 12 points to Cyprus and Cyprus giving 12 points to Greece (almost certainly not, I suspect). Plus, there is the annual opportunity to see the people of the Germanosphere demonstrate that they do in fact have senses of humour, as for some reason they tend to take the contest even less seriously than does everybody else. Adam is particularly taken by Austrian entrant Alf Poier, and his truly remarkable lyrics, which I cannot help but repeat.

I like most animals on this earth
But I really prefer little rabbits and bears

Soon all birds and beetles will die
But Adam's in bed with Eve busy reproducing

Rabbits live in the woods
Cats in the meadows
And cockroaches
Live under tiles

Little rabbits have short noses
And kittens soft paws
And Mother Holle likes her wool
From the african dromedary

The difference between animals such as apes and primates
Is no bigger than between noodles and pasta

But whoever wants to know more about animals should study Biology or inform himself on my homepage

Some animals have wings
And others have fins
Some live outdoors
And others in cans

Small rabbits…..

Sadly, I am not capable of knowing whether they are more or less extraordinary in the original German. Informing myself using the resources of the BBC homepage, I can however discover something about the man's personal philosophy.

My song is a hymn for individualism and against collectivism. I am also for balls and against circles, for corners and against edges, for trees and against the forest. In my performance it is not so much the song that counts but the moral attitude behind it. Whoever votes for me is against being standardized and cemented in by 'European Banality'.

Actually that sounds like a pretty good Samizdata Slogan of the day.

Update: Adam also refers to the highly fashionable Estonians who will be singing their song "Eighties coming back". Actually, I wasn't aware that the eighties had happened the first time in Estonia.

Further Update: It has been pointed out to me that the Eurovision song contest is in fact on next week, not this week. Damn. No Russian fake schoolgirl alleged lesbians for me. This is a lesson that you shouldn't believe what you read in the blogosphere.

Friday, May 16, 2003

One question

Are Carroll diagrams harder or easier to mutilate?

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Russians scientists confirm national stereotypes

This is great.

Russian scientists claim to have come up with a novel way of warding off Sars - a double shot of vodka.

Experts from the Medical Academy, in Moscow, believe the worldwide commotion over the virus is over-exaggerated.

Leading scientist Anatoli Vorobijev, from the department of microbiology and immunology, says the daily consumption of 10 centilitres of vodka should be enough to ward off the life-threatening epidemic.

(via Gweilo Diaries).

Next week: Scots confirm whisky will ward off Sars. University of Bordeaux researchers confirm red wine will ward off Sars. Researcher in Munich recommend beer for warding off Sars. Australians don't have the slightest &*£$%ing idea what wards off Sars, but will continue drinking all these things anyway.
Thoughts on the looting, or lack of it

Regular readers will know that I got extremely upset about the apparent looting of the Iraqi National Museum. It is now clear that the looting was on a much smaller scale than was reported at the time. I am profoundly grateful that this is so, and that many more of Iraq's cultural treasures are intact than it appeared.

I still think that if looters had been going in and out of the museum for two whole days, and 70000 to 150000 artifacts had been stolen, it would have been negligence on the part of the American forces and their commanders if they had done nothing about it. However, it is now clear that this did not happen, and that the number of stolen artificats was actually in the tens to hundreds, and many of these thefts may have been inside jobs of one kind or another. In this case there is no reasonable way that American forces could have stopped the looting, and the forces were in no way negligent. I still think that Don Rumsfeld's statement about "How many vases could there be?" shows profound ignorance about ten thousand years of history of Iraq, but that isn't really the issue here.

All that said, even if only 20 artifacts were taken it is still likely that the cultural damage due to the looting is quite considerable. As Jay points out, if you steal the 20 most important artifacts from almost any museum, you have likely taken a large portion of the total value of the collection, at least in financial terms. However, it seems clear that the looters knew what they were looking for, and that they stole specific items so that they could sell them to "collectors" (sneer quotes fully justified, I think) rather than just plundering in the hope that they might be able to get something indeterminate for them later. This hopefully means that the items were mostly not damaged in the looting. The number of items looks sufficiently small that trying to recover a fair proportion of them doesn't look quite so hopeless. If the Americans monitor the borders and the art trade with very strict instructions what to look for, then hopefully some will turn up. Any American soldiers or officials who succeed in recovering any of these artifacts deserve tremendous praise. I hope I will see at least some of this.

However, what I now want to know is where the hell did those news stories about 70000 and 150000 arifacts being looted come from? Was Jayson Blair writing about the subject? Were these stories simply being made up by people at the BBC who wanted to make the Americans look bad? Was it Ba'athists wanting to make the Americans look bad? I do not know how it is possible to confuse 20 or 200 or even 2000 items with 150000. And why did the whole media report the stories like this? Why was there so much credulity all the way from Iraq to me. Someone does need to investigate.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

What race is Bart Simpson?

The answer to this controversial and important question was actually once answered by the Reverend Lovejoy's daughter Jessica.

Remember, I'm the sweet, perfect minister's daughter, and you're just yellow trash.

What could be more definitive than that.
Greeting Cards and Triplets?

Yesterday, I was in a newsagent buying some stationery. While there, I walked past the greeting cards section. Personally, I never buy greeting cards tailored for a special occasion (except at Christmas), but instead I simply buy cards without any words on them and write my own words. The principal reason for this is that I find the words provided by the card manufacturers to generally by cringe inducingly awful in their banality. (No, I'm not cheap. I am actually a greeting card snob).

In any event, yesterday I saw a card with the words "Congratulations on your triplets" amongst the cards intended to be given to new parents. I was quite surprised by this. Rates of multiple births vary from country to country, but typically something like one in 7000 to 10000 births are naturally triplets. I have known plenty of twins, but never in my life have I met anyone I have known to be a triplet. (I must have met a small number that I have not known about). Thus unless the newsagent stocks a selection of cards for new parents numbered in the thousands, I think they are unlikely to ever sell that one.

On the other hand, the numbers of multiple births have increased considerably due to (a) mothers getting older and more importantly (b) use of fertility treatment. It is harder to find statistics on the effects of this in terms of frequency. However, what interests me is whether the presence of this card indicates that the number of triplets has increased so much that the card companies genuinely think that it is worth their while to produce cards for triplets, or whether it simply indicates that someone at the card company does not understand statistics. (Given the number of different events greeting cards are produced for nowadays, I would have thought that a proper statistical alalysis of how many cards you need to stock and of what kinds would be relatively important by now).

The urge to go and visit shops that sell prams and ask how difficult it is to obtain special ones for triplets is something I will now resist the urge to do.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

The West Indies continue to fight, and look like winning.

The fourth test between Australia and the West Indies is nearing completion and it has been the best match in ages. I have only written about day 1 so far, and I only have time for a brief discussion of days 2 to 4. Essentially, after Australia were bowled out for 240 in the first innings, Australia fought back. The West Indian first innings was an odd one, with the Australians taking wickets at one end, and Brian Lara looking majestic at the other end. All the Australian bowlers shared the wickets, with particularly good work from Bichel. Lara managed to score 68, before hitting a catch off Bichel. When it looked like the middle and lower order would combine with Lara to add enough runs to get the West Indies some kind of a lead, Brett Lee ran Jacobs out brilliantly for 26. Lee fielded off his own bowling, saw that Jacobs was out of his ground and threw down the stumps at the batsman's end before he could get back. I have seen many bowlers attempt this kind of dismissal, but this is one of the first times I have actually seen the bowler succeed. My compliments to Lee here. In any even, the West Indies also scored 240, and the two teams were precisely even on the first innings.

Australia's openers came out really firing, and Langer and Hayden put on a tremendous partnership of 273. Langer and Hayden both scored centuries. From there, Australia should have scored at least 500 and put the match out of reach. However, when Langer was out, Gilchrist (who had been promoted up the order - either because he was a player Waugh had faith in, or to unnecessarily get quick runs), Love and Lehmann were all out quickly. This left us with Hayden and Steve Waugh batting. Fine. I have faith in both these players. But then Hayden was stupidly run out. And then the tail was again out quickly. Glenn McGrath showed some resistance for the final wicket, but he was eventually out with the score on 417. Steve Waugh was not out 45, having not quite boosted his career average back to 50, although he is getting close (49.83). Basically though, it wasn't very impressive. Lehmann and Love failed under pressure. I would rather have one Ricky Ponting or Damien Martyn than both of them. The tail, which is supposed to be much stronger at batting than most tails, failed to support Steve Waugh when he was batting well, and he was stranded on 45 not out. The first job of tail order batsmen is to ensure that any specialist batsmen still not out can score to their potential. If a tail collapses quickly that effectively reduces the number of specialist batsmen from six to five. Here it reduced it from six to about five and a half. (Three and a half if you don't coun't Lehmann and Love. I am being cynical today). The middle order and the tail both collapsed twice in this match, which was not impressive. The target should have been at least 500

However, the West Indies were set 418 to win. No side has ever successfully chased a target that large to win a test match, and it should have been enough. But, the West Indian batting lineup is strong. Ganga, Lara, Sarwan, Chanderpaul, are all capable of scoring runs against most attacks. The danger in this series has always been that more than one of them would perform in the same innings.

The West Indies took the score to 0/47 at stumps on the third day, but Gayle, Smith, and Ganga were all out quickly on the second. Australia had Lara, Sarwan and Chanderpaul to get through, essentially. Lara put together a good partnership with Sarwan, but again Lara was out in the 60s when looking majestic, this time bowled by a big turning legbreak from MacGill. Sarwan and Chanderpaul then came together, and put on an outstanding partnership of 123. Sarwan eventually scored his second test century, a fine 105, before being caught and bowled by Lee. Jacobs was given out caught next ball, clearly incorrectly. (The umpiring has been terrible in this series). A bad break for him, but the West Indies were six wickets down with 130 runs still needed. It looked like Australia were close to being home. Banks was dropped - an easy catch at slip missed by Love off Lee - in the next over.

And after that, Chanderpaul continued to bat magnificently, and Banks supported him ably. By stumps, the partnership was 83 and the score was 6/371, with the West Indies needing only abother 47 runs and Chanderpaul on 103 not out, his eighth test century and second of the series. The West Indies really should win from here. However, given the Australian ability to come back from the dead that was demonstrated at times in the World Cup, nobody can write them off.

Australia have a habit of taking a wicket or wickets very early on a day, or very early in a session. To win from here, they need to to the same thing here. My strategy would be to throw the ball to Brett Lee and to tell him to bowl a couple of really fast yorkers and see what happens. Lee has the ability to rise to an occasion. I am thinking of the second VB series final against England a couple of months ago. England looked like winning, but Lee came back on and really pulled something special out of the bag to remove the last few batsmen and win the match for Australia. It wouldn't surprise me too much to see him do it here. It is also possible that his pace could make it easier to score runs and this move will lose the match, but it is worth a try. If the match is lost in such circumstances, I will not blame him so much as batting that went wrong in both innings. And Love will really rue dropping that catch.

If a wicket falls in the first 15 minutes, the finish of this match is going to be really exciting, with a win for either side or a tie all being possibilities. If Chanderpaul and Banks can bat out the first half hour, the West Indies will probably be home.

Meanwhile, in other cricket, there is a one day tournament going on in Sri Lanka between Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Pakistan. So far New Zealand have resoundingly beaten Pakistan who have resoundingly beaten Sri Lanka who have less resoundingly beaten New Zealand. As the tournament has bonus points that means that New Zealand are ahead of Pakistan who are ahead of Sri Lanka on the points table. Each side has to play each other again before the final of that tournament, so really anything could happen there.

Update: And the West Indies did win: the game. When Chanderpaul was caught behind off Lee after ten minutes of play, with only one run added to the overnight score, it looked like it might be Australia's day after all. However, Banks and Drakes batted sensibly to get the West Indies over the line without the loss of any further wickets. In an hour and a bit of good tense cricket, we had a couple of near edges, one mistimed pull shot which went up in the air and could have come down anywhere but came down away from the fieldsmen, one close but probably correctly not out LBW appeal followed by an enormous six from Drakes, two extremely close LBW appeals off successive balls (the first of which looked absolutely plumb, the second of which also looked out on the replay, but for which the Australians only appealed half-heartedly, perhaps because it wasn't as good a shout as the one the ball before) and a couple of French cuts near the stumps that went for four. I think Steve Waugh made a small blunder in not bringin Glenn McGrath on earlier. As it was he ended up bowling only one over, but it was a really good over. Still, very well played by the West Indians. However, Australia really should not have lost the match from a position where they led by 273 in the second innings with ten wickets remaining. The middle order batsmen did let the side down. Once again, Australia have lost a match after the series was decided.

The main thing that the West Indies can take from the series is the thought that their batting looks much improved. Ganga, Lara, Chanderpaul and Sarwan potentially form the nucleus of one of the best batting sides in world cricket.
A good site

I wasn't aware of Aaron Oakley's Bizarre Science site until he linked to me yesterday and sent a hundred or so visitors my way. Thanks for that. The site has some good stuff, too. Aaron is today discussing the pointlessness of the Victorian government spending money on wind power generators that cost too much, spoil the view, and quite probably take out at least a few innocent birds.

I can however observe that there is one positive benefit of these wind generators. When I went for a trip along the Victorian coast about 18 months ago, I drove past the existing set of wind power generators near Port Campbell National Park. I was mildly curious, so when I reached a carpark, I stopped and got out for a look. Like many people driving along the Victorian coast, I decided this was as good a place as any to take a break. I discovered that for three or four dollars I could go for a tour of the site, which involved getting in a Land Cruiser, going up close and presumably being told lots of eco-waffle. I declined this great opportunity. However, the little booth selling tickets also doubled as an espresso bar. I was able to buy myself an excellent latte, which made the next portion of my drive much more enjoyable.

I am suspect that building wind generators is not a cost effective way of bringing better coffee to rural Victoria, but this is one side benefit none the less.

Monday, May 12, 2003

China or India

Natalie Solent links to Chris Bertram talking about British school history textbooks playing down the extent of the catastrophe that was Mao's Great Leap Forward. This just makes me think of another bugbear of mine, which is that of the two countries that between them have more than a third of the world's population, why is it that China gets so much more press (and in some ways better press) than India? This is not to say that China deserves less press. I personally find the country fascinating, and I find it extremely interesting that a large portion of the world's manufacturing has moved to the southern coastal portion of China near Hong Kong.

However, when I think about the relatively success of the two countries, particularly with reference to the sorts of things that Natalie is talking about, an extremely fundamental question comes to mind, and that is "In which country would prefer to have spent the last 50 years?". It is a phenomenally easy question to answer. During the Cold War, India at times cosied up to close to the wrong side, India is too bureacratic, and for many years India adopted a foolish economic system of "self-reliance", that reduced the country's economic dealings with the outside world and consequently reduced economic growth very significantly. However, the country has had no mass starvation, and there has been no large scale repression of citizens. In the last ten years the economy has improved, the middle class has grown, and Bombay has grown to be one of the world's larger sources of popular culture. It hasn't been as big an economic success story as China (although when discussing this point, it is always worth remembering that most Chinese statistics are made up), but progress has been quite positive.

If you move on to the question "In which country would you rather live today?" the question is perhaps less clear cut, but the arguments in favour of India are still pretty strong. In terms of things like basic liberties, India is far ahead. (Obviously it is better to be rich or middle class in either country than poor in the other). There is less arbitrary authority in India, more freedom of speech, and a more accountable legal system. (These things are far from perfect, but I am comparing to China). India has political and legal institutions that are capable of evolving into the institutions that can support an advanced economy. It is highly questionable that China does. If China is ever to become a proper member of the modern world, at some point it has to cease to be an authoritarian state. As a minimum, this change will be painful. The worst case scenarios involve considerable bloodshed. (A relatively peaceful transition can perhaps be done. Smaller formerly authoritarian states such as South Korea and Taiwan have managed it. However, it is by no means assured). China's economy for the moment is helped by the country's relatively good infrastructure, which India lacks. However, an infrastructure building binge is actually a relatively short term deal, providing someone is willing to provide the capital. (China had the good fortune that in the 1990s, people were willing to provide the capital. The global economy is now much less full of people willing to do this). However, if the financial situation is right, it's a ten year project. However, I think it has to happen at some point. When it does, India is a country about which we should be enormously optimistic.

My main feeling I think is that India has managed to remain a democracy for the last 50 years, and that is no small achievement. The country deserves more credit that it gets for this.

No this isn't actually going to happen. But a Bollywood musical about an Indian space mission written by Bruce Sterling is something that would make my decade.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

And I am '100% a Dutchman'

Rod Marsh says he is '100% English'.

(Okay, he did qualify that by saying 'in cricketing terms').
Why you should continue reading Salam Pax

He is great at describing little details of places and situations.

The streets markets look like something out of a William Gibson novel. Heaps of cheap RAM (stolen of course) is being sold beside broken monitors beside falafel stands and weapons are all available. Fights break out justlikethat and knives come out from nowhere, knives just bought 5 minutes ago. There are army sighting thingys, Weird looking things with lenses. And people selling you computer cases who tell you these are electric warmers, never having seen a computer case before. Really truly surreal. Software CDs, Movie CDs and cheap porn. And a set of 5 CDs called [the crimes of saddam] it has things from halabja, the footage they have taped during 91 while squishing the uprising after the war and other stuff about Uday, there is one whole CD about Uday. Have not seen any of them yet. They say there is some gruesome footage on them but the Uday CD is not as juicy as you’d think.

Interestingly enough, William Gibson himself, who is a fiction writer who is great at describing little details of places and situations and knows that this is one of the best ways of capturing the mood of a place, has been much taken by the Salam Pax's writings over the last couple of months. It is clear that this is the type of situation that he finds interesting, and the type of situation that thus finds its way into his books. (See Gibson's blog here, here, and here).

Of course, when Salam Pax himself observed that it was like something out of a Gibson novel, it then got a little weirder. Gibson described this as a "peculiar frisson for yours truly". Gibson himself is in a way drawn in, and having visualised a world somewhat like the present in 1983, Gibson is drawn in to its actual making, almost like the way in which Coppola and De Niro were drawn in when real life gangsters supposedly started aping those of the characters in The Godfather in the early 1970s.

Gibson goes on to praise Pax's writing ability, and discusses how the reconstruction is likely to give Salam Pax much better material to write with than did the actual war. He goes on to talk about logistics.

If WIRED was really on their game, they'd parachute Mr. Pax a solar-powered laptop and whatever satellite-cellular rig he'd need to blog daily, *right now*. Then leave him the hell alone, except, possibly, for a simple banner proclaiming "SALAM PAX'S BLOGGING-TACKLE PROVIDED GRATIS BY WIRED MAGAZINE AND [NAMES OF MANUFACTURERS]".

This is genuinely a good idea, and of course if someone at Wired Magazine (or somewhere else) was to read Gibson's blog and actually do this as a consequence, then the feedback would get even more complex. This was sort of on my mind when I wrote the other day that the Guardian needs to pay Salam Pax for publishing two pages worth of his blog. Legally (and morally) there is no issue here. Salam Pax is clearly entitled to be paid, and as I suspect the Guardian is not the only newspaper in the world which has published his writings, the amount of money he is entitled to be paid would be at least a few thousand dollars by now. His various complaints about the cost of internet time would be alleviated quickly by the simple payment of the money which he is already owed. Salam Pax is famous in the outside world, and at some point the world is going to find out who he is and this is going to intrude on his life. There might be free computer gear, but there are also going to be things like interviews and book contracts - even if the book is simply a book of the blog. As to whether this will destroy the innocence of the blog, I don't know.

Gibson's writing started out being about artificial intelligences attempting to use rogue computer hackers to not so much take over the world as to earn their own identity within it. The focus was initially about technology obsessed people. As time has gone on, his books have become more and more about media obsessed people. This pattern has followed the modern economy: the last ten years have to some extent been about the media and the technology Gibson was originally talking about meeting one another. (Gibson always knew this, and even his earliest fiction - for instance the short story The Winter Market in Burning Chrome is at least partly about this, but it has become more overt in his later writings). The fact that Salam Pax, and I suppose Iraq in general is making the same journey, only much faster, is what makes Salam Pax such a Gibsonian figure. The fact that he seems actually aware of this makes him even more Gibsonian.

(Just one final observation. In Neuromancer, published in 1983, Case, the main character, towards tthe start of the novel is attempting to fence the "three megabytes of hot RAM" in his computer. At the time, Gibson was more interested in the relationships people had with technology than the technology itself, and although his descriptions of technology come across as plausible and cool most of the time, this was something of a clanger. Three megabytes of RAM was not that much even at the time, and RAM was a boring commodity even then. Nobody would have expected it to be the sort of thing that high tech thieves would be after (and, three megabytes was obviously woefully inadequate for the technology of the world Gibson was describing). Therefore, "three megabytes of hot RAM" is something of an in joke amongst people who know Gibson's novels well. Salam Pax hasn't just made a reference to Gibson, he has made a little bit of a joke indicating that he knows his novels well, and has at least suggested that there is a subculture of Gibson fans in Iraq).

Such is the weirdness of the modern world.

Update: Nick Denton has now said some of the same things, and Glenn Reynolds has linked to him. If the technical issues at Samizdata were resolved and my posting privileges were sorted out, I would have posted it there rather than here, and Glenn Reynolds would have seen it, and he may have linked to me instead. Of course, that site has enough readers already, so in that case I wouldn't have needed the link.

Such is the unfairness of the modern world.

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