Saturday, November 30, 2002

This evening I found myself chatting with an American in the Starbucks in Borders in Charing Cross Road in London's West End. She appeared to be attempting to read all of Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels in the coffee shop in one sitting (a truly Titanic effort) without paying for them. I was reading the December Atlantic Monthly (which came complete with a nice poem in praise of Brunel) without paying for it. I interrupted her and started a conversation (which probably completely ruined the Neil Gaiman experience for her). The question of which bits of America I had been to came up. I mentioned I had visited Ohio, and she said something disparaging about Ohio, as Americans do. I replied with "You, know, there is an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which....." I was going to complete this sentence by saying "a character says 'Yes, I know there is a lot of demonic activity in Cleveland' into the phone, and my American friends find this line hilarious", but she just burst into giggles without my having to say anything. Americans always find that line to be hilariously funny. And she knew the line I was going to quote, even without my actually having to quote it. (I then admitted to having the first 122 episodes of Buffy on DVD, which is sad, given that only 100 episodes have been released on DVD. What I meant to say was that I had 100 episodes on DVD).

I get that the line about Cleveland is funny because Cleveland is perceived as one of the most boring places in the world, but I don't get why Americans find this line quite so funny. I think when I fully understand this, I will fully understand America.
We are getting terrorist attacks in places that are soft targets, like Bali, and like Kenya. Americans, Australians, Israelis and other target nationalities of the terrorists are being killed. And when this happens, of course, locals get killed. Hundreds of Kenyans and Tanzanians were killed in the 1998 US embassy attacks, many Balinese in the Sari Club bombing, and more Kenyans on Thursday. The terrorists would no doubt say that these deaths are unfortunate, but that the importance of their struggle justifies their deaths, or some such crap. It just makes me sick.

Kenyans in the village this evening said the carnage would deliver a devastating blow to their already weak economy. It is unfair, they complained, that innocent Kenyans would again have to die for causes they had nothing to do with. Then they started shouting against Arabs, some of whom have settled here and own stores in the city: "We love America," they yelled. "Go away al Qaeda."
The recently betrothed Sasha Castel links to a ludicrous (but true) story about how a disabled woman in a wheelchair was forced to travel to Luton airport and back, total journey time two hours, in order to get from one platform to another at City Thameslink station in the heart of London, as this was the nearest station with working lifts.

As background, The Thameslink line through London, which was being travelled on here, is an interesting piece of engineering. A couple of decades ago, engineers figured out that it would be possible to divert trains from the Midland main line, which until then had stopped at St Pancras, into a disused 19th century tunnel through the centre of London, across a bridge over the Thames, and then onto existing lines to Brighton and Wimbledon. This was done with very little expenditure, amd ot was very clever that the engineers got anything al all working. That said, the infrastruction on that line iscompletely inadequate. (This is particularly the case at Kings Cross Thameslink station , which should be the major station on the line with massively redundant facilities where Mrs Bates should have been able to change from one side to the other. However, the station is small, cramped, and inconvenient).

There are plans to upgrade this link, in order to provide longer platforms, better station infrastructure, better signalling to allow more trains per hour, an entirely new station at St Pancras to interchange with other trains, and a link to the East Coast main line, so that trains now terminating at Kings Cross can also go through the tunnel. As a demonstration of the efficiency of planning, this project is called "Thameslink 2000", because when it was first proposed the thought was that it would open in 2000. As it is, we haven't even got to the stage where it has full parliamentary approval to proceed. This is ridiculous, especially as one would think it is a complete no-brainer in terms of benefits, and because it is clearly needed to provide connections once Channel tunnel trains (and domestic trains from Kent using the new high speed line) start coming into St Pancras. However, the ability to just get rail connections built in Britain is sometimes lacking.

Friday, November 29, 2002

There's a good piece in the Spectator, explaining that the people of Afghanistan really are better off without the Taliban, unlike what the Guardian told us would be the case

'Who is this man?’ she demanded. I said that he was the Observer’s chief reporter. ‘How can he say such things?’ ‘Because he hates America,’ I said. ‘He also says that all the Taleban did was to make law out of what had always been the case in rural areas.’ There was uproar. Even the men joined in. They thought that this was really impertinent and offensive. ‘He also says,’ I went on, ‘that there is no need to ban television because there aren’t any.’ ‘Who does he think we are. Of course we’ve got television.’ And that’s true. I’ve watched television all over the country, even in a Khirgiz yurt in the High Pamirs.

Well, I have no idea what that last sentence means, but it sure sounds good.

Thursday, November 28, 2002

Stever Den Beste has a fine discussion of what we stand to gain from genetically modified crops, and how exactly it will be gained, as well as a rant against the EU ban on genetically modified crops, rather similar to my rant from the other day.

The process that Cornell used on rice shows the wave of the future: it is certain that the agricultural advantages of genetically-modified food crops in terms of yield quantity, and far more importantly in terms of yield consistency, will grow as the scientists learn more about plant genetics and as their techniques and tools continue to advance. They will gain more and more capability of learning how certain kinds of plants do useful things, and learning how to make others do the same. It will eventually be possible to create grains which can survive extremely inconsistent rains, and can be grown in very salty soil, with almost no risk at all of destruction by insects or plant diseases. And the holy grail of genetic modification will be when grains can be given the same ability that legumes have of fixing their own nitrogen, virtually eliminating the need for fertilizer.

This is staggering. This is potentially wonderful beyond words, and yet the European position is to ban it without discussion, and indeed without thought. We are not playing with anthrax here. What we are doing is moving a few genes around from plant species to plant species. It is conceivable that a genetic engineering effort could come up with something unexpected, but no more likely than natural evolution can come up with something unexpected. A modified plant could unexpectedly end up being poisonous, perhaps, but an artificial one is unlikely to get out of the laboratory. (Things going wrong are much more likely to simply lead to evolutionary dead ends like plants that can't reproduce). Even if it did, it wouldn't do any more harm than any of the poisonous plants that are already out there, of which there are many.

Judging by the feelings towards GM foods here in Britain, there is little chance that European policy will change any time soon. Political parties include "We will keep the ban on all GM foods" in their platforms as a matter of course without any thought. People buy huge amounts of organically grown food because "natural is better". Part of this is the scare over mad cow disease: the population feels it was lied to by scientists and the government and thinks this may happen again. Mostly though it is general unease with science and a refusal to think. When he talks about the horror of "Frankenstein foods", Prince Charles has the national mood right.

This is of course intellectually dishonest bullshit. Even if there are risks, it is still necessary to think about the situation, rather than just say GM crops are wrong and dismiss them from your mind. If your child has a bacterial infection and you refuse to let him take antibiotics for religious reasons, and he dies, you are implicated in his death. Not doing something where you could do something to save someone's life is as bad as killing them. If people starve when you could have done something that would help feed them, then you are implicated in this, too. Therefore, you have to think about it. This would be true even if there were potentially great dangers from genetically modified food. However, the fact that there are not makes it much worse.
I caught Mamoro Oshii's Avalon . I had been looking forward to seeing this for a while. Harry Knowles named it in his list of the best films of 2001 (although it is still unreleased in the US). Here we have Oshii, famed director of anime classic Ghost in the Shell making a live action film about virtual reality video games in Polish. And it was, well.... interesting. The plot is relatively simple. We are in a futuristic world in which there is an underground, illegal, dangerous, virtual reality video game called Avalon. Disaffected, marginalised people from a seemingly terminally depressed real world play it and watch it. The players play for money, but are obsessed and driven and you get the impression they would play it even without the money. Sometimes people get too obsessed with the game, and don't come out, ending up in catatonic states in hostpitals. Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak) is a star player, possibly with a little of a death wish. She plays alone, which is seen as dangerous, but refuses to join a team. She was a member of what was perhaps the greatest team of the past, and something went wrong, and the team disintegrated and one of its players didn't come out. She may or may not have been responsible for this. She sees peculiar clues in the game, some of which apparently lead to a new, top secret level of the game in which her questions of the past may be answered.

Okay, that sounds more exciting than it actually is. The film is slow, and puzzling, has a lyrical quality, and doesn't explain anything. The film is visually extraordinary, with both reality and the game shot in a weird, sepia like way. It's strictly in colour, but most of the colour is washed out. Both the real world and the game are full of conventions from video games: weird aircraft that people shoot at that could not exist in reality, shadows that aren't quite right, very limited characters, costumes, locations and sets.

As happens in this sort of movie, questions as to what actually is reality and what is a game do come up, but nothing is resolved at the end of the film. The decision to film it in Polish works in a weird sort of way. It (and the choice of music) gives it an otherworldly quality. That's Poland, mixed with the whole Eastern European thing: the Soviet style of architecture and engineering combined with being in transition, combined with a certain wild west quality feels right for underground virtual reality games, and yet somehow gives it some Poetry as well.

In the end, the film feels like a mixture of Ghost in the Shell and Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique . That perhaps sounds incongrous, but like the Kieslowski film, this is visually striking and narratively frustrating. The films use music in a strikingly similar way. In both cases a lot of viewers are going to be impressed but irritated at the end.

Including me, to tell the truth. Although this film is striking, it's in the end quite derivative. Most of the plot points were done much better by David Cronenberg in eXistenZ . If you want to think about the issues raised in this film, see that one instead. (It's also much funnier). And although this film feels different, the feel isn't that original either. It's the juxtaposition of the two things that is novel. And it doesn't entirely work. As I said, an interesting trip to the cinema more than an enjoyable one.

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

There is an amusing article in the Wall Street Journal about people's TiVos making odd choices as to which programs to record for them. Ideally, the machine will look at the programs you watch, and then record other similarly themed programs it thinks you will like:

Mr. Iwanyk, 32 years old, first suspected that his TiVo thought he was gay, since it inexplicably kept recording programs with gay themes. A film studio executive in Los Angeles and the self-described "straightest guy on earth," he tried to tame TiVo's gay fixation by recording war movies and other "guy stuff."

"The problem was, I overcompensated," he says. "It started giving me documentaries on Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Eichmann. It stopped thinking I was gay and decided I was a crazy guy reminiscing about the Third Reich."

or perhaps this

Mr. Cohen, 30, has a TiVo that mysteriously assumed he wanted Korean news programs. The Philadelphia lawyer gave thumbs down to anything Korean, and his TiVo got the message. Sort of. "The next day, it recorded the Chinese news," he says.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

There is a discussion on Samizdata about when Australia became independent and how cricket and Australian nationalism are mixed up. Brian Micklethwait said that:

During the inter-war period, when Australians couldn't even vote for their own government, Bradman was the great Australian national hero. Australia was a colony, ruled from London, and locally by the Viceroy. Pounding the Poms at cricket was just about the only way that Australia could get one over the Mother Country, short of launching a revolutionary war. Hence the rapturous Australian response to Bradman's heroics.

Since then, John Ray has observed that "Australia became independent in 1901".
Sadly, I don't think either of them are quite right, although I htink John is closer to the truth than Brian. Australians certainly actualy got to vote for their own governments even well before 1901, but Australia didn't really become independent until several decades later. The issue of when Australia became independent is a complicated one. The following is a fairly long discussion of how Australia became independent with only occasional mentions of cricket, and some people may want to skip it. (I have still simplified parts of it, none the less).

I said yesterday that "There are two threads in (Brian's) post, one about cricket, the other about (essentially) Australian constitutional history. (I will post a separate piece on Australian history later). What I meant by this is that while I disagree with Brian, the discussion of just why I disagree is a lengthy one, and at the time I wanted to talk about cricket. I would argue that the various parts of Australia became self-governing between 1855 and 1870, but that Austrlaia did not become indpendent until about 1935. On top of that, cricket played a very important role in Australian nationalism, but it did that more in the 1880s and 1890s than the 1930s.

Australia was originally founded as a series of "crown colonies", ruled directly by governors appointed from London. As soon as the Australian colonies had substantial free (ie non-convict or freed convict) populations, this proved unsatisfactory to the local populations, and in most colonies a "Legislative Council" of wealthy citizens was set up to assist the governor in the first half of the 19th century. These arrangements also proved unsatisfactory, and starting in about 1855 what was known as "responsible government" was set up. (All the Australian colonies had this by about 1870). A second body, known as a "Legislative Assembly" was set up in each colony. These bodies were democratically elected, starting out with a property based franchise that broadened to a universal franchise fairly quickly. (Most of the Australian colonies had broader franchises than did Britain at the same time). Essentially, the Australian colonies has Westminster parliamentary systems in which their Assemblies took the place of the House of Commons and the Councils the place of the House of Lords. The Australian state governments retain this structure to this day (although the Legislative Councils are now generally also democratically elected).

Once the Australian colonies had responsible government, their elected governments had complete control over domestic affairs. (London theoretically could overrule them, but it never did). They taxed their populations, created a body of criminal law, ran the police, schools and postal service. They built the roads and railways. Once they existed, the governor had little to do but rubber stamp the decisions of the governments.

The problem of this system was that there were six of these governments. In particular there was great rivalry between the colonies of New South Wales (and Sydney) and Victoria (and Melbourne). Sydney was the older city, but Melbourne was the richer city. The Sydney establishment was in favour of free trade. The Melbourne establishment was protectionist. The states were unable to cooperate on anything. Most notoriously, the colonies built rail systems with different track gauges. This meant that to travel by rail from Sydney to Melbourne, you had to change trains at the border. (The reason for this was that the colonial governments wanted produce from their colony to be exported via the capital city of that colony, and having incompatible rail networks made this more likely). There were tarrifs on goods being transported from one colony to another. There was little sense of national Australian identity, but quite a bit of identification with particular colonies.

In 1876, a cricket team from England, featuring many of the best players in the world, visited Australia. It was taken as a given that local players would not be able to compete with the English, so the English team of 11 played local teams of a larger number of players to attempt to create a contest. The England team was beaten by a couple of these larger teams in Sydney and Melbourne, and it was suggested that perhaps a combined team eleven of the best players from both Sydney and Melbourne might be able to compete with the English on equal terms. Eventually, after much haggling between Sydney and Melbourne (Fred Spofforth, the great Australian bowler of the day, refused to play because the wicket keeper came from the wrong city) a team was selected and the game was played. To the surprise of a lot of people, the Australian team won. In 1882, an Australian tem beat and England team in London.

After this, combined Australian teams were regularly selected to play against England, and later South Africa. Therefore, Australia had a national cricket team when it did not exist as a nation. The cricket team was just about the first national institution. In this case, no excuses could be made, as Australia had beaten the best team England could put on the field, on English territory. In Australia, the celebrating was even greater. Nationalism due to cricket was a factor in the establishment of a national identity, that led to the constitutional conferences of the 1890s that led to the establishment of Australia's federal government in 1901. Cricket was not the key factor, but it played a role.

As mentioned, a series of constititutional conferences in the 1890s established that the rivalry between the Australian colonies was counterproductive, and proposed the establishment of a federal government to control those aspects of government for which it made sense to have Australia wide policy. A constitution was written, and the Australian colonies eventually all approved it by referendum. On January 1, 2001, the Commonwealth of Australia came into being.

The federal constitution that came into force in 1901 (and which is still in force) was a document written by Australian country lawyers, and was then sent to London to be ratified by the British parliament. There was an attempt to change it by some British parliamentarians before it was ratified, but the Australians absolutely refused to accept any changes. However, it was still a colonial document. The powers of the head of state are clearly divided into those of the "Queen" (ie the British acting directly) and the "Governor-General" (the Queen's representative in Australia, normally acting without reference to London). The G-G also is given the power to refer decisions to "The Queen", that is send legislation to London for the British to look at before it comes into force. These provisions for London to overrule the Australian government were not used even once, but the basic gist of all this was that although Australia gained a national government in 1901, and was certainly self governing, it could not really be described as independent. And it wasn't much more independent than the individual colonies had been before 1901. It had some national institutions, but not others. (Australia used the British currency until the 1930s, there was no separate Australian citizenship until the late 1940s, the highest court of appeal was in London until the 1960s, Australia did not really have its own foreign policy etc). In particular, Australia did not have independent foreign policy at this time.

I think in the few decades that followed the devotion of Australia to its sporting teams certainly did partly come from this "not quite a colony, not quite a country" status. Australians did get to vote for their own government, but there was some question as to whether that government was completely independent. Following the cricket team was much less confusing.

As to when Australia did become independent, subsequent to the Balfour Declaration of 1926, when Britain announced that Britain and its dominions (including Australia) would subsequently have equal status within the Commonwealth, Britain passed a law called the Statute of Westminster in 1931, which stated that Britain would no longer have to power to legislate for their self-governing former colonies. This is as good a date as any to give for independence (better than 1901, IMO), but even that is confusing, as Australia insisted that the Statute initially not apply to it. (Australia thought that if political ties to Britain were weakened, Britain would be less likely to protect Australia in the event of a war against Japan). Therefore, the Statute was written in such a way that it did not apply to Australia until Australia applied a law agreeing to it. Australia finally did this in 1942, shortly after the fall of Singapore had made it clear that Britain could not protect Australia from Japan and when Australia wanted to make it very clear that Australia would act in its own interests in the war). However for 11 years the situation was that Britain had granted Australia independence as soon as Australia passed a law accepting it, which it refused to do. In that time, in theory, Britain could have repealed the law granting independence, so whether Australia was independent or not was a point for the philosophers.

By the end of the second world war, Australia was clearly independent by any definition, and after the war in the Pacific in which the US came to our aid, our key foreign relationship was clearly with the US. The relatively few national institutions that were still missing (eg separate citizenship from the British) were established shortly. Various other colonial anachronisms have been removed at various times since. but these generally were anachronisms that didn't matter. (For instance, the Statute of Westminster in theory only applied to federal laws, and the state parliaments were in theory still subservient to Britain, and this wasn't fixed until 1986)
A couple of weeks ago, I briefly quoted Lord Byron's thoughts on the fact that the Wahhabists had taken over the holy sites of Islam, from the poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage , published in 1812. This afternoon, I was walking past the British Library and I just popped in for a look at the exhibition rooms. In the room entitled "Treasures of the British Library", which is full of original manuscripts of Lewis Carroll, Jane Austen, and many other writers, as well as first folios of Hamlet and many other items of great cultural value, I quite by accident found myself looking at the notebook in which the first draft of the poem was written in Byron's handwriting. London is like that: full of wonderful and extraordinary things.
Instapundit points out some good news on trade .

The US will on Tuesday unveil a bold proposal to eliminate tariffs on manufactured goods, calling for countries in the World Trade Organisation to sweep away all duties no later than 2015. . . .

This is indeed good news. And the benefits are potentially large. But this is the easy stuff. The ideological war on free trade for industrial goods has been won, and it is a matter of wiping out a few relatively small but occasionally powerful vested interests. This is almost entirely a rich world thing, and the beneficiaries of this are largely in the rich world. (The poor world will benefit for this, but less so. There is a mention of clothing (which hopefully means textiles in all forms - not just finished clothing) in the article, which is good, however).

Jowever, the important battle at this point is on agricultural goods, and they are not mentioned anywhere in the article, probably because both the US and Europe have been moving backwards lately. The simplest thing is that the rich world could do to improve the lot of the poor world would be to abolish all agricultural subsidies and create a completely free market in food and other agricultural products. The benefits of this would be immense, and almost immediate. However, the ideological case for this one has not been won. Huge bodies of western opinion are convinced that agricultural subsidies and protection are a good thing, and our governments are both too stupid and too in hock to vested interests to make the case for free markets. And as I was arguing yesterday, the enviro-green movement aids and abets the protectionists. I rant about this subject a lot, but it is unbelievably important.

Update: Brink Lindsey has some thoughts on the subject, essentially that is is a statement of good intent from the Bush Administration, and that we should be pleased. However, the US textiles industry will fight hard against it, and this is not nearly as good as it sounds if such things as anti-dumping laws remain in place.

Monday, November 25, 2002

NZ pundit discusses the results of the BBC's competition to find the ten greatest (and then the greatest) Briton of all time. I watched the program on the BBC last night where they counted the votes, and the proponents of each of the top ten who put the programs together had a debate.

They cut it down to the last three and got Churchill, Brunel and Diana. They then asked the proponents of the other seven which out of the three they would vote for. (Most went for Churchill). However, I was struck by the comments of Fiona Shaw, who was the proponent for Shakespeare. Firstly she said something along the lines of "I am sad not so much about what Shakespeare missed out on than I am about what the voters missed out on". Then, when asked to choose from the remaining three, she said that "There is no way I am voting for Bob the Builder" (ie Brunel) with this amazing tone of contempt, before voting for, of all people, Diana. I had almost forgotten how patronising and wilfully ignorant British arts types can be.

When I first heard of the contest, I thought it would be between Shakespeare, Newton, and Darwin. On the others, I am a great admirer of Brunel, but number 2 is too high. As for the others, Elizabeth I deserves a high place, but most of the others don't quite compare with the three above. (Diana and John Lennon are ridiculous). As for Churchill, he is problematic. The British revere him, but I am an Australia. I see the second world war from a more Pacific perspective than do the British. I also am more conscious of what happened at Gallipoli, and he did once describe Australians as coming from "bad stock". That said, everything the British revere him for is actually true. He was the man for the hour, and if he had not been there Britain may well have given in or done a deal with the Nazis.

As for people who are not in the top ten, the 20th century person I feel the absence of the most is Alan Turing, who played an enormous part in winning the second world war, and was the key figure in inventing the computer (which is the key invention of the second half of the 20th century). Turing is scandalously underappreciated in his own country. That said, if you look at the list of the top 100, he is at number 21, which is I suppose reasonably higher, although he deserves to be higher.

On that list of the top 100, I have to take issue with James Clerk Maxwell being at number 91. The British, and even the Scots, fail to appreciate the greatness of this man. Newtown got the laws of gravity and motion right, and Maxwell got Electricity and Magnetism, a comparable achievement. (That said, Newton started with less and also invented calculus along the way). Certainly he belongs higher than 91. Hawking certainly does not belong as high as at 25. He is there for celebrity as much as science, I think.

Okay, so who do I think should win? Shakespeare made the greatest contribution to British culture and the English language, but Newton and Darwin revolutionised the way we look at the entire world and/or universe. Five years ago, I would have voted for Newton. However, as the years go by, the importance of the revolution unleashed by Darwin becomes greater and greater. Physics used to see itself as the foremost of sciences. The interesting stuff is today happening in computing (further reasons for promoting Turing) and biology. In the end I have to go for Darwin.

(My education makes me a scientist, and as much as anything a physicist. I suspect you can tell).
For people who have just come from the NZPundit link, the post on GM crops is here
Samizdata has some comments on the difference between Australian and English attitudes to the game of cricket. There are two threads in the post, one about cricket, the other about (essentially) Australian constitutional history. Oddly enough, I wrote a piece about the difference between the attitudes to the game of cricket in England and Australia last week which would have complemented this quite well, but blogger ate it before I managed to post it. I will attempt to reconstruct it, however. (I will post a separate piece on Australian history later).

Like many Australians, I love the game of cricket. It is the closest thing to a national sport we have. In summer, if you go for a drive through any Australian city on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, you will see that a section of virtually any park will have cricket games going on in it. Where I grew up, in my primary school (in an industrial and coal mining town ) playing a weekly cricket match in summer was mandatory. (Plus we would play spontaneously organised cricket matches during lunchtimes most days). In high school, we more choice of sports, but (like at any school in Australia) competitive cricket teams were fielded. (As is common for competitive team sports in Australia, if you weren't any good you weren't particularly welcome to play past about age 12, and you would go and do something individual or non-competitive instead. Australian sport is ruthlessly competitive, even at a childrens level. This is not necessarily a good thing about Australian, but it does mean we field good sporting teams). I wasn't very good as a player, so that is about when my playing career ended. However, for some reason I had developed a great fondness for the game by then, and I was a huge fan of international cricket, that I watched on television. From around age 15, I started attending international cricket as a spectator, something I have been doing ever since. (One reason I like cricket is that it is a game that lends itself to complicated statistics. and I am something of a maths geek. When I got my first computer in 1984, one of the principal uses I put it to thing to was to calculate complicated statistics about cricket matches as games were being played. In fact I recall turning off the television coverage and turning on the radio so that I could see my real time statistics as the game was being played - my Commodore 64 used the TV as a screen so I couldn't use the TV and computer at once).

Except for the business about the computer (which made me a geek and complete social outcast) this is very typical in Australia. We love our cricket. In winter we watch a variety of different games (Australian football, Rugby League, Rugby Union) depending on what state we come from and our social class, but in summer we all come together to watch cricket. International matches are played in large stadiums, with large, rowdy crowds that resemble football crowds in many countries. Spectators are fairly well behaved, but may make lots of noise, start a Mexican wave, or heckle the players and/or the spectators in the members enclosure (often because the members refuse to participate in the Mexican wave).

In 1991, I came to England for the first time, to study for a Ph.D. at Cambridge. I was happy to be in a cricket playing country. There were test matches on television and in London. The Cambridge University team even has first class status. Fenners, the University ground, is a lovely place to go and watch the Cambridge team get beaten by a visiting county side. However, what I quickly discovered was that there was not much interest in playing cricket, even amongst Cambridge students (except for a few with a very particular Public School background). In Oxbridge, the great egalitarian sport is rowing. Everyone has a go at this. Relatively few play cricket. Cricket is the third most important sport in university terms, after rowing and rugby. People who don't play cricket perceive it as a toffs game, even at a centre of toffs like Cambridge

My college did field a (largely social) cricket team consisting of graduate students. This consisted almost entirely of foreigners: Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, South Africans, guys from Barbados, even a German, but virtually no Englishmen. Similarly, when cricket's world cup was played, the room with satellite television would fill up with people from throughout the Commonwealth, but very few English people.

To generalise ludicrously, the British empire was founded by upwardly mobile people on the make and by eccentric members of the upper classes. Those people on the make made a point of spreading "Englishness" to the colonies, and cricket became a mass participation sport elsewhere, in Australia and New Zealand, in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, and in the English speaking Carribean. In South Africa, the sport eventually became popular amongst the entire white population (including the Afrikaans, eventually) and may be spreading to some extent into the non-white population now. As an Australian, my natural inclination is to see cricket as a mass participation sport, and the English attitude to it still feels odd. There are at least a billion cricket fans in the world, very few of whom are English.

A couple of examples. Once, when talking to a Canadian student in Cambridge, I compared the spirit of the game of cricket to that of baseball. Both are games that are hard to understand, both lend themselves to extremely complex statistics, afficionados of both games feel extraordinary passion for the games. Both games lead to great sports writing. My Canadian friend took great offence at the comparison, however. Baseball is the national game of America (and Canada): a great egalitarian sport. Cricket is an awful toffs game. I don't feel that way, but to people who have only seen cricket in England, this seems to be a common reaction.

My first summer in England, I decided to go to a test match at Lord's ground in London, the home of cricket. I mentioned to a friend that I would go and buy some tickets, and he looked at me with puzzlement. I had just assumed that if I went to a ticket agency that sells tickets to rock concerts, west end musicals and football matches, I would also be able to buy tickets to cricket matches. After all, this is what one does in Australia. But no. To get tickets for Lord's one has to get on their mailing list, be sent a ballot paper on which you apply (by mail) for tickets. This will then be placed in a ballot, and if you are lucky you will be able to buy tickets. In any event, this had happened months before and the match was sold out. I found this offputing, and I didn't do that year or in subsequent years either. Eventually, I did go to the fifth day of a match several years later, which was pleasant. (Cricket matches are of variable length, and they do not generally sell fifth day tickets in advance because they do not expect the game to go that long. In such occasions, you pay at the gate). I was struck by how quiet the crowd is compared to Australian crowds, and also by how small the ground is. Lord's, home of cricket in London, a city of eight or nine million people, only seated about 20000 people, compared with 45000 in Sydney and 100000 in Melbourne, both much smaller cities.

Back in England this year, I finally did purchase some tickets in advance by phone (after the ballot for a game that was not a sellout). As a consequence I have been placed on the mailing list for matches at Lords. As a consequence, the ticket ballot forms for next year came last week and are sitting in front of me. They came with a lovely glossy brochure giving a map of the ground, maps showing how to get there, etc etc. (In Australia, the tickets would have been spat out of a machine, and I would have to figure out how to get there by myself). Plus the brochure contains the "General Ground Regulations". Flags, banners, and musical instruments, or any other articles that may cause a nuisance to other spectators are not permitted. (In Australia, the television network hold competitions for the best banner). The use of radios is forbidden, except with the use of earpieces. (In Australia, so many spectators have radios that you can hear the radio commentary almost anywhere in the ground). The use of mobile telephones in the stands is forbidden (Huh???). Small quantities of alcohol may be brought into the ground. A small quantity is defined as a bottle of wine or two pints of beer. Alcohol in excess of this amount will be confiscated and may be reclaimed at the end of the day. (In Australia, the standard practice at most sporting events elsewhere applies. You cannot bring alcohol in, but you can buy it at excessive prices once you are inside. And if anything is confiscated there is no way you will ever get it back). Spectators may leave and re-enter the ground before 4pm. (This means that you can go and have lunch in a nearby pub or restaurant if you want. In Australia, spectators are kept inside so they can pay excessive prices for food from in-ground caterers).

The point of all this, is that going to the cricket at Lord's is extremely genteel. You sit there, you take a sip of your wine, you watch the game, you clap politely from time to time, and you have a jolly good experience in the way that jolly good chaps do. Nobody in the crowd will possibly do anything that will wake you up if you fall asleep. There is none of that rowdiness, and only the right sorts of people know to buy tickets in the ballot in the first place. Once you are on the list of the right kind of chaps, though, they keep sending you forms and it is easy. It's actually very pleasant, but it is not like going to the cricket anywhere else. Spectators aren't going to go home disconsolate if their team loses, as they do in Australia.

The curious thing about cricket is that although the English invented it, it has only ever been played by a particular (shrinking) social class in most of this country, plus in some parts of the country it is a village game, and as Samizdata says, it isn't perceived as modern by anyone else. The people who actually belong to this social class are often unlikely to be interested in careers as professional cricketers, anyway, so the professional game shrinks.

The big exception to this occurs in Yorkshire, where cricket is a mass participation sport. The fact that Darren Gough, the one recent English cricketer to play the game like an Australian comes from Yorkshire is not a coincidence. If you go to the Headingley ground at Leeds, crowds are rowdier than anywhere else in England, and everything is much less genteel.

There actually is a way for England to put together a good cricket team. England contains many people of Indian, Pakistan, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi background, as well as many people from the Carribean. In the countries these groups came from, cricket is generally a mass participation sport. These people generally love cricket as much as do people in South Asia and in the English speaking Carribean. Get their best players together on a field and you can probably put together a decent team.

However, the cricket traditions of the Carribean really do not fit into the genteel atmosphere at Lord's. The ban on musical instruments is specifically aimed at West Indian spectators. If you go to Angtigua to watch a game, there will be lots of people blowing on trumpets as the game goes on. The greatest fans of the game of cricket in England are not especially welcome at the home of cricket. And that is why the game is shrinking in importance. The cricket establishment in England can't even take advantage of enthusiasm for the game that is already there.

When I started following cricket in Australia in the early 1980s, the Australian national team was terrible. We got beaten by England, the West Indies, Pakistan, even the ultimate humiliation, defeat by New Zealand. This was seen as a national disgrace, and the player development system in Australia was completely reformed within a couple of years, and a consequence of this is the sensationally good Australian cricket team of today. Nothing like this ever happens in England, however. It might upset the spiffing day at the cricket that the spiffing chaps of the MCC might have. We couldn't have that.
NZPundit has been talking about the efforts of extreme environmental groups to prevent the spread of genetically modified food in Africa, and that a consequence of this action is that without doubt it means that people will die unnecessarily.

As a related aside, I have always found the "organic food" movement to be unbelievably dumb. I have long thought that the invention of artificial nitrogen and phosphorus based fertilizers was one of the greatest scientific developments of all time. (Without this development, we cannot feed the world's population. With it we can. This sounds good to me). Therefore, the idea that there is something better or morally virtuous about eating food grown without fertilizer strikes me as perverse. The extension of the argument that there is something morally wrong with modern agricultural practices is that either you are saying that a large portion of the world's population to starve, or your thinking is extremely muddled. (Some people say that they eat organic food because it "tastes better" rather than for ideological reasons. This argument does avoid the implications above, as it is not that morally terrible to condemn the people of the poor world to eat food that tastes slightly worse. However, I haven't seen any convincing evidence that organically food actually does taste better. If people do want to eat food that tastes better, then there is something to be said for making a scientific effort to grow food that tastes better, rather than using an idealogical aversion to fertilizer and pesticides to achieve this ).

This business with opposing genetically modified crops as a matter of course seems to me to be an extension of the same ideological position. There is something morally wrong with using the best technology we have to increase crop yields. (The proponents of this view will argue that genetically modified crops present potentially unknown dangers blah blah blah. If you do look at the actual science, these claims aren't especially convincing, however. I think it is mostly the simple Luddism that we see also in the organic food movement).

The most cynical suggestion is that what we are seeing is simple protectionism on the part of the Europeans, using the general unease with GM crops as a way of keeping American (and conceivably African) agricultural products out of their markets. If so, this is reprehensible almost beyond words.

The clear fallacy of the thinking of most lefty environmentalists, as Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg have pointed out at length, is the failure to take technological progress into account. Our economy is growing exponentially, so we are using an an exponentially increasing amount of resources, so our resources must be running out. However, if technological progress changes the nature of the way in which resources are used, and allows us to use resources more efficiently and/or substitute less scarce resources for more scarce resources, then this doesn't have to happen. The evidence is overwhelmingly that this is not happening.

If you look at the opposition to using modern technology in agriculture, and think clearly about it, you inevitably seem to get to the conclusion that "Yes, technology can help us overcome the apparent limits to the amount of food that can be produced in the world. However, this technology is morally bad, and therefore we should not use the technology". It is as if the perceived limits to growth are so important to their proponents that we should tie our hands behind our backs if necessary to make sure they are still there. This is of course ludicrous.

I now discover that Paul Krugman was also inspired by Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series .

After reading Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation novels, he nurtured a secret desire to be one of Asimov's "psychohistorians"--futuristic social scientists who could predict the course of human history. At Yale during the 1970s, he did the next best thing, majoring in economics under the tutelage of economist William Nordhaus.

I am still not sure what this proves, other than that it seems that the secret desire to become a member of a semi-secret quasiscientific ruling elite who get to guide humanity for its best interests is something that appeals to a lot of people at some point.I think it may be the fact that Asimov presented the psychohistorians, who were fundamentally autocratic, as so reasonable, and so good. As the books go on, I think it is clear that Asimov himself was becoming a little uncomfortable with this fact. This is the case by the end of the original trilogy, written in the late 1940s. The first parts of Foundation were written before the second World War, the later parts during and after. That may have been a factor. It is certainly the case that his view had changed by the time he wrote the series of sequels he wrote in the 1980s, which (as discussed in question 19C of this FAQ ) are sadly not as good as the earlier books.

That said, pointing out a high profile, law abiding Asimov reader on the political left makes me feel somewhat better. In the previous posting, I mentioned that Brother Asahara, Osama bin Laden and Newt Ginchrich were all apparently inspired by Foundation . Two of these people are homicidal fanatics, but the third is as far as I know a law abiding citizen, who is unlikely be flattered by the comparison. Attempting to smear your political opponents by comparing them to much more extreme figures than they are is a time honoured tactic, but not one I am fond of. However, it was possible I could be acused of doing this. This was certainly not my intention. I simply find the number of high-profile Asimov readers to be interesting.

(I am now getting visions of some future historian looking at an archive of this blog from a few decades in the future writing that "It is interesting to see that even before Michael Jennings launched his ill fated campaign for global power, he too was a fan of Asimov's Foundation series. It is curious how influential those books came to be. This does perhaps explain, however, why he insisted on the job title 'First Citizen of the Galaxy'". To be truthful, I was a big Asimov fan in my teens, and looking back at his work now, I find that some of his books hold up better than others. The Foundation Trilogy (particularly Foundation and Empire , the second book) holds up pretty well, but it is not and never was my favourite of his books. (That honour goes to The Gods Themselves , I think). In retrospect, I think Arthur C Clarke's work holds up much better. I think Clarke is the greater writer, and subscribes to what ultimately is a more attractive form of humanism.

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Tim Blair complains about the journalists who wrote this article's desperate attempts to cast a negative slant on the immigrant experience in Australia.

Forty per cent of the national sample said Australia was tolerant compared to 47 per cent Lebanese and 67 per cent of Vietnamese. The authors surmised this probably reflected that the migrants - particularly those from refugee backgrounds - were comparing their new home to their country of origin.

Let's suggest another theory: Vietnamese immigrants to Australia find Australia tolerant towards them because it is tolerant towards them.
In case you still think that the internet has not changed the world, here is a really compelling application . Yes, it is virtually poppable bubble wrap. (Thanks to Sasha Castel ).

Update: Sasha and Andrew are getting married. Gosh. (And congrats to them).

Blog Archive