Saturday, May 10, 2003

Me posting elsewhere again

More Blogger problems this morning. I wrote a report on Day one of the Fourth test this morning over here. Of course, since I wrote that piece about how the West Indies are doing much better in this game, the Australians have completely dominated day 2 and are now back in their usual extremely dominant position. That's the way it goes, I guess.

Friday, May 09, 2003


Which OS are You?
Which OS are You?

(via Oriental Redneck).
Whisky, and other things

I was just browsing Patrick's blog when I found two little items one after another. If he had comments, I think I would just respond there, but since he doesn't, I'll do it here. Firstly, he pointed to an observation that

Johnnie Walker has over 6 million casks of whisky currently maturing. This is worth more than the total gold reserves of the Bank of England. Which is as it should be.

Oddly, I was yesterday reading "The Xenophobe's Guide to the Scots", which said that "Whisky is Scotland's biggest export (by far). However, this doesn't stop a significant portion of the population from trying to consume it all before any of it leaves the country".

That does roughly summarise the characters of one or two Scots I have known, yes. Single malt whisky is a fine thing, although I find I do not consume as much of it these days as I once did. Oddly, my focus lately has been on drinking some of the more interesting available beers, as my regular readers are no doubt aware.

Secondly, Pat points to a site advertising all sorts of devices that one can purchase for self defence, and observes that

Either this guy is a paranoid schizo, or American cities must be SO MUCH worse than Oz ones. I mean maybe I've been lucky but in my entire life I don't know anyone who has been attacked on the street. (Well not as a grownup. Kids bully eachother all the time.) And I've spent a lot of time wandering around drunk, alone, in what I would consider seedy places like Redfern in Sydney, Australia, or mining towns, in Australia, and South America, and Russia. Not to mention some illegal drug centres in India and steel working towns in South Korea.

I have been attacked on the street twice as an adult. I too have been to some rough places in various parts of the world, but both incidents occurred in what should have been safe places. Once I was walking down the footpath past Victoria Park along Paramatta Road in Sydney (walking from Central Station to Sydney University). A man walked out of a bus shelter towards me, I looked at him, and he hit me extremely hard on the nose and screamed something incomprehensible. Nothing broken, but I was badly bruised and my nose hurt for weeks. On the second occasion, I was walking through the streets of Cambridge at 11.15pm one Friday evening. I was eating a kebab. Someone walking past me for some reason suddnely swung his arm at me, and my food ended up firstly in my face and then on the ground. No injuries, but still reasonably distressing. Rather less disturbing than the first case, as this was someone who was drunk and had been thrown out of a pub at closing time. Still not much fun for me. I use this as an argument in favour of reforming British licensing laws. It's much better to let people leave the pub when they feel like it rather than all at once.

Neither of these had anything to do with an attempt to rob me, or anything like that. One I think had to do with insanity, and the other with drunkenness. As for me as a robbery target, I am male, six feet tall and 85kg, so I probably don't look like an easy target. And I dress in a scruffy fashion and I don't look prosperous, even on those occasions when I am prosperous.
The SARS will surely be conquered by our government under the leadership of the Communist Party of China

I want a copy of this poster to put on my wall. I particularly like the clenched fist, just to remind you that you are in an authoritarian dictatorship. (A boot stamping on a human head, forever, is also a good image). Possibly I could put the poster next to a copy of the "Safe under the watchful eyes of the Metropolitan police" poster.
The peculiarities of British postage stamps

A few years ago, the Royal Mail changed the way it handles postage stamps for standard letters. Previously, if the rate for a first class letter was 27 pence, then the stamp you bought for the letter was one with "27p" printed on it. If the postage rate later went up to 28p, then you would need to buy a 1p stamp as well for the letter to be send first class. However, with the new system, a first class stamp simply had "1st" printed on it, and it was valid to be used for first class mail forever. If the postage rate went up, the stamp was still valid. The post office would continue selling the same stamps, but would just start charging more for them. This didn't cause problems, because if people bought stamps earlier the post office had their money earlier, and in fact if people did this a lot then they would probably be funding the post office's working capital requirement at a cheaper rate than a bank would do. The Royal Mail would also save money by not having to issue new stamps with the new values. However, the one disadvantage of this is that people would probably buy lots of stamps a few days before a postage rate increase, and therefore it would take a little while for the postage rate increase to take effect.

These special stamps come in three varieties: "1st" for first class letters, "2nd" for second class letters, and "E" for letters to most European countries. If you are sending mail of any kind other than standard size letters to these places, you normally use stamps with numerical values on them to make up the correct amount of postage. However, it is possible to use the "1st", "2nd", and "E" stamps to make up part of the postage of another rate. The "1st" stamp is simply equivalent to a numerical stamp of whatever is the value of the present first class postal rate.

Yesterday, I wanted to send a package to a friend of mine in the United States. The postage turned out to be 2 pounds exactly. Fine, but I discovered I was not carrying enough change. Therefore, as I had some books of first and second class stamps in my wallet, I decided to use those. As 1st class postage was 27p and 2nd class was 19p, I was able to quickly figure out that six 1st class stamps and 2 2nd class stamps was equivalent to 2 pounds. I put the stamps on the package, but I did not send it as I didn't have my friend's address with me. I brought the package home, and forgot about it. Thus I still have the package.

Today, however, domestic postage rates went up, but most international rates did not. The rate applying to my package stayed the same, but 1st class postage went up from 27p to 28p, and 2nd class from 19p to 20p. Therefore, the stamps I had put on the package were now equivalent to numerical stamps worth 2.08 pounds. Even though the postage was correct yesterday and the stamps on the package are exactly the same as they were yesterday, there is now too much postage on the package. Today, I could use five 1st class stamps and three 2nd class.

I could carefully peel off one of the 1st class stamps and replace it with a 2nd class stamp, but somehow I don't think I will bother.

Thursday, May 08, 2003

Paying Salam Pax

Lots of people have noted the return of Salam Pax. The Guardian today devoted two pages of their tabloid section to publishing a lengthy extract. Salam did mention at one point that he had found an internet cafe that was open, but he might not be able to afford to use it for posting much. Hopefully the Guardian will send Salam the cheque that he is clearly entitled to for providing them with two pages of copy, and this will solve the problem. (I have no reason to question the Guardian's good intentions here. I am sure they are perfectly happy to pay him the going rate if they can find him. Somebody needs to ensure this happens, though).
The precautionary principle, and the spread of AIDS

Jay Manifold has a piece in which he quotes an article on the precautionary principle, which essentially states that if you have invented some new technology, you should be absolutely sure it is benign before using it at all. This sounds good at first, but of course the consequence is that if you take a very long time to prove something is benign, then you lose the benefits of having had it during that period. And of course the best way to prove something is benign is to actually use it, so the precautionary principle lengthens such periods.

Jay (and the people he quotes) make the point that if someone is sick, and you have a drug that might cure them, and you don't use it because of such a principle, then you bear some culpibility if that person dies. If you have better crops that could grow more food, and you don't use them out of concerns about the ethics of using genetically modified crops, then you are implicated if people die of starvation due to low crop yields. (There is also a discussion of stem cells). At times, inaction can be as big a crime as the wrong action can be. Therefore, clearly, we need to look at the costs of the precautionary principle, and look at how serious the consequences of things going wrong could be, and look at the possible benefits of things going right, and find some middle ground. Simply saying the precautionary principle should be sancrosanct isn't a terribly useful position.

The article makes a good case that many of the medical breakthroughs we now take for granted may have either never taken place are may have taken place much later if this principle was always in case. However, it then gives an example that makes me nervous. Lots of scientists are asked to give examples of progress that would have been halted (or is being halted) by overuse of the precautionary principle. Stuart Derbyshire (assistant professor of anaesthesiology and critical care medicine at the University of Pittsburgh) gives an example of "Xenotransplantation could benefit thousands, but is being held back by ill-founded concerns about porcine retroviruses".

Okay, in this instance we are talking about giving people drugs to ensure that rejection does not occur, and transplanting the organs of pigs into people for who there are not human organs available for transplants. People are worried about the spread of pig diseases to people, particularly diseases that are benign (possibily due to millennia of evolution) in pigs but dangerous to people.

Sometime before 1960, two retroviruses managed somehow to cross the species barrier from primates into human beings. A virus managed to get transferred from chimpanzees to humans, and in humans it is known as HIV-1. Another virus managed to get transferred from a species of monkey called the sooty mangabey, and this is known as HIV-2. These are different viruses (although of the same type) and cause very similar symptoms, have long incubation periods and are usually fatal. HIV-1 is responsible for the bulk of the AIDS crisis, although HIV-2 has also killed a substantial number of people, primarily in Africa. We know that HIV-1 crossed into humans on at least two occasions, as one form of the virus, HIV-1 Group O, is genetically sufficiently different from the other variants that it clearly came from a different population of chimpanzees. Thus we know that AIDS crossed over into the human population on at least three separate occasions, all probably between 1930 and 1960.

Nobody knows how the viruses crossed over into humans. Given that the viruses were in chimpanzee and sooty mangabey populations for thousands of years, and the cross over occurred three times in a very short period, it seems certain that changed human activity in central Africa was in some way responsible.

In particular, a theory that the disease was transferred from primates to humans during trials of polio vaccines that had been partly developed using infected primate tissues in Africa in the 1950s was argued by Edward Hooper in the book The River. Hooper's evidence was circumstantial, and since the book was published the circumstantial evidence has been demonstrated to be less convincing than Hooper argued, and most people do not believe it. Tests of samples of the vaccine have found no evidence of the virus. (Of course, this does not disprove it, as only a small number of samples needed to be contaminated. However, it does make it less likely). The most common argument put forward for the transfer of the viruses to people is that people hunting primates somehow managed to infect themselves via the spill of Chimpanzee blood. I find this argument unconvincing, as this could have happened at any time in the last several thousand years. That it should not happen (or at least not cause an epidemic if it did happen) for this length of time, and that it should then happen at least three times in a few years strikes me as implausible. I find the fact that it occurred at least three times in a short period deeply troubling, to say the least. I think that something that changed due to human civilization caused the species jump, but I do not know what. (It could be something very simple like the widespread use of dirty syringes, some of which came into contact with animal tissue).

I personally doubt the polio vaccine theory is true, but I cannot categorically say that it is false. Even if it is false, there is a chance that the spread was in some way an unexpected consequence of medical efforts or medical treatment of some kind. If this is true, then the people arguing for the precautionary principle have a stronger case, at least in situations where the spread of a new disease is an (even remote) possibility. The trouble with situations that involve the spread of a new disease is that the worst case scenarios are so dreadful that they must be taken into consideration even if they are very unlikely. It is not unreasonable to talk in terms of propabilities. Figure out the number of lives that will be saved by a new technology if things go well, and multiply by the probability of this happening. Figure out the number of lives that will be lost if things go badly, and multiply by the probability of that happening. subtract one from the other, and you have an expected benefit (or not) of using new technology. If the expected benefit is large enough, then go forward.

However, in cases where the spread of a disease is a possibility, and the worst case scenario is "a billion people will die", then the expected benefit can be negative even if the probability of things going wrong is very small. These types of cases create situations where the ethical dilemmas get even more complicated, and where I find arguments for something like the precautionary principle to be more convincing.

This is why the idea of xenotransplants still makes me very nervous. The possibility of spreading a harmful retrovirus from pigs to people is very small. The most convincing argument that this is so is that people and pigs live very close to one another throughout the world, and people come in contact with pigs blood regularly. Therefore, if there were any such viruses in pigs, they would have crossed the species barrier long ago. I find this argument quite convincing. However, the number of potential beneficiaries from xenotransplants is low compared to the number of potential beneficiaries from genetically modified wheat. And while the risk is low, it is a risk of something truly terrible. So forgive me if the idea makes me nervous.

I stress that this is a special case. In a situation where you are (say) dealing with genetically modified wheat, the balance is different. The number of potential beneficiaries is much larger, and the consequences of something going wrong are much smaller. (Say, we create a strain of wheat that turns out to be unhealthy or inedible. We stop growing it, and we stop eating it, and we plant some other strain instead. Perhaps we end up creating a particularly nasty weed. This is bad, but not catastrophic).

What am I arguing. In the end you have to muddle through on a case by case basis. Being ethical doesn't involve taking simplistic (but simple to arrive at) absolute stances. It involves accepting that compromises sometimes have to be made, and that the morally best outcome is probably somewhere in the middle of the minefield, rather than somewhere on either side of it.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Hey baby, can you demodulate 7MHz channels?

When television was invented, the world divided into two camps. There were the Americans, who invented a system using 525 lines, around 480 of which are active, and a 60Hz refresh rate. This system was adopted in North America, Japan, Taiwan, and a few other places that followed America technology wise. This divided the radio spectrum into chunks that are 6MHz wide.

The rest of the world adopted a system using 625 lines, around 576 of which are active, and a 50Hz refresh rate. VHF systems use channels that are either 7MHz or 8MHz wide, and most UHF systems use channels that are 8MHz wide. However, there are a couple of exceptions. Argentina and Uruguay squeeze this system into 6MHz channels. Australia uses 7MHz channels for both VHF and UHF. Australia is the only country in the world that uses 7MHz channels for UHF. (Systems using wider channels have less interference between adjacent channels, less interference between the pictures and the sound, less interference between the colour signal and the black and white signal, and (sometimes) better horizontal picture resolution).

Most analogue televisions are now multi-standard, and are capable of receiving television signals with any of the three channel widths, and adjusting automatically to work with what they find. (At least, my Toshiba is capable of doing this).

When you upgrade from analogue to digital television, the legacy of the analogue system only matters in one way. Unless you reallocate all your spectrum, you have to retain the same channel width as before. If your analogue television system used 7MHz channels, then that is what you are stuck with. One of these slices of spectrum can now carry a lot more than one channel, but you are restricted to slices this size.

Today, I went looking at set top boxes for digital television. One of these would allow me to receive a much larger number of television channels than is possible with analogue TV. This is nice, but I might not be staying in England too long, and if I am going to pay a little money for one of these boxes, I want one that will hopefully work if I take it back to Australia. Australia uses the same digital television standard as Europe (something called DVB-T), but uses 7MHz channels in the UHF band. The key question is whether one of these set top boxes is capable of demodulating and deconding 7MHz channels. There is no real reason why it shouldn't be able to, as the change is a trivial one, but I want to know.

So, I went into three electronics shops. Each had a range of set top boxes, which were quite inexpensive. What I wanted to know was whether these boxes would work in Australia. Technically, this question was asked as "Can this box demodulate 7MHz channels?". In each shop I asked a salesman if I could look at the technical specification sheet. In each case I was told that the product was in a sealed box that they would not open before it was sold, so no. I was then asked what I wanted to know. I asked whether the boxes could demodulate 7MHz channels. In each case, I might as well have been speaking Aramaic. On a couple of occasions I attempted a little explanation of what the question meant, and that it was about whether the boxes would work in Australia. Despite the fact that the salesmen had not the slightest conception of what the technical questions I was talking about were, two of them had opinions on whether the boxes would work in Australia. One said he thought it would. The other said he thought it wouldn't. The third admited he didn't know.

(An electronics shop had a PCI bus card that could be plugged into a computer. This card had the digital TV decoder electronics on it, so that people who put the card in their computer could then watch digital television on their computer screen. I was able to see the specifications for this card, and the people in the shop actually had some clues. This card was capable of handling 7MHz channels. This makes me think that the set top boxes may be able to do it too, because they are probably made using the same chipsets as the PC cards. However, I simply do not know the answer. And it is close to impossible to find out).

Update: The Internet Ronin comments that maybe I should contact the manufacturer. Well, yes, I should. However, there is a certain art to attempting to draw information out of salesmen, that is interesting, if only from an anthropological point of view. The salesman isn't going to understand the question from a technical perspective, but it is possible that the bundle of facts he knows or has been told about the product could answer the question somehow. Salesmen will also often claim to understand things they don't, and this needs to be edited out. Therefore, I need to figure out what questions I can ask that will get the answer I want, rather than directly asking a question that is too technical. It's an interesting challenge. (Of course if they do not know anything, there is nothing that will help).

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Silly Regulations

It was a public holiday here in England yesterday. This is nominally to commemorate May Day, and hardline capitalists occasionally have been known to state feebly that the holiday should be abolished and replaced with a holiday to commemorate something else. (Unlike the British themselves, we in Australia are good citizens of the Empire, and so we have a public holiday to celebrate the birthday of the Queen. Might I suggest the British adopt this one, given that it is their queen? As with most Australian public holidays (including, until recently, our national day), this holiday is held in different days in different states. The Queen thus has three birthdays: her actual birthday, her official birthday, and her official birthday in Western Australia. But I digress). In Australia, only Queensland and the Northern Territory celebrate May Day, but every other state does have a "Labour Day" on some day or other. While on the Australian federal system, I could also mention that Australia uses three different incompatible railway gauges, and the only states that use the same gauge as each other have no common borders. Also, in summer, Australia manages to have either five different time zones (six if you count the one that applies only to uninhabited desert), including one of the very few borders in the world where you turn your clock backwards as you move east.

Where was I? Oh, yes. May Day. Nobody in England actually pays very much attention to what the May Day holiday actually commemorates: it is just a long weekend. In most places (including England) public holiday Mondays feel like extra Sundays. You have got your washing and cleaning done for the weekend, so it is a pleasant opportunity to see a movie, go for a leisurely stroll, and generally get some leisure time in. Trains run to Sunday timetables. Some shops, museums and other attractions are available to you, but not as many as on other days of the week, and not generally with the same level of stress.

Except, there is one peculiar thing that is peculiar about public holiday Mondays in England. They are just like Sundays, except without the effects of the Sunday Trading Act (1994).

Prior to 1994, shops (other than very small shops) were not permitted to open on Sundays. As the 1990s went on, this became less and less acceptable to both shop owners and people who would like to shop on Sundays, and the law was widely disobeyed by shops who then paid fines. The government decided something needed to be done about this, and discussion started about the possibility of legalising Sunday trading. Various church groups complained loudly about how nobody would have a free day to spend with their family ever again, and how nobody would come to church, and so on. (Actually, nobody goes to church in England anyway). The government scheduled a free vote, which is what you do when you are debating serious moral questions like this. Three proposals were put on the table. One was the status quo. A second was complete deregulation. A third was to allow shops to open on Sundays for six hours only. Most MPs voted for this third proposal, which allowed them to vote for Sunday trading but at the same time pretend they were voting for a compromise. Thus the Sunday Trading Act (1994) became law.

Although the act allowed shops to open for a maximum of six hours on Sundays, it didn't say which six hours. Different types of shops responded in different ways. Supermarkets tend to open from 10am-4pm, to allow people to buy their groceries before lunch if necessary. However, this is really annoying if you discover you have run out of coffee at 3.45pm. Businesses catering to more leisure related shoping tend to choose a later six hours: either 11am-5pm or 12pm-6pm. This means that you can do your shopping on Sundays, but you have to go at the right time. If you are too late, tough. In the centre of London, bookshops that are open to 11pm on other nights have to close at 6pm on Sundays. Thus we are protected from the moral hazards caused by browsing in the evening on a Sunday.

However, this law does not apply on public holidays. On public holidays, opening hours are unrestricted as on any other day. Shops do not open as long as they do on weekdays, but they open longer than on Sundays. Rather than being open from 10am-4pm, supermarkets open from 9am-6pm. (Those that normally open 24 hours open 24 hours). Most shops close at 6pm rather than 5pm. It is not necessary to rush off early to find anything open, but shops can instead open at those times they think they will get customers. Typically, we get about eight hours of trading rather than six. Such things as bookshops in central London are actually open until 11pm as usual. We get a tantalising glimpse of what Sundays could be like without government regulation of opening hours. And, oddly, it is more relaxed than Sundays are. The short Sunday opening hours actually create more stress.

Of course, it was only a couple of years ago that the Germans were still talking about whether their shops should be allowed to open on Saturday afternoon, so I suppose things could be worse.
Repeat after me

I will not post any more comments to this Samizdata discussion, even if someone calls me a communist.

Update: It's actually hard. Someone called my arguments "ridiculous", and I want to keep defending myself. However, it is a good thing to withdraw from slanging matches fairly quickly, and I have now done that. To be truthful, I got a little further into that one than I perhaps should have. (People who have blogs that I read know that I have an almost pathological compulsion to post comments. This is kind of good, and I have both readers and friends who have encountered me through reading comments. However, I really comment a lot). On the other hand, I was talking to Gabriel Syme (the author of the post that started the thread) over a beer last week, and he said that it is possible to pay too much attention to commenters. When it comes down to it they are not your readership. Lurkers are more numerous and collectively more important, and if you pay too much attention to commenters, you can sometimes miss your real audience. You therefore shouldn't be too bothered by what commenters say.

This is no doubt true, but of course the trouble is you do not know what your wider audience thinks. There's the rub.

Comments anyone?

Further Update: Someone did call me a communist. I took it to e-mail, which may or may not be a good thing. The trouble with this type of discussion is that I find participating to be something of an emotional roller coaster. On the other hand, I find it hard to resist the temptation to keep participating, particularly when something I say is badly misconstrued (like, for instance, when someone concludes I am opposed to all intellectual property law). My strategy of retreating to this blog, where I am among friends, was not such a bad one. (Actually, I am among friends on Samizdata, too. However that has a somewhat robust discussion forum).

Even further update: I'm actually struck by the increase in the number of comments on this blog lately. Until a few weeks ago, I had never had a thread of more than 10 comments. Now they seem quite common. However, the number of hits is not up by anything like that amount. I suppose this indicates that my readership has improved in quality :-)
Does anyone else think "What did Larry Lessig tell to Glenn Reynolds?" sounds like the first line of a joke?

Come on Glenn, tell us exactly what he said.

AT LARRY LESSIG'S REQUEST -- delivered with some force -- I've changed the RSS feed from 20 words to 50. Enjoy!
Fourth test days four and five, New Zealand continue to play Sri Lanka, and Rod Marsh becomes an Englishman.

Where we last left off, Australia had scored 9/605, and the West Indies had scored 8/291 in reply. In the morning of day four, Australia wanted to get the last two West Indians out quickly to complete a large first innings lead. And they didn't do too badly. Thanks to a little good tail end batting from Drakes and Best, the West Indies held on for just over an hour. West Indies all out 328. Australia had a first innings lead of 277.

Okay, well and good. At this point, Australia had the option of enforcing the follow on. What does this mean? Well, in the event that the side that bats first gains a lead of more than 200 runs in a five day test match, the captain of the side that batted first has the option of reversing the order in which the two sides bat in the seconds innings' of the match. That is, rather than the innings being in the order ABAB, they are instead in the order ABBA. Why would you do this? Well, one reson, basically. Enforcing the follow on allows a side to win a match quicket. In order to win the match, side A has to bowl B out twice. If A bats again before B's second innings, there might not be time to bowl out B again. However, if B bats again straight away, then this can happen sooner. If A then needs to score some runs, they know exactly how many they need when they bat again, and exactly how long they have to score the runs. Thus enforcing the follow on can allow side A to get a result in matches that would otherwise appear to be heading for a draw due to running out of time.

Okay, this is great. Why then wouldn't you enforce the follow on? Two main reasons. Firstly, there is the issue of exhaustion. If a side has been out in the field bowling and fielding for six, seven, eight hours, then they are tired. Following this up by another six, seven, eight hours in the field straight away is tiring, and a side that is exhausted is not going to bowl and field as well as one that is fresh. Secondly, and more importantly, cricket pitches deteriorate as games go on. It is usually easier to bat on the first day then the second, and on the second than the third etc. On the fifth day, batting can be extremely difficult. This means that the side that bats last is at a disadvantage, and when you enforce the follow on, you elect to bat last. If you have a big first innings lead and the target is small, then this does not matter. However, if you are set a reasonable target and the pitch is difficult, then enforcing the follow on can be dangerous. Two of the most famous come from behind victories in test cricket (Calcutta 2001 and Leeds 1981) have involved sides losing after enforcing the follow on. Sadly, Australia was the losing side in both cases. Indian and English fans both consider the matches to be particularly memorable. Australians curse.

Fifteen years ago, when sides batted slowly and there were many drawn matches, sides that could enforce the follow on almost invariably did so. These days, though, it is not enforced as often as it is. This is particularly true of the Australian sides captained by Mark Taylor and now Steve Waugh, as these sides score runs so quickly that they usually have plenty of time to win either way. Enforcing the follow on is something you try to avoid to do if you can help it, and Australia often can help it.

However, in this match, the pitch was very flat. Bowling the West Indians out a second time would take a while, and a draw was a real possibility. For this reason, it Australia decided to score runs staight away and set a target, they might not have ended up having time to bowl the West Indies out. So, the follow on was enforced. (Australia were helped by having five bowlers rather than their more usual four. Obviously if you can spread the bowling five ways rather than four, the bowlers will be less tired). The West Indies were sent in again. Helped by yet another bad lbw decision, Brett Lee got the Australians off to a good start, removing Smith and Ganga and taking the score to 2/31. Gayle and Sarwan then dug in, however, once again batting extremely slowly, but taking the score to 2/94 at tea. However, as they often do, Australia took a wicket straight after a break, and Gayle was out stumped for 56. After this though, the West Indies batted well for the rest of the day, Sarwan and Lara taking the score to 3/187 at stumps.

On the fifth morning, Australia once again took a wicket with the first ball of the session, and Sarwan was out LBW off MacGill. Perhaps MacGill was a little lucky. It wasn't an obviously bad decision, but the ball hit Sarwan on the boot, but Sarwan was a long way forward and I couldn't tell in which direction the ball was going to bounce. Perhaps the umpire could see the ball spinning through the air or something. Lara was out soon after, LBW this time to Bichel in a perfectly straightforward decision, and at that point the game was going Australia's way.

Or so we thought. However, the West Indians dug in again, taking the score to 5/256 at lunch. The West Indians were scoring hardly any runs, and MacGill was bowling well and getting plenty of turn, but wickets were not falling. There was some possibility that the West Indians could take the lead, set Australia 100 to win off 7 overs at the end of the day, and the finish could be interesting. Not likely, but possible.

However, it didn't happen. After lunch, the wickets fell. MacGill struck, and the West Indies slumped to 9/265. An innings win suddenly looked likely, but Baugh and Lawson scored a few runs to make the Australians bat again. McGrath was bowling from one end, and MacGill the other. If McGrath got the last wicket, it would mean that he wouldn't finish with one of his very rare wicketless tests. If MacGill got it, it would mean ten wickets for him. Either outcome would be good. But as it happened, neither did. Baugh was run out thanks to some good work from Gillespie in the field. Australia were set eight to win.

Which gave Lawson a chance to take what I described in a previous post as an unlikely hattrick. And what do you know. He took it. Langer was out lbw to the first ball of the innings. I was watching the match in a pub without sound, and I had forgotten about it, so it was not until I got home that I realised that Langer had taken a hat trick, and that was why the West Indian fieldsmen all looked so pleased. Good for him. Langer didn't look happy, although this lbw was a reasonable decision, unlike some of the others he got in this series. Still, Lehmann and Hayden scored the eight runs needed and Australia won by nine wickets. Australia win the series and go back on top of the ICC test championship table.

In the other test being played, New Zealand bowled Sri Lanka out for 298, taking a lead of seven runs on the first innings. Sri Lankan captain Hashan Tillakaratne top scored with 93. In their second innings, New Zealand were 1/92 at stumps, a lead of 99 with seven hours of play to go. It looks unlikely that this game will be anything but a draw. New Zealand do not seem to be playing for a win, as their run rate was less than three an over, suggesting they are not playing to set a target and a draw in the match and hence the series is likely. That said, Stephen Fleming is such a good captain that you never know. And of course, New Zealand getting bowled out at tea time and Sri Lanka having to scramble for runs is a possibility too. So there may be life in this game yet. However, it is a shame that so much time was lost to rain. Three playing hours more and this would be a really interesting game.

As a final piece of cricket news, former Australian wicket keeper, Australian Cricket Academy coach, and long term gloater at the misfortunes of English cricket Rod Marsh has been appointed an England selector. Australians find it vaguely amusing that someone who was once such a firm adversary of the English has been appointed to such a senior position in their establishment. Marsh was already working as head coach for the England academy, and by all reports is doing an excellent job. The England board had a vacancy on the selection committee, and they wanted to appoint someone already working for them in order to avoid paying an additional salary. (The England board is somewhat cash strapped, at least partly as a consequence of refusing to play in Zimbabwe in the World Cup). Marsh was in every way an excellent candidate, so he was appointed and I am sure will do an excellent job. He simply happens to be Australian, and, frankly, Rod Marsh. Yes, this is amusing. (I now have an opportunity to talk about Headingley 1981 for the second time in this post, but I think I might refrain. Scott Wickstein and other assorted Australian cricket fans will know what I am talking about, however).

Update: The New Zealand versus Sri Lanka game did end in a draw, although a very peculiar one. New Zealand game out with the intention of scoring quick runs. According to NZ captain Stephen Fleming, they were looking to set a target of 260 off 65 overs if possible. but lost wickets quickly, slumping to 7/139, thanks to some fine bowling from Muttiah Muralitharan. From this point, they simply tried to stay in the game by batting as long as possible, and New Zealand ended up being all out for 183. Sri Lanka were set 191 off 38 overs, a very gettable target. It looked like we were in for an exciting finish. And then...... nothing happened. Sri Lanka were content to bat out the match, ending up with1/72 when play was brought to a close half an hour early (as the rules allow in the case of a certain draw). This was deeply puzzling, as this is the sort of target that sides chase in a one day game all the time. The pitch on the fifth day was probably not as good as in your average one day game, and the fielding side is allowed more flexibility than in a one day game, but this was a very gettable target. Stephen Fleming said that the lack of a chase surprised him, and it certainly surprised me. Yes, if Sri Lanka had lost four or five wickets and then given up the chase, fine. But as it was, I don't really get it. I simply cannot imagine a side led by Steve Waugh failing to chase in such circumstances.

Sunday, May 04, 2003

And you wondered why it is called a Doctor of Philosophy.

Josh Marshall yesterday commemorated the submission of his Ph.D. dissertation by putting the title "Dr" in front of his name on the top of his blog. (Glenn Reynolds acknowledged this by linking to him). Josh said this was only for one day, and he has now removed it. He also said that doing it was "corny and a touch obnoxious".
That it was corny and a touch obnoxious is not the point. Being corny and obnoxious is just something you do when you complete a Ph.D. It is pretty much expected. However, there is a time when you do it. When you are close to completing a thesis, people do start calling you "Doctor" when you haven't earned it yet. Once you have submitted, even more people do it. However, even if you are sure you will pass, you don't start doing it yourself until you have actually been informed (officially or unofficially) by your examiners that you have passed. (In practice, people are normally informed both unofficially and obliquely. At the end of my thesis defence I was told that "The Board of Graduate Studies forbids us from telling you the result of this examination. However, you have nothing to worry about"). Doing so is somehow tempting fate, and when you are suffering from end of Ph.D. angst, you don't want to do this. Usually your university will tell you that you are not entitled to use the title until the degree has actually been conferred, but such intructions are almost universally ignored. However, once you have been informed, you start insisting that the whole world call you "Doctor". (A friend of mine rang up her bank a few hours after her thesis defence (while drunk) to ask that they send her new credit cards with "Dr" on them). Generally you use the title for a few weeks or months, after which you slowly find you use the title less and less, and after a couple of years you are only using it when signing letters of complaint to companies that have given you poor customer service. In my case, I waited three years after finishing before actually attending a graduation ceremony, as I wanted my parents (who live in Australia) to be able to attend, and it took this long to find a date on which a degree ceremony was scheduled when we could all be in Cambridge. So, by the time I was technically entitled to use the title I had generally stopped doing so.

Still, while I will give Josh a heartily "well done" for finishing the thesis, I do consider that he has committed a faux pas. And I was a little surprised that Glenn Reynolds went along with it, but then I remembered that law is one of the few fields where it is not generally necessary for professors to have a Ph.D. This is fine, but it does mean that law professors possibly do not properly understand Ph.D. angst. A quick check informs me that the Instaman in fact does not have a Ph.D. which kind of explains things.

Josh does give a tremendous example of late Ph.D. angst, however

I pulled an all-nighter Wednesday night nursing my ancient HP 4L laser printer into churning out the two final copies of my dissertation manuscript. Then I hopped on the 6 AM train from DC to Providence to actually turn the thing in. By the time I got there most of the signatures and forms that I thought I might have to take care of had already gotten done. So it was largely a matter of physically walking the thing over to the graduate school offices and doing the actual sign in. In any case, it's finally, officially, completely done.

In a sense a dissertation is just a really long paper (I think the grand total was 326 pages, in this case). But one works on it for so long that all sorts of psychological mumbo-jumbo gets bound up in it. When I was signing it in yesterday, and the person who signs it in told me that everything on the checklist was covered, I think I asked two or three times if she was sure there wasn't any other form that needed to be turned in. Then, as I was walking out of her office ... "So, you're sure. Nothing else?" "Yes, I'm sure. That's it. You're done." I had a hard time not going back and asking again as I was walking down the hallway. But then I thought, what profiteth a man to gain his Ph.D. if he loses his dignity in the process of turning it in?

That certainly sounds like a true case of Ph.D. angst, yes. The person who accepts the forms and the disertation has a very important job. She is there to reassure people who have been writing day and night for six months, who are very stressed, and who are probably using intriguing combinations of stimulants that everything is fine and they should relax. While students in this state are often paranoid about the question of whether all the complicated bureacratic regulations have been complied with, in actual fact this isn't very important. As far as a Ph.D thesis is concerned, the only thing that matters is whether the thesis is good enough (and also, that it has not been plagiarised from someone else). As long as this is the case, no university is ever going to refuse to examine it. (Most universities even have regulations that allow theses to be accepted from people who have never even been enrolled for the degree, although normally they have to have some connection with the university if this is to be allowed).

With this in mind, a little story from my own academic career. When they are first enrolled for a Ph.D., Cambridge University assigns a due date (several years down the road) for the thesis. If the thesis is not ready by this date, the student must apply for an extension. At first these are granted automatically, but as time goes on the student is required to provide evidence that he is likely to finish his thesis sooner or later in order that the extension be granted. This regulation exists so that in the event that a student looks unlikely to ever finish, he can be told to go away and stop using university resources. As it happened, I had one of these deadlines at the end of June 1997. As it was, I didn't actually finish my thesis until early August. In theory, I should have applied for another extension, but I was too busy writing the thesis to bother with this. Technically, the university could have refused to accept my thesis. Just to be careful, I filled out the form applying for another extension, and submitted it (late) at the same time I submitted the thesis. (In the section where I had to demonstrate some evidence that I would submit a thesis some day, I wrote that "Thesis was submitted on [such and such a date]). The woman at the Board of Graduate Studies didn't seem to care much about the form, however. She took it, but I don't know what she did with it, because I never heard anything about it. I simply received a letter from the Board a few days later informing me that my thesis had been received and a date would be scheduled for the thesis defence as soon as was practicable. In fact, even if I had submitted my thesis five years after my supposed due date, it would likely have been accepted, because the regulation wasn't about refusing to accept theses that had been written or denying degrees to people who had earned them. It was instead about discouraging people who looked like never completing their degrees. In the event that someone who had been discouraged in this way did complete a thesis after all, then this was actually a good thing, and the university realised this.

While universities might occasionally be inflexible with respect to degree rules for undergraduates, this is almost never the case for Ph.D. students. A Ph.D. is a long, weird and mind-bending experience, and bureacracies generally are sympathetic about this fact.

I have a letter (actually an e-mail) published in Roger Ebert's movie related letters column in today's Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert has actually published five or six of my e-mails in this column over the years. However, this is the first time I have had the headline in five or six years. I wonder if Ebert realises that "Michael Jennings, Cambridge", "Michael Jennings, Sydney", and "Michael Jennings, London", are all the same person. I suspect that his volume of e-mail is such that the answer is "no". Still, when I send him e-mail on movie related matters that I find interesting, he usually replies, which is nice.
Pain, and delight

This weekend, Blogger has eaten a post I wrote on when and whether PhDs should refer to themselves as "Dr", and has prevented me from posting another cricket update, amongst other things. Yes, I need to switch to Moveable Type. In any event, the cricket update is over here at Ubersportingpundit. (Quick summary: Australia are winning again. There will also be some brief gloating thoughts on Manchester United's Premiership win over there from me later). Hopefully there will be some more posting from me later.

Update: The piece on Manchester United has now been posted. Blogger remains extremely unreliable. We will see how much more I get posted today and over the next few days.

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