Sunday, 23 December 2007

Quite a punt

To me, the real connection between the words "boxing" and "sport" is the cricket Test match at the MCG. Australian captain Ricky Ponting has some views about how the selectors should pick the team this year. "Old Testament-like" floods or not, I think they will miss Stuart MacGill. But apparently Punter has picked a retirement date already, too and the reporters say he "will retire with every batting record in the game." Ending up with a 100+ average definitely would be impressive!

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Unthinking protest

It seems quite a few people are kicking up a stink about a Saudi rape victim who has been sentenced to 90 lashes, calling on Western governments to make protests. At least one news outlets has published reports which conveniently skip half the story and imply that the woman is being punished for being raped. In fact, the sentence is for the crime of being in a car with an unrelated male, before they were both attacked by the group that raped her. The rapists have been separately tried and punished. In terms of the connection between her punishment and the rape, the situation is like that of someone jailed for posessing stolen goods when they were raped.

I suggest that, in that light, going on about a rape victim who is being whipped is unhelpful. At worst it implies false accusations about the woman is being punished for, and at best it muddies the waters and confuses the issue. Consider the slightly less extreme comparision with a hypothetical scenario where a woman in, say, Australia, is charged with dealing dope after reporting a rape that occurred on the way to a customer. Whatever we think about the legal status of various drugs, it wouldn't make much sense for, say, liberal Dutch media to describe her as a jailed rape victim.

It's one thing to protest against whipping as a punishment for mingling with the opposite sex - if that's the issue, then make a big deal over all the people who are facing such punishement, not just the one that happens to have been raped. Some have suggested that there are cases where rape victims are punsihed as adulterers simply because of their rape - if that is so, publicise the plight of these victims, not someone who isn't being punished for that reason. It just doesn't make sense to focus on this one person unless you think that rape victims shouldn't be held responsible for anything they might have done before their rape.

Of course, there is an argument in favour of some level of amnesty being given to victims, so as to encourage not discourage the reporting of crimes such as rape, but that's hardly a black and white issue, or something we can say is only a problem in one part of the world. Rather than looking for any excuse to feel superior and criticise justice in Saudi Arabia, why not look for the more subtle steps to support rape victims wherever they are? Apart from anything else, ridiculously constructed accusations thrown at Saudi justice are hardly going to help the hearing the more serious arguments receive, are they?

Thursday, 29 November 2007

An outside view

As far as I could tell from here in London, the recent Australian election campaign featured a lot of talk about education and industrial relations/union bosses as well as Iraq and climate change. However, most British media reports seem to suggest the result was all about the latter two, and then start talking about Rudd's republicanism. I guess Brits aren't that interested in Australian domestic issues, despite down under's status as one of the top destinations for British emigrants.

A BBC report just before the election also said that Australians had only sacked their government four times since World War II. I suspect they actually meant since the Liberal Party first came to power in 1949, although I guess they might have argued that the Governor-General got in before the electorate in 1975.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Am I on the list?

In the last month or so, I have confirmed online my electoral enrolment in two different countries. The laws allowing me to vote in two countries are a story in themselves, but it is interesting to compare the two enrolment systems.

I confirmed, that is, checked, my Australian enrolment online at https://oevf.aec.gov.au/, since an election is coming up on 24 November. It's probably too late to point this out, but if you need to change your enrolment details, you have until 8pm, about an hour from now (at least in Sydney - I'm not sure how the deadline fits in with timezones, so it might be no time at all in Tasmania!) This online service allows you to see your enrolment status, but not change it. Australian voters are required to enrol when they become elegible to vote, and then change their enrolment whenever they change address.

I also confirmed my British enrolment, in the sense of officially confirming to the authorities that none of the details of people living at my address on 15 October had changed since last year, at http://www.registerbyinternet.com/. The British electoral rolls are constructed on 1 December each year, based on where people live in October, according to forms that are sent to each household. The process can be done online or by phone if no details have changed.

While the British system does leave itself open to some electoral fraud (e.g. each person is not responsible for their own enrolment, it's legal to be enrolled at more than one address), the idea of a yearly reminder to check details may avoid some of the controversy that occurred in Australia concerning people who leave enrolling/changing their enrolment by the time an election is called.1 Then again, the general lack of need to enrol when moving means that the British system might have had trouble had the press been right about an election being held here as well. The roll would have been almost a year old, and while it is possible to enrol with "rolling enrolment" after the October forms go round, I don't think this fact is well known.

1 I don't actually think the reduction in the time allowed to enrol once the election is called has had much effect - I suspect most people who haven't paid attention to the resulting reminders to enrol earlier wouldn't have bothered once the election was called anyway.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

"There remains a group"

Byron considers the situation five years after the Bali bombings. Something to keep in mind when responding to terrorism, Islam, governments, or anything at all, really.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Sport

Why have so many English people suddenly assumed I care about rugby?

More importantly, why did Australia play Hodge and not Haddin?

Monday, 1 October 2007

Again it gets colder

We've definitely started our fifth English autumn now. Despite the insistence of at least one friend that it must have been on the 21st or 22nd, the equinox was last Sunday morning, and the weather moved on at around the same time. We had moon cakes on Tuesday, and a Harvest celebration service at church today. Now, the sun is setting before seven, the wind has a bite, the leaves are changing colour and the cricket season has finished. I guess that's an incentive to get a move on and return!

Saturday, 15 September 2007

More ICC madness

After the debacles of the World Cup, the ICC seem to be doing it again. Whatever the merit (or lack thereof) the idea of a Twenty20 World Championship may have, it seems bizarre that the form of the game that exists purely to finish quickly, without time for all the twists and turns of even what used to be the shorter form of the game, should be played in a competition involving full round robins in four groups of three, and then two groups of four, before the semi-finals. But that's not the worst of it.

When they lost to Zimbabwe, it looked like Australia might flop and rake something out of the Super Eights stage, just like India and Pakistan did at the World Cup. However, the Aussie's shock loss actually reduced some of the silliness by bringing some meaning into a game that would otherwise have had no meaning at all. That's right, if Australia and England had both beaten Zimbabwe, today's clash would have had absolutely no impact on the tournament.

As it is, Australia needed to win to have a chance of making it through to the next stage, and managed to win by enough to finish ahead of England on top of the group table based on net run rate. In the expected scenario, and in the match between Sri Lanka and New Zealand tomorrow, the only thing resting on the match is the top of the group position. But finishing top of the group affects nothing! As long as Australian and England finished as the top two, the groups that they move on to were already determined, for the sake of things like ticket sales.

Games without impact on the tournament can be great when they involve two teams that are both being knocked out, but when thinking about the final standings of Sri Lanka and New Zealand in this tournament, I doubt anyone will remember who finished top in their group. Surely it should actually affect their future in the tournament, giving them something to play for.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

"True" Islam?


Last week, the planned "mega-mosque" in West Ham was again in the news. Complaints about the plans for the Abbey Mills site have not just mentioned the usual issues of traffic and noise, but Christian People's Alliance councillor Alan Craig implied that opposition was not based on racism or anti-Muslim feeling. He didn't object to mosques, just to Tablighi Jamaat, the particular group that is planning to build the mosque, which he says encourages Muslims to separate themselves, causing harm to the community, as well as being a potential breeding ground for terrorists.

Around the same time, Gerard Henderson was on the radio giving his views on how Australia has confronted militant Islam. (He wrote on the topic for The Times earlier in the year.) He highlighted the bipartisan nature of much of the reaction to the events of the last six years, and the government's deliberate attempts to interact with "moderate" Muslim groups and exclude extremists.

Community cohesion is probably a good thing, and in my experience Australia has more of this than Britain, although this is older than any recent government action.1 Governments choosing to work with religious groups to achieve this aim may also be a good thing,2 but suggesting that approval for the building of a mosque should be hindered by the religious or even political beliefs of the owners seems to me to be another matter entirely. Imagine this sort of reasoning being used to deny permission to a church of a particular denomination, because it's teaching is less inline with the public ideals.

This seems vaguely related to a bugbear of mine - non-Muslims who tell people what real Islam is. It doesn't matter whether they are trying to persuade us that Islam is wrong because the real version follows the violent commands in the Qur'an, or trying to achieve cohesion by saying Islam is really about peace, I don't think it is honest. If a Muslim tells me the Islam teaches something, they are telling me what they believe to be a message from God. If a Christian tells me Christianity teaches something, I can respect them as honestly conveying something they believe to be from God, even if I disagree. If a non-Christian tells me what I should believe as a Christian, they're not taking Christianity seroiusly.3 There is only a "true Christianity" if the Christian message is true.

So I conclude that the only "true Islam4" I can speak of is that modelled by Jesus. I can say that Muslims should believe something only if, and only because, I, too, believe it. With love and respect, I can agree or disagree with different Muslims on different issues, because their beliefs are or aren't in line with what I believe God teaches, without attempting to judge whether they are valid interpretations of the Islamic tradition.

1 Why is this so? Is it a matter of government policies in the past, or are there other factors?
2 I'm not so sure about the effectiveness of excluding a group on the grounds that they are separatist!
3 I'm not saying I don't listen to non-Christians talking about Christianity. Anyone can quite honestly point out that they think certain beliefs/actions are inconsistent with the Bible or other beliefs, without making statements about "true Christianity".
4 Submission, or surrender to God.
The site is just to the left of the photo. 8 points for the name of the tallest building in the background.

I've succumbed

Despite holding out for over a month, and hearing it dismissed as a a fad of the chattering classes on the radio this morning, I have finally succumbed.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Walking to work

I appreciate the fact that I don't catch the tube to the office each day. Catching the incredibly crowded trains during peak hour is not a tempting proposition, even before considering the narrowness of the central portion of trains on lines like the Central line where there actually head room for people my height. Today, with most lines closed due to a strike, it is even more convenient that I not only don't need to catch the tube or use the now unusually crowded buses or roads, but can walk from home and back.

In general, the less than 20 minute walk is a nice way to relax, especially as I pass through the park and by the canal. Sometimes I can be lost in my thoughts, serious or otherwise, but it also seems to provide more opportunities to run into people. It can even be productive for my work, as the insights I've used have often come on the way home!

How do you spend your time travelling to work?

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Weddings


Tomorrow will be the first Saturday in four weeks on which I am not planning to attend a wedding. So today, there is no packing, no travelling, no helping to put up decorations. It actually seems a bit strange!

It has been great to attend the weddings of these three lovely couples. It has also been interesting to see the three different weddings. The only one that was in England was also the only one where both bride and groom were not English. The one that was most in one language (English) was in Wales and included a blessing in Welsh. At the receptions, we had life-story videos made by Dutch friends, songs and sermons in Russian, and Irish partying into the small hours.

So, after some beautiful times under shooting stars in the Netherlands, in the park in London and in a Welsh field, it's congratulations to the Ferrabys, the Zhangs and the Slatters!

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

East meets West



Berlin, central Europe: a city named by Slavic settles with a name probably meaning "swamp". A city chosen as capital by the Hohenzollern electors of Brandenberg.

A city that welcomed persecuted Jews from Austria, Huguenots from France and other refugees from Poland and Bohemia in the 17th century. (The domed church constructed by the Huguenots sits opposite the similar German church contructed in response.)

The city of Frederick the Great and the Kingdom of Prussia. A city occupied by Russians and then by Napoleon. A city whose iconic gate was carried to Paris, and on return, had Victory's wreath of peace replaced with an Iron Cross. (Victory now looks straight at the French Embassy.)

The capital city of the German Empire, the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. An Olympic city, where the infamous 1936 games meant the "Forbidden for Jews" signs were temporarily taken down. A city full of memorials.

A city whose old buildings, the Reichstag and more, are riddled with patches of stone used to repair bullet holes, and decorated with black statues that had been buried during the war. A city conquered by the Soviet Army and then split with their Western allies.

A city divided by blockades and then a wall. A Western island including the world's second largest department store, next to an Eastern capital with government buildings lined with propoganda murals. The city of Checkpoint Charlie, where tanks faced each other and spies were exchanged.

A reunified city, full of construction sites. A city where the largely demolished wall has been further whittled away by souvenir hunters, and street stalls sell communist memorabilia. A city hosting a European conference on reading opposite Bebelplatz, where the Nazis burned books. A city where full coaches drive in from Poland and further east, exchanging passengers before heading to different Western destinations.

For 12 points, tell me who could carry this flag now found in the Zeughaus. For thoughts on the flag's inscription, see Byron's excellent series.

Friday, 3 August 2007

A Tale of Two Summers



Here are five differences between summer in London and summer in Sydney:

Temperature: There is a reasonable chance that the maximum temperature for a summer day in London will be similar to the maximum the same day in Sydney, where is it winter.

Day length: The sun setting around 9pm even a month after the solstice is one of the highlights of the London summer.

"Football": In Australia, the top soccer (football to the English) league now plays in summer. In England, summer is the time for professional rugby league (football to most Sydneysiders).

Ice Cream Vans: In summer, the ice cream vans come out no matter how warm it isn't, and here, that means many different tunes floating down the street. As I remember it, ice cream vans in Sydney generally all play the same tune.

Parks: While I have been pleased to see many people playing informal games of cricket, the parks in London lack public barbecues. Instead, whenever the sun is out for an hour, the locals seem to head to the park to strip down, lie down, and roast themselves.

I may as well give 10 points to the first person to name the park in the picture

Friday, 20 July 2007

Whispering pictures

On Wednesday night at Paul and Jo's, we played a version of Chinese Whispers involving writing and drawing, rather than whispering. Last time we played this, "A young boy is eating pizza on a train." became

which was described as "A man eating pizza on a jigsaw piece.", which was translated into

This was interpreted as "He stood on top of the giant hot dog." and became

giving our final result: "A man standing on a hot dog." I will leave you to imagine how a brass band and cricket game became a church with a music group and people standing in cakes. Then, while we were praying, we were interrupted by the voice of Yoda: "Message from the dark side, you have." from someone's phone. Quite a funny night.

When I started writing this, it was dark enough to be after sunset, and torrential rain was pouring down among the thunder and lightning. We almost needed a boat to get across the campus. Now, the sun is shining brightly and evereythign looks dry.There's nothing quite like a quick thuderstorm.

P.S. Not for the first, interesting weather in London proved much more serious in other parts of the country, with more floods and all sorts of travel chaos.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Guns on stations or bombs on trains?

The announcement of London as the host city for the 2012 Olympics wasn't the only thing that happened nearly two years ago. The next day, four bombs went off on the city's public transport, killing 52 people. After the bombings were unsuccessfully imitated two weeks later, police armed with large guns were stationed at many railway stations, watching passengers enter and leave.

Yesterday, after the recent car-bombs in London and Glasgow, I saw heavily armed police again at one station. It probably says something strange about how my mind works, but I'm instinctively more disturbed, if not scared, by the visible guns than the thought of possible bombs. I wonder whether it would be any different if Jean Charles de Menezes hadn't been shot 2 days before I first saw them.

(I could offer 10 points for guessing which station I saw the police at, but there are already points on offer for naming that station.)

Monday, 2 July 2007

Olympic preparation déjà vu


Just under two years ago, the city I was living in was awarded the Olympic Games for the second time in my life. This time round, I didn't participate in a basketball dribbling race at an event that was part of the bid process, although I did walk through a gateway supporting the bid at a Guy Fawkes' Night Display. However, we do live roughly the same distance from the site of the Olympic Stadium as the furthest part of the Olympic village will be.

As of today, the roads, footpaths, cycleways, towpaths and waterways in the Olympic Park area will be closed to allow for construction. Thankfully, the two main routes, the Greenway and the River Lee Navigation, are excepted from this, so it will still be easy to go off along the river or head towards Beckton. The Greenway will be partially closed at some points, but that's just as well, because that part of the Greenway could do with revamping. The Olympic Park should be quite a nice area by the time everything is done.

Of course, this is not the only "closure" that has just come into effect. Yesterday England "went smokefree". It is no longer legal to smoke in enclosed areas that are also workplaces. At the same time. the whole college campus has been declared a non smoking area. I don't think I've ever breathed in so much cigarette smoke while walking down a public road as I did outside the college this morning.

(Ten points for the best explanation of what the picture has to do with this post.)

Monday, 18 June 2007

Symbols: help or hindrance?

I don't know how much you have seen of the new London 2012 Olympic logo, which has attracted a lot of criticism. The biggest problem with the logo itself (as opposed the flashing promotional video which caused problems for some people with epilepsy) is that it doesn't really have any symbolism. It has the Olyympic rings, the word London, and the shape almost clearly spells out "2012". Apart from these bare essentials, there is... nothing.

From what I've heard, this is quite understandable, as the designers were given criteria that ruled out nearly every symbolism the logo could draw on. The 2012 logo could not look like any previous Olympic logos, ruling out anything resembling an athlete or the Olympic flame. The logo of "the UK's games" was not allowed to be too London-centric, ruling out a vast array of images. I'm not sure whether something reppsenting the whole of Britain would have been acceptable, but I don't think the Union Flag is subtle enough for that context, and no alternative springs to mind. There really isn't much left, is there?

A similar set of restrictions have appeared in the rules for the competition for a new flag and emblem of Kosovo. In this case, the brief is less restrictive, and much more reasonable anyway. Unwanted symbols in flags can easily spark all sorts of problems, and the political sensitivites in this area are more serious than worries that the Scots will resent the extra spending on a London event.

A new flag for Kosovo needs to be acceptable to both the Serbian and Albanian residents in order to avoid sparking tensions and dooming any peaceful settlement to failure. The flag must be neutral, combining symbology, or making references only to peace or the region itself.

Unfortunately, no matter how neutral the flag is, it will only succeed if there is an acceptable settlement to start with. Removing a symbol is only a skin deep change. The deliberately inclusive/neutral flags of Ireland and Cyprus have both ultimately become associated with one side of a conflict. It would be hard to find a more intrinsically neutral flag than the Cypriot map and olive branches, but in recent years plans for reuniting the island have included a requirement for a new flag.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Summer games


After the warmest May on record throughout much of Australia's east coast, it is now winter there. Despite some almost wintry weather here in London for the long weekend last week, it seemed like summer had finally come this weekend. The view on long train trips is that much cheerier after the spring growth, and the greenery combined with some warm sunny weather made it a great time to go walking, cycling or playing cricket.

The cricket was even more enjoyable because we won by 297 runs, despite starting late after waiting for the other team and reducing the match to 30 overs a side. It would have been nice if the opposition had had more than eight players, but when you need a net run rate of more than +3.3 from one game, you don't complain too much about a lopsided contest. The only thing that might have made it better would have been the short mid off holding on to the two near catches from my bowling!

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Squirrels


Even if they are introduced pests, grey squirrels are great fun to watch, whether they are running around trees or scampering across the grass. They usually seem to be quite shy, climbing around to the other side of the tree trunk if they feel you are moving towards them.

However, in the garden in the centre of the park, it appears that people have been feeding the squirrels. After walking in, they crowded around expectantly. While eating lunch, the gathered round and beg. Some even try climbing up on benches, although they gave up on the bike after one couldn't get a grip on the metal and went sliding down. And then, suddenly they all dashed into the bushes, not to be seen again until the dog had gone.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Bad examples

What completes this set of bad examples: Idolatry, sexual immorality, testing God, and ...?

Thursday, 17 May 2007

World Cup of Flops

Last week I suggested that the administrators and the umpires didn't deserve the World Cup of flops title, even if they will be remembered that way. If it were fair to lump them together as one team, which it isn't, I'd probably give them third place. The poor scheduling intended to suit tv companies, together with the high ticket prices and associated loss of atmosphere, really could have been avoided. But some others flopped pretty well too...

The Flop Champions would have to be Pakistan. A disappointing performance on the field and two players missing after the drug test debacle were completely overshadowed by the death of their coach, which now apparently may not have been murder. Either way, there are a lot of problems in Pakistani cricket, and the repeated stupid comments from Pakistani spokesmen back up my suspicions that the problems are at a much deeper level than the national team. Having an administration run by the military government may or may not be relevant.

Second are India. While they were probably not helped by being drawn in the most
competitive of the groups, their failure to progress to the Super Eights was well below their standards and, together with Pakistan's early exit, a large part of the problem with the Super Eights stage. This can only be blamed on India and Pakistan - there is no way the tournament should have been arranged to ensure it took more than one bad performance to knock a favourite out in the first round, no matter how good that would be for television. A tournament is all
about having to perform at the right time, and each team getting their chance.

If it really isn't fair to drop out so easily, then why not make the World Cup a huge round-robin. That might take a long time, so instead of holding it in one place at one time, let it run throughout the year, and add up the points at the end. Is it starting to sound like the ICC ODI Championship yet? The World Cup is meant to be a tournament, not simply a world ranking, and allowing teams like Bangladesh and even Ireland a chance to make it further than they
might just emphasises this.

West Indies come in fourth. On home soil, and after their recent results in the Champions Trophy, their performance was definitely not the way to farewell Brian Lara. Actually, considering that as hosts they had a hand in the organisation, I'm tempted to give
them equal third place. England weren't far behind, with very disappointing batting and all-rounders falling off pedalos in the middle of the night.

South Africa and New Zealand are next on the list. Both teams showed promise, but just didn't perform as they could or should have. That concludes the list of real flops. Scotland, the Netherlands and Kenya can't have expected much more or less than what they achieved, although the Scots would be disappointed and the Dutch quite pleased with the result of their match. Zimbabwe also could not realistically expect more, but
in any case I have disqualified them on the grounds that their cricket is in even more of a mess than Pakistan's, just like the country as a whole.

That leaves five nations with good reason to be pleased with their World Cup performance. Bangladesh once again showed they are capable of defeating giants on occasion, and Ireland performed remarkably well, particularly in the bowling department. Although results for these two since the World Cup have been quite different, their future is looking positive. Bermuda were ecstatic at simply reaching the World Cup, and rightly so. Sri Lanka outplayed the non-finalists by far and of course Australia can't be upset
with going through the tournament undefeated.

Hopefully a few of the flops will turn around their performances, and the rest of the year's cricket will not be such a disappointment. The Test at Lords, starting tomorrow, shows a bit of promise, with both England and the West Indies having a chance to show a new face.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Feedback

noun 1. the returning of a part of the output of any system, especially a mechanical, electronic, or biological one, as input, especially for correction or control purposes, to alter the characteristic sound of conventional musical instruments, etc.
2. an indication of the reaction of the recipient, as of an audience.
3. Electronics the return of part of the energy of the output circuit of an amplifier to the input, either to oppose the input signal (negative feedback) or to reinforce it (positive feedback).
4. the input of a signal into a microphone from the output of the same system, usually causing a high-pitched screech.
The Macquarie Dictionary Online © 2007 Macquarie University, Published by Macquarie Dictionary Publishers Pty Ltd.

1 is the most general, including the deliberate special case 3 and the unintentional 4. 2 can also be a case of 1, but are its effects sometimes more like 4?

Friday, 11 May 2007

Cricket in the rain

Last Wednesday was a brilliant day for cricket. Despite starting after 12:30, the long days of this time of year, combined with a lack of interruptions meant we played a full 100 overs. Well, we could have if we hadn't been bowled out over 100 runs short with 17 overs to spare. The sunny, not too hot weather topped with the usual tea between innings made for a great day's cricket (apart from the result).

Yesterday, however, was another matter altogether. Even before we realised that our opponents had decided to forfeit and not even appear, we feared that the day might be marred by that age-old enemy of cricket - rain. In the end, the rain was not strong enough to stop our slightly silly six-a-side practice match, but it did make it even sillier, although not as silly as they game we played on a mud pitch last year when boths teams needed the points for a win.

When rain hit the World Cup Final between Australian and Sri Lanka at the end of April, some commentators said it was a fitting end to a disastrous tournament. Ironically, it was the one negative aspect of the tournament that probably couldn't have been handled much better, at least at first. Noone wants to a reduced length match, but noone can stop the rain, or successfully schedule matches to avoid it. It would only be wise to follow the suggestion of completely postponing the match to the reserve day if you could be sure there would less trouble from rain then, even before considering the effects of such a move on spectators and players.

The idea of making use of the reserve day before reducing the number of overs at all is more attractive, but weakening the emphasis on finishing the game in one day does strike at the very heart of the philosophy of the one-day game. Of course, in the final, play was stopped even before the reduced number of overs had been bowled, due to poor light, which could have been combatted if light towers had been installed.

If the ICC were to insist that venues for games as important as the WC final be equipped with lights, there would have been several more hours available for the game, and the rain interruption may not have mattered. But if it's reasonable to extend day games into the night, surely that would suggest that games like this should be scheduled to start in the morning in the first place, even in places where day-night games traditionally draw in the crowds. I wonder whether the ACB and co. would agree to that!

As it was, even after the day was spoilt by natural causes, we saw the bizarre spectacle of players going back out onto the ground and playing in darkness because they had been told that otherwise they would have to come back the next day. I'm not sure how the umpires reached this conclusion. After all, if that were the case, there was no point in originally reducing the number overs. Simon Taufel, recently ranked the world's best umpire, does not seem to have been involved as he was Australian, but the calibre of the five relevant umpires leaves them no excuse for officiously applying the playing conditions so blatantly incorrectly. This is especially true considering the fact that the second ranked umpire, Darrell Hair, was not at the tournament after the debacle at the Oval which ended in the first forfeited Test match. While there are many issues involved, his part in declaring the match ended, labelled over officious by some, was at least a correct application of the Laws.

This farce really was a fitting finale to a flop of a World Cup, and while I don't think the ICC and umpires deserve most of the blame, by ending it this way they will be remembered as the winners of the World Cup of flops. If only we could leave behind the weed killer, forfeits and rain and keep playing with sunny days and tea in the pavilion.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Look right, look left, and look for a right

From today's SMH:
A particular bugbear is the pedestrian push button at traffic lights. Professor Gehl argues walkers should not have to "apply" to cross the road. In a study of London traffic, he found most pedestrians crossed against the lights. "Crossing the road is a human right," he argues.

A spokesman for the Roads and Traffic Authority retorted that "not getting hit by a car" was "beneficial to human rights".

I like to observe the many contortions that the (somewhat questionable) notion of human rights is put through in various contexts, but this exchange is simply hilarious!

Friday, 27 April 2007

Rip, rip, woodchip

When The Shadow described saying no to the "poor, hapless critters" holding out Sydney's free newpaper mX, I had the idea that they were more pushy than their London equivalents. Now it has been revealed that thelondonpaper distributors don't need to be pushy, as they just dump the excess papers in gutters or bins, bumping up circulation figures.

Video footage of papers being dumped was shown on tv news the other night (also on YouTube), having been released by Associated Newspapers, the publishers of thelondonpaper's rivals, the Metro and London Lite. News International, thelondonpaper's publisher's parent company*, retaliated with pictures of London Lite being abandoned, seriously bringing into question the use of flooding the capital with 900,000 free afternoon papers each day.

It is an utter waste of paper, even if in one case the dumper deposited his unread rags in a recycling bin. The freesheets' certified circulation figures, based on the number of paper's distributed, and quite important to them, as they draw in the advertising revenue. So thelondonpaper's relatively recent increase of 100,000 in print run size probably has benefited them if not any readers or the environment.

I have to wonder at the logic behind using these sort of circulation figures, though. I don't commute, but in my experience when traveling on the tube or bus there are often free papers lying around, waiting to be picked up. I would think each paper is read more than once. There definitely isn't a need for more copies.

*Murdoch's News International is also the parent company of the publishers of The Times, in which the reasonably fair article I linked to appeared in. Not what you'd expect from some Murdoch papers. Then again, it was funny to see the issue discussed next to an ad for thelondonpaper.com.

Friday, 20 April 2007

Symmetry: more algebra


Those of you who were baffled by the waffle when I last mentioned maths in the media may be pleased to hear that there was a much simpler introduction to the area of group theory on the radio this morning. The In Our Time program focussed on symmetry, with Melvyn Bragg takling to the usual mathematical suspects (Ian Stewart and Marcus du Sautoy) and a theoretical physicist.

They managed to relate symmetry to everything from quadratic equations, squares and triangles to isocahedra, quintic equations and duels over love and politics; from cavemen recognising animals to the monster group; and from the nerves of balance in our ears to simple relativity and the dream of a theory of everything.

A couple of times, Bragg asked the physicist to explain a mathematical concept, or asked one of the mathematicians about applications to physics, which seemed slightly odd. I wonder whether he thought the non-specialist would do a better job of speaking in terms the audience would understand.

10 points for the name(s) of this symmetrical bridge.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

A trip to Cambridge

"It's gonna be so boring," said Mohan, waiting at the bus stop, "all
that time on the coach. I'm just gonna get mangled." He got out his
thermos and took a swig.

An hour and a half later, we alighted at Cambridge. "I didn't think it
would be so short," said Mohan, "I didn't have time to fall asleep."
We walked to the market square and sat down to have lunch. Mohan
managed about a quarter of his and then started complaining that his
thermos was empty.

"Are you sure you don't want to give a talk?" he asked Dörte, "You can
give mine. I'm too mangled." Dörte might have been happy giving a
talk, but not that one. She asked, "Did you really have whiskey in
that thermos?"

"Just milk, you know. Milk." Right. "It was only half full, anyway."
We headed off past Senate House, down Trinity Lane, across the river
and past the library. Behind us, Mohan piped up, "How far is this,
guys? We've been walking for hours. Aren't there any pubs out here?"

After no more than twenty minutes, we reached the modern complex that
is the Centre for Mathematical Sciences. By the end of the day, after
talks with distinctive Irish, Estuary, and Scottish accents, a
surprisingly sober Malaysian gave a decent talk after all, although he
did stop to ask us if he was making any sense.

We enjoyed another couple of days in Cambridge, with more talks,
more than enough food, duck watching, and artistic works visible just
about every time we turned our heads. Then we headed home again,
although the coach was so late that Mohan's thermos was empty before
we got on, despite his trip to fill it up while we were sightseeing.

Ten points for the best suggestion for what this particular work of art might be intended to represent. Another ten available for naming the Cambridge college whose entrance it sits outside.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Royal soap

When I wake up in the morning, I don't expect the first thing I hear on the radio news to be the fact that a 24 year old and his girlfriend have split up. Not even on a quiet Saturday when most of the rest of the news is about a horse race. Not even when the 24 year old is Prince William of Wales. Now, a couple of days later, the "news" is still all over the newspapers.

Of course, the Sydney Morning Herald has not quite followed suit, dressing up its stories as reporting on the media reaction itself. This is normal practice for the SMH, where gossip does not seem to be directly reported, but there are plenty of articles about what the British tabloids or Aussie mags are saying.

Not only does most of the coverage seem to be pure speculation, but I don't understand why we are supposed to be so interested in the story. I would have thought that the daily dose of Neighbours would be enough soap opera for the Brits, but they seem to want more. I've had enough, even without watching Neighbour, although watching the social life of ducks last week was quite intriguing.

Friday, 6 April 2007

Look-alikes

Yesterday, I seemed to keep coming across people who looked like someone else. So many in a short time, that I wondered whether my minds was playing tricks on me.

At cricket training, there was a young guy bowling quite well who looked just like a subcontinental version of a brother of mine. The resemblance was possibly backed up in my mind by the fact that his bowling style was uncannily like my brothers, only better.

Arriving home, I ran into a guy with a very Elvis-like hairdo walking going into the shop below us. I can't say he looked exactly like Elvis, but he appear to be closer in age to what Elvis would be now than many impersonators.

Finally, I had a glimpse of Get a grip on tv, and quickly came to the conclusion that Ben Elton looks like Andrew Denton. Finding those links, I found out that Denton interviewed Elton on Enough Rope last year, and the first few lines of that exchange are enough to reassure me that it's not all in my mind!

Saturday, 31 March 2007

Lord of democracy II

I think the issue of reform of the House of Lords, mentioned in yesterday's post, deserves a bit of perspective, historical and otherwise. The House of Lords was originally made up of hereditary peers (the Lords Temporal) and bishops, abbots and priors (the Lords Spiritual). In the 1950s, life peers gained the right to sit in the house, and in 1999, the Blair government began reform of the chamber, reducing it to 92 hereditary peers, 26 Church of England (arch)bishops and the life peers.

This was intended to be only the first stage of the reform, which would ultimately remove the hereditary peers altogether. Whether the new house would be appointed or elected or a combination of the two was yet to be decided. In 2003, the only option supported by the Lords was the all-appointed model, while the Commons rejected all models, with most support for an 80% elected house. A move to a wholly elected chamber is seen by some as giving the second house too much legitimacy, threatening the Commons' supremacy.

Since then, the cash for peerages scandal has raised it's head, and in the most recent Commons vote the fully elected model was the preferred option. Proponents of election suggest that it is clearly more democratic. However, many of the Lords who voted in favour of a fully appointed house, suggest that this would be more representative.

Recent posts by Byron on Democracy in action (again) comment on both the failings of democracy and ideas of representation. I tend to think that the event mentioned (the trial of Jesus) has more in common with the original House of Lords than other forms of democracy, but it does illustrate a broader point and put all the possible reforms in perspective. Whatever system of government we have will be imperfect and will ultimately have to submit to the Lord of all.

Friday, 30 March 2007

Lord of democracy I


In the news today are the Blair government's plans for new casinos, including a "super-casino" in Manchester. The plans, particularly the choice of Manchester rather than Blackpool, have been controversial, and passed through the House of Commons fairly narrowly, considering the size of the Labour majority. Opposition in the House of Lords was even stronger, including those against the super-casino in general as well as critics of the methods used to choose the venue, and the plans were defeated by three votes.

In response to this, several people have suggested that the elected lower house should have its way ahead of the unelected upper house, particularly as the main legislation behind the plan has already passed both houses. As I understand it, if the government chose to continue with the plans, the most the Lords could do is delay them for one year. In Australia, where the upper house (the Senate) is elected, we are more accepting of the idea that the upper house can veto bills. Deadlocks can only be overcome through a full election followed by a joint sitting.

You might wonder whether there is a point to having a chamber whose nature is such that the legitimacy of its votes is so easily questioned. In fact, reforming the House of Lords is another issue that has been in the headlines recently. Proposals for a reformed house were voted on in Parliament earlier this month. The Commons approved two models, one with members directly elected and one with 80% elected, 20% appointed for fixed terms. The all-elected model received the most support. The Lords, however, rejected this, and supported only appointed members of the house.

I find it interesting to consider the equivalents of the House of Lords in the former British Dominions. Not having hereditary peers, the Canadian Senate has always had appointed members and powers comparable to the House of Lords, although there are currently moves toward fixed terms and elected members.

The Australian Senate, more directly based on the US version, was meant to be "the states' house", with an equal number of members for each state. It was also deliberately given quite a bit of legislative power and was one of the earliest directly elected upper houses. Early drafts of the constitution required senators to be chosen by state parliaments, as in the US at the time. I wonder how different Commonwealth-State relations would be now if that model had been kept.

10 points for naming the building in the centre of the photo and finding the (very weak) link between it an this post.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

A rubbing stamp

Australia, since the introduction of the GST in 2000, has issued two different categories of postage stamps. International stamps, on which no GST is paid, are distinguished from the normal domestic stamps, whose prise includes GST. Australia Post also has a tradition of celebrating sport and particular sports success in its products, such as this label celebrating the Sydney Swans' Premiership in 2005. In fact, there has been a stamp issued for every Australian gold medal won at a recent summer or winter Olympic Games.

Considering this, it makes some sense that a stamp would be issued to celebrate Australia regaining the Ashes from England last December. It was quite a victory after the shock of the close loss in 2005. However, I have to wonder about the decision to make one of the two stamps an international stamp. Now it is being stuck on letters sent not within Australia, but to England, as well as places where nearly noone has heard of the Ashes. It looks like they're just trying to rub the 5-0 loss in to the English. Then again, why not?

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Changing more calendars

Yet another "Happy New Year"! The Iranian New Year, celebrated by many Iranian and Turkic peoples was yesterday. The new year according to the Indian national calendar is tomorrow. Of course, both these calendars are related to the many lunar calendars used in history from the Middle East to India which linked the start of the year to the vernal equinox. The equinox is also a holiday in Japan.

The arrival of the equinox means it should be well and trule spring, but despite two weeks of unseasonably warm weather, we've been hit by an arctic snap and have had snow showers the last two days! We appreciate the long hours of daylight, though.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Algebra in the news


A certain person has repeatedly told me that this blog is "too nerdy". This post will be even nerdier than usual, because the news media has come probably as close as it ever will to a story abot my work. Another mathematician sent me this quote from yesterday's Metro:
Mapped Out: A mathematical conundrum has been solved - with an answer the size of Manhattan. A group of mathematicians successfully mapped E8, one of the largest and most complicated mathematical structures. If the answer was written out by hand it would cover an area the size of New York borough. E8 is an example of a Lie group, invented by Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie in 1887 to understand the symmetry of three-dimensional objects.

Apart from being bemused at what the journalist's typically hyperbolic phrase "one of the largest and most complicated mathematical structures" might actually mean, he and I were not able to tell what these mathematicians had actually done. Of course, it is a free paper (see what The Shadow has to say about a free paper), but The Times and the BBC didn't do much better. I'm not sure what The Times' heading is about, but at least the BBC corrected their most obvious mistake, changing the sentence that originally read "E8 is a member of the "Lie group" that describe symmetrical objects."

Obviously, these articles aren't trying to tell mathematicians exactly what has been done, but to give readers with no background in the area a general idea of the story. We eventuallly worked out what was going on using Google, but I'd really like to know what non-mathematicians make of the articles. Do you think they told you anything more than "a computer calculated something really big"? Can you describe what they actually calculated? Please tell me, even if you think you didn't understand a word of it!

Also, 10 points to anyone who does enough research to say what the picture is.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Foreign money

Last week, the Bank of England launched a new £20 note. A picture of the economist Adam Smith replaces the composer Edward Elgar. Apart from the fact that hardly anyone who isn't an economist has heard of Adam Smith, he was a Scotsman. Obviously the peopel at the Bank of England would have a lot fo respect for eminent economists, but why would a Scotsman appear on an English note, when teh Scottish banks issue their own notes? Smith has already appeared on £50 notes from the Clydesdale Bank (owned by the NAB).

Perhaps more relevantly, when will the Bank of England catch up with the times and issue proper polymer notes?

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Targeted at what?

Google places "relevant" ads next to just about anything using it's AdSense, a "content-targeted advertising program". You can even choose to have ads on your blog, with Google supposedly choosing the most relevant ads for your readers.

I don't think I'd make any money out of it, but I'm curious enough to be tempted to put the ads on here just to see what sort of things the program would come up with. It can be quite funny to look at the ads it chooses. Yesterday for some vague reason, I sent an email from my googlemail address. It included some Chinese characters, and Google started giving me all sorts links to sites in Chinese.

Today I received a reply which included a mention of someone who has just moved to Sydney. What ads does Google decide on? Firstly, an ad for "100% Australian Ugg boots", with express delivery worldwide. Then, a slightly more relevant cheap phone calls to Sydney ad. Lastly, an ad for aNewLifeInSydney.com, with the words "Sydney needs 50,000 people now. Start your new life today!", which struck me as quite strange. I'm not so worried about Sydney's population that I'd discourage immigrants, but how does Sydney need 50,000 people?

Monday, 5 March 2007

Red moon


Last night there was a full lunar eclipse, with totality between 22:43 and 23:58 UT. We were very pleased to see that there was a very clear sky in London at the time, so we had a great view from our back windows. We saw the moon go various combinations of red and white as in went in and out of the earth's shadow, and somehow managed to get this surprisingly good photo.

I can't remember the last time there was a clear night for an eclipse, and this was better than any I've seen befopre. It's not exactly a action packed show, but quite spectacular. As for all of you in eastern Australia and other places that missed out on the view, I hope you enjoyed the sunlight that would have gone to the moon if you hadn't been in the way!

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Who needs a hand?

On Wednesday, New Zealand cricketer Jacob Oram wasn't sure his finger, injured attempting to catch a skied ball during the recent series against Australia, would heal enough to allow him to play in the World Cup. If not, he was considering amputation:
"If it means cutting the finger off, if that's the worse-case scenario, if that's the last resort, I'll do that, there's no way I'm missing this."

I don't know whether I'd be willing to lose a finger if it could gain me a place in the World Cup. Some would say his priorities are crazy, but I suspect most of us can at least understand the sort of thinking that would lead to that desperation. Fingers are fairly small, some are less important than others, and Oram has a chance to do something very important in his thinking at least - play in a World Cup. He is willing to decide that the World Cup means more to him than his finger.

Jesus told his disciples to cut off their feet and hands and pluck out their eyes if they caused them to sin. I have heard a lot of discussion about whether Jesus is speaking figuratively or exaggerating, or whether we should take it literally. It is interesting that in the book of Mark, this instruction appears in chapter nine, just a couple of chapters after Jesus tells his disciples that a whole smorgasbord of evils come from within, out of men's hearts. Whatever you make of that, Jesus' explanation is quite straighforward: It is better to enter life/the kingdom of God than be physically whole and thrown into hell. He accompanies this with a vivid quote from Isaiah to illustrate what hell is like.

This isn't an exaggeration, it is a simple statement of priorities based on logic that is hard to argue against. Just as Oram believed it is better to play in the World Cup with nine fingers than to have ten and miss out, Jesus says eternal life is more important than things like hands, legs and eyes, let alone fingers and World Cups. As it turned out, Oram didn't have to go through with his decision and will play without amputation. Our practical response to Jesus may not be to get out the axe or call the surgeon, but it probably is fairly drastic. Does that put us off, or are we desperate for the kingdom of heaven too?

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Bouncing through the year


The year is marching on, and while there was no leaping, spring has sprung upon us. I still need my jumper, though.

St David is said to have died 1018 years ago today. I wonder if that's why the daffodil became a symbol of Wales.

Trouble training

After the fatal derailment in Cumbria last Friday night, I expect the Virgin Trains people have better reasons to be worried about losing customers than damage caused by ticket stamp wielding train managers. More seriously, thank God that there were so few casualties in such a high-speed derailment. The driver of the London to Glasgow train, Iain Black, is being called a hero for staying in his seat and continuing to drive the train after it had left the rails, rather than trying to protect himself.

(Not the best photo I have, but it seemed the most appropriate. 10 points for naming the station this Virgin Voyager is at, and 10 more if you can guess where it was headed last Friday night.)

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Welcome to the Pig

春节快乐!


Another "Happy New Year!", as it is now the third day of the Chinese Spring Festival. We had a great meal at the Tab on Saturday night, with plenty of dumplings and other food.

It is now the year of the pig or boar. Apparently pigs will eat anything, which is probably why we call people greedy pigs. Before you are tempted call someone a smelly pig, however, remember that they don't sweat and have a very good sense of smell.

Pigs are generally quite tasty, although someone did tell me that some Chinese traditions say that a person should not eat the animal of their birth year. I never did like chicken anyway.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

How many roads?

Last week on the train, the "train manager" managed to hit me in the head with her ticket-punchy-thing after checking my ticket. She really wasn't having a good day, as she also said we were in Milton Keynes when we were in Stockport, and told us we were arriving at London Euston instead of Manchester Piccadilly.

Of course, she was very, very apologetic, and seemed upset because she thought I wouldn't travel with them again again. I suppose I might avoid an airline if they had particualrly bad service and there were other flights I could take instead, but should I really take an extra hour or so and go via York to get to Manchester? Should I just avoid route 7, or all Virgin trains, and take the slow Silverlink service to get to Birmingham?

Not having a car or a driving licence, driving would be quite impractical, even if it weren't slower than the train. Walking might be enjoyable, but it would take a bit longer than I'd like. If I did walk, however, I'd like to find a nice route along canals, not walk down the middle of the road like the woman I saw this morning. I don't know what she thought she was doing, but she definitely didn't impress the drivers. Vehicles have enough trouble passing each other on that stretch, without trhowing pedestrians into the mix!

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

What colour is your Hair?

In the last month or so, the issue of racism has repeatedly popped up in the news. For at least a week, the airwaves and front pages were full of discussion of whether Jade Goody's actions on the British Celebrity Big Brother were racist. Then last week it was revealed that the man so often labelled a racist by subcontinental cricket fans, umpire Darrell Hair, is suing the International Cricket Council and the Pakistan Cricket Board for racial discrimination.

I don't know what went on in the Big Brother house, as I don't watch the show (and not only because I am liable to be shot for even accidentally pressing the "4" button on the remote while it is on), but I gathered that Jade Goody did not treat fellow housemate Shilpa Shetty very well and made remarks referring to her race. At least one talk show asked the question, "Is Jade racist or just a bully?". But why should it matter? Is bullying any worse if it is racist? Alternatively, is it any less bad if there is no racism? Surely bullying is wrong whether it occurs because the victim is of a different background, less skilled at something or because of jealousy.

It is good to speak out against racism, but surely there is something wrong when we imply that similarly bad actions would be ok if committed for other motives. At the same time as Goody was dominating the news, it was reported that a judge in a racial harassment case told the offender "Next time call him a fat bastard and don't say anything about his colour." I'm not sure that calling a doctor a "fat bastard" is really on the same level as saying you want an English one, not a "Paki",* but the incident does highlight the extra importance that is given to anything that can be called racist.

On the topic of racial insults, the Australian advertising watchdog has decided over the summer that the word "pom" is ok, but not "whingeing pom". It is a funny situation, somehow acknowledging that many people use the epithet in a friendly rather than derogatory manner and yet it is clearly a racial term. No doubt the "British People Against Racial Discrimination" who complained have actually at some point been called Poms in circumstances more often associated with other ethnic slurs.

The Hair affair seems quite ironic, in a sense. Several of his controversial actions have been to the detriment of subcontinental cricketers and teams, and they are often blamed on his racism. Now he is trying to turn the tables and say that his removal from umpiring top level cricket after the debacle that was Pakistan's forfeited test at the Oval last year was racist. The event definitely did generate a lot of racist comments especially from Pakistani and Sri Lankan fans. It is also true that Hair seems to have shouldered a bit too much of the blame, when West Indian umpire Billy Doctrove should have been at least nearly as responsible. I would definitely say that Hair has been unfairly treated by the ICC, but the reasons for this definitely aren't simply racial, but to do with Hair's personal history. It is a great pity that race has to come into it. If Hair's treatment was unfair, it is wrong, whether or not it was racial discrimination. Similarly, if his actions as an umpire, undoubtedly courageous, were unfair rather than just misguided, stubborn or even correct, he should take the blame, whether he was racially motivated or not.

The race issue can often be a red herring, and singling out racism as worse than other offences can in my opinion be harmful, but it is worth thinking about why it is singled out. Obviously, racist actions offend a whole group and not just the direct victim, meaning that there are plenty of people eager to support the victim and condemn the perpetrator. However, there is much more to it than that. Racism is targetted because it so common. It is there - people do object to "Paki" doctors, but don't ask for skinny ones. It is also often blatantly unfair. Not only has been behind so many horrible crimes, but it has led to general mistreatment of whole groups of people. We should stand up against any unfairness, and not just unfairness based on race, but racism is so big that stamping it out would make a big dent. On top of that, racism is like a virus, easily bred and spread through whole groups of people in the same way that a whole race will be offended and/or scared by it. For all these reasons, it is right to stand against racism, and try to stamp out even small instances before they grow, but only as one particularly virulent form of wrong.

(*"Paki" in British English is a usually derogatory term to refer to people from the Indian subcontinent, although in Australia it is more likely to be a simple abbreviation of "Pakistani" without any connotations or application to non-Pakistanis. The polite British term is "Asian", which to Australian ears would be more likely suggest East or South-East Asians, except perhaps in the context of cricket.)

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Trees

Here in England, the many deciduous trees show the seasons in a way the Australian evergreens don't. The lack of leaves clearly shows that it is winter, and sometimes it can seem gloomy compared to the greenery of summer. However, I've come to see that bare branches can be very beautiful - covered in snow, appearing through the mist and especially against the bright blue sky on a clear sunny day.

This morning as I was waiting for a bus, some trees across the road formed not only a fine silhouette, but a playground for a pair of squirrels. They scurried around the trunks and along the branches, leaping from branch to branch in a way that defied the apparent delicacy of the thinnest branches. At first it seemed that they were chasing each other, but then I saw that the very slightly larger one in the lead seemed to be stopping and waiting for the one behind, making me think it was a mother teaching a child the art of tree-scampering.

These grey squirrels are considered pests, as they have been introduced from North America and increase in number rapidly, displacing the native red squirrels. Some of the plans to remove them and protect the red squirrels probably have merit, but while I watched these two run around until the bus came, I was jsut glad to see any squirrels at all.

Friday, 26 January 2007

Snow


Yesterday morning we woke up to find snow everywhere. It was probably the most snow we'd seen in London since January three years ago, but maybe I just think that because the snow in February 2005 didn't seem that impressive just after I'd returned from Lausanne. Anyway, as someone who hadn't been in snow until coming here, I noticed again that snow is:

Cold: sort of obvious, but somehow it still always surprises me!

Fragile: it disappears when you touch it, and is great when it crunches underfoot.

Fun: I saw some kids scooping snow of the cars and carrying huges balls down the street, not to mention all the snowfights.

Transforming: somehow, it almost seems like a new world when everything is covered in a blanket of snow, even to some extent on the warm roads where the snow didn't settle.

Troublesome: as well as requiring more care when walking, the roads and trains don't cope too well, but even then, Amy managed to get a delayed train to work that was earlier than her normal one!

Temporary: in colder climates it is different, but it was amazing to see the snow receding through the morning, until at midday we were back in the old world again.

White: very, very white! There are a lot of things that we call white, but snow is white. This is probably the thing that kept striking me the most, and made me think of and understand the picture of Psalm 51:7, being washed whiter than the snow.

Friday, 19 January 2007

Wet and windy whingeing


We all like to whinge too much, and in London one of the common topics for whinging about is one of the Englishmen's favourite conversation topic: the weather. Those of us not used to the British weather are probably the worst offenders, and based on their experiences of Aussies and other foreigners, the locals could be forgiven for wondering how they managed to earn the epithet "whingeing Poms".

The owner of the shop beneath our flat is originally from the Indian subcontinent. Just about every conversation I have with him includes the phrase "bloody English weather". It's hard to be enthusiastic about the 16 hours of darkness, let alone the grey skies and drizzle, and so it's usually tempting to agree that "In my country, your country, it's better than this." If his change of heart just after new year ("We need to the rain to live. It is a good gift.") was a new year's resolution, it didn't last very long, but it was a very good point to keep in mind at any time, and especially during this drought.

The summer and autumn were both quite dry, but the winter so far has had above average rainfall. Of course, this led to more low level whingeing about the hosepipe bans that were still in place, this time from some natives who are having trouble coming to terms with a metered water supply and summer water restrictions, let alone restrictions in the winter.

It's not helpful to always focus on the negatives, however, and last October, it was reported that Met Office and tv forecasters were being told to "talk up" the weather. The idea that weather reports could put a positive spin on all the atmospheric conditions this island is famous for produced a fair bit of humour, but on closer inspection it turned out that one of the main points of the new guidelines was simply to focus on the weather experienced by most of the population, rather than starting with extreme conditions in northern Scotland simply for dramatic effect.

Another aspect of the guidelines was slightly more interesting, at least to me. Very generally speaking, it suggested substituting phrases like "mostly fine" for "isolated showers". This was applauded by advocates of "Plain English", who thought the new terms would be more widely understood. This is probably true, but I wonder whether the change of emphasis may be at the expense of usefulness or even accuracy for those who do understand the forecasts with a bit of care. When I did a small high school study of the weather forecasts in Sydney 10 years ago, I saw the point in only saying "fine" when they were quite confident in such a forecast, and "chance of showers" whenever there was such a chance. Read this way, the forecasts were quite accurate, and a chance of rain often requires more attention than a chance of a dry day.

Either way, the forecasting guidelines didn't seem to have much effect on the radio forecast this morning. It was something along the lines of "It's very very windy. Rain in the south and snow in the north. Every way you look at it, it's pretty terrible." The tv presenters stuck to the Met Office's "damaging winds", a concept which would be very hard to talk up. It really was quite a wild day, with reasonable amounts of rain an very strong gusty winds. At the college, we had our usual "Severe weather warning" email, advising us to secure windows and things on roofs. Thankfully, I didn't need to walk through the usual wind tunnels at the worst parts of the day, but I did notice that some of them had been closed off, presumably due to the wind. Nationwide, there were irritations like delays to train services and more serious problems as trees fell causing damage and eight deaths.

In conclusion, I don't know whether the new style of forecasts is good thing, and has helped to improve a nation's mood, but I do think it would be better to drop the whingeing and reserve the negativity for times when there are real problems. Even on days like today, there are some positives - the rain has had an effect, and now only two of the water companies are still imposing water restrictions.

[Rainy days are often fun, anyway, even if the mist does block out the intended background of my photo! (taken by Amy)]

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Performing cricketers

This morning (London time) there was a cricket game on in Sydney. The Twenty20 format seems to be more about drawing crowds and puttnig on a show than a serious contest, but that Australian captain Ricky Ponting's dislike of it didn't seem to stop him and his team recording an emphatic victory over the demoralised English.

There are some other competitions that are definitely about putting on a show. Amy is quite keen on the celebrity/professional performance competitions that have been on TV lately, such as Strictly Come Dancing. The 2005 edition of this dancing event was won by fast bowler Darren Gough, and the next year Mark Ramprakash was invited to compete. Apparently his reply was
"Look, mate, I'm really sorry but it's not my thing. If you can get me on the football show on Sky I'll happily do that'."

but at some point he must have changed his mind, since in the final on 23 December, he came out top. So, when Mark Butcher appeared on Just the Two of Us singing duets with Sarah Brightman and generally sounding better than all the other duos, I started to wonder whether English cricketers were winnning everything except the cricket. As it turned out, they weren't quite popular enough with the voting public, and were the first of the three finalists to be eliminated, but it still leaves me wondering just what is it with these English cricketers?

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Beginning of the year, end of careers

Having grown up in Sydney, one of the things I associate with New Year is cricket. Given the fact that ten of the twelve nights of Christmas were scheduled to have Ashes cricket going from 11:30pm to 06:30am London time, it would have been a perfect opportunity to go nocturnal and celebrate new Year in the way I mentioned yesterday. As it turned out, I didn't, but I did spend quite a bit of time listening to the Test Match Special coverage at strange hours of the morning.

Although the Sydney Test was the first Test of the year, it was the last Test for opening batsman Justin Langer, spin king Shane Warne and probably one of the best bowlers of the last decade, Glenn McGrath. Due to the relatively recently implemented structure of the Australian cricket season, with Test matches proceeding the ODI tournament, it will probably be quite normal for cricketers to end their Test careers in Sydney at the beginning of the year, but the departure of these three is quite significant. While Langer has an impressive record, Warne and McGrath stand out even more. While Warne's accuracy and huge spin and McGrath's metronomic precision niggardly combined with tricks uncannily deployed make them both outstanding bowlers in their own right, their partnership of 1001 Test wickets has been synergetic.




















Glenn McGrathShane Warne
MORWAv.SRMORWAv.SR
Both
Playing
10441051043548821.3850.471044773.41276351324.8855.83
Other Matches20769.417517523.3561.57412010.3523219526.8361.86
Total1244874.41218656321.6451.951456784.11799570825.4257.49

The two bowlers were probably the biggest difference between Australia and the other teams during Australia's period of dominance. While the period has seen Australia boasting a remarkable depth of batting talent, the batsmen have generally been facing bowling attacks of significantly less quality. The surprisingly low number of Tests Australia has drawn in in recent years has been attributed to the attacking, quickly-scoring batting, but the ability to take 20 wickets quickly is at least as much to "blame". While too much shouldn't be read into these figures, it is interesting to see a breakdown of Australia's results since McGrath and Warne first played together in Perth in 1993/4.





W/D/L (%won)With WarneWithout WarneTotal
With McGrath71/17/16 (68%)14/3/3 (70%)85/20/19 (69%)
Without McGrath13/5/6 (54%)5/2/2 (56%)18/7/8 (55%)
Total84/22/22 (66%)19/5/5 (66%)103/27/27 (66%)

While it is hard to imagine another pair of bowlers doing quite so well, it seems possible that the hole they will leave won't be too big. Stuart MacGill has been ready to play in Warne's absence for quite a while and we will never know what he could have achieved if he had had Warne's opportunities. Perhaps more significantly, this Ashes series has shown that Stuart Clark is capable of the type of McGrath-esque accurate bowling that takes wickets at both ends. However, as nice as it would have been to say that the new year marked not only the end of three great careers, but the beginning of a new-look Australian Test team, we won't see them in action again until November!

Saturday, 6 January 2007

Beginnnings

Being very interested in calendars and the measuring of time, I used to like being in a new year, even though I knew it wasn't particularly significant, but somehow it seems hard to ignore it's insignificance this year. I'm not sure why. It's probably relevant that the new calendar year isn't as significant here in England as it is in Sydney. The academic year started back in September. For Christmas and New Year, the schools tend to have two weeks off, while the undergraduate students had three before coming back for Semester B.

Being in London has also made it more obvious just how arbitrary the timing of "New Year" is. There are many calendars out there, including some with perhaps less arbitrary definitions of the start of the year, such as the Persian spring equinox. (Then again, the new year here does seem to vaguely coincide with when I start to notice that the days really are getting longer again!) But even ignoring other calendars, and thinking about so many people all celebrating on 1 January, I notice that either we decide the year starts at a set time in an arbitrary place (Greenwich?), or we end up we me in 2006 talking to someone in 2007, as I mentioned yesterday.

The only thing special about New Year's Day is that it is one year after the previous New Year's Day. Time and life keep going on, however our minds choose to file things. I suspect that most of us take a while to get used to the new "file" - I found myself thinking of things from August and September as "2005", because I'd somehow realised that they were now last year, without ticking my mental clock over to 2007. Some of us might enjoy noticing the first of the year. I once had a thought that rather than staying up on NYE, it might be nice to get up to welcome the year in at midnight, then stay up for the first sunrise. Some of us might feel that it is an opportunity for a fresh start, even making all sorts of resolutions. Maybe it's easier for us to focus on things like that when the year starts, and it's definitely not a worse time than any other to seek a new beginning, but don't be fooled into thinking that habits naturally have a tendency to get thrown out with the old calendars.

Apart from a bit of fun, I don't think the new year by itself brings anything other than a chance to think of things on a yearly scale. The thoughts this year brings to my mind are how little I managed to do in 2006, and have left to do now; several friends planning to get married this year; a fourth wedding anniversary; four-yearly events like the cricket World Cup; and not knowing what we'll be up to at the end of the year. New things, and old things continued, but in all of them trusting the God who makes all things new. There isn't anything special about New Year following Christmas, but new life does follow from receiving God's ultimate Christmas gift.

Friday, 5 January 2007

...to its setting

So the sun has set on 2006. I had some thoughts on Christmas that I might have posted if I'd spent more time online and/or been able to express them in a way that didn't say something I didn't mean. Now, though, I think they can wait until next December. After all, the end of the year follows hard on the heels of Christmas, and next Christmas is already this year!

After a great Christmas Day and a strange week when many things were on holiday, we reached New Year's Eve. My first conversation of the new year was that afternoon, when I happened to be online and talking to someone who was in Sydney, and so had already passed midnight. Pointing out that "it's still 2006 here" is just that little bit stranger than telling people it's still Sunday evening for us, or something like that.

Then, to see the new year in, we went to an event at church together with the Russian-speaking congregation. After some food, there was a quiz, which featured two rounds of biblical questions from Yuriy, including his usual riddles, and two science rounds from Dan. One of the latter was quite easy for anyone remembering their high school science lessons (probably quite difficult if you didn't like them!), but the other was a complete joke, with all questions relating to aerodynamical engineering! I'm not sure everyone saw the humour, and I think our team were the only ones to even guess the two answer questions, getting one of these right and guessing another where the answer was zero.

After that we had a fast and furious game of relay-Pictionary. We managed to win this as well as the quiz, and enjoyed the box of chocolates we received as a prize. After this, similar quiz a few weeks ago (Amy and I were on the winning team then, too), I'm starting to think maybe Australians do have a tendency to take anything competitive just a little bit too seriously!

While this was happening, around us there were more cross-year conversations from China and then Germany, and then at 11:30, we had a service and time of prayer. It was good to pray together and direct our thoughts from Philippians 4, but I particularly appreciated Winston's solo. He sang a song which appropriately talked of the end of a day, and the sunset moving from continent to continent. It reminded us of those who sunset had already left behind and those who were yet to finish their day or year worshipping God, while he faithful whatever the time or place. As Psalm 113 says, "From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the LORD is to be praised."