The Next Big Thing

A little while ago, I asked readers to identify the Next Big Thing in blogging. Although not immediately blog-related, it looks like this Amazon initiative may be it. Amazon has digitized about 100 000 books, and offers you the capacity to search within them.

In blog terms, the most notable implication is that it provides bloggers with a vast source of linkable raw material on which to comment. (I assume linking requires you to download the book segment provided by Amazon, then upload it, which is a bit more trouble than linking to a Web page, but no doubt this process will be simplified over time).

Maybe less dramatic, but possibly equally important is the MIT Open Courseware initiative. MIT has made the course materials for over 500 courses, included lecture notes, slides and exams, available to anyone who wants to use them. Here for example is an introductory course on game theory.

One immediate impact is to kill off, once and for all, the most popular version of the commercial online university. During the dotcom bubble, a number of leading universities tried to establish online commercial ventures and many others tried to assert ownership of course materials produced by their staff, with a view to selling it online. Clearly that isn’t going to happen now that MIT is giving its materials away.

A second impact is to make it much easier for a competent lecturer to set up a new course from scratch, even in a relatively poor (but Internet-connected) university in a less-developed or middle-income country. Using course materials developed by someone else at MIT is not a substitute for a well-prepared course in a field where you are already at or near the frontier, but it’s a very good starting point for anyone who is not at that position. And once MIT has done the hard work of setting up a coherent delivery system, there’s every reason to hope that other institutions will join in.

Even for universities that are already in the top 25 (all 50 of them!) there would be big benefits if publication of course materials became as routine as publication of journal articles is today.

They knew it was a lie

This story in the Washington Post makes it clear that US forces didn’t even bother looking for Saddam’s alleged nuclear weapons program. The implication, made more or less explicit at various points, is that everyone who mattered in Washington knew that the claims made by Powell a month or two before the war, and restated in various forms by Bush, Blair, Cheney et al. were untrue. The fact that Saddam couldn’t have a nuclear program was obvious back in January even without the info that has subsequently come out about bogus intelligence and so on.

My guess is that the Administration was confident of finding at least some chemical weapons (Saddam had produced lots of them, had used them in the past, and hadn’t accounted for them adequately), and perhaps some sort of incriminating evidence on germs. No doubt they thought that, given such discoveries, they wouldn’t pay a serious political price for bolstering their case with lies about the really scary stuff like nukes.


Having watched a bit of the Rugby World Cup, and read a little bit about it, I’ve reached the conclusion (not an original one) that the structure is radically defective. Most of the games I’ve seen so far have had all the tension of the annual grudge match between the Brisbane Lions and the Toowong Under 12s (Reserves). There are only half a dozen teams that are serious contenders,and, as I understand it, the pool + elimination final setup means most of them will never play each other. Meanwhile, we get to watch game after game with scorelines like 300 to minus 10.

What’s needed here is two top pools of four (the finalists from the previous cup) with the bottom team in each pool eliminated after the pool matches, and two second division pools with the top qualifiers making it through to the finals. This would mean that most of the interesting matches would actually be played.

Then there’s the estimate that 4 billion people will watch the Cup. Those who’ve seen such statistics in the past know that this is calculated by counting the same people over and over again as they watch different matches. Even so, there are no more than 40 games scheduled, implying an average audience of 100 million. The only hard number I’ve seen is the Australian audience for Australia’s first game, against Argentina, which was about 2 million. Let’s be very generous and suppose that the same number of people watched in Argentina (a soccer-mad country where rubgy is the pastime of a tiny minority). That still leaves us short 96 million – presumably these are people who are passionate enough about rugby to watch a game in which they have no direct interest. Where in the world are that many rugby fans going to be found? The New Zealanders, Pacific Islanders and the Welsh are pretty keen, as are white South Africans, but that’s only about ten million people altogether. Rugby is a significant minority sport in the rest of the British Isles and in France and you might get another ten million potential viewers there. The US and Japan may have teams here, but I doubt that the average American or Japanese is even aware that the Cup is being played.

To sum up, if you supposed that the entire rugby-following population of the world, men, women and children, all watched every match, you might get something approaching a billion viewers in total. I’d guess, though, that a realistic estimate is closer to 100 million.

Bullets win!

I went to the basketball last night, passing up the alternative of the Rugby World Cup (on which more soon). I had some mixed feelings. Having made the move to Brisbane, I’ve committed to supporting the local teams at least in the sports I follow to any extent (AFL, basketball and cricket) but the Bullets’ opponents tonight were the Townsville Crocodiles, the first basketball team I followed, during my stint in the tropics in the mid-90s. Unlike the relatively tepid supporters of the Bullets, Townsville had and has a large and fanatical fan base, to the extent that they outnumbered (or at least outshouted) the Brisbane supporters in their (our) own stadium. At least part of me wanted to be with them.

On the other hand, Australian basketball, more than any other sport, is lacking in any notion of club loyalty. As a result, there are three or four players on the Brisbane team whom I’ve previously cheered as players for my local (Tville or Canberra) team. They include Derek Rucker who is, I think, the most skilled point guard the NBL has seen, though his career has never been crowned with the big prizes such as championships or Olympic selection (he was MVP back in 1990).

Despite any mixed feelings, it was a great night, with a convincing win by the Bullets, and was made better by the fact that you can go to and from the games by ferry, avoiding the traffic jams that usually accompany any sporting event.

The long road back

Britain has taken another small step back from privatisation, with the news that the renationalised owner of the rail network will cancel contracts with private firms for maintenance. (The best coverage I’ve found, oddly enough, is in the New York Times. This has been on the cards for some time. For the background to all this, you can’t do much better than watch Ken Loach’s film The Navigators, which I reviewed for the Canberra Times (my hope that this would lead to a new career as a film critic proved baseless). You can read the review at Australian Policy Online. The NYT article notes that the private contractors whose work proved unsatisfactory on the rail network are the same ones who got jobs under the biggest privatisation initiative of the Blair government, that of the London Underground, and that a partial reversal of this initiative is also on the cards.

In my assessment, the evidence shows that privatisation of “natural monopoly” infrastructure has been a failure. The only cases where the public has got a reasonable price for the sale of their assets have been those where the private buyers have paid too much in the expectation of getting high rates of return. In some cases (for example, Australian airports), the response has been to change the rules to give the buyers what they want at the expense of consumers. In other cases,the buyers have taken their lumps and resold at huge losses. In still other cases, they are still trying to extract higher payments with the threat of withholding capital investment.

The best long-run solution to this is a return to full public ownership. The likely alternative is the kind of quasi-private solution favoured by the Americans when they need a public enterprise but aren’t willing to admit it (Amtrak, Fannie Mae etc).

A modest proposal on WMDs

Things are not going very well as far as the proliferation of nuclear weapons (the only real weapons of mass destruction) are concerned. They are also not going brilliantly for Tony Blair, whose professed concern on this subject with respect to Iraq now looks pretty bogus.

I offer a proposal that might make a contribution in both directions. The United Kingdom should unilaterally abandon nuclear weapons. This would make little practical difference since Britain’s weapons are effectively under American control. But symbolic actions are important.

During the Cold War, the symbolism of unilateral disarmament was problematic, to say the least, since Britain had a major potential adversary that was bristling with nuclear weapons and had plenty of them targeted at British cities. Disarmament was seen as a sign of weakness in the face of this threat.

In the current situation, however, Britain has no nuclear-armed enemies and no reason for keeping them, except national pride and a feeling that they might come in handy some day. Since these are precisely the motives that are driving India, Pakistan, Iran etc, a British decision to disarm could have a big psychological impact in discouraging proliferation.

Of course, as the title of this post indicates, I’m dreaming. But perhaps someone could explain why this proposal doesn’t make sense.