gambitch - now available in blue
Our constant efforts to reinvent ourselves reveal how much we fear our own images.

Saturday, July 31, 2004

I'm not quite sure what it is that is keeping me awake at this hour. It's two in the morning at least, and I'm killing hours watching TV. (I'd read, but that would have meant switching the lights on and waking up the family.) I'm not in the mood for supper, not after finishing what is left of an assortment of cookies. And since I don't drive, going out for a spin isn't exactly the most viable option.

This isn't exactly the first time something like this has happened. My bio-clock has been kooky for a little while now, and while it is entirely possible that this is a medical problem that can be cured by popping a few tablets, I don't really want to exercise that option, because a life involving valium is not exactly a fun thing. I'm not a pill-popper, and I've heard enough about Western medicine being bad for the liver to be convinced.

It's not like I haven't tried to go to sleep. I have, but maybe I'm not trying hard enough. I know it sounds a little funny to say that, but then I'm the type to believe that the body sleeps when it feels tired enough to do that, and any amount of effort to force it to sleep would just achieve the opposite effect. I'd really like to put my body to rest, but it just isn't working out right for me. I'm told that I will eventually wear my parts out, and in all likelihood, I might die before I turn sixty, touch wood.

Sometimes I just think my brain is too much like a processor that is way overclocking. Too bad hardware like this can't be swopped for non-vital reasons.

At times like this, I am poignantly reminded of how few friends I have. I suppose that is what happens when I'm up alone in the middle of the night, and it just doesn't make sense to disturb the rest of the family. Compound that by the fact that I don't have my own room (which isn't actually cause for complaint most of the time), and it means I have extremely limited amounts of private space. Even so, surely it would be okay to just go out to the balcony (my home has a small one - small enough for me to cover all the floor space just by lying flat) and make a phone call. Except I don't think it's a great idea for a guy to call a friend at 2am and disrupt the friend from catching valuable sleep. Not my thing.

Recently I've heard so much from kids in school saying they have this problem and that problem. You'd have thought it was the end of the world for them, but hardened and seasoned people would know that people are just having a whine. Nothing wrong with that, as long as they get an outlet to whine a bit. People are always going to face problems over anything and everything. That's why I tend to be a little generous with cheer-up notes and other random mutterings of advice and comfort. The truth is, life is tough but it's not designed to kill. It is ultimately all about taking it on the chin and then glancing it off. It sounds easy, perhaps too easy for schooling kids to comprehend, but then I'm a veteran of these things and I stopped whining about how my life sucks years ago.

I've been attracted to the idea of returning to "the profession". Some time ago I wrote that I really couldn't bring myself to run schoolchildren to the ground with terror tactics and hard training. Things have changed somewhat since. I have to admit that some things in life can become addictive. For boxers it's the smell of liniment and the feeling of biting that piece of protective plastic between your teeth. For footballers it's the shinpads underneath those socks. For me, "the profession" will always be about keeping that brain in a high-speed whirr, clock cycle after clock cycle devoted to move and counter-move. It's almost like chess, but stronger. I guess I can't help it when I see schoolchildren mucking it around and not being trained and refined to become the best of the best. It's like how talent scouts feel when they see young boys playing in the local park, and they see children who could one day become superb sportsmen given the right training.

Some things leave you gasping for air.
Some things leave you marvelling in wonder.
Some things leave you scarred and broken.
Some things leave you life-changing impressions.

Some things, on the other hand, just never leave you.

gambitch [ 2:20 AM]

Friday, July 30, 2004

Soccernet is back up. Well, I am not sure the problem is necessarily at Soccernet's end. All the same, I am happy to check my news again.

Nicky Butt has moved to Newcastle for 2.5 million pounds. The fee is very low, but I guess it is a good gesture on United's part not to haggle for more. Butty has done so much for us over the years that it would seem improper to ask for more money. I hope he does well at his new club, and I guess the United staff will all feel the same.

Butty will be missed.

gambitch [ 11:14 PM]

Thursday, July 29, 2004

For a few days now I have been unable to properly access Soccernet's homepage. I am not sure what the problem is, given that I have never taken Soccernet's source code apart to see how it works. However, it is highly frustrating that I have to stick to teletext in order to get my latest feed of football information.

It is especially bad given the fact that this is transfer season, and with teams rushing to make their purchases and set themselves up nicely for the season openers, the flurry of activity is bound to be breathtaking. Given the extremely limited coverage offered by local newspapers (not that they are not trying to do better) the information I end up receiving is just so incomplete.

I do know a few things though. For starters, Chelsea have completed their summer shopping spree after getting Paulo Ferreira, Arjen Robben, Tiago Mendes, Mateja Kezman, Didier Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho. Six very interesting additions, particularly the two strikers and the three Portuguese. I am still trying to work out what Jose Mourinho is up to, especially since it seems they did consider buying Ledley King from London neighbours Tottenham Hotspur. It's been another hard spending spree, but can they hope to land the championship with aggressive buys like these? And what of the people who they have meanwhile dumped?

The big transfer story has shifted from Rooney to Vieira. The problem is, I don't really know what is going on. And without the expert commentary and observations of Soccernet's correspondents (their essays are always worth reading as they get behind the news and present some very curious views) it becomes harder to piece the information into a bigger, complete jigsaw.

I have often been slated for trying to discuss sports, because people just don't know what there is to discuss. Well, that perhaps has something to do with the fact that these self-same people of "the profession" don't try to make sense of the things going on behind the stadium activity (and I am not referring to Arsenal's new home that is costing them a bomb and then some). Call me biased, but I think there is as much to learn about club mismanagement and slides into administration as there is about, say, global trade structures. And certainly little curios about the goings-on in German sport and Italian idiocy (only the sports-related ones; I don't know about any others that exist) make good light reading away from the heavier stuff on why George W. Bush is a daft monkey.

Unfortunately, for reasons I don't even know, I am just not getting access to my fix of football information. What's a man to do?

gambitch [ 12:14 AM]

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Bob and Joyce were eliminated from the Race tonight. The odd part was, their elimination had nothing to do with their age or their relative lack of physical fitness. No, none of that cost them the Race. They were simply pinned back by bad luck at the ticket counter in Buenos Aires.

This leg was fairly interesting, if a little unexciting. The Detour was nothing much, with teams having to choose between Block Five Shots and Drink One Shot. One was just keeping out five pucks in an ice hockey ring, which isn't tremendously difficult or psychologically challenging. The other involved drinking a shot of vodka balanced on a sword, which is also quite manageable, with the only potential problem being having to drink (a challenge to the teetotals, of which there were a few in this Race). It does nothing to separate the teams, or at least any effects that existed were nowhere near obvious.

The Roadblock was where all the real drama was, and that was only because the contestants had to eat a whole bowl of caviar. If you think that is fun, it certainly didn't look so. Caviar wasn't meant to be eaten in such massive quantities; whoever came up with this was sick but clever. This is where I have to salute Christie and Nicole, the first two people to get a crack at the Roadblock, but definitely not the first two to finish it. Sure, Chip just blitzed through the bowl, and Charla did okay as well, but you could see how tough it was for the two beauty queens. Colin and Brandon were absolutely encouraging, and Colin at least had the guts and honesty to admit he couldn't have done it himself, so full marks to the Texans.

There isn't really a big story on this leg of the Race, apart from the early tiffs at the bus terminal and the airport, where lots of skullduggery was taking place. Russia was, well, okay. We didn't really see very much of it to be honest, and from the way this leg was playing out, neither did the teams. Interaction with the locals was eerily low, and this was definitely one of the more forgettable legs of the Race.

The next leg looks interesting, though. Teams checked in at the Pit Stop after sundown, so I imagine they would be setting off at 5am or 6am earliest the next day, and if it means a straight trip to the airport, then the airport equalizer would not really come into play that heavily here. That means teams like Chip and Kim, who finished first, would have a meaningful advantage over the twins, who now prop up the field.

The other major thing about the next leg is that, from the background of pyramids, I reckon they are going to Egypt (anyone can point me to other countries in Africa that used to fall under the Egyptian empire and would probably have pyramids?). I don't remember seeing Egypt feature in the Race since the third season, and certainly I would be surprised to hear they never used Egypt at all. Certainly it does not look like the teams are at Rostja, home to the great pyramid and Sphinx. There must be some other major pyramids for the teams to go to this time. Regardless, it looks like a few teams are going to pick up sprains from running in the sand. How that affects the outcome of this and subsequent legs, now that Jim and Marsha are out of the picture, would be intriguing.

Again nobody has used the Fast Forward. Again I haven't seen the Yield. I don't know why, but my suspicion is that teams are going to start on a frenzy of Fast Forward chases in the latter half of this Race. As for the Yield, well, it looks like it would only come into play when teams are travelling on foot between Route Markers. The Yield has been a major disappointment so far in the Race, but if it was really so unimportant, I don't reckon it would have been introduced in the first leg. Something must happen soon involving the Yield. Something big and nasty. Perhaps Egypt would be a good place to start.

Finally, with Bob and Joyce now out of the Race, I'm expecting an early shower soon for Linda and Karen, and maybe Kami and Karli. Sure, this is a race full of surprises, but Linda and Karen are steadily slipping towards the tail end of the pack, while Kami and Karli have just not been performing. Chip and Kim could start turning up a couple of gears, as would Colin and Christie. Both teams are looking increasingly like Final Three material. The question for me now is who would join them.

gambitch [ 11:29 PM]

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Being born in the late Seventies means I grew up at a time that coincided with the heyday of the Hong Kong film industry. One of the greatest symbols of that time, without a doubt, is Jackie Chan. I remember watching a huge number of his movies as a child, and definitely loved them. His newer films, in spite of technology and greater investment by Americans, have paled in comparison, partially because Jackie Chan no longer had full control of the production or the script.

Which explains why I find that, at around seven dollars (a little less than the price of a movie ticket), a 2-VCD set of Jackie Chan's 1980s movies like Project A is an absolute steal. They could be cheaper, of course, but I wouldn't complain about the price I have paid.

Incidentally, a news report today says that local industry will be going on yet another blitz to combat piracy of movies and music, especially Internet-based piracy. I don't have a problem with this in essence, because I don't really download that much music nowadays, and certainly I don't download any movies. My computer is one of the few personally-owned computers not to have a copy of Kazaa or any of its equivalents. And I'm a little proud of that.

Having said that, combating piracy isn't really so straightforward. As a buyer, nowadays I only buy something when I have the intention to keep it, or when I want to reward the production team for a job well done. The fact that I buy very little should be interpreted as being choosy over what I watch or who I listen to. (Indeed, I now average no more than 3 movies a year, often fewer, while my CD collection is built in blitzes of seven or eight.) Most of the rest of the stuff out there, I treat as rubbish. Worth an accidental listen on the radio, or a blind catch on television, but hardly worth my money otherwise.

The movie and music industry cannot expect to earn good money with dodgy productions and stay at that kind of level. I would really want to see better movies and hear better music, which I would gladly pay for. Sadly, there is not enough of that emerging in the market, and most of what we see out there is really unattractive trash.

gambitch [ 10:20 PM]

Monday, July 26, 2004

Here's a little question: If you became head of state of some government, any government, and suppose some reason existed for you to do so (eg. one of your citizens was kidnapped), would you negotiate with terrorists?

I was watching a bunch of schooling kids debate one another over this question. Let's just say I wasn't too happy with what I saw. It's perhaps a little unfair for me to say that, given that I am easily much older than these schoolkids (my parents are frequently reminding me recently that if I was lucky, I'd have children by now). Still, that doesn't stop me from cringing at the apparent lack of depth in what these kids were saying. I should note that these are not average schoolchildren I am talking about. These people here have decent reason to claim that they are the best and the brightest of their generation; certainly they are entitled to claim they are more well-read than the average teenager, and I don't just mean the textbooks.

All the same, they haven't exactly been amazingly brilliant when I was watching them. This isn't a one-off; I've seen this happen too often to dismiss it as such. There is a very regular problem with the way these people looked at issues, and perhaps this is me being cynical, but I really think that arguing these issues out requires as much belief in principle as understanding of realpolitik. That's the problem - these kids know nothing about the real world. Yes, perhaps in a way they are blessed for that, but still.

Anyway, I digress.

So back to the question: would you negotiate with terrorists?

Apart from any wishy-washy sitting-on-the-fence answers, the straightforward options are strictly "yes" and "no". Along these lines, then, we can read this as a fight between pacifists and warhawks. Before looking at the case for each side, though, let's understand a few things.

The obvious first question is: who qualifies as a terrorist? The short (well, short enough) answer would be that they are groups who have some kind of well-defined belief that is at odds with what is commonly accepted by their environment, and they are characterized by acts of violence in order to propagate, or at least bring attention to, these beliefs. A more complete definition will note two additional features. Firstly, in terms of power relationships, the terrorists are significantly, if not heavily, outnumbered by governmental or regular armies or their equivalents. If the terrorists were of a size comparable to the state army, they wouldn't be called terrorists, they would be called rebel insurgents! The second feature is that these acts of violence do not limit their targets to the military, but are often directed towards ordinary civilians, who are unarmed and unprepared to prevent or at least swiftly respond to these acts of violence. The purpose of such violence is to strike terror among commoners, hence 'terrorist'.

Let's take a quick look at the case for the peaceniks. The pacifists are driven by a single mantra: Avoid war. More correctly, though, this idea should be read as: Avoid casualties and fatalities where possible, and where inevitable, reduce them to a minimum.

The classic schoolboy argument (sorry, but that's how I see it) is that negotiations meet this principle by allowing people to talk rather than fight their way out of a deadlock. And that's what terrorist problems usually are - deadlocks. Each side has beliefs and positions that are at direct odds with those of the other. Negotiations are supposed to allow the two sides to work their way towards a compromise, where each side makes some level of concession so that while both sides won't be perfectly happy, they won't be so angered as to kill each other.

Can talks hope to work? The answer is not an outright 'no', and indeed in some cases it is possible to reach some compromise. The classic example is the cause forwarded by the Irish Republican Army. They used to drop (not quite literally) bombs on civilians in Londonderry as well as major cities in England (the mid-90s saw an IRA bomb go off in the heart of Manchester, where the Urbis now stands). Those of shorter memories may remember Omagh. Now the Sinn Fein, the political twin of the IRA, are in negotiations with the British government on how to settle their differences. So negotiations can bring about results - at least it has the hope of bringing peace.

The argument goes that willingness on the part of the state to extend an olive branch would open up the possibility of stemming the vicious cycle of hate and violence. Say my grandfather killed yours, and your father survived it. He may very well decide that he wants revenge and vow to kill my grandfather. So my grandfather dies in your dad's hands, and just for good measure my dad gets killed too, so maybe I would now want to kill both you and your father, as well as any of your siblings, etc.. You can just see how this would escalate as the cycle of violence perpetuates.

The alternative to this continued tit-for-tat sequence of killings would, apparently, be to negotiate and settle those differences. Negotiations, should they work out, would prevent senseless bloodshed and preserve peace. Now wouldn't the peaceniks love that?

There is a little problem with this perfect-looking scenario painting work. Negotiations don't always work, and we hear too much about negotiations breaking down when stretched over a long enough period of time. These things have happened, and the facts are undisputable. What do we make of this, then? Many schoolkids, caught with a solution that does not always work, struggle to come up with a coherent defence. But that doesn't necessarily mean there isn't one - as long as you stop being a peacenik and start being a politician.

Which brings us to a little fact about politics: Image, if not important, is always useful to have. In free, advanced democracies, image is everything for politicians, which is why they spend so much on hiring spin doctors. This is less true for countries that aren't exactly pure democracies (if such a thing exists), but even where leaders value pragmatics over image, if the two can be well-aligned there is little harm in doing something that does boost image.

So how can the willingness of governments to negotiate with terrorists be played as an image booster? Well, it should go without saying that, with the exception of very few groups of people (which would include arms dealers, for obvious reasons), most people would prefer peace over war. War is a terrible thing for the average person. Think of the death and destruction, and think of how life would be so difficult with food scarce and water contaminated, and I won't even go into how people have to cope with losing their jobs because their offices have been bombed to the ground. As such, the willingness of a government to negotiate their way out of a war would create the image that it actually cares for its people and wants to keep things normal. It may not always work out, and ceasefires can be broken (often by the terrorists), but an hour of peace is always better than the same hour witnessing the ravages of war. For the people, peace is always the preferred choice. This can translate into a better image for the government, in the form of higher support at the polls, etc.. Provided the government is judicious in using the negotiation tool and mindful of not making itself look too weak, this move is usually productive even if it does not yield the best results.

There is one other way this could be useful, and ironically enough, this one should find support among the warmongers. Negotiations to bring about or preserve the peace represents willingness on the part of the government to be reasonable and find a compromise. It definitely opens the door for the terrorists to state their terms for the government to consider. If the terrorists refuse to negotiate, it makes them look unreasonable and justifies aggressive actions or responses by the government since it can now argue that "the terrorists aren't interested, so we might as well hit them". If the terrorists state terms that are too excessive for the government and look unwilling to back down, the government can accuse the terrorists of "being insincere". Either way, the government retains a good level of initiative so that if it does have to resort to combat, it can at least say in its defence that it has tried to talk its way out of trouble. If war has to be inevitable, then at least the government can claim legitimately to have exhausted all peaceful alternatives and have full justification in taking up arms. The alternative is to sit still and wait for the terrorists to strike; not very palatable.

It is political manoeuvres and deliberations such as these that I would really like to see more of. It is not always about principles and morals, but as much about realpolitik and practicalities, about finding plays that maximize benefit out of various - if not all - possible outcomes, and about crafting a solution that, even when it fails in its primary objectives, can provide something useful on the side.

Maybe I ask a little too much in wanting to see schoolchildren think through these things. Having said that, if they're brave enough to start on advanced philosophy (and that is what they are doing when they decide to embark on 'the profession') they should equally be brave and bright enough to start looking at the ground realities and make sense of them, and exploit this knowledge to design arguments that aren't just philosophically attractive, but are also practically useful.

When I can see people who talk and think like that, I know they're on their way to greatness, and I know that there is hope for the future.

(I can come up with a case for the warmongers who aren't interested in having negotiations, but I won't bother with that now, because I don't have to.)

gambitch [ 5:15 PM]

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Excerpts on Sir Alex Ferguson from Jim White's 1996 book Always in the Running about 12 personalities in the post-Busby era of Manchester United history.

"Here's a little test for United fans. Who would you prefer to be in charge of your club: a lovely old softie, whom non-United fans across the country have taken to their heart, always ready with a gag for the press, and invariably sweet to camera crews visiting his training ground? Or a control freak, displaying symptoms of advanced paranoia and possessing a siege mentality so entrenched he would be welcomed with open arms as a negotiator for the Ulster Unionist Party?

"... The point about Alex Ferguson is that those very characteristics which appear to make him unattractive, the ones which make fans of other clubs spit at the mere mention of his name - toughness, lack of compromise, a hatred of losing so profound that it can manifest itself as a persecution complex - are the ones which make him a brilliant manager of Manchester United. As his duel with Kevin Keegan in the spring of 1996 proved, in football, as in life, nice blokes come second.

"... So what was Fergie doing behind the scenes that was so right? ... What he was doing was casting the club in his own image. All institutions take their lead from the head. Virgin we understand as the gutsy underdog; slightly dippy, eccentric, a corporation we imagine with a beard and a sweater, like its boss. The FA we conceive as bumbling, hopeless, amateur, a flab in a blazer. You know, Graham Kelly-like. At Manchester United everyone hates, abhors, detests and loathes one thing above all others. Losing.

"... 'Alec is a terrible loser. Terrible,' says Mark McGhee. 'Whether at cards, a trivia quiz, at football, it hurts him physically to lose. And he makes sure you know how much it hurts him.' As a fan, I love that - to know that the club is in the hands of someone who cares. You could see that the day they trooped off at West Ham after the last game of the 1995 season. They'd just lost the league title to Blackburn, but they looked as though they'd been relegated. Young lads, Scholes, Butt, Giggsy, people who might in other circumstances, at other clubs, have looked chuffed that they'd just come second, tramped to the dressing-room, black socks around their ankles, shin-guards flopping, looking as though they had just heard that their mother had a terminal illness. Alex Ferguson, looking at them, a picture of misery, would have thought that day, yes, that's my boys, they won't forget this, they won't let it happen again.

"... 'I can't have my players out doing commercial things every day...' he told me. 'Energy is so vital with footballers, when you're playing cup finals every week out there. Someone needs to be in control of that. Someone has to be in control of that.'

"By control, by sheer force of effort, Ferguson slowly made the whole disparate, amorphous enterprise point in the same direction. What he deemed important was right, and anybody who disagreed found Old Trafford an uncomfortable place to be.

"... What Ferguson admires in a player, beyond skill, balance, athleticism, is commitment to the cause. Cantona, McClair, Giggs, they've all got it. Ince, he must have thought, was losing it. Sure, he might still breathe fire in games every so often, but who was he committed to: Manchester United or Paul Ince? Fergie has a metaphor he uses about commitment. He sees it as a bus.

"'I tell the players that the bus is moving on. This club has to progress. And the bus won't wait for them. I tell them to get on board. Or they'll miss out. At this club we don't take stops, we don't take rests, the procedure goes on and on.' Ince, he felt, was getting a bit keen on taxis; Internazionale might be the place for that sort of taste. And so it has proved.

"But this still does not explain one thing: why did Ferguson not buy someone, anyone, to replace the dear departed (ed: Sparky Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis, Paul 'the Guv'nor' Ince)? He didn't because he knew what we didn't know: that he could rely on the young players, Butt, Beckham, Scholes and the Neville boys. These were his kind of players, developed, nurtured, created by him in the style he demands, a style of skill and wholehearted devotion to the bus and, more particularly, its driver."

gambitch [ 9:12 PM]


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