Sunday, April 15, 2007

An Overflowing Cup

The World Cup is on.

No, not that World Cup; it really was over last year. Rather, the Cricket World Cup, which is even more interminable than usual. But who's complaining? A few billion people in India and Pakistan, for instance, two cricket-crazy countries that were both eliminated in the first round; but not this happily non-partisan viewer.

To most people, world cups are temporary quadrennial punctuations in their schedules. To me, it's a Plimsoll line that plumbs my immersion in modern technology. As cups go, then, this one counts for two notches. But more on that in a bit.

The World Cup is beind held in the West Indies. Don't feel too badly if you've never heard of the West Indies; don't rush to your atlas, either. You're used to hearing of them as the Caribbean, except they also encompass South American countries such as Guyana, and exclude countries such as Cuba (now if only Fidel Castro had been a bowler rather than a pitcher...). Home of a thrilling, exuberant style often called “calypso cricket”, the region has gone to great lengths to host the tournament.

It's sad, then, that the impact of those two early exits—particularly India's—is writ so large. I single out India not for partisan reasons but because of an inescapable fact: it has by far the largest population of the circket-playing nations, combining a wealthy expat community in the US with an increasingly enriched population at home. Indeed when I was at the cricket stadium in Bengalooru in December 2006, I saw posters for world cup cruises that cost several thousand US dollars. But the half-empty stands are not the fault of India's team alone; they're equally due to a stupidly greedy ticket sales strategy that was irking the West Indians even before the tournament began. It's a pity, because this mismanagement means the cup may not return to this hemisphere for a while.

Another group that is undoubtedly hurting is the advertisers. Actually, I've been surprised by how few different companies have advertised all tournament long. A quick look at the categories of advertisers makes clear precisely who the target demographic is: insurance (inconclusive), money transfers to South Asia (hmmm...), and matrimonials (bingo: desi grad students).

What fans there are are, nevertheless, having a grand time. The stands teem with everything from tigers (Bangladesh) to kangaroos and crocodiles (guess). Even the half-amateur Irish, who have made it to the second round, are being supported surprisingly well. I haven't seen too many Rastafarians, but two days ago the camera focused in on a West Indian gent sporting a large, black knit cap featuring a beautiful green marijuana leaf. One presumes he was feeling pretty peaceful.

Despite huge changes over the past two decades, there are many ways in which cricket still lags behind better commercialized sports. Some of these ways are refreshing: cricketers from the lesser countries still give honest interviews, rather than substituting answers with long strings of disclaimers that are carefully designed to give offense to no-one. On the other hand, one of my colleagues, John Jannotti, observed that nothing gets transmitted during the lunch break, when that time could be used well for some entertaining tourism ads by the islands. This is not strictly accurate: while for part of the time there's merely a slide saying when play will resume, the rest of the time is taken up by some fairly remarkable—or remarkably awful—desi rap. The latter only reinforces John's point.

One of the ways in which cricket has stolen a march over other major commercial sports, such as American football, basketball and baseball, is in the smart use of technology. For a supposedly stuffy and traditionalist game, there seem to be few qualms about the use of televisions and replays. Furthermore, there is no adversarial scenario whereby coaches must “challenge” umpires: instead, umpires can freely consult television replays from multiple angles to render a verdict. This means the game has lost a touch of its spontaneity, but the far higher quality of decisions is a clear advantage, while the very small number of such replay consultations means it's rarely disruptive to the flow of the game (and indeed, every such replay is the source of great tension and excitement). This, combined with other technologies such as motion tracking of balls, means that in a mere fifteen years, cricket has been almost unrecognizably transformed (for the better, though two hundred tweed-jacketed MCC members will undoubtedly disagree over sips of their port).

The game's rules have also changed and, while some of these changes are designed to simply make matches more of a slug-fest, these rules have adapted to incorporate significant strategic elements. The most interesting of these is the terribly-named “power play”. It used to be that tight fielding restrictions (over where players could stand relative to the inner circle) applied for the first fifteen overs of a fifty-over game. Now these restrictions apply for a total of twenty overs; the first ten of these must be the first ten of the inning, but the remaining five can be taken any time the fielding captain chooses, in five-over blocks (with the caveat that they will be automatically enforced by the umpire if necessary). (The name is awful because “the fielding captain has chosen to take a power play” sounds like he just engaged in a positive action, whereas in reality he has undertaken an action that will hurt his team.) Names apart, though, they add a significant new element of strategy to games. Some teams have chosen to not strategize at all, taking all power-plays in a row (i.e., for the first twenty overs). Others have spread them out to good effect. In contrast, at least once (in a recent South Africa game), I saw a captain make a complete hash of it, leaving the last power-play until the end of the inning and giving the opposition a bushel of runs in the process. So it really does impact matches.

Finally, on to my own technological history.

Back in 1999, I heard that Fox Sports World was going to show one- and two-hour highlights of every day's play. This was what made us cross the line and get cable TV for the first time. (Before we got around to disconnecting it OLN began to show the Tour de France...and the rest is history.)

In 2003 we didn't get cricket on the TV, but decided against buying satellite connectivity. Of course, we could get the scores in close to real time over the Internet. For the finals, in which Australia played India, I was unfortunately out of the country; in particular, I was on my way from Frankfurt to rural Germany for a Dagstuhl workshop. What to do for the scores while on a slow, rural train in a country that's never even heard of the sport?

Fortunately, Kathi knew enough about cricket to be able to parse a score-line. And we'd just gotten ourselves T-Mobile phone services. T-Mobile lets you send email to an account that turns the message into a text-message. So every few minutes, Kathi copied the relevant parts of the scorecard off a screen and emailed it to my phone, and I kept up with the scores all the way to Dagstuhl. It was exciting, heady stuff. (The technology, that is. The match was an unmitigated disaster for any Indian.)

Now, in 2007, with the slightest prodding from my father, I've subscribed to Willow TV. Their service has been surprisingly good, even if they are excessively vigilant (if understandably so) about having multiple sessions for a single user account. Thanks to the Internet, we can route around the ignorance of American television entirely. (There hasn't been a single reference even to the tournament as a whole in any of the American media I follow, other than an op ed piece by Shashi Tharoor in the New York Times...bemoaning the lack of coverage.)

But that's not all. Last weekend my parents visited, with their boat-anchor of a laptop. The laptop, you see, has an s-video output. So my father brought that along with a cable; we plugged it into the TV and proceeded to spend all weekend as the most perfect couch potatoes you've met. It's the first time I've seen something to the "Windows Media Center" advertising: the OS is smart enough to take the signal inside Windows Media Player and send it to the s-video, ignoring everything else on screen, so you can even hide the player on the computer's display and proceed to use it to work (as my mother did, ignoring the two of us for the most part) without affecting the TV viewers. The signal has been sufficiently good that, save for a few artifacts and the very occasional blip (about twice over two days), I entirely forgot that we were watching programming over the Internet rather than normal-definition TV.

Well, that was rather nice, and after my parents left I was feeling pretty depressed about my own laptop. Then Kathi realized that we have an ancient (~2000) IBM ThinkPad in the basement, the machine Kathi bought when she started her job, which we keep around for emergencies when someone has to send a machine in for repairs. She knew it had a bunch of connectors on it, so she went to check. Wouldn't you know, one of them is an s-video.

It's actually a 7-pin s-video, not 4-pin. Calling various of our fine technology stores (Radio Shack, CompUSA, etc.) yielded neither connectors nor wisdom (indeed, none of the former and even less of the latter). Then we noticed that the four pins appear to be in the same position on both the 4- and 7-pin sockets; and I found some pinout diagrams on the Web that provided just the reassurance I was hoping for. So we plugged a 4-pin jack into the 7-pin socket, twiddled with some configuration, upgraded some of the ancient software on the ThinkPad and, hurrah, I have cricket on the TV again.

Life is great.


Life wasn't so great for Bob Woolmer, the coach of Pakistan, who died shortly after the country's team failed to qualify for the second round. Many in the cricketing world must have immediately wondered whether his death was natural or was caused by the gambling interests that are so strong in the game. When, a few days later, the coroner ruled his death was a murder, I'm sorry to say the news was more saddening than shocking. As a child I enjoyed reading about Woolmer's exploits for Kent and England, and he was a positive force on the game. So there is a dark underbelly to all the money sloshing around cricket, and Woolmer's death reveals just how dark it is.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Putting Overheating Computers to Work

For lunch today, I picked up a salad, bread and butter from Au Bon Pain. As usual, the butter was frozen solid: utterly unsuitable for spreading. I flipped over my OQO (pocket-sized laptop) and put the butter on it. Four minutes later, it was of perfect consistency.