Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ich bin ein Berliner

President Kennedy famously said "I am a jam doughnut" at the height of the Cold War, to express solidarity with the people of Berlin.

Except that "Ich bin Berliner" and "Ich bin ein Berliner" both mean the same thing, apparently, which is "I am a native of Berlin".

The myth arose because it's more usual in German to say "Ich bin Berliner". The use of the indefinite article ein is somehow supposed to make it mean doughnut. Even though Berliners don't call jam doughnuts Berliners, any more than the English call custard "Crème Anglaise"

But of course it's more usual in English to say "I am English" rather than "I am an Englishman".
That doesn't mean that there wouldn't be places in speeches where the second would be better.

According to German speakers, Kennedy's speechwriters got it right.

What I find interesting is whether "Ich bin Berliner" and "Ich bin ein Berliner" have the same relative value as "I am English" and "I am an Englishman"? Is it even possible to answer this question?

If you ask a German, how does he know what the difference sounds like in English? If you ask an Englishman, how does he know what the difference sounds like in German?

If you have a truly bilingual person, who has spoken both languages fluently since infancy, how do you know that their conception of the differences between the four phrases isn't being influenced by the knowledge of the other language?

Are there "mistakes" commonly made by true bilinguals in their languages which aren't commonly made by monolingual speakers?

There are, as far as I know, two theories of how language influences the way we think:

One theory is that language is a serialization of something more complicated:

Cat, Mat, and Sitting stand in a certain relationship in the mind. When you try to convert that set of objects and relations into a stream of sounds, you can do it in many ways. In English the word order matters, so "The cat sat on the mat" is different to "The mat sat on the cat". In Latin it's the word endings that matter, so "Catus matum satit" is the same as "Matum catus satit", but different from "Catum matus satit".

Another theory is that one literally conducts an internal dialogue in one's native language. In this theory, there are thoughts that one can think in Latin that one can't think in English. Sunt lacrimae rerum might be a candidate. The closest English can get to that thought is "There are tears for things". But I don't think that captures what Virgil/Aeneas meant.

It's more like the famous "The world is a world of tears". But you can tell by the fact that the English repeats a word that that's not the real meaning of the original either.

And of course what I'm thinking when I read "Sunt lacrimae rerum", through the lens of several other Latin phrases, and my terrible schoolboy Latin, is probably not what it meant to Virgil, for whom Latin was just his native language.

Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum sonatur.

But I bet that wasn't true for the Romans, who used it for grocery shopping. When they wanted to sound profound, they used Greek.

The internal dialogue theory explains these untranslatable thoughts. There have been experiments where pictures have been read from the visual cortex of cats. Maybe one day it will be possible to overhear the internal dialogue of a human mind. Can you imagine how spooky it would be to have your inner thoughts played out on a loudspeaker as you thought? Even if the only person listening was you? I bet that that would tell us a lot about consciousness.

On the other hand, imagine the shape of a crankshaft in a car engine. Picture it.

OK, what words did you use? I'm pretty sure I didn't use any. Just saw a picture in my head.

I think that means it's possible to think without using words.

How do blind people imagine a crankshaft shape? Are there words? Are there pictures? Do they use some other faculty of imagination to do with feeling and shape?

I wonder if John Kennedy's famous error that was not an error could shed some light on these matters.

Do bilinguals think that the corresponding phrases in the two languages sound the same? Stand in the same relation to one another? Do bilinguals make systematic errors in one language according to their other language?

What about bilinguals between a language like English and a language like Latin? Can they definitively say that they can't express Aeneas' thought in English? Can they translate it into another "scrambling" language and be confident that it does mean the same there?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What gets measured gets improved

There's a well known concept in cricket of 'playing for your average'.

It's generally considered a pretty despicable thing to do.

The reputation of my childhood hero, Geoffrey Boycott, is marred by a suspicion that he cared more about his average than about the success of the teams he played for.

T'Great Man

And yet I'd be surprised if it wasn't a fair bit more widespread than people think.

At the end of the season, how many games your team has won is one statistic, which is shared between all the members of the team.

Your own performance, your position in the averages table which every cricket club calculates, is another statistic, but it gives you local bragging rights.

Lording it over your friends is an excellent feeling. Lording it over people you don't know isn't nearly as good, even on the rare occasions when it's possible. Bragging to third parties is pretty much impossible unless you're playing for the national side.

But if you are playing for the national side, everyone is looking very carefully at your average. If it's not good, you get the blame for defeats. If it is good, then you get credit for playing well in a team full of losers.

These are classic circumstances for hypocrisy. I predict that everyone is playing for their average as much as they can get away with, whilst loudly telling everyone who will listen that playing for your average is a selfish thing to do, and getting very offended indeed if anyone accuses them of doing it.

Of course, anyone who is caught playing for their average to the obvious disadvantage of their team gets severely told off. Anyone caught repeatedly doing it is thought to be a traitor, and even if, at the end of the season, they can point to the best batting average in the side, they won't be given much credit for it.

Of course, I never play for my average. How dare you even think it? But the hypocritic urge is so strong that I feel quite brave writing this post, because I know that a lot of my cricketing friends will read it and assume that it means that I do, and worse, that my attitude gives them licence to do so.

If a team were to adopt the attitude that playing for your average was acceptable, that team would do badly.

So writing a blog post like this when you're captain of a cricket team is a really stupid thing to do.

To clarify, I'm talking about batting averages. I haven't thought about bowling yet. I think it's much less of a problem there, although I did detect a certain amount of jealousy when I topped our bowling averages a few years back, by virtue of not being very good, and therefore only being asked to bowl against the other team's tail-enders.

Anyway, one of the fundamental ideas of running things is:

What gets measured gets improved.

It's a double edged maxim:

If you want something to get better, measure it.

Be careful what you measure. That is what's going to get improved, not the thing you really want.

Once upon a time, I think batting average was a sensible thing to measure. You calculate it by the number of runs scored, divided by the number of times you're out.

In the ancestral days of timeless games, this was pretty much exactly what you wanted. How many runs will a batsman, on average, give his wicket away for? You have ten wickets to spend, how many runs will you get back for them?

In this form of the game, it's a good thing to 'play for your average'. Your average-incentive and the team's success-incentive are usually perfectly aligned. In fact I can't think of a situation where a batsman should do one thing for the team, but a different thing for the record books.

However no-one plays timeless games any more. They go on forever.

The last timeless test was in 1939, when England abandoned a test match they were probably going to win against South Africa, which had been going on for twelve days.

They abandoned it because they were about to miss their boat home.

Once you start putting a time limit on games, it's less appropriate to calculate batting averages. With a short time limit, it's vastly less appropriate.

The most extreme form of timed cricket is 20 overs a side. Both sides get 120 balls, and the winner is the team who can score the most runs.

Suppose we have two batsmen.

Algy scores 30 runs from 80 balls and is not out
Ben scores 30 runs from 10 balls and is out.

Who is the better batsman?

In a timeless game, your money is on Algy. He's not out. He will probably score more runs. If the game is over because everyone else is out, then in the next game you want to put him up the order, so that he can score more. Whatever his average is, it has just gone up.

In a 20 over game, Algy is a disaster. He has just single handedly lost you the match. Your other ten batsmen have 40 balls to share between them. Even if they do really well, your final score is only going to be about 70. You'd have to be very lucky to win.

Ben, on the other hand, is pretty rubbish in a timeless game. He has thrown his wicket away. If everyone on your team plays like Ben, you're going to end up with 315 runs and get murdered. Ben had better be a bowler if he wants to stay in the team. His average is now closer to 30 than it was before.

In a 20 over game, Ben is awesome. He may well be your top scorer. He's contributed a handsome thirty to your total, and he's left 110 balls for your other 10 batsmen, who if they play really well will probably leave you with a total of 140, which is pretty comfy.

This shows that we've got a perverse incentive.

In a 20/20 game, a man who plays for his team aspires to play like Ben.

A man who plays for his average aspires to play as much like Algy as possible, whilst still staying friends with his captain and his team.

In case you think I'm overstating the case, what should happen on the last ball of the first innings in a limited overs game?

Firstly, the batsman should try to score as many runs as possible. He should either loft the ball for a six (which might be caught for no run), or try to swing madly at it to get a more certain four. He should completely ignore where his wicket is. It no longer matters.

Then, whether he hits or misses, he should immediately start running, and not stop running until the opposition have run him or his batting partner out.

From a team point of view, there's no other sensible thing to do.

How many times, if you watch limited overs cricket, do you see the last ball played defensively for no run?

That is someone playing for their average. There is no other reason for it.

Even worse, they're often playing for their partner's average. You wouldn't be at all popular if you called a suicidal run on the last ball that was suicidal for the man at the other end. You've just spoiled his batting average. You don't do that to friends.

I did it accidentally in the last game we played (sorry Joe). Everyone realises that it's the right thing to do.  I feel guilty. Joe feels annoyed. I had to buy him a beer and say sorry.

My conclusion is that calculating batting averages in a team which plays mainly limited-overs cricket is stupid, counterproductive, and must stop.

But how do we stop it?

We can't just not calculate them. Batting averages are part of the game. People calculate them in their heads. I'm playing for several different teams occasionally, and keeping a careful record of my scores so I can work out my overall average at the end of the season even though it's completely meaningless, I know it's completely meaningless, and even if it made any statistical sense to add up scores for different teams like that it would be the wrong thing to calculate anyway.

But very few people have the statistical sense to realise that. So, as with all numbers calculated ever, they are taken to be the Word of the Lord by those who don't understand them, and they are so important as a result that it's totally unrealistic to expect people to forget about them.

Go look at the Wikipedia article about Boycott. To me it paints a picture of a very gifted man, tortured by a selfishness and a fear of failure and bad luck that was completely understandable given what happened to him as a child, and to his father when he was on the verge of adulthood.

He could have been a real cartoon hero without too much trouble. Random events twisted him into a tragic hero. He is in fact, even more my hero after reading that than he was when I was a boy.

But my point is that this article is absolutely littered with references to his batting average! He's been heavily criticised for trying to improve it at all costs, and at the same time lauded for having one of the best averages ever.

This is a bit like the man who burned down the temple at Ephesus so that his name would be remembered forever. I forget his name.

So should you. Never speak it. Never write it down. Tipp-ex it out of books.

We need a better measure of a batsman's usefulness to replace batting average with.

Scoring rate won't do.

Someone who scores 4 off 1 ball and then gets run out on the next has been next to useless unless he's gone in in the last over. Someone with the same scoring rate of 4 runs per ball who's got 80 off 20 balls in a 20/20 game is an impossible god who will be man of the match.

The first thing to do is not to worry about whether a batsman's out or not. If you're the eleventh wicket, you're still out for averaging purposes. This disadvantages the lower order batsmen, but it gives everyone better incentives. The lower order probably don't worry about their batting averages so much anyway. That's not what they're for.

I wonder if we should quote something like total runs scored and total balls faced, both divided by the number of matches played.

So you might get something like

'Algy has scored an average of 15 runs off an average of 25 balls per game'
'Ben has scored an average of 15 runs off an average of 10 balls per game'

I'm sure that's not perfect. It doesn't account for the situation where you're running out of wickets, and a batsman who can just not get out becomes really valuable even though he's scoring slowly, because you're going to pick up extra byes and wides and no balls just by virtue of him being there.

Maybe we should count byes, wides and no-balls as runs to the batsman, even though they're nothing to do with him, just in order to get the incentives aligned properly.

Another problem is that if you've got two numbers, like 15/25 or 15/10, it's not obvious what order you want to put your table of best batsmen in.

15 off 15 is better than 15 off 16, and worse than 16 off 15, clearly.

16 of 16 is slightly better than 15 off 15.

But what about 16 off 17? That probably depends on the match situation.

But actually that doesn't matter.

We can work with a partial ordering. It's just that there'll be ties in the rankings.

I don't think that's a problem. If it is, then we can use something irrelevant as a tie breaker, like average catches. That probably correlates nicely with batting prowess anyway, and although you don't really need any extra incentive to take catches, it might be an extra incentive to practice catching.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Zombies (Rambling Freak Out)

In a previous post I used the term "philosophical zombie", and received the following response:

There's no such thing as a philosophical zombie.
Get over your self, and maybe you'll start understanding how everything (neuroscience, science-based philosophy, reality) fits together perfectly.
Hint: it's all a bunch of patterns. Random signals are useless for survival.

Gareth McCaughan also kindly sent this link:

Hmm. Zombies.....

I agree that every bit of science I know fits together perfectly. It comes close to explaining everything I see, including other people. There are occasional gaps, such as how the first self-replicating entity got started, but I can imagine what the answers might look like.

There are other gaps, such as "Why is there anything here at all?", which it doesn't attempt to address, but which I don't find interesting enough to worry about.

It doesn't even have a go at explaining who I am.

I found Zombies: the movie, the other day. It's very funny, but I don't see the point it's trying to make.
At the end, one of the characters seems to realize that he doesn't exist.

Here are some random disconnected thoughts about what I feel:

I don't necessarily believe that my past self was conscious, even though it wrote about being so. How would I know? I wasn't there.

I do believe that as I'm writing this there is something "behind my eyes", watching the process.

I'm not sure that that thing can even influence my brain. Maybe it just watches. The fact that my brain occasionally seems to write about it implies that it can influence the world.

But that's the thing I call "me". Not my body, and not my brain, both of which, it seems, could (and do) work perfectly well without me.

When people don't understand what I mean, or try to explain it as some sort of physical process in the world, then I think they must be different from me, and that's why I've always believed that not all (or possibly even not most) other people have this thing.

I've believed this since school. I remember the thought coming to me when I was in an art lesson in the second year, during a discussion with a girl about the inconceivability of death (which strikes me now as no more inconceivable than sleep, but which seemed an absolute impossibility then for some reason).

I have no idea how this thing can influence the world, or how a brain uninfluenced by this thing could have had this thought or written these words. The whole thing is mad.

There are two pieces of evidence in favour that I can see. One is that very few people seem to understand what I mean. The other is that I can't describe it. When I read what I write about it, it seems like the proverbial blind man trying to describe the colour blue.

When I read what other people write about consciousness, they don't seem to mean the same thing as me.

I'd love to know what's going on. If there's an explanation in terms of matter I'd be amazed, but really really happy.

I'm not yanking your chain. I don't know any philosophy. This is what it feels like to be me.

But when I heard the term 'philosophical zombie' a couple of years ago, it gave me hope, because it sounds like the sort of thing that someone who felt like me would think of, so maybe I am not alone.

Although, if other watchers can talk to me like that, that implies that they can influence the brain as well as being influenced by it. Which makes them a proper part of the universe, rather than something watching.

Oh God, can a philosophical zombie conceive of the idea of a philosophical zombie?

I know I'm flailing here. There's not even any attempt to construct an argument, just some random phrases.

Shoot me down. I will enjoy thinking about what you say.

Now I've gone back over what I've written and re-read it, and there doesn't seem to be any evidence in it at all that the writer was conscious. It's just the flailing of a human brain trying to understand itself.

But I'm conscious. I am here! Watching! Now!

Newcomb's Paradox

Behold, mortals, I am the superintelligence Omega.

I can, by examining you for just a few short minutes, form such a good model of your personality that I can predict your actions.

I have, out of your sight, two boxes. One is opaque, one is transparent.

I shall place in the transparent box £1000.

If I believe that you will not take the transparent box, then I shall place £1,000,000 in the opaque box.

But if I believe that you will take the transparent box, then I shall place nothing inside the opaque box.

After we talk, I shall place before you the two locked boxes.
Once I have done this, I will not interfere. You may take either or both with you.

Once you have left my domain and the door has closed forever behind you, the locks on the boxes will open. The contents, exactly as I placed them before you made your choice, will be my gift to you.

So spoke Omega, the godlike alien who sometimes appears to destitute travellers in their hour of need.

Many people have taken his test, and it seems that Omega is always right. Those who take only the opaque box find themselves rich. Those who take both find themselves with their expenses paid, but not nearly as happy as you'd expect people who've just been given £1000 by a generous alien god to be.

You have now had your interview, and Omega is gone. Before you are two boxes.

Omega has promised that it doesn't matter what you do. What he put in the boxes ten minutes ago is fixed and he won't change it or use any sleight of hand or trickery.

You'd be a fool not to take the opaque box, which may or may not contain a fortune.

But do you take the transparent one, which definitely does contain £1000 that you can see, the alien's gift to you?

Without it, you will not be able to pay your fare home, and you will die on this trackless desert planet, friendless and alone.

Everyone agrees that the answer to this question is obvious.

The problem is that some people say that it's obvious that you should take one box, and some people say that it's obvious that you should take both.

I actually seem to think that both answers are obvious, which really does make me wonder what I mean by obvious.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cat and Mouse

Imagine what it must be like to be a cat, catching a mouse.

This is normal for cats. It's what they're designed for. I imagine that it must feel a bit like it does to a human to go to the fridge and get a pizza. Or to be a bit more ev. psych. about it, to pluck a fruit from a tree.

Perhaps it's a bit better than that, and has some of the joy that humans feel when hunting, or fishing, or doing sport.

Now imagine what it must be like to be a mouse, being caught by a cat.

Cats are the traditional predator. The thing that kills more mice than anything else. If you are a mouse, you are, although you do not know it, the descendant of an unbroken line of millions of ancestors all of whom managed to avoid being caught by cats long enough to breed. Probably by running very fast and hiding in deep holes.

Let's think about some things that killed our human ancestors. There aren't many. We are the top of all the food chains in which we're involved. The most successful killer there has ever been. The Death Ape. Even the animals that are potentially strong enough to kill and eat a lone human avoid us unless they're in a desperate situation because we're just too risky to attack. After all, even if they win nine times out of ten, that's not brilliant odds if you need to eat more than once or twice a lifetime.

Two of the very few animals that can be dangerous to humans are spiders and snakes, because of their poison. Very occasionally, an ancestral human being might have been killed by spider or snake venom. I suppose, very very occasionally, someone might have managed to get themselves killed by bees or wasps.

Probably as a result, most human beings find spiders and snakes loathsome, and many of us have a full blown phobia. Which is to say, irrational mind-destroying terror at the very sight. The buzzing of bees and wasps is a little disconcerting for most people too.

It has been pointed out that children in New York develop full blown spider and snake phobias even though the only real danger to New York children is the car.

I think that we can imagine with some degree of confidence that all mice have a full blown phobia of cats. In fact it's probably much worse than any human phobia can be.

You can keep mice out of a room by putting a picture of a cat in it.

So, anyway, if you're a mouse, being caught by a cat is almost certainly worse than the worst nightmare a human being can experience. The cat is a mythical demon out of nightmare. Except that it's not mythical.

Remember room 101? Where Winston, who has somehow managed to acquire a phobia of rats, has his head locked in a rat cage, where they can eat his eyes and cheeks and tongue.

The worst perversions of the Holy Inquisition probably inspired nothing like the terror felt by a mouse being eaten by a cat.

And let us not even think too hard about the cats' habit of 'playing' with their food. Christ knows what this is about. Having got the poor thing where they want it, instead of just eating it, they then torture it to death over a period of many minutes, even though this sometimes allows it to escape uneaten.

Presumably to the cat, this feels a bit like adding pepper to its pizza. Normal, natural, unremarkable.
To the mouse?

And yet, and this is my point, and why I have dwelt so on the magnitude of the horror, these are two consciousnesses experiencing exactly the same physical events.

Some people like mountains, and some people like lakes, and which you like is a matter of taste.
De gustibus non est disputandem.
There is no accounting for taste.
Chacun a son gout.

Every human culture has a phrase for this. It's one of the oldest truths that we know about ourselves. Different people have different reactions to the same things.

I've never really thought about it before. Is the colour blue the same for me as it is for you? What would that even mean?


This blog is part of the internet. Things on the internet need funny pictures of cats. Here is one:

By my arguments above, this should be massively more unlikely than a human being standing naked in front of a grizzly bear smearing herself in honey and threatening its cubs. Nevertheless, pictures on the internet do not lie. I conclude that my arguments are wrong.

No mice were harmed in the making of this blogpost. The pictures were stolen, without permission, from:

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mental Images

Can you imagine a tiger? (Look at it from the side rather than from in front)


If so, do it.

Do you see a mental image?


Does it have stripes?


Now, count the stripes.

How many are there?

Some people can count them. I can't. Some people can't see the tiger at all.

I can't even tell if I'm in the stripe-counting category or not. I can imagine tigers with 20 stripes. And I can count the stripes on those. But my initial tiger had stripes which I couldn't count. What the hell do I mean by 'mental image'? I can't imagine a physical image which has stripes that I can't count!!!

On the other hand, if I imagine a zebra crossing, that's got five stripes. But I can't tell you whether that's the real answer, or even if different zebra crossings have different numbers.

Apparently there was once a great philosophical debate about whether 'imagination' was just an over-extended metaphor. Some philosophers claimed that people couldn't see mental images, just that they had grown so attached to the idea as a metaphor for what actually happens that they couldn't let it go.

Other philosophers thought the first lot of philosophers were lunatics, or just pretending in order to be provocative.

The debate was settled when Francis Galton found out that it worked differently for different people.

I don't actually know whether that's true or not. I just read it on the internet at random. But the very idea that it might be true is blowing my mind. This is much more profound than the child's question 'Is the blue that you see the same as the blue that I see, or do we call different sensations by the same name?'.

To suddenly conceive, at the age of forty, that peoples' consciousnesses could be that different is really freaking me out.

I've never had the slightest trouble imagining that everyone except me is a 'philosophical zombie'. And, since there's no way to tell, I've an open mind on the idea that only some of us are conscious, and the rest are zombies.

But this is weird. It turns out that some of you are aliens!

Hmm, thinking about it, I just used the word 'imagining' for something I have no image of.

Panicking now. If you're reading this post, could you leave a comment with your answers to the tiger-questions?

And actually, on the zombie question, if you're reading this post and you're not conscious at all, could you leave a comment to that effect?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

The other day, someone wanting to make a point about a particular cognitive bias posted a link to this:

There is something about the phrase "Harry Potter Fan Fiction" that strikes terror into the heart. I didn't like the actual books much, even after making allowances for the fact that they're for children.

And yet... It is a work of genius.

The first book I have ever managed to read cover to cover on a computer screen.

I don't know how much of the real thing you'd need to have read to understand it. Not much, certainly. Probably the first half of the first book would do.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


There is a lot of talk, from time to time, about the fairness of various salaries.

Imagine what you'd like the distribution of wealth to be:

Now imagine that you've managed to elect a government which can enforce this distribution.

Now suppose that Kevin Pietersen is playing in a cricket match, and charges £1 to watch it.

Suppose 100 000 people turn up.

Everyone is happier as a result.

KP is £100 000 richer, and has presumably enjoyed his cricket match.
Those watching have had a nice day out. They chose to pay £1, and would presumably choose to do it again. They are unlikely to miss their £1.

So, since everyone is happier, how can this new distribution be less fair than the original?

This argument is known as the Wilt Chamberlain Argument, after a famous baseball player.

I'm not sure what it shows.

Things it might show are:

There is no optimal distribution of wealth, because given any distribution where 100 000 people are able to pay £1 to watch a day's cricket, we can think of a better one.

The optimal distribution of wealth is where KP has all the money, and no one else can afford £1 to watch him play.

I'm stuck.

The Mighty Rumsfeld

The Unknown
  As we know,
  There are known knowns.
  There are things we know we know.
  We also know
  There are known unknowns.
  That is to say
  We know there are some things
  We do not know.
  But there are also unknown unknowns,
  The ones we don't know
  We don't know.

What is wrong with this, exactly? It strikes me as profound.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cricket Kata

I'm trying to learn to play cricket. It's a very unnatural game, which is both quite dangerous, and quite difficult to practise.

The usual method is called a net, which involves say 6 people and a large, specially constructed pitch enclosed in strong netting.

If you do an hour's net, everyone gets an hour's bowling, but only ten minutes batting, and since most of the people there won't be bowlers, the batting is most unrealistic with a motley selection of full tosses and wides to play at. It's great for bowling, but doesn't seem to help as much for batting. In fact it teaches you some bad reflexes.

Catching practice is a separate thing, usually done with a proper cricket ball, which you either have to do at such low speeds that it's unrealistic, or you do at full speed by hitting the ball around with a bat or using a slip cradle, which is almost guaranteed to hurt someone, and seems mainly to teach the lesson that you don't want to get your hands anywhere near a fast-moving cricket ball.

Particularly, taking fifty or sixty catches leaves the hands bruised and damaged and makes catching painful and aversive. In a game you'd be lucky to get to take two catches.

There seems to be no way at all to practise running between the wickets.

Once upon a time I was quite good at Judo, a martial art. Judo, being a sanitized version of the extremely lethal Ju-Jitsu, can be practised 'full contact', without anyone getting hurt, so you just go at it like loonies until you get the hang of it.

Status in Judo is determined by the colour of your belt. You get a better colour belt if you can consistently win fights against people of your own colour. Eventually you get the coveted black belt, which means that you're good enough to be trusted to teach others.

I also tried, but was never very good at, Shotokan Karate, which, not being designed as a sport, can't be practised 'for real', since everyone would end up dead.

The solution that the Shotokan people have is not to practise fighting at all. Instead they have a set of ritualized dances, the Kata.

Kata are sequences of fighting moves that you have to learn to reproduce gracefully and in order. They get more complex as you get better.

In Shotokan Karate, the colour of your belt is to do with how many of the kata you can do, and how good you are at them. At the higher levels you also spar, but in a very ritualized and safe way, so that nobody dies.

The thing is, the high level Shotokan people are actually really good at fighting. In cross-disciplinary bouts they are quite competitive with adepts of other martial arts which involve a lot more actual practice fighting, and so a lot more injuries and pain.

The Shotokan people attribute this to a thing they call 'focus'. Focus is, apparently, a supernatural ability to react quickly and correctly that comes from learning all these (rather silly seeming) kata.

I've no idea whether this really works. Any studies anyone? But the Shotokan people must learn their fighting abilities somehow.

And it occurs to me that if this does work, then it would be a very good way to learn cricket.

So tonight I was trying to come up with batting kata.

My first try was to hold the ball under my chin, then drop it onto the ground and then hit it at the wall in the back garden. This got old quite quickly, although I did get better at it.

My second try was to put an old cricket ball in a pair of ladies stockings, and hang it from a tree branch so that it could swing freely and was a couple of inches off the ground at rest. You hit it with the bat, and then try to hit it again, returning always to stance, and then playing a correct drive every time.

The ball naturally swings around and bounces on the ground, so the point is to move from stance, into the line of the ball, and then play a correct drive, hitting the ball downwards just on the half volley.

At first, I found this quite difficult. The trick seems to be to get the eyes level and move both head and front foot simultaneously along the line of approach of the ball. It also makes it very obvious why the bat should be straight, since the bounce is much less predictable than the line.

If the ball goes very wide, then you can try to cut it instead. This requires watching the ball very carefully to see where it's going to bounce, and then hitting it square and always downwards. It never seemed to get into a good position to pull, which is a shame, because that's my favourite shot.

At one point some children turned up and wanted to try. I explained what to do, but none of them could hit the ball more than twice in a row.

After a couple of hours of this, I had got to the point where I could strike the ball reliably and hard one hundred times on the trot. I probably hit the ball something like 500 times in the two hours, which probably adds up to more times than I've hit it in our regular nets all season.

Of course, it's moving much more slowly than it would be when bowled. But if the Shotokan analogy holds, then learning to do it slowly should help when trying to do it at full speed.

Try three was the same set up, but trying to aim the ball. An on drive makes it loop away and come in from the other direction, so that you can off drive it. And vice versa, so that you can get in an alternating rhythm. After a bit, I tried hitting it towards the tree, in patterns like left of the trunk, right of the trunk, left, right .... You have to do this right, since if you hit it hard at the trunk it bounces nastily back at you. Makes you focus!

For fielding kata, we've been trying to learn to catch a real tennis ball, which is heavy like a cricket ball, but soft covered like a tennis ball, so that it doesn't hurt the hands. A few sessions of this seems to have improved my lamentable catching out of all recognition. I've taken three out of five in games this season, whereas previously my record in a season was two out of God knows how many.

Weirdly, I've taken the three difficult catches. The two I dropped were dollies that I had to take in front of me and that a schoolgirl should have had no trouble with.

We've worked out two drills for catching so far, one is to hit the ball way high over a group of people, who have to call for the catch and then get it. I can do this quite reliably now with the hands up, but I can't get the hang of it hands down. I don't know why.

The second is to all line up close to the guy with the racket and take slip catches, with the racket guy hitting it softly to each person in turn. This works a treat, and isn't at all scary.

Me and Joe came up with another one last week by accident. There were just two of us, and we were throwing a real cricket ball gently to each other. Then we tried throwing the ball hard at the ground between us, and catching it off the bounce, which is quite a bit more difficult since the bounce is random.

The revelation was when we decided to either throw it straight or bounce it at random. At first this was difficult, and we were using a real cricket ball, so it was actually quite dangerous.

But we simultaneously realised that the trick was to watch the ball carefully out of the other person's hand to see where it was going before it bounced, and we realised that previously, although we thought that we'd been watching it all the time, we hadn't been reacting until it had already bounced.

And suddenly I realised what batting coaches mean when they talk about 'watching the ball out of the bowler's hand', rather than 'picking it up off the pitch'. This had always seemed obvious before, but it's a completely different feeling when you're forced to do it because of this exercise, and actually feeling it happen and make a huge difference had a 'moment of enlightenment' feeling about it.