Monday, February 27, 2006

Sticking Up For Gavin Henson?

My belief in free speech has caused me to stick up for some pretty unpleasant individuals recently - David Irving, the Danish cartoonists, and even Ken Livingstone. None of these surprise me quite as much as what I am about to say - well done Gavin Henson.

I've been quick to criticise Henson in the past. Using words such as overhyped, arrogant, and fart. And, I think, with some justification.

But fairness demands I credit him where he deserves it. And today, in sticking his hand up and taking responsibility for the loss against Ireland, he most certainly deserves credit. Sure, the Wales camp has been dealing with some pretty strong problems in the last few weeks, and having a scapegoat will probably help defend against the vultures in a small way.

It's rare, however, to see a sportsman stand up and say in such frank terms that he wasn't up to the job on a particular day - and even to go further, to argue that he should be dropped for his lack of performance. When most of the time, a professional sportsman responds to a loss by saying things like "there's a lot of positives we can take from today", it's nice to see someone realise what sport is about. Winning and losing. And caring down to your core about which one of those happens.

Teenage Pregnancies

Snafu at Not Proud of Britain links to a story on a teenage pregnancy in Torbay, where the council have said they will give a 13-year-old mother the necessary support to raise her child.

The tone seems to be one that questions this; moreover, much of the right-wing comment on teenage pregnancy comes on the line of insinuating that the mothers are benefit scroungers. There's definitely hostility towards governmental assistance being given to teenage parents.

What I want to know is, how can you morally justify such a position? I appreciate that these people are law-breakers. But if the age of consent laws have any justification, it must be on the grounds that the people involved aren't mature enough to deal with the potential consequences of their actions - namely, having a child.

Indeed, the whole point of the benefits being given to the mother are to assist with the upbringing of the child! The behaviour of the mother and the father of the child may be reproachable - but that's not the fault of the kid. He or she is going to have enough problems being brought up in that sort of situation as it is, without suffering from stigmatising the parents through the withdrawal of benefits.

If Torbay Council wasn't giving the requisite and necessary support to the teenage mother, that's when I'd start being worried.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Very Bourgeois Revolution

A couple of friends and I have had a long-standing joke about organising an "I'm alright, Jack" march. One without any particular purpose, but to stand as a counterpoint to the May Day and anti-war style marches. Yesterday, marching in Oxford in support of the building of the animal research laboratory, I think I got an image of what that might be like.

The Pro-Test march was remarkably refined, right down to the stewards, who would genuinely say things like "if you wouldn't mind walking on the other side of the road, that would be great". Very orderly, no hint of any trouble, even when the handful of animal rights protestors were trying to provoke us.

That wasn't to say there was no determination on the part of the crowd. Indeed, it was a testament to how badly the animal rights activists have managed their campaign. People in Oxford are sick and tired of having their buildings closed down on Saturday mornings because of protests; sick of having to walk to their libraries past protestors chanting the same old slogans, and indulging in what is nothing short of harrassment. If I was to stand outside, say, an accountant's office shouting "Shame on you!" to every employee, I'd be arrested. That's not to mention the threats and campaigns of intimidation that see anyone connected to Oxford University seen as a legitimate target.

That's why there were people yesterday from all over the country. Not just a very large number of students (it was one of the best social occasions I've been to at Oxford) or academics, but alumni travelling across the country to show their support too. It's like Steve Irwin chasing snakes - "If you poke it in the eye, it gets reeeeally pissed off". Well, Oxford's at that level now. The number of people out on the streets yesterday shows the level of provocation of the ALF and their friends.

They still have a partial victory. Most of my friends who didn't march were surprised that there wasn't any trouble at all. Some admitted to being scared to turn out because they figured things might kick off. Yet we still massively outnumbered them, and although we may have joked about the march finishing off with a serving of tea and a finger buffet, there was a clear determination to show the animal rights activists we won't be cowed, that we do want our university to be carrying out vital research, and that we're prepared to protest in large numbers to make our point. It might not have been your average protest march, but that doesn't diminish the strength of feeling.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Boycott the Mitre

Today was an interesting experience - I was interviewed for Irish radio, used as a pawn in political propaganda and saw one of my friends ruin many minutes of TV footage. But I will have some more thoughts on the march later.

The point I want to make now is that the Mitre pub in Oxford is obviously run by idiots. After the march, I went for a drink with a couple of friends, carrying the banner that had been kindly given to me earlier in the day. Not particularly wanting to cause an argument or take up space, I turned the placard toward me so that it couldn't be read by anyone.

This wasn't good enough for the Mitre staff. Despite having wandered in carrying the thing upright, halfway through my drink I was asked to leave. Thankfully, I was able to reason with them that I wasn't making any display of it, and in any case wanted to finish my drink which I hadn't been prevented from buying.

The thing is, I couldn't possibly have been causing offence to anyone in the pub. I was chatting to a friend about photography, and no-one could read whether my placard was pro- or anti-testing. It was the petty gripe of a jobsworth. So, that's the last time I'll be going to the Mitre for a while. Who wants to go to a pub where opinions aren't allowed?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Pro-testing; Or, I'm Quite Happy To Be Alive

Tomorrow I shall set out on my first protest march. I'm not normally one for activism of this sort; too often I'm just too damn lazy and much prefer sitting at my computer screen hammering away at my blog to actually doing something productive.

Yet Oxford over the past few months has been infiltrated by outsiders. Outsiders who seem to enjoy nothing more than standing outside in the cold shouting "Stop the Oxford Animal Lab!" ad nauseam. If Christopher Martin-Jenkins finds the chanting of "Barmy Army" by England cricket supporters a great example of tedium, he should come and visit the site of the proposed animal research lab. He'd soon change his mind.

Of course, I don't deny the right of people to protest against things they don't agree with (although I do object to their harrassment of employees of the University in the Science Area - and quite why the police let them get away with it is beyond me). I do, however, object vehemently to their views on animal testing. You can call me self-interested if you like, but the fact is that without animal testing, the chances are that I wouldn't be typing this today.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I am diabetic. It's a pain in the ass, but thankfully it's manageable. That's due to the fact that insulin was discovered; it was discovered through experiments in observing the digestive system of dogs. As far as the medical manufacture of insulin is concerned, without animals it would not have been possible for many years.

Diabetics now may inject themselves with "human" insulin (created through a bacterial process), yet for many years it was treated insulin taken from animals that was crucial in the treatment of diabetics. Indeed, it's less than ten years since animal insulin went out of mass production.

I have difficulty giving the time of day to any argument whose result would mean that I wasn't actually around to have the discussion. The fact is that research on animals saves lives, and it can save lives in absolutely gargantuan numbers (the same reason is why I have no problem with stem-cell research). Britain has tight laws on animal testing; this isn't testing for cosmetics or anything like this. Oxford, as a university, is trying to advance the science of medicine and in so doing improve the quality of life of millions of people today and in the future.

That's something a responsible organisation should be doing. That's why I will be out on the streets showing my support tomorrow. I hope some of you will be there to join me.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Moaning Mourinho

The BBC have some cheek to put up this article about Jose Mourinho.

The British football establishment have been lambasting Chelsea, and Arjen Robben in particular, for their propensity to dive and roll around on the floor when not hurt. They've been derided as cheats for doing so.

Now, I'm not here to defend Arjen Robben. His dying swan act in the Liverpool game was shameful; no matter how stupid Jose Reina was in his actions, rolling around on the floor to get an opponent sent off is plain wrong (what's been lost in the furore, of course, is that Reina could well have been sent off for the foul which started the melee in the first place).

But if you're going to criticise one team for diving, then you shouldn't be equivocal when another team does it and gains an advantage. Last night, there was no question the sending-off changed the game; being asked to play for 50 minutes with 10 men against any side is hard enough, let alone a team as good as Barcelona. Barcelona were as dominant as they were in the last 20 minutes simply through the advantage of having lost less of their stamina because of their numerical advantage.

And the sending-off was wrong. And it was in part because Lionel Messi was rolling around on the ground in an attempt to show the referee how bad he considered the foul to be.

If it's wrong when Chelsea do it, it's wrong when Barcelona do it.

As for the question "Should the Chelsea boss learn to keep his own counsel when the Blues lose?" then I wonder what the BBC really want. When managers refuse to talk to the press after a match, then the media are up in arms about it. Not unfairly, in my opinion; it is the media interest in football that fuels the high wages on which the managers and players live.

But if you're in the business of asking for an opinion, don't then complain when people actually give you one.

Doing the Maths - Properly

One of the stranger newspaper features is the Gavyn Davies column in the Guardian, "Gavyn Davies does the maths". Doing maths in this case seems to be finding a lot of numbers, rather than actually using them for any specific numerical purpose, but leaving that aside, it is living proof that you can manipulate statistics to make arguments sound far stronger than they actually are.

Today, Davies turns to the subject of grammar schools. The column isn't too bad, but where it deals with the privilege of independent schools, it manipulates figures in a way that can only mislead (for the sake of my sanity, I've not put the numbers in bold type, as they appear in the original article).

At age 11, 7% of all pupils are in independent schools. However, by age 16, 25% of those attaining five grade A GCSEs are in private education. And at 18, 44% of those who gain entrance to Oxbridge come from the private sector.

By age 18, more than 7% of all pupils are in independent schools. Yes, there is still an imbalance between the number of pupils in state and private education, and the number gaining entrance to Oxbridge. But the gap is nowhere near as large as Davies' article suggests (and I suspect he knows that).

Moreover, it is also often overlooked that the proportion of state school applicants to Oxbridge is roughly the same as the proportion of state school applicants accepted to Oxbridge. The problem therefore may not be one of bias, or different kinds of education - but rather that too many state school pupils do not apply to Oxbridge.

The rest of the article also rests on misconceptions, to me. For example:

It may be news to many Tories (and to the prime minister, for that matter), but the existence of grammar schools also implies the existence of secondary moderns. And nobody seems ready to argue for more of them.

That's undoubtedly partly true, but it falls into the trap of believing that a reinstituted grammar school system would be identical to that which was scrapped in the Crosland reforms. Of course, the idea that was originally intended for a selective system was tripartite, not bipartite - and included technical colleges, providing specific vocational training, as another alternative to secondary moderns. Yes, some people would still be in secondary moderns, but not all of the "75% who do not get into grammar schools".

If Davies was really doing the maths, his case would stand up more fully.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Grammar Schools

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of the idea of grammar schools. It is certainly preferable than the current system that operates in this country that effectively equates educational opportunity with the wealth of a child's parents. Nevertheless, introducing a grammar school system in Britain would be a tough political task - there were many manifest errors in the last system, not least the failure to properly institute technical colleges.

In theory, the system that I have seen that I most like is the German system - three different streams of secondary education, where it is possible to move up or down between the levels. Of course, the system is not perfect, even in theory (the determination of which stream you enter happens too early). Of course, those of you familiar with comparative education will be aware of the weakness of lauding a German-style system.

Since 2002, when the PISA international study ranked Germany very low among industrial nations in terms of educational achievement, there has been much soul-searching among German politicians about how to change the system for the better. The major change so far is to speed up the pace of learning; whereas children would leave school at 19, they would now leave at 18.

A UN report today will be of little comfort to the German educational establishment. There it suggests that the opportunities for social advancement in the educational system are limited indeed. Of course, it is difficult to know how far this is attributable to the system itself - it may well be, for example, that patterns of settlement cause particular problems in terms of which children go to which schools. There are many cultural factors, as we already know, which shape how a child's educational opportunities play out.

Nonetheless, what Germany's system, and today's news, shows is that simply using a social mobility argument for grammar schools isn't good enough. With education, the devil is in the detail - and while that may lead to huge debates among Labour backbenchers, it means that creating a programme of educational reform that will genuinely improve matters whilst being intelligible to the voting public is pretty difficult.

The emotional attachment that the left has to the comprehensive system, of course, means that the very notion of grammar schools is anathema to them. In a complicated terrain, a move towards grammar schools allows the media to draw a clear good-bad divide; certainly it affords them the latitude to make clear sides in any issue.

Meanwhile, supporters (like me) of a grammar school system must be able to make clear arguments in favour. It is much easier to deconstruct the current system - which is manifestly bloated and failing - than it is to construct a politically viable alternative. When a grammar school system fails to afford social mobility, though, it makes the task that much harder. How can you include caveats and nuances when any move towards selection will be portrayed by a broad brush?

Making Unnecessary Martyrs

David Irving is a vile man. His political beliefs are disgusting; his historical ability is terrible, and that he has been able to get away with the title "historian" is insulting to all those who aspire to actually study the discipline of history.

Historical inaccuracy, however, is not a crime. Denying the Holocaust, as stupid, insensitive and crass as it may be, should not be a crime. Indeed, it is far better to let these idiots open their mouths and identify themselves to the world than to force them to operate with a shroud of secrecy.

Can't Austria see what it has done? A man who, six years ago, was made a laughing stock in Britain because of his defeat in a High Court trial, is now on the verge of receiving something approaching public sympathy. For those who trust him, he's been turned into a martyr.

This is how the fascists and the racists operate. Why are they scared of us, they say? What's so dangerous about our arguments that they have to silence them? We're telling you what they don't want you to hear because it serves their own purposes.

And so far from keeping the far right downtrodden, the Austrian authorities have actually just given them a boon this week. Conspiracy theorists everywhere must be having a ball.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Look Left, Look Right

I don't normally like short postings, but this story is hilarious.

Republicans, Conservatives, And What They Have To Learn

There is an interesting article on the Conservative Home blog, regarding what British Conservatives have to learn from their counterparts in the United States if they are to bring about a successful change in British political culture. This follows on from knowledge of Tim Montgomerie's long trip to America, and the publicised visit of Messrs Hague, Fox and Osborne to Washington to try and rebuild links with the White House.

On the face of it, there is a lot to learn from America. The right-wing party there has got a successful hold of all three elected branches of the government; moreover, their left-wing opponents are demoralised and lacking in structure. Before saying that Cameron's Conservatives should adopt wholesale many aspects of the right-wing movement in the US, though, it is important to recognise the scale of the challenge.

The Republicans have won the language war in America. When people talk about increasing inheritance tax, Republicans instantly discredit them by talking about a "death tax". When reform of Medicare comes on the agenda, Republicans talk about the need to avoid "socialised" or "socialist medicine". The very way that 'liberal' is used as a political swear-word shows the huge gulf in political culture; here it is 'conservative' that needs to be rebranded.

The Republicans have succeeded, in short, because rather than having to talk in nasty economic terms about many of their policies, they instead couch their political arguments in terms of freedom and moral values. The right lost this battle in Britain, with Blair and Mandelson realising that if you talk about supporting teachers and nurses rather than increasing taxes, you're on a fast track to support. Now if anyone talks about reducing the tax take, the first question is "what do you cut?"

Furthermore, the strength of the right in America isn't solely down to the Republican party. Conservative grass-roots movements across America, since the 1960s, have been absolutely vital in both winning primary elections and in providing the foot-soldiers (and fundraisers) so crucial in winning elections. They found it difficult to succeed outside of a narrow level to begin with; the classic example being Barry Goldwater's Presidential campaign in 1964. Yet I think few would doubt now that it is the ability to bring religious groups, for example, into directly supporting Republican party campaigns that helps its electoral strength.

The difficulty is that these groups then hold a disproportionate influence on power. The Economist a few weeks ago talked about the problems facing the Republican party in campaigning for the governorship of New York - caused by the Conservative Party in that state, a rump from the Goldwater era, but one which can skim sufficient support off a Republican candidate if they aren't considered right-wing enough. This is a long-running problem; Nixon complained when running for the governorship of California in the 1960s that the conservative movement weren't getting out and supporting his campaign.

This shows one thing about the conservative campaigners on Conservative Home - they are small c conservatives for sure; whether they are big-C conservatives in terms of the party is more questionable. The situation facing the Republicans in New York is surely more analagous to the British Tories than the winning of "values voters" in Ohio and the American South.

The first part of the challenge - that of changing political language cultures - is one that will not be won by fringe conservative activist groups. That has to come from the Conservative party itself; showing the determination not just to attack Labour, but to change the premises on which their campaigns are based, and to change the terms in which debate is framed.

If that challenge is met successfully, then the second part of the transformation is possibly made easier - that is, using activist groups to train candidates and get out campaigning in elections without forcing unpalatable policy decisions. As soon as activist groups become dominant in political circles, then there is a danger of parties being held as hostages to fortune by special interests that may well be distant from the country as a whole.

Conservative Home produced the wonderful graphic a couple of weeks ago that lauded Messrs Bush, Harper and Howard (US, Canada, Australia respectively) for their conservatism, whilst questioning that of Cameron - his support of Kyoto environmentalism, reluctance to cut taxes and increase defence spending, and such like. Does anyone really think that is going to be the best way to combat Blair and Brown before the next election? I doubt it (although thinking about decentralisation of power may well work). Certainly it won't happen without a change in political culture.

Thus, to a certain extent, I can endorse the conclusion of Donal Blaney in the linked article, that:

"Relying on a swing in the political pendulum or for the Party alone to secure a Conservative victory in 2009 is not an option. A true conservative movement is the only answer."

The problem that has faced the Conservatives is a lack of belief in their own party; their leaders have until now not inspired any confidence, and the party has often seemed paralysed in shock or awe at Blair.

The difficulty is understanding what a "true conservative" movement would achieve. What Conservative Home consider a conservative movement would, at the moment, probably drive away many voters from the party; the difference between them and the figures such as Patten, Portillo and Clarke would prevent a coalition of the right being formed to combat Labour.

Nevertheless, the creation of a broader right-wing coalition of activist groups and political party would make a profound difference to the energy of the Conservatives. What's important, though, is that the success of conservatives in the Anglosphere doesn't lead them into the mistaken belief that policies, as well as political techniques should be borrowed. The Conservatives are coming to cross a road; as all children are taught, they need to look left and right so as not to get caught by passing traffic. They should look left, to Europe, for public services reforms. And right, to the Anglosphere, for how to create a successful movement.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Michael Crick, Jealousy, and the National Psyche

Michael Crick's attempt at a hatchet job on Chris Huhne was pathetically weak. You could tell from the start that there was little substance to the attack, purely on the basis that so much 'filler' material about Huhne's history had to be included in the report. If the dirt was really scandalous, then simply saying he was a leadership contender, and the front-runner in many polls, would have sufficed.

It was the filler, however, that I thought provided the most interesting aspect of the report. Whatever the ins and outs of EU campaigning law are, it seemed clear to me that whatever transgressions may have occurred are minor and arise from ambiguities in the law, rather than a deliberate attempt at embezzling. That Crick appeared on Newsnight in person to qualify many of the claims made in his report seems to me to be further proof there is little wrongdoing.
What was more interesting was the way in which Crick tried to demean Huhne's character at the start of the report. There is no doubt the aim of the piece was to attack Huhne; yet it started off not by attacking Huhne's policies, but his background. Huhne is undoubtedly a very privileged man, having been to Westminster School, Oxford and the Sorbonne, before having a career as a journalist and successful businessman.

It was also clear from last night that Huhne has acquired significant wealth as a result of his success. Good luck to him, I say - and congratulations on having constructed such a successful career. Crick's attitude was far less positive - when he asked Huhne if he was a multi-millionaire, his tone was so aggressive as to be unbelievable.

What is it about Britain that makes us so hostile to success? Why, indeed, should being bright (getting to Oxford and the Sorbonne) and successful (making lots of money) be considered a bad thing when it comes to representation of the people? Surely we want our brightest and best to be in positions of power, taking on that vital duty of looking after the interests of the people?

The clear implication was that Huhne's wealth makes him unsuitable to lead a political party. Yes, it is true that he will not have had to face many of the difficulties that many others have to deal with. But he cannot be blamed for the family he was born into, no more than any person can or should be. He may not have a knowledge of perceived injustice; he can, however, talk with authority on how opportunity has helped him and, by extension, how that should be extended to all so that they have the most to make of their ability.

In any case, that sort of thing is of sod all relevance when considering Huhne as a potential leader. What's far more important is what he's done in his adult life, what he's achieved as a politician, and whether his ideas and his sums add up to a coherent vision for running the country. His wealth is irrelevant to that. It says a lot about Michael Crick and the BBC that they will think less of a man for having had a successful business career.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Violence in Sport

Martin Samuel writes an excellent article in today's Times. Not only does it take a large swipe at the Times' own silly, self-seeking campaign to prevent diving, but it also raises the question of how violence should be treated in sport.

As Samuel himself points out:

Witness the quick capsule review of Arsenal’s match against Bolton Wanderers on Saturday, published in Monday’s Times and written as if diving were the sole deadly sin. “Ugly, like a Peter Kay belly-flop. Players from both sides went to ground too easily.”

Notice anything missing? For two potentially leg-breaking tackles, see halfway down page six, dismissed in half a sentence, the culprits not even named or shamed.

The problem, of course, lies in the word "potentially". Neither of the two players on the receiving end of the unpleasant challenges were seriously hurt. Had they been, there would have been a huge outcry. Yet if people are lucky enough to emerge unscathed, the fact that an opponent tried to maim them is dismissed with barely an afterthought.

I remember watching a rugby match a few years ago where a lineout jumper was taken out in mid-air. The referee saw the incident, but saw it fit only for a yellow card. His reasoning was incredible - "if he'd been hurt, you'd have been sent off". That is something that makes a mockery of the law. The intent to hurt was there; it is only by good fortune that the player didn't land on his neck with a serious injury.

The real criteria most referees use in deciding punishment for acts which are part of the game (kicking, punching and so on tend to be more clear-cut) depends on how badly hurt the victim is. What, then, is the purpose of outlawing a two-footed tackle? Can we really expect to kick it out of the game of football unless our attitudes to reckless play change?

The rules of any sport make it quite clear what is and isn't allowed in the run of normal play. It is even more obvious to spot when the foul play described requires unnatural movements. In football, as Martin Samuel points out, you have to make an effort to slide in with two feet both showing studs. In rugby, it takes a real movement of the body to knock someone's legs from under them. These offences are not difficult to spot.

And yet, if a player gets away without injury, more often than not the perpetrator of the crime gets away with no personal punishment (normally a penalty or free kick is awarded, admittedly). Unnecessary violence is the real scourge of sport.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Cheney's Marksmanship

There's been a number of jokes about Dick Cheney's shooting ability recently - and it's hardly surprising, too. Nor am I surprised that it has escalated into a fairly major story. The public responsibilities of taking on such a high role mean private mistakes will be amplified. (Although, of course, the poor guy who got shot at least chose a good person to be shot by for on-hand medical care).

What I can't understand, though, is Democrats making a big fuss over the White House not releasing the story:

The dustup over the accident and when it was made public "is part of the secretive nature of this administration," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "I think it's time the American people heard from the vice president."

What relevance on this earth does what Dick Cheney does in his spare time have to do with his official duties? There is no good reason why this should be a story in the public domain, other than its somewhat bizarre nature. It certainly doesn't affect his discharging of duties as Vice-President. If I was about to go on a hunting expedition with Cheney, then I'd be concerned. If I'm just living in a country where he's second-in-command, what he does off-duty doesn't really bother me at all.

There are good reasons to hate Dick Cheney as a politician. Get at him for those, not for something of no relevance at all.

Who's Bourgeois Now?

Bernard Laporte has been criticised by his boss for describing the Parisian crowd as "bourgeois" - upset that his French team were being jeered despite leading Ireland by forty points.

This surprised me somewhat. Look at the picture on the left. Wouldn't "bourgeois" be one of the first words you'd think of to describe the man in the glasses?

Smoking Ban

I've written before on why I think a smoking ban isn't illiberal - to summarise, because I don't think freedom necessarily includes the right to force people to breathe in your smoke and make them suffer from the effects of passive smoking. At best, the issue is one of liberty to breathe against the liberty to smoke.

That said, I'm not sure I agree with a ban on smoking that extends to private members' clubs. In a public place where, except at the discretion of a landlord (for what is supposed to be good reason), any person can enter, arguments about liberty do apply. People often use the argument that the market will support no-smoking pubs if there is demand. That is all well and good in cities and towns, but in villages where there is only one pub, the argument is nowhere near as strong. And it only takes a couple of people to be smoking before an atmosphere can become oppressive.

In a private members' club, however, the only people who should be using the bar there are members or their guests. In that instance, I can't see any explanation for a ban on smoking that is liberal. A members' club is a voluntary association of private people; the very title of the club shows that there is a degree of exclusivity in it and therefore we should realise there is very definite personal agency in being in the position where you can enter and use the premises.

For the government to be intervening here is a worrying precedent. I can understand the desire not to want organised crime rings to be working out of private members' clubs, for example, and so they should be subject to the law of the land on that basis. But smoking in those areas allows a member of the club to make a choice based on acceptable risk in applying for membership of the club. It is not a public institution of any kind. The decision in members' clubs should be left to the members alone.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Quick Thoughts on Gordon Brown

I would have thought that allowing Brown too great a profile would, in the long term, prove a disaster for Labour. For all that I despise Blair, I think that in the wake of Iraq, people forget how good he is when he is at his best. Could you really imagine Brown, or Michael Howard, or William Hague looking as statesmanlike as Blair in the aftermath of the July bombings? Not that I support or condone the hijacking of that event to justify much of Blair's political agenda since that day. But if there was a national crisis, I'd ultimately feel happier if Blair was at the helm of the country than just about any other leading politician in Britain right now.

Meanwhile, I cannot see how Brown will appeal to voters in the South of England. For a start, he's a miserable bastard. I can barely remember the last time I saw a picture of him smiling. At PMQs, he looks like he's in a competition for the greatest scowl with John Prescott. The culture shock with Blair will be profound - and I'm not sure that will be in a good way. When Blair speaks, you have a pretty good idea of what he wants to get across. Brown may be more sincere, but he can be a hell of a lot more confusing too. He certainly doesn't have the clarity of communication that David Cameron does.

Added to that is the fact that most economic experts I have read believe something is about to go wrong with the economy pretty soon. Imagining that Brown is an "honest" politician is also a mistake - in December, the Times were calling him 'King Con', after he gave misleading information regarding a financial scheme that hadn't yet been enacted into law. Giving an impression of one thing in the media and then going back on your word? Sounds a classic Blair ploy.

Only minus the charisma. It will be far easier for the Tories to combat a man like Brown, because his instincts are so socialist - monolithic public services and a tax and spend economy. If those are not his intentions, then Brown will be in for a rougher ride from the party rank-and-file than people may at present imagine. For that is the model they are counting on, after putting up with Blairism to get back into power. Clunking on with the present model for education and health isn't working - but I suspect it is where the Chancellor's instincts lie.

What am I saying overall then? Labour should be wary about how soon it pushes out Blair. Brown's best chance of winning an election is taking over late and calling an election within a year of taking power - that way, the 'bounce' he will get from not being Blair will still be a factor. Otherwise, my suspicion is that voters in the marginal constituencies of the West Midlands, and more importantly the South and South-East, will find there is a lot not to like about Gordon Brown.

Quick Militant Moderate Advice

Renew your passport as soon as you can.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

SportBlog Call

Hi everyone, just to remind you that next week I will be running the latest edition of the SportBlog roundup - any post vaguely related to sport is eligible; let me know about them!

Send all suggestions to sportblog at googlemail dot com

Defending a Meritocracy

Trust People reiterates his point about opposition to the Tory Party "A-List" of candidates; that a party of opportunity does not go about achieving this by discriminating against anyone based on factors beyond their control. It is a valid point, and one made all the more important to discuss when Trevor Philips, the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, is actually in favour of racist selection policies at universities.

A CRE official said: “If you have a black student and a white student with equal qualifications at the front of the admissions queue, we would want the university to take positive action to choose the black student first.”

How about asking the white student how "positive" that action was? If a university admitted it would always take the white student first, it would be accused of being racist. Why is it any different if a student of a different race is taken first?

If we are to believe in meritocracy, then actions taken by anyone must be colour-blind and gender-blind. That works all ways. Trying to solve discrimination with more discrimination only leads to a build-up of anger; it doesn't achieve goals of trying to integrate communities more successfully (of course, the failure of multiculturalism has a lot to do with that).

The problem is that the language war has already been lost, and the prevailing "target culture" means that the CRE can get away with statements like those regarding positive action without being hauled up for what it actually represents.

I've never understood why the target culture means that just about every single job description should be filled by a racially-fixed quota. Surely we want the best people available for each job doing it? That might mean in some cases there are fewer black people in jobs; at the same time, it should mean that in other cases white people are under-represented. Yet under-representation only seems to be an issue if it is non-white people (I'm basing this, from memory, on a study which showed that certain ethnic minorities are technically 'over-represented' at top universities).

A meritocracy should be exactly that - selected on merit. If there is a problem with underachievement with black pupils at secondary schools, it should be sorted out at secondary schools. There should not be an expectation for universities to make up for the failing of government education policy. And it is certainly about time we lost the notion of "positive action". Giving people jobs and positions they don't deserve - be it in universities or in selecting parliamentary candidates - is not a effective way of solving any kind of discrimination.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Vanity of Vanities

It's interesting how many products aimed at people's vanities seem to be used by sports stars. Shane Warne was famously banned for a year for taking a slimming pill that can also be used as a masking agent. In the last couple of days, both an ice-hockey goaltender and the skeleton-bob favourite in the Winter Olympics have been found to have used hair restoration drugs which contain masking agents.

There's a couple of issues that arise from this. Firstly, both instances saw the home federations of the athletes argue that no ban was necessary. Now, far be it from me to be cyncial, but particularly where the US are concerned, I don't have much sympathy. They always seem to be equivocal in condemning drug use. Sanctions in the NFL and MLB are derisory in the extreme; the US Olympic Federation allowed Jerome Young to compete in the Sydney Olympics despite having tested positive for drugs the year before.

One of the biggest problems that sports authorities have in dealing with the issue of drugs is not the matter of the drugs themselves. It is that athletes are becoming increasingly savvy at how to beat the testers, whether it be through loopholes in the law, or through increasing use of masking agents. The only way that drug laws can be effectively policed is if a missed test or a test for a masking agent is treated as if it were positive - and the culprits punished to the fullest extent.

Vanity is not an excuse. I'd always have thought being on top of the podium was the most important thing, not looking good if you got there.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Setting or Streaming?

The BBC today reports that despite Tony Blair's promises that setting would become the norm in classes in Britain's schools, the number of classes being setted has actually diminished. Once again, it seems, Blair is prepared to give the image of change without actually doing anything that will make a material difference (this is particularly characteristic of his schools policies).

I'm going to leave the question of grammar schools aside here. As far as I'm concerned, they would be a great improvement on the system we currently have in this country whichever way you look at it; they would certainly help prevent a system where middle-class parents are almost guaranteed a monopoly of good schools on account of their wealth. Nevertheless, that's a somewhat different debate.

If comprehensive schooling is to work at all, then setting must be absolutely vital to the principle. The most common complaint about grammar schools that I hear is that it does nothing for children good in one subject but bad in others; they just get lumped into a block according to general abilities - which means that children with certain specific skills get left behind. They will be left behind even more if they are left in mixed-ability classes.

This goes for all subjects, not just ones where abilities may be more obviously measured than others, such as languages, sciences or maths. The subject of history is valuable for what it does for your thinking skills as much as what facts it actually teaches you. But the depth of analysis achievable is quite obviously dependent upon different factors, such as how easy you find the concept of the passing of time, or the change of institutions over time.

More theoretically, placing all students in mixed ability classes doesn't help the teacher, and it doesn't help the pupils. Rather than being able to target learning to the majority of the class, a hypothetical middle ground has to be found - and then much effort must be expended on helping the lower achievers in the class get up to a speed they may not really be capable of. Far better to allow children to be taught to their abilities.

This is totally separate from the other argument against grammar schools, which is that of social mixing and the role of a school in a community. When talking with Richard, he tells me he wants a good school in every community. I normally reply that I'd like some fairy dust, too, but I'm not so optimistic. There are practical steps that can be made even within the existing system to improve the general quality of education. If having a social mix at each school is desirable (I don't think we should take target quotas that far anyway - the purpose of a school is to teach children, not fit government quotas), the socialising takes a different priority and place to that of learning.

After all, the justification for such great expenditure on an education system is, rightly, that knowledge is the means through which humans can better themselves and the communities that they live in. Learning has to be at the heart of the school experience. And if we are not setting our classes, they we are preventing people from being taught in the manner which is most relevant to their skills and abilities. That is not just a shame; it undermines any arguments in favour of the comprehensive system.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Power of Images

So the guy who dressed up as a suicide bomber has been taken back to prison because of breaking his license. I pretty much agree with Stumbling and Mumbling over this one; it's an easy way for the government to look as if they are taken some action when nothing substantive or useful has actually been done. He was stupid, insensitive, crass, vile - yes. But I can't see any particular law that he's broken, or how he was inciting anyone to violence.

What this shows, though, is the power of an image in today's media. The really questionable things that took place on that demonstration on Friday were the police totally ignoring some inflammatory banners that, in my opinion, amounted to incitement to violence. If, as has been claimed in some quarters, they were pre-vetted, then it's totally unbelievable. What on earth do we pay our police to do?

Of course, it's far easier to create a storm around the picture of a guy dressed up as a suicide bomber. God forbid that the media might actually have to engage in some kind of argument by publishing a slogan? No, create an iconic image, rail against what you say it stands for and then sit back, safe in the knowledge you've pandered to prejudice. But it's pretty ironic to whip up a storm of hate at someone protesting against the Danish cartoons, when he's utilising freedom of speech, in however vile a manner.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Oxford's New Email System

Today, Oxford changed the e-mail system that it gives to all its students and staff, and which is more or less the sole means of communication used between many members of the university. What used to be a fairly efficient, if unspectacular system is now incredibly infuriating.

Firstly, everything runs incredibly slowly. Where the front page used to load up fairly quickly, it now takes forever. The same process is repeated if, God forbid, you actually need to look up any other pages (such as, say, your inbox, or any individual email).

Secondly, you have to go through about three pages before reaching your Inbox, where previously you only had one. This is because email is now part of a "single sign-on" service, where you can simultaneously access a number of services no-one ever uses at the same time as checking your email. So you have to give the system lots of useless information to allow it to process you through.

Slow, cumbersome, having to go through unnecessary procedures? Sounds like the perfect Oxford system. OUCS will be proud.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The NFL Is A Thing of Beauty

The Super Bowl is, on its own, a great event. It is not without good reason that millions of viewers the world over will tune in to the Super Bowl, possibly even staying up red-eyed into the night, to watch a sport they are not particularly interested in and know little about.

To many people, the game itself is of little consequence; the sense of a shared experience, and the extravanganza of the entertainment, not to mention the excuse to have a huge party, are more than enough. How much greater that occasion is when you can truly appreciate the centerpiece!

Yesterday, during the fourth quarter, the Pittsburgh Steelers ran a play whose mere memory is enough to keep me happy for a long time to come. The real beauty of the play is that its appeal works on so many different levels.

To start off with, you see what appears to be a pretty bog-standard rushing play. The quarterback hands off to the running back, who takes a step, but then moves towards the wide receiver, who is running sideways across the field in an end-around. Taking the ball at quite some pace, it appears that he is about to run straight ahead down the field for a fairly impressive gain of yardage.

This is no ordinary wide receiver, however. Antwaan Randle El only moved to the position after he became a professional. He was a college quarterback, and so while on the move he throws a long pass to the other wide receiver, Hines Ward, who steps in to the endzone for an easy touchdown.

Then, on the replay, you realise the quality of the blocking on the play, and not just from the guys you would expect it from. Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback, puts in an excellent block that allows Randle El the time to make it to the other side of the pitch. One of the O-linemen, meanwhile, has pulverised a Seattle defender so that Randle El has all the time in the world to make the pass without the fear of a tackle.

The sheer execution of the play on its own was a delight to watch. Yet to truly appreciate the full beauty of the play, you have to have remembered what happened before that in the game. In the first half, a fairly similar end-around had been run by the Steelers. On that play, the main aim for defenders is to get up the field as quickly as possible to make the tackle. On the fourth quarter play, of course, as all the Seattle players are vainly running towards Randle El, Hines Ward is sauntering across the field waiting for the catch. Without the previous end-around, it's certainly possible Ward would have been paid just a little more attention.

Additionally, the formation that the Steelers lined up in was exactly the same as that used two plays earlier, when they had thrown a play known as a WR screen to Randle El. It's known as one of the Steelers' favourite plays, so the repetition of the formation automatically made the Seattle players prepare for that play - when in fact, the real action was to take place on completely the opposite side of the pitch.

The intricacies of the play made it a genuine thing of beauty. Pure artistry, in the way that to understand the play in all its glory you have to appreciate what has gone before in the match. Sheer brilliance in the execution as well. And so, I've just spent 600 words explaining one single play in an NFL match. I told you the play made me happy!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Fuel Taxes

Apologies that I seem to be heading over the same subjects again and again. I will put a post up about the cultural phenomenon that is the Super Bowl sometime early next week, but as things stand I've had a stinking cold over the last few days and haven't had the chance to write the piece I want to about it.

Today I'm going back to the topic of environmental liberalism. The Apollo Project linked earlier this week to an article in the Guardian about differences between Lib Dem activists and Lib Dem voters.

Members tend to have the same sort of views as voters. But the one great exception to this environmental taxation:
One difference between members and voters concerns the environment. Fifty-three per cent of members supported an increase in taxation on motorists in order to curb pollution. Lib Dem voters, by contrast, are distinctly cool on the idea that car owners should pay higher taxes.

Now, Chris Huhne is keen to tell us that the Lib Dems are by far the greenest of the three main parties. I don't see any particularly obvious reason to disagree with him on this one, so I'm willing to run with that as a basic assumption.

If that assumption is true, of course, it follows logically that Lib Dem voters should be the most receptive to environmental policies. There are, of course, a multitude of reasons why the LibDems were supported at the last election by voters. Some, like me, couldn't bring themselves to back a Tory manifesto that bordered on racism, and felt stuck between a rock and a hard place. Many votes were undoubtedly garnered by anti-Labour protest votes, from the left who were angered over top-up fees and Iraq. But the Lib Dems do seem to spend more time talking about the environment than other parties have.

What the study shows, of course, is that even Lib Dem voters are much, much cooler on the idea of increased taxation than activists. So, whilst playing to the green lobby may be an excellent idea in terms of winning a leadership election, how will it actually help their electoral prospects?

Peter at the Apollo Project is probably right when he says this:

I don't think this means that we should not advocate higher fuel taxes. But it does imply that we should beware of getting too far ahead of them.

The difficulty is, what are the alternatives? In many areas of the country, if you don't have a car, then you simply aren't employable or able to have much of a social life. Even in Darlington, a town which was once hailed as having the most buses in the country, it is very difficult indeed to make a journey to, say, Middlesbrough, by public transport. Taxing motorists off the road would simply be unfair in the North East. There is all too often no other option than to use the car. To increase expense without a readily available alternative is unreasonable.

So if there is to be any increase in environmental taxes, then the only way it can possibly work is by creating material incentives and by providing alternatives. Not by using the tax revenue gained from environmental taxes for other purposes. In that sense, the Ming Campbell campaign is far more reasonable in what it is saying than the Chris Huhne campaign.

The deeper problem for the Lib Dems, of course, is that there appears to be disconnect between the party and their own voters on this issue. As much as I hate the approach personally, David Cameron has been very savvy in the way he approached environmental policy. The nasty image of the Tories was changed without giving any specific details which would then be knocked down. I still am unconvinced that the British population as a whole is ready for an increase in environmental taxation.

People shouldn't forget the only time that William Hague ever led Tony Blair in the polls was as a direct result of the fuel crisis. People begrudge having to pay over the odds for petrol, especially when Britain's fuel taxes are already high. Lib Dem activists may be convinced climate change is going to have catastrophic consequences. But if they go about remedying them in a clumsy manner, then they will end up causing more harm than good.

BBC Pundits

Is it just me, or do the BBC have one rule, and one rule only, when appointing French analysts for the rugby? That is, that they have a stereotypical accent that is almost unintelligible. It does sound quite hilarious, though!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Lies, Damn Lies, and Welsh Excuses

It was wonderful to watch the rugby today. Welsh rugby fans are insufferable at the best of times, and last year was not much fun at all. To watch Wales, however depleted, being thoroughly dismantled by an England side, however poor, is always a delight.

But it's funny how quickly excuses seem to come flowing after a game like that. According to the BBC, Mike Ruddock, the Welsh coach, had this to say after the match:

"The sin-binning of Martyn Williams was a crucial moment, as that allowed England to turn the power on," he said.
"With a 14-man Wales team they really put us to the sword and ran away with it - and that really hurts."

It may have allowed England to turn the power on, and ultimately sap Welsh energy, but they didn't exactly put Wales to the sword during the ten minutes Williams was off the pitch. They may have put 8 points on the board, but that is scarcely above average, and the try that was scored wasn't the result of the shortage of one man. As the replays showed, any number of players could have ended up with the ball in their hands crossing the line.

Ruddock was also quoted as saying:

"A couple of things just weren't going our way.
"For example, from a great turnover Michael Owen threw a pass when we tried to break out and it was called back for being forward."

That's not things "not going our way". That's just poor, sloppy play for which there is no excuse. When you are behind your own goal-line, you make sure the ball gets cleared. Infuriating, maybe, but certainly not as unlucky as is being made out. It was an unforced, costly, error.

As for the England performance, it certainly picked up in the second half. It was great to see Matt Stevens play so well at prop, because my belief is that England will be most dangerous at the next World Cup if they have a quick, lively pack, which means Stevens is the most obvious choice. The other person who I thought had a note-worthy game was Jamie Noon, who made some excellent breaks. Mark Cueto's running was typically excellent, too.

That said, when you can play Tom Voyce at full-back for most of the match and not look threatened, it tells you that you weren't up against great competition, and it would be foolish to read too much into the result.

A couple of postscripts:

1) Why did the BBC commentators need to constantly talk about the difference between Adam R Jones and Adam N Jones. One of them is a fat prop with a gigantic curly perm, the other is a second row forward. It's not exactly difficult to tell the difference between them!

2) Andy Goode must be one of the most amusing players to watch. I can't think of many other people who have played at international level at their sport whilst looking so unathletic. And yet he kicks like a demon and runs one of the most exciting back lines in the country. Now I'm just waiting for a quick break through the line to score the winning try against France.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Disappointed By The Words of Straw

Jack Straw has condemned the newspapers that have printed the cartoons of Mohammed. Fair enough - it is his right and prerogative to make those comments. What disappoints me, though, is that he has resolutely failed to condemn unequivocally the actions of extremists in storming government buildings, in threatening kidnappings, in burning flags in the street. Nor has he condemned Middle Eastern governments for withdrawing their ambassadors from countries that have printed the paper. It is resolutely, fundamentally wrong for governments to meddle in newspaper activities and Anders Fogh Rasmussen deserves huge credit for refusing to bow in to political pressure.

Straw said:

There is freedom of speech, we all respect that. But there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory.

No, there isn't. But there is a right to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory. If we don't like the message, we can refuse to buy the newspapers, or we can write on our own blogs that the editor of Jyllands-Posten was crass and wrong in his actions. To demand government intervention, however, is a completely different matter.

Apart from the fact that the boycott of Danish goods is misdirected - Arla Foods had nothing to do with the publishing of the cartoons - that is also a perfectly justifiable response to the episode. The market is a wonderful thing, because it does not just respond to economic pressures. If there is sufficient weight of feeling, all kinds of other factors can have an effect. Just look at the way sponsors of rival football clubs have their sales decline in the "wrong" city (hence why Celtic and Rangers are sponsored by the same company). That, of course, is why I also believe we are right to try and Buy Danish wherever we can, because it will go some way to offsetting the damage caused by the Middle Eastern boycott. To try and force governmental influence on newspapers is wrong.

The problem, of course, is that all too often, people go out of their way to be gratuitously offensive to Muslims when the point they are trying to make does not need that. Theo van Gogh's film, Submission, was unsophisticated, but raised many valid points about the treatment of women in Islamic culture. The fact that Qur'anic verses were written across the woman's body, however, simply made the film gratuitously offensive. It wasn't making a point, it was designed purely and simply to wind people up. Likewise most of the cartoons printed were gratuitously offensive. What would have been wrong with simply claiming the right to draw a picture of Mohammed? After all, that is what I thought the issue was first about.

So Straw is providing a service to us in one way; it is right to remember that if we are trying to make an argument, moderation is the best way forward. There's been a distinct lack of moderation on one side here, and a lack of moderation on the other. Nevertheless, it's vital we remember what the Middle Eastern countries stand for here. They stand for a shackling of freedom of speech and governmental interference to protect their own religion not from violence, but from criticism. That is totally wrong. And it is disappointing in the extreme to have a Foreign Secretary who does not provide a stirring defence of the right to freedom of speech.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Buy Danish! - Solidarity With The Editor of France-Soir

Where is the courage of British newspaper editors? It pleased me greatly to see newspapers across Europe show that they stand firm when threats are made to our much cherished freedom of speech. Freedom of speech doesn't mean allowing people to say what you want to hear - it is the right to challenge, to disagree, to say anything, however unpalatable, because we believe the world progresses more when it is free to debate than when it is told what to do.

It is terrible that the disapproval of Muslims has cowed the publishers of France-Soir into sacking their editor. Their headline yesterday was entirely correct - we have the right to caricature God. We have the right to say whatever we want, just as people have the right to ignore it totally. Trying to bully people into submission because you disagree with their opinions is simply wrong. What have the Arab protestors done? They haven't tried to argue why it was wrong to publish the cartoons, they have simply burnt flags, boycotted goods, or recalled their ambassadors. Worse still, gunmen today stormed the EU offices in Gaza. Whereas in the West arguments are won by reason and debate, in the Middle East they believe arguments are won at the barrel of a gun.

To be fair, that is not universal. I am full of admiration for the editor of al-Shihan, who reproduced the cartoons in his newspaper today.

"Muslims of the world be reasonable," wrote editor Jihad Momani.
"What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?"

Some people still don't get it, though. One of the comments on the BBC website says the following:

Freedom of speech has its limits when it concerns others...How would it feel if Jesus Christ was the one insulted instead?
Randa Ahmed Essa, Egypt

That's precisely the point! Jesus Christ and the Christian faith are insulted every day in the Western media. Bloggers refer to the Bible as a collection of fairy stories; the BBC shows the blasphemous production of Richard Dawkins is commissioned to produce a two-part documentary on why the idea of God is total bunkum. And despite it being against what I believe, I defend their right to say it without question. Because I don't have to watch, I don't have to listen, and I can criticise them here or anywhere else I can find a vehicle for my thoughts. As strange as it sounds, blasphemy is a civil right.

There is one excellent way we can show our solidarity with the Danes, and help defeat those who want to attack Western rights to freedom of speech. That is to negate the effects of the Arab boycott of Danish companies by buying Danish produce whenever we can. Bacon, Lurpak, Carlsberg, even Lego - whatever. It's vital we make a stand and show that the West won't be cowed when people attack our liberties.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Ming the Totally Bored?

I was reliably informed today that Sir Menzies Campbell has failed to turn up for several of the Lib Dem leadership hustings currently taking place across the country. Surely this should show him to be totally unsuited for the party leadership?

His excuse has been that he's been busy campaigning for the by-election in Dunfermline. That's all well and good, but it hardly augurs well for his likely activity should he be elected leader. There'll be a number of situations where by-election campaigning may seem a pressing priority in one regard, but national politics demands that the leader of the third party should be responding to events in London.

One of the vital aspects of a good leader is that on contentious issues, you put your own opinion forward to guide the party in your direction. Sending out minions to do the groundwork can only take you so far. In something as important as deciding on a new leader at a time of severe difficulty for the party, it's vital people know what the prospective leader thinks, not what his mates say on his behalf. An unwillingness to be challenged is not a desirable quality.

SportBlog Roundup, #7

Belated greetings to this, the seventh edition of the SportBlog Roundup. It may be slightly late, but it's your usual fun-packed compendium of all the best sports blogging of the past fortnight. Looking back at the Australian Open, Duncan Ferguson and the England manager speculation, and looking forward to the Super Bowl and the start of the Six Nations, there's an awful lot to be packed in. But just before we begin, another plea for submissions: send them to sportblog at googlemail dot com

First up this week is The Filter, with this piece on Duncan Ferguson and his uncanny ability to get sent off for violent conduct. Yet apparently he isn't a dirty player. I must say, I'm not convinced.

Next is the Sports Prof, with a lament about the passing of old stadiums. In particular, he wonders whether the buildling of state-of-the-art ballparks will mean that young people today lose their sense of the game's history. Stadiums come and go, but the experiences we had at them remain forever. And that's probably the way it should be. Well worth a read.

The Sports Law Blog has an interesting tale of how the MLB (baseball) authorities tried to help ease the suffering of US hostages in Iran once they returned home.

The roundup couldn't have gone without mentioning Marcos Baghdatis, the Cypriot who came from nowhere to reach the final of the Australian Open and ran Federer close for a while. Here's a story from Odd Jack when he reached the semi-final. Citizen on Mars, meanwhile, waxes lyrical about Roger Federer's sheer ability.

Joe Tasca wishes that referees in the NHL were given a little more discretion.

It would have been impossible to let this roundup pass without a tranche of posts about the Super Bowl, possibly the biggest sporting event in the world. Ty Hildenbrandt wonders where all the tickets are going. MooreSports gives his rundown of his favourite Super Bowl moments. And for those of you who eat too much come Super Bowl Sunday (he says, looking in the mirror), the Healthy Recipe Doctor has some tips. Personally, I think she's on a losing cause, given February 1st is apparently the biggest day for chocolate sales every year.

But enough about the atmosphere, I hear you say. What about the game? Here's the first and second parts of 12 Seahawk Street's fairly detailed preview (the rest of his blogging this week is well worth a look too). The Crushed Optimists have another look from a Seahawk point of view. And one more preview, from the Sports Page, here. Finally, Ryan Wilson wonders just what Pittsburgh might do when the season is finally done.

Chicago Addick tries to have an objective look at the candidates for next England manager, but spoils it all at the end by picking the Charlton manager. How predictable. (Only joking, take a look). 45 Minutes Each Way fears that England will follow their recent habit of choosing each successive manager as a reaction to the last. Mark S at World Cup Today is throwing his weight behind Sam Allardyce. Good choice, as long as it's protection for a fight.

The State of Play fears for Wales, both in the upcoming Six Nations, and in the long term, whilst club rugby retains its current organisation. Speak Performance, meanwhile, is unimpressed that Lawrence Dallaglio has made it back into the England squad.

That's about it for this fortnight, but all submissions are gratefully accepted, and I'll be back with more in a little under two weeks.