Saturday, April 29, 2006

A Letter to the Press

Dear Tabloids (and others),

Congratulations. Congratulations for ruining the hard work of the FA, scuppering their interview process, and getting the leading candidate for the England manager to pull out of the running for the job.

When tournament time springs around, you are always keen to bill yourself as the "official" paper of the England team, or the "No 1 newspaper for all your World Cup news needs". It would be nice if for once you stopped just trying to talk a good game, and showed your support for the England team in your actions as well as your words.

How would you feel if your house was consistently surrounded by photographers and reporters hounding you for comments on your job? How would you feel if people started poking around in your private life to try and find some salacious gossip, totally unrelated to your job, to spread to as wide an audience as possible?

Does it matter whether Ashley Cole is gay? No, it's none of your business. Does it matter whether Wayne Rooney has run up massive gambling debts, or where Coleen does her shopping? Maybe to their bank managers, but it's no interest of the press whatsoever. And it certainly can't help England's World Cup chances, to test players mentally for no other reason than it helps you to sell a few newspapers.

And now you have shooed away the FA's chosen candidate for manager in your desperate thirst for the lowest common denominator.

For people who claim to support the England team in their quest for glory, you sure have a funny way of showing it.

Friday, April 28, 2006

British Icons

There's been a further 21 additions to the pointless waste of time that is the Department of Culture's "English Icons" series. If the things chosen are quite so symbolic, they don't need official recognition, or a separate project identifying them. Nor should they have to go through an extensive nomination and selection process.

Of course, just about all the items added to the list today - including the flag of St George, the Lindisfarne Gospels, cricket, and the British pub - are in some way, shape or form, quintessentially English. Those that aren't, by which I mean the Notting Hill Carnival and Brick Lane, certainly merit some inclusion. (For those who wonder why I say they aren't quintessentially English, it is because I instantly think of other cultures - Commonwealth cultures - when I think of them. But they are certainly part of England's heritage, and in time will, I hope, become English heritage).

What I wonder, though, is what purpose this project produces other than to spill lots of ink and to waste lots of pixels commenting on what should and shouldn't be included in such a project. Isn't one of the wonders of England that trying to identify a stereotypical culture for it is darn near impossible? That cricket on the village green, overseen by regulars at the Red Lion flying the flag of St George is as much English as those quaffing port in subfusc in an Oxford quad, or having a cup of tea at a bridge drive? That the working mens club sits side by side along Buckingham Palace as representative of England and its heritage? To that end, trying to quanitfy 100 icons is counterproductive.

In Alan Bennett's play, The Old Country, he deals with themes of exile, but most pertinently with the themes of change in the old country, England. The two traitors living in the Soviet Union are both recognisably English, but are from very different Englands, and the play explores their feelings about exile - most comically when Hilary, the former civil servant, expresses the desire to appear on Desert Island Discs.

Towards the end of the play, the comment is made that "England isn't a noun, it's a tense". This struck me as a far better way of summing up the nature of Englishness than any number of icons. Englishness is a state of mind, it's about restraint and decency. It's about laughing at little jokes that aren't funny, the maintenance of friendships because being rude just isn't the done thing. It's the people that make England what it is; the pub, the cricket team and the artwork is just an expression of what we are and who we are. If, as a people, we are just a collection of icons, then we've lost our soul. And that's not very English at all, is it?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Prove Your Mettle

A strange thing happened in the Conservative leadership election. Normally I would be in favour of the modernising candidate; the candidate prepared to take on the nasty shibboleths of the extreme wings of the party and to revamp the image of the party. Yet I didn't, and still haven't, warmed to David Cameron. There is something about him that seems too slick, too convenient, too unprincipled for me to want to back him to be leader of my country. So the really strange thing happened: I found myself warming considerably towards David Davis.

Davis seemed to conduct a campaign that was based far more on policy, on substance, than Cameron, who was and is primarily concerned with image. I hope that will change in the future. Davis's mantra, "people want to know what we mean. Not what we stand for, but what we mean" is something that I wish was shared by more politicians.

There is one key task for an opposition frontbencher, though, and that is to stick the knife in and twist it when something happens to the Minister in your portfolio. Throughout their time in opposition, the Tories have been resolutely useless at this task. Instead, Blair has, more or less, been able to shuffle his disgraced Ministers off quietly, once the story had passed over. Theresa May's abject handling of the Jo Moore "burying bad news" story, for example, failed to get rid of Stephen Byers. Despite the fact that this was as close to an open goal as anyone ever gets given in politics. Failure after failure, and yet the Tories have seemed like rabbits in the headlights when given the chance to finish a Minister off.

David Davis has had a better record than most on this count, of course, successfully demanding the resignation of Beverley Hughes, and keeping up pressure on David Blunkett until the Budd inquiry forced him out. If Hughes's case, involving the failure to track an immigration scam, was a prima facie case for resignation, though, the news about Charles Clarke failing to ensure the deportation of foreign convicted criminals (including murderers and rapists) must be an even more certain case for resignation.

Clarke, of course, is a far tougher cookie than Hughes. As much as I despise the anti-civil liberties agenda that Clarke has devised, every time I see him in the House I'm impressed by his performance. Disturbed by his content, yes, morally opposed to what he says, certainly. But if you were looking for a politician to sell ID Cards, then it would be Charles Clarke. And if he is prepared to face down the vocal and widespread criticism of that scheme, he will have the spirit for a fight to protect his position.

Clarke's failure to control his department is something that will weaken his authority dramatically, of course. When stories like this one appear, as they surely will in droves, people will now find it hard to believe the usual refrain that "instances like this are rare, and we will monitor all developments to find out what went wrong". It will contribute to an image that Labour is not in control of crime, especially violent crime, and that will be something that is damaging to a government whose most memorable soundbites refer to law and order.

The Tories, now, however, are up against the determination of Blair and Clarke, two of the most formidable men in British politics. Now, more than ever, is a test of their mettle and their political skill. This is a gilt-edged opportunity to seriously damage Labour. If Clarke goes, then their anti-terrorism agenda will be seriously damaged - there isn't another figure who could handle that so adeptly. The reason why Blair has not sacked Clarke is nothing to do with this specific case, it is all about the broader reform agenda.

Removing Clarke, therefore, has to be a priority. Now is the time for the Tories to prove that they are a government-in-waiting. Lord knows, there's enough that's going wrong with this country at the moment. The NHS is in a state of chaos; our civil liberties are being whittled away; education shows precious little sign of improvement despite the millions that have been lavished on it. If the Tories get rid of Clarke now, they get rid of someone upon whom Blair has pinned his hopes of securing a legacy. The resolve of Labour's backbenchers will likely be strengthened, too, which would give the benefit of Brown taking over as the champion of the old left, rather than part of an orderly succession.

David Davis, your moment in the limelight has arrived.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Change In Increments

The way seems to be being prepared for a relaxation of Vatican edicts relating to the use of condoms, in what must be a huge shock for all those who considered Pope Benedict XVI to be a hopelessly wrong hard-liner.

"In his interview with the newspaper, Cardinal Barragan said: "Soon the Vatican will issue a document about the use of condoms by persons who have grave diseases, starting with Aids."
He said his department was studying the document, along with the scientists and theologians who wrote it. "

I hope that this is true. It is, of course, undeniable that the best means of preventing the spread of Aids is abstinence, and for sexual intercourse only to take place within a marriage. But there comes a point at which insisting on one policy only is playing ostrich. Sticking your head in the sand and ignoring usual practices is not a sound means of using the authority that the Catholic Church unquestionably possesses.

My suspicion is that this will be the first step in a near-total reversal of policy. Why? Because change of so fundamental a principle can only come in increments. For there to be a complete volte-face on a matter that the Church has doggedly stuck to in spite of heavy criticism would be seen as an unacceptable capitulation.

The broader questions this raises, of course, and to me the most interesting, are those of morality. Is it moral to proclaim one line that, because misused, leads to a perpetuation of suffering? Does the reluctance of the Catholic Church to make contraception available mean that the transmission of Aids has been faster than it otherwise would?

Morality should never operate in a vacuum. Life is the most precious gift that we are given; that means we have to work within the world, not outside of it. Thus, to be truly moral may mean sacrificing certain principles in order to do the greater good of preserving life and alleviating suffering. I am pleased that the signals seem to be that the Catholic Church is moving that way.

Oliver's Army

It's a good job that I had no aspirations to join the Chinese army...

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Racist on Two Counts

From the Sunday Telegraph:

Police forces should be allowed to fast-track job applicants from ethnic minorities, despite the practice being against the law, a leading officer has claimed.

Tim Worstall has his own take on why this is an incredibly dangerous statement (and one I am inclined to agree with).

My take on it is that it displays racism on two levels. Firstly, that it accepts the principle of discrimination on the basis of race, disadvantaging white people solely because of the colour of their skin.

More perniciously, however, isn't this also racist towards ethnic minorities? Are those from ethnic minorities really that much weaker that they need to be promoted on the basis of race, rather than on their own merits? Is the only way they can get into our police force by throwing out other applications based on subjective criteria? I don't believe that such a patronising attitude is positive at all. And if we want the laws upheld properly in our country, we need to have the best people in the job. Regardless of the colour of their skin.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Playing Away From Home

I'm trying a new blogging venture; The Touchline Bawler. Don't fear, my regular diet of ranting and opinion will still appear here on a frequent basis. But one aspect of blogging that I enjoy a lot, and yet seems to get little coverage, is that of sportsblogging. The Touchline Bawler Presents... was the title of a column I used to write on a Wakefield RFC fan site a few years ago, and now seemed a good time to take that persona back off the shelf, dust it down, and bring it back better than ever.

Cross-postings will most likely occur, but I will be running a series of regular features over on the Touchline Bawler that I hope you think worthy of your attention. The first is my Diary of a Club Cricketer, where I bemoan the vagaries of the English weather. In the next week, too, expect the first of my World Cup previews, which I intend to do on a group-by-group basis.

Please take a look!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

More Dave the Chameleon

It seems as if Labour's attempt at an attack advert is going to backfire badly. Almost everyone I've spoken to about the Dave the Chameleon advert finds the idea hilarious, but then comes out of it thinking much more highly of David Cameron. According to Iain Dale's blog, this has happened because Labour was trying hard not to make the attack appear too nasty. I hope that's true.

Part of the reason that we don't have an intelligent political debate in this country at the moment is because personality has become a substitute for policy. It's got to the stage where despite the fact that Blair and Brown are wasting money hand over fist in our public services, the Tories have completely failed to capitalise, because they are too busy constructing narratives for their leading figures. This isn't to say any party deserves absolving from the blame.

The Labour Party have perhaps been the most vicious in their attacks over the last ten years, with their denunciations of Hague having nothing to do with policy and everything to do with personality; their treatment of Howard and Letwin at the last election following suit. But the Liberal Democrats have fudged policy for years because Ashdown and Kennedy were popular, relaxed figures, and the Tories' attempts at attacks have been emphasising the shiftiness of Blair more than the manifest failings of Labour policy.

There is a genuinely important debate to be had on many, many issues. The threat of global terrorism is changing the terms of foreign policy debate - more than that, it is changing the shape of how dividing lines are drawn. Labour's insistence on pouring money into public services as a panacea is coming under more and more strain, especially with NHS cutbacks being highly publicised, and yet there is little constructive debate on the direction in which public service policy should go, and what nature reform should take. And that in itself raises many questions about the running of the economy - but there is precious little debate to be found there either.

I hope that every single attempt at character assassination from here on fails. The only way to combat cynicism about the political process is to reintroduce policy; the only reason that it is so easy for our civil liberties to be washed away is because posturing as "tough" is considering preferable to making a case for change. It stinks, and it's about time it changed.

Is This Justice?

I'm not normally a member of the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade. To my mind, prison should be used as a punishment of the last resort; efforts at rehabilitation, and punishments such as heavier community service orders are a sounder investment in the future. Well, that's what I like to think on my more positive days, at any rate.

I couldn't believe this story that I read today.

Kevin Hazelwood, 40, of Oriental Place, Brighton, Sussex, was told by Lewes Crown Court that he must serve a minimum of five years and seven months.

Last month he admitted six rapes, two attempted rapes, three sexual assaults and two indecent assaults.

He was on a sex offenders' treatment programme at the time of the attacks.

That's less than one year per rape, never mind the persistent attempts for other rapes on top of that. And this is how we punish someone who has been given the chance of rehabilitation, too! What penalties for a first-time offender with one rape?

If the principle of offering a second chance has any grounding in policy, it must be the carrot that is twinned with the stick. Offenders shouldn't expect the state to throw money at them time and time again - that's just throwing good money after bad. If they're given the chance to get their lives back on track, and there are many compelling reasons why they should be (after all, unless we make everything punishable by life imprisonment, they have to be let back out at some point, and I think it is immoral to use prison simply as a holding house for people to offend again), then it must be emphasised that there are penalties for more lenient treatment the first time.

Giving derisory sentences like that to repeat offenders makes a mockery of the justice system.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

SportBlog Roundup Revived, #3

Hello, and welcome once more to the SportBlog Roundup, which modestly attempts to get the best bits of blogging from around the world collated here in one manageable lump. The principle remains the same - you watch the sport at the weekend, write about it early in the week and let me know about it so I can include it here on a Tuesday.

All submissions are gratefully accepted, so please let me know about your work! sportblog at googlemail dot com remains the address.

First up this week is Stumbling and Mumbling. I'm a big fan of this blog, because Chris Dillow takes the time to find a new and interesting angle on what is currently in the news. He makes the cut this week for explaining just why conventional wisdom is not the best way of choosing the next England manager.

One thing that compiling this roundup has taught me is that blogging isn't just about the written word, and a great inventive use of video proves the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. This recreation of a classic World Series match using the RBI Baseball video game is a real gem.

In anticipation of the summer's World Cup, Sportolysis is conducting an interview with someone from every single participating country. Looks like a series well worth following; here is the edition on Iran.

Jenny Thompson is guestblogging at the Corridor of Uncertainty about her cricketing travels in India. As I look out of the window to be greeted with grey skies, I can't help but feel very jealous!

Eric McErlain at Off Wing Opinion has a statistical prediction of the NHL playoffs. He doesn't let his obvious enthusiasm get in the way of strong analysis.

Gaurav Sabnis at Vantage Point has the best description of Jason Gillespie's batting I have come across. Can't deny Gillespie his moment in the sun, but really, for him to be scoring 201 in a Test shows how including Bangladesh in official statistics devalues them heavily.

Complete Sports has an analysis of the quest to become NBA MVP, complete with rankings and some solid judgement.

JayWalk laments the virtual certainty of Chelsea winning the Premiership, but points out that Manchester United fans were a bit greedy if they expected to win 14 straight games to take the title.

Nigel Blues has a great report on Cardiff City's Good Friday clash with Sheffield United. Maybe not the most glamorous of matches, but underlines how commitment to a cause can translate itself into compelling blogging.

I'm not normally a fan of liveblogging, but Chris Young at JABS does a very good job of it in this piece. In particular he gets across the real fun that a sports addict living in the US or Canada can have by channel-surfing.

Still over the Atlantic, New Mexiken has a great joke about Barry Bonds.

Donutball writes from the perspective of a Spurs fan preparing for heartache.

The Realest talks about the biggest freaks in NFL Draft History.

Uncle Monty eloquently denounces idiocy in goal celebration.

Scrumbag has a good old chortle at the expense of poor old Matt Dawson.

With the start of the domestic cricket season underway, and club cricket around the corner, expect a fair bit of cricket blogging over the coming months. Assuming my performances are remotely worth relating, of course. To celebrate, a couple of cricket-related posts. First, some New Year resolutions of GH Hardy.

And finally, news of the most expensive cricket ball ever created. All I can ask is this - how long will it take before it starts to reverse swing?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Don't You Just Love Positive Politics?

It's always easy to tell when a governing party is in serious trouble. Far from concentrating on its own successes in government, it has to point at its leading opponents and scream, in mock horror, "Oooh! Aren't they just horrid?"

That's the latest Labour tactic to deal with David Cameron. Despite the fact that many psephologists believe that the results may not be the good news that the Tories so desperately crave (mainstream thinking here seems to think otherwise, though), Labour are tremendously fearful of exposing the fault lines that are running through their party right now.

To me, that is what makes their Dave the Chameleon advert so wonderful. So many of the accusations they throw at Cameron could so easily be directed towards Blair, particularly if you consider the Tony Blair taking the reins in 1994. He said that he stood for a Third Way, distinct from the doctrinaire socialism of the past, in much the same way that Cameron is launching a rebranding exercise right now. And when he is suggesting that Dave will say what the public wants to hear, to hide his true beliefs, how can we help but think of the former Marxists who ended up as Blair's cronies?

Of course, I think this belies the real fear of Number 10 as things stand. The most vocal critics of Blairism at the moment are the socialist Labour backbenchers. And goodness knows how quickly the Labour party's stock would fall if they ever found themselves in the party ascendency. So, the only way to avoid the party from splitting apart is to go on a good old round of Tory-bashing. (Do I detect the hand of Gordon Brown behind such a campaign?)

Now, I have to say, I'm not the greatest fan of David Cameron. Just about every statement he's made is totally devoid of specifics, but the general commitments he has made suggest that he doesn't understand the scale of reform that needs to be made to our public services for them to become effective. It still rankles with me that almost ten years into Blair's government, there still hasn't been an effective articulation made of the point that more money means more chances to be profligate, and not better service. That said, having seen the Dave the Chameleon advert, I hope he has a resounding success in the council elections. If we are to combat the negative image of politics, then it is vital that positivity and constructive debate is rewarded, rather than which party shouts the loudest and has the coolest computer graphics.

Of course, therein could lie the genius of the advert. As with Blair in 1994, there is deep unease at the direction that he seems to be taking the party (I hope, but am not certain, that it is a short-term ploy designed to change the perception of the Tories) - although he doesn't have a Clause 4 moment waiting in the wings. At the same time, given the smallness of council wards, it is turnout that is all-important in securing seats. And demoralised Labour activists beaten down by Blairism are surely less inclined to pound the streets to prop up their enemy?

So Tory-bashing in the campaign will rally the troops. More subtly, however, the message of the Dave the Chameleon advert is that Cameron is attempting to shift the Tories, in a way that their activists won't like. True blues don't like those in their brightest yellow! So the pressure that is put on Cameron is to get his own side to see the advert, and ask "if he is a Tory, like he says, what bones is he going to throw us?" That may be a more difficult question for Dave to answer than a crass mudslinging cartoon.

SportBlog Delayed

For those of you coming here to witness this week's SportBlog roundup, apologies. Things have run away from me today and I won't have time to trawl the blogosphere until later. Should be up tomorrow, however.

Monday, April 17, 2006

He Is Risen Indeed

My father tells a story of his English lessons from his schooldays. A master asked a pupil to read a passage of Shakespeare, only to be met with a dull monotone. "Put some life into it, Peterkin!", he cried - but to no avail. The pupil was as uninspiring as ever. Eventually, at the end of his tether, the master pushed all the books of his desk on to the poor unsuspecting child below. Had I been in sufficient proximity to a stack of hymn books, that is what I may well have done yesterday at Westminster Abbey.

Easter Sunday is the day that life is put back into the Church. Despite it being arguably the most joyful occasion in the Church's calendar, however, and despite the fact that the Anglican Communion is an "Easter People" (as the sermon yesterday was so keen to point out), the best word I can think of to describe yesterday's sermon was, well, glum.

Glum, despite the fact that the resurrection of Christ is the story of the triumph of life over death. More to the point, it was glum, although there were up to 1,000 people at the service, many of them who must have been tourists, or people who rarely attended church. If ever there was a time that an uplifting, inspiring sermon was ever needed, then that was it. The church is really missing a trick when it gets services like that wrong.

Of course, Friday had seen something far more interesting - the "Manchester Passion", with the Easter story retold with the help of modern music. As can be expected with something like that, it met with some fairly sniffy comments in the newspapers. One letter that I recall bemoaned the fact that a service using modern music was the only Good Friday-specific programming shown by the BBC. I don't know if this is true or not, but what I do know is that the square in Manchester where it was performed was absolutely crammed full with people, and it didn't seem to be your ordinary religious audience, either.

Trying something different, like the Manchester Passion, seemed to bring out interested people in their droves. Moreover, it was performed very well, and almost certainly brought the message of Easter to a wider audience. The message of Easter isn't something to be proclaimed narrowly - it is a story of redemption for the whole of mankind. And in the light of repeatedly diminishing church attendace, those who want to spread the Gospel need to find new ways of getting the message out. If you gave me the choice of seeing the Manchester Passion, or listening to that sermon at Westminster Abbey again, I know what my choice would be. Only one of them has a hope of putting some life back into the church.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Snooker Rebellion

According to the BBC, the world's leading snooker players are up in arms about sponsorship restrictions in place for the forthcoming World Championships. Since the end of tobacco sponsorship in Britain, the online poker casinos have filled the breach. Seems rather like fighting vice with vice to me, but then again vice is the prerogative of the individual.

In any case, are sponsoring most major snooker tournaments now, which prevents players sponsored by other gambling companies from displaying their logos during said tournaments. So not only has revenue decreased by limiting the potential pool of sponsors, but personal income is declining quite severely, too. Snooker is not the only sport that has been affected by such gambling restrictions. The ICC, and more recently the West Indies Cricket Board, have almost been torn apart by team sponsors demanding individual players give up agreements with rival companies.

It is my opinion that the organising bodies are dead wrong on this front. They shouldn't have sufficient power to restrict their players' earnings. That is the right of the players. Admittedly, the snooker dispute is not as serious as the West Indies' cricket dispute, because outside of the major championships the snooker players are free to be sponsored by who they wish. Nevertheless, it massively reduces the earning power of the players, and is bound to cause resentment.

Worst of all, it threatens the sorts of splits that can ruin a sport. Formula 1 seems to have perpetual crises with threats to form rival series. Darts is already split, so you have the anomaly of watching Sky and the BBC promote different "World Championships". If snooker tries to control the earnings of its players so closely, it risks a rival World Championship being created. And as Ronnie O'Sullivan, Stephen Hendry and Ken Doherty are rumoured to be among those most irritated, it is not as if such a tournament would lack credibility.

After all, the point of a world organisation for a sport is surely to look after the interests of its players? Blocking substantial income streams does not do that. Just as Matthew Engel criticises the ICC in this year's Wisden, so the World Snooker authority should be very wary of acting like an independent commercial body. The body would be nothing without its players - and if it continues to affect their earnings, nothing is very much what it might end up like.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

NUT By Name, Nuts By Nature

A teaching union's conference has, as usual, come up with some ideas that I hope are never taken seriously. This time, however, they are more pernicious than merely hair-brained. They call for a "skills-based curriculum" that would pretty much destroy the current syllabus as we know it. Out of the window would go history and geography, to be replaced with buzzword topics like "information management" and "learning and thinking skills" (what education, exactly, is not geared towards learning skills?).

The simple fact that they miss is that it is only a lack of imagination that prevents the development of an interdisciplinary approach in humanities subjects. History departments, for example, should work closely with English departments to make sure that students reading literature understand the historical value of learning contemporary thought. Reading Tom Brown's Schooldays, for example, will tell you a lot about Victorian society in a way that would be difficult to get across in a more direct manner.

Additionally, just about any subject that I can think of worth its salt incorporates a number of different skills that the proposed reform would place at the heart of the curriculum. Trying to divide a curriculum into different skill sets simply wouldn't work - academic study cannot be compartmentalised so easily, and the subtleties of each skill need to be drawn out in a 'traditional' subject by comparison with others.

I will write more in defence of the study of history in schools soon, but I think it is important that there is strong opposition to the proposed scheme. A school's overall teaching policy should be directed towards helping on each of these skills. But there is nothing in the existing structure of separate subjects that prevents an interdisciplinary approach, or the effective learning of any skills. And to try and suggest otherwise is nonsense. Teaching has to inspire kids - and trying to twist the curriculum to fit the current buzzwords of educational consultants is not the way to do it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

SportBlog Roundup Revived #2

Greetings everyone, and welcome to the sporting extravaganza that is the SportBlog Roundup, now in its new, improved weekly format. All the best bits of the blogs about the sports that you love from right across the world.

As ever, submissions should be sent to sportblog at googlemail dot com - all submissions gratefully accepted.

First up this week is Sports Filter's "slap to the top corner in overtime", with an excellent essay on the woes of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Dayorama has an excellent aside on the more sedate nature of golf commentary.

Sportszilla analyses the late-season surge of the New Jersey Nets (this list of recent sporting events is also worth sticking with).

Mike's Rants has an in-depth look at the statistical likelihood of hitting streaks in baseball. A bit heavy for the casual viewer, but it's an excellent example of the in-depth analysis blogs can provide.

Stumbling and Mumbling looks at the economics of Wayne Rooney's gambling, while, on the same subject, Get My Coat points out that the business of football can provide some amusing little moments.

Danny Boy, on the other hand, praises Rooney's temperament under pressure. I'm not so sure - I can see English hearts being broken through Rooney seeing red in Germany.

Eric Thomas has an excellent rant against the "sport" that is NASCAR, and has some comments on Brett Favre's impending retirement for good measure.

On the subject of Brett Favre, The Cancer Blog sympathetically analyses what might be going through his mind right now.

The Big Picture laments the lack of big sporting events coming up in the US calendar. I was going to suggest moving to England, but unless you enjoy watching Birmingham City play football (I'm a fan, and I don't), then there won't be much here either. Maybe the end of the rugby season - but it goes on so long now that it feels like a damp squib to me.

Talking of rugby, Tabula Rasa covers Sunday's Powergen Cup final. Gwyn has a small report of the event, but the post is most memorable for the anecdote at the end.

Mezba has a superb post on the links between sport and superstition - how inexplicable they can be!

Karl, blogging at Mike on Cricket (go figure), has an entertaining round-up of how the Australian media have reported the difficulty of their batsmen to figure out those tricky Bangladeshi bowlers.

Rachel from North London describes the ritual of going to place Grand National bets.

And finally, Scott at the Corridor of Uncertainty has his own take on Australia's cricketers - and figures the situation could be even worse if Bangladesh had practice in those situations.

That's all for this week - catch you next week, same time, same place. They think it's all over... it is now!

Monday, April 10, 2006

SportBlog Reminder

Any submissions for tomorrow's SportBlog roundup, email me soon please!

The usual address: sportblog at googlemail dot com

Wikipedia Birthday Meme

Three events, Two births, One death:

October 7th

Three events:

1777 - American Revolutionary War: Americans beat the British in the Battle of Second Saratoga and the Battle of Bemis Heights.

1928 - Ras Tafari Makonnen crowned negus of Abyssinia by Empress Zauditu.

2003 - California recall: California governor Gray Davis is recalled from office and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Two births:

1728 - Caesar Rodney, American lawyer and signer of the Declaration of Independence (d. 1784)

1952 - Vladimir Putin, President of Russia

One death (and one for luck):

1792 - George Mason, American patriot (b. 1725)

1967 - Norman Angell, British politician, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (b. 1872)

Sunday, April 09, 2006

30 years Ago... Young Liberal Cleared Of Robbery

Today is the 30th anniversary of a Young Liberal anti-apartheid activist being cleared of bank robbery, after a dubious prosecution was levelled against him. The case was based entirely on the evidence of three schoolboys and a cashier, who thought they recognised him as the man responsible. The man concerned later wrote about "The Putney Plot". He would do well, on the 30th anniversary, to reflect on one lesson that it flags up.

In public debate on terrorism, there is a massive tendency to conflate suspicion with guilt. The rights of suspects to a fair trial and due process are regularly decried as "more than they'd give us". While I don't think I've ever caught a Government minister saying taht explicitly, there is a climate of fear which seems to justify treating terrorist suspects as convicted criminals, simply because the nature of the crime they're accused of is so terrible. The government's policy of detention without trial is implicitly based on this assumption, and measures such as the withdrawal of trial-by-jury appear to mesh with it.

Peter Hain (for it is he) should know better.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Right Blend

Sport succeeds as it does because it has an intoxicating blend of the traditional and the modern. Each generation brings with it a new approach to the game, whether through tactics, skills, or preparation techniques. Yet at the same time, a game is recognisably similar - keeping the same forms, and, by and large, the same rules.

A vital ingredient in the mix is tradition. Support for local clubs reaches its fervour because in supporting a team, you buy into its corporate identity. When you are watching Manchester United, you aren't just watching a team of eleven players - you are watching a continuity from the days of Matt Busby, Denis Law and George Best.

Of course, this is coming under threat, with the advent of a widely used transfer system, or rampant free agency in US sports. Teams resemble less and less the team the year before; a wealthy owner can transform the fortunes of a club not through anything happening at the club itself, but instead through buying in players. The connections with the community and the past are increasingly blurry.

One event that gets tradition just right, however, is the Masters. Part of its charm is its unique nature. It is the only major that is invitation-only; played on the same course every year, the feeling of continuity is inescapable. The fact the field is all-invites, though, ensures its quality. Despite the fact the course has changed, despite the fact equipment has changed beyond all recognition, there's much more a feeling that you can judge the best golf players with other eras by their performance at the Masters than at any other event.

People talk about how tough a test Augusta is. The truth of the matter is, though, that the beauty of the Masters doesn't lie in the challenge that faces the top players as they battle with the course. The Masters isn't about how tough Augusta is, it's about how rewarding it is for the best players. Unlike the US Open, there is a clear and obvious reward for good play. If you play a hole well, there is every chance of a birdie. The corollary, of course, is that bad play is punished by bogeys. And that's what means the tournament is so exciting.

That sounds strange, when I've just lauded the tradition of the event. But my title, "The Right Blend", emphasises how important the here and now is. For all that Augusta seems to be a land time forgot - refusing any product adverts on its ground; restricting TV coverage; allowing only four minutes of commercials in any hour of programming - it is the modern competition that makes it so compelling. We see the same form that we saw right through the history of the Masters - but the same ingredients that made it compelling then continue to make it compelling now. When you get to the back nine on the final day, if you play well enough you have every chance of winning. It rewards good play - but by golly do you have to play well. If you want me tomorrow evening, you know where to find me!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Indian Woes

The England cricket team, despite their Test series heroics, have found one-day international cricket in India a different kettle of fish (or another pair of shoes, as the Germans would say). Today they were defeated for the fourth time in four matches, already surrendering the seven-match series.

I can't help but feel this add-on to the tour is counterproductive. The top players in the team have been either injured (Vaughan, Giles, Harmison), off the tour for personal reasons (Trescothick), or carrying a pretty heavy workload to compensate (Pietersen, and especially Flintoff). Most of the rest of the players simply aren't good enough for international cricket. Matt Prior is not a top-level player, Solanki barely is, and Ian Blackwell and Gareth Batty would be flattered if described as second-rate.

The team is a mixture of no-hopers and exhausted professionals, playing in sapping heat. The tour is not an exercise which will do any of the players any good. Indeed, the sole benefit is that it will make the BCCI, and probably the ECB, a fair amount of cash. But the effect on players, who need some rest before the Ashes tour this winter, will not be positive at all. The constant strain of permanent touring must be a drag on players, especially those with young families. And a pointless add-on to an enthralling Test series doesn't really do anyone any good.

The Sort of Headline That Riles Me

"Sleepy Village Awakes to Bird Flu"

There has, so far, been a grand total of one animal in the United Kingdom to have died from bird flu. Across the world, I am as yet unaware of human deaths from bird flu that have not been caused by people living in extreme close proximity to animals - that is to say, it has not yet developed into a human-to-human transmissible disease.

Yet the news coverage of the Scottish swan that died from H5N1, typified by the headline I quote above, makes it out to be a huge threat. There is, rightly, concern about Britain's preparedness for a pandemic. But that is not what is being brought up here - it is pure and simple fearmongering. Short of one swan, the village is pretty much unaffected by bird flu at the moment, and I suspect that its human inhabitants at least will be pretty safe.

Why the need to be so alarmist?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

SportBlog Roundup Revived

Hello, and welcome to the first edition of the revived Sportblog roundup. Same as ever, really, except this time I hope to make it weekly, and the links will be even better than they were before!

The idea is that most interesting sport takes place over the weekend, so you get the chance to write about it on Monday to catch my attention by Tuesday evening - and then I give you all the best bits here. All submissions gratefully received; just let me know by emailing me at sportblog at googlemail dot com

First up this week is The Filter, and some ruminations on England's World Cup squad and the revival of B internationals. I for one welcome their reinstitution, and thoroughly endorse the criticism of Sven for letting the England squad be run by senior players too much (although I think that was a trend that started earlier).

Next up is the reliably informative Eric McErlain, with his musings on the gradual loss of regional identity as regards sports franchises in New York. I can't help but feel that loss of communal feeling weakens the franchise.

One of the most amusing April Fools stories I've seen comes from Forward Press, with spoof news from Toronto, and the Maple Leafs' latest signing.

Chris Young at JABS brought together a number of top Toronto sports bloggers to discuss the upcoming Major League Baseball season, which produced a set of three excellent posts. Well worth a look, as the issues they discuss go well beyond the Blue Jays.

The other big event in American sports has been the NCAA College Basketball tournament, also known as 'March Madness', which ended last night.

20 Second Timeout attacks the hype that surrounds the tournament.

The story of the tournament was the surprising run by George Mason University, not renowned for its basketball history - not that it stopped them from reaching the Final Four. South of the James talks about the boost it has given to black alumni.

The university, of course, is named after a leading Anti-Federalist, and one of the three members of the Constitutional Convention who refused to sign the final document. The Volokh Conspiracy gives a bit more information about him.

Sportszilla has the best overall roundup of the tournament.

Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, talks about (failed) efforts to reduce artificial aids to atmosphere at his teams' matches.

Munster and Leicester fans at Scrumbag talk about their aspirations ahead of the Heineken Cup quarter finals in rugby union. The Munster item is particularly good.

Meanwhile, The Bacchanalia shows that the experience of a sports fan is so much more than can be expressed in mere numbers.

The Googly has an interesting post decrying the use of helmets in Test cricket, believing it is responsible for the number of blows to the head now seen.

Game Supreme has an excellent statistical view on the importance of Irfan Pathan to the Indian cricket team.

A few posts regarding diving in football - the current hot potato in England at the very least. Didier Drogba is coming under a lot of fire, not least from GZ Expat, who thinks football has this problem because it doesn't have the violent self-policing of other sports.

Doncaster Road End has some witty thoughts on the same subject.

Last, on the subject of Drogba, if not diving, is Slack Pie, who thinks that Drogba may have been intentionally hung out to dry by the Chelsea powers that be.

El Despiole attacks Michael Owen for his own contributions to the unfine art.

Not entirely a blog post, but this story is great - apparently one in every nine beers is drunk because of football.

Ants Rants has an acerbic look at the minor sports in the Commonwealth Games.

Davey Dave, meanwhile, lauds the Games for its general spirit, if not its top-class competition.

Finally, I couldn't leave this roundup without a few posts about Opening Day in the Baseball season.

Baseball Analysts has an irreverent and in-depth look at Opening Day from a statistical point of view.

News Center 11 is feeling optimistic.

Dcat Blog, meanwhile, expresses enthusiasm at travelling to Arlington to see the Red Sox and their season opener.

Last, but by no means least, is this from A Fistful of Euros - a repeat of the old International Herald Tribune poem lamenting being across the ocean for the first pitch of the season.

And that's all till next week.

At Last!

Some news that makes me more likely to vote for David Cameron...

The UK Independence Party is calling for David Cameron to apologise after he claimed its members were "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists mostly".

Monday, April 03, 2006

My Country, Tis of Thee...

Via Eric McErlain, news of some, err, "interesting" stories from Houston. This links in with Laban Tall's comments on other, very similar stories. Put simply, Hispanic immigrants to America are claiming Mexico's "Cinco de Mayo" festival as their own, and celebrating it in a highly exclusionary manner - to the extent of threatening people of different ethnicities.

I was reminded of this when I saw pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge protest against the Sensenbrenner Bill currently going through the US Congress, which proposes huge restrictions on immigration. The number of Mexican flags seemed to massively outnumber those of the Stars and Stripes.

I'm going to link this to Eric's original story, concerning the change of the name of the Houston Major League Soccer franchise. Originally, it was going to be called the Houston 1836 - referring to the founding of the city of Houston. Now, obviously the history of Texas isn't all motherhood and apple pie. But naming a team after a founding year has a good European soccer pedigree (see 1860 Munich, Schalke 04, Mainz 05 and so on and so forth), right down to inventing a history for the club by pushing the 'founding' year principle to its very limits. Moreover, living in a city, you would expect its founding to be somewhat significant. No matter what the history, you would think the inhabitants of a city could rally around that corporate concept.

Not so in Houston, apparently. The name was controversial from the start, and MLS were forced to back down and rename the team the Houston Dynamo - along with a press release celebrating the dual cultures of Houston (English and Spanish) and how well they formed as a unit. Just like a dynamo. How funny!

It's the two cultures thing that gets me. If there is one thing that America is based one, it is a shared political culture. I am not saying it is a culture that is without flashpoints or without tension. But the Stars and Stripes, the Declaration of Independence, and the US Constitution are powerful symbols, powerful documents, and based on powerful principles. Powerful enough, in the past at least, to have united a pretty disparate country - visiting Texas is different to visiting California which is different from visiting Pennsylvania. It takes some pretty strong glue to hold them together.

If that's breaking apart because of immigration, then that's a pretty worrying thing. I'm not necessarily casting blame on one side or the other here, either, because I don't doubt that some of the harshness of immigration laws prevents an effective integration. But deliberately claiming divisive symbols as your own does make matters harder on the other side, too.

Sports clubs are very interesting filters through which to observe these cultural shifts - as, even in America, where they operate as commercial franchises, they are the biggest congregation place for inhabitants. Fans express their own identity through their team. And if the community cannot rally behind a team name supposed to celebrate the founding of their city, then it suggests to me that something is badly wrong.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Favourite TV Teachers

Mike Baker, in his education column this week, asks about our favourite TV teachers. And in mentioning Goodbye Mr Chips and Clockwise, he mentions two of the great school-teacher performances in TV history. Mr Chips was particularly good, and ITV's attempt to revive it with Martin Clunes was worthy, but brought across none of the feelings of warmth that you genuinely felt in the original.

He fails to mention, however, what to my mind is the best school-based drama that has been made, which is "To Serve Them All My Days". John Duttine (now the sergeant in Heartbeat!) is, quite simply, superlative as Powlett-Jones, a Welsh socialist fitting into the English public school establishment. The portrayal of the change that the institution makes on him, and the change he makes to the institution, is a joy to watch. It's a shame it doesn't get more credit.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

SportBlog Roundup

Apologies for those of you who come to Militant Moderate expecting the SportBlog roundup. I just didn't have time over the last couple of months to keep it up. I enjoyed doing it though, and I'm hoping to revive it, starting this Tuesday.

So, if any of you have links for it, then please let me know:

sportblog at googlemail dot com

Welcome To Our Country

In his book "Strange Places, Questionable People", John Simpson records a conversation he had while filming in Iran. Having watched a man on a soapbox deliver a speech full of venom directed at Margaret Thatcher, with the exhortation of "death to Inglestan", Simpson approached the speaker - despite advice to the contrary from his camera crew. "Good afternoon, sir", said Simpson, "I am visiting from Inglestan". "Good afternoon! Welcome, I hope you enjoy your visit to our country".

I can't help but think of this story when I read about Condoleezza Rice's visit to Blackburn being met by a continuous stream of protests. Rice has handled them very well - after all, protest is a right of the free citizen. But I do wonder what sort of message it sends out about British hospitality.

I know that people like Justin McKeating and Tim Ireland are able to separate their hatred of the Bush administration from their considerations on the American people. But there is a lot of anti-American feeling that may focus on Bush, but in reality is based upon jealousy, envy, and a total disdain for America. Take the stereotype of the American redneck. Or the people who mutter under their breath "typical bloody American" when a tourist in a restaurant starts protesting loudly about the quality of service.

On an international level, it manifests itself in the sorts of attitudes you see regarding America's failure to sign up to the International Criminal Court. When trouble started in the Balkans, European governments believed the US should come and commit their resources and help try and obtain a semblance of stability. They then want the actions of the US to be held up to their own standards. In short, they want to use US troops for their own ends, and complain when the US want to pursue their own goals.

The thing I find strangest about protesting the visits of Bush administration officials to Britain is that the normal criticism of American foreign policy is that it is unilateral and doesn't pay enough attention to the wider world. Yet as soon as George Bush or Condoleezza Rice set foot on our soil, we get idiots saying "we shouldn't allow him/her here". So much for British hospitality.