Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Instagram lies

You may have read recently about Essena O'Neill, the teenage blogger and Instagram star from Australia who is 'quitting social media' because it is 'fake' and 'staged' – and it therefore isn't making her happy any more.  I don't want to pour scorn on someone else's life choices – if she isn't happy, of course she should make a change, and do what feels right for her.  But I struggle to understand why this is being held up as so laudable, and so (in O'Neill's own words, from her new website) 'game-changing'.

One of many (now deleted) Essena O'Neill Instagram 'selfies'.

I know that a lot of people see social media as some sort of hall of mirrors, distorting the truth of what is really there.  Social media is shallow; it's vacuous; it's illusory; it's fake.  On Essena O'Neill's new 'Let's Be Game Changers' website she says:

I found myself drowning in the illusion. Social media isn't real. It's purely contrived mages and edited clips ranked against each other. It's a system based on social approval, likes and dislikes, validation in views, success in followers... it's perfectly orchestrated judgement. And it consumed me.

It's a view of social media – and the Instagram photo sharing platform in particular – which a lot of people share.  Instagram allows people to showcase carefully curated snippets of their day – cleaned up, edited and polished to perfection – to a potentially vast audience, presenting an unrealistically buffed and manicured image of 'the perfect life', which hides or glosses over any stress or untidiness or other imperfections.

The most popular Instagram accounts present picture after picture of gorgeous home décor, delicious healthy food (brunches with avocados and salads, in particular), impeccably-decorated low-fat skinny lattes, travel to exotic places with glorious views and breathtaking sunsets, and beautiful slender people whose smiles radiate the happiness of people who live perfect, hassle-free lives.  In short, they are lies.

A photo posted by Adam Gallagher (@iamgalla) on

Those 'perfect' Instagram users have 'bad hair days' sometimes.  They stuff themselves with greasy comfort food instead of beautifully-presented quinoa salads on pure white plates.  They leave the washing up dirty, and the work-surfaces in their light, spacious, modern kitchens messy.  And their gorgeous 'selfies' took fifty attempts to get right, and were edited in six different apps before being posted.  It's just that you don't see any of that, because they don't choose to show it to you – they only show you the good stuff.

A photo posted by Emilie Ristevski (@helloemilie) on

This is the 'dishonesty' of social media.  Or, to put it another way, this is photography.

My view is that Instagram has always been a photography app first and foremost.  And unless you're making a documentary in a war zone, or something, photography isn't about depicting the absolute truth, warts-and-all.  It's about creating appealing images; beautiful images; striking images; shocking images; images which tell a story.  People look down their noses at an Instagram photo, and sneer 'oh, but it's been edited…'

Yes.  Editing is a part of photography.  Photographers have been processing and altering their shots after the fact since well before Instagram was conceived – before digital photography at all, even.  It's no coincidence that much of the terminology of industry standard photo editing software Adobe Photoshop (all that 'dodging', and 'burning', and so on) comes straight from the era of film photography and the darkroom processing techniques Photoshop's workflow attempts to recreate.  Even something as simple as a basic crop can alter a photo dramatically – removing unwanted objects from the image, and changing the composition of the photo in the process.  The crop has been a staple tool of photographers for decades – but if you've cropped something out of your Instagram shot, people will deride you for it.

“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” – Ansel Adams

Photography is a visual art.  What's wrong with simply wanting something to look aesthetically pleasing?  What's wrong with wanting something to look more aesthetically pleasing than it did in real life?  If you can improve on something, why wouldn't you?  The colours that Vincent Van Gogh saw with his eyes were not as vivid as many of the scenes he painted – but how many people would honestly choose a dreary 'true to life' version to hang on their wall over the striking and colourful Van Gogh interpretation?

A Wheat Field, With Cypresses (1889) – Vincent Van Gogh

Post-processing in photography long predates Instagram, and is an essential part of creating photographic art.  Photography forums are full of people smugly posting pictures that are 'SOOC' ('straight out of camera' – ie. with no editing), who succeed in proving only that they neither understand cameras (especially modern digital cameras) nor art itself.  If you're into photography, and you've just looked through the viewfinder and pressed the shutter release, and then left it at that, you've only done half the job.

A photo posted by Andrea Brown | Vegan (@eatwithandy) on

But someone's Instagram account is documenting their life!  It's not an art gallery.  It's supposed to be a window into someone's world – isn't it rather deceitful if the world you see is totally fake?

Well no, not really.  No one ever lets you see all their flaws.  After all, why should they?  People have the right to choose how they want to be seen by others – to have control over the image of themselves they present to the rest of the world.  We all do it…  With the clothes we choose to wear; how we choose to have our hair; through the way we speak and the food we eat and the cars we drive.

I dress the way that I do, for example, because I want to.  But also because I am happy with what my clothes say about me as a person to a casual observer.  It all ties into me being comfortable with who I am.

Tattoos, facial hair, jewellery, make-up, technology, footwear, interior design, diet, culture, entertainment, leisure…  All these things are choices we make with at least half an eye on how that might affect the way other people will see us.  We all choose to present a certain 'version' of ourselves in public; we all want to have a certain amount of control over how we are perceived by other people.  That's only natural.

Choosing not to share some parts of your life doesn't make you a fraud.  Wanting people to see you in a positive light, and to think well of you, doesn't make you duplicitous or underhand.  It's not 'cheating' to try and present the best version of you that you can, or to have a particular aesthetic which you feel is very 'you'.  We all have a certain side of ourselves, or certain aspects of our lives, which we'd prefer not to share with everybody – that's not shameful, that's perfectly natural.

I respect Essena O'Neill's decision to change the way she uses social media.  I hope she feels better about herself now than she did.  But if other people want to continue posting carefully edited shots to their Instagram accounts – either because they are keen photographers trying to create a piece of art which speaks for itself rather than a stark and unaltered realist photograph simply documenting a moment in time, or because they want to present a particular image of themselves to the world – then we shouldn't be trying to make them feel bad for that choice either.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

#F1: Swingapore

What a difference!  Ferrari and Red Bull the dominant teams, Mercedes fighting behind the top four, before eventually retiring one car after Championship leader Lewis Hamilton lost power to end up 40mph slower through the speed trap.  Singapore certainly provided a change from what's been the norm in Formula 1 this season.

Hamilton's lead in the Championship is still assured, and I can't see anyone else taking the title this year.  It was definitely interesting to watch a race playing out without Hamilton fifteen seconds ahead of everyone else, though.  Sebastian Vettel proved he hasn't lost his touch when it comes to controlling a race from the front, as he led from Pole position to take a third win this year in his Ferrari.  His teammate Kimi Räikkönen, on the other hand, finished third but seemed unable to match Vettel or Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo for pace.

Räikkönen seems to turn the car in differently from Vettel at the entry to the corners.  It's hard to see exactly what's going on there without access to more slow replays of the two of them (I might look some up later and do some more analysis when I can compare them more thoroughly), but Vettel is able to squeeze a bit of extra grip in the turn where Räikkönen can't.  Ferrari's upgrades this weekend have helped them a lot, though, and as I remarked on Twitter their capture of technical director James Allison from Lotus is looking ever more inspired – and ever more of a loss for the Enstone-based team.

Speaking of Lotus, it was another weekend to forget, really.  They were not quick at this circuit, but Romain Grosjean managed to deliver a surprised top 10 Qualifying position.  He had a possibility of picking up some points, as well, running in the lower end of the top 10 most of the evening – but I think the team got his strategy wrong.  They were the first to stop for tyres at each Pitstop window, and I think this ended up costing them as his tyres were older than everyone else's in the last few laps of the race, leaving him unable to defend his position from two hungry young Toro Rosso drivers on considerably fresher (and softer) tyres.

It was the Toro Rosso pairing of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. who stole the show, and had everyone talking during the post-race analysis.  However, I was less than impressed on a couple of occasions.

Let's go back to the battle with Grosjean, for a minute.  Max Verstappen passed Grosjean to take eighth place, and did an excellent job of it (although there were a nervous few moments where I half expected a repeat of Monaco, where Verstappen misjudged his braking and run straight into the back of the Lotus driver!), but when it was Sainz' turn to line up Grosjean for an overtake, I felt the Lotus man was rather hard-done-by.  Sainz' overtaking move was brave, and well-executed – but the TV replays showed clearly that he had all four wheels off the circuit as he did it.  He should've had to give the place back.

What irked me even more was that Martin Brundle's commentary for Sky F1 seemed to say that this did not matter.  He claimed that it was a good move, and it would be wrong to penalise drivers for trying to make overtakes.  It's not wrong to penalise drivers for breaking the rules, though, and Sainz clearly did.  I wrote just last week about how important it is for rules to be applied fairly and consistentlyespecially the 'track limits' rule – and here is a commentator and big motor racing personality advocating that we waive punishment for a clear infringement of the rules just because it looked cool.  That is utter nonsense, and makes a mockery of the sport.

As I remarked on Twitter, this is akin to a footballer hitting a fantastic strike from thirty yards out, only to see his shot rebound off the goalpost – only for the referee to say he is awarding a goal anyway, because it was such a good strike.  Yes, Sainz was driving extremely well – but rules are rules, and no matter how nice a piece of driving his overtake on Grosjean was, it was an illegal move as defined by the 'track limits' rule, and that rule should've been upheld accordingly.  (Ironically, Grosjean himself was involved in something similar in Hungary a few years back, when he passed Felipe Massa with a brilliant piece of skill – and was then told he had to relinquish the position because he had gone fractionally outside the limits of the circuit in making his move stick.  As I have said time and again, inconsistent applications of rules ruins racing, and this was another case in point.)

Sainz' teammate Max Verstappen may have made a legal overtake on Grosjean, but his conduct towards his team was less than exemplary.  In the final laps, running eighth with Sainz behind him in ninth, Verstappen looked less and less likely to find a way past Sergio Peréz in front, and his team instructed him to switch with Sainz so the other driver could have a go at getting past the Force India and claiming seventh place for the team.  Verstappen refused.  In this instance, his team boss Franz Tost later said that Verstappen was right to ignore the orders, but I wonder what kind of precedent this sets within that team.

Verstappen's engineer asked him twice to swap places with Sainz.  When Verstappen remonstrated after the first request, the response from the pit wall was a curt "Max, just do it."  How did Verstappen know that this order wasn't for a more serious reason?  Contrast his petulance with Hamilton's professionalism in Monza; a few laps before the end of the race, when he seemed to be cruising to certain victory, Hamilton's race engineer instructed him to pick up the pace and pull out a further gap to Vettel in second place behind him.  "Don't ask questions, just do it – we'll explain all later" said Hamilton's engineer.  The Championship leader complied, without hesitation.  He could obviously tell that the team knew something he didn't (we later found out they had been made aware of an issue, and were anticipating a potential time Penalty which could have taken the win away from Hamilton unless he finished more than twenty seconds ahead of Vettel), and that the situation was urgent.  He responded in a calm, professional manner, doing what was asked of him and securing maximum points for himself and the team.

Verstappen, on the other hand, was supremely lucky.  As it turned out, nothing bad happened as a result of his insubordination (not in terms of the race result, anyway), but how was he to know at the time that there wasn't something more serious behind that request?  The endorsement of his actions by Franz Tost as well makes the situation worse, in my mind.  It has set a precedent at Toro Rosso for ignoring the team, if you think you know best, and just ploughing your own furrow.  Don't expect Sainz to do his team any favours in future Grand Prix after that.  Might that end up hurting their points tally, come the end of the season?  I wouldn't rule it out.

Ultimately, one of biggest deciding factors for those mid-to-lower grid teams was the timing of the Safety Car.  In my view, the Safety Car spent too much time on-track in Singapore today; we could quite easily have had a couple of laps fewer behind the Safety Car on both of the occasions it was called into action.  In the first incident (when Massa and Hulkenberg hit each other), the initial response from Race Control was a Virtual Safety Car.

Now, I like the idea of the Virtual Safety Car.  I see what they are trying to do here, and I think it is laudable.  You control the pace of the cars and allow marshals time to clear the track without bunching up the field too much and having all that nonsense of backmarkers unlapping themselves taking up time.  But it is fairly clear quite early on whether an incident is serious enough to warrant the use of the real Safety Car – especially on a street circuit – and if it is we need to see the Safety Car come out much sooner.  In this instance, we wasted several laps under Virtual Safety Car conditions before Race Control realised the shunt had been bigger than that and plumped for the real Safety Car anyway.

In the second Safety Car period, it was brought out straight away, in response to a bizarre situation of a member of the public casually sauntering along the track.  That was totally fair enough, of course – but long after he'd disappeared off the scene, we were still trundling around behind the Safety Car, as backmarkers unlapped themselves (or, in the case of Manor F1 debutant Alex Rossi, didn't quite), and the pack shuffled itself into order.

This ended up being the root cause of much of the late drama in the race (including the Toro Rosso brouhaha I have mentioned above, as well as a collision between Pastor Maldonado and Jenson Button), as the cars bunched up behind the Safety Car and were held up from restarting the race.  My opinion is the racing could've resumed a couple of laps sooner (at least), and the luck of simply being in the right place at the right time when the Safety Car is deployed (always a factor to some extent, of course, due to the nature of racing) would've had a less significant influence on the outcome of the race than it ended up having.

Next week, in Japan, it will be very interesting to see whether Mercedes return to their usual dominance of proceedings, or whether Ferrari's new upgrades will continue to shine.  My feeling is Mercedes will be back on top, but Ferrari will be closer to them in the past; Red Bull will fade away after being very competitive in Singapore (which is one of their favourite tracks); and we will see yet more inconsistent rules and Penalties unfairly influencing the racing action.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour pains

The leader of the Labour party is now a man who describes terrorists and religious fundamentalists as "friends", who wants to "compromise" with murderous fanatics, who shares a platform with antisemites and donates to their causes, who speculates on wild conspiracy theories, and whose new Shadow Chancellor wants to "honour" IRA bombers.  His supporters can shout as much as they like that these are "smears" – but it's hard to see things that way, when these are things the man himself has actually said or done.  Quoting somebody's own words is not "smearing" them, and these issues will not go away.  In spite of all of this, Labour party members and supporters voted for Jeremy Corbyn in droves.

But twenty-four hours into his tenure as Labour leader, it was quickly becoming clear that Corbyn's bungled Shadow Cabinet reshuffle; his absurd decision to "crowd-source" his lines for Prime Minister's Questions (as if Labour still haven't learnt that opening things up to the general public – especially on the internet – is just asking for the system to be abused); his description of journalists' questions as "people bothering him" (as if he expects just to be able to do whatever he likes without any scrutiny, like he did when he was a backbencher – it is the job of the press to hold politicians to account, not simper and genuflect to them as in places like North Korea); and so on were only the tip of the iceberg.  Jeremy Corbyn's position as Labour leader is surely completely untenable.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if senior figures within the party were already planning how to depose him.

His fans will shout and scream that he was "democratically elected" as leader, and that he "has a mandate" which needs to be respected.  They will call for "unity", and expect other Labour MPs to be "loyal" to their leader.  But this is all nonsense…

Jeremy Corbyn doesn't give a fig for democracy.  Not if it doesn't fit his predetermined agenda, anyway…  Corbynites on Twitter are incensed at the idea of Labour MPs not supporting their leader, and rebelling against his "principled" stance on a variety of issues – but this is exactly what Corbyn has been doing for over thirty years, during which time he has rebelled against his party's whip more than five hundred times.  It seemingly hasn't occurred to people that disagreeing with Corbyn can also be a "principled" position, and that Labour MPs not toeing the Corbyn line might not be rebelling just to cause trouble, but out of the same high-mindedness which led Corbyn himself to rebel against myriad former Labour leaders.  As Helen Lewis pointed out in the New Statesman back in July, Jeremy Corbyn does not have a monopoly on principled belief.

"But Corbyn was democratically elected!" they bleat.  Moderate Labour MPs have to respect that!  Since when has Corbyn respected the sovereign wishes of an electorate?  He certainly doesn't respect the views of the people of the Falklands Islands, who voted overwhelmingly to remain a part of United Kingdom in a 2013 referendum.  He doesn't respect the views of the people of Northern Ireland when he hobnobs with the IRA.

No, Jeremy Corbyn is only interested in democracy or party unity when it suits him.  I don't see how he can reasonably expect other Labour MPs to show any more loyalty than he would've shown if any of the other candidates had won the leadership contest – or expect people to respect the democratic wishes of his voters any more than he respects the democratic wishes of the voters in the Falklands, or in Northern Ireland.  He certainly can't expect to carry on doing whatever he pleases free from media scrutiny and without consequence.

And as a result, his time in charge of the Labour party will be characterised by dissent, attrition and rebellion – all of which fractious in-fighting will cause splits in the party, and distract Labour from being an effective opposition to the Conservative government.  So much for the wisdom of people who naïvely greeted Corbyn's election as leader with: "At least we'll have an opposition who actually 'oppose' now!" (or similar).  Well, at least Corbyn and his cronies know they can always blame someone else for their failure to hold the government to account.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

My guide to making #F1 great again

I love Formula 1.  I still watch every race (live, whenever I can – or recorded and following a painstaking effort not to find out anything about what happens beforehand if necessary) and I will continue to do so.  But I can't deny that, in some ways, it's not as thrilling as it used to be.

I am not going to go into a discussion here of which era of F1 was 'the best'; I have already written about how fruitless it is to compare actual statistics across different eras of the sport, so attempting to come to an objective conclusion as to when the sport was 'best' would result in little more than many hours of wasted prattle.

But so that we are clear, for me the 'best' time for F1 was in the late '90s and early-to-mid '00s.  "But Schumacher dominance!  But boring!  But wahh, wahh, wahh…!"  Nonsense.  Shut up.  In the decade between (roughly) 1997 and 2007, we were privileged enough to see Formula 1's greatest ever driver at the very peak of his considerable powers, schooling a field of drivers which included most of those whom we now consider to be the most talented on the grid – as well as being treated to races which were exciting (but organically exciting, rather than scripted by Bernie and cajoled into being 'exciting' like an episode of a soap opera) and cars which were actually fast.

So I am going to set out a few points here which I think would elevate Formula 1 back to that level of excitement and intrigue.
1)  Faster cars
Former Red Bull driver Mark Webber said in a recent interview that F1 cars should be on 'a different level' from other categories.  Pointing out that GP2 cars (the category below F1), and sportscar racing both tend to have very similar lap times as current F1 cars – and that all the F1 lap records were set five to ten years ago, with the current formula 'miles away' from those sorts of speeds – Webber, described the situation as 'not right'.

I agree.  The modern F1 cars are simply not quick enough and not challenging enough for the drivers.  When I say 'faster' cars, I mean genuinely quicker in terms of raw pace.  More 'overtaking aids' or other fanciful gimmicks simply won't cut it.

The creeping advance of car design gimmicks over actual horsepower has made cars less challenging for drivers, and races less interesting to watch; ten years ago, genuine defensive driving skill meant that good drivers could keep a much quicker car behind them for a significant number of laps – and this in turn meant that strategy was even more important.  Planning pit stops, for example: get it wrong, and your man will be stuck losing time behind a slower car for goodness knows how long!  In modern F1, it doesn't matter, because with DRS he will simply breeze past competitors within a couple of laps and be on his way.

DRS allows cars to be 'shuffled' into a predictable order quickly, even after incidents or pit stops.  Maybe the actual number of overtakes performed on track has increased as a result of the introduction of DRS, but the quality of the overtaking has almost certainly decreased, as drivers no longer have to rely simply on their own racecraft to make a move on a rival stick.  Removing artificial gizmos like DRS will mean drivers and teams pay more dearly for mistakes, and skilful driving carries a greater reward.
2)  Tyres that work
Let's stop hiding behind the euphemism that the current specification of Pirelli tyres are 'deliberately high-degradation' or something.  Let's call them what they are: rubbish.  Deliberately so, yes – but they are still rubbish.
"Hey, let's make the cars have engines which are designed to blow up half-way through a race!" 
"I know!  How about a front wing assembly which may or may not fall off the car at any time, and the driver never knows if his wing will remain intact for the full length of the Grand Prix or not?"
Ideas like these would be laughed out of court.  (Or so I sincerely hope, at any rate!)  So why do we put up with this sort of idiocy when it comes to tyres?  Formula 1 is supposed to represent the very pinnacle of driver and engineers skill, but also the pinnacle of technological advancement; having any part of the car which is actually designed to fail is pretty stupid.

The rubbish tyres were brought in as part of an attempt to 'make the racing more exciting'; they have done anything but.  Racing is now dominated by tyres.  Discussions about tyres, inquiries about tyres, analysis of tyres.  Tyres, tyres, tyres.

Drivers no longer push their cars or themselves to the limit, or race as hard as they know they could or as hard as they would like to.  They are terrified of the rubbish tyres, and the majority of racing strategy is now concerned with managing tyres, conserving tyres, etc.

Does it seem like I'm saying 'tyres' a lot?  Yeah, well that's what every Grand Prix weekend is like, now.  And it gets pretty 'tyring', doesn't it?  (See what I did there…?!)

Once again, this wasn't an issue ten years ago.  Back then, we had a 'tyre war' – more than one tyre manufacturer supplying teams, and teams could choose who to go with, which promoted better tyres as the tyre companies competed for the teams' business.  Maybe this is nostalgia talking, but I would love to see that return.

Which teams would actually choose to run the current models of Pirelli tyres over, say, a more durable Michelin alternative?  Pirelli would have to raise their game, and provide better tyres if they didn't want to be shoved out of the sport completely – and then maybe we would have racing which wasn't so focussed on tyre management and gingerly eking out the life of one set of Pirellis for as long as possible…
3)  A complete overhaul of penalties, and their application
This season, penalties (and particularly grid penalties) have become ridiculous.  Once again, misguided attempts to 'make' F1 'more exciting' have ended up harming the quality of the racing, and shifting the focus of a race weekend away from wheel-to-wheel action and more towards petty technicalities and minutiae.

I am certain that stringent overregulation is hurting Formula 1.  Restrictions on testing and engine development, and ridiculously harsh punishments for changing engines or gearboxes, only exacerbates the difference in quality between the cars at the front of the field and those lower down the order.  Uncompetitive teams are forced to remain uncompetitive because they can't develop their engine package, and are punished for fixing issues on their cars, pushing them even further behind and making racing less close and less interesting.

At the Belgian Grand Prix a few weeks ago, McLaren were given grid penalties totalling 105 places.  This exorbitantly pernicious move meant that an already struggling team had to write off their race before it had even begun.  I'm sure there were people in the McLaren garage thinking they may as well not have bothered to turn up in Belgium at all.

Of course the rules are the rules, and need to be applied fairly and consistently to all.  We can't expect the FIA to make exceptions for a team because we feel sorry for them.  But this rule, and the associated punishments, are clearly counterproductive – this is making racing less competitive, less exciting, and instead encumbering the sport with restrictive overregulation.

And speaking of applying the rules fairly, can we get a definite clarification about the 'track limits' rules, please?  The rule is concerned with 'gaining an advantage' by going outside the limits of the race track (as defined by the white lines at the side of the circuit – not the run-off areas), but it is unclear exactly how that is interpreted by the FIA, or by the stewards.  The only time this rule is really applied is when one driver overtakes another by going outside the track limits – he then has to give that place back, as he deemed to have driven unfairly (which is absolutely correct).

But overtaking is not the only way a driver can 'gain an advantage'.  If a driver is consistently going outside the track limits in order to prevent another car from overtaking him, that is every bit as unfair as overtaking the car ahead by driving off the circuit – and yet we see far fewer punishments for this infringement.

Even if there are no other cars around, a driver can still 'gain an advantage' on lap time, which will then affect strategy in terms of pitstops and tyre life; consistently running wide (cutting a corner) over several laps might gain a driver a second or two in time (as well as meaning he has to use his brakes slightly less, therefore putting less wear through the tyres and preserving their usable life for a lap or two longer) – and that could be the difference between emerging from a pitstop just ahead of a rival driver, or just behind him.  If we are going to punish drivers for using more track than they are allowed to, then we should do so consistently and fairly – not just when overtaking is involved.

One other point about penalties I would like to make is that the current trend of using time penalties after the race has finished seems to me to go against the ethos of F1.  Formula 1 has never been time trial racing – it is about drivers fighting with each other on the track.  In theory, you might think there is not a lot of difference between having twenty seconds added onto your overall time after the race has finished, or having to drive through the Pitlane during the race (which will cost you roughly twenty seconds of laptime), but this is a mistaken way of thinking which ignores the fact that drivers are not just racing against themselves or against the clock, but against each other.

If you are twenty seconds ahead of your nearest rival, and you get a twenty second time penalty, you only have to push a little harder in the closing laps of the race to ensure that even after your overall race time is adjusted to reflect the penalty you are still ahead of your rival by half a second or so.  If you have to take your punishment on track, before the race has finished, it thrusts you into a battle for places which was previously twenty seconds behind you – it forces you to race your rival, your the clock.  There is a fundamental difference between time penalties and penalties taken during the race, and Formula 1 needs to revert to the latter.
4)  A 'hands-off' approach from the bosses
Following the three steps laid out above will make Formula 1 a much closer, more exciting, more challenging sport, and will bring racing back much more in line with how it seemed in the halcyon days of my youth.  But none of it will matter if the current attitudes of those in charge of the sport remain unchanged.

In general, I feel like those at the top – Bernie Ecclestone in particular, and the FIA – are far too meddlesome and interfering in their approach to running F1.  Constantly tweaking and tinkering with the formula, always trying to foist some new unwieldy gimmick on the teams designed to 'make' racing 'more exciting' – this intrusive officiousness is strangling the sport we love.

I have written at length before that I would genuinely rather races were 'boring' than that they were 'made' exciting artificially, and I stand by those views now.  I think some of my previous writing on the topic bears repeating, in this context…

If a driver, or a team, is dominating proceedings, then well done to them.  This isn't a 'problem', nothing has to be 'done about it', it is an example of somebody performing well – which is what sport is all about.  Attempting to peg back the best performers in the field is the same as rigging the results; it is false – not a true reflection of the relative qualities of different drivers and cars, but a record which has been tampered with to be 'entertaining'.

Until the people in charge of Formula 1 learn that the most important thing is sporting integrity and accuracy – not 'excitement' or 'entertainment' – then we are always going to be faced with racing which is tainted by artificial rubbish.  Bernie et al simply need to 'let them race'.  Stop interfering, stop meddling, stop trying to force every Grand Prix to be 'a classic' full of 'drama' and 'excitement'.  Just let them be what they are.

It is too late for the 2016 season.  That will be another year of gimmicks, overbearing regulations, and harsh but inconsistently applied punishment.  But team bosses will be meeting soon to discuss changes to the sport for 2017 and beyond – I hope they talk sense.

Monday, 7 September 2015

#F1: Pressure's on in Monza

A few significant talking points dominated the Italian Grand Prix at Monza yesterday.  The first, and most obvious in terms of the World Championship, was how unassailable Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes look.  With Hamilton stretching the gap over his teammate to an enormous 53 points, I think there's no way anybody will catch him for the title now.  As for Rosberg, he looks a shadow of his 2014 self as the effects of being schooled by Hamilton every weekend begin to take their toll, and I am starting to doubt whether he will ever win a World Championship.

But Hamilton was also at the centre of one of the more contentious issues from yesterday's race.  Shortly before the end, Hamilton's race engineer instructed him to put in some flying laps – an odd decision, considering that he was cruising to almost-certain victory with a gap to Sebastian Vettel in second place of over twenty seconds.

Why the sudden need to hurry?  Speculation was rife that Mercedes were worried about an issue, and that they needed enough time between their man and Vettel's Ferrari to be able to squeeze in an extra pitstop if necessary – but if Hamilton's tyres were going off, he would've felt that in the car and said something to his team before they had picked it up, and if it were an engine issue the sensible precaution would be to slow down and nurse the car to the end (there were fewer than five laps to go, at this point), rather than push the machinery even harder.

All soon became clear, however, as it was revealed that Mercedes were under investigation for having left rear tyres (on both their cars) which were suspected of being below the minimum tyre pressure, as set by F1's tyre manufacturer Pirelli.  A lower tyre pressure is supposed to give the cars more performance, but Pirelli had raised their stipulated minimum pressures considerably from the previous race in Belgium, following criticism from teams and drivers regarding tyre failures at Spa Francorchamps.

As Hamilton celebrated victory on the Monza podium, in front of the usual crowd of passionate Italian racing fans, we waited to see if he would be disqualified for being 0.3 PSI below the required pressure in one tyre.

In the end, the enquiry exonerated Mercedes, and Hamilton's win was allowed to stand.  To me, though, it looks awfully like getting off on a mere technicality.  As I understood the rule, what mattered was the outcome of whether the tyre pressures were legal or not, not the procedures the team followed – and yet Mercedes were let off because they had done the right things, even though it had still produced an illegal result in one of Hamilton's tyres.  Their defence, essentially, seems to have been "well, we didn't mean to!"  That might count for something, of course – but ultimately, breaking the rules is breaking the rules, regardless.

Regardless also of the fact that Hamilton didn't actually gain an advantage from the infringement.  This was another common defence from fans on Twitter, and a point raised in Hamilton's interview immediately after the race on Sky Sports; once again, however, breaking a rule should carry a punishment, whether you actually benefit from breaking it or not.  If not, why bother to have the rules at all?

I think, though, the main culprit in all of this is Pirelli themselves.  Their tyres are simply not good enough.  I have said this before, and it remains my position that the sooner this disastrous 'high-degradataion' tyre experiment is ended, the better it will be for Formula 1.  The only reason we were in the situation at all was because tyres had failed at the previous Grand Prix in Spa, and so Pirelli had to take emergency action to make sure their shonky product didn't end up hurting anybody.  I don't see that as a tenable situation for F1, which is supposed to be a byword for the very best in the world – the best drivers, engineers, machinery, technology, and yes, tyres.

There is no excuse for teams or drivers not following the rules – and if they don't, they should be punished accordingly.  But when those rules have been hastily cobbled together to spare the blushes of a tyre manufacture whose product ca be trusted to operate properly within the existing regulations, that hardly seems fair either.  A serious overhaul of tyres in F1 is needed.

The other main thing which seemed to be on everyone's minds throughout the Grand Prix weekend was: would F1 be coming back to Monza next year?

Sebastian Vettel's thoughts on this were pretty clear…

I agree with him completely.  This is a classic race; it is steeped in motorsport history.  If Monza is allowed to go the way of Magny Cours, Imola, Hockenheim, and other classic circuits with more racing heritage than a hundred soulless specially-built compounds in the middle of the desert could ever hope to have, it truly will spell the end for Formula 1.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Norwich's transfer nightmare

Tuesday's transfer deadline was pretty bruising experience for Norwich City fans.  While fans of other clubs were left celebrating last minute captures of exciting players, Norwich fans shook their heads sadly and wondered what on earth was going on…

Norwich's transfer business began quite brightly, following promotion to the Premier League via the Play-Off Final at Wembley; the permanent signing of Graham Dorrans (who had been on loan at Carrow Road last season) and the arrivals of Youssouf Mulumbu and Robbie Brady in midfield all showed promise and intent from the club.

But things have since turned very sour indeed.  Having been out a lot of Tuesday, I caught up on how all the Deadline Day news unfolded after the window had closed, and could barely believe what I was seeing.

I have long contended that Norwich have a strong core squad full of decent, hard working players – but that to be competitive in the Premier League the season, we needed to sign one proven striker, and one centre-back to partner Sebastien Bassong.  Dieumerci Mbokani has come in on loan from Dynamo Kiev, and Matt Jarvis has also been brought in (also on loan) from West Ham – but no defenders have arrived, which I feel leaves us shaky and vulnerable at the back, especially against the really top teams of this division.

Add to that the fact that we have let several players leave the club – including Bradley Johnson, who was undoubtedly one of our best players last season, as well as two other central midfielders who could've covered Johnson's position in the wake of his departure to Derby County – I can't see that we're much better off that we were before.

To see a club like Aston Villa sign a proven Premier League quality defender in Joleon Lescott for only £2m, while Charlie Austin – a striker with a fantastic Premier League record from last season – is passed over by every current top flight club, is painful.  Both of those players would've made excellent additions to the Norwich City squad (more so than endless midfielders!), and I'm left wondering why we couldn't make signings of that quality happen while Villa, Stoke City, West Ham and others spend money and add quality to their ranks to ensure they remain established in the Premier League.

This isn't the end of the world, of course – we still have players capable of doing a good job and winning games in the Premier League – but I feel we have left ourselves a much more difficult task than we needed to.  It's poor business from the club, indicative of a lack of ambition, and left me with a sinking feeling after reading through the transfer news after the window had closed.  I don't want to see us in a position where we have to pay well over the odds for mediocre players in the January transfer window, in the hope of salvaging an already floundering season.

The Syrian refugee crisis is not about you

Isn't it remarkable how practically every large-scale global event always proves just how right you were all along?

People on the internet seem determined to use the Syrian refugee crisis as a means to shore up their own prejudices – whatever they may be.

Conservative supporters on Twitter were busily Tweeting last night that the crisis is all Ed Miliband's fault, for blocking military action against the Assad regime in Syria during 2013 (because bombing a country is a surefire way to ensure nobody wants to leave it and seek asylum elsewhere).

Labour and the Green Party are keen to lay the blame at the door of David Cameron and the 'heartless' Tories (although when Conservatives have shown compassion on this issue, they've just got abuse from the left all the same).

And of course the Scottish Nationalists are quick to point out that if 'Yes' had won the referendum, and Scotland were an independent country, this problem would simply evaporate (just as all other problems would evaporate if Scotland were an independent land of milk and honey).

Is there nothing we won't politicise?  Is there nothing we won't use to bash our ideological nemeses over the head?  People are dying, and they need our help.

Perhaps if we stopped sniping at each other with vituperations of moralising piety, using strangers' tragic deaths to score cheap points off our political opponents, falling back on the same tired, predictable 'bogey-men' we blame for everything, we might be able to do something to ease the suffering.

Or do we, as a nation, honestly care more about assigning blame than saving those in need?

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Does Mark Lawrenson even watch the Premier League?

BBC Sport football pundit Mark Lawrenson writes his predictions for the weekend's Premier League matches each week on the BBC Sport website.  Or so we're told, anyway.  I'm beginning to suspect that he actually has a machine – working to some shonky algorithm, of course – churning them out for him, so he can collect a nice pay packet without actually having to do any work.

I doubt that Lawrenson has any idea who half the teams he's supposed to be writing about actually are.  That is the only explanation for how bizarre his predictions seem to be at times.

For my team, Norwich City, he consistently predicts losses.  Whether we're playing well, or playing badly, have injuries or a full squad, make signings or not – his reasoning seems to be simply "it's Norwich, so they'll lose".  We could have Messi and Ronaldo both playing for us, and Lawrenson would still tip us to lose 1-0 to West Brom (or something), just because it's Norwich.

Which is ridiculous.  Lawrenson's prediction for Sunday's away match is that Norwich will lose to Southampton.  This is in spite of the fact that Southampton are yet to win a league game this season, whilst Norwich have, and almost all football analysts seem to agree that although four points from the opening three games is a decent haul for the Canaries, we could – and quite possibly should – have more.

Lawrenson says so himself, in his writing for this week's predictions, as well as alluding to Southampton's slow start and also mentioning that they will be fatigued from a midweek game in the Europa League.

Sure, a team who 'have not really got going yet' are
bound to beat a team who 'have looked pretty
solid' so far…  There's no flaw in this reasoning! 

And yet, in spite of all the evidence he himself has presented to the contrary, he predicts Southampton to win 2-1.  Maybe they will.  Who knows?  But the pre-match form of both teams, and their differing circumstances, do not suggest that.

Lawrenson seems to work only from the reputation a team has in his own mind.  Southampton are generally perceived to be a club 'on the up', with a growing reputation – whilst Norwich would be considered minnows in this league even if they won it three seasons on the trot.

Thankfully, it's what happens on the pitch which counts, not what happens in Mark Lawrenson's mind.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

#F1 in Spa

Apologies for being a little late with a post about Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps – and also for having missed writing about the last couple of races altogether.

Spa is a classic circuit, and always a favourite with the fans.  Sadly, this probably means its days are numbered – like Monza's, Hockenheim's, etc. – so it can make way for another brand new sterile complex in the middle of nowhere in a country where no one's heard of Formula 1.  (But that's a rant for another time…)

Lewis Hamilton, as he has been practically all of this season, was sublime in Belgium.  He has his third World Championship all but in the bag already – it will take an extraordinary set of circumstances now for him not to win it again this year.  Teammate Nico Rosberg, by comparison, is lacking in confidence and doesn't truly believe he can compete with Hamilton on an equal footing.  We are seeing this especially at race starts – the Mercedes is not the quickest car off the line, but Rosberg's starting in the past few Grands Prix has been abysmal.  In Belgium, he slipped from a front row grid slot down to about fifth, being overtaken by several slower cars behind him.

I think the only thing that will 'save' Rosberg now, if he ever wants to be a World Champion, is to change teams.  If he stays at Mercedes, and continues to partner Hamilton, he will always feel outclassed – and so, he will always be outclassed.

Another team where is noticeably better than the other is Lotus, who had their best race for quite some time at Spa.  Following a dismal 2014, their car this year has been quite a lot better, but they haven't really been able to recapture the form they showed in 2012 and 2013, when Kimi Räikkönen and Romain Grosjean were both podium regulars.  Grosjean's inspired drive in Belgium was his and the team's best result, and first podium finish, since the USA Grand Prix in Austin in 2013 and it was good to see him back on the podium after all this time, beaming from ear to ear and enjoying to the full a thoroughly well-deserved third place.

I have long considered Grosjean to be a very talented driver, and always felt he would 'come good' even during his troubled period when most dismissed him as a 'first lap nutcase' (in the words of Mark Webber, who was then driving for Red Bull – when the chip on his shoulder didn't slow him down too much).  But, as I have said before, Lotus are continually suffering from only having one driver who seems able to compete for points on a regular basis.

It remains a source of confusion for me that, of the two Lotus drivers, Pastor Maldonado is the one who is already a race winner, not Grosjean.  But that one win of Maldonado's, from his time with the Williams team, is something of an anomaly compared to the rest of his record in F1.  It's not that Maldonado is without talent – he certainly has his moments, and can be a very quick driver – but his 'moments' are few and far between, and he is far too inconsistent a driver to be of much worth to the Lotus team.  Grosjean has scored 38 points so far this season – more than three times Maldonado's current tally of 12 – and has only retired three times this season, compared to Maldonado's seven retirements.

Grosjean's third place last weekend allowed Lotus to climb to fifth in the Constructors' table, one point above mid-grid rivals Force India – but they're not going to stay there.  Force India have, in Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Pérez, two drivers capable of scoring points regularly; Lotus are relying on one driver to bring home the lion's share of their points, and this is going to end up hurting them in their battle to come out on top of a tightly-packed, highly competitive midfield.

The other issue which dominated the Belgian Grand Prix was tyre failures.  Nico Rosberg's Qualifying (and possibly his confidence for the race the next day, as well) was ruined by a tyre failure, and Sebastian Vettel's dramatic tyre explosion only a couple of laps before the end, as he fought with Grosjean's Lotus for third place, was a big talking point immediately after the race.  The two schools of thought are as follows…

Some people are saying that Ferrari were running the tyre right on its limit by trying to do a one-stop race, and that it was dangerous for them not to bring their driver in and change the tyres instead of letting him drive around on tyres already so old and worn – and also that Vettel was consistently running wide over the kerbs at Eau Rouge in his efforts to keep Grosjean (who was considerable quicker, and on newer tyres) behind him in the final few laps of the race.

On the other hand, Vettel's post-race interview showed him being absolutely livid with Pirelli for the tyre bursting – he said the company keeps making excuses for tyres failing (it was debris, there was a cut, you went wide, etc.), and that these things are to be expected during a Grand Prix race and so Pirelli should make tyres able to cope with them.

Personally, I can see both sides of the coin here.  I think Vettel is right in that the margin of error in the tyres' durability should not be so fine that a single piece of debris, or an adventure on the kerbs, is enough to cause a potentially extremely dangerous accident.  But then, I have long been a vocal and exasperated critic of the disastrous experiment with 'high degradation' Pirelli tyres!  I also think, however, that Vettel claiming (as he did in his interview) that he wasn't running wide, when we clearly saw him on TV doing exactly that several laps in a row, is laughable.

The application of the 'track limits' rule is so sloppy and inconsistent I, frankly, wonder why they bother to have it at all.  The rule refers to 'gaining an advantage' by driving outside the stated limits of the racetrack; if the guy behind you is quicker, and braking later for the corners than you are (as was the case as Grosjean hunted Vettel down in the last part of last weekend's Grand Prix), and you're consistently cutting a corner in order to keep yourself ahead of him (as Vettel did at Eau Rouge), there's no way anybody can say you haven't 'gained an advantage' by doing so!  It is 'an advantage' to stay in third instead of slipping to fourth place – and Vettel should have been punished by the stewards for going outside the track limits in order to keep from losing the place to Grosjean.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Corbyn can't lose – it will be someone else's fault

There is a part of me that is tempted to think Jeremy Corbyn’s imminent victory in the seemingly interminable Labour leadership contest would actually not be such a bad thing.  That part of me is not a secret Corbynite, keen to see the renationalisation of industry, the reopening of coal mines, and ‘political compromise’ with the murderous, barbaric Islamic State; no, that part of me hopes that when Corbyn’s agenda is rejected by the electorate in 2020, there will be no further excuses left for the Corbynites.

To many on the left, y’see, the Conservatives didn’t win the general election in May this year – even though they got more seats than any other party, and that is how you win an election – and Ed Miliband’s Labour didn’t suffer the party’s most catastrophic defeat since their infamous 1983 campaign.

No, what really happened (even if you don’t remember it like this) was that the British voters were victims of a con, perpetuated by the ‘smears’ of the ‘Tory media’, and the ‘Westminster elite’ (who were ‘running scared’); or the voters were just too stupid to realise what they really wanted, or what was actually good for them, and so, in their ignorance, they voted Tory – poor deluded souls that they are; or Labour’s manifesto was simply not left-wing enough, not radical enough – millions who voted Tory just a few months back did so with a heavy heart, thinking ‘if I only I didn’t have to do this, if only somebody were offering some genuine Trotskyite socialism!’

With Corbyn in charge, however, no one could say the public weren’t offered a real alternative.  And so his defeat would prove once-and-for-all that they don’t actually want his ‘real alternative’.

But that part of me is sadly mistaken.  For it underestimates the ability of blinkered ideologues to make any number of tortured excuses rather than admit they got it wrong.  When Jeremy Corbyn loses the general election (as he is almost certain to), it will be anyone else’s fault but his.

Corbynites will be quick to blame ‘the Establishment’ for Corbyn’s defeat; it wasn’t that he couldn’t win, or that people didn’t want him to – far from it, people voted for Corbyn in droves, but ‘the Establishment’ wouldn’t let him win!  It’s all a stitch-up, y’see!

(It’s worth pointing out that the amorphous cabal of nefarious busybodies which makes up ‘the Establishment’ is rarely, if ever, properly defined by those who claim to be held down by it – it is a term used to describe anybody one doesn’t like, or anybody who doesn’t share ones aims, or even anybody who does share ones aims but disagrees about the means.  Essentially, ‘the Establishment’ can cover anybody who is not ‘one of us’.  And thus, those who disparage 'the Establishment' paint themselves as maverick outsiders and freedom fighters; 'we' are virtuous, simply because 'we' are not 'them' [regardless of what views we actually hold].)

This was the attitude of the UKIP faithful (remember them?) shortly after the general election earlier this year.  Nigel Farage, the Dear Leader, couldn’t possibly have been rejected by the voters of his specially chosen constituency, Thanet South – it must’ve been a fix.  The hashtag #ThanetRigged gained some traction on Twitter as angry ‘Kippers hit out at ‘the Establishment’ for not allowing Beloved Nigel the shot at glory he fully deserved; journalists such as Isabel Hardman, who covered the Thanet South story, became the victims of abuse and harassment online – but then, that was no more than those Establishment shills and propagandists deserved.

This will, of course, be familiar territory already for anybody who followed the referendum on Scottish independence this time last year.  If you weren’t a Nationalist – a ‘Yes’ voter – you were a traitor to Scotland.  Facts and research which backed up the Unionist position were simply dismissed as ‘smears’ – even though they were backed up by cold, hard figures.

And anybody considering voting ‘No’ was not doing so out of his or her own free will.  It was ‘project fear’ ‘scaring’ people into voting for something they didn’t really want.

This attitude is dangerous and worrying for two reasons.  The first is that when you believe so uncompromisingly in your own unshakeable position, to the extent that any evidence which does not back up your predetermined convictions can simply be dismissed as somehow not valid, you turn your politics into a religion.  Your political stance becomes an article of faith; unbending, even in the face of conclusive evidence to the contrary, or overwhelming popular opposition.  Everything gets twisted to fit conclusions you have already drawn; facts cease to be facts, but become soft and malleable; you distort everything you see to ensure is allowed to betray ‘the cause’.

The second problem with this way of thinking, however, is how little credit it gives the public.  The voters, you end up saying, are incapable of making up their own mind, or of having any thoughts of their own – they are mindless husks, herded by a malevolent media who serve only their masters in ‘the Establishment’, and who disseminate propaganda telling the poor, brainless electorate what to think.

Not only is this terribly insulting – you are telling the very people you need to convince of your argument that they can’t think for themselves – but it makes very little sense.  If individuals need to be told what to think, who tells ‘the Establishment’ and their lackeys in the media what to tell people to think?  They, after all, are individuals too.  How are they able to form their own views, and exercise self-interest, when us ordinary folk apparently cannot?

The remarkable thing is, so far, Corbyn has actually got off relatively lightly in the press when it comes to his links with various racists, religious fundamentalists, and other unpalatable individuals – even though politicians from a party perceived as right-wing, such as UKIP, would likely have been hauled over the coals (from the newly reopened mines, presumably) for similar transgressions.  But viewed through a Corbynite prism, this comparative leniency is still tantamount to anti-Corbyn propaganda; anything in the media which isn’t actively cheerleading for Corbyn’s campaign is ‘biased’ against him.

However, pro-Corbyn commentators such as Owen Jones believe that this lack of support from large sections of the media (sorry, the 'Tory media' – we must remember to preface everything we don't like with the descriptor 'Tory', of course) is because 'they' are 'scared'.  As I have already demonstrated on Genius, this is a simplistic and fatuous argument – but it is the automatic defensive position of Corbynites like Jones.  Any criticism, any derision, any attack, must necessarily be cover for a deep-set and troubling fear.  In the Corbynite world view, it is just not possible for anybody genuinely to think Corbyn is a bit rubbish; there are only those who love him, and those who fear his power and what it would mean for their cosy establishment hegemony.

But much as Jones and those like him might wish this to be true, I'm afraid it isn't; as Janan Ganesh points out in the Financial Times, the Tories who are mocking Corbyn don't secretly fear his might – they really do think he would be a laughable Labour leader.  But pointing this out makes one anti-Corbyn, and therefore an enemy.  Whoever you are.

Even staunch Labour members, councillors, or MPs – people who have dedicated decades of their life to serving the party – becomes 'the enemy' when they voice criticism of Corbyn.  Guardian columnist Giles Fraser (whose inanity has featured on this Blog before), writes on Twitter:

Apart from being extremely silly to dismiss criticism of Corbyn based on who is doing the criticising, instead of on the merits of the arguments being made, it is indicative of how the Corbynites are only interested in granting credence to views which already chime with their own.  Giles Fraser dismisses the Labour figures who are warning against the shift towards Corbyn's leftism as 'the old guard' – he paints them as has-beens whose advice is not worth heeding.  Perhaps their advice isn't worth heeding.  But who would Fraser and his ilk listen to?

If somebody very much 'of the left', who agrees with Fraser on many issues, and whom Fraser has always respected and listened to, suddenly said Labour should be wary of electing Corbyn would the response from Fraser (and others in a similar position) be: "OK, I didn't listen to 'the old guard' because I don't respect them, but this guy is someone I have always liked and who has always spoken sense – now that he is saying this too, perhaps I should reconsider my views"…?

No, it wouldn't be anything of the sort.  Even if you hadn't been 'the old guard' up until now, disagreeing about Corbyn would suddenly make you 'the old guard'.  Put simply, if you are considered 'sound' by the left, voicing criticisms of Corbyn (even well-founded, valid criticisms backed up by plenty of evidence) doesn't mean that those criticisms will finally be taken seriously – it will mean you will be denounced as a traitor, a secret 'Tory'.

This is the default Corbynite perspective – everyone who doesn’t agree with us precisely is a quisling and deserving of being put in the stocks for stopping the people getting what they really want (which is what we tell them they want, even if they haven’t quite realised it yet).  The popular revolution, y’see, must not be impeded by it’s complete lack of popularity.

And thus, when the 'revolution' inevitably fails at the ballot box, it won't be the idealists who carried on pushing Corbynism in face of a huge body of evidence against it (because 'evidence' you don't like is just a 'smear' by 'the Establishment', of course) who are to blame.  It will be everyone else.  And the whole cycle will begin again.

Rafael Behr wrote an excellent and very apposite article in the Guardian quite recently on how so many people have lost the ability to admit when they are wrong.  In it, Behr warns of the danger of 'echo chamber' politics, particularly on social media, where people only let themselves read or engage with content which confirms their pre-existing prejudices and reflects their own views.  This is especially noticeable with the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon; no matter how much of a disaster the Corbyn experiment proves to be, nobody who insists they are right about it now will admit later than they got it wrong.

Jeremy Corbyn's almost certain victory, followed by Jeremy Corbyn's almost certain defeat, will prove nothing to those who will not allowed themselves to be swayed by any amount of evidence.  There must be some other factor affecting it.  They didn't really lose, at all.  The fight must go on.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Sandwich review: deli2go Turkey, Ham & Swiss with honey & mustard mayonnaise

The official description for this sandwich is:
Roast turkey, honey & mustard mayonnaise, smoked formed ham, Emmental and mixed salad leaves on malted bread with millet and sunflower seeds
If I were to sum up this sandwich in one word, it would be: 'bland'.  There is no main flavour element in the ingredients; roast turkey is a particularly flavourless meat – and Emmental, although not a bad cheese, is hardly a strong flavour either, being a mild and creamy sort of cheese.

What intrigued me here was the honey and mustard mayonnaise – unfortunately, these flavours just don't come through!  I was hoping for a sweet and tangy dressing to complement the smokiness of the ham and the creaminess of the cheese, but sadly none of this materialised.  There was no smokiness to the ham, and the mayonnaise with creamy but not strong in flavour, adding to overall dairy washout with very little flavour.

The nicest part of the sandwich was the bread, which was fresh and nicely grainy – sadly, however, what was inside didn't not stack up, and left very little impression on me at all.

I would not buy this sandwich again.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Sandwich review: Tesco Finest* Beef Topside & Long Clawson Stilton

The official description for this sandwich is:
White bread with oats and barley, medium rare topside beef, free range egg mayonnaise, caramelised onion chutney, Stilton® cheese and rocket.
This is not the first time Tesco's Finest* range has impressed me, but even by their high standards this sandwich was exceptionally good.

All the ingredients were high quality – and fresh (the bread wasn't soggy, the salad wasn't wilted) – and the recipe is an absolute triumph, with every element complementing every other.  The beef works perfectly with the creamy, tangy stilton, balanced out by the sweetness of the onion chutney and the peppery tones of the rocket.  It is really very difficult to find any fault with this sandwich at all.

I would buy this sandwich again.

Friday, 7 August 2015

There are better '70s tribute bands than Jeremy Corbyn

If you want to book a nostalgic tribute band for your retro-themed party harking back to the 1970s or the 1980s, I don't suggest you book Jeremy Corbyn.  Sure, he plays all the hits – but without feeling.  He may look the part, but his performance is jaded and irritable, bordering on contemptuous.  Also, his rider was ridiculous, and he was half-an-hour late for soundcheck.

His announcement that he would 'reopen some coal mines' is final proof – if any were needed – that Corbyn doesn't care about serious, grown-up politics at all.  He doesn't care about making a difference in other people's lives.  He is only interested in posturing gesture politics of the kind most people grow out of by the time they're in their twenties.

What, exactly, would reopening coal mines achieve?

I can understand that Corbyn deplores the mine closures of the 1980s, and like many on the left of British politics, sympathises with the miners who came out on strike.  But you can look back on those times from a leftist perspective, and still acknowledge that today's world is utterly different.

Both politics and industry have been irreversibly changed in the thirty years or more since the miners' strikes of the early '80s; Corbyn may as well say that he will try to revive the chimney sweep industry, or that he will reopen the wheelwrights' businesses which closed as the motor car superseded the wooden carts and wagons pulled by horses which were once the primary mode of transport for goods and people.  After he has reopened the mines, will Corbyn also reopen the cotton mills of the nineteenth century?  Presumably, he is incensed that railway companies no longer employ stokers to shovel the coal on the engines?

Read more:  My analysis of Owen Jones' assertion that the Tories fear Corbyn

Corbyn is a quiet, self-effacing man – but in his own way, he is egotistically obsessed with past glories.  The announcement about reopening coal mines is worrisome not just because coal mines are a proud part of British industrial history, not a part of Britain's industrial future, but also because it is a window to how someone like Corbyn sees the world.

For Corbyn – and a deeply concerning number of what we must surely now call his 'followers' – the powerless 1980s, when the right wing ran the show and conducted sweeping ideological reforms of so many areas of British life, were actually the halcyon days of the left, and of the British Labour movement.  Coal mining, and miners' strikes, have become emblematic of that era, and of the conflict between right and left which defined the Conservatives' time in office during the 1980s; Corbyn, enthralled by the idea of doing ideological battle with the right wing – as if it is some kind of holy war – far more so than he is by the idea of enacting policies and passing legislation, is obsessed with reliving that time, even when everybody else has long since moved on.

A masterclass in only seeing what you want to see.

The business of government, or enacting ideas, does not interest him; for Corbyn, the glory lies in the struggle.  For Corbyn's faction of the Labur left, being powerless and ineffectual, but making an almighty scene about it, is somehow perceived as being more 'noble' or more 'worthy' than actually being in a position to tackle the social issues you claim are the reasons you went into politics.  The crusade is more important than the outcome.

Franz Nicolay wrote, in his aptly-titled track 'Do The Struggle':
"When the monkey throws himself against the door, he doesn't care if it opens, as long as it rattles…"

Like the monkey, Corbyn is more interested in rattling doors than opening them.  Maybe he thinks the rattling is more impressive – but I imagine that is little comfort to the people trapped on the opposite side of the door, the people Corbyn claims he wants to help.  He would rather be a noisy but impotent protestor – waving his placards and standing on his soapbox, shouting a lot and achieving nothing – than an efficient legislator; the former may provide more thrilling stories to tell your grandchildren, but it is the latter which actually allows you to improve people's jobs, homes and lives.

Reopening the coal mines will help nobody; it will push Britain back, not forwards; it is the rhetoric of somebody who is still obstinately fighting not the last war, but the war before that; it is the fanciful policy of a man who does not live in the real world.

For someone who is so often described as 'progressive', backwards-looking Corbyn conducts his politics in the past.  He cannot seem to accept progress, or that the world changes whether he wants it to or not.  Coal mines – and the totemic ideological battle they represent for so many people – maybe a part of Britain's rich industrial heritage, but there can't be much place for them in our future now, as things move on.  Jeremy Corbyn is King Canute, unable to hold back the inexorable tides of change; unlike Canute, he hasn't the humility to know that he cannot.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Why can't I go shopping when I want to, Giles Fraser?

With the Sunday trading laws in the government's crosshairs following last week's budget, pious moralising chumps like the Guardian's Giles Fraser are falling over themselves to tell us how this move is all part of the Tories' grand plan to turn us all into consumerist drones who worship at the feet of big corporations and simply live from one opportunity to spend money to the next.

Fraser says 'Money is the only god the Tories want you to worship on Sunday' – but this demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what deregulation is (or, at least, should be!) about.  This move is not about pushing people in one direction or another; unlike those who want to keep the strict regulations on Sunday trading, the government is not using this to try and encourage people to make certain lifestyle choices over others.  Instead, it is about government stepping back, and letting people make those choices for themselves.

The Tories don't want you to 'worship' money on a Sunday.  They don't much care what you do, I expect.  What they want is for you to be free to do whatever you please – on a Sunday, or on any other day – rather than having those choices made for you by the government.

Fraser says that Sunday is 'special' to him 'because it is a day when we are not forced to worship the market'.  He misses the point that nobody is 'forced' to 'worship' anything, on any day – but that intelligent adults should be allowed to make their own choices about how, and when, to spend their money, rather than being nannied by a government which thinks it knows best.

Perhaps Fraser thinks people are too stupid, or too immoral, to make those choices for themselves?  Perhaps he doesn't care that other people might not want their Sundays to be 'special', or that for some people with certain lifestyles or certain jobs, Sunday might be the only time they have available to go shopping?  That is a short-sighted, egotistical approach.

Giles Fraser might not want to go shopping on a Sunday – but even with the trading laws relaxed, he still won't have to.  Nobody will force him to go shopping on a Sunday, if he doesn't want to; he can still keep Sundays 'special', distinct from the shallow consumerism of the rest of the week, if that is his choice.  So why is he so keen to force people who would want to go shopping on a Sunday not to?  Fraser and his ilk should stop trying to impose his own morals and views on the rest of us, who may have different priorities, and different lives to lead.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

No, you don’t have to nominate Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-left Labour MP, wants to stand for the Labour Party leadership.  But he’s not doing terribly well, with only eleven nominations from his fellow Labour MPs (leadership hopefuls need to be nominated by at least 35 MPs to make the cut, and be able to stand for leader).  Most people, I think, would take this distinct lack of faith from their parliamentary colleagues as a sign that they shouldn’t really be in the contest at all.  But in Corbyn’s case, there has been no such realisation – instead, a slightly surreal campaign has sprung up, pushed by supporters of Corbyn both inside and outside the Parliamentary Labour Party, urging Labour MPs to nominate Corbyn even if they don’t agree with him.  Which, I think you’ll agree, is a little odd.

What is the point of nominating Corbyn if you don’t think he’d be a good candidate for the leadership?  Well, the Corbynites argue, even if you personally don’t agree with our chap, he at least deserves a chance to state his views.  His inclusion in the leadership contest will ‘widen the debate’.

Yes, that’s almost certainly true!  But if the object is to ‘widen the debate’ by including a bunch of opinions very few people actually agree with – instead of, y’know, actually finding an effective leader who can make Labour electable again – then why not stick Jean-Marie Le Pen in there too?!  Sure, nobody in the Labour Party will actually like anything he says – but having him there will ‘widen the debate’, so they should nominate him anyway!  (Obviously this is absurd – Jean-Marie Le Pen is not even a Labour MP! – but I think you see the point I’m trying to make…)

By this logic, lots of people should vote at the next election for the nutty authoritarian idealism of the Green Party, or the closed-minded, racist nastiness of the BNP – even if they don’t like any of their policies – because including those parties will ‘widen the debate’.  After all, having – say – eight or nine BNP MPs in the House Of Commons would certainly ‘widen the debate’!  So we should all vote for them!  Would that really be for the best, though?

The irony is that I suspect those pushing for Labour MPs to nominate Corbyn even if they don’t like him are some of the same people who were frothing at the mouth after last month’s General Election, squealing that the result of the vote didn’t accurately reflect the views of the people who had voted.  If Labour MPs nominate Corbyn simply to ‘widen the debate’, the same will be true of the leaderships contest – the candidates nominated won’t actually reflect the views of the Parliamentary Labour Party.  What is the point of 'widening the debate' to include views that don't actually represent the people the debate is for?

If Jeremy Corbyn wants to be the leader of the Labour Party, then he has every right to put himself forward for it.  And good luck to him!  But if people don’t buy what he’s selling, there’s no compulsion for his colleagues to nominate him regardless.  If Labour MPs don’t want Corbyn to be the leader of their party, it would be foolish of them to nominate him.  So, if Corbyn wants in, he needs to offer an agenda which will appeal to enough people to get him elected based on people actually supporting him – just like everybody else on that ballot has had to.  Labour's hard left should stop trying to parachute in a candidate if that candidate has no right to be on the ballot on merit.