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.