Monday, October 29, 2007


Moore Steaks Seared

Michael Moore is rarely out of the news. His particular brand of docu-drama has a following, not just in North America, but around the English-speaking world. He does what he does very well.

He has turned his own particular brand of hostile indignation on the American system of healthcare. His film is called Sicko and he has made more than a few this side of the pond feel a little sicko at his thesis. He contends that the European system of publicly-funded heathcare is so rosy and so superior no-one but a fool could stop himself from copying it. He may be right, but he also may be being economical with the truth.

Writing in the Sunday Times, columnist Minette Marrin is scathing about Moore's methods in painting such a gloriously white picture of the N.H.S. She rightly points out that there are big problems in the National Health and the tons of money thrown at it by Messrs Blair and Brown have hardly produced a system worthy of unreserved envy.

She's missed the point.

Michael Moore is not producing a critique of the NHS, he's proposing improvements in the American healthcare system. He is wondering why some system of publicly financed healthcare would not better than the shambolic, wasteful and expensive system Americans are saddled with at present. This is the criterion upon which his work should be judged – not whether the NHS is all-delightful, all-delicious, all-conquering and all-munificent. Obviously it is not. Equally it is manifestly better than what's on offer in most other countries.

It's not surprising that American politicians are not queueing up to adopt an NHS-type solution to America's healthcare problems. Assuming they speak to their UK counter-parts they must know that the real down-side to the NHS runs deeper than concerns about day-to-day running difficulties (GP's inflated salaries, wards infected with C. dificile and MRSA, nurses leaving faster than they can be trained, crazy bureaucratic decisions that compromise patient care – to mention just a few). No. The real problem with the NHS is that politicians are seen to be responsible for the healthcare of the nation.

Any American politician wanting to commit suicide, please form an orderly queue.

For; if the USA were to adopt any version of a national health service, the blame for every mistake, every short-coming, every poor clinical judgement would move miraculously from the doctors to the politicians. That's the NHS.

Michael Moore's particular talent is unashamedly finding those parts of American society that need improvement and ruthlessly exposing them. He's probably not the person to put in charge of fixing anything. He's not a very good analyst. He sometimes pretends to have all the answers when he doesn't.

That doesn't mean his ideas are dishonest or naïve. It just means that he is making documentaries and not policy.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Where are our heroes?

In the week where England almost certainly lost whatever chance they had of qualifying for the European Football Championships, the Sunday Times makes the running on a topic which should focus the mind on the problems, but, unfortunately, miss-kicks the ball and falls flat on the face instead.

Analysing the 32 teams contesting the Champions League matches on October 2-3 columnist Jonathan Northcroft reveals that 12 players who are qualified to play for England were in action. The Scots had 13. Germany had 20. That takes care of most of the old enemies. Oh, sorry, forgot France. They had 34. Caesar's all-conquering legions had 30. Jonathan concludes, quite rightly, that England are shooting themselves in the foot by not having enough top-quality players being honed in the top club competitions.

It's a shame that in a long and well-thought-out article, he misses the point.

He tells us that there were 53 Brazilians, 15 Turks, and 11 Ivorians (or whatever people from the Ivory Coast are called?). He neglects to tell the reader that none of these people has any right to live or work in Europe.

He bemoans the fact that of the 53 Brazilians present only a few are of international stature. So, why are they here? He railes at the thought that Michel Platini might get his way and cut the number of English clubs in the Champions League without any analysis as to why Platini has also questioned why so may “foreigners” are playing in Europe.

Northcroft falls neatly into the trap of identifying a problem, yet posing no solution. That's easy – anyone can do that! Finding problems routinely causes no difficulty. Finding answers plagues us all.

England have no real ambition to do well in the World Cup or European Championships. If they did, the F.A. would be leading the charge towards more English players playing for the top clubs in England. They would be actively pursuing foreign owners, like Abramovich, who routinely turn up to cheer his country (Russia) on at England's expense in the major competitions; yet allow him to field a flotilla of foreign imports in the domestic competitions.

A little enlightened self-interest would not go amiss at HQ.

Until these sort of problems are addressed at the highest levels England will only pay lip-service to ambition. Until the interests of clubs are subordinated to what's good for England no progress will be made. Until the people who administer English football wake up to the danger of putting club before county – no progress is possible.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Built-In Crap Detectors

All red-blooded males like Playboy magazine. It's full of very pretty and very alluring girls artfully posing with little or no clothes on. How could you be against that?

What is not so well-know is that Playboy, in the early days at least, was a leader in journalism. The Playboy Interviews featured such luminaries as Malcolm X, John Lennon, Ayn Rand, Bill Gates and Sir Paul McCartney – to name just a few.

One of my favourite interviews was with Ernest Hemingway, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature – and one-time cub reporter on the Kansas City Star. In the course of the interview, Papa Hemingway was asked a very serious question – something like “what is the most important quality you need to be a great writer?”.

Hemingway's reply has stuck with me for at least forty years. He simply replied, “a built-in, foolproof, crap detector.” Sounds injudiciously flippant for a Noble laureate but think about it. What he meant is that you need to be able to cut through all the nonsense and get right to what is important. Pretty good advice in anybody's game.

Which brings us neatly to the crisis at Norwich City Football Club. Peter Grant, erstwhile saviour and all-round Scots twit had gone. The results have gone completely pear-shaped. In their televised game against bottom side QPR Norwich were worse than dreadful. The gossip lines are full of the fans frustrations and remedies. A lot of nonsense is being peddled as gospel when, listen to Hemingway, the truth is actually staring fans, board and journalists in the face. Fact is: NCFC are not very good and not likely to be very good for the foreseeable future. The question is: why?

Only one journalist has adopted the Hemingway approach. Applying his “built-in, foolproof crap detector” he concluded that the Board leave a lot to be desired. In particular, he questioned whether the whole-hearted and well-meaning support of the majority shareholders, St Delia and Sir Michael, is sufficient to take the club forward. His thesis: it's not good enough being passionate and committed – you also have to be good at the job.

This makes sense. Lots of people are passionate in their support for the local football team, but not many of them would make good members of the board, managers or chief executives. Passion and hard work can only take you so far – then you need to be good at the job. No-one could doubt the passion Gruntie Grantie brought to the manager's desk. problem was – he just wasn't good enough. It's not a crime. It's just the truth.

Now, the board should adopt the same approach. They should ask themselves whether their avowed and heart-felt passion for the club is really going to turn things around – or is it just not enough. Already, we have stories erupting telling us that Delia might sell. How the idiots who think she is better than sliced bread can square that circle is quite beyond me.

If the board are honest they would get rid of Numptie Neil Doncaster and fall on their own swords. What the fans want is a winning team. They are not interested in “prudence” - whatever that means. If NCFC are going to sink – they might as well go out in a blaze of debt. At least it will be interesting!

It is, after all, the board's “prudence” that is the cause of the present predicament. After trousering the 25 million for achieving Premiership status, they refused to spend bit money on players whilst the parachute payments were in place. Now, having wasted the two years and run out of money from lucrative land deals, they have only themselves to blame.

Norwich need to ditch Delia and get a major shareholder with real ambition and real cash. How about another one of the Glazers? Worked well enough for Man Utd. If I were Delia, I'd advertise. Football Club for sale. Lots of potential. Massive crowds every week despite terrible results. Solvent. Apply Carrow Road.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Crimson Tide

A particularly un-noteworthy film starring Gene Hackman and Denzil Washington features an allusion entirely lost on UK audiences. The star of the film is the fictional submarine USS Alabama – a nuclear powered ballistic missile boat whose mission is to counter a fictional Russian megalomaniac who is threatening to launch an attack against the USA. Because the University of Alabama's football team is known as the Crimson Tide, the title of the film makes perfect sense to audiences in America – and is lost to the rest of the world.

Most of the excitement in the film concerns the conflict between Hackman and Washington, who cannot agree on what course of action to take when communications are garbled, Hackman believing they must launch a strike to take out the Russians before they can launch, Washington holding that they must re-establish communications so as to be sure they are not starting a nuclear war by mistake. Quite a good idea not to start a nuclear holocaust by mistake one would imagine.

What the audience doesn't realise is that, while this is a work of fiction, it is also is a fairly accurate depiction of naval communications.

Navies operate a different system than the rest of the forces – or the rest of the world for that matter. Because, they say, their ships are always manned and always listening, they simply broadcast messages over and over, hoping that the ships will eventually get the ones meant for them. The senders have no way of knowing if a message is received and read or not. They just assume that if they keep sending the messages, eventually they will all get read by the folks that need to. Interesting system – especially if you are carrying enough nuclear warheads to destroy most of the known world. Touch a large piece of wood – it has worked for the last 40 years, let's hope it continues!!

Which brings us neatly to emails. Email operates pretty much like naval communications. Lots and lots of messages are floating around out in cyberspace and we, the consumers, just trust that someone is listening – and hopefully that someone is the someone we sent the message to! We assume this works quite well, but we have no real way of knowing. Some people add tags that are supposed to flag when the recipient reads the message, but these are few and far between and most people simply assume if the message isn't bounced back by the recipient's mail server – it must have got there. So, when you send an email and get no reply, it may be because it hasn't been read yet, or it has got lost in the system, or whoever you sent it to just can't be bothered to reply! How to tell which?

You can't really.

Therefore, email is a very imperfect system. So, as a matter of fact, is snail mail. While the mail strike is on – people will expect delays. So far – so good. Even in ordinary times some mail doesn't make it to the destination. Some gets lost in the system and turns up years later; some the lazy, irresponsible postman throws in the bin (yes, it happens, but fortunately not very often); some goes to the wrong house and your neighbours can't resist opening it to see what you're up to and then are too embarrassed to hand it on. The list is long. We assume when we post a letter it will get there, A dangerous assumption!

Where does this lead us? Back to the phone, Never mind the paper-less office, the technocrats who drive the communication revolution, the internet gurus who drive us to the computer to cure every ill – facts are - if you want to be sure that someone gets your message – you better get them on the phone and speak to them.

Everything else is problematical.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

Waterloo Road

I think I done seen 'bout everything, when I see an elephant fly!

Great song – great lyrics – from Disney's Dumbo – as I recall.

Even better, Waterloo Road is back next week on the small screen. I'm an addict. Can't get enough of it. It reminds me of that old saying, “It hurts so good!” Yes, it is really that bad.

Today's EDP carried an interview with one of the stars of the show, Denise Welch, who plays French teacher Steph Haydock in the series. She's the one described as a “man-eater”. She is forever chasing the Head, Jack and never quite getting him.

She provides much of the compulsive nature of the viewing. Great scenes where she is in her classroom and berating the kids for their obsessive interest in personality instead of substance, their lack of real passion for French, rather than their real passion for each other. Honest, it's so substantive and so real. Happens every day in real schools. Honest.

Any road, the actress who play Steph is interviewed about her role in the series. She spouts the obligatory clap-trap about wishing she had more challenging roles, etc. Denise reveals that she once thought of becoming a drama teacher for real, but she was persuaded by her parents not to. Well done, Mom and Dad!!

She goes on to express her admiration for real teachers and reckons that, “they have a harder job than ever before, mostly because of the lack of respect they get from the pupils”. She comments, “ Kids are completely taking over the asylum. Teachers have absolutely no powers of discipline, and unfortunately the parents of these horrible children don't support the teachers at all. I'm not in the hang 'em high brigade, but I certainly don't think that being pulled out by the ear and being slapped over the knuckles with a ruler did any of us any harm.”

I think I done seen 'bout everything!

Let's see if I have this straight. This actress reckons that discipline in schools and the role of teachers in the system is becoming more challenging. She thinks that parents aren't supporting the teachers and a bit of corporal punishment would be a good thing.

Everything she does in her career on television is designed to make sure this does not happen. Can she really be this inane? The programme of which she is so proud of her role in works diligently to present the antithesis of good practice and good discipline in schools. Children watching the antics of the teachers at Waterloo Road can only be brain-washed to believe that teachers are unsupportive, sex-crazed morons who spend all day every day ignoring the learning needs of the children and focussing entirely on their own moronic adolescent imaginations and libidos. Teachers spend all their time gossiping about each other or speculating on who's having a relations ship with whom.

So like real life.

I love watching Waterloo Road because it's so bad. I think it might now be time to ban it in order to improve discipline in schools.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Settled in to watch the NFL on Sunday night after a hard day's gardening. Cut the grass; trimmed some hedges; did some weeding - it is almost never-ending!

Chiefs were playing out on the coast against San Diego. I presumed that this would be a very late game and not feature in the television coverage here in the UK. I was watching Denver get thumped by Indianapolis - always entertaining to see Denver lose! - when the score from San Diego started to appear on the ticker. Must have been an early kick-off.

By half-time the score was 16-6 in favour of the home team and I could see that: A) LT (LaDainian Tomlinson) had already rushed for over 100 yards and B) the Chiefs had failed to mount much of an offence (again!). i was tired after working all day, so I went to bed, secure in the knowledge that when I checked on the final score on Monday I would find that the Chiefs would be 1-3 and KC coach, Herm Edwards, would have benched quarterback Damon Huard at half-time and gone with Brodie Croyle at QB for the second half - all in vain of course.

I was pleasantly wrong!

Damon Huard played the whole game and completed 17 of 29 passes for 284 yards, comfortably eclipsing Sand Diego QB, Philip Rivers. LT did rush for 132 yards, but most of them were in the first half. After the break, the Chiefs effectively closed him down. But, the real story was the performance of first year wide receiver, Dwayne Bowe, who grabbed 8 Huard passes for 164 yards and a TD. His yardage was the second best this week by a receiver in the NFL. This is only his fourth game.

More impressively, the Chiefs defence did not allow a score in the second half.

Back to Bowe. He has after only four games shown that he is the pass threat the Chiefs have been missing for some time. When things go wrong; it's the QB who get the blame. Bowe is the QB's best friend! He is the deep threat the Chiefs haven't had for some time. He is the "go over the middle, jump high, catch the ball and get hit" kind of receiver that all teams need. He can make yards after the catch. What started out as likely to be a rebuilding year now looks very different. Bowe has almost done this single-handed.

Lest we get carried away, it's well to remember that he is a rookie - and, therefore, likely to make mistakes. But, if he stays healthy, he could turn an average season into something else.

For example: I remember foolishly forecasting that the Chiefs would massacre the Indianapolis Colts in the play-offs when they last met at Arrowhead - say two seasons ago. After all, at that time the Colts game was entirely based on Peyton Manning being able to read defenses and changing the calls at the line of scrimmage. This, I was convinced, he would not be able to do at Arrowhead with the loudest crowd in the NFL baying for his blood. Unfortunately, I was wrong and the Colts won.

So, when the Chiefs went to Indy to play then again in the first round of the play-offs last year, again I foolishly forecast a Chiefs win. I reasoned: the Colts have the worst run defense in the NFL. Chiefs have 2000 yard tailback, Larry Johnson. Therefore, the Chiefs will run the ball at will and all day. The high-powered Colts offense will never get the ball. Chiefs win. Wrong again. In the post season the Colts suddenly, and mysteriously, managed to shut down the run - full stop. The mystery? They put nine men in the box, because they didn't think the Chiefs could throw. They were right.

That makes me 0-2 in forecasting Chiefs play-off games.

It's a bit early to start predicting, but Dwayne Bowe could be a large part of the answer to the Chiefs problems. For, while they have had Johnson to run the ball, they have had almost no-one to catch it! And, almost no defense.

Now, with running lanes opened up because the opposition cannot put nine men in the box, ala Indy, if they hope to cover Bowe adequately; thereby allowing Johnson to be more effective on the ground; and, with Bowe's threat opening space for some other receivers (Tony Gonzales for one!) - the Chiefs might have some balance in their offence.

Suddenly they have discovered a defense to boot!

No points allowed in the second half of the last two games. One swallow does not a summer make - but it's looking good!

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Cressida Dick

As a jury is sworn in to hear the case against the Metropolitan Police, it may well be wise to reflect on the case which is at the heart of the matter.

For those who have forgotten, an innocent Brazillian was shot seven times in the head by the police - who thought he was a terrorist.

Strangely, the only course of action open to the family seems to be this action under Health and Safety Regulations.  What is even stranger is the treatment of the officer in charge of the operation on the day - the aptly named Cressida Dick.

Cressida is the heroine of Shakespeare's play, Troilus and Cressida, who abandons her duty and dallies in the enemies camp, albeit somewhat by mistake.  Sounds like a real Ms Dick to me.  She should be standing up and taking the flak for the officers she commanded that day.  Instead, we have this report in the press:

"One of the senior officers in charge on the day Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead by police is to be promoted.

Commander Cressida Dick is to become a deputy assistant commissioner, the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) announced on Tuesday.

Mr Menezes was shot eight times in the head at Stockwell Underground station.

The family of the Brazilian man said they were "absolutely disgusted and outraged at what is just one more slap in the face".

It really is beyond belief.  Commenting at the start of the trial, counsel for the de Menezes family characterised the police action that day not as just mistaken but criminally negligent.

Sounds about right.  The actual officers who did the shooting are to carry the nightmare of what happened to their grave.  Dick gets promoted.

It's a funny old world.

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Price of a Pint

Beer v. Petrol

In my previous incarnation as a children's entertainer (school teacher) I had some favourite lessons I could always trot out when things were either not going very well – or when the class was in need of some thinking practice.

To get them thinking I would pose the question: why is beer four times more expensive than petrol?

Think about it. A gallon of petrol equals about 4 litres. Petrol is about a pound a litre – or is shortly to be according to the news media. That makes the cost of a gallon of petrol as £5 – to keep to round numbers. Beer is about £2.80 a pint for lager. That's about £11 pounds a gallon. Therefore, beer is about twice as expensive as petrol. Why?

Ask children this question and they will come up with some convincing answers. Beer is taxed highly by the government. Actually, half of the price of a litre of petrol is tax, for beer the numbers are less. Beer is a luxury commodity whereas petrol is a necessity. Possibly true, but that would be a reason for taxing petrol more – after all if beer is a luxury you can just stop buying it!

Just to complicate things, I would then ask the youngsters to consider what is required to produce a litre of beer and a litre of petrol. For beer you need some water (almost free) some hops (a plant that grows naturally and is, therefore a renewable resource). A brewery – some expense here in plant, buildings and machinery. A bottling plant to make your product easy to store and move about. A transport network with lorries to transport your product to the destinations. Pubs, clubs and supermarkets to retail the product.

For petrol the scene is seemingly similar – but much more expensive. For raw materials you need oil instead of water. To get the oil you need (in the case of North Sea oil) drilling rigs and pipelines – not to mention the costs of finding the oil in the first place! Then instead of a brewery you need an oil refinery. Very expensive kit required here. Then you need the same transport system as for beer – whacking great lorries to move the stuff to petrol stations. At the station you will need staff at about the same wages as the pub staff to retail the stuff.

In short, petrol costs far more to find, refine, transport and retail than beer. It is taxed more highly. Therefore, common sense would tell you that petrol must be more expensive than beer. Wrong, as we have seen.

It's actually half the price.

At this point kids would want to know the answer. I never had it. Still don't.

If anyone does know why beer is twice as expensive as petrol, I wish they would tell me.