Outcome and Intent

A rugby match in England at the weekend featured a player being sent off early in the second half.  One point of interest was that the team now reduced to 14 men was sitting low in the table, but fought back to within just seven points of the much higher-placed opponents, all the more creditworthy because rugby is a sport where a one-man advantage counts for a lot.

That, however, isn’t the point of this post.  The thing that struck me when I saw the report of the match was the reasoning for the red card.  To quote The Times: “The pivotal moment came when a towering kick was launched towards Le Roux… As he leapt high and early, Le Roux made contact with Heem’s shoulder, his body twisting out of control and he landed with a sickening thump… There was nothing that Heem could have done to avoid the collision, but such matters are judged on outcome rather than intent and the referee had not option but to brandish a red card.”

Really?  The reporter here seems to give every indication that the “offender” (Heems) was innocent in all of this, and the graphic photo alongside rather confirms his role as a relative bystander.  I should state here that I am a supporter of neither side, but as usual flag up the incident as a general point about sport and perhaps life.

I guess I was particularly struck by the story  because it followed my recent observation that football is also tending to take the “outcome rather than intent” line.  One very good example occurred recently in a game between the Republic of Ireland and Wales, when the Welsh player Ramsey turned and tried to control a bouncing ball with his foot (involving what the press next day called a pirouette), only to find that an Irish player had ducked his head down towards chest height, receiving a kick in the head for his effort.  Ramsey was promptly given a yellow card (caution), but it should have been obvious that there was not the slightest intention to kick the opponent, whose head was put in a dangerous position.

Even more obvious is the problem where attacking players carry out the bicycle kick, a sort of stationary Fosbury flop where they are facing away from the goal but then fall backwards and kick the ball over their own head.  Or, of course, miss it and land flat on their back!  But the odd result here is that if the shot comes off it is hailed as a wonder goal – most fans could describe the scorer and circumstances for one of these rarissime events – whereas if there is a slight miscue and the boot hits an opponent (for the above reasons, almost certainly on or near the head) the attacker is likely to get a yellow card.  This is not sensible.

More than in the past, I think, we see referees run over to an injured player and then, on seeing something serious, produce a yellow or red card for the offender.  The natural effect, surely, is to encourage players to over-react when injured.

These are just some reasons for wishing to see these sports move away from the “outcome” criteria.  No doubt there could be a problem with an insistence on intent.  For example, people weren’t happy some years ago when it was suggested that players could be booked for wild  but unsuccessful challenges – in other words, a skilful opponent might have jumped over a flailing leg, avoiding injury himself, but it still wasn’t enough for the culprit to be saved.  That way you wouldn’t  hear the expression “It’s just as well he didn’t make contact there…”  But the more I see these things, the more I suspect that that focus on intent (a scything tackle, or a punch that misses the target) should be the criterion, and not the outcome.



Red, Yellow… Orange?

I’m back to football for this post.  Sorry if you’re not interested in football (soccer for North American readers) but you have to admit that the game produces some good talking points, irrespective of the action.

What I’d like to suggest is the introduction of a third card for a particular kind of offence.  At present, as you probably know, there is a red card for various offences that can be categorised as violent or dangerous, or for collecting two yellow cards in a match.  The yellow cards are not exactly discretionary, but clearly have a greater element of subjectivity, as they range from late tackles through time-wasting and dissent, on to things like removing a shirt in that most curious form of goal celebrations.

This umbrella of yellow-card offences is a bit too unwieldy, it seems to me.  Of course there is a need for cautions, which is what the yellow card essentially means, but the current system doesn’t overcome the cynicism which players deploy to spoil dangerous attacks by the other side. You even (scandalously) hear TV pundits saying that a defender had no choice but to “take one for the team” as he pulls an opponent back, and recently a Manchester United player was openly criticised for being naive when allowing an opponent to go past him and set up a goal.

I reckon that there is scope here for a card between the current two – orange will do – with a correspondingly mid-range penalty of being sent off for ten minutes.  They do this for a yellow card in rugby union, which adopted the sin-bin from ice hockey.  Since a football match is longer than rugby, maybe the time off should be longer, 15 minutes, perhaps, but that’s a detail.

The important thing is that it would be used to punish and thereby deter the cynical late challenge when a guy would otherwise be running clear, typically in a breakaway run.  Oh, I know my proposal wouldn’t deter such cheating in the last minute of a game, such as the shirt-tug by a Manchester City player yesterday against Arsenal, but I’m not claiming it would solve everything.  What I do feel is that the blatant “I’ll take a yellow here” obstruction, at any point in the game, is not only unfair for opposition and fans, but also cheats the neutral, who is almost by definition watching the game to see some good action, and preferably goals.  Goals are so rare in football that any attempt to reduce the chances must be a bad thing.

And because goals are so rare, penalties will always have a big effect on the result, so the orange card could also be used for players who are seen to dive (that is, to simulate contact inside the penalty area and earn a spot-kick).  At the moment the balance of risk and reward is unfair: the reward for conning the referee is great, while the risk of punishment – if it comes at all – is likely to be a trivial yellow card.  Make that a temporary sending-off and it would be a fairer equation.  Referees can already give a red card for denying an “obvious” goal-scoring opportunity; so it makes perfect sense (does it not?) to introduce a lesser charge for a likely or probable opportunity.

Football is one of the slowest sports to evolve when it comes to accepting new rules, so I don’t hold out a lot of hope for this in the near future.  After all, ask any group of fans about using technology to review key decisions (as they do in cricket, rugby, tennis, etc) and they’ll almost certainly agree that there is scope for this; yet apart from some  isolated experiments such as in the Dutch league we seem to be no nearer doing anything.  But introducing a third card would not involve any technology, or cause any delay in the game.  All it would require would be a recognition – easy to see for any experienced referee – of the deliberate denial of a likely goal-scoring opportunity by means of an “off-the-ball” block, trip or obstruction.  Come on – as one might almost say, “The future’s bright, the future’s….”


How to Lose Customers

Last month I noticed that my mobile phone bill had gone up by about £2.  I don’t have a large bill (almost £16 per month) and of course £2 will not reduce me to penury, but I thought I would check my bill to see what extra charges I’d incurred.  There were definitely no extra calls, my text limit remains untouched at the totally theoretical 5000, so I just hoped that I had not somehow ramped up data usage.

Everything was normal.  I therefore phoned Vodafone (for it is they), and a pleasant-sounding woman checked my account before smiling broadly – I could tell, even over the phone – and giving me the reason.  When I took out the contract (over two years earlier) they had applied a 15% discount to the original cost of £18.50.  Now I was into the last three months of this contract, and eligible for an upgrade – and so the discount had been removed.

It was the “and so” that amazed me.  Why was this a consequence of nearing the end of a contract?  Surely this was a time to be luring customers to stay?   The lady didn’t want to get involved in this. As usually happens in such cases she said she could see my point but could do nothing about it.  Meantime she would hand me over to a colleague…

And the colleague of course turned out to be from the upgrade department, asking me what I would like to do in terms of an upgrade.  Well, the simple answer is, and was, that after such a spectacular piece of corporate meanness I wouldn’t be upgrading with them at all, but would certainly start afresh with another company.

The net result is that I’ll be part of the customer churn.  Oh, and Vodafone will gain £6 over the three months.   As a shareholder I have to say that I am less than entranced with the extra profit, but totally despairing that a company can risk driving people away like that.


Comic Strips

There has always been a case – indeed, a need – for a change of strip for football teams, in the event of a clash of colours.  When there was a chance of confusion the away team would change to a second outfit, and that was the end of it.

With the modern need to flog replica kit at every opportunity teams now wear “away” strips simply to encourage a second form of income, but I’m not sure the psychology is right.  I recall a match last season in which Arsenal were beaten in an away game in Europe and in which they wore their blue strip when there was not the slightest hint of a clash with the home team.  This seems to me to be an immediate risk to results, for the simple reason that one is reinforcing the idea of being away from home.

In football, as in various other sports, there has always been a home advantage.  Sports psychologists and statisticians have long debated the reasons for this, but whatever reasons they come up with the statistical effect is obvious.  It may be less pronounced these days in the higher leagues of football, thanks to such things as standardised pitches and more comfortable travel before games, but the bias is still there.

The other thing that has evolved in recent years is the stress on small details, and marginal improvements in sporting performance.  Whether in terms of physical training or nutrition, or analysis of opponents, the small percentages count.  And it’s in that context that I don’t understand why clubs are willing to overlook the small but significant element of home advantage when choosing kit.

If you are going to be playing away, why reinforce that with the strip?  Surely Arsenal would have felt more at home (in all senses) wearing red and white in Germany.  And I am convinced that my own team, Swansea City, would have made a better fist of a lousy 0-3 defeat at Newcastle last year if they had stuck with their all-white instead of that naff green-and-black hooped outfit that looked more like a lower-order rugby team, and which actually blended so well with the green grass and massive dark shadows at St James’ Park that they seemed camouflaged and unable to see one another.

Of course, at the other extreme it’s possible to run into trouble with more lurid colours as well, as this little clip will illustrate.  That’ll teach ’em…


Spotting a Fraud

The constant  evolution of scams and fraud, both online and by phone,  makes for a modern  game of cops and robbers where – just as one  security breach  is identified – another  weakness  becomes apparent.   I guess it will go on and on(line), just as it has always done, in some form, since money was first invented.   Like most other people I do try to look after my data and property, but there are  a couple of features of online security that I don’t follow.   Perhaps you have the answer.

I just got an email from a financial institution, addressed to me (in reply to a transaction completed a few minutes earlier) and therefore pretty obviously ok.   It wasn’t asking for anything, just confirming some details.   But the thing that struck me was the reassuring note that I could check my postcode at the top of the letter, as proof that this was from the bank in question.  

Now as a layman I can see that to have a correct postcode  strongly implies  that this is not a boiler-room scam, sent out simultaneously to hundreds or thousands of people.   But the thing that has always puzzled me here is this: if scammers are as ingenious and sophisticated as we are (rightly) told, why could they not get hold of data such as postcode?   And if they then used the right one, the person receiving the email would be very likely to believe it must be genuine.

Similarly, we used to be told (and maybe still are) that a secure site will have a little green padlock symbol alongside the URL.   Yes, I’ve seen and trusted that symbol for decades, but again, if everything else can be imitated – apparently with bogus or cloned websites – then why could a scammer not mimic a green padlock symbol?

I’m asking this not in order to criticise the banks or institutions which might be targeted for scams, but simply out of puzzlement.   Of course, there are reasons for criticism – the way that Talktalk were hacked last year suggests pretty basic failings.   In subsequent months I was phoned on many occasions by people purporting to come from Talktalk, but there were always enough clues to show they were attempted frauds.   However, when I raised this with Talktalk I was told that it was simply a fluke that people were using the company name – to which I can only say it’s so odd that no one ever tried to tell me they were from BT or any other company.   I feel pretty sure my name and number, at least, had become available.

Then, very  recently, I rang them about another issue and after a few early questions was asked to go through some “security” steps.   These comprised things like my full address and postcode.   If I were trying to hi-jack someone’s account, the chances are that I would have had access to such obvious details anyway – the same is true for date of birth.   It was just a pity that Talktalk didn’t make use of the excellent new system I had already signed up to, whereby you repeat a phrase so that the unique qualities of your voice are analysed to prove who you are.

So in the case of this actual company, I would have to say that they are responding to a known problem,  albeit in a slightly patchy way.   But there, I’ve got into criticising one company, when all I wanted to do was raise the issue of details (postcode, etc) which allegedly show that a message is genuine when in fact they could surely be part of a fraud in themselves.

Sorry really is the hardest word

I’m going to take a chance and write a post today with a political theme.  You see, I didn’t set out to put politics – especially my political views – into a blog.   And I’m still not going to do that.  But last night I heard that the Prime Minister had characterised the views of those opposing the bombing of Isis in Syria as “a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”.  And – without straying too far into politics – that seems to me a very good prompt for a comment by an “ordinary guy”.

It was only yesterday that I was discussing this horribly complex situation with my wife, and owning up to being about 55%-45% in favour of supporting the move to bombing.  In other words, I can see arguments on both sides, but if I had my hand on a voting button – or had to follow the absurdly archaic voting procedures in the Commons – I would reluctantly be among the Ayes.

I know that when Scottish independence was rejected last year by a margin of 55-45 it was described pretty well everywhere as a resounding vote in favour of the status quo.  It never felt like that to me: the morning after the result I stood on the station platform in Linlithgow and counted 20 people – they would in theory have voted 11-9, so all it would have needed was for one of them to change sides and it would be equal.  And in the case of this Syrian decision it is even more finely judged, because I am sure that a whole lot of people are very, very torn on the best thing to do.

Over recent weeks there has been some insincere stuff from leading Conservatives about how much they respect Jeremy Corbyn as a man of principle in his pacifist beliefs.  It always looked to me like a way of flagging up the pacifism and hoping to isolate him, rather than genuine respect.  Last night’s crude reference to opponents of bombing as “a bunch of terrorist sympathisers” might have been enough to change the balance of feeling in my own mind – enough for that one person on the platform, if you like – as the mask slipped and the polite deference gave way to prejudice.

Now, I’ve made my view clear there, but I don’t want to pursue it further. I even hesitated about writing this post, until I tuned in to the live coverage of the Commons debate just now and saw at least four speakers in the first twenty minutes ask the PM to apologise for his use of words, and the insult caused.  Would he?  Heck, no.  Every single time he ploughed on with his prepared statement or came out with the ridiculous counter-claim that there was honour in voting against the motion just as there was in voting for it.  By ignoring the questions he just drew more and more attention to the accusation and the hurt feelings.

Would it really have caused so much trouble to apologise?  Surely he could have trotted out the standard line about being taken out of context, or with even more conviction say that he had not been referring to honourable members but simply to … well, an anonymous bunch of sympathisers.  In either case, he could even have added that it was late at night and there had been a lot of pressure building over weeks:  any loose use of language was not intended to demean members who were wrestling with their consciences.  In short, some admission that the words had been said (he never denied it) would have earned him more sympathy, not less.  But he couldn’t do it.  No surrender. Macho stuff from the despatch box.

Well, I don’t know if any Member of Parliament will have changed their voting intentions on the basis of these five words, and the absence of the single one “Sorry”.  But it has certainly altered the opinion of this member of the public: that is, it has increased my scorn for party politics, Parliament and the bullying inherent in the very vocabulary of whips.   If I had been 55-45 against bombing would that have made me a terrorist sympathiser?  Of course not.  So without at all expanding on the rights and wrongs of the debate, I just wanted to express my sorrow that it should have come to this nastiness.  Sorrow… sorry: it wouldn’t be hard to say, would it?









Crying Wolf

“Yellow Warning”.  Last night the forecast on my smartphone said there were warnings for snow and ice across Scotland and the North of England.   Soon after noticing this I found myself watching the BBC weather forecasts and –  on both the local and national slots – there were dire warnings about dangerous roads early in the day for this part of the world.

Since we had planned to drive into Newcastle (about 20 miles) we came to the rapid conclusion that it would be better to wait until the afternoon, although in fact the morning suited us better.  After all, the yellow warning was in force until midday.

It was a surprise, therefore, to wake up to a cloudy and not especially cold morning.  In fact, it was four degrees, which you may or may not think is cold, but in any case it was enough to make us change tack and decide to do our shopping trip this morning after all.

Now, I’m not one of those who constantly forecasters for getting it wrong. I rely quite heavily on weather forecasts, in one way or another, and in general they are very good.  What I do find irritating, though, is this colour-coded warning system.   I realise that amber is quite severe, and casual observation suggests that when there’s an amber warning it does mean something.

Yellow, however, is pretty meaningless.  The vapid prose that accompanies these warnings can usually be condensed to something like: “It may rain/snow/blow in some or any of the places inside this very large area, but it may not”.  Crucially, the warnings always err on the side of caution, so that you end up being worried about what might happen, as opposed to what is likely. As was the case for us today.

The bigger problem is that with over-use, and with so many people not experiencing any problems, the warnings will be routinely ignored.  Just like the old fable about the little boy crying Wolf.    “Oh, I know they said there might be fog – but they’re always hyping things up.”  BANG!

Sweet Française

I’ve always been doubtful about films made on the basis of novels.  I know that the authors are very often involved, and usually pronounce themselves happy with the result, but in general it seems to me that film adaptations offer very limited and simplistic versions of the original fiction.

Whether or not this is an unfair prejudice of mine against the cinema, it was certainly reinforced by a recent visit to the local cinema to see Suite française.  I’d read good reports, and although I said I didn’t need to see it, having read both the original French version and the English translation (not showing off – it was in order to study the use of a particular grammatical issue, noted in another blog of mine), I couldn’t keep on refusing my wife’s invitation!

It turned out to be a pleasant enough evening, but very irritating all the same for someone who prefers the written word.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those pedants who objects to a film because the hub caps on the cars were not issued until a year after the scene in question, or because a character uses an expression which had not been coined by the alleged date.  No, this was a much more basic objection, and if I run through a few items here I hope you’ll see what I mean.

For a start, the novel I have on my table has about 500 pages.  The film opens with Part 2, round about page 318.  But hey, let’s not get bogged down in all that character-building or historical context – let’s just get going on the love interest!

For the main part of the love story (because that what the film becomes) the single most flagrant error is the way that Lucile and her German admirer get together.  In the novel she is sorely tempted to give in to his increasingly urgent advances (is the language old-fashioned enough?), but she refuses and sadly watches him drive out of the village with his soldiers.  In the film, not only does she not say no, she even initiates the rather silly encounter where they fumble their way to sex in a cupboard, almost in full view of Lucile’s mother-in-law.  As I say, we are not talking mis-matched hub-caps here – just a full-scale inversion of one of the central points of the novel.

Lucile drives off at the end with a résistant hidden in the car, and we hear in a voice-over that they worked together in Paris for the next four years.  There is a double irony in this invention, in that the author was herself deported (she subsequently died) soon after the draft of the novel was written, so this business of assuming four years of effort by Lucile is totally pointless.

Benoît, the communist résistant, has killed a German soldier both in the film and the novel, but whereas the novel refers to possible punishment for anyone who aids or abets him (with some tension regarding Lucile, not to mention Bruno), the film makers have thought it wise to introduce a totally new scene in which the local mayor is shot in the village square as a punishment for Benoît’s apparent escape.   It is such a detailed scene, with such a long build-up, that I really began to doubt my own memory, and had to check it up when I got home; I was relieved to find that it is indeed a total invention.

Oh, and of course at the end Lucile’s despotic mother-in-law is shown harbouring Benoît’s little daughter.  It may never have happened in the novel, but it certainly gives a nice soft-focus cameo scene of about ten seconds, just so that can become all soppy and warm to the old harridan after all.

And those are just the big things.  As I suggested earlier, I really don’t mind some artistic licence to explain things.  Who cares if Lucile knew about her absent husband’s infidelity before the invasion (as in the novel) or finds out about it only through looking at Bruno’s papers?  And I can even admire the way that the title Suite française becomes the title of a piece of music which Bruno plays at various points.  But how on earth anyone can give this title to the film when it has changed so much of the meaning of the novel, I don’t know.   All the film has done is take one narrative strand and embroider on it, adding a bit of sex and violence along the way.  Lucile may be portrayed as a sweet Française, but the film certainly didn’t win me over!


Goal celebrations in football go through fashions and phases, don’t they?  Back in about the 1960s people were horrified when, instead of a quick and embarrassing handshake as players trotted back to the re-start, there was a lot of apparent kissing and cuddling.  Then, towards the end of the century, there developed a range of eccentric celebrations, involving the rocking of imaginary babies or fairly erotic uses of corner flags, and this went on for some time.  Now, in addition to career-threatening knee-slides, it’s all about huddles and cuddles, not to mention fairly explicit kisses.

Now this is a little odd insofar as football is often held up as outrageously outdated in its sexual attitudes, and with allegedly no sympathy for homosexual activity.  We often read about the hounding of players who are suspected or accused of being gay.  Yet when it comes to goal celebrations they are all over one another , not content with high fives or manly hugs, but all heads-together intimacy.

This is only one of the curious – and rather annoying – contradictions of the phenomenon.  I mean, when players feel the merest touch of a hand on their large, well-muscled bodies they collapse in a heap; if the offending hand goes near their face they go down like a boxer on the wrong end of drubbing.  But after scoring a goal players will stand facing the crowd and miraculously bear the weight of team-mates leaping on to their shoulders from behind with little or no warning.   Players can even survive being on the bottom of a ten-man pile-up, surely crushed and asphyxiated, but instead, coming up last and brushing themselves down as calmly as if they had just come out of the fitting room in Fat Face. The effects of the goal are just so amazing!

Of course, there is an element of calculation in all this, as can be seen in the cases of non-celebration.  Those who score against former clubs often manage to stifle any expression of triumph, even managing to look embarrassed.  Meanwhile, a player who scores when the side is 0-3 down with ten minutes to go will also by-pass the cuddles as he retrieves the ball with ruthless single-mindedness to hurry back to the centre circle for what he hopes is a rapid kick-off.

I can understand this.  In my own current sport of bowls, it feels great for the team to celebrate a good shot noisily and with hand- or shoulder-slapping, in the knowledge that the opposition will feel all the more deflated.  In other words, there is an element of intimidation in the celebration – and it’s harder to intimidate someone when you are getting a hammering: you just have to get on with it and hope for a miracle.

But I don’t want to be too cynical.  The scoring system in football means that there is such a premium on putting the ball in the net that when it happens it often does seem like a bit of a miracle.  The scorer is briefly elevated into another form of existence: just look at how the dour, earnest faces of these hard-bitten professionals are transformed into the innocence of childhood by their achievement. It’s a look of such simple, unalloyed joy that you wonder if there is anything – really, anything! – to compare with it.  And you can’t celebrate that with a simple handshake…

The Asbo Effect

I hadn’t really paid much attention to the signs on lamp-posts in the streets off Sheffield’s Abbeydale Road.  Ok, so they were bilingual, and seemed to be encouraging people not to commit crime.  Is that such a big deal?

Police notice

Let’s co-operate

Later that day I went for a walk up towards leafy Nether Edge, which most people agree is one of the nicer parts of Sheffield.  Rounding a street corner I came across a group of lads in the road, some with a ball and others wheeling round on bikes.  Let’s say that they all had skin darker than mine. Suddenly two of the youngest started coming towards me, shouting something like “what do you mean?”, though in honesty I couldn’t understand what they were saying.  It certainly wasn’t “Welcome to our neighbourhood”.

The two oldest ones moved towards me, staring and looking puzzled.  Perhaps any puzzlement came from the fact that I was smiling benignly at them – after, all, they were chanting “Asbo, Asbo!” and at first I (rather stupidly) thought they were making fun of me for being a likely offender.  In fact, I probably wasn’t thinking entirely clearly because I was just a bit worried.

Anyway, without dramatising further, I checked where my phone was and carried on, with just a small look over my shoulder.  And then, to my shame, chose a different route back.  It was only when I got back to where I was staying and saw another poster on a lamp-post that I began to understand.

Warning Notice

Asbo, Asbo!

This time the message was all about the way that the local police and other authorities were now permitted to disperse groups of more than eight young people, and to force them to return to their home address.  So maybe the lads had seen me in my blue short-sleeved shirt, and with an armband that in reality was an elbow support for tendonitis, and assumed or feared that I was some kind of official.

Whether or not that was the case, they certainly saw me as someone to be provoked and teased.  It may, of course, have happened in any case.  But I couldn’t help wondering if the official hard line was not having the effect of making people more intent on trouble.  When Asbos were first introduced it was soon realised that one of the unintended consequences was that youths began to see them as a badge of honour.  This reaction in Sheffield seemed to me to be the same kind of thing.

And of course, the other point which came out for me was to feel – for the first time, as it happens, ever so much aware of what it feels like to be part of a minority group, and to have insults or vague threats shouted at you in the street.  Nervous; rather humilated; and generally shaken up.  Sheffield is generally held up as a model for successful racial harmony. I hope it stays that way.