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.


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!

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.


Fuel Prices

The posts which make up this blog are not linked in any obvious way, although I guess some themes may develop.  So there is quite a jump from the previous note about commentators’ sayings to a view of petrol on sale down the road. [Ok, so that other post was a while ago – sorry. This one was written early on, but I put it in another blog by mistake.]

ImageThe odd thing for me here is the fact that (uniquely in terms of retail in the UK) petrol is always sold  with a decimal point of a penny.  For heaven’s sake, we did away with the half-penny way back, early eighties at latest, yet now we have this theoretical precision.  (By the way, don’t imagine that against decimals – on the contrary, I’m a huge fan.)  It’s just that this obsession with pricing things as £999, or £9.99, or 99p seems pretty daft, especially when it introduces a whole new unit that you can’t even pay.

Oh, and I also realise that occasionally you come across places like Asda where they sell petrol at something like 126.7 pence, which is at least getting away from the “.9” syndrome, but still seems really arbitrary.  It does at least make you look harder – like that car showroom I saw the other day where the cars had prices like £9,981 or £11,482 –  values that look real, instead of the formulaic £11,499, etc.

Anyway, what is odd here, apart from the use of a non-existent unit of currency, is the idea that there is any real saving attached.  Let’s say that our local garage (picture) sold petrol at 131 pence.  Someone who put 40 litres in their car would pay 4 pence more, on a bill that is already £52.36.  Would they really worry about the 4p? (Think of a ten-thousandth of the bill, and rejoice in saving 7 of those!).

Petrol prices are always a source of irritation or outrage, depending on how combustible a person you are.  Sure, they can seem high. But to satisfy curiosity, I did some sums to work out what proportion of salary a fill-up would have cost me when I started work back in 1972, as opposed to now (using an equivalent post on the salary scale for the modern version).  And the answer was that whereas my monthly salary back then would have bought about 40 fill-ups, my modern equivalent would get about 38.  It’s within any sensible margin of error, isn’t it, to say that things haven’t changed very much.  Though the price in my own town, with just one service-station holding an obvious monopoly for miles around, is coincidentally at least 3p per litre more than it is in most outlets 20 miles away. Strange, isn’t it?


Zeroing in on Postcodes

On a recent visit my brother-in-law complained to me that he had had terrible  problems with an insurance company which refused to acknowledge his existence.  At first I shared his puzzlement – especially as he was sitting in front of me – but as he recounted the conversation I suddenly realised the problem.

He had been trying to access his records online, but was consistently denied access, being told that he could not possibly live where he did. When he finally rang up to resolve the issue he repeated the postcode and was immediately able to access his records via an agent. And it was at this point that it was pointed out to him what you too may by now have realised :when trying to access his account he was using an “O” instead of a zero (0).  And computer say no!

This set me thinking how odd it is that the admirable postcode system used in this country includes the zero anyway.  For anyone not familiar with our system I should explain that we (broadly) use a six or seven-digit code, with the first half made up of two letters to denote a town or city plus one or two digits to indicate districts in that area: so someone in the centre of Newcastle would be NE1, whereas out in the country here, 20 miles out, we are NE46.  Then after that the system is rather more arbitrary, but almost always has three characters, a numeral plus two letters, which allows sorting offices, advertisers and satnavs to drill down and identify particular streets or indeed parts of streets.  It’s great.

But since there are so many permutations for that second section of the code, why use the potentially ambiguous zero?  (The reason it’s ambiguous is because for some strange reason British people don’t say”zero”, but o as in “oh” when it comes to phone numbers, and then postcodes.)  However, I believe most districts use only a few numbers anyway, and rely on the letters to indicate location. My brother-in-law’s case can’t be unique.  On the one hand it’s quite alarming that there are still people out there who don’t know how their postcode is made up, but equally it wouldn’t have taken much to avoid the confusion.  It’s too late to change things now – it creates havoc with bank accounts, passport applications, proof of identity, etc – so maybe a little investment in an advertising programme would help.  Along the lines of: “When is an ‘o’ not an ‘o’?”…




A Hot Topic

It seems to me quite strange the way that we have held on all these years to the Fahrenheit scale for temperature.  Sure, anyone over the age of about 50 who was brought up in the UK had to learn the system, but then again such people had to deal with pounds, shillings and pence when they were small, and they’ve long since learned to do without that.

Is it the fact that North America has retained Fahrenheit which makes it still so resistant to all attempts to kill it off?  Our Met Office has been using dual indicators (degrees F and what they always call Celsius) since the 1970s.  the original plan was to use both for a while, with the Celsius number as a back-up, then invert the two so that Celsius became the main figure, and then finally to forget Fahrenheit.  But it’s still there…

Now let’s admit that if you have never used the Celsius/Centigrade system it is comfortable and natural to rely on Fahrenheit.  But really, is there any contest from a logical point of view?  Let’s suppose that we had no scale at all right now for measuring heat, and someone came along and said: “Ok, guys, I have this great system. It starts at 32 degrees – that’s when water freezes, right?  And  I reckon there are 180 steps towards boiling, and so water will boil at 212 degrees.  It’s simple!”  And everyone would carry on with whatever they were doing at the time…

Until, that is, another thoughtful person came along and said: “Tell you what, why not start from a base figure of zero – no warmth, and water freezes – and give a value of 100 to boiling.  Then we just make 100 divisions.”  I reckon that if we put aside prejudices and imagine that “blank page of A4” scenario, the latter system would win.  It would have saved many weeks of tuition time for school pupils, for a start!

The trouble is, there is still a lot of prejudice there.  Comments on the BBC weather website include all sorts of rants from people protesting about the use of Celsius, and somehow blaming it on the EU (if you don’t like or understand something, always blame it on the EU).  If it had anything to do with Europe, why have Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (for example) adopted it so naturally, along with the rest of the metric system?  Of course, there is a delicious irony in the fact that Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit himself was born in the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and spend most of his life in the Dutch Republic.  With that background his scale wouldn’t have stood a chance in the UK today!