Monday, 31 January 2011

Liverpool Done Deal

So the deals are done. Torres is now a Chelsea player and Liverpool have signed Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. You can't help wondering if Ajax are kicking themselves and wishing they had asked for even more money.

On balance, and though I think the money paid for Carroll is outrageous and astonishing, I think these will turn out to be good deals. We got the right price for Torres and that, with what was recouped from the sale of Babel last week, has paid for both strikers meaning that there should be money for further rebuilding in the summer.

I'm not sure about Carroll, not because he's not a good player but because of his discipline and attitude problems. But in Kenny we trust. I'm more optimistic than I have been for a long time about the future both immediate and more long term. The new owners have made good decisions for the right reasons and are adopting a transfer strategy that will reap rewards in that long term. Would it have been better to have kept a player of Torres's quality? Of course. But in the end we may have got a better end of the deal. His ability will be missed perhaps at first but if he didn't want to be at Liverpool he will not be. The new Liverpool strike force paid for by him may end up being altogether more potent and formidable and maybe not as moody.

Liverpool and Torres: If The Deal's Not Right Don't Do It

This frenetic activity on the last day of the transfer window is bizarre and ridiculous. There are all kinds of reports about Liverpool making offers for various strikers including £30 million for Andy Carroll. But what's the point of paying out an inflated price in a panic measure thus negating the bumper money we would make for Torres? It's one thing to bring in someone like Ashley Young but quite another to bring in someone like Carroll for silly money. That's more than Barcelona paid for David Villa.

Ultimately, if the deals aren't right, don't sell Torres. There's no urgency other than his desire to go where the grass is supposedly greener. Well, tough. A contract is a contract. If doing a deal now means spending money for no good reason on a sub standard striker then don't do the deal. Wait for the summer. Torres will be worth just as much by then and possibly more. By then we may even have qualified for the Champions League and the situation may have changed. We stand more chance of doing so and of winning the one trophy we are still involved in with Torres than without him. Liverpool fans are okay about him going. But it doesn't have to be now and maybe it shouldn't be.

Crow Hacked? I Should Hope So

Oh god, now Bob Crow, leader of the rail union the RMT and serial would be insurrectionist, is alleging that his phone has been hacked. Given his politics and calls for civil disobedience to bring down the democratically elected government however, I like to think that the police or MI5 might be keeping a watchful eye on him let alone the tabloid press. At the very least they should be listening in on his phone calls rather than merely trying to hack into his messages and perhaps inserting some moles in to his union. I doubt that any officers could be persuaded to sleep with him though. That would require a sacrifice too far, even if he and his cohorts are intent on screwing London's commuters.

The Man Who Would Be Prime Minister

In a classic illustration of the puerile, image obsessed, vapid idiocy of modern politics, it has apparently become a rite of passage for the leaders of our major parties to give interviews to GQ magazine. Why? Well it's supposed to make them look human and normal isn't it. Except of course that they're not. You can't be human and normal and want to be a political leader and you certainly can't be human and normal to actually achieve that ambition.

But even by the standards of most politicians, Forrest is an uber dweeb. Had he even heard of GQ magazine other than as an avenue for publicity recommended by advisers? I sincerely doubt it. You can't imagine him flicking through the pages of anything that isn't earnest and po faced. Celebrities? Fashion? Style? Que?

And say what you like about Piers Morgan who conducted this interview, but he is terribly good at it. He got under the skin of the soulless, nauseating little twerp and then some.

Amongst the revelations in an excruciating interview which will actually curl your toes if you try to read it in one go, are several gems which reveal much about the man who thinks he should be our next prime minister and none of them flattering. He regards the £1.6 million house he shares with his girlfriend as 'relatively expensive,' but it's all right because it is all bought and paid for by Justine and not him. Given that he then irritably points out more than once that he's not married to the mother of his children, talks of the women he'd like to have with him on a desert island (not his girlfriend, but at least he is aware of the existence of beautiful women) and thanks the god he doesn't believe in that he is not married, he may well find that the woman who is not his wife soon chucks him out of that 'relatively expensive' house, that's if he doesn't get into power and tax her out of it first for having the temerity to become successful and relatively well off. We shall of course remember his definition of what is relatively expensive the next time he tells us that those rich Tories don't understand ordinary people.

He did at least avoid answering the question about how many women he has slept with, although many will cynically conclude that this is because the number is embarrassingly low rather than in the 30s like the leader of the Lib Dems. Given that he tells us his only real talent is the ability to complete Rubik's Cubes you can't see the girls lining up for this strange little man with the big eyes who was too square to try drugs at university or even have an under age drink.

He did however reveal that he used to get bullied at school. No, really? And he remembers their names but he's not going to tell us who they were, presumably so that the tabloids can't track them down and shake their hands on behalf of a grateful nation. I know bullying is wrong but honestly, how could you not? This is the man who thinks he is qualified to lead us based on his career of sucking up to power before stabbing his brother in the back, refusing to commit to the mother of his children who also puts a roof over his head while he spends 20 years without getting a proper job but imagining that he knows how to run the country.

Oh and this is the man who then tells us that he didn't sit there at the age of 14 and dream of leading his party? Do we believe that? I don't think we do do we? I would be surprised if he wasn't dreaming dreams of party leadership from the moment his voice broke and he started to develop that irritating whine of a voice. I hope they gave him a wedgie every day of the week. We can be pretty sure that his Shadow Chancellor intends to and who could blame him?

Chelsea vs Liverpool: No Contest

One of the few things I got right when I made my predictions for the football season was that Chelsea's ageing stars would struggle this season. At first it looked as though this would be as hopeless as all of my other predictions. But lately it has looked spot on. The team did need a makeover and now Roman (how does someone so dim looking get to be a billionaire?) is going to have to dip into his pockets again instead of buying himself yet another boat.

I think most Liverpool fans are resigned to the prospect of Fernando Torres leaving. We don't want him if he's not going to give 100% - and he's always injured anyway. But that doesn't mean that Chelsea shouldn't be forced to pay through the nose for him. Come the Summer there is every chance they will have competition for his signature and so the £50 million price tag Liverpool are insisting on is entirely realistic. We have the added bonus of knowing that Chelsea desperately need him and have the wherewithal to come up with the cash. So if, by 11 tonight, Roman hasn't parted with 50 million then Fernando can stay put. It's a sellers' market and we don't particularly want to sell at the moment anyway. Over to you, Chelsea.

But 50 million quid would be very useful in building a new team and a very decent return on the investment. No player is bigger than the club and especially one who sulks. I still think he should never have dispensed with the blonde hair. That's the real reason for his demise.

The allure of Chelsea will, I think, prove to be illusory. Liverpool may not be up where we ought to be right now, but as football clubs go there are none better. It's not just the history or the fans, it's realising that if players don't understand how important the history and fans are then they really are better off with the likes of Chelsea and their billionaire owner who is starting to wonder if even he has enough money to turn them into a club that Liverpool are even in a bad season. Think about that Fernando, before you burn your bridges.

China: Plane Stupid

It seems that China's extraordinary progress and growth which is astonishing and worrying the West in equal measure is not enough for their military. In a video showing off their latest hardware which in itself is probably a shameless copy of technology stolen from somewhere else, they have also been pirating footage of the plane in action from Hollywood. Eagle eyed internet viewers noticed that the footage aired on a TV bulletin bore remarkable similarities to that used in the film Top Gun. And, since the footage has been hastily removed from the internet, it is probably safe to say that this is indeed the source.

The Chinese really are desperate to have everyone admire and respect them. They may be overplaying their hands rather. This is actually their achilles heel. Not only are they shamelessly stealing other people's ideas and  technology, they are even purloining cheesy and bombastic American films for their propaganda and vainglorious boasts. Their superior economic model seems strangely reliant upon the rest of the world doing the innovating and creating. You have to wonder if they are actually capable of coming up with original ideas of their own or are they just going to leech off the rest of the world forever and expect us to put up with it. For a people who are so proud they seem to lack a certain pride.

And this isn't the first time that China has been caught out cheating. The Olympics fireworks were less impressive than first thought because a bit of television trickery was used there too, and this coming from the country that invented them. Still, at least they didn't just take the tape of the Sydney Olympics and hope nobody noticed.

But the best part of this story is that China not only had to use footage of someone else's planes substituted for their own, presumably because their own are not yet capable of such aerobatics, but they used footage that dates back to the mid 1980s. So even their fake planes are 15 years out of date. Perhaps Barack Obama should have given Hu Jintao a box of up to date DVDs as he once notoriously did Gordon Brown. Or maybe they should send someone from their London embassy to my local Tesco. There are some Chinese people in the car park there who sell DVDs too. It seems to be a national trait.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Where's Gordon? Doing The Sort of Second Job He Once Wanted To Ban

According to the latest Commons register of interests, which MPs must file detailing their outside earnings, Gordon Brown has earned £250,000 in the last 3 months from various lectures, his book and other non parliamentary duties. I have no problem with this in principle. He should be free to earn his living any way he pleases, and anyway such earnings pale into insignificance next to those of his predecessor who is bringing in an annual 8 figure sum - he needs it to pay for his many homes not to mention the expensive tastes of Cherie.

It should however be mentioned that Gordon remains the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, despite the fact that he rarely deigns to appear in Westminster. I am sure that he, or at least his staff, do their best for his constituents if issues are raised with them. But what about those who do not contact him, shouldn't he be standing up for the people who voted him back in only 8 months ago? Shouldn't their MP be doing this in the house, speaking out against the cuts he so vehemently opposed and which he claims are so damaging?

And this is the Gordon Brown, lest we forget, who was not so long ago making mischief about the outside earnings of Tory MPs and proposing a complete ban on second jobs, a proposal that was eventually quietly dropped as so many Labour MPs were eyeing lucrative jobs for themselves. Now Brown himself, the man who told the nation during the election campaign that he and Sarah would probably go off and run a charity together if he lost, is now coining it around the world and travelling in business class at other people's expense. Say what you like about Blair and his tastes for the high life, but at least he had the honesty to quit Parliament the moment he quit as PM. Brown, the man who once criticised MPs for holding second jobs, now treats being an MP itself as a second job. It seems that fabled moral compass is wonky again, or at least it is leading him astray and away from what remains, at least notionally, his full time job.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Fernando Torres: Now Is Not The Time To Go

It is disappointing to see that Fernando Torres has handed in a transfer request. It is not entirely unexpected however. He hasn't looked the player he was all season. Injuries have been blamed but there was always the underlying suspicion that he wanted to leave. That Chelsea have now come in and made a bid and that this has turned his head therefore comes as no great surprise. The chances are that his agent has been spreading the word too.

But Liverpool should simply say no as indeed they have according to the club website. Now is not the time to do business. If he has to go in the summer then so be it, but it should take a huge bid that activates his buy out clause and at a time when he can be replaced. The signing of Luis Suarez makes no difference; he was meant to supplement Torres, not replace him.

By making a bid now, Chelsea are trying to get the player on the cheap. If it were to happen in the summer they would find themselves in a tug of war with the likes of Manchester City, one of the very few clubs who can now outbid them. Since Torres is contracted to Liverpool on a recently renewed long term contract, he should be told simply that his services are required until at least the end of the season and preferably beyond. Liverpool cannot improve their situation by selling their best players, particularly a player who has just started scoring again under Kenny Dalglish.

It remains to be seen, given the first half of the season, what Liverpool can achieve this year. Consolidation with an outside chance of the Champions League is our best bet. But selling a striker is not going to help matters. If then a new side has to be constructed over the summer so be it. But for now Torres's services are required. It's time footballers learnt that those lucrative contracts they demand mean a commitment on their part too. Manchester City have already told Tevez that he's not going anywhere and Manchester United should have done the same with Wayne Rooney. This is Kenny Dalglish's chance to show modern players the way things should be done and tell his star striker to get on with the job for which he is being handsomely rewarded for a club he not so long ago claimed to love.

We understand your frustrations, Fernando. We feel them too. But the allure of Chelsea is as nothing to what it will be like playing for a Liverpool team that is successful again and up where it belongs.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Exclusive: Brains from Thunderbirds Has Baby

Weights and Measures

Did you know that the kilogram is changing? The weight is defined by a standard kilogram made of platinum iridium (above) and kept in a safe at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures near Paris. Unfortunately however, such physical artifacts change over time - only microscopically of course but they change nevertheless. So the kilogram is slowly losing weight - it is now 50 micrograms lighter than some of the copies made from it. It's thought that this definitive cylinder is gradually losing hydrogen or it might have lost weight by being cleaned. It could also be that the copies are getting heavier. The trouble is it's impossible to know.

This is why other measurement standards have been defined differently and in ways that never change. The second, for instance, is defined by reference to caesium atoms and their rate of transition. The metre is defined by the distance light travels in a set period of time, whereas once it was the rather more imprecise slice of the Earth's circumference.

So now scientists are trying to define a way of measuring a kilogram without having to have a standard kilogram sitting in a safe somewhere and losing weight through some unknown form of attrition, wear or an over zealous cleaner. It will probably be done by using some other atoms as a reference point or perhaps by defining it electromagnetically thanks to the Planck Constant.

Quite what this means for those of use who still think imperially I don't know. Is the mile measured using light or is it still defined by a ruler somewhere? I used to live near the alleged centre of England where we had the Meriden mile. Could that define it, or is it in danger of getting longer and shorter if there is an earthquake or the local authority uses extra tarmac? What about the pound? Is a big lump of metal sitting in a safe somewhere shedding weight while nobody is looking and ensuring that we are all being short changed for refusing to go metric?  Perhaps this explains why I've been putting on weight - it's all a measurement problem and nothing to do with my fondness for cake. I think someone needs to keep a pair of my jeans in a safe place somewhere as a constant measurement of my ideal size.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Hacking Bandwagon

Do you start to get the impression that there is some bandwagon jumping going on with regard to the phone hacking scandal? Anyone who is anyone or just thinks that they ought to be someone must now go on television and not only berate journalists for this outrageous crime but also claim that it happened to them and that they feel violated.

After all if you haven't been hacked or if some private detective does not have your name on a list for tracking down your number this essentially means that the fourth estate considers you of insufficient interest - unworthy of their time and effort. It's social suicide. Admitting that you are of no interest to the press is like admitting that your celebrity status has been revoked. Before long you will be begging ITV for an invitation to appear on I'm a Celebrity.

Like all such scandals that afflict our needy celebs, this is one that started with the royals and is now working its way down the food chain to ex Big Brother contestants and one hit wonders from 1973. I've been hacked - feel my pain will be the theme of 2011. The only celeb who won't be able to join in will be Katie Price, as nobody would believe that she has any secrets she won't willingly tell to the most casual enquirer. Anyone who hacked her would probably find themselves on the front page of the Star accused of rape the following day. Within a week she would marry them.

Meet The New Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead

This from our fact is stranger and more perverse than fiction file: Gerry Adams, scourge of the political establishment and a cheerleader for those who succeeded in murdering or attempting to murder some of them, has now joined that establishment. He is now the Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. You'd have to have a heart of stone, or possibly be Gerry Adams not to find that funny.

Adams, keen to stand in the upcoming elections in Ireland, has had to resign his seat in the British House of Commons, despite the fact that he has never actually been into the chamber and sat as an MP since he refused to take the oath of allegiance. Nevertheless the British constitution must go through its arcane procedures.

There is no mechanism for MPs to resign and so they must instead be made ineligible to sit there. Being a murderous republican is not enough it would seem, Adams had to apply for one of the two offices reserved for this procedure, and so he was appointed to the Manor of Northstead and he is immediately no longer an MP. It's magical isn't it; farcical but magical.

Aha, say Sinn Fein, he didn't apply for the post. Aha ha ha, say the Treasury, which has the responsibility of handing out these posts, it doesn't matter. It happened automatically the moment he wrote to the Speaker indicating that he was resigning. He is now Steward and Bailiff whether he likes it or not. The fact that he almost certainly does not like it just makes it all the more entertaining; that's another arcane British tradition.

The best part is that he will remain Steward and Bailiff until two more MPs resign because the Treasury has two of these ancient offices, Northstead and the Chiltern Hundreds. They alternate, and so the next MP who wishes to spend more time with his family, more time at Her Majesty's pleasure or more time in the febrile embrace of Irish politics will be allotted the role of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds and the one after will replace Adams. Isn't British history and tradition marvellous, Gerry? Gerry? Gerry?

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Anyone for TPIMs?

So Control Orders have been tweaked and rebranded and given the snappy new title Terrorism Protection and Investigation Measures or TPIMs. Anyone think they will still be unofficially called Control Orders?

But what remains a mystery about this is why they are deemed necessary at all. By the logic of the arguments used, they are pointless and self defeating, quite apart from the arguments about civil liberties.

We are told that these measures are only necessary against a tiny number of people, less than 10 at the last count. They often don't work and the controllees often abscond. They are deemed necessary because these people are said to pose a threat to national security or public safety, but there isn't enough evidence to convict them or they haven't committed a crime for all that they are a threat.

So why not simply monitor them by using normal surveillance methods? I know this is expensive but we are talking about less than a dozen people who are supposed to represent an imminent threat to us all. Surely our security services are monitoring many more potential terrorists than that already, and if these are the most dangerous we should be monitoring them and trying to prevent them from committing crimes. Surely by putting them on Control Orders or TPIMs we are just alerting them to the fact that we are watching them and making it more difficult to control or convict them?  Those who are not British should be deported, but those who are should be monitored and investigated and then prosecuted where appropriate.

The trouble with too many politicians, from either side of the political divide, is that they take too much on trust from so called experts and don't ask enough questions. Whether it is on matters of security and policing,  or on issues like climate change and medicine, they only have to be confronted by someone with alleged expertise and they surrender regardless of common sense. It is not the job of politicians to simply act on advice. It is the job of politicians to weigh that advice with good governance and the public interest and to justify their decisions to Parliament. It is because the last Government did not do this that we ended up with so many pointless laws, abuses of ancient liberties and various authoritarian bodies abusing their powers for no good reason. The police, security services and various bodies will always want ever greater powers to make their jobs easier. Government's are often good at saying no to their demands for cash but all too often surrender the moment they demand more powers. That is a dereliction of duty. This Government shows signs of making the same mistakes.

The irony is that, at the same time as they essentially maintained Control Orders, the Government abolished or reined in some of the worst illiberal excesses of the previous administration. Police will only be able to hold terrorism suspects for up to 14 days rather than the previous 28, this despite claims that they need this time in complex cases. Similarly local authorities will not now be able to spy on residents without asking for permission from magistrates. This is very welcome. But it makes their failure to see the light on Control orders all the more puzzling.

Call them Control Orders or TPIMs, they are not necessary and they are an outrageous abuse of state power. They should be abolished completely and the security services told to find a way to convict those who represent a threat and not try to find an easy way out. The security services work for us controlled by politicians. Or have they all forgotten that?

PMQs 26th January 2011 - The Wrong Kind of Weather Edition

Apparently the Shadow Cabinet has been facing a troubling and difficult question, namely what they should call the two Edded beast in charge of the party's economic policy. What economic policy I hear you ask. Well, quite. But when they get one, or two dependent upon who you talk to, they will need to know how to address the Leader and the Shadow Chancellor.

This is important. Just saying 'Ed, what is our economic policy?' will most probably elicit two very different answers and, quite possibly in at least one case, threats and character assassination. Clarity is required. They need to avoid the confusion and resultant violence that using Ed would create. Ed M and Ed B sounds clumsy. Calling one of them Balls, whilst accurate and indeed apposite given much of what he says, will just remind him of public school and might bring out his stammer again, along with a more socialist version of the King's Speech.

So may I humbly suggest that they employ the monikers employed by this blog. What's wrong with calling them Forrest and Red Ed? Or perhaps stick with Wallace and Gromit. It could be a kind of honorary title for this Leader of the Opposition and his de facto number 2. And, as we all know, Gromit was the real brains of the animated duo anyway. It works.

Last week the Shadow Chancellor did not show up for PMQs in a hint that we all missed of what was to come the following day. This week the new Shadow Chancellor was there, albeit with smug smile under control. The real question was would Gordon show up given his recent re-emergence? How they must have hoped that he wouldn't. Disappointingly he didn't. Perhaps another time.

Forrest rose after a couple of back bench questions and actually went on the economy. What is the cause of the disappointing growth figures? You, said pointing Tories.

Wisely Cameron chose to be sober and statesmanlike on this the defining issue of this year and probably every subsequent year of this Parliament. He was rather impressive as a consequence. He did not go too big on the weather excuse of yesterday and admitted that the growth figures were disappointing. But they were just one set of figures he pointed out. This discombobulated Forrest rather. He hadn't been expecting that. He had been expecting wrong type of weather excuses. A PM who answers the question honestly? The dirty, cheating bastard!

The theme of Labour's attack is clearly going to be that the Government should change course and that they are out of touch with ordinary people. And, though Forrest was notably more concise than last week in his questions, he still wasn't hitting home. Ultimately they were arguing over differing approaches to the economy, except Labour's approach is nothing like as different as they like to make it out to be. Of course it would be if the new Shadow Chancellor got his way. But that isn't the case - yet.

Forrest is showing a marked inability to think on his feet in these exchanges and Dave wrongfooting him early just made matters worse. It's all too rehearsed and pre scripted. Dave is not slow in pointing this out, but he's not wrong. Forrest persists in his tactic of trying to allege that the PM just said something that he didn't actually say. Cameron managed to bat him away this week. He did so every bit as witheringly as in previous weeks but without the Flashman traits that can make him look like a public school bully.

Instead this week he was managing to land blows by answering the questions better and pointing out the flaws in what Forrest was actually saying. He poked fun at Forrest trying to claim that Labour had left some kind of 'golden inheritance' - Forrest didn't quite say that, he said that the economy was growing when Labour left office, although this time last year it grew by only 0.1%. Dave also laid into Forrest's bigging up of Ed Balls. If he was such a good idea why didn't he appoint him in the first place he asked. It was an obvious line and an open goal but he can hardly be blamed for banging them in if given the opportunity.

It was another lacklustre performance from Forrest and on a day when he should have had the PM on the ropes. Dave notably changed his style and even his tactics a little this week. He answered the questions more, was notably well briefed, especially on the economy and actually debated the issues. But more than that he changed his tone. After criticism of it in recent weeks he was earnest, sober and looked prime ministerial. Can Forrest change too? It's not looking good. Perhaps the other Ed had lost his smug smile for good reason.

Where's the Vision?

There was a time when British politicians would have given their right arms to have Barack Obama agree with them. Now? Not really. Obama has started using similar language to that of the Labour Party, talking of investment when what he really means is more and more spending and inflating that vast deficit the U.S has. When Labour talk about the dangers of cuts perhaps they should be pointed across the pond. Obama has kept the spending taps open and yet the American economy is not doing notably better than ours. Meantime their public debt rises inexorably, meaning higher taxes which stifles the enterprise for which America has been so renowned.

Obama's State of the Union speech last night was technocratic and uninspiring. After his excellence in Tucson a couple of weeks ago this was back to the Obama who has all too often failed to rise to the occasion. Obama is a superb public speaker, so why doesn't he do it more often? Why doesn't he talk about the dangers in the world, about tyranny and the fight against the new fascism in parts of the Islamic world? Why does he pussy foot around foreign affairs and the rise of China and the cynicism of Russia which suffers its own terrorism but obstructs and frustrates attempts to rein in states that sponsor it.

America remains a superpower but Obama seems to be almost apologetic about this. The leader of the free world seems unwilling to lead. Half way through his term, does he have a vision of the future, or is that something else he shares with our own Labour politicians?

Katie Price: A Star Is Porn

I'm going to break my own rule just for one post and write about Jordan/Katie Price. Like an awful lot of people, although there are clearly not enough of us given her continued ubiquity, I loathe her. She is a nasty, manipulative, talentless, cynical and tasteless trollop.

As a rule I try to avoid her at all costs. But you can't. It's impossible. She is bloody everywhere, not least on the front cover of more or less every edition of The Daily Star with some new tawdry detail about what might laughingly be called her love life. I am aware, just like everyone else, that she is getting yet another divorce. I don't want to be aware of this but it has permeated my consciousness as if by some process of osmosis, a constant dripping tap one can never turn off. Actually, given the way she goes through men, I'm starting to worry that it might be my turn next. I suspect that my revulsion would just attract her, it would make a great story for the Star.

But what I want to know is this: how do they keep coming up with all of this stuff? We can say with more or less certainty that 80% of the stories about her are fictitious or at least exaggerated. But where does it all come from? Does she have a team of storyliners? Is this how one gets to qualify to be an Eastenders writer? Is she now just an entertainment franchise for chavs? And is there anywhere in the world I can go to avoid all of this?  

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

It's Not Balls, It's Brown

Do you remember last week, when Ed Balls was made Shadow Chancellor, I pointed out that Gordon Brown had been seen in Westminster looking happy and shaking hands with colleagues who were nonplussed and puzzled by he re-emergence. Had he been told in advance I speculated.

Well now we can be pretty sure. Gordon has his party back, his boys and girls in position and he is now giving interviews on economics again as one set of figures, just one mind you, convince him that he was right all along and that we are heading to doom and gloom because we didn't listen to him and keep him in his rightful place. Serves us right.

Has Gordon disappeared from British politics? He has not. It's not Brown, it's Balls, Michael Heseltine once pointed out to the Tory Party conference. It's still Balls now. But it's Brown too. The great glowering presence in British politics refuses to go away 8 months after he was finally prised out of Downing Street. The long sulk may finally be over. The mad man who should be in the attic is back and now it's personal, except of course with him it always was. Now he bears a grudge against all of us.

The Economy Shrinks - The Government Must Not Blink

The British economy shrank by 0.5% during the last quarter. This is almost certainly due to the bad weather rather than such a disastrous slowing in the real economy. We were expecting a slowing but not a contraction, but all of those days of people being unable to get to work or to make deliveries have taken their toll.

Now however is not the time to panic. The Government must stay on course but redouble its efforts to plan for growth and talk more about it. They should be saying that, now that their deficit plans have been set in motion, this will be the next priority. George Osborne should devote his next Budget to that cause and should be saying so constantly.

We should also cast our minds back to last year when growth also slowed due to the weather. The economy then bounced back harder once the ice had cleared and business saw a spurt of higher than expected growth as they picked up the slack. The same may well happen now. We have already seen it in part on the high street as consumers went out and spent like crazy in the shops as the weather improved, January arrived and the VAT increased loomed.

And recoveries from recessions are notoriously jerky like this. We had surprisingly healthy growth statistics last year and are now getting some that are surprisingly poor. It proves nothing, except that the economy is recovering from the worst recession since the 1930s and a lot of damage has been done. I predict with near certainty that the next figures in April will bounce back and make things look better than they really are.

The big question now will be what will Ed Balls say? Does he resume talk of double dips? He seems genuinely to believe that the cuts agenda will lead inexorably to a 1930s style depression. He is wrong. He is wrong because the cuts haven't started yet. But how will he play this? Honesty from Balls would be even more surprising than the inconsistency of the recovery.

Just as Gordon Brown did shamelessly while he was in opposition, he will make hay every time a bit of bad news comes along, even when his policy is not markedly different to that of the Coalition. Labour became trusted on the economy thanks to the ERM debacle in 1992, despite the fact that they had been committed to the same policy. This time around Labour are opposing all specific cuts whilst telling us that they are not opposed to cuts in principle. They have warned of a double dip and then denied that they are doing so. They will most likely try to have it both ways this time too.

Whatever Balls says today he will deny if it becomes inconvenient.  We are not heading for a double dip unless outside factors take the whole world economy that way as seems unlikely at present. For now Balls would be wise to stay quiet on that subject. It won't stop him claiming credit for warning of it in the unlikely event that it happens, which would require another quarter at least like the last one.

Monday, 24 January 2011

The Olympics Legacy Issue - It's Not Easy Being Green

The decision on whether West Ham or Spurs are handed the Olympics stadium next year is to be delayed. Why? It's perfectly reasonable that a football club should be installed in the stadium as that is the only way it can be made to pay its way. But that doesn't mean that football should ride roughshod over all other sports and taxpayer investment.

Surely this is an open and shut case. West Ham are the local club and have said that they will retain the running track. Spurs want to use the excellent transport links provided but knock down this brand new stadium and build another purpose built football stadium. This is understandable from their point of view, but what about that of taxpayers and the legacy issue? And what about the claim that this was going to be a green Olympics? It was always nonsensical calling this massive project green, but knocking down a new building which would only be used for one event would make the white elephants left behind in Athens, Sydney and most other Olympics cities look like great investments. Give it to West Ham or use it twice a year for athletics. It's not as if we didn't know this might happen when we made the bid.

After Coulson: How To Keep In Touch With The Masses

How true is it that Andy Coulson was valued so highly by Number 10 because of his ability to connect them to a working class vote they feel detached from because of their wealth and background? And if it is true, why?

This meme seems to be running throughout the commentariat and has become accepted wisdom. Yet correct me if I'm wrong but don't we live in the information age? Is it not possible to connect with people's opinions in a an easy way these days? Or is the Downing Street bubble of legend really that insulating and isolating? Can politicians really be as out of touch as is alleged? Do they really lack imagination on this scale that they cannot understand what it is like to run out of money at the end of each working month and how hard it is to make ends meet?

Coulson was said to be able to tap into the populist zeitgeist by virtue of his background, both as someone who had grown up on the much revered council estate and because he was a tabloid journalist. So why don't Number 10 pick up a red top newspaper and read one then? See what Coulson's present day successors are writing about now, if nothing else the Coalition will have strong policies on Katie Price and the X Factor.

Seriously though, is it really so difficult for them to imagine what concerns the so called hard working majority? Newspapers have letters pages, that's a good place to start. They are published every day and tend to dwell on matters currently of concern. Newspaper columnists too, for all that they are a self selecting elite, also have their fingers on the pulse, even if their solutions may be other worldly and frequently wrong. Read them online and commenters are not slow to put them right.

Indeed the internet is the best source of all. This is interactive, instant and honest in a way that Downing Street may find itself shrinking away from. But that's good isn't it? And without wishing to blow my own or my fellow bloggers trumpets, we are a good weather vane of opinion too.

But here is a short guide to what most people think. It's not scientific, or tested. But I'm sure people will let me know if I'm wrong.

  • The NHS. What people like about it is not the institution itself but the fact that it is free at the point of use. I'm going to write about this later. 
  • The benefits system. It's being routinely abused. We all know it. We know how it's done. It's infuriating. Do something about it. 
  • Immigration. It's too high, it again is being routinely and systematically abused and is a large part of the reason why unemployment is too high. The blame for this falls on the last government, employers looking for cheap or easy options and workshy people refusing to take low paid jobs. They shouldn't have the choice. 
  • Prison reform. I actually think this is a good idea but you're never going to sell it to people. You should either not bother trying and just hope that it gets results or abandon the idea as unworkable.
  • Votes for prisoners. What are you thinking? The last government didn't bring this in for a reason. Why are you? Tell Europe to get lost and change the law if necessary. Confronting interfering judges would be popular and would draw a line in the sand. What's not to like? 
  • Europe. Again, why not go out on a limb on this issue? Why do British governments the moment they are in power suddenly become supine and pusillanimous on this issue? In particular the Euro is a disaster waiting to happen and indeed happening as we watch. Why not score some points and point this out? Why did you agree to increase the budget when we are having to cut everything else? Just say no. What is the worst that could happen? Most Britons would regard this as the best thing that could happen. 
  • Cuts. You have won the argument for the need for them but have to keep making it over and over and over. In particular the cuts to councils are going to get bloody. So get aggressive. Point out the waste. When the councils say they must cut services, point out what they are spending elsewhere on peripheral issues. Don't leave it to the press to do this. 
  • Climate Change. People, that's the vast majority not the Guardian reading classes, DO NOT CARE. Let me say that again. WE DO NOT CARE and indeed we think the whole subject is vastly overblown and ridiculous, an obsession of the out of touch political classes and commentariat. There is no evidence for it, just lots of talk about consensus. Look through the history of science and you will see many examples of a consensus which refused to accept dissenting voices and was proven wrong. It's been true in Geology, Biology, Medicine, Physics, Chemistry - the lot. And all of those gloom laden predictions have been consistently and persistently wrong. So why are we still listening to them? But even if there is a problem Britain and even Europe cannot solve it. We are not the problem, so why are you hobbling our industries and exporting our jobs to tackle it? If there is a problem it will be solved through technological advances. To pay for that we need viable industries. So leave them alone. 
I think that will do for now. If there are any more pressing issues feel free to get in touch, Dave. Oh and I'm open to job offers too.

Are We Alone? Why We May Never Meet ET

The Sunday Times (£) among others over the weekend reported that Howard Smith, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, has said that the chances of extra terrestrial life being close enough to the Earth for us ever to find it have plunged following recent discoveries.

Quite why this is a revelation I cannot imagine. In our galaxy alone there are reckoned to be more than 200 billion stars. Most if not all of these will have planets revolving around them as has been shown. But, as has also been shown, these planets are often hellish places, freezing places, barren places or any combination of the above. As far as we know - and we could be wrong - this makes life impossible.

However simple forms of life may actually be quite common throughout the universe. We have barely scratched the surface looking for planets and can only do so by inference rather than by direct observation. We are not going to be able to send Mars style probes anywhere outside our own solar system any time soon.  We may never be able to if our current understanding of physics is correct. Life on our own planet is remarkably adaptable and versatile. Once it gets started it stays and clings on whatever the universe throws at it. We just don't know yet how often it gets started and if it needs the conditions only found on Earth to do so. At the moment, though we know how life evolves, we do not understand the processes needed to get it started.

What is more to the point however is that our own planet is extremely unusual. We are a billion to one chance. So if life does need certain conditions, the sort found on Earth to get started, then that narrows down the chances considerably. It doesn't make it impossible, it makes it unlikely. Intelligent life, the sort we can have a chat with, is clearly unusual because it depends on exactly the right conditions and for a very very long time in order for evolution to get its act together. We are a freak of nature. Our planet has evolved dinosaurs and other kinds of life that survived for millions of years and were then wiped out by that same planet or its near neighbours in our violent and hostile solar system. It regularly chucks meteorites at us and giant tsunamis, the climate changes all the time (quite independently and long before we were around to worry about it) and volcanoes belch out millions of tons of rock and gas every year. All of these things are responsible in part for us being here and at the same time try to wipe us out. If life is a lottery we have won it just by being here, but the universe keeps trying to withdraw our prize.

So are our attempts to communicate with ET pointless? Probably. If intelligent life is as rare as it appears then it can still be comparatively common in a vast universe. It's just very thinly spread out. In our back yard? I don't think so. Thus, however common it is, we can't make that phone call. Unless someone comes along and disproves Mr Einstein, a telephone call to ET would mean very long waits for the answers to our questions. It would be rather like communicating by messages in bottles.

Furthermore, and this is an element that is often overlooked, there is no reason why intelligent life should evolve at the same time in different parts of the universe. We came about thanks to a lot of accidents of nature. We have arrived at our present state of technical sophistication after several thousand years. Who is to say that other intelligent species would do so at the same rate? Who is to say that they are even interested in alien species? As the late, great Douglas Adams wrote: humans believe themselves to be superior to dolphins because we have civilisation and technology whereas all they do is splash about, eat and have fun. Dolphins consider themselves to be superior for the same reason.

All of this, by the way, is covered in my book Light and Truth, the story of what happens when a scientist discovers what makes the universe tick, why it is expanding at an accelerating rate and why quantum mechanics doesn't make sense. It makes him a kind of god, which for a rationalist and an atheist is problematic. But it also presents him with a wonderful opportunity to remake the world and the human race in a more acceptable form. Can he resist it? Feel free to get in touch for further details or to make offers for publishing and film rights.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Tabloid Tales Part 11: Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus and Feminists From Alpha Centauri

The Mail on Sunday has this scoop about Sky presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray making what it claims are sexist remarks about a female linesman, Sian Massey, (whoops, look what I did there, let's call her an assistant referee). The two were in the studio during the game and were indulging in some chat. This included the following:

Keys: Somebody better get down there and explain offside to her.
Gray: Can you believe that? A female linesman. Women don't know the offside rule.

Now to my no doubt sexist eyes that looks like a joke or jokes. You may not find it funny but it was clearly not to be taken seriously, or indeed to be heard at all since they were off screen and just chatting to one another. Like all humour of course it is an exaggeration based on some kind of reality. Lots of women do not understand the offside rule, this is the case not because they are stupid but because they don't care, in the same way that I don't understand what colour coordination is all about and the necessity for heels on shoes that cripple you.

It should also be noted that Ms Massey was criticised for not giving offside against Liverpool which led to a goal. Replays proved that she was right and the goal was legitimate. At first sight it did look offside. It was one of those decisions which was right on the edge, with the ball played through and a striker timing his run superbly. Sian Massey did supremely well to see this and get it right. She should actually be applauded for being good at her job. As a Liverpool fan therefore I have no problem with female referee's assistants. I have had girlfriends who fully understood the offside rule and accompanied me to games. But when did such things ever get in the way of a couple of blokes making jokes during a football game? And neither should they.

While we're at it, last night Jo Brand won best female comedian at the British Comedy Awards. Brand has made a career out of saying that men are crap and food is always preferable. Can you imagine a man getting along doing the opposite, let alone winning awards? Yet two men, in private, make a few whimsical remarks about women's ability to understand the esoteric delights of football and all hell breaks loose. Get over it.


Okay, I've listened to all of it now and they clearly weren't joking. I was wrong. What a pair of prats. But this is another example of the thought police intervening yet again. Had they said what they did on air then they would rightly be censured and possibly even sacked. But they didn't, did they. They were having what they thought was a private conversation. They did nothing illegal, however much you may disagree with what they said.

And they were expressing views that will have found echo amongst men of a certain age across the country. I once got into a long and bitter argument with someone on  the BBC Points of View message board (before my blogging days) because the BBC had appointed a female commentator and he thought this was outrageous and beyond the pale. Some men genuinely think that women should stay out of football.

And there is a double standard here. It is perfectly okay for women to talk about how useless men are and to make jokes about us. But if men say that women don't understand the offside rule, whether they are joking or serious, it brings down the forces of hell upon them. I don't agree with what they were saying and think they are idiots. But they have a right to their opinions. Ultimately, as this recording below proves, it will do them no favours whatsoever.

Johnson Has More Time To Spend With His Text Books

According to The Telegraph, Alan Johnson's wife, Laura, has asked him for a divorce. So presumably he is soon going to have plenty of time on his hands. Maybe he should now read that economics primer with all of his newly acquired free time. Hell, he could apply to Oxford for a course in PPE - the course of choice for most politics wannabes - and then if Forrest calls some time in the future because the other Ed in Labour's two Edded leadership is being beastly to him, he will be ready.


Saturday, 22 January 2011

Tabloid Tales Part 10: Big News Some Time In Next Million Years

The Daily Mail this week, followed by The Telegraph today, is reporting that the Earth will soon get a second Sun for a time. Read on however and this story is nothing like as dramatic as it first sounds. It will happen some time, but this could be any time from today for the next million years. Don't hold the front page.

It's not clear what has prompted this story, for want of a better description, which seems originally to have come from The Metro. I suspect, but cannot prove, that someone at that newspaper, or possibly on the internet, watched the recent excellent Astronomy Live series on BBC2 and picked it up from there.

Betelgeuse, the star in question, will indeed explode at some point and will briefly become a bright light in the sky when it goes supernova and outshines the entire galaxy. But we have known this for years. There is no way to predict when it will happen. Indeed it may well have already happened some time ago but, since it is 640 light years away, it could have happened any time in the last 600 years and we would be none the wiser until the light reaches us.

Some on the internet are saying that this is all an indication of the coming  end of the world, which for some reason is set to happen in 2012 because of the end of the Mayan calendar and because George Lucas says so. The newspapers, in their usual way, are reporting this in patronising tones and yet not letting this get in the way of a good story.

Supernovae are of course lethal if you happen to be near enough to them when they happen. Fortunately we're not. We are however close enough to appreciate one of the wonders of the universe and far enough away to be completely safe. I just hope it happens in my lifetime. But the chances are it won't. It should also be noted that supernovae, whilst immensely destructive and terrifying at least in theory, are also a necessary constituent of life. Without these events, all of the heavy elements like iron and beyond would be impossible. Furthermore there are other stars in our own galaxy nearly as likely to go supernova as Betelgeuse within the same or similar time frame, like IK Pegasi, which is only 150 light years away, or Gamma Velorum, WR 104, Antares and Spica.

So this is actually, as so often, not really a story. A star may go bang. In a universe of billions of stars this is a daily event. When one happens near enough for us to see it, it will be noteworthy and may get a few more people interested in astronomy, which would be welcome. It might even get some journalists and internet alarmists to check their facts. Or maybe not.

Political Scandals: Two Divergent Approaches

You have to enjoy the contrasts don't you? On the one hand in Britain this week, we have seen the Shadow Chancellor, a man not even in power, resigning because his wife is having an affair - I still can't get my head around that. On the other hand we have tales from Italy of a septuagenarian prime minister, whose wife is divorcing him because of his serial affairs, bung bunga parties and associations with the likes of Ruby Heartstealer (above). Women descibe him as like a cash machine with no need for a PIN number. Others desribe his homes as like whorehouses. This man, however, is refusing to resign and is a serial survivor as well as a philanderer with some well publicised eccentric erotic tastes.

Ms Heartstealer, a nightclub dancer, has been recorded asking Mr Berlusconi for £5 million so she keeps quiet about their friendship. Italian authorities wish to interview her. No doubt they will start, in best comedy tradition, by asking her what it was about the billionaire that appealed to her.

Not that I am condoning Berlusconi's sordid behaviour. What I am doing is laughing at it. You can't help but wonder why his country is not doing the same whilst despatching him from office.

We lost one of our normal and human politicians here in Britain this week, for reasons that still seem unclear. I suspect that the fact that he simply wasn't up to the job is closer to the truth. But oh how Italians must long for politicians like that. How they must long for simple incompetence. It used to be one of their most long standing traditions. They probably even look longingly at our cast of identikit, dweebish politicians who have never had a proper job too. Wouldn't it be nice, they mutter, as they read about the latest scandal, to have leaders whose idea of fun is to listen to The World At One and talk about Malawi.