Friday, June 29, 2012

Equal Pay for Women Tennis Players

Ah, good. Once again, the arguments over equal pay for women tennis players have been raised.

Now, in a sane universe, it would be simple: men and women should be paid the same money for the same work. Period.

However, in this instance there actually are some sane arguments to be made:

  • Firstly, and most obviously, male players play five sets in the major tournaments, while female players play only three.
  • As a direct consequence of this, female players can play a couple of additional competitions during the year, and so supplement their income.
  • It's also true that tennis is actually unusual in that the female athletes typically do have higher earnings than their male counterparts - they tend to significantly supplement their income by modelling and the like.
  • The prize money from the competition comes from audience attendance and TV rights. And, like it or not, the male competition is the bigger draw.

(Of course, there's another argument, which suggests that these are all hugely-paid, extremely priviledged athletes, who have fabulous non-jobs. So, really, arguments over whether they get half a million dollars or a million dollars for two weeks' 'work' are pretty disgusting. But then, it's a matter of principle, so...)

For me, here's what it comes down to: tennis is one of very few sports where the women's game enjoys a comparable profile to the men's. Most sports, if there is a women's competition at all, essentially treat it as a poor cousin - tournaments are held separately, they tend not to be televised, they don't get the same sponsorship, and so on. (Athletics is another fairly egalitarian sport, but tennis has a much higher profile.)

Since tennis is the shining example in this regard, I would argue that it really should take the opportunity to strike the blow for equality across the board.

And so, yes, female competitors should receive the same prize money as the males. That's only right. (And at all competitions, not just the major tournaments.)

But what's also right is that they should compete under the same parameters as the men - that is, best of five sets at the majors. (Alternately, have the men play best of three sets at the majors. Either works, but it should be the same.)

That negates the "they do less" argument, and it also eliminates any argument that they can equalise their earnings by playing more competitions. I don't accept the argument that the women earn more due to modelling and sponsorship as being relevant - that's a side issue (and, anyway, represents extra 'work'). And neither do I accept the "TV rights" argument, as a few years ago the men's game was in a slump (being dominated by the big servers, and so utterly dull) while it was the women's game that was interesting - so that one's swings and roundabouts.

I also don't accept the argument that the men's game is about power/endurance while the women's game is about skill. After all, the entire reason that the Williams sisters dominated women's tennis for so long was precisely because of power. And, of course, that grunting that has so destroyed the women's game is allegedly about power. (Though I suspect that's what we call a 'lie'. These days, it's almost certainly more about getting a psychological edge.)

Fundamentally, though, as long as women get lower prize money or they play fewer sets, the argument will persist from one side or the other. The only way to end it is to equalise both. Conveniently, that's also the right thing to do.

There Are Two Things Nobody Expects...

  1. The Spanish Inquisition
  2. Zombie Epidemic
  3. Snails on the Car

Three things! There are three things nobody expects...

(Yes, this morning when I went out to the car, I found that a snail had taken up residence on one of the wheel arches. Yes, it was just as disgusting as you might imagine.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Best Headline Ever

File this one under "things you don't expect", along with the Spanish Inquisition:

On the front cover of the Metro free newspaper there was the ultimate headline: "Zombie Epidemic". I read on with a mixture of trepidation and delight - should I get a shotgun and Queen, or was this about a new film being produced in Scotland?

It turned out the answer was neither. Apparently, the women of Scotland are abusing tranquilisers and sedatives in large numbers.

I don't think I've ever been so disappointed that the apolcalypse isn't upon us.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Why England Will Never Win the World Cup (again)

At the outset: despite the title, this post is neither about England nor is it about football. It's actually about Britain as a whole and... education? priviledge? class? I'm not sure, but it's not about football.

The short version: the reason England will never again win the football World Cup is that they don't really want to.

Now, on the face of it, that's absurd. Go ask any Englishman who follows football at all, and he'll tell you that of course they want to win it. Ask any Englishman involved in the game, and he'll tell you that of course they want to win it. Ask any UK politician in the Tory, Labour or Lib Dems, and he'll tell you that of course they want to win it. (And by all means replace 'man' with 'woman' and 'he' with 'she'.)

But there's a difference between wanting something and wanting something, at least to the point of actually doing something about it. And England don't, and won't.

The thing is, England has a population of about 60 million people. So, even if a world class player is a one-in-a-million commodity, England should have plenty of them to make up a squad.

England have, what, two?

When assembling his side for the Euros, Roy Hodgson had a very small number of players to choose from. He could put together a somewhat decent squad. But the bulk of those who were eligible were, quite frankly, not good enough. And when those who were good enough started to drop out injured, there just wasn't any reserve to call on.

Fundamentally, something is broken at the grass-roots level - young players are not being produced in sufficient numbers and in sufficient quantity. Nothing like it, in fact. Even the "Golden Generation" were never good enough, nor were they numerous enough. Frankly, there should be two or three new players coming through every year, not the dribble currently in evidence.

But why is this? Why is it that Spain can produce seemingly-endless crops of new talent, including the best players in the world? Why does Italy, with massive economic problems, a somewhat dodgy league, and a smaller population, manage to produce where England does not?

And for the answer, look at those sports in which England do excel. And look at the schools attended by the participants. What schools did the England rugby team attend? The cricket team? Our rowers? How many of our Olympic athletes were educated either privately or in otherwise-exclusive schools?

I believe that's the crux of it. In those sports in which England genuinely is at or near the top in the world, it's because the private schools attended by the athletes provide the required training facilities. Football, being the sport of the masses, recruits youngsters who attend our state schools, which have nowhere near the same investment, and so nowhere near the same facilities or training staff.

And the same applies to Scotland, of course. You can bet that if Andy Murray was born in Govan, he wouldn't now be the world #4 in tennis - it's likely the only time he would have picked up a racquet would be to batter someone with it. You see the same thing in piping contests - all the prizes in the junior grades go to private schools. It's just that Scotland will never have any chance at the World Cup, so I don't get that emotive headline. :)

Now, having said that, I'm not convinced that anything should be done about this. After all, football is also a private enterprise. And I don't really want to see massive amounts of taxpayers' money spent on enabling a tiny minority of ill-educated young men become obscenely rich.

But if England really want to win the World Cup, they need to find a way to square the circle. Either get the private schools playing football in preference to other sports (yeah, right), or encourage and allow the big clubs to inject large amounts of money into training facilities for state schools (and supply the training staff, too). Or something.

Because the current strategy - of having kids from poor backgrounds have kick-abouts on ever-shrinking green belt land, when they aren't otherwise engaged in video games or other frivolities, occasionally organised by well-meaning amateurs (hampered, of course, by our much-needed Child Protection systems), and then massively rewarding the tiny minority that make it - yeah, the current strategy isn't working, and never will.

A Note For My Doctor

On Saturday, LC answered the phone and received an automated message from our doctor's surgery. It's rather lucky that she was the one who answered the phone that time.

Here's the thing: when I answer the phone, 90% of the time it's somebody I don't want to talk to. If it's an automated call, I will always hang up as quickly as I realise that that is what it is. And if the first words spoken are "please don't hang up..." or "this is an important message..." then I'll still hang up as quickly as I am able. The advertisers use those words in a vain attempt to persuade us to listen to their garbage, but I refuse.

What this means is that if you have an important message for me, and you must deliver it be telephone, then you must call me in person. A machine cannot do this, at all, ever. Feel free to blame the advertisers for this; personally, I think it's a disgrace. But if it's important, you'll need to recognise the reality that there is literally nothing that a machine can phone to tell me that I am interested in hearing.

And while I'm on the subject of telesales calls: no, I don't believe "Richard" from Mumbai is using his real name. (I recognise the possibility... but in this instance I don't believe it.) In which case, he's opening his call with a blatant and obvious lie - just why would I consider trusting anything he says thereafter, and why would I consider doing business with any company who won't even show me the basic respect of not lying to me in this manner?

#21: "Death of Kings", by Bernard Cornwell (excellent book - the best of the year so far by miles)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tax Avoidance

I get really quite annoyed when the media talk about Tax Avoidance and Tax Evasion as if they are the same thing. They're really not.

Here's how it works: the government of the day set a number of rules up, determining how we must all pay tax, and also how much we must all pay. And so, we proceed to pay tax by those rules.

Now, if you are rich, and therefore have access to high-powered accountants (and, let's face it, tax havens), then you get to poke around in all those rules, and thus minimise the tax that you have to pay. You're obeying all the rules, but you're avoiding any tax that the government would be quite happy to take, but don't actually require you to pay.

(In other words, if the rules say you must pay £100, then a tax avoider will make sure he pays £100, and not one penny more.)

Meanwhile, there are a second bunch of people who break the rules, and so don't pay the tax that those rules say they must. These people are evading the taxes set by the government.

(In other words, if the rules say you must pay £100, a tax evader will pay £90, or £50, or whatever.)

Those are quite different things - on one hand we have people scrupulously avoiding paying more than the rules say they must, and on the other we have people who are deliberately not paying by the rules.

It is not "morally wrong" for people to use the existing rules to avoid the government taking more money than their own rules say they can. Frankly, what's morally wrong is the government taking any more money than their tax rules say they should - if their rules say they can take £100 and they take £105, how is that not stealing, especially given that they're taking that money against our will, and backed by the threat of force?

Now, I understand that there's a strong moral argument for paying taxes. Equally, there's a strong argument that those who have more should pay more. And, further, there's a strong argument that actually, we should all be paying more. I get that.

But if that's the case, and if the government want people to pay more, then they should change the rules accordingly. If they don't want people paying accountants to find them loopholes to avoid tax, close the loopholes. If they want people to pay more tax, then change the rules so people have to pay more tax.

The government set the rules. If they find that people are using the rules in a way they don't like, they have the power to change those rules.

(Oh, and incidentally, it doesn't matter if those loopholes are "using the rules in a way the government didn't intend". This isn't some game, with polite applause for displaying good sportsmanship. What the law intends is almost entirely irrelevant next to what the law actually says. The powers-that-be really need to start doing a better job writing good laws, and actually reading them before they pass them into law.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Euro 2012

I've watched very little of Euro 2012, mostly because I've always had something more important to do with my time. And I have no comment on England's performances, since I only saw part of their match against France, in which the French had plenty of possession but didn't seem to have any great ability to apply real pressure on the English goal.

(If I had to guess, I would say that England will probably go out against Italy; they might progress one further step, but I don't see them getting to the Final. Oh, and also, I don't accept the received wisdom that reaching the last 8 amounts to a success, at least at the Euros. If you're serious about being contenders, as England should be, then consistently getting to the semis should be the target. They may have done better than expected, but that's not the same as doing well.)

However, the thing that really bugs me about the Euros, and it's something I'm sure I've mentioned before: why do we persist in letting ITV cover them? They're awful! Between an unfunny host who sounds bored, a panel of 'experts' who are anything but, and commentators who try to walk that fine line between absurd arrogance and outright xenophobia (with intermittent success), watching is just not fun.

And it is specifically ITV that are really poor. The BBC are consistently better. Hell, for coverage of football generally, Sky are leagues ahead.

Please, can we get rid of ITV's coverage in time for the World Cup? Just give it to the BBC in its entirety.

(Of course, now that "Harry Hill's TV Burp" is gone, removing the football from ITV would remove the last reason for ever watching it. But then, is it truly worth having a channel just to watch mind-bogglingly awful coverage of football?)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The first domino topples

At this point, it's largely irrelevant what happens with Rangers on the 4th of July. Whether their newco are admitted to the SPL, or they get demoted to the third division and work their way up, the reality is that they're going to have to spend several years rebuilding. Frankly, if there's any prospect of them winning the league in the next five years, then that's a damning indictment on the level of competition.

There's also little need for Rangers to be punished further. Yes, they've been guilty of grotesque financial mismanagement, and it certainly looks like they've been guilty of other significant wrongdoing... but surely the mess they're in now is adequate punishment - after all, they've lost 140 years of history, they have a club in tatters, and they're facing a very long road back. Is there really a need now to strip them of titles, impose further financial penalties, or dock them points?

Of course, if I'm really honest, I don't really care what happens to Rangers. I have an interest, yes, but it has been a very long time since I have called myself a fan in any sense. And if there has been wrongdoing, as seems likely, then it is right that they suffer as a consequence.

But what concerns me more is that I suspect this is just the first domino to fall. Most of the clubs in the SPL were already under financial pressure, or operating on wafer-thin profits. A less interesting league almost certainly means reduced gate receipts, and while Sky have said they won't walk away, they would be mad not to take this opportunity to renegotiate their deal - after all, who really wants to watch a league with only one contender?

Whether or not Rangers are returned to the SPL next season, I doubt they will be the last club to fall.

Monday, June 18, 2012

This Far, No Further!

I find myself extremely troubled.

I am absolutely convinced that one of the organisations of which I am a member, and some of the finest people that I know (including some I care for very deeply), are on the wrong side of a particular issue. What's more, I feel that I really should be speaking up publicly about the issue (as a matter of principle), but when I got the appropriate post written and ready to go... I just couldn't bear to post it.

There's a storm coming. And I really don't like the look of those clouds.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


If you don't want any spoilers, then there are two things you need to know about "Prometheus":

  1. It's a prequel, albeit an "indirect prequel".
  2. Prequels suck.

Now, in fairness, this second isn't an absolute rule - "X-Men: First Class" was actually very decent. But it holds far more often than not, to the extent that I'm even rather concerned for the fate of "The Hobbit" - sure, the books were published in the other order, but they sure seem to be prequel-ising it, by shoehorning in material and characters from LotR, imposing a similar feel on a very dissimilar tale, and so forth. We'll see, but I'm concerned.

Anyway, "Prometheus" is a very well-made film. It's visually stunning, and if you're determined to see it, go see it on the biggest screen you can. But it's also rubbish - the plot and the characters just aren't there. And I don't mean that they're "not there" in the way that they were pretty basic in "Avatar" (to say the least) - they're "not there" in that if you think about them at all then you'll realise how utterly stupid they are. "Avatar" holds together as a story, in addition to being visually stunning; "Prometheus" does not.

(It's the comparison between Sharapova and Kournikova - both tennis players who make/made more money from modelling than from tennis, but one of them can actually play as well.)


Okay, anyone who doesn't want spoilers should skip down to the next post at this stage.

Still here?

I think what I found most objectionable about the film was just how utterly stupid the characters were. When going into an unknown site on an alien planet, you do not leave the weapons behind, even if it is a "scientific expedition". Even if your atmospheric sensors say the air is breathable, you do not remove your helmet - there may well be airborne pathogens your suit cannot detect. No matter how creepy the dead body is, you do not split the party unnecessarily - now, instead of running around in the creepy dark, you're now running around in the creepy dark alone. To maintain quarantine procedures on the ship, do not open the airlock and then tell people they can't come on board - just tell them they can't come on board!

And it really didn't help that one of the characters, David, does something truly horrible (which is fine), but he does it for no apparent reason whatsoever. It would be fine if the company had a secret agenda to infect the crew and thus gain access to bioweapons (except, of course, that both "Alien" and "Aliens" did that plot). But that wasn't his plan. Basically, he infected the crew for shits and giggles. Good plan!

The problem is, once the characters are so utterly idiotic, it doesn't matter how scary the monsters are - at worst, if they wipe out the crew they're doing the gene pool a favour! Frankly, it's just a shame that there were any survivors at all!

(Speaking of survivors - clearly, the female doctor was supposed to be some sort of Ripley-esque character. But what makes Ripley one of the best female protagonists in sci-fi is that she is a strong, smart character. When presented with awful circumstances, she first survives them, and then in the sequel turns to face her fears head-on. The protagonist in "Prometheus" is only hurt by the comparison - I actually can't remember her name, and can't be bothered Googling it. I think it was Elizabeth something.)

Yeah, this film was 2 hours wasted. And it's a real shame - the trailers looked very promising, and there's clearly the germ of a really good film in amongst all the awfulness. I guess it's just one more film to add to the list of follow-ups they never made to "Aliens".

Oh, Thank Goodness!

Yesterday I finished "The Second Book of Lankhmar", by Fritz Leiber. I had been reading it basically since we got back from honeymoon, and while it was very good in places, I really didn't enjoy the whole.

"The Second Book of Lankhmar" was a compilation of three earlier books, the excellent "The Swords of Lankhmar", "Swords and Ice Magic", and "The Knight and Knave of Swords". These latter two were themselves compilations of short stories and novellas, of distinctly mixed quality.

For the most part, this was just a case of being a series that had gone on too long, and beyond the author's ability to sustain it. However, it was also true that as the series went on, the author really started indulging in... a different kind of fantasy.

Indeed, there were sections of the very last story that were really quite pornographic. (And by that, I don't mean "includes a sex scene", I mean "includes a sex scene that serves no purpose in the plot beyond having a sex scene" - "A Game of Thrones" contains material that is far worse in content, but which is essential to the plot, and so I find it less objectionable. This was just inappropriate... and it was poorly written pornography, to boot.)

Unfortunately, by the time I got to that point I was more than 400 pages into a 694-page book - I wasn't going to be beaten by it!

Anyway, I've now finished, and moved on to something that is (hopefully) a lot better - Bernard Cornwell's latest paperback.

As for Leiber - I recommend reading some of his stories. But don't be tricked into reading all of them, or even all of either of the two "Books" - read some reviews first, and pick out a subset to read from there. He's worth reading... but only in part.

#20: "The Second Book of Lankhmar", by Fritz Leiber

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Books to Read

On Tuesday, I printed out a copy of The List, and proceeded to check the books Lady Chocolat has brought with her against this copy. The motive for this should be obvious.

Surprisingly, it turns out that LC brought with her only thirteen books from The List, one of which is "The Complete Works of Shakespeare" (and another of which is actually "Hamlet" - both as part of the above and as a separate book!). Although, I haven't gone through the two Norton Anthologies, so it's possible that a few more entries from The List hide therein.

The other thing that's quite nice is that as a consequence of reading some of these books, I'll then have a couple of additional options opened up. Once I've made it through "Sense and Sensibility", for example, I can then read the parody "... and Sea Monsters" (and likewise for "Jane Slayer").

Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that I now have the next several months' reading sorted out.

#19: "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Campaign Guide", by Rodney Thompson, Sterling Hershey, John Jackson Miller, and Abel G. Peña

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

A Mug Anecdote

As I'm sure I've mentioned before, I have a variety of mugs from my many travels. Lady Chocolat despairs, but it is my contention that this is a good thing - it means that when people come to the flat and drink coffee (or, if they're wrong, tea), I can regale them with the appropriate mug anecdote.

And everybody loves a good mug anecdote.

Anyway, over the weekend, LC and I were over at her parents' house, cat-sitting. This was an intensely scary prospect, as the cat is almost ninja-like in her stealth, and prone to pouncing at the slightest provocation.

And yesterday, I travelled to work directly from the house, without going back home first. This meant that everything that I needed had to be taken with me on Saturday.

The key problem, though, is that I have a particular mug that I use for my coffee at work, and it went into the dishwasher on Friday, the dishwasher didn't go on until Saturday, and it wasn't finished in time.

Yes, it's true. At work yesterday, I had to use the wrong mug! And, consequently, my mug anecdotes were out of alignment - I had to tell the tale of Brittany, rather than the tale of Stuttgart. Horrors!

Fortunately, I went home last night and recovered the correct mug. And so, the world is now back in alignment. Ish.

(Admittedly, this story isn't as sad as the "jelly and ice cream" story CJ told me at the weekend, but it's the best I have.)

Friday, June 01, 2012

Advanced Higher Computing

Lady Chocolat's brother had his last ever school exam yesterday, which was Advanced Higher Computing (bet you couldn't have guessed that!). We were over there last night, and I had a read through of the exam paper.

And, bloody hell - I don't think I would have passed that exam!

The paper was split into two sections, with section two further split into three sub-sections of which you had to complete one.

So, I read through the first section before dinner, and it seemed nice and easy. I would probably have gotten near-maximum marks on that one. (Although there was one question that I'm sure didn't actually have an answer, but I'll say no more, just in case.)

But the second section was a beast - there were detailed questions on three computing topics. None of which were all that challenging, but they all relied on specific knowledge that I just don't have to hand. I could probably have scraped up a few points... but even when put together with Section One I'm not sure that would have been a pass.

(Now, that said, if they'd asked about DECT, or intruder detection systems, or perhaps even actual HTML coding, I'd have been golden. It's also extremely likely that I'd have aced any and all coursework. I really ought to, given that that's what I do! Still, the exam was a bit of a shock.)

What I did find amusing, though, is how little the computing taught in schools seems to resemble computing as it actually is in the real world. Of course, I noticed that about univeristy-level computing when I did that - they teach software engineer as, perhaps, it should be... but the real word is a whole lot messier and less controlled. (Just like the French I learned in high school bears almost no relation to the French that is actually spoken in France.)

And of particular interest was that the test expected the student to be able to regurgitate a particular algorithm. Which is fine - I don't know the algorithm off the top of my head, but was able to quickly recreate it from first principles (because I am that good, obviously - or because it's just not that hard). But the thing is that in reality we would never write that algorithm. It's just not something we need to know - because there are well-known libraries that have already done the job for you. In other words, Google is your friend.

(Which isn't to say that they shouldn't teach those algorithms in schools - they need to do something to teach coding, and they need to teach the mindset required to solve the relevant problems. But there is no benefit in expecting students to reproduce the algorithm from memory at exam, because that's just a matter of rote learning. A better question, although a harder one to write, would be to have them develop a new algorithm of some sort, testing their actual ability to code.)

One parting thought: In a couple of months, we'll get the annual bout of the "are standards slipping" discussion, when students are issued with yet another set of record-breaking results. This exam represents at least one data point for a counter-argument. (Of course, it's also the highest-level exam in a science/engineering subject. I daresay Standard Grade Zumba might be a tad easier...)