Saturday, August 09, 2008

A time to race

Time to hide from the TV or finish that thousand page book you started a year ago, for the Olympics are upon us. Yes, I shall watch a few events - the 1500 metres final is the cream of them, long enough for tactics to be potentially decisive but short enough to maintain the tension. But the dancing and prancing ones, the swimming, in which who is who is distinguishable only before and after the action, and most of the team games (baseball and softball rightly for the last time) I will skip. Of course one has to keep an eye out for a genuine new star and the occasional woman competitor of both skill and beauty, like the Canadian high jumper Debbie Brill of long ago. If there is a new one I hope she has enough skill to make the final so I can get another look.

The Times will be represented by a mixed bag of writers led by its chief sportswriter Simon Barnes. Barnes is a versatile journalist and unusually erudite for a sports specialist, up there with Bernard Darwin and Henry Longhurst. He does a column on wildlife on Saturdays, has written novels and rides horses enthusiastically - he understands the mechanics of the reverse (or is it inverse) canter that is apparently a crucial part of the dressage stage of the three day event. But his main, recurring, theme is what one might call the soul of sport, appreciation of its ultimate meaning, why we do it, why the best practitioners do it to the limits, what it means to win and lose in terms of basic, raw human endeavour and emotion rather than titles and prizes. He does it better than anyone else.

On Tuesday Barnes reported on a ‘gig’ he had attended that was sponsored by Omega (BBC and advertisers of over-hyped cure-all foods and medicines please note that is Omega, not Omega), responsible for timing at the games. Jaques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, was there and obliged to make a speech. Barnes feared a traditional brotherhood of sport spiel and was surprised to hear a philosophical essay about time and its relationship to sport. Neat, appropriate and tactful on Rogge’s part certainly but I felt Barnes, unusually for him, missed the mark in his endorsement and appreciation of the theme.

Time matters in sport, Barnes said, adding quite rightly that bullshit, the staple of nearly all post-event commentary, doesn’t. But I think that much sport is at least independent of time and sometimes distorted by too much emphasis on it. The most exciting races are the ones where two or more great competitors come together to find the winner. The winner’s time is secondary. Coe raced Ovett, not the clock. Roger Bannister may be mainly remembered as the first man to beat the four minute mile but his greatest race was when he beat John Landy, who had stolen his world record in the meantime, passing Landy on the outside of the last bend as Landy looked over the other shoulder to see where he was. Gordon Pirie, by contrast, held all sorts of world records but was consistently beaten in head to head races by athletes with slower personal best times. If we miss seeing a race we ask first who won, not what the time was. Time is a measure of progress in training but decisive only when the nature of the event does not allow head to head competition and this surely is why the winter Olympics are so dull, for almost every event has to be decided by either timing or subjective judging. The drama is gone. In which connection what a good device the Cambridge bump races are. With a river too narrow for side by side racing the crews are not timed but set off at equal distances from each other and succeed or fail according to whether they catch up the boat in front before the end of the course. Good primeval competition with the winner clearly apparent as it happens. That is how it should be.

Outside racing sports time can be crucial in defining the end of hostilities. Basketball matches always seem to be determined in the last few seconds and even in chess players run into time trouble and have to rush their moves. Is there a sport unaffected by time? Bowls perhaps, or snooker and some might say golf, but on this last I disagree. There is now a standard for the time a round should take but I have not had much success to date in bringing it to the notice of my club. Just give me time.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Basic certificate in UK citizenship

Elementary Level

Paper 1: Numeracy, objectivity and healthy scepticism

Q1. (80% of marks) An article in the Times reported that a government survey of drinking had found that alcohol had become 69% more affordable between 1980 and 2008. Discuss.

A. Without further information not given in the question one cannot say whether this loose phraseology is the product of the government’s standard of analysis or the current standard of reporting at the Times.

The obvious first question is: 69% of what? It is a reasonable assumption from the data that an arbitrary definition of alcohol affordability has been postulated and given an initial value, based on data for 1980, of say 100. It would then appear that the corresponding value of the index, recalculated for 2008, is 169, which would indeed be a 69% increase - in the index.

Next, to make a proper objective assessment of the significance, if any, of such a finding we need to know how the affordability is defined. Again, one can only postulate and a reasonable assumption would be that researchers have investigated typical patterns of income and spending in 1980, taking into account the then prevalent wages and salaries for typical occupations, the level of taxes on those wages and salaries and the prices at the time for say a pint of bitter, a bottle of chardonnay or a litre of gin. A measure such as the price of a pint as a proportion of disposable income might then be devised. Or it might be the number of pints that could be bought with a week’s disposable income. And here we immediately hit a common confusion when results of such research are quoted in percentage increases. If alcohol has become cheaper relative to other ‘discretionary’ spending, which is presumably, in qualitative terms, what ‘more affordable’ means, then the first measure will show a reduction in the proportion of disposable income needed to buy a pint. However the second measure will show an increase in the number of pints that the disposable income will buy. Only one of the two will show a change of 69% and the second will be the larger. It is therefore likely, in its efforts to make a case for the restrictive actions that will follow, that the government has chosen the second measure.

To further test the official analysis we also need to know the definition of disposable income – assuming that this is indeed the basis of the ‘affordability’ conclusion. One hopes, though one hardly dares assume, that it starts from a basis of taxed income and that essential spending is then subtracted. What is considered essential? Has this changed between 1980 and 2008? Where does council tax figure in the calculation? What alcohol prices were used in the comparisons – a cheap six-pack of Belgian lager sold as a loss leader in a supermarket or a pint of real bitter in a pub struggling to make a living in the face of the smoking ban without degenerating into a pool hall and food outlet? What sort of typical income was used as the basis – a City banker, a man working as the only breadwinner with two children and a mortgage, a professional man trying to keep up with the increases in school fees and golf club subscriptions, or a pensioner whose council tax takes up an ever larger proportion of his meagre income?

The only conclusion consistent with rigorous analysis is that the government has commissioned a fudge, designed to make us feel guilty and to act as a basis for further taxes on alcohol and restrictions to individual freedom.

Q2. (20% of marks) On the basis of the content and conclusion of the report do you consider legislation to control alcohol affordability and consumption would be justified or workable in a democracy?

A. The history of similar efforts in other democracies and in other areas is not encouraging. The extreme measure of prohibition was enacted in the US and later abandoned after it had spawned a significant extension of criminal activities (as is happening with banned drugs in many countries now) and in the UK the attempt to restrict the flow of discretionary spending on foreign holidays in the 1960s merely accelerated it by giving encouragement to the package holiday industry as a means of reducing the impact of the regulations.

However, since it is a fundamental principle of New Labour that the innocent must be punished along with the guilty, legislation is to be expected. It has already happened with smoking, with the same effect. It is most likely to take the form of hefty tax increases (they need the money anyway), compulsory label information on units of alcohol and endless messages about the health risks as if, as with smoking, any drinker can still be unaware of them. It may also involve moves to control sales to minors or act against irresponsible retailers and publicans. These will merely have the effect of making life more difficult as well as expensive for the responsible drinker or the person who simply appreciates a good pint.