Money, part II

OK, and so I return from the heady excitement of a weekend’s rugby to the more confuzzling realities of base level economics- here comes the second (and hopefully final) part of my description of the precise way money works in the economic system. For those who haven’t read part one, do so (post before last), otherwise this will get confusing.

I must begin with a correction and apology for the end of the last post I did on this subject- towards the end, I began referring to the actual production of money & value in an economy as inflation, rather than what actually causes it- devaluing the effort inputted by the worker so as to create a profit margin for the company boss. This is very much NOT inflation- I was, once again, getting ahead of myself.

Just to clarify this, I thought I might begin on a slight tangent and define what inflation actually is. Inflation is the process of everything in an economy getting a little bit more expensive over time. Cat food, washing powder, the cost of your boss employing you (ie your salary)- over time, this all rises slowly, at a rate of a fer percent a year. This is why, if you read old books or hear people talking about days gone by, people seemed to be able to get things incredibly cheaply in the past. Case in point- when I was at primary school, my teacher used to tell us about this shop her son (several years older than us) used to go to to buy sweets. At this shop, there was a row of sweets worth a few pennies, ranging from 10 down to 1p in price. Nowadays if I go into my local newsagents, the cheapest sweet I could buy costs 12p, and most cost quite a bit more. Why? Inflation.

The reason I was getting inflation confused with the production of value (for want of a better term), is partly because it, superficially, appears to be the same basic idea. I mean, if everything’s worth more money, the value of everything must be going up, right? Wrong- remember that money is only an arbitrary construct to give us an idea of value. Everything might be getting slowly more expensive, yes- but everyone’s salary will also be increasing at, on average, the same rate. So, for example, while your groceries bill may be getting steadily more expensive as the years go by, it will still remain roughly the same proportion of what you earn (presuming you stay in roughly the same job), so will not actually be putting any greater strain on your bank account.

So why do we have inflation, then? Why do our economists and politicians always try to ensure a low,  steady rate of inflation is always ticking over? After all, hyperinflation like what occurred in Germany in the chaos after the First World War can devastate a country, and its economy ( I heard a story once of someone at the time whose coffee went up in price by a quarter in the time it took him to drink it). Simple answer- it promotes growth, and is inherently linked to the process of ‘creating value’.

To explain: imagine a company makes cars. Because there is a differential between how much the car’s value is increased by people working on it, and how much said people get paid, the head of the company makes money. This means he is able to go out and buy things from his friend’s company, who make motorbikes. This makes his friend some money, which he spends on something else, etc. etc. until eventually more people are able to buy the first guy’s cars. This increases the demand for his cars, and thus the price he can get away with charging for them (no.1 rule of economics- when demand exceeds supply, price goes up, and vice versa, because there will always be someone willing to pay a bit more to ensure he gets the car and the other guy doesn’t). This increases his turnover. At this point he thinks “hmm, I’ve got a bit more money now, so I’ll pay my workers more. That way, people will come to work for me, not the guy next door”. So he raises his wages. To combat this, the guy in the factory next door raises his wages so all his workers don’t leave him, and all the other factories do too. Thus everyone’s wages increase, all the prices increase and hey- inflation. Notice how this process has lead to more people buying things (in reality this  is not just the bosses who do this, but reality economics is heinously complicated), and thus growth. This is, therefore, the basic cycle of economic growth.

However, the same is not so true for hyperinflation- when inflation gets out of hand. Since inflation leads to everything being worth more money but having the same value, it, over time, leads to the gentle devaluation of currency. If this process happens too quickly, and money becomes rapidly worth less and less, everyone gets terrified of the economic situation and uncertainty (how would you feel if you had no idea how expensive the milk would be when you got to the supermarket, and had to carry a wheelbarrow full of notes to pay for it), so people stop buying things and the economy ceases to show any real growth. This is why the situation is so bad in countries like Zimbabwe at the moment, where a mixture of corruption in the political system and generalised chaos everywhere else has lead to idiotic economic policies that cause inflation to soar upwards just as the real economy plummets downhill. In summary, therefore, a low, steady rate of inflation is the best thing for all concerned.

Right, that’s inflation covered, now onto… ah, right, 950 words already. Damn, I really need to get less into this. Either that or economics has got to become a lot easier to explain. Either way, I’m probably going to need another post to actually make my point on this (yes, I did intend to make a point at the start of this but have got somewhat bogged down, it seems) if not more, so think I will sign off for tonight. Saturday’s post will contain the third instalment of what I hope ends up just being a trilogy of economics, and I may actually get round to going beyond an anatomical description. Although please- don’t hold me to that.

Episode 6: Return of the Nations

The Six Nations returned this weekend, bringing with it some superb running rugby, some great tries, and the opportunity to make the rubbish pun in the title of this post (sorry). As usual, scores at the bottom, and hit BBC iPlayer or Rugby Dump afterwards to watch the highlights if you didn’t see the games- they were awesome

First up are ITALY who take the Oh God, The Cliches Will Be Horrendous Award for Causing the Most Obvious Game of Two Halves (although weirdly the BBC half-time analysis during the other two games described both first halves as ‘a half of two halves). The first half of their match with Ireland was a great contest, with the Italian underdogs matching the Irishmen point for point (despite their traditional kicking issues) to go in at the break 10-10, courtesy of a lovely try from Sergio Parisse.
Then came the second half, during which the intriguing contest of the first appeared to go straight out of the window the moment Wayne Barnes blue his whistle. Italy secured little possession, and their forwards were powerless to stop the Irish backs trampling all over their Italian counterparts, making break after break and running in four tries, including two in the last two minutes as Italy appeared to just roll over and give up. Considering how well they have done in the last two weeks, and indeed in last year’s championship (including a very tense, narrow loss to the Irish), this was a reminder that they still have a way to go.

IRELAND themselves picked up a more individual award, namely the Sorry, Were We Watching The Same Game? Award for Most Baffling Man of the Match. Ireland had many standout players in their rout of the Italians- Tommy Bowe scored a brace on the wing, Keith Earls was running well in the centre and scored a try of his own, and Paul O’Connell was seemingly omnipresent in the lineout and breakdown. Two of my tips for MOTM were Stephen Ferris, who made at least two clean breaks and was tackling like the immovable object he usually is, and Rob Kearney, whose aggression whilst running would have made the bravest defender start to whimper. And Man of the Match went to… Jonny Sexton, the Irish flyhalf.
Now, Sexton is a good player, and the typical media view of him appears to be somewhere between Dan Carter and God, but he was not MOTM. From my point of view, he was playing quite well, but certainly nothing like his best and wasn’t even inspiring his attacking line like he had been in previous weeks. Man of the Match? Not a chance.

Onto the next game, in which ENGLAND picked up the consolation Are You Blind, Sir? Award for Unluckiest Refereeing Errors. Any rugby player will tell you that no referee, no matter how good and no matter what the match, can see everything, and there will be always things that they miss. To his credit, referee Steve Walsh (who himself won the Hugh Jackman Lookalike Award) did spot most things and overall refereed well, but several of those that he did miss or got wrong went severely against England. One example that sticks in mind occurred midway through the second half- with the English back line under pressure, flyhalf Owen Farrell (who had an absolute stormer) tried to simultaneously flick the ball onwards while avoiding the unwelcome attentions of Welsh centre Jonathan Davies. As he did so, Davies tackled him and knocked the ball on, sending it flying upfield. This should have been an English scrum, but with Walsh on the wrong side he allowed play to go on, from which Wales made 30 metres, won a penalty and got a lucky 3 points.
More controversial, however, and something that will prove a source of bitterness for years to come methinks, occurred right at the end. With England needing a converted try to draw level, they launched one last desperate attack, including one attempted crossfield kick that was inches away from a score. Finally, wing David Strettle launched himself at the line and, although swamped by three Welsh defenders, appeared at first glance to have touched it down over his head. Multiple video replays appeared to show the same thing, but the TMO was unsure as to whether Strettle had exerted sufficient ‘downward pressure’ and, as it says in the laws “if there is any doubt as to whether a try has been scored, a scrum must be awarded”. With time over, Walsh called no try, blew his whistle, and Wales were victorious. Was it a try? I think it was (as do all my English friends), but hey- it’s happened now. But Wales- you got lucky. Very lucky. (Although I must say, Strettle did himself no favours in the post-match press conference by making at least 2 laws mistakes that didn’t exactly help his case)

As for WALES, they can thank their win due to a mixture of a rather fluky try from Scott Williams (how he got the ball of the strongest man on the pitch I will never know), and their work in gaining the Leonidas, Eat Your Heart Out Award for Best Defence. Despite Manu Tuilagi sitting Rhys Priestland on his arse at every possible opportunity, and England’s defence being solid as a rock too, the Welsh defence was awesome. MOTM and Welsh captain Sam Warburton saved a sure-fire try with a one-leg tackle on Tuilagi, the most powerful runner out there, that stopped him dead in his tracks, and it was that desperation and urgency with their backs to the wall that kept the English away from a try, and prevented Strettle’s try from being in any doubt. Added to that was George North’s beautiful hit on Owen Farrell, just after Farrell’s equally beautiful chip through, and just after his impressive placement of the ball, considering he’d just been hit by a train of a tackle. You can see it in appalling quality here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edFYLea7n2Y, or with sound on the highlights video- gotta be one of the best of the tournament so far.

Finally we come to Sunday and SCOTLAND‘s clash with France, in which the Scots picked up the Oh Shit, You Are Actually Quite Good Progress Prize. Every rugby man worth his salt knows what Scotland’s problems have been in recent years- tries, or more importantly, a lack of them. In players Sean Lamont, Max Evans, Chris Cusiter and Mike Blair Scotland have always had some undoubtedly potent backs, but they never seem to be able to finish anything, or to provide that moment of magic that leads to a welcome 5-point boost. However, within 10 minutes of the starting whistle on Sunday, first starter Stuart Hogg changed that when, in tandem with some great vision by Greig Laidlaw, he scooted over in the corner to open the scoring for Scotland. From that moment on, Scotland were a changed team from the one we have seen in recent months- fast, open, free-flowing and exciting to watch. Hogg was constantly threatening from full-back (once running straight through what looked like a solid wall of French defenders), Laidlaw kept up the good work from fly-half, and the back row were their usual brilliant selves. When Lee Jones got try no. 2 (courtesy of what I’m sure was a bit of outrageous cheating from John Barclay), the result seemed immaterial, for Scotland were playing well at last. Although, to be honest, the win would have been nice.

And so we come to that game’s victors, FRANCE, winners of the Sporting Underdog Films Are Never Going to Happen In Real Life Award for Mercilessly Grinding Out wins. France were not overwhelming in their victory- they were not spectacular and, for a French side, surprisingly lacking in flair. While the Scots surprised and encouraged everyone watching, getting the Murrayfield crowd behind them and setting themselves up for what would have been a historic win, the French were comparatively calm and collected in their manner. While their rather shoddy defence let them down on occasions, in attack they were clinical finishers, getting one try courtesy of a killer line from Wesley Fofana, and another from a simple 2-on-1 from a clean line break. Lionel Beauxis’ drop goal to finish it off at the end epitomised their performance- nothing flashy, no tension, no dramatic try attempts as they struggled to break the Scottish line- just calm, efficient finishing and just performance ability. Some would say Scotland were the moral victors- but the French made sure that was not about to happen.

Final Scores:
Ireland 42-10 Italy
Wales 19-12 England
France 23-17 Scotland

Money- what the &*$!?

Money is a funny old thing- the cornerstone of our way of existence, the bedrock of modern-day life, and the cause of, and solution to, 99% of all life’s problems. But… well, why? When you think about it, money doesn’t actually mean anything- it is an arbitrary creation brought in for convenience’s sake, and yet it as an entity has spiralled into so much more than a mere tool. Now how on earth did that happen?

Before about two and a half thousand (ish) years ago, money just about not exist. To the best of my knowledge, coinage only became commonplace in Europe with the rise of the Roman Empire- indeed, when they left Britain in the 5th century AD, much of the country went back to simply bartering- trading goods and services for other goods and services. This began to change as time went on however, and by the time of William the Conqueror’s invasion, the monetary system was firmly established across Europe. Coins were a far more efficient system than bartering- trading stuff for one another is a highly subjective process, and it can be hard to get a sense of value and to what extent you were being ripped off. By giving everything a fixed, arbitrary value (ie a price), everything suddenly had a value relative to one another. More importantly, this allowed for goods and services to be traded for the potential to buy more goods and services of equal value in coin form, rather than the things themselves, which was both easier and more efficient (there was now no risk of carrying a lampshade to the supermarket to exchange for a pint of milk, because a wallet is far easier to carry). The idea of money representing the potential to buy things can be seen by anyone looking on a British note, where it reads “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of…” however many pounds (this is in fact a callback to the days when banks stuck to the gold standard, when you could theoretically walk into the Bank of England and ask for five pound’s worth of gold for your fiver).

However, with coins representing potential to buy things, they instantly took on a value of their own, and here things start to get confusing. Because, when money itself takes on a value, it instantly becomes a commodity just like any other- just as people trade in gold bullion, oil and bits of companies, so people trade with money itself. And this… actually, I’ve got ahead of myself- let me take a step backward.

The input of human effort can be used to increase the value of various bits of the world we live in. For example- a heap of planks may be bought for £50 from a sawmill, but once you have gone home and spent 6 hours swearing at a hammer, you may now have a bench or something worth £500 or more. The materials themselves have not changed, but since a bench is more useful, better looking, and is better appreciated by people than a few planks, people set more value by it. Because more value is set by it, so it is worth more money.

This, at a base level, is how the economic system works- human effort is used to turn raw materials, which we don’t want, into products, which we do. Because people want these products, they pay money for them, and because they need this money to pay for them, they get a job. Because they are providing human effort to their boss (which itself has a value for its ability to raise the value of raw materials), their boss pays them the money they need. The boss gets the money he uses to pay his employees from selling things to people, which makes money because the human effort put in to make his final product raises the value of his final product above that of the raw materials he bought in order to make it- and thus we are back at the beginning of the cycle.

If we study this process, we can see that the only way the boss can make any money out of it is if the value of his final product (F) is greater than the value of its raw materials (M) plus however much he pays his employees for the effort they input (E)- ie, F>M+E. However, pretty much by definition, F should equal M+E- thereby the only way he can make money is by paying his workers less than their human effort is actually worth in the context of the product (A communist would seize on this as evidence of corporations exploiting the masses, but I refuse to go into this argument here- it is far too messy). This is the only way that any money actually gets produced in an economy, and the result is inflation. If inflation did not exist, then the only way anyone could make any money would be by spending less- but this automatically means that somebody else will not be getting your money, and so will be losing some. Thus inflation is vital to ensure that everybody in an economy gains money, and although this does lead to the gentle devaluation of currency, it allows the human race to stay one step ahead of a potential vicious cycle of decline- and inflation can only be generated by an economy manufacturing things.

But why do we need our level of money to continually rise? Well, imagine you have a steak worth £5 (It’s just an example, don’t judge me on my figures). When you eat that steak, something of value £5 has been turned into the contents of your gut, and ultimately into what comes out the other end- which is clearly worth a lot less than the steak. Thus, the human race consuming resources  reduces the overall value of planet earth, just as making stuff increases it. Nature in fact has an inbuilt system to prevent this from turning into a cycle of endless decline- reproduction. If the cow you ate your steak from had had a calf, then nature has ensured that your consumption of the steak has not, in the long run, decreased the overall steak value of the world due to the steak potential existing in the calf (I’ve just realised I’m making all these terms up on the fly- my apologies). I could go into the whole energy from calf <- energy from grass <- energy from sun <- universe in general etc. thing here, but this is extrapolating the economic problem somewhat. However, suffice it to say that ensuring our overall monetary value continues to rise via inflation is our version, from an economic perspective, of reproduction, balancing out our consumption of finite resources in terms of value.

Phew- this is getting longer than I anticipated. My apologies once again for it turning into a semi-coherent ramble, I only hope you could follow it. There is still quite a lot more to get through, so I think I’ll try to wind this all up on Wednesday (after another Six Nations post Monday- COME ON ENGLAND!). If you have been able to follow all of that then congratulations- you now understand core economics. If you haven’t then also congratulations- you are sufficiently normal to not understand my way of thinking.

Syria

Most of you reading this will probably be aware of the conflict going on in Syria- at least vaguely, anyway. It has not, over the past year, garnered the same press coverage as Libya or Egypt, and it’s main mention in the news has been ‘Meanwhile, a fresh wave of protests erupted this week in Syria as…’ etc. etc., with a 10 second video bite running in the background. As such, the proverbial image of the conflict (for me at least) has basically been one massive, year-long protest- the entire population decamping at weekends to shout at government buildings. My image is of a repeat of Egypt- some government violence here, the odd crowd running away from soldiers there, the odd outbreak of machine-gun fire, but no organised conflict.

Then I did a bit of research on the subject. This image could not be more wrong.

As a quick FYI, the modern state of Syria was founded in the post-WW2 carving up of territories, in 1946. No less than 8 coups have since occurred, the most recent (in 1970), bringing President Hafez al-Assad to power. The Ba’ath Party is the only real party within Syria- Syrians vote to approve a president, but not to select a party. He oversaw the crushing of several uprisings against his regime, including an infamous massacre in the town of Hama against an Islamist insurgency, before his death in 2000. The current President, Bashar al-Assad (Hafez’ son) has ruled since then (after the constitution was altered to reduce the minimum age for Presidency from 40 to 34), and he has also had to face many opponents to his regime. His country also has an appalling human rights record (mainly due to the ’emergency state’ brought on by its permanent state of war with Israel that lasted from 1963-2011), high unemployment and few political freedom’s.

The current state of protests began in the the first waves of the Arab Spring last January, when Hasan Ali Akleh set himself on fire in a protest against the government. The scale of protests grew throughout February, but it wasn’t until March that things began to get serious. By April, borders were being closed and the state police were getting more violent in their oposition to the increasingly aggressive protests, resulting in around 250 deaths. In May, the army was deployed, including extensive use of tanks and snipers. The government opposition began to arm itself- 11 soldiers were reported shot on 6th May.

I won’t go into the rest of the details, but suffice it to say that the situation has now degenerated into an all-out civil war. Large sections of the population (at least partly for religious reasons) support al-Assad and the government, and multiple opposition cities are under siege. The Syrian National Council (the opposition) and the government are in a full-on blame game, continually pointing fingers at one another and arguing over event causes. The official Syrian Army are engaged in a bloody guerilla war with the Free Syrian Army, made up of army deserters, and have employed snipers, air strikes and artillery against besieged cities.

This is not another Eypt. This is Libya gone mad.

I could argue over the politics of the situation all day if I so wished (even Al-Qaeda have thrown their lot in and picked a side (opposition, for the record)), but only one statistic really matters.  Depending on who you believe, between 5,000 and over 8,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far, and the majority have been in cities which are under siege and being attacked by government forces. The army is attacking cities such as Homs completely indiscriminately, attacking normal civilian buildings containing normal civilian Syrians. The level of destruction is appalling, as is some of the content coming out of the country- videos of young children refusing to let go of their dead father amid gut-wrenching cries of anguish are not to be forgotten in a hurry.

And the worst thing? The world is sitting around and, by and large, doing nothing. While many countries have declared their abhorrence of the violence, and most their support for the rebel fighters, they have all rejected the idea of intervention, in a country where thousands of ordinary people are being slaughtered every day. Much of the footage coming out of Syria has not come from news agencies, few of whom are in the besieged cities, but from normal Syrians. One such man, a young British-born Homs resident, said the reason that countries don’t want to get involved is simply due to oil “we don’t have oil, so our blood is not worth the same as Libyan blood”

A cynic’s perspective maybe, but if there is even a shred of truth in it, then the very idea is absolutely appalling. The whole point of having an international community, the whole point of having ARMIES in the developed world, is to defend those in need. Right now the Syrian people are in more need of help than any other group on planet Earth, and the world is not responding.

My voice may mean nothing in this matter, but it should not go unsaid. This is wrong. This must end. This is inhuman. Humanity is failing. Something needs to be done.

My time management is getting even worse…

Once again, I find myself with too much work to do, and not enough time to do it in, and once again it is my little blog who has to wait out this round on the sidelines- not too bad a thing, in all honesty, since the last few days have been… interesting, to say the least. As such, my brain feels like it is incapable of actually working properly, so such advanced arts as ‘thinking’ or ‘coherent typing’ are just a little taxing for it right now, hence me missing out on Saturday’s post. Things should return to normal by Wednesday, but until then, here is a short post about turtles

I LIKE THEM.

Trains of thought

A short while ago, I realised I wasn’t normal.  Nothing unusual about this- these thoughts pop up in my head from time to time, usually whilst hopping up a staircase shouting ‘bing’ every time I land (yeah, I get weird occasionally). But, this time, I was actually just sitting in a car, driving down a rural lane. These roads are generally hedged on either side, and these hedges are pruned in about November. As such, by February, their previously neat, regular shapes have generally become more shaggy, although still distinguishable, most notably towards the top of the hedge where the shape is still fairly obvious, with some sparse bits of longer hedge extending above the more densely packed mass. The moment I realised that I was being genuinely weird was after half a mile’s enjoyment of a typical game for me under such circumstances- imagining there are lasers coming out of my eyes and staring at the hedge/stragglier bits dividing line, trying to imaginary-cut the top bits off, and remembering to blink every time a lamp post cut across my field of vision.

Such is one example of quite how my brain works. I never formally realised that I always do this upon sight of such hedges, or that I have only said the words ‘happy birthday’ twice in the last 25 or so Facebook birthday messages I’ve written, or that I’ve only recently stopped blinking every time a car goes past when sitting on the top deck of a double-decker bus, or that I have once given serious consideration (upon cutting my finger open), to sticking it in a water glass and not putting a plaster on it, to see a) how long it takes to stop bleeding and b) see how much blood it would produce. The thing is, it took until I started thinking about it that I realised this isn’t how people usually think or behave.

And yet,  I AM normal in so many other ways. I speak like everyone around me, talk on Facebook in a similar style and using similar words to most of my friends, live in a normal house in a normal street in a normal suburban area, am surrounded by normal people, laugh, joke, play cards, chat, wander, do my bits of sport, all like any other normal guy. Normality is, I suppose, entirely relative and field-specific, like so many other things.

What is normality, really? Merely the absence of difference? Maybe a critic would say it is synonymous with boredom and lack of independence, but the people who say that are typically, on a base level normal themselves. Independence does not make you not normal, does not stop you from living in a robot apartment or talking like any other person. It makes you individual to be sure, and makes you different, but abnormal? No. Well, I suppose that at least partly answers the question.

Am I really abnormal? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s just a figment of my mind. Maybe everyone does think like this, and just no-one admits it. Maybe I’m just being self-centred, thinking I’m more different and special than I am. I hope not- those kind of people are some of the most smug, hateful people I’ve ever met. Maybe what I think of as abnormal is exactly the same as how the cynics a la above think of themselves- they think they’re abnormal, just as I do, but, when it comes down to it, they are just like everyone else.

Does it matter? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s just a passing thing. Maybe it’s just part of who I am. Maybe nobody I know really notices, maybe they stand out like a mile. I wouldn’t know- I don’t really know anyone who’s different in that way. Or maybe I do? They don’t seem to treat me any different- or do they? Maybe if who I was were different, I would be treated differently. Maybe not. Who can tell?

Ach, I dunno. Not really sure, to be honest, what I’m writing. Certainly don’t know why. I suppose I am, really, fulfilling what it says in that little ‘About’ box- “this is a small viewing hole into my mind”. Well, what you see in front of you here is just my train of thought, running here and there. Condensed a bit, of course, and resized- normally something like this would take 30 seconds to wander through my head, if it were allowed to run its course. This one has been somewhat forcibly drawn out to its present length, been forced to take its time and wait. To pause every few minutes while I change tabs, while I muse around. It’s a weird experience committing a train of thought to  paper. Well, to a server at least. Would that be called e-paper, or does that only refer to a kindle or e-reader. Ach, I don’t know.

Ooh look, starting and finishing a paragraph the same. Symbolism n shit.

I’m not really sure how to end this- trains of thought typically don’t end as such, or at least not in my case. Once in a while a definitive thought comes out of them, but for the majority of the time they just sort of peter out, crushed under the weight of the next one. Like that bit of conversation you really wanted to say before someone butted in with their own thing and the subject got changed, it must be swallowed and forgotten. Or at least stored for another time…

Six Nations, week II…

Another weekend over, another Monday spent calming down after a thrilling weekend’s rugby. Once again, awards await all six squads, and the final scores await at the bottom. Enjoy

We begin with ENGLAND, who take home the CBA Award for Only Playing Rugby When They Feel Like It and share the Can’t Quite Make The Second Team Award for Scrappiest Game with their opponents Italy. The match was played in Rome, a city not normally used to the temperature dipping below double figures, but this match started with much of the pitch thickly dusted with snow and the lines painted red so the players could see them. It may have been to do with the weather, the temperature, or simply the backdrop of conditions making it look stupid, but this lead to one of the scrappiest games of rugby I have ever seen. One is usually used, in international rugby at least, to passes being slick and professional, rucks being quick, efficient affairs, everything going to hand. What we’re not used to is passes being fumbled and hurled clumsily away, rucks merely being a collective term for large heaps of forwards in the general vicinity of the ball, and some 25% of passes bouncing. That’s not to say it was a bad match- on the contrary, it was exciting and good to watch, but the first half looked vaguely comical, the only 6 points coming from the boot of Owen Farrell.
Then ITALY scored. Twice. In as many minutes, gaining them the Oh Shit Where Did That Come From Award for Densest Period of Points Scoring. All 15 of Italy’s points came within a ten-minute period either side of half-time, and 12 of them came in the three minutes preceding it, through two tries seemingly against the run of play. Both were as scrappy as was to be expected from the game- first came Giovanbattista Venditti’s opportunistic dive on a loose kick that had bounced off three England players before bobbling towards the line (giving the young winger a try on his debut), and then Ben Foden, having collected a kick and run up, leaving his full-back position exposed, threw a pass straight to Tommaso Benvenuti (who had appeared from god-knows-where), allowing him to run 50 metres for Italy’s second. And here England picked up their other award- finally, for the first time under Stuart Lancaster, they began to play with some ambition, some go-forward, searching for a try which, thanks to a second charge down in as many weeks from Charlie Hodgson, they found not long after. From then on the only difference was the kicking- Farrell put on a superb display, slotting all 5 kicks that went his way, while Italy missed no less than 8 points from place kicks (and another 3 from a missed drop-goal) that could have won them the game. Once again, let down by the boot.

On to the next game, where FRANCE and IRELAND jointly take the UN Award for Fostering International Relations. Paris proved to be even colder than Rome, getting into double negative figures (hell, the Seine had frozen over), and like the Stadio Olimpico, the Stade de France does not have undersoil heating. As such, with just minutes to go before kickoff the officials decided that if the ground was left then it was likely to freeze up due to the stupidly late kickoff time, and the game was cancelled. Disappointment I’m sure for the many travelling Irish and indeed French supporters, who were undoubtedly forced, with a heavy heart, to wander into the streets of Paris, a city where beer can be found for half the price of the British Isles. Oh how the Irish must have suffered. ;-).

To the weekend’s final match, where SCOTLAND couldn’t quite muster up the <INSERT GENERIC SPORTING UNDERDOG FILM HERE> Award for Best Comeback, and instead had to make do with getting angry at the Oh, For ****’s Sake, Sir Award for Harshest Moment To Be Disallowed A Try. After suffering two yellow cards in quick succession, condemning them to play for almost 20 minutes with 14 men, the Scots conceded 3 quick tries- but when returned to their full complement, they began to play with an ambition that has been all too absent from the Scotland shirt in recent years (this may have had something to do with the introduction of Mike Blair at scrum-half, who for seemingly the first time got his side taking quick penalties and upping the game’s tempo). On the wings, Lee Jones and Stuart Hogg were playing like men inspired, and after some stupendous runs Scotland were finally rewarded with a fantastic move, swinging along the line to the right and finding Hogg unmarked on the wing. Unfortunately, Nick De Luca threw him a dreadful pass (which may or may not have had something to do with 14 stone of flying Welshman tackling him from behind), requiring Hogg to throw himself at the ball, flick it into the air, and, before it could touch the ground, sweep it up under his body with a free hand, before scrambling over. All beautiful, and a perfectly legal 5 points. Unfortunately, the movement was fast, and referee Romain Poite was on the other side of the field- all he saw was a dreadful pass and it fumbling in a pair of Scottish hands. You can understand why he considered it a knock-on, and the try was disallowed. The Scots got another try two minutes later from the field position they had gained, so I won’t say that the try could have won them the game- but if it had counted, and given Scotland that little extra momentum, then who knows…

Once again, we finish with WALES, who once again produced a clinical display to send Scotland down, and in doing so won the Getting the Pundits Scratching their Heads Award for Defying Conventional Rugby Thinking.  Nobody who watched that game will deny that the Scottish forwards were immense- David Denton continued where he left off last week by making some powerful runs, ably supported by his gigantic second row Richie Gray. His locking partner Jim Hamilton was making some bone-crunching hits, the front row were awesome in the rucks, and Ross Rennie… well, without disrespect to the superb performance of Dan Lydiate, he was my man of the match, seeming to constantly be in the process of carrying, stealing or tackling the ball at every possible opportunity. Conventional rugby thinking has always had it that ‘forwards win games, backs just decide by how much’, but here the Welsh forwards were overshadowed by their Scottish counterparts- and still ended up winning. How? Their lineout fell to pieces in the first half, they couldn’t compete with the Scottish skill at ball snaffling, and even big runners like Toby Faletau seemed absent. How could they possibly have won? Answer- because the forwards were passable, and the backs were inspired. Even with George ‘Jonah’ North off the pitch injured, they were superb, Jonathan Davies running great lines, Jamie Roberts smashing holes as only he knows how, Alex Cuthbert actually using his physical presence on the wing and Lee Halfpenny just being everywhere. The Scottish backs were far from bad*, but the Welsh were awesome.

The 6N takes a week off next week, so all you non rugby people can come out from under the sofa- next week will be something completely non-sporting, you have my word.

Final Scores:
Italy 15 : England 19
France : Ireland (Postponed)
Wales 27 : Scotland 13

*Well, I say they were far from bad- they were, but they still seemed incapable of using space out wide when it came to them and are still lacking that killer edge- when it comes, they will be something special

Another week, another attack on the web…

A couple of weeks ago, on the day of the web blackout, I put a post up here about SOPA and PIPA, the two acts planned to be passed by the US government with the potential to cripple  the web as we know it. Happily, in the space of 3 days the bill was all but dead and buried- a resounding success from the internet community.
However, the web is still a problem child to  many big corporations, and SOPA was far from the last time we’re going to see the copyright brigade try to attack it. I heard the other day of another threat looming on the horizon- this time called ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement).
Unlike SOPA or PIPA, ACTA is an international affair, being discussed in the worldwide halls of power- some have criticized it, in Europe at least, for being discussed by non-elected figures, but that’s another story. It’s actually a lot older than SOPA or PIPA- it was first put forward in 2006, first drafted in 2010, and was published in April 2011. ACTA’s aim is, once again, to deal with copyright infringement, this time by dealing with intellectual property rights. Like SOPA and PIPA, the problems it is setting out to deal with are real ones- intellectual property theft (or stealing/using someone else’s idea without permission) is a sneaky and underhand way of muscling into someone else’s market and making a quick buck out of someone else’s work. However, there is one gigantic problem standing in the way of this kind of bill ever being a good idea- the concept of intellectual property itself.
Intellectual property is notoriously hard to define- the OED lists it as “intangible property that is the result of creativity, such as patents, copyrights, etc…” because once it reaches this legally defined stage it clearly is. But there is no real distinction of exactly where the boundary of where IP starts begins. Is it when you first have the idea for a product? Is it when you first commit something to paper? Is it only when it has been filed, patented and copyrighted- where is the boundary? As such, any scale of idea can be thought of, without really stretching a point to0 far, as intellectual property. And ACTA does not introduce its own definition of intellectual property, meaning it is ripe for exactly the same kind of legal misuse as SOPA and PIPA could have been. The sharing of any information can technically be classed as intellectual property- spreading an idea that is technically somone else’s, without paying for the privilege. Of course, it is the web that would be hit hardest by the potential of ACTA to restrict the transfer of information, as this is, basically, what keeps the web running (see my SOPA/PIPA post for more details on the subject). This restriction on what can be said and shared means ACTA has been accused, most notably by the European Parliament, of potentially restricting people’s right to free speech and freedom of expression.
Like SOPA and PIPA, ACTA also grants hugely overblown powers and capabilities to countries, companies and governments attempting to enforce it- these include massively increasing the amount of surveillance permitted to be conducted on everyday people (violating your civil rights this time- people have a fundamental right to reasonable privacy), allowing the destruction of copyright-violating goods (one of the more worrying parts of the bill is that this could include generic medicines, versions of a medicine whose patent rights have expired, granting yet more power to an already selfish pharmaceutical industry), and introducing harsh punishments for violating ACTA regulations, including fines and prison sentences- the bill does not define how much or for how long these should be, which is a sign that it has not been comprehensively thought through- the power to decide what criminal charges should be applied is given to the copyright holder.
And, again like its predecessors, ACTA puts a huge onus on websites to check that they are not harbouring any copyrighted material unintentionally- this means that Google will have to continually check its servers to ensure that it is not being used as a conduit for reading copyrighted information, and that Facebook will always have to check that none of the videos being posted on it are playing copyrighted music. And then, of course, sites like YouTube, wholly reliant as they are on user-generated content, would simply implode and collapse.
But ACTA’s problems are not just repeats of SOPA and PIPA- it brings its own set of flaws to the table. Collaboration between scientists to work on improving patented medicines? No way- the big pharma would never allow it. Critics quoting lines in books and films? No- easy source of income for book and film publishers to snap up. Basically any work on an existing idea that has any connection with someone who is likely to abuse the powers ACTA gives them would be off limits- as usual in these kind of bills, the only people who benefit are big corporations who are looking to remove this pesky internet thing that keeps getting in the way.
And the worst thing? It’s already on its way. ACTA was signed last October by a large group of countries (although it has not yet been ratified by most of them), and the only countries who have complained or protested about it are a few in Eastern Europe, most notably Poland. It has slipped under the radar for most people, because it’s all been done secretively, without coming to the public attention. ACTA is dangerously close to slaughtering the web, along with bringing a whole host of other flaws with it, and unless something happens to prevent it, the proverbial shit is going to hit the fan.

A case study about… well, definitely something or other

Yesterday, I was sitting behind my PC, scrolling down my Facebook news feed, idly wondering what I should post about here today, when I came across a story that I found quite surprising. Dan Parks, the Scotland fly half who (as the video in Monday’s post showed), conceded Scotland’s losing try at the weekend by having his kick charged down, had retired from international rugby with immediate effect. To many, especially those who either haven’t heard of his past history or who simply hate the guy, this might seem like an overblown knee-jerk reaction to his weekend’s performance. But, to my mind, it is something more than that. (To hear Parks’ statement on the matter, click here: http://www.rugbyworld.com/news/dan-parks-retires-from-international-rugby-with-immediate-effect/) Dan Parks has always been a man who interests me, and, while I must apologise for once again turning to rugby for subject matter, sport is not really what this is about- so for all non-rugby people reading this, please bear with me.
For those who don’t know, Dan Parks is an Australian, qualifying for Scotland through his genealogy (not sure exactly how- rugby’s international qualification system is far from restrictive in such matters however). He has always been a kicking fly-half, as opposed to the faster, more running-centric style adopted by many modern fly-halves, which has led to his decision-making, incisiveness and general suitability for the 10 shirt being called into question on numerous occasions, and he was first capped by Matt Williams, the hideously unpopular (and unsuccessful) Australian coach who Scotland employed for two years after the 2003 World Cup. All these 3 factors have lead to Dan Parks becoming thoroughly hated among the Scottish fans.
Parks is the only international rugby player I have ever heard of being booed by his own fans, and has been regularly slaughtered by press and fans alike. Reading stuff written online about him the evening after a poor performance can be quite startling- after Scotland lost to Argentina in the World Cup last year, in a match when Parks missed a drop-goal that could have won Scotland the match, the anger vented online was something to behold. And that wasn’t even the worst time.
I will admit, there is a lot to dislike about  Parks’ game. For a kicking game to work in modern rugby it requires a stupendously good (and powerful) kicker, an effective forward pack and a game plan built around it, as South Africa demonstrated so ably in the opening months of 2010. Parks is not quite a good enough kicker to pull this off and build a game around, and he under uses his running game, the style of choice for the modern fly-half- he is far from the perfect 10.
But… well let me tell you a story about him. In 2009, a new coach, Andy Robinson, came to the Scotland job, and Parks was left out of the squad. He had been under-performing for Glasgow, and in April was found driving under the influence and was almost thrown out of the Glasgow side. In 2010, he was recalled for Scotland’s match against Wales- and played an absolute blinder. He won Man of the Match, and the 10 jersey for the next 3 games, in which he won an unprecedented 2 more MOTM awards, and with a touchline kick, allowed Scotland to win their match against Ireland, who had won the Grand Slam the year before and who critics had said would steamroller them. He was integral in Scotland’s next two matches, on the summer tour to Argentina, where Scotland won the series 2-0; their first capped series win ever, after 50 years of trying. To cap off a splendid year for Scotland, he scored all 21 points in their biggest scalp of the year- beating South Africa, then ranked 1st or 2nd in the world. He was playing superb rugby. He was on top of the world.
At the start of the 2009/10 season, Dan Parks was at his lowest ebb. He had been dropped by his country, and looked set never to reach the 50-cap milestone. He had been underperforming for his club, and uncapped Ruaridh Jackson was preventing him even getting game time for them. Every critic had written his career off as over, and for many it was a case of ‘good riddance’. By the start of next season, he was transformed- he had made the Celtic League’s dream team for the 09/10 season after putting in some stellar performances, and was back in the good books of his country, his coach and, most surprisingly, the media- even his harshest critics acknowledged how well he had been playing, and even the public went back to liking him.
Somehow, Parks had managed to recover his self-confidence, skill and drive when a nation was against him. He turned haters into admirers, enemies into friends, and got his life and career back on track. Parks has, over the course of his career, faced some of the hardest and harshest criticism that any player has had to face- and yet he has come through it, and had a remarkably successful career. Not only has he gone on to win 67 caps, but he holds the Scottish record for most international drop-goals (15), and the points and appearances records for Glasgow. And, for that, I respect him. I respect the way he has fought tooth and nail for his place, and has always managed to cope, despite all the criticism that has been thrown at him for being nothing more or less than the player and person he is. I respect the way he was able to come back from the nadir of his career, and to reach a zenith not long after. I respect what he has done as a player, and how he has never given in to his critics, how he has always just kept his head down and kept on working.
If you watch the video of Charlie Hodgson’s try on Saturday, you will see on the replay a figure in a Scotland shirt turn and, as Hodgson touches it down, put his hands on his knees and lower his head. That figure is Dan Parks. Look at his face carefully, and you will see it fall as Hodgson touches down, crumble with the knowledge that he alone is responsible for England scoring the only try the game ever looked like producing. He knows that in the papers the next day he is going to, once again, be slaughtered. If you ask me, it is that precise moment that Parks decided it was time to throw in the towel, and, to my mind, he if anyone deserves to make his own call on when that date should be. Since there are few enough people saying it, I think I should add my personal thanks to his career- Dan Parks, you have been a great servant to Scotland and to Glasgow, more than many a player, have been a better player than many a competitor or rival, and have been a far better person than many a critic. Thank you for what you have done for Scotland, and I wish you the best.

Bradley Davies… just die

(First up, quick apology for the lack of post on Saturday- I was out and away from my computer all day so was unable to post. Sorry)
For those of you who don’t know, the first round of the Six Nations (Europe’s premier international rugby competition) took place this weekend. If you didn’t see any of the matches, I highly recommend you do, especially the final match (Wales-Ireland), which was a cracker, if controversial towards the end. The other two (France-Italy and England-Scotland), were pretty good too, and I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend’s rugby.
The Six Nations will be continuing (on and off), for the next 6 weekends, so I thought I might devote my humble corner of the internet to it for that time. Every week there is a round of matches, my post here on Monday will be dedicated to the weekend’s action, handing out awards to the various sides. Some will be individual, some will be collective and… well you’ll pick it up as we go along I suppose
To anyone who is thinking of watching the games but hasn’t yet done so, I would recommend hitting BBC iPlayer (Google it) and watching the games online (or at least the highlights show, which will be significantly shorter and miss out the boring bits) BEFORE reading this (or any future) post, as there may be a few spoilers. I’ll print the scores down at the bottom if you can only be arsed to see the results

OK, everyone seen them who wants to?  Good, because here we go, beginning with…

ITALY, who won the England, Watch the Hell Out Award for Most Improved Game Style. Italy have traditionally been a side of big forwards who never got effectively used, and light backs who got very effectively run all over by the opposition. However, with the arrival of new coach Jacques Brunel (who after just one game has somehow earned the same admiration from me as I showed towards old coach Nick Mallett- and I thought he would do England proud), Italy at last appear to have a working, effective game plan. It isn’t complex- it basically involves working with the forwards close to the ruck to gain some quick ball and get the defence on the back foot, the same tactic my club uses when playing- but it is well-executed, well-suited to the Italian game plan (especially their captain, the superb Sergio Parisse), and Italy are at last beginning to look like a quality outfit

FRANCE are next up, and take the Bloody Hell, Where Did That Come From Award for Most Devastatingly Efficient Scorers. France got 4 tries from just 6 line breaks- a truly devastating strike rate that will strike fear into the hearts of defences in the weeks to come. Italy only had to make one mistake and bam- France were over. This was best demonstrated in their third try, which was also by far the most beautiful- fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc chipped over the defence, right behind the only weakly defended spot in the Italian line, in the only phase where the Italian full-back was out of position. This allowed him to run straight through the gap after the ball without the Italians managing to contest it and, after one deft touch from the outside of the foot and another off Aurelien Rougerie’s knee, Vincent Clerc was able to gather and run in under the posts. This is one attack to keep a close eye on

On to the next game, where ENGLAND (or more accurately their new captain, Chris Robshaw), won the Richie McCaw award for best cheating in the rucks. As any referee or flanker, and in fact most forwards, will tell you, the ruck is the place where the most offences can, and most often do, occur, and one of the few places where 90% of such offences are deliberate, since it is impossible for the referee to notice all of them amongst the bodies. Flankers are the masters of cheating at the breakdown, and Chris Robshaw on Saturday night showed that to perfection. I can think of only a few rucks where his hand (conveniently the one opposite to where the referee, George Clancy, was standing) was not on the ball illegally, or interfering with Scottish forwards. The fact that he only got caught two or three times is testament to the fact that in rugby, cheating is a skill rather than a foul- well, in rucks at least

SCOTLAND picked up both a team and individual award for their performance, collectively taking the Nigerian Striker Award (I can’t remember his name, the one from the World Cup) for the Most Missed Opportunities (they had several scoring opportunities that went begging, but dropped the ball so many times that it hardly mattered), and Man of the Match David Denton bagging the Mr T Award for Being An Absolute Tank. On only his second cap, he was a revelation, leaving defenders scattered in his wake and being Scotland’s only real source of go-forward. If  others could only follow his lead, Scotland would be a force to be feared.
(I could also have given Scotland the awards for Worst Way to Concede a Try for this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etiqc-cr1hY (skip to 1 minute), and would have given them Best Touchdown In Human History if the moment at 2:06 had actually resulted in a score. So close, yet so far)

To Sunday, where IRELAND were winners, almost of the match (a real cracker that was), but were denied as they won Harshest Legal Descision to be Yellow Carded for. With the clock reading 79 minutes and Wales desperate for the winning score, the Irish defence appeared to be going slowly backwards, but was holding firm on their own 22. Then Stephen Ferris, Ireland’s flanker (who had an outstanding game), put in a big hit, lifting the right leg of Ian Evans and forcing him sideways and into the dirt. To all rugby fans at home and in the stadium, the tackle was safe. It was techinically a lift-and-dump, yeah, but really, that stuff shouldn’t even be penalised. It was slow, it was controlled- fine. If that had been lower-league rugby no-one would have thought twice about it.
However, before the World Cup last autumn the international referees were told that anybody lifting legs above the shoulders warranted a penalty and 10 minutes in the sin bin, and that was what Ferris had done. He was yellowed, Wales got the penalty and won the match- many would argue deservedly. But the manner of their win left a bitter taste in the mouth of many an Irish fan, especially after what had happened to…

WALES, who also won multiple awards- not only the Me Playing Football Award for Worst Kicking (Rhys Priestland, who missed literally everything until Leigh Halfpenny took over kicking duties), and the How The Hell Is Someone That Skinny So Powerful Award (George North, who made one try and scored another through some spectacular hard running- for a 19-year-old, skinny winger, he was amazing), but also the Not Such A Dark Alley Award for Most Ridiculously Stupid And Brutal Behaviour I Have Ever Seen On A Rugby Pitch. 15 minutes prior to Ferris’ misdemeanour, Irish flanker Donncha Ryan attempted to counter-ruck the welsh off the ball. He failed, and was caught by Wales lock Bradley Davies, who then picked up Ryan, carried him away from the ruck while the ball was whisked away, and then, with Ryan totally innocent of the ball or any illegal move, picked him up, turned him over and spear-tackled him into the ground. To watch both it and Ferris’ tackle, see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUm9Whlaydc
Rugby is a violent sport- I will not deny that. But confine it please to a fair contest of fists, where little lasting damage is typically done, not this vindictive assault. Every player knows that a tackle like that is a potential broken neck and a life possibly ended, by a stupid, illegal move. The worst part is, he wasn’t even red-carded for it- the line judge, Dave Pearson, recommended a yellow and that was what was given. Ridiculous. As all the pundits were saying afterwards, that moment ruined an otherwise perfect advertisement for the game. Davies knows what he did and what he deserves- let’s hope its the last of such behaviour we see for a very long time

Final scores:

France 30- Italy 12
England 13- Scotland 6
Wales 23- Ireland 21