Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Spinning The Wheels That Spin The Wheels

So, yet another Tour de France has ended in farce and acrimony. Three riders failed drug tests during the race, another failed one before they even started and the one time leader was sacked by his own team for allegedly lying about why he missed two tests in the months before the race.

Arguably this is actually an improvement on last year, when the winner was disqualified for drug taking, but it is scant consolation to a race and a sport now vanishing under the weight of its own excrement. Someone needs to start digging their way out, and fast.

Unfortunately, the evidence of the past three weeks is that you can't rely upon the cyclists to wield the shovel, because they'll just dig down deeper. Consider the five dimwits referred to above:
  • Cristian Moreni failed a drug test during the tour. In some ways he's been the most sensible about this, saying nothing of any substance and quietly crawling into a hole away from the spotlight. The guy gambled, lost and knows it;

  • Iban Mayo is arguably the dimmest of the five. Having gotten away with a failed test during the Giro d'Italia he surely must have known that he, of all people, was going to be targeted this time, yet he still did it and was caught at the end of Stage 18;

  • Patrik Sinkewitz was the rider who failed a test before the tour even started. He has now admitted that he used a testosterone cream on his arm. Accidentally. Which is like Prince Charles saying that he 'accidentally' screwed Camilla whilst married to Diana. You knew it was there, you knew you shouldn't have used it and there was no accidental about it. And why put testosterone on your arm anyway?

  • Now for the big two on our ride of shame. Alexander Vinokourov and Michael Rasmussen. Vino, as he is known to the cognoscenti, had a bad fall early on, took illegal drugs to recover and when caught out came out with the most incredible excuse ever, claiming that he had too much blood in his thighs. One can only assume that this is the cycling equivalent of "Sorry darling, wrong hole". Rasmussen, on the other hand, did nothing wrong during the Tour itself. The problem is that he shouldn't have been in it anyway, having missed two tests in the 45 days before it started, so he should have been suspended, but for an administrative error. Having had a stroke of luck to be in it, he made the most of it and was the clear leader before being sacked by his own team, who claimed that he lied about his whereabouts for those tests. That the evidence on this is flimsy - a cycling journalist claims to have seen him in Italy when he said he was in Mexico - is probably irrelevant. The luck that got him into the Tour turned and saw him thrown out.

All of this happened despite the cyclists signing up to a charter against drug taking. Which means that if pro cycling wants to get drugs out of the sport, the last people they can rely upon to do it are the riders. The evidence clearly shows that, whatever is enhanced by EPO and the like, brain power isn't.

The solution to the problem surely lies in the reason why there is a problem. It is not that there is too much money in the sport, or that commercial teams need to be taken out of it, it is the way that the races are organised. There are three elements that every cycling fan loves about the Tour and its kin - the time trials, the sprints and the mountain climbs. Cycling teams consist - usually - of four distinct groups of riders. There are the leaders, the ones who are thought to have the best chance of winning and the best all round set of skills. At the other end of the spectrum are the domestiques, good riders in their own right but lacking the necessary quality to do much more than support their leaders, acting as windshields and basically sacrificing their own chances to promote the lead man. Alongside and often among these are the other two groups, the sprinters and the climbers, whose role is to try and win the sprinting and climbing elements of the race. This is, of necessity, a simplistic view, but it will suffice for now.

It shouldn't take too much imagination to realise that, on the sprint stages, the climbers are at a disadvantage, in the mountains the sprinters struggle and to cap it all everyone has to try and protect and keep up with the team leader. But, having established that everyone on each team is at a disadvantage compared to each other at some point in the race - save for the star, of course - the race organisers decide to make things even harder for them. First of all, the big sprints and mountain stages all either come at once, or come at the end of a 200km+ ride. Then, as a double whammy, any rider who finishes a certain time behind the stage winner is eliminated.

To summarise, if you are a rider in a major road race you are going to be tired, desperately trying to keep up with your team and to cap it all running the risk of elimination if you don't. IS IT ANY WONDER THEY TAKE DRUGS?

The people that run these things need to have a long hard look at how they organise them. Is it really necessary for cyclists to ride hundreds of kilometres through open countryside when the only interested spectator is the odd stray dog whose only desire is to end it all by hurling himself Emily Davidson-style under the wheels of a bike? Is it not better than one clean cyclist comes home hours before the rest than one doped up one finishes in the pack? Where does the entertainment in these things lie? Any half decent marketeer knows that if you have a major product, you sell it in the smallest chunks you can get away with - so why have four major climbs in a day when you can have two over two days?

At the moment, the money and the format of the racing are incentives to take drugs. Reduce the stamina and speed elements needed each day, and instead spread them over more days and what do you get? In theory, cleaner riders and more money. Is that really so hard to do?

Monday, 30 July 2007

The Maternity Bump

Some of you might have been wondering where I have been. In fact, those of you who did wonder had probably assumed that I had run out of things to write about and was about to do the very thing I had promised not to do - letting the blog die. Nothing could be further from the truth. The simple fact is that I knew I wanted to write about this next, but didn't know quite how to phrase this. I still don't. This post therefore comes to you with the caveat that I reserve the right to entirely change my mind about it in a couple of months.

The idea for this piece came at me from two directions. From one side, more vacuous nitwittery from our beloved government about what pregnant women should and should not do. From the other, a whole hour of prime time television devoted to one woman whinging about the standard of maternity care when she had her most recent baby back in April.

People whining about the NHS really, really annoys me. Yes, it isn't perfect, but it is full of hard working, dedicated people who could make a hell of a lot more money doing what they do somewhere else. And yes, there are far too many bureaucrats with far too much power and far too little financial acumen running it. But the whole point of the NHS was not that it would be a Rolls Royce service; the whole point of it was to provide a base standard of healthcare for all, something which didn't exist back in 1948 when it was founded.

You get the NHS that you pay for. If you want a better level of service, the only way it can be paid for is (a) cutting out the bureaucrats (which most people are in favour of) and (b) paying more taxes (which most people are against).

Applying all of this to the whinging reporter, what you get with NHS maternity services is therefore a whole load of women competing for the same few resources. You don't have any right to any better a service than the next woman. In that respect, it is almost a perfectly Utilitarian system - to each according to her needs, from each according to their means.

This doesn't mean that the system is perfectly balanced. Next time you are in a major shopping mall, or at a major train station, stop and look around you. Count the women aged 13-50. Each of them will, on average, produce a couple of kids during their lifetime. It's not an exact calculation - some will choose not to have them, some may sadly be unable to have them, one or two will die before they can have them and one or more (depending upon where you live) will become a nun - but it is a good starting point. Count them up, double it and then multiply that figure by every shopping mall or every railway station in the country. That is what the NHS is up against in funding maternity services. Men may all need to go to hospital a couple of times during their lifetime, too, but not all for the same thing.

Factor in that most maternity professionals are female (and will therefore require the service at some point themselves) and most NHS managers are middle aged men and you start to see the real reason why government policy on this is cock-eyed. You can't get more people into the profession without funding it properly, because you are trying to increase the service using the people who actually use the service themselves.

It isn't even a difficult equation. If the birth rate rises, the number of females in the population will rise. Assume that each of those females needs a service twice in their lifetime and you have a very high and increasing demand for something very specific with no way of paying for more people to be trained to do it. Unless you shed some extraneous paper pushers, some unwanted external consultants (not the medical kind, of course) and divert those resources to the very area where you have a growing demand.

Make babies, not bureaucrats.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

The Cycle of Friendship

Life, as Bob Cratchit said, is made up of meetings and partings. Over the course of it, you probably befriend and lose touch with several times the number of people you stay friends with. I have photographs going back almost three decades and I remember vividly everyone in them, but there's no more than a handful of people in the early shots that I am still in contact with.

Losing friends is easy to do. Over the past five months I have lost three friends who I thought were good, close, mates and I expected to have them for the rest of my life. One of them was entirely my own fault and I have only myself to blame. The second actually came about as a result of the first. We had an argument about what happend and are, I think, both too proud to make the first move towards a reconcilliation.

It is the third one which is a total puzzle. I have no idea what I may have said or done. All I know is that I went on holiday for a fortnight and when I came back they were gone. Moreover, they won't talk to me, so I don't know what I might have done wrong.

Balanced against this is the wonderful fact that no fewer than five friends I thought I had lost touch with have contacted me recently and I have met up with two of them for the first time in years; the other three now live abroad, which might explain why we lost touch in the first place. Hearing from them actually came as something of a shock to me. I'm not the sort of person that I would expect someone would want to track down, at least not for any pleasant reason. Just getting an email from each of these people was enough to make me feel good for the rest of the day.

Even as I have been drafting this (you might have noticed that each entry takes a while for me to finish) something else wonderful has happened. The second person I was referring to above contacted me. It was strange, because they sent me a message to say that they were near my office, which I received shortly after I walked past their office. It's early days yet, but let us hope that we can rebuild that friendship.

Making friends is hard. Keeping them is harder. Losing them is the easiest thing in the world. It's a very hard line to tread without making mistakes.

Monday, 9 July 2007

The Property Ladder Scam

In the beginning there was Changing Rooms. And Changing Rooms begat The House Doctor and the House Doctor begat both Location, Location, Location and Property Ladder, which in turn begat Grand Designs and DIY SOS and whilst all this was going on Changing Rooms spawned Home Front and some of the others produced bastard offspring like Relocation, Relocation, Relocation, A Place In The Country and a whole host of very similar yet subtly different television shows.

Across these televisual generations, a subtle shift took place, from Changing Rooms to Home Front to Property Ladder. Changing Rooms – apart from introducing the nation to the luxuriantly hyphenated Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen and Anna Ryder-Richardson – was all about sending designers into other people’s houses and giving them a swift lick of paint, a light dosing of wallpaper and even some less uncoordinated furniture. (Americans have their own version of this, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition , fronted by Ty Pennington, a man so hyperactive there isn’t enough Ritalin in the world to make me allow him into my home.)

Home Front paired LL-B with the Irish landscape designer Diarmuid Gavin and let the pair of them loose on slightly larger houses with slightly larger budgets and, as the series went on, slightly larger egos. The sight of Llewelyn-Bowen being almost reduced to tears by a woman who he had already reduced to tears with his design was a sight to behold.

I have already written about Property Ladder once this month and I make no apologies for doing so again, as people doing houses up themselves was merely the logical extension of people having designers do their houses up.

Even more subtly, the producers of these shows found a way to save money. In Changing Rooms, the designers each had £500 with which to do a legendarily shoddy job on redoing one room of a house. In Home Front, the budget ran to thousands, but the work was one a grander scale and took much longer. And on Changing Rooms, the budget is simply…nonexistent. Yes, it is one thing to stand back, have your house invaded by film crew and workmen, yet know that the BBC are paying for it, but it takes a special degree of desperation to allow yourself to be filmed spending your own money.

Admittedly, this might be the closest that some people get to being Victoria Beckham, but I doff my cap to whichever genius realised just how cheaply you could make television when given enough property owning nitwits desperate for their time in the spotlight.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Hidden Casualties of the Smoking Ban

As the smoking ban in England enters its second day, it is time for us to remember those who will be affected by it.

I don't mean the vile, smelly polluters trying to puff their way into an early grave. No, the RSPCA had it right with this story.

More importantly, think of all the poor beagles who won't be able to smoke at work any more.