Saturday, 12 November 2016

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Guinness Book of World Records: For Tandem Thefts

Dear person that stole our tandem,


(To be fair, I don't know if it was you the first time as well, but I have my suspicions. I imagine the intersection of the Venn diagram with the circles: Bike thieves, Tandem thieves, Residents of the Mission, and People not in prison -- is a small number of people. Plus I guess that if it was you the first time, and you got away with the crime scot free, this may have emboldened you to make a second attempt last night).

Well, whether it was you the first time or not, I am still mad at you. Really mad! Grrrrr!!! If I saw you on the street and you were carrying a bunch of papers, and you dropped them, and they started blowing everywhere in the wind, you should know that I would not help you pick them up. Also, if we were talking about cricket, and you had a really obnoxious piece of food stuck in your teeth or in your beard (if you even have a beard), I would not even tell you about it. And then everyone would snigger to themselves when they saw you -- until you next looked in a mirror or saw one of your bike-stealing friends who might be more generous than me.

But here's my first question -- "Who steals a tandem?". Tandems are such a joyful contraption man (or woman)! Our tandem filled us with so much joy that we wrote a song about riding it. It went like this:

"Riding our bicycle,
Riding along,
Riding in parallel,
Singing our song.

Riding up the hill,
Riding above,
Riding in harmony,
Riding in love."

When we used to ride our tandem along in the Mission (e.g. before you stole it! Grrrrr!!!), several times frattish bros shouted "TANDEM! TANDEM!" to each other, and to us. And this one time, as we were cycling past an elderly lady, we heard her humming the tune to the song "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do". From young bros to old ladies, our tandem made people happy. And it made us happy. I am so mad at you right now, that as you are riding our tandem to the place where stolen bikes are resold, I hope that nobody sings nice songs to you, or points at you and shouts "TANDEM! TANDEM!". I hope your brief spell riding our tandem is met with stony silence, and cold stares.  

And OK, we hadn't ridden it for several months. And sure, we can get another one on Amazon for about $74. Like we did the last time you stole it (if it was you the first time...which again, I strongly suspect -- see the small intersection of the Venn diagram above). But nevertheless, I think you should know that you are a joy rustler; even a joy snatcher! Shame on you!

While we are on the subject, the very cheap price of our particular model of tandem on Amazon, leads me to my second question -- "Of all the bikes in our garage, why would you steal our tandem?". In this question, I am not challenging your morals, but rather your intelligence, or your criminalistic ROI. 

Let's imagine there are three cars in a garage: A Ferrari, an old beat-up limo, and a Bugatti Veyron:

Well man (or woman), you just stole the middle car! Seriously -- there were some nice bikes in our garage. And I'm not just talking about the monetary value of the bikes either. What if you had gotten in some sort of high-speed bike chase with the police in the immediate aftermath of your theft? I'm imagining you trying to negotiate the turns of Lombard Street on the tandem, and this (amazing, on so many levels) video is what's going through my mind. Maybe we could help you by putting some comparatory labels on the different bikes in our garage to help you with your next robbery? For example:

Bike: Hipstomatic 3000

  • Likely Craigslist resale priceL $850
  • Top speed: 27 mph
  • Maneuverability: 8/10
  • "Should I steal this bike?": Heck, Yes!

Bike: Old Tandem

  • Likely Craigslist resale price: $27
  • Top speed: You have to walk it up any kind of hill
  • Maneuverability: No
  • "Should I steal this bike?": NO! JOY KILLING AND LOW CRIMINALISTIC ROI
Finally, my third question is this: "Please can we have it back?". For the next 98 hours, I am offering a complete amnesty on all stolen tandem bikes. In fact, you can even bring the first one back, from a couple of years ago, and I will say "Cheers mate, no hard feelings guv'nor". I will go so far as to offer that if you ride either / both of the stolen tandems back to our house to hand them over in a magnificent act of humanity and remorse, I will even hope that a nice old lady sings the "Daisy, Daisy" song to you to lift your spirits, strengthen your resolve, and give you a brief taste of that joy that your theft has (albeit temporarily) crushed.

So that's it. Thanks for taking the time to read my letter to you. (Actually quite impressed that you made it this far -- appreciate you hearing me out). 

P.S. This blog post is a birthday present for Laura Turner. Happy belated Birthday Laura! (Unless it was you that stole our tandem -- in which case birthday wishes immediately rescinded).

P.P.S. I wonder if me and Ali now hold the world record for "most number of tandem bikes stolen". Has anyone else had any more than two tandem bikes stolen from them? If not, then this major accomplishment would at least help soften the blow of the theft.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Just the tip

After the reason why my new neighbors think more fat means better bacon, the new guidelines on tipping are probably the most confusing aspect of my attempts at American acclimatization. As with most things English, tips are a modest affair. In restaurants, you tip 10% if the service is good, and less if it isn't. Maybe I was in the wrong (or right?) pubs, but I'm pretty sure tipping on drinks in a bar was not expected. In fact, I suspect that any English bartender that ever served me, if I had left an extra pound coin on the counter, would have eyed me suspiciously, for fear I was hitting on him, financially. Tipping on taxi rides was polite, but I don't think mandatory, as attested to by the profusely-expressed gratitude of any cabbie that was ever lucky enough to receive even a twenty pence tip from me. "Oh cor blimey guv'nor. Thank you so much sir. You shouldn't have. This'll keep me and the missus in cornish pasties for a fortnight 'n' all!".

American tips are to English tips as the Superbowl is to a Tuesday-night, rain-sodden Championship game -- probably between a northern town beginning with B (Bolton, Blackburn, Burnley, Blackpool, Bradford, Barnsley, etc.), and Coventry City. They are extravagant, ostentatious, verging on crass obscenity to an understated English eye, but epitomizing the very best of freedom, liberty, the capitalist ideal, and trickle-down economics to your average American patriot.

Fortunately for the waiters of San Francisco, my early ignorance-inspired tipping transgressions were spotted and stamped out after only a few months by a friend of mine, who gaped aghast at my signed check after a meal.
   -- "What?", I asked, concerned.
   -- "Your tip", she managed, between frantic breaths.
   -- "What about it?", I replied.
   -- "It's puny! Microscopic! An embarrassment!".
   -- "Well I've never heard it called any of those things before", I protested.
   -- "What would you suggest?".
   -- "15 to 20%", she replied, "but really you should always tip 20%".

As far as I have been able to establish, the only thing a waiter could possibly do to merit a tip less than 19.8% would be to punch you in the face. (Well that, or fail to bring you at least a million glasses of iced water before the conclusion of your appetizers).

Then there is the mathematics of the situation, which for me mires an already new and confusing problem in further complexity. This is like an onside kick in football. "Oh no, the kicker's muffed it. But wait, now they're all diving around on the ground fumbling the ball. And great! That guy is celebrating!". Just when you think you've got everything under control, they bamboozle you with one more nuance -- like "oh, you don't have to tip on the tax and the San Francisco Help Us To Provide Food and Shelter, Life Insurance And Subsidized Segway Parking For Our City's Waiters mandate". (By the way, I like how they cunningly disguised this tax in fancy nomenclature.
   -- "What's this new tax on my bill?".
   -- "Oh that's not a tax, sir. It's a mandate".
   -- "Oh a mandate! Great! I've never tried one of those before. It sounds novel and exciting!".
   -- "Yes sir, the electrically mobile of my colleagues are particularly thrilled about it".
Democrats should try this with tax naming to avert Republican ire. "Oh no, we don't want to increase the Death Tax, Grover. We want to abolish it altogether! And replace it with a new Inheritance Obfuscation"). It pains me to think of the dollars I wasted tipping 20% on taxes and mandates, before I learnt of this wonderful rule.

But even allowing for the "tip relief on the mandate" exemption, tipping is still very expensive in America. I mean, imagine you're out on a date with a girl you are trying to impress. You're punching above your weight in Yelp dollar signs, and so you parry her "lobster souffle" ($42) with the vegetarian pasta ($18), and gamble that she knows nothing about wine with a bold Charles Shaw Chardonnay ($29) selection. Plying her with as much bread as you can early on, you succeed in eliciting those four beautiful words when the dessert menu appears -- "actually, I'm quite stuffed". Result! Dangerously expensive restaurant, you say to yourself, but your mental arithmetic tells you that you escaped with a check of $89 -- not bad, considering the booby traps that lurked on the dessert trolley. But then the bill arrives, and your heart stops, as the true horror of American tipping conventions sets in. 7% taxes plus 4% obfuscations gets you to $99, and you haven't yet discovered the mysteries of the onside kick, so you feel compelled to tip 20% on the $99, not the $89, squandering another precious $2. Still trying to impress your date, you nonchalantly round up to $120, making sure to WRITE AS CONSPICUOUSLY AS POSSIBLE, TO BRING MAXIMAL ATTENTION TO YOUR LARGESSE. But $31 / $89 is a 35% increase in the signaled price. I wonder how many guys have had a surprisingly large bill foisted on them by exorbitantly expensive social conventions, had their credit cards declined due to "insufficient funds", taken out a payday loan on Wonga on their phone to avoid having to ask their date to pay, trapped themselves in a downward spiral of interest rates and debt, and eventually gone bankrupt. Perhaps the reason why the Danes are famed for their social safety net is that you are not expected to tip AT ALL in Denmark. I am pretty much moving to Copenhagen immediately. (And yes, in case you are wondering, this last anecdote very accurately describes my first date with my wife Ali. Without the payday loan ending. And unfortunately she did raise her eyebrows at the two buck chuck).

But while I have acquiesced to American tipping conventions in bars, restaurants and taxis, the last few days have made me realize that there is one last bastion of my English tipping that can never be breached -- even here in Hawaii, about as far away from England as you can get in America. That bastion is tipping in expensive hotels. We are staying in the St. Regis in Kauai right now -- not because we parted with any real money, but because we are finally running down the last SPG points that I amassed during six years of management consulting. And maybe that's part of the problem. If you're wealthy enough to put down $600 per night for an Ocean View King, an extra $118 per day in tips probably doesn't register. For me, that's an infinite percentage increase on my bill. Except, thanks to my tight-fistedness it's not.

The onslaught begins as soon as you roll your car up outside the front door. Your eyes cast frantically about for the "self parking" sign, but alas, you can't spy it. A charming valet seems to open all four doors, the boot and the bonnet, before you have even stopped. "Let me take those bags for you, sir" he insists, before we have a chance to grab them. The staff of the St. Regis are far too well-trained to linger too long, I am sure. But there is just a faint, barely-perceptible lingering, as the valet climbs into the car. Seriously (he wrote, defensively), I don't think I could have pulled out my wallet, fished around in the wad of receipts for a couple of dollar bills (or a five dollar bill?!), and slipped it into the valet's hand in the inconspicuous manner to which we English are accustomed, in the brief timespan of this particular linger. But nevertheless, I am now guilt-laden. And presumably, permanently marked by that valet as a non-tipper. Is there a non-tippers blacklist pinned up on the staff noticeboard, I must wonder. If so, I must surely be on the top of the leaderboard.

For after check-in (should I have tipped the receptionist?), we are ushered to our room by another charming man. Normally, obligatory room tours are painfully pointless. "This is the lightswitch, which can result in instant illumination of your room due to electricity. There is your fridge, which keeps things cold. Some guests like to sleep with two pillows; others prefer just one. Etc. Etc.". To be fair, this tour was actually really good. The bathroom window can be made to oscillate between transparent and opaque (a dangerous feature when you are showering next to the window); there are hooks for the sole purpose of hanging leis; and most importantly of all, the weird, wobbly thing in the middle of the writing desk at the foot of the bed turns out to be a TV that rises like a Harrier jumpjet when a button on the remote is pressed. Epic. I feel like James Bond (or at least a version of James Bond that is now inclined to spend most of his Hawaiian vacation watching ESPN in bed). But despite a truly magical room tour, I still cannot bring myself to tip this guy for accompanying us on our 40-second walk to our room. If we had had to navigate a series of hidden elevators to get there, or traversed a piranha-invested lake, then maybe. But our room was on the same floor as reception. No, my resolve was firm.

This time, the linger was longer.
   -- "Is there anything else, sir?", the charming man asks, unblinkingly.
   -- "No, I think we're good. Thanks for showing us the submerged TV".
   -- "You're welcome, sir. [A pause]. Do let me know if there's ever anything I can do to assist you".
   -- "We will, thank you".
The charming man coughs. (He didn't really, but in my head he did). Another pause as he stares me down.
   -- "OK well I'll be on my way then, sir".
   -- "Great. Thanks again!".

A few minutes later, our bags arrive. This one I have less qualms about. Because there were a few minutes between the departure of the charming man and the arrival of our bags, when we were literally doing nothing except waiting for our bags. And our bags have wheels. We just lugged them over from San Francisco to the door of our hotel. I think we could have made it the extra 40 yards to our room.

Soon after the bag carrier dejectedly trudges off to move my name a few notches further up the non-tip leaderboard, there is another knock on the door. It's the butler, naturally. The first female butler I have ever met. Not that I know too many butlers. I was a little surprised that this role existed, and my struggle to imagine what functions she could perform was justified as she outlined the possible services she could furnish us with. "Well I could book stuff for you". Isn't that the concierge's job, I thought. Is there a clandestine battle going on in the St. Regis between the butlers and the concierges for the tips made on restaurant reservations? "Or I could bring you a cup of tea or coffee". Seriously? That task makes your elevator pitch? And again, isn't that room service? Another battle. The butlers are clearly the Vladimir Putin of the St. Regis -- invading everyone else's territory until someone tells them to stop. "Or I could unpack for you". We're here for four nights. We're not moving house. What kind of people stay in this hotel? (Well us, I guess). After the butler finished reciting her incongruous litany of random tasks, she left. Was I supposed to tip her just for announcing herself as the butler? Does the mere idea of a butler merit a gratuity? Or does one tip on a per cup basis upon delivery?

Then there are the (typically charming) pool guys, who must walk you to your sunbeds every day at an uncomfortably slow pace, and then lay out a plethora of towels for you, as if they had just received a doctorate in cloth-based origami. I'm sounding like a total curmudgeon here, and of course I am one. But I don't dislike good service, per se. It's nice that someone parked our car, showed us how to use a fridge, heightened our excitement about the arrival of our bags through the medium of a few minutes' delay, offered to make us a cup of tea, and folded my towel into the shape of a heron. I just don't like the sense of expectation that I should pay for these services. Because I don't need the heron, I don't drink tea, and I would rather park my own car, than pay a few dollars in tips to drop it off, and another few dollars in tips to pick it up again. Also, it costs $30 per night to valet park our car (there is no other option), so shouldn't that cover the valets' tips?

Where will this madness end, America? Will we soon be expected to tip air hostesses? Train drivers? Supermarket checkout assistants? Should I tape an envelope to my compost bin every week for the guys that pick it up? No! Waiters, barbers, bartenders and taxi drivers -- for some reason, you made my cut. Expensive hotel staff, and the security guard in my office building -- I am afraid you did not.

One word of warning though, in case anyone was tempted to emulate my Scroogidity -- yesterday we discovered a small infestation of ants in our room, and today the toilet was broken. Coincidence? Or the result of our position at the top of the leaderboard on the staff noticeboard? I suspect the latter. Those butlers are a dangerous bunch.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Poor form

OK enough serious, wannabe-grown-up, pretending-like-I-understand-the-issues, boring discussions about politics. And back to something that I know a bit more about, and that I am fairly sure everyone can unanimously agree on: That government forms are silly. I also think they are hopelessly and unnecessarily complex, but that is a failing I have already lamented in an earlier post. Today I want to concentrate on their silliness.

I don’t think this silliness is confined to government forms in the USA. In fact I have experienced first hand the silliness of government forms throughout the world. The application for a Kenyan passport is gloriously silly in places, asking the applicant to list their “Colour of eyes”, “Colour of hair” and “Special peculiarities”. Honestly, what are you meant to put for this last question? “Er…well…where do I start? I have an inexplicably ardent passion for golden raspberries, a phobia of Tuesdays, and…I am a little sensitive about it…but since you ask…I have really pointy ears that people always say make me look like an elf”. But the last silly government form I filled in was an American green card application, so American forms will bear the brunt of this savage assault.

Well actually, hopefully it’s not that savage (he said, tittering nervously, and hoping that the government official reviewing his pending green card application can’t somehow access his blog…).

But here are some questions that I had to answer in my form. For each of them you had to check either a “Yes” or a “No” box:

Question 4

“Have you ever engaged in, conspired to engage in, or do you intend to engage in, or have you ever solicited membership or funds for, or have you through any means ever assisted or provided any type of material support to any person or organization that has ever engaged or conspired to engage in sabotage, kidnapping, political assassination, hijacking, or any other form of terrorist activity?”

Who checks the “Yes” box to that question? You would have to be a pretty honest terrorist to own up on a government form, right? I don’t know which is sillier – the form’s na├»ve optimism that a former or aspiring terrorist will confess his crimes, or that an expensive attorney clearly racked up significant fees drafting a wording for the question that was absolutely watertight.

Attorney: “Aha! I’ve got it! We won’t just ask them if they have engaged in terrorism or if they intend to engage in terrorism. We will ask them if they have conspired to engage in terrorism as well!”
Government official: “That’s inspired!”
Attorney: “Why thank you my good man. (That will be $4,000 please)”

Question 5 a)

“Do you intend to engage in the United States in espionage?”

Honestly, you would have to be THE WORST SPY IN THE WORLD to answer Yes to that question. Surely that is the first thing they teach you in spy school. “Do not admit to being a spy, as this will blow your cover”. You might imagine particularly stupid spies getting caught up by this question if it is asked in a really clever, subtle way, and they have to give an answer really quickly. But the form asks it in a really obvious, straightforward way. And the form-filling spy has all the time in the world to answer it. At least we can reassure ourselves that, even if stupid spies get help from their spymasters in answering this question on the form, we can reasonably assume that they might be tripped up when they arrive at the US border:

[A man wearing a long trench-coat, a pair of dark glasses and an obviously fake moustache, and carrying a magnifying glass and a newspaper with two eye-shaped holes in it, approaches the immigration counter]
Immigration officer: “Hello…Mr…er…Schmidt. Now I want you to think very carefully before answering this question. Are you a spy?”
Herr Schmidt: “Yes”. [4 seconds elapse]. “Vait…Vait…Vait…I mean Nein. I mean No. I meant No.”
Immigration officer: “Sorry I am going to have to take your first answer. Which was that you are a spy. Please go and join that line over there, which is composed of other confessant spies, saboteurs, political assassins, hijackers and other terrorists.”
Herr Schmidt: “Scheize! Alvays the same qvestion every time!”

Question 7

“Did you during the period from March 23, 1933 to May 8, 1945, in association with either the Nazi Government of Germany or any organization or government associated or allied with the Nazi Government of Germany, ever order, incite, assist, or otherwise participate in the persecution of any person because of race, religion, national origin, or political opinion?”

If you committed genocide on March 22, 1933, or May 11, 1945, in you come. (As long as you are not still spying for the Nazi Government of Germany – please see question 5a ).

And another silly thing about forms. They never leave enough space for your e-mail address. I am still waiting to hear back about my green card. And I am completely in the dark about whether that’s because I accidentally ticked “Yes” in the “Do you plan to indulge in espionage?” box, or because the e-mails they send to Jonathan.Pri_x@_____ keep bouncing back.

Toxic Debt

Again, speaking from the wonderful position of outside observer (wonderful because it justifies my complete ignorance), a few ramshackle thoughts on the grave debt crisis facing the “United” States of America.

I think it is generally the right thing for a country (and an individual) to maintain a balanced budget. I don’t think this is always the case. When a budding doctor is in medical school, they might be running up debts, in the reasonable assumption that they will pay them off once they are qualified and well-paid. And when an economy is in recession, my (again, limited) understanding is that a budget deficit is more reasonable, given a) the lower tax revenues that result from the contraction in the economy, and b) that government spending can help to pull the economy out of recession, or at least ease the downward dip (the G in C + I + G + X – M). But generally, budgets should balance.

I also think it is fairly clear that the huge debts that the US Government faces today ($14,548,054,858,928 last time I checked). Are the result of both Democrat and Republican presidents. The deficit has increased substantially in the last couple of years under President Obama (from $10.0T in September 2008 to $14.5T today). And the deficit increased substantially under President Bush II (from $5.6T in September 2000 to $10.0T in September 2008). It increased substantially (by around 350%) under Reagan and Bush I, and slightly under Clinton. The point is, that for Republicans to lay sole blame for the crisis at Obama’s door displays an acute medium-term memory loss.

But “how we got here” is less important than “how we get out”.

In my opinion, the way to do that is gradually. I understand that economies prefer subtle, barely perceptible adjustments to the rudder, rather than sudden, sharp shocks, or violent, lurching changes of course. These subtle adjustments should have been made over the last ten years, and the sad fact that they haven’t, and that we therefore now face such an imminent “do-or-die” moment, reflects poorly on the short-sightedness of the current administration, and the last years of its predecessor. But “we are where we are”, and from here, the best solution seems to me to be to wind down the deficit smoothly and gradually, over a number of years. Restoring a deficit of over $1,000,000,000,000 overnight appears to be more politically motivated, than economically sound.

I also believe that these adjustments should be on both the revenue and the expenditure side. That is, the best solution will encompass both tax increases and government spending reductions. I think this is both good economics (because it mitigates the severity of changes to either taxation levels or government spending required to balance the budget), and good politics (because it involves compromise between Democrats and Republicans). I believe that you can be for tax cuts and against balancing the budget, or against tax cuts and for balancing the budget, but that you cannot be for both. Especially if you are determined to balance the budget in the immediate term.

But what if no compromise is possible, and no deal is reached in the next 4 days?

Given that there seems to be little historical precedent for the largest economy in the world defaulting on its debt, we can only guess as to what the implications of such a default might be. But I think it is safe to say that they will be “bad”. Stocks will undoubtedly crash, as they have been doing for the last week (the Dow Jones has declined by around 5% during this time). And US interest rates will climb, making already steepling interest repayments even more expensive. And perhaps the psychological impacts of such an unprecedentedly gargantuan economic catastrophe on consumer and investor confidence will be even more profound, and permanent.

To my untrained eyes, the tragedy here is that it is not just economic ill-discipline that has brought us to the edge of this precipice, but political recklessness. It seems as though American politicians, of both colours, are more interested in playing political hardball and petulantly digging their heels in, than saving the nation from economic catastrophe. I would say it is a “dangerous game”, but it’s now far beyond a game.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Bipartisan Ship

In England, politics is really dull.

Everyone seems to agree on most of the major issues. Neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party would ever dare challenge the existence of universal health-care, for example, and so the only debate is around how reforms to the National Health Service should proceed. The last instance of capital punishment occurred in 1964, and David Cameron is about as likely to reinstate the practice, as he is to immediately promote Rupert Murdoch to the position of Chief Communications Officer. Everyone in the country believes in the dangers of climate change, I can not remember the issue of abortion ever entering the political arena, and there are 6 guns per 100 English people (compared to 89 per 100 American people), so this debate is extinct too. American Democrats and Republicans hold genuinely and significantly differing opinions on all of these issues, whereas In England, the opinions differ more by degree than direction. English politics feels more about the personalities than the issues.

I think the American version is a lot more interesting.

I get much more excited and passionate about politics in America than I do about politics in England, despite (or perhaps because of) my minimal understanding of the political landscape, history and factbase here in my adopted home. I could (and often do!) talk about American political issues for hours. I would be about as interested in talking about English political issues for hours, as I would be in inviting George Galloway to be the godfather of my first child – even if I could find any English political issues to talk about.

But I also think the English version is “healthier for the nation”.

Firstly, for reasons of national unity. Because Elephants and Donkeys are so deeply divided on so many fundamental political debates, over the years their ideological positions have become more and more entrenched, giving rise to more and more distrust, resentment and anger directed at “The Other Side”. (And while this is just a hunch, I fear that this ill-feeling and resentment has escalated in the last decade – although perhaps the Civil War of the 1860s suggests otherwise). Republicans despise Obama. Democrats hated Bush, and don’t even get them started on Sarah Palin. Such mutual resentment is clearly a “bad thing” for the unity of the country. After Obama’s election, it feels like 47% of Americans were “furious” about their new head of state, and intent on seizing every opportunity to undermine his position. In England, after Cameron’s election, anyone who voted for Labour was simply “slightly peeved”. And crucially (I suspect), keen for the new Prime Minister to succeed. People were willing to give him the chance that it doesn’t seem to me that most American Republicans were willing to give Obama.

And secondly, for reasons of effective governance. The partisan battles that now scar the American political scene mean that every policy proposed by a Democratic President is invariably vociferously vetoed by the Republican opposition (and vice versa). If everything that the Obama Whitehouse enacts is swiftly unwound by the next Republican president, and then reenacted by the subsequent Democrat, no progress will ever be achieved. If corporation taxes are lowered and then raised and then lowered and then raised, businesses’ uncertainty will hinder their investment and economic growth. Staunchly entrenched divisions prevent compromise, which in turn prevents real progress.

I don’t think that either side is any more to blame than the other for the hostilities that now characterize American politics and society – but I do think they are ugly, and unhelpful.

Maybe this simmering antagonism (which now, with the current debates over the debt ceiling, is veritably boiling over) is unavoidable, given the stark differences in opinion between the two camps. But I would hope that it can at least be mitigated.

As always, the key is to strive for a balanced approach. For Democrats to admit their mistakes, and for Republicans to admit theirs. For Republicans to compromise on raising taxes, and for Democrats to compromise on reducing spending. I think the media plays an important role here. While newspapers in England are clearly left-leaning (The Guardian) or right-leaning (The Telegraph), the coverage is nowhere near as biased as the polemic of Fox News, which I suspect plays an important role in exacerbating inter-party conflicts. I am not advocating that we impose mandates on what TV channels can broadcast, but I might venture to suggest that we reward more impartial media coverage with our viewing figures.

And as always, the power to effect change lies with individual people. By taking the other side’s perspective, by seeing the planks in our own eyes before the specks in our brothers’, by striving for and rewarding compromise. And by making it clear to our political leaders that stonewalling and steadfast refusal to find any middle ground is ineffective and unwanted.

The road to unwinding the distrust that has been building up in American politics for decades will be a long and bumpy one, but I believe that it is one the country should embark on. Soon.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Ugly Game

Sadly, I no longer think football can be called the beautiful game.

Barcelona are a wonderful team to watch – they may well be the best team in the history of football – but their performance yesterday was completely blighted by what I hate most about football – this.

That clip shows that Pepe didn’t even touch Dani Alves, but the latter writhed around on the floor for several minutes, was carried off on a stretcher(!), and then returned to the field a few seconds later, remarkably recovered.

How can you be carried off on a stretcher when you weren’t even touched?

For a professional stretcher-bearer, the guy on the far left of the photo is employing an alarmingly poor lifting technique, and you could easily envisage him pulling a muscle in his back. Maybe Alves fancied his chances with the girl with black hair. But I can’t imagine that she will be impressed when she sees the video footage, and discovers that her suitor had about as much need for a stretcher as Qatar has for some more natural gas reserves.

How did Dani Alves sleep last night? Knowing that his shameful cheating probably earned Pepe’s red card. Does he have no pride? Is Pep Guardiola as disgusted by his player’s behaviour as everyone else in the world is? As far as I am aware, no other sport has as much blatant and rife diving as football, and it is, quite rightly, ridiculed by fans of other sports.

Depressingly, I recently saw an extension of this pitiful trend to the soccer fields of San Francisco. Playing in a seven-a-side co-ed game of a quality that makes this guy look like Lionel Messi, one of our opponents got brushed in the stomach, and collapsed holding his face. He flawlessly executed seventeen commando rolls, and then gestured for the referee to give my friend Blake a yellow, or even better, red card. It was hilarious…farcical…tragic.

FIFA – if you are listening – firstly, why on earth did you give the 2022 World Cup to Qatar? And secondly, please can you up your efforts to eliminate diving and play-acting from your sport?

Here are a few practical suggestions:

1. Make it a red card for diving.
2. Insist that if players pretend to be hurt, they are forced to spend 10 minutes out of the game.
3. Enable retrospective punishments for diving (e.g. Dani Alves could now be banned from the next two Champions League matches).
4. Ban diving training sessions (let’s cut the problem off at source).
5. Compile a list of dives like this helpful guy and hand out an award at the end of the season (similar to the Ballon d’Or) for the most persistent and vilest offender.

Yesterday, Jose Mourinho commented: “Sometimes I am a little bit disgusted to live in this world”.

I would have to agree.