Uncharted Territory

March 22, 2013

2013 UK Weather: Coldest March in 51, 44 or just 43 years?

Filed under: BBC, Global warming, Media, Science, Science and the media, UK climate trends — Tim Joslin @ 3:10 pm

I read in this morning’s Metro that “it looks certain to be the coldest March since 1962”. The Mail chips in with: “The appalling weather over the past few weeks is set to make this month the coldest March in 50 years.”

This puzzled me a little since I noted only on Wednesday (and published only yesterday) that:

“…we have to go back to 1970 for the most recent March with an average CET of less than 4C, when 3.7C was recorded. It’s possible this March could even beat that mark.

But March 1969 was even colder at 3.3C. I doubt the figure for this year will come out below that. Most likely the headlines will be ‘coldest March for 44 years’.”

This passage is a little garbled because I only said it was “possible” this March could be colder than the 3.7C in March 1970 in the Central England Temperature (CET) record, yet implied that it would when I said it was “[m]ost likely” to be the “coldest March for 44 years”. I think I probably meant to write “for 43 years”, and could have added “with a possibility of it being the coldest March for 44 years”.

Over the last few days the forecast for the rest of the month has certainly turned decidedly wintry, as I discussed in my previous post, and even more so since I wrote, but is it now “certain” this March will be colder than in 1969?

CET vs UK Average Temperature: Comments on a BBC Assessment

A possible reason for my less bold temperature prediction is that the CET will turn out differently from the UK as a whole or for different regions. I’ve been assuming the CET is representative of the UK as a whole, but that might not always be the case.

In the absence of a contribution on the topic on the Met Office’s official blog, perhaps the BBC is the most authoritative source on weather statistics, being less inclined to hyperbole than most of the print media.

A post by John Hammond of the BBC suggests some slight differences between the UK figure and the CET. I assume Hammond is using the UK temperature because his figures are lower than the CET equivalents (and his figures tally with graphs available on the Met Office site – see below). He writes that:

“So far, March 2013 has been colder than both this winter’s December and January. The average temperature (day and night combined) for the UK this March to date is currently around 3C. It should normally be nearer 6C.”

The claim that March 2013 has “[s]o far” been colder than January is not true for the CET:

130322 March 2013 in the CET An Unusually Long UK Winter slide 3

since January averaged 3.5C and so far March is 3.6C in the CET (rather than “around 3C”). The 3.6C figure for March was published in the last hour (as I type, rather than as I publish) – we’ll come back to the fact that the March figure has actually come down from 3.7C when Hammond was writing on Wednesday or Thursday.

Hammond goes on to say:

“…the coldest March on record was in 1962, when the mean temperature staggered to just 1.9C. That record will not be broken this year, but the more recent cold March of 1987 looks under threat – its mean temperature was 3.3C.”

not mentioning 1969 and 1970, for which the CET March temperatures fall between those in 1962 and 1987. This is a little odd since the same is true for the UK as a whole, which is what Hammond’s data seems to relate to. To admit my ignorance, I don’t know how to access the actual UK figures (maybe I should ask the Met Office), but I do know how to plot them graphically from a handy Met Office page:

130322 March 2013 in the CET An Unusually Long UK Winter slide 4

Note the cold Marches in 1969 and 1970, which Hammond doesn’t remark on. Maybe that’s an oversight.

So, will it be colder this March than in 1969?

Since the media are so sure March 2013 will be the coldest “for 50 years” (meaning 51), let’s have another look.

The first point to note is that the average so far this month, up to and including the 21st, is 3.6C. As I mentioned, it was only 3.7C to the 19th and the 20th. In terms of record-breaking, this could be enough to make a difference.

The second point is arithmetical. If one of the remaining 10 days this month (22nd-31st) is 2-3C below the current average (3.6C), the mean for the month will decrease by 0.1C; if a day is 2-3C above the average so far the mean will increase by 0.1C. This is admittedly a crude reckoning system, but simple and effective.

Third, taking the Heathrow temperature as typical of the Central England region as a whole, the medium term forecast has been deteriorating. This was the main theme of my previous post – perhaps I didn’t take enough account of it when discussing the monthly record temperatures.

This is what the forecasts looked like a couple of days ago (thanks Weathercast):

130322 March 2013 in the CET An Unusually Long UK Winter slide 1 v2

and this is the latest graph:

130322 March 2013 in the CET An Unusually Long UK Winter slide 2

The forecasts do seem to have deteriorated even further than I discussed in my previous post.

Ignoring today (22nd) as transitional, it now looks likely that the 5 days 23rd through 27th March will be seriously cold, so let’s knock 0.1C off the monthly average for each of them. That gets us down to 3.1C.

The 28th will most likely be around the new average (3.1C), so it all depends on when the mild air comes in from the Atlantic. The computer model runs (grey lines) differ, and the average (yellow line) for 30th and 31st are for it to be relatively mild. If that’s the case, then we’d need to add on 0.1C for each day, so would roughly equal 1969.

The grey lines represent an ensemble of forecasts, I assume each less precise than those generating the published maps. If we go on the basis of the main model runs (the red and blue lines), of which the ECMWF (red line) seems to me to have been best at predicting the “battle” between cold easterly and mild westerly air this winter (as in fact exemplified by the pair of Weathercast graphs above), then it looks fairly cold through almost to the end of the month.

The balance of probabilities does seem now to suggest that March 2013 will be the coldest in the CET since 1962. Most likely, the Metro, the Mail and John Hammond of the BBC will be proved right.

It might be worth noting that if the CET this month is lower than not just 3.3C, but the 3.2C recorded in both 1917 and 1955, it will not only be the coldest March in the series since 1962, but the second coldest since the 19th century. This is where the CET is useful – it gives a longer historical perspective than the UK figures, which only go back to 1910.

I suppose it’s not outside the bounds of possibility that we’ll beat that 1962 figure of a March CET of 2.8C, but that remains very unlikely.

All this may seem nit-picking, but if we’re going to make claims about increased frequency of weather extremes – and policy based on those claims – it’s essential to be clear what the data is telling us.

July 17, 2012

Bashing Barclays Badly

Filed under: Barclays, BBC, Business practices, Credit crisis, Economics, LIBOR, Media, Politics, Regulation — Tim Joslin @ 6:10 pm

I noted yesterday that I’d set the recorder to catch Jerry del Messier’s appearance before the Treasury Select Committee. Sadly, when I got home I found I had filled my hard disc with several hours of BBC News 24, which contained no more than 7 minutes of coverage, including “analysis” of the session. Clearly the BBC is not so bothered to get to the heart of the matter.

Never mind, I watched a bit on Parliament TV this morning, after warming up with some live coverage (thanks BBC) of Mervyn King’s appearance, flanked by his deputies and Adair Turner, like a bunch of schoolboys caught reading top-shelf magazines behind the bike-sheds.

Unlike the BBC, the MPs are trying gamely, but you really have to wonder if the process works properly. Maybe just two or three of them should ask all the questions, to avoid lines of questioning being dropped just as it gets interesting, as keeps happening when it’s another Member’s turn for a few minutes in the limelight.

Still, I wasn’t disappointed by del Messier’s grilling (you missed broadcasting some great live TV, BBC), but a couple of points seemed to pass the MPs by.

First, it finally became clear that Bob Diamond’s infamous memo was sent the day after the phone call it records, as suggested by the timestamp. Here’s the full memo:

“From: Diamond, Bob: Barclays Capital

Sent: 10/30/2008 14:19:54

To: Varley, John: Barclays PLC

Cc: del Missier, Jerry: Barclays Capital (NYK)

Subject: File note: Bank of England call

Fyi

File Note: Call to RED [Diamond] from Paul Tucker, Bank of England

Date: 29th October 2008

Further to our last call, Mr Tucker reiterated that he had received calls from a number of senior figures within Whitehall to question why Barclays was always toward the top end of the Libor pricing. His response was ‘you have to pay what you have to pay’. I asked if he could relay the reality, that not all banks were providing quotes at the levels that represented real transactions, his response ‘oh, that would be worse’.

I explained again our market rate driven policy and that it had recently meant that we appeared in the top quartile and on occasion the top decile of the pricing. Equally I noted that we continued to see others in the market posting rates at levels that were not representative of where they would actually undertake business. This latter point has on occasion pushed us higher than would otherwise appear to be the case. In fact, we are not having to ‘pay up’ for money at all.

Mr Tucker stated the levels of calls he was receiving from Whitehall were ‘senior’ and that while he was certain we did not need advice, that it did not always need to be the case that we appeared as high as we have recently.

RED [Diamond]”

I was surprised, to say the least, that none of the Select Committee noticed this delay the first time round when they might have asked Diamond what he did in the intervening time (he phoned del Messier, it turns out, though I recollect Diamond didn’t recollect this). Diamond, I remember, testified at some length that he was concerned that Barclays might appear weak whilst trying to finalise its life-saving Middle East share sale. Surely he would not have waited a day before relaying the message from Tucker.

Second, the MPs are completely failing to distinguish between different periods of Libor fiddling. From 2005-7 traders in Barclays and elsewhere were persuading the rate-setters to submit a Barclays Libor rate in order to try to make money. This is appalling – see the FSA’s report (pdf) for the salacious details. But after 2007 Libor wasn’t working. Interbank lending wasn’t happening. The FSA write:

“In the latter half of 2007 and throughout 2008, lending in London for maturities longer than overnight came to a virtual standstill and there was extreme dislocation in global money markets.”

So the banks were just making a judgement as to what they might be able to borrow at. Since it was just a guess, it stands to reason that if they were guessing higher than every other bank they may as well guess lower. “Low-balling” Libor was done for an entirely different reason from mid 2007 on – top-down from management, rather than bottom-up by traders – so as not to appear weak.

What strikes me is that by releasing Diamond’s file note, Barclays have successfully steered the MPs away from the criminality and into the increasingly murky area of Libor-setting during the financial crisis. Damage-limitation PR, basically, though that’s fairly moot from Diamond’s point of view right now, but the MPs really should have tried to distinguish between the two periods. The symptoms may be similar – dodgy Libor submissions – but the causes are different. Both hayfever and a cold might cause you to sneeze, but you’d treat the two conditions quite differently.

The Committee session with Mervyn King this morning was quite different. The Governor didn’t seem to realise he was in the dock. He was shirty with his inquisitors, and even tried to talk over one. And Andrew Tyrie seemed genuinely cross. He shared the concerns I expressed yesterday. Trouble is, dealing with King is like having a 6 foot shark on a line intended for mackerel. He seems to be pulling in several different directions at once. One minute he’s the regulator (on the grounds that the function is being handed back to the BoE), the next he’s not. One minute Diamond is being fired because of the outcry over Libor, the next it’s to do with a letter from the FSA (the Guardian has posted it here).

I hope and expect Tyrie’s report to be critical of the Governor, and the governance of the Bank of England.

Here are a couple of questions to think about:
– why doesn’t the Bank of England have separate Chairman (and Board) and Chief Executive roles? The Governor would then be – as the Chief Exec – at least accountable to someone.
– if this is what happens when they don’t like the “culture” (or just the CEO) at a bank/a few corners are cut on a poorly defined technical procedures during a once in a lifetime crisis (which all the other banks might have been doing as well)/a few traders find a new way to cheat a poorly-defined system (which might have been happening at all the banks) – delete as applicable, depending why you think Diamond was sacked – then what are they going to do when a bank does something really bad? Like, for example, allowing widespread money-laundering, as HSBC seems to have done.

April 4, 2010

BBC Muppets in Malaysia

Filed under: BBC, F1, Media, Sky, Sport — Tim Joslin @ 7:03 pm

I wonder how many other F1 fans missed the last 19 laps of this morning’s Malaysian GP? Yeap, the BBC switched coverage from BBC 1 to BBC 2 part way through the race, on lap 37 of 56, to be exact. Totally unnecessary. Apparently they needed to make way for some religious event. But they could have shown the Easter Service on BBC 2 instead of BBC 1, or, if that wasn’t acceptable, the entire race on BBC 2. In fact, I’ve just bashed off a complaint.

I’ll let you know how much of my licence fee is refunded for cutting short a race I was thoroughly enjoying ( I was watching maybe an hour behind real-time on a PVR, having paused at various stages of breakfast, so, by the time I found out the end of the race was on the other side, it was way too late).

I couldn’t help reflecting on how poor the BBC’s sports coverage can be. And how little competition there is in general in the sports broadcasting market.

A while back I had an idea as to how to sort the mess out. Maybe if I keep saying it people will take some notice.

To recap, my suggestion was to sell rights to sporting events to multiple bidders. If the highest bid is, say, £100m (for exclusivity), then the rules would allow one of the other bidders to obtain the rights for £55m, the first bidder also paying £55m (joint exclusivity). If another bidder comes in then all three would pay, say, £40m. This prevents one organisation achieving a monopoly, but, aside from that, leaves everyone better off – fans get a choice of channel (or delivery mechanism if one is an internet broadcast); the winning bidder saves some money (so can afford to buy some more content); the second and subsequent bidders get access to content they wouldn’t have obtained otherwise; the sport gets more money (£110m with two bidders, £120m with three, rather than £100m with a single bidder, in this example) and more coverage.

One problem with Ofcom’s current plan to regulate the sports broadcasting market is that it only generates competition between platforms: Sky, Virgin, BT and so on will all effectively pay the same price for Sky Sports channels.

It does nothing to encourage new, perhaps cheaper sports channels, and in my judgement makes channel competition even less likely.

Platform providers should never have been allowed to run channels in the first place. This should have been addressed when Sky first came along. Maybe Murdoch’s outrageous interference with our democratic processes has muddied the waters. A little clarity of thought would surely have led regulators to nip such a dysfunctional monopoly in the bud.

The current measure – to regulate the wholesale price for Sky Sports bundles – is not sensible, as some commentators seem to think. Immediate suspicion is always justified whenever very specific regulatory measures are proposed. If anything, this one will cement the position of Sky Sports. There are “two sides” in this, but they’re not Sky and the competition. They’re the customer and the sports themselves.

And the customer is getting screwed. Sky Sports will cost at least £20 a month (since the wholesale price is £17.14). That’s £240 a year. The BBC’s entire licence-fee is about £140. So they can’t compete, unless, as I also suggest, they charge a separate sports licence-fee (since many people watch no sport at all), once the analogue switch-off ensures that all viewers can have access to dozens of channels (which could include BBC Sports 1, 2…).

Many people will not take Sky Sports, but make do, as now, with the residual “free to air” coverage on BBC and ITV, some of it controversial because it arguably reduces the income to the sports.

If you have a monopoly, in this case Sky Sports, profit is maximised when some people can’t afford the product. That’s just how it is – 10 million paying £240 a year (£2.4 bn) brings in more money than 15 million paying £120 (only £1.8 bn). If putting the price after costs up 10% costs you less than 10% of your customers then you may as well do it.

But more people could afford to watch at least some sport if there were offerings at, say, £240 (Sky?), £120 (ESPN, ITV?) and £60 (BBC?) a year. In this scenario Sky would show (as now) a lot of sport and the BBC just the choice events. Because multiple broadcasters would show at least some events, Sky would actually be able to show even more sport for £240. And sports wouldn’t be disadvantaged if mandated to allow “free-to-air” coverage (sorry the use of the term “free-to-air” makes me laugh – ITV is free to the viewer, since ads pay the bills, but BBC coverage is not “free”, it’s just that you’re not allowed not to buy it! A situation that’s becoming increasingly bizarre).

And you’d even be able to choose which channel to watch those choice events on!

All this while the sports themselves earn even more from the rights!

February 17, 2010

The Telegraph’s Sensibly But Mysteriously Changed Climategate Story

Filed under: BBC, Global warming, Media, Science, Science and the media — Tim Joslin @ 6:51 pm

Now I am confused. Just by chance I noticed just now that a link in my post a couple of days ago is now broken.

I quoted the Telegraph as saying:

“In an interview for the BBC’s website, Professor Jones also conceded that global temperatures may have been higher during the medieval warm period [MWP] than they are now – suggesting that climate change may not be caused by human activity.

He admitted that there has been no ’statistically significant’ global warming since 1995, but said this was a blip in a general trend of rising temperatures.” [My abbreviation]

in a story at:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/globalwarming/7236406/Climategate-academic-Professor-Phil-Jones-admits-he-lost-track-of-vital-data.html

Clicking this link now results in the dreaded 404 page not found.

A bit of Googling, though, does find a story at:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/7232733/Climategate-scientist-says-data-disorganised.html

“He said he stood by the view that recent climate warming was most likely predominantly man-made.

But he agreed that two periods in recent times had experienced similar warming. He also said that the debate had not been settled over whether the Medieval Warm Period was warmer than the current period.

The statements are likely to be welcomed by people sceptical of man-made climate change who have felt insulted to be labelled by government ministers as flat-earthers and deniers.”

“Insulted” now, are we? Diddums.

The change to the Telegraph story, if that’s what it is, is welcome, I suppose. Trouble is, the second story claims it was published online at 9:15am on Sunday 14th Feb which, if true, implies an impossible timeline. Since I was blogging on Monday 15th, it’s possible that one story has been deleted – maybe retracted – leaving another covering much the same material. (Or maybe they kept the time of the original story. Who knows? Who knows anything? /sigh). Anyway, I do wonder exactly what hundreds of thousands read over their Valentine’s Day breakfast in the print edition. If the story I found originally did appear in print, I wonder if the Telegraph has published a retraction. Maybe I’ll try to find out!

Harrabin’s Hamfisted Interview

In a post earlier this week, I traced back from an Express headline to a BBC Q&A with Professor Phil Jones. In fact, I only changed my title at the last minute when I realised the interview, and not just Express misreporting, was a large part of the problem.

The UK sceptic-fuelled media storm is reverberating around the world, for example at Realclimate. My comment is #50, here, but after writing it I started to wonder where Harrabin’s questions had come from. At some point, I noticed Harry Hodge’s comment #53 on the Realclimate Whatevergate (Lol) piece:

“Roger Harrabin’s (BBC’s environment correspondent) reputation is undergoing a sea change. He has moved from someone perceived as being an unimpeachable source of expert analysis to someone running around trying to defend his reputation and restating the way he will report in the future (because of the power of the blogosphere). He is in contact with the sceptic blogs and, it would appear, putting their questions to Phil Jones.” [my stress]

Too right he is. Focussing on Harrabin’s interview rather than the subsequent misleading Express reporting, we notice that the introductory paragraph – which I previously blipped over – says that:

“The BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin put questions to Professor Jones, including several gathered from climate sceptics.” [my stress again]

I think I’ve already covered adequately the ridiculous question about the definition of the word “unprecedented”.

“There is a debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was global or not. If it were to be conclusively shown that it was a global phenomenon, would you accept that this would undermine the premise that mean surface atmospheric temperatures during the latter part of the 20th Century were unprecedented?”

Laughable.

But what’s really nagging at me is the question:

“Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming[?]”

As Jones pointed out, the warming since 1995 is not quite statistically significant, because it’s such a short period.

So why ask about the warming since 1995?

Why not ask about the warming since 1994, or 1990 or any other earlier year, which would probably pass the 95% level conventionally used to indicate statistical significance?

I can think of no other reason than to draw an answer like: “No, there’s been no significant warming since 1995”.

It might also be pertinent to point out that 1995 was quite a warm year (see the graphs in my post when the 2009 data appeared a while back).

I presume that during the forthcoming General Election campaign politicians will be allowed to send questions for their opponents to the BBC: “When did you stop beating your wife?”; “Are you over your drink problem now?”.

I’m about to register a complaint with the BBC about Harrabin’s interview and ask precisely who provided each question asked. I’ll let you know what they say.

November 19, 2009

Defying Gravity Lost in Space?

Filed under: BBC, Media — Tim Joslin @ 7:03 pm

It’s said that, despite twin obsessions with central planning and the economies of scale, the Soviet Union would always build at least two facilities to produce any given product. Otherwise they had no benchmark for efficiency. With two plants they could at least tell which set of factory managers was diverting more goods to the black market.

The UK would have been well advised to have followed a similar approach when it set up its national broadcaster. Because, with the guy in charge of the stationery cupboard earning more than the country’s Prime Minister, the BBC just might possibly be hideously inefficient.

What I want to know today is what’s happened to Defying Gravity?

I watched last week’s episode on video last night, so could swear it was on after The Restaurant, which incidentally is racing The Apprentice downhill as the BBC seemingly chooses candidates not on the basis of any aptitude, but because they fill its criteria for diversity and supposed entertainment value. Not only would I rather see the best candidates who applied to be on these programmes, I would also have thought the BBC’s funding method was intended to ensure chasing ratings took second place to preserving objectivity. I guess they’ll be applying the same policy to Mastermind soon.

Anyway, I would have thought it would be simple and obvious for the BBC to put a web page for each programme so that when I type for instance “Defyi” into Google I am at most two clicks away from a clearly expressed summary of when the series is screened. Instead, I find this mess of a page, which tells me only that episode 7, Fear is coming up on Saturday at 22:50 on BBC 2. Nothing to warn me that I might not yet have seen episode 6. I could easily have failed to discover on a poor data-driven rather than hand-crafted web-page that I have 4 days left to watch the 6th episode, Bacon on iPlayer or could catch it at 01:25 on 24th November, whatever day of the week that is.

The Beeb has obviously spent a fortune of our money on Defying Gravity. You’d think the overpaid wallies would at least make sure we can quickly and easily find out when we can watch it.

Trawling the rest of the web, I find a suggestion that the series has been quietly moved from its sensible midweek slot.

Wikipedia tells us that the series was halted after 8 (of 13) episodes on ABC before it even began on the BBC. But the fact that ratings declined doesn’t mean it’s rubbish. The history of TV shows that series like Defying Gravity can have a small but dedicated audience, and sometimes a growing cult following years later. And, if the BBC knew the series was going to lose its appeal to a mass audience, why didn’t they put it on at an obscure time from the start? Then at least those of us who are interested might have had the benefit of a regular slot.

Is Defying Gravity going to drift aimlessly in space? Or will it keep my interest? I’d like the opportunity to find out. Better fire up that iPlayer…

October 15, 2009

FFS, BBC!

Filed under: BBC, Cricket, Football, Media, Sport — Tim Joslin @ 8:30 am

I ordered a number 36 from the local Indian takeaway the other night. When I went to collect the meal it was a king prawn vindaloo. “But I ordered a chicken korma”, I complained. “Sorry sir, we decided to change the menu”. Never mind. I made it to the cinema anyway. I’d booked a ticket for the controversial alien prawn apartheid Nigerian gangster gore-fest District 9. But instead I found myself watching the beautifully filmed, but spoilt by saccharine narration and intrusive over-dramatic score Disney flamingo gore-fest The Crimson Wing instead. The cinema said they’d got a good deal and decided to go with the big birds at the last minute.

OK, there was no curry surprise, nor one at the cinema. But these examples are no different to what the BBC did on Saturday. They announced at the end of the Radio 5 commentary on Ukraine v. England – controversially to be shown only live only over the internet, from £4.99, or at selected cinemas, from, I heard, £12 – that the highlights WOULD after all be shown on regular TV later that evening.

Call me old-fashioned, but if I’m going to watch highlights I prefer not to know the score. If I’m not going to watch highlights, and I can’t watch live, then the next best option is to listen to a live commentary. So I decided to find an excuse to be near a radio for 2 hours on Saturday. I volunteered to do some cooking. Had I known in advance that I’d be able to watch highlights, then I would not have cooked my goulash just so that I could listen to the football commentary. Most likely I would not have cooked my goulash at all. In fact, it’s fair to say I planned a large part of the day around the football.

For decades we have become accustomed to a television medium where transmissions – by and large – follow a “schedule”. Exceptions are rare. I’m still annoyed, for example, that the BBC suspended coverage of the enthralling 1980 world snooker final to show coverage of the SAS operation to end the Iranian embassy siege on both channels. Pointless. After 10 seconds, I’d got the point and decided to read all about it in the next morning’s paper.

I’m therefore astonished at the insipid media response to the BBC’s decision not to inform us a little earlier about the Ukraine-England highlights programme. There was some kind of media programme on the radio this afternoon (OK, I can be arsed to check the schedule in this morning’s paper which is 2 feet away – it was The Media Show, 1:30pm, Radio 4 – see how this scheduling lark works Mr BBC? Convenient, isn’t it?). At the start they mentioned the footie scheduling decision as if that was to be the main topic on the programme. But “But first…” turned into around 28 minutes of waiting (BTW, audiences hate this sort of trickery to keep you listening or watching), before some lame muttering to the effect that if the Beeb hadn’t accepted an embargo on announcing the highlights programme then we wouldn’t have seen it at all. Personally (as a license-payer) the highlights were worth not very much at all – £x, say – having listened to the entire game on the radio, and would have been worth quite a bit – say £10x – had I known about them in advance. If, as I read somewhere, the BBC paid £900k (+ broadcasting costs + annoyance to viewers who wanted to watch the News or the Football League programme which were displaced at short notice), then maybe the highlights weren’t such good value after all. Reportedly some 4 million of us tuned into the highlights. Maybe a lot of these switched on, as I did, just to see if the England game really was on. Maybe a lot simply put the telly on and watch whatever the BBC chooses to show, since this episode indicates that is obviously how Auntie believes we will consume moving pictures in the future.

I wasn’t a fly on the wall during the negotiations between the BBC and the company that bought the rights to the qualifier, but I would imagine there was a price the internet-streaming rights owner would accept to allow highlights without pre-announcement, and a (higher) price with an announcement. I bet the higher price wasn’t £9 million. Why didn’t the BBC simply say “Actually [I imagine that’s the sort of word they would use], we can’t jerk our viewers around like that”?

There exists in the UK a list of sports events that must be made available “free to air” – the so-called “crown jewels”. This list is currently up for review. The problem is – a point taught in class 1, Economics 101: profit maximisation principles – you can make more profit by not satisfying demand, assuming all purchasers have to pay the same price and you can’t “segment” the market. E.g. 10m people paying £1 to watch a football game earns you £10m, but if you can get 2m to pay £10 you’ll rake in £20m. Maybe you’d be best off finding 50 billionnaires willing to pay £1m each…

The point is, we live in a very unequal society. Government (as usual) is trying to address the effects rather than the causes by mandating that some events must be free to air. The trouble is, it leaves the sports affected financially worse off. Kind of a poor reward for creating a popular product – and often helping promote a sense of national identity.

Maybe there’s a better solution.

Let’s bear in mind that “free to air” is an incoherent concept and really a synonym for “in the good old days”. BBC channels, strictly speaking, are not free to air, since you need a licence. OK, the BBC is in the ludicrously privileged position that if you have a TV the law assumes you watch the BBC and need a licence. In other words, the BBC licence fee is an unfair, regressive tax.

Maybe the BBC licence fee could be reduced. Maybe people should only pay for TV content they actually want. And whilst I like to watch sport, I am aware that many people watch none. In a few years we’ll all be digital with many more channels – BBC Sports 1 and 2, for example. Why not charge a basic BBC licence-fee and a supplement for sport? (The same may apply to other content, of course, e.g. access to the BBC’s archive via iPlayer).

So if free to air is a woolly concept, why doesn’t the Government simply relax the rule so that instead of “free to air” it simply stipulates that sports events must be available to multiple broadcasters?

Remember the mobile-phone spectrum auction that raised £22bn? I’m not advocating such grasping behaviour, but we could use a little bit of the smarts that were behind that operation to devise a way for multiple broadcasters to show sports events, whilst maintaining the total income to the sports.

Here’s one way you could do it. You’d have an auction as now for the rights. Let’s say the winner – Sky, perhaps – bids £10m for a particular sports event. This has established the value of the event to a monopoly broadcaster, since Sky would have to assume they’ll be paying the full £10m. But now we’ll allow another broadcaster – the BBC, say – to share the rights for 50% of the price offered by Sky, which both would then pay. If ITV also wants to show the game, then all would pay 33.33%. If ESPN wants it as well, then 25% each. If someone wants to stream it over the internet for Brits abroad (if global rights are on offer), or to fans watching on mobile phones, then 20% each.

It might be even better for 2 bidders to pay 110% of the original price – 55% each or £5.5m in this example – 3 to pay 120%, 40% each or £4m – and so on.

Now, I reckon this would create a win-win-win situation:
– sports would maximise their income , whilst also reaching the maximum number of viewers (in fact, the market is being segmented, since the cost per viewer varies);
– viewers would have more access to sporting events and could choose the commentary and form of coverage they wanted – broadcasters would have an incentive to improve or at least differentiate their products;
– broadcasters could follow their various business models. E.g. Sky and ESPN could show a lot of sport to people who pay a premium, the BBC and ITV could show a selection of popular events, and so on;
– the Government gets out of making tricky decisions about the “crown jewels” every few years.

Certain events – the World Cup Final, for example – are already shown simultaneously on multiple channels. Viewers are able to choose their commentary and punditry teams. I remember how, when I was a boy, we used to argue over which channel to watch the FA Cup Final on – on our neighbours’ colour TV! Let’s bring those days back. Jumpers for goalposts…

OK, there are a few problems to sort out. E.g. side-deals may be needed to avoid too many cameras at sports events. But surely it must be possible to improve on the current situation where either sports lose out financially or many viewers have no access to key sporting events, like the Ashes – not good for the long-term future of the sport.

Whatever the rules, perhaps the BBC could spend our money a little more wisely in future than it did by agreeing to keep secret its purchase of Ukraine v. England highlights. FFS, BBC, For Footie’s Sake!

July 13, 2009

Bring Back BBC Bias!

Filed under: BBC, Cricket, F1, Media, Sport — Tim Joslin @ 10:13 am

With so much sport to choose from, it takes something special to grab my attention – genuine rivalry, perhaps, like the Ashes. Or a special individual. I happen to think Lewis Hamilton is a driver of exceptional talent. My interest in F1, like that of millions of others, was rekindled when he burst on the scene.

I was therefore fuming when Hamilton’s McLaren suffered a puncture on the first corner of yesterday’s German GP, leaving him in last place for the rest of the race. Like millions of others I was interested to know exactly what had happened.

I was rather puzzled that Hamilton appeared to lose it at the first corner and not only ran wide but, at first sight, must have collided with another car (Raikonnen’s Ferrari was the candidate) on rejoining the race. OK, there’s a bit of “My boy can do no wrong”, about it, but such errors would be very uncharacteristic for Hamilton, who, as I said, is pure raw talent.

Sure enough, the plot soon began to thicken. It was announced that the Australian Red Bull driver Mark Webber, who ended up winning the race, was under investigation for an incident at the start. The BBC’s “expert pundit”, former under-achieving Scottish driver David Coulthard (if you’ve followed that Wikipedia link, then, like me, you’ll have been reminded that Coulthard’s last racing team was – you’ve guessed it – Red Bull) immediately announced that Webber had done nothing wrong. His comments suggested that his basis for this was that he “hadn’t seen a collision”.

At this stage we hadn’t seen any clear replays, so Coulthard clearly believes that he has the ability to monitor exactly what is happening over a few seconds to 20 cars speeding away from the start of a GP. No-one else can do this, especially whilst simultaneously commentating, so Coulthard is clearly superhuman and deserves every penny of the millions he earnt not winning many races.

Replays soon confirmed that Webber had in fact side-swiped Barrichello’s Brawn going into the first corner. Webber admitted in the post-race interview that he thought Barrichello was on the other side of him! Lucky he wasn’t on a public road, or he’d be facing a dangerous driving charge. Miraculously, the collision had little effect on Barrichello or Webber’s cars. On another day, though, Webber’s mistake would have taken out half the field.

David “Superman” Coulthard’s opinion was, of course, unchanged by the visual facts of what had happened.

Webber received a drive-through penalty, which was insufficiently severe to prevent him winning the race. What sort of sport is this becoming? When I used to watch, the penalty was a 10 second stop, as well as a drive-through.

What the stewards didn’t investigate, though, was what happened next. Webber bounced off Barrichello, and – no doubt shocked to have found a car already there as he headed to the apex of the first corner – also steered left where Hamilton happened to be going round his outside. It turns out Webber clipped the McLaren forcing him off the track and giving him the puncture that cost him the race.

But the Beeb’s narrative was what a “brilliant performance” by Webber. Sorry, I expect sports coverage to reflect at least some of what I feel about the event, not construct some dumbed-down narrative. Webber was lucky his car wasn’t wrecked after playing dodgems at the start; lucky F1’s punishment regime is a joke; lucky not to find himself behind Hamilton and Barrichello at the start (and vulnerable for a lap or two to Kers-powered overtaking moves by the Ferraris and Kovalainen’s McLaren); and lucky too, as it happened, that Brawn screwed up a Barrichello pit-stop, relegating the closest rival to the Red Bulls to 6th. Maybe there’s a reason the “brilliant” Webber had not won any of his previous 129 GPs.

Not only is the Beeb happy to give Webber more credit that he deserves, they are also apparently happy to do down the British talent:

“Hamilton had fancied his chances of scoring a podium finish after qualifying fifth – and a fuel-corrected third fastest.

But after benefiting from his Kers power-boost system to contest the lead with Webber and Barrichello going into the first corner, Hamilton missed his braking point and ran wide.

He got a puncture and rejoined last where for some reason the McLaren, which has a major aerodynamic upgrade this weekend, did not show the pace it had on Saturday.”

What’s this “fancied his chances”? Subtext: “but got egg on his face”, eh? And “benefiting from Kers”? – with the implication that he doesn’t deserve it. But he should benefit. The car has to carry the Kers gear around the track! And McLaren have made design compromises to put it in the car. And probably budget compromises too – working on Kers rather than other aspects of the car (only McLaren and Ferrari have effective Kers systems). I expect they thought F1 was serious about including this “green” technology, and that it wouldn’t be quietly dropped as is being done next season. And Hamilton was so far behind (he had to limp to the pits with his puncture) that there was no point flogging it. There may also have been other damage to his car.

Yes, much of posterity will believe this latest poor result was purely Hamilton’s fault. Anyone using the Guardian’s archive will get the same impression as at the BBC:

“Lewis Hamilton had a bad day after being forced into the pits shortly after the start with a puncture. He made a strong start from fifth but ran wide after turn one. He returned to the track but was bumped from behind almost immediately.”

Independent readers will see Kimi Raikonnen slurred by name:

“As for Lewis Hamilton, on a day when he and McLaren felt their year of woe would potentially end with a podium, he could not have anticipated it would end so disastrously and in such swift fashion.

From fifth on the grid, and aided by a push of the KERS button, the world champion made a storming start.

As Webber and Barrichello played dodgems, Hamilton appeared poised to take full advantage, only to overcook it and run wide into the sharp first-corner hairpin.

Returning to the track in fifth place, Hamilton’s right-rear tyre was punctured by the front wing of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, which was not to be the only incident of the day involving the Finn.”

Raikonnen has been wrecking a lot of other drivers’ races lately, but not Hamilton’s on this occasion.

Whilst the Independent is happy to report what a BBC commentator guessed had happened, the Times actually bothers to get it right:

“Defending world champion Lewis Hamilton finished 18th and last after an attack on the opening lap saw him involved in a collision with Webber that cost him a puncture.

Webber bashed into Barrichello’s car on the run from the start to the first corner, a collision for which he was punished with his drive-through penalty, but he overcame that with a dazzling drive to victory.”

After this, I woke up this morning expecting to hear the BBC revelling on England’s remarkable escape in the First Ashes Test – listening to the last overs of this had rather raised my spirits. But no, Auntie had decided “the angle” was supposed England delaying tactics. It did seem England had overstepped the mark (though part of Strauss’s explanation – trying to ensure the players out there knew how long they had to last – is very plausible), but this had no effect on the match – the Aussies lost no overs. The rule was 15 overs or an hour’s play whichever is the longer. Can anyone imagine the Aussies (or any other Test side) allowing the bowlers to achieve more than 15 overs in the last hour in similar circumstances?

Look, BBC, I pay my licence fee because – oh, sorry, you’re a monopoly – anyway, I expect what British viewers and readers would consider balance. Winning a GP after playing dodgems at the start is not “brilliant”, and to deserve to win a Test you actually have to look like being able to take the last wicket. If I want the Aussie angle, I’ll find out how to get their coverage over the internet!

June 4, 2009

Fewer Says Who

Filed under: BBC, Language, Media — Tim Joslin @ 9:23 am

Maybe my ears deceived me, but I could have sworn that yesterday morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme I heard a statement of the form:

“They are conspiring against Gordon Brown, whom is in a precarious position.”

It’s not just media hyperventilation at continuing personality politics (anyone out there seen a policy? Hello? Hello?), there appears to have been a recent surge of enthusiasm for the word “whom”.

Only a year or two ago the BBC – as if this institution is not otherwise suffocating public debate enough in this country they seem to be unofficial custodians of our language as well – suggested “who” could safely be used most of the time. In 2006, University Challenge even claimed “whom” was virtually obsolete”. Now, in what could be a clip from a 1960s class comedy (wherein the cheeky chappy looks lovably foolish in his mistaken attempts to speak proper), Alan Johnson seemed on the same BBC Radio 4 a few weeks ago to take a deep breath before producing the word “whom” as proudly as a baby pooing.

I suspect the “whom” epidemic is caused by an oversimplification of grammatical rules. The majority school claims that “who” should be used as the subject and “whom” otherwise. This rather ignores the subtleties of direct and indirect objects of verbs, let alone the accusatives, genitives and so on so important in Latin. My initial position was that “whom” correctly replaces indirect but not direct objects. E.g. “That’s the player who was kicked by Fabregas”. “That’s the referee of whom Drogba spoke”. The trouble is, it’s not quite so simple, if we’re to clarify whether we should refer to “the player who Fabregas spat on” (allegedly) or “the player whom Fabregas spat on” (allegedly) – the former seems correct to me. Maybe we do need to go back to those Latin cases, but a more practical minority position is occasionally referred to in online forums. This is that “whom” is the form to be used after prepositions.  So use the word in constructs such as “of whom”, “to whom” etc, but not elsewhere.  This is what appeared to be the consensus until the recent outbreak of grammatical correctness.

The affectation of “whom” is nothing compared to the change in pronunciation of “says” and “said” over the last couple of years.  for decades we’ve all been content to rhyme “say” with “hay”, but “said” with “Fred”.  “Says” is pronounced “sez”, alright?

While the English police direct their resources at supposedly mistaken “who”s and supposedly mispronounced “said”s, “fewer” falls ever more into disuse.  The Guardian’s otherwise brilliant columnist Lucy Mangan even wrote recently that she couldn’t:

“think of an example where abolition of the distinction [between “less” and “fewer”] would cause confusion, but my heart mourns its loss.”

What?

Consider the ambiguities arising from the lack of a moreish equivalent to “fewer”.  Here’s one: “There are more dangerous snakes over there”.  Are there more snakes thither or are the ones there more dangerous?  If we were there rather than here we could be clear: “There are fewer dangerous snakes over there” or “There are less dangerous snakes over there.”  Trouble is, now that the language has eroded, to make yourself understood you’d have to say something like: “The snakes over there are less dangerous.”

So we’re making people concentrate on supposed, but dubious, correctness when it makes no difference to understanding, but paying no attention to language rules that are necessary to avoid confusion.  As usual we’d rather play little social games than actually solve any problems.

March 4, 2009

Logan’s Run, Peston & Goodwin, James Baker’s loony ramblings and Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs

Filed under: BBC, Credit crisis, Economics, Film, Global warming, Media, Reflections — Tim Joslin @ 8:34 pm

I was treated last week to a screening of the 1976 dystopian saga, Logan’s Run. The event was organised by CRASSH, so we discussed the themes of the movie afterwards (and the 1970s haircuts!). There’s the idea of what the world would be like if we disappeared – a longstanding human preoccupation recently discussed, for example, in Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. The film treats us to an the sight of an overgrown Washington. Perhaps the familiar trope – remember Survivors, Twelve Monkeys? – arises from a collective experience of living among the ruins of past great civilisations – Egypt, Rome, Greece, Inca, those of the builders of Stonehenge and the giant Easter Island statues, the fascination with mysterious, powerful Ancients reinforced in a thousand Hollywood movies and supplanted to imagined worlds in numerous SF works (check out Iain M Banks’ Against a Dark Background, Feersum Endjinn and Matter) and a dozen Star Trek episodes – coupled with the perceived Cold War threat of the rapid destruction of our own civilisation (as most memorably explored in the classic novel, A Canticle for Liebowitz). The scientific question of “what would happen without us” is an interesting one, though, so perhaps more on that another time.

Logan’s Run also presents a future of overwhelming state power. This was a common theme in portrayals of future (or historically contingent “parallel world” alternative) societies in the media of the middle part of the 20th century – think of 1984, It Happened Here, and, less high-brow, Blake’s Seven and Star Wars. The examples are endless, but less common today, when the narrative is more likely to revolve around external (or internal) threats to society – think 24 or even Battlestar Galactica.

We forget how the state became so dominant in people’s lives during the mid 20th century, and the battles to throw off the yoke – remember 1968 and 1989. It wasn’t just the Nazi and Soviet phenomena. The World Wars were among the factors leading to powerful states everywhere determining the course of their citizen’s lives. But even after 1945, conscription sent the youth of many countries to fight in pointless wars, food was rationed in the UK until the 1950s, and it was only after the Thatcher Revolution that the state’s role in housing provision started to decline. Globally, the post-war Affluent Society rippled out from the US, where it asserted itself in the 1960s, reaching the Soviet Empire in the 1980s, and China – where Tiananmen has postponed political change – only in the 1990s.

Perhaps it is my interpretation of recent history as a battle for individual freedom that causes me to react so viscerally against the scape-goating of Fred Goodwin, led by the dangerously influential, over-excitable Robert Peston. I consider it nothing short of scandalous that the BBC – the only UK website in the world’s top 10, they seemed to be saying on the radio today (though I don’t recollect what metric this was based on and Mr Google can’t verify this factoid) – presents a single dominant opinion on financial issues to the world, in the form of Peston’s blog. It is, in fact, the only blog in the hundreds of links on my customised version of the BBC homepage, appearing prominently at the top of the Business & Money section. I checked all the boxes and, looking at the selection menu again, “Robert Peston” appears on the same level as category headings, such as “Economy”, “Companies” and “Top stories”! It reminds me of how, in 2007, many UK newspapers contained News, Sport and Madeleine McCann sections.

It’s not just me who sees the hounding of Robert Peston as the thin end of the totalitarian wedge. There’s Daniel Finkelstein in The Times, for example, and – flaming hockey-sticks! – I even find myself agreeing with Boris in the Torygraph. Unfortunately, it’s not just Peston. Vince Cable is another who is profiting immensely by talking down the financial system. Here’s what he has to say on the Lib Dem website:

“In the case of Sir Fred Goodwin, it seems to me the Government would be on strong ground to tell him he is entitled to pension payments available to employees of bankrupt companies under the Pension Protection Fund, which have a maximum of £27,000 a year. If he feels that’s inadequate he can sue.”

Unbelievable. Let’s make it up as we go along, shall we?

But it’s not just executives such as Goodwin who must be punished, apparently. Look at this paragraph from a prescription by James Baker writing in the FT:

“To prevent a bank run, all depositors of recapitalised banks should be fully guaranteed, even if their deposit exceeds the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation maximum of $250,000 (€197,000, £175,000). But bank boards of directors and senior management should be replaced and, unfortunately, shareholders will lose their investment. Optimally, bondholders would be wiped out, too. But the risk of a crash in the bond market means that bondholders may receive only a haircut. All of this is harsh, but required if we are ultimately to return market discipline to our financial sector.”

Everyone must be protected from their actions, it seems, except shareholders! Forget the law. Forget fairness. Forget even the economists’ cherished but flawed principle of moral hazard. Apparently there are consequences if depositors lose confidence in the system, consequences if bondholders lose confidence. But… hang about. What about those crashing stockmarkets? Aren’t they one of the feedbacks in the system, ratcheting down business confidence and people’s willingness and ability to spend? Don’t massively devalued share prices make it more difficult for companies to raise money? If there’s a danger of bank-runs by depositors and bond-holder panic, then maybe, just maybe, there’s a danger of stock-market crashes if shareholders are wiped out, or if confiscation of their assets is threatened.

Value judgements and confiscations by government don’t help us solve this crisis – they make it harder – but they sure reinforce the power of the political classes and their media rabble-rousers.

I was minded of this on Sunday evening when I was trying to make a complex point in a discussion. Someone had earlier pointed out to general amusement that the UK’s Middle England tabloid, the Daily Mail, had, in the same week, railed against the ban on traditional incandescent lightbulbs and pointed out the money that could be saved by installing them! I rhetorically suggested that maybe the ban on incandescent bulbs had been counter-productive. Meaning, a better way to phase out the old type of bulbs would be to convince everyone that the new ones are a better product. Anyone stocking up on incandescents now in advance of the ban could use them for decades, whereas someone switching to compact fluorescents (CFLs) to save on their electricity bill would do so immediately. And are we going to abandon CFLs in favour of advanced LEDs in a few years’ time? Probably not, but those conscious of the electricity cost may well make another switch voluntarily. But apparently my comment about banning bulbs was beyond the pale and I was interrupted mid-flow.

Do we really want to solve our problems by state diktat? Or should we respect fairness, reason and individual freedoms? The latter is the only possible path that can succeed. If we imagine that we can only achieve our goals by capture of the state apparatus the result will be endless conflict. And we might not like the end result.

The Great Depression of the 1930s was a factor in greatly increasing the power of the state over the individual. Let’s not repeat the experiment.

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