24 September 2008

Gnu Pronunciation

I have been testing a GNU/Linux server recently which has GNOME (pronounced ger-nome) installed. This pronunciation is undoubtedly correct, as is the sounding of the G in Gnu/Linux, because the originators of these systems specified that the G should be sounded. My dictionary has 19 words starting gn, and apparently they should all be pronounced with a silent G, including gnu when referring to the African animal. This reminded me of the song "The Gnu Song" written in the 1950s by Flanders and Swann: the song is a clever satire which very gently pokes fun at those people who did not know that the G is silent. In the song they religeously pronounce all the silent letters in lines such as: You really ought to ker-now w-ho's w-ho's. The also add G's to all the other words beginning with N, as in the first two lines of the song:

I'm a Gnu, I'm a Gnu
The ger-nicest work of ger-nature in the zoo

The song was very popular in the 50's and 60's but I suspect the satire backfired however, as many people now sound the G when referring to the animal. Mind you, in the nearly 50 years since I first heard the song, the only times I can recall needing to use the word is when referencing the song!

I am told that if you go back far enough, the initial letters in words such as gnaw and knife were sounded but gradually over the years the initial letters were dropped in speech, but kept in the spelling. Maybe we should follow Flanders and Swann and start pronouncing all these silent letters; it would cause some ger-nashing of teeth in some circles but you never ker-now - it could catch on.

11 September 2008

"Rabbit Hutch" Britain

An article in today's Guardian reports that houses built in the UK are the smallest in western Europe. I am not surprised: the high cost of land in the UK results in builders having to develop at high density to keep costs down, and this is also a major contributory factor to the fact that we never seem to be able to build enough houses to satisfy demand. Another contributory factor to the rabbit hutch phenomenon is the frequent requirement on developers to build a certain number of affordable homes in any new development. Affordable generally means small and cheaply made, but as today's report indicates we already have enough small starter homes.

Although I am not generally in favour of allowing market forces to decide everything, in this case we should just let builders build the houses they think are most likely to sell. The majority of people in the UK only own one house, so if builders build more of a certain type of house then prices will come down. People often stay in their first house for a long time (though many of them would like a bigger house), because they cannot find the extra money needed to trade up to a significantly better house. House prices in Britain are far too high: the solution is to build more houses so that supply equals demand, and it does not really matter what sort of house you build. Currently the number of houses being built is going down, but maybe builders would come back into the market if we removed the need to build affordable (that is, low profit) homes, and preferably simplified the frequently long drawn out planning procedures in which everyone from the local council to utility services try and get improvements to their infrastructure from the builder.

30 July 2008

BBC Fined

The BBC has been fined £400,000 by Ofcom because of the TV phone-in scandal, but does anyone know what fining the BBC achieves? It is not the staff who knew about the dodgy competitions that will pay - but the corporation as a whole. Presumably this means less money is available for programs, so viewers and listeners, some of whom suffered because of the fraudulent phone-ins, suffer further because of the fine imposed on the BBC. Am I missing something here?

29 June 2008

Tennis in the UK

It's mid-June so the UK papers are talking about tennis again. The stories are much the same every year just before Wimbledon: the poor state of the game in Britain, and what does the LTA do with all the money it gets from Wimbledon. And the current picture is bleak, as after years of promises from the LTA that things were getting better, Britain has the lowest number of men in the singles draw in the 131 year history of the championships, with two wild cards, one qualifier, and Andy Murray.

The LTA gets much of the blame from journalists, and although I have done my fair share of criticising them, it is naive to think that if only they used the millions they get from Wimbledon more effectively everything would be all right. Despite frequent comments to the contrary, very little money is spent on tennis development in the UK, and the £25M that the LTA gets from Wimbledon does not go very far when just one relatively small indoor tennis centre is likely to cost over £1M. It is estimated that to build the 5,000 indoor courts we would need to catch with where France are now would take £1.2 Billion. France has seven times as many indoor courts as we have in Britain, but Britain's need is greater because France has better weather so playing outside all the year round is a more practicable proposition, particularly in the south. In France and Germany local government apparently pay for some, if not most, local facilities, but in my experience local authorities in the UK have very little money for new facilities and, in fact, mostly struggle even to maintain the facilities they do have.

So what are the reasons for the moribund state of tennis in Britain and the failure to produce top 100 players? Having in the recent past been chairman of a tennis club as well as serving on a county committee, there is no doubt in my mind that the root of Britain's problems with tennis lie in the private clubs. Most people who play regularly are members of private clubs, but the predominate culture of these clubs is one of social tennis (invariably doubles) played by middle-aged if not elderly members. Coaching, juniors, and singles play are tolerated at best, if not actively discouraged, and the typical tennis club environment is not conducive to tennis development. There is, of course, nothing wrong with social tennis (it is what I play myself) and the fact that tennis is a game you really can play from 8 to 80 years old should be a selling point when encouraging people to take up the game. The problem is that this form of tennis dominates everything else: the smaller clubs (4 courts or less) which are the most common in Britain, do not have enough courts to offer different tennis activities concurrently, so the prime playing times tend to be for social doubles, league matches (also doubles) and maybe some casual play.

Clubs typically have a range of members from under 10s playing mini-tennis, older juniors, juniors who are strong enough to play with adults, strong players up to county standard who are too good to play in club sessions, and the social doubles players who form the mainstream. The committees of tennis clubs are generally dominated by social players (juniors and their parents typically have no votes at all), and it is the committee that generally does most the work in a club, so it is not surprising that they generally want the club run to suit their needs. All to often young players graduating from the junior sessions just stop playing when the only tennis on offer is doubles play, frequently with players much older than themselves. Also once players are too old for junior tournaments most clubs have very little too offer. The stronger players are usually too strong to play in club sessions, even if they want to play doubles, and there are relatively few adult tournaments. I would estimate that more than 95% of players stop playing between the ages of 13 and 21; many more would stay in the game if clubs could offer tennis sessions targetted for this age group.

Tennis (and other sports) can be thought of as a pyramid with a broad base of beginner/improvers and younger juniors at the base, and nationally ranked players at the peak. You need to be in the top 100 of world ranked players to get entry to the top division of tournaments, and currently Britain has one player in each of the men's and women's top 100s. Because of this tennis gets poor coverage in the press and on TV except, of course, for Wimbledon fortnight. Britain desperately needs more people to be playing tennis and more competing in tournaments at all levels. Having spent many years helping to run junior sessions at my club, as well as organising an LTA ratings tournament, I know it is not difficult to get juniors to start playing tennis. The problem is keeping them playing and getting them to enter tournaments. There are around 15,000 juniors playing competitively at present, which is very low compared to the leading tennis nations. To get more juniors playing tournaments we need a more accessible tournament structure. A typical junior ratings tournament is played over a week, during the school holidays. However this usually involves parents taking time off work without necessarily knowing their child will play on any given day. I spent a lot of time encouraging juniors to enter tournaments with little success - when I asked why they had not entered local tournaments the overwhelming reason was that parents simply could get them to the event because they could not take the time off work.

If these are the problems what is the solution? Solving the problems of tennis in Britain is not easy, in fact I do not think we have any real chance of getting to the level that France and Spain are now - we are simply too far behind. I believe that the LTA should give up hoping that the large majority of clubs in Britain will ever play a significant role in tennis development. What is needed are some new clubs formed with a different ethos: clubs which cater for those wanting to learn or improve, to play singles in preference to doubles, and who want to compete. In short we need tennis sports clubs as an alternative to tennis social clubs. We also need a completely re-vamped tournament structure based on one or half day tournaments, at least for the beginner and entry level juniors. I would suggest short tournaments based on one set matches, initially on a round-robin basis, and with everyone starting and finishing at the same time. My experience of running such tournaments at my own club was a dramatic increase in participation levels. I believe it would be possible to get 50,000 or more juniors competing regularly simply with a more accessible tournament structure.

In summary we need some singles-orientated sports tennis clubs with an emphasis on coaching and competing, and an accessible tournament structure to attract many more players to compete regularly.

17 May 2008

Blowin' In The Wind

Today's Guardian newspaper includes a supplement with the words and music to five classic Bob Dylan songs, including Blowin' In The Wind. I was a teenager during the sixties, and it is difficult for anyway who did not live through that period to appreciate the impact that Dylan and other singers made, and how they helped to kick start the cultural and political revolution that followed. The election of John F Kennedy as US President helped to create the environment for change; and it seemed to me that the speeches of Kennedy, and the words and music of Dylan, were where the sixties started.

Blowin' In The Wind was the song that brought Dylan to a wider audience. It is essentially a serious of simplistic questions without any answers, but probably because of this it has become a timeless classic. Over forty years after it was written it seems that in the wider world little has changed: wars still rage with genocides and ethnic cleansing still commonplace.

"how many times must the cannon balls fly
before they're forever banned?"

Tragic events in Darfur carry on, with the United Nations seemingly impotent:

"how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died"

The cyclone in Burma may have killed more than 100,000 people but 1000s more will die because the country is ruled by a totalitarian military junta that is mostly concerned with its own survival, and cares little for its own people:

"... how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head,
And pretend that he just doesn't see?

The questions, naive though they are, remain the same - and the answers, then as now, are blowin' in the wind.

20 April 2008

House Prices

In the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown is interviewed on TV about the bad news that reports show that house prices are falling. In the same news broadcast people are interviewed in the street about about how they will be affected by having less money to spend because of the recession. Not for the first time the media seems to have decided what is good and what is bad, but I would query their assessment of the current situation. The government has just announced the lowest unemployment figures for thirty years, inflation is between 2 and 3%, and average salaries are a little ahead of inflation; so why exactly should the average person feel they have less to spend? When prices fluctuate then there are always winners and losers: falling house prices are good for first time buyers and bad for those sellers who are not also buying another property. House owners who want to sell so they can buy a better house are also better off if house prices fall, as the house they want to buy should come down by proportionally more than the house they are selling. For those of us not planning to sell, the value of their house is largely irrelevant. I would contend that falling house prices is either good news, or of no real consequence for most people.

More importantly, house prices have to come down if Britain is ever going to solve its housing shortage. Prices are governed by supply and demand, and the reason that Britain has some of the highest house prices in the world is that demand invariably exceeds supply. This government (and previous governments) have announced their intention to build more houses, and if we ever achieve equality of supply and demand then prices will inevitably come down. The news media generally view things from the consumers point of view, so in general prices increases on the high street are considered bad news, so why do they think house price increases are a good thing?

17 February 2008

The Observer Effect!

The Observer newspaper today leads on an article reporting the "scandal" (their term, not mine) of patients waiting in ambulances outside hospital accident and emergency (A & E) departments, in an effort to meet a government directive that all patients should be treated within four hours of admission. This is yet another example of the observer effect where observing or measuring something changes what is being observed. Failure to take into account the observer effect seems to be a common fault of organisations (and the British Government in particular) and is, I suspect, due to an unthinking adherence to the aphorism: "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it".

There is a similar situation in British schools where children now have a regular regime of testing at various ages. All schools know that they are judged on their test scores so will change the way they teach to try and improve their test scores. Anything that is not tested is likely to be given low priority or dropped altogether, and the net effect of this is that we are training kids to pass tests rather than educating them. The main measure for GCSEs (the school exam for 16-year olds in the UK) is the number of passes at grades A to C. One strategy to improve this is to target children predicted to get C or D grades, because the children in the top streams will get C or better without any extra help, and those in the bottom streams won't get a C whatever you do. This is a classic case of the observer effect and it does not lead to good education.

In the case of the A & E patients the four hour response pledge seems to have made the situation worse as the measures taken are just to produce better figures not a better service, and tying up ambulances as waiting rooms stops them from attending new emergency calls.

Managing and planning is clearly more effective if you have reliable data but unless the observer effect is taken into account the collection or checking of the data can have seriously undesirable consequences.