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Archive for January, 2011

The Snooker Shoot Out

A new form of snooker was born over the weekend in Blackpool – the Snooker Shoot Out.

In a similar fashion to 20: 20 cricket, the idea is to produce fast paced, exciting sport with maximum audience participation. The rules are therefore a little different to those aficionados of the game will be used to.

Each match lasts just a single frame. And if that wasn’t short enough, a time limit of 10 minutes per frame applies. To make things faster still, there is a shot clock. In the first half of the frame shots must be played within 20 seconds, while in the second half this falls to just 15 seconds.

Two other rule changes add to the excitement. At least one ball must be potted or hit a cushion in each shot, meaning no running up against balls for an easy snooker. And any foul shot results in a “ball in hand”. Pool style, the player can then place the cue ball anywhere on the table that he wants.

The inaugural competition involved the world’s top 64 players coming together in a knock out competition. No one knew quite how it would work out. There were predictions of scrappy frames and low breaks. But the world’s best produced some very fine snooker.

There were a few occasions where the shot clock found players too indecisive, leaving them to play any old shot as time ran out. And others tried to run down the clock while ahead, only seeming to disturb their own rhythm and miss easy shots. But most coped admirably with the new set up.

World champion Neil Robertson produced the most stunning comeback, scoring over 40 points in the final two minutes of a frame, but he was eventually beaten in the quarter finals. And all of the other big names of the game went out one by one.

Ronnie O’Sullivan was many people’s favourite given his already fast style of play, and the event did seem to suit him. He scored a couple of rapid centuries in typical fashion, but fell in the semi finals.

In the end it was two mid ranking players who battled it out for the £32,000 first prize. Robert Milkins, ranked 33 in the world, and Nigel Bond, ranked 36, were the men to make it to the final.

The pressure was clear with both missing pots early on before Bond got in and built a 50 point lead. Milkins could not come back and it was the 45 year old Bond who took home the trophy. A victory for one of the games older players was not predicted by many.

Snooker purists will not approve of this new format, much as 20: 20 cricket was initially rubbished by the duffers with their g&ts and MCC ties.

But the capacity crowds loved it. Snooker players in coloured shirts, the audience allowed to shout encouragement throughout and fast play throughout made for an entertaining spectacle.

I’m sure this won’t be a one off event. It looks as though snooker has a new and winning format on its hands.

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The End For Books?

Does the news that Amazon now sells more e-books than paperbacks mark the beginning of the end for the book?

The same statistics do show that paperback sales are up too, but what industry analysts call the “moment of cross-over” may have arrived, meaning that digital is now becoming the dominant format for the reader.

Amazon is in an ideal position to exploit this position, as it also makes and sells the leading “e-reader” – the “Kindle” – although others including Sony’s sell well too. And the boom in sales of tablet computers may also lead to increases in the sales of electronic books.

The growth of online retailers like Amazon has already meant hard times for bookshops. Many smaller independent retailers have vanished from the High Street and even US giant Borders has gone to the wall in the UK.

“Our vision is that every book in every language should be available for you to download and start reading in 60 seconds,” said Christopher North, the UK managing director of Amazon.

No more waiting for the book to come in the post then. Just download and read immediately. Another example of instant gratification.

But what does this mean for authors?

Neill Denny, who edits the industry journal ‘The Bookseller’, believes it will become more difficult for new authors to get into the market.

“Breaking new authors is much harder digitally. Sure, you can build excitement with Facebook fan pages and the rest. But impulse buying of books can’t really happen in the same way,” he argued.

Others disagree, believing that increased sales in whatever format can only be good news. It is much cheaper to produce an e-book than it is to have one published in the traditional format. And it is also much easier to self-publish, cutting the publishing house out of the equation entirely.

This doesn’t just appeal to those trying to gain a foothold in the market. The likes of Philip Roth, Martin Amis and John Updike are all bypassing publishers to sell digital editions of books directly to readers, via Amazon.

While the number of e-book readers sold in the UK lags well behind their American counterparts, they are growing very swiftly, with huge leaps in sales reported over Christmas. And trends in the US are usually followed on this side of the pond.

So the paperback won’t be disappearing immediately, but the move towards electronic editions will continue it seems.

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Scientists at Cambridge University are investigating the possibility that the horse tranquilliser ketamine could be used to treat depression.

Barbara Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, believes that some early successes mean ketamine is worthy of further study and, “would result in great benefits for patients with depression”.

The most recent research into depression has focussed on the neurotransmitter glutamate. It functions as part of an important signalling system in the brain, and there is evidence that alterations in the levels of glutamate can cause depression.

Ketamine is particularly interesting because of its apparent rapid action – in trials on patients with treatment resistant depression some showed improvements within only 40 minutes. Over 70% responded within 24 hours, reaching a level that took six to eight weeks to occur with the most common current medications.

It seems that the drug inhibits proteins that interact with glutamate; it is thought that other antidepressants act on members of the same chain, but ketamine takes a short-cut, explaining why its effects are seen so quickly.

As well as its use in veterinary medicine, ketamine is also used as a rave drug with the street name Special K. So, on the face of it this seems like a very strange development.

The idea is not a new one however. A small scale double blind study in 2006 showed promising, and speedy, short term results. But another 2010 trial showed that long term use of ketamine comes with risks of psychosis, blood abnormalities and suicidal thinking.

At this stage it would appear that there are still significant issues with ketamine to be considered. But any medication that might offer relief from depression is worthy of further study.

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The controversy surrounding Gerry Adams attempts to leave the House of Commons took a new twist yesterday when the Prime Minister became involved.

Adams had written to the Speaker to resign his seat, but parliamentary officials quoted ancient rules stating that MPs simply cannot resign. Instead they are supposed to apply for a position of profit under the crown, which automatically disqualifies them from being a member of the House of Commons.

But, as an Irish Republican, Adams refused to acknowledge the 1624 rule and insisted that he had resigned.

The letter Adams submitted said, “A chara, I hereby resign as MP for the constituency of west Belfast. Go raibh maith agat. Gerry Adams”.

David Cameron was asked about the situation at Prime Minister’s Questions, and in his reply he stated that, “the honourable member for West Belfast has accepted an office for profit under the crown, which of course is the only way you can retire from this house.”

Adams insists the prime minister had misrepresented his position, and that he has neither applied for, nor accepted, the post of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead – the ceremonial office that would mean he could no longer be an MP.

In a statement, Adams explained further. “I simply resigned. I was not consulted nor was I asked to accept such an office. I am an Irish republican. I have had no truck whatsoever with these antiquated and quite bizarre aspects of the British parliamentary system.”

And the Sinn Fein leader went on to say, “I have spoken to the prime minister’s private secretary today and he has apologised for today’s events.”

Now that would seem to be an acknowledgement that the Prime Minister got it wrong. And in that situation he would surely be expected to apologise to the House of Commons for his misleading statement.

But late last night Speaker John Bercow told the House of Commons, “I have received formal notification from the Chancellor of the Exchequer that Gerard Adams has been appointed to be Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead.”

So the official line now seems to be that Adams has been appointed to a post he didn’t apply for and wouldn’t accept if it was offered to him!

As often happens, we have a choice between conspiracy and cock up theories to explain these bizarre events. Either Cameron and co are working to embarrass Adams by forcing him to be an employee of the crown, or those involved simply don’t know what they are doing.

There have been many aspects of Gerry Adams time as MP for West Belfast that have proven to be uncomfortable for British governments. But the manner of his leaving the House of Commons could turn out to be the biggest embarrassment of them all.

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Gerry Adams has written to the Speaker of the House of Commons to resign his West Belfast seat. But obscure parliamentary rules mean that he is still considered to be a Member of Parliament.

I wrote last year of Adams’ decision to stand for Sinn Fein in the County Louth seat in the forthcoming Irish election. He stepped down from the Northern Ireland Assembly and then wrote a letter of resignation to Speaker John Bercow.

But Commons’ officials have cited procedures dating back four hundred years, which state that MPs are forbidden from formally resigning their seats.

A resolution of the House of Commons from March 1624 states that an MP cannot directly resign their seat except by death, disqualification or expulsion.

The usual procedure for an MP who wishes to leave their seat is to apply for a position of profit under the crown, which automatically disqualifies them from being a member of the House of Commons.

Under those rules, Mr Adams is now supposed to apply to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to become Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead.

Now does anyone really expect Gerry Adams to apply for a job with the British crown?

Sinn Fein’s position is simple: Adams has resigned and will not be applying for any other office.

But parliamentary officials quote Erskine May, the authority on parliamentary procedure, and insist that Adams is still an MP. This means that they will not issue a writ for a by election in West Belfast.

Technically there is nothing in either UK or Irish law that would ban Adams from sitting simultaneously in both parliaments. And that’s exactly what might well happen by default, unless some alternative can be found.

It has been suggested that Adams should attempt to enter the House of Commons and take his place in the chamber. The argument goes like this: as Adams has not taken the oath of allegiance to the crown, which all MPs are expected to take, he would then be automatically disqualified from being an MP and a by election would be called.

But why would Gerry Adams agree to take part in such a farcical process?

Once again the unwritten constitution has shown itself to be unable to cope with a modern situation. Surely an MP should be able to resign from office in exactly the same way as anyone else – with a simple letter of resignation.

And the procedures of 1624 should be left in the history books where they belong.

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The old joke about the difficulty of trying to explain football’s offside law to women has come back to bite Sky’s Andy Gray and Richard Keys.

The pair have been disciplined following remarks made on Saturday when they mistakenly believed that their microphones were switched off. So it turns out that these particular men are not too good with technology.

The comments came in advance of the Wolves v Liverpool game in which Sian Massey was one of the assistant referees. Yes, a woman was appointed to officiate in an English Premier League match – a fact that Gray and Keys could not let pass without a few comments.

But Sky bosses didn’t see the funny side and the pair were suspended from working on this week’s Monday Night Football.

“Those views are inexcusable, entirely inconsistent with our ethos as a business and employer, and will rightly offend many of our customers, our people, and the wider public,” said Barney Francis, managing director of Sky Sports.

“They are inexcusable from anyone at Sky, regardless of their role or seniority. We have dealt with this matter by taking immediate disciplinary action,” he stated.

There has been little support within football for the duo. Karren Brady, currently a Director of West Ham and one of the few women in a senior position within the game, was scathing.

Speaking on BBC Radio 5 live, Brady told Victoria Derbyshire, “I’m genuinely disappointed. It never would have occurred to me that they had these views, whether public or private.”

Many other sporting figures have weighed in on the issue, with only former England women’s cricket captain Rachel Heyhoe-Flint supporting Keys and Gray. She described their exchange as “banter”, adding that, “These were tongue-in-cheek comments and we are blowing something enormously out of proportion here.”

Football’s offside law is often cited as a measure of whether someone understands the game, particularly when it comes to female fans. If you Google “explaining offside rule to women” the top result features two women in a shoe shop having forgotten their purses, battling for the same pair of shoes.

And Kelly Cates, the daughter of Kenny Dalglish, joked on her Twitter page: “Just read about something called ‘the offside rule’. Too much for my tiny brain. Must be damaged from nail polish fumes.”

For the record, Sian Massey had a good game on Saturday and demonstrated that she does indeed understand the offside law perfectly well.

In Scotland, there are more female officials than ever before. The SFA has seen the number of female referees on its books grow to 59, more than a quarter of whom are under 18 years old.

Perhaps Ms Massey, or one of her Scottish counterparts, should have been on the line at New Douglas Park recently, when a male official showed that his comprehension of the finer points of the offside law was sadly lacking.

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“Religitigation” is a new term in legal circles. The rather inelegant portmanteau word formed from religion and litigation refers to cases where religious views and human rights clash.

The most recent case involved a gay couple who were not allowed to share a room at a hotel in Cornwall by the owners, who describe themselves as devout Christians.

Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy, who are civil partners, won their landmark claim for discrimination in a case funded and supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

The hoteliers, Peter and Hazel Bull, argued that they do not allow unmarried couples to share double rooms because they do not believe in sex before marriage. They claimed that their actions were not discriminatory because a heterosexual couple who were not married would have been treated in exactly the same fashion.

But the argument did not sway Judge Andrew Rutherford, who ruled that the hotel had directly discriminated against the couple on the grounds of their sexual orientation and awarded them compensation of £1,800 each.

The regulations that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007, explicitly state that, “the fact that one of the persons is a civil partner while the other is married shall not be treated as a material difference”.

John Wadham, the legal director of the EHRC, said, “The right of an individual to practise their religion and live out their beliefs is one of the most fundamental rights a person can have, but so is the right not to be turned away by a hotel just because you are gay.”

The result of this case sends out a clear message. While the right to hold whatever private religious views a person wishes is protected, there can be no right to discriminate against others on the basis of those views.

Or, to put it another way, no one can be above the law.

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The number of students caught cheating reached a new record in 2010. According to official statistics, there were at least 1,169 identified cases of plagiarism last year – an 8% increase.

The figures have been rising steadily each year, but there is some debate over what this actually means. Are more students actually cheating or are universities simply getting better at catching them?

It must be easy in many subjects to cut and paste from web sites when writing essays. There is so much information available on such a wide variety of subjects that anyone with rudimentary search skills should be able to find that they are looking for very quickly.

The trick is in rewording and summarising rather than simply copying. Is that the difference between research and cheating?

It is also important to use the correct web sites. There have been cases of students caught copying from Wikipedia – and we all know how inaccurate that can be on occasions.

The National Union of Students believes universities are getting better at identifying cheats. Liam Burns, president of NUS Scotland said, “Much of this increase in plagiarism figures will be down to improvements in catching people rather than a worrying trend.”

Burns also argues that pressure on students is to blame, rather than a desire to find short cuts. “Often the tiny minority of students that do resort to it, do so out of a lack of support and out of desperation,” he said.

But lecturers seem t believe that there is more cheating. A spokesman for the Scottish branch of the University and College Union said there was concern that pressure to succeed may be pushing students to cheat.

“While we do not condone cheating, it is understandable to think more students are doing it now,” he said.

For the record, Edinburgh Napier, with 288, had the highest number of students identified as guilty of plagiarism, followed by 204 at Robert Gordon and 198 at Stirling. There were 178 examples of plagiarism at Edinburgh University and at least 62 at Glasgow, which did not publish its full figures.

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The sudden resignation of Alan Johnson from the post of Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer has led to a reshuffle at the top of Labour Leader Ed Miliband’s team.

In his resignation statement, which took Westminster by surprise, Johnson stated, ‘I have decided to resign from the shadow cabinet for personal reasons to do with my family.

“I have found it difficult to cope with these personal issues in my private life whilst carrying out an important frontbench role.”

Ed Miliband moved quickly to fill the vacancy by moving economist Ed Balls from the Home Office brief. This caused something of a knock on effect in the top jobs, with Balls’ wife Yvette Cooper taking over as Shadow Home Secretary and Scots MP Douglas Alexander becoming Shadow Foreign Secretary.

Miliband has stated that there will be no change in Labour’s economic policy, but he might find that Balls has a slightly different approach to Johnson. A former adviser to Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor, Balls is certainly to the left of his leader. And this is something that both governing parties will be sure to play on.

During the Labour leadership contest, Balls called for a slower deficit reduction plan than that proposed by former Chancellor Alastair Darling, in order to protect the recovery and promote growth. And the government will also be keen to point this out.

Ed Balls finally has the brief that he wants. And he will prove a formidable opponent for Chancellor George Osborne .Many predicted he would be made Shadow Chancellor last year, but at the time Ed Miliband made what he felt to be the safer appointment of Johnson.

Balls’ instinct is to attack, and his first statement made clear how he will approach the new role. ‘Our task ahead is to take on George Osborne and David Cameron’s decision to cut too far and too fast, recklessly putting jobs and growth at risk,’ said Balls.

But he also recognises that a positive approach is required, stating, ‘We will set out to the public that there is an alternative: a fair economy which puts jobs and growth first. I look forward to taking on and winning this argument.’

This is a reshuffle that Ed Miliband was not looking for. But he has acted quickly and decisively and will hope that the momentum built from both by-election success and good poll ratings will continue.

And Balls v Osborne is a clash I am very much looking forward to.

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Vaz Seeks To Reform Royal Act

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave somewhere in recent times you will know that there is to be a royal wedding this year.

Apparently someone called William from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, or William Wales as he prefers to be known, will be marrying a Ms Kate Middleton in April.

Important issues so far covered in the news include the location of the wedding (Westminster Abbey for its intimacy), the fact that the bride will travel in a car (not a fairy tale princess carriage) and that pubs will be allowed to stay open late. Oh, and we all get a day off work, which is something I suppose.

Labour MP Keith Vaz, believes that this current focus on matters royal is the ideal time to bring a bill before parliament that would look to end discrimination in the royal succession.

The Succession to the Crown Bill was given an unopposed first reading in the Commons this week but it stands little chance of becoming law because of a lack of parliamentary time

But Vaz’s bill does raise two important matters relating to the monarchy: the fact that males always take precedence over females and that Roman Catholics, or those married to Roman Catholics, cannot succeed to the throne.

Now as a republican my clear preference would be to consign the whole notion of a royal family to the historical dustbin where it belongs. The idea of a modern monarchy is, to me, an oxymoron. But that’s an argument for another day.

The Act of Settlement of 1701 sets out the way in which one king or queen succeeds another. It was designed to secure the Protestant succession at a time when there were a number of claimants to the throne, including those of the Roman Catholic faith. The Act was later extended to Scotland as a result of the Treaty of Union enacted in the Acts of Union of 1707.

The Act specifies that no Roman Catholic, or anyone married to a Roman Catholic, can hold the English Crown. The Sovereign has to swear to maintain the Church of England, and after 1707, the Church of Scotland.

Three hundred years later this legislation is still in force. The position of monarch can legally be held by a Sikh, a Muslim, a Scientologist or someone with no religious belief at all. But not by a Roman Catholic.

There can simply be no justification for such a discriminatory provision.

If we have to have a monarchy then it should at least operate under the same form of equal opportunities and non-discriminatory framework that we would expect of any other institution.

A ban on members of one religion and one religion only from holding an office, even a discredited hereditary one, has to be abolished as soon as possible.

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