“That ball was on the line!”… Or was it?

From http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/software/hawkeye-in-the-crosshairs-at-wimbledon-again

Good old football has, once again, been in the news this week. Arsene Wenger’s amazing one thousand games in charge of Arsenal and the club’s 6-0 drubbing by Chelsea were overshadowed by a huge mistake by the referee. Not only did he make an arguably incorrect decision to brandish a red card for a handball by Arsenal, he also managed to show it to the wrong player… Big oops. This has of course raised the usual questions about the use of technology in football: would having the option of a video review have prevented this from happening? Do referees need more help to ensure the decisions they make are correct in real time?

Many sports have embraced technology to help officials make decisions, review the decisions that have been made, and even to take decision-making out of a referee’s hands. This can improve consistency and fairness, add entertainment, and even become a tactical consideration for sportspeople. But is it always a good thing?

Cricket and tennis are two high profile examples of sports that have fully integrated and accepted video technology as part of officiating. When objects are flying around at well over 100mph, you can see why the human eye isn’t always able to correctly assess the position a tennis ball has landed in, or the line or predicted trajectory of a cricket ball. Both sports use video review systems (based on ‘Hawkeye’ technology) to enable players to challenge the calls that human officials have made during the game. Meanwhile, umpires are also able to call upon the technology to confirm or question their own decisions. The human element hasn’t been entirely removed though. For example, in cricket, inconclusive decisions defer back to the umpire’s original call. In theory, top level tennis events could probably function without line judges and rely solely on Hawkeye to determine whether the ball has fallen in or out on each point. However, this isn’t what the use of technology has been brought in to do. It is an aid to the human officials, not a replacement of them. Interestingly, according to one study, tennis line judges display remarkable perceptual proficiency in calling correctly, with a success rate of over 90% when the ball is within 100mm of the baseline. Trained humans have an amazing capacity for visually accuracy (and in general, the line judges are more accurate than the players!). Chair umpires also retain the power to overturn the decisions of line judges and advise players as to whether a challenge is worthwhile. To this end, the human element of officiating has certainly not been lost in tennis now that technology has been integrated.

Hockey also bases its use of video review on a challenge system. Players (and umpires) are able to request a video referral in relation to goals and infringements within the attacking and defending 23m areas. With the game now played at incredible speed and given the frequent significance of penalty corners, use of referrals can now be a crucial part of the game. As with tennis and cricket, players have a limited number of challenges available to them, so tactical considerations can be quite significant. For example, possible referral opportunities are not always used by a team early on, in case they are incorrect and therefore do not have the chance to refer a decision at a later point. The Australian cricket team made some notoriously bad decisions to review during the Ashes in the summer of 2013, leaving them unable to challenge calls at crucial times, whereas the England team had a clear strategy for deciding whether it would be worthwhile using the DRS (Decision Review System). In hockey, it is also important to consider the type of decisions being referred. Whereas in tennis, where it is a reasonably ‘black and white’ decision – the ball is either in or it is out – many decisions in hockey are related to the umpire’s interpretation of the rules in the context of a given situation. It is therefore important that players consider the nature of the decision they are questioning: is it a clear infringement or is a third umpire going to find it difficult to overturn the original interpretation of events made by an umpire on the field?

Emotions, fatigue and simply executing physical skills can influence a player’s ability to make the right decision about when to use a video referral. When competing in a high pressure environment, and potentially huge rewards are added into the equation, it is unsurprising that sports performers sometimes make the wrong call. You may recall a situation in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 where a taekwondo player was disqualified for a rule infringement during the bronze final. His response? He kicked the referee in the head:

Since 2008, Taekwondo has made some big decisions about technology. The use of a PSS (Protector and Scoring System) enables hits to be automatically scored based on their strength. This is believed to reduce human error and encourage consistent and fair decisions on points. As judges still award technical points, the sport has also introduced Instant Video Replay. Referrals are made by a coach. This is a significant difference to sports such as hockey, tennis and cricket, where (regardless of any guidance from a coach on the sidelines) the ultimate responsibility for asking for a review falls to the players. American Football also has a Coach Challenge system, where coaches are able to signal a challenge within certain time parameters by throwing a red flag onto the field of play. The relative success of this system in North America has led to calls for similar protocols being introduced in ice hockey and basketball.

As mentioned, most sports that have video reviews available to players or coaches also give this option to officials if required. Both rugby codes have for some time successfully implemented video technology to help officials determine whether a try has been scored without any infringement. In some sports where performance is judged largely on aesthetic elements, there is varying use of the technology as an aid to scoring. For example, in figure skating, a technical specialist uses video replay to verify the elements being judged; this information is then used by the judging panel to ensure a double axel isn’t mistakenly seen as a triple axel and so on. When competitors may be spinning or jumping at great speed, you can see how this may encourage consistent scoring. In contrast, diving is judged entirely in real time, with the judges scoring a dive based entirely on their first impression of its execution. Perhaps there are arguments both ways here: in aesthetic sports, often a judge’s immediate intuitive visual perceptions may be extremely accurate. But what if a judge holds preconceptions or misjudges an element? To some extent, the question of video technology in these sports begins to challenge the essence of our responses to the sport itself.

The use and degree of acceptance of video reviews raises lots of questions for players and spectators alike. One of the key issues is the motivation behind using it. Is it there to avoid ‘howlers’ by officials? Is it for safety? Is it just to make things fairer and more consistent? This may vary across different sports and is certainly a contentious issue. Taking the example of tennis, I think it is fair to say that overall, Hawkeye technology has been a welcome introduction. The tension and drama is clear if you watch and listen to the crowd awaiting a Hawkeye decision for a crucial point. I also love seeing the line judge’s reaction. These officials get the vast majority of decisions correct and I know if my judgments were challenged and I had made the right call that I would really struggle to contain a look of immense smugness! The reaction of players is also interesting. Roger Federer is accepting of the technology’s accuracy, but believes it has taken something away from the human interaction and mental side of tennis. Meanwhile John McEnroe has said he thinks it makes tennis “more interesting”. I think this is interesting in itself: would Johnny Mac have achieved the same infamy for his on-court rants and personality if Hawkeye had been available during his playing career? He might have stopped yelling, “It was on the line!” quite so often if technology had overruled him regularly.

What about the consistency of the use of video reviews? The powers that be in football commonly argue against implementing technology on the grounds that it won’t be possible to use it at all levels of the game. For me, this argument falls down because there are already so many differences between elite and participation-level sport. The technology, finance, pressure, drama and interest at the top level of any global sport like football is a world away from a Sunday morning kickabout. I think your average five-a-side footballer accepts that goal line technology isn’t available to him/her and that the best goal he or she scores that weekend won’t be captured from ten different camera angles to see again later. I’m sure the naysayers who sit in the pub and discuss the ins and outs of football would have been all for video technology if Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany in the 2010 World Cup had been counted after a review. We could have won the World Cup! On the other hand, Elise Christie, a GB short track speed skater, experienced the crueller side to video technology during the Sochi Winter Olympics. Replays are used to retrospectively review speed skating races to check for any infringements by competitors. By the letter of the law, Christie had broken the rules, but the patriotic British reaction was strongly on her side. We want things to be fair, but if it means ‘our girl’ loses, we don’t seem quite so keen.

Overall, I think that video reviews, challenges and referrals make sport more interesting, exciting and fair. There is no doubt that technology is changing the face of modern sport in many ways and the new opportunities available will raise further questions about the nature of what we are watching and how we play. I like the human element to sport. I am mindful that players can make mistakes or judgments that affect the outcomes of a game, and to some degree I’m not completely averse to a human influence being retained in the way sports are officiated. I want to see technology used as an aid to human officials, not as a replacement for them. I believe in fairness and consistency, but I don’t think feats of performance directed at pushing our physical and mental limits should be judged purely by robots and machines. In this day and age though, I think it’s crazy that a referee can send off the wrong player when millions of people watching on TV can see that he is making a huge mistake.


All Grown Up: My Changing Attitude to Garden Centres


When I was a kid, the words, “Right then, I think we’ll just pop into the garden centre on the way home,” struck my sister and me with dread. I didn’t find many things in life more boring than wandering around an oversized greenhouse looking at potted plants. In case this wasn’t obvious, my Mum’s idea of “popping in” involved at least an hour of detailed examination of every available bulb, shrub and terracotta pot. If there wasn’t a pet section (or at the very least a decent selection of garden gnomes), this was not a suitably entertaining environment for two energetic children. When I asked my sister what she found boring about garden centres as a child, her answer was: “Everything except the play area.” The only other thing that could make a detour to the garden centre vaguely worthwhile was if we went to the one with the amazing bakery. Cake seemed to solve most issues when I was ten years old. Having said that, it probably still does.

In my student house, our garden was a bit of a jungle (massive understatement alert). I reckon we attempted to mow the lawn less than five times in the three years that I lived there. This was met with huge disapproval from the elderly couple across the street. I’m reasonably sure that they used nail scissors to trim the grass. I can safely say there will never be enough hours in my day to consider that a viable option. We used to try and coerce a male friend into mowing the lawn for us with the promise of a stir-fry for his troubles. I’m reasonably sure he might have ended up cooking for us too.

Now I’m all ‘grown up’, things have changed a bit. I should probably mention at this point that I’m not by any stretch of the imagination claiming to have developed fully-fledged green fingers just yet. Having had a patio laid (by a professional gardener, as our skills obviously don’t cover this), we have recently started to take an interest in ‘accessorising’ the back garden. We want to BBQ and play French cricket in a nice, well-kept, stylish garden thank you very much. Online shopping isn’t the easiest option when it comes to shopping for the garden. It would be utterly careless to buy a set of garden furniture without testing out the cushioned seat covers for yourself. And it would seem a bit odd to buy a big sack of compost or a potted plant on Amazon. So, feeling a little bit nervous and somewhat out of our depth, off we went to the local garden centre.

It wasn’t too bad! I would say we were verging on excitable in the outdoor furniture section. The array of lanterns, fire pits and chimineas awakened my inner pyromaniac. Which herbs shall we cultivate in our kitchen garden? Would a shrub with variegated leaves be preferable? I should probably admit at this point that we did have parental guidance on the plant side of things. Our main concern was choosing a very small number of shrubs and climbers that won’t die easily. If the houseplants we have already murdered are anything to go by, this might be tougher than it sounds. We did invest in a loyalty card though, so I suppose we’ll have to go back.

I assume that this reducing aversion to garden centres is some kind of progressive genetic malfunction. My parents still thoroughly enjoy an afternoon out at a garden centre. My Grandpa just can’t get enough of it. I wouldn’t say I’m going to spend Sunday afternoons there just because I haven’t got anything better to do, but the idea of popping in doesn’t repulse me. I can successfully navigate the IKEA-style maze without starting to have a mental breakdown about how thoroughly dull it all is. Going to the pet section is an added bonus rather than a coping strategy. By the time I’m dragging my own kids through the garden centre I’ll probably have forgotten how I felt about these places until I was placated with a slice of cake.

Incidentally, my sister tells me that she asked for garden centre vouchers for Christmas last year…

A Letter to the Woman Who Annoyed Me This Morning

Dear the blabbering woman on my train,

I am writing to inform you that you talk too much, and far too loudly. By virtue of a number of eye contact discussions with my fellow in-carriage sufferers, I am willing to bet that I wasn’t the only person present who was seriously considering the consequences that being charged for assault would have on the rest of my life. My patience was tested to its limit by your incessant, boring and LOUD chat with the poor man sitting opposite you.

I appreciate you’re excited that in all likelihood ‘Nick’ will propose to you this year (although if he commuted with you every morning I wonder if he would think twice about this). I can imagine that those two years spent away from your friends when you moved to Suffolk despite “knowing that it was a mistake” were tough (who on earth did you talk to?). We all like thinking about our holidays (although if I bump into you on my own ventures abroad this year I’ll be absolutely livid). I have to tell you though, the 10 minute soliloquy about that time when you decided to dye your hair cherry-red almost tipped me over the edge. Just so you are aware, you could dye your hair any colour of the rainbow and it would draw less attention to you than your voice does.

I know I shouldn’t have left my journal reading until the last minute. I appreciate that it was reasonably early on a Monday morning, which generally means I’m a bit more grouchy and bit less tolerant than normal. But please try to be a little more considerate of your fellow passengers if you absolutely must spend the whole journey talking. And whatever you do, don’t travel in the same carriage as me next week.

Best wishes,

An irritated traveller

Expressions I Could Live Without #justsaying


We all use them. Those phrases and sayings that either we don’t really mean, or that add very little to the overall message we are trying to convey. I wonder if the fact that people now expend a lot of mental effort trying to condense things into a minimal number of characters (from text messages to Twitter) affects our ability to be meaningful when we speak. I don’t want to start harping on about football all over again, but some of the phrases used by pundits and players are nothing short of ridiculous. Anyway, I just want to raise a few questions about whether we could perhaps try to stop using some silly expressions that are either careless, meaningless or just plain irritating.

Disclaimer: I know I say some stupid things myself. It annoys me. However hard I try to avoid saying it, “like” seems to be ingrained in my speech patterns and it’s proving difficult to get rid of. So if you do ever hear me say anything listed below and can’t detect any irony in my voice, a gentle reminder is fine and is more than enough to get me back on track.

There are a few reasonably traditional sayings that I regard as either stupid, or marginally insulting. When I lose something, asking, “Where do you last remember seeing it?” suggests that I haven’t even made an effort to think about the item’s possible whereabouts, never mind actually looked for it. I don’t remember where I last had it – that’s the problem. When I do find it (invariably not where I last remember seeing it, FYI), commenting that, “It’s always in the last place you look,” is, again, enlightening. Thanks so much for your input. Another example of stating the obvious: “Tomorrow is another day”. To coin a phrase (they can be helpful sometimes)… “No shit, Sherlock!”.

I realise this next one is used metaphorically as a moral or educational reminder not to jump to conclusions about people, but seriously… “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? I always judge books by their covers. In my view, any book fronted with a screenshot of its film adaptation is unacceptable bookshelf material. I realise this makes me an angry little bookworm, but I feel a bit like Waterstones (my happy place) loses a tiny bit of my respect when it stocks a copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ adorned with the face of Keira Knightley. In the metaphorical sense, there are obvious reasons not to make judgments about people, things or events based on your immediate visual impression. However, I would argue that the problem is more related to the incorrect or unjust stigmas sometimes attached to visible characteristics, rather than the physical presence of the characteristics. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Blink’ and it might literally open your eyes.

Ahhh… “Literally”. I literally say “literally” all the time. It’s literally driving me crazy. These last two sentences are clearly factually incorrect, since I have written whole sentences including other vocabulary and I’m unlikely to be sectioned for very slight overuse of a single word. Since starting to blog, I’ve noticed this irritating trend in my writing and am now in the process of attempting to replace some of my “literallys” with “actually”. Literally means, ‘In a literal sense,’ but it has crept into modern usage to indicate exaggeration. Listen out for people saying “literally” when they don’t mean it. It can actually be quite amusing.

Then of course there’s the stuff we say that is just a bit of a casual white lie. A modern classic: “Just saying”. If you want to be extra annoying, “#justsaying”. No, you’re not. Even if it’s said in a genuinely ironic way, there’s a whole load of underlying meaning in an expression like this. Either way, you’re aware that there’s more behind whatever you’re saying than what you have explicitly stated. My advice: say what you really mean, don’t hide behind ‘hashtags’ and at least try to be a bit more sophisticated when using sarcasm.

Even when stating our thoughts, opinions or justifications more explicitly, there is often a suggestion of sensitivity to people’s feelings or social expectations evident in what we say. For example, people will often try to soften the blow of an insult, preceding it with something like, “No offence, but…”. Acknowledging you are about to offend somebody suggests you’re aware of what you are going to do, so “in the nicest possible way” perhaps it might be better to think twice about saying it at all?

I’m one of those people who isn’t blessed with a naturally smiley demeanour. Don’t worry, I’m not a total misery guts, I just don’t have a happy expression fixed on my face 24/7. There’s nothing like someone jumping in at this point with, “Cheer up, it might never happen!”. Well ha ha ha, I was absolutely fine until you commented on my facial expression with no idea how I may or may not be feeling. If anything, I was happy. What if ‘it’ has already happened? You’d feel bad for mentioning it then wouldn’t you? I would like to politely request that people stop assuming that an unsmiling face requires a facetious passing comment from anyone else, particularly a stranger. Many thanks.

I’m sure there may be mathematicians out there who can find a way to explain this, but a little siren goes off in my head whenever I hear someone say, “I’m going to give 110%”. How can you give more than your maximum effort at any one time? In fact, at what point did 100% effort become unacceptable? My long-ago GCSE Maths exams mean that I understand the concept of how a price or amount of growth or a thing’s relative size can be 110% (or even 200% if it has tried really hard). And I do appreciate it when people give all they can. But I will never promise more than I can give, so I will only ever pledge 100% effort.

The English language is beautiful and has a seemingly infinite number of expressions. Some of these are steeped in tradition or have gone through a colourful journey on their way to becoming deep-rooted parts of how we express ourselves. Part of the beauty of language is the way that it evolves and takes on new influences and nuances from different people and cultures. Unfortunately, its complex and fluid nature means that it can also be carelessly deployed by speakers and writers who don’t always make the best lexical choices. Words can be wasted and their meaning lost, or diluted. This entry has barely scratched the surface on this; I’ve only briefly discussed a few examples out of thousands. That said, some things are more annoying than others, so if writing this article means I have to hear a few less people pledging to give 200% or assuming I’m in a bad mood then it will have made a positive difference to my life!

I am going to have to stop writing about this or my head will literally explode.

The Ouch Factor: Stubbed Toes and Other Woes

stubbed toe

There is a great philosophical debate, largely contested between the sexes, over whether childbirth or being kicked in the balls is more painful. This is a pointless discussion  if you ask me. Childbirth is clearly worse! Obviously it is quite doubtful that many people out there have experienced both so it’ll be down to some time-waster scientists to measure ‘genuine’ results. I am in no position to have an opinion at this point in my life. I haven’t yet popped any kids out. And barring a very unexpected change of personal circumstances, I don’t anticipate being kicked in the nuts anytime soon. So let’s put this question aside and focus on some more minor daily injury risks instead.

The Dreaded Stubbed Toe
It seems a bit ridiculous to be complaining about any kind of minor ailment when one of my best mates has just had back surgery but when you stub your toe, just for a minute or two, the outside world fades away into insignificance. There are various responses to this kind of incident. My personal preference is the ‘swear loudly, close eyes, wince, squeeze the injured foot and hop on the other leg’ reaction. A really solid contact with the edge of the bed/door/unseen object on the floor can sometimes result in an out of body experience for the injured toe. This seems to be worse the smaller the toe. I have accidentally kicked a wardrobe before and genuinely checked the carpet to check that my little toe hasn’t fallen off.

Once It Pops, the Pain Doesn’t Stop
Blisters can be a nightmare for a sportsperson. Just ask Rafa: it’s not easy to grip a tennis racquet with skin resembling third degree burns, never mind hit winners at over 90mph. It’s amazing how a little pocket of air can be so debilitating. The blister pops and it feels like someone has set fire to your skin. Just think of the last time you had a blister on your heel. Even walking can become excruciatingly painful. At my graduation, I decided to sacrifice my chances of actually looking old enough to be leaving university, and wore what I thought was a sensible pair of flat shoes. A couple of hours and two bleeding heels later, I had to walk barefoot to the nicest restaurant in Loughborough (take that as you will). Not so sensible after all.

The “Devastating” Broken Nail
I’m never quite sure whether girls get more upset about broken nails because it ruins their perfectly manicured hands or because it can actually hurt. In all fairness, in a predictably unladylike way, I rarely have long nails and have a strict ‘weddings only’ policy when it comes to the application of nail polish, so it isn’t a problem I’m regularly faced with. The annoying thing about breaking a nail is normally the innocuous way you manage to do it. For instance, putting on a jumper or getting something out of your pocket shouldn’t pose a threat to our personal safety. But they somehow do.

The Cheeky Ulcer
Over zealous chewing can have the nasty potential to spoil a delectable dessert. It all seems so unfair: two weeks of pain whenever you try to eat anything, all because you tried to gobble up your chocolate brownie/apple crumble/sticky toffee pudding a tiny bit too quickly and managed to misjudge your munch. You would think that after 27 and a half years of eating, of which I have probably been using teeth for 26 and a half, I would be able to chew food without eating part of my own face.

Another Bloody Shaving Cut
We’ve all been there. It’s like a scene from ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ in your bathroom. Blood pours from your leg or face and however much toilet paper you apply, IT WILL NOT STOP. After several minutes of manic compression (which you gradually get bored of and change to a ‘dab and check’ technique instead) you start to wonder if you’ll need to call an ambulance and arrange a blood transfusion. You curse your careless shaving technique, the clearly faulty razor blade and the fact there are no plasters in the cabinet. Why won’t it just stop bloody bleeding?

Sly Splinters
I had a painful experience with splinters when on a family holiday as a child. It took 17 chestnut needles being impaled into the sole of my foot to make me wish I had listened to my Mum and Dad when they had told me not to walk across the grass barefoot. There were quite a lot of tears during the tweezing. It reaaaally hurt. Splinters tend to sneakily hide themselves just where you are about to put your hand or foot. Sandpaper is an underrated commodity in this world. Keep wood smooth and never leave the house without wearing shoes and gloves.

Head Banging
Whenever somebody smacks their head on something, everybody else in the vicinity sympathetically responds with a collective grimace. A kindly communal “ouch!” is more prevalent than making the person who now has an egg on their head also feel like they have egg on their face. It seems fair enough really. Not only does a bump on the head invariably hurt quite a lot, there’s also a good chance a number of the victim’s brain cells are being killed. It’s sensible to stay on the right side of someone who could be about to turn psychotic on you. I’d say that’s just a smart move by the people whose heads are in one piece.

The Small But Lethal Paper Cut
It looks like nothing…but who would’ve thought that paper could stab you? A paper cut can leave a finger tip virtually redundant for days. It’s small but lethal – the worst kind of injury. No one gives you any sympathy, just that slightly pitiful look: ‘You idiot. You’ve been taken out of the game by a piece of A4. How pathetic.’

So there you have it. A list of unavoidable little injuries that are in fact best avoided. Childbirth might be painful, but at least you get a little bundle of joy for your troubles. Hopefully anyway… (that goes for ‘little’ and ‘bundle of joy’). A shaving cut just leaves you with a scene from a horror movie set in a bathroom and an unnecessary scar. Perhaps hairy legs are just a sensible health and safety decision after all.