New book – order details

Western European Languages – A Reference Guide is now available online in all markets.

“It occurs to me that there should be a copy of this book in every household.”

“An easy book to tip into as well as read more thoroughly.”

“An exploration of these languages not just as they are spoken in Europe but across the world.”

Average 5* reviews on Amazon, Google and Loot.

“My new book, Western European Languages – A Reference Guide, is now available in all major markets online, including in:

UK & Ireland

United States








South Africa

However, if you are in the UK, do contact me directly and I can save you the postage costs.

Hockey – appealing…

This one is necessarily more subjective than other posts, as a lot of it comes down to the umpire’s personality. However, when it is reasonable to appeal an umpire’s decision?

Firstly, an obvious truth – players make mistakes; coaches make mistakes; and clearly umpires make mistakes. Umpires should be positioning themselves to minimise those, but it is inevitable that they will still occur.

Secondly, on top of this, some other decisions are genuinely debatable either way – for example, a ball raised into the knee from five metres way may legitimately be judged in favour of the player who played the ball (on the grounds of contact with the ball by the defender) or in favour of the defender (on the grounds the ball was raised dangerously). Of course it is only natural for us to see those decisions in favour of our own team, and we are as well to be honest about that!

My own view – but, as noted, this is subjective – is that it should typically be possible to work with the players to make the game as fair and safe as possible. This requires good communication, and it requires a willingness to be approached to reconsider potentially crucial decisions – this does, however, apply only to potentially crucial, and not just any, decisions.

Umpires will, particularly at top level, make a point of being “ahead of the play”, i.e. typically ahead of or level with the furthest forward attacker. This is designed specifically so that they will be in the best position possible to see what happens in and around the circle – i.e. to make those decisions which are potentially crucial to the outcome of the game.

This all means two main things. There is, essentially, no point at all in appealing decisions outside either attacking quarter (i.e. outside the ’23’); realistically, these are not going to be crucial to the outcome. Some of them may well be wrong, even with the very best umpires involved; indeed, they will have taken up positions specifically to see better what goes in near the circles rather than near half-way, and players are best to be realistic about that. In general (even inside the ’23’), it is best to keep hands down – appealing in that way will not influence an umpire but may actually cost a team possession or valuable position.

However, there should be room for a reasonable appeal – by one player only, ideally the captain – about a big decision (a goal, a penalty corner or similar), particularly if play (and at highest level also, almost invariably, time) has stopped. My own view here – although it is not universal, to be fair – is to welcome any such appeal provided it is respectful and seeks to add information to what has occurred, by stopping time and specifically asking the player what she has seen (which thus may differ from what I saw). In a crowded circle or simply during a quick movement it is absolutely possible that even a well positioned umpire will have missed something completely or got the order of things slightly (but potentially critically) wrong, and if information can be added to the umpire’s assessment of what has occurred, everyone involved should welcome that – that information can then be shared with the umpiring colleague and, hopefully, the correct decision thus reached. Conversely, an appeal against the umpire’s judgement is less likely to succeed – if the umpire has seen the action clearly, there will typically be no reason for overturning the decision.

Generally, the only other reason it is worth approaching the umpire – and again this will be one player, ideally but not strictly necessarily the captain – is to draw attention to an issue that is ongoing, ideally during a break in play. Umpires make a lot of decisions but may miss some ongoing niggles, or indeed may have seen them but opted not to penalise them on the basis they caused no disadvantage. The likeliest response to asking an umpire to watch for something ongoing is “yes, I’ll watch for that” or perhaps “I’ve seen it and we are close to a warning”.

It is important also that teams note it is not to their benefit to be “the girl who cried wolf”. Constant appealing, particularly over ridiculous things (the exact location of free hits around half-way, the direction of side-line hits fifty metres from goal, or whatever), will simply mean that even subsequent legitimate appeals are automatically ignored; indeed, it may leave the umpire with no option but to tell the captain to stop appeals on pain of a card in order to ensure the game is not just fair but is perceived to be (as it is not a good look for decisions even to appear to be made on the basis of constant appealing, even if the appeals happen to be justified).

No umpire wants to leave a game uncertain about whether a crucial decision was right or wrong – genuinely, that can spoil an umpire’s weekend as much as a player’s! In other words, most good umpires will welcome a respectful appeal over a big decision because it is in everyone’s interests to get those right; but in turn this means a good player will not worry the umpire about some minor issue in midfield. That way we can all work together to make the outcome as fair and safe as possible, while enabling the game to flow. That is, after all, what we all want.

Hockey – the penalty corner

Hockey’s penalty corner is in some ways its most distinctive feature; it is probably also the hardest to manage as an umpire (and, no doubt, as a defender). The penalty corner derives from the old short corner (which used to be distinguished from a long corner, once taken slightly further along the back-line) and constitutes in effect a power play. More than 20% may reliably be expected to be scored.

Firstly, what about the award of a penalty corner? It may in fact be awarded for a number of things, but let us simplify them as best we can to four: any offence by a defender in the circle (which does not otherwise lead to a penalty stroke); any intentional offence by a defender inside their own quarter of the field (typically now known as ‘the 23’); the intentional playing of the ball over the back-line by a defender; or the ball being trapped inside the goalkeeper’s equipment. Each of these has a peculiarity to consider.

The offence by the defender inside the circle is still subject to the disadvantage rule (12.1 in the rule book), which states that an offence can only be penalised if it causes a disadvantage to the opposing team or an opposing player. Therefore if the ball happens to graze the foot of a player in lots of space and bounces where it would have done anyway, there is an offence but no penalty; likewise if a player breaks free into the opposing team’s circle but has no support and flicks the ball off a defender’s foot only for it to bounce straight back to her, again the ball is where it started (and it was never going to a team-mate) so there is no disadvantage and no penalty. It is important in my view in such scenarios for umpires to state clearly “Play – no disadvantage”.

An intentional offence by a defender inside her own ’23’ is also a judgement call; certainly a lower levels a warning is expected before offences by defenders outside the circle result in a penalty corner, but players must be aware that at higher levels no such warning is required (indeed, it is probably bad practice). Even a foot offence by a defender inside the ’23’, if it is deemed by the umpire to have been intentional (for example, to break up a pass as part of an attacking movement), should result in a penalty corner. Interfering with play having not gone five at an attacking free-hit, particularly if warned by the umpire in advance, should really be a penalty corner immediately at any level, certainly in senior hockey.

Ball over the back-line has always been a controversial judgement in hockey. Ultimately, goalkeepers will generally get the benefit of the doubt – they are allowed to clear their lines in any direction unless it really is plainly intentional (note also that during a shootout a goalkeeper is perfectly at liberty to clear the ball intentionally over the back-line to end the attempt). However, defenders probably should not; notably, the argument that “my feet were just pointing that way” is absolutely not a justification – if a defender’s feet are pointing so that the ball will be played over the back-line if it is played intentionally, then it is up to the defender to move her feet before playing the ball. The aim of the rule is to stop defences just getting rid over the back line; they must attempt to play out and, if they don’t, they are at risk of conceding a penalty corner. Common sense must apply, of course – a player dribbling the ball who accidentally takes it over the back-line, for example, should not be punished by a penalty corner as it is there to penalise intent, not bad luck (nor indeed poor skill); as with so many rules, the key is to watch for the player’s intentions. Note, for all that, that playing the ball over the back-line intentionally is not an offence – a player cannot be sanctioned (with warnings or cards) for doing it.

Ball in the goalkeeper’s equipment is usually straightforward but, particularly at lower level, the question does arise what to do if the ball is sort of lodged in the goalkeeper’s equipment but potentially playable. What we do not want to do as umpires is to allow a frenzied pile-on of sticks with the goalkeeper in a vulnerable position. At lower levels, it may be that as umpires we have little option but to penalise the goalkeeper with a penalty corner even if largely simply for having the bad luck of diving and ending up with the ball very nearby, nominally for causing danger to herself. This is harsh, but it is a matter of safety first.

There are two schools of thought on whether it is important to signal why a penalty corner has been awarded. Some umpires do not like to indicate why, noting that it can only lead to more controversy if they offer up explanations; others prefer to indicate so that everyone knows what the award was for and, potentially at least, the pressure is taken off the umpire and on to the offending player. Likewise, after the award some umpires like to get into the middle of the circle to check everything is being set up as it should be; others, recognising that they are probably not prominent on the defenders’ Christmas Card list at this juncture even if the award was clearly correct, prefer to stand well away towards the edge of the circle. I fall into the latter category in each case, but there is a case either way and I know some excellent umpires who fall into the former category; ultimately it is a matter of personal preference, although consistency of approach is probably a good idea.

The penalty corner is effectively a power play, with in one half of the field up to all the outfielders on the attacking team facing only five players including the goalkeeper (if there is one) on the defending team. Once it is awarded, the umpire should take up a position about seven or eight metres from the post (a little further if the corner happens to be taken on the umpire’s side), staying on the line if the sense is that a goal or near goal is likely to result immediately from the shot (actually likelier in men’s hockey) but perhaps drifting up to three metres or so from the back-line otherwise to prepare for the most likely location of any continuation of play should an initial shot be blocked or should a more intricate play be attempted. The ball is placed on the back-line in the circle at least ten metres from the goal-post (so, at the outer hash mark or beyond) and umpire’s objective is to check no players are within five metres of the ball or in the circle at all (remembering this includes the line itself) in any way except the gloriously named ‘injector’ (i.e. taker; and she must still have one foot outside); then that the injector does not feint to try to cause some to enter the circle; then to ensure that in fact no players do enter the circle before the ball is played (it is reasonable before the game to agree that the support umpire should take primary responsibility for attacking encroachment, leaving defensive encroachment to the active umpire); then to ensure the injector does not approach within playing distance of the ball before anyone else plays it (only likely if she fluffs – but very likely then!); then to check whether the ball has left the circle (noting that it is not an offence for it not to, it just means a goal cannot be scored); and then to ensure (alongside the support umpire) that the first shot a goal is not a hit on track to cross the goal-line above the height of the back-board (remember this is an offence to be penalised immediately, regardless of any subsequent deflections, but also that the presence of ‘goal-line’ in this rule means the shot must be on target). Depending on level, umpires may wish to consider blowing for time before the corner is taken if it is awarded within 20-30 seconds of the end of the match or quarter; of course, once the ball goes more than five metres outside the circle (or the whistle is blown for anything other than a subsequent penalty corner) the corner is over. Umpires also need to check that substitutions do not occur between the award of a penalty corner and its conclusion.

There is a lot to think about for umpires there and this certainly can make penalty corners intimidating for those new to umpiring, but doing it in order and looking for each aspect one after the other probably helps. Note that the most recent rules require any encroachment by the attack to result in the removal of the injector beyond half-way – the theory here is that the loss of their originally intended injector is a bigger offence than just removing the offending player.

Essential to learn languages without pressure

Research suggests that it takes eight sightings or hearings of a word in a foreign language to acquire it properly.

When thought of like that, the pressure comes off a bit, doesn’t it?

Put simply, when we are learning languages – or really anything else – it is essential to take the pressure off and not beat ourselves up too often! In real life, unlike in revising for a specific exam, we will get several attempts.

The key with language learning is consistent comprehensible input – watching a programme, reading a book or perhaps listening to a song – in an area which we enjoy. In this manner, we can make considerable advances setting only 15-30 minutes aside every day.

However, those advances will in fact be limited by putting too much pressure on ourselves and by thinking that every time we hear a new word or construction we have to know it instantly. In fact, that will if anything only cause us to give up, thinking we are just not good enough at picking up the language quickly.

The key is instead to take the pressure off. Yes, we want to pay attention to our listening and our reading, but patience is a virtue. As I have written many times before, we are not in fact going to become fluent in three months. We may, however, make considerable progress in that time if we just enjoy what we are doing and take it for what it is. There is no exam at the end – so we do not need to put pressure on ourselves as if there is!

Hockey – the goal

I thought I would type up a quick series to run each morning on some of the issues which arise while umpiring Irish women’s field hockey. To be clear, I am no expert; but I do umpire on average twice a week at all levels (this season from Ulster Premier to Junior 8, twelve divisions apart) and this season have been involved in the construction and delivery on an ongoing umpiring workshop/roadshow throughout the province.

The most essential element of potential confusion is simply when a goal is or is not scored. This is as important as it gets!

The rule is in fact very straightforward – if an attacking player plays the ball in the circle (aka the ‘D’) and it fully crosses the goal-line under the bar without going outside the circle, then a goal is scored (except if it has not left the circle since the taking of a penalty corner).

There are two slight differences here from the laws of football. Firstly, the “goal-line” in hockey is understood specifically to be the back-line between the posts; in football it would generally be understood to be the whole line from corner flag to corner flag, but this in hockey is referred to as the “back-line”. Secondly, the laws in football specifically state that the whole of the ball must cross the whole of the line without the attacking team committing an offence; this is taken as read in the rules of hockey.

The main confusion concerns the concept of an “own goal”, which does not exist in hockey. However, because it does not exist, some players (and, ahem, the odd umpire) seem to believe that if the last touch, or perhaps the last intentional touch, is by a defender, then it is an “own goal” and thus does not count. It bears repeating that the rule is in fact quite simple – if an attacker plays the ball in the circle, for any purpose and in any direction, and the ball ends up crossing the goal-line under the bar without going outside the circle, it is a goal.

Another confusion concerns the penalty corner, at which the ball must leave the circle (note this means the whole of the ball must cross the whole of the outer line of the circle) before a goal can be scored. However, it is not an offence for the ball not to leave the circle; it simply means that a goal cannot be scored until it does – so it is not use defenders standing with their hands up pointing out it has not left the circle as if they are entitled to a free hit.

One genuinely complex interpretation which occurs occasionally concerns the concept of a “shot at goal”. The rules are clear that the ball may not be raised from a hit, except for a shot at goal (which is not the first shot at a penalty corner); this is interpreted, perhaps controversially but actually quite consistently, by most umpires to mean that a shot at goal which is on target cannot ever be deemed to lead to danger. Therefore a shot which is on target and hits a defender will almost always, particularly at high level, be regarded as an offence by the defender for making contact with the ball rather than by the attacker for causing danger; should it then deflect into the goal off the defender, it is the defender who has committed the offence and thus the advantage rule applies and the goal is awarded. This is rare, although it has happened twice in games I have been umpiring so far this season.

Essentially, my own advice (but remember, I am no expert) would be that if the ball ends up crossing the goal-line under the bar (remember, it must be the whole of the ball over the whole of the line), then from an umpire’s point of view the thought process is to consider if there is any reason not to award the goal. Since the ball entered the circle was the ball played by an attacker? Did the attack commit an offence after that time? If yes and no, it is a goal – it is as simple as that.

Should we try humility in 2022?

We are sometimes still told that time is running out to “save the planet”. Yet this is, in fact, an astonishingly arrogant claim.

Regardless of what we do over the next decades, “the planet” will be just fine. Earth was around for 4.5 billion years before humans and it will be around for billions of years after humans. It is those living on Earth who need saved.

Even if a Don’t Look Up comet did hit the Pacific, Earth would bounce back in a timeframe which constitutes the bat of a cosmic eyelid. It is just humanity which would perish, soon without trace (in fact the last trace of us would probably be on the Moon, not on Earth).

So in 2022 we should perhaps approach things with rather greater awareness of our role in things, and therefore with greater humility. If a mere virus can bring us to such a state of division and disrepair, surely we can recognise that we are not in control of things they way we liked to think we were? The first step to recovery is acceptance that it has humbled us.

The evidence about the virus tells us that vaccination is highly effective in reducing serious illness, positive tests are overwhelmingly accurate, outdoors is much lower risk than indoors, advanced ventilation increases safety considerably and that face coverings done properly reduce transmission. Most readers will nod approvingly and knowledgeably at this, while ruing the small minority who would deny much if not all of it.

However, the evidence also tells us it is highly unlikely any variant will evade vaccines, negative tests are quite frequently wrong (even PCR, around 5% of the time), time spent in a given location elevates risk considerably, there was never really any particular reason for self-isolation being ten days (rather than nine or eleven; or really four or thirty), and face coverings as we do them are close to ineffective. These might jar a bit with many common assumptions (not least my own), but actually advocating restrictions in case of vaccine evasion, using negative tests as ”proof” of safety, spending a long time at a particular place (particularly a family gathering), demanding ten-day self-isolation, or making a fuss either way about bits of cloth are essentially as contrary to the evidence as opposing vaccination. We cannot expect others to see the error of their ways if we are unwilling to be humble and do so ourselves.

In mid December incidence of the virus was roughly the same on either side of the Irish border. The Irish Government introduced strict limits in hospitality, including an 8pm ”curfew”; the Northern Ireland Executive did essentially nothing until after Christmas. Yet incidence in the Republic is now 40% higher than in the North. There is simply no evidence that the measures introduced by the Irish Government made any difference. It is reasonable to attempt to explain this away and put it down to other things, but it is not reasonable to demand similar action from the Northern Ireland authorities without at least considering the conspicuous lack of evidence in their favour. There are a lot of people advocating actions with great confidence but precious little practical evidence – and they are by no means all anti-vaxxers. A bit of humility all round would help.

There is an old maxim that a football team may look good on paper, but the game is not played on paper. So it is with many interventions and the practical real-world response to them. Traffic levels during the first lockdown in Northern Ireland fell to barely a quarter of normal; but in subsequent lockdowns they never fell below half. The response to, and thus the effect of, any given intervention is unpredictable and in fact becomes only more unpredictable as the Pandemic goes on. That does not mean they should never be tried, but we should be humble rather than certain about stating their likely outcome.

2022 may therefore be the year that we reflect on the arrogance of thinking we know it all and have it all under control. As individuals, we know almost nothing – our knowledge is necessarily cumulative and collective, and it ultimately consists of a lot of judgement about what is reliable information and what is not. Our tendency towards groups of like thinkers in fact makes us less knowledgeable, as we limit the new information from different sources to which we could have access in favour of the old information from familiar sources which makes us feel comfortable. Remember, if anything, intelligent and educated people are actually more vulnerable to this problem, as they have more mental agility to justify even a false prospectus and less willingness to admit when they do not know something. The fact that, as individuals, we know very little (no matter how educated or intelligent we are) should be the best reason of all for a focus on humility.

Humility should perhaps be the watchword for 2022. The Pandemic and the uncertainties it has created should leave us in little doubt about how little, even collectively, we truly understand. There will be less illness but probably even more uncertainty over the next twelve months. If we start by admitting we have been humbled, individually and collectively, we will surely be in a much better position to help ourselves and each other through it all.

Happy New Year.

Coronavirus – mitigate risk, but stop fear

It is somewhat concerning how many people – it must be said typically those from the higher income, better educated classes – continue to advocate severe restrictions to face off the new Omicron variant. Here, we need to make two things very clear.

Firstly, in order to put in place severe restrictions you must have clear evidence. Ultimately, you are destroying livelihoods, trashing mental well-being and restricting liberty – these are not things to be done just because you are a bit scared of a new, unknown variant. They are things that may be done only with a specific purpose – for example, putting in place contact tracing or rolling out vaccines. Beyond that, the role of public policy is to put in place mitigations, perhaps some minor ones even by law, but absolutely not to shut things down completely. To do otherwise is the precise opposite of evidence-based policy-making, and thus frankly falls into the same realm as anti-vaccination campaigners.

Secondly, there are a lot of mitigations we have not, in fact, put in place (or, at least, put in place properly) as we focus solely on the concepts of vaccination and mask-wearing as absolutes. We hear demands that people get vaccinated and have restrictions imposed on them for not doing so, but not about how to make vaccination easier for the vaccine-reluctant (as opposed to the outright vaccine-resistant). We hear demands for enforcement of mask-wearing, but not about the fact that a bit of cloth provides limited protection versus a proper, full-grade medical mask. We hear demands for restrictions on entry to certain premises, but very little about the benefits of ventilation systems (the very ventilation systems which make aeroplanes so low-risk). Even a basic public awareness campaign on the symptoms to watch for of Omicron in vaccinated people (potentially quite different from the symptoms of the original virus in unvaccinated people) is rarely suggested while, bizarrely, closing down people’s livelihoods, stopping people engaging in social contact or limiting physical exercise are all deemed serious options.

Fear is the most basic human emotion, and with justification. It is often what enables us to survive. However, if it is appealed to unremittingly it causes serious damage to mental well-being. What is worse is that it is simply not necessary; putting people in a state of permanent fear will only put more pressure on health systems. The whole thing needs to be turned around, so that we can enable people to get on with life while taking reasonable precautions.

The problem with appealing to fear all the time is there is no exit strategy, and often you miss the very things which matter most. The failure to get vaccines out to the developing world and the reliance on China for PPE and testing equipment will become the stories of 2022 as new variants emerge in unvaccinated people and China struggles with beating faster spreading variants through localised lockdowns. This is given scant mention currently; fear means we tend to miss the very real issues we should have been considering all along. We tend towards looking for someone to blame for things going wrong, rather than looking for ways to put things right.

We saw this week a horrible tragedy in Co Tyrone when three young men lost their lives in a road crash. Such incidents are now, mercifully, relatively rare; now, fewer than one person a week dies on Northern Ireland’s roads, versus close to one a day half a century ago. The difference, over that half a century, has not been stopping people driving at all – indeed, far more people now drive than did then. However, sensible mitigations have been put in place – stopping intoxicated people driving (both by law and social pressure), improving sight lines and structures on roads themselves, investing in educational and public awareness programmes, re-assessing speed limits, and making vehicles themselves much safer (both by law such as around seat belts, and by technological advances such as around airbags and crumple zones). This has all enabled us to keep moving around freely while in fact vastly reducing the risk of doing so.

The task with the virus now is similar. We have vaccines and boosters, as well as tests (despite some supply issues already emerging), freely available. Alongside this, we could take further steps to mitigate risk – maintain reduced capacity to encourage spread-out shopping times, increase and enhance ventilation in all indoor venues, and constant communications around the desirability of avoiding the three ‘C’s (contact, closed spaces, crowding). Restrictions put in place to encourage spacing, testing and vaccination for indoor venues where people spend considerable lengths of time, particularly during winter, may well be wise.

Thanks to Nini Muñoz for this

However, what is at issue in 2022 is how we present these. Restrictions are not limitations on business, but a way of enabling them to operate without fear. Vaccination is not some imposition, but a way of enabling the freedoms people want and need. Areas such as ventilation should not just be forgotten about, but added to the package of measures we use precisely to enable us to get on with our lives. We do also need to get to grips with the idea that you deal with Pandemics but getting out into the world and applying the same treatments and mitigations everywhere, not by closing in on ourselves under the pretence we can just keep it out and let everyone else suffer – it is, after all, fear which causes us to focus on the latter, as if somehow we can magically protect 7 million people on one island but not care at all about 7 billion people across the globe.

We need to turn our whole way of thinking about this around. Let 2022 be the year when we act fairly to introduce mitigations, but reduce fear.

Coronavirus – embracing doubt was never more important

Intelligent people are in fact more inclined towards ludicrous positions, as they have the mental agility to defend them. That is one core psychological reality outlined in this excellent article from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on whether we really care about the truth.

One of my own most read pieces on this blog was one about why there must always be room for doubt – yet the truth is that in fact as we grow more and more aggravated about the length of time it is taking to get back to “normal” we in fact leave little room for doubt. It is much easier to do blame, at this stage.

Of course, one group of people it is easy to blame are the unvaccinated. They can usefully be held by most of us to be to blame for the fact we cannot have normal New Year’s parties this year either. We can paint them as selfish, ignorant, irresponsible and generally idiotic, without much fear of losing support from our own “tribe”. However, is such an uncharitable attitude actually merited, and more importantly still is it helpful? Actually many people have genuine anxieties about getting vaccinated; others, for whatever reason, have become persuaded that vaccines are more dangerous than the virus itself (not least because of the some the reasons given in the linked article; but also potentially because they got the virus and did not really suffer and therefore genuinely believe it could be no worse than any vaccine, or because of past experiences with vaccines, or whatever). Any conversation starts by listening – but it appears a lot of vaccinated people would rather engage in self-righteously dictating to others than actually having a conversation which might result in engaging with legitimate doubts and ultimately getting more people vaccinated.

Another group it is easy to blame is the Government. Of course, had there been an “all-island approach” we could have, er, just kept the virus out, or something. This again simply runs contrary to reality. Such opinions are typed on imported devices, by people who almost universally get about in imported vehicles reliant on imported parts, who perhaps present these opinions under the influence of a glass or two of wine (Ireland is famous for many things, but not its vineyards). In fact “just-on-time” haulage, the reality of family connections with Great Britain and elsewhere, and the very point that Ireland’s economic success (including increasingly Northern Ireland’s as a distribution centre for both the UK and EU under the Protocol) was built and is being built on being the bridge between “Boston and Berlin” mean that the virus was never just going to be “kept out” as the whole island is reliant on passing traffic to function. It wasn’t even kept out of Guernsey (where the border was closed but could not remains so forever; I have a good friend there who has just recovered) or even faraway Iceland. Ultimately such sentiments derive from frustrated, not rational, thought; and from a determination to create simplicity out of complexity and remove doubt rather than embrace it.

Studies, including some presented recently in The Economist, have in fact demonstrated that people are more inclined to irrational, tribal and in fact what would be considered right-populist viewpoints when placed under pressure. What underlies “hammer the vaccinated” sentiment is ultimately the type of tribalism which defines other great fissures in society – Liberals v Conservatives, Remainers v Leavers, and so on. What underlies “just keep it out” sentiment is not dissimilar to what underlies anti-immigrant sentiment, horrified though many of the proponents of the former would no doubt be to recognise it. Ultimately this is all about the quest for simple answers, which is fundamental to human nature – but not to truly evidence-based policy-making. Remember, as per the article linked above, educated and intelligent people are actually more likely to promote such views as they will have the mental agility to defend them (with graphs of how the unvaccinated are basically murderers, or quotes on how New Zealand kept the virus out and is now Paradise on Earth, or whatever); and, of course, social media gives them a platform to do so; what is tiring is not presenting such straightforward but ultimately tribal sentiments, but spending time on the necessary research and construction of the necessary complex arguments to express legitimate doubt.

Ultimately, the response to the Covid Pass was tribal; yet both sides were ultimately doing the same thing – arguing the other side was in the way of a return to normality. For those in favour, Covid Passes keep unvaccinated people out of high-risk locations and thus enable us all to get on with it (implicitly, without unvaccinated people, but so be it); for those against, Covid Passes are intentionally a way to keep the virus to the forefront and thus the major block on enabling us all to get one with it (with vaccination left as a matter of personal choice). Almost no one, and certainly no one able to get their voice heard above the melee, was able to present the actual rational case that the Covid Pass system is one of many tools – alongside masking, ventilation, home testing and so on – designed to reduce risk, while admitting that elimination of risk is impossible and that because of the number of variables involved in such a public health crisis there will in fact always be doubt about their efficacy.

Likewise the rise of Omicron is typified in public debate by a tribal response, not an evidence-based one. For some (typically of the left), it is obvious this is obviously a much more infectious variant with added immunity evasion, and therefore we should introduce restrictions until we understand it better so we can protect the Health Service; for others (typically of the right), it is a much milder variant against which imposing restrictions, given its mildness, is nothing short of an outrage. The truth is we do not yet have clear evidence either way on which to base a policy response, so any policy response at this stage is based on guesswork – in other words, on doubt.

Ultimately, anyone not expressing doubt in such situations is seeking attention, not knowledge; and to appease an “in-group” (and perhaps even annoy an out-group), not to meet the requirements of evidence-based policy-making. The truth is neither public policy responses nor our own responses in our personal lives at this juncture are easy. To be responsible, they must ultimately involve as sensitive a management of risk as we can muster; in other words, our actions must not ignore doubt, but rather embrace it.

Underneath all of this is another troubling aspect of current public debate which we really should be reconsidering at this time of year. On social media at least, just about anyone who does express doubt – through admitting to newly acquired knowledge, or stating uncertainty, or asking a question – becomes victim to a pile-on, treated as ignorant for not automatically knowing everything already. Yet how is knowledge to be acquired if not through asking questions, challenging assumptions or indeed embracing doubt?

In other words, a lot of people in their determination to assign blame rather than to take responsibility, to present everything as simple when it is complex, and to ignore doubt rather than embrace it, are forgetting the most important thing of all that makes us human. They are forgetting to be kind.

The next time someone expresses an opinion which is legitimately stated but does not meet your worldview, or asks an awkward but fair question, or raises a reasonable uncertainty about something you had previously been certain, remember, embrace the doubt. That is how we learn. And be kind. That is how we grow.

Merry Christmas.

Why is Premier League officiating so poor?

Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson is a class act (objectively) and he held his hands up today for a very poor challenge which saw him sent off at Tottenham. The thing is, an identical challenge by Crystal Palace at Arsenal earlier this season did not even earn a free kick; and Robertson himself had been ”challenged“ by an out-of-control Tottenham player earlier in the game with only a yellow card given. Yet the worst decision of all concerned a challenge on Diogo Jota on the left-hand side (from his point of view) of the Tottenham area which saw no penalty awarded “because Jota had stopped” – this is the worst because it is not even a misjudgement, but a plainly incorrect interpretation of the laws of the game (which render whether he had stopped or not irrelevant). A referee who cannot apply the laws of the game correctly should not be officiating in any capacity at professional level, far less at a Premier League game between two of the biggest six clubs in the land.

Referees in the Premier League are professional but, much though it pains me as a past referee myself, they are not very good by global standards. The German official who took the Euro 2020 semi between Spain and Italy produced a flawless performance, seemingly three yards from every decision and constantly asserting control where necessary with a subtle smile. You see nothing of the sort in English club football.

On top of this, the VAR officials are even worse. The inconsistency, even within individual games, defies belief. There has even been an admission that they do not need to be of the very top standard to do the job. Alongside the Tottenham disaster show, the failure by both the onfield referee and VAR to review properly a clear-cut penalty to Newcastle United against Manchester City was the worst decision of all; again, because the ball was away before the goalkeeper clattered into the bemused forward, it suggests an inability not just to judge things correctly but also to apply even the most basic laws of the game (that the ball was away would be relevant in hockey, actually, but isn’t in football). This has nothing to do with the laws of the game themselves, nor with the pressure of high-level play; it is a basic failure to apply the laws even with video review in use. Given the amount of money poured at it, this outcome is shocking.

It is hard from this distance to judge what needs to be done. The scale and type of the errros and inconsistencies suggest that development involves too much complication and not enough fundamentals. What is a foul? What constitutes dangerous play? Why is the situation in England so much worse than in other top leagues?

Since I first drafted this piece, an ESPN correspondent may have provided a direct answer. Apparently, in the Premier League, if it is established that the referee has seen the incident correctly, no further action is taken by VAR even if the decision taken on the basis of what he saw was clearly wrong. That js not the case elsewhere.

It needs to be sorted out. Fast.

Why is Brazilian Portuguese easier to understand than European?

Spanish cannot easily simply be separated into ”European” (or ”Peninsular”) on one hand and ”Latin American” on the other, because the variation within Latin America is quite stark. On the other hand, despite significant internal dialect variation, it is possible to make a reasonably clear distinction – for phonology, grammar and spelling – between ”Brazilian” Portuguese on one hand and “European”/“Continental” on the other; African varieties broadly follow the latter.

Portuguese is a significant global language, in fact the basis for most creoles across the world and the most widely spoken tongue in the Southern Hemisphere, but most learners – even Europeans – report that Brazilian is easier to understand than European. Why is this?

There are two main reasons, noting that the varieties are quite distinct. Firstly, Brazilian is much more predominant, accounting for the vast majority of speakers (even more so if accounting specifically for native speakers) and thus for the bulk of global media output in the language; as with English, that means that even among proficient speakers the variety spoken west of the Atlantic is simply heard more often – with language, familiarity is everything and so exposure matters.

Secondly, European Portuguese is unique among Latin-derived languages (certainly the major ones of Western Europe) in being stress-timed, meaning that (as in West Germanic languages such as English, in fact) stressed syllables are not just pronounced more strongly but are also lengthened, with unstressed syllables then packed in between them so that even three unstressed syllables take up the same timeframe in rapid speech as a single stressed syllable. This is not the case, notably, with Spanish or Italian, nor with Brazilian Portuguese, which are instead syllable-timed, meaning each syllable takes up the same time (roughly) whether stressed or unstressed (this is essentially also the case with French, but its intonation is exceptional for other reasons). This fundamental difference makes European Portuguese distinct.

Why this happened is beyond my linguistic pay grade, but it should be noted that Late (“Vulgar”) Latin was also syllable-timed and there is every reason to believe it remained so as it developed in Western Iberia and then from there into the New World. So whatever happened, happened comparatively recently in Portugal. Others would be better placed to point to research on this matter.

Fundamentally, however, these are the reasons Brazilian Portuguese seems more familiar and thus easier to understand than European Portuguese – even to most other Europeans.

Coronavirus – drive carefully in a storm…

Sunday is a very interesting day to travel on the Autobahn. A mix of rather higher religious observance than most foreigners realise and a strict adherence to workers’ rights means that almost no one is allowed to work in Germany on a Sunday – and that includes lorry and bus drivers (though coaches are relatively rare anyway), meaning the roads become the fiefdom of the private car. With the freedom of the unrestricted road, it is a day on which big distances can be covered in little time.

And so it was one summer’s Sunday a little over 15 years ago that I covered the 600km from the city limits of Nuremberg in the south to the city limits of Hamburg in the north in just four and a half hours – and that with two stops. Maintaining a perfectly legal and relatively safe (given the way the roads are constructed) 100mph or so for the vast bulk of the journey on a bright day with neither trucks nor active roadworks, there were simply no obstacles.

Except for one. Just north of Hanover, a small group of black clouds, constituting almost a micro-storm, appeared in the distance right above the motorway. At 100mph, it was soon not in the distance – within no time at all the rain hit the windscreen and the car was buffeted by the wind. Worst of all, visibility was reduced, and I slowed on the three-by-three-lane highway to just 40mph, swiftly locating the right-hand (i.e., in Germany, near-side) lane.

Yet it was noticeable still how many vehicles were passing at high speed, perhaps even double my speed. Regardless of the rain, the wind and the decreased visibility, in the left-hand lanes towards the median my car was still almost shaken by the constant zap of passing cars. One, I happened to spot, was a yellow BMW 1-Series – notable because BMW had only just brought out such small cars, and because it was a distinctive bright shade.

Perhaps a minute had passed when the zap of passing cars stopped and my visibility was taken up in all three lanes ahead of me by cars with their hazard lights on. All was not well. Within seconds, the entire contents of someone’s boot appeared vaguely in the grey environs across the carriageway in front of me and we all slowed to navigate grimly through it. Soon, to my right, I could vaguely pick up a car pointing the wrong way in the emergency lane to my right with the driver standing by the barrier on the phone befuddled. It was the yellow BMW, which had evidently simply spun off.

Who would have guessed that driving 80mph in a rainstorm wasn’t a good idea? Where was the *evidence* that he couldn’t drive 80mph in such circumstances? All those other cars were going 80mph in the storm and they never crashed! In fact there were cars on the same motorway going 100mph and that was recognised as perfectly safe! No one told him he couldn’t go 80mph – indeed, there was no speed limit at all! What he was doing was perfectly legal, you know!

Obviously, however, just because it was legal, just because other people were doing it, and indeed just because other cars were going even faster elsewhere on the same road, doesn’t mean that going that speed in those conditions was not stupid beyond belief. Sure, others got lucky, but they were all behaving ridiculously irresponsibly by failing to adapt to the evident higher risk from the changed conditions, even though they were on the same road where they had been going even faster perfectly safely earlier.

The moral of the story is obvious. We shouldn’t need someone to tell us to act differently when the increased risk is self-evident. We shouldn’t demand “evidence” when it is plain common sense what we should or should not be doing. We should base our actions not on what is written in some technical piece of legislation, but on what is obviously required to keep ourselves and each other as safe as possible.

So let’s all just stick to 40mph in the storm, eh?