Tuesday 29 August 2023

The BBC & the whingeing farmers of Countryfile

Hansen & partner: disingenuous whinge
The Beeb: everybody has their favourite gripe but where to begin?  From down on the farm at the highly regarded Countryfile, here's just a little straw in the wind.     

Adam Henson is one of their primary reporters, and evidently a genuine (and seemingly prosperous) farmer to boot.  So a couple of episodes ago, he's discussing with his "business partner" the generic farmers' problem of money, that vital perennial crop.  Here's what the two of them say (20:12 mins in):

"The trouble with grain is, it's a world commodity price ... we don't determine the price at all ...  Geo-political factors like the war in Ukraine ... Fertilizer costs ... Volatility ... A change in market price can cost us thousands ... It's pretty scary, really.  We've spent all the money, we've got a reasonable crop here ... when we decide what to grow, we're gambling on what each crop will be worth come harvest time ..." 

Oo-err, missus, sounds really scary.  Volatility!  War in Ukraine!  Changes in global market price!!   You'd never guess that this has been the farmers' oldest problem for millennia - and, equally, has been solved for a very long time indeed.  

For those unfamiliar with the basic principles of hedging and financial derivatives: whenever a player takes a fixed-price forward position (here a farmer, investing in seed etc at fixed cost today, but effectively playing in the forward cereal market against delivery at harvest time) in a market where prices are liable to change, that player is exposed to potential adverse movements in price.  They are of course simultaneously exposed to the upside of potentially favourable price movements; but it's the downside risk that mostly concerns us (and, seemingly, Henson) here.

Is this exposure necessary?  Not for a very long time, since the ages-old development of forward markets:  why doesn't Henson avail himself of the forward market for the cereal he's investing in?  In other words, forward-sell all (or at least a large part of) his crop at the very same time he buys his seed?  Putting matters simply (we'll note some complexities later), one generally assumes that at the time of his making the fateful decision, there must be a positive margin available to him, i.e. between his fixed costs and the forward value of the crop - else why is he even considering it?  So, courtesy of forward prices, that margin is there to be locked in, eliminating first-order Price Risk.  Now, his risk profile is mostly that of the operational risks associated with weather, blight etc - the very stuff of farming, even for a player bewildered by the financial markets.

Does Hansen not know this?   I think he must.  So why does he bleat in such a dumb fashion?  More to the point (since farmers always whinge & we all know this), why don't BBC editors intervene, & make him say something more comprehensive & honest?

Later in the week we'll take a look at some of the very real practical complexities around our simplified account above - which might have made for a genuinely interesting & informative Countryside piece.  But for now, let's notice how Hansen and his mate signed off.

"as a fairly large farm, we can afford to take some gambles ... "

And there we have it - the pair are gamblers! - which is the proper term for anyone with a forward-price exposure and the ability to hedge, but who doesn't in fact avail himself of the hedge.  Next time: how some of these issues play out in the Real World.


Monday 21 August 2023

Outstanding Culture-war Satire

This is not a short read.

But it is a beautifully crafted piece of satire on the dreadful culture-war assault on freedom of expression in academia.  Worse in America, of course, but plenty of symptoms over here.



IMPORTANT UPDATE:  What did I just write?  Here's a very worthwhile crowdfunder (IMHO) for a lady academic being very badly treated indeed - by the Open University


Thursday 17 August 2023

Michael Parkinson - a superb source of TV humour

Parky, RIP
There are two episodes of Parkinson's programme on the Beeb that I remember with particular fondness: both relate to comments made by guests, reacting to something said earlier in the programme in an exchange with another guest.

1.  Raquel Welch / Eric Morecambe

The glorious Raquel said:  "I never thought of myself as pretty-pretty ... but then when I got a little bit older and the equipment arrived ...".  After Parky had finished wetting himself and she'd departed, on came Eric Morecambe (and Little Ern - but he contributed less than nothing).  Said Morecambe:  "I was 15 when my equipment arrived ... (relapse of Parky) ... pause ... I was 40 when it left!"  (more collapse).  "I'm 45 now, and I think it's coming back again."

2.  John Conteh / Peter Cook

I'm not the only one who remembers this one: here's the Graun in 2018

... Parkinson asked another of his guests, the boxer John Conteh, whether it was true that he avoided sex before a fight. As Conteh squirmed, Cook delivered a comeback of extravagant brilliance. “I wouldn’t ask you if you have sex before a show,” he said to Parkinson. A beat, then: “I can see that you have.

Unscripted television humour.  They don't make 'em like that any more.  Any of them.


Monday 14 August 2023

Owen Farrell - must be dropped

A bit of Monday Morning Quarterbacking here.  Saturday’s match against Wales confirmed, if confirmation was required – that the liability known as Owen Farrell is one that England’s RWC team does not need. Here’s the Graun’s Robert Kitson

While the braced 63rd-minute shoulder to the head of Taine Basham was not the absolute worst of its type, that defence misses the point. In addition to the obvious player-welfare implications, it was reckless and unnecessary.  Nor was this some helplessly overeager debutant flying in. It was England’s captain, who should have known better with his side reduced to 13 men, playing in his 107th Test. It should also have cost his side any chance of victory. 

To me (and many others) this has been obvious for many years.  At the 2015 [sic] RWC I wrote

I have been boring my rugby drinking buds for three years predicting that, at a crucial moment in the RWC, England will be down to 14 with Farrell cooling his heels in the bin.

And so it transpired, even though the 2015 details were slightly different: in the vital group match vs Wales, with England ahead, well positioned to finish the game off, and a critical penalty already awarded, in steams Farrell with an obviously premeditated late tackle right under the ref's nose, and the penalty is reversed.  As a direct result, Wales go on to win – and England go out ignominiously in the group stage.   On home soil.  Thanks, Owen, and yes, we already knew you're a hard bastard. 

Eight years on, and no lessons have been learned, either by the perennially dull-witted, thuggish player himself nor successive managers.   And so, two days ago he earned the red card that will see him out for at least the next two matches, and maybe more. 

Why are Farrell’s services retained?  Because, we are told, he is “England’s talismanic leader”.  Let’s think that through.  In Martin Johnson, the all-conquering England RWC 2003 team had a truly talismanic leader – no greater captain of any team at any time, I’d say – and Johnson, too, was no stranger to the early trip to the dugout at a particular point in his career.  The dog had been given a (fairly deserved) bad name and, disproportionately, the refs were ever-ready with the whistle.   But Johnson and everyone else knew this couldn’t go on.   By 2003 he had long since fixed it, and the problem period was over.   

Johnson also fulfilled impeccably his role at lock.  So: superb player; outstanding leader; bish-bosh tendencies under control: perfect captain.  By contrast … the petulant Farrell shouldn’t even be in the team as a player – his distribution skills are pedestrian and his kicking unremarkable – and when after all these years and warnings and penalties and red cards he still fails so comprehensively on the control criterion, he has only one box ticked. 

At this level, that ain’t enough.  Borthwick seemed to be mulling the axe for Farrell when he first took over in such awkward, unwanted circumstances.  Well, here’s the perfect opportunity to wield it now. Get on with it, man, oh, and recall Henry Slade forthwith. 


UPDATE:  Hmmm.  My argument stands

Monday 7 August 2023

Marking Putin's card at a critical juncture

Chancing my arm with the trolls again ...  In May of last year, after Russia had proved itself quite unable to execute Putin's offensive plans (though it was still advancing westwards - by inches - from the Donbass start-line and supposedly threatening to turn Slovyansk and Kramatorsk into a classic 'cauldron') we gave him the following advice, (based purely on a military assessment): 
Putin's orders must surely now be: Define a defensible subset of what we now occupy - categorically including whatever it takes to water Crimea. Dig in; set up the resupply lines; and hold that territory to the last mercenary. Lay waste and abandon the rest ... the chunk in the map running north and east of Luhansk up to fiercely-contested Kharkiv looks to me like turf to be abandoned on the theory outlined here.

Well, well.   And what did he do, starting about 4 months later?  Yup, abandon the extension of his gains up to Kharkiv, and dig in on a defensible subset.  No charge for the strategic advice, L'il Volodya.  Unfortunately for Putin (and for a 100% C@W clean sweep), the chosen defensible zone didn't - in the judgement of his generals - include the west (right) bank of the Dnipro river[1] - so he doesn't get to water Crimea and other large agricultural swathes of his captured territory in the south east.  

Still, thus far his defensive lines are holding.  Going on the offensive against a prepared defence was, for Ukraine, always a massive stretch without (inter alia) serious air cover, as we made clear.  Plus he seems, just about, to have recovered from the Wagner flying column episode[2].  So: he's in the lead at half time in the Round 4 match.  But now we're at a perilous juncture, and things could start to go horribly wrong - not strictly for military reasons, but rather from the dumb strategic calls he's making.

- Scrapping the grain deal, and blasting grain storage facilities, looks like a serious blunder.  At long last, Ukraine is essaying some serious diplomacy in the "non-aligned" / Third World, which ain't happy.  FFS, there have been "talks about (peace) talks" held in Saudi, to which almost everyone was invited except Putin - and China attended!

[- While we're on the subject of China, Xi has banned export of all dual-use drones, detailing just the specs that define the very drones Russia has been importing as fast as it could raise the funds (often crowd-sourced).  Obviously, there will be "ways around this" - but what more of a stinging, demonstrative slap in the face could Xi dish out?]

- The corollary of the grain deal fiasco - declaring the western Black Sea unsafe for shipping - certainly makes things awkward for regular merchant shipping dependent on ordinary maritime insurance.  But - exactly as predicted some while back by the more astute Russian milbloggers - this opens Pandora's box: and Ukraine has predictably countered by (a) declaring the north-eastern Black Sea unsafe, followed by (b) successfully attacking Russian shipping there, just to prove the point.  It's one helluva logistical feat to mount a naval drone-strike off Novorossiysk, but that's what they've done.  For those who don't know, Novorossiysk is as important to Russian maritime exports as Sevastopol is / was for its navy.  Getting insurance for anywhere in the Black Sea has just become, errr, difficult.

This all looks to me like the potential for a grotesque Putin mis-step coming along soon.  As critical Russian commentators have been quick to point out, a de facto Russian blockade of Odessa will drive Ukraine to export via the Danube.  Now: much as Russian historians love to recount the Battle of Izmail[3], do they really plan to blockade the Danube, arguably Europe's greatest river linking 9 countries (mostly NATO members), 4 national capitals and a large amount of trade?  Really?  Article 5 looms large here; and although the Americans have cleverly declared that almost nothing will cause them to react with nukes, they have said it'll be a decisive conventional hammer-blow that will befall.

Putin's capacity for cocking things up on the world stage has known few limits since 2021: he'd better pause now, before crashing forward on this new path.  I can't guess what he'll do next. 


UPDATE:  in BTL comments, I offered the following - 

I'd be interested to know what either side's response would be to freezing the current front line and giving instant NATO membership to 'West Ukraine' as defined by that line.  It's not on offer, anyhow. 

Well, er, maybe it will be: 



[1] If you want to hold a river, you must hold both banks - old military precept.  Then again, Putin doesn't seem to hold with any basic military notions whatsoever

[2] There is a long Russian history of pretty bellicose "petitioning" of the Tsar but, so long as certain proprieties are observed, this has generally been an opportunity for an adroit Tsar to reinforce his position, with everyone conveniently blaming the "bad boyars"

[3] As did Byron in his epic Don Juan - over two characteristically ripping cantos!  (and historically quite accurate, too)