How wonderful that they’re never wrong

PUBLISHED: 16:12 12 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:00 22 October 2010

In order to justify their existence, all branches of government - central, local and quangos - have to do things. We would all benefit if they did as little as possible, but if you give a linesman a flag, of course he will want to wave it.

In order to justify their existence, all branches of government - central, local and quangos - have to do things.

We would all benefit if they did as little as possible, but if you give a linesman a flag, of course he will want to wave it.

In government circles, flags are “new initiatives” - a phrase that I used to think was tautological, but now I'm not so sure. Branches of government come up with so many initiatives that they lose track - as happened last week when an agency had to hastily redraw an exciting scheme because it had the same name as one they created earlier.

It's people like this - bright young things surviving in carefully regulated think tanks with an atmosphere quite foreign to the real world - who come up with the absurd measures with which we have become so familiar. The world of education is awash with them.

An example: driving instructors will not be allowed to operate unless they pass a computer test designed to measure their hazard perception.

Of course anyone except a government official or computer expert would know that actual hazard perception is a world apart from computers. Never mind: the computer is carefully set so that hazards are spotted at the right time and irrelevant clicking of the mouse is excluded. What they didn't grasp was that experienced instructors would spot potential hazards much earlier than your average driver.

The result was that their early clicks were excluded by the computer as being “random”, and an experienced and highly regarded instructor ended up with 58 out of 75 (pass mark 57), whereas his obviously inexperienced 17-year-old pupil achieved 68!

Consistently similar results should have revealed to the government geniuses that they were on the wrong track. Unfortunately, the worst thing about government is not that it has an unending supply of flags, but that it is never wrong.


Rabbits are undeniably confused. All right, I know people are confused as well, but somehow you expect more from rabbits.

As one perceptive reader has pointed out, rabbits - once believed to be nocturnal creatures - are now to be seen “everywhere at all times of day and night”.

I can back this up: I have observed a healthy colony close to the new residence blocks at the University of East Anglia whose members don't seem to have any idea of what time of day or night it is, and munch away happily at noon, while lectures are going on.

I assumed at first they were mimicking student behaviour, or were perhaps part of an experiment being carried out by the innovative School of Penguins, Chess and Road Surfacing, but I have been disabused of this by the respected Professor Ian “Sam” Aufmerksam, who claims incidentally that rabbits are not nocturnal but crepuscular.

This may be accurate (though I have always considered them sort of oblong), but it is hardly relevant.

The reader who drew the peculiar behaviour of rabbits to my attention suggests that they might be suffering from time distortion originating in the Autonomous Republic of Hingham, but for this to be true, abnormally long burrows (or wormholes) would be required.

Her second theory, that they are illegal immigrant rabbits, and the government is training them to slow down traffic following the discrediting of speed cameras, seems far more likely.

It would also explain the confusion.


I'm sure all my chess-playing colleagues realised I was not suggesting that chess was a dull game for dull people, despite one reader's reaction on the letters' page to my piece on the British chess championships being scheduled for Great Yarmouth.

No doubt the satire passed him by.

Norfolk chess is full of entertaining characters, not least the irrepressible county captain Johnny Danger; the editor of the county chess magazine, John Charman; and the excellent chess author, David LeMoir - among many others.

Chess is a beautiful game - even more than football, though possibly not so accessible - and it attracts beautiful people, like Maria Mankova - as cited - or the possibly even more striking Russian, Alexandra Kosteniuk, who is also a much stronger player.Yarmouth people may be relieved to hear that one attractive Australian player, Arianne Caoili, even provoked a recent dance-floor fight involving a leading Briton and world number three grandmaster Levon Aronian, from Armenia.

Sadly, they are not likely to feature at Yarmouth, but I am beginning to see how chess might fit in very well on the east coast.


Now that the university lecturers' marking boycott is over, one would expect the smoke to have cleared. In fact, many issues remain clouded.

Despite some media reports, for example, large numbers of the students supported the lecturers, who were justifiably angered by the employers' blatantly breaking a promise to use top-up-fee money to reverse years of decline in lecturers' salary levels.

There was never any risk of students not getting their degrees. Only the last semester's marking would have been affected, and this would almost never change the level of degree awarded. Lecturers were happy to write letters to prospective employers making this point.

The precise role of the unions was also lost in the fog somewhere, since the final agreement was no better than that offered some weeks before. It left the lecturers with in some cases less than a week to catch up on a full semester's marking - a demand which I understand was made forcibly by the employers at the University of East Anglia even before the agreement had been communicated to the lecturers.

This hardly leaves the lecturers over the moon. But what really rubbed salt in the wounds was news that nationally the vice-chancellors, who put strong - sometimes ruthless - pressure on the lecturers, have awarded themselves a much, much larger pay rise. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement, 33 vice-chancellors earn more than the prime minister, and 18 of them earn £200,000 or more.

So no problem there.

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