Archive | April, 2010


James Elsewhere: Aston Villa v Chelsea

Posted on 09 April 2010 by JamesHamilton

I spoke to Chris Bevan of BBC Online yesterday about the prospects for Aston Villa v Chelsea in Saturday’s FA Cup Semi-Final.

Context gives the game unusual interest. Only two weeks ago, Chelsea thumped Villa 7-1.

Scores of that magnitude just don’t happen to top-four candidates like Villa. Just about every other instance of a seven or more goal haul has featured a title candidate against a relegation certainty. Nor do scores of that kind happen to Martin O’Neill. It’s not what being Martin O’Neill is all about – nor is it what employing Martin O’Neill is all about. You can get 7-1 by employing more or less any manager you choose: you bring in O’Neill to prevent it.

What’s more, the game is unusually important for both clubs. Villa really do need to reach Europe directly this season, in order to demonstrate the real on-field progress they have made in the last two years. The top four might be too much, but the FA Cup could be just 180 minutes away. Villa lost at Wembley in the Carling Cup Final, and the players will be desperate to get back. But Chelsea will want to win the double to make up for both the humiliation of Champions League defeat to Jose Mourinho at Inter, and the FA Cup is now every bit as important to the blues players, now on a huge roll, as it is to Villa.

Chris’s post pulls in opinion on the game from far and wide, and includes my views on what options Martin O’Neill is left with against Chelsea. You can read the whole thing here.

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Scottish Football: Introducing The Bloggers’ Manifesto

Posted on 07 April 2010 by JamesHamilton

It’s hard for an incomer to get used to, but Scotland is just the most extraordinary and spectacular country.  One of my favourite drives is the drop down off the M9 into Perth. If you’re passing through the city, you’ll negotiate a series of roundabouts on the city’s edge, and you’ll see signposts pointing, temptingly, to something called “The Stadium.” They make it sound like the Nou Camp, but the signs actually refer to the home of St Johnstone F.C. , McDiarmid Park, and they commemorate a superb gesture by a local farmer, Bruce McDiarmid. Bruce gave St Johnstone £400,000 worth of his land for a new ground “as a gift to the city” when Asda bought up the old ground. He’s not one for the spotlight, and had to be strong-armed into accepting any kind of recognition for his generosity.

The story of McDiarmid and St Johnstone is just one reason why any manifesto for the future of Scottish football must tread carefully. McDiarmid Park is not the only patch of football soil here hallowed by love, locality and belonging. Forget local franchising or careless tinkering with clubs. The people in the stands and behind the scenes aren’t there for the glory but for other, deeper things.

More Than Mind Games is getting together with Left Back In The Changing Room and The Scottish Football Blog and others to produce our own McLeish Report – in the continuing absence of the real thing – and we think there are ways to move forward without committing ambitious, short-term vandalism.

But there has been ambitious, short-term vandalism. The worst of it happened a long time ago. Key weaknesses in Scottish football have their roots in the determination of the Home Nations to each have their own football association. Nineteenth century decisions have left the UK with one proper association and three corner shops. But merger is about as off the table as an idea can get. In this instance, we have to use what we have. Fletcher, Gordon and Bellamy will never see a World Cup, just as Giggs and Hughes didn’t, all so something something something could be preserved and protected, the same nameless and unidentified piece of memorabilia that was deployed to keep Scottish players out of a UK Olympic team.

So we have to achieve what we want to achieve with what we have. That calls for clean lines and specific goals. These can be hard to come by in a game as ruled by fluke and slapstick as is football..

So what are the goals? Many Scots would settle for a return to the late ’60s and early ’70s, where a sustained period of extraordinary club success led, eventually, to the unbeaten Scotland team of World Cup ’74 and a competitive draw with champions Brazil.

But that was then, and Scotland has a population of 5 million, the same as New Zealand. Too many other, newer footballing countries have organized themselves at a time when Scottish kids have, bit by bit, chosen against football for other things. We can’t have it all anymore: we have to choose.

The current blip aside, Scotland’s clubs have a good recent record in Europe – two Old Firm UEFA finals – and European club competition success might be the goal to go for. It would be important that this not be an Old Firm goal alone – and of course, the Old Firm already do prize European success. But excluding half of the country’s biggest city, to say nothing of Old Firm supporters elsewhere, from a share in success, is not acceptable.

If European club success is the goal we choose, then the steps we take are clear. Improve the skill level of young Scottish players – of which much more anon: this is always key, whichever goal you choose. Plug Scottish clubs into the European club culture via a cup competition or a merger of leagues – ideally the leagues of e.g. Holland and Belgium. Build the domestic league and cup programme around European nights to give teams time to prepare.

Then again, the Scottish national side have been closer to qualification for World Cups and European Championships than the national humiliation myth is prepared to accept. If it hadn’t been for the Flower of Scotland bullshit at Hampden against Italy, if there had been just one more goal against Norway – this says, to me, that the gap is narrow and can be crossed if the decision is clearly taken to do so. And by “making the decision” I mean, for instance, providing international contracts of the cricketing kind for non-Premiership Scottish internationals, I mean a sustained effort to persuade Scottish-qualified players to pull on the blue jersey, I mean giving Craig Levein a decade should he want it and I mean setting time goals: a play-off in 2 years, qualification in 4 years, a tournament second round in 6.

Any plan, of course, depends on Scotland producing a glut of good young players. This, ultimately, is the most important goal – the others can’t go on without it. Fortunately, although Scotland’s supply line has suffered recently, there are cheap ways in which it can be quickly revived. Revive Trevor Brooking’s late 1970s Daily Mail “learn skills in your back yard” comic strip, which needed only a wall and a tennis ball and time. Get futsal in every school in Scotland, give it a Scottish name and get a major, national, televised competition going, on STV or BBC Scotland, with winners commemorated at Hampden and given praise and coverage. Get Simon Clifford on board and give him a free hand in training players up to the age of 18.  Set up a major, national, televised skills competition and have skills as a non-contact sport for boys and girls who might not ordinarily enjoy competitive sport. What about Rob Marrs’ suggestion of a Scottish Football Centre of Excellence?

But what about the thousands of volunteers who have for years given up weekends and evenings unpaid to keep Scotland’s youth football going? Won’t they feel devalued, or sidelined?

The volunteers have been neglected for years. It’s getting better, and the SFA deserve praise for that. Nevertheless, many volunteers would join in a change of direction with pleasure were they given the proper facilities to do the job properly.

So I would call for the mass production of all-weather facilities to help those volunteers. Glasgow has shown the way forward here, with Toryglen in particular. Team up with other sports, and aim to have, within ten years, more all-weather facilities for football per under-18 head than any other country in the world. Put them where people are, in densely populated areas, and where this is not possible, close streets to traffic and actively encourage children to play there (windows don’t break like they used to..) with proper surfaces, ground markings and maintenance.

Lastly, if we can’t go European, there are changes we can make to the Scottish league structure that will help. It is mad, really, that Celtic and Rangers haven’t left for the Premiership – mad that they weren’t invited in at the inception. But the examples of Portugal and Holland show that having two effectively Barclays Premiership clubs playing alongside a set of Blue Square Premiership clubs doesn’t have to result in bad football overall. In recent memory, Hibs, Hearts, Aberdeen and Dundee United have all made the same point in their different ways too. Is it time to recognise the various “little leagues” that exist in the Scottish Premier below Rangers and Celtic? Why not institute a trophy for 3rd, and another for, say, 6th? Rob Marrs has wondered about merging the English and Scottish league cups, or about cutting down the number of league matches played to help smaller clubs sustain a title chase.

What do you think? We’re keen to get as many interested writers and bloggers on board as we can – with the goal in the near future of coming up with a joint document which will be splashed in the hope of influencing the course of events in a real way.

Please add your thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, ideas etc. in comments and I’ll promote them in subsequent posts. We have a real chance of being heard here, so let’s use it and help start Scotland on the road to being the best football power of its size in the world and on the road to giving its young people all the fun, enjoyment and benefits of taking part in the world’s game.

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The Brain and Mind: A Short Annotated Reading List

Posted on 03 April 2010 by JamesHamilton

I’ve put together reading lists before – see here. This one will overlap the earlier list, but is meant to provide a number of quick but intelligent ways into the whole brain/mind/therapy/neuroscience subject spread. As such, many of these books will be familiar, some perhaps not. Amazon UK links presented where possible.

The Human Brain

Rita CARTER, Mapping the Mind. A beautifully illustrated grand tour of the brain, this is, first and foremost, a thing of beauty. Lightly but carefully written, Carter nonetheless doesn’t shy away from current controversies, and if you are looking for an introduction to the subject that will detain you for no longer than a couple of evenings, this is the one to choose.

Eric KANDEL, In Search of Memory: the emergence of a new science of mind. This is Kandel’s biography and at the same time an in-depth history of neuroscience. If you’ve no previous knowledge, start with Carter, but if you have, Kandel provides a thrilling page-turner with the occasional mental roadblock as you chew on the difficult bits. I can’t forget his account of  Edgar wiring up a neuron to loudspeakers in 1928 and hearing it speak (a percussive bang! bang! bang!) for the first time…

One of Kandel’s first career goals was to find the physical location in the brain of Freud’s ego and id. We are a long way on from that, but it serves as a warning that the most basic theoretical underpinnings of neuroscience are still fresh and unstable and liable to drastic change at any time.

History of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy

Frank TALLIS, Changing Minds: the history of psychotherapy as an answer to human suffering. Tallis’s book is short – only 170pp. – and is by a substantial margin the best introduction to the changing nature of talk therapies. It begins with Freud, and covers every important player and significant development. Tallis’s heroes are Beck and Bowlby – which, if you don’t know, is a demonstration of  good taste – and Tallis’s almost Jeevesian politeness doesn’t prevent him from giving famous flakes like Binswanger, Reich and Perls all they deserve.

Richard BENTALL, Madness Explained: psychosis and human nature. This is a “controversial” book, because it pretty much kicked off the current debate about both the efficacy of psychiatric treatment and the influence of culture and geography on experience of psychosis. For the record, I am Bentall’s man. You’ll find the first two chapters particularly useful on the essential psychiatry pioneers such as Emil Kraepelin, contemporaries to Freud but neglected men despite their victory in the battle of ideas (a victory which Bentall calls into question).

Edward SHORTER, A History of Psychiatry: from the era of the asylum to the age of prozac. A companion to Bentall. Shorter has the whole story of psychiatry, including ECT, which would ordinarily mean Reference Only for all but the most determined. But Shorter can write, and isn’t prepared to ignore controversy purely because he isn’t looking for a fight himself. You’ll find everything that matters here that isn’t in Tallis or Bentall. Unless you are looking for a history of the self-help/motivation movement – and I’m not aware that a good one exists. A project for Francis Wheen, perhaps.

Human Consciousness

Consciousness is still as much a philosophical issue as it is a neuroscientific one: we are still defining terms. Both scientists and philosophers matter here.

Nicholas HUMPHREY, Seeing Red: a study in consciousness. This is the best introduction to the subject: Humphrey’s ability to clarify ambiguous and difficult ideas borders on genius at times. A book that will make you feel more intelligent than you actually are.

Daniel DENNETT, Sweet Dreams: philosophical obstacles to a science of consciousness. Humphrey’s thinking is deeply influenced by Dennett’s, and, like Humphrey, my money is on Dennett’s fame in the brain Multiple Drafts Model of consciousness outlasting the competition. Sweet Dreams is a gentle, humourous attack on Dennett’s philosophical opponents. The punch-up is head-clearing. Dennett’s older, longer Consciousness Explained is also worth the effort.

Susan BLACKMORE, Conversations on Consciousness. This is an entertaining, often funny series of interviews with Dennett and his various allies and opponents in the consciousness field. Pretty much everyone who matters is here – the Churchlands, Penrose, Chalmers, Gregory, Searle… and the book is the best way to get a feel for their viewpoints before rejecting them for Dennett’s.

Human Memory and Emotion

It wasn’t long ago that the scientific study of emotion was a backwater, territory for cranks and the green-ink brigade. By the end of the 1990s, it was home to some of the most magnificent and moving scientific writing of our times.

Steven PINKER, How the Mind Works. This rather long book was always going to feature in a list of this type: it’s a good thing that Pinker can write. It’s not a comprehensive tour so much as an entertaining chase around some of the colourful bits, and Pinker is assuming that you won’t take rhetorical and logical errors too hard. Nor should you.

Steven ROSE, The Making of Memory. I can’t stand the man’s politics, nor his wife’s, but the original edition of this book won the Rhône-Poulenc Science Prize. The book centres entertainingly, sometimes chillingly, on Rose’s own laboratory work, but expands where appropriate to demonstrate the contact between experimental findings and philosophical thinking. Rose is also good on the weakness of much modern brain metaphor. There are problems, he says, with seeing the brain entirely in terms of modern office procedure. If you have to choose ONE book to read about human memory, this is the one to choose.

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN, Phantoms in the Brain: human nature and the architecture of the mind. A hugely entertaining series of essays about brain function and human experience – phantom limbs, mirror agnosia, Balint’s Syndrome.. Published in 1998, the book has been unfortunate in how much of it has been overtaken by subsequent work, but this is still the most accessible way into emotional neuroscience.

Antonio Damasio’s trilogy Decartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens and Looking For Spinoza is essential, but if you had to pick one, go for The Feeling, which really ought also to be listed under Human Consciousness as the neuroscientist’s contribution. Damasio mixes his own work, recent neuroscience and biographical/philosophical musings into a seamless discussion of what it means to be human. The trilogy as a whole is the most substantial single achievement on this list.

Joseph LEDOUX, The Emotional Brain: the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. An intimately written, personal view of the human condition as expressed by brain activity. LeDoux is excellent company, and must be read if you aren’t going to go for the entire Damasio oeuvre. You might feel, having read this, that CBT is skating on thin ice, and you’d be right to do so.

Paul EKMAN, The Nature of Emotion: fundamental questions. This collection of expert essays is by some distance the densest item on this list. It explores different views on everything from the nature of emotion through to the issue of emotional control, unconscious emotion, emotions and mood, the subjective experience of emotion and emotional development. Fifteen years old, now but a fabulous ground breaker if you have the time and patience.

Nature vs Nurture

Steven PINKER, The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature. I will be voting Labour in the election, but I don’t expect my copy of The Blank Slate to follow suit. All mainstream British politics is required, nowadays, to take a strong position in favour of the nurture side of this debate, but Pinker won’t have it: both nature and nurture are involved, but much of nature’s involvement is, to modern eyes, both inconvenient and irresponsible. Supporters of the Euston Manifesto will find that some of the negative Amazon comments jog memories..

Alice MILLER, The Drama of Being A Child: the search for the true self. It’s only short – 150 pages or so – and it’s a passionate book that you’ll finish in one sitting. The problem with Pinker’s revival of the “nature” side of the argument has been that those who are politically wedded to an overwhelmingly nature-biased view would rather lose sight of any “nurture” element at all. Miller’s no scientist, to say the least of it, and her views are highly controversial, but there is a pro-nurture counterweight worth having here. She is also the first writer to take the situation of children raised by personality disordered parents and explore it properly.

I haven’t really touched on therapy in this list. CBT manuals are dry, psychodynamic ones can be creepy and psychoanalysis gave up on it all many years ago. Dorothy Rowe has occasional trouble disentangling her politics from her psychology (she wouldn’t see it that way: not doing so is an occupational hazard for the entire field) and Irvin Yalom deserves a review post of his own. Too many others subscribe either to an “everyone’s broken” philosophy that leaves me cold or to varieties of radicalism that do no more, I feel, than avoid the question. Environmentalism is not a source of the kind of meaning and significance that matters  for depressives, and neither is the Respect Party. There are some good collections of couch memoirs, and some good accounts of the experience of mental illness, but too many again to discuss in this post.

This subject enjoys some high quality online coverage – I recommend:

BPS Research Digest – the blog of the British Psychological Association

Mind Hacks – much of this excellent review site is written by KCL’s Vaughan Bell

Seed Magazine

Edge –  especially the Annual Question, answered by dozens of top scientists, thinkers and writers

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