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Breakfast cereals are the glue that holds our civilisation together

Snap, crackle and pop is really this: the snap of our bones on the wheel of fate, the crackle of our skins in the fires of damnation, and the apoptosis that awaits our mortal cells.

Let us recast the riddle of the Sphinx: who snaps, crackles and pops in the morning; snaps, crackles and pops in the afternoon; and snaps, crackles and pops in the evening? Answer: me – and probably you, too, for if there’s one food that unites infancy and extreme old age, the toothless and those defanged by time-the-devourer, then it’s breakfast cereals. Indeed, to allocate these comestibles a given slot within the daily-go-round is just as spurious as confining them to any point in the human life cycle; cereals are . . . Well, there’s no other way of putting it: serial. Other foods may come and go but the great granular underlay of cereal remains. We are just as likely – arguably more so – to find ourselves standing at the kitchen counter in the middle of the night crunching down Golden Crunch as we are to be up with the lark and the iconic Kellogg’s rooster.

Yes, the snap, crackle and pop is really this: the snap of our bones on the wheel of fate, the crackle of our skins in the fires of damnation, and the apoptosis that awaits every single one of our mortal cells. (Memo to Self: must pitch Kellogg’s an ad campaign along these lines.) I started out eating Rice Krispies, savouring their delicious timpani as I plunged home my spoon and I dare say I shall exit this world with this same susurrus in my ears – and in between, bowl of cereal has followed bowl, as night succeeds day. Moreover, cereal being a food that comes with high sugar content, on to which you add still more, the eating of it is highly addictive, so it might be more appropriate to say bowl follows bowl as minute succeeds minute.

It’s fair enough, this serial cereal, because even more than bread, cereal returns us to the very roots of our civilisation, which lie in the amassing of food surpluses in the form of grain storage. If you like, one productive way of viewing the early despotisms of the Fertile Crescent, which arose from the domestication of einkorn and emmer wheat, hulled barley et cetera, is that these were in fact giant cereal boxes upon which the cultural plan of the future was incised in cuneiform. Archaeologists have actually discovered primitive cereal boxes at cave sites in the Zagros Mountains, although there’s considerable dispute over whether they fulfilled practical or merely ceremonial functions. For my part, I think the decipherment of an inscription on one of these rectilinear clay vessels – “Free Toy Inside!” – is pretty much a clincher.

If cereal is foundational (we have no difficulty envisioning Nebuchadnezzar tucking in to a bowl of Lucky Charms and asses’ milk), it is also ubiquitous: not simply in our diets, but also in our environment. What other foodstuff is so widespread in the domestic sphere? One moment we’re puncturing Coco Pops strewn across the lino, the next we’re crunching Cheerios into the carpet; indeed, the experience of having small children is essentially one of witnessing the merging of cereals and floor coverings into a single, semi-edible mass. But cereals don’t just lie underfoot; due to their high concentration of sugar and the addition of milk, they are the very mortar of disorder: entropy is held in check by them; a cornflake glues a mug to a table; a Golden Graham rivets a textbook to a desk; and such is the bonding strength of Weetabix that entire houses can be built using it in combination with courses of Shredded Wheat.

Then again, of what other foodstuff can it be said that its packaging really is of equal significance? When I was a child, the reading of the back of the cereal box was an integral bite of the whole munch. Frequently, in those days, new technological projects were blazoned on cereal boxes; it was from these that I first heard about the jumbo jet, the hovercraft, the Channel Tunnel and all sorts of other wonders. Cereal box copywriters were bold apostles of progress who nonetheless always managed to place their future wonders in credible time frames: as I recall, almost always in the next five to ten years. Imagine getting a box of Honey Loops from the pantry now and discovering from a screed printed on it that a high-speed railway connecting London with the northern cities will be built by 2020 – and then, lo and behold, this actually coming to pass! No wonder the 1960s and 1970s now appear a more optimistic era. Yes, there was racism, poverty and terrorism aplenty, but at least you could have faith in what was written on cereal boxes.

Some readers will no doubt be wondering when I’m going to get on to discussing the merits of individual cereals, but the answer to this is: never. Or, rather, the very supposition that one breakfast cereal can be better than another is to call attention to the elephant in the room that’s studded with raisins and dusted with whole grains and nuts. I refer, of course, to muesli – which surely deserves a column of its own. Besides, barring spurious flavourings, and shapes that are so evanescent they barely maintain their three-dimensional form long enough to make it from bowl to mouth, there is little to distinguish these slops. This is why I’ve returned to Rice Krispies time and again, although I still have absolutely no idea what riboflavin is.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times