A wig for WikiLeaks, the political party for men and Michael Gove’s curves

Helen Lewis's "First Thoughts" column.

On Christmas Day, a two-and-a-half-year-old girl died in Vadodara, a city in the Indian prov - ince of Gujarat. She was found in a “thorny bush”, the Hindustan Times reported, where she had allegedly been left by her maternal uncle. He is accused of throwing her away, like rubbish, after he had raped her.

The man is now in custody, awaiting trial on murder charges.

It is unlikely we will ever know the name of that little girl, just as we don’t know the name of “Damini”, who was raped by six men on a Delhi bus and assaulted with an iron bar that tore her intestines. What they have in common is that they lived in a society where rape is accepted and excused, and where the victims are given the responsibility for its prevention. There are “ladies’ special” trains in India because of endemic groping. A woman who was stripped and pawed in the street by a gang of 18 men for 45 minutes in July – as passers-by filmed on phones but did nothing to help –was repeatedly decried as “drunk” and possibly a prostitute, according to the media reports that followed.

Every time I read about a woman who was raped “because” she was intoxicated, or wearing a short skirt, or led him on, I think about victims like that two-and-a-half-year-old girl. What did she do that caused her to be raped?

Thinking’s not straight on schools

It’s a testament to the power of Mail Online that when I saw a headline about “Michael Gove” and “curves”, I immediately assumed that he had been “flaunting his bikini body” or “posing up a storm” somewhere sunny over Christmas.

But no. It was instead the news that a rebellion is brewing over the Education Secretary’s plan to cut budgets by making school buildings 15 per cent smaller, banning curves and glass walls and insisting ceilings be kept bare. This is despite a Salford University study showing that a better-designed school can improve test results, while the Royal Institute of British Architects has noted that “the designs for secondary schools include narrow corridors and concealed stairs that are difficult to supervise”.

On an unrelated note, Portcullis House – the building where many MPs spend much of their parliamentary time – has bronze cladding worth £30m and has long rented 12 decorative fig trees for £32,500 a year.

Downtrodden men

Attention, all you downtrodden men! There is now a party just for you, to offset the terrible, all-encompassing female dominance of the ruling coalition (subs please check). Quentin Letts wrote about it in his Daily Mail column on 28 December, naming its leader as Mike Buchanan, a 55-year-old who plans to stand against Harriet Harman at the next election.

Buchanan, Letts solemnly informs us, “is not some fruitcake of the Monster Raving Loony Party ilk. A bookish fellow from Bath, full of statistics, he has recently given evidence to a parliamentary select committee.”

A quick visit to Google shows Buchanan to be the author of Feminism: the Ugly Truth, the first chapter of which is available to read for free on Amazon’s website. It contains unimprovable statements such as “it would be dishonest to deny the evidence before us – that feminists are generally less attractive than normal women” and “my theory is that many feminists are profoundly stupid as well as hateful, a theory which could readily be tested by arresting a number of them and forcing them – with the threat of denying them access to chocolate – to undertake IQ tests”.

Nope, definitely not a fruitcake. Still, ten points to the commenter who wrote underneath the article: “I was shocked to learn that over 50 per cent of people in Britain are now WOMEN. No doubt BRUSSELS is behind all this!!!!!”

One toe in the grave?

This is the year I turn 30, and it’s clear that crotchety middle age is already upon me. As I watched the New Year’s Eve fireworks in front of the London Eye on TV, the following thoughts went through my mind. 1) Wow! These are impressive. 2) [At 11 minutes in] Getting a bit bored now. Turns out there’s not much you can do with fireworks except make them go “bang”. 3) Hang on, how much did these cost? (Answer: at least £250,000.)

Bah humbug to you all.

Dream leaks

Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks has bought the rights to two books about the WikiLeaks saga, and pre-production has started on the resulting film. It will star Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange (I assume he will be wearing Javier Bardem’s wig from Skyfall) and reports suggest that Dan “Downton” Stevens has been cast as the Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz.

I hear on the grapevine that a “big name” has been secured to play the reporter Nick Davies (Russell Crowe? Or – heaven forbid – Tom Cruise?) but I think we’re all holding out for Alan Rusbridger to be played by Daniel Radcliffe in age make-up.

Infernal Liberals

A final festive thought: my life has been improved immeasurably by learning that the Liberal Democrats’ director of communications is called Tim Snowball. Happy New Year.

Michael Gove, celebrating his curves. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood