Friday, November 30, 2007

Identity tattoos

A comedy item on the radio reminded me of a good idea I had when everyone was worrying about the reliability of iris scans

Bar codes provide a tried & tested technology. So bar code tattoos for all. On the inside of the wrist, natch. To make them accessible

Reading & writing

I do hope the government thinks better of the proposed standards for the under 5s

I am particularly concerned with the idea that small children might be forced to try writing, on paper, with a pencil. At the same time as spelling correctly, writing something reasonably coherent, & keeping it neat. Lots of children cant manage this, & the frustration of failing could damage them for life

Especially boys

Thats not the same as not teaching them letters & the connections with words & the sounds they make & the realisation that by stringing them together you can express your thoughts, send messages etc

But try as many ways as possible of letting them achieve this satisfaction

Including, in this day & age, the use of keyboards. My daughter could type quite well (for her age) at 3, loved it, could do things she couldnt manage with a pencil. We didnt push her into it, she just started by playing with Mummys toy & took it from there

The old fashioned slate has its virtues too. These were used at her school because paper & pencils would have been far too expensive for most of her classmates. So I too soon realised that chalk can be easier than pencil for a small hand to manipulate. The slate itself is easy to use anywhere - on your knee, in the garden, not just at a desk. And there is the enormous benefit of being able to rub out your mistakes very easily until you are satisfied with what you have done

And plasticine. Rolled out into sausages then bent into letters. S is good for starters because its so easy to do & offers a very obvious introduction to the phonetic links with snakes & hisssssssssing

Using a variety of methods will encourage all sorts of neurological links & pathways which will not develop with rigid methodologies

Making things add up

Do statistical publications still carry the mysterious rubric: Totals may not add, due to rounding?

I noticed a few years ago that National Statistics had announced they were no longer going to ensure that local population estimates constrained to sum to the national total. If that has caused problems I dare say that rounding errors are the least of anybodys problems now, with all the new arguments about migrant figures

It is surprising how much time & effort can be put in to making totals add up, or in trying to explain to otherwise well-educated people why they might not. I was once involved in a legal case in which I was able to show, quite simply from the companys own figures, that their compliance with the law was not exactly what they claimed it to be. I got a surprisingly nice letter from the Managing Director, but he could not resist pointing out, as a parting shot, that I wasn’t completely accurate either because my percentage column did not add to 100 exactly

I did, very briefly, ponder the wisdom of replying by thanking him for pointing this out, & offering to rectify the mistake if he could tell me which of the individual figures was wrong

Powered access

Apparently the powers that be dont talk about wheelchairs any more. Powered access is the term of choice

But at least people in wheelchairs do have a seat. Most disabled or mobility impaired people do not use a wheelchair but they do need to sit down on the bus

Having said that, I dont know if theres any easy way to sort out such conflicts of interest. Like tactile paving, or putting things at a level accessible to the chairbound but inaccessible to those who cannot bend or crouch

Some such irritations seem to stem from simple thoughtlessness. I am fed up of admiring my midriff in the mirror in a toilet which has been made accessible, while just hoping that my top half remains presentable

Words change their meaning

Once I was talking with a friend, as tall as I am, when the subject of whether we could ever contemplate having a relationship with a much shorter man came up. My answer was no, never. I still die with embarrassment at the thought of being piloted round the dance floor as a teenager by a man whose eyes were just about level with my (barely existing) bosom. Especially if he had dandruff

My friend liked small men. Said they were wieldy. I choked & had to leave the room

My friend thought it was because I thought she had said something disgusting. But I had just been overwhelmed by a sudden, unwonted vision of her, arms aloft, whirling this midget around like a trusty sword – Braveheart springs to mind as I type this now!

So then we had an argument about the meaning of wieldy. Turns out to be one of those quantum words which can have opposite meanings. I thought it meant easy to wield; she thought it meant good at wielding. So we were both right, but at least the dictionary marks the latter as obsolete

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mithering me

Also yesterday, a boy in Canal Street asked me if I had any small coins to spare. Then he apologised for mithering me

Its a long time since I heard anyone use that word. It was one with which most children, in the North at least, used to be all too familiar. Adults, mothers in particular, always wanted you to stop mithering them

Pronounced m'eye-th'd. So thats probably why, in my early reading to myself, I thought there was a word pronounced m'eye-zzld

I was mortifyingly old - 10 at least - when I found out it should be pronounced miss-led

But maybe theres something genetic rather than just regional about this mistake of pronunciation. For years my mother thought there was a Gilbert & Sullivan opera called The Mike Adoo

And there ought to be a word for the misery-inducing practice of m'eye-zzling

Shoplifting again

Well blow me down with a feather!

Yesterday evening I was suspected of shoplifting in Marks & Spencer

Actually, its a relatively common hazard for us country bumpkins who use public transport for our trips to town. When the weather is inclement we are the ones walking around in full length overcoat or macintosh or seriously heavy duty weather proof jacket looking well equipped with poachers pockets . Everybody else wears at most a lightweight fleece or showerproof jacket to cover their dash from the carpark

I noticed the security guard as I wandered round. It was meant to be just a quick dash for 3 specific items so I had no basket but theyve changed everything round again to accommodate Christmas fayre, so I had to meander

He wasnt very subtle about it. As I came through the checkout he was standing there telling someone on his walkie talkie to Stand down on this one, theyve gone through the checkout. But perhaps that was the point of the exercise

The first time I was ever aware of this kind of thing I was wearing a new green mac with which I was rather pleased. It had a lot of pockets, inside the lining as well as out. It seemed to offer a way of following the advice the police gave me after the mugging: Try not to carry everything in your handbag. Even they recognised there had to be a heavy emphasis on Try.

But I was followed around by a store detective. It pleased me that I could recognise her on future visits, & it became a bit of a game I played in other stores as well: spot the nice lady with a basket. Until a friend of mine who worked as a store detective was seriously injured when she went to apprehend a suspect. It wasnt a joke anymore

And the pockets dont provide any real solution to the handbag problem either. Because you dont wear it every day, you cant remember what is in which pocket, so you have to frisk yourself to find anything

Wind power

As a fan of electricity pylons I suppose I ought to be a fan of wind farms, but Im not
Partly its the noise which is like one of those terrible hums which sometimes appear for days or weeks before disappearing again.
Wind power seems a peculiarly daft way to go in the search for alternative forms of energy, because of its unreliability
Maybe I underestimate the difficulties involved, but why is there not more emphasis in reducing the wastage of the electricity we do generate. By improving batteries or other methods of storage & by reducing transmission losses

Ancient feet

Another of my minor obsessions was with the Assyrian stone friezes in the British Museum. The feet held a particular fascination, carved with such loving attention to detail, from life, surely? Such delicious toes
I was especially curious about the calf muscles & ankle bones. Did the way they were carved represent part of their leather sandals, perhaps there for support & protection rather than just fashion, a bit like footballers shin pads? Or was it just detailed anatomical delineation? I asked several people, including museum staff members, but nobody seemed to know
It would be so much easier to tell if the original paint were still intact

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Poor old thing

Does anyone still use menopause as a defence or mitigation for crime?

There was a real outbreak of middle aged ladies shop lifting in the 1960s. All acting out of character. Once one defence lawyer had the bright idea of claiming that his client was not guilty by reason of not being able to control her impulses because of The Change, it was open season for anybody who wanted a bit of fun

Or so I used to believe

What changed my opinion was not menopause but a mugging. For a short while after that I kept feeling a very strong impulse to reach out & take something off the shelf. Not things I wanted or needed, just felt an attraction to. It was a time when all sorts of things - particularly childrens products, came in bright primary coloured packages - & these were what drew me. Oddly though, my impulse was to waste my money by buying, not stealing them. Still, it gave me insight into the power such feelings can have

Hearing voices

I heard Prime Ministers Questions live today

The odd thing was that Gordon Brown was clearly feeling confident, not at all under pressure, judging from his voice. Cameron was just not getting to him

Of course I couldnt see his reaction to the Mr Bean joke

I didnt hear the press conference - yesterday? - just one clip on the news. That scared me. The resignation of the General Secretary was A necessary first step. Good job he really isnt Uncle Joe

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Richard Branson

For some reason I have never taken to Richard Branson, & feel bemused by the admiration which he attracts from the general public. That probably explains my unease about the proposed Northern Rock deal

In the 1970s Virgin was slowly expanding its cheeky youthful music business. They were acquiring more & more property in Notting Hill & West London. Usually a bit run down & ramshackle but recognisable from the trademark primrose yellow paint applied to the woodwork. And the trompe l’œil paintings. I remember one in Portobello Rd with a sash window painted in the centre of a blank wall

In Ladbroke Grove there was a building belonging to a publishing company. It had a high-doored garage to accommodate the vans which transported the books. Virgin took it over. The garage doors were painted primrose, with a superimposed painting of a van supposedly crashing in, sending splintered timber flying

A graffiti artist got to work & sprayed

over it. My feelings exactly

I do however covet one of the smart grey winter overcoats worn by (male) Virgin station staff


There was a remarkably self-serving piece in Times2 the other day about middle class shoplifting. All sorts of reasons or excuses were offered

They charged me a ridiculous price for a t shirt so I nicked a necklace
I spend over £100 a week in this supermarket so I deserve a little extra
I would never steal from the corner shop
I would never give something which I had stolen to someone else as a gift

But as nice middle class professionals who could afford to buy what they had nicked, they are not of course, indulging in criminal behaviour. That is the province of the lower orders. Theirs was just a little indulgence in something that gave them a frisson

Mustnt mock though. I have, at first unwittingly but then knowingly, walked out without paying for something. The first time was an individual pork pie from M&S, worth about 60p. Only when through the checkout on a very busy Saturday did I realise it was still in my trolley, unpaid for. I certainly was not going to go round again to pay for it. No member of staff in sight to deal with it.

Put it down on the end of a counter? They probably aren’t allowed to put it back on the shelf, so it will go to waste anyway. And the other week, they made a mistake in their favour which it was too much trouble to go back & complain about, so they owe me.

I deserve this pork pie which I was so looking forwards to for my tea

I popped it into my bag & left

The thing is though, I got anything but a buzz from the episode, terrified of the tap on the shoulder outside. So I can claim no virtue for not repeating the trick deliberately

Hate crime?

If I manage to annoy someone while going about my normal business & they call me, loudly, Silly old moo or Silly old cow, can I complain to the police that I am the victim of a hate crime, viz stirring up hatred against old women?

If not, why not? Both sexism & ageism are illegal, aren’t they?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Community is a wonderful thing

It is now totally unacceptable to make statements such as Black people are …

But say The Black community … & you can get away with anything

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Election jitters

I was intrigued to find this in one of my commonplace books - they dont usually serve as a direct personal diary

27 April 97

It struck me yesterday (on the bus) that there are almost no posters up in this area - the sort that go in peoples windows or gardens, not the billboards. Today the point was made on the tv news, so its not just round here

Genuine undecidedness? A change in fashion?

Or not wanting to go out on a limb? So your neighbours cant blame 'you' if the result - whatever it be - is perceived to be disastrous in a few months time

Remember when the Conservatives upped VAT soon after 1979?

Perhaps people are just awe struck by what, after 18 years, is the BIG THING - a change of government (potentially), & see themselves as spectators rather than participants. After all, my one vote wont make the difference

Identity is a link

The thing about identity cards - or any other plastic card - is that they do not identify YOU. Here I am, I'm me

They identify a link between you (or the person in possession of the card) & something else - bank account, public library, supermarket loyalty scheme, employer, local bowling club ....

In order to work, or to be of any value to you the user, the provider has to have a system which records your current status, rights, benefit entitlement, whatever

So what, exactly, is this national identity to which our cards will provide evidence of a link?

A name? But which one - if for example I am a married woman who uses one name for family & another for professional purposes?

A home address? Again, which one? A question of particular relevance to MPs & their housing allowances, but also to millions of others who have to live away from their families for work, educational, health or other reasons

Citizenship? Right of residence? Criminal record? Intelligence from various sources?

I am open minded & capable of being persuaded (honest!) but I cannot see how a national identity card would be anything but a massive bureaucratic exercise to establish, once & for all, where we all stand in this system of classification, even if that has no direct relevance for our day to day life at present

And then it will have to be kept accurate & up to date

Just to prove that I am not a terrorist? Havent I got a good disguise!


I still have my National Identity card, issued at birth during the Second World War. I can even tell you the number - or at least I could, if I were foolish. Not so very surprising, because it was my NHS number until they changed them all a few years ago

Since the abolition of those cards, administrators, politicians or statisticians have from time to time advocated the introduction of a universal national identity number. Makes it much easier to make reliable estimates of the number of people actually living here, to avoid cutting off the wrong bit of the wrong patient etc etc

The most popular objection to such a system is I dont want to be just a number. Somehow they are cold, impersonal, not me, I am special, unique

Looked at in one way, that is very odd. We all feel a very special attachment to our names, even though they may be anything but unique (John Smith). What could be more personal than a number which belongs just to you?

But now there is a wizard wheeze. We shall all have a national number, it will just be disguised as something even more intensely personal than a name. Your own unique iris. Or, how about your genes? No? Well lets just settle for a fingerprint

The fact that in order to be of any use it has to be reduced to an even longer string of even more boring & impersonal numbers consisting of 0 or 1 is neither here nor there. After all, nobody can remember them

Friday, November 23, 2007

Some database trade-offs

Accessibility v security
  • a totally inaccessible database is totally secure
  • a database totally accessible to one & all is totally insecure

Reliability v accessibility

  • Who decides what is accurate? [What is your name, Cherie Blair? Nicky Campbell? Cary Grant? Peachesandcream Zola Minerva Monteverdi Cholmondely-Smyth?]
  • Who is responsible for checking the accuracy of the database
  • Who has access to correct mistakes

Timeliness v accuracy

  • How to ensure that whoever accesses the database, whenever & wherever they access it, will see the most up-to-date information
  • What happens if information is corrected/updated while I am looking at a screen
  • can we flash important information - STOP THIEF

May 1997

Election day 1997 must be memorable for many people - obviously

I had a 10 oclock class to go to so I left home at about 8. Beautiful sunny morning. A day for optimism. I walked down the lane so that I could pass the polling station on the way to the train station

Still undecided how to vote

The political atmosphere had become so toxic that the thought of waking up on Friday morning to find that the Conservatives had scraped back in again was unbearable

But I have never been a member of a political party. And 20 years of living in a rock solid safe constituency had got me perfectly used to taking other factors into account - principally the qualities of the candidates & how my vote might contribute to the overall psephological analysis. And all those lectures on the British Constitution had made it perfectly clear that only the electors in Sedgefield get to vote for or against Tony Blair

The Labour party had run an impressive local campaign & the candidate seemed like a decent enough inoffensive kind of chap. But I liked & respected the sitting Tory MP - who was anything but swivel-eyed

The trouble was that I really dreaded the thought of a Labour government. Almost irrespective of their policies. There seemed to be not one person in the potential cabinet who had the slightest idea of how to organise the proverbial, or of what it takes for someone who does know. Time after time, not just during the election campaign, Labour MPs & front bench spokesmen had shown an alarming ignorance, in practical terms, of their policy areas

But maybe that was just arrogance on my part. Unwilling to see the baton starting to be handed over to a younger generation

There had to be a change, for everybodys sake - including the Conservatives

I voted Labour

Not for the first or last time in my life. But I havent voted in either of the last 2 general elections. Neither of the other 2 parties ran anything like a serious local campaign - showed in fact a real contempt for the voters, I thought. So I just returned the compliment

Things are different now. We have 2 prospective candidates appointed who are being quite active, so we shall see

Princess Elizabeth

Sometime after their wedding Princess Elizabeth & Prince Philip undertook a nationwide tour.

We walked all the way down to the other end of the dale where she was due to make a brief stop in her progress along the A6.

I was wildy excited at the idea of seeing a real live princess

I couldnt believe that she was in a car. And had only ordinary men in suits with her. Princesses travel in coaches!

But she did wear a very pretty shade of pink

Picture credit: North East Midland Photographic Record

It looks to me as if this photo was taken at St Ann’s Well in Buxton; in which case I am standing about 40 yards to the left.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Labour blames the servants again

The Times yesterday had a double page inside spread purporting to give background details about the breach of security (see earlier post). Credited to 4 journalists - Sean O'Neill, Francis Elliott, Rajeev Syal & Rhys Blakely

The first 11/2 columns were clearly based on sources within NAO, not Revenue & Customs. Then came details of phone calls between the Chancellor & the Prime Minister, which presumably came from political sources

When did all this briefing take place? Before the Chancellor made his statement to Parliament?

And how come the NAO gets off so lightly? They had already, on an entirely separate occasion, received a copy of the full database. Why did they not say We cant do this, we must find another way?

Why would the Revenues IT consultants charge so much for stripping out the sensitive details? If this is a genuine technical difficulty, why did NAO not go to the North East to draw their sample in secure conditions?

Even worse, the Times opening paragraph feels free to speculate that the lowly official who made the copy was distracted by the major sporting events taking place that week. I assume they know the official is a he. That seems to have the fingerprints of Labour spin doctors all over it. One might hope they & the press had learned a lesson about not hanging civil servants out to dry like that

Well we can all be distracted or absent minded sometimes. Some people can even be malign. So why are there not procedures which protect such an important database from accidental or malicious copying?

And what, pray, has happened to the 2 copies of the complete database which were in the possession of NAO?

Some of my questions answered by Computer Weekly

See also: Identity is a link

European drinking habits

Thinking about the pitfalls of EU-wide surveys yesterday reminded me of one with which I was involved in the 1970s

For good medical reasons we needed to include a question about alcohol consumption. The question needed to be kept simple (for translation reasons) & we decided on a simple high/medium/low type format

Then we had to define our terms

The Italian representative was of the opinion that low should mean less than 2 litres of wine per day

Hows that for a Mediterranean diet?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Fertility & privacy

Some days I feel as if I have just lost the will to live. Like this morning

Is there any radio station in the world now which does not carry news, on the hour? It is just so hard to avoid

So today we had the child benefit database disaster & a Brussels bendy banana story. As nauseam (I have decided to let that typo stand)

The first just leaves me gaping in disbelief - tho by the time I read the papers I am relieved to see that no-one is buying the 'mistake by a lowly official' version

How would you like to hear yourself described this way by the BBC correspondent?

That somebody, anybody, no matter how high or low, could even consider popping a complete copy of a sensitive database into the post, let alone be able to do it within the system, beggars belief

I switched over to Radio 5 to get away from an over-excited UKIP man explaining that consensual union is the upmarket term for sex, only to find Shelagh Fogarty making the same claim, that the EU plans to ask all us wimmen when we had our first sexual experience!

In my day ....

Curiously though, events surrounding the 1971 Census in England do provide an illustration of how things have changed

Confidentiality of individual census data for 100 years has always been enshrined in law, to the extent that any disclosure, however inadvertent, exposes the culprit to potential imprisonment

1971 was the first decennial census to be processed entirely by computer - though individual names & addresses were never added to the database. Nevertheless there was a sudden late flurry of concern about privacy raised first by the Liberal Party then fomented by Bernard Levin

Late changes had to be made to procedures. Among them something called Barnardisation, adding a random +1, 0 or -1 to figures in statistical tables to obviate the possibility that by comparing one table with another someone could deduce that that nice middle aged couple with 2 cars were not actually married to each other. Or something with an equally low probability of actually happening

The other census topic which came to grief was fertility - then (& now) a term used in demography as a statistical measure rather than a medical condition

To fill gaps not covered by the birth registration process, statisticians used the census to ask women about the total number of children born live to them, complete with relevant dates

The question was asked only of women still in their first marriage. To enquire further would have seemed, in earlier eras, not just insensitive or intrusive but downright indecent

Not in 1971 however. Significant numbers of women were outraged by the lack of sensitivity displayed by statisticians interested only in numbers & not real people

Why dont you want to know about my baby, even if he is illegitimate? What about our much-loved adopted/fostered children? Why cant I record my stillborn baby?

And so we have gone from a time when government had to maintain an official fiction that activities leading to the birth of a child took place only within marriage, the union of one man & one woman, to a time when union can mean a one-night stand, or just a Friday night knee trembler behind the chip shop

Architectural thees & thous

A few years ago I suddenly started noticing cupolas. So I was seeing them everywhere, became a bit obsessed, took a lot of photographs

I thought they were a feature of the Manchester area - a product of the 19th century building boom & the relative lack of late 20th century redevelopment consequent on the decline of cotton

Then I realised there were plenty in London & other cities so my desire to document them faded

I thought about them again a couple years later when listening to a Nicky Campbell programme on R5. I used to enjoy that morning show. Particularly the final hour when he used to orchestrate a discussion between a disparate group of studio guests. That suited his talents, I thought

It could be disconcerting for some guests though, particularly those who had something to plug & were expecting the usual one-on-one interview

One guest seemed particularly put out. He was an American novelist whose name, I regret to say, I have completely forgotten. He explained that he had become a writer only after having been introduced to the works of Henry Miller et al. Before that he had thought that literature meant Shakespeare & thee's & thou's

Right at the end of the hour the conversation moved to the joys of walking round the City on a Sunday when, in uncrowded streets, you could look up & see a startlingly different architecture from the normal homogenised modern shop fascias at street level

Yes, said Nicky, you can see a lot of architectural thee's & thou's if you look up

As the microphones faded you could just hear the American: Oh! You were listening after all


King St, Manchester

London Rd, Manchester

Chestergate, Stockport

St Peters Church, Stockport

Wild swans

This is just such a beautiful picture, taken by Richard Austin & published in todays Times, that I wanted to keep a copy where I could find it

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Half the number plus a half

Aged 6, I had a mystery illness. All I can remember is that I had German measles, off school for a week. Went back to school on a Tuesday, sent home at dinner time & put to bed

The next thing - which must have been a good couple of weeks later - is being taken to have a blood test at the hospital. Although I was a bit better by then we took the absolutely unheard of & unprecedented step of going by taxi. It had a very small, high rear window of smoked glass, which fascinated me

I was well enough to leave the hospital on foot. As a reward for my bravery we went to WHSmith & I got a new Noddy book - number 4. I remember feeling cheated that I did not get numbers 2&3 to complete my set

I was off school for 6 weeks altogether. The nearest we ever got to a diagnosis was glandular fever without the fever. When, some months later, my glands came up again, the doctor who came was not my beloved Dr Hayward - with his tweeds, mustache & smell of tobacco - but a thin young man with dark hair & hornrims. As soon as he tried to feel the back of my neck I, uncharacteristically, ran screaming to hide behind the settee & refused to budge

Some of the 6 weeks I spent at my Nanas. To keep me amused she taught me to play patience - the simple 7 card kind that used to come free with Windows (which version always annoyed me because it played to the wrong rules) As a 6 year old I used to have trouble keeping track as I laid out the cards. It was tedious to start over, but too complicated to try & work out where I had gone wrong if I ended up with the wrong number of cards in one of the rows or columns

Somehow I very gradually worked out (it must have taken over a year) a way of checking as I went along. All I had to do was keep count of the total number of cards & do a simple check at the end of every line

I had discovered the formula for the sum of the first n integers

To this day I remember it most easily in the form I devised

Half the number
Plus a half
Times the number
I have been reading an awful lot of Victorian memoirs, lives & letters, & biographies in recent years. Someone, I cant remember who, told how his elder brother had told him Theres a formula for that when he struggled with a similar problem. The boy was enchanted & went on to a career as a mathematician
Might the same have happened to me if I had been that lucky? Probably not, to be honest. Though I usually understand, dimly, what mathematicians are on about, I have no real wish to join them
Anyway, I was a girl. And, as a boy called Keith Boden once said to me, quite viciously Girls arent supposed to be good at maths. I was 12 & just thought that proved how silly boys could sometimes be

Monday, November 19, 2007

Where are all the obese hoodies?

It is odd that the young men who are proto hoodies, or at least NEETS, look almost universally thin & underfed to me. Although there are plenty of clearly obese families pushing trolleys round supermarkets, you dont see many obese young men hanging around the street

If I were a more galvanised or galvanising kind of person I would set up a kind of soup kitchen for them. A funky one, or whatever word the young people use nowadays. Lots of plates piled high with mashed potatoes, slabs of white bread, sausages, bacon, eggs & puddings to get some fruit down them. Gallons of full fat milk & orange juice. Cod liver oil dressed up as supplements

That after all is the diet on which we were reared. And, as a too-little noticed American study quite recently reported, although the chance of surviving cancer or heart disease is higher for our age group in the USA, the chance of succumbing to one or other in the first place is lower for those born over here.

And we are the generation which produced all those first in my family to go to university


When the jogging/fitness craze first began it became clear that surprising numbers of people thought that survival of the fittest, in the Darwinian sense, had something to do with the need to exercise

It strikes me that the famous Watson/Crick model, especially in its modern multi-coloured ball & stick representation, encourages many people to think that you can design a baby in the same way that you can design a necklace, by picking & choosing from a tray of all available genes which look just like beads

And its surprising how many people react I hadnt thought of that if you point out that designer babies mean the end of the fun of making them in the old fashioned way.

What was the question?

I gave up school physics soon after I ignominiously failed to get some 'experiments' right. I think they were to do with parallelograms of force

It took me quite a long time to realise that school experiments are anything but. The whole point about an experiment is that you do not know the answer when you start. In true science, at least for a good Popperian, a different outcome disproves the hypothesis. Unless you can show that the way you set up your experiment was different from the original in important ways

School physics disappointed me anyway because it seemed to have nothing to do with questions or explanations of things which really interested me - principally stars, radio waves, why water makes a noise

And it may not have helped that I was the only girl & the teacher was principally the boys sportsmaster, filling a hole in the timetable


Is it my imagination or is there much less litter around since the smoking ban was introduced?

The prediction was for us all to be wading knee deep through discarded fag ends. But then there are a lot more street ash trays around which encourage people to dispose of them properly now

That doesnt really explain why people should have stopped dropping food wrappers, till receipts, drink cans & cartons though

Could it be that discarded cigarette ends used to encourage people to think that their own bit of litter wouldnt matter, wouldnt make any difference?

Although I am a smoker I have always been careful not to drop my butts on the ground. Or at least since a visit to West Berlin in 1979. There the streets were so pristine that I would not have dared

Is it too much to hope that gum chewers will now get the message?

Guinness is good for you

I read that sales of Guinness are on the slide

Imagine the shock! horror! reaction if someone today proposed that Guinness should be available on NHS prescription

And yet it used to be. Recommended for those who needed building up. Poor people who struggled to provide themselves with an adequate diet, or for those with illness-induce poor appetite

Including, if memory serves, nursing mothers. No doubt to be drunk while the poor little baby was alone outside in the garden

An elderly gentleman with mobility problems occupied a flat below us when we lived in Kensal Rise in the 1960s. Happily the bay window in his living room looked out across the road to the off licence. So he was able to put a sign in his window when he had a new prescription. The Guinness, in 1/4 or 1/3 pint cans was then delivered to his door

Other food stuffs could also be prescribed. I seem to remember that baked beans were on the list.

Its not that many years ago that I read the practice had been finally discontinued. Now they prescribe very expensive nutrition drinks instead

Friday, November 09, 2007


A sad story in the papers the other day about a boy who died on Tryfan. What surprised me about the coverage was the very firm statement that There are no easy routes up Tryfan

Well obviously, it depends on what you mean by easy, & it is certainly a good idea to discourage inexperienced walkers from having a go

I went to the summit for the first time when I was 8. My father took me. He was very experienced, I was no complete novice, used to living in the Peak District & family holidays in Snowdonia

I had a little secret dream as we climbed. A boy had been featured in Granpas Daily Express because he had climbed Snowdon at the age of 12. I could beat that, in a way, though perhaps Tryfan didnt count because it wasnt the tallest

I may actually have been conceived on Tryfan - my parents spent their war time honeymoon cycling round Snowdonia & my mother always spoke particularly fondly of Tryfan

By coincidence another recent story took me back to those hill walking days. A warning never to drink untreated water, even from a fast-flowing mountain stream. Apparently e.coli is everywhere now. My father taught me never to drink from a stream below a certain point, in case there was a dead sheep higher up. After that, you were OK

Rations for a days climb usually consisted of a block of dried dates, cheddar cheese & chocolate. We had a little aluminium pan in which to boil water using some kind of white block which could be lit to provide heat

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Equal opportunities

A bundle of cartoons fell out of an old commonplace book. From the date of the book they ought to be all over 10 years old, though I cant be sure.

Its amazing how topical some of them still seem. Or maybe we just have a lot of the same obsessions

Art of our times

Shops generally have not put up NO SMOKING signs for years now. Everybody knew it wasnt allowed. Now everywhere has to show them. Next the law might catch up with what shop owners (especially of clothes shops) have known for years now; they need to put up signs saying NO FOOD OR DRINK

Safety of medicine

Because if MRSA doesnt get you the bacon sandwiches will

University of life

Despite all this governments efforts to widen participation

National Trust membership drive

This one really is topical all over again

Enoch Powell

No comment needed

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

What do we know?

Poor soul, in this thy flesh what dost thou know?

Thou knowst thyself so little, as thou knowst not,
How thou didst die, nor how thou wast begot.
Thou neither knowst, how thou at first camst in,
Nor how thou tookst the poison of mans sin.
Nor dost thou, (though thou knowst, thou art so)
By what way thou art made immortal, know.

Thou art too narrow, wretch, to comprehend
Even thyself; yea though thou wouldst but bend
To know thy body.

Have not all souls thought
For many ages, that our body is wrought
Of air, & fire, & other elements?
And now they think of new ingredients,
And one soul thinks one, & another way
Another thinks,
& tis an even lay.

Knowst thou but how the stone doth enter in
The bladders cave, & never breaks the skin?
Knowst thou how blood, which to the heart doth flow,
Doth from one ventricle to th'other go?
And for the putrid stuff, which thou dost spit,
Knowst thou how thy lungs have attracted it?
There are no passages, so that there is
(For aught thou knowst) piercing of substances.

And of those many opinions, which men raise
Of nails & hairs, dost thou know which to praise?
What hope have we to know ourselves, when we
Know not the least things, which for our use to be?

John Donne The Second Anniversary 254-280
Imagine not knowing what hair & nails are made of. Having the media filled with people arguing the point, calling their opponents ignorant or stupid.
Although it is easy to feel quite smug about how much more 'we' know these days, I often wonder if it is possible to say whether an individual can know more than did someone like Donne? OK, a lot of what he knew was wrong (we think) but theres also an awful lot 'we' have forgotten because it is not much use to us in our daily lives


Another non-modern picture of a woman with sloping shoulders. Will they ever come back into fashion again?

Not if the modern models amazingly horizontal collar bones are any guide

Monday, November 05, 2007

Lies, damn lies, and Florence Nightingale

There is probably no department of human inquiry in which the art of cooking statistics is unknown, & there are sceptics who have substituted 'statistics' for 'expert witness' in the well known saying about classes of false statements
Sir Edward Cook : Life of Florence Nightingale 1913

This sounds like the source for the saying about lies, damn lies etc.

Not Disraeli after all. More like a judicial joke

Feeding baby

Libby Purves mentioned in her column the other day that the Truby King insistence on regular 4-hourly feeds stemmed from research on calves

Funny that. The edition of Dr Spock which I used said that the idea came from incompletely or inadequately controlled clinical trials on human babies.

Gastro-enteritis etc used to be major killers, evn in the developed world. Trials of methods which involved scrupulous sterilisation somehow also introduced a rigid time table. The death rate was cut dramatically

I suppose that makes sense in a way - if feeding times are erratic & unpredictable it gets harder to ensure sterilisation

It took time to establish that a rigid feeding timetable in itself had no independent effect on the risk of disease

There are eternal lessons here. Make sure that you have thought about all the confounding variables.

And why do we have to keep on re-learning the message about cleanliness?



Fear is by definition irrational since it is caused by, is a reaction to, something which has not happened yet

Fear in itself is not necessarily irrational – sensible mice are fearful of cats -Peter Brooker


Exformation: That part of communication which doesnt have to be uttered because it is a shared understanding between speaker & listener

Can exformation travel faster than information?

And what do scientists mean by information anyway? Where is the knowledge, to coin a phrase

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The pram in the hall

I think Cyril Connolly would have approved of putting baby out in the garden

It would have got the pram out of the hall for an hour or two

Left you space to get on with the masterpiece

Or the housework

Friday, November 02, 2007

Lifes span

Given that life is finite for the individual, one can argue:

(a) every extra day is worth a lot

(b) it is so short in relation to the infinity of time that it does not really signify if we live for 40 or 80 or any other number of years

Thursday, November 01, 2007


If theres one aspect of modern child-rearing theory which gets my grumpy old goat it is the idea that a child can NOT control its excretory functions until well beyond its 2nd birthday

PHOOEY. RUBBISH. As any mother who had to cope with terry nappies without a washing machine could tell you

The idea of a 3-year old walking round with a loaded nappy? EEEEUGH

At least the government doesnt have a policy on this

Though on second thoughts, if were all supposed to mind each others business now ...

Advice to all parents

Trust your instincts

Just remember that, whatever you do, they will end up Larkined

Or at least they will think they are


Leaving your baby alone

The business of giving babies an 'airing' is still preoccupying sections of the press

And again there is horror at the idea that they were left alone. Well they were asleep, usually. Though even when awake babies are often more than able to amuse themselves

Another element of baby care then which has of course more or less completely disappeared is the use of older siblings or neighbourhood children to keep an eye on baby

In the the age of 2-children-3-years apart families of course there wont be any siblings old enough to take any such responsibility

One of the, to me, most disconcerting facts about modern parenting is that, for many people, the first baby they ever hold is their own

The worst danger to babies sleeping in the garden in fact came from cats, who were well known (allegedly) to be in the habit of jumping into the pram & scratching the babys face, or even suffocating it

But the 1950s equivalent of Mothercare could provide special nets to fix over the hood to avert this

Trust the British to hide even their babies behind net curtains