Monday, June 30, 2008

Change your partners

Most surveys of adult sexual behaviour, even those most scrupulously designed & executed, will find that the reported number of (hetero) partners is higher for males than for females

This is most often interpreted as the result of bragging (by the men) and/or excessive modesty (in the female), since by definition, so it is said, the two must be equal

I wonder if this is in fact the case. We do not live in a closed society. Foreign holidays & international migration mean there is an ever changing pool of partners to choose from.

Even if society were closed, we should not necessarily expect equal numbers. Closed is not the same as static, there are always births & deaths. And, most importantly, men tend to choose a younger partner, & vice versa

To help think about this it helps to imagine 2 parallel travelators/moving pavements, moving at the same steady speed in the same direction. One is for men only, the other for women

People step on to the travelator in strict order of age & eventually reach the other end & step aside

But women stand facing forwards, men face backwards

As the journey proceeds, men see an ever increasing number of potential partners, women an ever decreasing one. The men will choose from women who have not yet had time to reach their maximum number of partners. An increasing number of the womens partners will step off the end of the travelator & cease to be available for our survey

Only a longitudinal (cohort) study would expect the number of reported partners to be the same for men as for women. A cross-sectional (point in time) study will not find this

Too hot in the kitchen

It is never pleasant to see a human being caught like a rabbit in the media spotlight. Even if they are a politician

I remember Timothy Yeo in particular, caught by the pack of press hounds in the Back to Basics hunt

Now it is breaking the rules on expenses – surprise, surprise

Three things strike me:

Wendy Alexander, sadly, just proved by the manner of her going that she was really not up to the job in the small but vicious, Rankin-esque Edinburgh world

It is a strange system which makes it OK for an MP to claim expenses for a window cleaner or a gardener, but not for a nanny

The current system of MPs expenses does not strike me as corrupt, per se

It seems to have grown, Topsy like, to cope with:

the desire to make it possible for people from all walks of life & levels of income to be MPs

the recognition that MPs need an office of support staff if they are to do their job effectively

and the very modern demand that an MP should maintain a home in the constituency, at which they spend virtually all their time when their presence is not actually required at Westminster. Including every weekend

These aims would seem to make it a fond hope that one could draw up a set of rules, clearly understandable by all interested parties, defining allowable expenses

What might be fair for an old-fashioned married male MP with a wife & family to support might be a gravy train for a veteran husband & wife who are both also veteran MPs. But grossly unfair to a female MP who is the mother of young children

I do not remember any pursuit of Labour politicians during the Back to Basics death throes of the last Conservative government

And not because there were no comparable peccadilloes – somebody must have known about Robin Cooke, for example. The pursuit of these was just not part of the game

Which is why I wonder if David Cameron & the Conservatives may not have made a serious mistake by trying to position themselves as whiter than white on this issue

Cartoon by Castro

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Food floorspace statistics

Instead of food miles it is time we started to focus on food floorspace statistics

Just how much of this overcrowded planet is occupied by shelf after shelf of giant bags of crisps? You know they are bad for you

It used to be a source of puzzlement to me – where did this national addiction begin? Who has, & how is there any pleasure to be had from greasy fingered consumption of ersatz prawn cocktail, cheese & onion etc etc

According to Wikipedia, crisps remained unseasoned until an innovation by Joe "Spud" Murphy, the owner of an Irish crisp company called Tayto, who developed a technology to add seasoning in the 1950s & produced the world's first seasoned crisps, Cheese & Onion or Salt & Vinegar. But I remember Oxo crisps in the school tuck shop, also in the 1950s, so it may be a close-run thing

I did not like shop bought crisps then & I do not much like them now, certainly not enough to make them a part of my daily diet

The mystery was solved when I heard on the radio a group of 20 or 30 somethings discussing their daily need for crisps

They grew up in the 1970s, when sugar was the devil in childrens food. DO NOT GIVE YOUR CHILDREN SWEETS, Mums were instructed by Those Who Knew Best

So Mums fed their children healthy, savoury treats instead

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Proper Modesty

National Geographic was once the kind of magazine that teenage boys would hide under their mattress in the fond hope that their mother would not know. All those pictures of bare breasted tribal women

Later, we had the phenomenon of white women exercising their right to sit topless on the beach in Goa or Bali, surrounded by ogling young local men. Why does that seem like a kind of imperialism?

On the wall of my living room I have some framed photos I took of the cave paintings at Sigi Riya. I particularly love the delicate outlines & the mustard/turquoise colours. I was dumbfounded when I heard how someone was spreading gossip about my brazen taste for bare breasted women

In my time I must have walked past, sat near, tens or hundreds of women breast feeding in public. Some I noticed: although discreet, something about their posture made me realise, as I turned my head or got up to leave

A couple of weeks ago I was in a Caffé Nero where a young woman sat in the window gossiping with a friend. Her top was pushed right up, exposing both breasts as she fed her (very new) baby. It made me feel uncomfortable, choose a seat at a distance, leave them space

There was a time when the sight of a well-turned ankle could make grown men faint. In the 1960s it was my mother who persuaded me that I should shorten the hem of the summer dress I had just made, so that I exposed my knees, to fit the latest fashion

At the same time I had of course incorporated the ingenious ribbon & pop stud arrangement into the shoulder seam so that my bra & petticoat straps could be firmly anchored, would not slip & show at the top of my bare arms

A friend tells, often & indignantly, of how she was refused entry to the cathedral in Florence because she was wearing a sleeveless dress

In the 1970s I used to feel offended by crowds of anoraked & bejeaned European school parties lounging on the tombs in Westminster Abbey

There are days when I would really like to go out wearing the full Saudi black garb, complete with birdlike mask & sunglasses. Apart from the welcome feeling of being hidden from view, the trapped layers of air would be a very good defence against the Raynauds

Anyone who has had long hair knows the naked feeling of chopping it off. Many Muslim women feel completely unable to face the world without a headscarf. The Queen would not be properly dressed for a public engagement without hat, tiara or crown

I feel offended now by men shopping in the supermarket dressed only in shorts & flip flops

Just before last nights Good Read the continuity announcer warned that there would be discussion of a book about the male reproductive organ which some listeners may find … challenging

No I cannot explain the rules, or why they change

Perhaps there is a modesty meme whose expression adjusts rapidly to the environment

Friday, June 27, 2008

Too many SPOCs

What a sad & sorry tale is contained in the Poynter report on the loss of Child Benefit Data

.. the issue of data ownership had been discussed previously by HMRC management, it had not been resolved at the time of the data loss incident and confusion among HMRC departments as to where this ownership lay was a contributory factor in that loss

There was a general lack of awareness across HMRC Business Units, at least prior to the incident, of the importance of information security

It is clear that ... events, culminating in the provision of two compact discs ... to the NAO in March 2007, established a precedent which led to the subsequent loss in October 2007 of a similar data scan. … the data was provided to the NAO in full, even though the NAO had only requested a large sample and had attempted to get sensitive data redacted

As outlined above, EmployeeA held the overall “primary SPOC” role, but he was assisted for day to day information and meeting requests by a more junior member of staff. For clarity in recounting these events, this more junior role will subsequently be referred to as the “secondary SPOC”.

SPOC is not a term with which I am familiar. I feel a mild sense of disappointment that it stands simply for Single Point of Contact. In the context I thought it really might mean someone from outer space

I thought the Chancellor was showing the strain in his strange choice of language in his statement to the House: "the matter was not elevated to the senior civil service", but I find that phrase comes in fact directly from the report

Related posts:

World class

What is this obsession with making things world class? Is it a British obsession or do politicians in other countries aspire to this too? A Google search for "world class" (with the quotes on) produces about 51,200,000 results. The term is meaningless

The earliest reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated as recently as 1950 in Sport magazine: Such is the magnetism of world class heavyweight boxers! So it is a modern anxiety, one we did not have when we had an Empire & the world was ours

Setting out to be world class is first cousin to the belief that we have institutions which are the envy of the world, such as the NHS

Usually such institutions are so much envied that nobody makes the slightest attempt to copy them. No doubt because they cannot come up to our standards

Personally I lean towards the belief that If a thing is worth doing it is worth doing badly, & The best is the enemy of the good. So can we just calm down & settle for what is good for us?

Or else, you know what will happen. We will lose to Germany on penalties & sink into a national depression


More signs of the times

Somebody has been flyposting the bus stops in the village:

Are your outgoings too high?

It gives the name of a mortgage broker, so I guess his problem is that his incomings are suddenly too low

I do not know if we have a bye-law against this kind of thing. Apart from the odd missing pet flyposting is not usually a problem round here. If it is illegal, he may find his cash flow even more hard pressed

Another sign I spotted yesterday, in the window of a clothes shop of one the younger, cheap’n’cheerful chains. It was handwritten


It seems like only yesterday that almost every store had a sign in the window advertising job vacancies

Recent Economic Changes indeed

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Baah history

There is a serious/popular history just waiting to be written on the subject of sheep, sheep farming & the woollen industry

Its role in the development of the economy, trade, womens work & prosperity in Anglo-Saxon England

Its effect on the landscape of Britain

The way wool cloth facilitated travel by giving travellers protection from the weather (Sartor Resartus)

The globalisation shock caused by the development of sheep farming in the Antipodes

Merino wool imports – how they affected C19th Highland clearances. And led to a flowering of agricultural research into replacement products & improved methods in central Europe, which among other things, ensured the existence of a journal in which Mendel could publish his genetic experiments

Meat imports & the development of refrigeration

The encouragement of immigration, of mainly Muslim men, to provide labour in the post-war Yorkshire woollen mills

And much, much more besides

Designer babies

It is good that designer baby anxieties have abated somewhat, now geneticists have realised that the fundamental law of a one way flow of information is, er, not quite as absolute as they believed

Perhaps more generally the realisation is percolating through that:

(a) we will never be able order up a baby composed of a selection from all possible genes, only at best make a selection from a small number of fertilised eggs composed of genetic material of the parents

(b) it will be the end of making babies the old fashioned way. IVF for all

I forget which society beauty it was who was supposed to have proposed to Winston Churchill that they should make a baby together.

Just think – with my looks & your intellect!

Ah madam, Churchill replied. But what if it has my looks & your intellect?

The thing which has bothered me most about this public debate is how, almost immediately a discussion starts (in this country at least) someone will use the phrase blond, blue eyed as shorthand for the imaginary designers choice

Is this irony? Or does it reveal deep-seated Freudian yet Aryan yearnings?

There is always a catch

Alice Miles wrote a nice piece in the Times about liberty, paranoia & dog pooh

One of the questions we libertarians who just want to be left to get on with life are going to have to face up to – perhaps not soon, but later, is that of the level of public expenditure

It is one thing to criticise or complain about the way the neighbours or family member s spend too much of their money on foreign holidays, burgers, booze or fags & not enough on the proper maintenance of themselves, their home or bringing up their children properly

It is quite something else when we are squabbling over how to spend 40% of our & their incomes

Related post:

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Art & science

I have found that somebody has been doing work on the effect of art on science

A very nice paper is available on the web:

Art & science - two cultures or two sides of the same coin

given by Arthur I Miller of University College London in Tokyo in 2006

Dressing to confuse

Seeing the pictures of Serena Williams in her tennis mac took me back 25 years

I was the proud owner of a beautiful shirt dress. Made of fine needlecord in a shade of greyish blue. Very reminiscent of the shirtwaisters worn in the 1950s, though this one did not have a waistline, it buttoned all the way down the front, tied with a belt. Beautifully made, it was one of the most expensive garments I had ever owned

I had a few cracks from male colleagues along the lines of Why don’t you take your coat off – or are you not stopping? Which I loftily ignored

Until the day I had to have a briefing session with my Director

He was not much older than I was, a bit of a natty dresser himself (tragically given to ice-cream suits). Although very bright, he had a reputation of not being an easy man to talk to

Would you like to hang up your coat? he enquired, before I sat down

Nonplussed, I politely said No thank you, Im fine

Now wouldn’t you have left it at that, even if you had thought to yourself Funny woman?

Not him. Twice during our discussion he interrupted himself to enquire if I was feeling the cold - should he turn the heating up? Was I sure I did not want to take my coat off?

I do not think I ever wore it to work again

By the way – did Serena actually play the match in her mac, or was it just during the warm up?


Before Petroleum

One of the characters from Victorian Manchester whose life I researched was an oil & cotton merchant

Oil Merchant was a recognised category in the Manchester Directories of the time, though only a few names were ever listed

It was not until a late stage in my research that I thought: Hold on - what kind of oil?

Although there is a vast literature on the oil industry virtually all of it concentrates on petroleum. I established that my man was unlikely to be an oilman in that sense - I found the (to me) startling information that James Young, a Scottish engineer who worked for Tennants Brewery in Manchester had discovered a petroleum spring in a coal mine in Alfreton, Derbyshire which went into production in 1848. Unfortunately the spring soon ran dry, or I might be writing this from the equivalent of Derbyshire’s very own Dallas

With petroleum hardly out of its pram even half way through the 19th century, what kind of oil had been used to lubricate the Industrial Revolution, & from where did my merchant get his supplies?

That led me to another delightful discovery – the word tribology.

There is a standard work of history History of Tribology, 2nd Edition
by Duncan Dowson which I have not been able to read

and I could not find any other authoritative source

The main vegetable oils being traded at that time were linseed & olive, so it is possible they were used as machine oils for steam trains & cotton mills

But I think the most likely candidate is in fact whale oil

In todays climate it is easy to think of whaling as just a regrettable example of uncivilised barbarity, & to forget what an important role whaling played in our economic development

It wasn’t just whale meat & corsets

How to buy a council flat

I often get hold of the wrong end of a stick, so my version of this tale may not be correct. But here goes

A tenant applied to buy his council flat under the Right to Buy. The council acknowledged his right & told him the price he would have to pay

The tenant issued a statutory notice of delay. Completion was delayed, the price remained fixed, & he continued to pay rent as a tenant

When he was in a position to complete, he claimed that the rent he had paid during the period of delay should be treated as a contribution towards the purchase price

The rent paid was £17,000. The purchase price was £17,000. No further payment was required

The Court of Appeal agreed

The twist in this tale is that the tenant was in receipt of Housing Benefit

The rent had been paid by book transfer from the housing benefit account to the tenant rent account. In effect, the council had paid the rent

The relevant law seems complicated, involving the Housing Acts of 1985 & 1988 & the Law of Property (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 1989. But the Court ruled that rent is rent, whoever pays it

I recollect that Lord Goodman dubbed the 1984 Housing Act the worst example of legislation by cross reference that he had seen. Attempts to clear the ground do not seem to have been all that successful

On balance I feel forced to conclude that whoever guided the tenant through the thicket of cross reference deserves a medal

House of Lords Hansard for 1984 is not on the web

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Guilt & shame

I heard someone on the radio giving an elegant explanation of the difference between guilt & shame. This by way of explaining why the justice system is not there to deliver shame but to decide the narrower question of guilt according to defined criteria

This is a novel distinction to me, but how useful. It helps clarify so much that seems confused especially in current law’n’order debates & in consideration of the press & privacy

One area which raises food for thought is in the question of rape trials, & what sort of defence it might be permissible to mount. Rape is one of those crimes where the victim is too likely to feel defiled & therefore shamed in the eyes of the world. Too often, at least in the past, it has been acceptable for the defence to take advantage of that sense of shame to suggest that the victim somehow also shares the guilt for the events which transpired. For some reason, it has not been possible to bring up the accuseds previous record of guilt for similar crimes

Sex is a very potent area for shame. The problem with Max Mosley is that he appears to feel no shame

The press is very good at deciding who ought to feel ashamed of themselves, pointing the finger, jeering loudly

And that is how one type of school bully behaves – attacking self worth by making the victim feel ashamed of having to wear glasses, or being fat, or having red hair

Looking your age

I keep trying to work out just why it should be that everybody else looks younger as we ourselves grow older. It does not seem to make any sense

It is not just that policemen & (more disturbingly) doctors look as if you should be asking if their mother knows they are out. 70-year olds look 50, centenarians look 70

Relativity provides a likely answer to the question of why time seems to go faster - a year represents a whole 20% of your life when you are 5 years old, but only 2% when you are 50

But if relativity plays a part in other peoples youthfulness, does that mean we are ageing more quickly than they are. Or just that we are more familiar with our own face, more aware of every new wrinkle & grey hair. The memory of what you used to look like is sharper & clearer to you than it is to outside observers

Monday, June 23, 2008

Giving up

I used to reward myself with a cigarette at the end of each paragraph. Killing oneself swiftly, of course, but it did help me ever so much. I’ve written a lot less now that I’ve given up - Ben Macintyre

I gave up smoking 30 years ago, but still miss it. The truth is that I still haven’t found anything better than a cigarette for a contemplative break. A cold KitKat with a hot cup of tea is OK but you can’t do that 10 times a day - Anthony Horowitz

Ive just given up smoking, which is a real pain because, whatever people say, it sharpens the brain. I’m trying desperately not to stuff my face with chocolate as a replacement, which also seems to work very well - Daisy Waugh

I quit smoking a few years ago. Cigarettes were such a punctuation to the writing process I was worried their absence might be a bit of a nightmare … I moved from 30 fags a day to a 40-pack of Smints … Ive just kicked a serious Diet Coke habit as well - Val Mcdermid

The above quotes all come from an article about guilty snacks

It would be interesting to know how they all gave up. I doubt they needed mutiple admissions to the Priory to rid themselves of this terrible addiction, or even help from an NHS smoking adviser. I expect most gave up in the same way that the vast majority do, because they just decided they would, on balance, prefer to be a non-smoker. Often because of pressure from friends & family

I did give up smoking for 3 years, just like that. There were even 2 packs of cigarettes in the cupboard, put there in case it ever became just too much in the small hours. On the whole I enjoyed being a non-smoker - socially easier & a lot less cleaning the house. But I went back to it for the kind of reasons mentioned by thesewriters. In my case I simply preferred the sharpening effect of smoking.

And, I have to say, the thought of a serious Diet Coke habit sounds even more terrifying

Stripey socks & polka dots

I like to wear sandals in summer. More Birkenstock than strappy Italian, for health & safety reasons

First problem: I have to wear socks. Really, no option

Second problem: nobody has invented socks which look like ordinary tights that are GUARANTEED not to sprout a hole over the big toe in a hard day of pavement slogging - not just unsightly but the equivalent of wrapping a painful, gangrene-inducing band of lycra round your toe

Third problem: white or light summery colours are absolutely OUT. The soles go black on town streets

I know what people think of those who wear socks’n’sandals

I have considered wearing really silly socks. Multi-coloured stripes, or polka dots, or even both together. Or mismatched pairs

I settle for plain, serviceable black

When Jenny Josephs poem Warning won the title of Nations Favourite some years ago, there were those who sneered – not great poetry, they said. But I do not know one woman, especially if she is or has been, a mother of teenagers, who doesn’t think it is right up there


When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired

But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple

See? I’m just practising

Let there be light

So the days are getting shorter already. We have had so little light this year that we have barely noticed the long evenings

And to make it worse, the longest day was also cold. I should have worn two sweaters under my jacket. As it was the Raynauds came on when I went outside & I ended up having to hand over my purse in M&S so they could take the money out

But further confirmation, if needed, that Raynauds is a response to relative, not absolute, temperature came when I finally got warmed up & hands stayed normal for the rest of the day

I am sure that it was not the coldest June day I remember. In 1975 I wore my (fake) fur coat for the Aussie Test at Lords. In Buxton a match was even abandoned because of snow

Perhaps 1976 offers a more hopeful example. That Saturday of the Lords test (W Indies) was the last grey, miserable, rainy day of that long hot summer

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The naming of birds

There are no turkeys in Turkey, said a comedian on the radio

Turkeys are not turquoise

So why are they called turkeys?

Carrying the weight of the job

Crikey - the new chief economist of the Bank of England is younger than my first-born

Actually the same can be said of at least one Cabinet Minister, who struggles to be taken seriously.

This is proper grown up stuff

It is odd how some men carry weight, both literally & metaphorically, by the time they get to 40. And I do not necessarily mean overweight. Some may be showing the beginnings of a comfortable corporation, but mostly it seems to come from a deepening of the torso & a strengthening of the jaw

Mind you, some of them change from lissom youth to hulk at an alarmingly early age. One of the things that adds to my scepticism about the health-bringing value of sport is that someone like Lawrence Dallaglio looks, in his photos at least, like a man in his 50s

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Taken for a ride

Shares in the Go-Ahead bus company surged 15% this week on the back of an optimistic trading statement. Shares in other bus companies also rose

Part of this is down to the increase in travel by older people of course. For the first time I read that local authorities reimburse the companies “a percentage of the full adult single fare

I wonder how this figure is negotiated. Does the Treasury lay down a standard national discount, or is it left to individual councils?

Paying the full adult single fare is by far the most expensive way of travelling by bus. Usually a wide range of discounts-for-bulk (& prepayment) are available

I fear that, without hard bargaining to get better than the best rate available to ordinary adult members of the public, we are all, as taxpayers, being taken for a different kind of ride

Film credits

When I was a child, one of the great delights of going to the pictures came from careful watching of the opening & closing credits. All those strange occupations

And, if the film were American, the weird & wonderful names. Imagine being saddled with something like that instead of a nice, proper (ie English) name

I thought of this when I read the obituary of Cyd Charisse

She went from Tula Ellice Finklea
to Maria Istomina
then Felia Sidorova
followed by Lily Norwood

until becoming known by what seems now the only possible & right name, especially for those fabulous legs

Friday, June 20, 2008

Caught on camera

A piece of cctv footage playing on the Times website showed a young woman buying a copy of the Sun newspaper

An ordinary event, happens millions of times a day

Two men in the shop, one behind the counter & one leaning casually on the customers side, turn to watch her as she leaves the store.

An everyday experience for a pretty girl

Except that this was Mulu Girma, labelled as a suicide bomber in the website caption, buying the edition which headlined the failed London bombings of July 2005, & she has just been sentenced to 10 years in jail for helping one of them to escape & for failing to inform the police

Related post
Making eyes

Pretty girl

In a certain section of English society there can be no higher praise for a young woman than to be called pretty, or very pretty

The first time I came across this I was mildly outraged

It is sexist, in the sense that a young man cannot be pretty, or at least not in a good way. But it is not really a comment on a girls looks, other than that she is clean & tidy & dresses neatly. Not flash, that would be a pretty girl but

She is also well brought up, friendly & outgoing, reliable & kind. And she certainly ought to make the best of her educational opportunities, though probably not be so clever as to be scary

She will always pull her weight. In the past it would have meant lots of committees & good works, after bringing up 4 nicely mannered children. These days this means having a career.

Alice Aldridge is certainly a pretty girl. Fallon Rogers may be one too, though she may be handicapped by having parents who run a pub

I for one was very touched to hear the commanding officer of Corporal Sarah Bryant describe her as a very pretty girl, a really pretty girl

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Making the punishment fit the crime

I am somewhat perturbed by what seems to be a pretty complete lack of reaction to the imposition of a 15-year sentence on Yeshi Girma

According to the press reports the sentence was for the offence of failing to inform the police of her husband's activities (I have been having trouble trying to track down the precise details, including the relevant Act etc – more evidence of the remoteness now of the legal system)

This sentence came during a week when there was much media discussion – including on Radios 4 & 5 – of the question of whether it is ever right for a mother to give up her son to the police when she knows he has committed a crime. It would be interesting to hear of any case where a mother has been prosecuted for failing to do so, of telling lies to the police, or of helping him to get away

The atmosphere in which the trial & sentencing of Yeshi Girma took place can be gauged by the judge's expressed disappointment that he was unable to impose a longer sentence, & his implication that she shares some of the responsibility for the de Menezes shooting

This week we mourn the death of the first British woman soldier to die in Afghanistan, a country in which one of our stated aims is the improvement of the position of women

I do not argue that Yeshi Girma should not have been tried or punished because she is a wife & mother. Still less that we are somehow sending the wrong message because she is a Moslem. I would have no problem with the idea of her being tried on a charge of involvement in the crime, maybe even of conspiracy. But the confluence of the times, the fact that she is a wife, & a Moslem, seem to have brought about a special charge, & perhaps a peculiarly harsh sentence, just for her

On a more hopeful front, Samina Malik’s conviction for possessing items, including poetry, of use to terrorists has been overturned on appeal


Drug induced confusion

Simon Singh does not like homeopathic medicine. In particular he is offended by the notion that highly diluted solutions, containing not one molecule of active ingredient, still nevertheless remember what they once were & so can bring about a cure. He has offered a prize for anyone who can prove this scientifically

Now this sounds like fair old nonsense to me too.

But what are we to make of the news of Australian research which shows that athletes who only believed they were taking a banned substance outperformed everyone else in their group? This was an 8-week placebo-controlled trial of growth hormones (I wonder how they got ethical approval for that – declaring a practice illegal or harmful usually stymies further research into its effects)

And to take us even further into this Looking Glass world, legal experts reportedly disagree on whether athletes who only thought that they were taking drugs could fall foul of anti-doping rules

I think I need to go & lie down for a bit. Take an imaginary aspirin. My head hurts

Related posts

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On your mettle

Is it just me or are a lot of people seeming almost to be looking forward to hard times ahead? It is not just that most ordinary people seem to be convinced that they are going to be hard, they seem almost to relish the idea that they are going to be tested, to see what they can do in adversity

As Patrick Hosking said in the Times, anyone under the age of 35 (in this country at least) simply has no experience of a world where credit is not plentiful & cheap.

That makes me feel very old, but younger people also seem almost to want some such experience. Just as the sons of men who fought in WW2 often wonder, half wistfully, how they would have survived that challenge.

I even heard one young woman say We know we’ve just been spending it on piles of tat, & it has not made us happy

Neither can we call this a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves but must fetch in more from the next house, taking upon us the misery of our neighbours - John Donne

Paid Servant

It was good to hear ER Braithwaites Paid Servant on Radio 4 so soon after To Sir With Love. Maybe we can look forward to Reluctant Neighbours soon

It is disconcerting - & revealing - to hear a book come across so differently as an adaptation. I was a bit surprised to hear the presenter apologise in advance for the language, but I suppose that was for the occasional appearance of the N-word

It was travel that made me realise how much the world had changed. A social worker taking the bus (complete with sound effects) to go & see his clients!

And I think the image that will stay with me is that of Braithwaite, needing to deliver 1-year old twins to a care home in Brighton, arriving at Victoria Station with one tucked under each arm

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Colour printing

I really must have picked up something in the air when I started talking about the Times pictures

This Saturday the magazine treated us to a selection of 1930s photos from their archives, featuring the British at work

The pioneering picture editor of those days was Ulric Van den Bogaerde. I used to be in love with his son, Dirk Bogarde. Especially in his incarnation as Dr Simon Sparrow. And I now know that the current picture editor is Paul Sanders

One picture particularly captured my attention. Just browns, blacks & a little red (very Rembrandt) it shows a man tending to a wallpaper printing machine in Darwen, Lancashire

My grandfather was a calico dyer & printer. From him I learned, almost without realising it, a lot about textiles. How to judge the quality of a piece of cloth. Do a quick thread count. Tell the difference between a pattern which was dyed & one which was printed. How to have a good idea of which colours would be fast in the wash & which were likely to run

All information which is still useful, especially when so much tat is offered on the grounds that cotton is, ipso facto, superior to anything manmade

I should love to be able to sit & look at this photo with my granddad. He could tell me if printing wallpaper was in anyway the same as printing cotton, expand on all the technical details in the picture

And it would be great if there could be an exhibition of these photographs, preferably in Greater Manchester

Now I can look at a blown up version of this picture I see that there are actually patches of blue in the top left hand corner

But mostly I see how stiff with paint are the mans overalls. My grandma would never have let grandpas get into that state

Monday, June 16, 2008

Organising a brewery

Dominic Gieves said on the radio that all these losses of data & documents show that New Labour is no good at administration

Now they notice

Related posts: May 1997
Civil service

Orange alert

Most of the reports I have seen or heard about the secrets on a train mention that the documents were inside an orange cardboard folder. This minor detail seems to hold quite a wide fascination

Colour-coded files are a very useful part of good administration

Take that (now sadly devalued) institution, the Written Parliamentary Question

IMD* there was a strict 2-day deadline for answer. The papers for each question were held in distinctive folders – say purple with a green & white flag, departments varied. Immediately recognisable by everybody, from the Minister who found them in his red box at night to the messenger who ferried them around the office

Clearly identifiable at 100 paces, the messenger was clearly on an urgent mission. To use the modern jargon, there was ownership. Good human psychology. Everybody had a sense of their own importance in the delivery of good government

Cardboard folders & paper seem quaint & ridiculously old fashioned now. I expect a lot of the work is done by (secure?) intranet. I wonder what clever techniques they have for flagging priority & giving ownership?

Old fashioned cardboard can still provide one very effective form of security: cannot be penetrated by the photographer’s zoom lens

And I wonder what the archivists & conservators had to say about the plastic folders which were hurriedly adopted by Ministers after that recent embarrassment?

Still, perhaps New Labour will be pleased to see their record rot & crumble from the effects of humidity

* In My Day

Photographic reverie

You used to get wonderful views from the bus stop up the hill. Lots of sky. It is not the same since they built the new houses, but there is still some interest on a sunny day

I long ago gave up hope of becoming even a goodish amateur photographer, but thinking a bit about pictures recently inspired me to at least think about it again

Ben Gurr in the Times gave some top tips. #1: You should not need to think about the technical side of things. Be totally familiar with your equipment

I tried very hard years ago to get to grips with f numbers & lenses … tried different ways of getting into my head how these connected with what the eye could see. No luck, but then came good automatic cameras. Still no real improvement. I just could never get to work out the relationship between what I could see & how it would look on a few square inches of paper

Maybe Saturday was time for another go while I waited for the bus. No camera, just concentrate on looking at the scene & trying to imagine what kind of a photo I would try to produce

Start with the sky. Visually great, not so good for the weather on a June day. Some angry cumulus, very white & dense but somehow plumped up & very fluffy, like cotton wool released from the plastic packaging but not yet pulled apart

Quite low, but leaving room for dirtier claggy stuff to come scudding in underneath. Borne on amazingly variable & gusty winds. The odd patch of blue

So how would I set about a picture? Presumably, technically, it would make a difference if I wanted to emphasise the texture of the cotton wool stuff, or capture the sense of movement underneath

Concentrate on the hill. Amazing contrasts of greens, especially between the fields & the odd standing copse or lone tree, then the texture of the larger wood lower down. Go for colour or texture – or could you have both?

Or go for the geometry? The line at the top of the hill, crowned by the mast. The odd geometry of the stone walls marking out the fields – just dark lines from here. Come to think of it, why is the geometry like that, mixing triangles& quadrilaterals? Why are they not just neat rectangles?

Just then there was a bit of a break in the clouds, changing everything as a shaft of sunshine moved across. Start again!

But I think I have learned one thing. If I learn not to be greedy & just concentrate on one aspect at a time, maybe then I could get to grips with the technicalities

Related post

Paul Temple

I have half heard some of the episodes in the latest Paul Temple serial on Radio 4

Somewhat to my surprise I found myself listening with rapt attention to the previous one in this series of modern, but faithful, remakes

Of course there is the nostalgia factor for someone old enough to have heard the originals, & really care then whether Steve would escape the villains clutches

The thing that surprised me was a very real admiration for the writers technique

Of course, dialogue such as:

Oh look! There’s a drawer in the bottom of the wardrobe!

Oh yes! Open it!

is not exactly realistic. But how do you convey fast(ish) paced all-action drama on radio?

There may have been storytellers ever since humans came into existence, but they had facial expressions & gesture. Even just to direct the audiences’ attention. Look up at the stars! Look behind you!

The original Paul Temples came at a time when radio had been there for barely one human generation. They really did have to work out how to do it

And that clunky wardrobe: nostalgia comes in to play & I see exactly the kind of room they were in. No fitted bedrooms then. Just a big old fashioned dark wooden wardrobe with a mirror on the door & a big chest of a drawer underneath

The pictures really are better on radio

Let me sell you a secret

When did we start to think that the normal, OK, right thing to do with stray secret papers was to hand them over to a news organisation?

I can’t imagine that anybody would have done this during WW2, or during the 50s

Perhaps it’s a 1960s thing – poking fuddy-duddy fusspot authority in the eye

Or, these days, a way of holding authority to account

The way I was brought up, we took lost things to the ever-open police station (even children knew where that was). Maybe even got a small reward from the owner

We might even have been taught that Parliament was there to hold Government to account. On our behalf

Perhaps its all just part of the celebrity thing now. A James Bond fantasy - Only I know that I was the one who found the secret papers, held them in my hand, caused all this fuss

My identity?

That’s my secret

Sunday, June 15, 2008

He said it

The temptation to grab the spotlight … is strong … But it is held in check by the fear that the Irish … will be written off as troublemakers & ultimately lose the little lustre that we still have … poised between the pleasure of poking authority in the eye … & seeming like ungrateful sods

Fintan O’Toole 11 June 2008

OK, that is a heavily edited quote

But in one week we have:

The vote in Westminster on 42 days
The Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Signs of the times

M&S offering 1/3rd discount on all ready meals

No queues at the bank

5 For Sale boards near Lyme Hall. These large detached houses rarely come on the market – are people thinking it better to get into cash while they still can?

Lady on the bus says things are looking a bit better – they have just had a good sale & that has made a difference

Moss Bros tie sales soar as fear of redundancy makes men smarten up - newspaper headline

Friday, June 13, 2008

Bid for freedom

My heart sank when I got home last night to catch the tail end of Anita Anan telling us about David Davis resignation. Have we not had enough games?

When I heard him this morning however I felt a bit better

For some time it has seemed clear to me that anyone who went to the electorate on the issue of freedom would be on to a winner. There are so many complaints about infringements large & small these days, including plenty from lady columnists. And this blog

If even ladies no longer young – and yes, for the most part white - feel this way, what must it be like for others? At least it is unlikely – isn’t it? – that anyone will slap an ASBO on us or lock us up for 28/42 days

The Right to Buy was a winner for Thatcher in 1979. Although often seen in terms of property-owning democracy & having something to show for all the rent you paid, it was at least as much a winner in terms of getting the council-as-landlord off your back. Freedom to paint the front door any colour you damn well pleased & install a fitted kitchen would be a good start

Instead it goes on & on getting worse. We are even now supposed to spy upon, observe, record & report every action of every child under 5, from their first faltering step to their first, grammatically correct, letter to Father Christmas

I think this monitoring can be traced back to the same Thatcher governments attempts to make local authorities pull their socks up

Now it creeps ever onwards to keep away the bogeymen. Don’t you want to do something about paedophiles, terrorists, money-laundering drug runners, identity thieves, murderous GPs? It is the first duty of government to protect the people

Up until now we have not had any bogeywomen, as far as I can recall. We have one now. Yeshi Girma

What happened to the bottom drawer?

Every girl used to have a bottom drawer. People even gave you presents for it

In it went the things you would need once you were safely carried over the threshold in the arms or your groom into the home of your own

Well not everything. Not furniture or toasters or a best china teaset, probably just household linens plus lingerie. Much of it lovingly stitched by your own fair hand. Lingerie with exquisitely rolled & hand-stitched hems. Embroidered tray cloths, chair backs & runners, plus table cloths of the kind which sell for astonishing sums in specialist shops today. Towels. Sheets for the bed.

My wedding present from one grandmother was a pair of linen sheets which she had smuggled from Ireland, wrapped around her diminutive form under her top coat, in the days of post war austerity. They had spent the intervening years carefully stored away. Unfortunately they did not long survive the rigours of regular washing – they had already begun to rot slightly along the folded creases

The content of the bottom drawer of todays unmarried woman is destined for an even shorter life

One in five single women already saving for their dream wedding before they have even found Mr Right according to a new survey, but it all goes on the big day & the honeymoon

Thursday, June 12, 2008


I have 2 reasons for feeling some sympathy for whoever left the secret documents on the train

The first is that I am chronically absent minded & have left many things on trains

The second is that I was once, many, many years ago, responsible for a SERIOUS BREACH OF SECURITY myself

If I told you what the SECRET was, you would laugh

My punishment, under a ‘warrant’ signed by Sir Humphrey himself, was that for 28 working days I could not go home at night without signing a special register, in front of a witness, to say that I had checked that all my cupboards were properly locked. Failure to do this would itself be a further BREACH OF SECURITY & disciplinary proceedings would follow

At the time there was a bit of a panic about leaks. The Secretary of State joked that he thought The Guardian must be being printed in our basement

I have thought carefully about whether to go in to details. But old habits die hard, discretion is the better part …

In other words I am a coward

There is probably a statute of limitations on offences under the Official Secrets Act. But strictly interpreted (as it then was) it would not just be me who was committing an offence

You would be guilty too, just for reading it. I have only your best interests at heart

In the world of security, paranoia rules

A long time in politics

Harold Wilson said a week was a long time in politics. I am wondering just how long 14 days are going to turn out to be

Fourteen days is of course the difference between 42 and 28

Nothing I have heard has brought me any closer to understanding why so much should be being staked on a mere fortnight

Voting games are an unavoidable, even essential, part of democratic electoral politics. Part of the reason why people like me, not good at such games, could never be a politician. Which is not the same thing as despising them all

But knowing when to cut a deal, knowing which short term advantages might in the long term be disastrous, calls for superb political & moral judgement – another reason why I could never be a politician

I think we are all left scratching our heads on this one

When I heard the news about the vote & the role of the DUP on the radio after I got home yesterday I was immediately reminded me of something I half heard during PMQs last week. I had been getting ready to go out, not really paying attention, so I was startled to hear the phrase direct rule being used once again

This is the Hansard record:

4 Jun 2008 : Column 770.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The Prime Minister will be aware of the Sinn Fein threat to bring down the Northern Ireland Assembly tomorrow. I am sure that the irony of republicans wishing to reinstate rule from London will not be lost on the House, or on the people of Northern Ireland. Will he give an assurance that the Government will not cave in to this blackmail, and that in the event of direct rule having to be reintroduced—something that my party will do its best to avoid—the Sinn Fein agenda, which it has not been able to persuade the Northern Ireland Assembly to adopt, will not be adopted by his Government or the House?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman can be absolutely sure that we will stick to the policies that we have pursued. I can also tell him that I have had talks with the leaders of all the parties in the Administration in Northern Ireland; I hope that we can move forward tomorrow, and that the new First Minister will be nominated, as will the Deputy First Minister. I believe that that can and will happen. I would also like to take the opportunity to thank the retiring First Minister, who is not with us today, for all his efforts on behalf of the peace process and on behalf of reconciliation. He truly has made a historic contribution to the future of Northern Ireland.

I cannot say I am any the wiser

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Mind your own business

Some bus companies just nod you on to the bus if you have a pass. Others ask for your destination & issue a ticket which records the details

Obviously this is useful for them when it comes to claiming the money back from the council, while still leaving scope for arguing over discounts for bulk.

But it raises the interesting statistical question of what data is used to settle the matter with those companies which do not record every detail

It also comes as a bit of a surprise & sometimes a little confusion to those passengers who are used to just getting on & sitting down.

Today I witnessed, for the first time, a very belligerently indignant reaction.

What on earth has it got to do with you, where I’m !* @! going?

Times Two

Sally Baker, Libby Purves (or vice versa)

The voice has it

I just caught the beginning of PMQs on Radio5 before I left the house

Just long enough to hear the Prime Minister start by expressing his regret at the latest deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan

But I feel certain that he is sure he has his 42 day vote in the bag. It is a long time since he sounded so relaxed & confident, even had real human warmth in his voice

What a contrast to last week

Related post: Hearing voices

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Farming economics

I think this is such a clever cartoon. Says a lot about the conundrums, paradoxes & questions of economics
Our view of farmers. The current state of farming

Khaki Konundrum

There is a colour much in fashion these last couple of years, for men as well as women. Many retailers call it khaki. This always confuses me. The khaki I have always known is a yellowish light brown, the colour once of army uniforms & those big old fashioned bell tents we used to sleep in at one of the big organised jamboree Guide camps

Todays version is green. If pushed I might call it olive drab, which used to be the colour of GI uniforms

That is not the only source of confusion. Walking past Harvey Nicks I overheard a woman say to her friend I really must buy that cackey blouse.

Huh? Why would she want it if she doesn’t like it? Then the penny dropped

My husband confused me in the early days by his oft repeated wish for a pair of cakey pants. So why not just buy some? I used to assume it must be some difficult-to-find fabric, sort of like cavalry twill, perhaps a bit thick & spongy. And didn't Bertie Wooster used to wear something called sponge-bag trousers?

The correct pronunciation is car-key. At least that’s how my parents taught me to say it, & they both wore the uniform, so they should know

So there

Monday, June 09, 2008

Yellowing toenails

A strange little story in the paper: there is a correlation between heart disease & the level of nicotine in toe nails (of American nurses)

Now I could, if it is free on the web, consult the journal which published the original article, but it is more fun just to speculate

Whatever gave the researchers the idea to look in to this? A sneaky way to check answers to questions about smoking? Just part of a wider check on the diagnostic value of toe clippings, cheaper than blood tests?

Or testing the hypothesis that nicotine migrates to the toenails when the heart is in trouble – it falls down but cannot climb back up again?

Hanging out to dry

I heard the beginning of Womans Hour this morning. About a 1930s School Certificate exam paper. Girls were asked to describe the correct way to hang various items of washing on the line & provide diagrams. Cue giggling from the Noughties presenters

Actually this topic is one which can make me itch with annoyance when I see washing hung out all wrong, usually in a garden I see from a passing train

There was scientific method in the madness, it was not just rules for rules sake

First aim was to minimise drying time by maximising transpiration (yes, we did have this pointed out specifically in O level biology)

Then to take maximum advantage of the power of the wind to make creases drop out to make the ironing easier, while placing the pegs so as to provide firm anchorage to stopclothes blowing off the line

It was important to make sure longer items would not catch on any nearby bush, branch or wall

And, since rope rather than plastic-coated lines could not simply be wiped clean, you minimised the area in contact with the line to avoid dirty marks

Every cloud has a metal lining

You can tell how times have changed. A scrap merchant is advertising on local radio. Looking for suppliers, not buyers

For now at least he is offering only to collect, not pay for, most types of metal bits & pieces you have to dispose of

But he will both collect & hand over a smallish sum of money for an old car

Well at least that should put an end to the scourge of abandoned cars on the street

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Noxious thing

Right up until about 1990 I, along with many others, knew of nitric oxide only as a nasty. A dangerous component of air pollution, especially from traffic

Then I saw what was probably the last decent Horizon programme. Yes it had a great human interest drama, but the science was straightforwardly told

Suddenly I sat bolt upright on the settee. They are describing the menopause!

I cannot honestly remember the details now & I cannot be bothered to search for any notes, but I think it had something to do with the way it set off random tiny explosions in the brain. My GP pooh-poohed my suggestion, I could not find anything in the literature, so I just forgot about it, though I did note later references to the use of nitric oxide during labour, & to how old fashioned under-the-tongue nitro-glycerine can help with menstrual cramps

I was reminded of this recently by a piece in the paper about how nitric oxide might somehow help in the fight against MRSA

Then I thought that perhaps this new magic bullet might help with Raynauds too. Unfortunately, although there is some research reported, I can find no reference in the Raynauds Society website

Saturday, June 07, 2008


A letter to The Times disputes the idea that 3 (or 4) A grades at A level are commonplace – only about 3% of candidates achieve this

This does not sound, proportionately, much different from my day, though the total numbers involved will be vastly greater. And like all oldies, I am sure that some of those who get 3 As are not a patch on those who did it way back when – they were really something

Thing is though, we did not attach nearly so much importance to grades. We probably wanted at least 1 A, in our best subject, especially if that were the one we were going off to university to study. And we also got a chance to show what we could do at S level, which replaced the old scholarship papers after universal grants came in. Otherwise we thought that 2 A grades were really enough for anybody who was not either a total swot or a real genius

University entrance officers seemed to recognise this too. There was the odd phenomenon of getting a lower conditional offer from your first choice institution than those you gave a lower ranking. This was partly because if a college really wanted you they did not wish to impose the extra pressure of needing high grades, or take the risk of losing a good student through one of those things that can spoil performance on the day

The other thing which has changed since my day, & really puzzles me, is the perception that science subjects are much harder than arts

There is a subtle difference here. We did not think that science was easy; we thought it was much easier to get high marks in the exams (even 3 grade As). Why, in mathematics it was even theoretically possible to get more than 100%. And experience seemed to bear this out

The reason was that science exams expected answers which were right or wrong, left much less room for losing marks because the examiner did not like your opinion of Elizabeth Is foreign policy.

Stopping by woods

We were introduced to this poem at primary school. At that age I could recognise that it was one which particularly moved my teacher, but I could not understand why

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep

Robert Frost: Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening
Now, I think it must have been his experiences of the War which made it so special to him

Friday, June 06, 2008

What is school for?

It is not just in politics that upper class virtues are coming to the fore once again

I was fascinated to read, in a recent obituary, praise for the deceased’s beautiful speaking voice, charm, ability to flatter & qualities as a generous & amusing host

And astonished to learn of the writer's own theory of nature v nurture. These gifts came from the parents, because he was educated wholly in the state system.

So that’s what has gorn wrong with New Labours Education, Education, Education. They thought it was all just a question of A*s

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Cynical cycling

What is the definition of a cynic?

- A cynic is someone who looks both ways before crossing a one-way street

Thats not a cynic. Thats just someone who has been knocked down by a cyclist

31 religions

Thinking about the differences, if any, between religion, faith, belief & trust I turned to the dictionary

My eye was particularly caught by a box in Chambers Combined Dictionary Thesaurus (1995). It was headed Some religions

They list 31 religions in all. Over half are Christian denominations

What struck me most however is that 21 are given in a form which ends with -ism. Presbyterianism, Baha’ism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism …

Judaism but then Christianity & Islam

All but 3 of the listed religions are capitalised, leaving evangelicism, druidism & voodoo as, subtly, improper

Now lexicographers are careful precise people, & I guess they need to take particular care with a topic which can arouse great passions. So I was particularly intrigued by their selection & rules, & am still mulling over what to make of them

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

White spirit

The other day I found out that there are restrictions on buying yet another everyday product

This time its white spirit. Or what I should call, when in England, surgical spirit. One of those things I can never remember which is which

Boots & Superdrug keep it on open shelves but in Asda you have to ask at the pharmacy counter. I had always assumed this was just a question of space. But this time the woman serving there asked, apologetically, if I could come back, maybe I had some other shopping to do? Well. No, actually, its not very convenient, I started to say

Then it was suddenly OK – the pharmacist had returned

It cant be just an age thing – any assistant can check that. So it must be Pharmacist must be present – presumably to check that I do not look as if I might be going to drink it

Perhaps they can extend this restriction to all sales of alcohol as a means of making us stick to the Governments approved limits

Related post: RU 18?

Design of The Times

Well, well. When I wrote about The Times use of pictures recently I did not know they were on the verge of a major new design

I really like this one, at least in the main paper. Not so sure about Times2 – it looks a bit dizzying to my eye, though they have done a good job with the puzzles at the back. More than can be said for the main crossword however. Funny how much trouble these cause to newspapers, but I suspect they are going to have to amend the layout soon so that solvers can do it on their lap

Most newspaper redesigns seem to be more or less a private initiative between the Editor & a Designer, imposed upon staff as well as readers, & usually in for a grumbly reception. This one seems to have involved staff right across the paper in a real co-operative & unpompous rethink about how the information is organised, so that now it seems to make much more sense & is much easier to navigate

I particularly like The Daily Universal Register. The slightly tongue in cheek but historically deferential name. The amusing & useful mixture of information

And of course, the pictures & (generally) non-strident use of colour

STOP PRESS: Word spellchecker does not recognise the word grumbly

"Dear Lord, please let me have retired long before we tinker with the crossword again" - Sally Baker, Times Feedback 7 June 2008

Naming the baby

I was a bit surprised to see that the new proposals for registering the father on all birth certificates include pilot projects to see if births can be registered in hospital, without the need for a trip to the Registrars office

In the 1960s the Registrars weekly visit to the maternity ward was a normal event. But then mothers were incarcerated with their babies for 10 days – only a lucky few were allowed early release. These days, I suppose 48 hours is as long as you get for a normal birth

Of course this was of no advantage to the still considerable numbers of women who still had home births. And even though I was in hospital I was unable to take advantage of the service when my first child was born. My husband had been called overseas not long before the birth & we had not finally agreed on names

Even in less fraught circumstances there are those who need time to settle this irreversible decision, so it will be important not to make people feel as if they are under pressure

Presumably there will have to be a system for appointing a member of the hospital staff as a registrar for this purpose – with such a high turnover it would be difficult otherwise. So there is a whole new area for vetting fit & proper persons in this surveillance age

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Great I Am

A report in the paper mentioned Abraham House, a library & museum in London. It sounded interesting, but unknown to me. So I Googled

Not there on the first page of results. So I added another word to the search. Bingo. Top of the list

It does not exist yet, though there is a very professional web page about it designed by Electric Orange Studios.

It will be set up by The Coexist Foundation

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation will raise funds for Abraham House and will offer advice over its role and programmes. The web page I was looking at is part of the website for the TB, not the Coexist, Foundation

I was going to have a rant about this website. I have not done a count, but the name of the eponymous founder is scattered liberally on every page. Reminds me of that leaked memo asking Whitehall departments for eye-catching projects with which the name could be asscociated. At the time I thought that was probably tongue in cheek, but evidently not

But by chance I heard an interview on World Service. It was granted at the time of the launch of the Foundation in New York, which featured an introduction of the main man by a subdued sounding Bill Clinton, who probably has a lot to be subdued about right now

The two named Trustees of the Blair Foundation are Robert Clinton (not a relation I think, but a partner & media specialist at lawyers Farrer & Co) and Jeremy Sinclair (one of the founders of Saatchi). The third Trustee is named as Tyrolese (Directors) Ltd, " a kind of holding company" set up by Farrers in the 1980s

Although the Coexist Foundation concentrates on the so-called Abrahamic faiths, the BF will connect to people of all faiths and none, across North America, Europe, Asia, the Far East & the Middle East. I wonder what South America & Australia have done to be excluded? (And is Russia part of Europe in this scheme of things?)

So not just Third Way but multi-dimensional way

"Religious faith will be of the same significance to the 21st century as political ideology was to the 20th century" So plenty of war, murder & oppression then. Perhaps this explains why "Europe is out of step with the rest of the world in its secularism"

But when it comes right down to it, the Trust will just concentrate on fighting malaria.

I thought the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation were doing that? But Blair will help by encouraging the faiths to offer the use of their buildings as clinics etc to save villagers from having to travel what may be a considerable distance to the nearest purpose built medical centre

As Dan Damon, who conducted the World Service interview said in the programme trail, But is he overestimating his own importance?

Postscript: There is even a TB Sports Foundation, so thats another modern religion covered

How to knit a poem

I heard this lovely poem on Poetry Please on Sunday, read by Gwyneth Lewis herself at the recent Hay Festival.

Unfortunately it has not been published yet so the only way to get the words on the page will be to remember to catch the repeat on Saturday night

It is lovely because it is about knitting; because it makes you think about loops & connections & keeping going; & because the language & rhythm are great

And, at least from the title, it reminds me of I A Richards How Does A Poem Know When It’s Finished?

Monday, June 02, 2008

Statistics v expert witnesses

I have only just joined up the dots between:

  • Quetelets ‘discovery’ of the BMI
    Florence Nightingale
    Lies, damned lies & statistics
    The Sally Clark case

In his Treatise on Man, in the introduction to Book Second: Development of Stature, Weight, Strength &c, Quetelet says:

… suppose that we want to establish the age of an individual … we shall be reduced to mere empirical conjecture. However, legal medicine presents numerous examples where such determinations become necessary … When a physician is called to examine the body of an infant found lifeless, & when, in a legal inquiry, he, from simple inspection, establishes the presumed age of this child, it is evident that he cannot but impose his judgement on those who read the inquiry, however erroneous it may otherwise be, since there are no elements existing for the verification of it. If … there were exact tables which might enable one to ascertain, at different ages, the values of these physical qualities, & the limits within which they are found in individuals … such … ought not to be neglected by legal medicine, since they tend to substitute … exact data for conjectural estimates, which are always vague & often faulty

That sounds, at the least, waspish about ‘legal medicine’. One wonders if Quetelet had any particularly controversial cases in mind

In his biography of Florence Nightingale, Sir Edward Cook seemed to imply that a well known legal aphorism about lies, damn lies & expert witnesses had been neatly turned on to statistics. There was still sniping between the two camps

And so we come to a present day instance of infants found lifeless, the intervention of the Royal Statistical Society in the case of Sally Clark & the expert statement provided for the appeal by Professor Dawid to question the use of statistics by a medical expert, a century and a half after Quetelets sniping

Links: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

The Case of Sally Clark: Some Thoughts on
Probability, Law and their Intersection

National Cigarettes

I am too old to have been fed National Dried Milk (infant formula) but I well remember National Orange Juice & National Cod Liver Oil. They came in old fashioned ribbed glass medicine bottles with pale blue & white labels

The cod liver oil was fed to us on a teaspoon, Mummy holding your nose if necessary to make it go down. We took the orange juice daily from a small plastic egg cup, again a teaspoonful diluted with water

Am I to see out my declining years smoking logo-free National Cigarettes?

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Trying to connect you

For old timers who remember when getting data into a computer meant punching holes in paper tape or cards & getting it out via clunking teleprinters, it comes as a timely reminder to read that even in the electronic age ‘writing data to disks will always be a serious bottleneck’

To read that LINX carries 365 petabytes (?) of data a year just boggles the mind. Can it really be true that the first micro computer which we bought had an impressive 20k of hard disk, or is my memory playing tricks?

These musings prompted by the announcement that the government is planning a giant communications database to keep track of our phone calls, texts & emails, & comments made on this by Phil Hendren

My own first reaction had been to remember the Korean passenger plane shot down in 1978 after it had been flying for some time through Russian airspace

One of the questions asked was: Why did not the Americans, with their spy satellites, warn the pilot that he had strayed off course? The answer, in part, was that it took human agents far too long to recognise a single aberration in the mass of data produced

My second thought however was that, for such a monitoring system to work at all, they must have some very sophisticated mathematics to analyse, essentially, patterns of connection.

If so, can this be applied to the development of social networks, for current or historical analysis?

A proper axiomatic superstructure on 6 degrees of separation