Saturday, October 31, 2009

All Hallows Eve


"An outbreak of zombies infecting humans is likely to be disastrous."

So reports an important paper which shows how mathematical modelling can respond to a wide variety of challenges in ‘biology’.

Traffic moan

For the sake of their own reputation Sainsbury’s are going to have to do something about access to the car park at their store in Hazel Grove.

Another holiday weekend Saturday with tailbacks all the way to High Lane – all sorts of explanations come to mind, until, once again, the road is magically clear the moment you get past the superstore. A few hundred people, at least, moaning about the way their plans have been frustrated by the delay.

Traffic engineers could find a reasonably straightforward answer I am sure – it may need nothing more than adjusting the flow within the car park itself, or possibly the phasing of the lights outside.

A short intense campaign of swingeing fines on drivers who ignore the yellow junction box markings would help too- the message would soon get round.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Sitting round the table

Researchers at the University of Sussex have announced the death of the dinner party, according to widespread press reports.

Kevin Maher tells us that “Hollywood film-makers simply hate formal dinner parties because they are a nightmare to shoot. It is hardly surprising then that the great dinner-party movies strenuously avoid presenting all but the most cursory view of the dinner itself.”

Although it is rarely a question of dinner parties, more one of “Have you had your tea?”, the sight of soap characters sitting round a table to enjoy a televised meal always used to annoy me.

In fact most sit down meals on telly do that.

Because the seating plan is always bizarre.

They use only 3 sides of the table, even if that means squashing two or more people together at the short end.

The camera has to occupy, or at least get an unrestricted view from, the fourth side

The death of Phil Archer

Norman Painting gave me my first experience of the incredible power of pictures on the wireless.
Radio Times carried a photo of Phil Archer, before I was even 10 years old.

But he doesn’t look anything like that, I reacted in shock.

At least I was well prepared for the possible disappointment of meeting Dan, Doris, Christine & Uncle Tom Forrest when they came to our Methodist church one Sunday evening when I was about 10. They sat in the pews with the rest of the choir & joined in with what was basically an ordinary service. Doris, with a strong, clear & surprisingly powerful voice, & Uncle Tom both sang solos. Afterwards I collected their autographs in my autograph album, a double helping as each signed both their real name & that of their character.

Doris looked just as I expected!

Silage spavined & spatchcocked

As if it were not bad enough that it is half term & there are 3 major sets of roadworks on the A6 south of Manchester, this morning there was an accident in the village.

The axles on a trailer carrying about a dozen black plastic wrapped bales of silage proved unequal to the task & collapsed, well & truly spavined & spatchcocked, in the centre of the village, right where there is a complicated kind of cross road where the heavy stuff comes in to the industrial estate, & right at the time when most of the local shops are taking deliveries.

A bobby was on the scene when I got there, but he seemed to be content to watch while the traffic sorted itself out, which it was doing very efficiently & with a degree of good humour.

Then a traffic cop came, but again they mostly just watched, while a couple of farmers with rescue vehicles arrived – a trailer & a fork lift truck.

There were only two bales left to move by the time the bus got through, half an hour late.


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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bedroom standards

Why are politicians of the Right so suffused with suspicion about what they see as statistical prurience about bedroom activity?

First we had UKIP foaming about the European interest in cohabitation, now Master Hurd is in a bate about the 2011 Census.

The first point to make is that in this country the census is not just of population but also of housing. It is our only (once a decade) opportunity to count the number of dwellings & to measure how they meet the needs & standards we nowadays expect.

The 2011 census is going to be the first to count bedrooms.

The Bedroom Standard has been around for a long time - at least since Parker Morris. Nobody enquires exactly who sleeps with whom but we have come a long way from the days when children could be expected to sleep top to tail, 4 or 6 to a bed, or immigrant workers to the northern mill towns expected to do shifts to sleep in a bed as well as to work in the factory.

It was always a source of regret that the census did not provide reliable data about how far the bedroom standard was (or was not) being met in local areas (national data was provided by sample surveys); instead the looser & less satisfactory “persons per room” had to be used as a proxy for overcrowded housing conditions. The precious space on the census form was used for the even more important (& shaming) information about how many households lacked a bathroom, kitchen or inside lavatory to call their own.

At least we now have Sir Michael Scholar to doughtily defend the statisticians against accusations of political interference.

In 1981 the Registrar General had to speak up for himself.

It was his misfortune (in the circumstances) that his name was Roger Thatcher (no relation).

The prime ministers private secretary no doubt shared the joke. His name was Michael Scholar.


Out of our time

Radio 4 is having one of those days today.

Evan Davis crashed the pips (again) on Today – he only recently got hauled over the coals on Feedback about this, poor lad.

But then … Melvyn – Melvyn Bragg! – crashed spectacularly at the end of In Our Time. I think he was just smitten by Professor Béatrice Han-Pile.

Though let’s be fair – everybody’s internal clock is a bit out of kilter in the week after the enforced changes into & out of GMT

Academic poachers

If you think the mathematisation of economics has led to disaster, what do you think the physicalisation of politics will do?

Well physics did give a big push to biology

Related post

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Prosecuting people

Oh dear!

Rape complainant is not the prosecutor

The Court of Appeal has said so

“If she were to be regarded as a prosecutor, so was every key witness whom an acquitted defendant considered to have lied, with incalculable consequences for both the civil and criminal justice systems.”

Of course, it is more complicated than that.

If she had deliberately manipulated the authorities into taking a course which they would not otherwise have taken then she would be regarded in law as the prosecutor. Otherwise the Crown Prosecution Service would, for all legal purposes, be the prosecutor.

Interestingly, or depressingly, the Court ruled that she would not be the prosecutor even if she had lied. My original preference for being called the prosecutor (Prosecutor or victim?) was of course based on the assumption that I would be telling the truth.

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One of the areas which I know I should love to exploit if only I could is that of animated graphics.

In my days in statu pupillari a teacher would draw some chalk lines on a board then stand there waving his hand saying ‘As you can see …’ My response, all too often, was, 'Well yes, if you say so.'

Unfortunately some of the most exciting examples I have been shown (thanks Raj) are not available on the public web, but there was a neat example in a recent post on William Buiter’s blog Inflection points and turning points - since you asked

Animated graphs would be a terrific aid in the presentation of population projections for example.

The Times, in the printed version, did a good job of illustrating these with a chart together with a well-informed commentary Numbers game of population figures is not that simple - Times Online by Tim Finch of the Institute for Public Policy Research

But if animations were also available to show how the population size & age structure evolve dynamically, & the sensitivity to changes in the assumptions, how much more informative these things could be. Still better if they could incorporate the projections made on the two previous occasions in my lifetime (1948 & 1973) when population growth was high on the political agenda.

And Poincare would approve this aid to education


Related post

The new family economics

In a recent leader comment At the Mercy of Events on the crisis in childcare, The Times repeats the claim that “fostering, both the best & the cheapest of options, suffers from a shortage of suitable parents

Well of course it does - & not (necessarily) because of rules about obesity, racial ‘identity’ or any other right on nostrums.

It’s the economy, stupid.

Fostering is based on the old model of a wife who stayed at home to look after the children while the husband provided the cash income. The State had to finance only the marginal cost of the child (or the cost of the marginal child).

Now the Government believes that mothers should participate in the labour market, even though they still have school age children. Cash is king. And so if they want people to do the job of looking after children they will have to pay the wages.


Politicians find it easy to prescribe nostra when out of power, hoping that things will be easier when they get to Downing Street.

Cited in OED: 1967 Times Rev. Industry Aug. 14/1

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fantasy history

In Our Time last week gave us an heroic gallop through the geological history of Britain.

A mere 600 million years ago “Scotland – and north-western Ireland – were part of a continent (Laurentia) that also included what is now North America. To the south-east, near the Antarctic Circle, meanwhile, you would have found Southern Ireland, England and Wales.

This left me to indulge in a little fantasy history. It would be possible for a (very brave) revisionist to reinterpret the history of Ireland as one of Scotch/Irish conflict, rather than English domination. One of those family quarrels which an outsider intrudes upon at their peril

Which means that Deep History must be even deeper than we thought.

Related post
Deep history

Drains again

They cleaned the drains again this morning - & made a thorough job of clearing the gutters of leaves as well – less than a year after the last time. It was needed too – one of the drains on the bridge was already full up to the level of the grid, so no wonder it was flooded the other week.

This time the tanker they were using carried the logo not of a private contractor but of the two district councils which have recently joined together in a joint alliance.

This makes a lot of sense from the point of view of efficiency – the two areas are very similar in geography & economy, & smallness in terms of population size – but there has been some grumbling & apprehension about issues of politics & autonomy.

As a former civil servant I am intrigued by the administrative aspects of having also to work with two different county councils & two different government administrative regions.

Related posts

Abstract politics

I spent most of last week flipping the radio so as not to hear them just going on, and on … about Nick Griffin.

Phil Collins a former speechwriter for Tony Blair, let the cat out of the bag in his commentary for The Times, LAUGHTER IS THE BEST WEAPON: “Before I had [Anglo-Indian] children [about 5 years ago], Nick Griffin’s beliefs were an abstraction for me”

Mary Beard got it right in I wish Nick Griffin hadn't seemed quite so MAD (also for The Times), although as far as I know has only an ‘abstract’ interest in the subject.

Worries about immigration no longer translate automatically into worries about race. People know this; do the police know that yet, or do they still classify people by their Immigrant Category?

And unless they are prepared to believe that most ordinary people are not racists & can make up their own mind about Nick Griffins policies on global warming, education & the need for free bus passes, just as they do about David Cameron, Gordon Brown or Nick Clegg, all the patronising media types succeed in doing with their oh-so-abstract concern is make people agree with Lord Desai “both politicians and journalists … are amoral, sleazy or gutless.”

Monday, October 26, 2009

Come to sunny Manchester

The Training & Development Agency – which recruits & trains England’s teachers – has lost 85% of its staff who do not want to move from London SW1 to Manchester in pursuit of government policy to improve the cost effectiveness of the civil service and bring economic benefits to the regions

Related post

Reggae rhythm

Stewart Copeland chose Desmond Dekker's Israelites – the 1st reggae record? - on Private Passions on Radio 3 yesterday.

Copeland had been really interesting about the negative space in the beat of reggae, & the emphasis on the 3rd beat – which together they have in common with Arab (especially Lebanese) popular music.

I was wondering if there might be a fairly direct connection, since in the Eastern Caribbean at least the Lebanese are a small but identifiable group, & may well be too in Jamaica.

My one small beef with Copeland is that he seemed to imply that Jamaica went directly from ska to reggae, without going through rock steady which was what, finally, put the lie to the Eastern Caribbean certainty that Jamaicans had no rhythm.

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Happy birthday

Today is this blog’s third birthday. I cannot believe it.

I am surprised by how it has become an important part of my day & fun to do, just messing around on the computer.

Of the developments which have taken place over the last three years I would point first to the astonishing growth of content on the web - & here I mean that part which is freely available to all (plus a few stalwarts such as the OED & Times Archive to which the public library has a subscription). Three years ago a Google search might often produce no, or no very helpful results, now it is difficult to find any keyword or phrase which can defeat the mighty search engine.

Along with this seems to be a decrease in the amount of dubious content, or at least in its prominence. Three years ago even an innocent search – I remember particularly one for “girl guide” which, broadminded as I am, it was upsetting to see what kind of company I was in. Whether this is because the various policing authorities & providers have succeeded in removing much of it (or forcing it into even deeper disguise) or whether it just reflects the increasing numbers of grown ups, & grown up content, on line, I leave to others to settle.

Out of curiosity I just tried Googling “Big Bang”. The first 100 out of over 52 million results were, almost without exception, about cosmology, & not one was the modern adolescent’s equivalent of Health & Efficiency or National Geographic.

The other unexpected effect of being a regular on the web is that suddenly I am envious of the young – up to a point.

I have always felt glad to have left all that teenage angst behind; until recently, if forced to nominate an age at which I should like to have stayed ‘for ever’ it would have been 30 – when I finally felt that people would stop treating me with that faintly patronising sense of – Ah well, you’ll learn, you’ll understand, when you are older - but felt that I still had youth & possibility on my side. And no more nappies or broken nights!

But now I envy the skills of youth, the uses which they can make of all this technology, their piercing intelligence – often terrifying.

I only once met Martin Fessey for long enough to have a conversation with him. He embarrassed me by saying how he was in awe of us young things. In his day anyone who could calculate a simple straight regression line was the bees knees, & now look what we could do in no time at all with our computers.

At last, I know exactly how he felt

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Another reason

I heard this poem by Billy Collins for the first time on Poetry Please. It made me laugh out loud &, more importantly, determined to take a more relaxed attitude towards that annoyingly highly strung mutt next door

Another reason why I don’t keep a gun in the house

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,

barking, barking, barking,
and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.


This photo from Siliguri by Rupak de Chowdhuri
was published in The Times
to mark the 139th anniversary of the birth of Gandhi.

Ah, bless! It is the kind of photo to warm the cockles of any Granma’s heart.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

What sort of cash for honours?

This was one of a whole series called “Translations from the Ish”, which was published in Punch during 1947. The author is given solely the initials RM. It is an example of how not to start a conversation


“And your peerage, Lord X …
Was it a legacy,
A reward,
Or an investment?”

Miscellaneous death

Only about 10 per cent of this frail elderly population [in nursing homes] have cancer, compared with some 85 per cent of specialist palliative care patients

Related post
Death foretold

Do butters exist?

If you are inclined to call yourself a bright, you can capitalise it by registering on this website, although it is not a membership organisation.

I offer something even more loose knit & amorphous: the Society of butters (or Butters, if you prefer). An organisation of pure thought.

Based on the recognition that there is always a but.

But it follows a Yes – (not a No! or Rubbish!)

It does not follow that a butter believes in nothing, or is a total relativist.

Butters have to think hard about the domain of each ‘truth’; its limitations & consequences; when it is appropriate to act on, to believe, to act as if you believe it, when trying to do good (or just do your best).

And butters have to understand, when they place themselves in that domain, the rights & responsibilities which attach.

We have already rejected the ‘naturalistic’ theories which are commonly supposed to provide the only alternative to ‘absolutism’ in ethics.
Being sceptical has always been one of the best ways of protecting the future of the human race

Related posts

Will respect ever return?

Joke heard on local radio this morning

You see that bloke I was just talking to? He’s an MP

- No! Honest?

No. He’s just like all the rest of them.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

The day of the god of the sky

Daniel Finkelstein was wondering about Tuesday’s recently, about why it was that because Hugh Gaitskell reported to the Labour Party conference on a Tuesday, Gordon Brown also spoke on a Tuesday.

About that time I was also wondering about Tuesday – in my case, about the weather. We had just had another awful one – so bad that the bridge was flooded when I was going home. Not too badly, but badly enough. Just as I was making my way gingerly across, up against the wall on the few inches of pavement which were not under water, I heard the young madman coming down the other side of the hill in front of me. I turned & tried to get back out of range, to no avail. Although I was several feet beyond the shore of the mini lake, his bow wave drenched me from head to foot. At least I had my back to him.

But a hedgehog hypothesis began to form. We know that the weather is different at weekends – something to do with people being at home rather than at work, pumping out their pollution in the suburbs rather than the city centre. But why Tuesdays? Something to do with a lagged adjustment to the fact that they all go back to heat up the city again on Monday morning?

Now I find that it is an official scientific fact – Tuesday is the wettest day of the week (in Manchester at least)


Housewifes beef

While I am on the subject of post war austerity, here is another little ditty from Arnold Silcock dating from the time Labour reduced the meat ration in February 1951 & housewives demonstrated outside the House of Commons.

Mary had a little lamb,
But her sister came to grief.
She lived in 1951
And only got corned beef

MEAT RATION (REDUCTION) (Hansard, 26 January 1951)
Meat Ration (Hansard, 16 April 1951)
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Anything that moves

A sad item on local radio news this morning.

Dry stonewallers must increasingly betray their craft by the use of concrete in order to defeat those who think stones are there for the taking.

The other day however I did see a whole group of youngsters learning the craft under the tutelage of a well known local craftswoman, so it is not completely dead.

Related post
Dry stone walls

Tobacco tokens

In 1947 pensioners did not get free bus passes funded by HM Government – but they did get free cigarettes.

That year, when Britain was bankrupt, the Chancellor Hugh Dalton announced rises of 50% in tobacco duties - his purpose was “to check smoking and save dollars.” Recognising that this would fall particularly harshly on “old people whose habits by the time they had reached pension age were well formed,” a scheme was devised which gave any pensioner who claimed to be a smoker tokens worth 2 shillings and fourpence a week which could be used for the purchase of tobacco.

[For connoisseurs, if you scroll down here you will find a nice explanation by Dalton of how he told his civil servants, in mandarin-speak, to ‘just do it.’]

As is the way of such things, the concession stayed, became very difficult to get rid of, despite much grumbling & criticism.

In 1955 The Times thundered “The subsidy on pensioners’ tobacco is an oddity of the welfare State that passes none of the tests of public usefulness beyond the most near-sighted politician’s test of immediate electoral advantage.”

It was unfair on others of the poor who were smokers, and to pensioners whose pleasure lay in drinking tea or having a flutter on the pools. It was also open to abuse – any non-smoking pensioner could obtain tokens & convert them to cash. As far as I have been able to find out so far none of the objections was based on health effects.

Then in March 1957 Mr David Llewellyn, MP for Cardiff North, asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer: “Why, in view in the established relationship between tobacco-smoking and lung cancer, smoking by retirement pensioners is subsidised; and whether he will withdraw the subsidy and increase the basic retirement pension for all pensioners by the amount that would be saved.”

The Chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, replied sniffily that “The tobacco token scheme, which enables retirement pensioners who smoke to buy tobacco at a reduced price, was introduced solely to meet the special circumstances arising out of the heavy increase in tobacco duty in 1947; it is therefore not, in any correct sense of the term, a subsidy.

However the time had come, & tobacco tokens were abolished in the National Insurance Act of 1958

Related posts
National Cigarettes

Thursday, October 22, 2009

In the beginning

Richard Dawkins want s Vicars to Be Careful: “You are playing with dynamite, fooling around with a misunderstanding that’s … almost bound to happen if not forestalled

How come? They “blithely go into the pulpit & make some moral or theological point about Adam & Eve in their sermons without once mentioning that, of course, Adam & Eve never actually existed!

Can you believe it? They even sell Christmas cards without a Government mandated warning that Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer does not actually exist either.

My own daughter, undoubtedly in the same genius class as Dawkins, rather than just an idiot prole, used to ask – if reassurance were needed: Is that true-true or just pretend-true?

Dawkins himself seems still to be in need of such reassurance. Perhaps because he does, in fact, know that science is only provisionally true, from where we stand right now.

I am not a Believer or a Denier in Dawkins angrily confused sense. I am content to accept many of our scientific explanations of process (rather than cause).

And the first biblical version of Creation – the one in Genesis Chapter 1 – strikes me as an awe inspiringly poetic account of the chronology of the beginning of the World as we know it.

Political messages

I have said this before on this blog & I will say it again – my political predictions are rubbish.

But now that Westminster – politicians & commentariat – seem convinced that David Cameron is already prime minister apparent (Andrew Marr came near to a Nick Robinson like slip of the tongue on Start the Week on Monday) I feel I should repeat that this feels more like 1992 than 1997 to me – though more dangerous.

Yes – people are fed up with the present lot & scratchy with Gordon Brown. But – iff he has saved the economy, perhaps it is better to stick with nurse.

The hottest idea in Conservative circles is not knowing things … The emphasis is on not knowing, on doubt, on scepticism, on caution“ wrote Daniel Finklestein recently.

Yes – but. That may be no way to win an election when people are feeling very uncertain. It risks the total disaster of people voting for those who either seem to offer some kind of certainty (however bizarre & obnoxious) or who simply offer voters the chance to deliver a loud raspberry: What have any of you lot ever done for us? Answer me that.

And, particularly in these circumstances, it does little good for existing politicians to foam at the mouth over the idea that a party which has already been used to deliver that kind of electoral message deserves no further hearing, particularly on the hallowed airwaves of the BBC.

Signs of the times

Primark has a poster in the window advertising job vacancies

With 7,000 items for sale at £1, Asda recently declared itself Britain’s biggest pound shop - A smaller pack size doesn't necessarily mean an underhand price ...
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Bonny babies

I was checking my memory on the idea that a principal reason we were given cod liver oil as children was to stop us getting rickets - I do not think anybody had even heard of omega–3 - when I came across this delightful example of the nanny state – 1945 version.

Food Facts
A better chance for YOUR child

Mothers! Read this important message

How can I give my child the best possible chance in life? How can I help him to make the most of the better education, the wider career that is being planned for all this country’s children in the happier years ahead?” In these victorious days, thousands of mothers are asking such questions, & here is one practical step they can take – now.

Essential to Health

During the war the Government has made available to all children under 5 certain Welfare Foods which, doctors advise, are essential to health. Together with the Priority Milk Scheme, the Welfare Foods – Orange Juice & Cod Liver Oil – have helped to make Britain’s “Blitz Babies” the bonny lot they are. These foods are still available – still at less than cost price - & still just as important to the health of young children.

A Valuable Habit

So, mother, see that your “under five” gets these Welfare Foods every single day. If your child has already been having them, don’t give up this valuable habit because the European war is over. If he has not been getting them regularly, make it a “must” that he has them every day from now on, no matter how healthy & rosy he looks.

Building up Resistance

By keeping on with Orange Juice & Cod Liver Oil you help your child to resist infectious diseases, to develop strong bones & good teeth, to build up the sound constitution & sturdy body that will stand him in such good stead throughout his schooldays, & in the years when he is preparing for a successful career.

Remember you can buy this “health & protection” at your Welfare Centre Clinic, Distribution Centre or Food Office simply by sticking the necessary amount in 2 ½ d stamps on the Welfare Foods coupons in your child’s green Ration Book. The Government controls the price at the low cost of 5d. a bottle for the Orange Juice & 10d. a bottle for the Cod Liver Oil. (Free if you get free milk.)



The Times, Monday, May 14, 1945; pg. 7; Issue 50141; col F

How touching that the Man in Whitehall should show such concern that mothers not think that, only days after VE Day they could forget the need to keep their babies a bonny lot.

It also presents a useful & salutary exercise in interpreting what we now regard as the sexist language of the past. Did the Man in Whitehall really mean to imply that only a boy child needed a sound constitution & sturdy body to help him prepare for a career – or, in the immediate euphoria of victory in a war in which women had more than played their part in the forces both civilian & military, as well as purely on the home front, did he simply take it for granted that the male embraced the female?

Related posts

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Forecasting ones own beliefs

Statistics tell you nothing about the future unless you make the assumption of the permanence of statistical form.

Mathematics can tell you the consequences of your beliefs - there is no valid inference from mere possibility to matter of fact or from mere mathematics to concrete nature

Alfred North Whitehead: Adventures of Ideas
Even if we are right about the processes which brought us to our current state, be that climate or anything else.
Related post

Family unfriendly politics

Women – especially those who are concerned about getting more women into politics – should watch very carefully, & campaign, make their voices heard if necessary – about the proposed reforms to the expenses regime & the effects these may have on families.

Childcare, household management, working partnerships between husband & wife- these are all likely to come under attack

When not to revolt

A recent radio programme explored the role which revulsion plays in shaping the way we make our moral choices.

In this context it is interesting to consider medical training – for doctors (& those in professions allied to medicine) must learn to overcome their natural revulsion, to do some of the things necessary - to save lives (in the extreme) or in some of the more mundane tasks of diagnosis.

Even so, it is surprising how many shy away from say, bowel functions, finding it hard even to discuss these in dispassionate language. What they always used to tell you – don’t be afraid to go to the doctor about something embarrassing, it won’t embarrass him – is simply not true (though he might be quite good at disguising it).

But is it a Good Thing to learn to overcome revulsion – or does it blunt ones ability to make moral choices?

We also demand that people should be trained to suppress natural reactions of fight or flight in other contexts – for example police are expected to be trained to stoically withstand or ignore the kind of provocations they might meet from self righteous protestors or drunken louts. In this case experience suggests that this reaction may be in the police’s own best interest, since it may reduce the chance that they get seriously injured themselves

Confusion of interests

These days we are all simultaneously Land (mortgage), Labour (contract of employment), & Capital (pension).

So how can we be divided by ‘interest’ into political parties? And how might we choose the party which represents our interest?


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Moving along there

We think of ourselves as staying put – time moves on.

But of course WE move on

America is not behind us in time, it is just in a different place.

Though relatively, it stays in the same place.

Except that, by imperceptible degrees, we are drifting apart


I have lost track of how many mobiles I have found lying on library desks – this mornings must make it at least a dozen

MPs behaving badly

On Norfolks advice Henry VIII had tried packing the House of Commons, & learned that the difficulty with that amorphous mob of burgesses & country squires was to control not their selection but their subsequent behaviour.

But the chief thing he had learned was that it is easier to break a great minister than to make one

Garrett Mattingly: Catherine of Aragon

School age

When I was at primary school we had regular reading tests. You went up one by one to stand at the side of the teachers desk & read aloud, sight reading that is, a paragraph printed on the piece of paper he handed to you. The rest of the class got on with the work that they had been told to do.

Your performance was marked according to some agreed scheme which gave the result in terms of reading age – in years & months. This was divided by your proper, chronological age, to give one measure of IQ. The result was always reported to your parents.

There must have been plenty of scope for argument about the reliability, precision, accuracy, reproducibility & generalisability from the research samples on which the tests were based. But at least they showed awareness of the ‘summer baby’ problem

Related post

Net worth

Brunetti had often reflected on the meaning of the phrase ‘net worth’, especially as it was used in an attempt to calculate the wealth of a person. It usually included their investments, homes, bank accounts, possessions: only those things which could be seen, touched, counted. Never considered, as far as he could tell, were such intangibles as the good or ill will which followed a person through life, the love he gave or the love which was felt for him, nor … the favours he was owed

Donna Leon: The Girl Of His Dreams

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Dyadic death

I am depressed by the way the press is reporting the sad case of the two young children whose father has now been charged with their murder.

These were 2 bright, obviously well-cared for children, whose parents had just separated, the mother believed to be studying for a PhD.

The family lived in Whalley Range, Manchester, which is, Russell Jenkins of The Times felt bound to point out "bordered by Hulme and Moss Side, is a multi-ethnic area. Some residents said that the street where the family lived attracted prostitutes and some drug dealing because it was quiet and its trees offered some protection."

The family was 'of course' black, & what makes this story even more tragic, in its way, was that the parents had managed to get out of Zimbabwe to claim asylum here.

Such cases are not however very rare - see for example Milroy, Chris M. "The Epidemiology of Homicide-Suicide (Dyadic Death)." in Forensic Science International 71 (1995): 117–122.

There are probably several reported each year, from all social classes (including bankers) & colours. Moss Side & Hulme add nothing to the explanation


Suicide types

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Puddles in Manchester

I heard this poem by Adrian Mitchell for the first time on last night’s Words & Music programme Walkers, Wanderers and Wayfarers on Radio 3.

It brings back many infuriating memories of trying to negotiate, undrenched, the pavements in Oxford Road

Watch your step - I'm drenched

In Manchester there are a thousand puddles.
Bus-queue puddles poised on slanting paving stones,
Railway puddles slouching outside stations,
Cinema puddles in ambush at the exits,
Zebra-crossing puddles in dips of the dark stripes --
They lurk in the murk
Of the north-western evening
For the sake of their notorious joke,
Their only joke -- to soak
The tights or trousers of the citizens.
Each splash and consequent curse is echoed by
One thousand dark Mancunian puddle chuckles.

In Manchester there lives the King of Puddles,
Master of Miniature Muck Lakes,
The Shah of Slosh, Splendifero of Splash,
Prince, Pasha and Pope of Puddledom.
Where? Somewhere. The rain-headed ruler
Lies doggo, incognito,
Disguised as an average, accidental mini-pool.
He is as scared as any other emperor,
For one night, all his soiled and soggy victims
Might storm his streets, assassination in their minds,
A thousand rolls of blotting paper in their hands,
And drink his shadowed, one-joke life away.

Supplementary nostalgia

I scanned the nostalgic baby picture from Saturday's Times where it was used to illustrate an article which says that the virtues of some modern supplements may be exaggerated. (The online version has removed the baby).

I am intrigued by the careful use of both pink & blue, especially as I feel sure that the baby is a boy; but in those times of austerity no one could afford to be too precious - you were happy to use or re-use whatever was available. As the other picture shows, the bottles were of course recycled too.

I wonder if mummy had left both baby & her shopping basket unattended outside while she was in another shop - unbelievable how we thought nothing of doing that right up until the end of the 1960s.
And of course, when they got home, baby was probably left alone again, in the garden

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Sunday, October 18, 2009


Michael Crick has an interesting point about how many of our political leaders have young children these days, & how the responsibilities of modern parenthood impinge upon ones time & ability to ponder the bigger issues.

In an age when we worry so much about the well being of children, I wonder if having a politician for a parent might be considered a form of child cruelty – especially as the voters do not think it any of their business to help pay for childcare, & demand that the family move back & forwards every week between London & the constituency.

And since the childrens interest must always come first, should we voters settle for being governed by people for whom, by definition, the interests of the country can not come first?

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A hole in the being

This may be a prayer or a homily, rather than a poem - good for the dark days.

Work around your abyss

“There is a deep hole in your being, like an abyss.

You will never succeed in filling that hole,

because your needs are inexhaustible.

You have to work around it so that gradually the abyss closes.

“Since the hole is so enormous and your anguish so deep,

you will always be tempted to flee from it.

There are two extremes to avoid:

being completely absorbed in your pain

and being distracted by so many things

that you stay far away from the wound you want to heal.”

Henri Nouwen: The Inner Voice of Love

Arctic hares

I scanned this photo of Arctic hares just because I like it so much.

By Morten Hilmer, it is one of the entries for this year's Veolia Environmental Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, run by the Natural History Museum & the BBC.

An exhibition of the photos opens at the museum on 23 October


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Computer nostalgia

John Suffolk has an interesting piece of computer nostalgia, about starting work on an ICL 1902.

Those were the days! And as Her Majesty's Government's current Chief Information Officer and Senior Information Risk Owner I hope he understands the consequences of policies such as that imposed in the 1970s - (British) ICL or else.

Except for the Treasury forecasters of course. They are always a special case.

The rest of us just had to make the best we could of it.

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Population shapes

These interesting charts showing population age structure in various countries were published recently in the Times Saturday Magazine’s Crunch Time series.

They are similar to the one I lifted earlier to illustrate Population growth but include both sexes & show relative (%) frequencies rather than numbers in ‘000s.

It should also be noted that the vertical scale is not the same for each chart: those for Japan & UK have the scales stretched to go only from 0% to 9%, while that for Uganda is squashed down to go from 0% to 25% over the same distance. The horizontal scales (for age) are the same in each case. The picture would look different if all the scales were the same – a point which I used to enjoy demonstrating at the press of a key when we first got the ability to draw graphs on a teleprinter linked to a computer.

Why did Japan not have a Baby Boom in the 1960s? That must partly explain the recent low birth rates.

The UK looks boringly rectangular – a very settled state, apart from that 1960s boom.

India looks rather like just one half of a bell curve with σ quite large – a combination of high fertility balanced by higher mortality at younger ages?

The astonishing picture for Uganda – reflecting extraordinarily high birth rates & deaths from AIDS looks almost like a negative exponential – spookily, often used to model the failure time of manufactured items such as light bulbs.


Friday, October 16, 2009

An interest in physics

I enjoy reading Gravity & Levity, ‘a blog devoted (mostly) to a conceptual discussion of the big ideas in physics’, which tries to do so after putting them through the ‘translation process Math → English.

Most recently I loved the story about quasiparticles on the beach which is was inspired by a Caribbean holiday & tells us that “there are very few true coincidences in physics, so if a piece of coral has the same sort of structure that a two-dimensional electron gas does, then they probably have some physics in common.”

Another one which gave real food for thought was Your body wasn’t built to last: a lesson from human mortality rates

If only school physics had been like this!

But just today I have learned that another physics graduate did play an important role in my very young life.

Alison Uttley author of the Little Grey Rabbit books was only the second woman to graduate from Manchester University with a physics degree (in 1906).

Now a poem she wrote while a student – called Argument - about her interest in womens suffrage has been rediscovered.

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Derby U

Radio 4 has been visiting the University of Derby this week.

Jenni Murray (who lives in Derbyshire, I think. Used to, anyway) opened Womans Hour by reminding us of some Derbyshire-born heroines: Bess of Hardwick, Florence Nightingale, Ellen MacArthur & Hilary Mantel

Funny how many moved so far away

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Men in white suits

A grisly new phrase - or a new usage - has entered the language.

The Men in White Suits.

I first heard it on a radio traffic news report the other day: Looks like this one will last some time – I have just seen the men in white suits arrive.

Then yesterday’s Times carried a report from outside the flat where 2 young children were killed by their father. And yes, men in white suits were examining the scene.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mind your language

I was spurred into checking the context of the ‘blue rinse’ quote from Punch (which I found in the OED) by the unease I felt when I realised, belatedly, that the quote also included the word ‘coons’.

One of the perils of cut & paste – you do not necessarily pay the same attention as when copying out by hand.

I had assumed that the quote referred to a British election because we are now so used to blue rinse meaning elderly lady member of the Tory party, & also because Northern liberals (free trade, Non-conformist) are a recognisable English species too. But I do not remember coon being used in common parlance in 1960s England, even by those who intended to give offence.

A search of the Times Digital Archive for the years 1945 to 1970 produced 2289 hits for the word coon. However on closer examination most of these turned out to be misreadings of words such as soon, common, lagoon!

I found 4 definite uses of the word coon; 3 related to (already dated or defunct) music hall acts & 1 was a reprint of an article from 1847 which referred to a ‘gone coon’, which I think is much the same as a dead duck. There were large numbers of hits from the sports, especially the racing, pages which I did not check – most of them seem likely to be misreadings.

The OED told me something else I did not know before – the familiar abbreviation of racoon had been used from 1839 as a nickname for a member of the old Whig party of the United States, which at one time had the racoon as an emblem.

The OED of course also records its use as another derogatory racist term, but finds no English quotation more recent than from the Westminster Gazette of 1903: "possibly ‘coon’ is not the right word, which, however, is accepted here as modern slang for a nigger."

None that is, except for a quotation from a 1969 edition of Oz, which need not detain us

By three quarters

Perhaps Sir Thomas Legg is cleverer than we think.

By producing such an obviously ridiculous audit he has made us shamefaced about mob rule, & given MPs a taste of what it is like for we the people just trying our best to comply with endless torrents of contradictory rules, liable to be descended upon by a functionary who tells us no, what the other one told us was wrong.

So we can draw a line & get down to devising a better system for the next parliament


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Time & the soaps

Radio 5 Breakfast came from Coronation Street on Tuesday. I heard part of an interview with Ken Barlow.

This addressed the question of why a young 1960 ‘intellectual’ had stayed in the area: a fundamental character flaw, suggested William Roach

Intriguing, for me, was the information that Ken has only one rival for longevity in a soap – Dr Bob Hughes in As the World Turns.

At the end of the 60’s we spent a winter in Canada, with access to US tv on cable. We became rather addicted.

First to the novelty of 24-hour programming. We even took to sleeping on the sofa bed in the living room so we could fall asleep to the blue & white flicker of whatever followed Johnny Carson (often a local station from Vermont).

We had not had all that much experience of tv anyway – we lived in a country which still had simply no service. Even back in England we had no tv at home (with only one channel & restricted hours of broadcasting) until I was a teenager, & as students there was only the one in the common room.

I remember the World Turning - exceedingly slowly, I always found. Events which took only a day in real time stretched over the whole week.

By contrast life in UK soaps is very speeded up – Ken has had relationships with nearly 30 women in less than 50 years, all accompanied with more drama than most of us see in one real lifetime


An everlasting question

Why do film actors & actresses decide to appear in the West End?

David frost (aged 25½) Punch theatre critic 28 October 1964

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Academic address

I was taken aback to read Mark Henderson in Eureka, the new Times science magazine:

In the Commons as a whole 110 of 645 MPs have a BSc or equivalent; … Even this figure exaggerates the scientific competence of the Commons: it includes many social science graduates and arts degrees that carry a BSc, such as those from the LSE.

Once upon a time the social science degrees from the University of London were distinguished from ‘straight’ science degrees, for example BSc(Econ). I do not know when this disappeared, & any way the LSE (though still, it seems, one of the federation of 19 self-governing Colleges in the University) has had its own degree awarding powers since July 2008.

Mark Henderson’s lament could be seen as sour grapes or condescension, though A level maths is a requirement these days (alas) for Economics

And just to rub the noses of the poor unloved economists further into the dust, this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics has gone to two social scientists: “Economists want this to be an economists’ prize


The worst thing that can happen to an MP

The Punch editorial for 28th October 1964 was mostly about the sudden stepping down of Nikita Khrushchev, musings on Communism & the fate of Soviet politicians. (Bernard Hollowood was editor).

Some of it is very pertinent on 13th October 2009:

We complain in the West that politics have become so dowdy that they now attract only second rate citizens. But there is still some pride in the calling.

MPs are horribly insecure & badly paid – even when, as with Mr Wilson’s team, nearly one third of the party manages to get into the Government.

Even so, the worst that can happen to an MP is that he becomes an ex-MP.

There is no disgrace in the demotion; often he lives to fight & fight again ….

There then follows a list of all the openings available to allow an ex-MP to maintain HIS status, profession, position.

Many MPs today might be secretly hoping that they will lose their seat in the coming election.

I could also describe myself as a retired civil servant, though I do not think that that qualifies me to set an arbitrary limit for a reasonable amount for an MP to pay a cleaner. I can say that 20 years ago I paid about £1000 a year (2 mornings or 6 hours a week) for someone to clean the house, & more importantly keep a general eye on things while I was away working. If I were to do the same now, paying just the minimum wage, it would take up nearly all of the amount which Sir Thomas Legg considers reasonable (even in London), for a presumably larger house, larger family & more entertaining.

The cynic in me thinks that the amount was settled after careful exploration of the implications, with an eye kept particularly on the consequences for the Prime Minister.

$20,000 (as BBC World Service puts it) makes a nice round number to be ordered to repay. Gives more grease to his elbow when he says all MPs should pay up.

I do hope that neither he nor his family have to go without while he meets this sudden demand for cash.

Having this kind of public humiliation by retrospective regulation to go through still doesn’t approach the worst thing that could happen to a Soviet politician but it hardly dignifies our constitution

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What shall we do with the children?

Why is it OK for Higher Education to park its students for 3 years while they read novels, but not OK for Further Education to give courses to those with less stellar A levels in subjects which will never qualify them for a proper job, or perhaps only for one (hairdressing, media studies, performance art) in which supply far outstrips demand.

Does the argument that training you how to think, analyse, use technology etc is a good thing in itself not apply in this context?

How many graduates in English Literature are published writers (of any kind, not just novelists or journalists)

And if vocational education is not the business of the State, (or the tax payer) why do we provide expensive university places for doctors, dentists, lawyers & clergymen?


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Monday, October 12, 2009

A long short time in politics

Like many others, I was taken aback to hear on the Friday morning news that the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to President Obama.

I heard someone on the radio say that the award had been decided back in January, but that is incorrect according to the Nobel website.

The nomination might have been made that long ago, when to have Obama simply stand on the podium in front of the Presidential Seal might have seemed reason enough.

Now it seems too much like tempting fate

Further worrying evidence of the troubled attitudes to race in America have emerged with the almost prurient interest in the idea that Mrs Obama may have one (only 1?) white forebear who might have forced himself upon an under age slave girl

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Not the end of the world

I doubt that Silvio Berlusconi has much in common with Septimus Harding, which makes The Times leader headline of 8 October seem just comical:

Silvio Berlusconi has brought shame on himself and his country by his sexual antics and his attempts to evade prosecution. He must now resign

The Italian Ambassador was suitably diplomatic in his response.A matter for Italians

The Man Who Ran For President

Oops! Jumped to the wrong conclusion again.

The quote about blue rinse from 1964 Punch was not about Britain & the 1964 election at all. It comes from a piece by Alan Coren, The Man Who Ran For President, and is a satire on American presidential politics, published just a week before the election in which LBJ beat Goldwater in a landslide.

Coren imagines a meeting with a down & out in the Bowery, a man who once ran for president but was spectacularly brought low, & now eases the pain with benzedrine & meths.

It had all started so well:

… my grandfather was the only coloured rabbi ever to win an Olympic gold medal … my Irish grandfather won the Medal of Honour before opening a chain of cut price liquor stores across the country, my family had a tradition of political & moral leadership ...

By the second month of campaigning [on horseback] “I’d ironed out the whole racial problem at a campaign dinner for the KKK & the NAACP. Malcolm X was the guest speaker & General Walker handed round the furry hats.”

He was the perfect candidate, a shoo-in because “I was all things to all men, see? No one could object to me, because in my soul, in the very fibre of my being, son, was –well – a little bit of them.”

But then disaster & scandal struck:

“… some fink stands up in public & says he knows for a fact that my brother in law’s niece kicked a dog for a bet. We had the guy committed, but it was too late.”

The full ‘blue rinse’ quote reads:

The blue rinse vote went down the drain, & when they found out the dog was black, the Northern liberals & the coons went with them.

Also in October 1964, Nikita Khrushchev stepped down as leader of the Soviet Union, & Harold Wilson became the first Labour prime minister for 13 years.

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Blue is the colour