Friday, December 31, 2010

Any homicide that was strongly reprobated

In this country last year 101 women died at the hands of a husband, boyfriend or ex.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wandering home

Mohammed Bellazrack had an awfully big Christmas adventure.

He drove 2,000 miles in three days, trying his best to get home in time for Christmas.

The police came to guide him on the last leg of his journey.

He had been lost in the jungle of roads leading from Gatwick Airport through the great metropolis that is London & out to the hills of the West Country.

Mohammed Bellazrack is 72 years old.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Crossword economy

I sometimes find myself wishing that the Times would follow the Guardian’s lead & give nom de guerres to its cryptic crossword setters.

Most recently this has been because there is one setter whose way of thinking is so alien to my own that I often fail to understand the clue even when given the solution; what is worse, if ever I do work out an answer for myself it is accompanied by a curled lip & a loud harrumph – Call that a clue? The mere sight of his name would make sure I keep my blood pressure down by making no attempt to follow his twisted logical allusions.

But now I want to invite three cheers for whoever set crossword #24,727 (I am a bit behind because of Christmas).

There was only one clue which grated, many made me smile.

My favourite?

Probably Firm has thrown money around, not practising this? (7)

Dammed by ice

An unpleasant surprise awaited those who ventured out on Monday morning – the lane up the hill had not been gritted over the two days of Christmas & a temporary road sign warned of ice.

Not just a thin layer of the invisible black variety but solid white stuff – 3 or 4 inches deep at least.

But how could that be? The road was clear on Christmas Eve & we had no snow to speak of after that, only a deep deep freeze on Christmas night; from everywhere else – including the lane outside our house – the snow & ice had already almost completely disappeared.

It must be down to the drainage problem caused by the new estate; instead of soaking away, the rain & melt water ran down the road, hit the cold air in the dip over the bridge & gradually formed an ice dam, trapping water behind so that it too could freeze.

The ice extended for a distance of not more than twenty to thirty yards back up the hill towards the main road, but it was tricky for cars & even more tricky on foot.

There was still plenty of ice there on Tuesday, though tyres had cleared tracks which were safe to walk on.

Today the council has sent out a mechanical digger to clear away the tons still remaining & two men with brooms to clear the pavement.
A reminder of how grateful we must be to the council for gritting the hill during all the snow events which we have had this year, & how easy it would otherwise be for us to be trapped & unwilling to brave the dangers of going out.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

New York's orange bowl

If you were to fly the length of the Andes at night, or over some of the more sparsely populated areas of Europe such as parts of Turkey or Russia, looking out of the window you would occasionally see what seem to be tiny flickering fires on the earth below. Although they look just like the campfires we used to build on a Girl Guide hike, in fact they are the lights of small settlements or villages –larger than they look from 30,000 feet up.

In February 1970 we had to fly from Toronto to Trinidad, changing planes in New York. Sudden snow storms made it seem that we might be stranded for a time, but in the event both flights took off punctually.

I was still in my fear of flying stage & was rigid with anxiety during the obviously hazardous take offs & landings, although I was able to relax a bit once we were safely up at cruising height – planes very rarely just drop out of the sky, you know.

As we climbed out of New York, safely off the ground but not completely secure until the seat belt light goes off, & the plane began its long slow turn towards the south, my worries melted away as I became beguiled by what I could see below.

The entire city was enclosed by an enormous inverted bowl, transparent, perfectly hemispherical, & orange, reaching goodness knows how many feet at its highest point.

Not flickering like camp fires, not strung out in ribbbons as in slightly larger towns or cities, the lights of New York impose themselves much more dramatically.

It was my first real lesson in how much of all the electricity that we use just goes straight away to waste.

Monday, December 27, 2010

An accident waiting to happen





The Times magazine on the Saturday before Christmas carried this picture of a pensive President Obama in the Green Room at the White House.

If you look carefully at the floor you will see something to make you ring the alarm bell – send for Elf’n’Safety – a lead to the table lamp running across the floor, right by the side of the table & chair. If he were sitting down & got up too quickly he could be in for a nasty fall.

A friend of mine learned this the hard way with a complicated fracture of the wrist when she tripped over a lead in her office in the days when we were all just beginning to get multiple items of electrical equipment on our desks before the wiring & plugs had been upgraded to cope.

You would think that the world’s most advanced nation could have managed an upgrade by now.

Losing ones -ist

I made a complete bodge of trying to type biostatistical in my earlier post. I was very surprised when the spellchecker's only suggestion was biostatical.

A check of the OED has this as an obsolete & rare form.

Last night on Radio’s 4 programme on the Church of England Philip Blond used the word eccesial, which the OED again confirms has the same meaning as ecclesiastical.

Suddenly I am cheered up about my ‘mistake’ with heteroskedacity

Related post
Skedaddling

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sudoku

“A Sudoku puzzle is therefore, in formal terms, a critical set for a gerechte design for the 9x9 grid partitioned into 3x3 subsquares.”

So says David Spiegelhalter in his very informative article Pure Randomness in Art which is based on a talk he gave at the recent John Cage exhibition in Kettles Yard gallery in Cambridge. It’s good to know.

It took me a while to get going on Sudoku – my initial reaction to The Times revival of the pastime in England was Boring – not a patch on the cryptic crossword, & definitely no jokes, but I started to get interested when I had to give up my habit of doing the crossword on the bus home – not enough light to read the very small print size of the clues.

I now need my daily Sudoku fix.

The craze has demonstrated once more the importance of practice & training & learning to know what is required of you – be that as a puzzle solver, a candidate for GCSE or A level, sportsman, musician, or anything else in which you want to succeed.

Gradually the Easy Sudokus have largely disappeared from the daily paper – we have moved on through medium, difficult, fiendish & now super fiendish.

I have tried to understand how the puzzles are given grades – the one thing I can say is that there is a lot of variation between different setters & publications. Some of the Super Fiendish I find laughably easy – easier than Easy in fact; once you find the pattern it all tends just to fall into place – there is even a definite rhythm as you fill in the squares, so that I can immediately feel it if I have made a mistake - another small indicator perhaps of the link between mathematical logic & music. Easy is boring, you just have to go round & round filling in the blanks, with no pattern for a guide.

I have read explanations of all this, but because they tend to be based on 'consider all the options & eliminate the ones that do not work', all that does is put my head in a spin – I really cannot cope with writing in all the possibilities & then rubbing them out. The secret is to look for the pattern & fill in each square only when you are sure.

Another tip is to try to find the key starting point(s) - diagonally opposite corners are good, sometimes the edges, sometimes the centre square; if you do get stuck, rub it all out & find a different starting point.

I also wonder if the Latin square approach offers a mathematical way of determining whether a given puzzle has a unique solution – I have come across several which do not.

Ode on the death of a favourite cat

I am not really a cat person, but I have loved this poem since childhood.

Ode on the death of a favourite cat

'Twas on a lofty vase's side,
Where China's gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow,
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purred applause.

Still had she gazed; but 'midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The genii of the stream:
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.

The hapless nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first, and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched, in vain, to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat's averse to fish?

Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretched, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between:
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to ev'ry wat'ry god
Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A fav'rite has no friend!

From hence, ye beauties undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne'er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.

Thomas Gray

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Autobiometry

For some reason I never learned to remember the precise day of the month of my parents wedding anniversary – it was never any occasion or reason for family celebration or party.

Until, that is, their silver wedding was approaching. Since I was living abroad, I felt it especially important to make sure our gifts arrived in time as close as possible, & preferably before rather than after the day.

Suddenly a way to make sure that it was firmly fixed in the accessible bit of my memory popped into my head.

The 9 months + 1 week formula for calculating the expected date of delivery of a baby worked perfectly, in reverse, for getting to the date of my parents wedding from my own date of birth.

So those are my two claims to special biostatical status – the perfect honeymoon baby & the perfect regression.



Don't be afraid

Thanks to John Baez on The n-Category Café I have been introduced to the work of Vi Hart – an inspirational maths teacher.

Friday, December 24, 2010

It had to be blue

One of the fashion writers pointed out another slightly queasy parallel between the announcement of the engagement of Prince William to Kate Middleton & that of his parents thirty years ago – Kate’s blue dress was the same colour as that worn by Diana. The coincidence had not occurred to me, even though I watched the announcement of Charles & Diana's engagement live on tv.

Actually this does not make me feel as uncomfortable as the ring – thinking it through it is hard to decide what other colour she might have worn, especially if she wanted to follow the Queen’s example & stick to simple blocks of clear colour for official occasions.

Red, green, yellow or pink? I don’t think so.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Was Scrooge a banker?

Scrooge might even have awarded himself a bonus - Joan Bakewell.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Feeling comfortable

Despite the two great freezes that we have experienced this year we are still, I think, expecting this to be the warmest year on record when the whole of the planet is taken into account.

That seems rather like the old joke – if you put one hand into a bowl of boiling water & the other into a bucket of ice, then on average your hands will be very comfortable.

More seriously though, how does one calculate an average global temperature – even if we assume some perfect, continuous universal measuring system covering the whole of the earth’s surface & as high into the atmosphere as we need to go.

And what difference(s) do different methods make, especially in any time series analysis?

Is it indeed the average which matters, or some measure of variation.

There are just so many questions, unknowns & unpredictables that scientists & climate change evangelists alone cannot be left to tell us what to do & we just have to rely on the messy & unpredictable processes of international politics.

Keeping things clean

One of the Radio 4 news programmes spoke to a manager of the airport at Anchorage Alaska to find out how they cope with the ‘major snow events’ which they experience, on average, about once every 5/7 days.

With lots of expensive equipment (stored in warm sheds), well-trained teams, & mind-wateringly expensive quantities of stuff – he spoke of getting through $800,000 worth of product in a very short space of time during an ice storm.

So far, so (sort of) predictable. He said two things which were new to me however.

De-icing the planes is the responsibility of the airlines, not the airport authority – unmovable planes stuck on the stands are said to be a large part of the problem at Heathrow.

Although he declined to offer any advice to Heathrow – a totally different situation – he did say that with only two runways he thought that keeping the airport open would be almost impossible. Anchorage has three.

I suppose it’s the same principle as making sure that you always have a clean pair of knickers to wear – one on, one off, & one in the wash.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sun, moon, birds

We made no effort to see the eclipse of the moon this morning – did not expect there to be much chance because of overcast skies– but local radio was taking lots of calls from people who had.

Since it would have involved getting up & dressed very early & climbing the hill to find a vantage point – nothing so simple as just going out in the back garden – there really is no reason to feel bad about it.

Our luck continues to hold with the weather – we have had very little snow & most roads have remained open. Yesterday we had one of those topsy-turvey temperature experiences; bone-achingly cold even at noon, I was glad of a scarf with which to cover my face, then suddenly starting to warm up from about 5pm.

And today so far has been quite beautiful – blue skies & sunshine, not too cold. And there have been astonishing numbers of birds out & about.

The bus driver showed a heartwarming piece of enterprising self help on the way into town. He climbed out of his cab & gathered a couple of handfuls of snow to toss at his windscreen - just so that the wipers had something to help liquidate & clear the accumulated grime.

The setting sun has been blinding, even at three in the afternoon. But since this is the shortest day, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that the days will be getting longer from now on.

The sledge of 1947

Another dose of snow & freezing temperatures, (though once again we are escaping the worst) has made me think once more of the gratitude & admiration I owe to my parents for how they coped with the winter of 1947.

I have three very specific memories of my father from that time, all of which involve a sledge.

In the first I am standing on something to look out of the kitchen window as he comes down the lane, the surface of which was a lot higher than usual because of all the packed snow, pulling a sledge on which rested two or three bags of coal – goodness knows how far he might have had to go to get them.

On another day I was out in the garden watching him do the same, only this time his cargo was the District Nurse, a jolly lady, in her uniform of brown gabardine coat & matching hat.

In the third flashback the sledge is outside the kitchen door, mummy has just sat on it with her legs stretched out in front & I, laughing with delight, am clambering to sit in front of her; we were all laughing as her arms came round to hold me on & we moved off.

The odd thing about this memory is that my (nearly new) baby sister does not figure in it at all. I suppose she might have been wrapped under the front of mummy’s coat, or even conceivably in some sort of sling carried by daddy. It is even not inconceivable, in those times, that she was just at home alone in her cot. Most likely, I expect she had been taken round to a neighbour or the next door neighbour had come to sit with her.

I have absolutely no idea of where it was that we went.

And I find it disconcerting to realise that you have to be at least 65 years old to have any personal memories of that year.



Monday, December 20, 2010

Nature freezes them with cold



Back in the days when a Less Developed Country (LDC) was defined by reference to its GNP per caput (if you were the IMF being pedantic) we used to enjoy arguing about whether this was too crude a measure.

After some experience of living in such a country it seemed to me that what really characterised an LDC was first, the extent to which the people living there were still at the mercy of their environment & secondly, the relative lack of division of labour. By being at the mercy of the environment I really meant just the weather, particularly tropical rain. You did not venture out in a downpour unless you had a car, & even so you sometimes had to pull to the side of the road for a time because of poor visibility; drainage was primitive, so that the ground around the house would be swampy & difficult throughout the rainy season.

In that context it has been very instructive to hear the sense of personal insult being expressed by people who have been inconvenienced by the snow & ice – I particularly enjoyed the lady from Scotland who appeared to think it an outrageous dereliction of duty on behalf of the local authority which failed to clear her route to pick up the children from school, turning a 30 minute journey into one which lasted four hours – presumably the way had been clear when they went to school in the morning. And as an aside, how come nearly everybody who has been contacting the BBC with tales of their experiences in Scotland has done so in an English accent?

But what a year it has been – starting as it meant to finish, as far as snow, ice & deep freezing conditions are concerned, with a volcano thrown in between, just to test us.

And while it is understandable that people feel they must travel at this time of year, despite the warnings, it is amazing how many set out as if it were just an ordinary day, without taking any special precautions or carrying necessary supplies.

RTÉ1 last week carried an interview with a woman, born in Buffalo but now living in Ireland. It was instructive to hear how her father had made sure that all his three daughters were trained in how to prepare their car for winter, almost as soon as Labor Day was past; beside the usual blanket, spade & torch the most surprising backup aid was an 8 hour candle – enough to keep the car warm inside without the need to keep the engine going. I rather suspect that big American cars provide a safer lodging place on the dashboard for one of those than do smaller European models.

At least the Chief Scientific Adviser to the government has got his chance to demonstrate the real value of science-based policy; the Transport Minister has asked him to advise on whether we should now plan for snowstorms to feature more often than we allow for at present & invest accordingly.

Shades of 1976, when the country was divided over the question of whether The Drought required us to invest squillions in a new National Water Grid to carry water from the wet north west to the arid south east or whether we had absolutely no need to worry because this had just been a 1 in 300 year event so we had plenty of time to prepare for the next one.


Picture from NERC Satellite Receiving Station, Dundee University, Scotland

Eclipse of the moon

There is due to be an eclipse of the moon overnight.

If we can get a glimpse of it, it will be interesting to see if it looks red due to continuing fallout from Eyjafjallajökull.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Whatever happened to caps?

If sales to children of things that go bang have been regulated since Victorian times, how come we used to be able to buy caps?

Rolls of narrow paper in which were embedded what looked like very small seeds. They could load under the hammer of a toy gun & make a satisfyingly loud POP when you pulled the trigger. You could also make a nice bang if you just placed them on a surface & hit them with a small piece of brick or rock.

They used to come in small cardboard boxes about the same size as the top on a modern plastic bottle of pop. Generous children would tear off short strips to share with friends.

Surprisingly, they are still available from online party & toy shops – 12 rolls of 100 enclosed in cellophane on a card for £1.58 for example.

The product does however carry the rubric ‘This item must not be sold to a child as it contains fireworks.

Related post
Elfy Christmas

James Thomson's Winter

James Thomson's very long poem about winter is an obvious choice for a time when we are expereincing record cold & snow. The whole is rather relentless & overwhelming, but in smaller doses it really does capture the ancient magic of ice & snow.

See, Winter comes, to rule the varied year,
Sullen and sad, with all his rising train;
Vapours, and clouds, and storms. Be these my theme,
These! that exalt the soul to solemn thought,
And heavenly musing. Welcome, kindred glooms,
Congenial horrors, hail! with frequent foot,
Pleased have I, in my cheerful morn of life,
When nursed by careless Solitude I lived,
And sung of Nature with unceasing joy,
Pleased have I wander'd through your rough domain;
Trod the pure virgin-snows, myself as pure;
Heard the winds roar, and the big torrent burst;
Or seen the deep-fermenting tempest brew'd,
In the grim evening sky.

There is some intensely poetic description of the frozen landscape - a crystal pavement however is not so attractive in an urban setting.

Is not thy potent energy, unseen,
Myriads of little salts, or hook'd, or shaped
Like double wedges, and diffused immense
Through water, earth, and ether? hence at eve,
Steam'd eager from the red horizon round,
With the fierce rage of Winter deep suffused,
An icy gale, oft shifting, o'er the pool
Breathes a blue film, and in its mid career
Arrests the bickering stream. The loosen'd ice,
Let down the flood, and half dissolved by day,
Rustles no more; but to the sedgy bank
Fast grows, or gathers round the pointed stone,
A crystal pavement, by the breath of Heaven
Cemented firm; till, seized from shore to shore,
The whole imprison'd river growls below.


From pole to pole the rigid influence falls,
Through the still night, incessant, heavy, strong,
And seizes Nature fast. It freezes on;
Till Morn, late-rising o'er the drooping world,
Lifts her pale eye unjoyous. Then appears
The various labour of the silent night:
Prone from the dripping eave, and dumb cascade,
Whose idle torrents only seem to roar,
The pendent icicle; the frost-work fair,
Where transient hues, and fancied figures rise;
Wide-spouted o'er the hill, the frozen brook,
A livid tract, cold-gleaming on the morn;
The forest bent beneath the plumy wave;
And by the frost refined the whiter snow,
Incrusted hard, and sounding to the tread
Of early shepherd, as he pensive seeks
His pining flock, or from the mountain top,
Pleased with the slippery surface, swift descends.

Long passages describe the winter in other countries too. One wonders if Thomson had ever seen the Breughels paintings of skaters, or witnessed the scenes for himself.

On blithsome frolics bent, the youthful swains,
While every work of man is laid at rest,
Fond o'er the river crowd, in various sport
And revelry dissolved; where mixing glad,
Happiest of all the train! the raptured boy
Lashes the whirling top. Or, where the Rhine
Branch'd out in many a long canal extends,
From every province swarming, void of care,
Batavia rushes forth; and as they sweep,
On sounding skates, a thousand different ways,
In circling poise, swift as the winds, along,
The then gay land is madden'd all to joy.

But have heart, spring will come.

Ye noble few! who here unbending stand
Beneath life's pressure, yet bear up a while,
And what your bounded view, which only saw
A little part, deem'd evil is no more:
The storms of Wintry Time will quickly pass,
And one unbounded Spring encircle all.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

It's all right for some

I have heard a rumour that anyone interested in archives has reason to be grateful for all this weather.

Salt mines make the perfect clean dry space for storage, but even in this allegedly paperless age we carry on producing stuff that needs to be saved faster than the world needs us to dig out the salt & liberate the space.

So by demanding that roads be gritted to allow us to indulge our addiction to driving about, we speed up the rate at which more storage space can be provided.

Kit Kat

Dubai airport sells more Kit Kats than any other single location on earth, according to a report in the Business Diary.

This news was first reported in 2002.

I am quite partial to Kit Kats myself, though I prefer the rival Snickers for its low GI & longer lasting energy boost.

The story reminded me of an incident from years ago, very disturbing in its own way.

I had reason to be with my bosses PA as she searched his desk one day while he was on leave – it was a genuine emergency & we needed to find a document.

One small drawer was completely stuffed with Kit Kat wrappers.

He was one of the nicest, sanest men imaginable, thin as a whippet, but not in an unhealthy way.

Why did he not just put the wrappers in the bin?

Just goes to show, we all need our secret private places.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Keeping out the cold

Flatlines are not usually good news for doctors. So why do they insist that we flatline our diets with set amounts of this, that & the other; Recommended or Maximum Daily Allowances. Five of this but none of that.

Variety is the spice of life.

And if we are meant to eat seasonally & locally the amounts we can get each day will vary with whatever the local climate can supply.

In my youth everybody knew that you gorge yourself on fruit & vegetables in the summer, to make up for the relative dearth of supply in winter, especially since potatoes did not count as a vegetable back then, they were carbohydrates, starch & therefore fattening. But in winter you needed lots of starch & suet anyway, to keep warm.

Where is the evidence that I do myself harm by taking more than a day’s salt allowance now & again?

By drinking Marmite for example.

Or making Marmite stew.

Could not be simpler.

Stewing beef left in a piece – size obviously depends on how many mouths you are feeding.

Onions. Shallots are good, if you have them & can be bothered to peel them, because they get nice & salty outside while staying sweet on the inside; otherwise cut onions into quarters or wedges.

Carrots cut into large pieces.

A bay leaf.

Garlic if you like.

Put all the ingredients into a heavy casserole & cover with Marmite mixed with boiling water & a little extra salt.

Cook slowly until beef is tender.

Good with dumplings cooked in the same pot for the last 20 minutes of cooking time (flavoured with good dried thyme if you have some).

Or served with rice or plain boiled potatoes & cabbage.

A real winter warmer.

Blinking into the light

I have just been reading the second volume of Chris Mullin’s diaries, which spells out in some detail New Labour’s grisly record on never leaving a junior minister in place for more than abut five minutes. Of course we sort of knew that, but to see it set out starkly in this way really brings it home.

At one point Mullin records a colleague as saying that such changes result in too much power going to the civil servants. Although the odd ineffective minister may give this result, I doubt that this is true when it happens on such an industrial scale. It just leads to demoralisation & feels as if the Masters of the Universe are just making all too clear their disdain for minions like you lot.

It is no wonder that no new really heavyweight politician emerged during the thirteen years of Blair/Brown. But it is heartening that some are now showing every sigh [stet] of emerging from under the deadweight of spin & being briefed against.

I have heard Jacqui Smith give two very good radio interviews, though she of course decided that enough was enough at Westminster. Ann Treneman however – a very witty & amusing but not a soft judge– has said that both Caroline Flint & John Denham are turning in impressive performances in the House.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

On not knowing where to look

Yet another discussion on the radio about why so few people can understand mathematics. The general conclusion – it’s just too complicated; a language sui generis, impossible to translate, resistant to metaphor, allegory or analogy.

There is however a strong case for saying that the problem with maths is not complication, but simplicity.

Reality stripped bare, leaving only the outline of a skeleton of universal laws with the smallest possible number of elements.

But we humans must learn from the very beginning to cope with complexity, to see the whole, not just the fragments.

The hardest part of maths is to understand which bit I am supposed to be focussing on, to forget all the yes-buts.

Just what is the mathematician seeing & talking about?

Rearing healthy children

Doctors are inclined to get very cross about patients who self-diagnose. Medicine is a very sacerdotal profession.

But how do you decide when you need to go & see the doctor? Doesn’t getting to that point involve a kind of diagnosis? A judgement on whether the problem is one you can deal with yourself?

I can still be quite shocked by how often children get taken to the doctor these days – don’t mothers know anything? Alternatively - however did we all manage to survive (as mothers or as children) without Calpol & antibiotics?

I was very good at falling over & still bear the scars on my legs to prove it. Wound infection was quite normal, the treatment hot water & Germolene, dressed with lint & zinc plaster OUCH.

The first use for hot water was to soak the old dressing until it was soft enough to pull off.

Sepsis control required a bowl of boiling water, some cotton wool balls & scissors or a pair of tweezers. Drop the cotton wool balls into the boiling water, squeeze out surplus water with the tweezers (so as not to scald the infant flesh) & gently wipe all the putrefaction away leaving the wound pink. If there is clear infection under the surrounding skin (which looks red if there is any), press hot pads over the affected area to draw the poison out. But if there is a thin red line beginning to stretch from the wound towards the heart, your child has blood poisoning & you must call for the doctor.

Not really different from applying pigeons to the feet.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Elfy Christmas

Radio 4’s You & Yours had an interesting piece about limitations on the sale of Christmas crackers – a subject which exercised both Michael Ellis, MP for Northampton North, & the prime minister at PMQs last week. Turns out that, far from being modern EU inspired elf’n’safety gorn mad, restrictions on the sale to children of anything that goes bang have been in place since the Victorian age.

These & similar age restrictions are becoming much more apparent to ordinary shoppers with the growth of self checkouts in supermarkets. You may do the work of scanning all by yourself, but an assistant still has to be on hand to let you complete the transaction by checking your id, if a simple visual inspection is not enough to confirm that you are of mature years & you are trying to buy something dangerous. In the past the check out assistants would discreetly press the right button & you would be none the wiser; now you may have to wait until they can get round to you.

The latest oddity that has affected me - Halls Extra Strong throat lozenges cannot be sold to those under the age of 16.

And miners mined in Grosvenor Square

Government statisticians are simple folk, easily amused. And so in the 1970s we used to enjoy pointing out that there were coal miners at work in Grosvenor Place, just across the road from Buckingham Palace.

There are two ways (at least) of classifying the work that somebody does: one is by reference to their employer’s line of business, the other based on their own occupation & skills. And so secretaries, typists, accountants & managers working at the headquarters of the National Coal Board were all assigned to the mining industry.

I was remembering this as I read Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 9 about capitalism, which challenges the idea that we live in a post-industrial society & that our future prosperity will depend on the provision of services.

Just one part of the apparent decline of industrial employment & the accompanying growth in services is simply a result of a statistical artefact of this kind, driven by outsourcing & by the trend towards businesses which are conglomerates.

If the National Coal Board had outsourced its cleaning, works canteen, typing services or payroll to specialist firms, then the people who provided those services would cease to be miners.

And in the modern economy any firm which maintains a manufacturing core but has expanded into other areas, whether related specialist services or something completely unrelated, may be re-classified according to their new main function.

Ha-Joon Chang brilliantly spells out how an economy dependent on services risks low growth in productivity, balance of payments problems & increasing lack of competitiveness as the most valuable & internationally traded services are those (such as engineering consultancy) which support manufacturing.

I hope that Michael Gove in particular is thinking about the implications of this for his education policies.

Links
[PDF] UK Standard Industrial Classification of Economic Activities 2003

INTRODUCTION TO UK STANDARD INDUSTRIAL CLASSIFICATION OF ECONOMIC ACTIVITIES UK SIC(92)


Related posts
neo classical endogenous growth theory
The bell tolls for capitalism

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Careful of your language

A YouGov poll on attitudes to swearing on tv found that 38% of people thought that the word pimhole should be broadcast only after the watershed and 23% thought it should be totally banned on the television. The survey suggested pimhole was regarded as being more offensive than words like bollocks or bastard.

Pimhole is a real place in Bury, Lancashire; it was also used as a made up swear word in a Fry & Laurie sketch on tv 20 years ago.

Perhaps some respondents had a vague memory of the sketch, or know of Pimhole as a somewhat rundown area in need of regeneration, but since they were reacting to a list of words presented to them by the pollster it is possible that they just thought that it sounded rude. And orifices are of course always good for a titter.

I suppose one useful test of real acceptability, among radio listeners at least, would be to get Jim Naughtie to say it on the Today programme.


The bell tolls for capitalism

I have just started to read 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang, a man who is out & proud as a non-free market economist. And one who is able to write about economics without any mathematics or even using terms such as GDP. Instead he uses startlingly vivid examples such as Sven, the Swedish bus driver who has never had to dodge a cow in his life, & the role of domestic servants in the novels of Agatha Christie.

I was wondering why 23 things, if that is just the number that fell out of the hat or one chosen for a deeper significance – for example one of its qualities as a prime.

Perhaps all will be clear at the end.

But then I thought of Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions with its 23 Meditations on the meaning of life & death, in sickness & in health. The explanation for his choice of 23 which I find most plausible is that it represents the tolling of the bell for each hour of the day - there can obviously be no meditation for the 24th because when that bell tolls you are dead.

Which ties up quite neatly with what Keynes said: "Now 'in the long run' this [way of summarizing the quantity theory of money] is probably true.... But this ‘long run’ is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Snow service

We had our bins emptied early Saturday morning – the council had been advising everybody to put them out as usual on Thursday, but just to leave them out until they managed to get round.

I thought that presumably expensive Saturday working might just have been a wise precaution – with the strong possibility of yet more snow to come there must be a risk of rubbish piling up until after Christmas unless they took every opportunity to remove it.

But this morning it was announced on local radio that there will be collections over the Christmas & New Year Bank Holidays, no changes to the usual schedules at all.

Perhaps this efficiency comes out of the agreement between us & Staffordshire Moorlands. I just hope that it is not being bought at the cost of reductions in pay for the contracted out staff who do a heroic job in such awful conditions.

Size matters

An outstanding Start The Week this morning. Masses of ideas per megahertz.

Creativity was the theme which united Wagner, materials science & imaginative writing (Semyon Bychkov,Mark Miodownik, Susan Hill) – the discussion was just fizzing with ideas.

And all stressed that, wonderful as the internet might be, embodiment remains vital. Being there is important. And size really does matter.

It is available on Listen Again or as a podcast.

Hopes dashed

The leaflet giving details of holiday bus timetables promised Boxing Day buses for the first time in decades - & on a Sunday too, but we had to go to the website for details of what was meant by ‘selected routes during shopping hours.

Only to find, when we finally got to the right page, that there are none of those round here, you have to be living nearer to & wanting to go to the big shopping centres – Victoria, Broadmarsh or Westfield way down south in Nottingham or Derby to get satisfaction.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Something we don't know?

One of the most alarming details of the news about foreigners buying up expensive homes in London is that Italians make up an increasing proportion of their number.

It’s not just all football-related, so why?

Do they think that they will soon be in need of a place to run to?

Related post
House buying spree

A poem about money

The poem ‘Money’ by CH Sisson needs no explanation, especially not these days.

You could not call Sisson a cynic however – just clear eyed, seen too much to be an innocent romantic, though not at all world weary. He was also duly sceptical of his own profession of civil sercant:

'Here lies a civil
servant. He was civil
To everyone, and servant to the devil.'


Money

I was led into captivity by the bitch business
Not in love but in what seemed a physical necessity
And now I cannot even watch the spring
The itch for subsistence and having become responsibility.

Money the she-devil comes to us under many veils
Tactful at first, calling herself beauty
Tear away this disguise, she proposes paternal solitude
Assuming the dishonest face of duty.

Suddenly you are in bed with a screeching tear-sheet
This is money at last without her night-dress
Clutching you against her fallen udders and sharp bones
In an unscrupulous and deserved embrace.

CH Sisson


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Health, wealth & happiness

The Americans have had their own ‘Happiness Index’ since the beginning of 2008.

Actually it is a well-being index compiled by Gallup which combines objective & subjective measures, such as whether respondents have experienced enjoyment & whether they have been taking exercise.

It has taken a bit of a dip this month – though to nowhere near as low as it was over the winter of 2008/9. The main reason is that they have been more likely to make unhealthy choices of lifestyle.

What is most striking about this index however is the clear relationship to income.

And relationships matter - being separated is very nearly as bad as belonging to the very poor.

Weasel words

I went to the OED for information on the origin of the phrase ‘weasel words’ expecting it to have a fine Old English Mandarin tradition.

But no – its first traces are to be found in th US Century Magazine in 1900

To use a word in an ambiguous or equivocal context, in order to hide your true meaning, or at least to give yourself some wiggle room should that prove to be necessary.

The Lib Dems could have done with some of those in their manifesto promise on student fees

Friday, December 10, 2010

Surviving childhood

Another scare hare is running on the possible harmful effects on children of mobile phones. David Spiegelhalter & Steven Novella are among those who have expressed their scepticism about this.

It is however perfectly natural to worry at least a little bit about the possible effects of the force of new technology. It was electricity when I was a little girl. We were enjoined, in no uncertain terms, NEVER to touch anything electrical.

There was a lot of sense in this in the days when children could be electrocuted by sticking enquiring fingers into a socket & the technology of insulation generally was not nearly so well developed as it is now.

Nevertheless by the age of 3 or 4 I had decided that it must be perfectly safe just to switch the radio on or turn the dial to a new station, & would sometimes disobey, if it were time for Listen With Mother or Toytown.

But my first real disobedience, which finally removed the injunction, came when I was 6 years old.

I was jealous of a friend who, almost exactly my age, was already seasoned in the business of helping her mother with the ironing. They were much poorer than us – she already had three younger siblings; another cause of jealousy had been the sugar sandwiches they had for tea – a single slice of bread, scraped with margarine &a tiny sprinkling of sugar – but my jealousy disappeared after I realised that dripping sometimes replaced the sugar & mummy explained that that was because they couldn’t afford all the sorts of things we had on sandwiches.

But I still pestered to be allowed to help with the ironing.

The problem was our iron was an electric one; my friend’s mummy still used old-fashioned flat irons – the sort that had to be heated up on top of the stove or over the fire, their temperature tested with spittle. You would, if you could afford it, have two of them, so that one could be being heated up while the other was in use.

Surely the real danger was burning yourself, & I understood that I must not touch the hot part of the iron. Ours even had an insulated handle, one you didn’t have to carefully wrap a cloth round before lifting it off the fire. If my friend could manage that …

N O spells no.

Then one day, after mummy had finished all the ironing, except for the sash for my party frock which could continue to sit & wait in the bottom of the ironing basket, she decided to pop next door for something & went out, leaving the ironing board standing. I saw my chance.

The sash was a perfectly straight band of crepe de chine about 3 inches wide in a fetching shade of eau de nile; it would be passed round the waist of my white organdie dress & tied in a big bow at the back. As an exercise in ironing, nothing could be simpler.

So I stood very carefully on the chair & inserted the plug in the socket which was placed quite high in the wall. I made sure that the thermostat was at its lowest setting (I had obviously been observing & asking questions about all these mysteries) & had a go. It was easy!

When I had finished I carefully unplugged, leaving the sash on the board & awaited my fate. With luck mummy might think that she had just ironed it herself.

But no. Who ironed this?

To my immense relief there was no punishment & from then on I was allowed to help & trained in the correct techniques – to this day I cannot bear to see a crease ironed down the centre of the sleeve.

In fact my mother hated ironing, while I found it immensely satisfying, & by the time I was about 8 years old I was doing all the ironing - & being paid piecework to do it.

Funnily enough I still feel a tiny frisson at the sight of a small child turning on a television, an atavistic instinct to reach out & knock the little hand away from something dangerous.

Income contingent civil liabilities

That is the term I heard one expert use for the new arrangements for financing undergraduate education at a university in England.

It is not at all hard to understand the fury which this government plan has unleashed- all those children tested to destruction throughout their school years, told that they must get educated for their own & the country’s good – only to be told that it will cost.

It is something quite deep rooted in all our minds – fairness means that the rich pay the taxes, the poor get the benefits. And, after a period of madness, it seems that granny was right all along when she told you never to get into debt. So asking those from less well-off families to take on a debt of £27,000 for their higher education is unjust.

In fact the poor pay taxes, possibly proportionately even more than the rich, & income tax long ago stopped being the only tax worth bothering about. And though the rich may claim few of the things which come with the label benefit upon them, they do benefit disproportionately from subsidised goodies such as London Freedom passes – and higher education for their children. In the latter case the benefit is so great that it has been worth paying school fees of up to £30,000 a year to get.

The coalition scheme does not really amount to a loan – something which must be paid back regardless or else the bailiffs will come & take away your telly or your car or force you into bankruptcy.

And a UK tax cannot be collected from people living abroad or even, in some cases, from those who live here.

I personally worry much more about the pressures on university finances – we kid ourselves if we think that our universities are second only to America’s as the envy of the world, something must be done to pump in more resources.

The coalition scheme seems like a very clever idea offering the benefit of an income tax (payable only if you have the income) but with an obligation on all beneficiaries to pay, even if they are not otherwise liable to income tax.

And it will, unlike any previous scheme, offer a way of financing part time students, many of whom missed out on the chance to go to university at 18 & are a lot less well off than many full time undergraduates.

The devil as always will be in the detail.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

311

New York City has a special phoneline – 311 – to deal with non-emergency complaints & queries. I have lost track of whether any of the various proposals to introduce such numbers over here have ever been implemented.

An interesting article by Steven Johnson in Wired magazine shows how this line is being used to provide much more than just help & advice to callers.

Each complaint is logged, tagged, and mapped to make it available for subsequent analysis; this analysis not only allows the City to respond more intelligently to problems, but helps detect patterns that might otherwise have escaped notice.

I wonder if we have anything like that over here. If 999 calls for example were intelligently analysed we might get much better ideas about what might be done to minimise unnecessary calls from the mad, bad or sad to which our only response at present seems to be official tetchiness, name calling in the press (eg the woman who rang to report the theft of her snowman), or the tweeting by Greater Manchester of all the calls they received in one day, just to show us what they have to put up with.

Such an intelligent system would be far more likely, I would have thought, to provide ideas for efficiency & cost saving than asking interested members of the public for their ideas on what to do with data, or relying on them to come up with their own analyses.

Buprestogenesis

Listening to yet another expert in public health explaining how the only way to combat the obesity epidemic is to change our obesogenic society.

But what if whatever it is that generates the obesity in some also generates long legs in others? Are we sure that short legs are a price we are willing to pay for universal slenderness?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Low fat diet

On Radio 5’s Up All Night Rhod Sharp spoke to an American researcher who is looking into the question of whether dead sheep or cows, jettisoned from a ship, might have been responsible for provoking the feeding frenzy for live human flesh being displayed by sharks in Sharm el-Sheikh. Cargo manifests are being examined in an attempt to find the guilty party.

According to the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research A. Peter Klimley carried out an experiment which showed that White sharks will attack seals, pigs, and sheep, but consistently rejected the sheep carcasses, perhaps because they are not fat enough; divers who are attacked by White Sharks are visually mistaken for sea lions and then spat out because they're just too damn skinny to be a worthwhile meal.

So why are the whitetip and a mako sharks responsible for the Egyptian attacks less picky? Have they got the healthy eating message?

Trust nobody

If I had world enough & time I could be trawling through the WikiLeaks & the government COINS database and countless others. I could plough through all the International Panel on Climate Change reports to reach a well informed independent rounded view on the issue.

Then I can check all my personal accounts, make sure that I am getting the best returns, the lowest prices, that there are no signs of anyone making unauthorised withdrawals.

Or I can rely on other people to go through all this information & tell me what to think, believe or do about it all.

Though not people ingovernment, obviously.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Greedy arrogance

There are only 25 Olympic Games per century. Add in the 25 World Cup football finals & there would be enough such prestigious occasions to give 50 countries each a once in a hundred years chance to show themselves off to the whole world.

So why should anybody have thought that England were ever in with a chance of winning the position of host to the 2018 World Cup football, that the chances of that happening were somehow increased by winning the 2012 Olympic bid?

Normal for Washington

Documents are not given a security classification by a government (or indeed by any other person or organisation) solely because they contain information known only to them.

Sometimes the secret is that politicians or spies are interested in, talking about, thinking of doing something about, the subject. That is what they do not want you to know.

And sometimes it is just cover for their obtuseness.

Or rudeness. After all, that is why doctors used to argue against the idea that we should have the right to see our own medical notes – all those Normal For Norfolk remarks.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Power & control

On Friday the Office of Fair Trading published the first national stocktaking report of the ownership of the UK infrastructure assets. Almost two-fifths of our energy, water, transport & communications are owned by foreigners.

The OFT has concluded that, because of healthy competition in the market, this has not led to poorer service for UK consumers. So that's all right then.

But then on Monday came the news that even our money may be taken over – not just by any old foreigners but by the French. De La Rue (whose founder came from Guernsey) has received a takeover offer, now confirmed to be from Oberthur Technologies.

Snow clearing

The weather is rather beautiful today – at least if you are inside in the warm; clear skies & bright sunshine (once the freezing fog had lifted) with only the tops of the hills & shaded pavements left covered in snow or ice. The thaw which set in on Friday night has been pretty complete, though the temperatures really bite at night.

Poor Ireland, & now Scotland, are really suffering though.

There have been the usual complaints about Health & Safety being responsible for the reluctance of householders to take on the task of clearing snow from the pavement outside, but it is the lawyers & their litigious clients we have to fear. We could do with one really high profile attempt to extract damages from such a public-spirited citizen & a judge who will scathingly refuse the claim

This kind of snow has however made me more sympathetic to the view that we should perhaps NOT encourage amateur snow clearers to set to work on the pavements around their house.

Any snow clearing leaves an inevitable film of water on the surface from the melt of the surrounding snow & freezing turns this into treacherous black ice. The combination of drifting deep wet snow, partial thaw, then deep freeze makes this all the more likely to be the outcome. Organised gritting might be a better bet, but then what will that do to the drains.

At least the white stuff gives a constant visual reminder to take it steady, not rush around carelessly.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

London Snow by Robert Bridges

This poem captures something which hasn't been seen for many years - London blanketed & quietened by inches of lying snow.

I am curious that, in the poet's imagination, only men & schoolboys venture outside the house . This might be a reflection of the reality of the time?


When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;

Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;

And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled - marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;

No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.
Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;

Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder!'
'O look at the trees!' they cried, 'O look at the trees!'
With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:

When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul's high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.

For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:

But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.

Related post
The enemy

Olde English

It was fascinating to hear one of the local radio presenters, reading out the long lists of school closures earlier this week consistently pronounce the name of Fairfield Endowed School as if it were Endowèd. I cannot remember ever hearing anyone local use this poetic Elizabethan pronunciation before.

I don't think he does this with other words however.

Perhaps he just saw 'wed' and pronounced that. Wed is still commonly used to mean marriage round here as in I am getting wed next week. And I can remember the olden days, when young women might often be asked Are you wed yet?

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Topsy-turn weather

As if to underline the unusual nature of the weather which we are experiencing the current thaw started late last night – it was warmer at 2 am than at 9 pm.

Perhaps Vladimir Putin ordered the cold winds to turn back to Siberia to mark his winning of the World Cup.

Muriel Nissel

Muriel Nissel has died at the age of 89.

She was the first editor of Social Trends, which is now a national institution though whether it will remain so now that it is published purely online remains to be seen. It could be said to be the forerunner of David Cameron’s Happiness Index, since it aimed to bring together information about society to be used alongside the well-established volume of Economic Trends to give a more rounded range of objective measures of how well society was doing. I have a horrible feeling that one such objective ground may well have been the number of children born to unmarried women – of any age, not just the teenagers who obsess today’s policy makers – because in the absence of freely available contraception for all such births were judged to be unwanted or at least unplanned.

The job needed someone of great charm but also steely determination, since it required the cajoling of statisticians across Whitehall departments (& some in devolved offices) to provide data to a strict deadline on a consistent basis for the UK, when many probably thought they had more pressing priorities. Muriel had plenty of both these qualities & was backed by the strong support of her mentor & then head of the Government Statistical Service, Sir Claus Moser.

Although our paths rarely crossed I was greatly in her debt because I first met her for an interview which led to her recommending me for a job, much needed at the time. I cannot remember any of the questions except we discussed Margaret Drabble’s Waterfall which I offered as the book I had most recently read. It was only after I was well launched that I thought it might not have been a good idea to say how profoundly disappointing I had found it, though in the result it obviously did me no harm.

Muriel was also well-known for smoking cigars – technically cigarillos I think. This led to me being challenged – probably at a work Christmas dinner – by my all-male colleagues to show that I too was made of such strong stuff. I took the challenge & smoked a full size one, which I found very enjoyable. For a few years I would occasionally indulge on special occasions, though I was never tempted to make it a regular habit. I wonder if Muriel ever gave them up, giving in to the strong social trend towards disapproval such habits now attract.

In her memoirs she wrote that: "I had never set out to be a fervent feminist, believing that slow, determined breaking down of barriers would in the long run be more fruitful. But experience [taught] me always to be on my guard and ready to fight."

Friday, December 03, 2010

Martin Carter: The Great Dark

This tightly packed poem by Guyanese poet Martin Carter slowly unfurls in the mind & the heart, in the great dark of the bright connection of words, saying everything.

A message from 1977 to the ever weaving weavers of the web.


Orbiting, the sun itself has a sun
as the moon an earth, a man a mind.
And life is not a matter of a mother only.
It is also a question of the probability of the spirit,
strength of the web of the ever weaving weaver
I know not how to speak of, caught as I am
in the great dark of the bright connection of words.

And the linked power of love holds the restless wind
even though the sky shudders, and life orbits
around time, around death, it holds the restless wind
as each might hold each other, as each might hold
each other.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Updated bakewell tarts

Among the Times Magazine’s celebrity Christmas recipes on Saturday was one I cannot wait to try – prune, rum & cardamom tartlets with almond cream.

Really, just a more exotic (& more alcoholic) version of Bakewell Pudding.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Like marries like

On the back of news of the royal wedding St Andrews is claiming the title of top matchmaking university in Britain. A study of 5000 graduates showed that almost 10% of former St Andrews students were married to each other, claims the principal.

Tut, tut.

Does it enhance a university’s academic reputation to make claims on such flimsy & inadequate evidence.

What, pray, are the rates for alumni of other British universities?

I will wager that Oxford, Cambridge & most certainly London (if we are allowed to count it as just one) will show rates equally high.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Snow report

When I was a child there was one bit of weather lore which everybody knew – sometimes it’s too cold to snow.

But when we asked our A level meteorology teacher about it he said he had never heard of it & could not think of any reason why that should be.

I thought about it again this morning.

Although it has been bitterly cold we have not had any of the snow – save for a light dusting – which has been blanketing the north east of England, Wales & some of the West Country. Not much was forecast either.

Last night I was pleasantly surprised that it was not so cold as it had been.

To wake up to a nasty surprise – local radio full of lists of closed schools & roads.

No high road was passable this morning & the village is under several inches.

It is not at all the same snow as we had last year; this is the deep damp powdery stuff which gets treacherously slippery when compacted – another reason for hating people who park up on pavements. Doesn’t have the roughed up surface of the deep frozen stuff to give your feet something to grip.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Laughing all the way to the bank

Patrick Hosking wrote a fine satirical piece in the Times business pages on Saturday about David Cameron’s proposed new Happiness Index.

He imagines how quickly the City will find ways of making money out of it.

There will be new financial instruments called Collateralised Happiness Obligations.

Even pension funds are persuaded: ‘They’d bought the diversification argument as easily as toddlers in a sweet shop.’

The Bank of England will acquire a new responsibility for the Happiness Policy Committee.

And, things being the way they are, no matter whether the British people say they are more happy or more miserable this month, the traders will win a big fat bonus.

The whole article is available to subscribers to the Times website. I have been wondering if it might not be possible one day soon to be able to buy slivers of websites without being a subscriber, similar to the way that workers who cannot commit to long-term contracted hours can now offer slivers of their time to employers. Tesco announced last week that they will be offering this facility to help their employees manage their overtime.


What about my soles?

Something looked different about the salt that has reappeared on the station platform & some roads, even before the cold got so much worse at the end of last week. It looked just like salt – so coarse that even under the midday sun crystals as big as haribos were lying on the ground. In previous years the salt has been well mixed with grit, which looks pink.

I felt concerned for the effect pure salt could have on the soles of my shoes, then decided that I was probably just misremembering & it would be no worse than in previous years.

But this morning I heard a man on the radio proudly explained that lessons had been learned from last year & indeed local councils have changed the kind of salt they use.

Possibly impossible

Once upon a time, long, long ago (about twenty years, to be precise) important people never typed their own documents or letters. They wrote them out by hand or dictated them onto tape & sent them to the typing pool. That is if they were not quite important enough to have a personal secretary.

The work would be sent in special envelopes which had space for you to say how soon you needed to have the job done. If it was pretty urgent, but not urgent enough to say Within The Hour, the accepted convention was to put ASAP, meaning As Soon As Possible.

One day I waited patiently until nearly the end of the afternoon, with no sign of my work returning. Enquiries revealed that it had been sent to Portsmouth, where we had an outpost, because the London office was very busy & in view of the person in charge ASAP meant As Long As It Takes.

I thought of that as I caught the tail end of a discussion between former diplomat Sir Christopher Meyer & Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger on the Today programme this morning. They were arguing over the allegation that the Americans had been spying on UN diplomats, including the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. This based on one of the wikileaks which contained a long list of names about whom US staff were instructed to find out as much personal detail as possible, including bank accounts.

Sir Christopher maintained that a diplomat would always react to this kind of list by saying ‘Well that’s just impossible’ - & ignoring it

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I look into my glass

I disdained the poems of Thomas Hardy as a teenager - probably much influenced by my fierce dislike of The Trumpet Major which was a set book one term.

I cannot believe how much I missed out on, though put against that is the even more intenese pleasure I get from discovering him in my old age.

Although I can't help but ponder the ambiguity in this one: is the glass into which he looks the reflecting kind, or the kind from which he has imbibed too frequently.

Could be both, I guess.


I LOOK into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.
Thomas Hardy

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Parliamentary lustre

If the Act to fix a five year term for Parliament goes through, may we start to call it a lustrum?

I really like the association with the Roman purificatory sacrifice made by the censors for the people once in five years.

And it would be even better if it were after the census had been taken every five years as well.

Part time continuity

Been thinking a lot recently about parts & wholes, continuity versus fragmentation, brought back a memory of one practical problem which arose from the fact that you cannot just treat daily, weekly or annual hours of work as part of a continuous whole.

Part time workers are supposed to be treated the same as full time workers with pay & holiday entitlements pro rata. Personal annual leave allowances are fairly straightforward, but what about public Bank Holidays?

To simplify, suppose all part timers work half time in a standard 9 to 5 Monday to Friday office. Suppose also that this year 6 out of 8 public holidays in England fall on a Monday.

It seems fair that, if full time workers get 8 full days holiday, half time workers get 8 half-days.

For Jane, who works half a day every day, this is indeed fair, But it is arguably very unfair on Mary who works all day Monday& Tuesday plus Wednesday morning, & far too generous to Susan who works all day Tuesday & Wednesday plus Thursday morning.

Mary has to use up 4 full days of personal annual leave entitlement just for Bank Holidays. The office is closed, she has no choice but to take a whole day off for which she has only a half-day allowance.

Susan has a day off work anyway on Monday, so she has the equivalent of three extra days of leave to use whenever she likes.

I wonder how employers or managers cope these days. These problems may have diminished somewhat with the growth of 24/7 society & the need for employers to negotiate all sorts of agreements for Bank Holiday entitlements for both full & part time workers, but the problem of principle remains.

Part time workers, though much less common in the 1970s, were nevertheless recognised in the official employment statistics. One small puzzle was that a full time worker was one who worked 30 hours a week or more. In the days when 37 hours was just about the least anyone could hope for, this seemed odd.

The limit was set at 30 to make sure that teachers were counted as full timers because they, somewhat astonishingly, did not have personal contracts which specified hours of work except for time spent in the classroom.

The Thatcher government set about changing all that & the resulting break down in trust & goodwill is one of the main factors which contributed to the gradual lack of sporting activity in state schools, according to one view. Teachers just became less willing to put in the voluntary out of hours effort needed.

Other commentators blame the anti-competitive ideology of left-leaning teachers, or the short-sighted selling off of school playing fields by local authorities facing budget cut backs.

But it must be the case that the scope for school sports has been diminished by those very same pressures which have led us to the current economic problems & the delusion that ever rising prices of real estate is making us all better off. Put that together with the belief that we cannot afford to build over any more of our green & pleasant land but must cram houses into any bit of available space within existing towns, & sport stands no chance in school.

For sporting activities take up a lot of space – a whole cricket field is sufficient for only 13 players at a time. Even rugby, hockey, netball – three sports whose decline the prime minister, rather bizarrely, claimed at PMQs this week, demonstrated that Labour’s policy on school sports had failed – are greedy of space.

Public schools – for which fees of maybe £30,000 a year would alone require a gross income of twice the median wage to finance – are mostly in rural areas & can afford the luxury of space for sport. There is no way that the town comprehensive can afford the same luxury for its 1,000+ pupils.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Explain to me about everything

Fermat’s Last Theorem & the Four Colour Map Problem are two seemingly simple but for a long time intractable problems in mathematics. Proofs were finally found for both of them in the last quarter of the C20th.

In 1976 Kenneth Appel and Wolfgang Haken used a computer to prove that four colours are indeed sufficient to colour any map, for example an atlas of the countries of Europe, so that no two countries sharing a border have the same colour.

By the end of 1994 Andrew Wiles had finally proved Fermat’s Last Theorem.

My problem with both of these is that both proofs are so complicated that only real mathematicians can understand them – to an ignoramus like me they lack the true elegance of simplicity.

And Wiles’ proof certainly cannot be the one which Fermat described as ‘a truly marvellous demonstration of this proposition that this margin is too narrow to contain’, though to be fair even Fermat probably came to realise that he was wrong about that.

One day I expect someone will work out a way of explaining to us laymen how these proofs work. It is natural to be curious about the world & we would really like to know how & why we need only four colours for a map, or how we know that you cannot have integer solutions to a simple formula such as A4 = B4 +C4

In 1993, the UK Science Minister William Waldegrave challenged physicists to produce an answer that would fit on one page to the question 'What is the Higgs boson, and why do we want to find it?' There was quite an indignant reaction from some quarters – how can we explain something so complicated in such a short space, and to people who are not even scientists.

Well as government ministers & civil servants knew well, most prime ministers (at least from Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher) usually demanded that a submission be set out on no more than one side of paper. There might in some cases be copious briefing material attached, but someone who has to consider as many issues in a day as a prime minister needs something succinct to tell them what it is all about & if they really need to bother to go into it any more deeply.

William Waldegrave had every need to understand something about Higgs boson at the time because he was being asked to sign the cheques for the UK contribution to CERN. The physicists needed to rise to the challenge out of self-interest if not courtesy.

And after all, as Richard Feynman said, ‘If you really understand something you can explain it to anyone.’

My favourite explanation was that provided by David Miller of University College London, who used the example of the effect that the arrival of Mrs Thatcher would have on a roomful of party workers.

Until then, not only did I not know what Higg’s boson* is, I actually thought it was called Higg’s bosun, after that fine Old English seafarer the bosun, an officer in a ship who has charge of the sails, rigging, etc., and whose duty it is to summon the men to their duties with a whistle.

Which, when you think about it, is not all that far from an appropriate metaphor.


*It was actually christened by Paul Dirac after Satyendranath Bose who first studied the new statistics for particles for which only symmetrical states occur in nature bosons.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

And another thing

But there are other dimensions of Ireland’s openness that are no less significant. One … is the elasticity of its labour supply: the capacity for its labour force to be augmented by immigration and depleted by emigration.”

So says the National Recovery Plan for Ireland &, according to a comment on the radio, buried in the small print is an assumption that an extra 100,000 migrants will leave.

This could be more bad news for the Cameron government if, as is likely, a large proportion head for the UK (migration always falls off with distance). Statistics released this morning show that in 2009 UK net immigration – which the government has set itself to reduce – rose by 35,000 to 198,000 compared with 163,000 the year before.

The difference is put down mainly to a fall-off in the number of British citizens moving abroad. In fact the total numbers of both immigrants & emigrants fell, by 23,000 & 59,000 respectively, when officially we would prefer it to be the other way round.

There is nothing the government can do directly to control these migration flows, except for those coming from outside the EU area. But trying to control the difference between two very large numbers – or even to estimate reliably what it is, never mind forecasting what it will be – is always hazardous.

Ask Denis Healey about the estimates of the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement which prompted the IMF to descend on Britain in 1976.