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.

The illusion of income

All of a sudden it seems the difference between GDP & GNP has become real & important again, at least for commentators on Ireland.

In what Robert Peston calls a ‘refreshingly frank’ address Patrick Honohan, the governor of Ireland’s central bank said that GDP overstates the size of the Irish economy & productivity by including income which does not accrue to Irish residents. Last week a commentator on RTÉ1 said that part of the mad euphoria of the Celtic Tiger years came when Ireland’s GDP per head rose above that in the UK, & Irish residents formed the mistaken belief that they themselves were richer, which illusion would have been deflated if GNP per head had been compared.

But I wonder for how long might this remain true; with the rate at which our assets are being taken over might not UK GNP fall significantly below UK GDP.

Armies of hedgehogs

In our time, in this day & age, a skeptic is usually one who rejects at least one of the following assertions:

  • There is a God.
  • There is no such thing as man-made climate change.
  • Homeopathy works.
 He knows these things to be untrue because there is no evidence for them.
A skeptic is also one who has to proclaim loudly upon his beliefs & to demonstrate to the rest of us that what the believers believe to be true is just not.
Hedgehog armies, lined up to face down other hedgehogs.
They know only one big thing: when under attack roll youself into a ball & stick your prickles out.
They need to watch out for the foxes whose wider wilier experience can find ways of penetrating these defences. Or even, so we have been told in recent weeks, the badger.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Brown shoots of the economy

Brown shoots rather than green ones.

Two observations make me think that the economy is turning down.

There seems to be a fairly sudden increase in what we might call semi-professional crime of a kind we had almost forgotten hearing about on local news. For example two supermarket robberies (tobacco & cigarettes) & systematic theft of trade waste bins & scrap metal. A step change from the crimes against the person, drug offences or drunk & disorderly behaviour we had grown more used to hearing about.

And a marked drop in the volume of traffic on the roads, especially the big hgvs.

Mind you, I rely on the A6 south of Manchester for my observations on this. Roadworks have been causing real headaches, so perhaps the professional drivers in particular are just choosing alternative routes. Let us hope so.

Investing for the future

Stratford City shopping centre, one of the super-duper developments in East London, right next door to Olympic Stadium, has just been half sold, bringing a A$490 million development profit to the developers,Westfield.

The buyers are Canadian & Dutch pension funds.

This sale has been said to be another sign of London’s importance in attracting large capital inflows to Britain.

Well yes, it will provide employment & more consumer-led growth to the economy, but Westfield (an Australian company) have realised a nice speedy return of their money which can now be invested elsewhere, & are said to be considering expansion in Europe.

And half the future profits will go to paying Dutch & Canadian, not UK pensioners.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

When a house is not a home

A quick read of the government’s consultation paper on social housing shows that the much trumpeted ‘end to a council house for life’ is really not much more than an end to some of the inflexibility of the current system, though it remains to be seen whether any local authority will really be tempted down the path of never offering anything better than a two year tenancy. It is also interesting & instructive that there is absolutely no mention of any consequential effects on the Right To Buy.

I however have had one of those bright ideas which will help solve two pressing problems at a stroke.

We in England do not have enough social housing.

Ireland has too many new houses which cannot be sold & stand empty.

The solution is obvious.

Driving the policy through

The Times recent analysis of the end of New Labour quoted someone close to the centre who said that Gordon Brown clearly had no idea of how to run any organisation.

Jonathan Powell recently defended criticisms of Tony Blair’s style of ‘sofa government’ by saying that Labour Cabinets of the 1970s were hardly shining examples of how to make better, collegiate decisions. A strong decisive leader with a small circle of trusted advisers worked better.

That may well be true, up to the point of decision. But the merit of the Cabinet system with all its sub committees, agendas, minutes, inter-departmental discussion & cooperation, & cascade of formal papers is that it informs the myriads of people who need to know that the decision has been taken & what it is. Strange as it may seem these myriads rarely take their instructions from the news headlines or the prime ministerial soundbite.

This is a delicate business, needing the kind of attention to detail which seems tedious to those with loftier ambitions who can sketch out a new & better policy on the back of a dinner napkin & know just the company with the software to do it.

It goes much further than just making sure Sir Humphrey is not trying to subvert your brilliant plan.

The more all staff understand the purpose of what they do, how it fits into the bigger scheme, the better things will work out. For example the ‘lowly civil servants’ who do all the hard graft of getting the data on to the computer & checking that it is correct will feel a real flush of pride when the end result – say the government allocation of funds to organisations – gets its few seconds on the BBC 6 o’clock news: Oh that’s my work, I did that.

Another example is the very important role played by bus drivers successful implementation of the changes in policy on bus passes, which as I have spelled out before is very complicated outside London because of the vagaries of local authority boundaries. They did most of the hard work of explaining the changes to passengers who could sometimes be a bit confused, and even telling them where to go to get their new pass. But that could come only from good training from the bus companies, good documentation from all the local councils (including the county councils) & much all round cooperation.

Although this has much in common with good business management, the skills are not quite the same as when the ultimate test is the bottom line, & it is one reason why I maintain that there is a difference between administration & management.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pretty girls win prizes

Now we have been told that Eton does not have a monopoly among public schools when it comes to providing the top leadership of this country. The wives of our Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer & Speaker of the House of Commons all went to Marlborough, as did the woman who is soon to become the wife of the second in line to the throne.

As too did Alice Thomson of The Times who broke this story on Saturday – which explains why she was in a position to know all about the Cameron’s Nepalese nanny.

In 1968 Marlborough was one of the first of the traditional boys' boarding schools to admit girls into the Sixth Form. The Good Schools Guide is quoted as saying that the school attracts ‘robust’ girls who won’t be put down easily.

I can remember watching a BBC tv documentary on the subject of girls at Marlborough, though that must have been much later, possibly when the school became co-educational for all ages, not just the 16 to 18 year olds in the sixth form. It was like watching explorers circling round, suspicious of a previously unknown species.

I don’t remember any boy yanking off a girl’s games skirt ‘for a dare’ however, which is something mentioned by Alice Thomson.

Primary school might have been different, but I cannot imagine any boy ever doing that at any of the (thoroughly co-educational) secondary schools which I went to. It would just have seemed much too childish & silly a thing for a sophisticated teenager to do.

The success of Marlborough girls may help to bring about a change in the idea that single sex schools produce better results, make girls better prepared for working in a world containing men. And vice versa.

Taking back what is ours

According to a report in last Thursday’s Times the UK government will have insisted that Ireland put up some high quality assets as collateral against the €7 billion loan which it is contributing to the bail out.

These could include posh hotels such as Claridge’s & the Connaught which are under the control of the Irish National Asset Management Agency.

So one small step towards regaining control.

Related post
Asset sales

Off their trolley

Stockport's Asda fortress has a wizard new wheeze for combating the obesity epidemic - making customers walk an extra 400 paces just to collect & deliver a trolley. That should help counteract the effects of consuming giant bags of crisps & 2 litre bottles of sweet fizzy drinks.

Problem is though, they impose this workout on those who arrive at the store on foot or by public transport. Those who shop by car find the trolley park conveniently in the car park.

Isn’t that the wrong way round? Those who come by car would surely welcome the chance to stretch their legs with all the extra walking, not to mention the weight training from carrying their shopping the extra distance

Sunday, November 21, 2010

All coherence gone

These past ten days or so have been extremely frustrating for this would-be Blogger.

A combination of changes being made to the Blogger editor, which have made it impossible to predict how it will deal with the stuff I paste in from Word, together with what seems to be a system or browser problem which makes things sometimes run VERY S-L-O-W-L-Y.

Concentration just goes to pot & I am even less able than usual to judge whether I am making any sense at all.

Fingers crossed I seem to have worked out a modus vivendi with the editor for the main text of the posts, but for now I am just going to stop trying to add any Links or Related Posts.

Every cloud has its silver lining however & I am very pleased with the new design which I found just by accident when checking that all was well with my Blogger settings. Clean & clear, & I love the shade of blue.

The Deserted Village

At the age of about 11 I could have recited huge chunks of The Deserted Village Oliver Goldsmith's rage against the loss of rural livelihoods following the land enclosures which were deemed to have resulted in making the rich ever richer at the expense of the less well off.

Sounds a bit like how we feel today about bankers.

Most of the poem has long since disappeared from my memory bank, but Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain will remain engraved forever even though all these charms are fled.

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroyed can never be supplied.

A time there was, ere England's griefs began,
When every rood of ground maintained its man;
For him light labour spread her wholesome store,
Just gave what life required, but gave no more:
His best companions, innocence and health;
And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.

But times are altered; trade's unfeeling train
Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;
Along the lawn, where scattered hamlet's rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose,
And every want to opulence allied,
And every pang that folly pays to pride.
Those gentle hours that plenty bade to bloom,
Those calm desires that asked but little room,
Those healthful sports that graced the peaceful scene,
Lived in each look, and brightened all the green;
These, far departing, seek a kinder shore,
And rural mirth and manners are no more.

The wanderer makes the mistake of going back, hoping tospend retirement wrapped in the idyll he had known in his youth

O blest retirement, friend to life's decline,
Retreats from care, that never must be mine,
How happy he who crowns in shades like these
A youth of labour with an age of ease;
Who quits a world where strong temptations try,
And, since 'tis hard to combat, learns to fly!


... now the sounds of population fail,
No cheerful murmurs fluctuate in the gale,
No busy steps the grass-grown footway tread,
For all the bloomy flush of life is fled.
All but yon widowed, solitary thing,
That feebly bends beside the plashy spring;
She, wretched matron, forced in age for bread
To strip the brook with mantling cresses spread,
To pick her wintry faggot from the thorn,
To seek her nightly shed, and weep till morn;
She only left of all the harmless train,
The sad historian of the pensive plain.

But most of all what lingers for me are the descriptions of the village preacher & the schoolmaster. The preacher wove his spell so that 'fools, who came to scoff, remained to pray'

But my hero must be the schoolmaster who

Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around,
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew.

The whole poem can be read here

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Poor little Ireland

In the 1970s I was a member of a European methodological group dealing with the implementation of a technical directive. The meetings were usually informal, working largely in English with the chairman providing translation where needed.

There were then only 9 members of the European Community & the chairman had a truly impressive ability to help with translation into or from any of the languages required; as members we marvelled at this, though each country said that, although he spoke their language very well, he was obviously not a native speaker. So we used to speculate about what his mother tongue might be – Russian or one of the languages of Yugoslavia were favourites. Somehow nobody ever found the right moment to ask him the question directly.

In my time we had only one formal meeting – official country delegations under the leadership of a policy civil servant, simultaneous translation, the works.

It must have been 1979 or 1980, just after the implementation of the European Monetary System with its ERM & snake which I think everybody except the UK had joined. It was humbling to have to field repeated expressions of regret from the others at the meeting (including, if I remember rightly, the Greeks who had been invited in anticipation of their becoming full members of the EC) that the UK had felt that they had to stand apart from this project. I particularly remember the Irish delegate who, without any antagonism, told me it was terribly sad.

The UK stod apart from the Euro too, which at the moment & with hindsight seems like a wise thing to have done.

Hearing the Irish reaction to the latest bail out proposals, listening to RTÉ1 this past week has been painful. There is surprisingly little real boiling spitting anger or hints of insurrection. A feeling of resignation best describes it. And humiliation at what is seen as a loss of the independence that they fought so hard to obtain.

I did not catch the name of the person who explained that it was just another chapter in the history of ‘this isolated island’ which must always struggle to earn its way in the world.

Or of the man who said ‘We do poverty terribly well.’

Music for all tastes

On Fi Glover’s Radio 4 programme this morning Ian Botham chose Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture as the Inheritance Track that he will pass on to his children. Stirring stuff.

But in our family we can still remember the visit to the Italian Lakes in 1964 & the discovery that people danced smoochily to that in nightclubs.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Random thoughts on a royal marriage

I hope Princess Katherine will wear a slim, elegant wedding dress which covers her shoulders & cleavage. And will not become a Duchess on the day.

Camilla should be a great mother in law in all the circs. Bit of an ally against The Firm. Good at keeping Charles in check.

The idea of wearing Diana’s engagement ring would give me the heebie-jeebies, especially as it is supposed to going to channel her presence at the wedding, but Katherine is in a position to know a lot, to have heard, & to understand just why her husband-to-be finds this appropriate & meaningful to him.

The current baby boom ensures plenty of little girls whose princess passion will provide all the popular support anyone could hope for - more than a match for all those older cynics.

Do Kate’s parents & family have to call William Sir or Your Royal Highness? Do they have to bow or curtsey to him?

It is always amusing to see the English upper middle classes struggle with the idea that someone whose quite recent ancestor was a miner can nevertheless be very charming, attractive & intelligent, almost exactly the same as one of them.

Philip Collins in The Times thought this marriage a rare example of someone (in this case William) moving down in class - but he is still a prince & second in line to the throne. There are plenty of precedents for men (not just the rich or aristocratic) marrying beneath them. But even that is not really a proper analysis in this case. At the time they met William & Kate had very similar experiences of life at public school & shared quite similar groups of friends, as well as being on the same course at the same university.

What has really happened is that The Court has shrunk - nothing like the numbers & range of people of all ages as in Victoria's day. The dangers of this were spotted & spelled out by Lord Altrincham all those years ago.

William & Harry have been allowed to escape its confines, not least thanks to the determination & efforts of their mother.

Related post
Ascot flummery

Problems, problems

So the man who, for Mrs Thatcher, was the one who brought solutions where others brought only problems has finally become the problem for David Cameron.

Still, at least he recognised this & did the decent thing, bringing, or rather taking away, the solution with him.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mix up over race

It was not until I was looking for links for the post about Professor Appiah’s book on Honour that I realised that he is the grandson of Sir Stafford Cripps.

I think I remember what the DNB calls ‘a predictable flutter in the British press’ whenCripps daughter Peggy married Joseph Appiah (who was wearing Ashanti ceremonial dress at the ceremony) in Coronation year, 1953 (Cripps had died the previous year). That flutter though was as nothing compared to the fuss which had been made in 1948 & was still rumbling on over the marriage of Seretse Khama & Ruth Williams.

The main reason however for making a note of all this here & now is a quote in the DNB from the Daily Sketch newspaper of 1958; this described Peggy Appiah’s son & daughter, on a visit to their grandmother Dame Isobel Cripps, as the ‘best-connected piccaninnies ever to hit an English village’.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The end of war

Many British War Memorials (including the plaque on the Stockport Armoury) bear an inscription honouring the fallen of the ‘Great War 1914-1919'.

Presumably this is because they regarded the War as coming to an end finally with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. But I wonder when & why it became generally accepted that the Geat War became World War I which ended on 11 November 1918.

Treaty of Versailles, 28 June 1919

The price of secret intelligence

Reluctance to reveal secret intelligence has always caused problems for government, tied their hands, limited their ability to achieve desirable ends.

In November 1867, when England was panicked by Fenians, Continental revolutionaries & home grown working class radicals, the Home Secretary proposed a recall of Parliament to introduce gun control laws.

Cabinet were not persuaded. Among other objections, the Prime Minister, Lord Derby, pointed out that Parliament could not be persuaded to vote for any limit on the right to possess arms unless the Home Secretary revealed secret intelligence he had received from one Emile Van Quellin, a Swiss-American living near Bern, about a supposed alliance of these revolutionaries.

It is not altogether clear whether the reluctance to reveal this intelligence lay more in a desire to protect the source, reluctance to reveal that the British government was indulging in morally distasteful espionage, or a fear of being laughed at.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


One of the guests on the World Service programme Forum on Sunday was Kwame Anthony Appiah who has looked into questions of honour, something which resonates in this country today mainly because of 'so-called' honour killings.

Honour is odd because it can make otherwise sane, healthy & law abiding people do things even when they are against the law. The Duke of Wellington, for example, fought a duel in 1829. He was prime minister at the time.

And yet the requirements of honour can suddenly change - over a period of about 20 years - so that the act or conduct which once seemed co compelling is shunned by all.

Other examples quoted by Appiah were footbinding & the Atlantic slave trade.

So the question is not just 'What is honour' but how can it be changed. Can it be nudged?

It seems to have much in common with fashion in dress, only changing at a much slower rate - Wellington was ignoring a law first passed over two centuries earlier by Elizabeth I.

Honour must also have a complicated relationship to pride, embarrassment, revulsion & humiliation.

Monday, November 15, 2010

House buying spree

Now comes news that wealthy foreigners are buying up even more of our most expensive homes.

What surprised me most about this report however is the claim that there is a total of only abut 170,000 houses worth more than £1,000,000 in the UK.

That is only about 1 in every 100 owner occupied dwellings, so the housing boom has not got quite so far out of control as I had thought.

The sound of the axe

All this talk of the satisfaction of breaking glass has given me a good idea of what the government can do to damp down simmering dissent among the young.

Simple numbers have provided the main reason for youth protest dropping out of fashion for the best part of twenty years. The low birth rates of the 1970s meant that the young were too heavily outnumbered by their elders. But with the millennium baby boom in full swing we can expect to see them back on the streets causing real trouble within the next decade.

Control methods will be sorely needed if students join forces with their less privileged brethren, the NEEPS (forced to do unpaid work if they cannot find proper jobs) in protest at government policies.

They can be set to the proven therapeutic task of chopping up wood.

It would be a fine Coalition Policy. David Cameron wants to forget his days in the Bullingdon Club (Motto: I like the sound of breaking glass) & could join with Nick Clegg who must surely revere William Gladstone & all his works, including the axing of trees.

Related post

Glad I'm not young anymore

Last weeks riotous demonstration against tuition fees has prompted columns & columns of nostalgic reminiscence from those old enough to remember the student protests of yesteryear. Bystander has a very nice example:

“Whether you are a member of the Bullingdon or a militant Trot, the sound of breaking glass is deeply satisfying to a young man, and today, as in 1968, the press reports will be avidly scanned by the protesters.”

Naturally I am going to join in with the remembering, even though I wasn’t much of a demonstrator. I can remember only two which I took part in, both in my first term. I thought it was an obligatory part of the curriculum.

The first was outside the Whisky-a go-go, a Soho nightclub which had been proved (to our satisfaction) to be operating a colour bar. We stood on the opposite side of the road one evening waving placards & shouting at the people going in.

The second was a much bigger affair one afternoon. Round & round Trafalgar Square protesting about the South African trials.

The law against causing an obstruction was being strictly enforced by the police & I don’t think that the system of getting permission & then having a police escort to help you march down the middle of the road had yet been adopted, so we had to walk in single file in the gutter round the inside edge of the Square. If you stepped onto the pavement, even for a moment, a policeman would shout at you to get off.

As darkness fell & rush hour began it became more difficult, even a bit scary being so close to the cars. I was particularly alarmed when one man drew up alongside me, wound down his window, thrust his choleric face (a fine match for his maroon Jaguar) over towards me & shouted “I’ll wager you can’t even pronounce the name on your placard!

He was right. Mind you, I don’t suppose even he would have chosen that insult if my placard had demanded “Free Nelson Mandela”, but it did not – though I do remember that the surname began with M.

I began to believe that such protests were mostly just a self indulgence – the man in the Jag was right there. Effecting real change meant hard work (a thorough knowledge of economics* is vital for revolutionaries according to one good friend), very clear ideas, & choosing your battles carefully.

*It has only just occurred to me that my friend was right too - the economists have come closer to bringing about the end of western civilisation as we know it than have any overt revolutionaries.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Without these cannot a city be inhabited

These verses from Ecclesiasticus were read at the funeral of LTCRolt, mechanical engineer, engineering historian & the founder of industrial archaeology. Radio 4 had a programme about his legacy last Monday.

A worthy epitaph for any engineer, those who really make civilisation possible

So every carpenter and workmaster, that laboureth night and day: and they that cut and grave seals, and are diligent to make great variety, and give themselves to counterfeit imagery, and watch to finish a work:

The smith also sitting by the anvil, and considering the iron work, the vapour of the fire wasteth his flesh, and he fighteth with the heat of the furnace: the noise of the hammer and the anvil is ever in his ears, and his eyes look still upon the pattern of the thing that he maketh; he setteth his mind to finish his work, and watcheth to polish it perfectly:

So doth the potter sitting at his work, and turning the wheel about with his feet, who is alway carefully set at his work, and maketh all his work by number;

He fashioneth the clay with his arm, and boweth down his strength before his feet; he applieth himself to lead it over; and he is diligent to make clean the furnace:

All these trust to their hands: and every one is wise in his work.

Without these cannot a city be inhabited: and they shall not dwell where they will, nor go up and down:

They shall not be sought for in publick counsel, nor sit high in the congregation: they shall not sit on the judges' seat, nor understand the sentence of judgment: they cannot declare justice and judgment; and they shall not be found where parables are spoken.

But they will maintain the state of the world, and all their desire is in the work of their craft.

Lottery complications

I wonder if the person(s) who won over £100 million on the Euro Lottery have been having problems like these.

Canadian Couple Who Gave $11.2m Lottery Winnings to Charity Would Have U.S. Tax Problem

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Juliette Greco

Juliette Greco is not only still alive at the age of 83, she is making a sell-out appearance at the London Jazz Festival.


Related posts

Deprived of that existential good


How many mortgages do you have?

A local Labour councillor was explaining on local radio why the Labour party disagrees with the speed of the coalition’s approach to reining back public expenditure.

It’s like having a 20 or 25 year mortgage, she said. Most listeners probably have one, as I do. In fact many people probably have two or three …


Perhaps it is not so odd as we thought, though multiple mortgages became unfashionable after the 1990s recession when many people were caught out by arrears on a second mortgage or a secured loan for improvements. Those who had become home owners under the Right To Buy seemed particularly vulnerable to the blandishments of those peddling these kinds of loans – all those Georgian front doors had to be paid for somehow. (There used to be a joke that, on any council estate you could tell how many houses had been sold by counting the fancy front doors). Remortgaging seemed safer & became so much easier – until the current crisis. Perhaps people have gone back to the bad old ways.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sent to try us

We have already had the snow, now we have had 100 mph winds all through last night & well into this morning.

Stockport’s outdoor market did not open today for fear the stalls might all just fly away.

(Touch wood, fingers crossed & whisper) we have not had any power cuts. Perhaps the E.ON alliance is bearing the fruit of greater reliability of supply.

On a brighter note one of the larger empty shops has been taken over for the sale of Christmas decorations, so the economy cannot be as dire (yet) as everybody fears.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Turning the lights off again

Many councils are turning off street lights as a means of saving money, BBC Newsnight
has learned.

Some of us are old enough to remember the days when local authorities covered very local areas with what were variously called Urban or Rural Districts, or Municipal or County Boroughs. The growth of suburbs meant adjustments to boundaries were frequently made, to remove part of a Rural District from the country to the town.

These adjustments were often fiercely resisted. Country folk did not want to pay the Rates (local property taxes) which were always higher in the towns than in the country areas.

This was usually characterised by the claim that the new masters would make them have street lights, when they had always managed very well without those expensive things, thank you very much

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fighting Talk

Dr Mark Graham, Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute & a Floating Sheep, has a controversial map The Online Manchester Derby ahead of tonight's live action.

If you measure the number of fans by their online presence there are more United than City fans in Manchester itself.

Well of course there are. City fans cannot afford fancy things like internet connections.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Asset sales

The latest figures of what the UK is worth - £6.7 trillion – were published in August; the homes we own (albeit with the deeds held as security for a mortgage from a bank which is largely foreign owned) or live in still make up over a half of this ‘wealth’.

I have already been noting how much commercial property has been taken over by non-UK investors such as sovereign wealth funds, but a report in yesterday’s Times has made me wonder how much of our stock of industrial buildings or civil engineering works may also be foreign owned.

E.ON (a German-owned company) is said to be about to sell off a subsidiary, Central Networks, which operates some of our electricity distribution system (pylons, substations & cables) to a consortium which includes the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority & the Canadian Pension Plan.

In March this year Central Networks formed the UK's first utility connections alliance with Morrison Utility Services.

I got dizzy in the very unaccustomed business of trying to find out who owns Morrison Utility Services. What does “March 2008 – AWG sold Morrison Utility Services to two private equity firms, Cognetas and Englefield Capital. Morrison Utility Services becomes a standalone business” mean exactly?

Still, one of the private equity firms says on its website that they welcome “complex situations and are agnostic on ownership structures”, so perhaps I am not meant to understand.

E.ON are said to be keen to sell their subsidiary to help reduce their £39 billion debt burden in London, & to use the proceeds to invest in faster growth areas in China or Brazil; but sovereign wealth investors & pension funds are keen on power grids because they offer a reliable & well-regulated long term revenue. I wonder if the BBC could solve some of its pension problems via this route.

And although I belong to the school which is persuaded that, at least after 1857, the Empire was more of a financial liability than an asset, when you think that, even a century ago, ‘we’ owned railways, mines, farms, hotels … all over the world it seems disconcerting, in that one wonders where it will all end.

Although my head is in a spin with all this, the news item did help clear up one small mystery for me. The soon-to-be-sold assets of Central Networks include cabling which connects the Peak District to Bristol. This connection presumably in turn explains why so many of the men working on a local E.ON ground source heat exchange project are travelling from the West Country to do so.


Never broadcast unless you're miserable

At around 10.45 this morning the 3 speech-radio channels to which I have access in the bedroom offered a choice between the following:

Radio 4: A diary from the Bosnian civil war
Radio 5: A father very angry about the (non) treatment of his son by the NHS
RTÉ1: Rising incidence of TB in Ireland

You can have too much of this sort of thing, with the result just a hardening of hearts to what seems like the relentless tide of other people’s misery.

Einstein's trollyology

Another anecdote from Jeremy Bernstein about the day when Kurt Gödel was due finally to become an American citizen.

“Gödel had detected a logical flaw in the Constitution & was quite capable of refusing to swear allegiance to a country which had a logically inconsistent constitution.”

Fortunately he was being accompanied by Einstein who tried to distract him from that idea with a string of anecdotes. “It was like trying to stop a train with a Q tip.”

Well nobody’s life was threatened, so that was much better than trying to stop a train by pushing a large man off a footbridge.

But why this philosophical obsession with runaway trains.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Quantum history

I was reading a Jeremy Bernstein essay when I came across the following:

James I was not exactly noted for his physical courage. At meetings of his court in England he wore a stiletto-proof vest.

The image that this conjured up of a king in need of protection from lethal women in high heels made me laugh, & relax to keep on reading in order to find out if John Donne really did meet Kepler in Linz in 1619; I had been finding Bernstein’s erudite style, punctilious scholarship & his insistence on telling me that he would return to this point shortly somewhat trying – Oh do get on with it!

The answer is yes – Donne did meet Kepler. But the great astronomer seemed to know nothing at all about Donne’s work, only that he had come as chaplain to a high powered diplomatic mission sent at the command of James I. And Donne, despite his interest in these new philosophies, seemed to be equally unaware of Kepler’s achievements.

I also enjoyed Bernstein’s lament that the political & religious history of that period, with its ‘Kings, Queens, Electors, Dukes, Archdukes, Lords & Ladies, Ambassadors, Bishops, Popes, Princesses, Princes’ is more complicated than the Quantum Theory.’

Histories after all depend on individual differences, & not the statistical motion of a mass of undifferentiated electrons.

Winter comes early

The Cat & Fiddle is closed by snow today.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The price of an education

More from Dr Johnson, this time a warning that, even for those who dream of an education for the sake of the pursuit of truth & learning rather than just a better salary, there are dangers which lurk.

When first the college rolls receive his name,
The young enthusiast quits his ease for fame;
Resistless burns the fever of renown,
Caught from the strong contagion of the gown:

O'er Bodley's dome his future labours spread,
And Bacon's mansion trembles o'er his head.
Are these thy views? Proceed, illustrious youth,
And Virtue guard thee to the throne of Truth!

Yet, should thy soul indulge the generous heat,
Till captive Science yields her last retreat;
Should Reason guide thee with her brightest ray,
And pour on misty Doubt resistless day;

Should no false kindness lure to loose delight,
Nor praise relax, nor difficulty fright;
Should tempting Novelty thy cell refrain,
And Sloth effuse her opiate fumes in vain;

Should Beauty blunt on fops her fatal dart,
Nor claim the triumph of a letter'd heart;
Should no disease thy torpid veins invade,
Nor Melancholy's phantoms haunt thy shade;

Yet hope not life from grief or danger free,
Nor think the doom of man reversed for thee:
Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
And pause a while from learning, to be wise;

There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.
See nations, slowly wise, and meanly just,
To buried merit raise the tardy bust.

If dreams yet flatter, once again attend,
Hear Lydiat's life, and Galileo's end.

Andy Martin – lecturer in French at Cambridge - had a lovely piece in The Times on Friday 5 November about the student finances, and debts, of Newton & Darwin. Well worth a read if you can get hold of a hard copy or have access over the pay wall.

Back to short trousers

I have this week bought a pair of trousers from Primark – basic black for wearing in dusty libraries & archives.

Nothing surprising about that.

Forty years ago however I would have been astonished, disbelieving & delighted to be able to buy, in any high street store, a pair of ladies trousers that fit. Then Marks & Spencer came to the rescue with Extra Long.

But these new ones are short, as in not even regular, never mind long in the leg.

Short used to mean the same as petite - for those less than 5 feet 4 inches tall

They are a little bit short, ending somewhere round about my ankle bones, but that is precisely what I need right now. All this rain means puddles everywhere, & streams running down the pavements on the hills. Trousers had to be hung up when I got home until the bottoms dried out just about every single day. So I am prepared to put up with trouser bottoms that flap instead.

Related post
Healthy legs

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Strolling thieves

Today we have been warned (by guess what, an insurance company) about an upsurge in the theft of strollers – the more expensive brands only of course.

Stroller in this context means the kind of mini-palanquin in which babies – every last one a little aristocrat whose interests come before those of anyone else – are moved around. But with a baby boom coinciding with economic hard times, there is an obvious opening in the market for the enterprising thief.

I expect they are also on the lookout for buggies, trolleys & prams, though perhaps not for the old-fashioned pushchair.

Fair votes

Yesterday was unusually restful – output of news (& comment or analysis) on BBC radio was severely curtailed by a strike of journalists protesting at cuts in their pension entitlements.

So it was perhaps no great surprise that, at first, nobody seemed very sure when was the last time the result of a general election had been overturned on petition, as has that of Phil Woolas in Oldham & Saddleworth.

Petitions used to seem like a kind of political sport in the nineteenth century, with elections being most often overturned on the grounds of too much treating, or bribing, of voters. Petitions became much less common after the secret ballot was introduced – presumably it wasn’t worth bribing a voter if you could not check on how they had actually voted; some of them were probably dishonest enough to take a politician’s money & then go back on their word.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The right to a nationality

I expect to hear much outrage over the decision to allow Abu Hamza to keep his British passport.

Well it certainly feels unwelcome & uncomfortable. But I would be even more uneasy about the idea that British citizenship can be removed from those we do not like (to put it mildly). Rights are pretty useless if they are granted only to the right sort of person. We are all of us wrong or dangerous in the mind of someone, even if they do not know us.

Nor is it entirely straightforward to suggest that only birth incurs an inalienable right, that marriage is an inferior ground for citizenship. WH Auden, for example, was acting honourably when he married Thomas Mann’s daughter in 1935, solely to provide her with a British passport when her German citizenship was about to be revoked by the Nazis.

And this is not a legal judgement forced upon us by ‘Europe’ & a lot of un-British human rights nonsense. The right to a nationality was enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration, supported & fought for passionately by, among others, British lawyers & Eleanor Roosevelt.

Abiit ad plures

It is thanks purely to The Times cryptic crossword #24681 that I know that ‘joining the majority’ was once in common use as a euphemistic term for dying*. The OED confirms that it is now considered obsolete.

Funnily enough, I do remember learning the Latin tag.

No wonder literary types in particular are likely to get agitated over suggestions that the living now outnumber the dead.

*Leave the smaller group to die (4,3,8)

Related post
Numbering the dead

Hedgehog warning

Local radio today was warning us to check carefully before lighting our bonfires tonight – just to make sure there are no hedgehogs hiding underneath. From the rain, presumably.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Pills & morality

All In The Mind on Radio 4 this week included an interview with Molly Crockett from the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge on how a particular group of anti depressants, SSRIs, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, have been found to increase morality by raising the levels of Serotonin in the brain. The particular experiment involved healthy volunteers who, after taking SSRIs, were found to be even less willing to choose the trollyology option of pushing one large man off a bridge in order to save the lives of five others from a runaway train.

Last week’s Bottom Line, also on Radio 4 discussed the merits of youth versus experience in the workplace. Presenter Evan Davis remarked that he was certain that his own judgement was very much better now than it was twenty years ago.

So I am wondering who were the volunteers in the neuroscience experiment. If they were the usual undergraduate guinea pigs, perhaps SSRIs merely provide some counterbalance to the impetuosity of youth, impart just a little of the wisdom of age.

Related posts
MMR & responsibilty

Bike accidents

Publicity on local radio this week told that 30% of all the road traffic accidents in our area which involve a fatality also involve a motor bike. Motorbike users make up 1% of all those travelling on our roads.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Height, health care & IQ

Just came across, via the Economix blog, this really interesting piece on Height, health care and I.Q. There is lots to ponder in this, with links to even more meaty articles.

The odd thing is that Americans seem to have stopped growing taller around 1955 & have been overtaken as the worlds tallest.

It is being argued that the lack of good health care for all, from conception onwards, is the main explanation.

Leo Marks

It was only when I was listening to the Toby Jones programme on Radio 4 to mark the 50th anniversary of the film 'Peeping Tom' that I realised that there was much more to Leo Marks than I had realised – I had known of him only as the author of the haunting poem The Life That I Have.

Marks worked as a coding expert for the Special Operations Executive during WW2 & he used poems he had written himself for agents to use in the field as double transposition codes. As I remember it, in the film, Carve her Name with Pride, Virginia McKenna was given the poem by her boyfriend, but there was no such romantic attachment between Marks & the real life Violette Szabo.

The other surprise came when I found that Leo Marks was the son of Marks & Co, the book shop at 84 Charing Cross Road made famous by Helene Hanff. Although he was not the recipient of those joyful letters, he did become her friend.

But from now on I shall probably, at least from time to time, wonder if there is a secret code within a code in that poem, & whether that is what explains its great popularity among men.

Related post
All that I have

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

French fossils

The French seem suddenly to have found an interest in fossils – or perhaps they are just getting better at producing English language press releases.

So, hard on the heels of anthropoid fossils in Libya we hear of dinosaur fossils in Charente.

To make it more fun, Haldane had a very nice pocket cartoon in The Times: ‘They call it Existentialist Rex’.

And just to round off the department of small coincidences I found that Esperaza, the Languedoc town which hosts a dinosaur museum, also boasts a Hat Museum – just like Stockport.

Related post
Rocking the cradle

Equal to whom?

It’s Equal Pay Day again, so it is worth reiterating that it is not exactly a sisterly occasion.

By calling for women to be paid more equally with men, we are also calling for them to be paid less equally with each other.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Top class

First it was the bowler, now top hats are back.

Must be the influence of Tory toffs.

For those not lucky enough to be the beneficiary of the kind of toffee trust which can finance the purchase of a top hat from a proper gentleman’s outfitter (£575 to you, sir), high street chains offer a felt version for a mere £25.

Related post
Fashionable bowler

Damping down prostrations

The Saturday listings magazine which comes with The Times has become a fruitful source of interesting words used in unexpected ways.

This week we have been told of a Rod Stewart concert in Argentina at which fire hoses had to be turned on the crowd to prevent heat protestation.

Well, fire hoses are often turned on crowds making a remonstrance, a complaint, a declaration of objection or dissent, but in this particular instance I suspect they were more useful warding off the extreme physical weakness or exhaustion which can be induced by the heat of rock'n'roll.