Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sidney Bechet

Great poem, great music, reminds me of Paris in the 1950s.

For Sidney Bechet

That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,

Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares--

Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced

Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood,

And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.

Hasn't it gone quiet

I know that it is holiday time, so many people are away, but the supermarkets have been noticeably quiet (in the early evening, the time I usually go in) for several weeks now.

Not just fewer people, emptier carparks, but somehow less exuberance, a more serious sober atmosphere. Far fewer trolleys packed to the gunwales.

And this year I didn’t notice any groups of young men buying cases of beer to celebrate the end of exams, or indeed of their educational career.

The latest baby boomers are going to grow up in a much more thrifty atmosphere than the one experienced by their older brothers & sisters who managed to be surrounded by an awful lot of ‘stuff’ from the minute they were born.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Know what I mean?

Where did this habit of answering a question ‘Yeah, no’, or ‘Yeah, no, oh look’ come from?

I have a feeling that it started with Australian sportsmen - cricketers & tennis players.

Now it has spread everywhere, even among older folk.

It’s not that I object – particularly; it’s better than a lot of ums & ers.

Pendulum ties

Public relations expert Peter Bingle has lost his membership of an exclusive London club – on the grounds that, rather than adhere to the club’s strict code of dress casual, he turned up for lunch at the achingly hip & trendy Soho House – wearing a suit & tie.

Oh the shame & horror.

However, another style guru, Mr Mansel Fletcher, has leapt to the defence, by pointing out that ‘The idea that there’s something inherently uncool about wearing a suit is embarrassingly dated.’

Would it be enough for a member wishing to remain in good standing to take a partial Rolling Stones solution – and simply remove the tie & jacket?

Fact: The Managing Director of Soho House is married to Kirsty Young, the heroine of Desert Island Discs

Friday, July 29, 2011

Leg Length, and Cancer Risk

By a nice piece of Google serendipity I came across a pdf of Height, Leg Length, and Cancer Risk: A Systematic Review which was published in Epidemiologic Reviews in 2001.

Then I came across Simpsons Paradox, Lord's Paradox, and Suppression Effects are the same phenomenon - the reversal paradox in David Gunnell’s publications list.

So thats my weekend reading sorted out.


An interesting idea in yesterday’s Times from Helen Rumbelow, who got it from crime writer Anne Holt: if you want to know all about a new place you travel to, buy ‘a crime novel & an interiors magazine. That will give you all you need to know.’

Helen Rumbelow went to WH Smith to investigate what this could tell us about Britain.

“I found … us brooding on sex offences, in which the victims follow the gentlemanly code: women & children first. It made me wonder: as a nation … are we worrying about the wrong things?”

To which my response, later that evening, was a very, very loud YESSS.

BBC News (on radio at least) was leading, even on The World Tonight at 10pm on Radio 4, with the ‘emergence’ of the fact that Sara Payne’s phone number had been found in the records of the private detective who may, therefore, have been hacking into her voice mail. Fortunately they seem to have thought better of it by this morning – I even had a bit of work to do to find the item on their news website.

There are so many things wrong with this judgement by the BBC that I hardly know where to start.

First, it is old news at a time when, despite the season, there is plenty of new news about.

Secondly having it trumpeted every hour can do nothing to ease the ‘great distress’ that this revelation is said to have caused.

Thirdly, there are at least hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are also being told now that their phone ’may have been’ hacked, so why are they not equally newsworthy.

And fourthly, far from being yet one more fact which incriminates News of the World management, it adds weight to the idea that they did not know.

Obsession? Paedophilia? Child murder? What can you mean?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Save our British banger

In 1984, in an especially memorable episode of Yes Minister, Jim Hacker battled to save the British sausage from the Brussels Bendy Bananas Brigade.

Now it is American gas guzzlers who pose the threat.

Pig food is going up in price because of the competing demand for corn to make green ethanol. So pork is more expensive.

But the supermarkets are unwilling to pass on these price rises to the hard pressed British consumer of sausages.

So shares in sausage makers are falling

More on cancer & height

The information contained in the summary report on height and cancer incidence in Lancet Oncology which I have seen concentrates on the results of an analysis of the Million Women Study, a prospective study which recruited its subjects from among those who received AND accepted an invitation to the UK national breast cancer screening programme between 1996 & 2001.

The height analysis included some 1.3 million middle aged women (born between 1931 & 1951) who were followed for an average of over 9 years. During this time 97 376 cancers were diagnosed in these women, so, in crude terms, the overall cancer risk was about 1 in 13.

The summary does not unfortunately provide any information about the height distribution of the women but I have used information on average heights by age from the Health Survey England to make a rough estimate of a mean height of 5ft 3” with fewer than 1 in 20 women outside the range 4ft 10” to 5ft 8”, so to rely on this sample alone for extrapolation beyond these limits, & to men, is somewhat heroic. Unfortunately for me the summary simply refers, without details of the populations studied, to a meta-analysis which included ten other prospective studies, which also showed a height risk for cancer across Europe, North America, Australasia, and Asia.

Although the overall cancer risk in the Million Women increased with height, the results were significant for cancers in only ten of the 17 separate sites studied – in two of them there was no increase, & in 5 the increase was not statistically significant.

I should be very interested to see the strength of the evidence for men. Height makes a man happy, but is more problematic for a woman, so perhaps the cancer-inducing mechanism is after all a psychological one.

Curiously, in current smokers, smoking-related cancers were not as strongly related to height as were other cancers, so perhaps there is something in my long lung theory after all!

Finally, it is worth reminding ourselves of Galton’s view of the causes of variation in height:

… Stature is not a simple element, but a sum of the accumulated lengths or thicknesses of more than a hundred bodily parts, each as distinct from the rest as to have earned a name by which it can be specified. The list … includes about 50 separate bones, situated in the skull, the spine, the pelvis, the two legs & the two ankles & feet. The bones in both the lower limbs are counted, because it is the average of these two limbs that contributes to the general stature. The cartilages interposed between the bones, two at each joint, are rather more numerous than the bones themselves. The fleshy parts of the scalp of the head & of the soles of the feet conclude the list. Account should be also taken of the shape & set of many of the bones which conduce to a more or less arched instep, straight back, or high head …

The beautiful regularity in the statures of a population, whenever they are marshalled in order of their heights, is due to the number of variable elements of which stature is the sum …

It is hard to think of a single cause, or mechanism, which produces all these differences & could translate into a cause (or causes) for cancer.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cowsheds & cancer

An academic whose name I am afraid I did not catch said on last night’s Am I Normal? On Radio 4 that only 10% of our cells are human, the rest are bacterial.

Which made me wonder if tall people are likely to have more than their fair share of cells of bacterial origin, & therefore to be disproportionately at risk of cancer in all parts of their body?

On a more cheering note the same expert said that exposure to cowsheds in the first 2 ½ years of life reduces immunity problems dramatically, so I don’t have to put my faith in osteporosis.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

123, abc

My eye fell on the Two Brains puzzle in Saturday’s Times – not something I usually spend any time on.

How many times does the letter A appear in the spelling of the numbers 1-100?

Is this a trick question?

No, the answer expected is ‘none’

Is it more or less interesting to ask how many times the letters a b or c occur in the same number set?

Or j k m p q z?

Given that our set of number words is quite parsimonious (though not as parsimonious as it could be) I don’t understand why this should be surprising. Depending on how you look at it there could be as few as 19 different words in this number set (28 if you include all the teens plus 60,70,80,90), depending on how you classify & count them.

Sport & science

There has been a very informative series of article by Owen Slot in The Times about the role of technology in gaining those vital marginal improvements in the performance of our Olympic hopefuls. Swimmers, for example, are benefitting from the expertise of experts in computational fluid dynamics, fish locomotion & naval architecture plus an array of monitoring equipment which helps them to implement their recommendations.

There are troubling aspects to this – the expense, the unfairness to athletes in disciplines or from countries which do not have the money to throw behind such intensity, & increasing professionalization of sport which may only add to the reluctance of the rest of the population to engage in sporting activity just for the fun of it, or its health giving properties.

One can but hope that the cross-fertilisation goes both ways – the scientists also learn, gain new perspectives on, their own disciplines.

Related post
Drugs in sport

Monday, July 25, 2011

The 27 club

Stanley Reynolds wrote a novel in the 1960s called 30 is a Dangerous Age Cynthia, based on the premiss that, in that youthful decade, if you had not made it by that age then you never would.

With the sad death of Amy Winehouse at the age of 27 comes the reminder of others whose star has burned all too briefly to that same age.

In the 1960s you were classed as EPG (elderly prima gravida) if you delayed your first pregnancy till that age. I remember that when Jean Thomson, the distinguished population statistician, suggested that fertility rates could not continue their sharp fall into the 1970s since that would mean an unprecedented & unlikely number of young women reaching the age of thirty without ever having borne a child, she came in for quite a lot of criticism on the grounds that she was insufficiently sympathetic to the liberated woman’s desire to establish herself in a career before devoting herself to motherhood.

I had a personal hypothesis that the ‘new age’ for a first birth was in fact 27, based solely on the grounds that a number of my slightly younger friends were suddenly doing just that, which seemed quite extraordinary to those of us who had somehow grown up with the idea that you needed to get on with it by the age of 24 or 25 at the latest.

We were all wrong. Twenty seven became the new seventeen, very young to have a child, & how dare you call me elderly if I have my first child at 40?

Twenty seven was also, until surprisingly recently, too old to apply for a job in the Civil Service Fast Stream (graduate trainee), not just for the mandarin, generalist, class but also for professional grades such as statistician or economist. Attempts to have this declared illegal on the grounds that it indirectly discriminated against women foundered because of the way that indirect discrimination was defined in law – a term or condition which applies equally to both sexes but with which one sex is less able to comply. An upper age limit seemed discriminatory because young women who became mothers in their early twenties would not be able to take on a full time job in the civil service, but were barred from applying after, say, their children went to school. The law looked at all those, of whatever age, with the relevant qualification & considered how many of each sex could comply with the condition that they be under 27 & found that, because women had only recently begun to go to university in significant numbers, the probability that a female graduate was under 27 was considerably higher than it was for a male.

Is there anything special about 27?

Well it is the third age that is a multiple of 9.

When you are 9 you get excited at the prospect of the first double digit birthday

At 18 you are, finally, an adult.

Let’s hope there is something other than early death which makes 27 worthy of note.

The heights of cancer

I wrote this at home over the weekend with nothing but brief press reports to go on. Now that I have been able to see the summary report in Lancet Oncology my views have changed somewhat, but I decided to put this on the blog anyway. More comment to follow.

I heard an all too brief radio interview with Valerie Beral on the day that it was announced that Oxford medical statisticians had found a link between cancer (of all forms) & height.

Now this is an association which must be regarded with a great deal of caution; height is in turn correlated with many other factors (genes, social class & nutrition) which could make the link only, at best, indirectly a causal one. There is also the fact of secular trend – height, affluence, cancer, longevity, educational levels & many, many others all rising together across time.

One intriguing speculation about how this might be a causal relationship is the idea that taller people simply have more cells & thus more chances for a cancer to develop. In this respect I am intrigued by the fact that the relationship between height & cancer risk has a square in it – risk increases by 16% for every 4 inches of height. As Quetelet observed, weight tends to increase according to the square of the height – the body can be regarded as an idealised cylinder – implying that height does indeed increase the number of cells by more than a simple proportion – but apparently nobody knows if this is true. Against this one might argue that not all organs show the same proportionate increase in volume in relationship to height; in particular the most recent gains in height may come mainly from an increase in leg length, which would mean a proportionately smaller increase in the number & types of cells involved in a taller human body.

The idea that more cells lead to an increased cancer risk is however particularly interesting in relation to breast cancer. There has been an undoubted increase in the size of breasts, along with some evidence that this starts at an earlier age, earlier than can be accounted for by a reduction in the age of menarche; it may also affect boys as well as girls. Increasing breast size is also not simply related to obesity – a recent article in The Times discussed the problem of finding suitable bras for otherwise slender teenage daughters with narrow backs. The role of oestrogens in the development of breast cancer is at least partially understood, & oestrogens (including phyto-oestrogens) have also been implicated in various male ills; perhaps hormones, in particular steroid hormones, play an even wider role in cancer, perhaps encouraged by changes in nutrition, & Einstein was right to say that our destiny lies in our endocrine glands.

The other complicating factors in this relationship with height are social class & education. Social class (in this country at least) is correlated positively with height & inversely with mortality. Of course the obverse of this is that height is positively correlated with longevity; cancer risk increases with age, so the higher up the social scale you are the more likely you are to live long enough to develop cancer. Set against this is the puzzle that cause of death becomes more miscellaneous in the oldest age groups.

Personally I remain sceptical about the idea that height can be in any sense a cause of cancer – it does not chime with my lived experience, but then I have spent most of my life being taller than most people I know, so those who have died of cancer have been shorter than me. In fact I have always had a sneaking (illogical) suspicion that height may, in one sense, provide me with a degree of protection against lung cancer at least. This is because, relatively speaking, my extra inches lie between my shoulder & waist; this means that I have long lungs (as is testified by the fact that I have twice had the experience of a radiologist having to retake a chest x-ray: “Terribly sorry – I missed a bit”

In any case there is nothing I or anyone else could sensibly do to reduce my height. I still feel the horror of my reaction to an article published in a popular women’s magazine when I was a teenager about a Dutch girl who had endured surgery to remove inches of bone from her legs – I think she was only 6’ 4” tall. And as recently as the 1970s, even perhaps the 1980s, there were papers in medical journals on the efficacy of oestrogen injections at a critical point in puberty to stop a girl from growing too tall.

On the other hand perhaps this news will make it unethical to give growth hormones to boys who otherwise will lack the inches considered to be so important for success in the world as a man.

Perhaps I should just put my faith in osteoporosis to save me from cancer.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Just suppose

I am the Song

I am the song that sings the bird.
I am the leaf that grows the land.
I am the tide that moves the moon.
I am the stream that halts the sand.
I am the cloud that drives the storm.
I am the earth that lights the sun.
I am the fire that strikes the stone.
I am the clay that shapes the hand.
I am the word that speaks the man.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Curate's egg weather

Warm & sunny – that’s the weather they promised us for today.

Well, in parts.

Mostly there’s a very stiff breeze & lots of cloud.

As I stood at the bus stop it was very clear that there is a battle going on up there – big white fluffy clouds, barely moving from the west versus big black angry ones moving more quickly form the north & east.

At least I decided to put my rain jacket in the bag before I came out.

Watch what you are doing

I have just been reading Wisdom, Information & Wonder by Mary Midgley, which was published in 1991.

Midgley was concerned with, among other things, the way in which developments in computing were adding to our ability to store vast amounts of information at the same time as knowledge was being fragmented by academic over-specialisation at the expense of considering the important question of how to acquire wisdom.

The problem is not one of a lack of sufficient intelligence, which could, as some argue, be rectified by drugs or genetic manipulation, but of insufficient use of the intelligence we already have.

In one seemingly heartfelt sentence she complains of “intelligence running to waste down special sinks designed for it, called computer games.”

Well there are plenty who complain about those, but I think they are quite wrong. Of course obsession is rarely good, but games & the obsession with ways to make them ever ‘better’ have led to many developments on which superior, less shackled, intelligences now rely.

For example, the 40 best cultural apps trumpeted in Saturday’s Times; animations & visualisations of all kinds that were, possibly, not even dreamt of when I went on my first computer course.

Even in those early days programmers were obsessed with pictures – a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, or one of a Ferrari, produced on a lineprinter using just O & X were especially popular. I remember being grateful for the advice that it was better to give staff a recognised allowance – say ½ hour a week – of free (but expensive) computer time for playing, rather than attempt to ban it all together. That way you could keep a lid on the amount that they ‘wasted’ by threatening real punishment if they went over the limit.

It is hard now to remember how computing used to be very much a virtual procedure, much of which existed purely inside your head. Output was just strings of characters which acquired meaning only via your interpretation.

I would be prepared to make the argument that the screen is the single most important invention which has made it possible for computers to be used directly by so many millions as part of their daily lives. The screen gives you a representation of what is going on inside the computer, gives you an idea of what sort of information you are required to give it, & can produce all sorts of pictures to explain the results of your efforts.

Even harder to remember the long arguments we had about whether we should introduce a screen-based system for those whose job was purely data-entry, or whether the extra layers of programming would introduce unacceptable risks of error

Friday, July 22, 2011

Political whirligigging

Good heavens – Westland is causing political waves again.

Labour MPs from Sheffield are complaining because a Somerset helicopter manufacturer – the same one which somehow caused Michael Heseltine to walk out of Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet back in the 1980s – has been given a government loan by Vince Cable. The same man who refused an earlier loan to Sheffield Forgemasters.

This is obviously suspicious because the Westland factory is in Yeovil, the constituency represented now by David Laws & previously by Paddy Ashdown.

But – doesn’t Nick Clegg represent a Sheffield constituency? Yes, but the other six Sheffield MPs are all Labour, so they obviously don’t get as much gravy.

10 little piglets

An item in yesterday’s Times reported that this year will be the first in which more American corn will be used for making motor fuel than will be used for making animal feed.

What surprised me a bit about this story is that so little corn is consumed directly by humans – between them fuel & animal feed account for over 80% of the crop.

However another item in the same edition of the paper showed how other developments work towards ameliorating the disaster this might otherwise turn into in the form of higher food prices.

There are astonishing improvements in animal productivity: American sows are producing ever more piglets – an eye-watering average of 10.03 per litter in the three months to May 31, compared with 8 or 9 fifteen years ago. So they are producing more future pork per pound of corn than they used to.

I wonder however if they, like chickens, are destined to live lives shorter than those of their ancestors because they reach their killing weight more quickly.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Casting her lot with Rome

In 664, at the synod of Whitby, partisans of both [Roman & Celtic] traditions disputed the preferability of certain rites and usages which differed in the Roman and Celtic churches. The Roman adherents won, and their triumph was not simply on the matter of ecclesiastical practice, but involved the future of the English church. Once and for all, England had cast her lot with Rome.

That quotation from Robert Hanning’s The Vision of History in Early Britain has always intrigued me especially because of its irony in relation to subsequent developments in Anglo-Irish relations, in which it is tempting to see this particular event of deep history at work still.

For the decision of the synod of Whitby can be interpreted as a victory for the Roman over the Irish church, & over much more than just the correct way of calculating the date of Easter, as Bede would have it.

Having changed sides once, the Irish were not going to do it again just because Henry VIII fell out with the Pope.

But the slogan Home Rule Not Rome Rule has been well & truly ignited once again by Enda Kenny’s statement yesterday on child abuse.

Rain or pour

An interesting snippet from Paul Simons Weather Eye in yesterday’s Times.

Snowdon is one of the wettest places in Britain, with 180 inches a year. But Hawarden just 50 miles to the east (close to Chester), gets only 24 inches year – about the same as London, over 200 miles away in the relatively parched south east.

A fact which must have pleased William Gladstone because it meant that the weather did not interrupt his log-chopping too much.

The reason is because of the protection from Atlantic winds provided by the mountains of Snowdonia themselves.

Curiously, though, Amlwch on the western tip of the island of Anglesey some 30 miles on the Atlantic side of Snowdon also gets relatively less rain & more sun; this was always explained to me – as a child sitting sunbathing on the beach while looking at the dark clouds inland – by the fact that the clouds coming from America dropped their load of water only when they got hooked up on the mountain.

Of course these are not the only parts of this country where the weather can vary so markedly within a few short miles – fact which a is a cause of so much frustration & gloom when we are having such an unsettled spell as we are now – in the middle of July.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Chattering of politicians

I was looking at Trollope’s The Warden just to remind myself that there is nothing at all new in the idea of an over powerful, overweening press.

Consider Tom Towers, of The Jupiter (a thinly disguised Times, whose nickname was already established as The Thunderer)

… what member of Parliament had half his power? … He loved to sit silent in a corner of his club and listen to the loud chattering of politicians, and to think how they all were in his power;—how he could smite the loudest of them, were it worth his while to raise his pen for such a purpose.

He loved to watch the great men of whom he daily wrote, and flatter himself that he was greater than any of them. Each of them was responsible to his country, each of them must answer if inquired into, each of them must endure abuse with good humour, and insolence without anger. But to whom was he, Tom Towers, responsible?

No one could insult him; no one could inquire into him. He could speak out withering words, and no one could answer him: ministers courted him, though perhaps they knew not his name; bishops feared him; judges doubted their own verdicts unless he confirmed them; and generals, in their councils of war, did not consider more deeply what the enemy would do, than what The Jupiter would say …

Tom Towers considered himself the most powerful man in Europe; and so he walked on from day to day, studiously striving to look a man, but knowing within his breast that he was a god.
Well the emperor may have been humbled yesterday by Parliament, but nobody else has emerged as a god.


A notice in town warns that improvements to the footway are imminent.

Well, we have roadways, railways, motorways & airways, so why not footways, instead of what seem the more familiar footpaths or pavements?

No reason at all - the earliest recorded uses in the OED for both footpath & footway date from 1526.

In fact, if you place a lot of weight on original meanings you might argue that way is more correct, since the earliest meaning of path is “A way or track formed by the continued treading of pedestrians or animals, rather than one deliberately planned and made”, whereas a way is “A track prepared or available for travelling along”

Even better, a footway is “A way or path for foot-passengers only” – definitely out of bounds to cyclists & pavement parkers.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Saving our souls & windscreens

The vehicle glass repair & replacement market was down 11% in the 5 months January to May this year compared to the same period last year – mild weather, fewer potholes, fewer miles travelled more carefully at lower speeds to save on petrol are the factors being blamed for the loss of 400 jobs at Autoglass which has been second only to Toyota in the amount of windscreen glass that it buys.

Presumably the same factors should bring welcome news of fewer deaths & injuries on the roads this year.

Breaking news

In 2002 a 13 year old girl disappears from a London street one sunny afternoon. A pretty girl from a good family. What had happened to her? The kind of mystery that sells newspapers; the police are grateful for the publicity which helps to draw in witnesses.

In 2006 the suspicions of the Royal household are aroused by stories which appear in the press & seem to have been placed there by someone who has access to the voicemail messages left on mobile phones. These were stories about the young princes, William & Harry, whose mother’s death was widely believed to have been contributed to by the excessive interest of the tabloid press in her every doing. The police launch an enquiry, the royal correspondent of Britain’s best selling Sunday tabloid & a private investigator are charged, tried, & sentenced to jail.

A single rogue reporter, we are told.

Other celebrities think that the revelation about the vulnerability of voicemail explains how some of the upsetting & intrusive tabloid stories about them must have been obtained.

The police & the mobile phone companies take steps to protect voicemail.

There is no evidence that there have been other victims, we are told.

The police think that resources are better directed towards dealing with the threat of terror (in the wake of the tube bombings of 2005) & other serious crimes than in investigating claims about invasions of celebrity privacy.

The Guardian, a basically left liberal paper & competitor of the Murdoch press, starts an investigation of its own. Despite their efforts, the story does not fly.

It is surprising how in Britain sometimes, the death of a child can set off an emotional upheaval, often affecting the lives & livelihoods, careers & reputations of those in public life, far beyond the immediately bereaved.

James Bulger, Sarah Payne, Baby Peter, Millie Dowler.

The Guardian, despite its very best endeavours, could spark no wide concern with the News of the World ‘hacking scandal’ until, just two weeks ago, we were told that the voicemail messages on the mobile phone of the then-missing schoolgirl Millie Dowler had been accessed, & some of them deleted to make room for more.

This ‘news’, about something that happened nine years ago, really touched a nerve – both here & overseas. because of this we have already seen the closure of Britain’s best selling newspaper, the resignation of the two most senior (&, professionally, much admired) officers in the Metropolitan Police, the abandonment of a takeover. Who knows where it will end.

Many see in this situation a chance to refight old battles, settle old scores, change the media landscape.

Is this power of the death of a child something new in our society?

It has become almost a commonplace for someone to say, You don’t expect a child to die before its parents, almost as if this were some sort of law of nature. We have been warned that many of the current generation of children are likely to die before their parents unless they take note of all the advice on how to lose weight.

I really wonder sometimes how my great grandmother, who ‘had 11 and reared 8’, or my Nana, who lost her eldest son to the North Atlantic at the age of 19, or even Charles Darwin, would react to that?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sing up for health

On Private Passions yesterday Helen Dunmore talked about the special magic of Singing Together at school, live to the BBC radio broadcast.

As soon as she mentioned South Australia in the lead in to her chosen recording, the song came flooding back to me, even though I probably haven’t even thought about it for over half a century now.

Which reminds me to mention my disappointment at the fact that the new physical activity guidelines for Older Adults (65+ years) from the four home countries' Chief Medical Officers, while suggesting ballroom dancing, do not include singing.

A friend used to try to persuade me to join a choir with her, on the grounds that when we were confined to our beds in the old ladies home, singing would be the only exercise we could get.

And seriously, even just listening to music can promote some kind of movement & improved breathing, even in those who can do more, as well as providing a real improvement in emotional well being.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

That dress

The bus passes a shop called Angie Seymour Silks, which specialises in made to measure designer dress making – very covetable examples are displayed in the window.

Some time ago – just around the time of the royal wedding, I meant to write about a wedding dress which seemed to signal the return of modesty & decorum – very Victorian in style, palest pink with a silver thread, full-skirted, boat neckline & long sleeves.

Today I noticed they have something very similar to that maid of honour's dress on display – same elegant column & draped neckline, but in a darkish cream rather than white & looking (through two sets of glass, in the bus & the shop windows) more crepe than satin. Can’t see the back view, so can’t say if that all important line of buttons is there.

I wonder if it is more likely to be chosen by brides or bridesmaids?

Related post
Pippa passes

Flowers die

This poem captures beautifully & exactly that three year old enquiring mind - touching, revealing (to the adult), sometimes heartbreaking.

Apart from reawakening memories of discussions with my own daughter it reminds me of a story my mother used to tell.

One morning in spring when I was 2 1/2 years old she rushed from the kitchen to find out what was the cause of my suddden piercing wails.

I was crouched down by the small flower bed at the side of the path - cradling a crocus flower in my hand.

The flower's broken
, was my heartbroken complaint.

I think I would still preferto see the crocus remain in bud rather than open up.

Poem from a three year old

And will the flowers die?

And will the people die?

And every day do you grow old, do I
grow old, no I’m not old, do
flowers grow old?

Old things – do you throw them out?

Do you throw old people out?

And how you know a flower that’s old?

The petals fall, the petals fall from flowers,
and do the petals fall from people too,
every day more petals fall until the
floor where I would like to play I
want to play is covered with old
flowers and people all the same
together lying there with petals fallen
on the dirty floor I want to play
the floor you come and sweep
with the huge broom.

The dirt you sweep, what happens that,
what happens all the dirt you sweep
from flowers and people, what
happens all the dirt? Is all the
dirt what’s left of flowers and
people, all the dirt there in a
heap under the huge broom that
sweeps everything away?

Why you work so hard, why brush
and sweep to make a heap of dirt?
And who will bring new flowers?
And who will bring new people? Who will
bring new flowers to put in water
where no petals fall on to the
floor where I would like to
play? Who will bring new flowers
that will not hang their heads
like tired old people wanting sleep?
Who will bring new flowers that
do not split and shrivel every
day? And if we have new flowers,
will we have new people too to
keep the flowers alive and give
them water?

And will the new young flowers die?

And will the new young people die?

And why?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Goldilocks & climate change

Yesterday’s Times reported concerns about the effects of climate change on the ability of our wind turbines to produce electricity.

Citing a report commissioned from AEA by the Committee on Climate Change, it says that both heat waves & cold snaps tend to cause a drop in wind, & climate change will increase the frequency of these extremes. And as if heat & cold were not bad enough, too much wind is just as bad – the turbines stop generating above a certain windspeed!

So we will have to have other means of power generation on standby –perhaps even dirty coal.

I had some trouble tracking down the reports involved in all this – as usual no links were given.

There is something called "Adapting to climate change in the UK - measuring progress" - Adaptation Sub-Commitee Progress Report - 14 July 2011, but when I downloaded the pdf the search found no reference to wind at all – there is a lot about water & land use planning; I tried searching for ‘duration of lull periods’ which is given in quotes in The Times, but still no result.

So back to Google, where the search phrase did produce the goods – a report which was published on 20 May 2011.

Enough of grumbling - again - about how difficult it is to find government information on the web.

The main reason I thought to write something was the response from an organisation called RenewableUK quoted by The Times.

We can use electric cars for storage! Load up the battery while it is not too hot or too cold, then draw out the power from the batteries when the wind drops.

But whjat happens when you need to drive to the supermarket?

Why not just install batteries in the house to be kept topped up for drawing on if needed. Don’t we already do something like this with night storage heaters?

Child wanted

There are chuggers out in town at the moment who bear on the bibs & jackets the words Every Child.

I assume this must be the charity of that name.

I was trying to find out when it was founded, but no luck.

The thing is that, for those of us of a certain age, “Every child” is a shorthand for family planning & birth control – short for “Every child a wanted child

Back in the 1960s & 1970s it was assumed that there would be no more unmarried mothers or married mothers worn down by too much child bearing if only reliable contraceptives (especially the new miracle pill) were available freely to all, so there would be no more accidental or unplanned or unwanted pregnancies.

I noticed in the obituary of Jennifer Worth, the author of the highly successful Call The Midwife trilogy, that the numbers of very large families in the London’s East End did indeed fall dramatically with the introduction of the pill, so at least one half of the prediction came true.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Mind your tongue

“Eating is the most complicated thing your tongue does” said a contributor to the opening programme in the new series of Fry’s English Delight on Radio 4.

"If you were an intelligent designer, would you combine the food processor and the word processor in the same unit?" was the hook on which this programme hung.

Have the breast feeding fascists considered whether allowing a baby to suck only mother’s milk for the first 6 months of its life can, in some cases, cause damage or delay in one of the functions of this processor

One of the joys of summer

I opened the back door this morning - & rushed over to make sure that the dustbin lid was secure. We are in week two of the non-recyclable rubbish collection cycle, & I thought that yesterday’s hot sunshine must have hastened the process of rot & decay.

But no – it’s just muck-spreading time again.

We are going to have a few more pongy days before it’s over.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Hair again

On Midweek this week Pauline Black spoke of her experience of being a mixed race child adopted by a white couple in 1950s Britain.

Hair problems got a particular mention.

When you stop to consider the question, the importance of the role played by hair colour & texture in our contemporary classifications of whether someone is white or black or some other non-white category is startling.

It must have been sometime in the 1990s that I became acutely aware of this. Fashionable young men (such as David Beckham) wore what I think was called a No2 cut – a very close shave.

Suddenly Manchester seemed full of young 20- or 30-somethings, suits with unstructured jackets, open necked shirt, hair which revealed nothing but its colour, no texture.

And I realised that I often could not determine, for example, whether he were (to put it in shorthand) African or Indian – not in any sense that really matters, just in the casual way that one, sometimes, thinks West Indian, African, Chinese, French, Scandinavian, American ...

Except of course that sometimes it really does matter, especially when other stereotypes & prejudices come into play, or even a conviction that we can be divided into distinct groups according to our race.

Sometime around then the BBC were trailing a programme about the human race (I forget what it was called) with a film of hundreds of people of all ages & races, naked. I even forget whether the point of this was to illustrate our infinite variety or our sameness. But it would be startling - & very instructive – to see the same film with all the participants given a No2 cut, just to emphasise how much we tend to base so many judgements on just this one characteristic.

Counting cars

Standing at the bus stop yesterday I found myself idly wondering if bright red is the most popular colour for cars these days. It certainly seems that way, but perhaps scarlet is just more attention seeking.

I decided to do a quick, unscientific survey.

What really astonished me was that in next to no time at all I had counted 100 cars passing (in all directions); I did check my watchwhen I got to 90, so I know that the last 10 passed in only 15 seconds.

And this in what we regard as a fairly quiet village, not on a main A road, at a relatively quiet mid-day, peaceful compared with school run time. I think if I had ventured a guess in advance I should probably have said about 10 a minute.

That reminded me of my very first solo ‘project’ as someone who was supposed to be an economist – advising on the level of tolls to set on a road.

I wasn’t starting from scratch – a report had already been produced by consultants with detailed estimates, but the revenues would not even have made a visible dent in the interest which would be payable on the soft loan granted at overseas aid rates, so I was asked to find a way to up the figures, with less than a week to do it.

At first I thought to redo the traffic estimates based on a gravity model of the population at both ends of the road, rather than the data on existing levels of travel (which, until the road was built, was by river or air). But population figures turned out to be unavailable.

It seemed completely hopeless until I noticed that the annual traffic levels quoted in the study translated into something ridiculous in terms of the number of cars per day using the road – I cannot now remember what it was but I would believe you if you told me it was no more than 10 a day.

So, with nothing much more than a wet finger to the wind & some plausibility checks based on population, car ownership & bus travel in parts of the country where there were roads already, I came up with something a little larger.

The first year estimates were not bad, but I prefer to draw a veil over what happened in subsequent years. But I did learn the important lesson that sometimes decisions have to be made at speed, in conditions of great uncertainty.

Oh – my unscientific survey showed that fewer than 10% of cars are red.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Peak health

An odd little news item on local radio this morning about the state of public health locally – we are among the better areas apparently, according to an organisation whose name I did not catch.

What was startling about it though was the claim that our men live to be 88-point-something, the women 82-point-something.

Perhaps someone just made a mistake somewhere, misread a figure, & really, like everywhere else, women outnumber men in the oldest age groups.

But this is one of those statistics I prefer not to check up on – I just like the idea that we are very unusual indeed. That there really is something in them thar hills.

Some physical activity is better than none

People have been put off exercise by the cult of jogging & need to realise that moderate exertion, such as gardening & walking can be just as healthy” Britain’s chief medical officers have claimed.

Well. Go to the top of our stairs.

There’s a lot of bumf to go with this – a 58-page report from the chief medical officers, 5 fact sheets & 4 technical reports, all available via the UK physical activity guidelines on the Department of Health website.

There is much work to be done however before people start to sit up or, preferably, stand up at least & take notice, for "Guidelines themselves do not change behaviour: we do not expect many people to read this report and immediately change their lifestyle ... There now needs to be careful and planned translation of these guidelines into appropriate messages for the public, which relate to different life situations."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

These two imposters

I have just finished transcribing my first commonplace book into computer-readable format – well not quite all of it. Many of the poems are now easily available on line, so they just get links – I wonder if those will outlive my handwritten versions or become useless because of technological changes.

The following two entries are almost the last in the book & both come from the late lamented Listener magazine.

The third famous son of Totnes was the remarkable Charles Babbage, who invented the first mechanical computer, in 1822, but not in Totnes.

He invented a lot of things: the first speedometer, for instance; the first cow-catcher.

However, like all inventors, he was never satisfied with his inventions & he died a bitter & resentful man, leaving behind the completed drawings for a computer he called the analytical engine, capable of working to 50 decimal places.

Babbage’s bust is in Totnes museum, staring hard at something just above the horizon: the 51st place of decimals perhaps?

It seems a piffling thing to die bitter & resentful about …
Derek Robinson: Toytown-upon-Dart. The Listener 8 Sept 1977 p300

I once met a civil servant on a long train journey who said that ever since seeing Hutton make 364 at the Oval & weep because he had failed to make a run for every day of the year, he had been aware of the drawbacks of ambition. So he had tried to lead his life like a timeless Test Match moving towards an inevitable draw.

Like the batsman who sits padded up all day, waiting to go in, only to be bowled by the first ball he faces, he had drifted from day to day, relishing his aimlessness & looking for fulfilment in a life well wasted. ‘And’, he added bitterly, ‘I have been constantly dogged by success!’
John Stevenson: TV column. The Listener 8 December 1977

I can see why these contrasting attitudes to ambition amused me, with their references to computers, cricket & mathematical obsession & a nice paradox about ambition

Googling for any information about either author brought me the news that there is now an online archive for The Listener; Derek Robinson, who I think I remember as a regular broadcaster, may be the novelist of that name; & John Stevenson might be the one who is now a tv scriptwriter, for Coronation Street among others.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Why NOW is a class issue

I heard Steve Hewlett (who is in great demand as a sane & sensible expert on the media just now) say that there are an awful lot of people trying to perch on the moral pinnacle just now.

Some of them will fall off.

And think this through – if not NewsCorp & NewsInternational, then who?

One tenth of all households in this country still took the News of the World, many of them lifelong readers. They probably won’t switch to another paper.

What will be the effect on small newsagents? Often these are the only legal businesses in some of the tougher areas.

I do worry about how this might end, with so many people who have always felt distaste for ‘the Murdoch empire‘ taking the revelations about the behaviour of some journalists & managers on the News of the World as proof that they were right all along. I suppose they think that we would all be in a much better place now if he had lost his original British takeover battle to his then rival – one Robert Maxwell.

I even find myself – once again – in a position of feeling as if I should support someone I neither like nor agree with – Rebekah Brooks – just because she is a woman. Perhaps she did do something wrong, but the level of sheer outright misogyny in the comments being made about her. The sisters cannot carp & moan about the lack of women at the top if they then fail to challenge this kind of thing instead of thinking dark thoughts about why a media mogul should want to demonstrate such public support for the only woman ever to have edited the largest circulation newspaper.

As to the supposed massive outcry from the public – well I detect no signs of it out & around. Twitter & Mumsnet are hardly representative of the general population, particularly not those who have a Sky subscription & used to pay for their own copy of the News of the World.
Of course they want the phone hackers punished, but right now there is a feeling that, as with bankers, it will be the ordinary people who will pay the price.

Soccer pay

Sunday afternoon tidying up – came across a newspaper clipping about the earnings of last years England World Cup soccer squad (declared weekly club wage only) which I had set aside for analysis.

Together the 23players were earning at a rate of £99 million a year. Individual annual earnings ranged from £1.04m (Robert Green of West Ham) to £8.32m a year for John Terry of Chelsea. So the top player earns 8 times more than the lowest in this elite group. Positively egalitarian, compared with a BBC which now wishes to limit the pay of executives to a multiple of no more than 20 times the organisation's median salary earner

Interestingly the distribution looks normal-ish & the median of £4.16m is only just below the arithmetic mean of £4.3m

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Speaking about legs

Legs have been obsessing me lately, as I have been trying to check whether it is really true that most of the increased height of today’s young people is in the legs.

My unsystematic sampling & observation suggests that indeed it is. In fact it has really been quite startling to recognise that there is relatively little variation in the length of the torso of someone of my own or slightly older generation who is well under 5ft 6 inches in height compared with today’s’ young things.

But they do have legs which are very very short compared to those of their children & grandchildren.

My other impression, which I should love to see verified by proper measurement, is that most of the extra length is in the thigh, rather than the calf.

Vernon Scannell expressed so well the wonder at the variousness of things which share the name of leg in his poem from The Winter Man


Of well-fed babies activate
Digestive juices, yet I’m no cannibal.
It is my metaphysical teeth that wait
Impatiently to prove those goodies edible.
The pink or creamy bonelessness, as soft
As dough or mashed potato, does not show
A hint of how each pair of limbs will grow.

Schoolboys’ are badged with scabs and starred with scars,
Their sisters’, in white ankle-socks, possess
No calves as yet. They will, and when they do
Another kind of hunger will distress
Quite painfully, but pleasurably too.
Those lovely double stalks of girls give me
So much delight: the brown expensive ones,
Like fine twin creatures of rare pedigree,
Seem independent of their owners, so
Much themselves are they. Even the plain
Or downright ugly, the veined and cruelly blotched
That look like marble badly stained, I’ve watched
With pity and revulsion, yet something more -
A wonder at the variousness of things
Which share a name: the podgy oatmeal knees
Beneath the kilt, the muscled double weapons above boots,
Eloquence of dancers’, suffering of chars’,
The wiry goatish, the long and smooth as milk -
The joy when these embrace like arms and cling!
O human legs, whose strangenesses I sing,
You more than please, though pleasure you have brought me,
And there are often times when you transport me.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

All the news that's fit

I am genuinely finding it difficult to understand just what it is that has happened in the saga of the News of the World this week.

True, the news that the voicemail of a murdered girl had been accessed by a newspaper marked some kind of turning point, but I genuinely do not get any sense of continuing outrage – not one single comment overheard on the bus, no neighbours or friends asking What do you think of this then? We always knew that reporters could be devious, unfeeling so & so’s.

But it does seem to have acted, in the way that the last grain of sand can cause the pile to collapse, by suddenly freeing the politicians from their fear of the tabloid press. Not all by itself, f course, the clues that the newspapers have lost their hold have been there for all to see, not least in falling circulations.

Tthe power now lies with the new & newer media.

Which is why the News of the World had to be sacrificed.

My feeling is that ordinary reaction to that is sympathy for the workers to have had to pay the price with their jobs.

It does not mean that a great moral crisis in my or your private life will not continue to be a matter for gossip in yours

Friday, July 08, 2011

Quality television

The number of American homes with a television has fallen. Partly because people could not afford – or chose not – to switch over to digital (a warning here for the proposed switch of UK radio) & partly because more people now watch on a variety of online devices.

With this goes an acceptance of lower quality of image. The advantages including a wider range of archive or amateur offerings on sites such as YouTube, webcams & phone cameras, & being able to watch while on the move.

Just like the acceptance of lower quality sound in music – one in the eye for cd & engineers who think quality comes first, before content if necessary

Related post
Sound quality

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Just stand there doing something

The newsagents seemed to be carrying an unusually large stock of unsold papers when I went in there at about 2.30 pm, so perhaps the reaction to the 'phone hacking scandal' will produce widespread collateral damage. or perhaps it is just one of those days.

I am very glad that I am not one of those, in government, ‘the Murdoch empire’, civil service, judiciary or any other organisation which has to try to keep a cool head while the British public goes through what seems to be a periodical fit of morality, soaked in sentiment.

Of course the fuss is about something real, a very real discontent, but it is trying to identify quite what that is which is the problem, then trying to find the correct line of action which will magically calm things down sooner rather than later without making everything worse.

A lot of this is about class – would it be a good thing if this incident ends by leaving us with a journalist profession whose members are drawn entirely from the highly educated classes, with no taste for getting involved in anything lower class except in the manner of a visiting colonial potentate, condescension masquerading as concern.

Two interesting, if minor points. Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, still seems shy of appearing in public to put her side of the story.

And just last week I heard Kelvin McKenzie (former editor of The Sun) in a radio discussion on an unrelated topic. I thought I must have misheard the introductions – but no, it is just that he has reverted to his public school accent.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011


A quite good variation on my most favourite crossword clue (from Times #24,892):

What can produce solution, finishing with much ado, symbolically (5)

Related post
Water cracker


For me the word denizen has always been associated with low life, gambling dens, slums … I guess that must just reflect its usage in the kind of ‘literature’ I enjoyed in my youth. Definitely a word to avoid using about anybody unless you wished to offend.

So I was surprised to come across two recent examples of utmost respectability. One was simply an alternative to citizen. The OED confirms this usage, & even tells me that denizen has (had?) a place in the law of Great Britain, meaning an alien admitted to citizenship by royal letters patent, but incapable of inheriting, or holding any public office.

The other came in a report of the discovery of a gold mine denizen – in this case a worm. The OED covers this meaning too: An inhabitant, indweller, occupant (of a place, region, etc.). Used of persons, animals, and plants: chiefly poetic or rhetorical.

But Halicephalobus mephisto lives 9,000 feet below the surface of the earth, so low life of a kind, after all.

Image courtesy of University Ghent, Belgium

Added July 8:
Kai von Fintel, a professor of linguistics at MIT & a newcomer to Language Log introduced himself as ‘a part-time denizen of the academic Dark Side, as Associate Dean of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.’

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The sound of one’s own voice

I have just read Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box, a Wexford novel whose elegiac nostalgia leads me to think that it may perhaps be the last.

It was published in 2009, but seems to have been written several years earlier – even a computer expert is still using cd’s & floppy disks, & there is reference to a proposed smoking ban in pubs.

Wexford is once again grappling with problems of racism & multiculturalism, though not as excruciatingly as in Simisola.

I found the book readable, especially the reminiscences about how things used to be during Wexford’s youth in the 50s & 60s.

In particular, it was extraordinary to be reminded that there was once a time when most people had never heard the sound of their own voice, other than by hearing themselves from the inside as they talked.

For years Wexford had thought that he spoke the Queens English, pure BBC, & then he had heard a recording made of his own voice & been disillusioned to find he had a Sussex accent.

Wexford probably never had elocution lessons – few boys did; but parents, mothers in particular, were quite likely to want their daughters to know how to speak like a lady. I was one of those; from the age of five my Saturday mornings were, in part, devoted to learning to enunciate properly.

But it was years before I heard, in my teens, a recording of my own voice; the increasing availability & affordability of reel-to-reel tape recorders & those booths where you could make a recording on thin plastic made it something of a commonplace for people to talk of the shock of hearing their own voice for the first time.

In these days of voicemail, if nothing else, I wonder if there is anybody who has not become familiar with the sound of their own voice, long before they reach their teens.

Monday, July 04, 2011


A nice anagram from Times Crossword #24,890 – new to me at least.

What’s not nice if spreading? (9)

Trivial sums

An interesting snippet from The Times’s trumpeting of the success of its new unfree web editions, to which the iPad app has been a major contributor.

Most buyers of an iPad earn more than £100,000 a year.

The same article says that 25 million iPads have already been sold worldwide.

Maybe Conservatives think that all of them live in Britain. Patrick Mercer, speaking about the decision to stop paying military musicians a fee when they play at sporting events & other non-military occasions, described as ‘trivial sums’ the amounts involved - usually £50 to £180 per player.

To be fair to Colonel Mercer he probably meant that the total sums involved are just mean cheese-paring cuts in the military budget, but at a time when Sainsbury’s are offering advice on how to feed a family of four for a week for only £50 (drinks & puddings extra) statements like that are in danger of reinforcing the idea that these politicians just have no idea of what life is really like for ordinary hard working people

B****** bubbles

Another reason for being very irritated by bubble packs of pain killers – you cannot open them one handed because they are not easy to hold between the knees.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

For a five year old

For a five year old

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
It might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful had,
to eat a daffodil.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
four closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to may another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.

Fleur Adcock

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Pension mystery

No proper blogging at the moment – not in the mood since having an argument with a piece of uneven pavement on Thursday evening – the pavement won.

I have just popped into the library to download a copy of the Hutton Interim Report on pension reform to take home. Then I will try to get to the bottom of an astonishing piece of intelligence in Ian King’s Business Commentary in Thursday’s Times which is being cited as support for the fairness argument about public sector pensions:

The average private sector worker currently retires with a pension pot of just £30,000

This definitely counts as an ‘interesting figure’ in my book, especially if it is an arithmetic mean which includes the pension pots of the likes of senior bankers. If it does, then the median pension for a private sector worker must be based on a pension pot of no better than £20,000.