Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Investing in breast cancer

An item from The Times last September (found while doing the Sunday afternoon tidying up) announced that General Electric has joined with venture capitalists to form a $100m fund to finance the development of early detection, diagnosis & treatments for breast cancer.

Well what’s not good about that?

The worry is that the prospect of profits focuses on treatment of a disease which is becoming ever more prevalent, it seems – a news item the other week quoted a lifetime risk for women in this country which has now risen to 1 in 8 – the risk of getting cancer just by being a woman now the same as that of getting lung cancer for a smoker?

Shouldn’t we be putting more into finding out why – how much of this is down to methods of detection which find ‘cancers’ which do not need treatment?

Unit costs of cancer speciality drugs are rising by about 13% a year – that’s worth a $100m investment!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Behind the screen

This weeks Sunday afternoon tidying up unearthed a clipping from The Times which I had set aside to form the basis for a blog post & then forgotten about.

This month should have seen the start of a pilot programme to teach schoolchildren how to program computers. Called Behind the Screen, supported by companies such as IBM, Google & Cisco (no mention of Microsoft in this report). From a modest start in twenty schools it will – ‘ultimately’ - develop GCSE & A level subjects.

It is not clear how long this scheme has been in the hatching – it is odd to start part way into the school year like this. David Willets made the announcement at the British Science Festival in Bradford on 15 September, just a month after the Edinburgh TV Festival at which Eric Schmidt had criticised the lack of any such teaching in this country. If this is really a direct response to that criticism then it seems dangerously rushed.

It is very odd that children have been learning about genes & DNA at school – Watson & Crick made their discovery in 1953 – but not higher-level programming which was being established at much the same time.

It was hard work finding the official details of the Behind the Scenes project on the web – until Thinq_ led me to e-skills UK after I had given up on the website for Business, Innovation & Skills (Willetts’ own department).

I have downloaded the details to read at home when the library is closed by industrial action tomorrow.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Evidence based law

Can you remember what you were doing on 10 March 2009?

Or what was in the news? My own blog doesn’t show anything on which I felt compelled to comment.

I would be surprised if even the local press carried reports of one routine incident which took place on that day in Hackney, east London, a borough which saw a lot of action in last summer’s riots.

One group of people must remember all too clearly.

PC Challis and PCSO Mr Mcllvaney were looking for people who, the police had been informed, might be in possession of cannabis. They found one young woman and three young men … outside a block of flats. The officers decided to search the three men. One objected and said, "Fuck this man, I ain't been smoking nothing". PC Challis told him that if he continued to swear he would be arrested for an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.

No cannabis was found. The young man went on to use the F-word twice more & was duly arrested for this; there was a “scuffle” & in due course he appeared before the magistrates charged both for the swearing & for assault on a police officer in the execution of his duty.

He was found Not Guilty of assault, but Guilty of swearing & fined £50.

There is a problem however: Parliament has not made it an offence to swear in public, as such, (something for which most of us must be grateful). The prosecution must show that ”the defendant used threatening, abusive or insulting words within the hearing of someone else who was caused or was likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress by hearing them.

And so the case finally found its way to Appeal on Thursday, 17 November 2011, whereupon the rice pudding really hit the fan, & the events of that day in March 2009 suddenly became news.

Because, according to large sections of the press, the Judge declared that ‘It’s OK to swear at policemen because they’re used to it.’

That last quote comes from a piece by Robert Crampton (a journalist I normally admire) writing in The Times last Tuesday. He lives in Hackney & wrote of a hard core of fellow residents, young males who are ‘dangerous, occasionally lethally so … a potential menace to anyone who gets in their way … ultra-sensitive to perceived slights … anything that interferes with them behaving in any way they want.’

The job of keeping the rest of the population safe from such feral beasts falls to the police & the courts, so ‘it really isn’t sensible to do anything that undermines the authority of either.’ He ends with the words ‘You couldn’t make it up’, implying that that is exactly what the judge did with the law.

If however you read the judge’s written report it is clear that he not only could not, but did not, do that.

“Such language is familiar to most courts. A search on the legal database Lexis for cases in which either the word "fuck" or the word "fucking" appear produces 2,124 results. Even allowing for duplication in the way that cases are reported and transcribed, or for cases which appear in more than one report, the total is still very large.”
The judge must pay due regard to the decisions made in those cases; it has all been heard before..

Fortunately the two lawyers acting in this appeal had boiled these down, ”in their concise and helpful submissions”, to just six.

A number of cases establish that expletives such as "fuck" or "fucking" are potentially abusive words, whether uttered to a police officer or a member of the public.

But it is a question of fact, to be decided by the magistrates on the basis of the evidence presented to them, whether words and behaviour (with which police officers are indeed too wearily familiar) produced a reaction only of boredom or, in the circumstances (including the time, the place, who the police officers were), caused the harassment, alarm or distress, which are needed to turn use of such abhorrent language into a crime.

The lawyer who was in charge of the case at the magistrates court provided no such evidence – the police officers were not asked the question, nor was evidence presented to show that anybody else had complained.

Where witnesses have said nothing and been asked nothing about experiencing harassment, alarm or distress, there is no sound basis for the court to reach that conclusion for itself.
“This is particularly so in the case of police officers because … they hear such words all too frequently as part of their job.”

BUT, said the judge, this is not to say that such words can NEVER cause police officers to experience alarm, distress or harassment.
It depends … on the facts. And where a witness has been silent on the point it is wrong to draw inferences.

We can all draw our own inferences, based on such evidence as we have heard or read about in this case, together with our own experience & prejudice.

Perhaps he was one of the dangerous young males – why else would the police be searching him? In which case he should have been found guilty as an example to others of his kind.

Or perhaps it is a tale wearyingly familiar to anyone who numbers black males among their respectable friends & family, in which case he ought never to have been brought to court in the first place.

But these inferences are based on generalised belief, not evidence specific to this occasion.

We hear a lot these days about the need for ‘evidence’ in science, medicine & politics. Sometimes we may doubt the validity of such evidence & so doubt the need for anything more than ‘common sense’ in reaching decisions or taking action in those areas of life.

But surely we are all agreed on the need for evidence-based law.

So I say three cheers for Mr Justice Bean, who kept this need firmly in the front of his mind. And for the system which puts it all down in writing & makes it available for us to read at a few clicks of a mouse.

It has taken approaching three years to get this conviction overturned – a long time in the life of a young man. If he was not known to the police before, he is now.

And if there is now a widespread belief that it is OK to swear at the police, well that comes from journalists, not the judges.

Thanks to Bystander & Beneath the Wig whose blogs pointed me to the evidence in this case.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cultural gods

I was having a look at the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs in the supermarket on Friday evening. Just idle curiosity, passing the time until bus time. I can’t imagine, honestly, that I shall want to read the whole thing; Isaacson’s 700 or so pages on Einstein were a bit too-much-information for my taste, & I doubt Jobs is worth that many hours of my life.

I did learn one interesting thing however – Steve Jobs could not write computer programs.

But then neither can most people in this world, so I guess that was the secret of his appeal to all those who cannot imagine why anyone who is really artistic should want to do something so boringly uncreative, who believe that real inspiration lies with those who know how to use these hidden hieroglyphs & turn them into art.

Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography

Einstein: His Life and Universe

Related posts
Is there an app for computer language?



Farm yards, for all their muck & smells, form an important part of my childhood memory, so this poem by Edward Thomas has particular nostalgic resonance.

Tall Nettles

Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.

This corner of the farmyard I like most:
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.
Edward Thomas

And that poem in turn brings to mind Mary Oliver’s Milkweed, which, even when standing dry & leafless in the autumn, make it

… easy to believe
each one was once young & delicate, also
frightened; also capable
of a certain amount of rough joy.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Housing statistics surprise

I got a very pleasant surprise when I went to the web site of the Communities & Local Government Department: nice clean home page uncluttered with ministerial mugshots & boastings; clear simple links - three short steps brought me to the Housing Statistics page with more straightforward links (no mention of ‘products’) & - I need to sit down or I might faint – a downloadable Index of Data. It was nothing like so helpful last time I went there, probably a good couple of years ago.

I have not been able to bring myself to visit the new ONS website since about two weeks after its trumpeted re-launch back in August. I found the same old problem of going round in circles, with, just to add insult to the injury, messages to say that existing links had been broken.

Same old, same old

We had another power outage last night. This one seemed quite localised – the street lights stayed lit on the main road up the hill & on the new(ish) housing estate down the lane.

It lasted about 90 minutes, from 10.30 to midnight. Not a bad response time for the reapirmen a Friday night, I suppose.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Private life

At about 11 o’clock one night, about twenty years ago, I was walking back to the place I was staying in Covent Garden, up one of the side streets leading from The Strand.

Suddenly a flock of men on motorbikes & scooters drew noisily into the kerb a few feet in front of me. I was more startled than alarmed – What on earth?

A taxi drew up, & out stepped Jerry Hall & another woman; a brief, professional pose, lights flashed, cameras clicked; an anonymous metal door opened in the wall to reveal a dingy staircase leading down. Jerry & her friend disappeared inside, the flock departed, as noisily as they had come.

On all the occasions I had walked that way before I had never noticed the door in the wall, or had just thought it was there as an escape hatch or for taking deliveries of coal in the old days. Now I noticed, for the first time, a very discreet name plate proclaiming the name of a temporarily famous & fashionable London nite-spot which figured frequently in the gossip columns.

That was my one & only brush with the paparazzi, but it made me thankful that my daily life was of no interest to the press.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Is there an app for computer language?

When I Googled Steve Henry yesterday I learned that he has set up a company called Decoded, which claims to teach anyone to code in a day.

I was left wondering what coding means in this context, & today I got round to checking whether it is what I would, in my old-fashioned way, call computer programming.

The short answer is Yes, but that still leaves open the question of what anyone means by either 'coding' or 'programming' these days.

When I began, 'coding' was the really heavy stuff, written in source code, assembly language, or even binary; 'programming' was simpler, for those who were not computer scientists, merely 'users' - it involved so called high level languages, supposedly much closer to how humans thought & spoke.

Later on when I talked of ‘programming’ in SPSS I was told, sniffily, that that wasn’t programming – only ‘languages’ such as Fortran required programming skills, SPSS was just a ‘package.’

And so it goes.

But I was surprised recently to see that there are calls for computer programming to be taught in schools – what on earth are all those ICT exams for, if they do not include at least the basics of programming?

In the days of the BBC micro lots of people (well, mainly boys & their fathers) used to program in BASIC, & you might even sometimes find a newspaper article explaining how, for example, to write a bit of code to tell your computer how to draw a circle, or find prime numbers.

Even before that I remember Logo, & very small children being taught to ‘program’ a computer with a turtle (which could be said to have evolved into a mouse).

It is a very long time since I gave up any attempt to keep up with the developments in coding or programming, & in truth I am in two minds whether teaching coding in schools would really offer any benefits. For starters there will be endless arguments over what kind of coding, which languages etc, etc.

On the other hand even my limited experience taught me a great deal, not least of the many ways in which human thinking departs from the strict, & restricted, logic of computers, (however wonderful the results which flow from the latter), the time it takes to unpick the logic of any problem.

Who knows, even a little, but more widespread, knowledge might save us from politicians & policy makers who are to easily seduced or bamboozled by those who can both make & break the code.

Who governs

There has been plenty of criticism of the appointment of unelected technocrats to govern Italy & Greece – not to mention the failure of the Egyptian military to make good on their promise of more democracy.

But just how different are we, when the answer to every problem is to call for an independent enquiry, Office, Quango, Czar …

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Family silver

When one sells the family silver, one does not usually continue to gain value from its use.

So said the Earl of Gowrie in a House of Lords Debate in 1984 soon after Harold Macmillan's famous attack on Mrs Thatcher's privatisation policies.

Now Who Owns Our City, a report by the University of Cambridge & Development Securities shows that more than half of all the buildings in the Square Mile that constitutes the City of London are in foreign hands – up from only 8% in 1980 just after Thatcher came to power.

London attracts more foreign investment than any other city in the world. Germans are the biggest foreign owners in The City proper. And they have not even had to fight a war for it – I think we are meant to be pleased & proud, because unlike migrant workers they don’t have to actually come & live here. Instead all this interest means that City offices (in the real estate sense) show ‘remarkable resilience’ in the face of global meltdown.

And that ‘traditional owners’ – institutions, charities, public sector bodies & livery companies – have been able to swap their equity for cash.

I await with interest (the metaphorical kind) the report which will tell us what that cash has all been spent on – investments which will produce an even better return or the equivalent of new cars & foreign holidays.

Debt problems are much harder to solve without a strong asset base - isn't that what we tell the banks?

Something or nothing

Evan Davis talked to advertising man Steve Henry this week in his Radio 4 series about deception.

Anadin was mentioned. Henry maintained that they were allowed to get away with the 1950s slogan Nothing Acts Faster Than Anadin because it was, essentially, saying that all painkillers are really just the same, Anadin is no different – if the wording tended to make you think it was saying Anadin was better, that was your mistake.

The reaction of just about everybody I knew was that if nothing acts faster, then I’ll take nothing, thank you.

To this day I think it a waste of money to buy anything other than bog standard generics, though I wish I knew why chains such as Superdrug have an own brand version which is priced at nearly double an alternative branded version.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Learning about space & time

A small girl at the unselfconsciously chatty stage was sitting behind me on the bus the other day.

Conversation turned to a train trip she had recently taken.

Do you like travelling on the train?
asked the young man with her – not her father, probably a brother or uncle I thought.

Yes, I liked the train. But it’s slow. Trains go very slowly.

The young man laughed: Noooo. Trains aren’t slow. Trains go very fast. You just think it was slow because it took a long time. You travelled a long way. You went far.

The little girl fell silent for a long time. I swear I could hear the wheels turning as she pondered this new thought.

Gambling future

In the 6 months to September 24 national lottery sales rose 1/5th - by over £500m to more than £3¼ billion.

Good causes got a slightly smaller increase (17%) – up to £918.3m from £784.8m.

£1.69 billion was paid out in prize money.

Owners Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan have asked for a 5 year extension to their licence to 2019 to help their investment plan.

More than 2,700 people have become lottery millionaires since the launch in 1994.

The success of Euro-Millions has prompted Camelot to explore the possibilities for a Global Draw.

Camelot ‘admitted’ last Friday that the highest-grossing retail outlets for a Euro-Millions rollover were mostly in the City of London & Canary Wharf.

Once a gambler, always a gambler.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ten Bob, Ted Bastin & the paranormal

Norman Sanders of Ipswich wrote to The Times last week to point out that a picture of the wrong EDSAC had been used to illustrate their obituary of Ted Bastin: ‘The pictured EDSAC1 was taken away for ten shillings by a man with a horse & cart in mid-1958, by which time EDSAC2, a very different machine, was up & running & was that used by Mr Bastin in the early 1960s.’

I was left wondering about the direction of this transaction; did the carter pay for the scrap, or did the University have to pay to get rid of the unwanted contraption?

It was not much later than that that I was considered lucky to get £1 from a mother who wanted a piano for her daughter, instead of having to pay someone to take mine away because it was deemed to be one of the items which had to be disposed of as we were moving to a smaller house in the city, & pianos were no longer considered an essential or desirable feature of every home, or playing it a vital accomplishment for every young lady. And it is odd to think now that residential property was so much cheaper in a small country town in the days when anyone who even contemplated a long commute would have been thought to have taken leave of their senses.

Ted Bastin was a remarkable character whose interests extended beyond Combinatorial Physics to embrace the paranormal & religion. In 1972 he organized a small select meeting to observe Uri Geller in action – the audience included Arthur Koestler, Arthur C Clarke & (a young) Kwame Anthony Appiah – I think I remember reading reports in the press. Bastin recorded his mixed feelings about what he had witnessed, which would make interesting reading now (A copy is available on the web)

Picture comes from Early English computers & shows the cabinet of the Cambridge University EDSAC II computer (1957), showing the microprogram control store


Professor Graham MacGregor of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine & chairman of CASH (Consensus Action on Salt & Health) is very cross about health claims made on packages of ‘gourmet salt’ which encourage (or should that be trick?) people into paying very high prices.

Ordinary nationally branded table salt costs 80p per kilo (own brand probably costs less).

Cornish sea salt is on sale for £7.50 per kilo.

Himalayan crystal salt will take your breath away at £13.46 per kilo.

You can buy a 10kg bag of ‘white salt’ in Asda for £3 – 30p per kilo - good for keeping your paths clear of winter ice.

Probably not recommended for human consumption but, if it were, enough to keep a family of two adults & two children going for about 16 months if they all stick to the Guideline Daily Amounts.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Pangur Ban

This deceptively simple poem, written over 1000 years ago by an Irish monk, says so much, & certainly makes me consider inviting a cat into the house.

No mice available there (I hope). Perhaps my Pangur Ban could get her practice & pleasure from chasing spiders instead.

I & Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book & pen:
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit & find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full & fierce & sharp & sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat & I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine & he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day & night
Turning darkness into light.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Memory lane

29 July 1997
Parts & Wholes Daniel Lerner (ed) MIT
The Free Press of Glencoe NY 1963

I first came across this last year, but reread it with pleasure. It's the proceedings of a colloquium at MIT, the third in a series dealing with common problems of concept & method in fields of modern knowledge. For example, particle physics, magnetism which depends on all or nearly all the electrons pointing the same way, how this changes with temperature and how they decide to do it even though they are all the same & indistinguishable. Which raises the spooky idea that electrons are as individual as humans if we only looked at them in the right way.

There's a lovely piece by Kuznets on parts & wholes in economics which I really wish I could have read when I was at college; instead of pretending that there was nothing arbitrary about the level of analysis & the consequent derivation of theory I might have understood that struggling with this was part of the charm of the intellectual challenge of economics instead of coming away with the belief that it was deeply intellectually dishonest.

The final piece has the disarming title "How Does A Poem Know When It Is Finished?" by IA Richards, which unfortunately does not live up to expectations

Money in the mirror

In her Point of View on Radio 4 on Friday night Mary Beard managed, in the space of ten minutes, to make the connection between coinage through the ages, Greece (Ancient & Modern), Empire, the Euro & the UK ID card (now available to those here on a visa but not to established citizens).


Friday, November 18, 2011

Our Queen

I really enjoyed Robert Hardman’s book Our Queen. It is a proper history of how monarchy (the institution) has changed over the past 60 years, & highly readable.

Hardman has had superb access to senior & junior members of the Royal staff, to prime ministers, politicians & prelates, & to Prince William & the Duke of York.

And he provides plenty of not-so-trivial trivia, has a crafty sense of humour which made me laugh out loud more than once, & a sympathy which once or twice made me feel a bit weepy.

Of course you do have to aim off a bit while reading – this is not a warts & all biography.

I for one had not noticed that a second function has been added to the monarch’s role as Head of State – that of Head of Nation.

This term was first set down in print by Antony Jay (who wrote Yes, Minister) in 1992. He defined the duties as those which ‘can be done well, or adequately, or badly, or not done at all. They are the ones concerned with behavior, values & standards; the ones which earn the respect, loyalty & pride of the people. If the Sovereign becomes just another occupant of a high office of state with no more relevance to people’s daily lives & inner feelings than the Lord Chief Justice, then that crucial link between nation & state will be seriously weakened & will perhaps break.’

This definition is now incorporated into the Role of Monarchy section on the official Buckingham Palace website.

In the book there are long sections about how the management of the whole business has been transformed – hence the management guru status - & I was especially intrigued to read that the expulsion of hereditaries from the House of Lords was regarded almost as something to be welcomed because it decoupled the Royal family from the idea that it depends upon & is a part of an exclusive aristocracy, & so leaves them free to make clear that anybody (well, almost) can be a welcome & honoured guest at an official Royal function.

Some bits of trivia to mention here – merely because I have previously noted them on this blog:
  • The Queen’s lifeboat hat was by Rachel Trevor-Morgan.
  • These days the Queen seldom troubles the big name designers, preferring to leave her outfits to a small in house team led by Angela Kelly (her dresser).
  • The beads & crystal embroidered national birds & flowers of Trinidad &Tobago on the Queen's dress (by Angela Kelly) were unthreaded & re-embroidered in a maple leaf pattern for the next year’s tour of Canada. Her team call this ‘credit crunch couture.’
  • The garden party rule for guests used to be just a spouse of the invitee plus any unmarried daughters aged 16-25. In the 90s the Queen decided no one should come without someone with whom to share the day. The rules were amended to include a friend ‘of whatever complexion’ - & unmarried sons were added for those with families.

Only one real worry: “After 60 years on the throne, the Queen no longer depends on Parliament to provide public funds to keep the monarchy afloat. It is now supported by the property market.”

So fingers crossed there then – let us hope monarchy does not go the way of others who believed that, with property, the only way is up.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Odd houses

In an interesting article on Straight Statistics, Nigel Hawkes persuasively argues that the finding that odd-numbered houses in the UK are worth an average of £538 more than even-numbered ones really just reflects the premium enjoyed by end-of-terrace properties.

I found myself speculating idly about whether in fact there might be another explanation – perhaps something to do with one of those strange ‘irrational’ biases beloved of behavioural economists?

I have a strange belief that odd-numbered houses are always on the left hand side of the road, & that the left hand side is always the one on the western side (just as up is always north & down is south). And that (apart from #1) even numbers are nicer than odd ones.

Perhaps there is something that makes the people in charge of such things as house-numbering give odd numbers to the more desirable side – perhaps the side which have gardens which are sunny in the afternoon.

According to Singing Banana, you are more likely to have an odd than an even numbered house.

Black is the colour

An unexpected treat right at the beginning of Max Reinhardt's Late Junction on Radio 3 last night – Langston Hughes's description of Nina Simone’s voice - as different from other singers as beer from champagne or crackers from crepes suzettes - followed by one of her earliest recordings (1955), Black is the colour of my true love’s hair.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Looks like carelessness.

Within the space of four months the Home Office has lost three of the most senior people on whom it relied for security. Sir Paul Stephenson & John Yates (Commissioner & Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) resigned in July after criticism over the News of the World phone hacking business, now Brodie Clark, the head of the border force, has resigned as well over something or the other.

Home Secretary Theresa May took the unusual step of addressing all staff in the Home Office to try to restore their confidence after Brodie Clark’s departure. Mrs May thanked staff for their hard work & insisted that she appreciated all their efforts before encouraging them to keep up their good work.

One official said: ‘It was the Home Secretary saying that she loves us really.’

Coincidentally I have just been reading Robert Hardman’s book The Queen – not something I might normally have been tempted by but I was intrigued by a comment that this is now a must-read for ministers, the Queen is the latest management guru …

One quote from the book: ‘You can’t do anything in the short term. It’s all about relationships. That’s what the. Queen has been doing for 60 years … the more you do it, the greater your ability to lead, to change, to manage, to listen, to learn … ‘

And, by another coincidence, ‘It’s all about relationships’ was one of the lessons which Labour guru Philip Gould tried to encourage.

Of course politicians are, by definition, only in a department for the short term, & it is very dangerous for them to steer the tricky course between on the one hand stamping your authority on the organisation , identifying & removing the problems which may flow from people who have just grown stale & set in their ways from a lifetime of service & developing expertise, & on the other relying on those who not only might know better than you but also have a lot of friends in the organisation who might believe that too.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Business opportunities

Touch wood, cross your fingers … so far no sign of a hard winter. Very different from this time last year. Today the sky is clear, the sun shining brightly but waterly weakly. And we have had no rain to speak of for quite some time.

But nobody is letting us forget that these days winters can get hard – we need to be prepeared.

Local radio carries adverts for 12kg bags of rock salt. Asda are selling large bags of what they call White Salt. Every supermarket has prominent displays of wellies to suit all tastes.

May Gurney, Britain’s biggest operator of road gritters, had 240 spreader lorries round the country. Now they have paid £65m to make that 320; they bought a company called TransLinc, originally a management buyout from Lincolnshire CC.

TransLinc’s current bosses get £2m each & will stay with the business.

May Gurney acquires TransLinc

RJD Partners: TransLinc

Buy-In Management Buyout – BIMBO

Related posts
Winter comes early

Snow report

More winners & losers

Focus Group or Club

The death of Labour guru Philip Gould last week prompted many affectionate tributes, the gist of which was how he worked, principally through the medium of focus groups, to teach politicians to listen to & learn from the electorate.

This set me to thinking about how these lessons used to be learned, particularly in the latter years of the C19th when politicians had to cope with the vastly expanded electorate, following the completion of the project to bring about universal (male) enfranchisement in 1884.

I was remembering the days I spent travelling round local libraries & archives in the Greater Manchester area. Coincidentally the historians who appeared on Start The Week last Monday all stressed the importance & value of visiting the places you are writing about, & I too learned this.

From my vantage seat (usually on a bus) much of that old townscape remained – I also realised that modern bus routes still follow, for the most part, the old routes of stage coach or horse-drawn omnibus.

From the bus you also got a good view of the tops of buildings, which remain pretty much unchanged, whatever might have happened to the street level facades. And so one thing I noticed was how many of those Victorian or Edwardian buildings still proudly proclaimed themselves to be the local Conservative or Liberal Club.

These clubs were a vital way of connecting with potential voters, often more social than overtly political, & if the party dogma was not often taught there it was not unusual for it to be caught over the beer & billiards.

The Times obituarist though that Philip Gould was not above introducing a little two-way instruction inot his focus groups:
Philip Gould’s management of focus groups was interventionist, as he interrupted speakers with his questions, directing them to get to the point, usually his point.
Times obituary 8 November 2011

These clubs still played an important social role, regardless of politics, in the 1930s. The highlight of the week for teenagers in my mother’s village was the weekend dance organised by the Conservative Club.

By the time the Second World War was over however the clubs had somehow lost their ability to attract the uncommitted in this way & the parties they hosted were merely for the boringly political kind.

Start the Week: Writing History with Peter Englund, Norman Davies, Boris Johnson and Alison Weir


Conservative & Liberal Clubs

What I learned from Philip Gould

Labour peer Philip Gould has died aged 61

1884 Reform Act

Related post
Architectural thees & thous

Monday, November 14, 2011

Children & the gaze

Why do we, most of us, now feel a sense of unease when looking at photographs of children who are not related or close to us?

Of course we will admire the baby pictures, & formal portraits or school photos are probably ok, as are photos of the school play or formal occasions. But a picture, snatched or posed, of just a single child?

We used to be able to look at such pictures & see nothing but innocence, no matter what the pose or degree of déshabille, no matter how challengingly the child was gazing back at us.

We even bore, after a fashion, the excruciating embarrassment of the moment when the photo album came out & your parents showed the new boy or girlfriend your first picture – the one of a smiling chubby baby lying naked on a rug – sometimes passed off as revenge for the heartache your teenage tantrums had created.

Victorian photographs can seem especially troubling; never mind Lewis Carroll, Julia Cameron’s child models can look disturbingly louche & ambiguous to our no longer innocent eyes. And yet, unless the Victorians were being deliberately complicit, leaving things left unsaid, their attitude to children was nothing like the fabled ‘seen & not heard’, at least not all the time. Trollope is very good at children, & Janet Ross speaks of how Lord Macaulay used to converse with her when they ere out walking together as if she were as well read & intelligent as he.

More modern writers, such as Mary Wesley in Camomile Lawn show the complicity of heads turned away & things left unexplained to children who were subject to abuse. It would have been socially embarrassing to do more than keep a watchful eye on someone – somebody’s husband, somebody’s father - someone like us, someone with predilections. But we do not have to discuss it or tell the children.

Now we can no longer just do & hope for the best – we know.

The photographed gaze of a child can now have the same disturbing & unsettling effect as that of one of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon. It says, We know who you are, what you get up to.

And we feel guilty, regardless.

Julia Margaret Cameron
Janet Ross: Early Days Recalled
Mary Wesley: Camomile Lawn
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Riot studies

I am impressed by the Ministry of Justice Statistical Bulletin report on the August riots.

In what may be a first, the statistics are put together by combining data from the courts with information already held in government databases – specifically the National Pupil Database held by the Department for Education & the National Benefits Database held by the Department for Work & Pensions.

This is a careful exercise; he authors stress both the inaccuracies inherent in any such process, & the need to remember that these figures apply only to those brought before the courts – the ones who got away may be different.

Attention was paid to privacy issues too – memorandums of understanding between the departments were signed before work could start.

The Overview Of Recorded Crimes And Arrests Resulting From Disorder which was published at the same time by the Home Office adds police figures to the mix.

This may explain why it uses the word disorder 211 times & the word recorded 133 – in a 33 page report, much of which is occupied by statistical tables, maps & graphs.

Statistical bulletin on the public disorder of 6th-9th August 2011

An Overview of Recorded Crimes and Arrests Resulting from Disorder Events in August 2011

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Labour blames the servants again
Aliens desirable & undesirable

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Y'a de la joie!

On the same day that The Times gave me the Tagore quote about butterflies, Last FM gave me Charles Trenet’s Y’a de la joie – a song which also took me straight back to the happy days of childhood, even though in this case the thought of girls is what brings joy to a young man of twenty.


Y'a de la joie! Bonjour, bonjour les hirondelles
Y'a de la joie! Dans le ciel par dessus les toits
Y'a de la joie! Et du soleil dans les ruelles
Y'a de la joie! Partout, y'a de la joie!

Tout le jour, mon coeur bat, chavire et chancelle
C'est l'amour qui vient avec "je ne sais quoi"
C'est l'amour... Bonjour, bonjour les demoiselles
Y'a de la joie! Partout, y'a de la joie!

Le gris boulanger bat la pâte à pleins bras
Il fait du bon pain, du pain si fin que j'ai faim
On voit le facteur qui s'envole là-bas
Comme un ange bleu portant ses lettres au Bon Dieu
Miracle sans nom à la station Javel
On voit le métro qui sort de son tunnel
Grisé de soleil, de chansons et de fleurs
Il court vers le bois, il court à toute vapeur

Y'a de la joie! La tour Eiffel part en ballade
Comme une folle, elle saute la Seine à pieds joints
Puis elle dit: "Tant pis pour moi si je suis malade
Je m'embêtais toute seule dans mon coin..."

Y'a de la joie! Le percepteur met sa jaquette
Plie boutique et dit d'un air très doux, très doux
"Bien le bonjour! pour aujourd'hui fini la quête
Gardez tout Messieurs, gardez tout!"

Mais voilà soudain que je m'éveille dans mon lit
Donc, j'avais rêvé, oui car le ciel est gris
Il faut se lever, se laver, se vêtir
Et ne plus chanter si l'on n'a plus rien à dire
Mais je crois pourtant que ce rêve a du bon
Car il m'a permis de faire une chanson
Chanson de printemps, chansonnette d'amour
Chanson de 20 ans, chanson de toujours

Y'a de la joie! Bonjour, bonjour les hirondelles
Y'a de la joie! Dans le ciel par dessus les toits
Y'a de la joie! Et du soleil dans les ruelles
Y'a de la joie! Partout, y'a de la joie!

Tout le jour, mon coeur bat, chavire et chancelle
C'est l'amour qui vient avec "je ne sais quoi"
C'est l'amour... Bonjour, bonjour les demoiselles
Charles Trenet

Happy thoughts of France had already been stirred that morning by Bleached Bone & Living Wood, the type of slightly quirky Radio 4 documentary (about the newly opened Wilfred Owen memorial at Ors) which makes us love the station so much.

One way or another, these experiences triggered a forgotten sensation – itchy feet.

You don’t have to go through an airport to get to France. An itinerary begins to form:

That would be some trip.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Post-war relations

The founders of the European Community had one overwhelming objective – to bring an end to wars between the European nations which so disfigured the C20th.

Two programmes, back to back on Thursday morning (10 November) illustrated how, in small unofficial ways friendly reparations between countries are taking place at the level of individual citizens, as they always will even without political intervention.

The last item on From Our Own Correspondent looked at ‘British Germans’, soldiers who had stayed on after serving on British bases which are still not yet completely wound up nearly 70 years after the end of WWII and more than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In many, maybe all of these cases, the decision followed marriage to a German woman.

Rather than ‘British German’, one man said, he considered that he had just reclaimed his identity as an Anglo-Saxon.

Then we went to Ors in northern France, to hear the story of how the mayor, who discovered that his godfather had translated Owen’s poems, set out to achieve the aim of turning the house from where Wilfred Owen wrote his last letter home before he was killed (just a week before the Armistice) into a fitting memorial, a project which involved the co-operation between an English artist, a French architect & a great deal of effort to raise the €800k from private donors, & some harrumphing from the English Wilfred Owen society who really would have preferred the house remain exactly what it had been, but are more than happy with the final result.

From Our Own Corespondent

Bleached Bone & Living Wood

Jacky Duminy veut faire d'Ors un village des plus accueillants

War poet's last post of hope from a tiny cellar

Simon Patterson / La Maison Forestière

Related post
Historically English

Small white loaf

M&S are now selling a small white loaf – about the same size as the old Hovis, & thinly sliced.

I discovered this by accident – one was on an end-of aisle yellow label reduced price items, only 50p to you madam.

Let us hope that this is just the beginning of a trend, & we can go back to relying on what should be a healthy, waste free staple in our diet.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Demand, theft, supply

Another village supermarket was broken into after midnight earlier this week. The thieves made their escape with ‘a large quantity of cigarettes'.

That is the third such robbery of which I personally have heard.

There never seem to be any queues these days at the Asda tobacco kiosk when I walk past on the way to pick up a trolley.

The latest price rises seem to have had their effect on conventional sales. Some smokers, at least, are looking to alternative sources of supply.

But Imperial Tobacco is pleased with growth in sales of the premium brand Davidoff: up nine per cent in Saudi Arabia, 11 per cent in Taiwan, 12 per cent in Ukraine and 33 per cent in Russia.

Imperial Tobacco: Preliminary Results for the twelve months ended 30 September 2011

Related post
The problem with tobacco


The butterfly counts not months but moments
And has time enough.
Rabrindranath Tagore

That was The Times quote for the day yesterday, & I was instantly transported back to a field near Tenby the summer I was 10.

It was a glorious summer & we were on our regular summer camping holiday. I had just been told that butterflies live for only one day.

It seemed unbearable that such beautiful creatures should have such a brief life.

But as I walked carefully round the edge of the field, (where the corn, mixed, as was still common in those days, with wild flowers which attracted butterflies of every hue), trembling on the brink of tears, it occurred to me that if that was all they knew of life, then to a butterfly their life was just as long as was mine to me.

I cheered up immensely. I may even have skipped all the way down to the beach.

Rabrindranath Tagore

Related posts
Camping holidays

The one that didn't get away

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The impossible does exist

Needing a new television set in the early 1980s I was keen to buy one which had the latest Ceefax services – the price of sets which came equipped to receive these had dropped dramatically, as had the size of set required, & I had seen an enthusiastic BBC man saying, of the latest services, – You can get real-time information on landings at Heathrow, just as if you were looking at the displays inside the airport.

In those days I, not often, but often enough, had to go to Heathrow to meet friends arriving from abroad; by that time it had, unlike in earlier days, become almost impossible to get through to the airline to find out about any delays, which meant that every now & then you spent a few frustrating hours just mooching.

But even if the plane landed on time it would take at least an hour for non-UK passport holders to get through customs & immigration – just about the time it would take me to get to the airport using the new(ish) Underground connection, leaving me free to stay at home doing something useful until Ceefax told me the plane had landed.

The service turned out not to be exactly as specified – at best you were just told ‘flight delayed.’

At the end of the 1980s I was doing a weekly commute by train from the North to London. It was always tough trying to decide whether to put up with cattle class conditions on the Friday evening trains, or lose a precious half day by travelling on Saturday morning when sometimes the only fellow-passenger would be Brian Redhead on his way home to Macclesfield after doing the Saturday morning Today programme.

I soon learned that, before making the decision, it was essential to check the football fixture list.

The worst journey of my life took place on 3 May 1973 – an afternoon train from Newcastle to London, filled with supporters of Sunderland United Football Club who had, unexpectedly, got through to the final of the FA Cup to be played at Wembley that Saturday..

By the end of the 1980s not too many football fans were still travelling to matches by train, but the 1985 Act prohibiting the carrying of alcohol on certain trains meant that passengers could not always freely board a train at Euston unless a policeman was standing guard at the ticket barrier ready to inspect the bags of any likely-looking suspect.

One Saturday I learned, too late, that four FA cup round matches were taking place in the north west that day. The queues for trains wound round & round the station; I saw at least two elderly people collapse – there is no option but to stand. Lesson learned.

These two stories illustrate that the problems facing those in charge of immigration control are far from unique. Certainty – checking everybody – has undesirable consequences too. And certainty about the nature of the checks also carries its own hazards – those who would wish to get round them will find it easier if they know exactly what to expect.

My feeling is that, whatever the final outcome of the present row between ministers & civil servants about airport security checks, the real villain will turn out to be Godels law of administration

Immigration Minister joins debate on border row

Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985

The risk of queuing?

Border controls: still no answers

Related post
Gödel’s law of administration

Cassava beer

South African brewer SAB Miller is meeting its amateur competition head on by launching Impala Cerveja – a beer made from cassava.

Really a miracle plant!

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Tempus fugit

I have grown used to seeing photographs in The Times which produce a reaction of Goodness me! How strange that world looks - & yet it looked perfectly normal when I was in it.

But those were all pictures from the days when I was young - the 1940s, 50s or 60s; perhaps just one from the 1970s.

It was a real jolt to have that reaction to one which, it turned out, was from 1981.

Sadly it was illustrating the obituary of Colin Heald, former prison governor, & shows a group of about a dozen men escorting Prince Charles on a visit to Dartmoor.

Those suits! Braces! Watch chain! Top pocket hankies! A uniformed prison officer who could have stepped out of an Ealing comedy.

Well at least there are no women to make me cringe even more at the thought of what I & my friends might have looked like in those days.

Related posts
Swinging London

Kiss & tell

I am reading A Walk-On Part, the final volume of Chris Mullin’s diaries.

One very intriguing snippet tells of an encounter with John Major (with whom he got on well) in the division lobby one evening in January 1996 as that long period of Tory government was drawing to its close.

In response to a question, Mullin denied that he was writing. Major said ‘I thought you’d write a kiss-and-tell story.’ Mullin found this an odd thing to say & replied ‘That’s Edwina’s department.’

Edwina Curry’s [in]famous kiss-and-tell diaries did not appear until 2002, so readers are just left dying to know what Mullin meant by that riposte – he offers no explanation.

I suppose he must have been referring to Edwina’s novel, A Parliamentary Affair, but in the light of what we now know Mullin’s remark must have given John Major a real fright.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The illusion of Linda

That people give the wrong answer to the question of Linda may, rather than revealing their lack of understanding of probability theory, be just another example of the power of suggestion & misdirection.

The question has much in common with that old chestnut:
How do you spell the white of an egg? Is it Y-O-K-E or Y-O-L-K?
Has anybody, I wonder, conducted randomised trials, with the subjects randomised to have the alternatives presented to them in slightly different ways.

1 A Linda is a bank clerk & an active feminist
B Linda is a bank clerk

2 A Linda is an active feminist
B Linda is an active feminist & a bank clerk

Or as originally formulated, that is
A Linda is a bank clerk
B Linda is a bank clerk & an active feminist
but with the questioner a schoolchild (or a blonde bimbo, or a little old lady) – that is not someone with the authority of an academic & the power of a teacher.

Perhaps Derren Brown could predict the outcome of such experiments.

Reaching for the stars

The Times last week carried an update on Centre Point, the skyscraper at the foot of Tottenham Court Road which has had a chequered history.

It was bought out of administration for £120million in March this year, not by an overseas sovereign wealth fund but by a Luxembourg based company Almacantar; another, British, private company, Frogmore has just taken a 25% share in Center Point.

The current hope is that it will, after all this time, finally be turned into flats, though not, one imagines, for the homeless. First however there is the little matter of getting the appropriate approvals for what is now,because of its unique architectural style, a Grade II listed building .

Monday, November 07, 2011

Technology afoot

With the right kind of paving stones beneath your feet you can now do your bit to save the planet by generating electricity simply by walking about.

Accidental Saturday

Two odd little accidents within the space of minutes around 7 o’clock on Saturday evening.

The first was on one of the more open stretches of the main road – houses set well back on one side only. The driver had just closed the bus doors, ready to move away from the stop, when I heard a strange metallic scraping sound – looked out of the window where I was sitting, near the back of the bus to see a smallish motorbike, still in its own lane travelling in the opposite direction, but just coming to the end of a slide on its side, driver still astride.

He, well protected by leathers & a helmet, tried to get up but fell back, putting his arms up in a gesture to protect his head.

There was nothing he could obviously have collided with, & he clearly had not been going at all fast, so it is a complete mystery why he should have gone over like that. Damp spot on the road? Another vehicle coming out from behind the bus, causing the biker to wobble? – if so they had gone back in or at least stayed back well out of my sight.

The bus driver moved off regardless; he wasn’t in a terribly good mood & it was his last run of the day, so it is possible he just decided there was no need for him to hang around, but more likely I think that he really was unaware – almost certainly his mirror would be angled to show anything coming out from behind, not something on the ground.

An elderly lady further forwards stood & seemed inclined to shout at the driver to stop, but nobody else joined in. Since another car, which had been travelling (not at all fast) behind the bike, had stopped well clear, turned his headlights on full & opened his door to get out, I decided there was nothing to be gained from our stopping too. A girl sitting close to the elderly lady rang the emergency services, & was still explaining when she herself got off the bus about half a mile down the road.

The second (near) accident happened just after I got off at my stop. As I waited on the edge of the pavement a tremendous shouting erupted from the car just passing in front of me, which came to an immediate halt. The offside rear door was swinging open & the noise continued – youngsters I assumed.

The driver (not a young man) got out, I turned my head to look as I crossed the road, & gained a confused impression that it was a dog which was trying to make its escape from the car, only to be disabused of that notion as the woman in the front passenger seat began screeching at someone too small for me to see Put your foot back in, else we cannot close the door.

Well at least it hadn’t happened on a busy main road or motorway.

All I witnessed were two people, their family & friends plus emergency services, having lucky escapes from real personal pain & grim tragedy, unlike all those caught up in what we used to call motorway madness in Somerset on Friday night.

We haven’t been much troubled with fireworks this year; mostly they have been confined to last weekend & this, whereas in earlier years there were bangs & explosions most nights for about a month. Whether this happy circumstance has been brought about by stricter controls on the sale of fireworks or is just another example of people being careful with their money – who can tell.

Even so, smoke was clearly visible on Saturday night, hanging in the damp air as the temperature dropped rapidly, so it comes as no great surprise to hear that smoke from a nearby bonfire night event is suspected of causing drivers to brake sharply on the M5, with tragic results.

Amidst the collateral damage from that awful accident, our new Secretary of State for Transport Justine Greening is going to find it difficult to go ahead with the raising of the motorway speed limit to 80mph. Even before that, Saturday’s newspaper carried the surprising news that road accident statistics show that deaths on the road are already up in the first half of this year – surprisingly so, given the drop in traffic because of the recession & the supposed widespread adoption of more steady & fuel-conscious driving habits.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Bad babies

One of the disadvantages of motherhood is that you ‘never, ever, ever’ sleep. So remember that when you are contemplating taking the plunge when you are not as young & energetic as you used to be.

I doubt if there is any reliable historical or contemporary statistical evidence on this, but my memory tells me that a baby who was still, regularly & as a matter of course, preventing its parents from getting a half-decent night’s sleep after the age of about 2 months was a problem – a bad baby, one not properly trained or introduced to a routine.

The diagnosis was usually ‘Baby’s hungry’ & the remedy the introduction of a small amount of thickening (Farleys) to the milk in the bottle. This required that you made sure to use a teat with a larger hole & to check regularly during a feed that it had not got blocked by any tiny lump, this advice dished out by the health visitor, district nurse or weighing clinic.

But if that is cruelty to small defencelss beings then you just have to put up with the tyranny of on-demand feeding through the night, at least for the first six months while the mother is the only one who can provide the service

The White Man's Burden

This poem appeared in the New York Times in 1901 in riposte to Rudyard Kipling's The White Man's Burden, which was in turn written in 1899 in response to the American take over of the Phillipines. Both poems were read on last week's Empire edition of Radio 3's Words & Music.

I personally read Kipling's version as a satire & an awful warning:

Take up the White Man's burden -
Ye dare not stoop to less -
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.
which seems particularly prescient, post-Iraq & Afghanistan: however well-intentioned & self-sacrificing your motives, you delude yourself if you expect gratitude for your intervention.

Blair … did not see himself as an imperialist & would have denied indignantly that he was anything of the sort, but that only proved that he lived at a time when empire had become a dirty word & imperialist a term of abuse. In truth, his vision of Britain’s identity & place in the world harked back to those quintessential Whig imperialists Macmillan & Churchill, while his approach to international politics was simultaneously reminiscent of the soft, accommodating imperialism of Gladstone & the harder version encapsulated in Rudyard Kipling’s famous plea to the Americans to ‘take up the white man’s burden’
David Marquand: Britain Since 1918

The White Man's Burden


What is the White Man's burden?
Does destiny demand
His back be laden higher
By every dusky hand?
Am I my brother's keeper --
Or keeper of his land?


What is the White Man's burden?
Is it the mounting flood
Of treasure, vain to vanquish
The tides of patriot blood,
While our Supremest jewel
Is trampled in the mud?


What is the White Man's burden
That weighs upon his sleep?
To hear the hundreds dying?
To see the thousands weep?
Oh, wanton war that haunts him!
Oh, seed that he must reap!


What is the White Man's burden -
The burden of his song
That once was "Peace and Justice;
The Weak beside the Strong"?
He falters in the singing
At memory of the wrong.


What though our vaunt of Freedom
Must evermore be mute,
And the trading of men's vices
Drag both below the brute;
Go bribe new ships to bring it -
The White Man's burden - loot!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Staying in business

In this week’s edition of Radio 4’s The Bottom Line presented by Evan Davis, guest James Reed, chairman of recruitment specialist Reed, pointed out that, even a 6% reduction in GDP leaves us with 94% of the economy – much bigger than it was in, say, 1981 - & offers lots of opportunity for those who can innovate & find new ways of doing business.

For the rest of us it is also worth remembering that, although we have grown accustomed to the idea that a house is by the far our biggest & most important asset, in times like these, the only asset really worth having is a job.

As the unemployed realise only too well.

Being a lady

I got called a lady an awful lot last week.

Because it was half term & there were a lot of young children about - with a parent who cared about teaching them manners. So quite often they needed to have it pointed out to them that they should be careful, look where they were going, move aside, make way for the lady to pass by.

Funny this thing about words for ladies – there simply is none which can be used with perfect neutrality in all circumstances. I think I would have bridled if anyone told a child to let ‘the woman’ get past.

And everybody still wants to be a lady, at least at some level.

During the summer of my second birthday I had a passion for trying to get away, out of the house, although it was nearly bed time.

One day I managed to get out through the front door while mummy was seeing to the running of my bath.

I was naked.

When mummy asked why I had taken my red plastic handbag with me, I said scornfully that it was, of course, because Nana always said that a lady never goes out without her handbag.

Related post

Friday, November 04, 2011

Able bodied seaman

Seasoned solvers of cryptic crosswords, who are used to seeing what normal people regard as weird connections between words, will be used to thinking Ah! AB whenever the word sailor, or seaman, or salt, or rating appears in a clue.

That most useful (not to say hackneyed) reference, which alerts the solver to the fact that the word to be entered as a solution in the grid contains the letters ab, derives from the common abbreviation for able-bodied seaman.

A calling which, in both senses of the word, would be familiar to even small children in the days when the British navies were of a size to be reckoned with.

But as I was solving one such clue the other day I suddenly thought How could you have a seaman who is not able bodied?

Perhaps one who cannot climb the mast or the rigging, must stay on deck or even be confined below?

One who cannot swim?

In fact there is some confusion over whether it means able-bodied or simply able, one with more training & experience than a mere ordinary seaman. As an abbreviation the OED rules that A.B. stands for ‘able seaman (formerly able-bodied seaman)’.

Me no’ able wi’ that

Searching for further elucidation on the web brought me to a charming website which, as well as giving a very helpful description of the jobs available at sea, is about a volcano:

Instead of filling their bellies

Correspondents to The Times have recently revived the use of the term emoluments to describe the pay & bonuses of bankers & leaders of FTSE 100 companies.

This practice is definitely one to be encouraged. Indeed the fat cats should be barred from using any other term, in public at least.

The OED suggests that, rather than deriving from the Latin ‘to bring out by effort’, the word really comes from the Latin emolereto grind out’, with a sutble hint that it may the faces of the poor which are being ground.

There is also a hint of the emollient about it, with its hint of oiliness: ‘True emollients are perfectly bland, fatty substances’, according to Horatio Curtis Wood’s Treatise on Therapeutics, comprising Materia Medica and Toxicology, with especial reference to the application of the physiological action of drugs to clinical medicine of 1879.

The BBC should insist that all news bulletins use this term; even the best-trained most neutral news-reader could hardly prevent at least a slight sneer from entering their voice. I might even look forward to a John Humphrys interview if he was going to ask a banker to justify his emoluments.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Occupied from top to bottom

Was it a first, I wondered. Yesterday The Times print edition carried the word hat-tip on page three. And in an enthusiastic description of the plans for next years diamond jubilee celebrations, no less. A 90-minute horse-filled pageant will contain ‘a series of hat-tips to various nations.’

The term hat-tip has become common on blogs, to acknowledge someone who has made a significant contribution, or someone who drew attention to something new or interesting. A vital part of netiquette.

I assumed it had come from the old fashioned habit of tipping one's hat to a lady, or a male acquaintance, in the street, a kind of informal version of a military salute, though why it should suddenly crop up in something so cutting edge as Web 2.0 was a bit of a mystery. Do young people tip their back-to-front baseball caps to each other nowadays? Or their hoods?

The Oxford English Dictionary gives us, via a quotation which appeared in the Dictionary of Occupational Terms 1921, a definition of hat tip which has nothing to do with manners but refers merely to the circular piece of stuff used to line the crown of a hat.

Hence a hat tip sizer prints a hat tip with size before gold leaf or bronze dust is applied by hat tip printer.

Hat tip sizer is one of those occupational titles which could make reading the detailed indexes to the Census Classifications of Occupations such harmless fun, but it is not quite up there with saggarmaker's bottom knocker.

The Diamond Jubilee Pageant

What is a saggarmaker's bottom knocker?

Official Social Classifications in the UK