Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Trust buster


Word used by Iain Chambers on Life Scientific to describe a chronic condition which allows the sufferer to take nothing on trust.

The only treatment is evidence, & plenty of it.

You can always trust that.

Life satisfaction

One surprise from the new ONS well-being statistics is that, of the four UK countries, people in Northern Ireland report the highest score for life satisfaction. No regional breakdowns are given, at this stage, of the relationship between personal happiness & other personal & family characterisics, but I was wondering if this finding might be related to the fact that fertility (& thus, presumably, family size) is still higher in Northern Ireland than in other countriesof the UK

The UK-wide figures provide no evidence for the notion that living with children makes people happier.

Nor, surprisingly, does living wth children make men less happy than women: precisely the opposite, if there are more than five of the little blighters in the house. Men in this position reported the (probably rogue because of the small number of them who turned up in the sample) life satisfaction rating of 7.8 (out of a maximum 10); women ground down by this experience could muster a score of only 7.2.

Funnily enough, although both men & women with a baby in the house are among the happiest in the land, children are more likely to keep a man happy as they grow; a woman’s enchantment wanes as the children reach their teens

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Translating offence

Last week’s Times obituaries recorded the death of Ann Dummett on February 7, just six weeks after that of her husband Sir Michael Dummett who had been Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford.

Lady Dummett was a very active campaigner for racial justice in this country, & the obituarist’s mention of the Dummetts’ membership of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) reminded me of something I meant to record on this blog.

By the mid-1960s CARD, under the chairmanship of Dr David Pitt, a London GP, was regarded by some as too patient, polite & simply not radical enough, too NAACP & not enough of the new Black Power movements in America or of French ideas of negritude & the philosophy of Frantz Fanon.

English radicals soon had a new racial activist to champion. One Michael de Freitas changed his name by deed poll to Michael X & announced the formation of a new body called the Racial Action Adjustment Society (RAAS).

The fact that he had been an associate of Rachman & may have already had a criminal record (I can’t remember) only gave him more credibility in the eyes of some on the Left.

I don’t know how many of them were aware of the reason why Michael X chose to give them the acronym RAAS for their front page headlines, although I expect they know now.

I was reminded of that when Bali Rai explained a cosely related word in his contribution to Radio 4’s Four Thought on 1 February.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Vote for Phyllis & Ada

Emma Duncan of The Economist has been lucky enough to have been shortlisted to win a competition to name the two giant boring machines which will dig the tunnels for a new railway running east to west under London.

I hope I am not adding to the risk that canvassing may lead to her disqualification by encouraging one & all to vote for Ada & Phyllis, the names she has chosen. Votes can be cast online at

Although feminists perhaps ought (on the grounds that we don’t like men giving girl’s names to their toys) to bridle at the idea that only women’s names were allowed, Phyllis & Ada at least have the virtue of having contributed to inventions which have, & continue to add, value in all our lives.

Ada Lovelace, the mathematician daughter abandoned by her father Lord Byron, worked with Charles Babbage & has a claim to be the world’s first computer programmer.

Phyllis Pearsall walked all 3,000 miles of London’s 23,000 streets to pursue her own dream - to draw & index the original A-Z guide.

Phyllis was also the name of my Nana, who was a virtual contemporary of Phyllis Pearsall.

If you prefer, you could vote for another of the short-listed pairs: sports stars, singers, queens, wives of famous men or just fictional characters.

The flow of money & things

‘The most complete & extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands.’

That was the reaction of Lord Curzon to the news of 1872 that a British citizen, Baron Julius de Reuter, had won a concession to run the industry, and to exploit the resources of & print the money of Persia.

A generation later, in 1901, a Devon-born millionaire, William Knox D’Arcy, negotiated the first oil concession in the country we now know as Iran.

Within 12 years all Iranian oil was British property &, at the end of WWI, Britain took control of Iran’s treasury, military & transport system under the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919.

These were just business deals to support British entrepreneurs; Iran was never formally a colony of the British Empire, it retained its own crowned head of state in the Shah & a prime minister. But the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was Britain’s largest overseas asset, its profits & dividends adding to the Gross National Income of the UK.

Out of all this came, eventually, the company we know today as BP – now only 44% British owned.

And next week a court in New Orleans begins hearings in a case which is expected to cost BP & its co-defendants billions of dollars in compensation to 110,000 plaintiffs following the 2010 offshore oil disaster at Deepwater Horizon.

It would be fascinating to see if an economic or financial historian could chart the international flows of all this investment & income since William D’Arcy’s first venture into the field.

These thoughts have been largely inspired by a fine column by Ben Macintyre in The Times of 21 February in which he explains how history colours the current Iranian attitude to Britain: ‘What Britons saw as investment, Iranians regarded as pillage’ & today are still ready to believe that Britain is ‘secretly working behind the scenes to destroy the Iranian Government’ & repossess its oil.

Today’s Anglo-Saxon model of the global economy welcomes foreign inward investment, believing in fact that capital (unlike people) has no nationality, is not even, (in the manner in which it whizzes round the world in unbelievably large amounts in astonishingly small slices of time) ‘real’ at all, just a web of electronic promises, promises & (collateralised) obligations.

And even when this foreign money does turn real, in the form of manufacturing, transport, utilities, newspapers & most of the houses in central London, we get the benefit of all those goods & services in which we no longer have the money to invest. According to Yolande Barnes of the upmarket property company Savills, writing also in The Times, we are now almost entirely reliant on the success of the expensive private developments, which attract foreign buyers, to fund new affordable housing.

At least these foreign investors have no one national identity of their own, there is no one country for us to fear might demand a direct role in our governance.

In 1980, at the height of the Iranian hostage crisis, Jimmy Carter described as ‘ancient history’ the US involvement in the restoration of the Shah in 1953.

Not quite such ancient history to us as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the accession of our Queen, who was crowned on a rainy day in 1953.

When our great-grandchildren look back from 2152, when 2012 is as far away as 1872 is to us, will they then share Lord Curzon’s astonishment?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

I, painting from myself, know what I do

One of the things that most strikes me about the Rembrandt self portraits – apart from the sheer humanity & his unflinching gaze – is the marked change in technique.

The strands of those wild red youthful curls seem painted individually, seen with acuity, recorded with a steady hand. In old age his brush strokes are broader, more impressionistic.

You could interpret that as an effect of waning acuity of vision & of strength, or the acquisition of the wisdom to know that less is more.

Which Elizabeth Jennings always does so well.

Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits

You are confronted with yourself. Each year
The pouches fill, the skin is uglier.
You give it all unflinchingly. You stare
Into yourself, beyond. Your brush’s care
Runs with self-knowledge. Here

Is a humility at one with craft.
There is no arrogance. Pride is apart
From this self-scrutiny. You make light drift
The way you want. Your face is bruised and hurt
But there is still love left.

Love of the art and others. To the last
Experiment went on. You stared beyond
Your age, the times. You also plucked the past
And tempered it. Self-portraits understand,
And old age can divest,

With truthful changes, us of fear of death.
Look, a new anguish. There, the bloated nose,
The sadness and the joy. To paint’s to breathe,
And all the darknesses are dared. You chose
What each must reckon with.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bins & buckets

Binning data seems a very wasteful thing to do. Even if you have finished with it, someone else may find it useful.

It was when I was recently reading a paper written by a physicist about statistical distributions that I first came across the concept of binning data. I had to look at the figures before I understood what he meant, & then more minutes to try & think what word I would have used. Probably grouping, or maybe just cross tabulation which, in social statistics usually involves grouping - for instance population in 5-year age bands.

I thought binning must derive from the idea of sorting data into different bins according to the value of the variable – much as, in the old days, postal workers used to sort outgoing mail by tossing it into the correct bin for the postal town of destination.

Just the other day it occurred to me that bin may in fact derive from binary, which corresponds to the truth table method of programming cross tabulations.

And then I came across this in an article about statistical analysis of language & economics on Language Log:

What this does, in effect, is drop families around the world into one of 1.4 billion buckets, where two families fall into the same bucket if and only if they are identical in country of birth and residence, age, sex, income, family structure, number of children, and religion, where the religions of the world are broken up into 74 types.
Keith Chen

So perhaps I was right first time.


Support at last.

As France moves to abolish Mademoiselle, Stefanie Marsh calls in Times 2 for us to abandon the Anglo-Saxon Ms & revert to being Mistresses instead.

Yes please. Better late than never. Shall we form a movement?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Leap year

When the year begins on a Sunday it is a leap year, says Joe Clay in a Times preview of a programme on Radio 4. But then he adds, teasingly, that the reasons are too complicated to go into in the space he has available.

Well I could Google for the answer or I could set my thinking cap on straight & work it out – when I get a few minutes to spare to sit down with a pencil & a piece of paper, after having left it to stew in the back of my mind while I get on with matters more pressing.

The thought rumbling away there is that it may have something to do with modulo 7 – assuming, of course that the assertion is true.

Knowing wherof

The World Cancer Research Fund has found a new cause for worry: we don’t know much about the calorie content of foods we eat.

Well, apart form one brief period – about which more anon – I have never paid any attention to the calorie content of the food I eat or prepare for the family, nor can I see that there is any use or need in doing so unless you have some specific problem which needs adjustment to your diet, & specifically your calorie intake. But that’s because I think that my old fashioned nutritional education, from school, Guides, womens magazines & most of all family, gave me a much more solid & sensible set of rules to go by. I don’t doubt that things are different today.

Just to show willing I have been trying to take note of the calorie content of foods that I have been eating – just those that are prepared by others, I am not going to go down the road of using food tables to work out the calorie count of meals prepared at home.

The results have surprised me a bit. Mainly because there is so little relationship between the calorie content of food & how full it makes you feel.

Exhibit A: 1 cup latte + 1 chocolate muffin = 655 calories
Exhibit B: 1 cup tea + 1 crispy chicken & bacon wrap = 505 calories

There is no doubt which would leave me feeling more like I had had a proper meal, one that will easily last me through to teatime without flagging. I would count myself (not in a good way) as having skipped lunch if all I had had was coffee & cake.

The simple calorie comparison hides the important difference – that higher quantities of protein & (non-sugar) carbohydrates are offered by the more filling food.

The thing is, though I have never tried it, I don’t think even 2 lattes & 2 chocolate muffins (which would provide more than half my GDA for calories) would assuage my hunger & make me feel full; just sick & needing to lie down for a bit rather than get on with some work.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A series of flaps

Descriptions of security checks which can be carried out on visitors to this country may refer to ‘opening the photograph from the biometric chip in the e-passport.’

For me, this always conjures up an irrepressible picture of the immigration officer carefully opening the flap on an Advent calendar, to see what lies behind.

It’s usually not a sweetie.

Watching the wolf from the door

I spent part of yesterday evening reading part of the independent Inspector’s report on his investigation into border security checks – a headline grabber if ever there was one; the media had left me with the impression that men with beards, wearing turbans & silken pantaloons, with golden scimitars tucked into their belts, had been waved through without let or hindrance.

But no. The Border Police have been letting in coach loads of Brownies & old ladies without proper checks, contrary to the Home Secretary’s specific instruction. And not checking out the skiers coming home on Eurotrain.

I jest – a little. The report tells another sorry tale of confusion over requirements & responsibilities, contradictions between health & safety, promises of shorter queuing times, & a rush to implement expensive new biometric computer solutions without proper testing or training. None of which was helped by changes of minister under the last Labour government & then again of course after the election.

In her statement to the House of Commons the Home Secretary promised new arrangements, which specify a minimum level of mandatory checks for all c100 million passengers arriving in the UK each year & make clear that no unauthorised suspension of checks is acceptable under any circumstances. Interim arrangements were put into effect by a message sent to all Regional Directors by the new Chief Executive of the Borders Agency last November.

The Inspector was able to report that, at least between November & the end of January, the Chief Executive had not been troubled by any requests for any suspension of checks, thus demonstrating that, together with much closer monitoring of what staff are doing day by day, we may have confidence that any suspensions will take place only with the authority of the most senior manager in the Agency.

I look forward to hearing whether the Chief Executive was able to sleep undisturbed throughout the busy February half term period, when many of the problems reported by the Inspector have arisen in the past.

Fortunately it won’t be his problem in future, since the Border Force has been hived off from the Borders Agency & will have its own Director General who reports directly to ministers.

And, in addition, from next year, ‘the new National Crime Agency will be charged with improving our intelligence capability at the border, investigating serious and organised border crime, and tasking law enforcement assets across all the relevant agencies.’

So that’s alright then. We will all be able to sleep easy.

I spent my time on the bus today devising a new fantasy system of immigration control, one which will obey two fundamental rules of security.

First, that the universal application of the highest & strictest protections in mundane situations itself constitutes a risk to security by encouraging boredom, cynicism & sloppiness.

And secondly, that checks should be unpredictable.

So my system is completely random. Nobody, not even the Immigration Officer, knows what checks will be applied to the next person at his desk or coming down the steps of the school bus. Instead the computer will tell him, ordering a randomly generated number of checks from the available menu. And to make it even more clever, the sampling fractions will themselves vary at random.

There will be some randomly generated questions along the lines of ‘What is the name of the Home Secretary/Have you ever eaten mangoes/When did you last see your father?’ FYIO: this is merely a dummy, which serves no purpose other than to confuse & alarm potential malefactors.

And of course, through his responses to the instructions, the Immigration Officer/Border policeman will be continuously monitored in real time.

It will not be a massively huge computer system.

It could probably even be an app.

Sadly, no minister, even if they had time to get a grip on all the issues during their brief tenure in the office, & understood it, could possibly support such a system. The public & press simply would not stand for it. It would be politically impossible.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The threat of the new

The Rite of Spring could now be played to passengers on an plane preparing for take off, but Picasso retains his challenge.

Tom Sutcliffe, Saturday Review R4 18 February 2012

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Potato cheese

Extra Medium Cheddar Cheese contains Potato Starch

Medium Fat Hard Cheese contains Potato Starch

So, complete with capitals, I was informed by the back of a pack of M&S spaghetti carbonara.

We live & learn.

Ill effects of the baby boom

On Friday I heard a woman say to her children ‘Hasn’t this holiday gone quick. I can’t believe it’s already over.

Not a moment too soon for some of us.

There can be no doubt about the current baby boom – the numbers of under 5s out & about just keeps on increasing, now that so many of them have a date with school or nursery during term time.

They have to be entertained, distracted, given treats. As one young mum explained to me a while back, her two year old just can’t understand why she can’t go to see her friends at nursery.

Public health officials should be issuing advice to the rest of us about how to avoid half term flu.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Fitzroy Finistere

Radio 4’s archive on Saturday night gave us a beautifully put together history of the shipping forecast, that hypnotic incantation which plays such a surprisingly important role in many people’s lives, even though they may never have even been on the sea themselves.

We learned about how the forecast is put together in the age of supercomputers; something of the history; what it means to seafarers past & present & to poets; an actor’s view of what reading it aloud involves, & the precision of meaning in every word – even ‘Perhaps’ & that reassuring ‘Good’ which often ends the otherwise scary forecast for an area. All interspersed with fragments of recordings of the different voices which have presented it over the years.

The programme was actually a year late – one might have expected it to have been broadcast last February to mark the 150th anniversary of the first ever statistical, scientific storm warning service in 1861.

As with many well-loved programmes the shipping forecast has not been without controversy over the years – changes can be deeply, even passionately resented. One of the most recent came when the name of one of the Shipping Areas – those geometrical blocks into which the seas around these British Isles are divided – was changed. These have a rhythm, poetry & mystery of their own: South Utsire, North Utsire …

So why replace the soothing three syllables of Finistere with the peremptory two of Fitzroy? Outrage followed.

The outrage was misplaced for this represented a belated recognition & honouring of the name of Admiral Robert Fitzroy, he who was previously known to most people only as the captain who played a supporting role in the life & fame of Charles Darwin & his voyage on The Beagle.

In 1854 Fitzroy settled on dry land to become chief statistician at the newly established Met office. With the aid of three clerks he began the tedious business of collating weather information from thousands of ship’s logs (did they have the aid of calculating machines?) In February 1861 the storm warning service began alerting, by telegraph, coastal stations which then hoisted cones & banners to give the message to passing ships; the number of lives lost at sea fell by a third.

In August of that year The Times became the first newspaper to publish a daily forecast of what sort of weather its land-based readers could expect; Queen Victoria never travelled between her homes in Windsor Castle & Osborne House on the Isle of Wight without checking first with Fitzroy that the crossing of the Solent would not be too hazardous or uncomfortable.

Statisticians should honour the name of Fitzroy, not least for his statement, published in The Times, that “’Forecasts’ are expressions of probabilities - & not dogmatic predictions.”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Working less, enjoying more

Catherine Rampell has had some interesting posts on Economx which dig deeper into the gender pay gap in the USA.

I just want to note here another small piece of evidence that women travel less than men, & that this may affect earnings capacity.

Men also spend more time commuting to work, with a median commute that is 20 percent longer (24 minutes for men versus 20 minutes for women)

A pig that’s been to college

The Lament of Toby, The Learned Pig

Oh, heavy day! oh, day of woe!
To misery a poster,
Why was I ever farrowed, why
Not spitted for a roaster?

In this world, pigs, as well as men,
Must dance to fortune’s fiddlings,
But must I give the classics up,
For barley-meal and middlings?

Of what avail that I could spell
And read, just like my betters,
If I must come to this at last,
To litters, not to letters?

Oh, why are pigs made scholars of?
It baffles my discerning,
What griskins, fry, and chitterlings
Can have to do with learning.

Alas! my learning once drew cash,
But public fame’s unstable,
So I must turn a pig again
And fatten for the table.

To leave my literary line
My eyes get red and leaky;
But Giblett doesn’t want me blue,
But red and white, and streaky.

Old Mullins used to cultivate
My learning like a gard’ner;
But Giblett only thinks of lard,
And not of Doctor Lardner.

He does not care about my brain
The value of two coppers,
All that he thinks about my head
Is, how I’m off for choppers.

Of all my literary kin
A farewell must be taken,
Goodbye to the poetic Hogg!
The philosophic Bacon!

Day after day my lessons fade,
My intellect gets muddy;
A trough I have, and not a desk,
A stye — and not a study!

Another little month, and then
My progress ends, like Bunyan’s;
The seven sages that I loved
Will be chopped up with onions!

Then over head and ears in brine
They’ll souse me, like a salmon,
My mathematics turned to brawn,
My logic into gammon.

My Hebrew will all retrograde,
Now I’m put up to fatten,
My Greek, it will all go to grease,
The dogs will have my Latin!

Farewell to Oxford ! — and to Bliss!
To Milman, Crowe, and Glossop, —
I now must be content with chats,
Instead of learned gossip!

Farewell to ‘Town!’ farewell to ‘Gown!’
I’ve quite outgrown the latter, —
Instead of Trencher-cap my head
Will soon be in a platter!

Oh, why did I at Brazen-Nose
Rout up the roots of knowledge?
A butcher that can’t read will kill
A pig that’s been to college!

For sorrow I could stick myself,
But conscience is a dasher;
A thing that would be rash in man
In me would be a rasher!

One thing I ask — when I am dead
And past the Stygian ditches —
And that is, let my schoolmaster
Have one of my two Hitches.

. ’twas he who taught my letters so
I ne’er mistook or missed ‘em,
Simply by ringing at the nose
According to Bell’s system.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Becoming a citizen

The celebrations marking the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne have turned my thoughts in an unexpected direction.

Not by the nostalgia - the Do you remember …? or even Where on earth have those 60 years gone to? … but by pondering how it is that children between the ages of, say, 4 and 7, rapidly develop the concept that they live in a larger world than that encompassed by, and understood through, intense interaction with & close focus upon family, home & the immediate environment, and then to develop an understanding of abstract concepts such as society, governance & history.

Since I am not an academic psychologist with the training & resources to study large numbers of children I am guided at the moment by my own personal experience, or at least by my memory of it.

The little girl who had been so bitterly disappointed because the Princess she was taken to see in 1949 did not in any way match the picture of a princess in the fairy stories had, within four years, acquired some understanding that she lived in a country called England with a capital city called London, had some notion of a government in the form of an hereditary monarch & a prime minister called Mr Churchill. And a notion of a wider world out there with other countries in it, as well as an impression of history. The new Queen was Elizabeth the Second because we once upon a time had an Elizabeth the First & adventurers such as Drake & Raleigh. Now I was privileged to be living in a new Elizabethan Age

I should pause here to say that I am not thinking – or writing - about this because I think there was something exceptional about her but because I have never before stopped to think about how extraordinary is this universal experience. I have always been entranced by how babies & toddlers develop & learn so quickly, but I guess I was too readily accepting of the idea that by the age of about 5 the brain has done all the growing it is ever going to do & from then on it is a question of learning through instruction, not of making the world for oneself.

But how did a little girl living on the edge of a rural town – open country on three sides - who had travelled no further than a few summer holidays in Blackpool or North Wales develop her ideas about this virtual world beyond the horizon.

Not via the internet, or even television – along with so many of my fellow countrymen I got my first sight of the box only on the day of the Coronation.

There was the radio, & the newspaper which I was beginning to take an interest in; even though there was a distinct lack of even grainy black & white pictures & I have clear memories of pictures of the new Queen on the steps of the aeroplane, the long queues winding round the dead King’s lying-in-state & of the three Queens at the funeral. The fact that Queen Mary’s obvious grief made a lasting impression makes me think I must have seen this on a cinema newsreel.

Even if these are actual memories of the time they must have been reinforced by all the activities – not least those at school - in the long period leading up to the Coronation itself.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friendly buses

Mark Easton reported that Downing Street nudge specialists know how to keep us all living longer – find an interest, make friends, get out more …

Well, on the assumption that we are not all so depressed by the state of the economy that being made to live longer seems like cruelty, I hope they will give due weight to the role that the bus pass plays in this splendid endeavour.

Buses themselves are very sociable – much more so than trains or tube; for some reason people are much more likely to chat to each other.

And travel allows you to access a wider range of social contacts & activities than might be provided by well meaning outsiders closer to home.

People are lonely for kind, not company of no matter what sort.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Musical homage

Professor Steve Jones is Rob Cowan’s guest this week on Radio 3. This morning he chose Mozart Piano concerto 457 played by Mitsuko Uchida.

I was busy doing other things, my mind wandered. Then I wandered down to the kitchen; it’s harder to tune the old fashioned knob on the radio down there – especially to FM – so I thought I had somehow got it wrong when I heard Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata – but being played all wrong. Well, not wrong exactly, just a very unusual interpretation -.rhythm & phrasing, very light, dancing even.

Steve Jones had made some remarks about genes & culture & the universality of the language of music with special reference to the number of great Japanese interpreters of western classical music. Could culture be the explanation?

I am in no way a musical expert but the Beethoven Pathetique is the one score I do know as well as could anybody who studied (& fell in love with) it for O level more than half a century ago. I hasten to add that this did not in any way involve my being able to play it, just understand the structure etc.

I bought – with my own money – an EP of Sviatoslav Richter playing it which I listened to over & over again.

The experience in my kitchen was really disorienting – that phrase was just so recognisable, but …

I went back upstairs, where I knew the radio was most definitely tuned to Radio 3, made my self sit down & listen till the end – by which time I was sure it wasn’t Beethoven I was listening to, but it was good to have confirmation that it was the Mozart I had been hearing all along.

Dr Google has reassured me that others have noticed the coincidence – I have not gone doolally yet.

But it must, surely, by some chance be the very first time I have ever heard that Mozart sonata, otherwise I should have recognised & remembered the resemblance.

Wouldn’t I?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


The Times Sports Supplement on Saturday carried on its front an interesting mock-up photo of Harry Redknapp as England manager, wearing a jacket emblazoned on its left breast with a badge of the Three Lions & on its right the elaborately embroidered initials HR. Presumably a witty reference to Harry’s acknowledged skill as man manger, since the display of initials does not seem to be standard practice.

I wish I did not feel such a sense of impending tragedy in this story which is gripping the nation.

Although it does contain all the elements of the dilemmas & difficulties with which we are faced, at the same time it diverts attention away from discussion of the fundamental issues. We focus on who will win the Cup or who will insult whom, sometimes referring these decisions to judges in a properly constituted Court of Law, but always having an opinion of our own to contribute to the febrile, high volume discussions taking part on all available media.

Like arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while ignoring the larger – and real – forces at play: debt, unrealistically high wages, foreign ownership, mysterious financial dealings.

Perhaps it is just because ‘we’ don’t think we are actually paying for all this. After all, ‘we’ don’t go to the actual matches any more (can’t afford the ticket prices). We are the beneficiaries of fat cats in the prawn sandwich seats who do pay for rich mens toys.

Bread & circuses.

Things I ought not to have said

It is now more than four years since I poured scorn on the way that the press were briefed to say that a ‘lowly civil servant’ had managed to lose a copy of the entire child benefit data base because he was distracted by major sporting events which were taking place.

Well perhaps I was wrong to be so rude.

The European Central Bank* has a lot on its plate right now but has still found time to publish a paper with the catchy title of ‘The pitch rather than the pit’ which proves that stock market traders at least were distracted by the 2010 World Cup.

In order to check the plausibility of their econometric analysis the authors also tested the effects of another distracting event – lunch.

Although the number of trades did indeed fall during the time when people could be expected to be taking lunch, traders did not seem to take their eye off the metaphorical ball & fail to respond to important news which affected stock prices in the same way as they did when they had a soccer ball to watch.

The paper has a bibliography of over 30 pieces of relevant academic work, with titles such as ‘The flexibility of the workweek in the United States: Evidence from the FIFA World Cup’, ‘Exploitable Predictable Irrationality: The FIFA World Cup Effect on the U.S. Stock Market’ and ‘Good Day Sunshine: Stock Returns and the Weather’

A belated apology to those New Labour spin doctors.

*Important note: the report carries on its cover a disclaimer: This Working Paper should not be reported as representing the views of the European Central Bank (ECB).

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Not-so-sure start

We know we owe a lot of money.

If it’s government we call it a national debt – or is it a deficit, I am never sure.

In business we call it leverage (or foreign investment).

In private households we call it a mortgage, or credit card. Or pay day loan. Or student fees. Then there’s always the pawn shop, or selling granny's engagement ring & grandad’s gold watch.

Add it all together & the nation’s true debt is many times greater than the nation’s income.

Now some bright spark has come up with the idea of starting as you mean to continue.

Babies (or parents, on their behalf) should take out a loan from a new government child-care contribution scheme to pay for someone to look after them while mummy and daddy go out to work.

Mothers in particular are said to turn their backs on going out to work if that adds very little, all things considered, to the family income. And that is bad for the economy.

Doubly bad in fact, because going out to work means that the mother earns a wage AND the value of the child care, which she used to provide for ‘free’, also gets monetised, so contributing twice over to GDP. The snag is that, without subsidy, simple arithmetic dictates that the mother must pay the one who provides the care less than she herself is paid.

These wizard wheezes are said, by Anushka Asthana writing in The Times, to be supported by senior figures in the Treasury. I hope that means politicos, not permanent civil servants. Surely they cannot fall for the line that it doesn’t count as real debt because if you can’t pay it back someone will let you off; otherwise it’s just a way of spreading the costs over time.

Isn’t that what the Ministry of Defence tried to do?

What do older women find to talk about?

A rare event this morning – a 15 minute conversation-as-interview between two ‘older women’ on the BBC!

And not about home, children or any other ‘women’s issue’ (unless you count vegetarianism).

Bridget Kendall spoke to Professor Dianna Bowles about explosives, malaria, sheep breeding & foot & mouth disease.

And how to find joy in life.

Monday, February 13, 2012


When I was a student in London in the early 1960s I met more than one young man who said that it was his ambition to marry the daughter of the man who held the local franchise for Coca Cola.

If any achieved his ambition he must now be living a very comfortable retirement.

Operating profits rising by 12% a year; volumes growing by 13% a year in China, & even 2% up in Europe - recession proof Coke is ‘refreshing a world looking for hope, optimism & renewal’ according to Chairman, Muhtar Kent.

Well the aspiration as expressed by those fellow students was a jokey way of summarising complex arguments about economic development. The young men were the brightest & best, sent to the UK for a university education before going back home to what we then called one of the Less Developed Countries, one that was perhaps not yet even formally Independent.

From a purely personal point of view, a beautiful wife with an indulgent father who could offer his son-in-law a job demanding nothing more than the import of the magic syrup to be mixed with water & gas, put into (presumably imported) bottles, corked & sold to a grateful populace.

Status. Possibly an easy route to political power.

What more could a young man want.

The Coca Cola Company full year and fourth quarter results for 2011

Related post
Colonial scholars

Forestry questions

Who owns Scottish & Southern Energy?

Whoever they are, they now also own at least 3,000 hectares of Scottish forest.

All in a good cause of course. Burning ‘biomass’ is so much cheaper than building offshore windmills as a way of producing energy which is greener than the sort you get from burning coal. And wood creates more energy than other kinds of biomass available for burning.

Question: at what point does wood (green) become coal (black)?

There is a problem however. Power producers can afford to pay higher prices than can existing customers who want wood for building houses, making furniture, fixtures & fittings, or constructing pallets for industry & the transport of goods. So these latter are getting increasingly unhappy about this threat to their livelihood.

Britain currently produces about 10 million tonnes of commercial timber a year & one-fifth of this goes for energy. By the end of this decade we might need 80 million tonnes for energy alone.

One way or another it looks as though we shall have to start importing other countries’ forests.

The English forests sailed the oceans of the world & found new lands full of wildernesses & more forests waiting to be cut down - Kate Atkinson

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Philip Bainbrigge

Nevil Shute included this poem in his autobiographical memoir, Slide Rule, published in 1954; he called it 'one of the best war poems that I have ever heard' but said that he had never seen it in print anywhere.

The poet, Philip Bainbrigge, had been a sixth-form master at Shrewsbury School, where Shute was a pupil before he left to join the infantry in August 1918.

Shute describes Bainbrigge as a tall, delicate, weedy man who was as blind as a bat without his thick spectacles - the sort who should never have been sent into the army & posted to France at all, which he was at a late stage in the War when almost every male who could stand on his own two feet was being conscripted.

He was a popular young teacher with a great sense of humour & enormous academic ability. This sonnet was written in the trenches shortly before he died. The echo of Rupert Brooke is no doubt deliberate.

Martin Taylor included it in his collection Lads.


If I should die, be not concerned to know
The manner of my ending, if I fell
Leading a folorn charge against the foe,
Strangled by gas, or shattered by a shell.
Nor seek to see me in this death-in-life
Mid shirks and curse, oaths and blood and sweat,
Cold in the darkness, on the edge of strife,
Bored and afraid, irresolute, and wet
But if you think of me, remember one
Who loved good dinners, curious parody,
Swimming, and lying naked in the sun,
Latin hexameters, and heraldry,
Athenian subtleties of δηζ and ποιζ,
Beethoven, Botticelli, beer, and boys.

A support or underprop

We all love the family photo album, even royalty, & a particular gem forms part of an exhibition at Windsor Castle to mark the Diamond Jubilee. It shows Her Majesty, aged 2, in the company of her grandfather’s parrot.

I hope it is not lese-majesty to say that my eyes fixed on the legs of the little princess, which look to me to be far shorter, from knee to ankle, than we would expect to see on a two-year old today.

Which makes me think that some useful historical data on this topic could be gleaned from photographic analysis of a very large sample of toddlers.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cold weather kindness

Cold weather is extremely dangerous for hedgehogs, according to Paul Simons of The Times.

If anyone meets one out & about during this cold snap, please wrap it up warm & take it to a hedgehog refuge

Friday, February 10, 2012


02 01 2012
12 01 2012
20 01 2012
21 01 2012
01 02 2012
10 02 2012

I am being both diverted & distracted by dates at the moment. Specifically by dates expressed in their numerical DDMMYYYY format.

Such a proliferation of days which can be identified using only the digits {0,1,2}. Those with 3 two’s, 3 zero’s but only 2 ones are particularly pleasing.

Today’s date has a particularly pleasing rhythm to it, almost a haiku.

One. Oh.
Oh, two!
To owe one too.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Shute in Ireland

When Nevil Shute was thirteen his father became Secretary to the Post Office in Ireland & moved to Dublin. Home for Easter in 1916 Nevil witnessed what, when writing in 1954 but extraordinarily to us now, he described as ‘that half forgotten rising.’

His father was fortunate in that he was not in the PO building when it was taken; Nevil, who had gone down there to walk his father home to lunch, witnessed the killing of 4 Lancers in Sackville Street. ‘These were the first men that I had seen killed.’

His father was soon afterwards recalled to London; the appointment of an Englishman had never been particularly popular & so discretion was the better part of valour – certainly nobody wanted another Phoenix Park.

It seems strange however that Nevil Shute makes no mention in his memoir of the contribution that both his parents made to the record with their own descriptions of this experience, published, of course, under the family name of Norway.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Football, finance, politcs (in that order)

By good fortune I was listening to Radio 4 just before 8am this morning, heard that the flagship interview at 8.10am would be with Stephen Hester & so stayed to listen.

James Naughtie, sounding more like the leader of the Book Club than the Grand Inquisitor, was not inclined to be aggressive, but I thought that Hester showed the kind of quality that might really make it worth our while to pay him handsomely for defusing ‘the biggest time bomb in history’ when Naughtie circled round again in an effort to tempt him into saying something possibly unwise in answer to the question of why he should be paid so much more than, say, an expert surgeon.

The stiletto slipped in without warning: Were you to divulge your salary, Jim, people might debate what you get paid relative to a nurse.

I shall treasure the sound of Naughtie’s Ouf!

I don’t think football comparators came in to the discussion at all, but when I turned back to hear the end of the programme just before 9am it was clear that quite a lot of listeners had been in touch to ask why we should think £1m too much for a banker while letting £6m for the England football manager pass without comment.

At lunch time Radio 5 made it perfectly plain where it judged the nation’s priorities to lie. For what may be the first time since the station opened they did not go live to the House of Commons for Prime Ministers Questions. The commitment to breaking news demanded full coverage of Harry Redknapp, the manager of Tottenham Hotspur football club, & everybody’s favourite candidate to be the next manager of England (what do you mean how much is he worth?) being cleared of tax evasion.

A report on proceedings in Parliament, with sound bites, came later.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Pay us in Rooneys

One of the difficulties underlying the current high volume arguments about pay & bonuses is the lack of any clear guidance from economists on how to determine the worth of any one employee, or indeed one class of occupation within a business, compared to another.

Although ‘Equal pay for Work of Equal Value’ is enshrined in law, equal value is nowhere defined, except in cases where jobs are identical but are paid at different rates for men & women. The job evaluation schemes relied upon are usually nothing more than empirically – or heuristically – derived scorecards which depend on factors such as level of training & responsibility. And woebetide anyone who suggests that elements of human capital such as good looks or personality have any role to play.

As Tim Montgomerie, editor of the Conservative Home website put it in a recent column for The Times, why does someone need £1 million to run the Royal Bank of Scotland – something he cannot understand, any more than the rest of a snarling nation.

But Montgomerie does understand - along with every other fan of Manchester United – why Wayne Rooney is worth what he is paid.

It’s just that, along with everybody else, he expresses that as if professional footballers belonged, along with other sons of toil, to the weekly wage-earning classes.

So here is a suggestion. A new unit of measurement for evaluating the worth of bankers & board members.

Wayne Rooney’s club wage of a reported £200,000 a week is, in round numbers, £10 million a year.

Then we can ask why the ability to perform brilliant overhead kicks makes anyone worth 10 of someone whose only skill is keeping afloat one of the world’s biggest banks.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Producing martyrs

I still remember quite vividly the morning I was sitting on top of a bus on the way to work reading AJP Taylor’s English History 1914–1945. I turned to look at the maps of WWI battlefields at the back & was transfixed.

This was the WORLD war, but the fighting took place on only the minutest fraction of the earth’s surface; my whole image & idea of war, which I had had since childhood, was transformed.

Many years later I was talking to a fellow class member about some famous Anglo-Saxon battle which we had been learning about, & how it was always surprising & faintly disappointing to go to the site of such an historic event & find just a small field – maybe even smaller than a modern rugby pitch.

I mentioned my reaction to the WWI battlefields & we fell into exclaiming about how ‘small’ was that war too.

Another class member – an elderly gentleman who may even have been old enough to fight in that war himself - overheard this last part & became very upset, berating us loudly for our insensitivity to the vast suffering caused. We could only apologise – no point trying to explain.

I have just been reading Nevil Shute’s autobiographical memoir, Slide Rule, & found these memories stirring again.

Shute’s older teenage brother Fred was shelled in July 1915 when trying to rescue his sergeant from a trench which had been mined. He was evacuated to field hospital, but died of gangrene 3 weeks later. His parents were at his side ‘as was common in those days.’

Even more extraordinarily Shute’s father took 16-year old Nevil & his mother to Rome & Naples for a 6 week holiday the following Christmas, & Nevil made his own way home by train in time to get back to school for the new term.

“Wars were localised in those days … the Western Front was ablaze with war from Switzerland to the sea but this was completely static; there was nothing to prevent the normal express trains full of tourists from running as usual 50 miles behind the lines, & no currency restrictions …”
Nevil Shute: Slide Rule: An Autobiography
Shute also records that during those years of war he had grown to accept the prospect of death.

I cannot remember any particular resentment at this prospect; indeed, in some ways it was even stimulating. It has puzzled many people to imagine how the Japanese produced their Kamikazes … in the last war. It has never been much of a puzzle to me … in 1918 anybody could have made a Kamikaze pilot out of me.
Nevil Shute: Slide Rule: An Autobiography

He even describes how his English Public School, Shrewbury - which also numbers Charles Darwin among its old boys – prepared its pupils for what was to come
[It] was a time for contemplation of the realities that were coming & for spiritual preparation for death, & in this atmosphere the masculine, restrained services in the school chapel … played an enormous part. The list of school casualties grew every day. Older boys … left, appeared once or twice resplendent in new uniforms, & were dead. We remembered them … as we knelt praying for their souls in chapel, knowing as we did so that in a year or so the little boys … would be kneeling for us
Nevil Shute: Slide Rule: An Autobiography

Religion, martyrdom, inculcated by teachers. Sounds like a kind of radicalisation.

Sunday, February 05, 2012


I was overoptimistic about the weather: the gritters are out & about & it has been snowing, though so far none of it is lying

In Tenebris

Wintertime nighs;
But my bereavement-pain
It cannot bring again:
Twice no one dies.

Flower-petals flee;
But since it once hath been,
No more that severing scene
Can harrow me.

Birds faint in dread:
I shall not lose old strength
In the lone frost's black length:
Strength long since fled!

Leaves freeze to dun;
But friends cannot turn cold
This season as of old
For him with none.

Tempests may scath;
But love cannot make smart
Again this year his heart
Who no heart hath.

Black is night's cope;
But death will not appal
One, who past doubtings all,
Waits in unhope.

Thomas Hardy

Dwarfs & Amazons

I am feeling distressed & not a little harassed & alarmed by things I have been reading in The Times. Perhaps the Equalities Commission might take action on my behalf.

Polly Vernon wrote that men really don’t like British women in extreme high heels because, with an added 5½in of heel the average British woman of 5ft 4in will gazing down on the unprotected bald spots of most of the men (average height 5ft 9in) in any room, a Lady Gaga to their cowering Obamas.

I don’t wear high heels, but Alex Hardy laid into Robin Roberts, ‘an Amazonian 5ft 10in’ who reportedly refuses to wear flat shoes so that she doesn’t dwarf George Stephanopoulos, her 5ft 6½in co-anchor on Good Morning America. Poor man – how could he bear it when working for 6ft Bill Clinton*?

Such restrictions on wardrobe choices amount to discrimination on grounds of gender. He’s dwarfed anyway. Why is it not demanded that he wear 6in heels? Or sack him & employ someone taller, if you think there’s a rule against putting a man to work with a woman who is taller. Or let them both sit down & give him a booster seat. Or perhaps they should dig trenches for her to stand in, as Alan Ladd’s co-stars are reported to have had to do.

Or just get over it, & stop upsetting women who have to put up with this kind of language, just because of the way nature made us. Breastless we are not.

And then a leader writer demanded an investigation ino why female tennis players have grown so tall.

*According to Google Best guess for Bill Clinton Height is 1.89 Meter
Mentioned on at least 6 websites including, and

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Jobs worth doing

There has been mixed reaction to the news that ‘Dead end’ (ie vocational) courses are no longer to count towards a school’s performance in the national league tables. Engineers in particular have objected strongly – and quite rightly – but most commentators are agreed that nail technology services must go.

The Conservatives should remember that they need to take care to keep the female vote.

Of course this is a bit difficult for some feminists – those for whom equality with men is the main aim would prefer to talk about getting girls into engineering.

The prospect of owning & operating your own nail bar offers a realistic prospect of independence & liberation for many women. And the industry is even saving our High Street – the fastest growing business & often the only new one opening up in some areas, according to a report from the Local Data Company. A report for the US EPA says that nail care is fastest growing segment in beauty industry - worth $6 billion worldwide. The industry is even worth a case study for those studying GCSE Economics, which I assume has escaped the axe.

Even working as an employee in the beauty industry offers a great deal of job satisfaction to many, contributes to the self-confidence of other women, the happiness of the nation, & counts as a social service, part of the glue of society, part of the health service even. Ask any woman stuck in a hospital bed what would most make her feel better (other than cure, of course) & she will most likely answer Having my hair done. For a younger generation that may well include nails.

This may be dismissed by some as just a passing fad, liable to change as quickly as heels & hemlines, but maybe not. One of the contributors to a recent Radio 4 programme on nail art offered the suggestion that nails have become important because they are now always on show, tapping away at key pad or board.

Art? Well it certainly can be a highly skilled craft, every bit as all those others which contribute to fashion – such as the exquisite embroidery on the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress.

Richard Morrison in The Times added his two pennorth by saying that nobody needs a GCSE in housekeeping.

Of course not; that’s a skill which just comes with the (female) hormones, imbibed with mother’s milk or learned at grandma’s knee.

We were recently told that Her Majesty the Queen has become the new management guru for the denizens of Downing Street. Well the Royal Household takes housekeeping very seriously, has helped to develop university courses for buttling & attaches great importance to proper training for all staff.

These skills are in great demand worldwide at the top end of the hospitality industry.

And we all know that careless lack of attention to proper housekeeping led to some dire consequences in our hospitals.

If a subject is worth studying, it is worth a non-zero rating in the league tables.

Next targets in the move to get rid of mere vocational qualifications provided by our revered institutes of education: medicine & the law.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Is anywhere safe?

More evidence to support the idea that being admitted* to hospital on a Sunday might be bad for your health comes from a report in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine about a study which looked at all hospital admissions in England between April 2009 & March 2010.

Getting on for 190,000 (1.3%) of these admissions were followed by death (while in hospital) within thirty days; those admitted on a Sunday were 16% more likely to die than were those admitted on Wednesday, though curiously actually being in hospital on Sunday meant you were 8% less likely to die than if you were inthere on a Wednesday – the summary which is all that I have been able to see does not make it clear what happens if you are there both days.

My strong impression, from my own experience & from that of people I know is that a 30 day stay would be very unusual these days.

For me the most startling information in this report however is that 14.2 million people were admitted to hospital in England that year – that is somewhere between one quarter & one third of the population of some 53 million at mid-year.

This must reflect the increasing tendency for multiple admissions – something which is particularly common for the elderly, especially those approaching the end of their life. This does not mean that the hospitals are not doing their job properly, just that those terminally ill are increasingly taken in only to relieve a crisis & then sent home.

The sheer joy I saw on a neighbour’s face as she told me that her husband had come home again (from, I think, his fourth admission since last Easter) testifies to the humanity of this policy.

Fingers crossed

I try to avoid hearing any weather forecast these days except for one local one in the morning as I decide what to wear when I go out. Sometimes however other people are far too keen to pass on the bad news.

The lady in the newsagents insisted we are about to have real snow, but the thin cloud low on the horizon at about 5pm was tinged a very definite orange. So I shall take that as a red sky at night & think about snow only if the radio wakes me with news of road closures tomorrow morning.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

More bleaching mystery

The price of a 2 litre bottle of Sainsbury's Basic bleach has risen from by 85%, from 27p to 50p in less than 2 years.


Related post
Bleaching mystery

Awkward honours

Although I am made to feel wimpishly uncomfortable by the elements of mob rule & fits of morality which go with the removal of Fred Goodwin’s knighthood, or even the idea that those who made the decision seem to have much in common with those who returned their honours to the Palace to mark their indignation at the award of MBEs to the Beatles, I cannot really bring myself to care very much either way.

Compared with what the mob might do & have done in other times & places to those who played a part in making life so difficult for ordinary people, losing a handle to ones name seems getting off very lightly indeed.

I should like to know what Her Majesty the Queen really feels about it however. In his book Our Queen, Robert Hardman told how the (then still Sir) Fred remained a member of a committee which advised The Palace, despite his disgrace. There was no desire to kick a man who had given good advice just because he was down.

Although the Queen merely does as she is advised in the matter of these ‘political’ honours, it cannot be very comfortable for her to be put in this position.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Stella Cunliffe

Stella Cunliffe has died at the age of 95.

I think I first heard her name in the early 1970s when she was called back from holiday in Jamaica to appear on The World at One to answer claims (from a detective inspector) that the murder rate had risen since the abolition of hanging. No email, internet or Twitter in those days – not even very reliable phone lines a lot of the time – you had to be there.

Our paths did not cross very often though I saw her at meetings & she was a member of the board which interviewed me for a job in the 1980s.

The Times obituarist says that her no-nonsense manner could be unsettling, but I found her kind as well as a support & inspiration. We owe her a debt of gratitude for the drive & determination which helped pave the way for other women to follow her into the higher reaches of the civil service.

She lived a very full life. Although I had heard her speak of working at Guinness I never heard her mention the experience of being one of the first into Belsen at all.

The last time I saw her was, by coincidence, on Stockport station where she was catching the same train to London as someone who had been our house guest.