Monday, April 30, 2012

Jug, jug

I was in turn amused, amazed &, almost, appalled by a small but telling incident early in Before the Poison, the latest novel by Peter Robinson.

The hero - not Inspector Banks, but a widowed 60-year old who, after several decades earning a comfortable living as a composer of film music in California, has returned to his roots in Gods Own County - wakes up in the remote but sizable house he has bought, together with its contents, to find that the kitchen contains no coffee-maker, ‘not even a simple Melitta filter or Bodum cafetiere’

He tries to improvise by pouring hot water through a piece of kitchen towel (which held the ground coffee), stretched over a cup; the result tasted ‘a bit like metallic dishwater’ but was better than nothing for one who cannot function until he has had his morning fix..

Goodness, are we all in such thrall to gadgets & the magical dark arts of the barista that nobody remembers the simple traditional way of making coffee in a jug?

Better than dishwater, even if not strong enough for the compulsions of the sophisticated addict.

Related posts 

Sunday, April 29, 2012


 This poem was beautifully read by Helen Blaxendale on Radio 3's Words & Music last Sunday. Another for the collection of poems about - in part at least - the wonderful world of mathematics.


The admirable number pi:
three point one four one.
All the following digits are also initial,
five nine two because it never ends.
It can't be comprehended six five three five at a glance,
eight nine by calculation,
seven nine or imagination,
not even three two three eight by wit, that is, by comparison
four six to anything else
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth calls it quits at about forty feet.
Likewise, snakes of myth and legend, though they may hold out a            bit longer.
The pageant of digits comprising the number pi
doesn't stop at the page's edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over a wall, a leaf, a bird's nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh how brief - a mouse tail, a pigtail - is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star's ray, bent by bumping up against space!
While here we have two three fifteen three hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size the year
nineteen hundred and seventy-three the sixth floor
the number of inhabitants sixty-five cents
hip measurement two fingers a charade, a code,
in which we find hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never wert
alongside ladies and gentlemen, no cause for alarm,
as well as heaven and earth shall pass away,
but not the number pi, oh no, nothing doing,
it keeps right on with its rather remarkable five,
its uncommonly fine eight,
its far from final seven,
nudging, always nudging a sluggish eternity
to continue.

Wislawa Szymborska
Related post

Judging by appearances

Joanna Trollope, chief judge for this year’s Orange Prize, has got into hot water for, allegedly, claiming that ‘you can judge a book by its cover.’

Actually the notion that a cover influences a reader came in her response to a supplementary question, a follow-up to her remark that a book’s appearance is an important part of its identity, the realisation of which has led her to abandon the idea of reading all 143 contenders for the prize on an e-book reader; the device homogenises everything, removing any difference between War & Peace and a novella.

Well of course.

At least for those of us who have spent most of our lives in an analogue age the whole physicality of a book (certainly when that term is stretched to cover much more than works of mere fiction) tells us a lot. Starting with size & cover; as with humans, they give plenty of clues to age & status – well-loved, untouched, abused, level of education, status, the kind of company they keep, high class or downmarket.

Then there is all the preliminary information, in a standard or familiar layout: title, author, publishing history, contents. All easy to find with a glance & a turn of the wrist. And when you get down to the business of actually reading it, you always know exactly where you are, & how much further you have to go.

Maybe following generations - those who, from their earliest years, grow to assimilate information one screen at a time, while authors & providers alike settle on more standard ways of presenting the mass of auxiliary detail - will develop the same instinctive ways of assimilating the bigger picture.

The latest version of the computerised library catalogue is a delight – a huge improvement which is both easier to use & gives a lot more clues as to the character of a book, which can be taken in  at a glance.

I sniffed when told that it even shows you a picture of the book. I was wrong.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Thinning mystery

The price of a 2 litre bottle of basic bleach in Sainsbury’s has gone back down again to 27p (or thereabouts).

Blame it on globalisation & commodity booms -perhaps. There is much more to the market for chlorine than I had previously known about.

Related posts  

Friday, April 27, 2012

Partner in finance

The financial authorities take an interest in a practice known as share pledging.

While it is not illegal, those who indulge in it must report the fact.

As they must also do when indulged in by those who, under Stock Exchange rules, are described as their ‘connected person.’ These include anyone who is more than just a good friend but less than legally bound to them in marriage.

Well ‘partner’ would be especially ambiguous in that world, wouldn’t it.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Another interesting word from the pages of the radio listings in the Saturday Times.

Sarah Vine, a fan of In Our Time, accuses Melvyn Bragg of sounding like a ‘querrelous old uncle.’

This word does not appear in the OED.

A Google search turned up an entry in the Urban Dictionary, where it is given as a word not defined yet under the entry for ‘argue the toss.’

The Word spellchecker suggests using querulous instead.

It turns up in a biography of Theodore Roosevelt by Henry Fowles Pringle, so perhaps it is one of those pesky Americanisms.

But Google books also leads to an article in Volume 3 of Brain Vickers’ William Shakespeare: the Critical Heritage, in which an C18th author opined that: … it is in my opinion no small affront to the world to pester it with our private & insignificant animosities, & to stuff a book with querrelous jargon where information is paid for & justly expected

Hear, hear. Couldn’t agree more

Related posts

Now wash your hands

Advice from Dr Ian McCurdie to all Great Britain athletes, that they should avoid shaking hands with members of the public in case they pick up a bug, was  greeted with mock & outrage.

Understandably so.

But I cannot help comparing this reaction with that of doctors, who for so long simply could not, or would not, believe that they, the healers of entirely benign intent, could wreak havoc just by the malign act of touching their patients, thereby doing a very effective job of spreading infection.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Think or believe

Do I think that the sun will rise tomorrow?

Do I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow?

Should I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow?

Does it matter whether I believe it or not?

Suppose I know that I am close to death, unlikely to last the night. Then, for me, the sun will not rise tomorrow.

I may therefore take the view that I do not care. But if I have family & loved ones, or responsibilities to others who have every reason to believe that the sun will indeed rise, for them, tomorrow, then I may have some duty to  arrange my affairs as if I believe that too.

Or at least to say my goodbyes & thank yous.


Tim Teeman once wrote that some gays may really believe that gay marriage is wrong & that gays shouldn’t adopt children, & that one cannot simply label them as hypocrites for that.

Well quite.

There were plenty of women who did not believe in Woman Suffrage. When John Stuart Mill raised the issue during one of the parliamentary debates which led to the passing of the 1867 Reform Act (which extended the vote to working class men) with an amendment which proposed that the word ‘man’ be changed to ‘person’, Lady Frederick Cavendish called it an odious & ridiculous notion.

Lucy Cavendish could hardly be called hypocritical or self-hating, although with William Gladstone for an uncle, the formidable 7th Duke of Devonshire for a father-in-law, & her close-up view of Parliament in action, she might be forgiven for recoiling from the idea of women playing a direct personal part in politics.

And, according to David Marquand in Britain Since 1918 Gladstone opposed female enfranchisement precisely because he thought women were too refined for such hurly-burly.

Mill of course was not proposing that all women should get the vote, just as the reform act did not extend the vote to all men, but only to those (mostly widowed) who were householders in their own right. But even when universal male suffrage became the accepted aim, there were still women who resisted the extension of that right or privilege to all women.

Nor was such opposition necessarily founded on the idea that women were weak & feeble creatures, constitutionally unfitted to make political decisions. Since votes were assumed to be cast according to economic interest, & since it was assumed that there could be only one such ‘interest’ per household, shared by all its members, then extending the franchise to women would give an unfair weighting to larger households.

There are plenty of things which I do, & should like to continue to do, which, I might also concede, society would be better off for my not doing. It does not make me a hypocrite for me to say so.

And it is in any case a strange kind of bullying, or an attempt to restrict my freedom & independence of thought, or at the least condescension, for you to call me a hypocrite because, according to your analysis, I ought to agree with your way of looking at things.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

While they work

I could hear Jeremy Vine, clearly but not blasting out, as I approached.  The men were on their lunch dinner break but the sound was not coming from inside their van.

Looking round curiously I saw something I did not know existed until that moment – a construction site radio, robust, weather proof, capable of withstanding a rock fall I should think, but very high quality sound compared to the average builders’ tranny.

If there's a need, there's a supplier.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Secret's out

Some details of the scholarship scheme which took President Obama’s father to the University of Hawaii were in the news last week, following the release of secret Foreign Office files which had been ‘lost’ for many years but were found again last year as a result of a court case.

The scheme, funded by celebrities including ‘the actor Sidney Poitier’, offered scholarships to 80 Kenyans in 1959. The newly released files reveal that both the British & American governments were uneasy about this. A letter from the British Embassy in Washington to the Colonial Office in London claims that Kenyan students had a bad reputation in America, tending to fall into the kind of company which turned them into people who were both anti-American & anti-White; they were also academically unimpressive, ‘drawn from the lower grades of school certificate holders’. And there were allegations that the involvement of Tom Mboya meant that only members of the Luo tribe would be selected.

But, our diplomats concluded, there was little they could do except ‘try to contact the students when they returned to Kenya.’ The Times report, by Jack Malvern & Billy Kember, from which I take these details, does not say what the diplomats hoped to achieve through this contact.

Last week’s coverage did however prompt a letter to the editor of The Times from George Healy, which added the further detail that, following a meeting between Tom Mboya & JFK in July 1960, the Kennedy Family Foundation agreed to provide the bulk of funding for the scholarships.

So there, through the contingency of history, President Kennedy gave us President Obama. And, in a kind of reverse of that process, President Kennedy also gave us the Peace Corps, one of whose aims could be said to be to counter, through personal example, the influence of the radicalised, anti-Americanism of the returning educated natives.

There must be interesting stories to be told, influences to be traced, in what happened to those 79 co-beneficiaries of Barack Obama Senior.

And to all the other Colonial Students who received their higher education in the West.

And how their subsequent careers compare with those who went as students to Russia or East Germany instead.

Not to mention the inheritance of their children, including those of mixed race.

Sidney Poitier later went on to play the teacher in To Sir With Love, the story of ER Braithwaite, who had been a Colonial Student at Oxford

 Related posts

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Previously in favourite quotations

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd - Voltaire

People in the past didn’t think that they were living in the past, they believed that they were living on the cutting edge of now - Michael Faber

A free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular - Adlai Stevenson

Every physician should become knowledgeable in the art of cooking - Galen

There seems to be a tendency in England nowadays to consider that risk capital for new companies can be conjured up by civil servants & economists waving a sort of magic wand over the bankers - Nevil Shute, 1954

I sometimes confuse my thoughts about the world with the world itself - Paul Auster

House price index

Ian King, in his Times Business editor’s commentary, bemoaned the loss of a great chance to cut government waste.

His ire was sparked by the first publication by the Office for National Statistics of the official House Price Index, which they have taken over from the Department of Communities & Local Government.

Totally unnecessary, he says, we already have at least four other indices (3 from the private sector).

Well each is entitled to his own opinion, & ONS have had a few problems getting the numbers right recently, but I bridled at his suggestion that the government’s House Price Index is a mere hangover from the days when the Department of Communities etc was ‘created to make John Prescott appear important.’

The House Price Index did not make its first appearance at that time. In fact it dates all the way back to 1965, when it was the 5% Survey of Building Society Mortgages, devised & implemented by the then Ministry of Housing & Local Government, under Richard Crossman.

In those days housing was still high on the political agenda (though not as high as it had been under Macmillan) & government statisticians collected a plethora of data about what we now call social housing – how much, where, at what cost, tenancies & rents – but little about the owner occupation to which the population increasingly aspired. There were also growing complaints about the availability of mortgage finance,  for its lack during periods of mortgage famine, or for the kind of house which building societies considered to offer suitable security for loans of their depositors’ money.

Much has changed in the ensuing near half-century, & the original mortgage survey adapted to reflect both changes in the way we are housed & who finances it, as well as changes in the technical background of computing.

The government no longer has a housing policy based on a belief that it is their job to ensure that every family should have a decent home of their own – in part because it is no longer so easy to define the kind of ‘family’ which deserves this.

But housing finance, as we have learned to our cost, plays an even more central part in the economy; changes in house prices are a subject not only for dinner party conversation but for measures of inflation & also the value of our national balance sheet. And index numbers – together with seasonal adjustment - fall into an area of very special statistical expertise.

For this reason the National Statistician led a Review of House Price Statistics which reported in 2010. Consultation was wide - all private sector interests in house price statistics were well represented – and the decision to move this work to ONS was the result.

The report of the Review covers the ground impressively in non-technical (& non-mathematical) language, with some helpful graphics, which explain why different indices use different measures of what is meant by the ‘price’ of a house, and/or cover different segments of the market.

The conclusion was that an official national index is indeed required to meet the wider economic requirements.

And also to meet our obligations, & need for, measures which are internationally comparable in a world where issues of home ownership & finance affect global economic well being.

I keep my fingers crossed & wish the official statisticians well in their new enterprise


Related posts

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Simpson paradox of mortality

I have just discovered a Simpson paradox in the mortality statistics for England & Wales. Well my annotations show clearly that I had noticed it at least five or six years ago, but that was before I had learned to call it by the name of Simpson.

I am looking at a copy of a table which I think comes from Population Trends – slap on the wrist for not making a note of that. Deaths by age & sex in England & Wales for various years since 1976 & some selected quarters ending with Q2 2006. Of course I have been defeated by the ONS website in my attempts to confirm this.

The overall mortality rate for males was higher than that for females right up to 1986 (118 compared with 114 per 10,000), though it had been narrowing.  By 1991 the rate was the same – 112 out of every ten  thousand persons died that year. After that the all-age mortality rate was consistently lower for males than it was for females.

Against a background of falling mortality, at all ages, the rates for men have fallen more quickly than have the rates for women. So in 1996 it was 107 for men, 110 for women and, by 2005, only 93 for men but 99 for women.

And yet the mortality rates at every age remained higher for the male of the species, most notably for those aged 20 to 24 who were more than twice as likely to die as a young woman of the same age. So,as my annotations show, I needed to check how population numbers & age structures by gender had changed. I never got round to that, whether because of better things to do or another defeat by the ONS website I am unable to say.

Related posts

Wake up call

One hopes never to see the day when, instead of splendour, the trumpeters  herald only something darker than the dark wood of night.

Cock Crow

Out of the wood of thoughts that grows by night
To be cut down by the sharp axe of light,—
Out of the night, two cocks together crow,
Cleaving the darkness with a silver blow:
And bright before my eyes twin trumpeters stand,
Heralds of splendour, one at either hand,
Each facing each as in a coat of arms:—
The milkers lace their boots up at the farms.

Edward Thomas

Friday, April 20, 2012

Provocative labelling

Every so often the everyday description of an everyday purchase suddenly strikes you as very odd.

Still water?

What else might it become – wine? Or water that has ceased to be?

But the label on the small bottle I carry for use in the library suddenly struck me as downright provocative.

  still SCOTTISH water

In the current climate, that counts as political propaganda.

Old habits die hard

It was as if I had walked in to the office one day (in the old days) and found that all the old furniture had gone.

In its place was a load of modern stuff – filing cabinets in avocado, mustard or tomato*, swivel chairs, swanky glass table.

The removal men had, I think, left all my old files, though not in the order I had left them. And where was the file list, without which I am lost?

Worse, the desk drawers were rearranged too, so I can no longer automatically put my hand on pencils, staples, calculator ... without giving any thought to it at all.

Welcome to the newly redesigned Blogger interface.

I expect I shall learn to love it in the end, though I may be bald by then from all the frustration-induced tearing of hair that is going to take place.

*A 1970s innovation, designed by a Frenchman

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Coining it

There have been complaints recently that the Royal Mail is overdoing it with special stamp issues – once a money spinner, now a glut of very little value to collectors. I fear the Royal Mint may be doing the same with coins.

Yesterday a snippet in The Times Business Diary, which informed us that the Olympic Gold Medals – the ones awarded to the winners – will contain only 1.34 % gold, was followed by a full page advert for something called an Official Olympic UK £5, at the bargain price of £5 for £5, postage & packing free.

Never-to-be-repeated, not available in banks, you won’t find one in your change – why not? Can’t I spend it in Sainsbury’s?

No details were given of the metal(s) of which it is made.

Intrigued, I went straight to the Royal Mint’s website.

What a confusion of offers.

There is the London 2012 Olympic Brilliant Uncirculated £5 Coin, struck in cupro-nickel to a higher standard of minting than the coins found in your pocket,  but that costs £14.99 plus P & P

Or the 2012 UK Countdown to London 2012 Gold Proof £5, which will set you back £2,880.00 + P&P

The London 2012 Olympic, £5 for £5 as advertised, is only guaranteed to be of ‘A higher quality than the coins in your pocket.’

If you are feeling really flush you could buy the Queen's Diamond Jubilee 5oz Gold Coin, a snip at £9,500.00plus P&P There are more, but I am tired of this now. No game for an amateur.

Related post  
Glowing references

Tallest crane

A treat in yesterday’s Times – an interview by Fay Schlesinger with John Young, the senior operator on the tower crane used in the construction of London’s latest skyscraper, The Shard.

Double page spread complete with some stunning photos.

From up there – 95 floors up – he can see the ships at Southend & feel the vibration of the planes only 300 metres above him as they come along the Thames on their way to landing at Heathrow. He manages the mind-boggling feat of lifting 12 tonne loads of glass panels & steel beams on cables which weigh a tonne themselves, while making sure that none swings & crashes into the side of the building below.

It takes him 40 minutes each day just to climb the ladders from where the lift stops on the 55th floor to his crane at the very top.

Work stops only when the wind blows at more than 38mph.

Mr Young, who is 49 years old, left school at 16 &worked as a welder until, when it began to affect his lungs, a crane driver suggested he change to a fresh air occupation. A two week conversion course & 14 years experience & the rest is history

Related post  
I love cranes

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The surfeit of lampreys

In yesterday’s Radio 4 Nature programme on the subject of lamprey, one of the contributors said that C19th industrial discharges of chemical pollutants undoubtedly played a major role in the decline in stocks in our rivers.

Lamprey bodies contain very high concentrations of lipids, which just hoover up & store these contaminants in the body.

Another reason to be worried about human obesity.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Glowing references

I have commented before on how happy Her Majesty looks when we see her in public these days.

But one thing Her Majesty cannot do (yet) is glow in the dark

Thanks to Chris Blattman for pointing to Marginal Revolution, a site which records small steps towards a better world

Not even plain vanilla

Too much rain (in Mexico) and too much drought (in India) will jointly & severally combine to deprive me of one of the loves of my life for the near future.

The vanilla harvest has been badly hit in both countries, so at the very least there will be substantial rises in price.

I may just have to make do with the ersatz stuff of my childhood, which was often the only kind available in those years of austerity & rationing.

Monday, April 16, 2012


Food processors are far too much trouble unless you are regularly cooking the kind of quantities that demand their use – and have command over somebody else who can be dragooned into doing the washing & the wiping of them. But blending can transform a soup or sauce into something quite special.

I have a venerable Moulinex. It has only two pieces, goblet & base – plus a coffee grinder, good for spices. All plastic, so light to lift, straightforward to wash or wipe clean, & only ¾ litre capacity, small enough to store easily in the cupboard.

But which now tends to dance across the kitchen work top if I don’t hold on to it while it is working.

I haven’t seen anything that small in the shops for several years now, but then I haven’t looked all that hard.

I may have to, soon.

Wincing widows

Radio 3’s Words & Music, on the subject of faith & atheism, was playing in the background on Sunday evening as I was sorting out papers & so not listening closely.

Suddenly the room was filled with Charles Trenet singing “Y’a de la joie


The producer’s note says that it seemed like a provocative response to Wallace Stevens’ “High-toned Old Christian Woman” which preceded it; and provided a suitably “jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.

And one certain to stop the widow’s wince.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Walking in the night

Although this can be read as a poem purely about depression, for anybody who has ever loved walking at night - whether in city, town or country - it can also be a reminder of some of the pleasure to be had in that occupation.

Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
O luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Thrown out in the middle of the night

Remember the days when the NHS hospital scandal was empty beds?

Or when we moved on to not enough beds – people who were dangerously ill, premature babies, being ferried round the country, day or night, by ambulance, in search of an empty bed, sometimes ending up more than 100 miles from home.

Now it is poorly people being ‘thrown out’ into the dark of the middle of the night.

We have been hearing plenty of stories which, on the face of it, sound pretty horrifying, but nothing from those who have benefited from this system.

Hospitals do not ‘throw’ patients out just so that doctors & nurses can have a rest, & patients do not choose when to get so ill as to need their care, not necessarily with the kind of urgency associated with sirens & flashing blue lights, but definitely ASAP, sooner rather than later, outside normal working hours, even when it is dark.

As someone who did once have good reason to feel grateful for this system I should speak up.

It enabled me to spend the few hours, while I waited for a hospital bed to become available, at home in the perfectly good bed in my bedroom rather than on a trolley in A&E, before being transferred, in the ambulance they sent for me, to a ward which was quietly busy after midnight. And it was not just the doctors & nurses – blood tests were analysed & I was wheeled down to X-ray at about 3 o’clock in the morning.

Next day I was wheeled up to one of the main wards.

One thing which impressed me about the organisation of this system was that I spent the whole of my stay in the first bed I was put into; when I was finally ‘thrown out’ the bed I had been occupying was wheeled away for a thorough cleaning & another patient was wheeled in, in a bed which occupied the space I had vacated.

I know because I was there to see it. The hospital operated a policy of organising transport for all discharged patients – I was told that this was more efficient than trying to manage & organise friends, family etc to turn up at the right time. Indeed some of the complaining stories that have appeared in the press seem to fall into the category of families who believe that it is the hospital’s job to look after their relative until a time it is convenient for them to come & remove them.

I could understand the sense in this hospital policy, though it rather amused me to remember that part of Ken Clarke’s case to justify the cuts in the ambulance service which led to the 1990 strike was that it was just an expensive taxi service. Not necessarily so expensive after all when taking everything into consideration.

I was also rather relieved to hear that they normally had one ambulance assigned at night purely for taking people home - there were lots of patients who really did not need to stay, indeed would prefer to go home; my relief came from understanding that I had not been lying in my bed at home waiting for someone to die before I could move into their hospital bed

The problem in my case was that, although my discharge was planned, the hospital was indeed trying to move as many patients out as they possibly could because it was February, the weather had turned very cold & so there was real pressure from new patients needing urgent admission with chest problems, flu, etc. So I had a longer than expected wait before the arrival of my driver; I was not at all neglected however – they gave me my evening meal.

The ambulance/minibus which eventually took our group of five, all going in the same direction, had been borrowed from a neighbouring authority.

One of the patients had to be picked up from a different building on a far-flung corner of the hospital site; when, because of building works in progress, the driver had a bit of difficulty finding the way, he remarked that you could tell that there was plenty of money around for the NHS because there was just as much building going on at every hospital he had been to that day.

This chucking out policy has not just suddenly been developed in response to cuts, nor is it hard hearted & uncaring.

The problem of making sure that a bed is available at any time for anyone who needs it could be solved by making sure that the number of beds available at least matches the maximum demand – which will mean beds being empty for a good proportion of the time. And not, of course, just the beds but the staff needed to provide the care which is what is really needed. Paid for doing nothing. Or we could have the staff sitting around, unpaid, at home, just waiting for the call when a patient arrives.

This just-in-time, using scarce resources only when they are really needed, is what efficient modern management is supposed to be all about. Of course abuses should be stopped. But let us not forget that, grateful as we are for the care & treatment, we would all really (&, from the point of view of the nurses who have been looking after us, ungratefully) prefer to be at home, even in the middle of the night.

My great fear in all this is that the politicians may feel backed into making things even worse (as did Tony Blair with his 48-hour GP appointments), by announcing a total ban on nighttime discharges.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Teasing questions about pay

Harvard’s Michael Sandel has a programme running on Radio 4 in the spot which was earlier occupied by The Life Scientific.

The Public Philosopher
encourages an audience at the London School of Economics to dig deep into the issues which lie behind or under a question of our time. This week it was Should a banker be paid more than a nurse?

One young female contributor confessed that she could not understand why Wayne Rooney is paid so much.

That is because you call him a soccer player, teased the professor.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Killing pain

On Radio 4’s Inside Health this week Dr Andrew Moore from the Pain Research Unit at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford talked everyday pain relief.

He said that there is a hierarchy of effectiveness in simple over-the-counter remedies: aspirin works in about 35%-40% of cases, for paracetamol the figure rises to 45%, while ibuprofen provides relief for 55%.

I have heard or read these kinds of figures before, & it always irritates me that it is unclear whether the aspirin & paracetamol for example work on non-overlapping groups of patients (so that, between them, they may, if given to the right patients, ease the plight of up to 95%, or whether the conclusion is that you may just as well give everyone paracetamol because the 45% includes the 35%.

But the latest news is that a combination of pain killers is likely to be even more effective. So 1 paracetamol tablet plus 1 ibuprofen will banish 75% of pains. (It is important to stress that this is a half-and-half mix & match approach, not double-dosing with a normal two tablets of each of the two drugs). Again, it is not clear whether it is the combination which works the magic, or it simply that you increase the chance of getting the pain killer which works for you.

There is also good evidence that the addition of caffeine might increase the effectiveness in another 5% of cases, though how, exactly, is unclear. Caffeine may aid absorption or act on receptors in a way which is so complicated that nobody, including Dr Moore, understands them.

So there may be after all a good reason behind my idea that cola works where coffee does not.

In some people at least.

Did William Harvey treat John Donne?

Did William Harvey treat John Donne?

That question has been nagging at me since I heard on the radio that Harvey had been one of the King’s Physicians. The Dictionary of National Biography confirms that the appointment was made in 1618 & continued under Charles I after 1625.

Thus covering the year when John Donne fell ill with relapsing fever for which he was treated by a gallery of doctors, including the King’s own physician. Treatments included cordial, physick, bleeding, purging & the application of pigeons to the feet.

Donne eventually recovered &, while still convalescent, wrote his Meditations, his thoughts & reflections on the experience. From which we learn that no man is an island & that the bell tolls for thee.

There has been academic interest in the question of whether the two men met & were each influenced intellectually by the other, but so far I have found no mention of whether the involvement might have been more urgent & intimate than the merely intellectual.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Living dangerously

Red meat kills, said the headlines.

Over on Understanding Uncertainty David Spiegelhalter did the sums to give a more nuanced explanation of how to interpret the latest figures from an American study widely reported in the media.

Forty-year old Meaty Mike, who eats a quarter-pound burger for lunch Monday to Friday, every week, cuts the length of his days – each & every one – by half an hour compared with his coeval, Standard Sam who, while similar to Mike in his general dietary habits, never eats meat for lunch.

Mike can expect (in the statistical sense) only 39 more years of life compared to Sam’s 40.

Of course nothing is certain in the world of statistics & in this case the uncertainty can be expressed by calculating the odds that Mike will actually be the first of the pair to die – at 0.53 not very different from 50:50.

There is one other big very big iff behind these calculations: that we can apply the results of a long-term observational study of American health workers directly to an English population, who may be different in several crucial dietary & other respects, particularly the average consumption of red meat & the proportion of that which is made up of beef (rather than lamb or pork) from cattle fed on corn rather than grass.

The dietary information – assessed through questionnaires every four years - must be very broad brush. And, with such observational data, an association is not proof of causation – eating a burger for lunch every day, year after year could well stand in for some other problem or disadvantage, such as living in circumstances which limit your choice of options, or being mildly depressed.

Such studies do however reinforce the sound advice to eat a varied diet, one which includes fruit & vegetables (of different colours), & does not regard meat as the only, or even main source of daily protein – cheese, beans, fish & eggs are all delicious too. It does not mean a frantic search for novelty or super foods or a particular meal magic from some other part of the world with a different climate & economy.

Too much of anything can kill you – people have died from drinking too much water, or carrot juice.

And remember, just living is guaranteed to kill you in the end.

The cultural significance of eleven

Heard, from Royal Shakespeare Company's new artistic director Greg Doran speaking on the radio: a new shorthand for Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes & Gunpowder Plot.

Remember, remember
The Fifth of November


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Fathers wanted

In a very interesting development for Radio 5 on Bank Holiday Monday, Reggie Yates presented a documentary called Is Mum Enough? in which he explored the lifelong effects of living without a father in the house, followed by a phone-in.

Callers to the station’s late night show were also talking about the issues raised.

Mums, on their own can – and do - work wonders, but an absent father leaves a real hole. One man spoke of how he learned to shave properly only from a scene in a film.

The baby boom seems to be only one marker of the way in which attitudes towards parenthood, family, marriage & relationships seem to be undergoing some fundamental reassessments.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Writing literally

Some people are, rather suddenly it seems, being driven literally mad – at least they are going in to print to object to the way people everywhere are literally doing the impossible – like dying & living to tell us all about it.

David Bellos addressed this question, in the context of literal translation, in his book Is That A Fish In Your Ear. Having concluded that literal translation is literally impossible (or meaningless) he concluded that the phrase ‘literally true’ came into use in the distant past as a way of indicating that, rather than just being true, the thing spoken of was among those rare things that were worthy of being ‘put into letters’, of being written down.

He went on, perceptively, to say that ‘in a world of near-universal literacy … for the last 2 or 3 generations, where alphabetic script is used for entirely ordinary tasks (to label packaged food, advertise underwear, write blogs, horror comics & pulp fiction), the fact that something is worthy of being written down in letters gives it no added value at all. ‘Literal’ isn’t ‘Word Magic’ any more

Well the fact that teachers have been trying to teach us not to say it since at least the days when I was in primary school means that the battle was pretty much lost anyway.

So now it is just an ordinary common or garden intensifier. Which may well soon be used only verbally, disappearing completely from the written world.

Verily the very of out time.


Monday, April 09, 2012


Swedish research has established that professional footballers [soccer players] are considerably more intelligent than the rest of the population.

Not in terms of conventional IQ but in ‘executive function’ – that is a combination of creativity, cognitive flexibility, processing speed & working memory.

But, as evidence of a footballer’s possession of what, in this country at least, is considered to be ignorance, if not stupidity, Tom Whipple in The Times quoted David Beckham, who once said of his firstborn son: “I definitely want Brooklyn to be christened, but I don’t know into what religion yet.”

From which I deduce that Tom Whipple is a young man who has grown up in an era when the English reserve use the word religion to apply to a greatly reduced number of very broad categories, and not to subdivisions, factions or divisions of the major faiths.

The time is not long gone when you might well find yourself in a situation where your religion was ascertained & routinely recorded by bureaucracy – admission to hospital or prison, giving up your child for adoption, for example.

Even in school, where the ‘denomination’ of religious education could still be a contentious issue, even though nobody thought such lessons should cover anything other than Christianity & the Bible.

The default – even for those who did not consider themselves religious – was usually what most people said & wrote as C of E, but there were many other possibilities.

Roman Catholic (RC) of course, but also Methodist, Congregationalist, Baptist, Quaker, Plymouth Brethren, Christadelphian (always muddled in my mind with the Mormons) were all represented in the small town in which I grew up. As children we had vague ideas of the differences – for example the fascinating fact that Baptists did not christen babies but practised the total immersion of white-robed adults instead.

The term ‘mixed marriage’ referred to one between partners of a different faith, especially Catholic or Jewish with Protestant, and were often looked upon as every bit as hazardous as inter-racial marriage.

Conventional IQ tests cover a lot of things that you learn or absorb from school or the culture which surrounds you. David Beckham, who is certainly not unintelligent in this sense, is also quite old-fashioned, & was using the word religion in this old fashioned way, as interchangeable with the more nuanced & flexible denomination

Venturing abroad

Matlock station was the starting point for my childhood trips to France.

For the first leg I would be put on to the train for London – on my own. I then had to negotiate the tube from St Pancras to Victoria (no direct Victoria line in those days) by following the blue lights in the underground passages.

One thing which I look back on with mixed feelings now: almost invariably as I approached an escalator with my (small, soft topped) suitcase, a man coming from behind me would grab it, say I’ll take that for you & disappear down the steps at a lick. He, of course, remained in view & always, as he had promised, left it sitting waiting for me on the floor, to the right, when I reached the bottom myself.

Just a different world.

At Victoria I would join a group of other children from all over the country to be escorted on to the boat train, ferry & train again to Paris by a nice lady who was employed by an organisation with a name something like Educational Tours Ltd.

I am sure that I did not have a passport, until the British Visitors passport was introduced in 1961, so I can only assume that there was some special arrangement for this

Sunday, April 08, 2012


The problem with cynicism - always - is trying to decide whether it reflects disappointment & sourness, or a clear-eyed view of real truths about the world & the nature or meaning of what it is to be human.

To Women, As Far As I'm Concerned

The feelings I don't have I don't have.
The feelings I don't have, I won't say I have.
The feelings you say you have, you don't have.
The feelings you would like us both to have, we
neither of us have.

The feelings people ought to have, they never have.
If people say they've got feelings, you may be pretty
sure they haven't got them.

So if you want either of us to feel anything at all
you'd better abandon all idea of feelings altogether.
DH Lawrence

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Special exams

Ofqual, the national school exams regulator, recently came up with a proposal to add a requirement for a piece of independent research by A level students who aspire to university, & now the Secretary of State for Education has decreed that universities should have more say in the A level system to make the exams into a better preparation for undergraduate study.

This sounds a lot like the old S level exam which we took – a relic of the previous system under which only those who passed Scholarship exams as well as A levels got a full maintenance + fees grant for university.

By my time it was called Special Level & I don’t think it was compulsory or conveyed any financial benefit since anybody who was accepted for a place at university got their fees paid & a (means tested) grant for maintenance.

We took extra lessons, & an extra exam, in just one of our A level subjects, & also pursued a piece of independent research which I do not remember being subject to any external assessment.

I now find that that system came to a final end only in 2001.

The wheel turns.

Bin service

We had our recycling bins emptied on Good Friday.

A day late – presumably they spent Thursday emptying all the bins they had not been able to reach through the ice & snow on Wednesday.

This is obviously great service from a private company under contract to the local authority, which we pay for through our taxes. I wish I could feel more confident that this is achieved through economies of scale & efficiencies due to specialisation, not at the expense of much tougher conditions & reduced pay for workers.

Friday, April 06, 2012

A railway history

The Railway from Buxton to Bakewell, Matlock & Ambergate – the title of a book by JM Bentley which I picked up from the library sale trolley for the bargain price of 40p.

It is a book of photographs, the majority of them of interest mainly to railway experts & enthusiasts, but still plenty for me to wallow in nostalgically.

Buxton Midland Station in 1902 – busy with Edwardian ladies & gentlemen, children, a well-stocked book stall, milk churns, advertising signs & cloakrooms. The world in which my great grandfather was a wheelwright, but also the kind of stultifying society which the young Vera Brittain was later to be so eager to escape.

1928 Ramsay MacDonald being welcomed to the same station by local dignitaries & eager crowds, shortly before he became prime minister again.

1962 A steam engine pulling a single carriage out of the station on its way to Millers Dale – an emergency stand-in for a broken down diesel unit at a time when such failures were not unusual. In older days this would have been a push & pull locomotive, but by then few such were available, so the engine had to run around the single coach at each end of the journey. The last train of any kind ran on this line in 1968.

Matlock station 1952, showing the very large - & busy – goods yard used by the limestone industry.

Matlock station July 1961, around about 3.30 in the afternoon, minutes before the arrival of two express passenger trains – one (with restaurant car service) on its way to London St Pancras from Manchester & the other making the return journey. A service which came to an end in 1968, leaving this part of the country without any intercity connections at all.

I also learned from this book that the old story that Buxton had no through-train services because of a sense of self-importance – people come to Buxton, they do not merely pass through – is not true.

Animosity between the C19th railway pioneers - especially the Midland & the London & North Western companies – plus the difficulty of finding routes through such hilly terrain – led ultimately to a real lack of strategic planning & duplicated capital expenditure which could have been avoided with better relations & a modicum of cooperation. Sir Edward Watkin was involved in these shenanigans.

And they had C19th environmentalists to cope with too. The proposed Monsal Dale viaduct caused tremendous controversy. It is now a listed structure of historic importance , owned by the National Park, used as a trail by walkers.

As a correspondent to The Times recently pointed out, taken collectively, no overall profit has ever been made year by year by the railways in this country, whether operating under Victorian capitalist competition, nationalisation, Beeching reorganisation or privatisation.

And yet where would our economy be without them?

Repeating the news

It was happening again – BBC radio reporting long queues of people with jerry cans at petrol stations.

Only when the reporter said that he saw one man filling his boot with 15 cans of diesel did I realise that this was not the UK – but Mali.

Ups & downs

The price of Guinness has gone up again – to £2.05 for a 500ml bottle in my regular supermarket.

I almost didn’t spot it because they have played the trick – purely coincidentally of course – of putting it on special offer, two for £3, so I did not notice the change in the price of a single bottle until I got to the till.

Cigarettes have gone up too of course. The Budget price rise has coincided with the implementation of the law which forbids the open display of cigarettes in larger stores, which have all sprouted sliding doors to the cabinets, with prominent notices to make it clear that they can be opened for business.

The problem of how to display the prices has been solved by putting a printed price list on the counter – it extends over two A4 pages even with print so small that it is impossible to read without bending down real close.

And they also translate that now into the price per cigarette.

My impression is that there has been a huge leap in the number of people who are buying roll-your-own tobacco. I expect that even this will not completely satisfy the demand at a price people are willing to pay, so the proportion of tobacco tax which goes uncollected will rise above its current level of 13%.

But at least the price of coffee has come down.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Rudely interrupted

Today the sun is shining out of a clear blue sky, although the air is distinctly chilly, there is a stiff breeze & since noon the clouds have been gathering.

It is hard to believe we are living on the same planet as the one we were on yesterday.

A very rude awakening: local radio telling us not to go out, roads impassable, nothing moving. The usual presenters unable to get into the station, the stalwart stand-ins relying on listeners phoning in to replace the normal news crew’s gathering of information about exactly what was happening, where, out there.

Only – a peek through the bedroom curtains revealed no snow at all.

The story just a couple of hundred feet higher up was of eight inches of snow & high winds. Cars & lorries stranded on ungritted roads. In Buxton a radio transmitter, some mobile masts & all terrestrial tv had been knocked out. Many homes throughout the area were without power. Train services were cancelled or delayed.

Completely unforecast, it just started suddenly around 5.30am. It was coming from the east, so the Pennines provided protection for those of us low down in the west, but those high up, or close to one of the gaps which, in normal times, allow passage over to the other side, were feeling its full force.

One man who got in touch with the station on his mobile had just been released after being stuck for five hours; it took the combined forces of a JCB & a snow plough to release the cars, starting at the back of the queue he was in, digging them out, clearing the snow which persisted in blowing over from the fields, then turning them round to travel back from whence they came. To make matters worse he had, only at the weekend, removed the snow shovel & other emergency equipment from the boot of his car, since spring had so obviously arrived.

Later on they told us that the bus to the airport was running, though not all the way back to Buxton, but all train services were suspended.

Clearly no point going out in such miserable conditions.

Among the events which got badly interfered with – the radio station’s own Eighth Birthday Celebration. As they kept reminding us, they have never before had to report disruptions like this.

Related post
June 2nd 1975

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Short comms

Michael Rosen, on this week’s Word of Mouth, managed to snatch a brief interview with a young man who is very much in demand these days.

16-year-old Nick D’Aloisio is the latest web whiz kid, the author of an app capable of summarising a 2,500 word article into a few bullet points, easy to read on the smallest screen.

Michael was worried that in this world of short attention spans that might mean nobody would ever read the original authored effort, but the young man had a ready answer to this. With so much content available we all need help, guidance towards those things which we really want to read, & so this app will help us make sure that we make best use of our time.

As I understood it, the app works by assigning a linguistic score to each sentence of the content to decide the order of importance, & then just reproduces or abbreviates the original. So it is not a magic algorithm for précis, which in our day we had to learn as part of English Language lessons; précis had the advantage of testing not just your comprehension but also training you in the art of concise, elegant writing.

Todays teenagers, brought in to discuss the art of txtng abbreviation, enjoyed hearing of some of the abbreviations & acronyms familiar to 1950s teenagers but were shocked by the ‘filth’ of BURMA – as was I. We knew it in the slightly more ambiguous form of Be Upstairs Ready My Angel.

At least he didn’t tell them about NORWICH, possibly because that would reveal we were also not above misspellings – strictly speaking it should have been KORWICH, or possibly KnORWICH

Learning about the world

A vintage edition of From Our Own Correspondent last Saturday.

Kevin Connolly, a fine wordsmith, kept me listening with his report from a pet market in Tripoli where “The distinction between pet and pot is uncomfortably blurred.”

And then Jonathan Fryer's meeting with a family Togo who have become known for frequently producing twins over the generations, from which I learned that the Yoruba consider the first-born twin to be the younger, sent out to scout the world for the elder.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Ravages of fire

An alarming piece of news last week – the country’s largest cemetery, final home of nearly a quarter of a million people, was ablaze, fire crews were fighting to save it.

As it turns out, something of a false alarm – yes there was a fire, possibly a wildfire because of the drought, but happily the damage to graves was minimal.

I am intrigued to learn about the existence of this place, of which I had never heard. Covering 2,000 acres of land, just 25 miles from the centre of London, when it was opened in the middle of the C19th it was intended to be of sufficient size and splendour to serve the burial needs of the Metropolis for at least 500 years.

I wonder if the cemetery still has capacity for the number of graves it will need during the remaining 350 years of its expected life.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Home Office video nasty

Jeremy Oates has had a brilliant idea for a way to encourage a better understanding among politicians of the problems of trying to check every single person who wants to come into this country – including those who live here & are just coming home from holiday.

He wrote to The Editor of the Times to suggest making a video to show the Home Secretary, in real time, the real pain which people are enduring in the queues.

Better still, make that a live feed, a whole bank of monitors in her office.

Before you lose your prime

To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time

GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying :
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer ;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry :
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry
Robert Herrick

Related post
Don’t be a bluestocking