Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The family firm

I have just started to read, with rather horrified fascination, The British Museum is Falling Down by David Lodge, first published in 1965.

Horrified because, although the London in which it is set is only too recognisable – I remember it well – it did not seem nearly half so grim, when you were actually living in it, as it now sounds.

Language has changed in subtle & unsubtle ways too. I was pondering quite how it is that we, exhorted & encouraged as we are to be entrepreneurial, should nevertheless talk so much about working for a company.

The 1960s intellectuals spoke naturally, but disparagingly, of those who worked for a firm, & imagined assuaging their jealousy of those lucky enough to have a family car, courtesy of the firm they worked for, by making them emblazoning the name of that firm along its side. Not an age which had learnt to wear its logos with pride.

Nowadays one hardly hears the word firm used to refer to an organisation unless it is qualified as ‘family’ or ‘old-fashioned’ or possibly just ‘long-established.’

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Goal mirth

Last Thursday The Times business pages demonstrated that they have peered through the gloom & learned the difference between a logarithm & Thomas Bayes’ ‘obscure algorithm’.

The circumstances – the unceremonious dispatch of Mike Lynch from Hewlett Packard & the departure of one-fifth of Autonomy’s staff since the American takeover, are not otherwise happy.

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Monday, May 28, 2012

An unnatural operation

Thanks to the public library I have just had the very great pleasure of reading the story of Uncle Petros & Goldbach’s Conjecture as told by Apostolos Doxiadis.

For some reason – probably too many other things to do - I missed all the glowing reviews when this was first published in English in 2000, & remained completely unaware of its existence until I spotted it, out on one of the displays, not tucked away spine-out on a shelf where it is easy to find if you know what you are looking for.

I wasn’t really expecting the story, about an aged recluse who was once a celebrated mathematician, to be a Good Read, still less a suspenseful page turner, but it surely had curiosity value, worth at least having a look at on the bus home. And it is short – just 208 pages.

A lot is packed in there: number theory, paradox, the nature of the life of a mathematician, family, disappointment.

And it is very funny.

From time to time we are deftly reminded that the story takes place against the background of the upheaval & destruction of C20th European wars, but ‘Petros managed to go through life unhampered by any ideological burden.’

Petros also managed to remain unhampered by women – only two figure in his story at all (three if you count the woman who must have been his mother): Isolde, his only love, who abandoned him for a dashing young army officer & was killed, along with her two daughters, during the bombing of Dresden, & his long-suffering but uncomplaining & resourceful housekeeper. Her response, to the news that he was giving up his pursuit of a proof of Goldbach’s Conjecture & so had no further need of the beans laid out in rectangular arrays across the floor of his study, was to sweep them up, wash them off & turn them into cassoulet; her fate was arrest by the Gestapo & death in Dachau. His lack of action or reaction to this is a starkly harrowing illustration of the loneliness, isolation & social ineptitude (teetering on of the edge of outright insanity) of one doing original research in the inaccessible universe of mathematics. To the researcher numbers populate the real world; the rest is just a dream.

Petros has dreams while he sleeps too - dreams of the Even Numbers as couples of identical twins, a chorus to the Primes, who were ’peculiarly hermaphrodite, semi-human beings’ who executed ‘bizarre dance steps … most likely inspired by a production of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that [he] had attended during his early years in Munich, when he still had time for such vanities.’ There can be few other works of C20th classical music which have worked their way into so many other works of art or literature.

One of the joys of the story is that it brings in real mathematical giants of the period. So in 1933 he is working in Cambridge, alongside Hardy & Littlewood, when he is visited in his room by a young Alan Turing seeking his help with the translation of a German academic paper in the, to Petros, unfamiliar field of formal mathematical logic. Petros is so shocked by the news of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem that he travels post haste to Vienna to interrogate the author.

As far as I know, Professor, every unproved statement can in principle be unprovable’ confirmed the young man.
At this, Petros saw red. He felt the irrepressible urge to grab the father of the Incompleteness Theorem by the scruff of the neck & bang his head on the shining surface of the table.’

That is exactly my usual reaction to Socrates.

Worse is yet to come. Back in Munich at the end of 1936 Petros receives a telegram from Turing, now at Princeton: I HAVE PROVED THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF A PRIORI DECIDABILITY STOP.

That STOP does not bring an end to the whole story, though it does mark the beginning of Petros’ period of totally reclusive life back in his native Greece, living off his share of the earnings of the family business run by his brothers, until the final denouement.

The narrator of the story is Petros’ young nephew, whose curiosity about this failed member of the family leads eventually to him deciding to pursue a mathematical career of his own. But, once he has come truly to appreciate ‘the dangers of coming too close to Truth in its absolute form’, to understand that ‘the proverbial ‘mad mathematician’ … drawn to an inhuman kind of light, brilliant but scorching & harsh’ is more fact than fancy, he decides to abandon mathematics & opt for graduate studies in Business Economics at Princeton instead, since that is ‘a field that does not traditionally provide material for tragedy.’ Since he then returned to the family business, he presumably knows different now.

I am left with a desire to look into the line that Uncle Petros was pursuing, to see if there have been any developments, or if indeed it had long been known to be a blind alley (we know that Goldbach’s Conjecture remains unproven).

The teacher who had the job of drilling our times tables into us encouraged us to understand that the effort was worthwhile because multiplication provides a quick, shortcut method of adding up: instead of adding up 2+2+2 we would know, quick as a flash, that the answer is 6, and so on.

So I was quite surprised to find, when I dipped my own toe into the Foundations of Arithmetic, that multiplication & addition are considered to be separate operations.

Who knows if Uncle Petros learned the same thing in primary school, but the labours of his mature years certainly led him to the conclusion that ‘Multiplication is unnatural ... It is a contrived, second order concept, no more really than a series of additions of equal elements … To invent a name for this repetition & call it an ‘operation’ is the devil’s work … If multiplication is unnatural, more so is the concept of ‘prime number’ that springs directly from it. The extreme difficulty of the basic problems related to the primes is … a direct outcome of this’.

I am also intrigued by his playing around with rectangular arrays of beans as a way of ‘seeing’ the problem, since I have been playing around with rectangular arrays of coloured cells as a method of ‘showing’ (especially to those who are not very comfortable with numbers) what is going on in the Simpson so-called paradox (which also, at root, explains why there cannot be a single, simple, definitive answer to questions such as ‘nature or nurture?’)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sleep in verse

Another beautifully controlled & understated poem by Edward Thomas, which  manages to make Hamlet seem florid & overblown.

Lights Out
I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.

Many a road & track
That, since the dawn’s first crack,
Up to the forest brink,
Deceived the travellers,
Suddenly now blurs,
And in they sink.

Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends;
All pleasure & all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.

There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter & leave, alone,
I know not how.

The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear & obey
that I may lose my way
And myself.
Edward Thomas

To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.


Related post

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Origin of obesity

Responses by those experts from whom the press chose to seek a comment on the latest advice (from NICE), that people react badly to being called obese were, as usual, pretty unsympathetic. I remember Sir Liam Donaldson, challenged on the same point (in relation to letters to parents telling them their child was obese), responding with a limp Well there’s nothing we can do about that – it just is the technical medical term.

Well the history of medicine is littered with once-technical terms, such as mongol, which are now deemed offensive; in some cases – like hysteria – one often suspects they were always meant to be, if not offensive, then at least dismissive.

Obese just doesn’t sound very nice – too close to obscene perhaps – but I got a surprise when I went to the OED for its history & derivation. I had always vaguely associated it with oil or lard, without ever going to the bother of looking it up, but it turns out to come from the Latin word edere, to eat, (the same root from which we get the word edible), so it has always been linked with the idea of eating too much.

The OED says that obesity, as a word, was rare before the C19th, that although Dr Johnson included it in his dictionary he provided no illustrative quotations, & dates it as a technical medical term meaning, specifically, a BMI of 30 or more, only to the late C20th.

BMI as a measure is of course less than ideal, not least because it fails to differentiate between those whose heaviness (relative to their height) is explained by a high proportion of muscle rather than body fat.

It is instructive to compare what the OED has to tell us about the word stout, when used as a synonym for obese.

One of the oldest surviving words in the English language, stout’s earliest meaning is anything but offensive: Proud, fierce, brave, resolute. One has to go all the way down to its 12th sense for its appearance (again in the C19th) as a euphemism for fat or corpulent. Charlotte Bronte, describes a woman, in Jane Eyre, as stout but not obese.

Even more interestingly, the Tailor’s Guide : Cutting, published in 1856, asserts that ‘A man is stout when the waist … is large in comparison with the breast … he is not stout because he measures so many inches, but because he is larger  in the waist than in the usual proportion.’

Some medics & nutritionist would of course prefer that waistline  be used as the indicator of when fat is truly a health issue in a patient; objections include that it is hard to define precisely what is meant by waistline (perhaps especially in corpulent men), & that measurement may include getting too close & personal.

We should always remember that not everybody accepts that thin is beautiful & that there are many who would prefer to sleep in a bed with a pillow rather than a bag of bones – common everyday experience shows you this, including plenty of men who are clearly both pleased by, & proud of, their wife’s size.

Collaboration with tailors & dressmakers & artists experienced in drawing the human body (which involves learning to look really closely), as well as with others whose business is the human form, might well be the best way for medical scientists to make real progress in learning how to classify & describe the human figure, to talk to people about their (or their child’s) shape with sympathy & without causing offence & in a way that might actually help inspire those, who really need to do so, to comply with what the doctor says.

Whatever we call it, obesity is important – we need all the insights we can get.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Natural scientists

This week’s sunshine & total lack of rain have given me opportunities for indulging a favourite pastime – observing, relatively objectively, small children as they explore, learn about, hypothesise & experiment with & in the world.

The current baby boom is providing plenty of subjects, especially those who are only just learning to walk & are able to practice out in the open with more freedom than when encumbered by heavy clothes & wellington boots.

I don’t think that I had ever registered before that those who have only recently acquired this skill always walk with both hands up & slightly away from the body for balance as they tend to shift their weight almost as much from side to side as simply forwards.

One little girl was clearly delighted by her new freedom to move so far away from mummy & daddy who sat by watching, anxiously ready to run to her aid if something went wrong.

After about ten yards she needed to put her hand on one of the benches to rebalance.

The benches are made of solid sheets of vandal-proof metal, which gets warm, though not dangerously so, in the sun. You could see her surprise as she registered this fact; she then moved to the next bench & quite deliberately put out her hand to check its warmth, then repeated the process with a third bench. This seemed enough to prove her hypothesis & off she went to have a look at the fountains – which was daddy’s cue to get up & move, closer on guard.

She looked to me as if she was still several weeks away from her first birthday, which made me ponder; if it is true that babies are born with legs which are more developed these days, does this mean that the average age at which they first walk has also been coming down, & are there more babies these days who skip the crawling stage altogether?

You also notice how, regardless of cultural or ethnic origin, all small children take great delight in, become absorbed & excited by, things like water (especially fountains & puddles which can be splashed in), bubbles, balloons, roundabouts & chasing pigeons (this latter more interesting to boys).

These could all be said to be there first investigations of physics.

Related posts

All growed up

I was intrigued - & possibly a little spooked – by hearing the news that French physicists have found evidence which suggests the existence of ‘dominant, universal mechanisms’ which decide of the shape & structure into which mature subway systems in the worlds major cities will grow – no matter how planned or unplanned.


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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Keeping the score

Radio 4’s Tales from the Stave on Tuesday brought us a real treat – an examination of Hummel’s original manuscript for his glorious trumpet concerto, which is housed – along with the rest of his works – in the British Library.

The manuscript – which no one doubts is in Hummel’s own hand – is said to be a work of art in its own right.

The orchestral parts are written in sepia ink, but the solo stands out in darkest black – something virtuoso trumpeter Alison Balsom said she would like to see adopted in modern printed scores.

Even more intriguing was her comment that seeing how the quavers in one particular section were written in a noticeably smaller hand had changed her idea of how the passage should be played - & gave us a live demonstration.

So subtle & various are the ways we absorb & interpret transcribed or coded information.


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This week's two-day hiatus was caused by problems in the library's computer system, resulting in all public access being denied.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Going through a vulgar phase

Nigel has got a new job on BBC Radio 4 – reading extracts from What the Papers Say.

Bit of a come down from Loxley Hall.

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Growing Old At Thirty

It might be thought that a poem about growing old, written by a man of thirty, should be treated as ironic, especially in this youth-obsessed age.

Unless you know that the poet was Lord Byron, who was dead at thirty-six.

One might smile at the thought that he considers that ‘his days of love' – even with desperate widows – are over, but today’s doctor/politicians would approve of the conclusion that ‘The copious use of claret’ must be abandoned too.

The passage on the trials & disappointments of celebrity, which exists only ‘to fill A certain portion of uncertain paper’ sounds only too topical in these days of the inquiries, Leveson et al.

But it ends with the unavoidable truth – ‘All things that have been born were born to die’ & a reminder that things have not been all bad.

Growing Old

But now at thirty years my hair is grey—
(I wonder what it will be like at forty ?
I thought of a peruke the other day—)
My heart is not much greener ; and, in short, I
Have squandered my whole summer while ’twas May,
And feel no more the spirit to retort ; I
Have spent my life, both interest and principal,
And deem not, what I deemed, my soul invincible.

No more—no more—Oh ! never more on me
The freshness of the heart can fall like dew,
Which out of all the lovely things we see
Extracts emotions beautiful and new ;
Hived in our bosoms like the bag o’ the bee.
Think’st thou the honey with those objects grew ?
Alas ! ’twas not in them, but in thy power
To double even the sweetness of a flower.

No more—no more—Oh! never more my heart,
Canst thou be my sole world, my universe !
Once all in all, but now a thing apart,
Thou canst not be my blessing or my curse :
The illusion’s gone for ever, and thou art
Insensible, I trust, but none the worse,
And in thy stead I’ve got a deal of judgement,
Thou Heaven knows how it ever found a lodgement.

My days of love are over ; me no more
The charms of maid, wife, and still less of widow,
Can make the fool of which they made before,—
In short, I must not lead the life I did do ;
The credulous hope of mutual minds is o’er,
The copious use of claret is forbid too,
So for a good old-gentlemanly vice,
I think I must take up with avarice.

Ambition was my idol, which was broken
Before the shrines of Sorrow, and of Pleasure ;
And the two last have left me many a token
O’er which reflection may be made at leisure :
Now, like Friar Bacon’s Brazen Head, I’ve spoken,
‘Time is, Time was, Time’s past’ : a chymic treasure
Is glittering Youth, which I have spent betimes—
My heart in passion, and my head on rhymes.

What is the end of Fame ? ’tis but to fill
A certain portion of uncertain paper :
Some liken it to climbing up a hill,
Whose summit, like all hills, is lost in vapour ;
For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill,
And bards burn what they call their ‘midnight taper’,
To have, when the original is dust,
A name, a wretched picture and worse bust.

What are the hopes of man ? Old Egypt’s King
Cheops erected the first Pyramid
And largest, thinking it was just the thing
To keep his memory whole, and mummy hid ;
But somebody or other rummaging,
Burglariously broke his coffin’s lid :
Let not a monument give you or me hopes,
Since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops.

But I, being fond of true philosophy,
Say very often to myself, ‘Alas!
All things that have been born were born to die,
And flesh (which Death mows down to hay) is grass ;
You’ve passed your youth not so unpleasantly,
And if you had it o’er again—’twould pass—
So thank your stars that matters are no worse,
And read your Bible, sir, and mind your purse.
Lord Byron

Related posts

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Childer pleye

A little girl, who could not possibly have long celebrated her first birthday, was being carried on daddy’s left arm as he wrestled to extract his plastic from his wallet.

He held the card between his teeth as he tucked the wallet away.

The little girl, giggling with delight, snatched the card and, quick as a flash, leaned right down, backwards, to insert it in to the chip & pin machine at the self-service till.

She certainly had it the right way up, not sure if it was the right way round with the chip end in the machine. Nor did I hang around to see if she tapped in the pin number.

But so it goes. What is just confusing, or miraculous, to those who witnessed its first coming, becomes a commonplace before you know it.

Mere childs play.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Minding time

Those who approach strangers on the street to invite them to sign a direct debit in favour of a designated charity need to learn to handle rejection which is sometimes expressed forcibly or rudely.

One young lady, whose job is to train recruits to this kind of work, uses the trick of sending her charges out simply to ask a stranger for the time.

It teaches the trainee that any unfriendly, indignant, impatient or insulting reaction which they may receive after they start work in earnest is not necessarily an expression of a specific reaction against what the person approached sees as a modern curse - of chugging.

The young lady trainer did not seem to be aware of any ‘good’ reason why anyone might react adversely to a simple request for a kindness from a stranger.

Some people may have learned the hard way that not all such requests are as innocent as they seem.

I too was an innocent until the day I expressed surprise at the number of times I was being approached on the street in this way in the city I had moved to recently.

Oh – they just want sight of your watch, I was told. To see if it’s worth stealing.

That particular scam seems to have fallen out of favour.

These days it is more likely that they are interested in putting a valuation on your mobile phone.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The longer a chugger is in the water ...

I remember my first time, when I dressed up in my best suit, set my hair, maybe even wore a little make up (I was only fourteen) & went to stand on a street coroner.

It was the punters money I was after but, (apologies for the tease) it was all perfectly legitimate & licensed by the town council, though I am ashamed to say that I cannot now remember the cause.

What we used to call a flag day, ‘a day on which money is raised for a cause by the sale of small paper flags or other tokens which are worn as evidence that the wearer has contributed.’ George Bernard Shaw noted in Heartbreak Hotel that ‘The passionate penny collecting of the Flag Days’ had needed to be brought under some sort of regulation – my recollection tells me that in the 1950s I needed a hawkers & pedlars licence, but that may be over-romanticising.

My instructions were strict: I should smile; I could shake my tin, a little, from time to time, but never right under the nose of a passer-by; & I must not – repeat not - ask anybody directly for money.

It has always puzzled me how chuggers get away with it, so I was pleased to hear on this week’s Word of Mouth that the regulations apply only to cash, have never been updated to cover those who stand on the street asking you to sign a direct debit.

And that we have Greenpeace to thank for inventing this marmite of a modern fund raising strategy.

Since Word of Mouth is a programme about words, Michael Rosen’s main focus was on the fundraisers reaction to the chugging label – thought to be a journalistic coinage, a combination of ‘charity’ & ‘mugging’.

They would prefer it to be called Face-to Face Fund Raising – or a snappy F2F for short.

The OED already knows about another kind of chugger, a sort of lure used by fishermen, & has a very apt quote from The Washington Post of July 1940: The longer a chugger is in the water, the more apt it is to catch a fish.

Things got even more interesting when I looked up mugger in the OED.

In the C19th 'mugger’ was a comprehensive term understood to include all persons with an ambition for University distinction.

Some charities already embrace the word chugger, since so many people use the word anyway; others wish to object, feel hurt, insulted & offended even.

They should cheer up & claim a revised etymology – they are eye-catchers with ambition for academic distinction.


A legal ruling on And or Or

Lawyers for a London borough recently tried to persuade the Administrative Court that the word ‘or’ can sometimes mean ‘and’, for ‘there was a natural English usage where the word “or” in a phrase could have a conjunctive effect.’

His Lordship did not agree. In this case 'the word “or” had a disjunctive meaning, and that it was sufficient for the non-British spouse of a student to satisfy one or other of the conditions in order … to be exempt from the liability to pay council tax.'


Related post

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Is your journey really necessary?

Much indignation in the papers at the news that London civil servants are going to be allowed to work at home during the whole period of the Olympics.

Take this with a pinch of salt.

The normal daytime population of mandarins in Whitehall tends to drop quite dramatically during late July & August anyway – Parliament not sitting, ministers away, & civil servants have families to take on holiday too. For those who remain it tends to be a time for tidying up loose ends, putting things in order, getting ready for the new year, not running around like headless chickens in response to the latest media frenzy.

In any case the rules sound exactly the same as have been in force since the year dot, to cope with ‘serious disruptions’ to public transport – for example the plague of rail strikes in the 1970s & 1980s.

Nobody has mentioned the bit about sleeping overnight in your office on a government-issue camp bed.

Related post

The watchfull duck

At about half past six yesterday evening I was standing under the awning outside Stockport Sainsbury’s, thinking about nothing in particular, just glumly sheltering from yet another sharp shower.

A flurry on the other side of the car park – I was not alone. He stood unmoving, sheltering under the trees in a raised bed.

Surely, it couldn’t be … but really, it does look like a duck, cannot think of another bird with that kind of head on that kind of neck.

After a bit he moved, lost to my angle of view; I shifted sideways to see if he was still there. Yes he was, but was that really a second duck head I could see lower down? When the rain stopped I just had to go across to investigate.

The male duck stood there, stock still, on guard, eyes darting, keeping sentinel.

To his left, lady duck nestled on the earth, eyes drooping, looking broody.

Our stream at home runs through the garden of a neighbour further up the lane. Last year a duck laid her eggs in one of their raised beds. As the ducklings grew, my neighbour wondered how they were going to get back to the water – should she do something to help provide transport?

Leave it to Mother Nature, trust a mother’s instincts. When the time came mother duck pushed her babies, quite unceremoniously, off the edge of the bed & on to the path below. They then processed to the stream & swam away.

But I shall have to go back to the same shop tonight to see if there has been a happy event under those trees.

Related post

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Keeping the peace

 At 0726 this morning, on  sports bulletin on the Radio 4 Today programme,Garry Richardson found himself unable to tell us exactly what was written on the banner borne at one point by Carlos Tevez during yesterday’s victory parade in Manchester. Too tasteless for the nation's breakfast table.

Well there are no such inhibitions on this blog, or in many other media outlets.

It read RIP Fergie.

I just didn’t get it, when I first heard about it on Radio 5 Live last night, so I am grateful to the ESPN website for removing my bewilderment by explaining that it might be a witty take on Sir Alex Ferguson's famous response to a 2009 question as to whether or not Manchester United would ever be underdogs against Manchester City. "Not in my lifetime," he said.

But the BBC is taking no chance. Others might take it to be, at best, a tasteless comment on the rival manager's advancing years or, at worst, a threat to his life.

Sir Alex has only just restored his relationship with the BBC after a prolonged sulk following a programme which he found offensive to his family, so I daresay that the BBC does not wish to risk another rupture so soon.

Related post

Monday, May 14, 2012

Cooking with electricity

Further testimony to the effect that the coming of electricity had on the lives & health of children in the 1930s was on display in the correspondence columns of The Times last week, prompted by the news that Chelsea Football Club have made an offer to take over the site of the Battersea power station.

Kate Kennedy wrote of the benefits of no more smelly dangerous gas, electric irons instead of flat irons, & the handsome new set of saucepans which the Electricity Board gave to any household which had electricity installed – presumably to encourage them to install electric cookers rather than just a few (unprofitable) light bulbs; mothers would not be able to cook properly on a hot plate if they had to rely on their battered old pans with thin & bumpy bottoms, & decent saucepans are expensive.

This prompted further reminiscence from Wing Commander Pinnell (retd) who still has, & uses, one of his mother’s saucepans, in this case stamped with the name of Battersea Borough Council.

It is astonishing, when you stop to think about it, how we have, within the lifetimes of many people still living, gone from no electricity, to redundant power stations, to living in fear that our dependence on the magic juice may be leading us down the path to annihilation.


Related posts

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A lost pastime?

When we can, once again, look forward with confidence to walking with pleasure on an evening which truly merits the description of 'summer' then all will be well the world - and, who knows, maybe with politics too.

The Naturalist’s Summer Evening Walk

To Thomas Pennant, Esquire.
... equidem credo, quia sit divinitus illis


When day declining sheds a milder gleam,
What time the may-fly haunts the pool or stream;
When the still owl skims round the grassy mead,
What time the timorous hare limps forth to feed;
Then be the time to steal adown the vale,
And listen to the vagrant cuckoo's tale;
To hear the clamorous curlew call his mate,
Or the soft quail his tender pain relate;
To see the swallow sweep the dark'ning plain
Belated, to support her infant train;
To mark the swift in rapid giddy ring
Dash round the steeple, unsubdu'd of wing:

Amusive birds! -- say where your hid retreat
When the frost rages and the tempests beat;
Whence your return, by such nice instinct led,
When spring, soft season, lifts her bloomy head?
Such baffled searches mock man's prying pride,
The God of Nature is your secret guide!
While deep'ning shades obscure the face of day
To yonder bench leaf-shelter'd let us stray,
'Till blended objects fail the swimming sight,
And all the fading landscape sinks in night;
To hear the drowsy dorr come brushing by
With buzzing wing, or the shrill cricket cry;
To see the feeding bat glance through the wood;
To catch the distant falling of the flood;
While o'er the cliff th'awakened churn-owl hung
Through the still gloom protracts his chattering song;
While high in air, and pois'd upon his wings,
Unseen, the soft, enamour'd woodlark sings:

These, Nature's works, the curious mind employ,
Inspire a soothing melancholy joy:
As fancy warms, a pleasing kind of pain
Steals o'er the cheek, and thrills the creeping vein!
Each rural sight, each sound, each smell, combine;
The tinkling sheep-bell, or the breath of kine;
The new-mown hay that scents the swelling breeze,
Or cottage-chimney smoking through the trees.
The chilling night-dews fall: away, retire;
For see, the glow-worm lights her amorous fire!
Thus, ere night's veil had half obscur'd the sky,
Th'impatient damsel hung her lamp on high:
True to the signal, by love's meteor led,
Leander hasten'd to his Hero's bed.

I am , & c.
Gilbert White


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Kathleen Ferrier

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Kathleen Ferrier, so we have the treat of hearing  lots of her music on the radio.

I do not think it any exaggeration to say that for a certain generation, of Englishwomen at least, she fulfilled much the same role as did Madonna for the generation of women who were young in the 1980s & 1990s – a woman who made it from humble beginnings, made the most of her glorious talent, was independent & had fun. Then died (of breast cancer) at the tragically early age of 41.

For my mother there were the extra connections – that she was a Lancashire lass & had worked as a telephone operator.

In the period between the two world wars, telephone operator was a really good job for a woman, offering independence, skill, prestige, responsibility & trust.

So I grew up knowing that Kathleen Ferrier was a role model & heroine.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

The search for Kipling's tipple

This was going to be a piece about my own introduction to Pisco Sour, a Peruvian drink whose praises Matthew Parris has been singing in The Times.

Yesterday he passed on a quote, Rudyard Kipling’s lyrical description of pisco which had been drawn to his attention by a reader of an earlier column.

Intrigued to know more of the context of Kipling’s visit to Peru, I went to Google, but could find only references to that same orphan fragment of a quote, until I consulted the copy of  From Sea To Sea, a collection of travel pieces published in 1899, which is available free on Project Gutenberg.

A search for ‘pisco’ yielded no result.

Persistence with other search terms eventually turned up the following, which comes from Part 1 No. XXIV:  Shows How Through Folly I Assisted At A Murder And Was Afraid. The Rule Of The Democracy And The Despotism Of The Alien [in San Francisco]

In the heart of the business quarter, where banks and bankers are thickest, and telegraph wires most numerous, stands a semi-subterranean bar tended by a German with long blond locks and a crystalline eye. Go thither softly, treading on the tips of your toes, and ask him for a Button Punch. 'Twill take ten minutes to brew, but the result is the highest and noblest product of the age. No man but one knows what is in it. I have a theory it is compounded of the shavings of cherubs' wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset, and fragments of lost epics by dead masters. But try you for yourselves, and pause a while to bless me, who am always mindful of the truest interests of my brethren.
No mention of pisco at all; it is Button Punch, made by a German bartender which Kipling describes as “compounded of the shavings of cherubs' wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset, and fragments of lost epics by dead masters.

Button Punch’ is unknown to the OED.

The results of a Google search for ‘Button Punch’ are overwhelmed by buttons of the kind you carry on your jacket, but persistence located the following, from Gary Regan in the wonderfully named column The Cocktailian from the San Francisco Chronicle:

"Most people agree that Button Punch probably had a Pisco-brandy base," The Professor says. "Pisco was very big in this city in the late 1800s. I can make you a Pisco Sour if you'd like" …

"If Kipling's Button Punch was anything like this, it's no wonder he compared it to cherubs' wings," Doc declares. "I feel pretty close to heaven myself right now."

So the wisdom of the crowd is the only authority we have for believing that Kipling held Pisco Sour in such high regard

Old joke:
What do you think of Kipling?
I don’t know. I’ve never kippled.


Update 14 May
According to the Kipling.org website, the identification of Button Punch as Pisco Sour may be attributed to Thomas Pinney, author of the definitive 2-volume History of Wine in America. See Kipling: Alcohol and drug abuse

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why rain drops fall

This mornings Today programme carried an item which made me wish I was young again.

About a project which involves flying through storms to find out exactly why it rains the way it does these days.

Of course if I were my own young self again I would not know just how interesting a subject this would be, nor that I could learn actually to enjoy flying, even to feel exhilarated by bumpy weather.
"It's because of a long chain of things that have to happen from the large scale of big weather systems you see on satellite images down to the fronts we're looking at today, and all the way down to the formation of raindrops. There's a long chain of processes in that and the details are quite subtle."
Professor Geraint Evans

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A dirty, untidy state of a place

On the day that Radio 4 announcer Alice Arnold was getting publicity for tackling litter louts, I witnessed a similar act of someone being brave enough to take a stand against those who make a mess of our surroundings.

Four young lads had made a real mess just outside the supermarket entrance – some kind of fight involving biscuits, a mass of crumbs & some larger broken pieces left covering a wide area.

Just then the cleaner emerged from the store. When she spotted the state of things she remonstrated volubly with the boys – I just cleaned this not two minutes ago …- look everywhere else is spotless.

Then you could see the idea come to her: I’m going to get my brush & you are going to clean it up.

She did. And they did, looking suitably abashed & contrite.

OK, they were not the kind of boys you would cross the street to avoid, but what took some courage was that the cleaner was black, the boys white. Even in this day & age that risks a nasty reaction.

And your employer may not think it the best way to treat customers either – though in this case I am sure that there is not much doubt about whose side any other customer who witnessed the incident was on.

Coincidentally, the participants on In Our Time, about game theory, offered an explanation about why everybody indulges in the habit of dropping litter, even though it is in our collective interest not to mess things up this way.

So how come, at least in some times & places, the inhabitants do manage to act collectively to ensure a litter free environment?

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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Keeping the money smart

Once upon a time I was one of a group of young turks asked to advise the central bank of a newly independent country on a cost effective model for the ordering of new bank notes.

It was fascinating to learn so much about the system for producing, storing, handling, managing & paying for those bits of paper which, as long as we have some in our purse or wallet, we take so much for granted, but in the end we were unable to come up with a suitable model – not one which was capable of yielding solutions with the methods available to those without the kind of modern computer resources of which we could not even dream, or outperform the abilities of the experienced bankers who had been dealing with these issues for a lifetime (not that there were so many of them in a world which had so many fewer nations & currencies).

Not that these problems are necessarily any easier to solve in the world which is blessed with such a choice of mathematical models & computing power as is available to the modern central banker.

I was chatting with the young man in the bank about the surprising difference the ready availability of £5 notes is making. As shoppers or bus passengers we are not constantly asked Haven’t you got anything less? & those who serve us are not having constantly to respond by handing over of a handful of £1 coins with an apologetic or surly ‘We haven’t got any fivers’

He had noticed that – but then he said that, funnily enough, they weren’t seeing nearly so many £10 notes these days – not that there was any shortage, they just hardly ever see any new ones.

I am still trying to work out whether that means that the Bank of England is concentrating on producing new £5s at the expense of £10s, or whether the useful life expectancy of a £10 has increased so that, until the system again comes into equilibrium the old ones just do not need to be replaced.

Bit like human population really – the birth rate goes down when the death rate goes down.


In & of itself

Sunday night’s Pick of the Week on Radio 4 included a delightful piece of information from a programme which had been broadcast at a time I am out of the house.

The origin of the word ampersand, which I had always blithely assumed was a technical term used by printers.

Not according to the OED, quoting ‘almost all the dialect Glossaries.’ It supposedly dates back to the time when children learned an alphabet which contained 27 letters – the 26 which they are taught today + the familiar curly symbol for and.

When chanting their alphabet the children were supposed to call the symbol ‘and, per se, and’ (and, by itself, and) – but of course time & sloppy pronunciation corrupted it.

Picture acknowledgement: Font Aid  a project that brings together designers who create a themed font that is then sold to raise money for charity. The fourth project created a font called Coming Together, full of great Ampersands and the money goes to Doctors Without Borders.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Good weather for drying

There was some really heavy rain overnight – disturbed my slumbers in the small hours, just by the noise it was making on the roof.

All was calm by morning, but as I went down the stairs I was vaguely alarmed by the light coming from the kitchen, which seemed surprisingly white – if it is not dark & overcast it ought to have a yellow sunny glow at this time of year; I half feared finding that pelting rain or hailstones had broken a window.

Silly old fusspot; just morning light & the sky beyond it looking like sheets & pillow cases billowing on a clothes line. All scrubbed clean

A first

Yesterday evening, just stepped off the pavement to cross the road after getting of the bus, looked right again, only to see a car coming up the hill at great speed.

I stayed where I stood – in the gutter.

Only for him to slow down suddenly & flash his headlights at me.

I waited for a split second, just to make sure he meant ‘After you’, not ‘Get out of my way’, then crossed, giving him a cheery wave.

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Monday, May 07, 2012

Fish & sour cream

One of those light healthy meals that can be made in next to no time at all. Needs any white fish, tomatoes (tinned or fresh, chopped), herbs (chopped parsley + chives is good), grated cheese (gruyere, emmenthal or cheddar is good), a small carton of soured cream, salt & pepper.

Melt a little butter or oil in a heatproof dish, add fish – cut into pieces - & grill for c10 minutes, turning once or twice.

Add the other ingredients to the dish, stir, & grill until all is bubbling.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Cynics in love

I am not convinced that Ishould have found Dorothy Parker a nice person to know, should I have been fortunate enough to be in that position. So how come her cynical poetry can (at times) be so strangely comforting.

Unfortunate coincidence
By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying -
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
Dorothy Parker

Civilised divorce

Debrett’s, the long established publisher of guides to the gentry, have now got together with lawyers Mishcon de Reya (divorce lawyers to Princess Diana) to provide a Guide to Civilised Separation.

Although some of the advice will be well above the pay grade of most of the more than 100,000 couples who divorce each year in England & Wales (It’s no good claiming a Fortnum & Mason lifestyle if you’ve always been satisfied with Sainsbury[sic]; don’t waste time & money arguing about who should get the best dinner service; don’t try to buy the children’s love – you will get into a competitive frenzy of ever more expensive treats, exotic holidays & designer labels) I do think such a guide can play a valuable role.

Polite & civilised behaviour always helps, no matter how fraught & upsetting the circumstances, when you often need to be reminded that others – in-laws & friends, work colleagues – are also affected.

At the same time those who are wealthy enough to afford the fees will now be able to achieve a legally binding agreement over money & children, arrived at through arbitration behind closed doors. Which will be good for those involved, while at the same time reducing the gaiety of a nation unable to gawp & wonder at these celebrity tribulations.


Saturday, May 05, 2012

The last nationalised industry

Almacantar, the developer who bought Centre Point, for what in today’s world sounds like the bargain price of £120 million, have announced an exciting plan which will open up a ground-level piazza & courtyard as large as Covent Garden, topped by 82 (no doubt high-priced) flats.

There’s a way to go before the plan can be implemented, including getting planning permission with the added hurdle of the constraints on what is a Grade 2 listed building, though in this case that could confer the valuable monetary benefit of limiting any future development in the surrounding area which could interfere with the enviable views enjoyed by those who live in the flats.

Meanwhile another of London’s icons of modern architecture has also run into financial trouble. Richard Rogers post-modern inside-out building is home to the insurers Lloyds of London but owned by Commerz Real Fonds who paid £231 million for it 2005 with the aid of £141 million securitised loan on which they are now in default.

Although, again in today’s climate, one might expect there to be no shortage of wealthy foreign investors keen to buy high-status & valuable commercial property in the City, the protracted, uncertain & expensive process of getting approval for any necessary or potentially profitable refurbishment or remodelling of what is a Grade 1 listed building could be a deterrent.

On last week’s In Business on Radio 4, Peter Day visited firms in what remains of the Lancashire textile industry to learn how they are adapting to cope in today’s world. Leigh Spinners are still in business, but say that they are handicapped by not being able to sell their existing 100-year old mill in order to finance a move to modern premises – because it has been listed Grade 2*. So capital lies tied up in a building which is only half in use.

Decisions about which buildings should be listed are made by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport on the advice of English Heritage.

Although Listed status is often quoted as a highly desirable feature in adverts of houses for sale it is effectively a form of nationalisation, a take over of other people’s property by those with a certain kind of aesthetic sensibility, which they value above housing & jobs, locking up private capital.

By coincidence, after the above was written, I had reason to consult Volume 1 of Richard Crossman’s Diaries of a Cabinet Minister on a completely unrelated matter, when I cam upon an entry for May 1966 when Crossman was Minister for Housing & Local Government.

This records a meeting with Duncan Sandys ‘an odd mixture – passionate European, hard-headed Tory, a founder of the Civic Trust’ who had won first place in the ballot for Private Members bills. Between them they drew up what became the Civic Amenities Act of 1967 which greatly increased the powers of government to ensure that Listed Buildings were preserved – saved from demolition or alteration.

This desire to cling on to the past knows no bounds to Right or Left.


Friday, May 04, 2012

Turning water into lemon & lime

It was obvious that they had changed the shape of the bottle – when you could finally locate it, what with them moving things around a bit & putting it on a shelf you had to bend down to rather than its previously favoured eye-level position.

What was not at all obvious, until the first sip, was that they have completely changed the taste, so it was no longer the same product.

I speak of Sainsbury’s lemon & lime fizzy water, of which I am overfond.

The outward signifiers of change were there, but so subtle you wouldn’t take them in unless you  made the kind of detailed forensic comparison on which I embarked after that first tasting surprise.

The old version was called “Spring water with a hint of …”, the new one “Flavoured spring water drink”.

That word 'drink', in marketing-speak, has acquired a cloak of deception in it meaning.

The front of each bottle proclaims “no added sugar”, but the words in the little green circle have changed from “Only natural flavours” to “Improved recipe”.

The secret is in the ingredients.

Carbonated spring water – check.

Lemon juice from concentrate (1.6%) – not in the new one.

Nor is there any lime juice from concentrate (quantity unspecified).

Instead there is – wait for it – apple juice from concentrate, (though only 0.3%).

The older version contained further ‘natural’ (though unspecified) flavourings, the improved recipe mere 'flavourings' which are adjectivally unembellished.

Both contain potassium sorbate as a preservative & sucrose as a sweetener.

The taste of citric acid, present in both, dominates the new version in a way which is far from pleasing to the palate, but was successfully masked by the natural juices in the old kind.

The panel of nutritional information shows that the amount of protein in the drink has gone up from a mere trace to 0.1g per 100ml, as has (perplexingly) the amount of fat, while sugar ('naturally occurring') has gone up to 0.2%.

There is going to have to be more intensive label reading as I search for a new source of supply.

I may even spend some time in Sainsbury's, finding out if elderflower & all the other 'flavoured spring water drinks' are made with apple juce too.

Related post

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Know anyone called Lorry?

For some reason the grammar checker on the version or Word which I use does not like uncapitalised lorries, wherever they appear in the sentence.

 I wondered if perhaps it was originally a trade name (like Hoover).

Not according to the OED, even though its origin is said to be obscure. The earliest quote, from an 1838 article in the Civil Engineer & Architect's Journal, refers to a kind of railway wagon.

I can only assume that, somewhere in the world (probably California) Lorry is a used as a personal name.

Micro valleys

David Hockney gave so many interviews when his exhibition opened at the Royal Academy that I forget where it was I heard or read his statement that landscapes such as the Yorkshire Wolds are full of tiny valleys which most people may not even notice & which are far too small to show up on standard walkers maps or even photographs. You need to learn to look closely to see their intricate fractal patterns.

I am both lucky & unlucky enough to have learned this sense of perspective.

The lucky lesson was taught by the elderly man who alerted me to take an interest in the fascinating subject of drainage – to watch how water finds its course across the lie of the land & to appreciate the unappreciated skill of those who have worked to control it.

The unlucky teachers have been what might by now be a hundred ruined umbrellas.

Valleys – even tiny ones - also channel wind. You can, even on a day which might seem merely breezy,  be taken by surprise by a gust which suddenly catches you from the side with force enough to kick the ribs of your umbrella upside down.

The lane up the hill to the bus stop has five such traps.

Actually only three of them are tiny valleys. But there will also be a stiff breeze blowing upstream across the bridge & not the least of the horrors of the (no longer so new) estate at the top of the hill is that the road is so aligned with houses on either side as to provide a perfect wind funnel to buffet anyone trying to negotiate the way across on foot.

Experience has taught me how to angle an umbrella to avoid damage, if the breeze light enough, to make it worthwhile taking a chance, putting up your umbrella so as to keep reasonably dry. But there are many days on which there is no way your umbrella can be saved, so there is no point even trying.

So there’s another reason why country folk may have to wear heavier, more waterproof hooded jackets on days when townsfolk may rely on much lighter clothing.

Related posts

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Three cups of coffee a day

Some time ago I thouight it would be interesting to collate details of the various scientific studies which have  generated headlines about what the drinking of 3 cups of coffee a day might do, for good or ill, to your health.The results should provide a useful primer into research methods for even the non-statistically or scientifically trained.

It proved too tedious & difficult a task to track down the scientific reports via Google & the public web, starting with only press reports as a lead.

One interesting fact to emerge from the work I did manage to do was that very few of these studies actually involved coffee. For example one involved giving caffeine to laboratory rats, another gave cola drinks to a group of psychology undergraduates.

But caffeine is caffeine, seems to be the line; & scientists - or journalists - always like to make the results relevant to the daily lives of readers of non-specialist journals by using the handy equivalent of a number of cups of coffee which, mysteriously or suspiciously, turns out usually to be three per day.

However a recently reported study was very specific in ruling out other sources such as tea or chocolate or cola, in helping to prevent depression.

However in this case you need  4 or more cups a day to gain the greater benefit..

At least if you are an American nurse (whose cups are smaller than ours)

Methods  A total of 50 739 US women (mean age, 63 years) free of depressive symptoms at baseline (in 1996) were prospectively followed up through June 1, 2006. Consumption of caffeine was measured from validated questionnaires completed from May 1, 1980, through April 1, 2004, and computed as cumulative mean consumption with a 2-year latency period applied. Clinical depression was defined as self-reported physician-diagnosed depression and antidepressant use. Relative risks of clinical depression were estimated using Cox proportional hazards regression models.
Results  During 10 years of follow-up (1996-2006), 2607 incident cases of depression were identified. Compared with women consuming 1 or less cup* of caffeinated coffee per week, the multivariate relative risk of depression was 0.85 (95% confidence interval, 0.75-0.95) for those consuming 2 to 3 cups per day and 0.80 (0.64-0.99; P for trend <.001) for those consuming 4 cups per day or more.

*Note to pedants: this is a mathematically precise term


Related post

Without links
Three Cups of Coffee a day Good for Your Brain
Three Cups of coffee a day to help keep skin cancer away
Three cups of coffee a day makes breasts shrink
The caffeine intake from three cups of coffee a day can reduce the risk of developing ovarioan cancer
Men who drink three cups of coffeee a day have 40 per cent lower risk of developing gallstones
Coffee drinkers who have more than three cups of coffee a day may increase their risk of heart attack

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Digging a home

I mentioned to a young person something about my experiences of living in digs. She thought I meant a Time Team  experience with Tony Robinson.

The word ‘digs’ was commonly used to refer to the kind of rooms to let, with meals also provided, usually in a private house, often owned by a widow though also often a family home, which were familiar right up to the 1960s at least as accommodation for students, young working people, or fathers who had moved away to look for work.

It was disconcerting that ‘lodgings’ does not appear as a definition of the word digs in the OED, which does however give four C19th quotations for the word ‘diggings’ used in this sense, presumed to derive ultimately from the idea of digging a hole in the ground. And the phrase ‘theatrical digs’ appears in a quotation from the 1950s used to illustrate the history if the word actressy.

The web throws up plenty examples of digs however, for example one reminiscence about life at Birmingham University in the 1950s. And, rather more surprisingly some very up-to-date references too, for example from the Scottish National Party’s 2011 manifesto, another from the Socialist Worker, and also from a BBC guide to what a young player might expect of life at a modern Football Academy.

I suppose we might look forward to a resurgence in the provision as digs as a response to the housing crisis, both from the point of view of suppliers needing helo with rising mortgage repayments & people who just cannot hope to get their own foot on the housing ladder.

Many students live in digs or rented properties. Unscrupulous landlords often try to take advantage. We’re tackling that by introducing a scheme to help the 10,000 Scots each year who have their deposits wrongly withheld.
SNP Manifesto 2011: Students manifesto

 'Work puts a strain on family': Working on contracts means going to where the job is – and often living in digs Socialist Worker Online: Issue 2274  Oct 2011

University of Birmingham Alumini Commumity: Your memories 1950s: Digs

 “If the player is offered a scholarship, he'll more than likely move to live in digs near the club.” BBC Sport: Life at a football academy