Saturday, June 30, 2012

What your bonus says about you

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.”
The Wealth of Nations Book I, Chapter 10. para 82

Adherents to the pure theory of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market prefer to forget that other saying of Adam Smith.

It is also a commonplace that in the debris left behind in a great financial crisis we find evidence of wrong-doing by many, even the great, the good & the otherwise respectable.

Adam Smith also wrote the Theory of Moral Sentiments. I don’t think he had anything to say about the public’s attitude to banker’s bonuses, but their sentiment has certainly changed.

Even bankers now know that the size of your bonus no longer functions to signal your status as a master of the universe; for the foreseeable future it will be a mark of amorality at best & thievery at worst.

It may still be a case of not needing to ‘fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account’, when all who know it still depend on banks & banking, but do you really want your wives & children to have to share your shame?

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Friday, June 29, 2012

Remembering them all

I was very pleased to hear in the Radio 5 Live coverage, & to read on the Palace website, that ‘The dedication and unveiling ceremony [of the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park] was attended by veterans from across the Commonwealth and other countries who served alongside the British crew.

Most of the other coverage I have heard this week spoke as if only Brits were involved.

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Knowable unknowns

I had a disconcerting half hour yesterday listening to a Radio 4 programme about The Uncanny which, so they said, is “a translation of the German 'un-heimlich' meaning 'not homely' or 'a feeling of not being at home'”

My discombobulation was caused by the fact that, in my own mind at least, uncanny has never meant anything of the sort; in fact it is a word that I would be most likely to use welded to, either explicitly or (understood), a coincidence or a resemblance. And, whether via an association I made up for myself or because somebody taught me so, it is related to the good old English word ken, meaning either to know or, in a now obsolete sense, “to generate, engender, beget; to conceive; to give birth to.”

A coincidence or resemblance may well be disconcerting, certainly surprising or unexpected, but never truly unsettling, disturbing or frightening; that would be spooky.

And rather than being the stuff of horror movies, bad dreams or the supernatural the uncanny is simply another manifestation of connectedness, the wonderful way of the world. Not hellish at all, just one of those previously undreamt things in heaven or earth.

The OED does give one definition related to home, or at least a house – it was used as such in old vagabonds' slang to mean especially a house where thieves, beggars, or disreputable characters meet or lodge.But the use of uncanny to mean ‘Partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar’ became common in English only in the mid C19th according to the OED & the earliest quotation to illustrate its use in this way comes from that great popular novelist. Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

The programme’s concentration on the spooky side of uncanny which ‘really is discernable everywhere in fiction, film and art’ stems from a 1919 Essay by the old fraud Freud.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Plant music

Speaking to RTE 1’s Pat Kenny on Monday morning Daniel Chamovitz about his book What A Plant Knows, told the story of the scientist who conducted an experiment to find out if plants grew better if he played his favourite music – Meat Loaf in this case - to them. The answer was Yes, but when the experiment was repeated with a heat screen inserted between plant & speakers, the music failed to have any effect.

Lesson: it was the heat wot done it. The music had nothing to do with it.

Well yes; but does some music produce more heat than others? In which case the appropriate control might have been Mozart v Meatloaf.

And is playing music a more efficient way of delivering the requisite heat to a plant, especially when you take into account the synergies from interactions such as improved productivity from the human workers exposed to music while they work?

Are cds better than downloads? How big should the amps be? How loud the volume, for the most efficient promotion of plant growth.

Does some music actually retard plant growth, despite the heat? In which case, let me know & I shall play it to the dandelions in the backyard.

The right answer depends upon exactly what it is you want to know, & how you ask the question. The one who defines the question defines the answer.

What A Plant Knows
Pat Kenny: RTE Radio 1 Monday, 25th June 2012

Thrills & spills

Local radio this morning told us of further action that is being taken to help reduce the lethal toll of motor bike accidents on local roads.

County council vehicles are already stickered to remind drivers to make sure that the cap on their fuel tank is secure. Now the wagons which transport stone from the quarries are also to be targeted.

Campaigners have produced the evidence that diesel, rather than middle age hormones, may be responsible in a significant number of cases where a biker suddenly loses control of his machine.

It would certainly make sense in the case of the (thankfully non-fatal) accident I witnessed last year.


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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Broken biscuits

I was reminiscing – again - about my days behind the counter in Woolworths, mentioned my secret hope that I would be assigned to the biscuit counter.

At 14 I was ravenous all the time, so I relished the idea of keeping myself going by sneakily snacking on broken biscuits.

What are broken biscuits?

Well, just what it says on the tin.

Biscuits did not always come tightly wrapped in their own packets in those days – certainly not in Woollies; they were displayed in deep open tins on the counter, weighed out by the assistant & put into a paper bag. As far as I can recall there was no kind of protective barrier which kept the biscuits sheltered from everybody’s germs, no special hygiene rules for the assistants.

Some biscuits must have got broken in this process, or got broken on the way home in the squash in your shopping basket, but I think that the tins of broken biscuits were supplied separately – accidents of an earlier stage in the production process. They were naturally sold very cheaply but, heigh, they tasted just as good. & times was ‘ard for many.

My mother would have been truly grateful to receive as a present a bag of Rowntree Misshapes, which could often, but not reliably, be found in shops; sometimes she might even find it within herself to finance buying a bag of her own out the housekeeping money as a guilty treat. More accidents of the production process, perfectly good chocolates that just looked a bit wonky – uneven chocolate coating or misplacement of the hazelnut cluster. If you were really lucky the bag contained a majority of rejects from the aspirational brand of the time - Black Magic.

We can probably expect a return to more of these value offers as times get harder again.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The genius of oestrogen

The statue of Alan Turing in Whitworth Gardens in Manchester presents a poignant portrait. It lies between the University & Canal Street – Manchester’s ‘gay quarter’ – so it is not unusual to see visitors who have clearly come to pay homage to a man who has been adopted as an iconic victim of homophobia.

Ben Macintyre, in his column in Friday’s Times, pointed out that, during the war years at Bletchley Park, ‘his homosexuality was not merely tolerated, but regarded as irrelevant’. In fact all sorts of idiosyncratic, eccentric, or mad behaviours were tolerated in those whose genius & talents, unfettered, can work wonders, in this case in the breaking of enemy codes. Things changed after the War.

I knew, from my student days, that part of Turing’s punishment for ‘acts of gross indecency’ was that he was made to take drugs which would, supposedly, cure him of his unnatural urges. It was commonly supposed that the shame of all this made him take his own life by eating an apple laced with cyanide.

But, during a recent radio discussion to mark the centenary of Turing’s birth, a contributor casually described this as ‘He was made to take oestrogen’ & I went cold.

My own experience with HRT (following major surgery) was not entirely happy; of course in a situation like that it is not possible to attribute all changes to the drug, but when I mentioned to one doctor that it seemed to have changed the way my brain worked, the response was ‘Oh, everybody knows there are oestrogen receptors in the brain.'

I certainly experienced a certain loss in the attraction of spending time engaged in analytical, logical thinking & acquired an unexpected creative, artistic bent, when my head, even waking up in the morning, was filled with visual images. All this disappeared as soon as I stopped the HRT & things sort of returned to normal.

I am certainly not trying to make any crass, over-simplistic distinction between left brain/right brain, Mars & Venus, or to suggest that the (relative) lack of female mathematical genii can be explained by hormones.

What could be devastating is a sudden change, or a change between relative & absolute levels of the varius forms of oestrogen & testosterone, depending on the dosage & the method of delivery.
And that is what makes me go cold – imagining (with my empathy sharpened by reading Uncle Petros) the devastation & despair that a man like Turing might feel if he found his analytical brain simply ceased to function in the way that he was used to.

It makes the otherwise remarkably cheerful & sanguine passage, in the letter Turing wrote to his friend Norman Routledge, prescient in a way nobody could have imagined.
I've now got myself into the kind of trouble that I have always considered to be quite a possibility for me, though I have usually rated it at about 10:1 against. I shall shortly be pleading guilty to a charge of sexual offences with a young man. The story of how it all came to be found out is a long and fascinating one, which I shall have to make into a short story one day, but haven't the time to tell you now. No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I've not found out.

 Picture of Turing statue © Copyright Stephen Richards and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Monday, June 25, 2012

Dead To Me

I have just read Dead To Me by Cath Staincliffe.

I loved Staincliffe’s Sal Kilkenny from her very first outing – reminiscent of Val McDiarmid’s Kate Brannigan, a young woman private investigator, Manchester background, but added struggles coping with family & motherhood. Highly satisfactory reads.

But then came the disappointment of her Blue Murder novel – a novelisation of the tv series in which  Caroline Quentin played DCI Janine Lewis whose struggles domestic & with an aggressively macho atmosphere of her job were drawn in an oversimplified, cartoony, shouty way.

Dead To Me is stickered as a prequel to another tv series Scott & Bailey & was written by agreement with Sally Wainwright, the TV series writer, and co-creator Diane Taylor, who is a retired Detective Inspector from the Greater Manchester Police Force’s Major Incident Team.

It presents a much more subtle & satisfying portrait of the work of three highly professional women officers in the murder squad, realistic about the true nature of police work & procedures, & the struggle to fit this around three contrasting sets of domestic/family situations.

TImely too, dealing as it does with the gut- & heart-wrenching lives of the ‘underclass’, in particular of three young girls only recently sent out to live independent lives having spent long years in care.

Staincliffe manages to convey the desperation of these lives, & the horror of murder & rape, without the need to show off her technical skills as a writer by describing the attacks themselves in loving detail, or indulging in post mortem porn, but by deftly describing the state of their houses or flats, & their emotional yearnings.

There was one gut-wrenching shock which made me close both the book & my eyes for several moments, & near the end I was actually crying – something which no book has managed to do for a long time.

Which is not to say that it was not a seriously good read


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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Life in death

Over the last few years death has once again become, in England, an acceptable subject for conversation & public debate, after a long period in which it seemed almost as if it were well on the way to being abolished. And so, in the same way people will tell you to shush if you mention the fact that it is not raining today, in the quasi-superstitious belief that you should not tempt fate in that way, so we should not talk about death, except to warn people that they are ‘more likely to die’ if they indulge in X, Y or Z ...

This was in part a consequence of the astonishing increase in longevity of those born since 1925, which meant that their children & grandchildren could easily reach the age of forty or more without ever having experienced the death of a loved one, attended a funeral or, most particularly, ever seeing a dead body. And we stopped knowing what to say to those who had such an experience.

The discussions now taking place however are not, in general, about death (what the state of being dead involves), but in dying, (the frightening process you go through while still alive). Implicitly, at least, many more people seem now to look upon death as THE END, a state of unknowingness which may actually bring blessed relief from the unbearability of continuing awareness.

It was not always so. Victorians knew a lot more about dying, something which they could observe all too often, than we do. The questions most troubling to the imagination were all about what comes afterwards.

Does the road wind uphill all the way?
      Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
      From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting place?
      A roof for when the slow, dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
      You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
      Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
      They will not keep you standing at the door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore & weak?
      Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me & all who seek?
      Yea, beds for all who come.
Christina Rossetti

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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Appealing against oneself

The Times last week published the Report of the Court of Appeal’s decision on the question of whether the government was breaking the law when it decided to change to using the CPI rather than the RPI for calculating the annual increase needed in public sector pensions to keep them in line with inflation.

I do not suppose that this is the first time that the courts have had to consider, in evidence, technical reports produced by the Office for National Statistics, but it is the first time I can remember reading such a judgement.

And impressive reading it makes, as a comprehensible summary of even such user-unfriendly language as ‘a Laspeyres-type consumer inflation or pure price index measuring the average price change on the basis of changed expenditure of maintaining the consumption pattern of households and the composition of the consumer population in the … reference period’. It makes me regret even more the fact that an English High Court judge was not, in the event, ever asked to rule on the vexed question of the number next to zero.

It must have come as a comfort & relief to the statisticians that the court found that
“when asking whether a particular index is appropriate for assessing whether there has been any change, and if so what change, in ‘general prices’, it is appropriate to consider whether the index … is regarded by the relevant professionals, in this case economic statisticians, as having the appropriate characteristics.”

However, what intrigues me, is that those who lost their appeal, in part on the basis of their appropriately professional opinion, included the First Division Association (FDA), the union for higher civil servants to which, at least in years gone past, the majority of government statisticians belonged.


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Friday, June 22, 2012

Marketing illumination

In an interview in yesterday’s Times, Zac Goldsmith bemoaned the fact that environmental issues are no longer considered trendy. Of course people have far more immediate issues to worry about just now, & may consider that they are anyway doing their bit though the enforced reduction in consumption, but the forced move to energy-saving light bulbs may have been the Green campaigners single worst mistake as far as retaining the respect of ordinary folk is concerned..

The only carrot offered by the pathetic campaign to persuade us to adopt the bulbs of our own volition (before being compelled by law to do so) was the promise of (marginal) reductions in our electricity bills which would, eventually, repay our investment. No gentle persuasion, no helpful advice on how to find bulbs to suit your existing lighting arrangements, or meet the particular needs for illumination for older eyes or those  craft hobbies which require the making of fine distinctions between colours.

I have only recently noticed that the energy saving light bulb which is currently installed in the bedside lamp has an orange afterglow which lasts for a very noticeable period of time after the thing is switched off. No doubt it is not using any energy during this time. These bulbs do not, however, last much longer than the old ones.

People do nothing but grumble about how they don’t fit under their lampshades, or take forever to warm up, or provide insufficient light (which is dirty & yellow) when they do. Did anybody do proper research on the problems older eyes would have before these laws were passed? The amount & range of printed material that I can read without carrying it over to hold directly under the bulb is distinctly limited now, & I can just forget about doing embroidery after dark.A helpful website offers some advice about how to test which bulbs will suit your purpose, but why on earth should we have to do this.

But Green business is hard to sustain - The Ecologist magazine has been sold to Resurgence for the princely sum of £1. Until I read that, I had forgotten that the first edition of this magazine – containing a much-talked about Blueprint For Survival – was published at about the same time as the Club of Rome’s Limits To Growth. It makes interesting reading now.


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Thursday, June 21, 2012

The result is the same

If I tossed a coin 100 times – in front of you - & it came down heads 100 times, would you suspect some kind of fix?

If a trusted organisation arranged a simultaneous coin toss, under supervision, by 100 individuals, spread all over the world, and they all came down heads, would you think it MUST be a fix, or just a perfect demonstration of random process?

Please explain your answer & show your workings.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tree shocks

There has bee trouble on the buses this week – running up to half an hour late in the middle of the day, every seat taken, some grumbles.

Turns out that all this trouble is caused by tree trimming, the need for which (in the interests, of course, of our long term safety) has meant the closure of one small stretch of road in Buxton. This has been enough to cause chaos, with shockwaves propagating all the way to the airport.

Yesterday the driver left it up to one young mum to decide for herself whether to get on with her baby buggy – all the reserved space was taken by seated passengers, so she would just have to stand in the aisle, moving aside each time somebody else wanted to get on or off. She decided to choose this certainty, rather than an uncertain wait for less crowded bus to come along in due course.

This might have caused even more grumbling, but everyone close by was full of cheerful commiseration & advice and also, once we were on the move again, gave us the chance to earwig a fascinating exchange (which could never have happened until a few years ago) of proud baby talk between her & a young man who is dad to a similarly aged infant (safely left at home with mum): Yes, they do that at this age, etc.

I lost count of the number of people who got off the bus at the stop for the hospital – free bus passes have contributed an unexpect4dly large addition to the bus company revenues & the calls on our council tax, so that at certain times of day half the bus gets off at this stop. I hope medical staff are being sympathetic to late comers this week.

Funny how much trouble even what remains of our English forests can cause; the trains have a special autumn timetable which adds five minutes extra to cope with speed restrictions due to leaves on the line.

Peekaboo sunset

Many people will be hoping for cloudless skies in the Peak District over the next three nights, so that they get a chance to see a double sunset.

Peekaboo is one of the earliest games that babies learn to play, passing from fear to delight as they realise that mummy is still there, even when she appears to have disappeared, and, better still, that they can play the same trick on others too.

To witness the sun playing a game of peekaboo with you requires a  place to stand, with line-of-sight to a very particular configuration of a hill. I will not attempt to set down the trigonometrical or astronomical explanations for this in words – there is a very helpful description in ‘Dr Plot

This phenomenon may awaken the tiniest smidgen of sympathy with those who feel that explanation removes the magic. Except that it does not, of course. We can still feel a shiver. imagining what it must have been like to witness this event in prehistoric times, and on into the time that man continued to believe, on the evidence of his own eyes, that he stood at the centre of a still universe around which it was the sun that revolved.

We can still marvel, experience awe & a tiny frisson of fear if we think about the implications of all those forces which keep us spinning in our place.

Picture:A woodcut illustrating the double sunset from the 'Gentleman's Magazine', in July 1738


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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Remembering the future

Introducing an item on this morning’s Today programme, Justin Webb said that some people ‘may actually be able to remember’ the publication of Limits to Growth.

Well if there are plenty of people around who can remember the Coronation there certainly must be plenty more who remember the Club of Rome’s computer which, forty years ago, told us when we were going finally to run out of all the natural resources on which we depend. It was odd how even the BBC newswriters of the 1970s kept using that formulation, implying that if a computer said so it must be true.

That might (just) have been understandable at a time when not so very many people had any experience of how computers worked, & neither the phrase ‘garbage in, garbage out’, nor the saying that ‘computers are stupid, they only follow instructions blindly, doing exactly what they are told’ had not yet become common currency.

Even in our supposedly more computer-literate age however, in this morning’s interview with Bjorn Lomborg, Evan Davies used the formulation ‘the computers they were using in the Seventies got it wrong’.

Evan redeemed himself however by summing up the environmental debate as a clash of two mindsets – those who hold that we shall be able to cross that bridge when we come to it, & those who believe that we are rushing to hell in a handcart.

I am firmly in the former camp – have been since I read & absorbed The Limits to Growth; innovation has always saved us in the past, & today’s wasteful ways never last as long as we think they will anyway.

Even if I am wrong, the alternative – to cut down drastically on our rate of consumption - would only give us a few years more, since we must one day reach the limit, so what’s the point of that?

Unless of course you believe that your descendants will somehow find some totally novel solution of their own, or that the wanton wastrels of the earth will by that time have made themselves extinct, leaving people like you to enjoy a newly paradisal world.

This is not to say that waste & profligacy are OK, or that there are not unexpected downsides to our ingenious inventions, that we do not need to try harder. They are not, there are, & we do.

It is more like the general argument between optimists & pessimists. Sure, pessimists can never suffer the crushing disappointments of hopes dashed, but the price they pay is living a life being miserable about things which never happen.


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Monday, June 18, 2012

Common heritage

As a Google search confirms, the word ‘heritage’ has been in use for some time as an alternative to something like race or ethnicity or culture or even identity, but I only really became aware of it recently.

At first I thought that the references to men ‘of Pakistani heritage’ in relation to ‘street grooming’ were something new, even a mealy-mouthed response to an embarrassingly distasteful subject. But now that my ears have been sharpened I realise that it just may be one of those changes in the use of language which allows the once-embarrassing to become a topic of comfortable discourse.

We each have a heritage (or two or three or four …); heritage is heritage whatever its colour or religion or … & we can all be free to choose which parts of that which our ancestors have bequeathed to us we wish to lay claim to.

It is not nearly as restricting as an identity.

Estate world

I became every familiar with the bus map of Greater Manchester in the days when I was travelling around local archives. When it became obvious that travelling these old routes could add valuable insights to my research I started to sometimes choose a route because it looked interesting, or would fill a gap in my knowledge of local geography, rather than just provide the simplest, quickest way from A to B.

The bus map is a schematic one, stripping out irrelevant detail – basically it shows just the route, leaving out all other roads, & the names of towns or villages, plus perhaps some other popular features such as parks.

Since the buses, to a surprising extent, still follow the old routes established in the days of horse-drawn omnibuses or stage coaches, they are generally fairly straight & direct, spokes in the wheel, all leading to the centre of town.

I was initially puzzled by the way the map showeed some routes diverting round a loop, very nearly describing a circle, returning to the main road at a point often not too far distant from the start. I soon learned that this almost certainly indicated a diversion round & through a large housing estate, one built by the council in most cases after WWII but in some cases dating back to the inter-war period.

Boringly irrelevant, from my point of view, but such journeys did serve to emphasise the relative isolation of the people who had to live there, the difficulties of getting out & about for those without transport of their own.

So, in one way, it came as no surprise, to read that research by Tim Stonor of Space Syntax, an architectural consultancy which uses graph theory to study why some streets are more crowded & popular than others, found that 85% and 96% of riots last August in north and south London respectively took place within a five-minute walk of a post-war housing estate.

Not just because such estates provide homes for the kind of people who are more likely to commit crime wherever they live, but because tendencies to anti-social behaviour are reinforced by the lack of observers & the fear bred in those law-abiding residents who feel exposed even as they walk the street on their way out to safer destinations & pastimes.

For those residents whose family & personal resources are not rich in any sense of that word, the estate really does become the only known world, their territory, to be defended from outside intruders just as we would defend the country. Beyond the boundary, there be dragons.


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Sunday, June 17, 2012

The traveller's dilemma

The Wrong Road

There was no precise point at which to say
‘I am on the wrong road.’ So well he knew
Where he wanted to go, he had walked in a dream
Never dreaming he could lose his way.
Besides, for such travellers it’s all but true
That up to a point any road will do
As well as another – so why not walk
Straight on? The trouble is, after this point
There’s no turning back, not even a fork;
And you never can see that point until
After you have passed it. And when you know
For certain you are lost, there’s nothing to do
But go on walking your road, although
You walk in a nightmare now, not a dream.

But are there no danger-signs? Couldn’t he see
Something strange about the landscape to show
That he was near where he should not be?
Rather the opposite – perhaps the view
Gave him a too familiar look And made him feel
at home where he had no right Of way.
But when you have gone so far,
A landscape says less than it used to do

And nothing seems very strange. He might
Have noticed how, mile after mile, this road
Made easier walking – noticed a lack
Of grit and gradient; there was a clue.
Ah yes, if only he had listened to his feet!
But, as I told you, he walked in a dream.

You can argue it thus or thus: either the road
Changed gradually under his feet and became
A wrong road, or else it was he who changed
And put the road wrong. We’d hesitate to blame
The traveller for a highway’s going askew:
Yet possibly he and it become one
At a certain stage, like means and ends.

For this lost traveller, all depends
On how real the road is to him – not as a mode
Of advancement or exercise – rather, as grain
To timber, intrinsic-real.
He can but pursue
His course and believe that, granting the road
Was right at the start, it will see him through
Their errors and turn into the right road again.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Predictably unpredictable

The life story of Paul the Octopus is now the subject of a film. Apparently the question of whether he was a genuine oracle or a tentacled sham is still hotly debated.

Well, I suppose the idea that an octopus might know better than expert human so-called forecasters who, despite their mastery of mathematics, cannot tell us what is going to happen next in the worlds of banking, economy & politics, may actually be of some comfort in a world turned so frighteningly uncertain.

New contenders - including at least one llama - have been put forward for the vacant title of football seer now that Paul is no longer available, but as far as I know none has succeeded in taking over his crown, having failed even to forecast correctly the rseults in the European Cup so far; perhaps that is why England (whisper it) are creeping up unnoticed & unheralded.

One well known climate change expert came out at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival this week to warn that the more 'we' know about climate change the more uncetain the models become, & that the biggest uncertainty is what we ourselves will do.

Pesky thing, humans, refusing to behave in nice predictable ways.


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Friday, June 15, 2012

The prisoner’s tie-breaker

That annoying prisoner & his dilemma crop up in far too many places these days. Perhaps there is a solution before which all will one day bow down & worship its discoverer; more likely it will join Achilles & the tortoise & those lying Cretans in the pantheon of the insoluble.

The real lifer probably has a tie-breaker to fall back on. What would Mum want me to do? What will my criminal friend’s nasty associates do to my family if I snitch?

Or a rule of thumb to be relied upon: Never trust the word of a policeman; when you get cornered, keep schtum.

Or an ancient principle: Do not do to others what you would not do to yourself.

Of course the person who set the poser may not understand the context in which this particular prisoner makes his decision – maybe his life outside is so awful, or the local prisons so cushy, that incarceration would be the preferred option (not that this changes the dilemma, just switches it all around).

In the real world people tend to learn – often over a long period time – how best to solve such a problem if it is one that faces many people day after day. Take driving for example.

I marvel at the cast of mind which keeps people working away at it.

And I wonder if psychologists have ever have consulted experimental subjects to gather empirical data about whether real people analyse the problem in a truly rational way, whether children respond differently than adults.

But how curious that the supposed tension between stories & statistics, between imagination & hard rationality is somehow central to making these knotty theoretical problems so attractive & annoyingly frustrating to such a wide range of would-be solvers. Few would get excited by a dilemma posed in the notation of probability & mathematical logic.

Pinky-grey & brown

According to the fashion writers the Duchess of Cambridge is most likely to wear nude shoes for her daytime public engagements.

I think this is a reference to the colour of the shoe, rather than its simple style & lack of adornment.

Which set me wondering: Does Michelle Obama ever wear nude shoes?

And if she & the Duchess were both present at the same occasion, would their shoes be the same colour?

One thing is for sure, neither would be wearing shoes which are either black or white.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Schelling & Simpson

It occurs to me that there must be a way of using Schelling’s segregation game to explain how, in some cases, Simpson’s paradox crops up. In fact the outcome of the Schelling game - marked racial or social segregation between neighbourhoods despite the existence of only mild racial or social preferences in the individuals involved & the fact that no, or only very small numbers of, individuals wish or actively plan for such a result – is itself a kind of Simpson’s paradox.

This thought came to me when playing around with my own idea of how to represent forces or processes which do not necessarily involve spatial relocation – by using the application of colour, for example yellow to a grid of squares which are either red or blue to turn some of them green or orange; the problem is the same – to have a simple, visual method of showing why you cannot predict an outcome, or deduce the process(es) which brought about the particular distribution which is evident at a point in time from purely contemporaneous data, no matter how strong the correlations with other contemporaneous factors.

It also seems to me that this kind of approach could be fruitful when applied to questions of disease, especially those which we attribute to ‘lifestyle’ rather than attacks by, for example, external insults or  infectious agents.

If we could understand the way the process works so that the population ends up segregated into groups segregated by ‘obesity’ for example, when there are at best only a mild individual preferences for such a state of being, then we might at least stop blaming the fatties themselves & look for smarter ways of fixing the process, and being kinder to all ourselves as a result..

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Have you got a moment?

Advertising helps to finance the public toilets provided by the local council, in particular through a strategically placed space for a single attention-grabbing ad on the inside of each cubicle door.It has the same advantages as advertising on bus shelters, you catch people when they want to be distracted, not annoy them by interrupting their enjoyment of their favourite tv programme or website.

These most commonly concern an issue or a service related to health or hygiene, of particular interest to the ladies.

The one which is currently displayed exhorts us to cast our minds back in the hope that we can remember having once taken out payment protection insurance. If so, there’s a company can help us to improve our financial health by getting us the compensation which is rightfully ours.

By coincidence, the latest Manpower outlook survey reports that one bright spot in the gloomy employment market is the recruitment by banks of staff to deal with the misselling of such insurance, staff who the banks are ‘going to need to hold onto ... for some time to come.’

Every cloud has a silver lining, or two. Those toilets are maintained to a very high standard.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Previously in favourite quotations

All the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing, which is their inability to sit quietly in a room - Blaise Pascal

In Trinidad it isn’t polite to look down on a man because you know he handles public funds unwisely. As soon as he is exposed the poor man becomes ridiculous enough, a subject for calypso - VS Naipaul

We all don't know a lot of things - Alice Bell

I quote others only to better express myself - Montaigne

There is an old legend that the C19th is to be the ‘century of woman’ - Florence Nightingale

I have long been of the opinion that if work were such a splendid thing the rich would have kept more of it for themselves - Bruce Grocott

I think with my hands as I type. - Melanie Reid

Cold hands, warm ears

As a purely temporary measure I am resorting to the use of ear plugs at home for a short space of time each morning while I am in the bathroom.

I favour the wax kind which you mould to fit into your ear.

The heat in these plugs, when I remove them, is startling.

At first I thought this was just another example of how personal bodily phenomena, which we usually think of as one single thing - in this case ‘my temperature’ – are, in truth, in a state of constant flux both temporal & spatial.

But why on earth should my outer ear be so much hotter than the rest of me? Is it those busy thought processes in the brain which is just next door – a bit like the memory stick feeling warm when you remove it from the laptop?

I guess it’s more mundane than that.

The wax collects & stores up the heat, not radiating it away as quickly as flesh & bone; my hands are permanently colder because of the Raynauds.

So it’as all just a matter of relativity really.

Related post

Monday, June 11, 2012

Yoked together under a cloud

Marriage, whatever that is, has deep roots in human society, as evidenced in language, so it is worth thinking about changes which might follow if homosexual marriage becomes legal in this country, especially if British bureaucracy will no longer assume that married couple = man + woman (or husband + wife).

My 1993 edition of Chambers acknowledged the use of the term marriage to apply to same-sex couples, & the online version of the OED also allows that “The term is now sometimes used with reference to long-term relationships between partners of the same sex”, but what about all the other words for marriage, or marital relationships, which we have in English? Could they survive any proscription on assumptions about the gender of the happy couple?

The first surprise came with the etymology of the very word marry – which the dictionary says came into English via French & derives ultimately from the Latin mas, maris – a man, though the online OED now casts doubt on this long-standing explanation, saying that other languages have similar words which apply to both young men & young women.

However, for those who cling to the older explanation, to introduce some equality between the sexes, matrimony derives from the Latin for mother – mater.

Nuptials are also more female than male –the word derives from the Latin word nubere, to veil oneself, ie to marry. So to put the connubial into bliss involves, being absolutely literally original about it, to be with veil.

There also used to be a kind of fleecy head-wrap worn by women, which was called a nubia after the Latin word for cloud, not after the ancient Egyptian tribe of Nubians (that would be like calling the tribesmen fuzz-wuzzies).

Bridal means literally bride-ale, after the Old English liquor they used to drink at the celebration – not much change there.

Other words leave gender out of it. Conjugal comes from the Latin word conjux, which can be either a husband or wife, & means yoked together.

The wedding itself comes from a fine Old English word, weddian to promise. And spouse also derives from the Latin word for promise.

Wedlock has nothing to do with being fastened together; the ‘wed’ bit is the promise & ‘lock’ is, according to the OED, the sole surviving use in English of an old suffix -lac which implies some kind of action. (Children in some areas of the Pennines still used to use the word laking for playing when my mother was a girl).

A husband was origianlly a man who had his own house, a wife just a very old word for woman.

The very modern partner is a bit of a mystery, but probably comes from an Anglo-French word parcener meaning a co-heir.

A consort is someone with whom one throws in one's lot.

Helpmeet means someone who is a suitable helper, & mate is just an all-purpose sharing word, possibly something to do with meat.

So there we have it: gender, property, dressing up, getting drunk, promises & looking after each other. I expect we'll have the language to cope with any new-fangled arrangements.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Impossible men

Perhaps this is a poem written by a man who really does like & admire women; or perhaps he is just describing the trap – to be truly admired a woman must always, always, behave well (& selflessly).
True liberation means being able to escape into equal impossibility.

A slice of wedding cake

Why have such scores of lovely, gifted girls
Married impossible men?
Simple self-sacrifice may be ruled out,
And missionary endeavour, nine times out of ten.

Repeat ‘impossible men’: not merely rustic,
Foul-tempered or depraved
(Dramatic foils chosen to show the world
How well women behave, & always have behaved).

Impossible men: idle, illiterate,
Self-pitying, dirty, sly,
For whose appearance even in city parks
Excuses must be made to casual passers-by.

Has God’s supply of tolerable husbands
Fallen, in fact, so low?
Or do I always over-value woman
At the expense of man?
                                   Do I?
                                          It might be so.
Robert Graves

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Evolutionary swings & roundabouts

David Bainbridge’s book on middle age is a good read, even though he is, for my taste, a bit too keen on the Just-So explanations of evolutionary psychology.

Last Wednesday’s Frontiers in Radio 4 took us to an Egyptian backyard in the company of a scientist who, in full protective gear, took swabs from the front & back ends of a duck in search of the bird flu virus. That clip reminded me of one of the more intriguing speculations reported in Bainbridge’s book – that settled agriculture may not have been the unalloyed Good Thing which we have been conventionally taught to believe. There may have been a high price to pay for this necessary step in man’s progress towards knowledge & civilisation – namely a drastic reduction in longevity.

We might have found a way to live with, rather than kill or run away from animals – or perhaps they found us, we never persuaded tigers & lions to accept the deal – but that made us vulnerable to their germs & effluents.

Ploughing too may have added to the dangers, by liberating long-buried toxins from the soil. And if Nature made our crops fail we struggled to survive the year.

Doubtless there were prehistoric ancestors of the Soil Association, a Hunting Brotherhood who warned about the error of Man’s foolhardy attachment to settling down.


Related posts

Being rudely interrupted

Posting has been a hit & miss affair for over a week now because of problems with the library computer system – now you see it, now you don’t.

What with super viruses & password theft (LastFM may have been affected by this) – well at least I have the consolation that it is not up to me to sort it all out.

Just keep calm & carry on, as & when I can, though there may have to be fewer links than usual until full web-access is restored.

What with the financial crisis rumbling on, & the return of incessant rain, it is all beginning to seem a bit biblical

Friday, June 08, 2012

Who cares?

When I first arrived in London as a student my Peckham landlady gave me an Awful Warning: Keep away from Commercial Road.

Commercial Road was built at the beginning of the C19th to provide a direct link for traffic between the West India Docks and East India Docks to the City of London. Its history is as turbulent as that implies. And, as late as the 1960s, to venture there, even in broad daylight was, allegedly, to risk abduction into white slavery. My landlady claimed that she had told her own daughter that she would be disowned if she so much as set foot on its pavement.

It wasn’t entirely clear who would be doing the abducting, but this idea of respectable white girls at risk from marauding hordes of alien men is nothing new. In the 1920s it was the Chinese, in the late 1950s & early 1960s the News of the World was full of stories of Maltese running prostitution rackets in London; one of my friends told alarming stories of quite regularly being accosted by small groups of Cypriots (2 or 3 men) as she walked from the tube station to her student hostel in Bayswater; the point was, though, that they rapidly lost interest when they realised she was never going to fall for their blandishments.

The girls most at risk are those who can be called vulnerable or needy – girls anxious for love which they don’t get – or feel they do not get – from their family or peer groups. Such girls can come from any class or background, but the more affluent & educated are less likely to fall into the trap of being exploited in truly gruesome circumstances. These days, since I read her memoir, Elizabeth Jane Howard usually comes to my mind when thinking about this subject.

We are currently going through a moral panic about predatory men of (most likely) muslim & Pakistani origin who prey on young white girls, posing a problem for those who would like to keep race, religion & culture out of such discussions.

The most alarming & dispiriting element of the background to this modern version of these ancient stories – why those men, those girls, in those towns – came in an edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme The Report last week.

Towns such as Rochdale in the north west of England have disproportionate numbers of private childrens ‘homes’ which ‘look after’ vulnerable girls on behalf of local social service authorities in the south of England, & on whom there is no obligation to register with the local authority where they are actually based. The reason is the same as that which is currently being trotted out for putting a cap on the amount of Housing Benefit payable to claimants in London – property prices are much lower outside the capital, & particularly in the North West.

Goodness knows what it would have cost the local authority which was paying a private sector company £¼m a year to look after just one troubled girl who, apart from her carers, had a whole house to herself, if that house had been in the South East.

Yes, of course there are elements of race, but men like these would never themselves have the confidence to approach confident girls, even those ‘up for it’, not least because of the role played by the public consumption of alcohol in getting to meet & socialise with such women, & all the problems associated with cross-cultural marriage – topics which have also had interesting coverage recently on Radio 4. Put all this together with an unusual concentration of vulnerable girls, statistically more likely to be white, a certain amount of nervousness by the authorities about appearing to be racist, plus our own ambivalent feelings about girls who are ‘bad’ & you have tragedies just waiting to happen.

One other disturbing piece of intelligence which has emerged concerns the role of ‘reality’ television; one girl whose sexual exploitation led to her murder, & a father now charged with the murder of six of his children who died in a fire, had both featured in television programmes about their problematic life styles.

*My landlady was not alone in her alarm: research in The Times archive turned up a letter from Edwyn Young, Rector & Rural Dean (!) of Stepney & a group of concerned Christians  who wrote Wednesday, June 5, 1957, in advance of the publication of the Wolfenden report:

“The solicitation of passers-by occurs principally in a short stretch of Commercial Road, an important main highway. Organised vice is rapidly increasing, & is rampant in an ever increasing area where houses are being acquired by those who desire to exploit vice”

Related posts

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Doctors strike

Strikes are never simply about the stated issue or grievance, so the doctors day of industrial inaction is not just about the changes to their pension arrangements.

They are just very fed up – the resentment over the botched changes to the system of specialist training still rankles, they have to cope with the upheaval of the major changes to commissioning, now this. And it mainly affects the younger (aged under 50).

But they are not getting too much sympathy – they are well paid, everybody else is facing pension cuts, why shouldn’t they.

If they want to get more of their patients on their side they really do need to pay attention to things like not using words like obese, not nagging us to have intrusive tests for this that & the other if we don’t want them, & stop telling us that it is all our fault because we are sinners.

They need to show that they like us – as the Queen has proved.

Related post

Out of time

Alarming news from the world of high tech medicine: the clocks do not all run on time. Or at least not the same time.

It is not clear from this report whether this is down to the difficulty of controlling & co-ordinating the speed of conversion from digital signals or simply a careless failure to synchronise watches.

Related post

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Radio scholarship

It was intriguing to read, on the BBC Radio 4 blog, of the effort & attention to detail that has gone into the effort to complete the web archive of Desert Island Discs. A level of commitment to get as close as possible to the original ‘as broadcast’ version that deserves the label ‘scholarly’ as much as does any collected works or definitive edition of printed material.

Which set me to pondering why ‘radio’ should not be a recognised subject of academic study, offered by our best universities, not just as part of the despised media studies. Surely radio is even more worth the attention of the brightest of minds as is the mere reading of novels? After all, film studies have achieved a degree of respectability, so the fact that radio is, relatively, such a new medium should not be a bar.

Maybe radio as we knew it was just a flash in the pan, a mere step on the way to a multi-media digital world. Maybe it has just been too diffuse, too popular to yield useful insights.

Or maybe it is just a tool; we still tend to think of literature as coterminous with books, but nobody atarted to study literature by studying the manufacture of paper, or earlier recording media. Nor from the study of printing itself.

But the value of the archive has, a little belatedly, been recognised & is receiving loving attention from engineers, conservators, cataloguers & digital preservation – not just as radio but, taking in all other formats, as an audio record which gives us much that mere hieroglyphs cannot. Linguists & phoneticians are itching to get their hands on this rich - & potentially huge – source of big data.

Perhaps these are necessary first steps – preservation, cataloguing, analysis, classification – in the business of defining & delineating this special medium, until it becomes fit for advanced study.


Monday, June 04, 2012

The significance of power

I doubt that I shall ever find the time to read Robert Caro’s multi-volumed biography of Lyndon Johnson, mesmerising though it sounds, but it is always fascinating to read the reactions of our current crop of politicians & policy-wonks to this consummately detailed account of power, politics & corruption.
But I shall try to lay hands on a copy of Volume 1, if only to read the ‘hundreds of pages’ in which Caro describes what life was like in the Texas hill country when young LBJ was growing up – years when there was no electricity [Dates?] & life was hard & grim.

I am grateful to Daniel Finkelstein for alerting me to this, in his recent Times opinion piece on the occasion of the publication of Caro’s 4th volume. Finkelstein concludes that the populace – the voters – will forgive, will not even want to know about, the scoundrelly nature, maybe the outright corruption, of those who can deliver such basic, life-transforming necessities.

But that rather begs the question of why such crooked tactics were necessary. The electrification of Britain was late, in comparison with Germany & the USA, & not without its battles & controversies, but otherwise seems to have been achieved in an admirably orderly fashion. How?

The lesson which our politicians should take from this is the vital necessity of this physical form of power to our modern polity & democracy – second only to, a vital component of, national security.


Sunday, June 03, 2012


Two interesting coinages from The Times report of the latest (disappointing) results from Halfords.

The ‘do-it-for-me’ generation – spoiled offspring of the DIY babyboomers, who lack the nous, or maybe just the inclination, to do it for themselves & prefer to find a man to do it for them. Or maybe it’s just that they are so busy being a caring modern dad, doing what used to be womans work, that they have to delegate some of what used to be the traditional role of the paterfamilias.

And the MARMILs, Middle Aged Rich Men in Lycra (with a hint of marmite) who shun Halfords for the purveyors of more eye-wateringly expensive machines for pedalling about on.

To which I should like to add the MABOMBs, those lethal Middle Aged Blokes on Motor Bikes.

Related posts

Getting the wind up

Some misreadings produce such a surreal image that you treasure them.

And so it is with my misreading of an item in The Times Business Diary which informed me (& me alone) that Peter Rothwell, a multi-talented Brit at the head of Swiss travel firm Kuoni, once closed Luton airport when he landed the plane, which he was piloting, ‘on a crossword’.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

59 years ago today

Fifty-nine years ago today I had my first sight of television, my first taste of beer, & I knew the words to That Pirate Don Dirk of Dowdee.

The television set sat proudly in the corner of the small front room of the only family in the lane who had found the money to splash out on such a thing. We were, of course, used to seeing ‘moving pictures’ in the cinema, but the ability of the human brain to interpret those pictures, flickering in shades more of grey & blue than black & white, on a screen smaller than that of the average PC, still seems magical, the people more real than those we now see in weird, squashed-flat, high-definition magnification.

Sometime in the afternoon, probably after I had stood on a chair to entertain the company with my recitation of the tale of Don Dirk of Dowdee, I wandered into the kitchen where the men were gathered, drinking beer; one of them (not my father) thought it would be amusing to reward me with a sip from his glass. They got their amusement from my horrified reaction to the taste.

So many personal memories, but it is a little disturbing to be celebrating the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty’s accession to the throne on what is actually only the 59th anniversary of the Coronation. It may not carry the power of shocks such as the death of Kennedy (Where were you when …?) but our own recollections of these events form the threads – loose, small, vital – that bind, & it is disconcerting to have them dis-ordered in this way. Muddled, a small presentiment of what it must be like when memory finally descends into muddle.

Related post

Friday, June 01, 2012

The hedgehog defence

A well-meaning animal lover came across a poorly, starving hedgehog, supposedly too thin to survive the fast of hibernation.

So the kind-hearted rescuer fed the scraggy thing on cat food – by the bowlful.

The poor animal soon became little no more, weighing in at a hefty 4 lbs, too fat to roll itself into a ball.

So the one thing that the hedgehog knew – its surefire method of defence against predators - became of no use at all.

All because it did not know that greed is bad.