Friday, August 31, 2012

That's the way to do it

We all know that the Home Office has a very hard job to do, but the apparently* sudden withdrawal of a university’s licence to educate students from outside the EU does nothing to improve its reputation.

For the upheaval does not serve only to prevent only new students from joining their course but dismisses existing students too. Not all of these, it is acknowledged, have broken any immigration rule & are here entirely legally (& at great expense). It is hard to understand how this can be legal, or even politically acceptable, at a time when London is using the Olympics to boast of its attractions, just because, in some cases at least the university simply has not got the right paperwork.

A short news item in The Times recently informed us that the special emergency teams of passport checkers at Heathrow, recruited to cope with Olympic visitors at great expense mainly from the ranks of civil servants recently retired or made redundant, will be kept on to cope with the rush of new student arrivals this month. Perhaps their services will not be needed after all as any students who are not already part way through their course will have second thoughts about risking theior money by coming here.

*For those in the know it is not perhaps totally unexpected: the HFCE website states that they have been in close touch with London Metropolitan University since its Tier 4 licence was suspended on 16 July.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Five foot seven and three quarters

Why is Jack Reacher, 6ft 5in tall, being played on film by Tom Cruise, who (allegedly) is no more than 5ft 8in tall without his shoes on?

Well film is an illusion anyway, but more importantly, according to a recent Times interview with Lee Child, there is only a 4 inch gap between the tallest & shortest members of the current Hollywood A list (male division). They are all less than 6 feet tall (assuming that Cruise is the shortest of them all).

Next question: what is the height distribution of the women on the A list?

The internet is awash with speculation & hints about how to look taller on film, but when in doubt concentrate on looking at the length of the rib cage – that is a dead giveaway.

Related posts

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Appeasing the god of the weather

It seems as though autumn has definitely arrived – the only hope now is that the weather gods will decide to taunt us by giving us summer as soon as the children go back to school.

The Saturday of the holiday weekend was marked by torrential rain & thunder claps noiseful enough to make you fear for the window panes.

This summer has been marked by alarming reports of lightning strikes inside houses, even with all doors & windows closed tight. The advice is to unplug electrical appliances, especially computers & televisions, whenever thunder is about.

For years I took special care to unplug the television aerial in these circumstances, having learned the hard way that this was advisable.

The television was almost new – the first we had had in colour. I was sitting watching Wimbledon, the commentator was saying ‘Well, it’s not raining right now, but it doesn’t look good over to the west.’ I was just informing him that it was indeed raining in Notting Hill when there was a kind of pop & the screen was totally blank. Nothing revived it & I was forced to consider that the flash of lightning had had something to do with it.

I expected a sceptical response from the man in the television shop, but he simply said, ‘Oh, yes?’ in a neutral tone.

‘So, can that really happen?

‘Oh, yes.’

‘Well, can you fix it?’

The answer was yes & we got it back a week later, with the advice about unplugging the aerial.

Which was adhered to until I mentioned it one day to an electrician who was doing some work on the house.

‘Well, that’s OK if you don’t mind having your house set alight – the flash could easily start your carpets burning if it cannot just go into the tv.’

So we have, ever since, decided that, given the choice, we will sacrifice the electric gizmos & gadgets.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Meaning made plain

The business news reporter on this morning’s edition of the Today programme was called Simon. I have just wasted far too many minutes trying to give him his full name but the web site has changed – no longer gives written information about who was presenting, or a running order. And then, when I managed to locate the relevant section on Listen Again Justin said merely ‘Here’s Simon’

I liked Simon’s question to the ‘new sheriff in claims management town’:
What teeth do you have to bring them to heel?

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Redefining the decades

Alwyn Turner ‘s e-book, Things Can Only Get Bitter, dissects the generation born 1955-64 which is missing from politics, but has stormed the cultural world (including teaching) & produced lots of star commentators – particularly on the Left.

These were the first who were forced by law to stay at school until their 16th birthday.

Fewer went into traditional male manual jobs.

Fewer joined unions.

The 1992 election the clincher, turned them all off; the Guardian carried an article about how many had realised they would never get to make their contribution to running the country, even on an NHS board or other quango, because they had signed up to the wrong gang.

The fact that they are missing from politics is something which I half noticed in the coverage of the last election.

Have we been focussing on the wrong decades? Instead of The Thirties, Sixties etc we should be looking at the Inbetweenies, whose dates of birth straddled the years ending in zero.

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Atoms may be there

Margaret Cavendish, born 1623, the year of Donne’s Meditations.

Of Many Worlds in This World

Just like as in a nest of boxes round,
Degrees of sizes in each box are found.
So, in this world, may many others be
Thinner and less, and less still by degree:
Although they are not subject to our sense,
A world may be no bigger than two-pence.
Nature is curious, and such works may shape,
Which our dull senses easily escape:
For creatures, small as atoms, may be there,
If every one a creature's figure bear.
If atoms four, a world can make, then see
What several worlds might in an ear-ring be:
For millions of those atoms may be in
The head of one small, little, single pin.
And if thus small, then ladies may well wear
A world of worlds, as pendants in each ear.
Margaret Cavendish


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Number words

This week's Radio 4 Book of the Week was Daniel Tammet's Thinking in Numbers.

The final episode dealt with the beauty of a proof – lamenting, in passing, the disappointingly grinding nature of the computer-generated proof of the 4 colour map question.

A great proof is elegant, concise, spare; the work of an author with a recognisable voice & style.

Like a poem.

It was the language of this book – beautifully read by James Anthony Pearson, whose Lancashire vowels seemed so appropriate to the prose - which gripped the attention.

Adjectives, nouns, verbs which provide their own – unexpected but utterly right – similes, carefully arranged like polished stones.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

What is Page Three for?

If the editors of a tabloid newspaper believe that their readers deserve to see photos which millions of more privileged folk have already been able to view over their high speed broadband connection – well that is their right unless the photo is of the type proscribed by law, though there are lots of those on the web, too.

But what about the rights of those who do not want to gawp at the photo? By putting it on the front page the producers of the newspaper have ensured that people do not even have to buy a copy of the paper, & many will have to make a deliberate effort not to see it during their normal daily round, whether because they have to sell it, or because it is brazenly on sale in corner shop, station bookstall & supermarket, or being held up while being read by a fellow commuter.

It is now pretty much a commonplace that the only way for newspapers is down, as electronic or digital communications take over the world. So those involved in the industry feel that they have to compete on the same terms or lose even more business.

Book publishers are feeling the same kind of jitteriness, both of them convinced that they will go the way of the popular music album industry.

But if they get their business models right they may find that, as with radio & cinema, railways & buses, & even pubs, news of their demise is premature, but they do have to adapt their business model to the new circumstances, offer something that the internet cannot, not just ape its worst excesses, persuading their remaining customers that paper is not worth buying even as a wrapper for tomorrow’s fish & chips.

It’s not as if the press were being prevented from telling us about the existence of the photos. I think the tabloids are wrong if they really believe that a large proportion of their readers have no other way of seeing the evidence, if that is what they wish – more & more people have smart phones or even tablets, even if they do not have broadband connections & expensive laptops or PCs at home – though even the very elderly are getting on line at an ever more rapid rate – Skype being the surprisingly popular driver for this.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Statistical pregnancy

I was surprised last week to come across ‘pregnant’ being used as a direct synonym for ‘significant’; in its metaphorical uses I had always thought of pregnancy as conveying promise or potential rather than established fact or (near) certainty.

The OED has two separate entries for ‘pregnant.’ One traces the origin to classical Latin praegnant-, praegnāns: with child, pregnant, swollen, but surprisingly finds the earliest evidence of its use in English in the figurative sense of ‘Full of meaning, highly significant’, with a back-up quotation from 1402. But as very early evidence of publication bias, I like this one from Godwin in 1601:

Because my proofes are not pregnant ... I will pass him over in silence.

However, there is also a second entry for pregnant, a word ‘Apparently’ from Middle French meaning ‘Of an argument, proof, piece of evidence, etc.: compelling, cogent, convincing; clear, obvious’ – obviously P < 0.05

But the word has apparently (that word again) been associated in sense with the other kind of pregnant from an early date, and the two words are frequently difficult to distinguish, so the OED tags it as ‘Now rare, frequently with punning reference’ to the other kind of pregnant.

As modern usage of significant in the statistical sense is so sadly prone to misunderstandings I think it would be a very good idea from now on to adopt the use of ‘pregnant’ in its place. At least it would make people stop & ask for an explanation of what we mean by that.

And I love the image of Cern swelling with data until, finally, giving birth to compelling, cogent, convincing, clear, obvious proof of a little Higgs boson.

Being Statistically Significant Is Nothing Like Being Pregnant
Exploring the Significance of Pregnancy and Birth
[PDF] Pregnancy Decision Making as a Significant Life Event
At what point did you start looking "significantly pregnant"?
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Dependency, privilege & bankers bonuses

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Self contraception

Some fifteen to twenty years ago there was a piece of scientific research which attracted a fair amount of attention in the general news media. I believe it may have helped provide some of the ammunition for those who hold bizarre beliefs about the relationship between conception & rape. In particular the rather garbled attempt by Todd Akin to explain the mystical mechanism by which the body of a Good Woman can carry out its own homicidal revenge upon the seeds of the would-be progenitor.

Any scientific research which was casting doubt on the received wisdom that, in Nature, faithful, monogamous, heterosexual pairings were the norm, was proving ever more attractive to the media at that time. This particular research, as I remember it, looked at birds, specifically females who mated with two different males, with the time interval between the two events short enough to allow both sets of sperm to be, effectively, in a race for the prize of paternity.

The scientists reported that they had found a mechanism which allowed the female to privilege one set of sperm over another – in effect to choose the father, presumably the one who best met the criteria for genetic or evolutionary fitness. A kind of Athena’s gift of skill in the art of war. Not that she was actually in control of the process, you understand.

Naturally there was much popular speculation about whether the human female possessed a similar adaptation.

If the scientists found cases where the female rejected both candidates, then either this was not reported in the general press or my memory has faded.

But then the mind of a human has a capacious ability to hold & treasure bits of the results of all those studies or surveys or experiments which seem to offer support for their most cherished hypotheses or beliefs.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012


It was only when listening to Radio 4’s In Living Memory that I realised what a minority within a minority are women of my age who went to university after secondary education in a coeducational-school. Historical precedent, which meant the great majority of English secondary schools were single sex, was only abandoned, almost by accident, with comprehensivisation in the late 1960s.

By that time of course we had had universal secondary education for a scant quarter of a century, thanks to the Butler Education Act of 1944; before then, unless your parents could pay or you were lucky enough to win a scholarship, you stayed at the local elementary school & left at 14, possibly for further education in practical skills (art or mechanics or typing) at a local college.

When I think about it I cannot recall any non-fee-paying schools with which we had any contacts (such as in inter-school sports matches) which were not co-educational, completely against the national norm. My guess is that was because of the rural nature of the county – all schools were small & would have been completely unviable unless they catered to both boys & girls.

It would have been very different in the larger towns & cities, where ancient grammar schools for poor boys would have been supplemented from the late C19th by pioneering schools for girls.

The issue of whether single sex education produces better results than one which mixes delicate girls with rough boys (especially during the sensitive years of adolescence) is still a live one today. In truth, as with most things, I expect that it depends on the child. Some, like me, hate the idea of an all-girls school with only female teachers, so I can only be grateful for the accident of fate which meant that the whole of my education took place alongside boys.

It is only the children of our brains — ideas, ideals, opinions — which change so pitifully in a few short weeks that we may not even regard them with that tender regret wherewith we view the panoply of infancy, but instinctively draw back, and, if conscience did not stand sternly sponsor for them, would deny them for our own.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Roman dating

Been thinking a bit more about this business of using Roman numerals for dates & am wondering if there might not have been some misunderstanding between journalist Susan Mazur & the ‘spokesperson for the Department of English at Oxford’ who told her that it was something just not done outside of scholarly circles at Oxford & Cambridge. Maybe they had not understood that the question was about the use of old-fashioned typewriters – Oxbridge dons probably never used such distressingly new-fangled things themselves & the question was being answered in terms of dates written by hand.

Even today some people make a practice of using Roman numerals for dates – but lower case only & for months only eg 20.xii.2012. It is no mere affectation - it avoids confusion, ambiguity or misunderstandings – such as, for example, that which can arise in the use of 9/11

In my experience those who do this usually come from a science or mathematical background, & the practice is by no means confined to graduates of Oxford & Cambridge.

And I now notice that Peter Brookes, political cartoonist to The Times, also dates his cartoons in this manner.

Related posts

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Children of our brains

The Secret of the Machines

We were taken from the ore-bed and the mine,
We were melted in the furnace and the pit—
We were cast and wrought and hammered to design,
We were cut and filed and tooled and gauged to fit.
Some water, coal, and oil is all we ask,
And a thousandth of an inch to give us play:
And now, if you will set us to our task,
We will serve you four and twenty hours a day!

We can pull and haul and push and lift and drive,
We can print and plough and weave and heat and light,
We can run and race and swim and fly and dive,
We can see and hear and count and read and write!

Would you call a friend from half across the world?
If you’ll let us have his name and town and state,
You shall see and hear your crackling question hurled
Across the arch of heaven while you wait.
Has he answered? Does he need you at his side?
You can start this very evening if you choose,
And take the Western Ocean in the stride
Of seventy thousand horses and some screws!

The boat-express is waiting your command!
You will find the Mauretania at the quay,
Till her captain turns the lever ’neath his hand,
And the monstrous nine-decked city goes to sea.

Do you wish to make the mountains bare their head
And lay their new-cut forests at your feet?
Do you want to turn a river in its bed,
Or plant a barren wilderness with wheat?
Shall we pipe aloft and bring you water down
From the never-failing cisterns of the snows,
To work the mills and tramways in your town,
And irrigate your orchards as it flows?

It is easy! Give us dynamite and drills!
Watch the iron-shouldered rocks lie down and quake
As the thirsty desert-level floods and fills,
And the valley we have dammed becomes a lake.

But remember, please, the Law by which we live,
We are not built to comprehend a lie,
We can neither love nor pity nor forgive.
If you make a slip in handling us you die!
We are greater than the Peoples or the Kings—
Be humble, as you crawl beneath our rods!-
Our touch can alter all created things,
We are everything on earth—except The Gods!

Though our smoke may hide the Heavens from your eyes,
It will vanish and the stars will shine again,
Because, for all our power and weight and size,
We are nothing more than children of your brain!

Rudyard Kipling

Margaret Thatcher Speech opening conference on information technology 1982
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Saturday, August 18, 2012

The language of luck

There was a late night studio discussion of lottery millionaires on Radio 5 this week.

It is reported that cctv film exists which shows some kind man letting the latest big-time winner go ahead of him in the queue for tickets.

Those in the studio thought that this meant that, by this simple act of kindness, the Samaritan had also yielded up the winning ticket (on the assumption that both men used lucky dip rather than numbers they had selected themselves).

I do hope not.

I have not been able to find any information on the official site about how Camelot generates random selections, but the unofficial site tells us that each terminal has its own random number generating software.

So there really is no pre-allocated set of lucky dips to be distributed on a first-come-first served basis


However – last night on Any Questions, when Shaun Ley (giving us a lucky break from Jonathan Dimbleby as chairman) turned to take a poll of the views of the live audience on one point, he was careful to stress that this was a ‘highly unscientific’ poll, just an 'extremely random selection' of people who happened to be in the audience.

Very annoying, the way words can be made to mean whatever you want them to mean.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Gold medal for health & safety

Health & safety gets plenty of negative publicity when it, allegedly, stops ordinary people from enjoying themselves, but there has been much less trumpeting about its real successes

It is hard now to remember how much we used to take it for granted that some jobs were dangerous & could leave families without a breadwinner through death or injury at work. I remember a boy in my class whose father was killed by a locomotive engine which careered down the incline up which it was hauling limestone.

Very little was available in the way of compensation in those days & state benefits were, on the whole, dependent on your contributions to the National Insurance Fund. I was sanguine enough to feel ( or at least to hope) that working at a Saturday job in Woolworths at the age of 14 would not put me in a position of having to claim financial help on the strength of my weekly 1½d (I think) stamp for industrial injury or illness cover.

Among the less well known Olympic successes is the fact that not one construction worker died as a result of an accident on the site at Stratford, another achievement that can be put down to the meticulous planning, attention to detail, & training.

And while I am about it, McDonalds have not received enough credit for their role in recruiting & training the volunteers. Yes of course the volunteers deserve huge personal praise & thanks, but even the best need a good framework in which to work – clear but one which trusts their judgement while providing clarity of roles & good organisational backup


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Are you sure you are well?

The BMJ reports that an expert group has advised that information on the benefits & harms should be separated from invitations sent to individuals to attend for screening & should recognise that ‘not accepting the offer of screening is a reasonable choice’

About time too, though . I would prefer to substitute ‘rational’ for that ‘reasonable’.

Tueday’s Inside Health on Radio 4 discussed other aspects of the modern disease of over-diagnosis, with particular respect to something now labelled CKD or chronic kidney disease.

If you visit your GP today you will be lucky to find time to tell him what you think is the matter – so much of the time will be taken up with ‘preventative work’, intrusive questions about your ‘lifestyle’ & reviewing prescriptions for the drugs you have been asked to take in order to ‘reduce harm’ or ‘prevent death’ ‘at the population level’

There are still more battles to fight

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Looking forward to Christmas

A lot of people in this part of the country must suddenly be feeling very uncertain about their future – a rapid let down from any post-Olympics euphoria.

Virgin have lost the contract to run the train service between Manchester & London, something which they have been doing for 15 years.

There have of course been gripes about the service – especially the ridiculously high fares for anyone unable or unwilling to book ages in advance & then travel only on the trains (there & back) specified on the ticket - but morale seems to be high among staff compared to some other operators.

The announcement from the Department for Transport is silent about what will happen to Virgin staff, though one imagines that, with only 16½ weeks to go before the transfer most will, initially at least, be invited to stay. Add to that all the station staff, suppliers, concession holders & a lot of people may not be looking forward to Christmas.

Manchester’s Piccadilly Station is also going to get a new look without all that Virgin scarlet.

Let us hope there are no nasty hitches to interrupt travel over the Christmas holidays.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Prize statistics

Very pleased to see that the Ministry of Justice’s Analytical Services, have won this years prize for excellence in official statistics for its statistical work following the public disorder of August 2011.

Royal Statistical Society: Winners of Excellence in Official Statistics award
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Riot studies

Monday, August 13, 2012

I was one

David Aaronovitch had a column in last Thursday’s Times about the Dorak Affair (of which I had never heard) which hindered the career of British archaeologist James Mellaart, the discoverer of Catal Hoyuk (of which I have heard & read with great pleasure).

The story behind the Dorak Affair sounds as if it were drawn from the pages of one of those old-fashioned adventure spy stories – John Buchan meets Eric Ambler with a touch of Conan Doyle – but otherwise I am completely unqualified to pronounce on its likely veracity.

I was however intrigued by a single detail from the scant documentary evidence, on which Aaronovitch hangs his own theory of what happened.

A letter, purportedly from the mystery beauty who met Mallaart on a Turkish train, uses a capital ‘I’ to represent the figure ‘1’ in dates. Letters typed by Mallaart’s wife during that same period use the same trope.

Aaronovitch tells us that the same point was picked up by Suzan Mazur, who wrote about the Dorak affair for Scoop in 2005 quoting only this use of the letter I in support of her contention that the two women shared ‘identical style features’ in their typescripts. Mazur also quotes a spokesperson for the Department of English at Oxford who said that ‘outside Oxford/Cambridge scholarly circles dating a letter with Roman numerals is just not done and was not done, even 40 years ago’.

Well that is just not the case. Early typewriters (such as the one we had at home when I was a girl), the all-metal heavy ones with letters attached to the ends of metal rods, frequently lacked numerical keys for both nought and one. Letter O stood in for zero, but it was a matter of personal taste whether capital ‘I’ or lower case ‘l’ did duty for figure one. Many people preferred I –& not just in dates; the picture of Mellaart’s letter to the bank which is included in the Scoop article shows 'I' being used consistently for both serial numbers & money.

Perhaps the Hedgehog family was too irredeemably non-u to understand which things were just not done, but my mother had her 1930s shorthand & typing certificates from school, worked first in an office before she made her escape, & she taught me to use ‘I’. But then she was always keen that her daughter be independent minded.

One’s preference might well depend on the font being used. With many fonts the use of a lower case l will leave an annoying & distracting gap before the next digit & put columns of figures out of line; this is avoided by the use of capital I

And Stephen Fry, who is never wrong about anything, told us not so long ago, on Radio 4 no less, that the QWERTY keyboard was designed to make dates easier to type by placing the I just below the 8.


Related posts

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Time & memory

My grandfather's clock was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor;
It was taller by half than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.
It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born,
And was always his treasure and pride;
But it stopp'd short — never to go again —
When the old man died.

Ninety years without slumbering
(tick, tick, tick, tick),
His life seconds numbering,
(tick, tick, tick, tick),
It stopp'd short — never to go again —
When the old man died.

In watching its pendulum swing to and fro,
Many hours had he spent while a boy;
And in childhood and manhood the clock seemed to know
And to share both his grief and his joy.
For it struck twenty-four when he entered at the door,
With a blooming and beautiful bride;
But it stopped short — never to go again —
When the old man died.


My grandfather said that of those he could hire,
Not a servant so faithful he found;
For it wasted no time, and had but one desire —
At the close of each week to be wound.
And it kept in its place — not a frown upon its face,
And its hands never hung by its side.
But it stopp'd short — never to go again —
When the old man died.


It rang an alarm in the dead of the night —
An alarm that for years had been dumb;
And we knew that his spirit was pluming for flight —
That his hour of departure had come.
Still the clock kept the time, with a soft and muffled chime,
As we silently stood by his side;
But it stopp'd short — never to go again —
When the old man died.

Grandfather's clock

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Peas & pods

One sentence in Kuhn made me laugh.

In a passage discussing how scientific education equips students to work within the current paradigms by offering precise & systematic versions of everything they need to know form the work of the giants on whose shoulders they stand, rather than requiring them to read the original works of Newton or Einstein, Schrodinger or Harvey (still less those of Galen or Priestley) he includes the following sentence:
Of course, it is a narrow & rigid education, probably more so than any other except perhaps in orthodox theology.
Just as in politics, where the extreme Right have more in common with the extreme Left than either would care to admit, so it is with the extremes of other orthodxies

Related posts

Friday, August 10, 2012

A nice coincidence

One of my primary school teachers had a real down on ‘nice’. Only lazy children used it as an all-purpose word; we were to make a more considered choice of adjectives to describe exactly what was nice about the experience we were describing in our essay.

There was one exception where the use of the word nice was allowed – when it was used in its original sense, of precise, exact or fine (as in nice distinction).

So I could not help but smile when, after yesterday’s railings about the over-nice insistence on maintaining the distinction between precision & accuracy,even in crossword clues, the Times cryptic crossword #25,237, which was providing diversion on my bus journey this lunchtime, contained the following:

Clue: Not very nice politician, in rage, is disrupting church

Answer: Imprecise

The OED’s entry on nice contains many shades of meaning, many of which have nothing to do with either accuracy or precision, but several examples of illustrative quotations added a further quota of wry amusement to my day:

7. That requires or involves great precision or accuracy. Now rare.

Example: American. Economic. Review (1911): It is by nice experiment and comparison that the precise point is determined.

8c. Precise in correspondence; exact, closely judged.
Example: C. S. Forester Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950): He revelled in the nice calculation of chances.

10a. That enters minutely into details; meticulous, attentive, sharp. Obsolete

12. a. Minutely or carefully accurate.
Example: W. Cather Professor's House (1925): He never acquired a nice laboratory technic. He would fail repeatedly in some perfectly sound experiment because of careless procedure.

12b. Of an instrument or apparatus: capable of showing minute differences; finely poised or adjusted. Obs.
Example: T. Percival Essays Medical. & Experimental (1776): A watery dew ...which being committed to a nice scale, may probably be found to be equal in gravity to a drop of rain.

making the ethereal real

Radio 4’s Book of the Week is Andrew Blum’s Tubes: Behind the scenes at the internet & I was lucky enough to find a copy available to borrow in the library on the day I heard the first episode – I wanted to be able to read the whole story.

Blum writes vividly & at first I thought I might be in for something as heart-stopping as William Russell’s account of the attempt to lay the first transatlantic cable, but the internet, though a fascinating & satisfying story has not, at least in those areas of the world where Blum went to inspect it, involved exposure to such physical dangers, alarms & excursions.

I was surprised to learn from this book that the first transatlantic telephone cable was laid only in 1955 – radio buoys were used before then.

Blum does acknowledge the achievements of those who laid that very first Atlantic cable, dubbing the man who he, rather touchingly (to British ears) calls Kingdom Brunel, the patron saint of the triumph of technology over space.

I also learnt from this book that the vital process of making connections between networks is called ‘peering’ with two e’s. Having only heard the word before I had assumed it was spelled p-i-e-r as in docking.

John Schwab read the book for Radio 4 & so English ears have had to get used to hearing a word which sounds like rowter for the ubiquitous bits of kit which form the basic building blocks of the internet; it’s a good job Feedback is off the air or there would be complaints. English network engineers may well pronounce it so when dealing with fellow professionals, but it is unlikely Londoners will take a Rowtmaster bus any time soon.


Related posts

Thursday, August 09, 2012


The Royal Statistical Society invites contributions to a column called Forsooth!

As the OED explains, sooth, as a word meaning truth, was in common use down to the first half of the C17th when it became pretty much obsolete, & forsooth (in truth, truly) is now only used parenthetically with an ironical or derisive statement. Readers of the column are thus invited or expected to feel derision for the hapless author of some statistical or arithmetic solecism

I have to admit that sometimes I am myself too ignorant to understand the mockers’ point, but sometimes I think an entry a mere indulgence of the kind that gets statisticians a bad name.

This month the statisticians have chosen to have a go at a mere crossword setter (& their editor), who allowed the answer ‘accuracy’ to the one-word definitional clue ‘precision

I love, find useful & have frequently taught the distinction which exists – in the minds of statisticians & engineers at least – between precision & accuracy, & have sometimes railed at misleading precision of estimates, but I do not feel the need to give lectures or try to impose restrictions on the use of these two words in language generally. To do so would be presumptuous & hopeless, unless & until the data revolution makes its adoption by the wider public natural & useful.

The dictionaries & thesauruses I have consulted all give precision as a definition or synonym for accuracy, & vice versa.

The OED finds no examples of the distinction between precision being used to describe ‘The degree of refinement in a measurement, calculation, or specification, esp. as represented by the number of digits given. Contrasted with accuracy (the closeness of the measurement, etc., to the correct value)’ before 1842 in a refernce to a table of ‘Logarithmic Sines and Tangents to four decimal figures ... convenient in many computations not requiring greater precision’.

To find a quotation which uses accuracy in this nice sense (‘The closeness of a measurement, calculation, or specification to the correct value. Contrasted with precision (the degree of refinement of the measurement, etc.’) we have to wait for an 1876 Handbook on electricity: ‘We can thus determine the value of a resistance to an accuracy of 1/ 100th of a unit.’

It is the mark of an educated mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision that the nature of the subject admits & not to seek exactness when only an approximation is possible – Aristotle

Forsooth August 2012
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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Populating the world

“No words can exaggerate the importance in my opinion of our colonisation for the future history of the world”
Well nobody is perfect, every hero said or believed things which his followers would rather not have to excuse or explain: Larkin’s racist misogyny, Newton’s alchemy …

And Charles Darwin’s objections to the use of ‘artificial checks’ to human population growth, despite the fact that the works of Thomas Malthus helped to inspire his own ideas of evolution through natural selection in the struggle for existence. Let the fittest produce the most progeny in the interests of a better world.

The introductory quotation for this post comes from a letter which Charles Darwin wrote in 1878 to Jane Hume Clapperton in which he explained that he had lately been giving much thought to the question of artificial methods of birth control. If Britain had not had people who were surplus to its own requirements & so were available to go out & populate, as well as to govern, New South Wales (not to mention America, New Zealand & South Africa) the history of the world would be very different &, by implication, poorer.

And, to make matters even worse, the general availability of contraceptive methods would, almost inevitably, lead to ‘extreme profligacy’ among unmarried women.

And yet, he allowed, the use of such methods might prove to bring unspecified advantage to the world, but only in ‘the distant future’

And so, as Edna Healy acidly observed, ‘year after year, in the cause of national morality & the British Empire, Emma had to bear the pain & discomfort of repeated pregnancies’ & Charles Darwin could continue to wonder if he had, through his own defective genetic heritage, been morally responsible for inflicting pain & illness on his own progeny.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Judging by appearances

In his 1986 biography of Sir Arthur Sullivan Arthur Jacobs (himself Jewish) devotes an appendix to consideration of the composer’s ‘supposed Jewish connection’

The idea that Sullivan was Jewish was fairly common during his lifetime but is based on no evidence other than his appearance &, through examples such as Mendelssohn & Offenbach, the association of the idea of the romantic, commercially successful composer with Jewishness, as well as far-fetched claims about the origin of his name. These assertions, from the unfriendly & from sources such as the C19th Jewish Yearbook and those who, in the words of a poem written by one Reverend AA Green cannot resist ‘writing to the papers that the great men, all, are Jews’.

Such obsessions with assigning origins always reflect the preoccupations & anxieties, fears & enmities of the age. In mid-November 1919, just months after the Treaty of Versailles, at the conclusion of an article about the theory of relativity which he wrote exclusively for The Times, Albert Einstein took the paper gently to task for describing him as a ‘Swiss Jew.’

By an application of the theory of relativity to the taste of readers, today in Germany I am called a German man of science, & in England I am represented as a Swiss Jew. If I come to be regarded as a bête noire, the descriptions will be reversed, & I shall become a Swiss Jew for the Germans & a German man of science for the English
Arthur Jacobs simply dismisses, parenthetically & with an exclamation mark,Francillon's claim , which was repeated in a 1971 biography written by Percy M Young, that Sir Arthur Sullivan’s swarthiness was explained by his being partly negro.

In this context it intrigues me that the face of the Olympics, national treasure, nation’s darling & now gold medal winner Jessica Ennis is never described by the media as black, in the way that, for example, is Lewis Hamilton & many others of mixed race parentage. I like to think that this is a hopeful sign, though of course since there is nothing at all novel in her status – Ennis is a long way from being the first black Olympic champion - the omission may simply reflect the fact that, for a journalist, it is simply not a story.
Seb Coe described her as a Sheffield girl, a member of the same athletic club which he joined as a youngster.

Simon Barnes called her ‘Britain’s magnificent Mona Lisa’ in The Times. From my own point of view that inscrutability, combined with a slight hawkish cast to her profile, provokes the fancy that, with a father who comes from the melting pot of Jamaica, she probably has some Lebanese or Syrian blood in her!

The irony & confusion in all this is made even more delicious by the observation by Ashling O’Connor, writing also in The Times, that Somalian-born but British hope Mo Farah might 'break a 28-year African monopoly in the 10,000 metres'.

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Monday, August 06, 2012

Dating confusion

When I were a lass a date involved going to the pictures or a dance, possibly a formal dinner dance such as the annual Young Farmers bash, or sometimes just a walk in the country. A more sophisticated version might involve a concert, theatre, and/or dinner in a restaurant. At the end of the evening the man/boy would probably escort you to your front door, at which point you faced a dilemma: should you let him kiss you goodnight on the doorstep, or (if you lived alone) invite him in for a cup of coffee. The latter would be only polite, especially as he had probably paid for the meal & the entertainment, but there was always the danger that he might consider it a coded invitation to more than you were prepared to offer.

After two or more dates he might graduate to the status of boyfriend with whom you were going steady. You would not go out on dates with anyone else

There might be some (extremely safe) sex involved – hand holding & kissing, but never on a first date. And you never made love, the euphemism of choice at the time (to have sex would have been far too crude), not least because of the fear of pregnancy.

Well that was the theory (or pretence).

Modern couples do not date in this sense – instead they appear to have meetings, which I infer are chaste affairs. When people admit to dating they are, in shocking fact, announcing to the world that they are actually sleeping with each other. The first date has replaced the wedding night.

I still have not grasped all the niceties of this modern language however. If you are dating, is your status still single?

And when does a date become a partner? Only when you start living with each other?

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Just good friends?
No kissing allowed

The weather. Whatever

Yesterday we were promised thunder & heavy rain.

We got mostly dull & overcast, but bright sun in the afternoon; no rain at all, at least nothing heavy enough to see or hear from inside the house.

The bad stuff just seems to have swept round us in a circle - floods were reported in Pembrokeshire, near Chester, and in north Manchester

The sky turned very black for a time this morning, but even that went away. The neighbours took the chance to hose the green mould beginning to show on the paths, &, as I type this, the sun is shining once again.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The Thread of Life

The irresponsive silence of the land,
The irresponsive sounding of the sea
Speak both one message of one sense to me:–
Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand
Thou too aloof bound with the flawless band
Of inner solitude; we bind not thee;
But who from thy self-chain shall set thee free?
What heart shall touch thy heart? what hand thy hand?–
And I am sometimes proud and sometimes meek,
And sometimes I remember days of old
When fellowship seemed not so far to seek
And all the world and I seemed much less cold,
And at the rainbow’s foot lay surely gold,
And hope felt strong and life itself not weak.

Thus am I mine own prison. Everything
Around me free and sunny and at ease:
Or if in shadow, in a shade of trees
Which the sun kisses, where the gay birds sing
And where all winds make various murmuring;
Where bees are found, with honey for the bees;
Where sounds are music, and where silences
Are music of an unlike fashioning.
Then gaze I at the merrymaking crew,
And smile a moment and a moment sigh
Thinking: Why can I not rejoice with you?
But soon I put the foolish fancy by:
I am not what I have nor what I do;
But what I was I am, I am even I.

Therefore myself is that one only thing
I hold to use or waste, to keep or give;
My sole possession every day I live,
And still mine own despite Time’s winnowing.
Ever mine own, while moons and seasons bring
From crudeness ripeness mellow and sanitive;
Ever mine own, till Death shall ply his sieve;
And still mine own, when saints break grave and sing.
And this myself as king unto my King
I give, to Him Who gave Himself for me;
Who gives Himself to me, and bids me
he bids me sing: O death, where is thy sting?
And sing: O grave, where is thy victory?

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Human evaluation

I have been reading the ONS report on Human Capital Estimates by Richard Jones and Valerie Fender which I missed when it came out in December.

The very phrase ’human capital’ can cause uneasiness in anyone who has ever seen the records of the Slave Compensation Commission which put a value on each slave – sometimes in chilling language – as part of the reckoning of reparation due to the plantation owners for their loss of assets following Emancipation, or read William Gladstone’s maiden speech to Parliament in 1833 arguing for better terms for the ‘West India interest’ of which his own father was a prominent member. So it comes as something of a relief to find that the United Nations System of Accounts makes it perfectly clear that expenditure on human capital investments should not be treated as fixed assets because, “they are embodied in the individuals as persons” and “cannot be transferred to others and cannot be shown in the balance sheets of the enterprises in which the individuals work” ...

The work extends a meaty intellectual challenge & the authors present a useful summary of recent thinking , with references going back to Petty & Farr, settling in the end for an approach based essentially on discounted future income streams.

On this basis the UK's human capital stock in 2010 was £17.12 trillion, more than two-and-a-half times the estimated value of the UK's tangible assets, (buildings, vehicles, plant and machinery etc) for the beginning of 2010, but £130 billion lower than the estimate for the human capital stock in 2009.

That this could happen, despite improvements in educational attainments and increased longevity, is entirely down to the fall in real wages caused by the recession.


Friday, August 03, 2012

Putting circulation into circulation

I have just been reading Thomas Wright’s splendid book, Circulation, about William Harvey’s revolutionary idea, an example of a paradigm shift if ever there was one. (I have also just been reading Kuhn, for the first time I think. Although was first published when I was an undergraduate & we certainly heard all about it, I think I would have thought it necessary to be able to appreciate fully the scientific examples he quotes – far too daunting for me at that stage.)

Setting Harvey’s anatomical work firmly within the intellectual & political ferments of the time, Wright shows him clearly learning to see scientific problems in terms of other, practical, concrete examples, & to formulate descriptions of his new scientific law (or what Kuhn called a law-sketch) in language which would be familiar to any educated reader.

Circulation, as a word & an idea, was very much in the air – for example in relation to the problem of making it possible for wheeled traffic to move unhindered through the streets of London, or in describing the toing & froing of goods (& money) between the capital, the rest of the country & the newly expanded greater world.

And so, with his book on the circulation of the blood, Harvey had become ‘a lightning rod for the intellectual forces & language of his time … His theory seemed orderly, graceful & comprehensible … precisely because it relied so heavily on common cultural ideas & metaphors.’

This is the kind of writing – addressed, by such as Franklin in his Electricity or Darwin’s Origins, to anyone who might be interested - which Kuhn identified with the introduction of a new paradigm. Scientists who share an established model, who conduct ‘normal science,’ learn to describe the subtler & more esoteric aspects of their subject in language that can be understood only by other practitioners in the field.

London’s water supply gave Harvey one of his examples of practical circulation, not least because accusations that the College of Physicians, of which he was one of the ‘Elect’, had been stealing water from the mains, led to his being sent to appear before the Star Chamber to defend the doctors' practice, which meant that he had to learn more about the system for delivering clean water to the city’s homes & businesses.

The medieval scheme of open water courses was being replaced by a network of cisterns, fountains & conduits which were less vulnerable to pollution from the disgusting detritus freely deposited by the city’s inhabitants, both human & animal. These conduits were in fact lead pipes, but I suppose the possible risks of lead poisoning were considered nugatory when compared to those of the plague & other contagions.

Incidentally, John Donne is described on the book jacket as Harvey’s ’recalcitrant patient’, though the text itself contains no specific reference to Donne’s treatment for relapsing fever, or even any references to anything other than the fact that Donne must have been well aware of Harvey’s anatomical explorations.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The smell of recession

I have identified an unmistakable sign of recession affecting small business.

Chip shops changing their oil less frequently than they should

The smell is unmistakable. Impossible to hide

Threatens to make matters worse, send them spiralling down, as their previously high (in a good sense) reputation is shot to pieces.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The logic of disease

Yesterday’s Inside Health on Radio 4 dealt with liver disease.

Two thirds of deaths from liver disease in this country do not involve people who have drunk to excess.

Only 1 in 6 of those who do drink to excess fall victim to fatty liver disease.

Pathologists & clinicians cannot tell the difference between alcoholic & non-alcoholic fatty liver disease on the basis of signs & symptoms alone; the distinction depends on the patient’s story.

So there must be at least a logical possibility that alcohol is not necessarily the cause of liver disease even in a heavy drinker

BBC Radio 4 Inside Health: Liver disease