Friday, November 30, 2012

Tickled my fancy

Recent blog posts I liked

Ah, the archive! - the joys of dusty research.

Putting some numbers on the value of the London Olympic Games

A link to the interactive map of local demographic changes since 2001

Welfare reform & not paying the rent - Explains some of the particular problems of managing cash flow on a very tight budget

Single Moms Can’t Be Scapegoated for the Murder Rate Anymore - as if they ever could
The half life of facts

I give up, I am embracing pie charts
“’Pie charts are a very bad way of displaying information. The eye is good at judging linear measures and bad at judging relative areas. A bar chart or dot chart is a preferable way of displaying this type of data’ … So why are they ubiquitous? The best explanation I’ve heard is that they are easy to make in Microsoft Excel”
Such rubbish could be written only by someone from a generation which never had to draw all their charts by hand.

That Was Then, This Is Now – Satire from JFK to Savile
In the good old days of the BBC “The producer was responsible. There was no referral upwards. It was your responsibility and if you made a mistake you were carpeted [by your boss] and then your boss defended you to the hilt.

Summing up Alan Turing - a minimalist whose "brilliant mind was sparsely furnished”

Goodnight Nanny-Cam - stuff [for] the modern baby

And finally:
Almost All of the First 50 Billion Groups Have Order 1024

Society of sisters

The other day The Times, of all newspapers, made the surprising claim that until recently London - renowned for its august men-only clubs, (the sort of place where men from the right sort of social class go to get away from their wives & eat nursery food) - had no comparable establishment which catered for  women only.

One would have thought that those who work on the former Top Peoples paper would be well-aware of the University Women’s Club, founded 1886 & still going strong.

But then the article in which the claim was made was giving a rather breathless plug to two new developments which are aimed at the modern fashionably health-conscious woman, regardless of her education or profession (though not her income).


Thursday, November 29, 2012


We had the first real frost of this winter last night. Even at midday the tops of gates & the entire should-be green surface of front lawns shaded from the sun were still hoar & rimed with grey.

Fortunately it had not been cold enough to freeze the puddles, nor to make for treacherous going underfoot

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Men have named you

I was surprised to read in The Times that Mona (as in Mona Lisa) is a common Italian short-form of Madonna, meaning My lady.

Except that a quick bit of Google research brings up many other explanations & origins – Wikipedia has a nice summary table.

That set me wondering about Monica. No relation, apparently, though she was St Augustine’s mother & is the patron saint of married women.

Moniker, an English slang term for any name, is of uncertain origin.

If you are a mathematician you will of course be familiar with the idea of a monic polynomial.

You should be particularly cautious in using the name Mona at a football ground, especially if you are the referee. According to the OED it is the name of a kind of monkey with a bluish-grey face and a pink muzzle.

Wikipedia: Mona (name)
Wikipedia: Monica (given name)
Related post
Madam Madonna
Football goes bananas


Is somebody trying to tell us something? Yet more Canadian coincidences, courtesy of the BBC.

Last night, in the space between the end of the live concert on Radio 3 & the beginning of Night Waves, the announcer gave a plug to tonight’s concert which will include – Benjamin Britten’s Canadian Carnival. And then, by way of a taster, played us a recording of Britten’s Young Apollo which was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and was first performed in that country in 1939. The composer was the soloist.

The announcer told us how this work was inspired by a line from Keats Hyperion:

"He stands before us - the new, dazzling Sun-god, quivering with radiant vitality."

That seems OTT, even though great things are expected of Mark Carney as the next Governor of the Bank of England.

Related post

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I am Clara voyant

My Delphic clue was there for those who looked for it – from next July we shall be hearing more Canadian voices on the BBC.

Well, one at least, as spoken by the new Governor of the Bank of England.

I note however with some concern that not only does this mark another small step in the takeover of the world by Goldman Sachs, but also of those with late C20th first class degrees in PPE from the University of Oxford. The governor’s wife has one of those, as do the Prime Minister & Mr & Mrs Balls.

Related posts

Monday, November 26, 2012

Barbarians to their neighbours

I was taken aback to hear Andrew Marr introduce Gisela Stuart as ‘a barbarian’ on Start the Week this morning. Not nice, even if it was meant to be a jokey way of referring to the fact that, though an MP, she is not English by birth
The word fell from his lips several times more during the discussion on Germany & the EU. By then of course, I had realised that he was pronouncing Bavarian with a very long first a – perhaps even allowing an r to intrude. An English one, of course, not a Scottish one.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Fit for a purpose

“CMS and ATLAS have taken all their Higgs data and performed a fit …”

Oh dear! I misread that at first to mean ‘had a fit’ as in “A mortal crisis; a bodily state (whether painful or not) that betokens death” or “A paroxysm, or one of the recurrent attacks, of a periodic or constitutional ailment”.

The strain of searching for Higgs Boson, of trying to decide if there are enough sigmas in the results, must finally have become too much, I thought.

But no it is just another episode in the story from the Collider blog - Higgs couplings to fermions and massive vector bosons

I understand next to nothing of this stuff, but I still love reading it.


Pressing pause

Two poems about time by that strange man, Ralph Hodgson


Spiralwise it spins
And twirls about the Sun,
Both with and withershins
At once, a dual run
Anomalously one;
Its speed is such it gains
Upon itself: outsped.
Outdistanced, it remains
At every point ahead,
No less at all points led.
At none with either strains
Or lapses in the rush
Of its almighty vanes
To mar the poise or hush;
Comparing it for speed:
Lightning is a snail
That pauses on its trail
From bank to underbrush,
Mindful of its need,
With dawn astir, to feed
Before the morning thrush;
Comparing it for poise:
The tops we spun to sleep,
Seemingly so deep
Stockstill, when we were boys,
No more than stumbled round,
Boxwoods though they were,
The best we ever wound
Or whipped of all such toys;
Comparing it for sound:
The wisp of gossamer
Caught in a squirrel's fur.
Groans like a ship aground;
Shadow makes more noise.
Ralph Hodgson

Time, You Old Gipsy Man

Time, you old gipsy man,
Will you not stay?
Put up your caravan
Just for one day?

All things I'll give you
Will you be my guest,
Bells for your jennet
Of silver the best,
Goldsmiths shall beat you
A great golden ring,
Peacocks shall bow to you,
Little boys sing.
Oh, and sweet girls will
Festoon you with may,
Time, you old gipsy,
Why hasten away?

Last week in Babylon,
Last night in Rome,
Morning, and in the crush
Under Paul's dome;
Under Paul's dial
You tighten your rein -
Only a moment,
And off once again;
Off to some city
Now blind in the womb,
Off to another
Ere that's in the tomb.

Time, you old gipsy man,
Will you not stay,
Put up your caravan
Just for one day?

Related post

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The weather. Whatever.

I find it rather ominous that flooded homes & businesses or disruptions to transport have not been leading the news bulletins this week, sometimes barely got a mention.

News no longer, just everyday life for normal folk.

What everybody is talking about

Two conversations overheard on the bus today.

One young single mum talking to the young man who was with her (not the baby’s father): No, no -When you rent a flat you don’t get the electricity & everything thrown in.

Another young woman counselling another: But then you need … and a landline … you’ll probably need £600 a month … Well, OK, maybe only 300 – but still …

Cost of living (or the weather), that’s almost all anybody out & about seems to be talking about.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Fifty shades of gold

A Times story about the physiotherapist who helps Jessica Ennis – the painful nature of her ministrations in pursuit of perfect fitness - reminded me of how disturbing I found some of the stories about what Olympic athletes put themselves through in order to achieve their goals. In other circumstances we might think that such behaviour was itself something which required treatment, or at least counselling, with the aim of encouraging the patient to take a more balanced view of reward & punishment.

Related post

Hot water bottles

We have been warned about the dangers of hot water bottles. They can burn you.

A study, published to coincide with the official launch of a new research unit StAAR - a partnership between Anglia Ruskin University and the world-renowned St Andrew's Centre for Plastic Surgery and Burns based at Mid Essex Hospitals Trust – found that half of all injuries were the result of the hot water bottle bursting, spontaneously in two thirds of cases.

Quentin Frew, Visiting Clinical Fellow, said:

“What we have seen at the hospital is only the tip of the iceberg, as the majority of these cases go unreported. People try and manage the burns themselves, often because they are embarrassed about what they have done or the area they have burnt, such as their genitalia.

Anecdotally we have seen an increase in burns caused by hot water bottles in the last couple of years. It could be that more people are using them as a cost-effective way of keeping warm or it could be that people are buying cheaper hot water bottles over the internet from abroad. That's why we encourage people to look for the Kitemark safety standard when buying hot water bottles."
Marks & Spencer confirmed to The Times that their online sales of hot water bottles have increased.

Warning noted, but I shall continue to depend on mine. I always rely on the old-fashioned uncovered kind – that way, as we were taught as children, you can spot any signs of the rubber beginning to perish & ditch the potentially treacherous thing.

Related post

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Yankee doodling

We seem to be getting an unusually large number of North American contributors to BBC radio speech programmes at the moment – no doubt to the irritation of those who cling to the belief that only RP is fit to be heard on national radio.

In one case I was left feeling that they may have a point. Four Thought – a series of 15 minute lectures to an invited audience, usually in London, is collaborating with American PBS radio to bring us a sequence from America. I found it very hard to follow Maria Popova’s fast, flat delivery – the impression she gave was of reading with her head down, an impression reinforced by the number of quotations she gave from other writers. Which was a great pity, because her subject – how, in an internet age, can we find the information we do not know we want to know – is one in which I am very interested, but am left not much wiser.

Perhaps Ms Popova would benefit from something like the Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers initiative, which last week brought us a real star in the Radio 3 Essay slot. Matthew Smith, a Canadian currently at Strathclyde University spoke about the history of allergy, & pondered whether the way in which doctors & medical researchers can sometimes divide into antagonistic camps over issues (he mentioned breast screening as another example) is really the best way of getting to a solution. The Essay is usually just a solo studio broadcast, but last week the speakers were recorded live before an audience at the Gateshead Free Thinking festival. Matthew Smith gave a relaxed, witty performance, but got a serious message across. I confess though that my feeling is that we don’t hear enough Canadian accents on the BBC.

This week, just two hours after Ms Popova, we got a real treat: Michael Cunningham, a wonderful phrase maker with a wry, self-deprecating but friendly delivery, giving the third in a special series of the Radio 3 Essay to mark Thanksgiving, on American comfort food. I don’t think that this is in collaboration with American radio but the contributors all seem to be speaking from New York.

We learned about the surprising history of macaroni cheese, originally a luxury available only to the rich, which came within reach of the less monied classes once store cheese was invented in Philadelphia. At first I thought this must be the familiar cream cheese, upon which Adam Gopnik had treated us to a disquisition when rhapsodising about cheesecake in Monday night’s Essay, but no, store cheese is orange. As a child, Cunningham actually preferred the bland manufactured variety to his mother’s more flavoursome home made version. of macaroni cheese which could be bought in a cardboard box - not as a latterday microwavable chilled ready meal, but to be mixed with water & heated up, like a Vesta curry.

About as authentic as my calling it, ‘macaroni cheese’, as is the English custom (not sure about the Scots). Americans call it macaroni and cheese.

Related post

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tickled my fancy

Recent blog posts I liked

Word of the year

Very clever post - & at least now I know what gif means, but is that a hard g as in gift? Otherwise it sounds like the product I used to clean the bath with.

Think like a data journalist

Finally journalists doing more than simply regurgitate statistical press releases. Interesting to see how much they rely on ONS

Managing a vacation

And you thought choosing the best energy deal was a nightmare

Alcohol in pregnancy and IQ of children

At least I understand now what the import of business with alleles is. Relies on just one measure of IQ at age 8, however.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Discontinuities as make me despair

We had another power cut this morning

The weather has been quite windy & wet; the council, not before time, is mending some local pavements – either might provide the explanation (overhead lines blowing down, a careless workman putting a digger through a cable).

Things were back to normal about 75 minutes later – not too bad, considering. But please let us not have another Christmas like the last one.

Strangely, as I was passing the bottom of the lane the door to the substation creaked noisily in a gust of wind – unusual that.

It used to be housed in one of those metal boxes surrounded by a spiked fence, but as part of the upgrade for the new estate they built a stone house round it, so it blends in, like an extra garage for one of the houses. As far as I could see the bolt was firmly in place, but maybe that was where the fault lay & the repairmen just hadn’t pushed the door home firmly enough when they left.

As I was coming home down the hill last night I realised that nice smooth pavement surfaces may not be an unmixed blessing, cometh the ice & snow. A broken, uneven surface offers no scope for patches of smooth black ice, but the relatively mild frost on top of the rain water was making the new surface a mite treacherous.

Related post

The direction of free trade

In 1907 Parliament once again concerned itself with problems arising from the competition between butter & margarine – a longish Act with 14 separate sections.

Manufacturers of margarine had to gain approval from the Board of Agriculture & Fisheries for the names under which their products were marketed. The new Act barred the approval of any such name which ‘refers to or is suggestive of butter or anything connected with the dairy industry.’

These days it is often popularly supposed that regulations about the straightness of bananas, or the re-definition of carrot as a fruit for the purpose of jam making, are dreamed up in Brussels by over-paid busybodies who have nothing better to do. We want free trade, they say, but not this nonsense.

Trade is not fettered solely by the imposition of import duties. What could be more limiting than governments deciding by what name you may call your wonderful product?

I am old enough to remember the fuss about jam in the 1960s; the mothers of England complained that some of the stuff sold in the shops, bearing the label of strawberry jam, was nothing more than water, pectin, sugar, dye & artificial flavouring.

Strawberry jam ought to have strawberries in it. And so it came to pass – anything sold as jam had to contain a certain minimum proportion of fruit. Brussels had nothing to do with it.

Other countries may well have their own rules, so we can hardly have free trade in Europe if I can’t sell my jam in Germany, & Portugal cannot sell theirs in Spain, & some countries cannot sell there own jam even at home. So, in due course, the rules get harmonised, we have a plethora of products called not jam but conserve, preserve, or spread. And yes, Brussels says carrot is a fruit.

There’s nothing modern about government stepping in to control trade in all sorts of ways, not just through the imposition of protective duties.

We don’t complain so much about governments keeping tight grip on the control of weights & measures, what we are allowed to call a yard, a pound, a gramme or a litre. At about the same time as Parliament was bringing in yet more laws to control margarine, it also passed one to legalise the use of the traditional Scottish measures of cran & quarter-cran for the trading of fresh herring in England & Wales.

Most of all, for most of the time, we rely on government to control the value of the currency

Related posts

Monday, November 19, 2012

Policing the police

Can a former police officer carry out independent oversight of the police on behalf of the public or is he bound to be too much ‘one of them’?

Such is the concern that has been expressed by some in reaction to the news that at least 12 of the 41 newly elected (sort of) Police & Crime Commissioners for England & Wales are themselves former police officers.

However since quite a few of them never rose to the ranks of senior management themselves, I wonder if the motive might have more to do with scores to settle, by men who hold unenthusiastic views of the management under which they served.

But then I get too many of my ideas from bolshie fictional policemen such as Banks & Rebus


Divided we still stand

I am a fan of the NOOBS site – a collection of the Britishisms creeping into American usage.

This fad affects the would-be cool & trendy East Coast urbanite (Downton Abbey is having much the same effect on the chattering classes on that side of the Great Ditch as West Wing had over here), without, so far, provoking the same reaction from the American equivalent of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells as does the adoption of (alleged) Americanisms on BBC Radio 4 or in the pages of The Times.

I wouldn’t object to usage simply on the grounds of national origin, but I do sometimes worry a bit about the potential for confusion, embarrassment or even worse brought about by the mix-ups over the meaning of some common nouns.

I was only just getting in to Mark Buchanan’s book Nexus, about the science of networks & connectivity, when I was brought up short by a very strange question: What is the smallest number of roads you need to build to be reasonably sure that drivers can go between any two towns without ever leaving the pavement?

Over here we have laws against that kind of thing. Pavements are for pedestrians only.

But I expect Americans have similar laws against driving on the sidewalk

Related posts

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Now we are six and a bit

I forgot my own birthday this year – or rather I forgot this blog’s sixth birthday on 27 October.

Which is a pity, since it I know the perfect poem to mark the event:

When I was one I was just begun
When I was two I was nearly new
When I was three I was nearly me
When I was four I was that much more
When I was five I was just alive
Now that I am six I'm as clever as clever
I think I'll stay six for ever and ever.

I do remember 6 as a particularly magic age – moved up to the top class at school (we progressed to a separate Big (Junior) School after our two years as Infants) & we were decanted into a Methodist church hall some distance away to make room for all the baby spikers crowding in behind us, which involved us in marching backwards & forwards twice a day in two-by-two crocodile fashion.

As for this blog, I am proud to have added my 0.000………………1% to the eightfold increase in the amount of data being produced by the 9 billion devices connected to the internet over the past 7 years.

Related post

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The people's motor car

In 1912 an advert appeared in The Times from the London General Omnibus Co Ltd:
The PEOPLE’S CAR – At the Motor Show there are cars at all prices from £150 to £1,500. But there is no car that will carry you for a modest penny. That is what the motor-bus does all over London. It is the people’s motor-car – the car not to be looked at but used.
For what could be more appropriate than to travel by the then still quite new-fangled motor bus? Extra omnibuses were working between Piccadilly Circus & Hammersmith for the week of the event on the three services which passed Olympia – the 9 & 33 from Liverpool Street & 27 from Highbury station, which still cover similar routes today.
Despite the claim in the ad, the cheapest cars on show at Olympia (ready for the road) seem to have been priced at about £300 – more than many people earned in a year & enough to buy you a modest house in the expanding suburbs, & equivalent to the maximum advance you could get as a mortgage under the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act.

The £2,000 you could spend on an E-type Jaguar when that came on the market priced at £2000 in 1961, would still get a modest semi in a modest suburb (outside the London area).

Today even a Lamborghini costs less than most family-sized homes.

Related posts

Friday, November 16, 2012

Nitty Norah had it easy

I was temporarily diverted from what I was meant to be doing when I came across a news item about the London County Council’s Medical Officer (Education)’s report for 1911.

Doctors had inspected 204,000 children at 9,785 sessions. 62% of parents attended.

Over half the children showed ‘defects’. One third had enlarged tonsils & adenoids. However four-fifths had caries of the teeth, which suggests, because it is so much bigger a proportion than one half, that these were not counted among the ‘defects’.

The OED quotes a legal definition of ‘defective children’ from 1899 as those who are neither imbecile, nor merely dull or backward, but with mental or physical defects which make them incapable of receiving proper benefit from instruction in the ordinary schools – which makes the 50% figure sound even more alarming, & probably not what the doctor meant by ‘defects’.

In addition to these general medical exams, school nurses inspected 251,592 children of whom 14,893 (6%) were reported to be verminous. There were in operation 9 cleansing stations for verminous children.

This sounds much more serious than mere head lice, for which we were still – not very frequently – examined by a school nurse, even at Grammar School. (We just used to call her the nit nurse but later, even less respectful, generations used the nickname Nitty Nora). So I went looking for more information.

The OED has two definitions of verminous as applied to persons.

‘Infested with, full of, vermin, esp. parasitic vermin; foul or offensive on this account’, with, as an illustrative quote from a medical treatise of 1899: - ‘In ‘verminous persons’ the hair is sometimes matted together by pus, nits, scales and scabs’.

‘Of persons: Subject to vermin or intestinal worms’ with an illustrative quote from the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1860: - ‘Females may be more verminous than males.’

I found a very interesting paper on the development of the London School Medical Service in the British Journal of Nursing for 1924. This tells us that the attempt to provide a health service for schoolchildren in London began as long ago as 1889, was later extended to include eye tests, & the first school nurses were employed in London in 1903, when ringworm was a much more serious problem. All local authorities were granted the power to employ medical officers of health for schools in 1907 & in 1908 were given discretionary powers to clean not only the verminous children, but their homes, including all the bedding & articles of furniture. Parents who, despite this, allowed their children to become verminous for a second time could be taken to court.

With regular medical exams came the recognition that many children needed treatment which their parents could not afford; arrangements were made to set up special child clinics, first with some of the many London hospitals, & later with various voluntary associations, although the council provided the nurses for these voluntary clinics, so by 1924 the number of school nurses had risen to over 300.

Nurses played a major role in improving hygiene, not just by supervising the child cleansing stations but by working – tactfully – with parents to help them implement simple rules of hygiene. For, as the author of the paper in the Nursing Journal points out, it is easy to underestimate the difficulties under which many parents laboured, in London, in maintaining a high standard of cleanliness in the family.

Not surprisingly angry reactions were not uncommon in the early days, especially to the home cleansing schemes, but by 1922 the Medical officer was able to note in his report that

’Riots and assaults became fairly frequent,’ but now ‘It is good to note the disappearance of the acute opposition on the part of the parents which formerly marred the Council’s cleansing scheme.’

The numbers of children who had to be helped to be clean had been dramatically reduced, & of course by 1924 London was on the verge of the revolution which brought electricity to every home

Even so, as late as in the 1960s there were still many families living in accommodation without constant hot water on tap, or a bathroom, or even an inside lavatory, or facilities not shared with other households. And that in the age before proper disposable nappies had been invented. The coin-operated self-service launderette marked the next great advance in the battle to make our children clean.

I do also wonder what those school nurses of a century ago would say if they knew that today they would be expected to work – tactfully –with parents to inculcate simple rules about how not to eat too much

Related posts

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Keeping mobile conversation private

Yesterday I witnessed an entirely silent conversation between two youngsters (students form the local college) on the bus.

They were sitting facing each other, both with feet up on the seats, taking it in turn to type busily into their phone. Then the phone was just passed over.

It was obvious from the reaction that some comment about another passenger or on something happening outside the window had been passed on.

I assume they were just drafting text messages, without incurring the expense of pressing send.

Why did they do that?

In 1907 the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed an Act to Repeal the Law [the Tobacco Cultivation Act of 1831] which prohibited the growing of tobacco in Ireland, & another to regulate Whale Fisheries in Scotland.

I wonder why? What problems were they designed to address? Who had been lobbying for them? Did they have the desired effects?

Was there a well-established Scottish whaling industry, one which was beginning to suffer very unhealthy competition between crews fighting over depleted stocks?

Was the growing of tobacco ever forbidden in other parts of the UK? * If not, why not? Did anyone seriously expect that tobacco could be grown on a commercial scale in rainy Ireland?

Well a little Googling might soon provide the answers – or I might find myself diverted into spending a lot of time, led to surprising revelations about the past. So I must regretfully leave those questions hanging in the air, at least for now

*Yes. A law of 1782 which forbade the cultivation of tobacco in Scotland was repealed in 1908.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Two cultures in circulation

Sir James Dyson has been at the receiving end of accusations that he is trying to revive CP Snow’s Two Cultures by calling for more students to read science & engineering, rather than humanities, at university.

Erica Wagner disagrees with the idea that ‘the study of science or engineering must, necessarily, exclude the study of the arts’ & points to the fact that last year’s Wellcome Trust Prize (for which she was a judge) went to a novel, alternating this year with ‘a non-fiction book about William Harvey & the circulation of the blood.’ This, disappointingly, risks leaving readers of her contribution to this debate with the impression that Thomas Wright wrote a ‘mere’ science book, not one which beautifully places Harvey’s scientific discovery in the (undivided) culture of the C17th, through its references to the images of poetry as well as economics, water engineering & traffic congestion - which actually makes her point a more forceful one.

Related post

Tidjane Thiam

Tidjane Thiam made an impressive appearance on Desert Island Discs the other week.

Perhaps wishing to flatter his hosts, he said that a mentor had advised him, when he was considering the challenges of fitting in if he accepted the job at the Pru, to listen to Desert Island Discs, The Archers & Yes Minister as a crash course in English culture. I expect his sources of indoctrination ranged further than that – he is an Arsenal fan & has children.

Himself a child born to parents who had a fierce belief in the need for, & value of, education,  he was, (shades of John Stuart Mill) reading & summarising articles in Le Monde for his father from age of 6 or 7

He was taken aback by the thoroughness of research behind the programme, leading to questions about all sorts of twists & turns in his life story.

The Times business diarist, reporting on the programme, confirmed that he has – largely - redeemed himself from the disastrous bid for AIA, allowed to learn the lesson rather than face dismissal?


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Election bits & pieces

Tammy Duckworth won in Chicago against the Republican incumbent who had claimed that abortion was never necessary to save a woman’s life

New Hampshire now has an all-female representation in Congress, as well as a female governor

This was the first election with no Wasp candidate for either President or Veep

White men now, for the first time, make up less than half the Democratic caucus in the House

Another Tammy (Baldwin) is the first female Senator from Wisconsin

My immediate reaction to an ‘unposed’ photo of the Obamas walking to Air Force One for their flight back to Washington was ‘America has a new political dynasty – watch out for Malia. Such relaxed confidence in a fourteen year old.’ Other commentators have speculated about a possible political future for Chelsea Clinton. Of course American political dynasties are nothing new, but I wonder if extension to the female of the species is a result of the [dearth of presidential sons]

Related posts


For the first time at the weekend I noticed a marketing abbreviation on my till slip – of which M&S are very keen.

BOGSHP – buy One, Get Second Half Price

Monday, November 12, 2012

BBC trust

I did not listen to Irish radio very much over the weekend but I did hear Marian Finucane reviewing the Sunday papers. The resignation of the BBC’s director general* got the merest mention in passing – ‘Though I must say they are convulsed with it over there.

It has been wall-to-wall coverage on BBC radio speech & news programmes, with much angst about the loss of trust in the BBC’s journalistic reputation. In truth I suspect that most of the population do not see this as the main problem, it is not this which has caused the sudden drop in trust reported by the polls. It is the idea that the BBC gave Jimmy Savile a platform for so many years.

Knowingly or not. And I think it boils down to a class issue.

From the BBC’s point of view Jimmy Savile had two valuable characteristics – he attracted a popular audience &, especially in the early days, a youthful one at a time when this was the fastest growing ‘demographic’ & which marked the start of the media’s obsession with ’Youf’. Yes, many regarded him with distaste, but light entertainment was full of characters with a dangerous edge, & Savile played on this, & his northernness.

And so the well educated, culturally refined hierarchy & those who thought that public service broadcasting ought not to offer such fare bowed to the argument that, as licence fee payers, all sectors should be catered for. It was also difficult to be sure, oneself, that one’s distaste was not based on pure prejudice or snobbery.

Over the weekend I have been reading A Short Walk Down Fleet Street by Alan Watkins. Two passages had more resonance than they might on any other weekend, revealing as they are about 1970s attitudes towards paedophilia.

The first, dating to 1973-4 recalls an exchange with Tom Driberg, a noted, though not at the time publicly, homosexual MP:
‘So you have a son?’ Driberg said. ‘Of 15? Do, please, bring him to see me. I have all kinds of books & pictures that might interest him.’ I declined on his behalf, explaining that he was busy with examinations & chiefly interested in cricket. No responsible parent would have done anything else – though curiously I now feel that Driberg really did want to show him his books & pictures, for the old monster had his kindly side.
And yet, a few paragraphs earlier. 1972-6:
He would appear in the Colony Room … with a succession of leather-jacketed young men, usually called Terry, whom he would invariably introduce to the assembled company as ‘one of my constituents’. He would then provide Terry with a handful of loose change & direct him to the fruit machine in the corner while he gossiped …
While private homosexual acts were not by then illegal, there is no indication that anyone felt any need to enquire about or protect any of the young men who may well have been under 21, the age of consent in those days, & class is clearly a factor in that.

There is also some self hatred in all the fuss about Savile– among all those who allowed children to write to Jim’ll Fix It with their dreams.

*I mistyped the word general; the spell checker offered me ‘director genial’ as one alternative for what I meant to type. Anything but, I told it, at least for today.

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US election

In retrospect the American election seems rather an anti-climax. I hadn’t followed it at all closely – without the special interest of the tussle for the nomination between Obama &Hilary Clinton, followed by the prospect of a first black president, I was less interested in the details of the campaigning, which I lack the background knowledge of American politics to appreciate. With no ability to affect the result through a vote, I was content just to wait & see.

So I wasn’t following American blogs such as FiveThirtyEight this time round, & heard of Nate Silver’s triumph of prediction only after the event. Though this demonstration of the power of the statistical theory of the distribution of sampling proportions & their errors (what journalists have learned to call the margin of error on each individual poll, which, examined one by one, led to the belief that the result was too close to call) I am a little nervous about the idea that this constitutes a ‘magic formula’. Fisher’s dictum about ‘too good to be true’ floated in to my mind, & I wonder what may happen when the ‘only 10% likely’ result turns up in some future election.

On the positive side I hope that, as these ideas are absorbed more widely by election strategists there may be less emphasis on the idea that the modern election is decided by a relatively small number of swing voters in marginal constituencies. That is true only IF the larger, more statistically predictable, members of the electorate play their part & actually turn out to vote, which means they need to be courted too. (Has anyone ever calculated what would be the outcome of a UK election if only the 'targeted voters' bothered to take part?)

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hormonal instability

It is tempting to see a link between the latest BBC catastrophe & the banking crisis.

The link is, of course, testosterone & insane male competitiveness.

The Tonight programme came under attack from all sides for not broadcasting an item it had been working on which alleged that Jimmy Savile was a predatory abuser of young girls. They got ruthlessly done over by politicians, press, ITV & their colleagues on the BBC’s own Panorama. (Greg Dyke, who lost his job in the last huge BBC hoo-ha over the sexed-up dossier over Iraq & WMD, said that one of the hardest tasks was to stop the rival groups on Panorama & Tonight from murdering each other.)

So then the Tonight team seem to have taken too much to heart all that stuff about believing the victims & - to prove that they are really just as big & brave as everyone else - gone ahead with broadcasting accusations which are themselves already subject to one of the 9 inquiries into previous inquiries into past cases of sex abuse. With some help from an organisation called the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, of which I know nothing but which sounds very soviet.

And so a bad situation, which seems to involve an outbreak of mass public insanity, or at least a periodical fit of morality, was made even worse.

The one flaw in my argument is that a woman is in overall charge of the BBC news empire

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Doubting humanity

Inquests on babies were a distressingly common feature of Victorian newspapers. But the benefit of the doubt was almost invariably given to the mother if there were neither witnesses not medical or forensic evidence to point to a different conclusion - even if, as was sometimes clear from the tone of the report,there was plenty of room for scepticism.

The Inquest
I took my oath I would enquire,
Without affection, hate, or wrath,
Into the death of Ada Wright -
So help me God! I took that oath.

When I went out to see the corpse,
The four months babe that died so young,
I judged it was seven pounds in weight,
And little more than one foot long.

The Inquest
One eye, that had a yellow lid,
Was shut - so was the mouth, that smiled;
The left eye open, shining bright -
It seemed a knowing little child.

For as I looked at that one eye,
It seemed to laugh, and say with glee:
“What caused my death you’ll never know -
Perhaps my mother murdered me.”

When I went into court again,
To hear the mother’s evidence -
It was a love-child, she explained,
And smiled, for our intelligence.

“Now, Gentlemen of the Jury,” said
The coroner - “this woman’s child
By misadventure met its death.”
“Aye, aye,” said we. The mother smiled.

And I could see that child’s one eye
Which seemed to laugh, and say with glee:
“ What caused my death you’ll never know -
Perhaps my mother murdered me.”
WH Davies

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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Like books, like minds

An unexpectedly sparky & animated discussion on Radio 4’s A Good Read last night with guests Neil Pearson & Wilfrid- Emmanuel-Jones. Their chosen books were George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air & the slave autobiography of Olaudah Equiano. Presenter Harriet Gilbert could hardly get a word in, until her own choice of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room every bit as well-received.


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People like us

When we look up into the clear night sky … We are looking into chaos, a vague cloud of solidified droplets, arranged in patterns that have no discernible regularity. But the relationship within this cloud, however irregular, however incomprehensible, seem to remain unchanged night after night, year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium; & gradually our skill at metaphor, our ability to see shapes where no shape is offered, enable us to shape even this final wilderness … Even if we get no further than the Plough, Cassiopeia, & Orion, their gratifying discernibility gives us a hold on the rest of the universe - Michael Frayn: The Human Touch

There must be lots of us around

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Friday, November 09, 2012

Tickled my fancy

Recent blog posts I liked

What do people die of?

Letters of Note: Please advise   about Miles Davis Bitches Brew

When a tipping point disappoints
The story of women’s employment is not dominance, flipping, or tipping points—it’s convergence towards equality. On the other hand -

Have we passed the homogamy tipping point?
We should all start to talk about homogamous marriage. 

Welcome Book Prize
Hurray!  Thomas Wright received the £25,000 prize for his book, Circulation, a biography of William Harvey.

Virtual democracy
Dangers of social media – remember that only 8% of the population are regular users.

Match without dispatch

"I should like to get married in church. But not one that’s in a graveyard, with death all around."

Conversation between two young women, overheard on the bus

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Decoding GHOTI

For well over a century, I guess, most children in this country have learned to read. One way or another – for pedagogic fashions change.

And because we all learned to read we are also likely to have our own strong views on the matter. If you elect to go down the hard road of politics & get to be made Secretary of State for Education you may choose, if you are so inclined, which method should be used on every 5-year old in every state school in the country.

In my day instructions to parents were clear, but firm: do not start teaching your own children any of the 3R’s, on pain of running the risk of sowing the seeds of potential confusion if the school, when they get there at the start of the first term after their 5th birthday, uses different methods.

I was certainly ‘reading ready’ when I got to school. I saw the adults in the family reading & writing; there was a small library of books in our house – the plays of Oscar Wilde, reference books, engineering texts; at nana’s house there were the family bible, Sunday school prizes, a complete set of Dickens & a collection of Rupert Bear annuals belonging to the uncles. Cigarette cards provided a mini encyclopaedia; everybody read newspapers seven days a week.

I had a small number of books of my own. A great treasure was the very first Noddy book, which I insisted on hearing over & over, until I could recite it off by heart while running my fingers under the words. I knew I wasn’t reading however – somehow I had just learned that spaces marked the gap between each word – but I still remember the feeling of wonder when, one evening – t-h-a-t swam off the page & into my eyes & I somehow knew that that was that

At school we started by learning to recite the alphabet, including rhythmic chanting & song, along with simple phonetics: ‘kuh a te spells cat’

Then we were let on to the Janet & John books & I was away. I could read!

There is something magical about the moment when the penny drops for a child & they suddenly can see how to crack the code; but it is a complicated business, depending on sight, sound, experience & understanding. Some children struggle to learn with one method – but hey presto! Studies show that they progress rapidly with an alternative system, which is becomes the new norm.

And so the wheel turns. In a few years we shall hear that children are confused & turned off reading by the insistence that they confine their first steps to  speaking words (including some which have no meaning) in conformity with a restricted set of pronouncing rules in English.

Bright children will probably continue to do well however, able to recognise by the age of 6 that G-H-O-T-I* spells fish

*GH as in cough; O as in women; TI as in nation

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Colourably at the best

Bernat Klein turned 90 yesterday – another case of I had no idea he was still alive

A real hero of mine in the 1960s because of his beautiful woollen cloth, soft, high quality & available in an entirely new & exciting range of co-ordinating colours. Affordable even for a teenaged home dress maker. I particularly remember a turquoise blue which I used to make a smart skirt suit, & a wonderful clear red which I chose for my first (& only) foray into haute couture – a Dior pattern from the Vogue Designer range, a simple, waistless shift dress in the latest  figure-skimming fashion. Should be an easy project for a beginner, I thought.

Well I certainly learned to respect the amount of workmanship involved – there were darts & tucks everywhere to make sure it fitted just so, around the neck, shoulders, even the elbows to make the sleeves work well (all of course needing to be adapted to my own unique form).

I believe that Bernat Klein was also responsible, as design consultant, for the new range of office furniture for the civil service which was introduced in the 1970s – filing cabinets in a choice of avocado, mustard, tomato or blue made a change from battleship grey. Less popular were the removable washable chair covers, in jungle-print combinations of two of the colours (mustard + blue, avocado+ tomato) which, to those in the know, enabled you to spot a government building anywhere you went. I have not, however been able to find any confirmation of this.

Even stranger, I do not think I ever knew that Bernat Klein had set up his business in the Scottish borders after studying textile technology at the University of Leeds. We all firmly believed that he was French (he is Serbian by birth), presumably because he first came to our attention after his textiles were taken up by Coco Chanel, Dior, Balenciaga, Pierre Cardin and Saint Laurent. I think we thought that nobody British could be that clever with colour, & even felt slightly guilty about not supporting home industry.

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Hurrricane radio

One notable feature of the experience of Hurricane Sandy was the way it showed up the continuing importance of radio. When everything else was down, news & information could still get through on the good old wireless which relies on nothing more than old-fashioned A class batteries. Erica Wagner wrote in The Times how she regretted not having thought to buy a radio when she went shopping for

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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Feast or folly

I have been reading Michael Frayn’s The Human Touch, his book about what we (can) know about the nature of the world, the universe & everything, & our place in (creating) the whole shebang.

It probably goes straight to the top of my Good Read list of books about philosophy – because of the humour, even though at times the tone veers into Victor Meldrew or even Basil Fawlty.

Jeremy Bernstein once gave a rather disobliging review of the quantum physics in Frayn’s play Copenhagen; Frayn rather gets his own back here by cataloguing the differences & contradictions of explanation or statements about philosophy recorded by the physicists themselves.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Reducing harm

Sunday’s Feedback on Radio 4 carried protests over the fact that the Radio 4 Today programme item about breast cancer screening had featured 2 male experts & a male interviewer. This is part of a long-running guerrilla campaign against male bias in the programme, & claims that strenuous efforts had been made to find eminent women qualified to take part were treated with scorn.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the independent inquiry team which looked at risks & harms of the national breast cancer screening programme itself consisted of 5 male professors (2 cancer specialists with three statisticians/epidemiologists) plus one female independent patients advocate.

Perhaps all those of a female persuasion who are considered eminent enough for the Today programme are working on the Million Women Survey, which is linked to the national breast screening programme, & so would disqualify them as biased rather than independent. Or perhaps they were simply unable to make themselves available for interview at 0709 on a Tuesday morning.

The Today programme pointed out that they did interview two women about their own experience of screening.

On balance, taking all the evidence into account, Cancer Research UK continues to recommend that all women go for breast screening when invited. I should really like to hear a debate between women as to whether, on balance, they think it a price worth paying, that for every woman whose life is saved, three receive treatment which is, strictly speaking, unnecessary. Even though – or especially as – we can never know which was which.

And especially bearing in mind one ‘harm’ which is not, I think, addressed by this report. On current practice, any close female relative of a woman who does receive a diagnosis of breast cancer will automatically move in to a higher risk category herself. Presumably in some cases her risk will be only of getting the same kind of ‘non-threatening’ cancer.

Falling limits of detection always cause dilemmas about what to do about potential harms which were previously only known to exist at levels which made the damage all too obvious. It is only within my lifetime that we have bee offered the chance to spot a cancer long before it makes its presence only too evident, & we may all have to learn to cope with the novel idea of a cancer which will not cause your life to end.

On a more optimistic note, there is some interesting stuff from Cancer Research about the possibility of greatly reducing future numbers of women invited to undergo a mammogram by identifying those at greater than average risk of breast cancer; which, fingers crossed, should go a long way to mitigating the harms of the programme.

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Sunday, November 04, 2012

Infinite sunrise

Another which could be filed under mathematical poetry, by C19th Irish poet James Henry.

Another and another and another
And still another sunset and sunrise,
The same yet different, different and the same,
Seen by me now in my declining years
As in my early childhood, youth and manhood;
And by my parents and my parents’ parents,
And by the parents of my parents’ parents,
And by their parents counted back for ever,
Seen, all their lives long, even as now by me;
And by my children and my children’s children
And by the children of my children’s children
And by their children counted on for ever
Still to be seen as even now seen by me;
Clear and bright sometimes, sometimes dark and clouded
But still the same sunsetting and sunrise;
The same for ever to the never ending
Line of observers, to the same observer
Through all the changes of his life the same:
Sunsetting and sunrising and sunsetting,
And then again sunrising and sunsetting,
Sunrising and sunsetting evermore.
James Henry

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Saturday, November 03, 2012

Tickled my fancy

Recent blog posts I liked

The secret to happiness? 7 portions of vegetables a day.
A dig at English cooking, but what I want to know is where the ‘three data sets, covering approximately 80,000 randomly selected British individuals’ came from. The answer is revealed to subscribers only.

Center for Book Arts: Paper cutting
Not just cutting down to size.

A day in Camden: emergency calls and police vehicles - video
A nice animation

Parents: Does size matter?
Erm - maybe
We are what we repeatedly do

Where is the weather
More about temperature than wind

Friday, November 02, 2012

Football goes bananas

My heart sank when I heard that a referee had been accused of using racist language by calling a footballer a monkey. The claim is denied, but is this another word we have to keep in the mental censored box, whatever the context?

Context matters of course, &offence is easily understandable in the world of soccer where monkey chants from the crowd & the throwing of bananas (supposedly monkey food) on to the pitch are, or have been, rife throughout Europe as a way of insulting black players & trying to put them off their stride

Well it may turn out to be a mishearing amidst all the noise & argument that was going on – the footballer on the receiving end is called Mikel, after all.

But might the referee have used the word monkey in some non-racist, but unfortunately non-self-censored sense?

The OED entry for monkey (plus related words) covers three printed pages, so there are clearly plenty of possibilities on offer.

If we look only at those examples which come under the heading of ‘A person regarded as resembling a monkey in some way’, then it has been used since 1500s to mean a child or a foolish person – still is in common use in phrases such as ‘little monkey’ or ‘cheeky monkey’ for children who are being mischievous. I suspect that I may also have, on occasion, berated the odd adult for being a cheeky monkey.

If the remark is alleged to have been made during one of those occasions where the player was protesting about some incident in which he had not personally been involved, I suppose it is just conceivable that someone might say ‘I’ll only talk to the organ grinder (ie captain), not the monkey.’

Other possibilities are that the ref said ‘Stop trying to make a monkey [fool] of me’, or ‘Go away before I really get my monkey up’ [get angry], ‘I’m a monkey’s uncle’ [surprised] or even ‘I don’t give a monkey’s’ [about your unfounded complaint].

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Thursday, November 01, 2012

More words than odds

After Thinking in Numbers, I recently read Daniel Tammet’s first book Born on a Blue Day, the story of his early life as someone with savant syndrome.

An inspiring & absorbing story but I think I’m glad I read it second because the style of his earlier writing makes him sound rather too much like one of those solemn & earnest little boys whose only conversational style is information, information, information. (You know exactly why he did not get the library job for which he was interviewed). Endearing, but not always the easiest of company. Quite unlike the poetry of Thinking in Numbers.

Daniel’s background is unusual in other ways too – he is the eldest of 9 children. When family grew to include 6 children (5 of them under 4) father stopped working & both parents concentrated on the business of childrearing.

I deduce that they must have lived on benefits & the larger houses they moved to were all provided by the local council or a housing association. But the family could by no means be described as feckless – the parents loved their children & instinctively did a lot of things right for their difficult little boy. All have, as they say, turned out well.

There is no mention of any social worker involvement – despite Daniel’s problems, including a major epileptic fit when he was very young. Schools (mainstream) also seem, for the most part, to have coped sympathetically with this difficult boy. He achieved good GCSEs & A level, but decided against uni & went instead as a VSO volunteer tutor to Lithuania where he began to learn to cope with independent life.

He used the end-of-service grant from VSO to buy a computer – opening up a whole new world of connection & possibility for someone who finds live interaction difficult.

I find it difficult to get my head round the idea that this child’s life was lived in the age of Thatcher – Daniel was born in January of that momentous year for British politics – 1979. Margaret Thatcher became our first woman prime minister at the beginning of May.

Another story of success ‘against the odds’. Must be many more of which we never hear – what these three have in common is the ability to write (& to find someone to publish them)

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