Monday, December 31, 2012

Recorded for ever

What a strange chaos is this wide atmosphere we breathe! … The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered. There, in their mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest, as well as the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man’s changed will - Charles Babbage: The 9th Bridgewater Treatise 1838

Related post
The space I occupy

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ancient person

A S O N G Of a Young L A D Y To her Ancient Lover.

Ancient Person, for whom I
All the flatt'ring Youth defie;
Long be it ere thou grow Old,
Aching, shaking, crazy, cold.
But still continue as thou art,
Ancient Person of my Heart.

On thy wither'd Lips and dry,
Which like barren Furrows lie,
Brooding Kisses I will pour,
Shall thy youthful Heat restore.
Such kind Show'rs in Autumn fall,
And a second Spring recall:
Nor from thee will ever part,
Ancient Person of my Heart.

Thy Nobler Parts, which but to name,
In our Sex would be counted Shame,
By Age's frozen Grasp possess'd,
From their Ice shall be releas'd:
And, sooth'd by my reviving Hand,
In former Warmth and Vigour stand.
All a Lover's Wish can reach,
For thy Joy my Love shall teach:
And for thy Pleasure shall improve
All that Art can add to Love.
Yet still I love thee without Art,
Ancient person of my heart.
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester 1647–1680

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Reading on the rates

I have borrowed 100 books from the library this year – 10 more than last year.

I know, not because I have been diligently keeping track of every one, but because I found that the new on-line version of the catalogue can show me my loans history ever since I first acquired a ticket here in 2003. Although the display is very easy to read there is no way of analysing it other than manually, but I found that a librarian can arrange to download the information as an Excel spreadsheet, though sadly this is limited to the last two years of data.

It has been a good year for reading, of titles old & new, interesting, challenging & memorable. On the non-fiction side there is mostly science (last year was more history, politics, & biography & language). New books: James Gleick’s The Information & Thomas Wright’s Circulation are both superb at placing science in the wider culture; older works, Nature’s Imagination & Kuhn on paradigms stimulated my thinking about the nature & limits of science; Daniel Tammet’s Thinking in Numbers is so beautifully written; Nexus & Tubes taught me much about the physical internet & the mathematics of small world connectivity. Then John Gribbin’s Schrodinger biography cast some surprising light on the private life of physicists while Nevil Shute’s autobiographical memoir Slide Rule told much about the early years of the aeroplane industry & why lack of capital made it unlikely that British plane makers could ever compete on their own in the global mass marketplace of the C20th.

On the fiction side I stumbled across wonderful Uncle Petros, caught up with Penelope Lively & ‘discovered’ the works of Stanley Middleton – slightly old-fashioned tales of still waters running deeper than you might expect among middle-class middle-aged provincial suburbanites.

And I found that Cath Staincliffe had kept on with writing books – not, as I had assumed she must, drifted off into script writing. It was just that her books were not in the place I went looking for them – under crime fiction – but have migrated to what the library, in its innocence, calls Adult Fiction.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Tickled my fancy

Recent blog posts I liked

Ghosts of Bush House now that the World Service has finally flown north of Oxford Circus

Six decades of (male dominated) economics publishing something you kinda thought you knew but still comes as a shock

Charting success: The Beatles, December 1962 The strange world of the Hit Parade in the 1960s

En Dash vs. Em Dash I’m this is important stuff that/with which I ought to spend some time getting to grips. Meanwhile it's good to know that some people care for me.

Identifying and preventing antisocial behaviour of the kind that is a lot more serious than that which would get you an ASBO on this side of the Atlantic.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Shopping report

In an interview on Radio 4’s You & Yours this lunchtime Asda’s Andy Clarke mentioned that one of the things that they are doing to help customers in these hard times was to adjust their price points to end in nice round pounds or 50 pences. Makes it easier to add up the total as you go round filling up your trolley, saves nasty embarrassing surprises at the checkout.

Not entirely new news – Asda announced themselves as Britain’s biggest £ store more than three years ago.

Christmas food shopping was odd this year – Asda was the only supermarket that seemed really busy on Christmas Eve, with long queues being marshalled at the checkouts to avoid disputes about priority. The big Sainsbury’s I had gone to just after lunchtime, while busy (the first tail back for ages caused by those trying to get into their car park), had plenty left on the shelves, as people seemed to be mainly just popping in for a few bits & bobs. The only thing I couldn’t get was butcher’s sausages; perishables such vegetables & cream were no problem at all.

Saturday afternoon had been surprisingly quiet in the food stores – but then heavy rain had been forecast.

By contrast the Friday before Christmas was busy everywhere in town.

I don’t know if many people braved the shops on Sunday in an effort to cram all their food shopping into the six hours allowed by law. We preferred to take the chance of baked beans for Christmas dinner to joining in that kind of scrum.

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Magic number
Does the left hand know
Coining it

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas crackers

Some words to play with.

Steganography (new to me): the art of secret writing; cryptography (comes from Greek meaning watertight, covered hidden). The OED has it down as obsolete, purely historical, with most of the illustrative quotations dating to the great Tudor & Stuart ages of spies & conspirators.

The next edition will have to be brought up to date. I went googling because I was sure there was a dinosaur called steganosaurus – not in the OED.

No dinosaur sightings (though gannets, which are almost dinosaurs, belong to the bird group steganopedes)– but steganosaurus lives today – see for example Welcome to Steganosaurus or Free Tools :: Steganosaurus :: Version 1.0 No longer an obsolete historical curiosity, but a vital tool in a new age of internet paranoia.

Steganography, (which word imports the Art of signifying ones mind to another by an occult or secret way of writing). - Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 1677
And speaking of covered things, the word curfew has nothing to do with teenagers or terrorists in its origins, but referred to a large metal cover which was used to couvrir le feu in a medieval household – to make sure that all could sleep safely in their beds without the place burning down around them.

Twitchfork: what twitterers use when they want to tell the world that they really, really don’t like someone or something.

Undoubtably – heard on the radio. Indubitably should be undoubtedly.

Philanthropists – anagram of NHS hospital trip; Times cryptic crossword #25,325 Nov. 20th 2012

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy Christmas

Christmas is not an external event, but a piece of one’s home that one carries in one’s heart- Freya Stark

Monday, December 24, 2012

Remembrance of Christmas passed

This poem by Noel Coward was written during the unsettling period when the country was at War but nothing much seemed to be happening - the phoney war

With All Best Wishes for a Merry Christmas 1939

Back to the nursery. Back to the nursery.
Let us enjoy this sublime anniversary
Full nineteen hundred & thirty-nine years
Let us forget the despair & the tears
Let us ignore all the slaughter & danger
(Think of the Manger! Remember the Manger!)
Let us envisage the star in the East
(Man is a murderer! Man is a beast!)
Let us forget that the moment is sinister
Let us uphold our devout Foreign Minister
Let us not prattle of Simon or Hoare
Or Mr Chamberlain’s diffident war.
Let us not speak of Belisha or Burgin
(Think of the Virgin! Remember the Virgin!)
Let us from ridicule turn to divinity
(Think of the Trinity! Think of the Trinity!)
Now as our day of rejoicing begins
(Never mind Poland – Abandon the Finns)
Lift up your voices ‘Long Live Christianity!’
(Cruelty, sadism, blood & insanity)
So that the Word across carnage is hurled
God’s in his Heaven, all’s right with the world!

Noel Coward

Counting stones

Back in the summer (somewhat overshadowed by Olympic excitements), The Times carried a lively debate about the teaching of mathematics in English schools.

One correspondent told of his experience teaching ‘A-level standard calculus’ to primary school children, all in an afternoon. This brought an immediate query as to how he had coped without first giving them the advanced algebra & trigonometry needed.

This is the kind of attitude which infuriates me – the one that views education as necessarily entailing a journey through a funnel of ever-increasing specialisation, following the trail of the past, never able to 'start from here'.

While it is undoubtedly true that we need more people to be trained in maths to the kind of level needed in the modern world, it is also true that most of us need an appreciation of the kind of thing that maths can do, even if we baulk at detailed understanding.

Once upon a time the ability to decipher the hieroglyphs which encoded the language of words was far from common to all of us. Maybe one day numerical facility will be as widespread as is literacy today, or maybe the ability to decipher the formal logical code of maths will remain the province of something well short of a majority.

Nevertheless we all use intuitive mathematics every day – how many, more than, less than, addition, subtraction, multiplication, sharing (division), one-to-one correspondence, money, time, making things … albeit in much the same way that Moliere’s M Jourdain spoke prose.
Most people cannot ‘read’ musical notation, but can recognise a tune, make insightful comments on different styles of music, & even produce it themselves, whether reproducing a familiar tune ‘by ear’ or something of their own, instinctive, composition. And we can be taught much about what used to be called ‘musical appreciation’ without being troubled at all to learn the notation & formal rules of harmony.

I had less than one half term of A level maths, & though I was able to make up some of the deficiency at university, my grasp is nowhere near as secure as it should be, or would be if I had been able to get in the practice when I was younger. I retain the outrage I felt when I realised that, in 13 years of formal mathematical education had not even introduced the ideas of differential & integral calculus which had been known for centuries (compare & contrast how much the modern school child learns of genetics & DNA). I find it absolutely iniquitous that some very large proportion (possibly a majority) of the population has no idea even of what calculus is ‘for’

I do think however that if I were challenged to teach the basics to primary schoolchildren in an afternoon I might make a decent fist of it.

I would start with a song:
The square on the hypotenuse of a right tri-angle
Is equal to the sum of the squares on the two adjacent sides

Next step would be to talk about calculating the area of triangles, squares & rectangles (practically & arithmetically)

Then move on to finding the area of a triangle with a wiggly or curved hypotenuse.

I would have to give more thought to whether we could squeeze in the area of a circle & the magic of π.

Just because mathematicians arrived at calculus by one particular route does not mean that we all have to start from there.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Keeping Napoleon at bay

We had to 'do' The Trumpet Major for O level. I hated it, & have no memory of this poem - which I now find amusing.
The Sergeant's Song (1803)
When Lawyers strive to heal a breach,
And Parsons practise what they preach;
Then Little Boney he'll pounce down,
And march his men on London town!
Rollicum-rorum, tol-lol-lorum,
Rollicum-rorum, tol-lol-lay!

When Justices hold equal scales,
And Rogues are only found in jails;
Then Little Boney he'll pounce down,
And march his men on London town!
Rollicum-rorum, &c.

When Rich Men find their wealth a curse,
And fill therewith the Poor Man's purse;
Then Little Boney he'll pounce down,
And march his men on London town!
Rollicum-rorum, &c.

When Husbands with their Wives agree,
And Maids won't wed from modesty;
Then Little Boney he'll pounce down,
And march his men on London town!
Rollicum-rorum, tol-tol-lorum,
Rollicum-rorum, tol-lol-lay!

Published in Thomas Hardy's Trumpet-Major 1880.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Unexpected energy

A letter in yesterday’s Times (from Cliff Lea of the North East Derbyshire Industrial Archaeology Society) alerted me to the fact that there is more to the history of oil & petroleum in Derbyshire than I had ever been aware of.

From 1918 to 1943 oil was produced at the Tibshelf mine, which is only a few miles north of the Riddings mine where a short lived petroleum spring was exploited in the C19th

With the renewed interest in fracking I may yet live to see Dallas-in-Derbyshire

North East Derbyshire Industrial Archaeology Society – NEDIAS
Britain's First Mainland Oilwell At Tibshelf / Hardstoft
Whale oil lubricants
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Before petroleum

Friday, December 21, 2012

Tickled my fancy

Recent blog posts I liked
Tuesday Typeface: Mrs Eaves - Lovely, unexpected story

Births to mothers in their forties are less common now than in the old days Shows a major - & by some unexpected - effect of the Pill. Action then reaction. And see the hilarious  – or should that be infuriating - follow-up post from the same site: When regular old mothers aren’t old-enough looking

In Most Rich Countries, Women Work More Than Men - It’s the same the whole world over!

Hillsborough: are the panel’s procedures fair? – an important question

Should the Cox Proportional Hazards model get the Nobel Prize in Medicine?  - Well, if ARCH  can …

Is there an epidemic of plural abstract nouns?

A Tale of Two Welfare States A curious divergence (or should that be crossover) between the UK & US

Cellphone data helps pinpoint source of traffic tie-ups Very neat

Fancy seeing you here!

How do we/will we know that our world did not/will not end today?

Perhaps we have all just slipped into another dimension, to a parallel universe, one which our poor human senses cannot distinguish from The Other One.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

That stupendous frame of all the world

I am beginning really to lose all pleasure in The Times crossword – culminating in my experience with that of Saturday 24 November, on which I made little progress – the first time this has happened in goodness knows how many years.

And I was not alone!

Then they go back to something more my style: one week later I finished the Saturday crossword in well under 20 minutes. And as a special treat there have been some very nice anagrams recently – three of them in one puzzle!

1. Sensed Kama Sutra might be very passionate? (2,4,2,7)
2. Haydn’s famous composition about not changing for ages (1,5,2,7)
3. Nutcase going mad about a horse that’s fallen (8)
4. Gay person so out of place in transport café? (6,5)
Answers below
First three from #25,349 Tuesday 18 December
Last from # 25,346 Thursday 13 December
Anagrams illustrate one of those puzzles about the human mind – given a clue, I usually find them very easy to spot & to solve in my head. On the other hand almost no amount of time & effort spent rearranging letters with pencil & paper makes it possible for me to devise a witty anagram starting from a phrase or name.

Just one of those attributes that divide the world into two kinds of people.

The title of this post comes from Samuel Butler’s Hudibras:
His body, that stupendous frame,
of all the world the anagram …

TR Nash thinks that ‘diagram’ might be better than anagram here, as in his gloss: The world in a state of transposition. Man is often called the microcosm, or world in miniature. Anagram is a conceit from the letters of a name transposed; though perhaps with more propriety we might read diagram.

1. As keen as mustard
2. A month of Sundays
3. Unchaste
4. Greasy spoon

Times for The Times: Saturday Times 25329 (24th Nov)
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Crossword economy

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tight Christmas

People are being very dilatory about putting up their Christmas lights. Far from the extravagant enlightenments of recent years, the first fortnight of December remained just as dark as Nature has decreed.

I wondered if we might have gone right back to the Good Old Days of my childhood when the decorations went up on Christmas Eve, but some windows now have tastefully restrained displays. There is however still a marked lack of extravagant garden adornments or Santas on rooftops.

If nothing else, the rising price of electricity has brought about this parsimony. But it is not just lights. Tuesday’s World Tonight on Radio 4 brought a report from John Sudworth about the effect on Chinese industry of the decline in demand from Europe for their artificial Christmas trees. And even if we still like their baubles, we want them smaller & less ostentatious.

The prospects for the jobs of those who make them however are not as grim as that implies – the slack is being taken up by an increasing interest in celebrating Christmas among the Chinese themselves – not exactly widespread, but even a small proportion of such a large population adds up to a satisfyingly large number of working hours.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Coining it

Pick of the Week  alerted me to a programme I had missed – a whole half hour devoted to £ stores by the BBC Business Correspondent Jonty Bloom.

I was overly cautious in predicting that it would take until 2020 for £ stores to become the darling of the Stock Exchange, wrong too in that old-fashioned way of putting it. With the sector now worth £7 billion in the UK and predicted to be £11.2 billion by 2016, the big beasts all want in on the act – private equity & major brands among them.

BBC Radio 4: Pound Shops R Us

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I love £ stores
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End of an era

Slipping in the rain

All this rain has caused us a real headache now. They are having to work to avert landslips down the steep sides on to the A6 at a place called Barmoor Clough. Causing long tail backs & traffic chaos.

Local traders are claiming a seriously detrimental effect on their vital Christmas trade.

Bus users do not know how long they will have to wait in the rian for a bus – make up your own timetable, it’s anyone’s guess, & the poor bus drivers are getting it in the neck.

When I went searching the web for a picture I found that Barmoor Clough has a bit of a history of disaster.

Buxton railway line history
Sandi Toksvig on coping with a crisis
Barmoor Clough - 1959
Related post

Monday, December 17, 2012

Being over-run by the herd of foreign and very dear pretenders

Foreign born – that is now the quick & dirty way to measure the number of ‘immigrants’ living in our country. I understand why, but I always want to ask – Yes, but how many of them are British, really?

Because lots of British-born-and-bred people spend part of their lives living abroad, for a whole variety of reasons such as marriage, work, education, just wanting a change. And many of them have children while living abroad, though few, if any, of us natives would regard those children as either foreign or immigrant when – if – the family return to live in the UK. It is a moot point whether their number is greater in these days of globalisation than it was in the days of the Raj, when, for example, few thought that Colin Cowdrey, captain of cricket, was not English.

I now have a poster boy for this question: Bradley Wiggins was born in Belgium.

I wonder just how many of ‘our’ Olympic medal winners would count as immigrants if we defined them by the country of their birth.

Team GB: Bradley Wiggins
Bradley Wiggins has been voted the 2012 BBC Sports Personality of the Year
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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Viper thoughts

An extract from Coleridge's all-too vivid poem about depression.

from Dejection: An Ode
There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.
But now afflictions bow me down to earth:
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;
But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
My shaping spirit of Imagination.
For not to think of what I needs must feel,
But to be still and patient, all I can;
And happy by abstruse research to steal
From my own nature all the natural man—
This was my sole resource, my only plan:
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.

Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,
Reality’s dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without,
Bare crag, or mountain tairn, or blasted tree,
Or pine grove whither woodman never clomb,
Or lonely house, long held the witches’ home,
Methinks were fitter instruments for thee,
Mad lutanist! who in this month of showers,
Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,
Mak’st devils’ yule, with worse than wintry song,
The blossoms, buds, and timorous leaves among.
Thou actor, perfect in all tragic sounds!
Thou mighty poet, e’en to frenzy bold!
What tell’st thou now about? …

’Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep:
Full seldom may my friend such vigils keep!
Visit her, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing,
And may this storm be but a mountain birth,
May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling,
Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth!
With light heart may she rise,
Gay fancy, cheerful eyes,
Joy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice;
To her may all things live, from pole to pole,
Their life the eddying of her living soul!
O simple spirit, guided from above,
Dear Lady! friend devoutest of my choice,
Thus mayest thou ever, evermore rejoice.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

cf William Blake:
This life's dim windows of the soul
Distorts the heavens from pole to pole
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not through, the eye.

[PDF]Coleridge: Dejection – the complete version

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Kenneth Kendall

Kenneth Kendall has died aged 88.

If my memory is correct it was Kenneth Kendall who, on 7th March 1962, looked us straight in the eye during the BBC 6 o’clock news broadcast & told us that, according to the Royal College of Physicians, it was now beyond doubt that smoking caused lung cancer.

I cannot find any confirmation of this, but in my researches I came across a report from only the day before in The Times, which told of an American study which had found that ‘11,000 employees in the [American Tobacco] company’s cigarette factories smoke more, live longer & have had fewer deaths from cancer or hearts disease than the general public.
The Times also reported that ‘more than a third’ of the audience smoked throughout the press conference to launch the British report.

Which no doubt help to explain why there was no universal rush to stop, though plenty did.

A report of the Royal College of Physicians on smoking in relation to cancer of the lung and other diseases
Kenneth Kendall, former broadcaster, dies

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Friday, December 14, 2012

Tickled my fancy

Recent blog posts I liked:

Capitalism and the Kids - capitalism as contraceptive

On Typewriters - And what they did to punctuation

What number is halfway between 1 and 9? - We are logarithmaticians at heart. Must rethink the way we draw our charts.

What Does The Regression Equation Mean?

Big name drops in the news - The collapse of Forrest Gump

Inspiration from a porcupine’s quills

The art of science

Let me count the words

Latest versions of Word carry a little box at the bottom of the screen which counts the words as you type – no need now to go Tools → Word count. So I am, finally, learning really to ‘know’, without thinking about it, whether a piece is ‘long enough’.

It came as a bit of a shock when I found that the world of academe had adopted word length as its (in some cases very inflexible) yardstick. In my younger days it was generally a case of write as much as you can as quickly as you can. Sometimes at school one might be told to write a one or two page essay, tacitly leaving scope for suddenly finding that your handwriting had got bigger, or in some cases, lots of crossings out, just to use up the space, but in exams you judged the required length by the time available for answer.

It’s not that I didn’t have to write to a length for most of my working life, but again length was judged by the area of paper covered by standard typescript & conventional layouts– typically one or two sides of A4 or a single sheet of A5 for day to day communication, much longer for reports & submissions, though even then you judged more by rhythm & structure, never the number of words.

I found it terribly inhibiting to be given a required number of words. Not that I can’t count, or get the word processor to do it for me. I just never had a picture in my head of how long it was supposed to be in terms that I was used to.

In much the same way that I do not ‘know’ metric lengths or weights.

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A first or a fail
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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Do act your age

Until I heard it on the radio the other day I had not realised that when The Graduate was made in 1967 Dustin Hoffman was 30 years old.

And the Older Woman, Mrs Robinson, that odious cradle snatcher, was 36 if she was a day.

Good that our children do not have to watch such hateful stuff today.

The Graduate
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In it together

According to Des Spence in the BMJ, 574 BBC executives receive private health insurance cover as part of their compensation package.

The BBC’s annual report & accounts for 2011/12 states that ‘Private health insurance continues to be provided to existing executive directors, but it will no longer be offered as a benefit to any future member of the Executive Board.’

BBC: Executive Board remuneration report
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Compensation for the losers

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Some journalists do count

The 1971 Census in England & Wales was the first to be processed entirely by computer – though the forms had been delivered to & collected from every household in the traditional way by an enumerator, who first had the job of compiling a complete list of residential addresses in the area allocated to them.

The results were somewhat delayed.

Not solely because of computer problems – compared with the disasters to which we have grown all-too accustomed in recent years things went well - but delays were compounded by the publication process which stuck, for the most part, to doing things the old-fashioned way with bound volumes of printed tables produced according to a schedule fixed in advance. These volumes had then to be ‘Laid’ before the House of Commons before anyone outside the statistical office could see them, & this requirement led to the frustration that sometimes the figures were off the computer but could not be used publicly in any way until they had been laid.

In another measure of just how far we have come since those days, the first published results came out county by county, reflecting the way that the data was first processed one county at a time, with national analyses following on behind.

As publication day for the first county finally loomed I, for one, looked forward to seeing what, if anything, the national media might make of it, especially as it would be my own home county of Derbyshire which was in the spotlight. Most likely, I thought, it would be of no interest to the wider world.

So I was excited to see a whole column in The Guardian, carrying the byline of one of their most senior & respected reporters.

I was genuinely shocked when I realised that this column simply reproduced (albeit with a top & tail) the Press Notice which had been written by the (then) OPCS & sat gathering dust until it could finally be released. I had naively expected that a journalist would look through the volume to find his own story.

Forty years on & how things have changed. All newspapers produced their own charts of the first detailed national figures released this week, with even more details & analysis available on their web sites.

Data journalism is the new big thing – there is even a handbook for it which can be downloaded for free from the web


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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Feeling & belonging

The BBC’s Robert Peston says that ‘There does seem to be evidence that companies which think of themselves as British - by dint of who owns them - are more squeamish about minimising the tax they pay in the UK’ – without, unfortunately telling us what that evidence is or where we might find it

That the idea - that capital has no nationality, the world economy works more efficiently when it is allowed to move freely to where the returns are highest, and ‘we’ benefit from selling UK assets & businesses to the highest bidder - should carry with it such dangers was something that Ha-Joon Chang, for example, warned about in his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism.

Such dangers were certainly well known to developing & newly independent countries in the 1960’s when multinational became a dirty word.

Aided by vertical integration, that other fashion of the time, a multinational had plenty of scope as to where to allocate costs to minimise their exposure to local taxes. They owned the mine, the local first-stage processing plant, the electricity station to generate the fuel which that process required (with a surplus to be sold to local consumers) & the ships which carried the intermediate product to a more developed country for the most valuable stage of manufacturing final outputs.

As someone who was sometimes involved in tense negotiations with multinationals to try & get a more equitable settlement I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the idea that British people are now so outraged by the idea that companies can behave this way.

Might we also look forward to protests about UK companies which seem to be paying lees than their fair share of taxes abroad?

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Monday, December 10, 2012

New school year

Every so often there is a groundswell of opinion about the need to change the English school year, which currently runs from September to July, to make it more suited to a modern age.

We are also used to claims that children born in the late summer suffer the disadvantage of always being the youngest & smallest in the class & that these disadvantages have effects which may persist throughout their life.

I have put these two concerns together to come up with the new proposal that the school year should begin in April.

March has been the peak month for births through most of the years of compulsory education in Britain – which means that the average child was born half way through the school year & the benefits or disadvantages of relative youth or senescence more evenly spread throughout the class, & may even have encouraged children to help each other out in various ways.

Now that September babies have not just age & size but also numerical advantage – the birth rate now peaks in September – we could restore equity by adopting my simple proposal

Related post


I am reading John Gribbin’s biography of Erwin Schrodinger. It is disappointing to have to say that so far ‘struggling with’ would be a more accurate description of the experience.

Not surprising perhaps, given the subject matter: Chapter 2 Physics before Schrodinger; Chapter 4 The First Quantum Revolution, but the writing style did not seem to help.

This problem became plain when I hit the following sentence, in which Gribbin explains a result which Schrodinger first reported in a 1922 paper; even he however, exhausted by illness, bereavement & a heavy teaching load, failed to appreciate its proper significance at the time. Full realisation came in 1926.

 “The problem Schrodinger addressed in this second paper of 1922 was the way in which the orbits allowed for an electron in the Bohr model of the atom are quantised.”

I thought that ‘are quantised’ should read ‘to be quantised’ because it went with ‘allowed for’, & it took me more than one to work it out:
“The problem Schrodinger addressed ... was the way in which the orbits … are quantised.”
Some internal commas or parentheses would have helped, but looking at the book now with a new eye I see that the modern dislike of commas, so evident in newspapers, now seems to have spread ever wider.

Gribbin also notes that, tucked away at the end of that 1922 paper, is the observation that the equation he had found permits of an imaginary number solution.

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Sunday, December 09, 2012

Oh, for a bowl of fat Canary

It seemed obvious to choose a poem of despondency for today, to match the weather. But better to cheer up with a piece of rumpty thump silliness.

And yes please, I should love a bowl of hot, mulled, fat Canary right now to take the chill away & induce just the right amount of relaxed light-headedness.

Serving men’s song

Oh, for a bowl of fat Canary,
Rich Palermo, sparkling Sherry,
Some nectar else, from Juno’s dairy;
Oh, these draughts would make us merry!

Oh, for a wrench (I deal in faces,
And in other daintier things);
Tickled am I with her embraces,
Fine dancing in such fairy rings.

Oh, for a plump fat leg of mutton,
Veal, lamb, capon, pig, and coney;
None is happy but a glutton,
None an ass but who wants money.

Wines indeed and girls are good,
But brave victuals feast the blood;
For wenches, wine, and lusty cheer,
Jove would leap down to surfeit here.
John Lyly

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Saturday, December 08, 2012

Epistemological enquiry

Mummy - when I was born, did I know anything at all? Did I know your name?

Boy, about 7 years old, overheard in McDonalds

Friday, December 07, 2012

Tickled my fancy

Recent blog posts I liked

The Center for Book Arts - What is the connection between JK Rowling & Rolling Stone?

Saturday Times 25329 (24th Nov)
Introduced me to a new word – idgybidgy – which ought to be the given name of one of The Times current crop of crossword setters. He knows who he is.

Winning Wellcome Trust ExPlay Game Jam Entries now Online to Enjoy!
Because the headline is incomprehensible

Scouts, Starbucks, the Sun and Sister: who is doing their duty?
Nice headline, even nicer piece

Margaret Yorke obituary

27May1867, Royal Babies
A subject of perennial interest to the public

Go! Zipf’s law

About thirty years ago I became addicted to the game of Go. It was quite hard to find anyone to play with; for some reason women – especially not middle-aged women friends of mine - did not seem very interested, but fortunately several of the young men around were willing to indulge me sometimes. Then I got hold of a primitive computer version, but that moved too fast for me – it had made its move before I could even look up at the screen after making my own move, without even helpfully indicating where, with a flashing light. So I gradually lost interest.

My interest was renewed when I read recently that, although Deep Blue can play a fair game of chess, & Watson can win a game of Jeopardy, computers are nowhere near beating a human at a game of Go.

One small step has been taken through the application of network theory, which has been able to make some progress with the analysis small scale patterns over an area of just 9 of the intersections (on a board which has 19x19 squares).

And guess what – our old friend Zipf’s law comes into play.

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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Margaret Yorke

Margaret Yorke died on November 17 at the age of 88.

For some reason she never became as famous as other crime writers – except to discerning aficionados. This may have been because she did not have a hero detective to capture the imagination, to inspire a large loyal following & a television series.

Nor did she indulge in spectacular serial killer plots. Instead her stories had an ordinary quality, which made them all the more believable - & scary sometimes. That could happen to me!

But she was prolific, so there were plenty of treats for her fans.


Establishment News

Yet another piece of news to show that the British Establishment lives
The wife of the new Governor of the Bank of England was educated at Marlborough – though only in the Sixth Form, as one of the first girls to be subjected to the experiment of attending a Boys Public School. According to a report in The Times, this was entirely her own choice – she wanted to be educated alongside boys, having endured an all-girls school until that point.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Nature shewed us her Wheatsheaf

For me, the cover image (© Shutterstock) on the UK hardback edition of The Information by James Gleick immediately called to mind the wheat sheaf logo of the Royal Statistical Society.

At the top – the ears of the corn - is a collection of various connector plugs & jacks of the kind with which we are now surrounded. Their cables form the stalks, morphing into a bar code, complete with the numbers along the bottom (the soil). These numbers are, cleverly, those of the book’s ISBN.

The original founders of the Statistical Society were firmly of the belief, in 1834, that their job was to collect & collate the factual information – & leave it to others to thresh out the conclusions to be drawn from this evidence. This belief was emphasised by the addition to the logo of the words Alii Extenderum – To be threshed out by others.

By the time of the Society’s Golden Jubilee those words had been removed & the stalks were bound more tightly together in more orderly fashion. Collection & theory could not be so easily distinguished – how, after all, does one decide which facts to collect?

The great economist Alfred Marshall presented a paper to the Society’s Jubilee meeting in which he argued for the use of graphical presentation of statistics as a method of revealing the causes of historic events – the idea of time series was taking hold. Further, he argued that, in order to arrive at a secure analysis of causes, many graphs would be needed, presented together in a book, or many books.

In what Harro Maas, in his book William Stanley Jevons and the Making of Modern Economics described as what was, for Marshall, an unusual rhetorical flourish, he used an analogy with the Society’s logo: A sheaf with only a few stalks is not very stable; a sheaf with many stalks is securely grounded. He was arguing the need for international comparisons, at a meeting which marked the founding of the International Statistical Institute.

Today we have, if anything, too many stalks at our disposal, thanks to the explosion of information brought about by development of the C20th science of information. The challenge is to find the best ways of binding them together & new methods of revealing & displaying the causes of things.


Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Clever questions

Dustin Hoffman was the Desert Island castaway this week. He obviously hadn’t quite grasped the idea of the programme & submitted a list of 14 records, which was of course ruthlessly pruned by the power that be.

He later admitted that he had never, to his shame, heard (of?) the show, but realised what a great idea it was, since ‘Music is the spine of everyone’s life.’

He had also, earlier, praised Kirsty for her ‘great questions.’ Would that English interviewees could adopt this American habit.

I think I first really noticed it years ago, when John Inverdale, in a then new venture of using sports journalists in current affairs, was presenting the afternoon news magazine on Radio 5 Live. He asked the father of an American pilot who had been disappeared (temporarily) over (I think) Yugoslavia, how he felt, then immediately apologised for ‘such a stupid question.’ The father replied, ‘No, it’s a good question’ & the conversation which opened up thereafter was very moving.

But Americans do not just use it in media interviews; you hear academics saying it to each other, even distinguished professors using it to students. It must be regarded as an essential element of American pedagogy, maybe child-rearing too (unless it's just a way of giving yourself time to think).

In England we tend to retain too much of the ‘seen & not heard’ attitudes, & of the belief that education consists in teachers telling you what is what & then expecting ‘learners’ to provide expected answers to preordained questions


Monday, December 03, 2012

Bare feet doctoring

In a thoughtful article about how to mend our broken system of child protection, Camilla Cavendish in The Times endorsed Lord Carlile’s suggestion of bringing back the annual school medical check.

This was described as one which ‘examined all pupils in bare feet’

I was mystified by this. Does it mean introducing a low-cost cadre of bare-foot doctors for this purpose? Or examining only those children who are too poor, or too neglected, to wear shoes? Or does the state of the feet provide some infallible proof of abuse?

It turns out that it is the latter, up to a point. Since “Poor care of the feet is likely to provide an indication of unsatisfactory family hygiene” it is recommended that "routine, compulsory, annual medical examinations for all school pupils up to at least year 11 should include weighing and measuring, a basic inspection of oral health, of the feet, and of sight … Each such examination is unlikely to take up more than five minutes. If it is universal there is no need for embarrassment or any sense of discrimination as between one child and others”. While not, of course, providing conclusive proof of neglect, such examinations would provide important clues.

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Sunday, December 02, 2012

Surly sister

This magnificent piece of invective by Irish playwright JM Synge is said to have been about the sister of an ‘enemy’ who disapproved of The Playboy of the Western World.

It was featured, read with the most deliciously malicious relish by Kenneth Cranham, on Radio 3’s Words & Music on 25 November

The curse

LORD, confound this surly sister,
Blight her brow with blotch and blister,
Cramp her larynx, lung, and liver,
In her guts a galling give her.
Let her live to earn her dinners
In Mountjoy with seedy sinners:
Lord, this judgment quickly bring,
And I'm your servant, J. M. Synge.
John Millington Synge


Saturday, December 01, 2012

Schrodinger's other life

I have just started to read Piergiorgio Odifreddi’s book The Mathematical Century: The 30 Greatest Problems of the Last 100 Years.

In one sense I suppose the subtitle proves that mathematicians live in a world of their own – others might think wars, & the gyrations of the economy presented greater problems to normal, ordinary people. But then across eternal time & space the problems of mathematics which have been solved, or which remain unsolved, will have more resonance than mere worldly concerns.

It is an encouragingly slim volume, with helpful diagrams but few unfamiliar symbols or equations.

It also has a Foreword by Freeman Dyson which is complimentary even though he is inclined to regard Odifreddi as a European who is too Cartesian, not empirical enough, & therefore too serious, insufficiently appreciative of the illogical leaps which sometimes mark progress in the history of mathematics, what Dyson calls ‘the jokes of nature’.

One such joke is i, the entirely imaginary square root of -1. Schrodinger put i into his famous quantum equation of 1926, thus proving – to his & everyone else’s surprise – that nature works with complex, not real or natural numbers.

What brought me up short was that Dyson goes on to retail an anecdote about the reaction of Schrodinger’s then girlfriend: ‘Hey, you never even thought when you began that so much sensible stuff would come out of it’

Whether her comment shows a surprising mathematical ability, or simply emotional intelligence, must remain a matter for conjecture. The girl was 14 years old at the time.

14! With concern about historic child abuse (a very elastic term) being rife in this country at the moment one wonders how this relationship was regarded in 1926. Did he marry her?

The mathematical/scientific biographies seem silent on Scrodinger’s personal & emotional life, but I found a review on the Telegraph’s website of John Gribbin’s biography of Schrodinger which was published earlier this year, but which I don’t remember seeing anything about at the time.

According to the reviewer Nicholas Blincoe, ‘Gribbin does not shy away from Schrödinger’s sex life’, which was that of a serial seducer.

Schrodinger had an especially adventurous time in Dublin. He seduced one woman who packed Red Cross parcels alongside his existing mistress, (and mother of his illegitimate daughter); he also got a well-known actress pregnant and had to be warned off a friend’s 12-year-old niece.

He later described his 17 years in Dublin as the happiest of his life.

And it was of course, during this time that, at the height of WW2, he published What Is Life? with some help to put it into idiomatic English, suitable for delivery as public lectures to a general audience. A book which is cited by Maurice Wilkins & Francis Crick, among others, as having inspired them to switch, post WW2, from destructive physics to the more life-affirming world of genetics.

So, given that retrospective punishment is now being called for over incidents of child abuse which are now being exposed, is anyone going to propose that the name of Schrodinger be expunged from the records, that he be stripped of all honours, on grounds of his paedophile tendencies?

If so, who will inherit the cat?


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