Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sorting out average pay

The recent report from the LSE Growth Commission recommends that median household income should take a regular place alongside GDP as a measure of how the economy is doing.

That brought back memories of the 1970s, when governments still often assessed economic effects of the Budget by quoting the cost (or benefit) to the average family with two children & a father on average earnings. Average was always just understood to be the arithmetic mean & as such a fair representation of how much ‘most’ ordinary families had to live on.

As the great inflation following the oil price shock started to drag more & more workers into income tax & the Government tried to calm union demands by referring to the ‘social wage’, one Labour MP – I think it must have been Audrey Wise – started to table a series of Parliamentary Questions asking for comparisons of median with average earnings. Some of us were quite impressed – in an age when knowledge of even basic statistics was spread so narrowly – that someone was alert to the existence of different kinds of average. Those of us who already knew that earnings/income do not generally follow a symmetric, bell-shaped curve (or normal distribution) but one which is skew, with a long tail towards the higher end of the income scale were even more impressed. On a bell-shaped curve [arithmetic] mean & median have the same value, but (right to left, reading up the hill) for a positively skew unimodal distribution the mean always exceeds the median. My memory tells me that the median was, in those day, only about 2/3 of the mean for earnings of men in full-time work.

Such lack of education on this point continued for well over a decade – I remember trying to explain to someone how it was that Mrs Thatcher was not (necessarily) telling lies when she talked about the new poll tax in relation to ‘average earnings’ of around £10,000 a year – ‘Nobody round here earns anything like that’.

In 2013 we seem to have gone the other way – I have been finding it hard to lay my hands on average (mean) earning figures for the UK – medians are everywhere now.

One reason why medians did not get so much attention in those days may have been that they could be difficult (or at least very expensive) to calculate from large surveys. Records were held in fixed format in fixed order on magnetic tape which could be read in only one direction. Sorting could take forever. Astonishing how we now take it for granted that sorting (of a sort) can now be done easily at the click of a button.

LSE Growth Commission
Cabinet Papers: The Miners Strike and the Social Contract
[PDF] Introduction to sorting
YouTube: [Nerdy] Sorting Out Sorting
Related post
Assorted memories

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Grammar school dames

Yesterday’s especially interesting guest on Radio 4’s Life Scientific was Sue Ions, nuclear engineer.

It was an unusually challenging interview by Jim Al-Khalili – probably better that way; Dame Sue was more than capable of giving a spirited & persuasive defence of the need for nuclear power, & the dangers of relying on wind for a supply reliable enough to keep our lights & computers ready to obey our commands.

The aspect of her career which especially intrigued me however was her education at a girls-only state school, where two inspirational male teachers – in chemistry & physics – motivated both her & her classmate & fellow Dame, Nancy Rothwell (Vice Chancellor of the University of Manchester) to take up careers in science.

Yet another example to set one pondering the part which luck plays in the life chances of us all.

Penwortham Girls High School
Penwortham Girls High School Alumnae
President and Vice-Chancellor for The University of Manchester
Related post
Clever clogs

Monday, February 25, 2013

On the buses

I only noticed today that wifi is now available on the buses – at least on the latest electric hybrid ones. Financed partly by the Department of Transport.

Hazel Grove Goes Green
Related post
Laptop fashions

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lord Bacon's life choices

As I re-read this poem my attention rather fixed on Lord Bacon's reservations about the bliss of matrimony - Domestic cares afflict the husband's bed,/Or pains his head,  & description of a wife as a double strife - my mind more likely to pick up on this because I have just read Margaret Drabble's Seven Sisters, a novel about a middle aged woman's efforts to make a life for herself, newly single, after her unsatisfactory marriage ends in divorce.

All in all, it is such a gloomy poem that one wonders about his ability to take comfort from his science & philosophy: I do hope so.

THE world's a bubble, and the life of man
Less than a span:
In his conception wretched, from the womb
So to the tomb;
Curst from his cradle, and brought up to years
With cares and fears.
Who then to frail mortality shall trust
But limns on water, or but writes in dust.

Yet whilst with sorrow here we live opprest,
What life is best?
Courts are but only superficial schools
To dandle fools;
The rural parts are turn'd into a den
Of savage men;
And where's a city from foul vice so free,
But may be term'd the worst of all the three?

Domestic cares afflict the husband's bed,
Or pains his head;
Those that live single take it for a curse,
Or do things worse;
Some would have children; those that have them moan
Or wish them gone:
What is it, then, to have, or have no wife,
But single thraldom, or a double strife?

Our own affections still at home to please
Is a disease;
To cross the seas to any foreign soil,
Peril and toil;
Wars with their noise affright us; when they cease,
We are worse in peace:
What then remains, but that we still should cry
For being born, or, being born, to die?
Lord Bacon

Francis Bacon
The Baconian System of Philosophy

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Irish fingering

A contributor to a discussion about domestic politics on RTE Radio 1 on Friday morning talked of putting a tricky issue on to the long finger. From the context I understood this to mean what we might call kicking into the long grass (in the hope that it might go away).

But surely something would stay all too plainly in view if it were on the prominent middle finger? Could the phrase perhaps imply something worse – referring to a gesture which is at least rude, if not insultingly obscene?

The OED offered no help as to a figurative or colloquial meaning, defining long finger as merely the middle, or sometimes the three middle, fingers.

The Macmillan Dictionary blog suggests that to put something on an mhĂ©ar fhada in Irish means to postpone something. The Phrase Finder suggests that it comes from “the [uniquely Irish?] custom of wearing a ring on the index finger of your left hand if you are not engaged or married, on the second (long) finger if you are engaged, on the third (ring) finger if married, and on the little finger if entirely disinclined”& Collins English Dictionary gives examples of the phrase in use, sometimes to mean postponed or ignored.

But no real help as to why.

Example Sentences Including 'long finger'
Long finger
Phrase finder
BBC News: When did the middle finger become offensive?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked

What 200 calories look like - Very instructive pictures

Tesla vs. NYT: Do the Data Really Tell All?  - Statistics v the story

Gaming the System - Has Michael Gove seen this?

Saving for a rainy day - Can there really be a connection between the language of weather forecasts & the citizens propensity to save for the proverbial?

Formica is One Hundred years old!

Word counts are amazing. - Contain much more information than you might think

Top Ten Reasons to Not Share Your Code (and why you should anyway)

Have you stopped beating your wife? - Mathematics may have the answer

That’s the way the droplets adhere

Mash update

There is a major snag with my plan to use ready-meal mash as a straight substitute in recipes designed for the home-made version which has been left overnight in the fridge.

The bought stuff is wringing wet, full of water, impossible to mould into a patty with your hands.

No wonder it takes so long to cook in its tub.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Welsh booby

Somebody boobed with a temporary road sign in Shrewsbury: they put an h into Whelsh.

A sad reflection on modern standards of education, said the Queen’s English Society. You’ve got to be dopey to make that sort of error, said a local.

Well, it is embarrassing, so close to Wales, but it’s not that hard to understand how easy it is to confuse Wales with whales, from where ‘tis but a short step, via whelp to Whelsh.

It is also crushingly easy to make misspellings when your attention is focused on forming the letters properly, as I found out when I tried my hand at calligraphy

Related post
An area the size of Whales

Richard Briers

Sad to hear of the death of Richard Briers at the age of 89.

Many of the obituaries & news reports nominated The Good Life as the tv comedy series for which he will be best remembered.

As often happens, these judgements often depend on how old you are. I was not a fan of that 1970s BBC comedy series – those for whom the show is a vivid childhood memory will be in their forties now & in a position to dominate the media comment.

My fondest memories are of Marriage Lines, a 1960s comedy in which he starred with Prunella Scales. The Times obituarist nominates this as the series which made Brier’s name. Showing, as it did, the ups & downs of early married life, including the wife’s frustration at being tied to home & babies, it seemed rather forward looking & rebellious, albeit in a gentle way.

Richard Briers
YouTube: Marriage Lines
Marriage Lines
Related post
Children not wanted here

Blue blood

An absorbing new series on Radio 4 talks to people who must listen – intently- for a living.

It was while cardiac surgeon Jonathan Pitts Crick was talking about de-oxygenated blood returning to the heart – the blue blood – that it suddenly occurred to me to wonder why we use the phrase blue-blooded to mean aristocratic. What can be good, admirable or desirable about not having enough oxygen?

It seems unlikely that it could really be a dig, suggesting a class which is effete & decadent (in contrast to more lusty red-blooded types), since I always understood blue blood to be admired.

The Phrase Finder suggests that it a literal translation of the Spanish 'sangre azul', attributed to some of the oldest and proudest families of Castile, who claimed never to have intermarried with Moors, Jews, or other, darker skinned peoples. Their skin was whiter than white, fair enough for you to be able to see the blue in their veins.

The OED does not give us an etymology, but does include a quotation from Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies (published in 1863): Like an old blue-blooded hidalgo of Spain.

Yet another word to be careful about using.
BBC Radio 4: The Listeners
Phrase finder: Blue blood
Related post
Passing white

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Laptop fashions

Suddenly there seem to be a lot of people with laptops about.

I am not talking about trendy young professionals, sales reps & others using them for work, or students, but people from much less affluent backgrounds – some I know are not working, though one young man spends a lot of his time looking for a job on his.

This may be down partly to the spread of free wifi, but also I guess to a suddenly thriving second hand market, as many people - the kind who are mainly consumers of the web rather than producers of content or needing the power of a laptop for major pieces of writing or data analysis - turn to tablets or smart phones instead,

A quick Google shows plenty of ads offering laptops for under £100.

The science of rubbish collection

The modern vehicles which are now used to empty our black wheelie bins are even more clever than I knew.

I got the opportunity to see them at work close up while I was standing at the bus stop this morning,

The hoist operates on some sort of weight sensor – the binmen have only to push the bins on to the bit at the bottom which looks like short prongs of a forklift truck & up they go, over & tip.

But as the process of lowering them back to the ground begins, the machine senses if a bin is not completely empty, tips it again & gives it a good shake until it is. All untouched by human hand.

All that thought & ingenuity put into coping with stuff for which we carelessly have no use for any more.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Running scared

On Saturday’s Week in Westminster, Peter Oborne spoke to Frank Dobson & Stephen Dorrell about what it is like to be a Secretary of State in the eye of a storm, such as those we are currently having over horse meat & NHS failures in Mid Staffs.

One nugget concerned Frank Dobson’s regret over the failure, during his tenure as Secretary of State for Health, to take a more robust line against the claims that MMR vaccination causes autism. He attributed this in part to a distinct lack of confidence about the issue on the part of his professional advisers, still reeling from the fallout from the BSE affair, when robust reassurance had turned out to be disastrously misguided.

BBC Radio 4: Week In Westminster
Stephen Dorrell
Frank Dobson
Mid Staffordshire Report
Related post
MMR & responsibility

Orange spring

No clouds in the sky at all today – high, clear pale blue, sunshine weak but warm. Spring in the step.

Curiously however, the light has been distinctly autumnal rather than springlike since the gloom began to lift last Friday, all pink, orange & pale brown rather than yellow green & blue. Perhaps it is a sign of the same atmospheric effect that turns a red sky at night into a promise of another fine day tomorrow.

Monday, February 18, 2013

No-cooker cooking

Last time you moved house, did the cooker join the rest of your furniture on the removal van? Or, if you were moving into your first home, was one of your first tasks (along with arranging for utility connections in your name) to go out & buy a new cooker?

My guess is not, not in this age of fitted kitchens. You may well have expected - & found – a whole panoply of appliances, included in the purchase price or rent, ready & waiting: washing machine, tumble drier, fridge, freezer & dishwasher. Though I have known people who got a nasty shock on moving-in day, when they found that the vendor had considered those fittings not so fixed after all & had driven off with them.

Laura Sandys, Conservative MP for Thanet South, claimed last week that as many of 80% of families in her constituency have no cooker, other than a microwave.

Pondering how this could be, I remembered my consternation when I heard that the shared flats in the University halls of residence were not, generally, equipped with cookers; students who wanted to cater for themselves had only microwaves, electric kettles & maybe a toaster or sandwich-maker of their own. Fire risk was a major factor behind this policy.

Ms Sandys did specify that the 80% figure applies only to families living in private rented accommodation in some neighbourhoods, so I suspect that a similar concern often lies behind the landlord’s reluctance to provide a cooker or even, to make assurance doubly sure, the requisite connections to gas or sockets for electricity supply.

Cooking appliances were the main source of ignition in over half of all accidental dwelling fires in 2010-11 according to the Department of Communities & local Government statistics, & according to FireSafe seven thousand people are injured in kitchen fires each year, and that doesn’t include the people who are killed.

Nor would a landlord want to face the risk of finding that the tenant has sold the cooker to solve an emergency cash flow problem.

It's a long time since the Population Census last asked households if their accommodation tincluded a kitchen of their own, but when it did it was taken for granted that a kitchen included a cooker.  Perhaps questions about cooking facilities need now to be added to government household social surveys

It is possible to cook whole meals from scratch in a microwave – I have at least one such cookery book on my shelves. But it seems a desperately fiddly business, one which I never really tried. Meanwhile the new compulsory school cookery lessons certainly ought to take account of the circumstances in which children live, & pay attention to lessons in how to use a microwave to cook simple things such as vegetables.

[PDF] Fire Statistics Great Britain, 2010 – 2011
Derbyshire Fire & rescue Service: In the kitchen
Fires in the kitchen
[PDF]US National Fire Protection Association: Home Fires Involving Cooking Equipment
National Chip Week
Related posts
Microwave smells

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Disobeying instructions

Wednesday was foul – a bitter wind, relentless precipitation, veering capriciously between downpour & puppy slush.

Comfort food was called for. As I contemplated a tub of Sainsbury’s premium brand mashed potato, which comes in a plastic tub unsuitable for a conventional oven & instructions to decant it into a ‘similar sized’ container before cooking, a new idea!

I tipped the potato onto a large-ish piece of lightly oiled foil; it retained its solid form, but some quick work with a fork broke it up. Then patted it down into a circle less than half an inch thick. A potato pancake with a peaky  topping.

Then into the hot oven alongside the lamb fillets.

It worked better than I could have hoped, golden with brown crunchy bits on top, soft & fluffy inside.

It saved on cooking time too. The instructions said 45 minutes, which seems excessive for mashed potato which is at least half cooked to begin with, but I suppose the heat takes a long time to penetrate to the centre of a semi-solid mass in a deep pot.

With some heated-up left-over home-made lentil & red pepper soup for one veg-cum-gravy & green beans, our supper was ready in half an hour.

I suppose it’s obvious really, that you do not have to be bound by the instructions, can use bought mash in any favourite recipe. It just takes longer than it should to understand  which diversions might be dangerous in the modern world of mass-produced dishes.

For my next trick – cheese, potato & onion cakes, which even home-made from scratch need left-over mash which has spent at least one night in the fridge.

Related post
Mashed potato

Wisdom for humans

The Road to Wisdom

The road to wisdom? Well, it's plain
And simple to express:
and err
and err again,
but less
and less
and less.

Piet Hein

And so ad infinitum

Grooks by Piet Hein
Related post

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked

Hippocratic - A pithy summary of the problems of international meat trading. Though Horse d’oeuvres
shows that the scandal is fortuitously well-timed for some.

XKCD  has been on steroids.

Keeping up is hard to do - for a member of the House of Lords.

The relationship between child’s play and scientific exploration – even babies test their hypotheses on observed evidence.

Google statistician Nick Chamandy knows that without becoming intimate with the raw data structure, and the many considerations involved in filtering, cleaning, and aggregating the data, the statistician can never truly hope to have a complete understanding of the data.

Thomas Gray & the Hermit Tradition

didn’t show up in The Times (the London one) till 2003, then quickly became the accepted term in restaurant reviews. So truly, we have Giles Coren (Times restaurant critic since 2002) to blame for that.

What's in your beef?

Beefing up public-key encryption My first reaction to the headline was to assume that yet another twist to the horsemeat in burgers story was being revealed.
Not sure if it is more a less alarming that this story is ‘MIT researchers show how to secure widely used encryption schemes against attackers who have intercepted examples of successful decryption’.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Getting light again

Strange to wake up soon after seven this morning & find daylight coming through the windows, the sky covered only by a high layer of white mist.

Makes a human being feel lighter too, given a respite from that feeling of being crushed under dark louring skies.

There were even a few stars twinkling through the kitchen window late last night.

Small world of food

If we want to have:
  • A wide variety of choice in the foods we eat
  • Predictable supply, available at any time we choose to shop or eat (24/7 in many cases)
  • Priced competitively to suit every pocket
(and all the signs are that we do), then it follows that supply chains must grow in length, to even out the natural variations in supply. The freezing & packing of meat close to the source of supply also addresses the problem of distress when live animals are transported over long distances to market.

Eat local, eat seasonal, buy from suppliers small enough to know the name of the animal from which the meat was cut, or the grower of the fruit & veg, then your choice will be restricted – no oranges, olive oil, cinnamon, aubergine, rice or tuna grown here. There will be gluts – even strawberries or runner beans lose their attraction when served day after day. And shortages – the water-logged fields round here present a very sorry sight just now.

Shops will most likely not have the staff to stay open all hours, & you will have to struggle with your baskets as you go in, out, in, out the length of the street, come rain or shine.

And what on earth will we do with all the bits of animal we don’t want to eat?

We do not like eating horse in our hamburgers – especially unknowingly. But we don’t seem to mind eating beef paste or hot dogs made with chicken – the ingredients are declared on the label.

To anyone who remembers all the 1960s pessimism about our ability to feed the world – which then contained fewer than half as many people it does today – the fact that we remain, for the most part, very well fed is an amazing achievement.

Our current pessimism instils us with fear that we may be killing ourselves with too much food, or at least with bad nutrition, despite the continuing improvements in longevity.

We persist in the strange belief that Nature orders these things better than does Man, with his soulless application of industrial methods to the production of food, despite the plain fact that those scary flu threats all come from places where people live in all too-close proximity to the animals.

We must wait & see what has gone wrong. At the moment it looks more like a breakdown of trust, rather than any real culpability on the part of major manufacturers & food processors. Perhaps driven by the pressing need to keeps prices down – we’re in favour of that too. As of today it seems to be the smaller organisations in the chain which have given in to the temptation to cheat, perhaps because of feeling their backs to the wall in these difficult economic times & the cutting off of the supply of cheap meat recovered from carcases.

LinkHorse meat scandal
Related posts
Devil on the plate
Problem with ready meals
Animal warmth, human coldness
M&S Foods

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Language orders

Feeling bereft of inspiration for a topic for a quick post today I resorted to an old standby – look at how they celebrated Valentine’s Day 100 years ago.

I did not get that far – diverted by yet more evidence that there is absolutely nothing new in ‘political correctness.’

The following is an extract from The Times of 14 February 1913.

The nomenclature of Indians
Official orders

The use of the word ‘native’ as a synonym for ‘Indian’, customary for generations in official & public speech & writing, has been discouraged in recent years, & more particularly from the time of Lord Minto’s Viceroyalty, owing to the dislike of the appellation shown by the educated classes.

Though it has now been generally discarded in official correspondence, reports & returns, the Government of India have deemed it desirable to give a definite direction to this effect to their officers.

The notification … recognises that in certain contingencies it is impossible to avoid the use of the word, eg in such phrases as … ‘statutory native of India’ (a term which includes the domiciled whites). But generally officers of Government have been directed to use the word ‘Indian’ instead of ‘native’ in all official papers …

Our readers are aware that this has long been the practice of The Times.
That last sentence speaks volumes about the gulf that can grow between those at 'home' & those who fondly believe that everything in the old country remains as it was when they left, something that can affect migrants everywhere.

Related posts
Terminological debate
Old fashioned political correctness
Another N word

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Laughing it off

I do not think I have ever heard so many jokes on a single topic. Newspapers & radio are full of them, from the tabloids to The Times, from Today to Up All Night. This business about horsemeat in processed burgers & bolognese has really struck a nerve – the jokes as much a sign of nervousness as wit.

Retailers, farmers, caterers, ministers & EU spokesmen … all scrambling to reassure us that they are taking all possible steps & the greatest possible care – as they have always done (fingers crossed) – to make sure that, if we are what we eat, we will not all soon start neighing.

Pie-makers are especially anxious to ensure us that there is nothing nasty hidden under the crust. There really are a lot of such businesses in the North West. Today’s You & Yours on Radio 4 took us round one in Wigan, with the reporter given access all areas (suitably covered up to ensure he did not himself contaminate the product) to ensure that all is well.

Even he could not resist a joke, slipping in a reference to The Life of Pie.

Pies in the North West
Related post
Met a pieman

An area the size of whales

"In South Africa, I was doing an aerial survey of Wales".

That is what I heard conservationist Mark Carwardine say on this morning’s Radio 4 programme In Living Memory.

But I was simply momentarily confused, my mind automatically linking the idea of surveys with areas of land, & thus with that well known unit of measurement, an area the size of Wales.

In reality it was whales of which he spoke, confusingly, in a programme which was actually about the disproportionate terror we have of sharks.

To prove that sharks  are really not that dangerous, he quoted some great stats. My favourite – an American is 25 times more likely to be bitten by a New Yorker than by a shark.

BBC Radio 4: In Living Memory - Sharks
[PDF]Mark Carwardine

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Met a pieman

Today I noticed two small white vans, within quite a short space of time. One was in the village, near the chippy, the other in town as I walked towards the market. One declared itself to belong to the Great North Pie Company, the other to Lord of the Pies. The first makes artisan pies, the second hand-made gourmet pies.

Both are local. Perhaps my seeing two so close together is evidence of a burgeoning small industry at a time of despondency, cold weather & economic distress (there is nothing so cockle-warming as a hot pie). From makers who hopefully are close to & familair with all their suppliers of meat & other raw materials.

Or perhaps noticing the first one just primed my brain to notice the word pie.

Great North Pie Co
Lord of the Pies

Monday, February 11, 2013

Probably a percentage

In three papers this last week it was interesting to see words such as probability or risk used to describe what I would probably have called, simply, percentages. I might have added terms such as growth, change, share, and concentration, distribution or simply more or less, higher or lower to aid description, analysis or explanation.

This probably reflects my training in economics ‘analytical & descriptive’ in the days before the subject became dominated by mathematical models, followed later by work in data collection via censuses & (mostly social) surveys; this latter day shift towards thinking in terms of probabilities may reflect a more widespread acceptance of the idea that we live in a probabilistic world, or just today’s emphasis on model-building & parameter estimation.

It would be interesting to trace the history of when percentage breakdowns (as in the old joke Population broken down by age & sex) became the norm in the presentation of statistical tables. The early authors of papers in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society use simple proportions with varying denominators, comparing 5 out of 9 with 7 out of 12, for example. Presumably Victorians were better at knowing which was higher.

The British Hedgehog Survey illustrates population decline with an index (setting the base year to 100), which is interpreted as ‘a measure of the probability of detecting a hedgehog in a particular year relative to the probability in the first year of the survey.’ This set me pondering whether there might be anything to be gained by thinking of, for example, the Consumer Price Index, as a (weighted) probability that any product you put in your trolley at the next visit to the supermarket will have increased in price since last month, rather than as a measure of the ‘thing’ we call inflation.

An engagingly written report Hilary: the most poisoned baby name in US history looks at the risk that a name might suddenly fall out of favour with new parents making that all-important decision about what to call their baby. The author talks of ‘a measurement called the relative risk, where “risk” refers to the proportion of babies given a certain name’ and, even more engagingly, explains how to calculate percentage rates of growth and decline.

The third example came from a magazine article about knife crime in London, which quoted a study of the risk that youngsters living in south London might suffer from various kinds of deprivation such as living in a lone parent family without a father, or poor educational attainment. Here the concept of area-based risk comes closer to implying a cause & effect relationship – the area causes the deprivation.

It is not so long ago that the same sort of statements could have been made about Notting Hill. I wonder if the millionaires & Cabinet Ministers who live there now have any such fears for the future of their own children?

PDF]The state of Britain’s hedgehogs 2011
Hilary: the most poisoned baby name in US history
Related posts
Social mobility
The verb to be
Onwards & upwards
Making things add up

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Love story

To my Dear and Loving Husband

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay.
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let's so persever
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
Anne Bradstreet

Anne Bradstreet
Related post
Writing legacy

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Public library lending

The annual ‘best seller’ list for UK public libraries has just been published.

Much was made of the enduring popularity of the novels of Danielle Steel, whose books have been featured in the lists for each of the last 30 years. Her books were borrowed almost a million times last year alone.

Jack Malvern, writing in The Times, interpreted this as the ‘British reading public’ showing what they think of literary critics & cultural commentators who mock her ‘formulaic stories’.

Well maybe.

But that figure needs to be seen in the context of the total number of loans made by UK public libraries last year.

The novels of Danielle Steel accounted for  0.3% of a total of more than one quarter of a billion loans (287,505,000 to be more precise – rather more than the 209,000,000 books bought by consumers in 2011 according to figures from the Publishers Association).

The best seller lists are compiled from figures which are used to make Public Lending Right (PLR) payments to authors. From which we can calculate that, with a total of £6.4m at a rate of 6.2p per loan, only some 100 million (roughly one-third of all library loans) attract the payment. Part of the gap is explained by the fact that there is a cap of £6,600 on the payment to any one author (ie they are not paid for more than about 1 million loans of their books in any one year), and the rest is made up of books by authors who do not qualify for PLR.

What is PLR?
CIPFA national library survey

Friday, February 08, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked

The great GIF debate explains, among other things, why Jif (the sink cleaner) had to change its name – to avoid confusion with a brand of peanut butter

Issues with reproducibility at scale on Coursera reproducing someone else’s code or statistical analysis is not as straightforward as you think – or hope it is, or should be.

Staying Ahead of the Tax Man Everybody does it if they can.

Word String frequency distributions - Always check what the numbers mean before you analyse them

Investigating paediatric pain: Q & A with Professor Maria Fitzgerald and
Pain: Anaesthesia and Self-mutilation in the Nineteenth Century One disturbing, one just discombobulating, exploration of past medical views about pain

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Huhne over

I have been rather taken aback by the journalistic response to the way Chris Huhne suddenly, & after a long period of vehement denials, pleaded guilty to the charge of perverting the course of justice. None of kind of howling that generally greets misdemeanours by politicians.

A tragedy, to see a good & able minister laid low at his age, they say. Almost too painful to have to read searing deatils of the breakdown in his family relationships.

Of course one shares the sympathy, up to a point. But perhaps we have had a lucky escape, in removing a man like him form power?

A man whose public statements come across as showing more irritation than contrition at being bound by pettifogging rules which limit his freedom to drive exactly as he wishes.

Who ended his marriage in sudden, ruthless & brutal fashion when the press got on to the story of an extra-marital affair. Perhaps that’s why the press are showing more contrition now, post-Leveson. Plus, of course, the fact that many may count as a friend one who was himself a journalist for two decades.

Chris Huhne: A political career in ruins, and all for three penalty speeding points
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The madness of politicians

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Breast feeding & breast cancer

Valerie Beral made an interesting claim on this week’s Life Scientific, which I for one have not heard expressed in such clear & simple terms before.

We all know, pretty much, that breast cancer risk increases in line with the age at which a woman has her first child. International comparisons show quite clearly that breast cancer is rare in countries where women bear six or more children, each of which may each be breast fed for as long as two years; on the other hand rates of cancer have risen inexorably in countries like ours, where child birth is postponed & breast feeding quite widely regarded as optional.

Beral went on to translate this into an assertion that even one child, born to a twenty-year-old, conveys a lifetime benefit of a 10% reduction in the risk of breast cancer. This she thinks must be due to one of the hormones of pregnancy (rather than, for example, mere absence of menstruation).

If scientific research could identify that hormone, then we could envisage the development of something akin to inoculation* – perhaps a single injection or dose which could be given to girls in their late teens to convey a comparable benefit.

So why is the necessary research not done? Beral thinks it will need a committed, wealthy backer – just as the original research on The Pill & IVF was done in the private sector.

I am left wondering if the evidence is strong enough to support an estimate of the benefit which accrues even to an older mother who breastfeeds for six months. At least offer mothers some direct personal benefit for all those broken nights.

*On reflection, perhaps vaccination, the word Beral used, is truly more appropriate in this context

Life Scientific: Valerie Beral

Radio active women

Archive on 4 looked at the history of women in radio – specifically BBC radio.

There were surprisingly large numbers of women working in the BBC from its earliest radio days – but in the back office. Some women did give Talks, of a suitably intellectual kind, & in the 1920s & 1930s this meant, almost by definition, that they were drawn from the Upper Middle Class & above. Which was just as well as it was soon decided that only RP was suitable for speaking to The Nation.

But the idea that a woman might read the news – or even report it – was plainly ridiculous. No woman had the requisite authority, their voices were too high, & they would lack the essential objectivity by, for example, sounding sad or even crying, when bringing bad tidings.

Apart from plain old sexist prejudice, the programme put forward the idea that people generally did find something rather disturbing about listening to the (literally) disembodied female voice.

In a curious way, television helped bring that to an end. Women’s bodies clearly had to appear on screen & their voices had to be broadcast. In fact BBC television was opened by a woman – Sylvia Peters (married Peter West?).

These days we are used to women fronting & contributing to all types of programme (except Today & most of Radio 1).

What was sad to hear was that Joan Bakewell & Bridget Kendall – both splendid women & splendid broadcasters – have each faced suggestions that their accents may now be just a bit too posh for C21st broadcasting. And yet, on tv at least, Clare Balding can become the nation’s favourite.

Archive on 4: Spoken Like a Woman
Radio active women - Nepal
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Taking the mic

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Whatever the weather

I am writing this on my laptop at home, having decided by mid-morning that there is no point in trying to go out today. This unsettled & unsettling weather has thrown a surprise snow storm at us – unforecasted, as far as I can tell. The local councils cannot have known, since no roads were gritted. So, although the snow does not amount to all that much, there is traffic chaos, including on the main A6 all the way to Stockport, & some schools are closed.

Yesterday was cold with a blustery wind, plus heavy rain in the late afternoon/early evening. Even stronger winds, gale force in some places, were forecast for today, with scattered wintry showers, (longer spells of snow & sleet possible over Scotland). As ever, it was hard to tell what we should expect in our corner of the world, but it was only the prospect of high wind that was of the slightest concern.

I got a surprise when I went to put out the rubbish for collection last night; as I bent to tie up the bag bits of something kept falling out of my hair. I assumed my head must have brushed against the philadelphus, to which a few leaves still cling, until one of the frozen snowflakes caught the light. None of them was settling on the ground however & the wind was still blustering.

Another surprise lay in wait as I caught the tail end of Tony Livesey’s programme on Radio 5 Live – broadcast from Manchester – where colleagues were teasing Tony about the problems he would face on his drive home after 1am. Even Rhod Sharp joined in when he came to give his plug for Up All Night, astonishingly saying that anyone trying to drive to Buxton would be facing a real challenge, & he would be keeping listeners updated on his own programme. I still assumed they must be talking about high winds.

Sleep came before the promised elucidation.

Even before those late night excitements I had been beginning to mentally draft a post for today on the unsettling weather, inspired by thunder & lightning. We had had more of this around 8 or 9 in the evening, a few long rumbles rolling around the hills, not too close, the lightning imperceptible from inside with the curtains drawn, except for one flash which briefly made the lights flicker & the radio stutter. This makes the 4th or 5th such episode since the first snow began to melt, all very similar except for one in the early hours of Sunday morning which was loud enough to wake everybody up & with lightning which must have been sheeting across the whole sky, lighting up the room even through the curtains.

All while having an argument with myself: not another post on the weather.

The seductive power of writing about the weather I have come to recognise only since starting this blog – gives plenty of free rein to description & the use of adjectives, something frowned upon in official & academic writing. But it’s my blog, I can do whatever I like, nobody else has to read it – I used to skip all those bits myself, especially when attempting a Victorian novel with pages of the stuff. For heaven’s sake, all you need do is establish that ‘twas a dark & stormy night, no need to go on so.

However, sometimes language itself can lead you to weather science. Language Log provides some very useful links to discussions of how the pattern of rain has changed (in Britain at least), just through a discussion of how we should name, which word we should use for, this ‘new’ kind. One option is ‘convective rain’ since it is thought to be produced by processes similar to those which produce thunderstorms. I find that curious, since its frequency in these parts seems to be correlated with a fall in thunderstorms, suggesting something else is going on as well.

Perhaps it’s the bacteria in the clouds. Some of which have a pink pigment which acts as a sunscreen, enabling them to resist death by ultraviolet ray, even thousands of feet up & so much closer to the sun. Although it remains a mystery how they get up there. One speculation is that hurricanes & violent winds help create a kind of hovering effect which sweeps them up into the storm clouds. (I paraphrase all this from an intriguing Weather Eye column by Paul Simons in Monday’s Times). So I expect the jet stream is ultimately to blame – one way or another it always seems to end up getting the blame for our current unusual weather ‘events’.

Georgia Tech: Study Finds Substantial Microorganism Populations in the Upper Troposphere
Research on Airborne Ice Nucleating Species (RAINS)
Can Bacteria in Clouds Influence Global Weather Patterns?
Live Science: Earth's Clouds Alive With Bacteria
National Geographic: Rainmaking Bacteria Ride Clouds to "Colonize" Earth?

Monday, February 04, 2013

One of our pianos is missing

Today it was announced that Harrods piano department is to close. There are simply not enough people who regard a piano as an essential feature of the home these days. Or, more likely, not enough who have the room for one.

How things have changed. I cherish a story from long ago, in the days before plastic cards, bar codes & computerised stock control, when to be an Account Customer of the famous Knightsbridge store was a mark of your status & social standing, & all the bills were written out by hand.

One year, when the time for the annual stock taking came round, the Music Department found that it was short of a grand piano (worth about £10,000 in those days).

Well, they reasoned, obviously it must have gone to an account customer & the paperwork has been mislaid. We know our customers; there are only about 15 who might have bought a grand piano. So we’ll send each of them a bill. Whoever has the piano will pay up, & we will apologise fulsomely to the rest.

Three customers settled the bill without a murmur of complaint.

The Piano Shopper
End of civilisation: Harrods shuts piano showroom

Sunday, February 03, 2013

From service to service

Joyce Grenfell was a gifted writer & performer of comic monologues; the one about the nursery school teacher coping with the problem of George was especially popular.

Her poems now provide often touching but revealing insights into the social history of the life of the upper middle classes in mid twentieth century Britain & the upheavals of war.

This one reminds me of Winifred Peck’s novel about another woman’s experiences of ‘the servant problem.’

Tribute to a treasure
A young hand-maiden served me once,
She house-kept with a pleasing grace.
Her temperament was calm & light,
Her very presence blessed the place.
She never got a message wrong,
She cooked & cleaned, she sewed & swept;
She washed & ironed, she fed the dog:
She almost never over-slept.
Nor did she self-indulge in moods
To load my heart with weighty fears
By looking martyred, cross or hurt;
Instead she sang along the years.
Five happy years of carefree days!
And now my loved & leaned-on staff
Has, rightly, lain her apron by
To go in service with the WAAF
Joyce Grenfell 1941

Joyce Grenfell: Hats Off
University of Bristol: Joyce Grenfell archive
YouTube: Nursery School
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Meme multiplied
Jobs worth doing

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Crossword games

I am so pleased I found Times for the Times
This nice, unfussy site just gives the solutions & explains how (or why) the clue is a clue. At first these clarifications were just as likely to make my lip curl as not, but then the magic word was mentioned.

Pangram.  Someone likes playing (undeclared) games with us.

I would never have noticed. Never expected them, and my habit of not filling in the unchecked lights would have done nothing to alert me.

I don’t really like these games-for-the-sake-of-games, like writing novels without the letter e – you admire the effort & ingenuity, but the result is not especially satisfying to the reader. With crosswords it can lead to obscure words & tortured clues.

But I noticed the first pangram for myself the other day, & it certainly helped to realise that the remaining clues must contain within them somewhere the letters j, x and v. Job done

But if they are going to do this then the editor ought, as a matter of routine, to include a line of alphabet above or below the grid to save the solver the chore of writing it out for themselves – after all they do something of the sort for codeword solvers.

And the whole business has sparked an idea for the sort of investigation that might while away a wet Sunday afternoon in winter: compare & contrast the frequency distribution of letters in the cryptic crossword solutions with that in ordinary English

Times for The Times
Center for Book Arts
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Thunderer on the pull

Friday, February 01, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

Fines - all is not fine - What does this say about the boasts of the Behavioural Insight Team?

The difficulty of generalizing RCT results (the RCT result) – especially in the field of education

Gender issues - particularly the (on the face of it) incomprehensible definition of adultery in same-sex marriage.

Why taller-wife couples are so rare

The King of France - solving the problem of his baldness
Altmetrics: Value all research products

Every line becomes a circle line: a new way to see the tube map

LSE students get the ‘Third Degree’! - And The Beaver is available on line!

Building down

A van parked near the bus stop this lunchtime carried the name Cheshire Cellar Conversions.

Good heavens – that London fashion has spread to these parts now. Yet more evidence of that we are experiencing a real housing shortage all over the country.

But I see from their website that they have been in business for over 40 years. I suppose it was the end of coal fires that made cellar conversion an attractive proposition

Cheshire cellar conversions
Book any contractorRelated post
Gold beneath your feet