Sunday, March 31, 2013

Quinquireme of Nineveh

The poetry of John Masefield – who was in the middle of his near forty-year stint as Poet Laureate - was immensely popular when I was a child.

Every schoolchild probably had to learn this one by heart, its language seemingly mystical & incantatory. It came as an immense disappointment to me when teacher explained that quinquereme was merely a kind of ship, not an exotic product of the East.

Small British coasters were still a familiar sight in the 1950s, unloading goods at harbour in small ports such as Tenby, Whitby, Falmouth & Fowey with their cargoes.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
John Masefield


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked

Is the weather worse under the Coalition government? Just a bit of fun

Rain explained. - at least in a scientific sense.

Evidence-based practice: why number-crunching tells only part of the story. More on RCTs in social policy

The Debate on Bank Size Is Over

Investors vs. Occupants in the Housing Recovery. Do we really know where this cash comes from – there is a similar picture in the UK housing market.

Amanda Knox and Statistical Nullification. Interesting pov

Friday, March 29, 2013

Pointy toes

There is currently a male fashion for shoes – usually high-gloss lace-ups in black or tan – with a very extended toe. Not sharply pointed, as on a 1950s Teddy Boy winkle picker, but more rounded, sometimes even squared off.

I do not find them at all attractive, & if the aim is to make small feet look longer, then they fail; they merely make the proportions look very odd.

This oddity was highlighted for me as I followed a young man down the hill last Friday evening. Snow had just begun to fall again, so leaving a clear sharp print of every step on the pavement. From this perspective it looks as though the wearer has but a single toe (a big one) growing perfectly centred at the front of the foot – not exactly designed for efficient locomotion in someone trying to stand upright on two feet.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hungry Britain

A young man was having a rather agitated conversation, on his mobile, in the lobby of the library:
Yes, I’ve been to the Job Centre ...
No, nothing yet ...I got the food bank thing sorted, though.

The BBC’s Mark Easton reports that since 2011 it has been government policy to allow Job Centre staff to provide any claimant with vouchers for a food bank if they are concerned about their immediate financial problems.

Although these needs may be said to be new, a result of economic recession & changes to the benefit rules, it is worth remembering that, even in better times, many young people went hungry, failed for one reason or another to get properly fed by their families.

Speaking recently on Radio 4 about her experience of friendship with Brixton gang members Harriet Sergeant said that she was surprised to discover how hungry they were. Such lack of sustenance cannot aid good behaviour.

Although obesity in the young is clearly a serious problem, we must not let concerns about this blind us to the fact that the opposite problem also exists.

Mark Easton: Food banks used by thousands of jobless
Harriet Sergeant: Amongst the Hoods
Related post
Where are all the obese hoodies?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hard data, hard times

Charles Dickens would not approve of Big Data; he had no time at all for Mr Gradgrind’s view that ‘You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them’, nor for his efforts to turn his son Tom into a scientist by having the boy trained to mathematical exactness.

Dickens had no respect at all for the output of Victorian collators & compilers of statistics in the form of Parliamentary Blue Books.

Whatever they could prove (which is usually anything you like), they proved there, in an army constantly strengthening by the arrival of new recruits … the most complicated social questions were cast up, got into exact totals, and finally settled - if those concerned could only have been brought to know it. As if an astronomical observatory should be made without any windows, and the astronomer within should arrange the starry universe solely by pen, ink, and paper, so Mr. Gradgrind, in his Observatory (and there are many like it), had no need to cast an eye upon the teeming myriads of human beings around him, but could settle all their destinies on a slate, and wipe out all their tears with one dirty little bit of sponge.
Heaven knows what Dickens would think of the idea of settling issues of social policy through the mechanism of the randomised controlled trial
Well, actually he gave us a pretty good clue, in the words of young Tom Gradgrind, failed mathematician:
'I wish I could collect all the Facts we hear so much about,' said Tom, spitefully setting his teeth, 'and all the Figures, and all the people who found them out: and I wish I could put a thousand barrels of gunpowder under them, and blow them all up together! '

Those Blue Books are now regarded as invaluable social documents by many, but there will always be those who  place more value on the story than on statistics.

Project Gutenberg: Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Bank violation

"To violate society’s banks was to commit an outrage against its very foundations."

That quotation from Sjowall & Wahloo’s The Locked Room, first published in 1973, raised a wry smile. This is the second of the Martin Beck novels that I have been re-reading – all have recently been published in new editions & are being promoted enthusiastically to take advantage of the fashion for Scandi noir.

The authors’ Marxism is much more obvious, in this book, than I remember being conscious of at first reading, or maybe I would just not have thought of labelling it as Marxist (except perhaps for a passing reference to different political/social views as fascist).In 1970s Britain such an analysis probably did not seem unusual.

It was the physical violation of banks by armed criminals that they were talking about – something that was becoming a fashion in countries other than just Sweden. And so began the push to put counter staff behind protective screens & to move cash in armoured security vans.

The screens are disappearing now, making banks much more open & friendly places to do business in; the one I use most frequently has something of the look of an airport check-in. Cash handling has become much more automated too, & my impression (which could be completely mistaken) is that this real-time check on the amount of cash held has reduced the need for deliveries & collections; more decisions about which notes being fit to retain in circulation are also being made in-branch by these machines too.

And the strange thing about this openness is that you actually hear much less of other customers business, as people no longer feel the need to raise their voices to penetrate the glass, or get accidentally broadcast by a faulty microphone system.

Related post
Historic crime

Monday, March 25, 2013

And we did have snow

Well …

I put Sunday’s poem in the queue for publication (on this blog) on Friday, during a brief foray to the library, & was I glad I made the effort to brave snow & icy winds & go out. The whole weekend has been spent in confinement, all because of the weather. People have been talking about the worst for over 10 years, but I think its more like quarter of a century at least.

The snow has not been all that bad, in itself. I noticed no heavy falls, certainly no white-outs, during the hours of daylight, more just a continuing, unrelenting cross between drizzle & haar, no snowflakes of any size. But it settled, inches deep, fine & powdery, for the wind to do its worst on. The result has been deep drifts, even at low levels, in any & all areas exposed to the relentless blast from the east.

Many roads have been only intermittently passable – the labour of the snow-ploughs turned as ineffective as that of those clearing the Augean* stables; high level roads have just remained resolutely closed. Sporadic attempts were made to run a bus to the airport along at least part of the route – not a journey for the faint-hearted, especially as those announcements were soon followed by a radio warning that services had been suspended once again.

Buxton was almost completely cut off, even the main A6 impassable in both directions, though Radio 2 announced at 7pm on Sunday that it had finally been cleared, giving at least one through route. To some extent however life carried on as normal inside the town, with local radio announcing that many facilities would merely close earlier than usual.

Remarkably the trains continued to run, until defeated temporarily by snow drifts around Sunday lunchtime. The last I heard was that two extra snowplough trains had been sent out.

I had been optimistic about the prospects for Sunday since, after darkness fell on Saturday, we witnessed once again the phenomenon of a partial thaw where we nestle; the wind died down, precipitation ceased, some of the snow slid off hedges, gutters were dripping, dark patches appeared on the flagstones in the backyard.

Obviously it was not to be. The chill wind from Russia stirred itself once again, putting at least a temporary stop to our activities.

Makes us a bit like Cyprus, in a way.

*the Word spellchecker suggested amending this to Aegean.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Strain & fear

Thursday's Times carried a column by Matthew Parris under the headline Budget too hopeful. We want despair.

The weather, which has just gone silly now, according to the driver of the bus which took me into town on Friday, seems to match only too well the despondency which has settled over the economy & politics. The worst snow storm of this winter (I know technically it is now Spring, according to both the Met Office’s tidy definition & more ancient tradition) had brought closure of all the high roads & most schools in the county, but travel less than 10 miles north & there had been no snow at all in town

This extract from Tennyson’s In Memoriam seems to fit the mood.

from In Memoriam
Tonight the winds begin to rise
And roar from yonder dropping day:

The last red leaf is whirl'd away,
The rooks are blown about the skies ;
The forest crack'd, the waters curl'd,
The cattle huddled on the lea ;
And wildly dash'd on tower and tree
The sunbeam strikes along the world :

And but for fancies, which aver
That all thy motions gently pass
Athwart a plane of molten glass,
I scarce could brook the strain and stir
That makes the barren branches loud
And but for fear it is not so,

The wild unrest that lives in woe
Would dote and pore on yonder cloud
That rises upward always higher,
And onward drags a labouring breast,
And topples round the dreary west,
A looming bastion fringed with fire.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Friday, March 22, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

How BBC North builds links with communities across the region - Intrepid colonial explorers at the BBC bring patronising twaddle

On Educating Women in the Sciences, Nature Magazine, 1871  Reminds me of that quote from Alfred North Whitehead: When I was in Cambridge ... the question came up whether to award degrees to women. On the one side were men who worked in laboratories, & on the other, including physicians, those who worked with human beings. Almost to a man, those in favour of granting degrees to women were the people who dealt with lifeless matter, while those who dealt with women as living creatures were opposed

Despite that, by 1871 Cambridge was affording a scientific education to some girls - full text of the article in Nature can be found at

Mobile security: Chilly with a chance of hacking   Something else to worry about in an insecure world

Brits prefer online crosswords to sex A gloriously loony interpretation of survey results.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Interfering buses

The staff in the library are convinced that some passing buses or heavy lorries cause the computer system to have temporary conniptions; the boffins in the IT department pooh-pooh this idea.

So now the report in The Times of 2 March, explaining how the new Francis Crick biomedical research institute I the centre of London has had to be specially shielded from electromagnetic fields which can play havoc with equipment, sources of such interference include passing buses, provides a source of great satisfaction.

Electromagnetic Interference Sources and Their Most Significant Effects
Study to Predict the Electromagnetic Interference for a typical house in 2010
Francis Crick Institute
Related posts
Is north up or down?
Knowing where you stand
Magnets & morals
Why we lose precious data
On the buses

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sticking together

I have only just learned that the fracking boom has also brought a bonanza to the poor farmers of Rajasthan. This is because that beautiful, parched, arid landscape, with its intermittently drenching monsoons, provides one of the few climates suitable for the growing of guar, whose seeds are used for the making of guar gum. Previously known variously as cattle feed, a thickening agent for foods & cosmetics, or a treatment for certain medical conditions, it has been found to be the ideal form of gunge which can squeeze shale gas out of the rock in which it shelters.

As usual, such sudden wealth is not regarded as an unmixed blessing by all its recipients, the more elderly of whom worry about the security of themselves & their crops.

Guar brightens Rajasthan farmers' life
Latest News and Updates on guar seed
Guar Mandi Rates
In Rajasthan, Guar Farmers Wait for a Return to Boom Times
Hindustani Times: Rajasthan farmers strike gold in guar
[PDF]National Multi-Commodity Exchange of India: Report on guar seed
India Farmers’ Forum: The Guar Growers of Rajasthan
E412 Guar gum
E412 GUAR GUM - EU Specification
Which Foods Contain Guar Gum?
WebMD: Guar gum
The Curious Cook: Ice Cream That’s a Stretch

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Falling from grace

A poem for a week that has seen the spectacular fall of a former Cabinet Minister & his ex-wife.

Upon The Sudden Restraint Of The Earl Of Somerset, Then Falling From Favour

Dazzled thus with height of place,
Whilst our Hopes our wits Beguile,
No man marks the narrow space
'Twixt a Prison and a Smile.

Then since Fortune’s favours fade,
You that in her arms do sleep,
Learn to swim and not to wade;
For the Hearts of Kings are deep.

But if Greatness be so blind,
As to trust in Towers of Air,
Let it be with Goodness lined,
That at least the Fall be fair.

Then though darkened you shall say,
When Friends fail and Princes frown,
Virtue is the roughest way,
But proves at night a Bed of Down.
Sir Henry Wotton

Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset
Related post
Royal & political gossip

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Arbitrarily at random

A recent Times crossword (#25410) used arbitrarily as the definitional part of a clue; the answer required was at random.

I was inclined to quibble: haphazard, unarranged, accidental, maybe. But arbitrary suggests just personal whim.

The OED seemed to provide some support. Arbitrary does not appear in any of the definitional entries for random, & random does not appear under the definitional parts of either arbitrarily or arbitrary.

Interestingly, however, according to the OED, random play is ‘a facility on a digital music player for playing tracks in an arbitrary order’. One wonders just exactly how the algorithm works for that choice.

Even more interestingly, the word random itself comes originally from Norman French & means speed, haste, impetuousness, violence, or to run fast, gallop. Hence, presumably, the lack of time for thinking & deliberating on your random choices.

Related posts
Getting my knuckles in a twist
Humpty Dumpty on statistical sampling

Friday, March 15, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

The man behind the motor – William Morris and the iron lung

The current debate about ‘evidence centres’ obscures a broader transformation in how policy is evaluated -

Mutatis mutandis

Unlike a lot of people I was not really shocked when I first heard that Gladstone sometimes scourged himself, especially after his late night encounters with prostitutes; nor do I take that revelation as strong evidence that those encounters involved something more physical than mere attempts to persuade the women into a better way of life. That he felt any kind of attraction or titillation, or even ‘committed adultery in his heart’ would have been reason enough for a deeply religious man of the nineteenth century to punish himself in this way; even in the middle of the twentieth century I knew an elderly priest, a man of deep compassion & goodness, who, by repute at least, indulged in regular self-flagellation.

The OED carries a quotation from 1983, from The Literary Review: It is easy to forget how common self-flagellation used to be among the devout.

That does not mean I do not feel horrified by such practice; on reflection it might be better to say I was neither startled nor surprised by the revelations about Gladstone.

I was however startled, shocked, surprised & horrified to read that, as late as 1949, in England, men as young as eighteen, recruits to the Jesuits, were expected to ‘beat ourselves with disciplines once a week’.

The OED confirms that discipline, as a noun, came to be applied to the instrument of chastisement - a whip or scourge; especially one used for religious penance.

The past, even one I was living in at the time, is truly another country.

Fifty Years A Jesuit
Original Catholic Encyclopaedia

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Habemus Papam

It has been officially confirmed that Cardinal Bergoglio chose to be known as Pope Francis in honour of St Francis of Assissi.

I wonder if he did not also, as the first Jesuit Pope, like the idea of carrying the same name as St Francis Xavier.

Perhaps interest in the new Pope will stimulate even more tourism to Goa.

St. Francis Xavier, SJ (1506–1552)
Novena for the feast of St Francis Xavier
Feast Of St Francis Xavier
St. Francis Xavier, Patron Saint of Goa
Churches and Convents of Goa

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Fiends or friends

Arguments between cyclists & other road users have not grown any less rancorous over the years.

Over one hundred & twenty one years ago, in April 1892, The Times published a lively exchange of accusation & complaint from all sides. It is not so very different today, despite the fact that the newspaper has taken up the cudgels on cyclists’ behalf.

At least motorists escaped opprobrium back then - the motor car barely existed, & certainly not under that name. But 'reckless riders of the iron horse' were, castigated for 'stealing past swiftly & silently' with no audible warning signal - an accusation which is incomprehensible to anyone who has ever heard a 'light locomotive' proceeding along the highway in modern times.
Horses & horsed vehicles are not permitted to race along our roads at break-neck sped; why should these daring, wheeled gentlemen of the road do so, unchecked by law or authority?

… cyclists as a body are rather unfairly abused. We are generally depicted as a sort of fiends tearing along regardless of all traffic, whether vehicular or pedestrian, neglectful of our own safety, & seeking to destroy young children.

All … classes [of road user] are naturally unwilling to pay excessive attention to the convenience of any other class.

…cyclists not only have to avoid being run over by vehicles but also to avoid running over pedestrians, the latter seeming to go out of their way to afford cyclists facilities in that direction.

… to become a cyclist apparently transforms an ordinary middle class young man into an active member of an unruly mob … they come swirling along, shouting to each other, or openly making remarks upon any ladies whom they happen to pass
Related post

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Phagias & phobias

We have been hearing a lot, recently, about various human phagias & associated phobias.

First there was the horsemeat scandal; a post on the Wellcome Trust blog introduced me to the word hippophagy, a fancy word to describe the eating of horsemeat.

This morning Erica McAlister presented a programme on BBC Radio 4 designed to persuade us all to indulge in more entomophagy – the eating of insects. We already do more of that than we know about.

Suddenly it hit me – if -phagy means ‘eating’ what on earth is a sarcophagus? This is a word I have only ever heard used in connection with the burial of human bodies. The original meaning hardly bears thinking about.

Time for some etymology.

According to the OED, phagia comes from the Ancient Greek word for eating, & is used to form scientific terms denoting conditions related to eating or ingestion.

-phagy is used to form nouns with the sense ‘that feeds on, or in the manner denoted or described by (the first element)’. It appeared in English during the 1600s, but the Victorians added plenty more varieties to the list.

A sarcophagus was originally a kind of stone, reputed among the Greeks to have the property of consuming the flesh of any dead body (not just a human one) deposited in it; this meaning is now described as Obsolete in everyday use by the OED. Sarcophagus as a word to mean any kind of stone coffin appeared first in 1705.

The OED also records sarcophagy as a word used to describe the eating of any kind of flesh, but quotes nothing more recent than what sounds like a splendid rant from HG Wells in 1901: “The movements against vivisection, opium, alcohol, tobacco, sarcophagy, and the male sex”.

If you like you could become ophiophagous (eat snakes).

But do try to curb your pamphagous behaviour. The OED defines this ‘All-devouring, omnivorous’ but has only one quotation to illustrate its use, dating from 1702: “He ... eat with such a Pamphagous Fury, as to Cram himself with ... Eighteen Biskets at one Stolen Meal”.

Sounds plain greedy to me.

Wellcome Trust: Flogging a dead horse
BBC Radio 4: Who’s a pest

Historic abuse

Compare & contrast the cases of George Brinham & Jimmy Savile.

We now know, from the report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, that complaints about the behaviour of Jimmy Savile were ignored 50 years ago.

At about the same time, complaints about the behaviour of George Brinham seem also to have been ignored by the police; it may, or may not, have been relevant to this decision that he held a senior position in politics.

When attention to Brinham’s activities was forced upon the police, judiciary & public by the fact that one of his targets responded by killing him, the reaction was mainly one of distaste. The Times devoted no more than 1700 words to the case.

HMIC Savile Report
Related post
George Brinham

Monday, March 11, 2013

Signs of hard times for the middle classes

‘With a name like that, we had better be able to afford school fees’ - Times Birth Announcements 9 February 2013

‘We had to make sure we didn’t choose names that meant we had to send our sons to private school’ – Times Birth announcements 9 March 2013

The middle classes must be expecting the recession to last for the next 18 years.

But just think of Lord Coe, now one of the most admired & honoured men in the land. With a name like Sebastian, going to a comprehensive school oop North in gritty Sheffield in Yorkshire  must have been the making of him.

Lord Coe receives award at palace

Milk-bottle shoulders

Jack Malvern, writing in The Times, describes as ‘a woman with milk-bottle shoulders’ Olivia Boteler Porter, the subject of a portrait held in the Bowes Museum in Durham now said to be by Van Dyck.

Milk-bottle shoulders as a term used to describe sloping shoulders does not seem to be in widespread use at all – not in the OED & Google turned up only one result.

How a lady came out of the closet
Van Dyck portrait spotted online
Related posts
Sloping shoulders

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Freedom & love

Freedom and Love

HOW delicious is the winning
Of a kiss at Love's beginning,
When two mutual hearts are sighing
For the knot there's no untying!

Yet remember, 'midst your wooing,
Love has bliss, but Love has ruing;
Other smiles may make you fickle,
Tears for other charms may trickle.

Love he comes, and Love he tarries,
Just as fate or fancy carries;
Longest stays when sorest chidden,
Laughs and flies when press'd and bidden.

Bind the sea to slumber stilly,
Bind its odour to the lily,
Bind the aspen ne'er to quiver,
Then bind Love to last for ever.

Love's a fire that needs renewal
Of fresh beauty for its fuel;
Love's wing moults when caged and captured,
Only free he soars enraptured.

Can you keep the bee from ranging,
Or the ringdove's neck from changing?
No! nor fetter'd Love from dying
In the knot there's no untying.
Thomas Campbell

The Poems of Thomas Campbell
Thomas Campbell (1777 - 1844)
Related post
On not saying everything

Saturday, March 09, 2013

£40 per head

I decided to take a look at the entries for Gladstone in the Slave Ownership database

John Gladstone (father of prime minister William Ewart Gladstone) received over £90,000 in compensation (in 1830s money) for the loss of some 2,500 slaves on his estates in Jamaica & Demerara (part of modern Guyana) – implying that a slave was worth less than £40.

I got a surprise when I idly calculated the value for each estate, however. (The individual manifests underlying the claims, the documents I saw in the 1960s, go into detail about the personal characteristics which affect the value of a slave). On the Demerara estates the average value worked out at £50 or more per slave; Jamaican slaves were worth less than half that – under £20 per head.

The UCL website gives some assistance on this point:

A commissioned group of officials were appointed by Parliament to determine who should receive what and on what basis. They carefully documented all claims made and all monies disbursed. The effect of this is that there is an extraordinary set of records, held in the National Archives at Kew, of the claimants and of the men, women and children that owners claimed as their 'property' and the monetary values that were assigned to them. If the claims were validated, having been checked in the relevant colonies, the owner received compensation. The amounts were fixed according to the classification of each individual - their gender, age, type of work and level of skill - and the level of productivity, and therefore profitability, of the different islands and territories. The average value of a slave in British Guiana (now Guyana), for example, was judged to be considerably higher than that in Jamaica
.On the face of it an extraordinary difference in productivity, whether that be to do with factors such as soil & climate or the physical health of the slaves,

Or maybe it has more to do with higher levels of indebtedness of Jamaican planters?

I shall have to see what more I can find out.

Legacies of British Slave-ownership
Related post
Slave ownership
Human evaluation

Friday, March 08, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

Remembering Kenny Ball – on Radio 3

Medical Law  and its relation to the [in]famous Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights

Falling net migration: A trap for future governments? illustrates just one of the perils of trying to control a number which is found by subtracting one very big number from another very big number: today’s immigrant may well be tomorrow’s emigrant.

Letters of Note: The Outsiders How the film came to be made

The science of politics Did western television bring down the Wall?; is there really a natural experiment which answers this question?.

More on Wi fi on the buses

What are we becoming a nation of now? Strangely, America seems never to have become a nation of shopkeepers.

Economics of slavery

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Slave ownership

Back in the early 1960s, when the Public Record Office (now part of the National Archives) was in Chancery Lane, a friend took me see the records of compensation paid to slave owners when slavery was abolished in 1833. And grim reading it was.

Those records have now, in part, been placed on a publicly available database, though the interest seems mainly in tracing the details of all the slave owners (of whom there were many more, more widely spread, geographically & through the classes, than you might expect), rather than the individual slaves - who were itemised in the manifests I saw.

Even a search for owners names helps to show how many surnames still common use in the former British West Indies were bequeathed by these owners (not necessarily through paternity)

Legacies of British Slave ownership database – UCL

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Μορε ον τηερεφορε

I cannot now recall how my Googling led me last week to Mathematical Writing by Donald E. Knuth, Tracy Larrabee, and Paul M. Roberts – a report based on a course of the same name given at Stanford University during autumn quarter, 1987. It is not as if I do any of that.

However I was intrigued to see the following, very early on, #3 in a list of 27 points considered to be especially important:

Don't use the symbols ; replace them by the corresponding words. (Except in works on logic, of course.)

I don’t suppose those 5 proscribed symbols come out on the blog – I had to use Word’s Font → Symbol → Insert → Symbol to get them in since a copy & paste from the PDF did not work.

I shall not disgrace myself by trying to name all 5; I think I recognise 3, but have no recollection of ever having seen the fourth. It is, after all, (gulp) now half a century since I had to try to force anything of the sort into my reluctant brain.The first one in the list is however was engraved in childhood & would be familiar to anyone who did old fashioned school geometry – the triangle made up of three full stops, which means therefore.

It is a source of great frustration to me that the instructor did not see fit to explain this ban.

Mathematical writing
Earliest Uses of Symbols of Set Theory and Logic
Related post
Wherefore therefore?

Check yourself out

Despite all the grumbles about Unexpected item in bagging area & other recorded messages, self-checkout is growing in popularity at the supermarket. Annoying, in one sense, because those of us who grew to rely on being able to make a fast getaway find that, increasingly, we have to join a queue rather than sail straight through.

The supermarkets are happy to meet the demand however. Asda have greatly increased the number of such checkouts, & have even  provided some to suit those (who mostly seem to be shopping in pairs) who like self-checkout even for a fully laden trolley; they have a conveyor belt, rather than just space for a basket.

It remains to be seen whether this will lead to significant reductions in jobs – which would be sad, especially in these difficult days. But with renewed emphasis on customer service there may be other roles for paid staff to undertake.

Autumn in March

All too predictably perhaps, foran epoch when we often seem to get several seasons in one day, today is more like autumn – mists, without the mellow fruitfulness. Following straight on from yesterday's Spring/

The sun tried hard to break through around midday, but by three o’clock it was well & truly descended once again

Related post
Spring day

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Bussing for jobs

Stagecoach are now offering a 50% discount on bus fares for job seekers who get a discount card from the Job Centre.

This is a welcome move, though I fear it will not be as much help as one might hope.

Bus routes for the most part still follow the traditional hub & spoke pattern, taking people from the outskirts, where they lived, into the town, where all the jobs were. But these days employment is increasingly to be found on the outskirts, making orbital travel more necessary.

There is also the problem of – outside London – bus services being much reduced after 6pm, which only adds to the difficulties in these flexible working days. Those who live on council estates are particularly poorly served, since these are often on the road to nowhere else. Restrictions on housing benefit & the disappearance of cheap lodgings probably make it impossible to think of moving to live near your work. Those same factors militate against the idea of moving to areas more plentifully supplied with jobs too.

Since I have been in a position to observe the determination of job seekers using the library facilities I have often thought that a smart phone & a means of personal transport would make all the difference to their efforts. The first ought to be easy enough, but the second is really problematic. Gone are the days when a young man could pick up an old banger for a song & do a fair amount of the maintenance himself – MOT & the cost of insurance, plus the lack of garage space make that a pipe dream for most. Cycling is not an attractive proposition because of the hills, & impossible in snow & ice. Even safe places to store a motor cycle or scooter are rare.

Related post
Estate world

Spring day

Spring has sprung – at least for today. Blue sky, sunshine, no wind of which to speak.

By mid-afternoon I was carrying, rather than wearing, my padded jacket & quilted waistcoat, wearing only jumper & t shirt.

The jumper is a new acquisition, a beautiful pale grey with a cowl neck & cable stitching up the front, 80% acrylic, 20% wool. It is very lightweight light but deliciously warm. A totally accidental find in British Home Stores, whose Sale rail I thought worth investigating as I was just cutting through one bitter day earlier in the week.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Retailing jobs

At the end of last week’s Bottom Line on Radio 4 one of the contributors made the point that shopping & supermarkets contributed to more than just meeting the wants & needs of consumers: for example a recent study had shown that more than 40% of youngsters get their first job in retail, thus giving the sector an important social role in introducing them to the disciplines of work. It was claimed that Boris Johnson had his first job in Marks & Spencer.

And a good thing too, not at all to be sneered at. There’s a lot to be said for getting your own pay packet, learning the hard facts about deductions from pay, & the way your wage never goes as far as you fondly expect that it will.

Even the lowliest job – shelf-stacking or trolley parking - offers anyone with the least amount of intellectual curiosity & imagination the opportunity to learn a lot about the processes needed to get the goods to the customer, the vagaries of human nature, & the way things might be improved.

Best of all, it shows why it is worth getting your head down to earn the qualifications which will hopefully open the way to a job which you might find more satisfyingly challenging.

Radio 4 Bottom Line: Retail

Black buildings

It is odd now to think that until not much more than a mere quarter of a century or so ago many of our buildings, especially in major cities, were black – encrusted with the residues from centuries of burning carbon (in the form of wood & coal) to provide our ancestors with heat & light &, latterly, motive power, when oil was added to the mix.

Although I saw it many times, I cannot now conjure in my mind’s eye a picture of Parliament Square surrounded by a black Houses of Parliament (including Big Ben), a black Treasury Building & a black Westminster Abbey.

We, I think, just took it for granted that the underlying stone was grey, for this was the colour of the bits of the buildings which got a regular washing from the rain.

Then the great hose down began, once we could be confident that that Clean Air Acts had put an end to the worst of these deposits. I wonder if the cost (has anyone ever tried to calculate the total?) was justified on pure aesthetic grounds, or whether cost/benefit analysis was used to demonstrate that the clean-up would pay for itself in reduced costs for maintenance & repair of buildings whose useful (& safe) life would be extended once they were no longer being eaten away by acid.

And what a revelation. Many of those iconic buildings emerged in hues of warm sand or honey; others in an astonishing range (from orange to purple) of so-called red brick or terracotta. An amazing range of carved or other ornamental detailing emerged. Even concrete had its beauty as the eye was not distracted from form & proportion by the coat of dirty grey.

All that heat & light & movement had extracted a heavy toll on health & in increased mortality– though at least it saved London from its predicted fate of disappearing under piles of horse manure.

The inside of the collar of shirt, dress or blouse is no longer black at the end of a day in town, though it is certainly more grubby than one exposed only to country air.

We can sympathise with the artist’s struggle to work in the perpetual gloom, but we can treasure the their impressionistic paintings.
I wonder where all the soot went? Down the drain – to end up where? Could it have made its own contribution to the warming of the seas around our shores.

Cleaning Of London's Public Buildings: House of Lords 12 November 1964
[PDF] Fifty years on: The struggle for air quality in London since the great smog of December 1952
[PDF] Why William Morris Left His Joyous Gard

Sunday, March 03, 2013

To minimise the pain

One of the best explanations offered for giving us humans the illusion that time speeds up as we get older.

The River of Life

THE more we live, more brief appear
Our life's succeeding stages;
A day to childhood seems a year,
And years like passing ages.

The gladsome current of our youth,
Ere passion yet disorders,
Steals lingering like a river smooth
Along its grassy borders.

But as the careworn cheek grows wan,
And sorrow's shafts fly thicker,
Ye stars, that measure life to man,
Why seem your courses quicker?

When joys have lost their bloom and breath,
And life itself is vapid,
Why, as we reach the Falls of Death
Feel we its tide more rapid?

It may be strange—yet who would change
Time's course to slower speeding,
When one by one our friends have gone,
And left our bosoms bleeding?

Heaven gives our years of fading strength
Indemnifying fleetness;
And those of youth, a seeming length,
Proportion'd to their sweetness.

Thomas Campbell

Thomas Campbell 1777-1844

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Ministry of Ag & Fish

Nate Silver does not like Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher. Not his style of dress (ill-kempt & dishevelled), nor his combative, argumentative style; Silver believes there must be a uniquely British mould for producing such intellectuals – after all we also gave Christopher Hitchens to America.

But most of all, Silver detests Fisher’s intellectual legacy, blaming him for the widespread adoption of the purely frequentist approach to statistical inference & the neglect of the theorem of Thomas Bayes.

As if more were needed, the most devastating charge against the man is that he continued to dispute the relationship between smoking & lung cancer, maintaining that researchers who claimed to have established a causal link were confusing correlation with causation.

Although Silver writes passionately about his own belief in the Bayesian approach it is not at all clear to me from his book that he uses formal Bayesian methods, with specified ‘priors’ in his own predictive modelling. Rather he advocates the use of judgement & deep knowledge of the process(es) underlying the forecast to adjust, where necessary, the predictions to take account of uncertainties which can never be reliably & completely captured in a mathematical black box. And in his concluding chapter he states baldly that ‘even common sense can serve as a Bayesian prior’. What is unacceptable, he says, is to believe that mathematical forecasts have a purity entirely free of the forecasters own subjectivity & biases, which do not need to be acknowledged.

I hold no brief for Fisher & am very much in sympathy with the Silver approach, but I am taken aback by the vitriol of his attack upon Fisher, even though I too despair about the cult of significance which he could be said to have inspired. Fisher was more subtle than that &, like Marx, can be said to suffer from the quality of his disciples. It is also important to remember that Fisher –born 1890 – was developing methods which could be used in an age when a computer was a human calculator.

I smiled at the bit where Silver – born 1978 - writes about how a standard SIR model in epidemiology takes only seconds to run on a laptop. Provided of course that somebody else has already done the hard & expensive work of collecting & collating all the data & making it available in electronic form at a click of a button to any one who cares to use it.

I cannot remember ever seeing any of Fisher’s contributions to the debate on smoking & lung cancer, but I was privileged to hear Sir Richard Doll speaking on the subject several times. And he used to point out that, when he started to investigate lung cancer nobody expected tobacco to be implicated.  Some aspect of general air pollution – such as  the Great London Smog of 1952, credited with causing thousands of deaths – seemed much more likely to provide an explanation. They were also of course well aware of the problems of disentangling causation from correlation & were applying the Bradford Hill criteria, with a battery of approaches.

I was once present when someone asked Sir Richard at what point he personally had become convinced that smoking was the culprit. He replied he thought that it was probably when they got the results of a prospective study of patients referred to UCH for ?lung cancer? In every case where the diagnosis was confirmed the victim was a smoker; non-smokers were all found to be suffering from a different problem.

As far as I am concerned – the debate was settled once & for all in March 1962 when it was announced on the BBC 6 o’clock News that it was now ‘beyond doubt’ that smoking causes lung cancer.

Nevertheless even in 1966 an undergraduate dissertation on ‘The Relationship between smoking & health’ would not have got good marks had it failed to mention some of the outstanding doubts or queries.

This was a dissertation for a [service] course in Applied Statistics for those doing degrees in economics & so was, in effect, a discussion of statistical, rather than medical issues. Sample selection (the largest UK study looked only at male doctors), cross-country comparisons, looking at rates of smoking & rates of lung cancer, etc. (As I remember it Australia & Switzerland did not fit the pattern which otherwise showed a positive correlation between rates of smoking & rates of lung cancer; both had rates of the disease which were much lower  than expected.). I also remember – bizarrely as it now seems – concerns about whether people who stopped smoking might gain weight & therefore put themselves at increased risk of a heart attack.

And – most important of all – what could explain the fact that the majority of smokers did not get lung cancer – we were not allowed to consider genetic explanations in those days, so factors such as type of cigarette, the method of inhalation, the precise make up of the tobacco etc were candidates.

Although I don’t think I knew anybody who seriously doubted that the link had been proved, there were many who thought that what was really needed was an answer to that question. The real scientists & medics must grasp the baton handed to them by the statisticians.

I do not know what Fisher’s own reaction had been to the publication of the report by the Royal College of Physicians. He did not have very much time to continue the argument he died unexpectedly on 29 July 1962 in Adelaide from an embolism after a successful operation for bowel cancer.

Smoking and health (1962)
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Pretty girl in crimson rose

Friday, March 01, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

Why Twitter Makes Us Want to Add Extra Letterssss & How long is a tweet string? - answering the important questions of our time.

Ageing and productivity: Economists and others. Given we are all going to have to work for longer it's good to know the older folk can keep up.

The evolution of Consciousness: Part 2

Alcohol consumption higher than reported in England. Here we go again. The report is behind a paywall so I cannot check whether they have addressed the questions of how much is consumed by visitors to Britain, how much by people who do not live in private households, & how much by those who are too drunk to co-operate with social survey interviewers.

A Closer Look at College Completion Rates for Full-Time Students: A new American study, for example, finds that men are less willing to tolerate loan debt than women are. Which may mean that girls in the majority at college may not be the all-round good thing we might like to take it for.

Multilingual dictionary keeps humans in the loop - At a (biggggg) price