Monday, April 29, 2013

Previously in favourite quotations

Money is just an act of collective imagination - Kate Atkinson

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it - Andre Gide

Sunday, April 28, 2013

One day my spring will come

A Backward Spring

The trees are afraid to put forth buds,
And there is timidity in the grass;
The plots lie gray where gouged by spuds,
And whether next week will pass
Free of sly sour winds is the fret of each bush
Of barberry waiting to bloom.

Yet the snowdrop's face betrays no gloom,
And the primrose pants in its heedless push,
Though the myrtle asks if it's worth the fight
This year with frost and rime
To venture one more time
On delicate leaves and buttons of white
From the selfsame bough as at last year's prime,
And never to ruminate on or remember
What happened to it in mid-December.
Thomas Hardy

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Smoking in the air

On this morning’s Danny Baker show on Radio 5 Lynsey Hipgrave spoke with a mixture of wonder & horror as she remembered people smoking on the plane when she flew for the first time on a package holiday to Yugoslavia.

Very Mad Men, said another studio guest.

When I took my very first flight, in the real 1960s, there was not even a non-smoking section on the plane – London to New York, BOAC, Boeing 707. I remember the Captain coming on the public address system to welcome everyone aboard before take off & explaining that we would be able to smoke once the non-smoking sign went off. He did however ask that the 100+ passengers refrain from smoking either pipe or cigars, as their pungent aroma would too much for some in that confined space.

In those days the captain of the plane behaved more like the captain of a ship & at some point in the journey he came back to greet & speak to passengers individually.

He was smoking a cigar as he did so.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Difficulties of the English legislator

I decided to take a look at what sort of reception was given to the 1841 Census in England – at least as displayed in the columns of The Times.

The situation had clearly changed completely from the late C18th controversies surrounding the very idea of a census, & the protests which greeted that of 1801. The idea of numbering the people once a decade had proved its worth.

Since I used just the word ‘census’ for my keyword search I brought up several reports where 1831 Census results were still being used to bolster argument – for example over the need for more schools, for public health initiatives & in relation to elections. There was intense interest in finding out by how much the count would show the population had grown over the decade – or if it had after all been reduced by emigration.

The one area which roused some difficulty was the date; originally set for mid-year (the night of 30 June/1 July), Census day was moved forward to 6 June after it had been pointed out that the end of the month would clash with the Quarter Sessions (the Courts which heard cases too serious to be dealt with by the local Justices of the Peace), which would mean an influx of visitors to every County Town, so artificially inflating the apparent size of their populations.

The system of having enumerators – “‘intelligent persons’ residing in the area” - to deliver & collect the forms to every household & then produce the first summaries by transcribing the information, within a week,  into notebooks worked well. They were paid 10 shillings for every 50 houses they dealt with (the usual number) plus 1 shilling for each 10 above that, up to a maximum of 80 households. They worked all the daylight hours on the day following the census, & some needed police escorts in ‘certain portions inhabited by the lower orders’.

By 26 July The Times was reporting some of the first results for London, with near final population counts available by the end of October.

Detailed analysis took longer of course. A geographically detailed Occupation Abstract was published in September 1844.

Confirmation of the continued fall in the numbers who derived their income solely from agriculture & the continued flow of population to the towns still left plenty of scope for political argument however in the period of intense debate about abolition of the Corn Laws, particularly the revelation that the majority were involved neither with agriculture nor cotton. There was surprise, & some puzzlement, that the population still managed to grow in size, by over 2 million since 1831, despite the drain of emigration. And marvelling at the fact that nearly 1 million women worked as household servants.

The Times leader pointed out that this analysis went someway to rectifying the great ‘want of authentic statistical information [which] is one of the greatest difficulties of the English legislator. In the absence of public documents he is driven, with more or less reluctance, to the suspicious estimates of theorists, the flagrant exaggerations of party, & the precarious guesses of absolute ignorance.’

Only some way however – there was still scope for arguing over accuracy & definitions – for example the total labour input to agriculture might be underestimated by allowing only one occupation pr person – a female servant might, after all, milk the cow.

Today of course mere information is not enough to meet the needs of the legislator who must have randomised controlled trials to resolve the flagrant exaggerations of ministers.

The controversial introduction of the modern Census
Times archive
Related post
Numbering the dead

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

A warm welcome back to Gravity & Levity

Praise indeed for the BBC’s Peter Day

Legal Curiosities
Mindlessly normalizing genomics data is bad

Monday, April 22, 2013

Say cheese

According to Michael Moss, in his book Salt, Sugar, Fat, the US government played a direct role in getting the American public hooked on eating cheese-with-everything, as a direct solution to the problem of what to do with all the fat once consumers started to demand that it be skimmed from the top of the milk before they drank it.

Thus adding considerably to the amount of calories consumed, as I have learned since starting to take note of the calorie content of ready meals; any dish with cheese has a good 200 calories more than an otherwise similar pasta dish without it, without the advantage of making you feel more full.

Increased production of cheese however will be a boon to those who live long enough to draw their pension, rather than be carried off early by an obesity-related disease. Dairy Crest, who make much of the Cheddar cheese consumed in this country, has about £150m worth of maturing cheese in store at any one time; it has just been agreed that £60m of that value can be transferred to the ownership of company pension scheme

Financial News: Cheese and pension pie
Michael Moss: How the government got you to eat more cheese
Related posts
Dairy cream
Knowing whereof

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Whispering to their souls to go

Time for some more Donne.

A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears;
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, 'cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
John Donne

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Fate & the weather

I have to write about the weather again.

By Monday evening the last vestiges of snow had disappeared from the hills, washed away by light rain or melted by sun & temperatures well above zero for the first time since the blizzards came. All the high roads were finally open.

The winds had swung right round to the west & by Tuesday they were strengthening into sharp, but mercifully short-lived gusts. By Wednesday it really was not very pleasant being outside, wind picking up & clouds racing in from across the Atlantic at a rate of knots – at least this presented an interesting & relatively unthreatening spectacle, after all the icily undifferentiated masses of grey which have been our lot for so long; but they were strong enough to close some of the high roads to high-sided vehicles.

By early evening the sky was black & shopping bags swung like pendulums in my hand.

Thursday was really cold again, had to put some heating on in the evening & restore the extra blanket to the bed.

All was clear again by Friday afternoon, & this morning the man who gave us the forecast on local radio was able to tell us it was a great day for hanging out the washing – sun, light breeze & temperatures all the way up to 15°.

I fear our local MP - by organising a celebrity cricket match to be held on the anniversary of the match which was famously snowed off in 1975 - may be tempting the weather gods to give us more unseasonal surprises this year.

Andrew Bingham MP organising Celebrity Cricket Match in aid of DLRAA
Related postJune 2nd 1975

Friday, April 19, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:
Why your desk will never be tidy

RCTs in education : "the Department for International Development spent £90m on a single randomised trial in the Democratic Republic of Congo. To put this in context, they spent more on a single trial in Africa than the Department for Education will spend on all its research over this entire parliament."

A picture worth a thousand words – bringing back nostalgia

A vegetable wonder!

Data science only poses a threat to astatistics if we don’t adapt

Good law – the latest attempt to have statute law written so as to be comprehensible

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mr & Mrs Duck

Mr & Mrs Duck were taking an evening stroll on a blustery Wednesday evening.

Well actually, they were young enough to be just doing a bit of courting.

I first spotted them in the triangular ‘meadow’ at the top of the lane – not much of a meadow yet, showing no signs of any spring growth, just some sad grass, bare earth & last year’s dead dock & plantain. A long way from any water.

He gobbled at the grass in a desultory way, but did not seem to find much there to eat. So they set off across the road. My heart was in my mouth for a moment as a car turned off the main road – had the driver spotted them round the bend – yes, all was well, he slowed & went round them.

They found a way to squeeze through a hole in the wall & onto the piece of land on that side of the lane. Were they going to visit the geese who are housed there by a squatter – it is one of those pieces of land whose ownership is not clear following the mid-C19th rush to speculate on which route the railway would take, & then just abandoned or forgotten about once the line was settled on several yards to the east. But no, they stayed well away from them & seemed to be headed for the main road & a wander even further up the hill.

The wind was too fierce for me to want to hang around watching the any longer.

Related post
Triangular meadow

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Big Victorian data

Some academic statisticians are feeling a bit worried about the future of their profession in an age of Big Data, Data Science, Data Analytics & Analysts

Big Data can mean working with billions of pieces of data - the initial challenge involves computer science rather than statistical formulae.

But is the challenge any more formidable than that which faced our statistical forebears?

In 1841 The Registrars General organised the first modern census of the population of the United Kingdom. Forms were delivered to every household to record personal details of over 25 million people. These were transcribed into notebooks by an army of local enumerators who collected & delivered the forms & helped those who could not read or write to fill them in.

I do not know if there were any kind of calculating machines available to help in the production of the rich variety of tables & analyses which were then typeset, printed & reported to Parliament. I suspect that most of the labour involved good old mental arithmetic undertaken by rooms full of Bob Cratchits. Even so, the logistical & organisational challenge must have been formidable.

A census – a complete enumeration of the population of interest – is not a sample survey whose results require the application of tests of significance & questions about how to make inferences to the population which has been measured. The challenge, before the vast modern increase in computer power & storage, was to specify which cross tabulations would be required out of the infinitely many which could be made.

In today’s world even a billion data points may be only a sample of the population of interest, which poses a new & different set of challenges.

Simply Statistics: Data science only poses a threat if we don’t adapt
Significance Special Issue: Big Data
The UK 1841 Census
Related post
The first computer error

Monday, April 15, 2013

Charlotte Green

A familiar voice was coming from the radio on Sunday afternoon – but something was not quite right.

Yes – it was Charlotte Green.

But on Classic FM, not Radio 4

Charlotte Green's Great Composers
BBC Radio 4's Charlotte Green to join Classic FM

Related post
Stories of science

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Man lying on a wall

L.S. Lowry: Man Lying on a Wall: City Art Gallery & Museum, Salford

"Man Lying on a Wall" : Homage to L.S. Lowry

You could draw a straight line from the heels,
Through the calves, buttocks and shoulderblades
To the back of the head: pressure points
That bear the enormous weight of the sky.
Should you take away the supporting structure
The result would be a miracle or
An extremely clever conjuring trick.
As it is, the man lying on the wall
Is wearing the serious expression
Of popes and kings in their final slumber,
His deportment not dissimilar to
Their stiff, reluctant exits from this world
Above the shoulders of the multitude.

It is difficult to judge whether or not
He is sleeping or merely disinclined
To arrive punctually at the office
Or to return home in time for his tea.
He is wearing a pinstripe suit, black shoes
And a bowler hat: on the pavement
Below him, like a relic or something
He is trying to forget, his briefcase
With everybody's initials on it.
Michael Longley

Poetry Archive: Michael Longden
War Poets Association: Michael Longley
Poetry Foundation: Michael Longley

The Lowry
Man lying on a wall

Related post
A poem about money

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

Drugs that block nitric oxide could weaken cancer cells’ resistance, researchers say. Is there no bodily process in which NOx is not fundamentally involved?

The Beatles and their impact on English

Children and schools just keep getting better - a refreshing reminder that it is not just exam grades which are on a seemingly inexorably upwards trend

For better or worse, America’s Most Profitable Export Is Cash

Pressure cooker - read this through your fingers if you  are as scared of pressure cookers as I am.

Most boring day in history

Islands in the rain and BBC Radio 4's In Our Time on other remarkable things about water

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Coeval sympathy

Wednesday’s Times carried, on its front page, a picture of Margaret Thatcher & Her Majesty the Queen taken at the CHOGM held in Lusaka in 1979.

Both women were then in their early 50s but I was astonished at how young – to my eye – they both now look. Another example of the strange way in which everybody else looks younger as you yourself grow older.

I have also only now realised how very close together they were in age – Thatcher the elder by about 6 months.

The death of someone your own age has a particular resonance & may play no small part in the Queen’s decision to attend the funeral. That, plus the fact that Margaret Thatcher remains our only female prime minister, plus (I like to think)  feelings of sisterly regard for another who had to put up with all those male political animals, rather than anything to do with her politics & policies as such, informs the decision.

The picture also shows how, at that early stage of her premiership, Mrs Thatcher had not yet learned to eschew fussy prints, or to impose an iron discipline on her hair.

Lusaka Declaration on Racism and Racial Prejudice (Issued at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting,Lusaka, Zambia, 1979)
Related post
Looking your age

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Luxurie Must make my death blush

‘Victorian values’ is one phrase which will be forever associated with Margaret Thacher,. Meaning self help, striving & the kind of radical free market economics associated with the Manchester School of merchants, rather than the paternalistic noblesse oblige of traditional Tories.

But how sad to hear that she died in The Ritz hotel, where she had been staying since leaving hospital in January; although this seems to have been something quite common in Victorian times, it hardly matches the classic idea of a Victorian deathbed, surrounded by family.

Thatcher praises Victorian values
Related post
Hotel service

Monday, April 08, 2013

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher has died at the age of 87.

I first heard the news from earwigging a discussion between two teenage girls on holiday from school – they were wondering whether they would get a day’s holiday to mark the occasion. After all, asserted one, we will get a holiday when the Queen dies.

I don’t remember getting a holiday to mark the death of Winston Churchill, whose funeral in any case took place on a Saturday.

Although her reputation for slashing public expenditure does not stand up to an examination of the evidence, the very real damage done by the slash & burn attitude to the old industries of the North was more deserved.

As ever, one’s attitude must remain You’ve got to admire her achievement, but …

NY Times Economix: The Legend of Margaret Thatcher
Related post
The most important man in C20th British politics

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Ruskin antidote

When I first came across this poem by Elma Mitchell it made me laugh out loud. Such earthiness, busyness, just plain mess, seemed the very antithesis of Ruskin. His vision seemed to be more one of life spent sitting on cushions, sewing a fine seam, rather than work never done.

But not for a working class woman, it seems, for in Fors Clavigera Ruskin wrote:

Then, for my meaning as to women's work, what should I mean, but scrubbing furniture, dusting walls, sweeping floors, making the beds, washing up the crockery, ditto the children, and whipping them when they want it, mending their clothes, cooking their dinners, and when there are cooks more than enough, helping with the farm work, or the garden, or the dairy ? Is that plain speaking enough ?
It is far to easy to mock Ruskin & his sensibilities, especially if you just unthinkingly put on your old feminist hat.

Thoughts After Ruskin
Women reminded him of lilies and roses.
Me they remind rather of blood and soap,
Armed with a warm rag, assaulting noses,
Ears, neck, mouth and all the secret places:

Armed with a sharp knife, cutting up liver,
Holding hearts to bleed under a running tap,
Gutting and stuffing, pickling and preserving,
Scalding, blanching, broiling, pulverising,
- All the terrible chemistry of their kitchens.
Their distant husbands lean across mahogany
And delicately manipulate the market,
While safe at home, the tender and the gentle
Are killing tiny mice, dead snap by the neck,
Asphyxiating flies, evicting spiders,
Scrubbing, scouring aloud, disturbing cupboards,
Committing things to dustbins, twisting, wringing,
Wrists red and knuckles white and fingers puckered,
Pulpy, tepid. Steering screaming cleaners
Around the snags of furniture, they straighten
And haul out sheets from under the incontinent
And heavy old, stoop to importunate young,
Tugging, folding, tucking, zipping, buttoning,
Spooning in food, encouraging excretion,
Mopping up vomit, stabbing cloth with needles,
Contorting wool around their knitting needles,
Creating snug and comfy on their needles.

Their huge hands! their everywhere eyes! their voices
Raised to convey across the hullabaloo,
Their massive thighs and breasts dispensing comfort,
Their bloody passages and hairy crannies,
Their wombs that pocket a man upside down!

And when all's over, off with their overalls,
Quickly consulting clocks, they go upstairs,
Sit and sigh a little, brushing hair,
And somehow find, in mirrors, colours, odours,
Their essence of lilies and roses.
Elma Mitchell.

Fors clavigera: Letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain (Volume 4)
Elma Mitchell: Obituary
Related post
Sesame & Lilies & Proust

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Scapegoat politics

Jimmy Savile, Mick Philpott, Graham Ovenden – all three committed their offences against women, children or young people virtually in the public gaze. The public tended to gaze back with a certain degree of fascination, not unmixed with admiration – until somebody, finally, made a complaint to the authorities, or gross tragedy. intervened.

It is unworthy of our politicians to use these grotesque examples as a stick with which to beat others, especially those who claim child benefit.

It may even be the case that Mick Philpott’s ‘(two) families showed up as hard-working, strivers in the official counts of claimants. Benefits being paid not to one father of 11 but to two mothers, one of five, one of six children, both of whom also went out to work

The recent ONS report on family size showed that families with three or more dependent children are less likely to have at least one parent working than are those with only one or two to take care of, with the comment that ‘This illustrates the greater challenge of combining work with childcare with three or more children compared with one or two.’

R -v- Philpott, Philpott & Mosley: Sentencing remarks of Mrs Justice Thirlwall
Graham Ovenden
Family size 2012

Friday, April 05, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked (some of them seasonal):

‘Global warming’ or ‘climate change’ – another lesson in the importance of the question

Announcing Last FM unplugged - Complete with your own personal Moleskine notebook. Not sure who gets the last laugh  – see Here is an IPO you didn’t expect

Guardian Goggles - Leaves me with a burning question. Is that the real  Michael Gove  who makes an appearance at the end, or a look-a-like? Very sporting of him, if real.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Funny old week

It’s a funny old week.

For the most part there has been lots of blue sky & sunshine, but the clouds have been racing the wrong way – to, not from, the west, driven by a biting, gusting east wind. The temperature has barely risen above freezing in the day time; patches of snow still lie on the hills, & even low down in places where the sun don’t get to shine. One of the most lonely high roads is still closed because of ice & snow.

Tuesday saw queues practically out of the door at the bank – not a panic, in the conventional sense, just the end of the financial year & the first day they were open after a long holiday weekend.

Just to add to the disorientation, the clocks went forward to Summer Time, many familiar Radio 4 fixtures came to the end of their season, so some familar audio landmarks are lost; & BBC World Service, which takes over the frequency at 1am, sticks resolutely to GMT, so their programmes have moved their slots on our clock.

No wonder it is hard to remember what time of which day of which season it is

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Sir Arthur Sullivan & the Black Cowboy

In an intriguing programme for BBC Radio 4 Sarfraz Manzoor looked into the story of real-life black cowboys in America. He also secured an interview with Herb Jeffries, still alive at the age of nearly 100, who starred as a black cowboy in films made in the 1930s for showing to black audiences in the segregated cinemas of those days.

But Jeffries – who had sung with Duke Ellington & Earl Hines – is white, Manzoor asserts, son of an Italian father & an Irish mother; although therefore quite dark complected he used Max Factor make-up to darken his skin for the screen.

Some internet sources do not mention this fact, others claim that his father had mixed African & Sicilian blood.

I am particularly intrigued by this story because of the way it mirrors claims about the background of Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), who was, according to Arthur Jacobs, his most authoritative biographer, also of mixed Italian/Irish descent.

Just goes to show how tricky it can be to put people into the right box.
YouTube: Herb Jeffries – 1950
Herb Jeffries 'The Bronze Buckaroo'
BBC Radio 4: Forgotten Black Cowboys
Oakland Black Cowboy Association
Texas Black Cowboys
Related post
The Black Irish
Jackie Kay: Red Dust Road

Monday, April 01, 2013

Duck report

I saw ducks in the stream this weekend – lower down the lane, not opposite the house. First sighting this year.

Only a small group, & three of them were white. Very unusual for round here. I wonder if the snow has anything to do with that.