Monday, December 31, 2007

A really modest proposal on the teaching of languages in English schools

Why oh why are the English so bad at languages?

Who says they are? Its not true historically. They regularly learned & applied all sorts of languages. Nineteenth century newspaper & magazines frequently contained foreign words & phrases, sometimes even whole articles in French or German. The chief constable of Manchester was a qualified interpreter of Hindostanee [sic] & Mahratta

Of course they had good reason, a motive. Trade, & ruling an Empire

Shared borders, though not shared countries, encourage the picking up of another language through everyday practice & necessity. But English (not necessarily in its received standard version) is the second language of choice for most non-English speakers today

There are good reasons which provide the motivation for this - not just trade & Master of the Universe status, but football, popular song, film & the internet all provide a medium for learning well away from the classroom

What motives do English children have for choosing ONE particular foreign language to learn? Apart from being nagged into it by the government?

It is a totally unequal relationship between languages & translation. Other languages have a many-to-one relationship with English, English speakers have a one-to-many relationship with foreign tongues

I doubt if teaching Mandarin or Urdu to children of primary age will do much to redress this deficiency

So why not, instead, accept the many-to-one relationship, accept that we cannot choose which one they should learn, & teach instead about some of the fundamentals of language itself?

Start, as we all start, with sounds. Phonemes & phonetics. How different languages contain different sounds. Have fun learning a uvular r or Scottish ch. Discuss why eat, heat & heath are homonyms to a French speaker. Bring in the children who are already bilingual & enhance their status rather than treat them as almost special needs

Learn songs. Listen to tapes or radio streams in different languages - verses, football commentaries, news items & stories & try to guess what it is about & which language is being spoken. Learn the different noise that a German cow makes

Move on to naming things. Words which are almost universally the same. Etymology & how we have always borrowed from other tongues. We have been speaking French/Hindi/Latin ... all out lives without realising it!

Play games, imagining how you would make yourself understood to someone who does not speak your language

Puns & jokes & word play. Why puns will not work in another language

And finally, some alphabets, orthography & spelling

Proverbs & sayings

References: See for example Anthony Burgess 'Language Made Plain'

Saturday, December 29, 2007


I cant remember where I heard this wonderful word

It sums up so perfectly something I felt as a teenager. When I dreamed of having a sports car

There used to be a showroom next to Nottingham railway station, through whose windows I could happily gaze for hours

I knew I wanted either a Triumph Spitfire or an MG Midget. Agonised over the choice of scarlet or bright lemon yellow

The only people who could truly aspire to one were the boys who rowed or played rugger & had generous daddies

Or sometimes daddies themselves. The sort who wore tweed jackets or old flying jackets & flat caps, & long woollen scarves. Had a moustache & smoked a pipe

Who, when they reached a certain age, proclaimed their menoporschal status to the world

It wasnt fair. Sporty cars should be driven by someone who is the right sex & age to look like Sandra Paul or Bronwen Pugh. Or at least can wear her hair wrapped fashionably in a head scarf with the long ends streaming behind as she speeds along

A Stockport Bendy Banana Story!

Department of small coincidences. This clip appeared in yesterdays Times

Hardly earth shattering. Must just be something in the air. Some small chain of decision making which led to The Times leaving in a Stockport dateline for this story. Probably where Chris Davies, MEP, sent his press release from

But such tiny coincidences provide vital clues for historical researchers, crime novelists

And conspiracy theorists!

What if its a code?

Maybe, if I follow all the links, I will find a story to rival the Da Vinci Code


North West MEP calls for population control Why the 4x4 is todays third child

An Englishmans Castle Fertility & privacy

‘No one wants to bend banana rules’ - Times Online Recent foodie overheards

EU Bananas News Banana boats & food miles

Serendipity proves I exist in a world

Friday, December 28, 2007

Too much stuff or job creation?

Judging by the crowds out today & yesterday we are still hellbent on acquiring too much stuff. Probably just a last desperate flexing of the plastic before we all pay the price for our sins & just have to concentrate on shovelling away at a mountain of debt. Return to a state of virtue & just stop buying stuff

But here's the paradox

My consumption is someone elses production

Irish jokes & schizophrenia

Are we still not supposed to tell Irish jokes?

My favourite Irish joke is the one which ends I wouldnt start from here.

Far from being about stupidity, & therefore demeaning, they so often sum up that delicious quality of bemusement, being caught between a dilemma & a paradox. The wisest men have always known that all logical argument ends in paradox, so these jokes acknowledge the Irish as the wisest of us all

I have a very similar problem with the proscription of the word schizophrenia in every day usage on the grounds that this is demeaning to those who suffer from the 'real' thing

I do not think there is another word in common usage which expresses quite so well the specific feeling of being in, or having, a split mind. Wanting 2 contradictory things at once. Unable to decide, & feeling slightly foolish & ashamed about it

If I have understood things correctly nobody now thinks that this is a symptom, or even a helpful description, of the distressing disease. So would it not be better all round to change the name of the disease?

Related post: Dystrenia

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Banana boats & food miles

Do boat miles count the same as plane miles?

Either way, does each banana that I buy count for 4000 food miles? If I buy 2 at the same time do they count for 4000 miles each?

Would it really be more green for me to travel to Worcester & back to purchase an apple?

The relative risk of winning the lottery

I buy one lottery ticket for the main Saturday draw each week

Not because I expect to win a few millions

Not because some of the money goes to Good Causes. In fact if I ever stop my regular purchase it will be because I am unable any longer to close my eyes to the cynicism of this side of it - the fat cat bureaucracy & army of paid consultant/advisers helping bewildered local groups trying to make sense of the application process. Not to mention the even greater cynicism of giving obscene amounts to the Royal Opera, the Churchills, or the Olympics

I buy the small pleasure of imagining what I would do with the money. What better small pleasure could I buy with my £? And I cannot think of a £52 treat that it would be worth saving up & waiting all year for

For the game to work, it must be a chance of winning a few million £s

There are those who say the odds against winning are so long as to make my chance of winning indistinguishable from zero. But this is to argue from the absolute level of probability

Medics & media constantly urge us to act on the basis of relative risks. Most recently & most ludicrously to foreswear the pleasure of bacon sandwiches for a higher probability of freedom from bowel cancer

My risk of winning the lottery may be zero if I do not buy a ticket. Or maybe not. I choose to assign a probability of 1 in 2,500 googols to the chance that I will pick up a winning ticket in the street or find that a friend offers me a half share of their multimillion jackpot. That makes the relative gain from my £1 into a satisfactorily large number. Much greater than that assigned to giving up bacon sandwiches

Save the supermarket plastic bag

This is an argument for not banning the supermarket plastic bag. Made by one who, for well over 20 years now, has said Thank you I do not need a bag at the checkout. Usually. By no means invariably

I do not decline them from a belief that they bear a uniquely heavy responsibility for global warming. Nor did I start declining them for the then fashionable reason that they were handed out simply to turn customers into walking advertising hoardings. Strange now to think that people, tourists, would go to Harrods to buy one small item just to acquire the status symbol of a green plastic bag

My motive was that old fashioned, now frequently derided one of thrift. I was proud to have earned first my Brownie & then the more advanced Guide badge for Thrift. I was brought up in the years after WW2 when we were careful about everything we used. It is however a very long time since I darned a sock or turned the cuffs on a shirt

Plastic bags with handles are incredibly useful. So useful that I folded them carefully, & put them in a cupboard. Until I realised that, like old fashioned wire clothes hangers, they were breeding in there

The main use I have for them now is lining the kitchen pedal bin. When full, simply tie the handles & carry to the dustbin outside. Minimises seepage, spillage & smell

A plastic bag has also virtually eliminated the problem of lost umbrellas. I was forever leaving them behind, wet, on the floor of the bus, tube or train on a rainy day. Now one sits folded inside a plastic bag in my handbag. If I have to use it, it goes back in its bag when I get on to the bus etc & I make sure it goes with me when I go

I usually used to have 1 or 2 folded in my handbag, to use either as a portable litter bin or to carry purchases home. The need for the first has been virtually eliminated by the much more wide spread availability of street litter bins, though is still very useful in a car. The latter has, ironically, been eliminated by the fact that they are now so pared down & thin that they are useless for carrying the weight of shopping for any distance greater than that from car boot to kitchen

Other uses crop up from time to time at home, so its always useful to keep a few handy

For carrying shopping I am currently well satisfied with my large sturdy Sainsburys version, price 60p, which fits folded in my handbag until required. Not one of those free ones called Bag for life. None of those ever has a gusset, so are useless for carrying bottles or anything which needs to be kept flat. I have recently discovered that it is also very useful as a cushion for sitting on when all the available outdoor seating is still wet from the rain

I can barely contain my contempt for those who walk round with some ludicrously overpriced designer thingy. A re-used Netto bag would be much more truly green. But then I suppose you would run the risk of proclaiming yourself a saddo loser, rather than the ultimate in cool priggish prattery

PRIMARK have joined the anti-plastic bandwagon by offering only brown paper bags. These unfortunately will not keep your new clothes dry on a wet afternoon in Manchester. And, as I found out the hard way, they will rip open incredibly easily if they catch on something

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Force or power: science or love

Will the Theory of Everything explain why or how we fall in love?

I have only recently come to realise that one of the reasons I have difficulty in understanding what physicists are on about is that I do not properly understand what they mean by force.
It is very instructive to consult the OED on this, but I am still working on my grasp of it

What is fundamental about the fundamental forces?

It is particularly illuminating to think about how these contrast with that other metaphor: the power of love

I am not one who thinks that science is nasty & hard, unromantic. Anti-love. But I was struck by how many people who recently heard Blue Sky July on Radio 4 interpreted the story as testament to the power of a mothers love - which of course it is - while apparently ignoring the equally fascinating & invaluable insights into how the brain develops

Crime & government

When I was very young - only 22 or 23 - I found myself in a meeting with some very senior & respectable men indeed who were discussing ways to commit a crime

I was honestly shocked at first. By the fact that they should be discussing it at all, & also by the fertility of their imaginations in thinking up more & more ingenious methods

But they were discussing ways to prevent fraud in the collection of road tolls, so of course it was vital to consider all the possibilities

The other invaluable lesson I learned that day was in their conclusion: there is very little you can reasonably do if there is collusion between those who collect & those who are supposed to pay the toll

To minimise that kind of risk you need to rely on, or engender, a belief that such things are just not done in a fair & civilised society

Friday, December 21, 2007

Civil service

When I was a civil servant friends sometimes asked how it was possible to work for governments of different political persuasions

I sometimes struggled to answer at first. In fact I sometimes wondered if there was something wrong with me, that I did not have any overriding conviction about which side was Right in all respects

A blog is not the place for a detailed discussion but the answer I think falls into 2 main parts

First, there is something called good administration. Which overlaps with what people these days call management, but is different in subtle ways. Not least because, in the world of commercial business, there is always the bottom line to judge whether you ultimately stand or fail. It is much harder to judge whether administrators are doing a good job. We have learned that the size of your budget is not a good guide – though politicians still like to boast about theirs. And performance indicators & targets have turned out to be not at all uncomplicated either

The second reason why a civil servant can have great respect for their political masters is that they are the ones who have stood for election, who have gone out & said to the people, Here is what I want to do, vote for me

We all hope that in sometimes cooperating with a policy which we may well think unwise, or wrong headed, we will not in retrospect find ourselves saying I was only obeying orders

We can all resign if asked to go too far. The problem is that things usually build up by gradual degrees

I once heard an ex-Permanent Secretary being interviewed on this point. He said for him it would be if a government tried to suspend habeas corpus in peace time. My reaction was Its a bit late then

The other part that seems to be misunderstood, particularly by outsiders but also sometimes by ministers themselves, is the duty to advise & to warn, to consider possible ways in which the proposed course of action may not produce the intended results, or may conflict with another of the governments stated aims

And then - when all the arguments which show that this is obviously the best of all possible policies in the best of all possible worlds have been honed & polished, to consider Yes, but what is the opposition - Treasury, Parliament or media - going to say?

Far better to work out the answers inside the department than to face them for the first time in the heat of the Newsnight studio

Proportional representation & resource allocation

In this country allocations of funds from central government to lower tier organisations are usually estimated as a share of the national total which has been decided in advance. That is, we do not work out how much each local area needs & sum the results to arrive at a national total

I am not aware of any work that has ever been done to see if this procedure produces perverse & unintended results in some cases - though lots has been written & published on the similar problems of proportional voting systems

To take a greatly oversimplified example

There is one national manufacturer of skirts who operates from just one factory. The government decides, in pursuance of its regional development policy, that there should be one skirt factory in each region

Now each skirt is made out of a 3 yard length of cloth. For technical reasons a skirt can not be stitched together from smaller pieces of cloth

The cloth comes on a bale which is 100 yards long. Each of the 10 regions is given its allocation of 10 yards

At the end of the year the audit shows that national skirt production has declined by nearly 10%, from 33 to 30 units

A commission is set up to advise government on the best methods of training the workers to bring them up to the expected standard of productivity in skirt making

Concrete drains

I do hope there is not much rain over Christmas or we shall be in real trouble with surface water again

Not only are the drains still visibly full with leaves and the debris from the dogs dinner of a new development up the hill (the developer is clearly experiencing severe cash flow problems) but now they are gritting the roads at night too

Thursday, December 20, 2007

More gifts for difficult boys

I suppose I was musing on this because I have a 12 year old to buy a gift for this year. Much the same situation, not a relative - the son of a neighbour who is very good company

I was thinking of cash & novelty value, & how increasingly people have to count it out a bit slowly, when required, because they dont get much practice nowadays. I considered getting rolls of different coins, rather than just £2s, with a little poser like How many different ways can you make up £1.38. Which takes the smallest number of coins?

Well there are boys who would enjoy that kind of thing, but not this one I guess

He is interested in landscape however. We had an interesting discussion the other week, in the wake of our mini-floods, about the pattern of valleys & how & where water flows. So I think an Ordnance Survey map of the Peak District might absorb him. I shall have to check with Mum first though

Can anyone see the joins

I always thought that one of the functions of the Cabinet was to join up the government. Even if that sometimes involved a stitch up

Reports of my death

I cant help, even in this season of goodwill, feeling schadenfreude about the data protection problems being experienced by government at the moment

One of the most vacuous slogans - Joined Up Government - is not heard so much of now. It was one of those things that made me shout at the radio, especially when someone was explaining that it was ridiculous that you might have to give the same piece of information to different departments, rather than them all being able to rely on just one central source

Well that can have problems too - & not just because if one loses it they all lose it. Government only gets one chance to get it right

One example being quoted a while ago was the apparent need for someone to produce a death certificate 37 times over.

When a newspaper made a mistake about Mark Twain he had merely to write that Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. It would have been much more awkward for him if every government database had been convinced of the veracity of those reports

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

D's and E's don't count

I was using a computer in the library yesterday when a young man at the next desk, against all etiquette, asked me how to spell qualifications. Vaguely assuming he wasnt English, I told him. A few minutes later he asked if hygiene had a y. Yes I said, a bit more snappishly

A few minutes after that he apologised for interrupting again, but would I look at the CV he had just written? The friend who was supposed to be helping him had failed to show. Still vaguely assuming he just wanted an 'English' opinion, I invited him to read it out loud, since I couldnt see, not at that distance

It was short - always a big plus in my opinion - just name, some subjects he said he had qualifications in, then personal qualities, ending with And I am a good listener which struck me as a bit unusual for a young man. I just told him it sounded fine

Yes, but is it OK? Casting around for something a bit constructive, I said he should say when & where he got the qualifications

Head down: I got them in prison

Well youve certainly got my attention now!

I was wondering if modern HR jargon might have a coded phrase for this kind of thing, which could get you out of any accusation of trying to mislead without having to put it down starkly in black & white. Have you got any certificates?

Yes, AQAs

What about school?

Oh I didnt get anything there - just a C in [something]

Then he rattled off at least 4 or 5 other subjects he said he had done - But nothing, just a load of Ds & Es

Ds & Es dont count, do they?

OH YES THEY DO, I hissed

His friend turned up just after that so I left them to it

Now there are several things to ponder in this story, including the fact that if he had time to do all those AQAs he must have been in prison quite a long time. But he seemed genuinely to yearn for the stability of a wage (better yet a salary) that he said hed never had. I should like to feel more optimistic for him

But its that Ds & Es dont count that I shall remember

Because he is right. Ministers & media keep telling us so. About failing pupils from failing schools who cannot even manage 5 As or Bs or Cs

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Poor little Ireland?

One fact about Ireland really surprised me when I first came across it, & shifted my view of the vexed question of Anglo-Irish relations, at least a little bit

I for one was accustomed to think of Poor Little Ireland oppressed by Big Bad England. And during my lifetime, at least until the most recent waves of migration, this has been true. In the early 1990s Ireland (the whole island) had only about one tenth of the number of people compared to England (In very round terms, 5m v 50m)

But in 1801 the population of Ireland was two thirds that of England - 6 million v 10 million. Even in 1851 it was a half. So the relative scale, or burden, of relief for the famine, meant that crudely, 2 people in England needed to support 1 in Ireland

The interesting questions are first, how did the population of Ireland manage to keep pace with that of England up to 1800 – in terms of population density, the two countries were the same. But then why did growth in England take off – helped in no small part by migrations from abroad as well as from the Celtic fringe

Monday, December 17, 2007

Gifts for difficult boys

Personally I see no problem in giving cash - not book tokens - as a present for a boy at the difficult age. In these days of plastic it actually has novelty value. Nice crisp note(s) or, even better, shiny £2 coins. Pride of ownership, a delicious time spent deciding how you are going to spend it

My mother was brilliant at presents, on a very small budget. Looking back, the ones which gave me most pleasure, after the age of about 5, were those which made me feel ever so slightly grown up & important. For example a cardboard box, such as might have contained a dress or a shirt in those days, containing Things I would need for my desk - which came later. Pencils, a sharpener, a rubber, blotting paper, ruler, rubber bands, paper clips, drawing pins, Treasury tags, and - best of all - a hole punch. Which could be used for making confetti

The most successful present of this type which I myself have given in recent years was to a 9-year old boy. Not a relative or a godchild, & positively nothing grand or embarrassingly extravagant. I hit on the idea of a miscellaneous collection of small notebooks from the £store or Stationery Box. Stuck a freezer label on each (easily removed if not wanted): Detectives Notebook; Secret Diary; Ships Log - Property of the Captain; Codebook

I just thought it was something which might keep him quiet for a bit, but his mother credits the gift with finally making him see the point of spelling & writing legibly

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Genetic teacakes

My basic recipe for cake consists of butter, sugar, egg, flour & milk.

The quantities - absolute & relative - matter. As does the precise method & order of combining them

The size & shape of the cooking tin makes a big difference. As does the temperature of the oven. And the type of oven - ask anybody who has switched to fan assisted. My grandmother produced superb results with an oven built into the range at the side of the coal fire in the living room, which also, via a back boiler, provided the hot water for the household

Cooking time matters

All these make the difference between a light, fluffy delicious sponge & a lump of concrete

And the whole process can be damaged irreparably if you open the oven door at the wrong moment

So its not really a surprise to find that establishing which small part of the genome codes for which protein does not unlock the whole secret of Life. I doubt we have even got as far as listing the basic ingredients for basic cake. We seem to be more at the stage of being able to say All cakes contain flour (except for those that do not)

And then, when we do get there, along will come the VAT inspector to tell us that what we have made is not a cake. Because, from his point of view, from where he stands, it is a biscuit

The press reported that Marks&Spencer have just won a longstanding legal battle with the VATMAN. Chocolate teacakes are cakes, not biscuits

Friday, December 14, 2007

Dulce et decorum

In my younger days I used to like to claim that I was twice put into prison during my gap year, & that the second time I had truly expected to face a firing squad in the morning

Ludicrous exaggerations of course for what were basically simple visa problems. Fed by teenage romanticism. And that Alec Guinness film about the bigamous sea captain

I spent a night in a police station in what was then Yugoslavia. Lying on the rather uncomfortable wooden bed I crossed my arms on my chest & imagined my fate

We were perhaps better acquainted with the reality of death then. But that didnt stop me feeling romantic about it, not really grasping the finality. Imagining all the nice things that would be said about my bravery. In short, believing that I would still be around

So I am a bit surprised that people are surprised about suicide bombers

And, coming at it from the darker side, does not America have its own equivalent in those who go on mass killing sprees with guns?

Two by two tables

I wish that simple 2x2 contingency tables were taught in schools, & not just in maths or stats classes

If they were the standard of public understanding/debate on so many issues could be much higher. People who ought to know better ought not be able to get away with as much as they do

If children worked on simple examples we might not have so much hurt & upset over statements like Most muggers are black.

People might understand much better the concept of false positives & negatives in medical screening programmes

Maybe even the nature of the supposed evidence linking various foodstuffs, or medical diseases, & unfortunate outcomes

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Regional government & the choice of supermarket

I have hardly been to Sainsburys in Hazel Grove at all this year

It used to be very convenient to stop by there on the way home, do a bit of shopping then catch another bus right outside which takes me practically to my door

One reason I stopped doing it is the absolutely outrageous fact that if I do I will have to pay a bus fare IN CASH for one leg of the journey. All because of the vagaries of local authority boundaries & the rules governing free bus travel. Iniquitous!

Of course if I really wanted to visit that particular branch of Sainsburys I would happily hand over the £1+ involved

These rules make life much more difficult for others. If you drew a circle with a radius of 10 miles centred on our patch you would cover more than 6 different counties/local authority areas. Four different government administrative regions. Heaven knows how many health authorities, water companies, ITV regions .... And if the proposed amalgamation of police forces had gone through a couple of years ago we would have had the Merseyside police patrolling within 2 miles of us

Heaven help anyone over 60 who needs to do most of their travelling in one county but who happens to live just 10 yards over the border of another

Still, at least that bus pass problem will be solved next April, though I am sure there will be plenty new ones to worry about

And people wonder why not all the English are excited by the idea of regional governments of their own

Why is Ken Barlow still in Coronation Street?

Those pondering lack of social mobility & lack of aspiration in England could do worse than study popular tv soaps

Early 1960s: a very young Ken Barlow, home on holiday from teacher training college gets a good ticking off from Uncle Alfred for upsetting his mother with his new-found fancy ways

Instead of leaving for an environment where the drinking of sherry is unremarkable Ken returns to The Street. To spend over 40 years getting rid of his boring tag through brushes with powerful sexual or criminal shenanigans

A generation later Michelle in East Enders overcomes the setback of teenage pregnancy to earn a degree & a job in an office. She even starts wearing suits! But she has to be sent to America. Otherwise she would presumably end up like mum, working in the launderette

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Unpaid work

In the old wages for housework days it was easy to think that the campaign was based on either naivety or the worst sort of hairy-legged man-hating feminism

I started thinking more deeply about how we decide to look to the market to provide some goods & services and to provide others, unwaged, for ourselves or others when shops really started closing in the village. Most were replaced by some kind of takeaway or cafe

Nothing wrong with that, but what a switch away from food preparation at home

At the same time a huge proportion of adults decided it was well worth their while to become their own transport manager/route planner/chauffeur, & to perform the same unwaged service for all their childrens transport requirements

What would the costs of motoring look like if these labour costs were added in? Would bus travel look as expensive as it does in purely cashflow terms?

Doris Archer was a prude

It came as a bit of a shock to realise that Jennifer Aldridges son Adam is now 40. And that his birth stirred up such a national controversy complete with graffiti. A young unmarried woman deciding to keep her baby!

Consultation in the space/time continuum

People like me who come late to the study of Victorian history tend to marvel at the speed with which they got things done. Especially if the student has laboured in the vineyard of modern administration. As one retired consultant remarked, They decided they wanted a hospital & it was up & running in the time it would take us to get through the first round of the planning process

Was this just a mark of the stern, dictatorial, paternalistic, patriarchal know-whats-good-for yous? Well maybe, but the main reason that they did not consult so much was because they couldnt

As became clear to me when I started to plough through the minutes of the weekly Watch Committee meetings. They were brief, usually less than half a page of A4. The rest of the page was taken up by a list of those attending &, at the foot, the invariable Certified a true copy ..... Just like it says on the copy of a birth certificate

All copies were written out by a clerk. Although some kind of carbon paper clearly came in to use around this time, it was still a time consuming business. No wonder they were terse.
  • Week 1 We have this problem. Alderman Bloggs to look into it
  • Week2 Alderman Bloggs reported he had sorted it out or Recommended A. Agreed

Consultation had to be by hand-written letter or face to face meeting. In a city you probably walked to most meetings. No telephone. Telegraph was just becoming quite widely available, but that would be like texting in slow motion without the connectivity of the mobile network

Are things better now that there is no excuse not to consult the world & his brother & his mother-in laws cat? Dont we just have to spend more time collating all those responses, when they get round to sending them, & then deciding what to make of them

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Is there a word which means both brilliantly simple & malign?

Machiavellian does not quite fit the bill, because it implies too much devious complication

It also needs to make clear that the act so described is not one of which the user approves or admires in any way

Not a buyers market

The slow down in the housing market has been very obvious round this part of the world for some time now. New developments which would have been snapped up off plan as soon as they were on the market 3 to 4 years ago, carry FOR SALE boards for months now

When I first moved back up north I was surprised to find that private renting was still a fairly significant form of tenure for ordinary families. Nothing to do with the more recent Buy-to-let boom, just the old majority form of tenure clinging on where many people simply could not afford to buy & council housing is relatively scarce.

Private renting declined quite sharply in the 90s & early 2000s, though frankly it worried me, to see so many people having to take on mortgages for 6-figure sums

TO Let signs have been much more in evidence recently, even on the new developments. A new phenomenon however is FOR SALE OR TO LET. Some of these may well be Buy-to-let landlords trying to get out, but some have definitely been occupied for some years by the family that owned them. This suggests buyers have become extremely difficult to find

A truly great editor looks after his staff

The William Rees Mogg article about editors of The Times reminded me of a story I came across about the great correspondent William Russell when he was in India to report on how the British army re-established control over the areas which were in rebel hands following the 1857 Mutiny

Russell was one of those men who, though earning what was for those days a fabulous salary, was always short of money. Indeed, in more general terms he was a hopeless manager of his family & domestic life. Knowing that his wife would be unhappy about him going on another prolonged & treacherous assignment abroad – she was ill after all – he simply got round the difficulty by leaving the house late at night without having told her anything about it

He was also a man of mercurial temperament & seemingly inconsistent attitudes. While generally sympathetic to the underdog, he could come out with some outrageously choleric & racist views. So although he railed against the viciousness with which the mutiny was put down, the policy of indiscriminate hangings pour encourager les autres, & the snobbery of the Anglo-Indian colonialists, he could be rude, to say the least, about the natives too. Especially those who had to carry him around in a palanquin after he had suffered an extremely nasty kick in the thigh from a horse

After the retaking of one particular palace, Russell wrote to his editor to complain that he was so short of funds that he could not even afford the paltry amount that one ordinary soldier had asked for a looted treasure. By selling it on to a more wealthy customer, Russell would have been able to make himself a nice little profit

The editor – the great Delane – responded by sending Russell a personal cheque for £10 so that he would not be similarly embarrassed again

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

Heaven knows why it took so long, but I only came across the name of Langston Hughes some 15 years ago. And in a very unexpected way.

I was on a country train in Derbyshire when the young man sitting opposite opened a Waterstones bag to take out a large format thick paperback which he regarded with obvious expectation & pleasure. I was a bit surprised because he didnt look much like the reading type, (I had him marked as junior management) & anyway Im always nosy about what other people are reading.

I managed to glimpse the authors name & Collected Poems on the cover. This only added to the intrigue. To be honest I thought he was most likely a modern singer/songwriter, but even I would have expected to have heard of someone who had produced such an oeuvre, worthy of publication by a mainstream publisher.

I remembered the name some time later & checked the library catalogue. I was hooked & read everything I could find His first volume of autobiography The Big Sea deserves to be, ought to be, much more widely known in this country


I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:
Ancient dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Langston Hughes. Written 1919, when he was 19, on a train outside St Louis, on his way to visit his father in Mexico


The Big Sea

Related posts

Walls have soul
. Complected

Cultural stereotypes

I find the persistence of certain cultural stereotypes fascinating
The Anglo Saxons have always been binge drinkers (think Beowulf). The Irish have always been disputatious (think Bede). Middle easterners have always been fond of displaying the severed heads of their enemies (think Sumerian casket)

I don’t care if the answer is 42

Most of the comment I have seen or heard about the latest proposal for extending detention without trial has concentrated on Why 42?

Do people really just accept that it is a good idea to have MPs voting on individual cases? Or have I misunderstood something

I cannot think of anything worse. And how, if evidence cannot, for reasons of national security, be revealed in a court of law, can it be revealed to MPs? Or will they sit in camera?

Controlled trials

How much research has been done which attempts to separate out the beneficial effects of a Mediterranean diet from those of the Mediterranean climate?

Darwins bowels

It has always seemed obvious to me that Darwin ‘retired’ to Down House because of a persistent or recurrent embarrassment of physical, not psychological origin

Think Imodium ads on tv

Then think about the availability of water closets in mid Victorian England. Particularly in public buildings. Even in the 1980s august institutions – think Royal Society, or think theatres, hardly offered modern conveniences. The facilities, up odd winding bits of staircase, or down in the basement, were not easily accessible in a hurry

Think buttons, not zips

Then decide if you would not rather spend most of your time at home, especially if that home could be the kind of joyous happily family residence which your friends would be only too pleased to visit

A romantic tale of a lonely internalised struggle between prevailing religion & scientific truth this is not

But not the less heroic for that

Friday, December 07, 2007

Leaves down the drain

Yesterday evenings rain caused all sorts of trouble round our way

It was impossible to cross the road when I got off the bus - it was just like a river. The reason became clear when I walked the short way up to the brow of that particular part of the hill - soaked by the spray from all the cars which continued to break the speed limit regardless of conditions. Water was pouring down the side road which emerges there; a culvert must be blocked

Still, at least the water turned right & ran back down the main road, so my lane down the other side seemed clear. Until I got to the bottom, where the bridge was swamped under a mini lake. My initial alarm that this meant the river had come up over its banks was fortunately unfounded

The rain wasnt that heavy. Weve had much worse in the past without trouble

The storm drains are however all packed with fallen leaves. Autumn has been unusual, with the leaves staying on the trees for much longer, then suddenly falling in a rush quite recently. The council came round to clear the pavements & the road surface, but left the drains

A similar story must be repeated all over the district, with not just drains but culverts & run offs blocked too. Roads were temporarily closed all over the place, though I havent heard of any houses getting flooded

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Beethoven was one-sixteenth black

Sir Arthur Sullivan was one-eighth black

Halle Berry & Lewis Hamilton are at most half black

Tiger Woods is less than half black

James Watson has 16% black genes

So the point is ...... ?
See also: Complected

Nadine Gordimers latest book of short stories is called 'Beethoven was one-sixteenth black'

No longer a black & white world

Very occasionally I need to consult an old textbook of some kind

One thing that often strikes me is that I have almost completely lost the ability to interpret black & white diagrams

But these were a standard tool of my education, in virtually every subject from history to physics

Colour was not really a tool of education outside the artroom, or maps of physical geography

Television (if you had it at home) was black & white, technicolour the exception rather than the rule for films, or so it seemed

Robert Hughes tells how, in far away Australia, his only knowledge of much of the great art he studied came from black & white, often very small, photographs

How on earth did we manage?

And how does the colour explosion affect how children learn today?

Related post: Guernica

Rouler vers l'ouest

One thing that puzzles me. If we all came out of Africa, how come that in early recorded history the overall movement was into/across Europe from the east?

I was brought back to thinking about this by a comment someone made on last weeks population projections, that we were at the mercy of another unstoppable wave from the east

Just like in Anglo Saxon days

Or those who attacked the northern edges of the Roman Empire

Before them, the Sea People, or those who swept down through Greece

If movement was from the east, then Ireland was truly the very edge of the known world. Which might explain a lot

Part of the problem I have is in just getting my head round the different time scales involved. But listening to In Our Time this morning it occurred to me that in those pre-historic out of Africa migrations it could have been the genes, rather than their human carriers, which were the real travellers. Slowly, like the building of an ocean swell, as one nearly-human member of a group transferred half their genes to one of the neighbours, and so on and so on until unstoppable momentum was achieved & waves crashed on the shore

Not dying is not an option

Medical researchers could do us all a real service if, instead of keep on telling us how to reduce our probability of dying of this, then that, then the other disease, they worked out how to increase the probability (preferably to 1) that we live a frisky intellectually fulfilled life until, having achieved our time, we simply wake up dead


Cows are right up there among my favourite animals, along with elephants & horses

So docile, usually but so often looking hang dog & put upon. Thinking of cows in muddy fields, hunkered down backs to the rain, that is what most makes me doubt the idea that animals should be free range. If I prefer - nay demand - a nice warm airy house to live in, why should not they have the same?
Click on image to enlarge

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What do you mean, reading?

I am beginning to think that perhaps we are getting our priorities wrong in the business of teaching children to read & defining the required standards to be tested

As many have pointed out, children are more likely to take to reading early if they see adults around them doing it. But, even in the most highly educated middle class families, children are less & less likely to see adults involved in paper-based reading. And seeing an adult write almost anything but a list of some kind or a signature on a Christmas card must be even more rare. So the important motive of copying what mummy & daddy do is lost, reading & writing are just chores imposed on them by school

The ability to interpret large blocks of uniform black squiggles on a pale background is something that begins more & more to seem like the ability to interpret the hieroglyphs on an Egyptian tomb

Im only watching - what have you got to hide?

Suppose I could use my magick powers to materialise myself in your living room this evening

I mean you absolutely no harm, you dont have to engage me in conversation, & no, really, thank you, I dont need a cup of tea

Nobody in your family is picking their nose, chastising a child. Youre not having a row. Not doing anything you would really prefer the neighbours didnt know about. In fact if one of them rang the bell right now you would happily invite them in

And me - I mean you absolutely no harm. I am entirely benevolent. I am only watching

So why do you not like it?

Grumbly old lady

I just changed one of the labels I use. I am no longer a grumpy, but a grumbly old lady

Inspired by a clue in Times crossword 23773: Good to see through what Meldrew does (7)

Grumpy has become such a cliche, & the new version adds just the right amount of crumbliness

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Habit or hijab

In all the fuss about headscarves we seem to have forgotten about the battle of the nuns habit, when in the 1960s, led mainly by Americans, nuns battled to be able to ditch the floor length habit for something shorter, or even ordinary clothes. If I remember rightly however it took a bit longer for the headdress to pretty well disappear

Some academic must have done a compare & contrast study of the arguments advanced by those western Christian conservatives who fought against the rejection of habits & those who argue against Muslims being free to wear the veil at all times & in any place in western countries today

Daft dress codes

Every group has its dress codes. Only in retrospect do your own look strange

Two stories from the 1960s

The Rolling Stones went to a posh Chelsea restaurant for dinner. They were turned away on the grounds that no gentleman could be admitted unless wearing a tie

The group left quietly, but returned a short time later. Each wearing a tie

But nothing else

At the end of the decade a famous tv star went to a function at a swanky New York hotel. Wearing one of the newly fashionable tunic/wide legged trouser ensembles

Told that ladies in trousers could not be admitted she simply removed them, on the spot. The tunic was longer than the still fashionable but ever so slightly passé mini dress

Another, more personal, story

I had to go to a student-y meeting one Saturday morning at the National Liberal Club off Whitehall. A friend from college accompanied me because we were to go on to something else in the afternoon

We entered the marble hall & went to the porters desk for directions. Which he gave to me, very courteously. But then he said to my friend I am very sorry, sir, but I cannot allow you admission

My heart felt as if it had literally dropped into my boots via the express lift

My friend was West Indian. At that time there were no anti-discrimination laws. Fleet Street had a pretty universal No Colour Bar in England line, but that did not obviate the need for us to do things like picket the Whisky-a-go-go. This Soho club had been proved (to our satisfaction) to be operating a colour bar

But this was the Liberal club. My England. He couldnt. Could he?

If he could, then not just my heart but the bottom had dropped out of my world

Then he produced a cardboard box from under his desk. If you would care to make a selection, sir, then I will be able to admit you

Once my friend had donned the chosen tie, we were in

He was still wearing it when we left

Monday, December 03, 2007

Only connect

I am not a fan of science fiction, will usually avoid it

But some years ago I woke up in the middle of the night. World Service was broadcasting a science fiction story. It kept me gripped, even scared me a bit

It concerned the New York subway. The powers that be decided to build a new line to relieve the pressure on the system, providing some extra links between existing stations, much as the Victoria line did in 1960s London

A math professor noticed that the new line would mean that the connectivity (in the topological sense) of the system would be infinite & begged them to amend the plan

Of course they did not. The new line opened. Trains disappeared, along with all their passengers

I dont remember the denouement exactly but I am sure it involved a race against time to either block off a section of the track or dig a new one to bring the connectivity back to a finite real world number

When the computer starts acting funny, I sometimes wonder if the connectivity of the World Wide Web has temporarily wandered off into infinity

Educational achievement

How many grammar schools in England ever produced a Nobel laureate? How many have produced 2?

I ask because the performance of black boys in the English school system was in the news again last week

Those whose business it is to think about these things might care to ponder how one small secondary school in St Lucia managed to produce two Afro Caribbean Nobel laureates

And why so many educational professionals take it for granted that the idea that one of our schools might do the same is just the impossible dream


Saturday, December 01, 2007

Prosecutor or victim?

I was reading a newspaper report of a hearing in the nineteenth century Manchester Police Court. Suddenly puzzled by the use of the term the prosecutor. The police presented the prosecution case, surely?

Then it happened again. This time the prosecutor was a woman!

Light dawned

These days she would be called the victim

I think I know which I would prefer to be called

And I wonder if, somehow, this sparks the germ of an idea for how to deal with rape cases. More like a civil suit, under the aegis of the criminal law? Better than keep trying to bend or improve the rules as we try to do at present

Friday, November 30, 2007

Identity tattoos

A comedy item on the radio reminded me of a good idea I had when everyone was worrying about the reliability of iris scans

Bar codes provide a tried & tested technology. So bar code tattoos for all. On the inside of the wrist, natch. To make them accessible

Reading & writing

I do hope the government thinks better of the proposed standards for the under 5s

I am particularly concerned with the idea that small children might be forced to try writing, on paper, with a pencil. At the same time as spelling correctly, writing something reasonably coherent, & keeping it neat. Lots of children cant manage this, & the frustration of failing could damage them for life

Especially boys

Thats not the same as not teaching them letters & the connections with words & the sounds they make & the realisation that by stringing them together you can express your thoughts, send messages etc

But try as many ways as possible of letting them achieve this satisfaction

Including, in this day & age, the use of keyboards. My daughter could type quite well (for her age) at 3, loved it, could do things she couldnt manage with a pencil. We didnt push her into it, she just started by playing with Mummys toy & took it from there

The old fashioned slate has its virtues too. These were used at her school because paper & pencils would have been far too expensive for most of her classmates. So I too soon realised that chalk can be easier than pencil for a small hand to manipulate. The slate itself is easy to use anywhere - on your knee, in the garden, not just at a desk. And there is the enormous benefit of being able to rub out your mistakes very easily until you are satisfied with what you have done

And plasticine. Rolled out into sausages then bent into letters. S is good for starters because its so easy to do & offers a very obvious introduction to the phonetic links with snakes & hisssssssssing

Using a variety of methods will encourage all sorts of neurological links & pathways which will not develop with rigid methodologies

Making things add up

Do statistical publications still carry the mysterious rubric: Totals may not add, due to rounding?

I noticed a few years ago that National Statistics had announced they were no longer going to ensure that local population estimates constrained to sum to the national total. If that has caused problems I dare say that rounding errors are the least of anybodys problems now, with all the new arguments about migrant figures

It is surprising how much time & effort can be put in to making totals add up, or in trying to explain to otherwise well-educated people why they might not. I was once involved in a legal case in which I was able to show, quite simply from the companys own figures, that their compliance with the law was not exactly what they claimed it to be. I got a surprisingly nice letter from the Managing Director, but he could not resist pointing out, as a parting shot, that I wasn’t completely accurate either because my percentage column did not add to 100 exactly

I did, very briefly, ponder the wisdom of replying by thanking him for pointing this out, & offering to rectify the mistake if he could tell me which of the individual figures was wrong

Powered access

Apparently the powers that be dont talk about wheelchairs any more. Powered access is the term of choice

But at least people in wheelchairs do have a seat. Most disabled or mobility impaired people do not use a wheelchair but they do need to sit down on the bus

Having said that, I dont know if theres any easy way to sort out such conflicts of interest. Like tactile paving, or putting things at a level accessible to the chairbound but inaccessible to those who cannot bend or crouch

Some such irritations seem to stem from simple thoughtlessness. I am fed up of admiring my midriff in the mirror in a toilet which has been made accessible, while just hoping that my top half remains presentable

Words change their meaning

Once I was talking with a friend, as tall as I am, when the subject of whether we could ever contemplate having a relationship with a much shorter man came up. My answer was no, never. I still die with embarrassment at the thought of being piloted round the dance floor as a teenager by a man whose eyes were just about level with my (barely existing) bosom. Especially if he had dandruff

My friend liked small men. Said they were wieldy. I choked & had to leave the room

My friend thought it was because I thought she had said something disgusting. But I had just been overwhelmed by a sudden, unwonted vision of her, arms aloft, whirling this midget around like a trusty sword – Braveheart springs to mind as I type this now!

So then we had an argument about the meaning of wieldy. Turns out to be one of those quantum words which can have opposite meanings. I thought it meant easy to wield; she thought it meant good at wielding. So we were both right, but at least the dictionary marks the latter as obsolete

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mithering me

Also yesterday, a boy in Canal Street asked me if I had any small coins to spare. Then he apologised for mithering me

Its a long time since I heard anyone use that word. It was one with which most children, in the North at least, used to be all too familiar. Adults, mothers in particular, always wanted you to stop mithering them

Pronounced m'eye-th'd. So thats probably why, in my early reading to myself, I thought there was a word pronounced m'eye-zzld

I was mortifyingly old - 10 at least - when I found out it should be pronounced miss-led

But maybe theres something genetic rather than just regional about this mistake of pronunciation. For years my mother thought there was a Gilbert & Sullivan opera called The Mike Adoo

And there ought to be a word for the misery-inducing practice of m'eye-zzling

Shoplifting again

Well blow me down with a feather!

Yesterday evening I was suspected of shoplifting in Marks & Spencer

Actually, its a relatively common hazard for us country bumpkins who use public transport for our trips to town. When the weather is inclement we are the ones walking around in full length overcoat or macintosh or seriously heavy duty weather proof jacket looking well equipped with poachers pockets . Everybody else wears at most a lightweight fleece or showerproof jacket to cover their dash from the carpark

I noticed the security guard as I wandered round. It was meant to be just a quick dash for 3 specific items so I had no basket but theyve changed everything round again to accommodate Christmas fayre, so I had to meander

He wasnt very subtle about it. As I came through the checkout he was standing there telling someone on his walkie talkie to Stand down on this one, theyve gone through the checkout. But perhaps that was the point of the exercise

The first time I was ever aware of this kind of thing I was wearing a new green mac with which I was rather pleased. It had a lot of pockets, inside the lining as well as out. It seemed to offer a way of following the advice the police gave me after the mugging: Try not to carry everything in your handbag. Even they recognised there had to be a heavy emphasis on Try.

But I was followed around by a store detective. It pleased me that I could recognise her on future visits, & it became a bit of a game I played in other stores as well: spot the nice lady with a basket. Until a friend of mine who worked as a store detective was seriously injured when she went to apprehend a suspect. It wasnt a joke anymore

And the pockets dont provide any real solution to the handbag problem either. Because you dont wear it every day, you cant remember what is in which pocket, so you have to frisk yourself to find anything

Wind power

As a fan of electricity pylons I suppose I ought to be a fan of wind farms, but Im not
Partly its the noise which is like one of those terrible hums which sometimes appear for days or weeks before disappearing again.
Wind power seems a peculiarly daft way to go in the search for alternative forms of energy, because of its unreliability
Maybe I underestimate the difficulties involved, but why is there not more emphasis in reducing the wastage of the electricity we do generate. By improving batteries or other methods of storage & by reducing transmission losses

Ancient feet

Another of my minor obsessions was with the Assyrian stone friezes in the British Museum. The feet held a particular fascination, carved with such loving attention to detail, from life, surely? Such delicious toes
I was especially curious about the calf muscles & ankle bones. Did the way they were carved represent part of their leather sandals, perhaps there for support & protection rather than just fashion, a bit like footballers shin pads? Or was it just detailed anatomical delineation? I asked several people, including museum staff members, but nobody seemed to know
It would be so much easier to tell if the original paint were still intact

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Poor old thing

Does anyone still use menopause as a defence or mitigation for crime?

There was a real outbreak of middle aged ladies shop lifting in the 1960s. All acting out of character. Once one defence lawyer had the bright idea of claiming that his client was not guilty by reason of not being able to control her impulses because of The Change, it was open season for anybody who wanted a bit of fun

Or so I used to believe

What changed my opinion was not menopause but a mugging. For a short while after that I kept feeling a very strong impulse to reach out & take something off the shelf. Not things I wanted or needed, just felt an attraction to. It was a time when all sorts of things - particularly childrens products, came in bright primary coloured packages - & these were what drew me. Oddly though, my impulse was to waste my money by buying, not stealing them. Still, it gave me insight into the power such feelings can have

Hearing voices

I heard Prime Ministers Questions live today

The odd thing was that Gordon Brown was clearly feeling confident, not at all under pressure, judging from his voice. Cameron was just not getting to him

Of course I couldnt see his reaction to the Mr Bean joke

I didnt hear the press conference - yesterday? - just one clip on the news. That scared me. The resignation of the General Secretary was A necessary first step. Good job he really isnt Uncle Joe

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Richard Branson

For some reason I have never taken to Richard Branson, & feel bemused by the admiration which he attracts from the general public. That probably explains my unease about the proposed Northern Rock deal

In the 1970s Virgin was slowly expanding its cheeky youthful music business. They were acquiring more & more property in Notting Hill & West London. Usually a bit run down & ramshackle but recognisable from the trademark primrose yellow paint applied to the woodwork. And the trompe l’œil paintings. I remember one in Portobello Rd with a sash window painted in the centre of a blank wall

In Ladbroke Grove there was a building belonging to a publishing company. It had a high-doored garage to accommodate the vans which transported the books. Virgin took it over. The garage doors were painted primrose, with a superimposed painting of a van supposedly crashing in, sending splintered timber flying

A graffiti artist got to work & sprayed

over it. My feelings exactly

I do however covet one of the smart grey winter overcoats worn by (male) Virgin station staff


There was a remarkably self-serving piece in Times2 the other day about middle class shoplifting. All sorts of reasons or excuses were offered

They charged me a ridiculous price for a t shirt so I nicked a necklace
I spend over £100 a week in this supermarket so I deserve a little extra
I would never steal from the corner shop
I would never give something which I had stolen to someone else as a gift

But as nice middle class professionals who could afford to buy what they had nicked, they are not of course, indulging in criminal behaviour. That is the province of the lower orders. Theirs was just a little indulgence in something that gave them a frisson

Mustnt mock though. I have, at first unwittingly but then knowingly, walked out without paying for something. The first time was an individual pork pie from M&S, worth about 60p. Only when through the checkout on a very busy Saturday did I realise it was still in my trolley, unpaid for. I certainly was not going to go round again to pay for it. No member of staff in sight to deal with it.

Put it down on the end of a counter? They probably aren’t allowed to put it back on the shelf, so it will go to waste anyway. And the other week, they made a mistake in their favour which it was too much trouble to go back & complain about, so they owe me.

I deserve this pork pie which I was so looking forwards to for my tea

I popped it into my bag & left

The thing is though, I got anything but a buzz from the episode, terrified of the tap on the shoulder outside. So I can claim no virtue for not repeating the trick deliberately

Hate crime?

If I manage to annoy someone while going about my normal business & they call me, loudly, Silly old moo or Silly old cow, can I complain to the police that I am the victim of a hate crime, viz stirring up hatred against old women?

If not, why not? Both sexism & ageism are illegal, aren’t they?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Community is a wonderful thing

It is now totally unacceptable to make statements such as Black people are …

But say The Black community … & you can get away with anything

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Election jitters

I was intrigued to find this in one of my commonplace books - they dont usually serve as a direct personal diary

27 April 97

It struck me yesterday (on the bus) that there are almost no posters up in this area - the sort that go in peoples windows or gardens, not the billboards. Today the point was made on the tv news, so its not just round here

Genuine undecidedness? A change in fashion?

Or not wanting to go out on a limb? So your neighbours cant blame 'you' if the result - whatever it be - is perceived to be disastrous in a few months time

Remember when the Conservatives upped VAT soon after 1979?

Perhaps people are just awe struck by what, after 18 years, is the BIG THING - a change of government (potentially), & see themselves as spectators rather than participants. After all, my one vote wont make the difference

Identity is a link

The thing about identity cards - or any other plastic card - is that they do not identify YOU. Here I am, I'm me

They identify a link between you (or the person in possession of the card) & something else - bank account, public library, supermarket loyalty scheme, employer, local bowling club ....

In order to work, or to be of any value to you the user, the provider has to have a system which records your current status, rights, benefit entitlement, whatever

So what, exactly, is this national identity to which our cards will provide evidence of a link?

A name? But which one - if for example I am a married woman who uses one name for family & another for professional purposes?

A home address? Again, which one? A question of particular relevance to MPs & their housing allowances, but also to millions of others who have to live away from their families for work, educational, health or other reasons

Citizenship? Right of residence? Criminal record? Intelligence from various sources?

I am open minded & capable of being persuaded (honest!) but I cannot see how a national identity card would be anything but a massive bureaucratic exercise to establish, once & for all, where we all stand in this system of classification, even if that has no direct relevance for our day to day life at present

And then it will have to be kept accurate & up to date

Just to prove that I am not a terrorist? Havent I got a good disguise!


I still have my National Identity card, issued at birth during the Second World War. I can even tell you the number - or at least I could, if I were foolish. Not so very surprising, because it was my NHS number until they changed them all a few years ago

Since the abolition of those cards, administrators, politicians or statisticians have from time to time advocated the introduction of a universal national identity number. Makes it much easier to make reliable estimates of the number of people actually living here, to avoid cutting off the wrong bit of the wrong patient etc etc

The most popular objection to such a system is I dont want to be just a number. Somehow they are cold, impersonal, not me, I am special, unique

Looked at in one way, that is very odd. We all feel a very special attachment to our names, even though they may be anything but unique (John Smith). What could be more personal than a number which belongs just to you?

But now there is a wizard wheeze. We shall all have a national number, it will just be disguised as something even more intensely personal than a name. Your own unique iris. Or, how about your genes? No? Well lets just settle for a fingerprint

The fact that in order to be of any use it has to be reduced to an even longer string of even more boring & impersonal numbers consisting of 0 or 1 is neither here nor there. After all, nobody can remember them

Friday, November 23, 2007

Some database trade-offs

Accessibility v security
  • a totally inaccessible database is totally secure
  • a database totally accessible to one & all is totally insecure

Reliability v accessibility

  • Who decides what is accurate? [What is your name, Cherie Blair? Nicky Campbell? Cary Grant? Peachesandcream Zola Minerva Monteverdi Cholmondely-Smyth?]
  • Who is responsible for checking the accuracy of the database
  • Who has access to correct mistakes

Timeliness v accuracy

  • How to ensure that whoever accesses the database, whenever & wherever they access it, will see the most up-to-date information
  • What happens if information is corrected/updated while I am looking at a screen
  • can we flash important information - STOP THIEF

May 1997

Election day 1997 must be memorable for many people - obviously

I had a 10 oclock class to go to so I left home at about 8. Beautiful sunny morning. A day for optimism. I walked down the lane so that I could pass the polling station on the way to the train station

Still undecided how to vote

The political atmosphere had become so toxic that the thought of waking up on Friday morning to find that the Conservatives had scraped back in again was unbearable

But I have never been a member of a political party. And 20 years of living in a rock solid safe constituency had got me perfectly used to taking other factors into account - principally the qualities of the candidates & how my vote might contribute to the overall psephological analysis. And all those lectures on the British Constitution had made it perfectly clear that only the electors in Sedgefield get to vote for or against Tony Blair

The Labour party had run an impressive local campaign & the candidate seemed like a decent enough inoffensive kind of chap. But I liked & respected the sitting Tory MP - who was anything but swivel-eyed

The trouble was that I really dreaded the thought of a Labour government. Almost irrespective of their policies. There seemed to be not one person in the potential cabinet who had the slightest idea of how to organise the proverbial, or of what it takes for someone who does know. Time after time, not just during the election campaign, Labour MPs & front bench spokesmen had shown an alarming ignorance, in practical terms, of their policy areas

But maybe that was just arrogance on my part. Unwilling to see the baton starting to be handed over to a younger generation

There had to be a change, for everybodys sake - including the Conservatives

I voted Labour

Not for the first or last time in my life. But I havent voted in either of the last 2 general elections. Neither of the other 2 parties ran anything like a serious local campaign - showed in fact a real contempt for the voters, I thought. So I just returned the compliment

Things are different now. We have 2 prospective candidates appointed who are being quite active, so we shall see

Princess Elizabeth

Sometime after their wedding Princess Elizabeth & Prince Philip undertook a nationwide tour.

We walked all the way down to the other end of the dale where she was due to make a brief stop in her progress along the A6.

I was wildy excited at the idea of seeing a real live princess

I couldnt believe that she was in a car. And had only ordinary men in suits with her. Princesses travel in coaches!

But she did wear a very pretty shade of pink

Picture credit: North East Midland Photographic Record

It looks to me as if this photo was taken at St Ann’s Well in Buxton; in which case I am standing about 40 yards to the left.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Labour blames the servants again

The Times yesterday had a double page inside spread purporting to give background details about the breach of security (see earlier post). Credited to 4 journalists - Sean O'Neill, Francis Elliott, Rajeev Syal & Rhys Blakely

The first 11/2 columns were clearly based on sources within NAO, not Revenue & Customs. Then came details of phone calls between the Chancellor & the Prime Minister, which presumably came from political sources

When did all this briefing take place? Before the Chancellor made his statement to Parliament?

And how come the NAO gets off so lightly? They had already, on an entirely separate occasion, received a copy of the full database. Why did they not say We cant do this, we must find another way?

Why would the Revenues IT consultants charge so much for stripping out the sensitive details? If this is a genuine technical difficulty, why did NAO not go to the North East to draw their sample in secure conditions?

Even worse, the Times opening paragraph feels free to speculate that the lowly official who made the copy was distracted by the major sporting events taking place that week. I assume they know the official is a he. That seems to have the fingerprints of Labour spin doctors all over it. One might hope they & the press had learned a lesson about not hanging civil servants out to dry like that

Well we can all be distracted or absent minded sometimes. Some people can even be malign. So why are there not procedures which protect such an important database from accidental or malicious copying?

And what, pray, has happened to the 2 copies of the complete database which were in the possession of NAO?

Some of my questions answered by Computer Weekly

See also: Identity is a link

European drinking habits

Thinking about the pitfalls of EU-wide surveys yesterday reminded me of one with which I was involved in the 1970s

For good medical reasons we needed to include a question about alcohol consumption. The question needed to be kept simple (for translation reasons) & we decided on a simple high/medium/low type format

Then we had to define our terms

The Italian representative was of the opinion that low should mean less than 2 litres of wine per day

Hows that for a Mediterranean diet?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Fertility & privacy

Some days I feel as if I have just lost the will to live. Like this morning

Is there any radio station in the world now which does not carry news, on the hour? It is just so hard to avoid

So today we had the child benefit database disaster & a Brussels bendy banana story. As nauseam (I have decided to let that typo stand)

The first just leaves me gaping in disbelief - tho by the time I read the papers I am relieved to see that no-one is buying the 'mistake by a lowly official' version

How would you like to hear yourself described this way by the BBC correspondent?

That somebody, anybody, no matter how high or low, could even consider popping a complete copy of a sensitive database into the post, let alone be able to do it within the system, beggars belief

I switched over to Radio 5 to get away from an over-excited UKIP man explaining that consensual union is the upmarket term for sex, only to find Shelagh Fogarty making the same claim, that the EU plans to ask all us wimmen when we had our first sexual experience!

In my day ....

Curiously though, events surrounding the 1971 Census in England do provide an illustration of how things have changed

Confidentiality of individual census data for 100 years has always been enshrined in law, to the extent that any disclosure, however inadvertent, exposes the culprit to potential imprisonment

1971 was the first decennial census to be processed entirely by computer - though individual names & addresses were never added to the database. Nevertheless there was a sudden late flurry of concern about privacy raised first by the Liberal Party then fomented by Bernard Levin

Late changes had to be made to procedures. Among them something called Barnardisation, adding a random +1, 0 or -1 to figures in statistical tables to obviate the possibility that by comparing one table with another someone could deduce that that nice middle aged couple with 2 cars were not actually married to each other. Or something with an equally low probability of actually happening

The other census topic which came to grief was fertility - then (& now) a term used in demography as a statistical measure rather than a medical condition

To fill gaps not covered by the birth registration process, statisticians used the census to ask women about the total number of children born live to them, complete with relevant dates

The question was asked only of women still in their first marriage. To enquire further would have seemed, in earlier eras, not just insensitive or intrusive but downright indecent

Not in 1971 however. Significant numbers of women were outraged by the lack of sensitivity displayed by statisticians interested only in numbers & not real people

Why dont you want to know about my baby, even if he is illegitimate? What about our much-loved adopted/fostered children? Why cant I record my stillborn baby?

And so we have gone from a time when government had to maintain an official fiction that activities leading to the birth of a child took place only within marriage, the union of one man & one woman, to a time when union can mean a one-night stand, or just a Friday night knee trembler behind the chip shop

Architectural thees & thous

A few years ago I suddenly started noticing cupolas. So I was seeing them everywhere, became a bit obsessed, took a lot of photographs

I thought they were a feature of the Manchester area - a product of the 19th century building boom & the relative lack of late 20th century redevelopment consequent on the decline of cotton

Then I realised there were plenty in London & other cities so my desire to document them faded

I thought about them again a couple years later when listening to a Nicky Campbell programme on R5. I used to enjoy that morning show. Particularly the final hour when he used to orchestrate a discussion between a disparate group of studio guests. That suited his talents, I thought

It could be disconcerting for some guests though, particularly those who had something to plug & were expecting the usual one-on-one interview

One guest seemed particularly put out. He was an American novelist whose name, I regret to say, I have completely forgotten. He explained that he had become a writer only after having been introduced to the works of Henry Miller et al. Before that he had thought that literature meant Shakespeare & thee's & thou's

Right at the end of the hour the conversation moved to the joys of walking round the City on a Sunday when, in uncrowded streets, you could look up & see a startlingly different architecture from the normal homogenised modern shop fascias at street level

Yes, said Nicky, you can see a lot of architectural thee's & thou's if you look up

As the microphones faded you could just hear the American: Oh! You were listening after all


King St, Manchester

London Rd, Manchester

Chestergate, Stockport

St Peters Church, Stockport

Wild swans

This is just such a beautiful picture, taken by Richard Austin & published in todays Times, that I wanted to keep a copy where I could find it

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Half the number plus a half

Aged 6, I had a mystery illness. All I can remember is that I had German measles, off school for a week. Went back to school on a Tuesday, sent home at dinner time & put to bed

The next thing - which must have been a good couple of weeks later - is being taken to have a blood test at the hospital. Although I was a bit better by then we took the absolutely unheard of & unprecedented step of going by taxi. It had a very small, high rear window of smoked glass, which fascinated me

I was well enough to leave the hospital on foot. As a reward for my bravery we went to WHSmith & I got a new Noddy book - number 4. I remember feeling cheated that I did not get numbers 2&3 to complete my set

I was off school for 6 weeks altogether. The nearest we ever got to a diagnosis was glandular fever without the fever. When, some months later, my glands came up again, the doctor who came was not my beloved Dr Hayward - with his tweeds, mustache & smell of tobacco - but a thin young man with dark hair & hornrims. As soon as he tried to feel the back of my neck I, uncharacteristically, ran screaming to hide behind the settee & refused to budge

Some of the 6 weeks I spent at my Nanas. To keep me amused she taught me to play patience - the simple 7 card kind that used to come free with Windows (which version always annoyed me because it played to the wrong rules) As a 6 year old I used to have trouble keeping track as I laid out the cards. It was tedious to start over, but too complicated to try & work out where I had gone wrong if I ended up with the wrong number of cards in one of the rows or columns

Somehow I very gradually worked out (it must have taken over a year) a way of checking as I went along. All I had to do was keep count of the total number of cards & do a simple check at the end of every line

I had discovered the formula for the sum of the first n integers

To this day I remember it most easily in the form I devised

Half the number
Plus a half
Times the number
I have been reading an awful lot of Victorian memoirs, lives & letters, & biographies in recent years. Someone, I cant remember who, told how his elder brother had told him Theres a formula for that when he struggled with a similar problem. The boy was enchanted & went on to a career as a mathematician
Might the same have happened to me if I had been that lucky? Probably not, to be honest. Though I usually understand, dimly, what mathematicians are on about, I have no real wish to join them
Anyway, I was a girl. And, as a boy called Keith Boden once said to me, quite viciously Girls arent supposed to be good at maths. I was 12 & just thought that proved how silly boys could sometimes be