Thursday, June 28, 2007


Charles Jencks claimed that Modern Architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15 1972 at 3.32pm.

The event was the demolition of slab blocks in the Pruitt-Igoe housing scheme in Missouri. The death of so young a patient - the scheme was designed and won prizes only 21 years earlier - was shocking. (Though not as much as the death, 30 years later, of the same architects World Trade Centre). But can it be counted as marking the death of a whole movement?

This patient belonged to a particular category of Modern Architecture which grew out of theories about how to provide modern low cost public housing. When applied in the particular circumstances of reinforcing the black ghetto in mid-century Missouri all the by now well known shortcomings of the theories were exposed: lack of defensible space, maintenance and structural problems, lack of ready and safe access, broken lifts, vandalism, a sense of isolation for law abiding tenants and a gradual sinking into an irretrievable situation. The death of the Pruitt-Igoe scheme provided proof that a subset of modern ideas could not deliver what they promised; in the words of Philip Johnson

We were thoroughly of the opinion that if you had good architecture the lives of the people would be improved, that architecture would improve people, and people improve architecture, until perfectibility would descend on us like the Holy Ghost, and we would be happy for ever after. This did not prove to be the case

Shortcomings were recognised long before 1972 however; as early as 1929 the German architectural journal Deutsche Bauhutte published photographs of a Bauhaus-designed housing project in Dessau showing cracks, peeling paint and rusted fittings, and the Ronan Point disaster of 1968 in England sounded the death-knell for high-rise point blocks as a solution to public sector housing problems. More generally architects had already written about their dissatisfaction with Modernist ideas. Robert Venturi's 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture had called for architects to stop being intimidated by the puritanical language of orthodox Modern architecture. So July 1972 cannot be accepted as a reliable date for the death of Modernism, if it has died at all.

Jencks of course was not just announcing the death of Modernism but announcing the arrival of a new style using the name Postmodernism. Whether he was the first to use this term in the context of architecture is debatable, but there is no doubt that the term is now widely used, and some buildings which are thus described are distinctly different from others which would be labelled unarguably Modern. The differences are not just observable in the grand architectural projects but in the more mundane features of everyday townscapes. The Modern MacDonalds is built in the style that Rayner Banham called the teenage uniform of white walls and flat roofs and oversize windows, the Postmodern in the neo-vernacular, which picks up on the cupolas of the nearby Georgian church & the Edwardian Carnegie Library. One can easily pick pairs of buildings to show a complete break from Modernism, this would be a biased selection which ignores important trends and links.

Classical Modernism came to the fore in the aftermath of the First World War. The main principles of its early protagonists - the need for purity of form and function, and the need for transparency and honesty in materials - now seem to be almost wholly explicable as a reaction to the carnage and chaos of the war. The early theorists also made much of the need to get away from the over-ornate and heavily decorated styles, both interior and external, of the nineteenth century, which were, ironically in view of current attitudes to Modernism, seen as oppressive and belonging to the rich. Thus Modernism in its early manifestations was also associated with the political ideas, if not necessarily of Communism then with ideals of equality and dignity for the working classes. In the Bauhaus this early Modernism also reflected William Morris-type ideas of respect for craft workers and rather muddled ideas of integrating craft and industrial processes. Other strands of Modernism, especially the Italian Futurists, laid greater stress on the Machine Age, on the speed of the modern era and the need for architecture and building to reflect the new industrial techniques and materials.

The Modernist architectural program depended, aesthetically, on a return to simplicity: Architecture, wrote Le Corbusier, is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light. This desire to distil the subject to its essentials could be found in other fields at that time, for instance in the formalist project of mathematical philosophers such as Russell to distil arithmetic to its basic premisses. The Cubist experiments might also be seen as distilling art to a few basic forms, though underlying these experiments was the realisation that seeing and perception are complex, many-layered activities.

Thus the Modern movement in architecture could be seen to be related to, to be a part of, wider intellectual movements of the time, to be partaking of the zeitgeist. The problem with this kind of analysis is that it tends to select only those strands of the wider culture which fit the thesis. The painters of the time, apart from the Cubist experiment, were notable for their use of colour in often shockingly new juxtapositions, while the architects emphasised the use of a very restricted palette, white, grey or beige. Perhaps the Modernists were more influenced by the newer arts of photography and film, then purely in black and white.

The Postmodern is similarly seen to be part of the zeitgeist, particularly by Jencks who emphasises the links with the new movements in linguistics and semiotics, and by Venturi who looked to the influence of Pop art. One might also point to the new mathematical theories of chaos, the coming to the fore of biology, especially of molecular genetics, which emphasises diversity and variation as well as continuity, and to the growth of computers, which encourage variety by speeding up the communication of ideas, and allowing the analysis of data in all its variability rather than having to rely on abstractions such as the average man (a very nineteenth century idea which could be said to have influenced Modernist ideas about housing in particular). Colour has been allowed in to Postmodern architecture, reflecting the explosion of colour in film, television and the pigments available for textiles, paint and plastics. All these ideas are now seen as organic rather than abstract, which is another irony since the early Modern architects saw their art as organic rather than overly formal.

Theories however cannot in themselves predict the particular form of building which will take place, or rather the style which will be adopted. Pugin for example had ideas for the redesign of the city which are remarkably similar to Modernist ideas of planning, but his architecture could hardly be more different. Function, form, materials and construction, site and context provide more useful headings for analysing the differences between Modernism and Postmodernism.

Function, (or functionalism) seems to have acquired contradictory meanings. Sullivan said that Form follows function but Klotz expresses a common reaction when he talks about the obtrusive, meaningless uniformity that marks the functionalist boxes and cubes defacing mile upon mile of our environment, that is form regardless of function. The contradiction arises from the confusion between the function of parts (the materials and construction method) and the function of the building as a whole, or rather of its use. Of course the two cannot be wholly separated, but it is function of the whole which is being considered here.

During the 19th century many new functions emerged for which new types of building were needed - factories, railway stations, docks for example. Social changes - the expansion of the middle classes, the need for sanitary housing for workers, universal schooling, hospitals, the rise of huge and increasingly multinational corporations - meant traditional modes of provision needed to be rethought. Behrens, who taught Mies van der Rohe, Corbusier and Gropius, was the architect for AEG, responsible for imaginative early Modern functional solutions to the problems of factory design.

It was not until after World War II that Modernism, however briefly, became widely associated with uniformity. This was partly because of the great amount of reconstruction needed, combined with a belief in the power of planning, allied to the kind of linear mathematics that had worked so well in meeting both civilian and military needs during the war: City planning had become that strange mixture of ineffectual sociological analyses and implacable zoning in the words of Portoghesi. Modernist ideas had also by then become associated with a reaction against Nazism and it seemed as if everyone jumped on the bandwagon of a belief in the rightness of functionalist design. This led to a uniformity of glass and concrete towers (such as the north side of London's Victoria Street) and a confusion as to the function of buildings - Mies Lakeshore apartments with their glass curtain walls look like office blocks.

The desire to reintroduce some 'coding' of function in design is one of the developments that Jencks identifies as Postmodern. However in talking about 'dual coding'- speaking on one level to an elite who care about specifically architectural meanings and on the other to the public at large in their familiar language, he repeats the kind of arrogance of Modernism in presuming that architects are uniquely qualified to interpret the functional needs of others.

Classical Modernism uses a group of forms, mostly cubic and rectangular, but including cylinders and half cylinders, echoing C├ęzanne's remark that one must detect in Nature the cylinder, sphere and cone. In the case of Mies Barcelona Pavilion these were reduced virtually to planes. However early Modern buildings also referred to other forms, such as Behrens turbine factory in the shape of a rivet, and were not immune to playful conceits such as Loos' design for the Chicago Tribune - ideas now reminiscent of the irony associated with Postmodernism. Other buildings, especially in the 1930's had forms reminiscent of, and clearly influenced by, ocean liners. The forms of Wright's prairie houses, very horizontal and rectangular, have clear associations with vernacular form that is another feature of Postmodern design. Terry Farrel's design for the building now used by MI6, though clearly Postmodern, uses only Modernist rectangles and cylinders without the purity and proportionality of Modernism. Le Corbusier himself made use of the plasticity of concrete in the curved nun-like forms of the roof of the chapel at Ronchamp and even more dramatically at Chandighar. In form therefore there is no marked disjunction between Modernism and Postmodernism, not even in its most jokey manifestations such as hot dog stands in the shape of frankfurters.

In the 19th Century engineers had been responsible for masterpieces of iron construction such as the Crystal Palace, the Eiffel Tower and Paddington Station. These achievements were taken on board by the Modernists, but metal framing for buildings such as tall office blocks ran foul of fire regulations. Truth to materials was a tenet of Modernism honoured as much in the breach - Mies Seagram building uses steel I-beams as external decoration on top of the structural beams encased in concrete to meet the fire regulations. And although, to quote Banham In Paris in the early twenties it was possible to talk as if modern architecture had been caused by reinforced concrete many classics, such as the Villa Savoie, were merely rendered and painted over to look like concrete. Hitchcock however, writing in 1929, foresaw the frank Postmodern use of brick in Modern forms, once their traditional interpretation had been forgotten.

The use of metal and concrete frames allowed Modernists the freedom of non-load-bearing walls; modern types of glass allowed the invention of the picture window and the glass curtain wall and the freedom to construct windows which were integral to the wall, not an interruption to it. That these materials offered the potential for the mass-production of building parts in factories fuelled the dreams of cheap, functional machines for living in which proved so illusory. For a time the Modernists despised the use of expensive bronze and marble, though Mies van der Rohe was never averse to the use of such luxury materials in his projects.

Postmodernism has not been inspired by comparable revolutions in construction methods and materials, except possibly the coloured pipe. Postmodern architects continue to make use of the freedom of frame construction, without feeling the need to express the form, except in playful ways. Flexibility rather than mass production, in modern factory methods means that decorative features can be produced to order to give an individuality to Postmodern buildings which almost recreates what could be achieved by the hand-craftworkers beloved of Morris and the Bauhaus. Pigments for concrete are another method of trying to give a human face to new buildings.

Modern architecture could not have developed features such as large windows without the development of methods of making the internal temperature of buildings less dependent on the external climate. The need for ducting for air conditioning, heating and cabling, together with the lift mechanisms in tall buildings led to the development of another version of Modernist truth to form and function which led ultimately to the placing of these services as a form of skeleton on the outside of the building. High-tech buildings such as the Pompidou Centre are clearly in the Modernist tradition of truth to form, but are Postmodern in the wit and irony of the style.

Corbusier introduced the piloti as a method of integrating the building into the landscape, though when combined with tall buildings in towns this merely had an alienating effect. Modernism in cities is now generally associated with a disregard for the site and surrounding buildings - even whole town centres - and with dominance and oppression. Postmodernism is associated with a desire to respect the existing forms and language of buildings but does not always achieve this.

It is particularly ironic when Postmodern clashes with Modern and a building such as MI6 seems threatening, perhaps because we know its function rather than because of anything to do with its style. The Hindu temple at Neasden would be a perfect postmodern building were it not entirely authentic in purpose, design and mode of construction, everything except context.

So is there really a change from Modernism to Postmodernism? Hitchcock, writing in 1929, seems to have foreseen at least some of the features of Postmodernism, calling them natural developments of what he called the New Pioneers: he foresaw the rapid changes in the needs of large corporations, the change in the treatment of surfaces and the development of new kinds of ornamentation, particularly the use of colour - all except the emergence of neo-classicism. Modernism itself was never the concrete monolith it is now thought of being, and Postmodernism also consists of a plurality of styles: high-tech, neo-vernacular, the classicism of Quinlan Terry and deconstructionism. The buildings of Wright (even the Guggenheim), Lutyens and Mackintosh now seem more Postmodern than Modern. Even Jencks had to invent the term Late Modern to interpose between the two. In effect we cannot know now; the distinctions, if any, will depend upon what comes next, will be clear to those who can look back to Postmodern as well as back to Modern.


Allsopp,B 1960 A General History of Architecture London,Pitman Publishing

Balcombe,G 1985 History of Building London,Batsford

Banham,R 1975 Age of the Masters London,Architectural Press

Dearstyne,H 1986 Inside the Bauhaus London, Architectural Press

Fry,M 1969 Art in a Machine Age London, Methuen & Co

Hitchcock,H-R 1929 Modern Architecture New York, Payson & Clarke

Hochman,E 1990 Architects of Fortune New York, Fromm International Publishing

Hughes,R 1991 The Shock of the New London, Thames & Hudson

Jencks,C 1984 The Language of Post-Modern Architecture London, Academy Editions

Kidson,P et al 1979 A History of English Architecture London, Penguin

Klotz,H 1988 The History of Postmodern Architecture Cambridge Mass, MIT Press

Kolb,D 1990 Postmodern Sophistications University of Chicago Press

Portoghesi,P 1983 Postmodern New York, Rizzoli

Robinson,C &Herschman,J 1987 Architecture Transformed London,MIT Press

Venturi,R 1977 Complexity & Contradiction in Architecture London, Architectural Press

Zevi 1957 Architecture as Space New York, Horizon Press

"Towards another architecture" series in Architectural Review, July 1976 to May 1977

A Cabinet of all the talents

When Lord Derby found himself - perhaps unexpectedly - forming a Conservative government in 1866, the talent available for a Cabinet was not all that he might have hoped for

Who could be Foreign Secretary? Fill the shoes of the formidable Earl of Clarendon, who had filled the post for the defeated Liberals?

Why not the noble Earl himself?

I forget exactly what the Earl said when declining the offer, but decline it he did

Lord Derby appointed his own son instead

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Evolution in all things

Now thought of in relation to life/living things

Inanimate things evolve too - even the watch made by the blind watchmaker.

Examples of things whose evolution has been noticeable in my life time:

Packaging, esp batteries (no bubble packs now) & cans


Ready meals, esp spag carbonara recipes

Prices - esp supermarkets; a whole new economics here?

Evolution in one area leads to redundancy in another eg cans with ring pulls means no use for can openers

Competition not just in prices but in other aspects of the shopping experience. How to predict which will come to the fore?

Evolution leads sometimes to convergence, sometimes to divergence eg cars are now much more similar to each other than the different models were in 1900; Formula 1 distinguished only by the adverts & colour, not by shape, never mind the mechanics

Partly because 'we' copy good ideas; partly because we think of modifications to 'solve' problems with existing designs. Partly because its easier to conform eg in the standardised dimensions of household appliances to fit into, yet allow diversity in, fitted kitchens

The biological theory of evolution through natural selection, as espoused, tends to confuse change through space & time. Can Einsteins relativity help here?

Was Darwin conscious of the attempt to fuse these two? His early science - geological - involved transects across space to deduce processes through time

He journeyed round the world, marvelling at the differences he saw; his theory coalesced in the Galapagos, isolated in space AND THEREFORE IN TIME? or

Darwin voyaged through space but concluded that the variations he saw were due to voyages through time - the Galapagos were isolated in space changes took place only in time) ?

Global warming may cause Scottish alpine plants to migrate to higher altitudes rather than adapt their phenotype etc etc. 'It is easy to move, hard to change' (John RG Turner Spectator 29 June 2002 p37)

What does this say about human migration/adaptation? Think about sickle cell/malaria; advantage accrues only to those who stay in malarial areas. And so we come to skin colour?

Not just space v time but also many v one intelligence; focus may be on Bill Gates, Microsoft & Windows but 'he' obviously is just the focus for many many people working on computers & bits of programming, not just at Microsoft, working out what all their various needs have in common & recognising these commonalities, bringing them all together in one system - WINDOWS - which different people with very different aims & objectives can use in myriad ways

This raises the question of whether some centralising force is necessary, or if all these people, beavering away on their own concerns, somehow coalesce in a process not unlike morphic resonance or maybe Adam Smiths hidden hand

'It is almost as bad as the Kentucky State School Board, which a few years ago replaced the word 'evolution' in its biology curriculum with 'change over time'' Antony Beevor Spectator Diary 29 June 2002 p8, complaining about political correctness, but what is wrong with this particular usage?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Compressing the Human Memory File

the amount of culture to be transmitted orally was beyond the capacity of a small group to achieve even in a long lifetime … Priests by progressive degrees of abstraction & symbolisation … were able to turn the written record into a device for preserving & transmitting ideas & feelings & emotions that had never taken any visible or material form … the development of symbolic methods of storage immensely increased the capacity of the city as container … this condensation & storage, for the purpose enlarging the boundaries of the community in time & space is one of the singular functions performed by the city … "The city" as Emerson observed, "lives by remembering" - Lewis Mumford: The City in History

Anthony Blunt was the worlds expert on Poussin. He carried the details of Poussin pictures in his head because the then available methods of reproduction were primitive - in particular there were few ways of making coloured copies. According to Brian Sewell, Blunt was devastated when, having managed to curate the worlds first exhibition of Poussin (at the Royal Academy?) he realised, on seeing two particular works together in the same room for the first time, that one of them could not be by Poussin - his memory checker was at fault

Training the memory was an important part of education in ancient times. Written sources were scarce or non-existent or hard to come by - memory was the only way of being able to check eg Bible quotations. Even in my own lifetime learning by heart - especially of poetry - was an important skill. Dorothy L Sayers - via Lord Peter Wimsey - made great play of this kind of quotation, & she was not the only one. When did The Times crossword stop regarding quotation as a legitimate form of clueing?

One of my university lecturers comforted me in my inability to remember a statistical formula by pointing out that I need only remember which page of the textbook it was on

My memory has in fact always worked like this, more than as a complete Book of Verse or whatever; I remember that there is a poem about Daffodils & it is on a right hand page somewhere in the middle of the book, which I then need to consult to remind myself of the details of the poem. Or I may remember that Wordsworth wrote a poem about daffodils & use appropriate reference works to track this down

With the arrival of the internet we now are all potential citizens of the virtual city & there are even more ways of checking memory at the click of a button

The computer analogy is useful. We may think that our memories have deteriorated because of our general inability to learn to remember chunks of text. But looked at the other way our capacity for memory has increased exponentially by using a form of compression - we need only remember the keyword to locate & therefore remember - or rather remind ourselves - of the poem

Implications for education? Eg doctors, reputed to learn more new words than an undergraduate learning Russian. Particularly difficult to learn this vocabulary in these days when they have not learned Latin & Greek at school & are therefore unable to make the etymological connections. But why do they need such a large & specialised verbal vocabulary? Now any doctor can have an easily available 'picture book' in which to look up the detailed anatomy of eg the groin to check the specific bit of muscle which may be causing the problem without ever giving it a name. Without such pictures precise recollection of the technical name for that muscle may be, literally, vital

What effect has been made on our brains/memories by the vast number of pictures we all now see - in colour - on a daily basis? (TV, film, magazines) Have they simply replaced our own 'film' of the world around us which we might otherwise be seeing, noting & remembering? Is there any difference arising from the fact that the pictures we see are in 2-dimensions, while the real world is in 3 dimensions? Is this just another form of compression? Do we store our 'real world' pictures in our own version of compression to 2 dimensions? Do we store copies of 2-dimensional photographs together with a code for converting them back to 3 dimensions? Or do we only ever 'see' 2 dimensions with our eyes? Which are somehow converted to 3 by our brain?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

God, science & chickens

God doesnt really come into this, but when science is being promoted as the answer to everything, I have another question

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Because his muscles twitched & propelled his legs forwards?

The thing is, times arrow travels in only one direction for science. And so Why tends to mean How & the answer is Because of what went before

So the chickens muscles twitched because ..... because ..., because ...

And ultimately, because a chicken laid an egg

Friday, June 22, 2007

Lighting Up The Brain

We firmly believe that the brain is the organ of thought. We know that because thats what it feels like

We used to know - or at least to think - that the heart is the seat of the emotions - because thats what it feels like: we have all had one of those Moon River moments when our lover comes near. It took science to show us that the heart is nothing more than a muscle & a pump which reacts to feelings only in a mechanical way

Science however supports our opinion about the brain, doesnt it? Through the miracles of modern technology, different bits can be shown to light up depending on what kinds of thoughts or thinking are going on

Wittgenstein once asked a friend why people used to think that the sun goes round the earth. Quick as a flash the friend replied Because thats what it looks like. Long pause, then So what would it have looked like if it looked like the earth goes round the sun ?

Is there another explanation for the way that the brain seems to light up on these scans?

Well, for analogy we can look to the old fashioned technology of the PABX telephone exchange. Bulbs lit up to signal incoming calls, but the bulb was not the call. It was simply a signal, a response to the person making the call which in turn summoned action by the telephonist to connect the line to the recipient. The whole system was there simply to facilitate communication between human beings, it was not responsible for, did not initiate, that communication.

Of course our newer technology does that too but at increasingly many removes. Not too many of us are now fooled into thinking that a voice talking to us necessarily implies the existence, at this very moment, of a real live human at the other end of the line, but we know that at some stage human agency created all those annoying messages

Anyone who has seen a new born baby knows that we come in to this world with certain qualities & characteristics, we are not blank sheets of paper on which our characters & personalities are to be written by upbringing & environment. Conversely, anyone who has seen a newly dead body knows that we are not simply the stuff of which we are made

We think that thought is central to existence - cogito ergo sum. But conversely, precisely because I dont think, all sorts of things go on, just as I expect. Not just those things such as breathing & digestion, but habits & routines such as driving, walking, playing the right notes on the piano. It was the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who pointed out that our parents & teachers have it precisely the wrong way round when they exhort us to think about what we are doing at all times, to concentrate. Human life depends on our maximising the number of things that we can do without thinking, so that we can concentrate our thought on learning new things. When something disrupts or interrupts our routine, when we have to think, then we get confused. Exactly where am I? How did the car get here? Why am I lying on my back? Why isnt the coffee jar in its usual place? Why hasnt the kettle boiled even though I switched it on?

We can explain the workings of the telephone exchange in great detail - or of the internet, or of the African drums. We have not in any significant sense explained what is happening to the humans connected to the system. We can have detailed telephone directories to list, or to analyse, the people who are connected to the system (eg Yellow Pages classifies people by whether they are a plumber, a doctor, a library). But this does nothing to explain why Mrs Smith calls Mrs Jones to relay the latest gossip

Have I just ended up in a Kantian position?

But the point I am labouring towards is that, if the brain is not the organ of thought, what is?

The implication must be that somehow its the whole of the body, the whole of our senses (does Roger Penrose, with his Emperors New Mind , bear on this point? Is that what his quantum theory is all about?). So what are the implications eg for brain death? What is life, indeed

And if, in some sense, its the whole of us, all our parts linked together by the telephone exchange of the brain, might our existence (consciousness?) also not depend on our links to others & to our environment? Truly no man is an island but, in Donnes original sense, just a piece of the continent

And when we die our molecules disperse & reassemble (Ilkley Moor ); do they take anything such as knowledge, experience, with them? This seems like one of those daft questions, close to ouija etc. But ouija is a leap from the thought to a certainty of conclusion. How would a scientist approach this kind of question. Might a true 'theory of everything' lead one towards these questions?

Of course, in one sense, this is just an old Greek idea, that common sense is just what the other 5 senses have in common. These days many seem to think that common sense means everything you knew by the age of 16, or those things for which the university of life provides the best education

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Wash & squash

Local radio this morning was enjoining us to wash & squash plastic bottles before depositing them in the new recycling facility

Have the waste recycling teams consulted the water industry about this? Arent we supposed to be saving as much water as possible? Not leaving the tap running while soaping our hands, brushing our teeth, or running it off if it has been standing in lead pipes overnight? Giving up power showers & putting the modern equivalent of a brick in the cistern?

Since I wash up the old fashioned way, I dont know if its feasible to put plastic bottles in the dishwasher. Along with all the glass & tins which we are also instructed to wash.

Why are we supposed to do this? To reduce the smell? Ironic, just when they have introduced fortnightly collection of our smelly, non-recyclable waste. Or to reduce contamination in the recycling process? Then Im sure centralised washing by the industry would make a more efficient use of water

Have Defra consulted the water industry? Oh yes, I forgot. They must have done because we have joined up government now

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Clinical trials, asparagus & the placebo effect

For a hedgehog (who is really a fox) there is a particular joy in academic journals. It is so easy to be diverted by something which has nothing to do with the subject you are supposed to be researching - at least if you are doing it the old fashioned bound volume way, in a library

And so I once read, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (I think), of the scientific investigations carried out in London on the original Siamese Twins. As a way of testing whether they had independent digestive systems, investigators fed asparagus to one twin. Then smelt the urine of each. As far as I recall, only one urine sample displayed the characteristic odour which is imparted by the vegetable

On another occasion I read one of those end of term articles which the BMJ used to carry in July & August. A group of SHOs had investigated the prevalence of the asparagus phenomenon, whose very existence was in dispute. They found that some people were indeed affected in this way. But estimates of prevalence were confounded by the fact that the population can also be divided into those who can & those who cant detect the smell with their own olfactory organs

All this by way of another sideways approach to my subject

New research has just been reported - the placebo effect does exist! It has a real biological basis or precursor! Our old friends, endorphins, released when you think something will do you good. From what I read in the press, the question of how that belief is engendered was not addressed in this study

I have long thought that, if there is a placebo effect, there should also be a nocebo effect. If you believe it will do you harm, it will. Or even if you just dont expect it will do you any good, it wont. Presumably with biological bases too

And so, can the population also be divided according to which - placebo or nocebo - they are susceptible to? Optimists or pessimists? Those who believe it only does you good if it tastes nasty, il faut souffrire pour etre belle. And those who believe a spoonful of sugar is required. That comfortable feet do more for your inner beauty than painful killer heels?

The effect on the gold standard for clinical trials could be profound. As I understand it, part of the reason for taking the placebo-controlled, randomised, double blind trial as the gold standard was the observation of a hierarchy of size of effect. Observational trials reported the biggest effect, & so on down to the double blind. So this must be the undisputed effect of the drug, right?

Well, perhaps, But then along comes fully informed consent. Suddenly the patient knows he might be getting only a dummy. This can surely, only increase the size of or even induce the nocebo effect. An otherwise effective drug fails to work its magic

Monday, June 18, 2007


Bompa was my baby name for my mothers father. Sometimes still used in later life though usually I called him G'pa

He worked as a cotton dyer & printer. When I was old enough to know about it he was the foreman. On my mothers marriage certificate he is down as a cotton labourer

It used to upset me that, whenever I had a new dress, he would say Come here, change his glasses & examine the skirt. This always included making a small crease on the bias, to examine the quality & do a quick thread count. Usually he would say Yes, a nice piece of cloth that. Sometimes it was hust Hmm

I wanted him to tell me it was pretty

When he was 15 Bompa went off to fight the Kaiser. He never talked to me about his experiences, but he did like to refer - nostalgically & with a chuckle - to Wipers & Galley-Pole-Eye. The latter with a long, falling Derbyshire O in the middle
Ypres & Gallipoli, in other words. I checked with the regiments web site & found that they were at both, so its possible he was there

Parents & children

Until the arrival of the free bus pass I had not truly appreciated the astonishing numbers of people whose children are also entitled to one. And I dont mean student passes

Pensioner children of even more venerable parents

In quite a high proportion of these families the children are providing important elements of care for the parent, including daily visits, doing their shopping etc. So another economic effect of the bus pass has been quite a useful addition to discretionary expenditure in these families, or increased amounts of care, because delivering the care often involves bus trips. Thus relieving social services. Though, in the interests of considering minuses as well as pluses, they may also, by enabling parents to stay in their own home for longer, be contributing to the shortage of supply in the housing market

Sunday, June 17, 2007

How to spend my taxes

I visited my GP yesterday. He gave me some advice. In my best interests

He wants me to change my life style.

In a way that will

  • increase my chances of getting dementia

  • ditto, cancer

  • cost the state - me & my fellow tax payers - a fortune

He wants me to stop smoking.

Well I look forward to the continuing pension payments, free travel & prescriptions, winter fuel payments etc etc

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The pump

When Christian Barnard carried out the first heart transplant in South Africa there was a degree of alarm in the West Indies. We may have been freed from slavery, but watch out, now they want your organs.

The Mighty Sparrow added a new piece of musical advice to his repertoire. Disguise your heart. Call it a pump.

I left my pump in San Francisco. If I give my pump to you, will you handle it with care? I still have my copy of the LP though unfortunately, not anything to play it on now.

This is a bit of a sideways introduction to a small paean in praise of that unsung technological triumph of our age - the electric pump. Dont know much about the technology involved, to tell the truth, but they are now so small & quiet, yet so much more powerful.

The effect on our landscape - at least the urban one - has gone little remarked. No water towers now, nor huge water tanks on the top of high rise buildings. No loss of pressure when your downstairs neighbour runs a bath.

Have pumps also contributed to the disappearance of gas holders, or is that just the switch to natural gas?

And what a relief to have just small quiet pumps for the central heating in place of one of those alarming clangy things.

But how scary to think of the consequences if the electricity were to go off & we lost all that pumping power. The decay of European cities in C4 & C5 would be minor in comparison.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Great Aunt Adie

Pronounced Addy. She was my grandmothers sister, the only other member of the Irish side of the family I ever knew.

She lived in Glasgow- the widow of a sea captain. She came to visit from time to time.

She seemed extremely old & stately to me. Large, well-corseted, well-dressed, hair done up in some kind of bun. She was an expert knitter - her Christmas present to me was usually a twin-set. I particularly remember one in soft grey with a royal blue zig zag pattern round the necks. They used to arrive carefully wrapped in tissue paper in a cardboard box wrapped up in a brown paper parcel.

I remember her teaching me to play Pelmanism. This is a card game where all the cards are laid out face down. You take it in turns to pick up a pair; if they match you keep them, if not you lay them back down again & try to remember where they are. The one with the biggest pile at the end wins.

When Aunt Adie died - I was 9 - she left my mother a beautiful folding card table. To me she left a piano. Also beautiful - walnut? - with an inlaid pattern of birds & leaves & 2 brass candlesticks which folded back.

I tried hard. But I lacked the co-ordination of ear, hand & brain to be able to play pleasingly or well. So I gave up after Grade 3 or 4.

Well, I had to. We were moving to a smaller house, in the city, & my mother said the piano had to go - there was no room. It was lucky that someone was found to pay me a pound or two for it - by then one normally had to pay someone to take a paino off your hands.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Mind your language

Much fuss about the N-word again

My own absolute hate is for ethnic minority. If someone uses the N-word with malign intent you know they are beneath contempt. Even they usually know they give offence. Thats why they do it

But ethnic minority is racism under the guise of, ever so benign, liberalism. Puts 'them' in their place. Which 'we' demonstrate by acknowledging that 'they' have rights, even if they are in the minority. And, poor things, its not their fault they were born like that. We know white is superior in all sorts of ways - did you see that research about school readiness the other week?

Excuse me, but who really make up the worlds ethnic minority?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Avoid alcohol

If you get medicine on prescription, or even over the counter, the label may say avoid alcohol

Avoid has distinct overtones of try not to take; alternatively it means do not take alcohol under any circumstances while taking this drug

I once saw a poster in a hospital pharmacy explaining that undesirable consequences range from facial flushing to death. So there is a need to explain the strength of this injunction, especially to alcoholics, but even to social drinkers. Or even to consumers of sherry trifle, or salad which may be dressed with wine vinegar

Otherwise people may fail to take a drug which could do them good, even after a single glass of wine

In the 1970s it was popularly believed in some quarters that the combination of port or brandy + stilton could have fatal consequences for those on one type of heart medication

Unless you know why, you cant make a considered judgement about whether to risk - the plus of therapeutic effects against the negative of combination with alcohol

Especially as some drugs which are potentially very dangerous in conjunction with alcohol - perhaps over a longer, chronic time period - eg paracetamol & HRT - carry no warning

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Leonard Cohen

People often say that Leonard Cohen is too gloomy & depressing - music to commit suicide by

But the odd thing is, if youre really down, those songs fit the mood &, actually, lift you up

I once tried to convert a friend round to my point of view. He said that, in his opinion, while Cohen might be said to be the poet of our generation, Dylan was its reporter*. And therefore superior

Favourite LP has to be New Skin for the Old Ceremony

*Leonard Cohen is the Samuel Beckett of pop - Stephen Dalton

Monday, June 11, 2007

How old are you?

Simple question - though a peculiarly sensitive one. Especially for ladies - allegedly. Is date of birth still shown on the British Drivers Licence? Such a fuss about it when they were introduced in the 1970s

Historical characters routinely have their age indicated only by their year of birth. Good enough for most purposes, though crucial bits of interpretation can be lost if, for example, you do not know the precise date on which they reached their majority

For those of us still alive, year of birth is good enough for most administrative purposes. Birthdays are of purely personal interest, & also, if we are lucky, important to friends & family

Sometimes, however, they matter in an official world. When, exactly, can you buy cigarettes? Leave school? Fight a war? Get a drivers licence? Or a bus pass

Have sex. Or be forced to retire from work? Sententious points, matters for wider political debate, dragging in issues of gender & sexual orientation as well as just age discrimination

The so-called millennium bug meant that it was not a simple matter to adopt, always & everywhere, the recording of everybodys full date of birth in a computer database. Much ingenuity went in to finding ways of coping with people who were born in 18 hundred & something, or would reach a significant milestone in 2000 & something, without having to use precious computer storage for all those redundant 19s

One of the worst aspects of all the domesday scenarios presented to us as the year 2000 approached was the calumny heaped on those of us who, allegedly, failed to realise that this would happen one day

But having enough computer space for 4-digit years does not solve all problems. I dont mean to be flippant, but there is the 9/11 problem. How strange that the London version should have happened 7/7, thus avoiding some confusion

Im not about to launch in to the realms of numerology. Just to remark that different conventions provide traps for the unwary, with potentially awful consequences when DD/MM is confused with MM/DD

Day of birth matters too. Mondays child etc. And time. Especially if youre a twin. But even as a singleton it somehow seems an essential part of my identity that I was born at 5.40pm on a Sunday

An astrologer would want to know not just exact time & date, but also place of birth

Maybe a judge would too. I cant remember whether the following tale represents an actual case or a purely theoretical legal conundrum

There were 2 cousins. One born December 31, 1905. The other born January 1, 1906

Both were grandsons of a deceased American millionaire. Under the terms of his will, the elder was the heir to a fortune

The problem: one was born in Sydney, Australia, the other in Los Angeles. On any unified, universal time system, such as GMT, the one born in 1906 was older than the one born in 1905

Not as simple to solve as one might think. The implication of using GMT to decide would be that we all might need to change our date of birth when travelling or migrating

The question of a persons age is not just of personal or individual interest. In the field of statistical analysis even more conundrums arise

To be continued

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The British Library Catalogue

Since it contains just about every book published in England for at least 200 years, the British Library catalogue is a great way of tracking down a half-remembered title or author, or an incomplete reference. Or checking if there are any books on a particular subject

Some public libraries have only computerised their catalogues for acquisitions in the last 10 years or so. Their card catalogues for older stock are wonderful, but have obvious limitations in this world of search engines. The one in Manchester however has one advantage not afforded by a computer: whole drawerfuls of cards can be date-ranked at a glance, just by the depth of blackness of the dust on their top edges

Friday, June 08, 2007

The tyranny of the paycheck

My grandfather always handed over his unopened wage packet to my grandmother. She gave him his pocket money

My father was paid with 2 bankers drafts. One went straight to my mother who paid it into her Post Office Savings Bank account

As far as I know neither my mother nor my gran was ever required to account in any detail to her husband for how the money was spent

I have always had my own 'pay packet'. I cant really imagine what it must be like to depend on a husband, however generous & relaxed he might be about it

And I wonder how many fathers of daughters today would contemplate with any equanimity the prospect of their daughter being entirely dependent on another man?

And yet

In the 1970s I used to get into trouble with my feminist friends. Although I enjoyed my work, wouldnt have it any other way, most of my friends who were my age did not work. Many wished that they could. But I used to say Whoever thinks that Liberation means being tied to an office from 9 to 5 needs their head examined


Pete Sampras

Pete Sampras actually bears a distinct resemblance to my father - even that slightly hang dog look with bottom lip sagging

I had largely lost my teenage love of tennis when he came on the scene. No longer made a point of watching Wimbledon. No more Virginia Wade - who did maths at Sussex University - to inspire me. So I did not see Sampras play all that much

One single shot really did it for me though. High back hand volley. Back to, & close to, the net, within inches of the tramlines. Jumping, arm fully stretched up. Ball landed inches over the net, right by the tramlines on the opposite side of the court

How did he do that?

Babies on buses

The second best thing about Buggy Buses is that they give you an opportunity to be a completely objective observer of babies. Babies with whom you have no emotional connection, who are not interacting with their mum either. Just lying there, on their own

The thing is - they are never, ever, still. Unless zonked out of course

Eyes, head, feet, legs, hands, fingers, toes. A constant interaction with, curiosity about, their world

Seemingly random movements - especially the constant reaching out, touching toes, nose, looking at hands, something that crosses their field of vision. Sometimes having a little conversation with themselves

I interpret this as intensive circuit building. Brain & body. Measuring the world, distinguishing self & non self. Building awareness. Consciousness

An ID that can never be captured by simple biometrics. Or any cultural/ethnic/community label which others may slap on them

It also may provide a partial explanation of why children who suffer serious neglect or abuse at an early age suffer (irreparable?) neurological damage

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Eleven +

I passed mine. Mr Slack, our class teacher, gave out the results. I ran, too fast, all the way down the hill to tell my mother. Who took it very matter of factly

Of course I am grateful for all the opportunities it gave me. What on earth would life have been like if I had failed?

But I had friends who did, & didnt deserve to. And what if the tests had been in things I would never be really good at? Singing, ballet, drawing, ball games? No matter how hard I practised

Iwas showered with gifts - which may well have doubled up as presents for my 11th birthday later that summer
My parents gave me a proper grown up office size desk. Bought at auction, polished up & repaired, with new brass handles
A great aunt gave me her ancient Raleigh Ladies Sports bicycle
My grandparents gave me a proper fountain pen, with a gold nib
Another great aunt gave me a ladies wrist watch - small, gold, with 9 diamonds
I felt rather guilty about all this spoiling

Nina Simone

Such a rewarding voice to listen to. Phrasing in the Sinatra class. With rhythm

I played Balm in Gilead over & over when I was having surgery & all those hospital visits. Over 20 years ago now

Baltimore also has a special place in my heart. But really, anything will do

She reminded me a bit of Mrs Gandhi, with those hooded eyes, basilisk stare & stillness. Totally self contained. Seemingly

I was twice present at official functions where Mrs G was guest of honour. Clearly not enjoying herself. I wasnt anywhere near her, nor, thank heavens, required to speak. Scary lady

I treasure the memory of an interview Nina Simone gave to Richard & Judy on their old morning show. She gave absolutely NOTHING, leaving the two of them flustered & flummoxed, casting frantic glances at each other

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


When I was at Junior school we all wanted to be able to call ourselves a true mongrel

Mongrels were highly desirable. Only effete snobs with more money than sense would want to spend money on a dog for a dog. Certainly not on one that was overbred, inbred & temperamental. Not when there were plenty of dependable, unpretentious, friendly mongrels looking for a good home

In terms of us children, a true mongrel was one who could claim English, Welsh, Scottish & Irish blood. I came close, but nobody in the family could think of any Welsh ancestors

Our family mongrel was called Scrap - a black & white terrier (mostly). For the second half of his life he had to run on only 3 legs because of an accident with a car the week we moved to the city

The speech of Aristophanes

My introduction to Platos Symposium came via a 1960s BBC tv programme with the Beyond The Fringe crew. A bit of a scandal at the time because -sotto voce - it justified homosexuality. Shock, horror.

The programme bored me. Silly, unattractive men dressed up in togas, spouting archly, getting drunk.

It was intriguing though to learn that that deeply serious, academic, intellectual event, the modern symposium, had its origin as a word for a drunken feast.

And I was impressed by the bit about the other half. Zeus chopping us in two for getting uppity. Condemning us to a lifelong search to make ourselves complete, in which some are lucky enough to succeed.

I finally got around to reading it & the speech of Aristophanes is one of those things I go back to again & again.

Its not a justification for either homo- or hetero- sexuality - rather the opposite. Love is just the same for all of us, it just depends on whether your 4-footed original was male, female or hermaphrodite.


Monday, June 04, 2007

Genetics is a social science

As students we used to spend a lot of time discussing whether social science is a science. Without the rigour, the controlled experiments, how could it ever be?

In my thirties I worked with scientists & medics & started to wonder - Is Science A Science?

In my 40s I started to grapple with trying to understand what the geneticists were up to. Read about the triumph of hard rigorous physics over fuzzy biologists

Then we got a bit of back tracking - of course we meant nature via nurture

Now they seem to have got a bit further, talking several genes interacting with environments

It will be correlation matrices, cluster analysis, Principal Components & hierarchical models next. Mosaic even


The Beatles

The Schotts Miscellany which recorded the Blair years for The Times was my introduction to this admirable mans work. So much must go into boiling down a mass of data so that it is both digestible & revealing

These thoughts prompted by the one on The Beatles in Saturdays Times

The Beatles seem to diffuse the whole of my Sixth Form years. Such excitement

Thing is, Pop Music was for Secondary Modern school children. Grammar school children should be above that, interested in classical. We certainly werent Teddy Boys, into Rock'n'Roll

The few Elvis fans were viewed with alarm. Skiffle was OK. Good, harmless fun. Even Church concerts were enlivened by a skiffle band - washboard, double bass made out of tea chest & broomstick

Trad jazz was also OK. A bit intellectual even. Liked by the younger male teachers. Reminded them of their duffel coated student years

But even prefects liked the Beatles. And it was OK - John & Paul had been to Grammar School!

There was an outbreak of boysspending their lunch hour in the woodwork shop, making guitars under the guidance of a teacher. We had sing songs in the prefects common room. Those who played in the County Youth Orchestra marvelled at the chord progressions

It had not penetrated, until I saw Schotts table, that all this was on the back of just 2 singles

Tip to fainthearted feminist wimps

If ever youre having to deal with 'difficult' men - Im thinking particularly of work - just try imagining them with their trousers down

I mean in the Whitehall farce, Brian Rix kind of way. Revealing ridiculous underpants

Works every time, especially with bombastic bullies. See - they are not so big & clever, or powerful, after all

But do try not to laugh

Richard Dawkins IS God

I think Richard Dawkins secretly wishes he were God. Then his word would be Law & people would stop arguing with him

He has already acquired the status of a messiah, or perhaps just John the Baptist, judging by the number of devotional blog posts inspired by his trips to North America. Is it significant that they are overwhelmingly written by young men, of the kind much given to hero worship & causes?

Perhaps Marx would be a better comparator. Then we can look forward to late C21st Dawkinsist schools of history, sociology, economics, philosopohy ...

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Kidney donors

Why should it be considered unethical to have a Big Brother type show to decide who should be the lucky recipient of one particular kidney?

OK, the original Big Brother is a tacky waste of time.

But somebody, somewhere, somehow, decides who gets each available kidney. Why is that process superior? How is that person (or committee) better placed to make the decision? Isnt it a Good Thing that ordinary people should have a real taste of what it is like, through their vote, to actually come down in favour of only one candidate?

Radio Vlaanderen

Last September there was a partial eclipse of the moon. Dont know if that affected the ionosphere, but Medium Wave went very funny. Another radio station dropped in where BBC Radio 5 Live should be. Very relaxed, mixed music & speech. Even mixed music & sports commentary - during changes of end at the US Open they played something laid back instead of letting the commentator witter on

From various internal clues, & with the help of Google & a Dutch (!) dictionary, I tracked it down

Now it is my constant companion (provided the headphones have not gone walkabout) as I sit at the computer

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Mr van der Velde

Everybody always said that Mr van der Velde was Dutch. When & how he came to England I have no idea. Could he have been a 1930s or wartime refugee? His accent seemed very English to me, though his pronunciation was very precise, a bit fussy

He was a small, neat man. White hair, white moustache. He wore round, wire rimmed glasses behind which he blinked owlishly

His wife was English. A large lady, well corseted, with a shelf-like bosom. Whenever you saw them together you got an impression of great devotion

Mr van der Velde was my Latin teacher

I cant imagine what it would be like now never to have learned Latin. But I regret that I did not work harder.

In fact I behaved very badly at times

Thing is, I hated all the declensions of nouns, past tenses of verbs. I also never got the hang of scansion. Why spoil a good poem by struggling to write u - -/ u u - above each line? Who cares about trochees or iambic pentameters anyway?

I loved the sonority, the etymology, the Latin tags. Dum docent discunt

Mr van der Velde always gave us treats in the last week of term. Read us stories. In the Country of the Blind, Saki. Once he dug out some aged philology textbooks from the storeroom. We had great fun learning that CINEMA ought really be pronounced KINEMA

Latin was the worst of my O level results. It was those damn scansions let me down I hadnt prepared whichever verse it was that they gave us. Mr van der Velde wrote noblesse oblige! on my final report, which devastated me because I knew I had let him down

Years later I met someone who reckoned she was the last person to be admitted to medical school without science A levels. She had done classics. She reckoned she had a head start on everybody else because she understood the vocabulary

And at least she would have known that a mere MB BS did not entitle her to the proud honorific Doctor

My idea of heaven

The library at Alexandria

Long, low, colonnaded, airy building

Perpetually sunny (though not too hot) outside

Waves gently lapping on the shore

Every book ever published & full internet/web access

Memory is a private library collected by experience
Ben Macintyre; The Times 6 July 2007

Humankinds desire to quantify information has a long history. Aristotle’s student Demetrius (367-c283 BC) was asked to organise the Library of Alexandria in order to quantify ‘how many thousand books are there’
Martin Hilbert Significance August 2012

Health police

How will the health police reconcile all those DOs & DONTs they bark at pregnant women with the (now scientifically proved) realisation that a womans anxiety has adverse effects on a foetus from an early stage

Friday, June 01, 2007

Living relatives

When I was born I had:

2 parents - not as obvious as it sounds. WWII was not over & my father was in Burma

3 grandparents - my paternal grandfather died from wounds received in WWI when my father was 7 years old

6 great grandparents (one a step). I never heard any stories about the 2 Irish ones, but I believe they were dead

1 great-great-grandmother - b1867, d1970

Numerous great aunts & uncles. The 3 sets of great grandparents had respectively 11,10 & 8 children. There were also at least 4 on the Irish side

But only 3 uncles - no aunts who were blood relatives. A 4th uncle - my mothers beloved brother who was only 1 year younger than she, died, aged 19, in the North Atlantic

My 3 uncles all (eventually) emigrated, to New Zealand, South Africa, Canada

I have 5 first cousins - 2 South Africans & 3 New Zealanders

My daughters father is from the West Indies. My 2 grandsons father is 3rd generation Japanese American

A microcosm of C19 & C20 demography