Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Oxford snobs

If anybody wants to know why 'state school' children may not actually want to go to Oxbridge could do no better than follow the Times coverage of Jacqui Smiths 'dope taking' confession

How has all this old fashioned English snobbery re-emerged? Doors to manual & all that

Since when has a headmasters daughter been working class? Or the son of a minor literary figure upper class?

Who wants to be at college with such braying unpleasant drunken violent oafs? Even if they have their 'amusing' moments. They are hopeless in bed

Oxbridge clearly is the place to be for a certain kind of learning in a certain range of subjects. But, whatever your class, other universities are streets ahead in their speciality

Problem is, teachers. The best performance indicator for a teacher is to send a pupil to Oxbridge

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Words count

Computers count all the time without using words

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


If you think about it, our bodies are constantly in motion even while we sit or sleep; hearts beat, blood circulates, peristalsis drives waste matter through the gut, molecules penetrate cell membranes, every cell, & even our very DNA, is constantly dividing

Movement means vibration. Vibration can certainly damage structures - think only of the effects of heavy traffic on our roads. How much can changes in bodily movement or vibration cause illness?

Bowel cancer might be connected to the amount of fibre in our diets - but might it not also be related to the ease with which we can empty our bowels whenever we feel the urge? Nowadays we in the West do not generally need to wait hours before we can find a toilet, nor sit in an ice cold privy at the end of the garden. Might not the apparent link between fibre in the African diet & lack of bowel cancer in fact be a link between socially determined ease of evacuation & lack of cancer?

We also feel the need for underwear to control the movement of our bodies; could breast cancer be caused by the restriction of the brassiere - particularly because so many women seem to feel the need to wear one that is several sizes too small?

More fancifully still, how much might we be aware of, respond to, other peoples vibrations? True, we are generally not aware even of our own vibrations, except when something goes wrong & we have palpitations or indigestion. But how much is our skin a membrane designed to damp down vibrations, unlike the skin of a drum which is designed to transmit them?

Might vibrations even decide our love or lust for other people? For what else might transmit these special messages? We are told that it is hormones - but how do these communicate our desires & feelings? Lust in particular is transient

In my schooldays the concepts of highest common factor or lowest common multiple were an important part of arithmetic - common problems required us to calculate when bells in a peal would next chime together. Perhaps then, lust is caused by 2 peoples vibrations moving in to sync, & disappears when their different frequencies, however minute the difference, means that they inevitably move out of tune. Perhaps the kind of enduring love, which some are lucky enough to find replaces lust, is simply a consequence of lower level, more permanent vibrations, in constant harmony

Vibrations after all are known to have important effects on the human body & psyche. Drumming can drive people wild, as can very low frequency hums, which many people cannot even hear, but to which others are hyper-sensitive. The problems with the millennium bridge over the Thames have been attributed to people automatically moving into synchronisation with the sway

This theory of vibrations might also explain how acupuncture works - the insertion of needles ought to damp down the vibration of nerves or muscles (rather like changing the fingering while playing a violin?). After all modern anaesthesia depends in part on the use of muscle relaxants, presumably to damp down all motion or vibration in the muscles, & hence to avert the patients experience of pain

I have just come across a note about something I heard on the radio [in 1999?] about the excess numbers of death from heart failure following the earth tremors in California; in some cases these deaths were attributed to fear, leading to a flood of calcium to the heart, which was then literally turned to stone. But how much might it be the body going out of sync because of the unusual vibration?

Travelling to an even wilder shore, could these kinds of vibration explain morphic resonance?

Physical medicine

As far as our health & medicine are concerned we live in a very chemical world. If we are ill there must be a pill. If there is not a pill then our ill must be caused in some mysterious way by that thing called psychiatry or psychology

True there are some very physical treatments - surgery for example (& isnt it odd that the opposite of surgeon is physician; what could be more physical than the cutting & slicing involved in surgery?). We do have physiotherapists, chiropodists, dentists, occupational therapists, … but nursing as basic physical care is devalued. On the wilder shores we have reflexology, & mystical masseurs, as opposed to the suspect masseuses who deliver mere physical relief

Motion, energy, heat - e=mc² - are considered only in very restricted ways. We put energy into our bodies in chemical form as food; we then burn it off by going to the gym. But we live in very heat controlled environments, going from warm house to car to office. We are even warned about the danger of heart attack if we move too suddenly from cosy to frigid. If we live in a hot climate we cool the environment to a comfortable 60 or 70. Our bodies dont shiver any more, little of the energy input is used to provide heat. We dont even want to get rid of heat by perspiration, except during an hour or so of exercise. Away from the gym or sports field we use chemicals to control our sweat

We worry about the school run; children ought to walk to school, school ought to be within walking distance. But should children walk to school if its freezing cold, through blizzard or through drenching rain? How many children have clothes suitable for all these occasions? How many schools have cloakrooms equipped for drying off, or for storing boots & warm overcoats? If its OK to drive children to school in these adverse weather conditions, thus shortening the journey time & postponing the time at which you have to leave home, how are households supposed to cope with variable timetables? Check the weather forecast the night before & set the alarm accordingly? Life depends so much on routine, but there can be no morning routine where the timetable depends on the weather to dictate how long it takes to dress or to travel to school

In Sartor Resartus Carlyle dwells on the utility of clothes, how they protect us from the elements, keep us warm & dry. Nowadays those of us who use public transport, who dress appropriately for that walk to the station or bus stop, are only too self conscious when we get to town, go round the shops, dressed in boots & overcoats. Even the store detectives are suspicious of those who walk around seeming only too well dressed for concealing what we might have shoplifted. Car travellers are dressed at most in light jackets, suitable attire for dashing from car park to shopping centre.

Clothes have become primarily a way of expressing our personality, not for protecting us from the environment

Romantically, we bemoan the loss of the High Street & the corner shop, but who wants to struggle from shop to shop, in & out of the rain & the warm, coping with umbrella, shopping basket, doors which open only towards you, when the alternative is a nice warm mall, on the level, with no doors or traffic to struggle with

We worry about obesity; statistics show that, on average at least, we are actually eating less. So if we are gaining weight it must be because we exercise less. No doubt this is true, but has any research been done into the reduction in obesity which might be achieved if we turned our thermostats down a few notches?

Physically we walk upright on two very small parts of our body - our feet. What a pounding they take, & yet how little we consider them. I myself have had the experience of thinking that something was going seriously wrong with my body - symptoms of dizziness, backache, all sorts of aches & pains. Two referrals to highly qualified consultants, general worry & concern, no obviously diagnosable neurological condition. But because it became difficult for me to cut my toenails, I decided to indulge in a pedicure. Bingo - falling arches & metatarsal something diagnosed, cured by simple plastic inserts in my shoes. It seems mad to say my life was transformed, but it was

Monday, July 16, 2007

Lies, damn lies & television

I first became aware of the kind of lie that could be told through what you might call the grammar of television about a quarter of a century ago

It was some kind of BBC documentary – we didn’t have reality television then. About teenage problems

A young woman who had been fostered decided to visit her estranged father. We walked with her along the street towards his house, & were told that he did not know she was coming

Next shot – we are inside Dads house, looking towards the front door as a knock comes. Watch as Dad goes to answer it.

Surprise, surprise!

But what did Dad think the camera crew were doing?

A naked exercise of power

The commentators on Alistair Campbells Diaries all refer to the number of occasions in which he was summonsed by a TB who was dressed, at most, in his underpants

How would you feel if summonsed to speak to your boss while they were in a state of undress? It is, almost literally, an exercise of naked power

Even though you can use your imagination to put a fully clothed boss at a disadvantage

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A negative attitude to God

I finally stopped believing in the God of my childhood because I am rhesus negative

How could any God design a world in which it is possible for a rhesus negative woman to conceive a child with a rhesus positive man? To so arrange things that her body, while supposedly nurturing new life, is actually killing it off?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Douglas Hodge

First remember him in that tv thing about yuppie city types in the 1980s

Then in that Ruth Rendell thing about the long hot summer of 1976

Middlemarch of course

He has that rare ability, for an English actor, of seeming understated. To the point of near unrecognisability sometimes. I once watched something on Channel 4 (I think) which I would not otherwise have watched, because I saw his name in the cast list. Thought it must be my terrible memory for names when he did not appear. Then I realised that he had - that one who held the eye, but I had failed to recognise

And now Engleby on Radio 4. Completely, chillingly brilliant. Conveying madness just with the way of drawing out or emphasising certain sounds - a long f at the start of a word, or an overemphatic -ing at the end

Build on the green bits, Gordon

England is an overcrowded country, right? The 3rd or 4th or something, most densely populated in the world. After Hong Kong, Barbados, Holland ...

So just get on the train from London to Manchester. See how overcrowded it is? Hardly a square inch not built over

Dont spoil our country. Its meant to be green. Build on the brown bits

Build 3 or 4 storey town houses, in terraces, on any piece of spare land in our villages. Or blocks of flats. Turn them into suburbs

Then just watch how easy it is for families to survive such cramped conditions. Mum & Dad working all hours to pay the mortgage on a box, Especially when its overflowing with teenagers

I am passionate about the Peak District. I was born here, feel safe embraced by the hills. I revel in the walks, the vaulting sky, the limestone scars, the darker grits

But I can see loads of places which would be enhanced by new small towns. Just like the ones they built in the C19th

Leave the old villagers space to breathe

The F Word

It always use to annoy me that people thought that swearing was especially offensive to grannies - as if they hadnt heard it all before

But as I get older I find the F-word is getting progressively more offensive.

I dont think Im getting more prudish. I still think the old joke is funny, the one about it being derived from medieval court clerks shorthand, for unlawful carnal knowledge

I think it must specifically be the sound. It literally makes me flinch.

So maybe its acting in the same way as the music of Cliff Richard, or Mozart, or that special hum, are supposed to act by driving groups of teenagers away from wherever they are wont to hang out

A kind of poetic justice


Friday, July 13, 2007

When Labour built 1 million homes

When war ended in 1945 over 200,000 homes had been destroyed by enemy action and a quarter of a million more were so badly damaged as to be unliveable in. The immediate problem was to replace these and to provide homes for all the returning troops and their families.

Government was determined that there should be no repeat of the unrest which followed the First World War when 'Homes for Heroes' were slow in coming .Plans had already been made to make a start straight away, despite the shortage of materials, labour and money, by making use of the munitions factories to provide the unconventional temporary bungalows which soon came to be known as prefabs

Despite the plans and preparations the programme was bedevilled by delays. Local authorities were responsible for providing, laying out and servicing the sites, but the Ministry of Works were to be responsible for putting the prefabs up. The small town of Buxton in Derbyshire, for example, had prepared sites for 50 bungalows by June 1 1945 and were promised delivery of the houses by September, but only one had arrived by January 1946; delays were blamed on design changes, and on shortages of paint and internal fittings for the kitchens and bathrooms which were extremely well-equipped for the time. Imports of American prefabs had been halted when they proved unsuitable for the British climate. Councillors in Chapel en le Frith complained about the lack of availability, due to insuperable delays, of prefabs with solid fuel 'equipment'; electricity and gas were thought to be unsuitable and too expensive for their residents

When the first 4 prefabs were eventually completed in Buxton in July 1946 the event made front page news in the local press, with a long article extolling the virtues, (though not the outer walls of unpainted asbestos), of fittings 'on a lavish scale' which included 'numerous fitted-in cupboards', a gas copper for the laundry, 'elaborate electrical fittings' and space 'where a refrigerator will be fixed as soon as supplies are available'. The demand, or need, for rising standards in homes, (whether provided by public authorities or the private sector), over and above the need to demolish and replace the slums, was to be a constant theme of the next 25 years

Altogether about 125,000 temporary bungalows had been put up by the end of 1948 - a small dent in the assessed need for 2 million new dwellings to meet the governments stated aim of 'a home for every family which wants one'. To help fill the gap the government gave special help to encourage factory production of permanent 2-storey houses. About a quarter of a million of these had been built by 1954 using non-traditional materials such as asbestos, aluminium and steel but, most successfully it seemed, concrete

As early as 1942 the Committee of House Construction organised a study of all non-traditional post-1919 houses (most of which had been built in the first years after that war in similar conditions of shortage) and produced a list of recommended methods. System-built houses however were only - at best - no more expensive than brick and already there were doubts about maintenance. Bowley has pointed out that these were only worthwhile in areas where shortages of traditional materials were particularly acute and were especially prevalent in areas dependent on stone for building, or for rural council housing, the reason here being remoteness from pools of skilled construction workers. Bowley also attributed the relative lack of success of system building for houses to the 'pernickity' ideas of local authority architects who wanted to be able to vary internal layouts according to their own preferences. As an economist, she saw this as a sad failure to introduce much needed efficiency gains to the construction industry. Of course, she was writing in the mid-60s, when the scale of the structural problems with system-built houses, which emerged only years later and which led to the need to compensate tenants who had bought them under the Right to Buy, still less those which followed the attempts to use industrialised methods to provide mass housing in high-rise blocks, were yet to be realised

There was much concern that housing should not follow the ribbon pattern development of the 1930s and should not be allowed to take over good agricultural land. With food still short and imports by air from all over the world still a pipe-dream, this was an understandable concern. It was however a concern which conflicted with the traditional English dislike of living in overcrowded cities and with the preference for a more rural idyll. One solution adopted, which owed much to Ebenezer Howards ideas of the Garden City, was to contain development in defined areas. Eleven New Towns were quickly created in England under the New Towns Act of 1946, all but two of which were in the south east near London. The War-time belief in the efficacy of planning was carried over in to the Development Corporations which had wide-ranging powers to acquire land and to provide not just housing but also shops, offices and factories

New Town houses were of generally high quality, laid out at low densities in open plan streets; the cost of maintaining these communal open spaces was often added to the rent. But the low densities in themselves frustrated the idea of building compact, comprehensive communities with work and leisure close to home. Great care was taken in selecting families for the privilege of being removed from overcrowded London - prospective tenants were visited in their homes and poor standards of housekeeping might mark them as unsuitable - but this relative homogeneity may have contributed to New Towns generally acquiring a reputation as boring, lifeless places which reached its apotheosis with Milton Keynes and its concrete cows

New Towns also made only a small dent in the post-war housing problem, providing about 80,000 homes by 1958, but the new Labour Government were in no hurry to encourage the private sector to help fill the gap. A Councillor from Chapel en le Frith was quoted as saying that 'the Government is quite definitely doing all in its power to stop private enterprise building by putting a ceiling price on permanent houses well below the price it was going to charge local authorities for pre-fab houses'. There was a threat to requisition weekend cottages. A delegation had been to meet Aneurin Bevan who, in addition to the National Health Service was also responsible, as Minister for Health, for building the houses of the New Britain. He was reported as having told them that no encouragement would be given to the speculative builders, who built for sale, and that the responsibility would fall on the municipalities since building for rent was the overwhelming priority

Great emphasis was placed on the numbers of houses built - over 1 million in the six years of Labour Government after 1945 (compared with under million after 1918), more than four fifths for public authorities. This emphasis continued when the Conservatives came to power with an election promise of 300,000 houses a year. The 3-bedroomed semi for family occupation continued to be most peoples idea of a house, though economic stringency brought back the terrace and there was a growing tendency to provide 1- or 2-bedroomed maisonettes, particularly to meet the needs of what was by then recognised as a rapidly growing population of elderly households

Flats in general, and in high-rise blocks in particular, formed almost no part of the drive to meet the immediate post-war shortages; high rise had a very short-lived prominence during the sixties after emphasis was once again placed on slum clearance. It is fashionable now to put the blame for this brief-lived 'aberration' on a generation of architects seduced by the ideas of the Modern Movement. But one only has to read, for example, the work of Cleeve Barr, addressed to 'all whose work or interest bring them into touch with public authority housing' to realise the complexities of the problems with which they were grappling. And as modern commentators such as Holmans and Cooney have pointed out, the perceived shortage of land which was a major factor in the belief that we must build up rather than out, was a consequence of the ideas of Town and Country Planning rather than a geographic reality

Nevertheless, the momentum towards building high flats was there, and Englands first tall point block was opened in Harlow New Town in 1947. In 1950 a reorganisation at the London County Council brought a group of architects together who were soon responsible for schemes which were widely admired. From the first however it was not intended that tall blocks should be used for family housing; the new ideal of 'mixed development' together with the developing demographic trends meant that councils wished to provide accommodation for older couples without children, as well as for younger people, including professionals and semi-professionals, who increasingly wished to live independently before marrying and settling down. The old idea of working class estates filled with families with numbers of children had gone - indeed the words 'working class housing' had been dropped from legislation and from the numerous technical advice notes issuing from the housing ministry. It was thought that tall blocks for smaller, childless households would free space in such mixed developments so that some houses with gardens could be built even in the middle of the city

In the early 1950s building high, even in London, was generally limited to 100 feet or 11 storeys, which in itself presented new challenges which the long experience of building 5-storey blocks of 'working class' flats had not solved. At this height a brick cross-wall structure (in itself a replacement for the traditional spine wall method) proved the most economic, though it was not free of problems such as damp penetration. Attempts to introduce new methods involving light-weight steel frames and pre-cast concrete foundered because they generally proved too expensive, partly because of the high cost of providing protection from fire and because it proved difficult to provide adequate sound insulation between flats. Structures such as these were used for office-type buildings, but the experience gained could not easily be transferred to the different requirements of housing - in office buildings light weight, hollow floors provide an ideal space for the complex electrical etc services needed in a commercial building, but do not provide good sound insulation. Bricks could not be used above ? storeys, so reinforced concrete systems were adopted

All the early schemes ran into problems in ensuring that the walls stayed true, and in ensuring that the plaster stayed stuck to the wall panels. Solutions to these problems, involving the use of panels which could be lifted by the new mobile tower cranes, applied only to internal walls; problems remained with external walls and, as Cleeve Barr remarked 'a number of local authorities have learned to their cost [that] first-class workmanship is required if weather penetration is to be avoided at construction joints'. No universally satisfactory or reliable methods had been established when more local authorities became interested in building high after 1956. This was when the emphasis switched once more to slum clearance and the subsidy system changed so that the amount increased with the height of the building. It was also the year in which Duncan Sandys encouraged towns and cities outside London to consider introducing a Green Belt. In these circumstances it is tempting to conclude that virtually every block of flats or maisonettes erected between 1945 and 1970 was an experiment, using at least one untested element in its design or construction which brought in its wake a new problem of maintenance or management

Building high brought all sorts of new challenges to the construction industry, over and above those related purely to design, to do with the organisation and scheduling of the new methods of construction. As one small but telling example, Cleeve Barr quotes the difficulty of serving tea to workmen on the eleventh floor. Cleeve Barr shared Bowleys poor view of standards of training, management and productivity in the building industry. So there can be little doubt that designers, architects and builders did contribute, through the provision of unsatisfactory, damp, noisy or uncomfortable homes, to the social problems which later emerged on council estates

Even if the buildings themselves had been perfectly satisfactory however the types of layout adopted for the new mixed developments would have caused problems. Hindsight can point to the almost complete failure to realise the indispensable part that the car would come to play, even in the lives of council tenants. But the idea of providing 'towers in the park', that municipal housing could harmonise with 'the taste of eighteenth-century gentlemen [which] favoured parklands of wood and grass' as Cooney put it, or of 'LCC Housing and Picturesque Tradition' in the words of the title of an article by Pevsner, backfired. At a time when people were acquiring unprecedented privacy in their domestic lives, through the provision of unshared kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms and WCs, they were having to learn to live with a new kind of shared external environment which at the least required new customs of courtesy and acceptable behaviour. The 'park' was neither truly public, open to non-residents in the same way as Hyde Park for example, nor truly the responsibility of the residents. Similar difficulties could arise in estates even of conventional house styles where open front gardens were not well delineated from access routes or childrens play areas and where there might be a general procession outside peoples windows. These problems would be exacerbated where developments were away from the city centre, or even in overspill estates far outside the city boundary, when tenants old and young cannot afford to travel to find entertainment. As the car, for those who could afford it, reduced the numbers of people walking about their business the parks became even more lonely and threatening and often windswept even on relatively calm days because of the effect of the tall buildings

With so much emphasis on the need to provide sheer numbers of dwellings, economic pressures inevitably led to cheeseparing in some areas, notably lifts. Lift technology was of course developing all the time, but innovation is expensive and even where adequate numbers of lifts were provided they did not always provide the best service. Some architects even disliked providing lifts because of the unsightly effects on roof top design. Lifts were by far the most expensive service mechanism and some authorities built 10- or 11-storey blocks with only one lift, despite the official recommendation for a minimum of two in buildings of over 6 storeys. Authorities were deterred not only by the capital costs however; servicing and maintenance were expensive too. The effect on the health and spirits of those who had to live in tower blocks with inadequate and often non-existent lift services are not hard to imagine

The problems were not just technical however as is shown by Cleeve Barrs complaint that 'Unattended lifts appear to have an innate capacity for arousing all the most anti-social tendencies in the human beast'; problems such as joy-riding by children, deliberate defacement, and urination were said to be occurring as early as 1958 on even the better-class estates. Some councils removed emergency stop buttons from lifts to prevent courting couples from making use of this facility. Social problems which affected design options were also recognised with more traditional types of housing; for example the back paths which had come to replace tunnel access in terrace housing were difficult to maintain, expensive to light and provided 'cover for bad characters'

The management of council estates often left much to be desired and this only added to the design problems. Housing management never acquired the professional status of architecture or planning, partly because elected councillors liked to play an active role in allocation of tenancies and other matters. There was an uncomfortable mixture of paternalism (even authoritarianism) and poor service, so that it is not surprising if tenants sometimes lost pride in an estate when they had no control even over details such as internal paintwork, still less the colour of the front door, repairs and maintenance or the installation, as time went on, of improvements such as fitted kitchens. Despite the post-war egalitarian ideals the wish to tell people how to live could crop up in surprising places. The Parker Morris report of 1961 set down generous space and heating standards for public authority housing; it also devoted time to discussing whether kitchens should be designed to cope with the distressing working class habit of eating meals there, or whether they should be kept deliberately small to force people into sitting down properly in a dining room. On the other hand an area in which the amount of direction which could be applied was never satisfactorily resolved was the movement of tenants to smaller homes, and the question of under occupation became a concern of the 1970s. It was of course inherent in the idea of mixed development that people should move out of larger houses with gardens once their children had grown up, but it is not surprising that few seriously wanted to follow through on the logic of this. Poor service was shown not just in unattended lifts, but in the gradual withdrawal of on-site staff such as caretakers and even rent collectors as growing street crime made this too perilous an occupation; such developments added to the difficulties of getting speedy repairs and led to a growing feeling of alienation among tenants

The reaction against high rise flats, even from within the architectural profession, was not slow in coming. Nicholas Taylor, in a 1967 article in The Architectural Review predicted that 'More slums are likely to be built in the next five years than in the past twenty' and after quoting D H Lawrence on real freedom and personal fulfilment, observed that 'taps and cupboards are only subsidiary means to this end'. It should be pointed out however that not all local authorities followed the fashion for building high; Manchester and Kensington for example. The former made a policy decision to avoid flats wherever possible because of the impossibility of observing the advice not to use them for families with children. Kensington were, scurrilously, supposed to wish to minimise the number of Labour voters living in their area

The Ronan Point disaster of 1968 is often taken as the beginning of the end of the high rise block, though in fact statistics show that numbers were already in decline. By 1970 less than 2 per cent of council dwellings were in blocks of more than 15 floors, and after 1975 blocks of even 10 floors were statistically invisible. Flats had never been popular in England and the Utopian vision, if such it was, did nothing to change that view. However the argument advanced by critics such as Coleman that the serious social problems which have emerged on some council estates would not have emerged if the design had been 'right' is difficult to sustain when one looks at the history of other areas. For example, Notting Hill which started as a genteel but cheap development in mid-Victorian England declined after 1945 into a byword for social evils; its rise and re-gentrification from the late 1960s onwards was not sufficient to ward off an outbreak of graffiti in the 1980s on what was obviously well-maintained private property. The relationship between built-form and social behaviour is clearly not one of simple determinism

By the 1980s the problems of maintenance and repair had become so overwhelming, on financial if not technical grounds, that blocks began to be demolished less than forty years, or in some cases less than twenty years after they were built. The story of council housing between 1945 and 1970 however is not one of failure only. Over 1 million tenants took advantage of the Right to Buy their home which was introduced in 1980; while some were undoubtedly ill-advised to do so, many acquired a valuable asset as well as freedom from heavy-handed or unresponsive management. Successful solutions to the housing problem were found and standards of housing, even in the worst blocks, are often way above what was offered in the private-rented sector as late as the 1960s. To say, as some have done in this year of celebrating the end of the War, that the prefab represented the ideal combination of factory methods and the traditional English cottage, is to see a cold reality through a rosy glow of nostalgia

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Universe as a bundle of thrums

I dont know if you can still buy bundles of thrums at the Silk Museum in Macclesfield, but you used to be able to. They strike me as a good metaphor for the problems of understanding or analysing the Universe & everything

Thrums are the ends of silk threads left over from or cut off during the weaving process. They drop or are tossed into baskets at the side of the loom, & so fall into tangles

The bundles are objects of beauty in their gleaming piles of tangled-together luminous knotted random threads of different weights & colours. So you could just take one home & arrange it artfully on your coffee table as an objet d'art. Terrible dust trap though. Or you could use it as a source of gorgeous threads for your own embroideries

There are lots of ways you could think of analysing the bundle if you are of a more enquiring frame of mind. You could just observe, describe, record the colours in different kinds of light. You could pick it up & let it fall to see what kinds of different shapes it would make.

There are more scientific methods you could use for analysing the complete structure of the bundle, including perhaps analysis of the silk to pinpoint where the silkworms were bred or where the mulberry leaves that fed them were grown. You could weigh the bundle. You could clip a random sample of threads, weigh & measure them & use the results to estimate the total length of thread in the bundle

Given patience enough & time, you could carefully disentangle all the threads. Lay them out in order of length, colour, thickness. Of course it would no longer be a bundle. But if you had kept meticulous records of the disentangling process you could perhaps put it back together again

Even as a mere human, you stand in relation to the bundle as Godels logician stands outside the system, or Archimedes stands ready to move the world with his lever (a knitting needle would do). Or perhaps as God surveying his universe

But what if you were some microscopic creature living deep inside one of the twists or tangles?

There is the material for jokes, once you have decided what’s funny. There is the evidence from which histories can be written, once you’ve decided what’s relevant to a particular interest. Until then there’s just a great undifferentiated, overlapping tangle, without sense or even sequence, waiting for someone to discover a few loose ends & pull out a few usable threads, then to weave them together into a usable fabric - Michael Frayn: The Human Touch

Monday, July 09, 2007

Victorian birth control

The enduring effects of Malthus' original remarks, on lack of moral restraint as the cause of population growth & its consequences, have I think been underestimated & under appreciated. Although Malthus' arguments still underlie, often subconsciously, our modern concerns about global population growth, his effect on sexual behaviour as well as attitudes towards womens role has been, I shall argue, even more profound; Malthusian concerns eventually turned into, by way of justification for the moral restraint which C19th Britain adopted as the favoured method of birth control, the belief that women do not enjoy sex. There is no evidence that this belief, widespread by the centurys end, was at all common in the first half of the C19th. As is often the case, however, the generations born in the early C20th century took the beliefs of their parents as representing what had always been.

Victorian middle classes worried about Malthus at the wider national & social level as well as at the level of the personal & of the family. They realised the importance of education as a means of maintaining economic growth to cope with the unprecedented increase in population, but education was expensive, business often precarious, & there were few sources of secure employment which would provide a guaranteed income for those who did not hold land. Whether as a private family expense or as a public tax burden (to provide for education of the masses), the costs needed to be kept within bounds, & the only obvious way to do this was to limit the number of children requiring to be educated.

Why moral restraint should have been the method adopted for contraception remains a mystery however - physical methods were certainly known about & advocated by Radicals in pre-Victorian times; but Queen Victoria, who was certainly no marital prude & disliked being pregnant only because it interfered with her sex life, who had a scientifically-minded husband & undoubted access to the best advice if required, nevertheless seems not to have even considered the use of contraceptives; she accepted that a large family was the price of self-indulgence.

Evidence that a large family was regarded as a sign of lack of self restraint can be found in the papers of John Bright. This widely travelled orator & MP spent relatively little time with his wife yet still fathered a family of 8. His brother Jacob, father of one, remonstrated with him about this. Of course as the co-owner of the family business, and the one who bore most of the responsibility for its management, Jacobs concern would have been at least as much financial & economic as moral, because of anxiety about how to provide adequate maintenance & inheritance for so many. John Bright relied largely on his income from the family firm, since MPs were unpaid, though he was also the beneficiary of an unusually large number of public testimonials, & he did not always appreciate the need for economy & financial restraint.

Evidence that women were not regarded as straitlaced creatures without sexual appetite is provided in the Diaries of Absalom Watkin, Manchester merchant & radical. In 1827 he & like-minded friends entertained Richard Carlile who had recently been released from a 6-year prison sentence for publishing Tom Paines works & The Republican magazine. Carlile had also written Every Womans Book to promote the contraceptive sponge, already in use by members of the upper classes, such as the duchess who never went out to dinner without carrying one in her reticule.

For Watkin & his friends the insuperable objection to the sponge was that its widespread use of would lead to 'extreme profligacy among unmarried women' & to a lack of fidelity in wives - or at least it would destroy a husbands faith in his wifes fidelity. Watkin does not deal with the problem of a wifes faith in the fidelity of her husband, with or without the availability of contraceptives, so we do not know whether he & his friends were motivated by a mans need for faith that he was a father, or by some misogynistic belief in woman as temptress & devil. Perhaps the concept of moral restraint came to the fore as a solution to this conundrum. What is most interesting however is their clear belief in every womans need for an active sexual life; they believed for example that abstention could lead to death from consumption or other disease, & recognised that their rejection of the contraceptive sponge meant that unmarried women faced an invidious choice between the ill health associated with virginity & the social disgrace of unmarried motherhood.

Evidence that restraint was used to limit family size is found in the life of the painter Edward Burne-Jones. He & his wife, though still in love, deliberately abstained from sexual relations precisely to guard her from any further pregnancies after they had had 3 children; the middle one of which lived only 3 weeks. What spoils this story is that during this separation he was consoled by a mistress, the first of many.

Charles Dickens felt happy with four children; he also felt, as did so many Victorians, overburdened by financial responsibilities, not just toward his own children but to his parents & siblings. He therefore regarded with mixed feelings the birth of a fifth child, but proceeded to father another five in eight years. The need for self-restraint in his case was also eventually expressed in an extraordinary way. Just before Christmas 1857 he moved from the marital bedroom to the adjacent dressing room & arranged to have the communicating door blocked up & covered by a bookcase. Although he expressed his disgust at his wifes increasing fatness & sloppiness, this was the only way to control his own urges, or possibly his wifes demands.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Food phobia

I have just been reading an article in The Times Magazine (16 November 2002)1 about small children who have eating problems - not anorexia but something more akin to phobias about putting certain kinds of substance into their mouths; some of them have had health problems throughout their lives & may have been fed for long periods through a tube; for others the source of the problem is more mysterious but seems to flow from some traumatic encounter with taste or texture, or a simple lack of learning how to eat at an early age

I think that I have a healthy attitude towards food, a willingness to try almost anything at least once, but in endeavouring to comprehend this problem I was led to remember a not unrelated, moderately traumatic encounter of my own

When I was a toddler in the late 1940s my father was a telephone engineer in rural Derbyshire. As such, a lot of his job involved visiting isolated farms to work out how they might be provided with a land line &, in those days of rationing, it was not unusual for a farmer to express his gratitude with a gift of food

Just before Christmas 1948 - I was 3 years old. Daddy came home one evening, letting a cold blast of air through the kitchen door, & dumped a sack on the floor. As he greeted my mum I, intrigued, approached the sack; despite the joint parental warning 'Not to touch' I thrust my hand inside …

I can still recall the horror of that small hand encountering the warm - throbbing? - feathers of dead poultry

That horror was later reinforced by watching the Young Farmers Wives competing in the poultry dressing competitions at the annual Derbyshire Agricultural Shows - shows to which we had privileged access because my father was responsible for providing the temporary phone lines required

But these traumas never put me off eating chicken, & in adulthood I even learned to cope with poise with the intimate preparation of animals for food, though I would still prefer not to have to pluck feathers, & chicken feet revolt me in a way that blood & intestines do not

I can even prepare liver with equanimity, even though I remember that my mother could hardly bear to touch it when raw, bloody & riddled with gristly blood vessels which need to be scissored out

So what do I conclude? Merely that the link between trauma & effect is not simple …

1 Neill, Fiona 'Eat it all up' pp24-28

Friday, July 06, 2007

Medical complaints department

The practice of medicine could be transformed, if only doctors would expunge the word complain from their vocabulary

Just imagine. Instead of complaining all the time, patients would simply tell them things

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Drugs in sport

Steroid hormones: most women in this country are advised, by their medical advisers, to take steroid hormones at some point in their lives - that is, they go on to the pill or to HRT

These drugs are of course made up of 'female' hormones … but they, & their metabolic routes in the body, are closely related to the male steroid hormones such as testosterone

Taken as drugs, both male & female hormones have, or may have, side effects, such as increased risk of cancer or of liver damage, not to mention disruption of whatever it is that makes us essentially male or female. When set against the risks, dangers or discomforts of pregnancy or hot flushes, they are considered acceptable: when set against the disappointment of not making an Olympic final - no … no way … disgraceful

And in the vicious circle of medical ethics, since drugs in sport are unethical, research into the effects of drugs in sport is unethical …

Other drugs But it is not just steroid hormones. We have set up a category performance enhancing drugs which includes simple everyday remedies such as the ephedrine in cough mixture. We also, rather confusedly, extend the category, for sport, to include 'recreational' drugs such as cocaine or marijuana. Why not also include alcohol & tobacco? Are these drugs performance enhancing, or have we mixed up a general concern for health here? Why should we have a particular locus to interfere with the health of sportsmen when we make no such overwhelming claim to interfere directly with the health of the ordinary Joe Smoker?

One minor side question: we hear a lot about contamination of food supplements eg by nandrolone. Is this meant to imply that manufacturers add hormones to the supplements, or could it be that there is something like phyto oestrogens which have the same kind of metabolic effect? Soya seems to be particularly indictable here, since it is thought to be both healthy & is known to have oestrogen like effects. If I eat lots of soya would it show up as oestrogen metabolites in my urine?

Ethics These attitudes depend in part on ideas of fairness, fairness in competition. But why is drug taking more unfair than being, one way or another, wealthy enough to be able to take time to train full time, to not have to work in office or factory to earn ones daily bread?

Why is drug taking more unfair than having access to, & being able to afford, the diet & supplements which meet current nutritional advice on how to perform best?

Why is drug taking more unfair than drawing a winning ticket in the alleged genetic or environmental lottery of life by being born black, white, in the Kenyan highlands …

Why is drug taking more unfair than indulging in strange practices such as ice baths, dedicating ones life to training in an obsessional way, even to the detriment of family life? I for one lack the gene that allows me to admire people such as Steve Redgrave or Paula Radcliffe

Why is drug taking more unfair than having access to the best physiotherapists, visual acuity trainers …

Why is it OK to take pain killers so that one can play through injury?

Why is it OK to set up this demeaning system of urine tests, under the eye of a beholder, any time, any place, anywhere?

The doctrine of absolute liability means that an athlete is guilty of a doping offence if they fail one of these urine tests, even if all who judge are satisfied that there was no guilty intent. One can see why to do otherwise would be problematic, to say the least. But I for one find offensive those who say, smugly, that athletes ought to know what they are taking, to be able to avoid all risk, there is plenty of information out there ...

There is plenty of health, nutrition & ingredient information on food packaging

Suppose I were to be held absolutely liable for the offence of having some metabolite of Vitamin C or one of a long list of other banned substances in my urine? How am I meant to be able to understand whether a ready meal of spaghetti carbonara is safe to eat? Not to mention the way in which supermarkets are always tinkering with the recipes while keeping the packaging ostensibly the same

There is evidence that a life devoted to sport can impose serious health problems in later life any way - problems such as arthritis from excessive strain on joints or brain degeneration caused by heading a football

The question is, as usual, one of balance. There are undoubtedly serious dangers of drugs in sport - something like a dozen cyclists have died in the past year or so of heart problems allegedly caused by EPO. And few would want to justify the kind of doping of young women athletes that took place in East Germany. But nor would one want to justify some of the more brutal but non-chemical training methods, whether imposed on young athletes or self imposed by obsessed adults

The particular demonisation of drugs seems part of a generalised modern demonisation of chemicals & a naïve acceptance of things we think of as natural. What we need is a more balanced attitude, one that would allow sensible, ethical research into the effects of all aspects of sport & training, including 'drugs'

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Managing the NHS

My impression of the NHS is that it is grossly under managed. Popular complaints about unnecessary paper work, administration & evil managers may be well founded, but the answer is certainly not to abolish all managers

Car parking is not an obvious clinical need. But all hospitals need car parks. Where & how are they to be provided? What about security - not just to deter the thieves inevitably attracted by a large number of unattended vehicles but for staff needing to go home or come in to the hospital during the dark & lonely hours? How do you allocate spaces between staff, patients & visitors? What would be a fair charging system? How to administer collection of charges?

Not a clinical function; but without it the consultant cardiologist sits twiddling his thumbs or drumming his fingers on the desk because his 10 o'clock appointment has failed to show. Meanwhile that poor 10 o'clock patient is searching desperately for a parking space or, having found one, is wandering around looking for a signpost to the cardiology department; or is stranded 500 yards away, unable to walk that far & there are neither facilities for dropping him off at the door or delivering wheelchairs to the car park

Who should be responsible for giving that patient, & the many others who, like him, will be visiting the hospital for the first time that day, essential information. Not just about car parking but about things such as the need to take, or not take particular drugs, to eat or not to eat, to empty or not to empty the bladder, as essential preparation for the consultation?

Would it not help the whole process, reduce anxiety & add to efficiency if patients knew more about what to expect? Even in simple matters like whether they will be required to undress, & in what degree? I once had the experience of a consultation with a doctor who would have liked to examine my foot, but understandably in the circumstances decided not to do so because I was wearing both trousers & tights - well it was winter & I had no idea beforehand that this might be required. If I had known, I would have dressed differently & would have been spared the embarrassment of feeling that I had done something stupid, when all I had done was dress normally for the weather

I also once had the experience of being called for a scan at 11am with the instruction not to eat or drink anything for 6 hours beforehand. Was I supposed to set the alarm for 5am so I could get up & have a cup of tea - or starve for the 12 hours or so after going to bed the night before? Somebody needs to think about & coordinate all these processes, & that is a classical management, as opposed to a clinical function

Hospitals also need to buy many things - bandages, food, drugs, sheets, paper, pencils, computers, surgical instruments. Buying them smartly & efficiently can save thousands of pounds which could be used for paying more doctors & nurses. But it is not simple; buying in bulk may mean a discount, but if you buy too much at once you have to provide safe & secure storage & implement a bureaucratic system for controlling access to the stores - not just to prevent fraud & theft but because unauthorised access to, say, drugs, could be very dangerous. And in these days of competition, who do you buy your electricity from? Again all these are classical management functions, with their own skills & knowledge base

There is no obvious reason why nurses or doctors should have to spend their time on these functions, though it would be nice if they seemed to be aware of the skills involved. The BMJ has recently been carrying articles about evidence based management without seeming to be aware of the body of literature which already exists. Take for example the business of people who do not show up for appointments; the analyses I have seen show little awareness of basic market research techniques, even of basic customer demographic analysis

The allocation of resources provides a classic example of queuing problems. Intensive care practitioners seem always to be stressing that you cant predict what will happen in any individual case; true enough - I can't say whether I will have a heart attack tomorrow - but it is easier to predict that, say, 10 people will, that 3 will need only 1 day in intensive care etc etc …

Good managers respond to all these pressures without ever losing sight of the fact that the focus has to be on providing health care to customers who will be feeling more stressed & anxious than the normal customer of Boots or M&S or Sainsburys. Managers will also learn from industries such as tv or music, which depend crucially on prima donna stars, individuals with unique skills & charisma, without whom there is no industry, nothing to manage. The doctors & nurses fill that star role in the health service, but they cannot function without the cleaners, lab technicians, laundry workers, telephone engineers, computer programmers … all coordinated by management

It is clear from this analysis that only the staff of the NHS could ever be described as public sector. All the other suppliers of essential goods & services come from the private sector. But even that is not entirely true; it turns out to be more a question of cash flow - who directly signs the cheque which pays the salary of your GP, Practice Nurse, ward cleaner? Where does the money to support that cheque come from? How do you, the patient, control or contribute to decisions about which hospital you should go to for your appointment, at what time of day? What do you eat for lunch on days when you are an inpatient? Is it fair to yield control of all these decisions to public sector employees in return for your (non-negotiable) taxes? Is this a fair exchange for the reduction of anxiety about how you will pay for a major medical emergency? Or even a minor, possibly medical concern? And even if this is fair, is it clear that the cash flow arguments require that all the staff who deal with you should draw their cheques from the public sector?

Monday, July 02, 2007

A criminal? Me?

Compare & contrast:

Why should I be fined & get points on my licence for doing 37 mph in a 30 mph zone?

Why should I be labelled antisocial or worse for bunking off double maths with boring Miss Jones & 40 unruly pupils?

Why should I lose my licence when I had only a couple of glasses of chardonnay & was perfectly fit to drive?

Why should I be sent to prison because I couldnt afford to pay my poxy tv licence fee & I never watch BBC programmes?

Why should I be subjected to a swingeing fine & have my car towed away just because my residents parking permit was a few days out of date?

Why should me & my friends be stopped & searched by the police just because we were having a bit of a laugh on the street corner/ in the shopping centre/ in the bus station?

Why should the scandal of mothers of 2 or more cot death children being jailed for murder end only after the publicity given to the cases of an Oxbridge educated solicitor & a graduate pharmacist?

The public (electors) when questioned about law & order in London express a strong preference for a) more police with b) a visible uniformed presence on the street & c) a zero tolerance of minor quality of life crime. Why then are traffic wardens/parking attendants, who fulfil all 3 criteria, so universally hated?

Thanks to an Economist columnist, quoted in The Times c 20 Jan 2001, for this last

Money & connection

Although I have a degree in economics, money, in the technical sense, had always baffled me - until I started to think about money as promises (just like it says on the banknotes). This metaphor - or reality - has made the whole subject, from the simplicity of notes & coins to the complexities of derivatives & other instruments, seem much more comprehensible

Consider a simple barter between two neighbours with gardens: I'll swap you some of my potatoes for some of your sprouts. Deal done. Consider a slightly more complicated deal: I'll give you some of my potatoes now if you'll give me some of your strawberries next summer. Deal done, but what if the summer is exceptionally wet & you don't have any strawberries to give me? If we can agree an alternative way of rewarding me for my gift of potatoes there is no problem; if we can't agree we may need recourse to a good legal system with judges who can rule on how to share out the risk of such a deal, according to rules which have developed in our society over time. Perhaps the risk was all mine because I should have realised that my neighbour was at the whim of the elements & there could not be a 100% guarantee that I would get strawberries when I gave him the potatoes

Such bartering, while good for community relations, is of course a very inefficient way to run an economy & does not give room for much growth & development. The amount of time needed to search out people who have things that I want & who also want the goods or services which I have to offer cannot also be spent producing those goods & services. The setting up of chains of barter may not be possible with perishable goods such as vegetables - there is only a short time in which I can swap my neighbours sprouts for another neighbours carrots while they are still fresh. Alternative ways, used in some of the schemes for local 'currencies' which were popular a few years ago, need complex systems to record the interlocking swaps of potatoes for baby sitting for fixing my leaky taps. How much better to have a simple system of tokens which are recognised everywhere to account for all these interlocking promises or services rendered without the need for such complicated recording or for direct face to face negotiation, limited as that is by the need for proximity in time & space. Thus we have money in the form of cash

But the very anonymity of cash, its bulk, the need for a secure place in which to store it & the need to check & count it at every stage mean that there are real advantages in other ways of recording all these interlocking promises & obligations (again without having to record the details of each promise or undertaking) such as marks on paper or electronic symbols on computer chips, & then to bundling & unbundling groups of promises of various kinds into tradeable instruments such as derivatives

All these tokens, marks & recordings remain however recordings of promises - of my entitlement to some of your strawberries next summer - & so they can, distressingly easily, just evaporate; they have not gone anywhere, nobody has stolen or appropriated them; we just had a wet summer & a whole complex web of interlocking promises collapsed for want of a pound of strawberries

This leads me on to the point about connections, & to a partial explanation of why, or how, some people are able to accumulate more money than others. The more connections I have, the more people in the neighbourhood I know, the more I can organise swaps of potatoes for other useful goods & services, the more we can divide our labour, the more opportunities I will hear about. The more connections I have or can make to people who are themselves well connected, the more opportunities I in turn shall have. And so - it is after all a simple point - wealth & status depend upon my ability to make connections. But how do I do this, & how or why are some people so much better at it than others?

The story of human progress - history - is the story of the development of more & more means of communicating - connecting - at a distance, a distance through both space & time. With speech as the sole means of communication we have to be within hearing distance & my words instantly float away on the air. With writing I can send letters over long distances & they may survive to be read by others far into the future. And so it goes on until we reach the age of the internet

But communication at a distance means communicating with people I do not know, have not been able to learn whether to judge or trust. And so we need to develop parallel systems of establishing trust. Those token coins, identified by the head of the king, himself very well-connected, eventually allow me to swap my potatoes for cinnamon bark from Ceylon, albeit with maybe a complicated chaining method along the way - exchange rates. To begin with, for extra reassurance, the tokens are made of something which human psychology seems to invest with intrinsic value, something which glisters like gold; the idea of real value must be illusory, for gold provides neither shelter or nourishment; only the promise of further exchange has worth

Currency is not enough however, I need other guaranteed standards, of weight or measure or of quality. Even the straightness of cucumbers. If I go to the local street market it is easy to judge whether the cucumbers look like a good buy, but what if I am the Tesco cucumber buyer, making a deal for 1m cucumbers from Spain, sight unseen?