Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tall cranes

One of the cranes has gone from 3 Piccadilly now. The other is much reduced in height & not nearly so elegant. I shall miss them

I think I am going to like the new building with its postmodern take on 'red brick' - metallic panels with the proportions of bricks much magnified in size - & its elegant curve

In the sunshine it is magnificent but then theres always the problem of how it works under leaden skies

Im glad it leaves open a vista to the Minshull St courts

The work has been of exceptional quality, at least to this untrained observer. Apart from the impressive quality of the equipment, the men looked purposeful, confident, quietly satisfied. A reliable indicator of a well managed organisation, I always think

Christmas yet to come

Christmas alone

I do not want your Christmas!
There! Ive spelt it out at last
Im going to abandon those
Evasions of the past.
The "yes, I shall be going out!"
Or "yes, a friend is here!"
And all those white defensive lies,
Oh dear …

I do not want your Christmas,
Though so very kindly meant;
Nor wish to be a part of all
Your festive merriment;
Your paper hats & crackers,
Your tinsel, toys & oh
All those dreadful party games
That grown-ups relish so …

Youre very sweet & giving,
But I think you must be told
How other folks jocundity
Can flatten when ones old.
And heres the very hub of it:
I dont see why I should
Attend your family gatherings
Just to make you all feel good

Some of you will bridle
For I cannot make you see
That being on ones own does not
Mean instant misery.
And some, no doubt, will feel relieved
But most of you will say
"Its rather sad. She must be mad …
Alone, on Christmas Day?"

But I have right inside me
Such Christmases, my dears,
You couldnt start to dream of
Though you tried a hundred years.
And these will bring me quiet joy,
And warm me like the sun.
So leave me be, my darlings,
And "God bless us, every one!"

Marjorie Dunkels, age 85

A woman after my own heart.

Last week they were playing Slade in Boots. As if having all the decorations & Christmas stock out were not enough. The staff will be driven round the bend well before Christmas Eve.

I hate early Christmas precisely because the specialness gets taken away.

Monday, October 29, 2007

GB population

I dug out something from the Population Panel report of 1973. One point I had forgotten was that their projections were natural increase models only. That is to say, they took no account of migration into or out of the country, because birth rates were the main cause of concern.

For Great Britain they reckoned that the population would lie somewhere between 59 million & 67 million in 2001. The figures for 2011 were 61 million & 74 million.

The recently published estimates show a (GB) population of 59 million in 2006 rising to 61 million in 2011 and 69 million in 2031. So the figures which are causing so much excitement for 25 years hence are below those which were accepted with (relative) equanimity for today

Just to show how treacherous the forecasting business can be I offer the following quote:

Over the next 15 years the number of women of younger childbearing age in the population, those aged 15-30 years, will increase by about 12%. These women have already been born & very few of them are likely to die before age 30, by which time, if present habits continue, they will have had most of their children

If you were born between about 1940 to 1955 they were talking about you!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Are our children too fat or too short?

Juvenile obesity is growing so quickly that neither nature nor nurture, genes or nutrition, seem really to provide a complete explanation. Not even a combination of, or interaction between the two seems to fit the timescale

Since our definition of obesity involves both height & weight, perhaps we should also be asking questions about height

Height doesnt make headlines & I dont feel like going on the hunt for figures, so here are my personal observations

Until the mid-70s, I could not easily buy trousers which were long enough for me. Then M&S came to the rescue with Extra Long. These days I rarely have to check if a pair of trousers will suit

I have spent most of my life being taller than most of those around me. Especially in the area where I grew up. It actually came as a shock to me when I moved back to the area 20 years ago to find that what I had thought of as a loss of self-consciousness due to age & maturity was in fact due to having lived in places where my height was not so extraordinary

One very young boy in Somerfields tilted back his head to get a proper view of me, then said to his mum 'TALL!'. When I was in hospital in 1991, one of the SHOs said to me 'Just exactly how tall are you, Mrs X'

But I gradually noticed girls getting taller. Especially perhaps on campus. And I know at least one lecturer who felt intimidated by the size of some of his young male students

Maybe I just stopped noticing, maybe I have osteoporosis, but suddenly its not at all unusual to see young people who are taller than me. And 6'6" for a young man is not rare, even in Stockport

So our population is definitely growing

Could it be that some have a gene for growing up, while others have a gene for growing out?

And could it be that the Quetelet index needs to be recalibrated or abandoned?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Population projections

Not I think since the 1970s have the annual official population projections been exciting so much interest

It is salutary to remember that then the statisticians were struggling to foresee what would happen to the rapidly falling birth rates. They had fallen of a cliff since the peak year for births (1964 - about 1 million babies born). But they couldnt continue to do so, could they?

Not unless a lot of women reached the grand old age of 30 without ever having given birth!

Every time, the previous projection was proved to be way too high

The introduction to the projections carried the rubric Every population projection carries within it the seeds of its own destruction

Anyone who is interested might care to look at the Report of the Population Panel of 1973, which considered whether we would be able to cope with a rapidly growing population

And then read the Royal Commission on the Population report, published in 1948 but having as its basis the worries about ultra slow population growth of the 1930s when middle class parents went on strike & we were in danger of being overwhelmed by the higher birth rates of the lower, less intelligent poor. We needed immigration, for the economys sake. But where might we hope to find people of the right sort?


I had forgotten all about Ameliaranne until the other day. And yet she was such a heroine of mine. Feisty

Was it Ameliaranne who used to sleep with her hair wrapped in rags to curl her hair in to ringlets? Just like me. Or wore plaits. Just like me

Judging by Google results she seems to have a multiplicity of authors & illustrators. Including Eleanor Farjeon, who was a friend of Edward Thomas.

Margaret Gilmour however is the name that rings a bell with me

Tactile paving (2)

Since I posted my rant I have been noticing how other people react.

Quite a lot stand to one side, even if that means standing hemmed in behind the railings until the light is in their favour

I have seen 2 young women catch their (not particularly vertiginous) heels. One fell right over

And one buggy got its wheel trapped. Its a good job the baby was strapped in. Shopping bags ended on the floor though

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A breath of fresh air

Among all the astonishingly vicious & vitriolic comments on different methods of 'bringing up baby' have been some genuinely puzzled-sounding comments about the once common practice of putting babies out to sleep in the garden during the day - in a big old-fashioned pram.

Why did they need fresh air?

Well I guess the puzzlement marks the final end of the miasma theory of disease

In fact fresh air is notably un-green now, for people used to double glazed sealed unit windows, keeping your doors closed & working in temperature controlled energy-efficient offices

The thing that seriously alarms me though - has done for 30 years since I first thought about it - is that when a baby is finally taken out of the house or car, people are quite happy to wheel them along the pavement beside a busy road. In a buggy. Perfectly placed for maximum exposure to vehicular exhausts

Why not just put a rubber mask & hose over their little faces

At least exhaust pipes usually point straight back now, rather than being angled towards the kerb

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

De gustibus

Who can explain why fish & chips
Taste better in the street,
While morning toast & marmalade
Taste better in bare feet?

David Cram

Its those bare feet that do it for me.

Fish & chips in the street are a bit seedy seaside rumpty-tum rhythm but the feet transport me to a sunny kitchen, late spring or early summer morning, back door open, the start of a lazy day of gentle pleasures

Abortion calculus

When the 20th century began, 'everyone knew' that fully one quarter of all babies born in this country did not make it to their 5th birthday. Fevers of various kinds were thought to be the major killer

A detailed analysis by the Registrar General showed that most of the deaths actually took place close to the time of birth

At the start of the 21st century we almost automatically assume that the overwhelming majority of babies born will live at least 70 years

A pretty amazing achievement

But it makes abortion definitely murder, doesnt it?

Anti-abortionists can make confident claims about the number of people who would be alive today, had they not been aborted

But if the morality of abortion does indeed depend on such statistical calculations we should remember that there is also an unknown number of people who would never even have been conceived if their mother had not had an earlier abortion

Chicken & egg cartoons

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Recent foodie overheards

Young(ish) woman to friend, shopping in Sainsburys: These bananas arent very good are they? They soon start going brown

Grandma getting off the train with young boy (out for the day with grandpa in tow): No, you cant have any sweets. You'll be having your tea soon. You can have a bag of crisps

Monday, October 22, 2007

You owe me 5 farthings

The Times 'history' column on Saturday carried a piece from 1959 about the then imminent demise of the farthing.

That takes me back! As children we loved farthings for their size & their friendly robin.

Sixpence weekly pocket money went a lot further if it could br doled out in farthings. But only, I think, if you liked sweets (once they came off the ration). Blackjacks, Trebor chews, space ships, liquorice shoe laces, sweet cigarettes .... only common children had bubble gum.

I used to do the family ironing to earn extra pocket money. 4 ladies hankies = 1/4d. on my tariff.

I remember one particularly tough negotiation over a posh cotton frock I had, handed down from friends who had rich relations. I think I was its fourth wearer. It had complicated frills down the front - a real bugger to iron. Eventually my mother agreed to up the price from the usual 11/4d to 11/2d.

My fathers shirts were worth 2d each. His evening dress shirt - which was worn only rarely & spent most of its life rolled up in the bottom of the ironing basket - earned me even more, when I got round to it.

Now the 1p coin is under threat. Thats nearly 10 farthings.

I hope its passing will be marked by a suitably funereal peal from the bells of St Martins.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Theyre not all bad

I have been having lunch in MacDonalds quite a lot recently (Dont ask)

One thing I hadnt noticed before is that youngsters almost invariably put their change into the charity box

Even the proto-hoodies. Even those who have to club together for a medium meal

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Blue sky July

I was transfixed all week by Radio 4s Book of the Week. Which in some ways was a bit of a pity because 9.45am is usually just the time I start getting mobile enough to get up & dressed & get on with the day. Instead I just stayed sitting for another 15 minutes.

Beautifully witten by Nia Wyn & beautifully read by Siriol Jenkins it tells the story of a boy born with severe cerebral palsy, with a prognosis that he would never do anything.

Its not just another mawkish tale of woe fit for daytime tv.

Among other things, its a very important story about how babies learn & how the brain works

Friday, October 19, 2007





These words appear on the brick wall of the station car park. Obviously left over from some older admonition.

A good comment on this government, worrying about making rules about the smallest aspects of our lives

Ministers now remind me more & more of Mrs Thatcher, just before the 1987 election. The general charge then was that her government had achieved its major aims & was running out of new ideas & steam. In one tv interview, when she was anyway looking a little distrait, she leant forward & said:

Nonsense! We have got to do something about dog licences

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Did Darwin take species for granted?

I was amusing myself on the bus by thinking more about a theory of packaging evolution.

I have jumped straight to my conclusion

Packaging evolves by weight reduction

Very topical

But is this a purposive, a teleological theory? Or is it the survival of the most lightweight?

If I were to launch an empirical investigation, would I first need to develop a taxonomy of packaging?

Can a tin can evolve into a plastic container?

Which led me to a question I had not thought of before. Did Darwin take the existence of species for granted?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Obesogenic lycra

Flesh expands to fill the space available

If your inbuilt FULL UP button malfunctions, the popping buttons on your waistband used to make good the deficiency

Biter soundly bit

A Senior BBC Journalist is quoted as saying How can I sum up my career in 200 words?

This from someone who regularly asks others to sum up what may be a lifetimes work in a soundbite

Intellectual property values

Why does the £20 note have to have a copyright symbol on it?

Aren't the forgery laws adequate?

Stormy weather

The always estimable Paul Simons puts me in mind of Donne:

"In a violent shaking of the air by thunder or by cannon the air is condensed above the thickness of water, of water baked into ice almost petrified, almost made stone, and no wonder that that kills"

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Will the sun come back again? A collage

What is the probability that the sun will rise tomorrow?
First question, Theory of Elementary Statistics

On the day before the first day
God was tired with doing nothing
And determined to rise early
On the next day & do something

.... those lines of Cyril Connolly’s about drinking a Sundowner in honour of the first cavemen who, as they watched the sun go down, had no reason to expect it would ever rise again

Guardian 10.3.90


I expect the sun will rise, and then set,
Tomorrow, for it has never failed yet:
But one never knows, & all may crack & go
Before I realise that it is so.
Sun, moon & stars were made, and so must die:
The question is: Will they go first, or I?

Cock before dawn

The West & the East are measured from me...
It's time I crowed. The sun will be waiting

For it is the dawn that has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage & the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret
Alan Paton: Cry the Beloved Country

The radiation of the heat from the sun, of which a small proportion reaches us, is the compensating process making possible the manifold forms of life & movement on the earth, which frequently present the features of increasing order.
A small fraction of the tremendous dissipation suffices to maintain life on earth by supplying the necessary amount of 'order', but of course only so long as the prodigal parent, in its own frantically uneconomic way, is still able to afford the luxury of a planet which is decked out with cloud & wind & rushing rivers & foaming seas & the gorgeous finery of flora & fauna & the striving millions of mankind

Schrodinger: Science & the Human Temperament

Look on the rising sun: there God does live,
And gives his light, & gives his heat away;
And flowers & trees & beasts & men receive
Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday

William Blake: The Little Black Boy

Wittgenstein is alleged to have asked a friend: "Why do people always say that it was natural for man to assume that the sun goes round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?"

The friend responded, "Well, obviously, because it just looks as if the sun is going round the earth."

To which Wittgenstein replied, "Well, what would it have looked like if if it had looked as if the earth was rotating?"

I am up and I seem to stand, and I go round and I am a new argument of the new philosophy that the earth moves round. Why may I not believe that the whole earth moves in a round motion though that seem to me to stand when as I seem to stand to my company and yet am carried in a giddy and circular motion as I stand?
John Donne: Devotions & Meditations

I am convinced it is a most ridiculous thing to go around the world when by staying quietly, the world will go round you

Charles Darwin: Voyage of the Beagle

But when I waked, I saw that I saw not.
I, and the sun, which should teach me, had forgot
East, west, day, night, and I could only say,
If the world had lasted, now it had been day

John Donne: The Storm

You talk of wondrous things you see,
You say the sun shines bright,
I feel him warm, but how can he
Then make it day or night?

My day or night myself I make
Whene'er I sleep or play;
And could I ever keep awake
With me 'twere always day
Colley Cibber: The Blind Boy

Not death, nor the sun can we gaze upon directly – nor yet, upon ourselves
François Mauriac

The sun shone as it had to
WH Auden: Musée des Beaux Arts

The sun may set & rise,
But we, contrariwise,
Sleep, after our short light,
One everlasting night
Sir Walter Raleigh/After Catullus

Yesterday is already a dream & tomorrow is only a vision. But today, well-lived, makes every tomorrow a vision of hope
from the Sanskrit

Tomorrow never comes - Well, it did yesterday
Spotted on a sign outside a bar in Moorgate: Don't worry about the world ending today. It's already tomorrow in Australia

How do you know that the sun will come up tomorrow? ‘Don’t be so stupid,’ you might retort, in which case philosophy probably isn’t for you.

If you respond by citing the laws of physics, at least you’re thinking. But if you’re now worrying that you only trust them because they’ve worked in the past, just like the sun has always come up in the past, & that actually isn’t a terribly satisfying answer, then congratulations. You’re a philosopher already.
Hugo Rifkind Times How to be Smarter September 2012

The motion of two bodies - a universe consisting only of the Earth & the Sun, say - is periodic: it repeats over & over again. By hallowed tradition, the period - the time taken for the motion to repeat - is a year. This immediately proves that the Earth cant fall into the Sun or wander off into the outer reaches of infinity; if it did, it would have to fall into the Sun every year, or wander off to infinity every year. Those arent things you can do more than once, & they didnt happen last year, so they never will. In other words, periodicity gives you a very useful handle on stability. In a real universe, other bodies can shatter this cosy scenario, but periodicity - or related concepts - may still be applicable

Ian Stewart: Does God Play Dice?

Monday, October 15, 2007

An evolutionary theory of packaging?

A couple of years ago for some reason I really started to notice the packaging on everything which came into the house. It changes more than you might think. Almost from week to week

A tin of Heinz Baked Beans still looks much the same to me as it did 60 years ago. Same colour, same size etc. Yet if you lined up succeding 'editions' you would probably be surprised. I guess changes would mostly be gradual, some (such as the change to metric), more sudden

Packaging changes for all sorts of reasons - technical, economic, fashion ....

It undeniably has a designer

Or rather, many designers. All working within constraints

The artist designs to technological & marketing constraints & government regulations about labelling. Government is constrained in turn by policies on the regulation of international free trade or public health or pressure group concerns. The accountants, boards of directors work to free market rules, government regulations, investors concerns, constrained by costs, availability of raw materials. etc, etc, etc

There are extinctions too. The ring-pull means that the can opener is an endangered species

If a latter-day Darwin collected, collated, analysed & pondered masses of information about packaging might they discover an important new law of evolution under design?

The domain of truth

When I finished my O levels I thought I knew (very nearly) everything

By the time I finished A levels I was beginning to think: Hmm

Before I graduated I knew that I would never even know everything in Kendall & Stuart

Disconcerting. Humbling (humiliating, even)

But also liberating

Life is not one long preparation for an exam with right & wrong answers

The world is, after all, just what you make (of) it

Which is not the same thing as saying that all facts/opinions/fancies are equally valid

There may be no Right Answer, no one True Explanation

But truth, like mathematical equations, has its domains

Friday, October 12, 2007

The impossibility of knowing

Just (belatedly) reading John Barrows book Impossibility

No INFORMATION can travel faster than the speed of light?

Why not? How do we know?

Put that way it suddenly seems weaselly. A contentious assumption. Assuming what it wants to prove.

An article of faith

Known unknowns

When I first heard Donald Rumsfeld's famous explanation I so liked his cadences that I wrote it down in my commonplace book as though it were a poem

As we know
There are known knowns -
There are things we know we know.

We also know
There are known unknowns:
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns -
The ones we dont know we dont know

Didnt know the context of the quote so I was surprised by the amount of derision heaped upon him for this. Especially by some highly educated BBC journalists

Was it just a case of any stick to beat a man with when you disapprove of his policies?

Or just that old English put-down: Too clever by half?

Donald Rumsfeld – the unacknowledged master of inadvertent existential poetry -
Ben Macintyre Times Books 7 June 2008


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A hedgehog writes

This is the first verse of a poem which was published in times2 yesterday

It is by AF Harrold who has just won the UK All Stars Poetry Slam at Cheltenham

Naturally, I think he wrote it just for me!

He has a website at http://www.afharrold.co.uk/

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


Recently I have been noticing shoulders again.

I hadnt realised that sloping shoulders are definitely so out, now, darling!

The 2 illustrations from Jeanette Wintersons column in a recent Times Books illustrate the point. Jeanette has straight, modern shoulders but you wont see any photos of a modern-day woman with shoulders like the lady having her portrait painted

I even flipped through Vogue in WHS. Not a pair of sloping shoulders to be seen

Models may have to walk & pose with a permanent shrug to achieve the right look. Or maybe the photographer/picture editor have to use their arts to achieve the right effect

Sometimes one suspects digital enhancement: Kylies collar bones look anatomically infeasible to my inexpert eye.

President Putins shoulders seem to slope quite a lot but that may be muscle. You see the same effect on a lot of weightlifters & athletes. cf Johnny Wilkinson

Monday, October 08, 2007

A selfish generation

I think my generation really has been the most selfish in history.

We were the first to benefit from universal secondary education & many of us also got a free higher education

We coped with the oil price shock by letting inflation rip. Thus wiping out the savings of older generations & reducing the burden of our own indebtedness

We refuse to pay for the higher education of other peoples children

We mortgage their future to finance public investments from which we benefit now

Now we want to pass on the benefits of asset inflation to our own children without contributing anything to the general good of those, whether through bad luck or bad judgement, failed to come to that particular party

And I forgot about what we have done to pensions

Friday, October 05, 2007

Evolutionary design

It annoys me when people talk about evolution versus design.

For there is evolution in everything.

Even in nature, even before Darwin.

The revolution was in the proposed mechanism - endogenous, inbuilt, selection. Natural selection, if you like.

As opposed to, or by analogy with, the kind of things plant, pigeon or cattle breeders do when they interfere with natures way of doing things

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Cross purposes

Listen to me!

I hear what you say
No! LISTEN to me.
Do what I say
What I say goes


In this breast cancer awareness week we are once again being exhorted to go for breast screening. No need to be afraid, they say. It saves thousands of lives.

I dont go for breast screening. Partly because, for me, the chance of a false positive result is too high.

On Womans Hour this morning they were calling this 'overtreatment'. What a weaselly Orwellian word. Treatment is a Good Thing, isnt it? So too much cant be bad, can it

Well it can be. Especially if it goes as far as surgery, chemo & radiotherapy for something which, at worst, you will die with, not of. Estimates vary but some say there is a 10% false positive rate on this particular diagnosis from screening.

But isnt screening a Good Thing because early diagnosis means a higher chance of cure?

Look at this way

If we were omniscient & had before us 9 women who definitely have cancer, would we think it ethical to treat them ONLY if they could find 1 woman without cancer to undergo the same treatment alongside them?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Where do all the migrants live?

I should love to know where all the migrants are living. I am thinking particularly of Poles, for now

At first groups of young Poles were very noticeable - in the coffee shop, using the library computers, on the buses

Now they are not, or not nearly so much

Which argues that they have bought cars & laptops, & have found homes to meet & entertain in

But where exactly are those homes? We hear so much about the difficulties of getting on to the housing ladder. Are they taking advantage of the glut of Buy To Let? Or bringing new life & vigour to social housing estates?

Or have they got mortgages? Perhaps clubbing together to live in what English people might consider overcrowded circs, more like the flat shares of the 1960s