Monday, March 31, 2008

Power cuts

I rather wish I had not written about the electricity going off – I put a hex on something

Round about 2am on Sunday morning we had a power cut. Such things are not unknown round our way – we usually get one or two a year at least. I used to assume it was because of the vulnerability of the transmission lines to bad weather in the hills, but now I think they are more a problem of sub stations – this one was quite localised, not all the village was affected

Since they are not unusual we are well prepared. There is always a torch & a battery radio close to the bed, & a supply of household candles downstairs in case more wide spread illumination is needed

What makes power cuts far more tedious for me now is the bedside alarm-clock radio. I had to buy a new one about 2 years ago & got the only one available which could receive Long Wave, without thinking about the other features at all. So it was only when unpacked I found that it was all push-button operated & could not even be switched on without reference to the guidance notes which came on a piece of paper the size of a bedsheet (now reduced to something more the size of a pillow case since I cut off all the non-English sections)

There is a total of 19 separate buttons/rocker switches to press. I have never bothered to work out the total number of permutations/combinations on offer – I just grumble that even if each were just binary there would be ½ million to choose from

Once I got used to preselect (I tried it years ago & decided it was far too much of a fiddle having to remember which was which on each wavelength) I found that it offers considerable advantages for coping with another of our problems – unreliable FM reception. The extent to which this occurs around the country took even the BBC by surprise a few years back when they tried to take Radio4 off Long Wave. I suspect localised temperature inversions may be to blame – odd things happen to automatic radio controlled garage doors for example during inversions

Like a lot of people round here I had virtually given up ever trying to tune to FM – you waste too much time wondering if you have not found the station because you have been a bit too heavy handed with the tuning knob or because the signal is just not there. But with presets I do know at least that it is tuned to a frequency which picks up the station signal when it is there, & can just move on if nothing is audible.

But it is quite a palaver having to reset everything when the electricity comes back on. Having done all that on Sunday morning I went back to sleep, only to find that there had been a second power cut & I had to go through the whole business again when I woke up.

What makes this story so particularly galling is that one of the 19 buttons just switches from GMT to BST or back again. How handy, & what a bother that saves

Except when you have a power cut on the night the clocks go forward

Related post: Electricity pylons

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The ends of our world

One of the mysteries about the founding of Anglo-Saxon England is why there had been such a collapse in the infrastructure of towns after the withdrawal of the Romans. When Augustine came to Canterbury there was not much left of what had been a thriving town

Much the same thing happened, I believe, throughout Europe.

Now I learn from Paul Simons of a cataclysmic volcanic eruption, most recently estimated to have taken place in 535AD, about 60 years before the arrival of Augustine.

The eruption may have been the most dramatic of the last 2000 years & dimmed the sunlight for years afterwards, causing famine, conflicts & plague across the world

It is therefore no surprise that gangs of marauders from northern Europe should have arrived searching for better climes in England

I do not get exercised about the prospect of global warming & climate change. The idea that terrifies me – because it could lead to a similar total collapse in the infrastructure of towns – is the electricity going off. Perhaps because we are not in a strong enough position to compete with new consumers of oil & gas

Related post: The pump


Melanie McDonagh thinks that marriage has become a matter of class, something which demands a degree of commitment, emotional & financial stability

And, I would add, property & family connection. For marriage is not just something which concerns the couple who marry

It is not only tax laws in support of marriage which have been dismantled. Partly because of the greater emphasis on individual rights (even for children) laws which used to give responsibilities - & rights - to husbands & fathers have been dismantled, partly in the name of womens liberation. We frown on the use of family connection to give children a start in life – certainly in education & even in working class jobs where these still exist

I remember a tv investigation back in the 1980s, during the depths of the Thatcher industrial shakeout. Soon there began to be a fuss about single mothers on council estates. One woman interviewed – not a youngster, seemingly confident & capable – had 3 sons by at least 2 different fathers. The reporter asked, essentially, if she thought she was behaving in a sensible, moral way, should she not have got established with a husband before having children? Her reply was that she wanted to be a mother, she thought she was good at it, but since there were no jobs in the area a husband would be on benefit too & it would be like having just another child in the house

If the reporter pressed on what were her plans or hopes for turning her sons into good husband material, that part was not broadcast

Related posts:

Thursday, March 27, 2008

National feelings

Some time ago I read, in a footnote, that the word nationalism makes a surprisingly late first appearance in the catalogue of the Bodleian Library. Its first use is in the title of a late 19th Century pamphlet on Irish nationalism

Published in Manchester, & yes the Central Library has a copy

The author was active in the Home Rule Movement in Manchester & he was particularly concerned to analyse the origins of the sense of nationalism which seemed so strong in his compatriots

Interestingly, he dismisses straight away the idea that it comes from blood or race. How could it, when Ireland is such a melting pot, of the earliest known inhabitants admixed with Viking, Norman, Scottish & yes, English …

He came to the conclusion that it is the land, the soil, which in a quasi-mystical way shapes & moulds the people who live there

Not such an unusual idea, perhaps. The following comes from Caxtons Description of Britain, originally published in 1480

England is a good land, rich in wool, though a corner of the world

England is full of pleasures & full of noble people fully deserving enjoyment, fine men with noble tongues, noble hearts & everything about them noble

Their hands are more gracious & more generous than their tongues

In addition, England is a beautiful country, flower of all surrounding countries

The land is very pleasantly endowed with its own fruit & products

It offers relief to foreigners in need & when hunger afflicts other countries, it feeds them

The country is truly pleasant, whilst people live in peace

East & West, in every country, England’s havens are well known

It is provided with ships which often help other countries

In it, people always hold their food & money much more in common, & they gladly give gifts in exchange for learning

Far & wide, by land & sea, people speak of England

This island must surpass the rest in land, honey, milk & cheese

It has no need for other countries; they all have to ask for help from this one alone

King Solomon might well marvel at the delightfulness of this native land, & the Emperor Octavian might well long for the riches it contains

A Poet

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hymn to God, my God in my sickness

From another favourite poem by John Donne. I love the imagery of the map

SINCE I am coming to that Holy room,

Where, with Thy choir of saints for evermore,

I shall be made Thy music ; as I come

I tune the instrument here at the door,

And what I must do then, think here before ;

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown

Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie

Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown

That this is my south-west discovery,

Per fretum febris, by these straits to die ;

I joy, that in these straits I see my west ;

For, though those currents yield return to none,

What shall my west hurt me ? As west and east

In all flat maps—and I am one—are one,

So death doth touch the resurrection.

What am I?

I remember vividly the first time that I had to fill in one of those embarkation cards on a plane & was told, in no uncertain terms, that it was wrong to put my nationality as British: the correct answer was UK

I did what I was told. You do not mess with Immigration

So when I thought about it I was a bit surprised that all the talk is now about British citizenship. Surely Lord Goldsmith, as a former Attorney-General should know, & that was what he kept talking about

Is there a difference between nationality & citizenship?

I found out that I was right about having been a UK citizen – or more strictly, a Citizen of the United Kingdom & Colonies, but only up until 1981, when I became a British citizen. I never noticed this change & continued to put UK on immigration/embarkation documents, without anybody telling me different

Out of curiosity I took a close look at my passport

It still says, on the cover: United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland

Inside the front cover there is a reference to Her Britannic Majesty

In the Notes it says: British citizens have the right to abode in the United Kingdom, then defines various categories of British nationals who have no right of abode: British Dependent Territories citizens, British nationals (overseas), British Overseas citizens, British protected persons & British subjects

Does this mean that as British Citizens we are no longer subjects of the Queen?

I am confused

But I do hope that the nice lady from the Home Office was right. A long time ago I had cause to ring up to enquire about my status - you can tell it was a long time ago because I just got through very easily. I had been told that I had acquired - or been given - a different citizenship & was therefore no longer British. She assured me that it did not matter what anybody else said, as far as they were concerned I was & shall so remain

Related post: Dulce et decorum

Old joke:
What does British mean?
A Scotsman on the make

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Post-pill babies

I am usually eager to read the latest Donna Leon but for some reason did not feel like yet another tale about infertility when Suffer Little Children came out, so have only just got round to it

The repeated speculation about the reason for alleged reduced sperm counts in Western men reminded me of an older speculation of my own. I have never seen it mentioned anywhere else, which may be for the very good reason that it is a nonsense. Or just that I do not follow the literature on such topics. But here goes anyway

It is only since the 1960s, & really only since the mid-70s that women have, in any great numbers, begun their childbearing after what may be a lengthy period on the Pill

Contrary to widespread belief the Pill was not, in this country at least, easy to come by for unmarried women until 1973, when the Government made universal free contraception available on the NHS.

A GP could always provide the Pill on paid-for prescription if he felt it clinically indicated

In the 1960s many (mostly still male) GPs felt that they should certainly not condone immorality in unmarried women & many also felt that the avoidance of pregnancy was not in itself a clinical need in an otherwise healthy young woman. So they prescribed the Pill mainly for women who had completed their families, or for whom pregnancy could be dangerous

The Family Planning Association services were available usually only to those who were, or were about to be married. Brook Advisory operated only in London at first. Some local authorities provided contraceptive advice as a public health service. But generally speaking you had to be a pretty affluent & confident young woman to go looking for the Pill

My speculation about sperm counts is simply this: could a prolonged period on the Pill have any effect on the development of spermatogenesis in any subsequent son?

Postcode lobotomies

I wonder which medical treatments we might, at some future date, be thankful that we missed out on because of the postcode lottery?

I was thinking about this after reading a review of Howard Dullys memoir about his lobotomy

Egas Moniz won a share of the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1949 "for his discovery of the therapeutic value of leucotomy in certain psychoses", so it was a treatment with scientific respectability

It is unfair to his no doubt perfectly honourable Swiss co-winner to read anything in to the fact that his name was Walter Rudolf Hess, but some things you just could not make up

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Ants & blisters

I do not know if the David Cram who translated this is the person who wrote the delightful ditty about eating toast in bare feet

from Die Schnupftabakdose (The Snuff-box; 1912)

The Ants

Two ants from Central London planned
A visit to Van Diemen’s Land,
But on their way down Oxford Street
They both got blisters on their feet,
And so they wisely thought they’d skip
The last leg of their walking trip

Joachim Ringelnatz

Translated by David Cram

Related post: Ants & thunderstorms

Bus pass latest

It was announced on local radio last week that the county has extracted a special grant from the Government to pay for the continuation of half fares for the over-60s on local train journeys

I wonder how many other concessions have had to be made to cope with the vagaries of local travel in other areas of the country?

Related post: Trains & buses

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Homoskedacity means having the same statistical variance. I have always assumed that the word comes from the same Greek root as skew, but I could well be wrong. The OED offers no guidance on the matter

An assumption of equal variance makes for (relatively) easy & elegant calculations

With regression, for example, one can calculate the ‘best’ straight line which tells us the relationship between 2 variables, a line which we can perhaps only dimly see when the individual values are shown in a scatter plot

Perhaps weight & height

But for regression to be valid one has to assume that the variation of weight in short people is the same as the variation in the tall ones

If this is not tenable, the data are said to be heteroskedastic

All is not lost however. You can try transforming one or both of the variables - perhaps by taking logarithms. Or separating the observations into different groups – say men & women, or adults & children

Quetelet would not have known – formally – about the mathematics of linear regression. This came later, when Francis Galton (Darwins cousin) was trying to work out the relationship between the height of children & their parents & discovered regression to the mean

Quetelet seems to have grasped it instinctively however, when he observed that weight tends to increase according to the square of the height – but only in adults. Children were specifically excluded from this

Related posts:

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Discounted lives

It is a fundamental principle underlying the economic or financial analysis of saving & investment that, even in a world without monetary inflation, £1 today is worth more than £1 in the future. Humans generally prefer jam today to what maybe vague or uncertain promises of future goodies. There are standard methods of assessing how we estimate the discounted current value of future £s

Much medical research, by taking the postponement of death as the sole measure of success, carries the unspoken assumption that any pain or postponement of pleasure today is worth the extra time in the future

Anti-smoking campaigners, for example, have been known to call young people ill-informed because they tend to identify road accidents, rather than smoking, as the thing which is most likely to kill them. But, in a world & a time where the most likely cause of death for a girl of 14 is a ride in a young mans car, this seems an eminently rational answer to the question

Of course for a teenager the years of life beyond the decrepitude of 40 seem completely devoid of value

There is research which attempts to measure the quality of life after medical intervention, the courts are regularly called upon to put a value on a lost or damaged life, & many transport cost/benefit or safety studies attempt to measure the value of lives saved

I am trying to move towards asking how do we measure life qua life for ourselves, not necessarily for the economic or other value which we bring to society or to others

I found it quite useful to think about this in the wake of the ongoing fuss about HRT & breast cancer. For example headlines about the Million Women Study in 2003 all emphasised the estimated 20,000 additional cancers in a decade

But Richard Sullivan, head of clinical programmes at Cancer Research UK, said: "Each decision to start HRT should be made on an individual basis between each woman and her doctor." He pointed out that HRT speeds up—rather than causes—the onset of breast cancer, acting as "a promoter not an initiator."

So a woman considering whether to use HRT is not making a stark choice between hot flushes & cancer, but between hot flushes now & cancer at, say, 65 rather than 70

For a 50 year old woman at the peak of her career even a hard headed economic analysis might suggest HRT. But every woman has a right to make her own decision on this.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Lottery logic

In my personal economic calculus of the value of having a flutter on the National Lottery, it is never worth buying more than one ticket for a single draw

Reducing the odds against hitting the jackpot, from 14 million to 1 to 1.4 million to 1 is not worth £9 of my money

Adam Smith, I now find, had a much more elegant way of putting this

Because a lottery must bring some profit to the organizer, punters win back, in total, less than they put in

So by buying several tickets a punter actually increases the probability that they will make a loss: at the limit, if you buy all the tickets, you will certainly lose money because you win back less than you spent

Related post: The relative risk of winning the lottery

Monday, March 17, 2008

Science education

Robert Crampton, in The Times magazine: We were the sensitive arty types, we were so cool, so creative … It was obvious, it was axiomatic that our preoccupations were superior … I have gradually come to believe it was the chemists & geographers, the physicists & engineers, the medics & mathematicians who were getting the really good stuff

The tragedy in this is the nature of modern scientific education which crushes the imagination. Instead of encouraging thoughts about Where do we go from here? the emphasis is all on How did we get here? The standing on the shoulders of giants syndrome means that the young are expected, respectfully, to struggle to understand the world their predecessors lived in, to understand how they discovered the secrets of electricity, internet or aeroplanes. Only when they have learned all that are they fit for the job of exploring new frontiers

It also means that the only publishable science is that approved by the process of peer review. Peers, in this context, sometimes just means the intellectual equivalents of the masters of the game of Rugby Union as anathematised by Will Carling

Related posts: Creativity Irish jokes & schizophrenia


One of the nicest compliments I have received is You can read a table like I can read a book. I had just helped the giver to interpret a simple 4x3 statistical table

One of the most inspiring people I have worked for had the disconcerting ability to read whole books of statistical tables (think Economic Trends) like a conductor reads a score - & spot the wrong notes in it

I can read musical notation in the sense that I know Every Good Boy Deserves Favour & All Cows Eat Grass etc. I can follow a score while listening to an orchestral performance. I can – probably – recognise a few scores by looking at them, at least if it is Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata or Mozarts Clarinet concerto. I cannot look at a score – even a simple melodic line - & ‘hear’ the tune. I have tried to learn. Maybe if I truly persevered, one day it would click

I could go on - & on & on – with this deeply self absorbed analysis. What else do I have to go on?

What we call reading is, broadly but essentially, the ability to interpret the words represented by black squiggles on a white background

We – today – think that this is something virtually everybody should be able to do. It is part of what it means to be a human being

This belief, & the need for this particular skill, is surprisingly recent however. And the computer screen, with icons, is changing the meaning of reading in fundamental ways

Which is why trying to assign the diagnosis of dyslexia (with the implication that there is just one method of cure) to everybody who struggles to read old-fashioned text may be hopeless

It also means that it is wrong, hopeless & maybe even cruel to insist on only one method of teaching reading & writing. Children should be exposed to as many methods as possible to help find the one which may click with them

A picture is worth 1000 words but it uses up 1000 times the memory
The Times Magazine 7 April 2001

Related post: Reading & writing Do you mind? Does it matter? The average man Its a point of view

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Ad hominem

At school I was taught that ad hominem is logics equivalent to sarcasm (the lowest form of wit) or patriotism (the last refuge of a scoundrel).

These days ad hominem - or in some senses its opposite - seems to be the only acceptable form of argument:

Speaking as a Black person …
Speaking as an unmarried mother …
Speaking as an Arsenal supporter …
Speaking as a recovering alcoholic …
Speaking as a Muslim …

The rest of us can just shut up because we do not know what it is like

I think it is more alarming how interest is coming increasingly to be used to discredit scientific or medical findings. Do not give any credence to these findings about the effect of sugar on the human body – the professor once received a research grant from a manufacturer of soft drinks

Even worse: do not believe any of the so-called facts or arguments about GM food because all the research is financed by multi-national companies with an axe to grind. If Greenpeace says GM is bad they must be right because Greenpeace are good & have no axe to grind

It is the Mandy Rice-Davies theory of logic – He would say that, wouldn’t he

Have we really lost our ability to assess evidence, understand the research methods used, consider the logic of the arguments & inferences & then come to a conclusion about the value of the research?

Old love

This poem by Phyllis Fountain won Spectator competition #1633 many years ago

I love you in your long johns,
I love you in your socks,
But we may as well admit it:
We’re just two dear old crocks

We have travelled the world together
And the years have left their mark.
Do you think from now on, my darling

We ought to undress in the dark?

Friday, March 14, 2008

A drastic solution

An extraordinary photograph which appeared on every page of The Times Budget Special Report, in a column on how to adjust your personal finances

I expect there is a reference to some film or tv programme which completely escapes me

What it says to me is: If all else fails - shoot somebody

Though whether that should be yourself or the presumed author of your misfortunes remains unclear


I scanned these photos because they are so nice & I wanted to put them where I could find them

If you read the citation you will find that Michelle Goodman is a true heroine

Though generally I am against stories about the first woman this or that.

I am with another heroine, Florence Nightingale, on this:

Keep clear of the jargon about the ‘rights’ of women, which urges women to do all that men do, merely because men do it, & without regard to whether this is the best that women can do; and of that which urges women to do nothing men do, merely because they are women

You do not want the effect of your good things to be ‘How wonderful for a woman!’, YOU WANT TO DO THE THING THAT IS GOOD WHETHER IT IS SUITABLE FOR A WOMAN OR NOT

To praise women for doing what men do habitually is to reduce them to the status of Dr Howes Idiots whom, after 2 years of ceaseless labour he succeeded in teaching to eat with a knife & fork

Having said that, Michelle Goodmans achievement paradoxically reminds me of that old conundrum, which I have thought of much less as the years go by: What does it really feel like to be a man? (not nearly as different as many would have it)

Who is this?

Is this a photograph of Jeffrey Archer?

Related post: Is this Herman Munster?

Forsooth, begads

Swearing & oath are both words with problematic multiple meanings in English

The Oxford English Dictionary gives, as just 2 among many definitions of oath:

A solemn or formal declaration invoking God (or a god, or other object of reverence) as witness to the truth of a statement

A casual or careless appeal invoking God (or something sacred) in asseveration or imprecation, without intent of reverence, made in corroboration of a statement, declaration, etc.; a profane or blasphemous utterance; a curse.

And as definitions of swear:

To imprecate evil upon by an oath; to address with profane imprecation; to utter maledictions against; to curse

To promise or undertake something by an oath; to take an oath by way of a solemn promise or undertaking.

So, quite apart from the politics, it is not surprising that the suggestion that all schoolchildren should take some kind of oath of allegiance to the Crown has provoked a storm

The question of whether or not to require someone to take an oath, to whom & in order to earn which privilege has a long history of causing problems in politics, the law, even education, in England. And still does, even without a new one. Hence the spectacle of the late Tony Banks with his fingers crossed behind his back when being sworn in as an MP, or Sinn Feins refusal to take their Parliamentary seats

In the 19th century the taking, or not, of an oath was used to exclude Catholics, Jews, Atheists or Dissenters from Parliament, Oxbridge, & could even lead to a charge of contempt of court

That said, there is much in favour of some kind of ceremony. I always felt special, reciting my Brownie, then Girl Guide, Promise.

So perhaps what we need is the equivalent; just find words that mean a personal declaration or promise

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sugar regulation

Sainsburys have started to sell Fairtrade Demerara sugar – with no alternative

Trouble is, it is horrid. Gingery red-coloured sand, crystals way too small, & no proper taste of molasses

For over half a lifetime now I have never used anything but Demerara for normal drinks & cooking. I just acquired the taste. White sugar, with all traces of molasses removed, tastes almost sour

Demerara means sugar with quite large sharp, maybe irregular, crystals & a lovely yellowy golden colour

I have pretty much always known that there are no regulations covering the use of the term Demerara as applied to sugar. I knew there was something (to be avoided) called London Demerara, which was white granulated sugar with molasses added back in, but generally understood that brown sugar sold in this country would have kept its colour because the molasses had not been removed by refining. This does not generally seem to be the case in the rest of the world, particularly in the Americas

Then unrefined started to appear on some sugar labels. I was particularly startled to see that one upmarket pudding I bought in Waitrose claimed unrefined caster sugar as an ingredient – I thought all caster sugar was refined, by definition. Apparently not so – some of the molasses is kept in what is also known as golden caster sugar

It has always seemed odd that you cannot get Demerara sugar which comes from Demerara. Sainsburys used to get theirs from Barbados, but in more recent years it has come from Mauritius. This fairtrade stuff comes from Malawi

So in the Google age I went hunting for yet another set of regulations, which I duly found

The Specified Sugar Products Regulations 2003 SI No. 1563

Sadly, they do not apply to brown sugar at all

So, should I want to complain to Sainsburys it will just have to be on the grounds of personal taste

But first, I will just look out for a source of decent unrefined Demerara sugar which will not involve me compromising my anti-so-called-fair-trade principles either

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Crazy pavements

One more point then I really am going to move on

The blisters are not at all directional, so how does someone who is visually impaired tell the difference between the approach to a crossing & a strip which is laid at right angles across the pavement?

You put your kerbside up (at the bus stop)
You put your kerbside down (at the crossing)
Up, down, up, down

Shake yourself around (with tactile paving)
That’s what it's all about

Related posts: Tactile paving (2) Pavement blisters Tactile paving

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Pavement blisters

I have just been reading government regulations on 2 topics. One, a long standing bugbear, is tactile paving

The invidious spread of this stuff turns out to be necessitated by the new rules on making the world more accessible for wheelchair users & others who (like me) have trouble stepping down from a pavement. Kerb upstands, to use the jargon, have therefore been flattened. But this removes a vital clue for the visually impaired, one which stops them inadvertently stepping into traffic

So the answer is to install the appropriately named blister surfaces everywhere, not just at uncontrolled crossings as was previously the case

The original blister paving was known to cause problems to some people with arthritis or other problems.

The Catch-22 is that many visually impaired people also have diabetes, which makes their feet insensitive enough to need the kind of rigorous reminder which makes me want to shout ….

The new blisters, developed following much research & consultation, are a compromise. The original blister surface should no longer be used is advice which will no doubt one day be fully implemented

The other instruction to minimise the amount of tactile surface used and provide clear pathways around it is being very widely ignored.

All this thinking about mobility problems reminds me of something which continues to puzzle me about the Victorians. How on earth did they cope?

So many of their buildings are very difficult to get into - often necessitating a climb up steep stone stairs - think Liverpools Walker Art Gallery. But they were no better off once inside, with all those changes of level & complicated little winding staircases.

Did people with arthritis get carried about, or did they just have to stay at home?

No wonder so many Victorian women took to just lying on the sofa (allegedly)

Related post: Tactile paving

Monday, March 10, 2008

Are girls more likely to get divorced than boys?

Thinking about binomial families reminded me of some research I read about: Unmarried mothers are less likely to form a permanent (or even a temporary cohabiting) relationship with the child’s father if the child is a girl

This set me to wondering if the probability of divorce is higher for families which do not include a son

I am not suggesting that fathers value daughters less than sons (though they may). Both parents might consider that a girl suffers less from the loss of a father in the house

The ONS website provides statistics of the ages of children of divorcing couples, but nothing on their sex, as far as I can see

I have had no success finding anything via Google, except a new appreciation of the reason why people now prefer the term gender to sex

Related post: Binomial families

Baby boom & bust

The term Baby Boom originally applied very specifically to the peak in the birth rate in 1946-48 just after the end of WWII. Schools (and the new NHS) scrambled to cope

This group has been of policy interest again recently as they reach 60 & so qualify for pensions, bus passes & other concessions

In the years since, the term Baby Boomer has often been stretched, sometimes to include even those born in the 1960s – many of them the children of the original boomers

Out of curiosity I looked at just how unusual was the number of births in that 3-year post-war period compared with following decades

Births in England & Wales (millions)

1936-38(est) 1.9
1946-48........ 2.5
1956-58........ 2.2
1966-68........ 2.5
1976-78........ 1.7
1986-88....... 2.0
1996-98....... 1.9

In terms of numbers alone, one can see why the mid-60s are like the mid-40s

But the most interesting figure is the very low one for the mid-70s

Which, other things being equal, means an unprecedented drop in the number of late 20-somethings in England & Wales in recent years

Which puts Polish Plumbers in a whole new light – there really was a gap in the market on the supply side

Saturday, March 08, 2008


I hate wind. How is it that you struggle along a street in town in the face of a mini-gale, reach the corner with relief, turn 90° & find the wind is still blowing straight at you?

It also scares me when it starts to get noisy – legacy of the Second Hurricane in 1991. So with the latest weather forecasts, its going to be a rough couple of days in more than one sense

Related post: I love tall cranes Is North up or down? A mathematician named Darren

Turnip children

Breughels, to my eye, look static, snapshots frozen in the blink of a lens. With this verse of John Fullers in my head the projector gets switched on & the picture starts to move. Even the sound comes up


I linger in a room of Breughels, lost
To turnip children stout in winter clothes
Whose gods do not descend in poses full
Of lewd intent, but live in games & frost
And peasant weddings with their clogs & oaths

Friday, March 07, 2008

Saving the planet for future generations

Those who worry about population size & growth usually focus on births & the birthrate

But populations also grow when people live longer. Which makes it just as immoral to prolong a life, to postpone death, officiously to keep alive, as it is to create a new one


Live green, die young

Pass on your carbon allowance to your children sooner rather than later

Black & white songs

In the very early 70s I played at a West Indian wedding in London at which 2 of the special songs chosen by the happy couple were Young Gifted & Black and Im Dreaming of a White Christmas

This was not done out of a desire to make a point, it was just romantic. At that time White Christmas, at least during the December party season, fulfilled much the same function in the Eastern Caribbean as did Save the Last Dance For Me for those of my generation who went to dances in England in the 1950s

Not long after I had ‘discovered’ Langston Hughes I read in the Guardian that he had written Young Gifted & Black with Nina Simone, so I was particularly keen to find out more. It was not mentioned at all in the autobiography, nor in the biography by Rampersad. I tried my luck with various pop reference sources but got nowhere

But then Google came along & I was able finally to check. Sadly, in a way, this is not a Hughes anthem but was written with Weldon Irvine, Simone's music director. But not the less great for that

All the News you need

More & more these days I find I rely on the business pages for real, timely news about what matters in the world. Short, to the point, & wide ranging

Just one small instance from the not too distant past. A single paragraph told of the storms which had devastated the Italian basil crop. Some 3 days later this appeared on the main news pages, with most of the space taken up by a photograph of a farmer who presented a suitably Tuscan image

One does not, generally, expect socialism in the business leader comment. So the following from Antonia Senior on UK domestic energy prices came as a bit of a surprise:
Government intervention in markets can rarely be justified, but when the market is breeding the type of inequality that a society should be ashamed of, then ministers should rush to intervene

Leap year clocks

A diary piece complaining about the lack of a calendar or clock in a branch of Natwest bank was met with a piece of corporate PR double speak

I wonder if perhaps they had simply run into the same problem as a local branch of Barclays, whose electric wall calendar had disappeared earlier this week.

I was told it had been unable to cope with the Leap Year

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Means well

I sort of know what Paul Birtill means by this. It certainly applies with much more force, in my experience, to racists. Give me the BNP any day before a kindly liberal who thinks they have to be nice to people because poor things, it is not their fault

If I were a feminist
I should prefer a
Bible-thumping misogynist
To a liberated male who
Changes 1 in 10 nappies
& lets me go to my night-class
On Thursdays …

The Diary of an Unknown Woman

I do wish that BBC presentation would stop describing Ada Reece of South Kensington as just an unknown woman

She has a name

She had a family

Her diary has survived

And is providing the BBC with plenty of material for its drama series Writing the Century

What they mean, in this celebrity-obsessed age, is that she was not at all famous

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Numbering the dead

Tuesday morning Radio 4 Today programme. Tom Fielden, reporting rising food prices, informs us, in portentous tones, that the living outnumber the dead. There are more mouths to feed now than have needed to be fed in the whole of human history

You do not have to think very hard to realise that this cannot be true. We, collectively, have more than 7 billion ancestors.

A more elegant & detailed estimate of the total numbers of human deaths since 40,000 BC (60 billion) was given by Roger Thatcher, former Registrar-General, in papers read to the International Statistical Institute & the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1983

The interesting question is why people are so quick to believe this non-fact – it crops up regularly in all sorts of places and has done, in its modern form, for at least a quarter of a century. As Roger Thatcher said in his paper This has even been quoted in a debate in Parliament

Such credulity goes hand in hand with a dislike of the modern world, a mindset which says We are all doomed & it is all our fault

In the English case I put it all down to Malthusian guilt & the Irish Famine

Up to the 18th century at least a growing population was seen as a sign of Gods favour – Be fruitful & multiply. Bad weather, failure of the harvest, epidemic disease, were Gods punishment for our sins

Thus an Edinburgh clergyman Robert Wallace could take exactly the opposite of this modern view. He read a paper to the Edinburgh Philosophical Society arguing that the population of the ancient, civilised world of Greece & Rome was more numerous than that of their barbaric, papist influenced 1750s

David Hume begged to differ & published a spirited response: On the Populousness of Ancient Nations

It is worth quoting Humes concluding sentence:

The humour of blaming the present, and admiring the past, is strongly rooted in human nature, and has an influence even on persons endued with the profoundest judgment and most extensive learning.

A mathematician named Darren

Nice to see a mathematical breakthrough in modelling vortex dynamics headlined in the paper, albeit on page 25

It is wonderful to know that through purely mathematical imagination you can tell whether an unbuilt plane will fly

What I should like to know is if this extended formula can be used by town planners & architects to cut down on the problem of ground level winds caused by tall buildings. Which knock old ladies off their feet in city streets or near 1960s high rise flats built on the failed romantic picturesque ideal of towers in the park

And if the answer is yes, how do we ensure they start implementing it straight away

Link: Sonnet celebrating the elegance, ingenuity and sheer cerebral power of Darren Crowdy’s creative use of Schottky Groups to complete the Schwarz-Christoffel formula so that it works with irregular shapes and those with holes

Related posts: When Labour built 1 millon homes Creativity

Consumer boom

Another one to the point from Simon Rae


I’ve got a credit card or two
I don’t want any more;
And yet the application forms
Keep crashing through my door.

“Everyone could use more cash;
Why not take out a loan?
Our rates are very reasonable.
Come on, just lift the phone”

I’m tempted to, I really am,
Because I then could pay
A dozen nagging charities
And make them go away

My name is entered in the draw
- The biggest prize to date;
Yet I don’t want the book, the car,
Commemorative plate,

The holiday for two abroad
The time-share pad in Spain,
Encyclopedias, CDs:
I’d like to make that plain.

No, what Id really like to get,
Before going round the bend,
Is something far more valuable:
A letter from a friend

Related post: They used to do WHAT?

A sign of inflation

I just walked past a £ store in Manchester which has a nice new red & white sign:


Only most? Used to be everything. Does this signal a move up market?

Or just another sign of inflation

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Plastic bags

Melanie Reid is a heroine, even if her editor thinks she is a little bit carried away with enthusiasm

Plastic bags are symbolic of thrifty, sensible Middle England. People take for granted their phenomenal flexibility for carrying, containing, keeping water out or dampness in. Shopping is just the start of it. No man born of woman does not avail himself of a plastic bag at some point in every day, be it for carrying papers, storing smelly gym kit or wet swimming costume, protecting his lunch in the office fridge, or making a parachute for his Action Man.

And no woman, either. Among a myriad uses, plastic bags are irreplaceable for packing shoes, storing paintbrushes in, shredding for craft projects, fancy dress, keeping clothes dry in rucksacks, wrapping round plastered limbs in showers, putting wet umbrellas in, holding rubbish in cars.

We use them to protect the precious and dispose of the dirty - lifting dog waste, wrapping soiled nappies. We line dustbins and lift cat litter; we separate our recycling with them.
The Times March 3, 2008

Related post:
Save the supermarket plastic bag

Going to the altar

Some years ago in an adult education class one of the members told how, since white did not suit her, she had chosen a very pale pink wedding dress:

My father was very upset

Most of the rest of us (ladies of a certain age) giggled. The solitary young male student said he did not get the joke

When I was in my teens the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire got married in a local church wearing a severely plain white dress – high neck, long sleeves. Carrying a bouquet of single white lilies. A neighbour (who we all thought rather grand) said I think her mother is rather over-doing it

When I got married my mother (who knew I had been sleeping with my boyfriend) said I could have a white wedding dress if I wanted, but it would have to be short. If I wanted a long dress, it would have to be a different colour

To be honest, I am still a little bit shocked by the sight of a bride in a shoulderless, strapless, perhaps even backless, dress

But then yesterday I listened to an item on Womans Hour about the 'cultural' problem faced by Asian brides in this country who have to maintain today the same fiction which we had to then

Related posts: They used to do WHAT?
Till death us do part?

Investing in daughters

I was surprised to find out yesterday that Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was still alive in 1914, addressing an audience of new women medical students & their parents in London

One of her hearers in particular took as her most telling point that a daughters professional education provided a more reliable investment in those dangerous times than any amount of money in stocks & shares

Related post: Binomial families

Monday, March 03, 2008

Downcast our podload – Laurie Taylor getting his words muxed up on Radio4

Flying days

I did a lot of flying- part of my job – in the late 1960s, early 1970s

In those (pre-Jumbo!) days the international airline network was pretty undeveloped – only 2 flights a week between London & Barbados, for example

So route planning was complicated – you needed a good travel agent. Even so, you could find yourself waiting for a day or two - or 3 – in one city before you could fly on to the next. And since delays were common, you could equally find yourself stranded because of a missed connection

The good thing about this was that the airline took complete responsibility for you – hotel, meals, transport to & from the airport

Although in retrospect my recognition of the privilege grows, at the time I thought of it as an imposition. Being away from home, living out of a suitcase in a hotel which could be anywhere. Seen one Hilton, seen them all

And so I found myself in Lima. Getting there had been surprisingly easy on a Sunday but getting home on Wednesday more difficult. The options boiled down to waiting for the return flight on Sunday, a complicated journey via Panama & Miami which would get me home late on Saturday, or cross to Rio, wait 2 days & get home in the small hours of Friday/Saturday night. Rio was definitely the more attractive option, but involved a bit of a guilt trip – holiday on expenses

Then someone said: You could go to Machu Picchu. The plane goes up on Thursday, you could be back in time for your flight on Sunday, be home barely 24 hours after the quickest alternative

I had never heard of Machu Picchu, but when it was explained, the choice made itself. A lot cheaper than the other options too

Jumping in the river

Although we had no tv advertising until I was in my teens we had our own version of pester power

But everybody else has one/ is being allowed to go to .. we would wail or shout at our mother

Most, like mine, had a robust response to this: Oh - & if everybody else jumped in the river I suppose you would jump in after them?

It is impossible to say whether we were more or less anxious to conform than are children today – I suspect teenagers are the same in any age

I do remember one girl with an unconventional mother who stood out in her dress, beliefs & kinds of things she did. I do not think she was bullied or ostracized ( her view may well be different)

Our attitude was partly slight pity – Oh, she cannot come, her mother will not let her (glad of our mothers conformity)– to admiration for such doughty independence, tinged with a tiny bit of fear that someone could be so unintimidated by what other people thought

The price of codeine

We know inflation is back in food & energy prices & council tax but there has been an extraordinary price increase of over 20% for Boots own brand aspirin & codeine tablets – up from £1.65 to £1.99 for 32

Is this a side effect of the Afghan War?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Dry stone walls

There is some interesting thinking coming out of the Conservative party these days. Whether this can be turned into a coherent programme for government, & whether anybody can then articulate a central idea(l) to inspire the voters remains to be seen

One article I saw recently used the dry stone wall as a metaphor for society. In the particular case they were talking of a barn somewhere like Oxfordshire, not a style of building with which I am familiar

The dry stone field wall is a familiar feature of the Pennines, marching over hills & moor to mark out territory & provide protection for the sheep from the weather

The walls are not particularly high – 6 feet would be unusual. As far as I know there is very little dressing of the stones – construction depends on judicious selection & great skill in fitting them together. It is a craft, learned by experience

The mathematics of the dry stone wall must be horrendous. Next to impossible to write down detailed formulae, performance targets & quality checks

The walls are easy to climb, offering numerous hand & foot holds. But they are not reliably stable structures. One learned as a very young child how to judge whether a particular section was safe to climb, how to avoid the disaster of being buried under a mini rock fall

Some animals seemed particularly adept at judging which spot could be charged to make possible their own bid for freedom

These days it is quite likely that dry stone walls, especially those close to human developments, will be mortared, partly for health & safety reasons, partly because the human labour needed to maintain them is a scarce luxury now

One near to me has been daubed with ugly splodges of pinkish mortar. I should like to think this is an attempt to make it look authentically hand crafted by rude forefathers, but I suspect it is just out of penny pinching & poor workmanship

So that’s two kinds of dry stone wall. Then there is Machu Picchu

Related posts: Electricity pylons Quarries

What will survive of us?

I do not know if the echoes of Larkins Arundel Tomb are deliberate


Time was when you & I would lie at night
As in our graves – a stone-faced, silent pair
Of effigies, the lady & her knight
Grown thin with all the years of shared care

I was entombed, a warrior no more,
Enchained by all the vows I once had made;
No more the lover or the troubadour,
I thirsted for the songs I once had played.

And so I left you, as in many a song,
And played the knight to many a damsel fair
And wooed them with my words, some false, some true –

Until the nights of love grew just as long
And just as cold, & just as short of air
And in my sleep I reached for you. For you.

Jonathan Steffen