Sunday, August 31, 2008

Library ladders

If I want to reach a book from the top shelf in the library, I just stretch up my arm & take it

My friend does not do that. She may ask someone else to get it for her

There’s no point shouting at her, telling her to get it herself, stop being lazy, make the effort. She is only 5’ 1” tall

Thank heavens someone long ago invented the library steps, or more recently the brilliant, Dalek look-alike kick step

So far, so obvious

But why, when the reason is not obvious, are we so ready to assume that people are just being lazy, ignorant, slave to their own impulses, whatever, when the reason, if only we could understand it, is an equally obvious, & ultimately physical, limitation on their freedom of action, which needs a different kind of action to overcome

BMI over 25? You eat too much. Pull yourself together

Still smoking? Where is your will power?

Walk past people in the street? Who does she think she is, ignoring me like that

And on, and on

Actually, I need help with the books on the top shelf nowadays. I can no longer read what it says on the spine, so I need to get up close & personal. Thank heavens someone already invented library steps, so I can just help myself without anybody thinking it odd, or without my having to own up to my age-related decline

How can genes move without people?

To reduce it to its most simple:

Suppose boy from Cave #1 shares his genes with those of girl from Cave #2. Each stays living in their own family home, there is no custom for setting up home on your own

In due course, the new boy from Cave #2 shares his genes with a girl from Cave #3

The procedure is repeated, until eventually genes from Caves 1 & 2 have reached Cave 10 …..

Now multiply this up, wrap it in clever mathematics, matrices or something well beyond my payscale, & there you have it

Saturday, August 30, 2008


Two palindromes I love - short & very sweet & ever so slightly mysterious:

Never odd or even

Do geese see God?

Relative density

Much to my astonishment, for each of the last 4 weeks I have produced only 1 (by no means bulging) supermarket plastic carrier bagful of non-recyclable rubbish. It used to be 3 or 4

This has been achieved mostly by a reduction in volume, rather than in mass. I ruthlessly squash all plastic – food trays, yoghourt pots etc. It involves sheets of newspaper on the floor & much stamping with my garden shoes on. Rather therapeutic, on bad days.

I remind myself of my mother – you could tell it was best to make yourself scarce when she was chopping wood (for kindling for the fire) or flattening cardboard boxes. We used to get rather a lot of those, back then, because they were used for transporting all sorts of thing, including the weekly order delivered by the grocer’s boy on his bicycle. We made good use of as many as we could – for example, storing apples for the winter - but eventually some just had to go

The other ways in which I have reduced domestic waste are by being more careful about food – anything in the fridge or the vegetable basket has to be eaten. Which has led to some rather interesting soups, stews, fried rice or frittatas. Not sure if I am going to keep that up.

And being a bit more careful about using tissues, kitchen towel & cotton wool pads.

And cleaning all aluminium foil, squdging it into a ball so that it can go with the recycling

Oh, and leaving more of my waste behind. It was an old habit, bringing my waste home with me, which dated back to the time when public litter bins were less common on the street, & much less frequently emptied. Now I leave any newspaper supplements or inserts which I will not read, cigarette packets, surplus packaging etc etc behind

So plastic, household paper, a small amount of vegetable peelings, egg shells etc - that is it

With agreement from my neighbour I take the double wrapped bag & put it in her wheelie bin, which saves me a chore & saves the bin men a few seconds. We shall have to stop that if they start charging for waste

Friday, August 29, 2008

Golden lottery

I was really intrigued by this photo of Michael Phelps, which was used in an Omega ad. I wonder how much of his success is made possible by the physical properties he drew in the nature/nurture lottery, bearing in mind that the picture may have been electronically altered for artistic effect.

This is not to suggest that years of effort & training do not count - we can all improve on what we start with; but nature is bound to set limits on what can be achieved.

The first noticeable features are the curves at the edges of chest & thigh. I display real ignorance when I ask if you can have muscles up there – it seems to be all bone in me! In comparison with those thighs however, the legs below the knee look almost as undeveloped as the tadpole legs of a baby

Then there are those broad feet & unusually gappy toes. Does it help or hinder his forward propulsion to have water rushing through those gaps?

And those long arms*. Doing the best I can with an ordinary straight edge ruler I reckon that, with long, long fingers fully extended, they will reach to his knees, something usually associated (in cartoons) only with very low IQ

Together with the information that his training diet comes to 12,000 calories a day, he is living proof that variance, not averages, are the statistics which count

Without variation there can be no evolution, no progress

*Post script: Phelps is 6ft 4in tall with an armspan of 6ft 7in

Louis Smith, who won a bronze medal for Britain in the gymnastics, also has unusually long arms, with his span being 2" greater than his height. In his case the extra length seems to lie entirely between elbow & wrist, his upper arms look a normal length

The poor young man has also developed back problems from all his training on the pommel horse - he cannot stand for more than 30 minutes at a time

Related post: Ancient feet

Black communities

Another programme about knife crime & youth murders on the radio last night

Discussion of what is undeniably true – the current wave involves a disproportionate number of young ‘black’ boys

So, much discussion about the black community

This really does not make much sense. There is a black community only in the way that there is a white one, if ‘We’ all, English, Polish, Jewish, Irish, Catholic, Scottish, Liverpudlian, Cornishman, old, young, Oxbridge graduate, NEET – we all share values, customs, experience & as a community are responsible sometimes only for our own, not for ‘them’

In the same way, West Indians, Africans, middle-class professionals, footballers, Mancunians, Brummies, musicians, Muslims, Evangelicals, boys excluded from school, English-born, refugee, have no more necessarily in common than the colour of their skin - & even that is true only if you stretch black to mean not exactly white

Even back in the 1960s, when the word black was not considered polite and non-white faces were only just becoming a commonplace in our cities, there was an interesting debate (at least among my fellow students) about whether you could tell the difference, on sight, between an African & someone from the Caribbean. I think you could, with a high degree of accuracy, though obviously not 100%. We notice more tell-tale signs than we think

We know that the simple questions What is your name? & Which school did you go to?, are, or could be, loaded questions in Northern Ireland, revealing as they almost certainly did, whether you were Catholic or Protestant. I was fascinated by an (Open University?) programme, which reported research which demonstrated that Northern Irish people could also tell, with a high degree of accuracy, someone’s religion from a photograph

There may be nothing in this, but I am surprised never to hear anyone bring it up in relation to youth crime. The influx of black people of many different national origins is one of the things which has changed in the last decade or so. How much does the current unrest spring from rivalries between boys of different national origins? Somalis v Eritreans, Jamaicans v Eastern Caribbeans, West v East Africans. Mixed race v ‘pure black’.

Or whatever

SAD summer

Paul Simons, weatherman, as always has put his finger on it

This August has not been especially wet – on course only to be the wettest since 2004!

Not particularly cold, either, though not mostly warm enough to go out without a jacket or sweater. Not even warm enough, most days, to sit comfortably in the garden

What it has been is gloomy & overcast. Rain is always threatening, so you cannot go out without umbrella, or shower proof jacket & having to decide whether to risk sandals or settle for something more solid to guarantee dry feet

No cheerful cheering sun

Overcast also means no starry nights

Even a small dose of stargazing last thing before going to bed lifts the soul

On nights when I have trouble sleeping – or even just on pleasant late evenings - I like to go out & sit on the wall by the stream. The sound of running water, the feel of cool air on the face, looking at the stars (& the flashing lights of the occasional passing plane) are better than any sedative

As it is, we are all just suffering from unseasonal SAD

Thursday, August 28, 2008

English as she is spoke

Much talk – again – about the desirability of simplifying English spelling

Even as someone who took to reading, writing – yes and spelling - very easily, I can have some sympathy with this, though you do not have to think about it for very long to realise what a fond hope it is.

Phonetically, whose pronunciation do we go for – even if we think only about ENGLISH English & leave all other nations to do their own thing?

What do we do about useful homonyms/homophones such as rite, write, right, wright?

Better to think of it all as just a delightful game

There is however scope for considering how we should treat those who do not find it so easy

One of the brightest, most energetic & far sighted people I know cannot spell – though secretaries & colleagues usually do not have too much trouble deciphering anything he has written. In his case however, they are only too willing to make the effort.

I was at school with a boy, a son of Chinese immigrants. Everybody knew he was an outstanding chemist, but he failed repeatedly to pass his English O level, a basic requirement for university entrance. It was not just the family background – his brothers & sisters did not share his problem. In the end some kind of compromise was found, though I do not know what it was

I heard someone on the radio talking about a man who is one of the best paediatric brain surgeons. It took him much struggle, & many more years than is normal, to acquire his medical qualifications because of dyslexia

Should we be prepared to excuse, or make allowances for those who have such handicaps only if they show such determination or show that they are outstanding in other ways?

There may be some scope for having a kind of hierarchy of penalties for misspellings in public examinations – going easy on those who spell supersede with a c, for example

There used to be a system like this of a sort when students in the West Indies took the standard English GCEs. A committee of distinguished folk would draw up a list of Caribbean usages which were acceptable & should not be penalised by the English markers

Cartoon by Austin

Who do they think they are?

When I was a child it was common to be ticked off for using the word she

She is the cat’s mother. Use her proper name

This mystifies me still

But perhaps some atavistic objection to the pronoun partly explains why, before the 1970s wave of feminism, most people were happy that, linguistically speaking, the male embraced the female

The pronoun which I should like to see banned is they

Not in a simple everyday sense: “Where are the children?” “They are in the garden”

It is the they who are not us which upsets me. They who do things which people like us would not dream of doing. They who are they just because they look like, share a skin colour or a nationality with, someone who has done something we deplore

The they who have only one identity

Who perforce share all the qualities or characteristics which we assign to their community

M le médecin

I love finding out about the etymology of words – not for the purpose of deciding the ‘correct’ meanings, but for what it tells us about our history. The only value of ‘correct’ usage, in meaning, spelling or grammar, is that it makes it much easier to read & understand.

In fact my definition of good writing is that you forget you are actually reading , which you cannot do if you are constantly having to cope with the unconventional or unfamiliar

There is one exception to this generally relaxed view of either proscription or prescription: the word doctor

Especially as in: He is not a proper doctor, he has a PhD

Doctor comes from the Latin word meaning to teach. Dum docent discunt

A doctorate was the highest degree which could be awarded by a university & demonstrated that truly you had something to teach others

Then, somehow, as Mrs Gaskell acidly remarked, along come these whippersnappers with a mere two bachelor degrees, daring to call themselves doctor

Who have always to be dragged, arms twisted, to teach us anything (except that it is all our own fault because we are sinners). It seems incredible now, but I am old enough to remember the fight there was to give patients the right to know which drugs they were taking. As a child we got bottles or boxes labelled The Mixture or The Tablets

Funnily enough the word I can be relied upon to spell wrongly, & to miss in proof reading, is medecine. But that’s just the French for you

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


One of the things I got from Sesame & Lilies which is new to me is that Lady means bread giver, or loaf giver, & that Lord means maintainer of laws

Well, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Ruskin was partly right. According to that authority Lady is derived from the Old English words for bread (loaf) + knead, though it cautions that the etymology is not very plausible with regard to sense

Lord is a combination of loaf & ward – or bread keeper. Nothing to do with law. It meant the head of a household in his relation to the servants and dependents who eat his bread, but it had already acquired a wider application before the literary period of Old English

The association with bread set me thinking about our modern honours system

Not bread in the slang sense – not cash for honours

But one joke is that the only thing a title is good for is getting a table in the best restaurants. Bread takers, in other words

Now I appreciate that many who are honoured have given sterling public or charitable service

But it would do no harm to bring back something of the notion that the acquisition of an honour brings with it the idea of some kind of obligation to the giving of bread (service & charity)

Boys used to be boys

Boys are now twice as likely to get injured falling out of bed as they are falling out of trees, according to statistics from accident & emergency departments. Seven years ago the numbers were equal

I missed that item in the press, but have caught up with it in the June edition of Significance, the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society

What I liked about this item was that the (unnamed) author first offers 7 possible explanations for this social change. For example, #5: small modern homes → more children sleeping in bunk beds → further to fall

Only then do they mention what most people would leap to as the obvious conclusion: removal of freedom to roam, helicopter parenting, addiction to computer games


One of the library rejects I have been reading is Jerome K Jerome’s Idle Ideas in 1905

Although ponderous & pompous in places, there was lots to make me smile, even laugh out loud in these gloomy days

Some things never change. In a piece called Should Women Be Beautiful? he says "In the future there are going to be no pretty girls, for the simple reason there will be no plain girls against which to contrast them." Though in those days it was all lotions & potions, he could have written the same in today’s world of plastic surgery

He is interesting on other writers: Thackeray, wittiest, gentlest of men, in spite of the faint suspicion of snobbishness that clings to him; Charles Dickens prone, we know, just ever so slightly to gush; Scott’s women merely the prizes the hero had to win in the end, like the sucking pig or the leg of mutton for which the yokel climbs the greasy pole.

But the biggest surprises come (for me) when he comments on Russia & China

[The Russians] strike the stranger as a childlike people, but you are possessed with a haunting sense of ugly traits beneath. The workers--slaves it would be almost more correct to call them--allow themselves to be exploited with the uncomplaining patience of intelligent animals. Yet every educated Russian you talk to on the subject knows that revolution is coming.

Corruption appears to be so general throughout the whole of Russia that all classes have come to accept it as part of the established order of things.

The world will be glad of Russia--when she has put her house in order.

The present trouble in the East would never have occurred but for the white man's enthusiasm for bearing other people's burdens. What we call the yellow danger is the fear that the yellow man may before long request us, so far as he is concerned, to put his particular burden down. It may occur to him that, seeing it is his property, he would just as soon carry it himself.

A friend of mine … sees rising from the East the dawn of a new day in the world's history. The yellow danger is to him a golden hope. He sees a race long stagnant, stretching its giant limbs with the first vague movements of returning life. He is a poor sort of patriot; he calls himself, I suppose, a white man, yet he shamelessly confesses he would rather see Asia's millions rise from the ruins of their ancient civilization to take their part in the future of humanity, than that half the population of the globe should remain bound in savagery for the pleasure and the profit of his own particular species.

Not what the yellow man has absorbed from Europe, but what he is going to give Europe it is that interests my friend. He is watching the birth of a new force--an influence as yet unknown. He clings to the fond belief that new ideas, new formulae, to replace the old worn shibboleths, may, during these thousands of years, have been developing in those keen brains that behind the impressive yellow mask have been working so long in silence and in mystery.

All this written in 1905

Not all just buttoned up Edwardians, sleepwalking towards a World War

As one of my history tutors once said, when you really look, things were never really just as people think they were

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Baby of the class

One of our Olympic athletes was due to become a father for the first time while he was away in Beijing, though the chances are he will now be home in time for the birth

The happy mother-to-be said on the radio that, when they expressed some disappointment about the due date, the midwife immediately assumed that they were worried about the effect on the baby’s schooling, since August babies are always the youngest in the class.

This made me remember my surprise when a friend (a headteacher herself) expressed concern that her grandchild was expected to be an August baby

There is of course research which shows that late summer babies ‘tend to’ do worse in exams & tests

But there are always (at least) two ways of looking at things

Suppose the baby is bright? Then they will avoid the problem of finding school boring as they work at the pace of the slowest child, & therefore possibly switching off & becoming disruptive

Spelling confucion

According to a report this week, supersede is the most commonly misspelt word in English

I have always believed that people tend to spell it with a 'c' because of a kind of word association: it means, in a sense, to win or to prevail. Therefore somebody must have lost, given in, yielded or ceded (even conceded)

Our Latin teacher taught us otherwise. It comes from the Latin for ‘sit upon’ – so think sedentary & remember the 's'

For my generation at least, it also amused the adolescent mind. Does anybody still use the word situpon as a noun, to refer to a part of the anatomy?

Confusingly, however, The Times (possibly quoting Collins Dictionary, who did the research) says that supersede comes from a Latin word meaning desist

My copy of Chambers agrees with my Latin teacher.

As does the OED. Which also adds, helpfully, that in Old French & (often) in Medieval Latin, it was spelt with a c!

All of which just goes to prove – something or the other

Fit for a woman

I came across this in a commonplace book at the weekend. Coming so soon after reading Ruskin, it actually made me smile (ruefully)

When I was in Cambridge ... the question came up whether to award degrees to women. On the one side were men who worked in laboratories, & on the other, including physicians, those who worked with human beings. Almost to a man, those in favour of granting degrees to women were the people who dealt with lifeless matter, while those who dealt with women as living creatures were opposed

Alfred North Whitehead: Dialogues

Monday, August 25, 2008

Equations for life

P = R – C

Profit equals revenue minus cost

Such a simple equation but such a cause of so much argument, some of it bloody & violent

What is revenue & who gets it?

What are costs & who pays them?

Many are still uneasy with the very idea of profit. Richard Branson made much in his failed bid for the National Lottery that there would be no nasty profits

Ah yes, but what about R and C

E = mc² said Einstein

Which seems almost as simple

But: there is a square in there. And time

The world exploded

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Believe what you want

A man has just been jailed for 18 months for fraud on the NHS. He was a stop-smoking counsellor, paid £45 for each successful case. He claimed 2,017 successes in 6 months, the next-best adviser could manage only 75.

Nobody thought this suspicious. His deception came to light only when officials examined his methods with a view to sharing best practice

The judge was scathing: “This scheme has properly been described as pseudo-medical … an astonishing way to spend public money

A spokesman for the Department of Health said:” We know that NHS stop-smoking services have been hugely effective in helping people quit

So that’s all right then

Government computers & privacy

Another vital issue we discussed was the timing of the pension plan. After my visit to Newcastle I’d insisted that we could save a whole year by speeding up the building of the computers

But they haven’t even begun to construct the computers yet & anyway they’re not sure that the machines can actually do all the complex tasks we are setting for them

So we are taking a very big risk in assuming they’ll be ready, but meanwhile we agreed we would go ahead on the assumption they’ll be ready in 1971

Richard Crossman Diaries III

So there is absolutely nothing new in Ministers, anxious to make their mark & secure their legacy, taking an optimistic view of what can be done with computers. At least Crossman was fully aware of the risk he was taking

I do not know what happened to the pension plan, but when I was involved in some dealings with Newcastle later in the 1970s I got the impression that the computer people were very much in charge – policy implementation could happen when they said it was feasible

One thing we all took for granted was that raw data could not be passed outside the department. We were dependent on their being able to find the time & the capacity to produce the statistical tables which were needed for our own department’s purposes

This lack of data-sharing within government is easily mocked & lambasted, by Ministers, & by the public who resent having to give the same basic information over & over again. But the implications of sharing data really do need to be carefully thought through, & safeguards put in place

With the latest loss of personal data by the Home Office it really is impossible to believe that these things happen neither just because they can, (masses of data can be stored on something the size of a packet of chewing gum), nor because a dopey civil service is too absent minded, not up to speed with technology or just generally unfit for purpose
Something has changed fundamentally since the days when it was an absolute given that personal data is private To illustrate the seriousness with which we guarded privacy: I was once involved in an incident where it was all hands to the mill one Friday afternoon. We had to tear a strip off the bottom of the last page of each of some 6000 questionnaires. Many of these gave a telephone contact number for the respondent – given voluntarily but at our request, to speed up the processing of any queries we might have. There were no names or addresses on the form, just a code number to which we held the single key. Problem was, the forms were now to be sent to an outside firm for keying on to the computer, & it was an absolute rule that no personal details should be seen by anyone outside

So what has happened? I
t is tempting to blame it in part on New Labour’s We are the masters now attitude combined with their lack of experience in running anything, but all Ministers with an eye to legacy are vulnerable to claims (often made by somebody they met at some official, but social event) that new technology can provide just what they are looking for – if only they all get a move on, stop wasting time with pettifogging rules & restrictions on action
The emphasis on delivery goes back at least to the days of Thatcher’s “Bring me solutions, not problems
Joined up government – belief that one knows, all should know

The hiving off of tasks to arms-length agencies or outside private contractors makes control, & the inculcation of a collegiate respect for privacy more difficult, when performance bonuses & contracts depend on meeting deadlines
Freedom of Information (MPs expenses & other individual data not immune to release under this Act)
Celebrity culture - letting it all hang out – misery memoirs – crying in public - what have you got to hide?
Politicians desensitised to privacy because of their own wounding experiences – or just getting their own backs?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Who are we?

Harold Wilson believed that he lost the 1970 election because England failed to win the World Cup

Does anybody believe that Gordon Brown’s electoral prospects will improve because of Team GB’s success in the Olympics? or has John Major succeeded in grabbing all the credit for the Conservatives?

And anyway, when did we become Great Britain for this purpose? I am sure I remember waiting forever for our team to parade in under ‘U’ for United Kingdom at the Opening & Closing ceremonies, so I do not think it goes back to the change of citizenship laws in 1981

How do the Northern Irish feel about this?

And since we have competitors from the Isle of Man (+ the Channel Islands?) in our team, should we not really be The British Isles?

Related post: What am I?

Age bars

Why can a 14 year old boy compete in the Olympic diving, when a 14 year old girl is not allowed to compete as a gymnast?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Where have all the flowers gone?

Correspondence in The Times has suggested that dandelions have disappeared from the north this year

Well, my back yard is testament to the fact that there are still plenty around. They just have not been flowering. So maybe (finger crossed) the shortage of seeds will mean a shortage of plants next year

I have also been wondering about Himalayan balsam which, I have just learned, is actually a relative of the Busy Lizzie.

They used to infest every river bank round here; some believe they should be eradicated, but I find the massed pink rather appealing.

This year – perhaps because of human intervention – it has been barely noticeable. But then I did see a large clump on one bit of the riverbank but actually in a (well-maintained) private garden. Thing is though, it was almost white, not at all pink

Just feeling all washed out, like the rest of us I expect

U A Fanthorpe

UA Fanthorpe’s poems remind me a little of Elizabeth Jennings because they are so personal & deeply felt. They do however seem a bit more angular, waspish maybe, angst-ridden even

I do enjoy Dear True Love, in which she gently, but exasperatedly, tells her true love that, really, she does not need twelve whole days worth of Christmas gifts – one ring will do:

Hens, colly birds, doves –
A gastronome’s treat.
But love, I did tell you,
I’ve given up meat.

Your fairy-tale presents
Are wasted on me.
Just send me your love
And set all the birds free

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Learning something new

Shop signs are one of the joys of India, with their quirky names & explanations of services offered. I have several photos in my collection

It was the hissing noise which attracted my attention to the large van parked outside the pub

It had an unusual amount of lettering over sides & back

Savanna Gases of Stockport

We put the sparkle in your drinks 7 days a week

Soft drinks

Suppliers of CO2
Mixer gases

I did not know this sort of business existed, though I suppose it is a commonplace to anyone familiar with the pub trade

I am sorry I did not have a camera with me

Bicycles & things

Bicycles are in the news this week, what with the Olympics & all

Perhaps that is why some other bicycle related items caught my attention

I have been skimming through some (not very good) pieces by Robert Benchley from the 1930s (Benchley Lost and Found: 39 Prodigal Pieces )

One piece, The Return of the Bicycle, does seem prophetic:

With the complete collapse of the automobile as a means of transportation … Any agencies of propulsion which depend upon such tricky outside helps as gasoline, heavy motors … All motors giving off carbon-monoxide exhaust … should be confiscated

And best of all:

If motorists want to leave their “cars” anywhere, let them leave them at home where they will be out of decent people’s way

Many years ago I heard on the radio that, in any medium sized town, 40% of the land area, during the day, would be occupied by parked cars. This seemed a bit excessive, but not long afterwards I was crossing the whole of Manchester by train. That line travels on a viaduct, so one has an unrivalled view of the lie of the land. I was shocked by the amount occupied by tons of steel going nowhere for 8 hours or more

Since then there has been much regeneration, the value of the land has risen, & there are more multi-storey car parks which may have reduced the actual area of ground so covered, but still …

Or take the district general hospital. Every day, it seems, they devise another unsightly method of shoehorning more parked cars into the site. And still residents of surrounding streets find their access blocked by the parked cars of hospital visitors & staff

And why do people think that they own the piece of road outside their house, which it is theirs & theirs alone to park on? As park they do, causing congestion & delays to buses. Surely they should have to purchase some specific form of lease to do this?

I realise that in some places residents already have to pay for parking, but in this relatively less densely populated area, with relatively lower levels of car ownership, any such proposal would probably cause an uprising

The other bicycle related story I noticed is in fact a very old one. The Times published, in its Archive series, a picture of the machine in which Bleriot made the first Channel crossing being brought out to celebrate the 25 anniversary of his feat

I must have seen a picture of his machine many times before, but this is the first time that I have noticed the bicycle-like contraption on which he sat. Surely the whole thing was not driven by pedal power?

Realted posts: Cynical cycling

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Self expression

TheTimes carried on its Comment pages a piece about Russia, by our Foreign Secretary. It was accompanied by a mugshot of him, grinning cheerfully

Not very appropriate, you might think

Trouble is, he doesn’t/can’t do stern, serious, statesmanlike

Information, information, information

It is a very easy game to play, showing that there is never anything new in complaints about What is the world coming to? But I could not resist the following quote from Sesame & Lilies:

There are masked words droning & skulking about us in Europe just now, - (there never were so many, owing to the spread of a shallow, blotching, blundering, infectious “information,” or rather deformation, everywhere, & to the teaching of catechisms & phrases at schools instead of human meanings)

Or this one:

You might read all the books in the British Museum (if you could live long enough), & remain an utterly illiterate, uneducated person; but if you read 10 pages of a good book, letter by letter, - that is to say, with real accuracy, - you are for evermore in some measure an educated person

They sound just like the complaints made nowadays about how the internet & the World Wide Web provide information rather than wisdom or knowledge, Y destroy the capacity for concentration & real thought

David Aaronovitch wrote a robust counterblast to all this recently

He ended with the thought that the challenge is to improve searching skills, perhaps even via a GCSE

It often surprises me how ill-informed people are about the finer points of search engine syntax. Mind you, it is not easy to learn, without a book or a tutor

When the university first went on line, the Library offered free courses: How to improve your internet search techniques (no Google, or even www then). I signed up, but somehow found myself in with a group of astronomers/cosmologists

Now, said the tutor, brightly, put in a search term to do with astronomy or cosmology & I will come round to talk about how you might get better results

Help! I do not know anything about them

Then inspiration struck

I typed in Big Bang

Well, you know what happened

I am afraid I did not get too much out of that class. I spent most of the time musing over whether academic freedom of enquiry trumped any need for an institution in charge of so much 18+ testosterone to put some kind of filter on to its computers

Words in abundance

"The emergency services are working to reopen the Broadway underpass in Belfast today after it was inundated by flooding"

I am not sure that this makes it clear just what was flooding the underpass. Neither word necessarily implies that water is involved

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Saints peculiar

St Helena was the wife of Constantius Chlorus

He was inappropriately named - he divorced her

She is the patron saint of difficult marriages

Does that mean that she promotes them?

Seeds of success

While on the subject of the Olympics, there has been much discussion of whether public schools & higher socio-economic groups are over-represented in our team, especially among the medal winners. Did Gordon Brown have to agonise at all over whether to send a congratulatory message or go into a strop about it?

This morning I heard an interview with Louis Smith, the young man who won a bronze medal in gymnastics

It struck me that, as a useful corrective, somebody should do an analysis of how many of our Olympians come from one-parent or fractured families. That would really cheer everybody who has to put up with constantly hearing about how doomed they are to failure

When will it ever end?

The stream & the culvert are full of muddy brown rushing water. The back yard fences are soaked

The pavements are littered with sycamore keys

I have to wear woolly gloves when I go out. And a sweater


How do we know?

Another of those unthinking reactions to a photograph – I believe that Usain Bolt is a clean athlete. At least, I believe he is not, has not, been on the cruder kinds of steroid dosages

Why do I believe this, when I have no specialist knowledge, not even much interest in the Olympics or athletics? Well nothing really, except for my obsession with, & observation of, shoulders

There is something very distinct about the musculature (& veins) of the shoulders (& the arms) of someone who has been abusing steroids

Something similar applies to the thighs as well, of which Bolt shows absolutely no sign either

His feet are very flat to the floor though – can you run with feet that are properly flat in the way that can get you turned down for army service? I guess it is more to do with not wearing shoes, at best flip-flops, a lot of the time back in Jamaica. Perhaps his feet are just very flexible, the secret of his easy lazy style

Jamaica has a long tradition of sprinting, with a well-developed system of competition right from school days. I may be misremembering, but I think Michael Holding could have gone down this route if he had not settled for being the most beautiful fast bowler ever

The comments of the coincidentally named Herb Elliott, the Jamaican team doctor, are very revealing. Jamaica now tries to keep its athletes at home, rather send them to the States where they face racism & the temptations of drugs

Funnily enough my first reaction of this type during these Olympics was on seeing a photo of the British pair who won the lightweight double sculls. Arms aloft. I just thought: Good they are not on drugs. We shall be spared the let down of a medal withdrawal.

Mind you, with the weight restrictions on crews for this event I suppose steroids would have as many disadvantages as advantages

Although I have trouble with the logic of banning professional athletes from using certain substances, I am glad if there will not be the big let down, people will not be made to feel that they simply wasted all that hope, emotion & excitement at witnessing a great event

As Simon Barnes wrote: I wanted to believe that it was not a fairy story, that it was not a drugged hallucination

Monday, August 18, 2008

The little things that count

There was a photo of Barrack Obama on the front cover of The Times Magazine on Saturday. My immediate reaction, without any thought at all, was: Oh! He cannot win the election because he is going bald. He seemed to have an almost perfectly circular tonsure on his crown

On closer inspection I think it is just an effect of the light shining on what is a rather gingery patch. I guess he may have the kind of hair, common in children of mixed white/African parentage, which varies in colour, texture, length & curliness over different parts of their head

At least Obama has the advantage of being taller than McCain

When, earlier this year, I saw a photo which made it clear that Obama is left handed I wondered if that might be an ill-omen too. But a surprising number of Presidents & candidates have been

The pictures of Obama in The Times were taken by Callie Shell & the commentary is provided by Ben Macintyre. Interestingly, given my reaction to the cover photo, he twice draws attention to light:

Callie Shell’s camera is Obama’s ally. Here he is pictured bathed in light, eyes shining …

This is the main charge made by his opponents: that he looks & sounds perfect, but that he is, in the end, insubstantial, an image haloed in light, a mere celebrity, lacking the grit necessary for the job

One other minor detail. One photo shows him squatting in a stairwell. It comes as a bit of a surprise to me, given his youth spent in Indonesia, that he squats just like a westerner, up on his toes. Most people in the Third World (though not, perhaps, the middle classes) learn to squat with their feet flat on the ground. This is surprisingly comfortable, if you can learn to do it, & it is also possible to rise, Alexander-technique like without having to hold on to anything

A legal performance drug?

An intriguing report suggests that some athletes use sodium bicarbonate (E500) as a performance enhancing drug

Scientific trials have shown that it can improve average running times in the 800m by 2.2 seconds, or knock 1.5 seconds off the time of a 200m swimmer

It is thought that, as an alkali, it works by mitigating the effects of lactic acid etc in the muscles

The drawback is that it tastes appalling & can cause gastric upsets in some people

Hopes are pinned on a manufacturer coming up with a drink or a capsule. Meanwhile the advice is to take it with water

I have a tip which I offer free, gratis & for nothing

Try taking it in hot water

This is an old fashioned (pre-NHS) sovereign remedy for indigestion

Half fill a cup with water which is just off the boil. Add a heaped teaspoonful of bicarb

That would be about 10g I guess. The suggested dose for an athlete is 20g, so they would need a larger mug or heat-proof tumbler & 2 heaped teaspoonfuls of bicarb

The reason for only half-filling the cup is that the soda wil fizz, foam & froth & rise up the cup

As soon as the foaming just starts to subside, drink it down in one go. I do not find the taste at all unpleasant, though it is not something one would drink purely for pleasure

One result, within minutes, will be a very satisfying burp – for the kind of ‘indigestion’ it was used for is, in fact, flatulence or trapped air

The relief could in itself be a performance enhancer, especially if pre-race nerves mean that you tend to swallow air, with all its attendant discomforts. Or you could try just sipping it, which may not produce the same explosive effect

There does not seem to be much chance of it being classed as a banned drug. I wonder if proprietary antacids are so banned - or if they would produce the same effect?

Related posts:
Drug induced confusion

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Better recycling

We do not get doorstep collection for recycling plastic, though there are skips in the village. I normally walk down there with one of Sainsbury’s extra large gusseted bags for life full of plastic, which after all is not heavy. And provided it has not been raining, there is a pleasant off the road track to walk down

Bottles have been piling up this last month, what with my back injury & all that analgesic cola – and the RAIN!*?*!

By Friday I had to do something about it

The walk was harder than I expected so I was prompted into thinking: There must be a better way to do this, what with plastic now being so expensive they are talking about mining old rubbish tips

My first thought was some kind of reward card scheme for recycling. But I think that the requirements that it should not be too bureaucratic, offer rewards which are useful to, welcomed by, the recipients, but not really valuable enough to attract criminals in an area of economic activity which has more than its fair share already, & simple to use are unmeetable

Then I thought why not schools?

When I was in primary school we all patriotically took what we called tinfoil to school – mostly carefully washed milk bottle tops. Aluminium foil – scarce & expensive & all imported in those days – was not much used for cooking etc

Plastic would be easy to carry to school, even for those who walk

Children would be much better at learning, understanding & applying the mystifying rules about what kind of plastic is required. We are firmly instructed to wash’n’squash & screw the tops back on, though I have read articles which say that the tops then have to be removed & thrown away

And what about all the other types of plastic? They say no food trays – I can understand that for ready meal trays, but what about the sort which come with vegetables or fruit? They say all kinds of bottles are accepted – does that include small pill or vitamin canisters? What about the plastic collars which hold 4-packs of drinks together? And those little sort-of coathangers which are incorporated into packets of this or that to hang on display?

The more I think about it, the more I think children should make themselves useful in this way

Previously in Favourite Quotations (2)

There is real doubt whether the actual process of evolution is predictable. It may be history rather than science - Francis Crick

'Explain' is one of the slipperiest words in the entire philosophy of science - Donald Fleming

Whether the laws of nature were initially imposed by some divine decree, whether the possibility of other worlds ruled by other laws can be entertained, whether the movement proceeds from the general to the particular, or vice versa, this world exists & functions - Francois Jacob

Those whom we quote often seem to express our very own thoughts, yet with clarity & psychological accuracy we cannot match - Alain de Boton

When life appears to have been relatively stable for a while, we become less, rather than more, convinced that things will continue as they are - Marina Benjamin

The dentist extracts not the toothache but the tooth - Alfred North Whitehead

Mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things - Henri Poincaré

Definitions are like belts. The shorter they are, the more elastic they need to be - Stephen Toulmin

Government is but a link in the chain of social connection - Robert Montgomery Martin 1837

Successful scientific work is compatible with anything from Roman Catholicism, as in the case of Pasteur, to Sandemanism as in the case of Faraday - Joseph Needham

Detective novels are the balm of great minds - Winston Churchill

I am myself not convinced that the chasm which separates the historian from the geologist is any deeper or more unbridgeable than the chasm which separates the geologist from the physicist. But the way to mend the rift is not to teach elementary science to historians or elementary history to scientists. I have never heard of engineers being advised to attend elementary classes in botany - EH Carr

We must remember that only 100 generations have passed since the Roman Republic - MW Feldman & RC Lewontin

Can excessive reading actually enfeeble ones thinking apparatus? - Alfred North Whitehead

Previously in Favourite Quotations
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Saturday, August 16, 2008

By lady-like degrees

Ruskin thought that, by-and-large-and-on-the-whole, science was not a suitable subject for inclusion in the curriculum for a girl’s education

Until at least the 1960s the University of London offered both a BSc and a BA in Social Sciences. As far as I am aware, the curriculum was identical, students were taught in the same classes, & took the same exams.

In those days of matriculation, one difference was that, if you wanted to sit for a degree in the Faculty of Arts, you had to have Latin O level.

It may have been a myth, but the popular explanation among students was that some Headmistresses & parents did not think it suitable, or even decent, for a young lady to be a BSc, but others thought it ridiculous to make a qualification in Latin a sine qua non

RF Delderfield

The Delderfield autobiography turned out to be a bit of surprise. It was published in 1954, before he had published any novels

He was however a playwright. This was an ambition he had conceived while still at school & pursued doggedly, with little success, for the best part of 20 years. He was however blessed with determination & a sense of self-belief

He achieved success in 1945 with a play called Worm’s Eye View, written in pencil in RAF notebooks during intervals of fire watching on the Air Ministry roof. It ran in the West End for over 5 years, & made it possible for him to become a full-time writer. The story finishes at this point

“I had, it seemed, voluntarily placed myself in that semi-desperate position where a goal has been reached & the new one is just out of sight over the horizon. It is a problem, I suppose, that faces everybody sooner or later … I solved mine the way most problems are solved – by hard graft”

This is not great literature & Delderfield was not a ‘Great Writer.’ What I find fascinating about this, & all those Victorian Memoirs & Letters I read is, as Victoria Glendinning remarked about bad fiction: “It provides nuggets of social history unobtainable elsewhere

Friday, August 15, 2008

Drains again

The bridge was semi-flooded all last week because of the – still – blocked drains. Then yesterday they came to clear them out, together with the ones up the hill towards the main road.

They did not bother to clean out the ones in our lane, several of which are blocked right up to the grid, & which also cause large pools of surface water to gather

You cannot blame global warming for local flooding when you cannot even get the basic housekeeping right

Never mind the quality?

I am grateful to AC Grayling (on Desert island Discs) for the observation that human life usually lasts less than 1000 months, so you had better just crack on with it & make it as good as you can

I am also grateful to Grayling for the following (from his The Choice of Hercules): "One must distinguish between the state of death & the act of dying, recognise that dying is a living process, something that happens while one is alive, when all ones rights are or should be fully engaged"

The goodness, quality, or value of a life is not measured by its length

If it were, what could you possibly say to someone who loses a child?

I, unintentionally, upset my mother very much when I was 16, probably just over the peak of my intense attachment to religion. A boy at our school – a real golden boy – died in a freakish bicycle accident. My mother said how terrible to die so young. I said – with genuine curiosity – why could it be bad if you really believed he was in Heaven with God? Oh well, she said, it is terrible for his parents

Well yes. But if you push that, is it not the same as selfishly demanding that others not die in order to spare us pain?

There is a terrible double tragedy in AC Grayling’s life, which made his voice crack even as he gave a (necessarily) brief outline on Desert Island Discs. And still he directs his considerable gifts to thinking about, writing & sharing his thoughts about, The Good Life

Mauriac comments on the early deaths of composers – Mozart, Schubert, Weber, Schumann & Mendelssohn – saying "Perhaps that is the price they had to pay for the privilege they now enjoy. They live on in our midst, more invulnerable than the angels, & we, from below, look up at them with humble adoration …"

I do not think that holds up either – the idea that one must somehow pay a price for such a privilege

If there is anything I can believe it is that some people live much more intensely than others, burn out earlier. However they do that, it is not for us, or any doctor, & certainly not Government ministers to say They died before their time

Off the wagon

I have really fallen off the book-buying wagon this week: another 4 ex-library books for a total outlay of £1. I may have to forego my lottery ticket this week.

One is the autobiography of RF Delderfield. I used really to enjoy his books.

In fact I am a sucker for family sagas, especially if they come in multiple instalments.

Forsytes (When I looked for a link to the Forsyte Saga I clicked on a Google Books result: it said Forsyte Saga at the top of the page but it was actually Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. How very odd).

Crowthers of Bankdam.


Just right for reading on holiday, or at home on a wet Sunday afternoon, or just for relaxing into sleep at night.

The friend who (thank you, thank you) gave me his copy of 100 years of Solitude said it would be just my cup of tea – because it was a family saga.

Related post

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Time to search the attic

I saw a teenage girl yesterday wearing a multi-colour striped tank top.

Will it be flares next?

Sesame & Lilies & Proust

I am finding it hard to write today. My jaw is on the floor

I was following up another intriguing trail from Mauriac. He wrote of how, as a youngster, he read "The Preface to Sesame & Lilies by a man called Proust of whom I knew nothing"

I thought I must be misremembering, muddling things up. Or it must be a different Sesame & Lilies

But no: Proust really did translate Ruskin’s work, even though he spoke no English

The mind boggled & I just had to go back to Ruskin – or rather, read it for the first time. I am pretty sure that it was one of those books I did not persist with when I was at school – just not worth my time, I thought. I do however have friends who tell me that it was actually tremendously popular, especially in all-girls schools, in the early mid-twentieth century

Anyone who is apt to say I am not a feminist, but … should read this, at least the Lilies half, aimed at “getting a clear & harmonious idea of what the womanly mind & virtue are in power & office, with respect to man’s”

That Ruskin, with his personal history, should see fit to lecture on marriage seems rich. One has to say that his marriage probably never stood a chance if this was how he thought, regardless of any other difficulties

I am reading the 1907 Everyman edition however which quotes Ruskin’s own preface to the 1871 edition in which he wrote about “thinking over subjects full of pain”, so one feels some sympathy for the poor man. And I for one would not even try to argue that we have got things right, or that jaws will not similarly drop when (if) the writings of our own age are read in 100 years time

Nor can we afford to be too smug about Ruskin, who explained in 1871 that he had been saying that the two most heinous sins are Idleness & Cruelty, & condemned as torture 2 practices of his own day

The first is sweated labour: “Sweating is not extinct; nor have purchasers learnt, as yet, how effectively how to discourage it

He also calls imprisonment a form of torture operating chiefly on the mind, & doubts if we have a right to inflict it. That passage (not actually in Sesame & Lilies) is worth reading

The other thing I have learned is that these were originally given as lectures in Manchester in 1864 under the titles Of Kings’ Treasuries & Of Queens’ Gardens. Ruskin found it difficult to rouse his audience into sympathy

I shall have to gird myself up to go into Manchester to do battle with the microfilm readers to see if there are any contemporary newspaper reports

In particular I should just love to find a reaction from Miss Lydia Becker

Related post: They used to do WHAT?

Business buccaneers

A commentator used the term good marketer. In relation to R Branson, natch

Surely the word should be marketeer?

(Not if Word’s spelling autocorrect has anything to do with it!)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Historical Caucus

Quite a long time ago now I saw a map which showed the physical geography of the Hittite Empire & the Ancient Near East

It was an unusual map in that the projection, centred somewhere over the Black or Caspian Sea, looked like something you would get with a camera with a fish-eye lens

And even more unusual in that the Syria/Israel coastline was shown parallel to the bottom of the page, rather than the right hand side of the page as is the case with virtually all modern maps

Just looking at that map showed how geography, history & politics are inevitably linked

I had thought that the map was in The Times Atlas of World History, but I cannot find it in the current edition

Related post: Rouler vers l'ouest

Gerard Manley Hopkins

For some reason – perhaps just the way people talk about him – I have never, as far as I can remember, read Hopkins’s poems. Reading them now is something else I have to thank Mauriac for

First a nice piece of serendipity, connection, or just 6 degrees of separation. In the middle of talking about the poet, Mauriac suddenly remarks that he has just realised that his translator is called Gerard Hopkins – maybe there is a connection. The translator has added a footnote to say that he is the poet’s nephew

The two things which people say about Hopkins which have kept me away are first that the language is difficult & secondly that they are religious in a deeply theological (Jesuit) sense, ‘unfathomable even to the majority of Anglo-Saxon readers’

The first poem which I read, about a nun taking the veil, could hardly have been shorter or seemed more simple. My immediate reaction, because of the miserable weather we are having, a crass Me too!


I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp & sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea

The emphasis on shelter from a harsh world, without mentioning the difficulty of vocation (especially the vow of obedience), is instructive

Hopkins was very alive to the beauties of nature & I wonder if this was cause or effect of his horrified reaction to the shock cities of the Industrial Revolution

His language is strange, new minted, but right – not hard to understand, comprehensible, as in the way he captures perfectly the bird riding the currents of the air:

The Windhover

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

That perfectly describes catching sight of one of the beauties of nature (& man-made things, for some of us), of the kind which makes you catch your breath, then feel as if you dare hardly breathe again

[Compare & contrast: The kestrel, or wind-hover, has a peculiar mode of hanging in the air in one place, his wings all the time being briskly agitated - Gilbert White: The Natural History of Selborne]

But Hopkins was over-sensitive, seemed to lack a skin

His intense observation included a keen awareness of colour:

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted & pieced – fold, fallow & plough;
And all trades, their gear & tackle & trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange,
With swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him

A world suffused with Colour means a world suffused with Light, & that, for Hopkins, I guess, means God

He is, for all his pain, optimistic about the future, confident in the resilience of Nature, for all Man’s depredations:

from God’s Grandeur

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs

So far I have tackled only the shorter poems. I look forward to tackling the longer ones, hoping that they will repay the effort just as much s Donne does

Related post: Serendipity proves I exist in a world

Link: Hopkins, Gerard Manley. 1918. Poems

Risky entertainment

Richard Morrison has written a good article on high-price tickets for the Last Night of the Proms

His piece reminded me of a point I forgot to mention earlier

For £12,995 you can have a Grand Tier box for 12 people along with “your own waitress” to serve supper with wine

Is that not breaking the Sex Discrimination laws?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cold feet

I have been searching, without success, for some kind of absorbent disposable sock liner

I am thinking of something made out of the same kind of material as the top layer of disposable nappies, the one that stays dry next to the skin

I have found metallic liners for sale on the web, but (rather gruesomely) the only thing which sounds anything like what I am looking for is an invention for amputees to wear on their stump

Such liners would be such a boon to those who suffer from the embarrassment of sweaty feet, who admittedly have little to moan about compared with those who suffer from sweaty hands

In winter, particularly, the combination of sweaty feet & walking on cold pavements is like having feet permanently encased in blocks of ice

Which colour is the new green?

I may have to retire my Cabbage Looking label now that Green is not Cool any more

But Green has always had at least 2 strands. One, with which I am entirely in sympathy, is really old-fashioned thrift, good husbandry, careful housewifery. Do not buy more than you need & re-use before recycling wherever possible

The other is the snobbish side: despising of the masses; arbitrary in its judgements of what Green means; harking back to a golden age of Nature; travellers, not tourists. The same roots which led to German Romanticism &, ultimately, National Socialism

Related post: Global warming

Cook's matches

I use Cook’s matches for lighting the gas. So much more reliable than any electric or electronic gizmo

Actually I suppose I am quite lucky to have survived a piece of stupidity with one of those things. It was when I was about 10; the sparking mechanism did not work on the lighter which was connected to the side of the stove, so I held it to the electric fire to get a light. I can still fell the double shock – physical & intellectual – as I realised what I had done

That reminds me of another story from around the same time. A school friend’s mother had recently acquired her first washing machine. She died of electrocution when she happened to put one hand on the machine & one on the stainless steel draining board.

Her husband had got the wiring wrong, the machine was live & she had completed the circuit with wet hands

I do not think I was an overly suspicious child (or adult) but for some reason I have always had this feeling that perhaps he did it deliberately – on the basis of absolutely no evidence, or even gossip

Anyway, back to Cook’s matches.

I had always assumed that these were Matches, cook, for the use of. But I have just found out that they are simply made by a company called Cook

Monday, August 11, 2008

Unreliable timetables

Notice in Bombay railway station: The times shown on these timetables are not the times at which the trains will depart. They are the times before which the trains will not depart

Actually, we have the same system with our buses. Certain stops are designated timed stops. If the bus arrives there a little early, it must wait until the designated time

You can understand why. It is frustrating if the bus is late, but imagine how infuriating if you are walking to the stop with a minute or two to spare, only to see your bus drive off into the distance

It says much for the general reliability of our service, despite the very best efforts of the gas board & other utilities, that such a system can be in place

Of course not every passenger is aware of this. They get cross; they are in a hurry. Some even feel compelled to share, loudly, with other passengers, their opinion of the lazy, idle, so-and-so of a driver

Yet more signs of the times

Sainsbury’s (who seem to have re-acquired the apostrophe) were making much show of their new leaflet on Friday: Love Your Leftovers

The recipes seem a little exotic to one brought up on rissoles, & bubble & squeak

I am surprised that soup is not mentioned at all. They suggest making the most of a chicken or turkey by using the last scraps of meat for a risotto, but not using the carcass for the wonders of home made chicken & vegetable soup

That’s entertainment

I spotted an ad in The Times – quite a large one – for tickets to the Last Night of the Proms

I do not remember seeing one of these before, but then I would not have been looking. And both the newspaper & their advertisers may be pleased to know that I notice the ads much more since the new layout. Always, before, & the same applies to nearly all publications, I could just remain completely oblivious to non-editorial content

£795 for a stalls seat or £995 for front row

I cannot help but feel that, at that price, it is not the music one is paying for, but the opportunity to watch the proles on the promenade


Horror story

When I was in the third form (age 13), our French teacher set us to learn the following speech from Racine’s Phèdre for homework – mainly as an exercise in poetic pronunciation I think. I loved the declamatory style, & can still remember it

C’était pendant l’horreur d’une profonde nuit;
Ma mère Jézabel devant moi s’est montrée,
Comme au jour de sa mort pompeusement parée.
Ses malheurs n’avaient point abattu sa fierté;
Même elle avait encore cet éclat emprunté,
Dont elle eut soin de peindre et d’orner son visage,
Pour réparer des ans l’irréparable outrage.
“Tremble, m’a-t-elle dit, fille digne de moi!
Le cruel dieu des juifs l’emporte aussi pour toi.
Je te plains de tomber dans ses mains redoutables,
Ma fille.“ En achevant ces mots épouvantables,
Son ombre vers mon lit a paru se baisser ;
Et moi, je lui tendais les mains pour l’embrasser ;
Mais je n’ai plus trouve qu’un horrible mélange
D’os et de chair meurtris, et traines dans la fange,
Des lambeaux pleins de sang, et des membres affreux
Que des chiens dévorans se disputaient entre eux

Once or twice in the years since then I have thought that perhaps it was a bit strong meat for children that age, but reading Mauriac I learn that it was common in his day, around the turn of the 19th century, to learn the whole of Racine at the same sort of age. He thought that the protected innocence of children in those days meant that some of the more powerful stuff just basically passed over their heads – which is true. And all children enjoy horror when it is safely far away from reality – it is probably an essential part of learning to deal with some of the tougher aspects of life

Mauriac took the view that, by the mid 20th century actors had lost the knack of being able to perform Racine. But then he saw Sarah Bernhardt perform Phèdre when he was 18 years old!


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Please explain what you mean

The Times letters page has been occupied with correspondence about ponderous definitions of a spade

My all time favourite legal definition was contained in the 1980 Housing Act:

Any dwelling-house which is not a house is a flat

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The crossover of history

Another quote from Mauriac which I shall savour & ponder: I imagine Marx reading the Apologia, Newman reading Das Kapital, & each heaving a sigh, amazed that any man should be so blind & so absurd

Actually I had not realised that the two books were published so close together. I think I can just about imagine Newman reading Capital – though not, perhaps in the German edition - but I find it impossible to imagine Marx reading Apologia

When thinking about history – even recent history, such as the 1960s - there is always this tendency to stick a label on: The Age of …

Whether you prefer to think of the 1860s as the Age of Marx, or the Age of Newman, fact is, both did exist

Greedy reader

When I find a book which is excites me I become a greedy, anxious reader, wanting it all at once, NOW, flicking through the pages hoovering up bits & pieces, looking in the index for anything of immediate interest, wanting to fill page after page of my common place book with quotes.

Then I calm down & read it properly

I am pretty sure that I did not read Mauriac’s Mémoires Intérieures when it first came out in 1960. I would not have appreciated it anyway.

We live in a gloomy world, & I find little enough to console me in it” – but for me, then, the world was full of possibility. Now I am old enough both to appreciate his sentiment & take it as a salutary reminder to snap out of my own recent gloom

Book buying

These days the library usually has a trolley full of books for sale. Often these are out of date directories, manuals or yearbooks, novels or textbooks in subjects which hold no great interest for me. Anyway, I am on a self-denying ordinance as far as book-buying goes, there are far too many in the house already

This week I could see some old books there, so I celebrated the return of my mobility by crouching down for a look

And found what for me is a treasure: Mémoires Intérieures by François Mauriac. In a bottle green rexine-type library cover, with a coat of arms stamped on the front & the title & shelf mark stamped in gold on the spine. All for 30p

I used to love Mauriac as a teenager, especially Thérèse Desqueyroux & Le Nœaud De Vipères & his work on Pascal. But until this week even his name had almost dropped out of my memory bank

There may be some genuine French paperbacks up in the loft, or maybe they got lost somewhere, along with my Sacha Distel records

(To the tune of Bye Bye Blackbird)

Dis adieu à mes copains
Aux amis que j’aime bien

Bye bye, baby

Demain je serai si loin
Loin de toi
Loin des miens

Bye bye, baby

Oh dear! Where did that come from?

Friday, August 08, 2008

Men in suits

It was somehow extraordinarily touching to hear someone connected with the organisation of the Beijing Olympics speaking proudly of how people had learned the kind of manners – in driving, queuing etc etc that visitors from the outside world would expect to see. Given the behaviour of the British abroad, why should the Chinese care about our opinion of them?

Prince Charles got into trouble with his comments on the Chinese hierarchy at the handover of Hong Kong. Watching on tv I myself felt a distinct shock- albeit a small one – at the sight of them all lined up wearing smart, dark, western lounge suits, shirts & ties.

But that one small thing told me that something seismic was going on

Two plus two

One of the things which makes me shout at the radio is someone saying, usually in a tone of smug self-satisfaction: “ All I know is, two plus two make four

Well not always

As a statistician I only expect the answer 4. I could, within the limits of sampling, measurement & rounding errors, accept almost any number as the estimate of the result of adding two to two

One of the most painful periods of my professional life was when I had constantly to explain to customers that a table which we regularly produced could, quite legitimately, show that 5+5=5. Or 10. Or 15

But even in the world of counting with real, hard, integer numbers we all use daily a system in which, say, 10+4 = 2

And we also use a system in which 27+5 can give the answer 1 or 2 or 3 or 4

Related post: Making things add up

A feeling of emptiness

I predict that before very much longer we shall all be thoroughly fed up of hearing this, that or the other – politician, celebrity, tv programme, Birmingham …. described as vacuous

Funnily enough this is the word which I have always associated with Tony Blair, ever since he first appeared on my radar screen as Shadow Spokesman on Employment. But in the last month the epithet has been applied by journalists to Brown, Cameron, Miliband & Obama & probably others

I wonder what it is we want to fill the vacuum?

The chair on which I sit seems a hard fact, but I know that I sit on a nearly perfect vacuum. The wood of the chair consists of fibres, which consist of molecules, which consist of atoms which are miniature solar systems with central nucleus & electrons for planets. It all sounds very pretty, but it is the dimensions that matter. The space which an electron occupies is only 1/50,000th in diameter of its distance from the nucleus; the rest of the atomic interior is empty. If the nucleus were enlarged to the size of a dried pea, the nearest electron would circle around it at a distance of about 175 yards. A room with a few specks of dust floating in the air is overcrowded compared with the emptiness which I call a chair

Arthur Koestler

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Cola analgesia

I am a bit disconcerted by this discovery, but grateful for it

Cola drinks have quite powerful analgesic effects

A little personal medical history is necessary to explain myself. I have had a chronic lower back problem for over 30 years now. For the last 18 years it has interfered very little in my life, since I got some really helpful advice from a physiotherapist. I can both minimise the chance of inducing any acute pain & ameliorate it quickly if I do

About a month ago I walked downstairs as normal, turned to negotiate the last 2 steps at the bottom, & somehow managed to wrench & twist my spine

Jump forward about a week to when I thought I could manage a trip to the supermarket. It was a struggle & I needed to sit down before starting home again

I hardly ever drink cola. Ice cold, it is a rare treat, can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number I have in a year. For one thing, £1 (near enough) for 500ml seems ridiculous, & all the sugar makes my mouth feel awful

But I had to buy something to justify sitting down in the café, & for some reason settled for cola rather than tea or coffee

I was amazed at how I perked up, walked easily the short distance to the bus stop & then home at the other end. No buckling knees or bending over double

The same thing happened next day, which was when I started to make the connection

A badly designed & controlled n of 1 followed. One day I tried fizzy lemonade instead – no joy

For a while I was on about 1 litre a day but have got it down to 500ml

Now that I have access to the web again I find that there is nothing new in this observation

For someone my age who still sometimes expect to be told firmly that it is all in my mind, I find that reassuring

It cannot be a classic placebo response, because I had no prior expectation or belief in its beneficial effects

The mystery is though, if the caffeine is responsible, then why doesn’t all the black coffee I drink have the same effect?

Hot water

Lindsey Bareham provides a daily Dinner Tonight piece in The Times

For some reason which I am completely unable to fathom, the instructions are always to use a kettle to boil the water needed for cooking vegetables etc. Why not just bring it to the boil in the pan?

Yesterdays instructions went even further. We are to boil beans in ‘salted boiling water from a kettle’

I hope she is not one of these people who thinks it a good idea to take the water from the hot tap

Serves them right

I cannot help but feel a little schadenfreude at the fate of Glasgow Rangers in this year’s European football competition

I do not like myself for this

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

All’s fair in love, war .... & rowing

Over the past 4 years UK Sport has allocated more than £26million of public funds to the British rowing team

Some of this has been spent on state of the art technology, such as goggles plus bum bag, receiver & battery pack. Instead of looking at the water the crews look at computer generated information in front of their eyes

The idea for the goggles came from the Australian Institute of Sport, then was ‘unashamedly plagiarised’ when the Brits persuaded the Australian’s biomechanist to come & work for them. The British rowers have become experts in their use, but what exactly they have learnt ‘will remain trade secrets’

A further £60,000 has been spent on electrical instrumentation within the rowlocks, with further unspecified sums spent on someone to analyse & interpret the information. Yet another biomechanist has been responsible for this, and he too is ‘not in the business of sharing trade secrets’ & ‘giving the opposition a leg up’

It is not entirely clear from the article whether these aids can be used during the actual races - I assume not. But I still cannot see why it is OK to gain an advantage through the advice & ministrations of a biomechanist, but not a biochemist

Be careful who you marry

The story of the mysterious background of the man known as Clark Rockefeller who kidnapped his daughter on an access visit, reminds me very much of the story of Mary Turner Thomson, who told of her experience in a book published earlier this year The Bigamist: The True Story of a Husband's Ultimate Betrayal

Will Jordan too was American, though one really ought not to draw conclusions from that

How many men like that are there in this world? And is there something about slightly older women with successful careers which makes them vulnerable to a particular kind of flattery & charm?

A small country

Last night I heard on World Service one of the people involved in the tv programme about searching for jaguars in the South American rain forest.

The presenter started by describing Guyana as a small sliver of a country

Well, everything is relative. Great Britain is not a large country, but I do not know if anyone would describe it as a small sliver

Fact: Area of Guyana – 83,000 square miles

Area of Great Britain – 88,000 square miles

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Olympic inflation

I was wondering how much the Olympics might have added to world-wide inflation, with figures like £20 billion being quoted as the cost – presumably just of constructing the assets - & more than 40,000 tonnes of steel being used for the main stadium alone. That plus the deadline which puts the buyer in a weak bargaining position – though perhaps not in China

Well, assuming that a trillion is a 1 followed by 12 zeros, I think £20 billion is less than 1½ per cent of China’s GDP & 40,000 tonnes is less than 0.1 per cent of one month’s Chinese steel production (do not quote me on any of this)

Does not sound all that inflationary against everything else which is going on