Sunday, November 30, 2008

End of November crunchy bits

1 Local authorities are asking that the Ministry of Defence provide storage for recycled waste for which there is currently no market

2 Sales of national lottery tickets have risen by 7½% in 6 months

3 Album sales fell by 17% in the UK & by 24% in the US in the second week of November

4 VSO is receiving twice as many enquiries as it did this time last year. In October the number of applications from people with a background in business management was 10% higher than in September

5 Sales of Kit Kat are up by nearly one-fifth this year

6 At Harvey Nichols Restaurants, booking a table has never been easier, according to a half-page ad appearing in the press

7 Wal-Marts profits rose nearly 10%

8 Rooms that once cost $400 a night are now being priced at $1,000 in January at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Washington DC. Tickets for the inauguration are trading for as much as $20,000

9 Sales of mince have risen by 16%

10 Nine out of every 10 pearl necklaces in the world originate in the mussel farms of Zhejiang province, but prices have dropped dramatically. It is not clear how much of this is due to the financial crisis, how much to a glut in the market

11 London is in the grip of an unprecedented cycling boom. The number of cycle journeys in the capital is now more than half a million a day. In the morning peak in the City, 40 per cent of the vehicles are now bikes.

12 Silicon Valley has cut 140,000 jobs this year. Google is considering the position of 10,000 contract workers

13 Leading credit card companies are to share a wider range of data to keep track of how customers use their cards

14 The Office for National Statistics has to decide whether the government’s equity stakes in 3 banks means they should be counted as Public Financial Institutions in the National Accounts. The size of the national debt could double at a stroke

15 The government is borrowing much more short term than it used to – 43% of all gilts issued this year, compared with a normal 18%

16 The cost of insuring against the government defaulting on its debt has gone up by 50%

17 A wealthy female surgeon has just commissioned kennels for her 2 Great Danes at her Cotswold home. The cost will be £1,400,000

18 New lending for house purchase is expected to be less than the amount repaid to banks & building societies next year

19 We have been buying more condoms & things to ease our weary feet. SSL, the owners of Durex & Scholl have seen their profits increase by 46%

Coquettish pi

A poem by another poet new to me – Peter Howard

It was first published on the Snakeskin webzine and I saw it in Oxford Poets 2001

It makes me laugh

It is the latest addition to my haphazard collection of the poetry of mathematics

And it may be the only poem I have ever read which uses the word statistics

I used to twist men round my little finger.
They wanted me to be simple
to fit their idea of aesthetics
but I was a coquette. I trailed
an infinite series of decimal places
behind me, like a wedding dress
and wouldn’t lie down & be a proper fraction:
no square pegs for me. I got around:
diversified into magnetism, flirted with statistics,
insinuated myself everywhere.
I’m embarrassed to let you see me come to this:
raised to that upstart’s power, multiplied
by a clown I seriously doubt the existence of,
the result of a cheap trick, worth less than nothing

Two of his other poems in this collection which I particularly liked were This is a No Smoking Zone and Yromem (backwards memory), which could be read as a special poem for all those rocket scientists who failed to foresee the credit crunch

Swinging London

Two pictures from the Times archive show London in the 1960s & 1970s. It looks like a totally different world, & yet it is the world I knew

One shows a porter in the old Covent Garden Market, just before the fruit & vegetable business relocated to Nine Elms

As hard up 1960s students we were grateful for the wastefulness of the old market practices. Get up early enough in the morning & you could glean a huge bagful of treasure from the cobblestones – stuff which had dropped off the back of a lorry or a porters handcart. Some bruised, some a bit furry, some in near perfect condition

Washed, trimmed, cleaned & chopped back home, you could cook up a mighty vegetable stew in your biggest pan. Bulked up with barley, or lentils, or rice, or dumplings. Maybe with the addition of bones, which the butcher might give you for free or for pennies if one was a marrow bone, for protein.
Or add lots of grated cheese on top. Or add an egg to poach in the hot brew

For a change, make that a fierce curry

When funds permit, buy a frozen chicken for the pot & have a real feast

The other picture is of that epicentrum of Swing, the Chelsea Kings Road. Not even the 2 dolly birds amount to a justification for the reputation

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The N word then & now

For background to this piece I just copy something from several years ago:

By the mid-nineteenth century martial law was widely thought to be against the English constitution. Different principles were applied in the colonies however, and arguments over their application in Jamaica formed the basis of the Governor Eyre controversy.

In 1865 a relatively minor rebellion in Jamaica had been met with the declaration of martial law & with force amounting to outright brutality:

In the course of the pacification of the island by the army, during a month-long reign of terror, a thousand homes were burnt, nearly five hundred Negroes were killed, & more than that number were flogged & tortured

[Semmel,B, 1962: The Governor Eyre Controversy, London, MacGibbon & Kee]

George Gordon, a member of the Jamaican legislature, who had taken no part in the riots but was considered to be guilty of stirring up trouble, was taken by the Governor from Kingston to the site of the uprising & executed

'A kind of litmus paper for political assumptions' [Rose,P 1994 Parallel Lives London Vintage], the case opened up the fault lines in English society, particularly intellectual society. At issue were questions of race, science, authority, law and the 'natural' order.

The Jamaica Committee, led by John Stuart Mill, campaigned for Governor Eyre to be tried for murder, while the Eyre Defence Fund, chaired by Carlyle, argued that he was a hero defending civilisation

Mill & Carlyle had already clashed on The Negro Question. In 1849 Carlyle, incensed by reports that sugar plantations in Jamaica & Demerara were suffering from shortages of labour, published an intemperate satirical rant in Fraser’s Magazine.

Emancipated slaves were unwilling to work for the kind of wages on offer; it is also interesting, in the light of current debates on job insecurity, that former slaves considered that contracts which tied them to an employer day after day for indefinite periods were little better than slavery: farming on smallholdings or cooperatives was considered a much superior way of life.

Carlyle argued that they had a duty to work; the State required them to produce sugar, & if they were unwilling to comply, to be 'servants to those that are born wiser than you, that are born lords of you; servants to the Whites, if they are (as what mortal can doubt they are?) born wiser than you' [Carlyle,T 1869 Collected Works Vol 6: The Nigger Question London Chapman & Hall], then those who were superior had the right to force them to do so.

Mill quickly replied with a letter to the editor of Fraser’s Magazine. He argued that if society should ever find it necessary to enforce a general duty to work, it should apply to whites as well as blacks; that differences between whites & blacks were due to environment not nature, but in any case, even the inherently superior had no right to impose their will by force. 'Though we cannot extirpate all pain, we can, if we are sufficiently determined upon it, abolish all tyranny' [1850 The Negro Question in Robson,JM (ed) 1984 JS Mill: Collected Works Vol XXI U Toronto Press].

Carlyle’s response was to publish an expanded version of his article as a pamphlet, this time using the deliberately more offensive title ‘The Nigger Question’ [Robson,JM (ed) 1984 JS Mill: Collected Works Vol XXI Toronto U Toronto Press p lxi]

First reactions to the news from Jamaica were mostly of horror. The Colonial Office set up a commission of enquiry, Governor Eyre was suspended and eventually recalled.

This was not enough for the Jamaica Committee who waged a long campaign. Darwin, Lyell, Huxley & Bright were among its members, while the Defence committee was more literary, including as it did Ruskin, Tennyson, Dickens & Kingsley. [Walpole,S 1904 The History of 25 Years Vol 2 1865-70 London Longmans, Green p127].

Mill in particular was determined not to let the matter drop, but after 3 attempts, which all resulted in juries refusing to return indictments, the case finally came to a close in 1868. As the Spectator (then a Liberal journal) summed it up:

The upper & middle class of the English people, especially the latter … are positively enraged at the demand of negroes for equal consideration with Irishmen, Scotchmen, & Englishmen … proceedings which would have cost the most well-meaning of weak-judging men his head if they had taken place in the United Kingdom … are heartily admired as examples of "strong government" when they take place in the British West Indies [quoted in Semmel]

One final outcome of all this was the end of John Stuart Mills’s parliamentary career. His opponents from the Eyre Defence Committee joined a vigorous campaign against him in his constituency of Westminster. Amidst a Liberal landslide, when every other London constituency returned a Liberal member, Mill lost badly to a Tory

I had felt quite queasy & startled to find the offensive title of Carlyle’s essay in the library catalogue and, in multiple editions, on the library shelves. But this was history & it had happened

Then I went to search out the reply from John Stuart Mill, in the impressive Collected Works published by the University of Toronto

I could not find this particular piece at first, but with a bit of diligence tracked it down under the title ‘The Negro Question’. I have to say that my first reaction was: Has modern North American political correctness trumped academic & editorial fidelity? But a bit more digging & I found the footnote which explained the sequence of events

Academic scrupulosity had prevailed
But the issue which so enraged Carlyle reverberates, in some form, to this day. Part of the planters’ case was that they could not afford to pay higher wages because they had to compete with slave-produced sugar from Brazil & the USA

The great sugar shortage in this country of 1973/4 was caused by rows about the effect of EEC entry on the West Indian sugar trade, as it does still in international trade negotiations (though the passion seems to be generated more by bananas now)

And the decision by the British government to use indentured labour from the Indian sub continent to replace slave labour caused racial tensions & unrest which are with us still

Taking responsibility

I do not know what to make yet of the arrest of Damian Green & the searching by counter terrorist police of offices at the House of Commons.

My first reaction was that this feels like a habeas corpus moment

Otherwise, I am just stunned, like many others, including David Cameron, to judge by how he sounded

I am also struck by how far we have come from Crichel Down, when both the Prime Minister & the Home Secretary seem to think it a complete defence to say: Nothing to do with me, guv. I didn’t even know about it

Misty weather

Strange weather we are having today

All the sports people on 5 Live were talking fog & mist – some fixtures even cancelled

Outside it was all blue sky & sunshine with just a few patches of lingering frost on pavement & windscreens

Three miles up the road – thick mist & very cautious drivers

Friday, November 28, 2008

Isolated families

I grew up in North Derbyshire, on the west side of the Pennine hills which run through the county like a backbone, from the dark millstone grit of the north to the limestone further south

Apart from a few small 19th century mill towns it is an area of dales & moorland, isolated farms, small villages & hamlets. And, a feature which puzzled me even as a small child, here & there a row of not more than a half a dozen houses squeezed at the side of a narrow road, pushed up against the hillside. I guess they were probably built to house the families of men who worked the quarries or the small scale mines

Most of these places now fall inside the National Park & are desirable commuter villages for Manchester or Sheffield

But before the age of mass car ownership they were isolated & lonely, especially in winter when they could be completely cut off

The people were reputedly suspicious & wary of outsiders

Some of the novels of John Buxton Hilton capture this atmosphere & Val McDermid’s A Place of Excecution gives a modern take

And, in the old days, ‘everybody knew’ that incest was common

So we were perhaps less surprised than some by the story about incest in neighbouring South Yorkshire

Even my jaw dropped however, at the thought that 2 women could between them notch up 19 pregnancies without any health professional deciding to intervene

But then we have been living in an age when medical professionals in particular are supposed to be non-judgemental in sexual matters

And so they should be

And if nobody makes a complaint, or owns up, what do we propose? Enforced DNA tests for all possible fathers?

The folly of grandeur

I wonder what use will be made of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Edinburgh headquarters now that 58% belongs to the nation?

It is a cliché, but I knew that the bank was heading for a fall when that grand complex featured in one of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels

End of an era

I got my first proper job in Woolworths – one with a pay packet & a National Insurance card – when I was 14. A Saturday job for which I think I think I got paid about 11s 6d (57.5 p). We did not pay the full National Insurance, just industrial injury & National Health as I recall, so there were 2 separate stamps stuck to the card each week. Only pennies, but still, 10% of our earnings

For reasons best known to the management I was put on the electricals counter, rather than something more desirable like make up or biscuits. At least I knew the difference between all the various types of plug & could measure & cut all the different kinds of wire

It was not the sort of counter you stand behind, more like a long shelf across the back of the store. I stood by the till in my green overall. At least once each Saturday somebody would ask me if we had a wotsit. Can you see one? I would ask. No there’s none out. Can you go & look in the store room for me? And, after asking what sort of thing I was looking for, off I would go, on a frequently fruitless search. Heaven knows what other customers did while I was away

The pre-war sixpence must be worth about £1 these days. Woolworths prospered during the depression of the 1930s with the promise that nothing cost more than 6d (though our parents always said that you had to buy two single gloves for a total of 1 shilling rather than a pair), so we can look forward to the Pound Store Empire being a darling of the 2020 stock exchange

Related post
I love £ stores

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Poet laureate

For the record, my nominations for the new Poet Laureate would be:

Benjamin Zephaniah
Michael Rosen
Patience Agbabi

We could do with some gaiety, verbal acrobatics, fireworks & fun. And connection


For various reasons I have been thinking about the N word recently.

One reason was a comment that ‘at least he did not say niggardly’ – made by someone for whom this word is offensive

Like most British people I was surprised when that particular dispute blew up, since the word was familiar & not associated, in any of our minds at least, with the N word. But when even experts said the etymology was unknown, we took note of the offence it could cause

The slave etymology was not overwhelmingly convincing & this time round I found myself considering possible alternatives

It could well have a connection with niggling, meaning paying excessive attention to detail when applied to a person or causing slight but persistent discomfort, anxiety, or annoyance when applied to a pain

However, niggle itself is of uncertain origin, and in one , now rare use, can even mean the F word!

And then I thought of the place called Nigg, a very ancient name in Scotland

Of course! We all know that the Scots are famous for their meanness! Niggardly means as generous as someone from Nigg!

All things considered, definitely a word worth avoiding


We had just arrived at the hotel on my first ever visit to Bombay, though not to India. I had to stay behind, to deal with a lost luggage problem, while my friends left for a prearranged engagement

The problem was soon sorted out, & I was faced with the prospect of mooching around in the hotel for a couple of hours until my friends returned. It is not that I am afraid to go outside on my own, but all cities (towns & villages too) have areas where it is unwise to venture, & it is best not to take the risk before you have a sense of the place

The window of my room looked down – a long way down – on the Gateway to India, where I could see lots of family groups wandering around, even though the day was overcast. Well, I could certainly go to look round there

Once outside there was obviously nothing to stop me from wandering even further, which I happily did. I came across an exhibition of modern art by Indian artists, which provided a fascinationg half hour at least

I even found some shops where, amongst other things, I bought a nice fat friendly carved elephant, who stands about 9 inches tall. My friends were very impressed that I had managed this without a guide

That was a long time ago, & I have happy memories of subsequent visits, including one spent staying in the house of the aunt of a friend (a very formidable lady). Bombay has always seemed one of the safest cities I know

Yes, the hotel was the Taj, much more than just the resort of businessmen & tourists, a symbol of the history of a city which was founded by international trade

And though my elephant is not a Ganesh I went down last night to where he sits on the bookshelves, to rub my hand over his back

Related post

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The cost of steam

An intriguing item on the early morning farming programme. It challenged the idea that tomatoes grown under glass in this country have a larger carbon footprint than those grown in sunny Spain

One Norfolk farm grows tomatoes with the aid of steam which comes from a power station – but only after it has first been used by another factory to refine sugar beet

Listening with only half an ear, I missed the details of this process. In particular I missed whether we were told how much the tomato farmer paid for the steam

Over 40 years ago now I was asked to advise on a similar problem, in this case the use of steam, which otherwise was just a waste product discharged to the air, as an input for one of the stages of metal refining. The pricing had become an issue because previously the power station had been owned by the mining company, but was now being taken over by the government

I am afraid I came to no very satisfactory conclusion – there seemed no very compelling objective case for any particular solution including asking the power company to pay the mining company for taking the waste off its hands!

There are many such schemes nowadays, anything from fish farming to district heating. I still wonder if there is now an agreed method in either economics or accountancy, or is it always just what the market can bear?


Quantum success

I was rather taken aback by AC Grayling’s review of Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell in The Times

"For Gladwell's argument is that success is not a matter of individual will triumphing over adversity, but a combination of luck, opportunity, culture, initial advantages, hard work, and enough talent and intelligence - enough, note: not necessarily vast amounts of either - to profit from the advantages and opportunities at issue … whether or not you agree with Gladwell, you will never again think as you did before about what he has to say."

I have not read the book yet but from what I have heard & read about it, it does not seem to say anything startling, though the evidence he has amassed is interesting

But if even someone like Grayling has had his thinking changed, then I have been missing something

Maybe it is just that I have always thought like this, & did not understand my peculiarity?

Statistical training must help, though I remember that when I tried out my argument about Binomial families & greater educational opportunities for girls on a fellow statistician he accused me of being deterministic

Which reminds me of another idea: Women without a brother are disproportionately likely to rise to a position at or near the top of organisations in business, the civil service etc, etc. I should be really intrigued to see if there is evidence to support this

My reasoning is that such girls are in some sense (most definitely not a Well of Loneliness sense) their father’s son. From childhood they will have more ‘manly’ discussions with their father & perhaps be more likely than other girls to help daddy as well as mummy, more confident in just being with, as well as arguing with, men as equals

Or perhaps it really is all just down to The verb TO BE

Related posts

Pleased to know your views

I was interested to hear Andrew Motion & Andy Burnham on the BBC Today programme the other morning about the arrangements for appointing the next poet laureate

Thinking I might add my twopennorth to the discussion, I went to the DCMS website

Only to find: There are currently no active consultations

A footnote to Andy Burnham’s press release however says that “The public is welcome to write to the DCMS with their thoughts on the future of the Poet Laureate’s role or with suggestions for candidates for the Laureateship”

But only by old fashioned snail mail, it appears

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stormy weather

It has only just come to my attention that the US Treasury bail out plan for banks is called the Troubled Asset Relief Programme

Anybody who has ever spent any time under canvas will know that it is not a very comfortable place to be in a storm

But trying to erect a canvas shelter when the wind is howling, lightning flashing & rain lashing ?

Direction of travel

Another thought about which way babies should travel

A tv series about child development, from a good few years ago now, showed one sequence which has stuck in my memory

It demonstrated research which had been undertaken at one of the Ivy League universities, with babies no more than 6 months old

Mum came in carrying junior in one of those small portable seats – I do not think the babies were old enough to sit unsupported anyway

After a bit of a chat with the professor, they went out to observe through a two-way mirror, seemingly leaving baby alone

Except that behind the chair was a young woman assistant with something like a bamboo fishing pole from which dangled a mobile. She gently moved this so that it was in the baby’s line of vision, though he could not see the girl

The first baby showed clear signs of surprise, then shock – arms & legs went rigid & he started to whimper. The film showed the professor put his hand on mothers arm when she automatically moved to go to comfort her baby – Just leave it a moment, he said

The baby almost immediately started to cry, in real distress, but all was well as soon as he got a cuddle

The second baby stayed completely relaxed, eyes watching the mobile, saying (in coo) Oh isn’t that pretty! Look at the colours! See how it moves!

The professor said that if those babies came back in 2 or 3 years time, when they were old enough for personality testing, he could almost guarantee that the first baby would show as introverted, the second as an extrovert

Any parent who wished to test the personality of their young baby could get one of those buggies which can be set up so that the baby faces either forwards or backwards. If the baby exhibits distress at facing forwards, intoversion can be assumed, & the buggy changed round so as not to inflict lifelong psychological damage

Back to the engine

I was thinking again about this business of which way a baby should face in its buggy, which has attracted quite a lot of attention

Many adults are fussy about which way they face when travelling by train. In particular, some say they cannot bear to sit facing backwards, they need to see where they are going

I was never bothered by this until I realised that it made a big difference to my back – could even affect whether I could rise from my seat without assistance when we reached our destination

Trains never accelerate very much, but they do brake quite hard, so it is better to be thrown against the back of the seat than to be thrown forwards

The train companies have always recognised that people have preferences of course, & allow you to specify when booking a seat

In the old British Rail Inter City days the booking system was not all that reliable (it could not even guarantee that seats would not be double booked), so you could easily find that the seat with your number on it did not face the way you wanted

This happened to me at Manchester one day, but the train was not full, so I moved to one which did. When the conductor came round I explained to him – thinking to be helpful – that I would not be using the booked seat, because I needed my back to the engine

He told me that, since those trains had two engines – one at either end – I should have asked for Back to Direction of Travel

Neither his face nor his voice suggested he was joking, but I smiled anyway

Related post

Standing by

Alistair Darling is standing by his Pre Budget Report -

Radio 5 headline news, 7:30 news this morning

You mean to say someone thought he might really have woken up this morning & thought Ooops!

Monday, November 24, 2008

M&S foods

One of the books I picked up in the library sale was Thought For Food by Nathan Goldenberg, a study of the post war development of Marks & Spencers food department, in which he played an important part as a food scientist

The first surprise for me was that M&S had been in food even before WWII, but that “by the mid 50s the food range had dwindled down to a range of long life slab cakes, pound cakes & swiss rolls; biscuits, confectionery, a small range of canned foods & fresh fruit” while the business concentrated on clothing

He was not an easy man & was never afraid to stand his ground on matters of principle. He was, however, always constructive“, in the words of Sir Derek Rayner in the preface.

In my early days at M&S I was surprised to find how little importance was given to the taste & flavour of the foods produced by some manufacturers & especially so at the end of the shelf life of the project” and “The idea that foods of high quality cannot be produced in dirty factories under unhygienic conditions was also accepted only gradually” give some idea of what Goldenberg himself found in “my early & rather difficult years at M&S

Some rather hair raising stories help to explain why friends of mine, who are in the food hygiene business, seem paranoid about the state of their fridge etc

The story of faecal streptococci found in tinned ham after suppliers in Holland & Denmark had both been asked by the US army in Europe to reduce heat treatment (time & temp) in order to diminish the amount of jelly & fat

Or how it was discovered that any bacteria on the hands of a production line operative could get on to wet warm cans of peas & then be drawn through the very small space between the lid & the can itself by the force of the vacuum developing in the air space in the can as it cooled

How mould spore could be drawn in to plastic drink bottles by static charge, until the conveyor belt was altered so bottles did not rub together

It is salutary that measures we take for granted now took time to develop & be accepted as standard

1 Use of the right raw materials for each product
2 Good processing standards to ensure consistent quality
3 Good packaging standards
4 High standards of hygienic food handling & factory sanitation
5 Foods both clean & fresh, and good to eat
6 Shelf life & sell buy dates to ensure foods are fresh when eaten by the consumer
7 Cold chain techniques for handling high risk foods
8 Working with suppliers whose management supports these principles
9 Suppliers to employ technologists, laboratories & hygiene officers

In the 1970s, as M&S moved in to chilled foods in a big way (especially chilled, rather than frozen, chickens) I rather resented the over-scrupulous attention to sell by dates – or at least the policy that led to them carrying only small stock levels to ensure that they were not left with unsaleable goods on their hands

This meant that you really needed to get into an M&S store before about 11am to have a real chance of getting what you wanted

And I felt doubly miffed during the Winter of Discontent of 1978/79 when Time magazine carried pictures of empty supermarket shelves in Britain

I do not remember food shortages being a problem that year – in contrast to what happened during the miners’ strikes or the Great Sugar Shortage

And anyway, the shelves were clearly Marks & Spencers, so it was just a normal afternoon

Nowadays I suppose I fret more about the large amounts of unsold stock you can see being removed from M&S shelves towards the end of the day

But Time magazine went down in my esteem in 1979

20 minutes

20 minutes – the length of time I lasted with Any Questions before the Dimbleby interruptions began last Friday

And then I forgot to switch back in time for the Clive James essay

Get him off!!

The games people play

So, late yesterday evening the BBC political correspondent learned that Labour was going to announce higher tax rates for high earners at some point in the future

Cue much excitement, filing on his mobile to the Week in Westminster on his way to another meeting & hijacking the programme for a discussion of manifesto promises & reminiscences of Tony Blair signing, with his own fair hand, before the 1997 election, a pledge never to do any such thing

That will stop us tumbling into recession & pay off out debt mountain

That is, after the spending splurge we will indulge in to celebrate the reduction in VAT

I bet the retailers are loving that too. In their busiest period of the year, while they desperately try to work out which 50% or bigger discounts will help them shift some stock, they have to adjust their tills & find time to change the price labels for all vatted goods, for a reduction of less than 5%

What did Gordon Brown’s spinners really hope to gain from all the briefing that was going on yesterday? Something real, or just control of the agenda?

What really worries me is the feeling that Gordon Brown (who mapped out the Pre Budget Report to a CBI conference this morning) actually believes his own rhetoric, just as he believed that he had put an end to boom & bust before a few reckless American bankers spoiled things for him


Sunday, November 23, 2008

This week’s crunchy bits

1 Diamond prices are tumbling – not just industrial quality but high price cut gems are affected too. Why are they not being used as a store of value in straitened times? Were prices inflated by excess demand for bling for the wags not just of footballers but of bonus laden bankers & traders too?

2 The price of skimmed milk powder has fallen by 25% over the past 3 months

3 Gamblers are risk averse too these days - the Las Vegas Sands Corporation has stopped all its construction work in Macau

4 The risk of power cuts this winter has receded because so many factories have closed

5 Sales of Hobgoblin real ale jumped 60% in October. They may fall right back down again however – there was a special promotion for Halloween

6 The seven top executives at Goldman Sachs will receive Zero Bonuses this year. This will mean a pay cut of about 50% if 2006 figures are anything to go by. when the chief executive ‘earned’ a total of about $53 million of which $27 million was bonus

7 British authors who receive royalties from America are seeing a rise in income because of the falling pound

8 Sales of canned drinks are falling in the USA & the prices have gone up

9 Burberry may start to carry handbags by sea instead of by air, saving £6.30 per bag in the cost of freight (currently £7)

10 We need cheering up - sales of Misery Memoirs were down 30% in the year to September

11 (Aspiring) White Van Man can have any new model without paying a deposit at a local dealers
12 The London Olympic Delivery Authority has still not found a head of finance

A story of our times

This week there was another story in the paper about a 17 month old baby who might have died. She, however, now seems set for a happy & healthy life

Ella-Grace was born with a condition which means she had leaky blood vessels in her brain

She was in obvious pain, & just before her first birthday her condition was diagnosed

It is a rare disease – about 5 cases a year in Britain. Her parents were advised that doctors in France had more experience in the surgery which she needed

The operation went well, but the French surgeon died, just 2 days later

The family went to the United States for more treatment, which basically involves injecting a kind of organic super glue to plug up the holes

All this cost more than £100,000, which was found with the help of local fundraisers

Ella-Grace had the great good fortune to be born to parents who could deal with this. It does not sound as if anybody ever ‘expressed concern’ about a baby with pain of unknown origin, or called in child protection services to investigate

No committees had to meet to agree a suitable care package

It is instructive that we know her name

She does not need the protection of privacy imposed by a court, because her story does not bring any shame

Baby P’s luck was very different. But it is his story which is all over the airwaves & the newsprint, treated as emblematic of the kind of society we have become

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Quality & procedure

Another loss of data relating to children was reported today. The spokesman for the council involved expressed his dismay that procedures had been flouted. That word again – though to be fair he was taking a much more measured & sensible view than some ministers we have heard reacting to similar disappointments

When procedures keep failing to produce results of the required quality, it is time to think hard about what we are doing & how we are trying to do it

We could do worse than revisit Deming – the American physicist turned statistician who is credited with having transformed Japanese industry after WW II by his teaching of quality control methods

By coincidence I found a copy of his 2 basic lists of principles - The Fourteen Admonitions & The Seven Deadly Diseases - on a website devoted to software project management!

Government ministers in particular might ponder 5 of the 14 Admonitions:

1 Create constancy of purpose

8 Drive out fear

10 Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce.

11 Eliminate numerical quotas

12 Remove barriers to pride of workmanship

When Ed Balls says in Parliament we will hold people to account he is not helping to engender the circumstances needed to produce quality outcomes.

In effect he is just blaming the servants again

Moderation in diet

Another poem from Charles & Mary Lamb

After conceding that there is no need to warn a child of the dangers of the demon drink, since, thankfully, nobody offers alcohol to a child, the poet goes on:

... there’s a vice
That shares the world’s contempt no less;
To be in eating over- nice
Or to court surfeits by excess


By temperance meat is best enjoyed;
Think of this maxim when you dine

Prefer with plain food to be fed,
Rather than what are dainties styled;
A sweet tooth in an infant’s head
Is pardon’d, not in a grown child.

If parent, aunt, or liberal friend,
With splendid shilling line your purse,
Do not the same on sweetmeats spend,
Nor appetite with pamperings nurse.

Go buy a book …

Purchase some toy …

Go see some show …

That may the youthful mind expand.

And something of your store impart,
To feed the poor & hungry soul;
What buys for you the needless tart,
May purchase him a needful roll

And so we have what were to become the great Victorian virtues, self improvement & philanthropy

What I find intriguing about this, from a modern perspective, is how much responsibility (and choice) a child was expected to have for his own behaviour in 1809 when these poems were first published

But then I remembered the story of Sir Elkanah Armitage. Born in 1794 to a family of weavers, he went to work in a factory when he was 8 years old because there was not enough work at home for him & all his brothers. With 20 years experience of business behind him he set up his own firm when he was 28. He became wealthy & was a powerful figure in Manchester politics. He died aged 82 in 1876

And somehow I doubt that the prime minister in 1809, William Henry Cavendish Cavendish-Bentinck, third duke of Portland, felt that it was any part of his job to give advice on, still less issue regulations to prescribe or proscribe the content of diet of the nation's children

Friday, November 21, 2008

Well I never

I was coming up to my 40th birthday when I said to my boss one day that I was afraid of falling in to the habit of saying, all too often Oh we tried that 20 years ago & it didn’t work

But you have to because it is true – sometimes, he said

I thought of that this morning when I heard that babies may be psychologically damaged by being pushed in a forwards facing buggy – scientific research has shown

There was a lively debate about this back in the 1960s when a push chair was quite a newfangled thing – before that babies graduated from large old fashioned perambulators straight to their own two feet

(Just as an aside - what on earth did we call the next new thing – the very lightweight push chair which folded up & hooked over your arm like an umbrella, all the easier to get on to the bus with? I do not think it was either buggy or stroller)

As far as I know the argument was never settled. A baby facing backwards could interact with Mummy (real men did not push push chairs in those days); one facing forwards got mental stimulation from the changing scene

Now science has come up with the answer – based, if I heard the young woman aright on the radio this morning, on a detailed analysis of 20 different outings

The people of the book

One striking feature of the coverage of the case of Baby P is the reliance on the word procedure.

This constant invocation seems only to further infuriate press & public alike

Ever since the Maria Coldwell inquiry there have been findings of failure of the professionals to communicate with each other or to consult over the steps needed to protect a child

And so we have multi-agency task forces & a national database to track every child in the country. Rules about the recording of every cause for concern


They did not save Baby P.

We must wait to see what the various inquiries have to say, though press & public seem already to have decided that all would be well, or at least the baby would still be alive, if social workers had been less pusillanimous

One commentator talked of ‘a young single mother living in a squalid flat’ but Child P was living in a large household of 3 adults (plus a 15 year old ‘girlfriend’) and 7 children

Incredulity has been expressed that a consultant paediatrician failed to spot his broken spine, failed even to examine him properly because he was fretful & cranky

Well I suspect a spinal injury may not be as easy to diagnose as it sounds, especially in such a young child who was still able to walk

Nor do we know that the consultant had any expertise in the diagnosis of child abuse – or indeed if we have any such still in practice in this country

For the other great headline narrative about child abuse in recent years is the one about arrogant experts who, on the basis of pet prejudices, very little evidence & dodgy statistics, & often in secret, diagnose child abuse where none existed, with its own tragic results

Including disciplinary proceedings by the General Medical Council against 2 consultants

The paediatrician in the case of Baby P was not being consulted about abuse. The appointment was for a developmental assessment which appears to have taken 5 months to arrange (more evidence of a shortage of the relevant expertise). An assessment of a child who was a headbanger – a not uncommon & very alarming habit which might have an underlying neurological or endocrinological cause. It makes a lot of sense to decide not to inflict all the necessary tests on a baby on a day when he is fretful & cranky

None of the doctors who had examined baby P on one of his emergency visits to hospital had been prepared to go further than to say that his injuries could be consistent with deliberate harm

And so the lawyers said there was not enough evidence to apply for a care order

After all, had not the Court of Appeal judged that, at least in the case of mothers accused of cot death, there must be strong supporting evidence. Because even if this means that a few will get away with murder, the idea of an innocent parent being found guilty of a murder she did not commit was unconscionable

The government has already announced moves to strengthen local child protection boards

These are just committees under another name

Have we not learned the lesson which Orwell taught in 1984?

‘There were days when they assembled & then promptly dispersed again, frankly admitting to one another that there was not really anything to be done

But there were other days … when the arguments as to what they were supposedly arguing about grew extraordinarily involved & abstruse, with subtle haggling over definitions, enormous digressions, quarrels, threats even, to appeal to higher authority. And then suddenly the life would go out of them & they would sit around the table looking at one another with extinct eyes, like ghosts fading at cock-crow’

Or, as summarised by Fred Allen: A Committee is a group of men who individually can do nothing but together can decide that nothing can be done

Related posts

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The man with no name

Myra Hindley
Ian Huntley
Ian Brady

These are names which we vilify. Murderers of children for their own sadistic pleasure

In this latest case, we have no names

We do not even have a finding of Guilty of Murder

One man in particular stays in the shadows

He cannot be named For Legal Reasons. To protect yet another child, to add to the seven already involved in this case

The one which, by implication, we are led to believe that he fathered with the mother of Baby P, born while she was on remand. Removed at birth to a place of safety

To a better life?

Well, we must hope

Would you like to be the social worker/counsellor who, in 18 years time perhaps, has the job of advising that child whether or not to seek to know its genetic inheritance?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hillary & Obama

This is just such a really good picture (by Alex Brandon/AP) - good to see two people who not long ago were up against each other in hard-fought primaries able to smile together

I do not think I have ever seen a picture of Hillary looking so relaxed & happy (though her shoulders are up)

It is also a very interesting picture of Obama, those deep creases speaking of a lived life & authority. I think he will get even more craggy as he ages

Definitely one for Mount Rushmore?

Looking after the children

One of the court cases I came across when reading Manchester newspapers of the C19th concerned a father charged with abandoning his two children aged about 4 & 5

He was poor & Irish. His defence was that both they & their mother had been struck down by fever & taken to the infirmary. He received a message that all 3 had died &, unable to bear to live in Manchester without them, moved to Birmingham

He returned to Manchester some 4 or 5 years later, & somehow news of this got to the authorities

The mother had indeed died, but the magistrates declined to accept his story about the message. He was sentenced to the City Gaol

His children had become the responsibility of the Poor Law Guardians, a charge on the rates, & it was this form of benefit fraud which was his real offence against Victorian morality


One of the most heart rending places I have visited is in St Josephs Roman Catholic cemetery in Moston, Manchester: the paupers section

Row after row tells the story of infant death, often of brothers & sisters, perhaps whole families, who died within days of each other

There are 10 bodies in each grave

But what makes it heart rending, rather than heart breaking, is that their existence is commemorated.

Someone paid for gravestones & the carving of the names

Born dismayed

This poem, Time Was by John Wain, starts with anxiety/depression, but ends with optimism & delight in life

I wonder now why I was born dismayed.
What was the shape that gibbered through the room?
Who told me that all good men were afraid?
I think I lay & trembled in the womb,
As mindlessly as rags flap in the wind.

To live is to go forward & forget.
My shattered bones knit up & march again.
I paid for all mistakes with drops of sweat
Strained from the meaty gammon of my pain.
Now that I start my journey to the truth,
Let me set down the burdens of my youth!

I upped my eyes: nine seasons I lay prone.
Now, looking up, I find the world has grown

Time was I thought the world was thin & dry,
A heap of shavings curled from heaven’s blade.
(Let fall a match the flames would hit the sky.)
I tried to hide, but shavings gave no shade.
The sunlight pierced my vitals like a knife.
I writhed: I opened: suffering was life.

A wind kissed leaf & lake: that wind was I;
At last desert flowered with delight.
I heard the stars drum in the hollow sky.
Roused by that drumming, here I stand upright.
Now let my fossils lie: no more retreat:
My hopes are sharp as glass before my feet

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Death of a child

I have been trying to stay away from the case of Child P. Not because I find the details too much to bear (though I do, when presented sensationally as ‘news’), but because it is hard to know what to think amidst so much hand wringing, hysteria, witch hunting & buck passing & with so little background information to go on

However I have now read the Executive Summary of the serious case investigation (which I found from a link on a rather emotional piece on Tom Harris’ blog)

And I have to say I rather veer towards the social workers view of this case

Those who know so much better, now that the outcome is known, should be forced into saying how they would have applied our rather confused social prejudices & assumptions at each stage :

1 The interests of the child are paramount
2 Children taken into care to be looked after by the state do less well than those who stay with their own family, even if that family provides a less than ideal home
3 Any woman who abandons or voluntarily gives up her child for adoption is unnatural
4 Only in the most extraordinary circumstances, & on the strongest possible evidence, is it right to remove a child from its mother. These strictures apply even more forcefully to attempts to remove a child at, or soon after, birth
5 Government has a duty to ensure that no mother & her child(ren) are homeless or financially unsupported
6 No woman should be forced to depend upon a man for support
7 No publicity shall be given to the name of any child involved in any sort of care proceedings

& to say how they would have been so sure about what was really going on


Extracts from the executive summary (Child P is referred to as Child A in this document):

There were no concerns about the welfare of any of the children in the family prior to mid December 2006, when child A (then aged nine months) was presented at a hospital with a head injury and bruising, considered by medical staff to be suggestive of non accidental injury

on 22.12.06, child A and his youngest sibling became subject of child protection plans

Various professionals noted that child A was an active child who was observed to throw his body around and head-butt family members and physical objects.. From March, a main element of the child protection plan was to obtain a developmental paediatric assessment, to ascertain if there was an organic reason for such behaviour

in March 2007, when Ms A was seen to slap her eldest child

Haringey’s Children & Young People’s Service obtained legal advice on 25.07.07, which indicated that on the basis of the information provided, the threshold for initiating Care Proceedings (a Care Order would have meant that the local authority would have shared parental responsibility with the child’s parents and would have had the authority to remove child A) was not met.

Child A was seen by a paediatrician on 01.08.07, for the purpose of the developmental assessment. The paediatrician judged that he was unwell and miserable with a possible viral infection and partly healing scalp infection. The doctor completed a history, prescribed medication, arranged for various tests to be made and a follow up appointment made to complete the assessment.

Child A died before the intended follow up appointment was made.
Related post

Brown heir

This rather extraordinary advert is from an organisation called AVAAZ and is about events in Eastern Congo

Only two short months ago we might have assumed it was an ad in support of a new young leader for the Labour Party to replace the care worn, & worn out looking, model on the left

Related post

Monday, November 17, 2008

Two hundred years

I was looking at Poetry for Children by Charles & Mary Lamb at the weekend

Some of the poems were old friends from childhood, but I do not recall ever having read this one – The Conquest of Prejudice

The first verse goes:

Unto a Yorkshire school was sent
A Negro youth to learn to write,
And the first day young Juba went
All gaz’d on him as a rare sight

The Head Boy, Henry Orme, took the lead in showing the boys how to react:

… “It does to me appear
To be a great disgrace & shame
A black should be admitted here”

The headmaster was not prepared to accept this kind of behaviour. He took the extraordinary step (to us, though mild by the standards of Mr Squeers) of removing Orme & Juba to a room on the top floor of the school. Each had his own bed, table & lamp, but the door was locked. Neither could leave, nor receive visitors. Their meals were delivered through a skylight

Orme was the first to crack & started to talk to his companion. They learned that they had their humanity in common, but much to learn by sharing their (very different) experiences of life so far

The poem ends:

Now Orme & Juba are good friends;
The school, by Orme’s example won,
Contend who most shall make amends
For former slights to Afric’s son

That was published in 1809, so just after the Abolition of the Slave Trade, but 30 years before Parliament granted full legal emancipation to the slaves of the British Empire

It was 150 years before Rosa could sit

And 200 years before Obama could run

Related post

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Access all areas

September was People’s Month across the European Union, when the public were encouraged to go & look round (some) private or public buildings which are not usually open to them. Richard Morrison commented that he would like to see a permanent open house culture in which the norm is for public buildings to be permanently accessible

But this was the norm until 1971, when the IRA planted a bomb in the Post Office Tower, & rather shattered the idea that, since it was our government, its offices & officials should be open to all. I can remember as a student sometimes going with friends just to have a look round a few. The only one we used to believe was totally barred was a bleak building with steel framed windows on the unfashionable side of Shaftesbury Avenue, near Cambridge Circus, which was reputed to house MI5 (or was it MI6?)

Even though civil servants then generally had to start carrying passes, procedures for visitors were not onerous for buildings not deemed to be a particular target for terrorists – if you could give a name & a room number for the person you were visiting, you were generally allowed in unescorted. In one place I worked procedures were tightened up after a disgruntled husband came in to protest about ‘The Government’ (in fact a nice middle-aged lady social survey interviewer) coming round to ask questions about him while he was at work

In this we were more pusillanimous, showed less backbone, than Gathorne Hardy, who in 1867 was confronted in his Home Office one evening by a drunken group demanding the reprieve of the Manchester Martyrs. No one thought it necessary to block future access, though arrangements were made to improve the speed with which Scotland Yard could respond

I wonder when it was that we stopped believing that we had a right to go & poke our noses round grand houses, without having to pay for the privilege, as the Bennets went round Pemberley?

Medical consent

Headlines this week about the case of a 13 year old, whose decision to refuse a heart transplant was subject to legal challenge by doctors, made me ponder how much has changed, just during my adult lifetime, in the area of consent to medical procedures

My husband was suddenly called overseas shortly before our first child was due. In the flurry of arrangements nobody thought to get him to sign the consent forms for any treatment I (or the baby) might need during the confinement

I could not sign because I was under 21 – the age of majority then

When I was actually admitted to hospital in labour the necessary consents were obtained from my father, by phone. Fortunately no special or extraordinary medical procedures were necessary

After the birth however I was considered perfectly competent to sign consents for my daughter to have blood tests etc

Actually I am not sure that it was just my age which caused the problem. Whether it was the law, or just custom & practice, ‘everybody knew’ that a husband’s consent was needed for anything which might affect the life of his wife or child, or her fertility, or his conjugal rights

This actually changed some time during the 1970s, but again I am not clear whether it was the law or just common consent

During the 1970s my professional practice was affected by something which everybody used to call ‘the ethical problem.’ Nobody – not the doctor, the parents or the child concerned – was competent to give consent to, for example, the taking of a blood sample purely in the interests of research. The Medical Defence Union’s standard advice was that the doctor could be liable to a charge of assault if anything went wrong, no matter how fully informed the parties to the decision had been.

This meant that, for example, one could not take control samples in any study of the effects of environmental pollutants on children’s health, there had to be a known source of potential exposure for each child. Friends still working in this area tell me that things have changed now

Listening to some of the radio interviews with doctors, lawyers or ethicists about the case of the girl & the heart transplant helped me to understand a little better why on earth anyone would take it upon themselves to take her to court (though to be fair, we never heard from them, & it is not totally clear that the issue was the transplant itself or some other part of her treatment). Even so, there was a tinge of ‘Oh what an interesting case’ in their voices

Since the need for a transplant in this case is iatrogenic, I think a decent reticence was needed

Related posts

Heron with rat

Another great bird picture, possibly unique, of a heron dining on a rat.

It was taken by Paul Hughes, a wild life photographer in Ireland

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Byron Lee

Byron Lee died earlier this month

I do not think I have heard any of his music for over 20 years now

I have 2 of his LPs from the 1960s, but nothing to play them on. I was astonished to see, when I went to look for them last night, that one is actually called Reggay (sic) Blast Off

It has two tracks in particular which I would happily sit down to listen to: (Hugging up a big) Monkey Man & Elizabethan Reggay. This last one is actually a reggae version of Ronald Binge’s Elizabethan Serenade!

Political style

The House of Commons disgraced itself last week in the way it degenerated into booing & name calling during PMQs on the topic of the Death Of Baby P

Jonathan Dimbleby did something nearly as bad on Any Questions last night

I try to listen to this programme most weeks because they have interesting people with interesting things to say, but I usually switch off when it becomes the Jonathan Dimbleby nitpicking for points show. I have started taking a note of how long I last – the record so far was for the anniversary programme a few weeks ago when it was 21 minutes

Last night started quite promisingly, with stunned but measured reactions to a question about the baby’s death, but then Dimbleby started to have a go at Rosie Winterton MP, who, as a junior minister was one of the recipients of a letter which, if acted upon would, allegedly but implausibly, have prevented the whole thing. Had she personally done anything about it, & if not, why not? Was she not ashamed of her inaction?

I kept flicking to another station, then flicking back only to find him still at it. Finally, Baroness Afshar stepped in to tell Dimbleby that the idea that ministers could go jumping on practitioners on the basis of any or every allegation was ridiculous

Friday, November 14, 2008

Only in America?

Back in the mid 1960s BBC radio had a Sunday lunchtime programme similar to the old Brains Trust which sought to answer listeners’ questions

Once they were asked: Is it natural for a person of one race to marry someone of another?

One panellist, whose name has long since vanished from my memory bank, said No, like should marry like – somewhat surprisingly since he had a liberal reputation

Not just that, but he started to get really agitated about it: People from Birmingham tend to marry people from Birmingham … people who have been to university tend to marry people who have been to university …

A fellow panellist interrupted, gently: Yes, people tend to marry people they have met

I thought again about this, one of the many thoughts prompted by the Obama victory

He has said that his story could have happened ‘only in America’. Actually, I believe that multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-national, unions were more common in this country, at least up until the late 1960s

One reason was the long standing & well established system of students from Commonwealth countries coming here for their higher education, which combined with the wave of home grown students who were ‘first in their family’ as a result of the 1944 Education Act. This meant that young people might well feel they had more in common with a fellow student than they did even with their own family

Many, perhaps most, such couples left this country after graduation. Partly because this had always been the intention (we were training them to run their own countries, not ours), & the decade of independence was an exciting time for the young & idealistic, partly because they had no wish to expose their children to the kind of racism they experienced

And few, if any, sent their children back to England for their higher education. By then America seemed a much better bet

For me, the part of the Obama story – his educational opportunities – is the real Only in America bit

A system which allows a bright youngster to go from a small well established & highly regarded liberal arts college in LA via Columbia to the Harvard Law School in his mid twenties

In this country we attempt to get disadvantaged children in to Oxbridge at 18 – in effect persuade them to make the decision to take that academic & social leap & take that risk when they are maybe only 16 or 17. And then to follow a very narrow curriculum which many will not find an attractive proposition

There are few, if any, routes which someone can take to explore different disciplines, to build an academic career, no programmes for Oxbridge to take the brightest undergraduates from other universities, to gather the brightest for further courses of postgraduate study

Waste lines

We have sorted, cleaned, washed, squashed, folded, bundled, stacked & kept track of which is the right day to put out what sort of rubbish (the diary keeps changing For Operational Reasons) & transported the rest to the recycling centre

So now warehouses around the country are filled with paper, plastic bottles & steel cans.

Chinese manufacturers cannot use them in the downturn so the bottom has dropped out of the market

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dress sense

And so it has started – detailed analysis of Michelle Obama’s wardrobe

I am no fashionista, but I do want to throw in two comments

First, given that Republicans are Red & Democrats Blue, it was intriguing that the Obamas wore red, while Sarah Palin wore blue on election night

Could there have been consultation between the two camps? Seems unlikely. But if either side had made an approach, who would have given the same answer as did the Queen in similar circumstances?

The story goes that, before her first official State occasion as Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher asked her Private Office to make discreet enquiries of Buckingham Palace about what the Queen would be wearing, since the Prime Minister was anxious to avoid a clash. The response was that Her Majesty never concerned herself with what others were wearing

There have even been snide comments about the Obama family colour scheme being applied to the daughters as well as the mother. Anna Wintour reportedly sent a “stiff letter on the perils of matchy-matchy” (! – that’s telling them)

Lisa Armstrong in The Times had a different explanation – black & red “reflect Africa’s mourning colours”

All I can say to that is that in the West Indies, women of African origin used to wear purple or white (possibly grey) to funerals

Whatever, it is an interesting shot across the bows of the fashion mavens about the semiotics of fashion in this complex web of origins (Barack East African, Michelle West, mourning a grandmother from Kansas)

My second point concerns the subtle, or perhaps not so subtle, comments that picture editors can make through their choice of pictures from these much photographed events

The (small) picture illustrating Lisa Armstrong’s column makes it look as if a third Obama offspring is due at any minute

The Times chose an extraordinary picture for its front page coverage of the visit to the White House

All four are having to screw up their eyes against the glare – whether of the sun or the media spotlight is impossible to tell

The two couples are looking in opposite directions – the Bushes to their right, Obamas to their left. The Obamas seem greatly amused by someone’s antics, the Bushes more regal & composed – perhaps just more practised

And, for someone who, like me, grew up in an era of home dressmaking & learned a modicum of skill, it was sad to see how the combination of creased up eyes, & the crease across the bodice caused by her turn to the left, detracts from that really clever gathering at the neck of her beautiful red dress

More crunchy bits

1. There has been a sharp rise in sheep rustling. Some farmers believe that shepherds anxious to make extra cash during this difficult time are involved in the operation

2. Sales of the Financial Times rose by 5.2% last month; sales of most other papers fell

3. The Times has had to reduce its number of pages. I have lost my guaranteed daily fix of fiendish Su Doku

4. A small historic pub in town has closed – “The lease has been handed back to the landlord.” It had seemed to be quite thriving

5. Cremation costs 20% more than it did last year because of rising energy prices

6. The decline in corporate entertaining is hitting the Natural History Museum & the Science Museum. The British Library is one of the creditors of Lehman Brothers


In recent days the word miscegenation has been appearing in the columns of The Times, such as those by Robert Crampton & David Aaronovitch

No doubt it is believed to be a neutral, scientific word. And maybe, in the new spirit, it can become that, even a jokey one, like mutt. Even piccaninny - a rather nice sounding word - may make a come back to acceptability

But in fact miscegenation was coined by as a political slur in an anonymously published hoax pamphlet circulated in 1863, which implied that the American Republican party(!) favoured mixed-race relationships

If The Times, & its columnists, understood how hurtful this word can be to those who are personally involved, or who have read many of the supposed scientific papers on the subject, I am sure they would desist

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Acrasial philogamy

I have just come across a reference to philogamy in the OED

Interestingly – or curiously – if you search for philogamy you just get ‘no results’

But search for acrasial (as one does) & you find:

'Acrasial Philogamy? Brother Edward, what is that?’

‘That,’ replied Edward, ‘is an incurable malady to which young persons are subject.’

Which comes from a book called Margaret: A Tale by Sylvester Judd, originally published in 1845

Related post

The goodly gift

A fellow would be less than human not to pray that the reconciliation [between America & the rest of the world] will last against the odds - Aravind Adiga, Booker Prize winner 2008

I wonder how he will break our hearts? - Matthew Parris, Times columnist

I listen to this guy & it could be Tony. He is doing the same thing that we did in 1997 - former Blairite minister

In your dreams!

Of course any sensible person will worry about what may happen once the wave of euphoria is past

But there is far more to Obama than there was to the vacuous T Blair

This is not a good analogy, & I am almost ashamed to use it, but I cannot think of a better one for now: Aw Shucks!Blair was like a Black Hole which just sucked in all those hopes & aspirations

Obama seems to have the skill to reflect them back. Yes We Can – Yes You Can

Please let me be right that this is not just the malign power of the demagogue

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

First with the news

I got home on Friday evening, switched on Radio 4 just in time for the 8 o’clock news

In portentous tones, the newsreader said: Within the last few minutes, President-elect Obama….

My heart stopped. Noooh!

But it was OK, nothing very urgent at all, just the modern disease of wanting to be first with the news

Monday, November 10, 2008

Quiet relief

Jim O’Neill, 65 & an experienced pilot, was flying his Cessna over the north of England when he suddenly lost his sight

Ground controllers tried 6 times to talk him down, but it was hopeless

The RAF was called on for help

Wing Commander Paul Gerrard, 42, was in the air not far away, at the controls of his Tucano T1 jet trainer

He flew alongside Mr O’Neill – well, strictly he bobbed & weaved, zigged & zagged, to keep his 325 mph machine in step with the 125 mph Cessna

And, on the second attempt, Mr O’Neill landed safely, guided by the Wing Commander’s ‘Left a bit, down a bit’ instructions

Sergeant Egglestone of the RAF ground staff said: ‘You would think we were all jumping up & down in celebration, but actually it was quiet. There was just this big sigh of relief’

Wing Commander Gerrard said he was ‘just glad to be able to help a fellow aviator in distress’

Mr O’Neil, who could be heard on tape saying constantly during the manoeuvre ‘I am so sorry, sir. I just can’t see’ is in hospital & appears to be recovering his sight, the loss of which was due to a small stroke

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Previously in Favourite Quotations (3)

It is by logic that we prove but by intuition that we discover - Henri Poincare

In Plato's dialogues the discussions are seldom if ever about what the participants have 'read' but almost invariably about what they 'remember' - Alfred North Whitehead

There is an intimidating quality to someone who is tall – especially a young woman - Kirsty Young

All cakes, however poor in quality, are quite good to eat immediately after baking - Nathan Goldenberg

The rich march on Washington all the time - IF Stone

That which represses our instincts is also part of us - J Riviere

Old people love to give good advice: it compensates them for their inability nowadays to set a bad example - LaRochefoucauld

In a divorce the yacht is the one item the man always keeps - Jamie Edmiston

Pound St Pauls Church into atoms, & consider any single atom; it is, to be sure, good for nothing: but, put all these atoms together, & you have St Pauls Church - Dr Samuel Johnson

You can see, Samuel Johnson was what you might call a Premature Molecular Biologist; otherwise he could have considered the possibility that reassembly may have yielded Liverpool Station - Erwin Chargaff

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

Saturday, November 08, 2008


I do not know what local complications might underlie the voting patterns in the Glenrothes by-election, but comparing 2005 & 2008 in the simplest possible way shows the following:

Changes in votes 2005-2008

Labour +500
SNP +4,500
Con+Lib - 5,000
The Rest - 1,000

Total votes cast: 2008 36,000 2005 37,000

Though obviously not a thumbs down, I do not see how this can be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the handling of the economic crisis. It looks more like a polarisation into a straight fight between nationalists & unionists

Friday, November 07, 2008

Gödel’s law of administration

Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem demonstrated that within any given branch of mathematics, there would always be some propositions that could not be proved either true or false using the rules and axioms of that system - one cannot, for example, be certain that the axioms of arithmetic will not lead to contradictions

This is not just a hard lesson for mathematicians or scientists to grapple with

It applies to any system based on axioms, or definitions, axiom-like propositions

Such as the law

Any system of entitlement or regulation

Any system of taxonomy or classification

Strictly, Gödel’s proof shows that you cannot prove that any system is not, at some point, self contradictory, but I choose to believe that it means there will always be self-contradiction in the system

This is why we need, at the highest level, judges who are wise & clever – to work out a way to resolve a contradiction (for now)

One corollary of Gödel’s theorem is that even if you add new rules you will only create a larger system with its own unprovable statements

This may come as a particular blow to the current generation of Labour politicians, policy wonks & journalist/inquisitors

You do not make the system watertight by adding even more rules or definitions or targets

Take the business of schools admissions

The government just paid lawyers to check through the written policies produced by several thousand schools, with the aim of removing all ‘technical’ flaws or serious breaches of the regulations designed to make things ‘fair’

And next day, Alice Miles wrote an article in The Times which points to a glaring gap in the system

But even if there are no holes, there will always be a Catch-22

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Lady of The House

In many ways the one who is going to have the hardest job come January 2009 is Michelle Obama

The First African American First Lady

I do not suppose for one moment that she is going to do a Cherie & try to pursue her own ‘independent’ career

She will come under a kind of intense, often jeering, scrutiny that her husband will not – unable even to get dressed without ‘worrying’ about it

Will she try to change the White House – like Jackie Kennedy? Bring Africa America into the furnishings etc? What about the menus for State dinners? The entertainment? Will she just concentrate on social or welfare projects of her own?

What will be the ‘racial’ makeup of her personal staff?

And how to bring up & protect those two little girls (another President without a son)

Does she want to be in the limelight or just, as far as possible, to get on with it quietly?

What we do know about her suggests that she is more than up to the task

But in that goldfish bowl?

As souls, ambitious, but low-born,
If raised past hope by luck or wit,
All pride of place will proudly scorn,
And live as they'd been used to it,
So we two wore our strange estate
Coventry Patmore: Angel of the House

Party time

Interestingly enough The Times carried a piece by Martin Fletcher yesterday about the social aspects of the Presidency. Apart from one name check for Jackie Kennedy he attributed all changes to the President himself

He also pointed out that increasing polarisation of social life along partisan lines is a growing Washington trend, just as it has been in this country

I wonder why this should be? Is it happening in other countries?

One reason could be the loosening of the links between political parties & class & the widening (in some ways) of the social pool from which MPs are drawn

I suspect that even more important may be the ease of modern travel. The representatives of the people no longer have to be confined to the capital for the legislative season – they can, are required to, make frequent visits to their constituency. Even in America a politician can go home for the weekend. Separated by distance, they no longer have the time for the luxury of socialising with the enemy

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More election theories

Paul Simons however reported a different theory. The Northwest was soaked on election day by a Pacific storm, & it was stormy too in the finely balanced states of North Carolina & Virginia. Political researchers at Florida State university have established that turnout drops 1% for every inch of rain, & that this favours the Republicans

But for rain (or the lack of it) Nixon would have beaten Kennedy in 1960 & Gore would have won Florida in 2000

Ah! But what was the weather like for the early voters?

And what happened to the Bradley effect (which also affected (the white) Jerry Brown in the same election year it was allegedly in operation)?

Did anyone read the tea leaves, check the astrological charts or slaughter a chicken for its entrails?

Youth vote

According to the blog Stochastic Democracy, Obama did much worse then expected in states with lots of young voters. They point out that correlation does not equal causation. “It could also be that states with lots of young voters have lots of culturally conservative parents. More research is needed”

This is an interesting blog Applying Math to Politics by a group of (very) young men which I have only come across recently – haven’t had time to evaluate their work yet.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Our Bliss is only Inchoate

It is sad that neither Barack Obama’s mother nor grandmother lived to see him elected President.

There has been so much comment about how his parents union would have been illegal in many States in 1961. Possibly things may have been more relaxed in Hawaii, though it cannot have been easy

But I wonder if Obama would even be qualified to be President if he had been born just 2 years earlier, before Hawaii became the 50th State?

I read that Obama now has no living American relatives (from his own or an older generation), apart from his sister. And he has even had to break with the pastor who provided much support in his life in Chicago

Since Kennedy & Bush, both from large dynasties, were for various reasons on my mind, I was wondering if a small family was unusual for an American President. But not at all, as soon as you think of Clinton, Carter, Reagan …

Such an unimaginably heavy burden now rests on Obama’s shoulders, all that weight of inchoate hope. I suppose it is a moot point whether a large clan, steeped in politics, is a support or a burden in such a place

Advisers will be crucial. A good time, I think, to reread JK Galbraith’s Ambassador’s Journal which contains much about how Kennedy got drawn in to war with Vietnam.

And how odd that another of Galbraith’s books should seem so a propos all over again

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