Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dream or nightmare

Oh dear! Matthew Parris has set the hares running on the idea that Peter Mandelson could be scheming to be prime minister

Related posts

Promises, promises: The passionate shepherd

I think we might have been introduced to Christopher Marlowe’s poem at Junior School. We could appreciate the pastoral romance & the offer of a life more rewarding than that offered to Curlilocks

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hill & valley, dale & field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks,
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

There will I make thee beds of roses
With a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, & a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool,
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fur lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold.

A belt of straw & ivy buds
With coral clasps & amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me & be my love.

Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee & me.

The shepherd swains shall dance & sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

Related posts

Promises, promises: In the nursery

Curlilocks, Curlilocks
Wilt thou be mine?
Thou shalt not wash dishes
Nor yet feed the swine
But sit on a cushion
And sew a fine seam
And feed upon strawberries
Sugar & cream

Even as a small child I think I dimly perceived that the life on offer might be a bit boring. Besides, I liked pigs & at that age enjoyed the mud around the sty

Related posts

Friday, January 30, 2009

Leaking flummery

I went to take a look at the UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE given to the House of COMMONS HOME AFFAIRS COMMITTEE because I saw in the newspaper a report of the following exchange:

Q59 David Davies: Finally, Home Secretary, is the Assistant Commissioner a friend of yours? I just wondered why you kept referring to him as "Bob" in some of the interviews that took place afterwards.

Jacqui Smith: He is not a friend of mine. I believe that I have a wholly professional relationship with him.

Q60 David Davies: That is why I call you Home Secretary and not Jackie.

Jacqui Smith: You have called me Jackie at various times, David, and we are certainly not friends.

Chairman: If he was a friend of yours, he probably is not any longer since you did not shortlist him for the Metropolitan Commissioner's job.

Flummery could come in useful sometimes, even for New Labour

I also learned that the civil servant involved was not a private secretary, but an administrative officer. Once upon a time they were called clerical officers & I am left wondering if the change was just another bit of flummery

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A promising read

I see that Peepal Tree Press are to republish Edgar Mittelholzer’s Corentyne Thunder in April

I cannot remember reading that one, but even though it was written in 1938 it sounds very up-to date: inter-racial marriage, (near) incest …

I can’t wait!

Special relationship communication

In The Times Feedback column on Saturday Sally Baker mentioned the following quote of June 30, 1825, from the Times Archive:

New York papers to the 5th instant arrived yesterday by way of Boston, but they supply no intelligence of the least interest

That reminded me of the following from the Illustrated London News 14 September 1867:

The study of the domestic policy of the United States, always somewhat difficult to foreigners, has not been facilitated by the use which is made of the electric telegraph. The isolated scraps in which the main items of intelligence reach the Old World by this means of communication are very apt to puzzle all but the well informed, & by depriving the subsequent epistolary correspondence of all novelty to discourage efforts necessary to obtain a comprehensive view of American affairs

So far, I have not seen any similarly waspish comment for the Blackberry age

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


This is one of those horror pictures from the back of a cigarette packet which is supposed to discourage, at least at the margin, some young people from taking up smoking

On the back of a packet of 20 it is about 2" square

Like all the other pictures which have been selected I find it almost impossible to make out what it is supposed to be unless I bring it up within focal range. Which I usually do not bother to do

But this one was lying, packet face down, some feet away, & I became intrigued, not to say startled

It actually looked like a young woman sniffing, with a degree of ecstasy, at a contraceptive, something which made no sense at all

Up close it still looks like a young woman. Otherwise my main reaction is how does one manage to blow smoke rings like that
Not that I have the least desire to learn how to do it myself, still less at or near a baby. But I should like to have been a fly on the wall at the meeting which discussed how the picture reinforces the message spelled out in words
Related post

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Inauguration day

I just wanted to keep a note of some reactions to the inauguration

The Times had a behind the scenes supplement on Saturday, photos mainly by Callie Shell who has done a really impressive job. The image I found particularly touching was of Obama at breakfast in Blair House on the morning of inauguration. Just the body language of the almost-President & the butler with whom he is conferring speaks volumes

Another interesting example of Obama showing his ‘bi-courtesy’ when meeting the State Department can be seen on the Language Log - but watch the face of the young man in the front row who keeps turning round to see who is engaging so much of the President's attention

It was irritating to see some of the fashion writers comment that Michelle’s dress failed the test of making her look thinner. With all the worries about eating disorders, the fashion so-called experts should teach us not to judge a healthy 3-dimensinal woman by her depiction in 2 flat dimensions

I have always loved guipure lace – I used to be certain that when I grew up my wedding dress would be made from this. Even so, I had not realised that it was available in cashmere. Which makes Michelle Obama’s choice an even greater triumph. All those layers & holes trap enough air to insulate elegantly without bulk against the cold of Washington in January

I did not hear the speech so have no opinion about whether it was flat. I did think though that he looked a bit shell shocked for most of the day, almost as if he were thinking: Whatever possessed me to think I wanted this job?

But then I thought that look was probably the one I had on my face the evening of the day my first pregnancy was confirmed, when I realised that this much wanted, welcome event was truly the first irrevocable decision of my life. (There was no blue line in those days, just a standing instruction to wait 2 months before going to the doctor, so as not to waste his time over unnecessary alarms. And no legal abortion either)

The badge on the President's lapel is a special kind of White House security pass

Related post

Utopian advice to Mr Darling

Raise the value of specie when the king's debts are large, and lower it when his revenues come in, that so he might both pay much with a little, and in a little receive a great deal

Prohibit many things under severe penalties, especially such as are against the interest of the people, and then dispense with these prohibitions, upon great compositions, to those who might find their advantage in breaking them. This would serve two ends, both of them acceptable to many; for as those whose avarice led them to transgress would be severely fined, so the selling licences dear would look as if a prince were tender of his people, and would not easily allow anything that might be against the public good.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Don't panic

This is a bit scary - A Thought-Provoking Bank Graphic, from Here is the City blog. Granted it shows market values, rather than balance sheet assets, but still …

Maybe Barclay’s open letter will have done a little to stop the rot

It set me thinking about the national balance sheet – terra incognita to me, though I remember a news item some years ago boasting about how much our national wealth had grown with the value of our houses & thinking: If you’ll believe that

“Residential buildings” made up getting on for 2/3rds of our national net worth of £7 trillion at the end of 2007 - measured at market value

What is even more startling is that the increase in house prices (plus whatever new building there was) accounted for most of the total increase in our wealth between the end of 1999 and 2007

Residential buildings more than doubled from £1.8 trillion to £4.3 trillion. Total net worth grew from £3.7 trillion to £7 trillion

I think I need a lie down


Speaking up

I seem to be the only person who thinks that Aretha Franklin looked splendid in her inauguration hat. And the colour was great

Some people just have no appreciation of style

Sunday, January 25, 2009

When Harry met Florimel

I do not know if this is by that prolific author, Anon, or if I just forgot to write down their name, but it is good fun

Ten months after Florimel happened to wed,
And was brought in a laudable manner to bed,
She warbled her groans with so charming a voice,
That one half of the parish was stunned with the noise.

But when Florimel deigned to lie privately in,
Ten months before she & her spouse were akin,
She chose with such prudence her pangs to conceal
That her nurse, nay her midwife, scarce heard her once squeal.

Learn, husbands, from hence, for the peace of your lives,
That maids make not half such a tumult as wives

Related post
Teenage pregnancy

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The contingency of life

The odds against any one named, specified individual being alive at all are incalculably high. We come into existence as the result of a long chain of causation with mostly unknown probabilities at each stage.

Two of the vital links in that chain are the fact that our parents met, & that the specific event which brought about the unique union of random halves of their respective DNA took place at the moment that it did – even the smallest difference of timing would have produced a different random set

We then had to survive pregnancy – Nature is very profligate with foetuses - & the dangers of birth itself, albeit that these are very much reduced these days, at least in the affluent West. Those of us born in recent times have had an astonishingly good chance of surviving to a ripe old age, though we should not forget that not much more than a century ago as many one quarter of all children born did not even live to celebrate their 5th birthday

Does then, all this contingency & randomness lead to the conclusion that individually our lives are without purpose & meaning?

I would say no, absolutely not

We are all, each & every one, winners of the jackpot in this lottery of life

We are therefore beholden, each of us who lives & moves & has being, to make the most of it. To live the Good Life as far as we can discern what that should be, within the limits of our random allocation of genes, talent & ability. And to do our best for all who travel with us

What it does do, however, is make a nonsense of the argument put forward by some that abortion is wrong because, from the point of view of today, we might say ‘imagine if Person A had been aborted.’ Beethoven used to be a popular choice of exemplar, now some are claiming it of President Obama

So might Hitler have been

Many factors will be taken into consideration by anybody who considers whether to attempt to intervene to abort a pregnancy, but those factors do not include certain knowledge of the qualities of the person that that foetus will become. The effect of their decision on the future of the world is just one more contingency

Sign of the times

The library’s display in support of the current Al-Anon campaign is in both English & Polish

Friday, January 23, 2009

Nominal confusion

On the day that the story broke about the nickname used by Prince Charles (& others) for an Indian polo-playing friend I kept failing to catch what it was. I heard the s & the ee, but could not think what came in between

Well, my hearing’s probably not what it was & I was doing other things, & young people don’t pronounce their t’s properly these days do they?

When later at night a newsreader with nice clear diction made it plain, I was still puzzled. Why would anyone call a man suttee

Even when light dawned I could not see why Sooty the teddy bear puppet should be regarded as insulting

The point is that we frequently do not know how or why a nickname came to be used; words are freighted with associations & meanings & just because one of them might be considered by some to be insulting, does not mean that it is, or that we have any right to comment or object – just as most of us would not pass comment on the name given to someone by their parents, whatever our opinion of that


Related posts

Sound quality

This morning the radio informed us that both the Snake Pass & the Cat & Fiddle were closed by snow & ice, but when I opened the curtains there was nothing but damp down here

Obviously no temperature inversions then

Something made medium wave go funny last night, though on this occasion the problem was solved by just turning the set through 90º

Which meant I heard Paul Gambaccini make the interesting point, during a discussion about downloads, that today’s young are the first generation not to go for the better quality option. Sound quality that is. And crucially, they prefer the facilities offered by the computer to the superior sound of digital radio

I do not think it is just the young – if I am to give up analogue radio, I would much prefer to go for wi-fi. Digital seems just too expensive & unreliable

But then I have always preferred to go for quality of content rather than sound

LPs came in when I was still a child, and they were certainly a welcome improvement over scratchy 78s which might not even manage to fit a whole movement on a single side

EMI started to offer special high quality LPs which cost the then enormous sum of £3 or £4. My father, who knew about such things, splashed out on one, then got embroiled in an acrimonious correspondence in which he maintained that the quality did not live up to his expectations

Although I was naturally on his side, I did learn that I would not have chosen that particular recording because I did not like the conductor’s over-lush interpretation

Nor did I ever really learn to love cd’s. Real live music sounds nothing like that, & for me it was too often like hearing Earl Wild’s Campanella – wonderful, but one needs a balance of other flavours to make for true appreciation

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sisters of mercy

This song/poem by Leonard Cohen means a lot to me for 2 reasons

I used to teach in a school run by the Sisters of Mercy. They were bright, cheerful & a kindly lot, not at all like some of the nuns who make an appearance in the memoirs of catholic girls. But this was not a convent school & it was open to girls of all religions & none – I cannot be certain but I think Roman Catholics may have been the (substantial) minority among the Pentecostals, Muslims, Hindus …

And then there are the personal resonances …

I like the music too

from Sisters of Mercy

Oh I hope you run into them, you who've been travelling so long.
Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control.
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul.
Well I've been where you're hanging, I think I can see how you're pinned:
When you're not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you've sinned.

… If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn

… And you won't make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night:

We weren't lovers like that and besides it would still be all right

Taking the vow

Who among us has not fluffed their marriage vows on the day. Do we consider ourselves perhaps not properly married

How extraordinary that Obama re-swore his Presidential oath, in private, ‘in an excess of caution.’

Needless to say a lawyer was on hand to explain the slippery slope argument to the BBC – the oath is the oath, all 35 words of it, & if we allow any change, however small & accidental, who knows where it might lead

I find the most extraordinary thing about this story to be that there was, apparently, no Bible ‘immediately to hand’ in the White House

Related post
Forsooth, begads

Colour words

One of the interesting consequences of the Obama Presidency is the move, by London-based journalists at least, to find a new language for talking about the colour of skin, away from the mostly politically defined terms black, white or ethnic

Just 2 examples from recent coverage in The Times:

Black people, people of colour, call them what you will … - Robert Crampton

Only a woman of colour could get away with this shade … a total no-go area for women of pastiness – Lisa Armstrong

Then just to add to the fun, a young man who is now making a nice living as an Obama look-alike. So alike in fact that when I first saw his photo I thought there had been an editorial slip-up & they had published one of the man himself – but no, the skinny wrists & gappy fingers are not those of the real deal

Most instructive of all, at least for those who think that there are obvious & clear cut differences between racial groups, Ilham Anas is from Indonesia

I can hear the conspiracy theorists now

Complicated? No, just complected

Related post

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Social mobility

In the mid 80s when I was looking to buy a new flat, the estate agent told me that I would be able to get away with describing the new one as being in Holland Park

So much more desirable than Notting Hill where I was living in the next road but one. Up & coming but still a bit, well, bohemian, don’t you think

Well since then the old place has been turned in to an icon by a film, and the Wedgwood-Benn family mansion, on the posh south side of Holland Park Avenue, was described by New Labourite Cherie Blair as Notting Hill in Speaking For Myself

In fact Notting Hill now seems to stretch from the Shepherds Bush roundabout to Queensway (though not as far as Connaught Place) & from High Street Ken to Kensal Rise (MY dear! Not north of the motorway! Oh well, handy for Sainsbury’s I suppose)


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

Charles Darwin: Voyage of the Beagle

The cyclone that wasn't

I was surprised to see what looked like a dusting of snow on the tops of the hills this morning – it was damp & sunny here below

Then out of the window of the bus I noticed what looked remarkably like a cyclone. Heavens – not another kind of freakish event sent to try us?

It was difficult to see properly with the glimpses we got through the houses just there – it looked like a perfectly round vertical column, but it did not look as if it were spinning

Then I looked higher in the sky – where there were the well spread remains of what was definitely a contrail. My ‘cyclone’ was just the lower part of that. There is a photo of a very similar one on this website here

Related posts

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Choose your Granma

They say that you can choose your friends but you cannot choose your family

On the basis of biographies or memoirs that I have read recently – most notably perhaps those of Barack Obama & Cherie Blair - it seems that, if you could choose any member of your family, your best bet would be to concentrate on Granma

Related post
Nana state

Error's chain

Goodness me! Environmental scientists have discovered that the rain forest grows back much more quickly than they thought it could

I wonder why they did not know this before. I suppose it is because they get their pleasure from gazing at photos of the rape of the virgin by those nasty brutish (foreign) loggers & never bothered to find out what happened next

The 2 main problems with the rain forests are first that they do not provide a comfortable, safe or sustaining environment for humans yet take up a lot of the worlds valuable land space.

Good, the environmentalists say, we do not want any more of the vile species – except our grandchildren for whom we are saving this world

The second is that the really valuable bits – the hard woods so durable for building with – do not grow in stands but are scattered throughout the lesser tangled growth – hence the need for excessive clearing to find the good stuff. The best thing to do would be to sort out ways to manage proper plantations

And if humans need to clear land to live on, so that we judge the world no longer has enough trees, we can replant the forests we used to have

Let us hope that this does not happen by default, because our slash & burn attitude to our financial rainforest leaves us bereft of the resources to maintain our built environment & keep Nature at bay. If that happens, instead of the green shoots of miraculous regrowth we may be facing a Siberian winter

An ungrateful nation

Earlier today I was a bit worried that there could have been one of those unfortunate statistical glitches. First the BBC reporter told us that inflation had fallen, but by less than analysts had expected. Later we were told that, according to the National Statistics information, numbers of retailers & service providers had failed to pass on the VAT reduction

Could the statisticians have missed the fact that a lot of reductions (still) happen only at the till & are not reflected in the price labels?

Oh ye of little faith

The National Statistics website defeated me again, but I was able to find the following in the Google cache:

“A note in the November CPI First Release announced that the publication of December CPI/RPI might be delayed. This was because of the additional work involved in collecting information about whether the VAT reduction has been applied and, where applied, whether the reduction has been made at the till. We can now advise that the December CPI/RPI publication will not be delayed; it will be published on Tuesday 20 January”

Which just goes to show that it is not just retailers who have had extra costs to bear in implementing this policy

And although I suppose I am grateful for the reduction in my shopping bill, I get a stab of irritation on those occasions when I find that I have carefully tendered the ‘correct’ amount, only to find that I have counted out too much

Related post

History & memory

“That year, 1968, inspired a new generation of firebrands, from Malcolm X to Jesse Jackson, to challenge mainstream America to make good on its laws”

I am not the only one who forgot that Malcolm X was murdered in 1965
Related post
Memory & Malcolm X

Monday, January 19, 2009

The nature of work

"Mr Goring the station master didn’t have a lot to do. Except make decisions"

Contributor to the BBC’s oral history of King’s Cross

Related post
Qual der Wahl

Out of the mouths

I do not usually listen to GFI, the Radio 4 Sunday night programme for children, but I did last night to hear what they had to say about Obama

It says a lot that the subject was chosen (the cynic in me says conveniently) by the winner of a competition, but there is no doubt of the effect his election has had on children – especially Yes We Can

We also heard from some American children who had composed a rap about it

How dispiriting then to hear one of the English children, asked to compare politics there with here, say: In this country politics is just something on the BBC that only your parents watch

Family connection

Vince Cable seemed to be all over Radio 4 yesterday. Well, only one – Westminster Hour - was live. More or Less was a repeat. And Desert Island Discs pre-recorded

He chose I think 3 records featuring his son and/or daughter in law, but since both are very good singers & the songs meaningful, he could hardly be said to have done a Schwarzkopf

And if I were not already a bit of a Cable fan, I would have become one because he chose 2 songs which had me wallowing in nostalgia for my youth. Pat Boone’s Love Letters In The Sand & Acker Bilk’s Stranger on the Shore. The latter brings a double set of memories; Trad Jazz was what I moved on to when I became too sophisticated for mere pop (until the Beatles), and Stranger on the Shore started as the theme tune to one of those classic BBC Sunday tea time serials for family viewing, about a French au pair girl in Brighton

It came as news to me that Dr Cable’s first wife, who sadly died from cancer, came from Kenya

I was left with the sneaky, unbidden thought that, at a time when all our politicians are keen to claim affinity with (soon to be) President Obama, Dr Cable may, once again, have the edge on them because of this connection

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Going round the bend

A diary item reports mysterious deductions of 25 cents a time from American credit cards. Some kind of fraud is suspected

As undergraduates we were taught that the first (known) computer fraud on a bank took place when a programmer inserted a piece of code which paid all the rounding errors into his own account. Teeny tiny amounts, fractions of a cent. But it all adds up

Something similar, in the opposite direction, happens when very large sums of money are involved. When I was monitoring a multi-billion budget we worked in amounts rounded to the nearest £5million. If somebody got too cavalier about this, I would say they could give the extra bit to me if they liked

It was however no joke for the person concerned with managing one line, representing a policy initiative dear to his minister’s heart. The published reports could easily make it look as if his £25million budget was heading for an over/underspend of 20% - and this in the days of strict zero cash limits

I sometimes wonder if, in these trillion dollar days, rounding errors in the computer models might not have had some role to play in bringing us to this crunch

New year crunchy bits

Some Florida dealers are offering 2 trucks for the price of one

Almost 2000 partners in London's 100 leading law firms could lose their jobs this year

The Treasury has given nearly £6million to fund more advisers on the National Debtline

Wayne Rooney gave a boost to the car industry by buying Coleen a Bentley for Christmas

Cattles, a UK sub-prime lender, is in trouble

"Bernard Madoff has become the poster boy for what will become a substantial global legal industry" - Edward Fennell, The Times

Sales of Sainsbury’s stewing lamb have trebled

Staff at a famous cosmetics surgery clinic had not been paid since before Christmas

There is a new Celtic Tiger. Dell is shifting its European manufacturing from Limerick to Poland. There were more stock market flotations in Warsaw than in London in 2008

A private equity firm has conceded that it was a mistake to spend £360 million buying an estate agents just before the credit crunch hit

Law firms take an average of 4 months to collect unpaid bills owing to themselves. If banks are now reluctant to provide overdraft cover, the partners will have to finance the shortfall

The Chinese government has told domestic airlines not to accept delivery of any new aircraft this year – this could mean cancelling ¼ of the world’s total deliveries

The number of people travelling by Eurostar to London from Paris & Brussels went up by 15% in December as Christmas shoppers took advantage of the falling pound

It is no longer worth stealing the lead from a church roof

More graduate jobs will be on offer in Aldi & Sainsbury this year

The last television factory in Britain will close next month

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Smoking mystery

This morning I noticed that one of the local primary schools has acquired a new structure – a well-made solid wooden roof extending over part of the schoolyard, open to the elements but providing protection from the rain. Exactly the sort sprouted by pubs, like the one we passed a few moments later, to give protection to smokers. Not a big enough space for children to run around in

Why would a school want such a thing? It cannot possibly be for teachers who smoke – can it?

Had parents-who-smoke stopped going to PTA meetings in the same way they are boycotting pubs? And have not such parents been drummed out of the PTA anyway?

Or have all sorts of new uses been found for such structures?

Sheep & goats

Funny how the appointment of Mervyn Davies to a peerage so that he can serve as Trade Minister has suddenly drawn attention to how many non-elected ministers we now have

I am grateful to Peter Riddell for the information that they are known in Whitehall as GOATS, following Gordon Brown’s expressed desire to have a government of all the talents

I was wondering if the bookies are offering odds on when we might have a prime minister drawn from the House of Lords, one who does not even bother to renounce his peerage & seek election

Can you renounce a Life Peerage anyway?

Lord Home renounced his hereditary peerage & won a by election so that he could serve as PM in the House of Commons after the resignation of Harold Macmillan. I was still a student & can remember the very heated debates on the subject. There were even suggestions in some quarters that the Queen should have used her constitutional power to appoint Rab Butler instead

One consequence was the abandonment of the Conservative process of letting their leader 'emerge' and to have one elected by MPs. Without such a system in place Mrs Thatcher could never have become prime minister

We have not had a prime minister in the Lords since 1895, though they were common enough before then – all hereditary of course. As far as I can find out there is no constitutional reason why we should not have another, though it could presumably be a difficult job for the monarch to decide whether the person put forward was likely to command the support of the House of Commons – or indeed of the electorate.

It could be exciting – I almost look forward to it

On a more serious note, it is concerning that so many members of the government have not been elected. Not least for the Labour Party who seem to have been unable in over 10 years in government to bring forward enough people of the right calibre & experience to serve in these posts. I wonder what Sydney & Beatrice Webb would have to say about that

Friday, January 16, 2009

Quiet flight

How nice to have a good news story to inspire us. Not that it was good that a plane came down in the Hudson river, but the skill of its splendidly named pilot Chesley Sullenberger III and the survival of all on board, the speed of the rescue from the icy conditions – what more heroism could we need to remind us that life is never all bad

Then I heard that it was an Airbus. Goodness, that took me back

It was my first trip to Indonesia & I was on an internal flight from Jakarta to Bali. The plane was not very full & most of the passengers seemed to be local men. Smoking was still allowed on planes, but this airline was one of the few which permitted the smoking of kretek. The cloves which they contain produce a powerful aroma but also tend to produce minute explosions of sparks

There was nobody sitting next to me, nor in the seats across the aisle. I settled back, lost in reverie inspired by the clouds, the like of which I had never seen before. I put firmly to the back of my mind the memory of a British Airways plane which not too long before had experienced a sudden drop of 10,000 feet due to some freak atmospheric conditions somewhere over Indonesia

It was my first trip on an Airbus too. The plane I was on was obviously very new. I was very impressed by its lightness in the air, so very different from the feel of a Boeing

Suddenly I thought: It’s very quiet

I listened very hard. There was definitely no noise from the engines. No vibration either

I gave myself a good talking to. Of course the engines were working. We were descending. Now I could see the sea below, dotted with small islands. The water looked very shallow from up here

Then I became aware of a kind of whispering twittering noise coming from the seats behind. I peered round to look. The other passengers were obviously looking at something with a slight degree of alarm. A kind of white mist was coming out of the ventilators – not very thick, not enough to fill up the cabin

Crikey. The engines must really have stopped. We were just gliding

Funnily enough I felt complete confidence in the pilots’ ability to get us down. We might even be able to make it to the airport, which could not be too far away now. But even if we did not, at least the water would be warm

Hope the water is not as shallow as it looks. It will probably be a hell of a bump when we hit it

Of course my heroics were completely unnecessary. The Airbus really was just an exceedingly quiet plane & the white mist just the sort of thing that you get with brand new systems

The landing was entirely uneventful

Related post

The wisdom of 3-year-olds

Tim Rushby-Smith, confined to a wheelchair, wrote an interesting article in The Times the other day about being in sole charge of his 3 year old daughter

One thing in particular stood out for me: We are learning together, with Rosalie's risk assessment based on what she knows I am capable of

Yet again something to remind us that we tend to underestimate children today, thinking they need to be nannied & instructed at every turn

I had my own first experience of a 3-year-old’s reaction to disability when my eldest daughter was that age

Her great grandmother, who lived with us, became totally blind when a cataract developed in her other eye. Despite our best efforts we had been unable to persuade her to have surgery for the first cataract, but now we pretty much insisted

She was 84 years old and had never been in hospital in her life. She had always been very active & was mainly responsible for the upkeep of the garden. But she was very thin & the hospital said she needed a week of building up before surgery could be undertaken

Somebody tried to explain to her what would happen, that she would need to lie very still on her back for a couple of days after the operation. She started practising for something else which she had never done before in her life

In a totally alien environment, unable to see, she freaked. Lying still like that, it was just as if she were dead. Her distress was upsetting the other patients, & we brought her home

To be honest we thought that that was pretty much that. Not only would she not recover her sight, but her equilibrium was gone too

After a few days however she started to emerge from her room sometimes, learning to find her way by groping with both arms outstretched

One day I went to investigate a commotion in the living room

My 3 year old daughter had quietly pushed a pouffe into Granma’s way. The noise came from my daughter laughing at Granma’s expostulation as she bumped into it

(Does anyone have such a piece of furniture anymore? And if so, do they call it a pouffe?)

How could my child have turned out to be such a monster?

Suitable admonishment was dished out

But the behaviour continued. And I soon realised that far from being malicious, it was carefully ‘risk assessed’ to help Granma learn. It was a game which both were playing

And sooner than any of us could have guessed, Granma was back tending to the garden again.

Using that useful all-purpose tool which we would doubtless call a machete

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Breast cancer

In quite a short period – certainly less than 20 years – the quoted lifetime risk of breast cancer for a woman in this country has risen from 1 in 13 to 1 in 9

This begins to look like an epidemic

I was struck by the number of family & friends of Cherie Blair who have died young from this disease & whom she mentions in her book, particularly since, when I thought about it I can really think only of friends of friends or family of friends who have been affected. The only member of my own family was a great aunt who was in her eighties and had been in generally poor health for years. (It is a completely different picture however if we consider gynaecological cancers)

There was an oft quoted mantra in the old Central Statistical Office: If a figure looks interesting it’s usually wrong. So my first question is: exactly how is the lifetime risk figure calculated, & would I agree with the method?

I hadn't looked at any of the figures since I made my own decision about screening, but a quick look at the basic source suggests no reason for fundamental doubts, though there is always room for discussion & interpretation

What strikes me about the graph for Age-standardised incidence however (Figure 5.5 page 40) is how the trend starts to move up on the introduction of the national screening programme in 1987 - & particularly alarmingly for in situ cancers

I will obviously need to do more work to find out how much might just be due to earlier diagnosis, whether proper account is taken of the perverse risk that with improved treatment a woman may develop breast cancer twice in her life, how much might be down to us all just living longer, and how much is a ‘real’ increase – something which I find truly alarming

It would be impertinent of me to claim friendship with Cathie Marsh though I did know her as a fellow professional. It therefore came as a shock when sometime in 1993 I was watching a tv programme about, I think, some anniversary of the Pill, when Cathie suddenly appeared on screen – some months after her death.

She was quite passionate about the notion that the combination of having taken the Pill and, later, fertility treatment, must have had something to do with her developing breast cancer at such an early age, and wanted to pass that message on. So today I am left wondering whether all the research has somehow failed to uncover some obvious link

Garden girls

An interesting little snippet from Speaking For Myself: in 1997 the Garden Girls were not allowed to wear trousers

The Garden Girls are the official secretaries in the prime minister’s office at No 10. The name, which goes back at least as far as Churchill, & maybe even to Lloyd George, comes from the room in which they work. Although Cherie sounds offended by the name at first, she goes on to use it as a matter of course, so perhaps it is one bit of tradition that she came to respect

It is hard now to remember how recently the wearing of trousers has become pretty much acceptable in all circumstances. During my career it is one of the very few battles in which I engaged as a really stroppy feminist – but that was back in the 1960s. In my innocence, I really thought it had been won, at least as far as the civil service was concerned, by the mid-70s

Although I can understand, in a way, why this rule might still have been in operation as far as the Garden Room itself was concerned, I wonder if it always applied in all circumstances

There is always at least one Garden Girl accompanying the prime minister on official trips abroad, & I imagine that common sense might have prevailed in more difficult climates or terrains. Especially during war time – I can not really imagine someone like Olive Margerison being barred from wearing trousers on a freezing plane trip for example


Wednesday, January 14, 2009


I got into trouble the other day when I said I could tell someone was Muslim by their accent

I was talking about one specific person. I did not mean that any & every Muslim in the world is instantly identifiable by their voice

Correlation does not prove causation. So the fact that there are people in England who speak in a particular accent and happen to be Muslim does not mean that their religion is the causal explanation

It is just a coincidence of history & the way that language & migration work. The people who moved to work in the textile areas of Lancashire & Yorkshire brought their accents with them from the sub-continent. These then blended with the local accents in a particular way which language experts could explain. Their children learned to speak with their own mixture of the two, reflecting more of the accent of the area in which they were born, but still identifiably slightly different

There used to be a distinctive Jewish accent which you hear less these days. In popular culture it became familiar through the appearances on tv of actors such as Alfred Marks, Warren Mitchell and Miriam Karlin. A blend of Eastern Europe & the East End

One of the most intriguing blended accents which I ever heard belonged to an octogenarian who had moved from Barbados to South Yorkshire to work down the mines during WWI (he was being interviewed for a programme about the Comedian Charlie Williams). Even after half a century he retained that distinctive Bajan lilt behind the flat Yorkshire vowels

Many people think that their own accent has not changed, particularly if they still live in the area in which they were born. This may well be true in some cases (how could we prove it one way or another?), but it is instructive to hear the voices of broadcasters in recordings made as little as 10 years ago – Paxman, Humphrys, Buerk – have all changed a little, but noticeably

1911 Census

Although it was welcome news, I was puzzled to hear that the 1911 census became available online yesterday – it is supposed to remain confidential for 100 years

I could not find an explanation on the official website but The Times said that the decision for early release had been taken because the 100 year rule was not enshrined in law until the 1920 Census Act

It is I suppose a response to the immense interest in family history & commercial pressures – and every little helps to reduce the PSBR in these straitened times. I cannot help but feel a little concerned however; with the increasingly cavalier attitude of government towards personal privacy, there might be temptations to repeal the 1920 Act

When things calm down I shall take a look. My Nana should put in her first appearance. Both grandfathers already appear in 1901, though my Irish grandmother will not appear in the English census until 1921 – together with my father

The census records are not however completely accurate. My baby grandfather, weirdly, was recorded by the enumerator as a girl in 1901, albeit one with the unusual name of Thomas Augusta

The other mistake I have come across is a transcription error on the Ancestry version of the 1861 census, where Henry Palin’s place of birth is given as Banbury rather than Bombay. I know that this is a transcription error because the microfilm version is clear. It is astonishing for me now to think how, only a few short years ago I was travelling round local archives to consult microfilm versions; now all that has been transformed by the availability of vital registration data & the census on line, not to mention the Times archive. If only the same treatment could be given to the invaluable local newspapers, Victorian periodicals, directories etc

I heard somebody say that 1911 was the first time that householders, rather than enumerators, had been responsible for filling in the forms. This is simply not true, though it may be the first time that enumerators did not transcribe the information in its entirety. I cannot remember ever having seen a copy of an individual Victorian census return, only enumerators records. I wonder if all those forms are stashed away in safe storage somewhere

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Sometimes this coincidence thing can hardly be called serendipitous

There I was looking at the mortality statistics

And then there was the programme in which Jonathan Miller explores the complex questions that arise from trying to define death

In particular he spoke to Michel Coleman, the Professor of Epidemiology & Vital Statistics at LSHTM who, among other things, explained why doctors & statisticians are not very keen on ‘old age’ as a cause of death

It was interesting, but made me feel just a little bit queasy because of the timing

Female role models

When I was a young teenager I conceived the ambition to become a forensic pathologist, inspired by my reading of Agatha Christie followed by Notable British Trials & books about the likes of Sir Bernard Spilsbury

It is only in recent years that I have wondered if this was a sign of some kind of deep & morbid disturbance in one so young – prompted to such worry by the outbreak of what I call post mortem porn in modern crime fiction in print & on tv & film – which I cannot stand either to read or to watch

In fact I think it a sign of something possibly more disturbing. All the jobs mentioned in the careers literature in my small country grammar school seemed to involve pretty routine application of a cookbook of techniques with known results. Pathology seemed to be the only job I might aim for which did not involve simply giving the ‘right’ answer – meaning one that was already known to my interrogator or examiner. A true intellectual challenge.

I did not have much doubt that I could get in to medical school if I really tried, but it was a worry that this would mean asking my parents to support me through 6 years of study – first year junior house officers did not earn what could be called a salary in those days

But the insuperable barrier was the surgical part of the training. Although I could contemplate with reasonable equanimity the idea of dispassionate dissection of a corpse, I did not think I had it in me to slice in to living flesh

Having given up on the idea of pathology my thoughts turned to the criminal law – I quite fancied being a latter day Marshall Hall. But not badly enough to want to go into battle against the enormous odds that training for the Bar involved back then. Bad enough for a boy from the wrong sort of class, well nigh insuperable for all but the most determined young lady with no family connections. And I could not even imagine that I could be a solicitor – which involved articles which I was quite sure would not be on offer to me from any of the solicitors in our small rural town

I am recounting all this to explain why I am so pleased to have finally found the answer to a question which has puzzled me for some years now: just how did Cherie Blair decide to go into the law?

I am a decade older than she is. But the first time I read anything about her must have been around the time her husband became Labour leader. Typical newspaper accuracy said she had graduated from LSE in 1972. Which meant she started in 1969, & must have made her decision earlier than that. Although things had been changing rapidly, I did not think they had changed that much less than a decade after I had made my own decision to abandon the idea of the law

It seemed unlikely that the nuns had given her the support & encouragement that she would have needed

Now I have the answer, having finally got around to reading Speaking For Myself

Her aunt was the first to put the idea into her head. The surprising thing is that her formidable Irish Catholic Liverpudlian grandmother was enthusiastic too, because she was a fan of Rose Heilbron, who was famous as the first woman to be appointed as a judge in the 1950s. I had not realised until now that she was also a Liverpudlian who made her career there

So there we have a telling example of the power of role models, not just in inspiring the young directly, but also in inspiring the vital support of families who do not have the direct experience themselves

Related post

Monday, January 12, 2009

Suave condescension

Tony Blair, when prime minister, was noted for his habit of modifying his accent to suit his audience

I am not one who thought that this was necessarily a deliberate, still less a cynical, ploy on his part. I used to do it myself until I learned to control it, when I was past 40. Sticking to an accent different from that of those you were talking with seemed to me to be like singing out of tune.

Moving to a new area where the children at school mock your funny accent does wonders for your ability to mimic

I caught a small part of an interview with Tony Blair about Gaza on the radio this morning

Goodness he has got plummy now. The way he pronounced the word ‘resolve’ had me gaping at the set

The Times last week carried a leader asserting that the British diplomat’s “air of suave condescension” has long been swept away, which came as welcome news to anyone who was ever on the receiving end

But if Tony Blair’s accent has been acquired, chameleon-like, from the diplomatic circles he moves in now, then The Times was, alas, mistaken in its assertion


Who was it who said that the first thing he turned to in the paper each day was the obituary column, to check that he had not died?

Well I haven’t got that far yet, but I am at that stage where it is sometimes a surprise to hear that someone else is dead, or was alive until very recently. Someone who was famous when you were a child, who seemed old then, so must have been dead for years. But good heavens, now they have died and they were only …

Edmund Purdom, the handsome Student Prince, stole my heart away when I saw that film. He has just died aged only 82

But Jerry Lewis, who made all those funny films with Dean Martin, is still alive, also aged 82

Then last year, Elizabeth Jane Howard published a new novel at the age of 85. I do not know how I had got it into my head that she had died – I even thought I had read the obituaries - so that came as a wonderful surprise

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Keep your nose out of it

In all the discussion about how to encourage children to read you rarely hear that some families might actually object to their children having their nose in a book. When I was a child this was a not uncommon attitude

The people who objected were not illiterates but reading, novels especially, meant you had gone somewhere into another world where nobody knew what you were up to, even though you were in plain sight. To have your nose always in a book was not too far from witchcraft or secret rituals, & so was especially undesirable in a girl

I thought that something of the sort persisted in the country when twice I was identified as ‘The lady who always reads on the bus.’ But I found that this was mainly because an awful lot of people simply cannot do it – it makes them travel sick. Once I was consulted for tips on how to do it, but since it was something I just could naturally do, I was unable to help

I understand a bit better now though. Especially on winter evenings when the combination of aging eyesight, poor lighting & a new generation of buses whose suspension conveys the impression that the wheels are square, makes reading uncomfortable, and yes, occasionally nausea inducing

It is possible though that the notion persists, that tv, dvds and computers are preferable because you can see, share, the same thing they are seeing

She loves you better than me; You
With your nose in a book

UA Fanthorpe: Sounds & Silences

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The omniscient vet

Here’s something cheering for cold dark days.

Sit around the fire reciting in unison in true rumpty-thump style, with appropriate actions.

As a bonus, it can even be used as a fun lesson in the correct use of the apostrophe - as I know only too well after having copied it out, originally by hand some years ago, & now by typing it.

The Vet

To be a successful & competent vet,
Needs knowledge exceedingly wide,
For each of the patients he’s likely to get
Possesses a different inside.

He must know why the cat is refusing her milk,
Why the dog is not eating his bone,
Why the coat of the horse is not shining like silk,
Why the parrot does nothing but groan;

Why the ducks & the chickens are failing to lay
Why so faint the canary bird sings,
And if he is called to the Zoo he must say
An incredible number of things

If the lion’s caught a cold,
If the zebra’s getting old,
If the centipede has trouble with his feet,
If the hippo’s feeling ill,
If the bison’s got a chill,
If the Arctic fox is suffering from heat,

If some virulent disease
Has attacked the chimpanzees,
If the tortoise hasn’t stirred for several years,
If the bear’s too full of buns,
If the cobra eats her sons,
If the panther has a wife who chews his ears;

If giraffes have had a tiff
And their necks are feeling stiff,
If hyenas will not laugh at keepers’ jokes,
If the monkey’s pinched his tail,
If the rhino’s looking pale,
If the elephant eats paper bags & chokes,

If the camel hurts his hump,
If the kangaroo won’t jump,
If the crocodile turns cannibal & bites,
They run away & get
That omniscient, the vet
And expect him to put everything to rights.

Profoundly I pity the vet, who must learn
Such a very great deal for his pay;
My son, I advise you most strongly to earn
Your living an easier way.

Don’t attempt to attend the zoological crowd;
A far more advisable plan,
Is to call yourself ‘Doctor’, & so be allowed
To specialise only in Man.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Back to basics

The bankers & financial whiz kids are discredited, along with their “CDO research papers [which] apply abstract probability theory to the price co-movements of thousands of mortgages(Paul Wilmott)

They ignore the real world where human behaviour modifies pure probability based on the casting of dice or tossing of coins

We are all Keynsians again now

Keynes, in his public life, was a very practical economist. But his early interest was in probability theory, & he published his Treatise on Probability in 1921

It may be worth revisiting. I have a copy on the bookshelf at home. I bought it second hand off a stall near Westminster Hospital a long time ago*. Perhaps I should get round finally to reading it

* The same stall where, on a different occasion, I bought a copy of Recent Economic Changes. Come to think of it, the stall was just south of the entrance to Smith Square, in those days home to the headquarters of both Labour & Conservatives, which may explain the kind of titles on offer


Gene selection

Discussion of the news of the birth of a baby from an embryo which was screened for a breast cancer gene has concentrated on the question of whether it is ethical to use genetic selection for a disease which is not absolutely certain to develop, would not develop until after several years of normal life and is in any case becoming ever more treatable

I am puzzled by another ethical question however

In this country pre-implantation sex selection is allowed only in the negative sense. For example where only boys would be affected by a particular condition, it is acceptable to choose only a female embryo for IVF

In this particular case it seems to have been OK to select a girl & then to screen out the faulty gene. Either boys cannot carry the faulty version, or it has no adverse effect on them, so it must have been the desire to have a girl which drove the need for the procedure

Or is there something I am missing

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Family, First

Obama’s elder daughter is unusually tall for her age – she seems to come well up to her father’s shoulder in the photos we have seen

I can see now how my mother blenched when at much the same age I calculated that, at my current rate of growth, I would be as tall as my father by the time I was 15. He was 6’ 4”; my mother was a foot shorter. It must be easier to be a tall girl if you do not tower over your mother & almost everyone else in the family

There have been an unusual number of those snatched family photos. Not just the fixed happy-families-grin/m pose for the election address, but showing a relaxed, happy, confident & close family doing ordinary family things

The younger girl seems the typical little sister – looking cheekily at the camera & laughing at, or with, the photographers

I have seen only one photo of Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, who, reports suggest, will be living in the White House with them. I felt I recognised her instantly. Bien dans sa peau, in that useful French phrase. A calm & confident woman, one you would like to have as your mother, on your side all the way but sure of her standards & beliefs, someone you would not want to disappoint but who will give you confidence. Far too much to read into one photo! But interesting to ponder over the important influence that the women who brought up Obama and his wife have on all our lives now

There was a very interesting programme on Radio 4, Obama: Professor President, which gave me heart. We all know the possibly impossible burden our hopes are putting on the man. I was particularly relieved to hear that Obama is definitely a fox – he doesn’t think that there is only One Big Way To Truth. But at the same time he thinks & studies and analyses hard, has walked the walk in Chicago and in Africa.

he does not just shrug his shoulders & say with a charming grin Ah well, whatever works

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Then & now

My statistical look at what I might die of could be criticised from at least two points of view

First it took no account of my personal or family medical history, nor of the fact that I am a smoker

I doubt I could find any reliable population data to apply to a woman of my age, & given that heart, stroke or cancer are the most likely killers for all of us there would not seem to be too much to be gained from the effort of estimation

Family history suggests a long life, especially on the female side. But we all well know that smoking shortens life, so I do not count on getting the average

The second criticism applies to all statistical forecasting: it assumes that the future will exhibit the same patterns as the past

I used data for all deaths in 2005 taken from the national registration service. The older group which I looked at – women over 85 – would all have been born before 1920

They benefited from the already rapidly declining mortality of early life – even at the end of the 19th century ¼ of children born did not survive to the age of 5 (though most of those deaths took place at or very soon after birth). Still they would have experienced a wide range of childhood infections. And yet most would have had to wait until they were at least 40 before they had any antibiotics

They would have lived through, or been born just after World War I and many would have served themselves in the forces during WWII. They survived the Depression of the 1930s

Most would have left school at 14, though for a lucky few higher education was becoming more accepted

Many of the oldest among them would have lost fiancés or potential husbands during WWI.

They would have experienced later menarche & earlier menopause.

Few would have had very large families.

It is highly unlikely that any, even amongst the youngest of their generation, ever used the Pill for contraception – especially not before their first child was born.

Many more than in my generation would have known what it was like to lose a child to death, if not in childhood then in war

But many would have seen their child be the first in the family to go to university, or even just to sit any kind of public examination

They would have eaten a diet rich in animal fat – olive oil came from the chemists & was used mostly to ameliorate earache

They would have been the first group of women for whom it was socially acceptable to smoke - though never on the street

Those who contracted breast or cervical cancer at an early age almost certainly died young

A few might have had HRT

The ones whose deaths I was looking at with a statistical eye, looking for clues, were the survivors of all that

Perhaps not so relevant a guide to what will happen to my generation after all

The right sort

One thing the Madoff thing has made clear to me, though I should have noticed before: It is not a good idea to grasp an investment opportunity which, even if only by implication, is being offered to you because you are the right sort of person. Of the right sort of status & position in life

Virginian Wade was a heroine of mine – proof that a girl was perfectly capable of studying mathematics at university. So when I read that her status & achievement had been recognised by an ‘invitation’ to become a Name at Lloyds I was suitably impressed – the reports stressed what an honour this was

Equitable Life was similar in that its problems were met with a kind of This sort of thing just does not happen to people like us – judges, senior BBC reporters, educated people

But then, who can we trust with our money?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Salt, the winter warmer

Todays off the wall question

Does salt work on people the way it does on icy roads? Like an anti-frost or de-icer

A nice cup or bowl of steaming soup, full of healthy vegetables & heart warming dumplings is an obvious comfort

But there is something about salty liquids which seems more warming even than hot chocolate with a ski run of cream on the top, or any milky drink

At a pinch, instant soup* may be better than Ovaltine, & Bovril better than tea at a football match on a day when icicles hang off your nose

Perhaps we just need higher blood pressure in cold weather

*Does Liam Byrne, the minister who gave such detailed instructions to his private office staff about what time to serve his soup, like it instant from a packet, or does a chef stand by to whip up a perfect little cappuccino at his command?

Death foretold

Amidst all the doom & gloom there have been a few seasonal new year, new beginning type pieces in the media

I have never really felt that about New Year, not even when living in hot countries. Here, in the dark & cold, how could it be a new start. Hibernation would be a better bet

Spring is when I feel a new beginning. I would say the New Year should be in April, were it not already spoken for by the taxman

Winter gloom is appropriate for the consideration of the other inevitability of life – death

I get extremely irritated when people say “people who do X are more likely to die”, as if not dying were an option

The probability that I will die is 1

The probability that I will die of any particular disease is either 0 or 1, it is just impossible to say which

But in a spirit of morbid enquiry I decided to look at what a frequentist would say were my chances, given the available data

The average woman of 60 in this country has not quite a quarter of a century still to go

Her life is overwhelmingly likely – on 2 out of 3 occasions – to end in one of the 2 biggies – diseases of the circulatory system, or cancer, with a more or less 50/50 split between those two. Respiratory disease is next on the list, with about half the chance – 1 in 7

But what if I am ‘better’ than average and live long enough to open all those 85th birthday cards?

Strangely, death gets more miscellaneous

Diseases of the circulatory system come out even more on top – 2 out of 5 chances of going like this

Cancer drops right down to 1 in 8. I was under the impression that cancer rates continue to increase with age, so either something else kills you first, or, more disturbingly, it is less likely to get diagnosed, treated & recorded

Respiratory disease gets a bit more common – perhaps pneumonia is the old woman’s friend as well as the mans

Diseases of the mind are just as likely as pneumonia though

Most strikingly a cause known as ‘Symptoms, signs & abnormal clinical & laboratory findings, not elsewhere classified’ accounts for 1 in 8 deaths. What the rest of us might call death from old age, I guess

Perhaps these are the only ones who, in the opinion of those who claim to be able to judge such things, do NOT die before their time

Monday, January 05, 2009

By the name of

An intriguing little snippet from The Times article about the naming of children in 2008

“While Muhammad remains one of the most popular names for newborn boys in Britain - research by The Times last year showed that it was second only to Jack - it was not one of the more than 300 male names that appeared in Times birth announcements last year”

Well it is clearly not the case that British Muslims do not read The Times. Could it be that there is no Muslim tradition of announcing the birth of a baby in this way? Does it mean that few Muslims are members of the particular social group which uses The Times pages as a tribal notice board?

Or could it be that there are proportionately exactly the expected number of births of Muslim boys announced, but no Muhammad (or its spelling variants) for the same sort of reason that The Times contains few Darrens or Kylies – considered a thing not done, the sort of name given to a child only by social inferiors

There is of course no tradition of naming a baby boy Jesus in this country, but that applies to all classes

Move along there please

The World, the Universe & Everything

Is ambiguous

See a wine glass or 2 Edwardian hatted ladies in profile silhouette. You can’t see both at once

Measure a particle’s position or its momentum

Resolve a logical confusion

You can’t

You have to find a new way of looking at the problem

Or find a new place to stand

Your problem will just disappear, because you cannot see it from here

It is still there

But hey! We have lots of interesting new things to see, new questions to ask, new problems to solve

Things to do. Things worth doing

Sometimes it really is better to forget the old problem because there is no such thing as closure

Move on

Candyfloss economics

Gillian Tett, assistant editor of the Financial Times, gave a very nice explanation/analogy of how the credit crunch came about on Womans Hour today

It’s like candy floss. You start with a certain amount of sugar – our real assets - & spin it round & round until you have a great ball of candy floss. We think it really has grown bigger, but we have only the same amount of sugar we started with. The rest is hot air

It is easy, especially when you are young & innnocent, to consume too much & be sick before you know it

And it doesn’t take very much to shrink the floss right back down again into a squidgy mess

Related post

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Breach of the peace

Whatever happened to Behaviour Likely To Cause A Breach Of The Peace?

This catch-all used to be a staple of the court reports in the local paper when I was young. It even covered use of the F word in public – though delicacy demanded the word not be repeated – in some cases even police witnesses were allowed, nay instructed, to write down the words & pass them in a note to the Bench

Arbitrary? Perhaps. But surely better than this kind of nonsense - Don't Punch A & E Staff (Unless You Are in Wales)

Related post

10 years old

One of the things which Maura Dooley said on Womans Hour & with which I heartily agree was that she regretted that children do not seem to be introduced to much grown up poetry at primary school these days. It gets in to you, becomes part of your fabric, even if you do not always understand it. The ones I remember best are those – such as A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever - which clearly meant something to the teacher. Perhaps it had something to do with War being such a recent memory

Not that reaction was always uncritical. I remember being deeply unimpressed with Daffodils – just doggerel was my lofty response

I was thinking again about my 10 year old self recently after I stumbled across a Could You Pass The Eleven Plus test on the BBC website

After a little hesitation I decided to risk humiliation, but found I was Top of The Class. Which was reassuring (all that talk about Alzheimers recently)

And to boast even more, I was rather impressed by my 10 year old self – I always loved this kind of thing & only took against the idea of IQ tests later in life – Bell curves, the only thing they test is whatever they measure yabba, yabba, yabba … Plus Eysenck’s assertion, that the question about why the dwarf who lived on the 14th floor of a New York apartment block always selected the button for the 12th floor when he came home, & walked the other 2 floors, is an example of the perfect ‘closed’ IQ question

I think I am probably inclined to underestimate what 10 year olds are capable of these days, & from what we hear schools do not generally stretch them either, focussing instead on purely ‘expected’ levels of attainment

Then I heard the Radio 4 programme about the remaining Grammar Schools & how only middle class parents can afford the coaching for the 11 plus these days. Sadly, the programme focussed more on the emotional aspects of putting children under pressure – some still failed despite the coaching

At least the parents can console themselves that their children will be at lower risk of early alcohol problems, according to a recent research report from Scotland - Smart kids are more likely to be heavy drinkers

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Tobacco competition

How will corner shops display the prices of cigarettes when (or rather Big If) the proposed ban on open display of the packets comes in to force? Does competition law have anything to say on this?

Do ministers really think that the well being of society will increase if they damage, or even destroy, the viability of what is often the one legitimate commercial activity in some of the most depressed areas? Ministers were airily dismissing the estimated £500 cost of a shop refit (sounds far too low to me), & then there is the possible hit to profit margins

In these areas in particular it will become very hard to find legitimate supplies of tobacco, thus giving the criminal suppliers even freer rein

Have ministers really thought this through, or are they really so deluded as to kid themselves of widespread support from their fixed consutation exercise?


Another poem from Christina Rossetti, much loved duringmy angst-ridden part of my teens

THE irresponsive silence of the land,

The irresponsive sounding of the sea,

Speak both one message of one sense to me:--

Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand

Thou too aloof, bound with the flawless band

Of inner solitude; we bind not thee;

But who from thy self-chain shall set thee free?

What heart shall touch thy heart?

What hand thy hand?

And I am sometimes proud and sometimes meek,

And sometimes I remember days of old

When fellowship seem'd not so far to seek,

And all the world and I seem'd much less cold,

And at the rainbow's foot lay surely gold,

And hope felt strong, and life itself not weak

Eartha Kitt

Sad to hear of the death of Eartha Kitt. She managed to combine sexiness & real humour with An Englishman Needs Time & Old Fashioned Millionaire

Friday, January 02, 2009

Elevator poem

Maura Dooley read her poem about getting into an elevator with Leonard Cohen on Womans Hour today

Wonderful, especially for long time fans. It even made me a teeny bit nostalgic for Toronto

As she explained she wrote it several years ago, when Cohen had rather slipped out of the public consciousness, about an incident which really happened to her. Lucky woman. But great for the rest of us to have the poem

She can be heard reading it here

Related post

The going rate

“The unemployment rate is just above one million” is the kind of sentence which irritates me, even when it comes in a helpful article such as that recently written by Tom Whipple in The Times

The word ‘rate’ is also frequently applied to the number of births

So what word do we use for the number of unemployed people expressed as a percentage of all in employment, or the number of births as a percentage of the population

Related post

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Questions, questions

On balance I was disappointed with Natalie Angier’s book The Canon. Twirligig is the right word for it – although it contains many fine phrases I found the analogies, similes & metaphors overwhelmed the message. It was also disconcerting to find how many of the homely or up to date cultural references I failed to get, just because they were American. Still at least I know now, thanks to Google, that Spray-on Pam is a Product of Arthur Meyerhoff & nothing to do with scarlet swimsuits

Angier does give a very good explanation of what physicists mean by force, but I was disappointed to see early on the status given to the position of those such as Sir Richard Peto on data mining or exploratory data analysis. There is every difference between using statistical ‘significance’ to look for answers, & looking for questions or generating new hypotheses. I would go so far as to say that not analysing expensively acquired data thoroughly is a dereliction of duty - but that assertion does rather depend on how you defined the population to be studied & then selected your sample

And if I get really cross I might say that medical researchers will one day come to realise their dereliction in not always looking to see if there is a difference between the results for males & females

Even a 'significant' correlation with signs of the zodiac is not necessarily spurious. If I said that Leos are bad at exams, Peto might scoff, but even Ed Balls believes that late summer babies tend to do worse in exams because our academic year means they are always the baby of the class

On a related issue, I heard Professor Jim Al-Khalili say, on World Service Forum, that perhaps the continuing problems with physics might stem from the fact that we cannot observe the system from outside, citing Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. I had never thought to link Heisenberg to Gödel & Archimedes in this way

Related posts