Saturday, February 28, 2009

The thingness of things

I was reading Paul Ormerod’s Butterfly Economics, looking at some 3-dimensional plots of Lorenz equations, when I was struck by the thought: There is no such thing as the economy

Shades of Mrs Thatcher on society! Actually I rather agreed with her, thinking that she meant as a thing distinguishable as an entity in its own right, independently from human modes of perception

On these plots only the US GNP (not GDP) showed the glimmer of a structure which could be captured by mathematical equations. Amidst all the intellectual agonising over whether new models can be developed which capture adequately the risks in the market for credit, perhaps we should also be thinking about the concept of the economy as a meaningful entity for analysis

Perhaps the US comes closest to a structure simply because it is so big and diverse. Not just in climate & natural resources but, up to a point, in local laws. Relatively unrestricted movement of people (both in retirement & in labour) as well as capital. Allows the law of error or the law of large numbers more scope

The Economy is something usually tied to a nation state. We sometimes talk of The European Economy, but rarely of the South American Economy. And usually we talk about the Asian economies

When did we get a UK economy? Did Gladstone ever use the word?

Interestingly, although the OED has a quote from the 1712 Spectator: “In the Dispositions of Society, the civil economy is formed in a chain as well as the natural”, which refers to the organisation of human society as a whole, it is only at the end of the 19th century that we get the definition

“ The organization or condition of a community or nation with respect to economic factors, esp. the production and consumption of goods and services and the supply of money (now freq. with the); (also) a particular economic system”

The earliest recorded usage comes from the 1892 Journal of Political Economy 1 137: “Taxes are still the main support of the State's economy”

The second known citation comes from our own Journal of the Royal Statistical Society of 1924: “The importance in our nation's economy of, say, cotton or wool”

The earliest recorded use of the term macroeconomics, according to the OED, is found in The American Economic review of 1945: “Across the distinction between statics and dynamics cuts another one: that between aggregative or ‘macro’-economics, and the ‘micro’-economics of a single firm or household”

To be continued


February crunchy bits

The skies are clearer - flights in British airspace were down 10% in January

Tesco received 1000 applications for 200 jobs in their new Liverpool store

Once-wealthy city workers are back in court trying to renegotiate bonus-dependent divorce settlements

Long stemmed red roses for Valentines Day were much cheaper this year

Long haul passengers flying from Gatwick were down 25% last month

The price for a permit to emit a tonne of carbon dioxide has fallen from €35 last July to €9 today

Nearly half of China’s toy factories have closed

Balmain jeans, £1000 a pair, are now available in British stores

More Americans are coming forward as (paid) blood donors

A big accountancy firm is offering the opportunity for staff to downsize & have a better work life balance by working (& being paid for) only 4 days a week

No Ladas are being made in Russia

Newspaper advertising is down by a fifth

Private investors in Japan are putting their faith in platinum & palladium bullion & coin

A gold plated Aston Martin with platinum & palladium bumpers comes up at auction next month

Friday, February 27, 2009

Family values

We are a multicultural family

I am a mongrel, though not a true one

When I was at Junior School we all wanted to be able to call ourselves a true mongrel – the idea was quite current

Mongrels were highly desirable. Only effete snobs with more money than sense would want to pay out good money for a dog. Certainly not for one that was overbred, inbred & temperamental. Not when there were plenty of dependable, unpretentious, friendly mongrels looking for a good home

In terms of us children, a true mongrel was one who could claim English, Welsh, Scottish & Irish blood. I came close but, although I was conceived in Snowdonia, nobody in the family could think of any Welsh ancestors

My grandsons, these days, might quite like to call themselves mutts – I have not asked

Their father, sometimes, likes to close down an argument by saying: I am right because I am the wog in this family

He tells me that he had never heard of it until I mentioned what ‘everybody knew’ – also when I was at junior school – that WOG is an acronym for Wily Oriental Gentleman

The authorities – OED, Chambers - dispute this & all other acronymic etymologies, without coming up with any convincing one themselves, though all are agreed that it was first used of Arabs

In my childish mind at least I was sure it meant Chinese – it somehow linked well with the Yellow Peril which used to scare people so much so long ago

My son in law is neither Arab nor Chinese, but he does count as oriental

There was also a well known saying: Wogs begin at Calais. Wikipedia says that this was first used Of Winston Churchill by a fellow MP in 1949

It was not a statement of fact, but a way of pouring scorn on people with a certain cast of mind or small minded set of beliefs. The sort who, faced with a dish of Spaghetti Bolognese, would say: I can’t eat this foreign muck; who was more afraid than Dracula of garlic: Ugh! The Paris Metro reeks of it

Related post

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Our business

Chris Mullin has been publishing his diary as a New Labour Minister. Very dispiriting

By his own admission, Mullin is one of those people completely unsuited to such a role – many otherwise good politicians have suffered similarly

But it is the tale of the battle over the charges for his Government Car Service which got to me most of all

It mirrors my own feelings when I, not too long ago, was curious enough to follow up a press advert for a job as a Business Support Officer in a ministerial Private Office.

Duties include “Providing support to the budget officer on financial and accounting issues in Private Office. This includes preparing invoices for payment… “ (? For what?)

Job criteria include “Knowing the business”

“The post holder will understand and respond to the needs of their key customers … to fully support the Business Team and … ensure internal Private Office guidance is up to date and ready for use at a moment’s notice”

I wonder how long the language of business will be seen as appropriate to public service?

Related post

Tips for today

Tony Collins gives Top tips for project managers on his IT blog

My two favourites are “Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn't have to do it” and, naturally for someone with my favourite aphorism, “You understood what I said, not what I meant

Coincidentally I was recently rereading some variations on Murphy’s law from Paul Dickson’s 1978 book The Official Rules

If not controlled, work will flow to the competent man until he submerges – Charles Boyle of NASA

Science is truth: don’t be misled by facts – Anon

When an error has been detected & corrected it will be found to have been correct in the first place – Anon

Seven eighths of everything cannot be seen – Anon

Where you stand depends on where you sit – Rufus Miles

ANOTHER OF MURPHY’S LAWS: It is impossible to make anything foolproof, because fools are so ingenious – Anon

And a few which seem to have been applied too readily in the years leading up to the credit crunch:

CANADA BILL JONES MOTTO: It is morally wrong to allow suckers to keep their money

The meek shall inherit the earth, but not its mineral rights – J Paul Getty

MERRILLS MAXIM OF INSTANT STATUS: In a democracy you can be respected though poor, but don’t count on it

The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet – Damon Runyon

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More fallout from Baby P

A small paragraph in the paper reports that a GP has been suspended by the General Medical Council over the case of Baby P, despite the fact that he had twice referred the baby to hospital because of his concerns. No doubt we shall find out more in due course

Is it overly sensitive of me to note that none of the 3 professionals who have, to our knowledge, been disciplined in some fashion, is of an English background? Or is this just a result of London’s, & particularly Haringey’s, multicultural make up

The other outcome that does not seem to have excited much comment in the general media is that the newly appointed head of Haringey’s children’s services is required to report to Ed Balls every month

Although there are precedents for government ministers to have power to intervene directly in the management of local authority services, the examples I can think of all required a defined parliamentary procedure to be gone through first

Related post

Wheat is the colour

Aasmah Mir presented an interesting programme on skin lightening on Radio 4. Although there was at least one interviewee who wanted to blame it all on western colonial imperialism, broader & more interesting lines were pursued as well

One small point of language really intrigued me. Aasmah & her Asian interviewees expressed their distaste for the word wheatish, on the grounds that it sounds awful, as well as what it represents. I wonder where this comes from? Could it be a British Asian coinage or possibly Pakistani rather than Indian? The word I remember from marriage adverts in the Indian press was wheaten, which is at least euphonious

Related post

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Aretha Franklin’s Hat

There was an item about the Stephen Jones exhibition of hats at the V&A on Womans Hour this morning

He told of how they had tried to include Aretha Franklin’s inauguration hat, but had received the same polite refusal that she had given to the Smithsonian: The hat was such a precious symbol to her of the significance for African-Americans of the Obama election, & of the tremendous honour of being invited to sing, that she could not bear to let it go to where she could not look at it every day

I do hope that that is the truth, that she is not just deeply hurt by the reaction she got from the so-called fashion experts, which reminds me so much of how English people used to react to West Indian migrants & their children dressed up for church in the 1950s. How could they expect to be welcomed in to the congregation, dressed like that?

Related post

Staying in power

Sometime in the mid 1980s I was, as one does, idly flicking through the monthly edition of Economic Trends. Actually I didn’t at all, usually, it was one of those things which passed rapidly from in tray to out tray

But they had just recently acquired the technology to put a graph at the top of each page – a simple black & white line graph to display the main features of the table

One does not expect drama in such things, so I was surprised to see any. But there was a graph with one line which took a steep plunge to the bottom while another took its place at the top. In fairly short order the two lines reverted to their normal points on the scale

The table showed fuel used in electricity generation. The line which plunged down represented coal, its place usurped by oil. The graph showed vividly how we got through the miner’s strike without any major power cuts

Some years later I saw a tv programme which told how a then junior minister, Nigel Lawson, had been sent to the Department of Energy by Margaret Thatcher with a specific brief to ensure that in any confrontation with the unions (which just about everybody expected sooner or later) the miners would not be in any position to inflict the kind of humiliation endured by the Heath government in the 3 day week of 1974. Appropriate plans were laid. Nigel Lawson later became Chancellor of the Exchequer

That may have been the last time any British government took a serious strategic look at energy supply, rather than ducking its responsibilities & hoping that the nasty problems of nuclear & the touchy feely windmill brigade would somehow sort themselves out

And yet, during the recent cold snap, we depended on coal for more than half the electricity we were so grateful to receive. The computers, the telly, the hot water & the microwave all pluckily kept going (for the most part) to keep us fed & warm

We had another power cut on Monday morning. This was clearly due to some very local interruption to supply. It lasted for at least 4 hours, at which point I had to go out, having managed only an old fashioned sponge down wash. Sorry about that folks, but it was like going back to the good old days, along with all the wartime recipes for left overs which are being so enthusiastically resurrected

If we get through the banking crisis relatively unscathed we will probably soon find that it is not just the flow of credit which maintains our way of life

Monday, February 23, 2009

Breast cancer screening

The NHS is tearing up its leaflet on breast cancer screening & writing a new one to include appropriate information about the risks. The director of Screening Programmes has said that, according to research, women do not want too thick a leaflet

Perhaps they might like a presentation similar to the one I used to make my own decision:

We have to screen 160 women to find one cancer

But 16 of the 160 will need further investigation before they get the all clear

These are old figures now (they come from a report published in 1992) so they should be replaced by the latest & best available

The 1992 report did not mention, nor had I ever heard of, the problem of DCIS which may otherwise lie undiscovered & non-lethal

I understood that most of the further investigations would be because of something like a fogged x-ray or, in a very few instances, require a needle biopsy before someone said: Good news dear! You don’t have cancer after all

But that was enough for me to make up my mind that it was not, for me, a worthwhile bet

It’s a kind of Bayesian calculation

Those who are only too familiar with this terrible disease, either because as medics they spend their lives trying to combat it, or have watched a friend or close family member succumb, will give great weight to the value of early detection

Breast cancer is nowhere near the top of my personal list of health fears. And with some reason

None of the oft mentioned risk factors – late first pregnancy, late menopause, obesity or family history – applies to me

I am not sure if my decision would be different if the process were easier. Round here it involves travelling to a village which is not on my usual itinerary, to visit a caravan in a car park. They offer to rearrange your appointment if the one offered is inconvenient, but the whole attitude is more that they are doing you a favour rather than being presumptuous about your diary

They 'have to' ask you to sign a form if you, politely, decline the invitation

And all to have your breasts squashed between x ray plates? (By the way, what happens with implants? Or with those who resisted that pressure, to stick with their slim but boyish figure?)

Then there is the question of what difference it makes in terms of survival. When I made my decision the only data with which I was familiar was expressed in terms of 5 or 10 year survival

Suppose there were 2 parallel me’s, living parallel lives

First me goes for screening, a tumour is detected. I have the treatment & live 11 years – very good, more than 10

Second me leaves it, & just before my next screening invitation in 3 years time I discover a palpable lump. I have treatment, but survive only 4 years. Oh dear. Less than 5

But first me had 11 years of knowing I had cancer plus the after effects of treatment & the fear that it might return

Second me lived a total of 7 years after that fateful decision, 3 of them in blissful ignorance

At my age I am not sure which one I would choose, even if I were omniscient about my multiple lives

Related posts

Price psychology

In his book, Why Most Things Fail, Paul Ormerod mentions the theoretical problems which stem from the fact that supply & demand curves are not, strictly, continuous in the mathematical sense

When was the last time you paid £∏ for something?

Less esoterically, & empirically, there is the everyday phenomenon of price points, & the strange fascination with the number 99

So when the government suddenly reduced VAT they played havoc with all this carefully calibrated point-of-sale psychology

Perhaps that is why the VAT reduction is not, some say, working as well as the government had hoped

Sunday, February 22, 2009

More on drains

One day last week I walked up & over the hill carrying a bag of washed & squashed to the recycling centre – a full bag since I had not walked that way for a while because of the bad weather

About half way up 3 men were gathered round a drain, just finishing off some job. I was surprised to see that one of them carried a half full but heavy-looking black bin bag as they returned to their vehicle, a small flat bed truck, which carried the same logo as the tanker they were using down our lane the other week

They paused to inspect another drain on the brow of the hill, but just drove on. I glanced down as I passed the drain, which was quite full but all I could see was water & a couple of floating leaves

They did get out at the next drain, halfway down the other side. To my astonishment one dug out a spade full of black rich looking loam – definitely not squidgy oozing mud. Again I glanced down as I passed – the soil came practically up to the level of the road surface

I wonder how many years it took for that to accumulate

Related post

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The flea finds America

There is a very interesting sounding exhibition of cartoons from London’s Clubland on in London at the moment. I read about it in Libby Purves column in The Times

Libby mentions one cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson which shows an old maid searching for a flea, which is likened to Columbus “finding new land in America” Libby calls this insulting to “women & native Americans”

I have not been able to find any information on Google about the inspiration for this cartoon, but it sounds to me like a very clear reference to the poetry of John Donne, which I find rather delightfully funny

Jenni Murray often asks one of her guests on Womans Hour: What is it like, walking in to (or being in) a room full of men? Most recently this week in a discussion about Op-Ed pieces in the newspapers. Quite normal, Jenni, I always answer on the respondent’s behalf. As someone who went to nothing but co-educational schools & then from university onwards was used to being in a minority, often of only one, that is just how it seems

A few years ago I joined an embroidery group; nice middle class ladies, mostly of a certain age. Just like me. But I realised that not since I left the Girl Guides had I been used to being in a room full of women, & I found it a bit intimidating, thought I might have to be careful what I said, mind my p’s & q’s

One day I mentioned a poem by Donne. Oh, said one, is that the one about My New-found America? I like that one

Oh yes! said several others

The ice was broken

So you could call TO HIS MISTRESS GOING TO BED a women’s poem

COME, madam, come, all rest my powers defy;
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though he never fight.

Off with that girdle, like heaven's zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear,
That th' eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.

Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now 'tis your bed-time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.

Your gown going off such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th' hill's shadow steals.
Off with that wiry coronet and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow.
Now off with those shoes, and then softly tread
In this love's hallowed temple, this soft bed.

In such white robes heaven's angels used to be
Revealed to men ; thou, angel, bring'st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet's paradise ; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite;
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.

Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O, my America, my new found land,
My kingdom, safliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery;
How am I blest in thus discovering thee !
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;

Then, where my hand is set, my soul shall be.

Full nakedness all joys are due to thee ;
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta's ball cast in men's views ;
That, when a fool's eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul might court that, not them.
Like pictures, or like books' gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus array'd.

Themselves are mystic books, which only we
—Whom their imputed grace will dignify—
Must see revealed. Then, since that I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife show
Thyself ; cast all, yea, this white linen hence;
There is no penance due to innocence:
To teach thee, I am naked first; why then,
What needst thou have more covering than a man?

Funnily enough, in my experience, the other poem which Rowlandson’s cartoon brings to mind, THE FLEA, in my experience appeals to men more than to women

MARK but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.'
Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

The picture is copied from The Luminarium & is Woman Catching Fleas c.1630.Georges de la Tour. Musée Historique, Nancy.

Not that different from the Rowlandson

Friday, February 20, 2009

Recollection & recall

Radio 4 gave time again this week to a scientist expert in childhood memory who cited experimental work which ‘proves’ that it is impossible to remember things which happened when you were very young, basically before speech develops

I am one of those who believes this is codswallop

Based on my own experience of course

I remember the first time someone told me that his earliest memory dated back to when he was about 8. How could you have 8 whole blank years, I thought

Later I got to know a young man who asserted that he could remember nothing that had happened to him before the age of 14 (he was then about 18), but that definitely reflected a deeper psychological disturbance

I sometimes think I can remember events which date right back to some time in my first year, but since many of them relate to events recorded in the family photo album I am prepared to concede that there may be some reworking going on. But from then on they come thick & fast, many of them the kind of tiny event (often involving tiny frustrations) which nobody else could possibly have told me about

But I have a particular beef with the experiment which is reported to prove the scientific case

Very young children were exposed to a ‘unique experience’ – details unspecified - which later they prove unable to recall. Slightly older children can recall similar unique experiences

How do they know that the children cannot recall the event? How do they know the children understand what it is that the adult who is doing the questioning wants to hear?

At that age a child has many ‘unique experiences’, the days are full of them

And I well remember our bemusement when our daughter, well into the age of speech, apparently completely failed to remember an important national event which we had taken her to. Denied having seen various impressive performances

But she did remember - & often mentioned – the man in the funny hat with a trumpet. It was her parents who could not remember him, had to have their memories jogged
memory does not depend just on words - smells & strong emotions are especially powerful. We may need to put them into words in order to bring them to the front of our minds, in order to reflect on, or to relate them to others, but we can do that later, after the event

Related post
Babies on buses

Another power cut

We had a power cut on Wednesday morning, a bit before half past 11, so I missed part of Sarfraz Manzoor’s very interesting take on What Happened to the Working Class?

Very annoying. Odd to get one now, when we got through all the bad weather unscathed. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps some idiot had managed to cut through a cable somewhere, but no, the power definitely flickered a few times before going out

It is the first time since they built the new estate that I can remember a power cut when I have been at home in the middle of a working day, so the first time I have heard all the burglar alarms going off together. At least these days you don’t get the clamour of clanging bells – these sounded more like the twittering of startled sparrows

It also made me realise I must re-appraise the just-in-time ironing policy I have these days, since it meant I had to put on an unironed t shirt

I find it hard now to believe how much time – usually on a precious Sunday afternoon – I used to devote to ironing. Definitely something to be cut back on in the interests reducing what Raymond Biggs called one of the problems with age - the amount of time you take ‘just living’

Power was fully restored after about half an hour, 5 minutes after it had come back in pitiful brown out mode & 15 minutes before I needed to leave the house

I decided to use the time to reset all the radio presets rather than iron the t shirt

Related post

Thursday, February 19, 2009


This is a poem by Dorothy Wellesley, for anyone who has ever lost a child

He is not dead nor liveth
The little child in the grave,
And men have known for ever
That he walketh again,
They hear him November evenings,
When acorns fall with the rain.

Teach me then the heart of the dead child

Teach me all that the child who knew life
And the quiet of death,
To the croon of the cradle song
By his brother’s crib
In the deeps of the nursery dusk
To his mother saith

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

MMR & responsibilty

Danny Finkelstein told, in his Saturday column, of experiments involving a version of the old ethical dilemma about the 5 railway workers & a runaway train

“The first had the respondents as the driver of a runaway train about to kill five maintenance workers. But they could flick a switch, go down a different path and kill only one worker. What would they do: flick or not flick?

Ninety five per cent said flick. It's simple arithmetic

Then there was a second dilemma. This time the respondents were told that they were on a bridge and watching the runaway train head towards the five maintenance workers. They happened to be standing next to a large man. By pushing him off, the respondent would kill him. On the other hand his bulk would stop the train and save the other five. To push or not to push? Almost everybody chose not to push"

The change from ‘driver’ to ‘observer’ is interesting; previous versions I have heard involve in both cases an observer who, in the first dilemma, can throw the points to divert the runaway train

“Mathematically, these two options are the same. Five die and one is saved
because of the action of the respondent. But emotionally they felt quite
different. Greene and his colleagues noted that, while solving these dilemmas,
different parts of the brain lit up. The second dilemma brought into play not
only the logical circuits of the brain but also an area associated with interpreting the feelings of other people.”

One problem with these hypotheticals is that you are told what WILL be the outcome of your action. This one is definitely peculiar in that way – how can you know that the large man has enough bulk to stop a train which left to its own devices could kill 5 men? And if he is that big, how on earth could you push him off the bridge?

Leaving that aside, does it not seem more likely that the different experimental outcomes of these two examples are due not to empathy with the victim but with the decision maker – with the degree of agency or responsibility, & therefore guilt which he might feel for having sacrificed the sole victim?

In the first case the driver can reduce the damage of something which is happening anyway; he is powerless to halt the runaway train (this applies even if the train is running away because of some earlier mistake he made). And all the potential victims are maintenance workers, with the implication that they have accepted the risks of working on a railway line. Even the victim might, if given the opportunity, choose to sacrifice himself for his mates

In the second case, the observer on the bridge is contemplating the sacrifice of someone who (like him) is just a spectator on the scene, a hapless passer by. In what sense is the observer qualified to sit in judgement in this way – unless questions of life & death are always to be decided by crude arithmetic?

Some will argue that this is in fact the utilitarian argument – the greatest good of the greatest number. Some might argue that life is sacred, you should never take one by your own deliberate act

The lines of discussion opened up fill whole books & libraries & lifetimes, but I found myself thinking specifically about what light might be thrown on the current ‘debate’ about MMR

Taking your baby to be vaccinated or inoculated is not something you do lightly – after all if a random stranger tried to stick a needle in your child’s arm you would do everything possible to stop them. You do it to protect your child, for the avoidance of disease which could lead to death, life long disability, disfigurement or even just a week in bed feeling poorly. Altruism – the protection of other people’s children through the immunity of the herd - is an added bonus

Nevertheless vaccination has always been controversial, the subject of political battles in the C19th, & generally speaking has never been compulsory in this country. My best friend at school had a mother who refused on principle to have any of her 4 children vaccinated against anything. And now we have the refusal of some parents to go for MMR

When I first heard about this I got the impression that the medical establishment was (not for the first time) objecting simply to the publication of a hypothesis

Funnily enough the idea of a link between the measles virus & autism gained a certain plausibility for me when I heard a doctor on the radio trying to explain why measles was not an unproblematic, simple childhood illness, but one worth vaccinating against. It was the mention of lesions on the lining of the colon which did it

For me there seemed to be an analogy with PKU. I am obviously not a scientist or a medic, & my understanding of PKU is based almost entirely on the explanation given to me by my mother when I was about 10

She was explaining why we had been saying special prayers for a member of our congregation, who had just, at long last, managed to finalise the adoption of a 4 year old boy she had been fostering since birth. I do not know whether the problem was with the natural mother’s consent or with doubts by the adoption authorities, because the little boy had been diagnosed with PKU (it was not automatically tested for at birth in those days). My mother explained that this meant that there was something wrong with his digestion so that protein, instead of building him up, turned into poison in his bowel & poisoned his brain. Fortunately it had been found in time & provided his mother was very careful about what he ate all should be well, though he might be a bit slow

That had a very profound effect on me, especially as he was such a beautiful, solemn little boy with glossy black hair, big eyes & long, long eyelashes

But, the fatal but, is that this analogy provides no basis at all for linking autism to MMR but not to the single vaccine or to the measles virus itself. And so the campaign against MMR seems irrational to me

HOWEVER – and this is where the guilt of the agent comes in – the fact that a doctor could come up with the idea of a link is itself a kind of evidence, sufficient to raise a doubt in some peoples mind

If my unvaccinated child suffered great harm from measles that would be a cruel
act of random fate, or God’s mysterious purpose

If my child were vaccinated & then developed autism I should be unable to forgive myself

Statistics apply to populations, not to individuals. If there is any risk – even if that risk is vanishingly close to zero, because many other doctors have searched long & hard & can find no evidence that it exists – it is not something I can do to my child

A public health doctor has no right to decide that the benefits of herd immunity which I confer on other people’s children justify the risk to my precious baby

In such circumstances lectures & threats do not seem either humane or productive

The beautiful words of the Anglican confession do more to help people think differently about how they think about responsibility for the sins of both omission & commission:

"We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us."


Promises, promises: the 21st century

This cartoon by Pugh appeared just in time to bring this mini series to a suitable close

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Traffic hazard

I have just identified a previously unrecognised traffic hazard – the fish & chip shop

Actually I have long known about the one at our end of the village, which is obviously well known on the wagon-drivers grapevine. Every lunch time they will park up, as brazenly as you like, no matter how big the wagon, just short of the traffic lights, while they pop over to the chippy. But I always thought that was a one off – they have a long lonely road up over the moor to traverse before they will get another chance for sustenance

But today I saw that the same thing happens at the chippy in the centre of the village. There was quite a jam this lunchtime as traffic tried to squeeze past the hungry driver who had helpfully parked, as far as he could, on the pavement

Social page

The Times has come over a bit Mills & Boon & is carrying the stories behind the engagements announced in the paper

Extracts from each of the three stories told on Saturday:

When he first met her, he was drunk …

They met on a blind date … A few gins later …

Copious amounts of champagne led them on to the dance floor …

And we wonder why teenagers think it a good idea to get drunk

Monday, February 16, 2009

Statistics leading to philosophy

It is interesting that several commentators have pointed out that the question of whether horse riding is just as dangerous as taking ecstasy is one of philosophy rather than statistics

But all statistics are philosophical. Although the word can be used for a branch of pure mathematics, it is mostly used in an applied sense – figures which come with words attached

And then, in the enduring words of Professor Joad, it all depends on what you mean

I was taught economic statistics by the late RGD Allen, who emphasised the importance of never leaping in to analyse or draw conclusions from a set of figures before checking the definitions employed & any caveats attached due to the limitations of the method of compilation

If something is to be counted you need a careful definition of exactly what is meant, or qualifies to be counted in a particular category. This is especially true of statistics in the original sense of state figures, produced by official statisticians. Much effort goes in to this

There often has to be negotiation with a whole range of users to ensure that the figures are fit for purpose, will meet a wide range of needs. Sometimes multilateral negotiations are involved, for example in the European Union or for the even more majestic International Classifications of Disease or Trade

A major downside of all this is that the definitions are then rigidly applied & used. In written reports or press releases there is no room for elegant variation – the words should say what they mean and mean what they say. Any percentage or rate quoted should spell out both the numerator & the denominator being used

Nothing like what happens in normal life, where words mean what you want them to mean, & what you mean is obvious to your readers & listeners. Especially in political discourse

Words have a nasty habit of changing their meaning over time. One of the most difficult professional judgements for statisticians who collect figures over time is when to change the definition so that the statistics remain meaningful for society as it has now become. The price for this is a break in the time series & added problems in comparing the situation now with what it was then. They do not teach equations or formulas for this in university – you just have to learn by experience to use your professional skill & judgement

One of my favourite examples is lone parent. From at least the 1930s through the 1970s the definition adopted for the published census tabulations of households was one developed by social scientists for measuring the adequacy of housing provision

A lone parent household was one “Headed by a single/widowed/divorced parent living with his or her never married child(ren) of any age”

So a 90 year old widow living with a 70 year old spinster daughter counted as a lone parent in an age when “lone parent” was becoming synonymous with teenage girls who just wanted a council flat of their own

Politicians & others were quick to criticise another set of official statistics in the early 1980s. This was the time of the Thatcher recession when there were suddenly large numbers of (mainly young) people sleeping on the streets of central London in a way which was distressingly visible. Ridiculously enough, such people were deliberately excluded from the official homelessness statistics. In this case however the statisticians were able (gently) to point out that they were merely charged with monitoring the workings of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, passed by Parliament in – oooh – 1977. For a time the word ‘roofless’ acquired a certain currency

Statisticians face different challenges when, instead of purpose designed censuses & surveys, they rely on administrative sources for their raw material. There may be breaks in a series if new procedures lead to differences in the counting method or its reliability, or because of changes to the rules of entitlement

“Fiddling the figures” then becomes an easy taunt – ask anyone who remembers the debate over unemployment figures in the 1980s as various schemes were introduced to give people some kind of training or something else to keep them occupied & away from the dole queues. We may be in for the same kind of thing again as the government introduces initiatives such as internships for new graduates to meet the current emergency

Then of course there is the question of foreign workers. Anyone can recognise one of those when they see one; the problem is to find a definition which can be applied to meet a wide range of circumstances, & then to find an accessible source of the up-to-the minute information required.

People enjoy entering into this debate when it comes to questions about who is, or is not, a foreigner when it comes to playing football or captaining the England cricket team. Somehow, though, the nuances are supposed to be magicked away when it comes to the more workaday world

Related posts

Burning leaves

Because of the opening line, this poem tends to be filed away in my memory under elegiac nostalgia

It is of course a passionately anti-war poem (in this case WWII) by Laurence Binyon

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves,
They go to the fire; the nostrils prick with smoke
Wandering slowly into the weeping mist
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin, and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.

The last hollyhock’s fallen tower is dust:
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! the reddest rose is a ghost.
Spark whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean

Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before,
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there:
Let them go to the fire with never a look behind.
That world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.

They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

Related post
Burning desire

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Muddy waters

Alan Duncan, speaking on the radio about the moves being undertaken to tidy up & tighten up the rules about proper financial behaviour for MPs introduced two very nice words: re-muddle & de-muddle

He said the aim was to completely clarify, to de-muddle the rules

Sadly, it is my belief that Gödel proved that this is something which just cannot be did

The church & Anglo-Saxon kingship

By 600 AD, in the wake of the collapse of the Roman empire in the west, England was divided into many small units, under the control of Anglo-Saxon 'kings'. These kings, or their ancestors, had been leaders of war bands, owing their position to the loyalty inspired by their fighting qualities. Within 200 years, by 800 AD, only five, much larger, kingdoms are known to have existed, and 100 years after that England was united under a single king, Christian defenders fighting new groups of pagan invaders in the form of the Vikings. The role of the church in this process of growth and consolidation of kingdoms, and in the expansion of the role of king to one of lawgiver and shepherd of his people, as well as war leader, is one of the major themes of the period.

In the early days of the heroic Saxon age warriors were rewarded with their share of the plunder & loot, the king known as the ring giver. But as the invaders settled down & took over control of the land (and gold became scarce) the aristocratic warriors were given their own estates. There was no system of inheritance of land - sons earned their entitlement by giving military service to the king, though the land so earned may already have been with the family. This was the system known as folcland.

Monks and clergy however were exempt from military service (and taxes) & abbeys and churches needed a more secure form of tenure; thus bookland developed, a kind of ownership in perpetuity with written deeds or charters. This of course reduced the amount of land available for reward (or for contributions to tax revenues), and so played its part in encouraging the consolidation of kingdoms, as the strongest leaders sought for ways to increase the amount of land under their control.

Writing was another innovation, brought by both Roman and Irish traditions of the church, to the illiterate Anglo-Saxons. One of the earliest consequences of the Roman mission to Kent was the production of a written law code, written in the vernacular so that it could be widely promulgated and understood. These laws reveal a social structure which included slaves, free peasants and nobles, and codify a system of wergild, payments in compensation for murder according to the rank of the murdered man. The church played its part in the discouragement of the unnecessary violence of the blood feud, without ever preaching that a good king was one who avoided war on behalf of his people. A good king was one who was successful in war, success being God's reward for his being a good king.

Aspects of sexual morality also concerned the church from the start. Gregory was horrified by the practice of marriage to a step-mother; that Æthelberts son did this was seen as proof of his paganism, and the resultant disagreement almost brought the end of the Roman mission. We do not know why such a practice was common, though there are clear dynastic advantages in not having a 'spare' queen, as it were, possibly with her own sons, as a focus for discontented and ambitious rivals for the kings power. The church, however, was adamant: "in these days the Church corrects some things strictly" wrote Gregory to Augustine [Bede I 27]

The emphasis on Christian marriage obviously had effects on the possibilities for dynastic alliances and on succession. Illegitimacy had not been a bar to Anglo-Saxon kingship, but nor was inheritance necessarily from father to son, or even through the male line. Nor was kingship the same as mon-archy; joint or sub-kingships were common, as with Penda of Mercia and his son Peada. Finally Christian education, provided by the church or monastery, supplied an alternative training for kings, and coronation a new way of legitimisation.

Monasteries also provided a useful escape route for those such as St Guthlac, who wished to avoid the warrior tradition of kings [Stenton,1971,p158], and a role in life for widows and junior members of the kindred. During the 7th and 8th centuries at least six kings opted out in this way [Stancliffe,1983,p157], though both Gregory and Bede promulgated the importance of kings remaining active men of affairs. Other kings opted for pilgrimages to Rome - Alfred visited the Pope at least twice as a child and also stayed at the French court, illustrating the maintenance and expansion of continental links that came with the Gregorian mission and Kentish links with Frankia; and of course, after the Synod of Whitby, "once and for all (at least until the Reformation) England had cast her lot with Rome" rather than with the Celtic inhabitants of Britain [Hanning,1966,p66]

Gregory had encouraged Æthelbert with the promise that the rewards of Christian kingship included the fact that God would "make your own name glorious to posterity" [Bede I 32]. The fame of later kings, such as Oswald of Northumbria, was made more secure by canonisation and the establishment of a cult complete with shrines and relics, a cult which strengthened continental links by being exported to Germany and Italy. Chaney suggests [1960,p76] that such canonisation, after death in battle, "echoes the pagan custom of sacrificing the king for the good of the tribe", which, though extreme, illustrates that the success of the Church stemmed in part from flexibility in adapting pagan customs where useful.

"The strength of early Anglo-Saxon Christianity was based solidly on the great partnerships between king and bishop" [Mayr-Harting, 1991,p249]. Bede recounts the story of Gregorys pun about the angels, and Gregory may have believed that Æthelberts power was such that Augustines mission was, in effect, to a united gens Anglorum. But although bretwaldaship was a vital element in the pattern of early conversions, the Church was the only authority which transcended the political boundaries and provided shared ideals. Later, under Theodores reforms, this view of the Anglo-Saxons as a single people united under God was reinforced, and this vision could only have helped Alfred in his bid to achieve political unity as well as unity of faith.

As the Anglo-Saxon period drew towards its close archbishop Wulfstan described the qualities required of the ruler of England: "he should govern a Christian people justly ... he should be ... the consolation of his people and a good shepherd of a Christian flock. He must extend Christianity, support and protect the Church, bring his people to peace by just laws, and encourage the good while punishing the wicked with severity"

The Germanic war leader had become a Christian king.


Bassett, S (ed) (1989) The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms Leicester Leicester UP
Bede (1968) A History of the English Church & People London Penguin
Blair, PH (1963) Roman Britain & Early England: 55BC - AD871 Edinburgh Nelson
Brooke, C (1961) From Alfred to Henry III: 871-1272 London Nelson
Brooks, N (1989) 'The creation & early structure of the kingdom of Kent' in Bassett (1989)
Chaney, WC (1960) 'Paganism to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England' in Thrupp (1967)
Dumville, D (1989) 'Essex, Middle Anglia & the expansion of Mercia' in Bassett (1989)
Hanning, RW (1966) The Vision of History in Early Britain New York Colombia UP
Herrin, J (1989) The Formation of Christendom Princeton Princeton UP
Higham, N (1997) The Convert Kings Manchester MUP
McClure, J (1983) 'Bedes Old Testament Kings' in Wormald et al (1983)
Mayr-Harting, H (1991) The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England London Batsford
Page, RI (1970) Life in Anglo-Saxon England London Batsford
Stancliffe, C (1983) 'Kings who opted out' in Wormald et al (1983)
Stenton (1971) Anglo-Saxon England Oxford OUP
Thrupp, S (ed) (1967) Early Medieval Society New York Meredith
Wallace-Hadrill, J (1971) Early Germanic Kingship Oxford OUP
Wormald, P et al (ed) Ideal & Reality in Frankish & Anglo-Saxon Society Oxford Blackwell
Yorke, B (1990) Kings & Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England London Seaby

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Babies & bathwater

Before we all get too carried away with the idea that statistical theories & mathematical economics cannot deal with (or answer to) the way real people (rather than the mythical Rational Man) behave in the real world, let us remember that statistics can/should capture the inherent variability & allow us to use it to good effect

They are very hard ideas to get to grips with

The renewed resistance to the dark arts reminds me of the consternation & protestations expressed by some in the C19th who objected to the cold, scientific & statistical studies of Quetelet, the replacement of the Common Man by the Average Man.

Man did not behave according to statistical laws – he had free will

How then could those two supreme examples of acts freely entered into of ones own free will - the decision to end one’s own life or to marry – show such temporal & spatial regularity when expressed as rates – so many per 1000 population?

On the other side however, the similar expression of death and, particularly, infrctious disease as rates played a role in helping the middle classes to appreciate that these ills can afflict us all – not just the poor, dirty & feckless, so that they appreciated the benefit to all of cleaning up the slums & investing in public health initiatives such as sewers & clean water


A part of the main

As a regular listener to football-mad Radio 5 Live I learned a trick question which is quite a regular in football quizzes:

Which football league ground is closest to the River Mersey?

Most people assume it is a choice between Liverpool & Everton, but the answer is in fact Stockport

These days we tend to think of rivers as barriers to easy travel; we fail to appreciate that for thousands of years rivers provided natural highways, easier to navigate & to use for the transport heavy loads than rough & dangerous tracks through the forest. For an ancient journey planner the instruction Go down the Derwent & turn left when you reach the Trent would have been as familiar as today’s M1 – M25 – M3

I wonder if primary school children these days have to learn, as we did, the rivers of England, drawing maps & carefully writing in the names so we learned how small rivers flow in to larger ones & eventually reach the sea. Some – perhaps most – children found this boring but I always had itchy feet & so perhaps there was some atavistic memory of travel which made this activity seem romantic to me

Later came the serious business of geography – watersheds, river basins, erosion, deposition, an intimate interrelationship which shapes our physical environment

I was surprised to find myself thinking of these things when I woke up this morning

I think the explanation is that the business with the drains had been weighing more heavily on my mind than I realised

It was not just the worry about what I might go home to, or wake up to, after heavy rain

I know that our stream flows in to the Goyt which flows in to the Mersey, all part of the same system. A lot of links to history there, but if one gets clogged up enough or backs up or pushes too much water through at too fast a rate we could all know the consequences

So I almost look forward to the next (shortish) bout of rain so I can see with my own eyes that it is draining away properly again

"Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.If a clod be washed away by the sea Europe is the less as well as if a promontory were"

Friday, February 13, 2009

A modern Browning

The name of Robert Browning is most readily associated, in my mind, with Elizabeth Barrett, the little dog Fluff, & Oh! to be in England - a poem we all learned in childhood

I was therefore a bit taken aback to read in Henry James 'English Hours' of Browning’s ‘very modernness by which we mean the all-touching, all-trying spirit of his work, permeated with accumulations & playing with knowledge - achieves a kind of conquest, or at least of extension, of the rigid pale’

But I guess James had in mind something more like My Last Duchess

That's my last duchess painted on the wall,

Looking as if she were alive.

I callThat piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands

Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

Will't please you sit and look at her? I said

"Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read

Strangers like you that pictured countenance,

The depth and passion of its earnest glance,

But to myself they turned (since none puts by

The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,

How such a glance came there; so, not the first

Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not

Her husband's presence only, called that spot

Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps

Frà Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps

Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint

Must never hope to reproduce the faint

Half-flush that dies along her throat": such stuff

Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough

For calling up that spot of joy. She had

A heart how shall I say? too soon made glad,

Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.

Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,

The dropping of the daylight in the West,

The bough of cherries some officious fool

Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule

She rode with round the terrace all and each

Would draw from her alike the approving speech,

Or blush, at least. She thanked men good! but thanked

Somehow I know not how as if she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name

With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame

This sort of trifling? Even had you skill

In speech which I have not to make your will

Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this"

Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,

Or there exceed the mark" and if she let

Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set

Her wits to yours, forsooth, and make excuse,

E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose

Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,

Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without

Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands

As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet

The company below, then. I repeat,

The Count your master's known munificence

Is ample warrant that no just pretence

Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;

Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed

At starting, is my object. Nay we'll go

Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,

Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,

Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Another saucy circle

In Our Time this week was about Carthage. My ears pricked up when the sources of the city’s wealth were being discussed – one profitable export was a sauce made from rotten fish called garum - “their kind of ketchup”

So, must be related to casareep

And also to Indian cooking, via garam, the Hindi word for hot, as in garam marsala?

Related post

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Maybe it's a coincidence

An interesting piece from the Language Log about how today may, or may not, mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of both Charles Darwin & Abraham Lincoln

Related posts
How old are you?


What was very striking about the US bankers replies to the congressional grilling about their pay & bonuses was how they all, each & every one, talked about their pay as compensation

I wonder when this weasel word first came in to the world of human resource management. Is it limited to the boardroom, the great & good being compensated for giving up their valuable time, or do lesser workers too get compensation rather than just a wage?

I had some fun checking the definitions given in the OED

1. To make amends for.

2. To be an equivalent, to make up for.

3. To make equal return to, to recompense or remunerate a person for anything.

4. To correct an electrical device or circuit for (some undesired characteristic or effect)

5. To conceal or counterbalance a defect of character or physique, or to make up for the frustration of a tendency or desire, by developing or exaggerating some other characteristic

All in all, I think they owe some compensation to the rest of us

Swings & roundabouts

It may be an illusion, but Marks & Spencers food business seems to be picking up again. Certainly they are busier than I have seen them for ages, especially on Saturday

Partly this is due, at least in my local store, to them having finally sorted out the long standing shortage of small trolleys. Elderly ladies no longer have to hang around the checkouts trying to grab one – many of us just stopped bothering even to go in & try

The value ranges & price reductions are undoubtedly helping – although one shudders to think what this might be doing to encourage deflation

And they are definitely keeping less stock on the shelves now – whole stretches of shelving are likely to have their blinds down

Related post

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Old fashioned values

On Monday Radio 4 had an It’s My Story about a Woolworths manager. I got the impression that they were expecting a tale of woe amounting to misery

But Steve was not like that. A good man, devoted to his family, he was determined to find another job as soon as possible - & by the end of the programme, he had. The pleasure in his voice did one good – that & the way he said: Lots of new things to learn

What was striking, not just about Steve but about some of his sacked colleagues also heard on the programme, was their determination never to sign on the dole: I’ll clean floors if I have to

I had almost believed that such attitudes had disappeared long ago, what with all the campaigns to encourage everybody to claim everything to which they are entitled (that is of course, when we are not calling them scroungers)

Another hole in the economic theories which postulate the importance of purely financial incentives: It may not be all that much, but hey, here it is, have some. You’ve paid your contributions - somehow is not enough

I would not wish to speak for Steve, but feelings such as pride, self reliance & self respect, & yes maybe a dim remembrance of the kind of fear of the workhouse or the means test which my grandparents had, plus a strong desire to tell the government busybodies down the dole office to keep their nose out of my business, are sometimes even more important than mere cash


A bit of nonsense

Just a bit of silliness I once took the trouble to copy into a commonplace book - finding it cheered me up

My grasp of what he wrote & meant
Was only five or six %
The rest was only words & sound –
My reference is to Ezra £

Good news on drains

Early this morning they started on a thorough job of cleaning all the drains round our way!

They were using a specialist tanker to suck everything out – last time it seemed like a more token job of just clearing the top few inches. All the gunk, grit & grunge were being filtered out & the cleaned up water pumped back out – the operatives were even checking that it was running through the culverts & discharging into the stream

A neighbour I met in the lane said: Do you think we should take a photo?

Related post

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

That's a maybe, then

Has he had contact with Hamas himself? Mr Blair would not say, but it is safe to assume that if the answer was “no” he would have said so - Times leader 31 January 2009

Although Blair is in a new mood of openness, there are limits, as I find when … I ask him whether he has ever, like Jimmy Carter, “committed adultery in his heart”

“ Now, Ginny, this is one place we’re really not going to go .. That’s private! There are some human questions which it is better not to answer” - Ginny Dougary interview, Times Magazine 31 January 2009

Boeing boeing gone

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the first test flight of the Jumbo jet. Airports all over the world were lengthening & strengthening their runways to cope with the coming revolution in international travel

Astonishingly the first Pan Am 747 took off within a year, in January 1970, and more than 1,400 have been sold by Boeing in the intervening years

It was another 10 years before I could bring myself to fly on one – well, in truth I was never in a situation when I had actually refuse to get on one

I used to be terrified of all flying, even though it was a necessary part of my job from the mid 60s. After one particular incident which left me a nervous wreck, unable to stop sweating & shaking for about 24 hours, it was clear that I either had to give up my job or conquer my fear

The first was not really an option

There were no courses in those days, but there were several things worth trying

The first was to tell myself, over & over: The pilot does not want to die any more than you do. He knows what to do – trust him

The second was just to learn more about what was going on – ask questions, of crew or fellow passengers. Thus I learned that bits of the wing called ailerons move because they are supposed to, not because they are about to fall off

Best of all though was the opportunity to spend the day flying in a small single engined Cessna, with the man whose job it was to inspect landing strips. For the first time I really believed, at some fundamental visceral level, in the idea that flying is possible. I even got to ‘fly’ the plane myself – fortunately all that was required of me was to hold the wheel & make sure the horizon stayed level

Best of all, in a small plane like that, choosing the route through the clouds reminded me of nothing so much as driving round the hills of the Peak District, than which hardly anything could be more reassuringly familiar

Even so, flying in one of those huge, rumbling, unwieldy machines alongside 400 other people seemed to be tempting Fate a step too far

When I finally did get round to it, it was a bit of a let down

From the comfort of your seat take off, if anything, seems easier & less laboured than in a smaller plane

But the tedium. The lack of leg room these days. The queues for the loo. The slowness of loading & unloading. The crowded departure lounges & endless walk to the departure gate. The fact that airlines no longer take full responsibility for your comfort if there are any delays

And that was before all the post-911 security checks

So I think my flying days are well & truly over

Unless somewhere somebody today is test flying a Beam me up Scotty! machine

Monday, February 09, 2009

Political communicators

There could be said to be another link between John Bright & Barack Obama in that Bright was, first & foremost, famous for his oratory.

He always attracted large crowds, & according to historian John Vincent, his Birmingham speech of 1858 was the first great public meeting which was really a press conference – this was near the beginning of the great expansion of the popular press in England following Gladstone’s abolition of newspaper taxes in 1855

Bright was also always keen to adopt the new technology of communications. He was an investor in the first attempt to lay a telegraph cable across the Atlantic, & his family firm installed one of Manchester’s first telephone lines:

Messrs John Bright & Bros are now working the telephone between their warehouse in Spring Gardens Manchester & their works in Rochdale, a distance of 15 miles. Conversation is carried on with the greatest ease & so perfect are the arrangements that whispers can be distinctly heard at each end. The wire in question is carried over the city warehouses & along the towing path of the Rochdale Canal - The Manchester Guardian 3 January 1879

Let us hope however that Obama does not turn out to be like John Bright in another respect. When he finally was appointed as a minister in Gladstone’s cabinet, he proved to be a poor administrator:

In his administrative duties at the board of trade he did little else than sign the papers prepared for him by the permanent officials; & splendid as were his oratorical gifts he failed in the rapid give-and-take of debate - Low & Sanders: Political History of England Vol 12 p224


Friendly relationship

Bill Cash wrote an interesting letter to The Times on Saturday. (Now there’s a sentence I never expected to write)

He was pointing out that, even after the removal from the Oval Office of the bust of Winston Churchill (on loan from the British government), there is still a bust of a British statesman in the White House

It is of John Bright, famous Victorian radical, free trade campaigner & supporter of the North during the Civil War. The bust was presented to Abraham Lincoln

There is a reciprocal link in the statue in Manchester’s Lincoln Square, on the plinth of which are inscribed some of the words from Lincoln’s letter of 1863 to The Working Men of Manchester

Related post

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Technical skills

One of my more ‘precious’ souvenirs of a civil service career is a letter from Inland Revenue explaining their definition of a ‘self-employed construction worker’

It came about because of moves to abolish ‘The Lump’ (no, I cannot remember either). It would have been considered too extreme by the scriptwriters for Sir Humphrey

But at least I have a glimmer of insight into the kinds of problem, the variations between different national customs & practice regarding employment in the construction industry, the application of European directives & their interpretation by the judges, which are bound to cause difficulties at the best of times, never mind in a recession

So I have a lot of sympathy with the current protestors, & wish that some of the news reports & comments were less finger pointing & condemnatory. Listen to these men, really listen, & it is unfair to call them xenophobic

I wish Gordon Brown would do the same, instead of just muttering about educating the workers so they have the skills which they will need to get jobs in the future

These men are highly skilled. Or if not, if they are deluding themselves, then shame on us, for failing over & over & over again to give proper education & proper respect to technical skills

Things have really not changed all that much for the better since Henry Gustav Simon, refugee & industrialist, wrote regularly to complain to the headmaster of Rugby that the school was failing to give its boys, & in particular his son, Ernest Simon, 1st Baron Simon of Wythenshawe, a decent scientific & technical grounding

It’s the way that you see ‘em

Stephen Anderton thinks there is “something of Denis Healey”, though thinner, about the face of Giles Coode-Adams, the president of the Royal Horticultural Society, but when I saw the photo I thought it was Dick Francis, though plumper
Related post

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Starry night

I hope I do not speak too soon, but we have escaped the worst of the recent weather. Even better, there has been no hard frost, so we have not had to cope with the problem of pavements turned in to ice rinks by frozen slush.

Temperatures seem to have sunk below freezing only in the small hours – indeed on Tuesday I was convinced that the snow was still melting off the tops of the high hedge around the field at the back of the house until late into the evening

Yesterday evening was different, the pavements icy almost as soon as the sun went down

The consolation was that the stars were visible for the first time in ages, & I walked down the hill under the watchful eyes of Orion & Sirius, & the Evening Star

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Reading room

For any library-lover the reasons for loving this poem by Louis MacNeice are self-evident

The British Museum Reading Room

Under the hive-like dome the stooping haunted readers
Go up & down the alleys, tap the cells of knowledge –
Honey & wax, the accumulation of years –
Some on commission, some for the love of learning,
Some because they have nothing better to do
Or because these walls of books will deaden
The drumming of the demon in their ears.

Cranks, hacks, poverty-stricken scholars,
In pince-nez, period hats or romantic beards
And cherishing their hobby or their doom
Some are too much alive & some are asleep
Hanging like bats in a world of inverted values,
Folded up in themselves in a world which is safe & silent:
This is the British Museum reading Room

Out on the steps in the sun the pigeons are courting,
Puffing their ruffs & sweeping their tails or taking
A sun bath at their ease
And under the totem poles – the ancient terror –
Between the enormous fluted Ionic columns
There seeps from heavily jointed or hawk-like foreign faces
The guttural sorrow of the refugees

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My idea of heaven

Friday, February 06, 2009

Whatever the weather

Because the weather forecast last Monday made it seem highly likely that I would have to wade through deep snow to get down the hill to home* I did something that I have never done before – wore my wellies to town

Well it is hardly a red satin dress & a purple hat, & I don’t suppose anybody noticed very much, except the man in the newsagents

Thing is though, they kept my feet so very much warmer than normal leather boots that I am making a habit of it while the cold weather lasts

The other, major advantage I now realise is that I feel much more secure in slippery conditions in my wellies but without a stick than I do in my leather boots with a stick

*I did

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Small change in VAT

The other evening I was listening to a programme on local radio about the effect of the credit crunch on football – the small local clubs, not our big city neighbours

You have decided not to pass on the VAT cut, said the presenter. Although the few pence involved are probably neither here not there, might it not have been a nice gesture, towards supporters who may be hard pressed right now?

Well, said the chairman, at £5 a ticket finding 15p at the gate is probably more trouble than it is worth. I don’t know, ask the gateman

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Snow report

When I was going home on Tuesday night I was surprised to see that the road – though not the pavement – going down the hill was completely free of snow & ice. Then I heard something heavy coming slowly towards the valley bottom down the much longer & steeper hill on the other side. Must be the gritter, I thought, surprised - this road does not usually get priority for gritting, leading as it does to just a relatively few houses & farms

But no, it was the milk wagon. I have only been seeing this recently, always in the evening; when it gets up to the main road it crosses over & continues up the hill, obviously to one or more of the farms up there. It is silver coloured, without any markings that I can see (in the dark), certainly not those of one of the major dairy companies. I assume that it belongs to some newish small-scale local processing business

It pleased me to think that perhaps the council had upped the priority for the road so as not to damage this initiative

This morning the man from the county council was on the radio to explain that ‘contingencies’ may have to be put in place if the snow & ice continue

They normally keep 7k tonnes of grit in stock, with a supplier contracted to keep the piles topped up. The supplier has been unable to fulfil the contract in the current circs, so we are now down to 2k tonnes, enough for only 4 days of a full gritting programme. If the search for alternative supplies is unsuccessful, only the main roads will be guaranteed to be kept open

Despite the fact that traffic has been moving easily on most of the roads, we still have not had our fortnightly bin collection (non-recyclable rubbish) which was supposed to be on Tuesday. The bins sit forlornly at the edge of the lane, awaiting the bin mens convenience

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Frozen policeman

Times2 did a very nice snow edition on Tuesday – must have been a bit different for those involved, since I imagine they are not usually required to work to the kinds of deadlines which apply to news

I was particularly taken by this photo [Masons News Service] of a policeman watching ‘British jobs’ protestors outside the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire. It is a picture which makes you smile, wince, & admire the fortitude

I am particularly intrigued by his helmet – I cannot remember seeing such a low-rise model being used by any other modern force

More crunchy bits

Poundstretcher sales were down over Christmas. Poundland sales were up

The French Ministry of Finance saved €92,000 on its New year party by serving only peanuts & cakes

This years business rates will increase in line with last September’s RPI – a 17-year high which reflected the food & oil price inflation then raging

At least 25 supertankers are being used to store oil at sea waiting for the price to increase

Demand for plastics & chemicals has fallen. So has the demand for salt used as a raw material in their production. So there is less space being created in the Cheshire salt mines which we planned to use for storing gas to increase our meagre 15 days reserve

Stop press: demand for salt may rise to replenish stocks depleted by the recent Siberian weather

People return to or stay in college longer & study harder during a downturn so spending on college level textbooks has increased

West End theatre has had a bumper year

Brussels is to have mountains again. The EU is to buy & store 30,000 tonnes of butter & 109,000 tonnes of skimmed milk powder

For the first time in 77 years General Motors was not the world's biggest car maker in 2008. Toyota sales were higher - but only because they suffered a smaller fall in numbers

People are turning back to the telly. Time spent watching broadcast tv grew by 3% last year

Eurostar is laying on extra trains for Valentines Day

Running scared

I have only recently become aware of the Scared anti-smoking campaign through hearing the audio version on local radio

A young girl, sounding no older than about 7, tells us how she is scared that Mummy might die, because she smokes cigarettes. A voiceover tells us that over 2000 people a week die in this country from a smoking related disease

Well perhaps all is fair in love & war & ends justify means etc etc even though we usually disapprove of advertisers who use the power of pester power

But at that age, (leaving aside the question of how far, if at all, a child has discussed, understood the idea that everybody dies one day), being afraid that Mummy will die means being afraid that she will die soon – next year is a long time away

In fact I know of at least one grown up man, who was among the first generation to be subjected to serious anti-smoking education at school, who used to have precisely this fear. If anything, once he realised that Mum would live, in all probability, a bit longer than that, he grew cynical about the whole anti-smoking campaign

But I think it immoral to scare children this way – for scared they will be

My other problem with this ad is the tag line, when a concerned lady tells us that in the UK over 2000 people die each week from a smoking related disease

Well, using the figures for England & Wales, a total of 10,000 people die each week. About 5000 of them are women, but only about 400 of them are aged between 20 & 60 – a generous definition of all those who might be currently Mummy to a small girl. About 100 of these deaths will be due to breast cancer or ‘external cause’ (basically, accidents)

I do not know how many of the remaining 300 might be classified as smoking related, and any way any death is a tragedy for the bereaved, but if I were in any way professionally responsible for the figures as a statistician I would make plain my unhappiness at the clearly implied link between the risk to Mummy & the 2000 figure

Do we not believe that the public needs to be educated in the better understanding of risk?