Tuesday, June 30, 2009

One for the price of five

One of the discussants in this years 3rd Reith Lecture said that longevity is now increasing at the rate of 5 HOURS PER DAY

That’s better than Buy 5, Get 1 Free

More than twice as generous as the free coffee offer for loyal customers of Caffé Nero

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Cognitive belief therapy

I have read, or skimmed through, or at least consulted the index of an awful lot of Victorian lives, letters, biographies, memoir

One striking factor is how many of the subjects – mostly people whose names would now be familiar only to historians – went through what they generally called a crisis. These days it would probably be called an episode of mental illness

Of course even the greats were not immune from psychological frailty.
Poor John Bright quite often retired temporarily from public life to rest his nerves (or was it that most precious instrument, his voice? Performance anxiety)

We speculate about Darwins reluctance to rush to publication of The Origin & his horrible physical symptoms

It was widely regretted that Lord Lytteltons recurrent depression meant that he could not take on the burden of higher office, but his contributions, especially to education, were much appreciated

Best not say too much about Gladstone here, tempting though it is to talk about one of our most successful but psychologically flawed Chancellors of the Exchequer who went on to become PM

Many of the crises occurred at the age of transition to adult life – JS Mill, for example

Most sufferers of crisis retired temporarily to sort themselves out. In the autobiographical writings I have seen the problem is almost invariably analysed in religious terms: a crisis of belief in God - his existence, his purpose, what he requires from the individual, or what the individual was prepared to give - & how all this worked through to personal duty in politics, society, business or even marriage

Often these doubts were discussed & worked through with family or friends. If outside advice was sought it would usually be from a man of the cloth; many of the memoirs include an expression of grateful thanks to the one who – in the most non-judgmental way – provided a sympathetic ear, intellectual help & wise counsel

And now our government has placed its faith in cognitive behaviour therapy for those in mental distress

The NHS provides the 21st century doctors of divinity

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Monday, June 29, 2009

R4 ± 1

There is a game on Twitter called 'Radio 4 ± 1'

Additions to the schedule which share a name with existing favourites, minus (or plus) one letter

One deserves to be shared more widely than just with twits

Test Math Special: The Duckworth-Lewis Method

One in How Many?

One in 5 journalists who worked in newspapers in 2001 has gone

Is that BBC English grammatically correct?

Twenty per cent has gone?

One fifth has gone?

1 in 5 is quite a large number to have gone

Unless, of course, you only had 5 journalists to start with

Immaculate labour

There was an item about premature labour on Womans Hour last week

One of the consultants made the point that we are still worryingly ignorant about the fundamentals – there is no way of telling when labour is imminent, even in ‘normal’ cases

That brought back memories …

I left my normal weekly appointment at the hospital antenatal clinic distracted by the thought that my first baby was due 2 days before my next appointment

On the bus home I suddenly realised that I had forgotten the normal last step at the clinic – to fix the time of the next appointment. Just in case it were needed I had to go all the way back to rectify the omission

As things transpired I did need it. But I took the opportunity to ask if they were now in a position to give a more precise EDD

Oh no! You can never tell

Which seemed to me to give the lie to all that overheated political talk of a scientific revolution if we didn’t even understand the basics

Sleeplessness was the first sign that labour had begun. Although I am definitely an owl I usually had no problem drifting off after BBC radio closed down at 2 am after 2 hours of soothing MOR music in which Sinatra figured prominently

Restlessness took hold, soon turning into a real sense of urgency

The bathroom in our slightly dingy flat was not right for a new baby – the grouting was a disgrace

What was needed was a pail of hot water mixed with copious amounts of bleach & a good scrub with a retired toothbrush

It was only the thought of the neighbour’s reaction to the disturbance which stopped me from going ahead

Somehow I found other distractions until I felt the first thing that could be called a pain at nearly 7am

Another memory sent me to my commonplace book for 1990, to an article by David Jones, Daedalus of The Guardian:

“Many mothers will recall a strange, compulsive tidying-up urge that came over them shortly before they went into labour”

Daedalus speculates that this indicates the existence of a hormone IMMACULONE, one of the skein which governs the processes of pregnancy & triggers the urge to clean & tidy

He further speculates that, if identified, it could be used in both sexes to trigger a desire for order & tidiness – useful for teenage boys with messy bedrooms or scientists drowning in a sea of messy data

But, as is only too apparent, its greatest use would be as an easily monitored & reliable predictor of the onset of labour

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Exam nerve

Thinking about exams reminded me of a story about Paul Samuelson which was current during my student days

As Samuelson left the room after the viva on his PhD dissertation one of the eminent economist/examiners turned to the others & enquired:

Do you think we passed?

Related post

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Height matters

The Economix blog reports that ‘interracial love’ (interethnic marriages in academic-speak) may be just a height thing. I think there definitely is something in that

Researchers at the Centre for Economic Policy Research noted that “Black men are substantially more likely to have white spouses than Black women, but the opposite is true for Chinese: Chinese men are half less likely to be married to a White person than Chinese women. We argue that differences in height distributions, combined with a simple preference for a taller husband, can explain a large proportion of these ethnic-specific gender asymmetries”

It is indeed unusual for a man to marry a much taller woman, or for a woman to marry a much shorter man

In my youth there was the example of Anne Scott James & Sir Osbert Lancaster, but hardly any others

Until recently there was Bernie Ecclestone

And we have been reminded of it again by the comment on our new Speaker

There were many aspects of the marriage of Charles & Diana which horrified me, not the least of which was that somebody (I have my suspicions who it was, & it was not a male person) had been making a fuss about the fact that she was the taller of the two

I happened to be at home on the day that the engagement was announced, so watched the proceedings live on tv

It was endearing to see the Queen, obviously not wanting to steal the limelight, peeking into the garden from behind the curtains

But when the happy couple appeared I realised what had been going on. There was this embarrassed kerfuffle as they made certain that he stood a couple of steps higher than she

Immediately after the marriage we had the fashion for flat, flat ballet pumps, as worn by our new Princess

Dancing with Wayne Sleep did much to give her the confidence to stand tall (literally)

At least one female columnist interpreted that famous picture of her in killer heels after the announcement that it was all over, as the natural reaction of any woman. Well yes, but especially so if you like wearing heels & have been tut-tutted at for doing so

Friday, June 26, 2009

Toil and tears

Professor Mary Beard has provided a detailed guide to the marking of exam papers at the University of Cambridge: The plain man's guide to alphabetical marking


I wonder if the results are that much fairer than they would be if Professor Smellie’s method were in use

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Dress appropriate

I am not at all upset by the new Speaker’s decision to do away with the more uncomfortable aspects of the old fashioned formal uniform

I do think though that he is making a mistake in opting to wear a tie

First because his choice is bound, sooner or later, to attract comment, to be read as some kind of (maybe subliminal) message

Secondly because the colours & material could be treacherous under the tv lights

The minimal black gown is really not distinctive enough for the central part it plays in the image. Perhaps something with tabs, like the new judicial gowns, could be introduced. Dressed, every day, for the part, instantly, recognisably so

And while I am on the subject of dress – I do hate to seem mean minded, but Oh dear! Those pictures of the winners of The Times Spelling Bee. Blazers out of JK Jerome, festooned with badges of office. The junior branch of the less appealing end of the Tory party

A great achievement, & yes we need school uniforms & chances for children to shine in all sorts of ways, but not, in 2009, dressed like that

Proofs of existence

Richard Morrisonwill carry to his deathbed not just the memory but the date (July 3, 1984, since you ask) when I watched the West Indies opener Gordon Greenidge score his legendary 214 not out to destroy England on the last day of the Lord’s Test

He is not the only one

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

We the people

On Monday night’s Radio 4 news Ritulah Shah spoke of “the global human rights community

Enough! Isn’t that all of us? Who are these people who claim ownership of the subject?

I had thought that use of the word community to mean special interest group was very recent, but the OED has a reference to ‘scientific community’ dating from 1757. This is doubly ironic; we would naturally think that this refers to a group of scientists, but that word did not come into use until the late C19th – when it was fiercely resisted by those such as Huxley (Darwin’s bulldog) who thought it reduced their status from that of learned gentleman to mere technician

The OED also finds early references to literary (1789) & commercial (1856) communities

‘Community’ had long been used to refer to specific religious groups or orders, & it gradually extended into more general way of identifying a religion. The ‘Jewish community’ in 1817 & the ‘Roman Catholic community’ in 1898.

The very earliest meanings of ‘community’ (both now said by the OED to be obsolete) were

· The generality of the people
· The body of the people having common or equal rights or rank, as distinguished from the privileged classes

It is ironic therefore that community is now a word much used by a left/liberal privileged elite to claim special status for themselves, or to identify & mark out less privileged groups with whose (often self-appointed) leaders they can treat in a very colonial fashion

Quotations about scientist

Quarterly Review 1834: Science ... loses all traces of unity. A curious illustration of this result may be observed in the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively. We are informed that this difficulty was felt very oppressively by the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at their meetings ... in the last three summers ... Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty a term, … savans was rather assuming, .. some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist, and added that there could be no scruple in making free with this termination when we have such words as sciolist, economist, and atheist but this was not generally palatable.

William Whewell 1840: We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist

Related posts

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Anonymity Anonymous

I am not completely convinced by The Times reasons for naming the Nightjack blogger.

It seems more like another shot in the battle between established & citizen journalists, a turf war in its way

I am very much on the side of organised, edited print journalism, I couldn’t do without my daily fix. But the press claims the right to protect sources - provided they know who they are – which has its sinister side. Exposing Nightjack in the way they have done seems like a ‘we know where you live’ warning to others who blog pseudonymously

Of whom I am one

In my case it is because, as The Times own literary editor wrote not so long ago, there is a certain freedom in anonymity

The freedom in part just comes from never having to answer the question Why did you write that?

There are things you cannot always say to the other people around you, because you do not want to hurt them by seeming to challenge their cherished views, or not to cause offence, or just not to be thought mad by them

I call it the I don’t like spaghetti problem

That seemingly innocuous statement of fact or preference would be a very rude thing to say if you had invited me round for a meal, which turned out to be a dish of your famous spag bol. So I would not say it

Who has not had the experience of remarking, just in the course of general conversation, that one does not like something or the other & being taken aback by the response of one of the others present – you would think aspersions had been cast on their first born

Then there is the old English injunction, never tread on the delicate grounds of money, religion or politics

There is a long tradition of anonymity for writers, for a whole variety of reasons. Quite why it should have prevailed in Victorian journalism, magazine fiction & of course novels (George Eliot) remains a bit of a mystery, though the tradition continued until surprisingly recently in The Times itself, & for all I know may still be the rule for the TLS

One good result of all this anonymity is that the detective work needed to establish who they ’really’ were provides lots of work for literary historians

Some authors adopt pseudonyms simply because they are too prolific – their publishers cannot or will not publish all they write – John Creasey & Elizabeth Linington for example

Or because they want to write in a completely different genre like Cecil Day Lewis

Anonymity comes with responsibility however. I try my level best not to presume upon anyone else’s privacy, to write about the lives or preoccupations of my family or of anyone not already in the public eye. I try not to be rude, (not even to those who ask for it!), to reveal secrets which have been entrusted to me, or to pass on lies or misinformation. Whether I succeed or not is a matter of opinion

I do not think that any writer or blogger can expect, or demand, to maintain their anonymity as of right unless some real danger is involved. If you want to write in secret keep a diary in a locked drawer, don’t show off on the internet

Nightjack & other police bloggers (as well as others whose real lives & points of view are often not well represented in the printed press) perform a useful & valuable service, one which it would be, on balance, a Bad Thing if lost, so it would be a pity if such people took fright at the legal ruling

Nightjack’s really big mistake was in letting his name go forward for the Orwell Prize & then accepting it by proxy. That really is trying to have it both ways, & was bound to get up someone’s nose

Monday, June 22, 2009

Analogue fightback

Three cheers for Libby Purves, who has written a splendid piece against the switch off of analogue radio Radio assault leaves listeners in silence

If any other report proposed an arrogant, wasteful, environmentally damaging assault on daily life - a copper-bottomed vote-loser, a V-sign to the vulnerable - there would be an outcry. But veiled as it is in glittery stuff about computers, we almost didn't notice.”

Well, I think people are sitting up & taking notice now Feedback had quite a lot about it last week

Elizabeth Jane Howard: Love All

I have just – literally this morning - finished reading Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Love All. It is a book which will live with me for a long time

The story is basically an extended version of Larkin’s This Be The Verse but beautifully done

It tells the stories of a group of English middle class people with their own sense of duty & entitlement, continuing the struggle against loss of status & genteel poverty, (rather as in The Cazalets), & leaves you weeping & angry, but strangely reassured & optimistic

It is set vaguely in the 1960s, partly because of the author’s age, but also for technical reasons: the plot just would not work, or would have to be worked out very differently, in a world of e-mail, mobile phones & Easyjet. Also it would be difficult, in more modern times, to assemble a set of characters whose loves had been so often shattered by death

It is very Austenesh, but with the men’s side more tenderly explored as well. The image of Admiral Connaught coping with a broken down car, the supermarket shopping & a chocolate covered grandchild in a buggy will linger in my mind

It is quite a technical achievement in other ways too – short chapters, 70 of them (is that a coincidence or is the three-score-and-ten deliberate?), mostly from the narrator’s point of view but occasionally slipping into the first person for added power

I do not usually re-read novels I have enjoyed, finding the result more often disappointing than not, but I may re-read this one straight away, just to admire the construction now that I know how it all ends

Sunday, June 21, 2009

To the White House with courage & grace

He’s the first black man in the White House” wrote Caitlin Moran of Barack Obama in Friday’s Times

Yes, well, we know what she means, but she’s wrong, umpteen times over

There have been many, many black men (& women) in the White House – in the servants' hall, where they belong Ironic font needed here –Ed

Also in Friday’s Times Sarah Vine wrote that “the next generation of young men may well grow up believing that women don’t have any hair on their body at all.”

In other words, they will need footnotes to explain the story of John Ruskin’s (allegedly) disastrous wedding night

As someone who grew up in the deeply Freudian mid-20th century I think this obsession with depilation is merely an expression of repressed paedophilia [irony again - Ed]

To make the connection between these two points, I was intrigued to see that the photographs of the President swatting a fly showed quite clearly that he has hairy wrists!!!

In the days when it seemed obvious, even to some evolutionists, that black people were less evolved, lower down the evolutionary tree, closer to the apes, other scientists countered with “the lack of body hair … the texture of the hair of the head etc are all consistent with a more advanced stage of evolution in the Negro than in the white man

The quotation comes from Racial Myths by Juan Comas, one of a series The Race Question in Modern Science published by UNESCO (6th impression 1965, when Obama was 4 years old

So, the President’s having hairy wrists must represent a regression, an expression of his inferior white genes [That's enough irony – Ed]

To round off this post, here is a poem by Claude McKay, a Jamaican who emigrated to the US, became part of the Harlem Renaissance, but died in poverty

The White House
Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage & the grace
To bear my anger proudly & unbent.
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
A chafing savage, down the decent street;
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass.
Oh I must search for wisdom every hour,
Deep in my wrathful bosom sore & raw,
And find in it the superhuman power
To hold me to the letter of the law!
Oh I must keep my heart inviolate
Against the potent poison of your hate

Claude McKay
The poem just leaves those 3 words – THE WHITE HOUSE – with their triple associations, hanging, reverberating almost, in the air, inside your head

Well, the glass door has been shattered now, with courage & grace in spades

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Really Important People have always been protected from importunate interruptions

Maids who answer the door with “Nobody is at home

Butlers who answer the phone with “I’ll see if the Master is in

Executives who, according to the PA, are “in a meeting

So why is it now considered a mark of status to be at the mercy of one’s mobile or Blackberry?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Sybil Andrews

I scanned this print of a lino cut bt Sybil Andrews just because I liked it so muchn- the sweep of the lines, the togetherness

I wasn't sure if the original would be in colour or not, & so was intrigued by my conviction that it was brown & red, with a little green

Sure enough, it is

Related post

Apathy or anomie

Out of interest I took a look at my MPs expenses on the Parliament website yesterday

Only the first document in the ACA file

My goodness. It’s bad enough having to do the ordinary household accounts, without having to do all this on top. Any of us would feel humiliated if our personal stuff, however mundane, were revealed like this

OK, so it’s public money. So is my pension

And so is, in aggregate, 40% of everything we earn, in the sense that we collectively, via government, decide how to spend it, instead of leaving it to the privacy of individual decision

No wonder we are all so fed up & cross with each other: why does she get that, when I cannot get this? What makes him think he deserves that? On, & on, & on

Coincidentally I am reading a book Small-Town Politics: A study of political life in Glossop by AH Birch, published in 1959 (of which more anon)

It is worth quoting one passage here, on why it had become so difficult to find candidates to stand for the local council:

The main motive for participation in local politics has always been a mixture of the desire to serve the local community & the desire to gain prestige in the community, & the main reason for the growth of apathy is almost certainly that the local community is no longer the focus of interest that it was
Half a century later we seem in danger of finding that Parliament is now in that position

Related post

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The right to a nationality

A framed copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been hung in a prominent position on the library wall – poster size, dark red lettering on a bright yellow background. Donated by the local branch of the United Nations Association

That took me back. I used to go to meetings of the student arm locally as a sixth former, & although I do not think there was a formal link I associate it in my mind with the Council for Education in World Citizenship which used to organise sixth form conferences in London which a group of us excited provincials attended one year

Re-reading the Declaration after all this time, the one bit that really took me by surprise was Article 15.1: Every one has the right to a nationality

Short & to the point. But it begs so many questions

A number of my friends have faced one of these questions – mostly because they were born in a place which was then a colony of the British Empire. Independence brought with it surprises, some of which were unwelcome, about what the new rules said was their nationality

Much later I also knew one boy who was born stateless: not Empire this time, but the decline in marriage & the increase in opportunities for young people to travel were responsible

But what is nationality?

It usually depends first & foremost on where (& when) one was born

Your two parents may come into it too, in the form of their legal relationship to each other & also, in turn, where (& when) they were born

Then grandparents may count too, even if it’s only one of them (the one in the male line)

And finally the rather more amorphous concepts of language, ethnicity, religion, culture, history & belonging may carry weight

But most of all, nationality demands a nation

Which is what the United Nations rather takes for granted

Men who court maidservants

Recent research has suggested that Twitter is much more popular among men than among women

Various theories have been put forward. The suggestion that women do not like the restriction of 140 letters is implausible, given how addicted they are to txtng

The answer may lie in the word follower - in an age of stalkers, that feels uncomfortable

Nor do women go in much for following a leader, be it one of thought, politics, sport or anything. Gangs are mostly a male thing

Women have friends

And they do not like being accused of twittering, as the OED has it, (especially of a woman), to talk or chatter rapidly in a small or tremulous voice.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cloud formation

Nestling as we do on the west side of the Pennines (leeward to cold Siberian winds, windward to the Americas) we are well placed to see the clouds coming in from the Atlantic & piling up on the hills

Not even in my childhood absorptions with the castles in the sky did I ever take particular notice of the process, & A level meteorology was interested only in fronts but one day last week – a basically sunny day – I went out deliberately early to the bus stop up the hill just to have the opportunity of basking a while, watching the big sky up there

And then I did notice. One rather small angry dark cloud, more submarine than anything, was being overtaken by a fluffier white cumulus about 4 times its size

It was like watching a very delicate docking procedure, or a cautious mating of two multi-tentacled beings, or a kind of continental drift in reverse. You could see the edges of the two clouds reaching out, stretching & reshaping to accommodate each other. Just as the union seemed complete the smaller cloud suddenly started roiling & puffing up, turning all white & shiny

Then I realised that the back of the big cloud was suddenly active too, roiling & puffing as if the motion at the front had been transmitted to the other side

The bus came before I could see what happened next

Yesterday I went out a bit early again, keen to see how the sky was looking after the massive thunderstorms of Monday evening (one local house actually got struck by lightning)

There were more, bigger clouds, but still enough breaks for the sun to shine through. I watched two, more equally-sized, clouds go through the docking process

Again the motion at the leading edge transferred itself to the back of the overtaking cloud. But this time it was stretching out to meet the overtures of a 3rd large cloud advancing rapidly from behind, & just as the bus arrived, a chunk detached itself & was overtaken & absorbed, though not before a fair bit of its mass had simply evaporated & disappeared from view

Today, despite what the weather forecast promised, the cloud is just a low claggy undifferentiated mass of mist; you can hardly even see the hills


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Don’t ask, don’t tell

Why is the NHS in England not testing flu patients for H1N1?

According to callers to BBC radio programmes yesterday GPs in England have been told that tests can be carried out only on flu patients who have knowingly been in contact with someone who has visited an infected area

So Scotland may not be being particularly badly hit after all – they may just be testing more widely

Tamiflu was nevertheless prescribed, a caller said

I am not a conspiracy theorist – I do not believe that the reasons for this are dark ones. I should just like to know what they are

Monday, June 15, 2009

Lord High Everything

“This means that the next time Mandelson appears on Newsnight, his caption should read as follows: Baron Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham, Lord President of the Council, First Secretary of State, and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

Strictly speaking we ought to add The Right Honourable - though Newsnight ditched that years ago in a concession to modernity, and brevity”

Michael Crick & other commentators have missed a bit of Lord Mandelson’s title. A treasonable offence (probably)

He is also President of the Board of Trade

I owe this intelligence to my new must-read, the Court Circular of 13 June

I remember Edward Heath being appointed to this post by Lord Home in 1963; he was the first to be given an enhanced title Secretary of State for Industry, Trade and Development

I also remember one political commentator telling us that the post was traditionally given to an up & coming man, definitely one to watch

With all the correct bits I reckon that the number of words in Lord Mandelson’s title is actually 42

So he really is the answer to everything

Related post

PM stands for

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Onwards & upwards

When I was a very small child it seemed a thing of real wonder to me that the world into which my Nana was born was one which had NO aeroplanes flying in the sky.

By the time I was born there were lots – though I don’t think we knew anybody who had ever flown in one, except perhaps during the War. Most foreign travel, even (especially) intercontinental, was still by sea.

My mother was the first in the family to fly, all the way to Brussels when I was in my first year as an undergraduate. The friend who was to be her host, the wife of a Canadian Air Force pilot based in Germany, came over to escort her on the outward flight; my father refused, just refused, even to contemplate the idea of setting foot outside the UK after his Far East experience during WWII (it was the funny food he did not trust).

My mother had been longing to get to France, ever since my arrival had frustrated her planned trip ‘with General Eisenhower’, but de Gaulle was not then allowing NATO forces, even off duty, to cross the border, so she had to settle for a tour of Belgium & Luxembourg (she could not face Germany).

My main interest in her traveller’s tale was in how she had coped with lying with her feet in the air during take off on the return trip. I had spent part of my gap year as an au pair in Brussels: the airport was then very close to the city & I had watched the planes taking off seemingly almost vertically. I was disappointed when she said she hadn’t noticed, it had not felt like that at all.


My Nana’s world without planes seems no less implausible to me now than a world without electronic calculators. I was reminded of this by an article about Casio, illustrated with a picture of the models produced by the firm over the years .


Except for one short ‘practical’ class we studied applied (economic & social) statistics all the way through to degree finals with the aid only of log tables or slide rule, + Cambridge Elementary Statistical Tables for values of the Normal distribution, r, χ2, F & N!

When I started ‘real’ work there were a couple of venerable electro-mechanical machines available between 4 of us. They had banks of keys for each digit & you had to be careful to align the cylinders correctly for division (by repeated subtraction). To this day I have difficulty explaining to someone how to use a calculator to get a % - I just mentally multiply by 100 & get flummoxed by % keys.

One of the machines was well worn & temperamental. It had a kind of key on the front which turned the upper, free, cylinder when it needed to shift to the left to continue the repeated subtraction. It tended to slip, ruining everything, but if you held it gently you could feel when it really ought to turn, let it go, then hold it steady till the next flip.

Then I was seconded to work on a UN funded project. It was agreed that something better was needed, the budget was there. I advised that the latest FACIT electro-mechanical model with 4 registers was better value for money than the available electronic models.

If I remember correctly (& I think I do) it cost about £750 in 1960’s money. To get some idea of what that would be today, an average new graduate salary would then have been not much more than £1,000; according to The Times Good University Guide the average starting salary for today’s graduate of my alma mater is over £25,000.

I spent whole days (& not a few nights) pounding the keys of that machine. In a wooden building, the noise was quite something. On a few occasions visitors were brought in to marvel at the speed with which my fingers flew. The human computer.

Today I am very happy with my CASIO Fx-200P which must be at least 25 years old, cost about £20 & has, so I am assured, more power than the NASA computers which put a man on the moon. It is incredibly economical on the batteries & meets most of my needs. I can use it without having to think about it.

I find my bright blue TEXET very handy too (99p with a free ballpoint pen). Though very basic, it has a √ key.

I think an even bigger revolution in my calculating life came before I ever had an electronic desk top calculator - remote access to a computer, via an IBM teletype machine which printed out its results at a stately 10 cps. That too was a very noisy machine.

The link was effected by dialling up the computer’s own telephone line & then jamming the old fashioned hand set into a modem which looked like a shoe box. Soon International Dialling arrived & we could connect via satellite with a computer in Arizona. We were nervous about what might happen if any MP ever heard that British Government data was being processed in America.

The effect of technology on our sense of time has been much studied & analysed.

The 20th century electronic girdle round the earth that is the internet & the World Wide Web has had similarly destabilising influence for future historians to analyse.

One thing I do not think has happened however is that we make quicker decisions. Instead we use the time, or the power, to try to improve decisions, when they come, by looking at ever more alternative scenarios with an ever increasing number of variables & an ever increasing number of people to be consulted in the process.

Are the decisions, in the end, any better? Pass. (Weather forecasts, at least, are much improved).

The ability of electronic communications to magnify the clamour can, in selected instances, just increase the pressure to do something, SOON, without giving time to think about or analyse the problem. Multiplying the distance that news can travel compresses the time available for response.

How about moving ourselves around?

We can fly at speeds unimaginable to previous generations, but the intriguing suggestion is that we keep the total time spent travelling the same as it was when we had only our own locomotion to propel us.

If this is true, I wonder if our subliminal calculation includes the waiting in airports ‘for security’ as travel time?


Summer weather

Whenever we get disappointing weather in June I try to cheer myself up by remembering 1976

The Saturday of the Lords Test was abandoned to the weather – in truth the rain stopped early, but the day was overcast & the ground wet, so paying spectators were just left to make their own amusements

By the time of the final Test at the Oval Greenidge & Richards were batting on a wicket which was more like home to them and we were still glorying in the longest, hottest summer since goodness knows when


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Memento mori

Picking out a pen from the pen pot yesterday I discovered that it was a freebie (as are most of them, these days, what with charities & all). I think I must have picked it up from where somebody else had left it on a library table

It is smarter than the average freebie – thick white plastic, a bit designed & aerodynamic

Tasteful, discrete navy blue writing down the side: Royal Bank of Scotland BMW Williams F1 Team Official Sponsor

I think I may wrap it in acid free tissue & pack it away. Even if it is not, & never will be, worth anything, it can serve as reminder to the children

Grammar school boys

I noticed that Sir Clive Granger, Nobel Laureate “for methods of analyzing economic time series with common trends (cointegration)" who sadly died last month, went to West Bridgford Grammar School

My first lucky break was in 1946 when my father returned from the war and his job took him to Nottingham. He bought a nice house in a middle-class suburb called West Bridgford and I would cycle many miles each day to and from the Grammar School, which was middle sized

Where he overlapped with Malcolm Bradbury, who was there from 1943 to 1950

Not bad for one middle-sized Grammar School

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Friday, June 12, 2009


I made two discombobulating discoveries this week

1. Google produces different results for a simple one-word search, depending on the network/machine being used

2. Homo/hetero-skedacity (or -scedacity) SHOULD be homo/hetero- skedasticity (or -scedasticity)

I feel mortified though my original blog mistake was a joke about a word of which few people had heard (The 4th (1982) edition of Kendall’s Dictionary of Statistical Terms called it a “little used word")

Even when I subsequently discovered that Robert F. Engle had won the Nobel Prize in 2003 for methods of analyzing economic time series with time-varying volatility autoregressive conditional heteroskedasticity (ARCH) I failed to spot the difference. The brain often does see what it expects to see

I am not alone in this mistake. For the record, as of yesterday, on this network, Google produced the following number of hits (in thousands):

Heteroskedacity……..1.2……...Homoskedacity.........0.1 Heteroscedacity……..1.3……...Homoscedacity.........0.8

For students of my generation homoskedasticity was rather theoretical – just an assumption that was made in order for the math to work. Not something that figured much in practice, with the aids to calculation then available. You assumed it, & carried on

Heteroskedasticity became much more important & troublesome (along with autocorrelation, multicollinearity ....) for econometricians & their economic models. In other applications we never used the term (though we did often ask ‘What do the residuals look like?’ after plots became a routine part of the output of most computer packages

The notes for a time series course I went on in the late 1970s do actually contain the word heteroscedacity (sic), but this course only confirmed my desire to steer clear of any job which involved beating my head against such problems

The elision is probably easily explained by linguists. One can see (hear) how it happens. And after all, one reason why statisticians don’t own up at parties is that the very name of our subject is a terrible tongue-twisting trap, even for the perfectly sober

K or C I leave to those who care about such things, though it tempts me into another anecdote

Our Latin teacher liked to give us a bit of fun at the end of term; one year he produced a set of philology textbooks from the 1920s which had been lying still in the back of the stockroom. The fun came with the author’s passionate objection to the new-fangled abomination of the CINEMA; anybody with a classical education would know that it should be KINEMA

Oh – and I owe John Humphrys an apology

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Smoking costs

William Buiter delivers a stinging attack, Smoke gets in your eyes , on research from Oxford about smoking & health

I would take issue with Buiter’s assertion that ‘The paper is the kind of publication that gives the social sciences a bad name.’ since it comes from medical researchers but otherwise he makes points which cannot be made often enough

I do wonder however if there is a bit of Oxford/Cambridge sniping going on here

I only ask because David Spiegelhalter was on More or Less recently questioning the reporting of the findings about alcohol of the Million Women Survey (another Oxford health research project)

Of course there is nothing new in the recognition that stopping smoking does not come cheap

In the 1970s & 1980s when we had a government Department Of Health AND Social Security ‘everybody knew’ that one side of the department fought against the idea of a major move to stop people smoking. We could not afford to pay the pensions

If there were any official estimates of the cost I do not think that they ever emerged into the public domain, but I did a back of the fag packet calculation in the mid-80s when there were published proper actuarial estimates of the costs of equalising the state pension age for men & women. I do not remember the cost figures, but most people accepted that the idea of paying pensions to men from the age of 60 was absolutely unaffordable

That would have meant paying pensions for another 2½ years per person, averaged over the whole population (the sex ratio is still near enough 50/50 between 60 & 65)

There were some estimates, from the insurance industry, that the average smoker died 7 years earlier than a non-smoker. With a smoking prevalence then of going on 30% this would mean paying the average pension for more than 2 years if all smokers suddenly gave it up

Unaffordable, we had all, by implication, agreed. Especially when we would lose all the tax that smokers had been paying

But our machinery of government has changed. We have a Department of Health, tout court, one of whose major aims is to make us all live longer

And we cannot afford to pay the pensions anyway, so what’s the difference?


Related post

The human machinery of government

Tony Collins has an interesting – albeit dispiriting – analysis of ministerial changes & the NHS IT programme

The phrase ‘machinery of government’ has been much used of late, conveniently glossing over the fact that this is mostly a human machine

Changes to the machine – departmental reorganisations – involve moving human pieces on the chess board. Different department, different building, different colleagues. Different procedures, even for such simple things as ordering extra paper clips, never mind acronyms, headed notepaper, phone numbers, web sites & computer systems. New timetable for PQs

A change of address, or a small number of years ‘at this address’ can have an adverse effect on your personal credit rating. This is not just because of the strain imposed on your finances, but because it is easy to overlook small details like the prompt payment of bills when there are so many other things on your mind

Any one familiar with a university campus is familiar with the frustrations of a new academic year, having to dodge shell-shocked gormless eighteen year olds who seem completely devoid of common sense. It’s not just hormones: they have been suddenly dumped in an alien environment, nothing everyday - not food, clean clothes, money, timetable, teachers, friends – can be negotiated on automatic pilot. Confusion reigns

Anthony King is working on a book about what he believes has been a marked increase in the number of high profile administrative disasters on recent years. I hope, expect, it will include consideration of the effects of all theses endless tinkerings with the machine


Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Of course procedures are necessary

But the best ones are not obvious, or even visible. Things are just there when you need them, or happen as & when they should. Like an iceberg it’s mostly below the surface, even if it is paddling as frantically as a duck

Of course when you are new to a job or move to a different organisation you need to learn the procedures. But after a bit they just come naturally, part of the flow of your work

Or take surgical procedures. Done well, you hardly know you had them, except the pain has gone. With good modern techniques, in competent hands, you hardly even bear the scar

You can have too much of a good thing – like certain sorts of cosmetic surgery

Sometimes it has to be brutal, leading to permanent disfigurement or disability: head or neck cancer, gangrenous limbs. But at least you are alive, & can adapt

In the wrong hands the results can be disastrous & you might even prefer to be dead. Especially if it turns out that the diagnosis was wrong& you didn’t even need the surgery in the first place, or they operated on the wrong side

Those disastrous surgeons who come to our attention always have 2 things in common: incompetence & over-weaning arrogance

And they just forgot – or never understood – that procedures are there for people. The people are not there just to have your procedures imposed upon them

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

On not voting

As it happens I did not vote last Thursday – some change in procedure which I did not pick up on meant my name was not on the register (it is now)

Also as it happens my vote would not have affected the outcome in that I would have voted for the incumbent on the county council (who was returned) & spoiled my ballot paper for Europe

I will not vote for a party list, it’s that simple & that’s what I write on the ballot paper (interesting to note that Mary Beard does the same). It is the worst form of PR, giving too much power to the party machine, just multiplying the risks

European elections are always difficult anyway, for all the reasons regularly rehearsed by commentators, exacerbated in our case by the specific problem of not really feeling a part of somewhere called the East Midlands, living as we do right in the top left hand corner, far, far away from Lincolnshire. There is really no feeling of having a regional interest to stand up & be counted for

It serves me right, I suppose, that Robert Kilroy Silk was representing me in the last European Parliament

UKIP actually won 1 less seat compared with last time, nor did the BNP get a seat this time despite a fairly hefty number of votes

So next time I shall have to think hard, assuming I still have no +ve reason for voting, about a possible tactical vote to prevent a result too awful to contemplate


Related posts

Running the country

Whenever you hear “Minister in trouble” you know that somewhere in Whitehall civil servants are running around, tearing their hair, trying to sort things out, limit the damage. Others are left twiddling their thumbs, waiting for a crucial decision from the designated authority before they can proceed

Yesterday we had one of the worst examples of this

Just who in government, asked Baroness Shephard of Northwold in the House of Lords, is now responsible for universities?

Now that the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills - Home is no more. Is it the new UK Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) or the Department for Children, Schools and Families ?

Are Balls & Mandelson fighting it out? Is anyone taking bets on the outcome?

Oh well. Doesn’t matter very much. Exams over, they’ll all be off on holiday soon

Monday, June 08, 2009

Job queue

The Times (print edition) used this photo to illustrate an article about FSA stress tests on banks, involving unemployment of 3.7 million
I was wondering when the actual photo was taken. Not recently, for certain, they do not use that awful orange fascia on JOBCENTRES now. Do they even call them JOBCENTRES?
But the absolute giveaway that it is not recent is the complete absence of cars on the road. You don't find that now, however early you get up in the morning

Richard Allsopp

Sad to hear news of the death of Richard Allsopp

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Willow tree

My mother planted a willow tree in the south east corner of our garden

I do not know why she chose it – perhaps it was all she could get in a time of austerity. But it was a good choice for a small garden. Nice shape, unusual – the only one in the dale I think. Gave a bit of shade & privacy

And it made a lovely hidey hole for a little girl. I can remember playing in my ‘house’, hosting many a doll’s tea party

Our proper house was brand new one, with a brand new garden. Small but not tiny. There was room for a lawn, with a swing & a sandpit, & a vegetable patch as well as flowerbeds

In the mornings the coal shovel was kept ready by the back door for when the milk man came round. By unspoken agreement you had rights to any horse manure which was dropped in the lane outside your house; so good for the garden

Mummy was saddened to hear that the new occupants had cut down the willow tree

But now that it is abandoned & a Site of Special Scientific Interest I like to think that its offspring might at least live on in a catalogue somewhere

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Rite of passage

My father took me to my first classical music concert when I was 10. Sheffield City Hall, which had a regular Friday night series, featuring (but not exclusively) the Hallé orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli.

It was a rare treat, perhaps 2 a year, involving a late night (for me) drive home over the dark moor.

I don’t remember the programme of that first concert in detail, except for Till Eulenspiegel & an impressive piano concerto from Paul Badura-Skoda.

I remember most vividly the crush I developed on the first cellist (or was he only second fiddle?) which inspired me to make a hopeless attempt to learn to play the instrument myself, with a loaned instrument & a peripatetic teacher generously provided by the County Education Authority.

My small rural Grammar School organised regular trips to the same concerts. Only interested 4th & 5th formers were invited – plus 6th formers of course: but since most children left school at 16 they very nearly did not count.

I was still only in the 2nd form (age 12) when the school music teacher told me that since not all the tickets had been taken for the next trip, I could take one, if I liked & my parents would give their permission.

And so I did, sitting at the front of the bus under the protective eye of the teachers, away from the teenage shenanigans at the back.

The concert opened conventionally enough with a Beethoven overture. But it got better after that.

As we made our way back to the bus the music teacher asked me if I had enjoyed the evening . Yes, thank you.

You liked it? Yes.

Even the last piece? Yes (a bit surprised).

You didn’t find it strange? Difficult? No (really puzzled now).

Oh! Lots of people think it’s too modern, not music.

I felt I had failed in some way, but it had certainly seemed less ‘difficult’ than the Beethoven; to this day his orchestral music is something which belongs more on the endurance than the enjoyment side.

It was some time later that we were taught about the initial reception to the Rite of Spring. Sacre du printemps.

And so this poem by Siegfried Sassoon strikes lots of chords with me

Concert Interpretation

The Audience pricks an intellectual Ear …
Stravinsky … Quite the Concert of the Year!

Forgetting now that none so distant date
When they (of folk facsimilar in state
Of mind) first heard with hisses – hoots – guffaws
This abstract Symphony; (they booed because
Stravinsky jumped their Wagner palisade
With modes that seemed cacophonous & queer;)
Forgetting now the hullabaloo they made
The Audience pricks an intellectual Ear

Bassoons begin … Sonority envelops
Our auditory innocence; & brings
To me, I must admit, some drift of things
Omnific, seminal, & adolescent.
Polyphone through dissonance develops
A serpent-conscious Eden, crude but pleasant;
While vibro-atmospheric copulations
With mezzo-forte mysteries of noise
Prelude Stravinsky’s statement of the joys
That unify the monkeydom of nations.

This matter is most indelicate indeed!
Yet one perceives no symptom of stampede.
The Stalls remain unruffled: craniums gleam
Swept by a storm of pizzicato chords:
Elaborate ladies reassure their lords
With lifting brows that signify ‘Supreme’
While orchestrated gallantry of goats
Impugns the astigmatic programme-notes.

In the Grand Circle one observes no sign
Of riot: peace prevails along the line.
And in the Gallery, cargoed to capacity
No tremor bodes eruptions & alarms.
They are listening to this not-quite-new audacity
As though it were by someone dead, – like Brahms.

But savagery pervades Me; I am frantic
With corybantic rupturing of laws.
Come dance, & seize this clamorous chance to function
Creatively – abandoning compunction
In anti-social rhapsodic applause!
Lynch the conductor! Jugulate the drums!
Butch the brass! Ensanguinate the strings!
Throttle the flutes! … Stravinsky’s April comes
With pitiless pomp & pain of sacred springs …
Incendiarise the Hall with resinous fires
Of sacrificial fiddles scorched & snapping …
Meanwhile the music blazes & expires;
And the delighted audience is clapping.

And I am left wondering. I first heard it 40 years after that riotous premier in May 1913.

What today, from the 1960s, in any branch of the arts might still be regarded with shock, as opposed to mere dislike, distaste, or disdain?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

End of the road

That’s it

He will have to go now

The country cannot carry on under his leadership

Not when THIS is the kind of thing which happens on his watch

Ministerial responsibility

A young, or at least inexperienced, London Probation Officer had a caseload of 127 offenders to manage, just 9 months after qualifying

That means that she would be able to devote well under two working days per year to each case - & that includes everything: travel, report writing, court appearances, as well as face to face contact & interviews

One of these ‘cases’ was Dano Sonnex whose return to prison was badly delayed, leaving him free to carry out the horrifying murder of 2 French students Laurence Bonomo & Gabriel Ferez

London’s Chief Probation Officer “quit his post” in February this year because of these organisational failings, an event which seems to have gone unreported, at least by The Times, in stark contrast to December’s media storm over the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith who was in overall charge of Children’s Services in Haringey when the equally horrific murder of Baby P took place

Behind these lie stories of major ‘reorganisations’ – in 2001 & again in 2007 for the Probation Service - & bitter complaints about over-ambitious, unwieldy (& failed) all-singing, solve-it-all IT systems

Labour ministers & political advisers must be in despair, feeling the scars inflicted on their backs by this ability of dopy public servants to frustrate their clever plans to be tough on crime & its causes

Friday, June 05, 2009


I find this picture of commercially grown cowslips strangely upsetting

Of course it is great to see them & to know that farmers are being subsidised to plant this now rare species

I do not think of it as a meadow plant at all however, & not as one which enjoys being a crowd either

It was one of my real favourites as a small child, coming into flower as early as it does. Pale, tall & slender, dainty & demure, not brassy & blousy, like buttercups

But it grows scattered in sunny limestone areas, happy in its own company

The dale where I spent those early years is now abandoned by its human inhabitants - no room for more than a single track lane, no good for a modern property-owning, car-owning democracy - & has been declared a Special Site of Scientific Interest, left to nature with many botanical surprises, & even locally rare species

And it is thanks to searching for cowslips on the web that I found out that last bit of information

Sexist expenses

I was surprised to see that I was commenting a year ago on the question of MP’s expenses It is surprising that no one saw the real storm coming

I am wondering, especially in the light of more recent developments, if sexism had anything to do with it.

My choice of title (Too hot in the kitchen) for the comment on the cases of Caroline Spelman & Wendy Alexander – is revealing

So was Gordon Brown’s reference to a Gentleman’s Club

Did we (all) think that this was perhaps a girly thing – they haven’t learned the rules yet? Or, as my comments hint, think it unfair to exclude child care but nor other kinds of personal domestic service such as cleaning & gardening

Did the men not gather round to defend them because there was no threat to them, it was a woman thing, women are not full members of the club

It would be interesting to see a cool objective analysis of how many of the early victims/casualties were female & whether the explosion of public opprobrium coincided with the turning of the guns on the men

Related post

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Livening up the classics

I was just typing something in Word

Which does not recognise the name Barbirolli

Bargirls? it guessed wildly

I rather like the idea of the Halle orchestra playing under bargirls

Dividing up the pie

Both G Brown & his closest ally Ed Balls are said to believe in the political theory/strategy/tactic of “dividing lines”. Draw a line on every issue such that people are forced to choose one side or the other. Us or them

In the long run this will work only if the pie remains intact – no actual cutting, no knife is involved, you are just drawing diagrams, placing a notional line across the pie, making different patterns

If you cut the pie then you are left with diminishing sections on your plate

And eventually you are the only two crumbs left

Polling day

This is a poem by Vernon Scannell about voting in an election – very appropriate for these times & this day of elections

It was published in 1973 in his collection The Winter Man, so I do not know which particular election, if any, he had in mind

It is however worth noting that, born in 1922, he ought to have got his first vote in the momentous general election of 1945 which rejected Winston Churchill & brought in a Labour government

And the year after this poem was published we had the 2 momentous Who Governs Britain? elections of 1974

Polling day

Politics, said Bismarck, is not
An exact science. Neither is science,
At least it’s not to me.
Towards each of these important matters
My attitude is less than reverential
Yet I accept that one cannot deny
The relevance of both, not now
Especially as I approach the booth,
Once more prepare myself
To make this positive, infrequent act
Of self-commitment, wishing that I could
Do more than scrawl a black anonymous mark –
The illiterate’s signature
Or graphic kiss – against my favourite’s name.

Incongruous, one thinks
But is it so? In my case not entirely
Since I am voting unscientifically
For one who might be midwife to a dream
Of justice, charity & love
Or scatter obstinately truthful seeds
On these deceitful plots.
No argument or rhetoric could lend
My gesture & my hope more confidence,
So oddly apt this cross, illiterate kiss

Related post

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The connection between nature & nurture

My eye was caught by a phrase in a report from Julius Cavendish in Helmand Province: “Amid the rose bushes & machine-gun towers …”

This evoked the memory of a vivid headline from the Falklands War: “Dug in behind the lupins, Stanley waits” & I read on

And so I learned another fascinating fact

The leader of the ‘host of British civil servants … on hand to fill the political vacuum’ is 40-something Hugh Powell, dubbed by unnamed sceptics ‘the Viceroy of Helmandshire’

Tipped as a future aide to fellow Old Etonian David Cameron

Son of Lord (Charles) Powell, Mrs Thatcher’s Private Secretary & Lady (Carla) who recently played host to Lady Thatcher on the trip during which she met the Pope

Nephew of Jonathan, Tony Blair’s erstwhile Chief of Staff in Downing Street

And also of Sir Christopher, who disliked the limelight, despite having been head of a major advertising agency & sometime adviser to the Labour Party

Aiming high

It is 20 years since the rules were changed & the Royal Air Force now has 12 female fast jet pilots. In September one of them will begin flying with the Red Arrows

Although I should love to be able to fly a small (staid) plane, try as I might I cannot imagine what it must be like, as a girl, to have such an ambition. Perhaps a good novelist could enlighten me

Which made me think that there seems to be no such thing as the ‘career novel’ for teenage girls these days. They used to be staples of the public library – district nursing seemed to be particularly popular.

The plot line was usually predictable: Bright eyed & bushy tailed young thing arrrives full of eagerness; confidence dented by the struggle with classroom learning under a martinet of a Sister Tutor; learns her place in the sluices; potentially disastrous error, rescued from the consequences by kindly Staff Nurse; LEARNS AN IMPORTANT LESSON. Wins through to qualify & become a respected & responsible member of society

At least for me at the time they offered a useful guide to what sort of qualifications & training you would need & what sort of life you might expect