Saturday, July 31, 2010

Government IT at the cutting edge

I hadn’t noticed The ICT Moratorium imposed by the new government until I read about it on John Suffolk’s blog.

Central government departments, agencies and quangoes must not sign any new ICT contracts, contract extensions/modifications above a value of £1 million without specific agreement by the Treasury. This agreement will only be given following approval by the Minister for the Cabinet Office advised by the Government Chief Information Officer.

I like the order of priority for circumstances which may justify Exceptions Procedure for the moratorium:

1 Might go against our objective of finding cashable savings
2 Might put at risk the viability of an ICT organisation
3 Might put at risk the viability of frontline citizen/business services.

Related post

Rum & Pepperpot

Just came across this gem [PDF] Antibacterial effects of the sauce from cassava, a scientific investigation of casareep’s reputed ability to keep cooked meats safe to eat for up to a year.

And the results of this preliminary study indicate that casareep does prevent the growth of bacteria in cooked beef and has antibacterial properties against E. coli and B. subtilis.

Furthermore It would be of interest to isolate and identify such chemical(s). It is likely that such an effort could provide leads to new antibacterial compounds.

Perhaps the old folk remedy for poisoning by bitter cassava can be scientifically verified too.

Related posts

Friday, July 30, 2010

Washing our hands

Radio 4’s In Business with Peter Day last night included an interview with one of those who definitely qualifies for the epithet splendid woman. Val Curtis is an academic who is not afraid to get her hands dirty by mixing with advertisers & marketing men, with the modest aim of getting everybody in the whole wide world to get used to the idea of washing their hands, with soap, after going to the loo.

Diarrhoea kills so many children world wide – far more than Aids or malaria and it is estimated that 1 million lives could be saved by this one very simple measure.

Marketing men know both how to help change the culture so that everybody accepts this idea & how to ensure that the supply of soap is there to meet the resultant demand. This means, for example, producing soap in smaller bars to meet the incomes & cash flow of people who are much poorer than we spoiled westerners.

All of a sudden I find myself wondering about just what is this magical property of soap? And does William Hesketh Lever deserve all the credit for the reduction in mortality in this country since the end of the C19th? He studied not only the habits of his customers, poor Lancashire housewives, but also American techniques of brand naming, advertising, and sales promotion, to learn how to provide household necessities and minor luxuries at a moderate price. Thus were born Sunlight soap, Lux & Vim.

I also wonder if teaching men to use soap & water carefully & thoroughly to ‘now wash’ could do more, at much less risk to them, to reduce the spread of AIDS than will circumcision.

Related post

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Feckless dad or genetic success story?

Version 1. Man has three sons with wife who subsequently dies from alcoholic liver poisoning.

Man has two illegitimate daughters with his housekeeper/mistress.

Forms an attachment to a married lady whom he marries a year after her husband dies. Sets up home for his reconstituted family (his 5 + hers from her marriage) and they have seven more children together.

He draws much of his income from a career as an enthusiastic pusher of heroin

Version 2. Highly regarded doctor (who tended to favour strong interventions, such as the use of opium), poet & polymath Erasmus Darwin demonstrates the survival of the fittest in action through the kind of breeding success which, among others, produced his grandson Charles Darwin.

So is the story behind development of the Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection by Charles Darwin one of the triumph of nature or nurture, good genes or good education & upbringing, a large slice of luck leading to him being chosen as companion to Captain Robert Fitzroy on the voyage of the Beagle, or years of hard work?

Related posts


So the next episode in the Lockerbie Senate saga is to be a ‘multi-dimensional inquiry.’

I think this must be the first time in my lifetime that the British are on the receiving end of such American ‘displeasure’ right here, right now. Part of me thinks that it is a good thing that they should learn what it feels like.

Brian Barder, who is well placed to comment, has written this good piece about the whole affair. I agree that “The attempt by US Senators to summon Kenny MacAskill (and Jack Straw), to be grilled … about al-Megrahi’s release … [is] impertinent.”

There are just two points I should like to add.

Doctors cannot predict when any one particular patient will die anymore than they can predict with accuracy the time of birth or even the length of labour. Saturday's Times for example carried the story of a woman who has survived a diagnosis of stage 4 breast cancer for 17 years. But that does not mean they can offer no prognosis at all, taking all relevant factors into account. If a patient survives for longer than forecast that is normally cause for celebration.

For insight into whether Megrahi’s continuing survival is “the most amazing medical recovery since Lazarus” I re-read Stephen Jay Gould’s The Median Isn't the Message about surviving cancer. ‘If circumstances change, survival times may alter’ is but one of his conclusions.

Yes, release may have given Megrahi a new will to live, but has anyone considered how his death in prison might have prompted renewed attacks on us by those who sincerely believe that he is an innocent man, the victim of a miscarriage of justice?

Of course it cannot be easy for some of the relatives of those who died in Lockerbie to know that Megrahi is free. Life cannot be all that easy for the relatives of the those who died in the IRA Birmingham pub bombings either. Not only do they not know the names of those who carried out that atrocity but they had to watch the triumphant reception (in London) of the men who were the only ones ever convicted, but were subsequently found themselves to be the victims of a miscarriage of justice.

“Several well informed people believe there are skeletons in this cupboard which powerful people in the UK and the US want to keep securely and permanently locked away right where they are” says Brian Barder. I believe it may be just that, rather than any really murky conspiracy, it is (just) possible that their concerns amount to those of the judge in the Birmingham 6’s first failed appeal: a strong & determined wish to cast no further doubt on the integrity and reliability of the criminal justice system (including those who investigate crime & produce the evidence for the court).

Related posts

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Really useful research

If serious researchers are looking into earworms, are any neurologists researching those other well known phenomena, the tip of the tongue, the back of the mind, & half an ear?

Related post

Problems with school

“School hours are the most problematic family unfriendly policies” said Dr Catherine Hakim during an item on Woman’s Hour this morning which discussed the (only partly linked) questions of why some women choose to remain childless, or think that motherhood is positively not for them, and worries about the currently very low fertility rates in European countries.

School hours (and holidays) are not just a problem for working parents, they are a problem for the rest of us too, one that is all too evident at this time of year.

First or second

I read in The Times that economist Erik Britton argues that most of the strong growth in construction which helped produce the unexpectedly good GDP figures for the second quarter is likely to have come from a rush of last minute public sector work before the election.

If that did happen, then it is a surprise that it should be in the first quarter of the financial year for public sector accounts. In the past – especially during the years of cash limit controls – it was the fourth quarter (January to March) which used to see the last minute rush, usually in easy-to-get-going projects, such as repairs & maintenance to council housing, in order to use up any spare money from the allocation for the year.

Well there have been reforms to public sector spending rules since then, some aimed specifically at smoothing out such distortions. But if the ‘rush to spend’ applied to new build contracts, then although the blip in construction growth for April-June will not be sustained to keep GDP growth going, it could spell trouble for the new government’s attempt to cut spending if the moneys needed to complete the projects has been contractually committed.

But it could help explain the unseemly rush to cancel new school projects & the confusion over which were too far advanced to be cancelled.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

More earworms

The University of Greenwich has a brave research project to investigate the earworm phenomenon. BBC6 are cooperating with a survey.

Related post

When writers play

Thinking about musical training, brain plasticity, & the links between music & language makes for a timely repeat for Radio 3’s When Writers Play (Series 2)

Losing contact

The new government have moved quickly to get rid of the database which kept details of all 11 million children in the country with the declared purpose of keeping track of those who were most vulnerable & in need of close contact with the caring services.

Local authorities received their detailed guidance on how to switch everything off by 6 August in a letter from the Department for Education’s Director-General, Children and Families dated 22 July.

Monday, July 26, 2010


Hardeep Singh Kohli introduced an extract from Alan Johnson: Failed Rock Star for Pick of the Week last night by saying that making radio programmes was something the former Health Secretary had time for ‘Now that he is no longer so inveigled in matters of government.’

I thought he must have meant to say embroiled, until I checked the dictionary.

Inveigle: To blind in mind or judgement; to beguile, deceive, cajole; to gain over or take captive by deceitful allurement; to entice, allure, seduce; to entrap, ensnare, entangle; to force (something) upon a person by cajolery; in good or neutral sense, to beguile.

Embroil on the other hand can mean: a state of entanglement or confusion; a disturbance, uproar, a quarrel or mental disturbance, ‘worry’.

Take your pick

Existential unknowns

Until I heard Julia Hartley-Brewer on Quote Unquote on Saturday night I did not know that there is actually a published volume ‘The Existential Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld.
I like this one too:
A Confession
Once in a while,
I'm standing here, doing something.
And I think,
"What in the world am I doing here?"
It's a big surprise.
Donald Rumsfeld

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bark stripping

The bark is coming off the two tree trunks from the fallen sycamores which have been left athwart the culvert.

It started to disappear topsides from somewhere around the middle of each trunk, but the loss is now spreading – downhill, rather than up – and beginning to affect the sides.

At first I thought some (presumably nocturnal) animal was probably the culprit – or possibly birds which could use it for nest building. But as it still continues I suppose it is just some kind of natural rain-induced erosion

Related post

Blind trials

One of the legal blogs which I looked at commented on the fact that the pathologist who conducted the first post mortem on Ian Tomlinson, the man who died during G20 protests in London last year, had not known that there were allegations that he had been hit by a police officer. The implication of the comment was that this is clearly unsatisfactory.

It does however raise the intriguing question of whether a pathologist should ever know about the circumstances of a death which he is examining.

The concept of ‘blinding’ is central to the so-called gold standard for clinical trials of drugs, the idea being that knowledge by either the patient or any of their medical attendants of which drug they are getting introduces potential bias into the results. It is also considered vital that those who analyse the data should be ‘blind’ to which group got which treatment.

So perhaps we should insist that the pathologist who carries out a forensic post mortem examination, & all those concerned with analysing samples taken from the body, should have their potential for bias removed by being kept in ignorance of any allegations concerning the cause of death.

The Destruction Of Sennacherib

This is one of the poems that we (& one of our teachers) used to love to declaim in primary school. I can still derive great plaeaure from rolling cohorts gleaming in purple & gold round & round my tongue!

The first line is very scary, but otherwise I do not think we really understood the poem at all.


The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen;
Like the leaves of the forest when autumn hath flown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and forever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow and the rust on his mail;
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And their idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!


Saturday, July 24, 2010

Plastic music

How plastic is our ability to understand music?” asked Scott Thurow speaking of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on Private Passions on Radio 3 recently. He was referring to the human ability to learn to appreciate & to love the unfamiliar or experimental & to recognise it as music.

I am not alone in finding myself unable to warm to much of the ‘classical’ music composed during the later C20th century, despite making very real efforts to do so, remembering always how puzzled I was as a young teenager to learn that some people still thought that The Rite of Spring was too difficult, or perhaps even not music.

I respect the composers, I really do not think they are trying to make fools of us, or treat us with contempt, but there is something which just stops my brain from - something. In this particular context it almost seems more appropriate to say loving, rather than understanding.

Under the title Music and Brain Plasticity on his Neurologica blog Dr Steven Novella discusses how far changes in ability that accrue with training to play a musical instrument result in changes to the brain itself – a different question.

Related posts
Rite of passage

Building the economy

One of the interesting points about the surprise increase of 1.1% in second quarter UK GDP is that ‘Construction output rose 6.6 per cent in the second quarter, compared with a decrease of 1.6 per cent in the previous quarter.’

The figures are seasonally adjusted, but I wonder if the methodology is robust enough to cope with the very unusual weather we have had this year – builders were basically just catching up with work they would have been doing were it not for all the ice & snow & blocked roads in the first months of the year.

There are certainly not many signs round here of any pick up in building work.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Signal qualities

Heard a radio interview yesterday with someone from Digital UK answering allegations that the quality of digital tv signal in some, especially rural areas, has deteriorated suddenly although it was fine at the beginning of the year when the switchover was enforced by analogue switch off.

The weather forms one part of the (possible) explanation, I heard to my astonishment, the signal is less good in warm muggy weather than it was in the crisp cold air of our exceptionally cold winter!

There are weather problems with analogue signals too, said the expert, though these were not often talked about!

Related post

Met Office Matildas

The Met Office put out another severe weather warning for our area yesterday – heavy rain again. I only heard it once, the presenter included it with the rest of the weather forecast just after the 10am news, but in very ‘make of that what you will’ tones. I expect they had complaints about the last one.

But I went out prepared, like last time, just in case, & even decided to go by train rather than bus because heavy rain can really snarl up the traffic & I had to be somewhere at a specific time.

Just before leaving home I heard a national forecast on one of the BBC channels, severe warnings in force in many areas.

Well, if even one of the downpours materialised it did not cause problems severe enough to attract any attention from BBC news as far as I am aware.

Related post


I enjoyed what may or may not have been a slip in yesterday's Times. David Miliband's colleagues when he worked at Number 10, were 'sometimes shocked ... at the pre-emptory manner that he dealt with [his brother] Ed.'

Well of course they must mean peremptory - admitting no refusal, quite certain, especially (in a bad sense) intolerant of debate or contradiction; overconfident; dogmatic, precluding all doubt or hesitation as regards the action; resolute, (in a bad sense) obstinate, stubborn, wilful. Intolerant of refusal or opposition; insisting on compliance or obedience; imperious, dictatorial. Deadly, destructive.

In fact I thought there is no such word as pre-emptory. But the OED proved me wrong. It means the same as pre-emptive (which I had heard of). In military usage it means a strategy or action intended to forestall an enemy attack. So perhaps The Times made no mistake after all.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Biorhythm exhibition

Heard of a great sounding exhibition at The Science Gallery Trinity College in Dublin this morning on RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Pat Kenny.

In a collaboration between art & science The Biorhythm exhibition
will gather information about how people’s bodies interact with the technologies of the 21st Century.

There seems to be not a few of these welcome experimental collaborations these days.

Related posts

Jackie Kay: Red Dust Road

Radio 4’s Book of the Week is Red Dust Road, read by the author Jackie Kay. This morning’s episode told of her feelings when she visited her birth father’s ancestral village in Nigeria, where she attracted attention as a ‘white woman’ after a lifetime of being seen as black in this country.

I was reminded so vividly of Langston Hughes, who had a similar experience when he ventured to Africa as a seaman.

The great Africa of my dreams! But there was one thing that hurt me a lot when I talked with the people. The Africans looked at me & would not believe I was a Negro. You see, unfortunately I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word 'Negro' is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore black.

I am brown. My father was a darker brown. My mother an olive-yellow. On my father's side, the white blood in his family came from a Jewish slave trader in Kentucky, Silas Cushenberry, of Clark County, who was his mother's father; and Sam Clay, a distiller of Scotch descent, living in Henry County, who was his father's father. So on my father's side both male great-grandparents were white, and Sam Clay was said to be a relative of the great statesman, Henry Clay, his contemporary.

On my mother's side, I had a paternal great-grandfather named Quarles … who was white and who lived in Louisa County, Virginia, before the Civil War, and who had several colored children by a colored housekeeper who was his slave … On my maternal grandmother's side, there was French & Indian blood.
Langston Hughes: The Big Sea, An Autobiography. Hill & Wang NY 1963(1940) p11

Jackie Kay described so well how small incidents of racism seem to cluster together in the mind of the person on the receiving end, making one inclined to a kind of oversensitivity, sometimes taking offence where none perhaps was intended. But my own reading notes for ‘The Big Sea’ include the following:

The style is deceptively simple, but the structure is clever; haunting repetition. And the account of what it was like to be a negro in America is deeply affecting.

So someone has written in red biro on the title page of this [university library] copy: "F*** off Paddy W***** UM(N?)I NF." Bizarre.
[Asterisks added for blog post]

Hard not to get oversensitive when that kind of thing is around you.

A Google search for The Big Sea today produced a treasure – the original review in the New York Times of 1940 A Negro Intellectual Tells His Life Story

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

PC David Rathband

PC David Rathband is the answer to those who fret over the unseemly way that Raoul Moat has been turned into a hero by some.

His interview with Victoria Derbyshire on Radio 5 this morning allows people to choose who is the real hero of this incident.


Embarrassing relations

In a recent post on his blog So, are we all racists? Let’s play a little game and find out Tim Harford discusses the findings of Macartan Humphreys, an Irish political scientist at Columbia University and three co-authors in a new book, Coethnicity, & concludes that if we struggle to do business with people who look different, that may not be because we dislike them, but because we simply don’t know quite how to begin.

Sounds a lot like Zadie Smith’s obsertvation about embarrassment:'It is amazing how many of our cross cultural encounters are limited not by hate or pride or shame, but by another especially insidious, less-discussed emotion, embarrassment.'

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Existential expectation

The fashionable phrase, existential crisis, put in an appearance on Desert Island Discs on Sunday when Tim Robbins made an interesting point about the way we personally experience time. Christopher Douglas thought it interesting enough to include in his Pick of the Week

At 40 you can imagine being 80. At 50, you can’t really imagine 100?

Interestingly, this is borne out by the current life expectancy figures for England. At age 30 the average man can expect to live just under 40 more years, the average woman 53. By age 50 however neither man nor woman can expect the number of years left to exceed the number they have already lived – only 30 years left for a man, 33 for a woman. The tipping point does indeed come round about 40.

I think that’s what used to be defined as the midlife crisis.

But it's funny that, when you are twenty, you cannot imagine the decrepitude of forty – not you! And when you are sixteen, even eighteen seems impossibly mature & sophisticated.

Then, when you get to the age where twenty more years sounds good, would be better than average, you look back & 1990 was only yesterday.

As I hurtled towards 40, the optimistic view was that I was at the halfway point - Louise Doughty

Related posts

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ear ear

A nice little example of the way that column layout in a magazine can make you do a double take to extract the meaning. Dame Kiri te Kanawa on being a great diva: 'It helps to have a tame ear.'


Oh, 'A tame ear, nose & throat specialist', once you read over the line break.

I first remember a certain difficulty reading a modern newspaper about twenty years ago when the Guardian, following a redesign in which they abolished many capitalisations in the interest of ‘a nice clean page’ (“the home office is the small back bedroom where we keep the computer” protested one correspondent) seemed also to have abolished the comma along with the relative pronoun. But soon they started to write much shorter simpler sentences so it didn’t matter so much.

The simplification continues to gather pace however & English as she is wrote seems to be descending into mere strings of words which could be nouns, verbs, adjectives or even adverbs.

Especially in the type of headline christened a crash blossom by the Language Log,
of which there was a perfect example recently from, where else, but the Guardian: Six nouns, six verbs, who knows

Related post

Pebbles, Popper & Paradigms

In his Saturday Times column Matthew Parris returned to a metaphor from an earlier column years ago.

Like stones tipped into deep & muddy water, facts that do not fit the view
we choose to take are acknowledged briefly, then put from our conscious
thoughts. They sink, unreconciled, from our sight. But they do not go away. More
stones may be added, thrown on top, adding to the submerged heap, but still
invisible. And more … until one day the rubble breaks the

All you … see is the last stone … The adverse fact may in
itself be inconclusive, but because of what’s beneath it, it may assume an undue
prominence. It may be called the moment f truth, but it is only there because of
the submerged truth that lies beneath.

Matthew Parris was talking specifically about the war in Afghanistan, & he also believes that this process of ignoral/acceptance depends on the psychological division between the conscious & the unconscious mind.

But you could interpret it as a neat metaphor for how we get from falsifiability to paradigm shift.

Popper’s falsifiability was never as simple as one black swan disproving the theory that all swans are white. We used to use the idea of black & white sheep, but I remember an argument which almost came to blows over the question of the whether the observation of one black goat also disproved the theory that all sheep are white.

Gradually the pile of black creatures accumulates; we can think of many reasons why this should be so, but of course none applies to sheep. Perhaps not even the last one which breaks the surface. The moment when we have to consider at least adjusting our theory to the subtly different one: sheep are the only animals that you can have in any colour you like as long as it isn’t black.

Mrs Grundy wears black

In his preview of a recent BBC4 programme, Rude Britannia, David Chater wrote that the big difference now in the argument over what is & is not considered acceptable is that ‘moral censure comes from the liberal left rather than Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.'

But there are interesting forces at work other than just political correctness.

Once a euphemism becomes accepted its primary meaning changes to the shameful thing for which it has come to stand, the taboo, if it be strong enough, tends to be transferred. The gooseflesh reappears. And some fresh, innocent victim-word has to be sacrificed on the altar of propriety ...

There are in fact whole chains of euphemism, like privy, toilet, loo. The Language Log provides a fascinating example of this in the delicate area of American race relations.

"I am disinclined to take lectures on racial sensitivity from a group that insists on calling black people, 'Colored,' " Mark Williams, national spokesman of the Tea Party Express, told CNN. [Speaking of the NAACP]
And so the wheel turns.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Jealous wife

Great news - Vernon Scannell’s Collected Poems are now available on Google Books.

This one captures so well the painful condition of a jealous wife.

Like a private eye she searches
For clues through diaries & papers;
Examines his clothing for the guilty stains
Of crimson lipstick, wicked wine,
Or something biological.
And when no act of sensual
Crime can be at length surmised
She is most puzzled & surprised
To be assailed by disappointment
Not relief.....

Of course in this version the husband is entirely innocent, even in his dreams, until provoked & stimulated by his wife’s unreasonable suspicions.

.............Her steel intent
Is never to betray to him
The blonde & naked thoughts within
The purple bedroom of her mind,
But her resolve can never stand
The pressure of the need to know:
‘Where?’ she says & ‘When?’ & ‘Who?’
‘What time?’ ‘What day?’ The question marks
Like powerful iron grappling hooks
Drag him to her fantasy.

And then he cannot fail to see
Within the harem of her skull
The lovely wickednesses loll.
Thus at night they softly creep,
Tap at the darkened panes of sleep;
Then white & tender, glide inside
His dream on whose delightful slope
At last her fears are justified.

The Jealous Wife: Vernon Scannell

I am still looking for a poem for a wife looking to find the strength to cope with a husband who is congenitally unfaithful (‘just a hard dog to keep on the porch’).

Who wrote the poems for Hilary Clinton or Jane Clark, to name but two of those whose husbands did not just confine themselves to dreams.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Blame it on the railway

Dr Richard Dawood, specialist in travel medicine, was in despair on Womans Hour this week about the medical profession’s continuing inability to get us to really really believe that pale is interesting, a tan is not healthy – YOU MIGHT DIE OF TOO MUCH SUN. Even the doctor’s own wife believes that she feels better with a healthy glow.

The mortality rate for malignant melanoma may have more than doubled among UK men in the past 30 years, there may be 2000 deaths each year, but actually that is not all that many. When the link between lung cancer & smoking was established most people knew someone who had a member of their family die from this.

The belief that pale is best (for anything) also sits uneasily on a generation which believes so fervently that the darkness of skin tone does not correlate with any undesirable human characteristic.

But most of all the medics are up against that those fickle twins, status & fashion.

When I was a child a really deep tan was a bit suspect, though a light lady like tan was a coveted indicator that you were the sort of person who had summer holidays.

I suspect that the shift away from regarding paleness as a mark of the true English beauty began when the railways brought the French Riviera within reach of the English middle classes. Then came post war prosperity & package holidays & we could all show off. I even heard a lively debate on RTE Radio 1 recently in which women were bemoaning their possession of a classic Irish combination of red hair & white skin - what to do now they understand that sunbeds are not the answer?

The odd thing is that people in hot countries take care to shade themselves from the sun. Especially their heads - I used to get really ticked off for daring to go out without a hat.

Or an umbrella - perfectly acceptable as a sunshade in the midst of the dry season, no rain for months. Well, I would always rather be comfortable than fashionable, but even I would not dare walk round with my umbrella up on a sunny day in England.

Bring back the parasol as a fashion item, I say. Much less messy than Factor XXXX.

Still free to travel

It is going to be some time before the government scotches the rumours that, despite the pre-election promises, the bus pass is a prime candidate for cuts. I was encouraged however by a report in The Times which quoted a departmental insistence that they were looking at the reimbursement arrangements of the scheme - I suspect that not all local authorities have struck the best deal with bus companies.

Phil Hammond almost got shouted down when he referred to ‘What the last government had done’ on Any Questions last night, but he was able to press ahead & point out that the raising of the age at which people become eligible is already enshrined in Labour’s law.

The degree of broadcast misinformation was added to when Helena Kennedy wanted to point out that it is not just a bus pass but a travel pass – she knows because she has just become the proud holder of one. She, of course is lucky enough to be able to have a London Freedom Pass. The rest of us country bumpkins are not so lucky & still have to pay to go on the Tube when we go to London.

Related post

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dinosaur poem

This poem was read out by Danny Baker on his Radio5 show last Saturday morning; it had been sent in by a listener in response to Danny's repetition of the fact that human's have a second brain in the gut.

It is my belief that these 'second brains' are more like local or satelliteservers, distributing messages to & from the brain (or at least the memory) which resides in every cell.

Dinosaur poem

Behold the mighty dinosaur,
Famous in prehistoric lore
Not only for his weight and strength
But also for his intellectual length
You will observe from his remains
The creature had two sets of brains
One in his head (the usual place)
The other at his spinal base
Thus he could reason apriori
As well as posteriori
No problem bothered him a bit
He made both head and tail of it
And if one brain found the pressure strong
He passed a few ideas along
So wise was he, so wise and solemn
Each thought just filled a spinal column
And if in error he was caught
He had a saving afterthought
If something slipped his forward mind,
Twas rescued by the one behind
Since he could think without congestion
Upon both sides of every question
Oh gaze upon this noble beast
Defunct ten millions years ... at least

It is attributed to Bert Taylor of the Chicago Herald Tribune but the date given varies wildy according to which source you use - anything from 1905 to the 1940s

Satisfied watchers

The Times carried a fascinating archive review of the first play ever broadcast by BBC television on 14 July 1930. It was Pirandello’s Man with a Flower in his Mouth – which I now discover can actually be seen on You Tube.

The Times reviewer found it ‘very perceptively chosen’ by the Director of Productions Val Gielgud: ‘Where else shall we find a play that is almost without action, that demands no depth of perspective & that can be performed without grave loss though but one actor (&then only his head & shoulders) is to be seen at a time?’

I wonder if that ‘his’ embraces ‘her’ or if acting on television was thought too dangerous or daring an adventure at that stage for a mere female ?

I had to stop to work out what was meant by a further comment: ‘The process has still a long way to go before every subscriber to the BBC is fully satisfied by seeing & hearing plays in his own library …’

Does that mean that the BBC subscriber has library shelves well stocked with texts of plays, or that he keeps his television set in the Library rather than the drawing room? It would cetainly be too good for the servants hall, or even the butlers pantry.

Well the latter I guess - in 1930 Times writers were still scrupulous about the use of the relative pronoun.

And how interesting to learn that the cultural impact of telly was expected to be every bit as lofty as that of the telephone, in the guise of the electrophone.

That Times reviewer could not have had the slightest inkling that within 80 years all classes could be well satisfied by seeing plays & films on their own miniature telephone anywhere, even in the open country, that they happened to find themselves.

Related post
Mixed blessings

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Dick Barton

This mornings Radio 4 programme about Dick Barton solved one small mystery for me – The Archers replaced Dick Barton, not Journey Into Space on BBC radio at 6.45 on weekday evenings.

I think I can remember hearing some episodes of the adventures of the special agent – I certainly remember the music – so even in an age when the radio might be switched off, or we might be sent out of the room, if anything unsuitable came on my parents & grandparents cannot have thought it would do me any harm, encourage me into evil ways. All I can remember, all I was capable of understanding, is that he got into danger, threatened by Baddies, the kind who wore black hats in the kind of western I occasionally saw at the pictures when Mummy could not get a babysitter, but Dick Barton always triumphed in the end.

It was extraordinary to hear some of the contemporary reactions from magistrates & other moral arbiters who saw the BBC as encouraging juvenile delinquency. The BBC took fright & Dick Barton was even banned from using the word twerp!

That reminded me of the time David Cameron got into trouble for using the word twat.

Why on earth David Cameron found it necessary to say that his staff would be talking to Facebook about taking down the eulogies to Raoul Moat is beyond me. The idea of imposing such censorship was either a cynical political sop to those who would truly censor such things, or a clever way of keeping that wing of his party on side, or shows a just plain stupid & scary willingness to contemplate inappropriate heavy handedness. It would be better to reflect on why such characters* can always attract sympathy and/or admiration from those who cheer what they see as the defiance of the world that has denied them the chances they deserve.

*Robin Hood, Dick Turpin, Bonnie & Clyde, the IRA ...

Related posts

Shaking thunder

We had a humungous thunderstorm last night, went on for almost an hour.

I thought we might have escaped the threat of occasional heavy showers with a risk of thunder altogether – things had been relatively calm apart from one brief downpour about halfway home from town. The sky was mostly blue over the village, just smallish scattered clouds, some of which were really black & angry. Then just as I reached the side gate the big ploppy drops fell on my head, but at least I was straight away safe inside.

There was not all that much rain, or even lightning, but the thunder just rolled relentlessly round & round the bowl of the hills, then directly overhead for about 20 minutes. Thankfully no absolute cracks of doom to rattle the windows & make me worry about the chimney stack falling down.

But something got shaken too much – Snake Pass was closed by a landslip this morning.

Please just go away

Tony Blair is still a Labour leader according to Philip Webster & Roland Wilson of The Times.

He led an angry Labour reaction against Lord Mandelson last night.

Related posts

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Evil ambiguity

Evil – like time & hope & elephants – is really quite hard to define.

Forensic psychotherapist Dr Gwen Adshead on Desert Island Discs

Related post
Work & freedom

Star signs & health

More evidence about how star signs can affect the health or well being of your baby

We know that Leos tend do less well in exams.

Now we learn that Sagittarians are more likely to develop multiple sclerosis.

Except that scientists do not of course put it that way.

Leos tend do worse in exams because our academic year starts in September, so they are always the baby of the class. In countries with a different academic year, if there are any, it will be some other start sign which suffers.

And in this country Taureans should fear MS becuae it is being born in late spring/early summer that does it

Who do you think you are: Francis Maude

On Saturday morning BBC news reported, very uncritically & seemingly as fact, that next year’s census will be the last complete enumeration of the UK population.

The origin of this news item appears to be an interview with Francis Maude in the Daily Telegraph. Mr Maude believes that records held by the Post Office, local government and credit checking agencies would be more effective sources of the data.

Well, methodology is always under discussion & no doubt the UK Statistics Authority will respond in due course, taking account the views of all those outside government who make good use of census data.

I do not want to enter into the statistical arguments here, except to point out once again that the census is not just of the people but of housing; at a time when housing discontent is rising up the political agenda it will not hurt to remind the Conservative party of the need for reliable information on which to base policy – remember 1951.

Census data is very expensive to collect, but it is hard to think of any other output of the UK statistical system which has such enduring value.

If I were looking to see where the real political backlash to Mr Maude’s proposals might come from I would look not to statisticians but to family historians. Even today thousands of people are regularly accessing, online or otherwise, the results of Censuses from as long ago as 1841, though not of course any more recent than 1911 because the personal details are kept private for one hundred years.

All those people who are using this invaluable data to help answer the question of who they are might be very upset at the idea that their descendants will not be able to carry on with the compilation of the family history, that they themselves may well just disappear from the records.
Related posts

Oh Snickers!

And so it was foretold.

The price of Snickers has risen, by a whopping 79% since last week, or a more modest 6 ½ % on the price before they went on special offer

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Round in circles

David Spiegelhalter, professor for the public understanding of risk, had a nicely wry & funny article in The Times on Friday about Paul, the octopus who foretold the result of World Cup football matches. You can read it for free here on the Understanding Uncertainty blog.

Unfortunately the professor adds a rider that did not appear in the newspaper: ‘Even if Paul's final two predictions are correct, it does not change my total belief that he is not psychic and the results are just chance. Essentially when a hypothesis has zero initial probability, no amount of surprising evidence will shift that belief.’

Now does this not rather give the game away?

If my total belief is that there is no such thing as man made global warming, then no amount of evidence scientists produce will shift that belief.

And vice versa.

So then the problem becomes one of how do we change belief.

Spying in England

Does Ed Balls have a mole in the department which he so recently vacated? He asked Michael Gove two very specific parliamentary questions about the advice he had received from civil servants which would seem to indicate that he does.

‘Did he at any point receive written or oral advice from departmental officials or Partnerships for Schools urging him not to publish a list of schools until after he had consulted local authorities, to make sure that his criteria were sound and his facts were right?’

‘Is it not the case that he was advised of the risk of legal challenge from private contractors, but that he personally decided to ignore that advice and take that risk with taxpayers' money?’

On the other hand perhaps he was just relying on something that had been spun to one of the Sunday papers.

Related posts

Election permutations

Over a year ago now (29 May 2009) David Aaronovitch used his Times column to discuss possible AV reforms for parliamentary elections. He ended with a sarcastic anticipation of objections on the grounds that the British people could not cope with ‘the incredible complexity of ranking a series of things from one to five.’

Well there are 120 different ways of putting five things in order, but under the AV system you may, if you wish, just stop at 1 for the one you really, really want. But even if you are quite clear about the order of your five preferences, sticking to that order on your ballot paper may not be the best way of achieving the result you really, really want, or even avoiding the one you would really, really hate.

Unfortunately the best strategy would depend on your being able to predict with a fair degree of accuracy how all the others in your constituency will vote, but it may be perfectly rational to put your favourite candidate at 2 or 3, reserving #1 for someone who will be excluded in the first two rounds of counting.

Then there is the problem that the very change in the voting system may bring about a complete change in the way that people organise themselves into parties & the number of candidates who put themselves forward.

There are 3,628,800 different ways of putting ten candidates in order.

A fact which used to be exploited in newspaper competitions. Put these 10 features in order & win a car – if your chosen order matches the one decided upon by our panel of expert judges. Easy peasy!

In elections, the net result could be that nobody gets the outcome they actually wanted.

Though of course, as with the lottery, there is nearly always one lucky winner of the jackpot

Monday, July 12, 2010

Fields of bacteria

In his Times Weather Eye column of 30 June Paul Simons offered an explanation for the distinctive smell of soil after rain.

Streptomyces bacteria spores in the soil ‘pop off’ when the air turns humid & get kicked up in clouds when rain hits the ground. If you are lucky enough to have a very keen nose for this smell you can even use the humid phase to forecast the approaching shower.

I guess ploughing just kicks up even bigger clouds of spores & that is what explains the especial intensity of a freshly turned field in autumn. It is not clear however if it will be a good or a bad thing to have fewer spores released if farmers follow the latest green advice to stop ploughing

Picture Credit: No. 14 from Soil Microbiology and Biochemistry Slide Set. 1976. J.P. Martin, et al., eds. SSSA, Madison, WI

The evil weed

There really is a local campaign to eradicate Himalayan balsam. Local radio was carrying an advert at the weekend asking for volunteers to help clear the banks of one of the rivers in the National Park

First candidate for the axe

I feel quite sorry for Michael Gove, but my sympathy is limited.

First because he is a politician, he wanted the responsibility, the power.

Secondly because I am very disappointed by his idea of the perfect curriculum for every child, & his lack of any kind of a focus on an education for engineers & other practical people. And, on a narrower point, I am alarmed by his apparent belief, as reported, that the normal distribution is the only one known to statistics.

I do not suppose that Michael Gove has – nor, necessarily, should he have – any expertise in the complex business of cutting capital programmes. Worse, as has often been pointed out, civil servants have not been engaged in cutting (as opposed to just restraining) public expenditure since the early 1980s; under New Labour civil servants were much more likely to be ordered to spend & deliver.

After years of Labour blaming & denigrating the servants it was refreshing to hear the way that the Secretary of State accepted full responsibility for the mistakes. But there have been briefings to the newspapers that the education department has been badly let down by the arms length organisation Partnership for Schools which was set up by Labour to be in charge of the programme under its chief executive, a former chief executive of Norfolk county council who is paid over £ ¼ million a year.

The programme is certainly very complicated in a way which seems typical of the previous government, and a glance at the website reveals that an awful lot of private sector companies will stand to lose business with the ending of the scheme.

Unfortunately for Mr Gove the Conservatives do not easily forgive or forget the (appearance of) incompetence, especially when they have been facing much criticism in their constituencies from those whose planned new schools have been cancelled or subject to on again/off again uncertainty. Local schools are an important part of every town & so everyone will feel affected, not just those whose children go there.

Related post

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hedgehog names T

This is an (intermittently) on-going experimental project. No links are provided. If you want to follow any of them up, use the BLOG SEARCH box above↑

In order to find all references it is probably best to use surname only in the search.

Raymond Tallis
Albert Tatlock
AJP Taylor
BF Taylor
Laurie Taylor

Matthew Taylor
Samuel Coleridge Taylor
Charlotte Temple
Gillian Tett

Denis Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher
George Thomas
H Preston Thomas

FML Thompson
Emily Thornberry
Peter Thorneycroft
Sarah Tisdall
Jonathan Torch

Stephen Toulmin
Georges de la Tour
Paul Trebilcock
Ruth Turner

Mark Twain


Nature conservation

The Butterfly, from Poetry For children by Charles & Mary Lamb.

Do, my dearest brother John,
Let that butterfly alone.

What harm now do I do?
You're always making such a noise-

O fie, John; none but naughty boys
Say such rude words as you.

Because you're always speaking sharp:
On the same thing you always harp.
A bird one may not catch,
Nor find a nest, nor angle neither,
Nor from the peacock pluck a feather,
But you are on the watch
To moralize and lecture still.

And ever lecture, John, I will,
When such sad things I hear.
But talk not now of what is past;
The moments fly away too fast,
Though endlessly they seem to last
To that poor soul in fear.

Well, soon (I say) I'll let it loose;
But, sister, you talk like a goose,
There's no soul in a fly.

It has a form and fibres fine,
Were tempered by the hand divine
Who dwells beyond the sky.
Look, brother, you have hurt its wing-
And plainly by its fluttering
You see it's in distress.
Gay painted coxcomb, spangled beau,
A butterfly is called, you know,
That's always in full dress:
The finest gentleman of all
Insects he is-he gave a ball,
You know the poet wrote.
Let's fancy this the very same,
And then you'll own you've been to blame
To spoil his silken coat.

Your dancing, spangled, powdered beau,
Look, through the air I've let him go:
And now we're friends again.
As sure as he is in the air,
From this time, Ann, I will take care,
And try to be humane.

Lordly families

I was interested in finding out why John Selwyn Gummer chose the title Baron Deben, of Winston in the County of Suffolk. The name Deben has many associations in his former constituency, including a firm with a great website which sell microscopes and a school .

I had forgotten that John gummer’s brother is already a life peer, Baron Chadlington of Dean in the County of Oxfordshire. Which set me to wondering how many other pairs (or maybe even triplets) of relatives sit in the House of Lords. There are the former Mr & Mrs Kinnock of course, each of whom has been ennobled in their own right.

It would be interesting to see one of those modern computer graphics showing the networks of family in Parliament & comparing the current picture with that of the C19th when the hereditary principle held sway*. Did the House of Commons become less of a family business in the mid C20th , & have the greater numbers of women in politics helped to bring back the family connections?

*Somebody would of course have to do the hard work of compiling all the data first

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Clobbering kids

One good thing that might be said for the violence involved in old fashioned housework is that it could provide a useful outlet for all the frustrations of being stuck at home, without adult conversation, & a husband who came home from his labours too tired to talk.

The downside I suppose that it might be all too easy sometimes, when you had a tiger moment, to turn round & just clobber the children with your mattenklopper.

Surprisingly the OED says that clobber, in the sense of ‘To hit; to thrash or beat up; to defeat, shoot down; to reprimand or criticize severely’ is of origin unknown.

I remember vividly arriving as a teenager on the night ferry at Oostende & being taught by a German student I had met on the boat that it is actually pretty easy to understand written Flemish/Dutch if you just relax & imagine what it sounds like – remarkably similar to English. So it seemed obvious to me that clobber comes from kloppen, but I guess not.

However, given that this excursion started with my remembering pother, a word that has associations with dust, it was charming to find that in other senses of the word clobber, such as ‘A black paste used by cobblers’ or, in the glorious form of clobberiousness, ‘The rabble, the unwashed’, there may be links with Scots/Irish words such as clabar or clabber which are translated as mud, clay or dirt.

Related posts

The problem with tobacco

A bus stop in town bears a large poster : How come it’s so easy to get hold of illegal tobacco? The answer seems to be given right there – it shows a well stocked stall somewhere, apparently right out in the open.

At first I thought it must be The Treasury, confirming my suspicion about the reason for not putting up the tobacco prices in the recent budget, but it is put out under the Crimestoppers

Further investigation shows that it is an initiative from our old friend Smokefree North West.

This NHS-funded organisation has a special mission to reduce smoking, in particular amongst 'the routine and manual populations' & amongst the young, with the major aim of reducing health inequalities to which smoking is considered to be a major contributory factor.

As is happening now with alcohol, the first tactic was to reduce demand by increasing the price of tobacco via tobacco tax. But then, of course, as rational economic beings, people start to look for a cheaper source of supply. Those who are tempted to step in to provide this supply will tend to be disadvantaged, & it is certainly the low level suppliers who are most likely to be caught & punished in any crackdown. Which of course will do a lot to improve their health & life chances.

A famous marketing man once said: We know that half our advertising works; the problem is we don’t know which half. In this case it may be the half which makes people go: Oh! I didn’t know you could get cheap cigs. I must look out for some’

Related posts
Smoke screen

Friday, July 09, 2010

Never rains but pours

Another correspondent to The Times earlier this week cast doubt on the claim that we have experienced the driest six months since 1929 on the grounds that he can remember the long hot summer of 1976.

I have not checked the actual rainfall statistics but we certainly did not go without rain for anything like as long as six months. There was no play because of rain on the Saturday (19th June) of the Lords Test match against the West Indies. Strictly speaking the reason may have been bad light or unsafe conditions - there was not much rain during the day but it was heavily overcast & the ground was very wet. Those of us who were there - & were not, in those days, entitled to any refund - felt that the players might have laid on some gesture of entertainment for the patient crowd.

And of course it famously began to rain almost as soon as Denis Howells was appointed Minister for Standpipes.

Having said that, other ways of presenting the statistics certainly show that we had unusually low rain fall for over a year, starting in 1975.

The other reason for doubting the assertion about this year’s low rainfall is of course the long period of snow & ice which we experienced at the beginning of the year. Assuming that ‘rain’ includes ‘snow’ in Met Office speak, I don’t remember there being an awful lot of snowing going on – I cannot remember ever going out in a snowstorm. What we had was the kind of snow that sticks, & then just stayed frozen for a long time.

But having said that, there has undoubtedly been a real change in the rainfall patterns these past few years, not so much of the relatively gentle but persistent type, much more a series of of sudden, though short lived deluges which put such a strain on the drains.

It is still galling to find that from today we are banned from using hosepipes in our area. Next thing they will probably stop washing the buses & the trains, but fingers crossed we shall not be reduced to bathing with a friend.

But then we can always go the few miles to visit a friend down the road who just happens to live in a different region as far as the supply of water is concerned

Light & chickens

I loved the letter to The Times from Colin Snowdon of Woodstock about the picture from the European space telescope which records radiation created just after the Big Bang:

As nothing can move faster than the speed of light, is there an explanation of how we got here before this radiation so that we could look back & photograph it?”

Photo ESA/ LFI & HFI Consortia

Related posts


Ever since Tuesday I have been unable to get the Hoover jingle out of my head.

I hope it does not stay there as long as My Aunt Grete did a couple of years ago. That was really embarrassing, because not only was I liable to break out into out of tune song at inopportune moments, I also felt a compulsion to perform the appropriate actions with my hands.

And now I have learned the name for this kind of thing I have an awful feeling that Worms might get stuck in there instead.

Related post

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Street manners

"I’m just a Londoner trying to avoid eye contact," said Andrea Levy on London Nights, explaining her habit of looking at the ground as she walks along the street where she lives.

That surprised me rather; Londoners have a special way of being able to walk along busy streets without looking anyone in the eye but, by some magic, not bumping in to them either.

It was a skill I had after any years living & working in central London, but I suddenly lost it after moving back up North for a while.

In the village it was only polite to greet everyone you passed, & sometimes stop to pass the time of day. Suddenly I remembered how my grandfather had complained when he visited us (his daughter’s family) for the first time after we moved to a city suburb. He had been out, as was his habit, for a Sunday morning ‘constitutional’, smartly dressed, complete with trilby hat. He passed someone washing his car, raised his hat & said ‘good morning’; ‘the ****** just ignored me!’

One evening, on a working trip back to the capital, I was walking up the still busy Strand quite late, about 11pm, back to where I was staying in Covent Garden, when I became aware that I was getting funny looks – especially from the middle aged man (not English, but European) who gave me a rather mocking sort of bowed greeting. I realised I had been walking along making eye contact, half expecting to greet someone I recognised.

It’s always harder to go back, to remember how you used to do it, & for ages after that I could only scurry along when walking alone in London, eyes very firmly down, while taking surreptitious peeks at other people just to try & work out exactly where they were looking.

By one of those mysterious homogenising processes however, people no longer greet everyone they meet in the village; partly because there have been so many incomers, you never know who’s local & who is not, but mainly because hardly anybody walks any more in this age of the car. The bus timetable has even had several minutes added to allow for the extra time needed to negotiate roads narrowed by vehicles parked on both sides of the street.