Thursday, September 30, 2010

Animated migration

It strikes me that animated graphics would do a great deal to illuminate the debate over migrant numbers & help to set the various proposed controls into proper & realistic perspective.

Minsters & others concerned with the debate would be able to have a much better grasp of the size & importance of the various flows – set it all in context, against the number of those who visit the country purely temporarily for business or pleasure.

Baby busters

Ed Miliband’s New Generation – bah humbug.

I didn’t even go for that stuff in the 1960s & it’s a bit silly now for someone who belongs to the baby busters, born at the time of the great post-pill slump in the birth rate (the number of births in England & Wales fell from nearly 820,000 a year, on average, in the second half of the 1960s to 690,000 a year in the first half of the 1970s). His generation don’t have a hope unless they speak nicely to the boomers, even though they did make all those stupid mistakes. Or else we may all turn in to That Woman.

But if the newspaper reports are true Master Miliband doesn’t care about birth statistics – he did not bother to register his details on the birth certificate of his son because he was ‘too busy’. Apparently the government of which he was a member never got round to enacting the legislation which would have made registration of the father’s name compulsory.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


A useful article by Patrick Hoskins in Monday’s Times addressed the question ‘Who really owns the UK?’

Foreign investors (two fifths) together with hedge funds (10 per cent) owned half of all the shares of UK listed companies at the end of 2008. In the 1960s private investors owned a half, but their share is now down to about 10 per cent. Pension funds today own only about 1 in every eight of all shares.

The article did not address the question of who owns the mortgages outstanding on the residential buildings which make up two-thirds of our total national net worth.

Does all this mean that our future will be like that of an Ireland or Jamaica of the past – at the mercy of absentee landlords?

Intellectual stimulation

My eye was caught by a diary piece referring to ‘that thick, creamy thimble of caffeinated inspiration beloved of intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre’.

Well, maybe. But I do not remember espresso in the France of the 1950s & 1960s. Perhaps I was just too young – the really dark stuff not suitable for children.

I remember much more clearly the very large cups, almost the diameter of a cereal bowl, full of very weak milky coffee into which you dunked your croissant.

Related post
Triple espresso

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The modern jumble sale

Such a silly fuss about Primark reportedly shredding perfectly good clothes which proved unsaleable in the time allowed by this fast moving business.

Why must they stay as clothes when there may be plenty of other uses for the shredded cloth? Why, in general, do we think that avoiding waste means turning things back into the thing they were before we threw them away – paper to paper, cans to cans, bottles to bottles? What’s wrong with using them for something else?

What makes it worth while packing them up & transporting to charity shops for sale to customers who cannot afford even Primark prices? Or transporting them to even less fortunate in countries overseas.

Industrial use – for general mopping, cleaning, insulating, packing. Retail & other outlets for those in search of cloth for crafts & hobbies, dressmaking or home furnishings. You would be surprised at how much value can be added to tired velvet curtains you would not give window room to if, after a quick swish through an industrial size washer they are cut into squares that are just the right size to be sold as ‘ideal for making cushion covers.’

We used to do it the other way round – at least in this part of the world. There were lots of outlets for what were called seconds – clothes which did not come up to the rigorous quality control standards of the major chain stores for which they were destined. Street markets were full of them, & shops called Guess Whose? The faults were often invisible to even the moderately well-practiced eye.

Now that the manufacturing & quality control standards are not quite so rigorous, in the interests of lower prices in the chain stores, these outlets have disappeared.

But what about all the hard work that went into making them? Those poor women in China or other less rich countries?

Well, if the shops stay stuffed with the unsold stuff they made last week there will be no need for them to turn up to make more stuff this week, & then what will their children eat next week?

Where rubbish goes

Just as my train was drawing into Stockport station I noticed that the goods train moving down the adjacent line carried containers all bearing the logos GMWDA & Viridor.

Isn’t that rubbish, I thought?

Yes indeed, & there is a website giving lots of information about this new(ish) partnership.

I couldn’t find anything about where the trains are going to however, nor about what it is they are carrying.

Related post

Monday, September 27, 2010

Centre Point

According to Saturday’s Times Centre Point, the central London landmark, may be in the hands of administrators before long.

I have always loved that building – a very unfashionable line to take for a 1960’s student. It was exciting & beautifully proportioned, & has stood the test of time much better than most of the other attempts to bring London’s architecture into the modern era.

It went up just before I left to live abroad, & was still empty when I returned 7 years later, so its future didn’t look bright then. Private Eye, the satirical magazine, was merciless about its architect, 'Colonel' Richard Seifert, & developer Harry Highams who, under the benign eye of the Conservative government of Edward Heath were supposed to be uncaring spivs interested in nothing but profit. If I remember rightly there was supposed to be some loophole in the laws about payment of rates which allowed them to gain financial advantage even on an empty building. Right-on types argued for the building to be turned into flats for the homeless.

Now I suppose that, if these reports of administration turn out to be correct, then its next phase will be as the property of an overseas sovereign wealth fund.


Hedgehogs are coming to town

Hedgehogs are moving to town according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

No surprise there – it’s so much more comfortable, & you don’t have to cross so many roads to get to the next door garden when you fancy a bit of an outing.

Related post
A nice life

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The end of feminism

Commenting on reports that the era of sofa government is at an end, flummery is back, as signified in part by the end of dress down Fridays for senior civil servants & the return to the ‘traditional civil service suit & tie’, Robert Crampton predicted in the Times that in another few years it will be all bowler hats & brollies.

So back to an all male political & administrative hierarchy then, when all will once again be well with the world, as it should be.

Related post
Eminent genius

Look after yourself

Milton Keynes NHS has produced a video to illustrate the need for us all to take action in two areas that will safeguard & improve our health – washing hands & losing weight.

The clean hands rap can be seen here

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Archie's back

Local radio announced one morning this week that the Archie has been turning again, so all this rain has its uses.

It wasn’t just the hosepipe ban that locals had to contend with. The water flow has been insufficient to keep turning the Archimedes screw which powers the Torrs hydro power scheme, but it is now back to producing near record amounts of electricity.

Related post


A large sign in the window of one of those small computer & laptop repair shops which are springing up everywhere announces SYSTEM INTERGRATION.

Which seems quite appropriate. Hints of intergenerational assistance. (Help with computing for the over-50’s).

And movement, constant change: emigration, immigration, intergration.

The OED does not recognise it, even though it does recognise intergrated as a rare & obsolete word, used in Cotgrave’s French/English Dictionary of 1611 as a translation of the word Entreillizé - intergrated, thick lattised, crosse~barred.

Judging by the results of a Google search it is a very common mistake made by those who meant to type integration. I got nearly 900,000 results even after telling it No, I did not mean to search for integration. Most of the results, disappointingly, refer to integration on the actual web page – or so it seems, I checked only the first 2 or 3.

But what do you know. The internet marketing company Intergration has been helping businesses attract customers through the internet for the last 10 years.

Strange death

It will come as a huge blow to some readers of the Times & its devoted Revise & Feedback teams of guardians of good English, but Language Log has proof that Whom has all but ceased to be.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Safety in childbirth

A recent edition of More or Less on Radio 4 attempted to answer a young listener’s question: What would be the population of the world today if WWI - with its carnage of young men – had never happened.

Imponderable, to say the least. But Professor Jay Winter attempted some elucidation.

For me, the most startling revelation was that infant mortality declined sharply – largely because, with so many doctors on war service many more births were attended by a midwife only.

The use of forceps fell dramatically - & perhaps midwifes were more scrupulous about washing their hands.

Related post


Chris Huhne told delegates to the Lib Dem conference that the biggest surprise of being in government was the amount of work it entailed. "I prioritise what I take home by what I can get into my bike pannier," he explained. “If it doesn’t fit in my bike pannier I don’t take it home.”

Well, well, well.

Has the coalition relaxed the rules on ministerial boxes? As others before have found out – from Sir George Young (the bicycling baronet) to David Cameron, red boxes are verboten on a bike. And on a bus (Chris Mullin).

Come to think of it, Sarah Vine, wife of Michael Gove, wrote a piece in The Times about the arrival at her home of the chauffeur driven red box while her husband travelled by other means.

Perhaps Chris Huhne just has a mock up or model pannier which his Private Office staff can use as a guide to the amount of paper which he can tolerate at home.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thomas Bayes’ logarithm

According to a report by Nic Fildes in Monday's Times, the walls of Mike Riley’s Autonomy headquarters are adorned with a ‘lurid neon sign that displays the Bayesian logarithm.’

In the words of the ever helpful but case insensitive Google - Did you mean: bayesian algorithm ?


Family formation

One interesting observation which came out almost as an aside in Radio 4’s latest report on the Born in Bradford study provided confirmation of my casual observation of a new pattern in family life: parents who are not married & do not live together but who share the upbringing of their children.

They spoke to one such mother who stressed how good was the children’s father – visiting every day, even having the children to stay with him for 2 days a week. Such arrangements seem to be informal, no court or other agency involved.

The most likely explanation remains, for me, the uncertainty & insecurity around male employment these days, especially in the old industrial areas of the north. It must be hard for a man to know what role to play in a family if he is not the reliable provider, just another ‘child’ in his relationship with his partner. And all this reinforced by the emphasis in the benefit system of making sure that children are cared for, which has, perhaps unwittingly, led to it being much easier for a lone mother to negotiate the bureaucracy than it is for a man.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Price, supply, demand: Aqueous cream

If you buy a big ticket item it will obviously be worth your while to pay some attention to where you can get it at the lowest price – although other factors, such as convenience, the reputation of the seller, or the quality of the brand may be at least as, if not even more, important than simple cash.

But how do you make purchasing decisions for smaller, more everyday items?

When Resale Price Maintenance was abolished in Britain in 1964 there was plenty of advice for housewives; we were advised, in all seriousness, to walk the length of the high street stopping at each relevant outlet to check the price of the items on our shopping list. You then turned round & walked back home, this time stopping to buy bacon, bread & baked beans at whichever shop offered the lowest price for each.

In fact this was the way that perfect competition was described as operating in the only venue in which it could conceivably do so, as it was described in our Introduction to the Theory of Economics lectures; consumers entered the street market & carefully checked the price & quality of the potatoes on offer at all the different stalls before making a decision.

Aqueous cream has once again made me think about all this.

If you are a nurse or a carer or an elderly person you will be familiar with aqueous cream – a skin cleansing agent & emulsifier for softening & soothing skin. It is a great boon. With the addition of magic ingredients & perfumes it is essentially what beauty editors call moisturiser or cleansing or anti-ageing lotion, but bog standard is available in non-branded form. It consists mostly of petroleum & water.

The last time I left hospital with a goody bag full of pharmacy products, one was a big tub of emollient cream, apparently made up in the hospital itself since their label only appeared on the tub. When it eventually ran out I thought I would buy the nearest available commercial product & trotted off to a well known High Street Chain with the list of ingredients – which included some chemical names which meant nothing to me.

The lists of ingredients on the creams available on the shelves brought only confusion – how did I know which might be vital to my needs? A discussion with the pharmacist whizzed me through a very interesting lesson on the science of moisturising different areas of skin. When feet were mentioned – well I don’t think the word lard was used, but the implication was that any old fat would do for that & I left with a tube of the cheapest available cream.

It was some time later that I noticed a display in the same pharmacy of large hospital sized tubs of aqueous cream at a very advantageous price. I soon noticed that supermarkets were doing the same – I put it down to their strategy for maximising their share of the prescription market, since the majority of customers for aqueous cream will be elderly & the elderly account for 6 out of every 10 prescriptions issued by the NHS. The price seemed to hover around the £4 mark.

It is not something I need to buy very often, so I would just buy it in whichever store I happened to be in on the day. Until one day that store was Sainsbury's & I discovered that their price was only £2.02. So next time I needed some I made sure it was a Sainsbury’s day.

But Oh dear – last week there was an empty space on the shelf where the aqueous cream should have stood. Well, the shelf is in the pharmacy section & as there was no queue at the counter I went across to ask if they had any.

The pharmacist went & brought a tub from round the back. I had to pay him for it, rather than take it to the checkout with the rest of my shopping – and it cost £2.99! Almost 50% more than the shelf price of the other stuff (I did go to check just to make sure).

Well it’s not the kind of thing to make a fuss about, or walk away & buy it somewhere else.

But why the difference? The size is the same, as are the listed ingredients (white soft paraffin, liquid paraffin, cetostearyl alcohol, sodium laurisulfate, phenoxyethanol, purified water) though they do not appear in the same order & they do not give the percentages in a way that is directly comparable.

The one from behind the pharmacy counter specifies that it meets the BP (British Pharmacopoeia) standards.

Both are manufactured in Ireland (by different companies) but the one on the public shelves also carries the name of an English distributor.

Oddly, the one from round the back has the more attractive label, with a pretty yellow & green logo.

Of course, in many cases, those getting the pharmacy version on an NHS prescription will not have anything to pay at the point of delivery; indeed those who are liable to pay the charge of £7.20 per item would be well advised to make a private purchase.

I do not know what I conclude from this nano-economic analysis. It certainly shows the complexity of the globalised consumer world in which we live, & how complicated is the business of being a purveyor to the masses. It even shows how confusing it can be for a mere consumer, attempting to obey the simple law of price & demand.

I once read a very splendid article about how to make sure you got your new car at the lowest possible price, using game theory to set dealer against dealer. Written of course by a man. I do not think such stratagems would work for the weekly shop – the math is probably far too complicated anyway.

So I think I will just fall back on the law of large numbers & say that all these would-be rational, sometimes illogical choices work out in the end to fit the macro-economic forecasting models which guide the Chancellor’s decisions.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Entering the age of the consumer

I think that my father only ever gave my sister & me one ‘proper’ present – by which I mean for birthday or, in this case, Christmas, all wrapped up in festive paper with a card saying Love from Daddy.

I do not wish to imply that he was a mean, distant or uncaring father – far from it. For instance I remember some wonderful toys he made when we were small, particularly a rocking horse & a double fronted dolls house with electric light in every room.

But formal occasion presents were left to mummy & other female relatives, except for horrible uncle, who used to give us extravagantly ‘grown up’ presents of Max Factor talcum powder.

What made the present even more extraordinary was that it was bought new from a shop, rather than made by him from scratch or acquired second hand & lovingly restored & refurbished.

We each got one of these mysterious & unexpected presents after everything else had been opened on Christmas morning.

Small portable transistor radios.

We both burst into tears I think. How could daddy have known how badly we wanted to be with it but would never have dreamed of pestering for something so extravagant.

Our children's future

Peter White’s series which tracks the fortunes of some of the children who went to Singapore to support Britain’s bid for the 2012 Olympics is back again on Radio 4.

One of the striking things about these young people who lived in one of the more deprived areas of the capital is how many of them have found that their road to the future leads, at least for a time, to North America, usually as part of their higher education.

One girl emigrated with her parents, one won a sports scholarship, one is spending a year of his university course over there, & one has just first landed his first job, after graduating from Exeter university.

Food for thought there.

Related post

Monday, September 20, 2010

Atlas & my mother’s new fridge

For some reason I thought that the Atlas supercomputer of the 1960s had been analogue rather than digital; I think I must have been muddling up & misremembering various discussions I had at that time with my father. He was very keen on the idea of analogue computers, & on Atlas too.

Some time after 1966 he decided to build his own home computer. I never had the privilege of seeing this machine, as I lived abroad at the time, & they left it behind when they moved to a new house. And since my father never wrote me a letter I have only my mother’s description to go on; it had a lot of valves & its main purpose seemed to be to switch lights on & off.

Mother was pleased about it for several reasons however – not least because she got a brand new modern fridge out of it.

My parents never lost the habits of thrift – little was ever bought new & we had a man in only rarely – both were good at DIY so things were bought second hand & refurbished or even made from scratch – a great advantage of having an engineer in the house.

The post-war prefab that was our first family home had a fitted kitchen with, wonder of wonders, a built-in refrigerator, but the Edwardian house we moved to when I was 8 had a proper pantry/larder, rendering a refrigerator unnecessary. Even better it doubled as a photographic dark room.

But the 1930’s house which came next had only the simplest ventilated cupboard. The refrigeration problem was solved by the purchase of an old fashioned model at auction. It was huge, though the internal space for storage was no greater than you would get in the smallest under-the counter fridge in a modern galley kitchen. Its deceptive size was made up mainly of insulation – which is what made it perfect housing for my father’s computer.
So, with children off their hands, they could afford to splash out.

Spanish Tudors

Sometimes it does you good to come across familiar history written or put together by somebody with a different point of view.

I was intrigued to come across this website Tudor place, put together by an Argentinian called Jorge.

Even just reading that the first wife of Henry VIII was called Catalina De Aragon or that Mary Tudor was married to Felipe gives you that little pause for thought.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Healthy legs

Why should the increased height of today’s youngsters come mainly from longer legs? To put it another way, why should improved nutrition not increase the lengths of all parts of the body?

Well there must be some minimum viable size of the major organs in the abdomen & thorax, meaning that they must have a certain minimum amount of space. probably a viale maximum size too - it would indeed be very interesting to know whether the variability between humans in the size of these internal organs is less than the variability in overall size.

So if food is short, nutrition less than optimal, or some other environmental factor imposes limits to growth, resources will naturally be concentrated on preserving the length of the torso. In times of plenty then there will be enough to spare for the luxury of long legs.

There seems to be no medical concerns about this, certainly not to the extent that there is concern about people whose extra food goes towards increasing girth to the point we call obese. There are no learned papers on the health effects of height.

But problems there are. And although most of these may need environmental rather than clinical solutions (higher ceilings & doorways, bigger chairs, higher work surfaces, more legroom on public transport, longer beds – especially in NHS hospitals where good sleep might be considered essential to patient recovery …).

But should longer legs mean that we need to recalibrate the healthy values of BMI?

Other things being equal I would expect each extra vertical inch of height to provide more relative mass in the leg than in the torso – it is all muscle & bone, less fat, water or empty space. This means that over time our healthy limits for BMI might have to be adjusted upwards.

Unless of course the doom mongers are right & famine lies just over the horizon.

Related post

Proverbial issue by Bernard Proctor

One of the shortest poems in the English language.

Proverbial issue


Saturday, September 18, 2010


Once again we have witnessed how the shame has not completely gone away from infertility. In some ways it has got worse, since there is such a widespread belief that you can decide to have, or not have, a child just as you can choose any other consumer good.

Our beliefs have not advanced so far from those expressed in the C16th Book of Common Prayer – marriage is for the procreation of children. And so, in these days of IVF, there must be some secret darker reason for not having children if you are married.

In fact I know only one woman who has confided that she & her husband had decided from the very beginning that they did not want to have children – It’s messy, & you can’t send it back if you decide you don’t like it. It may be relevant to these feelings that she & her husband were each the only child of very elderly parents.

In the days before follicle stimulating drugs & other modern treatments were available, stories of the mysteries of fertility & infertility were legion. One of my mother’s best friends had endured 7 miscarriages before deciding to adopt. Within three years of the arrival of her chosen daughter she had produced two healthy strapping sons. Her doctor said that there was no explanation known to medical science, but there must be something about having a baby to look after – perhaps a change of diet – which put her hormones into the right kind of balance. Not quite so off-the-wall perhaps when you consider the well-attested phenomenon of cycles coming into sync in all-female residential establishments such as boarding schools or convents.

A friend of mine is 18 years younger than their only sibling – to the delighted surprise of their mother who had long before accepted that she would never again be blessed.

The daughter of a friend had fertility treatment in the very early days (pre-IVF). When her baby was a few months old she put her feelings of unwellness down to all the well known strains & stresses of new motherhood; when they seemed to get worse rather than better she plucked up courage to seek her doctor’s advice. After listening to her list of symptoms he said ‘Tell me, Mrs H, is there any chance you might be pregnant?

‘The moment he said it, I realised. I felt such a fool.’ But then she had obviously not been taking fertility drugs while breast feeding.

If you ever read anything about the possible causes of infertility back in those days you could easily begin to wonder how any of us ever got here in the first place. And there was very little to be done about it – especially if you already had a child since it was well known that ‘The birth of a first baby is one of the biggest causes of infertility.’

Surprisingly enough however, the cause could sometimes be blindingly obvious; a small handbook of advice for GPs available as late as the 1970s began at the beginning. Make sure you see both members of the couple, & establish as tactfully as possible that they are in fact doing the necessary, which, surprising as it may seem, does not always come naturally. Hard to imagine that happening these days, but a point well worth remembering when doubts about the value of sex education are considered.

These days sex education tends to take fertility for granted & devotes more attention to protection from disease. But even before the causes of & treatments for STIs were better understood from the scientific point of view, their consequences for fertility were known – this of course was one of the reasons underlying the insistence upon virgin brides or, in some cultures, not marrying until the girl’s fertility were established in the most direct way possible.

Infertility has changed the course of history, not least in England with its dual system of hereditary monarchy & primogeniture through the male line. What would we be today if Henry VIII's efforts at paternity had turned out as he would have wished? So it is not surprising that it is, or can be, still more than just a personal private problem.

Related posts

Wet afternoons

One of the unusual things about our weather this late summer & early autumn is that the pattern of the day has had more in common with the pattern seen in a tropical island such as Singapore than we are used to in the temperate zone on the edge of Europe.

The days have generally started off bright & sunny, with plenty of blue among the clouds, but by late morning the cloud has piled in from the west & just stuck. Then an afternoon of brief but very heavy & very localised downpours, before clearing up again in the early evening, leaving a sunset fierce enough to be blinding.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Author interview

An interesting experience listening to Philip Dodd interview Tony Blair on Radio 3 last night. As Blair himself said, it was a very unusual experience for him.

I thought Dodd had Blair pretty well filleted on the issue of the influence of religion on his policies, & Blair was certainly very uncomfortable at the idea of that power necessarily involves a Mephistophelian pact.

But Bridget Kendall made one of the most interesting points in the discussion which followed the interview, & which also covered a review of this weekends tv programme The Special Relationship. Perhaps, in time, the Blair era will come to be seen as one where he attempted simply to ride the wave of a sudden belief that we were still an important country with clout & influence in the world.

Something which, almost as suddenly, has been exposed as a delusion, with China not emerging but emerged, & most sadly, the limitations of our military power cruelly exposed.

Emancipating fashions

According to Lisa Armstrong in The Times magazine, we had to wait until 1973 to see the first woman wearing trousers in an advertisement for perfume. ‘Things move slowly in the great battle for emancipation’ – or is it just in fashion?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Storm clouds gathering

This week’s storms have at least brought us some exciting skies. For far too many days this summer the clouds have provided zero distraction or amusement at the bus stop – just a 100% undifferentiated cover of grey & white; even when there have been patches of blue the clouds have stayed stubbornly stuck, done nothing interesting at all.

This week we have had everything from mare’s tails to pleated cotton wool to grey storm clouds racing across the sky at a tremendous lick.

Pause for thought

The most likely cause of Spontaneous Human Combustion, I read in times Eureka, is that a lit cigarette accidentally ignites subcutaneous fats, which in turn ignite the rest of the body.

However as UK Skeptics point out ‘Cases of claimed SHC are rare which suggests that the conditions necessary for wick-effect burning to occur are also rare.’

The flames start to die away as the body fat is used up. So the way to reduce the risk, as a smoker, is to make sure you are as thin as possibly can be.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Computers of myth & legend

It was through a piece of pure Googlestance that I came across Hector the supercomputer. I have to confess that I was not really aware that supercomputers were still needed, except for large scale number crunching jobs such as weather forecasting – we hear so much about schemes which allow you to donate spare capacity on your home computer to various large scale projects as to believe that such behemoths are no longer required for mere academic research

Mind you, a sneaky bit of me thinks that if it takes over 1.3 billion grid points and 640 processors running for 5 days ‘to achieve flow development sufficient to obtain turbulence statistics & spectra within the turbulent patch’ then there must be a simpler way - we are not nearly as clever as we need to be.

Hector reminded me of his predecessor Atlas, the British supercomputer of the early 1960s. The one acquired by London University was regarded with some awe, but looking back at how the subject was covered in The Times, it is plain that the £2,000,000 cost placed a severe strain on the university’s finances & two-thirds of its time was made available for commercial projects to ease the burden.

Looking at what The Times was reporting of the dawn of the new computer age can be dispiriting. An article by Derek Whipp in October 1961 reports that “There has been scepticism. Men who for years have made decisions based on their experience sometimes doubt what the machine tells them because the results do not seem to stand the challenge of common sense.”

A high street chemist started a computerised stock control/reordering system. People who had hitherto relied on their own mental processes doubted the results, but a check proved that human methods had allowed for unnecessary contingencies.

Using a phone to link to a computer, printing by computer (a £28,650 research grant to London University to explore the options was announced in February 1964) – these belonged to a future fantasy.

And it was not really until after the mid-1980s, after the arrival of the desk top computer &, even more importantly, the visual display screen for output right now, right here, that computers began to be the familiar objects that they are today.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Forever unknowable unknowns

Tim Harford is worried that he may soon be past his prime, but on the other side Jonah Lehrer says the US’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been funding ever-older scientists, he worries that funding goes to scientists past their prime.

“Lehrer wants more funding to be directed to younger scientists, but he may be bumping against a more fundamental force than gerontocratic funding bodies. As the economist Benjamin Jones has discovered, scientists are having to specialise more and study for longer, because the frontiers of knowledge are now much further advanced than they were in Einstein’s day.”

It must be open to question whether we really know more than our ancestors. Considered just at the personal level is it plausible any one modern human can ‘know’ more than any individual from the past? What about all the things which they – rightly or wrongly – ‘knew’ to be the case but of which we are totally ignorant, or which have now been relegated to the province of the secluded scholar examining dusty tomes.

The traveller of today needs to know how to read an airline schedule or a motorway map, or how to switch on the sat nav; they do not need to know how to navigate on water.

Years ago I heard someone say that the reason why small children could set a video recorder but their grandparents could not was that a small child just pushes buttons until something happens – grandparents try to understand the instruction manual. ‘Push buttons until something happens’ is, I have found, an invaluable tip in these days of ever-evolving computer technologies – though the need to understand the instructions is the main reason that I do not want to take on the role of being my own home-IT manager.

This idea that it takes longer for a scientist to reach the stage of knowing enough to be able to make new findings has worried me for some time – I think it is one of those beliefs which contributes to the relative unpopularity of science at school. As one young woman said, in any other class I feel I can make a contribution of my own, but in science only the teacher knows, you just have to listen.

Even in my day – I actually set out to do physics A level, thinking that it must surely start to get interesting now. I dropped out by early November.

Part of the problem is that, as Collingwood argued, you cannot understand the answer unless you understand the question that scientists were setting out to answer. Yes, Boyles Law may stand the test of time & be capable of universal application, but why was the question so important then, & why did his experiments take the form that they did?

Is there any good reason why we cannot start children with Einstein, bringing in the earlier history as & when needed, or even relegating it to a separate part of the curriculum?

At the very least we should, through media such as animations, compress the file of scientific knowledge into forms that allow the principles to be quickly assimilated, leaving students to practice the true experimental method by testing their own (mini) hypotheses.

The Whiggish theory of scientific progress – of the inevitability of its particular path towards Theories of Everything – cannot be maintained forever. This approach must be ultimately self-defeating – assuming that there continues to be a limit to the length of the human lifespan, the day will come when that simply isn’t long enough to get to the end of what is known & the rest will be permanently & forever in the realm of the unknowable unknown.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Strapping children

I was ticking myself off for using such a tired old cliché as 'strapping sons' when I paused to wonder if anybody still uses it nowadays – in which case it is more of an archaism than a cliché. And what does it mean anyway?

Imagine my surprise when I turned to the OED to find ‘Originally of a young woman: Full of activity, vigorous, lusty (obs.). Now of a person of either sex: Strongly and stoutly built, robust, sturdy.’

A quick Google showed that ‘strapping son(s)’ is still in common enough use (about 10,000 results).

A ‘strapping girl’ however produces many times more – about 80,000 – all of which seem to be of a kind that is unsuitable for an elderly lady to look at.

But 'strapping young woman' - about 90,000 results - seems respectable enough.

Related post

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Strange remedies

A diary item informs us that the injuries of some very famous & valuable footballers have been subjected to some rum sounding treatments – such as calf’s blood or blood from crow’s feet. In the latter case it is not made clear whether the owners of the feet are birds or human kind.

But strange substances with therapeutic effects are not unknown in the world of Big Pharma, so patients with ordinary NHS prescriptions may (often unwittingly) be taking some rum products too.

One of the best known versions of HRT comes from the urine of pregnant Canadian mares; one of the drugs used to stimulate fertility comes (or used to) from the urine of post-menopausal Italian nuns.

So there.

If only we could cheer autumn

Hopkins sumptuous, sensuous, overwrought language seems more appropriate to the autumn which is now upon us than does Keats languid mists and mellow fruitfulness. It is depressing, but seems as if we are in for a repeat of last year’s gusts & unpredictable downpours.

Hurrahing in the Harvest

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
And, eyes, heart, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love's greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
Majestic — as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet! —
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Get the grey cells moving

Just what I need for an autumn break:

The categorical flow of information in quantum physics and linguistics

Train station

We don’t have railway stations in England anymore. We have train stations instead. They have made their appearance on the destination boards of the free (to all) buses which scoot round town.

A fact which makes some people very, very annoyed. My mother would turn in her grave to hear that St Pancras is now an International Train Station.

The Railway Hotel, not The Train Hotel, was a feature of every town.

In everyday conversation the railway station was often just called the station, but buses have stations too & when bus travel has become popular again there is a need, for the avoidance of doubt, to make it clear which station you mean.

You might think that we have always used the word train for the things which travel on the railways, but a glance at the OED would suggest not. The ‘train’ was just the ‘immense’ number of carriages behind the engine at the opening of the Stockton to Darlington railway in 1825. Nowadays I suspect you would get funny looks if you suggested that the engine was not part of the train, even if it were an old fashioned steam one. Imagine telling a small child that Thomas is not a train!

Nowadays we would usually say that we travelled by train, rather than rail, just as we specify the conveyance rather than the medium for road & air.

It used to be British Rail, now we have Virgin Trains who, of course, do not own the railway track.

But perhaps it was British Rail’s famous advertising slogan of the 1970s - Let the train take the strain – which started the rot.

International tourism may have played its part too – railway is a hard word for many non-English speakers to pronounce.
Related posts

Friday, September 10, 2010

Unreliable sources

Yet again the printed press failed to give us proper references to a scientific, statistical or official report, in a way that they would not dream of doing if they were talking about a newly published novel.

On Thursday (9 September) we had figures splashed about on the numbers of ‘families where no one works.’ – 4 million ‘according to the Office for National Statistics’ in something referred to simply as ‘the report.’

There was only one thing wrong – at least only one thing that I spotted in The Times graphic: the ‘Total number of UK households’ was given as 20.4 million, which is simply not the case; figures published earlier this year by the Department of Communities & Local Government for example put the total for England alone at 21.5 million households in 2006.

Fortunately the ONS website has become a lot easier to navigate recently & at least I was looking for something very up to date – it is still not so easy to find things which are not so currently in the news.

And so we find that ‘Estimates on the economic activity status of households are for only those households that includes at least one person aged 16 to 64’. The missing millions consist of households where all the adults are over 65.

If we were to include all those households that figure of 4 million households without a wage or salary coming in may even double – the number of over-65s who live on their own as single-person households is approaching 3 million just in England.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Advantages of birth

The new Cameron girl has two names that augur well for her future.

Florence for the thoughtful, independent & determined Nightingale.

And Cameron which, according to American research, would help ensure her a successful career in the law, should she choose that profession.

Which is just as well, should go a long way to offsetting the perceived disadvantage of being an August baby, & one who was slightly premature to boot, destined to struggle at school, always the baby of the class.

Still, her daddy, a strapping October baby, entered the top academic class at his prep school almost two years early, so her genetic inheritance may well more than outweigh the supposed disadvantage of being a summer baby.


Wednesday, September 08, 2010

BBC pay survey

The Radio 4 website is running an intriguing survey which asks what the respondent thinks that people in a variety of occupations actually earn, & what the respondent thinks they should earn. What particularly marks it out from any other that I (not a regular seeker out of on-line surveys) have seen is that you can then view the results immediately, expressed in some very simple but effective & easy to understand graphics. It is going to be interesting to hear the programme which discusses the results.

On a more nerdy note, I hope someone is taking regular snapshots of the histograms of the responses as they accumulate – it would be fascinating to see how they evolved as N got bigger. Do they tend towards the normal, or something else?

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Blair reaction

Haldane had the perfect pocket cartoon reaction to the publication of the book by our dear last leader but one.

To Father reading a bedtime story from A Journey; small impatient son reacts with: Are we there yet?

Proper bread

A blurb for a television programme promised ‘proper bread’ – made with anchovies, chillies, walnut & apricots, maple syrup & pecans.

Real proper bread does not need to be so mucked about by show offs. It just needs to be light & firm enough to hold whatever deliciousness you feel like adding at the time of eating.

If only such a thing were possible these days

Monday, September 06, 2010

Elegant existential variation

Now Pakistan is balanced on an existential knife-edge, according to a recent Times leader.

At least it makes a change from an existential crisis.

Well I never!

Sam Coates of The Times had a list of 100 things you may not know about the first 100 days of the coalition government.

Among those that caught my eye:

The garden girls are being pruned – fewer are needed ‘for 4am help’ since Gordon Brown’s departure.

Banksy the graffiti artist is an old friend of Mrs Cameron from her days as an art student. Looks like a trend, what with the choice of a Ben Eine work as a gift for President Obama.

All four ministers at the Department for Energy & Climate Change are millionaires.

David Davis has suffered ‘gamekeepers wrist’, so named because the injury can be incurred by those who have strangled too many birds. Also known as skier’s thumb.

There are no Lib Dem ministers in the Departments for Culture, Environment, International Development, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Gordon Brown has not voted, spoken nor asked a single Question in Parliament since losing the premiership.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Dial 111

We are to have a new ‘non-emergency’ number for getting help with our health – nice & easy to remember, it is 111.

Presumably in these digital electronic fibre optic days there is not much chance of this number being accidentally triggered – though one fears that it will be all too easy for anyone drunk, malicious or feeble minded to dial it just for a laugh or just because they can.

As children we were delighted by daddy’s explanation of why the number couldn’t be 111 – surely you could dial that more quickly than 999? Well yes, but it could also be set off very easily by the birds who were always resting on the lines, tapping away with their beaks. A lot of time would be wasted in false alarms.

When we were older teenagers there was a craze for making free phone calls from public telephone boxes – all you had to do was lift the receiver & tap out the number on the bar underneath it; this somehow bypassed the Press Button A charging mechanism. Our father warned us of the criminal record we would get if we tried it – all the engineers had to do was listen at the Exchange – the clicks were obviously not being made by a dial – AND as they would also know which phone box the sound was coming from, a police car would be round before we had even completed our call. We didn’t believe that bit, but we got the message. And in truth it wasn’t a very accurate dialling method, so all that those who tried it really achieved was a series of nuisance calls to bemused subscribers.

But isn’t it odd how people still talk about dialling a number – does anybody ever get to do this literally any more.

A question of definition

A definition, as it is normally used in modern science, must be read back to front, or from the right to the left: for it starts with the defining formula and asks for a short label to it.

Thus the scientific view of the definition "A puppy is a young dog" would be that it is an answer to the question "What shall we call a young dog?" rather than an answer to the question "What is a puppy?"

So said Karl Popper.

Some scientists seem to think that the question being posed is "What shall we call the Creator?" & their purpose just to define away the question.

Just as we can get rid of the problem of infinities by getting rid of zero.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

School rebellion

According to a report on Fridays Womans Hour, at least one school has banned the wearing of skirts (by girls) – trousers only allowed, because of the modern fad for rolling over the waistband to make the skirt indecently short.

And to think it is not much more than twenty years since the last action was taken under the Sex Discrimination Act to win little girls the right to wear trousers to school.

Friday, September 03, 2010

No highway

Radio 4 has just finished Neville Shute’s No Highway as their classic serial for Sunday afternoons. I was much more intrigued by this than I expected to be in this old fashioned work, although as a youngster I was a keen consumer of his novels.

It is indeed very much a work of its time (1948) but the issues tackled are not; in particular it addresses the conflict between predictions of disaster based on theory, (in this case metal fatigue, which seemed to many to be eerily far sighted when the cause of the Comet crashes of the 1950s was discovered) & the need for empirical evidence of real risk before taking the expensive remedies recommended as essential.

It covers the problem of the socially inept boffin who is singularly lacking in social skills or emotional intelligence – though he loved his wife who lost her life in a bombing raid & has a touching though neglectful relationship with his 12 year old daughter.

The boffin is also interested in the supernatural – something not completely unknown among reputable & distinguished scientists at the time.

Home & family are important - & most definitely woman’s place; the grown up women in the story are helpmeets, there to provide the comforts & emotional intelligence; interestingly the young daughter is allowed to exhibit some of the other kind of intelligence, though she also struggles over problems of dish mops, hot water & making cakes.

It comes across as odd – even unforgivable – to modern ears that the cause of the problem was covered up by the authorities – national prestige, among other things, was at stake. But in 1948 the idea that some things needed to be kept secret - Walls Have Ears; Keep Mum – probably seemed just a part of the natural order of things.


When considering questions of racism the problem of language comes up over & over again. What is acceptable changes over time, what may be well meant may cause outrage or give offence. When you are on the receiving end, or even just a participant in the conversation, it can be a problem to know whether or not to react, even gently or politely, in these circumstances.

There have been so many moving reminiscences recently from people who experienced racism as children in 1960s or 1970s Britain – recollected in what might be called the calmer waters of a C21st multicultural Britain - & middle age; I have read or heard those of Jackie Kay, Gary Younge, Zadie Smith, Baroness Scotland & Andrea Levy. These have inevitably perhaps prompted some of my own reminiscences as a member of a multicultural family.

For example there was the Sunday morning when we were staying at my parents & I had gone out to buy the Sunday papers at the local suburban shopping parade. As I came out of the shop with my two-year-old daughter a well-dressed grandfather was approaching, with his small grandson trailing along behind.

Oh come Tom, said the grandfather excitedly, come see the little piccaninny – isn’t she beautiful! Say hello!

What’s not to like about that? But, as the OED says, Now considered offensive when used by a white person of a black child - it seems to convey something between condescension & contempt.

The word appears to stem ultimately from the Portuguese pequenino, meaning very small, tiny. It is in widespread use in many areas of the world, & the OED lists over 50 variants. Far from being offensive, in circumstances other than the one proscribed, it demonstrates great affection.

In my particular experience I think I was offended by the implication that my daughter was some kind of rare specimen, something to be gawped at in a zoo. And, in the case of English English, the pronunciation grates; in other countries I have known it is pronounced much more like pik'nee, with a falling intonation & equal weight on the syllables. Drawing it out into a drawled Pick-A-Ninny puts the emphasis on the ninny, with its connotations of simpleton or fool – a very red rag in the debate over race & IQ!

Things got even more interesting when I checked up on ninny however. In its sense of simpleton the OED has it as 'etymology uncertain', perhaps from innocent. But two other separate meanings of the word are listed.

Just two C17th quotations illustrate its obsolete & rare occurrence as a word meaning simply a child, presumed to come from the Spanish niño.

The third meaning - female breast, or breast milk - is described as chiefly U.S. regional (chiefly south.) slang. We are invited to compare it with the French néné.

So, whatever you make of the word ninny, its associations all seem to stem from the natural innocence & charm of baby- or childhood.

Still doesn't make me look much more fondly on the incident however.

pickaninnie, pickoning, piganinny, piccaninny, pickaninny, pickaniny, picanine, picaninni, piccanini, piccaninni, piccaniny, piccinini, pickanene, pickeeninnee, pickeninny, pickeniny, pickerninny, pickininny, pickinnine, picaninny, picanniny, picanini, picaniny, picannini, picinniny, pikinini, pikkanienie, pickinny, piccanny, pickini, pickne, pick'ny, picknie, pickny, piccney, pickney, picnie, picnii, picny, pikni, pikny, pickney, picanny, picanny, pickin, piccin, picken, picanin, picannin, piccanin, piccannin, pickanin, piekanien, pikanin. [With thanks to OED].

Related posts
Guard thy rakel tongue

Divided by common language

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Female Baddies

Wednesday’s Womans Hour carried an item about Female Baddies on film & tv. I was intrigued to hear that part way through the discussants – Jenni Murray, Karen Krizanovich & Dr Helen Hanson – slipped into using the word ‘evil’ to describe these women, but then seemed to shy away from that & went back to calling them simply bad – just as the OED noticed!

Related post
Doing harm

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Doing harm

Is M*** B*** the most evil woman in Britain yelped the question in one tabloid headline. There have been campaigns of vilification of the woman on social networks, threats have been made against her life, the police have offered protection.

The woman, for reasons unknown, dumped a live cat (not her own) in a wheelie bin then walked away & left it there.

The cat survived to be rescued fifteen hours later. Probably did not even have to use up one of its nine lives.

Well it is the silly season & we all know that the tabloids like to have their bit of fun (don’t take everything so seriously, you old sourpuss) & the people issuing threats would probably be amazed (most of them) at the idea that we might think they would ever get round to actually carrying them out.

In the same week the papers reported the case of a woman who, with her husband, had allowed their two adopted daughters to be abused by paedophiles because one of the men had helped with money for a car.

Actually though, I’m not sure that evil is the right word for her either.

Curiously, the OED says that in modern colloquial English it is little used as an adjective, ‘such currency as it has being due to literary influence’ & has mostly been superseded by bad, although in Old English it was ‘the most comprehensive adjectival expression of disapproval, dislike, or disparagement’. A swift glance at their date charts show virtually no uses quoted since 1900 – until a DRAFT ADDITION JANUARY 2005 quoting President Reagan’s use of ‘Evil Empire’.

I am going to have to ponder this one.

Seven days in The Crezz

We are to be treated to a new reality show based in Notting Hill. The Times headline on the announcement read First the film, now Notting Hill the soap opera.

But the film was not the first, & this is not the first Notting Hill soap opera. That honour goes to The Crezz, a Coronation Street for the middle class southerner, filmed in Elgin Crescent during the long hot summer of 1976.

It was appallingly awful, despite a distinguished cast. So that’s why media types prefer to forget about it.