Sunday, October 31, 2010

Not-so-simply connecting

Last week on In Our Time someone mentioned how logic was transformed when Boole recognised the correspondence between AND and multiplication.

Well yes, but …

Every small child knows that one and one make two.

Three and two make five.

When you progress to the magic of multiplication, then one times one is one and two times three is six.

And still means plus.

When I was introduced to probability theory half a century ago it was through set theory & the union U or intersection ∩ of sets, which certainly helped to get it clear in my mind & so also helped me to avoid the so-called “conjunction fallacy”.

The now classic illustration of this starts with an Anchoring Vignette - a woman named Linda is described. She is single, in her early 30s, outspoken & clever, a philosophy graduate, interested in issues such as nuclear non-proliferation. When asked which of the following is more likely:

A Linda is a bank clerk
B Linda is a bank clerk and is active in the feminist movement

most people choose B. Which is the wrong answer because the probability of two things being true for the same person is found by multiplying the two probabilities together, & since a probability is a fraction, a number between 0 & 1, the product must be less than either of the two probabilities on its own – except of course when one probability is zero, in which case the chance of the two things occurring together is also zero.

While it is perhaps not surprising that those not trained in probability theory may make this mistake, it is startling that even those who do understand feel uneasy about the case of Linda. Could the theory be wrong?


Related post

A Short Song of Congratulation

I like this nice rumpty-tum-poem-with-a-moral by Samuel Johnson - brings back childhood. It is also one we might all ruefully recite in our post credit-crunch tristesse.

..... And it contains that lovely word pother.

LONG-EXPECTED one and twenty
Ling'ring year at last has flown,
Pomp and pleasure, pride and plenty
Great Sir John, are all your own.

Loosen'd from the minor's tether,
Free to mortgage or to sell,
Wild as wind, and light as feather
Bid the slaves of thrift farewell.

Call the Bettys, Kates, and Jenneys
Ev'ry name that laughs at care,
Lavish of your Grandsire's guineas,
Show the spirit of an heir.

All that prey on vice and folly
Joy to see their quarry fly,
Here the gamester light and jolly
There the lender grave and sly.

Wealth, Sir John, was made to wander,
Let it wander as it will;
See the jocky, see the pander,
Bid them come, and take their fill.

When the bonny blade carouses,
Pockets full, and spirits high,
What are acres? What are houses?
Only dirt, or wet or dry.

If the Guardian or the Mother
Tell the woes of willful waste,
Scorn their counsel and their pother,
You can hang or drown at last.

Samuel Johnson


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Kirsty, Nick & smoking

I was not taken by surprise when Nick Clegg revealed his secret vice on Desert Island Discs last Sunday – Radio 4 had already trailed it as an item in the midnight news.

Of course Opposition parliamentarians & the press commentators will have their fun with it, but there does not seem to have been much Shock! Horror! from the public. Even Radio 4’s own Feedback found that ‘listeners weren't concerned about what he said on Desert island Discs about his inability to give up smoking’. Of course since something like a quarter of all adults still smoke, to many that would seem to be like criticising someone they know & like.

It is perhaps slightly more of a surprise that the anti-smoking brigade have not been making more of it. But since they can hardly say that Nick Clegg is too ignorant to understand the risks, & since much, if not most, of their funding comes from the government they would need to think twice before criticising the deputy prime minister. And if they took him on in a public debate they might run the risk of finding many voters would say ‘I agree with Nick.’

What did take me by surprise was Kirsty Young’s reaction: ‘I will make sure that you have a plentiful supply of matches.’ Surely only an ex (or, whisper it, a fellow secret-smoker) would understand that the only thing worse than no cigarettes is a cigarette & nothing to light it with.
Related post
Lighting up time

According to taste

Hobgoblin beer is back – a real recession proof tipple, it seems.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Eating People Is Wrong

I have just been re-reading Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People Is Wrong.

Well, a literal & technical re-reading – repeating what I had done soon after first publication in 1959 – so it came as a shock to find that I remember virtually nothing of it. The details have all got muddled up with other so-called campus novels of those years. I thought I remembered it as being one of those where the young English lecturer goes to America, which this one is not despite it being published soon after Bradbury returned from a stint at Indiana. It stays firmly based on an English provincial university.

This time I read 1976 edition (brought up from the library basement) which contains Bradbury’s own reflections in an introduction.

Frankly I don’t think I would have enjoyed it very much if coming to it fresh today. Not one of the characters attracts any sympathy or real interest from me – though I’m pretty sure I remember thinking them all rather alarmingly sophisticated half a century ago. It didn’t pass Philip Larkin’s three tests of a novel – “Do I believe it? Do I care? Will I go on caring?”

There is however a surprising amount of sex –none of it at all explicit of course in those days before the Lady Chatterley judgement. Anyway at sixteen I failed to recognise it, not only out of sheer naivety & ignorance, but also because the characters were all obviously too old for anything like that – the ‘hero’, Professor Treece, is almost forty.

I did enjoy it for the nuggets of social history.

Treece wonders if he is failing to live up to his professorial status by living in a somewhat seedy late-Victorian house, travelling by motorised bicycle, having an account with the Post office Savings Bank, going to an NHS doctor & wearing M&S pyjamas (foreshadowing Jeremy Paxman’s complaint about the cut of the crotch); paper back books were useful because you could afford so many more of them, though you had to go to the library to provide the reference from hard back edition for a scholarly paper.

I was prompted to re-read Eating People by reviews of the recently published volume of Larkin’s letters which allege that Treece’s fellow academic Dr Viola Masefield is a thinly disguised & rather cruel portrayal of Philip Larkin’s Monica.

Viola Masefield knew how to be modern by making dustbins look interesting, what to serve with shishkebabs, how high up to put her bosom this month & the best way to renovate old skis. She also knew “What to do with a mobile when it isn’t.” Only babies now have mobiles of the type referred to, but in the 1950s no fashionable drawing room would be complete without one. In a novel in which none of the characters is very admirable, I found it difficult to see Bradbury’s treatment of her as particularly unkind.

One episode of the book provides yet more evidence of the strange fascination being exerted by the coffee bar with its glass cups no bigger than eye baths. Treece was taken by a sociologist on a daring visit one night to the only such bar in the city, in a warehouse owned by a Pole. One of its main attractions was that it stayed open when everything else closed at half past ten. It had a skiffle group, one of whose guitarists was a genuinely aristocratic Earl, & ever so very contemporary furniture ‘for people with no leg below the knee joint & a short sharp spike for a bottom.’ The espresso machine was being operated by a Sikh ‘dressed in his native garb.’

Treece wondered if people could really afford a shilling for a cup of coffee.

Willoughby, the academic turned best-selling author, ponders the meaning of fame: you not only had to be someone, but to look as if you ere someone to attract the attention of the gossip columnists. He was also disappointed to find that he did not seem to share the special dispensation granted to artists, who could betray, deceive & ill-treat strings of women who still queued for their attention: ‘Willoughby ill treated & was cruel to his women, in twos & threes, & they hated it & him.’

I wonder how the Willoughbys felt when, in no time at all, their students were deserting academe for rock stardom.

Bradbury says that he thought he was writing a novel about the difficulties of being a liberal in the 1950s when literature seemed to have a significance in the new cultural economy & thus made reading English at university a prevalent moral passion. But this version of liberalism seemed singularly useless, consisting of letting others get on with their own strange lives & beliefs just so long as they did not upset yours, & gave you credit for the sympathy you felt, even though every Englishman knew that England was the country that God had got to first, properly.

And so Treece (& Bradbury?) prove completely unable to make real connection with the largely undifferentiated ‘Negroes’ in the book who are there just to cause embarrassment by, for example, demanding a ‘consecrated room’ in which to pray during a reception for International Students; & though Treece does his duty when Mr Eborebelosa becomes the victim of an attack by racist louts in the city, his fellow-feelings are not engaged.


Related posts

Rocking the cradle

After the excavation of 3 tonnes of sand in the Dur At-Talah desert in central Libya, scientists have found fossils which suggest that we may, after all have come out of Asia, not Africa.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Baby names

The latest Baby Names were published yesterday by National Statistics. This prompted me to try to find the answer to question which always bugs me when these appear.

Which name(s) do they count?

The notes to the tables do not make this clear, saying only that ‘These rankings have been produced using the exact spelling of the name given at birth registration. Similar names with different spellings have been counted separately.’

Most babies have more than one first or forename - some have a whole football team though I guess the most usual number is two. From the numbers in the National Statistics tables I guess they count only the first first name mentioned on the registration, though since only the top 100 names are covered by the tables, it is impossible to be absolutely sure of this.

I wonder if anybody has ever attempted to establish how many babies are, from the start, intended to be known by their second or higher order first name. Parents may choose not to put this name first on the birth certificate for a variety of reasons, ranging from euphony, to sucking up to the person whose name you are giving to the child, to the avoidance of an unfortunate set of initials. Some parents may even come from a culture where different conventions apply.

It’s not that I think that the figures mislead in any important way but, as someone with several family members who are & always have been known by a name, registered but not the first on the list, & as someone who was taught from the very beginning about the importance of definition in official statistics, this lack of clarity in the explanatory notes really gets my goat.

On the plus side, the National Statistics website continues to improve, is much easier to navigate & to find historic data rather than merely the latest 'product' & it is good to see experiments with newer graphic methods of presentation.

Oblique in meaning

Babies with asymmetrical heads …

As I read this (in the British Medical Journal) I was seized with horror at the very idea of such an alarming condition of which I had never previously heard.

Whether or not it is grammatically correct, I think (hope) I should have written, had I had a need to report on such a thing, of a baby with an asymmetrical head.

Just to make it clear that it was plagiocephaly, not polycephaly, whereof I spoke.

Related post

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Keeping the voters in touch

Yesterday we had a first – a three hour morning programme broadcast live on local radio from the Houses of Parliament; not debates or committee hearings, but a presenter working in the Central Lobby, with links to the studio for all the normal music, news & regular local features.

There were interviews with the (newly elected) local MP & with those from several of the neighbouring constituencies & with at least one Parliamentary official – all in the interests of giving local people a better understanding of what goes on & what we get for the salaries that we pay.

Technically all went very well too - I wasn’t listening with my ear glued to the set but did not hear any glitches. Presenters Holly Knebel in the studio & Ben Price in Parliament rose beautifully to the challenge.

Never alone

Proof at last – you are never really really alone.

There are lots of us fans & admirers of electricity pylons out here.

I kmow that now, thanks to the publicity for a BBC tv programme The Secret Life of the National Grid


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bionic bicyclists

Department of small coincidences.

It took some time to get round to posting about the strange blue cycle headlights, then it took more time to get round to reading all through Friday’s Times.

And what do I find in the City Diary? An item about a new kind of bicycle light that can be implanted under the skin.

I cannot find in the academic reports any trace of that as a suggested use for these flexible leds, rather various exciting medical possibilities. But these environmentalists are quick to seize upon all things green, & it seems to be a press release from the Environmental Transport Association which set this one running.

Paul de octopus is dood

A sad day – or does it come as a relief to professional forecasters of the future that Paul the Psychic Octopus has died?

BBC radio news was giving no details as to cause of death, whether foul play is suspected, or whether a post mortem is expected.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Telling stories & statistics

No, not just another way of expressing the same old, same old canard about damn lies, but an interesting post, Stories vs. Statistics by JOHN ALLEN PAULOS from the New York Times.

One quote I particularly like: "The more details there are in a story, the less likely it is that the conjunction of all of them is true."

Coincidentally I recently heard for the first time of the technique of Anchoring Vignettes - horrible term - used in some social science research.

Interesting attempts to combine the hard ('inhuman') with the more people-friendly approach to sorting out the meaning of life.

Same but different

I never got round to continuing with my same but different analysis.

The next step is to relax the simple binary classification of attributes & to assume that each follows a normal (bell shaped) distribution.

Most people would still come out not too far from the average on each of the measures, , sitting comfortably under the higher part of the curve amidst lots of people more or less just like them.

But a small proportion – say 5% - would be right out under the tail – noticeably different from the rest of humanity. And a tiny fraction would be in the tail of the distribution of all our twenty chosen characteristics – real freaks, though fundamentally no different, having no non-human characteristic.

But it must be very hard to maintain equilibrium & sanity in that situation.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Do buried miners (& submariners & potholers) come up to earth in the same way that astronauts come down to earth?

Unhappy men

When the news coming out of Haiti is once again just another addition to a long history of disappointed hope & pain, it seems appropriate to remember Wordswoth's fine poem about Toussaint L'Ouverture


TOUSSAINT, the most unhappy of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon's earless den; -
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There's not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man's unconquerable mind.

William Wordsworth

Related post

The Art of Math

Some nice stuff, via The n-Category Café about The Art of Math.

And a nice quote too:

‘If Venn diagrams can be thought of as the equivalent of kids’ crayon drawings, then category theory is more akin to the works of Picasso.’

Is this just a simile, or does it imply that the mathematicians took their inspiration, learned lessons from, the drawings of Picasso? I should really like to think it is the latter.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Call yourself a blogger?

Andrew Marr caused some excitement recently with some intemperate remarks about bloggers at the Cheltenham Literary festival. The reports do not give a complete context for theses remarks, but they read more like something he may have said in response to a question from the audience rather than as a considered part of his lecture.

I currently have feeds to 53 blogs – that number surprised me, but some post intermittently, some seem dormant, others may well be defunct. Of course I don’t read them all word for word, a quick skim just to see what it’s all about will often suffice. Needless to say none of the bloggers matches Andrew Marr’s description.

In fact 27 come from established media organisations (including 8 from the BBC; there used to be almost as many from The Times before it went behind the paywall) & 3 are by commercial organisations. Most of the rest have some kind of academic connection. Subjects range from politics (8), law (6) medical (3) economics (5) language (5) and stats/science/maths (15).

Of course intemperate language is not unknown in the printed columns of professional journalists – even those at the posher end of the market. And the intemperate or loony commentator is not the bastard offspring of the anonymity of the web – Letters to the Editor used to spawn them too (& that is just the ones they published). Any civil servant who has been on the receiving end of a letter passed down from the ministerial office, marked ‘Treat Officially’ (ie reply to the correspondent under your own name, do not send up a draft for the minister to sign) will have seen some choice specimens too.

But Andrew Marr did prompt one question in my mind. How many of those who own or contribute to the blogs that I read would actually call themselves a blogger? I suspect the number is small – most would say ‘I write’ or ‘I have’ or ‘I do’ a blog.

Anyone who actually revels in or claims the title of blogger is probably uncomfortably close to Andrew Marr’s description.


The bonds of marriage

One question comes to my mind in the wake of all the discussion of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on pre-nuptial agreements: how does a pre-nup differ from the kind of marriage contracts under the system of private law administered by the Court of Equity which were used by the upper classes & the wealthy at least until the C19th in England, & which circumvented the common law which said that a wife & all that she owned were the property of her husband?

As Joan Perkin sets out in her book Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England the women who were able to take advantage of this ‘were the most liberated group of wives in the country and perhaps in the world. How liberated they were depended on the size of their separate estates; but with even a modest private income assured to her separate use, a married woman had some choices about how to live her life.

They ‘could lead much more independent lives than other women; they could travel at home or abroad, visit friends or relatives and thereby avoid the claustrophobia of marriages where the spouses depended on each other entirely; at times of conflict they could leave their husbands, since they could maintain themselves, and they could pay the costs of divorce (assuming there were sufficient grounds for action or it suited the husband to end the marriage).’

Of course one difference between then & now was that details of the contract would be settled by negotiation by the bride’s father or other male relative. One worry expressed by today’s objectors to the presumption in favour of pre-nups is that the bride will be negotiating on her own behalf & is more likely to be the weaker or more vulnerable party. Indeed one of the judges, Baroness Hale, went so far as to say that ‘some might think it ill-suited to a decision by a court consisting of 8 men & 1 woman.’ The implications (‘poor little things’) of this make me feel very uncomfortable

On the opposite side Baroness Deech has argued strongly that ‘the awards to wives of very rich men, especially wives who have no children or have never worked outside the home, are not in keeping with the independence and equality of women, but amount to a signal to young women that they are better off marrying a footballer than pursuing a career.’

The end of history

History of the World in 100 Objects has come to an end, with the choice of a very up to date object to represent our age to the future.

While appreciating the symbolism of bringing light to dark places where the people do not share our luxury of illumination at the flick of a switch, I am disappointed by the choice of a solar powered lamp. This is partly because I am not sure if the technology has really yet proved itself appropriate in all circumstances & partly because it smacks too much of trendy right-on greenery & a Lady Bountiful attitude towards the unfortunate poor.

In the beginning was the word.

I would have gone for the mobile phone which has proved itself & already transformed the lives of rich & poor, old & young all over the world. What could be more symbolic of the connectedness of our common humanity?


Friday, October 22, 2010

The double blue light

Having waited for a speeding car to pass when I got off the bus on Tuesday evening, I looked back down the hill to see two strange blue lights coming slowly towards me. Perfectly circular, smaller than the headlights on a normal car & a bit higher off the ground too. In fact one seemed a bit higher than the other & also appeared to waver from side to side.

One of the things about ageing – all your faculties grow less acute & you become ever more aware of the truth that you have to interpret what you see – it is not just a reality laid out before you.

What on earth could it be? We are used to seeing all sorts of farm or other off-road vehicles round here, but none seemed to fit this. And it was moving so slowly, perhaps it wasn’t moving at all, was just something staying put at the side of the road - an idea which was reinforced by the fact that it wasn't making any noise, not even tyres on tarmac.

Strangely perhaps, the letters U F & O did not cross my mind. But just as I was deciding it was probably safe to step off the kerb it went past - & resolved into two lycra-clad male cyclists each wearing a version of a miner’s helmet.

Of course I have seen these things before – in fact one came out of the hospital as I was waiting for the bus last night – but the lights flash, instead of burning steadily & usually provide only a faint glimmer of orangey-yellow.

I suppose the blue ones are legal tender.

Happy birthday

My eye sometimes falls on the Happy Birthday column in The Times (didn’t it used to be called a less matey Today’s Birthdays?)

Must have been the now-shorn Lord Mandelson which yestreday drew my eye. I wonder if he feels as strange as I did when I first had my hair cut short.

He could have had a joint birthday party with an interestingly eclectic group, with guests including Manfred Mann, Binyamin Netanyahu, Geoffrey Boycott, Natalia Makarova & Carrie Fisher. Plus Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington to bring the count of titles back up.

Related post

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Correspondence in The Times has recently elucidated the difference between a practicing & a qualified solicitor: the latter has passed all the necessary exams but is not a practicing member of the profession. A practicing solicitor however must be qualified.

The first surprise I got from all this is that even the OED, contrary to the rule which we were taught in school – practise for the verb, practice for the noun – accepts that practice is now the generally accepted standard spelling for both.

It also set me wondering about religion & the old joke that Catholics are always practicing because, rather like St Augustine, they do not want to be perfect just yet.

You can be a practicing Anglican, but can you be a non-practicing Methodist? Can you be a practicing Jew, Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist. But can any practitioner of any religion be qualified as such?

Related post

Memories are made of this

The first record player we had at home was an old fashioned gramophone – not so old as to have a trumpet style loudspeaker which the dog could listen to, but old fashioned enough to have a heavy silver-coloured pick up arm with a steel needle which had to be frequently replaced. The arm also seemed to bounce up & down a lot as the record went round & round.

We had a small & very select collection of 78 rpm records – I can remember Eine Kleine, Barcarolle, Cavalleria Rusticana & the Skaters Waltz.

I think the first pop records we acquired must also have been 78s – they are certainly that size in my memory. Harry Belafonte singing Mary’s Boy Child & Perry Como Catch A Falling Star/Magic Moments.

But the record market was changing. At some point we had acquired a turntable which could manage 45, 33⅓ or 16⅔ rpm as well as 78. We also had an ingenious paper disc which could be placed over the central spindle to check that the speeds were accurate via a system of alternating black & white segments which blurred to grey at the correct number of revolutions per minute.
The first LP I bought with my own money was Swan Lake but then I veered into the world of teenage pop & for a while could listen to nothing but Adam Faith wishing that I wanted his love.

Postscript: I found the picture of something which looks remarkably like a genuine old fashioned pick up head on a fascinating website which is primarily a tribute to Byomkesh Bakshi, the Bengali detective, a kind of Sherlock Holmes, created by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay. Other pictures of an old fashioned gramophone can be seen at The Junk Drawer A What’s That Winner!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Responding to the cuts

We have been hearing a lot this week about rapidly rising demand for vasectomy reversals in this country. I suspect prompted by some clever PR from just one clinic.

It is doubly odd given that a rise in the demand for vasectomies was said to be one response to the economic recession in America.

Portion control

Heinz have introduced a new fridge pot for baked beans – you can take just what you need without having to worry about how to store the rest for another day.

This strikes me as a great idea, though my days for needing industrial supplies of baked beans to hand have, thankfully, now passed. But they would be a boon for other foods which we use often but in small quantities which supermarkets no longer provide.

I really look forward to the day when we can buy plum tomatoes this way.

And canned fruit too. A recent edition of River Cottage aimed to address the problem of falling sales of fresh fruit in this country. Even strawberry sales are down.

In my youth we got a large proportion of our fruit from cans, especially in winter. There is a lot to be said for a return to that, at least until they can solve the problem of selling us fresh fruit which is really ripe. But since I suspect that that will never be possible, at least not without unacceptably high levels of waste & spoilage, far better to harvest & can it at the moment of perfect ripeness.

Canned food went out of fashion when first frozen & then fresh vegetables became more widely available & canned fruit went with it, helped by the panic about sugar in the syrup. Now we know how to can without the addition of excessive sugar there is a lot to be said for going back, especially if it comes in a handy pot for the fridge.

Fresh fruit are different from vegetables in another way too – we no longer have to buy all the mud on potatoes or the haulm on the peas or the inedible stalks of cabbage & then feed them to the pigs or put them in the garbage at home. Nobody has really cracked the problem of selling fresh fruit without all the trimmings too, so my guess is that there would be no net gain in the amount of unnecessary & extravagant waste.

Why be fair?

Bystander, in The Magistrate’s Blog, points to what, in my opinion, is an extremely unfair aspect of the sentence imposed on the lady who put the cat in the bin.

She has to meet “a costs order of a whopping £1171” on top of a fine of £250 – because the case was prosecuted by the RSPCA, who come very expensive - if the CPS had prosecuted this, their costs for a plea would have been around £70.

We are all supposed to be thinking hard about what is fair these days of financial stringency.

Royal Mail

An advert for DHL logistics caught my eye. It stresses the reach, depth & strength of their knowledge of local areas & traffic conditions worldwide, so important for delivering on time.

That somehow brought into focus the problems with Royal Mail. All we (the public) ever do is fuss about Postman Pat finding his way round the Dales.

How very different from the 1860s when The Builder (a widely respected business magazine) could point to the example of the government-run Post Office as one which could be usefully copied by privately-owned commercial businesses in an age repeatedly subject to frauds, financial collapses & inefficient ways of working.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Burger mystery

There is a bit of an internet fad going on – people taking photos of a MacDonalds burger sitting on their kitchen counter day after day, without showing any sign of decay. Further proof, for those of a certain cast of mind, that MacDonalds are evil purveyors of the unnatural.

Steve Novella on the Neurologica blog has taken the opportunity to turn this into a science lesson, pointing out that the taking photos does not an experiment make, but is mere observation, & then going through the steps that would be needed to subject this to true scientific enquiry.

But enquiry takes time, until in the end a consensus of scientific opinion emerges.

Which is a problem in an age when suddenly we are all so keen on the idea of evidence based policy, & giving scientists, or The Science all due respect in the way in which we organise & run our society & our lives.

Sometimes you just have to make a decision before all the evidence is in. Even more importantly, scientists work by controlling for things which might mess up their nice experiments, make the results difficult to interpret without any nice clear law appearing.

Real life (& politics) have a nasty way of being contingent, of operating a in a world where ceteris just aren’t paribus & are in a constant state of flux, so there never will be just one more set of figures or experimental results that will make the decision clearly & unambiguously for you.

The circumstances vary, so the best decision may vary according to which downside or upside risks you are prepared or not prepared to take.

Presumably one of the purposes of investigating the non-decaying burger would be to decide Is it safe to eat, even after several days on the counter top? Most of us can probably get along just fine without having to find out the hard way. But suppose you are buried several thousand feet down a mine, with no obvious rescue in progress when you come across this object? Would you still decide that the risk was not worth taking?

It still astonishes me that mankind was able to decide or find out the answers to such questions long before the age of science. How did Amerindians establish the safe way to prepare bitter cassava for human consumption? Or establish the keeping qualities of casareep which are only now being partially confirmed by modern science?

But I am even more glad that modern scientific food hygiene has largely brought to an end, at least for those of us living in the west, the terrible toll of food poisoning in all its various forms & made nutritious food available to people at all levels of income – even if some of it offends my well-educated palate which has the honour to reside in such a prosperous body.


Saving ourselves

Closing headlines, Radio 4 World Tonight – Ritula Shah spoke of ‘a tax on computer networks’.

What a good idea – why had nobody thought of raising money that way before?

Oh no, she was speaking of the Defence Review – a priority is to guard our networks from attacks.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Conditions for the workers

Robert Crampton drew attention to the irony that Rochdale, home of John Bright who he says was one of the men responsible for getting the vote for working class men, should now be home to a population of whom 84% live on state benefits.

Well Bright certainly campaigned for the extension of the franchise, but it should be remembered that it was the Conservative government of Lord Derby (assisted by Disraeli in the House of Commons) which finally managed to get the bill through parliament after years of unsuccessful attempts by the Radicals & the Liberals.

As well to remember too that Bright’s economic radicalism (as one of the Manchester Men) had more in common with the Victorian values of Margaret Thatcher than with the Labour Party. He certainly did not support the idea of government interference in hours of work & wages decided by contracts which were freely entered into by factory owners & the workers.


The speed of modern travel

THE Queen is back down south after her summer in the Highlands.

The Court Circular reports that she departed Balmoral on the morning of 11 October. That same afternoon she was in Southampton Docks for the naming of the new Cunard liner, the Queen Elizabeth.

How very much more hectic than Queen Victoria’s journey south in 1867.

Safe keeping

There has been some discussion about whether savers could ever be charged for the privilege of holding a deposit account with a bank – effectively putting interest rates below zero.

Well why shouldn’t the banks charge for giving us a place to store our money which is safer than under the mattress or behind the clock on the mantelpiece?

On second thoughts …

Related post

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Akkadian Live

I am grateful to R.L.G of the Economist Johnson blog for the link to recordings of Assyrian poetry & literature.

To be able to listen to The Epic of Gilgamesh in the original language.

The internet was silent when it started, now it needs to speak - Voice over artist heard on R4 Word of mouth May 2010


Lord Byron's Darkness

I cannot remember what age I was when I first read this powerful poem by Lord Byron, but I remember that my heart was in my mouth as I waited for the resolution – would all turn out well in the end?

It describes a dream where

The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space

But it did not end with daybreak, for

Morn came and went - and came, and brought no day

The people responded by lighting fires – everything was burned to bring some light back into the world, and the result was anarchy, famine, war & the total destruction of man’s humanity to man.

The world was void,
The populous and the powerful - was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless -
A lump of death - a chaos of hard clay.

Until – entropy

The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave …
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them--She was the Universe.

In some ways the poem could be interpreted as an all-purpose description of how the world will end through the agency of man, whether by his direct action or as punishment for his sin. In our time perhaps an awful warning about climate change & global warming, but it could equally have served as a forewarning of nuclear winter for those alive in the 1950s.

It was published first in 1816, the year after the eruption of Mount Tambora, the consequences of which were far worse even than those of this year’s eruption of Eyjafjallajökull.

The whole poem can be read here

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Rerum cognoscere causas

Floating Sheep have been having More Fun with Spurious Correlations. "Falafel" is highly correlated with "feminist" and as is "shepherd's pie" with "gay".

Chilean conundrum

So the mining accident in Chile could be put down to unpardonably lax or inadequately administered safety procedures – a Bad Thing.

But here’s the conundrum. Perhaps the world is a now better place because the accident gave us - & more especially the Chileans – such a powerful & uplifting story. A Good Thing.

Isabel Allende, who was there to witness the return of the men to the surface, said on radio this morning that she would not be turning it into a novel – it was a novel in itself, which ‘already has elements of magic realism about it’.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The falling of the leaves

The leaves are really falling off the trees now.

Our brief Indian summer – more of an Indian spring really – came to an end last night with rain. Today the clouds enfold the tops of the hills & there are spurts of brisk wind – one caught me out under a real shower of leaves as I waited to cross the road.

Mummy politicians

The Times has made two uncharacteristic political mistakes this week – they should bring in fact checkers.

Admittedly one was only in a would-be humorous television preview: appearing on Have I Got News For You gave such a boost to William Hague’s career that he became Home Secretary.

Well Hague is sadly showing all the signs of being an unlucky general, but it’s not that bad yet.

Much less forgiveably Alice Thomson included Shirley Williams in a list of senior women politicians who did not have children and added “It did not matter.” Well even if Alice Thomson is too young to remember, a simple check of Who’s Who would have put her right. What was different in those days (the 1970s) was that people would not have accepted that the care of small children should take priority over matters of state – and it was up to you both to make sure that proper arrangements were in place for their care, & not to go on & on about it.

Ergo non sunt

I cannot believe it!

In his statement to the House yesterday Francis Maude told honourable members that he had subjected all public bodies to an existential test. That is to say that he asked, “Does the body need to exist?”

Public Bodies Reform

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

A triumph of engineering

The story of the Chilean mine rescue has quite naturally focussed on the men who were trapped – they are rightly the heroes.

But I wish there could be more open recognition of the role of the engineers in making all this euphoria possible. The drilling & the raising to earth were true feats of engineering.

But then so, in its way I suppose, was 9/11, hence the ambivalence.

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Manumatic clutch

Hearing about the manumission of slaves reminded me of manumatic transmission in cars. This was one of those short-lived innovations in British automotive technology in the 1950s. The cars had only two pedals on the floor - the brake and the accelerator; the clutch was operated partly by an electric switch on the gear lever.

My father acquired one of these some time at the beginning of the sixties – I expect they could be bought very cheaply second hand. He needed to find an affordable replacement for a vehicle which had let him down very badly – sold to him by a member of his own family, so feelings were raw. He also had very firm views about which modern cars gave him head room sufficient to sit up straight & drive properly, something which this Austin offered.

Being my father he set about changing it to a normal, reliable transmission with a proper clutch pedal on the floor. I can remember some interesting weekend outings to help him forage for parts in scrap dealers & breakers yards.

My father was not a trained motor mechanic or engineer – he started as a respectable bank clerk but changed to radio & electrical engineering as a result of his war service. But there might have been some kind of genetic inheritance & a kind of getting your own back on behalf of his grandfather the master wheelwright who, with the coming of the motor car, saw the end of his first chosen trade.

The thing that puzzles me however is that I have absolutely no memory of what happened while the car was up on its blocks in the driveway – a period of several weeks if not months as I recall. Had we kept the old car – or did we all just have to rely on buses & shanks’s pony?


Related posts
Strophe & antistrophe

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The psychology of getting & spending

Although I buy a ticket for the main lottery draw each Saturday I would never buy a ticket for the big Euro lottery. Suppose Sod’s Law came into play & I won squillions of millions? Even just giving it all away & making sure I was all square with the taxman would probably finish me off.

Perhaps that is what the buyer of last week's winning ticket, worth over £100 million, has realised.

On a not unrelated question (ie completely irrational & illogical according to some), why do supermarket loyalty points seem more valuable the bigger the bill you using them to settle?

Loyalty points are oh so subtly marketed as a gift from the provider, when in fact they are just repayments of an interest free loan from you – a form of micro finance by which the loan is extracted through the medium of ever so slightly higher prices for the goods which you buy. So, from the purely financial & monetary point of view your most rational course is to cash in your loyalty points as soon as that becomes possible, setting them against the bill for something you would have bought anyway.

I understand all that, but I still have difficulty persuading myself to eally feel that £2.50 deducted from a bill for £2.50 is somehow worth less than £2.50 deducted from a bill for £25 or even just £5.

Probably it is because £2.50 is so very little, hardly even a cappuccino – practically ‘keep the change’ so if that is all you get you don’t feel you are getting any real help or benefit. Whereas someone who helps with a bigger bill is being really kind – just the psychology on which the purveyors of points rely with their ‘give yourself a treat’ propaganda.

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Strophe & antistrophe

This morning’s episode of Parting Shots, the programme presented by Matthew Parris & compiled from the valedictory despatches of British Ambassadors, aroused mixed emotions in one who was young enough & idealistic enough to be excited by the end of Empire & the decade of independence that was the 1960s.

Some of the despatches were, all by themselves, enough to make you cringe all over again with post colonial guilt.

But not all, by no means.

And the romantics among us can definitely sigh for the days when despatches could be written as beautifully as was that by Sir James Craig on his quitting the post of Queen’s Political Agent in Dubai in 1964. Strophe & antistrophe indeed!

Sobering too, to realise that his duties had included the manumitting of slaves.

The programme also explained some of the detail of how modern ambassadors & foreign secretaries communicate in these days of international telephones, email & twitter.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Trollimogs, trollibags & trollibobs

Talk about offensive language! I had to avert my eyes from the OED as I checked whether trolly-without- an-e is acceptable English spelling.

Please don’t ever use the word trollimog, an English dialect word meaning a dirty, slovenly female.

She appears in Walter De La Mare’s Broomsticks as ‘That old trollimog what lives in Hogges Bottom’ who is the only friend of Sam who is black & has eyes like saucers. It is tempting to see a link with the word golliwog, but Sam is a cat, we are into witches & black magic rather than racial stereotyping.

Splendidly old-fashioned sounding invective however can be found in The Language of British Industry which was published as recently as 1974: “Untidy housewives abound, judging by all the so-called slatterns, trolly-mogs, slovens and tosspots.”

After that trollibags or trollibobs, generally preceded by tripes as in ‘tripes and trollibobs’, seem politely euphemistic words for entrails or intestines.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Unexpected consequence for our financial health

This is one of the many graphs which we have seen recently to illustrate the problem the nation is facing with the payment of gold plated pensions to those who retire from the public sector.

What is really striking about it is how much of the growth in liabilities will go to NHS employees - so much of the recent rise in NHS spending has gone on higher pay. How many of us knew that the New Labour promises to increase spending on health to match European levels would have such long term consequences?

I must really get my head down to read all these reports - I want to know, for example, if GPs can belong to the public sector scheme even though they are technically independent contractors

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I was almost wholly uneducated when I arrived at Oxford. I found Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason & Keynes’s General Theory of Employment to be very hard. However my tutors seemed to regard me as somebody they could teach.

That comes from the obituary of Philippa Foot, Grover Cleveland’s English granddaughter, friend of Iris Murdoch & a distinguished moral philosopher who died last week on her ninetieth birthday. How we would all wish to find tutors like that for ourselves or our children.

I am ashamed to say that it took a contributor to Radio 4’s Last Word programme to tell me that it was Professor Foot who first formulated the ethical dilemma about the five railway workers & the runaway train – except that she called it a trolley. This has inspired a rich seam for study & research, affectionately known as trollyology.

Given that one of the biggest complaints about the NHS used to be about the time that patients spent on trolleys, that makes a splendid name for something which should be incorporated into every statement about 'saving lives' made by medical practitioners, especially in the field of public health, especially in the field of cancer screening.

The prime minister recently announced a new bowel cancer screening programme which, we are told, could save 3,000 lives. We are not told anything about the possible risks or other costs to patients, we are just meant to have faith in the experts judgement that a little discomfort or inconvenience & anxiety to many, even a little ‘overtreatment’ (as with DCIS & breast cancer), is just what any reasonable person would consider to be the right moral choice.

Previously in Favourite Quotations (12)

The love of liberty is the love of others. The love of power is the love of ourselves - William Hazlitt

Man is a compound being, whose character is formed of his constitution, or organisation at birth, & of the effects of external circumstances upon it, from birth to death - Robert Owen

Terrorism is the war of the poor; war is the terrorism of the rich - John Berger

My only confident dogma in economics is that every short statement on a broad issue is inherently false - Alfred Marshall

We all know that prime ministers are wedded to the truth, but like other married couples they sometimes live apart - Saki

When sample size is small nothing is significant whereas when the sample size is large everything is significant - TMF Smith Presidential address RSS 1993

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A life too short

I would, honestly, prefer to live in a clean bright shiny house - on one condition. Somebody else does all the dusting. And the cleaning & polishing, mopping & wiping too. As long as they are not one of those who plump up the cushion before you are even out of the chair you were sitting on.

If push comes to shove, I could live like Miss Havisham, but in the meantine I will just settle for an occasional light dusting.

Dust if you must, but wouldn't it be better
To paint a picture, or write a letter,
Bake a cake, or plant a seed;
Ponder the difference between want and need?

Dust if you must, but there's not much time,
With rivers to swim, and mountains to climb;
Music to hear, and books to read;
Friends to cherish, and life to lead.

Dust if you must, but the world's out there
With the sun in your eyes, and the wind in your hair;
A flutter of snow, a shower of rain,
This day will not come around again.

Dust if you must, but bear in mind,
Old age will come and it's not kind.
And when you go (and go you must)
You, yourself, will make more dust.

Remember, a house becomes a home when you can write
"I love you" on the furniture.....


Dust is the carpet of the contented. Roger McGough

After four years, you don't notice the dust. Quentin Crisp

Without dust there would be no clouds or rain — instead, everything would be soaking wet with moisture. Our dresses would become wet and dripping, and umbrellas useless. John Aitken

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Making the most of your local library

Among all the news reports about the need for changes in our local libraries to bring them into the modern world I saw nothing about the one area where libraries are very up to date – in their own presence on line.

The library computer is not just something that is there to allow the less well off to have free online access. You can access the library website from the comfort of your own home or wherever you happen to be with your up to date mobile phone – for all I know there may even be an app for it.

The catalogue is computerised so you can search for the book you want or just browse – you don’t have to brave the coffee shop, children’s story groups & teenagers to search the shelves. Libraries, still, have a lot more books than you may have been led to believe, from out of print to recent best sellers - it’s just that they may be in the basement somewhere or out to another borrower for a couple of weeks.

The catalogue will give you the details & there will even be an online reservation service which allows you to specify from which branch it will be convenient for you to pick the book up at a time convenient to you. There may well be a self-service system when you get there – no need to brave the librarian’s dragon eye.

But it is not just books – as a member of the library you will be able to access a variety of web sites which are hidden behind payment walls – the subscription having been paid for out of your taxes in a modern adaptation of the founding principles of the public library movement.

And if you don’t know which is your local library there is a handy guide on the web which gives links to all the public library sites.

Free Public Libraries have always been a very Big Society idea.

Saturday, October 09, 2010


Since May 2007 I have been intrigued by one question about the installation of Bishop Mimms by Archbishop Akinola, but despite a little digging I have been unable to find the answer.

The vestments worn by Akinola seem to be a copy of those designed for the installation of George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1991.

Loan or copy?

A new special relationship?

I wonder if Yvette Cooper will be able to take advantage of any kind of special relationship with the American Secretary of State – a feeling of sisterhood perhaps.

It is interesting how women have been able to rise in relatively large numbers to the top (or near to the top) in the field of foreign policy & diplomacy – much more so, I think than in economic or monetary affairs.
Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, even Catherine Ashton …

Ed Miliband’s distribution of portfolios to his new Labour Shadow Cabinet may turn out, in the longer term, to be an inspired one. By forcing his stars to broaden out into new areas of policy will, hopefully, develop them as politicians much more than would a policy of sticking to their ‘expertise’.

One of the most shocking outcomes of thirteen years of Labour government was the failure to develop any real heavyweight politicians from among those 1997 entrants.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Spot the difference

In early June The Times published a photo of someone they called Andy Balliband – a composite of the four forty-somethings who were expected to be the main contenders for the next Leader of the Labour Party.

I couldn’t help thinking that this character looked like a perfect cross between Tony Blair & William Brown.
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Family allowance

This week we have had a fine demonstration of how the middling classes will cling to their welfare payments every bit as tenaciously as the workshy & the scroungers & the ASBO bearing classes.

Because it is just not fair that some (small?) number of families where the mother stays home to look after the children while father goes off to a job will, under the Chancellor's proposed changes to Child Benefit, ‘lose out’ to the couple next door who both go out to work, albeit at jobs which are less well paid.

Of course the complainers wish to see this anomaly rectified without any complicated forms to fill in or any government department prying into their personal living arrangements. And they certainly do not wish to see any return to the system of taxing the combined incomes of husband & wife as if they were one.

I have had a lifetime of feeling that these child benefits are JUST NOT FAIR but I have learned to put up with it.

For it was a very childish feeling, born out of the fact that from their beginning, as Family Allowances, in 1945 & for the next thirty years, they were paid only for the second & any subsequent children in a family.

Was this just to keep costs down, or was it a deliberately pro-natalist policy at a time when the slow growth of the British population, as typified by the parent’s strike of the 1930s, was a focus of policy concern, as would be demonstrated by the Report of the Royal Commission on Population of 1948?

Whatever the reason the first born got nothing – or so it seemed to me, despite my mother’s reassurance that it was for all of us.

I just knew that it was just another way in which little sisters got all the indulgence & big sisters got all the blame.

Related posts
Sisterly love

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Fashionable bowler

I owe Robert Crampton an apology – his knowledge of fashion is more ahead of the game than mine.

Austin Reed got a lot of publicity for announcing this week that they are about to sell bowler hats for both men & women.

That means my teddy bear – Paddington’s Great Aunt Lucy from Peru via Harrods – will finally be in fashion with her battered black felt Andean hat.

And even senior civil servants who are ladies will be able to go back to the formal fashion future alongside their male colleagues.

Queen's Messengers

Thinking about the old methods for delivery of government documents around the UK made me remember the Queen’s Messengers. Do they still exist?

Well they did in 1995, when a Question in the House of Lords elicited the information that there were 27 of them employed at a total cost of around £3 million a year. However, following the Cabinet Office Protective Security Review of 1993 the FCO were also looking at the future structure of the Queen's Messenger Service.

Happily the Messengers still survived in 2007 when British High Commissioner Nick Archer told a Rotary Club Malta meeting that ‘Our confidential papers are still delivered around the world by members of the Corps of Queen’s Messengers – founded by Charles II.’

Today they are part of something called Secure Logistics, a Trading Fund of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

Queen’s Messengers carry secret or highly confidential documents to our embassies abroad, in special bags which cannot be opened by foreign customs offices. The bag must be in the possession of, & within the sight of, the Messenger at all times.

They usually travelled first class but I sometimes saw one of them, in my 1960s flying days, sitting in the single class of one of the smaller airlines. The bag was disappointingly nondescript, not unlike a canvas holdall or kitbag, something you might use for taking your washing home to mother.

The messenger always looked a bit louche to me – a been there seen it all foreign correspondent or the Richard Burton character come in from the cold to the warmth of the tropics.

They were not to be messed about however. I once saw (but could not overhear) an increasingly tetchy conversation between a Queen’s Messenger & a couple of immigration/customs officers at a small airport. This terminated when the messenger picked up his bag, vaulted over the gate, & legged it. The officials did not move.

I am sure it is all much more formal & disciplined these days.