Monday, February 28, 2011

The axe men came

What is it with these coalition ministers?

In one of those jokey sections of a Times interview Danny Alexander was asked: Axe or scalpel?

He replied: Axe. I’ve often chopped wood at home.

Would we have voted for them if we had known about this secret vice which he shares with the prime minister?

And if they are so keen on woods & trees why did they blunder into such a mess about forests?

We'll pass no judgment upon that

For reasons best known to itself The Times is one of those organs which has passed judgment upon judgemental, & banned that spelling from its columns.

It therefore pleased me to see that the compiler of Codeword puzzle #1079 does not share this view.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Galileo's Starry Messenger

I recently came across another snippet about John Donne & stars, & another alleged meeting with one of the stars of astronomy - in this case none other than Galileo himself. It comes from The Astronomer's Faith, a review by John F. Haught of Galileo Watcher of the Skies by David Wootton.

The poet John Donne, Wootton says, grasped the real implications of Copernicanism right away. In 1612, only two years after the publication of The Starry Messenger, and—as Wootton reasonably speculates—after having possibly met with Galileo in Venice several years earlier, Donne composed his famous poem “An Anatomy of the World.”

Catch a falling star

It wasn’t until I heard a Radio 4 repeat of The Write Stuff in the place usually occupied by Today In Parliament that I made any connection between John Donne & Perry Como.

Catch a falling star doesn’t really seem like a phrase whose ownership can be claimed by any single author but, according to the programme, that 1950s Perry Como song, of some precious childhood memory & the first ever Gold Record, owes its inspiration to my favourite poet.

On the programme Jane Thynne also gave her brilliant pastiche of a Donne poem for love in the age of texting & social networking.

by John Donne

GO and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet,
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

Never too old

I was intrigued by a small item of news about ticket touts on the trains in China, not so much the fact that demand for tickets might be sufficient to make that worthwhile – there are after all even bus ticket scams in this country – but by the name of the agency which sets out to catch them: The Beijing Railway Transport Procuratorate.

Word’s spellchecker doesn’t recognise that P-word anymore than I did, but there it is in the OED:

In China: the public prosecutor's department, or the body of public prosecutors, at any of various levels of court hierarchy.

The Chinese term is jiǎncháyuàn.

On the way to finding it via Google I also discovered the Beijing Tobacco Monopoly Bureau Railway Transport Branch I wonder who they set out to catch?

Looking for Procuratorates also inspired me to see what has happened to all those British Protectorates. Goodness, I never knew there were so many, or that they are still of significance to the Home Office in the way that they relate to whether someone may, or may not, be entitled to British nationality.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Name that bird

A bird was calling on Friday morning as I carried the washed & squashed down the track for recycling. A very distinctive call, sounded like tattoo-tattoo-tattoo repeated in groups of 3, 5 or 7, but with the ‘a’ sounding more like ‘uh’ than the ‘a’ in hat. I can’t remember ever hearing it before, though I suppose I must have done, just not noticed or remembered.

Frustratingly no bird identification book or website these days seems to give phonetic versions of bird calls – just invites you to listen to hours of recordings.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The world turns on pork bellies

I forgot to note some sad news that came out just after Christmas – pork belly futures are no more.

If anything symbolised, for us young ones the fact that we would never really understand how to make lots of money, it was the fact that pork belly futures were simply incomprehensible.

But they have not ceased to be because we have taken to heart the warnings that bacon causes cancer – just the opposite: we like bacon too much & the market has levelled out, isn’t seasonal any more.

Or something. I still don’t understand

Even arithmétic can be an adjective

A recent Times leader, which declared that Something Must Be Done about the British drink problem, contained the following:

The problem is that while overall consumption is shrinking, fewer people are doing the drinking. The arithmetic means that those who are still filling their glasses, are drinking far more.

It took me three goes to make sense of that second sentence (which the Word grammar checker labelled as Fragment – consider revising!), to realise that in this example 'arithmetic' is the noun & 'means' the verb.

And I thought they were about to make a sophisticated point about the statistical distribution of alcohol consumption per caput, in which arithmetic would be the adjective & means the noun.

Related post
Cool it, Daddy-O!

The title of this post comes, courtesy of the OED, from T. W. Chaundy et al. The Printing of Mathematics

The picture comes from Oxford Figures, Chapter 1: 800 years of mathematical traditions

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Supermarket trivia

I first started taking note of - & being irritated by – the way that self-service checkout machines make change because of a prior problem - quite often the total which appears on the screen is higher than the amount which you actually need to pay.

Suppose you think you are being asked for £10.23 & you have a £20 plus change, so you put in 23p then the note, only to be met by a cascade of change.

It turns out that you owed only £9.79 after the balance due was adjusted for the two-for-one offer you took advantage of.

Fortunately (for my temper at the end of a hard day), a checkout assistant to whom I moaned one day showed me how to find out the true total – just press Go Back at a certain point in the transaction.

But then another small mystery: sometimes the total remained unaltered, even though there was some kind of discounted purchase in my selection. All sorts of explanations went though my mind – might it actually reveal useful information about who (supplier or supermarket) was financing the offer? That would explain why it would go into a different column in the accounts.

I am disappointed to think that the explanation may after all be more mundane – a straightforward 25% off all clothing can be calculated as soon as the bar code is recognised by the computer: multi-buy offers can only be recognised after all items are tallied.

Still, at least I won’t be thinking about it any more.

Perhaps I should just get over this business with change completely & do what everybody else does, pay by plastic for everything. But that would be an awful lot more checking of accounts at the end of the month – especially as there seems to be an increasing number of scams which involve skimming off only small amounts from lots & lots of bills – the sort of sum which many people wouldn’t bother to report, even if they noticed it in the first place.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wading through verbiage

One thing I should really like my Google predictive searches to be able to do (sometimes) is exclude all established news media sites. I am thinking particularly of stories such as the recent outrage about the sex offenders register, but it applies equally to government initiatives, statistics & scientific reports (especially medical ones).

Sometimes it is quite easy to track down the source documents, by going directly to the relevant web site – Supreme Court, National Statistics or Hansard for example; the BBC is also pretty good at providing relevant links. But at other times it is extremely difficult to wade through the torrent of journalistic interpretation.

Related post
Unreliable sources

Race relations

The Times has been consistently reporting the changes to the government advice on adoption as introducing rules which will ‘allow white couples’ to adopt children from ‘different ethnic backgrounds.’

Well yes, statistically speaking that is bound to be the main effect.

But what will be the response to the black couple who want to adopt a white baby?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Drowning in data

Are our data tools and systems managing to keep up with all the numbers – that question is suddenly much in the air.

For example a special series of articles in Science on Dealing with Data.

And, from a different angle, over on Floating Sheep there are worries about how to map and measure, study and critique that ‘increasingly ephemeral tool’, the Google search, which is becoming more personal, more social & more volatile – changing in real time.

Looks like

A photo in the print edition of The Times on 16 February at first glance, helped no doubt by the heavy eyeliner, I mistook for one of a young Joanna Lumley.

It was in fact a photo of Lady Gaga, with facial horns, but considerably lightened & flattened on the page .

Monday, February 21, 2011

Tangled web

So now we hear that the fundraising at the Conservative’s recent Black & White Ball (sorry, Party) included an auction of internships, or work experience in desirable jobs. Those with a young person to launch on the world were happy to pay up to £3,000 for one of these.

Cheap at twice the price, I’d say, especially if tuition fees get held down below the theoretical maximum of £9,000. Which they should be of course, in the interests of the less privileged, for as David Willets, the Universities minister has warned if the universities do charge the maximum, the government, who have to lend the money to students, will have less to spend in other areas of education.

Mistressed by a maid of honour

There has been some sharp comment on the news that there is to be a Maid of Honour at April's Royal Wedding. Most notably a letter in The Times which pointed out that (in English cookery) a maid of honour is a little tart.

Miaow, miaow. Doors to manual.

We may not be very accustomed to having them at weddings, but if they were good enough for Queen Victoria they are good enough for me. They have long disappeared from court, but there is an ancient tradition of maids of honour - unmarried women, usually of noble birth, who attend upon a queen or princess.

Hearing the news

Radio 5 Live yesterday evening treated us to a live relay of the address to the nation by Gaddafi’s son – simultaneous translation provided. It is good to have more than just what BBC reporters make of it all.

He sounded pretty scared – his breathing was the clearest give-away.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

My Aunt Grete

Yet another song from childhood, this one from Brownies & Girl Guides.

I don't have to struggle to bring this one into the accessible part of my memeory - rather the opposite, since it always threatens to become a real earworm.

My aunt Grete

My Aunt Grete[1], veed-a-veed-a-veet
Had a puss[2], veed-a-veed-a-vuss
And that puss[2], veed-a-veed-a-vuss
Had a tail[3]

And that tail[3] veed-a-veed-a-vail
Had a curl[4], veed-a-veed-a-virl
And that curl[4], veed-a-veed-a-virl
Had a tip[5].


And that tip[5], veed-a-veed-a-vip
Had a curl[4], veed-a-veed-a-virl
And that curl[4], veed-a-veed-a-virl
Had a tail[3]

And that tail[3], veed-a-veed-a-vail
Had a puss[2], veed-a-veed-a-vuss
And that puss[2], veed-a-veed-a-vuss
Had my aunt[1]

[1] Make a large cottage loaf (figure of eight) shape in front of you with your hands

[2] A small cottage loaf

[3] A long upwards sweeping (exponential) curve with your right arm

[4] A corkscrew shape with right index finger pointing upwards

[5] Forward stabbing movement with pointed right index finger

[6] Comma shape with right index finger pointing forward

Related post

Saturday, February 19, 2011

North & South

It must have been about twenty years ago, when performance indicators, targets & league tables were just beginning really to take root in public administration. I was startled to see that one NHS performance indicator was ‘Deaths under the age of 65’. All of these were, by implication, avoidable with proper health care.

This startled me because since childhood I had basically thought that the death of anybody aged over 40, while desperately sad, & not all that common, was nevertheless not a great surprise. This was not just because 40 seemed unimaginably old, but because it did seem to be a fact of life.

There were always at least one or two half orphans in the class – some might be so because of the war, or its lingering after effects but others were due to death from cancer, accidents (industrial or traffic), heart attack or stroke. Women’s magazines quite regularly, if not frequently, carried articles about how to cope with widowhood. Any caring father had decent life insurance & the only market for endowment mortgages was among married men wanting to ensure that the loss of a husband & father did not also entail the loss of a home for his family (which otherwise could & did sometimes happen).

When I started work it seemed only right that men should pay additional pension contributions in aid of widows & orphans.

Twenty years ago, when I checked the mortality statistics, I found that death below the age of 65 had indeed become quite rare.

But it is just one more indicator of the astonishing & continued extension of longevity that the latest study of north/south difference takes as one measure ‘deaths under the age of 75’ which are much more likely to happen up North.

The differential is unlikely to disappear any time soon, not least because the North is likely to suffer more from cutbacks in government expenditure. The North is too dependent on the public sector, they say.

This is certainly true if we look at people of working age, who depend disproportionately on the public sector for jobs. But if there are proportionately so many more over-75’s in the South, consuming all those NHS prescriptions, high-priced interventions, expensive London Freedom Passes & gold plated pensions based on higher London salaries, might it not be the case that it is the South which is really riding the public sector gravy train?

Winter is not over yet

Woke up this morning to news of road closures & buses not running. The possibility of snow on high ground, which was forecast yesterday, has materialised. But it was not just the usual suspects which were closed, so perhaps the gritters were not sent out.

The problem is not ice but treacherous slush which, fingers crossed, is due to move away this afternoon. Meanwhile we are back to snow covered hills.

Related post
Winter comes early

Friday, February 18, 2011

Signs of the times

The Times recently reported an innovative approach to a proposed new housing development in the prime commuter town of Beckenham in Kent. The land was previously occupied by a research & development centre for GlaxoSmithKline. Maybe Sandwich, another town in Kent, can look forward to something similar in a couple of year’s time when Pfizer completes the closure of its facility there.

Ryanair is one of the first big airlines to think about buying Russian or Chinese planes when its agreement to buy Boeing 737s comes to an end in two years time.

European banks are owed nearly $50 billion by Egyptian borrowers – about one-fifth of which came from British lenders. But the risk of default, even after the unrest began, was rated only half as likely as a default by Greece.

The January Markit/CIPS Construction Index showed a recovery of sorts in construction during January, but Chris Williamson, Chief Economist at Markit said that, after adjusting for all the catching up there was to do after the bad weather in December “the underlying growth trend remains only very modest and well below the surging pace seen in the second quarter of last year. … house building [is] stagnating at best. Civil engineering has seen only very modest growth, leaving commercial activity as the only sector recording any noteworthy expansion, albeit well below that seen last spring.” So don't count on construction to keep the economy growing.


It is always sad to see this kind of thing, from the Sky News Blog Boulton & Co:

How do we rate Caroline Spelman's career prospects after her grovelling apology to MPs over the forest fiasco?

Falling as fast as an oak felled by a giant chain saw, I'd say.

Sad, but only too predictable.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Keynes knees

Many years ago there was a man who returned to his own country claiming to have graduated from the London School of Economics. Some suspected he was embroidering his achievements but it was not easy to check from thousands of miles away.

While I always like to give people the benefit of the doubt, I myself became convinced that he must be a fantasist when he referred to something called Kuh-kneesian economics; any graduate of LSE must surely know that Kane-sian (or possibly Keensian) was the correct pronunciation.

Not very many years ago a contributor to a Radio 4 programme was described as a Senior Lecturer at the LSE. I have the utmost confidence that the BBC (especially Radio 4) will always tell me the truth.

He spoke, in an American accent, of Kuh-kneesian economics.

So perhaps, after all, we owe that first man an apology.

Disappointed and appalled

I am appalled & dismayed by David Cameron’s attitude to the Supreme Court’s ruling about a right of appeal for those on the sex offenders register.

Even the BBC radio news summaries & The Times report of today talk of ‘rapists & paedophiles’ being allowed to appeal, as if that were the same as getting away with it.

The worst kind of politics - or could it be a clever way to defuse & diffuse what is bound to be a convulsive & emotional response from the public – much as Mrs Thatcher’s remark about addressing people’s feelings about being ’swamped’ by immigration was thought to have been a clever way of taking the wind out of the BNP’s sails all those years ago?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Getting my knuckles in a twist

A passage from Hauke Riesch’s The development of probability

One of the fundamental developments early on that lead to probability theory was the assumption of equally likely cases ... and this was possible only once regular dice had replaced the more asymmetrical knuckle-bones used by Roman gamblers.

reminded me of my earlier investigations of the relationship between stochastic processes & knuckle bones which I have just revisited.

The plot thickens.

Further investigation of stragalos which I was told is the Greek word for knucklebone took me, via the Spanish astrágalo meaning ankle bone or astragalus, back to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here astragal is defined as the ball of the ankle-joint or HUCKLE-bone & hence in the plural (as in Greek) dice, which were originally huckle-bones!

But then, just to make confusion worse confounded, huckle-bone is defined as the hip- or haunch-bone of man or beast; the ischium or whole os innominatum. (Rarely the head of the thigh-bone which turns in the hip-joint.)

Not ankles after all, but the one you carry the baby on.

I bet someone, somewhere, in some dialect of English, used to call knuckle bones huckle-bones.

Translating public expenditure

From time to time I Google “downloading my brain”, just to see what comes up & what company my keywords & I are keeping.

And so I came across this cached version of one of my posts A tax on shopping, which bears only a passing resemblance to the original

It is odd how many people contrive that VAT (& God willing excise role) is the only tax they pay when they go shopping, oblivious that on top of VAT & calling (divide of sales taxes) we forward to the shopkeepers bill for Employers Citizen Indemnity (assort... My fancy is 40% - 4 out of every £10 - on the grounds that illustrious outlay in routine times takes about 40% of our great resident receipts & in an economists way of looking at things cost always equals proceeds. I have been denotation for some at all times to essay an judgement of the sum total tax on shopping, but need the dynamism & will to in effect move at the travail.

And so:

National Insurance is rendered as Citizen Indemnity

Gross National Income = Gross Resident Receipts

Public expenditure = Illustrious outlay

‘Expenditure always equals income’ means that cost always equals proceeds.

I particularly like that the way that ‘public expenditure’ has become ‘illustrious outlay’ – so much harder to cut.

I am assuming that this is nothing more than a product of automatic translations.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Children’s radio

On Sunday’s Feedback David Liddiment, the author of the BBC Trust’s review of radios 3, 4 & 7 gave a much more subtle interpretation of the recommendations than was given by the press.

His thoughts about how to deal with the vexed question of broadcasting for children were particularly good.

First, audio aimed specifically at young children should be made available in formats which can be listened to at any time & anywhere – today’s lifestyles just do not permit an assumption that all preschoolers will sit down to listen with mother after lunch, or any other time of day.

Secondly Radio 7 should be rebranded as Radio 4 Extra (which it is) with a particular aim to be family friendly, ie avoid the difficult or edgy stuff before the watershed.

When I look back on my own radio listening, programmes aimed particularly at children held little interest for me after I started school; only Toytown or Jennings & Derbyshire held my attention during Children’s Hour.

But memories of Journey Into Space, Paul Temple, Educating Archie, The Clitheroe Kid, Psyche the dog, Ask Me Another, Top of the Form, Workers Playtime & Family Favourites – and Woman’s Hour - remain vivid & were listened to with all the family, grandparents & horrible uncle included.

At the age of ten family entertainment migrated to tv & I discovered the joys of short wave, spending hours with my ear glued to the loudspeaker listening to broadcasts from all over the world. I particularly remember the lady from Radio Moscow with the disturbingly robotic voice & pantomime upper class accent who gave us a very different view of the news, & the singsong lady from Radio Peking.

Then came pop music.

Experiencing inflation

It must I think have been 1968 – the Year of Revolutions – when inflation as a problem was just beginning to be a worry for economists & policy makers in the affluent west, & we had a visitation from the IMF.

Over dinner one evening the head of the IMF delegation asked me ‘as a housewife’ whether I had noticed prices rising in the shops. Help! I hadn’t a clue. Call yourself an economist?

In retrospect I can be less harsh on myself. Just about everything in my life had changed – marriage, motherhood, country, job, different ways of shopping, new, (& recently devalued) currency. How could I be expected to notice a few cents here or there.

The oil price shock came five years later & back home in the UK prices rose fastest in 1975, touching almost 27 per cent in August and clocking up 24.2 per cent over the year as a whole.

And yet still, in one sense, I noticed very little in terms of prices rising in the shops.

Part of the reason was that my salary (helped by promotion) rose better than in line with inflation. I can still remember the feeling when I became a £5,000 a year woman. Although I understood that it wasn’t what it seemed, nevertheless, only a decade after I graduated into a world where £1,000 was a very nice salary, thank you, & postmen earned £13 a week, it was a truth universally acknowledged …

Prices clearly were rising in the shops but my expenditure did not immediately rise by anything like 25 per cent. I think there were two main reasons for this. The first is that there are always ways to economise without suffering any major drop in living standards & the second is that we still shopped mainly with cash. So the £20 which I withdrew each week put its own limit on what I would spend.

At the time events such as the Three Day Week, the Great Sugar Shortage & then the Winter of Discontent made much more of an impact. It is a moot point how much we gained in our pay packets as a result of the trade union militancy of others.

We also learned lessons about buying now & the benefits of managing cash flow & of shopping in bulk. Far better to buy at today’s prices, stocking up even on things such a baked beans & toilet rolls, than to be frugal & buy what you need only when you need it. We learned that a credit card was a useful payment method as long as you paid each bill in full as it came due. Even after the Sex Discriminatin Act passed into law I truly expected to be turned down for a second card – No! Too much credit will get you into trouble, young lady – but two different account dates & a thirty day settlement period meant that judicious juggling would give you 60 days to pay. Store cards also helped not only in the extra scope for buying at today’s prices & paying with tomorrow’s inflated salary but in the extra services such as free delivery & sales previews.

The new plastic cheque guarantee cards enabled you to draw cash from any bank branch & your cheques went through clearing rather than the counter ledger, thus giving you three or four days grace – especially useful when funds were running low at the end of the month.

What was less welcome was the fact that I also became a 60% tax payer at the margin. Friends & colleagues were astonished when I told them this – they certainly were not. The explanation was that almost all of them had married man’s & child allowances and, even more crucially, relief on the whole of the interest they paid on their mortgage. Tax brackets had otherwise not increased in line with inflation, so my basic salary plus the interest I earned on the rapidly accumulating cash in the Building Society pushed me two or three levels over the basic rate. But I felt rich, despite the rising prices & despite the fact that economists kept pointing out that real rates of interest on savings were negative.

Resistance to higher prices comes in part from the built in value meter which we each have; if I think that £20 is quite enough to pay for a new winter coat then it will take time for me to adjust to the idea that £25 or £30 is not extravagant. Rising prices for all the other things you need – utilities, travel to work, shoes for growing children - are not so easy to avoid & will just have to be paid.

Hardest of all is the price of housing, & we soon began to realise how inflation disturbs this market & makes decision making much more difficult, not at all the cosy progression up the ladder we had thought it would be.

One friend had just moved to a new house following the birth of his third child. As well as extra space he was determined to move to a very good area & so took a stretch, one which meant that, unusually for those days, he had to go through a mortgage broker, no staidly cautious building society manager being willing to accommodate him.

No sooner had the family moved in than interest rates jumped – memory tells me from 7% to 11%. His wife had to take a part time job & I think they were living on bread & cheese for a while. He certainly was very green about the gills.

Another friend was wrestling with completely the opposite problem. He had married very young, right after graduation, & when children came along he bought the only house he could afford, a Victorian terrace in a town then considered to be at the limit of daily commutability. Building Societies did not lend on that sort of house, so he had to turn to the local authority & carry the risk of a fixed rate mortgage. His monthly payments of £25 took a big bite of his £80 salary. By the mid-70s, while others could not believe that he could be paying such a ludicrously small amount he was wondering if it were too risky to make the move to something larger in such uncertain market conditions.

This was the beginning of what has persisted to this day, & makes it difficult to include housing costs in the measure of consumer price inflation: the costs of housing vary between individuals in ways that have little to do with the value of the housing services consumed. Identical houses in identical streets may be priced very differently for the occupier, depending on when it was bought & how it was financed; on whether it is owner occupied or rented, & whether that rent is paid out of income or housing benefit. Just as though your supermarket bill depended not just on the prices of the goods you were buying but on some, not random, but arbitrary or capricious adjustments applied as you go through the checkout.

[To be continued]

Monday, February 14, 2011

Colonial scholars

It occurred to me that there is a thread connecting some of the books I have been reading recently. It is, to use an outdated phrase, the Colonial Scholar.

These were the young people (men outnumbering women by some margin) who came to study at UK universities, financed by scholarships from the home administration or the Colonial Office in London. To these could be added a considerable number who were privately financed. I do not however think that the term was generally used to cover those from what came to be called the Old Commonwealth – Australia, Canada, New Zealand (?&South Africa?).

Mr Eborebelosa, in Eating People Is Wrong, Jackie Kay’s father in Red Dust Road, & VS Naipaul all figure in this list.

I was trying to find out if there is any recent study of the Colonial Scholars in Britain; so far the latest seems to be Colonial West Indian Students in Britain by Lloyd Braithwaite, published in 2001. But then so far I have only been searching with that out-dated term, any more recent academic work probably uses something less likely to raise the hackles. In fact the quickest method of search is probably to go & browse the shelves of the university library.

But there must be a fascinating story to tell – how many there were, who they were, & what were their subsequent careers. How many turned out to be, in the opinion of the time, anti-British terrorists? How many married British wives – or left behind, perhaps unacknowledged, children - & what was their fate? Have we had any Barack Obamas?

There is clearly plenty of material, including what might be some very interesting personal files in the National Archive .

The price of coffee

Coffee, & its price, really did hold some sort of fascination for the 1950’s intellectual – yet another piece of evidence comes from a letter which VS Naipaul wrote to his father in December 1951:

I have also acquired the habit of having … coffee at 11 pm in The Randolph, Oxford’s most expensive Queen’s Park hotel, where the coffee costs a shilling a time.

Those were the days, when a status symbol could be had for a mere 5p.

On the assumption that today’s intellectual pays about £3 for his coffee, that’s an inflation rate of some 7 per cent a year over 6 decades. Wonder if their salaries have done better than that?

Perfidious Nature & the Big Society

Torrs Hydro New Mills Limited is a real Big Society venture, started before that became a Big Idea: an Industrial and Provident Society for the Benefit of the Community which owns a hydro electric scheme. The Directors are all local people who have a keen interest in the project.

But the heaviest rains in New Mills for over two years – the same ones which put our stream into such a bate - brought flash floods which have damaged the workings of the system.

Mother Nature is not entirely sympathetic to Archie’s plight – any river works will have to wait until 15 March due to the fish breeding season.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Another childhood song which has come back to me - almost certainly one which we learned via the BBC

Were you ever in Quebec
Stowing timber on the deck
Where there's a king with a golden crown
Riding on a donkey?

Hey! Ho! Away we go!
Donkey riding, donkey riding
Hey! Ho! Away we go!
Riding on a donkey.

Were you ever off Cape Horn
Where it's always fine and warm
Seeing the Lion and the Unicorn
Riding on a donkey?

Were you ever in Cardiff Bay
Where the folks all shout, "Hurray!
Here comes John with his three month's pay!"
Riding on a donkey.

It is nice to see that it is still being taught to today's children via the Sing Up website

Counting the change

I am beginning to get intrigued by how the self-service checkout machines in supermarkets calculate change. It is obviously not on the principle of smallest number of notes/coins – for example yesterday I was given 4 x 2p plus 1 x 1p rather than 2 x 2p plus 1 x 5p - but somehow takes account of what is in there.

Are they trying to minimise the number of notes & coins they are left with at the close of business?

Anyway, I am impressed.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

That name which is no part of thee

Two snippets from yesterday’s City Diary in the Times.

Project Merlin, the deal between the banks & the government, is named after the bird, not the wizard.

According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds the merlin is the UK's smallest bird of prey, albeit one that is reassuringly compact & dashing .

But shouldn’t we be worried that in winter the UK population increases as most of the Icelandic breeding birds migrate to our warmer climate?

The second piece of news is that Vince Cable has resurrected his title of President of the Board of Trade.

So, a man to watch.

The RSPB: Merlin

BBC - Peston's Picks: Project Merlin: The details

Related post
Lord High Everything

Thanks to Merlin Top Primary School in Keighley for the picture

Heard on the radio

An ad for prune juice – 'keeping you happy on the INside.’

Socialising – that’s just a fancy word for drinking.

What is probability?

I have only recently come across a series of eight linked articles by Hauke Riesch on the Understanding Uncertainty site, under the collective heading of What is Probability? They have been there since 2008.

It covers the questions which nag away at you over the years & provides a very readable account which should be of interest to all those who have to deal with probability, especially in their professional lives, but are not so clever with the maths. Those who never got far beyond the tossing of coins & the rolling of dice, & rather threw up their hands when it came to the pernickitiness of z-tests, t-tests & p-values.

The question of what precisely is probability ... is not philosophical in the colloquial sense of being of academic interest only. Unlike philosophy in many other areas, this question can have important consequences to … the very statements about the world that are permissible.

Friday, February 11, 2011

If the cap fits

So who will benefit the most if student fees are held as low as possible?

Well the people who buy most of the university education of course.

Those who went to fee-paying schools. And their parents who, even at £9,000 a year, are facing bills lower than the ones they have been paying to schools for the previous 13 years at least.

More generally, the higher up the income scale the greater the benefit, even for those whose children went to state schools.

Compared to that give away, full-fee bursaries to children from poor families who demonstrate that they are ready to benefit from a university education would be a snip.

Remind me – how many members of the Cabinet have children who are not yet off their hands?

Overcoming disadvantaged backgrounds

I have recently been reading VS Naipaul’s Letters Between a Father and Son, edited by his agent Gillon Aitken.

The correspondence covers mainly the years Naipaul spent as a student at Oxford, & I could not help but make comparisons with Bernard Donoughue’s memoir, The Heat of the Kitchen, which I also read quite recently.

Born just two years (but over 4,000 miles) apart, both boys overcame what, in today’s terms most certainly, would be called a disadvantage background to win a scholarship to Oxford, something which happens all too rarely today, in the eyes of politicians at least.

So how did they do it?

Donoughue grew up in rural Northampton, the son of an Irish catholic father. His parents never married, since his father had not divorced his first wife, & family life was turbulent. But the village provided a good primary school & a social mixture, so young Donoughue was able to observe other role models &, with his obviously charming & outgoing nature, was a welcome visitor in more ordered family homes. A near disastrous move to a very insalubrious part of Northampton with his mother was ended when he returned to live with his father & got a scholarship to the Grammar School whose inspirational headmaster was determined to get his brightest pupils to Oxford, regardless of their family background.

Naipaul was born into a family whose forbears moved to Trinidad as indenture labourers – a system widely used throughout the Empire, & particularly in the West Indies to provide labour for the sugar estates after the Emancipation of the slaves. Naipaul senior had been able to benefit from the sound (though Anglo-centric) system of colonial education & was both well read & able to earn a precarious living in journalism while having to put his ambition to be a writer of novels on hold while he supported his growing family.

Studying for a scholarship to secondary school was more than an individual effort, it was a family enterprise & young Vidia won a scholarship to Queen’s Royal College which in turn led to the triumph of winning a place at Oxford, financed by a Trinidad Scholarship administered by the Colonial Office.

Eric Williams, himself a distinguished earlier product of the system, wrote, "If there was a difference between the English public school and its Trinidadian imitation, it was this, that the Trinidad school provided a more thorough preparation for the university than the average English school, partly … because it was not even the cream of the crop, but the top individual from Trinidad who found himself competing with a large number of English students of varying ability."

These are but two examples of what is anyway pretty clear from other sources – in order to get on you need a good mentor (preferably or especially a parent), access to a good education, hard work & determination to exploit all the connections you can make. Talent helps too.

But, as became especially clear as I was looking into how many Victorians made their way in the world without benefit of wealth or an aristocratic background, a burgeoning economy and, especially, a public sector, helps. The Victorians were inventing many of the institutions in the form which still exists today – schools for all, colleges of further & higher education, police, local authorities & hospitals, public libraries. There were few recognised qualifications or routes to recruitment & advancement & so many jobs were open to young men with a flair for organisation.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I ♥ Radio 4

The BBC Trust’s review of Radio 4 has been widely reported as requiring the station to broaden it’s appeal, to bring in the younger, more northern but ‘lighter’ & more ethnically diverse listener.

Goodness knows what this is supposed to mean. I abandoned my own attempt to contribute to the review by answering an online questionnaire whose questions made no sense.

On the more cheerful side the report also asks for more hours of original documentaries.

This morning brought us a perfect example of the station’s ability to provide us with unexpected insights from one such documentary in I ♥ Milton Glaser, about the genesis of one of the most recognizable pieces of design in the world.

A story particularly apt right now – it was commissioned when New York was the bankrupt crime capital of the world, facing swingeing cuts in public services. And Milton Glaser reiterated firmly that he feels no regret at having foregone what could have been a fortune – he did the work pro bono, for expenses only.

What could be more Big Society than that.

Weasel words again

In December I wrote about how Nick Clegg could have done with some weasel words in his manifesto promises. Now his Treasury spokesman in the House of Lords has resigned over what he says are weasel words in the coalition’s new agreement with the bankers.

The Liberal Democrats are really going to have to learn to love the dark arts of government.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Time of birth

Under what circumstances would one in four be the correct answer to the question of what is the probability of getting three heads in three tosses of a coin?

Well, if you had already completed one toss, which came down heads.

But if you were asked the question before the first toss had taken place, one in four would be the wrong answer. The probability of getting three heads in three tosses would be one in eight.

Something of this sort lies behind the accusation that a popular newspaper got the odds wrong when considering a ‘miracle coincidence’ of three babies born to the same family at exactly 7.43 on the clock.

The idea is that the question being addressed is What is the probability that three children would all be born at the same time, that is, any time will do, it doesn’t have to be 7.43, it could just as well be 9.58 or any of the other 718 minutes on the twelve hour clock.

In terms of tossing a coin, this is the equivalent of asking, before we began, for the probability of getting the same result in three tosses, indifferent to whether that was three heads or three tails. We specify heads only after the first toss comes down.

For the family, the odds started counting when the first baby was born.

But why not carry this argument further, move to after the second baby was born at 7.43. Then the chance of getting three in a row would drop to only one in 720, not a miracle story for the paper at all.

This very common confusion is what lies behind the belief that there is a Law of Averages.

Since it is the rule that two heads plus one tail is more likely than three heads in any three tosses of a coin, then two heads in a row must make it more likely that the next toss will produce a tail!

The need to change the calculus of probability, depending on where you stand in the process – how much you already know – also catches out some people who should know better. If your sample of ten produces a result which, though interesting is not significant, it is not correct to carry on sampling until, with the same formula, P attains the magic number, then stop, proclaiming Eureka. (There are of course methods for doing this correctly – much needed for example in stopping clinical trials which may be doing harm, or in minimising the sample size if testing involves destruction of the item being tested).

Suppose our father were a betting man – nothing heavy, just likes the odd flutter. When his wife first gave him the news that pregnancy was confirmed, he went to the bookies & asked for odds on his first child being born at 7.43 – perhaps that time or those numbers have some special significance for him. What odds would the betmaker offer? Would he place any conditions – bet voided if the birth is by Caesarean section, for example?

Is there indeed any strict medico-scientific (or, indeed, religious) defintion of the time of birth? When the head emerges (at least the worst is over)? At the moment when the midwife exclaims Congratulations! It’s a girl? When the cord is cut? When the baby is weighed? Or when the baby cries?

And how many attendants really record the time of birth (by the method nature intended) to the nearest minute? – I would expect a distinct bias towards numbers ending in 0 or 5.

But what if the proud father-to-be asked for odds on his first three children all being born at 7.43? Would the bookie offer odds, perhaps discounting the 300 million to one to allow for the probability that the happy couple may not in fact manage to have three children? Or would he smell a rat & decline to accept the bet?

The element of this story which makes me most inclined to detect a whiff in the air is in fact the very precision of the time – plus the fact that the father had the number tattooed on his arm.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Story or coincidence

My husband was lucky – or unlucky, depending on your point of view: his mother, wife & daughter all had birthdays which fell in the same week.

Sir John Mellor – a nineteenth century High Court judge whose famous cases included those of the Tichborne Claimant & the Manchester Martyrs – had nine children, all but one of whom had a birthday in July.

Interesting stories, at least to those closely involved. Sir John Mellor’s story may, indirectly, also tell us more about the life of a nineteenth century barrister, out on circuit or handling private railway cases in the House of Lords, his wife at home in the country until both parliament & the courts went into recess, free to spend the autumn at home with his family.

Not, statistically speaking very attention-grabbing, nothing much Fancy that! about them, but they demonstrate the tension between stories and statistics

Birth control

I was thinking about the randomness – or otherwise – of birthdays & times of birth, when I had a brilliant idea.

The current baby boom has put maternity units under pressure. One low cost but simple & effective solution would be to persuade women not to get pregnant just at Christmas but to spread their due dates throughout the year.

At a stroke the unmanageable peak in the number of births in September would be spread in a way which could be efficiently managed by a smaller number of midwifes, or at least could end the scandal of too many women not receiving care of the standard they nowadays expect.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Not much flooding here

Put my wellies on today because local radio was advising us to check the website for advice about coping with floods – move all valuables upstairs for example.

Well no sign of flooding outside, just very windy. Saturday was bad – I haven’t seen the stream in such full spate for a long time, & there were serious problems with surface water on some stretches of the main road – clearly drain trouble, blockages or maybe cracking during the deep freeze - the water company was out in force.

But back at home we are still benefiting from the serious effort which was put into clearing our drains. There was not even a serious puddle on the bridge.

When the water subsides it will be interesting to see what changes there are in the bed of the stream – the mud banks have just kept on growing & the number of big stones on the bed increasing; there are even signs of a couple of small natural weirs developing. Perhaps some of this debris will have been swept further downstream.

Making sense of proportion

I actually spent some time thinking about whether to use eighty-eight per cent as another way of saying seven out of every eight women, or whether I should go for eighty-seven-and-a-half per cent.

I was surprised to find how many references to eighty-eight per cent can be found in a Google search, but not as surprised as by the question Did you mean eighty-eight percent?

The Oxford English Dictionary does recognise this orthography, but ‘Chiefly US’ and only when used as a verb – another surprise! And they give only four quotations illustrative of its use, of which my favourite is from 1883: When students are found obtaining help of others they are not percented at all.

Quite right too.

When per cent is used as a noun or adverb the OED insists on keeping the space between the words.

But it’s OK to write about a percentage.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

We progress

A young girl at the next desk asked for some help with logging on. She gave me a withering look when I said it was important not to press Return at one point.

I use this key, she said, pointing to one that I do not think I have ever noticed before, & certainly never used.

I felt like saying Hoity-toity, miss! I was using computers before you were even born.

Then it struck me – it’s time to start planning my golden jubilee party to mark the 50th anniversary of that first computer course – a one week summer school at Imperial College to be inducted into the mysteries of FORTRAN. Back at college after the start of term we were allowed two goes at writing a program to calculate the mean & standards deviation of a set of twenty numbers.

Both my attempts failed.

Kipling's Afghan poem

Rudyard Kipling's poem about the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880 was read on Poetry Please on 23 January.

There is no need to labour its continuing relevance to today.

Arithmetic on the Frontier

A great and glorious thing it is
To learn, for seven years or so,
The Lord knows what of that and this,
Ere reckoned fit to face the foe -
The flying bullet down the Pass,
That whistles clear: " All flesh is grass."

Three hundred pounds per annum spent
On making brain and body meeter
For all the murderous intent
Comprised in "villainous saltpetre".
And after?- Ask the Yusufzaies
What comes of all our 'ologies.

A scrimmage in a Border Station-
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.
The Crammer's boast, the Squadron's pride,
Shot like a rabbit in a ride!

No proposition Euclid wrote
No formulae the text-books know,
Will turn the bullet from your coat,
Or ward the tulwar's downward blow.
Strike hard who cares - shoot straight who can
The odds are on the cheaper man.

One sword-knot stolen from the camp
Will pay for all the school expenses
Of any Kurrum Valley scamp
Who knows no word of moods and tenses,
But, being blessed with perfect sight,
Picks off our messmates left and right.

With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem.
The troopships bring us one by one,
At vast expense of time and steam,
To slay Afridis where they run.
The "captives of our bow and spear"
Are cheap, alas! as we are dear.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Coincidences of birth

Both David Spiegelhalter & Nigel Hawkes have challenged the Sun newspapers estimate that the odds of a couple having three singleton children all born at the same minute of day (as measured by the 12-hour clock) is over 300 million to 1. Each says that the answer is more like half a million to one.

I have no quarrel with their estimate as such, but questions like this do show that it really all does depend on where you stand in space & time.

Before going any further I should point out what I think is an error in David Spiegelhalter’s estimate that we could expect such a coincidence about once every three years, based on the ‘fact’ that there are about 167,000 third births a year in the UK.

The latest figures I can find (Table 4.1 Birth Statistics 2008) show that there are about 50,000-60,000 third births a year within marriage in England & Wales, which would make the true frequency about once a decade.

The Kings' hands

An intriguing post by Selina Hurley, Assistant Curator of Medicine, on the Science Museum’s blog looks at their holdings of material related to the two brothers, Edward VIII & George VI who are in the news right now because of that film.

There are x-ray photographs of each brother’s hand, taken in the 1930s when such things still caused wonder & amazement. It is equally astonishing to think that for us it used to be a perfectly normal part of the shopping routine to have our feet x-rayed to check that our new shoes were the right fit.

And ah! if only everybody’s fingers were as long in the flesh as they are in skeleton!

The post also includes a picture of the bath chair used by Queen Victoria in her advanced years; Ms Hurley explains that, unlike normal bath chairs, this example was pulled by a pony, led by a footman, delicately declining to mention that her Majesty’s great weight probably made this essential.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Eighty-eight per cent of women

I really did throw something at the radio once – only a small piece of paper mind.

It was when a doctor said that Linda McCartney did not deserve to get breast cancer.

Well of course she did not.

But he thought that Linda, of all women, did not deserve it because she was a vegetarian & lived a healthy lifestyle.

Which means, of course, that any woman who is not & does not deserves everything she gets. The exception is there in the rule.

Well lots of us are still sinning, so now they have come right out with it. You get breast cancer because you eat wrong, drink too much & have babies too late.

Of course what these three things have in common is oestrogen & too much oestrogen passed into the water is killing men’s sperm too.

Let’s face it, everything is just the fault of women.

All the evidence, mostly from observational studies on biased samples, says so.

But remember, eighty-eight per cent of women get away with it, in the sense that at least their punishment is not breast cancer.

Entrancing Oxford

On Monday Riazat Butt presented a programme on Radio 4 about how to get into Oxford.

One of the keys, she said, is knowing what you want to study & being passionate about it.

And that of course is the big problem for some people – especially if the choice of subjects is restricted. I suspect that the opportunity to put off that commitment is a big factor in the growing popularity of American universities for our brightest & best.

It is very difficult to make such a commitment when you are sixteen or seventeen, indeed I wonder if the supposed gap between summer & winter babies does not widen when faced with this choice, since the summer babies will be having to seal their fate when nearly a whole year younger than their form mates.

The narrowness of the choice may also serve to increase the perceived drawback of Oxford to those from the so-called disadvantaged backgrounds, who will not necessarily have the contacts & acquaintances to show them that a degree in, say, history or classics does not close off career options. Bernard Donoughue made this point in his autobiographical book The Heat of the Kitchen; his Oxford scholarship & first class degree were not quite enough to give him the confidence & knowledge to parlay that into a career at the Bar which he later rather hankered after.

The programme also, indirectly, made the point about another huge advantage of an Oxford education (according to one of my best friends): learning how to bluff. One young man managed to win through despite having to admit at interview that he had never read a single one of the books by Maynard Keynes. Not a problem in the ordinary course of events, but he had used his personal statement of application to declare himself a Keynesian economist. Talking one’s way out of that, persuasively, really does demonstrate strength & determination to fight, & his tutors will not have to work too hard to perfect that ability .

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Mapping the way

A somewhat mixed reception so far to the new crime maps freely available to all on line, provided the website can cope with the demand.

The soon-to-be-abolished National Policing Improvement Agency carried out a randomised controlled trial which found that the public’s reaction to information about crime and policing was positive.

Mark Easton feels that although few would argue that it is a bad thing for the public to be given information, the question is whether they will be willing and able to use it effectively.

Kevin McConway on Understanding Uncertainty hopes that some of the problems with the data on the new website can be ironed out.

Over on Floating Sheep Alex Singleton worries about the increasing tendency for such sites to be built without consultation with Geographers, while Paul, a retired police officer who is doing a PhD using Metropolitan Police Service data in the Geography Department at University College London, finds the new site ‘impressive but with fundamental problems.’

I have not been able to log on to the site yet – it will be interesting to see how the problems identified by these commentators, who have looked mainly at crowded urban areas, apply to our sparsely populated hills. But all this discussion of geographic mapping seems a very long way from what seemed then to be the magic of George Gaits use of black & white line printers in the 1960’s to produce maps locating statistical information in geographical space for the old Ministry of Housing & Local Government.

Unwindy Britain

Britain’s 3,000 operational wind turbines produced 0.04 per cent of the power we used on December 30, according to a report in yesterday's Times. This was one seventy-fifth of the amount of power produced on November 2, the windiest day of the quarter. About enough for the average household to keep a one-bar electric fire going for 12 minutes, according to my calculation.

No great surprise there, we were hearing all year that there was not much wind about.

What is truly shocking however is that nobody seems to know ‘the extent to which last year was historically unwindy’ and that the best we can say is ‘The past year may have been exceptionally still. It may not.

You mean to say that nobody has bothered to produce a hockey stick graph showing us the windiness of the last 1,000 years? And that we have nevertheless bet the farm on a belief that blowing in the wind is the answer?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Charter of the Forest

In a 2007 edition of the Radio 4 series Things We Forgot to Remember Michael Portillo considered the Magna Carta & argued that in truth its impact was a good deal less far-reaching than is popularly believed.

The Charter of the Forest, issued by Henry III, the son of Bad King John, had more far reaching & long lasting implications for the liberty of the English because it applied not just to barons but all good and lawful men, & guaranteed that henceforth no one ‘shall lose life or limbs on account of our hunting rights.’

The agitation of the people of the Forest of the High Peak, which alas no longer exists, played an important part in the restoration of those charter freedoms.

Sadly I think that Caroline Spellman will turn out to have lost a lot of political capital if she is deemed to have got her government & her party into an unnecessary & unholy mess over the ownership of our modern forests. We may have forgotten to remember the Charter of the Forests, but it is still there as part of our deep history.

Worridicule & tenderbricks

Two interesting word-coinages have come to my notice this week.

Worridicule was used in the 1919 Report on the Domestic Service Problem by the government’s Women’s Advisory Committee (initially set up to consider the question of pay after the first Equal Pay strike of women tramway workers) to describe the contemptuous view which the press daily demonstrated for servants.

The book “Not in Front of the Servants” by Frank Dawes, from where I take this quote, provides plenty of examples of contemporary cartoon representations of stupid, ignorant or idle illustrations of the ‘breed.’

Worridicule however does not show up in the Oxford English Dictionary nor anywhere on Google.

Speaking on Woman’s Hour yesterday the parents of Britain’s first “saviour sibling” described themselves as having been on tenderbricks during one stressful period.

Presumably a bit of a mux-up between the idea of being on tenterhooks with that of being a cat on hot bricks.

In this case the Oxford English Dictionary did provide a nice Byronic play on tender/tenter in the sense of something that causes suffering or painful suspense.

Canto XIV, verse xcvii of Byron’s long poem Don Juan deliberately leaves us hanging:

Whether Don Juan and chaste Adeline
Grew friends in this or any other sense,
Will be discuss'd hereafter, I opine:
At present I am glad of a pretence
To leave them hovering, as the effect is fine,
And keeps the atrocious reader in suspense;
The surest way for ladies and for books
To bait their tender, or their tenter-hooks.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Cui bono

The following idea must, I think remain forever in the realm of thought experiment.

Why don’t we start sending out invoices to each individual or family, itemising the cost of all the public services from which they have personally benefited in the preceding year – for information & for the record only, of course.

The bill for the children’s school & for all the doctor’s appointments, prescriptions & treatments should be relatively straightforward. But what about emptying the bins? Not to mention the thorny problem of the police: do the criminals or the victims pay, or should the entire cost be born by those who have clearly benefited the most because the police efforts have ensured that they encountered no problems with crime at all.

It’s not exactly a new idea - the Labour government tried emphasising the ‘Social Wage’ in the 1970s as a way of trying to stifle both demands for wages to keep pace with inflation & with protests from those who, because of these wage rises, were being dragged into the net of income tax.

Actually even the supposedly straightforward ones would not be at all simple. There would be privacy issues, & plenty of weird anomalies, seeming howlers or bureaucratic blunders for the press to have fun with.

But pondering the issue doesn’t half make you aware of the difference between cost and price, one of the important differences between doing business as a public rather than a private provider.

Modern supermarkets & chain stores have exposed the extent to which the setting of prices is as much an art as a science.

The cost of producing a 5-pack of Snickers bars probably varies constantly over time, depending on the price of raw materials, the health or morale of the workers, machine breakdowns … while the price at the supermarket varies in a way which is not explained by any plausible scenario for the variation in costs. The sales data will however provide useful feedback on the long tern viability of their pricing strategies & the balance between the need to control costs & quality.

A public sector provider would probably calculate the average over a period of time & then apply that price for the next period, unvarying, no matter what the circumstances. Costs & quality would be varied, if at all, in response more to political pressures rather than exigencies of the market

Home news

Did you know that there is something called the London Residential Crane Survey?

Me neither, but the latest report – nothing to do with worries over the declining population of garden birds – casts some light on the (to me) puzzling figures for the contribution of construction to last year’s GDP growth.

It’s the Olympics, stupid.

Nearly one third of the new homes being built were in the three boroughs which are host to the Olympic Games. The whole of Inner London saw over half the total homes – mostly flats.

Even the big volume housebuilders were concentrating on London, favouring smaller sites to keep the cash flow going without the risk attached to large scale developments.

No wonder the construction boom was invisible up here & no wonder we were so desperate for the World Cup.

At the same time Savills, the up-market estate agent, has reported that really expensive existing houses in Central London are ever more attractive to the international super-rich – good as gold in fact because of the weak pound.

There is even a new name for this part of London, together with similar areas of New York, Moscow & Hong Kong: Richistan.