Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mexico Family Matters

An interesting programme on the BBC’s World Service last week told us that nuclear families in nations as far apart as Asia and Latin America are beginning to show signs of break-down, following the West into a more transient and multi-layered style of family life.

An academic expert told us that this seems to be another demographic transition,like that which saw the shift to smaller families (in terms of average numbers of children per woman).

Perhaps the fundamental cause is the same – the astonishing reductions in mortality, even in the face of high murder rates, drug wars & poverty – mean that people feel much less able to make a commitment that is till death do us part. So that is what explains why so many people reared in stable households have been unable to repeat that stability in their own lives.

The programme is available as a podcast.


There is quite a mood of pessimism around about the likelihood of a good response to the Census, which cannot be helped by the formidable-looking form which many must find daunting.

Then there is the clearly recognised problem of whether it is even possible to attempt to number the people on a single day in a modern society where nobody ever stands still, not just geographically but socially & in their personal relationships – a problem which may have contributed to the alleged undercounting of the population of New York in last year’s US census.

I have not been terribly impressed by the official poster campaign – fill in your Census form & help plan local services – that’s a policy or political argument for prioritising the expenditure. You don’t need statistics to make decisions about how to spend (or cut) money on services – I could make them right here, right now - & you would have a hard time proving that decisions based on Census statistics are better than my kind. Does anyone really believe that any mistakes made in the late 1970s were caused by the late cancellation of the 1976 census?

It strikes me that one reason why a recent survey found that a large percentage of the population does not even realise that a census is necessary to count how many people live in this country is that they no longer know the story of ‘the first census’, the one that took Joseph & Mary to Bethlehem. As children the link was made explicit for us, so that the modern census linked us to the birth of Jesus.

But then perhaps it’s just as well that today’s children don’t know the King James’s version: And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed*.

In retrospect it might have been better to present the Census as a real Big Society project, rather than an expensive way of collecting data that companies like Experian (a credit reference agency) supposedly already have.

The census is a collaborative effort to paint a statistical picture, a snapshot, of how we live now. In return for our cooperation we get a guarantee of 100 years of confidentiality for our individual personal details, which will then however be released to give those who come after us invaluable information about their forebears, the history of the house they live in, their neighbourhood, & even the domestic details of the lives of our celebrities.

Our census this year was done & dusted on line. It was a pleasant experience – ONS have shown that they can produce a really clear & well designed web site when they put their minds to it.

The only drawback was that I couldn’t get away with not answering the ethnic question, no box for ‘declined to answer’, so I had to use my ingenuity.

The wording of the question is interesting: Tick one box to best describe your ethnic group or background. Best in what sense? To whom or for what purpose, or in whose opinion? Can’t remember the wording last time but it is certainly different from 1991, which asked for the respondent’s own opinion. That of course is unsatisfactory, if we are hoping to get an insight into the extent of disadvantage, since discrimination depends on the observer’s assessment of ethnicity – which may be inaccurate, even bizarre.

The overall balance of the questions as usual reflects the political preoccupations of the last few years – we will have a comprehensive picture of ‘identity’ – if the response is good enough. Race, nationality, language, partnership status.

For me the most interesting change is the attempt to get at the detailed relationships within the household, recording the link of each person to all the others, instead of just to Person 1. So statisticians should not have to scratch their heads (which are wrapped in wet towels) about problems such as:

Person 1: Mr Smith, 50
Person2: Mrs Smith, 47, his wife
Person 3: Miss Smith, 18, his daughter
Person 4: Master Smith, 2, his grandson

Is Miss Smith the mother of Master Smith?

But how sad to read the detailed instructions in the nortes about how to count children who divide their time between homes.

*PS Word’s grammar checker suggests an amendment to the King James’s version. It would prefer that the entire world should be taxed.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Vocal connections

Andrew Tyrie, Conservative Chair of the House of Commons Treasury Committee, pronounces ‘is’ in a way that is very reminiscent of Robert Peston, the BBC’s Economics Editor: a sort of slightly rising hook in the ‘i’ followed by a long drawn out soft zzzz.

Did they go to the same shool?

Windfall wedding

Windows & balconies with a view of Westminster Abbey are being sold for up to £100,000 – purely for the day of the Royal Wedding, according to a report in The Times.

This is not just a reflection of the price-of-everything mentality of our age. The Times of 1863 carried classified advertisements for windows which could give up to a dozen people a close-up view of the wedding of Prince Albert Edward (Edward VII-to-be) to Princess Alexandra, yours for a mere 30 shillings.

Cheap at twice the price – even a Second Class passage on a ship to New York would have set you back at least £12, & four years later people were complaining that "telegraphic messages" to the USA cost £10 for 20 words.

Mind you, the windows on offer in 1863 were only in Windsor, not the heart of London, since the wedding took place there in St George’s Chapel, as was the royal custom.

There were however great celebrations in London too, though the plan to illuminate St Paul’s was a failure.

Young Lucy Lyttelton (soon to become Lady Frederick Cavendish after her own wedding a year later) was present at St George’s, braved the crowds in London that night, & gave a breathless account of it all in her diary, not entirely sure that it had been ‘worth the hours of jam and wedge’.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hedgehog names Cl - Cu

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

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

Lord Clarendon
Michael Clark
Sally Clark
Gillian Clarke
Kenneth Clarke

John Cleese
Nick Clegg
Rob Clifton

Bill Clinton
Hilary Clinton
Robert Clinton

Rosemary Clooney
JR Clynes

Sam Coates
Belton Cobb
Sir John Cockroft
Leonard Cohen
Maria Coldwell

Samuel Taylor Colerid
RG Collingwood

Billy Collins
Phil Collins
Tony Collins
Alicia Collinson

Juan Comas

Cyril Connelly
Tracey Connelly
Jimmy Connors
Amber Conway
Lexus Conway

Giles Coode-Adams
Robin Cook
Sir Edward Cook
Alistair Cooke

Gary Cooper
Stewart Copeland
le Corbusier
Alan Coren
Hilary Corke
Frances Cornford

Nathaniel Cotton
Simon Cowell

David Cram
Robert Crampton
Joan Crawford
John Creasey

Francis Crick
Michael Crick
Richard Crossman
Marie Curie
Peter Curran

Ooh la la!

If anything symbolises how the world has changed since the 1960s, it is that a book has been published in France under the title La Sexy Attitude des Paresseuses.

It is one of 72 titles (so far) in a series Petits Guides des Paresseuses, published by Marabout for women who are both high flying & lazy.

In the 60s Englishwomen got there first with Katherine Whitehorn’s Observer column on how to be a slut.

But does le paresseux have un matching sexy attitude?


When I was a child we were warned – over & over – NEVER eat pork which is undercooked. Or you will get a TAPEWORM, which will live in your gut & EAT YOU UP. Pigs, fed on swill (including the leftovers from our school dinners), tended to harbour these frightening things.

I don’t know if today’s foodie has the same taste for undercooked pork as they have for lamb – modern animal hygiene seems to have abolished the tapeworm threat.

But last week, under a headline worthy of the Daily Mail, the Times warned of a new danger - from dogs:

Change in EU pet travel law will expose Britain to liver disease that kills humans

Written by Environment Editor Ben Webster, it tells of a threat that comes from untreated dogs harbouring a small tapeworm which can cause a nasty disease which goes under the abbreviated name of AE, from which hundreds of people in mainland Europe have died in the last ten years.

Not, I assume, from eating dogs – they have other ways of transmitting the bug.

Sources for the story include the president of the British Veterinary Association, a veterinary pathologist from the Wildlife Veterinary Investigation Centre & the British Association for Shooting & Conservation, who have been lobbying the European Commission to allow the UK to keep the regulation which demands that dogs coming to this country must have been wormed.

The vets will just have to hope for a satisfactory outcome to the negotiations between our Environment Department, the Commission & its expert consultants.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Screaming award

Graham Seed is the first actor to be named Radio Broadcaster of the Year. The judges from the Broadcasting Press Guild have done this to recognise the affection which he attracted as Nigel Pargetter in The Archers, & the ‘huge outcry’ which greeted his demise.

Quite right too, though it won’t in itself do much to replace the 70% of his income which he said he has lost.

It is going to be interesting to see if the BBC’s cunning plot - to persuade fans to buy a digital radio in order to hear the parallel Archer’s world, available only on Radio 4 Extra -will have the desired effect.

A true parallel world would be one in which Nigel survived the fall.

Oh my aching feet

Another one of those mystifying headlines (a crash blossom?) from The Times print edition 24 March:

Poor foot bill for carbon tax

My first thought was ‘What have my poor old feet done to deserve this?’

A touch sensitive

Mobile phone shops are still ubiquitous, despite the retail recession.

But they come & go. Some once-familiar names have gone. Old reliables have had a makeover. The current fashion is super-cool hi-tech minimalist with lots of glass – they could just as well be selling expensive handbags or vertiginous high heels.
One shop, which I don’t think has been on that site for very long, sprouted a large poster in the window – mobile phones from £9.99!

Intrigued, I went in for a look & came out the proud owner of just such a phone. I was expecting it to be pre-owned, but it is not, just nothing fancy, no touch screen or internet, out of date for today’s market. But it has more functions than the basic (£50) phone-for making-phone-calls which I bought five years ago & never really got on with. This one is smaller & lighter, its size & shape mean that it fits easily into my hand, even makes it natural to use my thumb.

Also it was the first time I have been served by a girl when buying anything technical. She was very nice – her ‘I’ll just leave you to get a feel of it’ before I decided to buy gave me confidence to just push buttons rather than struggle with the instructions.

She also raised her voice to LOUD, & informed me that she had written the number down in LARGE letters on the back of the top up card – in this case I did not at all mind playing up to the confused old lady image.

But new computer, new phone have brought it home to me how much we are all having to learn a new skill – touch. When to stroke, when to stab, or even just waft.
I ran into a problem with the first step of setting up my notebook, because the NEXT button, which appeared on what looked like a touch screen, was no such thing, as I realised it had to be pointed to & clicked.

We have just got so used to touch at the cash machine & supermarket checkout – even library books are borrowed & returned via touch screens these days.
You have to get used to their foibles - Sainsbury’s machines don’t respond to fingers in woolly gloves, for example.

My notebook computer screen seems oversensitive to the cursor & touch pad, often responding unexpectedly; I have learned for example to move the pointer orthogonally on lists of options, not diagonally, to avoid this hair trigger effect.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ogden Nash on a poor banker

This is the other poem by Ogden Nash about bankers, the one I heard on Poetry Please


The North wind doth blow
And we shall have snow,
And what will the banker do then, poor thing?
Will he go to the barn
To keep himself warm,
And hide himself under his wing?
Is he on the spot, poor thing, poor thing?
Probably not, poor thing.

For when he is good,
He is not very good,
And when he is bad he is horrider,
And the chances are fair
He is taking the air
Beside a cabana in Florida,
But the wailing investor, mean thing, mean thing,
Disturbs his siesta, poor thing.

He will plunge in the pool
But he makes it a rule
To plunge with his kith and his kin,
And whisper about
That it's time to get out
When the widows and orphans get in.
He only got out, poor thing, poor thing,
Yet they call him a tout, poor thing.

His heart simply melts
For everyone else;
By love and compassion he's ridden;
The pay of his clerks
To reduce, how it irks!
But he couldn't go South if he didden.
I'm glad there's a drink within reach, poor thing,
As he weeps on the beach, poor thing.

May he someday find peace
In a temple in Greece,
Where the Government harbours no rancour.
May Athens and Sparta
Play host to the martyr,
And purchase a bond from the banker.
With the banker in Greece, poor thing, poor thing,
We can cling to our fleece, Hot Cha!

Home made hand made crisps

We children usually had home made chips at least once a week; much less frequently we had the great treat of home made crisps. A rare treat because they were that much more fiddly to prepare, but also because they needed to be cut from early-ish potatoes, ones that were not too big to be cut into circles of the right size, about the thickness of a half crown coin.

After being thoroughly scrubbed of mud the potatoes were peeled & sliced, rinsed & carefully dried on a tea towel. The chip pan was heated up, the crisps put into the basket & fried – a process which took only minutes. The basket was lifted out, shaken, then any remaining fat on the surface mopped up some more on a sheet of newspaper.

Sometimes, just to add to the authenticity of the experience, we ate them out of cone-shaped bags fashioned out of a sheet of newspaper, a larger version of those small ones made from white paper which contained our weekly ration of two ounces of sweets.

No salt was usually added, or needed, for flavour.

As an older child I was hugely disappointed when, at a special hotel lunch, I discovered that game chips, which sound so sophisticated, are nothing but crisps made like mother used to make.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Eye catchers

The boy could not have been more than three years old, or perhaps a small neat four. I was watching him in the afternoon sunshine one day this week, playing in the square, dashing around on one of those small metal scooters which are so popular just now.

Watch me, nana, watch me!
he demanded. She wasn’t the only one who obeyed, the eye irresistibly drawn by his skill, confidence & verve.

My thoughts went back many years to a Test Match at the Oval. The day was hot & sunny & many spectators took advantage of what they were still allowed to do - walk on the pitch at lunchtime. Some went over to inspect the wicket, some just stretched their legs, a few tossed a ball around. Soon those on our side of the ground were watching two small boys playing with bat & ball, taking it in turns to be batsman & bowler. It was the little one, only a little bit older than the boy on the scooter, who compelled the eye when batting. The obviously proud father was fielding compliments from spectators. It comes as a shock to realise that if that boy went on to a career in first class cricket he will be retired by now.

Just a few years ago an even younger boy caught the eye in the shopping centre one sunny weekday lunchtime. He was only about two years old, still a toddler, running along dribbling a 4” ball, his father walking alongside. They stopped to have a little kickabout. Although Dad was making only gentle passes the youngster’s skill & ball sense were impressive, as particularly evidenced when one went past him; not yet able to spin on the spot, it took him a three-point turn, but he knew exactly where the ball had gone & raced off after it.

Related post
Off the reins

Penguin punk

I just could not resist this picture of northern rockhopper penguins – sadly in peril from an oil slick.

They come from Nightingale Island – named, not for the bird, but by the English captain Gamaliel Nightingale, who in 1760 changed its name from Broken Island.

I should like to think that he was the Gamaliel Nightingale who was born in Barbados in 1710, the son of Captain Nathaniel (Nightengale) Nightingale

Friday, March 25, 2011

Vegetables & things

Caitlin Moran, in her Times Magazine column last Saturday, considered & rejected idea of potato or cauliflower as England’s national vegetable, settling for cabbage.

Things haven’t changed much since 1950, when VS Naipaul wrote to his father "I have eaten potatoes every day of my stay in England, twice a day at Oxford & either cabbage or cauliflower."

Caitlin also declared “No other nation would invent ‘Fish & Chips’ flavour crisp: a crisp (made of potato) that tastes of chips (made of potato).”

But on Red Nose Day earlier in the week Lindsey Bareham, also in The Times, shared with us her discovery that plain salted crisps make a very effective substitute for potatoes in Spanish potato & onion omelette. And she is right about that.


This week has seen a real spring in my step to mark the liberation of finally being able to go out unbundled in a padded winter jacket for the first time since the beginning of November.

Everybody feels much more cheerful, though even the less house-proud among us are realising that there is work to be done as the sun shows up the motes on our sideboards & windows.

Perhaps that is what explains why the buses have been surprisingly uncrowded all this week, not full of pensioners with passes. Perhaps they are at home doing the spring cleaning, or maybe they are just content to spend time in the garden, not driven to the undercover facilities of town or city as the only relief from the stir craziness induced by being stuck inside day after day.

Libyan madness

In one way I really hope that time will prove me wrong on this, but until then the action against Libya seems like pure madness.A madness which we certainly can not afford, financially or otherwise. The gung-ho reaction by politicians & sections of the press disturbs me greatly

Not because Gaddaffi,or his family, deserve to stay, but because nobody seems to have any very clear idea of who should replace him, or what kind of system might be used to allow the Libyan people to choose. Nor does it seem at all clear that those supposedly in a better position to know do in fact know anything of the sort. David Cameron seems to have been infected & misled by the same misty eyed belief that he is somehow doing a Good Thing, supporting some ill-identified group of rebels, meddling in an ethnic, tribal regional rivalry which he - & more importantly, acting on what our much vaunted but grossly overestimated intelligence services tell him.

No wonder Arab league countries are so pleased to have the West’s attention diverted in this way

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Every one hand-crafted, no two ever the same

Sathnam Sanghera recently had a little rant in the Times about his dislike of the marketeer’s notion that everything handmade is superior to anything made by machine.

Just what is ‘hand-reared’ beef or lamb?

I find the idea of ‘hand-made crisps’ to be positively disturbing, conjuring up as it does the vision of some poor operative holding very gingerly a slice of potato between the tips of thumb & forefinger & dipping it into a vat of boiling oil.

Hedgehog names Br - By

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

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

Malcolm Bradbury
Anne Bradstreet
Ian Brady

Billy Bragg
Melvyn Bragg
ER Braithwaite
Russell Brand
Alex Brandon
Richard Branson

Jacques Brel
Henri Cartier Bresson
Sergeant Brett

Duke of Bridgewater
Robert Bridges
John Bright
George Brinham

Charlotte Bronte
Christopher Brooke
Charlie Brooker

Andrew Brown
Gordon Brown
Jerry Brown
Sir Thomas Browne
Robert Browning
Alan Brownjohn

Sarah Bryant

Michael Buerk
Carmen Bugan
William Buiter

Rachel Burden
Julian Burgess
Jocelyn Burnell
Andy Burnham
George Bush
Lady Bustamante
Sir Alexander Bustamante

Lord Butler
Lord Butler [Robin]
Rab Butler
Jeremy Butterfield
Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton
Sara Buys

Liam Byrne
Lord Byron


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Small errors

A High Court judge has recently ruled that a woman died prematurely because of a simple typing error – a GP’s referral letter was addressed to her at Number 16 instead of Number 1b.

Obviously a sad & tragic story, but also one that is very indicative of our age – that the letter should fail to get delivered to the woman or returned to the surgery. I deduce however that the woman lived in south London, where the population is more than usually transient & people & posties are much less likely to know the neighbours & to ensure the letter gets to its intended destination.

This case is also interesting because the judge accepted evidence based on ‘sound research’ that, had her condition been diagnosed a year earlier she would have had a 92% chance of surviving for 10 years. Compensation for her orphaned son is still to be decided, but the actuarial calculations no doubt offer much scope for argument between the lawyers.

Hedgehog names Bh - Bo

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

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

Sir Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownaggjee

Raymond Biggs
Acker Bilk
Andrew Billen
Ronald Binge
Laurence Binyon
Michael Binyon

AH Birch
Dickie Bird
Hugh Birley
Paul Birtill

Jeremy Black
Colin Blackburn
Lord Blackstone
William Collis Blagdon

Cherie Blair

Sir Ian Blair
Tony Blair
Anne Blaisdell
William Blake
Sir Victor Blank

Hazel Blears
Heston Blumental

Guy Boas
Dirk Bogarde
Niels Bohr
Nicky Bohr
Anne Boleyn

Usain Bolt
Rob Bonnet
Laurence Bonomo
Pat Boone
Cherie Booth

Betty Boothroyd
Maria Cortina Borja
Patrick Bossert
Eric Boswell
Alain de Boton

Virginia Bottomley
GP Bowater
Thomas Bowdler
Laurence Llewellyn Bowen
Charles Boyle

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Libyan connections

According to Bill Emmott, writing in last Thursday's Times, the Italian prime minister imported the phrase bunga-bunga from Libya.

But the word has also been spotted (without the repetition) Down Under. In 1898 Australian dictionary-maker E. E. Morris noted Bunga or Bungy, a New Zealand settlers' corruption of the Maori word pung, a variety of tree fern.

By 1926 Trans. N.Z. noted that ‘bunger’ was now fortunately seldom heard for ‘ponga’.

Perchance to tax

In a sparkling Economic View in yesterday’s London Times Patrick Hosking proposed six new taxes which the chancellor might usefully impose in tomorrow’s budget to reverse the normal procedure of taxing virtuous activities such as working, thrift and nest building & place the burden instead on products such as caravans, burglar alarms, dog food, billboards & chewing gum which, used antisocially, impose costs & induce irritation in the rest of us.

Meanwhile, over on the New York Times Economix blog, Catherine Rampell was reporting that some cash-strapped states in America are lowering existing sin-taxes on cigarettes, alcohol & strip clubs in an effort to stimulate demand & increase the tax-take.

For there’s the rub. We can rely upon the stubbornness of sinners only so far, only to the point where their previously inelastic demand for the irritant of choice suddenly gets some stretch, becomes elastic & sensitive to price, & they start searching the market for some untaxed & previously blameless good with which to infuriate us.

The foreigners are fleeing

The foreigners are fleeing.

I heard that comment more than once during interviews with people in Japan in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake & the tsunami. Now they are fleeing even faster, away from potential radiation leaks.

But foreigners do not flee just out of fear, or to relieve the anxiety of their own family & friends, or because life suddenly looks more attractive in another country. If you do not really ‘belong’ there is a feeling that somehow you are just getting in the way, competing for scarce resources, not really sure how best to help, intruding on private grief.

And all these reasons count towards the idea that it really does matter who owns & runs your businesses.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Disappointing moon

Saturday afternoon was largely sunny with lots of clear sky, so I was really looking forward to watching the moon between 6pm & 7pm, to witness its passage from maximum illumination to perigee.

But it was not to be. By 6 o’clock streaky clouds were beginning to coalesce to deny even a single glimpse, though there was an ethereal silver cast to the light & the sky.

The cloud cover persisted through the night.

It’s war

The Times is really on the warpath these days; today we have front & back covers and pages 3 to 11 devoted to Libya, but before that we had the paper’s own wars, on LSE & Sir Howard Davies, Prince Andrew, the BBC & private detectives; all came under repeated attack.

In an extraordinary story last Wednesday by Political Correspondent Michael Savage the gunfire turned on Whitehall bureaucrats.

Under the headline

Cameron’s war on red tape sabotaged: Civil servants conspiring to weaken policy

unnamed sources (some of them ‘informed’ or ‘familiar’) were quoted, amidst some very purple prose:

Whitehall officials are using gamesmanship … senior officials from different departments have colluded … mandarins forced to rewrite … measures so badly drafted they were described as ‘terrifying’ … some departments have done next to no work … department officials are phoning each other up …

Most extraordinarily of all: “Hundreds of new laws have been drawn up” despite new rules which are supposed to force officials to “tear up an old law every time they want to introduce a new one.

Well I knew New Labour played fast & loose with the constitution but I had not realised that they had given law-making powers to civil servants without the need for Parliamentary approval.

Name checks are given to Eric Pickles & Caroline Spelman, ‘the only Cabinet ministers to oversee a reduction in regulation in their departments’ & to John Redwood who said that ‘ministers need to redouble their efforts.’

Especially no doubt those in the Ministry of Justice, bottom of the league for introducing 22 new regulations while abolishing only one.

Battle lines have been drawn, & it is fairly clear who is on which side.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Albert & the Lion

It was quite hard to avoid this poem when I was a child – just about every grandfather or uncle in our part of the world had it as their party piece, & it often turned up in variety programmes on the radio. For true authenticity, a broad Lancashire accent is required.

I haven’t heard it for years now, but just say A stick with an ‘orse’s head handle to many, & they will all lapse into reminiscence.


There's a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That's noted for fresh-air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert their son.

A grand little lad was their Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
'E'd a stick with an 'orse's 'ead 'andle
The finest that Woolworth's could sell.

They didn't think much to the ocean
The waves, they was fiddlin' and small
There was no wrecks ... nobody drownded
'Fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.

So, seeking for further amusement
They paid and went into the zoo
Where they'd lions and tigers and cam-els
And old ale and sandwiches too.

There were one great big lion called Wallace
His nose were all covered with scars
He lay in a som-no-lent position
With the side of his face to the bars.

Now Albert had heard about lions
How they were ferocious and wild
And to see Wallace lying so peaceful
Well ... it didn't seem right to the child.

So straight 'way the brave little feller
Not showing a morsel of fear
Took 'is stick with the 'orse's 'ead 'andle
And pushed it in Wallace's ear!

You could see that the lion didn't like it
For giving a kind of a roll
He pulled Albert inside the cage wi' 'im
And swallowed the little lad ... whole!

Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence
And didn't know what to do next
Said, "Mother! Yon lions 'et Albert"
And Mother said "Eeh, I am vexed!"

So Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Quite rightly, when all's said and done
Complained to the Animal Keeper
That the lion had eaten their son.

The keeper was quite nice about it
He said, "What a nasty mishap
Are you sure it's your lad that he's eaten?"
Pa said, "Am I sure? There's his cap!"

So the manager had to be sent for
He came and he said, "What's to-do?"
Pa said, "Yon lion's 'eaten our Albert
And 'im in his Sunday best, too."

Then Mother said, "Right's right, young feller
I think it's a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we've paid to come in!"

The manager wanted no trouble
He took out his purse right away
And said, "How much to settle the matter?"
And Pa said "What do you usually pay?"

But Mother had turned a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone
She said, "No! someone's got to be summonsed"
So that were decided upon.

Round they went to the Po-lice Station
In front of a Magistrate chap
They told 'im what happened to Albert
And proved it by showing his cap.

The Magistrate gave his o-pinion
That no-one was really to blame
He said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.

At that Mother got proper blazing
"And thank you, sir, kindly," said she
"What waste all our lives raising children
To feed ruddy lions? Not me!"

Marriott Edgar

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Am I a Christian?

With publicity ramping up for the decennial Census of Population which takes place at the end of this month, I found myself idly wondering how, if at all, I might answer the question on religion.

It came as a bit of a shock to realise that I have never described myself as Christian, even in the days when it was common to be asked - on admission to hospital, for example - the answer was always a denomination.

Culturally speaking I am undoubtedly a Christian, brought up on going to church or chapel, reading & hearing bible stories, daily school assemblies (complete with hymn singing), saying prayers at bedtime & weekly RE lessons in which other religions never got a look-in.

The version of religion which we were taught, at school as well as home, was a very gentle one – gentle Jesus, meek & mild, looking upon his little children; we were not made to feel like sinners, or to be consumed by guilt, but should be grateful for what we had, work hard & make the best of ourselves, & love all other people.

I was brought up as a Methodist – the denomination of my maternal grandparents & my mother. I went to church on Sunday with my mother - I don’t think my father was very pleased with God, who let WW I & II happen, though we never discussed the subject directly. When we were of an age to ask, he used to say he was Presbyterian, which was suitably foreign sounding & unavailable; his widowed Irish mother was a regular at her local Anglican church.

Daddy never went to church himself, except for special occasions & Remembrance Sunday, but both my parents thought that it was a good idea to teach children about belief – they would make up their own minds on the subject when they were old enough.

At the age of ten I went home from school one day & asked my mother if I might start going to the Anglican Church instead. Somewhat to my surprise, she said yes.

Ritual &, even more importantly, language, prompted my conversion. Since Year 3 I had been going to a Church of England primary school, & one term the vicar came in to give us Top Formers our weekly RE lesson. He confined himself to explaining what he called the Church Year, starting with the variations in the service of Morning & Evening Prayer, the colour of the vicar’s stole & the names. It was Septuagesima, Sexagesima & Quinquagesima which really did it for me – compared to the plainness of the Methodist service these offered much more fulfilment for pre-adolescent yearnings.

I used to go to Church on my own for Morning Service – not so odd as it sounds now, in a small town where Church attendance was still pretty healthy & there were plenty of people that I knew, including other children. My mother sometimes came with me to Evensong.

I was confirmed at the age of 14 – my father came to the service, along with the rest of the family - & I started going to the monthly Communion at 8am. By this time I was aware that our Church was what in those days was called Low – those who wanted bells & smells & Sung Eucharist went to the High Church on the other side of the valley.

I married a Roman Catholic, which in those days meant taking instruction from the priest – not, as he emphasised, with a view to conversion, but in order to teach me about the importance of the Sacrament. He was a nice man who became a friend, but I was pretty upset when he insisted that the form requesting the Bishop to allow our marriage described me as Methodist – on the grounds that that was the religion into which I had been baptised. Upset, but not enough to call the whole thing off.

It’s a long time now that I lost belief. So what should I – what do I want – to put on the Census form?

I am not agnostic or atheist – just not religious. In many ways I should not object to being called Christian by culture – in the same way that one can be a nonreligious Jew. I see no reason to reject the ethical, moral or social framework which goes with the version I was taught.

But a question on religion, just like the question on ethnicity or, in earlier times, idiocy, really has no place on the Census form.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Many ears

Last Saturday’s Times Prize Crossword #24,795 had one clue which really made me smile – a nice play on an idiom we are not supposed to use any more.

“Time needed to build a large audience?” (3-5)

Answer: man-years.

Perhaps we could go back to using this useful measure in a non-sexist way if we just amended the pronunciation - How many many-ears would that take?

Rioting over too much money

I do not really think that there is a better fundamental definition of inflation than the one I learned when studying Tudor history at A Level: Too much money chasing too few goods.

We now live in a globalised world, we are told, certainly much more globalised than that of Henry VIII – even though that world was globalising rapidly, relative to what it had been until 1492.

And so we have a globalised monetary system which is currently having a lot of money pumped into it to save the banks through the process euphemistically called Quantitative Easing. Global prices are rising, food prices are rising.

History is full of stories of poor people rioting when food gets hard to come by – so common did bread riots become in England during the 19th century that they got barely a mention in the national press unless they spilled over in to real mayhem; usually they just came into the category Not Many Dead.

Rioting is also a youthful pastime – England’s rapidly growing C19th population was also a youthful one.

Today we are much older & staider as a society.

But the Middle East is not, & that is where inflation is causing riots, as the focus of their discontent moves away from mere food towards the system that makes that hard to come by.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Going upstairs

Francis Bacon said that ‘All rising to a great place is by a winding stair.

Did he worry, or warn, about how man might continue to climb to great places in an age of lifts, escalators & planes? Or did he just fail to forsee such technological developments.


I have been meaning for some time to note that the Oxford English Dictionary does in fact help with the origin of the word heteroscedasticity – if you spell it correctly, which I was not doing when I first went looking for it; the variant heteroskedacity has not yet been recognised.

By 1901 the great Karl Pearson was devoting himself to full time research and teaching in the new mathematical field of statistics, with a grant from the Worshipful Company of Drapers which enabled him to establish the biometric laboratory at University College, London. Projects ranged from advances in statistical methodology to the analysis of data on heredity and physical anthropology as well as work on non-biological topics such as astronomy and dam construction which demonstrated the wide applicability of his new analytical techniques.

The first recorded mentions in print of heteroscedasticity & homoscedasticity, words coined by Pearson, came in 1905, in the pleasingly named Drapers’ Company Research Memoirs (Biometric Series):

If all arrays are equally scattered about their means, I shall speak of the system as a homoscedastic system, otherwise it is a heteroscedastic system.

Scedastic comes from the Greek σκεδαστ-ός,’ capable of being scattered’ & so heteroscedastic means 'of unequal scatter or variation; having different variances.' The word has only ever been applied to statistics.

The use of the word scatter left me wondering what measure was being used – when did standard deviation or variance come into use.

According to the OED the word deviation was first used by W. W. Greener in 1858 in his book on one of the most popular sporting pastimes of the day, Scientific Gunnery:
The mean deviation on the target from the centre of the group of 10 hits being only •85 of a foot at 500 yards' range.

but Pearson gave the first rigorous definition in 1894 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society:
Then σ will be termed its standard-deviation (error of mean square).

It appears to have been left to R. A. Fisher in 1918, in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, to introduce variance as a formal technical term in statistics:
It is desirable in analysing the causes of variability to deal with the square of the standard deviation as the measure of variability. We shall term this quantity the Variance.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Poetry Queens

From the Court Circular, Buckingham Palace, 3rd March, 2011:

Ms. Gillian Clarke was received by The Queen when Her Majesty presented her with The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.

The Poet Laureate (Professor Carol Ann Duffy) was present.

Triumph & disaster: nuclear engineers

I got talking to a fellow mature student over coffee one day. You won’t approve of me when I tell you what I do, he said.

Why not?

Because I am a nuclear engineer.

Of course I don’t disapprove. Why should I? Though I wasn’t particularly surprised that he should expect that kind of response because it was the second time a man in the Manchester area had said it to me. The first was several years earlier in the hotel I was staying at. I found it sad that these men felt they had to apologise, but I suppose that comes from living in a self-declared Nuclear Free city

On Tuesday morning this week I caught an interview with Professor Andrew Sherry on RTE Radio 1’s Pat Kenny show. Professor Sherry gave a remarkably lucid, detailed, helpful & well-informed explanation & description of the sequence of events so far at the Japanese nuclear reactor. RTE Correspondent Paul Cunningham, speaking from Northern Japan, said that any listener would have learned more from just that conversation than they would have been able to pick up from the official reports being given to them in Japan.

Despite the professor’s low key style I had a vivid picture of the installation as he told of how the engineers would have attempted to cope with each new development.

The reactors withstood the earthquake – it was the tsunami which did for them, overwhelming & taking out the diesel to power the back-up pumps. As setback followed setback I was suddenly quite overwhelmed for these brave men struggling to avert the worst – which there was still a good chance that they might

Professor Sherry was even sanguine about the fact that the reactors will never be used again now that they have been exposed to corrosive sea water. The first was commissioned in the 1970s, & so has given over thirty years of service.

These engineers are the true heirs of those who founded the Society for the Prevention of Boiler Explosions, rather than those who just sit there telling us Told you nuclear is nasty.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Selling more assets

Amsprop Estates (prop. Lord Sugar, managed by his son) has been selling some desirable Mayfair properties for a bumper profit.

The buyers were a Dubai-based consortium & an Italian manufacturer of domestic appliances. One of the properties is occupied by the royal jewellers Asprey & Garrard.

On sense & sensitivity

Modern word processing packages (though not this one) often automatically capitalise the word catholic.

So I am guessing that that is what recently happened in a letter to the editor of The Times on the subject of the GCSE music curriculum which contained the following:

There [Michael Gove] would find no less than 12 prescribed works by different composers, embracing a Catholic spread of the Western classical, popular & world music traditions.

since I assume that the writer, the Head of Academic Music at Oundle College, did not mean to imply that the Roman Catholic Church (or Catholic religion) was responsible for the spread of these music traditions. I may of course be wrong about that.

When I was at primary school we learned that proper nouns have capitals; lower case nouns were simply common. The connection with the English obsession with class was not entirely accidental – knowing when to capitalise could be a skill almost as arcane as learning the rules of precedence. And although capitalisation does not figure much in the thinking of those who worry about modern political correctness, the sensitivities when it comes to capital letters in politics, religion, nationality & race are closely allied to those which preoccupy grammatical pedants .

Two modern developments have contributed to the relative lack of concern about capitals today.

One is the ubiquity of keyboards & computers. Why use two fingers to type a single character when one will do – especially if those fingers are male?

The other is the preference for cleanliness & clarity in design – no twirly bits on letters & no interruptions to the even flow of a line or block or column or page of print.

Search engines could not work their magic properly if they were sensitive to case – the programming that lies behind this indifference must be impressive & complicated. But not without its own problems, for example when identifying individuals– is MacIntyre the same as Macintyre?

And if computers work better when insensitive to case, how do we teach children that case can ever matter?

Well capitals can still be useful, have an important function to perform, not least in passwords. So by extension & analogy, they can have important functions to perform in human discourse & understanding.

The trick is to know when, & what.

And to use your skill, judgement & experience to interpret the subtleties of meaning. Because sometimes the smallest detail provides a very important clue, which might be overlooked by those whose eyes are less sharp.

After all this I suddenly find myself wondering if those primary school rules meant that I is a proper personal pronoun, leaving he, she, it, we, you & they as improper.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A modern beatification

John Paul II will soon get his own Facebook page, even though he has been dead for 6 years.

This is to mark his forthcoming beatification.

That is beat-ification as in Beatles, according to the young techie who pronounced this on Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition on 12 March.

Don’t the young have attitude any more?

Enter, Return or Press ANY Key

It was disconcerting to find a new screen layout to Word on my new notebook. But fortunately the Library had copy of Word 2010 for Dummies on the shelf which may be all I need to get familiar with my new best friend.

At one point author Dan Gookin writes ‘Yes, it’s return even though the key is known as Enter on a PC. Don’t blame me for this odd nomenclature. I only write the books – not the programs.’

Well Dan Gookin bought his first computer in 1982, after physically destroying three typewriters, probably by hitting Return with too much violence & sending the carriage whizzing back too hard.

But I am even older & I think I know the origin of the ‘confusion’ – it is the bastard child of the typewriter & the comptometer, born of the conventions of typing words versus entering data: confusion between input & output.

A typist had to manually return the carriage to the left hand margin & turn the paper roll to begin a new line. The early printers or machines for communicating with a computer at a distance were all based on the typewriter, albeit as teletype, golf ball or dot matrix rather than letters on the end of levers.

The machines which were used to key input data to punched cards or direct to disc sent the data on its way only after ENTER was pressed, sometimes after entering the line a second time as a check on accuracy - I wonder why this was overwhelmingly a female occupation?

For a time computer keyboards had a key marked RETURN/ENTER to accommodate both traditions, but RETURN has virtually lost its meaning when the word processor works out for itself when it has reached the end of a line & those who can remember manual typewriters are a dying breed.

Old joke: A caller once rang a help line to complain that ‘There is no ANY key on this computer.’

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The road not taken

The Road Not Taken

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Facial tattoos

Twice this week, on different bus routes, I have seen men with facial tattoos.

The first looked to be at least in his forties, thin to the point of gauntness & with a terrible pallor. He also sported a fine array of piercings – ear, nose & eyebrow. Totally self-contained, defiant in his difference, it was probably not just the years which had raddled him.

The second man was also gaunt & pallid, but with clean & well cut hair. He looked younger than the first man, but still at least a decade older than his conventionally blonde girlfriend.

Are they real tattoos – injected under the skin in what must be an incredibly painful procedure – or some kind of homemade, or rather cell-made, prison technique, on the surface only. I cannot remember seeing this fashion anywhere else.

So imagine my surprise when I turn to the Times Playlist radio listings for Friday to see a picture of Mike Tyson, illustrating a program on the Discovery channel about his childhood passion for pigeons, with those same designs on his face. In his case though they do look like greasepaint, the lines far too broad to have been drawn with a needle.

Obviously I am completely out of touch with these modern fashion trends. Let us just hope that David Beckham does not take them up, temporarily or permanently, at least not until after The Wedding.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Barbara Clayton

Barbara Clayton died in January at the age of 88.

With a very distinguished career in medical research, administration & advising on government policy, affecting both the diagnosis & treatment of children with PKU & the reduction of exposure to lead from the environment, she was an undersung heroine of our national life.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Happiness: Statistic or Story?

A story from the Economix blog which is intriguing on more than one level.

A journalist has identified the happiest person in America.

It is the process of identification which is intriguing.

The polling organisation which has provided data for the American well-being index for the past 3 years gave the journalist a demographic profile of 10 of the characteristics such a person would have, based on last years results.

The journalist then used standard journalistic methods to track down someone who matched the profile & would agree to be interviewed. So the polling organisation did not breach the confidentiality of any of their respondents.

It is interesting to play the game yourself, before reading the Economix story, to see whether your idea of the profile bears any resemblance to the one thrown up by the statistics.

And then to work out the difference between the simple probability calculation of being able to find anyone who matched, the odds which faced a journalist hot on the trail of a story, & the measure of uncertainty surrounding the pollster’s estimate given the size of their sample.

And then try to predict who will be the happiest person in Britain, according to the forthcoming surveys by the Office For National Statistics

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Even before I went to work in Woolworths I knew a lot about plugs: 3-amp, 5-amp, 13-amp, 2 or three pins, pins square or round. That’s probably why they put me on the electrical counter.

Because of these inconsistencies, electrical appliances generally came without a plug attached – it was up to the customer to provide their own, though some shops would offer to wire it up for you.

So it was no great surprise to find that the first A4 instruction sheet which I fished out of the box of my new notebook computer started by saying First Select Your Plug - in 11 languages.

But where from? There were no plugs in the box, & inspection showed that the transformer had no plug attached. And the one shown in the helpful drawing on the instruction sheet was not a British plug. It had the wrong shaped prongs & was only half a plug.

Cue short period of imprecation.

But before trailing all the way back to the shop it was worth checking the box again.

And sure enough there it was – all on its own underneath the floor of what I had assumed was simply packaging to protect the contents during their long journey to England. After all it really was only half a plug, ready to click in to the dock provided to enable me to link up to the mains.

The reason why us older folk get into these binds is not that we are gaga, half deaf & half blind (though we may be). It takes us longer because first we have to forget about all those things we learned when we were young.

Topological poetry

This is the dedication from Stephen Barr’s book Experiments in Topology, first published in Britain by John Murray in 1965.

Mathematicians, whose unwonted style
Avoids plain English with the nice excuse:
Readers must learn their language – can beguile
The metaphoric-minded, & induce
Intoxication with ideas as such.
Numbers set indiscretely in a row
Give topological spaces just as much
As flights of martins in a garden show
Regard for logic. But the martins know
Down is not Up. Topologists ignore
Ignore North or South or whether on the floor.
Each has his points; not those who would, instead,
Rather be highfalutin than be read.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Bus driver's YOB test

One of our bus drivers (who has raised teenagers of her own) has a near infallible test for establishing who is really only 15 years old & therefore entitled to travel for half fare, even without a special card.

She asks them when they were born.

In the confusion of the moment, those who are really 16 years old always subtract a year from their true date of birth.

I suspect that, rather than demonstrate the lack of knowledge of arithmetic among the youth of today, this tells us something interesting about how the brain works.

Hedgehog names index: J

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

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

Jesse Jackson
Mahalia Jackson
Francois Jacob
Suzy Jagger
Mick Jagger

James I
James II
James III
Anne Scott James
Clive James

Henry James
Mark James
Hilly Janes
Heather Jansch
Ivy Janssen

Lisa Jardine
Peter Jay
Russell Jenkins
Elizabeth Jennings
Jerome K. Jerome

Stanley Jevons
Professor Joad
Joan of Arc
Wilhelm Johannson
Dr Samuel Johnson

Boris Johnson
Aled Jones
David Jones
Griff Rhys Jones
Stephen Jones

Steve Jones
Will Jordan
Jenny Joseph
Sir Keith Joseph
George Jowett

Sylvester Judd


Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Hice & spice

An intriguing case came before the English Courts last December. The decision of the judge was that the six surviving wives of a polygamous husband “together constituted ‘the spouse’ under … the Administration of Estates Act 1925” & so were entitled to inherit property which he had owned in England.

Of course we do not allow people to acquire more than one wife (or husband) at a time in a valid English marriage, but where appropriate the law does recognise marriages which have been contracted under the law of another country. This can lead to some uncomfortable questions – I remember getting tangled up in a statistical debate about whether to code a girl who was under 16 years of age as a ‘married woman.’

Behind this particular legal case however must lie a story worthy of Dickens.

The polygamous husband, who had not made a will, died thirty years ago. The case was brought to the Court by the Official Solicitor, who represents children and adults who lack mental capacity to act for themselves in legal proceedings, & the defendants were the six surviving wives & one of the sons. Unfortunately we are not told how much the disputed property is worth.

Thinking about this case also makes me ponder why the non-gendered word spouse is not adopted by those in this country who do not like being called husband or, even more particularly, wife & settle instead for the very unspecific partner. If they called each other spouse, together they could be spice.

Monday, March 07, 2011

A new computer

The weather is rather nice today – sunny & almost warm – I can leave my jacket open & am wearing only one sweater. Only the second such day so far this year – for us at least.

It won’t last.

I really needed a day to put a bit of a spring in my step, get outside after being cooped up inside for so long. Especially as I am in the throes of trying to get my new notebook computer going.

There’s no point going over all the gory details, but it came as a real shock to find there was a whole set-up procedure to go through. This is my fourth since my first Amstrad Notebook (nearly twenty years ago!) & all the others were just plug in & play. It’s not even as if I want to get it online. But in the end acting like a four year-old, just pressing different buttons until something happened, did the job.

It's the littel details which matter - do you have to press ENTER, when do you have to POINt & CLICK, or something altogether different. And heaven knows what it is like if it's only your first time.

An innocent age

The name Johnny Preston did not mean very much to me when his death was announced today. But the name of his big hit did.

Not just because it is one of those tunes which lingers in my memory but because it is linked with the only incident I can remember when our headmistress got furiously angry about her girls having to be educated alongside boys.

A list of This Week’s Hit Parade was being circulated surreptitiously – I got a glimpse of only No 1 & No 2: I wish I could Get You on a Slow Boat to China, and see you Running Bear.

My friends & I were secretly rather impressed – very clever, we thought.

But when it was confiscated by a teacher all hell broke loose. Two boys were caned & two separate special assemblies were held – one for girls, the other for boys; it was at this assembly that our head mistress, who was close to retirement age & so must have been older than the century, shaking with rage, told us that she was sorry we had to share classrooms with such disgusting creatures.

The thing which really took me aback on hearing the news today was that Running Bear was released in 1960. In my memory this incident happened much earlier, when we were only in the first or second form & so did not really understand fully the sexual implications. We definitely did not take the incident as seriously as did she.

But then even in 1960 there were still three years to go before Philip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Ogden Nash on Bankers

I was looking for a poem by Ogden Nash about bankers which I heard on Poetry Please, & which Roger McGough described as very apt to today.

It wasn't this one, which is every bit as apt.

Bankers Are Just Like Anybody Else, Except Richer

This is a song to celebrate banks,
Because they are full of money and you go into them and all you hear is clinks and clanks,
Or maybe a sound like the wind in the trees on the hills,
Which is the rustling of the thousand dollar bills.

Most bankers dwell in marble halls,
Which they get to dwell in because they encourage deposits and discourage withdrawals,
And particularly because they all observe one rule which woe betides the banker who fails to heed it,
Which is you must never lend any money to anybody unless they don't need it.

I know you, you cautious conservative banks!
If people are worried about their rent it is your duty to deny them the loan of one nickel, yes, even one copper engraving of the martyred son of the late Nancy Hanks;
Yes, if they request fifty dollars to pay for a baby you must look at them like Tarzan looking at an uppity ape in the jungle,
And tell them what do they think a bank is, anyhow, they had better go get the money from their wife's aunt or ungle.

But suppose people come in and they have a million and they want another million to pile on top of it,
Why, you brim with the milk of human kindness and you urge them to accept every drop of it,
And you lend them the million so then they have two million and this gives them the idea that they would be better off with four,
So they already have two million as security so you have no hesitation in lending them two more,
And all the vice-presidents nod their heads in rhythm,
And the only question asked is do the borrowers want the money sent or do they want to take it withm.

Because I think they deserve our appreciation and thanks, the jackasses who go around saying that health and happiness are everything and money isn't essential,
Because as soon as they have to borrow some unimportant money to maintain their health and happiness they starve to death so they can't go around any more sneering at good old money, which is nothing short of providential.

Ogden Nash

Related posts
Consumer boom
The Deserted Village

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Another special day

Easter is very late this year but the shops have not been slow to take the opportunity to find another special day for us to spend our money on – Pancake Day now comes with specially packaged goodies on offer to fill the long gap between Valentines Day & Easter.

I wonder how many people these days know that Pancake Day or Shrove Tuesday is supposed to be the last chance for indulgence before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday? Even fewer would expect to be shriven on the day.

Perhaps we will soon go the whole hog & adopt the name Mardi Gras instead. Or Fat Tuesday, since the English don’t do languages any more, would be very appropriate for our times.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Short speech

Just over 130 years ago, on January 9, 1881, the House of Lords debated the government’s Afghanistan policy.

The Liberal Duke of Argyll demolished the government case, with perhaps unnecessary fire, according to Lady Frederick Cavendish who was a witness to the occasion & wrote about it admiringly in her diary as “a most brilliant, condensed, and perfect little speech,” which lasted “only of an hour.”

Mind you, even in those days of oratory, their Lordships found it hard going:

The House much interested and edified, I believe, but as usual quite incapable of showing its feelings at all; it must be like speaking to people "hard of hearing" and asleep.

The things that run in families

Back before Christmas Roger Law, formerly of Spiting Image, now living in Bondi Beach, made a programme for Radio 4 in which he met Chris Darwin, yes, some relation, great-great grandson in fact.

This Darwin lives in the Blue Mountains and is at home in the midst of nature.

Proving, said Roger Law, that biology runs in families.

Funnily enough, biology runs in my family too.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Google arithmetic

Not long ago I found that you can use a Google search to get a quick answer to a question of arithmetic –for example what is 20!, or what is 5796/365.

Much quicker than turning to a calculator if you’re sat at the computer.

Fenian cricket

The Irish scored a famous victory over England in the Cricket World Cup yesterday.

Cricket actually has a long history in Ireland. Even the Fenians found it useful. In the 1860s groups of young men travelling by cart or wagon out into the countryside, or gathering in a field, would tell any nosy policeman that they were there to play cricket, when in truth they were practising their military drill.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Carry on with carrier bags

It has been obvious for a while now that supermarkets have resiled somewhat from making us feel guilty about taking their plastic bags, while continuing to do their best to help us avoid the thin HDPE ones where possible. The disadvantages of trying to abolish them altogether became only too plain – slower checkouts, for one, as people had to take more time to properly pack their bags for life.

Now the Environment Agency has come up with a report which provides advice for retailers and shoppers on carbon footprint of carrier bags.

Two interesting facts which emerge from this lengthy report:

40% of supermarket carrier bags are already recycled or reused as bin liners in the home.

The average family bought 483 items of shopping from a supermarket each month during 2006/7 – that is nearly 6,000 a year or 16 a day.

Otherwise, the best way to reduce the environmental impact of plastic bags is to use each one as many times a s possible.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The cost of cash

This morning on Radio 4 Mark Miodownik, a materials scientist, presented a programme, The Smell of Money, which was all about the cost of cash.

Two facts which caught my fancy:

  • In the UK it costs about £180 per person per year just to keep us in cash.
  • Across the EU the cost of all methods of making payment absorbs about 2.1% of GDP. The whole agricultural industry accounts for pretty much the same, so we spend as much in paying for things as we do in feeding ourselves.

The walls of the Big Society

Just three years ago I wrote about interesting thinking coming out of the Conservative party, but doubted whether it could be “turned into a coherent programme for government, & whether anybody can then articulate a central idea(l) to inspire the voters.”

Well as we are seeing, David Cameron is till finding it very difficult to get across what The Big Society means in practice.

Three years ago I was intrigued by the metaphor of society as a dry stone wall - dry that is as in without mortar, so not at all wet; a suitably Thatcherite ideal.

The dry stone walls in the Peak District certainly exhibit some of the virtues which the government wish to see co-opted in the Big Society – the use of purely local materials, respect for local customs, built with nothing more than hand tools & individual human ingenuity & craft. But they are not reliably solid & need constant care & maintenance, which is expensive in these days of high wages. And though they have their uses as boundary markers & herders of animals, they provide no shelter for humans.

Machu Picchu on the other hand is a masterpiece of design & organised labour for its construction on a large scale. Even so, its usefulness came to an end for reasons that are still not reliably understood, & it remained undiscovered by outsiders for hundreds of years.

Then of course there is the kind of dry stone barn of the more familiar conservative territory of the Cotswolds & Oxfordshire – not a type of building with which I am familiar. I have been having trouble getting any information about its method of construction, virtues & usefulness - not because Google does not produce plenty of results, but they are all for very desirable conversions for sale as very expensive homes - for bankers, no doubt.