Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Porous pavement

Work is proceeding apace on the new footway. It has been well-managed without too much disruption, except that it means a bit of a hike up the hill to the temporary bus stop – good for health perhaps, but not what you need at the end of a hard day.

The most welcome thing about it is that is seems to have been re-laid with some kind of porous paviors. Water no longer runs down when we have one of these heavy fownpours, & the surface of the newly re-laid side dries out noticeably more quickly than the old pavement on the other side of the road.

I was suddenly wondering whether I should have said permeable rather than porous. This led me to a dizzying tour of the dictionary, through perforated, penetrating, pervasive, porous, permeable & pervious, among others. The meanings overlap such that they may be largely interchangeable in ordinary (metaphorical) usage, though the differences may be important to scientists and engineers, such as in the following distinction from the 1937 book Ground Water by C. F. Tolman, quoted in the OED: An aquiclude is porous but not pervious to water moved by gravity.

I also found a very nice quotation from Nathanael Carpenter, a Church of England clergyman and philosopher & almost exact contemporary (1589–1628) of John Donne: The Porous and spongy nature of the Earth, which is apt to drinke in the water of the sea.

But I want to propose a new word for such footways: pavious.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hugging kindness

Lynne Reid Banks appeared on Broadcasting House on Sunday morning, reminiscing about her days as an ITN reporter in the 1950s, one of the first women appear on our news screens; she wasn’t too impressed by the portrayal of the period in the BBC tv series The Hour.

Various clips were played. The one that caught my ear – unfortunately I did not catch the name of either interviewer or interviwee – asked the question: Can Teddy Boys be cured by kindness?

Talk about hug a hoodie!

However, according to the website The Great British Teddy Boy it was “mistaken kindness and the fallacies of modern psychiatry”, which led to the lack of parental control, which turned out that generation of delinquents.

And so the argument just goes on & on.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Rain on the parade

I find I am hoping that it will be raining in Notting Hill soon after four o’clock this afternoon, if not before.

The August Bank Holiday weather has historically been kind in London – rain has rarely dampened the spirits at carnival.

One exception was 1986, which I remember not just for the rain but because I was having to travel late in the afternoon to Manchester ready to begin work there in the morning.

To be honest I was not by that time a great fan of Carnival – I still think it ought to be mainly steel bands & calypso, not massive sound systems, a bit like preferring old fashioned church services really, so I wasn’t too put out just staying at home. We didn’t live right on the Carnival route, but close enough.

It was after 4pm, already pretty dark, & I was doing a spot of ironing when there came a knock on the window.

A young police constable asked me if I would kindly take pity on the two damsels in distress he had with him & let them use the bathroom.

The taxi arrived soon after to take me to the station – no point relying on public transport on that day of all days.

I stepped off the train at Manchester Piccadilly – into a totally different world.

The station had not then undergone its facelift, seemed to have had little done to bring it out of the Victorian age, dim lights, dispiriting. And pretty much deserted apart from the small number of passengers alighting.

But not at all quiet – the silence was broken by the sound of barking, braying dogs. The passengers all departed as quickly as possible, leaving the station to police officers & their Alsatians.

Obviously there was a football match going on somewhere, though whether it was all over & the police were there just in case of straggling fans, or whether fans, jubilant or angry & disappointed, were expected any moment, I did not wait to find out, & made my way to the hotel.

It seemed like a scene from one of those achingly fashionable films about urban dystopia.

Thankfully Piccadilly station is now a pleasant, warm, welcoming space even late in the evening.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


A shortened version of Longfellow’s Hiawatha was another of the narrative poems which were so popular in my childhood.

It was read to us at primary school, when we ere only seven years old. The language really fired the imagination, & inspired many a game we played when let out on to the common at break time.

Of course I was always Minnehaha. I died beautifully.

I expect the blessing of the cornfields however was censored from the version we heard.

from The Song of Hiawatha

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water
With him dwelt his dark-eyed daughter,
Wayward as the Minnehaha,
With her moods of shade and sunshine,
Eyes that smiled and frowned alternate,
Feet as rapid as the river,
Tresses flowing like the water,
And as musical a laughter:
And he named her from the river,
From the water-fall he named her,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water.

Thus the youthful Hiawatha
Said within himself and pondered,
Much perplexed by various feelings,
Listless, longing, hoping, fearing,
Dreaming still of Minnehaha,
Of the lovely Laughing Water,
In the land of the Dacotahs.

"Wed a maiden of your people,"
Warning said the old Nokomis;
"Go not eastward, go not westward,
For a stranger, whom we know not!
Like a fire upon the hearth-stone
Is a neighbor's homely daughter,
Like the starlight or the moonlight
Is the handsomest of strangers!"

Once, when all the maize was planted,
Hiawatha, wise and thoughtful,
Spake and said to Minnehaha,
To his wife, the Laughing Water:
"You shall bless to-night the cornfields,
Draw a magic circle round them,
To protect them from destruction,
Blast of mildew, blight of insect,
Wagemin, the thief of cornfields,
Paimosaid, who steals the maize-ear
"In the night, when all Is silence,'
In the night, when all Is darkness,
When the Spirit of Sleep, Nepahwin,
Shuts the doors of all the wigwams,
So that not an ear can hear you,
So that not an eye can see you,
Rise up from your bed in silence,
Lay aside your garments wholly,
Walk around the fields you planted,
Round the borders of the cornfields,
Covered by your tresses only,
Robed with darkness as a garment.


And the lovely Minnehaha
Shuddered as they looked upon her,
Shuddered at the words they uttered,
Lay down on her bed in silence,
Hid her face, but made no answer;
Lay there trembling, freezing, burning
At the looks they cast upon her,
At the fearful words they uttered.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Song of Hiawatha

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Taking the tablets

It is slightly disconcerting to hear that people may take Seroquel tablets which have found their way into packets of Neurofen Plus; the tablets come in their own blister strips, stamped all over with the name, they have not been inserted into blister strips marked Neurofen.

Really this just goes to show how easy it is to make such a mistake.

First, you see what you expect to see. If you bought Neurofen & it says Neurofen on the box, then it must be Neurofen.

Secondly, even if you do notice you may merely assume that Seroquel is just the fancy scientific name.

And thirdly, you simply may not be able to see the writing clearly – especially on a shiny metallic background. Something which may affect the elderly in particular.

It is even more disconcerting to be told that, for a normal healthy person, taking a dose (or two) of Seroquel by mistake will do nothing worse than make you a bit drowsy.

Makes you wonder how on earth it does the job it is supposed to do in people whose illness requires it.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Price points

Asda are now selling beauty & personal hygiene products in small sizes - £1 each, or 4 for £3. National brands.

Pound stores from this side of St George’s Channel are invading the Irish Republic. Poundland is already there & is now to be followed by 99p Stores.

Very confusingly, the price at which goods will be sold will be €1.50, not the euro equivalent of 99p which is currently closer to €1.10.

What is more the company will trade as €0.50 over there, according to a report in The Times.

Do you think someone is taking the Michael?

Fire, pestilence, now flood

In a rather alarming Weather Eye yesterday Paul Simons reported that, because of rising sea levels, in a ‘worst case scenario’ a hurricane storm surge could drive a 25 foot high wall of water through Manhattan, flooding 600,000 homes & leaving many dead.

I don’t think he was talking about this weekend ...

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Vimto has been doing well, despite the recession – I have a feeling that this is a regular story on the news pages, year after year.

Not bad for a tonic invented over a century ago by a Blackburn-born believer in self-improvement & temperance whose name is still born by the company & who, according to the website JD’s World, was a nephew of Samuel Smiles, the Victorian guru of self-help & admirer of engineers.

Mind you, this year they have had some extra help from Levi Roots, that modern hero of self improvement, & his branded range of Caribbean soft drinks

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Living in separate worlds

Candida Crewe’s description of the teenage boy’s “misplaced belief that Lynx is a way to a girl’s heart (or at least to the inside of her bra)” made me laugh out loud – partly at the idea that a modern boy might still be so innocent of ambition in his amatory adventures.

It also evoked a memory from a few years ago, when I was sitting at a bus stop one sunny summer afternoon about half past four. It is the stop which serves the local high school, & I was joined by a boy who had obviously stayed behind for sports practice.

He sat down & rummaged in his kit bag from which he, quite unselfconsciously, took out a can of Lynx & proceeded to give his armpits a good squirt.

Old ladies are invisible to boys of that age.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Pension news

On 6 August Patrick Hosking drew the attention of Times readers to an ‘overlooked item’ in HSBC’s interim results for 2011 - a $587 million profit from changing the terms of the staff pension scheme, more than was made by its London-based investment bankers. I expect the staff are pleased & proud of this contribution they were able to make to the bank’s success

On 7 August the High Pay Commission published a report showing that top directors in the private sector will retire on a pension which is thirty times greater than that of the median employee.

Yesterday The Times reported that the Malaysian Employees Provident Fund, which has been building a portfolio of UK properties, is about to buy the (very) large Sainsbury’s distribution centre in Kent. UK pension funds do not seem to be able to parlay such investments into good pensions for their members – perhaps foreigners just settle for smaller incomes in their retirement.

We should have all been rock stars. A report by Deloitte found that8 of the top 20 grossing live acts in the US this year are over pension age, so they are all right.

Fire, fire

I have only just got round to checking the pictures – which have been seen around the world – of a young woman jumping from a window to escape a fire in Croydon during the recent riots.

I was puzzled by the version which dominated the front page of The Times on 9 August, which seems to show a pair of arms outstretched from the window behind her, giving her a push. All the stories said she had been completely on her own & had needed quite a lot of persuading to trust to the policemen below to catch her.

Pictures from other angles – available on the web – show quite clearly that they are not the arms of a human, but possibly some kind of gantry or piece of street furniture.

A report in today’s Times says that the application of a flame from a cigarette lighter to a sofa was all that it took to start the fire – a 33 year old man was caught in the act by a spectator with a mobile phone.

Another dispiriting story – this one from Salford – tells of an 18 year old who had been accused of setting fire to a store in Manchester, remanded in custody & named & shamed by the police on Twitter. While he was away his own flat was set alight – perhaps by someone who thought to teach him a lesson. He has however now been cleared of any wrong doing & presumably the council will have to find him somewhere else to live – if he had his own flat at that age the likelihood is that he had been in care.

Monday, August 22, 2011

All I know is ...

The correspondence column of The Times is currently carrying letters on the subject of “correlation does not imply causation” – the latest example being between the number of Baptist ministers in Alabama & the birthrate in Mexico (the writer, sadly, does not specify whether the numerical association is a positive or negative one).

I look forward to the extension of the discussion to cover those cases where lack of correlation does not imply lack of causation, & a consideration of how we know – straight away, in our bones & in our water – that some correlations are, obviously, spurious.

Seldom comes the better

I have just been reading The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez, an Argentinean professor of mathematics.

It ought to be right up my street – Gödel, Pythagoras, Fermat’s last theorem, the relation between the truths of mathematical logic & the messy real world, even Assyrian friezes. Seasoned with a little magical realism.

It was well written enough to persuade me to keep going to the end, but I wasn’t convinced; my reaction is I suppose only too typically English – too clever by half.

But I am left with one question: why is the expert logician called Professor Seldom?

It was very irritating to keep reading this as an adverb & then having to start the sentence again. An anagram which points to the messiness of real world models? Or is it just meant to be a joke? If so, what is it that he seldom does?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Views of life & death

We should remember that, before the word scientist was invented, such people were called called natural philosophers.

To a Mistress Dying

LOVER. Your beauty, ripe and calm and fresh
As eastern summers are,
Must now, forsaking time and flesh,
Add light to some small star.

PHILOSOPHER. Whilst she yet lives, were stars decayed,
Their light by hers relief might find;
But Death will lead her to a shade
Where Love is cold and Beauty blind.

LOVER. Lovers, whose priests all poets are,
Think every mistress, when she dies,
Is changed at least into a star:
And who dares doubt the poets wise?

PHILOSOPHER. But ask not bodies doomed to die
To what abode they go;
Since Knowledge is but Sorrow's spy,
It is not safe to know.

Sir William Davenant


Rich & poor, pleasure & blame

On Radio 4’s Beyond Westminster yesterday morning John Kampfner (acknowledging that it was a low blow) asked his MP guests whether there was any real difference between looting a flat screen tv & wrongly claiming for one on expenses.

To their credit the MPs recognised & acknowledged the point.

Twas ever thus, though. The privileged, when they want something, or even to indulge in a little mayhem & breaking glass, just don’t have to frighten the horses as much as do the poor.

Rich & Poor; or Saint & Sinner

THE poor man's sins are glaring;
In the face of ghostly warning
He is caught in the fact
Of an overt act …
Buying greens on a Sunday morning.

The rich man's sins are hidden
In the pomp of wealth and station;
And escape the sight
Of the children of light,
Who are wise in their generation.

The rich man has a kitchen,
And cooks to dress his dinner;
The poor who would roast
To the baker's must post,
And thus becomes a sinner.

The rich man has a cellar,
And a ready butler by him;
The poor man must steer
For his pint of beer
Where the saint can't choose but to spy him.

The rich man's painted windows
Hide the concerts of the quality;
The poor can but share
A crack'd fiddle in the air,
Which offends all sound morality.

The rich man is invisible
In the crowd of his gay society;
But the poor man's delight
Is a sore in the sight,
And a stench in the nose of piety.

Thomas Love Peacock

TL Peacock Society
Beyond Westminster

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Gwyneth Lewis chose Emily Dickinson for this week’s Great Lives on Radio 4.

The word recluse was chosen to describe her.

You certainly couldn’t call her a loner, though these days I suspect that most recluses would be called loners, at least by those who wished to imply there was something dangerously odd about them - though of course Seneca too condemned the evil of departing from the company of the living before you die

The OED finds written instances of the word loner dating back to only 1947 in America, & even has a quote from Guardian in 1961 which seems to attribute the coinage to James Jones.

Mistakes will happen

The Straight Statistics website led me to an interesting account by specialist commentator Brian Green on how the wrong numbers for construction output came to be published last week.

Somebody slipped up & added the wrong three months to get the quarterly figure – easily done, I know from experience – but the error wasn’t spotted until ‘a couple of minutes’ after the Press Office pressed the Send button to release the figures to a waiting world.

Which leaves unanswered the question of how long that was after the error was made. Have the pressures grown so intense that there is now no gap at all between the figures coming hot off the calculator or spreadsheet?

Brian Green criticises reporters & analysts who (unlike him) commented on the figures as they stood; in other words it is not just the producers of the figures who should always remember that IF A FIGURE LOOKS INTERESTING IT’S PROBABLY WRONG.

He also criticises ONS for making things worse by taking all morning to put out a correction.

We can only wait for the results of the enquiry to find out why that should have been so, but my guess is that panic made everybody want to check & double check every single figure – just in case. We should also remember that politicians & policemen are not the only ones who go on holiday at this time of year so these decisions may have been being taken by relatively inexperienced heads.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Rules for calculation

The Times has done it again. In a report on the HP takeover of Autonomy we hear once again that “It was Bayesian theory that led Dr Lynch to formulate the logarithms that underpin Autonomy’s search software.”

Well I expect there are some logarithms in the Autonomy algorithms (which are protected by 170 patents).

But I expect that John Napier & Henry Briggs would be unhappy to hear that logarithms were not formulated until the C 20th

Thursday, August 18, 2011

SPOC is back

I have found a new SPoC

Smart Positioning of Cursors … an Expert System for cursoring EDT records. At this time, only the pERG and mfERG are considered.

It shows how a model record can be cursored robustly when buried in large amounts of random and mains noise with a variable DC offset.

I haven’t got a clue what all that means, but it’s for the NHS so I might be very glad of it one day.

The sound of sirens

A comment by Matthew Parris on what seems like an overuse of police sirens, which ‘To the kind of mind that loves the sound of breaking glass … sirens are as provocative as drumbeats: a call to danger, excitement - & fun’ reminded me, perversely, of something I had been meaning to note for quite a long time: the sound of police sirens has become a rarity in my life.

Perhaps it is just that I spend much less time in the city, but out in the suburbs & the country, even on the rare occasions one sees them racing past, they make no more noise than a normal speeding car - & a lot less than a show off in a 4x4, whose tyres make a heck of a din on the road surface.

The world probably divides into two kinds of people on this issue however – some of us feel intimidated rather than excited by sirens. I remember my first visit to New York (in the summer of 1966); although I never actually saw anything going on, the seemingly constant sound of sirens was disquieting. Mind you I think Scotland Yard – even the Flying Squad – still just used bells in those days.

I doubt such old fashioned sirens could be heard at all in today’s noisy city. Sometime in the 1970s there was some kind of practice in London, just in case the Thames should flood before the new barrier was completed (we even had maps on every office wall to show us which areas of the capital would be high enough to be safe). Listen out for the sirens, we were told (no other action was required, as I recall). The old WWII bomb sirens were to get a rare outing.

Most of us struggled to hear anything at all, even though we knew at what time they were supposed to go off. Very discombobulating, when you think how the sound of sirens could instil fear even into cinema audiences in the post war years – or into us children when the siren on top of the Town Hall was regularly tested until well into the 1950s

I can barely remember the last time I saw a fire engine answering a call.

The peace is only ever shattered by a paramedic first responder; those guys really do like their sirens.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cause, process, condition

Simpson’s paradox, or Simpson’s reversal as I prefer to call it, is just one of a class of what I would call weighting problems.

In the original business of statistics – the collection & presentation of state figures to describe the wealth of the nation or the condition of the people - the emphasis was, & to a large extent remains, on providing answers to the question of ‘How many?’, be that people, £ or things, in the various categories of interest or concern.

Puzzles such as that described by Simpson arise when there is an imbalances in the way the members of two subgroups of the population are distributed across other, different subgroups or classifications. As a purely hypothetical example we might find that the female unemployment is lower than the male rate in both manual & non-manual jobs, but when the whole workforce is considered there is a lower unemployment rate for men. This would happen if men are much more likely to work in the sector which has lower unemployment.

If one were concerned, as a matter of policy, to rectify these imbalances one would have to consider the process(es) which brought them about. These in turn might not be obvious, but related to cultural attitudes to working mothers combined with different class & employment structures across different areas of the country.

It would be rare for those carrying out his kind of analysis to feel that the answers represented some underlying & universal law which was necessarily applicable in all other states. And, because the numbers are very large, the question of statistical significance as measured by P values is also unlikely to arise.

But what if the very process by which the data are collected is itself a source of imbalance – for example it comes from a non-probability sample of an ill-defined population

An end to grazing

Supermarkets have most definitely been reducing the amount of shelf space devoted to food since I first commented on this 2 ½ years ago. In some cases (most notably M&S) they have been filling up the space with bottles of wine & other drinks, presumably while they wait to see if the situation will recover.

Recently I have noticed that in some places this filling up has spread to the shelves which were devoted to snacks of the kind that people might drop in to buy for lunch or just when feeling peckish.

A recent American report showed that children now consume more calories from foods away from home than from school meals & that these contribute significantly to the obesity epidemic. I expect the same is true for adults too.

If people can no longer afford to snack the obesity problem ma solve itself.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The first statistics of happiness

I found, that in Germany they were engaged in a species of political inquiry, to which they had given the name of Statistics … by Statistical is meant in Germany, an inquiry for the purpose of ascertaining the political strength of a country, or questions respecting matters of state … the idea I annex to the term, is an inquiry into the state of a country, for the purpose of ascertaining the quantum of happiness enjoyed by its inhabitants, and the means of its future improvement; yet, as I thought that a new word might attract more public attention, I resolved on adopting it.

That quote comes from "The statistical account of Scotland: Drawn up from the communications of the ministers of the different parishes. By Sir John Sinclair 1791–1799".


Sir John Sinclair's vision for The Statistical Accounts Of Scotland

Measuring national well-being

Monday, August 15, 2011

Building figures

The Times carried an absolutely stinging lead article on the Business pages on Saturday, reporting ‘Outrage over statisticians who keep getting numbers wrong.’

The latest Statistical Bulletin on Construction Output had been withdrawn within hours because of an ‘arithmetical error’: the figure for growth in Q2 of 2011, which had been given as an (unbelievable) 2.3 % was put back down to 0.5%, the same as was given in the provisional estimates for total GDP which were published on 26 July.

It is impossible to see the original bulletin now for any clue as to what happened, but I feel for all those involved. Only up to a point however – that kind of thing is just too glaring to let slip through, one would have thought.

This however is a particularly difficult time for making reliable early estimates for an industry where patterns of the recent past cannot provide a very robust or reliable guide to what might be the figure when all the returns come in.

Apart from Olympic activity, not a lot seems to be going on. Housebuilding seems to have ground to a halt round this neck of the woods, & there are not many tall cranes around town; oddly shop fitting seems to be thriving still – the old Woolworths has now been fully occupied, a new Pound Store opened in a prime location & a new Primark opens soon.

An absolutely classic example of the everlasting ‘timeliness versus accuracy’ dilemma. ONS has had to undertake a re-assessment of the parameters used for estimating output of businesses which do not send in their returns and dealing with outliers (unusually large returns), to cope with the changed nature of the industry since the credit crisis hit.

Perhaps we should once again consider adopting the Swiss solution – produce one, & only one estimate which is Final.

A year after the event.

Policeman's holiday

Politicians have been taking credit for interrupting their holidays & rushing back to tell the police how to cope with a riot.

Just how many police officers were dragged back from their holiday to make sure there were enough of them on the city streets?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Perishing pleasures

This seems like a suitably mournful poem after the dispiriting weather we have had this week – back to the pattern of intermittent downpours interspersed with skies coverd by mist & cloud & even a brisk north west breeze.


THE poplars are fell'd, farewell to the shade
And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade,
The winds play no longer, and sing in the leaves,
Nor Ouse on his bosom their image receives.

Twelve years have elaps'd since I first took a view
Of my favourite field and the bank where they grew,
And now in the grass behold they are laid,
And the tree is my seat that once lent me a shade.

The blackbird has fled to another retreat
Where the hazels afford him a screen from the heat,
And the scene where his melody charm'd me before,
Resounds with his sweet-flowing ditty no more.

My fugitive years are all hasting away,
And I must ere long lie as lowly as they,
With a turf on my breast, and a stone at my head,
Ere another such grove shall arise in its stead.

'Tis a sight to engage me, if any thing can,
To muse on the perishing pleasures of man;
Though his life be a dream, his enjoyments, I see,
Have a being less durable even than he.

William Cowper


Blakes poem about London seems rather apposite this week.


I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
William Blake

Saturday, August 13, 2011


A Times leader on all things riot referred to the Stratford Olympic Stadium.

What a very unfortunate set of initial capitals.

I was wondering if anyone might object to my calling it an acronym – where the initial letters are pronounced as if they were a word (NATO), not just spelled out (NHS).

If SOS were an acronym wouldn’t it be pronounced soz?

The OED allows SOS as both a noun & a verb. So it must be a word, mustn’t it.

Pay & compensation

I have just spent several frustrating minutes trying to track down “Civil Aviation Authority figures released yesterday” according to Friday’s Times.

To no avail, of course.

The story purported to tell us how the pay of cabin crew & pilots for different airlines changed between 2009 & 2010. The headline is ‘Younger, cheaper staff help airlines to bring down average pay bill’ & the article refers throughout to ‘average pay’, but the graphic talks about ‘pilot expenditure per head’.

So do the figures include employer’s ERNIC & pension contributions?

When I finally managed to find the notes (but no figures beyond 2009) I find that they include not only pay, pensions & insurance but crew uniform and equipment costs. The term ‘pilot expenditure per head’ may also include ‘expenses incurred by the airline in respect of meals, travelling and accommodation.’

These details matter.

Ask any MP required to account for themselves.

What really startled me however was the cabin crew expenditure per head of Virgin Atlantic - £13,300 a year in 2010.

The same day the Times reported the story of two of the residents burned out their flat in Tottenham – both of them hospital cleaners on £12,000 a year, which is £6.28 per hour in the NHS according to adverts appearing on the web. When you add employers ERNIC & pension contributions (if any – no expenses of course) there may not be all that much difference; the perks of working for an airline are a lot better of course

Friday, August 12, 2011

Working at the coalface

[X, also known as Y] “is a dynamic, vibrant and pro-active company focused on the creation of opportunity, value and return for our Clients, our staff and ourselves. We are a hands-on, coal face company providing focused business solutions to our Clients, through a single, professional point of contact.”

But what do they do?

I expect I shall find out soon – they are working together with Sainsbury’s now & have the smart vans driving round to tell us so.

But whatever they do it cannot be what I first thought.

With a name like Arcus FM I assumed that Sainsbury's were going to start to delight us with their own instore radio station.

Related post
Too many SPOCs

Colorado beetles & human rights

In Thursday’s edition of The House I Grew Up In on Radio 4 Terry Waite mentioned his memory of a poster on the wall at school – a picture of a Colorado beetle.

That took me back – those posters were everywhere in the 1950s, we understood the beetle was a real threat to our still precarious food supplies, though I never heard of anybody who ever saw one.

My Google research showed that such concerns go back at least as far as the Destructive Insects Act of 1877 which gave "Power to the Privy Council and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to make orders for preventing the introduction into Great Britain or Ireland, or spreading there, of the Colorado beetle, and prohibiting or regulating the landing of potatoes, vegetables, &c., likely to introduce the insect, or prohibiting the keeping of specimens for sale, &c."

It is still considered a threat locally, with advice available on the council’s website.

In 1950 the East Germans believed that the Americans were deliberately dropping Colorado beetles on them, a crime against humanity.

These days the Colorado beetle has a website of its own.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Investing to save

Something had been bothering me about the recent calls for more funding for personalised genomic medicine, on the grounds that investment now will save us billions in the future. Then came the flash of light.

The economic growth models that I was introduced to as an undergraduate went: save, in order to invest, in order to produce future income.

Now we hear increasingly: invest to produce future savings.

I think it may have started with Early Years. We will save ourselves an awful lot of money on police, justice, prisons, health care & benefits if only we spend money now on children from deprived or dysfunctional backgrounds to rescue & divert them from the future which will otherwise be theirs (& ours).

Then it entered medicine big time: GPs get paid for the amount of preventative work they do – to save money which we would otherwise have to find to treat us when we go & get old & ill despite all that.

Meanwhile of course we have to go on spending at just the same rate as we did before on all those problems which our forebears lacked the foresight to prevent.

So we just have to borrow somebody else’s savings to finance our investment. Pay them back when we can reduce our expenditure.

Upfront investment would actually save the NHS money down the line - Sir John Bell, chairman of the Government Genomics Strategy Group

No need to put a sock in it

In his column in today’s Times, David Aaronovitch offers an analysis of the recent ‘riots’ arrived at by asking the basic questions of who, what, where, when & why – leading to the conclusion that it was all just down to a relatively small number of young men high on violence & low on personal skills.

He left out the ‘how’, which has been bothering me. In particular how was it, apparently, so easy for them to gain entry through all those steel grills & shutters?

My guess is that the vandals had the huge advantage of not having to worry about avoiding attention by keeping quiet about it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Chris Blattman, an Assistant Professor of Political Science & Economics at Princeton who writes a blog about poverty, political participation, & the causes and consequences of violence in developing countries, yesterday published a piece about his own frustrations with law & bureaucracy in New York.

He & his wife are attempting to find a legal nanny (ie not an illegal immigrant) for their new daughter. He has a strong personal incentive – quite apart from principle - to do it properly; he doesn’t want to be barred from the possibility of working in US government one day.

The bureaucracy requires him to pay taxes for the nanny to no less than seven different agencies at different levels of government; a friend who accidentally missed just one payment got fined $10,000 for the misdemeanour.

The complexity itself means that there is a huge element of chance in whether any failure or wrongdoing on your part brings punishment or sanction. Ninety eight per cent of families in New York don’t even try to go by the book when they want a nanny – presumably most of them simply get away with it. Another friend might find that his late payment gets met with a ‘Oh, that’s OK- you remembered eventually.’ Or even perhaps just pass unnoticed by an overburdened administration.

If the system can so frustrate someone with his level of education (& income) who can actually afford to pay hundreds of dollars a year to a firm to manage the process for him, how much worse must it be if you struggle to understand even the basics.

Of course Blattman is unlikely to see all this as an excuse – still less a reason – for even a little light vandalism, but there are reasons for the current outbreaks in England, & we need t be very clear that our response takes these reasons appropriately into account.

I am not clear who David Cameron thinks is his audience for assertions that all the looters should be very afraid because we know who they are & they will be punished.

The children know that that is not true. Of course some will be, but whether or nor it is you depends on a large element of chance.

They are used to this. There are an awful lot of young men around whose daily routines mean that sometimes somebody – social worker, police, council worker, teacher, whoever – will collar him for it.

But most of the time they just don’t. Even when they are crying out for someone, who has power, to do something about it.

I should be surprised if those who are seizing the chance to profit from all this – the family allegedly seen driving up to load the boot of their car from a looted Salford supermarket, or the men in vehicles with darkened windows spotted near some of the mayhem, will be brought before a court.

On a more cheering note – it is I think no thanks to the government, that we are now seeing lots of examples of the Big Society in action – clean up crews, donations. Hopeless Haringey seems to be doing a pretty good job of providing emergency support.

I was almost in tears myself this morning, listening to a young man who was burned out of his flat above the burned out carpet store – especially when he said there were lots of questions he needed to ask right away. Such as whether he should continue to pay his mortgage on a flat which no longer exists.

He has nothing but the clothes he stands in plus the few items he grabbed as the fire took hold. He was clearly in shock but calm & coherent, talking to Victoria Derbyshire, until he was taken in to see the room packed with all the individual donations, delivered in carrier bags – shower gel, clothes, tea towels, toys – which filled the room in which they were being sorted by council workers. Then he simply broke down in tears at this evidence that people out there really do think about & care for those left in his position.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The children’s revolt

Just let them get it out of their system – there is nothing governments can do.

So said a commentator on last night’s The World Tonight on Radio 4.

He was talking about the markets, ‘in a panic’, not children rioting & looting.

The prime minister’s response is to break off his holiday & come back to London to chair a meeting of COBRA. Well perhaps they will be able to think of something – other than panic.

Breaking glass! Fire!

Take lots & lots of stuff – have a phone, games, a posh tv, clothes, shoes, booze. That’s what posh people have been doing during all these years of the long, credit fuelled boom, while we’ve been supposed to go to school & do SATS and stuff. For what?

Then just run away, police can’t catch us, they’re not quick enough.

Now there’s no money left cos the bankers just stole it but nothing has happened to them.

They’ve taken away our EMAs though.

Have you seen us on the news? We're famous!

Well, we know who we are.

Monday, August 08, 2011


If young people in [name your Middle East city] used social media to organise a disorderly & violent protest about their discontents it would be greeted with approval by our press. Government claims that these were just criminals would be met with disdain.

Just making a point. Of course London is different. Our police do not go out to shoot innocent people.

Perhaps it just all got out of hand,or perhaps it was meant to be more sinister. Either way, it's the ordinary people of North London who have lost the most.

The police are also coming in for yet more criticism. Why did they not see it coming? Why did they not respond more quickly?

Just remind me. Why did the Met lose its two most senior officers last month, so that those in charge are only acting; just how many officers have been put on to trawling through old email & phone records for the numbers of those who 'may have' had their voicemail hacked some years ago?

Why shouldn't the young from less privileged backgrounds grab some of the attention by making their frustrations known. Just look at how their contemporaries from more privileged backgrounds got away (almost) with chucking dustbins off Millbank Tower, attacking Charles & Camilla in their car, swinging from the Cenotaph, attacking Fortnum & Mason, throwing a custard pie at an old man right there in front of the tv cameras in the Houses of Parliament.

Views of empire

I am looking forward to reading Ghosts of Empire by Kwasi Kwarteng, a history of the British Empire written by a Conservative MP of Ghanaian heritage who won a Kings Scholarship to Eton & worked as a banker.

According to the publisher’s blurb it makes the point that ‘the empire was not formed by coherent policy’, & much depended, for good or ill, upon the character of individual governors & colonial servants.

This is certainly different from the evil empire view that has been so prevalent in recent years & has produced so much post-colonial guilt, or the ‘on the whole a benign bringer of civilisation’ of a Niall Ferguson.

But I wonder if it is really so very different from the absorbing Pax Britannica of Jan Morris, or even the collection of individual eccentrics in Running the Show by Stephanie Williams which portrays colonial governors as on the whole more liberal in their views than the local white settlers, traders, business people or missionaries who could frustrate their very best intentions.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Overheards on the radio

Robert Peston’s mum was a speech therapist

Our local radio cannot say the word died; people just pass away – whatever the cause or circumstance.

The county overspent by £2million pounds its budget for snow clearing in the last two years.

A few women go a long way’ – Kate Mosse, founder of the Orange Prize, on why people always overestimate the number of women who have won prizes open to both sexes.

Regret not me

This relatively little known poem by thomas Hardy was chosen by Claire Tomalin for Radio 4 Private Passions this week.

Regret not me

Regret not me;
Beneath the sunny tree
I lie uncaring, slumbering peacefully.

Swift as the light
I flew my faery flight;
Ecstatically I moved, and feared no night.

I did not know
That heydays fade and go,
But deemed that what was would be always so.

I skipped at morn
Between the yellowing corn,
Thinking it good and glorious to be born.

I ran at eves
Among the piled-up sheaves,
Dreaming, "I grieve not, therefore nothing grieves."

Now soon will come
The apple, pear, and plum
And hinds will sing, and autumn insects hum.

Again you will fare
To cider-makings rare,
And junketings; but I shall not be there.

Yet gaily sing
Until the pewter ring
Those songs we sang when we went gipsying.

And lightly dance
Some triple-timed romance
In coupled figures, and forget mischance;

And mourn not me
Beneath the yellowing tree;
For I shall mind not, slumbering peacefully.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Voting & the Simpson paradox

Until relatively recently I did not know that there was something called the Simpson Paradox.

I mean that literally – I did not know that there was a name for something that seems to me, a mere descriptive statistician, a commonplace.

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy introduces and summarises the problem thus:
An association between a pair of variables can consistently be inverted in each subpopulation of a population when the population is partitioned. For example, a medical treatment can be associated with a higher recovery rate for treated patients compared with the recovery rate for untreated patients; yet, treated male patients and treated female patients can each have lower recovery rates when compared with untreated male patients and untreated female patients. The arithmetical structures that underlie facts like these invalidate a cluster of arguments that many people, at least initially, take to be intuitively valid. E.g., despite intuitions to the contrary, the following argument is invalid.

The probability of male patients recovering following treatment is greater than the probability of their recovering following no treatment.

The probability of female patients recovering following treatment is greater than the probability of their recovering following no treatment.

Therefore, the probability of (male and female) patients recovering following treatment is greater than the probability of their recovering following no treatment.

Further, the arithmetical structures that invalidate such arguments pose deep problems for inferences from statistical regularities to conclusions about causal relations.

In thinking about examples I have come across, it occurred to me to wonder if this is not, on part at least, what the argument over fair voting is all about? For a first-past-the-post constituency based system can, even with only two parties, produce a winner with a minority of the overall national vote, which is certainly a reversal.

The paradox or perplexity (or unfairness) arises in part because of the variation in the distribution of voters across constituencies – which is why we have embarked upon a major exercise to draw boundaries which attempt to ensure that each constituency will carry the same weight in the next national election.

Unfortunately there is nothing much that we can do to ensure an even geographical distribution of party preferences. So we may be even more surprised & perplexed by the outcome


Buggies are getting bigger & buses have played their part in this trend.

The original idea of the buggy was that it could be easily folded up & carried like an umbrella by a mum struggling with toddlers & shopping. Now they really are palanquins signalling to everybody else that the rights of the child come first, so you, whatever your age, must just get up & move out of the way – to another seat if you are lucky. The space which was once sufficient to park three buggies side by side will now accommodate only one.

Or to put it another way, two mums with a buggy each take up six, or sometimes eight, seats.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Youth stirs

Who would have thought that one way for Radio 4 to catch the attention of a younger audience would be to organise a debate about two dead economists?

Around 1000 people, estimated average age 23, queued around the block at the London School at Economics to attend a Radio 4 debate about the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and Freidrich August von Hayek.

A large lecture theatre and two overspill rooms still didn't provide enough seats to meet demand.

The argument continued on Twitter & in the pub afterwards.

Houghton Street may not have seen anything like this since the 1960s lectures by the likes of Enoch Powell & Malcolm X. Or appearances by The Beatles on Ready Steady Go

Is Economics the new Rock 'n' Roll?

Keynes Vs. Hayek

Taking Hayek Seriously

Unconventional materials

Andrew Myers screw art is interesting.

Seeing this reminded me of a surprisingly beautiful picture I once saw on exhibition at (probably) the Hayward Gallery - must be at least 20 years ago now.

It was an abstract, made entirely from those little semi transparent white plastic tags used to attach shop labels to clothes. The texture & 'pattern', the impression of movement, came from minute differences in the length of the tag left proud of the canvas

Wondering if there is a proper name for these led me to an instructional film on How to use tag gun

Isn't the internet wonderful

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The number of the words

It is raining today & the sky is pure misty clag.

It is not the first time that it has rained since 15 July, but it would definitely be fair to call these last three weeks dry, rather than wet.

So much for St Swithin & his confident prediction that the rain that fell on his day meant continuous rain for forty days thereafter.

Well we knew that his forecast is not always right, but Jeremy Plester (standing in for Paul Simons in The Times Weather Eye column the other day) raised the possibility that perhaps forty did/does not always mean forty, but simply a lot. He particularly mentions the supposed forty days & forty nights of Noah’s Flood.

The OED puts the definite meaning of forty as ‘The cardinal numeral equal to four tens, represented by the symbols 40 or xl’ firmly in first place & its earliest recorded English use in the 960 Lindisfarne Gospel’s rendition of Jesus fast of forty days & forty nights in Matthew 4.2

The OED does record forty being used indefinitely to express a large number, but not before Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in 1616.

According to the website Meaning of Numbers in the Bible, forty has long been universally recognized as an important number, both on account of the frequency of its occurrence, and the uniformity of its association with a period of probation, trial, and chastisement.

Well that certainly applies to forty days of rain, but why are we also offered the prospect of forty days of sunshine whenever we get one particular sunny day in the middle of July.

Wait & see

Obama has won.

That was the headline over Anatole Kaletsky’s column in yesterday’s Times, in which he argued that the President’s perceived (& widely criticised) weakness in the epic battle with Congress over borrowing limits has achieved the strategic objective of dragging the debate on to territory which will be much more favourable to him in next year’s Presidential election.

I don’t pretend to know enough about American politics to form my own judgement on this, but I shall file it away in eager anticipation of finding out if he is right

Assuming of course that Obama stands for re-election.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Hospitality rules

In the wake of the hacking scandal Philip Collins wrote an article in The Times critical of the heads must roll reactions which will, if we are not careful, lead to difficult jobs in leadership roles becoming undoable rather than more accountable.

On the way to his conclusion Collins expressed particular doubt about wheter Sir Paul Stephenson had any need to resign as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police just ‘because he had a free stay at a health farm’, & told how he found that this extraordinary idea had made him think that the policeman must be using this excuse as a cover for something really wrong that he had done.

I find the idea that public servants should accept freebies of this kind rather surprising.

We have not had a boundary revision on the scale of the one which is now taking place to redraw the lines of parliamentary constituencies since the one which drew up the detailed plans for the 1974 reorganisation of local government. I remember listening to the plaints of one senior civil servant who was a member of the panel taking detailed local objections; his private sector colleagues in this venture were able to claim for things like theatre tickets on expenses as they travelled round the country – their companies took the view that of course they must have something to do of an evening away from home. Such a claim for expenses - or an acceptance of a 'treat' - would be unthinkable for a civil servant.

Also back in the 1970s, before lead was taken out of petrol, Jeff Rooker, then a young firebrand left MP for Birmingham, where lead levels were of particular concern after the opening of the motorway interchange known as Spaghetti Junction, gave a tv interview in which he said that the government had failed to act because their own advisers in the civil service were in the pay of the oil companies. I knew people who came into the category of adviser on this topic & were, to put it mildly, put out by this, not least because of the belief that it was the oil companies who had most to lose if lead were removed from petrol.

Some time later another tv interviewer asked Rooker if he had really meant this.

Well, no, I didn’t mean to imply that civil servants were taking bribes, but you know how it is, a good lunch here … something else there.

If anything the idea that civil servants might be so cheaply bought made matters even worse, but they took it on the chin.

A supplier of computer services used to throw a Christmas party which was much appreciated by our staff, but what started as just lunchtime drinks & posh nibbles became more extravagant each year, culminating in invitations to an afternoon at the Café Royal.

We were in somewhat of a quandary – most of us senior enough to be considered to have any say at all in the placement of contracts had discreetly dropped out of the party from about year 2, but it had seemed like a useful treat & morale booster for staff to get, for once, some modest perks. Did any of us have the courage to take a spoilsport line management decision to ban our own staff from going to this extravaganza?

The decision was taken out of our hands when the director got to hear of it & issued a firm instruction that no one was to attend.

In 1984 Montague Alfred lost his job as head of the government’s Property Services Agency after he suggested to the Commons Select Committee on Public Accounts that levels of corruption uncovered there were very minor ( I seem to remember that it involved things like a gift of a bottle of whisky on the award of a contract).

It comes as a bit of a shock to find that generous hospitality is now regarded as a routine & unremarkable part of government/quango/ private sector relations.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Screws & stuff

When Lady Platt was appointed chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission in the 1980s one ‘fact’ that made into the profiles was that she always carried a screwdriver in her handbag, a habit which supposedly dated back to her days as a pioneeering woman aircraft engineer.

At that time I too used to keep a set of screwdrivers in my handbag, though my skills for using tools are very limited.

It was a selection of small electric screwdrivers in a plastic pouch. We were beginning to get personal desk top equipment – usually just a VDU monitor & printer, connected together via old fashioned large D plugs.

After having had to pay a £90 call out fee+ for an engineer to come out one day & diagnose that the problem was that one of the very short screws which held the D plugs together had worked loose & one of the pins had got bent, I decided that a handy set of electric screwdrivers could, potentially, save me a chunk of my budget.

All this by way of attempting to explain why a half page newspaper advert showing twenty different types of screw attracted my attention & inspired several minutes of wonder at man’s ingenuity. Even better when I realised that it marks the arrival in the UK shopping malls of the Swedish firm clas ohlson, purveyors of homeware & hardware.

Since the demise of Woolworths the occasional buyer of such goods has been ill-served by the High Street, & shopping centres which, with their ever rising rents, have seemed to offer nothing but high margin fashion & fripperies. The only hope was the £ store.

I look forward to going to the Arndale for a good mooch round.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Oxbridge not good enough for all

Danny Baker did Desert Island Discs yesterday; he chose only records which he had heard before the age of six, from that era when popular music was popular with (& could be sung along to by) people of all ages, before it became just pop for teenagers.

Two of these records , so he informed us, were produced by George Martin(PB); one was I’m So Ashamed by Peter Sellers, which just reminds us that there is nothing at all new in the perils & pressures of (very young) pop celebrity. I was surprised that I can’t remember ever hearing it before. I was not a great fan of Sellers, so have I just forgotten this one?

I cheered as Danny Baker refused to accept that he had in anyway fought a battle with cancer – he was, like the Normandy Beaches, just the battleground.

Kirsty did not have to work very hard to get her interview – if anything the problem was to remind him to pause for a record. I don’t know if she was just playing up to him or whether she genuinely believes that it could be ‘poverty of ambition’ which prevented him from taking up his scholarship to grammar school which, Kirsty was sure, would have made him a shoo in for a Cambridge Double First.

We really do need to get rid of this idea that Oxbridge should be the (only) dream for everyone who has any intellectual spark at all about them.

I may have misheard Sheila McClennon later on Pick of the Week, but she seemed to continue this nice middle class Radio 4 theme when she said that it was a pity that it had taken his recent illness to make ‘us’ aware of just what a great broadcaster he is.


My heart sank when I heard a trail for “A discussion of the implications of the hacking scandal for the shape of power in Britain” to be broadcast on Radio 4 at 9am tomorrow – surely this subject has been done to death for now?

But it lifted again when I heard that Onora O’Neill will be one of the participants – I still remember her Reith lectures from nearly a decade ago. And it should ensure it's not a programme only for navel-gazing media types.