Monday, October 31, 2011

Intellectual exercise

Zipf’s law – something else I was introduced to by Is That A Fish In Your Ear, the stimulating book about translation by David Bellos.

But it sounded vaguely familiar, rang some sort of bell – 80/20, negative exponential, something like that?

Google found me a paper which looked within my scope: Power Laws, Pareto distributions & Zipf’s law, not too mathematical, well written, by an author with a wide range – city populations, earthquakes, wars, moon craters, book sales, incomes …

Well that was just the first page, but now that I have (slightly belatedly) realised that my laptop came complete with a preloaded Adobe reader I have had the luxury of being able to download such documents to read at my leisure at home, without having to use up some of my precious time online or pay for a printout.

And so it came about that last Sunday, usually a time spent sorting out & tidying up & catching up, I found myself exercising intellectual muscles I had almost forgotten that I had, rather than the straightforwardly interesting read I was expecting.

In fact the experience left me pondering whether some of the difficulty was just me or whether reading from a screen really does call on previously un- or little-used cognitive functions or abilities that we all have to develop.

I have long been aware that I simply cannot properly assimilate densely argued textual information when reading with my head up. Is this because I have spent more than 60 years reading with my head down, from paper(s) which are spread over a flat horizontal desk, or resting on my knee, or propped up against the marmalade on the breakfast table?

Does it have something to do with the fact that reading is often closely associated with writing, recording notes or the results of calculations by hand, which of course involves watching what my hand is doing?

Would I find it easier to read with my head up if I had, after all, learned to touch type when I was young?

I remember turning green with envy one day in the microfilm room of the university library; there was I, labouring to make manuscript notes from the (printed Parliamentary Papers) on the screen, while at an adjacent desk sat a (male, not all that young, probably American) person, fingers flying over the laptop as he gazed steadfastly, transcribing direct to disc the old, handwritten manuscript document on his screen.

But then expert secretaries & typists will tell you that they produce fast, accurate scripts without knowing anything about or absorbing the content at all. So perhaps the American had to go away & read the document to find out what it said, while I had already a good idea of how the new information fitted in with the rest of my research.

Musicians, when they need a score, for the most part read with their heads down. The exception may be players of an upright piano, church organ, or in a marching band; organists however must simultaneously do other complicated things – changing stops & playing pedals with their feet. Marching bands must also master the art of keeping in step.

I cannot think of any circumstance, at least since the invention of the book, when humans were regularly required to absorb complex information while reading with their heads up – nothing longer than a nameboard, sign or inscription – no more than the 64 letters & spaces of the on-screen subtitle, less than allowed in a Tweet. Of course the sheer weight of a book made it impractical to hold it up to read, & why go to the bother of building a vertical rest when the simpler horizontal surface of a table or the slightly raked one of a lectern would do.

So the question is whether reading ‘better’ with your head down is learned, or physiologically innate.

The sheer bulk of early desk top computers & work stations did not allow for anything other than the head-up position, unless there were specially adapted desks. Thank heavens for laptops.

But reading anything other than a relatively straightforward narrative is not easy if you can see only one small section at a time. Anything more complex …

This particular paper on power laws makes things more complicated by being printed over two columns per page – presumably to meet the requirements of a print journal. Then there is the conventional academic furniture of footnotes (at the foot of each page) & bibliographic references (at the back) plus multiple graphs & mathematical equations to consult. A recipe for giddiness, when you cannot even mark your place by holding your finger between the pages.

While it is true that clever people have invented ways of making this easier to do on screen (hovering mice?) & some of them may be available on my lap top. I just haven’t yet got that far up the learning curve.

It is also true that over time we as authors & originators too will think of different methods of organising, presenting & conveying information.

For one thing most written texts, in the form to which we have grown accustomed to them, contain a great deal of redundancy in terms of the quantity of hard information encoded therein. Yes, there is a lot of soft information, about the character of the writer etc, but a lot could be removed without damage to the main points. And form always affects content, so there is an inevitable degree of self-editing by an author to fit the space available.

Then there is the question of the thousand word picture, &, increasingly, animations.

I was particularly attracted to this paper about power laws because it contains a whole section on the mechanisms which may give rise to such distributions in either natural or man made systems. Some of these involve complex physics.

In my opinion users & analysts of statistics often fail to pay enough attention to the processes which generated them, & therefore assume over-simple structures of causation.

In the present case, when it came to these more complicated processes with even more diagrams, I longed for some animations instead. But until that day, there is really no alternative to printing out the pages so that I can spread them out to look at.

Still, at least I was able to assess the worth of the expenditure before I opened my purse.

I have so far been coy about the authorship & provenance of this paper. That is because the version which I originally downloaded appeared to be a complete orphan – no author's name, no title (of either parent institution or publication) & no date, though it is clearly post-2003 (UK traffic statistics for that year are quoted, which show that motorway speeds peak at 5mph above the current limit of 70).

Another Google search however revealed that it is Power laws, Pareto distributions and Zipf’s law by M. E. J. Newman, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, published in Contemporary Physics, Vol. 46, No. 5, September–October 2005, 323 – 351

PS the first time I ever heard of the 80/20 rule (expressed in those very terms) was in the 1980s in relation to GP appointments, 80% of which were said to be with 20% of the patients on his list.

Eating in the canteen

As an intriguing contribution to BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent Stephen Evans spoke of how he makes a habit of eating in works canteens which, by serving the food that the locals actually eat, give you a much better sense of the country than the fare available in commercial restaurants. Berlin was the focus for this piece.

Although the idea sounds very attractive I must say the prospect of Baltic lobscouse does not appeal. A version of Chatsworth Smodge ( potatoes mashed with corned beef tomato & onion), but with beetroot, roll mop herring & fried eggs – yuck!

In many parts of the world canteens are, as in Berlin, totally open to the general public; not, I think, something which has ever generally been the case in this country.

in my student days the BBC World Service canteen at Bush House in The Aldwych used to be an exception – though I expect this may have changed after the IRA bombing campaigns began. It made a change from the college canteen – they served exotic things like quiche – but a bit expensive for the student pocket.

There were some, among the large number of foreign students, who were able to earn a little from contributing occasionally to the overseas service - £1 a minute I believe, for a script, more if you read it yourself. It was one such (a Ghanaian) who gave me my first sight of the inside of a BBC studio; we went to see a continuity announcer, whose ability to talk for exactly the number of seconds remaining after the end of a programme, ending on a full stop just as the first of the Greenwich pips chipped in, impressed me so mightily.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Self hate

From the Diary of Lady Frederick Cavendish:

January 15th, 1867.—The subject of female suffrage (odious and ridiculous notion as it is) is actually beginning to be spoken of without laughter, and as if it was an open question. I trust we are not coming to that

Non-smoker’s plea

Although I am an unrepentant smoker, I am entirely in sympathy with this plaintive plea.

There is one of those animated versions by Jim Clark available on You Tube for this not-very-well-known poem. I think he must have the same poetry books as I have,

Plaintive plea of a non-smoker

I’m not a smoker but I do not hate
My fellowmen who seem to feel a need,
Quite irresistible, to cultivate
The weed.

I’m tolerance itself. I would not bate
The smoker’s freedom by one jot or tittle,
But could he not reciprocate
A little?

What quirk of mind is it that makes him able
(And for the moment I’m no longer joking)
To smoke in perfect peace beneath a label,
‘No Smoking’?

Is it unreasonable to deplore
Effrontery that nothing will abash
And that allows him to bestrew the floor
With ash?

Forgive me if I seem a heretic.
I might have paid my homage to a queen
But not the satyr that he served – Old Nick

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Aliens desirable & undesirable

Much was made this week about the news that, out of every seven people in prison for offences connected with the August riots, one was a foreign national.

I wonder what those same commentators make of the fact that, in many of the poshest areas of London, a very high proportion of residents (a lot more, I would guess, than 1 in seven) are also foreign nationals, born ‘as far away as Cuba, Samoa & Vietnam’, not to mention China, Russia & the Middle East.

Why are commentators much less concerned about the foreignness of these people & the effect they have on our way of life & property prices?

Even David Aaronovitch concluede that the lastest figures just go to show that the rioters were just the usual suspects.

Too right they were - three-quarters of all those who appeared in court had a previous conviction or caution. For adults the figure was 80% and for juveniles it was 62%.

But this cannot be taken to represent rioters as a whole.

Given that you were a rioter, the chance of getting identified from film & cctv footage & picked up by the police, was much greater for those ‘already known’. Those who were ‘not known’ had a much greater chance of melting away.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Early Alzheimers

There is no language in the world that is ever spoken aloud without accompanying hand movements … the greater the effort of concentration on live speech, the more the speaker needs to move their hands

Quote comes from Bellos: Is that A Fish In Your Ear?

Is there a difference between the kind of striving displayed by those aging normally ( senior moments accompanied by hand waving to try & make the word come), & those with Alzheimers (just sitting passive & unmoving)?

Added 9 November:
If you really want to see the brain in action look at someone moving their hands or talking
Professor Sophie Scott: Radio 4 Mind Myths 8 November 2011


I have just finished reading House-Bound, a novel by Winifred Peck. It was chosen by Sara Maitland for a recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme, A Good Read.

Written in 1942 it tells the story of Rose Fairlaw, a woman born to privilege who suddenly finds herself, in middle age, having to manage without servants, her last two live-in maids having gone off to work for better pay & conditions in a munitions factory.

Not a very enticing description, as Michael Morpurgo, the other guest on that edition of A Good Read who thereby found himself duty-bound to read it, freely admitted.

But what a revelation when you do read it. We have sympathy for Rose when, in response to an incredulous But didn’t your mother even make sure you could cook? reflected that her mid-Victorian mother would simply never have been able to imagine that her daughter’s household would not contain, among others, a vegetable maid, a scullery maid & a kitchen maid. So Rose, when needs must, finds herself surreptitiously having to watch out of the corner of her eye to see ‘whether you used hot or cold water for the ablution of potatoes & ‘veg’ & if you did or didn’t use soap.’

Rose & Stuart, her husband, had each been married before – Rose to a dashing young officer who died in WWI leaving her with a baby daughter. Her best friend, mother to a new-born son, died of pneumonia, so Rose had thrown herself (with plenty of help from servants) into caring for the two babies. When the widowed Stuart returned from his war service &, in due course proposed, she accepted this most suitable arrangement for two half-orphaned children & their remaining grief-stricken parents.

One of the more interesting aspects of this novel – written by a sixty year old woman & published twenty years before the Lady Chatterley judgement – is the way that it deals with sex, of which there is quite a lot in the book. So we read that, having assumed that she was entering a marriage of convenience between two people each mourning the loss of the great love of their life, Rose was ‘surprised that Stuart suggested a honeymoon at all, & still more surprised at the honeymoon itself.’ and that since Stuart’s ‘simple masculine attitudes about graves & beds were entirely different from her own … she accepted them dutifully.’

Would explicit description of the exact details of her surprise add anything worth reading to this?

The book is in turn funny, tender, tragic. Although obviously not another Middlemarch, I quite often found myself thinking of Dorothea in this tale of courage in all its guises & circumstance. It also makes for an interesting comparison with the last volume of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, which too deals with women of the privileged middle classes coming to terms with doing their own housework & fending for themselves in a very different world after WWII had ended.

The novel also struck me as very Priestley-esque, with the bumptious, plain spoken American taking the part of the picaresque hero.

Well worth a read indeed - & currently being reprinted according to the publisher’s website.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

More winners & losers

An interesting Costing the Earth last night on Radio 4 about how everybody has upped their game in getting ready to cope with winter snow.

Heathrow has spent a small fortune on new equipment & extra staff to operate it.

Some councils are switching over to imported marine salt which can work more efficiently & does less damage to cars, but may be bad news for archivists.

Depressions economic & meteorological

Researchers have claimed to find a causal relation between weather & the outcome of elections.

Major volcano explosions in the past have had long term effects on world weather, farming & economy.

I wonder if any research has been done into the relationship, if any, between weather & economic depressions.

The sudden brief burst of Indian summer in this country only added to the sense of doom & anxiety about the economy. Just another piece of evidence, after the long run of no summer & unaccustomed winter snows not previously experienced by anyone under the age of forty or so, that we are living in a world turned upside down.

I do not suggest that the weather causes recession as such, at least not in economies which are not largely dependent on harvests, but may influence the speed of recovery. The last thing politicians need when they are trying to encourage a sense of come on, we can get out of this quagmire of debt.

There is some possibly good news however. According to the cash machine group Link, Friday Sept 30 was the busiest day of the year so far - £577m of cash withdrawn before the hot weekend. Unless of course everybody decided on just one last fling before hatches are well & truly battened.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mortal souls

In his chat about the Life Scientific with Jim Al Khalili, Steven Pinker gave short shrift to the idea of something so immaterial, let alone immortal, as a soul.

But what about a mortal soul? The force that keeps that matter together in a package called me for as long as we both shall live?

Deaths of rhythm

Leonard Dillon died on 28 September at the relatively early age of 68.

In 1965 he released a record under the name of Jack Sparrow. His backing harmonies were provided by a group unknown outside Jamaica – the Wailers.

In 1966 he formed the Ethiopians, inspired to the name by the visit of Haile Selassie to Jamaica.

Those early records were more ska or rock steady than reggae, sweeter & more to my taste than the harder-edged reggae to come.

Last Saturday came the astonishing news of the death of another Caribbean musician, Trinidad-born Edmundo Ros – astonishing because I had no idea that he was still alive, at the age of 100.

He was such a fixture on the BBC – first radio then tv – in my childhood & so was responsible for inculcating in me a love of Latin rhythms. The image of that burly figure stays with me - & his voice wasn’t half bad either, gravel pebbles in a velvet purse.

The Queen must have fond memories of him too – the news reports of his death have all mentioned that she danced her first dance in public to his music.

One wonders why he had to wait until 2000 to get his OBE.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A word for entrepreneurs

Regardless of what the Met Office may say, local traders have spotted many an opportunity for business in the threat of a cold hard winter to come.

This morning for instance, local radio carried adverts from one company offering portable gas heaters & a competitively priced delivery service for replacement cylinders, & another, which usually celebrates the virtues of conservatories, offering purpose built car ports & covered walkways ‘so you can get in & out without the aid of a shovel'.

Even the anti-capitalist protestors in London are not averse to a bit of enterprise. I heard one of their number, invited by Radio 5 to respond to the claim by the Metropolitan Police that most of their tents are empty at night, explain that the absent occupants were out scouting for alternative camp sites nearby in the event that they were forced to leave the area outside St Pauls.

'They are being entrepreneurial,' he said. 'There’s nothing anybody can do to get rid of us now.'

Photo: JULIAN SIMMONDS via The Telegraph website

Hand to mouth intelligence

By another happy coincidence the result of a study of teenagers IQ was published just as I finished reading the David Bellos book about translation – Is That A Fish In Your Ear?

The admittedly small study by scientists at UCL overturns received wisdom by showing that IQ is not fixed by the time you get to adolescence; a number of the children studied showed a very distinct improvement.

Even the researchers wondered if some sort of measurement error might be to blame – until they noticed a correlation with scans which showed changes in the areas of the brain associated with speech & hand movements.

No suggestion – yet – of causal correlation.

Having given short shrift to the idea that it is grammar that makes language, Bellos asks What is it that unambiguously identifies some set of sounds made by humans as a language?

Bellos points to the strange connections between mouth & hand. ”There is no language in the world that is ever spoken aloud without accompanying hand movements … the greater the effort of concentration on live speech, the more the speaker needs to move their hands … try watching conference interpreters behind their glass screens.”
Speaking is not the same thing as reading aloud from a written text.

Television newscasters keep their hands on or under the desk or just shuffle papers – because they are only pretending to talk to you – in fact reading a teleprompt. A lecturer who moves his hands is almost certainly adlibbing, one who keeps his hands to his sides or grips the desk is reading a script.

Conversely, delicate finger-work of a non-linguistic kind almost always prompts movement of the lips. Watch someone threading a needle – hardly anyone can do it without pursing or twisting their mouths. [Does the same thing apply to someone who is struggling to see the eye of the needle & the end of the thread?]

Bellos goes on to point to the other important activity which links hand to mouth: eating.

Speaking & eating use almost all the same muscles.

Facility with language is an important component of IQ in its cognitive sense. The close relationship with eating raises intriguing questions about the relationship of diet to IQ, as much in the textures of food (involving different kinds of exercise for those muscles) as in its biochemical composition, & in the manner of its eating (hand, knife & fork, chopsticks).

For infants & young children, whose muscular control is not fully developed, eating & speaking at the same time can be quite dangerous. A child who is nervous about eating solid foods may be slow to develop. A relaxed & happy child eating with the family may learn from more than just the social & linguistic interaction.

But what, specifically, might happen to teenagers to enable them to make up lost ground?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Power outage

We had a power cut overnight – the first since the last I wrote about.

Don’t know how long it lasted; I was woken at around 5.30 by the flashing display on the radio clock, or possibly by the sudden return of the steady background hum which you never notice until complete silence descends.

Bear with a sore head.

Small things

An intriguing article on the Economix blog by Floyd Norris points to a little used index of US department store inventory prices which reveals that inflation in the price of women’s underwear is way higher than in any other category of goods in this market. Norris wonders if the price of cotton can really provide the explanation, since this has been falling recently.

Well I am far from being an expert in the price of women’s underwear, but I can confirm that the price of basic white cotton briefs in budget outlets such as George at Asda has rocketed. Not long ago you could buy three perfectly serviceable pairs for £1; now you get 4 pairs for £2.50. An increase of 87.5% in unit price.

Let us hope that the reining back in the price of cotton means at least no further increases.

My rather abstemious attitude to the purchase of undergarments resembles that of American men, who simply do not buy enough of the stuff to justify a separate statistical category in the inflation figures. But I can confirm that the price of a basic George t shirt for a man (plain round neck, short sleeves, surprisingly good quality cloth & stitching, any colour you like as long as it’s white, size up to XXXL) has also risen steeply, from £3 to £5 for two.

Sleep in a slipper

Perils of internet shopping – a man in east London ordered a single furry slipper from a specialist firm in Hong Kong called Monster Slippers. Just the one because the poor man has odd feet; his left foot, UK size 13, can presumably be catered for in an ordinary shop, but not his left foot size 14 ½.

Something got lost in translation & back came a slipper with a foot 25 inches long & the other dimensions increased to match. The Times says that this is a size 1450, but I think they have mistakenly added a 0 to that. The company blames a ‘translation error’ & say they thought the customer wanted a novelty for a shop window display.

Be that as it may, a black furry slipper measuring some 7 feet by 4 feet by 2 feet is to go on sale on line, & will hopefully fetch enough at least to cover the purchasers costs.

I should love to know if he paid up front, & still thought he was getting a bargain price for the size of slipper he was expecting.

If so I might order one myself. It looks like a wonderfully warm sleeping bag for an icy winter with energy prices too high to leave the heating on all night

Sunday, October 23, 2011

If I were

A The trivial.

If I were Hitler, I would do exactly as he did.

Well of course

B The empathetic.

If I were a Palestinian … a man … an Irish Republican …

I am trying to understand things from your point of view, to understand how or why certain behaviours which seem strange, could be, even are, completely rational within the parameters of your experience of the world & what you consider to be rational or logical

C The didactic.

If I were you, I would not wear that dress ... I would kick him out ... I would go & talk to your childs teacher ... I would always grill lamb chops, never roast them in the oven.

Couched in the language of advice, perhaps empathetic, but perhaps completely uncomprehending of the others problem

Harry Graham’s Breakfast

This is a poem for all the owls of this world who are simply not capable of human interaction first thing in the morning, but turn out quite nice really after a good breakfast accompanied by the reading matter of their choice.


The perfect breakfast, all must own, is that which man enjoys alone
Peace, perfect peace, is found, they say, only with loved ones far away
And there is naught but solitude that suits the matutinal mood.

But there, alas! are tactless folk who choose that hour to jest and joke
Whose conversation, brisk and bright, just bearable perhaps at night
Fills with intollerable gloom the self-respecting breakfast-room.

Thus, as I verily suspect, are many happy households wrecked
So, when you break your morning fast, let no one share that first repast.

Dean Cope, the eminent divine was breakfasting at half-past nine
Perusing (as he munched his toast) ‘The Anglican or Churchman’s Post’
When in there blew, to his distress, the Bishop of the Diocese
(Most typical in size and girth of the Church Militant on Earth)
Who shouted “Cheerio, old chap” and gave the Dean a playful slap.
Alas! What ill-timed bonhomie, the Dean inhaled his kedgeree
And turning, with his face all black, he slapped the breezy Bishop back.

Both lost their tempers there and then, and in a trice these holy men
Began (with the most unholy zeal) to throw the remnants of the meal
At one another! Buttered eggs, Bespattered aprons, gaitered legs
Were splashed with bacon, bits of sole, fell thick on cassock, alb, and stole
The dining-room became a sea of struggling Christianity
And when at last the luckless Dean slipped on a pat of margarine
The Bishop took a careful shot and brained him with the mustard pot.

A sight to make the angels weep! How scandalized the local sheep
Who read descriptions of the scene in ev’ry Parish Magazine.

The Diocese was deeply shocked. The Dean degraded and unfrocked
Found refuge in a city slum, lay-reader to the Deaf and Dumb
The Bishop lost his See, and sank to rural Prebendary’s rank
No, longer in his breezy way he reads the Collect for the Day
Or chants what proper hymns there be for those of Riper Years at Sea.

At Matins and at Evensong his cry goes up, “How long! How Long!
His groans are heard through aisle and apse, bewailing his untimely lapse
As he repents him of the crime of being bright at breakfast time.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


According to a paper by Michael Hammer, et al. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reported in The Times 6 September 2011, interbreeding between our ancestors & other ancient human species was common until about 40k years ago.

Chris Skinner, human origins scientist, Natural History Museum commented:
This paper helps to cement the view that the line dividing our ancestors from their closest relatives is blurred rather than distinct. It makes you question species definitions.

Species are categories that humans create based on underlying biology, but mammals, including humans, don’t play along. Bonobos & chimps hybridise today, & this [paper] shows that in the past we were much the same


The bin men had an extra task to perform this week – making sure that every bin was adorned with a 6”x 8” sticker, in bound-to-be-noticed yellow & black.

Do not put cardboard in this bin

We are now collecting cardboard in your blue bag, along with paper. If your blue bag gets full, please put your paper & cardboard in carrier bags & put them out with your blue bag on recycling collection day.

We will not collect this bin if you put cardboard in it

We have had to make this change because of new national regulations preventing the collection of cardboard mixed in with other types of organic waste
This leaves quite a mess to be sorted out. Each household has two large wheelie bins, one of which can now be used only for what one hopes will be mostly small amounts of waste food & garden clippings. There is talk of providing us with a third bin to replace the recycling boxes & blue plastic bags we use for other recyclables, but a very large proportion of houses simply do not have space for three bins in the yard.

Let us hope that at least the carrier bags we are to use as a stopgap will continue to come free from the supermarket for the duration of these difficulties.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Infinity on a scaffold

I just love this one.

Scientists have set up a large experiment to count the number of grains of sand on a beach in Cornwall. To do this they have needed to erect over 130 feet of scaffolding. It has taken five years to set it up.

Seriously, they are counting how many grains are moved up & down by the tide, to provide new fundamental information about the process of coastal erosion.

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
William Blake - Auguries of Innocence

Official ticking off

I read the O’Donnell report on l’affaire Fox as containing a severe ticking off for civil servants in the MOD.

For example:
14 (pt).Private office attendance was offered for both the visits set out above and declined by Dr Fox. This should not have been allowed to happen.

18. … the very large number of instances where Dr Fox met Mr Werritty overseas, and the damage arose because of the frequency and extent of these contacts and that they were not regulated as well as they should have been.

20. I therefore propose a stronger and clearer system which is better understood by Ministers and officials alike.

23 (pt). The damage arose because the frequency, range and extent of these contacts [with Mr Werrity] were not regulated as well as they should have been and this was exacerbated by the fact that Dr Fox did not make his department aware of all the various contacts.

24 (pt). Mr Werritty should not have been provided with access to Dr Fox’s diary and itinerary.

25. The Cabinet Office was not aware of Mr Werritty ...

All these amount to saying that the civil servants were just not doing their job properly – & that the Cabinet Secretary should have been informed if the minister would not listen to their concerns.

Ministers certainly picked up on this point; for example in the debate on Wednesday Sir George Young said, in reply to Angela Eagle:
If she reads the report, she will see that what went wrong was that the permanent secretary did not raise the issue with the Cabinet Secretary
If this were an episode of Yes Minister, the Cabinet Secretary would be informed over a drink in the privacy of a gentleman’s club. I wonder how things work in these days of gender equality?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Schrodinger’s head

You are about to toss a coin. The chances are equal – 50/50 – that it will come down heads or tails.

The toss is now completed.

But this is a thought experiment. The toss was carried out under controlled conditions in a laboratory; you tossed it over a wall which is, say, 2 feet taller than you (so you cannot see over it); made out of sheet metal (so you cannot see through it); extremely thin (so you cannot jump & pull yourself up to peek over the top without slicing right through your hand); an integral part of the moulded structure of the lab so you cannot dismantle it without tools which are not available; you are naked (so you cannot use your clothes to make pads to protect your hand); there is no movable furniture in the room; every conceivable control is in place.

On the other side of the wall the coin is most definitely either heads or tails.

On your side of the wall it is still 50/50, both head & tail at the same time.

No fly zone

The other morning I was idly shooing away a small black aphid which had somehow got into the kitchen (I had been doing a spot of pruning in the back yard) when it struck me, with some force, that I have not seen a single house fly this summer. Not had the aerosol out once.

Nor last year either, I don’t think. Now that I do come to think of it.

All those rain clouds must have silver linings after all

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Talking about Linda

Let’s talk about Linda.

In the beginning we are presented with 6 items of information about her which, we are invited to believe, are severally & collectively, true (P=1).

We are then invited to consider which of two further statements is more likely to be true: that she is a bank clerk or that she is both a bank clerk & a feminist.

The first statement comes as a surprise to those of us with our cultural background, or would have done before the current economic emergency: it is very unlikely (P close to zero) that someone with a philosophy degree would be working as a bank clerk. So what do we do?

Well, perhaps, carelessly forgetting that this second statement also contains the idea that Linda is a bank clerk, we just opt for the more likely second half.

Or perhaps we hurriedly revise our decision to reject the first statement (the information comes after all from someone who is an expert on Linda), but still opt for the second statement to reflect that process which we have undergone, of learning & revision in the light of new information .

But when we understand the fallacy, we might look back to the beginning. And reflect on the odd conclusion that the original introductory statement about Linda is even less likely to be true than the one which makes her both a bank clerk & an active feminist.

Probability all depends on where you stand.

We may also be reflecting what is odd, disturbing, but true: that the probability that I am me is even less than the probability that I exist at all. When the sperm met the egg, the I that I undoubtedly am carried only the tiniest probability of me.

I am what I am because of a lifetime of contingencies.


It was by pure chance that I heard last night an 'urgent announcement' on local radio that we are to have another change in the rules about how we sort our waste – after 28 October cardboard must no longer be put with food waste & garden clippings because of ‘changes to organic waste regulations.’ I find from the web that this was announced by press release on Monday. Explanatory leaflets for householders will follow (the online version has already changed).

Thanks for the notice! At least our green bin collection is this week so I am not faced with the prospect having to fish out the cardboard - if I were the reaction would just be to say sort it yourself.

A neighbour spent a chunk of Saturday morning tearing & flattening the packaging from a new set of bedroom furniture so that it would go into the bin but I fear not enough people will find out in time to prevent several loads of waste having to be diverted to landfill in the next few weeks.

I haven’t been able to find any trace of these new regulations – the Environment Agency website still says that ‘Biodegradable wastes include food wastes, garden wastes and cardboards’.

I wonder in what sense the word organic is being used here, but I note that the earliest meaning recorded in the OED is ‘Designating the jugular vein. Obs. rare.’

Much more of this & I shall be going for somebody’s jugular

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Political zoo

Somehow animals have become inescapable in our political discourse of late – puppies, kittens … & now a fox.

The resignation of Liam Fox as Secretary of State for Defence, however inevitable & deserved, brought about by his own seemingly foolish & incomprehensible behaviour, feels & seems a tragedy. I have been trying to work out why I should feel this way since his brand of politics is not one with which I feel automatic sympathy.

I knew his attempt to ride out this storm was doomed as soon as I saw the front page headline on Friday’s Times: Fox’s friend was funded by private intelligence group – a view confirmed by The Times itself on Saturday: Times report on private donations marks end for Defence Secretary.

Speculation has it that this tangle of unofficial relationships & finances was there to support Mr Fox’s own independent foreign policy agenda which, if true, is extraordinary & ought to see him forever out of favour with Parliament & party.

An alternative, less venal, explanation could be that it was just a kind of left over from the four years which the Shadow Secretary for Defence devoted to mastering his brief so that he would be ready to take over when the Conservatives returned to power, & not a new boy totally the prisoner of ‘the departmental view.’

I have written before about the way in which I felt nervous at the prospect of Labour coming to power in 1997 poorly prepared for the realities of office & running departments. This is a real problem – how does a Party not in office provide potential ministers with the briefing & expertise they will need.

For this, & other perfectly respectable intentions, there is no reason why they should not pick the brains of outside experts. And, once again, this Fox affair raises the question of how we finance this process honestly & fairly in an age when political parties cannot raise the finance from a mass membership, we do not want our politicians to be drawn solely from among the independently wealthy classes, & when private sector, free market ideas of entrepreneurship, consultancy, selling yourself & networking hold sway.

We are told that Dr Fox devoted himself diligently to this task over the four years that he was Defence Secretary in waiting; I know that I couldn’t be an effective politician but that we do need them, & I admire him for his energy & enthusiasm in pursuing his ambitions; most commentators have suggested that he has done a good job since taking office, not least in getting a grip on the Walter Mittyish or Micawberish attitudes to budget cuts which the MOD has displayed in recent decades.

The Times front page article rather alarmingly described the three identified donors who supported Dr Fox’s personal interests as a ‘private intelligence group’, a ‘property investor who lobbies for Israel’ & a ‘venture capitalist keen on strong ties with Washington’. Ooh er, obviously dodgy. James Bond saves us from people like that.

Elsewhere we could read that these could alternatively be described as a company which provides ‘strategic advice & corporate intelligence’ with a charitable arm whose adviser is the sainted Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon; a philanthropist with a passion for the ‘promotion of peace & understanding between peoples’; & a hedge fund owner whose latest project is to save the Readers Digest.

The newest channel of finance for these private activities of Dr Fox & his young adviser is a not-for-profit company called Pargav whose accounts ‘have been seen by The Times’. On Friday I assumed this meant something like accounts filed at Companies House, but a longer article on Saturday (byline Billy Kenber, a graduate trainee as recently as February) makes it clear that these accounts include details of payments made using the company’s debit card, which don’t seem like the kind of thing normally on the public record.

Some of these details are used by Kenber to suggest that at least three people had the use of this debit account.

On December 20th a card was used in Sri Lanka; on December 21st in Dubai & also for a £100 cash withdrawal in London; & in both Sri Lanka & Dubai on December 22nd.

My reaction is So what? but only because (thirty years ago) I had the experience of leaving Abu Dhabi in the morning, having lunch & an afternoon rest in a hotel in Bangkok, ending with a reviving drink of coconut water at about 10pm that evening in a hotel twenty miles north of Colombo. The reason was not a lavish jet-set life style but a runway temporarily blocked by a plane whose nose cone wheel had collapsed on landing. I haven’t checked flying times between Dubai & Colombo, but I should imagine it would be perfectly possible for one person to follow the itinerary implied by the debit card payments. As to the London petty cash withdrawal – any PA or office assistant could have made that.

Another element of this story has of course been the tawdry speculation & innuendo about the exact nature of the relationship between an older & a younger man. Why do politicians need courtiers? Why did Gordon Brown pluck Damien McBride from his job in the civil service? Why did Tony Blair need Alastair Campbell?

To do their dirty work for them; to provide a hedge & a shield; to have about them people they can trust who are on their side; to have somebody to act as general dogsbody; to train the next generation. There is of course an ancient, long established & honourable tradition for the last of these – both Cameron & Clegg benefited from a period working for a senior – the only thing surprising is the modern habit of giving the title ‘adviser’ rather than ‘secretary’ or ’ADC’ to such inexperienced youngsters.

I have enjoyed putting my feminist hat on & considering what the reaction would be to any young woman in such a position. It would be difficult; even if the relationship with the boss were handled with complete ease & tact & was accepted by the politician’s family & colleagues it would still, I think, be very difficult to have the right kind of relationship as a go-between in the kind of intermediary role being undertaken by Mr Werritty.

However, the thought which keeps popping unbidden in to my mind in all this is that, with a name like that, the young man’s story is just crying out to be written by Charles Dickens.

Some winners

Poundland’s turnover rose by 26% in the year ending last March, producing earnings before interest & tax etc of £31.7m – not a bad return for the private equity group which bought it for £200m

Sales at Boots have grown 70% in 4 years.

Google shares rose 7% on news that net income rose from $2.17billion to $2.73billion in the year to the end of September – largely achieved through cutting costs.

Monday, October 17, 2011

New poet laureate

This morning I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of an interview with Matt Black on local radio. Matt is the new Derbyshire Poet Laureate.

He read one of his poems called ‘You smell like my father’ –very simple but funny, sad & touching all at once.

No success so far in trying to track it down on the web, but I did find that he has another project called Hedgehog Nation.

I am really looking forward to tracking them both down.

Peril on the sea

It is always sad to hear of a ship foundering at sea.

Fortunately there are no reports that anybody died in the foundering of the MV Rena, though the captain is facing a charge of operating a vessel in a manner likely to cause unnecessary danger, a possible year in jail & a £5000 fine.There are also fears about spills of oil & other hazardous material off the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand.

I must be hard hearted & lacking in sensibility because it was the picture of containers toppling which really affected me

Added 19 October: There is a much better (higher quality) picture of MV Rima on the site of The Brewing Geographer , who ascribes a more apocalyptic meaning to the image.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


I feel that nothing I could try to say about humming birds would live up to this poem.

They are just so beautiful that watching one almost hurts.

Lucky us, indeed.

Humming Bird

I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.

Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chirped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.

I believe there were no flowers then,
In the world where humming-birds flashed ahead of creation
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.

Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.

We look at him through the wrong end of the telescope of time,
Luckily for us.
DH Lawrence

Wives & mothers

Every working woman must have said, at least once in her life, What I need is a wife.

But once, to my surprise, when I said this to a friend she reacted with a startled What on earth do you mean?

Oh you know – dinner on the table, slippers by the fire when I get home. Clean shirt hanging in the wardrobe

You’re not talking about a wife – you need a mother, she shot back.

Three things this past week brought that exchange back to mind.

The first was a clash between Michael Morpugo & Sara Maitland on Radio 4’s A Good Read. The book was the memoir of her life with poet Edward Thomas by his widow, Helen, & the disagreement was over the respect to be accorded to woman’s role as devoted long-suffering wife to a man of genius.

The second was an admiring description, in his obituary, of the wife of a respected academic:
Her devotion, & her gifts for taking charge of practicalities, made it possible for him to dedicate his life to philosophy.
Some women are lucky enough to have a mother living close enough to provide affordable & often unstinting support & help, especially with childcare. Yvette Cooper was quoted (again) as saying that she couldn’t manage her busy political life without the help of her mother, & Cherie Blair too relied heavily on hers. And Samantha Cameron, although she has cut back on her work commitments, relies on a network of sisters, mother & old school friends, as well as the Nepalese nanny, to help her cope with the practicalities of looking after children, organising the Downing Street flat & all her other duties as wife of the prime minister.

These days of course a man is expected to help out with housework & childcare, but it is less likely that he will be expected to do much in the way of personal care for his wife – washing & ironing her clothes for example, or even making the bed.

But nor does remaining resolutely single & childfree solve the problem - unless you are rich enough to pay for all that domestic help.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Saturday is our day for traffic jams in the village; it’s the day when all the townies come out to disturb our peace & quiet.

The last few Saturdays have been especially trying because of delays caused by a sewer replacement programme.

Today’s frustration was caused by highway locomotives.

A procession of five of them.

Two were actually steam rollers & one looked more like a farm vehicle, but two were definitely loco.

You could hear them coming a mile off.

The black smoke belching from their chimneys billowed across the fields.

At least two of them carried the nameplate of John Fowler & Co of Leeds.

The wheels on the locomotives interested me; they looked as if they were made of wood but the rim carried a narrow ‘tyre’, presumably of rubber, but completely smooth & without tread.

The lead vehicle was towing a large cart furnished with late C20th armchairs & sofas on which lounged a gaggle of very C21st youngsters.

The occupants of the cabs were mostly C21st men, their blackened faces & mode of dress making them look as if they came from a much earlier vintage, though an actual woman was driving one of them.

It is astonishing to think how far we have come since the Locomotives on Highways Act of 1896, both in vehicles & the whole infrastructure of roads.

Some fellow bus passengers were of the view that it was lovely to see them, none of our modern vehicles will survive that long, but, all things considered, I feel the developments since 1896 count as progress.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Performative oaths

A masterly but light-of-touch riff on JL Austin casts a new light on the importance of oaths, & in particular on why it was considered so important for President Obama to do it again & properly – something which I had previously considered overly lawerly & legalistic.

Comes from Is That A Fish In Your Ear?, the new book by David Bellos on translation & the meaning of everything.

Austin introduced the notion of ‘performative verbs’ to the study of language – verbs which don’t just describe actions but are, in their utterance, actions themselves, as in ‘I warn you to stay away from the edge of the cliff.’

Such a verb is not necessarily performative however – the non-linguistic context or circumstances in which it is uttered also matter.

One example Bellos gives is “I name this ship The Royal Daffodil” which, if uttered by the right royal personage accompanied by the smashing of a champagne bottle across the bow, does indeed result in a naming, but is merely a conceit when uttered by a man gazing out to sea while sitting on deckchair on Southend Pier.

Austin calls these circumstances the ‘conditions of felicity

The incident of ?President? Obama & the oath shows a nice double twist on this. The attempt to correct the original fault, of getting the words wrong, was almost stymied by the absence of one of the proper conditions of felicity, namely the presence of a Bible in the Oval Office.

Price fixing

A recent posting on The Economist’s Babbage blog alerted me to the existence of websites which don’t just do simple price comparisons, they predict whether prices will rise or fall (especially useful for those booking fast-changing airline tickets on-lin) & also for the latest must-have technological gadgets, toys & gizmos. The developers of the website have developed their own pricing models for these

Which set me thinking again – exactly how do supermarkets set their prices?

We [think we] know some of the general principles – intense competition, the desire to keep prices low & certainly no higher than those the customer can find elsewhere; prices the same whichever branch you visit; squeezing suppliers (especially farmers & growers).

My own day to day experience suggests that despite all this intensity of competition (& the abolition of retail price maintenance) the prices of nationally branded goods vary little between supermarkets. Variations in demand (reflecting the make up of the local customer base) are more likely to be catered for through the sizes on offer, or by a restricted offering of only the more popular varieties from the full range of, for example, canned soup.

Own brands tend to show much greater variation in price, though a lot of homework, close reading of labels, or taste testing, is required to find out how these reflect differences in quality; in the period, for example, when I was eating a lot of ready meals & also, for different reasons, keeping a data base of the nutritional analysis & contents, there were surprisingly frequent changes to the recipes for something like spaghetti carbonara, across all stores.

And then of course there are all the other factors such as weather, overall marketing strategies & campaigns, loyalty cards, standards of service …

But none of this comes close to answering the question of how prices are set. Is there some gigantic model which decides this centrally for each supermarket group? Are decisions devolved to individual section managers? If so, what sort of parameters or algorithms do they work to? Is there a list of price points to adhere to? Are the tests daily, monthly or weekly financial targets (profit, sales, margins). Or something I haven’t thought of?

Have any academic economists done empirical research on this? Even if firms would be reluctant to share data with researchers, & hence with their competitors, there is now a wide, general availability of rich price data for empirical investigation, at least for online shopping.

Especially on price points

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Private life

I am turning into one of those people who harrumph about words changing their meaning. In this case it is the way that private life has become synonymous & coterminous with sex life, even & perhaps especially in the sense of that aspect of our behaviour for which we have the greatest need of protection under the law of privacy.

It can just mean the life of one who has no public or official responsibilities.

Anglo-Saxon kings were wont to give up their thrones & retire to a monastery, though Pope Gregory and the Venerable Bede each wrote about the importance of kings remaining active men of affairs. The OED quotes from Richard Whitford’s Martiloge of 1526, one of the earliest written examples of private life in this sense: He resygned his crowne, & lyued a holy pryuate lyfe.

It is perhaps unfortunate for my wish to keep sex out of this that the only modern example of a king who abdicated the British throne did so because of his need to be with the woman he loved.

But prurience is nothing new either. Having read more than I would have wished of the historical literature on slavery (in the sense that that it most commonly understand that word to mean today in the UK & USA) I feel that the full context of another early illustrative quote in the OED, from JM Adair’s Unanswerable Arguments against the Abolition of the Slave Trade of 1790, is bound at least to cover breeding:
I think planters are much too remiss on this head, owing to their not employing a little attention to the private life & manners of their slaves
Even those who hold no responsibility outside the domestic sphere, even the celibate & chaste, expect,as they are entitled to expect, a private life. It is not limited to the bedroom.

There is kindness in Love: but Love and kindness are not coterminous. - C. S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


The first guest on Jim Al-Khalili’s new Radio 4 series The Life Scientific, Sir Paul Nurse, told of how he had discovered, in his 50s, that the people he thought were his parents were in fact his grandparents, & that his sister was his mother.

Sadly, not that rare a story, though it is perhaps unusual to find out so late. I am slightly surprised to learn that, until he applied for a Green Card, he had never been asked to provide a copy of his full birth certificate rather than just the shortened one which does not name the parents, or reveal that the father is unkown.

The real irony here though is that Sir Paul is a geneticist who had the facts of his own genetic inheritance concealed from him.

I found myself pondering how, or whether, the facts about the parentage of a child in a similar situation might be established by the scientific methods of today, or at any time in the past.

Imagine, for example, that small children & their putative parents had been recruited into medical studies involving patterns of inheritance in each year 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010.

In 1950 there might not have been much other than ABO blood groups to reveal that the child could not possibly be the offspring of one, or other, or both of the 'parents'.

In 2010 DNA could definitely rule out the paternity of the grandfather, but could it exclude, with certainty, the grandmother’s maternity?

Permanent pleats

Permanent pleats are back in fashion.

Not sure if anyone of my generation will actually want to take this one up – just too reminiscent of school uniform in navy blue polyester.

Today’s school teachers however have probably got their fingers crossed that a new generation will see them as the absolute must-have, for they would certainly put an end to the modern school-girls belief that skirt waistbands must be rolled over to raise the hem to a dangerously distracting level of shortness. The amount of material in the pleats would have the result of producing a very ugly thick bulge around the waist.

Pictures showing us how to put the look together even include one of a model wearing sensible flat shoes & white ankle socks.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Previously in favourite quotations (14)

The sad part of civilisation is that it makes people like solitude & eat quite little rather often - Winifred Peck

Most human societies have not found that their insatiable natural curiosity drove then on to invent science as we know it – Mary Midgley

The beautiful regularity in the statures of a population, whenever they are marshalled in order of their heights, is due to the number of variable elements of which stature is the sum - Francis Galton

The best things in life aren’t things - Attila the Stockbroker

Ganging agley

The founders of the UK electricity industry – Crompton, Swan, Ferranti, Siemens – would be astonished to discover that electricity generation is now implicated as a major cause of the over-heating of the planet.

They believed they were ridding the world of the pungent pollution in which they were brought up, the air thick with coal smoke, their homes lit with candles, naked gas flames & oil, their roads covered with the dung of horses that hauled the wagons, buses & trams of the cities. Electricity did bring the leaner, brighter, more efficient world the pioneers envisaged, but at a cost that has yet to be assessed.

Gavin Weightman: Children of Light pxxi

The scaffold of religion

Belief provides the scaffolding , a ‘story’, which can be taken down when the structure (society) is complete, leaving the building standing – ritual & custom, standards of behaviour, how to live

Monday, October 10, 2011

Political economists

At least two current MPs (1 Labour, 1 Conservative) are former Bank of England economists.

A recent update of Ruth Kelly’s career since she resigned from Gordon Brown’s cabinet reminds me that she too once worked at the Bank; she is now doing jobs (strategic manager for global business at HSBC & non-exec at National Grid) which I expect are much more suited to her talents than politics could ever be.

Is this link between the Bank of England & parliament anything new & how many other MPs are qualified economists? Is this just another sign of how Oxford PPE graduates are taking over?

Knowing all the jokes about economists I am not altogether reassured that a parliament of economists represents any improvement on a parliament of lawyers or political apparatchiks.

Going red

I thought the newsagent had run out of copies of The Times to sell on Saturday morning, but it was OK, I just hadn’t recognised it lying on the counter with its mast head out of sight at half mast halfway down the front page.

Yes, said the newsagent, its turned into a redtop.

True enough, the very top of the page carries a red box exhorting suitably qualified segments of the market to Teach Your Child Mandarin.

Chairman Mao must be surprised by that.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Walking not crawling

I was astonished to read that there has ever been a (now largely debunked) theory that reading difficulties & dyslexia are caused by children 'skipping the crawling phase of motor development.'

I don’t follow very closely the research about dyslexia, so perhaps it is not surprising that I have never come across this explanation before.

My daughter couldn’t get the hang of crawling at all. It used to worry me – she was obviously trying, but all she could manage was to lie on her tummy with her legs off the ground stuck out together behind her, head up, waving her arms – like a swimmer doing the butterfly. Getting down on the floor, trying to push her into the right position on her knees then moving first one leg then the other proved completely fruitless.

She soon solved the mobility problem in her own way, by hauling herself upright on the furniture & moving round on two feet; we developed a beautiful grey frieze along the wall in the hallway as she rushed up & down seeming to grow taller by at least an inch a day, & we had to put a safety gate across the entrance to the narrow kitchen. She soon learned to walk without the need to hang on to anything at an early age, & I forgot entirely about not crawling.

Fortunately she does not suffer from dyslexia in any way shape form or degree. So I am spared having one of those belated recurrences of maternal guilt –'If only I had sought help with her crawling problem.'

A word about breakfast

Radio 3’s Words & Music has made a welcome move from late night to 6.30pm on Sunday.

Last Sunday’s theme was Breakfast.

It was disappointing that they missed the chance to give an airing to David Cram’s delightful little ditty about bare-footed toast & marmalade.

There was however a reference to bare feet in one of the early poems which was read, but I didn’t catch who it was by.

And we had the unbearably poignant stoicism of ‘We ate our breakfast lying on our backs’ by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson.

Breakfast (1914)

We ate our breakfast lying on our backs
Because the shells were screeching overhead.

I bet a rasher to a loaf of bread
That Hull United would beat Halifax
When Jimmy Stainthorpe played full-back instead
Of Billy Bradford. Ginger raised his head
And cursed, and took the bet, and dropt back dead.

We ate our breakfast lying on our backs
Because the shells were stretching overhead.

Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

The producer was the wonderfully named Peter Meanwell

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The difference a week makes

Last Saturday we basked in record high temperatures; sandals, shorts, skimpy tops & sun block were retrieved form cupboards & wardrobes; supermarkets ran out of beer.

Today it is cold enough for wearing the new winter fleece – that is on top of the jumper & under the rain jacket - as the cloud covers the sky releasing constant rain.

The journey from there to here has been full of incident.

High winds, cloudbursts, flashes of lightning seemingly unaccompanied by thunder, and then, as if just to tease, the moon came out at midnight on Thursday to shine so brightly through the kitchen window that there was no need to switch on any lights.

Attacking the wrong animal

In all the acres of comment about cat fights, hush puppies, the law as an ass …nobody has pointed out that the real trouble was caused by a goat.

If only Theresa May had not said ‘I kid you not’ when regaling the faithful members of her party with a handily economical tabloid version of the reasons for a judgement about the proper application of human rights law in this country, then the Right Honourable Kenneth Clarke, QC, MP, Lord High Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice might not have felt that his goat had been so well & truly got.

The HIT man cometh

Richard Morrison of The Times is very impressed by Bernard Hogan-Howe, the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

His watchwords for a good police officer are humility, integrity, transparency.

I was impressed by the fact that both Morrison himself & the sub who wrote the headline over his column in The Times resisted the temptation to point out that this makes hit men of the police.

Well, I suffer from no such inhibition.

The temptation may have made the Evening Standard nervous however. Why else would they have changed the order of the words in their headline & report to a promise of 'humility, transparency & integrity’

Friday, October 07, 2011

Fizzing with rage

Why is it that the shelf in Sainsbury’s large store in Hazel Grove, which should carry bottles of own-brand Sparkling spring water with a hint of Lime & Lemon (but no added sugar), regularly – one might almost say predictably – manages to be bare on Friday evening? All other flavours are available.

Is it because of one of those strange logistic quirks, such as that which deprives the would-be purchaser of toilet rolls on Friday evenings, or is someone just not doing their job properly?

Free music: in the beginning

For the greater part of my life a very large proportion of the music I have listened to has, like health care, come free at the point of delivery, so there is nothing so very radical in todays youngsters thinking they should have the same privilege.

First the radio was a major source. A radio licence, for which the head of household was liable, cost £1 a year.

Of course you had to have a radio, & pay for the electricity to run it, or, in some cases, pay for the battery to be recharged. I can remember several small boys who earned a penny or two by carrying accumulators to the radio shop to be topped up.

When the transistor radio arrived on the scene I remember disputes about whether they needed a separate licence to be played outside the home, & a particular controversy over whether students needed to have their own licence to cover them for listening while away at college during term time.

The cost of a radio licence had risen to only £1.25 a year when it was abolished in 1971. Since then you do not have to pay for the privilege of listening to music on the radio unless you also own a television, in which case your tv licence does include a contribution to the cost of BBC radio.