Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Water everywhere

By coincidence the water regulators OFWAT today announced their decision on how much water companies will be allowed to charge their customers in the coming financial year, allowing for a forecast rate of 5.2% in inflation as measured by RPI.

Thames Water bills are expected to rise by about 6.7%, 1% above the national average of 5.7%, but that is mainly down to a hefty 10% increase in the charge for the sewage component, which nevertheless remains the lowest in the country, & only half of what people living in the South West have to pay for the high cost of new sewers which do not simply dump all their waste into the sea.

It is a long time since I paid too much attention to how much we pay for water, but looking at OFWAT’s figures in today’s press release it strikes me that we get a real bargain. The average household pays of the order of £400 – half for having water constantly on tap, half for taking all the dirty water away without any effort on our part.

£200 is rather less than someone who buys just one fairly bog standard 500ml of water in a plastic bottle each working day would spend in the course of a year.

Water and sewerage bills to rise in 2012

Related post
Hot potatoes & water

Monday, January 30, 2012

Hot potatoes & water

In what seems like a carefully orchestrated move the China Investment Corporation has made its first investment in UK infrastructure – not in the form of new money for new projects, but by buying 8.7% of the shares in Thames Water which were previously 100% owned by 'Australian' investors.

I say orchestrated because the announcement of the share purchase on 20 January followed an article in the FT by Lou Jiwei, chairman of the CIC, last November which explained their interest in investing in British infrastructure because of its ‘solid returns*’ & George Osborne’s visit to China the week before the announcement.

We are now, in a sense, to pay for all those low price Chinese goods in which we have been able to indulge through the profits on what we pay for one of the basic necessities of life.

Lou Jiwei’s description of the attractions for investors of UK infrastructure mirrors an earlier expression by the majority shareholders, Macquarie, which described the key characteristics of infrastructure as
High entry barriers, inelastic demand, stable cash flow, moderate leverage and long duration. Investment in businesses which:
• provide an essential service to the community
• have a strong competitive position
• generate stable cash flows over the long term

OFWAT will conduct a ‘fit & proper person’ test on CIC

In less than 40 years water bills have gone from something we paid through water rates (part of the property tax we paid to the local council) to something we paid to a separately constituted, part-nationalised industry in the form of Regional Water Authorities, to paying wholly privatised plc’s or other wholly private owners.

Meanwhile 15 December 2011 saw the publication of a report by the National Association of Pension Funds which showed that British funds are getting out of investing in UK companies at an ever increasing rate. Only £1 in every £8 of their investments is now in UK shares compared with £1 in every £5 two years ago, £1 in every £3 five years ago & well over £1 in every £2 a generation ago.

So yet more evidence of one of the great mysteries of our current economic thinking: why our assets are so attractive to foreign investors (including pension funds) but not to homegrown ones.

Perhaps a clue can be found in something said by former Treasury minister Lord Myners & quoted in The Times:
With a few noble exceptions, foreign investors in British companies do not take an interest in governance questions, including keeping a check on excessive boardroom pay. Just too much of a hot potato, getting involved in wider political questions, easier by far just to concentrate on your own financial returns.
Well the hot potato relly explodedthis weekend, & one can easily imagine UK pension funds not wanting to be holding anything like that.

*An unfortunate turn of phrase for anybody who readthe recent post on the Economist Babbage blog Babbage Blog: Recycling water - Waste not, want not

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Brain drain

This from a famous Trinidad calypso of 1968.

There are at least two sides to every argument about migration – it is not just those on the receiving end of inward migration who feel the need to protest.

And Stockport is one of those places which has benefited from having its own steel band.

from Brain Drain

So many good technicians away,
So many good doctors & engineers don’t stay,
But on teachers & nurses they put a strain,
And when they leave, people bawl ‘Brain Drain!’
Look, CLR James, that great writer,
He should be at UWI teaching literature.
Cricketers like Legall & Ramdeen
Still teaching the English to bat & spin.

Foreign artists coming here & getting jobs,
And Andrew Beddoe can’t make some bobs!
Why not put in every school a steelbandsman
To train children to beat pan?
Our children don’t know what’s B-flat on pan,
While the US Army & all have steelband!
That is what I call Brain Drain.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Diabetes coincidence

This morning’s Saturday Live on Radio 4 included an interview with Sheila Thorn who is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving insulin-dependent diabetic. An inspiring story.

One small coincidence intrigued me. She was treated as a baby by Frederick Banting, who won the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work with insulin.

This is an unusual surname, & I don’t think I had heard of Frederick Banting before, but I have heard of William Banting, the corpulent Victorian cabinet maker who is generally credited with having written the first modern book describing a weight-loss (low-carb) diet, thus setting off a whole modern industry.

Given the current concern about obesity & diabetes I think that counts as a coincidence of note.

Snow record

Google is today celebrating the 125th anniversary of the largest snow flake.

I haven’t followed it up – I prefer just imagining the circumstances which led to this claim.

And it takes my mind off thinking about the real snow.

Today was the first of this winter when the high roads have been closed for snow, but so far we have got off very lightly in that department.

Any snow however must be better than all the wind & relentless rain

Friday, January 27, 2012

Windows on cassava

Bill Gates (following the example of Michelle Obama?) gave a talk to students at a school in South London this week.

I was heartened to read that, in addition to fighting childhood mortality, the Gates Foundation also supports agricultural research – & that he especially mentioned cassava.

Another interesting snippet – the visit was arranged by Speakers for Schools, a charity set up by the BBC’s Robert Peston. With this kind of clout, no wonder he gets so many scoops.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Fit enough to survive

Doctors have discovered, just this week, that a neighbour has survived for 86 years with just one kidney.

Even more disconcertingly, they are saying that this lack of a second kidney was probably due to his having been born to a mother who was in the change. It’s the sort of thing that can happen at that time, they say.

I haven’t been able to find any mention of this ‘fact’ on the modern web, but we are talking here of a woman who must have been born c1880, old enough to be my great grandmother; things were no doubt very different then.

And her son has had the great benefit of having been born a member of the Golden Cohort, to experience unprecedented improvements in health & longevity.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Peace & awe

Vikram Seth chose, as the one of his Desert Island Discs that he would save from the waves, a BBC sound recording from 1942. Intended to capture just the sound of nightingales, it also picked up the sound of Lancaster bombers on their way to raid Mannheim.

It is hard to describe the effect of this juxtaposition – both pleasure & disbelief – plus, for me & I guess for others of my age, intense feelings of childhood nostalgia. Listening leaves one transfixed, almost forgetting to breathe.

We were just too young to have memories of the war but we grew up when it was normal to walk down unlit streets or to be driven along rural roads where headlights provided the only illumination on moonless nights; we were told lots of stories about the blackout & we saw all those 1950s war films at a very impressionable age. We knew that the sound of bombers was scary, but these sound almost as if they were themselves part of nature.

Coincidentally BBC tv is broadcasting a 2-part filmed adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong – a novel about the First World War.

I have never read this book; by the time it came out in 1993 I felt I had had enough of such futility & emotion.

I once had the privilege of being lent a copy of a privately published ‘life’ of the great uncle of a friend; he had recently died, full of years, & this was his widow’s way of keeping his memory alive.

He had gone to Flanders as a subaltern straight from school. His diary described his experiences, including one passage which gave an account of how he had had to walk over newly-dead bodies packed deeply in the trench from which they had been fighting.

I was just thirty at the time & I just sat there thinking: He was seventeen years old.

That was enough; don’t need to keep being told.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Trees make wood

Can’t see the wood for the trees – such a well-worn phrase, hackneyed if not clich├ęd.

Almost universally understood to mean that the detail is getting in the way of seeing the bigger picture. You cannot see the shape of the woodland, only trunks, leaves, branches & bark.

Few stop to think that it can also go the other way.

Trees are made of wood – or at least that is what you get when you chop them down (or chop bits off) & leave them to season.

An expert – timber merchant, logger, cabinet maker or wood carver – can look at a tree & see the wood. See the colour difference between oak & ash, the grain, the knots formed by the branches. See the table, chair, floor or carved mouse into which it can be transformed.

Another kind of expert - forester, woodsman,tree surgeon - can control the kind of wood the tree will produce by judicious planting, pruning, thinning, watering & breeding.

For all I know a new breed of genetic arborists are on the verge of being able to produce a plank or block of wood to your speification, starting with just a single cell in a test tube.

It always depends on what you already know through learning & experience & which way round you are looking at it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Killing in numbers

29 murderers killed again in past decade said the headline.


No, it cannot mean that the murderers were killed for a second time – we don’t even hang them once these days.

Does it mean that the number of murderers who were killed, or who killed on more than one occasion, was the same as it was in the preceding decade?

No. Read the article & you will find that it means that, over the last 10 years, 29 murderers who had been let out of prison on licence took advantage of their freedom to kill again.

We hear quite a lot about killings by people who have been discharged from psychiatric care (or not even admitted when they say they need to be) but I don’t think that all these prison-release cases make it to the national news agenda. Makes me wonder how many of the repeats were regarded as merely ‘routine murders.’ On the other hand, at only three a year perhaps we don’t remember them even when they are reported, precisely because they are rare, even though rare usually equals newsworth.

Since the total number of murder victims is only about a dozen a week on average in the whole of England & Wales, you might expect that all would be newsworthy. But most of them are men, as are their murderers. Probably many of the circumstances bear a depressing familiarity, perhaps falling into the category of ‘six of one, half dozen of the other’ or ‘will not be greatly missed’. It would be interesting to see comparable figures of reported crimes based on national media rather than police sources.

Media reports tend to produce a different perception of the risks we face as individuals in other important ways. Women may think they are less safe when out alone, but home may in fact be the most dangerous place, since if you are murdered it is fifty/fifty that it is at the hands of a current or former partner. Not that this fact conclusively proves the contention. What is much more likely to be true is that the murder of a ‘respectable’ woman by a stranger is much more likely to attract lurid headlines.

Since the way that the word killed is used was on my mind, I noticed the way in which Roger McGough told us on this week’s Poetry Please that Randall Jarrell was 'killed by a car' in 1965 & that there was speculation that 'he took his own life'. Here there is real confusion about agency; although it is quite common - & perfectly allowable – to speak of someone being killed by an inanimate object which is incapable of forming an intention to inflict such damage, we may suspect that human negligence or even intent lies behind the event. Someone failed to maintain the wall that collapsed, or took their eyes off the road or, in the case of the depressed poet, deliberately walked in front of the car.

In this country there seems to be a growing belief that the driver should be prosecuted or held to account in every case where someone is killed ‘by a car’. In one sense this is odd, because deaths in road accidents are now much rarer than they used to be. This is not an uncommon trajectory however; at first we are excited by the new technology, envious of those who can afford it, anxious to experience its benefits for ourselves. Deaths are regrettable, but part of the price of progress: collateral damage.

Lessons are learned from the accidents, new safety measures introduced. We all learn, gradually & collectively, how to behave in the midst of traffic, whether our role is that of driver, passenger, pedestrian or cyclist. And society starts to make plain its disapproval of drivers who are careless or cavalier – punishment is inflicted, there is less tolerance of ‘human error.’

The more I think of it however, the more I think that road vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine have probably, on balance, done more to save lives than to end them prematurely, not least by ensuring that those who are sick or injured (whatever the cause), get appropriate medical help as quickly as possible, within the magic hour.

So now – because we’re never happy unless we have something to complain about – we can worry about what we are doing to the climate with our cars instead.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Orion always comes up sideways

Robert Frost’s Star Splitter featured on Poetry Please the other week.

It features so many images & metaphors which resonate with me – Orion, arson, infinity.

One day this terrible run of weather will change & Orion will once more be a regular & visible companion in our lives – no telescope that we could hope to obtain would be able to penetrate the murk & mist & cloud of this winter's sky at night.

But best of all the poem contains the line ‘For to be social is to be forgiving’.

The Star Splitter

‘You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And rising on his hands, he looks in on me
Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something
I should have done by daylight, and indeed,
After the ground is frozen, I should have done
Before it froze, and a gust flings a handful
Of waste leaves at my smoky lantern chimney
To make fun of my way of doing things,
Or else fun of Orion’s having caught me.

Has a man, I should like to ask, no rights
These forces are obliged to pay respect to?’
So Brad McLaughlin mingled reckless talk
Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming,
Till having failed at hugger-mugger farming
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a lifelong curiosity
About our place among the infinities.

‘What do you want with one of those blame things?’
I asked him well beforehand. ‘Don’t you get one!’

‘Don’t call it blamed; there isn’t anything
More blameless in the sense of being less
A weapon in our human fight,’ he said.
‘I’ll have one if I sell my farm to buy it.’
There where he moved the rocks to plow the ground
And plowed between the rocks he couldn’t move,
Few farms changed hands; so rather than spend years
Trying to sell his farm and then not selling,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And bought the telescope with what it came to.

He had been heard to say by several:
‘The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see;
The strongest thing that’s given us to see with’s
A telescope. Someone in every town
Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.
In Littleton it might as well be me.’
After such loose talk it was no surprise
When he did what he did and burned his house down.

Mean laughter went about the town that day
To let him know we weren’t the least imposed on,
And he could wait—we’d see to him tomorrow.
But the first thing next morning we reflected
If one by one we counted people out
For the least sin, it wouldn’t take us long
To get so we had no one left to live with.

For to be social is to be forgiving.
Our thief, the one who does our stealing from us,
We don’t cut off from coming to church suppers,
But what we miss we go to him and ask for.
He promptly gives it back, that is if still
Uneaten, unworn out, or undisposed of.
It wouldn’t do to be too hard on Brad
About his telescope. Beyond the age
Of being given one for Christmas gift,
He had to take the best way he knew how
To find himself in one. Well, all we said was
He took a strange thing to be roguish over.
Some sympathy was wasted on the house,
A good old-timer dating back along;
But a house isn’t sentient; the house
Didn’t feel anything. And if it did,
Why not regard it as a sacrifice,
And an old-fashioned sacrifice by fire,
Instead of a new-fashioned one at auction?

Out of a house and so out of a farm
At one stroke (of a match), Brad had to turn
To earn a living on the Concord railroad,
As under-ticket-agent at a station
Where his job, when he wasn’t selling tickets,
Was setting out, up track and down, not plants
As on a farm, but planets, evening stars
That varied in their hue from red to green.

He got a good glass for six hundred dollars.
His new job gave him leisure for stargazing.
Often he bid me come and have a look
Up the brass barrel, velvet black inside,
At a star quaking in the other end.
I recollect a night of broken clouds
And underfoot snow melted down to ice,
And melting further in the wind to mud.
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as we spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.
That telescope was christened the Star-Splitter,
Because it didn’t do a thing but split
A star in two or three, the way you split
A globule of quicksilver in your hand
With one stroke of your finger in the middle.
It’s a star-splitter if there ever was one,
And ought to do some good if splitting stars
‘Sa thing to be compared with splitting wood.

We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Unsafe at night

No woman in Norway has to work after 5pm, said the newspaper article strapline.

Reminds me of the good old days in the UK, before the Sex Discrimination Act, when women were often not allowed to work after 5pm.

For example Post Office telephone operators. The night shift was a male preserve – it was considered either indecorous or unsafe for women to be out on their own at night.

Not long after the SDA came into force I ran into a problem with the Building Society & my application for a mortgage – the (very old-fashioned looking) form demanded details of my husband’s occupation & income. I was not sure that this was in fact illegal, & so tried to get the phone number for the newly established Equal Opportunities Commission in Manchester in order to ask their advice. I waited until I got home in the evening, being a good girl who did not waste my employer’s money on private phone calls at work.

The operator manning Directory Enquiries could not find the number, asked me to repeat the name again & then asked what the organisation was for. When I told him, he responded with ‘Oh, you’re one of those are you’ & put the phone down.

When I did go back to the Building Society & queried the form the man dealing with my application was desperately embarrassed & said, Terribly sorry, that’s an old form, it should have been changed.

But the assertion about the working hours of women in Norway can be true only if night work is restricted to men – no women nurses, policemen, power station operatives, train drivers ...

I expect they were taliking about nice office jobs where one works only nine to five.

Sex Discrimination Act 1975
The historical development of BT

Friday, January 20, 2012

Forecasting peril

It has been reported that it could soon become an offence, punishable by a term in jail or a massive fine, to issue weather forecasts (including pollution forecasts) in South Africa without first getting permission from the national Weather Service. This has been variously interpreted as wishing to give the government–backed service a monopoly on commercial income available for forecasts or an attempt to punish those who issue false or alarmist predictions which frighten the people but turn out to be wrong.

Last September saw Italian seismologists put on trial for ‘failing to predict an earthquake’ – something which most scientists would agree is an impossible thing to do. The prosecutor denies however that he is mad: "I know they can't predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn't predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L'Aquila’ Instead of giving clear advice about earthquake preparedness, as members of National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks they simply tried to pacify the population, with the result that people died when the earthquake struck.

Meanwhile those who failed to predict the future of the US sub-prime mortgage market correctly, or used ill-understood mathematical models to predict the futures for them are still at large.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


This is one of those Google happenstances.

I was searching for a post about the Met Office getting their forecasts wrong, using the search terms Met Office Matilda & I got a classic article from the Daily Mail – Does every Miss secretly wish she were a Mrs?

The story starts with Abigail who doesn’t have a wedding ring on the third finger of her left hand and who loves curling up on the sofa with her cat MATILDA at the end of a busy day at work. The OFFICE for National Statistics recently produced figures which show that she is far from being alone - in the past 30 years the number of unmarried women in the UK has doubled.

Psychotherapist Paula Hall is quoted as saying that she has "MET several women recently who’ve told me they won’t wear their engagement ring to work because it might give out the message that they’re only really interested in marriage and babies"

Such an provocative story to get out of boring statistics.

The title of the piece says a lot however; surely only a Daily Mail sub editor could think that we have any misses over the age of 10 these days – aren't they are all Ms’s.

Another intriguing change in the language of relationships is in the use of the word single. This no longer denotes ‘never married’ but merely what we used to call breaking up with a boyfriend. Instead of serial monogamy, these days we have serial singledom – at the age of 27 Abigail has been single for only two years.

Personally I can’t wait for the 2011 Census results to find out if The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea is still the national capital for single women, or whether they have all been driven out by the massive increase in the price of property in the borough.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Nesh nellies

Preliminary results from the Met Office OPAL survey about what winter cold really feels like produced something of a surprise. There is no strong evidence to support the myth that northerners are hardier than softie southerners, but there is a big difference between how country folk respond to cold compared to city slickers.

Climate scientists speculate that this may be due to the warmer microclimates in areas which are densely packed with buildings & vibrating traffic.

A quick glance at the survey form reveals that they are not collecting any information about how people travel. Anyone who lives in a rural area& uses public transport will be much more exposed to the elements; bus stops & railway stations provide at best only minimal cover from wind & rain. In town you rarely have to be outside for very long as you scurry from one building to another.

Scotland & all that

This Sunday afternoon’s tidying up unearthed an article from The Times from just before Christmas which cast an interesting light on the David Cameron & George Osborne’s sudden New Year stirring on the question of Scotland, independence, referendum, break up of the union …

Interestingly the article appeared in Times2, lifestyle & culture rather than politics: how, or if, the Scots are feeling independence in the air, the time is ripe …

And one very important aspect of the battle of which I at least had previously been totally unaware. Not only is Alex Salmond a formidable political operator but he is backed by a slick & effective campaigning machine. One which is very well funded.

Generous donors include, according to this article, the couple who won it big last year on the Euro lottery.

Unfortunately my housecleaning zeal got the better of me & I threw the article into recycling before making a proper note of the date or the author of the piece, so am unable to give due credit without getting behind the paywall. Of course I could ask the librarians to bring out the bundle of The Times for the likely dates for me to search through, but that seems too much like hard work these days.

Alternatively somebody could provide a modern online version of the invaluable Palmers Index to the contents of The Times.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Career choices

Tony Blair vouchsafed an interview to The Times last Saturday to mark the 10th anniversary of Teach First, a charitable organisation which fast tracks top graduates into teaching in challenging schools.

Blair’s middle son did two years in the scheme which, his father said, ‘helped him to develop courage.

But not to settle into teaching as a career. He is now a sports agent.

I could not help but wonder what kind of sports, what kind of agency. Olympics, perhaps?

But no; young Blair is registered as a FIFA football agent

Monday, January 16, 2012

Number 13

According to a report from FindaProperty the number 13 knocks £6,511 off the value of a house – at least it has done so for those so numbered which have been sold in the last decade.

Now assuming we are comparing like with like (do we mean houses only, or are flats included?) this has implications for the recently reported finding that having the number 1 increases the value of your property, or indeed the comparison between the sale value of odd & even numbers. Thirteen is obviously a very special case, an outlier which should be removed from the comparisons

Related post
Odd houses

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cheer up

Once more Hardy - who grows ever more of a comfort as I grow older.

Just now a week with no wind or rain, warm enough to go out without beng all trussed up in acrylic & down & waterproofing, would be paradise.

To Life

O life with the sad seared face,
I weary of seeing thee,
And thy draggled cloak, and thy hobbling pace,
And thy too-forced pleasantry!

I know what thou would'st tell
Of Death, Time, Destiny -
I have known it long, and know, too, well
What it all means for me.

But canst thou not array
Thyself in rare disguise,
And feign like truth, for one mad day,
That Earth is Paradise?

I'll tune me to the mood,
And mumm with thee till eve;
And maybe what as interlude
I feign, I shall believe!
Thomas Hardy

Related post
Down in the dumps

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Open data

On New Years Eve Tim Berners-Lee had an opinion piece in The Times about open data:
“All this data has been paid for by taxpayers. So the … mission will be to make sure that we can all make the best use of it”
The argument that the data is already paid for is interesting & used to form the basis of the pricing policy for Government publications; in the days when printed paper was the only option. marginal cost pricing meant covering the costs of printing & distribution only, content was free at that point to the user. As an undergraduates we could be expected to furnish ourselves with a copy of some relevant Government White Paper or statistical digest which, from memory, generally used to cost less than 2/-, cheap even in 1960s money.

As far as Government statistics were concerned however this came to an end with the publication of the Rayner review of 1981.
“There is no more reason for the government to act as universal provider in the statistical field than in any other”
And that wasn’t all: rather than provide data at marginal cost we were to start charging what the market would bear. Which of course posed a problem when the market may, in part, consist of students or members of the public keen to participate in debate as informed citizens of a democracy, & in other parts of businesses to whom information offers great potential for profit & who can therefore afford to price small none commercial users out of the market.

All out of kelter

The ducks were in the stream right opposite our front gate on Friday morning – a whole group, both males & females. No ducklings, though it won’t be a surprise if they put in an appearance soon – everything is so topsy turvey with the weather.

The whole of the Christmas holiday period was marred by high wind & rain, made even worse in our case by continuing power cuts, of which we were getting sometimes two a day until, on the first Friday of the New Year, a lot of men & vans turned up & started to dig a hole in the road in the lane just this side of the bridge.

Although they have not yet completed the job, the temporary fix has at least meant no more interruptions to service. And with so much practice I have at last learned to reset the bedside radio without recourse to the sheet of instructions.

It may just have been ordinary wear & tear to something but I suspect that water must have been getting in to the underground cables. And that is probably a consequence of the strange weather too, since it meant that the usual timetable for sweeping up the leaves to keep them out of the drains finished well before they finally fell from the trees last year.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Join the club

Earlier this afternoon I passed two young women on the street – one with a new baby – who were having a very animated discussion on the subject of ‘no money’.

Oh – you should join the Job Centre, advised one. They’ll pay you to go on a course.

A confusion of degrees

Over on the Economix blog Catherine Rampell has been looking at the graduate premium in America.

Could some – even the majority - of the continuing benefit to lifetime earnings of a mere bachelor degree in fact be put down to the even greater rewards of higher degrees or professional qualifications for which a first degree is a prerequisite?

Well yes, maybe but a first degree is still worthwhile.

This does not quite seem to fit with the pessimism about the value of a PhD which was in The [British-based but internationally read] Economist just before Christmas.

I wonder if anyone has ever looked at UK figures in this way.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Conservative class

Another startling fact I learned from Supermac is that the Macmillan family sold Highgrove to the Prince of Wales, & that Rab Butler sold Gatcombe Park to the Queen, as a residence for Princess Anne. As author DR Thorpe remarked, it is some indication of the world in which the higher Tories lived at that time.

These days they socialise in the world of media moguls & tabloid editors, & despite moats & duck houses, their houses may not quite meet the degree of desirability demanded by the modern royalty of bankers & oligarchs. Our politicians are, at best, mere millionaires, not a single billion between them.

Thorpe also said that Macmillan’s demise marked the moment when it was no longer advisable or profitable for Etonians to wear their old school tie. I wonder if David Cameron even possesses such a thing? There are still 19 other Etonians among the current crop of MPs however.

On balance I suspect that, despite the disagreements over policy, the Conservative Party is really rather pleased to have their first proper gentleman leader since Sir Alec Douglas-Home: ‘The fact that Edward Heath did not hold back in his criticisms of Margaret Thatcher was proof to older Conservatives who often actually agreed with those criticisms that he was never really one of them, a gentleman’.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

One in a hundred million

If you were to type the words downloading my brain into a search engine you might be offered, as I was with Google just now, one hundred and ten million results in 0.29 seconds.

Putting in the quotation marks to limit the search to exactly that phrase would reduce the number of results to a more manageable half million or so.

It makes me wish I had kept a record of the number of results I used to get when Googling my own blog was something I did most days. To the best of my recollection, when I started in late 2006 there was only one exact match other than this blog.

I would not claim any originality for the phrase, although I did not consciously copy it from anywhere. It is in fact a fairly obvious idea in this downloadable age – whether as metaphor or literal conceit – so it is not surprising that it should occur independently to so many.

In those long-ago days of 2006 it was quite easy to find quite commonly-used words as search terms which would produce no results at all. Google would be quite concerned & offer hints as to how you might change things in order to find something – anything.

No thank you, I meant precisely what I said, substitutes not accepted.

In reality the proliferation of downloaded brains must correlate highly with any other measure of the growth in the size of the web over the last five years. This phenomenal growth has the perverse effect of taking away some of the power or usefulness of search engines. No longer can you expect to find easily the most authoritative or original source; better, if you can, to go directly to the website of the originating organisation & hope that they have a user-friendly guide on their site.

Otherwise it teaches us the drawback of unlimited choice, & reminds us once again of the value of editors, indexers & those others who will be our guide as to what is worthwhile or at least meets our own peculiar* needs.

*In the sense of, as the OED explains, ‘Distinguished in nature, character, or attributes from others; unlike others, sui generis; special, remarkable; distinctive.’

Related posts
Translating public expenditure

Clear thinking

How very true


Sarah Palin

And one that links to a site which no longer exists:

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


In 1961 Harold Macmillan had to move his rising star, but turbulent priest, from the post of Colonial Secretary; Iain Macleod’s attitude towards the pace of decolonisation was anathema to the right wing of the Conservative Party. It may even have been too far to the left for Macmillan himself, with the proposals for the break up of the Central African Federation (the present Malawi, Zambia & Zimbabwe) in particular threatening to turn the wind of change into a damaging gale.

At the Conservative Party Conference, which took place in Brighton shortly after the reshuffle, Macleod made a farewell speech, which, according to DR Thorpe, was seen by his supporters as the greatest of his career. He ended by quoting Robert Burns’ A Man's A Man For A' That:

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

When Macleod’s successor at the Colonial Office, Reginald Maudling, first met his officials shortly afterwards, he said, “‘I suppose I’m looking at a lot of people who believe in the ‘brotherhood of man’”.

Obviously the idea of brotherhood, particularly between Black & White, between African & European, carried particular potency at the time.

In September 1962, as reported in NY Journal-American, Martin Luther King gave his reassurance that he wanted the white man to be his brother, not his brother-in-law, that civil rights were not the same thing as miscegenation.

No wonder that a quotation from a probably not-very-distinguished British political novel of the same era, in which a rising Conservative star puts a block on his career by remarking to a fellow dinner guest 'I said I wanted the African to be my brother, not my brother in law' sticks so firmly in my memory bank.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Interview priority

The Times Saturday Review carried an interview by Valerie Grove with Gillian Slovo on the occasion of the publication of her latest novel about General Gordon of Khartoum.

William Stead, the campaigning journalist, is one of the characters in the novel.

This 2012 interview tells us that Stead had published what is ‘widely acknowledged as the first newspaper interview’ with Gordon in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1884.

The word British* should presumably be used to qualify that status as ‘first newspaper interview’, unless the information I gleaned recently in relation to Sir Arthur Sullivan is wrong.

I shall try to remember to check with Manchester Central Library’s superb collection of Victorian periodicals to get the full sense of how this interview was presented to readers, just as soon as the refurbished building is open again. Assuming of course that the periodicals have been thought worth the space they occupy, not thrown away to make room for superior modern digital methods of accessing our history.

* The Spartacus website gives the author Henry M Hyndman as the source for this assertion. Hyndman does acknowledge Stead’s ‘ American instructors’.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

More bells

After the friendly bells of Betjeman last week time for something a little darker.

Edgar Allen Poe’s ruminations on bells starts joyfully & optimistically enough with the sleigh bells:

Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

But Poe is not quite so sure about the joy of wedding bells:

Hear the mellow wedding bells -
Golden bells!
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!

What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle - dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!

His thoughts about funeral bells are every bit as anguished as those of Donne but much darker, with nothing ameliorate the terror.

Hear the tolling of the bells -
Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people - ah, the people -
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All alone,
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone -
They are neither man nor woman -
They are neither brute nor human -
They are Ghouls: -
And their king it is who tolls: -
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
A paean from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the paean of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the paean of the bells: -
Of the bells:
Keeping time, time, time
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells -
Of the bells, bells, bells: -
To the sobbing of the bells: -
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells -
Of the bells, bells, bells -
To the tolling of the bells -
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells, -
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Insulting men

On Friday Woman’s Hour addressed one very puzzling aspect of one of the latest rows about racism in football.

Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, has been handed a heavy penalty for racism against Manchester United's Patrice Evra.

This tale is complicated by the nationality of the players involved & by the fact that there is a long history of rivalry, even enmity & hatred, between the two teams.

We are told that Evra started the spat by saying something ‘disobliging’ about Suarez’ wife/mother/sister. Suarez responded with a volley of the n word in Spanish.

But Evra has received no sanction or punishment at all; his insult apparently breaks no rule of footballers’ code.

Womans Hour sought the advice of experienced commentator Alan Green (a man who can always be relied on for an opinion) and former player Pat Nevin

Pat Nevin’s contribution was illuminating. First that only Latins seem generally to regard the impugning of the honour of a female relative to be an insult to a man, & secondly that most British players would react to such an insult with ‘Don’t be ridiculous’ rather than with fists or verbal retaliation.

I am sure that that is an oversimplification but he has a point. Offence has to be accepted as well as offered.

Football still has to answer the question of why insults to women on the field of play are not considered unacceptable.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Still the word

According to a Yougov poll over a million e-readers were sold over Christmas, making them more popular than the iPad for those living outside London, particularly among women & older folk. Most of them were Kindles,so my rcent first sighting of a Kindle on a rural bus was truly representative of a trend.

It is not really surprising that people prefer technology which provides them in a straightforward way with something they already love & understand.

Coincidentally, yesterday The Economist’s Babbage blog reported that, contrary to the received wisdom that we all (not just the young) have developed the attention span of a gnat now that we have the whizzy instant gratification of the web, there is a lot of enthusiasm out there for ‘long reads.’

This week, in a special series on Radio 4, The Written World (not Word, as the Times listings would have it), Melvyn Bragg has been looking at how writing, which, rather like computing, was originally developed for the rather boring functions of accountancy & record keeping, has shaped our intellectual history.

Although he stops short of the new worlds of computer words, concentrating on the book, there is no doubt that, far from damaging the spread of reading, these new electronic forms are bringing literacy & the joy of reading & learning to more people than have ever had that privilege in the past

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Previously in favourite quotations (15)

What does it matter if the mouse is a Unitarian? - Ronald Fisher

Rule one in politics: NEVER INVADE AFGHANISTAN - Harold Macmillan

Childhood memories have no order & no end - Dylan Thomas

The reader of popular scientific books is very likely to think that he understands the science itself, when he merely understands what some writers say about science - Maria Mitchell (1818-89)

Cheaper than anything

A startling report in The Times on New Year’s Eve blamed a steep rise in sexually transmitted infections among teenagers on the fact that alcohol is cheaper than water.

According to the journalists, an ‘unprecedented alliance’ of public health experts, doctors & sexual health advisers, led by the Royal College of Physicians & the British Association of Sexual Health & HIV is demanding that Something Must Be Done. In particular supermarkets should stop ignoring calls for a more responsible approach to pricing.

My suspicions were aroused by the finger pointed at Asda where cider is on sale at 70p a litre, compared with £1.35 for a litre of one brand of sparkling water. This turns out to be based on a quite separate exercise by Times journalists, who presumably failed to notice that Asda sell their own version of fizzy water for less that 10p per litre, & that cola & other ordinary pop type drinks cost nearly £2 in the popular small size bottles.

The report about sexual health & alcohol in fact points out that “Young people are more likely to drink higher strength drinks such as spirits ... and flavoured spirit based ‘alcopops’ ... with girls being more likely to drink spirits and wines than boys” &, while concerned about the affordability of alcohol compared with 1980, makes no specific recommendations on what desirable price relatives might be.

The government might, not altogether wittingly, have already done something to address the problem. According to the medical experts report teenagers with a weekly income of £30 a week are twice as likely as those with £10 a week to drink frequently in public places; £30 a week was the means tested sum given, in the form of Education Maintenance Allowance, to those from poorer backgrounds who stayed on at school or college. This has now been abolished in England.

And the Times journalists should have turned their report into a complaint about the rip off prices of internationally branded non-alcoholic drinks.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012


An article in the Christmas double edition of The Economist - The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time
– has been attracting a lot of attention.

When I was an undergraduate it was not very common (outside the natural sciences) for anyone to do a PhD as a full time student. Those destined for an academic career could still graduate in July & start work as an assistant lecturer in October (with the prospect of acquiring tenure in two to three years time), something of which I remind myself when we hear complaints of modern students being taught by mere postgrads, not proper professors.

Of course research & publication were required, but formal theses, submitted for examination, were quite rare.

We knew they did things differently in America.

One story which was current in my day illustrates this.

Alan Stuart was assisting Maurice Kendall with the new, revised edition of The Advanced Theory of Statistics, which even today, (having gone through even more revisions & expansions & acquired even more authors) is the bible of the subject.

Kendall was then working at an American university & wanted Stuart to join him. In those more expansive days – no problem, we can find him post.

Except that when he arrived & was discovered to have no PhD – whoops, sorry, our rules don’t allow mere bachelors to hold proper jobs in the academy.

The laid back Brits solved that one easily enough.

The Senate of the University of London simply awarded Stuart a DSc, which was clearly merited by the quality of his work.

I have been unable to trace any mention of this, quite probably apocryphal, or at least embroidered, story on the public web via Google, nor any reference to Kendall and/or Stuart spending any time at an American university during the years of the preparation of the new edition the late 1950s, though it is possible that the obituary in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Vol. 48, No. 2, 1999 may provide some kind of confirmation.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Married politics

DR Thorpe’s biography of Supermac turned out to be an unexpectedly good read.

In truth there were chunks that I skipped over – Suez & Profumo, for example I have had more than enough of. But – unlike so many academic (& political) books these days - it is superbly written.

At 879 pages it is dauntingly long, but the main text takes up a mere 626, the is rest the academic furniture of bibliography, index etc. No less than pages are given over to footnotes which are, in may cases, worth a book of their own, & a tremendous way of deflecting the criticism that an author who cannot bear to leave all these tidbits out is not in control of his material. Of course for this one needs a generously indulgent publisher. One friend was told by her academic press that (for her much more modest effort) she could have a bibliography or an index, but not both.

I also have to own up to the fact that my main motive for borrowing the book from the library was to find out more about his marriage to Lady Dorothy Cavendish, on which the Times had carried an extract.

The book does not actually carry very much more about the details of their relationship after Macmillan refused to give his wife a divorce when she wanted to marry Bob Boothby; instead, on solicitors advice, he offered her the ‘East Wing/ West Wing’ solution to maintain appearances & complaisantly accepted the continuation of the affair.

At least one reviewer complains that Thorpe did not get to the bottom of this behaviour.

It does not surprise me that much.

First Macmillan loved her – as he told others, & her in a touching letter he wrote on her 60th birthday.

Secondly there were four small children involved.

It would also be interesting to know what her family (not exactly unused to irregular liaisons) thought of the prospects of divorce.

My interest in the Cavendish family is now much greater than it was before I read the Diaries of Lady Frederick Cavendish, & I was pleased to see that she gets a small mention here; when Macmillan & Dorothy got engaged, her father (the then Duke of Devonshire) wrote to Lady Frederick (his aunt) to say that they were pleased about it.

What came as more of a surprise to me than the unconventional side of the marriage was the way in which Lady Dorothy did more than merely provide minimal wifely support for the sake of appearances. She worked very hard & even nursed his Stockton constituency with assiduity while Macmillan was away in North Africa during WWII.

But then that sort of activity was probably bred into Cavendish women.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Reading on the bus

One consequence of the introduction of free bus passes for pensioners is an increase in the number of people I see reading on the bus – reading books, (mainly novels), which round here is a mainly female occupation & one that is more common in older than younger women. Most other people, if they read at all, have their eyes fixed firmly on a tiny screen.

But this week I have spotted my first Kindle (or similar) on the bus, in the hands of a young woman.

If I see her often enough I may get cheeky enough to ask if I can take a look to see if it is legible to my eyes in the winter evening gloom.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Mathematic bells

This characeristaclly rhythmic poem by John Betjeman was included in Radio 3's Christmas Day edition of Words & Music.

Quite apart from its other qualities it earns a place in my haphazard anthology of poems which use the words 'mathematics' or 'statistics'.


Green upon the flooded Avon shone the after-storm-wet-sky
Quick the struggling withy branches let the leaves of autumn fly
And a star shone over Bristol, wonderfully far and high.

Ringers in an oil-lit belfry - Bitton? Kelston? who shall say? -
Smoothly practicing a plain course, caverned out the dying day
As their melancholy music flooded up and ebbed away,

Then all Somerset was around me and I saw the clippers ride,
High above the moonlit houses, triple-masted on the tide,
By the tall embattled church-towers of Bristol waterside.

And an undersong to branches dripping into pools and wells
Out of multitudes of elm trees over leagues of hill and dells
Was the mathematic pattern of a plain course on the bells.