Sunday, May 19, 2013

The boy stood on the burning deck

This poem was  popular with my parents generation - a staple of school anthologies. It was a particular favourite of my mother's.

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though child-like form.

The flames rolled on–he would not go
Without his Father's word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

He called aloud–'say, Father, say
If yet my task is done?'
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.

'Speak, father!' once again he cried,
'If I may yet be gone!'
And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on.

Upon his brow he felt their breath,
And in his waving hair,
And looked from that lone post of death
In still yet brave despair.

And shouted but once more aloud,
'My father! must I stay?'
While o'er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.

They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.

There came a burst of thunder sound–
The boy–oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!–

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part–
But the noblest thing which perished there
Was that young faithful heart.
Felicia Hemans (1793 - 1835)

The Biography of Felicia Hemans

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

Fire-fighting: Hot topic. The frightening phenomenon of the flash-over.. A report this week tells us that the number of times that English firefighters are called out has fallen by 40% in a decade. This article does not say whether American firefighters are similarly less busy these days

Hidden Histories of Information – introducing a new gallery at the Science Museum

Jaydens and Aidens Are Taking Over. The last letter of a boy’s name is important too!

Another theory on the origins of QWERTY

Is this the most expensive music video ever?  On the vexed question of allocating costs

Torrs ‘dry’dro. Mother Nature is just so unreliable

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Emily Dickinson in pain

PAIN has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.
Emily Dickinson

Related posts
Measuring happiness & pain
To minimise the pain
On the death of Mr Robert Levet

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The American disease

We know that tobacco had its opponents from the day it was first introduced to these shores - not least in King James I, who wrote a diatribe against this 'vile custom'.

This poem presents an entertaining rant from later in the C17th - from the reference to Cromwell  ('the Protector's name') I guess it was written sometime in the in the late 1650s.

It took 300 years, &  proof, as presented by the Royal College of Physicians, of just one specific threat to health from smoking (lung cancer) to finally start to reverse the long love affair with tobacco.


WHAT horrid sin condemn'd the teeming Earth,
And curst her womb with such a monstrous birth ?
What crime America, that Heav'n would please
To make thee mother of the world's disease ?
In thy fair womb what accidents could breed,
What plague give root to this pernicious weed?
Tobacco ! oh, the very name doth kill,
And has already fox'd my reeling quill :
I now could write libels against the king,
Treason, or blasphemy, or any thing
Gainst piety, and reason; I could frame
A panegyric to the Protector's name :
Such sly infection does the world infuse
Into the soul of ev'ry modest Muse.

What politic Peregrine was't first could boast,
He brought a pest into his native coast?
Th’ abstract of poison in a stinking weed,
The spurious issue, of corrupted seed;
Seed belch'd in earthquakes from the dark abyss,
Whose name a blot in Nature's herbal is.
What drunken fiend taught Englishmen the crime,
Thus to puff out, and spawl away their time ?

Pernicious weed, (should not my Muse offend,
To say Heav'n made aught for a cruel end)
I should proclaim that thou created wert,
To ruin man's high, and immortal part,
The Stygian damp obscures our reason's eye,
Debauches wit, and makes invention dry;
Destroys the memory, confounds our care;
We know not what we do, or what we are:
Renders our faculties and members lame
To ev'ry office of our country's claim.
Our life's a drunken dream devoid of sense,
And the best actions of our time offence.

Our health, diseases, lethargies, and rheum,
Our friendship's fire, and all our vows are fume.
Of late there's no such thing as wit, or sense,
Counsel, instruction, or intelligence:
Discourse that should distinguish man from beast,
Is by the vapour of this weed supprest;
For what we talk is interrupted stuff,
The one half English, and the other puff:
Freedom and truth are things we do not know,
We know not what we say, or what we do:
We want in all the understanding's light,
We talk in clouds, and walk in endless night.

We smoke, as if we meant, conceal'd by spell,
To spy abroad, yet be invisible :
But no discovery shall the statesman boast,
We raise a mist wherein our selves are lost,
A stinking shade, and whilst we pipe it thus,
Each one appears an ignis fatuus.
Courtier and peasant, nay the madam nice
Is likewise fall'n into the common vice :
We all in dusky error groping lie,
Robb'd of our reasons, and the day's bright eye,
Whilst sailors from the main top see our isle
Wrapt up in smoke, like the Aetnean pile.

What nameless ill does its contagion shroud
In the dark mantle of this noisome cloud ?
Sure 'tis the Devil: Oh. I know that's it,
Foh! how the sulphur makes me cough and spit!
Tis he; or else some fav'rite fiend, at least,
In all the mischief of his malice drest,
Each deadly sin that lurks t' intrap the soul;
Does here conceal'd in curling vapours roll:
And for the body such an unknown ill,
As makes physicians' reading, and their skill,
One undistinguish'd pest, made up of all
That men experienc'd do diseases call;
Coughs, asthmas, apoplexies, fevers, rheum,
All that kill dead, or lingeringly consume;
Folly and madness, nay the plague, the pox,
And ev'ry fool wears a Pandora's box.
From that rich mine the stupid sot doth fill,
Smokes up his liver, and his lungs, until
His reeking nostrils monstrously proclaim,
His brains and bowels are consuming flame.
What noble soul would be content to dwell
In, the dark lanthorn of a smoky cell?
To prostitute his body and his mind
To a debauch of such a stinking kind?
To sacrifice to Moloch, and to fry,
In such a base, dirty idolatry;
As if frail life, which of itself 's too short,
Were to be whift away in drunken sport?
Thus, as if weary of our destin'd years,
We burn the thread so to prevent the shears.

What noble end can simple man propose
For a reward to his all-smoking nose ?
His purposes are level I'd sure amiss,
Where neither ornament nor pleasure is.
What can he then design his worthy hire?
Sure 'tis t' inure him for eternal fire:
And thus his aim must admirably thrive,
In hopes of Hell, he damns himself alive.

But my infected Muse begins to choke
In the vile slink of the increasing smoke,
And can no more in equal numbers chime,
Unless to sneeze, and cough, and spit in rhyme.
Half stifled now in this new time's disease,
She must in fumo vanish, and decease.
This is her fault's excuse, and her, pretence,
This satire, perhaps, else had look'd like sense.

Charles Cotton

Charles Cotton
The works of the English poets, from Chaucer to Cowper: including the series edited with prefaces, biographical and critical
James I: Counterblast to tobacco
Related post

A poem about smoking

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Getting away

Friday’s bus into town held a surprise – luggage racks full of suitcases. Three or four couples off to the airport, on holiday. All pensioners, as far as I could tell, no children.

It is very much less common now to see families using the bus for the first leg of their holiday journey, the most likely explanation being that far fewer take holidays abroad, rather than find alternative means of transport. But nor have there been pensioner travellers in the same numbers as before the economy went into decliane.

Friday may be a sign of change – it is going to be interesting to see what happens at ‘Whitsun’ weekend

Related post
Holiday Monday

Friday, May 03, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

The Irn Lady making the connections between Maggie Thatcher, Pierre Trudeau, Irn Bru & belief in Coke.

Humble pi  Rising to the exciting challenge of small data

What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math  - can hapen even to the best

Can Every Group Be Worse Than Average? Yes. Pay comparisons between groups (including, though not mentioned here, between genders) are riddled with examples of Simpson’s paradox

Monday, April 29, 2013

Previously in favourite quotations

Money is just an act of collective imagination - Kate Atkinson

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it - Andre Gide

Sunday, April 28, 2013

One day my spring will come

A Backward Spring

The trees are afraid to put forth buds,
And there is timidity in the grass;
The plots lie gray where gouged by spuds,
And whether next week will pass
Free of sly sour winds is the fret of each bush
Of barberry waiting to bloom.

Yet the snowdrop's face betrays no gloom,
And the primrose pants in its heedless push,
Though the myrtle asks if it's worth the fight
This year with frost and rime
To venture one more time
On delicate leaves and buttons of white
From the selfsame bough as at last year's prime,
And never to ruminate on or remember
What happened to it in mid-December.
Thomas Hardy

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Smoking in the air

On this morning’s Danny Baker show on Radio 5 Lynsey Hipgrave spoke with a mixture of wonder & horror as she remembered people smoking on the plane when she flew for the first time on a package holiday to Yugoslavia.

Very Mad Men, said another studio guest.

When I took my very first flight, in the real 1960s, there was not even a non-smoking section on the plane – London to New York, BOAC, Boeing 707. I remember the Captain coming on the public address system to welcome everyone aboard before take off & explaining that we would be able to smoke once the non-smoking sign went off. He did however ask that the 100+ passengers refrain from smoking either pipe or cigars, as their pungent aroma would too much for some in that confined space.

In those days the captain of the plane behaved more like the captain of a ship & at some point in the journey he came back to greet & speak to passengers individually.

He was smoking a cigar as he did so.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Difficulties of the English legislator

I decided to take a look at what sort of reception was given to the 1841 Census in England – at least as displayed in the columns of The Times.

The situation had clearly changed completely from the late C18th controversies surrounding the very idea of a census, & the protests which greeted that of 1801. The idea of numbering the people once a decade had proved its worth.

Since I used just the word ‘census’ for my keyword search I brought up several reports where 1831 Census results were still being used to bolster argument – for example over the need for more schools, for public health initiatives & in relation to elections. There was intense interest in finding out by how much the count would show the population had grown over the decade – or if it had after all been reduced by emigration.

The one area which roused some difficulty was the date; originally set for mid-year (the night of 30 June/1 July), Census day was moved forward to 6 June after it had been pointed out that the end of the month would clash with the Quarter Sessions (the Courts which heard cases too serious to be dealt with by the local Justices of the Peace), which would mean an influx of visitors to every County Town, so artificially inflating the apparent size of their populations.

The system of having enumerators – “‘intelligent persons’ residing in the area” - to deliver & collect the forms to every household & then produce the first summaries by transcribing the information, within a week,  into notebooks worked well. They were paid 10 shillings for every 50 houses they dealt with (the usual number) plus 1 shilling for each 10 above that, up to a maximum of 80 households. They worked all the daylight hours on the day following the census, & some needed police escorts in ‘certain portions inhabited by the lower orders’.

By 26 July The Times was reporting some of the first results for London, with near final population counts available by the end of October.

Detailed analysis took longer of course. A geographically detailed Occupation Abstract was published in September 1844.

Confirmation of the continued fall in the numbers who derived their income solely from agriculture & the continued flow of population to the towns still left plenty of scope for political argument however in the period of intense debate about abolition of the Corn Laws, particularly the revelation that the majority were involved neither with agriculture nor cotton. There was surprise, & some puzzlement, that the population still managed to grow in size, by over 2 million since 1831, despite the drain of emigration. And marvelling at the fact that nearly 1 million women worked as household servants.

The Times leader pointed out that this analysis went someway to rectifying the great ‘want of authentic statistical information [which] is one of the greatest difficulties of the English legislator. In the absence of public documents he is driven, with more or less reluctance, to the suspicious estimates of theorists, the flagrant exaggerations of party, & the precarious guesses of absolute ignorance.’

Only some way however – there was still scope for arguing over accuracy & definitions – for example the total labour input to agriculture might be underestimated by allowing only one occupation pr person – a female servant might, after all, milk the cow.

Today of course mere information is not enough to meet the needs of the legislator who must have randomised controlled trials to resolve the flagrant exaggerations of ministers.

The controversial introduction of the modern Census
Times archive
Related post
Numbering the dead

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

A warm welcome back to Gravity & Levity

Praise indeed for the BBC’s Peter Day

Legal Curiosities
Mindlessly normalizing genomics data is bad

Monday, April 22, 2013

Say cheese

According to Michael Moss, in his book Salt, Sugar, Fat, the US government played a direct role in getting the American public hooked on eating cheese-with-everything, as a direct solution to the problem of what to do with all the fat once consumers started to demand that it be skimmed from the top of the milk before they drank it.

Thus adding considerably to the amount of calories consumed, as I have learned since starting to take note of the calorie content of ready meals; any dish with cheese has a good 200 calories more than an otherwise similar pasta dish without it, without the advantage of making you feel more full.

Increased production of cheese however will be a boon to those who live long enough to draw their pension, rather than be carried off early by an obesity-related disease. Dairy Crest, who make much of the Cheddar cheese consumed in this country, has about £150m worth of maturing cheese in store at any one time; it has just been agreed that £60m of that value can be transferred to the ownership of company pension scheme

Financial News: Cheese and pension pie
Michael Moss: How the government got you to eat more cheese
Related posts
Dairy cream
Knowing whereof

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Whispering to their souls to go

Time for some more Donne.

A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears;
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, 'cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
John Donne

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Fate & the weather

I have to write about the weather again.

By Monday evening the last vestiges of snow had disappeared from the hills, washed away by light rain or melted by sun & temperatures well above zero for the first time since the blizzards came. All the high roads were finally open.

The winds had swung right round to the west & by Tuesday they were strengthening into sharp, but mercifully short-lived gusts. By Wednesday it really was not very pleasant being outside, wind picking up & clouds racing in from across the Atlantic at a rate of knots – at least this presented an interesting & relatively unthreatening spectacle, after all the icily undifferentiated masses of grey which have been our lot for so long; but they were strong enough to close some of the high roads to high-sided vehicles.

By early evening the sky was black & shopping bags swung like pendulums in my hand.

Thursday was really cold again, had to put some heating on in the evening & restore the extra blanket to the bed.

All was clear again by Friday afternoon, & this morning the man who gave us the forecast on local radio was able to tell us it was a great day for hanging out the washing – sun, light breeze & temperatures all the way up to 15°.

I fear our local MP - by organising a celebrity cricket match to be held on the anniversary of the match which was famously snowed off in 1975 - may be tempting the weather gods to give us more unseasonal surprises this year.

Andrew Bingham MP organising Celebrity Cricket Match in aid of DLRAA
Related postJune 2nd 1975

Friday, April 19, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:
Why your desk will never be tidy

RCTs in education : "the Department for International Development spent £90m on a single randomised trial in the Democratic Republic of Congo. To put this in context, they spent more on a single trial in Africa than the Department for Education will spend on all its research over this entire parliament."

A picture worth a thousand words – bringing back nostalgia

A vegetable wonder!

Data science only poses a threat to astatistics if we don’t adapt

Good law – the latest attempt to have statute law written so as to be comprehensible

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mr & Mrs Duck

Mr & Mrs Duck were taking an evening stroll on a blustery Wednesday evening.

Well actually, they were young enough to be just doing a bit of courting.

I first spotted them in the triangular ‘meadow’ at the top of the lane – not much of a meadow yet, showing no signs of any spring growth, just some sad grass, bare earth & last year’s dead dock & plantain. A long way from any water.

He gobbled at the grass in a desultory way, but did not seem to find much there to eat. So they set off across the road. My heart was in my mouth for a moment as a car turned off the main road – had the driver spotted them round the bend – yes, all was well, he slowed & went round them.

They found a way to squeeze through a hole in the wall & onto the piece of land on that side of the lane. Were they going to visit the geese who are housed there by a squatter – it is one of those pieces of land whose ownership is not clear following the mid-C19th rush to speculate on which route the railway would take, & then just abandoned or forgotten about once the line was settled on several yards to the east. But no, they stayed well away from them & seemed to be headed for the main road & a wander even further up the hill.

The wind was too fierce for me to want to hang around watching the any longer.

Related post
Triangular meadow

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Big Victorian data

Some academic statisticians are feeling a bit worried about the future of their profession in an age of Big Data, Data Science, Data Analytics & Analysts

Big Data can mean working with billions of pieces of data - the initial challenge involves computer science rather than statistical formulae.

But is the challenge any more formidable than that which faced our statistical forebears?

In 1841 The Registrars General organised the first modern census of the population of the United Kingdom. Forms were delivered to every household to record personal details of over 25 million people. These were transcribed into notebooks by an army of local enumerators who collected & delivered the forms & helped those who could not read or write to fill them in.

I do not know if there were any kind of calculating machines available to help in the production of the rich variety of tables & analyses which were then typeset, printed & reported to Parliament. I suspect that most of the labour involved good old mental arithmetic undertaken by rooms full of Bob Cratchits. Even so, the logistical & organisational challenge must have been formidable.

A census – a complete enumeration of the population of interest – is not a sample survey whose results require the application of tests of significance & questions about how to make inferences to the population which has been measured. The challenge, before the vast modern increase in computer power & storage, was to specify which cross tabulations would be required out of the infinitely many which could be made.

In today’s world even a billion data points may be only a sample of the population of interest, which poses a new & different set of challenges.

Simply Statistics: Data science only poses a threat if we don’t adapt
Significance Special Issue: Big Data
The UK 1841 Census
Related post
The first computer error

Monday, April 15, 2013

Charlotte Green

A familiar voice was coming from the radio on Sunday afternoon – but something was not quite right.

Yes – it was Charlotte Green.

But on Classic FM, not Radio 4

Charlotte Green's Great Composers
BBC Radio 4's Charlotte Green to join Classic FM

Related post
Stories of science

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Man lying on a wall

L.S. Lowry: Man Lying on a Wall: City Art Gallery & Museum, Salford

"Man Lying on a Wall" : Homage to L.S. Lowry

You could draw a straight line from the heels,
Through the calves, buttocks and shoulderblades
To the back of the head: pressure points
That bear the enormous weight of the sky.
Should you take away the supporting structure
The result would be a miracle or
An extremely clever conjuring trick.
As it is, the man lying on the wall
Is wearing the serious expression
Of popes and kings in their final slumber,
His deportment not dissimilar to
Their stiff, reluctant exits from this world
Above the shoulders of the multitude.

It is difficult to judge whether or not
He is sleeping or merely disinclined
To arrive punctually at the office
Or to return home in time for his tea.
He is wearing a pinstripe suit, black shoes
And a bowler hat: on the pavement
Below him, like a relic or something
He is trying to forget, his briefcase
With everybody's initials on it.
Michael Longley

Poetry Archive: Michael Longden
War Poets Association: Michael Longley
Poetry Foundation: Michael Longley

The Lowry
Man lying on a wall

Related post
A poem about money

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

Drugs that block nitric oxide could weaken cancer cells’ resistance, researchers say. Is there no bodily process in which NOx is not fundamentally involved?

The Beatles and their impact on English

Children and schools just keep getting better - a refreshing reminder that it is not just exam grades which are on a seemingly inexorably upwards trend

For better or worse, America’s Most Profitable Export Is Cash

Pressure cooker - read this through your fingers if you  are as scared of pressure cookers as I am.

Most boring day in history

Islands in the rain and BBC Radio 4's In Our Time on other remarkable things about water

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Coeval sympathy

Wednesday’s Times carried, on its front page, a picture of Margaret Thatcher & Her Majesty the Queen taken at the CHOGM held in Lusaka in 1979.

Both women were then in their early 50s but I was astonished at how young – to my eye – they both now look. Another example of the strange way in which everybody else looks younger as you yourself grow older.

I have also only now realised how very close together they were in age – Thatcher the elder by about 6 months.

The death of someone your own age has a particular resonance & may play no small part in the Queen’s decision to attend the funeral. That, plus the fact that Margaret Thatcher remains our only female prime minister, plus (I like to think)  feelings of sisterly regard for another who had to put up with all those male political animals, rather than anything to do with her politics & policies as such, informs the decision.

The picture also shows how, at that early stage of her premiership, Mrs Thatcher had not yet learned to eschew fussy prints, or to impose an iron discipline on her hair.

Lusaka Declaration on Racism and Racial Prejudice (Issued at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting,Lusaka, Zambia, 1979)
Related post
Looking your age

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Luxurie Must make my death blush

‘Victorian values’ is one phrase which will be forever associated with Margaret Thacher,. Meaning self help, striving & the kind of radical free market economics associated with the Manchester School of merchants, rather than the paternalistic noblesse oblige of traditional Tories.

But how sad to hear that she died in The Ritz hotel, where she had been staying since leaving hospital in January; although this seems to have been something quite common in Victorian times, it hardly matches the classic idea of a Victorian deathbed, surrounded by family.

Thatcher praises Victorian values
Related post
Hotel service

Monday, April 08, 2013

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher has died at the age of 87.

I first heard the news from earwigging a discussion between two teenage girls on holiday from school – they were wondering whether they would get a day’s holiday to mark the occasion. After all, asserted one, we will get a holiday when the Queen dies.

I don’t remember getting a holiday to mark the death of Winston Churchill, whose funeral in any case took place on a Saturday.

Although her reputation for slashing public expenditure does not stand up to an examination of the evidence, the very real damage done by the slash & burn attitude to the old industries of the North was more deserved.

As ever, one’s attitude must remain You’ve got to admire her achievement, but …

NY Times Economix: The Legend of Margaret Thatcher
Related post
The most important man in C20th British politics

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Ruskin antidote

When I first came across this poem by Elma Mitchell it made me laugh out loud. Such earthiness, busyness, just plain mess, seemed the very antithesis of Ruskin. His vision seemed to be more one of life spent sitting on cushions, sewing a fine seam, rather than work never done.

But not for a working class woman, it seems, for in Fors Clavigera Ruskin wrote:

Then, for my meaning as to women's work, what should I mean, but scrubbing furniture, dusting walls, sweeping floors, making the beds, washing up the crockery, ditto the children, and whipping them when they want it, mending their clothes, cooking their dinners, and when there are cooks more than enough, helping with the farm work, or the garden, or the dairy ? Is that plain speaking enough ?
It is far to easy to mock Ruskin & his sensibilities, especially if you just unthinkingly put on your old feminist hat.

Thoughts After Ruskin
Women reminded him of lilies and roses.
Me they remind rather of blood and soap,
Armed with a warm rag, assaulting noses,
Ears, neck, mouth and all the secret places:

Armed with a sharp knife, cutting up liver,
Holding hearts to bleed under a running tap,
Gutting and stuffing, pickling and preserving,
Scalding, blanching, broiling, pulverising,
- All the terrible chemistry of their kitchens.
Their distant husbands lean across mahogany
And delicately manipulate the market,
While safe at home, the tender and the gentle
Are killing tiny mice, dead snap by the neck,
Asphyxiating flies, evicting spiders,
Scrubbing, scouring aloud, disturbing cupboards,
Committing things to dustbins, twisting, wringing,
Wrists red and knuckles white and fingers puckered,
Pulpy, tepid. Steering screaming cleaners
Around the snags of furniture, they straighten
And haul out sheets from under the incontinent
And heavy old, stoop to importunate young,
Tugging, folding, tucking, zipping, buttoning,
Spooning in food, encouraging excretion,
Mopping up vomit, stabbing cloth with needles,
Contorting wool around their knitting needles,
Creating snug and comfy on their needles.

Their huge hands! their everywhere eyes! their voices
Raised to convey across the hullabaloo,
Their massive thighs and breasts dispensing comfort,
Their bloody passages and hairy crannies,
Their wombs that pocket a man upside down!

And when all's over, off with their overalls,
Quickly consulting clocks, they go upstairs,
Sit and sigh a little, brushing hair,
And somehow find, in mirrors, colours, odours,
Their essence of lilies and roses.
Elma Mitchell.

Fors clavigera: Letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain (Volume 4)
Elma Mitchell: Obituary
Related post
Sesame & Lilies & Proust

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Scapegoat politics

Jimmy Savile, Mick Philpott, Graham Ovenden – all three committed their offences against women, children or young people virtually in the public gaze. The public tended to gaze back with a certain degree of fascination, not unmixed with admiration – until somebody, finally, made a complaint to the authorities, or gross tragedy. intervened.

It is unworthy of our politicians to use these grotesque examples as a stick with which to beat others, especially those who claim child benefit.

It may even be the case that Mick Philpott’s ‘(two) families showed up as hard-working, strivers in the official counts of claimants. Benefits being paid not to one father of 11 but to two mothers, one of five, one of six children, both of whom also went out to work

The recent ONS report on family size showed that families with three or more dependent children are less likely to have at least one parent working than are those with only one or two to take care of, with the comment that ‘This illustrates the greater challenge of combining work with childcare with three or more children compared with one or two.’

R -v- Philpott, Philpott & Mosley: Sentencing remarks of Mrs Justice Thirlwall
Graham Ovenden
Family size 2012

Friday, April 05, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked (some of them seasonal):

‘Global warming’ or ‘climate change’ – another lesson in the importance of the question

Announcing Last FM unplugged - Complete with your own personal Moleskine notebook. Not sure who gets the last laugh  – see Here is an IPO you didn’t expect

Guardian Goggles - Leaves me with a burning question. Is that the real  Michael Gove  who makes an appearance at the end, or a look-a-like? Very sporting of him, if real.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Funny old week

It’s a funny old week.

For the most part there has been lots of blue sky & sunshine, but the clouds have been racing the wrong way – to, not from, the west, driven by a biting, gusting east wind. The temperature has barely risen above freezing in the day time; patches of snow still lie on the hills, & even low down in places where the sun don’t get to shine. One of the most lonely high roads is still closed because of ice & snow.

Tuesday saw queues practically out of the door at the bank – not a panic, in the conventional sense, just the end of the financial year & the first day they were open after a long holiday weekend.

Just to add to the disorientation, the clocks went forward to Summer Time, many familiar Radio 4 fixtures came to the end of their season, so some familar audio landmarks are lost; & BBC World Service, which takes over the frequency at 1am, sticks resolutely to GMT, so their programmes have moved their slots on our clock.

No wonder it is hard to remember what time of which day of which season it is

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Sir Arthur Sullivan & the Black Cowboy

In an intriguing programme for BBC Radio 4 Sarfraz Manzoor looked into the story of real-life black cowboys in America. He also secured an interview with Herb Jeffries, still alive at the age of nearly 100, who starred as a black cowboy in films made in the 1930s for showing to black audiences in the segregated cinemas of those days.

But Jeffries – who had sung with Duke Ellington & Earl Hines – is white, Manzoor asserts, son of an Italian father & an Irish mother; although therefore quite dark complected he used Max Factor make-up to darken his skin for the screen.

Some internet sources do not mention this fact, others claim that his father had mixed African & Sicilian blood.

I am particularly intrigued by this story because of the way it mirrors claims about the background of Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), who was, according to Arthur Jacobs, his most authoritative biographer, also of mixed Italian/Irish descent.

Just goes to show how tricky it can be to put people into the right box.
YouTube: Herb Jeffries – 1950
Herb Jeffries 'The Bronze Buckaroo'
BBC Radio 4: Forgotten Black Cowboys
Oakland Black Cowboy Association
Texas Black Cowboys
Related post
The Black Irish
Jackie Kay: Red Dust Road

Monday, April 01, 2013

Duck report

I saw ducks in the stream this weekend – lower down the lane, not opposite the house. First sighting this year.

Only a small group, & three of them were white. Very unusual for round here. I wonder if the snow has anything to do with that.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Quinquireme of Nineveh

The poetry of John Masefield – who was in the middle of his near forty-year stint as Poet Laureate - was immensely popular when I was a child.

Every schoolchild probably had to learn this one by heart, its language seemingly mystical & incantatory. It came as an immense disappointment to me when teacher explained that quinquereme was merely a kind of ship, not an exotic product of the East.

Small British coasters were still a familiar sight in the 1950s, unloading goods at harbour in small ports such as Tenby, Whitby, Falmouth & Fowey with their cargoes.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
John Masefield


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked

Is the weather worse under the Coalition government? Just a bit of fun

Rain explained. - at least in a scientific sense.

Evidence-based practice: why number-crunching tells only part of the story. More on RCTs in social policy

The Debate on Bank Size Is Over

Investors vs. Occupants in the Housing Recovery. Do we really know where this cash comes from – there is a similar picture in the UK housing market.

Amanda Knox and Statistical Nullification. Interesting pov

Friday, March 29, 2013

Pointy toes

There is currently a male fashion for shoes – usually high-gloss lace-ups in black or tan – with a very extended toe. Not sharply pointed, as on a 1950s Teddy Boy winkle picker, but more rounded, sometimes even squared off.

I do not find them at all attractive, & if the aim is to make small feet look longer, then they fail; they merely make the proportions look very odd.

This oddity was highlighted for me as I followed a young man down the hill last Friday evening. Snow had just begun to fall again, so leaving a clear sharp print of every step on the pavement. From this perspective it looks as though the wearer has but a single toe (a big one) growing perfectly centred at the front of the foot – not exactly designed for efficient locomotion in someone trying to stand upright on two feet.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hungry Britain

A young man was having a rather agitated conversation, on his mobile, in the lobby of the library:
Yes, I’ve been to the Job Centre ...
No, nothing yet ...I got the food bank thing sorted, though.

The BBC’s Mark Easton reports that since 2011 it has been government policy to allow Job Centre staff to provide any claimant with vouchers for a food bank if they are concerned about their immediate financial problems.

Although these needs may be said to be new, a result of economic recession & changes to the benefit rules, it is worth remembering that, even in better times, many young people went hungry, failed for one reason or another to get properly fed by their families.

Speaking recently on Radio 4 about her experience of friendship with Brixton gang members Harriet Sergeant said that she was surprised to discover how hungry they were. Such lack of sustenance cannot aid good behaviour.

Although obesity in the young is clearly a serious problem, we must not let concerns about this blind us to the fact that the opposite problem also exists.

Mark Easton: Food banks used by thousands of jobless
Harriet Sergeant: Amongst the Hoods
Related post
Where are all the obese hoodies?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hard data, hard times

Charles Dickens would not approve of Big Data; he had no time at all for Mr Gradgrind’s view that ‘You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them’, nor for his efforts to turn his son Tom into a scientist by having the boy trained to mathematical exactness.

Dickens had no respect at all for the output of Victorian collators & compilers of statistics in the form of Parliamentary Blue Books.

Whatever they could prove (which is usually anything you like), they proved there, in an army constantly strengthening by the arrival of new recruits … the most complicated social questions were cast up, got into exact totals, and finally settled - if those concerned could only have been brought to know it. As if an astronomical observatory should be made without any windows, and the astronomer within should arrange the starry universe solely by pen, ink, and paper, so Mr. Gradgrind, in his Observatory (and there are many like it), had no need to cast an eye upon the teeming myriads of human beings around him, but could settle all their destinies on a slate, and wipe out all their tears with one dirty little bit of sponge.
Heaven knows what Dickens would think of the idea of settling issues of social policy through the mechanism of the randomised controlled trial
Well, actually he gave us a pretty good clue, in the words of young Tom Gradgrind, failed mathematician:
'I wish I could collect all the Facts we hear so much about,' said Tom, spitefully setting his teeth, 'and all the Figures, and all the people who found them out: and I wish I could put a thousand barrels of gunpowder under them, and blow them all up together! '

Those Blue Books are now regarded as invaluable social documents by many, but there will always be those who  place more value on the story than on statistics.

Project Gutenberg: Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Bank violation

"To violate society’s banks was to commit an outrage against its very foundations."

That quotation from Sjowall & Wahloo’s The Locked Room, first published in 1973, raised a wry smile. This is the second of the Martin Beck novels that I have been re-reading – all have recently been published in new editions & are being promoted enthusiastically to take advantage of the fashion for Scandi noir.

The authors’ Marxism is much more obvious, in this book, than I remember being conscious of at first reading, or maybe I would just not have thought of labelling it as Marxist (except perhaps for a passing reference to different political/social views as fascist).In 1970s Britain such an analysis probably did not seem unusual.

It was the physical violation of banks by armed criminals that they were talking about – something that was becoming a fashion in countries other than just Sweden. And so began the push to put counter staff behind protective screens & to move cash in armoured security vans.

The screens are disappearing now, making banks much more open & friendly places to do business in; the one I use most frequently has something of the look of an airport check-in. Cash handling has become much more automated too, & my impression (which could be completely mistaken) is that this real-time check on the amount of cash held has reduced the need for deliveries & collections; more decisions about which notes being fit to retain in circulation are also being made in-branch by these machines too.

And the strange thing about this openness is that you actually hear much less of other customers business, as people no longer feel the need to raise their voices to penetrate the glass, or get accidentally broadcast by a faulty microphone system.

Related post
Historic crime

Monday, March 25, 2013

And we did have snow

Well …

I put Sunday’s poem in the queue for publication (on this blog) on Friday, during a brief foray to the library, & was I glad I made the effort to brave snow & icy winds & go out. The whole weekend has been spent in confinement, all because of the weather. People have been talking about the worst for over 10 years, but I think its more like quarter of a century at least.

The snow has not been all that bad, in itself. I noticed no heavy falls, certainly no white-outs, during the hours of daylight, more just a continuing, unrelenting cross between drizzle & haar, no snowflakes of any size. But it settled, inches deep, fine & powdery, for the wind to do its worst on. The result has been deep drifts, even at low levels, in any & all areas exposed to the relentless blast from the east.

Many roads have been only intermittently passable – the labour of the snow-ploughs turned as ineffective as that of those clearing the Augean* stables; high level roads have just remained resolutely closed. Sporadic attempts were made to run a bus to the airport along at least part of the route – not a journey for the faint-hearted, especially as those announcements were soon followed by a radio warning that services had been suspended once again.

Buxton was almost completely cut off, even the main A6 impassable in both directions, though Radio 2 announced at 7pm on Sunday that it had finally been cleared, giving at least one through route. To some extent however life carried on as normal inside the town, with local radio announcing that many facilities would merely close earlier than usual.

Remarkably the trains continued to run, until defeated temporarily by snow drifts around Sunday lunchtime. The last I heard was that two extra snowplough trains had been sent out.

I had been optimistic about the prospects for Sunday since, after darkness fell on Saturday, we witnessed once again the phenomenon of a partial thaw where we nestle; the wind died down, precipitation ceased, some of the snow slid off hedges, gutters were dripping, dark patches appeared on the flagstones in the backyard.

Obviously it was not to be. The chill wind from Russia stirred itself once again, putting at least a temporary stop to our activities.

Makes us a bit like Cyprus, in a way.

*the Word spellchecker suggested amending this to Aegean.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Strain & fear

Thursday's Times carried a column by Matthew Parris under the headline Budget too hopeful. We want despair.

The weather, which has just gone silly now, according to the driver of the bus which took me into town on Friday, seems to match only too well the despondency which has settled over the economy & politics. The worst snow storm of this winter (I know technically it is now Spring, according to both the Met Office’s tidy definition & more ancient tradition) had brought closure of all the high roads & most schools in the county, but travel less than 10 miles north & there had been no snow at all in town

This extract from Tennyson’s In Memoriam seems to fit the mood.

from In Memoriam
Tonight the winds begin to rise
And roar from yonder dropping day:

The last red leaf is whirl'd away,
The rooks are blown about the skies ;
The forest crack'd, the waters curl'd,
The cattle huddled on the lea ;
And wildly dash'd on tower and tree
The sunbeam strikes along the world :

And but for fancies, which aver
That all thy motions gently pass
Athwart a plane of molten glass,
I scarce could brook the strain and stir
That makes the barren branches loud
And but for fear it is not so,

The wild unrest that lives in woe
Would dote and pore on yonder cloud
That rises upward always higher,
And onward drags a labouring breast,
And topples round the dreary west,
A looming bastion fringed with fire.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Friday, March 22, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

How BBC North builds links with communities across the region - Intrepid colonial explorers at the BBC bring patronising twaddle

On Educating Women in the Sciences, Nature Magazine, 1871  Reminds me of that quote from Alfred North Whitehead: When I was in Cambridge ... the question came up whether to award degrees to women. On the one side were men who worked in laboratories, & on the other, including physicians, those who worked with human beings. Almost to a man, those in favour of granting degrees to women were the people who dealt with lifeless matter, while those who dealt with women as living creatures were opposed

Despite that, by 1871 Cambridge was affording a scientific education to some girls - full text of the article in Nature can be found at

Mobile security: Chilly with a chance of hacking   Something else to worry about in an insecure world

Brits prefer online crosswords to sex A gloriously loony interpretation of survey results.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Interfering buses

The staff in the library are convinced that some passing buses or heavy lorries cause the computer system to have temporary conniptions; the boffins in the IT department pooh-pooh this idea.

So now the report in The Times of 2 March, explaining how the new Francis Crick biomedical research institute I the centre of London has had to be specially shielded from electromagnetic fields which can play havoc with equipment, sources of such interference include passing buses, provides a source of great satisfaction.

Electromagnetic Interference Sources and Their Most Significant Effects
Study to Predict the Electromagnetic Interference for a typical house in 2010
Francis Crick Institute
Related posts
Is north up or down?
Knowing where you stand
Magnets & morals
Why we lose precious data
On the buses

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sticking together

I have only just learned that the fracking boom has also brought a bonanza to the poor farmers of Rajasthan. This is because that beautiful, parched, arid landscape, with its intermittently drenching monsoons, provides one of the few climates suitable for the growing of guar, whose seeds are used for the making of guar gum. Previously known variously as cattle feed, a thickening agent for foods & cosmetics, or a treatment for certain medical conditions, it has been found to be the ideal form of gunge which can squeeze shale gas out of the rock in which it shelters.

As usual, such sudden wealth is not regarded as an unmixed blessing by all its recipients, the more elderly of whom worry about the security of themselves & their crops.

Guar brightens Rajasthan farmers' life
Latest News and Updates on guar seed
Guar Mandi Rates
In Rajasthan, Guar Farmers Wait for a Return to Boom Times
Hindustani Times: Rajasthan farmers strike gold in guar
[PDF]National Multi-Commodity Exchange of India: Report on guar seed
India Farmers’ Forum: The Guar Growers of Rajasthan
E412 Guar gum
E412 GUAR GUM - EU Specification
Which Foods Contain Guar Gum?
WebMD: Guar gum
The Curious Cook: Ice Cream That’s a Stretch

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Falling from grace

A poem for a week that has seen the spectacular fall of a former Cabinet Minister & his ex-wife.

Upon The Sudden Restraint Of The Earl Of Somerset, Then Falling From Favour

Dazzled thus with height of place,
Whilst our Hopes our wits Beguile,
No man marks the narrow space
'Twixt a Prison and a Smile.

Then since Fortune’s favours fade,
You that in her arms do sleep,
Learn to swim and not to wade;
For the Hearts of Kings are deep.

But if Greatness be so blind,
As to trust in Towers of Air,
Let it be with Goodness lined,
That at least the Fall be fair.

Then though darkened you shall say,
When Friends fail and Princes frown,
Virtue is the roughest way,
But proves at night a Bed of Down.
Sir Henry Wotton

Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset
Related post
Royal & political gossip

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Arbitrarily at random

A recent Times crossword (#25410) used arbitrarily as the definitional part of a clue; the answer required was at random.

I was inclined to quibble: haphazard, unarranged, accidental, maybe. But arbitrary suggests just personal whim.

The OED seemed to provide some support. Arbitrary does not appear in any of the definitional entries for random, & random does not appear under the definitional parts of either arbitrarily or arbitrary.

Interestingly, however, according to the OED, random play is ‘a facility on a digital music player for playing tracks in an arbitrary order’. One wonders just exactly how the algorithm works for that choice.

Even more interestingly, the word random itself comes originally from Norman French & means speed, haste, impetuousness, violence, or to run fast, gallop. Hence, presumably, the lack of time for thinking & deliberating on your random choices.

Related posts
Getting my knuckles in a twist
Humpty Dumpty on statistical sampling

Friday, March 15, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

The man behind the motor – William Morris and the iron lung

The current debate about ‘evidence centres’ obscures a broader transformation in how policy is evaluated -

Mutatis mutandis

Unlike a lot of people I was not really shocked when I first heard that Gladstone sometimes scourged himself, especially after his late night encounters with prostitutes; nor do I take that revelation as strong evidence that those encounters involved something more physical than mere attempts to persuade the women into a better way of life. That he felt any kind of attraction or titillation, or even ‘committed adultery in his heart’ would have been reason enough for a deeply religious man of the nineteenth century to punish himself in this way; even in the middle of the twentieth century I knew an elderly priest, a man of deep compassion & goodness, who, by repute at least, indulged in regular self-flagellation.

The OED carries a quotation from 1983, from The Literary Review: It is easy to forget how common self-flagellation used to be among the devout.

That does not mean I do not feel horrified by such practice; on reflection it might be better to say I was neither startled nor surprised by the revelations about Gladstone.

I was however startled, shocked, surprised & horrified to read that, as late as 1949, in England, men as young as eighteen, recruits to the Jesuits, were expected to ‘beat ourselves with disciplines once a week’.

The OED confirms that discipline, as a noun, came to be applied to the instrument of chastisement - a whip or scourge; especially one used for religious penance.

The past, even one I was living in at the time, is truly another country.

Fifty Years A Jesuit
Original Catholic Encyclopaedia

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Habemus Papam

It has been officially confirmed that Cardinal Bergoglio chose to be known as Pope Francis in honour of St Francis of Assissi.

I wonder if he did not also, as the first Jesuit Pope, like the idea of carrying the same name as St Francis Xavier.

Perhaps interest in the new Pope will stimulate even more tourism to Goa.

St. Francis Xavier, SJ (1506–1552)
Novena for the feast of St Francis Xavier
Feast Of St Francis Xavier
St. Francis Xavier, Patron Saint of Goa
Churches and Convents of Goa

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Fiends or friends

Arguments between cyclists & other road users have not grown any less rancorous over the years.

Over one hundred & twenty one years ago, in April 1892, The Times published a lively exchange of accusation & complaint from all sides. It is not so very different today, despite the fact that the newspaper has taken up the cudgels on cyclists’ behalf.

At least motorists escaped opprobrium back then - the motor car barely existed, & certainly not under that name. But 'reckless riders of the iron horse' were, castigated for 'stealing past swiftly & silently' with no audible warning signal - an accusation which is incomprehensible to anyone who has ever heard a 'light locomotive' proceeding along the highway in modern times.
Horses & horsed vehicles are not permitted to race along our roads at break-neck sped; why should these daring, wheeled gentlemen of the road do so, unchecked by law or authority?

… cyclists as a body are rather unfairly abused. We are generally depicted as a sort of fiends tearing along regardless of all traffic, whether vehicular or pedestrian, neglectful of our own safety, & seeking to destroy young children.

All … classes [of road user] are naturally unwilling to pay excessive attention to the convenience of any other class.

…cyclists not only have to avoid being run over by vehicles but also to avoid running over pedestrians, the latter seeming to go out of their way to afford cyclists facilities in that direction.

… to become a cyclist apparently transforms an ordinary middle class young man into an active member of an unruly mob … they come swirling along, shouting to each other, or openly making remarks upon any ladies whom they happen to pass
Related post

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Phagias & phobias

We have been hearing a lot, recently, about various human phagias & associated phobias.

First there was the horsemeat scandal; a post on the Wellcome Trust blog introduced me to the word hippophagy, a fancy word to describe the eating of horsemeat.

This morning Erica McAlister presented a programme on BBC Radio 4 designed to persuade us all to indulge in more entomophagy – the eating of insects. We already do more of that than we know about.

Suddenly it hit me – if -phagy means ‘eating’ what on earth is a sarcophagus? This is a word I have only ever heard used in connection with the burial of human bodies. The original meaning hardly bears thinking about.

Time for some etymology.

According to the OED, phagia comes from the Ancient Greek word for eating, & is used to form scientific terms denoting conditions related to eating or ingestion.

-phagy is used to form nouns with the sense ‘that feeds on, or in the manner denoted or described by (the first element)’. It appeared in English during the 1600s, but the Victorians added plenty more varieties to the list.

A sarcophagus was originally a kind of stone, reputed among the Greeks to have the property of consuming the flesh of any dead body (not just a human one) deposited in it; this meaning is now described as Obsolete in everyday use by the OED. Sarcophagus as a word to mean any kind of stone coffin appeared first in 1705.

The OED also records sarcophagy as a word used to describe the eating of any kind of flesh, but quotes nothing more recent than what sounds like a splendid rant from HG Wells in 1901: “The movements against vivisection, opium, alcohol, tobacco, sarcophagy, and the male sex”.

If you like you could become ophiophagous (eat snakes).

But do try to curb your pamphagous behaviour. The OED defines this ‘All-devouring, omnivorous’ but has only one quotation to illustrate its use, dating from 1702: “He ... eat with such a Pamphagous Fury, as to Cram himself with ... Eighteen Biskets at one Stolen Meal”.

Sounds plain greedy to me.

Wellcome Trust: Flogging a dead horse
BBC Radio 4: Who’s a pest

Historic abuse

Compare & contrast the cases of George Brinham & Jimmy Savile.

We now know, from the report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, that complaints about the behaviour of Jimmy Savile were ignored 50 years ago.

At about the same time, complaints about the behaviour of George Brinham seem also to have been ignored by the police; it may, or may not, have been relevant to this decision that he held a senior position in politics.

When attention to Brinham’s activities was forced upon the police, judiciary & public by the fact that one of his targets responded by killing him, the reaction was mainly one of distaste. The Times devoted no more than 1700 words to the case.

HMIC Savile Report
Related post
George Brinham

Monday, March 11, 2013

Signs of hard times for the middle classes

‘With a name like that, we had better be able to afford school fees’ - Times Birth Announcements 9 February 2013

‘We had to make sure we didn’t choose names that meant we had to send our sons to private school’ – Times Birth announcements 9 March 2013

The middle classes must be expecting the recession to last for the next 18 years.

But just think of Lord Coe, now one of the most admired & honoured men in the land. With a name like Sebastian, going to a comprehensive school oop North in gritty Sheffield in Yorkshire  must have been the making of him.

Lord Coe receives award at palace

Milk-bottle shoulders

Jack Malvern, writing in The Times, describes as ‘a woman with milk-bottle shoulders’ Olivia Boteler Porter, the subject of a portrait held in the Bowes Museum in Durham now said to be by Van Dyck.

Milk-bottle shoulders as a term used to describe sloping shoulders does not seem to be in widespread use at all – not in the OED & Google turned up only one result.

How a lady came out of the closet
Van Dyck portrait spotted online
Related posts
Sloping shoulders

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Freedom & love

Freedom and Love

HOW delicious is the winning
Of a kiss at Love's beginning,
When two mutual hearts are sighing
For the knot there's no untying!

Yet remember, 'midst your wooing,
Love has bliss, but Love has ruing;
Other smiles may make you fickle,
Tears for other charms may trickle.

Love he comes, and Love he tarries,
Just as fate or fancy carries;
Longest stays when sorest chidden,
Laughs and flies when press'd and bidden.

Bind the sea to slumber stilly,
Bind its odour to the lily,
Bind the aspen ne'er to quiver,
Then bind Love to last for ever.

Love's a fire that needs renewal
Of fresh beauty for its fuel;
Love's wing moults when caged and captured,
Only free he soars enraptured.

Can you keep the bee from ranging,
Or the ringdove's neck from changing?
No! nor fetter'd Love from dying
In the knot there's no untying.
Thomas Campbell

The Poems of Thomas Campbell
Thomas Campbell (1777 - 1844)
Related post
On not saying everything

Saturday, March 09, 2013

£40 per head

I decided to take a look at the entries for Gladstone in the Slave Ownership database

John Gladstone (father of prime minister William Ewart Gladstone) received over £90,000 in compensation (in 1830s money) for the loss of some 2,500 slaves on his estates in Jamaica & Demerara (part of modern Guyana) – implying that a slave was worth less than £40.

I got a surprise when I idly calculated the value for each estate, however. (The individual manifests underlying the claims, the documents I saw in the 1960s, go into detail about the personal characteristics which affect the value of a slave). On the Demerara estates the average value worked out at £50 or more per slave; Jamaican slaves were worth less than half that – under £20 per head.

The UCL website gives some assistance on this point:

A commissioned group of officials were appointed by Parliament to determine who should receive what and on what basis. They carefully documented all claims made and all monies disbursed. The effect of this is that there is an extraordinary set of records, held in the National Archives at Kew, of the claimants and of the men, women and children that owners claimed as their 'property' and the monetary values that were assigned to them. If the claims were validated, having been checked in the relevant colonies, the owner received compensation. The amounts were fixed according to the classification of each individual - their gender, age, type of work and level of skill - and the level of productivity, and therefore profitability, of the different islands and territories. The average value of a slave in British Guiana (now Guyana), for example, was judged to be considerably higher than that in Jamaica
.On the face of it an extraordinary difference in productivity, whether that be to do with factors such as soil & climate or the physical health of the slaves,

Or maybe it has more to do with higher levels of indebtedness of Jamaican planters?

I shall have to see what more I can find out.

Legacies of British Slave-ownership
Related post
Slave ownership
Human evaluation

Friday, March 08, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

Remembering Kenny Ball – on Radio 3

Medical Law  and its relation to the [in]famous Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights

Falling net migration: A trap for future governments? illustrates just one of the perils of trying to control a number which is found by subtracting one very big number from another very big number: today’s immigrant may well be tomorrow’s emigrant.

Letters of Note: The Outsiders How the film came to be made

The science of politics Did western television bring down the Wall?; is there really a natural experiment which answers this question?.

More on Wi fi on the buses

What are we becoming a nation of now? Strangely, America seems never to have become a nation of shopkeepers.

Economics of slavery

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Slave ownership

Back in the early 1960s, when the Public Record Office (now part of the National Archives) was in Chancery Lane, a friend took me see the records of compensation paid to slave owners when slavery was abolished in 1833. And grim reading it was.

Those records have now, in part, been placed on a publicly available database, though the interest seems mainly in tracing the details of all the slave owners (of whom there were many more, more widely spread, geographically & through the classes, than you might expect), rather than the individual slaves - who were itemised in the manifests I saw.

Even a search for owners names helps to show how many surnames still common use in the former British West Indies were bequeathed by these owners (not necessarily through paternity)

Legacies of British Slave ownership database – UCL

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Μορε ον τηερεφορε

I cannot now recall how my Googling led me last week to Mathematical Writing by Donald E. Knuth, Tracy Larrabee, and Paul M. Roberts – a report based on a course of the same name given at Stanford University during autumn quarter, 1987. It is not as if I do any of that.

However I was intrigued to see the following, very early on, #3 in a list of 27 points considered to be especially important:

Don't use the symbols ; replace them by the corresponding words. (Except in works on logic, of course.)

I don’t suppose those 5 proscribed symbols come out on the blog – I had to use Word’s Font → Symbol → Insert → Symbol to get them in since a copy & paste from the PDF did not work.

I shall not disgrace myself by trying to name all 5; I think I recognise 3, but have no recollection of ever having seen the fourth. It is, after all, (gulp) now half a century since I had to try to force anything of the sort into my reluctant brain.The first one in the list is however was engraved in childhood & would be familiar to anyone who did old fashioned school geometry – the triangle made up of three full stops, which means therefore.

It is a source of great frustration to me that the instructor did not see fit to explain this ban.

Mathematical writing
Earliest Uses of Symbols of Set Theory and Logic
Related post
Wherefore therefore?

Check yourself out

Despite all the grumbles about Unexpected item in bagging area & other recorded messages, self-checkout is growing in popularity at the supermarket. Annoying, in one sense, because those of us who grew to rely on being able to make a fast getaway find that, increasingly, we have to join a queue rather than sail straight through.

The supermarkets are happy to meet the demand however. Asda have greatly increased the number of such checkouts, & have even  provided some to suit those (who mostly seem to be shopping in pairs) who like self-checkout even for a fully laden trolley; they have a conveyor belt, rather than just space for a basket.

It remains to be seen whether this will lead to significant reductions in jobs – which would be sad, especially in these difficult days. But with renewed emphasis on customer service there may be other roles for paid staff to undertake.