Thursday, January 31, 2013

Taking the mic

I cannot now remember when it was that I first noticed that something had changed about the sound of live broadcasts from the House of Commons. They seem to have installed new microphones in the Chamber – perhaps as part of the arrangements for publishing Hansard much more quickly on line. So far I have not had any success in finding the details of the changes via Google.

The unfortunate effect – at least via my low-tech old fashioned radios - is that these introduce a distinct hollowness & echo to the broadcast sound. Ed Milliband, especially, suffers from this effect, which makes him lose authority.

At first I thought it might have something to do with where the mics are sited, rather than something to do with the quality of his voice.

But - & it really does pain me to have to say this – it may have to do with register, pitch or timbre. Because it is hard on women too.

During Monday's session on High Speed Rail both Maria Eagle & Cheryl Gillan just sounded querulous & shrill – not how they sound at all outside the Chamber, & much of this was due to the echo & greater clarity in the higher registers.

High Speed Rail: House of Commons 28 January 2013
[PDF]The sound of democracy
Voters prefer candidates with a deeper voice, says study
BBC Radio 4: Vox project

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


All the talk about ‘traces’ of horse DNA in beefburgers reminded me of the puzzle of Kaliber.

This is a brand of ‘alcohol-free’ lager (made by Guinness) which, unlike many similar products, actually has an acceptable taste. But I was puzzled about why it could be bought only from licensed premises.

I was told that it was because it started out as normal strength lager, from which the alcohol was then removed. But the process meant that, by law, it had to be treated the same as other ‘brewed’ liquors.

The label declared the alcohol content to be less than 0.05 per cent. What continued to puzzle me however was that a version of shandy – popular from my childhood days & still then widely available, though it seems now to have disappeared from the supermarkets - contained more alcohol but was sold alongside cola & other soft drinks, with no licensing restrictions at all.

A toxicologist friend who worked in the area of food safety told me that the declared alcohol content meant that it was below the limit of detection but that, in order to comply with the relevant regulations, they had allowed for the possibility that there might be traces left over from the production process.

But then why, a few years later, was Billy Connolly allowed to advertise it on the telly with the assurance that it contained absolutely no alcohol at all?

YouTube: Kaliber Ad

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Snow adventure

On Tuesday last week any self-congratulatory tendencies on my part for venturing out in the snow were put to shame by a gentleman I met while waiting for the bus into town.

White haired & well past retirement age he told of how he had just walked from the Cat & Fiddle, on a day when, although the sky was clear & the sun poked through occasionally, the snow still lay thick & frozen as soon as you got away from gritted roads.

Having rejected two of the more challenging routes – one because there were no footprints visible anywhere near the track & the other because he decided the glaring whiteness made it impossible to distinguish between what were merely snow-covered natural hummocks and dangerously deep drifts, he settled for the relatively safe & travelled tracks alongside the reservoirs. It had taken him just over three hours to cover a distance of about 5 miles, (on the level, as the crow flies) & felt it a job well done in overcoming the recent excesses.

Furthermore, he said, he intended to take the bus only as far as Disley, then, after a cup of tea & a sandwich, walk the remaining three miles home through Lyme Park.

He carried neither back pack nor stick – useless in deep snow he claimed - though he clearly knew the ground well & carried a satnav. What fascinated me - & made me deeply envious – was that, although well-booted & jacketed, he wore no gloves, & yet his hands looked rosy & warm.

Derbyshire webcams snow watch

Endangered hedgehog

According to a report in today’s Times, hedgehogs are in danger of becoming extinct. The British population has fallen from (perhaps) 30 million in the 1950s to just 1½ million in 1995 & maybe only half that number today, says the People's trust for Endangered Species.

Well maybe, even probably, but I would be more impressed by the work if the trend graphs were put on to a comparable scale.

[PDF]The state of Britain’s hedgehogs 2011
[PDF] Urban mammals
hedgehog loss comparable to tigers
Related post
Cold weather kindness

Monday, January 28, 2013

Snow stories

The Met Office were warning of more heavy snow on Friday. As usual it was hard to know whether these warnings applied to our part of the country, but local radio seemed confident that substantial falls would be confined to the high ground, so I set off out with no qualms about being able to get back home in the evening.

My confidence seemed justified, despite the bitterly cold wind that was blowing intermittently all afternoon & a few small but wet flurries as darkness fell (at least the days are getting noticeably longer now). And since it was raining when I came out of Sainsbury’s  I naturally assumed the danger of snow had passed.

So it was a surprise when I looked up as we got to the village to see snow falling & everything blanketed with white – the road had obviously not been gritted.

Would the bus even be able to get up the hill?

No problem – these modern buses don’t struggle like the old ones – the lower centre of gravity must help with the traction.

I got off into a mini blizzard, the snow stinging my face when it hit but no point even trying to open an umbrella in that wind. Half way down our hill I passed a couple coming up, determined on their night out (not youngsters but somewhere in their middling years), their bootprints coming up & mine going down the only sign of life outside. With no gritting all surfaces were covered with a good inch of wet but soft snow which is easy enough to walk on.

It came as a pleasant surprise to find that my jacket (just the down one, I hadn’t bothered with the heavy duty rain jacket) was not wet through, though whatever it was that fell off when I shook the big red woollen scarf which had been wrapped round my head & neck skittered & scattered over the floor with a sound like grains of rice or small beads. I was even more astounded to find that the bit of my hair that hangs down below the scarf was solid with ice.

A hearty supper of proper pork sausages from a local butcher, roast parsnips & a mound of steamed courgette, leek & broccoli, followed by ginger sponge pudding, swept away even the memory of cold.

The snow continued to fall in bursts throughout the evening but I was comforted to see, when I looked through the kitchen window, that although the top of the leylandii hedge just over the back wall was wearing a thick white blanket on its flat top, it had not settled at all on the top of the hedge on the far side of the field; it had not been that one’s turn to be trimmed this autumn, so its more raggedy top provided no similarly hospitable bed. There seemed no threat that we would wake up in the morning to find ourselves unable to move outside.

We got a bit anxious a few years ago when there was a campaign to introduce draconian controls on the use of leylandii – well maintained, they provide invaluable protection from westerly winds, rain & snow. And noise too; the local factory, which provides much needed employment, is also surrounded by a well maintained hedge.

By Saturday midday the road surfaces were clear, though the pavements were still thickly covered & children were sledging boisterously & happily in the fields. As I stood at the bus stop I witnessed the snow suddenly slip & slide off the roofs & windscreens of cars parked nearby – a small reminder of how sudden & frightening such falls can be, a lesson in the need to take care when passing near drifts on the slopes of the hills.

Saturday’s weather was cold but otherwise uneventful, until it began to rain quite heavily in the evening. There were even a couple of prolonged rolls of faraway sounding thunder later on. And so we once more have warnings of floods over much of the country. Earlier in the week local radio told us of a team from the council’s environment department who are out every morning at 9am measuring the depth & degree of wetness of the snow lying over the area, so that floods can be more accurately predicted.

At least we are learning to be better prepared for whatever the weather may throw at us next.

Best horsemeat joke

A piece in Friday’s Times City Diary by Andrew Clark brought a small warm glow amidst the gloom.

All the 16 HMV shops in Ireland have been closed down by the administrators – I imagine this loss might be felt even more keenly over there because of the way that music of all sorts still plays such an important part in Irish culture – one reason I like listening to RTE Radio 1 is the variety of music I get to hear, just as part of the normal run of programmes.

But some Irish businesses have offered to accept otherwise worthless HMV gift vouchers in exchange for a treat such as lunch in a pub, a bet at the bookies or a blow dry at the hairdressers.

And the best horsemeat joke so far: a suggestion that Tesco should accept them too – as Horse Meat Vouchers.

HMV Group
HMV: What does its receivership mean for Irish music and businesses?
Related post
Just say neigh

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Secret ministry

from Frost at Midnight

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully ...

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the interspers├ęd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

LinksNether Stowey
Coleridge Cottage
Related post
Not knowing what I love

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Idle hands

It came as a bit of a surprise to read last week that the word ‘unemployment’ dates back (in English – French may be different) only to 1888, when it was used in an article in the American journal, Science. The OED notes that it has been in common use only since about 1895. Before that time there was simply a choice between work & pauperism.

By the first decade of the C20th the scourge of unemployment was a topic of regular discussion in intellectual periodicals such as Contemporary Review. It was a ‘thing’ (like justice or security), with which society & government had a responsibility to deal, & not just the fault of the feckless. (They however, continued to figure in the arguments – indeed the OED gives us a quotation from the St James’s Gazette, in the year before the first recorded appearance of Unemployment, referring to ‘Persons who are unemployed because they are unemployable’.)

By the middle of the following century, in 1948, the United Nations recognised that “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment”

And the idea & scope of a contract of employment continues to grow – with its guarantees of protection from unfair dismissal, harassment & discrimination, & guarantees of equal pay, holidays & respect for family commitments.

At the same time however, we are seeing a growing tendency for the young – in particular – to be expected to work without pay, in the interests of gaining relevant experience & networking opportunities.

A recent article on the Guardian Datablog attempted to disentangle the numbers of those working without pay from the total numbers of ‘employees in employment’. The fact that job numbers are growing while the economy is stalling is causing much scratching of heads.

This revelation about the word unemployment makes me want to revisit the contemporary sources from the earlier C19th : what words were used, for example, to describe the plight of the ‘operatives’ who were laid off during the Cotton Famine. Or, indeed by the Chartists. And did Tawney use the word ‘unemployment’ in his Commonplace Book.

I may yet be a convert to the linguistic turn

Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Linguistic Turn
Employment figures: how the unpaid get counted
Related posts
Statistics leading to philosophy
RH Tawney’s Commonplace Book

Friday, January 25, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

Comparing online and in-class outcomes & the challenges of designing controlled trials in the field of education

All hands dimorphic: Gnomeo and Juliet edition A sexist handism thing.
The vandals are in their bedrooms Committing anti-social acts on-line?

The lordly rifle range mystery

Palliative care: knowing when not to act

XKCD debugger Ending with a smile

Thursday, January 24, 2013

That feeling of being watched

In 1884 (the year of Gordon of Khartoum, another extension of the franchise to working class men & continuing tensions over Irish Home Rule) Eddie Hamilton, one of Gladstone’s Private Secretaries, reminded the prime minister, once again, that his nocturnal activities, whereby he attempted to persuade prostitutes to seek a better way of life, made him, & his political programme, vulnerable. For there were many ‘malicious & unscrupulous persons who would give large sums of money’ to persuade his police bodyguards to incriminate him. ‘There is no saying to what account these persons might or might not turn such information.’

In the wake of all our recent scandals over the behaviour of press & police that doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, though I was slightly taken aback to realise that Gladstone had full-time police bodyguards – an idea such as this had been rejected in earlier years, even during the Fenian panics of the late 1860s.

But the effects of Phoenix Park in 1882 must have cast a much longer shadow. Has there ever been a period since when prime ministers have not had such close protection?

I was checking the background of Eddie Hamilton in the Dictionary of National Biography, when the following quote raised a smile:
Hamilton was aware that the qualities that suited him so well to be a private secretary and Treasury official—diligence, accuracy, discretion, tact, and above all an ability to write clear summaries of complex questions—did not include unusual powers of intellect.
Police officer found guilty of trying to sell information to News of the World
Related post
Prime ministerial security

The world turns

… in a world … where new university students raised on laptops struggle to write by pen for 3 hours in an exam hall; where postal services flounder for want of handwritten letters; where we will soon once again have to pay monks to write letters for us when needed …
Times 3rd leader January 2013

Related posts
A record of things that hath been
The human continuum of space & time

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

That had bin Supererogation

I was woken at about 5:15 this morning by what I groggily thought was the sound of the bin wagon – not right outside but somewhere close by, though sound travels especially well in air which is frozen.

I had drifted back to sleep before I could be sure, but the men had definitely been & gone by 7:15 when I was properly awake & heard a neighbour taking their bin back inside.

I had checked the council’s website on Monday to find that the bin men were not working at all that day but hoped to start again on Tuesday; we should therefore put out our bins as usual, although they would prioritise those uncollected from Monday. They were still there when I got home in the evening.

But to start before the crack of dawn in this way counts as really great service. I hope this is not achieved at the bin men’s expense – eg by not paying them for uncollected bins, even when circumstances are beyond their control.

Fingering the ring

Sham wedding ring exposed by familiar faces in photos

So read the headline in The Times.

You had to read the article to understand that the ring in question was not the familiar band of gold but a gang who organised ‘bogus weddings’ to brides from Eastern Europe for men who hoped thereby to claim the right to live in this country under the EU open borders laws

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Gussie Moran

Gorgeous Gussie Moran has died at the age of 89.

I can remember all the fuss about the way she dressed at Wimbledon, which ‘introduced vulgarity & sin into tennis’ according to the Committee of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which knows about such things.

Looked at through eyes which are now more than 60 years older she just looks like a normal healthy young girl who liked to wear pretty – but demure - dresses.

Although I can also remember that the frilly knickers she wore one time reminded me horribly of the plastic-lined panties you put over the towelling nappies of your baby daughter.

Fovent accessories

One retailer who did well over Christmas was the upmarket purveyor of mens shoes & accessories, Oliver Sweeney.

I was intrigued to see that, just like Primark, they are doing well out of gloves which can be used with touch screens – an accessory we all need badly in this weather.

Sweeney’s however will cost you about 100 times as much as Primark’s humble offering, & yet they are doing so well that they are not included in the sale.

Oliver Sweeney
Amery Capital Ltd
Related post
Things you didn't know you need

Monday, January 21, 2013

Outlines of trees

It snowed again overnight – only an inch or two; we have had it easy compared to those living further south, east or far to the north.

Nor is it the same sort of snow we have had for the past few bad winters. Rather than frozen hard it is powdery, soft, & gleaming white. And the temperature has never dropped much below zero, even over night, so it has not turned to ice which can be so ttreacherous underfoot.

This morning it must have been a couple of degrees above zero because even just the light traffic in the lane outside the house had been enough to melt the snow away to leave the surface clear.

It stayed deep on the pavements however, though nice & easy to walk on – until I got to the part where some idiot had cleared the snow from the access to their double driveway, just by pushing the snow to the sides & leaving it piled in two ridges all the way across to the kerb. Pedestrians had no alternative but to step out into the road to navigate their way around these.

Another problem is a kind of snow blindness caused by the intense whiteness. Thankfully all this raising & lowering of kerb edges in the name of disabled access has another side benefit – you know you can cross at one of those points without the risk of turning your ankle as you put it down hard on the hidden edge of the curb.

And the world looks beautiful, with the tree branches all silhouetted in white.


While listening to the radio this morning I found myself wondering what COBRA stands for. I think we are expected to be reassured by the news that COBRA is sitting – often chaired by the prime minister - whenever there is an emergency in progress.

How’s about Cabinet Operations Before Real Armageddon?

Cobra: The UK's emergencies team
The Home Office's Response to Terrorist Attacks
Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms

Sunday, January 20, 2013


I once witnessed a group of young(ish), educated, middle class women in the Caribbean of the 1960s (than whom there was no more tightly sheltered & protected group at that time), persuaded to mark the acquisition by one of their number of a new car by dancing round it, libation in hand, singing that old Scottish celebratory incantation, An' hey for houghmagandie

Gie The Lass Her Fairing

O gie the lass her fairing, lad,
O gie the lass her fairin',
An' something else she'll gie to you,
That's waly worth the wearin';
Syne coup her o'er amang the creels,
When ye hae taen your brandy,
The mair she bangs the less she squeels,
An' hey for houghmagandie.

Then gie the lass a fairin' lad,
O gie the lass her fairin',
An' sh'ell gie you a hairy thing,
An' of it be na sparin';
But coup her o'er amang the creels,
An' bar the door wi' baith your heels,
The mair she gets the less she squeels;
An' hey for houghmagandie.
Robert Burns

Barnes & Noble: Houghmagandie
Words, Words, Words: Houghmagandie, Knockers, Trolleys and Others by Diarmaid O'Muirithe

Saturday, January 19, 2013

'Til trouble troubles you

Lord Pannick used his column in Thursday’s Times to make the case for an amendment to the Electoral Registration & Administration Bill, which he tabled in the House of Lords & which would make clear the right of every citizen to vote provided they present themselves to the polling station by 10pm. Nobody should be denied that right – as happened to some at the last general election - because there is no time to process them before the shutters must come down.

The amendment read that:
(7) A voter who is in the polling station or in a queue outside the polling station for the purpose of voting at the time specified for the close of the poll shall be entitled to apply for a ballot paper under sub-paragraph 1 above and a ballot paper shall be delivered and the voter entitled to vote in accordance with this paragraph.
Those who supported the amendment were disappointed that the government minister who responded spoke of difficulties, the need to consider unintended consequences & the need to define the word ‘queue’.

Once a bureaucrat, always a bureaucrat, & immediately I read of that ‘need to define’ my brain flew to all the ways in which advantage could be taken of a relaxed rule by those who have a vested interest in playing the game to gain maximum advantage for their own side – something far from unknown when power is the prize.

Lord Pannick responded immediately in the House of Lords by saying that he was very doubtful that a queue needs to be defined; a polling officer would know a queue when he or she saw one. In his newspaper column he said that any concerns that some might set out to cause problems were unrealistic & could in any case be solved by the application of ‘common sense’ by the polling officer.

I find it surprising that such an experienced lawyer could – by implication – advise public officials to proceed on the basis of their own common sense when a fundamental principle – the right to vote in a democracy- is at stake & should not be interfered with in any way by a nitpicking application of rules. Or that 'know it when you see it' is an adequate definition of anything.

It is probably true that gaming the rules to cause problems for election officials would be rare – especially in these days when political parties find it difficult to muster enough helpers to mobilise votes in every constituency. So perhaps the hard way is the best way to learn – write laws that are intended to be used by well-intentioned people full of common sense & amend them only when your expectations are in turn disappointed.

Amendment 53 Moved by Lord Pannick
Related posts
Voting hours
Crime & government
We the people
England’s most marginal constituency
Election fixes

Tickled my fancy

Recent links I liked:

Stochastic planet : A whole blog new to me. Such a simple idea, such surprisingly affective results.

The high value of water: People willing to pay more for running water report much higher levels of happiness when they have it  - while some of us pampered ones, who take tap water piped to our homes for granted, are too suspicious to drink the stuff.

Meanwhile: XKCD does the sums for alcoholic hand rubs

Center For Book Arts: Pangrams  Fun, games & a competition

The music industry, change & copyright

Friday, January 18, 2013

Just say neigh

A strangely mixed reaction to the news that some cheap, frozen beefburgers on sale in Britain & Ireland have been found to contain horse DNA. Supermarkets are mortified by the damage to their reputation, but radio programmes invite listeners to ring in with their best jokey reactions.

And I am left wondering how sound is the inference that a given proportion of horse DNA, as measured by the amplification of specific pieces of DNA through the enzymatic process known as PCR, implies the same relative content of horse meat to beef in the finished product.

FSAI survey finds horse DNA in some beefburger products
[PDF]Table of results of beefburger study
FAQs: Horse & pork DNA in meat products
Related postAllergy allegedly

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Meme multiplied

By a piece of pure Google happenstance I came across a link to the famous Atlantic essay, As We May Think, by Vannevar Bush which was published in July 1945.
In it Bush considers what kind of work physicists, in particular, should concentrate on once the killing is over. In his opinion the most pressing need is to be able to control & have access to the world’s great mass of information which was threatening to overwhelm man’s capacity to find & absorb. To this end should be harnessed the latest inventions & methods of mass production, for “The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.”
One of his imagined devices is the memex:
A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

If the user wishes to consult a certain book, he taps its code on the keyboard, and the title page of the book promptly appears before him, projected onto one of his viewing positions.
Although that sounds like the PC/work station we have come to know & love, it depends instead on punched cards, calculating machines, valves, microfilm, photo cells. The computer as we know it seems beyond his imaginings at that stage.
The insights are nevertheless breathtaking. The (by no means fatal) limitations of the great library are recognised: it is "nibbled at" by a only the privileged few who have access.
The way in which we write figures causes unnecessary complications: if “we recorded them positionally, simply by the configuration of a set of dots on a card, the automatic reading mechanism would become comparatively simple.” The advanced arithmetical machines of the future will be electrical (not electronic) in nature, and they will perform at 100 times present speeds, or more.
“There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things.”

The old systems of indexing information made retrieval more difficult than it needed to be; in the new world  selection by association could be mechanized, so that it should be possible to beat the mind in the speed of resurrecting information from storage.
Wholly new forms of encyclopaedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them
But there will be a special class of people to be served in this new world: the users of advanced methods of manipulating data are a very small part of the population. And a mathematician is "not a man who can readily manipulate figures; often he cannot … He is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane, and especially he is a man of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes he employs." So he will need handmaidens.
For I think that, in his writings at least, for Bush the male did not embrace the female: 'he' most definitely represents a he. I deduce this from the references in the text which are specifically to the female of the species:
  • A girl stroked its keys …
  • A girl strokes its keys languidly …
  • … a whole roomful of girls armed with simple key board punches
  • The impulses which flow in the arm nerves of a typist convey to her fingers the translated information which reaches her eye or ear
 Still, it is good to live in the age of the new profession “of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”
Vannevar Bush: As We May Think
Vannevar Bush: Hypertext
The Man Behind The Scenes Of The Atomic Bomb
Vannevar Bush & Memex: the world’s first web published book
[PDF]Vannevar Bush By Jerome B. Wiesner
The Hedgehog asked the Fox
Related posts
Qwerty 1
Schrodinger’s other life
Bonny babies
Male embrace

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Previously in favourite quotations

A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul -
George Bernard Shaw

There is no privileged past, there’s an infinitude of pasts, all equally valid - Andre Maurois

The snow began to fall at last in a sigh of relief from an overburdened sky - Jim Kelly

Few are qualified to shine in company, but it is in most men’s power to be agreeable - Jonathan Swift

Everyone knows that athletes do not share in the blessings of the mind. Beneath their mass of flesh & blood, their souls are stifled as in a sea of mud - Galen

Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo - HG Wells

It has been said that though God cannot alter the past, historians can; it is perhaps because they can be useful to Him in this respect that He tolerates their existence - Samuel Butler

Pretty girl in crimson rose

I have just read Sandy Balfour’s book Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8) . I had meant to read it when it was published in 2003 but never got round to it, until I was nudged into remembering during a recent Radio 4 Archive programme on crosswords.

Well worth the wait & a particular pleasure to read during these dismal winter days. Especially as I was beginning to feel so scratchy & irritated by some recent Times crosswords which do not suit my style at all, wondering sometimes if, after more than half a century, I might finally have to give them up altogether.

The book is a story of love, travel, migration to a new country – and yes, cryptic crosswords.

That particular British obsession is a trope which Balfour uses to explain his love for his girlfriend – who introduced him to the puzzles – and what it is about Britain that made him adopt it as the country in which he wished to live, in preference to his native South Africa. It is beautifully written & crafted, a good read even for those who regard crossword addiction as an affliction of the socially inadequate. I am by no means sure that too many will be persuaded to take up the pastime, but that really is not the point of the book.

I found it particularly intriguing that Balfour makes much of the idea that solving a puzzle is not simply a technical process – to really get the most out of the game you must see through to the stories hidden in the clues.

Some present day setters – drawn form the world of computing rather than the clergymen or Oxbridge classicists of the past - as well as the solvers, do indeed seem to treat both cluing & solving as a problem of pure analysis & reduction, but the real pleasure comes from that ‘A-ha’ moment, the endorphin rush which comes with the feeling, not of victory over an opponent but of minds meeting.

And this distinction between stories & analysis in the business of words is worth thinking about, along with all the thinking I am doing about the ‘problem’ of stories v statistics & the theory of probability.

I also loved Balfour’s insistence on the idea that those who race against the clock to complete a puzzle are missing the point.

And I treasure the quote from Shed (who sets puzzles for The Guardian) that Ximenes, like Marx, suffers from the quality of his disciples.

From easy to cryptic: 100 years of the crossword
Related posts
Stories & statistics
How to fill in a crossword puzzle

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Punny & not so punny

This morning I noticed for the first time that a pizza takeway, which for years I have passed nearly every day, is called Pizza Hot. A quick Google shows that they are far from the only one to think that one up!

I was much quicker to notice the name of a relative newcomer, an independent coffee shop called Lyme Perk. I am not sure why I find that this works much less well – is in fact off-putting.

Now if only they could somehow work in the name of Darcy …

Perhaps the bicentenary of the publication of Pride & Prejudice provides a good excuse to do so
Lyme Perk Coffee house

Related post
Wet, wet, wet

Phyllis & Ada are working

Robert Mair was this morning’s guest on Radio 4’s Life Scientific.

During the course of the conversation it emerged that, as they spoke, Phyllis was busy tunnelling not far from Broadcasting House.

How lovely to think of her under the very streets which the eponymous Phyllis Pearsall so diligently explored on foot in the course of compiling her A to Z.

BBC Radio 4: Life Scientific
Professor Robert Mair CBE, FREng, FRS
At home: Robert Mair

Related post
Vote for Phyllis & Ada

Monday, January 14, 2013


First snow of the winter today. It was falling quite heavily during the morning, the radio was warning that all the high roads were difficult or closed, & some town centres blocked by skidding cars or lorries losing traction on a hill.

By the time I left home the sky was gunmetal grey, the air damp but without precipitation, the road & pavements merely wet – again.

I’m grateful, really not relishing the prospect going into battle with ice & snow. Perhaps I should just become a sensible old lady & stay indoors when that happens.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Awful warning

I heard this lovely poem by Australian Doug Macleod on Poetry Please. An awful warning to sit beside those of Hilaire Belloc.

Eighteen months ago the same programme featured Alastair Reid's poem The O-filler.

I wonder if there are enough poems on this subject to make an anthology?

A little b●y called R●bert R●se,
Whenever reading verse ●r pr●se
W●uld ●ften c●l●ur in the O’s.
He used a pencil for the j●b
And made each O an ●di●us bl●b.

Unhappily for R●bert R●se,
He caught a strange disease
Where O’s appeared between his t●es
And then behind his knees.

His elb●w, thr●at & then his n●se
Were sl●wly ●vergr●wn with O’s,
Then suddenly, ●h w●e, alack!
Th●se ●vals went c●mpletely black.

He died ●f c●urse, which ●nly sh●ws
Y●u sh●uldn’t mess ar●und with O’s
D●ug Macle●d

The world of Doug Macleod
Poetry Please
School’s Out John Foster
Related post
The O-filler

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent blog posts I liked
Do people working work in working families? - Interesting exploration of the idea that '"working” is coming to define families, not people' – a reflection of womens increased participation in the market for labour?

The cliff game - The greed-is-good game  has the potential to drive democracy itself off the cliff.?

New Mills School going solar

Hidden history of Bengali Harlem

Obesity & health - Even if the weight is good for you, it’s bad for the rest of us.

Thoughts of Violence Past in a Peaceful City - Entertaining, & highly personal, musings on a vexed question

How much water is used in the production of different foods? - we are even more profligate than I thought

A New Scribble on Your Dollar Bill - Good for a laugh. And if you follow the links you can see pictuers of every signature that has ever appeared on a buck. The wonders of the internet & the devotion of those who feed her with information!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Indomitable lives

I have just been reading Two Lives, by Vikram Seth.

The lives in question are those of his great uncle & his wife, he Indian, she German Jewish, both born in 1908. They first met in 1930s Berlin, where Shanti-uncle was studying dentistry, & again in London whence both fled, Aunty Henny having been lucky enough to find a sponsor which allowed her a visa.

They married in 1951, by which time Henny’s mother & sister had perished in the camps & Shanti had lost his right arm at Monte Cassino, where he was serving with the British army dental corps. Although he was able to secure himself a job as scientific adviser to a dental products company, which provided him with a good salary, opportunities to travel & lecture on the latest research into scientific dentistry, he hankered after being able to go back to hands-on work with patients & being his own master. And so, with the help & encouragement of another practising dentist, he trained himself to manage – successfully - with only one arm.

After all this he & Henny settled for a comfortably middle-class life in a semi in the north London suburb of Hendon, where Henny died in 1989 & Uncle in 1998, just before his 90th birthday.

Vikram Seth lived with his uncle & aunt during his vacations, first as a sixth form boarder at Tonbridge & then at Oxford University, so the three became close.

This brief summary can scarce do justice, either to the story or to the masterful way in which Seth handles the material – the history of his own side of the family, interviews with his uncle in old age, a cache of documents belonging to Aunty Henny found in an attic (which had survived uncle’s attempts to destroy everything which brought him painful memories after her death), research in Germany – woven in with accounts of the sweep of German & Indian history.
Painful, inspiring & humbling – those are the words which spring to mind to describe what kind of ‘a read’ is this book.

British Council: Vikram Seth
Vikram Set: Biography
Vikram Seth: Desert Island Discs
Related post
Peace & awe

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Comfortably healthy

Fuss, alarm & rejoicing met the JAMA paper which reported that those who are overweight (though not the dangerously obese) are healthier than those who are in the so-called desirable range for BMI.

I have not had time to read the whole paper but I wonder if this might not, in part at least, represent the same problem which bedevils alcohol studies, which may also show a U-shaped curve for risk, suggesting that moderate drinking is better than total abstention.

But they say, some people abstain because they are already ill - & not just with alcoholism.

Some people are thin because they are ill & in my opinion a BMI of 18.5 (reduced from 20 in 1997) as the lower limit for ‘healthy’ makes it even more likely that poorly people will fall into this category. I base this purely on my own size – never remotely overweight, but 9 stone is too thin for my height. Conversely we know that many people, who are also not fat but well-muscled, will easily have a BMI of over 30

Association of All-Cause Mortality With Overweight and Obesity Using Standard BMI Categories: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Less underground than expected

I thought I remembered that Lady Frederick Cavendish had travelled on the new underground railway soon after it opened in London 150 years ago today.

But it was not until 6 years later, after the Metropolitan line had been extended to the more fashionable area of South Kensington that she ventured into the depths:

Freddie [her husband] and I larked off to the S. Kensington Museum on foot, and thence to Portland Road by underground Railway; my first experience of it. It was charming and wonderful, and far less underground than I expected. Walked from the station to All Saints' Workhouse.

Metropolitan line facts
Circle Line facts
Lady Lucy Cavendish
Related post
Lady Frederick Cavendish

The rain came on more heavily

I was surprised & not a little disappointed that the rainfall records against which the wetness of 2012 is being judged date back only about a century to 1910: surely we have records which go back much further?

Paul Simons came to my aid in his Weather Eye column in Monday’s Times.

There is indeed an archive going all the way back to 1766, which is held by the Met Office, but it has not been digitised – which I take to mean has not been put on to a computer database. Which makes one wonder why not – it does not sound as though it can be all that large, since it is based on fewer weather stations, though that of course presents problems of comparability with the wider coverage of the more modern archive. There may also be a major challenge with digitising in the sense I was first introduced to the word, in the context of computer mapping, that is giving an accurate location based on Ordnance Survey co-ordinates.

However this older archive deprives 2012 (in England & Wales as opposed to the UK), of its record as the wettest ever.

1872 was our wettest year, in fact the whole period around the 1870s was ‘drenched’ according to Simons.

This chimes with my impression gained when reading all those contemporary newspapers of that period – reports of awful rainstorms figured quite regularly, often accompanied by scary thunder & lightning, something which we were largely spared last year.

Heavy rain could cause much more disruption back then, given the lack of protection for travellers.

With modern windscreen wipers, tyres, & generally leak-proof vehicles we have it easy.

At least the mid-Victorians had the Macintosh to protect them, patented in the 1820s & manufactured in Manchester. Strangely however the Dictionary of National Biography says that sales declined after the coming of the railways left passengers less exposed than they had been on the stagecoach.

Related posts
Forecasting technology
One record not broken in 2012
Mapping the way

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The most natural and likely Method

Steve is:
Very shy (& withdrawn)
Invariably helpful
      but has little interest in people
          or the world of ‘reality’
A meek & tidy soul
     with a need for order & structure
         & a passion for detail

Given these 10 (or fewer) characteristics, is Steve more likely to be a farmer or a librarian?

It must have been the late 80’s or very early 90’s. I was reading what literary types would doubtless call a genre novel. The story began describing the Secretary of State coming out of the Department, getting into the official car, putting the Red Box down on the seat …

I remember nothing about the rest of the story except that somewhere about half way down page 3 there came a sentence which began ‘She …

Startled (as the author intended) I wondered Who is she?

Quickly checked back to see which character I had missed.

She, of course was the Secretary of State.

At the time a female Secretary of State was indeed a rare creature, so I, & other readers, had been reacting perfectly rationally in assuming that she was a man.

At least in the opinion of psychologist Daniel Kahneman who devised the question about Steve. If you are a rational American undergraduate in psychology taking part in one of his experiments, you are supposed to see through the trick & say ‘farmer’; since male farmers outnumber male librarians by 20 to 1. If you answer ‘librarian’ you are being fooled into leaping to a conclusion based on stereotype, forgetting that many farmers must, by sheer weight of numbers, must share these characteristics.

On the other hand feminists more militant than I would no doubt say I was making stereotypical assumptions about ther characters in my story. Why can’t a woman be a Secretary of State?

And what boring stories we would tell each other if our male characters were always more likely to be farmers than librarians, whatever their characteristics.

Steve the librarian
Related postThe contingency of life

Monday, January 07, 2013

Hoicking about

Passenger groups seek to end hikes” claimed a headline in the Times of 31 December.

They are not objecting to being forced to walk long distances as they seek to find a train which might take them to their destination. Or seeking to ban those annoying people with rucksacks & muddy boots from travelling on trains & buses. Just protesting – vocally & verbally – about steep rises in train fares.

The OED says that the use of hike to mean an increase in prices is chiefly North American, but they have quotations to show it used in that sense (by journalists) over here since the 1960s.

Beauty & the book

Erica Wagner alerted us in Saturday’s Times to the welcome fact that there is now a London Centre for Book Arts – astonishingly, perhaps, the first in Britain. The one in New York (which has a lively & engaging blog) will celebrate its 40th birthday next year.

London Centre for Book Arts
The Center for Book Arts (New York)

Sunday, January 06, 2013

January night

January Night
The rain smites more and more,
The east wind snarls and sneezes;
Through the joints of the quivering door
The water wheezes.

The tip of each ivy-shoot
Writhes on its neighbour's face;
There is some hid dread afoot
That we cannot trace.

Is it the spirit astray
Of the man at the house below
Whose coffin they took in to-day?
We do not know.
Thomas Hardy

January Night from ‘Moments of vision’ (1879)
Solar eclipse of January 22, 1879

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Tickled my fancy

Recent blog posts I liked

Top 100 bestselling books of 2012
The top 100 titles sold an average of just under 300,000 copies each: the top three titles (all by EL James) sold 10 ten times as many - EACH. And probably at least a couple of orders magnitude more than the average sales for all 100k+ titles published.

From cigarettes to obesity, public health at risk but one day all sinners will repent & have everlasting life.

Alone at the seaside - It used to be unwed mothers who fled to the seaside to hide themselves in shame. Now – the Census shows – it is the separated & divorced, as Mark Easton reports in his thoughtful piece.

Jumping droplets! I hope this really is a practical proposition

The Complexities of Comparing Medicare Choices - Almost as much of a computational challenge as choosing your electricity supplier

Friday, January 04, 2013

Daphne Oxenford

Daphne Oxenford died on 21 December, aged 93.

The news must have prompted both tears &  outbreaks of nostalgic gratitude from all those old enough to  remember "Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin."

Every weekday afternoon at a quarter to two as we settled for a song & a story, possibly going for our lie down afterwards, leaving Mummy to listen to Woman’s Hour in peace.

Listen with Mother
Daphne Oxenford: career
Liberal England
Theatre archive project: Daphne Oxenford
BBC obituary: Daphne Oxenford, voice of Listen With Mother

Thursday, January 03, 2013

One record not broken in 2012

News that 2012 was only the second wettest year in the UK, in just over the century since comparable records began, set me wondering how they calculate the average for the whole country – divide by the number of rain gauges, or attempt some more sophisticated adjustment to represent per unit of land area?

In any case it is clear that averages are less interesting than ever as measures of rainfall these days. It is the change in variability & perhaps too the shape of the distributions of rainfall – over units of time, space, intensity which are plainly of interest now. Forget model building & hypothesis testing, let’s just have some good old fashioned comprehensive & careful description.

Met Office Statistics for December and 2012 - is the UK getting wetter?
Related posts
Seasoned by weather
The rain it raineth
Low flying cloud
Patchy rain

Patti Page

We have heard plenty of clips from Doggie in the Window on the radio over the past 24 hours – marking the death of Patti Page at the age of 85.

At least I can now be sure that the recorded version which has remained in my head since childhood is not her wonderfully inviting voice, which sounds surprisingly laid back & sophisticated. The version which we heard so frequently – presumably on the BBC Light Programme – was much more strict tempo & bouncy.

I certainly remember her Tennessee Waltz however. It surprised me to learn that that was recorded even earlier than Doggie - I associate it much more with my teenage years of going to dances - where there were boys.
Washington Post: Patti Page
Miss Patti Page
Related posts
You can’t take a goldfish for a walk

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Nudge & wink

Yesterday BBC Radio 4 gave Ben Goldacre 40 minutes to broadcast the gospel of the randomised controlled trial, the scientific answer to the problem of deciding which social policies will really work & thereby save the taxpayer squillions of pounds wasted on unproven pet projects of minister & mandarins.

I do not doubt that RCT’s have a role to play in evaluating policy options, but I think the evangelists are underestimating the difficulties & therefore the time & cost of such studies – which, if they cannot  produce definitive answers within the 5-year life of a government (or even if they can), cannot bind the incoming government.

There are also problems of defining the unit of randomisation – in education, for example the usual unit would be the teacher, class or school, not the individual child. That makes them more like complex agricultural experiments.

Interestingly when it came to talk about evaluating the teaching of reading there was no mention of attempting a definitive ruling on the question of synthetic phonics versus the rest, results applicable to all children, but just on the best ways of ‘treating’ those who fail to achieve the required fluency in reading in their last year at primary school. This really does seem like a medical model – we are concerned only to treat the minority who are in some way invalid or handicapped

The sense that RCTs apply only to finding treatments for those who, somehow, don’t have the education, nous or sense of civic duty or citizenship to come up to standard, was reinforced by the tale of one of the Downing Street Behavioural Unit’s claimed successes. An RCT found that people who obdurately failed to pay fines imposed upon them by the courts could be persuaded to do so in significantly greater numbers if they were sent reminders by text message rather than traditional brown envelope in the post. The method worked especially well on those who were randomised to receive a text which addressed them by their first name.

The researcher describing this triumph did not say so specifically but there was a sense that this worked because it was more personal & possibly therefore more friendly – certainly more so than threatening them with bailiffs.

But this illustrates the heavy onus that lies on their medical exemplars & on those who take on the responsibility of nudging us into better behaviour: First do no harm. Are you absolutely sure that you are in fact doing good?

'We know your name' is a short step away from 'We know where you live' - a far from friendly phrase to some, one in fact which can be downright terrifying. I was left wondering if the researchers had done any follow-up to find out if the reluctant payers had, in order to find the money to pay their fines,  resorted to methods which they would deprecate

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Evidence

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Nothing new news about news

Robert Burton (of Anatomy of Melancholy)was the owner of what was one of the world’s largest private libraries of 1,700 volumes. In 1621 (two years before John Donne pointed out that no man is an island) Burton wrote about the tide of ‘new news everyday.’
I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, &c., daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies and sea-fights; peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms.

A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears. New books every day, pamphlets, corantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, &c.

Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of princes, new discoveries, expeditions, now comical, then tragical matters.

Today we hear of new lords and officers created, tomorrow of some great men deposed, and then again of fresh honours conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh: he thrives, his neighbour turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps &c.

This I daily hear, and such like, both private and public news, amidst the gallantry and misery of the world; jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villainy; subtlety, knavery, candour and integrity, mutually mixed and offering themselves; I rub on ... left to a solitary life, and mine own domestic discontents: saving that sometimes ... I did for my recreation now and then walk abroad, look into the world, and could not choose but make some little observation, not ...  to scoff or laugh at all, but with a mixed passion.

Entering those difficult years

Yesterday was Google’s 14th birthday.

If a search engine is anything like a human adolescent we can expect humungous changes in its functioning. Some of which may be dazzling & some just very annoying.

And messy.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain
The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction
Inside the teenage brain

Twenty-first century woman

This sounds very silly but it was only just before Christmas that I suddenly realised ‘I am living in the 21st century!’

It is obviously not that, at some level, I have failed to understand that this has been the case for the all of the last 13 (or 12) years.

I think that the focus on the millennium was responsible in the first place for my failure simply to incorporate the century so that it too became the shorthand for how I thought of the new dates.

But also at that turn I was deeply embroiled in the Victorian Age, reading contemporary magazines, newspapers & memoirs, even seeing Victorian rather than modern Manchester as I moved & travelled around. And, given that I have always struggled slightly to keep straight in my mind the difference between ordinal & cardinal naming of the centuries, having to take care that I used the appropriate digits in my written work, sometimes genuinely feeling that I was living in the C19th.
Somehow the realisation that I have, indeed, become a woman of the 21st century makes me feel strangely proud. As if I had achieved something.

Related post
Counting the centuries