Monthly Archives: August 2011

Ley lines?

There’s a thought, and a somewhat disturbing one, behind the story in today’s New York Times:

Alert Extends Up the East Coast as Hurricane Irene Closes In


“This is not just a costal event,” said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center. He said that he was highly confident now of the storm’s track, meaning it will be a rare hurricane that travels right along the densely populated Interstate 95 corridor.


“You never know what direction it’s going to come in,” said Michelle Jones, 42, who joined the crowds at a Wal-Mart in Garner not far from Raleigh…

“This could flood me out or blow me down,” she said. She remembers Hurricane Fran in 1996. “They didn’t think it was coming here, and it came right up 40 to Raleigh.”

Malcolm had never previously appreciated that storms followed road-maps.

Or do the roads follow natural paths as much as the storms?

Ley-lines, if they exist (and Malcolm is a profound sceptic), are defined as:

Alignments and patterns of powerful, invisible earth energy said to connect various sacred sites, such as churches, temples, stone circles, megaliths, holy wells, burial sites, and other locations of spiritual or magical importance.

Sitting in North London, typing the start of this post, the sky darkened, and there was the first clap of thunder. Suddenly it became easier to believe in powerful, invisible earth energy, and even that it follows the A406 North Circular Road.

Tomorrow morning Malcolm will be setting out on one of those ancient routes. The main drag from London to the Southwest kisses many of the most potent locations which are supposed to be these ancient centres of mystic power: notably Stonehenge, which is where Sir Norman Lockyear and Alfred Watkins started it all.

On the other hand, two of Malcolm’s daughters, and all seven grandchildren are presently right in the firing line of Hurricane Irene, blowing up the New Jersey Turnpike on Sunday.


Malcolm’s first reaction there was to assume a typo for “coastal”, which then makes perfect sense.

Yet “costal” is a proper physiological term, meaning “of the ribs”. So the simple act of breathing in and out is “costal respiration”.

And ley-lines (same caveat as above applies) are not too far adrift from being the ribs of the earth.


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The Educational Value of News 3

It is worth considering the way that piece from The State is presented.

First and foremost is is written to a formula. It is, essentially, a column-filler. It runs a trifle in excess of a thousand words; but more to the point — as the scanned lay-out [right] shows —in its original lay-out,  it is precisely one broadsheet column in length.

Almost certainly, then, it was written to order: “Spillikins! I need a thousand words from you on any topic! And I need it by five o’clock today!” Perhaps it had been sitting in the editor’s in-tray for days, ready for a final polish before it was needed.

Beyond the needs of filling a newspaper page, it is worth noticing how it answers a social need.

1905 is before the age of radio or rival news-sources. There is a new readership out there, liberated only in the last generation or so by recently-achieved literacy and with an appetite for printed material that the new mechanical presses are rushing to satisfy.

The readership is hungry; but it is also acutely aware of value-for-money. Hence what a modern reader detects as verbiage and over-complication. Both writer and reader in this case have been educated in what is expected of them, a rhetorical style that derives from studied models.

This is an audience which tends to the pretentious, which likes to be flattered. The flattery comes by reference to recent events — isn’t it nice to be “in the know” who is “Abdul the Damned”? It also comes in reference to “culture” — provided the reference is readily recognisable. All the allusions here are found repeatedly in other sources to the point they are little removed from literary cliché: the Wordsworth has escaped from a school anthology; the Freeman and even the Terence appear serially as the introductory motto on title pages of a college text-book.

This is a clientele where reading is still partly a social activity, a shared experience. Reading aloud is a customary practice, in the saloon, in the barber-shop, in the family parlour. Hence the theatricality of some of the expressions — the intonation and even accompanying gestures are latent in the text.

Both writer and reader will have been schooled to such a piece. At an early age the pupil was taught the three paragraph “essay”: beginning, middle and end. That led into the classic five-paragraph, page -and-a-half of writing: introduction, complication, climax, resolution, conclusion. Such creations would be not only structured but limited by length: the ideal 450-worder GCSE essay is still out there in the wild. So, here we can reconstruct the writer’s original “bullet points”, by using the well-worn device of “spotting the topic sentence”:

  • the major premiss, the thesis —  the study of the news of the day;
  • the minor premiss, the antithesis — the modern spirit;
  • the antithesis complicated — the need for immediacy, an intimate connection with the immediate present;
  • the synthesis — only the newspaper teaches the most important and interesting things of the day;
  • two further antitheses — a defence of politics as the history of tomorrow;
  • and the lack of reliability of “news” — what is learned today may have to be unlearned tomorrow;
  • these Aunt Sallies, having been erected, are promptly demolished, before the denouement: a quick trot through the relevance of current events across the world;
  • the punch-line takes us back to the original major premiss. Q.E.D.
Once upon a time, when the writing of a formal précis was an essential classroom exercise (it still is, but it comes along far too late in the syllabus), working through a piece with a pencil to underline the key phrases was an essential skill. What it delivered was an approximation to the original’s thought-process. Today that is hunting out the bare bones that were the “Harvard Outline” from which the piece was evolved.
Apart from that hardly-original conceit about The newspapers are making morning after morning the rough draft of history, there is little particularly memorable or unique about this piece. It is formulaic, a journeyman piece at best. The files of journals and newspapers are stuffed with efforts as valid or exemplary.
That isn’t the point. Its very lack of singularity is why it is interesting, why it is a pattern-piece.

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The Educational Value of News 2

Source: The State, published 5th December, 1905.]

The Educational Value of News

What is “news” today will be history tomorrow. No one would be bold enough to deny that history is one of the most essential branches of modern education, yet the proposition that the study of the news of the day is of equal value, indeed, but a part of the study of history would, probably be challenged by many. Those who value history as a study cannot consistently, however, deny to the study of news an equal value, for it is plainly apparent that the happenings of today are but the progress of history. If the knowledge of what the world did and thought a hundred sleepy years ago is of value in education, then it must be of equal if not greater value to know what the world today, the people in our own and neighboring lands, are doing and thinking.

 The most marked and significant tendency in education today is the deeper appreciation of the modern spirit. We may observe this in the revolt from  the classical studies, and in the modernizing of the schools and universities. Latin and Greek have been dropped from the courses in many an institution long proud of its classical reputation, and where these ancient languages have been retained in the curriculum there has been a fight to justify their retention — as mental gymnastics. The tendency is seen also in the increased interest in science, especially those sciences that are practical and that touch the quick and pulsing life of the hour. It is seen in the broader study of history and in the tracing of the unbroken threads that, when duly seen, bind us hand and heart to the most ancient of peoples, to the earliest  philosophies, religions and myths. The past is interesting to us moderns chiefly because it has been demonstrated that we issued from it, and are its children and heirs.

 In other words, so intense is the interest in modern things that ancient things to awaken any interest in us, must be shown to have an intimate connection with the immediate present, to have been necessary in the great revolutionary process. The old Roman¹ that said he was a man and that, therefore, nothing that was human was alien to him, would look well on a modern board of education. He had the true modern spirit. To keep abreast of the times we must know what the people of the day are doing and thinking. It is of far greater value to us to know what England and Germany and France are today, and what the people of these and of our own country are thinking, feeling, and doing, than it is to know all of ancient history; and the study of this “familiar matter of today” should be of far greater interest to us than is the study of “old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago.”²

The modern newspaper, as the chronicle of the most important and interesting things of the day, should be a text-book in every modern school. In no other way is it possible to learn what the outside world or the people in the next State, or the next county, or the next street are doing and thinking. And as we have endeavored in brief to show, this is the most desirable, because it is the most fruitful and necessary of all knowledge. We must know something of the great current that is sweeping onward. We are not merely to drift with the flotsam and wreckage. To be a part of the current, we must know what it is, must move with it — not be dragged along. The only way to learn the nature of the current, to become part of its vitalizing force, is to keep in touch with the spirit of the hour; and the newspaper is the only text-book of this science.

Some object to the newspaper because it has so much to do with politics. But Freeman³ said that history was past politics and present politics is future history. And Hobbes called politics “the art by which the affairs, both of armies and cities, are conducted to their ends.” Politics is, indeed, the history of tomorrow. Some of us may not fancy politics, but it is the greatest force in a nation at any hour in its history. The newspaper must, therefore, and should have much to do with politics. 

Another objection to the use of the newspaper in the schools is that “news” is uncertain, and that what is learned today may have to be unlearned tomorrow, or something quite different learned in its place. This objection has a better standing as against the papers of ten years ago than against the enterprising and honest papers of today. All the sources of news have been improved, and the dissemination of news is not only far more rapid, but is far more trustworthy. No reputable newspaper will now publish unverified reports, where it is possible to have them investigated, and no paper of standing will give space to mere rumor. Every paper wishes news, but no reputable journal desires sensational reports, or will admit them to its columns. 

Those who make this objection to the newspaper fail to remember that the most valuable source of facts that the historian ever finds is a file of old newspapers. If the “news” as it is published is so inaccurate, so untrustworthy how does it happen that it stands the fiery ordeal of time and historic investigation? The newspapers of this morning, containing accounts of the opening of the congress, or the measures used by Europe to break the stubborn will of “Abdul the Damned,” recording the political crisis in England, describing the dark events in Russia, chronicling the passing of Korea from the ranks of independent powers — and a thousand other interesting and significant things — will some day be eagerly sought in libraries as the foundation of the history of the wonderful year 1905. The newspapers are making morning after morning the rough draft of history. Later, the historian will come, take down the old files, and transform the crude but sincere and accurate annals of editors and reporters into history, into literature. The modern school must study the daily newspaper. 

Notes (not, of course, in the original):

1 Terence: Homo Sum: humani nil a me alinum puto. The quotation comes from Heauton Timorumenos

2 Both the references here are to Wordsworth, The Solitary Reaper, lines 22 and 19-20.

3 Edward Augustus Freeman (1823-1892). The exact quotation from Freeman is … history is past politics and politics are present history. On the instruction of Herbert B. Adams, the leading proponent of institutional history in the United States, this motto was inscribed across a wall of the History faculty at Johns Hopkins University.

4 Hobbes’s translation of Thucydides, see The Epistle Dedicatory to the Reader.

5 Sultan Abdul Hamid II was deposed as the last absolutist Emperor of the Ottomans in 1909, having ruled since 1876.

6 This, in terms of this article, is very much the day’s news. Tariff Reform had split Balfour’s Conservative Government which resigned on 5th December 1905. Henry Campbell-Bannerman was then invited to form a minority Liberal administration, which went on to sweep the country in the 1906 Election.

7 At the time of writing, the 1905 Revolution was still at its height.

8 The Russo-Japanese War eliminated Russia as a power in the region. By the Taft-Katsura agreement, the United States declined to protect the independence of Korea. Japan was able then to occupy Korea. This was formalised by the Ulsa Treaty of 17 November, 1905.

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“The Educational Value of News 1”

A thread by Mick Fealty, Breaking news and the infantalisation of audiences…,  on Slugger O’Toole, invited all-comers to muse on the nature of “news”.

Fealty’s first thought was a discomforting one:

When you strip it all back, much of the bad blood generated on Twitter towards the BBC during Sunday’s lightening [sic] rebel ‘intrusion’ into Tripoli, was primarily for not giving good entertainment in the time frame required.

That led Malcolm to reflect on what is the value of “instant” news in the age of the three-minute-and-six-seconds timespan of  the MTV music video. Can there be a Weltanschauung for goldfish?

Malcolm has grown up on news, from the days when it arrived in North Norfolk entirely courtesy of Arthur Christiansen‘s Daily Express, the Eastern Daily Press, and the BBC Home Service. So he was reminded of the half-truth: Journalism is the first draft of history.

The axiom’s not true: no journalist or other witness has an instant overview of the very confused landscape. What’s over the hill, and out of sight, might contradict any instant opinion or view. Provided there is another witness, with a parallel account from the other side of the hill, we can begin to acquire a synoptic view.

Then again, no historian can be wholly trusted to come without baggage or prejudice. There’s always another document to come out of the archive, located by a research student with a reputation and a Ph.D. to realise, to change the overtview.

But “first draft of history” has a record. Fortunately, it’s already been researched.

It would seem the onlie true begetter was one George Helgesen Fitch, who worked on mid-West newspapers in the period before the First World War. His work was syndicated by the Adams Newspaper Service, which has a claim to be among the first of that ilk. Fitch was also an Illinois State representative for the Bull Moose Party. Fitch it was who tapped out the sentence:

A reporter is a young man who blocks out the first draft of history each day on a rheumatic typewriter.

That duly appeared in the Daily Star of Lincoln, Nebraska, on 3rd July 1914.

Even Fitch may have been borrowing from The State, then (5th December 1905) as now, the paper of record for South Carolina, and here producing one of those model essays now sadly out of fashion (but which Malcolm respects enough to reproduce in full in the next post).

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Filed under BBC, Daily Express, History, Norfolk, reading, Slugger O'Toole, US Elections, US politics, Wells-next-the-Sea

Talking Bagehot

Malcolm takes some stick because he hides behind a pseudonym. Admittedly, in his/my own small way, it induces schizophrenia— particularly so when “Malcolm” concocts a juicy bon mot that needs retailing.

Moving swiftly on, there was a nice Bagehot item which popped up in the Economist blog:

TAKING a break from pondering the crisis in Libya, your blogger was asked to join a BBC radio debate this morning about politicians on holiday, and whether it is reasonable to expect prime ministers, presidents and their underlings to rush back from Tuscany, Martha’s Vineyard or wherever when a crisis breaks out.

I was up against a media historian, Jean Seaton …

By a venerable tradition, Economist pieces are anonymous. So, those of us attuned to BBC Radio 4’s Today on Tuesday heard:

Is it good for politics that we are in the habit of calling our leaders back from holiday when a crisis breaks?

“Although we all know that at some level this is nonsense, it kind of reflects the lives of voters too,” according to David Rennie, of the Economist magazine.

In practice, the Bagehot identity is a very thin disguise: it has been penetrated by the The Guardian and by wikipedia.

Anyone who feels that the London media represents a very tight circle should note:

  • David Rennie is son of Sir John Rennie.

Rennie père was a spook — and a very big cheese in Spookland at that — Harold Wilson’s nomination (1968) as Head of MI6, no less. That caused ructions in Spookland — Rennie was outside the magic circle; and thus earning the strong distrust of an even bigger spook, Sir Maurice Oldfield, who believed it was his turn. There were two further complications of Rennie’s tenure as ÜberSpookMeister:

  • On Ted Heath’s suggestion (1971), he sent an MI6 officer, Frank Steele, to Northern Ireland. This breached the rule that Ulster was an MI5 fiefdom (and the full inter-departmental ramifications of that may not be fully unravelled this side of the next millennium); but it also opened a back-stairs channel to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness (which is why the ultras will never fully accept either).
  • The other Rennie son, Charles, got done for a heroin bust, and was gaoled. Der Stern, doubtless without too much provocation, in a fit of Germanic rectitude promptly named Rennie as Head of MI6, thus allowing — in due succession — Oldfield to re-assume the pallium, and peace to be restored between Spookdom and their political helots.

and —

  • Jean Seaton is the widow of Ben Pimlott.

Pimlott was one of the formative spirits of decent “Labourism” in the Thatcher years, exposing the Party’s lack of a credible economic alternative. He was a political biographer of major stature — his work on Wilson (see above) was far more exhaustive, and favourable, than others would like. Above all, he maintained that the post-War Butskellite consensus of British politics was a false conception. To nobody’s great surprise, his intellectual honesty and leftism were out of fashion when the Blairites took over.

  • Pimlott earned the unfailing suspicion of one of Fleet Street’s finest — Chapman Pincher. Pincher was, in E.P.Thompson‘s neat descriptiona kind of official urinal in which ministers and defence chiefs could stand patiently leaking, fully conscious it would be retreaded in the Daily Express next morning. Pincher (dribbled on, doubtless, by the likes of Peter “Spycatcher” Wright) was convinced Harold Wilson and other prominent Labour politicians were Russian agents.

What would be really, really interesting is to learn — not in fifty years or so, when Malcolm in all identities will be lost and gone before — is which present government ministers are sidelining on behalf of foreign powers — as Michael Stewart was for the CIA in Wilson’s Cabinet.

In passing, MI6 issued its first recruiting advertisement (April 2006) — in The Economist. Philby, of course, was one of several journalists who double-jobbed for The Economist and MI6.

Once upon a time, before computer analyses became available, Malcolm experimented with dendrograms of connections. It was truly illuminating to pair up individuals and their activities through comparisons of published sources.

A tree of the links between the BBC, the intelligence services, The Economist, the London School of Economics and … oh, say for examples … Policy Exchange and/or the Heritage Foundation.

See! It’s not just schizophrenia, it’s rampant paranoia!

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Filed under BBC, Daily Express, Economist, Harold Wilson, leftist politics., Northern Ireland, Tories., Troubles

Lacking IQ

Monday’s Times had a letter from Richard Lynn, “Professor emeritus of Psychology, University of Ulster”. It was headed: How can grades be up if IQ is down?

The good professor was questioning how examination results could “improve” annually despite, as he suggested, that IQ tests “proved” the overall “intelligence” of students (“children” in Lynn’s language) to be in decline.

That begs a question:

Which is the more depressing —

  • that there are people who still believe IQ tests measure anything (other than the “cuteness” and cunning to do well in IQ tests)?


  • that one of them is a Professor emeritus of Psychology?

Yesterday, Tuesday, a Dr Stephen J. Dobson responded with an obvious comment, that Lynn’s point:

… is only true if the exams are devised so as to test IQ.

Then Dobson enters a bizarre phantasy:

… year on year, it is becoming easier for the candidates to gain an “A” grade. This is a necessity to increase the percentage of school leavers attending university, which has the political advantage of keeping unemployment down by about 250,000.

Where to start?

Obviously not with the facts. Times letter-writers are far too Olympian for such mundane considerations. However, not too long ago, Oxbridge matriculation could amount to 2 E-grades, provided the applicant could muster family connection, or a decent sporting record. A-grades for such jeunesse dorée were an optional extra.

No. Let’s consider what has happened to examinations in recent years.

Once upon a time grades were norm-related. Professor Lynn has at least grasped that. The assumption was cohorts did not greatly vary in “IQ” from year to year. So the best-performing 5% were awarded  the top grade, and then we work down in tranches. Standards were maintained, and “quality” assured.

We are the precious chosen few,
Let all the rest be damn’d:
There’s only room for one or two —
We can’t have Oxbridge cramm’d.

Then came the National Curriculum, devised by “experts” on scientific principles — notably that of “criterion-reference”. A formula of words is promulgated: if the candidate meets the stated criterion for each grade, that grade has to be awarded.

The difference is that:

  • in norm-referencing the winner of the sprint is he or she who passes the line first — Usain Bolt wins because he was first in 9.72 seconds;
  • in criteria-referencing everyone who beats a set time has “succeeded” — and there are some eighty male runners (half-a-dozen so far this season) who have “beaten” ten seconds over the hundred metres.

So, consider:

Teacher and taught are both fully aware of the critieria. Both ahave enough animal “cuteness” to exploit the sitiuation. Teachers may not, by Professor Lynn’s definition, have “IQ”. What they do have is expertise, which improves year-on-year with experience of how the examination system operates. Moreover, a small army of “experts” butter their a crusts delivering the goods to captive teachers on “Teacher Availability Days (a.k.a. “Baker Days”).

Therein, and no more, is the reason why “standards” consistently improve.

No conspiracy. No plot. 

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Mr Osborne’s poodles?

A couple of days back that excellent blog Though Cowards Flinch raised an eyebrow that the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority had lobbed a warning shot at the Director General of the Office for National Statistics. The nub of any difficulty is that second-quarter GDP Statistical Bulletin, and — specifically — the ONS suggestion that “special factors” may have distorted the outcome. That original post re-appeared on liberalconspiracy.

What is significant here is that, at the time, the ONS gloss was the only fig-leaf Osborne has:

The UK managed economic growth of just 0.2% in the second quarter of the year, according to official figures released this morning.

However, speaking after the release of the data, chancellor George Osborne claimed ‘there’s positive news today, which is that the economy is growing, we’re creating jobs…. we’re providing stability in Britain and we’re a safe haven in the storm’.

The slowdown was expected after a series of one-off factors, including the additional April bank holiday, the Royal Wedding and the global fallout from Japan’s tsunami. The statistics office (ONS) said that according to its broad-brush estimates, these events ‘had a net downward impact on Q2 2011 GDP of 0.4 in the services sector and 0.1 in the production sector’…

Osborne told a press conference yesterday that the government’s economic recovery plan was on track: ‘We are sticking to our economic plan in a world of very great uncertainty.

‘We have brought stability to the British economy. We have brought interest rates down. And we are creating private sector jobs. That is all evidence that our economic plan is working and on track.’

Meanwhile, like Salome clutching at the sixth veil*, Osborne repetitively asserts the OBR’s “independence”: most recently five times in his 11th August doings. Others (and by no means Osborne’s natural critics) are not convinced. Consider Paul Goodman at ConHome:

The Chancellor promised to allow the [Treasury Select] committee to approve his proposed new appointments to the Office of Budget Responsibility – thereby giving them the power to veto his suggestions if they wish…

Osborne’s announcement will have been driven by prudence as much as conviction.  He’ll appreciate that the role of Select Committees is waxing, and that Ministers would be wise to co-operate with them.  Andrew Tyrie, the Treasury Committee’s Chairman, has already proposed more powers for committees to send for papers and summon Ministers.  Michael Fallon, who ran against Tyrie for the post, suggested that committees should be able to veto supplementary estimates.

In view of what Robert Chote, head of OBR, was saying to the Independent, the lack of any OBR forecast on economic growth — particularly since the Bank of England’s before the Autumn Statement may be more than diplomatic silence.


* In which connection, Malcolm reckons he’d prefer Aida Gomez over Osborne’s efforts any time:

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