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Dr Doug - A Wide Halo Of Ease And Leisure Below are the 10 most recent journal entries recorded in the "Dr Doug - A Wide Halo Of Ease And Leisure" journal:

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February 5th, 2017
04:21 pm


RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch
For my reference, keep meaning to gather each year's RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch observations in one place but that's a job for later.

Weather: 100% overcast, recent rain, occasional drizzle through the hour

Spots, in no particular order:
1 Robin
2 Blue tit
3 Woodpigeon
1 Great spotted woodpecker (woo!)
7 Jackdaw (more than two dozen flying overhead)
1 Chaffinch
1 Collared dove
1 Blackbird (male)
2 Carrion crow
2 White doves (call 'em feral pigeons, which will probably annoy their owners at the end of the road)

About what we usually see, although perhaps a bit down - I recall more blue tits and chaffinches in previous years. The woodpecker was new and exciting, although I've seen and heard it around the place.

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December 9th, 2016
07:52 am


Recipe: Every-flavour stew
After making this recipe a few times, it's developed in to what I now call every-flavour stew (after Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, but not disgusting). The idea is that butternut squash can be a bit bland, so let's try to set off all the taste receptors we know about. So there's tomatoes and onion to give you plenty of umami, lime juice for sourness and bitterness, salt and sugar, and chili/harissa to set off the capsaicin/heat receptors. I don't normally put salt and sugar in things, but used judiciously they can make a big difference. It's quite tasty.

1 large butternut squash
1 tin chick peas
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
large chunk ginger (optional)
olive oil
ground coriander (1-4 tsp) (optional)
ground cumin (1-4 tsp) (optional)
harissa paste (a couple of tsp, depending on taste/ferocity of harissa) OR chili powder
sundried tomato paste (about a tbsp or two) OR tin of chopped tomatoes
lime juice (heavy-handed splosh, lemon will do)
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp or generous pinch of salt

Pre-cook the butternut squash in the oven, cut in to smallish lumps. Fry the onion & garlic in the olive oil very gently, then add the spices to warm them, then the ginger. If you're using chopped tomatoes, add them and cook down for a bit. Add the squash and the chick peas, and tomato paste if you're using it, then heat through. Then add the lime juice, sugar and salt, adjusting till it tastes good. If it tastes too much of one of those three, you can add a bit more of the other two to balance. Don't overdo it though. Serve with bland carbs (rice, couscous, pasta). A bit of fresh herbs on top would finish it off nicely but I keep forgetting.

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December 7th, 2016
07:30 am


Her Majesty's High Inquisitor of Schools
**TODO has been reading Harry Potter recently, and finished book 5 (Order of the Phoenix) last week, so we watched the film at the weekend.

On Monday afternoon, we heard that Ofsted would be paying a short-notice visit to **FIXME's school on Tuesday and Wednesday. After I'd tried to explain what Ofsted do, the kids asked, "So is Ofsted like Professor Umbridge?", and after a moment's thought, I said yes, yes they are.

(For those who don't remember, Umbridge is appointed Hogwarts High Inquisitor and makes a show of inspecting the teaching, which is a thinly-veiled cover for being horrible and abusive.)

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November 28th, 2016
01:41 pm


Death rates
Relevant to my last post: latest death rates from the ONS, graphed for our viewing pleasure.

It's important to emphasise that these are crude death rates and very much not the same as life expectancy. In particular, you would expect an older population to have a higher death rate. This is why China's death rate is so much lower than the UK's, and perhaps part of why it's rising: their population is much younger on average than ours, but (I think) ageing more rapidly.

But either the UK population is getting older or our mortality got worse last year. Or both.

For balance, the UK infant mortality rate did not rise but stayed level in 2015 at the all-time record low set in 2014.

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November 27th, 2016
09:18 pm


Gloomy post of gloom
"The world under heaven, after a long period of division, tends to unite; after a long period of union, tends to divide. This has been so since antiquity."

So starts The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, set in the C2nd to C3rd CE in China and traditionally said to have been written in the C14th. You could say this is the epitome of a sort of cyclical, ebb-and-flow view of history.

Another way of seeing history is as a decline. Hesiod, writing in about 700 BCE, posited Five Ages of Man, a sequence from the Golden Age, when humans lived among the gods, downwards through the Silver and Bronze Ages, with a brief respite in the Heroic Age, and then to his own time, the Iron Age, where humans scratch out a poor life of misery and toil. Ovid, writing around the C1st, thought similarly but dropped the Heroic Age to give an account where everything just gets crappier over time.

But of course, many people at present see things as generally getting better over time. From the Enlightenment in the C18th onwards, people - well, specifically a few well-off European privileged intellectual men - started to see history as an improvement over time. And more and more people began to have a way of life where their everyday existence wasn't a sharp contradiction of that view, and by the C19th in America, almost anyone (well, specifically white and European and privileged anyones) could aspire to the dream 'this year better than last year, and next year better still'. Of course, any of them would argue, things don't get linearly better, and they don't get better for everyone all the time.

This Whiggish view of history has been looked down on in intellectual circles since at least the 1930s, and since postmodernism it's precisely the sort of ridiculous grand narrative respectable intellectuals can't take seriously any more. Wilson might have been keen on harnessing Science for Progress but he was out of touch with the latest thinking.

Despite the appearances, I like to think that at bottom I'm quite a simple, naive sort of person. The stone you kick thusly does exist. What exists is more fundamental than what you think about it. It's a very good idea to check what you think against what exists, as best you can. On this basis, things have been looking up. Mortality and morbidity are in sharp retreat: life expectancy in the UK soared in the C20th. Median incomes are a very rough and ready measure, and money does not make you happy, but overall having more money tends to at least make your misery a bit more comfortable. Hans Rosling can show you some statistics on this that will make your heart soar.

But this is not inevitable. There's nothing that means that this has to continue.

Living standards for most people in the US have stagnated. It's not been quite so bad here in the UK, but the IFS have just looked at the Autumn Statement and have calculated that on the OBR estimates, average incomes (by which I think they must mean medians) will be lower in 2021 than they were in 2008. I've not read anyone saying 'stagflation' again recently but I don't really understand why not.

And, of course, there have been Certain Major Political Events which look like they point in the same direction for what's happening in the social level of reality: Brexit, Trump, and just this evening, France facing a choice for its President of a social conservative promising to slash the state (François Fillon) or the National Front in the shape of Marine le Pen. (And for the avoidance of doubt, this is not the way I would regard as upwards.)

History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme, as Mark Twain probably didn't say.

So some people have been worrying that the current times rhyme with the 1930s, and thus that we could be facing 10 or 15 years of things becoming really very awful before they slowly start to get better. On this account, we could be facing many decades before things are better again. My big worry is that they're wrong.

Rome was the first city in human history to reach one million inhabitants, around the C1st/C2nd CE. It famously declined and fell, and it didn't reach one million inhabitants again until 1,800 years later. There were no cities so large and complex in Europe between the decline of ancient Rome and the rise of London (by about 1810, from memory), and there were only two anywhere in the world: Xi'an/Chang'an, where my father was born, in around 850, and arguably Angkor a few centuries later.

The astonishingly complex machinery that is the world economy stuttered and nearly stopped in 2008; we hauled it back from the brink but we still don't really understand it even at the basic level that might tell us whether raising interest rates will increase or decrease inflation, or whether cheaper oil is a good or bad thing for the UK economy. If we don't understand it, it's hard to be confident we'll be able to fix it if it breaks again.

The really scary prospect is that it's not decades before things get better than this, it's that it could be centuries, or millennia. Or never.

I do think that's a long shot. There's nothing that says that improvement is inevitable, but there's plenty that says that decline is unlikely. We are vastly more capable and smart than we have ever been as a species. Life expectancy is still on average going up; mortality is going down. And just the other day I saw yet more evidence that things are getting better even in old age: yes, there's a lot more dementia, but only because there's a lot more older people (which is good news!). Dementia is actually becoming less prevalent on a per-capita basis, and the average age of onset of is going up, despite greater awareness and earlier diagnosis that would tend to push it downwards.

All this is from working together, understanding the world as it actually is, and using that to make things better, for everyone. It's not inevitable that we'll continue to succeed, but the results so far are encouraging, and it's sure as hell worth trying.

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November 24th, 2016
09:57 am


More tea
I'm fascinated by the way that when you start noticing something particularly, you spot loads of examples. It seems like that thing is really prevalent, when in fact it isn't really any more prevalent than it used to be, it's just that you're noticing and remembering every occurrence. (Although sometimes it can be an age/cohort effect as well - there really was a surge of people I knew having babies about 5-15 years ago, and there really is a surge of people I know starting to need reading glasses now.)

So over the last week or so I've been staggered by how many people are talking about tea and the correct brewing thereof. Opinions clearly differ. One person I had tea with was genuinely but politely aghast when I neglected to properly squeeze the teabag before removing it. Another grew impatient when I was waiting for a cup to brew properly before removing the bag, and thought I was being wilfully tardy and/or spiting myself by making a stewed cup of tea.

For the avoidance of doubt, I want to stress that the full performance in that previous post is a more optimised and complicated way of making tea than is normally reasonable, and tea made short of those exacting standards is still bloody good and very welcome. Seriously - if you offer me a cup made just by slinging a bag in a mug with some hot water, I'll be delighted. The difference all that malarkey makes is minor. They're the difference between a really wonderful cup of tea and a maybe slightly-more wonderful cup of tea.

That said, if you don't already, I do recommend trying pouring the water on while it's boiling rather than waiting, and then leaving it to brew for a good 3-4 clock minutes.

The only thing that I genuinely care about is if the milk goes in while the tea leaves are in, or if the water is so cool when meets the teabag that it won't brew properly at all. (This is a matter of several minutes after boiling, not seconds.) And even then it's still usually drinkable. If you make me tea, please do not worry that I am judging the quality negatively. If you've steered clear of those two solecisms, I will be very happy indeed, and even if you haven't, I'll still be very happy you made me tea.

As I said, opinions differ, and that's totally legit. Not everyone's cup of tea is everyone's cup of tea. I believe this to be generally true in the broad, metaphorical sense, so it definitely applies in the literal one. I like mine pretty strong, but there's nothing wrong with preferring the sort of brew where the tea bag has merely been somewhere in the vicinity of the water for a moment or two. À chacun son brew, one might say.

As it happens, I've just brewed up in a mug, and decided to do a quick bit of measurement while I was at it by slinging in a culinary thermometer. I realise I haven't calibrated the thermometer at all and it would've been really easy (just poke it in the kettle while it was boiling). And I didn't note the times or temperatures down properly either. But never mind. Less-than-perfect data is still good. Much like tea.

85 C - temperature in mug after I filled it half-full with just-starting-to-boil water from the kettle to warm it
95 C - temperature after I threw out the warming water and poured in merrily-boiling water on the tea bag
90 C - temperature about 15 seconds after that
85 C - temperature about 30 seconds after the brew started
76 C - temperature about 4 minutes after the brew started, when I took the bag out
70 C - temperature after adding a splosh of cold-from-the-fridge milk (about 3 C)
68 C - temperature when I started drinking it. This was towards the top end but well within the ideal temperature range for drinking.
47 C - temperature by the time I had drunk to the bottom of the mug. This was cooler than ideal temperature for drinking, but still good. Usually I'd drink faster than this, so the tea never gets this cool, but I got distracted while writing this post.

Edit I've just realised that I should stop worrying about trying to remember to leave the tea to cool in the mug before I put the milk in. If I've left it to brew for 4 minutes (as above), it's pretty much at ideal drinking temperature as soon as I've put the milk in.

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November 17th, 2016
10:41 am


A nice cup of tea
"Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea." - Sydney Smith

George Orwell, scourge of the right and of the wrong-headed left alike, fought the forces of repression with well-written essays, polemics and books. And even with actual guns bullets in Catalonia. Like most humans, he was brilliant but also terrible and occasionally shockingly bad. He had firm opinions about tea: the title of this post is a nod to an essay of his setting these out. I lack his eloquence, and his political heft, but I also like tea a lot.

I'm still working out what to do in the light of recent events. What's the British thing to do when in turmoil? Make a nice cup of tea. So, in lieu of offering anything more constructive by way of dealing with the current political situation, here are my ideas about what makes for good tea.

The aim here is to get the most satisfying and consoling cuppa. Fundamentally, what that means is down to individual taste and tradition. But if we leave it there we miss out on a fun conversation, so here's my view.

The Turks and Irish may drink more tea than we British per head (the Turks substantially so), and the Indian subcontinent might go to greater lengths proportionately to get a brew, but we are still in the top league of tea-drinking nations, and it is a fundamental part of British culture. It is evidently a tradition in decline, but to be honest that's very much in line with Britain generally, which given what most British traditions were like is broadly a good thing. As well as being the result of a deeply problematic imperialist history, the whole business of British tea-drinking is run through with class considerations, often unexamined, which is awful, but at least tea is drunk still drunk by people from all classes, and good thing too.

There are many, many lovely teas and infusions, and I enjoy many of them myself. But proper tea, ur-tea, the most tea-like and satisfying tea, is black tea. And an English breakfast blend at that. I like it full-bodied and rich, so heavy on the Assam, but with some lighter fragrant notes to balance. You can go for a pure single-estate Assam, or fine delicate Darjeeling (which I do from time to time), but the danger there is you can end up having a gustatory experience rather than a good honest cuppa.

As a materialist atheist, I'm a great believer in the power of ritual and ceremony. So while brewing up with a teabag in a mug is the overwhelming majority of the tea I drink, proper, serious tea requires the whole ritual and ceremony of a pot, loose tea, and china cups. I'm convinced this makes for better tea in the sense of being nicer-tasting, but even if a blind tasting convinced me otherwise, it still makes for better tea in the sense of being more like tea ought to be.

The mechanics matter. I don't have golden rules like Orwell, but I do have a number of key principles to keep in mind.

Principle 1: Oxygen in the water.

The water needs to be freshly drawn. That means reboiling the kettle is wrong. Those boilers that sit on office kitchen walls, boiling away merrily for hours, are a disaster in this respect. And I've scalded myself on those far more often than I have on ordinary kettles, so I'm unconvinced they're a health and safety improvement. Although I suppose there is the fail-safe that if you start to scald yourself and jerk away, the flow stops, whereas it's possible to spill the contents of a boiling kettle all over your most delicate bits, so maybe in the tails it's safer.

Anyway. Most of the time you are using a kettle, not one of those horrors.

Pour out anything that's left in the kettle, run the cold tap for a bit till it runs cold, then fill the kettle with as much water as you'll need and very little more. This is partly ceremonial and ritualistic, and historical about contamination, but is also about the amount of oxygen dissolved in the water. Not overfilling the kettle is polite and correct on multiple grounds. Chiefly, it uses less electricity, and boiling water in kettles is one of the most electrically-intensive things people do in their houses these days. Some have argued that boiling a whole kettle means anyone coming after you to use the kettle won't have to wait so long. But only if they reboil it, which means they'll have a less-good cuppa. It's not right to inflict that on anyone.

Principle 2: Boiling water on the tea.

The water needs to be really, really hot - like 95 C or so - when it hits the tea. If you're using green tea or Oolong or something you want it cooler, but black tea needs to be brewed pretty much at boiling point. I believe this to be backed up by all sorts of studies about extracting different flavour compounds from black tea. It's certainly backed up by tradition and word-of-mouth expertise as it has come to me, and my own non-systematic experience. It really doesn't take much to cool boiling water substantially below 100 C, so you need to take care.

This is why you want to warm the pot, or warm the mug. You can get away with not doing this, but it makes an inferior brew - a cold vessel will cool the water down from near-boiling surprisingly fast and surprisingly far. And it's only a matter of a few extra seconds to warm it first. My favourite strategy is to divert some of the water from the kettle when it's hot but not yet boiling. I do sometimes end up reboiling the kettle a bit this way, which is not ideal. If I'm doing it properly, I boil a little bit of heating water first (which can legitimately be reboiled from warm water left in the kettle), then boil the brewing water with fresh cold water.

You also, obviously, want the kettle right next to the mug or pot, so you can pour it in while it is still at a good rolling boil.

If it's come off the boil before you pour it on, it's better to bring it back to the boil than to pour it in when it's cool. This is in tension with the 'no reboiling' rule, of course, which is why you need to get everything ready and pay full attention to the job so you're not left in the awful situation of choosing between options (use not-boiling water, reboil, start from scratch) which are all less than optimal.

A fast-boiling kettle is well worth it. The difference between a 1.7 kW kettle and a 1.4 kW kettle is noticeable, and if you drink tea more than occasionally you really want a full-on 3 kW job. Once you have one you won't look back. It is not coincidental that these can be had for about a pony in just about any shop in Britain that sells anything with a plug on it, but are like hen's teeth just about anywhere else in the world. In North America, they're more-or-less impossible to make, too - at UK/European 230 V, 3 kW draws 13 A, which is up the top end of what you'd want to draw from a ring main but on the right side of the line (and in the UK the supply is generally 240 V, which drops the current well below the danger zone); but on American 110 V systems, 3 kW needs 27 A, which is more than you can draw from most outlets safely.

Principle 3: Brew for long enough, and no longer.

A quick brew can be great when you need it, but some things are better not hurried. I always remember steer observing, in response to the Windows 95 slogan 'everything you do will now be faster and better', that some things do not get better if you do them faster. Brewing tea is one of them, and sex is another.

You can get a strong-enough brew by using more tea for a shorter time, but there are particularly nice flavours that only come out after steeping for a good few minutes. This is something lots of people get wrong a lot of the time - including me. I've recently taken to setting a timer, which has dramatically improved my results. It also prevents the even worse disaster of brewing up, popping off to do something while it steeps, and then forgetting about the tea until too late. This is very bad because you don't want to leave the tea in for too long, or it gets stewed and bitter. Or even forget it entirely! 'Too long' here is something like over 10 or 15 minutes. I reckon 4 minutes is where you're aiming.

Ideally, you want to insulate the brewing vessel (mug or pot) while it's infusing, to keep it as close to proper brewing temperature as possible. With a pot, a tea cosy is just the job, but a mug cosy is probably too fiddly for everyday use.

Once it's brewed, you really need to take the tea leaves out of the water. This is easy with a teabag in a mug, but harder with a traditional setup of loose leaves in a pot. The second cup out of a pot with loose tea in is often way too stewed, and watering it down mitigates the problem slightly but doesn't fix it.

Principle 4: Don't scald the milk.

Some people put milk in their mug before the hot water goes on. This is hopelessly wrong. For one thing, it cools the water so it can't possibly be hot enough to infuse correctly. For another, the fat in the milk extracts flavours from the tea leaves that are not nice. And for yet another, adding boiling water to milk makes it really horrible - more on this in a moment. The people who brew tea like this, of course, disagree and actually like those flavours. Well, people who brew tea like this deserve what they get is all I can say.

To be clear, this is not the milk-or-tea-first dilemma as I understand it. Brewing with the milk in is just wrong.

The milk-or-tea-first dilemma occurs if you're correctly brewing in a pot and deciding whether to pour milk or tea in to the cups first. I am not a hardliner either way on this one, so long as the milk isn't heated too much (scalding it). People of good tea faith can come to different views on this one, I say. I do lean milk-first, though.

There's one idea that says that milk-first should be avoided out of fear that you might be perceived as being concerned that your inferior china won't stand up to the heat of the tea on its own. I strongly suspect this of being silly middle-class prissiness. The sort of person who would care whether I was trying to conceal the low quality of my teacups is not the sort of person I want to care about giving a good impression to. And this is a completely bogus concern now - tea cups these days can totally stand boiling water.

Very hot water on milk denatures the proteins in it, making it taste like UHT milk, which is horrible. Generally this steers you towards milk-first: the milk is slowly brought up to the final temperature of the final brew. If you do it tea-first, the first part of the milk will get substantially hotter than the final temperature of milk-and-tea, risking scalding it. But other solutions are possible. If you can get the leaves out of the tea once it's brewed, you can let the tea cool down to near drinking temperature without it stewing, and then add milk second fairly safely.

If you want to do tea-first from a pot of loose tea (and can't get the leaves out easily), you can pour the tea out and then wait a little until it's cooled enough not to scald the milk before you add it.

As a final practical point in favour of milk-first, you get a better mix more quickly that way than with
do tea-first. Tea-first almost always requires stirring with a teaspoon, but with milk-first you can often get away without.

If you're brewing in a mug, you're pretty much stuck with pouring the milk in to the tea rather than the other way round. I like to swirl the tea as the milk goes in and to do it quickly, to try to minimise the overheating effect. I keep forgetting that it would be a better plan to let the tea cool to near drinking temperature first, and then add the milk.

Once the milk is in, the tea will cool less quickly. Partly this is straight-up physics: the rate of heat loss is directly proportional to the temperature differential, so a hot cup will lose heat faster than one that's merely warm, so leaving it to cool for 5 minutes then adding the milk will cool it more than adding the milk then leaving it to cool for 5 minutes. But apparently there's also a substantial surface effect from the milk fat, which reduces evaporative cooling. So it's smart in multiple ways to do most of the cooling before you put the milk in.

Principle 5: Break any of these rules sooner than doing anything outright barbarous.

This is George Orwell's final rule of good writing, repurposed for tea making. He declined to be so open-minded about his tea. I have read and admired his writing; I have never had the chance to drink his tea, and I doubt it'd be as much to my taste. Also, I think the word 'barbarous' runs the risk of doing some questionable neo-colonial work here that I'm not entirely happy with. But the broad principle applies.

I'm a tea pragmatist. Fundamentally, tea is for consolation, reassurance, and fortification, and whatever works, works. If you can't do the full tea ceremony at some particular point, or can't be bothered with it, you can make better tea by picking off as many elements of the full monty as are compatible with the exigencies of your current situation. So, for instance, tea leaves in an infuser in your mug is a bit better than a teabag, and a thin porcelain mug is better than a chunky stoneware one.

There's a balance to be struck. In times of serious emotional crisis, in a situation where there will be sobbing, I would almost always go for a mug and the swiftest possible brew. And even, in extremis, a spoon or two of sugar. (Sugar can go in whenever you like, but it dissolves more easily if you put it in when the water is hotter.) But if maintaining composure is important, stiff upper lip style, the full performance might be a better plan.

One final whine: the way certain Continentals and North Americans serve tea is the antithesis of good tea and breaks pretty much all my principles: overboiled water is brought to you at drinking temperature, with a teabag on the side, and a tiny packet of UHT ready-scalded milk. There is no route to a decent cuppa from there, and frankly you're better off drinking something they do know how to make.

One of the things I love about Britain is that this almost never happens anywhere you get tea. You can get a decent cuppa just about anywhere in Blighty, and jolly good show.

Edit: I have been alerted to the existence of the two-pots method. You brew in a pot as normal until the tea is at the correct strength. Then you pour it in to a second warmed pot, straining as you go. With a cosy on the pot, you can linger over a huge pot of tea for ages without it getting stewed (which happens if you leave the leaves in) or undrinkably cold (which happens if you pour it out in to cups). This seems like a great solution for a situation where you have two ordinary pots rather than one of those fancy ones with a strainer insert for removing the leaves when it's brewed. It also reminds me of the two-hats cure for colds.*

* Take a hat and a bottle of whisky to bed. Put the hat at the bottom of the bed and drink the whisky until there are two hats. IME this provides good short-term relief, and once your hangover is gone, so is the cold.

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October 23rd, 2016
11:07 am


Force Major spotting
I'd missed that the PM, Theresa May, had recently expressed full confidence in the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond. That's just three months since he was appointed.

This is putting his position under what I like to call force Major, as a riff on force majeure, after the luckless previous Tory incumbent who almost certainly tops the all-time table for expressions of full confidence in ministers who subsequently resign or are sacked.

At least, for now.

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October 16th, 2016
09:17 am


Silly US Presidential rhyming slang
I have no idea why these pop in to my head, but they do. Many of them have bounced round my brain for decades. I had ones for most of the Notable presidents (ie, the ones I can remember, which is basically WW2 on plus Lincoln and Washington), and I thought it might be diverting to produce a complete set, to date.

I'm not proposing ones for the next president, partly because it's a bit previous, partly because it's too hard not to do rude ones for Trump, and mainly because Bill Clinton is the probably the one I'm least proud of out of the lot, and I doubt I can do better for Hillary.
  • An urban hipster and a rural farmer: Barack Obama
  • The Himalayas and Hindu Kush: George W Bush
  • Spend a stint in the home of Bill Clinton
  • An incidence of apophenia: George Bush Senior
  • Iron Maiden: Ronald Reagan
  • I'm the firestarter, twisted Jimmy Carter
  • Plywood, MDF, particle board: Gerald Ford
  • Get your kicks in: Richard Nixon
  • Bordeaux, Burgundy, Beaujolais: LBJ
  • Penderecki's Threnody: John F Kennedy
  • Weak resolving power: Dwight D Eisenhower
  • Being Human: Harry Truman
  • Nubile and svelte: Franklin Roosevelt
  • Heimlich manoevre: Herbert Clark Hoover
  • Untreated sewage: Calvin Coolidge
  • Much disregarding: Warren G Harding
  • Temptation to sin: Woodrow Wilson
  • With eels in his hovercraft, it's William Howard Taft
  • Wheat, rye and spelt: Teddy Roosevelt
  • Meat sliced quite thinly: William McKinley
  • Demand a refund: Grover Cleveland (again)
  • Without comparison: Benjamin Harrison
  • Never outgunned: Grover Cleveland
  • Point of departure: Chester A Arthur
  • Gravy, congealed: James A Garfield
  • Hellman's mayonnaise: Rutherford B Hayes
  • Leaking breast implant: Ulysses S Grant
  • What the hell is a sponson, Andrew Johnson?*
  • Juvenile delinquent: Abraham Lincoln
  • Fresh colcannon: James Buchanan
  • Planking fierce: Franklin Pierce
  • Likely to bill more, meet Millard Fillmore [best name award]
  • Asthma inhaler: Zachary Taylor
  • A choleric bloke, was James K Polk
  • Lexical analyser, parser, compiler: John Tyler
  • Summon the garrison: William Harrison
  • Extracting the urine: Martin van Buren
  • A very loud klaxon: Andrew Jackson
  • Brothels and madams: John Quincy Adams
  • Status quo: James Monroe
  • The talisman: James Madison
  • Get your ciphers on, Thomas Jefferson
  • Unbridgeable chasms: John Adams
  • Oxygen, phlogiston, then there's George Washington

I've also come across this:

Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen,
Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon.
Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen,
Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.

* It's a sticky-out bit on the side of a boat or ship, often used to provide extra buoyancy or stability, or for sticking things on, or to protect something. You get them on helicopters and tanks too but they didn't have those in Andrew Johnson's time.

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October 9th, 2016
08:38 pm


Saying the opposite of what you say
I've mentioned before that I have a fascination for performative utterances:
They're that particular sort of thing you say that do what they say they do because you said them. They're not just descriptions of how things are, they change how things are because they are said. So, for instance, saying "You are under arrest" makes you under arrest.

Except, of course, to actually change how things are, the person talking has to be the right person saying the right words in the right context. (Where 'right' is socially determined.) So my young son **TODO telling his teddy bear "You are under arrest" is not the same as a police officer saying it to a bloke wearing a stripy jumper with a bag marked 'SWAG'. I could say 'I divorce you! I divorce you! I divorce you!' to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (senior Iranian cleric) but that will not make us divorced, and not just because it doesn't work that way in Shia Islam. A nervous vicar who practices in the vicarage ahead of her first big wedding does not actually marry her cats to each other when she says 'I now declare you husband and wife'. And if the Archbishop of Canterbury puts the crown on Charles' head in Westminster Abbey, amidst cheering crowds, and says 'I name this ship the Lusitania' it won't actually have that effect, not even if he then smashes a bottle of fine champagne against him.

My current fascination is statements that look like they're trying to be performative utterances, but do the opposite. Perhaps the top classic is "nothing to see here", which is guaranteed to arouse curiosity, particularly if none existed before. And a Minister who says they won't resign is actually saying that they might - as in J. K. Galbraith's observation that "anyone who says four times that he won't resign, will". Other recent classics include "this institution is fundamentally sound financially".

There's also the related genre of inadvertent disclosures: "the problems are now mostly resolved", when the fact that there were problems might not have been widely known, for instance.

I had a great example of this sort of stuff when I went for an UCCA (now UCAS) interview to Hull University. I applied there chiefly because I'd read that they had the lowest cost of student living in the country, and they had a not-bad Chemistry Department. First on the itinerary was a talk from the Head of Department, who was at some pains to tell the wide-eyed teenage audience that, despite what we may have heard, there was no danger that the department we were applying to would be shut down. None of us had heard anything of the sort, but this instantly raised the possibility. In the "any questions for us?" bit at the end of my interview I asked them what I should make of the talk that the department might be shut down. "Oh, my," they replied, "That rumour really is getting around ..." Yes it is, and it's your Head of Dept spreading it. More than 25 years later, after a huge wave of closures of chemistry departments across the country, Hull's department is still thriving.

At the weekend I had a great succession of examples from the Head of a school I was considering for **FIXME. Most of these are in the inadvertent-disclosure area but some are at least close to the anti-performative utterance category.

She spent most of the time talking about the wonderful new second campus they're building that is nearly open but our kids wouldn't be attending ... and in the process told us all the things that were badly wrong with the campus that our kids would be attending. The new building has much wider corridors so the children aren't crowded in so desperately when they're walking between lessons. The food tech labs have a proper professional kitchen rather than a few sad cookers. The science labs (when finished) will be much better and will avoid several serious problems. And they are responding to vehement student feedback about the horrible shower facilities by having private showers with solid doors that close. There'd been talk amongst parents that the school might have been good in the past but the senior team's attention was diverted quite substantially by the new campus project ... which was inadvertently confirmed.

She also talked about how she thought it wasn't a good idea to compel students to study languages to GCSE, because there are simply not enough language teachers in the country ... thus indirectly confirming the rumours that they have staff recruitment and retention problems.

She presented their most recent exam results under the new DfE measures (Progress 8 and Attainment 8), and was at pains to explain to us that most parents don't understand them ... but didn't really attempt to explain them to us, or give the old measures as well, or give other local schools' results for comparison. Which suggests pretty clearly that the school doesn't look good on that sort of accounting or she'd have said so.

(There were more inadvertent disclosures on the tour afterwards. The maths teachers were at pains to stress that they had recently invested in some lovely new textbooks, thus confirming reports from a teacher friend who had left that school in part because of lack of resources. The ICT department were keen to show off their special custom quiz that included questions on Jaz drives and Encarta, and their stern warnings about never accessing the Internet except in ICT lessons under close supervision.)

The whole talk from the Head was, I think, aimed at convincing prospective parents that their child would be well taught and looked after at this school. The kids in the audience were all under close parental supervision but they were visibly lolling around in boredom by the end. So the talk demonstrated an ability to bore the pants off school-age children. In fairness, head teachers generally do very little direct teaching so maybe this matters less than it looks like. Although they generally do a lot of talks to audiences of children.

Happily, there are better options and **FIXME and **TODO aren't going to that school.

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