31 October 2011

BBC2's 'Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes'

On 29 October BBC2 showed Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes, in the Timewatch documentary strand. It described how the mathematicians Max Newman and Bill Tutte and GPO research engineers led by Tommy Flowers set about decrypting the German Lorenz code by creating an electronic digital processor called Colossus.

The Bletchley Park huts where the Colossus machine has now been reconstructed were used as the location for some of the interviews and as the background to an explanation of the mechanics of the Lorenz machine (known to the British as Tunny), and the principles of the decoding process. The theme of the programme was that both Tutte and Flowers received less recognition than they were due, and even that was belated, largely because of the inevitable secrecy which surrounds cryptanalysis.

For me, the interesting thing about documentaries concerning the Second World War (another recent example was Operation Jericho – the Mosquito raid on Amiens prison) are the recollections of the remaining, and now quite elderly, participants. Otherwise, the breathless narration, the brandishing of established material as revelation and the music just have to be put up with. But on this occasion the historic re-enactments seemed more crass than usual. I do not believe that the WRNS who worked at Bletchley went to work with high-maintenance hairstyles like 1940s Hollywood starlets, nor were they likely to be on duty wearing lashings of lipstick. Even worse, one of the desks was illuminated by an Anglepoise light of a design launched in the 1970s - which is when I worked briefly with Tommy Flower’s son, one of the interviewees– clever father, clever son.

30 October 2011

Degas and the Ballet at the RA

Just as with the impact of Darwinism on religion, we are still absorbing the effects of photography on visual art. Until the last 40 years or so, photographic images were always the result of chemical reactions produced by the action of light, and originally these were slow. The first camera image, a positive made by Niépce in France in 1825, took eight hours to be formed. By 1840 negatives were being made by Henry Fox Talbot (at Lacock in SW England) with exposure times in minutes, but still not fast enough to capture movement.

A rapid succession of innovations meant that by the 1870s dry plate photographs could be taken in a few seconds. In hindsight, it isn’t surprising that some artists began to turn away from camera-like exactitude in landscapes and portraiture and became more interested in the effects of colour and light. However startling these impressionist pictures may have been when first exhibited in 1874, they have come to be regarded as some of the most accessible and widely-enjoyed forms of art, as well as being some of the most expensive. Degas’ paintings of dancers must be among the most popular images of all.

The full title of the current Royal Academy show is Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement. As well as offering some delightful balletic pictures and sculpture, the exhibition directs attention to the influence of photography on Degas’ preoccupation with capturing the nature of motion. Muybridge and Marey’s techniques for turning dynamic motion into a sequence of static images are explained in some depth with contemporary photographic equipment on display. Appropriately, the exhibition ends with a brief motion picture, taken by the director Sacha Guitry, of an elderly Degas walking in the street.

Well worth seeing, Degas and the Ballet ends on 11th December, to be followed early next year with a show by another popular artist, also fascinated by photography and the use of the camera. David Hockney A Bigger Picture will display his new landscapes and explore his use of cameras from Polaroid to iPhone.

22 October 2011

Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’

For more than 30 years I’ve seen nearly every new Woody Allen film, even the ones he’s made since 2000, not all of which were screened in the UK:

These make up a rather mixed bag, and have not all been that popular. I’ve imported Region 1 DVDs of some, so I suppose I’m one of a rather small number of Britons who have seen Hollywood Ending. I can remember watching a showing of Whatever Works a couple of years ago, sat in an audience of three (and one of them was Mrs WI). And I have to admit that the films set in London, Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra's Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger were variable to put it kindly, and at times embarrassingly bad. Match Point had its moments but Cassandra’s Dream was probably one of his worst. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger struck me as a New York story transported to London. The London films are oddly cast, and Allen often seems to have a wooden ear for English as it’s spoken in England.

On the other hand, if I were a New Yorker I might find Allen’s preoccupation with the wealthy West Side milieu of Melinda and Melinda a bit tiresome. However I’m not, and although Midnight in Paris centres around some rich Americans, Allen doesn’t show them in a very flattering light anyway. Midnight in Paris is a romantic comedy about a would be novelist, a well-judged Woody alter ego played by Owen Wilson, time travelling from Paris in 2010 to mix with the avant-garde in Paris in the 1920s. Time travellers in the movies go down a well-trodden path, but the usual tropes of things yet to come (tranquillisers) and of knowledge of the future (suggesting the plot of El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel) to Buñuel about 40 years prematurely) are kept under control. Carla Bruni puts in a better performance as a guide in the Musée Rodin than might have been expected from press reports at the time of shooting – ‘Carla Bruni-Sarkozy took 35 takes in Woody Allen scene’, ‘Bruni takes 5 hours to get simple bread scene right’ – and the boulangerie scene, if it ever existed, didn’t make the final cut. The art department did a convincing job with Gertrude Stein’s art collection. As far as I could tell, but I’m not an expert, there weren’t any anomalies in the succession of cute meets with the literary and artistic giants who were in Paris in the Twenties – Hemingway could have compared Picasso with Miró, Buñuel did work with Dali, Man Ray was there while Lee Miller was still in New York.  Attending this exhibition, currently in Paris, would be informative.

So, definitely worth seeing and more fun than Vicky Cristina Barcelona; I hope Nero Fiddled (formerly Bop Decameron), set in Rome, will be as good, but we will find out next year.


I originally and erroneously stated:
suggesting the plot of Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie to Buñuel about 50 years prematurely
which was quite wrong, and thanks to a much wiser blogger, have put it right.  The Discreet Charm ... was about people who couldn't ever get to dine together, not about diners who couldn't get away!


I should have pointed out that Hemingway was played by Tom Hiddleston who appeared in Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago and Unrelated. In contrast to the troubled young men of those films, his Hemingway had the approachable self-assurance that we are getting used to coming from other modern old Etonians like David Cameron. A profile of Hiddleston by Xan Brooks appeared in the Guardian recently for the launch of The Deep Blue Sea.

20 October 2011

UK Top Universities – The World’s View

Previous posts have attempted to identify what politicians like to call the UK’s ‘top universities’ or ‘most competitive universities’. Having recently come up with a Top 30 for 2012 by combining the four UK league tables, it seemed a useful check to see where our elite institutions stood in the various world-wide university rankings. Of these, the three most credible seem to be the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2011-2012 (400 institutions), the QS World University Rankings 2011/2012 (700 institutions) and the Academic Ranking of World Universities – 2011 (500 institutions, and is sometimes known as the Shanghai Ranking).

The first Table below takes the UK's 2012 Top 30 and shows where they stand internationally (TH, QS and AR as above):
Be warned, the economist David Blanchflower has a low opinion of the QS rankings and has pointed out:
Note that since 2000, the faculty of the University of Cambridge has been awarded one Nobel Prize, in 2010, which was its first since 1984, while UCL and Oxford have both had none. Indeed, the University of Oxford's faculty hasn't received one since 1973. By contrast, MIT and Columbia have both had five; UC Berkeley has had four while Stanford, Rockefeller, Johns Hopkins, Chicago and Princeton have each had two and Harvard one.
He favours the Shanghai Ranking and thinks the QS one should be ignored. Nonetheless, the international rankings can be combined (see note below) and a differently-ordered UK Top set results (Russell Group and Sutton Trust shown as before):

Interestingly, certain universities which have become increasingly highly regarded domestically in recent years, for example Bath and Exeter, have a fairly low international standing by comparison with say, Bristol (all three in SW England, as it happens). Manchester, on the other hand, which had dropped out of my Top 30 since 2011 (and more significantly was ranked 29, 32, 37= and 41 in the four UK 2012 league tables) reappears well up. As well as Manchester, Aberdeen and Queen’s Belfast appear in all three international tables, and so have been added to the original Top 30. Perhaps something to think about, if you intend to make a career in a multinational or international academia.


As usual rankings are added to give totals, and the lower that total the higher the combined rank. Banded scores have been mid-pointed, so 301-400 is taken as 350.5. SOAS and Aston do not appear in the AR 500 so have been nominated 501=, and again SOAS has had to be nominated 401 in the TH table. Perhaps they should be excluded altogether.

None of this should be taken too seriously. In neither the UK nor the international rankings, have I gone into the different criteria being used. Firstly, the rankings don’t vary that much, at least in the national tables. Secondly, as I hoped I made clear at the outset, it’s been an attempt to combine perceptions as to what might be a “top” university, the reality almost certainly being beyond measurement from the point of an individual student on a particular course of study.

17 October 2011

Perhaps Willetts Has Only Got One Brain

demography, n. That branch of anthropology which deals with the life-conditions of communities of people, as shown by statistics of births, deaths, diseases, etc. [Oxford English Dictionary]

David Willetts is a British Conservative politician who currently holds the post of Minister of State for Universities and Science. He attends the Coalition Cabinet and would probably have been given a higher-ranking post if the Tories had achieved an overall majority at the 2010 election. Wikipedia states:
Due to his careful intellectual approach, ties to academia, his unusually policy-heavy background and his high hairline, he has acquired the nickname "Two Brains”
for which the Guardian’s Michael White claims credit. In February 2010, Willetts’ book, The Pinch, was published, and, after a last-minute delay, appeared in May as a paperback and supplemented with an Afterword. Given the subtitle, How the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back, I was expecting to find it uncomfortable reading (yes, I am one by Willetts’ reckoning, see below). But to my surprise, given the credentials of its author, I also found it to be flawed and I will try to explain why (page references are to the paperback edition).
Willett’s thesis is given in the Introduction:
The boomers, roughly those born between 1945 and 1965, have done and continue to do some great things but now the bills are coming in; and it is the younger generation who will pay them. We have a good idea of what at least some of these future costs are - the cost of climate change, the cost of investing in the infrastructure our economy will need if we are to prosper, the cost of paying pensions when the big boomer cohort retires, on top of the cost of servicing the debt the government has built up. The charge is that the boomers have been guilty of a monumental failure to protect the interests of future generations. (page xv)
and the book then consists of a tour of modern Britain, guided by the author’s well-furnished mind, seeking to justify his proposition.

Some of it undoubtedly is thought-provoking. For example, Chapter 9, Time for Childhood, reveals a deplorable neglect of their teenage children by British parents. The microeconomics of the housing market with regard to Eastern European immigrants is explained very clearly (page 225 et seq), and David Aaronovitch’s recent article in The Times (£) in defence of immigration would have benefited from giving it some consideration. Willetts also makes some interesting points (pages 206-208) about the consequences of the expansion of participation in higher education by middle-class females, one of which is a negative impact on overall social mobility. (The extent to which the female majority of university graduates will have repaid their student loans after 30 years is not an issue the Universities Minister seems to address).

But there are also some meanderings. Chapter 1, Who We Are, is an essay about the British family and the British political tradition:
I believe this great tradition can be revitalized and renewed by enriching it with the insights of the Cambridge school of family history whose leading thinkers such as Peter Laslett and Alan Macfarlane offer a serious and empirically grounded account of our social structure, focusing on our nuclear families. It shows what is distinctive about England: it is our family structure which is the key. (page 22)
all supported by statistics about land transactions in Leighton Buzzard 1464 to 1508, and the like. Fascinating stuff, but perhaps of limited relevance to modern Britain, where 11.6% of the resident population in 2010 was born overseas - a third of the population in London. One gets the feeling that, if in doubt, Willetts does not care to leave it out. Chapter 7, Why Bother About the Future, cites Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Human Mind, William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, Moore’s Law, Nicholas Stern and Margaret Thatcher in its first four pages (135-138). The preceding Chapter 6, Ages and Stages, had made more of a concession to lesser intellects, with references to Absolutely Fabulous, The Simpsons, Sex in the City, and Friends, and for readers, Lord of the Flies.

But where are the flaws? In my view, these stem principally from Willett’s interpretation of British 20th century demography:
… not many people were born in the 1930s. … Then, in the 1940s, contrary to all the official forecasts, the baby boom got underway. The first surge had already started during the War, with births rising from the early 1940s to reach an exceptional peak of more than one million in 1947. Four key factors led to this dramatic rise in fertility rates. First, after the low fertility of the 1930s, women faced the choice of either not having children at all or getting on with it even in the unpropitious circumstances of the War. Think of the decline and surges in birth rates as like someone playing an accordion. Births can be low and spread out as people put off having children, but then births get compressed together in a few years. Second, high wartime employment for women (as well as men) provided financial security that encouraged more children. Third, the Second World War saw a sudden and enormous increase in government-funded local authority nurseries on a scale not to be seen again for at least fifty years. Fourth, there was a direct financial incentive as a soldier's pay was increased if he had children. Britain had a pro-natalist policy, without even realizing it. After the first baby boom there was then a modest decline during the early 1950s before the baby boom reached a second peak in 1964 and 1965, declining steadily over the next decade. These twin peaks are very different from the American post-War baby boom which grew steadily to one sustained high plateau in 1957-61. (pages 37,38)
Being a techie I found this description of demography without a graph (or chart) slightly disconcerting. But charts then are not really Willetts’ style, as for example when making a very significant point about social mobility on page 201/202:
… Imagine two curves with the performance of the high-ability low-income child declining over time while the performance of the low-ability high-income child improves. The two curves cross over long before the age of 11: bright children from modest backgrounds have already fallen behind less intelligent children from more affluent social economic backgrounds.
rather than “Imagine two curves”, wouldn’t it have been better to plot them?

However, in the paperback Afterword, when Willetts returns to defining the baby boom, this time there is a graph to support the demography:.
… There is [, however,] no authoritative definition of baby boomers, but neither is it just a transient cultural label. It rests on incontestable demographic facts and serious analysis of what happens to an economy after a surge in the birth rate. And now I can correct a very serious omission from the book - a chart showing the number of births in the UK since the 1930s ('Baby Boom and Bust', p.271). This chart is probably the single most valuable data set in understanding our post-war economic and social history. You can see the youthful turbulence of the 1960s comes from that first surge in the birth rate after 1945. There is a second peak, too, that lead [sic] to a second and rather more hard-edged surge of youthful turbulence with the poll tax riots and raves. There is a dip between these two peaks of the birth rate in 1947 and 1964, but it is not a deep dip. Indeed, for the twenty years after World War Two, the crude birth rate - literally the number of babies born in the UK - never fell below 800,000 per year. Since then it has never reached that level. That was the baby boom: if you were born then, you are a baby boomer. (pages 266, 267).
To me, two peaks with a dip do not constitute a sustained boom. A different chart, and one which would have been readily available to Willetts, was provided in a Research Paper published in 1999 by the House of Commons Library, A Century of Change: Trends in UK statistics since 1900.

This tells a rather different story of British 20th century demography. The two World Wars were both followed by short sharp surges in live births soon after demobilisation of the men who had been conscripted to fight. The children born after the First World War in the 1920 surge were, as it turned out, destined to fight in the Second. Then, after victory in 1945, those who survived were able to return home to start their own families. Thankfully, those who were born in that second 1946/1947 surge never had to be conscripted and were able to spread their family-building over a longer period, but nonetheless the concentration was enough to cause a further bump in the birth rate in the 1960s.

To underline this interpretation, the next pair of charts show the numbers of men and women being demobilised from the Armed Forces in 1945 and 1946, and births in England and Wales in the final years of that decade. That there was a lag of about three quarters (nine months!) between demobilisation and maternal deliveries shouldn’t come as a surprise. Probably nor should the drop in births in the last two quarters of 1945. This reflected the lower number of young males present in the UK after D Day in June 1944!

The UK experience was not the same as that of the United States which did have a sustained “baby boom”. This also started with a higher birth rate after GI demobilisation, but then continued more or less unabated through to the 1960s, as can be seen in the chart below.

Having committed himself to the notion of US-style ‘baby boomers’ here, Willetts starts hammering US square facts into round UK holes, for example:
[The UK] sent soldiers to Korea and stayed out of Vietnam. But Vietnam happened during the formative years of the baby boomers and so casts a far longer shadow than Korea, which was only a decade earlier, and actually saw British soldiers fighting and dying. (page 61)
Certainly, and deplorably, in the UK Korea is largely a forgotten war (though not in Gloucestershire, SW England), but Vietnam surely casts very little shadow except as a US import in the form of films and music. Ironically, the most frequent reference to Vietnam in recent years has been as a foreign policy counterpoint to the UK’s involvement with the US in the Iraq war.

Willetts is also convinced that “our culture is weighted towards the baby boomers” and takes pop music as an example, again relying on the US experience to support his argument:
Albums from the boomers' adolescence do extremely well, even on a demographically adjusted basis. … big cohorts enjoy far deeper musical markets with much greater diversity than do their colleagues in other cohorts. As a consequence, a big cohort may actually deliver a genuine improvement in performance that is more than proportionate to its size. So the baby boomers did have something special going for them and this may have magnified their cultural impact. Another survey, on the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock in 2009, shows how the boomers' musical tastes have spread to other generations of Americans. The great bands of the sixties have an extraordinarily wide appeal - the Beatles in particular are in the top four of most popular musical performers for every age group, with the Rolling Stones not far behind. (page 62)
Of course, the Beatles, born 1940 to 1943, and the Stones members in their 1965 heyday, born 1936 to 1943, all arrived well before the end of the Second World War. (The only Rolling Stone born after the war is Ronnie Wood (b 1947), who joined in 1975).

In bolstering his argument, Willetts leaves no stone unturned, for example on page 129:
The two most violent riots in post-War London were the Grosvenor Square riots of 1968 and the Brixton and Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. They occurred around twenty years after each of the post-War baby boom peaks.
This ignores the four days of vicious rioting in London’s Notting Hill in 1958, and as the charts above show, the UK birth rate in the late 1930s was low. The August 2011 riots, (which obviously were after the publication of The Pinch) could be argued as evidence supporting Willett’s theory, given the small birth peak circa 1990, but alternative, and possibly more convincing, explanations may emerge.

I suspect Willetts’ reluctance to use charts stems, despite his think tank credentials, from a deeper disinclination towards numeracy. For example, his interpretation of Table 1 on page 72 is doubtful:
The table shows half of all wealth in owner-occupied housing, £1,030bn, belongs to the baby boomers and only about £330bn or 15 per cent to everyone aged under 44. A separate analysis using different data estimates total net housing wealth in 2009 at £2.9tn. Of this only £550bn belonged to the under 50s, and £2,350bn belonged to the over-50s of which £1,300bn belonged to those aged between 50 and pension age. This is stark evidence of the concentration of housing wealth in the hands of the over-50s, particularly the boomers.
Ignoring the way he has chosen to mix trillions and billions (sums which now seem small beer in comparison with bank and euro bailouts), there are some obvious flaws in this argument, based as it is on Net wealth. Firstly, there is no data on the numbers of people in each age group, but surely there are many more over 65s than in each of the three ten-year groups? Secondly, the variation in the Gross wealth in the groups above 35 isn’t great, but the older groups have smaller Mortgages outstanding – what a surprise! As an insight this ranks with the apocryphal sociological finding that “taller men wear longer trousers”.

If nothing else, the presence of a minor error concerning something insignificant serves as a reminder of the need to keep a critical eye on all material purporting to be factual (including this blog). Game theory is introduced encouragingly on page 86:
Game theory has suffered from some terrible PR. Two geniuses of game theory star in famous films. The inventor of game theory, John von Neuman, was the model for Dr Strangelove, acted by Peter Sellers as a mad Nazi who can barely restrain his arm's indiscriminate urge to give a Hitler salute. John Nash does slightly better with Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind
Certainly von Neuman, like Edward Teller and Werner von Braun, has been seen as part of the inspiration for Dr Strangelove (who came in the film from the BLAND Corporation), but if he was modelled on anyone it was probably Herman Kahn (from RAND, the archetypal think tank). Realistically, Strangelove was a composite caricature and owed much to Sellers’ own inspiration.

So, what of Willetts’ original indictment? Firstly, the idea of a British “baby boom” is flawed. But there was a demographic phenomenon which used to be called “the post-war bulge”, particularly at the time when its members were moving as a cohort through the educational system. In the late 1950s the UK was still in the selective tripartite era when so much hinged on performance in the 11+ examinations. There would almost certainly have been much more competition in the late 1950s for places in the type of elite direct grant school which Willetts attended, than in the 1960s for children a few years younger.

But apart from having made an inappropriate analogy with the US, is the substance of his argument valid – have we taken our children’s future? When attempting to answer this, it helps to bear in mind what are probably the only two certainties of human existence. Firstly, none of us had any say as to the time and place into which we are born. Secondly, we will die. “We brought nothing into this world, neither may we carry anything out of this world”, as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer puts it.

Many of us born in Britain in the post-War years are well-aware of the relatively easy time we have had, at least up until the present, by comparison with our elders. Perhaps the most luckless group in British history were those born between 1890 and 1900, so many of the men dying or injured in the trenches, so many of the women then deprived of husbands and children. The men and women born between 1915 and 1925 had to fight in, or endure at home, a second World War. By comparison we have been very lucky. We certainly didn’t invent the final salary pension systems some of us joined, but they were there. And those of us lucky enough to be able to buy houses (with big mortgages at high interest rates) did so to get a roof over our heads, not in expectation of the enormous house price inflation which we were to benefit from. But we were just borne along on the tide of our times, and luckily for us, so far it has not been particularly turbulent. The 11+, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the three-day week were minor tribulations by comparison with the blitz and Dunkirk, and IRA terrorism and the Falklands campaign were insignificant (although people I knew died as a consequence) in comparison with the Somme and D Day.

But are the forces which are likely to shape the destiny of future generations of our making – Islamic fundamentalism, globalisation, deindustrialisation in the Western economies, the rise of China, India and other new powers? – Hardly. Climate change (one of the bills to be paid which Willetts blames on the baby boomers), if it is man-made, is being driven by the rising living standards of hundreds of millions of people in these countries, not by the past consumption of the million or so born post-War in the UK. Even so, Willetts is wrong to suggest that we are indifferent to the interests of our descendants, as recent UK political history clearly shows. Alistair Darling in Back from the Brink, an account of his 1000 days as Chancellor of the Exchequer up to April 2010, devotes the second chapter to The Election that Never Was in 2007:
When we arrived in Bournemouth [for the Labour party annual conference], it was clear that the pro-election faction in the Brown circle was in the ascendancy. The atmosphere was febrile. By the Wednesday of the conference journalists were being briefed, anonymously of course, that there would be an election. Then there were angry and rebarbative denials. Having spoken to Gordon, I didn't think that there would be an election. The problem was that the spin machine was allowed to run out of control and fed the story.
… The Tories, who had had a bad summer trailing us in the polls, pulled off a theatrical coup at their conference the week after ours. George Osborne announced an inheritance tax break that in any other circumstances would have been seen as unaffordable, as was shown by the watered-down version they came up with following the 2010 election. … So, when it finally came, the announcement that there would be no election was a disaster. (pages 36,37)
So what exactly did Osborne offer?
When inheritance tax was first introduced it was designed to hit the very rich. But the very rich hire expensive advisers to make sure they don't pay it. Instead, thanks to Gordon Brown, this unfair tax falls increasingly on the aspirations of ordinary people. So now well over a third of homeowners in Britain have the threat of inheritance tax hanging over them. These are people who have worked all their lives. People who have saved money all their lives. People who have already paid taxes once on their income. People whose only crime in the eyes of the taxman is that instead of spending their savings on themselves, they want to pass something on to their families. People who feel the most basic human instinct of all: they aspire to a better life for their children and their grandchildren. Our Government will be on their side. The next Conservative Government will raise the Inheritance Tax threshold to £1 million. That means, we will take the family home out of inheritance tax. In a Conservative Britain, nine million families will benefit. In a Conservative Britain, only millionaires will pay death duties. In a Conservative Britain, you will not be punished for working hard and saving hard. You will not be penalised for wanting a better life for your children. [My emphasis in bold]
It was this passage, attractive both to those who ‘can’t take it with them’ and to their beneficiaries, which boosted the Tories’ poll ratings, and postponed the election. If Willetts wasn’t at the conference to hear it, he certainly knew about it and would have appreciated the appeal of the sentiments it expressed. He is also well aware that many parents, happily still in this world, are helping their children, if they are in a position to do so, and, indeed, he refers to ‘the bank of mum and dad’ ( p223). Of course, what politicians choose to deliver is rarely what they offered, and inheritance tax reform was effectively abandoned as part of the coalition agreement.

And it is as the work of a politician, that Willetts’ book is best regarded. If a government wants to redress a perceived general imbalance between different generations, particularly at a time of falling living standards, but regards easing the inheritance of assets within families as inhibiting social mobility, or too expensive, the power to do something about it is in their hands. Back in February I commented here on a paper produced by the Institute of Economic Affairs, Sharing the burden - How the older generation should suffer its share of the cuts. This assessed the savings that could be achieved by the removal of various benefits and allowances totalling £18.5bn pa. Of course, any government which implemented such a package would have to accept the electoral consequences, particularly given the greater inclination of older people to vote.

Two final points. Firstly, Willetts frets about the cost of the infrastructure that “our economy will need if we are to prosper”. Certainly, the UK, particularly by comparison with France, could be in a better state. But where did that stem from? Denis Kavanagh, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Liverpool, and co-author of The British General Election Series, has remarked:
But the Thatcher era also meant a massive under-investment in infrastructure, particularly railways, roads, schools and universities.
The UK was self-sufficient in oil during the period when Thatcher (b 1925) was Prime Minister and Nigel Lawson (b 1932) Chancellor of the Exchequer. If the proceeds of that considerable boost to the British economy should have been better used, the responsibility is hardly that of the post-war contingent. Secondly, Willetts is concerned about the “cost of paying pensions when the big boomer cohort retires”. This event has been predictable for over 60 years, and the creation of a ‘Sovereign Wealth Fund’ of the Norwegian kind during the oil-rich years could have helped cover it. Alternatively, the Second World War debt to the US may have been paid off in 2006 (page 168; guess out of whose taxes) but some of the indirect costs of the war, like the pensions of the bulge of children born after it will have to be carried for some time. Of course, if there had not been a war, and no mass conscription after 1941, their parents would still have had similarly-sized families, but not in such a short period, and not now all turning pensioners at once.

Which leads to probably the most thoughtless remark in the whole book. After quoting Adam Smith on the virtues of prudence, Willetts observes that
Modern life is full of new temptations. Our self-control is tested in a way that was not possible until Britain emerged from austerity after the War – when one of the first responses was of course a baby boom.
It’s a pity that instead of misappropriating the Americanism ‘baby boomers’ Willetts didn’t give some consideration to Tom Brakow’s ‘Greatest Generation’, meaning those who grew up in the US during the deprivation of the Great Depression, and then went on to fight in World War II. I said at the beginning of this post that by Willetts’ definition I am a ‘baby boomer’, although I prefer to think of myself as part of the ‘post-war bulge’. As it happens, both my parents were born in 1920, in the aftermath of World War I in which their fathers had fought. As a reservist my father was mobilised in September 1939, and was not demobilised until 1946, returning to his wife nearly five years after their wartime marriage. I don’t think my arrival the following year was due to a lack of ‘self-control’ on their part. It is an insult to them, and to hundreds of thousands of other couples with similar stories of wartime separation, to suggest that it was.

Fortunately, the British ‘Greatest Generation’ were a stoical lot, and rather than take offence, would probably just accept, to the tune of Colonel Bogey of course, that “Willetts Has Only Got One Brain” – like the rest of us.


The first chart above, 'Baby Boom and Bust', and the later Table came from The Pinch paperback, and the second chart came from the House of Commons Library Research Paper as cited.

In the third chart, the demobilisation data (men and women discharged from HM Armed and Auxiliary forces in 1945/46) came from Alan Allport’s website which supports his book Demobbed: Coming Home After World War Two.
Also in the third chart, the England and Wales births came from the Registrar General’s Quarterly reports as reported in The Times from 1943 to 1949 and now available on their archive website to subscribers. It was one of these reports that made the comment about the fall in the birth rate after D Day. If anyone can supply the total UK births during this period, I would be happy to replace the England and Wales data in the chart.

The US births in the fourth chart come from data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/statab/natfinal2003.annvol1_01.pdf.

The 2010 voting turnout data are reproduced from a previous post here.

10 October 2011

Those Magnificent Men in their Ground Control Stations

The Economist this week includes a Briefing on unmanned aerial warfare, Flight of the drones, subtitled Why the future of air power belongs to unmanned systems. As it points out, the al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a drone strike on 30 September, was merely the latest terrorist to be killed by use of the US remotely-piloted Predator MQ-1 or Reaper MQ-9 (above) unmanned aircraft. Such strikes are now taking place every four days. As might be expected, the article concentrates on the USA’s experience, a fair reflection of their investment, past and forthcoming.

The Economist probably went to print too early to pick up on an exclusive in Wired magazine’s Danger Room, Computer Virus Hits U.S. Drone Fleet:
A computer virus has infected the cockpits of America’s Predator and Reaper drones, logging pilots’ every keystroke as they remotely fly missions over Afghanistan and other warzones.
The virus, first detected nearly two weeks ago by the military’s Host-Based Security System, has not prevented pilots at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada from flying their missions overseas. Nor have there been any confirmed incidents of classified information being lost or sent to an outside source. But the virus has resisted multiple efforts to remove it from Creech’s computers, network security specialists say. And the infection underscores the ongoing security risks in what has become the U.S. military’s most important weapons system.
which serves to show that unmanned aircraft are a major, but not the only, component in a very complex system. The Economist certainly recognises some of the other technical and the legal problems which the use of unmanned aircraft may present, but inclines to thinking that “the world may be just at the beginning of a genuine revolution in warfare” and concludes:
… mundane obstacles may also slow the rise of UAS. Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defence Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington, DC, says that at a time of falling defence spending, UAS procurement and development may lack allies against powerful and conservative constituencies. These include sceptical military bureaucrats, fast-jet pilots, and members of Congress fighting to preserve traditional weapons programmes and the jobs that go with them. But as Mr Singer concluded in a recent article in the Armed Forces Journal: “Tough budgetary environments, first generation limits and reliance on the ‘proven’ are often crucial barriers to change, but history also shows they can’t prevent the future from happening.” Two years ago, Mr Gates conceded that the F-35 would probably be the last manned strike fighter. It may take longer than the visionaries think, but the pilot in the cockpit is already an endangered species.
The UK is certainly not ignoring the potential of unmanned aircraft, having had MQ-9 Reapers in service since 2007 and operating them in Afghanistan. As The Economist points out, the MoD’s Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre has looked at the future legal implications as well as the technical opportunities in a Joint Doctrine Note published earlier this year. In industry BAE Systems are developing Taranis (left), an Unmanned Combat Aircraft System (UCAS) advanced technology demonstrator with flight trials in 2011/12. BAE Systems are also working with France’s Dassault Aviation on a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV system, Telemos. Looking further ahead, the UK future aircraft carriers are intended to be equipped with the F-35 fighter, so presumably the deliberations of the US Navy, which The Economist reports, are being taken seriously:
As China and other countries develop more accurate ballistic and cruise missiles, able to hit moving targets 1,000 miles away, America and its allies have become worried about the aircraft-carriers they have relied upon as a principal means of projecting power since 1945. Those worries are not much helped by the carrier version of the F-35 which, without external fuel tanks, has a combat radius of only 680 miles. The US Navy’s response has been to propose what it calls the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike aircraft. It has already asked for financing and hopes—somewhat optimistically—that it will enter service by 2018. If a big, long-range UAS can operate safely from a congested carrier flight deck at sea, that would go some way to allaying fears for the future of aircraft-carriers.
Where does all this leave the world’s air forces? On 1 April 2018, the Royal Air Force, the oldest independent air force in the world, will celebrate its centennial. Although the utility of military aircraft was quite clear by the end of the First World War, the RAF was an early starter, formed by the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. The French Armée de l'Air did not follow until 1933, and the USAF was formed after the Second World War in 1947. John Terraine’s, The Right of the Line, published in 1985, was regarded as having established the place of honour for the UK’s independent air force in the light of the RAF’s contribution during the Second World War, in particular the bravery and sacrifice of men in Fighter and Bomber Commands. He made the following comparison:
Some of its officers clearly, from the first, performed functions similar to those of naval and army officers of comparable grades. A great many did not. In the Royal Navy, when it is fulfilling its ultimate function which is fighting at sea, officers and men, from the senior admiral to the most junior rating, share the same iron hulls, which may at any moment turn out to be their coffins. They are all at the "sharp end". This is less true in a modern army, but still substantially true. "Sooner or later," said Field-Marshal Lord Wavell, "the time comes when Private Snodgrass must advance straight to his front." This is the ultimate moment of a soldier's war; and when that time comes Private Snodgrass will (or should) see ahead of him his platoon or company commander leading the way. To lead their men in battle is what army officers are for - not the only thing, but a very important one. The RAF is different, and peculiar.
In the RAF the fighting is done chiefly by officers (together with that proportion of senior non-commissioned officers who are entitled to wear wings on their chests, though not rings on their sleeves). By 1945, according to one authority, in an air force numbering over a million men, 17.5 per cent were aircrew; the function of the remaining 82.5 per cent was to project the aircrew (officers, warrant officers and sergeants) into battle, but rarely to accompany them. This fact clearly constitutes a major difference in officer-, or command-functions between the RAF and the other Services. (Pages 4,5)
Unlike armies and navies, air forces came into being after the industrial revolution as a result of technological progress, in particular warriors being able to take to the air in ‘flying machines’. The Joint Doctrine Note remarks that:
Manned aircraft can still provide wide utility and may, in some circumstances, be cheaper, more acceptable or more technologically feasible than an unmanned solution.
Whether, if all combat aircraft eventually become unmanned, air forces will survive as separate organisations, or whether their functions will revert to whichever is the more environmentally relevant of the other two services remains to be seen. Unmanned airframes, even if not inherently cheaper to buy and operate, are certainly more expendable, and can be subjected to greater extremes of manoeuvre than manned ones. Furthermore, since the pressure to cut future defence budgets is likely to be as severe as it has been ever since the end of the Cold War, there would be major organisational savings to be made if one of the current services ceased to exist. Already there has to be a sliver of doubt as to whether the RAF will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2068.

8 October 2011

Emin and Riley at RWA Bristol

Better late than never, I visited the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) in Bristol just in time to see some of their autumn exhibitions before they close on 11 October. A registered charity, the RWA is one of the five Royal Academies of Art in the UK. Its galleries and permanent collection may be in a fine Victorian building in superior Clifton, but RWA is a key part of the busy arts scene in Bristol, famous for the street artist Banksy. The RWA balcony is currently hosting Damien Hirst’s Charity (2003), a painted bronze almost certainly cast at Pangolin.

A previous post described Bridget Riley's exhibition earlier in the year at the National Gallery. In Bristol a selection of her screenprints going back to the 1960s is on display together with works by Michael Kidner (1917-2009) over the same period. Kidner also began with Optical Art but moved towards a constructive abstractionism reflecting his interest in science and mathematics. He would probably have been fascinated by Luke Jerram’s Aeolus, an ‘acoustic and optical pavilion’, its ‘Making’ being the subject of a small exhibition at RWA. The real thing, quite a substantial structure, is currently elsewhere in SW England - at the Eden Project in Cornwall - but Jerram, who is Bristol-based, is apparently looking to find it a permanent home.

Quite at odds with all this cool rationality is the combined collection by Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin, Do Not Abandon Me. Bourgeois (1911-2010) is probably best-known for her 30 foot spider sculpture, Maman, exhibited in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 1999. She is also regarded as the founder of the biographical and symbolic ‘confessional art’ and has been called Tracey Emin’s spiritual grandmother. Working to the very end of her long life, she gave Emin a final set of gouaches of male and female torsos. 16 of these have been adorned by Emin with small scratchy drawings and handwriting, unsurprisingly with “themes of an adult nature” to quote the RWA. Emin became an Royal Academician (RA) at the UK’s premier Royal Academy of Art (also RA) in 1997.  Emin recently donated a neon artwork sign, More Passion, to the Government Art Collection which has now been installed in No 10 Downing Street.  A year ago she declared her support for the current government, particularly the Conservatives.  David Cameron's wife, Samantha, studied art in Bristol at what is now the University of the West of England, UWE.


After posting the above on 8 October I tweeted:
New post: Time almost up to see Tracey Emin and Bridget Riley @rwabristol
which @rwabristol RT'd.

There was one reply from @KaiDeyDey, the “personal account” of Karen Drake who describes herself as Finance Manager at Spike Island.  This, its website explains, is a “centre for the production and exhibition of art and design based in an 80,000 square foot former Brooke Bond tea packing factory” in Bristol:
“@WestIndep: http://bit.ly/oMgzHG” it reads like it was written by someone who read the brochure but didn't go through the door.
Fair enough, but I did go through the door, or in the case of the Emin and Bourgeois show, through the thick black curtains (presumably intended to shield such graphic works from delicate Bristolian eyes.)

I admit that when I describe art I concentrate on matters factual, and possibly useful to any readers, and keep my reactions to the minimum, though I think they are discernible. Not least, this is because I have only a tenuous understanding of the critical language which the visual arts world seems to have adopted. If that makes me unwelcome at Spike Island, so be it, although I would have thought it might be prudent for an organisation which appears to be highly dependent on public funding to accept that  taxpayers come in all shapes and sizes.

4 October 2011

University League Tables (2012 update) and Participation

One of the most popular items on this blog has been University League Tables and Participation, posted in January 2011:
In a previous post (University Entrance - Today's 11+? ) I pointed out that the current participation rate in higher education in the UK was at a similar level to 11+ success and grammar school attendance in the 1960s. At that time, however, university was for an elite minority – less than 10% of the under 21 age group. Although this is no longer the case, there is a perception of there being an institutional elite, and arguably, for those choosing which universities to apply to, and for recruiters of graduates, the perception can be more important than the reality. This post looks at some possible shapers of these perceptions (league tables and elite groupings), and then revisits the statistics of participation.
The post combined the results of four published league tables (each one using its own assessment criteria, but with inevitable overlaps) to produce a listing of the top 30 universities. The league tables have been reissued for 2012 (by The Times, Sunday Times, Guardian and Complete University Guide) so I have taken the opportunity to update the table, again identifying the Russell Group, and the Sutton Trust’s ‘elite’ (ST13) and ‘highly selective’ (STHS) groups. Access to the ‘top universities’ continues to be a significant political issue and has come to be regarded as a key determinant of social mobility. For example, Ed Miliband used the words ‘top universities’ once, and ‘most competitive universities’ twice, in his speech at the Labour Party conference last week.  (UPDATE: However, David Cameron made no reference to universities in his speech to the Conservative Party conference on 5 October, with the education passage focussing on schools).

At the bottom of the 30, Manchester and Liverpool have been replaced by Surrey and Reading. Otherwise changes in ranking are probably not significant, particularly in the top 10.

The graph showing the capacity of the elite groupings alongside historic participation rates is taken from the earlier post – it is only meant to be illustrative and I have assumed that, for that purpose, the changes to the relevant data in one year are insignificant.

To find out how this Top 30 rates in the three international league tables, see my later post.

1 October 2011

Early October in SW England!

After a disappointing cool and grey summer, southern parts of the UK have been experiencing record-breaking temperatures since late September, and the exceptional spell of weather has persisted into early October. This field of poppies, photographed today, had been ploughed and farrowed in mid-summer.

Foires aux Vins 2011

One aspect of September and early October in France and the time of the year known as la rentrée, when the holidays are over and people have gone back to school or work, are the Foires aux Vins. These wine sales events run by the super and hypermarket chains (les grandes surfaces) are serious affairs both in quantity and quality. The image below is of the Foire sales area in one of the Auchan stores near Bordeaux. A UK equivalent to Auchan is Waitrose, but some people might think that comparison is overgenerous to the latter.

To give some idea of the quality of the wines on sale, the next image shows three Bordeaux first growths (Premiers Cru*) on sale – just pop one in the trolley along with the yoghurts. Of course, this branch of Auchan is uniquely well-placed to source Bordeaux wine and there is an appreciative local market.

I have had a quick look at some of the UK wine retailers’ websites and the comparisons go something like this (if you can actually buy single bottles):
  • Château Haut Brion 2008 would be about £420, as opposed to the €399.95/£350
  • Château Mouton-Rothschild 2006 about £695, as opposed to the €595/£520
  • Château d’Yquem* 1998 about £310, as opposed to the €149/£130
which makes the d’Yquem remarkable value. It was also available in ½ bottles at €75/£65, but these had all gone. The prices of the top Bordeaux wines have increased substantially in the last few years, not least because of Chinese interest. This has had an impact on the Foires which seem to have fewer second vins from the major chateaux than in the past. However, Auchan were selling magnums (1.5l) 2009 Les Fiefs de Lagrange (second wine of Châteaux Lagrange) for €35.

I ought to add that I can’t afford any of them, but other lesser and more affordable wines are even better value than they would be in the UK because of the countries’ different duty/alcohol tax systems. Apart from the d’Yquem, the wines described above will not be ready for drinking for some time and would improve if kept for up to 10 years, possibly longer. This raises the problem of storage. How well have the wines been kept so far – who knows, but Auchan was probably about 20degC, so about 10degC higher than desirable, and, of course, well-lit. Once taken home, older French houses often have caves (cellars) and the big electrical retailers like Darty sell a wide range of wine storage systems.

Château Mouton Rothschild is well-known for commissioning famous artists to create its labels, and the 2006 label was by the British painter Lucian Freud who died in July. According to the Château’s press release in 2009:
Far from the tormented portraits and nudes for which he is renowned, for Mouton 2006 Lucian Freud has chosen a joyously exotic transposition of the pleasure of drinking, in which the vinestock is transformed into a springing palm tree and the winelover into a happily anticipatory zebra.

*Château d’Yquem is actually, and uniquely, a Premier Cru Supérieur.