Number of the Month

August  2002

Dog Watch

Can it really be that Number Watch has been around long enough to enter its third silly season? The Romans called these the Dog Days, caniculares dies, when Sirius, the Dog Star, was high in the heavens. Being the brightest star in the sky, it was thought to add to the sun’s radiation, causing plague and pestilence – an early version of the global warming scare. We can look back with fond memories to the first of our silly season scares Panic in the Streets. That led to the great disposable surgical instrument campaign, which was only abandoned this May, and £25 million later.

Also two years ago we covered Britain’s burgeoning crime figures and the fact that the noble Lord Birt, to whom we raise our hats, had been put in charge; and what a success he has been. Crime, especially violent street crime, has seen a startling rise in productivity and it fills the headlines of newspapers. In the now traditional sign of panic, the Great Leader has taken personal charge and promised a reduction by September. Like other MPs, though, he is off on his hols trying to spend some of those vast salary increases. Only a month to go, Tone! Watch out for some spectacular statistical juggling.

Blind spot

We all have our little bouts of naiveté. Your bending author thought for many years that in a double blind trial the key was put away, like a parcel under the Christmas tree, and only opened when the witching hour arrived. This illusion was shattered when the great tamoxifen fiasco was revealed. Apparently there is some overseeing spirit that descends, deus ex machina, to intervene and terminate the trial when the time is right.

It is all a bit like those Chinese walls they are supposed to have in merchant banks and finance houses. People working on one floor never speak about their work to people on another floor, even though they meet up after hours in the wine bars and lap-dancing clubs, but never, of course, indulge in boastful or helpful behaviour (Nudge, nudge; wink, wink; say no more, say no more). That is why insider trading never happens.

So, mea culpa, impure thoughts entered this nasty old cynic’s head when the great HRT trial termination hit the headlines. Furthermore, while confessionals are in order, is it possible, if HRT is even half what it is cracked up to be, that the patients and their doctors did not know whether they were on the real stuff or the placebos? Of course, if the trial had produced a decisive result, such inappropriate ideas would not have surfaced.

It is, of course, a total aberration to have such mistrust in one’s betters. It would imply that their concerns are more about funding than the well-being of humankind. The only possible recourse is a course of counselling. Unfortunately, such facilities are rather rare in rural Wiltshire, and California is a long way away (Oh dear! Another impure thought, almost wrote “Thank God”).

Incidentally, while on the subject of the HRT scam, reader Steve Dillon discovered a whole new method of scare amplification in the Washington Post, they simply make the risk cumulative.

Each year 30 out of 10,000 postmenopausal women taking no therapy fall ill to heart disease. For every year women took HRT, they increased their risk of heart disease by seven per 10,000. This means that for every 10,000 women taking HRT, 37 could expect to fall ill to heart disease the first year, 44 the next year, 51 the following year, and so forth. While the absolute risks are small, the increases were viewed as significant, and women's heart risks escalated the longer they stayed on the drugs.

 Obituary

Sir Benjamin Smythe

One of Britain’s great polymaths has been tragically taken from us at the early age of 67. Poet, mathematician, entrepreneur, academic and administrator, Sir Benjamin was the epitome of the old saw “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.”

Few would have seen the mark of greatness in the young Benny Smith as he was then, but his entrepreneurial spirit was evident when the thirteen year old was regularly seen out with his bucket, collecting the residue from passing horse-drawn vehicles, which were then still common on the streets of the capital. He used to sell the produce at a penny a load to keen gardeners, and was thus able to build up capital to start his first business, operating from mobile premises in London’s Middlesex Street.

Much of his early poetry has been lost to posterity, as it was published in the form of murals in various small rooms about the capital, but who can forget the poignant concision of those few works that have been preserved; such as the familiar couplet:

What is life if, lacking wit,
We have no time to sit and shit?

Pithy sayings were to become the trademark of his distinguished later career.

For an autodidact, his calculating powers were legendary and he could compute complex probabilities in his head from an early age. He was avidly sought as a consultant by small business men operating in and around the dog and horse racing tracks of North London.

There are unfortunate lacunae in the record of his career, when he seems to have disappeared from the scene for months or years on end, but admirers believe that it was during these mysterious periods of retreat that he developed his philosophy of business and life. One of his many business slogans at this time was “Quick in the head, quick on the feet.”

It was a surprise to everyone who knew him when he disappeared from London and turned up in rural Hampshire. It was at about this time that he developed his life-long interest in climate change, for he used to say that London simply got too hot for him. His transition to one of the great innovative spirits of academia occurred at this time, almost by accident. With typical generosity of spirit, he forgave an elderly woman a gambling debt and in lieu took over control of the Lillian Forsdyke School of Music, Dance and Drama, which was a well-known academy for young ladies operating from a barn in Over Wallop. His characteristic loyalty came to the fore when he sent for some of his old London colleagues to come and form what he liked to call his “negotiating team”. They were uniquely persuasive and became familiar and striking figures around the villages of North Hampshire, with their inevitable dark suits and dark glasses. One by one, local small educational and other establishments rushed to join the growing educational enterprise; and wise they were too, for many of them were to be the seeds that would grow into full-blown faculties. Miss Hale’s Afternoon Nursery Class of Kings Somborne formed the basis of a Faculty of Education. Joe’s Corner Garage of Houghton was to grow into the Faculty of Engineering. Even Fred’s Caff on the A30 just outside Stockbridge was the larva from which an imago, the Faculty of Advanced Chemistry, was to emerge.

It was about this time that he became a leading light in the campaign to end elitism in higher education. He was especially critical of the university establishment, whom he described in his typical down-to-earth language as “them stuck-up college tarts.” His sentiments found an echo in the policies of the new Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, which were to tear down the class barriers in higher education. Thus it was in the mid nineties that his creation, by then known as the Nether Wallop Combined Colleges, was at last able to offer degrees ratified by Thames University. He was not, however, a political zealot, and it has since emerged that over subsequent years he donated several million pounds to the New Labour project.

It is now common knowledge that he found himself the first Vice Chancellor of the Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop, which offered a variety of new degrees with the emphasis on relevance to the community. He also received a knighthood in the first year of the New Labour government. “Surprised?” he would jest, “I nearly bought my own beer!”

He remained famous for his pithy three-word slogans. The new Research Block, set up in a disused hangar on the Middle Wallop airfield, sported the slogan “Scares mean grants!” He always claimed that his old mate Greg Dyke, of New Labour BBC, stole from him one of his best creations, which was “Cut the crap!”

He was characteristically modest about his achievements. “I am still in the same business I was at the age of thirteen”, he would tell the congregation at the lavish degree ceremonies, for which only a small minority of parents would decline to pay the fee.

It was at the recent degree ceremony (tickets £50, bring your own picnic) held in the Middle Wallop Community Hall that the Chancellor of the University, Baroness Euthanasia Gimbal, paid a final glowing tribute to Sir Benjamin – “If there was one man who summed up what modern education is all about it was Ben. His watchword was “Access”. He did not see why young people carrying a minor disability, such as being unable to write their own name, should be deprived of higher education, provided, of course, that they had the money or credit worthiness to meet the fees. He took a particular interest in the progress of young women. As he used to say ‘While I strive to maintain the Faculty, I still have a keen interest in the student body.’

He was totally dedicated to his work and always said it was his ultimate ambition to die on the job. His close friend, eighteen year old Melanie Topley, one of his many youthful protégées, confirmed that he achieved his ambition.

And so, along with thousands of graduates around the world (with their innovative degrees in such vital subjects as billiard table studies, corn dolly engineering and media studies), we bid a reluctant farewell to one of the great pioneers of education. And future generations will sing his praises, when they are saved from roasting in the hell of global warming by the work of his inspirational creation, The Phlogiston Research Unit. And, always remembering to begin our sentences with a conjunction and to inevitably split our infinitives, we salute a man who, more than anyone, represented the spirit of the age.

Flavour of The Times

August 1st, St Silliers Day, and The Times celebrated it in style. Naturally, anti-tobacco propaganda made the front page:

Passive smoking can kill your cat

IF YOU won’t give up smoking for the sake of the wife and kids, then at least give it up for the cat. 

American researchers claim to have discovered that passive smoking affects felines as much as it does human beings, and have expressed the hope that endangering the family pet might shame some addicts, immune to the effect they are having on their immediate family, into kicking the habit. 

Scientists studied 180 cats treated at a Tufts veterinary hospital between 1993 and 2000. They found that, adjusting for age and other factors, cats exposed to second-hand smoke had more than double the risk of acquiring the disease. In households where they were exposed to smoke for five years or more, cats tripled their risk. 

How does it take two journalists to write guff like this and then get the numbers wrong? The Trojan Number was actually 194 cats, 80 with lymphoma and 114 controls with renal disease. From this small sample of 80, the “researchers” not only proved that tobacco smoke may cause lymphoma in cats but established a linear trend. Warning: children, do not try this at home; only qualified epidemiologists can perform this feat. It has all the hallmarks of classical epidemiology; anecdotal evidence, wide 95% confidence intervals (1.2 to 4.5) adjustments for age and "other factors", no believable mechanism in terms of concentrations of any possible agents. In a word, Junk. How about an alternative headline: Passive smoking reduces renal disease in cats.

 Also on page one

Customs anger at 'charter for smugglers'

HM CUSTOMS & Excise faces a deluge of compensation claims after a court ripped to shreds its “zero tolerance” approach to the seizure of tobacco and alcohol from continental day-trippers. 

In a ruling that was immediately attacked as a smugglers’ charter, the High Court found that Customs had breached a European directive protecting the free movement of goods between EU nations. 

The judgment means that Customs officers will no longer be able to carry out random searches of vehicles arriving in Britain from the Continent. They will be allowed to stop vehicles only if they have specific intelligence that its occupants may be bootleggers.

In a further blow to the crackdown on smuggling that cost the Treasury £3.5 billion in lost revenue from tobacco alone last year, the ruling reverses the burden of proof over those found with large quantities of cigarettes and alcohol. The Treasury said that it may appeal.

Number Watch warned a year and a half ago to remember the date (see Red letter day). That was when the activities of the Government and its minions began to ignore the law and make illegal seizures of legally bought goods and even the cars of innocent citizens. It has taken all this time for a judge to declare the obvious.

Give The Times its due; it included a powerful first leader, including this paragraph:

The use of random stops by uniformed officials operating without good grounds for reasonably suspecting an offence is an all too prevalent sin, whether it is the Camberwell policeman taking against a youth on prejudice, the Camberley officer applying the breathalyser on whim to satisfy targets, or the customs official pulling over a family estate to rifle through the boxes of Gauloises. The courts do every citizen a service when they remind officialdom that there should be a strong presumption in favour of the private individual’s free movement. 

The nation is under the heel of authoritarian socialism, with the upper house emasculated, the courts are the last hope of the free-born Briton, but ministers now have their eye on them as well. Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition, Dunkin Donut, is too busy celebrating his new pink and fluffy party to bother with actual policy matters. He recently demoted David Davis from Party Chairman for lack of enthusiasm about same. This is significant from the point of view of Number Watch, as Davis is the only senior politician with the faintest idea of what science is about. His new job is shadowing Old Two Jags, who is busy doing his bit for state control by sweeping away the planning process, and is to science what Dracula is to the blood transfusion service. It might be an interesting confrontation.

On page 2 we have: Fury as ministers dismiss doubts over media bill. To New Labour the media are just a commodity, and anyway they have put in yet another of their cronies to oversee it. The bill will allow foreign companies to take over the British media without any reciprocal rights being granted. Over to you Rupert.

On the same page Farmers plan day of protest against movement ban. As a little left-over from the Foot and Mouth fiasco, the government has kept in place regulations which will force even more farms out of business.

The whole of page 3 is devoted to the booze cruises, by which Britons can celebrate their newly confirmed rights (but for how long?) to buy legal goods in the rest of the EU and bring them home.

On page 4 Court backs London toll charge. Ken Livingstone, once left wing fire brand and now Mayor of London, has won legal backing to reserve the streets of London for the rich, the corporate, the bureaucratic and the governmental. Also People’s panel blast public service reform. A panel of voters, set up by New Labour, is being disbanded. Wonder why? In a parting shot it produced numbers showing that satisfaction with the police, fire service, council housing and hospitals had all fallen drastically. The Government pointed out that there was more satisfaction with the Passport Agency, museums and art galleries, so that’s all right.

On page 6 Correspondence is closed, declare reclusive MPs. Yes, they are all off on their freebie “research” trips to such data-rich places as the sun-kissed island of Mauritius. They are also cutting off their e-mails, because it is so inconvenient to have to spend time dealing with the concerns of the people who pay their recently grossly inflated wages.

On page 7 Parents pay to cover risk of student drop-outs. Students are dropping out in record numbers because of disappointment in tacky courses or their own unsuitability to be in higher education. Insurance companies are jumping onto a new bandwagon. Plenty of scope for yet another insurance disaster there.

On page 9 an appalling story Science body had ‘blinkered view of race’. A parliamentary committee has criticised The Royal Society for not knowing how many of its fellows come from different racial groups, though it was ‘cleared’ of being prejudiced against women. Why should they inquire into the racial background of their fellows? The Society now must face the penalty for accepting public funding and have a politically correct policy enforced which has nothing to do with the merit that Fellowship traditionally confers.

Here’s a good one on page 10:

Now, you might think it pretty obvious that people with the most severe asthma, and therefore most at risk of death, would be the one’s most likely to take large doses of the relieving inhalers. Not a bit of it, you have got it completely the wrong way round.

 Asthma relieving drug has death risk

 Yes it’s our old friend Nigel again. A nice big Trojan Number, but it seems to shrink somewhat as we go on. Your bending author tried to reconcile the two numbers highlighted in red, but gave up.

DRUGS that relieve the symptoms of asthma are linked to a higher risk of dying than those that control the disease itself, a new study has shown. 

Using the details of 96,000 asthma sufferers on the anonymous General Practice database in Britain, researchers compared the outcomes of using the short-term “reliever” drugs with those of using long-term inhaled steroids. The study, published in Thorax, confirms the wisdom of modern practice, which is to prescribe the two medications together. 

Between 1994 and 1998, there were 43 deaths that could be attributed unambiguously to asthma. Patients who had between seven and 12 prescriptions of the short acting drugs in a year were 16 times more likely to die, while those with more than 13 prescriptions were 86 times more likely. However, the risks were reduced by 60 per cent when patients were also given inhaled steroids.

 There was more, but enough's enough.

Guest Commentary

(by Everard Sellers, Senior Marketing Director, Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop)

I am grateful to your editor for giving me this opportunity to comment on one or two current news items. He thought that this was an appropriate season to invite such a senior academic to do so, no doubt because universities are in the news at the height of the recruitment season. He is taking a well-earned short retreat in a well-known establishment with comfortably padded rooms and no extraneous views to interfere with one’s meditations.

As a University man I was most struck by the piece in the Sunday Times (August 4th) Crisis as student numbers plummet. It appears that recruitment numbers have fallen in twenty-seven institutions, all but one new universities. Frankly, they only have themselves to blame. In this modern industry it is absolutely necessary to get right three things – product design, product placement and product promotion. At MUNW we have done this and three of our most successful courses are over-subscribed (BA in Journalism with Origami, BSc in Epidemiology with Necromancy and the MSc in Media Studies with Air Miles). As soon as candidates apply, they receive a personal visit from members of our negotiating team and usually find they receive an offer they cannot refuse. They even have their finance sorted out on the spot, through our special arrangement with the Squaloid Loan Company.

On the same page I see that Police fail to meet 75% of crime targets. They should be ashamed of themselves! What is the point of our paying for some of the best brains in the country to sit in offices in Whitehall thinking up targets, if people at the workface are just going to ignore them? At MUNW we have a special Government Targets Office, whose word is law across the campus. Even if everything else grinds to a halt, we always meet our targets, which is why we are in such good standing with those we serve.

It is good to see that our officials (and, of course, our excellent media) are not letting up on the dire threat of climate change. The Times thought the latest story so important that they published it twice; first by their political correspondent, David Chater, Warmer winters will save on hospital admissions (August 2nd) and the next day Climate Change Health Warning by their environmental editor, Anthony Browne. Naturally, the latter got the emphasis right, concentrating on floods, heat-related deaths, food poisoning and, of course, Malaria. It all came from a report by a group of our excellent officials at the Department of Health. The Phlogiston Research Unit (PRU) at MUNW currently has a number of important grant applications being processed in this area.

The big story was in the Sunday Times (August 4th) This man claims he can defy the laws of gravity and change air travel forever. So is he barmy or brilliant? It appears that a Russian Scientist, who works in an institute so secret that it does not even publish its address, has developed an anti-gravity machine. It also transpires that American Government and Industrial laboratories have been working in secret on such projects for fifty years. It is gratifying, when so many military secrets seem to leak out so quickly, that the really important developments, like Alien Abduction, Distant Seeing and Anti-gravity, have been kept secure for so long.

It is also stimulating to know that mankind is at last beginning to throw off the shackles of the old physics. Constraints, such as Conservation of Energy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, have held up human development for too long. I am glad to say that at MUNW we have embraced post-modern science with full enthusiasm.

The full page article, by <name removed>, describes how the machine, a superconducting disc rotating in a magnetic field, produces a column of reduced gravity right up to the ceiling and through the roof. Even the excellent <name removed> does not seem to realise the full import of the discovery. If you put a flywheel with part of its rim in the column, it will rotate forever and you have solved the problems of perpetual motion and free energy at a stroke.

You might be surprised that I give away such a revolutionary idea so readily. Well, the fact is that such a machine will soon be made obsolete by new research at the PRU. Our scientists and engineers, also working at an institution so secret that it does not even publish its address, have developed a device (the Cyclic Reciprocally Actuated Phlogiston Pump) that will force Phlogiston up a hill and, as phlogiston has negative mass, this pump gives out energy rather than absorbs it. It is hoped that a later version (CRAPP2) will provide sufficient energy to power a large village, as well as providing a ready source of Phlogiston at the top of the hill to fill air and space craft that will operate without lifting power.

Of course, there are one or two small problems to iron out, such as how to extract Phlogiston from the atmosphere, but if the expected Government grants are forthcoming they will no doubt be solved.

True to the spirit of our late inspiring Vice Chancellor, MUNW is determined not just to keep this development to itself and is even now preparing to offer millions of shares in a CRAPP manufacturing company to ordinary citizens. It is fully expected that the unfortunate events at munw.com will have no bearing on the success of this issue.

Returning to the horrific future threatened by Global Warming, the PRU is also at the fore in this field. It has installed a large special-purpose computer (the Giant Integrator with Gigabaud Operation) to map the flow of Phlogiston through the atmosphere. A new version is being planned at this very moment (Super-GIGO), which will match, Government grants willing, any machine in the Climate Change Industry for the number of cells into which it divides the Earth’s surface.

Well, thank you for the opportunity to share my views on the inspiring times in which we live, and I hope it will not be the last.

Where the big liars lurk

Just who do they think they are kidding? The British Met Office have announced that the first six months of 2002 have been the warmest in the Northern Hemisphere since records began 143 years ago. Many may choose to disbelieve this says the Guardian (too right!). The Times dutifully slipped it in to the hospital admissions report mentioned above. Number Watch tries hard not to be yet another Global Warming site; there are already several splendid scholarly ones in our Links; but the sheer mendacity of these people outranks anything else, even tobacco.

The announcement was met with hollow laughter among your bending author’s fellow allotment holders. It is generally agreed the growing season has been the worst for many a year, because of the continual cold, wet, dark weather.

Italy needs more power plants because of the unusually cold winter. Cold weather wrecked the Ottawa tulip festival. Trout fishing was going on in the snow in North America. Temperatures in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba dipped an average of four degrees below normal in the most frigid spring since record-keeping began in 1948, Environment Canada reported. In some places, the temperatures dropped even lower. Edmonton tied with its coldest spring on record — in 1898 — averaging five degrees colder than normal. Scientist were trapped by ice in the Antarctic. The New York Times produced a ludicrous story about Alaska burning, which was flatly denied by the local weather experts. Then The Times of London lifted the story, without acknowledgement, and added its own (substantial) exaggeration (They can’t understand the Celsius/Fahrenheit conversion, which gave us our number of the month for June, 9/5). The lies about Alaska alone fair take your breath away, particularly the notorious Nenana Ice Classic. Yet giant squid are taking over the world because of global warming. Yet British “experts make an announcement: "Globally 2002 is likely to be warmer than 2001, and may even break the record set in 1998," said Briony Horton, the Meteorological Office's climate research scientist.” As usual, see John Daly to find out what is really happening. Thanks, as always, to Miceal O’Ronain for links, some of which have expired. All the above are, of course, not reports of climate, but of weather. They, however, are the ones that are not broadcast, while every little deviation on the warm side is held up as a presage of the horrors yet to come. 

It must be one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the whole of human history. International organisations, governments, almost the whole of the media are all involved in the same big lie. It is not as though it were a forgivable misconception. They know they are lying, otherwise they would not go to such lengths to distort the data. They cheat with charts, both by falsifying the data  and calling up all the more subtle elements of chartmanship, such as the abuse of colour. So-called academic departments cherry-pick the data sources to find the ones that support the hypothesis they are paid to propagandize. They will ignore ninety nine well maintained records in favour of the one that tells the politically correct story. They call for anyone who opposes them in the normal manner of scientific debate to be "ignored and pilloried". This is not science; it is the inquisition.

Meanwhile, what do we do about the poor growth of our vegetables? Obviously, the solution is to move all our allotments to the urban heat islands where the “experts” take their temperature measurements.

Telling it how it is

Amid all the dross of a typical silly season the Daily Mail came up with two gems on August 12. The first is an article by Melanie Phillips. Number Watch has previously drawn attention to this remarkable journalist, who is virtually unique in the British media in her adherance to the truth (see Feb 2001, April 2001, Dec 2001 ). Her article It’s wet – but it’s not the end of the world is a triumphant indictment of the scams surrounding the global warming myth. The latest is a typical bit of Greenpeace fraud. They published widely before and after pictures of a retreating glacier. What they did not tell us is that on the other side of the island (Svalbard in Norway) the glaciers have advanced by more than a mile in seven years. 

The other notable article is by Professor Anthony O’Hear of Bradford University. He has joined the club of which your bending author has been a member for two years, the Professorate who have taken early retirement rather than watch the continuing debauchment of everything they have worked for. His article Dumbed down degrees carries the sub-heading As outstanding A level results are predicted, this respected academic tells the truth about the shameful destruction of our universities – and why he is quitting now. It is a familiar tale for regular readers of Number Watch.

The school leaving exams (A-level) have now experienced new record pass levels every year for twenty years. The pupils are of a dreadful examination treadmill. A bright student will now take 100 examinations in a typical school career, compared with ten a couple of decades ago and the qualifications have been rendered virtually worthless by grade inflation. It is, of course, yet another inheritance from the Thatcher era when everything from scientific knowledge to human life became a tradable commodity, including examinations. Even the global warming scam was a Thatcher invention, as part of her war with the coal miners and the oil sheiks, when she set up the Hadley Centre, not to do scientific research but to find evidence for a particular hypothesis, a landmark development. As in so many other cases, she left an ideal weapon in the hands of left wing zealots.

On the other hand, the Daily Mail also has Susie Johns’ psychic helpline, which is a quite remarkable collection of grade one claptrap.

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow they will die

Give the British press their due; they have taken a largely hostile view of the forthcoming Earth Summit. It is scarcely credible, but no fewer than 65,000 people are attending this junket. Phrases such as obscene gravy train trip readily off the hacks’ keyboards. There was a bit of a kafuffle about the British delegation. All the senior ministers were going, including Old Two-Jags (Minister for Concreting over Southern England) but they tried to leave the Minister for the Environment behind. Michael (Nine-homes) Meacher is the proven master of all the scare-mongering environmental jargon, but the Government were shamed into taking him along when Greenpeace offered to pay his expenses. While the delegates are enjoying their slap-up meals, they will no doubt spare a thought for the African children that are dying of Malaria, three a minute, because the environmental SIFs have deprived them of DDT, to say nothing of dengue and all the other terrible diseases that afflict them.

 Passing of a true scholar

(Professor David Barron writes)

Just been reading Edsger Dijkstra's obituary in The Times. He was really lucky not to be working in the UK and subject to the tyranny of the Research Assessment Exercise:

 Much of Edsger Dijkstra’s work found its way into his nine books,  40 journal articles and frequent other formal publications. Many of these are still widely cited, in a field where technology  moves so fast as to render many papers obsolete within a short time  of publication. 

 As I recall, he started his career in CS shortly before I did. So that's 9 books and 40 journal articles in just under 50 years. Not much of a productivity record by RAE standards.

Dijkstra’s papers are characterised by a mathematical elegance and exceptional clarity of presentation, and their wit and sharp polemical edge make them a pleasure to read.

Well, that's a matter of personal opinion, but the real killer is the following observation:

 Edsger Wybe Dijkstra’s penetration is particularly evident in the thousand  or more technical notes, letters and comments — which became known as EWDs —  that have circulated in the computer science community, almost in samizdat form.  They testify to the breadth of his work as well as to its quality. Often these  are illuminated by simple examples, and were handwritten, for preference, using  a fountain pen.

That's the way scientific communication was conducted, with great success in the CS community, until the bean counters came in and decided to assess the quality of our work.

Dijkstra was one of a small band of true scholars who took the inchoate and chaotic subject of computer studies and turned it into a rigorous science, thereby doing something to reduce the flow of wrong numbers. Your bending author remembers well trying to tackle the difficult problem of close-coupled microprocessor systems and finding that Dijkstra had already laid out all the rules.

While on the subject, David (who was, of course, himself a member of that honourable band) adds:

I have just heard that Kristen Nygaard died suddenly on Saturday

Following on Ole-Johan's recent death, this year's twin recipients of both the IEEE von Neumann prize and ACM Turing award have died in a terrible short time

I'm sure that I don't need to remind you of Kristen's work on SmallTalk, which he called SIMULA. And Ole-Johan [Dahl] will be remembered not least for the classic 'Dijkstra, Hoare and Dahl' book which laid out the foundations of data structures and structured programming (as well as his contributions to OO programming via SIMULA).

Still, Maurice Wilkes, Tony Hoare, Don Knuth and Niklaus Wirth are still with us. But these reports are making me feel edgy. Reminds me of my days as a young College Fellow in Cambridge when one of the old Fellows passed on. We would assemble at the graveside for the interment, and you could see the other old boys sizing each other up, deciding who was most likely to be the next to go.

Man of the moment

It certainly makes you proud to be British when a man of the calibre of Michael (Nine-homes) Meacher is out there representing us before the world. A representative of that great political tradition that includes the likes of Grimaldi, Grock and Chaplin, he will be out there at the Johannesburg Junkfest giving hell to those beastly Americans. Here is just one small extract from an interview that is proudly presented on the web by the UK government.

And I have to say I think two things which may influence American opinion is one that we are seeing natural phenomena which we are all having to explain, I mean floods in Britain is one we are having to explain, rising sea levels, but in America quite serious things are happening, certainly stronger hurricanes on the east coast which are to do with, what is the name of that hurricane that comes every 2 - 3 years?

INTERVIEWER: They call them different names.

MR MEACHER  No, no, there is a name which is the Spanish word for a young child, what is it called?

INTERVIEWER: El Niño.

MR MEACHER The El Niño is becoming more frequent and more violent, point one. Point two, inextinguishable forest fires because dry areas become dryer and the wetter become wetter and more violent. So in the mid-west inextinguishable forest fires, melting glaciers, the west now . New York because of the increasing temperatures, I mean there are a range of phenomena beginning to appear which Americans may actually put 2 and 2 together …………… .

Now, regular readers of Number Watch, though they might be able to remember the name of El Niño, are probably suffering from the delusion that it is an area of warm water in the Pacific Ocean, not realizing that it is in fact a hurricane and one of increasing intensity. Furthermore, never having experienced forest fires and floods before, people must have been worrying about what was causing them. Now our master of his brief is telling them. America shares the advantage with Britain of great improvements to their educational systems, so they will be able to put two and two together, but what answer they come up with is moot.

And so we British will stride forward hand in hand into a future of privation and discomfort, but safe in the knowledge that it is doing us good; for we have the likes of Nine-homes and Two-Jags to lecture us continually on the evils of excess consumption, backed up, of course, by New Labour BBC.

So those foreigners like John Daly can bleat all they like about science and stuff, we are British and proud of it. Anyway, we invented the language, so if our politicians choose to mangle it, that is our affair. 

A fine specimen

Meach v.i. to indulge publicly in dark fantasies of a horrific future.
Meacher n one who meaches.

A paragraph from a letter to The Times (August 20th) by one Kristin Becker (Consultant in clinical genetics),

Global warming is a reality. The ten warmest years of the century have occurred in the past 15 years. Sea levels are rising, there are huge forest fires, cities are flooding and the protective ozone layer is severely depleted. Infectious diseases which at present are largely confined to countries with warmer climates will spread to other parts of the world, as will pests threatening crops. The incidence of cancer is rising worldwide, largely because of environmental factors; genetic factors do not play a major role. 

Footnote: Reader Paul Oxley points out the following definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Meach, obsolete from Miche.
 Micher, a secret or petty thief; one who skulks about for improper or dishonest purposes; a truant.
Michery, pilfering, thievishness; cheating.

 It’s logic, Jim, but not as we know it

A small cheer for a Times journalist, Alice Miles, who has notice the little logical inconsistency in the latest proposal for a nice little earner, which was to impose fines on people who do not turn up for GP appointments.

The logical progression goes something like this:

1.      People have to wait a long time for GP appointments (sometimes weeks).

2.      When they get there on time they still have to wait (sometimes hours).

3.      People who don’t turn up cause further delays for others and should therefore be fined.

 Escapism

As the silly season reaches its height your bending author tends to take refuge in good fiction as an antidote to the bad fiction that dominates the media. Even reading the classical thrillers, however, evokes thoughts about the state of the world today.

John le Carré’s The looking glass war is a tale of the cold war and the goings on in a small intelligence department that has become something of a backwater. They go round compiling data and making up files, while saying about each other things like “He’s very good, you know”. They are sustained by the patronage of ministers and bureaucrats, much to the irritation of the real professionals. Then they decide to put an agent into Eastern Germany complete with heavy obsolete radio transceiver. The result is, of course, a mélange of tragedy and farce.

The thought occurs that this is a very apt parable for the state of many modern institutions of higher education and research, though whether they will be obliged to come face to face with reality is another matter.

What a wonderful treat it was to discover that Bantam books are producing the Rex Stout library, all the books in the Nero Wolfe detective series. The doings of the fat genius and his streetwise sidekick, Archie Goodwin, are one of the best things to come out of American culture and the stream of familiar characters who pass in and out of the old New York brownstone are like old friends.

The bad new is that Bantam have thought fit to provide introductions by contemporary authors. That for Three Witnesses by some ghastly ronyon is a patronising paean of political correctness. Not only are we instructed on matters that any half-wit could deduce from the text, such as the fact that in those days New York telephone exchanges had names, but we get a lecture on the non-PC nature of the account. It is all there – the evil of calling women “girls”, the dangers of passive smoking and of cholesterol etc. Trouble is, you can’t cut the introduction out without spoiling the book. As a royal personage said in another context , it is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved friend. Even when you try to take refuge in the past of a glorious culture, THEY are there to spoil it for you.

 

Number of the month 200,000

This (or possibly 135,000 or any other large number you care to think of) is the number of immigrants entering Britain every year. Most of them are illegal. Of the 70,000 asylum seekers last year, three quarters were denied the right to remain, yet less than 10,000 were returned. 200,000 is also the number of new houses the Government propose to build in the already overcrowded south east. Something similar is happening in the USA and the rest of the western world. All the rest of Government policy concerning the future of the nation (health, transport, education) is mere tinkering at the edges compared with this, and completely negated by it. Yet the Government, terrified of being accused of political incorrectness, refuses even to discuss the matter openly, much as they avoid comment on the tyrant of Zimbabwe or aid to his British victims. People who try to bring legally bought goods into the country are subject to illegal seizure, not only of those goods but their cars as well. Yet, millions of illegal immigrants have been brought in with impunity by criminal traffickers. Mad or what?

 

  Index