Thursday, 1 September 2016

Why Tony Blair is right (again, and in French)

Brexit : Tony Blair répond aux questions de Jean-Pierre Elkabbach

Wednesday, 8 June 2016


This is a satellite view of the border between France and Germany in 2016 (it runs down the centre of the River Rhine). Gerard Unger reminded me that there is no barrier as you drive across the bridge – just a small blue sign. Think of the conflicts that raged across this border in previous times. That is to me the most telling reason why we need (and need to be members of) supranational institutions.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

'Black spider' letters written by …

… a shrewd, social, impatient, er, Prince. I expected the letters would bring out the nutters, but I didn't reckon on the Guardian asking the nutters:

‘[The Guardian’s] Jessica Elgot has spoken to a graphologist to see what can be gauged from the spidery notations in Charles’s letters. She writes:
What can we tell about Charles’ personality from the small amount of handwritten annotations in the black spider memos?
Actually, quite a lot, according to the chairman of the British Institute of Graphologists. Charles’ fluid strokes, joined-up words and slight slant to the left reveal interesting things about his personality and how he will approach his kingship.
Adam Brand told the Guardian that the pressure on the up-and-down strokes is even, meaning Charles has a creative side and a “love of colour”.
In the introductions to the letters, Charles joins up all the words in his sentences. “He’s very connected, it’s quite unusual to see, it shows he’s a very logical thinker with an excellent brain,” Brand said. The handwriting is “middle zone dominant” which means Charles is “sociable, adaptable and a shrewd operator”.
Brand points to the slash which makes the dot for one of the “i”s, he said that could be a sign of impatience. “We can see the slight slant to the left means he is driven, he is business like. But the flourish on the “P” of prime minister, what is called ‘gala writing’, has a pool in the middle, he is open minded and empathetic.”
Perhaps most tellingly however, is the ‘M’ in “minister”. “The first part of the ‘m’ is larger, that means ‘what I want is very important’,” Brand said. “If it was the other way around, it would indicate that he was trying to impress the person you are writing to.” ’

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Why Tony Blair is right (again)

The telling part from his speech on Europe:

‘We are a creative country as our most recent inventions in science and technology have shown, to say nothing of the creative arts and their contribution not just to our culture but to our economy. Our education system, for all its faults, remains admired and draws students to it from all corners of the globe. We have the English language, the pre-eminent language, an extraordinary product of good statesmanship and good fortune. We have always done best as a people out there in the world, confident, engaged and active on the world’s stage. We won the bid for the Olympics precisely because this was the image of Britain abroad; and because London was seen as a thriving melting pot of different cultures and peoples. This is the spirit of modern Britain.

‘I know that those who want us out of Europe say that they agree with all that but we can do just as well, if not better, out not in.

‘In theory part of that may be true. But reflect on the forces leading this campaign to get us out: UKIP, and the right of the Tory Party. Ask yourself this question: do they represent that spirit? Are they the standard bearers of an open-minded culturally tolerant Britain? Are creativity, innovation and curiosity about what we can learn from the world their hallmarks?

‘We know what this movement to wrench us out of Europe is based on. You can see it on display when Mr Farage swiftly moves the debate to immigrants.

‘National pride is a great thing. Nationalism as a political cause, in the hands of parties like UKIP, is almost always ugly and can never, despite being wrapped in the garb of high-sounding phrases, disguise its mean spirit.’

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Word travels fast (with and without Twitter)

Iona and Peter Opie’s classic The lore and language of schoolchildren (1959) reminds us that a world before social media was still a world of near-instantaneous communication within social groups, especially when the scurrilous was concerned:

A notorious instance of the transmission of scurrilous verses occurred in 1936 at the time of the Abdication. The word-of-mouth rhymes which then gained currency were of a kind which could not possibly, at that time, have been printed, broadcast, or even repeated in the music halls. One verse, in particular, made up one can only wonder by whom,

Hark the Herald Angels sing,
Mrs. Simpson’s pinched our king,

was on juvenile lips not only in London, but as far away as Chichester in the south, and Liverpool and Oldham in the north. News that there was a constitutional crisis did not become public property until around 25 November of that year, and the king abdicated on 10 December. Yet at a school Christmas party in Swansea given before the end of term, Christmas 1936, when the tune played happened to be ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, a mistress found herself having to restrain her small children from singing this lyric, known to all of them, which cannot have been composed much more than three weeks previously. Many an advertising executive with a six-figure budget at his disposal might envy such crowd penetration. Similarly, the ultra juvenile verse,

Temptation, temptation, temptation,
Dick Barton went down to the station,
Blondie was there
All naked and bare,
Temptation, temptation, temptation,

wherever it may have originated, was reported to us in quick succession as rife among children in Kirkcaldy in January 1952, as known to children in Swansea in January 1952, and it reached children in Alton [Hampshire] in February 1952. These three places are up to 400 miles apart; yet an instance of even more distant transmission can be cited. At the beginning of 1956 ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’ was launched on the radio. It was especially intended to appeal to children, and quickly reached the top of the adult hit parade. But the official words of the ballad, beginning,

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the Land of the Free,

were very small beer compared with the word-of-mouth stanzas which rapidly won approval in juvenile society. One composition, beginning ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas”, was collected in Perth in April 1956 in Alton, Battersea, Great Bookham, Reading, and Scarborough in July 1956, in Kent in August 1956, and in Swansea in September 1956. Another parody sung by schoolgirls in Swansea in September 1956, appeared to have local associations:

Born on a table top in Joe’s Café,
Dirtiest place in the U.S.A.
Polished off his father when he was only three,
Polished off his mother with D.D.T.
    Davy, Davy Crockett,
    King of the Wild Frontier.

The teacher who sent this verse remarked that Joe’s Café was a popular Swansea establishment near the beach. Subsequently, however, we had news of the verse being current in Brentwood, Hornchurch, Reading, Upminster, and Woolwich, all naming ‘Joe’s Café’. But unknown to any of our home observers, and before the official Davy Crockett song had reached Britain, an Australian correspondent, writing 3 January 1956, had reported that the following ditty was ‘sweeping the schools’ in Sydney:

Reared on a paddle-pop in Joe’s café,
The dirtiest dump in the U.S.A.,
Poisoned his mother with D.D.T.
And shot his father with a ·303.
    Davy, Davy Crockett,
    The man who is no good.

It seems that the schoolchild underground also employs trans-world couriers.

(pp. 6–7)

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Winston learns what italics mean in a Finance Bill

Extract from Hansard, 25 June 1930, vol 240 cc1183–244

The Committee on the Finance Bill (considering clause 29) looks at clauses printed in italics:
On the second point which the right hon. Gentleman has raised, in relation to italicised Clauses, I still hold the opinion that italicised Clauses are not part of any Bill, and have no life, and therefore that they need not be taken cognisance of until a Money Resolution dealing with them has been introduced and passed in the proper form.
Does the whole point turn upon the typography?
Not necessarily. I am giving my view of what italicised Clauses mean in a Bill. They are there for the purpose of directing attention to the fact that a Money Resolution is necessary, and, if a Money Resolution has not been passed before they are reached, the Chairman does not pay any attention to them, and in my opinion ought not to pay any attention to them. That is what happened in 1914.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Who put the S upside down?

Are the North Koreans responsible for the upside-down S on Sony’s Hollywood headquarters? I think we should be told.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

A little too much like me?

Hooray! Most members of the US congress have an age/gender/ethnicity/orientation/education just like me! Wait a minute, is that a good thing?

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

A view into the design process

Following discussion of the annual tax summary in the media, I looked up the report of the design process (of the full interactive service, not just the chart above) on the Government Digital Service pages. Who do you think the ministerial involvement comes from?

‘The service is being delivered by an agile multidisciplinary team who have conducted user research on a range of users. The service is simple and intuitive enough for a user to succeed first time unaided.

‘There was a considerable degree of ministerial involvement in the design of the original prototypes and policy teams initially indicated that changes from these designs would not be accepted. The service team used the evidence they collected from user research to make iterative improvements to the service that were accepted by the policy team. It is of particular note that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has not only used the alpha service but he has seen the results of user research and watched videos of users interacting with the service. The service team must be commended for their work to engage with such senior stakeholders in the iterative development of the product as a result of user research.’

¶ You might also like to read this critique – of content, not design: George Osborne’s Crooked Tax Breakdowns

Friday, 19 September 2014

Making your mark count

Would the above have been valid ballot papers in the Scottish referendum yesterday? Yes or No?
You can find out how counting officers interpret voters’ intentions in The Chief Counting Officer's guide to dealing with doubtful ballot papers.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Infographics v. information

The Scottish government’s arguments for independence are presented in documents and a web presence that are well-crafted, but they fall into the marketing trap of thinking that graphically presented information needs to be cute and charmingly retro rather than genuinely present a statistical argument. The work of Isotype shows us that social information can be both central for the exercise of democratic choice and also present complex data interactions clearly. And the current myth-busting How well do you know your area site is a great example of offering the public statistics that challenge assumptions about the profile of local society. So why does Alex Salmond’s team rely of the factoid approach? The people of Scotland deserve better graphic design than this.

 ¶ In the example above we see bald statements of numbers: no comparisons, no indications of whether these are steady states or moving targets (proportion under 15), and blatant disregard of whether the ‘statistic’ is a current fact (5 universities in the top 200) or an assumption (Scotland might be the 29th member of the EU). Is that figure of 83% of Scots with a Scottish national identity higher or lower than the equivalent espousal of identity by citizens of Catalonia or Bali? Are the 20% and 83% identity reporters nearly mutually exclusive or is one a subset of the other? And so on.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Some notes on the colon-dash combination :—



The first long sound of each vowel is exemplified in the following words:—
John Ogilvie. The imperial dictionary. 1876 (originally published 1851)


The  OED uses the combination :—, in a bold type, to indicate ‘normal development of’ in an etymology (1884). But this was a symbol, rather than a piece of punctuation.


The marked vowels are shown in the following line, which is printed at the top of each page:—
Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary. Chambers, 1912 (originally published 1901)

1905–1933 (see 1956 in Against)

When necessary these have been indicated in the following way:—
F Howard Collins. Authors’ and printers’ dictionary. OUP, 7/e 1933 (originally published 1905)


[concerning use of a dash]
With colon or other stop before a quotation.
11. Hear Milton:—How charming is divine Philosophy!
12. What says Bacon?—revenge is a kind of wild justice.
H W & F G Fowler. The king’s English.  OUP, 2/e 1919

1949 (see 1963 in Against)
Note the passive construction:—
     The servant was told to open the window.
A S Hornby. The advancer learner’s dictionary of current English. OUP, 1/e 1948



The vowels are as follows:
      a, like a in far or ask.
Charles Annandale. A concise dictionary of the English language. 1886


The colon has a further purpose in directing attention forward (we have one golden rule: look before you leap), and there is much to be said for confining it to this. The dash — is sometimes used for the same purpose, but in the form :— it is superfluous and should be omitted
Brooke Crutchley. Preparation of manuscripts and correction of proofs.  CUP,  2/e 1964 (originally published 1951)


With a colon to introduce a substantial quotation or a list (e.g. as follows:—). This, though common, is unnecessary since either the colon or the dash can do all that is needed by itself.
Sir Ernest Gowers. The complete plain words.  HMSO, 1/e 1954, transcribed from

1956 (see 1905–1933 in For)

When necessary these have been indicated in the following way:
F Howard Collins. Authors’ and printers’ dictionary. OUP, 10/e 1956

1963 (see 1949 in For)

Note the passive construction:
     1. He was elected king.
A S Hornby. The advancer learner’s dictionary of current English. OUP, 1/e 1948

1983 (but also much earlier!)

Omit the dash when the colon is used to preface a quotation or other matter, whether at the end of a break-line or not.
Hart’s rules for compositors and readers at the University Press, Oxford. 39/e 1983