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23 Jan 2024
updated 23 Jan 2024

Tertiary Education

My undergraduate course structure was pretty simple – you attended lectures and practicals for three years, you took annual exams and practical tests. No flexibility, no course options, no tutorials, no essays, no lecture handouts. No real interaction with the staff, all of whom were admittedly excellent, but that was the system – no formal contact procedures existed.

And there was far too much lecture material to assimilate – you couldn't hope to cover it all. Fortunately, a seasoned fellow-student had a plan, perfectly ethical and legitimate, a way of second-guessing all the questions in Finals, based on statistics and psychology, and then honing our answers in advance. I suppose we could have got rich by marketing it. We certainly got very good results.

But the point is that it shouldn't have been necessary. I sincerely hope that degree courses (in those Chemistry Departments that still survive these days) are now far more realistically geared to the students' learning curves.

Everything should have been more rational at postgraduate level, but in some ways it was worse, at least for Ph D students (for whom their Thesis would be their only salvation – unlike the M Sc students who gained credits for taking courses and passing the tests). There is almost no situation in life quite so lonely and nerve-racking as Ph D research – unless you have a friendly and approachable supervisor. That is – by common consent – by no means the rule, especially if that (nominal) supervisor happens to be a busy Head of Department.

I believe that there should be a formal contract between the Department and the postgraduate, guaranteeing him/her a certain amount of regular support, encouragement and advice. There should also be realistic agreed targets and the wherewithal to accomplish them – quite possibly involving collaborative development of computer programs, for example, in order to achieve practicable timescales. I was expected to start from scratch, whereas a perfectly good CNDO / CI program was in the process of completion by a third-year postgrad. As far as I know, it was never used again.

And, as every postgrad or postdoc knows, the biggest hurdle of all is actually writing the stuff up, as a Thesis or for publication. Abso-blooming-lutely no advice or support whatsoever from the system. Over-runs were common, and no-shows not unknown. The most brilliant fellow-researcher I ever knew, RSM, from whom I learned a very great deal, eventually disappeared into the welcoming embrace of ICI Ltd, his Thesis unfinished to this day. To paraphrase the sorrowing remark by Newton about the luckless Roger Cotes, "If RSM had written-up, then we should have known something".

Just over five years ago, an official report (please follow links below) revealed that almost a third of full-time and two-thirds of part-time doctoral students had not completed their degree within seven years. And there's plenty of anecdotal evidence since then to be found via Google.

Additionally, there is mounting evidence that post-graduate research actually decreases ones earnings-potential relative to people of the same age who've gone straight into the jobs market after getting their first degree. And I have personal experience of the ambivalence of prospective employers, or even colleagues within the job environment, of 'somebody with a (!) title' – I quickly learned to keep it pretty quiet. Such prospects would be a certain demotivation and disincentive to a doctoral student in the throes of a difficult research or thesis situation with a disengaged supervisor.

I rest my case. And, what is more, the tax-payer deserves better of the higher educational system than that it should fail to make a proper and cost-effective use of its basic raw materials – the students.

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

PS. Just a few days after writing this, I came across the following excellent self-help guide to many diverse aspects of life as a research student, including the issues discussed above. The author is Visiting Professor for the Development of Graduate Education at the University of Manchester. My copy is actually the Second Edition published in 2000, and I understand the Third Edition is even better!

  • Pat Cryer, 'THE RESEARCH STUDENT'S GUIDE TO SUCCESS', 3rd Edn; Open University Press, Sep 2006

PPS. And almost five years down the line [Feb 2016], I have noticed another, even more closely-focussed, guide: the authors are (or at least were at the time of publication), respectively, Visiting Research Fellow at the Open University Business School and Director of Research at that same institution.

  • Dr Estelle M Phillips and Prof Derek S Pugh, 'HOW TO GET A Ph D: A handbook for students and their supervisors', 2nd Edn (revised & updated); Open University Press, Buckingham & Philadelphia, 1994

Their admirable advice illuminates a number of related areas, not least the creative process in general, and I'd just like to add my own tuppence ha'penny worth.

When I first began to program as a raw postgraduate in 1967, I knew scarcely more than the basic rudiments of Fortran, and nothing at all about quantum chemical calculations. But I was just capable of putting together a piece of code comprising a Begin (ie Main) routine – which printed a message "Hello" – a Calculate (sub)routine – which did precisely nothing – and a Terminate (sub)routine – which printed a message "Goodbye". This compiled and executed flawlessly, so I already had a working program. All I had to do was to flesh-out these bare bones, always ensuring that the program continued to perform as imperturbably as an Edwardian butler.

As a half-baked postdoc in 1972, I followed exactly the same procedure. And as an ultimately burned-out IT professional from 1976 until 2009, it saw me through many a crisis in which managerial or client expectations frequently far outstretched my initial capabilities.

The crucial feature is that function follows form. Get the right overall structures into position, and the content will follow suit. Get the layout wrong, and you will tie yourself into knots trying to keep the thing working. My first employers, a software house, practised this philosophy and I recognised it as an old ally rather than as a new friend. My second employers, an engineering company, had never heard of it and their software was an absolute nightmare.

"Wot is this to do with getting a PhD?", I hear the rude boys at the back start noisily to enquire. "Planty, Planty!", as the immortal Hyman Kaplan would have retorted. Start planning your thesis from the day you first sit at that new desk. Put the title (you may not yet know it in detail), the Greek epigram, the wistful dedication to your immigrant parents, the obligatory thanks through gritted teeth to your supervisor (expressing the sincere hope that they will soon be released from rehab), and a provisional table of contents. There! You already have a thesis! It may not yet be oven-ready, but it exists. A mind-block has been forestalled. Trust me, follow through diligently, accumulating chapter headings and section headings and the content will look after itself.

After all, that's precisely how this website took shape.

Online Journals

You might be surprised to find that quaternary education (traditionally scorned as autodidacticism, which does sound vaguely improper, but is of course a long and honourable tradition of self-improvement through private study – think of Faraday, Boole, Ramanujan, or Einstein, for example) has its own unexpected overheads nowadays.

Consider this Letter to the Editor published recently in a well-known newspaper as part of an ongoing correspondence regarding the exorbitant cost of public access to scientific research papers if available only online:

"May I make a plea for the independent scholar? Unless he or she is a member of an academic library (usually not possible if you are not a member of an academic institution) the extortionate pay walls erected by academic publishers prevent all access to original research.

This was never the case with the printed journals formerly held on the shelves of those libraries. Sometimes it seems that we are reverting to the days of chained books and inaccessible languages which served only the purposes of the elite and powerful."

This summarises perfectly the dismay I experience when faced with a (typically) £30 charge to see the content of an online reference, having viewed only the Abstract (which may or may not be hugely helpful in gauging the overall relevance to me of the content itself).

However it is very encouraging that the present UK government is now reviewing this situation, and is "committed to ensuring that publicly-funded research should be accessible free of charge".

For further discussion of these issues, please see the following (free!!!) links – I'm not a Guardian reader, but I deeply admire their campaign on behalf of affordable public access to scientific research:

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

A similar controversy is in full spate regarding the news media themselves, and as always Wikipedia provides a detailed and balanced account:


I'm an ardent admirer and supporter of Wikipedia, and would like to suggest that every regular user should consider making them a financial contribution from time to time!

Bees in the Bonnet

H L Mencken, the so-called Sage of Baltimore, once remarked that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.

But there are some things which after a glass or two of grown-up Ribena, and even in the clear light of the morning after, seem so blindingly obvious that no reasonable person could possibly gainsay them. You may well have your own private list, as did Jonathan Swift of course.

Over the years, I've accumulated my own list of modest proposals, which have probably occurred to many of us, and which in all modesty I feel are at least worthy of debate, though I'd accept that they might be ill-conceived or impracticable (especially as the ethically-challenged sector of society always manages to arbitrage any minor inconsistency, and seize upon the slightest opportunity for malpractice, in any scheme intended for public benefit).

The benefits of these suggestions should be self-evident and I'm not going to justify them in detail, but would happily discuss them with anyone who makes contact with constructive criticism or even support.

• To rationalise the parliamentary voting system and replace the House of Lords

The candidate first past the post becomes the constituency representative in the House of Commons, as at present, but the second past the post will now be its representative in the House of Deputies (as the House of Lords will now be called).

• To eliminate money-laundering

The National Insurance ID system is progressively extended to every citizen from birth, and every newcomer from the moment of arrival, to personalise all their monetary transactions.

The use of cash in everyday life is progressively discouraged by the introduction of personalised reloadable cash-cards and the withdrawal of £20, £50 and (where necessary) £100 notes.

• To rationalise the tax system

Tax assessment by income is progressively replaced with assessment by expenditure. All financial institutions will accumulate their customers' credit, debit and cash-card transactions on an annual basis and transmit these data to the national tax authorities.

• To provide a stepping-stone to adult life

A system of voluntary three-month Civic Service (in the public sector) is introduced for all school-leavers, and a "Civic Certificate" is issued to participants that complete it satisfactorily, providing a useful guide to their potential for future employment or tertiary education.

• To ensure universal Peace, Prosperity and Progress

When funds permitted, as a schoolboy walking back to Victoria Station each afternoon, I used to buy a copy of the Evening Standard to read on the journey home. And without fail, amongst the small ads, there would be a message from the Panacea Society1,  2 (still extant):

Crime and Banditry
Distress and Perplexity
Will continue to increase
Until the Bishops open
Joanna Southcott's Box of Sealed Writings

In those benighted days there was no Wikipedic explanation of what this was all about, and one was left (as a gullible teenager) with the indignant feeling that the Episcopal digits should jolly well be retracted and the box opened forthwith, to right all wrongs and kick-start a new Golden Age.

Even now, as a wearily senescent cynic, I still say Why Not, Let's Give it a Go!

"Respect the aged"

So spoke the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut, in a deliciously gruesome tale, one of the finest in even Kipling's wonderful Jungle Books, and I'd just like to sermonise briefly on the scaly protagonist's repetitive grunt.

There are two ways in which the aged are so commonly disrespected in our modern materialistic technophilic secular Western society.

The first is that the aged individuals themselves gradually become surplus to requirements, as it were, slow, creaky and obsolescent – entirely mislaying our competitive edge. Plus our glasses, our car-keys and our credit-cards. Unfortunate individuals who have completely lost the capacity for short-term memory are sometimes said to be Surfing the Infinite Now – even though their long-term memory may still be quite retentive. Almost all of us, as we get older, become aware of this in ourselves – and if we don't, our wives or offspring will quickly notice it on our behalf!

The second way is that the aged individuals' likely inability to touch-type, or slowness on the uptake with modern gadgetry and British railway ticket-purchasing options, etc, becomes emblematic of the era – and accumulated previous eras – from which they sprang. Add to that the collective indifference of their offspring to tales of yesteryear, and how Grandpa met Grandma the year Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, or was it the Rhineland, no wait a minute, let me see now, ..., and there are all the makings of an analogous unawareness by the latest generation of the capabilities and relative triumphs of their grandparents and great-grandparents, accompanied by a puddle-in-the-carpark attitude towards history in general: "Olden-days people were uncivilised and stupid". Oh no they weren't – in many respects they were far cleverer and more resourceful than we are today, for all our iPhones and iPads.

And if we could discard our technological hubris, we might realise that our ancestors often made far better and nobler use of their lives than we do today. And although their religious prejudices and social or racial attitudes were severer or more distorted than today's (for every era has its prejudices, even today), it doesn't necessarily mean that they were nastier than us. The past cannot be judged by the standards of the present – yes there have been terrible aberrations in all nations and cultures over the ages, but the best people in each era have been instrumental in the liberalisation of the next. Even in Nazi Germany or (neo)Stalinist Russia, though Mikhail Gorbachev must be wondering why he ever bothered.

And anybody tempted to repeat the tired old allegation that Kipling was a racialist, should read The Miracle of Purun Das in the same volume as The Undertakers.

[The more attentive visitor to this page might well recollect reading a not entirely dissimilar page elsewhere – a good illustration of my own unreliable short-term memory! But though the phraseology may be identical in places, the tenors of the two pages are rather different and I'm not going to sacrifice either of them!]

Throw off your chains

No, not the Communist Manifesto – the Conscientious Manifesto.

The following article (reproduced from The Times, 4 Feb 2016) brilliantly analyses one of the many injustices of the world of work. It should be read and understood by everybody contemplating adulthood in the thrall of paid employment.

The quiet, clever, capable and conscientious are, paradoxically, overloaded and undervalued. The noisy slipshod braggarts are taken at their own evaluation, and get all the pay-rises and promotions.

As a perceptive colleague of mine once remarked, doing a good job at FW (our employers at the time) is like wetting yourself in dark trousers – it may give you a lovely warm feeling, but nobody else notices.


As per the respectful admiration expressed a good while back, it's high time to dig more deeply into the complicated individual that was Michael Wharton – the sort of person I aspired to be, in many ways in my mid-teens, a philandering alcoholic with a genius for verbal coruscation... (well one out of three's not bad)...

Click here

and here.

Dangerous World

Previous generations lived, until comparatively recently, with the ever-present possibilities of potentially fatal diseases such as polio, smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, etc, (three of these afflicted my own family). Maybe we must likewise cope with coronavirus as an endemic until the Magic Bullet is developed. And quite possibly something will then come along to which there is no antidote except natural immunity – after all, one in three survived the Black Death.

We in the West have developed a comfortable illusion that the world is, or certainly ought to be, a safe place. Plagues, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, floods, droughts, massacres, random beheadings, were biblical or Third World things that didn't happen any more, or if they did they somehow wouldn't affect us. We little realise how thin the ice is on which we skate.

If something horrible happens, our first instinct is to blame someone (generally God), or to seek compensation from somebody (generally the government). In some cases the root cause of bad things, such as crime, is attributable to bad people. Some things, such as chemical discharges (mercuric poisoning in Japan), radioactive leakages (Chernobyl) or toxic clouds (Bhopal), can be attributed to careless or incompetent organisations, but adequate compensation is unlikely.

And some things are the results of cumulative thoughtless activities by human beings en masse over many centuries or millennia – such as the defilement of our atmosphere and our oceans and the rapacious exploitation of our fellow creatures.

But ultimately we have to accept that the world is a dangerous place. Danger lurks in even the most unlikely settings, as witness the fate of the Greek playwright Aeschylus who perished when a high-flying eagle mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on it.

The Watchtower

No, not the familiar publication distributed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but a symbolic reference to Hungary at the time (1956) of the Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination. There had already been one such (1953) in East Germany, and another (1968) in Czechoslovakia and yet another (1988) in Poland, plus quite possibly other smaller-scale episodes that didn’t make headlines.


Soviet tanks crush resistance

Mon 5 Nov 1956 15.02 GMT

At 8 a.m. yesterday the Soviet High Command in Hungary ordered Mr Nagy's Government to surrender by noon "or Budapest will be bombed." Soviet armoured forces then went into action. Just after 1 p.m. Moscow radio announced, "The Hungarian counter-revolution has been crushed."

A mid-afternoon Moscow radio bulletin said that negligible groups of insurgents were offering resistance in Budapest but were being crushed. The radio also announced that a new "Revolutionary Workers' and Peasants’ Government" had been formed under Janos Kadar, the former "Titoist" who became first secretary of the Communist party at one point in the rebellion.

Budapest radio had gone off the air at 8.10 a.m. with a woman's appeal to "help Hungary ...Help, help, help...". In mid-afternoon a Vienna monitor picked up what was apparently the last rebel-held radio station in Hungary. It broadcast repeated calls for help.

"Civilized people of the world. On the watch tower of 1,000-year old Hungary the last flames begin to go out. Soviet tanks and guns are roaring over Hungarian soil. Our women - mothers and daughters - are sitting in dread. They still have terrible memories of the army's entry in 1945. Save our souls." "This word may be the last from the last Hungarian freedom station. Listen to our call. Help us - not with advice, not with words, but with action, with soldiers and arms."

The last news from Budapest itself reached the British Foreign Office in mid-afternoon. This said that Soviet troops were in control of key points and bridges in the city although gunfire was still in progress. Other reports said that Mr Nagy, who attempted to restore democracy in the country after the insurrection, was under arrest together with members of his Government.

Mr Nagy had given news of the Soviet attack to the world in a dramatic broadcast over Budapest radio. He spoke in English and then repeated his message in Hungarian. "This is Imre Nagy speaking," he said. "In the early hours of this morning, Soviet troops started to attack the Hungarian capital with the apparent purpose of overthrowing the democratic Government of the Hungarian People's Republic." After broadcasting frequent appeals to Russian troops not to fire on peaceful citizens, the radio then went off the air.

Appeal to U.N.

Mr Nagy, before he disappeared, had appealed through the British Legation for immediate intervention by the United Nations. Some hours before, the Security Council had already met in special session in New York to discuss Hungary. The Soviet Union vetoed an American resolution calling on Russia to stop intervention and withdraw her troops. The General Assembly, where the veto does not rule, was promptly called to take up the Hungarian appeal.

Last night, President Eisenhower sent an urgent message to Marshal Bulganin, the Soviet Premier, asking him to withdraw the Soviet troops. The President expressed "shock and dismay" at the Soviet attack on the Hungarian people and urged that Hungary be given the right to choose its own government.

The President had sent the message after discussing the Hungarian and Middle East situations with the acting Secretary of State, Mr Herbert Hoover, and other officials. Mr Eisenhower also had a 15-minute talk with Mr Dulles, the Secretary of State, who is in hospital after an operation.

The Foreign Office in London has named 29 British subjects, mostly newspaper men, who have taken refuge in the British legation in Budapest. Cardinal Mindszenty, the Primate of Hungary restored only last week, is in the United States Embassy.

Imre Nagy was subsequently executed by the Soviet invaders.

And yet, after several regime changes in Russia over the decades, ‘Porky’ Orban (never trust a politician with fancy hair), a fully-fledged fascist, is the current Prime Minister of Hungary and one of Putin’s very best buddies, along with the utterly untrustworthy President Erdogan of Turkey (sic).

NATO would be far better off without these political reptiles.

Picking and Choosing

Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine rolled into action on Thursday 24 Feb 2022 and this Letter to the Editor was evidently emailed the following Wednesday 2 Mar 2022 or possibly the following day.

To letters@thetimes.co.uk


I’d like to ask NATO, and indeed the Western nations in general, an entirely hypothetical question.

“If you came across somebody being brutally mugged in an alleyway, would you pause to ask him ‘Do you and I have a mutual defence pact?’. Or would you try to help him by all means possible?”.

There’s a very interesting parallel between such a situation and the Gulf War in 1990/91, which began with Operation Desert Shield and culminated in Operation Desert Storm.

Following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq (dictator Saddam Hussein) in August 1990, a coalition of 35 nations, led by the US (president George H W Bush) and the UK (prime minister Margaret Thatcher), combined forces to expel the invaders and liberate Kuwait.

And following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia (dictator Vladimir Putin) last Thursday 24 Feb, might not a similar coalition of nations (not all in NATO by any means), led by the US (president Joe Biden), the UK (prime minister Boris Johnson) and the EU, in due course combine forces to expel the invaders and liberate Ukraine?

Impossible to organise of course, but what’s the difference? If Ukraine produced oil rather than grain, I suspect that sanctions would soon be followed-up by the combined military muscle of such a coalition.

There is no difference in principle. And as was once remarked, a dictator is like a cannon ball – once they fall to earth their careers are at an end.

Dr R E Waddell.

But alas it fell on deaf ears.

Name Games and Blame Games

It’s a curious fact of life that the English city we refer to as London is known by the French as Londres. Pourquoi? Nobody knows or cares much, we all just get on with it.

In fact there are quite a few such instances. The Scottish city we refer to as Edinburgh is known by the French as Édimbourg. The German cities they call Köln and Munchen we call Cologne and Munich, and the Austrian city they call Wien we call Vienna. Perhaps the most extreme instance is the Italian city that they call Livorno and we call Leghorn!

But of course the romanisation of (Mandarin) Chinese using the Wade-Giles system of conversion to Pinyin produces even wider divergences, such as the representation of Peking as Beijing. And so long as Formosa continues to be known as Taiwan rather than Taipei, do I really care?


On Wed 10 May 2023, Poland's development minister, Waldemar Buda, said that the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad would now officially be called Królewiec, its name when it was ruled by the Kingdom of Poland in the 15th and 16th centuries.

This simply means that the Polish Government will henceforth refer to Kaliningrad as Królewiec. There were immediate repercussions from the Kremlin.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the decision “bordered on madness”. “We know that throughout history Poland has slipped from time to time into this madness of hatred towards Russians,” he announced.

Man or mannequin?

Peskov is probably the stupidest toady since Sergei Lavrov was euthanised. Does he not know that the loathsome Mikhail Kalinin was on 5 Mar 1940 one of the six signatories to the document authorising the murder (subsequently known as the Katyn Massacre) of some 22,000 senior Polish army officers and intelligentsia by the NKVD?

Madness? Pass the sickbag, Alice.

However ...

A face-saving compromise had already been proposed on this very website.

Terrifying Traffic

The Times, Mon 24 Apr 2023, p 23

If ever there were irrefutable evidence for the crass stupidity, compounded with barefaced hypocrisy, of the Westminster political contingent, the scandal of ‘Smart motorways’ says it all.

They haven’t gone away of course, we’re stuck with them for ever, as we can’t afford to revert them to the way they were originally, but at least we have an assurance that no more of these bizarre make-overs are to be undertaken.

In the images below, the carriageways in each direction originally comprised three lanes (overtaking in the outermost lane, fast traffic in the middle lane, and slow traffic in the innermost lane). But there was also an emergency lane, called the ‘hard shoulder’, somewhat narrower than the other three, and which ran continuously alongside the slow lane for the benefit of vehicles with sudden problems of whatever nature.

The basic idea of ALR was to widen the hard shoulder into a full-size lane, thereby turning the carriageway into four lanes rather than three. Jolly clever, but now there’s no hard-shoulder. Aha, said the proponents of ALR, emergency refuges will be provided every 0.3 miles for emergency use (though the weasels in the Dept of Transport later increased these gaps to 0.75 miles).

But what if the emergency happens somewhere in between one refuge and the next? Perfectly simple, say the ALR propagandists, the occupants of the vehicle stay put until help arrives, typically within 15 minutes or so. But what if the vehicle behind is a fully-laden 44 ton articulated HGV driven by a dashboard porn addict?

Even if the stricken vehicle does make it to the next refuge, and a nice AA or RAC mechanic arrives to fix the problem, the next major difficulty is to rejoin the traffic flow. How does the driver get up sufficient speed (typically 65-70 mph) in the confines of the refuge? It’s impossible, of course.

The ALR Ovaltineys claim that the overhead gantries come to his rescue by directing traffic out of what used to be the hard shoulder. Yeah, right, but dark suspicions are voiced in the media that these lanes aren’t constantly monitored...

In effect, motorway drivers are stuck with the disastrous consequences of the ALS fiasco for ever and a day.

Having just demonised a stereotypical HGV driver I think most people would agree that a disproportionate number of motorway accidents reported in the media involve one or more HGVs. It’s surprisingly difficult to find this kind of data in appropriate format and of recent vintage, but the tabulation below is pretty well ideal for the purpose. It also has a considerably wider scope than expected, but of course not every road traffic accident involves, or is caused by, HGV’s.


From it we can draw the following quite surprising conclusions up as far as 2016 inclusive.

  • HGVs provide 11.4% of Motorway traffic, but involve 33.3% of Motorway deaths.
  • HGVs provide 5.3% of A road traffic, but involve 17.0% of A road deaths.
  • HGVs provide 1.3% of Minor road traffic, but involve 8.9% of Minor road deaths.

So yes, HGV’s are indeed disproportionately involved in Motorway deaths, but even more so in A road deaths, and most of all in Minor road deaths!

In my own experience, the scariest HGV traffic involves the agricultural lorries bringing Irish farm produce over to Fishguard, and those distributing East Anglian farm produce to the canning factories.

This has been a particularly lengthy rant from the depths of my arm chair – do I have anything worthwhile to contribute? Read just a little further and see what might be a constructive suggestion.

There would seem to be two obvious categories of transport for heavy goods by road or rail in the UK,

  • Road-trains of the sort used in (eg) Australia, would be utterly unsuited to the configuration of the UK motorway system, would be utterly terrifying to private motorists, and would cause horrendous damage to existing road surfaces.
  • Container-trains (Lift-on Lift-off) of the sort we’re used to seeing from our passenger-train windows. These presumably involve a great deal of loading and unloading at various destinations.

But surely there’s a possible compromise … HGV transport by rail.

  • HGV-trains (Ro-Ro, Drive-on Drive-off) from which the HGV drivers would complete the so-called ‘final mile’ to their various destinations, unload, and prepare to reload for their return journey (also by train). Their incursions onto the motorway system would have been minimal.

That’s my sixpence-worth, and may be entirely unrealistic but as my father used to quote (inter alia) the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the difference between the difficult and the impossible is that the difficult can be done at once and the impossible takes a little longer.

Indeed it’s also said that the impossible can be done at once but miracles take a little longer. And armies the world over do things this way.

Gadarene swine

The high priests of Western society are busy cutting off the very branches upon which they sat and are wilfully rushing to a precipice of their own devising, as did their Biblical antecedents.

The Times, Thu 18 May 2023, p26

But the ideas behind AI are not particularly new.


Software: “Music intelligence” systems that can distinguish hits from misses could change the way pop music is made and marketed

Jun 10th 2006

THE versificator, a machine described in George Orwell's novel “1984”, automatically generated music for the hapless masses. The idea of removing humans from the creative process of making music, an art form so able to stir the soul, made for a good joke when the book was published in 1949. But today, computer programmers working in a new field called “music intelligence” are developing software capable of predicting which songs will become hits. This surprisingly accurate technology could profoundly change the way pop music is created. /continued

The software uses a process called “spectral deconvolution” to isolate and analyse around 30 parameters that define a piece of music, including such things as sonic brilliance, octave, cadence, frequency range, fullness of sound, chord progression, timbre and “bend” (variations in pitch at the beginning and end of the same note). “Songs conform to a limited number of mathematical equations,” says Mike McCready of Platinum Blue, a music-intelligence company based in New York, that he founded last December. Platinum Blue has compiled a database of more than 3m successful musical arrangements, including data on their popularity in different markets. ...


The versificator is a fictional device employed by Ingsoc in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Its primary purpose is to act as a ‘writing machine’, a machine which produces both literature and music, its primary target audience being the proles. The purpose of the versificator is to provide a means of producing 'creative’ output without having any of the party members having to actually engage in a creative thought. The versificator is capable of producing newspapers, containing content similar to that found in modern day tabloid, featuring stories concerning sports, crime and astrology. The machine is also capable of producing films, low quality paperback novels, and music, of a sort.

... such as the washerwoman’s lugubrious ballad that Winston Smith overhears

They say that time heals all things,
they say you can always forget;
but the smiles and the tears across the years
they twist my heart strings yet...

But by far the most detailed literary description of a hypothetical versificator is that by the satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), and in fact he conveys the essence of it rather well.

GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, by Jonathan Swift


CHAPTER V (in part)

We crossed a walk to the other part of the academy, where, as I have already said, the projectors in speculative learning resided.

The first professor I saw, was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him. After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said, "Perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations. But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble, exalted thought never sprang in any other man's head. Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study." He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me "to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work." The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

He assured me "that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech."

I made my humblest acknowledgment to this illustrious person, for his great communicativeness; and promised, "if ever I had the good fortune to return to my native country, that I would do him justice, as the sole inventor of this wonderful machine;" the form and contrivance of which I desired leave to delineate on paper, as in the figure here annexed. I told him, "although it were the custom of our learned in Europe to steal inventions from each other, who had thereby at least this advantage, that it became a controversy which was the right owner; yet I would take such caution, that he should have the honour entire, without a rival."

From the earliest stirrings of social organisation (as witness a myriad occupational surnames that in due course developed, such as Archer, Butcher, Carpenter etc), the corresponding skills, expertise and trade secrets would have been jealously guarded. And of course there was no incentive towards mass production as each craftsman worked alone, with perhaps an elder son as apprentice.

But then came the concept of automation, where the advent of steam-driven machinery enabled an entrepreneur to produce in one day what a lone craftsman would need a hundred days to make. The industrial revolution had arrived, and with it the ongoing conflict between capital and labour – who hasn’t heard of the Luddites?

Automation continues to claim further victims to this very day in both factories and farms as increasingly sophisticated technology usurps the need for human intervention – in the case of agriculture, for example, all the traditional procedures from harrowing to harvesting can be pre-programmed into a single agri-combine, controlled by sat-nav. And in the factory, complex human motor skills such as spray-painting are now delegated to high-precision robotic arms.

Needless to say, there has been a relentless culling of clerical staff in large organisations such as banks, building societies and insurance companies over the last seventy years or so, as their administration has been almost entirely computerised. No need for tiresomely fallible staff.

In every single instance, technical advances in the name of “efficiency” have been accompanied by redundancies on a scale reminiscent of Martin Niemöller’s almost unbearably poignant verse

First they came for the socialists,
and I did not speak out
— because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I did not speak out
— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I did not speak out
— because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me,
— and there was no one left to speak for me.

Well, now AI is coming for you – the so-called “knowledge workers”, highly educated and impeccably qualified in your area of expertise. It’s an ugly word, and I prefer to say “Consultants”.

So who precisely, or even imprecisely, are going to be outperformed and rendered redundant?

IT specialists themselves, the whole of the legal profession, much of the financial system, much of the medical profession, journalists, ministers of religion, and futurologists, for starters.

Supreme rationality will rule. And how will all the unwanted consultants get to earn an honest crust?