Archive for October, 2010

Recession and recovery–hard times or smoke and mirrors? Savoy Place, 27 October

October 29, 2010

Looks like a recession all right!

Andrew Dilnot opened the Annual Conference of the Royal Statistical Society’s User Forum by saying that ONS in Titchfield were the most beautiful and important people in the world.

Charlie Bean (Bank of England) said that in dealing with the ‘Great Contraction’ of 2008/09, the MPC had used three sources of information:  official statistics, regular business surveys and a network of regional agents with 8000 business contacts between them.  They had got nowhere near predicting the 6% fall for 2008/09.  Financial innovation had left risk concentrated in the banking sector.

While the media liked to talk of ‘two or more consecutive quarters of falling,output’, economists saw a recession as meaning unused resources.  The potential output was difficult to measure.  If one assumed that in general potential output evolved smoothly through time, then output was at present 10% below potential.  Previous banking crises had led to a 10% decline in output as against trend, lasting for 10 years.

Going forward, one would need more flexible financial data collection for macroprudential policies to be used successfully.  These presentation slides can be found here.

Not such a bad hit on employment this time round


Speaking on the media perspective, Michael Blastland said that it was marked by Aggregation (“It’s all debts innit?”) and Confirmation bias, whereby events were fitted to a default narrative based on folk memory of previous recessions.  So you had various Winters, also Springs, Summers and Autumns, Of Discontent.

Wage restraint, for instance, could be storing up trouble or an example of employer/employee cooperation, but in the media bleakness would be applied to everything.  There was great use of expressions like ‘it was last this bad X years ago’, which could of course just mean there had been X years of uninterrupted growth.

There was also the implausible conditional:  if all the banks are allowed to fail…we’ll be reduced to foraging for berries [but there would be some policy response to stop themn failing of course].

As for the banks, the narrative was like:  the money has gone–it’s irrecoverable–the debts must be cleared in full–we haven’t gained any assets.  Stephanie Flanders had correctly noted that the ‘toxic assets’ weren’t made of plutonium, they just didn’t have a market-clearingf price at present.

In essence, there were only two narratives allowed:

Sustained growth/Boom–‘The New Paradigm’

Recession–‘The Same Old Catastrophe’.

Ian Diamond (Aberdeen) spoke to ‘Recessions and their impact on society’, and said that it was very difficult, especially as you couldn’t do a RCT.  The increase in unemployment had been less than might be expected.  Those who were unemployed at 16-18 showed wage scarring at 23, recovery by 33, as small scar by age 43.  The effect was less for the high-skilled.

Lifelong learning improved wages and employment chances.  Many companies had increased training as part of their ‘job hoarding’ activity.

Poor economic conditions and low education were associated with crime.  Wages at the bottom of the distribution were inversely related to crime.  But it was more difficult to establish a direct crime-unemployment relationship.

As for health, poorer health for the unemployed was well-known, but was this causation and anyway one had to remember the ‘healthy worker’ effect, whereby some of the unemployed were unemployed because they were sick.  If one used Swedish data and worked very hard and controlled for confounding factors, one could show a relationship between unemployment and overall mortality and also suicide, but not mortality from CVD.

In summary, there was evidence of effects due to the recession, many of them mediated by unemployment or other forms of income reduction.  One needed the ability to construct large and complex datasets from multiple separate datasets.  For the future, one would desire a cadre of methodologists, a community of analysts, and a quantitatively-literate population.

On the role of Official Statistics, Stephen Penneck (ONS) said that gaps had been identified, for instance in liabilities to be included in the National Accounts.

An analysis of labour market flows showed that during the recession the rate of people entering jobs from unemployment had remained steady; it was an increase in the rate of leaving employment that had led to the rise in unemployment.  Now the rate of entering jobs was increasing.

He felt that in the first UK recession for 20 years the ONS had responded well; but the jury was still out, and there was room for improvement.

After lunch, in the parallel session on labour market statistics, Jamie Jenkins (ONS) said that GDP had gone down by 6% and employment by 4% this time.  Total employment had been held up by an increase in part-time employment,  which was entirely due to those who would like to work full time.

The last 3 recessions had been rather different.  In the 1980s the oil price shock and tight monetary policy had pushed down incomes.  In the 1990s interest rates had been used to control inflation and there had been the ERM debacle and an impact on the housing market.  In the last recession, demand had fallen sharply while inflation and interest rates remained low.  Perhaps this time we had been spared a wage-price spiral and consequent damage to employment.

Alastair Hatchett (IDS) said that in 2009  there had been a pay freeze in 1/3 of private companies and no freeze in 2/3;  it was more like 20% with a freeze in 2010.  The negatives had largely been concentrated in bonuses.  Freezes had been concentrated in certain areas (for instance, cars and components, media)–this explained why one heard so much about them in the media.

The median pay increase was 2% this year.  Pay cuts were very rare.

It made little sense to compare the public and private sectors directly–the public sector had a higher skill profile, 2/3 of public employees were women.  The gender pay gap had narrowed during the recession, but would increase as public sector pay was constrained.

From this talk, one got the impression that the problem with unemployment had been rather inflated in the media, and if you had some skills you had little to worry about.  But there was a lot of underemployment about, and one reason that unemployment had been contained was that people had been very frightened after the Lehman Brothers collapse and prepared to take anything.

Danny Dorling (Sheffield) then showed many maps (or rather cartograms) to illustrate the geographical extent of the recession.  Or rather, how things had been running up to the recession, since it was very difficult to get data that was both disaggregated and up-to-date.  He said that London was young, so you weren’t going to get insolvencies there, and people were desperate, so they weren’t going to go on strike.

The segregation index of Tory voters was at its highest since 1918.  This was a problem for them because they were piling up votes in constituencies they already held, and soon enough demons would arrive and carry them off to hell.  Geographically speaking, the difference between the elections of 1929 and 2010 was that London had gone Labour.

Equal areas~equal populations

Adults said that their well-being was highest in the home counties, while children seemed to have the best emotional health in the North, but Eric Pickles had just scrapped the corresponding survey.  Many things depended upon exactly what questions you asked–volunteering was low in London, while civic engagement (which included things like going to a meeting and complaining) was high.

John Fisher (Local Futures) then spoke about much the same kind of thing, but with less whizzy maps and frequent reference to Middlesbrough.  He was keen on promoting Output Area Classification as a free, open and transparent geographic data system.  He felt it was important to liberate and share locally sourced data.  Stoke was going backwards fast, while there was a cluster of growth in Central England but he wasn’t going to say where.

Carl Emmerson (IFS) wasn’t going to state the size of the hole in the public finances.  There was extra structural borrowing of 5.8% of GDP or £ 86 bn.

Better modelling and timely data would help.  Treasury forecasts were overly pessimistic when the economy was improving and overly optimistic when the economy was deteriorating.

At the end, Andrew Dilnot said that it was important really to find out what was going on, and really to understand it.  People who came to meetings like this were felt to be peculiar, not special, but in reality they were both.

The Social Network Peckham Multiplex 20 October

October 24, 2010


He starts off with a pretty girl who drinks pints...

This was new, fresh and interesting:  about something different (Facebook, obviously enough) and set in contemporary times (the action begins `in 2004).  It’s about the development of Facebook from its beginnings at Harvard to approaching the stage of world domination and the action is largely framed by a deposition hearing where Mark Zuckerberg and his former associates give their accounts of what happened.

...and is frequently bored at the hearing.

Beforehand I thought that the main constraint would be avoiding legal action from the principals portrayed, but in fact it seemed to be more like getting a child-friendly rating for the film–those party scenes were far from orgiastic, and the chivalry of the drug riddled founder of Napster in sleeping underneath Amy while she kept her Stanford panties on may also have stretched credulity…

Happy nerds inventing Facebook

I enjoyed the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as someone who was really at home in another dimension and unaware of the effect of his actions on other people–I thought the main charge against him was adherence to Ayn Rand style extreme rightist views, but that didn’t surface here.  As to the legal issues, here he merely received orders from the Winkelvoss brothers to implement their website and then didn’t do anything about it but developed his own website `instead.  So his protestations that he never used any of their code answer a question that was never asked.  In the film, at least.

At the beginning, ex-girlfriend Erica tells Zuckerberg that his problem is that he’s an asshole, while at the end the trainee lawyer who has just declined to eat with him says that he’s not an asshole, he’s just trying very hard.

Isn’t that neat?

Agamemnon Camden People’s Theatre 22 October

October 23, 2010


WWII schtick in prospect

I can’t say that I approached this adaptation of Aeschylus by Action to the Word with any great hopes:

But it’s another outbreak of Gratuitous WWII disease!  NOooo!!!

and I was quite right.  The WWII setting seemed to be entirely gratuitous (apart from oh-so-clever Holocaust references) since WWII  wasn’t in any way an intra-family conflict the way that (for instance) WWI was.  That might have worked, both from the ‘cousin Nicky’ angle and the Wilfred Owen senseless sacrifice one.

Anyway, this production had the choruses in rather (perhaps, to be fair, deliberately) gauche rhyming verse and a feeling that the company would rather be doing Titus Andronicus (their next show I think) instead and wade through lots of blood.  Of course, one of the points of Greek tragedy is to maintain a high–almost unbearable–level of emotional tension by keeping the violence locked within formal constraints, while here the company had rather blundered into doing the opposite.

Programmes were among the things lacking, but it is possible to work out who did what to some extent here.  I thought that Laura Gallacher made a strong and commanding impression as Clytaemnestra, in spite of being young and good-looking, but nobody else did!


So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

That is more or less the explanation for the sacrifice of Iphigenia.

Huis Clos Baron’s Court Theatre 10 October

October 22, 2010


Hell is murky!

I read through the text before attending this French-language production, secure in the knowledge that otherwise I might not understand very much, and it seemed pretty well and economically done to me.  Then in the theatre–a suitably warm cellar beneath a pub–it seemed rather worthy.

As everyone knows, three characters (Ines, Garcin and Estelle) are left to torture each other for eternity, and one of them (in fact, it’s Garcin) says ‘Hell is other people’.  That sounds worryingly orthodox, and in fact it’s clear that they have all knowingly chosen evil (as well as being deeply unpleasant).  Or in more detail, Estelle is an infanticidal slut, Garcin is a coward and wife-abuser, and Ines is a predatory (to the point of homicide) lesbian.

I enjoyed this incongruity

So as the action developed, it became clear that none of them could escape, because of their co-dependence.  The point being made was that they needed the other to validate their own existence, so that even when the door opened Garcin couldn’t run away from Ines and get it on with Estelle.

But they were hardly three orbiting bodies either, since Ines was manipulating the other two.  So was she the representative of the author in his own creation?  Patricia Morejon certainly seemed to give the most realistic and nuanced performance of the three–possibly because she had more to work with–while the other two were really brutes, though Garcin (a very straightforward performance by David Furlong) got to mouth a lot of existentialist bollocks.  Claire Meade as Estelle imitated brainlessness pretty effectively.

As for ‘Hell is other people’, what Sartre meant Garcin to mean by this was surely not:

i)   it’s nice to spend time with nice people and bad to spend time with bad people;

or even

ii)  your own actions will make other people hell to you if you are a bad person;


iii)  worrying about other people’s perceptions of you will turn your life `into a hell of inauthenticity [this was demonstrated by what the characters could see or hear of the life left on earth, as well as their reactions to each other].

Actually under (iii) there’s rather more evidence it may save you from prison or the back ward of a psychiatric hospital, but I digress…Surely Ines really is Sartre, the great mind confined to a few Parisian cafés?

The Second Empire canapés were played by kitchen chairs painted different colours, and the Bronze de Barbedienne by a piece of wood.

La Valse/Invitus Invitam/Winter Dreams/Theme and Variations Royal Ballet 18 October

October 21, 2010


Picture from

The evening started in sprightly enough fashion, with a La Valse that was engagingly silly, and well-danced as well.  Then we had Invitus Invitam.  My companion said that she had heard many explanations of the title.  It appears to come from Suetonius’s Life of Titus, Ch 7:  Berenicen statim ab urbe dimisit inuitus inuitam (He immediately sent Berenice away from the city, he unwilling and she unwilling)–inuitus inuitam is a nice example of polyptoton if you like that kind of rustic humour.  Then there’s something interesting about the dancing eunuchs Titus didn’t send away….

Picture from

So there was a ballet, which had a couple of stage hands putting up barriers and dancing and then Titus and Berenice dancing.  There were many changes of cast announced in the programme, but Leanne Benjamin (in place of Alina Cojocaru) hollowed her back expressively as Berenice and Edward Watson (in place of Johan Kobborg) didn’t make much impression on me as Titus.  I enjoyed the music, by Ades out of Couperin, but in general I had the feeling that someone was trying to tug at my hearstrings and not managing to reach.

Then it was the interval and after the interval Winter Dreams.

I think this one comes from

This was some kind of balletic digest of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and it left me irritated.  What was that dreary trash by Tchaikovsky the poor pianist had to grind through?  (I see there’s a full listing on page 29 of the programme.)  What where those people doing dining noisily behind a scrim at the back of the stage?  Where was the bloody fire and the brass band?  During the interval, my companion said that it had satisfied her storytelling nature, but it would have been better with Darcey Bussell.

And to end with we got Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, a fine example of his everything-is-emphasised-so-nothing-is-emphasised style, and we might actually take more notice if you stopped kicking us in the balls mate.

Cheap Boheme Today (20 October)

October 20, 2010

ENO write:

See Jonathan Miller’s LA BOHEME at English National Opera
Wednesday 20th October 2010 at 7.30pm only

Save up to £69 per ticket (£84)


Go to: (feel free to cut and paste this link – and others in this email – into your browser if it doesn’t work from your email program)

– Select as Stalls seat
– When prompted, enter promocode MONKEYBOH
– Your tickets will be reduced to only £15 each

NOTE: There will be high demand for this offer.

Jonathan Miller’s production of Puccini’s powerfully popular opera returns in a first revival. The 2009 opening night made broadcasting history when Sky Arts simultaneously screened live both the onstage action and the backstage excitement.

Atmospherically updated to 1930s Paris, this uber-romantic story of young love blighted by sudden tragedy unfolds on cinematically realistic sets inspired by the iconic photographs of Cartier-Bresson and Brassaï.

Rising star Elizabeth Llewellyn – winner of the inaugural Voice of Black Opera competition – debuts as Mimì, while the role of Rodolfo is shared between Gwyn Hughes Jones (an acclaimed Pinkerton in Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly and Calaf in Rupert Goold’s Turandot) .

More info and video clips:
Public Reviews on La Boheme – 4.5 stars:
Terms and conditions:
£15 offer applies to stalls seats, normally priced £84/83. Offer only valid for performances on 20 Oct; only redeemable online; limited availability; offer is limited and at management’s discretion. Please check final due amount before processing as payment problems cannot be rectified afterwards. Offer only available online.

Promised End (Alexander Goehr) ETO Linbury Studio 9 October

October 10, 2010



Rehearsal photo from ETO Facebook site


We wondered whether those antlers were meant to look like a dragon:  How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child, perhaps.

When the opera began, it turned out to be  scenes from King Lear with Shakespeare’s text set as accompagnato:  there were some shortish choruses and the occasional instrumental interlude and at one stage the Fool and Tom/Edgar actually got to sing in unison….Hasn’t this been done before, stretching back to Dargomyzhsky if not further?

The main effect was that you couldn’t make out the words very easily, but there was a nice Japanesey production of ‘Scenes from King Lear‘ to look at.  Occasional choruses and instrumental passages offered hope of effectiveness.

At the interval, my companion said that she wanted some good Verdi-style tunes.  I said that it was certainly easier to make Shakespeare into an opera if you translated him into Italian–since he’d already put everything he wanted to say into the English text, adding music was superfluous.

It seemed to me that if you didn’t know the play you’d have little idea of what was going on and who those people were, while of course you did know it so the thing was just a static piece of commentary.  The characters did what they did not because of their personalities and the situations on stage, but because it had already been decided in another text.  So, like Ades’s Tempest, but not consuming resources on such a grand scale.   I found I could understand why Britten had decided to set Midsummer Night’s Dream–there were plenty of opportunities for the free addition of musical frivolity, unhindered by any cogency in the text.

I felt the second half was more promising–general reflections were generally given to the chorus ,  Tom (or Edgar) and the Fool actually got to sing together.  But there was complete silence as Gloucester gathered himself for his supposedly fatal leap, when surely one would expect some orchestral illustration or commentary or preparation in an opera…?  I was quite touched by the scenes between Lear and Cordelia, but not nearly as much as I should have been.


Picture from


At the end, my companion said there was no point in an opera where you didn’t like the music.  I felt that you didn’t need or want pretty, pleasant, or prepossessing music for Lear,  but a lot of operatic possibilities had just been passed up.  Why not have an overture for instance to establish the character of Lear and the general mood.  Why not have some ensembles, or extended orchestral passages?

Tolstoy complained with especial respect to King Lear that in Shakespeare the characters came on stage and mouthed general (often insufficiently moralistic) reflections on life, the Universe, and everything in a way that such a person in such a situation simply would not do.  But Shakespeare only had his characters’ words to work with–he didn’t have an Ancient Greek chorus (which is where their general reflections usually live) or an opera composer’s chorus, orchestra and everything else.  So I think you need to take a lot of the content out of the characters’ words and put it somewhere else if you’re doing an opera…

As ever in these situations, the performances and production were beyond reproach–you just felt they might have had more to bite on.   Perhaps Nicholas Garrett as Edmund came off best, certainly in the sense of us being able to understand his words.  Roderick Earl as Lear seemed to be rather too young, vigorous and compos mentis, but of course that’s an expectation based on Shakespeare rather than Goehr.  The fact that Nigel Robson (Gloucester) was the one singer I was familiar with, together with having read something to that effect, led me to think that the main point of this treatment was supposed to be the parallelism between Lear and Gloucester, but I don’t think it came out that way.


Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.

Is this the promised end

Or image of that horror?

Fall, and cease!

Onegin ROH Covent Garden 8 October

October 10, 2010




So now after having had the opera Eugene Onegin with the dances removed I tried John Cranko’s 1965 ballet Onegin.  This followed the story of the opera rather than Pushkin’s original.  The narrator, who is the main character in the original, would surely be rather difficult to represent in a ballet, but I think that the bears and assorted monsters from Tatyana’s Dream (as long as they got out from behind that damned table) would be naturals.

Anyway, we had the opera Eugene Onegin done as a ballet, but with the wrong music (still by Tchaikovsky), which was strange!  In fact there were three strange things about it:  it was the wrong music; a lot of it was pretty Tchaikovsky rather than overwrought Tchaikovsky; and since the extracts came from different works there was obviously no motivic consistency and it all seemed rather arbitrary.

The passages that worked best for me were where there was most deviation from the opera and so there was some freedom–for instance, when Tatyana and Olga tried to separate Onegin and Lensky before the duel.   But then in the duel itself Onegin just strode forward and shot Lensky, which makes no sense if you know the original.  There, Onegin, who comes from a much higher social class than Lensky and is an experienced duellist has no intention of shooting at Lensky until Lensky actually and incompetently takes aim and tries to shoot him, at which Onegin crossly thinks That twit could have hurt me , shoots, and fatally wounds him.  That tells you rather a lot about Onegin, and productions of the opera tend to preserve the same action.

The most effective scene was surely the final showdown between Tatyana and Onegin, where (on the one hand) the competition from the opera wasn’t so strong, (on the other) you got some proper overwrought Tchaikovsky in the form of Francesca da Rimini and (to be fair) the choreography was fresh and inventive as well.

This Year’s Biblical Hebrew Class

October 4, 2010

Note:  there is a page on studying Biblical Hebrew here that I update.  The posting below does not get updated.

Rachel Montagu writes:

Here is an outline plan for readings for this year’s Hebrew class.

Modifications are possible if people feel that there is another direction they would rather pursue, but this gives us a starting point.

We will be meeting 6.30-8.30 on Fetter Lane, London EC4.

As before, cost will depend on the final number enrolled in the class, but I hope it will be less than Birkbeck’s current rate. The cost will be more in the spring and summer term than this term because there will be 2 more sessions in those terms.

And here’s the programme (anyone interested is very welcome to email me):

Hebrew Outline 2010-11

Ruth – Tis Pity She’s A Moabitess

6th October Ruth 1

13th October Ruth 2

20th October Ruth 3

[27th October – half term]

3rd November Ruth 4

Noah – A Perfect Man in His Generation

10th November Genesis 6:5-22, 7:1-3

17th November Genesis 7:4-23

24rd November Genesis 8:1-22

1st December Genesis 9:1-28

Leviticus: Blessing and Holiness

7th December Leviticus 8:1-21

14th December Leviticus 8:22-36, 9:22-24, 10:1-11

12th January Leviticus 16:1-20

19th January Leviticus 16:21-34, 19:1-7

26th January Leviticus 19:8-28

2nd February Leviticus 19: 29-37, 20:1-12

9th February Leviticus 20:13-27, 21:1-17

Chronicles – David’s Story

16th February 1 Chronicles 10:8-14, 11:1-14

[23rd February half term]

2nd March 1 Chronicles 11:15-19

9th March 1 Chronicles 13:1-12, 15:1-11

16th March 1 Chronicles 16:1-21

23rd March 1 Chronicles 16:22-43

30th March 1 Chronicles 17:1-27

6th April 1 Chronicles 21:1-30

Ezekiel the Visionary

27th April Ezekiel 1:1-20

4th May Ezekiel 1:21-28, 2:1-9, 3:1-3

11th May Ezekiel 16:1-27

18th May Ezekiel 18:1-28

24th May Ezekiel 24:15-27, 37:1-14

[1st June – half term]

Ezra and Nehemiah: The Torah of Returning and Rebuilding

8th June Ezra 3:1-13, 10:1-12

15th June Ezra 10:13-18, Nehemiah 1:1-11, 2:1-7

22st June Nehemiah 8:1-18, 9:30-33, 10:1, 31-40


29th June Psalm 122, 123, 127

6th July Psalm 128, 131, 148

13th July Psalm 139, 61

20th July Psalm 40,

Whitehall: The Street that Shaped a Nation

October 3, 2010


As the author is keen to point out, this book is about Whitehall the place rather than Whitehall the synecdoche for ‘British Government’.  Chronologically it extends from the death of Eleanor of Castile in 1290 to the present day, more-or-less.  I’m rather less sure of the geographical extent:  the vague idea of ‘from Trafalgar Square to the Houses of Parliament’ will hardly do, since Trafalgar Square didn’t exist for the great majority of this period.

Indeed I generally suffered from a king of geographical unrootedness.  There is one map showing the Tudor Palace of Westminster overlaid on Whitehall as it was in 1900, but it rather lacks useful labelling and anyway 1900 Whitehall is not something I have a ready grasp of.  Otherwise, the author refers to places and you’re supposed to know where they are.  I can remember how in A Landing on the Sun Michael Frayn evoked Whitehall localities with deft touches of description, but then he was (is!) a professional writer…


Talking of Tudor palaces....


But I did learn some things from the book.  Richmond House (DH HQ) must be some kind of a pastiche of a Tudor palace–I just thought it was odd–though the book doesn’t actually say so.  There are set-pieces (often connected with sex) of Henry VIII, Horatio Nelson, Lady Caroline Lamb and Lord Byron, and I was interested by the description of the preparations for a last-ditch defence of Whitehall against German invaders during World War II.

These memories of outworn glorious time get a bathetic accompaniment as the author is keen to tell us where in his TV output David Starkey supported a particular point,  or that [John] Prescott used [rooms in Admiralty House] for an office Christmas party on 19 December 2002, at which he was photographed laughing dancing and carrying his diary secretary Tracey Temple in his arms.

As Colin Brown says, Whitehall today comprises a rather featureless collection of grey Palladian buildings, where you see tourists drifting frustratedly as they wonder where is it all?  And this book left me feeling the same way.