Archive for February, 2010

The fifteen, twenty, thirty-year rules

Friday, February 26th, 2010

The government has published its response (PDF) to the review of the 30-year rule.

The rule itself is a bit of a historical oddity – a blanket rule saying that government records should be opened after thirty years is a hangover from before the “on-demand” FOI Act, where you can apply for material regardless of its age. However, it survives in Part VI of the legislation; any record is deemed a “historic record” at thirty years after creation, and as such loses a lot of its ability to be exempt from disclosure. A document which was originally kept secret because of commercial confidentiality, for example, loses this exemption after thirty years.

The review recommended reducing this to fifteen years; the government response has advised twenty. In Scotland, which is subject to a similar but not quite identical piece of devolved legislation, the time limit has recently been dropped directly to fifteen years, in three tranches, with full release being completed by later this year.

The counterproposals are, on the whole, sensible. Other than the fifteen/twenty year change…

  • The thirty-year rule will remain for a set of material: anything commercially confidential, anything sensitive touching on the devolved administrations, and the “effective conduct of public affairs” clause. It’s a little vaguely worded, and this worries me that in the eventual legislation we may find a much more flexible (ie, long) term for some material. How long is the average PFI contract for, for example?
  • The new system will be phased in a year at a time – so, for example, we would release records from 1981 and 1982 in 2011, then 1983 and 1984 in 2012, letting the threshold creep steadily down to 20 years. This is in contrast to Scotland, which tried to clear the backlog in a couple of years – but then, it’s a bigger problem.
  • There is to be a presumption in favour of anonymity for civil servants; names in records released as historical documents will be redacted unless decided otherwise or they’re very prominent.
  • The legal position of communications with the monarch is to be clarified; records will be absolutely exempt for twenty years, or five years after their death, whichever is the longer. This also applies to the heir and the second-in-line to the throne, but all other members of the Royal Family have a qualified exemption – they’re presumed closed, but can be released under request.

On the whole, good things. I’m moderately concerned by the alterations to the commercial confidentiality clause – by the time this report turns into a statute, that looks like it may drift into actually making things worse than the current state of affairs – but it is, to mangle the old quote, currently moving in the direction of goodness. The anonymity proposals I am not sure about – there are good reasons for it, but there are also serious impracticalities, especially from a historical perspective. The amount of redaction appropriate at the twenty-year mark may well not be the same as the amount appropriate a hundred years on, but if we only have the one point of release, we’ll be stuck with whatever decisions were made at that point. Hmm.

Some details emerge from the report that reflect things which’re already happening. The government has formally clarified that “special advisors” are indeed legally civil servants, and subject to the provisions of the Act; they’re also grinding slowly forward with making a number of additional bodies, including UCAS and the legally ambivalent academy schools, subject to the Act.

So, twenty versus fifteen. This is an interesting debate.

A key part of the philosophy behind the thirty-year-rule is to avoid governmental records being turned into political ammunition, and relatedly to reassure the authors that they don’t have to keep material off the record for fear of it later being used against them. (It’s assumed that once you’re retired or dead you can live with the opprobrium.) The main example of this is ministerial papers, but from this standpoint, fifteen years is often just a little too short – it would have meant, for example, that papers relating to Callaghan as Chancellor (1964) got released when he was Prime Minister (1979), and in the event Brown wins the coming election, he’d have the same issue.

The current government will have lasted fourteen years, almost at that threshold, and the previous one eighteen – it’s true that no-one held senior office through the Conservative period, but it does demonstrate how prolonged a spell in power can be. If the modern trend is to parties holding power for long periods with occasional grand shifts, which it may well be, twenty years is a little safer; it also covers for the rare case of someone, like William Hague, whose ministerial career seems likely to bracket one of the prolonged spells of opposition.

There’s also a good case to be made that for politically touchy material like, say, Brown’s records from the early chancellorship, it wouldn’t be released regardless of the threshold, due to the section 36 exemption, likely to prejudice the conduct of public affairs. But a fifteen year rule would imply the time and expense of specially auditing an entire tranche worth of departmental and cabinet records to decide if they’re sufficiently sensitive to be restricted, then doing it again a couple of years later once the person in question is out of office in order to clear them for publication. The extra few years would, presumably, sharply cut down the number of such cases; is it a worthwhile payoff from an efficiency standpoint?

I am ambivalent on this one, I admit.

In the Scottish context, of course, this is currently academic. Holyrood is not overly concerned with the prospect of a former Scottish Secretary looking a little silly, and there won’t be any Scottish Executive (as was) records released until well into the coming decade. On current form, it seems likely that with the less monolithic nature of devolved politics we’ll have shorter ministerial tenures, as well, and thus less need for the extra few years.

We shall see. It’s an unfortunately timed announcement, coming as it does just before an election, but hopefully whoever gets in will pick up the ball and run with it. It’s not something either side would particularly benefit from more or less than the other, after all – they all have ticking skeletons in the closet waiting for the cabinet papers to be released.

Recipe: roasted vegetable salad with feta and rocket

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

I am not a great fan of salads as actual meals. In my view, a salad counts towards your daily calorific intake the way oxygen does, and I probably consume them both with the same enthusiasm.

(And while I’m here, a quick thought. Nightline, that bastion of journalism, did a televised debate about whether it’s “okay” to be fat. Er. Anyway, anti-obesity activist MeMe Roth said this:

“We’ve gotten ourselves to the point where we’re behaviorally and neurochemically dependent upon food.”

Seriously. Seriously, she actually said that. Dependent on food. Like, I am so dependent on food, I can’t go a whole day without a fix of it. Sometimes my physical and emotional health suffers because I haven’t had any!

…ah, you get it. That people can actually say things like that – yeah. This comes entirely courtesy of Kate Harding’s Shapely Prose, which, for what it’s worth, is one of my favourite feminist blogs out there. I’m not much of a fat activist – to my sorrow and exceedingly large dollop of privilege, I pretty much resemble the societal ideal for how women should look in terms of body shape, only shorter, smaller breasts and a bit too brown – but certainly I agree with the central tenet that the media preoccupation with obesity, and body size, and the purported health dangers of the former, is not value-neutral science but comes with its own assumptions and prejudices. At its worst, it’s a well-disguised way to damage women, to make them sweat and obsess over their bodies, to drive them to constant distraction as a means by which they can be controlled. (Hey, the population is fifty-one percent women, the patriarchy can’t be everywhere.)

And more than fat acceptance, Kate Harding writes well about feminism, really well – unlike the mainstream blogs, she doesn’t tolerate racism, ableism, or in the case of Feministing a couple of days ago, just plain information fail. Consider this a rec.

This was going to be a recipe, wasn’t it? Normally I don’t approve as salads as main courses. Normally. But this one has lots of protein, and is tasty, and just about passes muster if you weren’t that hungry to start with. And, hey, it is tasty and you can always have some cake after.

You need:

-one large pepper, preferably red;
-handfuls of rocket, or baby spinach, or both, or anything else green and leafy;
-feta cheese, about 100g;
-a couple of slices of good ham;
-cherry tomatoes, a few;
-pine nuts or sunflower seeds or both;
-a small red onion or half a big one;
-nice olive oil.

De-seed the pepper, chop into rough chunks, halve the cherry tomatoes, cut the onion into slices. Put them all in a baking tray, douse well with lots of the nice olive oil, stick them in the oven at 180 degrees Centigrade for twenty minutes. (You’re not trying to roast them properly – just till the onion is edible and the tomatoes a bit squishy.)

Cut the feta cheese into chunks and crumble those into a big bowl. Rip the ham into small strips, and after the twenty minutes, add the ham to the baking tray and put it back in the oven for another five minutes, until the ham is curling at the edges.

Then, pour the contents of the tray into the bowl with the feta, mix well and be sure all the oil gets into the bowl, it’s lovely. Stir well, pour in some pine nuts or sunflower seeds, add handfuls of rocket or spinach, keep stirring until it’s alll mixed. Presto, done. And have some cake afterwards for the carbohydrate.

Sins of omission

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

BBC News:

Sachin Tendulkar created history with the first double century in one-day internationals as India thrashed South Africa by 153 runs in Gwalior.

The Guardian:

…the accolades that poured out of Gwalior after Sachin Tendulkar became the first batsman to score a double hundred in a one-day international, to lead India to victory over South Africa by 153 runs.

The Telegraph:

…the news that Sachin Tendulkar has scored the first double-hundred in one-day internationals.

…and, judging by Google News, around a thousand other journalists saying pretty much the same thing.

Of those thousand news stories, however, only one – the Independent Online in South Africa – manages to actually include a small but salient point:

…while Tendulkar is the first man to reach the magical number, [Belinda] Clark did it 13 years ago, against Denmark in the Women’s World Cup in India in 1997.

For those who follow the sport (unlike me, I admit), there’s an interesting article here on cricketing firsts which were actually first obtained by women.

The enemies of books

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Another old book on books, this time from Project Gutenberg:

The Enemies of Books, by William Blades [1888]

It breaks down the various threats to the survival of books by topic (fire, water, neglect, vermin, collectors, children…) and then lists a succession of anecdotes about collections destroyed in this way. Surprisingly interesting, in some cases, if a bit depressing; it’s interesting to know what has been lost over the years but is still known about. I wrote last month about the monastic libraries being dissolved at the Reformation; here is a contemporary writing about what happened to their contents:

A greate nombre of them whyche purchased those superstycyouse mansyons reserved of those librarye bookes some to serve their jakes, some to scoure theyr candelstyckes, and some to rubbe theyr bootes. Some they solde to the grossers and sope sellers, and some they sent over see to ye booke bynders, not in small nombre, but at tymes whole shyppes full, to ye wonderynge of foren nacyons. Yea ye Universytees of thys realme are not alle clere in thys detestable fact. But cursed is that bellye whyche seketh to be fedde with suche ungodlye gaynes, and so depelye shameth hys natural conterye.

I knowe a merchant manne, whych shall at thys tyme be namelesse, that boughte ye contentes of two noble lybraryes for forty shyllynges pryce: a shame it is to be spoken. Thys stuffe hathe heoccupyed in ye stede of greye paper, by ye space of more than these ten yeares, and yet he bathe store ynoughe for as manye years to come. A prodygyous example is thys, and to be abhorred of all men whyche love theyr nacyon as they shoulde do. The monkes kepte them undre dust, ye ydle-headed prestes regarded them not, theyr latter owners have most shamefully abused them, and ye covetouse merchantes have solde them away into foren nacyons for moneye

Recipe: rabbit stew (including surgery!)

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

On Friday, wandering through town after my haircut, I dropped into a butcher’s to buy a few sausages, or a bit of pork, or something. I came out with a rabbit.

I am not entirely sure how this happened. Still, never say die. What can you do with a rabbit? We thought for a bit, and decided on stewing. After consulting with the usual oracles (thanks, Ewan), this is what we came up with:


  • One rabbit, skinned and cleaned and rendered visibly less fluffy
  • Several slices of bacon
  • A handful of carrots, an onion, some garlic
  • A bottle of cider
  • Honey, some dried mixed herbs (or fresh thyme & bay, if you have it), salt, pepper
  • A large casserole dish, with lid, and an oven at ~120 degrees

First, start the bacon frying; when it’s lightly done, decant into casserole, and start on the onion and garlic ditto.

Meanwhile, prepare the rabbit. (…I suppose there are people who don’t want to read this…)

End result : one pile of rabbit meat (small), one skeleton fit for stock or feeding to any carnivorous animals you have around the house (small), one sense of achievement (medium). I don’t know if you can actually feed rabbit bones to small carnivorous animals, so you might need to check that bit first. Or bury it in the garden, dig it up in a year, and present it to a small child who wants to be a vet.

Anyway, when we went into surgery the bacon, onions and garlic were lightly sizzling. Decant them into the casserole, leaving the fat in the pan, and then fry your rabbit with enthusiasm. Get it nice and golden, and in it goes too. Chop the carrots into lumps, and in they go; add a couple of spoonfuls of honey, the herbs, salt, pepper, stir it all around. Top off with enough cider to cover it all; if you’ve not enough, then a little warm water to suit. (If you’ve too much, have a drink. Thirsty work.)

Pop it all in the oven at about 120 degrees for about two hours. (A little warmer or a little longer won’t hurt at all, of course). Serve with rice or bread or potatoes – something solid and absorbent. Serves two to four depending on whether you remembered to eat lunch.

Next experiment: do it with wine. Rabbit in red wine does sound delightful…

Geekitude and imposter syndrome

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

I have just discovered a new blog: Geek Feminism. What a fabulous idea, sayeth I – it’s a great mish-mash of women in science, women in engineering, women in Star Trek fandom, women in all of those and more, and how their experiences are different from men’s experience, and how geek culture can be viewed through feminist eyes.

I’ve been reading back through the archives, and just read this post: On geekitude, hierarchy and being a snob. It’s a interesting post in itself, and worth reading, but there’s an insight in it that I don’t think the author gives the weight it deserves, so I’m going to talk about it. It goes like this:

I think that what I do is easy. Simple as falling off a log. Anyone could do it. Yeah, I know a lot of things that allow me to do what I do, but they’re just things you could learn if you took the time.

Now the eagle-eyed among you can spot imposter syndrome a mile off, and while I know in a vague intellectual sense that I must be at least competent at what I do – otherwise, why would universities have admitted me to study it and organisations have employed me to do it? – it’s an astonishingly hard thing to internalise. And particularly, particularly for women. Women who are told all the time that math is hard, and that excellence is not for them.

Now it is true that if you knew what I knew, if you had read the same books, you’d realise how easy some of my daily tasks are. But, notes the author, but an expert also confidently says, “No. That’s far harder than you realize.”

I’ve never thought of that before. But I know when someone says something about my field – usually, “But why don’t you just sue them?” or “But surely that’s illegal?” – that is patently stupid. I can prove the negative. And I can know something because of my feel for what I do – because of my abilities, training and instincts, and not (just) because I’ve read a lot of textbooks.

So maybe I’m not terrible at what I do. Maybe I’m as good at it as the rest of the world thinks I am. And if I am, imposter of imposters, maybe you are too.

A government of piscines

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

I am a native Hindi speaker.

This is both factually accurate and entirely misleading. My parents are native Hindi speakers (well, one has it for a mother tongue and the other has it almost), and until I was five I spoke nothing else. Then, of course, the usual story – I learnt English fast, it displaced my Hindi almost as fast, pretty soon I was speaking English at home, etc., etc.

Nowadays I’m luckier than some and I haven’t forgotten it entirely, but my grammar is shaky and my vocabulary more so, and in a lot of ways it’s stalled at the five-year-old level. (I suspect this would have changed if I’d been educated in the language, but of course I wasn’t. I have at some point or another been formally taught English, French, Spanish, Italian, Welsh and Latin, but not a word in my original tongue.)

I learned how to read and write Devanagari script around ten years ago, and while it’s also at a five-year-old level, it means I can at least muddle my way through a dictionary. I have therefore decided that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood, and am going to use the dictionary to Learn Words. They are going to be Excitin’ Words. (In all seriousness – I lack the vocabulary, in Hindi, to function as an adult. “Water”, “sleep”, “house”, “tree”, “cold” – I’m fine with those. “Law”, “government”, “engineering”, “history” – any abstract noun or two-syllable adjective is beyond me. How do you address a lack this significant? By picking pages at random out of the dictionary!)

Today’s words:

लघुगणक (laghuganak) – “logarithm”. Why anyone would ever need this in conversation is beyond me, but that is what the dictionary provides. (So does Wikipedia!)

रदर्शनी (radarshan) – “fair”, as in a World’s Fair or expo. A fair that you go to eat candy-floss at is a mela, मेला.

मछली की जनता (machli ki junta) – which is not three words, and may not even be right. In my defence, “shoal” is one word in the English half of the dictionary, and one does often refer to shoals of fish is one is in the habit of discussing such things. However, in Hindi we apparently use a construction that translates to “the general public of fish”.

…I don’t even know. But, look, I learned words today! I shall update as and when I learn more.

(Also, one day I will learn IAST transliteration, but today is not that day. Please bear with me.)

Plus ca change

Friday, February 5th, 2010

From a Glasgow bookseller writing to The Bookman in February 1895:

…some publishers are doing their utmost to ruin the trade by selling to the drapers, who buy large quantities at reduced prices

(The “drapers” were, of course, the large general retailers. By the 1890s, the term was about as exact as calling Sainsbury’s a grocers.)

That was not the only complaint that could have been lifted straight from last week’s Bookseller. This one from 1905 –

…[the Bookman] was quite relieved to note that recently published children’s books, though dangerously full of humour, were not so absurdly grotesque as in recent years.

Both quotes are from Booksellers and Bestsellers: British Book Sales as Documented by “The Bookman”, 1891-1906 (2001) [JSTOR], a study of the most popular books sold in Britain at the turn of the century. (There were no bestseller lists per se at the time – the bulk of the article was an attempt to retractively construct one based on returns from booksellers. It is sobering how many of them are completely forgotten…)

Sloppy newspaper captioning

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Front page, top centre, of yesterday’s Telegraph, a large colour photograph of a man and a woman, with the prominent title “Premier League boss’s brothel visit”.

It takes until the middle of the text underneath – there’s no caption as such, and it’s below the fold – to clarify that this is him “pictured with his wife” rather than, say, photographic evidence for the story. Not the most well-thought-out move, there.

Crime statistics

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

A couple of interesting blog posts on the BBC – part 1, part 2 – about a recent set of crime statistics publicised by the Conservatives.

The basic gist of the Conservative claim is that violent crime is vastly increased over the past decade; the basic problem is that the method of recording violent crime changed in the middle of the period, to a much more “permissive” approach, where police were obliged to record a complaint rather than dismissing it. Which, unsurprisingly, tends to lead to a lot more reported crime, without actually saying anything about the underlying crime rates.

I suppose in an ideal world Labour would be running a campaign of “Do you really want to be governed by people who can’t read printed warnings on graphs?”, but sadly all we’ll get is a bit of he-said-she-said over the next two weeks and a few more people will be left beliving that the country is a far scarier place now than it ever was.