On pennies

The BBC has an article on whether or not the UK may end up withdrawing the penny as too small.

What the article apparently has forgotten, when carefully noting the examples of Canada, Australia, Brazil and New Zealand, is that the UK has withdrawn currency for being too small – the halfpenny circulated until the end of 1984 (you still found a couple in the backs of drawers when I was small). (It’s not the only coin to have been withdrawn in living memory; the pre-decimal farthing was withdrawn in 1960 as too small.)

It’s informative to look at how little something had to be worth to be withdrawn then. Using RPI, in 1960, 1/4d was worth £0.0196 (2011 values). In 1984, 1/2p was worth £0.0131 (ditto). The penny is worth substantially less than either earlier coin was at the time of its withdrawal…

The origins of “scientists”

(Hello all! I haven’t touched this blog in months. I really should post an update soon…)

So, today is Ada Lovelace Day. I’m working on preparing some material for the Royal Society event we’re running on Friday (more of which anon), and looking at Orlando to find what content is in there.

To my surprise, for Mary Somerville, it notes:

March 1834: Mathematician William Whewell’s anonymous assessment of On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences by MS in the Quarterly Review took up the question of gender difference (and proposed the adoption of a new word, ‘scientist’). This word, which Whewell had coined in a talk in 1833, he now proposed in print as necessary to embrace all enquirers into different aspects of the natural world.

Well, that was an unexpected footnote. The word “scientist” first appeared in print in response to a review article by a woman writing to argue for a uniform model of the natural sciences.

scientist, n. 1. A person with expert knowledge of a science; a person using scientific methods. [citations:] 1834 Q. Rev. LI. 59.

The encyclopedia anyone can [be told to] edit

A moment of amusement, from the (thankfully) long-distant past:

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, which contains more than 100,000 entries and fills fifty-one volumes, includes some distortions so flamboyant as to be beyond belief. These are an old story. But such distortions have importance […]

Almost everyone has heard about what happened to Beria in the Encyclopedia. After his liquidation, subscribers were notified, with full instructions, that they should snip out the article about him and insert in its place substitute articles which were duly enclosed, about the Bering Strait and an obscure eighteenth-century statesman named Berholtz. These were the best available substitutes beginning with ‘Ber’. During Stalin’s day when the party line changed on some matter so important that the Encyclopedia itself had to be changed, subscribers were obliged to turn in the volume affected to the party secretary; it was pulped and a new whole volume, cut and patched, was then sent out to the subscriber. Nowadays the reader is allowed to keep the book, and trusted to make the proper emendation himself. Progress!

Another person ‘expelled’ from the Encyclopedia was a Chinese Communist leader, Kao Kang. To replace him, a substitute page went out dealing with a city in Tibet. […] In their haste to make the revision, the editors overlooked the fact that the same Tibetan city also appeared elsewhere in the Encyclopaedia, spelled differently.

— John Gunther, Inside Russia Today (Penguin, 1964).

Moments of peace

We think of the Armistice as being a moment of flags, of applause, of music in the silent air. But, for many, it was just a quiet morning; millions of men, sitting in the dust and the frost, looking around them and wondering what to do next. An eyewitness:

November 11th.—There had been so much talk of an armistice that a Brigade message in the morning telling us of its having been signed at 8 o’clock, and that hostilities were to cease at 11, fell somewhat flat. The event was anticlimax relieved by some spasmodic cheering when the news got about, by a general atmosphere of ‘slacking off for the day’, and by the notes of a lively band in the late afternoon. The men betook themselves to their own devices. There was a voluntary Service of Thanksgiving in the cinema which the Germans had built; the spacious building was quite full. […] ‘To me the most remarkable feature of that day and night was the uncanny silence that prevailed. No rumbling of guns, no staccato of machine-guns, nor did the roar of exploding dumps break into the night as it had so often done. The War was over.

November 12th.—Baths were a first concern.

— The War The Infantry Knew, 1914-1919, ed. Capt. J.C. Dunn.

Restorative justice, sixteenth-century style

From the evening’s reading:

In 1547 Janet Bruce’s priest told her to go on to the High Street of Edinburgh, donate a wax candle to a chaplain, seek out Isobel Carrington, and say to her, in front of witnesses and in good Scots: ‘I grant here before three honest persons that I have fairly and wrangfully injurit and defamit you, sayand and allegand you are ane common bluidy whore. I knaw nothing but ye are ane honest woman and keeps guid pert to your husband.’
Janet was to say also to Isobel’s husband, Robert: ‘I failit far to you and your wife calling you ane cuckold, whilk I confess is nocht of verity for your wife is ane honest woman.’
For the sake of satisfaction on every side, Isobel was then to go to Janet and say: ‘Ye are ane honest woman, I never knew that ever ye swiffit with the auld official, and insofar as I rehearsed the samen I ask God forgiveance and you.’

Edinburgh: a history of the city, Michael Fry, 2009

Give or take the ‘swiffit’, not much change there in four hundred and sixty years.

Photos: three approaches to memorialising

I have been without any working internet connection for a couple of weeks now, so no photographs of the last trip yet. Have some old ones, instead, for the 11th; these are from a trip to Normandy earlier in the year. Three national war graves; three approaches to commemoration.



The entrance to a British cemetery – one of many scattered around the countryside – in Bayeux.


Monumental architecture.



The lists of names, for those never found, and the ubiquitous poppy.


The lines of white headstones – all differently carved, but identically shaped – are offset by the plants.


Those who died together were buried together, known or unknown.


Bayeux Cathedral – which, by strange fate, came through the fighting untouched – looming over the cemetery.


A second cemetery – smaller, and more pastoral, hidden down a dusty lane in a small village near the Orne.


Note the variety of insignia, carved individually.


An Australian airman, far from home.


…and closer to home, a Frenchman. Buried here as a British soldier – “Commando Anglo-Francais No. 4” – but with a distinct headstone, presumably in the French style.




German war cemeteries are… flat, and dark, and bleak. A fraught question; how should the conscript soldiers of a hated – and defeated – army be remembered in an occupied land? The answer, apparently, is “unobtrusively”, and as far from triumphalist as possible.



Heinz Molesch was eighteen and three months. Konrad Kasprsyk – a Polish name? – was eighteen and four months. One of these headstones – men were almost always buried in pairs, under a flat stone – had the name of a soldier and another, given as “mädchen” – young woman. There is a story there, lost to the decades along with her name.

United States


The American cemetery – this is on the bluffs above Omaha Beach – is simply a sea of crosses, in white marble with inscribed names, rolling across the landscape.


…or the absence of names. The headstone just behind is of one of the handful of women buried here.



The graves make a strict geometric line; it’s almost mesmerising. Note the small scattering of Stars of David – five in these two pictures, I think – and the lines sweeping down to the coast in the background. The cemetery is built on the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach; it’s concealed behind the rise of the cliff, perhaps a quarter of a mile away at most.

Vexatious litigants

From Alan Harding’s A Social History of English Law, 1966:

The chancellors of those days were busy administrators who would stand no academic nonsense: Lord Chancellor Ellesmere in the reign of James I ordered that the Warden of the Fleet should lay hold on an equity pleader who had drawn a replication of 120 pages where 16 would have done, “and shall bring him unto Westminister Hall … and there and then shall cut a hole in the middle of the same engrossed replication … and put the said Richard’s head through the same hole … and shall show him at the bar of every of the three courts within the Hall.”

Firing generals

This article in the Guardian, on Obama’s firing of McChrystal in Afghanistan, mentions past firings of military officials by US presidents, including MacArthur in 1951. That case was a pretty close match to this one – a field commander had publicly criticised the political direction of an ongoing war. and after a bit of back-and-forth he eventually got sacked.

It seems a good moment to drag out one of my favourite comments by Truman, his retrospective summary of that situation:

I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.

(Incidentally, the comment at the bottom of the page is interesting – one of Truman’s last acts as President was to destroy embarrassing material in Eisenhower’s personnel file. Would you get that now, you wonder?)

Glossing over the past

I don’t normally take umbrage with the tone of BBC News stories – at least, I usually only get annoyed when they’re actually wrong, not just a bit confused. But this is pretty bad even if unintentional:

The memorial, which should be built by 2012, will commemorate the 55,573 crew of Bomber Command, with an average age of 22, who were killed in World War II.

Its role was to attack Germany’s airbases, troops, shipping and industries connected to the war effort.

During the war the command ensured the damage caused to London’s squares, streets and parks from German bombs was not as extensive as it could have been.

I am all for the memorial. We should remember and honour these men; they died because we asked them to, and in terms of sacrifice for a limited return, the strategic bombing campaign was only a few notches below the Somme; we as a nation kept hammering at a brick wall for the desire to do something, and lost an awful lot of lives unnecessarily.

But… if we are to memorialise it, we should remember the full context, not just cherry-pick the nicer bits. We should remember that when we sent these men out to die, we were, at the same time, asking them to do something that we would now consider beyond the pale.

The description the BBC give is at best misleading. What did we use Bomber Command for? We used it, almost without exception, for strategic bombing of Germany; what that meant was massed bomber raids of urban areas with the aim of destroying industry, infrastructure, and residential areas in equal proportion. To quote Arthur Harris, the man responsible for carrying out the policy:

The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive … should be unambiguously stated. That aim is the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany.

You don’t get much blunter than that, really.

It’s sixty-five years since the end of the war, almost to the day. Surely we have enough distance, enough perspective, that we don’t need to ignore our history, or to cast it in the one-sided mould of wartime propaganda. We really don’t need journalism which – even unintentionally – suggests the deliberate killing of hundreds of thousands of people and the destruction of entire districts of cities were merely attacks on military infrastructure or, somehow, a way of protecting our own cities from suffering a much lighter version of the same.

That way lies a very worrying relationship with the past.

Thought for the day

The lowest vote share a party has taken in a general election and still held a majority is 38% – the Conservatives in 1923. Labour formed a minority government in 1929 on the back of 37.1% of the vote share; and a minority government again in February 1974 on the back of 37.2% of the vote. …35.3%, in 2005. Goodness, do I feel a bit silly for missing that one – thanks cim for spotting it.

It’s likely that whatever result we get on Thursday, we’re going to break that record; barring a sudden Conservative surge, a hypothetical narrow-majority government will have the lowest share of the electorate’s support any majority government has ever had. A minority Conservative government – if the Lib Dems pass up coalition – would quite possibly, again, have the lowest level of support recorded for a sole party in power.

Reassessing: on current polling, it’s likely the Conservatives will either form a majority government on slightly above the 2005 vote-share, or potentially a minority government – if a Lib-Lab coalition fails – on slightly below it. Not the best of omens for making sweeping changes, but it’s remarkable to see the dramatic difference – in seat numbers and in general perceptions of strength – between what the Conservatives would get with 36% tomorrow, and what Labout got with 36% half a decade ago.