Letters to The Times (mostly unpublished)

David Fremlin

  • 7 November 2010
    The games people play
    It may well be right to think of terrorism as a "game" (Matthew Parris, 6 November), or perhaps rather as a sport, like bullfighting, with us as the bulls. But I am not sure he has got the rules right. I do not think that terrorists play against security services, any more than golfers play against greens committees. Terrorists, like matadors, play against each other, competing for fame and money. We should count ourselves fortunate that in the international game style is as important as body count. In the national leagues of Iraq and Mexico we see coarser versions of the sport.

  • 10 March 2010
    Mosques and minarets
    Dr Taj Hargey (10 March) tells us that minarets are not an essential feature of mosques -- just as, I suppose, spires and towers are not essential features of churches. But then he goes on to say that "modern sound technology" means that the call to prayer can be broadcast by other means. If someone were to propose a mosque in the vicinity of my own home, I should be much more concerned about the aural intrusion of high-amplitude low-quality recordings five times a day than about the visual intrusion of any tower. There might indeed be a certain charm in a human voice calling from a traditional minaret without electronic assistance.

  • 8 January 2010
    Sweeping snow
    Like others of my generation, I regularly walked to and from school in icy conditions. It seemed to me at that time that sweeping snow from pavements often made them harder to negotiate, since it removed crunchy snow, which gave a reasonable footing, and left ice patches, which did not. This is not a universal rule, and in settled subzero temperatures, in Central Europe or the Midwest, I have sometimes found myself grateful for a cleared path. But in normal southern English weather, melting in the day and freezing at night, I think that householders should indeed think twice before grabbing their shovels. At the least, they should check daily that the areas they have worked on are ice-free.
        On the other hand, a swept path with a scattering of coarse sand is almost always welcome, except to skiers; so if you have the sand, please go ahead.

  • 14 September 2009
    Travelling with the disabled
    As the father of a child with muscular dystrophy, I feel I must take issue with Simon Barnes ("Forget the frail or young", 14 September). There is a case for saying that operators of public transport, even the cheapest, should be required by law to make provision for the mentally and physically disabled. But given the logistical difficulties of loading and unloading aircraft, we cannot ask an airline to do this without prior notice, including notice of accompanying passengers who expect to be granted the same privileges.

  • 10 July 2008
    Bicycles on pavements
    In any space shared by pedestrians and vehicles, there must be an absolute rule that vehicles, whether bicycles or delivery vans, should give way to pedestrians at all times; in particular, when pedestrians stop, start or change direction without warning.

  • 23 February 2008
    You report (23 February) that 45% of patients think that polyclinics would improve healthcare. But the question asked was "how would a polyclinic in your neighbourhood affect healthcare?" I expect some people would feel that a doctor's surgery in their neighbourhood would improve their healthcare. The wording of the question must have distracted people from the one certainty about polyclinics, which is that they would, for most of us, increase the distance we have to travel. Even if (like myself) you live in an area where there are enough doctors to justify a polyclinic, such a clinic would require substantial parking space; and the difficulty of obtaining planning permission is likely to push polyclinics to the edges of towns, with corresponding problems for anyone who does not have the use of a car.

  • 23 February 2008
    Northern Rock
    Andrew Billen says (23 February) that "there needs to be an open, honest and reasoned debate about what is fair value for the Rock". This is just what there should not be. Northern Rock ran into the buffers because its directors, elected by the shareholders, bet the bank on a losing proposition (that there would always be other banks willing to lend them money). They had previously set up a structure which makes it nearly impossible to find out who has first call on repayments of many of the mortgages they have issued. In the circumstances, the Government should act as receivers. There should be no payments whatever to shareholders until it is clear that the money is there. If it is true that most of the money can be recovered, then shareholders should get it eventually; if not, not.

  • 8 September 2007
    Staying safe
    On page 23 today you give thirty column inches to the question "wouldn't you feel safer with a gun?" On page 27 you give two column inches to the unfortunate Kamilah Peniston of Manchester, who was killed with her mother's gun. I think myself that the news pages are a safer guide to real life than the comment pages.

  • 11 June 2007
    Caught short
    Concerning the dearth of public conveniences, may I make a modest proposal? Every establishment selling food or drink for consumption on the premises should be required, during opening hours, to permit any member of the public to use the customers' lavatories. They should have the right to refuse entry to the rolling drunk and other offensive persons; and there should be an opt-out for those willing to pay the local authority a moderate tax -- say 1% of turnover -- to provide public facilities of the conventional kind.

  • 20 October 2006
    Tough thinking, or thinking about toughs
    You tell us today that "thefts to the person are better known as muggings". I can recall three occasions on which I have been the victim of a "theft from the person" as defined by the British Crime Survey. Every one of these was a "stealth theft" - twice I have had my pocket picked, and once a bag was taken when my attention was elsewhere. In none of these was there any suggestion of violence. The BCS distinguishes two types of "mugging": "snatch theft", which is included in "theft from the person", and "robbery", which is included in "violent crime". Among my friends and acquaintances I have heard of many thefts and several assaults, some serious; but relatively few snatch thefts or robberies. Your deliberate confusion between offences which differ both in their effect on the victims and in the psychology of the perpetrators will make effective action to reduce crime more difficult.

  • 8 September 2005
    Seing Katrina coming
    The "Urgent Weather Message" of 28 August which you reproduce today seems to have been wrong on nearly every count. "At least one half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure. All gabled roofs will fall ... All wood-framed low-rising apartment buildings will be destroyed ... High-rise offices and apartment buildings will sway dangerously - a few to the point of total collapse. All windows will blow out." That makes five misses in a row. He was right that "most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks", but completely failed to anticipate the cause, the breach of the dyke between the city and Lake Pontchartrain.
        It is of course quite true that federal and state and city governments all behaved with disgraceful lack of foresight. They should never have allowed residential building below sea level in a hurricane zone.

  • 28 December 2003
    What should we teach?
    I was interested in Mr MacLeod's list (27 December) of things which ought to be taught in school. The only one that could be regarded as a "practical" skill is typing. All the others refer to administration and paperwork. In particular, I note that Mr MacLeod expects an engineering student to know the regulations concerning MoT tests, but not how to detect that a car's brakes or steering might be faulty.

  • 4 December 2003
    Universities and the outside world
    Once again we are told that American universities are far more successful than ours at building links with business. But is it not equally true that American businessmen are far more successful than ours at building links with universities?

  • 25 October 2003
    Racism in England
    A.C.Grayling (Review, 25 October) tells us that "it is only since the colonial era ... that racism has been a problem in Britain". Of course it matters less what you think of other races if you never meet them. But if he believes that anti-black racism was not endemic in pre-colonial England, he should read Othello.

  • 25 February 2002
    In praise of congestion
    Road space in this country is largely rationed by queueing, as many consumer goods were in the old socialist economies. To any classical economist this is an affront: surely it would be more efficient if some road users could pay other road users to go away. But the system as it now is has two great virtues. First, it is "fair" in the sense that middling rich and middling poor suffer the same traffic jams; so it helps us to cohere socially, to feel that we have the same troubles as everyone else. Second, it is "fair" in the sense that the congestion you suffer from is very closely related to the congestion you cause. The costs of congestion are borne by the users of crowded roads (and those whose lifestyles are sustained by such users) and nobody else. And this second kind of fairness is economically important, because it means that every driver is looking for ways of causing less congestion. Whenever you find that travelling by a different route, or at a different time, or not at all, makes your life easier, it will probably make other people's lives easier too.
        My own view (as a non-car-owner) is that there are good arguments for discouraging travel, and in particular for taxing road use more heavily than at present. But congestion is not one of them.

  • 17 February 2002
    How far can one go?
    Matthew Parris (16 February) has, as usual, an insight to offer; but his piece is marred by an extraordinary assertion. He tells us that the appetite for roads and cars is not infinite, and that "Britain is now about half way to a saturation point at which everyone who could use a car possesses one and makes use of it for most of their journeys". But that is not a saturation point. The saturation point would be when everyone travels as much as they would if they were millionaires and the roads were empty. And there is no sign whatever that we are approaching any such point. The vast increases in car and aeroplane travel over the last forty years have nearly all been "new" journeys, not replacement of travel by bus and ship. From the point of view of a traffic engineer, as for a health service manager, demand is still effectively infinite in the sense that any presently conceivable increase in supply will be immediately taken up.

  • 24 January 2002
    Cui bono?
    Why do you print these things?
        "Several lucrative parts of the [Post Office's] business have been hived off from the Royal Mail," you tell us this morning (24 January), "including Parcelforce". Parcelforce made a loss of £61m in 1999-2000 and £44m in 2000-2001.

  • 31 October 2001
    Being British
    Mary Ann Sieghart wants British Muslims to support the Anglo-American military actions in Afghanistan, and suggests that they are unpatriotic not to. I am not a Muslim, but I am opposed to the bombing campaign at present under way, and deeply resent any suggestion that this makes me un-British.

  • 6 September 2001
    The death of God
    Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor laments that Christianity in England and Wales has almost been vanquished. In Ulster it seems to retain its power.

  • 13 October 2000
    Impertinent questions
    I see that the National Consumer Council objects to insurance companies being allowed to ask clients if they have taken tests for Huntington's disease. Surely there is a perfectly simple strategy for anyone who (like myself) has reason to believe that they have a genetic predisposition to a particular disease. Insure yourself first and take the test afterwards. You can always let the insurance lapse later if it looks as if you won't make a profit on it.

  • 30 September 2000
    Is there anybody there?
    On page 5, in large print, I read "the Danish currency actually strengthened against the euro" following the half-percent rise in interest rates in Denmark. On page 50, in small print, I read that the krone closed at 12.499 to the pound (taking the midpoint of the quoted spread), following 12.201 the day before, that is, that the krone fell by 2.44%; while the euro fell 0.99%, from 1.6591 to 1.6755. You do not quote krone/euro rates, but clearly the krone in fact fell more than 1% against the euro in London trading. It seems not to have suffered so badly in New York.

  • 5 September 2000
    How close was it?
    You introduce Asteroid 2000 QW7 with the simile "like someone throwing a marble at your head and missing by a hand's width". Since the asteroid in fact missed by a distance of some three hundred times the earth's diameter, a better analogy would have been "like someone shooting at your head with an air rifle and missing by the length of three cricket pitches".

  • 2 January 2000
    Fitting the crime
    Mr Hayes asks (1 January) what possible use tagging can be in Jonathan Aitken's case. Sending Mr Aitken home is kinder and cheaper than keeping him in jail. Requiring him to wear a tag is a reminder, to him and his family and his friends, that he attempted to gain a large sum of money by lying, and has not yet fully purged his offence.

  • 3 December 1999
    Dropping out
    Baroness Blackstone tells us that "high dropout rates [in universities] are evidence of an inefficient use of taxpayers' money". But surely the really inefficient use of taxpayers' money is when universities are pressured to keep students on who are not learning anything - indeed, in some cases, not even attending classes.

  • 4 September 1999
    How will they ever learn?
    The current rapid rise in price of certain types of housing, while not yet serious, is surely a cause for concern. This may be an appropriate moment for a small change in the law which would moderate the inflationary effect of this boom without the damaging consequences of a rise in interest rates. If borrowers were given the right to cancel mortgages by abandoning mortgaged properties to the lenders, there could be no `negative equity' trap. The risk of a fall in house prices would be transferred from borrowers to lenders, who are in most cases in a better position both to forecast the danger and to bear it if it happens. In the meantime, it would impose a salutory discipline on lenders, which would almost automatically prevent the worst excesses of 1988-89 being repeated.

  • 2 September 1999
    How far will it go?
    Nigel Hawkes has misunderstood Hooke's Law. Ut tensio sic vis, `as the stretching, so the force', is a mnemonic, not an unambiguous statement of the full claim. Hooke's Law does not say only that to extend a spring farther you have to pull harder. It claims that the force needed is actually proportional to the extension; trebling the force takes you three times as far, not twice or four times. As one of the early examples of proportionality of disparate quantities, confirmed by experiment, it deserves its modest place among the foundation stones of modern science.

  • 4 January 1999
    Going away
    I am sure that Mr Bryant (4 January) is right in suggesting that, for primary school children at least, a family holiday can be educationally as useful as the same period at school. But I am afraid that he may be encouraging his children to believe that regular attendance isn't important. As a university teacher I sometimes find myself having to speak rather sharply to first-year students who seem to think that it's my job to sort things out when they skip classes.
        On the other side, as a parent, I think my own sons' teachers ought to be quicker than they currently are to tell us what topics the children are missing when, for illness or any other reason, they miss school; since it is surely the parents' duty to help fill any gaps.

  • 24 August 1998
    Getting what we pay for
    Mr Gillespie (22 August) reasonably remarks that few businesses expect to run successfully on product lines which are unchanged for decades. Examination boards are operating in a highly competitive market with sophisticated customers (the schools) who are themselves under great pressure to deliver the highest possible scores for league tables. Our examiners are paid by results, and are delivering them.

  • 21 July 1998
    Checking the numbers
    Michael Gove calls himself a romantic conservative. I fear that in his assessment of amazon.com it is the romanticism which is dominant. Undoubtedly their shares have done very well. But the figures show that after three years' trading they are still losing twenty cents in every dollar of sales. Few bank managers would allow a high street shop to call itself a success on such a basis.

    Note added 8.11.10: Most of the letters in this series have worn well, in that I am willing to stand by the opinions they express. In the present case, however, I should recognise that Gove's romanticism did not lead him astray. In the second half of 1998 he could have bought Amazon shares for less than $20; today's range brackets $170. He would have had a rough ride (the shares were $5.50 in October 2001) and he would have received no dividends; but the company is flourishing and has changed our lives.

  • 14 July 1998
    Pulling the ladder up
    It is always depressing when eminent persons, having themselves received good educations, maintain that others do not need the same advantages. The object of primary school arithmetic is not that every adult should know what nine eights are. It is that everyone should have enough familiarity and confidence with numbers to be able to critically examine those presented to them, and to say, when appropriate, that must be wrong. For this, division is probably more important than multiplication. To make sense of the 13 numbers which I find in your leading news item today ("Stricter control imposed on public sector pay"), I think we need one addition (£109.35+£7), two subtractions (4%-2.5%, 2002-1999), and two ratios (£7:£5, £116:£75). (Perhaps I should add another ratio, 50 meetings:40 pages.)
        Of course it is quite true that the real business of mathematics is with "understanding" rather than with "facts". But once a child has been successfully conditioned to respond in the same way to "four fives" and to "five fours", there is at least a chance that the penny will drop, and they will have a lifetime in which to seek to understand that insight.

  • 15 May 1998
    Keeping up with the crowd
    If the Principal of Heriot-Watt University had felt concerned that the academic standards of his university were slipping, and had circulated his staff suggesting that they should award 10% fewer first and upper second degrees, Heriot-Watt would have been two places lower in your league table today.

  • 16 October 1997
    How far do we need to go?
    Mr Graham Serjeant (October 16) is quite right in saying that public transport cannot provide the kind of mobility which people are coming to take for granted. I believe he is wrong in assuming that these expectations ought to be satisfied. Of course any proposer of a self-denying ordinance has to satisfy a heavy standard of proof before asking his fellow-citizens to renounce something they plainly want. But we have come to the point in most of Europe where the private car is threatening not only our physical environment (and I agree with Mr Serjeant that chemical pollution is amenable to technical solutions, if we are willing to pay the price), but also our social environment. Most of us now spend a substantial amount of time in a hostile ambience, competing for space with strangers without even seeing their faces. The occasional homicidal outburst of road rage is only an extreme response to the inhuman stresses to which we are all subject.
        I see no way forward except a gradual increase in road taxation to the point that people start planning their lives to minimise their travelling. I quite agree that the money ought not to be spent on public transport subsidies, which we must assume, on past experience, would be mostly wasted. It should be used to reduce income tax for the low-paid. I want my grandchildren to grow up in a country where decent education and health care are available to all, and the flexibility and comfort of private motoring only to those willing and able to pay for it, rather than the other way round.

  • 31 July 1996
    The value of a degree
    Dr Foster (July 29) is correct in saying that complete independence in issuing degrees is one of the defining characteristics of universities. For nearly two hundred years, this custom has served us well. But in the hundred years before that, it did not. Eighteenth-century dons were accused of corruption and idleness. Modern dons are not idle, and as individuals they are honest. But our institutions are being insidiously corrupted by the conditions under which they work. Instead of candidates competing for places, universities are competing for applicants; and there is a real danger of Gresham's Law applying to the currency of university degrees. The public, whether as taxpayers or students, have a right to know that universities are successfully imparting knowledge, skills and understanding, and I see no way of ensuring this without some element of external assessment of graduates.

  • 7 May 1996
    Doing it right
    Your discussion of reading standards, though welcome, is in danger of encouraging sterile polemics on the "proper" way to teach reading. When I look at the way my own family have learnt to read in the last two generations, variants of the "real books" method seem to have been very successful; but this has nothing to do with any virtue of the method, as such, and a great deal to do with the assumption, automatic in any responsible family, that parents will devote as much time as is necessary to helping their children to learn. I estimate that most of us needed between fifty and a hundred hours of individual tuition to get properly started. Mr Woodhead is surely right in saying that schools' achievements need to be checked by objective testing of their pupils. But if he wants to actually improve standards, he must make sure that someone has the time to do the job properly.

  • 21 July 1995
    The right to death
    My mother took an overdose of morphine, with the full support of her family. When my time comes I may well choose the same way. I believe that the right to end one's own life is as fundamental as any human right can be.
        But this has no connexion whatever with any right to kill a toddler who screams at night. If Mr and Mrs Stewart feel - as all parents sometimes feel - that they cannot bear it any more, they should, at worst, leave their son on a doorstep and ring the bell.

  • 17 October 1994
    Let's go back
    Mr Howarth (17 October) is asking the wrong question. Nobody thinks it possible, and practically nobody thinks it desirable, to eliminate all private motor transport. A reasonable first aim would seem to be to reduce the use of cars to what we had ten years ago. The question Mr Howarth should ask himself, therefore, is what would induce him and his neighbours to return to their habits of 1984.

  • 18 May 1994
    Telling the world
    Professor MacDowell's letter (17 May) is disappointing. One would have hoped that a professor of Greek would have had some interest in the achievements of that astonishing people, and would have wanted his students to know something of the ways in which they made it possible for us to think about the world. When someone who knows classical Greek is ignorant of the heirs of Eudoxus and Anaxagoras, one has to wonder whether his gifts of communication are of any use.

  • 25 May 1991
    Staying upright
    I was sorry to see you repeat (third leader, today) the story that a bicycle is held upright by the gyroscopic effect of its rotating wheels. The calculation is, or used to be, routine second-year-undergraduate mathematics, and shows that on any ordinary bicycle at any ordinary speed the gyroscopic effect is far too small to be useful. Actually, a cyclist stays upright by adjusting his body angles and his steering.
        It is of course a pretty story, and I am reluctant to take on the unattractive aspect of the debunker. But the real objection to false marvels of this kind is that they blind us to true marvels: in the present case, the miracle that people can learn to cycle. Somehow, nearly all of us can quite quickly learn this totally unnatural skill - to be sure, it is easier than walking; but for our skill in the latter we can appeal to three hundred million years of evolution for an explanation. In cycling we see a wonderful example of the way in which abilities developed for one evolutionary "purpose" can be adapted to a totally different use.

  • fremdh@essex.ac.uk

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