What is an ‘Oxford comma’?

I thought I knew all the obscure oddities of the English language until this little one was brought to my attention by a friend who knew I had an interest in such things (thanks Paul).

The Oxford comma, in its simplest terms, is an optional comma before the words ‘and’ or ‘or’ in a list. It’s apparently known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers and editors at Oxford University Press. It is also known as the ‘serial comma’.

This concept of course breaks a basic rule of punctuation (or one that I was certainly taught) that the words ‘and’ and ‘or’ are commas in themselves.

The concept is best illustrated by sentences that uses it:

These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.

This sentence obviously alludes to a product that is available in three two-coloured versions. If you take away the comma before the third ‘and’ it becomes ambiguous and could be interpreted at being available in five versions although I admit this is open to debate.

In this one it is perhaps more obvious:

Cider, real ales, meat and vegetable pies, and sandwiches.

The omission of the last comma would imply something unintended about the sandwiches.

The whole thing is, I’m sure, a rather small point but it is just another reason why I love the English language and all its peculiarities.

Has anyone noticed how small the National Lottery jackpots are now?

I have to admit that I do occasionally play the National Lottery. I don’t play it because I expect to win (I remember too much about the laws of probability for that!): I just play it for a bit of fun. What concerns me though is the way it has developed over the years.

When our National Lottery started in 1994 I seem to recall that there was only one draw each week on a Saturday. There were no scratch cards, Thunderball, Lotto Hot Picks, nor Plus 5 and the jackpot each week was usually, but not always, reasonably commensurate with the probability of winning it (i.e. more than the 13,983,816 to 1 odds).

There have been many attempts to try and explain, to those who are not mathematically minded, quite how astronomical those odds are – allow me to quote just a couple. It’s greater than the probability of throwing 24 coins in the air and them all coming down heads (or tails). It is also greater than the chances of the same number coming up four times on a roulette wheel (there are 37 of them for those who don’t know!) 

Now those odds haven’t changed over the last 19 years of course but the jackpot prize money certainly has. In the last six bi-weekly draws the payout, had they all been won, has averaged less than £2 million on a Wednesday and £4.7 million on a Saturday.

So what has happened?

I think it is fair to assume that the average gambler in this country only has a limited amount that he or she is willing to bet every week on a national lottery whatever the method. Back in 1994 they could only lay out that money all at once on Saturday tickets. Now with all the various draws and other miscellaneous ways of staking your cash, the amount they spend has seemingly been spread over the week and over those other methods. As a direct result, less has been spent on the weekly draws and the prize money has dropped accordingly.

So, as an example, if you had purchased the winning ticket on Wednesday this week (nobody did by the way) the return you would have got for taking a nearly 14 million-to-one shot with your £1 would have been a mere £1,842,395!

There is a more general debate to be had about whether you have ever got value for money out of Camelot. The probability of getting three winning numbers on your ticket is and always has been 0.01765 (or 57 to 1 in bookmaker’s terms). For achieving that, Camelot generously pay you out £10! How would you feel if you bet on a racehorse that was considered a ’50-1 shot’ in a race and when it won the bookmaker only paid you out £10?

Staying with this Wednesday’s results for a moment, here are the rest of the odds versus the payouts:

  • Four numbers – 1,032 to 1. Payout £51;
  • Five numbers – 54,201 to 1. Payout £1,452;
  • Five + the bonus ball – 2,330,636 to 1 (I think!) Payout £94,481

My apologies if the last probability is inaccurate but I’m working these out myself not looking on Camelot’s website (I know – I should get out more!)

Whatever your views on getting value from those that run it, in my opinion you rarely get value from the jackpot payouts now on a Wednesday or Saturday. The prize money has to roll-over for a number of draws before it gets anywhere near a ‘value-for-money’ payout. I believe Camelot should realise that by diversifying the ways people can gamble with them, they have devalued their flagship draw and should restore it so that it pays out a jackpot that at least vaguely rewards the risks people are taking with their money.

Proud to be English?

Today, and many of you could be forgiven for not noticing this, is St. George’s Day: our Patron Saint’s day; the one day of the year when we get the chance to celebrate our English individuality.

Now I’ve spent today looking for tell-tale signs of a festival atmosphere (flags, bunting, street parties, etc.) and judging by the sheer lack of it, I infer that we don’t seem very keen to embrace the aforementioned opportunity at all! I’ve seen one lorry bearing two cross of St. George flags, one mobility scooter proudly displaying just the one flag and quite honestly very little else. So what happened to that Great British patriotism that flourished so much during last year’s Olympics? Is it that we cherish being British more than we do being English or would we just rather sink a pint of Guinness with our Irish neighbours on 17th March and forget all about today?

In my youth, many people proudly wore red roses in their buttonholes on 23rd April (incidentally some also wore one on Trafalgar Day but that’s for another blog entry!) and many buildings flew the flag of St. George or the Union Jack. So why is it that we English seem to have largely given up on even the smallest gestures and seem so reluctant to match, even in a small way, the celebrations held by Ireland, Wales and Scotland?

I’ve often wondered why we adopted a Greek descended officer from the Roman Army born sometime around 280 AD who never came here as our patron saint in the first place although I’m fairly certain it is something to do with the Crusades. Saints Patrick and David have clear connections to Ireland and Wales respectively and St. Andrew’s relics were allegedly transferred to Scotland in the 10th Century. We are not alone in our patronage of St. George either: he is also apparently the patron saint of Georgia, Egypt, Bulgaria, Aragon, Catalonia, Romania, Ethiopia, Greece, India, Iraq, Israel, Lithuania, Portugal, Serbia, Ukraine and Russia. The story of St. George slaying a dragon is of course a legend but whatever the good Saint’s origins and good deeds, true or otherwise, I am reluctant to believe that the lack of enthusiasm for celebrating his saint’s day is anything really to do with it.

Of course if I were writing for the Daily Mail or Daily Express I would blame immigration: the home countries that mark their saint’s days more vigorously than us have a much greater indigenous population than England has ever had. I will admit that there has been a huge, possibly disproportionate, increase in the cultural diversity of the English population since I was a boy. I also accept that will undoubtedly have reduced the ratio of England’s inhabitants who are motivated to honour our traditions but quite frankly that is a lame excuse. Those of us born and bred here could, if we wanted to, push for today to be made a public holiday and put pressure on the relevant companies and organisations to plan and support celebratory activities. The sad fact of the matter is that we don’t.

Perhaps we feel we have too many public holidays? There are eight in each calendar year here in England and I would imagine that employers would not appreciate a ninth being introduced. However with two in May, couldn’t we ask the Government for one to be moved to 23rd April? We don’t do that either.

Whatever the reasons for our apparent apathy on the subject, I personally think it’s sad that we don’t take the time to celebrate the uniqueness of being English. I would love to see a greater celebration next year but I’m not holding my breath!

Surely not the motive…

When I posted earlier this week about the Boston Marathon bombings I had a theory about a possible motive that I didn’t mention. The very thought of it appalled me so much and I didn’t really seriously consider it. However as I read the live feed on the events happening now (8am-9am BST) in and around Boston I am beginning to think it might be a possibility.

The 26th mile of the Boston Marathon was dedicated to the 26 who lost their lives in the terrible shootings in Connecticut back in December 2012. As you’ll no doubt know, that incident has prompted America to once again review its gun laws. As a direct reaction to that review, many gun fanatics have protested that US politicians should be staging such a review. As I watched the carnage that resulted from Monday’s bombs in the 26th mile and knowing it had been dedicated to those deaths the thought just crossed my mind that the bombings might be related.

I have just read that police have engaged in a gun battle with “an heavily armed suspect” who has shot and killed a police officer and I am starting to wonder if that fleeting idea I had on Monday might be the truth.

I really, really hope I’m wrong.

“Daddy, why did somebody bomb a marathon?”

All parents know that children ask difficult questions but this one, from my nine year-old son, was one that I found particularly hard to answer while we watched the live news feed from Boston last evening. In reality he probably doesn’t understand why anyone would detonate a bomb anywhere at any time so I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies in that he limited his enquiry to 26.2 mile races.

I recall that soon after the Provisional IRA bombing campaign moved to London in 1973 I asked my parents a similar question about why people I had never met or knowingly upset had started bombing the city in which I lived. My father made a remark that is far too politically incorrect to publish even on the Internet but my mother, being somewhat calmer on the subject, suggested that I should read something about the history of Ireland. The rather brief chronology of events that I managed to find in the Public Library (for my younger readers that’s a place we used to go to before Google and Wikipedia) didn’t in anyway justify in my mind the terrorist action that was taking place but it certainly gave me an understanding of the ill-feeling that existed and in some small way answered my question.

So how can I answer the question posed by my son last night? What could possibly have driven someone (and I appreciate it might be more than one person) to plant two bombs near the finish of the Boston marathon?

One has to assume that publicity for a cause is the most obvious answer but at the time of writing this no person or organisation has claimed responsibility and with a state funeral happening here tomorrow there is already a danger of the whole thing becoming ‘yesterday’s news’ in the UK. In fact with the number of atrocities that happen in other parts of the world it is reasonable to assume that it will get relegated fairly quickly in news bulletins everywhere except in the USA.

So what else can have motivated such a cowardly attack on people merely watching runners achieve possibly their life-time dream of completing a marathon?

Having heard this evening that the two bombs are thought to have been set off in pressure cookers packed with metal fragments and ball bearings the perpetrator certainly seems to have been determined to inflict life-threatening and debilitating injuries on those nearby. Perhaps it is someone with a pathological hatred of the able-bodied? I must admit that doesn’t seem likely to me.

Even if the criminal who carried out this terrible crime is eventually caught we may never know why they targeted the Boston marathon. One thing I do know – nobody should be put off running in or watching the London Marathon next Sunday. If they are seeking both publicity and effect that would give the bomber a victory that in my opinion they don’t deserve.