23rd December 1994 at 00:00
After all the rumpus about the choice of schools made by Labour's leader Tony Blair (grant-maintained, eight miles from home) and education frontbencher Peter Kilfoyle (prospective grammar, league-table topping but one mile from home), it is perhaps time to turn our attention to the thorny subject of nursery education.

Since Prime Minister John Major announced that pre-school provision was A Good Thing and would be officially aided and abetted by his Government, the Education Department reluctantly ground itself into reverse with then minister Emily Blatch extolling the virtues of playgroups.

Things were speeded up somewhat when the foot-dragging John Patten was replaced as Secretary of State by Gillian Shephard, but the fact remains that although lots of work - and even a curriculum - is going ahead, the Government is obviously keen (a) to do it on the cheap (b) not to elevate the more expensive nursery schools option and (c) not to give education authorities a boost by giving them the cash to set up new nurseries.

Since Mrs Shephard inherited two school-age stepsons, she has had little opportunity for personal knowledge of the sector. However, she might wish to chat to Cabinet colleague Virginia Bottomley, who, it turns out, sent at least her two eldest children across the Thames to attend Tachbrook, a council-run nursery school in Pimlico.

This was apparently a popular choice for middle-class parents in Stockwell, just south of the river - even though they were technically outside the borough of Westminster - thus depriving local kiddies of its benefits.

As ace detective Sherlock Holmes might have said, what we appear to have is a case of the dog that didn't bark. "What struck us is how very unfair it is of her to have done this, and yet she's never said nursery education was available to her and everybody's children should have it," whispers Carborundum's mole. "And her Department gives money to playgroups ... but if she thinks they are so wonderful, why didn't she send her children to one?"

Happy news reaches us from Parliament, where Ann Taylor - formerly shadow education secretary and now the Opposition's Leader of the House - is over the moon.

For such is her footballing expertise that she spent December as top MP in the Daily Telegraph's Fantasy Football League for several weeks and has been anxiously awaiting publication of a new table to find out if she has been knocked off the top.

Mrs Taylor is, frankly, dotty about the sport as her fantasy team name indicates. It's called Motherton - a mixture of Motherwell and Bolton, the two teams she is to be found supporting most weekends. Mixed loyalties? She was born in the Scottish town and represented the other as its MP for several years.

Carborundum learns that it came as something of a surprise when Mrs Taylor found herself at the top of the Commons league. Perusing the first MPs Top Ten table of the season - 65, mainly males, have conconcted their dream teams for a top limit of Pounds 20 million - she discovered not only that she was six points clear of the front-runner but that her name was missing, leaving her as sick as the proverbial parrot.

A call to the Daily Telegraph later, Mrs Taylor - a close friend of veteran footballer Sir Stanley Matthews - was reinstated at the top of the table, possibly the first time she has ever been in favour of such a thing.

Excellent though Mrs T's Pounds 19.9m team undoubtedly is, members appear to have been chosen as much for the difficulty in spelling their names as footballing ability: they include Klinsmann, Srnicek, Bjornbye, Curle and Kanchelskis. But at least the team name is OK, compared to those of fellow parliamentarians. Former sprinter Seb Coe manages the Front Runners, Eurobore Sir Teddy Taylor runs Teddy's Trouncers and Labour Machiavelli Peter Mandelson's lot are called the Red Menace. "More than a hint of irony there, " smirks a Lobby regular.

Pulling Christmas crackers in the gloom of Chateau Carborundum, we muse idly on the sort of intelligence which concocts the unversally dreadful jokes to be found within. And now we know. Apparently, a joke-compiling computer program has been installed at Edinburgh's Department of Artificial Intelligence.

It seems the sole purpose of the Joke Analysis and Production Engine, mark I - aka JAPE1 - is to generate the ghastly puns generally found in infant schools and Christmas crackers. The academic justification is "to understand how ambiguity in language can be used to produce humour."

"No one has really looked at humour despite it being so commonly quoted as one of the key areas that distinguishes human thought from machine intelligence. What we hoped to do was to demystify humour, by showing that some subtypes of humour can be modelled formally and generated by computer," explains Canadian student Kim Binsted.

Her pedigree as a comedy performer in Edinburgh, Montreal and Vancouver filled Carborundum with some hope of getting a decent joke out of the thing at the end of its first five months. Such hopes were swiftly dashed, as the following highlights demonstrates: What do you call a ferocious nude? A grizzly bare.

What do you call a good-looking taxi? A handsome cab.

What do you call a grain that murders people? A cereal killer.

Twenty per cent of output to date is reputedly too bad to be recognisable as jokes, but work continues, according to the University's Bulletin: "The most heartening result for the researchers was that several of the judges claimed to have heard of some of JAPE's jokes before."

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