Tuesday, 20 June 2017

BT help, BT — help!

BT help, BT — help! 

I wonder if readers will think I am paranoid in seeing a possible malfeasance in the following story.

I get a crescendo of letters and emails from my Internet Service Provider (ISP, namely BT) suggesting I upgrade to 'Infinity Broadband'. (I ignore these as the 15 megabit/s download rate is sufficient for my needs). The last email from BT said they would waive the conversion fee of £50 if I decided to upgrade before 23rd June. Then my hub becomes disconnected from the internet for two or three hours on Sunday afternoon, which is distressing because we spent several wasted hours trying to transfer money in Mexico. Then we are connected again, till Monday noon. Then disconnected again during Monday afternoon when the Mexican banks become open (BST+6hrs).  I phone the helpline and a young welsh woman spends some 45 minutes “running tests” all of which come up negative. So BT say there is “no fault” and therefore no way they will replace or upgrade my hub free of charge. 
The only remedies she could offer were (a) to replace at a cost of £50 the hub(1) I currently have and remain on the same monthly contract as at present, or (b) upgrade ‘free' to a new hub(2) and contract at a considerably higher monthly cost, or (c) a mixture of the two whereby I pay £20 to come onto a moderately raised monthly rate. 

I say there certainly is a fault; and the service, for which BT and I are contracted, is failing, with no apology from BT and no mention of compensation. Not only that, but BT has failed to find the fault, and thereby wasted another hour of my time.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The need for Proportional Representation

Is there an honourable case against Proportional Representation?


It struck me recently, that there would have been no need for a referendum if we had had proportional representation (PR) in the House of Commons. So, who is against PR? And why? 
     One prominent Tory MP is recorded as saying: “The principle argument against the present system is that it is not fair – it is not a proportional system. However, proportional representation is a narrow concept. The ‘proportionality’ relates only to the relationship of votes to seats and not to the proportionality of power. Under PR, 10% of the votes are designed to produce 10% of the seats, but not necessarily 10% of the negotiating power in the House of Commons. Indeed, a party with 10% of the seats may be in a position to wield disproportionate negotiating power.”
     She seems to be raising two objections to PR; that it is a “narrow concept”, and that while the votes may be distributed fairly under PR, the power is not. I do not understand the first point, unless it is intended as a summary of the second point. The second point is familiar. Politician on left and right have long been aghast at the thought of centre parties holding “the balance of power” whether under a Tory minority government or a Labour. But surely this is a relatively simple error. 
     Suppose the House of Commons contains 300 Tories, 280 Labour, 30 Lib-Dem. Suppose, on a Tory motion,  Lib-Dem and Labour MPs vote (in a principled way) against, and the motion is therefore defeated. The power that defeated the motion does not reside in the Lib-Dem portion of the opposition, but in all 310 opposers !  The motion is defeated only if there are more MPs against the motion than for; each MP counting for one vote. Surely I have said enough!
     My protesting Tory MP seemed worried that centre parties in a proportional parliament have more power than extreme parties.  But that is also nonsense isn’t it?  No one can seriously advocate disenfranchising the moderate middle merely to give the extremes a chance to govern!  It is a lunatic suggestion. Anyone who is against the moderate voices being in the majority is up against an immutable natural law — the bell-shaped curve of the "Normal Distribution" shows that the majority ARE in the middle. I hope no one will oppose PR on foolish grounds.
     I have heard other objections to PR. Some people (arguing against PR) say, “Look at Italy”. To which I would reply “Look at The Netherlands”.  Perhaps we should consider the possibility that the combined opposition unanimously wanted to vote strategically, playing games with parliament and the whole process of government. But that argument is answered by a number of considerations: such behaviour defeats good government, the perpetrators would be punished at the next election, the same game could eventually be played against them. The concept of parliament, and democracy itself, is based on the assumption that MPs do not play silly games. It is sometimes remarked that the present flip-flop system makes for large majorities and “decisive” government.   But that is surely the DISADVANTAGE of the present system, and by no means its strength? There is little virtue in being decisive if you are going against the wishes of the country; and none if you are plain wrong. When one party holds a large majority for 5 years, legislation is not tested. Furthermore, the backbench and opposition MPs have little to do. Add to that the devastating effect this flip-flop system has on morale in the country; the people cease to vote, for they see that their votes are not counted, and the MPs overuse their privileges. 
     Perhaps we should consider also the problem of stasis; getting stuck on the fence. But this also is to underestimate the good sense of the House? Ocean liners do not routinely run aground for inability to decide whether to pass to the left or right of an obstacle.)
     Proportional Representation is not a new concept. Many (if not most) countries have adopted it. The referendum of May 2011 was not about PR; it was a choice between staying with the present system or changing to the 'Alternative Vote' system which is not proportional, has few advocates, and few users.

     The ‘First Past the Post’ system favours two large parties, and large parties cynically favour it in return. I hope no one will oppose PR on dishonourable grounds. But perhaps I have missed something.

Yours sincerely, Cawstein
(South Northamptonshire.)

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Programme Notes — romantic piano

Nocturne in F minor (Op 48, No. 2) —  Frédéric Chopin  (1810 – 1849)

A nocturne is supposed to be inspired by, or evocative of, the night, or at the very least played at night. Mozart wrote 'notturnos' for mixed wind and strings, but the Nocturne as a short piano piece was more-or-less invented by the Irish pianist/composer John Field (1782 – 1837).  However the form was made his own by Chopin who, between 1830 and 1846, wrote 21 of these characteristically short, moody, pieces. This nocturne was written in 1841 and published the following year. It is marked Andantino.

12 Etude Opus 25   ———   Frédéric Chopin  (1810 – 1849)

Chopin wrote 27 Studies in all; 12 in the opus 10 set published in 1832, and 12 in this set written over a space of 4 years but published in 1837. They are, of course, studies for the establishment of fundamental piano technique, and many piano virtuosi have composed studies for that purpose, but these by Chopin rise far above the majority in artistic merit, and can be seen as compositional studies over and above their technical role. Chopin himself performed this opus 25 set at a concert, greatly impressing Robert Schumann. Except that 2 and 11 are both in A minor, each is in a different key.

++++++++ Interval ++++++++++++

Rhapsody Opus 79/1 —— Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

The two " Klavierstücke " of opus 79 were written in 1879 at the summit of his career. They were dedicated to his musical friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg (herself a composer), and it was she who suggested the slightly pompous renaming of them as 'Rhapsodies'. This No. 1 Rhapsody is like a compressed sonata; the Agitato outer sections (in 'sonata-form') are in B minor, but they surround a more lyrical section in B major.

Nutcracker Suite — Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)/Mikhail Pletnev

This is a piano transcription made by our contemporary Russian virtuoso pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev (1957 - ) of Tchaikovsky's Suite for Orchestra which lasts 20 minutes. The original ballet of 1892 was based on a story by ETA Hoffmann and is in two acts. In Act 1 the characters are human (adults and children) and the toys are toys; in Act 2 they are fantasy — the toys coming to life. There are 23 sections in the ballet, all with evocative titles like 'Decoration of the Christmas Tree', 'Children's Gallop and Dance of the Parents',  'Waltz of the Snowflakes', in Act 1; while in Act 2 taking place in the Land of the Sweets there are: Chocolate (Spanish dance), Coffee (Arabian dance), Tea (Chinese dance), Waltz of the Flowers,  Pas de deux (Sugar-Plum fairy and her Chavalier),  a Tarantella, the famous Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy, and a Final Waltz and 'Apotheosis'. In Pletnev's version there are 7 pieces:  March, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Tarantella, Intermezzo, Trepak (Russian Dance), Tea (Chinese Dance), Pas de Deux.

Scherzo & March (Love of Three Oranges) Op. 33 tert – Sergei Prokofiev

When Prokofiev was in Chicago in 1921 he was commissioned to write an opera. Fortunately he had a draft libretto for a satirical opera in his bag. Knowing as little English as the Americans had Russian, the opera came out first in a French version – "L'amour des trois oranges". The critics were initially doubtful ("The work is intended, one learns, to poke fun. As far as I am able to discern, it pokes fun chiefly at those who paid money for it."). Prokofiev prepared a 20 minute orchestral suite derived from the music (Styled Opus 33 bis); and from that himself prepared this Scherzo and March for solo piano (Op. 33 tert).

Piano Sonata A minor, Op. 28  ––––  Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)


Prokofiev composed his first opera when he was 9. His father died in 1910 and with him financial security, but the 19 year old son was already becoming known as a composer, albeit in a very 'modernist', polytonal, discordant, vein.  Prokofiev's 3rd piano sonata was 10 years in the making; it was published in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution (Feb), and Prokofiev's departure for America (May). It is a short (8 min) work in one movement, and illustrates Prokofiev's interest in departing from the norms of the romantic school; in shock, dissonance, harsh clusters of notes, and dynamic surprises. (Apparently, he was throughout his life an excellent chess player.)

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Programme Notes: Mozart - Mendelssohn - Bartok

Programme Notes: Mozart - Mendelssohn - Bartok

String Quartet in D, K. 575   —— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 — 1791) 

i. Allegretto;   ii. Andante;   iii. Menuetto (Allegretto);  iv Allegretto

In April we heard Mozart's Quartet No. 22 in B flat major (K589, Prussian No. 2); today its predecessor, No. 21, the first of the so-called 'Prussian Quartets'. In April 1789, Mozart's wife claiming illness and needing a spa cure (where however she flirted to Mozart's distress), left Mozart desperate for money. Hope came when Prince Lichnowsky, an aristocratic pupil, offered to take him to Berlin and present him to King Friedrich Wilhelm II (himself an amateur cellist). He came back to Vienna intending to write 6 quartets for the King and 6 'easy' piano sonatas for his daughter Princess Frederike. Of the latter, only one was written — Mozart's last piano sonata. Of the quartets, Mozart wrote only 3. Somewhat neglected, these quartets are overshadowed by his earlier 'Haydn' quartets and the later quintets. Some of his contemporaries got the impression that Mozart wrote with a facility bordering on flippancy for he would write out the score without errors while talking to friends, but others insisted that he spent much of the night at the piano, and it was only his extraordinary memory that enabled him to write the fair copy at speed. A distinctive feature of all 3 'Prussian' quartets is the prominent and interesting cello part, intended for the king himself to play. In this, the first of the set, 3 of the 4 movements are marked allegretto ('mildly cheerful' ?). The outer movements are in D major; the andante second movement is in A, the minuet (in D) has a trio section that swithers between D and G.

String Quartet No. 2, (Op. 17)   —— Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945)

i. Moderato;   ii. Allegro molto capriccioso;   iii. Lento

At the age of 21 Bartók, travelling abroad as a virtuoso pianist, was stimulated by Strauss's Zarathustra to try his hand at composition (Kossuth in 1903). In 1904, hearing a nanny sing a folk song he was stimulated to take up the collecting and study of Folk Music as his main preoccupation and life's work, with only occasional diversion into composition: the 1st quartet (1909), an opera Bluebeard's Castle (1911), 2nd quartet (1917), the ballets Wooden Prince (1916), and Miraculous Mandarin (1919). In 1909 the 28 yr old Bartók married 16 yr old Marta. By then, he was living in Budapest as professor of pianoforte at the Royal Academy of Music (where one of his pupils was Sir Georg Solti). The First World War was a relatively peaceful time in Hungary. For Bartók and his colleague, great friend and fellow collector Kodály, it meant that they had to give up their travelling abroad collecting folk songs onto wax cylinders and return to Hungary; turmoil came with Hungary's Soviet revolution after the war. So Bartók spent most of the war simultaneously writing the Wooden Prince and his 2nd quartet; both showing the influence of Debussy. Bartók apparently described the first movement as being in sonata form, the second as "a kind of rondo" and the third as "difficult to define" but possibly a sort of ternary form (Wikipedia). It is not in his 'mature' style, which developed only in the twenties and thirties.

String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, (Op. 13)     Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

1. Adagio/allegro vivace, 2. Adagio non lento, 3. Intermezzo (allegretto con moto/allegro di molto), 4. Presto


This quartet, composed in 1827 when Mendelssohn was 18 years old, is actually his first, as Opus 12 (though called Quartet No. 1) was written two years later. It astonishes the listener with its assured mastery of the medium, and its bold originality; but then we remember that he wrote his superb String Octet (1825) two years before that. Many musicologists have compared Mendelssohn's opus 13 with Beethoven's late quartets, the last of which, though not performed in public till 1828 was published in September 1827 (Beethoven died March 1827). (See e.g.: http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/mendelssohn-quartet-in-a-minor-op-13.)  While most contemporaries regarded these late Beethoven quartets as flawed, and even 'horrible', the young Mendelssohn must have obtained and studied the score in the weeks before writing his opus 13. An easily conceded but trivial similarity between older and younger master is that the final movement of Beethoven's last quartet (Op. 135) opens with a musical motif under which Beethoven wrote "Muß es sein?" ("Must it be?"), while in the last 5 bars of the opening adagio, adolescent Mendelssohn quoted the "Ist es wahr?" motif from a song he had previously written (of which the words run "Is it true, is it true that you are always waiting for me in the arboured walk?"). But the one utterance is a disturbed, existential question, while the other expresses the uncertainty and excitement of a youthful romantic yearning. So differ also the works.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Programme Notes: Schubert piano works

Four Impromptus, (Op. 90), D. 899    Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

These 4 impromptus were composed in 1827 (a year before Schubert's untimely death), and published the same year; the first half of a set of 8. In that year Schubert composed, besides these exquisite short piano pieces, yet another failed opera (The Count of Gleichen), a superb German Mass, the E flat piano trio and the sombre song cycle "A Winter Journey". A year of great happiness and sadness; a torch bearer at Beethoven's funeral, letters from 3 publishers asking to publish his compositions, a holiday in Upper Austria (said by Hutchings to be "perhaps the most happy time Schubert had ever known outside Vienna, or in it"). The first Impromptu, in C minor, is a set of variations on two themes; both slow. It ends peacefully in the major. The second, in E flat major, is in ternary form, but with a B-like coda (ABAB'). The A section is a moto-perpetuo of running triplets for the right hand; the contrasting B section drops into a minor key and, approaching the return, it intriguingly combines hints of the running triplet figure. The third, a peaceful, lyrical, reassuring piece in G flat major (6 flats), was reissued 30 years later by the same publisher in G major (1 sharp; for amateur players?)  The fourth Impromptu, in A-flat major, is perhaps the most famous of all Schubert's piano compositions. Its opening consists of cascading arpeggios in the right hand, nowadays usually trivialized by being played too fast in an attempt to bring out the left hand melody. It begins transiently in A-flat minor, though this is written as A-flat major with accidentals. It is in ternary form (ABA) with a calmer middle section. Was this set a sonata taken apart? Probably not, as Schubert numbered his next 4 impromptus 5,6,7,8. However, these 4 impromptus played in this order fit nicely together in mood and key.

Three Piano Pieces, (Op. 90), D. 946   ――   Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

Schubert died on 19th November 1828. Between March and the beginning of November he wrote: the C major String Quintet, 3 piano sonatas, 2 piano duets (includning the profound Fantasie dedicated to the young countess Caroline Esterhazy), these 3 Klavierstücke, The Shepherd on the Rock, the Schwannengesang songs, and 3 pieces of church music. It was doubtless the fugal writing of the latter that prompted Schubert to turn up on 4th Nov with friend Lanz on the doorstep of Simon Sechter's house for lessons in counterpoint. He missed the second lesson on 10th, and took to his bed 4 days later, fiddling still with the unsuccessful opera The Count of Gleichen. So, a year that saw written much of his sublimest music. These 3 Klavierstücke, written in May, were published (by Brahms) in 1868. It seems likely that there were to be 4, but it is not clear whether they were to be Impromptus or Moments Musicaux, nor even that they were conceived as a set. They are more complex in structure than the preceding set of impromptus (e.g. the 1st is in what could be called compound ternary form: A,B,A',C, D,E,A,B,A',C), they favour remote keys (e.g. 6 and 7 flats), continuous triplets and repeated semiquavers or tremolo effects; all typical of late Schubert. The first is in E minor and marked Allegro Assai. The second, in E major is Allegretto. The third is an Allegro in C major, in which it sounds as though the left hand is behind the beat, but it is really the right hand that is before the beat.

Sonata in D major, (Op. 53), D. 850   ――   Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

1. Allegro (vivace), 2. Andante (con moto), 3. Scherzo & Trio, 4. Rondo  (Allegro moderato)
After Schubert's despair in 1824, 1825 was a relatively happy year. He was solvent with Esterhazy guilders, and becoming known to publishers and the musical world of Vienna. He spent from May till September in the ravishing countryside of upper Austria with the retired opera singer Vogl who was a native of that area, moving from place to place, singing and charming as they went, welcomed and dined by the local big-wigs, and charmed in their turn by the young ladies. But it was not all sight-seeing and letter-writing, for Schubert composed his Great C major (9th) Symphony, the Walter Scott songs (which include his Ave Maria), and this D major sonata. For the last 3 weeks, paid for by a well-wisher, he and Vogl stayed at the famous health spa of Bad Gastein (therapeutically investigated by Paracelsus 300 years earlier); so this is called the Gasteiner Sonata. Schubert's composer brother Ferdinand, when offering to sell it to Diabelli after Schubert's death, distinguished it as a Grand Sonata; perhaps on account of its length. It is, however, relatively light hearted, and in many passages has an improvisatory feel. The 1st movement is vigorous; the long andante (in A major), dreamy rather than sombre or painful; the scherzo, rousing, with a sharply contrasted sweet trio section; the rondo almost cheeky in the nursery-like simplicity of its recurring theme.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Speed of clouds

Speed of clouds 

Suppose I lie on my back and look vertically up. I can see a cloud passing overhead, and measure the time (t, in seconds) that it takes to change its angle from the vertical by one degree. If I knew the height (h, in metres) of the cloud I could calculate the distance moved by the cloud in the horizontal plane, and thus the speed (v) of the cloud in metres per second. Tan (1º) = 0.01745; so, if the cloud were 100m above me, the 1º would represent 1.745m in t seconds. (Multiply by 2.2369 to get the answer in mph.)  But I do not know the height of the cloud. Here is a possible method for determining both height and speed. 

Object: to determine the height above ground level of the bottom of a cloud layer, and its speed across the land.
Equipment: 2 observers (A & B) at 2 different known locations some 500 - 1000 m apart, 2 mobile phones, 2 astrolabes or sextants, 2 compasses, 2 pencils and paper.
Method: Observer A identifies a cloud (C) of which the shape is sufficiently distinctive to describe uniquely (e.g. "the one shaped like a hen"). He rings B and waits till B has identified the same cloud. Each observer then determines and records the inclination above the horizontal (a) of C and its compass bearing (b).
Calculation: The data is then passed to a 15 year old with a slide rule or "scientific" calculator. He is going to assume that the two compass bearings on the cloud define two vertical planes ACD and BCD that intersect at the cloud and the point D that is the projection of the cloud on the ground. The orientation and length of the line AB between the two observers is known. The point D can be identified by drawing the lines AD and BD on the map. If the observations are repeated after 1, 2, 3, etc minutes the speed and direction of the cloud can be determined. 

The angles CAD and CBD provide two series of estimates of the height of the cloud (distance CD). (Comment: If the terrain is not flat to the horizon in all directions, observers will also need a bucket of water in order to determine a "false horizon" by which to determine the inclination angles; the true inclination will be half the angle between the cloud and its reflection in the bucket.)

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Nostalgia and Brexit

Nostalgia and Brexit

Nostalgia: “The pain of homesickness”
     I love words and was delighted to learn, recently, that the word ’Nostalgia’ means ‘homesickness’. It is a word concocted around 1688 from the Greek ‘nostos’ = returning home, and ‘algos’ = pain (c.f. neuralgia), to describe “severe homesickness treated as a disease; occasionally with fatal outcome”.
     I had an ‘aperçu’ in the middle of the night, as follows. I watched a film in bed, and my last few wakeful minutes conceived a romanticised image of coal miners in 1970 issuing from their mine at the end of the working day; grimy, tired, cheerful and fulfilled. I woke from a dream with the realization that this type of work is a thing of the past; as dated as horse-drawn vehicles. There are in Britain many thousands of people who, in the seventies, would have felt the cheerful exhaustion of manual work but who now find themselves unskilled for the present, and gloomy about the future. From 1800 to 1950 the North of England was the powerhouse of our economy. You could almost say it was the workshop-of-the-world, as they build railways for Argentine, and wove cotton saris for India.
     That glory has gone. They are left with their allotments, leeks and whippets, watching the Eastern Europeans come over to pick our carrots and mend our ball-valves. We have witnessed in a shockingly short time the redundancy of a whole social class. Could that be the real cause of the startling outcome of the Brexit referendum, at least in the north of England?  

The loss of status.
     There were two quite different reasons for voting “Leave”; but both can be described as nostalgia for loss of status.
     I doubt the ‘manual working classes’ ever thought themselves to be ‘as good as’ the landowners, or factory owners. But they could justifiably think of themselves as ‘utterly essential’ to society; and even (with justification) as ‘carrying’ the whole of society on their shoulders. Who, after all, sowed, reaped, and milled the corn, who built the houses, mined the coal? Not the vicar, nor the squire nor the school teacher. Nobody needed to feel equal, because everybody knew they were all family. Today we import much of our food, and 65% of our cars (Of the 2.4 million cars sold in UK in 2015, 35% were made here). Unemployment, at 5%, is not that different from the seventies, and is much less than in the eighties. So there are jobs; but it is not men’s work.  A degree of nostalgia for the lost status of ‘the manual worker’ is very understandable.  
     However, I meet many who admit to voting “Leave”, but who never were employed in manual work, and whose jobs are not remotely under threat from abroad. So they do not fall in that category, and are not nostalgic for a vanished personal status.  Nevertheless, I find that they also are yearning for a bygone era. Someone talked of ‘cricket on the green’, someone else wanted to revive trade with the ‘Commonwealth’. I sense, in this second category of leavers, a nostalgia for the time when this country was know (officially and throughout the world) as Great Britain. 
    
Is this the real Brexit mindset — a desire to restore the fifties, and sixties?  
     Those who voted to leave unified Europe may have made some canny calculations about wages, or realized that we are already severely overcrowded on this little island. But I doubt it. There may be incisive reasons for exit. But I do not hear them. Most ‘Leavers’, though now a little subdued, as they begin to realize the giant task ahead, still re-affirm their commitment to leaving. For them, there never was a reason for leaving, just an emotion. 

The Future
     Whatever the terms of Brexit and whatever the rôle of Britain in the next 20 years, it will NOT be as it was in the fifties, sixties and seventies.