Saturday, 30 October 2010

Changing The Clocks

Changing The Clocks: the 'Lighter Later' campaign

Any questions this weekend (29th Oct. 2010) was not remarkable for its good sense, but on one issue the majority of the panel seemed to agree; switching to European Time is absurd. The audience (if they understood Jonathan's confusing question) seemed to be largely of the opposite opinion. I understand that a serious campaign is currently being waged to get the present system (alternating between GMT and BST) to be changed in favour of the UK joining western Europe and making the same alternation but an hour ahead, so that the sun is at its zenith at 13.00 hrs in winter and 14.00 hrs in summer. (See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10362295)

This seems to me quite daft. The issue does not seem to be one that is up for grabs. Noon is when the sun is at its zenith. Calling that 14.00 hrs is plain perverse. It is like calling Monday 'Sunday' so that you can spend the morning in bed. (Admittedly, calling it 13.00 hrs as we have since 1916, seems a little perverse, but the measure was brought in during World War One, to save daylight and to increase the production of armaments.)

If there is an advantage in us getting up in the dark then let us do so by all means; we can get up at 06.00 hrs and call it 06.00; we don't have to call it 07.00 or 08.00 in order to get up. There may well be an avantage in the City of London opening for business at the same time as Frankfurt. So let them do that. It will be darker here than in Germany; that cannot be helped by any fiddling with the clock. It may well be that conditions for school children in Scotland, for mill workers in Lancashire and for dairy farmers in Cornwall are widely different. We don't need to agonize over a compromise. Let each working day be adjusted to suit.

My main reason for resisting the suggested change to western European time is that I am sure we would soon learn to adapt; we would soon learn to stay in bed till the clock said 09.00 hrs. if that suited us. After all, starting work at 09.00 is not an integral and unalterable part of the human condition. On the other hand, walking about in the dark does not suit the species, and never will.

Occidentis, MORPETH

Monday, 18 October 2010

Tuition Fees 2

Tuition Fees 2

Let me try again. On 'Any Questions' on Friday, Ed Vaizey (a Minister in the Coalition Government) said that there was no evidence that high tuition fees would put poor students off going to university. Well, it would put me off, so there is a little bit of evidence. I am beginning, though, to think that the withdrawal of direct public funding for the universities might have some benefits. Perhaps the sector will decline from its present grossly hypertrophied condition. Perhaps half, or more, of the present stock of universities will close. Perhaps 2-year and 1-year courses will finally be introduced, instead of being merely talked about for decades. Perhaps the Government and Industry will realise that they and the country need a supply of graduates mentally trained in specific skills, and sponsor candidates directly, paying all or part of their university fees. Other youngsters might gain entry to apprenticeship schemes, and learn a craft, which is of course much more than a manual skill, but which is not best taught by lecture or practised merely by thinking. We might even evolve by stages till we rediscover a system like that we had in my youth where 10% - 15% of school leavers went to university, funded by the state as National Assets, while the rest of our youth learnt a manual-based craft. Let us go forward, for it might be the quickest way of getting back.

(Dear Minister, while I have your 'ear' may I suggest that we do not want to know each summer which school-leavers have achieved grade A (whatever that means); we want to know which students fall in the top 10% of candidates, as was the system in the sixties, before it was "fixed". Admittedly the proportion taking A-level has changed considerably over the years, but it has now got so high that it can hardly inflate any more. Ability is presumably rather constant. In any case, if universities are built to take the top 10% they cannot take 15% in the event of more candidates presenting with grade A.)

Occidentis, MORPETH, UK.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Tuition Fees

Tuition Fees

Our coalition government has welcomed the Browne report's recommentations on funding universities in England. The suggestion is that universities will lose a chunk of central funding but a can charge students as high a fee as they need to make good the loss (figures of £6000 - £7000 per annum have been mentioned); that students borrow the £21,000 - 36,000 odd needed to get them through their 3 year degree (accommodation plus tuition); that this debt immediately attracts commercial rates of interest (2.2% above inflation); payback commences when the graduates earns more than £21,000 p.a. and continues as the rate of 9% of income for the next 30 years, if necessary. [See the helpful briefing by the Institute for Fiscal Studies: http://www.ifs.org.uk/pr/browne_review.pdf]

There seems to be a lot of nonsense written about this matter and I propose to add my twopennyworth here.

First, "If it is not broken, don't fix it!". Higher education was funded in my day out of taxes (on a means-tested basis) on the grounds that it was of benefit, not merely to the recipient, but to the nation. That system worked for many years, but maybe it does not now, for many reason(s). There has been a grotesque expansion of the university sector. Politicians are squeamish about putting  2% on income tax to pay for it. The "fairness" argument has suggested that the beneficiaries are the graduates themselve, not the rest of society. (I question that, a point to which I may recur.)

It has been pointed out by the media that graduates earn (on average) some £100,000 more than non-graduates in a lifetime, as though this might justify spending £36,000 at the beginning of your adult life — as an investment. But might this not be another instance of the media's favourite blunder? Yacht-owners are (on average) rich; but I advise against buying a yacht in the hope of becoming rich. I am a great advocte of education, as a means of improving society, but not as a means of becoming rich. I (who have taught at universities for > 30 years) think at least 50% of degrees contribute little or nothing to the wealth of the graduate, or to GNP. Even if your school-leaver decided to spend £36,000 as an investment, it seems a very poor one (on average). The FTSE 100 index began on 3 January 1984 at 1,000 and now stands at 5,700; £36,000 invested 26 years ago would be worth £205,200 now (on average).

I think fees of £7000 per annum and debts of £36,00 will certainly put students off university. And I think it should. (Taking 9% out of your income for 30 years sounds appalling to me and considerably worse than a 2% rise in income tax.) Drastic shrinkage of the University sector may occur, but may be the best outcome of the present proposals, though one vigorously denied by the proposers.

I hate the idea, however true, that a medical degree is a means to grow rich. It has already had a distasterous effect on the profession for it has bred a generation of doctors with a very mercenary outlook (mixed in with, and corrupting, or depressing, the genuine philanthropists). I do not know who to blame for this trend, though I have some preliminary culprits in mind; everyone who has ever said "Get real!" for a start; for should we not rather say "Get ideal!". When I find the culprits I have a great load of  'scorn' to pile on them.

The notion that a degree is valuable to society is as in need of qualification as the other (that it is a means of making money). It should be a very simple matter for a committee to decide which degrees are valuable and which not. Indeed, it could be left to market forces, or so it will be argued, though the great debate between the "free-marketeers" and the "planners" did not end with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, for we are now sending spies to Scandinavia to find out why their banks are solvent, their pensions funded in perpetuity, and their citizens living contentedly with >50% income tax. What we principally need in this country are more waiters, bus-drivers, and plumbers. We seem to be overstocked (even to 30-fold) with psychologists, media students, and those hoping to improve water quality by looking at river wildlife. (Gambling bankers contribute nothing, except tax.)

None of which reflection gets us very far forward, so here is a positive thought. Pehaps we should encourage businesses, and government departments who need graduates, to recruit school-leavers and sponsor their university studies, as was done on a small scale in the sixties and seventies of last century; I mean pay the tuition fees. I do not think I would take a university course under Browne proposals unless I were sponsored in this way, and I would not urge any child or grandchild of mine to do so either.

Occidentis, MORPETH, UK.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Oct'10 Programme Notes

String quartet in E major (Op. 54/3)    Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

i Allegro, ii Largo cantabile, iii Menuetto (Allegretto), iv Finale (Presto)

Haydn was the son of uneducated peasants (a wheelwright and a cook), and though his talent gained him access to some first class models, he was essentially self taught as a musician and composer. He is nevertheless regarded as the "father" of the symphony, of sonata form, and of the classical string quartet. From 1761 to 1790 Haydn was employed as Kapellmeister  by the wealthy Esterhazy family. In 1779, the aging Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy gave Haydn a new contract permitting him to accept external commissions and market his compositions. (Haydn was also the first composer in Vienna to sell his compositions commercially.) For the next 11 years, till the Prince's death, Haydn was able to frequent the Viennese musical world for 2 months each year, meeting, and indeed playing quartets with, the younger Mozart, and in consequence to develop considerably his concept of the quartet into a more fluid and complex form. This quartet, composed in 1788, is from one of three sets known as "Tost" quartets (dedicated to the Esterhazy violinist Johann Tost). This dedication explains the virtuosic nature of the first violin line, for example in the triplet runs in the first movement, the florid ornamentation that almost overloads the melody in the slow movement with hemidemisemiquavers (64th notes), and the stratospheric leaps and runs of the finale. The outer movements, both in E major, are both introduced on the 2nd violin. The Largo is in A major with a middle section in A minor.  The Minuet forms a brief uncomplicated interlude, before the developmental sonata-form of the last movement, the main theme of which spins out of the trio section of the Minuet.

Quartet in F minor (Op. 80)      Felix Mendelssohn (1809 - 1847)

i Allegro vivace assai (presto), ii Allegro assai, iii Adagio, iv Finale (allegro molto)

In May1847 Mendelssohn's musical older sister Fanny died prematurely, inconsolably affecting the composer. This quartet, Mendelssohn's last major work, was composed in the following months under great emotional tension, but in November Felix himself died, probably of the same cerebral seizures that had affected his sister, both their parents, and their grandfather Moses. One can see in this work both anger and despair. The 1st movement starts with an agitated presto interspersed with a gentler tune and ends with a chordal coda. There is neither a Haydnesque minuet nor a Schubertian scherzo; instead a rhythmically thrusting or searching rondo-like allegro as 2nd movement, which fades out as though feeling the need of a slow movement. The adagio that follows is more wandering than searching, ending in a stillness that is not really peace. The finale, more muscular and less agitated than the 1st movement, ends with a driving but rather bleak climax.

Quartet in E minor (Op. 59/2) — Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

i Allegro, ii Molto adagio, iii Scherzo (allegretto), iv Finale (presto)

This product of Beethoven's "middle" period, published in 1806, is the second of three quartets commissioned by the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Razumovsky, who asked Beethoven to incorporate a Russian tune in each work. Though a gifted violinist himself, Andrei Razumovsky also employed a quartet of professional musicians which included the famous Schuppanzigh. This E minor quartet opens with no less than 5 false starts, and 4 grand pauses or empty bars, but eventually settles down to spin out extended lyrical motifs. Part of the impact of the music is in its rhythmic novelties; extended off-beat passages, repeating motifs. The second movement is in E major. Above it Beethoven carefully, but unnecessarily, wrote (in Italian) "This movement is to be played with much feeling". It opens with a hymn-like contemplation (of the starry heavens – according to Beethoven's pupil Czerny) after which the lower 3 voices introduce a wonderful singing melody, ornamented and pointed by the 1st violin. There follows a rich development of the thematic and rhythmic material in contrasting moods. The "thème russe" occurs in the second (E major) section of the Scherzo. It is a Ukrainian song ('Glory to the Sun'; published a few years earlier) with a curious off-beat rhythm. In fact Beethoven uses only half the tune. It is introduced on the viola against a running triplet accompaniment, but passes canonically through all 4 voices. The finale is a rondo whose main theme has an irresistible and unforgettable skippety rhythm.