Ultima Thule

NASA appear to be showing a profound lack of ambition.  They’ve gone to the end of the world, and will never go further.

For there is no destination more remote than Thule, the semi-mythical far northern land of tales of the ancient world.  A mythical character that leaves it open to being identified with a range of different northern isles known to modern man, but always the end of the earth.

Iceland is by far the biggest candidate on the modern map, and tales of a land of fire and ice like Weelkes’s Period[1] of Cosmography (from around 1600) support that.  And if Thule is Iceland, Ultima Thule could be either even-more-inaccessible Greenland or merely inflationary language.  But only because Renaissance Europe’s exploration had gone further than the Odyssey in the 2000+ years since ancient Thule.

Now NASA has gone to Ultima Thule.  The end of the world.  By their own choice of nomenclature, they can go no further.

[1]Period as in punctuation: the ultimate end of the world!

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The Humbug that stole Christmas travel

The bizarre story of the Gatwick Drone(s) seems to have gone quiet, and some of what’s been reported appears to indicate the possibility that responsible authorities may have egg on their face.  Very likely the Police: they’re a regular scapegoat for idiocy on the part of politicians, civil servants, and the judiciary, as well as their own cockups.

The jokes have done nicely on it: a fat bloke on a sleigh, or Liliputian tourists, for example.  And when a senior policeman suggested the possibility there was never actually a drone, only to be “corrected” the following day, how could conspiracy theories fail to follow?  Quite apart from the obvious kneejerk reactions and the added complication of the sale of Gatwick airport itself in the middle of the crisis!  Someone has something to hide, but what?  Do even TPTB know?

My non-conspiracy theory: it was christmas lights.  There seem to be a fair few coloured lasers around: could some of them have interacted to produce an accidental holographic display?  The first reported sightings being at night and in the rain (unlikely flying conditions for a drone), it was presumably just lights that someone actually saw.  And after it had been reported, I should imagine only the merest ghost of a hologram would be needed to convince the brain it had seen a drone!

Would TPTB ever admit such a thing?  No suggestion of malicious intent, just too embarrassing for someone.  And lots of people no doubt wanting compensation, and lawyers circling around delayed travellers!  Mind you, it would be rather satisfying if the whole thing were indeed down to humbuggery!

The Dream of Gerontius

For our next concert, the Plymouth Philharmonic Choir and Plymouth Symphony Orchestra join forces for a performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, one of the biggest and most complex works in the concert repertoire.  We will be under the baton of the orchestra’s conductor Anne Kimber, and I’m much looking forward to it.

The performance is next Sunday, November 25th, at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  I think the work is sufficiently well known to need no introduction for music lovers, and I have no hesitation recommending it to readers in the area.

Great War Symphony

Our next concert[1] features a new work, written for the centenary of the Armistice of November 1918.  We will be performing Patrick Hawes’s Great War Symphony at St Andrews Church, Plymouth, on November the 3rd.  This is a symphony in a conventional four movements, for two soloists, chorus and orchestra, and is just under an hour (half a full concert programme).

The texts are primarily poetry from the Great War, encompassing big names of the era such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, and other scribes who don’t spring to mind just now but probably should.  Also featured are the soldier’s oath of allegiance, the Last Post, and the latin Dies Irae.

A major new work on this subject inevitably suggests comparisons.  This is not a work to threaten the War Requiem’s crown as the towering masterpiece of war commemoration, but in any other comparison I’d say it holds up pretty creditably.  I’ve enjoyed learning it and look forward to the performance, which I expect will also be well worth attending for readers local to the area.

For readers not in the area, performances are also taking place elsewhere.  The premiere was a couple of weeks ago at the Royal Albert Hall.  Another big-name venue is Carnegie Hall where it’ll be performed on November 11th, with some of my fellow-performers flying to New York to take part in that too.

[1] Or rather, the next concert I’m performing in.  “Our” doesn’t really fit when it’s a group I’ve joined for the first time for this concert, being a sucker for opportunities to perform in a major new work.

Stalemate?

“Michel Barnier has said Britain would get a better brexit deal if he were negotiating with himself”

— attributed to comedian Henning Wehn.

The sad thing is, the quip is probably true!  The real problems lie not between the UK and EU, nor even between political parties here, but within the governing Tory party.

I’ve been meaning to write most of this post – less the above joke – for a long time.  I think since last December, when they announced the ‘backstop’ agreement to the Irish border issue.  An agreement that was never going to be acceptable to the hardliners, and looked set up as vehicle for pushing blame onto the EU when the UK started to mess with it.  But if so, that looks to be failing, as it seems the hardliners eschew such a “double-cross them later” fudge and reject it now.

So what is standing in the way of an agreement?  At the core of it are two red lines:

EU red line: the integrity of the rules and regulations that protect our people and other things we care about.
Brexiteer red line: we must not be bound by EU rules: they stand in the way of trade agreements.

OK, that’s a bit abstract.  There’s exactly one trade agreement that’s at issue here, and (so far as I’m aware) just one set of EU rules that’s really relevant.  The trade agreement is of course with the US, and the rules in question are food safety.  Because the US red line that has prevented a big US-EU trade agreement over many years is their freedom to export to us a range of foods that are banned here.  I don’t have the expertise to say who is right or wrong when it comes to America’s wide range of genetically modified foods, chlorinated chicken, or beef pumped full of growth hormone (though I’d want to avoid the latter myself if I ate meat in the first place), but we’ll have to accept them if we want that US trade agreement[1].

So that’s the UK importing all those foods, now legally. And the US exporting them in bulk.  And with consequential issues: the US will want to prevent backdoor restraint of trade, so a US importer should have a clear case in law against a British supermarket that uses a labelling scheme (like red tractor) prejudicial to the imports.  And that’s a problem for British farmers: how are they to compete if we hold them to higher standards?  What happens to the countryside if we lower our own standards to help them compete?

The EU wants to keep them out.  It knows there will be smuggling (as with illegal drugs), but we must at least seek to minimise it: confine it to the margins.  In the absence of proper border checks, the only limit on smuggling is the capacity of transport links between Belfast and Dublin.  Hence the problem over that Irish border.

And it seems the EU really are insisting on the open border if we’re to have agreement.  They made concessions in aid of that at the outset: notably the declaration that the Irish border is a unique case, thus avoiding problems like the Spanish feeling the need to veto an agreement that would be unacceptable to them on the Gibraltar border.

Looks like stalemate.  Who will blink?

Mrs May has tried to deal with that by preserving regulatory alignment on goods – including of course food standards.  But the US lobbyists in her own party won’t stand for that.  So unless she can beat them, probably with help from other parties in parliament, that’s going nowhere.  And her compromise-attempt was wrapped in a package so convoluted as to present problems to more than just the hard-brexiteers.

Still looks like stalemate.  Who will blink?

What about the brexiteer proposal that technology can be a solution?  The only real question there is, why do our mainstream media allow such disingenuous distraction to stand?  Technology might serve to implement a solution, but that can only happen if and when there’s a political solution to implement!  Claiming it as a solution in itself is about as useful to that as supplying bikes to fish: its only purpose is to confuse the issue and throw a spanner in negotiations.  I consider the failure to debunk it comprehensively to be Gross Negligence on the part of the mainstream media.

[1] I wonder if that even need have been true if our politicians hadn’t made such a big issue of the standards?  If we could have honestly said to the US “our hands are tied”, might a maverick like Trump have moved his red lines (with, no doubt, some give-and-take elsewhere) in the interests of showing the world “look, we can have a trade agreement”?

RIP my formative years

Today’s obituary: Denis Norden.  A name that hasn’t been heard so much of late, but was big in my formative years as half of a comic duo, Muir and Norden.  Although their main works were before my time, the pair were, to my schoolboy self, the Grand Old Men of (light) entertainment on the radio.   The quiz/chat show “My Word” (and to some extent its lesser twin “My Music“) – in which the two were lead panelists – was something my parents would have on around teatime, and that I enjoyed too. Light entertainment with wit and erudition.

It was My Word more than anything else that first got me hooked on speech radio.  Maybe indeed radio in general: I don’t have a clear memory of what came first between that and starting to listen to broadcast music.  I *think* My Word came first, some years before I had my own radio on which I could listen to music.

In recent times (hmm, in fact probably most if not all my adult life) I’ve most often thought of Muir&Norden when the BBC give us mindless and ugly drivel in the name of attracting a younger audience.  The underlying assumption seems to be that young implies mindless, and it’s one of the things that makes me want to shout at the radio: no, you attract young people by putting on good shows – like Muir&Norden did, and like some of today’s entertainers do.  And you accept that young people may naturally listen to less radio than old codgers not because they want to be treated as morons but because they have busy and active lives.

RIP one of the last surviving public figures to have influenced my schooldays.

The unsaturated beach

How does a lapsed mathematician describe crowds on a beach?  I shall come to the pseudo-mathematical observation in due course, but first a little recollection and rant.

I’ve just been visiting my dad.  He’s in Brighton (or Hove, if you’re local enough to the area to have heard of it).  That’s the south coast of England, directly south from London.  Though he’s several blocks back from the sea front, it’s an easy walk to the beach.

Like the rest of Blighty, it was hot, dry and sunny.  It has been like that almost uninterrupted since about early May, which makes this an exceptional summer (our weather -in all seasons – is normally much more mixed).  I took advantage of that to go down to the beach for a swim every day: Brighton and Hove have a huge amount of public beach, endowed by nature with benign conditions, meaning no natural hazards unless you count the power of the waves breaking in rough weather.

I tend to prefer it a little cloudier, cooler, wetter, as that’ll leave the beach a little less busy.  But this time I was pleasantly surprised: only on the Sunday was it truly ghastly.  I guess there’s been so much high-summer weather the novelty’s worn off.  So all in all, the most pleasurable week of beach I’ve had in a long time.  But I was struck by two rather gratuitously restrictive (and widely ignored) notices on the wide paved promenade:

  • No cycling
  • Keep dogs on leads

Now I was there with neither bike nor dog, so have no axe to grind.  Nevertheless I find those notices stupid and mildly annoying in such a huge wide open space.  So I took it upon myself to make a mental note of such real nuisances as I encountered to blight my time there.  Let’s see where bikes and dogs figure in such a list.  In order of nuisance (with the first two overwhelmingly the Big Ones):

  1. Barbecues
    Far and away the biggest nuisance was the barbecues.  The pervasive miasma of thick, greasy smoke blights a huge area: not just the beach but also the promenade, and including the main road where it competes with the fumes of heavy traffic.  There are “no barbecues” notices on some sections of beach, but that’s about as effective as 1980s trains that had “no smoking” in half a carriage while the other half was full of smokers.
  2. Ghetto-blasters
    The other nuisance to blight an area well beyond the perpetrator, though far less than a barbecue.  Come to think of it, the worst instance was a car radio.  It was parked with the occupants inside, with a thumping bass audible from a lot further away than the car could be seen.  But that was a one-off.
  3. Smokers
    There were relatively few smokers, and subjectively seemed to be divided 50/50 between the twin nasties of tobacco and pot.  This was, however, a very minor nuisance: only on the last day was the weather such as to allow the stench to blight a slightly wider area, so that I’d be suffering it for more than a couple of seconds.
  4. Tripwires
    Not dogs – on or off the lead.  Nor humans.  But dog leads are a bit of a hazard.  And on the last day there were some characters out there with the more insidious hazard: the stealth tripwire – aka fishing line.
  5. Beach Patrol
    Two guys on annoying “quad bikes”, trailing noise, fumes, and ugly tracks on the beach.  Surely if there’s a beach patrol and it needs more mobility than a pair of legs, they should have honest bikes.  With MTB wheels for the beach.
  6. Ad-hoc
    Not much litter: there seem to be folks cleaning the beach.  But still annoying when something like a crisp packet did appear.  Ditto some other things like the smell of suncream on some people.
    As you can tell, we’re running into the realms of the utterly non-serious here, so let’s have a final entry that could easily have appeared higher up:
  7. Transport and Toys
    There were lots of cyclists, and lots of boats.  That is, inoffensive boats like rowing boats, canoes, and various boards.  Over eight days, the total annoyance amounted to no more than two cyclists (one looking at his phone not where he was going, the other just inconsiderate) and one boat I had to evade.  In other words, a huge majority were entirely considerate and well-behaved.

So it seems those prohibited things really don’t make it onto the scale of nuisance at all.  How depressing that someone’s priorities are so desperately warped.

OK, enough rant.  I’m supposed to have an insightful observation, right.  OK, here goes.

A bathing beach is saturated if the crowd is such that both
(a) Open-ish spaces are sufficiently limited that you actively look for the best available.
and
(b) As you approach your best-available space, someone else gets there first, having had the same idea ahead of you.
The measure of saturation is how many times you repeat step (b).

Happy to say it was surprisingly non-saturated over this past week.

apr-json

Apache APR is a stable project.  Development activity tends to be incremental, and low-volume.

Today we have what is probably our biggest change for years: a new apr_json module to parse and produce JSON.  This was developed as a third-party project by Moriyoshi Koizumi, who has now formally donated it to the APR project.  Thanks to Moriyoshi and to Graham Leggett from the APR core team for bringing it to Apache.

With a bit of luck, this might motivate us to work towards a new APR-1.7 release in the next few months[1].  I shall endeavour to get my own fat arse into gear and backport my XML (libxml2 and build) work of some time ago from trunk, as well as do my bit in working towards a release.

[1] For values of “few” that tend to grow.

Concert

Our next concert is a week tomorrow: Sunday July 1st at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  This concert presents three works, all of them new to me and one of them to all of us.  Overall an exciting programme of some lovely works, and firmly recommended to those readers within evening-out distance of Plymouth.

The least-novel and least-exciting work is Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise.  This is in a similar idiom to his much more famous oratorio Elijah, though less bloodthirsty (and less of an actual story).  The music is similarly lovely, and if you enjoy Elijah you’ll like this.  However, it’s not so well-written for singers, and is physically exhausting.

Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, Coleridge-Taylor’s setting of Longfellow’s epic poem, is a middling-level bucket-list work for me to sing in, and I’m thrilled to be doing it now.  This is a long poem in trochaic tetrameter, which has always seemed to me fiendishly difficult to set to music.  And though you couldn’t call the Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s 9th symphony boring, it is undoubtedly very four-square, pushed into that mould by the shoehorn of a rhythmically-similar but much shorter poem.  Yet there’s no hint of that in this piece: it flows effortlessly.  That Coleridge-Taylor’s creative imagination with such a rhythm outshines mine is of course unremarkable, but that he should do the same to Beethoven is indeed impressive!

Tonally it’s also interesting.  Premiered in 1898, it’s on the cusp of the 20th century.  There’s no hint of C20 dissonance, but the tonality is constantly on the move, and seems to me to carry hints of what was to come, both in the English Pastoral and the Verismo movements.  If you enjoy the gorgeous-yet-dramatic harmonic language of a Puccini opera or a Vaughan-Williams symphony, this foreshadows them both.

Finally, Bob Chilcott’s Dances of Time.  Published only in 2015, I had never heard of this until scores were handed out.  These five songs are pure pleasure.  And if you ever thought modern music can’t be easy both to sing and to listen to without being trite “crossover”, this is a perfect counterexample: gorgeous yet always fresh.  Though having said that, I think the virtue of brevity is essential to its appeal: it’s the perfect length for what it is.

Bad Law

News story: “upskirting” to be outlawed.  Replaced by news story: “upskirting” bill scuppered by rogue MP.  Cries of “shame”!

Background.  This was a private members’ bill, motivated by a campaigner’s bad experience.  The campaigner has clearly suffered a Bad Thing: an event that might be described as assault, with followup that looks like bullying or harassment.  That she should have some remedy in law seems uncontroversial, even if two years prison seems disproportionate.

But does that really imply a whole new criminal offence?  Looks to me like a cop-out.  When we talk about Good Practice like one-in-one-out for new criminal laws, this is precisely the kind of thing we mean.  Might it not be much more productive to review why existing laws dealing with assault, bullying and harassment had failed this victim?  A proper review might do something for many victims whose equally-distressing bullying and harassment just hasn’t got media attention.

This stinks of Bad Law.  And of Bad Processes for making law: it’s been cooked up behind closed doors without any opportunity for review by the representatives we supposedly elect to make our laws (so much for “democracy”).  Perhaps if it had had proper (or indeed any) debate, someone would have pointed out that this was a Very Bad fix.

The campaigner is in the right: she should have some remedy.  The backbencher who brought the bill is right-ish: a backbencher has no real remedies, and the outcome should have been to put it on the Government’s agenda.  But for the Government itself to jump on this populist measure is a disgraceful failure in its obligation to deal with such obvious shortcomings in existing law.  The hero of this case is the backbencher who stopped it and forced at least a debate.  Must take courage to bring down the wrath of the Establishment and kneejerk media on yourself like that!