Lessons not learned

The Chilcot report is due tomorrow.  I don’t expect to read it, so like most of us I’ll hear what the media see fit to report from it.

They’ve already been telling us it’s likely to disappoint anyone expecting it to blame The Liar.   That would fall outside its terms of reference, so any finger pointed at him is likely to be of a secondary and probably tangential nature.  There’s also a suggestion floating around that the current Labour leadership crisis has something to do with it: the Party wanted a more compliant (interim) leader than Corbyn in place to respond to Chilcot.

With the passage of time and the principal warmongers no longer in post, this probably means there’ll be little appetite for further investigation, and The Liar will be off the hook, facing no more than criticism at a level he’s well-equipped to brush off.  A dismal contrast to the vigorous pursuit of much lower-level perpetrators of Bad Things in pre-1945 Germany, up to 70 years on from their crimes.

This may be a lot more than a mere injustice.  We’ve not merely made a horrendous mess of Iraq, but also destabilised the region, pretending all the while that we were the Good Guys.  No wonder there’s the hatred and despair that’s led to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant!  A token of contrition and act of justice – like putting The Liar on trial – might be the last opportunity in a generation to defuse that justified resentment and make a start on winning back “hearts and minds”, so that the Islamic State is not succeeded by something yet more brutal arising out of the same sense of grievance and monstrous injustice.

Summer Concert

We have a summer concert coming up next Sunday (July 3rd) at the Guildhall, Plymouth.

This is a predominantly lightweight programme of modern music: some short pieces and two medium-length works.  As we started rehearsing, I thought that a set of madrigals, or even Beatles arrangements, would fit the programme nicely, though neither is included.

The two more substantial works are Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna and Rutter’s Feel the Spirit.  I can recommend both these works as well worth coming to hear.

Lauridsen is new to me.  My first reaction to the score of Lux Aeterna was, nice to do once, but nothing to write home about.  If theme and variations is a classical form, this could be kind-of described as chord and variations.  Since then it’s been growing on me: this is an interesting work (and I hope it’ll be wonderful to listen to), and some of what I first thought weaknesses actually do work and make sense as effects.  The text is Latin and religious, the orchestration sparing, the setting contemplative, and it comes as no surprise to find Lauridsen is contemporary with Tavener and Pärt.  The music also hints at older choral traditions, from plainchant to (possibly) eastern orthodox, though I’m not really competent to judge such things.

The Rutter is a set of seven well-known negro spirituals.  Like Tippett’s settings, these are for classical forces.  But compared to Tippett this is lighter, more playful.  Glorious tunes and lots of fun, and full of characteristic Rutter syncopations and cheeky modulations.  You’ll be whistling those tunes as you go home, but they’ll catch you out!

The Devil always cheats

Once upon a long time ago, my dad told me about selling one’s soul to the devil.  I think it must’ve been in connection with (a childrens version of) the Faust story, but the suggestion was that there were quite a few such instances.

The Devil would always cheat on his side of the bargain.  The archetypal lawyer, he’d find loopholes in a literal interpretation of the text, and catch you out on them.  You of course don’t stand a chance – unless perhaps you’re Goethe’s very metaphysical Faust, or maybe a modern sendup.

Today it seems Boris is caught.  The charismatic, populist toff has all the attributes of a diabolical bargain, and in spades.  Indeed, altogether more so even than Trump, from whose wildly successful campaigning style Boris has clearly taken inspiration.

The master plan was obviously a Boys Own scenario: come to power at the nadir of the the worst crisis since the 1970s (perhaps even the 1940s, at least in his dreams) and turn the country around.  But that needed a scapegoat, to take the impossible (but eminently blameable) decisions that will now lead us to that low point.  Cameron’s resignation today came too early for the master plan: he’s not going to be that scapegoat.  So now it seems Boris has to take over too early and take that blame, or else chicken out at this obvious moment.

Whoops!

Oh, and though it’s not really the same story, I can’t resist a picture:

cltasa2wgaadltu1

Celebrity and Punishment

I have long detested Sir Cliff Richard as a purveyor of inane muzak that gets inflicted on us in public places.  Today I loathe his noise no less, but I also applaud him for biting back at the Witchfinder and the system that’s been persecuting him for the past two years or so and dropped the case just a few days ago.

Who’da thunk that being dragged through a criminal investigation could be as stressful and damaging to the victim as his eventual sentence if convicted (if not more so)?  If Sir Cliff can highlight to the world the bitter hollowness of the whole pretence that an innocent man has nothing to fear from the system, I might almost forgive the noise – at least until it next gets inflicted on me.

Ironic that he should contemplate doing so through the very “justice” system that had been pursuing him.  But I guess when you’re as rich as Sir Cliff you can take your cue from Sir Leicester Dedlock: just sit back and let the sharks play.

Death to Traitors, freedom for Britain

It’s not exactly catchy, is it?  But then, the Breivik-wannabe[1] who murdered an MP and wounded a bystander had already shouted “Britain First”, only to be disowned and his act unreservedly condemned by the fringe political group of that name.  He seems to be politically-motivated yet to have (thankfully) no hint of political support.

I hadn’t heard of the victim Jo Cox before her death.  But I have to confess, I find the tributes to her unexpectedly convincing, and the sister’s speech today was lovely.  My inner cynic has nothing to say.

What a shame that’s the background to someone who appears to be doing a fine job of highlighting some of the absurdities of our judicial system with the full attention of the media.  There’s plenty of scope to disappoint, but to have stood up in court today and given his name as “Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain” is a good start.  Strangely everyone concerned refers to him by a less-unlikely name, which kind-of highlights the absurdity of the court’s question.  After all, a defendant on a charge involving identity theft might easily tell a convincing lie.

Apart from giving us a welcome respite from referendum nonsense, this has raised the question of shielding MPs from the people.  The odious Luciana Berger, from the totalitarian wing of the Labour party, wants to make it an excuse to hide behind red tape and screen out unwanted members if the public.  I hope that level of contempt for her electorate puts her in a minority as small as the assassin’s: I certainly can’t see those who (like Jo Cox) actually care about people going down that kind of route.

I shall also be mildly interested to see how the courts treat this case in comparison to another recent politically-motivated killing.  If the killers of a military target, having gone to some lengths to make it clear that civilian bystanders had nothing to fear, could be given an (exceptional) absolute maximum punishment, there is no scope left to punish proportionally the murder of a civilian and serious wounding of a third party.  Will we see a shameful double standard of any lesser punishment for the greater crime?

[1] Or does he see himself as Gavrilo Princip or Yigal Amir, the assassins whose deeds unleashed war on the world?

DoS attack?

Government system to register to vote in the referendum gets overloaded.  Deadline gets extended.  Cockup or conspiracy?

News reports tell us the best measure of traffic they had was the peak of registrations ahead of last year’s general election, and they built the system to cope with many times more traffic than they’d had then.  Yet traffic surged way beyond even that ‘surplus’ capacity.  So while cockup is entirely plausible, it’s by no means inevitably the cause.

It is widely supposed that late registrations come predominantly from younger people, and that younger people are more likely to vote In.  So bringing the system down ahead of the deadline would favour “out”, while extending the deadline would favour “in”.  Overall my best guess would be they more-or-less balance – at least if the system doesn’t go down again.

Most campaigners on both sides seem to accept it’s just one-of-those-things.  But a few “out” campaigners have been remarkably quick to jump on it.  It’s gerrymandering (Ian Liddell-Grainger).  It could be cause for Judicial Review in the event of a narrow “in” vote (Bernard Jenkin).

Hmmm, cui bono?  Jenkin’s line of reasoning points to a vote-again-until-you-get-it-right scenario.  We have a motive: someone stood to gain from the system failing on the last day.  If the deadline is not extended, a chunk of predominantly-in voters are excluded.  If it is extended, they’re preparing the ground for judicial review: get the courts to decide.  A win-win.

A Denial of Service attack can bring any system on the ‘net down for a while, and is very easy to mount (buy yourself control of a million virus-infected PCs and have them all bombard the target system to overwhelm it).

Cockup or Conspiracy?  I anticipate some more evidence, albeit far from conclusive.  If it goes down again tomorrow, that signals cockup – unless someone could organise a new DoS attack remarkably quickly.  If it survives to the new deadline, it smells more of conspiracy.

Herbal serendipity

Today I’ve taken one more step towards a stereotype of middle-age and middle-class as I had a gardener round to spend the morning hacking the jungle.  He certainly got more done than I would have in a half-day session, and I’m not shredded!  He’s coming back for a session once a fortnight for the time being.

There’s a bit of history to this.  A series of minor mishaps that had left the jungle rather more overgrown than it should have been.  The strimmer’s battery died and my various attempts to find a replacement proved futile.  I was out of action myself with a bout of ‘flu for a spell back in April.  And finally, my garden waste bags disappeared, just as the garden reached its most vigorous.  So I took a chance on getting some help with it.

And already it paid off.  Among the small, inconspicuous weeds I hadn’t recognised, he identified oregano.  Great: one more delicious thing for the kitchen, to tide me over until the blackberries and plums are ready.

Misfit

Those who have met me in person will know I’m of medium height, well-built, and with ample beard and paunch.  Other features of my physique may not be have been so obvious, unless you have much more of an eye for it than I do.

One person who is more perceptive than most is my aunt, who observed of my teenage self that I had a very long back, and warned that I was likely to suffer from it in later life.  She was right: I now have a long history of managing back pain.  The corollary to that is short legs.  Oh, and a large head.  Not so far from the norm as to be an obvious feature like the beard and paunch, but still some way off the average.

But our society is built for average people.  We have some consciousness of the needs of the obviously-different: we can see that tall people need more legroom, or that short people may need a hand reaching things.  It’s less obvious that someone my size might struggle to fit into all our standard scenarios, yet it’s become increasingly obvious over the years.  For example, I can’t sit in the back seat of most saloon cars (hatchbacks are fine) without having to bend the head over.

Much more recently I’ve come to the realisation that this may be one reason for my long-standing problem with sustained sitting down.  Particularly in an office or dining chair (the kind of situation where you sit up).  And in many other seats I need to bring the legs up under me to something like a lotus position to survive more than a few minutes without severe pain. Seats are made for that idealised average person, and don’t fit me.  Which is why I do a lot of my work in other postures: at the treadmill desk, or lying down and using the laptop.

No such problem on a step or a rock: their size is much less tailored to that average person, and consequently less problematic.  But that’s not so useful for work, or anything else involving sitting at the ‘puter.

Anyway, as I write I’m sitting in a new office chair I just bought.  Sadly there’s nowhere I can go to a showroom and pick the ideal chair (Staples still exists locally but nowadays has a very meagre selection in-store), so I have to buy online, which makes it pot luck whether I get anything tolerable.  This one is selected for its dimensions: it’s lower than average (which I need), and it also has a seat which, while reasonably wide, is less deep than most.  So it’s at least physically possible for me to sit on it in a recommended posture with knees clear of the front of the seat and feet on the floor.  I’m trying it, though alas with limited success: it’s going to take practice if I’m ever to make it!

Alas, the back of the chair is not so good.  I think it’s for a shorter person than me.  I just don’t fit.

Red Tape

Just heard businesspeople debating the EU issue.  Unlike most of the crap we’ve been getting from both sides, this discussion aimed to be somewhat informative.

It was chaired by the BBC’s Evan Davis, with a panel comprising two business leaders from each side, and a guest from the Swiss business community to bring insights from a prosperous European non-EU perspective.

The pro-EU panellists basically said what I’d expect: their businesses benefit hugely from not having to deal with red tape in their everyday dealings with the rest of the EU.  One of them was in manufacturing, and drew the contrast between just shipping something vs having to fill tedious forms for every item exported outside the single market.  Whether and to what extent brexit would affect her business surely depends on politics (of 27 countries), and if you take the Gove vision of out-of-the-single-market, hassle-free exports would look like an early casualty.  The other was in financial services, on which subject the most interesting observation came from the Swiss guest: Swiss companies have to establish EU-based subsidiaries to export their financial services!

The Anti-EU panellists were more interesting: their gripe was with EU red tape.  Between them they provided three examples:

  1. Data Protection rules constrain the first speaker’s business of direct marketing.  Hmmm, Americans in his line of business complain of that too.  Perhaps he imagines brexit will exempt us from rules that bind US companies doing business in Europe (even if lobbyists could persuade a UK government to adopt rules more spam-friendly than our current ones)?
  2. The other speaker is a financier, and one of his investee companies struggled with an inordinately long approval process for a new drug.  Well, he may have a valid point, but how could brexit help him?  Pharma research involves big investment (that’ll be why they needed a financier), and needs to sell into big markets.  So I would imagine their top priorities will be EU and US[2] approvals, regardless of brexit.  If the UK process departs from the EU one, that’s just more red tape and expense.
  3. A health-and-safety rule: executive office chairs have to have five legs/wheels[3] at the base to give them stability (yes, four swivelling legs with wheels really is hazardous).  Hmm, well, they all do have that, everyone in the industry works to that standard.  Is anyone realistically going to try and change it?  We can of course still get a four-legged chair without wheels.

So, that’s the red tape that bothers them.  Is there a developed country anywhere in the world without broadly similar rules?  Oh yes, the US lacks data protection, and one or two states[4] are safe havens for spammers.

A particularly interesting nugget came when the chairman asked the Swiss guest about having to abide by EU standards without legally having a say in them.  He replied that in fact swiss business does effectively have a say.  Like anyone else, they can lobby, and if they present a reasonable case for something, the EU is receptive to it.  One might almost conclude that only the Brits get obsessed with legal niceties over reasonable practicalities.  On the other hand, he also pointed out that domestic politics within any of the EU countries may get in the way of them doing any particular deal you might expect – and that the brexit campaigners are assuring us will happen.

[1] (footnote removed, I thought better of it).

[2] I wonder if the much-feared TTIP might help with that, perhaps with a streamlined or even unified process to get approval both sides of the Atlantic?

[3] I wasn’t quite clear on the details.

[4] Notably Florida, unless I’m out-of-date or misremembering.

War Requiem

This weekend I’m in Exeter for the last of three weekends rehearsing Britten’s War Requiem, to be performed in Exeter Cathedral on Saturday, April 23rd.  A fantastic work, and I anticipate an exciting concert.  Strongly recommended to music lovers.

This is my third concert with the EMG symphony orchestra and chorus.  The previous two, Mahler’s 8th symphony and Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony, have been amongst the most exciting in my life, due both to the music and to the group and inspirational director.  She is alas leaving after this concert, having got a new job in Germany, so we just have to hope the group can find a worthy successor.

In the past I have found Britten to be much easier (to sing) than it sounds[1].  That’s based on shorter to middling-scale works such as the Hymn to St Cecilia, Rejoice in the Lamb, and St Nicholas.  The War Requiem is different: it is genuinely as challenging as it sounds to perform.  It’s intensely rewarding: studying the work reveals much more than just listening to it of the (pacifist) composer’s horror of war.  And it shows a work whose stupendous imagination could make it a lot more than any performance or recording I’ve heard, including the composer’s own.

[1] There’s a whole thesis to be written on what is easy or hard in music, vs what you’d think just by listening.  For example, Bach is hard, and much of Beethoven is fiendish.  On the other hand, Verdi’s spectacular requiem must be one of the easiest big works in the repertoire.

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