Monthly Archives: July 2011

All the best tunes

Who first remarked on the Devil having all the best tunes?

I’ve heard it attributed to Martin Luther.  A bit of thought suggests it could be more likely to have been his followers a generation on.  Someone brought up in a world bitterly divided into us and them, for whom us were upright Lutherans and them were corrupt Papists.  And a world where the Papists really did have all the best music, as was absolutely the case from the time of the counter-reformation through to the wider adoption of fine music in the baroque era.

Measured in years, the era of Catholic domination of music lasted a long time.  It was firmly established by Palestrina in the mid-16th century.  Come the 17th century and it’s preeminence is so well-entrenched that the church can jealously guard its proprietary treasures, leading to the famous story of Allegri’s Miserere remaining exclusive to the Vatican for 130 years before the young Mozart smuggled out a pirated copy for the rest of the (by then very different) world!

Last night’s concert by the Exon Singers presented a great work from that catholic tradition.  Victoria’s Vespers is apparently a reconstruction, and (having hitherto encountered Victoria only in smaller-scale settings of individual liturgical texts) I had been expecting something sub-Palestrina.  But there was no “sub” about it.  This is a glorious work in its own right: that Italian tradition evidently extended to the Spanish Victoria.  The Papists really did have the best tunes!

The event also benefited from the setting: sung by candlelight in a fine church.  But that evoked memories of my years in Italy, and I couldn’t help feeling that the true setting for this music should’ve been the colourful opulence of one of their churches – as exemplified by Michelangelo’s ceiling – rather than an English church whose colours are limited to the stained glass.  But maybe that’s just by association with places where I’ve sung: glorious Palestrina in Italian churches, vs the much drearier English early music in English ones.

Another thought that this concert provoked was, what has happened to the great polyphonic choral tradition?  By the time of the Baroque, mainstream choral music had acquired an orchestra, and while the formal polyphony of Palestrina and Victoria is still evident in the time of Monteverdi, it’s clearly evolving into something more free-form.  A capella religious traditions live on in miniature forms as diverse as Bruckner motets and Negro spirituals.  But for anything larger scale, I think we have to look east to the Russian Orthodox church and works like Rachmaninov’s vespers.

Oh, and why does this music travel so little?  Why do we Brits get so much more English music of the era, despite the overwhelming superiority of so much Continential music?  Could it be that because Britain’s own first top-rate composer was Purcell, we subconsciously don’t want to admit anything from earlier than his time into the mainstream?

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Southern Cross

Today’s news: Southern Cross, Britain’s biggest care home operator, goes bust.  Brought down by an imbalance of costs and revenues.

In a market economy, that should mean assets up for sale at distressed prices.  A good business opportunity for someone who can get a handle on costs.  How feasible is that, without sacrificing quality?

In principle it should be entirely possible.  Southern Cross is crippled by its rents, which are based on a bubble-price formula.  Its landlords (those who aren’t simply taking over operation of the homes themselves) are in a bind: they can’t in general just turf the old dears out and market the houses with vacant possession!  They’ll pretty-much have to take what deal they can get with whatever new operator is prepared to take on their homes.  And a new operator is obviously going to need to negotiate much lower rents.  Or buy out freeholds, again at prices that make the business viable.

Of course the landlords want better than that: they want a taxpayer bailout.  And they may be pushing on an open door: the chattering classes are making their case for them, by presenting the situation as Councils must take over or the old dears are out on the street!  An emotive argument, but a fallacy: what it really means is that the long-suffering taxpayer should be blackmailed into paying costs well above what the market could support, to the benefit of the landlords.

If councils have the guts to call their bluff, I might stand to benefit myself.  I have a few quid invested in a fund that supports management buyouts in cases like this.  But not, I hope, at prices that compete with the taxpayer!

The Southern Cross story might be the country’s economic problems in microcosm.  Crushed by the cost of property, and competing against a bottomless taxpayer pocket that pours billions every month into propping up prices!  The fact that care homes are residential property exposes them to the full blast of competition from taxpayer-funded buyer incentives, SMI, £21 billion/year housing benefit, and the whole ethos of the tax-and-benefits system, in their marketplace.

Under the previous government, a bailout would’ve been a foregone conclusion.  What happens now could be an interesting straw in the wind.  My best guess: a 90% bailout, with the landlords taking (as with housing benefit tightening) just a very small haircut.

Villains and Scapegoats

I’m thinking of buying News of the World in the morning.  If I do, it’ll be the first time in my life, as well as the last.

Now that it’s closing down amid a veritable shitstorm (pardon my language) I keep hearing interesting things about it: a long history and some proud stories.  Apparently it has hitherto been Britain’s best-selling rag.  Yet I don’t even know what it looks like!  Although I must presumably have seen it in the shops, it’s never registered.  Is it so visually cluttered as to draw attention away from its identity?  Could it be because I never realised (until it became news) that the phrase News of the World was a name, rather than a slightly tongue-in-cheek claim or headline?  No matter: that’s neither here nor there.

But the circumstances of its closure are another story, and they’re far from the only villain.  Indeed, I’d go so far as to say not even the chief villain, but at least in part the scapegoat for a holy cow that can’t be touched.  It’s surrounded by villains: others in the press who didn’t get caught, police turning more than just a blind-eye, kowtowing politicians.  And hypocrites: readers who bought it and now revile it, and now prominently the Church of England huffing and puffing over its investment in News Corp.

For the benefit of international readers who may not know the story, the paper is in disgrace over phone-hacking.  Some other methods of collecting information have come into question, but that’s the key one.  That’s illegal, but historically we’ve turned a blind eye as investigative journalists have done work often in the public interest, and indeed pursued serious villains where police lack the will or the resources.  We’ve agonised over grey areas like celebrity tittle-tattle: there’s no defensible reason to intrude on the private life of an entertainer such as a footballer or pop-star, but that kind of thing evidently has a big audience.  What everyone agrees is utterly beyond the pale is intrusion on people in the news for reasons of personal misfortune, headed by the story of interfering with phone calls to Millie Dowler, a schoolgirl who had disappeared and (as subsequently emerged) been murdered.

Actually I wonder if that’s really so indefensible?  The ideal outcome for the paper would’ve been a happy ending: girl found safe and reunited with her family.  Or failing that, crime solved and villain caught, as (eventually) happened.  Who’s to say the paper wasn’t in fact working hard to become the hero of that story by actually solving the case – surely a dream outcome for it?  If its efforts had triumphantly found her, we’d surely have forgiven the dubious means, and we could’ve felt good about buying the paper!

Just as we’ve turned a blind eye to methods deployed by the Telegraph to unearth information on the parliamentary expenses racket.  Public interest!

But not having solved the case, the paper doesn’t have that defence.  And to make it all the more emotive, the Dowler case was recently in the news for other reasons: her murderer[1] was recently convicted, and her family went through a horrendous ordeal in the legal process.  But that was inevitable: our legal system ensures that anyone who gets caught up in it will suffer: victim or villain, or third-party such as a witness.

Or indeed juror.  In another recent case, a juror was jailed for no more crime than being a bit of an idiot.  Truly chilling – and no more than the tip of an iceberg of abuse of jurors!  Of course, the judge in question and the others who run the whole sick game with peoples lives have judicial immunity, which means they’re quite literally above the law no matter how stupid or corrupt they may be.

Chancery may be history, but the spirit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce remains crushingly relevant today.  The Dowler family suffered two terrible ordeals: first, loss of the girl, and second the court case.  Surely some investigator phone-tapping is utterly trivial compared to either of those, yet it’s the paper, not the legal system, that’s in trouble!

What’s going to be the outcome of this case?  The legal system will remain untouched and damage to government is unlikely to escalate.  The police is getting what looks like a well-deserved kicking and heads may possibly even roll, but probably no substantial change.

The press is the main story: government is now setting up two enquiries, which are likely to lead to changes to the regime under which news organisations work.  Fortunately the present government is not such a natural enemy to free speech as its predecessor, so a severe curtailment throwing out the baby with the bathwater isn’t as inevitable as would’ve been the case under The Liar.  But I fear it will hurt the ability of investigative journalists to do good work.  Con-men and fraudsters everywhere will stand to benefit if investigators better resourced than the police have their hands tied.

The other interesting question: how much muck will now emerge concerning similarly-shady practices in other newspapers and media organisations?  They must now be sitting nervously on a huge Prisoner’s Dilemma.

[1] Unless of course an innocent man got convicted.

The ghost of employment past

As is now semi-regular on a Wednesday, I had charge of Bud for the morning (dammit, that’s yesterday morning now – got distracted).  Great excuse for a walk and, in this season, a swim at Double Waters.

After lunch came the expected call from his daddy, and we wandered into town to return him.  I took the opportunity to use a cashpoint, and saw there at the bank a high-security van.  It was evidently loading/unloading high-value cargo: a man in full-face helmet and body armour was following an elaborate procedure involving locking himself securely in the van with his load before re-appearing and going back into the bank.  This happened a couple of times while I was there.

The van bore a G4S logo.  But what caught my eye was protected by DataTrak.  I haven’t seen that for a while, but in the distant past I worked for DataTrak, developing the technology.  Indeed, it’s one of the few jobs I’ve done where I was employed primarily as mathematician rather than as software/systems hack, and the work involved some serious maths, as well as programming the devices to run embedded in 128Kb (yep, remember kilobytes?  That’s how long ago) ROM.

Now, while the DataTrak work was (at its best) quite exciting, much of it had a clearly-limited lifetime.  The big investment in navigation infrastructure would be doomed to obsolescence if – as seemed likely – the GPS network became a viable alternative.  The data network had a longer lifetime but only until mobile telephony infrastructure offered a viable alternative at lower cost.  I have idly wondered what became of Datatrak after my time.

Actually, to be honest, yes I have googled, but seeing it again in real life prompted me to revisit it.  Seems it’s now a product of someone called Mix Telematics.  Yes, it’s moved to GPS and GPRS, but in terms of what the brochure tells us, it’s still clearly recognisable as what I once helped develop.

Here’s the site.