Author Archives: niq


It won’t have escaped readers in Blighty, but others may be blissfully unaware. This country is in the grips of jubilee celebrations. Seventy years of the Queen’s reign. Most of us have known no other monarch in our lifetimes.

Except, it’s not actually 70 years. It’s 69 years since the Coronation on June 2nd, 1953. Her accession was in 1952, but at an altogether different time of year, so it’s no anniversary of any kind of that, either.

I can only conclude this is just one more orgy of humbuggery. Harumph!

Great Concert

This is far too short notice. I’m getting tardy about blogging these things!

On Sunday April 3rd we’re performing Verdi’s Requiem at the Guildhall, Plymouth. This is of course one of the greatest and most exciting works in the choral/orchestral repertoire, and it’s great to be doing it with big choir and orchestra, and a highly distinguished quartet of soloists. I have no hesitation recommending it to readers in the area: this wonderful music will be tremendously exciting (not to mention moving) to listen to too.

Tip: if you can get tickets in advance, they’re slightly cheaper than on the door. Ticket vendors, both online and physical, are listed here.

Covid as common cold

In past centuries I’m sure covid would’ve been seen as a bad cold: after all, the common cold encompasses many different lurgies, some of them coronaviruses. My own experience this week has been (so far at least) no more than a middling cold – though of course being vaccinated may have helped there. Today I’ve been much better than the last couple of days and I’m off the lemsips – my usual medication against a lurgy worse than the sniffles.

At the same time, I’m of course aware of all the public information. The stories of people who went through mild to moderate illness, seemed to be recovering, then got hit hard by something nasty (could still happen to me). I learned of things like the cytokine storm, that should probably never have crossed the consciousness of a non-medic. Not to mention “long covid”!

That’s one huge nocebo effect to contend with! It must surely feed in to many peoples’ adverse and longer-term experiences. People who would not merely cope better but recover much quicker if it had been described as a bad cold in the first place.

I succumbed to an element of that at my worst moment: yesterday (Wednesday) morning. I was spooked by feeling materially worse than the previous morning despite having been much better later on Tuesday, and I picked up on one of the big scare stories of the early covid era: blood oxygen. I used my GP’s online facility to ask if I could get a pulse oximeter to monitor myself. They said they could supply me one provided I could get a friend or neighbour to collect it. Today I have it, and it reassures me my blood oxygen is healthy. Not sure how long I should monitor myself: presumably until I hit my criteria for returning to normal life – feel well and test negative.

How useless is covid testing?

This morning I’ve tested covid-positive. The symptoms to date are quite painful coughing (but mercifully much less of it than a really bad cough) and a moderate-level general lurgy. Well, if it were a severe general lurgy I wouldn’t be at the screen to blog about it!

On Sunday morning I had much milder symptoms which I attributed to having overdone things on Saturday. I tested firmly negative, and on that basis I went to choir, where in retrospect I probably spread it.

Earlier on Sunday morning I had a message from Jen who I had spent time with on Thursday evening (a pint or two after another choir). She had tested negative on Thursday, but was letting me know she’d just tested positive and might have been infected or indeed infectious on Thursday. A followup message yesterday told me both Mark and Peter, who had been at the same end of the table in the pub, had tested positive.

This looks like a pattern. You test negative when you feel just slightly iffy. On that basis you go out and spread it. Only later do you test positive and isolate. It’s a story I’ve heard before, only this time it’s kind-of personal.

Perhaps it would be altogether better if the criterion was not a test, but rather the feeling a bit iffy?

River Life

As I write, I can hear otters in the river outside. Or at least an otter, though I think it’s likely to be more than one. I haven’t actually seen them (a neighbour with a better viewing platform has), but I’ve heard them a few times since moving here.

Overall there’s a range of wildlife occasionally in evidence here. Another neighbour I’ve heard quite a few times but not seen is the owls, including a full to-whit to-whoo of (I think) the tawny owl, with the two singers either side of the river. Both were very loud, and I think the female may indeed have been on my roof.

And now that spring is here, some of the colourful river life of the daytime – from dragonflies to kingfishers – may soon be in evidence. Meanwhile a friend recently showed me a stunning photo of newly-hatched tadpoles in his garden pond, while another mentioned just today that she’s looking out for the first ducklings of the season and expecting to see them any day.

I need to go and find some fresh, tender nettles, for the first foraging of the season. I have artichokes in the kitchen, and am keen to repeat last year’s successful experiment combining them in a delicious soup. The wild garlic is also looking ready to be collected.

Tame Wildlife

I walked along a stretch of the river and a stretch of canal today.

Nothing unusual about that. What was unusual for the season is that I walked there in daylight. More usually I pass that way on the way to one of our local supermarkets, and I generally go to those quite late when they’re less busy.

Being a bright, sunny Sunday there were lots of people. And of course there were lots of ducks. Some of the people feed the ducks: I saw this on the first stretch of river. Shortly after I crossed to the canal, where there were fewer people but more ducks, and as I arrived a number of ducks hastened (indeed, flew) towards me, landing alongside me. Evidently they’re so used to being fed by humans that they came to investigate one as soon as I appeared along their canal.

It set me wondering to what extent the duck population might be reliant on human food, particularly in the winter months. Are we sustaining a higher population than could exist naturally? If so, what other wildlife are they displacing: is this indeed affecting biodiversity?

I imagine the same kind of consideration applies to other efforts by humans to feed wildlife. The bird feeder in many a garden may be welcome to birds – not to mention enterprising rodents and perhaps others – that use it, and perhaps also their predators both domestic and wild, but what else are they then displacing?

It may be a drop in the ocean of human influence on the biosphere, but today it was both local and visible!

Classical Concert

This coming Sunday (Nov. 28th) I’m singing at the Plymouth Guildhall in my first regular public concert since lockdown.

This is a classical concert in the strict sense. The two choral works on the programme are Mozart Mass in C (note, not the great mass in C minor) and Haydn Nelson Mass. There’s more, but I couldn’t say what without looking it up, and you can do that too. In fact if you’re within evening-out distance of Plymouth and haven’t already, I’d recommend doing so. ๐Ÿ™‚

This is a choir that was preparing some much bigger works before lockdown. The choice of Mozart and Haydn was motivated in part because they’re great music, but also because the committee were cautious, not knowing how many would return after lockdown. These classical pieces would work with a much smaller choir, if the numbers had been severely down! In the event, the numbers are thoroughly healthy, and we’ll be back to some big-choir repertoire in the new year.


We’ll be performing the “Mayflower” music at Plymouth Guildhall on Saturday October 9th. A choir recruited for the event, together with the band of the Royal Marines, under the baton of the dynamic and enterprising Marcus Alleyne.

This is one of two newly-commissioned works originally due to be premiered for the 400th anniversary of the voyage last year, and is the work of which I blogged here a little while ago that was to have been part of a big pageant on the Hoe. The performance in the guildhall will be much scaled down from the four-nations event envisaged, but at least the music and narrative will get an airing. I’m looking forward to it.

It strikes me that – quite apart from being a pale shadow of the real event – this indoor performance (not to mention rehearsals) must surely represent a far greater covid risk than the outdoor event that got cancelled. Not that that matters to our distant Lords and Masters in London, and their management of the media narrative that trumps our insignificant lives.

Whose number?

These days I get lots of text messages that are verification codes, commonly for 2FA. Mostly I get them when I expect them: I’m actively signing up or logging in somewhere, making a purchase or some other transaction. But a recent one was totally out of the blue: Your Pret A Manger verification code is 624864. This was not expected: though it was indeed lunchtime I had no transaction whatsoever with that purveyor of lunch.

I know just about enough about PAM to know they’re a bona-fide business, though they have no presence whatsoever in my part of the country. I find it plausible they might operate an ordering system involving an app and verification codes. So presumably just a “wrong number”.

But I was mildly intrigued: could it possibly be a scam designed to worry the victim into reacting and getting into something? I fire up the hypothetical app to check I haven’t been erroneously billed, and it turns out that’s the latest vector for installing Pegasus on my phone? Or just tries to confuse me into paying for a scammer’s lunch.

One check I can make is the originating number, shown as “62884”. I googled “62884 Pret a manger”, and drew a complete blank: if they use that number, they don’t acknowledge it anywhere online. But just googling “62884” I see PAM is a red herring. Numerous reports tell of bogus verification codes “from” different businesses. Either a complete scam, or lots of businesses outsourcing to a poorly-designed service.

But if a scam, how is it supposed to work? Just that you reply and it turns out to be a premium rate? It’s not even obvious spam that might elicit a naรฏve STOP, a trap hinted at by the page linked above. Besides, what prospective victim expects a number sending a “verification code” to be replyable? I’m none the wiser.

OK, this doesn’t matter. Ordinarily I’d ignore it, and I’m not sure why I didn’t. But there are occasions when one wants to verify a business’s number for much more important reasons: for example here and here. Which leads to the suggestion: should businesses be required to list all their phone and SMS numbers used for business (including outsourced ones such as a call centre they might use) on their websites? The only obvious exception to such a rule would be direct numbers for individual employees, with a quid pro quo that their outgoing calls then go through a (public) switchboard number.

If there were such a law, then my first googling could have been considered conclusive when it failed to find 62884 on Pret a Manger’s site. Much more importantly it would have enabled me to verify the Capita number and put a small chink in Virgin’s Kafkaesque anti-customer wall in the anecdotes I linked. And many other cases!

Incorrect Horse Battery Staple

An interesting argument should provoke thought. But if it’s also appealing, it can have an opposite effect: be seen as a solution (to a problem that may or may not be well-specified) and given no further thought.

A good case in point is the xkcd classic Correct Horse Battery Staple. It presents succinctly an appealing argument, and is widely cited as words of wisdom on the subject of passwords. But it seems those who cite it are usually blind to its limitations: if presented as a general solution to the problem of passwords, it’s basically useless.

It’s true that it’s the right solution to a more limited problem: passphrases for cryptographic private keys such as ssh and pgp. As with PIN numbers for your bank cards (a close analogy), you have just one or two to remember. It’s good that the security should be high, particularly where there’s no primary line of defence against brute-force attack (as in the bank suspending your card automatically after three incorrect PIN attempts). But in that context we have always spoken not of passwords but of passphrases: you shouldn’t need xkcd to tell you about them, because you were told when you first followed instructions on using ssh.

However, Correct Horse Battery Staple offers nothing more to the general problem of passwords than the thought it immediately provokes. In the first place, the cartoon’s ideas on what is memorable are perhaps a little disingenuous. So too are the security claims: there are defences against brute force attacks, and 44 bits of entropy is complete nonsense against something as simple as a dictionary, let alone AI that can correlate the supposed memorability of CHBS with its linguistic characteristics.

But far more importantly, it doesn’t scale: how many such phrases can you ever hope to memorise without hopelessly confusing them? No matter how much you might want to argue with my last paragraph, the original problem is still there. I think it’s actually worse!

Great for a passphrase, useless for multiple passwords. What the world needs is password-free cryptographic identity such as PGP and OpenID to replace all those horrible passwords. And without a centralised authority whose own motives and competence might fall under suspicion.