Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Saturday, October 31, 2009

First they employ you; then they ignore you; then they sack you; then you win.

Especially if you're the government's senior advisor on drugs.

The truth is a bitter pill, but history is on David Nutt's side.

You have to love the Germans

I loved this, not to mention this (Go Angie!). So with luck the most Eurosceptic prime minister we've had since we joined the EU won't become Europe's President.

But the best comment on the story has to be that of the Daily Mash. It's as though they read my mind....

Video Fun - Rodrigo y Gabriela

A few days ago I booked to see these guys and I have to say I'm really looking forward to it. Well, look:

And again:

Oh all right, but just one more:

Ys, after the event

Today (well, yesterday if you're ruled by the calendar, but to me 0345 is still Friday night) is Women's No Pay Day. That is, the day each year on which we Y-chromosomed types would have to stop being paid for our work in order to eliminate the gender pay gap.

Is that not a disgusting statistic? Probably even worse in my sector (financial services) though maybe better in my other one (IT).

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Liberal Democrats declare themselves unfit to run a menage (as they say in Glesca)

I'm nearing the end of a week's holiday up at our flat in Ballater, Aberdeenshire. While having a cappuccino and a black-pudding-and-egg roll at our favourite coffee place here, I read this article in the Press & Journal (the main regional daily paper) and I nearly choked. How, I asked myself, could this clown become the business spokesman for a party which once could claim to be a serious political force? To explain my near-apoplexy I need to run quickly through the recent history of the company I work for.

Once upon a time there was the Bank of Scotland, a perfectly normal Scottish bank founded in 1695 and proud of its history. In 2001 BoS merged with the Halifax Building Society, based in Yorkshire, England, to form HBOS. The Halifax dominated the UK mortgage market and the merger was felt to be a good commercial fit. For all that it was a merger and not a takeover, the centre of gravity of the merged organisation moved southwards, mostly because of the greater size of the Halifax par, though I dare say the usual post-merger pissing contests took place. Fast-forward to 2007, when HBOS had overstretched itself financially and was on the verge of collapse. (Not because of a huge amount of toxic debt, but because a large part of HBOS's lending was funded by borrowing on the inter-bank money market. As other banks' toxic assets eroded confidence in the whole system, the cost of such borrowing went through the roof and the cost of keeping trading was sucking us under.) Up stepped Lloyds TSB, also in trouble but with a big deposit base with which to fund lending. After much horse-trading the government (a) agreed to allow LTSB to take over HBOS despite the large market share of the combined entity (b) agreed to take a 43.5% stake in the new group to ensure liquidity. Much relief all round, as the only other likely options were that HBOS would fold completely or that we would have been nationalised. While a takeover generally has an impact on jobs in the combined firm, the effect of nationalisation or winding-up would have been far worse.

OK. Two more facts and we're ready. The European Competition Commissioner has stated on several occasions that she wants to see the Lloyds Banking Group (LBG) divesting itself of some parts of the organisation so as to reduce its market share, as with its public funding it is distorting competition. Also, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, recently suggested that it would be a good idea if banking organisations were forced to separate their retail and investment arms (the former being the day-to-day prudent guys and the latter the Gordon Gekko types taking huge risks and making vast profits, or not).

Oh, and may I say that I quite agree with Lord Thurso that (a) LBG needs to be split up (it WILL happen, the EU are adamant) and (b) Bank of Scotland was a great bank and a wonderful Scottish institution (and I speak both as employee and customer).

Back to Lord Thurso. “I would start – I encourage the Treasury to think about this – by taking Bank of Scotland out of the Lloyds group and putting competition into Scotland by making it independent. I suspect that Europe may well ask the Treasury to do that anyway.”

Hmmm. Taking Bank of Scotland out of the Lloyds Group? Taking HBOS out of the Lloyds group might be possible, but may I draw His Lordship's attention to the fact that Bank of Scotland has had almost eight years of absorption into HBOS, to the extent that while the name is still on the letterhead there is almost nothing left separate to pull out. All the computer systems merged years ago. The branch counter systems (after much pain) were merged, the Bank of Scotland accounts were transferred onto the Halifax system (I wrote the program that did it!) until it would require considerable detective skill to tell what part of the organisation began life where. As to separation giving consumers more choice: if they bank online they won;t care less. If they use branches, the last thing they will want is to be told that their branch is no longer available because it used to be a Halifax one not an HBOS one, or that they will have to be patient but there is a new counter system being introduced. And who will write all the new systems to replace the decommissioned old Bank of Scotland ones? We don't even have any computers in Scotland any more! And how long will it take? And who will foot the bill?

To cap it all, the demerger he proposes simply pulls apart two retail+investment combos without addressing in any way at all the point that Mervyn King was making. It seems that Lord Thurso understands neither the difference between retail and investment banks, nor what kind of bank BoS and LTSB are. .

Thurso has as much chance of demerging Bank of Scotland from LBG (or HBOS) as he has of demerging the British Linen Bank from Bank of Scotland. Or to put it another way, my first bank as a teenager was the District Bank. Taken over by National Westminster, it now forms part of the Royal Bank of Scotland. I think it would be great for competition and for Manchester's regional pride if it got its bank back. So come on Thurso: let's demerge the District Bank from RBS. What do you mean you can't find it? No excuses, man!

Thank heavens nobody votes for the Lib Dems any more.

Aaa-vogadro! Aaa-vogadro! Avogadro! Avogadro! Avo-o-gadro!

Or to put it another way, Happy Mole Day 2009. Mole Day, 23 October or 10/23 if you're American and do dates in a funny way, is respectfully dedicated by the chemistry community to Avogadro's number 6.02 x 10^23. Strictly I should have posted between 6.02 am and 6.02 pm, but it will still be in that time frame over the whole american continent so my conscience is pretty clear.

Apparently this year's theme is Molar Express. Well, I supppose these molecules are doing their molecular thing pretty damned fast:

OK, so show the Mole some respect! Also love:


Monday, October 19, 2009

Pricks can cause public health panics, experts warn

In the present climate of anti-science hysteria this article came as a breath of fresh air.

If you doubt that we are in such a climate, try Googling "MMR lies" as I did in the hope of locating the debunking of Doctor (still, shamefully) Andrew Wakefield's campaign of self-aggrandising nonsense which will be causing deaths from avoidable diseases long after his fifteen minutes of fame were up. (The debunking has been carried out and widely reported, of course, not that you'd know it from the Wakefield Fan Club.)

Or indeed Google "Natalie Morton" (the unfortunate young woman who died of a chest tumour shortly after receiving a cervical cancer vaccination). There is a lot of nuttiness out there. Some of it has been as utterly discredited as the MMR myth: see here and here for an especially good example. Then see here to note that the fallacious rubbish is still being circulated as fact by crackpots.

P.S. Shouldn't Cervarix be an ancient Gaullish gynaecologist?

Wishing doesn't make it so, even when it's the BBC doing it

At a time when Rupert Murdoch and his proxies (such as the Conservative party) are devoting so much energy to dissing the BBC, first of all I'd like to say that I'm a big fan; that I don't in the least object to paying a license fee or any other homologated tax in order to preserve its relative independence from commercial pressure; and that whatever some right-wing Americans might have you believe, most of the world thinks it's awesome.

However, as this article from 2008 documents beautifully, it does have a systemic tendency to to promote the Israeli Government's line on Middle Eastern (or West Asian if you don't live in Britain or the US) affairs and to sideline Palestinian considerations. I wish I could say that things have improved, but only a month or so back there was an article in the Radio Times promoting Kate Humble's Frankincense Trail series, in which with no irony at all her visit to Bethlehem was reported under a heading "Israel". (Ha! you wish.) I wasn't alone in picking this up, and I was glad to see that they issued an apology the following week. But there are some gaffes for which an apology isn't quite sufficient. Suppose the Radio Times had published a piece referring to Hitler's "alleged" murder of six million Jews, and (after much protest from its readers) had simply apologised for the error and pointed out that he did in fact murder them. Nobody, I imagine, would feel that that was an adequate defence against a charge of casual anti-Semitism: so let us not imagine that the tiny apology buried in the Radio Times in any way negates the thesis that the BBC generally supports the Israeli occupation. Its disgraceful treatment of Jeremy Bowen, its principal correspondent in the region, and its refusal to carry a charity appeal for humanitarian aid to Gaza in the aftermath of Israel's attacks, make that bias very clear. Here is an excellent article by Robert Fisk on the Bowen scandal.

"When do you notice an individual book least? When it is in a bookcase." - Hercule Poirot

I was all set to link to this wonderful article by Charlie Brooker, which is just so true of my life, when I discovered that as so often happens Lisa Rull got there ahead of me, AND linked to a couple of other great pieces as well. As the great Vivian Stanshall said (at the end of "Rhinocratic Oaths"), sometimes you just can't win.

Video fun - Weird stuff from t'Internet

I don't know the name of this girl, though if I spoke Japanese the introduction would probably tell me. Whatever: here's a ten-year-old Japanese girl doing a cover of Kansas's "Carry On Wayward Son":

If you liked that, you'll love this, from a year or so later:

And back when she was just nine, she did this:

Get your latest postfix here

A cartoon for anyone who ever owned (or in my case regularly borrowed) an early Hewlett-Packard calculator. Ah, we miss them.

And isn't it odd that if you reversed the picture you could with complete accuracy label it "Polish Sausage". But then it wouldn't be funny.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A week of prog part 2 - Progressive Nation 2009

And so to ast Sunday, when I went with my son and some of his friends to the SECC in Glasgow to see Dream Theater. But not just Dream Theater oh dear me, no: this was the kind of tour I didn't know you still got, with three support bands. As the SECC impose a 2300 curfew on bands, this meant the evening kicked off at 1800, and as it was standing only my legs definitely began to feel the strain by around ten o'clock.

We began with a blast of progressive metal from Canadians Unexpect. Imagine somebody plonked Darryl Way and Sonia Kristina out of Curved Air in front of Lordi, and you get the idea. All in matching Gothic black, mostly with long hair ideal for synchronised head-banging (and the last time I saw much of that was a Beck Bogert & Appice gig in 1974). They were good though: they did a quieter number which had me flashing back to Marc Brierley which is no mean feat. (And Googling him just now was another nostalgic wallow.) The most interesting thing about Unexpect, though, is their bass player's custom 9-string bass, which is some instrument (I thought it had ten strings, but Wikipedia reckons nine).

Then onto the next band, the even more enjoyable LA group BigElf. They prefaced their entry with the Darth Vader theme from "The Empire Strikes Back", which was quite amusing. Searching for comparisons I came up with Deep Purple and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (but without the flames). I really liked BigElf, who while still pretty heavy are my kind of prog rock. Here's a sample of thir stuff. Their keyboards were all resolutely analogue as far as I could tell, which was a further reminder of Jon Lord.

Next came Opeth, a bunch of Swedes who while very competent left me underwhelmed. It seemed to me that they couldn't decide whether they wanted to sound like the Canterbury prog bands of the seventies (Caravan, Soft Machine etc) or like Napalm Death. Even songs that were mostly thoughtful and beautiful were bracketed by segments of screaming. 21st century Schizoid Men indeed. Their singer said we probably all knew Sweden for its hardcore porn, and I nearly shouted out "Nordman!". Though in the circumstances "Mamma Mia!" might have served as well. I bottled out though so as not to be an embarrassing Dad. reading their Wikipedia entry suggests that there may be more to Opeth than they displayed last week, but they were the evening's low point for me.

Finally, just after nine, the band we'd all come to see burst onto the stage. My previous knowledge of Dream Theater came from what I had heard spilling out from my son's room, though he lent me their latest release (Black Clouds and Silver Linings" earlier in the week. So while I knew I liked their music I was in no sense an aficionado. The obvious reference point for their music seems to be Yes: the instrumental line-up is the same, the songs tend to be long and compise many sections, and they are all extremely competent. They eschew Yes's costumes and stage sets though: just a bunch of working musos from Long Island.

They were, of course, fantastic. Five very different personalities bith as men and as musicians, all hugely capable and all enjoying every second of the performance. They opened with "A Nightmare To Remember" from the new album and followed up with Rite Of Passage". The only other one I recognised was the encore, The Count of Tuscany", again from the new album, but in between my son tells me they did "Hollow Years", "Voices", "Solitary Shell" and "Take Your Time". (He was disappointed though that they didn't do their one proper hit "Pull Me Under".) I know I enjoyed them as nuch as any band I've ever seen. Jordan Rudess had an interesting keyboard setup: mostly a single digital keyboard on a turntable so he could face whichever way he wanted, along with with a device providing true glissandi (this). He also had an iPhone hooked up to his setup. According to the Wikipedia entry it uses an app called Bebot Robot synth. Finally, he had a large flat-screen TV behind him which showed his "keyboard wizard" avatar from time to time. Sometimes it mirrored what he was doing, while at other times it mirrored what some autonomously-running synth was doing, giving the visual impression of a duet. Very impressive, and neither as gimmicky or as geeky as I probably make it sound.

A splendid evening, then. Not quite a return to the Seventies, though: standing close to the stage for five hours back then would definitely have knocked out some of my high-frequency hearing for a day or so. Not so in the more safety-conscious 21st century, and no bad thing either.

A week of prog part 1 - Concerto For Group and Orchestra

Last week was rather interesting. On Monday (5th October) I went to see Jon Lord (fomerly of Deep Purple) performing his Concerto for Group and Orchestra at the Usher Hall. JL was on his Hammond organ, the orchestra was made up of students from the RSAMD (almost all first-years), and the band was Concertium, who are from Stevenson College where my wife teaches. Hilary was involved in some of the organising and met Jon Lord on one of his earlier planning visits to Edinburgh. The conductor was Paul Mann, who apparently does this piece with Jon Lord a lot.

The performance was outstanding. Concertium betrayed no hint of "student band" nerves or noodling: special praise goes to their singer Grant Barclay, guitarists Grant Kilpatrick and esecially Thomas Temple whose solos were unfussy and inventive, and most of all to their drummer Oscar Mannoni. During his solo I saw violinists in the orchestra sitting in open-mouther wonder, and they weren't alone. Even Jon Lord looked impressed. The majority of the orchestra were taking part in their first performance as music students, but no inexperience showed there either. As Jon Lord said at the end, listening to the guys on stage you know the future of British music is in safe hands.

JL himself looks older but sounds much the same as in Deep Purple's heyday. To hear the opening of the encore "Child In Time" - surely the second-best-known organ intro in rock history* - was to be transported back to my schooldays, lying stoned at a party listening to "Deep Purple In Rock". His Hammond organ is massive by comparison with modern keyboards, but makes a great sound so I can see why he still uses it. It has a minder who not only tends it but fends off finger-poking passers-by, and who never leaves its side. He was even sitting quietly behind Jon Lord in the concert. Someone described him as Jon Lord's monkey, but surely he has to be the organ-minder?

Support was by a combined folk group of accordions and fiddles from Stevenson COllege and the RSAMD, led by the ubiquitous Phil Cunningham. All in all, a terrific gig, and a fantastic experience for all the sstudents involved.

* After "A White Shade Of Pale", obv.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Video Fun - Mix and Match

I was listening to Radio Scotland tonight before I went out, and there is a programme called "Get It On" where listeners suggest records to fit a theme. Tonight's theme was unusual collaborations, such as Tom Jones and Art Of Noise, or Aerosmith and RunDMC.

Here is the best one they played:

and here are a few they didn't (I was heading off out so didn't text them in as suggestions)

Dweezil Zappa and Donny Osmond!

Kevin Ayers and Nico!

The Everly Brothers, Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins!

and finally, I make no apology for posting this link again: