Friday, 15 September 2017

The ‘Signed for’ Scam

The ‘Signed for’ Scam

Have you received unsolicited anonymous mail containing — Nothing?

     I recently received a small yellow padded envelope by second class ‘Royal Mail Signed ForTM’ delivery. I was out when it was first delivered and I had the choice of going down to the sorting office in the town some miles away, or requesting that the package be re-delivered on  the next available day. I chose the latter as the least inconvenient; I had only to stay in the house till the package arrived. 

     It was addressed to “The Manager”, but I signed my usual squiggle on the little electronic box the postie held out for me. Inside there was nothing. Figuring that the operation would cost the sender over £1 (including envelope and franking), I began to wonder what the purpose was. I went online to search for similar experiences. 

     One blogger posted the suggestion that the hidden reason was harmless enough, simply that of inflating apparent turnover of online sales to impress clients or competitors. Well, I saluted the ingenuity of both the poster and the blogger, for I had not come up with any cogent explanation of my own (not that I had tried that hard).

     Then I came across the suggestion that the scam is more sinister and works as follows. An innocent online customer buys and pays for an item and is given the ‘tracking number’ (in this case KK461028710GB). The scammer posts an empty package to an arbitrary addressee who innocently signs for the package before opening it and finding it empty. The ‘mark’, waiting in vain for his item, eventually checks with Royal Mail who tell him (to his surprise) that the item has been delivered and shows the irrelevant signature. No redress!  

     The scammer no doubt trusts that the innocent addressee, as he is little affected, will forget the incident. In order to frustrate that expectation I post this here and invite comments. 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Yanis, and DiEM25

Dear Yanis, and DiEM25,

     A year and a half ago, the launching of DiEM filled me with hope, particularly in the context of the British referendum. Since then DiEM25 seems to have slipped off the main stage, which is a pity. I wish I could help it re-find its momentum.
    One way of seeing the problem is when we hear Yanis Varoufakis describe his confrontations with the central powers of the EU. They met, talked, listened. He left. They did nothing. My first analysis was that they did not understand. Indeed, I found it very hard to repeat the argument to myself;  about how it is all Germany's fault, so stubbornly bent on recycling money so that the Greeks can go on buying Mercedes cars. My second analysis is that Yanis does not understand. Oh yes, he understands the  economics; but the crux, the movable fulcrum, the point in the argument against which a popular movement might push and win — has he identified that? 
    Martin West thinks the single currency is a mistake. No single interest rate can suit both Germany and Greece. Put another way: how does it work in the USA, and how can Ecuador and the USA both use the same currency?  I believe there is an understanding in the USA that federal money must be returned to poor states if they are going to be kept in the union. I do not know how. There may, in that complex and subtle constitution, be a degree of political integration that is still missing in Europe. Or is it just the common language? But perhaps we do agree that something needs to be done about the Euro Currency Union.  
     Yanis Varoufakis suggests there is a democratic deficit? Before the Brexit Referendum, that sounded like a promising slogan, but we now see what a mess is made if complex issues are decided by simple people. It is not obvious to me that it is democracy that we lack. I believe it is education.  
     Can Europe be 'cured' by allowing more power to the EU parliament?  I doubt it. Or by curbing the EU civil service? Possibly. But we have to recognize that the origin of the EU depended on the dreams of a very few people; integrated Europe is not the product of a popular dream. Only by imbedding the guiding force in a hidden and inaccessible committee was it possible to get the project of a united and inter-dependent Europe off the ground.  It is true that we pay lip service to democracy, but I doubt we really believe in it, except to rally forces against flagrant corruption. I do not think we are quite there yet; I mean the corruption is not flagrant enough; people are not convinced that revolution would improve their situation. 
     I think the Pro-Europe lobby finds its greatest traction at present by showing that the EU is protecting workers rights, clean beaches, fish-stocks and, by instituting uniform production standards, is allowing economies of scale. These are the tangible and practical benefits of integration. For me, and for a considerable fraction of Europeans, there is some appeal in the thought that United Europe could be (would be) a great power. Britain being part of Europe would allow Britain to effect some control in world affairs.
     Arguably the most depressing sign at present is the resurgence of nationalism. The British seem to think they are special (which may be true), but special in a ‘good’ way; this, to any travelled person is clearly a delusion. 
     Yanis Varoufakis believes that right-minded people will spontaneously support socialism. In Britain, they do not; or they are too few. He suggested that all businesses subvert a fraction of their profits towards the public purse, to illustrate the principle that wealth is generated by a combination of capital and labour**. That suggestion sounds drastic and risky, and unlikely to garner mass public support. (Though admittedly, it is little different from our widely accepted but as widely resented corporation tax.) 
    But thank you DiEM25; please keep the ideas coming.
    Yours sincerely, Ian West

Friday, 25 August 2017

Cholesterol and Statins

(First posted on 2014/02/27 by ianwest2; reposted 2017/08/25)

A year or two ago (Feb, 2014) I heard Professor Ian Young, (Director of the Centre for Public Health, Queen’s University Belfast) give the Albert Latner lecture at Newcastle University on “My cholesterol — why is it so high?”. It was a most frustrating affair. Why?
The man presented no chink of doubt, he missed some serious points, and he spoke like a missionary, or a man whose salary is largely augmented by the manufacturers of statins. We must all take statins from infancy up (we were told). He kept saying that a 1mM(*)  drop in total cholesterol causes a 25% lowering of risk of vascular event; but, while his curves showed a steep line of correlation for 40 year olds, it was an almost flat line for 80 years. (So for me there is practically no benefit).

But a more important point: In no case was the vertical axis on any of his graphs ‘General health’; he was only talking about ‘Rate (or risk) of vascular event’. It has been said that "to a hammer, everything looks like a nail", and to a cardiologist the only objective is to lower the risk of a ‘vascular event’. What about the adverse side-effects; the muscle pains, and increased risk of diabetes (both of which Young conceded), Alzheimer’s, ALS, and Parkinson’s (which were mentioned by Stephanie Seneff; https://people.csail.mit.edu/seneff/)?

Cholesterol is essential. Ian Young correctly remarked that blocking the synthetic pathway at HMGCoA synthase (which is what statins do), will indeed cause a shortage of cholesterol and lead to scavenging pathways and the relocation of existing cholesterol. If the scavenged cholesterol is from coronary plaques, well-and-good; but what if it is scavenged from brain myelin or muscle cell membranes (as emphasised by Stephanie Seneff)? And what about ubiquinone and dolicol, which are also essential and also on the pathway blocked by statins (as emphasised by Stephanie Seneff )? If there ARE INDEED adverse side effects of statins, it is easy to see why!

So the clinical debate should be about the side effects versus benefits. I heard a paper in a Glasgow Heart meeting in the late 1990s which concluded that for over 40 year olds (or was it over 50?) the OVERALL benefits of statins do not outweigh the OVERALL damage. I was impressed (staggered, indeed) at the failure of the clinical cardiologists to see that thisif true—trumped the undenied fact that statins lower cardiovascular risk.

In 2014, aged 72 but in perfect health, I concluded I was certainly not going to take statins. I did not feel I needed them. And whether or not I should lower blood cholesterol there is something too utterly daft about poisoning myself at great expense in order to achieve that; and simply to switch from a healthy death from a coronary to a lingering death from mental, muscular and neurological decay. If I were under 40 and had familial hypercholesterolaemia (**), I think I would try diet, red-wine, and niacin (e.g. brewer’s yeast) before I tried statins.   

Professor Ian Young talked away about nuts, expensive margarine, salt, exercise, the ‘J’-curve for alcohol, etc. But he conceded that only 10% of our cholesterol comes from diet. So, surely the question is why do we MAKE too much? What regulates the synthetic pathway? [***] Does alcohol in excess of 2 units per day, or smoking, etc, up-regulate the synthetic pathway, or affect the partitioning between pools of cholesterol, e.g. by enhancing oxidative damage? What is the rôle of lipid oxidation (briefly mentioned by Young)?

Young pointed out that HDL-cholesterol is “good”; that low ‘cardiovascular risk’ correlates with higher HDL (in the 1 – 2 mM range, independently of LDL or total Ch.); in fact high HDL-Ch is 10-fold healthier than low HDL-Ch (while low LDL-Ch is only 3 times healthier than high LDL-Ch); the best predictor of heart disease is therefore the ratio LDL/HDL, the next best is HDL, the least good is LDL or total blood cholesterol. So, further good questions would be: what determines partitioning of cholesterol between the various ‘pools’ of cholesterol (HDL, LDL, cell membranes and atherosclerotic plaque, its locus operandi (where it is needed, in muscle and nerve membranes), and its locus morbidus (i.e. coronary plaques where it appears to be deleterious)?  Also, what is the rôle of lipid oxidation in affecting the partitioning? Presumably the HDL particle is picking up and re-locating cholesterol and is wholly good. But it is 'HDL-cholesterol' that is measured, so we do not know if the HDL is largely unloaded or nearly full; the latter giving the impression of plenty of HDL particles, but actually being nearly useless as a scavenger. There is a route for elimination of lipid, lipid-cholesterol-ester and cholesterol which involves liver, bile and gut. Guessing here, and maybe naively, but is it damaged (e.g. oxidized) fat/cholesterol that is eliminated, rather than merely surplus? So, there are plenty of unanswered questions.

Perhaps the coronary plaques are, in a wider sense, beneficial. After all, they protect us against suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and a lingering death! What, in any case, are the evolutionary benefits (to the genes) of surviving beyond the age of 70? The benefits must be very small and may be negative; a little ‘grandparenting’ perhaps, and some dubiously relevant ‘advice’; but does that pay for the food and the space?

(*  mmol total cholesterol per litre blood)
(**  There are many types of familial hypercholesterolaemia; the most common by a factor of 2 is a defective LDL-receptor, which presumably hoicks LDL particles out of the circulation and into some (presumably) removal pathway.) 
(***   My erstwhile colleague Loranne Agius suggested that the ingestion of excess carbohydrate feeds into fat production in the liver which requires cholesterol for its excretion.)


                  PLEASE COMMENT

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

BT help, BT — help!

BT help, BT — help! 

I wonder if readers will think I am paranoid in seeing a possible malfeasance in the following story.

I get a crescendo of letters and emails from my Internet Service Provider (ISP, namely BT) suggesting I upgrade to 'Infinity Broadband'. (I ignore these as the 15 megabit/s download rate is sufficient for my needs). The last email from BT said they would waive the conversion fee of £50 if I decided to upgrade before 23rd June. Then my hub becomes disconnected from the internet for two or three hours on Sunday afternoon, which is distressing because we spent several wasted hours trying to transfer money in Mexico. Then we are connected again, till Monday noon. Then disconnected again during Monday afternoon when the Mexican banks become open (BST+6hrs).  I phone the helpline and a young welsh woman spends some 45 minutes “running tests” all of which come up negative. So BT say there is “no fault” and therefore no way they will replace or upgrade my hub free of charge. 
The only remedies she could offer were (a) to replace at a cost of £50 the hub(1) I currently have and remain on the same monthly contract as at present, or (b) upgrade ‘free' to a new hub(2) and contract at a considerably higher monthly cost, or (c) a mixture of the two whereby I pay £20 to come onto a moderately raised monthly rate. 

I say there certainly is a fault; and the service, for which BT and I are contracted, is failing, with no apology from BT and no mention of compensation. Not only that, but BT has failed to find the fault, and thereby wasted another hour of my time.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The need for Proportional Representation

Is there an honourable case against Proportional Representation?


It struck me recently, that there would have been no need for a referendum if we had had proportional representation (PR) in the House of Commons. So, who is against PR? And why? 
     One prominent Tory MP is recorded as saying: “The principle argument against the present system is that it is not fair – it is not a proportional system. However, proportional representation is a narrow concept. The ‘proportionality’ relates only to the relationship of votes to seats and not to the proportionality of power. Under PR, 10% of the votes are designed to produce 10% of the seats, but not necessarily 10% of the negotiating power in the House of Commons. Indeed, a party with 10% of the seats may be in a position to wield disproportionate negotiating power.”
     She seems to be raising two objections to PR; that it is a “narrow concept”, and that while the votes may be distributed fairly under PR, the power is not. I do not understand the first point, unless it is intended as a summary of the second point. The second point is familiar. Politician on left and right have long been aghast at the thought of centre parties holding “the balance of power” whether under a Tory minority government or a Labour. But surely this is a relatively simple error. 
     Suppose the House of Commons contains 300 Tories, 280 Labour, 30 Lib-Dem. Suppose, on a Tory motion,  Lib-Dem and Labour MPs vote (in a principled way) against, and the motion is therefore defeated. The power that defeated the motion does not reside in the Lib-Dem portion of the opposition, but in all 310 opposers !  The motion is defeated only if there are more MPs against the motion than for; each MP counting for one vote. Surely I have said enough!
     My protesting Tory MP seemed worried that centre parties in a proportional parliament have more power than extreme parties.  But that is also nonsense isn’t it?  No one can seriously advocate disenfranchising the moderate middle merely to give the extremes a chance to govern!  It is a lunatic suggestion. Anyone who is against the moderate voices being in the majority is up against an immutable natural law — the bell-shaped curve of the "Normal Distribution" shows that the majority ARE in the middle. I hope no one will oppose PR on foolish grounds.
     I have heard other objections to PR. Some people (arguing against PR) say, “Look at Italy”. To which I would reply “Look at The Netherlands”.  Perhaps we should consider the possibility that the combined opposition unanimously wanted to vote strategically, playing games with parliament and the whole process of government. But that argument is answered by a number of considerations: such behaviour defeats good government, the perpetrators would be punished at the next election, the same game could eventually be played against them. The concept of parliament, and democracy itself, is based on the assumption that MPs do not play silly games. It is sometimes remarked that the present flip-flop system makes for large majorities and “decisive” government.   But that is surely the DISADVANTAGE of the present system, and by no means its strength? There is little virtue in being decisive if you are going against the wishes of the country; and none if you are plain wrong. When one party holds a large majority for 5 years, legislation is not tested. Furthermore, the backbench and opposition MPs have little to do. Add to that the devastating effect this flip-flop system has on morale in the country; the people cease to vote, for they see that their votes are not counted, and the MPs overuse their privileges. 
     Perhaps we should consider also the problem of stasis; getting stuck on the fence. But this also is to underestimate the good sense of the House? Ocean liners do not routinely run aground for inability to decide whether to pass to the left or right of an obstacle.)
     Proportional Representation is not a new concept. Many (if not most) countries have adopted it. The referendum of May 2011 was not about PR; it was a choice between staying with the present system or changing to the 'Alternative Vote' system which is not proportional, has few advocates, and few users.

     The ‘First Past the Post’ system favours two large parties, and large parties cynically favour it in return. I hope no one will oppose PR on dishonourable grounds. But perhaps I have missed something.

Yours sincerely, Cawstein
(South Northamptonshire.)

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Programme Notes — romantic piano

Nocturne in F minor (Op 48, No. 2) —  Frédéric Chopin  (1810 – 1849)

A nocturne is supposed to be inspired by, or evocative of, the night, or at the very least played at night. Mozart wrote 'notturnos' for mixed wind and strings, but the Nocturne as a short piano piece was more-or-less invented by the Irish pianist/composer John Field (1782 – 1837).  However the form was made his own by Chopin who, between 1830 and 1846, wrote 21 of these characteristically short, moody, pieces. This nocturne was written in 1841 and published the following year. It is marked Andantino.

12 Etude Opus 25   ———   Frédéric Chopin  (1810 – 1849)

Chopin wrote 27 Studies in all; 12 in the opus 10 set published in 1832, and 12 in this set written over a space of 4 years but published in 1837. They are, of course, studies for the establishment of fundamental piano technique, and many piano virtuosi have composed studies for that purpose, but these by Chopin rise far above the majority in artistic merit, and can be seen as compositional studies over and above their technical role. Chopin himself performed this opus 25 set at a concert, greatly impressing Robert Schumann. Except that 2 and 11 are both in A minor, each is in a different key.

++++++++ Interval ++++++++++++

Rhapsody Opus 79/1 —— Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

The two " Klavierstücke " of opus 79 were written in 1879 at the summit of his career. They were dedicated to his musical friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg (herself a composer), and it was she who suggested the slightly pompous renaming of them as 'Rhapsodies'. This No. 1 Rhapsody is like a compressed sonata; the Agitato outer sections (in 'sonata-form') are in B minor, but they surround a more lyrical section in B major.

Nutcracker Suite — Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)/Mikhail Pletnev

This is a piano transcription made by our contemporary Russian virtuoso pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev (1957 - ) of Tchaikovsky's Suite for Orchestra which lasts 20 minutes. The original ballet of 1892 was based on a story by ETA Hoffmann and is in two acts. In Act 1 the characters are human (adults and children) and the toys are toys; in Act 2 they are fantasy — the toys coming to life. There are 23 sections in the ballet, all with evocative titles like 'Decoration of the Christmas Tree', 'Children's Gallop and Dance of the Parents',  'Waltz of the Snowflakes', in Act 1; while in Act 2 taking place in the Land of the Sweets there are: Chocolate (Spanish dance), Coffee (Arabian dance), Tea (Chinese dance), Waltz of the Flowers,  Pas de deux (Sugar-Plum fairy and her Chavalier),  a Tarantella, the famous Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy, and a Final Waltz and 'Apotheosis'. In Pletnev's version there are 7 pieces:  March, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Tarantella, Intermezzo, Trepak (Russian Dance), Tea (Chinese Dance), Pas de Deux.

Scherzo & March (Love of Three Oranges) Op. 33 tert – Sergei Prokofiev

When Prokofiev was in Chicago in 1921 he was commissioned to write an opera. Fortunately he had a draft libretto for a satirical opera in his bag. Knowing as little English as the Americans had Russian, the opera came out first in a French version – "L'amour des trois oranges". The critics were initially doubtful ("The work is intended, one learns, to poke fun. As far as I am able to discern, it pokes fun chiefly at those who paid money for it."). Prokofiev prepared a 20 minute orchestral suite derived from the music (Styled Opus 33 bis); and from that himself prepared this Scherzo and March for solo piano (Op. 33 tert).

Piano Sonata A minor, Op. 28  ––––  Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)


Prokofiev composed his first opera when he was 9. His father died in 1910 and with him financial security, but the 19 year old son was already becoming known as a composer, albeit in a very 'modernist', polytonal, discordant, vein.  Prokofiev's 3rd piano sonata was 10 years in the making; it was published in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution (Feb), and Prokofiev's departure for America (May). It is a short (8 min) work in one movement, and illustrates Prokofiev's interest in departing from the norms of the romantic school; in shock, dissonance, harsh clusters of notes, and dynamic surprises. (Apparently, he was throughout his life an excellent chess player.)

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Programme Notes: Mozart - Mendelssohn - Bartok

Programme Notes: Mozart - Mendelssohn - Bartok

String Quartet in D, K. 575   —— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 — 1791) 

i. Allegretto;   ii. Andante;   iii. Menuetto (Allegretto);  iv Allegretto

In April we heard Mozart's Quartet No. 22 in B flat major (K589, Prussian No. 2); today its predecessor, No. 21, the first of the so-called 'Prussian Quartets'. In April 1789, Mozart's wife claiming illness and needing a spa cure (where however she flirted to Mozart's distress), left Mozart desperate for money. Hope came when Prince Lichnowsky, an aristocratic pupil, offered to take him to Berlin and present him to King Friedrich Wilhelm II (himself an amateur cellist). He came back to Vienna intending to write 6 quartets for the King and 6 'easy' piano sonatas for his daughter Princess Frederike. Of the latter, only one was written — Mozart's last piano sonata. Of the quartets, Mozart wrote only 3. Somewhat neglected, these quartets are overshadowed by his earlier 'Haydn' quartets and the later quintets. Some of his contemporaries got the impression that Mozart wrote with a facility bordering on flippancy for he would write out the score without errors while talking to friends, but others insisted that he spent much of the night at the piano, and it was only his extraordinary memory that enabled him to write the fair copy at speed. A distinctive feature of all 3 'Prussian' quartets is the prominent and interesting cello part, intended for the king himself to play. In this, the first of the set, 3 of the 4 movements are marked allegretto ('mildly cheerful' ?). The outer movements are in D major; the andante second movement is in A, the minuet (in D) has a trio section that swithers between D and G.

String Quartet No. 2, (Op. 17)   —— Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945)

i. Moderato;   ii. Allegro molto capriccioso;   iii. Lento

At the age of 21 Bartók, travelling abroad as a virtuoso pianist, was stimulated by Strauss's Zarathustra to try his hand at composition (Kossuth in 1903). In 1904, hearing a nanny sing a folk song he was stimulated to take up the collecting and study of Folk Music as his main preoccupation and life's work, with only occasional diversion into composition: the 1st quartet (1909), an opera Bluebeard's Castle (1911), 2nd quartet (1917), the ballets Wooden Prince (1916), and Miraculous Mandarin (1919). In 1909 the 28 yr old Bartók married 16 yr old Marta. By then, he was living in Budapest as professor of pianoforte at the Royal Academy of Music (where one of his pupils was Sir Georg Solti). The First World War was a relatively peaceful time in Hungary. For Bartók and his colleague, great friend and fellow collector Kodály, it meant that they had to give up their travelling abroad collecting folk songs onto wax cylinders and return to Hungary; turmoil came with Hungary's Soviet revolution after the war. So Bartók spent most of the war simultaneously writing the Wooden Prince and his 2nd quartet; both showing the influence of Debussy. Bartók apparently described the first movement as being in sonata form, the second as "a kind of rondo" and the third as "difficult to define" but possibly a sort of ternary form (Wikipedia). It is not in his 'mature' style, which developed only in the twenties and thirties.

String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, (Op. 13)     Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

1. Adagio/allegro vivace, 2. Adagio non lento, 3. Intermezzo (allegretto con moto/allegro di molto), 4. Presto


This quartet, composed in 1827 when Mendelssohn was 18 years old, is actually his first, as Opus 12 (though called Quartet No. 1) was written two years later. It astonishes the listener with its assured mastery of the medium, and its bold originality; but then we remember that he wrote his superb String Octet (1825) two years before that. Many musicologists have compared Mendelssohn's opus 13 with Beethoven's late quartets, the last of which, though not performed in public till 1828 was published in September 1827 (Beethoven died March 1827). (See e.g.: http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/mendelssohn-quartet-in-a-minor-op-13.)  While most contemporaries regarded these late Beethoven quartets as flawed, and even 'horrible', the young Mendelssohn must have obtained and studied the score in the weeks before writing his opus 13. An easily conceded but trivial similarity between older and younger master is that the final movement of Beethoven's last quartet (Op. 135) opens with a musical motif under which Beethoven wrote "Muß es sein?" ("Must it be?"), while in the last 5 bars of the opening adagio, adolescent Mendelssohn quoted the "Ist es wahr?" motif from a song he had previously written (of which the words run "Is it true, is it true that you are always waiting for me in the arboured walk?"). But the one utterance is a disturbed, existential question, while the other expresses the uncertainty and excitement of a youthful romantic yearning. So differ also the works.