Saturday, 11 December 2010

Liu Xiao-Bo

Liu Xiao-Bo

The West, I mean the non-Chinese world, is in danger of hustling Liu Xiao-Bo into a martyrdom that is more dramatic than the merely heroic stance he intended. To spend 11 years in prison, from age 54 to 65 is a heavy sentence; but perhaps even that is not heavy enough for the ghouls who rub their hands and gloat at the awfulness of the Chinese regime. 'We few, we happy few' who live under representative democracy with a free press, and central heating, are well cushioned against the realities of life in the monolithic communist or ex-communist states of China and Russia, and remain happily ignorant of those realities. We flaunted capitalism and encouraged the dismantling of the Russian communist machine with whoops of triumphant glee, and look at the devastation that has resulted! Are we now setting-to to repeat that devastation in China?

How many of our experts in democracy and penmanship remember the Taiping rebellion, and the awful success of the messianic Hong Xiu-Quan, self-styled brother of Jesus, who stormed through southern China in the mid nineteenth century in an attempt to establish the 'Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace' ? Millions slain, 20 million dead. Or even the more recent 20-year long struggle between Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Ze-Dong when "more than a million died"?  China is a different place, with a different history, and above all a different psychology. It is foolish, presumptuous, and dangerous, to interfere; to inject little bits of 'foreign' thinking into a country that has for millennia governed itself by its own laws for its own perceived benefits.  

It is not since 'time immemorial' (1189 A.D.) that we in Britain have enjoyed free speech; that is a relatively recent innovation. Today we can call for the abolition of the monarchy, if we want to, or make jokes about the prime minister, because no-one will pay any attention. Some person could doubtless call himself the younger brother of Jesus without raising a revolution, or much more than a frown. During the 17th century that would have been a step too far. In 1697 the 20 year old Edinburgh student Thomas Aikenhead was hung for 'blasphemy'; it was a cold night and the lad, walking home from a drinking session, said he wished he were in the place Ezra called 'hell' so he could warm himself. Even riding into Bristol in front of a crowd of enthusiasts crying "Holy, holy, holy" got James Nayler  thrown into prison in 1656. However, both these punishments can be judged as harsh, even for their times, because, though people were offended, neither episode led to armed rebellion, public disorder, or loss of life.

I doubt that "freedom of speech" was ever won by violent protest; it is surely won by exactly the opposite; by quiet listening and mature reflection. So, instead of clamouring about Liu Xiao-Bo, crying "holy, holy, holy",  and placing medals on empty chairs, why don't we indulge in a little mature reflection. Charter 08 draws attention to the fact that the Chinese government signed two important international human rights conventions in 1998; in 2004 it amended its constitution to include the phrase "respect and protect human rights"; in 2008 it promised to promote a "national human rights action plan." So, what is that action plan? We are listening.

Occidentis, MORPETH

Friday, 10 December 2010

Kenneth Burton, FRS

Kenneth Burton, FRS — a tribute

(Born: 1926; FRS: 1974; Died: 22nd  Nov 2010)

It will be well known that Professor Kenneth Burton was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974 (incidentally, the same year as Stephen Hawking); a distinction that marked him as lying in the top 1,200  scientists in Britain, at that time. I see it as my first objective to explain, in non-technical terms, what Kenneth's achievements amounted to that were so valued by his peers, and what mental qualities and circumstances allowed Ken to make those contributions.  I shall then refer briefly to his years as Professor of Biochemistry at Newcastle, and end by quoting a short paragraph from Professor George Petersen, Kenneth's second research student and a lifelong friend.

The American golfer, Arnold Palmer, famously remarked that the more he practiced the luckier he became. In this sense there is an element of luck in science as well as in sport. Many scientists have one stroke of luck; geniuses like Sir Hans Krebs strike lucky over and over throughout their lives. Kenneth Burton had three occasions when he struck lucky.

The best known of these was his citation classic of 1956 in which he described a sensitive and reproducible assay of DNA which proved so popular that it is known as "the Burton Method". This paper has been cited by other scientists 17,000 times, and is still being cited 50 years later; that is some 1000 times more often quoted than the average scientific paper. His 'stroke of genius' on that occasion was to leave the half-completed assay tubes on the bench overnight instead of staying late and finishing the experiment properly. Ken Burton observed that the colours developed by themselves overnight much better than by the traditional protocol. He next observed that the colours that developed with Chicago acetic acid did not develop in Oxford. Well, that was the serendipitous part; the rest of the achievement was having the curiosity and the ready mind to interpret and exploit the observations; for example, by adding acetaldehyde that presumably contaminated the Chicago acetic acid. [Burton K. (1956) Biochem. J. 62, 315 - 20; "A study of the conditions and mechanism of the dipehnylamine reaction for the colorimetric estimation of deoxyribonucleic acid."]

Much more important, scientifically speaking, was Ken's paper of the previous year in which he showed that viral DNA synthesis (in bacteria) required viral proteins to be synthesised first. This is a very fundamental point in understanding viruses, and of course anti-viral medicines. Virus reproduction requires viral proteins.[Burton, K. (1955)  Biochem. J. 61, 473–483; Relation between the synthesis of deoxyribonucleic acid and the synthesis of protein in the multiplication of bacteriophage T2.]

It is argueable, however, that Ken Burton's greatest achievement was his publication of the following year, i.e. of 1957. He wrote an appendix to a massive paper by Krebs and Kornberg, in which he calculated and listed the free-energies of formation of all the compounds of energy metabolism, from the sugar we eat to the CO2 we breath out, and everything in between. Things falls downwards, in biochemistry as in every other field. Ken's tabulation allows us to see which direction is downwards (in this metaphor.) It allows us to understand why thing happen, everything, from the contraction of muscle to the synthesis of protein. Countless students of biochemistry learn and quote the values from that table and never realize they are quoting Ken Burton. Were it possible to count citations in this case I think it would run to millions.[Krebs HA, Kornberg HL, Burton K (1957) Ergebnisse der Physiologie; 49: 212-298; "A survey of the energy transformations in living matter"]

Some of this may be news to Ken's friends, for I never heard Ken talking proudly about his successes. He was a  singularly un-boastful man. Most of us are motivated, at least in part, by self-love, prestige, and scoring over ones contemporaries. This can get so bad, in a mediocre department, that one person's success is generally bemoaned, as implying failure for the rest. Ken rose above that. His objectives were more remote, more absolute; he was motivated, I think, less by the glory of doing science, than simply by the fun of it. Characteristically he liked to tell, not of his fame, but the story of a failure, or of bad luck; of how he missed identifying the role of co-enzyme A in citric acid synthesis, thus allowing Fritz Lipmann to announce that discovery a year or two later and share the 1953 Nobel prize with Hans Krebs. Ken's mistake (he said), on that occasion, was too much veneration for the opinions of colleagues; a fault I believe he subsequently corrected![Novelli G. D., Lipmann F. (1950) J. Biol. Chem. 182:213–228.]

Ken's were significant achievements! But why did they happen to Ken Burton? Well, he was very sharp; he was well grounded in chemistry, physics and maths (his undergraduate subjects); he had a roving curiosity, a sense of enjoyment in science, and persistence. He studied for his PhD under a master of benchwork biochemistry in Malcolm Dixon; a legendary enzymologist, an intensely shy man, but a very considerable pianist . It was said of Malcolm Dixon that he was as happy fixing a gas boiler as doing biochemistry. When Kenneth moved to Sheffield in 1949 he came under the mantle of one of the worlds great scientists; Hans Krebs was hard-working, methodical but imaginative. He was remarkable amongst scientific bosses in not letting his name get onto the papers of colleagues merely because he was their boss. Krebs encouraged Ken's independence of mind. Kenneth was remarkable too, in a similar way, in that a high proportion of his papers were single author papers. He did his own thinking and his own experiments. Medawar pointed out that to achieve a big answer you have to tackle a big problem; Krebs gave Ken Burton access to the big question of Free Energies.

Following those 3 classic papers of the mid fifties Ken Burton followed two other major projects, with equal tenacity and skill, but to less acclaim. He and his students followed up the diphenylamine reaction for several years, developing methods for cleaving the long threads of intact DNA in the hope of finding a way of determining the sequence of bases and thus "reading" the genes. In this they initially had some success. Last year, in her Nobel acceptance speech, Elizabeth Blackburn admitted using Ken Burton's depurination reaction in her 1975 investigations of "satellite DNA". But much more powerful methods of sequencing were developed by others and "Burton's depurination method" has been forgotten.

[Burton K. (1965) Essays Biochem. 1, 57-89. Sequence determination in nucleic acids.].

In 1966  Ken Burton became the first professor of Biochemistry at Newcastle upon Tyne. Designing the course and selecting staff took over his time and energies, but did not completely prevent active research, nor indeed bench work. Ken soon started an investigation into the mechanism by which adenine is actively taken up by bacteria, a project he pursued almost single-handedly till retirement. It was not fashionable. ('Bacteria take up everything; so what?') The trend in science was towards progressively bigger research groups getting more and more of the money. With great ingenuity and a "shoestring", Ken eventually brought the subject to a satisfactory conclusion with his last scientific paper in 1994, identifying a gene and proposing a proton-linked uptake and intense product inhibition.  

[Burton K. (1994) Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B; 255:153-7; Adenine transport in Escherichia coli.]

I have tried to show Kenneth Burton the scientist; but that is only one aspect of the whole man. I understood that Ken had enjoyed building the department from scratch but had found the deeply entrenched Medical Faculty aloof, if not actually hostile. Successful integration of Biochemistry into the Mecidal School only came in 1985 when Ken was Dean of Science. "Prof Burton" was universally regarded as completely fair, singularly unaffected by egotism, unusually given (for a head of Department) to working at the bench, and an enthusiastic walker. Malcolm Page, who did his PhD with Ken and subsequently worked with me writes: "Having now supervised a few students myself, I realize what a special quality [Ken] had and I have endeavoured to give my students the same freedom". Thus we see the baton passed on.

George Petersen, one of Kenneth Burton's first research students and a lifelong friend has written a charming and well balanced personal tribute from which I shall quote a short paragraph. It shows how well George knew Kenneth. Professor Petersen writes:

"Kenneth Burton had an endearingly impish sense of humour and many little human quirks.  In conversation, he had a disconcerting way of drifting off while speaking and going into some sort of trance.  Whether he actually lost consciousness, I don't know. But, after a short interval of gazing into space, he would return to continue the conversation as though nothing had happened.  And it has to be said that he was not the world's most lucid lecturer.  Basil Smith, another DPhil student in Ken's laboratory, once said, "Ken could mystify for England".  Perhaps this was part of the same phenomenon.  Ken told us once that, after a lecture, he could not recall much of what he had said and could only conclude that he had fallen asleep during his own lecture." 

I concur, but would not have dared say it.

Ian West, 12 Longhirst, 
++++++++++++   OOOOOOOO  ++++++++++++

Tuition Fees 3

Tuition Fees 3

This 'Tuition Fee Fiasco' is threatening to become the present government's 'Poll Tax'; a tax however sensible, that is so misunderstood and loathed it has to be revoked. Heads and windows are being broken and thousands of well intentioned youngsters are wasting time and energy protesting, but in ignorance of the true nature of "the beast". 

Shaun Ley on 'World at One' (Thursday 9th Dec., 2010) tried over and again to get the coalition minister Danny Alexander to explain how the present proposals for student loans is progressive; i.e. how it comes harder on the  better off than on the less well off.  Shaun Ley could not see it. The minister could not explain it, so he quoted the Institute for Fiscal Studies. "No!" said Shaun Ley, "I am asking you, as Minster."  It turns out that we (the public) don't yet know enough of the detail to make a sensible decision. Let us hope that Parliament does.

The media flash a headline, alarmist or scoffing depending on the political colour of the owner. But they seldom give us the proposals. I think this could be done quite simply in a 10 x 10 cm2  advert; not the analysis, justification, spin, excuses, apologies, etc.; just the proposals.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies does a good job, in websites that are available, but not accessible, to all. Even there one has to read between the lines ("we calculate that total the taxpayer burden.. " presumably means "…the total taxpayer burden.. "); and guess at the meaning of 'levy', 'discount' etc.

It turns out that the 'fairness' question hinges on [1] the rate at which the loan is paid back (9% of earnings), [2] the interest rate that is charged on the outstanding loan for every point on the salary scale above £21,000 pa, below which no money need be repaid, and [3] the number of years after which the debt is wiped (30). Without this information the question cannot be discussed as to of how "Fair" or "Progressive" the education burden is. Given only a 30 second 'sound-bite' the best that ministers can do is to shout over and over that "the bottom 25% of students will be better off", and that education is "free at the point of use", till they are hoarse and we are bored.

Nothing is free. The government's proposals aim to place the cost of education on the presumed beneficiaries. But the entire discussion presupposes that the 'benefit' of an education is a financial benefit to the educated. Were that the case, the proposals make a lot of sense. The system would adjust; graduate salaries would presumably rise to allow the loan repayments. But is that the only 'benefit', or even the main benefit of education. The benefit of street-sweepers is not the salary it brings the sweeper, but the clean streets it brings everyone else.

Occidentis, MORPETH

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Programme Notes

Sonata n. 31 in A♭, Hob.XVI. 46         Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

i. Allegro moderato, ii. Adagio, iii. Finale: Presto)

Haydn was not himself a great keyboardist (c.f Mozart and Beethoven), but was certainly competent, and composed chiefly at his own little clavichord (an instrument which makes a minute and rapidly fading sound compared with a modern piano, but which is capable of considerably more expression than the harpsichord). His 60 odd keyboard sonatas were mostly written early in his career, and with clavichord or harpsichord in mind (though by 1780 Haydn had a fortepiano). They are nevertheless inventive, carefully wrought pieces in classical form, mostly in 3 movements, with the middle movement in a different (but related) key from the outer movements. Sonata 31 (called a divertimento on the cover) was composed in 1767/8 and is one of the more substantial of this 'middle' period. The outer movements are in A major and thematically related; the middle movement is in D major.

Piano pieces for children: Breeze & Clouds      Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996)

Takemitsu, Japan's best known and best loved composer, wrote some 260 works including 97 film scores. Aged 15 when the war ended, he shunned traditional Japanese style as it "always recalled the bitter memories of war" and he developed his own language which can be seen as bridging Western techniques and Eastern moods. Piano was his favourite instrument (along with guitar and flute). The two short pieces we hear today were written for a piano lesson programme given by the pianist Naoyuki Inoue and shown on national television in 1979.

Miroirs        ————————————      Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937)

For 12 years Ravel studied piano and composition at the Paris Conservatoire, but finally left in 1903, having failed to gain a medal in either discipline. He joined a group of like minded artists who called themselves "Hooligans" (Apaches). 'Miroirs', composed in 1904 -1905, followed his first piano masterpieces, 'Jeux d'eau' (1901) and 'Pavane pour une infante défunte' (1902). It comprises 5 sections each dedicated to a fellow Apache and each invoking an image and mood which might be experienced had the dedicatee looked in a mirror.

1. "Night Moths", dedicated to the poet and essayist Léon-Paul Fargue, opens with chromatic pianissimo sound-painting up and down the keyboard.

2. "Sad Birds", dedicated to the pianist Ricardo Viñes who gave the first performance. A lone bird sings its sad song at the beginning. Other birds join in, but the piece ends as it began.

3. "A boat on the Ocean", dedicated to the painter Paul Sordes.

4. "Dawn Song of a Clown", dedicated to M. D. Calvocoressi (music writer and Slavophile of Greek descent). This piece is heavily influenced by Spanish themes, with the introductory chords reminiscent of guitars. (The section of repeated notes is notorious as one of the more difficult passages in the piano repertoire.)

5. "The Valley of Bells", dedicated to Maurice Delage (pianist and composer, and Ravel's first pupil). Numerous bells, and some of Ravel's most striking melodies, can be heard in this piece.


++++++++     Interval of 20 minutes     ++++++++

Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op. 42 — Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)

On 22 December 1917 Rachmaninov, deprived of his estate, fled St. Petersburg with his wife and two daughters on an open sled, heading for the United States where, from the necessity of earning money, he largely abandoned composition and set himself to carve out a new career as a concert pianist. Opus 42, composed in 1931, was his only composition for solo piano composed after leaving Russia, and represent a drier, less romantic, style (followed in 1934 by his popular Paganini Variations). The theme is not in fact by Corelli but is an old Portuguese melody called "La Folia" used by many composers (including Corelli, Geminiani, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, and many others) as the basis for sets of variations. Rachmaninov's set contains the theme and 20 variations, plus an intermezzo and coda. These can be grouped into three movements: An Allegro/Scherzo section in D minor containing the first 13 variations, an Adagio containing 2 variations (in D major), and a Finale (vars. 16 – 20), again in D minor. Rachmaninov himself never played the whole set; if he thought the audience was flagging, he would skip sections.

Sonata no. 31 in A♭, Opus 110      Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

i Moderato (Cantabile molto espressivo), ii Scherzo (Allegro molto), iii Finale (Allegro ma non troppo)

In 1819 Schlessinger's of Berlin commissioned a set of 3 sonata of which Opus 110 is the second. The opening movement ("in an extremely expressive singing style") has been described as 'orderly', and 'Haydnesque'. (We note, very much in passing, that Beethoven's 31st sonata is in the same key as Haydn's 31st.) After a 4-bar introduction, the cantabile melody sings out over a simple bass line of repetitive semiquavers. Towards its end the 1st movement contains a brief reference to the see-saw theme of the finale's fugue. The Scherzo lives up to the name for it is a cheerful little movement containing two robust (ungenteel) folk songs tunes, repeated after a 'trio' section containing some scary leaps. The deeply moving Finale, a complex but integrated mix of tempi and keys, comprises: recitative, arioso, fugue, arioso, link, inverted fugue, conclusion.        

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Changing The Clocks

Changing The Clocks: the 'Lighter Later' campaign

Any questions this weekend (29th Oct. 2010) was not remarkable for its good sense, but on one issue the majority of the panel seemed to agree; switching to European Time is absurd. The audience (if they understood Jonathan's confusing question) seemed to be largely of the opposite opinion. I understand that a serious campaign is currently being waged to get the present system (alternating between GMT and BST) to be changed in favour of the UK joining western Europe and making the same alternation but an hour ahead, so that the sun is at its zenith at 13.00 hrs in winter and 14.00 hrs in summer. (See

This seems to me quite daft. The issue does not seem to be one that is up for grabs. Noon is when the sun is at its zenith. Calling that 14.00 hrs is plain perverse. It is like calling Monday 'Sunday' so that you can spend the morning in bed. (Admittedly, calling it 13.00 hrs as we have since 1916, seems a little perverse, but the measure was brought in during World War One, to save daylight and to increase the production of armaments.)

If there is an advantage in us getting up in the dark then let us do so by all means; we can get up at 06.00 hrs and call it 06.00; we don't have to call it 07.00 or 08.00 in order to get up. There may well be an avantage in the City of London opening for business at the same time as Frankfurt. So let them do that. It will be darker here than in Germany; that cannot be helped by any fiddling with the clock. It may well be that conditions for school children in Scotland, for mill workers in Lancashire and for dairy farmers in Cornwall are widely different. We don't need to agonize over a compromise. Let each working day be adjusted to suit.

My main reason for resisting the suggested change to western European time is that I am sure we would soon learn to adapt; we would soon learn to stay in bed till the clock said 09.00 hrs. if that suited us. After all, starting work at 09.00 is not an integral and unalterable part of the human condition. On the other hand, walking about in the dark does not suit the species, and never will.

Occidentis, MORPETH

Monday, 18 October 2010

Tuition Fees 2

Tuition Fees 2

Let me try again. On 'Any Questions' on Friday, Ed Vaizey (a Minister in the Coalition Government) said that there was no evidence that high tuition fees would put poor students off going to university. Well, it would put me off, so there is a little bit of evidence. I am beginning, though, to think that the withdrawal of direct public funding for the universities might have some benefits. Perhaps the sector will decline from its present grossly hypertrophied condition. Perhaps half, or more, of the present stock of universities will close. Perhaps 2-year and 1-year courses will finally be introduced, instead of being merely talked about for decades. Perhaps the Government and Industry will realise that they and the country need a supply of graduates mentally trained in specific skills, and sponsor candidates directly, paying all or part of their university fees. Other youngsters might gain entry to apprenticeship schemes, and learn a craft, which is of course much more than a manual skill, but which is not best taught by lecture or practised merely by thinking. We might even evolve by stages till we rediscover a system like that we had in my youth where 10% - 15% of school leavers went to university, funded by the state as National Assets, while the rest of our youth learnt a manual-based craft. Let us go forward, for it might be the quickest way of getting back.

(Dear Minister, while I have your 'ear' may I suggest that we do not want to know each summer which school-leavers have achieved grade A (whatever that means); we want to know which students fall in the top 10% of candidates, as was the system in the sixties, before it was "fixed". Admittedly the proportion taking A-level has changed considerably over the years, but it has now got so high that it can hardly inflate any more. Ability is presumably rather constant. In any case, if universities are built to take the top 10% they cannot take 15% in the event of more candidates presenting with grade A.)

Occidentis, MORPETH, UK.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Tuition Fees

Tuition Fees

Our coalition government has welcomed the Browne report's recommentations on funding universities in England. The suggestion is that universities will lose a chunk of central funding but a can charge students as high a fee as they need to make good the loss (figures of £6000 - £7000 per annum have been mentioned); that students borrow the £21,000 - 36,000 odd needed to get them through their 3 year degree (accommodation plus tuition); that this debt immediately attracts commercial rates of interest (2.2% above inflation); payback commences when the graduates earns more than £21,000 p.a. and continues as the rate of 9% of income for the next 30 years, if necessary. [See the helpful briefing by the Institute for Fiscal Studies:]

There seems to be a lot of nonsense written about this matter and I propose to add my twopennyworth here.

First, "If it is not broken, don't fix it!". Higher education was funded in my day out of taxes (on a means-tested basis) on the grounds that it was of benefit, not merely to the recipient, but to the nation. That system worked for many years, but maybe it does not now, for many reason(s). There has been a grotesque expansion of the university sector. Politicians are squeamish about putting  2% on income tax to pay for it. The "fairness" argument has suggested that the beneficiaries are the graduates themselve, not the rest of society. (I question that, a point to which I may recur.)

It has been pointed out by the media that graduates earn (on average) some £100,000 more than non-graduates in a lifetime, as though this might justify spending £36,000 at the beginning of your adult life — as an investment. But might this not be another instance of the media's favourite blunder? Yacht-owners are (on average) rich; but I advise against buying a yacht in the hope of becoming rich. I am a great advocte of education, as a means of improving society, but not as a means of becoming rich. I (who have taught at universities for > 30 years) think at least 50% of degrees contribute little or nothing to the wealth of the graduate, or to GNP. Even if your school-leaver decided to spend £36,000 as an investment, it seems a very poor one (on average). The FTSE 100 index began on 3 January 1984 at 1,000 and now stands at 5,700; £36,000 invested 26 years ago would be worth £205,200 now (on average).

I think fees of £7000 per annum and debts of £36,00 will certainly put students off university. And I think it should. (Taking 9% out of your income for 30 years sounds appalling to me and considerably worse than a 2% rise in income tax.) Drastic shrinkage of the University sector may occur, but may be the best outcome of the present proposals, though one vigorously denied by the proposers.

I hate the idea, however true, that a medical degree is a means to grow rich. It has already had a distasterous effect on the profession for it has bred a generation of doctors with a very mercenary outlook (mixed in with, and corrupting, or depressing, the genuine philanthropists). I do not know who to blame for this trend, though I have some preliminary culprits in mind; everyone who has ever said "Get real!" for a start; for should we not rather say "Get ideal!". When I find the culprits I have a great load of  'scorn' to pile on them.

The notion that a degree is valuable to society is as in need of qualification as the other (that it is a means of making money). It should be a very simple matter for a committee to decide which degrees are valuable and which not. Indeed, it could be left to market forces, or so it will be argued, though the great debate between the "free-marketeers" and the "planners" did not end with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, for we are now sending spies to Scandinavia to find out why their banks are solvent, their pensions funded in perpetuity, and their citizens living contentedly with >50% income tax. What we principally need in this country are more waiters, bus-drivers, and plumbers. We seem to be overstocked (even to 30-fold) with psychologists, media students, and those hoping to improve water quality by looking at river wildlife. (Gambling bankers contribute nothing, except tax.)

None of which reflection gets us very far forward, so here is a positive thought. Pehaps we should encourage businesses, and government departments who need graduates, to recruit school-leavers and sponsor their university studies, as was done on a small scale in the sixties and seventies of last century; I mean pay the tuition fees. I do not think I would take a university course under Browne proposals unless I were sponsored in this way, and I would not urge any child or grandchild of mine to do so either.

Occidentis, MORPETH, UK.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Oct'10 Programme Notes

String quartet in E major (Op. 54/3)    Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

i Allegro, ii Largo cantabile, iii Menuetto (Allegretto), iv Finale (Presto)

Haydn was the son of uneducated peasants (a wheelwright and a cook), and though his talent gained him access to some first class models, he was essentially self taught as a musician and composer. He is nevertheless regarded as the "father" of the symphony, of sonata form, and of the classical string quartet. From 1761 to 1790 Haydn was employed as Kapellmeister  by the wealthy Esterhazy family. In 1779, the aging Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy gave Haydn a new contract permitting him to accept external commissions and market his compositions. (Haydn was also the first composer in Vienna to sell his compositions commercially.) For the next 11 years, till the Prince's death, Haydn was able to frequent the Viennese musical world for 2 months each year, meeting, and indeed playing quartets with, the younger Mozart, and in consequence to develop considerably his concept of the quartet into a more fluid and complex form. This quartet, composed in 1788, is from one of three sets known as "Tost" quartets (dedicated to the Esterhazy violinist Johann Tost). This dedication explains the virtuosic nature of the first violin line, for example in the triplet runs in the first movement, the florid ornamentation that almost overloads the melody in the slow movement with hemidemisemiquavers (64th notes), and the stratospheric leaps and runs of the finale. The outer movements, both in E major, are both introduced on the 2nd violin. The Largo is in A major with a middle section in A minor.  The Minuet forms a brief uncomplicated interlude, before the developmental sonata-form of the last movement, the main theme of which spins out of the trio section of the Minuet.

Quartet in F minor (Op. 80)      Felix Mendelssohn (1809 - 1847)

i Allegro vivace assai (presto), ii Allegro assai, iii Adagio, iv Finale (allegro molto)

In May1847 Mendelssohn's musical older sister Fanny died prematurely, inconsolably affecting the composer. This quartet, Mendelssohn's last major work, was composed in the following months under great emotional tension, but in November Felix himself died, probably of the same cerebral seizures that had affected his sister, both their parents, and their grandfather Moses. One can see in this work both anger and despair. The 1st movement starts with an agitated presto interspersed with a gentler tune and ends with a chordal coda. There is neither a Haydnesque minuet nor a Schubertian scherzo; instead a rhythmically thrusting or searching rondo-like allegro as 2nd movement, which fades out as though feeling the need of a slow movement. The adagio that follows is more wandering than searching, ending in a stillness that is not really peace. The finale, more muscular and less agitated than the 1st movement, ends with a driving but rather bleak climax.

Quartet in E minor (Op. 59/2) — Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

i Allegro, ii Molto adagio, iii Scherzo (allegretto), iv Finale (presto)

This product of Beethoven's "middle" period, published in 1806, is the second of three quartets commissioned by the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Razumovsky, who asked Beethoven to incorporate a Russian tune in each work. Though a gifted violinist himself, Andrei Razumovsky also employed a quartet of professional musicians which included the famous Schuppanzigh. This E minor quartet opens with no less than 5 false starts, and 4 grand pauses or empty bars, but eventually settles down to spin out extended lyrical motifs. Part of the impact of the music is in its rhythmic novelties; extended off-beat passages, repeating motifs. The second movement is in E major. Above it Beethoven carefully, but unnecessarily, wrote (in Italian) "This movement is to be played with much feeling". It opens with a hymn-like contemplation (of the starry heavens – according to Beethoven's pupil Czerny) after which the lower 3 voices introduce a wonderful singing melody, ornamented and pointed by the 1st violin. There follows a rich development of the thematic and rhythmic material in contrasting moods. The "thème russe" occurs in the second (E major) section of the Scherzo. It is a Ukrainian song ('Glory to the Sun'; published a few years earlier) with a curious off-beat rhythm. In fact Beethoven uses only half the tune. It is introduced on the viola against a running triplet accompaniment, but passes canonically through all 4 voices. The finale is a rondo whose main theme has an irresistible and unforgettable skippety rhythm.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Rake-off or Commission

Rake-off or Commission?

When buying foreign currency no-one charges 'commission' these days, but everyone charges something for which there is currently no name, so let us call it 'rake-off'.

If you buy £100  worth of foreign currency at Thomas Cook and sell it back again you end with £81.13. I.e. you lose £18.86, or approximately 9.5% lost on buying and the same again on selling. Let us call that a 9.5% 'rake-off'  (Or 8.5% on buying and 11.3% on selling — see below.)

At The Post Office the same operation would leave you with £84.07. So you would lose £15.93, or approximately 8% both on buying and selling.

At Marks & Spencers they rake-off about 7% when you buy foreign currency, but if you take back to them the unused foreign notes they refund with no rake-off; i.e. at the same rate at which you bought from them (I had to telephone 0800 363 484 to confirm that this is the case, as their web-site is not clear.)

To make this even more clear, take Turkish Lira on a day when the international exchange rate fluctuates around 2. 35 to the GB pound:

Rake-off Rake-off
---Sell--- Buy-back Sell Buy-back
Thomas Cook 2.15 2.65 8.5% 11.3%
Post Office 2.173 2.585 7.5% 9.2
Marks & Spencer 2.188 2.188 6.9% 0 %

The high-street currency traders insist they take no 'commission'. I think they are dishonest. They make it quite difficult for the general public to spot what is going on, and as a result the 'rake-off' (or commission, to use the English term) is rising to absurd levels.

How stupid are we supposed to be?

Occidentis, MORPETH, UK.

Friday, 27 August 2010


Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

After two green months, my lawn is once again showing the yellow heads of short-stalked dandelions, the sort that subvert all my efforts with the mower. Last week it struck me that I had not seen those dangerously invasive flower heads since much earlier in the summer. I then realized, with dismay, that it was 9 weeks (63 days!) since the summer solstice. And that if you count 9 weeks before the solstice you reach back to 19th April — the spring flowering period of the dandelion. The daylength would be the same on 23rd August as it was on 19th April. It had not occurred to me before that plants whose flowering is regulated by daylength (and there are many), could have two flowering seasons, equidistant from the solstice.

I wonder if this is the right explanation.

The roadside verges are also lined again with yellow composite flower heads, at their densest right by the edge of the tarmac, as though they craved the pollution, or salt, splashed up from the road. It is very reminiscent of the spring flush of dandelion blossom, which similarly is densest right up by the road, though these autumn flower heads are subtly smaller. If you dismount and pluck a stalk you find it is not hollow, nor smooth, nor does it exude a milky latex; in fact it is not a dandelion at all. The narrow stalk, occasionally branched, has tiny bracts on it, clasping the stem.

The flower is (probably) the Autumn Hawkbit, Leontodon autumnalis. (Note in passing that Leontodon is modern 'Greekolatin' for dents de lion — 'lion's teeth'.)

Occidentis, MORPETH

Tuesday, 27 July 2010


Artemisia annua (Qinghao)

Afghanistan is never very far from our news media these days, with the regular announcements of casualties, and the more occasional megaleak, or world conference. Occasionally we hear that opium production has reached record proportions, or that a wedding party has been blown to smithereens by us, or our allies. It is both depressing and frustrating, for we feel so powerless in the face of an apparently unremitting beastliness that amounts to madness.

My present train of thought started with opium; half a million acres of this pernicious weed, fuelling conflict in Afghanistan and sordid moral collapse in our own cities. The Taliban had all but eradicated poppy growing, but under our "protection" heroin production has soared year on year to 6000 tons of resin. Occasionally we hear of crops being destroyed, but our half-hearted efforts in that direction seem further designed to lose us friends and thus the battle for hearts and minds. Are we doing enough?  Are we tasking the army with too much? After all, "to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail".

What about the allies BUYING the opium crop?  That way we could collar the lot  if we paid the right price. It would of course expand our "foreign aid" budget, but it would establish a positive link with the growers. What about encouraging farmers to grow other high value crops that are also suited to the sun-drenched soil. We would need expert advice here but what about lavender or roses for the perfume industry, or Artemisia annua which I understand produces a fabulously expensive anti-malarial drug called artemisinin?

We read about McChrystal, Petreaus, and more cryptically about "Britain's most senior general in Afghanistan"; we understand the accumulating military cost of British operations in Afghanistan to be some 10B£ (above our normal military budget). But who is in charge of our reconstruction team? What is our budget for education, culture, infrastructure, and our war against the opium poppy?  I am pointing this accusatory question firmly at the British media. Tell us what we have done that is creditable! Is there a conspiracy of secrecy? Of course, the media may justifiable point back at the bloodthirsty British public who are horrified and fascinated by blood, but woefully indifferent to the rest.

It is not as though there is no one working to help and encourage Afghani farmers. If you dig deeper into the subsoil of the world-wide-web you come across Mark Henning's efforts for Joint  Development Associates International, Inc which is working to improve agriculture in northern Afghanistan; and The Council on Foreign Relations, an American non-profit think tank of some venerability (founded 1921) which discusses many creative projects in the area. And there are other excellent papers, unparented but clearly funded by the US government such as one by S. Alan Walters on "Vegetable Production in Balkh Province of Afghanistan and RecommendationsÉ" There is a Swedish Committee for Afghanistan with programmes in education and health, and (until 2007) agriculture. But I have found nothing that links Britain with agriculture in Afghanistan. 


So, PLEASE, let us hear more about the positive and noble efforts of dedicated people, of British role models if there are any, so that we may be heartened, and stimulated to volunteer ourselves; so that we may lift up our heads again instead of squirming with embarassment at the whole Afghanistan fiasco.


Occidentis, MORPETH

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Jenny's Battle with The Institute of Ideas

In a long article in issue 32/13 of "The London Review of Books",
Jenny Turner describes a 2-day conference organised by the Institute of Ideas, which I am glad I missed. She gives a clear impression of much exhausting axe-grinding by a small and cliquey group of ageing Trotskyites. But she does not explain why she was there. Nor does she convince me that the event deserves 18 columns and 8000 words in the London Review of Books. There are one or two amusing turns, one or two good points, and the writing is better than that of many other contributors; but the article seems to me to be overblown, repetitive, and too long by a factor of 10. I cannot avoid the conclusion that Jenny Turner used to run with that bunch, but has outgrown them, was bored to fury, but tried to recoup her £80 entrance fee by writing it up for the LRB; while the Review mistakenly chose this for its lead
article, and asked her to double its length.


Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Raoul Moat

Raoul Moat

I detect a general sense of relief in Northumberland, this morning (Saturday 10th July), at the news that the fugitive gunman Raoul Moat died in the night having shot himself in the head after a six-hour standoff with a posse of armed police. Rothbury is only 15 miles from here, and my neighbour's parents live there. I also experienced a sense of relief; from tension, and uncertainty; even from a trace of apprehension, for, though Moat had broken into only uninhabited houses, and had refrained from shooting strangers who were not also policemen, there was the faint possibility that he might change.

Then I brought myself up with a jolt. It is grotesque to accept the death of that poor man as a benefit to my peace of mind. The police might legitimately experience relief, as they were all declared targets; and his badly wounded ex-girlfriend could certainly feel safer, even if she regrets the price that is paid. But I was ashamed at my selfish response.

Had I forgotten the intense anger that possesses a man when he thinks he is up against a hostile and unjust system? Balance and judgement are lost, risks are under-assessed, long-term benefits forgotten. The pounding adrenalin fuels only the hypertrophied ego, fighting for its very existence against the million-headed imaginary demon that is 'The State'. I have been there; I have felt that there could be circumstances when I could kill a policeman. I thank my stars that I was never in those circumstances.

It is salutary to consider the change in world-view from the chubby but cheerful 3-year-old Moat pictured in the press. No doubt then, as now, Moat was striving to gain the approval of those few people who really mattered to him. Don't we all? We read of a loved and well cared for man with a girl friend some 10 years ago. We see a picture of a proud father 7 years ago. Not really a 'bad man', but "quand on l'attaque il se defend". No real change from the 3-year-old boy, still hoping for the approval that matters. Perhaps he had too few dads and too many step-dads; too much 'satisfaction' from being 'hard'. Steroids have been mentioned, and a tendency to loose control after drinking. Finally the unsupportable blow of losing his girlfriend to another man.

The sad story is excellently summarized by 'The Independent'.

Occidentis, MORPETH, UK.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Labour versus capital

Labour versus capital

Strikes are back! It came as an unwelcome shock, like a ghost from the past, when British Airways cabin crews began their long running militant dispute at the beginning of this year (2010). The political scene throughout the sixties and seventies was dominated by confrontation between labour and management till Thatcherism in the mid-eighties put an end to strikes. There was of course legislation concerning strikes, ballots, pickets, etc.; but maybe there was also a changed mood in the country, an acceptance that strikes were either unnecessary, or counter-productive. However, we see once again militant labour confronting recalcitrant capital in an attempt to preserve wages and privileges, to the considerable detriment of all concerned, including the general public. 

When industrial battle-lines are drawn, the Conservative party naturally supports capital and Labour traditionally supports labour. It was the inability of the Liberals to take sides in the nineteen twenties and thirties that led to the decline of the Liberal party [1]. I hope the same will not happen again to the detriment of centre-party politics. Surely the intellectually correct position is to occupy the middle ground, to see the strengths of both positions, and to resolve the issue rationally.

Of course it is perfectly rational to establish the true value of labour by conflict in a 'free market', but there is conflict that is damaging and conflict that is non-damaging. We do not now practice 'trial by combat'; on the other hand we do determine the value of a manufacturing firm by the free operation of the stock market. The essence of resolving disputes must surely be to ensure that each side can see the true situation of the other side, and trust each other. If management says there is no money for wages, but increases share dividends and management bonuses, then labour is justified in protesting. Such management will ruin a company, and deserves to be sacked. If labour claim privileges that equivalent workers in parallel companies do not have, they must be shown the weakness of their position. A strike leader in such a position will bankrupt his union.

I am surprised that the German concept of Mitbestimmung (Co-determination) has not been taken up more widely. In 1974 it became a legal requirement in West Germany that every firm employing more that 500 workers have worker representation on the supervisory and management boards. A similar law was passed in Sweden in 1976. A white paper studying the idea was prepared for the Wilson government but shelved in the "winter of discontent" and forgotten in the subsequent Thatcher regime.There seems to be some objective evidence that co-determination does indeed lead to improved worker-management relations and productivity [2]; though it may simply be that sensible people produce sensible laws, rather than the other way about — sensible laws producing sensible people. 

There seems a clear rationale for determining approximately what relative strengths capital and labour should have on the board; simply examine the cost of each (per annum, or per unit of production). Suppose a factory producing goods can be rented for £10,000 per week, requiring a work force costing £5,000 per week and material of £2,000 per week to produce items worth £17,000 - £20,000 per week.  The relative value of labour versus capital is 5:10. Or take a power station  for which the capital costs M£9 per year, labour M£6 and fuel M£5 per year. The relative value of labour versus capital is here 6:9. In both these (rather typical) cases it would be ridiculous for labour to be left out of discussions concerning the running of the companies. Their stake is considerable, and their contribution should approach that of capital.

[1]  D. W. Runciman, London Review of Books, 25th May 2010

[2] See also:

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Nuts (and bolts)

I often wonder why all the tap handles in my new bathroom and kitchen are loose; and why the nut falls off the door of my new wood-burning stove every other day. I am of an age at which new problems seem obviously due to slipping standards, or to the forgetting by callow youth of the wisdom of their elders. So I assume that these loose nuts are symptomatic of some failure of modern workmanship, or of modern materials. I suppose there are several possible explanations, besides 'bad luck'.

Perhaps the coefficient of friction (µ) of common materials has changed? For example, teflon is 10 times 'slippier' than steel, while de-greased steel is some 30% 'grippier' than normal steel [1]. Aluminium grips on aluminium, but not on steel. The oxide layer on materials like aluminium and steel makes a considerable difference to the grip. There is a plethora of data [1] on coefficients of friction, but all-in-all I could not identify in this area a convincing explanation for my loose nuts.

The nuts and bolts that held our bicycles and cars together for half a century before the second world war were defined (pitch, mean diameter, depth of groove) in factions of an inch. Metrication has, of course, minutely changed these linear dimensions to make them fit a metric scheme, and so I wondered if the engineers making the conversions from inches to millimetres had 'rounded' in such a way as to degrade the gripping power. If we define "lead angle" as arctan (lead/(π x mean diameter)) [2], first of all we find lead angle of metric standard bolts curiously variable. A 7 mm diameter bolt (pitch = 1 mm) should, on the face of it, grip appreciable better than the similar sized 6 mm diameter bolt (pitch = 1 mm), and the 4 mm diameter bolt appreciably worse (pitch = 0.7 mm). However, when we compare standard metric bolts with British Standard Whitworth, or American Screw Thread, we find that the new lead angle is significantly less, and should therefore be less prone to work loose.

(Bicycle threads are different. They were (and are) deliberately made with a finer thread, so even with 'amateur' servicing they are less prone to wriggle loose.)

So why then the loose tap handles, fire-door, etc. There is one measurement in the standard metric bolt that is less friendly to security than found in older standard threads, and that is the angle formed by the two sides of the groove. It is now 60º. It was 55 º in the BSW (and was 47.5º in the British Association fine instrument threads). This means that the load, which [a] generates friction and [b] generates the resultant force that causes loosening, is far from 'normal' to the interacting surfaces, but is applied at a glancing angle. I wonder if this is significant.

Wouldn't it be champion if my ruminations on this matter ultimately led to a new international thread standard, and a generation of tap handles that stayed firm indefinitely!

[2] "Lead" is the distance of advance up the axis of the bolt for each turn of the helix. See

Occidentis, MORPETH, UK.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The lazy apostrophe

How I deprecate the sudden upsurge of the 'lazy' apostrophe, and the needless confusion it causes. I am not talking about incorrect apostrophes (for example the 'Greengrocer's' apostrophe — "Cauli's 50p/lb"). I am talking about the more-or-less random omission of letters in written English as though attempting a phonetic transcription of lazy speech. Is this just a passing fad amongst journalists? I would hate to think that there is a new editorial policy sweeping our country.

Examples can be found in almost any newspaper these days; for example Susannah Clapp in 'The Observer' (2010.05.30) provides the following:
"It's notorious for a production in 1613 during which the Globe theatre burnt down.."
"Still, there's another strand to the play…
"There is plenty that's incendiary." (Why not "There's plenty that's incendiary."?
"Men died as a consequence and Keller's business partner has been jailed…"  Oh no! Sorry! The last is a genuine 'possessive' apostrophe.

One objection to the 'lazy' apostrophe is that it looks like a legitimate possessive. A second is that it robs the sentence of its verb. (Shortening "cannot" to "can't" is a different matter; it saves space, it does not remove the verb, and it does not resemble a possessive.) Above all, why this 'lazy' apostrophe is not (in my view) legitimate is that in written English we are not (in general) writing the sounds we intend to convey but the ideas we intend to convey. We do not write "innernashnal" or "aluminum", but "international" and "aluminium". The words are pronounced in different ways round the world.

I put these points a few weeks ago to the Editor of The London Review of Books, but got no reply; but then, there is no reply, is there!

Occidentis, MORPETH, UK.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

It's the candidates, stupid!

I have a new slogan for the Lib Dems:

 "It's the CANDIDATES, stupid". 

The quality of a candidate matters. In analysing results there has been practically no mention of 'personal'  effects. Pundits say the results are all over the place, as though they have given up trying to understand the trends, but meaning of course that some candidates do better than average and some do worse. Some show a 'swing' of + 8%, while the national trend was essentially zero gain; others loose a 'safe' seat. The Lib Dem share of the national vote has inched up over the years: '92=17.8%, '97=17.8%, '01=18.0%, '05=22.1%, '10=23.0%.  Once again people seem to miss something. They think this is natural, because it is something that has been happening all their lives, and they have given up trying to discern the causes. But I suspect that one significant meaning is that the quality of candidates has been rising steadily over the decades. Success in one election means more people are prepared to step forward next time, and  so the effect builds. 

With an Alternative Vote system it will be vital not to be the 'bottom' candidate in any constitiuency'; their votes get lost. A candidate who comes second could however end up as MP when the re-assigned votes are totted. 

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Weighted members 2

Weighted members: further remarks


Electoral Reform Society

6 Chancel St.


25 April 2010


Dear Sir,

Proportional Representation by Weighted Members

In a letter to The Times on 7th April I outlined what I called "Proportional Representation by Weighted Members". (See below). The idea is so simple that it has probably occurred to many people, but it is not currently being discussed and I therefore think it would be worthwhile for you to examine the suggestion. It has some merits and in some respects a superiority over all currently canvassed schemes for the reform of parliament.


In essence the suggestion is that current constituencies are not changed and nor is the voting system at general elections. However, subsequently, at each division of the House of Commons the inequalities in representation are repaired by weighting the members according to the total votes cast for their party at the election by which they were elected to parliament. Thus, at the 2005 general election, each Labour member represented 26,860 votes, each Conservative member 44,306 votes, each Lib Dem member 96,482, etc.. Each Lib Dem member at the Ayes lobby counts for 96,482 votes, each Labour member for 26,860 votes. (See Table below)


Parties that won no seats in a general election would have no influence on the decisions of the House. However, provided that at least one member were elected to parliament, and voted on a particular issue, their voting strength would exactly represent the opinion in the country (in so far as a political party has a definite policy on, or a predictable attitude to, the issue in question.

The geographical relationship between a member and a constituency would remain. However, a member with a party affiliation would additionally represent voters in other constituencies who support his party but who failed to elect their representative and whose votes would therefore be wasted in the current system.

The personal qualities of an individual candidate would remain vital in getting him elected to the House (as is not the case with party list systems).

The most powerful single party would presumably be asked to form a government, which might not be the party with the greatest number of seats. Its cabinet would presumably bring forward policies to the House, where they might get blocked by a coalition of minor parties (in the likely event that no one party had greater than 50% of the total votes cast at the general election; viz  in the event of a 'hung parliament'). However, it is not the case that such blockage would be inevitable with a hung parliament as it is absurd to suppose that responsible members would vote repeatedly for chaos. Party whips and members thinking for themselves would have to assess each measure on its merits; which seems no bad thing.

Unique advantages

[1]  The system of PR by weighted member is extremely easy to institute. It requires no change to constituencies of the conduct of elections. It requires only that the party affiliations (if any) of members of parliament be known officially, and their names taken at each division of the House of Commons.

[2]  The system can even be instituted without the consent of the two major parties, who traditionally (and understandably though cynically) resist any reform that would weaken their political dominance.

[3]  It allows the examination of the effects of a proportional parliament without the fearsome step of dismantling the present system.

[4]  It might therefore be considered as a way of  pressing the case for reform of the House.


I would appreciate your considered views.

Yours sincerely,  Ian West


Table of weightings for the 2005 parliament


2005 General Election


Votes per



% Seats

% Votes

Total vote













Liberal Democrat
























Demo. Unionist












Plaid Cymru






Sinn F司n






Ulster Unionist