Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Centrica's Profit

Centrica's Profit

"Too much mucking around will raise the spectre of ENERGY NATIONALIZATION. Or so it jolly well should."

We heard today (27th Feb 2013) that Centrica (the giant energy company) has shown a healthy profit in preliminary results for the year 2012. Profits are up 11% on the previous year. Centrica's share price has risen over the last 12 month by a similar 11% (trading today at £3.50). So it would seem that shareholders are expecting to see a similar rise in their dividends. But should they?
Customers were asked to pay an extra 6% for their fuel in 2012 (c.f. 2011) in the face of flat or falling cost of energy feedstocks (gas, coal and oil). Admittedly, at the beginning of 2012 the management of Centrica may not have known that feedstocks would come down, for they rose the previous year. But feedstock prices did fall. So what do we do now; pay back the excess profit to the customers? Ha! Is that likely, when all those 5.2 billion shares each carry one vote, unless some wiser heads are heeded?
Part of the argument for the 6% price hike to the customer was the need to invest (in the near future). So we should see NO INCREASE in dividend (beyond 2% inflation), and all that profit kept in the company. Ha!  That also is most unlikely in the face of those 5 billion voting shares, unless wiser heads prevail.
For your benefit I have dug out the price of crude oil and natural gas over the last few years.

Table 1

All prices in US$. Germany Natural Gas Border Price (GNGBP). (
Oil prices quoted for Brent Crude (BC), and West Texas Intermediate (WTI)
Feb 2013
Feb 2012
Feb 2011
Feb 2010

L. Cawstein

Thursday, 21 February 2013

NHS Mission Creep


Where does one draw the line?

I was dismayed at the news this morning that there is a recommendation form the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) that the age range for IVF treatment for infertile women free on the NHS be extended upward from 39 to 42.  Is this justified, at a time when we are trying unsuccessfully to contain the demands on the public purse? Our precious NHS is being dismantled by realists simply because it has failed to find a way of curbing the ever-upward growth in overall cost. Perhaps these revised recommendation are ill-timed; perhaps even ill-considered.

For that was not the only change, as I read in the Independent; NICE also recommend that IVF treatment be offered free to women in same-sex marriages, and after 2 years (instead of 3 years) of 'trying' for a child by other means ('normal' or intrauterine). These changes will surely increase the cost to the NHS if adopted. One other recommendation reported in the Independent seems fiscally neutral and based entirely on medical considerations; namely it is suggested that the practice of inserting multiple embryos is dropped, as there are increased risks to mothers carrying twins.

This brings sharply into focus the question of the role of NICE — is this body concerned entirely with the question of "best clinical practice", or does it have a role in determining "value for money"? Is it telling us that a 41 year old woman can carry an embryo essentially as well as a 39 year old — a clinical question? Or is it trying to tell us what we can afford, or what we should afford if we can afford other treatments. I can see that a bunch of clinicians can (and perhaps should) tell us that there is as much human distress at childlessness as there is at dying aged 70 from a preventable cancer. But is that what they are saying?

Then there is the data to consider. Currently it is recommended that the prospective mother be offered 3 cycles of IVF treatment, each costing £3,000, though not every health authority can afford that. If success rates are rising, perhaps 2 cycles would sufficiently test the ability of the parent to carry to term.  I.e., is the 3rd cycle success rate the same as those of the 1st and 2nd cycles? If its success is lower, it is a waste of money.

If a couple desperately want a child, perhaps they should go about it in the proper way; i.e. 'try' for two years before the age of 35. If that does not work, we could perhaps offer free IVF for 1 year. After that they can continue IVF but should perhaps pay. If they postpone 'trying' till 36 or 40, they should be deemed not that serious, and expect to pay. But that would be unfair unless made clear to couples in good time.

L. Cawstein

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Programme Notes Sterndale Bennett

Programme notes

This programme, which provided an opportunity to hear some less frequently played works of the 19© piano repertoire, contains a linking theme: Mendelssohn complimented, and received a tribute from the young Englishman William Sterndale Bennett, who himself received a tribute from Robert Schumann. Another Englishman (Sydney Smith) also paid homage to Mendelssohn a generation later.

Rondo Capriccioso in E major, Op. 14    Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

Mendelssohn was remarkable for the excellence of his teenage compositions, such as the miraculous octet (1825), the opus 13 quartet (1827) and this popular Rondo (written between 1824 and 1829). It is almost as though his more structured, intellectual, and aesthetically perfect work came to him when he was learning his craft, and before the full flowering of the romantic vein with which his name is inextricably linked. The rondo itself (Presto) seems to have been completed around 1828, but in 1830 it was published in its present form with the introductory Andante. In 1835 Mendelssohn moved to Leipzig to conduct the Gewandhaus Orchestra. There he founded the Conservatoire that became (perhaps) the most famous in Germany. He himself rarely took pupils and only when he saw genius or potential; among these were the composer William Sterndale Bennett, and the pianist Camille Stamaty.

Piano Sonata in F minor, op. 13  — William Sterndale Bennett (1816 - 1875)

i. Moderato Espressivo,  ii. Allegro Agitato,  iii. Moderato Grazioso, iv. Presto Agitato

In 1833 the 17 year old Bennett played his first piano concerto to the King in Windsor castle and again in London. Mendelssohn was in the audience. He befriended the youth, and invited him to come to Germany to study and develop his talent, first in Düsseldorf and later in Leipzig. At one point Mendelssohn said of Bennett: "I think him the most promising young musician I know…". Bennett made several trips and spent many months at a time in Germany, meeting among others Robert Schumann, with whom he spent much of his free time in terms of easy familiarity. This opus 13 sonata was completed at the end of such a visit in 1837 and was offered to Mendelssohn as a wedding present on his marriage to Cécile Jeanrenaud. Not surprisingly the work shows traces of  both Mendelssohn and Schumann. Back in England, marriage (1844), teaching (London and Cambridge universities) and administration (Royal Academy) took up much of the rest of his life.

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

Etudes Symphoniques, op. 13     —————    Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)

In 1837 Schumann dedicated this work to Sterndale Bennett (who replied with his opus 16 Fantasy, dedicated to Schumann). The work stems from 1834 when Schumann was living in the Wieck household and secretly engaged to Ernestine von Fricken, a fellow pupil under Friedrich Wieck (whose daughter Clara eventually became Robert's wife). Ernestine's guardian, Baron von Fricken, had composed a theme and variations for flute and piano. Schumann wrote 16 variations on the Fricken theme, though before its publication as opus 13 in 1837 these were trimmed to 9 variations on the Fricken theme, two new studies and a brilliant finale based on a theme from a Marschner opera itself based on Scott's 'Ivanhoe'. This represented (in Schumann's mind) a compliment to his young Yorkshire friend W. Sterndale Bennett. Why 'Studies'? Because they each tackle an issue of technique. Why 'Symphonic'? Perhaps because of the greatness and orchestral nature of the conception.

Theme - Andante

Etude 7 (Variation 6) - Allegro molto

Etude 1 (Variation 1) - Un poco più vivo

Etude 8 (Variation 7) - Sempre marcatissimo

Etude 2 (Variation 2) - Andante

Etude 9 - Presto possibile

Etude 3 - Vivace

Etude 10 (Variation 8) - Allegro con energia

Etude 4 (Variation 3) - Allegro marcato

Etude 11 (Variation 9) - Andante espressivo

Etude 5 (Variation 4) - Scherzando

Etude 12 (Finale) - Allegro brillante on

Etude 6 (Variation 5) - Agitato

   Marschner's  " Du stolzes England freue dich"


Reminiscences of Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto in G minor —  Sydney Smith (1839 - 1889)

This once popular but now forgotten piece reminds us that in 1873 there were no gramophone records, few orchestras, but a great many pianos; most people would only encounter Beethoven symphonies, Verdi operas and Mendelssohn concertos, in the form of piano transcriptions. Sydney Smith, born in Dorchester as the grandson of a professor of piano, and the son of a noted violinist, was (like Arthur Sullivan) sent at the age of 16 to study for 3 years at the famous Leipzig Conservatoire, where he studied piano, cello (and no doubt composition). On returning to England he set up in London as a piano teacher giving regular concerts with his pupils. His transcriptions and original compositions (over 400 in all) became enormously popular throughout the English-speaking world, being effective without being enormously difficult. (The present work is by no means easy, combining as it does the solo piano and the orchestral material.)  Incapacitated by illness, he died in poverty.

L. Cawstein

Sunday, 17 February 2013



How rare is the inclination to help others at expense to oneself?

I had an interesting exchange recently with a prominent scientific journalist. I raised the possibility that our western neo-liberal capitalist society might be deteriorating in one particular regard, namely in what I called 'Altruism'. I meant more or less what David Hume refers to as 'Beneficence'; acting to the benefit of others than oneself. (Benevolence is the emotion that leads to beneficence.)  I was corrected. 'Altruism' (in the evolutionary context of the present discussion) refers to a behaviour that is to the benefit of another, but to the detriment of the doer. It can evolve by Darwinian selection under certain conditions, essentially if the benefited others are kin.

I therefore suggested that paying taxes could be described as altruistic in that narrow sense. But, replied my correspondent, we only pay taxes because of the force of the law; altruism, he suggested, is very rare.

Not so, I countered; except possibly in the present century, for it was not rare in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Britain in 1834, did we not pass The Poor Law Amendment Act through both Houses of Parliament? Can I not claim therefore that approximately half of the voting public voted up their own taxes because they could not bear the sight of people starving in the streets. Likewise, between 1870 and 1893 the Houses of Parliament passed the Elementary Education Acts because they saw the benefit of educating not only their own, but also their neighbour's children. And the National Health Service Act 1946 (1947 in Scotland) was surely another great testament to the power of benevolence to move the majority of the elected House of Commons to an act of charity that harmed the middle class to the benefit of the less well off.

The motives behind beneficence are complex, and no doubt include coercion, self-love, fear of contempt, as well as the sympathetic ability to feel the pain of other people. But to yield voluntarily to these promptings is beneficence, and if at a personal cost it is altruistic.

I was left wondering if something had changed in the last 30 – 40 years that had modified those subtle conditions that allowed the evolution of altruism. Perhaps greater all-round wealth and the general absence of hardship, have allowed us to forget the benefits of co-operation. Perhaps harsh climates foster egalitarian socialism, while global-warming and Mediterranean holidays nourish selfishness.

(See also

L. Cawstein