Friday, June 30, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC: The Kronos Quartet, by JD

Music this week comes from the Kronos Quartet

I saw them in concert many years ago and they were excellent. Some of their choices of music are unwise in my view, trying to play the music of Bill Evans for example doesn't really work in the context of a string quartet. (A piano is not a 'string' instrument, it belongs in the percussion section of an orchestra.) And playing 'Purple Haze' is ill-advised, however much they may like the original version. But overall they do produce wonderful music.

It was interesting to hear them in a Q&A session after the concert, to hear their 'philosophy' of their open approach to all types of musical genres. It was also interesting to hear them say that they would never change to using electrically amplified versions of their instruments. Some things are quite rightly sacrosanct!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Where there's a will... by Wiggia

Two little gems emerged this week midst all the political shenanigans. 

The first was inevitable in one form or another. Anyone who believed purchasing an electric car was saving the planet and would be rewarded for it by not paying fuel duty and getting 100+ mpg to boot for threepence was being naive, to put it mildly.

In fact, it could end up costing you a whole lot more than the equivalent petrol-engined car at current prices. A study sponsored by government has emerged, suggesting ways to claw back the lost fuel duty when these cars finally sell in numbers. Anyone who thought the zero road tax and all the other goodies would go on into the sunset of motoring is now having their eyes peeled as suggestions emerge of toll roads in place of tax, or probably alongside ? Or mileage charges depending on when and where you drive, allied to city restrictions and zone charging. Running a car is going to be a lot more expensive than now. Add in the current disparity in prices for electric vehicles and many will not bother and maybe that is what they want regards cities.

There is no silver lining with this as you can’t strangle car use without having to make up the shortfall in revenue in another way. Going green has always been a con and whilst the spaghetti knitters will be cheering from the sidelines the man on the Clapham Omnibus, if he can get on one, will suffer the costs and inconvenience. Why do the hordes of gold plated civil servants that are put onto these schemes always come up with something that pleases a few and costs everyone else?

On a similar track is the announcement the supermarkets are starting to roll out “surge pricing.” This little wheeze involves electronic labelling that can  change the indicated price in twenty seconds. Ostensibly this is to reduce waste, yesss, and in their words……

“This would let them react to events and remove or introduce offers increasing the ice cream price during a heat wave for example.”

Needless to say “concerns” have been voiced from consumer groups that ultimately most shoppers will pay more. A 3% increase in profit margins is possible with this system, so once again those that work and have limited time to shop and have to do so in lunch hours and similar times will not only have to put up with the crush at those times but pay more for the privilege.

And just to round off the lightening of wallets by stealth - or diktat, in the government's case - the same supermarkets that now control the bulk of petrol retailing want to use the same surge pricing for their petrol forecourts. So the commuter who has to use his car will pay more for the privilege of using roads that as a taxpayer he has already paid for; will, if he uses a petrol station during the same commute periods, pay more for his petrol; and his wife, shopping during the lunch hour at work or on the way home, will pay more for their food.

A spokesman for Sainsbury’s said, “We always look at ways that technology can help us improve the shopping experience for our customers.”

And just to make you shuffle nearer to the cliff edge, the energy companies would also like to charge you according to demand with cheaper prices when nobody uses energy and the reverse when we do. Looking at all that, the only small chink of light is your very expensive electric car can be charged at night at a cheaper rate, though I am sure the government or energy company can fix that in no time at all.

Oh, and I just noticed the BMA want GPs to shut doors amid safety fears. Another spokesman said, “There has to be a limit on what you can do in a day, it is not about money it is about patient safety,” so shutting the doors when someone needs to see a doctor is a safety measure. That’s one way of looking at it, and of course there is only so much anyone can do in a day, but that day in the case of my surgery and most others is in effect a half day: the majority of GPs working there are only working part-time.

They want to able to declare a black alert as hospitals do when not capable of providing a safe and sustainable service and in order to protect patients (they are thinking of us, really) practices are enabled to self-declare a safety alert and direct patients to alternative service providers such as a "local hub", a walk-in centre or A&E. I have no idea what a local hub is but our one and only walk-in centre is overwhelmed, their doctors are working full-time and overtime; and the A&E department will be overjoyed that GPs  are wanting to direct even more patients their way than they do now.

This particular problem in the NHS is not about money. It is about someone somewhere insisting that the contracts that enable most GPs to go part time not work evenings and week ends are changed. The Blair government cock up , if that’s what it was, is costing us dearly - regardless of their independent business status GPs are paid by the taxpayer but you wouldn’t think so sometimes.

On my last visit to my surgery's web site they made great play of the fact ”they are a self care surgery.” Intrigued, I clicked the link and found they are advising everyone to help themselves in all ways possible: “Seek advice from your pharmacist, phone the NHS helpline, query whether your doctor's appointment is really necessary and try to treat yourself if you believe you only have a common ailment.”Do you get from that they perhaps are not wanting to have to deal with patients at all? Along with the fact that getting an appointment has reached the stage you have either cured yourself, self cared (!)or died waiting. 

Perhaps shutting the doors is the sensible thing to do. Not a lot of people would notice.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

JD: work to live, not live to work?

Following on from this recent post , a few thoughts.

"Both Right and Left should aim for a productively employed workforce, that can pay enough taxes to make the books balance."

First question is: how do you define a 'productively employed workforce'?

There are two main economic theories, one followed by the 'left' and one followed by the 'right' as I understand your definition of those two poles. The left believe in the theories of Karl Marx and 'Das Kapital' and the right believe in the theories of Adam Smith and 'Wealth of Nations.'

Both are perfect economic models but only in theory and both have failed in practical terms for exactly the same reason: they do not include people in their calculations. As far as the theories are concerned, production of goods is of utilitarian value only. The produced goods have a value but the workforce does not have any value except in economic terms and are classed as 'productively' employed only on that basis.

The Industrial Revolution brought about the beginning of the machine age where machines took over more and more of the production process and the contribution of the workforce gradually diminished to the point where they ceased to be 'producers' requiring skills and became nothing more than machine minders. 

"What began as a way of duplicating human skill on a greater scale will end by replacing skill altogether in order to produce goods regardless of any human intervention. As a necessary part of the process any call for the control of machines, however desirable in human terms, is bound to seem illogical since it amounts to the destruction of the system for generating the wealth needed to perpetuate the consumption that underpins the social fabric."

"Such is the remorseless pressure of this process that it becomes, in due course, a sort of cannibalism, first of all destroying the machine minder through automation then in a further step destroying the machine by an economy based on the virtual reality of computerised information. At this stage the question of human needs hardly arises, having been displaced by the internal demands of the productive system itself. This 'system' possessing no vision of an end other than its own perpetuation, must eventually bring about its own destruction."

The above two paragraphs are copied more or less verbatim from Brian Keeble's book

The ideas of left vs right or socialism vs capitalism are obsolete because everyone now believes absolutely that the purpose of production (i.e. work) is as stated above. Endless growth and over-production can only end, not just in the system's own destruction but in the destruction of life.

In fact it can really be summed up in this video by Alan Watts (which I have referred to previously)

In reality the 'productively employed workforce' has been diminishing rapidly and will soon cease to exist. 
What then are people to do with their time if work, as previously understood, is no longer an option? A life of leisurely boredom? I think not, "the devil makes work for idle hands!" as, no doubt, your granny would often remind you.

The unasked question in your post is "what is the purpose of work?" and that question will be addressed in part two.

Reading list:

The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times
-René Guénon

Revolt Against The Modern World
-Julius Evola

Art: For Whom and for What?
-Brian Keeble

Bhagavad Gita
-Sir Edwin Arnold(tr)

A Guide for the Perplexed
-Ernst F Schumacher

La rebelión de las masas
-José Ortega y Gasset

The Perennial Philosophy
-Aldous Huxley

The Perennial Philosophy; a critique
-Jules Evans

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

It is abduction all the way down

But fortunately not that kind of abduction. 

A few weeks ago Aeon published a fascinating article by Karl Friston, but first of all it may be worthwhile to see what Wikipedia says about the man who wrote it.

Karl Friston pioneered and developed the single most powerful technique for analysing the results of brain imaging studies and unravelling the patterns of cortical activity and the relationship of different cortical areas to one another. Currently over 90% of papers published in brain imaging use his method (SPM or Statistical Parametric Mapping) and this approach is now finding more diverse applications, for example, in the analysis of EEG and MEG data. His method has revolutionized studies of the human brain and given us profound insights into its operations. None has had as major an influence as Friston on the development of human brain studies in the past twenty-five years.

In which case we may take it that Friston is no professional waffler. However, it is not easy to summarise his article because there are a number of interwoven strands, but his starting point is to focus on processes rather than things.

I have a confession. As a physicist and psychiatrist, I find it difficult to engage with conversations about consciousness. My biggest gripe is that the philosophers and cognitive scientists who tend to pose the questions often assume that the mind is a thing, whose existence can be identified by the attributes it has or the purposes it fulfils.

But in physics, it’s dangerous to assume that things ‘exist’ in any conventional sense. Instead, the deeper question is: what sorts of processes give rise to the notion (or illusion) that something exists?

To accept consciousness as a process rather than a thing is not at all difficult and many people may do that anyway, but from this simple adjustment to our thinking some remarkable conclusions follow.   

I hope to show you that nature can drum up reasons without actually having them for herself. In what follows, I’m going to argue that things don’t exist for reasons, but certain processes can nonetheless be cast as engaged in reasoning. I use ‘reasoning’ here to mean explanations that arise from inference or abduction – that is, trying to account for observations in terms of latent causes, rules or principles.

This perspective on process leads us to an elegant, if rather deflationary, story about why the mind exists. Inference is actually quite close to a theory of everything – including evolution, consciousness, and life itself. It is abduction all the way down.

Friston then moves on to the oddity of life as repetitive, self-organising behaviour which as he says, seems contrary to how the universe usually behaves.

Complex systems are self-organising because they possess attractors. These are cycles of mutually reinforcing states that allow processes to achieve a point of stability, not by losing energy until they stop, but through what’s known as dynamic equilibrium. An intuitive example is homeostasis. If you’re startled by a predator, your heartbeat and breathing will speed up, but you’ll automatically do something to restore your cardiovascular system to a calmer state (following the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response). Any time there’s a deviation from the attractor, this triggers flows of thoughts, feelings and movements that eventually take you back to your cycle of attracting, familiar states. In humans, all the excitations of our body and brain can be described as moving towards our attractors, that is, towards our most probable states.

A little further on we get to a crucial point in the whole piece.
It’s at this point that we can talk about inference, the process of figuring out the best principle or hypothesis that explains the observed states of that system we call ‘the world’. Technically, inference entails maximising the evidence for a model of the world. Because we are obliged to maximise evidence, we are – effectively – making inferences about the world using ourselves as a model. That’s why every time you have a new experience, you engage in some kind of inference to try to fit what’s happening into a familiar pattern, or to revise your internal states so as to take account of this new fact. This is just the kind of process a statistician goes through in trying to decide whether she needs new rules to account for the spread of a disease, or whether the collapse of a bank ought to affect the way she models the economy.

Now we can see why attractors are so crucial. An attracting state has a low surprise and high evidence. Complex systems therefore fall into familiar, reliable cycles because these processes are necessarily engaged in validating the principle that underpins their own existence. Attractors push systems to fall into predictable states and thereby reinforce the model that the system has generated of its world. A failure of this surprise minimising, self-evidencing, inferential behaviour means the system will decay into surprising, unfamiliar states – until it no longer exists in any meaningful way. Attractors are the product of processes engaging in inference to summon themselves into being. In other words, attractors are the foundation of what it means to be alive.
As suggested above, there is little point in trying to summarise Friston's article, not because it is too difficult but because all the steps are worth following. However, one more quote may give a flavour of the whole piece.
Applying the same thinking to consciousness suggests that consciousness must also be a process of inference. Conscious processing is about inferring the causes of sensory states, and thereby navigating the world to elude surprises. While natural selection performs inference by selecting among different creatures, consciousness performs inference by selecting among different states of the same creature (in particular, its brain). There is a vast amount of anatomical and physiological evidence in support of this notion. If one regards the brain as a self-evidencing organ of inference, almost every one of its anatomical and physiological aspects seems geared to minimise surprise.

So consciousness is a process of navigating the world to elude surprises. That at least is no surprise, as indeed it shouldn't be if Friston is right.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Two socialisms, two capitalisms

There are two kinds of socialism on the market (if one ignores the madness of millennium revolutionaries). One is the kind being touted by Jeremy Corbyn - raising workers' pay and public expenditure, without a clear idea of how to achieve it. I shall come to the second in a moment.

Opposed to it, we are told, is free-market capitalism. A good example of the propaganda for this is ex-banker James Bartholomew's "letter" article in The Spectator this week. Here young James (he is not near sixty yet) talks condescendingly to his nephew, contrasting what he saw of the rapidly advancing prosperity of Hong Kong in the 1980s with the condition of the communist countries he subsequently visited.

Of course Hong Kong prospered! It was the time when China, encouraged by a USA bent on driving a wedge between the Middle Kingdom and Russia, was given the chance to build a massive industrial economy on the basis of increasingly debt-fuelled Western consumer demand. Hong Kong was to be its showcase and middleman.* This suited the Western entrepreneurs who surfed the flood through the all-open canal locks as capital flowed East, much of it sticking to their fingers in Western tax havens and much of the rest recycled first into US Treasury bonds and then into purchases of land and businesses in America and elsewhere. 

The result? The American rich became super-duper-rich and the American economy was hollowed out to the point where voting for Donald Trump seemed to the middle class a last desperate chance to stop the rot. Now the panhandlers by the roadside are not winos but people who can't make ends meet even when both partners are working.

Still, well done, the Chinese! No-one can blame them for using the opportunities they were given, especially since it wasn't they who made the most out of the arrangement - James Kynge estimated that Chinese businesses kept perhaps 15 cents of each dollar of export.

And China was learning capitalism of the original kind, the kind that made Britain rich in the Industrial Revolution: investing in factories, labour skills, infrastructure. The capitalism that made Josiah Wedgwood's fortune as a potter, that encouraged the Duke of Bridgewater to use his own money to cut a canal for transporting finished goods. Capitalism that made good profits and wages from making good products.

But there is another, more modern type of capitalism - the type that did so well out of the Chinese economic miracle for the Westerners who made deals with them. This one is like Blu-Tack: a big ball of money that is rubbed onto smaller bits, not to stick up the poster but simply to make the ball bigger and then to put it away in a drawer. The poster can flop to the ground after that; who cares?

As an example of this latter kind of predation, look at the case of Southern Cross Healthcare and NHP.  These companies - one a chain of care homes and the other a landlord - were acquired by an American private equity group that then put Southern Cross on a lease agreement requiring 2.5% annual rent increases for 35 years, floated the company so as to extract a billion in capital, and abandoned Southern Cross to its inevitable collapse and the misery of the vulnerable humanity for which it had to provide.

This kind of debt-bloat ram-raid capitalism continues and will continue, until suddenly it can't. We saw that in 2008, but the dreadful reckoning was, and is being staved off with public money, and nobody seems to know how to stop the process.

"Labour and the Tories are like a pair of corpses, stiff with rigor mortis, propping each other up," said Peter Hitchens, back in 2005. "They no longer represent the true divisions in British society, which is why Labour can win only 22% of the popular vote, and the Tories a mere 20%." His wish was for both to collapse.

Despite their vote share rising to 40-plus per cent, for various reasons, they have collapsed. They haven't quite stopped twitching, is all. 

At the moment - pace the screams from Socialist Worker and Day Of Rage types - we have Giveaway Tory versus Giveaway Labour. Neither has the answer. Staring us in the face is the destruction of the Welfare State.

Instead of these gruesome bookends we need a reformed pair of parties. Both Right and Left should aim for a productively employed workforce, that can pay enough taxes to make the books balance. 

Before Wilson's turn on a sixpence in 1975, he and his British Labour Party were against membership of the EEC. At the Oxford Union, Peter Shore explained how the country was losing billions annually as a result, already; behind him the sulky face of the - I think it's not too much too say - treacherous "Conservative" Ted Heath deepened its scowl. 

I suspect that there were those on the Right who hoped that Europe would "sort out" the unions, blinding themselves to the harm done to our competitiveness by a business class that had failed to reinvest for decades, so that many soldiers returning from the Second World War doffed their uniforms to handle tools and machines dating to before the First World War; and goodbye, the British motorcycle industry as the Japanese listened to Dr Deming and went for quality and continuous improvement. 

In any case, the Americans wanted to tell Europe what to do with one phone call, not a couple of dozen. But that was no reason for us to join the new bloc.

Yes, new bookends, please: patriotic Conservatives with an economic and investment plan for the country that will improve the lot of all the people, and Labourites who, while rightly defending the pay and conditions of the working class (including, one would hope, the self-employed), support prosperity through work rather than envious dispossession. 

* The  "New Territories" and the rest of the colony were returned to China at the end of  the 99-year lease on the former, in 1997;  but that end was well anticipated, as shown in population movements, especially emigration:

" Citizens who were born in Hong Kong were beginning to migrate to the UK, USA and Canada in large numbers due to the uncertainty of the handover in 1997. From 1980 to 1986, an estimated 21,000 people left Hong Kong permanently every year. Beginning in 1987, the numbers rose sharply to 48,000 people a year.[3]"

SUNDAY JAZZ: The Final Gig, by Wiggia

I wanted to finish this series with a favourites page. That is never as easy as it sounds as when you have written or composed a list you immediately realise that x is not on it and the list like Pinocchio’s nose just keeps growing.

What is interesting when reminiscing through the collection is how often you go back to certain albums and how others considered at one time bankers for that top ten are no longer flavour of the month. That I think is down to changing taste, a different slant on certain types of music, and/or a realisation that something heard when still a teenager was not really that good, or the opposite in that you never gave it a chance all those years ago.

There is also the fact that some artists who you always liked never made more than very good albums and some who have had little exposure have made that one superb rendering which stands the test of time.

Two or three choices have already had an airing in previous articles, including Coltrane's “Giant Steps” and Brubeck's Oberlin album among them; what I shall put up here are artists that have not made the other articles or may just have got a mention but have left stunning music in their own right. There is no particular order to worthiness or otherwise, it is not really possible.

My first is Arthur Blythe known as “Black Arthur”, an alto player whose ‘78 album Lennox Avenue Breakdown has become a classic. A bandleader and composer who straddled avant garde and traditional modern jazz, he died in March this year at the age of 77.

Here is the title track, and yes that is a tuba there:

Joe Lovano is a Sicilian American multi instrumentalist including drums, but it is his tenor sax work that people admire. Influenced by Coltrane Gillespie and Sonny Stitt, he also worked in the big bands of Herman and Mel Lewis after studying at University. Since then his own quartets and quintets are where he is the now established star in his own name. Not everything he does moves me and several albums fall into that category, but this album is one of my favourites From the Soul, and this number is as good as any on there: “Central Park West”.

Playing alto and soprano saxes and clarinet, Gary Bartz is another who when you look up his details thinking he is in his forties you discover he is a contemporary; frightening isn’t it? He has stretched into funk, soul, African music as well as avant garde and bop jazz. He has played on 240 albums, forty of which were his own and played with Davis, Mingus, Roach, McCoy Tyner and Jackie McLean, and started out as did so many with Art Blakey.

The number I selected is not with his own group but that of McCoy Tyner, one of my greatest pianists who he played with and won awards for McCoy's “Illuminations” album. This is live from a German festival recording in ‘07 Ballad for Aisha from the album Blues on the Corner. Beautiful musicianship from all here:

Also from that age group, and the same remarks apply as he is 81 now, is Odean Pope, another tenor saxophonist who started playing in Philadelphia’s Uptown Theatre behind James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. He has subsequently recorded extensively with Max Roach as well as in his own name.

The album I return to is Locked and Loaded from 2006; he is still recording. Not easy to find anything from the original album with Odean playing but he is also an arranger with his saxophone choir, up to nine different saxophones and this number is representative of the sort of thing he produces.

Here another arrangement of Central Park West live from the famous Blue Note jazz club in NY in 2004. Lovely sound:

There is not a lot from the Sonny Criss catalogue around. An alto player who was a contemporary of Parker and drifted around several groups, he really blossomed later in his career and his output increased during this period but sadly after this number was recorded he developed stomach cancer and after returning to LA he committed suicide in ‘77 at the age of fifty.

Because of the years that have passed since his death there is a fair bit on Youtube to listen to, including my favourite album of his, Sonny’s Dream, with the Sonny Criss Orchestra (Birth of the New Cool) - worth looking up. This is Angel Eyes from the album Saturday Morning, recorded in ‘75:

Johnny Griffin made a memorable album with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot. He recorded with Monk several times and was with Art Blakey before that. He was endowed with an amazing technique that allowed him to play unbelievably fast runs. He never varied from his be bop heritage and was not at all pleased with so-called “free” jazz. Short of stature, he was a fashion-conscious man and spent most of his last two decades in France and the Netherlands.

From that famed album with Monk “In Walked Bud”:

I go back to Bill Evans more than any other pianist; that doesn’t make him greater or more popular than those other giants of the keyboard, but he did play a style of piano that engulfed you, the sort of thing you put on after a bad day and forget everything, I am playing him a lot at the moment for obvious reasons ! I have all his early albums and most of the later, nearly all get played which is why he gets in here, though he has already featured earlier.

“My Foolish Heart”:

I will finish on a “populist” note. Basie was always my favourite band; Ellington was far more adventurous and almost certainly made the better jazz albums but that Basie sound was always so comforting. Yes, he did produce huge numbers of mainly forgettable albums in his prime, but that does not detract from his best work which was superb. The same can be said for Frank Sinatra, who sang with all the big bands of note yet probably his best albums of that type were with Basie. I have all three and they get played. This Basie/ Sinatra number makes it all look so easy: the diction, the timing, just the right amount of backing from Basie - no unnecessary intrusions, just superb music that we will not see or hear again. Two governors of their craft showing how it should be done.

Nice !

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Car manufacturers force everyone to switch to electric vehicles after June

I have had notification that my cheap and reasonably reliable old petrol-engined car - and all of yours - will no longer be supported by manufacturers, garages and filling stations and we must get an electric engine within a week. We have no choice in the matter.

Here is an extract from the manufacturer's support page:

Do I need to get an electric engine to stay mobile?

Yes, the best way to stay mobile is to get an electric engine.

You have two ways to get an electric engine:

Upgrade your current car

You can purchase a complete new electric engine and transmission, but you should first make sure that your car is built to take it. Very few older cars can accommodate such a refit. We recommend that you check out the electric engine specifications page to find out if your car meets the system requirements for electric motors. For more detailed information, read the FAQ.

Get a new car

If your current car can't carry an electric engine, it might be time to consider shopping for a new one. Be sure to explore our great selection of new cars. They're more powerful, lightweight, and stylish than ever before—and with an average price that's considerably less expensive than the average car was 10 years ago.


Very sorry, totally misread my email link, turns out it's Microsoft's Windows Vista that has to be scrapped by everyone. So that's all right, then.

Friday, June 23, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC: Summer Rags, by JD

Summer has finally arrived which means it is time for a musical fiesta!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Wine, the Making Of, by Wiggia

My Wine Change and Fashion piece was actually read by someone outside our small (hopefully widening) circle, in fairness only because I told him about it, but he did read it and we had a discussion that involved a lot of the current trends and the manufacturing of wine by the big players, e.g. Gallo.

With a bit of research many findings simply underscored that we already knew but went a lot further: it is quite remarkable how the food industry has taken wine in a relatively few years from being a pig in a poke to a beverage that can be relied on to assuage people's perceptions of what wine should be and sell it as you would a packet of crisps; that is nowhere as far-fetched as it sounds, in fact not at all.

All the big wineries use outside testing tasting companies to put together the tastes that people want. It is exactly the same as biscuits or ready made meals: your chicken Kiev may have come from Asda or Waitrose and may taste slightly different, but the only real difference as they are all produced by Allied Foods or similar; it is the seasoning or sauce variation that has been tweaked to give an impression it is a better product and can command a premium when purchased from an upmarket retailer.

With wine at the moment it is not quite that approach as the big wineries do their own market research, through these companies and some in house to tweak and alter their own wines to best suit the target punters.

Before anyone goes all au naturel over this, the Romans were doctoring wine by using lead (really!) as a sweetener, marble dust, animal blood and seawater, all part of the enhancing and prolonging of the life of wine, and even before the industrialisation of wine  and today the use of sulphur, copper nitrates, the use of egg yolks in the fining of wine, removing particles, the addition of sugar in bad years and bad wines to bring the alcohol level up, chaptalisation is the posh word used for that, were and are all normal and legal additions to wine-making.

Today those bad wine days are over. The technical side has created an industry within an industry that with powders and potions, all of which are legal, they can cleanse, enhance, change and improve, dilute as necessary, raise and lower alcohol levels, add colouring for that rich red or change to a lighter colour for that fresh look, all without breaking any laws.

This is a typical wine lab:

Even the expensive oak barrel taste can be replicated by wood shavings, wood dust, staves of wood and chips with added flavours; all achieve the same end to the nth degree as the expensive wood barrels. All this after extensive research and blind testing and tasting with random groups who will give their opinions on favourite tastes and smells, it is pure market research. 

What is often forgotten is the target market, that £5-6 bracket that is where the bulk of all wine sales are, and it does not take a lot more tweaking to produce a premium product that commands a higher price. A good example of that is the Ravenswood Zinfandel, winner of a gold medal, and gives the impression of being made by a small winery; far from it - it comes from a very large industrial winery. The use of labels depicting some idyll small winery is a normal marketing trick, again no different from Tesco's use of farm logos on veg that has never seen this country's soil.

As an example of the scale of production with the big brands. Yellowtail from South Australia produces 12 million cases annually. 96% is exported and most goes to the States of all places, where the demand increases, it is their biggest imported wine.

What does all this mean? Jancis Robinson, one of the few wine writers I have respect for, has summed it up rather well: she wrote, “It is one of the ironies of the wine market today that just as the price differential between cheapest and most expensive bottles is greater than ever before, the difference in quality between these two extremes is probably narrower than it has ever been.” She also reiterates what I said in the earlier piece about how little bad wine exists now, so much so we have largely forgotten how bad it was. There is no doubt that industrialisation has made it possible to elevate good wine to a level near very near to established top end products.

Of course expectations still play a big part in enjoying wine and buying it. If someone spends £50+ on a bottle of wine his brain is already telling him that the wine will be good even if it isn’t. The same applies to the wine you had on holiday: it is always better than the same bottle you purchased at home. Why? Because you were on holiday enjoying yourself in hopefully wonderful surroundings, your brain is not going to let an average bottle of wine spoil that. That of course is a generalisation, but it has been proven to be fact, in the same way blind tasting even among wine critics can produce different scores for the same wine when drunk on different days and in different surroundings.

So can you trust wine scores? To a degree; the mean average of scores can be a fair result of different palettes, but again you have to remember they are tasting as at the annual primeur tastings in Bordeaux at the Chateau; if you are going to Lafitte for a tasting you are already expecting great things, I would love to see the same tasters' results if all was done blind !

Wine competitions are something I have voiced an opinion on before. These are blind tastings but even blind tastings can produce a different set of results on another day with the same tasters. Another factor is that the wine competitions deal mainly with lower price wines, many of which fall into the industrial category; with the uplift in quality in that section, it appears few go home without an award and now they extend the awards to another higher level - all too much, I feel.

Price and quality do go hand in hand, again it is all arguable: there is no doubt that up to fifty pounds a bottle  the quality climbs with the price; after that, name, reputation and availability push up the price, not always with any justification as to what is in the bottle. Once a wine reaches £100 and up it sadly these days becomes a collector's item or investment. My tasting at the higher end is naturally limited but even I have had some terrible disappointments along with amazing surprises. Burgundy when in the days I could afford the odd “good” bottle was my graveyard: some of the producers who knew and know because of their limited output they could sell anything should have been put to the sword, yet the best red wine I ever drank came from that region.

With wine it is the unknown that keeps me interested, the forever new countries coming onstream with good wines and different grape varietals. It is all good news and keeps the price down. For those who reach for Yellowtail whenever they visit the supermarket shelves one thing is sure: it is a lot, lot better than the equivalent of twenty years back, costs less in real terms and is very unlikely to disappoint or be faulty. Yellowtail became successful by removing the things in wine that new customers do not like, acidity and tannins; this could change as people decide to move on from this orchestrated fruit juice, but for now…….. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

SUNDAY MUSIC: Drummer's Holiday, by Wiggia

Buddy Rich
The title was the name of an album by Louie Bellson, a drummer and bandleader. A drummer as part of the rhythm section is not normally associated with band or group leading, yet a few had very successful careers doing just that.

Chick Webb was as near the first of the drumming bandleaders of the Swing era. Born in 1905 with tuberculosis of the spine he grew up with a spinal deformation that gave him the appearance of a hunchback; the same disease finally killed him after a major operation at the age of 34. He had taken up drumming as a form of therapy.

He was known as the King of Swing having won a “battle of the big bands” contest with the likes of of Goodman and Basie as contestants. His style influenced Buddy Rich and others. He would make a wonderful counterpoint to all those youngsters today who want free stuff: he purchased his first set of drums from money earned doing a paper round - that itself with his condition must have been difficult, to say the least - and played professionally at 11. Ella Fitzgerald sang as a young woman with the band from ‘35 and after Chick's death she lead the band for some time before going solo.

Stompin’ at the Savoy (1934):

As so many from that period, Gene Krupa was more than an influential drummer: he was a composer actor band leader and, like Buddy Rich, a showman, something that was a must in the days of the Swing era when those big bands were the huge attraction for the general public.

Anyone who has a biopic made about him, as he did. has reached a level beyond just being a drummer. I can remember seeing "The Gene Krupa Story" as a teenager.

He is cited as a big influence in drummers becoming more than just apart of the rhythm section, being one of the first to use drum solos in his work. He was also instrumental in the development of drums and cymbals, as this piece from Wiki explains:

"In the 1930s, Krupa became the first endorser of Slingerland drums. At Krupa's urging, Slingerland developed tom-toms with tuneable top and bottom heads, which immediately became important elements of virtually every drummer's setup. Krupa developed and popularized many of the cymbal techniques that became standards. His collaboration with Armand Zildjian of the Avedis Zildjian Company developed the modern hi-hat cymbals and standardized the names and uses of the ride cymbal, crash cymbal, splash cymbal, pang cymbal, and swish cymbal. He is also credited with helping to formulate the modern drum set, being one of the first jazz drummers (for that recording studio) to use a bass drum, in a recording session in December 1927.[12] One of his bass drums, a Slingerland 14 X 26, inscribed with Benny Goodman's and Krupa's initials, is preserved at the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C."

This is with Benny Goodman's orchestra before he set up his own big band but contains in this hit from ‘37 an illustration of his drumming style and a featured Harry James on trumpet.

Sing Sing Sing:

Buddy Rich was very much a contemporary of Krupa. The ultimate showman, he was as much wanted in later life as a TV personality as he was a bandleader drummer. He always had an opinion on everything and was not one to sidestep being controversial. He was also a very hard taskmaster, demanding and getting the best from his musicians.

This TV interview from ‘71 will not please someone I know ! but is hilarious in his put-down of country music - he genuinely hated it:

And he maintained his opinion to the day he died….

During the medical therapy prior to his death, a nurse asked him whether he was allergic to anything, to which Rich replied "Yes, country and western music".

His Wiki page is a good read:

There are numerous Youtube videos of Rich giving amazing drum solos, dancing, singing, showing off etc. Many regard him as the greatest drummer of all. He certainly gave value for money, but here with a drum solo he leads his band in ‘65 with "Cherokee":

One thing can be said with absolute certainty, Rich was never boring.

Another who started young was Louie Bellson. He was playing drums at three and went on to win a national Gene Krupa drum contest against 40,000 contestants. He also was bandleader, composer and later a jazz teacher, and was married to the singer and actress Pearl Bailey. He is also credited with the pioneering use of two bass drums. Although not known for primarily leading his own big band, he did work during the forties with Tommy Dorsey , Goodman, Harry James and Ellington. His writing and composition work was prolific and spanned all genres of music: he appeared on 200 albums and wrote 1000 pieces. His big band work was mainly on records or when touring in Europe and elsewhere.

As I have said before, most drum solos have me reaching for the off switch but these people are different, they are the masters of their craft. There are many examples of stupendous solos from many of these top guys with Rich having more than his share, rightly, but this is a short controlled piece of work from Bellson.

Skin Deep (1957):

Mel Lewis started in the big time by joining Kenton in ‘54. 1966 and a move to NY saw him team up with Thad Jones for the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra although it was not any more than informal get-together for many years until regular slots became available in ‘76. It became the Mel Lewis Orchestra when Thad Jones left for Denmark that year. Drummers are like goalkeepers, they are separate in many ways from the rest of the outfit, have a lot of quirks with their kit set up etc and Lewis was no exception with a very personal cymbal setup and later drums with differing drum skin covers from normal; all this, of course, to get the sound he wanted.

Here he is in ‘87 looking like a bank manager with the Mel Lewis Orchestra in Holland, playing Groove Merchant:

Of course those mainstays of be bop Roach and Blakey fronted groups of varying sizes as drummers. Both have had exposure on my earlier pieces so there is no need to do any biographies on them, just straight to the music.

This is Max Roach with his then wife Abbey Lincoln - I need no prompting to put up anything she did - with Driva Man from ‘64 and Roach’s album Freedom Suite:

Plus a classic Art Blakey driving number: A Night in Tunisia from his "Messengers of ‘58" with Lee Morgan trumpet, Benny Golson sax and Bobby Timmons piano:

Frequently overlooked as a “serious” jazz drummer, Shelly Manne most certainly was serious, but his debunking to the West Coast and being part of that cool jazz movement, and his albums (very successful) based on My Fair Lady and his association with Andre Previn made him in some eyes a lightweight. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was also at the forefront of music for the film industry and not only did he provide the music for "The Man With The Golden Arm", starring Frank Sinatra, but he was also an advisor in the film and afterwards was in much demand for percussive effects in films; and he also worked a lot with Henry Mancini.

After a career that started with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, he virtually retired when jazz became less popular in the sixties-seventies. He owned a club in LA where he kept the jazz flag flying, it was inevitably called Shelly’s Manne Hole, and ran for years with many stars joining his club band. Whilst always returning to straight jazz he ventured into and experimented with ragtime, orchestral work and other areas of music. A drummer though he had to be as his father and uncles were all drummers; he was still experimenting and playing and recording right up to his last days.

Just Squeeze Me is from the fourth album of five that came from a very successful stint at the Blackhawk; always a tasteful, not forcing, drummer.

There have been other drummers who have been group leaders but not over time as these above. Great drummers though they are, the likes of Jo Jones, Roy Haynes etc were in the main always sidemen, even if very starred sidemen.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Protest - or revolution?

I'm not politically tribal, and I am disturbed by the suddenness and intensity of the "protests" that have sprung up in the wake of the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower.

For sure, there are questions to be asked. For example, I'm amazed that Grenfell residents were advised in a 2014 newsletter that "(unless there is a fire in your flat or in the hallway outside your flat) you should stay inside your flat." I've never seen that on a fire safety notice in any hotel room.

But protests are not spontaneous. They have to be organised. And in the picture above, culled from today's Daily Mail, the protest at St Clements' Church yesterday looks very organised.

By whom? Who are the placard-holders here, and why is the fellow at mid-right, front, wearing a copy of Socialist Worker like a tabard? Someone on the left has already got a printed T-shirt. That was fast.

We are in a very volatile period, and modern communications offer the chance to whip up trouble double-quick. When people protested and rioted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they did not have the right to vote. But now they do - and a third of them don't bother.

I'm suspicious of direct democracy. We need a representative democracy, but one that does listen and does try to act in the best interests of the country. Perhaps these dangerous signs are a measure of the failure of the current, gamed systems in our councils, regulatory organisations and the Palace of Westminster.

Friday, June 16, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC: The original blues, by JD

This time an eclectic selection of the Blues from folk/blues where it all sprang from through to the modern era.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Why I voted Labour

Please don't splutter until you've heard me out.

In the first place, my vote had no chance of making any difference between 1984, when I came here, and 2010. Local demographics made this a rock-solid safe seat for Labour.

My first MP here was Roy Hattersley, and because it was safe, he made no local effort that I noticed. The only time I even heard his voice was in 1997 when he got his peerage and cruised the neighbourhood in a Tannoy car saying, in effect, "So long, and thanks for all the fish". Doubtless he did good work for his Party, possibly for the country, but I couldn't say he "represented" me.

He was succeeded by Labour's Roger Godsiff, who moved over when the then-safe Small Heath constituency was abolished. Again, he could count on most people's vote here, if not mine. So he stood and won in 1997, 2001 and 2005. In the latter year, he got a scare when George Galloway's Respect Party ran a fairly close second, and moved over to neighbouring Hall Green for GE 2010 when the boundaries were again redrawn. The Respect candidate pursued him but failed by a wider margin than before, and he's been comfortably returned a couple of times since.

Had I voted for Labour, I'd have got Labour; had I voted against Labour, I'd have got Labour.

What I actually did, in '97 and '05, was vote UKIP. For me it's always been about sovereignty, but of course if you are on Facebook you'll know that Ukippers are... [fill in long list of slurs]. Social media make me doubt the wisdom of a democratic system, to the extent that we have one [as Winston Churchill said, "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."]

2001 was different: by then I was convinced that Tony Blair was dangerously mad, so I voted Conservative for the first time in my life - merely to send the tiniest squeak of a message, and I'm sure it went entirely unnoticed.

The reorganisation of constituencies for GE 2010 set the cat among the pigeons. For the first time ever, I had candidates doorstepping me. Only two - Labour and Liberal Democrat, but that's two more than in the previous 26 years. The Labour fellow was clearly not the sharpest knife in the box and when he asked me about key issues and I said Europe, he tried to tell me that we had voted to join the EU in 1975. When I corrected him (we had voted to remain in the EEC) his female minder smirked at her pet's ignorance.

The LibDem asked the same question, got the same answer and his expression changed - oh dear, I was one of those. [Later, when he was my MP, he replied to one of my emails to assert that Parliament was indeed sovereign. I still don't know whether he actually believed that.] In any case, UKIP got my worthless vote yet again.

During this fellow's tenure, I spent some 18 months trying to get him to ask a question at Prime Minister's Question Time. Now like Dicken's Mrs Jellyby,  he was full of enthusiasm for all sorts of worthy liberal causes, but a one-minute question? No. Perhaps it was the fact that I wanted to ask when the Government was going to make inflation-proofed savings certificates available again, having withdrawn them as almost the first act of the Conservative-LibDem Coalition; the question would have been a potentially embarrassing litmus test of the Government's attitude to small savers and its commitment to contain inflation. So instead I got two Treasury Minister letters, both of them full of irrelevant waffle.

So much for representing me.

2015: UKIP for me again, but Labour regained the seat, probably as the electorate turned away from the LibDems in disgust at their complicity in the Conservatives' locally unpopular policies.

But what I got this time was a feisty local lass who actually polled her constituents before this year's GE to get their views on Brexit and the Single Market (actually four markets, all more or less damaging to our interests, but that's another story) - and reported back.

Imagine: an MP who makes an effort! [And one who told Diane Abbott to eff off, and when asked what the latter's response had been, said... she'd effed off.]

So I voted for her, this time.

Now she's also not a fan of Jeremy Corbyn (see last link), though even Peter Hitchens can understand why people might have turned to JC despite the increasingly hysterical Press campaign against him:

"It struck me as I watched him that he was far more dangerous than the Tories thought he was. His absolute courtesy and refusal to make personal attacks appealed to many in my generation who remember a different and in some ways better Britain.

"His realisation that George Osborne’s supposed economic miracle was a sham, and that many have lost hope of getting steady, well-paid jobs or secure homes, appealed to the young. He may not have any actual answers to these questions, but he at least knew they were being asked. His absolute opposition to the repeated stupid wars of recent years also has a wide appeal, in many cases to conservative-minded people and Service families sick of the waste of good lives."

Too right, especially on the last. [And as for the terrorists' friend stuff - who brokered the Good Friday Agreement? Not Jezza.] If this has buried New Labour, well and good. Blair and his Goebbels (1) threw away a golden, once in a generation opportunity to reshape our economy in 1997, preferring instead to start fighting the next election the day after the last one. All hail bankers, Russian mobsters and White Van Man. And personally, they did so well for themselves out of doing good for others, did they not?

I've decided that flawed as democracy may be - and more than it need be, seeing the 2011 collusion between the two major parties to prevent electoral reform - we ought to make the most of it. First, by asserting our sovereignty in the face of the empire-building Eurocracy; and then, by choosing politicians who take an interest in their own constituents.

When you vote in a General Election...

- you don't decide the Party leader - we saw that most recently with Gordon Brown and Theresa May
- you don't decide on a legally binding manifesto - Mrs May is even now gutting hers in the light of the election results
- you're merely one of some 70,000 registered voters in any case (2)
- and thanks to the rejection of any form of proportionate or transferable vote, you can't even express a partial approval of a second choice from the list

Perhaps Britain's problems are now insoluble by anyone, but for now, I shall reward with my wretched little votette the candidate who tries hardest to listen.

To quote the great man again: 'Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.'

(1) Truly a nasty character:

"Alastair Campbell, himself a former journalist for the Daily Mirror and Today, earned a reputation as a fearsome handler of the Press when he became Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman. As a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, he knows the tricks of the journalists' trade, but his communication sources also yield him plenty of ammunition to keep the scribblers' heads down when he wants to; and the threat to Marr, via Campbell's blog, came swiftly:

""It was sad to see Marr, perhaps with an eye to a few Monday morning cuttings, feel that he had to raise blogosphere rumours about Gordon going blind, or being on heavy medication of some sort. I know it will give him the passing satisfaction of pats on the back from journos … But it was low stuff. I'm sure Andrew would agree that everyone has certain areas of their life that they'd prefer not to be asked about live on TV."

"That's how it works, and that's why people in Mr Marr's position need to tell the truth and shame the devil, for otherwise the devil will know how to build on the weakness."

(2) Though I note with unholy joy the upset in Kensington as a quango queen with a misplaced sense of entitlement lost her seat by 200 votes. "The only mention of Lady Borwick that crept into my Facebook feed during the weeks before the vote related to her campaigns in defence of the antique trade," says Josie Cox in today's The Independent.