Why falling into the river is sometimes a good thing…

April 12, 2020

Yesterday (lockdown day 12, Saturday), I got up, and did my yoga stretches as usual. Except it wasn’t as usual: I did something that hurt my back, and between that and being a bit miserable and self-pitying with the lockdown, I was not in a good mood. So when I read Facebook about the five stages of a pandemic, and looked at people’s postings about how they were coping, without a trace of miserableness, my mood was not exactly positive.

It was nonetheless a lovely morning, and out we went with the dog, Lussa. We were just arriving at the park, when to maintain social distancing, I decided to go down to the river Allan, which is quite low just now, so that the rocks near the bank are sticking out. To help convince Lussa to come to me I went on to a rock a little further out. On came Lussa, which was good, because she’s been a little afraid of water. Then it was time to come back onto terra firma but the rocks were very slippy, and down I sat into the water.

Now, you might think this would make my mood even worse, but it had exactly the opposite effect. I realised that there’s enjoyment to be had in any sensation, the sensation of being very much alive (and in this case, very wet too). So on my wife went with the dog, and I went home to change, much cheered up by falling into the river.

A life without risk?

April 4, 2020

No life is without risk. Everything has risk, and we accept the risk every day when we get out of bed.

We don’t take unnecessary risks, at least as we get older.

But are we now striving for minimising the risk too far? We all die: many of us have lived much longer than we could have expected to in past centuries: look at any old graveyard, look at the births and deaths of the artists and composers.

Covid 19 isn’t the plague. The mortality is about 1% with good hospital treatment, perhaps 3 or 4% without it. The social distancing we are doing won’t of itself change the numbers getting the disease in the longer term, not unless we create new treatments or vaccines, neither of which seems a prospect in the short term. Certainly social distancing slows down the progress of the disease through the population, and this has allowed health services to expand their capabilities.

But the cost is large. Churches are closed, as are all performances and gatherings. All except food shops are closed here. Outings are strictly limited to household groups.

It feels as though we are simply waiting for the grim reaper to get round to us.

Would it be better to confront death more directly, and simply accept that something between 1 and 4% of the population will die of this disease? Just let life (and death) continue? Take the risk, and live, rather than try to temporarily avoid the risk and exist in this miserable demi-monde!

Of Covid 19, Social distancing and herd immunity.

March 29, 2020

I’m practising social distancing, as prescribed in Scotland: out of the house only for food, exercise, and emergencies, which here translates as one of us walking the dog once each day, plus occasional food shopping, always maintaining the 2 metres distancing.

But what’s the aim? Clearly, slowing down the infection rate to a point where the health service (NHS) can have some hope of coping, and can have time to build up considerable extra capacity for those who require hospitalisation. But can we think just a little longer term?

While the measures taken here (and elsewhere in Europe, for example), are practical, there are many countries tries where these types of measures are simply impossible, or where the government of these countries do not wish to take such measures. At the same time, there are countries which are very organised, and manage to trace infected people effectively, reducing infection. But still, let’s take a longer view.

The UK 1957 flu epidemic had a much lower mortality rate, and while attempts were made to reduce the infection rate, it is reckoned about 9 million people in the UK had the disease (see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2714797/). Taking a 1% mortality rate (which is realistic only if the NHS can cope effectively), that would give about 90,000 deaths. More realistically, if more than 9 million people caught Covid19, nd the NHS couldn’t cope the figure would (I suspect) be more like 3 or 4%, taking the deaths to about 300,000 to 400,000, possibly quite a lot more depending on how many people actually caught the disease. That’s a lot: but in a country of 60 million people with mean death age of 80 (say), one would expect about (60,000,000/80 = 750,000) deaths per year, which puts the figure in some context. But the aim at the moment appears to be to stop the infection before it gets to this level.

How practical is this, in the long term? Let’s assume that there’s continuing outbreaks internationally. Let’s also assume that perhaps 2-3 million people in the UK get affected (with 20,000 deaths which seems to be one current estimate). Then there will be a large majority of the population with no immunity, at least until an effective vaccine is created. That would mean that travelling abroad would have new dangers, and people coming in from abroad would be likely to start off new outbreaks. If an effective vaccine existed, the former could be checked (rather like yellow fever is checked), but we might need quarantine for unvaccinated people arriving from abroad.

Of course, we may also find better treatments which might reduce mortality: I know there is research on this, but I have no idea of the timescale here. Viral diseases do mutate faster than bacterial ones, which makes (long-term) vaccination difficult – think of the annual influenza vaccination programme. We don’t really have medication agains influenza, as far as I know, except some anti-virals, some of which have side-effects – and anyway, influenza recovery rates are such that anti-virals seem inappropriate mostly. But that might not be the case for Covid19.

Conclusions? I don’t have any, but we do need to look forward. Are we aiming to cut the infection rate to where we can trace and isolate (like South Korea, and China), or are we aiming for slowly building uop herd immunity at a rate that the health service can cope? Or has this country not decided yet quite what it is aiming for?

My hearing aid journey continued

March 26, 2020

I’ve now had my hearing aids for a few months, and am getting really used to them. They are really good for speech, particularly in noise, and I really do appreciate the birdsong this Spring. Particularly in these difficult days of self-isolation, the sound of the birdsong round here is reassuring: Covid 19 is a problem for humans, not animals or nature. And they are so small and light, I hardly notice that I’m wearing them.

But back to the hearing aids: I’ve learned to take them off/turn them off before I start to play either the clarinet or the piano. The instruments sound different with them on, and they just don’t sound right! For purely listening to music, the sound isn’t quite right either, with a tremolo added that shouldn’t be there. When the music is really quiet, it’s less annoying, but when it’s louder (when will I hear a full orchestra live again?) it’s not so good, so I sometimes have to turn them off again.

However, for listening to speech in a room with lots of speakers, the aids make a huge difference. I can make out what people are saying much, much more easily, and hat has allowed me to take part in meetings in a way that simply otherwise couldn’t.

Of course, I worry about further deterioration in my hearing (I have expensive and powerful glasses too, multifocals as well), part of the gradual deterioration of senses that’s part of the gradual and natural deterioration of the body inevitable as I get well into my seventh decade. And the enforced walking well into the countryside near here mens yet more birdsong. But there is one downside: when Lussa (the dog) barks, particularly indoors, it’s very loud, very LOUD indeed!

[Deleted: depressing reference to CV19]

Still, given all things, it’s been a definite improvement in quality of life, and I’m very happy I went for these hearing aids.

My hearing aid journey, part 2

November 26, 2019

I now have (and am wearing) my hearing aids. I got them yesterday, and so far my experience is definitely positive.

My initial thoughts were “how loud my clothes are swishing, and how loud this traffic is”, and I really noticed a difference in how my own voice sounded. But I could make speech out better, I think. Going for dinner in a reasonably loud restaurant today was good, and I could make out what my wife was saying easily – and I could listen to the conversation at nearby tables as well.

The effect on musical sounds its a little strange. For some time now, I had thought the top octave of my piano (which is nearly new) was a bit dead, but with the aids in it sounded much better. Indeed, the (real) piano sounded altogether better, with a very strong presence. Oddly, the electric one sounded just the same, which does seem strange. The aids do appear to introduce an artefact: even a pure tone at 2kHz sounds amplitude modulated at about 8Hz, and the exact sound changes depending on the angle of my head. (But a 1 kHz tone sounds much as it did).

I also noticed that listening to a weir on the local river, the sound of it – both the quality and the level – depended on the direction my head was pointing in.

But so far, I think they do make a difference, and my wife thinks so too. I need to test them in a more difficult environment, like a committee meeting or a relatively noisy public location…watch this space.

(A little later on) Playing my clarinet with the hearing aids in was a strange experience. Each note – particularly higher notes – seemed to have a bit of amplitude modulation, a little like vibrato, even though I definitely wasn’t putting any in. I had to take the hearing aids off to practice. Oh well: but if that’s the only problem, I’ll cope. I did hear something a little like this on piano – and more so when I tried playing a MIDI keyboard through a saxophone VST plug-in, but it wasn’t as annoying then!

I am be-grandfather-ed

November 26, 2019

On Thursday November 21st, my daughter’s partner, Katy, had a daughter, Avery Skye. I’m really pleased to say that I am now a grandfather, and look forward to meeting her (they live in the USA, so I can’t just pop over with soup and meet her, unfortunately).

My hearing aid journey: part 1

November 18, 2019

For some time now, I’ve been aware that my hearing was deteriorating. At first, I thought it was wax covering my eardrum, and to some extent it was. Last time (a few years ago) I had my ears micro-vacuumed, it really helped: previously I had gone up to students talking to me in tutorials in order to make out what they were saying. And again when I had my ears micro-vacuumed again recently, it did help, but my wife has been telling me for some time that I wasn’t hearing well.

I did have a simple pure tone audiogram produced a few years, ago, and it did indeed show 40dB or so lost at 4 to 8kHz, but I was not impressed by the audiologist who did the test. But now, having been impressed by the people who did the micro-vacuuming this time (Edinburgh Hearing Practice, at their Auchterarder location), I decided to go for a test with them.

This time the test was in a soundproof booth, and as well as pure tone audiometry, they tested me on isolated words presented to single ears (dichotically), and to speech presented in babble noise. This time I was impressed by the testing, and I could see from the results that my hearing had worsened, and I could see from the errors I’d made in identifying words that my loss of higher frequencies was getting in the way. I’d also noticed that I was finding it harder to make out speech in busy environments, or where there was often more than one speaker – in the common room, or in meetings, for example. It was beginning too make me stop attempting to have conversations in crowded environments

So it came as no surprise to me that my tester reckoned I should get a hearing aid. I know from my professional background that it’s worth getting an aid before one’s hearing really deteriorates too far, so I was open to his suggestions.

I went for it: two behind-the-ear (BTE) aids, with the receiver in the ear-canal (so my residual hearing should be unaffected). I’ll post again once I have them to try!

Arran Gare’s Book “The philosophical foundations of ecological civilization”

November 6, 2019

I’ve had a great deal of respect for Arran Gare for quite some time now, having read some of his philosophy while working on my (and Plamen Simeonov’s) Inbiosa project. Fairly recently, I had read a review of this book, and I thought it would be good to read it. I had to get it on inter-library loan, as my first impression was that it was rather expensive… but now I’ve found there’s a paperback version too, and I’ve just received it.

This is an important book. It styles itself as a “manifesto of the future”, and it is an attempt to push philosophy back into the mainstream of thought, an attempt to move away from the fashionable reductionism that mainstream science takes, and an attempt to make this new world-view able to deal with the real problems that face society. I’m not a professional philosopher (though I did study two years of Natural Philosophy many years ago at Glasgow University), but I have been a professional University scientist, and his critique of the managerial and impact-led modern University struck home.

How can I encourage you to read this book? It gives a philosophical backdrop to the recent upsurge in environmental politics, it provides a philosophical explanation of the commodification of people, of the way in which democracy has been attacked, and liberty and freedom have been turned into purely financial issues. It’s not always an easy read, but it is certainly much more readable than other philosophy books that I have looked at.

Why should you read it?

  • If you are a scientist it helps you to understand the universe as interacting processes, rather than attempting a totally reductionist understanding, which is impossible, because the universe is always interacting and interconnected. (Pure reductionism only works if you can control all the circumstances, like , for example, in the LHC at CERN: but it’s not much use if you want to understand biology or societies or economics).
  • If you are concerned with ecology, it provides a philosophical backdrop to why we have the ecological problems that we do, and perhaps some hope that there might be some ways of going forward to tackle some of the underlying issues that led to the ecological problems, rather than looking for purely technical solutions, that will almost certainly not work.
  • If you are involved in politics, because it might help you to see a different way forward from the purely economic measurements that dominate current politics,. at least in the UK.
  • If you’re an economist, because it might help you to realise that it’s time to re-train (!)
  • … and if you’re simply a living human being, because it will help you to understand how you have been being sent down the garden path by corporations and politicians over the years.

I’ve read about half of it now: the introduction, chapters 1,5, and 6, and the Conclusion. I strongly recommend you read it too!

Fake Blues: gig on Saturday 17th August!

August 10, 2019

Yes, Dave Topliff and I are playing a gig again! Saturday 17th August, 9pm, at the Allanwater Brewhouse in Bridge of Allan. It’s all bluesy jazzy music, Guitar & Vocals (Dave Topliff), and Piano (me). A mix of new songs by Dave, plus covers of some older bluesy songs. And by bluesy we don’t mean just 12 bar blues (though there’ll be a little of that), but good bluesy numbers…

Free entry (and very good beer as well, though it’s not free).

Be there or be square!

The Richard Michael Jazz Summer Course

July 13, 2019

Last week I went to the Richard Michael Jazz Summer Course. It was held in Kilgraston School, which is about 40 minutes from here, but I went as a residential student.

I’d registered piano as my main instrument, with clarinet as a second. But I quickly realised that it was better to have a single instrument, and I decided that I’d concentrate on the clarinet, as I only took it up a bit over two years ago, and really want to get into jazz and klezmer on it.

It was a good decision. The saxophone and clarinet tutor was Gordon McNeil, and I really learned a lot from his classes. I’d never played a jazz solo on clarinet before, and didn’t really understand how to put together a solo in a single note lead instrument. We studied minor pentatonic scales, and how to add to them, we studied chord structure (which I was quite familiar with, but still learned more), and even what a sax or clarinet player carries about for when things go a bit awry with the instrument. And perhaps more importantly, how to structure practise for jazz, something I had been having difficulty with (I understood how to practice classical music and scales, but not what to do to make soloing easier). Gordon is both a brilliant musician and teacher!

The course sets up a number of combos: six in this case. I was in combo five, run by Gordon and Hilary Michael (the surname is not coincidence: she is Richard Michael’s daughter). We played few tunes, including Take Five and Song for my Father on which I played by first clarinet solo, both in practice, and in the final concert. It seemed to go well – it was a very supportive environment.

I also went to the jazz choir run by the amazing Debra Salem. She had us learning and singing in an mixed voice choir, teaching us each part. We had the equally amazing Eliot Murray accompanying us, both in practice and in the final concert.

What can I say? It was a really excellent week, one that far exceeded my expectations. It was full-on and intensive – I played more clarinet and some piano too in the evening jam sessions. I learned a great deal (and I know there’s a great deal more to learn), and met some really good amateur musicians, ad well as the professional tutors.

I hope to come back next year!